Monthly Archives: March 2008

Pushing the Boulder

A king called one of his servants to the royal grounds and pointed out a particularly large boulder that marred the beauty of his garden.  He ordered the servant to arrive promptly at 6:00 a.m. each morning and push on the boulder for as long as he could before reaching exhaustion.  While it seemed impossible that he could move such a large obstacle, the servant began the very next day and obediently showed up at 6:00 a.m. each day thereafter to push on the boulder.   

At first, he could only push on it for a few minutes before tiring, but as weeks and then months went by, he found that he could push on the boulder for an hour or more each day.  Unfortunately, his efforts didn’t seem to be making any difference in the position of the boulder in the garden. One day, after pushing on the boulder for a full hour and a half with absolutely no progress, the servant collapsed in defeat.  It seemed so pointless!  Every morning, he showed up to push the boulder, but it never moved – not even an inch!  The more he thought about it, the more frustrated and depressed he became.  Finally, he went to the king and begged to be reassigned to more meaningful work. 

The king looked at him a moment and then said, “You seem to have missed the point.  I was not interested in changing the position of the boulder.  If I had been, I could have called up one hundred soldiers with the strength of their horses to do the job.  The boulder served as a test and a tool to change you.  A test because it has shown me your willingness to obey my orders even when they seem illogical and without purpose.  And a tool because in the process of pushing the boulder each morning all these months, you have become stronger and more prepared for the next task I have in mind for you.” 

Maybe God has assigned you a boulder.  It could be a ministry or some important work.  It could be a sin that you are struggling with or a sin in someone else’s life that you’ve been praying about.  In the beginning, you were passionate about the opportunity to minister to others or about the work you were given to do or the problem you were going to solve, but now you’re just frustrated with the total lack of progress despite your time, effort and intellect.  It seems like too much for God to ask you alone to handle, and sometimes, you think about giving up. 

If your focus is on the position of the boulder, frustration will almost certainly follow.  No boulders get moved without God doing the heavy lifting.  He only allows us to participate.  If your boulder isn’t moving, maybe boulder movement is not the outcome God is looking for right now.  The boulder could be a tool and a test designed to help you grow in faith and obedience.  So, let the boulder do its work.  The strength it gives you will prepare you for whatever God has planned next.



Filed under God's Will, overcoming obstacles, Spiritual Growth

The Bird’s Nest

When a young bird’s feathers and wing muscles are developed enough for flight, the bird’s parents will often push it out of the nest. With some species of bird, this can be a spectacular free fall from a dizzying height. With others, it’s not the fall they have to worry about but the predators that are waiting for them to leave the safety of the nest.

The danger outside the nest serves a purpose for the young fledgling. Its fear adds urgency to the need to develop new skills. If it learns to adapt to its new environment, it survives. With practice, it thrives. The fledgling gets stronger and develops the ability to fly, to find its own food and to raise its own young.  The whole process is ordained by God to make baby birds into fully functioning adult birds.

Putting the process into psychological terms, you could say that the bird’s nest is for the baby bird what our comfort zone is for us.  It’s a safe place, a comfortable place.  It’s what the young bird is familiar with.  But the bird can’t grow much in its first nest.  To grow and develop skills needed for survival, it has to leave the nest.  If the fledgling’s parents allowed it to stay, they wouldn’t be doing it any favors.

When we face a difficult and intimidating change in our lives, God is pushing us out of our nest.  He’s forcing us out of our comfort zone so that we can grow and develop new skills, knowledge and understanding.  While it may seem uncaring or even mean-spirited to force us to go through the change, you can be sure that God does it out of love.  He knows that the only way to prepare us for the ministry He has planned for us is to put us into a situation where it’s “fly” or “fall.”

Whatever the result (fly or fall), God can bring good out of it.  Romans 8:28 tells us that:

And we know that in ALL things God works for the good of those who love him, have been called according to his purpose. (emphasis mine)

Even when we land square on our faces (or on our backsides), God uses it.  He doesn’t waste anything.  He’ll keep pushing us out of the nest until we get it right.  Then, we get a bigger nest (a.k.a. our comfort zone).  But we shouldn’t get too comfortable, because the process repeats over and over throughout our lives.  Before long, God will push us out of that nest, too.

It’s true that God loves us exactly the way we are, but it’s also true that He loves us too much to leave us that way.


Filed under overcoming obstacles, Spiritual Growth

Finish Lines

Be careful where you draw your finish lines. By that I mean, be sure that what you think is done is really done. President Bush drew a finish line for the war in Iraq a few years back. “Mission Accomplished!” I’m sure he has regretted that banner on more than one occasion.

Some other people have drawn some notorious finish lines. Following are actual quotes about famous personalities you know.

  • “He possesses minimal football knowledge and lacks motivation.” (Vince Lombardi)
  • “He lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” (Walt Disney)
  • “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” (Fred Astaire)
  • “Why don’t you stop wasting peoples’ time and go out and become a dishwasher or something?” (Sidney Poitier)
  • “Try another profession.” (Lucile Ball)
  • “You’d better learn secretarial work or else get married.” (Marilyn Monroe)
  • “You ain’t got it, kid. You ain’t got it. Now get out of here.” (Harrison Ford)
  • “You will be a laborer all your life.” (Michael Caine)
  • “Least Likely to Succeed” (Robin Williams)
  • “We don’t like their sound. Groups of guitars are on their way out.” (The Beatles)
  • “You ain’t goin’ nowhere, son. You ought to go back to driving a truck.” (Elvis Presley)
  • “Hopeless as a composer” (Beethoven)
  • “Unable and unwilling to learn” (Leo Tolstoy)
  • “Mentally slow, unsociable, and adrift forever in foolish dreams” (Albert Einstein)
  • “Too stupid to learn anything” and “non-productive” (Thomas Edison)

These people went on to show that they weren’t done running yet. They drew their finish lines much further back.

The problem with drawing premature finish lines (for others or for yourself) is that there still may be race yet to run. When you draw the finish line, you relax; you let down your guard; you stop running or you take your eyes off the race. Mentally and emotionally, you start the cool-down period. If you are correct that the race is over, terrific! If you’re not, you’re in for a surprise.

We draw finish lines in smaller ways, too. I’ve been drawing premature finish lines when I travel. Even though I know better, I do it almost every time. My finish line is “home.” While I’m out in the impersonal, apathetic, “not-my-problem”-lack-of-service world, I keep it together by telling myself, “Just a few more hours and you’ll be home. Just a few more hours. You can put up with this for a few more hours.” No matter what the inconvenience; no matter how difficult the frustration… I keep a smile on my face and lower my expectations.

But “home” as a finish line is too early, because when I get home, kids will want to spend time with me, and my wife will need to decompress from her week alone. I can’t go straight into relax mode or selfish city, because others have been waiting for me to return. They’ve got a week’s worth of stories, frustrations and information to download, and I’m the only one left who hasn’t heard it all already.

Inevitably, this brings us into conflict. I’ve already stopped running the race, but they are ready to pass me the baton for the second leg of the relay. When they find me unprepared to do any more running, they are disappointed, frustrated and sometimes angry. “Didn’t you save anything for us?… Did you use all your words and your energy with people on the trip?… Aren’t we more important to you than they are?”

And the truth is, yes, they are, but it wasn’t a matter of prioritization. It was a matter of expectation. I drew my finish line too early, and I already had my running shoes off by the time I came out of the baggage claim area. Once the shoes are off, it takes three times the energy and willpower to get them on again. Had I drawn the lines a little further back, I would have saved some of my energy for the final few laps.

I know I’m not the only one who struggles with where to draw their finish lines. Running the race with me are husbands who use all their words at the office and just want to get home for a little peace and quiet… wives who give everything they have to work and the kids and come to bed wanting nothing but sleep… couples who spend everything they make, not realizing they are about to have to put the car in the shop for an overhaul… employees who turn in work that is far less than what their boss was expecting… and anyone who thinks this life is all there is.

You may think you have nothing left to give, but you will be surprised. When your brain knows how much race is left to run, it shows remarkable endurance. The problem is much less about energy and emotional resources than it is about expectations. Draw your finish lines further back, and you’ll find that you can go the distance.

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Filed under family, Interpersonal, overcoming obstacles, Relationships

Wrong Way

As I got off the plane in Bangkok today, I noticed a man headed the same direction as me who had stepped onto one of those converyor belt walkways.  In Bangkok, these walkways are motion activated, and if you don’t notice the sign, you are sometimes surprised to find when you get on one that it’s going in the opposite direction.

This was this man’s predicament.  The belt started slowly, but it soon picked up speed.  As a result, the man was in effect walking on a treadmill and going absolutely nowhere.  He now had a decision to make.  Would he cut his losses, acknowledge his mistake and get off the walkway?  Nope.  He decided instead to start to jog.  I watched as he jogged a few steps, then resumed walking, then jogged a few steps more.  A good twenty yards behind the rest of us, he finally made it to the end of the walkway totally exhausted.

I am that man sometimes.  I ignore the signs that indicate I’m about to move opposite to God’s will, and I head in the wrong direction anyway.  First, He gently prods me to get me to turn around.  Then, He prods me a little more forcefully.  If I were smart, I would do an about face and let God’s will carry me where He wants me to go.  But I don’t.  I don’t want to admit that I am wrong, or I’m too invested in what I want to do to give in.  So, I pick up speed, and God, being Who He is, typically allows me to make it to the end of my efforts.  But when I get there, I’m so totally exhausted and frustrated that I have to acknowledge that it would have been better just to do it His way.

I have to admit that I laughed a little about the man struggling on the walkway.  But I think I was really laughing at myself.  I’ve been on that walkway so many times it ought to bear my name.

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Audience of One

Researchers Bibb Latane and John Darley conducted a study in the 60’s on the power of social pressure.  They had subjects enter a doctor’s waiting room, thinking they were there for a check-up.  As soon as they arrived, they were asked to fill out a lengthy medical questionnaire.  Then, after a few minutes, the researchers began pumping smoke in through the ventilation system.

The receptionist had stepped away, so the person was all alone.  What do you think the person in the experiment typically did?

Went for help, of course!  75% of the subjects noticed the smoke within 30 seconds and got up to find someone who could do something about it.

Next, Latane and Darley added two people to the waiting room, who were already filling out the questionnaire when the subject arrived.  These two were in on the experiment, so when the smoke started coming in, they looked up, noticed it, shrugged their shoulders and continued filling out the form.

Surprisingly, 90% of the subjects in these experiments never went for help.  They noticed the smoke, but when they saw the nonchalant attitudes of the other people in the waiting room, they went back to filling out their forms.  Even when they had to wave smoke away so that they could see their forms, they chose to stay in the waiting room.

Finally, Latane and Darley used three subjects who knew nothing about the experiment.  When they noticed the smoke, they sneaked looks at each other, but 62% still chose not to do anything about it.  They tried to “out-cool” the other people in the room and waited for the others to make the first move.

Our fear of “playing the fool” is a powerful motivator for us.  We put so much importance on what others think of us that we will do all kinds of illogical, counter-productive, even life-threatening things to make other people think we’ve got it together.

This past weekend, I was at a men’s retreat, and one of the guys spotted a small snake in a tree.  Wanting everyone to know that I had already acclimated to living in Thailand after only five weeks in-country, I suppressed my fear of snakes in order to try to flush this one out of the tree by poking at it.  Most of these guys had been living in Thailand for somewhere between five and 35 years, and I knew with that kind of tenure, they probably handled snakes all the time.

But while I was poking around in the tree, the men gave me their interpretation of “men’s retreat.”  Each slowly backed away from me in a large circle, and one said, “Hey, you know, most of those are poisonous.”   Their reaction did a lot to change my perception of the situation.  It was no longer “cool” or “manly” to be teasing a snake out of a tree; now it seemed pretty foolish and uninitiated.  I put my stick down and let the snake have it’s peace.

I love/hate this part of me that cares what other people think.  Love it, because my ability to empathize has been one of the skills that has helped me to build strong relationships, do consulting work, help hurting people…  Hate it, because I can’t shut it off.  I worry 24/7 about what other people are thinking.  It interferes with everything, because I have a commentator in my head asking me questions all day long.  “What will they think of that?”  “Did anyone see what you just did?”  “How will they react if you do this?” 

I suspect Satan has given me a full-time personal demon, named “Public Opinion,” who sits on my shoulder and whispers these questions into my ear.  Maybe you’ve got one, too. 

What would we do if we didn’t care what others would think?  (Keep your clothes on.  A little concern over public opinion is a good thing.)  I mean, what would we do for Christ?  Because, really, He’s our audience.  He’s it.  Our audience of one, says Big Daddy Weave.

If we’re worried about anyone’s opinion of us, it should be His.  When we get to heaven, this is going to be so obvious to us, but here on earth, it’s hard to remember who we should face from the stage.  All the people around us make so much noise, we forget Christ is even watching.  But if we tune out everyone else…  If we focus just on Him…  Then it won’t matter if the people in the audience are booing or cheering us.   But truth be told, they are probably doing neither, because they (like us) think that they are the show that everyone is watching.

(S – Latane, B., & Darley, J. Bystander “Apathy”, American Scientist, 1969, 57, 244-268.)

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Filed under Interpersonal, Spirituality

Peter Pauper

Ever notice how many times in the Gospel accounts that Peter was doing the wrong thing?  He seemed to always be three steps in the opposite direction of where God wanted to go.  Here’s my possibly non-exhaustive study of Peter’s wrong turns:

  • John 1:35-51, Mark 1:16-20 and Matthew 4:18-22, Luke 5:1-11, John 21:1-25 – Peter was called to follow Jesus three different times.  In between each call, he went back to fishing, obliging Jesus to come back after him.  Even after Jesus’ resurrection and personal appearance to Peter, Peter still chose fishing over ministry until Jesus came to get him one last time.
  • Luke 5:5 – Tired from a long night of fishing, Peter argued with Jesus about casting the nets but gave in begrudgingly.
  •  Matthew 14:29 – Peter walked on water for a few moments, but then he took his eyes off Jesus.  Losing faith as he was threatened by the wind and the waves, Peter sank.
  • Matthew 17:25 – When questioned about the temple tax, Peter lied.  Jesus made an honest man out of him by giving him a profitable fish story.
  • Matthew 18:21 – Thinking he was being generous, Peter offered to forgive his brother up to seven times, but Jesus was thinking more in multiples.
  • Mark 8:32 – Peter rebuked Jesus for saying that He must be killed and rise again.
  • Mark 9:5-6 – Peter, not knowing what to say after the Transfiguration, should have said nothing at all.  Instead he proposed to build three shacks for Elijah, Moses and Jesus to live in even though they had more suitable living arrangements in heaven.
  • John 13:8 – Peter refused to let Jesus wash his feet until Jesus told Peter that he could have no part with Him unless he allowed his feet to be washed.
  • Mark 14:37-41 – Peter, James and John slept while Jesus was in agony in the garden even though He asked them three times to stay awake and pray with Him.
  • John 18:10 – Peter cut off Malchus’ ear trying to defend Jesus from the fate Jesus had already chosen to follow.
  • John 13:37; John 18:15-27 – Peter promised to lay down his life for Jesus, but when Jesus was arrested, Peter denied he knew Him three times.
  • Luke 24:12 – Despite all the prophesies Jesus shared about Himself, Peter was still slow to believe that the resurrection could be true.
  • John 21:21 – Always wanting to know “who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven,” Peter hoped to get Jesus to share his plans for John, the beloved, so that he could do a little comparison.

Peter once claimed to Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you!” (Matthew 19:27)  And maybe there was truth in that.  Peter had left his fishing business, his reputation and maybe members of his family to follow Jesus as He traveled from town to town.  But Peter didn’t leave everything.  He carried with him his impetuousness and his pride, and these were continuously at odds with Christ’s mission.

Always looking for a pat on the head from the Teacher or to prove that he was the greatest to his fellow apostles, Peter continuously brought Jesus things the Lord didn’t need or want.  A lie to protect The Way, The Truth and The Life, a shack to shelter the Creator God from the elements, some swordplay to rescue The Almighty from His captors…  Peter thought he had the most to offer among his peers, but he was really just Peter, the pauper, with nothing of value to bring.

If Peter hadn’t been so busy trying to get out in front of the Lord, he might have learned to wait on God’s leading.   Had he submitted to the Lord’s agenda and timetable, Peter’s leadership ability and strong faith would have been powerful tools in God’s hands.  But because Peter thought he knew best how to use what God had given him, his strengths became his greatest weaknesses.

All of us have God-given strengths and abilities.  But when we try to use them without allowing God to show us how and when, we just end up making a mess.  Even when we are well-intentioned, our “good thing” can get in the way of the “God thing.”  If we will just humbly bring Him the equivalent of our loaves and fishes, He will multiply them beyond all expectation.  Peter Pauper finally got it and showed on Pentecost what God can do with what little we have. 

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