Beyond Measure

Whenever I start a woodworking project one of the first tools I grab is my tape measure. My wife Diann does much the same when she starts a sewing project, retrieving her tape ribbon from her sewing kit. If I want to roughly measure a large area I step it off, toe to heel, toe to heel, because my foot is, coincidentally, a foot long. When I decide to bake something one of the first things I do is get out the measuring cups. I regularly weigh myself on a scale, though not right after a holiday, no reason to ruin a good celebration. When I’m sick Diann gets out the thermometer.

So much of daily living involves measuring. Almost everything we can experience with our five senses can be measured in one way or another, and often has to be.

However, blogger Daniel Taylor, in his “Neither/Nor” blog, quotes the Talmud for a right perspective on measuring. “Blessing is found neither in a matter that is weighed, nor in a matter that is measured, nor in a matter that is counted.”

When I gave the quote some thought I realized how true it is. The really big blessings of life are beyond measuring.

Daniel Taylor observes that as wonderful as science is “it explores the fringes of reality, not its heart and core.” That’s a different way of looking at everything; what we can experience with our five senses, what we can measure, is the “fringes of reality, not its heart and core.”

We often think that the tangible is more real and the intangible less real, but it’s really the other way around. What’s most important is not our house, car, bank account, school grades, or a set of sport scores, the tangibles. What’s most important are the intangibles: relationships, beauty, goodness, hope, faith and other aspects of life that can’t be measured, weighed, or counted.

Two of the houses I grew up in and two of the school buildings I attended no longer exist. However, the relationships, memories, learning, and experiences that took place in those structures still impact my life.

At the top of the list of intangibles is our relationship with God. He’s spirit and can’t be sensed by our five senses nor can He be measured in any way. He’s made everything tangible and sustains it all, though He’s beyond it all. He’s even beyond being measured by time, for He’s eternal.

Yes, God has made us material beings in a material universe, and so we’re meant to enjoy and use it in good ways. But the focus of our existence is to be centered on God Himself, developing a relationship with Him, serving Him by moving forward His micro agenda for us and His macro agenda for His Kingdom of Heaven. You can’t measure the value of that, for it is beyond measure!

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:18

Have a great rest of the week!

Dave Claassen

Taken for Granted or Accepted in Gratitude?

Uncle Harry gives his five year old nephew Carter a gift. Carter grabs it, anxious to unwrap the package. Carter’s mother says, “What do you say to Uncle Harry, Carter?” As Carter attacks the wrapping he mumbles, “Thank you, Uncle Harry.” Carter’s mom is trying to build into her son a basic social skill, that of expressing gratitude. Maybe Carter will remember to say “thank you” the next time he receives a gift, maybe not.

Gratitude doesn’t always come easily. That’s why it’s good that the United States has a holiday dedicated to giving thanks. We need the yearly reminder. Hopefully Thanksgiving Day has long term residual effect, impacting the other 364 days of the year. Gratitude is good. The opposite of being grateful is taking things for granted, and that’s not good.

Taking something for granted means we…

… give it little attention…

… think we’ll always have it…

… don’t appreciate it…

… think we deserve it.

Taking something for granted is harmful because we

… enjoy something without even noticing we’re enjoying it…

are shocked when we lose it because we assumed we’d always have it… … fail to see the value of what we’re enjoying…

… arrogantly think we deserve it, failing to give thanks to others or to God.

Accepting something with gratitude means we …

give it our full attention…

… don’t assume we’ll always have it…

… appreciate it

… see it as a gift and not something we’ve earned or deserve.

Accepting something with gratitude is helpful because we…

… enjoy the fact that we are enjoying it…

… we’re not shocked if we lose it, just grateful we had it for as long as we did…

… see the value of what we’ve been given…

… humbly realize we don’t deserve it, giving thanks to others and God.

There’s a phrase in an old Christian song that goes like this, “your many blessings, name them one by one and see what the Lord has done.” We’ve been given so much. Are we taking it for granted or accepting it in gratitude?

“Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” Psalm 103:2

Cornfields Six Decades Apart

I walk alongside cornfields now that I’m retired. I did so as a child 60 years ago. The difference is that 60 years ago I walked alongside Iowa cornfields on the farm where I grew up. Now I walk along cornfields in rural Mexico where we live part of the year to be near our daughter and her family. Who would have guessed? Not me!

The future is so unpredictable. The great theologian Woody Allen (okay, I’m kidding about the great theologian part) said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him about your plans.”

I remember when our church was talking to bankers about financing a possible building program. They wanted us to estimate our church attendance and financial income for two years, five years, and ten years into the future. We did our best, though I thought it a foolish endeavor at the time; we had no crystal ball. As it turned out, 9/11 happened soon thereafter, and a great many people’s expectation of how the future should unfold went out the window, including ours.

Everyone of us can come up with a very long list of how things have turned out differently than we had hoped or figured. Sometimes events have turned out for the worse, sometimes for the better, and sometimes just differently.

I recall my mother often concluding any conversation about future plans with the phrase, “The Lord willing.” I find myself doing the same.

It’s not that we shouldn’t plan for the future, not to do so would be shortsighted. It’s just that we need to do so realistically, realizing that plans can help make things happen the way we want but don’t guarantee that things will happen the way we want.

The good news is that when we have a deep faith and trust in God, the unknown future need not be feared. To paraphrase an old adage, “I don’t know what the future holds, but I know the One who holds the future.”

One of the characteristics of God that I find both amazing and comforting is that He knows the future, that He controls the future. He’s a good God, so if we’re in relationship with Him He walks into our future with us, even is in our future waiting for us. Nothing that happens catches Him by surprise. He has a plan, and it’s good!

“Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a few years there, carry on business and make money.’ …. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.'” James 4:13,15

Lesson from a Praying Mantis

Accompanying this post is a photo I took of a praying mantis insect on an open Bible. I’ll admit that I staged the photo, gently lifting a docile praying mantis onto the page of the Bible.

The praying mantis on the Bible is symbolic of the two facets traditionally attributed to spending time with God, often referred to as a “quiet time” with God. Those two facets are reading the Bible and praying, two spiritual disciplines that, when practiced intentionally and regularly, can nurture our relationship with God.

The praying mantis is, of course, not praying. It gets its name from the posture it often assumes, a posture that makes it appear as if it is praying.

Neither does the praying mantis have any idea that its feet are standing on God’s Word. Presumably, at best, the praying mantis sees alternating splotches of black and white beneath its feet. It does not know that the black splotches are words, that those words have meaning, and that countless people believe that the words are from God.

The lesson we can learn from the praying mantis on the Bible is this: we can go through the motions of praying while not connecting with God at all. Our eyes can scan the words of a Bible, understand their meanings, even study it in depth, but unless we allow it to be transformational in our lives we’re as clueless as the praying mantis on the Bible. We can have the forms and expressions of faith but not the substance!

It’s interesting that Jesus’ harshest words were for the religious leaders of His day. He called them “hypocrites” for having the outward forms of being religious but not having the inward reality.

I’ve always tried to take these teachings of Jesus as a precautionary warning for my own walk with Him. Even as a pastor (which I was for nearly 40 years) there’s the temptation to pray publicly for others but to let the personal and private conversations with God be infrequent or the repeating of many words, and to pray often but to do so without much sincerity. As a pastor there’s the temptation to read, study, and deliver with great insight and fanfare a message from the Bible but not allow it to confront and conform one’s own heart.

People will say they’re not actively pursuing a relationship with God because they’re turned off by those who claim to be doing so but are hypocrites at it. The logic of this response is difficult to identify; why would you allow someone who appears to have a hypocritical faith keep you from pursuing the real thing?

The praying mantis standing on the Bible is neither praying nor, in a deeper sense, standing on the Word of God. I want to be the opposite on both counts. You too?

“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.” 1 Samuel 15:22

Amazingly Ambitious Ants

Photo taken with my camera phone of actual ants referenced below.

While taking a walk I noticed a trail of ants trekking across a large rock. It was a two-way trekking, a going back and forth to some food source and back to their colony.

They were also traveling fast! As I paused in my walk to watch them work I realized that, considering their size, they were covering an amazing amount of rock very quickly.

While watching the rush hour traffic of ants I imagined looking down upon a highway of cars from a height where the cars would be the size of these ants. I estimated that cars seen from such a height, being the size of these ants, would be traveling about 60 miles an hour. For their size these ants were traveling the equivalent of about 60 miles per hour!

How these little six-legged creatures had the strength and stamina to travel back and forth like this, for a long time, and at this speed, was absolutely amazing. Then too, they were working purposely and together! This was an unmarked highway, but they were keeping in their lane, ants going both ways, and no head-on crashes!

As best as we can tell ants aren’t particularly smart, but they certainly have a lot of programming packed into those tiny brains allowing them to instinctively do what they do to survive and thrive. God’s created ants (and all other creatures great and small) to be an integral part of His creation, to live out their lives in accord with His plan.

We humans are also creatures created by our Creator to live out our lives in accord with His plan. The difference between us and the ant (and all other creatures great and small) is that, for us, instinct plays a very minor role and choice plays a most significant role. What the ant does instinctively we’re to do intentionally. We humans can choose whether we cooperate with God, carrying out His will and His plan for us, or not.

I have to admit that there are times when I have little enthusiasm, energy, and motivation for doing that which I know I should. I can face a stretch of the day when I feel the way I do on a holiday afternoon after a big meal, finding it easier to imitate the sloth than the ant!

What can help us face each day with a significant degree of the ant’s energy and endurance is to realize we’re doing far more than the ants’ gathering of their thimble sized underground storehouse of food for a later season when there will be no gathering. We can be serving and pleasing the Lord God Almighty, the fruit of our labors being stored up not just for a season but for an eternity!

This, then, is the lesson to be learned from the ant, according to the book of Proverbs. “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.” (Proverbs 6:6-8)

The actual door referenced in this post in the process of being painted.

I was painting a new door we had installed in our house. I don’t enjoy painting, but the task had to be done. My attitude wasn’t the greatest. I could think of a lot of things I’d rather be doing than painting a door.

The week of painting the door was also the week there was massive flooding in Houston, Texas, in some places more than three feet of rain falling within just a few hours. Images on the news showed flood waters filling homes to the height of where you hang pictures, or higher. What a mess, what a disaster! I tried to imagine all of the work involved in fixing a house after a flood. Any of those homeowners would love to have had nothing more to do on their home than paint a door! It put it all in perspective for me.

Sure, life has both minor and major struggles, and it’s okay to be honest in our response when it comes to the troubles and tragedies of life. But on the other hand, we can get to complaining about almost anything and everything, much of which should illicit no complaint at all. If we were required to write out each complaint on a separate dollar bill we’d be doing a lot less complaining!

Sometimes our complaints are based on wrong information, a misunderstanding, or misguided assumptions. I heard of a guy who called and complained to the pizza place that had delivered a pizza to his house. He said it was all crust and no toppings. A few minutes later he called back to apologize for his complaining; he had opened up the pizza box upside down!

We complain we have dishes to do, but at least we have dishes to do! We complain we have to put the groceries away, but at least we have groceries to put away. We complain we have to do something for a friend, but at least we have a friend. I complained I had a new door to paint, but at least I had a new door and a house to attach it to! Much of our complaining is in response to the small shadow of the negative cast by that which is largely good. Gratitude should overshadow grumbling!

Let’s save our complaining for the really big things, and take those complaints to the Lord (as King David did in the reference below). At the same time let’s jettison the petty complaints; they simply don’t deserve the attention we give them!

“I cry aloud to the Lord; I lift my voice to the Lord for mercy. I pour out before him my complaint; before him I tell my trouble.”  Psalm 142:1-2

Beyond Building Sandcastles

The sea water, wind, and the moon’s invisible arm of gravity pushing and pulling in tidal waves joined forces to destroy the structure. It had been a castle, a sandcastle. I came upon the ruins along a stretch of beach on the Gulf of Mexico. Some sand sculptor, or perhaps several, had spent considerable time building the structure out of nothing but sand.

The unceasing, unending waves’ pounding assault had left the sandcastle in ruins. Soon enough there would be no sign at all that it had ever existed.

Builders of sandcastles know that their creations have a short life-span, usually less than one cycle of the ebb and flow of the tide, perhaps even shorter if there’s a mean little kid walking the beach.

Much of what we work for, make, buy, maintain, and achieve has a limited lifespan, perhaps longer than sandcastles, but not by much, when measured against eternity. We note buildings being demolished that have outlasted their usefulness but are less than 50 years old. That shiny new car we excitedly drove off the car lot 20 years ago and took down the highway while inhaling the new car aroma may be, today, on the flatbed truck of crushed cars we meet on the highway going the other way to the recycling center. I’ve lost count of the number of computers I’ve excitedly bought and then, less than a half-dozen years later, at best, unceremoniously stashed in the closet, unable to bring myself to throw them in the trash, which I inevitably end up doing.

Fortunes gained may be ours, if we’re both smart and fortunate, until the day we die, but not beyond. Fame doesn’t have a long shelf life either. We might remember that a hundred years ago Woodrow Wilson was president (I didn’t, I had to look it up, 1913-1921). I’m sure that his vice-president thought himself fairly famous. How many people can recall his name? Probably just the rare historian with a knack for details. It was Thomas R. Marshall.

What can we do, what can we pour our lives into, that will last and last and last, that will last for an eternity? The answer? That which is important and memorable to our Eternal God. In Christian literature there’s a line in a poem by C.T. Studd that goes like this, “Only one life, twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.”

We live in a material world where we have to deal with much that won’t last, and that’s okay. God’s made it all and we can use and enjoy it for a time, like the building of sandcastles. We just have to keep it all in perspective, looking beyond building sandcastles, focusing most of all on that which will last, last forever!

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Jesus in Matthew 6:19-21

The Danger Within

The actual vase and plant referenced in this post. Note that the water has been changed and is fresh and clean!

A pesky mosquito or two would interrupt our attempt to sleep at night with an annoying buzzing about our ears. During the day the mosquitoes seemed to be in stealth mode, but we soon experienced the effects of their presence by an itching of an arm or leg. Even if we were successful at dispatching a specific mosquito, another one soon had taken its place. Where were they coming from? Our windows had good screens and we weren’t in the habit of leaving a door open.

Then I happened to gaze at a plant we had in a small glass vase of water on the window sill over the kitchen sink. There were mosquito larvae wiggling about in the water! We were raising our own mosquitoes in the house!

An effective defense against the mosquitoes was not to focus on the window screens or the doors to keep them from coming in. Rather, our focus to keep the mosquito population at zero within our house had to be on the vase with the plant, located on the window sill over the kitchen sink. I changed the water, and from that point on kept an eye on the vase’s water!

The experience reminded me of the story of the Trojan horse. In order to gain entrance into the city of Troy during the Trojan War the Greeks built a large hollow horse. They then pretended to retreat, leaving the large wooden horse behind. The Trojans brought the abandoned horse into their city, and that night a group of Greek soldiers emerged from hiding in the hollow horse and opened the city gates, allowing their fellow Greeks, who had secretly returned, into the city which they then conquered.

We were dealing with Trojan mosquitoes! The danger was not from without but from within!

This is so true for life beyond Trojan horses and Trojan mosquitoes. Sure, we face problems and setbacks that assault us from the outside. Yes, circumstances and social circles around us can tempt us to respond badly. However, what ultimately determines how anything external impacts us is how we deal with it internally.

It’s our private thoughts, our inner feelings, our hidden passions, our deepest motives, and our core commitments that determine how well we do with life rather than the external issues we face. Complaining about external factors or blaming outside forces will get us nowhere. The mind and heart are where the battle is won or lost. The battle is within!

“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” Proverbs 4:23

Empty Shelves

Living in Florida means living with the threat of hurricanes. In preparation for the arrival of a forecasted hurricane, I went to the store to stock up on essentials. I quickly realized I was not the only person doing so! In fact, it was obvious many had already done so! This was four days before the forecasted arrival of the hurricane, and the bread shelves were already bare.

Another aisle of shelves that was nearly empty was the bottled water aisle. We were warned to stock up on water in case the water out of the tap became undrinkable. People certainly had heeded the warning! Fortunately, for us in Florida, the hurricane missed us.

The experience of the empty bread shelves and water shelves clearly indicates the importance of bread and water. If bread and water are the basic provisions for physical survival, then what would be their counterpart in the realm of spiritual health? What are the bread and water for the soul?

We have many options for trying to fill this deepest hunger and thirst. Often, we mix our own personal cocktail of these. Sometimes, we opt for that which is outright harmful such as over drinking, drug use, or pornography.

At other times, when we feel empty, alone, fearful, joyless, bored or whatever, we opt for that which is not necessarily bad, and sometimes is actually good. We go for our favorite comfort food, watch TV, go to the movies, read a novel, go shopping, spend time on a favorite hobby, or try to gain the attention and affirmation of others. We attempt to make such things our primary source of gratification, satisfaction, or fulfillment, and they’re not up to the task. They can be good for us but can never be the best for us!

So back to the fundamental question: what’s to be the bread and water for the soul? Most everyone agrees that Jesus was one of the greatest spiritual teachers of all time. He taught on this subject of what’s to be the bread and water in the spiritual part of our lives. Astonishingly, He taught that He is this bread and water!

On a regular basis I’ll pray, “Lord, I want you to be my bread and water.” I need this reminder that He is to be my all in all, my greatest satisfaction.

In our pre-hurricane prep we shoppers didn’t go to the shelves that stocked electronic devices, books, toys, tools, or candy. We went for the shelves that stocked bread and water! In a crisis we know what we need most. Wise are we when we realize this even when not in a crisis!

“Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’” John 6:35

Anyone Can Be An Encourager!

Diann and I are among the crowd gathered at a cross country meet to encourage the runners. We, of course, are there to encourage our grandson Casey, the runner in maroon, # 550. He looks like he’s encouraged!

The people that have impacted my life most in a positive way are not those who’ve criticized me, though honest criticism can and should be helpful and constructive. The people most helpful in my life have been those who have encouraged me. I’ve needed lots of encouragers over the years, about ten encouragers to every one critic. That’s because criticism seems to stick a lot easier than does praise!

The bad news is that we can’t ultimately control the ratio of criticism and encouragement we receive. True, if we try to do our best and seek to do what’s good and right, we can hope to receive more praise than criticism; but it doesn’t always work out that way.

The good news is that we can control the ratio of criticism and encouragement we dish out to those around us! Other people are no different than you and me; they love encouragement far more than criticism. And they, like us, are more likely to respond in a favorable way to praise and continue on that course of action than they are to criticism and change their course of action.

There’s an old proverb that first appeared in printed form in Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac” in 1744. It goes like this, “You attract more flies with honey than vinegar.”

This is a tough world; everyone we encounter needs encouragement! People need to hear from us: “You’re doing a great job!” “I really appreciated what you said.” “You did the right thing in that situation.” “__________.” (fill in the blank) My personal experience has been that when I consciously try to be an encourager to those I meet in my daily activities it boomerangs on me and I feel encouraged!

I recommend an experiment of intentionally, for one day, by face-to-face contact, phone call, texting, or letter, communicating something encouraging to everyone with whom you come in contact! I know, with some folks it’ll take some effort, but try to do so anyway. I believe you’ll be pleased with what a difference it will make in your day!

People should give us the nickname Barnabas! Why? That’s what the people in the early church did to a guy named Joseph, from Cyprus. “Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement)…” Acts 4:36