I’m an adult.

I still recall the smell of heavily aged textbooks, chalk, and Drakkar Noir hanging in the air the moment I became an adult. It was my senior year of high school and I was sitting in Mr. Mathis’ English class. It was maybe a third of the way through the class period when someone made a comment about adults and how we weren’t adults as high school seniors. Maybe they were trying to make the point that we shouldn’t have heavy, adult-type expectations placed upon us. Maybe it was a kind of “we’re just kids” type of stance this student was making, seemingly on behalf of the entire class.

Mr. Mathis (who was also the drama director for all the school theater productions*)–prone to lots of dramatic movement around the room–stopped dead in his worn-out, faded brown leather Sperry boat shoes and said: “Wait a minute. Are you telling me no one has made you adults yet?!?”

*Throwing in a free pic of me as “Pop Carnes” in our production of “Oklahoma!”

We gave him a collective blank stare, wondering what in the world he was even getting at.

He rushed over to the front of the room, reached toward the chalkboard chalk tray and took a yardstick he kept there in the chalk dust. He spun around toward the class in a grand gesture and instructed us all to stand. The unison of 30 metal legged, plastic seat school chairs scraping whatever that tile material is that’s found in every school in the early 90s was just breathtaking. CREEEEECH.

With his class of seniors on their feet, having no clue what was about to happen next, but exhibiting full trust in this one-in-a-million inspirational, funny, true, authentic figure that stood before us, Mr. Mathis waved his chalk-dust laden yardstick and like a wizard summoning the power stored in his wand, he declared. “There. You’re all adults………….Now sit down.”

And that was it. That was the moment I became an adult. Adulthood was thrust on me, and all the weight of adulting landed in one fell swoop.

I have to confess that I walked out of that classroom with a different pep. I had taken what Mr. Mathis had done and as seriously as a 17-year-old adult could, I tucked it deep in my heart and resolved to live it.

What’s YOUR advent of adulthood story? When in your life did you start to feel the weight of adulting?

Paul Mathis passed away in 2013 after a battle with cancer.

He’ll always be a hero of mine.

Looking for Trouble.

I was on my way back to work around noon after a quick lunch break today, when I decided I’d stop in at my local Wawa (I hope you have one near you) to get myself a frosty-coffee-something-or-other drink. It’s a beautiful day in the 80s here in central VA and the weather was screaming for such a beverage. So I indulged.

I walked up to the front door, noticed the sign about masks regardless of vaccination and walked myself back to my car to grab one. As I walked back toward the entrance for that second time, there was a young woman standing outside the Wawa with a telltale cardboard sign. She stopped me and began to tell me how her husband had “just died on Monday” and she needed money so she could bury him. I was lock-brained in an instant and while wanting to absorb the information she was feeding me, found myself instantly in an inner mental wrestling match between compassion and cynicism. Have you had that wrestle, or is it just me?

In my response, I think I told her I want to help her, but let me first run in to the store and I’d be right back. I honestly wasn’t putting her off, I just wanted a second to get my thoughts together to decide what would be the best way to minister to her. As I put in my order for my drink, I pulled a bill of cash from my wallet and decided I’d hand that to her along with telling her that I’m a pastor, give her my email address, and if she needed someone to officiate her husband’s funeral, please reach out and let me know.

Let me just stop right here and say something else. I’m so very thankful for the spiritual community I’m a part of. It means my life and that of my family has a built-in network of love and support that will, at the drop of a hat, drop everything to help me and or my family in every and any tangible practical way. The fact that this woman lost her husband “on Monday” and here she was outside a Wawa on Tuesday begging money to bury him–setting aside all my skeptical thoughts about the truth/legitimacy of her story–it just made me thankful that I’m a part of a local church that I know would step in to tragedy and show God’s love to me and my family.

So I got my drink, paid for it, and headed toward the exit. I had rehearsed my response to this woman a few times and was ready to offer my help. I exited the building the same door I entered, stepped outside, and….no one. She was gone. I’ve got to be honest when I tell you that I was both relieved and let down. You ever have those two feelings at the same time?

It had easily been less than 5 minutes from me entering the Wawa so I knew she couldn’t have gone far. Determined to offer help, I decided I’d go looking for her. I lapped the entire Wawa, eyes darting all over. I looked at the storage facility directly behind the Wawa, I looked at the pharmacy right next to the Wawa. Nothing. As I pulled out into busy Hull St. traffic, I found myself looking left and right for any trace of this woman. Nothing. Vanished. Gone.

The skeptic inside me figures she hopped back into her Mercedes and headed to the next place she’d set up her sob story until she gets run off by management. But even still, I felt a sense of compassion and wanting to at least offer to step into a place of possible actual pain in order to be of some help.

That’s not how I normally live though, I confess to you. I don’t get up every morning looking for that good kind of trouble. But as I drove looking and not finding that woman and thought about it more, maybe that’s what I should be doing. “God, where is there trouble I can step into?” or “Jesus, who are you pointing me to that needs to experience grace, a listening ear, the gospel, and love?”

Think what you’d like about this woman and her story. But God used her in my life today to help me recalibrate. And I’m so thankful for that, and for her.

Growing Down

After a quarter of a century in fulltime ministry, I have to admit something. I don’t believe in aspiring to growth the way it seems most churches and ministry leaders do. I don’t see Jesus pushing the purpose of bigger and better. I don’t read one single verse where we’re called to upsize anything. How then have we gotten caught up in idolizing and emulating those who we deem are “doing it right” by virtue of their mega-size and seemingly impactful ministry platform?

I’ll refrain from naming names, but I’d bet you know of one or two. We have celebritized men and women who should never have been placed under the weight of that kind of attention, adoration, and scrutiny and then wonder why they collapse under that weight. We shake our heads, wag our fingers, and marvel at what must’ve gone wrong. When in all likelihood, what “went wrong” (at least in part) was us; placing them on a pedestal.

So I look at the gospels and I see Jesus teaching, talking, healing, hearing, sharing, and serving. But in my own ministry attitude I have to tell you that humanly speaking, I feel much better when the room is full then when its not full. I have to confess that it feels much more like “God is moving” when its standing room only instead of a sparse crowd. Its only natural, right? And to some degree, I think that’s the fallacy: That we place natural metrics on supernatural ministry.

One particular passage of scripture comes to mind. Look at John 6. Start in verse 25 and just ride it to the end. Or read the whole chapter. So much is going on here, but let me get to the point. It is beginning around verse 60 that we start to see things unravel. In our current American church perspective, we’d equate this to Jesus’ ministry effectiveness winding down or coming to a close. We might even say the wheels were falling off and it might be time for Jesus to dust off the resume or find another job. After all, those who once followed Him are now taking off and turning away. What He was teaching was too far. Too much. Too crazy to swallow. So an entire crowd of disciples basically said, “Its been real. Peace out.”

Notice that there’s nothing to indicate that this was a bad thing. Jesus didn’t panic (yes, I know He never does), He didn’t circle the wagons and try and strategize on how to get these deserters back. He didn’t make follow up calls or conduct exit interviews. He simply turned to His still-following followers and asked “What about you?”

Three simple words that speak absolute volumes and give us a clear view into Jesus’ heart on people and ministry effectiveness. Let’s get this straight: Jesus just watched swaths of people turn tail and walk away from Him. Mere minutes prior, a large crowd was there and now only a few are left. I’ve seen people walk away from church and faith for some–let’s be real–stupid, asinine reasons. But to look Jesus Himself in the face and turn away from Him? Can you even imagine that?

I used to hang my hat on the latest number of young people that showed up to the event I planned. I used to allow my sense of momentum to be linked to what I saw instead of what I knew. I used to measure “success” on how many were coming instead of how many were being sent out. But growing down ministry seems to be more in line with scripture. Let me pound this out and see if there’s anything to it. Hang in there with me and add your thoughts in the comments section.

I know about the early Church in Acts. I know that thousands were added to their number of various occasions. I understand fully what Jesus meant when He gave us our “Great Commission”; “…Go and make disciples of all the nations…” ALL the nations? Sure seems like bigger and better talk, right? Sure seems like worldwide coverage is the focus here, right? Sure seems like a bigger crowd of disciples is far better than a smaller crowd of disciples, doesn’t it? Sure it does.

And let me add something just by way of full disclosure. I’m currently serving at a far-bigger-than-average local church in central Virginia. I love it. I love the people. I love the students. I love the scope of ministry we have. I love the many doors in our community that God has opened. You’ll not hear me say one disparaging thing against our church or any church for that matter. But I will say that our ministry worth and fruitfulness doesn’t rest on how big the crowd is. Quite the opposite actually. It rests on the fact that we prize eyeball to eyeball interaction, disciplemaking, and worship above all else. We view growing down and increasing personal accountability, fellowship, and Kingdom teamwork far more important than being known, noticed, or applauded. The church I serve at will likely never even blip the radar of popularized Christian spotlight on the national or global scale. And I’d dare say we’re 1000% fine with that.

To bring it back to my personal convictions… I, as a pastor to students, don’t seek ways we can get bigger. I seek ways we can more effectively reach and disciple young people. I’m not looking for the increase. I’m looking for God’s next opportunity to love and serve anybody anywhere. In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul reminded us, “What then is Paul? Who is Apollos?…” He was saying that the servant isn’t even an issue. There’s no aspiration in the servant’s heart for anything but that his/her master would say “Well done.” I have zero investment of energy, emotion, or time in making a name for myself. To do so is to undermine the calling God has placed on my life. He called me to serve people, not to build my own platform. I reject the ideology that says “But if you invest in self promotion you’ll get a bigger platform and be able to reach more people.” The logic might be sound, but haven’t we seen enough times where that seems to go horribly sideways? I’ll ALWAYS see out the opportunities that God might be opening so that I can serve more people, but that will NEVER be my ministry motivation.

So yes, I’m in full endorsement of growing down. I’m in complete lockstep with Jesus’ perspective of challenging the resolve and conviction of those who were following Him, and I’ll sleep soundly at night regardless of the latest reports, analytics, or likes on my posts.

“It was the last run of the day…”

It’s funny how every skiing accident story starts with the phrase, “It was the last run of the day…” Have you ever noticed that? Is it just me? You’re chatting with a friend and the conversation meanders from topic to topic and somehow it gets around to skiing stories and they’ve got a great one about when their day went sideways: “Oh man, let me tell you about MY skiing story! It was the last run of the day….”

Every. Time. And every time I think to myself, “Of course it was the last run of the day! If it weren’t, there probably wouldn’t be a story coming.” or “Of course it was the last run of the day. Because after that run, you couldn’t walk, let alone ski, because your knee bent the other way.” I’ve found that starting a skiing story with “It was the last run of the day” is usually totally redundant. So I might as well drop my own skiing story in here. (I have several. But for grins and giggles I’ll share one that WASN’T the last run of the day.)

It was my first time skiing. Ever. I think I was 14 or so. I was with my youth group and we were on a weekend winter retreat. It wasn’t a huge youth group, so we all crammed into this rented chalet for the weekend. It was a Saturday and I was so excited/terrified to ski for the first time. Now, when you’re 14, “fitting in” beats “thinking smart” every time. So when offered the chance to take some lessons for beginners over to the side under that large banner that said “Lessons for Beginners”, I bravely decided to be an idiot and pass it up. “Nah, just point me to the ski lift.” Not sure if those were my words, but that was my attitude. Pretty classic 14, no?

Now, I don’t remember who was sitting with me on the chair lift. It could’ve been any number of historical figures and I wouldn’t have noticed. I only remember how much better my legs felt when I put my skis, strapped to my boots, strapped to my feet on the foot rest of the safety bar rather than just letting them dangle. When they dangled, I felt a lot like Lando Calrissian when his legged was wrapped by one of the tentacles of the Sarlacc as he slowly slid down the side of the Sarlacc Pit.

So I reached the top of the mountain and was nowhere near ready to ski down it. Side note: The majority of skiing I had seen up to that point in my life was Olympic skiing. And those people had a very specific technique: Point your skis toward the bottom of the mountain and let gravity live your life. So, I figured, “If its good enough for Olympic athletes, its good enough for me!” No joke. That was my strategy.

Fast forward 2, maybe 3 seconds later and I get the feeling that I’m completely out of control. I learned very quickly–as beginner skiers do–that the ground is your worst enemy and your very best friend. Its a complicated relationship, to say the least. The ground will slow and stop your descent, but getting to the ground is a rather painful experience that is fraught with uncertainty. I quickly mastered the stopping technique I like to call “falling” and in no time was feeling much more like a skier. Albeit the kind of skier that all other humans on the slopes absolutely hate, but a skier nonetheless.

So, there I was on my glorious descent down the mountain not unlike someone who clearly should’ve been under that “Lessons for Beginners” banner, watching a video on how to put your boots on. I was nearing the spot where all the various trails converge into a wide open area at the ski lodge. I was coming off my trail and into a much more wide open space (thank the Lord) like a bat outta you-know-where when to my left I spotted a ski school of 4 to 5 year olds all skiing pleasantly and correctly as they sweetly slalomed down the slope. And I quickly noticed they were all tethered together at the waist. No kidding. I had no time to wonder why that might be because I was too busy noticing that their path was very clearly going to intersect with my path (the one I had little to no control over). And just as I predicted seconds earlier, I found my left ski which was still attached to my left leg going right between the two skis of that poor unfortunate 4 year old who was leading the tethered-together ski school of children who were in the process of learning the correct way to ski. Like a line of toddler-sized dominoes, down they went. I, on the other hand, for some God-knows-why reason survived the collision still up on my skis and continued my descent. You know those bright orange plastic fences that sometimes line the sides of ski slopes? The ones with the holes cut into them? The ones that are apparently often used to mark where skiers should stop and not ski past? Yep. Those. Well, there was one such bright orange fence right in front of the ski lodge. The ski lodge that featured a 20-30 foot plate glass window so that skiers inside the lodge could relax with hot cocoa or hot toddies and watch skiers shooshing down the slopes.

I found myself airborne over that fence and landing on the wrong side of that fence. I looked up and noticed a large number of hot-cocoa-sipping eyes looking down on me from above. I then looked and saw a none-too-pleased ski school instructor on the correct side of the fence but shouting in my direction. Whether he was shouting at me or not, let’s just leave that to mystery. I got up somehow unharmed and I think I mumbled an apology the way a 14 year old guy would and went on my way.

And that was the FIRST run of the day.

Now, you know I’ve got to extrapolate some kind of lesson here. There’s GOT to be some kind of truth, or principle, or wit, or wisdom, or illustration. If you’re inclined to know what it could be then read on. If you’re good with simply hearing the tale of my first time skiing then we will part ways here. Thanks for reading.

Now, for the rest of you. As my age has climbed (though I feel not much older than I was), I’ve come to think more and more about how I’m living this life. This isn’t unique at all. Its the human experience to reflect, to wonder, and adjust, and to aspire to more as your time gets less. I get that. But what I want to do and why I shared this story in the first place is to truly live a life that 1) doesn’t prioritize fitting in, 2) looks bravely at the opportunity in front of me and doesn’t back down due to fear, 3) lives an out-of-(my)-control life, knowing who IS in control, 4) impacts others around me, perhaps in a way that none of us saw coming, and 5) doesn’t stop until I’m on my back in a box.

I hope you’re glad you stayed. I hope you live life to its fullest today. I hope you don’t have to take out tethered toddlers to learn what God is teaching you today. I hope that you’ll find a way to point your skis in the direction God guides and just go for it.

“You should do a podcast. I’d definitely listen.”

Someone recently said these words to me. Now, I know it was just one person’s simple statement and I shouldn’t make drastic choices on one person’s opinion. But let me tell you why the thought triggered some intrigue in me.

When I was in college, I had the opportunity to join the staff of our college campus radio station, WNYK. To say it was one of my absolute favorite memories connected to my college days would be an enormous understatement. I hosted “Awake on the Hillside” each morning from 7-9 a.m. And I loved every second of it.

So when someone says to me that if I were to get behind a microphone and produce a podcast that they’d be a willing listener, my immediate thought is “Really?” and then “Well…maybe I’ll think about that.”

But let me tell you some of my other thoughts about the idea. And in full disclosure I have to say that these thoughts are currently winning. As you read these, think about a step in your own life that you’ve hesitated (or been parlyzed) to take…and think about the validity of your own excuses:

For me, I’m filing these squarely under “self doubt”…

  1. This world doesn’t need another podcast.
  2. I don’t have the chops for a long-haul run, so why start?
  3. Why would anyone give this a second look, let alone a first?
  4. There are so many people undoubtedly doing it so much better than I would. It feels impossible not to compare and end up feeling less than.

In order to begin to address these and other thoughts I have, I’ve begun to put together a simple plan to help bring the project into reach. Asking lots of questions of others in the know, seeking the opinions of the kinds of people I’d hope to appeal to, and setting a realistic schedule (not doing that has been a mistake I’ve made in the past), and putting together a timeline I feel I can live with. These are just a few of the steps I’m personally taking.

I was having lunch with a friend recently and as I listened to him share updates and details of what he’s been doing, I was quietly struck with a truth that is so simple its simple to overlook: When it comes to important life decisions to be made (like starting family, writing a book, launching a business, going for that degree), you’re never fully ready. If you wait until you feel “ready”, you’ll wait far too long and waste too much time. Certainly, do your due diligence in preparation, but DON’T get hung up on the idea of ever feeling “ready”. In my experience, the idea of being completely ready is very elusive. I’m not a proponent of jumping without looking, but I am–and want to be–a proponent of definitely jumping.

What is something in your life or on your mind that you’d do if you could (would)?

What has been holding you back from moving on a dream you’ve had?

What would it take to convince you right now to simply move forward?

Lesson in a Mug

Months ago, I was in a local Starbucks and while standing in line I was visually perusing the nearby shelf of merchandise. A mug caught my eye and I decided quickly that this particular mug would be a nice addition to my collection. I filed that thought away and thought “I’ll think about it.” so as not to fall victim to the impulse buy.

It wasn’t until a few visits later that I decided to make my purchase and call that mug my own. The handle was large and comfy, the color of the mug was just right, and size of the mug was optimal, the base of the mug was rubberized, and the lid was easy to operate. An all-around winner, to be sure.

But then something happened. After getting it home and pouring coffee into it, I quickly learned that all was not well. The handle was still comfy, the base was still rubberized, the color was still appealing. The problem with this mug? It couldn’t keep my coffee hot to save its life (if it had one). It was freaky. It was almost as if it somehow repelled heat. Seriously. If you want your coffee cooled quickly to a tepid nastiness, this is the mug for you.

You got me, Starbucks. You drew me in with appearance but let me down with substance. And if you’ve ever read my blog in the past, you know I see a spiritual truth in here. To me, its fairly obvious.

In the condition of the Church at-large today, and perhaps even in the lives of the individuals that make up that Church, there’s an attraction to what looks new, or cool, or on-trend, or comfortable. But once you step in, you realize that not only does it not stoke the heat of our spiritual passion, it aids in cooling that fire. The longer we stay in a place based on comfort or outward appeal, the more likely we are to experience that cooling effect. The brutal truth: God didn’t create us to strive for our own comfort.

So, when it comes to spiritual community, worship practices, and how we grow in our faith, the question to ask is not “how does that look and how does that make me feel?” but rather “what will this do to the spiritual flame of my faith?”

Tell me what you think. Am I making something out of nothing? Is there a truth I’m missing? Am I mistaken here? What does your favorite mug look like?

When your mind is in the gutter…

I won’t lie to you. Ever. Seriously. I’ll always be honest even when its not comfortable. And yesterday held a few moments of discomfort for me. Its been raining pretty hard on a couple occasions recently and I noticed that a certain section of gutter was completely overflowing and dropping a long line of rain water, creating a trench near the foundation of our house.

Not good.

So I knew something had to be done or eventually the gutter issue would become a foundation issue. The problem? This particular gutter was about 28 feet in the air. Have I mentioned my aversion to tall ladders? (Quick shout out to my friend Martin who had the very ladder I needed to get the job done.) So I hauled myself over to his house, borrowed this monstrosity of an extension ladder, leaned it against my house FULLY EXTENDED and stared at it.

Tip #1 when needing to clean your gutters: Staring does nothing. So I invited my wife to be my trusted Ladder Holder and I got to the task at hand. Deep breath. As I ascended she shared her advice, “Just don’t look down. Or left.” Got it. The problem was that I wanted to make sure that every rung of the ladder actually existed and that my size 13 shoes were landing squarely on each aforementioned rung. So with each step, I did what my wife thought it best NOT to do: I looked down. Three-fourths of the way up this thing I could feel the air thinning. I was at altitude now and my breathing reminded me of that. I was one or two rungs from being where I needed to be. And I stopped. For a split second (or several dozen), I thought to myself, “Nope. I can’t do it.” Even though my wife was planted on the ground, holding firmly to the ladder, in my mind the ladder was on fire, on one ice skate, barely gripping the ice that perched on the edge of a cliff. How did thin ice get to the edge of a cliff? How did the ladder get on fire? Where did the ice skate come from? Why would you ask me that when I’m surely about to die?

But then something happened. It was nothing. Nothing happened. Not the Nothing the Rock Biter warned Atreyu about in The Never Ending Story, but a nothing that showed me that everything was okay. So I took those last few steps up the ladder and found myself face to face with the clogged gutter.

I could see immediately that it was completely full of water. I was well within reach of the downspout, so I reached my hand into the soggy muck and pushed my finger into the mushy contents of my gutter. Immediately, I could hear a *whoooosh* and a torrent of 400 year old leaves, twigs and stale water were taken by gravity’s pull down to earth and out the other end of that downspout. And there was a deep joy in watching all that muck and water empty onto the ground, several thousand feet below me. As I stood there a while watching the gutter empty, I thought of something. Several somethings actually. Definitely not nothing.

First of all, I thought about the trek I had made to get to the issue. Each step up that ladder grew more and more uncomfortable. But each step also took me closer to the issue that wasn’t going to resolve itself. You know right now what the next rung of your ladder is. Don’t dare let anyone or anything stop you from taking it. Sure its uncomfortable. But its what’s next.

Next, there are times when its important to stop and notice the nothing. When I stood on the ground looking up at that fully extended ladder thinking I needed to get to the top, I had a feeling this would be my last day on earth. But then nothing happened. What is it in your mind that you’re giving waaaay too much strength to, simply by thinking about it as much as you do? Worry is an investment that never pays any dividends, yet we still keep pumping our resources into it. Worry is a broke system of crisis management that will never work. Worry is staring (and fretting) at a knot in a rope and thinking that’ll untie it. Worry says to God, “You’re not big enough, loving enough, wise enough, or strong enough so I have to carry this situation on my own.” Worry is idolatry because it places something or someone above God in my heart and mind. What do you need to do in order to stop and realize that the fear you’ve been letting keep you captive is a wet tissue masquerading as a brick wall?

Third–and please stick with me here–its very likely that the issue you’re facing right now doesn’t call for a rocket-science level of complex intellect in order to resolve it. It probably just needs you to be willing to push your finger through some mush. Of course its going to be gross; its mush. Of course you’d rather just sit there and let it stagnate. Of course looking away is easier. That’s why people live in denial. But what if you were willing to simply address the clogged gutter of your own spiritual stagnation? What if you decided you weren’t going to let that undeveloped habit or unmet goal sit there and taunt you any longer? What if today and every day you simply straightened your spine and stuck your finger through that soggy mess? Identify what it is for you and then get to poking.

Lastly, I thought about the next rain. I thought about how when those raindrops pelt my roof and make their way down the shingles and into the gutter, there’d be nothing to stop them from finding their way to the downspout and out of the gutter. I had a sense of satisfaction and dare I say peace in knowing that because I faced the task, found the clog, and cleared the way, that I didn’t have to worry about the foundation.

And let’s wrap up there. Let’s say I let that clogged gutter stay clogged. Let’s say I watched as the overflow of that rainwater continued to dig a trench at the foundation of our home. Eventually, the foundation would have given way for lack of support. All because I refused to climb a ladder, push some mush, and clear a gutter. I don’t think I’m overstating a truth here. If you don’t identify the clog in your own heart it’ll continue to eat away at your foundation. Whether its mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual; look for the signs and track it down. Do the work of unclogging that blockage and reap the benefits of peace knowing that things are again flowing as they should.

Listen, I’m not a licensed counselor. I’m just a guy who climbed a ladder and cleared a gutter. But if there’s something you plan on doing (stopping, starting, or changing) after reading this, I’d love to know about it. Send me an email or let me know in the comment section.

If you’d like to dig into some scripture that speaks about this more (not gutters per se), then take a look at these:

  • Luke 12:15-31
  • 2 Timothy 1:7
  • Hebrews 12:11
  • 1 Corinthians 9:25-27