Saturday, March 20, 2010

Finding true success

My friend Kiki invited me to address the young professionals group at their church. These are Asian immigrants; actually more of them are young college students than practicing professionals, but that's OK.

I prepared a one-page handout, which I'll cut up and include here for your reading pleasure, and intersperse my comments. So here goes nothing:

I'm very happy to see you all here. I know there are a lot of things that you could be doing on a Friday night, but you're here for fellowship and worship. That is a wonderful thing.

My wife and I moved to Japan in 1993, when our children were 2 and 4 years old. We stayed there about six years; we learned the language (though we forgot a lot since we came back); our kids were in the Japanese school system; we shopped in the neighborhood stores and had to make all kinds of adjustment. So I have a lot of respect for you, studying and working in a foreign country.

I am sure you miss a lot of things about your home country; we sure did when we lived overseas. But as Paul reminds us, our real home isn't the United States or your home country; our citizenship is in heaven, and we wait for a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will make our lowly body like his glorious body, and that's good news (Philippians 3:20-21).

1. What is true success?
    * Big house?
    * Good grades?
    * Lots of money?  
      (Luke 12:13-21; Ortberg "When the Game Is Over...", pp. 21-25) 

So what is success? A big house? (everyone nodded) Good grades? (ditto) Lots of money? Those things are all good, but our daughter used to tutor a junior-high girl. I took her there, driving down this nice street, beautiful lawns, big new houses. But the girl who lived in this big new house came home every day and her parents weren't home! They were out making money! My daughter said, "I would hate to be in her situation." There's nothing wrong with having a big house, but if your kids don't see you, I'm not sure that makes you a successful parent.

And there was a man who wanted to get the best grades he could at seminary. He was studying to become a professional Christian minister. He graduated at the top of his class, but he spent so much time studying that he neglected his wife and children! After graduation, they all left him.

This story comes from John Ortberg's book "When the Game Is Over...": There was a man whose chief operating officer came to him one day and said, "we're standing on the brink of unprecedented economic opportunity." The boss decides he's going to put his empire through a technological revolution: 24/7 access to every employee, completely new software to run the business, etc. He tells his wife, "we'll be set for life" and this sort of thing. She heads to bed at 11, but wakes at 3:00am because her husband isn't with her. She goes downstairs to find him in front of his computer, slumped over the keyboard. Feeling a little exasperated, she shakes him, telling him to come to bed already. But he doesn't wake up. His skin is cold. The paramedics come and pronounce him dead on the spot -- probably a heart attack.

The story of course is the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21) brought into the modern age. The lesson is as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago.

    * Possible without college?
      + Soles4souls
      + my cousin

Is true success possible without college? Soles4Souls was started by a man who never went to college. He wasn't a very good student. When he was about 15 years old, he worked for his uncle, who fired him. By the time he was 17, he was contemplating suicide. But one of his teachers took him aside and told him that he could make a difference in the world.

So he didn't kill himself then, but managed to get through high school. What he was good at was shoes; he got executive positions at several footwear companies, never having let on that he hadn't been to college. In 2004 he saw a single shoe floating onto the beach in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami. He called others he knew in the shoe industry and got about a quarter-million pairs of shoes to send to the affected area. He's now the boss at Soles4Souls, which gives away a pair of shoes every 9 seconds! And again, no college!

I have a cousin who's about 50 years old, and he never learned to read or write. My aunt, who also never went to college, found the kind of help her son needed, cared for and encouraged him. He has a job as a janitor at an elementary school, and everybody loves him. He wanted to order flowers for Mothers' Day or something, so he went to the yellow pages and found pictures of flowers. Then he saw a phone number that began with the same 3 digits as his home phone number. He called them and said what he wanted. Of course he didn't have a credit card, but the florist found out what they could, and called the school where he worked.

Yes, they did have a janitor there named ___________; yes, he was a reliable man, good character, etc... I guess they figured out a way to get their money, and his mom was surprised and pleased to get her flowers. She asked him how he arranged that, which is how I eventually got the story. My aunt is also one of my heroes, by the way.

My cousin isn't famous, he hasn't saved the world, but he found his niche, he's loved by people he's with, and he's succeeded with the abilities he has. He's found success.

2. God knows we're interested
    * Matthew 6:33 Seek first...
    * Luke 14:7-11 Places of honor at the table
    * Proverbs 3:1-16 wealth, honor
    * Comes from God: Matthew 5:45; James 1:17
    * It's not just for ourselves
      + Ephesians 4:28 to share
      + 2 Corinthians 9:6-8 to share
      + Proverbs 11:23-25 generosity

God knows that we're interested in those things, and he doesn't even mind! If you look at the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, we find God saying things like, "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be yours as well"; he doesn't say "Don't desire all these things." Or Jesus said to take a lower place at the table, so that the host will honor you in front of others; he doesn't say "You're silly to want to be honored." And Proverbs 3 says you should do this and that in order to get prosperity, favor and a good name in front of others, riches and honor, and so on.

All those things come from God, by the way; he sends sunshine and rain on everyone, and every good and perfect gift comes from him. And the other thing is that when we get good things, it's to share with others. Ephesians 4:28 says that we should work so that we'll have enough to share with the needy. 2 Corinthians 9 has a promise of abundant grace, that always having all sufficiency in everything, you will have a lot for... not for ourselves, but, it says, "for every good work." That promise, by the way, is for those who give joyfully and generously (verses 6-7). And we see in Proverbs 11:23 that the desire of the righteous ends only in good -- but verses 24 and 25 talk about generosity bringing blessing. I think there's a reason those verses are together.

3. True success
    * Matthew 25:21 is spelled F-A-I-T-H-F-U-L
    * Matthew 5:3-10 Blessed are...
    * Micah 6:8 What the Lord requires
    * Psalm 147:10-11 Who the Lord delights in
    * Proverbs 16:32 Better than military might
    * Galatians 5:22-23 Love, joy, peace, patience
    * 2 Timothy 2:24-25 Not quarrelsome but kind, patient, gentle

So what is true success? In the parable of the talents, in Matthew 25, Jesus doesn't say "Well done, good and successful servant" but "good and faithful servant." All the above passages give us a picture of what God considers success: meek, desiring righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God, the Lord delights in those who fear him; he who rules his spirit is better than someone who's a military success, and so on.

4. How to become that kind of person?
    * We become what we worship: Psalm 115:1-8, 1 John 3:2-3
    * Admire a gangster?  Or Mr. Rogers?
    * more: -- search "power to change"

So how do we become that kind of person, kind to all, able to teach, patient, gentle, filled with kindness, goodness, faithfulness and all the rest? One principle we see in the Scriptures and also in real life is that we become like what we worship. So we must choose our heroes carefully. In Psalm 115 (and also Psalm 135) it talks about idols. They have eyes but can't see, they have hands but can't move them, and so on. Then it says: "Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them." If we worship an idol, we'll become blind, deaf, unable to talk or think. By way of contrast, 1 John 3:2 says that we're God's children, and that we'll be like him when we see him as he is. That doesn't mean we'll become gods, but it means we'll be completely clean from sin; 1 John 3:3 says we'll be purified as we place our trust in God.

And so in real life. When I was in high school, being a small kid, I kind of thought I'd like to be the kind of person that nobody would mess with -- one of my heroes was a gangster from the movie "The Godfather." Some years later, I realized that I often had a sort of "edge" -- people were afraid of me. This was not good!

I met Jesus and I remember hearing a speaker at a retreat challenge us: "How would people at work describe you? Brilliant? Competitive? Insightful? Why not warm, caring, compassionate?" I was shocked, because I knew people wouldn't describe me as warm or caring; I was aggressive and competitive. I became more a fan of Fred Rogers (of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood), and maybe 20 years later, somebody at work remarked on how patient and accepting and encouraging I was. That was progress! It took 20 years, and I hope 20 years later I'll be even more like that.

The process of change isn't complicated, but it's not easy either. You do it for 20-30 years and keep doing it. I have some essays on that in my blog,; type "power to change" in the search window (or just click here).

5. How do you obey a command: "Love the Lord" (Mark 12:30)
    * 1 John 5:3, John 14:21: Obedience itself is love
    * We also need to "fall in love" with Jesus, with God
    * Ever hear this: "Bible is God's love letter"?
      + Genesis 1 vs. Enuma Elish (mentioned on my blog)
      + Romans 5:6-8, John 3:16 -- God sent his Son
    * Bible study?  Look for the ways God is described as unique.
      Isaiah 55:8-9 -- /How/ are God's ways higher than ours?  See 55:7

Now Jesus talked about being faithful. Faithful to what? Well, someone asked him what the greatest command was. It's this, Jesus said (Mark 12:30): Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. Have you ever thought about what it means to have a command to love? You can't practice it like some physical exercise: "OK, everybody, line up and at the count of three, love the Lord! 1,2,3, you there in the back row, you're not loving!" That really isn't now it works.

So there are two things I'd like to say on this: first, that obedience itself is love, as 1 John 5:3 says. John 14:21, actually throughout John 14 and 15 I think Jesus says it more than just a few times that obedience of Christ and love for Christ are inextricably bound together. The second thing is that beyond obedience, we need to "fall in love" with God, with Christ. And to do that, we need a picture of how much God loves us.

Maybe you've heard people say that the Bible is God's love letter to us? I used to hear that all the time and it was one of those things I didn't actually "get," until I learned about Genesis 1 and how drastically it differed from the predominant creation myth of its day, the "Enuma Elish." That's when it hit me what wonderful news it was to its hearers, and how they must have felt to realize how much God loved them, to tell them this truth about themselves (vs the lies woven through the Enuma Elish). I've written about it here, but I have to say that whenever I think of it, I am so impressed with God's great love, that three thousand years ago (and more) he told someone this astonishing truth about who we humans are. Wow!

And the New Testament -- reading in Romans 5 how God demonstrates his love toward us, and of course John 3:16 -- how much did God love the world? Enough to send his only son! I hope that never gets old to you.

By the way, you might consider doing a Bible study on some theme like God's uniqueness. Look in your Bible for phrases like "Who is like you?" or "What other nation has gods like" or "Who is like me?" or "There is none like you" or "My ways are not your ways" and see what they're talking about. On that last one (from Isaiah 55:8-9), here are a few surrounding verses:

 7Let the wicked forsake his way
       and the evil man his thoughts.
       Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him,
       and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
 8"For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
       neither are your ways my ways,"
       declares the LORD.
 9 "As the heavens are higher than the earth,
       so are my ways higher than your ways
       and my thoughts than your thoughts.
 10As the rain and the snow
       come down from heaven,
       and do not return to it
       without watering the earth
       and making it bud and flourish,
       so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
 11so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
       It will not return to me empty,
       but will accomplish what I desire
       and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. 
So what's he talking about when he says his ways aren't like ours? A few things stand out to me:
  • God's way isn't like that of the unrighteous.
  • God will forgive! He is full of mercy to those who return to him.
  • His words always have a purpose.
  • That purpose will always succeed.
Now whenever we hear those words, when they're in a song or just in some reading, I hope we think about the Lord's great mercy and goodness, and about his purposeful and powerful word, and we don't just think, "yeah, he's different."

There are other studies you can do, of course, and we have our whole lives to build up memories and experiences to help us remember God's goodness and love and wisdom and mercy and justice -- and his love for us. All these things help us to fall and to stay "in love" with him.

6. Love takes time!
    * Must give up something!  
      + Life takes 36 hours a day -- Ortberg, op. cit., p.127
    * Corollary: You can't get "A"s in everything
      + Choose your C-minus, or there will be Fs
    * Don't get an "F" in Loving God or Loving your neighbor

To love God, and to love our neighbor, takes time; we can't do everything else we want to do, and then add the greatest commandments on top of that. John Ortberg writes that just getting by in a variety of fields (family, career development, sleep, exercise, etc.) takes more hours per day than we have. This means we pretty much have to choose some areas to get a "C-minus" in, because otherwise we'll end up with an "F" in something or another.

This is hard to do, because our tendency is to want to be a star, to get an A-plus in this or that, because that makes us feel like a superstar in that thing. But we don't have any commands like that in Scripture: we have "Don't exasperate your children" and "Honor your father and mother" and "Be kind to one another" -- what we do, in other words, is aim to get a C-minus or better in all subjects; don't go for the A-plus in one area at the cost of getting an "F" in another.

7. Some practical hints
    * Bible: One Year Bible
      + Some notes on One Year Bible at
    * Scripture memory 
      + Search my blog for "memorize scripture"
    * Coming here is a wonderful thing!
    * GIVE: Giving 10% of your income if you can
      + Right off the top -- Proverbs 3:9-10, Malachi 3:10
      + Church isn't the Temple, but this is important
      + Money an IDOL: break its power

Here are a few things that have helped me. For reading the Bible, something like the One Year Bible is a great tool. There are fancy charts you can get to help you keep track of what you've read so far, and so on, but the thing I really like about the One Year Bible is that if you know what day it is, you can just turn to that day and read what's there. If you missed yesterday then sure, you can go back if you want to, but really it's OK to just read today's selection. The thing we're aiming at here is making it easy, so that you can keep doing it. And if you'd like a little essay on the day's reading, I've written essays for every day of the year at

Then, as I mentioned earlier, it's wonderful that you're spending your Friday evening here for worship and fellowship and teaching. Being with each other, singing and hearing these wonderful songs that remind us of who God is -- that's wonderful.

The other thing I'd like to say as a practical hint is to be sure to give. You've heard the passages, Proverbs 3:9-10 which says to honor the Lord with your wealth -- it says you'll get more by giving more but the main point is that it's a good idea to give. Malachi 3:10 is another verse often quoted on giving. Yes, it's true that the church isn't the temple from Old Testament times, but giving is still a very good thing to do. For one thing, there's a lot about giving in both the Old and New Testaments. It's important to give -- to your church, to feed the hungry and help the poor. It's an expression of why God gives us resources.

And giving money away is good because money is an idol, or a potential idol. From the time I was very young, my parents talked a lot about saving money. Yours too? (much nodding.) So when I started working, I put a lot of money into the bank. But then I met Jesus and he said things like "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth" and "Don't be afraid, little flock, for it is your father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor," and things like that. Also, it wasn't a good thing that when I thought about my savings account I felt safe.

In Old Testament times, idols were made of metal or wood or stone, and the way to break an idol was to knock it over and literally break it in pieces. With today's idols (like money was for me), we can't actually do that. Instead, the way to break money's power is to give some away, and it's good to start early. Maybe you can't afford to give away 10%; give what you can. Here's the thing. I go to a "rich" church. We took a survey and in 2004 the median household income was something like $190,000, which made me below average! Now 10% of $190,000 is $19,000 a year. Is it hard to give away that much? Well, if you can't give away $3,000 when you're making $30,000 a year, it'll be hard to give away $19,000 when you're making $190,000 a year. I don't know why, but it just is. So I hope you start early on giving.

By the way, what works for us is that we have automatic deductions; money just goes out from our checking account to our church, to missionaries, to development and relief organizations. We don't get the experience of giving regularly, but we do give. It's a tradeoff that works for us.

8. Generosity to all and success at work
    * GIVE: Galatians 6:9-10 "to all men"
      + Proverbs 3:27 Don't withhold good
      + Give blood!
    * Take notes at meetings and send them out
    * Someone does something nice for you?  Thank their manager!

Galatians 6:9-10 says "let us do good to all", and the Proverbs tell us not to withhold good to our neighbor when we can give it to them today. By the way, if you can give blood, I hope you do so. Jonathan Haidt, one of the few honest atheists, mentions in this article that religious people give more of themselves to others and give more blood. I think this is a great way to bless others, and it doesn't cost money!

Here are a few applications of this principle at work. Maybe you've been to meetings at work where people talk about what happened last time, and there's a lot of confusion. "Didn't we decide that...?" and "No, Bob objected to that..." and so on, and everybody's time gets wasted.

You can take notes at a meeting and then send them out to everyone afterward. It's not hard, but people generally don't like to do it. If you do it you'll be part of the solution, and maybe the next meeting can be shorter, too. During the meeting itself, pay attention and when it sounds like people have decided things, you can say, "I'd like to capture what we're saying here. We're deciding to switch from vendor A to vendor B, and Joe will contact the logistics people by tomorrow afternoon to get that going. Is that right?" Then write it down. Also, if somebody's supposed to do something, who is that person, what will they do, when will they do it by? Write that down too, after getting agreement. You'll help everybody's time not to get wasted, and it'll be good for your career, too.

My final suggestion is that when someone helps you out with something, email their boss. "I really appreciated Jane's efforts to help me on the issue of __________; her unique insights and cooperative attitude really helped us solve this problem quickly for the customer" or whatever. Thinking this way will help you stay on the lookout for good things people do, which will make you easier to work with. And managers like getting this kind of thing about their people. This idea is also good for your career, for all kinds of reasons.

I talked rather longer than I had planned to, but most seemed to stay engaged until the end. It was a good time, and at the end someone handed me a check! Well, my friend Chris told me they could afford it, so please accept it. That's fine, but I wasn't expecting to be paid; that talk was a highlight of my week! Perhaps they'll ask me back, and at that time I'll try to narrow the topic down and not talk so long.

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