Determining Your Own Outcome


“From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.”

Philippians 4:8, 9 (Common English Bible)


Two men of similar age were hospitalized following a heart attack. Both were treated by the same doctor and both were placed on the same hospital floor. Most importantly, both men received a similar prognosis from the doctor – the damage each suffered was about the same and both received the same guidance from the doctor, change your diet, reduce stress, and exercise regularly. That is where the similarities stopped. The response of the two men were strikingly different from each other. One took a mental and emotional journey to a dark place, saying to his family and friends that his body was shot and nothing could now be done. The other told his wife that he would immediately change his diet, modify his workload, and hire a personal trainer. What was cause for despair for one was filled with challenge and opportunity for the other.


The life lesson here is that it is not what happens that matters. What matters is how you respond. How each one of us respond to unexpected – and unpleasant – challenges of life determines the outcome. Every person who face a similar circumstance have a choice to make. Either they accept defeat by the circumstance or they will see the possibility for adapting and moving forward creatively. We all struggle with challenges, changes in health, broken career paths, and disruptions that surprise us such as this pandemic, Covid-19. Often such forces move toward us without our consent. Nor can we stop them. Yet each person has the capacity to make a decision in the direction his or her life will now move. Optimism may remain out of reach for a season. However, giving-up does not have to be a choice.


This is precisely the lesson that the apostle Paul teaches the Christians in Philippi – that what we put into our mind determines what the outcome will be. Paul uses two powerful words, “focus” and “practice.” As we turn our mind toward something, the “focus,” and follow that with “practice,” what we do is program our minds with positive thoughts and behaviors that result in an optimal outcome. Both are important. It is not enough to turn our eyes toward all that is true, and holy, and just, and pure, and lovely, and worthy of praise. We must also put each of these into the practice of our life. They must be a stimulant that propels us in a new direction. Exposure alone is simply insufficient. Paul wants us to understand that as we intentionally direct our lives according to God’s word, we choose the outcome of our lives and we experience God’s peace.


Armed with Paul’s guidance, any of us can greatly improve our response to stressful and, potentially, debilitating situations. What seems to be a cruel and devastating situation to one person is an opportunity for reexamining priorities and life direction for another. As someone once observed, a virus may be all around and yet cause no infection until the virus finds access into our body. Which causes the illness – the virus or that it got inside of us? Naturally, the virus outside our body is powerless over us. It is only inside the body that the virus can wreak havoc. No one chooses for the virus to enter our bodies. That is what makes a virus so terrifying. Nevertheless, we can choose our response to every difficulty – choose whether, or not, we will “let it inside” our heads to do its worse. What we choose makes all the difference.




The God Who Carries Us

From Doug Hood’s upcoming book,

Nurture Faith: Five Minute Meditations to Strengthen Your Walk With Christ, Vol. 2.

“Bel crouches down; Nebo cowers. Their idols sit on animals, on beasts. The objects you once carried about are now borne as burdens by the weary animals.”
Isaiah 46:1 (Common English Bible)
     One of the most moving – an inspiring – moments in any athletic completion is that one where an athlete stumbles and another competitor goes back to offer help. The tone of the moment is transformed from a test of strength and speed to one of mutual humanity, sharing in one another’s frailties. Such moments remind us of something nobler than defeating another in a game of skill, strength, and speed. Competition may push each of us to realize our best potential – and that is good. But more extraordinary are moments that reveal our common infirmities; moments where we strengthen one another in the storms of life.
     This is not so with God; it must not be so. Unfailing strength is the very nature of God. Yet, here Isaiah fashions for us a sharp contrast between gods that are carried and a God that carries us or, as Henry Sloane Coffin once observed, “Between religion as a load and religion as a lift.”i In another of Isaiah’s tirades against idols, against imaginary gods, he provides the reader with graphic clarity the gods of Babylon bobbing and swaying in an absurdly undignified fashion on the backs of animals. Weary from the weight of these gods, the animals strain to move forward as the frightened devotees lead the animals to a place of safety away from the invading armies. What a picture; ordinary, mortal human beings struggling to secure the safety of gods! Isaiah intends for this to strike us as absurd.
     Isaiah then contrast this ridiculous image with the living God, the God who bore Israel in his arms from its birth and has carried it ever since. The prophet would have us understand that a burdensome religion is a false religion; that a god which must be taken care of is not a faith that can sustain us. Israel needs, as do we, a faith that takes cares of us. Communion with the God of Israel is a faith that always shifts the weight of life to God, not the other way around. And Isaiah wants us to know that if we ever feel that we are carrying our religion, that if faith has become burdensome, then our gaze has moved from the one, true living God.
     The wonderful teacher of the Christian faith, Paul Tillich, once commented that we are not asked to grasp the faith of the Old and New Testament but, rather, are called to be grasped by it. A Christian’s beliefs are not a set of propositions which we are compelled to accept. That would be a burdensome religion. The Christian faith is an invitation from a living God to come and be held in God’s grasp, to be lifted and carried along through the difficulties of life we must all face. We may struggle at times to free ourselves from God’s embrace, to go through life alone, in our own strength. But sooner or later, we will become as weary as the animals carrying the idols of Bel and Nebo. And when we are depleted, God will be there.
iHenry Sloane Coffin, “Religion That Lifts,” Joy in Believing (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956) 8.

Telling the Story Again

 \”As Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, 

the people urged them to speak about these things again on the next Sabbath.”

Acts 13:42 (Common English Bible)


            Tom Tewell shared with me that some years ago, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh, PA preached a sermon that so captured the hearts and minds of the congregation that the governing board passed a resolution that on the anniversary of that sermon each year, the pastor was to preach it again. Some time ago I heard an interview with Robin Roberts, a host of the morning show, Good Morning America. She spoke candidly of her Christian faith and her morning time with God before going to work. She mentioned a favorite devotional guide that she used each morning – one that provided a meditation for each day of the year. On January 1 of the following year, she started through the same devotional again.


            During my ministry in Bucks County, PA I was asked in one week to preach a Christian message of hope for two different families who were burying a loved one. Neither family had a church home or a pastor. Each service was in a different funeral home. A dear friend of mine, Bill, was close to both families and attended both services. In each service I preached the same sermon. Though both families expressed gratitude to me for my message, each saying that the message was precisely what they needed to hear, Bill shared his disappointment with me following the second service. Bill’s complaint was that he had already heard that sermon earlier in the week. I simply reminded him that I was not preaching for him.


            It has never been my practice to preach the same Sunday morning message twice in the same congregation. Yet, often I will reuse an illustration in other sermons. This is for two reasons: I believe that no other illustration has the same force to advance the message I wish to convey, and, the illustration embodies such truth within itself that I wish to impact more lives with its use. Worshipping communities are like streams – you never step into the same stream twice. The water from the first experience has now moved on. The second experience is always into new water. Likewise, the second telling of the illustration nearly always reaches persons not in attendance during the earlier usage. I’m not preaching to those who have already heard the illustration.


            It is natural to grow tired of hearing most stories over and over again. But stories that capture some truth; stories that instructs and inspires do not grow old. That is because they stir something in us each time. Much as some who read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol each Christmas, the Bible and illustrations that open the truths of the Bible clearly and powerfully are not ones we grow tired of. Inspiration for living in difficult times leak and must be refreshed. Reading a strong book of meditations that strengthen in one year can do the same the next year, just as Robin Roberts has experienced.  So, as Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people urged them to speak about these things again on the next Sabbath.




Throwing Away Self-Pity

The following is from Doug Hood\’s upcoming book, 

Nurture Faith: Five Minute Meditations to Strengthen Your Walk with Christ, vol. 2

 “Awake, awake, put on your strength, Zion!”

Isaiah 52:1a (Common English Bible)
Captivity for Israel has ended. God has defeated the powers of Babylon and has authorized Israel to depart and head for home to Jerusalem. A new day, with a strong future, now rises for God’s people. “Awake, awake!” is God’s double imperative to Israel. “Put on your strength, Zion!” The call sounds strangely familiar. “Up and Adam! Let’s get going!” is the more common usage today. These, or similar, words have been uttered by most parents summoning their children awake from their sleep. The image of sleepy children, resisting the call to leave the comfort of a warm bed, is sharp and crisp. The parent can wake the child with a shout, can summon the child from the bed, but it must be the child’s own strength that moves them from slumber to a fresh engagement with a new day.
God’s present difficulty is that Israel doesn’t want to get out of bed. During their captivity in Babylon, Israel has become dulled, inattentive, hopeless, and grief-stricken.[i] Israel has been humiliated by Babylon and has spiraled into such despair and self-pity that they no longer want to live. No longer did life offer a driving purpose, only a memory of brighter days. Absent was a radiant hope, only a fading dream. A captivating vision has fled from their sight. What remained was a history. “Awake, awake!” is God’s response to Israel’s self-pity. “Put on your strength, Zion!” God is reminding Israel that there is still strength in the people and is here urging them to summon that strength and toss-off that negative attitude that has consumed them.
Psychotherapist and author, Amy Morin writes that feeling sorry for yourself is self-destructive.[ii] Though we all experience pain and sorrow in life, dwelling on your sorrow and misfortune can consume you until it eventually changes your thoughts and behaviors. Morin contends that any of us can choose to take control. “Even when you can’t alter your circumstances, you can alter your attitude.”[iii] This is the clear declaration of God to Israel; the clear call to shake off their indulgence in self-pity, claim the strength that remains in them, and move positively forward toward the future God has prepared for them. God’s strength comes alongside our own. It does not do for us what we can do for ourselves.
After Victor Hugo was exiled from his beloved France, he spent 18 years in the Channel Islands. Hugo once described this exile from the nation he loved as worse than death. Each afternoon, at sunset, Victor Hugo would climb to a cliff overlooking a small harbor and look longingly out over the water toward France. Legend tells us that each day, following his meditations, Hugo would pick up a pebble and throw it into the sea. One day the children who developed an affection for him asked why he threw a stone in the sea each day. “Not stones, children, not stones. I am throwing my self-pity into the sea.” Little wonder that during those 18 years of struggle, Victor Hugo gave the world his best and most profound work of literature.

[i] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998) 136.
[ii] Amy Morin, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. (New York: William Morrow, 2014) 20.
[iii] Morin, 18.