Living the Dream

I was just reading a blog of a guy I never met. He was describing his life, his house, his wife, his kids, his neighborhood, his education, his past-times; he summed it up with “Life is good.”

It immediately made me think. I think slowly, and I just finished reading his blog less than 2 minutes ago, so I want to wash my hands of anything I choose to write about in the next few minutes.

I want to take you back to a very specific moment in time in my life. The year was 1990 and the month was June. I was in the foothills of Altoona, PA with several tens of thousands of people at a little party called “The Creation Festival”. Never heard of it? Get a glimpse here.

Let’s just suffice it to say that it’s a 5 day campout with Jesus. And loud music. And renowned speakers like a guy named Tony Campolo.

At least, Tony was one of the speakers when I was there. In fact, as far as I’m concerned he was the only speaker there, because I don’t remember anyone else. That’s the impact he had on me.

One of the many statements I remember Tony saying was this:
“If you’re living a safe life, you’re not walking with Jesus.”

And I look around at my neighborhood. My house. My car. My ministry. My paved driveway. My lawn. My suburbia.
And I think to myself, “Is this relative safety a mark of a contentedness of sorts?” I mean, because I live in a white-bread suburb of Richmond, VA…does that make me or my ministry lame? What was Tony getting at? Was it an indictment on the relative quiet of suburbia and the ministry that happens there?

Is the so-called “American dream” of living in an established environment a sure sign that I’m ready for the ministry morgue? I don’t think so.

Here’s what I think Tony meant. And if you know anything about him, you’re likely to agree.
It’s more about radicalism. It’s more about activism. It’s more about making sure I’m being, but just as sure that I’m doing. It’s about running past the gates of Hell and dragging people out. It’s about wrecklessness, wild-eyed obedience to Jesus, and doing and going where others won’t go, doing what others won’t do. Because life like that isn’t likely to be comfortable, or stay comfortable, or be concerned or consumed by comfort.

I’ll put the screeching halt on this before it turns into some full-blown manifesto. The world doesn’t need any more of those–what it needs is Jesus, alive and well in me.

Easy Credit Rip-offs

How do we know what we know? No matter how we know it, we know that we know it. And typically no one can tell us no when it comes to knowing what we know. Why? Because we know it.

Every so often, I find that my wife needs a bit of, shall we say “correction” when it comes to song lyrics. For example, an old Michael W. Smith song contained the lyrics “So be strong and courageous…” I’m pretty sure those lyrics are from the song’s title, “Be strong and courageous”. But when I overheard my wife singing this song, I heard the words, “Sophie’s gone, and courageous.” Which made me wonder a few things:
1. Who the heck is Sophie?
2. Where did she go, if in fact she’s gone?
3. Why would Sophie being gone necessitate me being courageous?
Needless to say, my wife was a good sport and we had a good laugh over the lyrical faux pas.

Then just yesterday, she was singing the theme song to “Good Times”.
Let me stop here and say that as a child, I loved the “Good Times” tv show. Not that I found it terribly relatable to my life; a comedy of the innercity plight of the ghetto didn’t have much overlap with my life. But it WAS funny. And when it comes to funny, I don’t discriminate.

I loved the show so much, in fact that I took some drastic measures to connect with it in every way possible. I vividly recall one day in 2nd grade. A young Jerry Varner sat at his desk and earnestly wrote a note to his teacher, folded it somberly, and walked it to the teacher’s desk. My teacher, Mrs. Harlan was, as I recall a childhood crush of mine and I would certainly not do anything to embarass myself in front of the future Mrs. Varner. So, don’t think I took this note lightly. On the contrary, I knew for sure that the contents of this note would show Hottie Harlan just how mature and grown-up for her I really was.
She took the note from my hand, carefully unfolded it, read it silently, gave a smile, and said tenderly, “You can sit down now, Jerry.”

What was on that note, you might ask? These words:
“Dear Mrs. Harlan, from now on I don’t want to be called Jerry. I’m changing my name to J.J.”

So, not only was I serious about Mrs. Harlan, but I was even more serious about “Good Times”, and my personal hero, J.J.

So, you can imagine my chagrin when just yesterday, I hear my wife sing these words, “Keep your head in the water, making the way that you can…”

I immediately stopped her. “Keeping your head IN the water?!?” If you keep your head IN the water, you’ll drown! It’s “Keepin’ your head ABOVE water!” In true free-spirited fashion, she again laughed at herself and my correction. She takes great joy in not caring at all how badly lyrics are butchered, it seems. Just as long as she’s having fun.

Well, not on my watch. And absolutely NOT with the Good Times theme song!

Later, as the conversation resumed, I asked her to keep singing and she was of course happy to oblige. And this is what I heard…
“Temporary layoffs,
Easy credit rip-offs…”

Hold it right there. Did she just say “Easy credit rip-offs”?!?
She had. Without even blinking.
I laughed aloud and said, “Easy credit rip-offs”?!? No way the words are “easy credit rip-offs”! Another line of Good Times had fallen victim to her lyrical shenanigans. And I was going to prove it.

Within 10 seconds of our verbal exchange I was typing the words “Good Times theme song” into my nearby Google search.

With a gratified look in my eye, I clicked on the link that took me here.

Click here and have a listen for yourself.

Did you hear it?
She was RIGHT.
She was ABSOLUTELY right!
“Easy credit rip-offs”
I couldn’t believe my ears, I really couldn’t.

Because I KNEW that the words “easy credit rip-off” were NOWHERE in the lyrics of the Good Times theme song. I knew that I knew.

We usually live lives of certainty in what we know until something or someone comes along and questions it. And like I did with my wife, we scoff at the idea that what we know isn’t really what we think we know. But pride creeps in and whispers, “There’s no way you’re wrong. You know it.”

Last week, I found myself struggling with the idea that what I have come to know is not all there is. In the changes that are going on in my ministry, for example, I’m finding that there is a great deal more for me to know. And while I acknowledge that cerebrally, it’s a different matter entirely to have an attitude that constantly welcomes the possibility that what I’ve known is not what I need to know; and certainly not all there is to know. I’m not saying that I’m a “know-it-all” (at least I’m not trying to say that), its just that when someone comes along and suggests that there’s a different/better way of doing things, I’d bet that most humans dig their heels in, stick their nose up, and rebuke the idea that the way things have been done are indeed the best way of doing them.

So, I make a conscious effort to stay as malleable as possible. Because have you ever interacted with someone to whom you can’t seem to tell them anything that they didn’t already know? It’s exhausting.

So, even while I know what I know, and I know that I know it…well, when it comes around again (likely in the next 30 seconds of life) that I hear/discover something that either conflicts with what I know or adds to it, I want to make room for knowing more.

(Just for fun, here are the lyrics to the entire Good Times theme song):
Good Times.
Any time you meet a payment.
Good Times.
Any time you need a friend.
Good Times.
Any time you’re out from under.

Not getting hastled, not getting hustled.
Keepin’ your head above water,
Making a wave when you can.

Temporary lay offs.
Good Times.
Easy credit rip offs.
Good Times.
Scratchin’ and surviving.
Good Times.
Hangin in a chow line
Good Times.
Ain’t we lucky we got ’em
Good Times.

Urinary Tract Infection

I had just finished a delightful lunch with my family at Wendy’s. My wife and kids were heading out to the car when I got the feeling that before we left, I should probably “go”.

So I trotted myself back inside and into the restroom.

And there I saw something that changed the way I look at evangelism.

Evangelism? What’s that, you ask? The word evangelism simply means “to bring good news”, and since I’m a man who is in love with the man Jesus and seek to follow His every step (though I quite often lose him in the crowd), the word “evangelism” is one that I have heard, oh probably thousands of times in 34 years. Evangelism is something that “Christians” are told they should do. The most well-recognized verse in the Bible is Matthew 28:19 where Jesus said to his boys (just before lift-off), “So go and make disciples–teaching them everything I’ve taught you–and baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And I’ll be with you always, even to the end of the age.” This was the last explicit instructions that Jesus gave his closest student followers.

And we (as well-meaning as we are) have simplified it down to a small pocket-sized book, often called a “tract”. Here’s the idea: You keep a handful of these tracts with you wherever you go and you give them away; usually to strangers like that waiter in the restaurant who’ll find it on top of his 9% tip after you split the scene. Or you give it to the toll booth lady in the exact change lane, right after you cut off 4 people to get there before them, and speed off before she can give it back.
Or if you’re “lucky”, you can actually read through it WITH that stranger on the street who you somehow roped into listening to your Jesus sales pitch.

All that to say that you can probably sense my disdain for these little booklets–these tracts.

But you should also know that as a teen who frequently went to youth conventions and retreats and things like that, tracts were THE way, bar none, to communicate the message of the Gospel to unassuming strangers. I was one of those little Jesus G.I.’s who was released on the streets in the roughest part of Philadelphia; tracts in hand and memorized questions and responses in mind. Evangelizing. So, I’m not lobbing grenades of questioning and criticism from afar. I’m dropping one right where I grew up.

So, back to the Wendy’s restroom.

I walked in the door, turned the corner, faced the urinal….and there it was…as if to send a clear message about what the previous holder of that tract thought about it.

Now, I know I’m using a pretty broad brush stroke, and I know that the thought of my taking a picture of it might be seen as crude; I was just struck by the imagery. But what I saw there confirmed what I have sensed in my heart and known for some time. Literature isn’t going to do it. Signs aren’t going to do it. Little silver fish on the backs of cars aren’t going to do it. When it comes to bringing good news, there’s no better way than the way Jesus did it. Friendships. Real life friendships. But here’s the catch–not friendships for the sake of bringing good news, just friendships for the sake of friendships. Friendships without agendas or strategies. Just friendships that honor, esteem, and cherish every human life–because God created every one of them.

Years ago, when I was a much younger youth pastor, and therefore much dumber one, I remember a night when one of my students came to me and needed to talk. The week before, she had brought a friend of hers; a non-Christian friend from school. And that was the night I was talking about the need for us as Christians to share Christ with our friends–the talk was all about “evangelism”. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but whatever it was caused that (non-Christian) visitor to feel like a project, or a mountain to be conquered by her Christian friend. I immediately felt a deep pain inside and realized that the message I was sending was on the wrong tract…I mean, track.

More recently, I was standing on a Sunday in the lobby of our church building with our Executive Pastor, and he was talking about his plans that afternoon. He mentioned that he was planning on cutting his grass. Someone asked him, “But Pastor, what will the neighbors think about you cutting your grass on Sunday?” His reply was, “Well…I guess they’ll think I’m just like them.”

More people will find Jesus when Christians stop acting like “Christians” and start living more like Jesus.

Even more recently (as in yesterday), I was talking with one of my new neighbors (we just moved into our house a couple weeks ago). In the course of our conversation, we were discussing our typical weekly activities with our kids and when I mentioned to her that it seemed the nights her family has plans are the same nights my family typically has plans…well, I could feel the tension in me starting to rise. The reason? Well, on Wednesdays, my kids go to our children’s ministry program at our church. Thursdays? Well, that’s our student discipleship night. Fridays? That’s our small group Bible study night. My inner thoguhts were, “what’s she going to think and how is she going to act when she realizes that I’m ‘one of THOSE’ people?”

Here’s the thing: I have a sneeking suspicion that she and her husband are also two of “those people”. And the fact that neither of us were quite ready to divulge that kind of information outright tells me at least one thing:
We followers of Jesus have learned how the culture at large views us; and its not typically pretty. Consequently, we (albeit unwittingly) end up living incognito Christian lives for fear of being lumped into the same crowd as “those people”.

[Even if the truth is today, 2008, “those people” are more imaginary than ever. That’s a separate blog altogether.)

So, what to do? Honestly, do what you want. But here’s my plan…

I want to live a life that cherishes every person because they are a person. I know, of course, that being a person means being a creation of God. I further know that being a person qualifies you to be included in the forgiveness that Jesus died to provide. Additionally, I know that being a person means that you have a soul, and that soul is eternal, and that eternity is a really long time for a soul to be anywhere. I know all those things. I believe all those things (and more) with all that I am and all that I’ve got. And knowing that has, does, and will always affect how I live, and how I bring good news.

Each One Can Leach One…

I was born into the world of fulltime student ministry with the proverbial cape on my back. Fresh from college, dripping with naivete, but passion unmatched by any mortal, I burst onto the student ministry scene with vigor and just a hint of arrogance. I was ready to show all those who went before me how its done.

With bravado matching that of Charleton Heston–you know that time from the NRA Convention, with that long rifle lifted high into the air–just as he clutched that firearm, so I clutched my copy of Len Kageler’s “Youth Minister’s Survival Guide”, with that “from my cold, dead hands” glint in my eye.

And I burst onto the scene with a “get outta my way and let me show you how its done” attitude. Unstoppable, uncompromising, and unmatched.

Fast forward to present day….I’m tired.

It’s been 13 years so far since the youth ministry world first beheld my glory (or so I thought). 13 years of loving, crying, trying, failing, succeeding, and wondering just how to do this thing called student ministry.

And its along the way that I’ve learned quite a bit. Good thing, too. Otherwise I’d have pretty much nothing but a set of love handles to show for the past 13 years.

One thing I’ve learned is that its remarkably easy to leave God out while doing things for Him.

Another thing I’ve learned is that being creative takes longer than imitating, but is way worth it.

Another nugget I’ve picked up is that I don’t work the same in my office as I do at Panera.

Something else I’m reminded of is that loving Jesus equals loving everyone else. If you can’t do that, you’re not allowed to follow Him. His words, not mine.

I’ve come to embrace my slowness. Not slow as in dumb, just slow as in…slow.

I’m pretty sure that I’ve recently left the realm where I had any chance of being cool. And that’s o.k. with me.

I also learned that when I park my car in a certain area of the church parking lot, and I take my skateboard out of my trunk, I don’t even have to take one step to reach the front door.

I also have found that not only do I enjoy writing, but it seems a few other people enjoy my writing, too. And I’ve found ways to use that for the Kingdom. Pretty cool.

I also have learned that when things aren’t right at home, ain’t nothin’ right.

These are just a few of the things I’ve found true in the past 13 years of fulltime student ministry.

Who’s Who?

I was sitting at Starbucks recently (Good Lord, how many blogs start off like that?) when I found myself reading the side of my friend’s cup. It was one of the “to go” cups even though we were quite decidedly not going anywhere. Starbucks puts these quasi-inspirational quotes on their cups and this one said something like…
“If your life’s work can be accomplished within your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”
I’d be more than happy to give credit to the originator of the quote, but sadly, they have fallen victim to my flimsy memory power. I have a good friend who passed away years ago who used to say, “I have a really strong memory, it’s just short.”
But that quote got me thinking, as I suppose it might do to anyone. What is MY life’s work? I suppose it’s probably got a lot of overlap to YOUR life’s work. I want to love my wife in such a way that anyone who knows me, knows me as that guy who’s crazy about his wife. Next, I want to love my kids in a way that teaches them to put others first. And then, I guess I just want to do whatever I do (including my “job”) with an overt knowledge that God is more than with me…He’s in me.
I spoke with someone recently who told me they read my blog. Maybe I shouldn’t be, but I’ve been surprised the two or so times that someone has actually told me that.
You’d think, based on how I write/type (toward a reader’s perspective) that learning that someone actually reads this stuff would be underwhelming. It’s not. It’s the opposite.
Yesterday, I went to see a billboard with my face on it. If you have the chance to see a billboard with your face it, I’d say go and see it. It was a very interesting experience. Here’s a picture of me next to me. I’m the one on the right.

Okay, back to the cup. My life’s work, I suppose, in addition to what is stated above, is to simply love Jesus, follow Jesus, and help others to do the same.
Bob Dylan put it so succinctly when he said, “You’ve got to serve somebody.” Well put, Bob. Since I don’t fancy myself as one who’s got all the answers (does anyone?), wouldn’t it just make sense to follow One who does? I mean, if we’re all going to follow someone, it better be the best Someone there is, right?
I’ve been thinking about GPS recently. Not that I really need one; I do have fun laughing at myself when I (quite often) find myself other than where I intended to be. I think of myself as an adventurous kind of guy, so why would I want a GPS? I’ve got a friend who’s got one and he said, “GPS makes people dumb.” Hmm. Never thought about it that way. I guess when all you’ve got to worry about is that little arrow on that little screen…well….”dumb” might be one word to use. I think of it this way.
We’re all going somewhere right? I mean, in life. You can’t sit still without your life going somewhere. So, am I someone who’s going to fly down life’s road with one knee on the wheel, one hand holding the map upside-down, and one hand dialing the phone to my sister who’ve lived here way longer than I am, so she can tell me where I am on said map? OR am I someone who would dare put my trust in a God who made the road, sees the road, knows the road, and knows the best direction for me to take on that road? I think I’ll trust God.
This blog didn’t end up where I thought it would, but few things in life do.

How God Works.

How about that? After all these years of walking with Jesus, I still have no clue what He’s doing, why He does it, and even where the heck He is half the time. He seems to be like one of those jr. high guys who walks past you on the left, while tapping your right shoulder. You look toward the tap, but oops–got me again.

I’d like to say that I’m trying to keep in step with Him, but I’m usually wondering where He’s stepping next. If anywhere, that is. Did you ever feel like Jesus was simply standing still?

If I could only pin this guy down, maybe I could get some questions answered.

Our student discipleship ministry is short a few leaders. Sound familiar to you?

So, this past Thursday, I found myself (just a week shy of 35 years of age) leading a small group of 6th and 8th grade girls. It was interesting to say the very least.

I’ll be their leader for the next couple of weeks until their permanent leader takes the group over, so I decided to just go for broke when I asked them, “I want you to take this paper and write down any and all questions you’ve ever had about God, Jesus, Christianity, religion, the Church or anything else like that.” I continued, “Your questions will shape the next couple of weeks we spend together and what we discuss.”

On one hand, I’d say that you’d be surprised by the depth and severity of their questions. But you probably wouldn’t be surprised at all. The same questions would have likely arisen from the middle school girls in ANY ministry.

Later that night, I sat at my desk and perused the questions they had written, and began to formulate how these next 2 weeks would shake out. Would it be filled with “lightbulb” moments for these young ladies as they (hopefully) get these questions addressed, or would they look at me with blank stares as I unfold the mysteries of the hyperstatic union and its eschatological ramifications?

No matter what the outcome of the questions, it is the questioning itself that is the meat of the Jesus-following life. We all have things we wonder about, are anxious about, or even angry about; questions that are either unanswered by God or perhaps answered in a way that we hadn’t planned on. Argh, God. Argh.

But still we follow. Because just like I can’t explain how the wireless microphone works, I know that it does. And on a much deeper and more profound level, I don’t know how God works—He just does.

That’s why I’m sticking with him. It’s because every morning when I wake up, He’s sitting next to my bed waiting for me.