Thursday, January 16, 2014

Desire's End or What Pac-Man Really Wants

For the past month or two, I have been intrigued by some sayings that I came across in the book of Proverbs, sayings that have to do with desire. I have been trying to wrap my mind and heart around these verses because on the surface they seem so good, yet at the same time, experience could dictate otherwise. Which is it? Are these sayings untrue, or do I need to go deeper to discover what they are really saying? Today, I want to talk about DESIRE through the lens of these three proverbs. I bet you are wondering what they are. Let's jump in!

King Solomon, the same guy I quoted much of in my last post, had this to say about desire in a book we now know as Proverbs: "The desire of the righteous ends only in good, but the hope of the wicked only in wrath." -Proverbs 11:23

Lest this proverb be shucked off an anomaly and not worth really considering, there are two other proverbs that say something very similar in the chapter just before: "What the wicked dreads will overtake him; what the righteous desire will be granted." -Proverbs 10:24

"The prospect of the righteous is joy, but the hopes of the wicked come to nothing." -Proverbs 10:28

Do you see a pattern here? See what this king is saying? It almost seems too good to be true, when taken at face value, and too many experiences of failed hopes can further the argument to give these sayings little real attention and to quickly move on. But we can't move on. We shouldn't. We'll miss something very deep, very important. And since when does experience become the barometer for truth? I find that often my own experiences have been misinterpreted by a cloudy vision on my part, thus preventing myself from knowing the truth of a situation for what it really was. So let's include experience in our discourse but treat it with less weight than it is due.

I want to break this apart some, as I do believe King Solomon is getting at something deeper than what's on the surface of these verses. Yet what is on the surface is not to be missed. Let's just focus on the first one. It says that "the desire of the righteous ends only in good," as opposed to the hopes of the wicked, which don't end well. Here is where experience would come in and tell us, "Ah, ah! Not so fast! That's not how it really works. Look at all of those selfish people who do whatever they want at the demise of others and get away with it! They get what they want. Their hopes aren't completely deflated." Or, experience might say something like this, on the other side: "You consider yourself righteous, yet look at all of the desires in your life that haven't been fulfilled. Look at all of the times in which you've hoped and not received that which you desired. Surely something is wrong here."

I was journaling just earlier, and trying to pick apart this proverb in question (from Proverbs 11:23). Something hit me. It is perhaps the END of our desire that it truly fulfilled, and I don't simply mean "end" as in "end of life," though that can be true at times. It hit me that someone who has a truly righteous desire, a hope or want that comes from a place that is pure and is centered in God, is going to indeed get that desire fulfilled, the root of it, or the END of it.

Let's look at it this way. If you are desiring to do something great with your life and have a specific way in which you aim to do it, it is very likely that you will achieve that, but perhaps you won't. However, the desire itself is good, what is driving it and what is at the root, so the END of that desire (what ends up actually fulfilling it) is going to be nothing but good. Make sense yet? Let's break it down further:

Let's look at Pac-Man. ("Pac-Man?" you might ask. Yes, Pac-Man. It just came to me. Let's see where this goes.) What is Pac-Man's desire. His desire is to eat all of the little dots in his path, and the fruits along the way while preventing getting eaten by any ghosts. There are many ways in which Pac-Man can do this, but let's pretend that he had one set of directions he wanted to follow, and one set only.

"I, Pac-Man, want to go straight, left, up, left, and right, then eat only cherries and and a banana along the way to my destination."

Now, what if Pac-Man, because of the ghosts who come along to corner him, has to take a different route? Suppose he gets to go straight, left, and up, but finds he has to go right first, then right again? And what if he missed the cherries and banana but he got a good gulp of strawberry along the way? Let us also suppose that Pac-Man completed his level. He arrived at his destination, and the end of it was good. Did he get what he wanted?

I think our lives are similar. There are all kind of things that we desire, when perhaps what we really desire beyond the specifics are the root, heart fulfillments that those specifics provide. In Pac-Man's case, he wants to get to his goal in a certain manner and have some tart and sweet fruit along the way (the cherries and the banana). Maybe he could have gotten everything just as he wished, but in our example, he got strawberries instead (and went another route). I conjecture that strawberries are both tart AND sweet, so Pac-Man got the better deal. And he reached the end of his destination, albeit going a different way.

Am I saying that we are never to desire specific things, since there is something deeper underneath that we want and will receive the root fulfillment from? No, not at all. Actually, I would say the opposite. In a world where multiple ghosts and roadblocks come to divert us from the path we've set ourselves on (Pac-Man, speak, mind you), it is all too easy to give up on desiring wholeheartedly and instead settle for whatever comes, or worse, remaining complacently stationary. It is good for Pac-Man to want those cherries, just as it is good for us to desire specific things! Maybe he will get the cherries (he sometimes does), and maybe we will achieve what we are specifically desiring (often times we do). I daresay it is in pursuit of those desires that we can come to a place of receiving the END of that desire, whether it is what we specifically sought out for or not. Imagine Pac-Man not moving anywhere. Those ghosts would gobble him up in a second, and do so repeatedly until...yup...Game Over. But that is not you and me. No, we shall be brave enough to desire, and we will win. Leave the wrath for those pesky ghosts. That's the end of their desire.

Are you afraid to desire? Are you desiring, but not desiring as big and and boldly as you think or know you can? Don't brace yourself for disappointment and forget to move. That's no way to live. Desire boldly, and let that desire move you in extravagant pursuit of that which you long for. If your desire is rooted in righteousness, you'll be fine. And the way to make sure it is rooted in righteousness is...well, I'll leave you with one other verse, one of my favorites, from the Psalms, and you can figure it out.

"Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart." -Psalm 37:4

Friday, January 10, 2014

Juggling, Tennis, and the Secret of Successful Planning

What if you didn't have to impress anybody? What if you didn't have to worry about messing up your life by making the wrong choice in a matter or taking the wrong step in a particular direction? What if---just what IF--this was a year in which you could run uninhibited after the inclinations of your heart and know that you would end up okay, safe---no, better than safe---better than where you started? My friends, I propose that it is just such a year, with a magic IF. Let's explore this, shall we? I'm sure you want to know what the IF is, IF such a scenario is possible. Let's see!

Being the beginning of the new year, this is a time when many, myself included, reflect on the past and, more importantly, start planning and dreaming for what's ahead in the new year. But for those who started the previous year with high hopes or major plans that left them wanting and unfulfilled at the end of the year, the thought of dreaming and planning again can feel futile. I have definitely been there at times, and I can attest that it makes planning and hoping much more difficult the next time around. However, I am glad to say that more often than not, my times of forward-thinking for the new year have been incredibly rich, encouraging, and fruitful for the rest of the year. Let's find out more about that magic IF that I referenced earlier.

As one who believes strongly in the activity of God in the presence of our daily lives, I see inviting God into our planning for the new year (or any planning for that matter) as of utmost importance in dreaming and planning that is fruitful. That's not to say that those who do not involve God in their planning can't make effective plans that turn out well. Rather, I think he's involved whether we want to believe it or not, and the more we involve him intentionally in the planning process, the more grounded and joyful our planning process will be. Check out the following thoughts from one of the wisest kings who ever lived, King Solomon:

"Many are the plans in a man's heart, but it is the Lord's purpose that prevails."
-Proverbs 19:21

"Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established." -Proverbs 16:3

"The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps." -Proverbs 16:9

I see a few things happening here, and these things have proven true time and time again in my own life. The first key I see is this: We all have plans in our heart, many of which we come up with, but in the end, God is going to have his way.

I personally believe that God has his way overall, and that the first proverb I quoted refers to God's plans in that general sense. Notice it says that the Lord's "purpose" prevails rather than his "specific" plans. I am imagining God playing a game of tennis. He's a master athlete in this case, and he knows his intention, but he's going to work with what he is served. There are other times in which he gets to serve, and we, as the other player, get to respond to what he has initiated. Does God want to win the game, get his way? Sure he does! (And thankfully, he is a God that has only our best interest at heart, so for him to win is a good thing, as it means a win for us as well.) But he's willing to play in such a way that takes our actions into account. That includes our messing up, and him not getting his way on every serve. Still, his purpose will prevail. He's just a better tennis player than we are. He's God! Or look at it another way. If God is triune, meaning that he is one God but three persons in community (Father, Son--Jesus, and Holy Spirit), then it's as if the God-team is actually 3 players working together! What an advantage! Can you imagine three on one in a tennis match? That seems somewhat unfair, doesn't it? Well yes, it does, if you are looking at it like a regular tennis match where it's one team against the other. But let's look at something else here.

Remember how I said that in the proverbial tennis match with God, his win is our win? Well, let's look at that in terms of our planning and take the tennis metaphor a bit further. What if, in our three-on-one scenario, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit weren't simply whacking that ball against us on the other side but instead inviting us into the rhythm of their racket? What if tennis suddenly became more like an epic juggling game in which, instead of trying to conquer the other player's court, everyone shared the same court, no net, and the only objective was to keep the ball in the air? That's how I see planning with God. He wants to keep the ball in the air and desires to invite us into his rhythm as we do so. He has various strategies, different ways of hitting the ball, various sequences of passing the ball around (remember the three persons involved, along with us as the additional player?). He too (or I could say "they too" if that's less confusing), delights in the myriad of ways that we find to keep the ball in the air, and he wants to partner with us in that. Let's go back to those proverbs I mentioned earlier and look at the latter two.

"Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established." -Proverbs 16:3

How does this work, this give-and-take with God? In this juggling-tennis-hybrid scenario (we could cal it "jennis" or "tuggling!"), when we as player number 4 have an idea of what we want to do, the next routine we want to add, we can check it with God, commit it to him, and make sure it fits within the rest of the juggling scheme he's set out for that portion of time. He may use our routine as is or say, "Actually, let's keep the double cascade but substitute the racket we're going to use for this other racket right here." Or he may have some other idea entirely, and say, "No, a double cascade right there won't work with what I've got next. It won't provide enough force for this really awesome trick I want to wow you with." His plans are good, and if we can involve God in our planning process and ask him first what he has in mind, we're better set for the course of action in our year. Some don't plan for the whole year. Some just plan for a season. I tend to do both. Whatever the case, it's so helpful to involve God in the process, since he knows what he wants to do and loves to let us in on it when we ask him. Can you imagine trying to juggle with someone who wasn't listening? That's what I think many of us try to do with our lives when we are not intentionally seeking God for his direction. No wonder the ball drops so much of the time!

I think that sometimes, we are so used to our plans falling to the ground that we can go to another extreme by discounting our own involvement in the tennis match altogether, saying instead, "Only you, God, not what I want, but what you want!" Sound familiar? How about this one? "My plans always fail, so I can't trust myself or my thoughts any longer. God, just tell me what to do, and I'll do it. I don't want to screw up again." We'd rather let God do all of the juggling for us, or else tell us every single move to make so we don't get out of sync and drop the ball--or get hit by it. But we needn't fear either. Check out that final proverb:

"The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps." -Proverbs 16:9

Here, we see a person making a plan, and God establishing the person's steps! Did you get that? If not, read it again because it's really good! Sometimes we are so afraid of trusting our hearts, but in this case, the heart of this person is planning a course of action, and it is God who is establishing the steps to get there, making them firm. I sense that there's a bi of Proverbs 16:3 in the works here. Player Us and Player God are working together, juggling tennis balls, with tennis rackets. We just said, "Whoa, God! Now that I see what rhythm your juggling in, I just got this crazy idea of a routine that would go really well! I have the first few parts and the last part, but I don't know what to put in between. What do you think? Can you help me figure it out? Will this work?" More often than not, if we're in God's flow, he'll fill in the details for us, or give us clues here and there but leave a lot of the figuring out to ourselves, to strengthen our own confidence as master tugglers (no, that wasn't a typo...I've decided I like the hybrid term created earlier, and I'm using it as a verb). In this scenario, there needn't be any fear of messing up because we're tuggling with someone who knows how to catch every ball that we whack, whether we hit it too hard or too soft. He's a master tuggler, remember, and he will establish our steps as we stay in sync with him. And what if we get out of sync? There is still no reason to fear. King David, who just happened to be the father of King Solomon, also shared some great wisdom on this subject in one of his songs. He wrote,
"The steps of a man are established by the Lord,
when he delights in his way;
though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong,
for the Lord upholds his hand."
-Psalm 37:23-24

Beautiful, right? Another translation of the same passage of song begins it this way, "IF the Lord delights in one's way, he makes her steps firm." Ah, so there is the magic IF! How are we to know if God delights in our way? Well, if we're delighting in his way, he is delighting our ours. When you love someone, you begin to partner with them more, their desires start to sync with your desires, and vice versa. So, if we receive God's love, we can begin to love him back, and gradually we begin to walk in ways that are delightful to both him and us.

"I will run in the way of your commandments when you enlarge my heart!" --Psalm 37:23-24 (this from the ESV translation)

Who's ready to run? Who's ready to trust your heart? Who's ready to TUGGLE? Wait...who's serve is it again? ;-)