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There is no painless path to growth.

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One of the more familiar parables of Jesus has come to be known as “The Parable of the Seed and the Sower” (or sometimes just the Parable of the Sower).  This title is somewhat of a misnomer, as the focal point of the story is neither the seed nor the sower; ultimately, it is about the soil.  And for those of us who count ourselves as believers, it is the words in verse 22 that most directly apply.

 

Matthew 13:22 “Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful.” (NKJV)

 

Implicit in the manner this example is given, the depth of ones roots is not at issue here. The lack of a deep rooted faith is addressed in verses 20-21.  This passage speaks to the object of our focus, and it may be surprising to consider that it isn’t necessarily sin or evil that chokes off the seed of God for the believer.  Often times it is simply the cares of this life.  It also worth noting that the consequence of this distraction isn’t necessarily the loss of one’s salvation, it is generally a lack of fruitfulness.

 

It is tempting to gloss over the words and to convince ourselves that He is talking about caring about what the world cares about (i.e. fame, social status, the praise of men…), and/or about being greedy, but I sense the message of this passage runs much deeper than that.  I believe that the “cares of this world” quite naturally occur as part of living in a fallen world, and dealing with the world’s system for getting things done.  I also sense that when He speaks of “riches”, He isn’t necessarily talking about money.  He’s referencing what the world sees as valuable.

 

On a personal level, this passage hits me where I live. As I’ve endeavored to answer the upward call of God upon my life, being a good husband, a good father and a good neighbor have become a much higher priority.  But embracing those roles also creates an endless supply of practical issues that need to be dealt with, and those things often grab hold of my attention and require the bulk of my energy.  In those instances the reality of my circumstance tends to overwhelm my grasp of the reality of God’s word, and when it does, I flounder.

 

No doubt, there is a balancing point that needs to be reached with all this, as we are called to be in the world, but not of it. It is an equilibrium which I doubt that I’ve experienced for any sustained amount of time.  I don’t generally struggle on issues that relate to me personally, but I can be very susceptible when it comes to the people I love.  The truth be told, I often ride the rollercoaster of their situation until it dawns on me how nauseous it is making me, and I choose to step off.  In those moments I must cast my cares on Him who sustains me.  And when I do, I always wonder at my tendency to get back on that ride.

 

Jesus said that the key to producing fruit was “abiding in the vine”, which means maintaining a constant connection to Him. The Hebrew writer encourages us to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.  Ultimately, it’s all a question of what we’re focused on.  Like Peter, we are capable of “all things” when we’re looking unto Jesus, but when we fix our eyes on the storm, we are bound to sink.

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In the deepest part of our hearts – we all yearn to be loved, and each of us comes with the capacity to give love in return. We instinctually draw together in relationship with each other, and gather ourselves into communities.

 

And yet somehow we struggle to believe that we come from a God who embodies love, and who yearns to be in relationship with us.

 

In the deepest part of our hearts – we all yearn for justice, and each of us comes with an inherent sense of when that justice has been violated. Even as small children, no one has to teach us to cry out, “It’s not fair!”

 

And yet somehow we struggle to believe that we come from a God who embodies justice, and who would demand a price for sin.

 

In the deepest part of our hearts – we all yearn for shelter from the storm, and comfort in times of trouble. Something within us inherently knows to run for cover, and to seek a place of refuge.

 

And yet somehow we struggle to partake of God’s Spirit, who stands ready to manifest Himself as the “Comforter”, and who offers a peace that surpasses our understanding.

 

In the deepest part of our hearts – we all yearn for a sense of significance, and of belonging. It is within our very nature to fight wars, to fly banners, and to adorn ourselves in accolades, in order to establish our place in this world.

 

And yet somehow we struggle to believe that we were created in the image of God, and that we were meant to be the heirs of His Kingdom.

 

In the deepest part of our hearts – we all yearn to believe in something that is bigger than ourselves, and that is beyond what we can understand. From the beginning we are drawn to fairy tales, magic, legends, the depths of the ocean, heroes, outer space, Sci-Fi… or anything else that might carry us beyond the boundaries of what we have known.

 

And yet somehow we struggle to accept a God whose ways are much higher than ours and who can do abundantly more than we could ever ask for, or imagine.

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The day after your child is born

You realize that pain and discomfort can be worthwhile

*

The day after you utter piercing words

You realize that hurt cannot be taken back

*

The day after you are swindled

You recognize all the signs you should have noticed

*

The day after you receive that “thing” you thought would change everything

You recognize that no “thing” has the ability to do that

*

The day after you enact revenge on someone

You realize there is no satisfaction in it

*

The day after you lose someone you love

You recognize the void they filled in your life

*

The day after a “One Night Stand”

You find the emptiness within you

*

The day after you forgive someone

You realize that it is you who have been set free

*

The day after the “Dark Night of the Soul”

You find that God’s mercies are new every morning

*

The day after a tragedy

You realize how blessed you were two days ago

*

The day after you see one of your children step into their destiny

You find yourself being thankful for the sacrifices you made for them

*

The day after you compromise on the things you truly believe

You realize the power of shame

*

The day after you die

You’ll realize that how you lived really mattered

*

The day after Jesus comes back

You’ll realize that the truth was never really negotiable

*

(Proverbs 14:12)

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Real love is like a mighty oak tree, it can withstand many a stormy season.  But trust is like a delicate flower, it is easily crushed.

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Repeatedly throughout the New Testament (e.g. 1 Cor. 7:15, 2 Cor. 13:11, 1 Thes. 5:13, 1 Tim. 2:2) the scripture urges us to “live in peace” with one another, with perhaps the strongest of these admonishments coming from the writer of Hebrews (12:14), who says that we are to make “every effort” to live in peace with “everyone”. This is a daunting challenge to forfeit our natural tendency to contentiously defend our position on every issue, and to instead yield to the Spirit of God.  If He is not speaking, we ought to do the same.  When we choose to express ourselves outside of His leading, we cannot fool ourselves into believing that we’re doing anything more than speaking out of our own limited understanding.  In those instances it would do us well to be mindful of what Jesus said about idle (or empty) words (Matt 12:36).

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There is an old saying that goes something like, “I wish I knew back then what I know now”.  And as I look back to my own graduation, here are some of those things I wish I had understood.

 

  1. Life is not a ride, it’s a journey.  A ride is simply being carried along to wherever the vehicle happens to be going, while a journey has an ultimate destination, which requires some navigation and effort to complete.  Unless we purpose in our heart to be someone, or to do something, we are likely to live life like a pinball; propelled by gravity and bouncing from one obstacle to another.  Anything worthwhile in life will require some investment on our part. Those who are unwilling to make such an investment will generally be pushed along by the winds of circumstance to some uncertain end.

 

  1. Not everyone who agrees with you is for you, and not everyone who disagrees with you is against you. In this era of political correctness openly disagreeing with someone is often viewed as being “intolerant” of their beliefs (i.e. a hater).  But there are times when caring for a person dictates that we confront and contradict them.  Conversely, there are those who are perfectly willing to allow you to drive headlong into disaster, as long as it serves their own selfish agenda.

 

  1. Misery not only loves company, it wants to settle down and have children too.  I’ve noticed that miserable people not only seek out other miserable people to bond with, but that they’ll often unconsciously sabotage anything that has the potential to pull them from their misery.  There are few emotions that are as debilitating and self-sustaining as self-pity. Generally, the only way to remain free of such feelings is through a dogged determination not to live that way.  As long as we are willing to blame other people, and circumstances, for our condition, we will remain powerless to change it.

 

  1. What other people believe about you isn’t as important as what you believe about yourself. Only the things which we genuinely believe have the ability to impact how we live.  Therefore, the only words (positive or negative) that have the power to move us are those which we accept as truth.  If a man concludes that he is a failure, no amount of praise or encouragement can bring him to victory; and if a man concludes that he is an over-comer, no amount of criticism can hold him back.  While we are generally powerless to keep others from speaking about us, we possess the ultimate responsibility for what we are willing to accept as truth.

 

  1. Planting apple seeds won’t get you an orange tree. Just as dependable as the law of gravity is the concept that we will reap (i.e. harvest) what we sow (i.e. plant).  Though this phrase is immediately recognizable to most people, there are few who actually live as though it were true.  Our human nature will often cause us to be unforgiving with other people, while expecting generosity in return; to be deceptive about our motivations, while expecting others to deal with us honestly; and to be selfish about our desires, while expecting others to be considerate of us.  We must always remain conscious of the fact that the cup we use to dispense blessing is the cup that we will eventually drink our blessings from.

 

  1. For everything there is a season and it’s important not to despise the season that you’re in.  If you live long enough you notice that there is a sort of pattern that life follows and that things come and go in seasons.  While we have a natural tendency to like some seasons better than others, I’ve found that every season comes with both challenges and blessings.  If we focus on the challenges of the season we’re in, we’ll often miss the blessings, and spend our time pining away for the season to change.  Conversely, if we focus on the blessings of each season, it makes the challenges easier to endure, and brings a sense of variety to the journey.

 

  1. It’s doubtful that anyone is really “out to get you”. Generally, a person has to be of significant consequence before someone is willing to invest the time and energy it takes to conspire against them.  I would suggest that we are more often damaged because people aren’t considerate of our position than we are because people have made a conscious effort to hurt us.  Though this knowledge doesn’t necessarily dampen the pain, it should aid in our endeavor to forgive.

 

  1. When you keep your own score, you always feel as though you’re losing. The problem with keeping score is that we naturally tend to under-appreciate our blessings, and to have an exaggerated sense of our hardships.  Because of that, people who keep score in life generally feel as though they’re never quite being given their due.  Ultimately, it’s better to just give our best in any given situation and to let someone else maintain the scorecard.

 

  1. The path of least resistance is rarely a road worth taking.  Often what causes something to be valuable is that it cannot be easily attained.  It follows then that the most valuable things in life normally require some perseverance to apprehend.  While everyone may sincerely want these kinds of things for their life (e.g. a healthy body, a strong marriage, a successful career…), few are willing to endure the process it takes to secure them.  Unfortunately, we live in a culture that increasingly values convenience above quality, and in which many of our children have grown up with an expectation of the instant gratification of their desires. Many a parent has worked hard to ensure that their kids get a great education, so that these children won’t have to struggle like they did.  But this ignores the fact that it is in the midst of the struggle that we tend to develop our character and work ethic; and that without this development we are generally ill equipped to handle adversity.  I’ve found that you can teach someone with character and work ethic just about anything, but without those qualities, an education becomes of little value.  I’ve also come to believe that giving my children everything that I didn’t have when I grew up will likely handicap them for life.

 

  1. There are few jobs easier than being a critic and few that are more taxing than being a builder. I’m ashamed to admit that there have been times in my life when I’ve been like the guy who sits in the back of the classroom, ridiculing the person who’s teaching the class.  Playing the role of critic, while someone sincerely tries to have a positive influence on the people around them.  While I might try to rationalize that their efforts were less than perfect, or maybe even in vain, life has taught me how little that criticism helps anyone.  It takes a tremendous amount of effort and patience to bring unity where there has only been division, or to stir a group to battle, when they’ve only known defeat, or to restore a sense of hope to a place of desolation…  The builder must make a concerted effort to create, while the critic can bring destruction with little effort.  As a witness to, and a participant in, both of these processes, I’ve committed myself to spending the rest of my days being engaged in the building up and not the tearing down.

 

  1. It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.  Experience teaches us that the road to victory is generally paved with some amount of defeat; and that how we respond to those defeats will generally determine whether or not we ever come to the place of victory.   While victory tends to be the goal of every player, I’ve found that what we remember is how they played the game.  It is not necessarily the player with the highest winning percentage that captures our imagination, it is the player who played unselfishly, or with integrity, or who overcame the biggest odds…  Even for those who taste great victory, it is always in a moment that quickly passes into a lifetime of other moments.  At the moment we pass from this life, it won’t be that moment of glory that matters most; it will be how we lived all the other moments that ultimately defines us.

 

  1. It’s hard to be Clint Eastwood if you’re really Mr. Rogers. As I was growing up my conception of what a man was came largely from my father, who was a big fan of men like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.   Throughout my adolescence there were other icons (e.g. John Travolta – Saturday Night Fever, Sly Stallone – Rambo, Don Johnson – Miami Vice…) who seemed to collectively shape the culture’s conception of manhood, and who I unconsciously graded myself against.  Since I was nothing like these men I assumed that I just wasn’t much of a man, and in subtle ways I let their image affect how I walked, talked, dressed…  But as I got older I began to notice that there weren’t many things less attractive than someone trying to be something that they’re not (e.g. a middle aged woman dressed like teenager; a suburban white kid acting as though he grew up in the ghetto; a man with a bad toupee, acting as though it is his natural hair…).  I eventually came to peace with the understanding that regardless of the fact that I bear little or no resemblance to the trendy cultural images of manhood, the best thing I could do was to be myself.  That catharsis has  allowed me to do things like wear the clothes that I feel comfortable in; to act silly in public, just to make my kids laugh; to say “I love you too honey” when I hang up the phone in front of someone; to cry at sad movies…, all without feeling self-conscious.  I highly recommend it.

 

  1. Love grows over time. We live in a society that seems affixed on the idea of trading in and up, on an almost constant basis (e.g. cellphones, computers, cars, houses…); and that basic philosophy carries into our relationships as well.  Most of our cultural allusions toward love seem centered on initial attraction and the titillation of something new; but that is ultimately the shallow end of the relationship pool.  It isn’t until you’ve experienced a love that lasts for years that you come to understand the depth and profound fulfillment that accompanies it.  This same aesthetic applies to friendships as well (i.e. I wouldn’t trade a few old friends for 500 “friends” on Facebook).

 

  1. No person or thing can “make you happy”.  People can support us, love us, inspire us, and even enhance the quality of our life. But unless we determine within ourselves to find the joy, the beauty and the hope within our given circumstance, we will never be “happy”. The idea that it is someone else’s role to bring happiness into our life places tremendous pressure on our relationships, often causing them to fail (e.g. they just don’t make me happy anymore…).  Similarly, material things do not have the ability to bring satisfaction to our souls.  I’ve noticed that people, who can be grateful for what they have today, will generally be that way regardless of what they have.  And that people, who crave something more, will normally continue to crave regardless of what they get.

 

  1. The best things in life cannot be held in our hands or necessarily even be seen. A young person’s dreams are often rooted in tangible gains, like a mate, income, a career, a family, a home…  But as a person attains those kinds of things, values seem to shift from the tangible to the transcendent.  At the end of a long life, it is things like friendship, faith, love and hope that are ultimately treasured.

 

  1. No regrets. I’ve often heard people speak of having “no regrets”, both when looking back on their lives, or in the context of their hopes for the future.  I’ve even heard some say things like, “if I could live my life over again, I wouldn’t change a thing”.  And while those sorts of bold proclamations may sound good as T-shirt slogans or on sports drink ads, they don’t actually play out well in real life.  The truth is that we all make mistakes, and if we have any conscience at all, that is bound to stir up some feelings of regret.  Though unpleasant, it is often those feelings that provide the incentive to grow and change.  A wise man doesn’t pretend that he’s never done things that he wishes he hadn’t; he simply owns up to his failures, learns from those mistakes, changes his mind/direction and leaves those regrets on the side of the road (where they belong).

 

  1. Look out for that curve dead ahead. Growing up can often be a disappointing process.  When you’re 10, you imagine that becoming a “teenager” will change everything.  But a few days after your 13th birthday, you realize that things are pretty much the same.  Then you start dreaming about turning 16, and getting your license, which is cool; but again, you quickly recognize that it doesn’t make as much difference as you thought.  Even 18 is that way.  Yeah, you’re legally an adult now, yet you still have to turn in your homework and get up for school the next day.  But finishing High School is different.  Though you may not sense it immediately, the rules change dramatically.  Up to this point, there was a system specifically designed to carry you along.  There was a whole panel of adults (e.g. parents, grandparents, pastors, youth group leaders, teachers, coaches, counselors…) assigned to provide guidance, boundaries, bedtimes, wake-ups, rides, resources, and incentives to stay on the right track.  There were organized activities intended specifically for you, like sports teams, school plays, dances, and 4H club.  And there was an education system built to pretty much ensure your success.  As long as you cooperated (i.e. showed up with a decent attitude) with these processes, you were almost guaranteed to make it through.  But now, that all changes.  Adulthood is very much a give and take proposition.  Generally, you get out of it what you put into it.  Even staying in school changes.  Colleges and Universities are businesses.  You pay to take their classes.  If you don’t show up, the teacher isn’t going to come looking for you.  If you don’t turn in your work, they will not scold you, or even ask about it.  If you fail the class, they will happily allow you to pay them to take the course over again next semester.  The workplace, and relationships, and almost every other facet of life works similarly.  If you want to have a great marriage, a successful career, or even to live in an exceptional community, you need to invest yourself (i.e. time, energy, passion…) in it.  Simply showing up, empty handed, will no longer get it done.  Ultimately, life was never meant to be a spectator sport – so I’d highly recommend that you dive in.     

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