Twenty-five years ago, I worked for a struggling software company. Our architecture was outdated and sales revenue plummeted. Investments in new architecture meant expenses skyrocketed. We were hemorrhaging money with no doctor in sight.

And then our president had a heart attack.

Our parent company asked me if I would consider becoming president. I was flattered by their great offer (and impressed with their great wisdom), but when I prayed I sensed God say, “No.” His word felt clear and strong, and I declined.

Instead, I suggested a new vice president that I had recently hired and who had become a friend. Our parent company agreed, and my friend became our new president.

The next day, my president-friend began to attack me. In the following weeks, he reduced my pay, took away my office, demoted me, and publicly belittled me.

My friend’s blitzkrieg movements stunned me. I was paralyzed and bewildered. Each new day brought a new disappointment. Every way I turned saw ambush and embarrassment. All of this came from a friend I had helped promote.

And God seemed absent, at least silent. I felt abandoned by God to a betraying friend who appeared intent on my professional destruction. I had voluntarily obeyed God by declining a promotion. As a result, I was demoted, humiliated, discouraged, and scared.

What kind of God would do this to someone who tried to obey him?

I lost hope

I don’t want to seem more spiritual than I am (and any appearance of much spirituality on my part is probably an apparition); but the biggest blow to me was God’s seeming absence. No words of encouragement. No sense of his presence.

My faith was shaken. If I had been fired because of a huge failure, I wouldn’t have liked it, but I could have accepted it. But I had been demoted because I obediently chose not to be promoted. And then God abandoned me. I felt alone in the fire.

I prayed, prayed some more, and I finally lost hope.

Our beliefs shape how we feel

Two years after my friend was promoted to president (and I was reduced to whipping-boy), he was dismissed. Then two other executives and I bought the company. I went from laughingstock to stockowner in a heartbeat.

If I had known what would happen in two short years, those twenty-four stormy months would have felt like a spring drizzle. If I had a glimpse of God’s plan, the deep darkness would have felt like a shadow. But I didn’t have a clue how things would turn out.

Our beliefs about God regulate our experience of life. When Jesus addresses anxiety, he says, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap.” (Matt. 6:26); that is, birds don’t farm. Jesus continues, “And yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”

Jesus then treats our anxious feelings by prescribing a belief about God; God himself thinks you are worthwhile (vs. 26)Our cure for ill-feelings is found in what we believe.

Our beliefs also drive what we do

The great theologian, Henry Ford, once said,

One man thinks he can and one man thinks he cannot. And they are both right.

Ford claims—and he’s right—that our doing is driven by our beliefs. The belief that we can (or can’t) determines if we do (or don’t).

We fail to take risks because we believe our risks will fail; we fear honesty with friends because we think they will confirm our fears; we ignore concerns about church because we’re sure our concerns will be ignored; we remain entrapped in ruts because we’re certain our ruts have trapped us.

Our problems are not bad circumstances; our problems are what we do in response. And our response—what we do (or don’t)—is always determined by what we believe.

What do we believe in?

It’s easy to trust God when the sun shines, our lattes are foamy, and the Wi-Fi signal is strong. It’s even easy to trust God when we are undervalued and demeaned, as long as God tells us in advance he will promote us in two years.

What is our faith in? Is it in a particular plan or is it just in who God is? Not every two-year-demotion is followed by stock ownership. Sometimes it is followed by a pink slip.

Life in God has a pattern: Resurrection. But we almost never know what shape that resurrection will take. If our belief is in a particular resurrection shape (or timing), our faith is no longer in God. It’s in a specific outcome.

My obedience to God was weak (at best), and my “belief” was that God would bless me because of my obedience. When it didn’t happen the way I expected, my beliefs crumbled. I had believed in the “blessing” and not in the “blessor.”

What does God want in all of this?

Oswald Chambers says “The test is to believe God knows what he is after.”

If we knew everything that God will do tomorrow, we’d be happy today. But we don’t, and we aren’t. Someday, though, we’ll look back at our lives and we’ll say, “God knew exactly what he was after. I wouldn’t want any other life.”

God doesn’t reveal all he will do. Instead, he reveals himself. Which is all we really need.

Believe it!

Sam

Be Brave With Your Life

Every once in a while I run across a line that halts me in my tracks (or sometimes my ruts) with a sense of “I’m speaking to you, Gary”.  This was one of those thoughts:

You have to be brave with your life so that others can be brave with theirs.”  Brene Brown

It’s very easy and usual for us to be sloppy and shielded with our life because it’s our life and it really doesn’t matter outside of it.  It seems like the world is not really looking at us as an example of how to live as a Christian, even though speakers, teachers and authors tell us this all the time.  After all, who really notices or takes any inspiration from our life anyway.

You’d be surprised.

We can say to ourself, I don’t want to be brave with my life, I don’t want to risk loss at this time – not relationally, financially, vocationally, physically or emotionally.  I’m too tired, too overwhelmed and too disappointed.

It’s easy to be brave with other people’s lives, isn’t it?  Suggesting the steps of faith they ought to take and God’s promise to be with them.  It’s always easier to risk someone else’s stuff.

I have two thoughts about this:

First, how about the fact that you and I don’t actually own our life – so we can be brave with it.

Scripture says,

You do not belong to yourselves, because you were bought by God for a price.” (1 Corinthians 6:19, 20 NCV)

We can step back from our life and ask, what would it look like to live bravely with that life, letting the world around it encounter the splendor of God in it?

God encourage us to be brave with His possessions.  In a very familiar story (Matt. 25:14-30), Jesus tells of a man who was going to be away for a long time, entrusting his property to those who worked for him.  When he returned he was very happy with those who lived bravely with his property.

Jesus is inviting us to take a risk with His prized possession – you and me.

Secondly, our life, our actions transcend or radiate out beyond our tiny space call “myself”.  We often don’t take seriously our actions, good or bad, until we realize that they affects others.  That it’s not just me and my inconsequential life.  Believe it or not, our life does affect others.

You’re life is noticed, felt and experienced by others.

There are many times that I lived bravely because I saw someone else living bravely.

  • Someone initiated a risky but necessary conversation, so I did.
  • Someone invested time and money into the development of their artistry, so I did.
  • Someone created or launched something that had been on their heart, so I did.
  • Someone stopped doing something that had been expected of them for years, but was not who they truly were, so I did.
  • Someone stepped forward to offer what they saw without assurance of receptivity, so I did.
  • Someone offered kindness, consideration and forgiveness when anger and retaliation were justifiable, so I did.
  • Someone made a big realignment in their life according to what God had shown them, so I did.

You see, I need YOU to be brave with your life, so that I can be brave with mine…and I will try to do the same for you.

Ann Voskamp wrote,

You’re only living faith when you taste a bit of fear in your mouth…taste the fear and leap anyways.”

What would it look like for you to live bravely right now that would inspire another to bravery?

Gary

What is Legalism?

I once belonged to a prayer group that prized ecumenical unity. We came from a wide variety of Christian traditions. We sang, “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.” Then we split down the middle due to ruptured relationships among our leaders.

We formerly prided ourselves on our exceptional unity; then our leaders attacked each other. We were embarrassed and a bit humiliated. Our highly prized treasure—good relationships in the midst of very strong differences—had slipped from our grasp.

A fellow member heard of a Christian leader in a neighboring city who had committed adultery and raided the group’s bank accounts. Sitting next to me in a prayer meeting, my friend shared the story and then whispered, “At least we’re not that bad.”

“Great!” I thought, “that’s just what I want chiseled on my tombstone:”

Here Lies Sam Williamson

At least he wasn’t as bad as them

What’s the real problem?

Criticizing legalism is popular today. It should be. But our critiques miss the point. We think of legalists as fussy, prudish, authoritarian, rule makers. They turn the tiniest commandment into a drudgery-filled dictionary of rules for joyless living.

Legalists remind us of the severe, unsmiling Pharisees. But that’s unfair to the Pharisees. Pharisees began as the good guys. They cared for the common folk and protected them from false religion. They taught the Bible and opposed the snobbish, priestly class.

Legalists don’t begin as joyless, fastidious, rigid dogmatists. That’s just the way they end up. Sure, legalists are rule-makers; but they create rules to make themselves feel good.

The result of their rules is the real problem. Their rules create a cultural sense of superiority. Somehow—because of their rules, or understanding, or man-created culture—somehow something about them is better.

If we limit ourselves to two simple rules, “Love God and love your neighbor,” we’ll feel more spiritual than those fundamentalist, killjoys. If we only make one rule, “Never make rules,” we’ll somehow feel better than those rule-manufacturing, stuffed shirts.

At least we aren’t as bad as them.

Besides, manmade rules aren’t strict enough

A religious lawyer tells Jesus that the Law can be summed up by two commands:Love God and love your neighbor. Jesus replies, Good job, now go and do it. The lawyer then asks, “Who is my neighbor?”, but he asks, “in order to justify himself” (Luke 10:29).

The lawyer doesn’t ask how he can do the impossible (that is, love unlovable people). No, his question asks, “What is the absolute minimum behavior I can get away with?

He wants rules he can handle. He says:  Give me rules that I can observe; tell me just to love neighbors within fifty yards, or to love only like-minded believers in my circles.”

The problem with rules made by legalists is that they aren’t strict enough. Rules made by God drive us to him because we can’t possibly accomplish them on our own; rules made by legalists drive us to performance, self-identity, and superiority.

It’s counter-intuitive, but rules made by legalists are never created to make life difficult. They are made so we can live up to these standards and so feel good about ourselves.

That’s why Jesus answers him with the Good Samaritan parable. We can’t be that loving. We need God to change our hearts. And that’s the point. God’s rules drive us to him.

What’s the hidden problem?

Let’s admit the secret problem with legalism’s superiority: We are all guilty.

  • Charismatics scorn (in their spirits) the Frozen Chosen;
  • Academic theologians sneer (in their intellects) at devotional writings;
  • John Eldridge fans pity (in their hearts) believers who won’t admit their wounds;
  • Lay people scoff (in their ignorance) at those egg-head, doctrinaire hairsplitters;
  • And anti-bigots are bigoted (in their tolerance) against bigots.

Everyone feels superior. Reading this article, some will think: I’m not perfect, but at least I’m not as bad as those self-deceivers who won’t admit their own imperfection!Our deep-seated need for applause compels us to affirm ourselves at the expense of others.

Everyone’s guilty. Everyone’s a legalist. Except you and me (and I’m not so sure about you.)

Who lives beyond fifty yards of us?

My ecumenical prayer group had Protestants, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics. We felt a [right] conviction to be known as Christians because of our love (John 13:35). We wanted to show it is possible to love other believers who greatly differ from us.

But our “rule” of ecumenical-loving was a standard we could obey. We were a group of like-minded believers who shared an ecumenical value. We could achieve it. We came from the 60’s and 70’s generation that sang, “If I had a hammer, I’d hammer out love … all over this land.” Denominational hatred was naturally anathema to us.

Our parents’ value of theological primacy was simply not as important to us as it had been for them. Our ecumenical miracle wasn’t as miraculous as we prided ourselves. It was a neighbor within fifty yards.

Then a difference of opinion arose that was important to us; we argued and we divided.

We once felt superior to our parents who failed to fight for ecumenical unity. When we faced our own battle for unity, we too failed. We ended up realizing we were “just as bad as them.”

And that is a very good place to start.

Sam

P.S. I still highly value love across all Christian traditions. But if we succeed, let’s not feel superior. For some, ecumenism isn’t that difficult (it was our parents’ battle not ours); for others, ecumenism is still hugely difficult today.

Let’s prize unity. Let’s express it beyond ecumenism. Let’s also love when we disagree over mission budgets, worship styles, and various Christian movements. The world will know we are Christians if we still love even—maybe especially—when we disagree.

I am the son of a pastor. During my dad’s forty years of ministry, he did many great things; he probably committed a few stupid acts; and he occasionally had to make unpopular decisions. He passed away almost twenty years ago.

The “Smith” family was originally supportive of my dad during his Detroit pastorate (from 1963 to 1975). And then they suddenly opposed him. The Smith’s used to smile; now they scowled. My dad was unsure what he had said or done (or not said or done).

(A sketch of my dad’s church in Detroit.)

He asked repeatedly what had happened. They denied, repeatedly, any hard feelings.

Pastor’s kids know almost everything that’s happening at church. I knew something was wrong. Mr. Smith had once mentored me. Then he began saying, “Sam, you son of a pastor.” But he slurred the last word to sound like, “Sam, you son of a bastard.”

He thought it was funny.

One day, when I was about twelve, a Frisbee landed on the roof of the sanctuary. The roof was probably twenty feet high, maybe more. I knew a secret access—pastor’s kids know every nook and cranny of their church—so I climbed up to retrieve it.

Mr. Smith happened to be on the ground right below me. He looked up and saw me. He sneered, “I dare you to jump.” Even as a kid I was shocked at his hostility.

I admit I was tempted, tempted to shout back, “Why the ‘F’ don’t you work this out with my dad?” But I was afraid of getting in trouble for cussing. Instead, I did what any bewildered twelve year-old boy would do. I simply stared at him.

And I jumped.

Regret

I admit to experiencing a certain sinful pleasure as I watched his face blanch before I hit the ground. The future pain of the approaching ground paled as I saw the present pain of regret on his approaching face. It felt good.

God protects drunks and fools, and I was a twelve year-old boy. By definition, I was a fool. I escaped injury, not even a sprain. Not so for Mr. Smith. From that day forward, I think he lived under the pain of regret, the inner injury of what might have happened.

At least he never again questioned my lineage.

I wonder what Mr. Smith regretted specifically. Was it my potential injury; was it the witness of other kids; or was it the public unveiling of his bitterness? Maybe all three.

Whichever it was, I’m curious if he ever explored the regret beneath his regrets.

Our deeper regrets

Last week I heard an old quote,

There are two types of pain you will go through in life, the pain of discipline and the pain of regret. Discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.

I asked myself what “tons of regret” weigh on me. So I made a list, bulleting every substantive regret I could remember. I listed words I’ve spoken, decisions I’ve made, actions I’ve taken, and relationships I’ve harmed (or not formed).

It took less than an hour to fill two pages. I regret never doing this before. (There’s another one for the list.)

Then I examined my list for underlying themes. What triggered each regretted action? Why had I said “X” inappropriately (or not said something needed)? Why did I act as I had? What were the common causes?

My themes of regret

The ache of regret arises when the pain of our action is paired with the painful disclosure of our self-deception. For some reason, we bowed in fear before Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, and we now stand alone in the furnace of an ugly self-revelation.

My deepest regrets are relational. Oh sure, I also made bad business decisions that cost money or prestige; but years later, that money or prestige matters little compared with the agony of relational hurts:

  • I never addressed a serious distress in my family when I was in High School.
  • I was silent about harmful practices in a large prayer group that I belonged to.
  • My marriage experienced deep adversity because of my passivity.

The biggest mistakes of my life would have been avoided—at least minimized—had I practiced the discipline of being real. I regret it. I bet your regrets have the same root. I wish that I had shared openly in my family, in that prayer group, and in my marriage. I regret not being real.

I don’t mean uncontrolled gushing of emotions. I mean disclosing my beliefs, questions, doubts, affirmations, and disagreements. I mean open expression; no more hiddenness.

I could have prevented terrible pain to my wife and kids; I could have protected dozens, maybe hundreds, of people in that prayer group; I could have forestalled relational shallowness with a sibling …

If I had only been real. But I cowardly kept quiet. And I regret it.

Mr. Smith’s regrets

Forty years later, I still see the fearful pain etched on Mr. Smith’s face. I wonder how that grown man could let his unspoken resentment fester; fester to the point he would bait an innocent preacher’s kid. If he had been real with my father—had he dissipated his bitterness through open expression—he would have saved a ton of regret.

(Okay, there’s no such thing as an innocent preacher’s kid. Just don’t tell anyone.)

I no longer wish to live with such regrets. This life without regret will take courage, a bit of self-disclosure, a sense of what’s happening in our own hearts, and a leap of faith; the leap that knows the pain of being real today is better than the pain of regret tomorrow.

Let’s jump. Shall we?

Sam

P. S. The wife of a friend wrote a book called, Groceries on a Saturday Morning. She openly shares her life without the pretense of tying up each story with a neat Christian bow. She’s real.

I rarely recommend a book. But if you get a chance, check it out, and read it with these questions in mind: How is she being real, and how can I be so too?

How to Find Your Purpose

“If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud.” ― Émile Zola (French writer)

Several years ago, at another point of bewilderment (mystery) about my life and calling, I asked God for specific understanding about what I was to do.

Instead of hearing a list of to-dos, I heard, “Live like an artist.”  Once again, God addressed how I was to live rather than what I was to do – being the correct order of things.  We must always put the heart before the course.

This idea of living like an artist continues to be crucial to my life and calling.  When I move away from this, I move into striving, posturing imitating or a “worldly spiritualism” which values high decibels, dollars, draw and dominance.

You see, you are an artist.  The glory, brilliance, splendor, strength, beauty that God has given you is your artistry.   As André Gide said, “Art is a collaboration between God and the artist…”

So, the answer to the question, why are you here, is to live out loud.

Most of us live in silence or in a whisper when it comes to our artistry, our calling.  Some live out loud with an emphasis on “loud”.

It’s said that people will tolerate sketchy video quality, but not audio quality.  I find this to be true. I usually won’t tolerate straining to hear, nor wincing from ear-piercing, inappropriate, distorted volume.

Silence, low-mumbling or shouting are usually signs of something interfering with our natural voice – something wrong like diminishment, embarrassment, hurt, fear or shame.

Our natural volume, in tones of humility, gentleness and patience, is very powerful and beautiful.

Scripture says, “You are a letter from Christ…read by everyone…written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”  2 Cor. 3:2

We need to live out loud!  Jesus wants to speak to the world through the artistry that He has given us that He has embedded in our heart which works most beautifully and powerfully in us.

So, let’s live out loud together and let the world clearly hear the artful words that Jesus written on our heart.

Gary