Monday, October 4, 2010

On Being Intentional

I would like to share an excerpt with you from the book, "A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life" by William Law. It was first published in 1728, so the language is a bit archaic, but the power of his words has not diminished with time.

Penitens was a busy merchant and very prosperous, but died when he was only thirty-five. One evening just before his death, some of his friends came to see him, and he said to them:
"My friends, I can see the tender concern you have for me by the grief on your faces, and I know what you are thinking about me. You think how sad it is to see a young man who has a prospering business delivered up to death. And if I had visited any of you in my condition, perhaps I would have the same thoughts of you. But my thoughts are no more like your thoughts than my condition is like yours. It is no trouble to me now to think that I am to die young, and without having reached all of my goals in life. Such concerns have now sunk into such mere nothings that I have no name small enough to call them by. For if in a few days or hours, I will leave this body and find myself forever happy in the presence of God, or eternally separated from all light and peace. Considering the immensity of that, can any words sufficiently express the littleness of everything else?

"Is there any dream more foolish than the dream of life that amuses us and causes us to neglect and disregard these things? Is there any folly like the folly of a life that is too wise and busy to have time for these reflections? When we consider death and sorrow, we only think of it as the sorrow of separation from the enjoyment of this life. We seldom mourn over an old man who dies rich, but we mourn the young that are taken away in the progress of their fortune. You yourselves look upon me with pity, not because I am unprepared to meet the Judge of the living and the dead, but because I am leaving a prosperous trade in the flower of my life. This is the wisdom of our worldly thoughts. And yet what foolishness of the silliest children is as great as this? For what is there miserable or dreadful in death but the consequences of it? When a man is dead, is there anything important to him besides the state he is then in?

"Our poor friend Lepidus died as he was dressing for a party. Do you think that was part of the sorrow of his death, that he did not live until the party was over? Parties, business and pleasures seem great things to us while we have nothing else to be concerned about. But add death to them and they all sink into an equal littleness. And the soul that is separated from the body no more grieves over the loss of business than the loss of a party.

"If I am going now to the joys of God, could there be any reason to grieve that death happened to me before I was forty years of age? Could it be a sad thing to go to heaven before I made a few more bargains or stood a little longer behind the counter? And if I am to go among the lost spirits, could there be any reason to be content that this did not happen to me until I was old and full of riches? If holy angels were ready to receive my soul, could there be any grief to me that I was dying upon a poor bed in an attic? And if God has delivered me up to evil spirits to be dragged by them into places of torments, could it be any comfort to me that they found me on a bed of luxury?

"When you are as near death as I am, you will know that all the different states of life, whether of youth or age, riches or poverty, are no more important to you than whether you die in a poor house or a rich mansion. The greatness of those things that follow death makes all that precedes it sink into nothing. Now that judgment is the next thing that I look for, and everlasting happiness or misery has come so near me, all the enjoyments and prosperities of life seem insignificant. And they have no more to do with my happiness than the clothes I wore before I could speak.

"But why am I surprised that I have not always had these thoughts? What is in the terrors of death, the vanities of life, or the necessities of piety that I could not have easily and fully seen in any part of my life? How strange it is that life and business should keep us so senseless of these great things that are coming so rapidly upon us.

"Just as you came into my bedroom I was thinking of how many souls there are in the world that are in my condition at this very moment, surprised by God with a summons to the other world. They were occupied with all kinds of pleasures and business and all were seized at an hour that they did not expect. Now they are frightened at the approach of death; confounded at the futility of all their labors, designs, and projects; astonished at the foolishness of their past lives; and not knowing which way to turn their thoughts to find any comfort. All their sins condemn them and torment them with the deepest conviction of their own foolishness. Before they see nothing but the sight of the angry Judge, the worm that never dies, the fire that is never quenched, the gates of hell, the powers of darkness, and the bitter pains of eternal death.

"Oh, my friends, bless God that you are not of this number, that you have time and strength to occupy yourselves with those works of piety that will bring you peace at the end. Consider this as you live out your life; there is nothing but a life of great piety or a death of great fear. If I had a thousand worlds, I would give them all for one year more--one year in which I might give to God the kind of devotion and good works that I never thought of before. Now you might wonder why I am so full of remorse and self-condemnation at the approach of death when I have lived free from scandal and debauchery and in the communion of the church. But what a poor thing is it to have only lived free from murder, theft, and adultery, which is all that I can say of myself. You know that I have never been a drunkard. But many times you have witnessed my intemperance, sensuality, and great indulgence. If I am now going to a judgment where nothing will be rewarded but good works, I should well be concerned that though I am not a drunkard I have no Christian virtues to plead for me.

"It is true, I have lived in the communion of the church and have attended its worship and service on Sundays when I was not too tired or preoccupied with my business and pleasures. But my conformity to public worship has been a thing of habit rather than any real interest in doing what God requires of those who profess faith in Christ. Otherwise I would have been oftener at church, more devout when there, and more fearful of neglecting it.

"But the thing that surprises me above all wonders is that I never had the smallest intention of living up to the piety of the Gospel. Such a thing never entered into my head or my heart. I never once in my life considered whether I was living as the laws of religion directed, or whether my way of life was the kind that would procure me the mercy of God at this hour. And how can it be thought that I have kept the Gospel terms of salvation, when I never intended in any serious and deliberate manner to know them or keep them? Can it be thought that I have pleased God with such a life as He requires, though I have lived without ever considering what He requires? How cheap do you think salvation would be if it could fall into my careless hands, when I have never had any more serious thought about it than I have had about any common bargain I have made?

"In the business of life I have used prudence and reflection. I have done everything by rules and methods. I have been glad to converse with men of experience and judgment to find out the reasons why some fail and others succeed in business. I have always had my eye upon the main end of business, and have studied all the ways and means of gaining profit by all that I undertook. But what is the reason that I have brought none of these attributes to religion? I have often talked of the necessity of rules, methods, and diligence in worldly business, so why is it that I have never once thought of any rules, methods, or disciplines to carry me on in a life of piety?

"Would you think anything could astonish and confound a dying man like this? What pain do you think a man must feel when his conscience lays all his foolishness to his charge; when it shows him how regular, exact and wise he has been in trivial matters that are passed away like a dream, and how stupid and senseless he has lived in things of such eternal importance? Had I only my frailties and imperfections to grieve over at this time, I would lie here humbly trusting in the mercies of God. But how can I call a general disregard and thorough neglect of all religious improvement, a frailty or imperfection? It was as much in my power to have been exact, careful, and diligent in a course of piety as in the business of my trade. I cold have called in as many helps, have practiced as many rules, and been taught as many certain methods of holy living as I could have for increasing business in my shop, if I had so intended and desired it.

"Oh, my friends, a careless life, unconcerned and inattentive to the duties of religion is so without excuse, so unworthy of the mercy of God, such a shame to the sense and reason of our minds, that I can hardly conceive a greater punishment for a man than to be thrown into the state that I am in--unable to do anything but reflect upon the foolishness of his life."
Penitens continued speaking until his mouth was stopped by a convulsion, which never allowed him to speak again. He convulsed frequently for about twelve hours and then gave up his spirit.

Dear Ones, could there be any greater tragedy? Let us live our lives with intention. Loving and serving the Lord with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength so that our only thought upon death is the joy we will have in finally seeing His magnificent beauty and being forever surrounded by His infinite love.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Thoughts on Writing a Good Life Story

I have recently been on a book signing tour at various Mardel bookstores to promote "Matthew" the second book in "The Rhyme and Reason Series." My last stop, before we begin the big holiday push, was to Houston.

I only sold three books that day, and two of those were to the woman who picked me up at the airport and sat at the table with me! Of the ten Mardel signings I have done, the longest one (3 hours) in the largest city (Houston), sold the least number of books by far so, on the surface, it should have been the most disappointing. But it wasn't. In fact, it was the most rewarding and I marvel anew every time I see God's hand directly at work in unmistakable ways and the delights He scatters along our paths.

As I was flying in that morning, and giving myself and the day to the Lord, I invited Him to accomplish His goals for the day. I just didn't realize until later that it would have nothing to do with book sales!

The only people I saw when I walked in the door were a woman customer and the clerk ringing up her purchases. Not wanting to interrupt, but needing to find where they put the book table, I rather timidly said hello to the clerk, told her who I was and asked where I was supposed to go. She got all excited, apologized for not recognizing me (?!) and made a comment about me flying in from Tulsa.

I also happened to look at the pile of books the customer was purchasing and saw a new Donald Miller book I didn't know was out. I asked her if she was a fan and she said she was, that this was a great book, it was on sale, she had already read it and was coming back to get more to give to her friends. As I turned to find where the clerk pointed out my table was, the customer told me she would show me where to find the book after she payed for her purchases.

A few minutes later she came up, pointed out the Donald Miller book and introduced me to her boyfriend who was also from Tulsa and had graduated from high school and college here. They were my first "customers" so I told them all about the series, showed them the books, told them the ministry tag line of, "Getting these books in people's hands so people's hands will pick up The Book!" and about the personalized CDs, etc.

The young man said he worked for Lakewood Church and he said it in such a way I could tell it was supposed to register with me. It didn't. I told him I wasn't from Houston but I was sure it was a great church, blah, blah, blah. He said, "It's Joel Osteen's church." THAT registered with me! So I gave him a book and asked him to show it to the folks at Lakewood who ran the children's ministry.

Then he said the most remarkable thing.

He told me how the two of them had prayed before beginning their day and how after they had said "Amen" he thought of one more stop he needed to make. Mardel. But time was short because of other commitments so they needed to hurry because it was out of the way of the rest of their errands. He also told me they had ever even been in that particular store before! I was thrilled to be able to put "Genesis" in their hands and have prayed several times since that the Lord will do all He has in mind to do with that connection.

They left and I began to look for other people to draw over to the table and talk with but it seemed the woman who had picked me up at the airport wanted (needed?) to talk. I was getting a bit anxious at first because giving her my undivided attention meant I couldn't engage the customers walking past the table! Finally, I was able to give up my agenda and follow the Lord's. I reminded myself that it wasn't just about book sales--it was about being where the Lord put me, doing what He wanted me to be doing in the very moment I was living. And God is always about people. It became a joy to be able to serve the Lord by listening to her.

I found out from her afterward that she is well-connected to several Bible studies and women's groups in the area so we will see what the Lord has in mind to do there as well.

But perhaps the best part of all was finding Donald Miller's new book. I sat down yesterday, in between the OU/Texas game and visiting the state fair, and read it from cover to cover. I haven't stopped thinking about it since. I will probably be buying more to give as gifts to my friends as well.

The book is about the efforts to turn his bestselling book, "Blue Like Jazz" into a movie and his discoveries in that process of what makes a good story. He began applying those principles to his real life and not just his movie life so that his real life would be a better story. As I read, I kept thinking about the story my life is "writing." I realized, as well as things seem to be going at this particular moment, that I can write a better story by making better and more intentional choices. By being "in the moment" as I recently learned from reading, "Abandonment to Divine Providence" by Jean-Pierre De Caussade, which I would also recommend to everyone I know.

We live in the moment not only by letting go of the regrets of the past and refusing to dwell on the anxiety of the future, but by being led of the Spirit and doing the next right thing in the very moment we are experiencing. Together, these two ideas: being in the moment and writing a better life story are having a profound effect on me.

Last night, as I lay in bed praying, I started thinking about ways I could begin to write a better story. I am going to try and express something here that has been bugging me and I haven't known what to do with. I hope you don't mind!

I can't tell you how many times in this past year someone, after having read the books and realizing the potential impact of "The Rhyme and Reason Series", has said to me, "I just know you are going to be famous!" Nor can I tell you how intensely uncomfortable this makes me. Because it's not about me being famous. In fact, it's not about me at all. We always give a pledge of allegiance to that notion, but it's true. It's about the Lord, His Kingdom and His eternal glory.
Like every kid in our pop-culture obsessed society, I used to want to be famous! I used to twirl and pirouette on my roller skates on my parents large driveway while singing into my hairbrush under the outside spotlighting on the house. This probably reads like a cliche, but it's true!

But I am 52 now. I have been a Christian for 36 years and have been married for 28 of those. I have raised three children and buried my oldest son six years ago this month. I seldom watch t.v. and haven't read a People magazine in years. I am mature enough and have lived long enough to know that the greatest treasures in this life are the ones we are storing up in heaven. As a result, the things of this world have less and less effect on my goals and desires and that continues to be the case as I seek to live my life in a way that will impact eternity.

Last night, as I was thinking about my story and praying, things became a bit more clear. I said, "Lord, I don't want to be famous, but I desperately want YOU to be famous!" And I really liked that thought. I liked the way it felt.

So I began thinking in a much more purposeful way about how the Lord might want to use the gifts and talents He has given me to make Him famous and I began to get too excited to sleep! I realized that a lot of the things I am already doing He will probably continue having me do. There is no doubt this series is from Him, by Him and for Him and I have always prayed, whether I am speaking to crowds or working to promote the books, that God would be glorified through it all.

But somehow, reframing it to think about my story making Him famous, gave things more clarity and focus than they have had before. Now my actions, submitted to Him and led by His Spirit, will be with that goal in crystal clear focus: Making the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the God of all creation, the One who has named all the stars, famous in all the earth so He can "draw all men unto [Himself]."

As Christians, we know that's what we are all supposed to be doing. But because the Lord ordered my footsteps on a day I had submitted to Him and had me find and read those two books, I feel better equipped to write a story that will more effectively glorify Him.

But I realized something else. God also has a story. His is a story of eternal existence, of bringing creation into being, of giving an eternal companion to His Son whom He loves, of watching that eternal companion rebel and break fellowship with Him, of sending His Son to redeem His companion so the original plan will still result in the original goal. I realized that we are part of God's story and He graciously includes us in all His plot twists. Even the ones of our own making.

It's an exhilarating thought--that we are part of God's story. A true story. Non-fiction. A story with all the elements that make an epic story. A story He will continue for all eternity.