Stay Salty My Friends

Landmine Interesting CelebrityJesus tells His followers that…

Salt is good for seasoning. But if it loses its flavor, how do you make it salty again? Flavorless salt is good neither for the soil nor for the manure pile. It is thrown away. Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand!

What was He saying?

Contextually this has to be about discipleship. The latter half of Luke 14 has this as its theme. Jesus is explaining what it takes to follow Him. Here’s my take on what it means to be salty and how to stay that way.

I believe the text is talking about flavor or influence. Jesus is teaching us that the best way to represent Him is to be a compelling follower. Is it possible to do this too much or too little?

I love salty snacks. I prefer a bowl of popcorn over a bowl of ice cream any day. You know the saying that you can’t get too much of a good thing? It’s a lie… you salt 1can. Several months ago I discovered that my blood pressure had skyrocketed due in large part to my addiction to salt. Similarly I remember a time I made cookies and mistakenly swapped teaspoons of salt for tablespoons. Needless to say, those were nasty cookies.

Have you ever been around a Christian who was too salty? Well meaning… trying to add flavor and influence… but completely unpalatable.

There is also the very real possibility of not being salty enough. I was eating a bag of pretzels the other day. They were supposed to be salted. I think they had 3 or 4 granules of salt per pretzel. Not tasty.

I know Christians like this as well. They say they are following Christ yet nothing about their life is influential in that regard.

So how do we stay salty? Want to. The #1 thing that holds me back from being salty is me. I enjoy chasing things that don’t matter… good things even. I substitute influence for congruence. I try to fit in when what I should be doing is helping those outside of Christ to find freedom by fitting into His plan.

There is no substitute for time with God. Nothing can replace the saltiness gained from spending time allowing God to do His transformative work.

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Blessings In Disguise

sunriseI am reposting the story that follows with permission from Miles Coleman. Miles’ dad Fred was my first-ever vocal coach and is my friend. This story is one that is truly inexplicable. I don’t usually use the word “miracle” simply because of how it has been abused and misunderstood. But there is no other acceptable word to use for this story. No more words from me. What follows is written by Miles’ wife Anna.

Two years ago today, I was planning on working out at the  5 am CrossFit class that my husband happened to coach. I was dressed, had my shoes by the door, and at the last minute decided to stay home and go back to bed. I had a headache and thought I should rest before going to work for the day.  My husband, Miles, kissed me goodbye, told me he loved me, and headed to the gym.  Twenty minutes later my phone rang. I glanced at my phone and saw that it was a friend from the gym. I assumed she was going to harass me as to why I wasn’t at the gym, so like any normal person would do at 5 am, I ignored her phone call.  She then texted me, “Anna, please pick up your phone.” I sensed something was wrong, and that this wasn’t a joke. I called her back and could tell her voice was shaking, she told me I needed to get to the gym as soon as possible because Miles had gotten hurt.  I still was trying to process what she was saying, and didn’t fully comprehend how serious it was.  I asked what was wrong, and she said he had hit his head and needed to go to the hospital.  My response was to ask if he needed stitches. Clearly I didn’t have a clue as to what had transpired.

I got up out of bed, put my shoes on, and found my keys.  I drove to the gym anxiously praying it wasn’t anything serious. When I arrived an ambulance was pulling away, and some of the guys from the gym took my keys and ushered me to another vehicle.  I got in to the car of one of the gym members, Ryan, who happened to be a doctor, and he asked me for my phone and who should he call to meet us at the hospital. I was starting to realize this was more serious and involved more than just stitches. I was confused and asked him what he meant. He said, “you should probably call his parents, and any other family members and tell them to come down immediately.”  I looked at Ryan, and asked him if it was that serious and he said yes. I also asked him if Miles was going to die, and he said, “I don’t know.”  At that point I think I was in shock. I still didn’t know what happened and what was going on.

We arrived at the hospital and several of the CrossFit members arrived as well. They started to tell me what had happened that morning. While Miles was getting the class warmed up he sent them out for a 400-meter jog.  The WOD that day included rope climbs.  Miles was going to get the ropes down that were stored up among the rafters from which hung when in use. As he had done countless times before, he grabbed a plyometric box, and jumped up to grab a loop of the rope that was hanging down slightly from the rafters.  While hanging on with only one hand, he was using the other hand to wrestle the rope down from the rafters. Somehow, his knee got tangled in the rope and he lost his grip, flipping him upside down and falling about 12 feet to the ground, where he landed directly on his head on cement.  They didn’t tell me he was unresponsive, and all the blood he had lost. But I could tell by their faces and tears in their eyes they were shaken up but trying to be supportive.

Miles was placed in ICU and it was at least a couple of hours before I could see him and they had stabilized him. I finally was able see him. I walked in the ICU room and vividly remember seeing him hooked up to a ventilator and a probe coming out of his brain. The doctors and nurses were all talking and trying to explain to me what was going on. I didn’t hear them, I was still in shock staring at my husband who was currently in a coma and non-responsive. This couldn’t be real, I kept thinking.  The nurse handed me a stack of papers to sign, and at that moment I broke down and lost it.  I was trying to process what was happening but still couldn’t wrap my head around it. Miles suffered a traumatic brain injury from the fall and as a result had a factored skull, severe swelling in the brain,  and two hematomas.  I walked over to him held his hand, told him I loved him and that everything was going to be ok. I barely recognized my husband, and asked for him to squeeze my hand…but nothing. No response.

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They ushered me back out to the waiting room, and I still was in a state of shock.  The doctors came out and began to explain that the next 24 hours were critical. They also explained that if Miles did survive, he would most likely have serious complications and there was the possibility of never walking or talking again.  They were certain he would never practice law and he may lose his memory including his memory of me.  I suddenly realized how my life was probably going to change forever.  I remember walking out of the hallway and not being able to breathe.  Two of my friends embraced me, and our pastor came over as well. I don’t remember much from that time, but I do remember our pastor saying, “All you need to do is remember Jesus loves you and Miles.” The words were simple, but true and comforting. The One who created the world out of nothing loved me and had my best interest in mind, even in the midst of this horrible situation.  I knew ultimately that Jesus loved Miles more than I did, that He would do what was best for both of us, and that I needed to trust Him.

Over the next few weeks, miracle after miracle occurred. The doctors thought they would have to do brain surgery on Miles to relieve the pressure, but moments before they began, the pressure subsided on its own. Miles was responsive that same evening by squeezing my hand. The next day a therapy dog–who happened to be a Great Dane, like our two dogs–came to visit. I leaned over and told Miles there was a dog that came to visit him, he lifted his hand up and  placed his hand on the dog. A few days later they took the ventilator out of his mouth, they asked who his wife was and he said my name. Three days after the accident a physical therapist came down and he was able to walk. The doctors were astounded and nicknamed him “Miracle Miles.”  They had never seen someone with such a severe brain injury begin to recover so rapidly.  We spent 11 days total in the hospital and then went to an inpatient rehabilitation hospital.

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When we left for rehab, I started to notice that Miles wasn’t quite his normal jovial self. He was extremely serious, and it almost seemed as if he lost his sense of humor and filter. I was warned by the doctors that the part of his brain that was injured could affect his personality. But, I was so excited because it seemed he would make a full recovery physically that I dismissed any signs in the hospital of a personality change. As we progressed through rehab, it was apparent his personality had changed. I was heart broken, and kept asking the doctors if he would return back to the way he use to be. Of course, they couldn’t tell me yes or no, but just said it would take time. I prayed and prayed that God would restore his personality.  Honestly, the thought of living with someone who acted different than the person I married quite frankly scared me. I knew that if God had healed him this far, he could continue to completely heal his brain and mind and restore his personality that he created in Miles. While sitting in rehab, I would play sermons out loud and Christian music.  I clung to the truth and knew Miles had hidden God’s word in his heart and those truths would not be void.  I prayed that the Holy Spirit who dwelled inside of him would be evident and his personality would return. After spending two weeks at inpatient therapy we were able to go home. Once we got home, little by little Miles personality was restored. He continued out-patient therapy until December, and then was cleared.  Amazing!

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Now, two years later, looking back before the accident, it’s amazing to see how God had prepared us to go through this trial without us even knowing what was coming.  He provided a church family after almost a year of searching, he provided us with a second car so that when my parents unexpectedly flew in we would have a way to transport them back and forth to the hospital, I had recently moved to a new school with an incredibly supportive staff.  Finally, he providentially placed at the accident scene an EMS worker, a fire fighter, two doctors–one of whom was the chief of staff at the hospital–and two nurses in the CrossFit class that morning. Miles was able to receive immediate medical attention seconds after the accident occurred.

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Fast forward to today, it’s by God’s kindness and grace that Miles is doing so well. If I were to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have believed you if you would have told me two years later that Miles would still be working as a lawyer and we would have a son.  Not only did God restore Miles’ health and personality, but Miles has had some amazing opportunities in his career the past year and a half. He has been able to write several briefs that were submitted to the United States Supreme Court, argue before the South Carolina Supreme Court, and work on a number of other significant cases.  This truly is a testament of God’s amazing healing power that allowed Miles’ brain to be restored.  Laura Story’s song, “Blessings” was a great encouragement to me during that time.  The trial he allowed us to go through turned out to be one his greatest blessing…

We pray for blessings, we pray for peace,
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep,
We pray for healing, for prosperity,
We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering.

All the while You hear each spoken need,
Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things.

‘Cause what if Your blessings come through raindrops,
What if Your healing comes through tears?
What if a thousand sleepless nights,
Are what it takes to know You’re near?

What if trials of this life
Are Your mercies in disguise?

We pray for wisdom, Your voice to hear,
We cry in anger when we cannot feel You near,
We doubt Your goodness, we doubt Your love,
As if every promise from Your Word is not enough.

And all the while You hear each desperate plea,
And long that we’d have faith to believe.

‘Cause what if Your blessings come through raindrops,
What if Your healing comes through tears?
And what if a thousand sleepless nights,
Are what it takes to know You’re near?

And what if trials of this life
Are Your mercies in disguise?

When friends betray us, when darkness seems to win,
We know that pain reminds this heart,
That this is not, this is not our home,
It’s not our home.

‘Cause what if Your blessings come through raindrops,
What if Your healing comes through tears?
And what if a thousand sleepless nights,
Are what it takes to know You’re near?

What if my greatest disappointments,
Or the aching of this life,
Is the revealing of a greater thirst,
This world can’t satisfy?

And what if trials of this life,
The rain, the storms, the hardest nights,
Are Your mercies in disguise?

I’m extremely blessed that I have a husband who is alive and healthy and that we are blessed with a son as well. When our son was born we decided to name him Asher, which means “blessed” or “blessing” in Hebrew. God has been gracious to me and has blessed me with two miracles in my life, Miles and Asher.  I have learned that life is a gift,  cherish your loved ones, and do not take them for granted.  I would have never chosen to go through the trial that the Lord allowed us to go through; however, it has changed our lives and made us appreciate each day the Lord gives to us.

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ALS Ice Bucket Challenge: An Accidental Mirror

ALS-ice-bucket-challengeAmyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. And in case you’ve been in a cave in Afghanistan (some have) for the past few weeks, the internet has been all abuzz with people challenging each other to take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. And while several individuals have been named, it is almost impossible to credit a single person with its origin. The goal is to raise awareness and money to fight ALS. The fact that you’re reading this almost certainly demonstrates awareness. And, as for money, nearly 23 million dollars have been donated in just the last few weeks… and that’s only to the ALS Association.

Closer to home, one of my friend’s closest friends married a man – Steve Dezember – who is fighting ALS as we speak. I have connected with them from a distance and continue to pray for them often. I have prayed long for healing, but I have also prayed  for another part of their struggle… their faith. If you click on Steve’s name above, it takes you to an ABC News story. In it you will see my friend Joel baptizing Steve. Hope and Steve have combined faith and fighting ALS. They are likely the reason that my attention was drawn this direction.

As I have watched these Ice Bucket Challenges, at least 100 at this reading, I have noticed some accidental mirror images between people who say they accept the Ice Bucket Challenge and people who say they accept the challenge to follow Jesus. I am not judging. The fact is, no matter what you believe about either of these realities, the word is getting out. It may not be how you would do it, but at the end of the day it isn’t about you anyway. See if you agree.

  1. Most are excited to tell their story – sure everyone does it in their own style, but as they tell their story, you will quickly learn something of their motivation for participation.
  2. Some have no idea why they are doing it – this is not a judgment, just an observation. When someone just stands there and “does the deed” with no reference to why or for what… well, you get it.
  3. Others are careful with the details – others want you to know the history and why this decision is so important to them.

So why are you doing it? Now I’m talking about following Jesus. If that’s a challenge that you’ve accepted, please make sure that first of all you know why. Next I would challenge all of us, in our own style, to learn how to effectively tell our own story.

The Fox News Channel Wasn’t Good for My Soul

fox-newsReposted with permission. Article written by my friend Tim Stevens.

On November 7, 2012, I stopped watching the Fox News Channel (FNC).

That might not seem like a big deal if you didn’t know that I probably averaged 7-10 hours a week for years. I was a news junkie. I LOVED watching the news, hearing different angles on the news, and listening to incredibly smart commentators share their opinion about the news. I watched other channels too, but I was probably 90% watching FNC.

I was especially focused during the election season. I loved watching every debate, and hearing the debates about the debates. For me, politics was a game and I was spectator number one. But that all changed in an instant.

After feeling deceived and misled during the 2012 election by some of my favorite news personalities—I shut it down. I was done. I didn’t know for how long. I just knew my steady diet of Fox News wasn’t good for my soul. So I walked away.

I’ve noticed several things have changed in my heart and mind as a result of no longer watching FNC…

I no longer feel hopeless and defeated. I no longer think the world is going to end, or that “America as we know it will cease to exist.” That’s a ridiculous, never-ending chant from those who make their money by us believing the rhetoric and coming back for more. The truth is, America as we know it ceases to exist every day, and I’m okay with that. As we all contribute to solving problems and helping our fellow citizens—we continue to make America a different place.
I am less cynical toward politicians. Many of them are hard working Americans who love their country and are trying to do the right thing. They need more of my prayers and less of my high and mighty criticism.

I have more of an interest in hearing from people with whom I don’t agree. I am a bit of a hodge-podge as far as my political views, but I’m mostly conservative. When I was getting a steady diet of commentators telling me every night how “liberals” were evil, that they hated America, and they were trying to take my kids and my freedoms and my rights—then I had no interest in sitting down with “those people” to hear what they believed, how they thought, what they valued, or what drove their worldview. I didn’t want to hear it because I already knew. FNC had told me what was true. Now, I’m much more compassionate. I really care what they think. They may not sway my opinion, but I really care about them.

I am becoming more interested in what Jesus would do rather than the right political stance and how it will effect the next election. When I think about illegal immigration through the eyes of Jesus and how he would care for human beings who are trying to survive or find a better life—I land in a different place than when I think about it logically or economically or politically. If my filter is first loving God and loving others instead of making a point or winning an election or passing a law—then it makes a big difference in my life and my attitude and my focus.

My list goes on. I am more loving, less tense and more hopeful. I have clearer thinking about real solutions for real problems and I have more compassion for all. I sincerely want to know about other views and have found some of my own long-held beliefs shifting as I’ve been released from the quicksand of group-think. I’ve discovered that Jesus is not a republican nor are “Christian” and “conservative” synonymous terms.

I have some friends who are still deeply embedded in the Fox News Channel sub-culture, and sometimes I feel sorry for them. I see the weight on their shoulders and tension in their face and want to say, “It’s okay. America is not going to end tomorrow. There is much to be hopeful about.” But Sean or Bill or Meghan or Brian or Karl has told them otherwise. And as I know personally, it’s really hard to see the sun if you are being told every day the storm is coming and this is the big one and we may not survive.

For those of you who worry that I might not know what’s happening in the world anymore, fear not. I read a steady supply of online news apps each day to keep up and be aware. But rather than 5% news and 95% slanted commentary—I try to find sources that are 98% news. I don’t need someone telling me what I should think about the news.

I am in a much better place. My soul is healthier and I am more kingdom-minded. I still love America, but am more aware that Jesus died for the world, not just the USA. Although my love for elections will tempt my resolve as we get closer to November 2016, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the way things were. I couldn’t see it at the time (people mired in a sub-culture rarely ever do), but that person is not who I want to be. I want to be who I am and who I am becoming—and to do that, I need to leave the Fox News Channel in my rearview mirror.

Family First

Family FirstI have used this saying for years as an out-loud declaration of what I believe in my heart… and now my typical honesty. As you will readily see by the picture, physically getting family together is not always easy. I think the last all-together McQueary time was 2009. That’s not what “family first” is about (only). Family functionality (or dysfunction) is every family member’s responsibility and privilege. Is dysfunction present in families? Yes, always. Because, as it turns out, families are filled with people… and people are filled with dysfunction. But labeling a family “dysfunctional” and moving on is not the right thing to do… especially if you say you follow Jesus. If you follow Jesus and understand yourself through the eyes of Jesus apart from grace, you know that all of us are by nature dysfunctional. This ought not lead us to despair. Instead, this reality allows and demands that we pursue our families the way that Jesus pursues us. As I have stepped back from this thought in the last few days, these are a few of things that “family first” has meant to me (particularly in my adult years).

Nuclear Family First
I realize this title labels me. I further recognize that the definition of nuclear is changing in our culture. Nuclear has historically been defined as a family group consisting of a pair of adults and their children. My emphasis is not on defining or redefining the term, but challenging myself and you that the one(s) to whom you have been partnered and the one(s) to whom you have given birth or are seen as their primary caregiver are foremost in the discussion of which part of family should be first. If you have chosen to be part of this kind of family, they are your most important responsibility. After God, there is no one who is more important to me than Christina, Natalie, Erica, and Tyler. This choice will likely frustrate other family members from time to time, but if you start early and practice the rest of what follows, they will respect you more for it in time.

Marriage, Divorce, and the Oxford Comma
Even my title is a gentle poke at the irreverence with which modernity handles family realities. Growing numbers of individuals find themselves in very different expressions than what was formerly referred to as “the traditional family”. The poke of my (only-humorous-to-a-few) paragraph title is not meant to say that God has no opinions about the categories that people occupy. What is important in my view is that we see all of them as part of the same family. Simply put, marriage does not remove you from a family (your original birth or adoptive family) any more than divorce does. And whether or not a state or a church recognizes your family, put its members first.

Extended Family
First off, I hate that phrase. I think it is at least partially responsible for why many families function the way they do. I like “included family” or something headed in that direction. When Christina and I married 21+ years ago, we did not remove ourselves from our individual families. Instead, we each joined the other’s family. We did not transfer our membership, we multiplied it. I was thinking about this just the other day as it relates to my own situation. I love Lorri and Eddie and Colleen and Kirk and Rebecca and Brian and Lauren as if they were my “natural” siblings. The first three married my siblings and the last four are Christina’s brothers and their wives. Similarly I love my in-laws (another term of which I am not a fan) as a second set of parents. Why does this matter?

A Few Suggestions

  1. Family first is work… period.
  2. Family first is my immediate family before my included family.
  3. Family first means that sometimes other things take second place.
  4. Family first means I spend time with my family simply because they are my family.

The Stickers That Saved My Life

stickersBefore we begin, no, I don’t believe the stickers literally saved my life. And, no, I am not even talking about my physical life. However, none of that makes any part of my story any less true.

Recently a new friend of mine learned that I had been a church planter and that our church closed. He asked me a question that I have not stopped thinking about since. He said something to this effect, “And you escaped with your faith intact?” It was a harmless question. I think in some ways he was joking. But having also been a minister himself, I’m sure he knows examples of people that were not so fortunate. I know I know such people. I have friends that have not only stopped ministering after a spiritual trauma, but in some cases, they have walked away from their faith. So, my friend’s question was fair. The answer is a simple “yes”. The title of this post gives the how of the “yes”.

How I maintained my relationship with Jesus is much more involved than the simple “yes” answer indicates. The short list of things I will mention here are only part of the story. In time I will write about all of it because the how of my “yes” includes darkness and light.

I liken the grief of the last two years to the grief experienced in the loss of a close loved one. I knew I was hurting. In time, I even knew I was grieving, though I was numb to that at first. In 20+ years of serving as a pastor I have seen grief destroy relationships and people. I knew I was exposed. I felt exposed. I was deeply wounded.

Back to the stickers. Thanks to many years of great training and living as a practitioner, in my woundedness there were two constants that have sustained my faith. One, is the Bible and the other is worship… both were intentional choices.

Choosing Scripture
I’m not going to make this rosier than it has been. There were days that I do not even remember what I read. There were moments that reading the Bible was little more than a spiritual exercise. I wasn’t faking it. I just did what I knew. I believed then and now that the very words of Scripture are life-giving and powerful. I knew that even if I didn’t feel it, eventually this book and these words were able to revive my soul. And they are doing just that.

Choosing Worship
This one was even more difficult because much of worship involves the emotions. And when I was feeling numb, sad, and angry I was not favorably dispositioned to worship. I told another friend recently that I had even tried to be angry with God, but could not… because I know who and what he is. I can remember weeks where I stood in church and just listened to the words being preached and sung. Especially during the music I can remember contemplating the meaning of the lyrics and just weeping in the middle of the service. I knew none of this was God’s fault. Declaring his worth helped pull me out of my nose dive.

So, no, the stickers themselves did not save my spiritual life, but I do believe my choosing the Scripture and worship did.

Community: Subterranean Oasis

subterraneanIn my writing (and living, for that matter) I am often reminded that I take for granted the parts of my experience that I have forgotten. In other words, as I approach a given subject I am naturally inclined to view it from where I stand today. The problem with that is forgetting the steps it took to reach this day.

In all of my writing about community you have clearly heard a push beyond the walls of the church. My life (and hopefully yours, in time) has been forever changed to develop meaningful relationships across cultural strata that I would have never have ventured into previously. In addition, thanks to the prompting of a friend, I think it is valuable to highlight the importance of other relationships as well.

The year was 1991. I will only relay the parts of the story pertinent to this discussion. I arrived in the frozen tundra of northern Wisconsin. In many ways it was a new way of life. Likely the greatest takeaway (which is difficult because there are many) has been the need for personal, intimate accountability with another person or persons. Since understanding this concept I have had these types of ongoing relationships with Monty, Shannon, Trevor, Brian, Andy, Josh, Allan, Flynn, Jim, Randy, and Jeff. Even writing their names brings tears of joy to my eyes as I think of the influence they have been to my life.

In my opinion it matters entirely how and who and why you select these subterranean oasis friends. Most people in my life never knew the level at which these guys influenced me. They were behind-the-scene relationships. We met regularly. Nothing was out of bounds subject-wise. We discussed our highest highs and lowest lows. But how I decided who I would let in to these corners of my life was very intentional. In each season the “formula” was the same… find someone you can relate to who is of the same heart and passion as you and beyond where you are in at least one area of your spiritual life.

Let me emphasize that choosing a subterranean friend is so important that you should take your time. Pray about it. Watch people. Be able to tell them why you think the two or three of you would be a good fit. And finally… what about group size? Admittedly some (most/all) of this may be my personality, but I have other reasons too. I like to keep it small. I think the largest group I was ever a part of was the first… 4. The smaller the group the easier it is to be real and the more difficult it is to hide. You cannot afford to be without this type of friendship. Long for it. Wait for it. Pray for it. And then muster up all the courage you can find and ask someone to walk with you in this way. You can do it!

Community: The Deep End of the Pool

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Often in conversations about following Jesus I hear Christians say things like, “I just want a deeper experience.” They are so right to want that. I believe that in most cases the “deeper” that people want is not the “deeper” that Jesus wants. What I have observed is that when people say “deeper” in the Christian context what they often mean (whether intentionally or not) is more Scripture or more liturgy or more meat or more of something that they feel is spiritually missing for them. And while the latter may be a decent motivation for wanting more of something, I don’t think it is the “deeper” that Jesus calls us to.

I selected the image atop this post with much thought and at great risk. I realize that the analogy I am about to make will be a difficult one to swallow for some. Usually when I write about hard truths I ask people not to take things personally, but today I hope that you will. I hope that you will examine your own walk with Jesus. Ask yourself some hard questions. Start with this one… am I stuck in the shallow end?

Defining the Shallow End
Before I offer a definition of the shallow end, please understand that I am not name-calling those who find themselves there. Plain-speak… I am not saying that those individuals are shallow (automatically). I lived in the shallow end for much of my Christian life. I thought that as long as I was learning the ways of Jesus and occasionally asking someone to come to church with me I was doing all the things necessary to follow Jesus. So what am I talking about? The shallow end is where Christians go to get educated about Jesus. Often it’s the church or some other worship experience or even a Bible study. We go and we go never realizing that really what we are doing is being trained to stay. Maybe the thought has even crossed our mind, “When do I graduate? What am I supposed to do with all of this knowledge about Jesus?” And while there is nothing wrong with inviting someone to church, that is not the answer to either of the previously-asked questions.

Rick Warren begins his best-selling book The Purpose-Driven Life like this, “It’s not about you.” For years I lived in the shallow end. I didn’t know any of my neighbors (not really). I listened only to Christian music and played on Christian sports teams and read Christian books and created for myself a parallel Christian universe – parallel to the one that existed in real life. Now several years into my new understanding of the deep end I am about to describe, I can tell you that I have never loved Jesus more or felt closer to Him than I do as I am swimming in the deep end.

Re-imagining the Deep End
First and foremost, the deep end is not evangelism… at least not the way that most of us practice evangelism… proselytizing. The deep end is the reason the shallow end was created. The things you and I are blessed with in the church and in worship and when we study the Bible have to matter in real time… or they don’t matter. If the stuff we read about and teach and sing are just facts to be learned, then, no thank you. But they aren’t. Learning and understanding the way of Jesus ought to give us a compulsion to show that way to the ends of the earth. The deep end is why we learn. We should never learn and study and worship solely so that we can feel closer to God. The deep end is the universe… not a parallel one that we create (a Christian sub-culture). It is those of us who have chosen to follow Jesus also choosing to interact with all people, believing that the best stage for what we have learned and begun to understand about Jesus is in community with all of those He has created.

Community: Natural Connections

connected 2This  post is not about forming a small group Bible Study… though that did eventually happen. This is about making natural connections with people. This post is not about a bait and switch… i.e. forming friendships with people only so that you can proselytize them later (probably sooner). This post is about making natural connections with the people that God brings into your life stream… naturally. If you are plastic or wooden, people will know that. If you are connecting with others for any reason other than being their friend, this will be more obvious than you want it to be and will likely cause that person to run as fast as they can in the opposite direction.

So back to what this is about… making natural connections. When I first moved to Atlanta I only knew two people and they both lived almost an hour away from us (my brother and his wife). What I did next is not revolutionary nor is it difficult. I began to live life. First I needed a graphic designer who could help me create a logo. I hired a guy who I felt was a pro who knew his stuff and thought outside the box. Perfect. The next hire for me was a printer who would eventually put my vision accompanied by the other gentlemen’s graphic design into print. I found out later that these two knew each other and had even done work together. For whatever it’s worth, neither of them were churchgoing types.

Our relationships began as business. Within a few months my printer was preparing to be married and asked me to officiate the ceremony. I gladly said yes. At that point I was also able to meet his fiancée… also not a follower of Jesus. My relationship with my graphic designer was also becoming a friendship. Soon we started meeting together in our home once a week and just eating together. That’s all it was. No sermon.  No Bible Study. Just new friends hearing each other’s stories and learning what made each of us tick.

In time (roughly 6-8 weeks) the group of us had now grown to about 10-12. They all knew who I was and had all been asking spiritual questions offline… mostly outside our weekly dinners. So we threw a big Cinco de Mayo party (it happened to fall on the night we always ate together) and I sheepishly suggested that we add a spiritual piece to our weekly dinners. I promised no sermonizing. No lecturing. The collective reply was, “Of course we would love to!” The plan was to tackle one question each week… the questions that different ones of them were already asking. That study lasted another 6-8 weeks or so. By the end they were asking me, “When are we actually going to study from the Bible?”

Following that question, we launched a 21-week study in John’s gospel. And it never stopped until the day we closed Process Church. Next it was Genesis… then Acts and Psalms and Hebrews and Ruth and Romans and Habbakuk and Matthew. This had become our pattern and it was thoroughly a part of the life of the church.

Let me close with some clarification about how this happened. Perhaps it is obvious to you (if you already believe), but I prayed about everything. So, from my vantage point, none of this was coincidence. But these connections also happened through natural means. These people who are now among my closest friends were not even initially sure that I was not just another Christian nut-job trying to force-feed them some religion. Yes, it is a long road that leads some to belief and others not… but we are all still friends.

A final challenge. This will not be easy for you if you have grown up in the Church. I’m not even sure that you can/should use my story as a template. But what I am sure of is that 6 years after I moved my family to Atlanta these are the people that God brought into my life. And though we have all moved on from our shared church experience, we are forever the closest of friends. That part I know you can do. The challenge is… will you? Will you leave the comfort of your Christian bubble and explore the natural connections that are already present in your life?

You Can’t Spell USA Without Jesus

Christian PatriotOh, wait… there’s no “a” in Jesus. Well there is in the Hebrew version… Yeshua. There you have it… USA! USA! USA! All joking aside, churches have often confused patriotism and pietism. They are not the same. Perhaps somewhat ironically, I am actually ok with both patriotism (to appropriate degrees) and pietism. Where I get lost is when Christians equate the two.

I think the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades are fair and negative examples of what can happen when we disproportionately blend politics and religion. But unfortunately we do not have to go back hundreds of years to see places where religion got it wrong. Christianity did not do the right thing during the Civil Rights era or its handling of gender issues. Those are just two of many more recent examples where religion struck out in the culture.

So what are the proper proportions of politics and religion? While I acknowledge some slight variance due to personality and calling, I think this line of thinking gets us further down the road than when we avoid the discussion altogether. First off, this is not a math equation and these proportions cannot be graphed or charted.

What percentage of my life is driven by my faith? In my opinion, the answer had better be 100%. If not, I question the strength of the system to which you adhere (or at least your commitment to it). If faith is seen as a mere afterthought or condiment, then how can we expect it to inform any other part of our lives except the spiritual? And I know that’s where it ends for many people. Not for me. I am a Christian first and last. Following Jesus flavors every corner of my life. This doesn’t mean I’m perfect. It doesn’t mean I “do it right”, but it does mean that I cannot disconnect my faith from the other sectors of my life.

What percentage of my life is driven by my politics? Again, this is not a math problem. If you forced me to put it into that framework, I’d say 0%. I am not waiting on any executive or legislative branch to make my life better or worse. They don’t have that power in my life, actually. Further, I do not believe you can legislate morality any more than you can teach a 5′ 5″ guy to dunk a basketball… he just doesn’t have the tools. I do understand that culturally we have assigned some value to the political process and as such, I acknowledge its existence and exercise my right to vote and speak into said process.

Being a Christian and being a patriot will often be at odds with each other. If they are not, you are likely not doing it correctly.

Scrapping My Plans

blueprintWe were asked to write in my senior yearbook about what we thought we’d be doing years down the road. I don’t remember the assigned numeric value of said reach. Of course answers ranged from silly to sillier with a dash of serious. Without searching through dozens of boxes for the exact words, I can tell you that my attempt was a mixture of the silly and the serious. I predicted that I would be taking over the 700 Club from Pat Robertson. That was my plan… or some version of it.

Truthfully I spent a good portion of my adulthood as the anarchist who revolted against planning. I took pride in the fact that I was a go-with-the-flow guy. This began to change when I became a leader of leaders and learned that my style did not translate to the majority of those I was attempting to lead. They wanted to know the plan. Where are we going? How do you expect us to get there? These became questions that would simultaneously frustrate me and mature my ability to lead.

The older I become the more I value planning. I try not to get uptight about it, but I do my homework, pray about it much, and read incessantly to help me formulate my plans. This was certainly my practice in getting ready to start a church. I read every book that was even suggested to me, interviewed dozens of guys who had done it, and even learned from people who had rejected faith for a variety of reasons. I had a plan. In all the ways that matter, my plan worked. My greatest boast is that there are a few dozen people (most of whom are still in my life today) who have a different impression of Christianity because of the actions associated with those plans. But in May of 2012 it was time to stop. In the ultimate sense, depending on your perspective, the plans had either run their course or they had not worked. I choose to think the former.

In the days since – and for the better part of 2 years – I have been learning to work through that unplanned reality. I haven’t really written about it until now because I have not been ready to write. Last night I was watching the DVR of the season finale of Criminal Minds and this quote was the sendoff…

We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us. – Joseph Campbell

Yes. Yes. And, yes. This is what I’ve been learning. Admittedly I have had a tough time moving on from this life event. But as I rewound and replayed that quote last night I felt a freedom in my spirit that has been mostly absent. Sometimes we have to let go of the things we had planned so we can get on with the things that are yet to come. Be free. These verses from Scripture say mostly the same thing.

I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection! But I keep working toward that day when I will finally be all that Christ Jesus saved me for and wants me to be. No, dear brothers and sisters, I am still not all I should be, but I am focusing all my energies on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us up to heaven.

For now I continue to work as a salesman for my day job and am starting to serve again through our great church that we’ve been called to be part of at The Bridge.

An Eye for An Eye

death penaltyComedian Ron White hails from the great state of Texas. Part of his routine includes a bit about the death penalty…

That’s right, if you come to Texas and kill somebody, we will kill you back. That’s our policy.

That would be funny, except that it isn’t. Most of us do not need any convincing regarding the seriousness of this issue. In recent weeks the debate about the usefulness and appropriateness of the death penalty has been re-ignited. It is my firm belief that as a Christian you should have an opinion on this. Your opinion should not be based on quippy sayings like, “What goes around comes around.” Your opinion should be based on the Scripture… all of it.

We’ll finish with the Scripture part. Allow me to make an intellectual appeal in the middle. In addition to what the Scriptures have to say about this issue, I would also appeal to the same sense of justice that has previously led many Christians to side with the death penalty. No one can deny or ignore the finality of death. There are no do-overs with the death penalty. Sadly there are far-too-many documented cases where innocent men were put to death. This should at least bother us. What if the sentence was unjust?

Finally, I would like to end with the Bible’s take on the death penalty. I am well aware of the Old Testament passages that contain the title of this post. So, yes, I agree that at one point in time the death penalty was instituted by God as part of the old covenantal system. However when Jesus references this very text in Matthew 5, he does so only to highlight that the New Covenant is the fulfillment of what was incomplete under the Old Testament law. This could certainly include capital punishment. Have discussions and debates. In so doing, understand that many of the cultural laws of the Old Testament have been relieved by coming of Jesus. The gospel trumps all.