Columbus Christian Academy
“Return with Honor”
18 May 2018
I am under no illusions that any of you are likely to remember anything that I have to say to you today. My high school commencement speaker was the Lt. Governor of the State of Georgia and I don’t remember a single word he said to us that day. And I am far from carrying the weight of a Lt. Governor! So, I want to give you something that is special to me in the hopes that it helps you remember something of what I pass on to you today.
This is a challenge coin. It is the exact same challenge coin that I received when I was ordained several years ago. There are three little letters on the coin, what are they? “RWH”. RETURN WITH HONOR. I get the opportunity to talk to all kinds of people from every walk of life, and I never ceased to be amazed at how many people lose their honor and integrity somewhere along the way. It is heartbreaking and far too common. So, I want to give you four pieces of advice that I try and practice regularly and that will help you each day return with honor. They are all four tied together in one thought, best expressed in James 1 and Jeremiah 17:9. “The heart of man is exceedingly wicked, who can know it?”
I would sum up this governing thought like this: Don’t trust your feelings or desires. Jeremiah communicates a painful truth that so many ignore to their detriment: your heart is exceedingly wicked and deceitful. That is not popular advice these days! Many around you, including some well-intentioned but ignorant people, would tell you to follow your heart, or embrace your feelings. But, you must realize that you are not trustworthy. I try and always hold my feelings in suspense because I just don’t trust myself. I am convinced that Scripture is true when it says that I am a sinful creature and that this heart that beats inside my chest is not a trustworthy counselor. I am convinced that sin begins with my own desires and, like James 1 says, I am tempted when I am dragged away by my own evil desire and enticed. Then, after my evil desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. The result of you acting on your own desires is sin and death. It’s not just a worthy memory verse, but a truth so foundational to the Christian that it must not be forsaken. So, here are these four pieces of advice that stem from that thought:
1) The most important question you can answer for ourselves is this: where is my identity? Try and be careful not to immediately answer this question without giving it any deep, meaningful, reflective thought. You’re graduating today from a Christian school, so it may be tempting to rattle off some answer like “in Jesus” without thinking about what that means. Way too many people live like some calculator that spits out the answer to an equation in no time, but this question is far too important to just gloss over. What makes this question so important? In my opinion, people’s actions spring from one of two places: their feelings or their identity. Those people who don’t consider this question of identity will always respond and make decisions based on their feelings, and feelings can be a cruel and fickle mistress.
I often try and think about my life from what I call the “obituary perspective”. What kind of life will I live today that will shape the life that impacts others and that they remember? When I put my head on my pillow tonight can I sleep soundly knowing that I lived today in a way that reflects who I am? In my case, the answer to that question is this: my identity is as a Christ-follower. In all my decisions and actions, did that identity shine through? If not, what do I need to do to rectify those situations? Several months ago, for instance, I made an off-the-cuff comment to someone which was intended to be funny. I did not at all think it through, and as soon as the words left my mouth I regretted it. I knew I could not go to sleep that night because that one action painfully betrayed my identity as a Christ-follower. So, within the hour, I called the other person and explained how what I said was hurtful, repented, and asked them for their forgiveness. They hardly even remembered what I said, but that was not important. What was important was that I could sleep soundly knowing that I stayed true to and honored my identity as a Christ-follower.
So, consider this question: what is your identity? Is it as a graduate? A man? A woman? A boyfriend or girlfriend? A college student? A CCA grad? Have you ever given it much thought? If you don’t first wrestle with that question, and it will require some serious wrestling, then your actions will flow from your feelings. How do you feel? Lonely? Scared? Hurt? Happy? Excited? Longing for a different life? Decisions and actions made from feelings inevitably lead to hurt and destruction; not immediately, but inevitably. People who feel lonely crave to quench that emotion with companionship, even if the companion is toxic. People who are hurt crave to quench that emotion by releasing it in the form of hurting others. People who feel momentary happiness will often do anything and everything they can to re-create and hold on to their own happiness, even if it destroys others in the process. You get my point.
What is embedded in this question of identity is the central issue of our human experience: purpose. Identity fulfills purpose, the deepest and most meaningful aspect of human existence, while feelings completely ignore purpose. Worse, feelings mimic the sensation of purposefulness only to disappoint and completely swing the pendulum toward hopelessness and despair, and thus continues the vicious and destructive cycle of decisions and actions rooted in feelings.
So, again, what is your identity? My identity as a Christ-follower determines my actions, decisions, thoughts and feelings each day. My daily routine and activity, while perhaps monotonous and often predictable, is full of purpose and, thus, exhilarating and deeply meaningful. My interactions with friends and acquaintances, wife and children, co-workers and strangers are all colored by my identity and awareness of purpose and, consequently, are all profoundly fulfilling.
2) There was a popular country song 25 years ago and the lyrics were, “Life’s a dance you learn as you go”. Man, there’s gold in them thar’ lyrics! If you think about the analogy of dancing, what is so pleasurable and enjoyable about it? It’s in the act of dancing itself: every step, every glance, every grasp of your partner’s hand is what makes dancing dancing. No one dances for the final resolution of the song, or for the last movement with their partner. No one who enjoys dancing is thinking, “If I can just force myself to get through 99% of this dance, I’ll get to listen to that last word of the song!” No! It’s the dance itself they enjoy; the dancing is not a means to an end, it is the end.
The same is true of living a meaningful and fulfilling life. Far too often, people treat their daily lives as some means to an end; they view their day-to-day interactions as valuable only to the extent of what they can or may do for me in the future. I’ll give you a couple of examples. Education is something so many people pursue because of what they hope it will bring them in the future. People go through four years of rigorous college studies with the expectation that it will bring them a well-paying job, a large house, a new car, or whatever, and when it doesn’t they can see their entire educational experience as a waste. How much more fulfilling would it be to view the learning process as a sufficient end in and of itself? How much more rewarding and satisfying would it be to view the whole process through a lens of self-betterment and enjoy and embrace the entire season as being a part of the whole human experience rather than something that may be a giant disappointment depending on an outcome which is almost entirely out of your control? A similar example can be found in the way people treat their jobs. People will pursue career advancements and opportunities whether or not they actually find any fulfillment from their work. People with this mindset treat co-workers like competitors and conversation like a necessary evil which they will participate in only as long as they see some personal benefit from it. Their failure to embrace each day as a unique opportunity to live intentionally and purposefully leads to a certain discontentment which follows them wherever they go. And, when they work hard for something (a promotion or award, for example) which they do not receive, they feel cheated and bitter and become frustrated and angry. The irony is that if each day were lived as a sufficient and satisfactory end, and the journey was embraced as inherently valuable, then purpose and fulfillment could be an everyday experience rather than an elusive feeling.
Here’s my point: you can easily fall into the trap of treating everything in life as a means to an end: money, work, relationships, church, Jesus, property, vacations, everything. But, the journey of life itself is where the fulfillment and meaningfulness lie. Don’t miss the life that is all around you because of a failure to view that life as a worthy end in and of itself.
3) Humans have this incredible ability to create “blind spots” in their thinking and almost willfully ignore, disregard, or just stay away from people whom they know will address those blind spots by speaking truth into their lives. Guard against your own tendencies to only receive input from people who you know will affirm how you’re thinking and feeling and go out of your way to seek out and invite input from people you know, love, and trust who can and will speak hard truth into your life.
Here's an example: I often talk with people who want to leave their spouse. In almost every case, there is a behavior pattern. They make up their mind about what they want to do, and then they create an “echo chamber” by only seeking advice from other people who have – you guessed it – left their spouses. What a poisonous and self-destructive cycle! When I confront them about this “blind spot” in their thinking, they immediately get defensive and shut down. Why? It’s simple: they know that what they are doing is wrong and my willingness to challenge them to deal with this blind spot makes them angry. So, what does they do but go back to their echo chamber of like-minded people who are content to watch them destroy themselves just as they have done.
We all have blind spots in our thinking as it is just part of this sinful nature we inhabit. However, being aware of that and guarding against it by seeking out wise counsel from those who you know will speak truth into your life – even if you don’t want to hear it and even if it hurts and makes you angry – is the best defense against falling prey to those blind spots. This is one of the greatest benefits of reading the Bible reflectively: you will encounter Jesus and, in doing so, He will bring some serious conviction into your heart. Welcome that conviction. Submit yourself to it.
Additionally, though, He brings wonderful people into our lives who can provide that benefit as well. Identify those people in your life. Who are they? Your pastor? Family members? A church friend? Do you have anyone in your life like that? If you do, they are a treasure and you should spend intentional time with them. If you don’t, ask the Lord to show you who that might be. Then, submit yourself to their opinion. Consider it seriously. Be honest with them and honest with yourself about your thoughts and feelings. Don’t go through the motions of doing it just to say you did, knowing all along that you’re going to do whatever you want regardless of what they say. This is not only hypocrisy in the worst form, but it is a waste of your time and theirs and only widens those blind spots that need addressing.
4) I think that perhaps the best philosophy to live by (and this is based on the number of people who, in my experience, don’t live by it and it repeatedly wounds them and those they love) is to make sure that you constantly evaluate and re-evaluate yourself and take a hard look at your own faults, short-comings, and inconsistencies. It is so crucial that you exercise self-awareness about yourself. Is it often painful? Sure it is! But, that pain is essential to growth. Think of a torn muscle or ligament that requires surgery and rehabilitation. What is the key ingredient to recovery and healing? P-A-I-N. That muscle must be stretched, exercised, and pushed or else it will remain in a state in which it is not only useless but even detrimental to overall health and wellness.
So it is with being aware of your own faults and religious and philosophical inconsistencies: it will slowly and stealthily kill your character. The easiest (and most cowardly) thing to do is make excuses as to why you can or cannot do something, but this must be avoided at all costs. Excuses are the weakling’s rationale for failure, and they are the recipe for disaster for those who would listen to them. Don’t shy away from taking a hard look in the mirror and owning your failures. Don’t ever shy away from self-reflection and examination and painfully acknowledging your inconsistencies. Never make excuses for yourself and live like those excuses are true when you know that you’re better than that.
I try, at least once every week, to reflect on my failures and inconsistencies. What did I say that I believed this week but failed to live out? What thoughts did I have that are inconsistent with thoughts did I have that are inconsistent with who I say I am? Am I projecting a version of myself that is not at all like the person I am? Then, most critically, don’t try and rationalize or justify those failures once you acknowledge them; like Rocky Balboa told his son, “Cowards do that and that aint you!” A regular practice and exercise of self-reflection and self-evaluation will correct those failures and inconsistencies before they destroy you and those you love.
The best advice, in my opinion, is advice from someone you know, love and can trust and advice which has been learned from, as George Washington said, “dear-bought experience”. This is just some of that advice from experience that I wanted to share with you. I hope you don’t brush it off and take it lightly.
So, in order to “return with honor” each night of your life, base what you do on your identity, not out of momentary feelings or desires. Embrace each day and the people that give it life as a worthy and sufficient end, not as a means to an end. Be aware of your own blind spots, and seek out and welcome and invite input from those who would address those blind spots in truth and love. Evaluate, assess and examine yourself in the light of Scripture. Own your personal failures and inconsistencies, submitting them to Jesus for needed transformation.
I try and practice all of what I just preached to you; submitting myself, my emotions, my thoughts, my desires, my will to Christ knowing that if I don’t, I will irrevocably harm myself and everyone around me because of my selfishness and sinfulness. I love you, I pray for you, and I am always here if you need me.
Just a man trying to save his thoughts and correspondence