Learning when you look back

The end of the year is a time when everyone starts looking back over the weeks and months that have passed. At least, it is for me. I think about where I started at the beginning of the year. I think about all the great things that have happened, but I also think about all the bad stuff too.

I love life. I love following Jesus. I love doing what God has called me to do, but it’s a foregone conclusion that life isn’t always happy. Sometimes bad things happen, and they often happen to good people. But the world isn’t perfect, and we’re all just doing the best we can to get by in it. That being said, I screw things up. I make decisions in fear or insecurity or anger. I hide when I ought to speak up. I speak up when I ought to shut up.

But no matter how many times I mess up, one thing is certain–I learn something.

PTJNJ5LZLAToday’s verse is Deuteronomy 4:9.

But watch out! Be careful never to forget what you yourself have seen. Do not let these memories escape from your mind as long as you live! And be sure to pass them on to your children and grandchildren.

I don’t like making mistakes, and I don’t like difficult situations. I don’t like conflict. I don’t like it when people are unhappy with me or with others. But many times I end up in a circumstance where I’m facing one or all of those things, and many times it’s because of something I did or said (or because I failed to do or say something I needed to).

I noticed that gasoline was really low the other day. Like less than $1.50 per gallon, and I should have filled up. But I didn’t. I decided to put it off. And the next day, it was up around $1.75, and I had to fill up because I was almost out. When you make a judgment call about anything, you have to face the consequences. And whether the consequences are good or bad, you can still walk away with a lesson learned.

God cautioned the Children of Israel to remember what they had been through in the wilderness, how He’d taken care of them, how He’d guided them and provided for them. He wanted them to remember so that they’re children wouldn’t forget. And that hasn’t changed today. It might be thousands of years later and we may be living in a different culture, but the concept is still the same.

When God brings you through something, remember it. Remember what you learned. Remember how you got into it. Remember how God got you out of it. And take steps to keep remembering it. Tell your family. Tell your friends. Tell anyone who will listen. Write it down, because you will forget, and you shouldn’t.

So take stock of where you are and how you got there. Take a moment and look back on your life and the choices you’ve made that brought you to where you are today. Then learn from it. If you made a choice and good consequences followed, remember it. If you made a choice and bad consequences followed, remember that too and don’t do it again.

The New Year is approaching with more speed than any of us realize, and many of us will try starting over. That’s all well and good, but if you don’t remember how you got here to begin with, you are destined to make the same mistakes all over again.

Don’t let yourself forget what God has done

I don’t celebrate often. And when I do, it doesn’t look like a normal celebration. It’s not a party. Maybe it’s an extra episode of a television show. Maybe it’s reading an extra chapter in my book. Because, hey, parties take time. Celebrating anything takes time, and I don’t usually feel like I have time to spend on it. It’s better if I just move on to the next project.

But that’s not how God operates. God celebrates. And if celebration is important enough for God to do it, we should pay attention.

Celebration is more than just a party, though. It’s more than giving yourself a little extra time to goof off and rest. Sure, I think that’s part of it, but the bigger part of celebrating is remembering. It’s taking purposeful time to sit down and remind yourself what God has done for you.

05CPBGA6X7Today’s verses are Psalm 66:5-7, 16-20.

Come and see what our God has done,
what awesome miracles he performs for people!
He made a dry path through the Red Sea,
and his people went across on foot.
There we rejoiced in him.
For by his great power he rules forever.
He watches every movement of the nations;
let no rebel rise in defiance.

Come and listen, all you who fear God,
and I will tell you what he did for me.
For I cried out to him for help,
praising him as I spoke.
If I had not confessed the sin in my heart,
the Lord would not have listened.
But God did listen!
He paid attention to my prayer.
Praise God, who did not ignore my prayer
or withdraw his unfailing love from me.

It’s important to remember what God has done, otherwise you’ll forget. Maybe that sounds obvious, but I don’t think it is. If it were obvious, it wouldn’t happen all the time. I get caught up in what’s going on right now, and I forget what God did for me yesterday. And a lot of that is because I don’t take time to celebrate. I don’t take moments to share God’s awesome blessings with the people around me–not like I should.

Remind yourself what God did for you yesterday. Where were you? What were you doing? What happened?

A few days ago, I released my third novel in less than two years. That’s crazy huge! A few years ago I would have never thought I could do anything like that, but here we are. And it’s all because God made it possible. He has provided the people to help do the editing and the polishing. He has provided the people who are interested in buying it (Thank you to all of you who have purchased copies! I can’t ever explain the encouragement and the blessing your support means to me.). Every prayer I’ve had, He’s answered. Yeah, He answered in His time, but it turns out His timing really is perfect.

I don’t want to forget this. I don’t want to forget what God has done for me today. Because next week, when things get tough again and my outlook starts to get dark, I’ll need to remember how God came through for me. And if He came through for me yesterday, He’ll come through for me today. Because that’s who He is.

Don’t let yourself forget what God has done for you. Write it down. Tell the stories. Share it with everyone you know.

Then, when the dark days come, you’ll remember just who God is. That’s peace money can’t buy.

First down at a Marion High School football game - Hutchinson, KS

Milestones

My memory isn’t what it used to be. Sometimes I think my hard drive is just getting full. Other times I think I just have too much going on, but no matter what the cause, the effect is the same: It’s easier and easier to forget things. I can be holding my cell phone and forget that I’ve got it. So it’s no surprise that I have to keep a day planner now. If I don’t write it down, there’s no way I’ll remember to do it.

But that works the same way for accomplishments. If God does something in my life and I don’t take a moment to write it down or at least set something in place so I can remember it, I’ll walk off and forget it. And when God does something in our lives, it’s worth memorializing because on the bad days we can remember who God is and what He’s done.

First down at a Marion High School football game - Hutchinson, KS

First down at a Marion High School football game – Hutchinson, KS

Today’s verse is Joshua 4:9.

Joshua also set up another pile of twelve stones in the middle of the Jordan, at the place where the priests who carried the Ark of the Covenant were standing. And they are there to this day.

This story deals with those radical children of the Israelites who we first get to know in the Book of Deuteronomy. They were sold out, on fire, and absolutely rip-roaring-ready-to-go for God. Where their parents had failed, they would succeed. Where their parents had not trusted God, they had given their hearts all the way.

Joshua was the leader, Moses’ successor. And during one battle, they had to cross the Jordan River while it was at flood stage. Now, those of us in the Wichita area, when we think of rivers we probably think of our sad Arkansas River, which at this moment is so dried up, it needs to be called the Arkansas Creek (if it even merits that). But the Jordan River is a big deal. It’s a big river. And at flood stage, it wasn’t a river you wanted to ford.

But Joshua’s army needed to. And they trusted God to take care of it. And when the priests carried the Ark of the Covenant across ahead of them, the waters of the Jordan parted. Kind of like the Red Sea parted for their parents.

But unlike their parents who crossed the Red Sea and didn’t look back, Joshua and his men built a memorial. He ordered his men to get 12 stones, and they did and they built a memorial where they camped for the night to remember what had happened. But as if one memorial wasn’t enough, Joshua built another one himself. While all the people were crossing the river, Joshua built up a pile of rocks where the priests were standing.

Why? Keep reading Joshua 4.

Joshua 4:21-24

Then Joshua said to the Israelites, “In the future your children will ask, ‘What do these stones mean?’ Then you can tell them, ‘This is where the Israelites crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the river right before your eyes, and he kept it dry until you were all across, just as he did at the Red Sea when he dried it up until we had all crossed over. He did this so all the nations of the earth might know that the Lord’s hand is powerful, and so you might fear the Lord your God forever.”

Marking milestones is important because it gives us something to do to help us remember. Yes, it helps our children and other people understand what happened in the past, but it’s also good for us. Building memorials out of stones was back-breaking work, and Joshua made one all by himself. That kind of labor is hard to forget.

The point is this: When God does something in our lives that demonstrates how much He loves us or that He really does have a plan or that He really does listen, we need to mark it. We need to set something up, something that will help us remember on the days when our emotions tell us we’re all alone. Whether you mark it on a calendar or build your own memorial out of rocks, it doesn’t matter.

Memorials aren’t overrated. In fact, the more we have of them, the better we might be, so everyone could remember the sacrifices people have made in the past to help us get where we are today.

So what has God done for you today? What has He done for you this week? Or this month? What do you want to remember tomorrow when reality leaves you cold and feeling alone? Mark it down. Build a memorial. And remember.

Where do we go from here?

Eleven years ago, on a Tuesday very much like this one, I got up around this time to go to class. I was a freshman in college 1,000 miles away from home. Even back then I had a daily routine that I couldn’t deviate from much, just out of concern that I would forget. I’d get up around 6:00 a.m., work on my morning devotion (except that I was reading them back then instead of writing them), and then I’d spend about half an hour on the phone with my mom. Afterward, I’d get dressed and head out in time for my early morning class.

Other students on campus were still in class when we got the news about the attack on the Twin Towers. I happened to be moving during the time the announcement went out by word around the small college I was at, so I didn’t hear about it until I got back to my room. I had a voice mail from my mom. That’s how I found out. Everyone on my floor flocked to the one television in the common area (it was a scarily conservative Christian college, but that’s another story). And I can remember like it was yesterday watching the first tower fall. And then the second.

I wasn’t scared, but I did feel raw inside, and I hurt for the people who had died. I hurt for the families who had lost loved ones. And I hurt for the people who didn’t know.

That same day, we had a moment of silence across campus. At noon, wherever you were, you were to stop and pray as the clock tower chimed. I remember standing on the brick plaza in front of the Varsity Commons, one of the cafeterias, and praying specifically for the families but also for our country as whole. That we would turn to God. That we would recognize that our world is evil and that people left to themselves and their own devices are wicked. And I think for a brief moment, maybe America thought about it.

But it didn’t last. And now, we’re worse than we were.

I blogged on a verse out of Isaiah 65 yesterday, but before I posted, I read the whole chapter. It made me cry. And it made me uneasy because it sounds awfully familiar. It was originally written for Israel, and if you know anything about the history of Israel, you’ll know it came true. And more and more, America seems to be following the same path, so why wouldn’t it be relevant to us too?

But I’m not going to offer an opinion on what it says. I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

But no matter what you think about where America stands and what direction we’ve gone in the last eleven years, please don’t let people forget. It’s not being overly sentimental. It’s not living in the past. It’s remembering a very dark moment in our history when innocent people died for no reason, when average people became heroes, and when our country was united for the first time in a long time. And if we can remember that, we can remember what matters.

Isaiah 65 (The Message)

“I’ve made myself available
    to those who haven’t bothered to ask.
I’m here, ready to be found
    by those who haven’t bothered to look.
I kept saying ‘I’m here, I’m right here’
    to a nation that ignored me.
I reached out day after day
    to a people who turned their backs on me,
People who make wrong turns,
    who insist on doing things their own way.
They get on my nerves,
    are rude to my face day after day,
Make up their own kitchen religion,
    a potluck religious stew.
They spend the night in tombs
    to get messages from the dead,
Eat forbidden foods
    and drink a witch’s brew of potions and charms.
They say, ‘Keep your distance.
    Don’t touch me. I’m holier than thou.’
These people gag me.
    I can’t stand their stench.
Look at this! Their sins are all written out—
    I have the list before me.
I’m not putting up with this any longer.
    I’ll pay them the wages
They have coming for their sins.
    And for the sins of their parents lumped in,
    a bonus.” God says so.
“Because they’ve practiced their blasphemous worship,
    mocking me at their hillside shrines,
I’ll let loose the consequences
    and pay them in full for their actions.”

God’s Message:

“But just as one bad apple doesn’t ruin the whole bushel,
    there are still plenty of good apples left.
So I’ll preserve those in Israel who obey me.
    I won’t destroy the whole nation.
I’ll bring out my true children from Jacob
    and the heirs of my mountains from Judah.
My chosen will inherit the land,
    my servants will move in.
The lush valley of Sharon in the west
    will be a pasture for flocks,
And in the east, the valley of Achor,
    a place for herds to graze.
These will be for the people
    who bothered to reach out to me, who wanted me in their lives,
    who actually bothered to look for me.

“But you who abandon me, your God,
    who forget the holy mountains,
Who hold dinners for Lady Luck
    and throw cocktail parties for Sir Fate,
Well, you asked for it. Fate it will be:
    your destiny, Death.
For when I invited you, you ignored me;
    when I spoke to you, you brushed me off.
You did the very things I exposed as evil;
    you chose what I hate.”

Therefore, this is the Message from the Master, God:

“My servants will eat,
    and you’ll go hungry;
My servants will drink,
    and you’ll go thirsty;
My servants will rejoice,
    and you’ll hang your heads.
My servants will laugh from full hearts,
    and you’ll cry out heartbroken,
    yes, wail from crushed spirits.
Your legacy to my chosen
    will be your name reduced to a cussword.
I, God, will put you to death
    and give a new name to my servants.
Then whoever prays a blessing in the land
    will use my faithful name for the blessing,
And whoever takes an oath in the land
    will use my faithful name for the oath,
Because the earlier troubles are gone and forgotten,
    banished far from my sight.

“Pay close attention now:
    I’m creating new heavens and a new earth.
All the earlier troubles, chaos, and pain
    are things of the past, to be forgotten.
Look ahead with joy.
    Anticipate what I’m creating:
I’ll create Jerusalem as sheer joy,
    create my people as pure delight.
I’ll take joy in Jerusalem,
    take delight in my people:
No more sounds of weeping in the city,
    no cries of anguish;
No more babies dying in the cradle,
    or old people who don’t enjoy a full lifetime;
One-hundredth birthdays will be considered normal—
    anything less will seem like a cheat.
They’ll build houses
    and move in.
They’ll plant fields
    and eat what they grow.
No more building a house
    that some outsider takes over,
No more planting fields
    that some enemy confiscates,
For my people will be as long-lived as trees,
    my chosen ones will have satisfaction in their work.
They won’t work and have nothing come of it,
    they won’t have children snatched out from under them.
For they themselves are plantings blessed by God,
    with their children and grandchildren likewise God-blessed.
Before they call out, I’ll answer.
    Before they’ve finished speaking, I’ll have heard.
Wolf and lamb will graze the same meadow,
    lion and ox eat straw from the same trough,
    but snakes—they’ll get a diet of dirt!
Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill
    anywhere on my Holy Mountain,” says God.

White rose at Glen Eyrie - Colorado Springs, CO

Symbols only work if people remember what they mean.

I have a short memory. How about you? I surprise myself with how much important information I can forget and how easily I can forget it. My only consolation is that I don’t think I’m alone.

People need reminders. We need symbols set in front of us to remind us of the important things that have happened in our past so that we won’t forget what we’ve learned and so we won’t forget how God brought us through.

The passage for today is more like a book, but you’ll understand why when you read it.

White rose at Glen Eyrie - Colorado Springs, CO

White rose at Glen Eyrie – Colorado Springs, CO

Today’s verses are Joshua 4:4-7, 22-24.

So Joshua called together the twelve men he had chosen—one from each of the tribes of Israel. He told them, “Go into the middle of the Jordan, in front of the Ark of the Lord your God. Each of you must pick up one stone and carry it out on your shoulder—twelve stones in all, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. We will use these stones to build a memorial. In the future your children will ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ … Then you can tell them, ‘This is where the Israelites crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the river right before your eyes, and he kept it dry until you were all across, just as he did at the Red Sea when he dried it up until we had all crossed over. He did this so all the nations of the earth might know that the Lord’s hand is powerful, and so you might fear the Lord your God forever.”

Today is Memorial Day. It’s the day we celebrate being American by throwing our family into the car and driving out to the lake to cook hot dogs and get sunburned. Right?

Well, that’s what a lot of folks will do. But that’s not what Memorial Day is about.

As someone who comes from a military family, Memorial Day is very special to me. My grandfathers and my great uncles are from that generation of men who were willing to give their lives for their country in World War II and Korea. And though the rest of my immediate family is in the age range where they missed either being drafted or they missed many of the major military conflicts, that hasn’t stopped my family from being intensely patriotic.

But Memorial Day isn’t like Veteran’s Day. Veteran’s Day is a day to thank all of our military service people for what they have done for freedom in our country. Memorial Day is a day to remember the military people who didn’t come home. Memorial Day is a day set aside to thank them for their sacrifices.

And I don’t see that we do that. We’re too busying barbecuing.

Memorial Day is a symbol intended to help us remember, but symbols aren’t much good if the meaning behind them is lost.

This passage in Joshua recounts a time in history when the Israelites were trying to reach the land that God had promised them, and in one conflict, God parted the waters of the Jordan River while they were at flood stage so that the army could cross over.

After the battle, Joshua had the army set up a memorial so that the people would remember, not just what God had done for them that day but so they could remember what God had done for their ancestors too.

I am saddened by what we, as Americans, have forgotten. I’m not going to be specific. If you’re a patriot, you know what I’m talking about. I understand that things happen for a reason, but it is difficult for me to accept that the country my grandfathers and great uncles gave so much for has become a place no one recognizes anymore.

Symbols are only successful as long as people remember what they mean.

So this is my contribution to Memorial Day: whenever you see an American flag waving, think about what it would have been like to grow up in a country bound by religious laws or tyrannical dictatorship. Imagine what it would have been like to grow up in a country where your children can be taken from you and molded to fit a social need whether you or they liked it or not. Imagine what it would have been like to grow up without enough food, clean water, or sufficient shelter to be healthy.

America isn’t what she used to be, but I’d like to think we still have a little bit of hope, even though many of us have forgotten.

So while you’re barbecuing or while you’re working on your suntan or driving your boat (nothing wrong with any of those things, by the way) take a moment to talk to your kids about what men and women have sacrificed through the years to make this country. Take a moment to just be thankful. Take a moment to remember.

Because if we don’t remember, what purpose did their sacrifices serve?

Sunrise behind the clouds at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

When a good question becomes a time waster

As 2011 comes to a close, it’s natural to look forward to the new year. People will be making resolutions, mainly revolving around losing weight. Some people will make resolutions to work harder to finish something they started years ago or to start something completely new. And that’s good. We all need goals and dreams, though many folks won’t follow through no matter how good intentioned they are.

But as another year winds down, I think we should take the time to look backward instead of forward.

Looking backward isn’t always productive because it depends on your perspective. And generally speaking, I don’t recommend looking backward at all. Because it’s easy to get caught in the regret trap, where you can see now the things you wish you would have done or how you wish you would have done something differently. But you can’t change the past, and regret is a useless thing to feel for a long period of time.

But there is one reason we need to look back, and David stated it quite well in today’s passage, Psalm 103:1-2.

1 Let all that I am praise the Lord;
      with my whole heart, I will praise his holy name.
 2 Let all that I am praise the Lord;
      may I never forget the good things he does for me.

People are forgetful creatures. We do great when everything is going well, but when something goes wrong and we lose the security we think we had, we blame God. Or we get angry at God. Or we become convinced that God no longer cares about us. Or we give up on God, believing that He must not want the best for us after all. Or that He doesn’t exist.

Okay. Well. Stop.

Because when everything was going fine and all was right in the world, God was good. Only when life takes a turn for the worst do people start feeling abandoned and like God doesn’t care. And once you go down that road — the path of blaming God for the perceived injustices in your life — people don’t seem to be able to drag themselves out of it. And I think it’s less of a God issue and more of a person issue.

Because we think we know better than God.

I know I do. Deep down inside myself, my first inclination when things go wrong is to sink into depression and self-pity and complain about why God lets bad things happen to me. But oftentimes our first inclination isn’t the right inclination. And the moment I start feeling that way, I try to stop. Not because it’s wrong, though.

It’s not wrong to question God. It’s not wrong to wonder why. It’s not wrong to seek an explanation. But those responses waste time. And time is something we don’t have a lot of. And when I look back over my life, I see many examples of times that I knew God was telling me to do something and I waited around demanding a clearer sign. Or I waited to act because I wanted Him to confirm the things I thought He wanted me to do. Or I waited because I wanted to understand why He was testing me. And when I look back on my responses to His calling, I am appalled at the amount of time I wasted.

Not saying that God didn’t eventually use me to accomplish great things. But it took me a long time to get my feet moving. And in the time it took me to get moving, I could have accomplished so much more.

But regretting the things I didn’t do or didn’t finish or didn’t notice is a waste of what time I have now. Because I can’t change it. All I can do is vow not to let those things slip by again. I can promise God that I won’t drag my feet when He tells me to do something, no matter how crazy it sounds. And that when He lets difficult things come into my life, that I won’t question.

I understand that I can question, but I’m going to. Because the sooner I get through the testing, the sooner I can learn what He needs me to learn and move on to the next thing. And then when I look back on my life, I will see that I didn’t waste time trying to understand what God was doing. I just did it. And that way, I won’t forget.

When I encounter a trial, I won’t just sit and ask why; I’ll go through it. I won’t lose time that could have been spent doing something else. I won’t ask why so many times that I forget why I’m experiencing the trial to begin with. And then I will be able to point back to the time when I learned something from the troubles in my life. They won’t just be passing woes that I experience over and over again, pinning me down in a black hole I can’t climb out of. The struggles in my life will have meaning because I know I’m going to learn something — and I know that God is going to keep working even if I can’t see him. 

That’s my hope for 2012. 2011 has been a hard year. I can’t say it’s been the hardest, and I can’t say that I’ve struggled more than other people. Because I have a job and I have a family and I have friends and I have a car and I have a church and I have a house and I have food. So that probably puts me in the top one percentile of the world as far as wealth and provision and comfort.

But I do have a bad memory. And I often forget how faithful He is to me. And I want that to change. May I never get so bogged down in the trials of the present that I forget what He did for me yesterday or what He promised to do for me tomorrow.