"So beat it."

Tonight as I was tucking my two boys in bed, we prayed together. After prayer my oldest son asked me, “Dad, why do we have to say amen at the end of our prayers?”

I paused at the simplicity of the question. Then I said, “Well, we don’t have to say amen at all. You can definitely pray without saying amen. Amen is just kind of a closing to a talk with God.”

I can tell by his look that my answer wasn’t satisfactory. So I went over to him and kneeled next to his bed and continued, “The word ‘amen’ means ‘its true’ or ‘I mean it’ and things like that. It’s actually from the Hebrew word pronounced hah-main. And that word means “so be it.” Its a way to conclude your prayer.

With honest confusion in his eyes he said to me, “So, why would we tell God ‘so beat it’?”

I quickly corrected my enunciation and assured him that it means “so be it” not “so beat it”. And then, as so routinely happens to me, God used the words of my kids to teach me and remind me of a spiritual truth.

I suppose its most easily summed up in a question: do I live my prayers? Do I live in such a way that reflects the participation in bringing about God’s answers to my prayers? I don’t mean to make us dizzy with the question; I only mean to say do our prayers to God align with our lives?

One of the most well-known prayers in history was Jesus’ “high priestly prayer” recorded in the book of Matthew. And the coolest part about that particular prayer is that I am the answer to it. And if you love Him, you are too. Think about it. Jesus’ two predominant requests in that prayer were for the Father’s glory and for the unity of His disciples (his followers, of which I am one). And I shutter every time I think that the life I live is an answer to the high priestly prayer of Jesus. Can you receive that? Can you fathom that? Can you absorb that deep within your soul? When I live a life unified with God’s Kingdom and those who follow Him, I am literally answering Jesus’ prayer. That’s mind-blowing to me.

But what can also happen is that I can live a life that negates my own prayers. I can request God for something and yet show no outward or inward sign that I trust Him for the outcome. I can take the weight of my day onto my shoulders in practice while uttering my desire for the weight to be His in prayer. If my prayer doesn’t get practical, then in essence I am closing each talk with Him with “so beat it.”

I’ll be the first to admit that some of the blogs I’ve posted have been “undercooked” perhaps. And it is highly likely that this one might still be a tad pink in the middle. But I think I will continue to let it roll around and think more about this: What part am I playing in seeing God’s answers to my prayers played out practically in me?

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The Glorious Burden

I’m a pastor. But way before I was a pastor, I decided to follow Jesus.

I was 16 years old when I made that decision. And while I’ve certainly looked around, up, and even looked down over the past 20 years since, I’ve never looked back. Not once have I ever entertained a thought of what my life would be like had I not made that decision. I don’t need to.

And while that decision was the life-altering one, it was one that came with a stark combination of lightness of spirit and severity of heart. It was, is and always will be what I’d like to refer to as the “glorious burden”. And believe me, as I write this I’m in the thick of it. I’m no achiever. I’m no “got it figured out” kind of guy. I’m not even sure you should read this because the one writing it routinely has more questions than answers.

The word burden gets a bad rap sometimes. And I suppose that’s natural and for obvious reasons. But still I think we can rethink the word burden and come away with a greater clarity to our call. For instance, being a parent is a burden. Ask anyone who is one. They’ll agree. Parenting is burdensome. Being responsible for one (or in my case, four) human beings is not a sunshiney barefoot stroll on cool moss. It’s tough. But ask any parent if they bear that burden gladly and without any hesitation they’ll assure you that the burden is indeed one they happily carry. Most parents will go on to extol the love they have for their kids; how they’d gladly lay down their life for any one of their children, no matter what their age or station in life.

So, the issue of burden is one that is unmistakably taught in the Bible. Jesus Himself said as plainly as can be that to follow Him necessitates some very key and non-negotiable ingredients; self-denial, sacrifice, and cross-carrying to name just a few. But I myself found the cross of Christ to be a burden that wasn’t so glorious at all before I understood the right He has to me, my life, and everything I know, have and am.

We make excuses sometimes for not following, don’t we? Jesus told a parable (short story with a Cracker Jack prize hidden inside) about a king who threw a banquet. He sent out his servant to tell his invited guests that the party was ready and that they should come and get down. But when the servant went to the invited guests, they had reasons why they couldn’t come. And if you look closely (or at all for that matter), you see that the reasons were nothing more than lame excuses.
Reason #1: “I just bought some land and I have to go and inspect it.” Are you kidding me? Who buys land without first checking it out? I’d like to sell that guy some prime Florida real estate!
Reason #2: “I just bought a yoke of oxen and I need to go and try them out.” Who goes to the dealership, walks up to a car and says, “I’ll take it.” without first kickin’ the tires, taking a test drive and running it through its paces? I’d like to get that guy on the phone and sell him my pristine ’92 Crown Vic. The Blue Book on it is about $5.57 but don’t tell him.
Reason #3: “I just got married, so I can’t come.” Okay, this one I can MAYBE understand. Being a married man, I can imagine what’s going on in this guy’s mind. But still, are you telling me your bride wouldn’t enjoy a nice time at a swanky party? C’mon man, live a little. Show your bride she married a partyer.
And here’s the part of the story that I love–the king says to his servant, “Then go to the streets, to the highways, to the underpasses, to the parks, to the malls, to the neighborhoods, to the bars, to the red light district, and to the shady part of town. Tell them “whosoever will” may come to my party!
So, yes Jesus calls us to self-denial. Yes He calls us to sacrifice. Yes He calls us to carry our cross. But the glory of it all is that it’s His party we’re invited to. It’s His guestlist we’re on. It’s His eternity we step into when we choose to accept the invitation to carry this Glorious Burden.

15 minutes

I ran into a couple men the other night. These guys are in my small group on Friday nights, and we’re a big part of each other’s lives. One guy who will remain unnamed, named Rob was mentioning my blog and how I’m (as he said) “on fire right now” as far as writing blogs on a more frequent level. He went on to say that he not only enjoys reading my blog, but recommends it to others every chance he gets. While I was absolutely gratified and humbled to hear those things, I was also challenged. I don’t think Rob (oops, I mean Mr. Unnamed) meant to challenge me, but nevertheless, he did.

I just looked at the clock in the bottom right hand corner of the computer screen….(you just looked at yours, didn’t you?)….and I saw that I have now about 15 minutes or so left before I have to head out the door. I’ve got some errands to run before heading into the city of Richmond to shoot a video where I will ask strangers on the street basically two questions:
1. What comes to your mind when you hear the word “Christian”?
2. What words do you think should be synonymous with the word “Christian”?

None of this will be scripted, so it’s going to be interesting no matter what. I’m looking forward to this little social/spiritual experiment. While I’ll try and remember to follow up on this with another blog soon, I’d like to take a stab at what I think people will say, generally speaking (including stereotypes which of course are stereotypes for a reason)…
Christians are…
–hypocritical/a bunch of hypocrites.
–“holier than thou”.
–all about rules and what you can’t do.
–people who don’t know how to have any fun.
–judgmental.
–narrow-minded and bigoted.
–intolerant of other people’s view besides their own.
–out-of-touch with reality.

Here’s what I HOPE I hear…
Christians are…
–people who love others unconditionally.
–agents of positive change in their communities.
–pictures of grace and humility.
–those who leap to the aid of the hurting and defenseless.
–more concerned with people than rules about people.
–willing to love the unloved.
–forgiving.
–an example of what a life is like when God is clearly present.
–obsessed with Jesus and devoutly living out His love.

These are just a few of my thoughts before I head out the door with 2 minutes left to grab my stuff and hit the bathroom one more time. I’d love to hear YOUR thoughts on “What is a Christian?” And if you are a Christian, is there someone who isn’t that you’d be willing to ask this question to?

Table for Three.

I just started reading “Forgotten God” by Francis Chan. I quite enjoyed “Crazy Love” several months ago when I read that, and I’ve heard Chan speak at a conference I attended years ago, so I figured “Forgotten God” was pretty much a can’t-miss. Boy…

If you’ve ever seen “Extreme Home Makeover” on television, you know the one that takes a deserving family, sends them on vacation, tears down their house and builds them a new one in 7 days? 9 times out of 10, when they reveal the house and the family walks in for the first time, someone in the family says something to the effect of: “This is exactly what I wanted.” or “It’s like they read my mind.” or “This is so me–this is just my style!” or “How did you get it so right?!?”

While, I’m not finished “Forgotten God” yet, I can get a sense of the emotions that birth the comments those homeowners give. It’s not that I wrote the book in my head before he wrote it on paper, its just that I (so far) not only agree with what Chan is saying, but am moved to internalize it and make something of it. I’ve read plenty of books. Good books by good authors. But this one seems to be…..I don’t know. Something else.

Chan just asked a question that spawned this blog post for me. The answer to the question is what is to follow. Here’s the question. I’ll write it just as he did:

“When was the last time I undeniably saw the [Holy] Spirit at work in or around me?”
My immediate answer was: “Today at lunchtime.”

I’d been looking forward to today’s lunch appointment with a good friend and fellow youth pastor named Joel. I first met Joel last summer through a mutual friend of ours. I asked Joel to consider being our guest speaker at last fall’s discipleship retreat. He did and it rocked.

But before the retreat ever happened, I met Joel for the first time at a Chipotle 15 minutes from my house. Did you ever meet someone and almost instantly feel like you had found a friend? That was Joel.

So like I said, Joel came on our retreat and God really used Joel to speak to us that weekend. And we’ve kept in touch ever since. Not long after our retreat Joel invited me to speak at his youth ministry’s discipleship retreat. I told him I’d pray about it, but my prayer was pretty much like, “God if you don’t split the sky open or dry up the ocean, I’m doing this thing.”

Through no fault of anyone, the retreat had to be cancelled. I was bummed to say the least, but as it turns out, Joel and I don’t need a reason to get together. So, today at lunch, with no event to plan, no logistics to work out, and practically nothing to actually do, we got together for lunch.

As Bill Cosby said, “I told you that story to tell you this one.”

We sat there today at lunch, having stuffed myself silly with twisted chips, salad, butter rolls, and chicken strips with fries. Well-behaved Joel had a salad. But as we talked (non-stop), I got the undeniable sense that there weren’t two of us at the table, but three. Matthew 18:20 says plainly, “Where 2 or 3 gather together in my name, there I am with them.” And when I say undeniable, I mean undeniable. It was obvious to both of us that God had orchestrated stuff way beyond us. What Joel shared from his heart and current situation touched my heart and encouraged me deeply and I can say humbly that what I shared with him was beneficial to his spirit, too. (Actually I can say that humbly because I’m not sure it had much to do with me!)

Joel is a dear friend and as close as we were before today’s lunch, I’d dare say we’re even closer now.

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While I’m fairly certain that not many people except my Mom read my blog, (and she’s iffy) I’d like to take a chance and ask the same question of anyone reading this….

“When was the last time I undeniably saw the Spirit at work in or around me?”

Click comment and share.

Jesus reclined.

I recently posted a status update on my Twitter and Facebook accounts. It simply said “Wasting time is a sin.”
Here’s the problem. It’s an undefined statement. No wonder a few people were uneasy with it.

After all, what does “wasting time” look like? Something I see as a waste of time might be something of critical importance in your life. And vice versa. So, I confess it was an unfair statement, at least the way it was made.
But let me tell you why I wrote it. And why I’m not letting it go. It’s because I believe it. It’s because wasting time is a sin. It’s because I’m going to be held accountable for how I spent my life, and what I did with the time on this earth I’ve been given.
But what about that subjectivity that says wasting time for you isn’t wasting time for me? Here’s a clear, concise, and rock-solid answer; a few of them, actually:
“To him who knows the right thing to do and doesn’t do it, to him it is sin.” (James 4:17)
So, no matter who you are, there are “right things” to do. And my “right things” aren’t going to be the same as your “right things”, right? I just have to make sure that I’m all about the “right things” that I should be doing.
Or take a look at Ephesians 2:10:
“For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
See? We’ve all got appointments to keep. God appointments. And I suppose that “wasting time” would be anything that keeps you from the “good works” that God has for you to do.
Finally, take a look at the apostle Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:16:
“…making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.”
So again, “wasting time” would be anything that keeps you from “making the most of every opportunity.” And believe me, I find these words as uncomfortable as anyone else. But I also find them compelling, and challenging, and a clear directive for living life not merely breathing in and out, but living with my flawed life in God’s perfect hand.
And in case we’ve never met, let me assure you that I’m no legalist. I’m not someone who, when it comes to the issue of “wasting time” for example, is going to say “Don’t watch TV. That’s wasting time. Don’t sit still for too long. That’s wasting time. Don’t walk slowly. That’s wasting time.” I wanted to clarify that because I think I’ve seen people who seem to think that way.
I’ve always believed that we as Jesus’ followers are actually not very good followers; not out of of blatant disobedience, but rather what we’re prone to move faster than Jesus is. And by definition, a follower must not go ahead of the one he/she is following. At the moment you do, you stop being the follower and you become the leader. I think we move faster than God intends, at least most of the time.
The truth is, I believe we serve a slow God. And when I say slow, I mean slower than we’d like for Him to be; not slow as in incapable or lacking in any way. Think about it. When you pray and ask God for something you want an answer. Usually now. When you have an expectation of God, your time frame is typically going to be a different plain than His is.
My favorite parts of Jesus’ ministry is not when He’s healing, or feeding, or teaching, or walking on water, or calming seas, or cursing the pretentious, or restoring lives. My favorite parts of Jesus’ ministry is when he’s “reclining.” And He’s often found in a home somewhere reclining at a table. So was Jesus reclining a waste of time? Obviously not.
And speaking of Jesus, aren’t His followers excited about His return? Aren’t some of them actually living on the edge of their seats as it were, with anticipation for His triumphant return? Aren’t we chomping at the bit to see the glorious revelation of the King? Consider this…
“For a thousand years in Your sight is as a day gone by…” (Psalm 90:4)
When did Jesus ascend to His throne in heaven? About 2,000 years ago, give or take. What does that feel like to Him, according to this verse? Two days. So, while we’re wondering what’s taking Him so long, He’s thinking “What’s the rush? I just sat down!”
Okay, long blogs lose people (or so I’ve been told) so I’m going to wrap it up for those who are still with me. One more verse, found in 2 Peter 3:9…
“God is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”
So, what is it that wastes time? It is neglecting the “right things”, it is turning away from the “good works” and it is whatever causes us to miss “every opportunity” to share God’s love, God’s blessing, and God’s grace to those around us; no matter where we are or what we’re doing.

The Discipline of Happiness

Some might read this and call me out, based on semantics.
Go right ahead.

They’ll read it and say, “Oh, you meant joy when you said happiness.”
No I don’t. I mean happiness. I know the difference between happiness and joy.
Let me start off by saying that as far as I can understand the Bible and God’s promises, happiness is never promised by God. And I get nauseated when men leave their wives for some you-know-what or wives divorce their husbands on the grounds of “I need to find happiness” because “God wants me to be happy.” Gimme a break.
No, God wants you to be HOLY. Happiness is a by-product of holiness, NOT the other way around. When am I closest to God? When my spirit is most like and lost in His. When is He most pleased with me? When I am closest to being mistaken for His Son, Jesus.
So, confession time: I struggled with coming in to work today with a good attitude. I know people think pastors should always be gleeful and skipping, but guess what? We don’t do a lot of skipping.
And when I find myself a bit pouty or grumpy in my spirit, I find that it really boils down to me saying to me: “Be happy.” And not just once, but repeatedly. And I’ve found that I’m winning the fight against myself. Good news, because I’d rather win than lose. And I’m winning.
The term “discipline of happiness” has been floating in my mind today. Now, as you can tell I fully acknowledge that me being happy isn’t topping God’s wish list. And the discipline of happiness is exercised when I allow God’s Spirit to lead me from wallowing to worshipping.
Because in the truest practical sense, what good does wallowing do? What point does grumpiness serve me? What perks do I gain from a negative attitude?
Share your thoughts. I’d love to hear them.

"And then he died."

*The following blog post was originally started on Dec. 30, 2009.

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I’ve never been a huge fan of reading through the Bible in a year. It seems like a silly goal. Its like saying, “I’m going to the gym and I’m gonna work out like crazy and I’m gonna get huge.” Okay. Great. But what’s the point? I guess I’d always thought that I’d rather read a page and understand it then read a thousand and not remember any of it. But that’s just me. That is, until recently.

Don’t laugh at me, but I’m in day TWO (yes, I know) of a through-the-Bible reading plan. And I’m already struck today by four words repeated in Genesis chapter 5: “And then he died.” The majority of the chapter tells the story of the number of years lived by Adam, Seth, Enosh, Kenan, Mahalalel, Jared, Enoch, Methusaleh, Lamech, and Noah.

After telling how many years each one of these men lived (and little else about their lives), each paragraph ends with “and then he died.” I can’t think of any better engraving to have on my tombstone. Jerry Varner: 1973-_____. “And then he died.”

It was a reminder to me that death is so not what we view it as. Death is such an uncomfortable topic to us humans. For me, its because it represents the ticking timer each one of us have that is directly connected to our to-do list; both have-to-do’s and want-to-do’s. And when that timer is up, there are no more to-do’s, but just one last ta-da!

“And then he died” is a great statement to keep in the forefront of life. Not as a morbid reminder of the temporalness of this life, but as a reminder of the imminent commencement of the next. “And then he died” is penned much like “And then he got up from that chair and moved to another room.” So matter-of-fact.

And I don’t care who you are, what you believe, where you live, or what you do. I defy anyone to come up with an issue that weighs more than the issue of eternity. And not to be dismissive, but I won’t even engage the thought that eternity doesn’t exist. That, to me is a non-sensical argument. No matter what your convictions (or apathy) toward the existence of God, the idea of death, the questions surrounding the afterlife; one thing cannot be ignored, and that is the fact that you and I will die and at the moment of our death, we will move from this life to __________. To fill the blank with the word “nothing” is to live in the deepest, most dangerous kind of denial. And its far better to face the blank now than later.

So since there is an eternity, what will it be for you? Ask most anyone in America what they think will happen when they die and you’re more than likely to get some variation of this response: “Well, I think that I’ll go to heaven.” And when you ask them “Why do you think that you’ll go to heaven?” you’ll hear something like, “Because I’ve been a pretty good person. I haven’t done too many things wrong. I haven’t like, killed anybody or anything. So, yeah. I think God will let me in.”

That, my friends, is a crap shoot at best.