Pay Attention to the Ripple Effect

The following is an article that was written for week 14 of The Story.  It is reprinted by permission.

The decisions you make and the actions you take affect those around you.

Rehoboam learned that lesson the hard way.  Rehoboam followed his father Solomon to the throne of Israel.  Solomon had exacted harsh labor on the people.  A delegation, led by Jeroboam, went to the new king and asked him to take away the harshness.

In private, Rehoboam asked his elder council what he should do.  They advised that he become a servant to the people, lighten their load, and the people would always be faithful servants to the king.

His circle of younger friends gave him just the opposite advice.  They told him to work the people harder.  He liked that idea, told the delegation his plans, and wound up with a divided kingdom.

At one time or another all of us are impacted by someone else’s decisions or actions.  When we suffer the negative consequences of another’s wrongheaded decision, God can redeem the situation.  Although Rehoboam wound up ruling only two tribes—Judah and Benjamin (as opposed to Jeroboam’s rule over ten tribes)—it was through Judah that Jesus came to us.  God can work, and often does what seems to us as his best work, in situations that seem the most difficult.

We should always consider how our decisions and actions affect those around us.  In “systems thinking” it is said that “you are the highest leverage point in any system you are in.”  More simply stated, you can make a difference. You are more “powerful” than you think you are––no matter your station in life.

Clint Eastwood’s film Invictus tells the story of Nelson Mandela’s use of the South African rugby team to help heal a nation divided by apartheid.  In one scene of the movie he explains to a team member, “Reconciliation starts here.  Forgiveness starts here.”  He knew his actions would have a ripple effect on those around him.  Eventually the blessing of that “ripple” washed across the nation.

Rehoboam made a bad decision, but it was really his father Solomon’s actions that divided the kingdom.  He forsook the one true God and chased after other “gods,” he neglected to serve the people and instead forced them to work harder, and he was focused on himself, as reflected in his accumulation of wives, gold, and horses in direct disobedience to God’s counsel.  His son Rehoboam was merely living out consequence of those decisions and actions.

Learn from Solomon’s mistake.  Love God first.  Love others second.  And serve those that do not yet know God.  You will be surprised to see how far your ripple will travel.

“Reality” TV

My wife recorded an episode of a new TV show called “I Forgive You.”  The show tells the true stories of men and women practicing forgiveness in all kinds of instances:  bullying, abuse, stealing, murder, etc.  She was watching the episode this morning while I was getting ready to go to work.  The first story was about a woman who, as a teenager, was bullied, picked on, and insulted on a regular basis by other students in her school.  For years, she carried the shame and hurt of their abuse.  In this episode, the woman invites her former classmates to meet her at their former school so that she can tell them face to face that she forgives them.  Of the 30 some former classmates that were invited, only 2 showed up.

At this point, I have to confess my skepticism and frustration with “reality” television.  I am not sure that “reality” exists when there is a camera filming your every word and action for broadcast across national television.  And so it was, this morning, that I expressed out loud with sarcasm, “And these two showed up probably because they were more interested in getting on TV than being forgiven!”  Maybe I am right, but I do hope I am wrong.

However, I have found myself thinking the rest of the day about those folks who didn’t come.  The host of the show assumed by her attitude that their absence reflected some kind of belief on their part that they didn’t need to be there.  And maybe that is so.  Maybe they didn’t feel they needed to be forgiven.  Maybe they weren’t interested in talking about events of so long ago.  But then another thought came to mind:  I wonder how many didn’t show up because they didn’t want people today to know that they were the kid who used to bully another student?  They didn’t want that label pinned to them.

We live in a world that will define people by one day, one act, one word.  One moment can become all anybody remembers about a person.  In such a world, how can the church talk about the importance of confessing our sins?  Isn’t there a danger that by confessing our sins, all anybody will ever be able to think about is our sins?  Most of us would probably just assume keep our sins to ourselves, tucked away in private, rather than risk having them define us.

David has an affair with Bathsheba that leads to David ordering his general Joab to abandon Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, in the midst of battle so that he will be killed.  Adultery, treason, conspiracy to commit murder – David was the guy on “Law and Order” that you cheered for him to get what he deserved.  But David’s sin doesn’t remain hidden.  The prophet Nathan walks right into David’s palace and exposes his sin before David’s very eyes.

We would expect this to be the moment that would forever define David.  Forget about Goliath, forget about Jerusalem, forget about the expansion of Israelite territory, forget about his friendship with Jonathan.

But we don’t forget those things.  We remember this moment, but it is not all that we remember about David.  Perhaps that is because, when Nathan confronts him, David doesn’t deny his behavior or try to excuse it or place the blame somewhere else.  When his sin is revealed, he stands up and says, “I have sinned against the LORD.”  He owns it, he confesses it.  He takes a risk that he will always be the king who had an affair and ordered his own soldier killed.

Nathan replies, “Now the LORD has put away your sin”.  Nathan lets David know that there will still be consequences for his actions, consequences that cannot be avoided.  However, Nathan also tells David that God will not define David by this event, by this sin.  When David is willing to confess his sin, God is willing to put it away.

Confession is something that scares us because we believe we will be labeled as our sin. As a result, we usually end up carrying the sin within us, allowing it to own us.  Instead, confession should be what allows us to let go of sin’s hold on us so that we can find our true identity through Christ.  By owning up to our sin, sin no longer can own us.

What do we need to confess to God today?  Go to him in prayer.  As you pour your heart out to him, know that He puts away everything you turn over to him.  That sin no longer owns you, no longer defines you.

Turning the Mountain into a Molehill

The confrontation between David & Goliath is a story that resonates beyond the faith community.  The story of a weaker, overmatched hero rising up to defeat a stronger, better equipped enemy is invoked in the world of sports, politics, and entertainment.  It’s a story so many know so well, that when we actually take time to read the story again, it is amazing some of the stuff that we actually learn for the first time.

When David tells King Saul that he will take on the Philistine warrior, Saul responds, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.”  I love David’s response:

Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it.

Saul and the Israelite army saw Goliath as a strong, imposing warrior that could not be defeated.  Interestingly enough, we don’t actually ever see him prove his mettle on the battlefield (the only battle we see him fight he loses!).  But Goliath sure knows how to talk trash and sound big.  And the Israelites fall for every word of it!  Based just on what they see and what they hear, everybody cowers in fear.  For David?  Goliath is no different from a lion or a bear he fights on a regular basis.

I am reminded that so many times we look at problems and conflicts in our lives the same way that the Israelites looked at Goliath.  They look imposing, they sound difficult, and so we cower in fear of facing the problem or confronting the conflict.  In doing so, we can sometimes make a mountain out of a molehill.  You know, a mole hill may only stick up a few inches above the ground, but they can run as deep as 12-18 inches, according to Wikipedia.  That is still a noticeable obstacle.  The difference is, we would walk across a molehill without thinking twice.  There are problems and conflicts that our fear and dread cause us to walk away from as if they were impossible mountains to climb when, if we confronted them, as David confronted Goliath, we might find they are really molehills that we can easily pass over and move on.

In Philippians 4, Paul writes,

I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Through faith, we are invited to approach every problem not in fear of marching to certain destruction but with the confidence that, with Christ, we will find our way over the molehill, even if the molehill is pretty deep.  We are invited to not make problems and conflicts bigger than they actually are.  We are invited to experience the world not with ears of hype but eyes of truth.  When we set free the truth of Christ in our lives, the molehills stay just that, molehills.

Reading About the Day Before on the Day After

Well, it’s all over but the shouting … but I guess we have gotten used to the shouting by now.

I thought it was interesting timing to be reading the story of Samuel and Saul on the week of a Presidential election here in the United States.  Especially intriguing was to read Samuel’s description (perhaps better described as a warning) of a king in 1 Samuel 8:11-17.

He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots.  He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.  He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers.  He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and courtiers.  He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work.  He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.

All we need now is for the next verse to read, “I’m the prophet Samuel, and I approved this message”.

Samuel was not talking about a particular party or a particular king.  He was talking about any king, every king.  Israel was looking at a king as the solution to all their problems.  Samuel used “negative campaigning” to try to show Israel that a king would bring a whole new set of problems.

Then, on the day before Samuel anoints Saul as king, God says to Samuel, “He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines; for I have seen the suffering of my people, because their outcry has come to me.”  Guess what?  The king can do some good!

A lot of Biblical interpreters talk about how the Bible preserves the historical tension of whether kings in Israel were the cause of their problems or the promise of salvation.  Maybe part of the reason for preserving the tension was to challenge everyone’s expectations about the king.

We live in times right now where we tend to talk about our leaders in broad brush strokes.  “Our guy” is the nation’s only hope, while “their guy” will put us on the path to ruin.  All Republicans are old, white, rich militants and all Democrats are atheist communists.  We won, and everybody else is wrong.  We lost, and everybody else is stupid.  Does this sound like your Facebook and Twitter feed?

Reading these stories today, I feel challenged to consider that our government leaders are people just like you and me.  There is not a one of them that is perfect.  Each and every one of them can do something that someone can justifiably yell and shout about; but each and every one of them is just as capable to do something that can make a positive difference in somebody’s life.  Maybe part of what the story of Samuel and Saul should do is temper both our celebration and critique of all of our leaders.  Yes, they carry big responsibilities as well as big expectations.  But, and this is the point that 1 Samuel makes abundantly clear, they are not God.

Let’s put down the broad brushes of deification and demonizing.  Let’s pray for the men and women, all of them, who have been chosen to lead at every level of government.  Let’s pray that they will do more good than harm, more right than wrong.  Let’s pray for wisdom, for unity, and for peace.  Most importantly, let’s pray that we would never lose sight of Who is truly in control of the Universe.  May He be our King of Kings!

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Revelation 1:8)

One Woman’s Story

Just about every year, our church provides a birthday party for inmates at a local minimum security prison.  It is always the last Tuesday night of whatever month we are assigned to.  I always receive a blessing from going, but it never fails that the day of the party comes and I spend part of the day griping in my heart (and yes, sometimes from my mouth) “I wish I didn’t have to do this tonight.  I have a lot of other stuff going on, I have other work that needs to be finished.”

Yesterday was our day, and, yes, yesterday I griped in my heart and from my mouth once again.  And once again, God gracefully reminded me that I had no idea what I was talking about.  There were many blessings from the whole night, but in a week when we are studying the story of Ruth, there is one particular blessing I wanted to share.

When I showed up at church, I expected that 7-8 other folks would soon be meeting me there, as usual.  For whatever reason, on this night, there was only 1 other person, a young woman in her first year of college.  And so it fell to her and I to load up the car with coolers, food, and 23 presents and drive the 25 minutes to the prison.  To be honest, I was initially frustrated and worried about the thought of just 2 of us doing this.  However, this young woman’s attitude was amazing.  There was no hesitation, no fear, just a willingness and eagerness to go and serve.

We arrived at the prison and had to figure out where exactly we needed to go.  As we walked around in the cold, she took pity on a little lost puppy who was wandering through the parking lot.  Once we reached our destination, we unloaded the car and started setting everything up with the help of some of the guards.  Finally, the 20 inmates were led in to the room where they sat in chairs in a circle.  When the young woman and I got to the circle, I felt a protective responsibility to stay close to her.  However, as it turned out, there were not two empty seats next to one another.  So we each moved to a seat, each of us sitting with 2 or 3 inmates on either side of us.  At first, I was anxious about the circumstances, but she didn’t show a moment’s hesitation.  We started to talking to the guys, and then we had to introduce the person we had been talking to to the whole group.  As God would have it, he placed this young woman next to a young man who was from the same town as she is from.  This common bond gave them an inroad to a conversation.  Good thing I wasn’t in the way trying to be “protective.”

After introductions and a time of prayer, we all moved to tables to eat and fellowship together.  After helping hand out plates of food and drinks, this young woman sat right down at a table with 2 older gentleman and struck up a conversation.  We all sat and talked and ate and laughed for 45 minutes, and before we all knew it, it was time for the guys to go back for lights out.  We cleaned up and packed up and began the drive back to the church.  As we rode, the young woman and I exchanged some stories about the guys we met, the conversations we had, the blessings we received.  We observed how easy it became as the night went on to forget that these men were inmates, and that the room we were in was not a church fellowship hall but a prison activity room.  Throughout the whole evening, a smile never left this young woman’s face.

As we got back into town, the young woman looked at her watch and said, “Wow, it’s not too late at all.  I still have time to study.”  Turns out she has a test today, the 3rd of the week for her.  And she gave 2 1/2 hours of her time to walk into an all-male prison to provide a birthday party for 20 inmates.

The story of Ruth is a story of courage in the face of uncertainty, love in a world of bitterness, and gracious kindness in a land that seemed dominated by violence.  The story of Ruth is a story of risk, sacrifice, and faith that ultimately leads to the entrance of Christ into the world (Matthew 1:5).

Last night, Ruth was not just a story in the Bible.  Ruth was a person, a young woman who carried Christ to a lost puppy and 20 inmates at a local prison.  Not many women her age, not many people of any age, would be willing to do what she did.  God not only silenced my griping heart, He also remind me that our world needs men and women that are willing to be Ruths.

Thanks Ruth, and thanks “Ruth” (and good luck on your test!).

When Your Mistakes Land You Before a Judge

The following is taken from a series of articles created specifically for The Story.  The author is unknown.

It was my ninth grade year at Robert E. Lee Jr. High in San Angelo, Texas.  My student council job was to broadcast the morning announcements.  It was the first step in my dream of becoming an on-air personality.  My team and I added a little spice to the traditionally droll morning litany of announcements.

For awhile things went fine.  Then one day Amy Cassles had an idea.  Instead of just reading off the list of birthdays, Amy wanted to sing the birthday song.  It was my show and I gave her the go-ahead.  We imagined our imaginary ratings soaring.  But then, halfway through the song, Amy busted out laughing uncontrollably.

At the end of our program there was dead silence.  Until our principal, Mr. Snodgrass, asked to see us.  A look of terror struck the eyes of my team.  I know because their eyes were staring right at me.  In a moment of extreme bravery on my part, I led the way into Mr. Snodgrass’ office.  Mr. Snodgrass was a retired military commander and we felt like we were going before the judge in a court martial.

Judges elicit a sense of fear, don’t they?  They never call you in for something you have done right.  We think of them as someone who harshly tells us what we did wrong.  And they seem to be everywhere these days on television.  There’s Judge Judy and Hatchett.  Mathis and Christina.  And my favorite—Judge Brown.

Then there are some judges you may not know.  They even have a book in the Bible with their name on it.  Judges.  These judges appeared on the scene to help sort out right and wrong.  They also helped people get out of trouble.

God’s people kept putting themselves into a never ending cycle of disobedience, discipline, declaration of wrong, and deliverance.  Judges like Deborah and Gideon and Samson helped them find their way back to God.

What did the people do that was so bad they needed judges?  Two things.  First, they failed to put God first in their lives (Judges 1:28).  And secondly, they did not teach their children to know God (Judges 2:10).  These two “sins” led to their downfall and ruin.

Are you making the same mistakes they made?  If so, you have a judge that can help you––Jesus.

The good news is that when he “calls” you into his office after you’ve messed up, you will look up to see your judge’s face and see your savior there.