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What If

what-ifA few weeks ago I was roaming around in one of my favorite bookstores when I took a seat to check my email on my smartphone. There were two seats in that area with a small table in between them, and a handsome middle-aged man with a week’s worth of beard growth that gave him an intellectually stimulating and rugged look was seated in the other chair. He was reading a Mark Batterson book titled, If: Trading Your If Only Regrets for God’s What If Possibilities (2015). While I was in the middle of writing a brief email on my smartphone, he asked me if I was familiar with Mark Batterson. I said “yes,” and he said he thought If was his favorite book by him so far. I acknowledged that I had not yet read it, then I finished my brief email, and we ended up having a delightful conversation on a variety of topics.

When I was in another bookstore this past week that is known for it’s great discounts on Christian books, I saw a copy of If by Mark Batterson, who is the lead pastor of National Community Church in Washington D.C., and a New York Times bestselling author of several books. Remembering my previous conversation with the ruggedly handsome middle-aged man regarding the book, I decided to purchase it (and I love it when I get a great book at a great price, too).

One of the stories Batterson opens his book with is about a fellow who decided back in 1987 to purchase a small chain of coffeehouses with a strange name. Can you guess the name? Starbucks. And the rest, as they say, is pretty much history. However, at the time, Howard Schultz, who purchased the chain of coffeehouses back then, paid a $3.8 million dollar price tag and gave up a salary of $75,000/yr to “purchase his passion for all things coffee.” It is, of course, one of the great American success stories, and Schultz, who was born a year after I was born, now has a net worth of $3 billion dollars, and is stepping down as CEO of the company on April 3, 2017, “to focus on turning Starbucks’ Reserve-branded coffee bars into destination restaurants” (quote source here). It was a huge risk for Schultz to purchase an unknown coffeehouse chain back in 1987, but as Batterson quoted from Schultz’s memoir, Pour Your Heart Into It,” on page 10 of If,” Schultz states the following:

“This is my moment,” I thought. “If I don’t seize the opportunity, if I don’t step out of my comfort zone and risk it all, if I let too much time tick on, my moment will pass.” I knew that if I didn’t take advantage of this opportunity, I would replay it in my mind for my whole life, wondering: “What if?” (Original quote source: “Pour Your Heart Into It,” p. 63.)

What If? And that’s the topic of Mark Batterson’s book. After the Starbucks story, Batterson writes (p. 11):

What’s your “what if?”

If you don’t know yet, keep reading.

I want you to know that I’ve been praying for  you. While I may not know your name or your circumstances, God does. And I’ve been asking Him to put this book in the right hands at the right time. That’s my prayer for every book I write. So when someone apologizes for having not read one of my books, apology accepted. I trust God’s timing.

Of course, the flip side is true. The fact that you hold this book in your hands is evidence that you’re ready for “what if.” I’m praying that God will reveal it as you read.

“If” is more than a book.

It’s your “what if.”

But first you have to get past, “if only.” (Quote source: “If,” page 11.)

There is a significant difference between “if only” and “what if.” “If only” speaks of regrets; whereas “what if” speaks of possibilities. In the next section in Chapter 1 titled, “The Power of If,” in his book, Batterson states:

Let me make a rather bold prediction.

At the end of your life, your greatest regret won’t be the things you did but wish you hadn’t. Your greatest regret will be the things you didn’t do but wish you had. It’s the “what if” dreams that we never act upon that turn into “if only” regrets.

That prediction is backed up by a study done by two social psychologists, Tom Gilovich and Vicki Medvec. According to their research, time is a key factor in what we regret. In the short term, we tend to regret actions more than inactions by a count of 53 to 47 percent. In other words, we feel acute regret over the mistakes we’ve made. But over the long haul, we regret inactions more than actions, 84 to 16 percent.

That doesn’t mean we won’t have some deep-seated regrets about things we wish we hadn’t said or done, but our longest lasting regrets will be the opportunities we left on the table. Those are the “if onlys” that haunt us to the grave and beyond.

Now let me translate that study into theological terms.

We fixate on sins of commission far too much. We practice holiness by subtraction–don’t do this, don’t do that, and you’re okay. The problem with that is this: you can do nothing wrong and still do nothing right.

Righteousness is more than doing nothing wrong–it’s doing something right. It’s not just resisting temptation–it’s going after God-ordained opportunities. Holiness by subtraction is playing not to lose. Righteousness is going all in with God. It’s playing to win. It’s living as if the victory has already been won at Calvary’s cross. And it has.

In my opinion, it’s the sins of omission that grieve the heart of our heavenly Father the most–the wouldas, couldas, and shouldas. Why? Because no one knows our God-given potential like the God who gave it to us in the first place!

Potential is God’s gift to us.

Making the most of it is our gift back to God.

Anything less results in regrets. (Quote source: “If,” page 12.)

At this point I can think of one example in my own life where I could apply both the “if only” and “what if” questions. The example, of course, goes back to September 2008 when I accepted that job in Houston which I lost seven months later in April 2009. I could state, “If only I had never accepted that job in the first place, I wouldn’t be living in a hotel now on a Social Security income and having such a difficult time finding low income housing.” That, of course, is a “regret” statement. However, the “what if” question given to that same situation–since it is a reality that I did take that job in Houston in 2008 and I am now living in a hotel room on a Social Security income, and I’m having a very difficult time finding low income housing–and turns the situation completely around. Enter Romans 8:28 which states:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

job-42v2Hence, using the words from Romans 8:28, the question now becomes, “What if God means to bring this very situation to work out for my own good because I do love him, and because I have been called according to his purpose.” His purpose, not mine (which we as Christians so often get confused about). That puts an entirely different spin on the situation. He never meant this situation for my ill will, but for His purpose, and that purpose is still unfolding. In other words, it’s not over until it serves God’s purpose, and it’s not just about what we want.

There is much in Batterson’s book that I can’t begin to touch on in a blog post, and I’m not going to try. However, there is a segment in Chapter 24 titled “Change Agents” that I want to quote (from pp. 221-225):

I have a few convictions when it comes to calling. They are keys to unlocking “what if.”

God doesn’t call the qualified. He qualifies the called.

There is a high likelihood that God will call you to do something you’re not smart enough, good enough, or strong enough to pull off. By definition, a God-ordained dream will always be beyond your ability and beyond your resources. Why? So that you have to rely on God every single day!

I’m keenly aware of the fact that in my current state of spiritual maturity, I’m not capable of leading National Community Church two years from now. I need to keep growing, keep learning. And that’s the way it should be. Nothing keeps you on your knees in raw dependence upon God like God-sized dreams.

Criticize by creating.

In my opinion, criticism is a cop-out for those who are too lazy to solve the problem they are complaining about. Instead of criticizing movies or music, produce a film or an album that is better than whatever it is you’re complaining about. The most constructive criticism is called creativity.

At the end of the day, we should be more known for what we’re for than what we’re against. Anybody can point out problems. We’re called to solve them by writing better books, starting better schools, and drafting better legislation.

The anointing is for everyone.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, or a barista. From the top of the organizational chart to the bottom, God wants to anoint you to do whatever it is you’re called to do.

If I need legal help, I certainly want an attorney who has been to law school. But I also want an attorney who is anointed by God. 

If I need surgery, I certainly want a doctor who has been to med school. But I want more than that; I want a doctor whose hands are anointed by God.

If I need dirty chai with two shots of expresso–well, you get the point. The anointing of God knows no limits when it comes to position or portfolio.

Live for the applause of nail-scarred hands.

Whatever it is that you feel called to do, do it as if your life depended on it. That’s 1 Corinthians 10:31 in a nutshell: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”

The key word is “whatever.” It doesn’t matter what you’re doing; do it to the glory of God. “It is inbred in us that we have to do exceptional things for God,” said Oswald Chambers, “but we have not. We have been exceptional in the ordinary things.” And when we are, we put a smile on God’s face.

Richard Bolles, author of the classic bestseller [first published in 1970 and updated every year thereafter], “What Color Is Your Parachute?”, makes a profound observation. “The story in the Gospels of Jesus going up on the mount and being transfigured before the disciples is to me a picture of what calling is all about. Taking the mundane, offering it to God, and asking Him to transfigure it.”

“Taking mundane tasks and figuring out how to transfigure them.”

That’s what calling is all about.

More than a decade ago, I gave the eulogy at a memorial service in the Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building. Some of the most important hearings in our nation’s history have been held in that room. If those walls could talk!

Yet here we were to honor the life of a woman with no rank. Jayonna Beal was the administrative assistant in charge of constituent correspondence for fourteen years. That isn’t a position people are fighting for on the hill, but Jayonna did it with grace. She didn’t have position or power, but that room was packed with the Who’s Who of Washington.

I spoke right after her boss, who would run for president in a few years. He, along with countless others, shared stories of how Jayonna’s small acts of kindness made a big difference in their lives. Jayonna baked cookies, sewed buttons, and showed interns the ropes. And she did it all in the name of Jesus. Jayonna practices the old adage, “Share the gospel every day; if necessary, use words.”

It’s the little “ifs” that change the world.

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:

If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven will pause to say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

I know a great street sweeper. Her name is Val, and she is a custodian who cleans like it’s nobody’s business but God’s. She inscribed SDG on her mop handle, just like Johann Sebastian Bach did on his symphonies. It stands for “Soli Deo Gloria.” It’s a reminder that she cleans for the glory of God.

Believe it or not, Val drove all the way from Canada to clean our offices at National Community Church. I know that sounds strange, but I think it falls into the category of “strange and mysterious.” She was profoundly impacted by our podcast, and she wanted to repay her debt of gratitude the best way she knew how. So she drove all the way to DC to clean our offices.

Who does that?

I’ll tell you who. Someone who knows God has called them. Back home, Val is the custodian for the school district. It’s often a thankless job; the job no one else wants to do. And it isn’t always easy. “My prayer last year was the God would get me off the third shift,” Val told me. “But now I have changed my prayer. I want to be taught by God what I need to learn.”

There might be educators in her district smarter than her, but I dare say that no one is more teachable than that custodian. And that’s what really counts in God’s kingdom.

Being a third-shift custodian isn’t most people’s dream job. But what you do isn’t as important as how you do it and whom you do it for. So no matter what you do, do it like Michelangelo painted, Beethoven composed, Shakespeare wrote poetry, and Val cleans bathrooms.

Whatever you do, don’t settle for what.

Imagine “what if.” (Quote source: “If,” page 221-225.)

I’ll end this post with something to think about that Batterson states on page 24:

There is no higher leverage point than the two-letter word “if.”

It defines our deepest regrets: “if only.”

It defies impossible circumstances: “as if.”

It’s pregnant with infinite possibilities: “what if.”

And it overcomes all refutations: no “ifs, ands, or buts” about it.

Biblically speaking, “if” is the conditional conjunction that turns God’s eternal promises into our present realities. Each of those promises is a high leverage point, but perhaps no promise in the Bible has more leverage than Romans 8:31 . . .

“If God is for us, who can be against us?” . . .

And that’s one little “if” . . .

That can change your life . . . .

YouTube Video: “Feel It” by TobyMac ft. Mr. TalkBox

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Photo #2 credit here

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Expect the Unexpected

Back in May I wrote a blog post titled Expecting the Unexpected (click here for post). That particular post was on the topic of serendipitymaking fortunate discoveries by accident. And that’s exactly what happened to me when I stayed at the Red Roof Inn in Houston, TX, on August 26th during my recent trip there (see my blog post, Rock Steady for details). This post is a different twist on the same idea, so let me start it off with a devotion I read this morning by Dr. Charles Swindoll:

Expect the Unexpected

Psalm 8

Most folks I know like things to stay as they are. You’ve heard all the sayings that reveal our preferences for the familiar: Leave well enough alone. I don’t like surprises. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Stay with a sure thing.

We admire pioneers . . . so long as we can just read about them, not finance their journeys. We applaud explorers . . . but not if it means we have to load up and travel with them. Creative ideas are fine . . . but “don’t get carried away,” we warn. Plans that involve risks prompt worst-case scenarios from the lips of most who wait in the wings.

Don’t misunderstand. Just because the plan is creative is no guarantee that stuff won’t backfire. On the contrary, surprises and disappointments await anyone who ventures into the unknown.

But the fact is, the alternative is worse. Can anything be worse than boredom? Is there an existence less challenging and more draining than the predictable? I don’t think so.

More importantly, God doesn’t seem to think so either. As I read through the biblical accounts of His working in the lives of His people, the single thread that ties most of the stories together is the unexpected. Need some examples?

After aging Abraham finally got the son God had promised to him, after he cultivated a father-son bond closer than words could describe, after fixing his hopes on all that God had said He would do through that boy to whom Sarah gave birth, God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on the mountain.

Even though the prophet Hosea had lived righteously before his Lord and had been faithful to his wife, Gomer, she left their home and family and became a harlot in the streets of Israel. God’s instructions? Go find her and remarry her.

When it came time for God to send His Son to earth, He did not send Him to the palace of some mighty king. He was conceived in the womb of an unwed mother–a virgin!–who lived in the lowly village of Nazareth.

In choosing those who would represent Christ and establish His church, God picked some of the most unusual individuals imaginable: unschooled fishermen, a tax collector(!), a mystic, a doubter, and a former Pharisee who had persecuted Christians. He continues to pick some very unusual persons down through the ages. In fact, He seems to delight in such surprising choices to this very day.

So, let God be God. Expect the unexpected.

God likes surprises. Breaking molds is His specialty.

Source: Day by Day by Dr. Charles Swindoll, p. 114
Word Publishing, Thomas Nelson, 2000

As I read it I was reminded of a passage from I Corinthians 1:26-31 (MSG): “Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of ‘the brightest and the best’ among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these ‘nobodies’ to expose the hollow pretensions of the ‘somebodies’? That makes it quite clear that none of you can get by with blowing your own horn before God. Everything that we have—right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start—comes from God by way of Jesus Christ. That’s why we have the saying, ‘If you’re going to blow a horn, blow a trumpet for God.’”

I think of the Apostle Paul, who was a former Pharisee (known as Saul of Tarsus) who persecuted Christians and then met Jesus Christ on the Damascus Road and his life (and way of life) was forever changed. By using his own words his life after meeting his Savior was not easy. Read with me his own account in I Corinthians 11:23-33:

“I’ve worked much harder, been jailed more often, beaten up more times than I can count, and at death’s door time after time. I’ve been flogged five times with the Jews’ thirty-nine lashes, beaten by Roman rods three times, pummeled with rocks once. I’ve been shipwrecked three times, and immersed in the open sea for a night and a day. In hard traveling year in and year out, I’ve had to ford rivers, fend off robbers, struggle with friends, struggle with foes. I’ve been at risk in the city, at risk in the country, endangered by desert sun and sea storm, and betrayed by those I thought were my brothers. I’ve known drudgery and hard labor, many a long and lonely night without sleep, many a missed meal, blasted by the cold, naked to the weather.

“And that’s not the half of it, when you throw in the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches. When someone gets to the end of his rope, I feel the desperation in my bones. When someone is duped into sin, an angry fire burns in my gut.

“If I have to ‘brag’ about myself, I’ll brag about the humiliations that make me like Jesus. The eternal and blessed God and Father of our Master Jesus knows I’m not lying. Remember the time I was in Damascus and the governor of King Aretas posted guards at the city gates to arrest me? I crawled through a window in the wall, was let down in a basket, and had to run for my life.”

As we can see, Paul’s life after meeting Jesus Christ on the Damascus Road was anything but easy, and after his last arrest–according to Christian tradition–Paul was beheaded in Rome during the reign of Nero around the mid-60s AD (quote source here).

In our society of celebrity worship, the Apostle Paul would never have made it into that category. Indeed, the religious folks in his time (the Pharisees) tried to shut him up and kill him. Yet God used him powerfully in the most trying and difficult of circumstances to establish the church and write a good portion of the New Testament. But the only time he was ever close to achieving celebrity status was prior to meeting Jesus Christ when he was still a Pharisee and connected to the religious establishment at that time.

As Christians, that should give us pause for thought about how we live our own lives and what we seek after in this life. Of course, there was only one Apostle Paul, but he clearly shows us the way in his own life and in his letters to the early church how we should live this life in Christ. And it’s not seeking all of the “stuff” that our society glamorizes and worships . . .

. . . which brings me back to the Red Roof Inn where I met a man that I call “Red” (see my post Rock Steady for details). In a brief conversation with his adult daughter in the lobby of the hotel while he was at the check-in counter, she mentioned–among other things like the fact that he was single and couldn’t seem to find a woman who wanted to stick around–that he used to be a pastor. And shortly thereafter, I had a brief conversation with him and discovered that he was a “logger” from Louisiana, and I got the impression he almost felt apologetic about it as he quickly added, “but I make good money.” And I felt bad that he thought his occupation might not impress me.

As I looked into his eyes (the most beautiful blue eyes I’ve ever seen on a man), I told him what people think about his occupation doesn’t matter–and it certainly didn’t matter to me (I wish I would have added that people are not what they do for a living, but who they are at the very core of their being). And then I told him that I had been unemployed for the past three plus years and that I was now 60 which didn’t help matters. And then I wondered if he thought I was too old for him to be interested in. Sigh . . . .

Nobodies . . . a logger from Louisiana and a 60-year-old unemployed woman from Florida who met very briefly (by his vehicle, actually) in Houston at the Red Roof Inn. I don’t know if I’ll ever meet him again, but I’d like to . . . .

In an article by Dr. David Jeremiah on Christianity.com titled, God Uses ‘Nobodies’,” he states, “God uses things which are foolish, things which are weak, things which are base, things which are despised.” He goes on to say, “God wants to take us down to the very depths of ourselves to teach us that if there is any power, it is the power that is in God, and not in us. God doesn’t need to make us into performers or superstars in order to use us. Instead, He’s looking for men and women who have hearts that say, ‘Lord, I’m a nobody. I’m nothing without You. Will You use me?’ When God finds such a heart, something extraordinary happens–that ‘nobody’ is promoted to the ranks of God’s nobility.”

So if you feel like a nobody, you’re in an excellent place to be used by God.

Expect the unexpected . . . . 

See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up;
do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the desert
and streams in the wasteland.
~Isaiah 43:19

YouTube Video: “What If” by Colbie Caillat (from the movie, “Letters to Juliet”–2011):

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