Defining Success

One of the hardest thing I have found as an adult is determining what “success” really is, and how I know when I get there. It all depends on how you define success. Often, the criteria by which we judge our lives to be successful involves things like our net worth, our position at work, our reputation among others, or whether we are ready for a blissful and happy retirement.
The problem with success, defined in conventional terms, is that it’s usually a moving target.
We create a sort of hypothetical picture in our minds of what success should look like, and it’s usually based on something or someone that we see in media or culture around us. Then, when we get close, we realize it’s not enough. So, we choose another target and allow our competitiveness and comparison skills to take over, pushing success out further.
But what if success should be redefined by a different metric? What if success isn’t about how much we earn, but rather about how much we spend? I’m not talking about blowing lots of cash to buy ourselves more and more stuff, as if we could measure our success by the things we possess. I’m talking about spending our lives on worthy things.
Take David Brainerd, for example. He grew up in a large family and after his parents died when he was young, he was forced to move in with an older sister. Later, he felt called to ministry, and went to Yale University to prepare. However, he got sick and had to drop out of school within the first year. When he finally was able to return to school there, he was expelled for excessive spiritual enthusiasm and being too zealous and never finished college. Without having graduated, law forbade him from being licensed to ministry, and his dream of being the pastor of a church never came to fruition.
He often felt like a failure, and experienced long bouts of depression. He even contemplated suicide on several occasions. He was poor, never married, and his only published work was his own journal, which didn’t get released until after he died at age 29 of what was likely tuberculosis. If ever there was someone who wasn’t a success, it was David Brainerd, right?.
What most people miss, however, is how Brainerd spent his life. When things didn’t work out at school, and as a result he couldn’t find a position as a pastor, he decided to do what he could with what he had, and pursued mission work, reaching out to the Delaware Indian tribe in New Jersey. He served them, loved them, clothed them, fed them, and shared Jesus with them, without fanfare or accolade.
And he wrote it about it all in his personal journal, which was published in book form after his death. That journal has been an inspiration and encouragement to thousands, including William Carey (“the father of modern missions”) and Jim Elliott, among countless others. In fact, his journal is still being printed and sold today, nearly 300 years after he lived.
David Brainerd never knew how successful he was, but only that he was faithful. God used him, in his generation and in many generations to follow, because he did what he could with what he had and served the Lord by serving the least of these. That’s all any of us can ever do if we want to find success in this life and the life to come.
May our lives be judged successful because we are faithful to the One who has been faithful to us. I am thankful for each of you, and I look forward to seeing you on Sunday.

Making Shade

There’s an old proverb that says, “Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”
That is, most of what we are able to do today is because someone who went before us years ago–or even decades ago–took a chance, made a sacrifice, had a fledgling idea, or paid the price to build a foundation that we’re standing on. Or, plant a tree that we’re sitting under.
I am especially aware of that as we approach another life-changing week of Vacation Bible School at Shelby Crossings. Who knows what kind of eternal dividends will come from the investment we make into the lives of children and their families in the week ahead? What kind of shade–and fruit–will come from the trees we plant?

 

Of course, it doesn’t require a special week like VBS to appreciate the investments of those who have gone before us, and the efforts at tree-planting that provide the blessing of shade for us today. I know I would not be where I am as pastor of such a great church like Shelby Crossings had there not been others who had the vision to plant this ministry to begin with, or had given so much of their lives into making this church what it is today.
Some people spend a lot of time talking about “generational curses,” and the effects that a legacy of sin has on future generations. And I have sure seen the evidence of the negative influence of bad decisions passed down from one generation to the next. But in this case we’re talking about a positive legacy. Or, we could call it a stewardship of opportunity.
The apostle Paul charged his “son in the faith” Timothy with these words: “And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Timothy 2:2) He was talking about building on the legacy of those who have gone before you, and passing that on to others.
With that in mind, the question for all of us to consider is: Who will be sitting in the shade of our hard work twenty years from now? Or more to the point: Will there be shade to sit in? It depends on our planting trees today.
When you share your faith, and lead others to Christ, you’re planting trees. When you make disciples–whether it’s your children, or other believers–you’re planting trees. When you serve faithfully in Vacation Bible School, impacting the lives of children and their families, you’re planting trees. When you help others develop Christian character, or improve their marriage, or parent more effectively, or become a more loyal friend, you’re planting trees.
The truth is, if we’re not careful, most of what we do today is just putting out fires to make it through another day. However, we must not let today’s urgencies prevent us from living intentionally to establish a legacy worth passing down, and making some shade for the next generation.
They may not thank us for it, but God will be honored through it.
  1. I’m thankful for each of you, and I’m praying for you.  I look forward to seeing you Sunday.

Here for a Moment

“Life is short. Play hard.”
That was the advertising slogan of an athletic shoe company from a couple of decades ago. I think it was Reebok, but the fact that I don’t specifically remember probably tells you something about why the company has fallen out of the limelight in the lucrative world of athletic footwear.

 

I used to have a Christian t-shirt that tried to make use of that theme. It said, “Life is short. Pray hard.” A good “play” on words, if you’ll pardon the pun.

 

I was reminded of both slogans this past week after hearing news of the wreck in Atlanta of a bus full of students from a church in Huntsville who were on their way to a mission trip in Botswana. One student was killed, and more than two dozen were injured. It was a horrible tragedy, and a reminder that it’s not just kids who are getting into trouble whose lives can end up with heartbreaking outcomes. A 17-year old girl who was trying to live for Jesus, and was on her way to the mission field, had her life suddenly come to an end.

 

You may have seen the press conference in which Sarah Harmening’s parents spoke, demonstrating their trust in a sovereign God and the peace that he provides, even in difficult circumstances. Their testimony of faith, at a time when they certainly could have been excused for questioning God’s plan, was an inspiration and such a positive witness for the gospel.
You may have also seen the photo circulating around of Sarah’s last journal entry from earlier that morning on the bus ride, that included her reflections on Scripture she had been reading. It ended with this statement: “So mostly, I was just reminded of why I’m here and that God has called me here and he’s done so for a reason. So I know he’s going to do incredible things.”
Media reports also revealed that moments before the crash, Sarah had texted a few friends with what turned out to be her last message to the world: “We are like a wisp of smoke,” she wrote. “We are only here for a moment and it’s not about us. Life is not about us. It’s about God, who is eternal, so I want to dedicate the one moment I’m here completely and entirely to him.”
Life is short, indeed. Like a wisp of smoke, like a vapor that is “here for a moment” and then gone. What we do with the one moment we’re here, and who it is we live for, will ultimately be how we will measure the success of our time here on earth.
The psalmist David said it this way in Psalm 39: “Show me, O LORD, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man’s life is but a breath. Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro: he bustles about, but only in vain; he heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it. But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you.” (vs. 4-7)
What are you looking for in this life? My prayer is that you will find it, along with the hope for this life and for the life to come, in a relationship with God through his Son Jesus Christ. May he give your life purpose and meaning, in the fleeting moments he gives you here on this earth.
I look forward to seeing you Sunday.

On Spiritual Surrender

In an article in the Washington Post last August, Christian psychologist and researcher Dr. Jamie Aten wrote about what he called the secret of “spiritual surrender” for those who face trauma, cancer and other disasters.
At the age of 35 Aten was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer that had spread to his pelvis
He described that difficult time in his life in the WaPo article:
“For the first six months, whenever I asked for a prognosis, all my oncologist would say was: ‘I can’t tell you that it’s going to be okay, Jamie. It’s too early to tell. If there’s anyone you want to see or anything you want to do, now is the time.'”
Cancer wasn’t the first disaster that Aten had faced. He had moved his family to south Mississippi six days before Hurricane Katrina came ashore. But this disaster was different. There was no opportunity to evacuate as he did before Katrina made landfall. “This time the disaster was striking within,” he wrote. “I was a walking disaster.”
In time, he realized that the fact that he had no control over the situation–that he couldn’t “evacuate” even if he wanted to–was not necessarily a bad thing. It forced him to recognize that he wasn’t in control. Better than that, it reminded him that though he wasn’t in charge, he knew the One who was. And, he said, he learned that the key to both traumatic situations involved spiritual surrender. He wrote:
“Spiritual surrender helps us understand what we have control over and what we don’t. In a research study I led after Katrina, we found that people who showed higher levels of spiritual surrender tended to do better. This finding didn’t make sense to me at the time. It seemed like a passive faith response. Fast forward to my cancer disaster. I vividly remember taking the trash to the curb one winter morning while praying that God would heal me. The freezing air felt like tiny razor blades cutting across my hands and feet because of the nerve sensitivity caused by chemotherapy.
 
Wondering if God even heard my prayers for healing, I kept praying as I walked back inside my home. Then all of a sudden I dropped to my knees and prayed the most challenging prayer of my life. Instead of continuing to pray for God’s healing, I asked that God would take care of my wife and children if I didn’t make it.
 
This was the hardest prayer I had ever prayed. For the first time in my life, I truly experienced spiritual surrender. I finally understood. True spiritual surrender is far from passive-it is a willful act of obedience.”

A willful act of obedience indeed. And you don’t have to face a major trauma like cancer or a disaster like a devastating hurricane to make the choice for spiritual surrender. All of us, each day, have to determine whether we’re going to try to be in charge of our lives, or whether we’re going to trust the One who is and surrender to His will. That requires very active faith.

When you make that choice to trust Him, I won’t promise that all your troubles will go away, or that your diagnoses will always be good, but I can assure you that the Lord will grant you His peace, no matter what you face. He can be trusted!
May He bless you this week as you surrender to  Him. I look forward to seeing you Sunday.

In the Beginning…

On Christmas Day, 1966, the three astronauts of NASA spacecraft Apollo 8 circled the dark side of the moon and headed for home. Suddenly, over the horizon of the moon rose the blue and white earth, surrounded by the glistening light of the sun against the black void of space.
Those sophisticated, highly-educated men–William Anders, Frank Borman and James Lovell–all trained in science and technology, did not utter Einstein’s name. Neither did they mention any other great physicist or astronomer. Only one thing could capture the awe-inspiring thrill of this magnificent observation. And millions of people watching around the world, in what was the most-watched television program in history at that time, heard the voice of Anders from outer space as he read: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
That opening verse from the Bible, Genesis 1:1, provided the only words worthy enough to describe the unspeakable awe of that dramatic scene. Only such words that pointed to the inescapable sense of the infinite and eternal fit for such an occasion.
Predictably, famed atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair responded by suing the United States government, alleging a violation of the First Amendment. In what was a pretty funny twist, the Supreme Court dismissed the suit, citing a lack of jurisdiction.
This Sunday at Shelby Crossings we are going to kick off a new summer series of messages, from the first eleven chapters of Genesis, that we are calling “In the Beginning.” We will be looking at some great Bible stories, from creation to the fall of man, to Noah’s Ark and the Tower of Babel, but we’ll also discover some timeless truths that are very applicable to our confused culture in these contemporary days of the 21st century.
But there will be nothing more important than that first verse from Genesis 1:1, which so inspired those astronauts almost a half century ago. For it is foundational to everything else that we believe, that “in the beginning, God…” It is a premise upon which everything else stands and falls. It establishes that we have a Creator and we are but “creatures here below,” and reminds us that, ultimately, we have Someone we must answer to.
The good news is that the one who made us loves us more than we could ever imagine, and showed us that love when He sent His own Son to die on the cross to purchase our pardon.
I know many of you have busy summers planned, but I hope you’ll do your best not to miss a single week of this important series. I trust that God, our Creator, is going to speak to us, to challenge us, and to change us through His word, and I don’t want you to miss it.
I will be praying for you, as I hope you will be for me, and I look forward to seeing you this Sunday, morning and evening, as we gather together in His name.