Tuesday, October 31, 2006

In 1992 the Hurricane "Iniki" slammed into the Hawaiian island of Kauai with 150 mph winds and torrential rains. It uprooted trees, collapsed buildings, and stripped the leaves and flowers from trees and bushes. The “Garden Island” had become, in one day, a skeleton of its former self. Where there had been blossoms…it was now barren.

But a curious thing began to happen in the months after the hurricane had swept through. The trees and bushes that were still left began to bloom abundantly.

Nine months after Iniki, my Father in Law was touring the National Botanical Garden on Kauai. He asked the curator, “Why this phenomenon? Why are these trees blooming so ferociously?” The curator (who was happy to have anyone in his garden after Iniki) said, “The Hurricane stresses the tree so severely…it thinks it’s going to die… therefore, immediately afterwards it produces abundant fruit and blossoms in order to get its’ seed out and into the ground…so that a new generation of trees will germinate and grow."

So...unstressed, the tree produces fruit and blossoms once a year…but when stressed, it blooms life abundantly.

Hearing this story made me think. Have I ever responded to the extreme stresses of hardship by producing something beautiful and life-giving?

My normal reaction to stress is to hunker down and grit my teeth. Make a list of things that have to be done, focus all my energy on merely getting through it. Survival. I think most people are like that.

And then I remembered.

When my dad died, I was 24. I had just gotten married and was (finally) ready to listen to him. But a heart attack killed him. I felt like every leaf had been stripped from the tree.

And in the months that followed, some emotions in me "died". My wife said (later), "It is like you went emotionally numb, John."

Jesus promised that while, "The thief's purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give life in all its fullness." (John 10:10)

Because I as severely stresed by the hurricane of loss, I had to turn to God for strength and direction. God began to produce new life in me. The fruitfulness of love, and joy, and peace, and patience began appearing in my character. Not because I successfully willed them to happen. But because I placed the death of my father into the care of the Lord.

That fruit of the Spirit can blossom after the hurricane of job loss, divorce, grief and bereavement, sorrow. When you feel like every leaf has been stripped from the tree...Jesus can bring new growth that no hurricane can take away.

Monday, October 09, 2006

So I'm back reading in the old Testament book of Daniel, and thinking again about his life story.

Daniel goes through four segments (over and over - in each chapter). It's like Daniel, when telling his story, wants to underline this sequence:
he begins in a place of comfort within his culture. Then he gets caught in a dilemma. He must make a decision and he chooses to honor God in his response to the dilemma he faces, despite the danger it puts him in. As a result, he becomes a counselor of greater and greater influence - in other words, God blesses his God-honoring choice by widening the circle of people who listen to him, and broadening the number of people who follow his leadership.

It's like Daniel - in looking back over his life as he wrote this book, saw a repeated pattern.

And that got me thinking about my life (again). I think the pattern that repeats in Daniel's life is the same pattern that keeps repeeating in my life. From comfort to being caught in a dilemma, having to choose whether or not to honor God with my response, and then growing to be a person of greater influence (like a counselor).

The pattern repeats not because I'm stuck like Bill Murray's character in "Groundhog Day" movie. No, I believe that this pattern repeats because it's the pattern of how God forms integrity into my character. God sets up the situations so that, if I choose to honor him when confronted with a dilemma, I grow more integrity in my character.

So, what was the dilemma that caught Daniel? Well, the first one (recorded in Daniel, chapter 1)was a dilemma of what food he would eat. I know that doesn't sound very dramatic. But if you dig a little deeper into the story, you see that Daniel's convictions were at stake.

Remember, he, along with other young men his age (14-16) had been deported from their homeland in southern Israel to the far-away city of Babylon. He was put into a special school, sort of a training academy in Babylonian culture, literature, history, and science. It was like a Liberal Arts University education in a foreign land.

That doesn't sound so bad, in fact the bonus of all this was that if he showed scholastic skill he could land a pretty responsible job in the government of King Nebuchadnezzar. He was much more than a Congressional Page (yikes, I just read about the Foley scandal in the paper today). But, like the congressional pages, he was in a culture of "If you want to get along, you got to go along."

And that culture forced a dilemma onto Daniel. The school meal plan demanded that he eat pork-related food (which was against his Jewish faith), and drink fine wine at each meal. It was what the King ate, and he expected his proteges to eat like him.

But Daniel honored God in responding to this dilemma. He quietly asked the proctor of the school, "Can you allow me to eat plainer, more basic food. No rich pork meals, and no wine?" When the proctor said, "Hey, I don't want to get in trouble with the King. If you eat that plain stuff, you'll look pale and thin compared to the others, and it will be my head that rolls!"

But Daniel wisely countered, "Just give me a 10 day trial of the diet that I know works best for me. Then after 10 days, see if I'm thin or strong, see if I'm pale or powerful." The proctor agreed, and after 10 days Daniel looked healthier, stronger, more clear-eyed than the rest of the student body.(well, that's easy to understand, ever see young men when they have a hosted bar available to them? Moderation is not their normal response)

But the great part is that Daniel didn't just "look marvelous" (in Billy Crystal's immortal words), he "was marvelous" in his intellect, his speech and his grasp of all the subject matter of the school.

Daniel honored God (by keeping his convictions even when it wasn't easy), and God blessed him with a deeper grasp of the subject matter and a wiser way of relating to other people. At the end of the term, the King interviewed all the young men from his college and Daniel was head and shoulders above the rest. So the King gave him a position in his personal advisors group (sort of like an extended Presidential cabinet). Wow, talk about becoming a counselor of greater influence.

So it matters what I do when I'm confronted with a dilemma that demands I sacrifice my convictions just to "go along". I can choose to honor God despite the risk, or I can just lower my head and shuffle along with the rest. As I look back on my life, when I acted like Daniel - God did bless my life. When I buckled, what looked like the easier "go along" path turned out to be worse for me.

Take amoment and look back over your life. Do you see Daniel's pattern in your life? Are you facing a dilemma that is forcing you to choose between a God-honoring conviction, or a 'group-think caving in' response?

That kind of a choice is never easy. Becoming a person of greater integrity is not easy. But it is good.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

How does God form integrity into you? Integrity means that the individual parts of you are connected with each other in a healthy way - and your choices reflect your deep down convictions.

I've been reading deeply in the the Old Testament Book of Daniel. It is a narrative story of faith and decisions. Daniel (and others) grow in integrity through the episodes of this story. And I see a certain outline (formula?) traced in each chapter. The more I saw it repeated, the more I thought about how it is true for me, too:

Daniel (or the other main persons of the story) begins each chapter in a place of comfort within his culture. Then he is caught in a dilemma. He must make a decision and he chooses to honor God in his response to the dilemma he faces, despite the danger it puts him in. As a result, he becomes a counselor of greater influence - in other words, God blesses his God-honoring choice by widening the circle of people who listen to him, and broadening the number of people who follow his leadership.

I know that having each part of Daniel's story begin with the letter "c" looks a little cheesy, but bear with me - it makes it easier to remember.

For example, in the first chapter he is a young (probably 14-16 years old) man from a royal family residing in Jerusalem in wealth and privelege. Though there was at that time a rotten King over Israel (named 'Jehoiakim'), the King that preceded him (named 'Josiah') was actually quite awesome in his good character. So, while Daniel was growing up, the example before him was Josiah - a good king.

Why do I think Josiah was a good king? Dig a little deeper by going into the Old Testament book of 2 Kings, chapters 22, and 23. In that account of Israel's history, you will see that King Josiah was the most godly, full of integrity, king in a long, long time.

Josiah did five things that were good:
1. he revived the worship of God by his people. (He did this by repairing the Jerusalem Temple so people had a place to worship the Lord)
2. he recalled the people to reading God's Word. (for generations, the Torah had been neglected, not read or obeyed...but during the Temple restoration, a scroll was uncovered, Josiah read it, and got everyone to begin reading and obeying God's Word.)
3. he removed the state support of sexual immorality (Josiah stopped the male and female prostitutes hovering around the capital and the Temple who sold sex to give their clients a "spiritual high" through physical pleasure. Sounds kinky, and it was).
4. he restored the value of life (some people were actually sacrificing children to a pagan idol, and he put a stop to it).
5. he restarted the celebration of Passover (this was the once a year "story meal" that Jews gathered for in their family home, to eat dishes that told the story of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. The Jews, by neglecting the Passover, had forgotton who they were and how God loved them).

I think that King Josiah made a big impression on young Daniel. Daniel grew up in a culture that honored God.

It makes me think how I can trace my own life story by the US Presidents who have held office during my lifetime. Their leadership, their convictions and decisions shaped the culture I lived in. Born in 1954 (Eisenhower, Baby Boom, tract houses, 'seeing the USA in our Chevrolet'), grade school in the 60's (Kennedy and Johnson - The Cold War, "drop drills" to practice hiding under the school desk to "protect" us if a nuclear attack hit - though recent Columbine was way more tragic, my generation had a sense of insecurity too. Vietnam, nightly "body counts" on the evening news, "free love" and rebellion against authority), graduated high school in 1972 (Nixon, then impeachment, Ford for a brief 2 years). I'll stop there for now...but it makes me think back to the culture that I grew up with.

I think I was comfortable in my culture, because of loving parents who were like a Josiah to me. They honored God, our home was run on Christian principles, we had fun, laughed at the dinner table, enjoyed the great outdoors. Yeah, I think I was a Daniel when I was young.

Was/is there a Josiah in your life?