An Incomplete Thesis on Love, Its Impact, & Identity

The most impact-full relationship in your life is the one in which you have received the most love, and is likely the one in which you have given the most love. Likewise, the most damaging relationship in your life is the one in which love should have been given and either wasn’t or you were given some damaging counterfeit. I’ll venture a guess that you’re carrying scars from that even today.

Since the beginning of history; the creation of time and space–we can look back and see that love is the one thing we crave, the thing we are fascinated by, the thing we are shaped by, the thing that motivates us, its what directs our decisions, the thing we can’t seem to get enough of, and the thing science alone can’t explain. When its absent, it doesn’t matter what else we have and when its present, it doesn’t matter what else we don’t have. We write poetry seeking to convey its ferocity, we pen music seeking to herald its message. Name 5 songs right now that have to do with love. I bet its easy to do. The Beatles told us its all we need. Lenny Kravitz exhorted us to let it rule. And the Captain and Tennille claim its what will keep us together.

Imagine a world where every single person were motivated first by love for those around them. Can you even fathom what grocery stores would look like, what traffic would look like, or what Black Friday would look like? You’d never see another homeless person. Just imagine your life motivated by a love for humans. All humans. (If you claim to follow Jesus, you’d better view that as your marching orders. Because it is.)

I was recently reminded that there is nothing–absolutely nothing–stronger than love. I’m not being romantic here. I’m being logical and factual. You simply cannot come up with any scenario in which love does not have the ability to win the day. No matter what evil may befall or what struggles come against us, any move love makes equates to automatic victory. And while many people have a personal definition of love that by default has a slanted personal agenda, let me remind us of what love actually is:

“Love is patient. Love is kind. Its does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
1 Corinthians 13:4-8

While many humans choose to create their own definition of love, there is an actual definition of love that we would all do well to see, receive, and embrace. Otherwise, we are like actors in the same play reading from a different script or players on a field using a variety of playbooks. We as humans can’t hope to move forward until we embrace what love actually is.

12547692_VAI’ve spent the past week in Clendenin, WV seeking to help and bless a community ravaged (and I do mean ravaged) by the flood of 2016. It was called the “Thousand Year Flood”.  All the media trucks and news reporters have long gone home, but this town remains decimated by what these flood waters did. I marveled as I listened to story after story of the townspeople explaining to me the devastation of the flood waters. I saw firsthand the absolute obliteration of a once thriving neighborhood. I saw a completely empty lot as the words “A church once stood there.” fell on my ears. I sat on a bench listening to a man named Stanley retell the story of the flood, pointing to a 12 foot tall lamppost on the corner down the road with a clock on top of it, telling me the water was just up to the clock. I stood in a church sanctuary while a member of the church pointed up to the balcony 15 over our heads and said people were trapped in that balcony for days because the water was that high.

And it was during this week that I was reminded that love is the strongest and will always win the day. We can’t make the jump to say that love makes problems disappear, but we can say with all confidence that love helps us put problems in a proper perspective. Knowing I’m loved by my kids is jet fuel to my passion for living. Knowing I’m loved by my wife is like the oxygen my blood needs to flow. And knowing I’m loved by God is the very reason I exist.

As powerful and transformational as love is in our lives, love was not and cannot be created. We know this because 1 John 4:7-8 tells us what (who really) love is:

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because GOD IS LOVE.” 

I’d encourage you to read that entire chapter, but those two verses right there speak to us about the identity of love and thus the origin of the love we experience. Any act of love is a reflection of God who IS love. And no matter what I may face in my life; even to the point of facing martyrdom for Christ, I can die victoriously in love knowing that no amount of evil or darkness can overcome love. Not because of what it can do, but because of Who it is.

Advertisements

“If only…”

If OnlyWe’re a backwards facing people. The average person lives their life walking backwards. We pay far more attention to the past than we do to the present or the future. Let’s just admit it. We’re backwards.

At this point in my life, I’m keenly aware that I am prone to be fixated with the rear view mirror. I very often catch myself thinking about what happened a half hour ago, a day ago, a week ago, several years ago. And I admit that when I do, I think “If only…” thoughts. “If I had only said that.” “If I had only done that.” “If I had only planned better.” “If I had only kept my mouth shut.”  Can you relate?

There’s a well known story in the bible of a man named Lazarus who was sick. His sisters Mary and Martha were there with him, but Jesus wasn’t. We know however that Jesus “loved Lazarus” so they sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was sick (and presumably near death) and eventually Jesus made his way to Bethany where Lazarus and his sisters lived. (You can read the whole story in John 11.)

But Jesus was too late. In fact, when he got word that Lazarus was sick, He even said, “This sickness will not end in death.”  And Jesus was wrong.  Lazarus died soon after.

Jesus stayed where he was for a couple more days before heading to Bethany where Lazarus had lived. On his way, He told His disciples that Lazarus had in fact died.

So many things in this story are baffling to me, but something was said in the context of this story that I think epitomizes how I live and maybe…just maybe…how you live too.

Okay, so let’s picture Jesus and His entourage entering the town of Bethany. Lazarus had died and mourners had gathered. We soon find out that Lazarus had died 4 days prior to Jesus’ arrival. And as he arrives, Martha goes out to meet him and says the words I want to focus on:

“Lord, if only you had been here my brother would not have died.”

That statement speaks so loudly of two of Martha’s convictions: 1) that Jesus had the power to heal her brother, and 2) that Jesus let her down by not being there.

“If only” is how a lot of us live our lives. We continually evaluate what was and all too often allow it to tell us what will be. “If only” keeps us imprisoned in past events, past mistakes, past missed opportunities.

I look back a lot and wonder about when I took that right instead of that left. When I had that chance and I didn’t take it. When it seemed like a door stood in front of me and I just stared at it.

Satan will use “If only…” if you let him. Given his way, he’d prefer that you aren’t ever a forward-facing person again. As long as you’re facing backwards and making “If only” statements, you’re not facing forward and being led by God in what IS and into what will be.

So, how do we turn around? How do we live a life that gives the past its due, but not more than it deserves? A few things come to mind…

  1. Recognize that you’re powerless to change what was. And I know that stinks.
  2. Make any and all amends and reconciliations that you can with whoever lives in those “If only” thoughts with you. If you wronged someone, speak to them. It doesn’t have to be eloquent or polished, but it does have to happen.
  3. Stand on the power of Jesus’ forgiveness; it wipes away the “If onlys” of our past. Nothing else can, so until you know you’re forgiven, you won’t be able to face forward.

I know there’s a lot more to this story (Martha’s next words are so powerful), so read it sometime. And as you do, recognize that the same Jesus who’s with you in this moment sees your past and yet desires most to lead you forward.

When Jesus Stands

 

Throne

I was reading the book of Acts recently. I have read it before, but as I went along and read about the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7, I noticed a detail that had escaped me before…

“Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

Acts 7:56

These were the words of Stephen as the religious leaders and mob around him had begun to hurl stones at him in order to kill him for the “blasphemous” words he had spoken. And just between you and me, it wasn’t blasphemous. It was true. But as it turns out, they couldn’t handle the truth.

But do you see it? Did it jump out at you like it did at me?

“I see…the Son of Man standing…”

Hold on just one ever-lovin’ minute here.  Jesus is standing.

So what? Who cares?

We learn from Hebrews 1:3 and other references that once Jesus finished His redemptive work on earth He sat down at the right hand of God.  Jesus SAT down.

As in, “have a seat.”  As in “job well done.”  As in “mission accomplished.”  As in “take a load off.” Jesus sat down because quite frankly, He earned it. He was seated comfortably on His throne.

So why would Stephen see Jesus standing? What would cause Jesus to stand up?

File this under “partially substantiated speculation”, but let me share a couple thoughts.

What if Jesus stood knowing Stephen were only moments away from entering his eternal rest; entering Jesus’ very presence? What if Jesus were standing in preparation to “receive” Stephen home with a warm embrace, knowing Stephen were just barely on the other side of the threshold of heaven? Cool thought, right?

But the explanation I like even more is that Jesus’ response to the stoning of Stephen was so strong, so pure, so powerful that He literally had to rise from his throne. Akin to a standing ovation or the type of response that communicates an incredible amount of attention, esteem, and appreciation. Can you imagine living (or dying) in such a way that Jesus rises to His feet to show His approval and love?

Again, this is speculation but I don’t think its without scriptural backing. In the book of Revelation, we see a very tender exchange between Jesus the Lamb and those who had been martyred for their testimony. He seems to have a soft spot in His heart for those who lay down their life for Him. After all, its what He did for them. And you. And me.

Whether a standing Jesus is reserved only for those who lay down their pulse for the gospel, or if we can stir the attention of the Savior by the way we live our daily surrendered lives, it challenges me to love him so fully and serve others so willingly and be prepared to sacrifice so unreservedly that our Savior takes notice.

The Cold Christmas Shoulder

Probably one of my favorite people in the Christmas story wasn’t even mentioned. They were more implied than they were identified.

Its the innkeeper. That mysteriously, almost mythical creature who gets an indirect passing glance in the Christmas story.  (Read Luke 2:7, but don’t blink or you’ll miss it.)

no roomThere is strong evidence that the “inn” was not an “inn” at all as we imagine it, but rather a “guest room”. Be that as it may, I like to imagine the chat that went on between Joseph and this shadowy “innkeeper”.

Joseph steps into the building, up to the counter, and rings the “ring bell for service” bell.

The innkeeper emerges from a back room with just a hint of egg salad perched on the corner of his mouth.

Innkeeper: “Can I help you?”

Joseph: “Yeah, I’d like to get a room if you have any.”

Innkeeper: “Sure thing. I got plenty of room. Thankfully I expanded in preparation for the crowds I knew the census would bring to town.”

Joseph: “Okay, great. My wife and I have been traveling all day and we’re dead on our feet. Ugh. We’re exhausted and those beds are going to feel so good. And the fact that she’s pregnant doesn’t help—”

Innkeeper (interrupting): “Wait. What?  Did you say she’s….pregnant?”

Joseph: “Yeah, so you might hear some blood-curdling screams coming from our room tonight. Don’t be alarmed. She’s just in labor and going to deliver a baby at any time. It’s fine though. I mean, the kid’s not mine but an angel told me who’s it is.”

Innkeeper: “You know what? Let me just check the computer again real quick… *clickclick-clickityclick*…. oh, you know what? I made a mistake. Turns out we DON’T have any rooms. Sorry.”

Joseph: “So, you don’t have any room for us?”

Innkeeper: “Nope. Sorry.  Next in line, please!”

Joseph: “Seriously, dude? Nothing? I got a very pregnant woman here and just like that you’re suddenly out of rooms?”

Innkeeper: “Yep. No room. You know what? There’s probably a crevice or a cave somewhere nearby. If you can shoo out the animals, you can probably make it work.”

Joseph: “That’s cold, dude.”

 

We treat Christmas like we treat a parade. We find our spot on the curb, we may even set up a chair to make ourselves as comfortable as possible, we wave at Jesus around Dec. 24th and 25th, and on the 26th we fold up our chair and head back to normal life.

And as we do, we are all innkeepers. We’re nondescript, non-committed bystanders who don’t have the time, space, energy, or interest in making room.

Now I know the whole humble stable thing was part of the plan, but each Christmas I can’t help but look at the clutteredness of my own heart and take stock of what I’ve allowed to take up time, space, and energy and in doing so crowding out the baby who’s birth is the centerpiece of time, space, and eternity.

Christmas is a good opportunity to take a look at the innkeeper and see if there are any remnants of that person lurking in my own heart.

The Launch

lift offI’ve recently been in several conversations and been swimming in my own thoughts about what I believe student ministry should be at its core. There are some differing views on this I’m sure, but after 22 years of full time student ministry (there is no other type, in fact) I’ve developed a conviction and now more than ever am committed to carrying it out.

We’re in the hiring season for our student ministry staff. Looking for that perfect fit of a new teammate that would join in what God is doing here in and through teenagers. I’ve spoken with several people and in many of those conversations have communicated my “philosophy” on effective student ministry. I’d invite you to share your thoughts–whatever they are–in the comment section below.

I grew up in Cape May New Jersey and graduated from Lower Cape May Regional High School in June of 1991. The school building was laid out with one main corridor that connected 4 separate halls, all running perpendicular to the main corridor. Think capital “E” with an extra horizontal line. But on those rare occasions when a fight would break out in any of those hallways, it would be milliseconds before news had spread to all the other hallways and if you were so inclined, you’d quickly make your way to said fight for some between-class entertainment. It always astounded me how quickly a crowd could gather. We are, by nature, spectators. We love the spectacle. Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd, am I right?

But simply because a crowd had formed in the hallway didn’t mean that anything good was happening. So I have long since let go of the notion that successful ministry is always equivalent to a big crowd. Should we be growing spiritually? Of course. Does that equal growing numerically? Sure it does. But when we go for the second and skip the first, we’re no different than the hallway brawl of my high school days. Over as quickly as it begins.

No, I’ve developed a different angle and if you’ll tolerate the analogy, I think that the better view of student ministry views each teen moving along toward graduation as if they were on a conveyor belt that can’t be turned off. As pastors, we have a limited amount of time for deep impact and during that time, much like a worker on an assembly line, we need to see to it that certain things are “bolted on” and that when that student reaches the end of their time in middle school and high school; at the end of that conveyor belt, we understand that they will be set on a launch pad and lift off into what God has next for them. So, I don’t view my ministry as supplying students with spectacles to look at or events to fill their calendar during their 7 year belt ride. Rather, I am convicted that God helping us, we are to do all we can through the power God gives us to see that these rockets are ready when their countdown reaches zero.

When a student walks that platform, takes that diploma and wraps up their high school career, I, along with others on my team, want to have…

  1. …shown them God’s love; without bias, without judgment, without condemnation, without condition. I would never want to have spoken what I have not lived.
  2. …given them an atmosphere of acceptance and affection. It is when we know we are loved and accepted as we are, where we are that we are no longer preoccupied with fake, shallow living. We are set free to love others as God loves us.
  3. …helped in teaching them the “hand-in-hand with Jesus” life. Not religion and its cumbersome activities that lead nowhere, but the daily life of walking with the Savior and reveling in knowing that He is for them, in them, and working through them.
  4. …equipped them to discover THAT God is, WHO God is, who THEY are in Christ, HOW God has gifted them, and WHAT God is leading them to be and do.
  5. …shown and shared with them how to pray, how to love, how to share their story, how to invite someone to Jesus, and how to hear and follow God’s leading.

(I recognize this is a minuscule thumbnail of a much larger conversation.)

What about you? What would you add to this list? What do you think is important to share/show before students reach the launch pad?

 

The Spiritual Reset.

resetThe working title of this one might very well end up as the actual title. There are several contenders.  I won’t share them, lest you hate this one. That way you won’t know what might have been. I wonder if I overthink blog titles.

I’m just back from a weekend away with my bride. We’ve spent the last few days in a seclusion of sorts. She found and rented a cabin in the middle of a gigantic piece of property in Bluefield, VA. It was–in a word–sublime. When we weren’t doing nothing (a.k.a getting our fill of HGTV since we don’t have cable at home), we were only doing things that recharged both of us. We both needed it and from all indications the long-planned weekend did all it was intended and then some.

When I have the chance to get away I always seem to become even MORE evaluative than the normal, everyday, over-evaluative version of myself. No joke, I’m constantly in an evaluative mindset personally, relationally, spiritually, and ministerially.  (Hmmm. Look at that. You can’t see it, but as I type this blog the words “relationally” and “ministerially” have red squiggly lines under them. My computer wants me to revisit them and correct the spelling. It’s as if they’re unrecognized. Am I using them incorrectly or does this computer not understand the vital importance of both of them?)

Okay, let’s forget that and move on. Seriously, Jerry. Let it go. *Deep breath.*  Okay.

So, as I evaluate where I am, who I am, how I’m doing, what I’m doing, and what the ministry I lead is (or isn’t) doing, I find myself looking for a way to pull up the anchor, hoist the main sail, and set a course for new waters.

If you’ve been in ministry for more than a year or if you ever find yourself spiritually waning for any number of reasons, I’d like to walk you through some of my thoughts on how to reset.

Before we do that, let me quickly make the differentiation between simple and easy. Much of what I’m sharing here is simple. All of it, actually. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy.

Okay, first you’re going to need quiet. And I say that as a self-proclaimed noise addict. I find constant noise comforting, probably because its the most convenient distraction from the hard work of silence. And by silence I don’t simply mean no noise, I mean distractionless, deep thought and sabbatical type of mental work. That might not sound super refreshing right off the bat, but do the work of quieting life and you’ll be rewarded with next-level thoughts. The way God puts it is: “Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10).  What this verse isn’t saying outright but is screaming nonetheless is that when we aren’t still, we don’t easily remember that He is God. And when I don’t declare in my life that God is God, then my default is to make myself (my own direction, ingenuity, ambition, or idea of success) the god in God’s place.  Big mistake.

Once you’re quiet, ask big questions. We all have big questions that we commonly suppress. We do this because we’ve bought that lie that the urgent trumps the important. We’ve thrown the most important questions in the trunk and put the daily grind of menial urgency in the driver’s seat. Is it any wonder that we drive a million miles an hour and still feel like we’ve gone nowhere? Big questions have a way of recalibrating us. You’d be wise to formulate (liberate really) your own big questions, but for grins and giggles I’m going to spill mine right here in no particular order:

  • Is who I am who I want to be?
  • Do I fully embrace the unconditional love of God shown through Jesus or do I still rely on any degree of religiosity or perform-based spirituality, therefore short-circuiting the lavish grace God wants to free me with?
  • In the ministry I lead, do I truly lead in a way that reflects a heart of following, humility, and servanthood?
  • What have I done in the past 3-6 months that I would label as ineffective, unhealthy, ambiguous, or misled?
  • And what have I done in the past 3-6 months that have grown me in the areas of intimacy, spiritual authenticity, ministry effectiveness, and personal testimony?
  • If I were my boss would I fire me and why?
  • If I were to imagine today as my first day at my job and I know the shortcomings of the last guy who got fired, what would I do differently in order to be more effective than he was?
  • Do my kids know me? Do they respect me? Do they like what they see? Will they want to emulate anything in my character in their own lives?
  • If every disciple of Jesus had my level of commitment to the grace of the gospel, what condition would the Kingdom be in?

Remember, I didn’t say “easy”, I said “simple”.  None of these questions are quantum physics level questions. But as I’ve sat here and rattled them off in short order, they each have a gut-punch quality to them. For me anyway.  You’ll likely need to get your own.

Next, as much as I hate to say it I need to confess my lack in adequate reading. An author I like a lot is a guy by the name of Jon Acuff. He’s currently blitzing through a list of books he lined up for 2017 and knocking them off like a madman. And while I fly through books like a—well…like a, I dunno. Like something slow. Man, if I had only read more books this year I would be able to fire off some analogous quip that just conveys my point.  The simple truth: Reading fuels my brain. And when my brain is running on empty, I know it.  Worse yet: YOU know it.

The next thing I think is necessary to reset is to go back in time. I’m not saying book a flight to Pennsylvania Dutch country (wait, are there airports in Pennsylvania Dutch country? That would seem odd and out-of-place.) And I’m not saying to regress into your past. Or maybe I am. Let’s dig in here for a sec. What is it in your past that you’ve left undone? What is it that’s eating at you because its undone? If there isn’t anything, these words are next to invisible. If there IS anything, these words are a brick wall that you’ve just hit.

What I really mean by “go back in time” is what the Bible (Jesus specifically) calls “first love” living. I mentioned that weekend away my wife and I just had. You know the one conclusion/agreement/commitment we both came away from that weekend with? “Kiss more.” We didn’t arrive at that for the obvious reasons, but rather because each kiss we share is a reset button that takes us back to what we need to remember in order to be in love and stay in love. Plus its fun.

I don’t think it would be responsible of me to talk about the need to “go back in time” and not address our full-blown addiction to mobile devices. I’m no front-porch-rocking-chair, get-off-my-lawn, fuddy-duddy either. But good Lord, are we addicted. You’ve seen it. Go anywhere there are people and watch. I’m fearful of what these small rectangles are doing to us for the long-haul. I’m not saying pitch your phone in the nearest body of water, but I am convicted that we are feigning connectedness while feeding isolation. We are giving ourselves poison disguised as medication. We are slowly handing the art of conversation–actual eye-to-eye verbal conversation–over to the shrine of counterfeit community. I know it’s 2017 and we’re global in our reach. I know that relationships look dramatically different than they did even 10-15 years ago. I know that many, especially young people will label me a codger and write me off. But by God if we don’t get a handle on our overuse of technology and using it as our pacifier, scorecard, and machine gun; and if we don’t temper it with self-control and common sense (remember that stuff?) I believe we’re headed to a land where no one knows how to human anymore.

Resetting our minds, hearts, and direction comes at a cost. For me it takes guts, it takes swagger (the good kind), it takes introspection, it takes releasing my own and others’ past opinions, and more than anything it takes a full reliance on the foundational truth that God is both unchanging and never not moving. I need His unchanging love because I’m going to fail or get prideful or drag my feet or let people down and that unchanging love will be the solid ground under me. And I need to know He’s never not moving because He has hardwired us to yearn. I’ll never stop grasping for the next handhold as I climb with Him. But by definition doing that means leaving what was right where it is. And resetting for what is to come.

 

Bonus: I sat and stewed for several minutes before clicking “publish” on this one. I just wasn’t sure if it was “done” or if it was going to help anyone.  Then I decided to let it fly as is. So, if you’ve read anything here that resonates or if you’ve got some of your own reset advice, I’d love to hear it. Email me and share. My email is on my contact page.

Pain.

I’m writing these words from the floor of my bedroom in the middle of the night. For over two weeks now I’ve been in pain in the lower half of my back. I don’t walk normally, sit for long, or lay down without a fair amount of pain. A little while ago I was awakened by pain. It’s pain that got me to the floor where I am and have been. I’ve been doing stretches and exercises, trying to relieve the pain.

[Several minutes spent rolling, moving, laying face down….]

Yesterday I did what I thought I would never do. Out of sheer desperation I went to a chiropractor. I’ll spare you the awkward details, but left there in much the same condition as I went in. Except with less money in my account.

For the two previous nights before tonight, I’ve slept on the floor very near to where I am right now, trying to find some comfort. I’ve blamed my mattress, my shoes, my office chair, my diet, dehydration, and even my bowels as culprits for this pain. I hereby absolve and apologize to all of those things because all evidence of their alleged wrongdoing is circumstantial  and inconclusive. 

But….still….the….pain……persists.

Pain. There are few words in our language so abhorred as this one. To say it is to wince, isn’t it? 

And man am I in it. 

But here’s the thing. Listen now. I’m not a victim. I’m a student. Pain is what I’m in, it’s not who I am. My experience doesn’t equal my identity. And call me crazy, but as I was writhing a while ago (still in the dead of night), I thought, “What am I learning?” Because if I’m going through this, I’m not going to be foolish enough to waste the experience on self pity and complaining. Yes sir, pain is a great teacher. And I’m all ears.