Vapor and God’s sovereignty

In late 1999 I started journaling on a regular basis.  Journaling has become, for me, a way to process ideas, reflect more thoughtfully on events, and keep a record of what’s been happening and how I respond to it.  It helps give me context and perspective and, on occasion, I go back and read what I was thinking at some point in the past.

I was journaling over the weekend and went back to look at my first entries of this year–the BC days: before cancer. I did not know at the beginning of 2014 that my wife would be diagnosed with breast cancer.  I did not know how it would turn our world topsy.  I did not know how we would drink at the fire hose of medical information and embark on a year long journey of surgeries, chemotherapy and, soon, radiation. On January 1, 2014 all that was in the future.  But I did have a sense on January 1 that things would happen in 2014 that I could not foresee.

Here’s part of my first entry of the year :



Welcome to 2014!  As I begin this year, full of hopes and plans, I am reminded of the New Testament verse, James 4:15 “…we ought to say ‘If the Lord wills we shall live and also do this or that.'”

Lord, be sovereign over my 2014 ‘This or that”.  Remind me that I am vapor.  You are God.  Do not allow me to be presumptuous, for I do not know what a day will bring forth. (Proverbs 27:1)


I really did not know on January 1, 2014 what my day or my year would bring forth.  God has reminded me this year I am but a vapor.  My wife and I are learning to, as Holocaust survivor Corrie Ten Boom once said “Hold everything in your hands lightly.”

Like Diane and me, you do not know what a day–or a year– will bring forth either.  A dear friend wrote to me last night that her husband is in the last stages of his life.  A young couple at our church lost their young son in a car accident a few weeks ago.  Tragedy strikes without putting up warning signs.  But our lives are also full of unexpected blessing.  On January 1, 2014 Diane and I could not have known the great out pouring of prayer, encouragement,  and support we would receive.  We could not have imagined the many delicious meals people would graciously bring to our home. We could not have discerned how the grace of God would sustain us during one of our greatest challenges.

God is sovereign even amidst the tangled events that weigh down on us and the unexpected delights that buoy us.  It is not that cancer–or whatever great adversity you are facing– is God’s will.  But all these things–the adversity and the blessings—occur under the umbrella of God’s will.  Romans 8:28 reminds me God is working all things–even adversity–together for my good.

That’s good news to a guy who is vapor.

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Sometimes I have nothing to say–and that’s ok

It’s been more than a week since my last blog and I have to admit I’ve been feeling a little guilty.  I tell myself “You should be writing”, but when I sat down to write the last couple days I felt as though I had nothing in particular to say.  It wasn’t that I was without thoughts.  It’s just that those thoughts had not yet formed into something worth writing about—yet.

Then I thought about this anecdote of Albert Eintstein:

Dr. Frank Aydelotte, the then President of Swarthmore College, once, invited Einstein as the guest of honor at a dinner.
When he was called upon to speak he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry but I’ve nothing to say.” The brief speech didn’t go well with the guests. Noticing this he arose again and added, “In case I do have something to say, I’ll come back.”
Six months later he wired Dr.Aydelotte, “Now I‘ve something to say.” Dr. Aydelotte promptly gave another dinner at which Einstein made his speech.

If this story is true I admire Einstein for his candor and bravery.  It’s hard to admit we have nothing to say. We have all heard speeches when the speaker really had nothing to say.  We have all listened to conversations when the person had nothing to say.  What compels people to speak–or write–when they have nothing to say?  I think it is because most of us are uncomfortable with silence.

Not my Dad.  He loved silence.  I can remember many times sitting with Dad on the front porch swing, or on a log in the woods while hunting, or in a boat on the lake while fishing–and nothing was said.  Dad was comfortable with silence and, through his example, I became comfortable with it too.  As a teenager I bought him a framed poster as a gift.  The poster had a photo of a boy and a man sitting side by side, at dusk, on a dock by a lake.  The two were obviously not talking and the words below the poster said “Those who say little love much.”  My Dad still has that poster in his bedroom.  Dad taught me to be comfortable with silence.  It is a lesson I constantly need to re-learn.

We absorb a cluttered cacophony of chatter in our lives.  Constant input from every arena and every electronic device makes it hard to listen to what matters.  Mother Teresa said, “We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence… We need silence to be able to touch souls.”

We need silence to touch our own souls too.  To hear God and hear ourselves think.  To reflect.  To ponder.  To consider.  We do too little of that.  I have always liked the quote “We read too much and reflect too little.”  We also talk/write too much and reflect too little.

We should not be afraid of silence and we should actively pursue it.  We will be better, deeper, more thoughtful people if we take time for silence.  I’m not talking about “vegging out” or being mindlessly lazy.  I talking about thoughtful silence.  No words spoken and none heard.  No words written and none read.  Try it.  Push yourself over the speed bump of discomfort that will inevitably accompany silence at first.  Practice silence until it becomes comfortable.

So if you think you haven’t see a blog from me in awhile you may be right.  Perhaps I am practicing silence.  I may be reflecting.  Like Einstein, I may have nothing to say…for now.  But like Einstein, I will come back when I have something to say.

I guess I did have something to say today.

Does God want you to be happy–or something more?

victoria and joel

Victoria Osteen, notable co-pastor of a Houston mega church with her husband Joel, recently made a statement in their church service that drew a lot of attention:  Here’s the clip and here’s what she said:

“I just want to encourage every one of us to realize when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God—I mean, that’s one way to look at it—we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy,” That’s the thing that gives Him the greatest joy…”

“So, I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?”

Osteen’s words raise a question that is worth asking:….does God want us to be happy?  The Bible doesn’t directly say “God wants you happy”, but it also doesn’t say God wants us unhappy.  I think the problem with Osteen’s statement is two fold:  (1) Our happiness is not God’s great concern and (2) Osteen is looking in the wrong end of the telescope.

First, I do not think our “happiness” is God’s great concern.  What does the Bible say about what God wants for us?  Well, we know what He REQUIRES from us:

Micah 6:8

He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?

And we also know that God requires us to be “holy”

1 Peter 1:15-17

15 “But like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; 16 because it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”

“Holy” doesn’t mean “holier than thou”.  It carries the idea of being a person of integrity.  That we walk our talk and obey God’s commands.  That’s what God wants from us.

And we know that Christ said He came to bring us “abundant life”.

John 10:10

“I came that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.”

While no one knows the mind of God (and whether He wants us to be happy or not), I think a it’s a fair conclusion to draw from looking at the entirety of Scripture that our “happiness” is not something God seems all that concerned about.  I think what God wants for us is something bigger, deeper and broader than “happiness”.  He wants us to have a genuine, humble, holy relationship with Him and for us to live a life of justice and mercy and kindness toward others.  This kind of life is “abundant”.  Not always “happy”, but abundant.  I think that’s what God wants for us.

The second problem with Osteen’s statement is she is looking through the wrong end of the telescope.  When she says “Worship and obey God to make yourself happy” she’s making the same mistake people in the pre-Galileo world made:  thinking the center of the universe was earth–or us.  God–not us– is at the center of the universe.  He deserves worship for who HE is, not because it makes us “happy”.  The origin of the word “worship” is “worth-ship” where the focus is on the one being worshipped, not the worshipper:

WORSHIP:  the condition of being worthy, dignity, glory, distinction, honor, renown,” from weorð “worthy” (see worth) + -scipe (see -ship). Sense of “reverence paid to a supernatural or divine being.

See where the focus is supposed to be?  On God–not us.  Keeping God as the center of our worship–and our obedience–is looking in the right end of the telescope.

So does God want you to be “happy”?  Scripture tells us the first listed fruit of the Holy Spirit is “joy” (Galatians 5:22-23) which is different than happiness: joy is deeper, richer and broader–and not based on happenstance  or chance.  I think God wants us to be MORE than happy.  He wants us to have an abundant, joyful life.  And we will find that joy and abundant life when we seek and focus on God rather than our own happiness.

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Looking for balance in employment laws

             I am currently teaching Employment Law at Oklahoma City University Law School and we have been discussing a concept called “Private Ordering”, a phrase that means employers and employees are free to work out their relationship however they wish.  If a worker wants a job badly enough to work for a sub-minimum wage, Private Ordering says they should be allowed to do so.  If the employer does not wish to pay “time and a half” for overtime work done by employees, the employer can pay straight time if they wish.  In a world where Private Ordering is the rule, workers and employers are considered to be on equal footing and can contract with each other however they choose.  In a Private Ordering world, there would be no mandatory minimum wage, overtime, child labor law or discrimination statutes.  This is a world some business owners long for so they can be relieved of the burdens of government dictates.  At the other end of the spectrum is a world of “mandates” where government or union contracts or some other third party impose constraints on employers and employees and dictate certain aspects of their work relationship.  “Mandates” include things like the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) which requires safe work places, or the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) which sets minimum wage and overtime standards, or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) which prevents discrimination.

           But, as I explained to my class, a work world at either extreme on the Private Ordering/Mandate spectrum is far from ideal.  Too much government interference stifles business, but too little leaves workers unprotected.  Employment law–and employment lawyers like me–constantly struggle to find the right balance between Private Ordering and Mandates.

           Some, of course, think Mandates are the greater evil and there have been efforts in recent years in Oklahoma to pare back employee protections and give employers greater freedom with regard to their employees.  This creates a more “business friendly” environment, according to these advocates, which results in greater economic growth for the state.  But moving toward greater Private Ordering comes at a cost:  decreased protection for workers.  To illustrate the danger of extreme Private Ordering I told my class about my Grandpa, Tom Priest.  Here, in my own father’s words, is Tom’s story:

             Tom was born November 29, 1900.  I know little about his life until he was eleven years of age.  He was the oldest of four children.  He had two younger sisters (Marion and Lillian) and a brother (William) who was six months old when the dead body of his father, Teddy, was brought home by friends.  Teddy had been killed that day at work in the coal mines of Pennsylvania.  They brought him home in a wheelbarrow and placed his body on the living room floor.   

           I imagine when they dropped off Teddy’s body they said they were sorry and left.  The family had no insurance and no money.  No workers compensation existed.  Someone needed to take Teddy’s place at work the next day because the family lived in a house owned by the company and they owed money to the company store. If someone did not show up at work the next day the family would be thrown out of the house by the company.  The only one who could go to work the next day was eleven year old Tom.  That day was the end of Tom’s boyhood.  His mother, a small quiet, sweet woman, paid for Teddy’s burial by taking in washing and ironing for fifty cents a basket.  I knew her many years later and never once heard her complain.

            At age eleven Tom had to quit school and went to work in the coal breaker (the mouth of the coal mine) as a “breaker boy”.  The school principal came to Tom’s house and begged his mother to keep Tom in school because he was a bright boy.  But the family needed to eat and Tom had to quit school and work.  For the first three years that he worked Tom never received a paycheck because they always owed more to the company store than he earned.  Tom’s income put food on the table for his family and he was a father figure to his two sisters and brother until the day he died. I believe after three years he was given a job down in the mines as what they called a “sprag boy”.  It must have been shortly after this he became a “laborer” (one who shovels coal into the cars–a miner’s helper).  At age sixteen he broke his leg while down in the mine.  He laid the rest of the day in what they called the “shift shanty” until the end of the shift at which time they took him to the hospital.  He had a limp the rest of his life.

        That’s what life was like for workers in a world of Private Ordering.  It’s little wonder a union called the United Mine Workers rose up and demanded greater protections for mine employees.  Work in today’s coal mines is still dangerous and tough, but it’s not nearly as terrible as it was when my Grandpa went to work at the age of eleven.

        I told my class there are evils to be avoided at both ends of the Private Ordering/Mandates spectrum and, as lawyers, we are part of the process that seeks to find the right balance.  It’s not an easy task but it’s definitely a worthy endeavor.

        I’m not going to tell you to “hug a lawyer” today, but the next time you’re tempted to think the world would be better off without lawyers, remember Grandpa Tom and be thankful there are lawyers working to keep the right balance between Private Ordering and Mandates.

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Which person in the parables are you?

I had an interesting conversation with a friend recently who told me he was trying to figure out which person in the parables of Jesus he was most like–and which person he WANTED to be most like–and what he needed to do to make the change. My friend said “character change” is hard work and you have to “give up stuff” to accomplish it. “Whatever is holding you back is what you have to give up”, he told me.

This got me thinking about who I am–and who I want to be in the parables of Jesus. I think I’m something like the man described as “The Rich Fool” in Luke 12:16-21. The Rich Fool wasn’t a bad guy. He had done well in life and had acquired a lot of “stuff”. But his focus was more on his “stuff” and not on spiritual life. Jesus said he was a fool because he spent time investing in the short term rather than the long term. I really do try to think “long term” but find myself constantly pulled back into “short term” thinking. I don’t want to end up being that guy.

So who DO I want to be in Jesus’ parables? I want to be the prodigal father in Luke 15:: 11-32. We often refer to this as the parable of the “Prodigal Son” but my pastor, Rick Harvey, says it was actually the father who was “prodigal” because the word prodigal means “spendthrift–lavish spender”. The father was a “spendthrift” when it came to love; he lavished grace and poured out love and acceptance to both his sons: the wayward son and the stay-at home-with-a-bad-attitude son. He was the man who stood on the front porch waiting, looking, praying. He was a spendthrift when it came to love and acceptance and grace. THAT’s the guy I want to be.

I want to be a giver of grace and acceptance. I want to stand on the front porch and keep an eye out for those who want to come home. I want to be the guy who runs toward them while they are still “a long way off”. I want to embrace them and welcome them. Put a robe around their shoulders and a ring on their finger. I want to throw a party for those who have decided to turn their lives around. And I want to be the gentle voice of wisdom to others who would condemn or criticize the one who has come home (like the stay at home brother did). Yeah, I want to be THAT guy.

But the gap between the Rich Fool and the Prodigal Dad is wide and I cannot leave the fool behind and become the dad without the grace of God in my life, gently–and sometimes not so gently–shaping me, sanding me, and filing off my rough edges.

Lord, help me to be more like the Prodigal Dad and less like the Rich Fool, beginning today.

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What if….?

My Bible reading this morning was Genesis 50:15-21. It’s the story of Joseph and his brothers in Egypt after their father has died. It’s a story that merges the past with the present.  Smitten by jealousy years earlier, the brothers sold Joseph into slavery in order to rid themselves of their pesky, Dad’s pet brother. After being thrown into a pit and sold into bondage Joseph survived and eventually thrived during his decades of slavery, rising to the position of Prime Minister of Egypt, saving the Egyptians and even his own family from starvation. The family was ultimately reunited and enjoyed many good years together in Egypt. But now the father has died and the brothers are worried that with dad gone, Joseph will seek revenge on them for the evil they visited on him many years earlier.

When reading this passage I have always focused on the kind and compassionate response of Joseph, who allays his brothers’ fears and concerns by saying “Am I in God’s place? You meant it for evil but God meant it for good. Don’t be afraid.”

But today my attention was caught by the question that started the passage: “What if….?” The brothers began by asking themselves “What if Joseph is carrying a grudge and decides to pay us back for all the wrong we did him?”

There is no evidence they had cause for concern. Joseph had never given the least hint he carried a grudge. I suppose the brothers were worried about this because THEY would have carried a grudge if someone had wronged them like they wronged Joseph. The were “projecting”.

So to protect themselves from their projections, what did they do? They lied. They made up a story that their dad, before he died, gave them a message for Joseph that he should forgive them. They were still conniving. Still lying, just like they did years before. They still couldn’t draw a straight line with a ruler.

It is clear they need not have worried about their “what if”. Joseph’s response shows he carried no grudge and was tenderhearted toward them. Apparently their fears were allayed by Joseph’s words of assurance and we see no further record of trouble between Joseph and his brothers. All ended well.

This passage got me wondering how much of my/our worries are started by “What if” questions that need never be asked. What if… spouse dies….I lose my job….my kids rebel…God is not really there. Often our “what if” are prompted by projections. We envision something bad and become concerned it’s going to happen. So to head off the anticipated calamity we devise a scheme to cope with it. A scheme which is probably unnecessary. A scheme by which we try to control the future through our own efforts.

As much as it pains me to say this, we don’t really control our future. We can save for retirement–and we should. We can buy life insurance–and we should. We can try to be excellent parents–and we should. Even Joseph took proactive preparations to deal with the Egyptian famine.  But ultimately we are not in control.

That’s when the words of Joseph in verse 19 should ring in our ears: “Do not be afraid.” That phrase is the most frequent greeting of angels in the Bible. It is the heavenly message to mortal men and women who live their lives worrying, fearing and uttering “What if…?.”  Ultimately, God is in control and we need not overly concern ourselves with the what ifs of life.

I think the message to us is to live in “No fear”…not “What if….?”

Shackleton: Behaving decently in tight places

It’s the 100 year anniversary of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s epic Antarctic expedition.  If you have never heard of him (I had not until about 10 years ago despite being a history major in college) you need to.  Here is an article I wrote some years ago about his epic journey and the lesson we can learn from it. (Click on the article to enlarge it)

Shackelton Behaving decently