Thriving In Spite Of ….

The actual flower and rock referenced in this post

Near the front door of our home in Mexico is a large rock. We didn’t put it there as part of the landscaping, God put it there thousands of years ago, and it’s so large that it’s going to stay where He put it.

The rock has a crack in it, and out of that crack grew a marigold flower. Again, we didn’t plant it there. Marigolds are native plants of Mexico so the breath of God (the wind) sowed the seed that became this plant.

If I were sowing a flower seed I would not have chosen to sow it in the cleft of the rock, but that’s where the wind brought it so that’s where it grew. It bloomed where it was planted, a place that was far from ideal.

You know where I’m going with this. I suspect I’ve written on this theme before, seeing a plant in a less than hospitable environment, photographing it, then writing about it. However, I’m forging ahead with this theme yet again, because I’ve learned over the years that part of my ministry is the ministry of reminding.

What I’m reminding us of this time around is that we’re called by God to bloom where He’s planted us. Not all of our circumstances are of our choosing. We’d change a number of them if we could. Yes, some circumstances we’ve been able to change, some we can yet change, but some we can’t.

The good news is that circumstances beyond our control can still be controlled, because we can control how we respond to them! We can choose to respond in such a way that we’re a better person because of those difficult circumstances. It’s fair to say that most of our character development (our growing in Christ-likeness) does not happen under ideal circumstances but under less than ideal circumstances.

As a pastor it was not the parishioners with whom I found it easy to get along who helped me grow the most spiritually but those whom I was tempted to pray a curse upon (but by God’s grace didn’t). I’ve also found greater motivation to put my trust in God when I’ve lacked something rather than when I haven’t lacked something. Then too, I’ve grown in patience more when things are slow in coming than when there’s been no delay. I could go on, but you get the idea.

It’s only natural, and even right, to prefer better circumstances than worse circumstances. So it’s good to rejoice and give thanks for the good circumstances. But the reality is that we also face far from ideal circumstances. If God has allowed us to be in such circumstances, then He has a plan. His plan is that with His help and in one way or another we’re to bloom where we’ve been planted!

“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.'” Jeremiah 29:4-5

An Unnecessary Burden

Actual man with burden I met on my walk in Mexico. Because of the handy availability of the phone camera I could take his picture.

I recently met a man carrying a sack of something tossed over his shoulders on a rustic road in Mexico that we both were traveling. I had just prayed for a fresh idea for my weekly spiritual essay. After passing the man with the shouldered bag a story started to unfold in my mind, a “faith fable” I decided to call it. Here it is, not a true story, but a story with a truth.

Once upon a time a farmer was resting from his field work, eating his lunch. The field happened to be alongside a road upon which a traveler was approaching, hefting a heavy bag slung over his shoulders, stooping him forward under the weight as he walked.

The traveler paused by the lunching farmer and tossed down the bag with a sigh of relief. “May I rest a spell here?” he asked the farmer.

“Certainly,” replied the farmer. “Where are you going, and if I may be so bold as to ask, what is in the bag that makes it so heavy?”

“Rocks,” the man replied, “I’m taking them back home.”

“Where did you come from with the rocks?” the farmer asked.

“From home,” was the traveler’s reply.

The farmer’s quizzical look prompted an explanation from the traveler. “For some time now I’ve been burdened with guilt for a variety of things I have done wrong. I have asked God’s forgiveness, but I have never felt forgiven. The pastor in the village said it might help if I packed a bag with rocks, each representing a major sin over which I have guilt, including sins of which I’m not even aware. He told me to carry the bag of rocks to the foot of the large cross at the top of Cemetery Hill. That is what I did, and now I am going back home.”

The farmer looked at the traveler, amazed. “You are bringing the bag of rocks back home?”

“Yes,” replied the traveler, “and it’s just as much of a burden coming back from the cross as it was going to the cross.”

The farmer put a hand upon the weary shoulder of the traveler and said, “My friend, I am certain the pastor intended for you to leave your burden at the cross.”

“Really?” the traveler replied in surprise, then asked, “What should I do now?”

The farmer thought for a moment, then pointed to a low spot in the road within a stone’s throw of where they were sitting that was covered with a pool of muddy water. He said, “After a rain travelers have to navigate around that mud hole, which is difficult because of the brambles that line the road on both sides. Take your bag of rocks and fill the mud hole with them. You have asked that your sins be forgiven and they are. All that is left is for you to let go of the burden.”

The traveler did what the farmer suggested, emptying the bag of rocks into the muddy hole. He expressed his gratitude to the farmer, said good-bye, tossed the empty bag over his shoulder, walked across the mud hole with dry feet and, with a lightness in his steps, quickly was out of sight.

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9

The Power in Accepting What Is

Thermometer in our Mexico home recording a morning temperature of 59 degrees.

Like most houses in Mexico our Mexican home has no furnace. The weather is moderate enough that this works, usually. Sometimes, however, the outside temperature dips into the 40’s and that means the temperature in the house can be in the 50’s when we get up in the morning! “Brisk” is the most positive way to describe it. If, in our home in the States, the furnace would fail and the temperature drop into the 50’s we’d be on the phone to a furnace repairman in no time at all! When the inside temperature dips in our house in Mexico we simply put on a sweater and get on with our morning. When you can’t do something about something the best approach is to simply accept it.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote what is called the Serenity Prayer. It includes this phrase, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

We’ve had to accept the “brisk” temperature in our Mexico house, because there’s nothing we can do about it! There are a lot of things in life that happen which are beyond our control. Grumbling about them and wishing they were different ends up being a waste of time and emotional energy. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.”

For those of us who seek to do God’s will, this principle of acceptance means determining to spend less time and energy grumbling about how we’d rather do things our own way and more time and energy giving ourselves to doing things God’s way. It’s been said that making the decision to live God’s way is the last big decision you have to make in life; all other decisions are just deciding what that is.

Yes, some circumstances can be changed, and should be! Some of our current circumstances, however, can’t be changed. Past circumstances are also in this “unchangeable” category. The best response is acceptance. This will help us deal with what can’t be changed, for there is tremendous coping power in acceptance!

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”  (Jesus praying before His arrest and crucixion in Luke 22:42)

The Superpower of Will Power

When I was growing up my favorite super hero was Superman. I also enjoyed watching the original Batman TV series. The comic books offered some other super heroes, such as the Green Hornet. Now our grandchildren, both those in Florida and those in Mexico, are watching the entire series of Marvel’s super hero movies in chronological order. We love our super heroes!

I’ve come up with what I think could be the next great super hero. His name would be Will… Will Power. I can see it now, Will Power wearing a brightly colored spandex suit and cape of a complimenting color, both the suit and cape imprinted with WP. Okay, maybe the super hero Will Power will remain only a legend in my own mind, but what needs to be spread far and wide is the fact that there is super power in the will!

Will power is a tremendous quality to possess, and it’s God who has given it to us as a gift to possess! This gift from God of the will means we can make choices, determine, embrace, pursue, and persist at pursuing.

The real secret to having super will power is to align our will to God’s will for us. If it’s simply something we want it’s just our own desire that’s motivating us, a strong force, but a far greater motivation is knowing it’s God’s will for us. Seeking to make God’s will for us our own also means we have His support and help!

Jesus was the greatest person who ever lived, and He sought not to do His own will but the Heavenly Father’s will for Him. He calls upon us to do the same!

I know from personal experience that I won’t start something, work hard at a task, persist at doing the difficult, or accomplish a goal unless I have the will to do so. There’s an old saying, “Where there’s a will there’s a way.” I believe it!

And when I believe in doing God’s will that He has for me to do, then I have a power that’s greater than my own will power. Where there’s His will, there’s His way!

“Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.” (Psalm 37:4-6 ESV)

Living with Mystery

Questions beg for answers, after all, that’s why we ask the questions. Some of the toughest questions are about God and who He is: How can God always have existed? How can God be one God but three Persons, the Trinity, as the Bible reveals? How can God know the future? If God knows the future and how we will act, then do we even have a choice of how we will act?

Some of the other tough questions are about God what He does: If God knew the world would be full of sin, why didn’t He create a different world where there would be no sin? Why does God let accidents happen when He knows they will happen? Why is there a hell?

It shouldn’t surprise us that we have lots of questions about God and His ways. It makes sense that we’re never ever going to understand everything about God and His ways. We’d have to be God to be able to do so! If we insist on a complete and total understanding of God and His ways before we believe in Him, then we’ve just set ourselves up for non-belief.

William Cowper was a famous poet and hymn writer. He actually came to faith because of his struggles with serious mental illness, a struggle that continued even after he became a believer. Out of his struggles he wrote a poem/hymn in 1773 with these words: “God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.”

We have to come to the point where we accept our limited understanding of God and His mysterious ways. Cowper goes on to state in his poem/hymn, “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace; behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.”

People have told me that when they get to heaven they’re going to have some questions for God, wanting Him to explain Himself. My response to such statements has been to suggest that the person imagine meeting God “face to face” and hearing God say, “So, I understand you have some questions for me.” I believe that with a much fuller experience and greater understanding of God than we had on earth we would, in the presence of His infinite love and wisdom, likely reply, “Never mind.”

Life is full of mystery. We sit in chairs each day with little understanding of the mysteries of the molecular structure of the metal, plastic, and wood of which the chairs are constructed. We take medicine to get over a sickness having little understanding of the mystery of how the antibiotic works. Deciding to have a faith in God means that we don’t insist God answer all of our questions. Faith in God and His ways means living with mystery!

“‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’” Isaiah 55:8-9

Have a good rest of the week!

Dave Claassen

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)