God Calling… Finishing Well

sunsetGideon’s story is a repeated through history.  It’s a story of the individual responding to God’s call, trusting Him beyond the visible, leaning only on His might, winning a victory that blesses many, and then riding off into the sunset a hero loved by all.

If only.

No, it doesn’t usually work that way.  The first part happens from time to time.  Folks respond to God’s call and lean on Him more than what their own eyes or hearts tell them.  But the last part is particularly tricky.  And few do it well.  I’m talking about finishing well; the “riding off into the sunset loved by all” part.

Let’s follow the giant steps leading to the sun collapsing on Gideon’s faith legacy.

Step 1 – He misuses a profit from the blessing.  Gideon says “no” to a request from a now adoring nation to rule over them.  Good boy.  But then he asks for a financial cut of the new economic boon.  His take is a little over a million dollars in today’s terms.  Then he takes that money and creates an ephod – an instrument of the high priestly role – and it becomes a snare to Gideon, his family and the nation.  He knew he was not called to rule.  But he couldn’t resist playing God just a little bit.  Good things never come from that.

Step 2 – He doesn’t keep it all in the family.  Gideon took a concubine in addition to his many wives.  This is a hard thing to work with in a time that has returned to a Genesis model of monogamy.  But in that day, many wives was typical, even for men after God’s own heart like David.  But like many, Gideon went a step further and had a concubine in an odd location – Shechem.  Makes you wonder if while he was away on business (God’s work chasing the remnants of the armies of the east) he engaged is something on the side that wasn’t God’s idea that had serious consequences – a son.  His name was Abimelech (meaning:  father of a king, or king is my father).  This side stepping of family faithfulness never goes well.  It’s a problem as old as Sarah and Hagar.  And it would bite Gideon big time.

Step 3 – He is victim to a fickle market.  People did then what they do now – forget the latest blessing as soon as its normal or boring.  While God blessed the nation with peace for forty years, the nation was busy prostituting themselves to a false god, forgetting the true God, and failing to show kindness to Gideon’s family.  So typical.  So shortsighted.  National dementia – it’s at epidemic proportions in our day too.

Step 4 – His own son rebels.  Abimelech, whom we introduced above, weasels his personal agenda into the political ears of his community and is funded to raise a small army of common thugs with a $1,000 from the temple of the false God.  Compare the $1,000 he got from temple funding through a false god with the $1,000,000 Gideon got from unofficial funding resulting from simple obedience.  His own son would rise and murder all of his other sons save one, and install himself as king.

From deliverer to sucker in less than a generation.  From Baal Fighter to Father of the Butchered in a few short verses.  And though this cycle repeated itself in the time of the Judges (and does throughout history), there seem to be some lessons worth learning…

  • First, obey God but don’t even think about taking his glory; not even a priestly garment’s worth
  • Second, unfaithfulness to your spouse, though glamorized and often served up buffet style, always hurts your legacy, even while doing God’s work
  • Third, remembering what’s important, requires the same rigorous discipline as most memorization
  • Fourth, one child, untended, undisciplined and unloved, can bring a nation to its knees

Most likely, you are somewhere in this cycle today.  If you’ve just finished something great, a major victory, review your next steps carefully.  Let Gideon’s story serve as a map so you can avoid his final ride rather than repeat it.

Sunsets can be glorious.


God Calling… Charting Faith

Minard ChartI love good charts.

They can help us see perspectives otherwise not easily visible.  Perhaps the greatest one ever was constructed by Charles Joseph Minard, portraying the losses suffered by Napoleon’s army in the Russian campaign of 1812. Using a thick beige-to-black band, he shows the size of the army beginning at the Polish-Russian border and follows its reduction to Moscow and back in the bitterly cold winter.  The army size is tied to temperature and time scales.  It’s a masterpiece in graphic depiction.  It makes the following point very clear:  Napoleon’s army was defeated by poor decision making and winter weather, not another army.

Consider now another chart, not nearly as famous as Minard’s:  mine.

Faith Fight over TimeIt’s a crude attempt at charting faith – the thing that’s most required if you are going to answer God’s call.  It was absolutely essential for Gideon.  And it’s going to be essential for you.

This chart tracks three variables from Judges 6-7:

  • Green = The size of Gideon’s forces, starting from when he was called (that would be one) through to the greatest number (32,000 or so) and back down to 301.
  • Red = The size of the opposition’s forces, peaking at 135,000 and eventually shrinking to zero.  Where the number starts cannot be identified, but I’m guess somewhere around 25,000 to 35,000 (call it an occupation force).
  • Orange = Gideon’s physical/mental stress level.  It’s the variable hardest to pin down because the Bible gives us only clues without clear markers.  In other words…
    • what was his stress level working alone in the wine press prior to the call?
    • what was his stress level when an angel appeared and issued a call to leadership without any identified followers?
    • what was his stress level when the great battle began; 301 facing 135,000?
    • and what was his stress level when he was chasing an enemy on the run on foreign soil when his men were exhausted?

While the Bible doesn’t give us an actual number, we can anticipate movement up or down.

What do you notice as you consider the chart?

First, it becomes apparent the fight of faith has a general emotional/physical “footprint” that would keep anyone out of their comfort zone.  It’s not blissful.  It’s not a consistent spiritual “high”.  Instead, it’s a roller coaster of highs and lows.

What does that mean?  It means you cannot look at your “heart” or “feelings” to tell you whether to start, stop or finish.  It’s the call that matters.  If Gideon would have check his heart for directions, at several points through these chapters he might have bailed.  Any reasonable person would have.

Second, the physical resources at Gideon’s disposal never come close to matching up well with the forces of the eastern armies.  Gideon, at his best, had about 32,000 men.  The forces of the east had 135,000.  It was never even close.

What does that mean?  It means you cannot make your decision on whether to obey the call based upon visible resources.  At no point did Gideon ever have a number that would cause any military leader worth his “salt” to press the attack.  And when Gideon started to like his numbers, God stepped in and said “too big; too many – we have to thin these out lest the wrong person get credit!” Early on Gideon settled that the power in his punch was God and God alone.

Third, Gideon’s stress level was highest after the main battle was over.  When the red line is well past its peak and heading toward zero (certain demise of the eastern armies), the orange line is just getting started, like some runaway growth stock.  Gideon’s most trying time may have been after the crowd left the primary victory celebration, and he knew that his original force of 300 had to chase the rest of the enemy into foreign soil.  He received no help, no food and no sleep.  Exhaustion was his only companion as he pushed his men forward based on a call only his ears heard.

What does that mean?  It means finishing the call is sometimes harder than the main battle.  We celebrate and publish the book or create a seminar too early.   89% of the enemy was routed and leaving town.  But that number has nothing to do with his call.  Gideon was called to deliver God’s people, not simply reduce the enemy forces.  Enough is not enough until the call is completed – and that may be the hardest part.

Were you able to ask Gideon “was it worth it?“  What do you think his answer would be?

What might yours be if you answered God’s call today?


God Calling… Family and Fleece

The best measure of a spiritual life is not its ecstasies but its obedience.”  (Oswald Chambers)

I think there’s a common misconception about following God (or “doing the right thing” in common parlance):  it’s easy and the bleachers are full of supporters.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The path of faith, ethics, and change is lonely.

And what’s most surprising is who is not in the bleachers when you take your first step.

In the story of Gideon, hard on the heels of his inspirational interview with an angel of God, he was instructed to tear down the altar of worship to a false God (Baal).  The one of which his own family was assigned the role of caretaker on behalf of their village.

That meant embarrassing Dad.  That meant stirring up the anger of the whole town. That meant difficulty.  That meant taking the first step alone.  So Gideon made two critical decisions:

  • first, he decided to obey God.  The angel told him to take the first step toward realizing his full role as “mighty warrior” that very night.  There was no time allowed for consideration.  No time to meditate, no time to take a poll of wise elders, no time to consider life markers, no time to check with the family to see how everyone felt about being “most hated” in their community the next day.
  • second, he decided to do his work at night.  Why?  Because he was afraid.  It’s been said that courage is the assessment that something is more important than fear.  Gideon showed courage but he also showed a little fear.  And that is something you and I can relate to.

Day two of Gideon’s obedience dawns, the deed is done, and the town is ticked off.  They show up ready to kill him.  Then something amazing happens:  the Father Gideon has placed in a most awkward situation stepped out to defend his son’s actions…

“If Baal really is a god, he can defend himself when someone breaks down his altar!”

Makes sense.  The town people thought so too.  And so Gideon got a cool nicknameJerub-Baal, or “Baal Fighter”.  In our day is would be something like “Idol Smasher”.

This first step of obedience is not unusual in the Bible.  Those God calls often have to take the first steps alone and in the face of family disagreement.  Those closest to you are not always God’s advisors.  Be careful.

As Oswald Chambers also once suggested, when God gives us an assignment, the worst thing we can do is consult with another person.  Moses would agree.  So would Noah and Daniel.  And so would Jesus, who not only modeled obedience over family, but redefined true family by obedience (Matthew 10:37-39, Matthew 8:21-22, Matthew 12:46-50).

Very difficult.  But it changes the world.

Guys like Phinehas (Numbers 25:1-13) are special because only one thing matters to them – God.  And while others are consulting or politicking, folks like Phinehas act decisively.  And a nation is saved.

This story tends to gain everyone’s attention because of a couple of nights when Baal Fighter laid out the fleece looking for confirmation.  But Gideon didn’t do that because he was deciding whether or not to be obedient.  He did it because he’d already started.

Have you started… to obey?  Or are you still laying out fleeces?


God Calling… Are You Sure?

It’s one of my favorite comedy sketches of all time – Bill Cosby playing Noah.  As he plays his character, the audience imagines Noah in his woodworking shop, suddenly interrupted by an unseen voice.  God begins to speak with Noah, telling him what he must do.  After a moment, the call seems so impossible, so overwhelming, that Noah pauses and asks… “who is this really?

In Noah’s case it really was God.  In Judges chapter 6, it also was God – calling upon another unlikely candidate to do something impossible.  His name was Gideon.  And the typical path toward figuring out whether God is speaking to someone regarding a call was not really open to him.  If you are thinking God maybe calling you to some task, effort or great work, what counsel if usually offered?

Well, it’s usually stuff like… talk to your family, seek wise counsel, pray, meditate, read scripture, test for an open door, examine the resources available to support it, consider what simple wisdom would suggest, ask… What is my heart saying?, consider life experience markers, and so forth.  These things are kind of like typical caller ID settings for God.

But not much of that works in Gideon’s story.  He didn’t have time to talk to family; matter of fact, his first act of obedience was to offend his immediate family and the town he lived in.  He didn’t have a chance to seek wise counsel because his obedience was demanded that very night of the day he was called.  He didn’t have time to meditate on scripture or do much praying.  As for an open door, what he was being asked to do was so absurdly impossible, confining the task to something entered through a door would be like saying going to the moon requires a little money.  As for what “was his heart saying” or “what would wisdom suggest“, the answer to both would have likely been “are you crazy?!!!

What was he being asked to do?  Things typical of the called…

  • see himself as God saw him
  • adjust his explanation of reality
  • believe that his strength was enough to face a terrifying task
  • refuse to look at his credentials when considering the call
  • believe that God would be with him to accomplish the call

It’s easy to think this is the exception rather than the rule.  But a broad study of the Bible shows otherwise.  It’s not unusual for God’s calls to come a little “edgy”.  They shake us up.  They scare us.  Reread the call of Moses, Noah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, John, Paul, and others.  Not many have much to do with open doors, wise counsel, or life markers. No, the call of God (in the Bible anyway) more often has these earmarks.  These are the proper caller ID settings for God.  God’s call comes…

  • as a statement of divine fact that requires faith to believe
  • often to one, not a committee or a family
  • through a messenger – still God speaking, but through the mouth of an angel or man
  • in confusion – and that’s why it comes in the first place; because order is needed out of chaos
  • without evidence – something that’s always in the future
  • with a promise of God’s presence

Hail mighty office worker, teacher, waiter, or bus driver!  Would God ever call you to something difficult? 

Before you say “not me“, reconsider Gideon’s call.  That voice you hear in the whine pit of your daily grind could be a call from God for you.  It would be so sad if your God-Caller ID had the wrong settings so you thought it was for someone else.


On the Last Day of Christmas (Making Sense of the Season)

If on the first day of Christmas you clearly remembered what the Savior was given to save us from, it would then be ideal if by the last day you had a full heart from trying to count (but being unable) the number of amazing things you’ve been saved to.

Point of origin is one thing; destination is something entirely different.  And often better; much better.

The Antique Road Show has featured some amazing finds over the years – people who came with something handed down, hanging on the wall, or kept under a dusty bed, only to find out is was an unknown treasure.

  • Like the Original “Peanuts” comic strip valued at $450,000 – the owner had worked with the cartoonist to develop a line of “Peanuts” Hallmark greeting cards and Shultz gave her some original strips as a gift.  She had stored them under her bed!
  • Like the Navajo chief’s blanket valued at $500,000 – made sometime before 1865 and one of only 50 that still exist today. The unsuspecting owner said the blanket had been in his family for years.
  • Like the oil painting by Clyfford Still valued at $500,000 – a housewarming present given 50 years previous, worth much more than the recipient could have conceived.
  • Or like the Chinese jade carved bowls valued at a whopping $1.07 million – a collection passed down to the owner from her father who was stationed in China while in the U.S. military in the 1930s and 1940s (I guess some service turns out to be more profitable than others).

Do you know what you have?  Most don’t.  They treat salvation like a cheap life insurance policy tucked away in a draw just in case.

It’s so much more – unbelievably more.

New Testament texts abound that attempt to measure what we have in Christ.  Here’s just a few..

Romans 5:1-11 list such priceless aspects as justification, peace with God, access into the grace in which we now stand, hope of the glory of God, rejoicing in our sufferings, the Holy Spirit in our hearts, and reconciliation.  These are practical and present tense.  Consider just one of these for those of you who are sports fans…

…access into the grace in which we now stand – something so different than what athletes experience.  It’s Super Bowl season presently and some are projected to win and some to lose.  At the end of it all, only one team will stand in glory, and all others will experience turnover, blame and loss of standing.  Salvation offers something very different – permanent standing in grace; continued access to the unmerited favor of God.  Whether you win or lose in life’s contests, you stand permanently in God’s love and care.  You’re a perpetual winner – standing in God’s grace.

1 Peter 1:3-12 lists things that are ahead – what we look forward to: a living hope, an inheritance kept in heaven for you, an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade, shielding by God’s power until all that salvation means is revealed in the last time, the process of faith proving that points toward praise, glory and honor, and it’s all something so wonderful that angels long to be able to understand it (meaning, to whatever extent angels can be jealous… they are – of you!).

Again, consider just one of these, for those of you who are investors…

…an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – now there’s something foreign to our economic times!  How successful have you been at “beating the market”?  If you’ve looked for a safe place to invest your money like many you’ve perhaps come to the conclusion that the way capitalism seems to work most often in your life is with you being the one capitalized on!  Little guys put their hard earned dollars on the same table as the big boys who run billion dollar hedge funds.  And you find out the golden rule of finance – “The one with the most gold makes most of the rules”.  But salvation promises an inheritance the market bulls and bears cannot manipulate, thieves cannot steal, and inflation cannot destroy.  It’s there waiting for you, as glorious the day you first see it with your own eyes as 10,000 years later.

I’ve been going through my parents’ possessions over the last few years, trying to process their estate.  One lesson comes home again and again:  most stuff just isn’t worth much in the long run.  What we work so hard to buy, maintain, and store, simply isn’t worth it.

The good news is that what you’ve been given in Christ through salvation is… now and forever.


On the First Day of Christmas (Making Sense of the Season)

We’ve all been there – holding a Christmas present that someone gave that, frankly, confuses us.  We don’t quite understand what they were thinking or why they spent their money on us the way they did.  It’s awkward.  It’s even more awkward for the one doing the giving.

The entire holiday season is a bit like that – everyone running around as if Pavlov rang his bell and we are obligated (like his dog) by the very forces of nature to engage in spending, debt acquisition, charity, travel, and religious activity, all the while wondering “why?”

We are trying to respond to so many messages at this time of year.  The end result for many is exhaustion and depression.  That’s too bad, because the central message simple and costs you nothing.  Here it is: 

  • Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord (Luke 2:10-11)

But it begs the question – do you need saving?  Maybe we’ve outgrown it.  I think not.

The Bible tells an old story – the story of us and how from earliest days we’ve needed saving from something ancient, simple and catastrophic.

In Genesis 3:1-19 we find people in a perfect place with very few restrictions; paradise with only two rules.  Well that was two too many. God’s directions were refused and the following consequences immediately ensued: shame, defensive posturing, hiding, fear of God, accusations toward loved ones, and a curse on creation.  The very next chapter it gets worse.

In Genesis 4:4-24 we see that once the seed of sin is planted, the harvest quickly gets out of hand producing murder, lies, cries of injustice, polygamy, unrestrained violence and more.  By Genesis six, matters are so bad starting over is the only workable solution.  This thing called sin wreaked havoc on God’s perfect creation in six short chapters.

And so we learn that man working on the honor system doesn’t work.  Well, what about passing some laws?

God did that.  Exodus and the balance of the Old Testament tell that story – one often misunderstood.  Some see the Ten Commandments as ways to please God and fix people.  But the problem with law is that it’s given after the problem.  Laws aren’t given for a nonexistent crisis.  Laws are passed because there is a problem.  At best, their function is to manage behavior.  And if the behavior simply cannot be changed, or we run out of prison space to hold all the offenders, another path is selected – make what was illegal yesterday legal today.  Viola!  Problem disappears… (unfortunately the behavior and the fruit remain).

God gave the law, according to the New Testament, to lead us to grace; to lead us to understand that the ancient thing inside each of us, named sin, could not be controlled by legal restrictions.  What Jeremiah anticipated is affirmed in Galatians 5:23-25.  The fix has to come inside.  It can’t be legislated and it can’t be mandated.  People can only change from the inside out.

That change happens as people permeated by sin, guilty by the standards of law, come to the cross of Christ and find forgiveness, acceptance, love and a changed heart.  One of my favorite stories of how this works is in Luke 23:26-43.

We’re not doing well managing our own behavior – and we don’t even manage by God’s standard!  I found this recently…

Since the start of 2000, Congress has created at least 452 new crimes. So the total number of Federal crimes as of the end of 2007 exceeds 4,450. Ninety-one of the 452 were contained in new laws that created 279 new crimes, and the remaining were contained in amendments to existing laws.  The total of 452 new crimes breaks down by year as follows: 65 for 2000; 28 for 2001; 82 for 2002; 51 for 2003; 48 for 2004; 13 for 2005; 145 for 2006; 20 for 2007… (and it goes on)

It would appear we do need saving.  So a savior was born to us…. to save us from our sin.  Now that is good news… for all people!  And especially for you and me.