The Answer I Was Looking For

I’ve felt a little discouraged lately.  You know what I’m talking about, right?  It’s nothing earth-shattering, but when reality fails to meet expectations, discouragement isn’t far behind.  My wife suggested I take a look in the Bible at the 11th Chapter of Hebrews.  I’m not sure how many times I’ve read this chapter, but as I began, I ran across four words that have never stood out to me before.  They’ve been there all along. I’ve read them plenty of times, but today I really read them.  They are found in verse 3:

By faith we understand…

If you’re like me, you long for answers to the problems of life.  No clarity means no sleep.  No answers means confusion and discouragement.  And as I read these words, I wondered if perhaps they might hold the key.

The word that caught my eye was the word “understand.”  That’s the real issue, isn’t it?  Life bombards us with trials and challenges for reasons we don’t understand.  We didn’t ask for trouble, but here it is anyway.

Here’s the general idea of this phrase in the original language: by faith, we can interpret life with our minds instead of our feelings.  We don’t have to face our challenges wishing for something to happen.   We don’t have to summon a certain level of positive thoughts or feelings or energy to deal with trials.  Because of our faith, we can face our circumstances by understanding what’s true.

So the question becomes this: What can I understand by interpreting life through faith?  Two things come to mind.

First, by faith we understand that our trials are rarely random, isolated events.  They usually have a larger context.  God has never had an accident.  He’s never slipped or goofed up.  And because He directs our lives, our circumstances are not random events.  I know random things happen to us from time to time, like tripping over the rug or burning our fingers on the stove.  I’m talking about the real challenges of life, like being rejected or hurt by people we love, or losing our jobs, or difficult circumstances that are beyond our control.  How many times in the Bible do unexpected challenging circumstances happen to people, and in the background God is right in the middle of everything, dealing with multiple people in multiple ways all at the same time?   A good example is the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis.  Joseph’s life was a series of difficult circumstances, of which none turned out to be random.  There was a larger context to the events of Joseph’s life that included his brothers, his fellow jail mates, his father, and the Egyptian people.  By allowing faith into the circumstances of our lives, we begin to understand that although our feelings tell us our circumstances are random and without reason, our minds tell us that God is at work in multiple areas and multiple ways, and He knows what He’s doing.

Second, by faith we understand that God knows how to connect the dots.  If it’s true that the trials of our lives have a larger context, then faith helps us understand that God knows how to bring everything to the perfect ending in the perfect timing in the perfect way.  Joseph was taken prisoner and sold into slavery by his brothers at a young age, which began a dizzying chain of events spanning decades.  But in the end, God connected every dot, brought together every detail, and worked out every detail to perfection.  This is what Paul is talking about when he writes, “And we know that God causes everything to work together for good…”  By faith we understand that not only are the circumstances of our lives not random, but God knows how to synthesize every detail and connect every dot so that all things work together for good.

By faith we understand.  Those four words have changed the trajectory of my entire day.  I hope they do the same for you.

Coming To Terms With Trials

I hesitate to write about the topic of trials, because so there are so many books and videos and blog posts available from much smarter people than me, but as I sit here in my office, this is where I am in life.  It’s my turn to deal with something that feels big, overwhelming, and unsolvable.

I’m certain I don’t have anything new to offer when it comes to wading through these times of life.  But as a personal exercise of  processing what’s going on in my world, I want to share with you what I’m learning in hopes that something I’ve gained will be useful to you.   Before I begin, let me state my biases.   I am a Jesus follower who is trying to be serious about becoming more like Him, and that fact impacts the way in which I deal with trials.  And second, because I believe Jesus has the answers I am looking for, He is my resource for truth and for answers.

Without going into details, the trial I am facing is something that happened to me, as opposed to something that I caused.  This trial is requiring me to adapt to a new normal in a couple of important areas of my life.  When viewed from a strictly human perspective, this trial has no obvious or reasonable solution.  In other words, if something special (supernatural) doesn’t happen, there’s gonna be trouble.

I’ve had about a week to digest all this.  I’ve been praying a lot, thinking a lot, and here’s where I’ve landed so far:

First, the knee-jerk human reaction to a trial is to seek relief.  It hurts, and we want it to stop.  We want answers, and we want them now.  If there’s been an injustice, then somebody needs to pay.  I’m not saying that’s the wrong way to think.  I’m saying there might be a better way to think.

The better reaction is to seek refinement.  As I read the Bible, I learn that not only are trials a universal human experience, but trials seem to be one of God’s favorite methods of teaching humans and revealing Himself.  If this is true, trials can be a pivotal experience that yields life-changing results.  What if, in response to a trial, our goal becomes to learn the intended lesson instead of finding the quickest way back to what’s comfortable?

And here’s something else that has occurred to me.  When we experience difficulty, it isn’t God’s ability to rescue us that is on trial.  It’s our faith that God is able to rescue us that hangs in the balance.  I can’t recall a single instance when God left a person helpless or hopeless.  And neither can I recall God’s power to ever be insufficient to solve any problem of any kind.  When faced with a trial, my default prayer is, “God, this thing is huge and hairy and impossible.  Can you do anything about this?”  I wonder if that isn’t a little offensive to God.  If He can part seas and bring dead people back to live, then surely he can deal with my trial, too.

I wish I could offer you a fail safe three step plan to successfully navigate the crises in your life, but I can’t.  In fact, I’m pretty sure there isn’t one.  Until God does His thing, we’re on His timeline.  Is there anything we can do in the meantime?  I have three suggestions:

Ask Jesus to come close to you, right where you are.  You might be angry, or scared, or overwhelmed, or grieving, or a thousand other emotions.  Wherever you are and whatever you’re feeling, invite Jesus to sit down right next to you and stay with you.  Peace and comfort seem to follow Jesus around, and I believe His presence will be enough to sustain you until the logjam breaks.

Ask for understanding.  If your trial has an intended lesson interwoven in it, then ask Jesus exactly what He’s working on in you.  This is especially helpful if broken relationships are involved, because people (including you and I) sometime act and react in bizarre ways that aren’t easy to understand.  Asking Jesus to show you the deeper dynamics of what’s going on will help you cooperate more fully with the process.

Be willing to accept a new normal.  When we are enduring a trial that involves stress and pain, our concept of relief is for God to repair what’s broken by restoring the circumstance back to the way things were.  But what if the way things were needed to change?  Sometimes God uses trials to break unhealthy habits, end toxic relationships, or nudge us in some direction that we have been until now unwilling to consider.  God isn’t only in the business of repairing what’s broken.  He is also an expert at creating things more beautiful and healthy than we can imagine.  Sometimes a trial is the pathway to something completely new.

Thank you for reading as I try to process my present circumstances.  Because trials are an unfortunate part of everyone’s life, I’m confident you have had your share.  If you have your own personal insight about how to come to terms with trials, I and whoever else reads this would love to hear them.  Please leave a gift of your experience with a comment.

 

 

Gratitude

I’m coming to understand that the key to living a life that is a joy instead of a drudgery is the element of gratitude.  I believe that as a species, humankind is, by nature and by practice, an ungrateful lot.  Dostoevsky, writing about humanity in his Notes from the Underground, says “If he is not stupid, he is monstrously ungrateful!  Phenomenally ungrateful.  In fact, I believe that the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped.”

The purpose of this musing is not to instruct readers on how to be grateful, or why we ought to be grateful.  This post is my own personal exercise in cultivating an attitude of gratitude.

The image behind this post’s title  is of my desk at home, which I am currently seated behind.  It is early morning, my time to read and reflect about my faith and my life.  The topic is gratitude, and as I meditate on what that means and how to be more grateful, for some reason my attention became focused on my desk.  It looks this morning like it always looks, but today, I realized that the items situated on my desk could provide a great foundation from which to cultivate a grateful heart.  Let me share with you what’s on my desk, and why these items prompt me toward gratitude.

Maker:L,Date:2017-9-13,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-Y

This is my Bible, my current source of devotional guidance, and my journal.  This represents my relationship with God, which is the foundation for my gratitude.  I know what Peter means when he writes, “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”  The mercy and acceptance I have received from God has completely transformed my life and my world.  For that I am profoundly grateful.

Maker:L,Date:2017-9-13,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-Y

These three items represent my parents.  The picture is my Poppa, the glass was my mom’s favorite decorative piece (it contains the image of a hummingbird, which was her favorite), and the scarecrow is a pottery piece that sat on my parents’ mantle until they both died.  Although they are but inanimate figures, my parents are alive and present in my heart when I look at these.  I’m seeing them through the eyes of gratitude this morning.

Maker:L,Date:2017-9-13,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-Y

This is one of the few picture I have of my entire immediate family.  This picture was taken on my son Sean’s wedding day.  I get misty looking at this picture.  These are the human beings that mean the most to me.  These are my people, my family.  So many people have no pictures like this, because they have no family.  Gratitude.

Maker:L,Date:2017-9-13,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-Y

I snapped this picture at sunset over Lake Howard in Winter Haven, Florida, where I live.  It was Saturday night, my wife and I had just finished dinner together, and on our way home, we stopped to watch the sunset.  The weather was perfect, and this photo captures a magic moment in time.  When I see it, I see don’t just see the sun going down.  I remember the breeze.  I remember how beautiful my wife looked.  And when I remember those things, I feel grateful.

It’s one thing to scan the contents of my desk, and in a moment of nostalgia, feel a tinge of gratitude because of what I’ve been given.  But it’s something else entirely to become a man who practices gratitude as a discipline.  I want gratitude to be a daily and intentional act- a conscious choice.  That’s my goal.

To The Parent Whose Kid Is Sitting The Bench- By Lisa Holbrook

This excellent piece was written by my good friend Lisa Holbrook.  She has graciously given me permission to share it with you, and you have her permission to share it with anyone who you believe it will help.  You can read more of Lisa’s writing here

 

To the Parent Whose Kid is Sitting on the Bench

Yesterday marked the end of the 2017-2018 basketball season.  I used to dread this day but this year I am beyond relieved that it is over.  I’ve laid awake many nights, thinking of whether or not I would share about my journey at the end of the season.  In the end I realized that my story may help someone else.  And so, here goes.

Our middle son, Cameron, has always loved sports and basketball has by far been his favorite.  He came into the world weighing over 10 pounds and he just kept growing.  By the time he was in the seventh grade he was 6’2” and we were told he could end up being taller than his Dad who is 6’6”.  In a turn of events, a trip to his orthopedic doctor in the 10th grade showed that he was finished growing and the kid who had always played  the post position quickly realized that he would have to learn a new one if he wanted to continue playing.

His height didn’t stop him from working hard and playing well and in the summer between his sophomore and junior year he had the best summer travel ball season yet. Cam attended an exposure camp where 182 high school players from several states played and were evaluated.  He made it into the 3rd camp team and was ranked 26th out of the 182 players.  We had high hopes for his junior year.  His school’s varsity team had been stacked for several years with great talent but they had all graduated and it was finally Cam’s turn to play for Varsity.  We felt that our expectations for the season were realistic. We knew that there would be taller kids playing his position and, for the first time, we didn’t expect Cam to start.  However, we did think that he would be one of the first players to come off of the bench during the game and that his aggressiveness and rebounding would be of benefit to this young team. He played well in the pre-season and we were thrilled to be watching him do what he loved.

I’ll never forget the first game.  It was at the high school that my husband graduated from and his entire family was there.  We sat through the first, second, and third quarter and watched the team lose while Cam sat on the bench.  He finally got in the last 2 minutes of the game.  We were shocked.

I wish I could say that the season changed.  It didn’t.  Cam played a total of 17 minutes in 25 games.

Game after game we sat in gyms and watched our kid who we were used to seeing on the court, sit the bench.

My husband, David, started keeping stats when Cam was in the seventh grade.  It kept him calm and quiet during the games.  He’s a black and white thinker and at the end of the games the stats would often show him that Cam had played better than he thought.  The stats also showed Cam what he needed to work on.  It was a coping skill that worked for years and benefited both David and Cam.  That is, until this year.  Night after night the stats just caused more confusion.  How could a coach whose team was getting out-rebounded game after game sit the player who had always led in rebounds?  It didn’t make sense.  And it didn’t help that other parents were asking, “What in the world?  Why is Cam not playing?”

I wish I could tell you that we rose above the disappointment and handled the situation perfectly.  We didn’t.  It may sound silly, but it was painful.  The Grandparents eventually had to stop going to games.  It was too much for them to watch.  All of us went through what felt like the death of a dream.  We always thought we had at least two more years to watch him do what he loved.  We were wrong.  My husband and I didn’t always agree on how to handle the situation and the tension in our home peaked over Christmas Break.  I’ve never wanted something to be over so badly.

But I learned a lot through it all.  I think that’s why I feel led to share.   What I’ve realized during this season is that we weren’t the first parents to go through this and that we won’t be the last.  So if you’re the parent of a kid who is sitting the bench, keep reading.  I hope you can learn from my experience.

Of course you’re upset.  I guess I just want to validate your feelings.  There are a lot of articles on how a parent should respond when their kid is not playing.  Every one that I’ve read jumps straight to, “Trust and respect the coach”, or “You don’t see the entire picture”, and “It’s not about your kid.”  I just needed someone to tell me that it was okay for me to be upset.  Who wouldn’t be?  We were shocked. We fought for hope, then lost hope, and watched our kid struggle as his dream of playing basketball in high school was crushed.  So please hear me – I get it.  You’re upset and it’s okay.

But to stay upset is unhealthy.

Hatred is a real thing.  Until this year I’m not sure I’ve ever really hated anyone.  If I’m being honest, the feelings I had toward Cam’s coaches were off the charts.  I was judgmental and angry and at one point in the season I had to release all of that.  I had to ask God to forgive me and help me to see them through His eyes.  My hatred was hurting me, not them.  I think it’s the belief or feeling that someone else has control over your kid’s life that keeps us stuck in that cycle of hatred.  I had to realize that Cam wasn’t going through anything that God wasn’t allowing. 

Life is not fair.  Jesus made that very clear when He said,

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart!

I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

We have to be very careful as Christians to not believe the lie that “Just because you are following Jesus, nothing bad will happen.”  This won’t be the last time I watch my son go through something hard.  I’ve been given an opportunity to teach him this fact of life and help him develop healthy ways to deal with the disappointment and injustice that he will inevitably experience in his life.

The deepest growth often comes through adversity. 

“But we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”  Romans 5:3-4

Cam grew more during this basketball season than ever before.  He went to practices when he didn’t feel like it.  He cheered his team on and stayed engaged during games.  He showed respect for coaches that he had lost respect for.  He invested in his teammates and he held his head high.  He learned healthy ways to deal with his anger so that he wouldn’t lose it in front of people.  Sure, he wasn’t perfect by any means.  I won’t deny that he probably said things and got irritated and snapped at people.  But overall he became a better person.   When people asked how in the world he was keeping it together, he gave credit to God, who was becoming more real to him.  As hard as it was to watch, I’m thankful that he was able to learn this lesson at age 17 and not later in life.

Sometimes you have your greatest influence when things aren’t going the way you think they should. 

People are always watching to see how we will respond.  If we allow Him to, God will open doors where we can point people to Him.  But if we let our disappointment take over, we can be a negative influence.  During most games I struggled to keep my tears from flowing.  I quickly shut down and changed from the outgoing person I was created to be.  In January I had to stop focusing on my loss and start engaging with people again.  I ended up going to another mom and apologizing for avoiding her all season.  I had allowed my hurt to change me and it wasn’t pretty.

Toward the end of the season I sat and listened as Cam shared his experience with a fourth grade boy who was sitting the bench in his sport too.  I was reminded of the verse in Genesis where Joseph speaks to his brothers who had sold him into slavery.

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”  Genesis 50:20

That verse was playing out right in front of my eyes.  Satan’s goal was for this experience to destroy Cam, but God was using it to help someone else. 

God’s plans for our children are good. 

“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”  Romans 8:28.

This is one of those verses that is easy to believe when things are going according to plan.  It takes a different kind of faith to believe it when things aren’t.  In January I talked to a mom friend whose son was experiencing a similar situation at a different school.  It was so helpful to talk to someone who understood what we were going through.  But what was most helpful was when she shared a prayer with me that her husband had written for their son.  It listed all the things that he wanted God to develop in his son through that hard season.  This list transformed my prayers from those of “Lord, just get me through this game” to “Lord, give Cam strength and develop his character.”  I started to see answers to those prayers in Cam’s daily life.  God was sweet to have people come to us and share stories about Cam and how he was making a difference.

In September I had started praying “favor” over Cam.  In December I was frustrated because Cam definitely didn’t have favor with his coaches.  In January God encouraged me while in a worship service.  The leader prophesied, saying, “Someone here tonight is believing that a man can stop what God is doing in your kids’ lives, but no one can stop the Lord Almighty.”  This spoke to me on so many levels and encouraged me to fight for Cam instead of drown in my disappointment.   The next week I realized that God HAD answered my prayer of favor for Cam.  He had brought a mentor into his life who adores him and wants to invest in him.  And that relationship has opened more doors of opportunity than I could have imagined.  I thought God would give Cam favor with his coaches – but His plans were so much better.

So, where are we now?  There is definitely a relief that the season is over but also a sadness in realizing that Cam won’t play basketball his senior year.  I hope that one day I can look back and see all the reasons why Cam went through this hard time.

A few months into the season Cam found an anonymous note on his car.  The writer shared how, as an athlete, you can’t just run a race – you have to train for it.  The training is often harder than the actual race, but it’s necessary.  They encouraged Cam to keep his eyes on the truth that God has races for Cam to run and this basketball season was the training. 

One of my prayers for Cam during this season was that he would not quit – be a good friend – and play hard if he ever got in the game.  That prayer was answered.

Although many encouraged him to, Cam didn’t quit. 

Last week a teammate asked Cam if he would take him to church.  He’s been a good friend.

In the last game of the 2017-2018 season the team was down by 22 with 41 seconds to go.  The coach finally put Cam in and he played hard.  He scored the last two points of the game.  Of the season.  He finished strong. To say I’m proud of him is an understatement.  A month ago I couldn’t say that I was thankful for the 2017-2018 basketball season.  Today I can.  So, to the parent whose kid is sitting the bench, I’m sorry.  I hope my words have encouraged you to ask God what He wants to do in your kid’s life and in yours.

 

A Letter From God

Yesterday was one of the worst days I can remember.  Seemingly out of the blue, anxiety ripped through my chest like a steel vice.  It felt like an elephant was sitting on me.  I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t concentrate, and I couldn’t think.  Somehow I made it through staff meeting, then went home and shut myself off from the world.

After a good night’s sleep, an hour of hard aerobic exercise, and some quiet reflection, I think I understand what triggered yesterday’s meltdown.  It was the new church budget.

I am the lead pastor of a medium sized non-denominational church, and along with preaching, teaching, leading, and all the rest of the pastor stuff, I oversee a yearly budget that approaches a million dollars.  But I’ve been doing this for years.  What was it about this particular budget that upset me?

To put it simply, the bottom line seemed out of reach.  Overhead costs have risen considerably, and compared to the amount that our congregation typically gives, it looked yesterday like there was no way we will be able to meet our financial needs.  So I imploded internally.

I’ve come to understand that occurrences like this aren’t random.  If I give God a chance to weigh in, I’ve learned that instead of randomness, these challenges are God’s way of teaching me something important.

So this morning, I sat down with God and asked Him to explain what was happening.  I opened up my journal with the intention of jotting a few thoughts down, but I ended up dictating a letter- a letter to me from God.  Here’s what He wrote:

Dear George,

I want to develop and strengthen your leadership style.  You are a careful, conservative leader who likes to operate in an system where everything makes sense.  For you, numbers need to add up.  That’s good in many ways, but there is little room for faith or supernatural occurrences in that kind of environment.

This year’s church budget doesn’t add up, and that’s what sent you over the edge yesterday.  You felt powerless and out of control because you couldn’t reconcile the bottom line.

I want you to know that I made it that way on purpose. I engineered the entire process and arranged the budget so that the needs appear greater than the resources.  And I did this to create a circumstance that was beyond your control.  I want you to learn to lead not just by your instinct, but with faith. 

For the next year, I will teach you how to lead without the ability to control.  And I want you to watch and learn as I supply what you don’t have.  This will be a lesson of faith and trust.  You’re going to have to learn to trust me.  You’re going to have to be OK not being able to explain where everything you need will come from.  You’re going to have to learn how to ask for help and depend on Me to hear you and answer you.  I must teach you that it is Me and not you that is really in charge.

I am your Father, and I love you.  You matter to me, and the church matters to me.  I will not let you down.  I am right here beside you, and I will always be.

God

I must honestly tell you that I’m not thrilled to share this letter with you.  As a pastor, it’s not easy to admit to a lack of faith and an overdeveloped dependence on myself.  But I can’t help but think that there are others who share my shortcomings.  Maybe you are walking a similar path in your own life.  It might not be a church budget that is sending you over the cliff, but in some part of your life, the needs outnumber the assets, and you just can’t see how things add up.

Feel free to borrow my letter.  Change my name to yours, and join me on a journey of allowing God to teach you how to depend on Him.  Please let me know if you decide to walk this road with me.  I’d love your company.

Three Questions for the New Year

It’s a brand new year.  There’s something about the word “new” that appeals to us.  It’s a fresh beginning, a new start.  Gyms will be crowded for the next few weeks with people looking for a new start with their fitness.  Smokers use the new year as motivation to quit.  A new year is an opportunity to turn a new page in life.

Many people would welcome change, but they either don’t know what to do or don’t want change badly enough to do what it takes.  One thing is certain: you can’t keep doing the same things in life and expect different results.  That’s why a new year is an opportunity.  It’s a chance to take a different path.

If you’re sensing that there ought to be more to life than what you’re experiencing, allow me to suggest three questions to ponder.  How you answer these questions can help you decide your first steps toward personal change.

1. What kind of person are you becoming?

Do you realize that you aren’t the same person you were five, ten, or twenty years ago?  It’s true.  Life has a way of shaping us, changing us, and molding us.  Think back over your earlier life.  Chances are you have different hobbies and interests now compared to before.  You probably spend your time and money differently these days (think kids).  How has your worldview changed as you’ve grown older?  And then there are the choices you’ve made which has impacted the direction and your outlook toward life.  You aren’t the product of your circumstances.  You are the product of your choices.

So who are you becoming?  What kind of person have you grown up to be?  Are you satisfied with your ability to love and be loved, to control your emotions and your anger, to accept and learn from criticism?  If you don’t like the person you’re becoming, then the New Year is a perfect time for change.

2. Where are you going?

I grew up in the mountains of North Carolina, and a favorite summer activity was tubing down a river on an inner tube.  It was fun for me because there was no skill involved except to stay on the tube.  You don’t have to paddle.  You just relax, and the river does the rest.

Life is a lot like tubing, and many people live their lives as if that’s what they’re doing.  They allow the river of life to move them along, never realizing that changing direction or enjoying a different outcome requires purposeful, sustained effort.

Where are you going in life?  If you continue on the same trajectory that you’re on now, where will you end up?  If the answer is somewhere different that where you dream of being, then why not use the occasion of a new year to make a course correction?  Set a goal.  Accept a challenge.  Take a chance.  This time last year, I was 25 lbs. heavier, unfit, and unsatisfied with the way I felt about myself.  I accepted a weight loss challenge at my gym, met new friends, set a goal, and got to work.  Now I’m fitter, stronger, lighter, and more confident.  Let me tell you- if I can do it, then so can you.

3. Who is doing life with you?

Have you noticed that in our culture, movie heroes are most often loners, people who want to keep to themselves?  Rambo, Batman, Jack Reacher, and the list goes on.  We’ve been conditioned to think that we are islands and we can thrive and survive by ourselves.

The product of that mindset is a life that makes little impact on other people.  An old African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go with others.”  The greatest impact of your life will be judged by how you have impacted other people.  Most people believe that the goal of life is to be happy.  Unfortunately, that’s not true, because pleasure does not bring fulfillment and satisfaction.  A much better life goal, one that brings exponential amounts of fulfillment and satisfaction, is to positively affect the life of another human being.  That’s the only way your legacy will survive you.

I have a goal for my own life this year.  I want to compete in a Spartan Race, which is a distance race that includes obstacles and physical challenges.  The clock is ticking for me (I’m getting old), but a Spartan Race would be a great goal to achieve this year before I get too old to run.  You can read more about Spartan Races here.

What about you?  Where’s the area of your life that you want to grow or change in 2018?  Maybe for you, it’s time to address an undesirable habit.  Maybe you want to read more.  Or perhaps it’s time to turn your attention to your spiritual health.

I’d love to hear from you.  Take a minute to leave a comment and tell me what you’re thinking.

 

Remembering My Friend Sahara

It was the last day of my medical career.  I was leaving to become a full time pastor.  A couple of years earlier, I became the founding pastor of a church, and working at an urgent care clinic supplemented my pastoral income.  It was late in the day when I walked into the exam room to see my last patient.  It was Sahara.

She wasn’t feeling very well, and as we talked I somehow told her about the changes happening in my life.  When she realized that I was a pastor, our conversation changed.  Without prompting, she began telling me about the train wreck that was her life, and how she was ready for a change… any change.  Long story short, she left the clinic with more than a prescription for her illness.  She left with a new relationship with Christ.  That was the day our friendship began.

Sahara holds the title of being the most unique human being I’ve ever known.  You didn’t meet Sahara… you experienced her.  She was absolutely full of life.  Her personality was infectious, and because of her newfound faith, the trajectory of her life immediately changed.  When we met, she was a music student at the School of the Arts.  She played the trombone.  When it came time for her senior recital, we went to hear her play.  She walked onstage for her solo wearing a full bodied chicken outfit.  It was yellow with a hood, and she stuck the mouthpiece of her trombone inside the beak to play.  It was surreal- the rest of the musicians were wearing tuxedos.  That was Sahara.

Once Sahara found her faith, she immediately set out to inform the world, and her mission in life became telling her story to anyone that would listen (and anyone who didn’t care to listen, too).  If you had a conversation with her, faith would come up.  It became who she was.  That was Sahara.

Like me, Sahara’s faith required her to pursue a new direction in life- ministry.  She attended seminary, and that started a lifelong pursuit of ministry in whatever form and circumstance that opened up to her.  I was proud and honored to be her pastor, and I often said that if I had 10 Saharas, I could change the world.

Life has put geographical distance between us recently, and social media has been our means of communication for the last few years.  But I’ve watched her life from a distance, and there’s been no sign of slowing down.  She has plowed ahead, changing anyone and everyone who was privileged to encounter her.

I learned this afternoon of her passing.  I know no details except that she died in a car accident.  It was a blow to my stomach and my heart when I read the news report.  Thirty six years old is too soon to die.  She was just getting warmed up in her ministry and in her life.

Yet I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who would be more at home in heaven.  Her relationship with God (she habitually called him “Daddy”) was so intimate that I imagine she stepped into eternity without so much as a blink.

Her death leaves me with emotions that are at war with each other.  I am numb with grief and sadness that she’s gone, yet there is peace that comes from knowing that this world never really was her home.  Her passing seems almost natural, as if she is now where she has been created to be all along.

I hope God prepared everybody in heaven for her entrance, because the life of the party just arrived.  So long for now, my sweet friend.  I’m proud of the woman you were.  You raised the bar for the rest of us.

The Power of Personal Relationships

My alarm clock goes off every morning at 4:40AM, and I pile out of bed, pull on my workout clothes, and head to the gym for an hour of Boot Camp.  Boot Camp is a workout class where a trainer coaxes every ounce of energy from our bodies.  In addition to helping me lose weight and become fit, Boot Camp has taught me an important principle of leadership: the power of personal relationships.

There are several trainers that teach the class, but one of them is my favorite.  There are several reasons why I like this trainer best.  She knows the names of every person in the class.  She always takes time to greet every individual personally.  She took the time to learn my physical limitations.  She even knows that I have a brand new grandson.  I don’t believe it’s an accident that this trainer consistently has the most people in her class.

That’s not to say that the other trainers are bad or inadequate, because they aren’t.  Every trainer on staff is qualified and runs a great class.  But they haven’t taken the time to get to know me, and it just isn’t the same.  The difference is in the relationship.

The power of personal relationships is a principle that all successful leaders, managers, and influencers must understand and leverage, because personal relationships are the currency leaders need in order to effectively lead.  Many leaders mistakenly believe that just because they occupy the leader’s seat, people will naturally follow them.  Unfortunately, that’s not exactly true.  Leaders only really lead those who voluntarily follow, and without a meaningful, personal relationship with those you lead, you’re simply a placeholder occupying a desk and a title.

Leaders, bosses, and managers, remember this: crowds always follow a person before they ever follow the person’s plan.  You might have the greatest vision since sliced bread, but if you don’t have sufficient relational capital, you can count on resistance when you introduce change or try to exert influence.   Personal relationships develop trust, which is the foundation from which a leader leads.  If people know and trust the heart of their leader, then they will follow, even if they don’t fully understand or even fully agree.

The owner of my gym has no idea who I am, nor do the vast majority of staff and trainers.  But one trainer does, and that’s enough to keep me waking up every day at 4:40AM for an hour of Boot Camp.  That’s the power of a personal relationship.

National Day of Prayer

In 1952 Congress established a National Day of Prayer “to be held on the first Tuesday of May for the purpose of allowing citizens to turn to God in churches, in groups, and as individuals.”  Early this morning, I was honored to take part in my city’s public prayer breakfast that was organized by our Mayor, Steven Hunnicutt.  At the prayer breakfast, clergy and chaplains from across our city led prayers for the various segments of our country and community, and the keynote speaker was Sherriff Grady Judd (who happens to be the greatest Sherriff in the world).

I’m now sitting at my desk reflecting on that prayer breakfast, and the more I think about it, the more significant that event seems to be.  There was something unique and important that happened this morning.  People from all walks of life assembled, bowed their heads, and prayed together.  Religious leaders ignored denominationalism and prayed together.  Politics was left outside and a united faith in Christ reigned.

As I think about the prayer breakfast, here are some personal observations that I came away with.  First, I was reminded again that people in authority positions need prayer.  Paul reminded Timothy of this fact in I Timothy 2.  Leading people is hard, and getting a consensus among a large group of people is nigh on impossible.  I’ve learned that in spite of what they want you to think, people in authority positions don’t always have it all together, and they don’t always know what do to.  They need us to pray for them.

Second, our country needs prayer.  Desperately.  No matter which political persuasion you might claim, pretty much everyone across the spectrum agrees that our country is broken and getting worse.  The problems are deeper than elections, they are deeper than policy changes, and most problems don’t have clear and easy solutions.  If our country were our children or our spouses, we would immediately load it into the back seat of our cars and seek immediate medical help.  We need help now.

And last, I was reminded that it’s important for me to pray.  It’s so easy to criticize the decisions that are being made, and it’s also easy to assume (wrongly) that there’s really nothing we as individuals can do about anything.  But for followers of Christ, we actually can do something about the state of our country.  We can pray.  When we pray, we actually take some responsibility to be part of the solution.  We become part of the process.  We become involved.  And when we pray, God most certainly hears.

It was an honor for me to an active participant this morning.  But  even more valuable was the insights that I came away with.  I hope that in some personal way the insights I gained would be insightful for you, too.

Why Jesus Was Born

Many families will sit down together and read the Christmas story from the Bible this year. Chances are you’ve heard the story several times, and you probably know much of it by heart. While we’re good at remembering the “what,” the “why” might be a little fuzzy. How long has it been since you’ve stopped to think about the “why” of Christmas? Here are three reasons why Jesus came to earth:

Jesus was born to fulfill prophecy

For over a thousand years, God’s prophets were predicting the coming of the Messiah. It was a common theme throughout Jewish religion that God would send a Messiah who would free His people. Prophet after prophet foretold his coming, his life, and his death. Sabbath after Sabbath the people would gather for worship, and the Scriptures would be read about the Messiah that would be sent from God. And then, on that night in Bethlehem, the promise of God throughout the ages came true. “I came,” Jesus said, “to fulfill the words of the prophets.”

Jesus was born to bring division

While Christ did come to bring peace, the inevitable result of Christ’s birth is conflict, because his message and his teaching demand the hearer to make a choice. Jesus’ teaching makes us choose between our priorities and His. Wouldn’t it be nice to follow a God who allows us do whatever we want, believe whatever we want, and act however we want? In fact, many people try to serve God in that way. They want to be known as a follower, yet they refuse to allow God to be the one to set the agenda for how they live their lives. Everybody wants to wear the crown, but nobody wants to carry the cross.

Following Jesus means that we accept and follow his priorities and standards instead of our own. When Jesus says things like “If anyone wants to follow me, then he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me,” Jesus is telling us that to follow means to follow, not to lead. “Make a choice,” Jesus says. Whose standards will you live by?

Jesus was born to seek and save the lost

Although the world tries to tell us that a life without Christ is exciting and fulfilling, in reality it’s a dead-end road. It’s a life of wandering and confusion, without direction or purpose. We become lost and unable to find our way.

That’s why Jesus came- to find us and save us. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done, Jesus can find you and change you. There is no sin so terrible, no past so horrible, or no life so miserable that Jesus can’t mend. There’s hope for you, because Jesus was born to find you.

Lots of people know “what” happened on the night that Jesus was born. But those who grasp the “why” are the ones whose lives are transformed by Christmas. The Christmas story is more than just a pageant. It’s about Jesus Christ, the Son of God, coming to earth to transform our lives. This Christmas, as you read the “what,” don’t forget to reflect on the “why.”