“I can if I want to.”

My youngest son has been a bit cantankerous today.  I’ve had to corral and try to correct his attitude, his actions, and his words throughout the day.  And when I’ve had to say, “Don’t ________”, his common response today has been “I can if I want to!”

Now, civil liberties aside, I have to say that I vehemently disagree with my son’s assertion.  Indeed, while he may want to believe that he in fact can do whatever he wants to, it is my God-given responsibility to teach him that he most certainly can NOT do whatever he wants to.  All the hipsters out there might say I’m stifling his creativity, but their kids are brats.  And I’m not raising a brat.

The notion that we are all free to “do what we want to” is one that has become quite en vogue.  And I’d contend that it is that notion that has, more than anything else, aided in the denegration of our society.  Not only that, but that sense of freedom that says in essence “To thine own self be true” is exactly opposite to God’s design and desire for humankind.

My previous blog post was all about my recent trip to Kentucky; what I experienced, saw, and learned.  And I suppose that my thoughts here take a step away from that particular trip and closer to a truth that each of us must grasp, ingest, digest, and live out (I was going to say “excrete” but I thought that might be too crass).

Where are you right now?  Who is the person closest to you in proximity right now?  What needs are most obvious to you right now?  What needs that bless others are within reach right now?  What is stopping you from standing up and going to meet that need…right now?

Some thoughts that come to mind in response to those questions may be, “I hadn’t planned that.”, “I don’t have time for that.”, “I’m not comfortable with that.”, “I don’t know how to do that.”, or an otherwise “That’s not really something I’m willing to do.”

But when it comes to blessing others, I’d like to borrow the words from my Mom (which I suspect she “borrowed” from someone else)…”When you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”  I know it sounds like it’s straight out of some corporate playbook, filled with quips and inspirational sayings, but even on a spiritual level it’s all too true.

So, what is your plan to bless someone today?  No.  What is your plan to bless someone right now?  I’ve never seen a watch with a “sometime” on it and yet that is when we figure we’ll get around to doing that thing that would make that difference in that person’s life.

Last week, I took a dozen or so high school students to a nursing home.  I’d dare say that most if not all of them were uncomfortable with the concept of sitting, chatting, crafting, listening, or singing with nursing home residents.  It simply wasn’t something they were used to doing.  But you know what happened?  When we left 2 hours or so later, every one of them had become an expert in the areas of sitting, chatting, crafting, listening, and singing with nursing home residents.  And do you know who trained them?  They did.  Not with a how-to manual, not with a script, and not with a crash course from the nurses.  Giving themselves to the experience rendered its own beautiful benefits.  I’d even guess that some of them would go to our local nursing homes in our area and do the exact same thing.  I challenged them to consider just one hour a month volunteering at their local nursing home.

The nursing home is only one of millions of options when it comes to blessing others.  But no matter what the open door, there’s one thing that is sure to kill it: “I can if I want to” gone wrong.

Beattyville, Kentucky

I’ve just returned from a week in Beattyville, KY.  I took 28 high school students there for lots of reasons, but I suppose the overall #1 reason was to serve those in need.  And while we did certainly do that, I believe that each of our hearts were served as well.  Each person who went on that trip returned changed in some way, perhaps in ways that won’t be overtly visible for some time.  Let me tell you about some of the things I did, saw, and learned…in no particular order.

I learned that I don’t like driving in West Virginia.  With apologies to my senior pastor, Jerome Hancock’s home state, I just can’t enjoy driving through hills like that on curves like those behind the wheel of a 15-passenger van while pulling a trailer full of luggage.  In our long caravan of vehicles, I was definitely “the slow one” of the group as we navigated those curves.  But you know what? I’m used to be “the slow one” in most contexts.  If you know me personally, stop laughing.

I love watching teens serve others.  All week long, I saw high school students give of themselves in a myriad of ways.  From painting, to repairing fire damage on a home, to installing lattice to protect small children on a home’s porch, to entirely replacing an unsafe porch, to cleaning up “the ravine” which was basically a dump set on the side of a steep hill, to playing with and laughing with children who exist daily in deep and desperate poverty, to restoring dignityand  honor to overgrown cemeteries where they walked among the headstones, noting the names and especially the ages of those who had died, to sitting and conversing with nursing home residents whose visitors are few and far between, to loving the people of an entire town while spreading the hope and love that God has for every creature.  All week long, I watched high school students work together to accomplish whatever task was in front of them; and not begrudgingly, but with enthusiasm.  Read Ephesians 6:7 and know that these students fulfilled it to the letter.

I learned that going “over there” shouldn’t be that different from staying “right here” when it comes to our perspective on serving, loving, and blessing those around us.  Mission trips do so much good for “that” place and “those” people who live a safe distance away, but the beautiful honor of God shines even brighter when we begin to live unsafe and gracious lives right here.  Its easy to bless a stranger somehow.  Its tougher when we’re called (and we are) to selflessly bless those that we see everyday.  There’s more risk involved, more accountability, and more scrutiny as they inspect our integrity.  But didn’t Jesus say that “you’ll be my witnesses and JERUSALEM, Judea, Samaria…” and isn’t Jerusalem (first on the list) really representative of “home” or “where you are right now”?  Often times we’re more comfortable going to “the ends of the earth” (last on the list) than we are going across the street.

I also learned that if you encounter a bear, you shouldn’t play dead, run away, or turn your back on the bear.  The week before our arrival in Beattyville, a man was mauled by a bear that was still on the loose.  So we received frequent reminders as to what to do should we encounter a bear.  The jist of what you’re to do when you see a bear is to “get big”.  Put your arms out, stand up straight, and make yourself look as big as possible.  Because what bear doesn’t like a challenge?  Thankfully, we never saw any bears.  If you’d like to see the bear we didn’t see, click here.

Another experience I had for the very first time was getting hit with a hammer in the chest.  Somehow God protected me from serious injury, but there was a split second that I thought “This is it. I’m gonna die right here in this backyard in Beattyville, KY.”  Thankfully, as you can tell, I’m still very much alive.  Long story short, one of our students was doing EXACTLY what I had told him to do, but on one of his full and robust swings of the hammer, he completely missed his target and since I was standing right next to him, the business end of his hammer swing found the right side of my rib cage.  Needless to say, he felt more than bad about it.  To him I’ll say again (because he’s beating himself up): You know who you are, and I COMPLETELY forgive you.  It was an accident, so really there’s nothing to forgive.  But to help ease your mind, I forgave you the instant it happened.

I learned a great synonym for prayer.  Prayer is a “longing”.  No matter if we are longing to be close to God, or longing for help in some way, or longing for a physical healing for a loved one, or longing to express our raw emotion to God, or longing for wisdom in parenting or some other area of life; how many times have I uttered a prayer without a sense of longing?  How many times was it just words and not heart?  The Bible tells us to “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires (the longings) of your heart.” (Psalm 37:4)  When I pray, I will be mindful that I’m conveying the longings of my heart.

I learned that pity alone is pointless and useless.  Look up the word “pity” and you’ll find this definition: “a feeling of sadness because of another person’s trouble or suffering, or the capacity to feel this.”  Believe me, there were plenty of opportunities for sadness this past week in Beattyville.  But if you looked around, sadness was actually quite hard to find.  The emotion of sadness was only a brief stepping stone that led our group to action, which brought change, which brought blessing, which brought gladness.

We had a wonderful week away in Beattyville, KY.  We loved the people that God loves, we were blessed by those people probably even more than we blessed them, and we drew near to God and to the concept that every person we saw is the object of God’s eternal affection.  This point was made most clear as we celebrated communion on a mountain top Friday morning.  As students and leaders took their turn pinching a piece of bread (the body of Christ) from the loaf and dipping into the bowl of grape juice (the blood of Christ), I listened to Bobby and Josh who were holding the bread and juice say to each person, “The body of Christ, broken for you.” and “The blood of Christ, shed for you.”  It struck me anew that if we could line up the entire population of earth, some 6 billion humans and have them each take a piece of that bread and dip it into that juice, and utter those words–it would be true for every one of them.  The body and blood of Christ was broken and shed for every person on earth.  If that’s true, then aren’t I called to treat every human with the grace of God that has been so freely shown and given to me?  Anything less puts me in the position of judge and decider as to who receives God’s grace and love–a position God never intended me to fill. 

My sole call and purpose is to love, bless, serve, and give myself away to others to this end:  “That they may see my good works and glorify my Father who is in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:16)

Fireworks and I…

There are certain things in our culture I don’t understand the appeal of.  Two of them are parades and fireworks.  I don’t see the point.  I’m not trying to be a jerk here, believe me.  I’m just sharing my opinion. 

But just a little while ago, we returned from a July 4th fireworks display at our local county fairgrounds, having been invited by some friends to come along.   After a great cookout and laughter at their house, we all piled in the cars and caravaned over to the fairgrounds.  We meandered through the thick crowds until we finally found an open patch of ground to lay our blankets and unfold our chairs.  As darkness fell, we laid back on the ground, looked skyward and watched fireworks.  And you know what I thought when they were over?  I thought, “Yep, those were fireworks.”

I know, I know.  I can already hear some of you screaming at your screen, “But you’ve never seen the fireworks in MY town!”  Or maybe you’re thinking I should see the fireworks in New York City put on by Macy’s or in Washington D.C. over all those historic monuments, or in Boston where they thought up the ridiculous idea of having a live symphony orchestra play music synchronized to the explosions.  You’re thinking, “Jerry, you shouldn’t make up your mind until you see THAT.”  Maybe you’re right, but I’m guessing that you’re not.  To me, fireworks are fireworks.

What I DO love about the fourth of July is the freedom that we’re celebrating.  I can do without the explosions.  Give me a good piece of cheesecake and I’ll be just as happy–no, happier.  What I DO love about it all is the fact that we’re stopping and remembering what makes this nation so great: freedom.  Freedom that allows me to speak my mind, even when its something you think is idiotic, like my view on fireworks.  Freedom that lets me write a blog like this to share my thoughts on anything under the sun.  Freedom that affords me the greatest privilege I have as an American citizen; the freedom to worship the God I love so desperately; the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The God who cares enough about me to save me by dying on a Roman cross in my place, all while I was still sinning against Him.  The God who right now is both on His throne in heaven AND residing within this frail, flawed, faulty, and often faithless jar of clay I am. 

So I think about freedom on this day of the year more than any other.  I think about both my grandfathers and my dad who served proudly, heroically, and honorably for this great country.  I owe to them and to all service men and women an unpayable debt of gratitude for their gift of freedom.  Before them, I remember those who fought and died in the Revolutionary War, and the great minds and hands the crafted the Declaration of Independence which is perhaps one of the greatest if not the greatest document in all of human history.  I think about them and my freedom and how we are connected.  I’m thankful to live where I do, to be who I am, and to know what I know.  I understand that to be an American is not just a lucky break for anyone born here or immigrated here.  It’s a solemn responsibility to live up to our ideals, to handle our freedom with care, and to make the most of every chance we have to improve ourselves, both individually and collectively.

As much as my mind has been on the idea of national freedoms today, I must admit that I am also in thought about the words of Jesus regarding freedom as well.  Jesus spoke those very well-known words in John 8:36: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”  Free from what, though?  What is Jesus referring to here?  Here are a few things…

1. Freedom from sin’s power.  As a willing recipient of God’s forgiveness and grace, I am also in the position of having been freed from sin’s grip and power.  I am now free NOT to sin.  I now have a choice.  I am no longer enslaved to the power of sin in my life any longer. 

2. Freedom from sin’s penalty.  Imagine yourself convicted and on death row.  Imagine your execution day quickly approaching.  Imagine waking up the morning of the day prescribed by the courts for your death.  Imagine hearing the sounds of the guards shoes as they approach your cell.  Imagine hearing the sound of the key slide into the lock of your cell door, turn, and release the bolt holding you in.  Imagine looking up to and hearing the guard tell you that you are free to go.  Your debt has been paid.  You are free. 

3.  Freedom from sin’s guilt.  Satan is a trash-picker.  He spends lots of time going through the trash of your past and bringing things back to your attention, even things God has forgiven you for.  He will keep you paralyzed in guilt and shame while Jesus only wants you to experience freedom.  Not only freedom from guilt, but freedom from having to pretend any longer.  Knowing that you are accepted by your Creator, you are set free from having to earn the acceptance of anyone else. 

There is much more to say, but I hope that this has encouraged to to live fully in the freedom that comes from Jesus Christ, the lover of your soul, the redeemer of your eternity, and the purchaser of your freedom.

Why I Run.

I don’t really.  The only times I do are when my hot wife says, “You want to run with me?”  The entire time I am running, I am asking myself “Why do people do this?!?  I just don’t get it!”  But man do I love my wife, so anytime with her (even running/trying not to die) is always welcome.

Way Overdue.

Getting entrenched in life is something that I highly recommend. 

However, it’s not so good if you hope to keep your blog current.  And for those who have been checking daily, weekly, monthly, or centennially….I’m back now and hope to get my blog groove on.  At least for now.  We’ll see.

Maybe I should rename my blog to “We’ll see.”  It reminds me of the intramural basketball teams I led in college; one year our team name was “Maybe next year” and another year our team name was “Yeah…whatever.”  We wore plaid button-up shirts with the sleeves cut off.  Collars and everything.  We took all the players the other teams didn’t want.  We were terrible.  It was great.

So, in the past couple of weeks, I’ve been immersed in our annual middle school mission trip and all the details revolving around that.  All in all, it was a fantastic experience.  We took a new step in our leadership development plan this year and took along high school student leaders who I have worked with over the past year.  I can confidently say that they brought SO much to the table as it relates to influencing our middle school students.  Even as young and spry as I am, middle schoolers consider me “old” (anything over 25 qualifies), so having high schoolers whom they idolize speak into their lives for the week did immeasurable good.  No doubt about it, Student Leaders rock.

We had an interesting thing happen one night while on the trip.  If you’re up for a quick story, read on.

We had rented a YMCA camp for the week and spent most of our time there.  But with one of our “sister” churches right up the road, we thought it’d be fun one night to have a change of scenery, and take our students there for some dodgeball. The youth pastor there was totally down with it and asked if he could invite some of his students to join in. I’m a “the more the merrier” kinda guy, so I thought that was a great idea.
We arrived at the church and as we began to gather all the students together, I noticed that their students looked more like high school and even college age or perhaps even inmates.  (reminder: our students were middle schoolers). I thought to myself, “No biggie, I’m sure it’ll be fun.”
As one of their youth leaders began to explain the rules, I noticed that “head shots” were allowed. “No biggie”, I thought. “I’m sure it’ll still be fun.”
Then it was decided that we’d have a church vs. church battle for round one. This is where I should have stepped in but didn’t. Because after all, “No biggie, I’m sure this will be fun and a healthy competition.” I still had no reason to believe otherwise.

At the sound of the starting whistle I learned exactly what kind of nightmare we were in for.

Remember that rule that “headshots are allowed”? Well, it turns out that’s pretty much all they threw. And when I say “threw”, I mean “shot” or “launched”. I’m not joking–I’ve NEVER seen dodgeballs move that fast. Within seconds I had a few of our students in tears, gripping the side of their head, and all of our students looking like the proverbial “deer in the headlights” Leaders were consoling the casualties (which turned out to be more in shock than in pain). The game didn’t last long, even though we outnumbered them almost 2 to 1. As it turns out, a 6th grade girl is no match for a 22 yr. old man when it comes to dodgeball.
Leaders came up to me, voicing their discomfort with the situation, but I barely heard any of that because I was mentally rehearsing a) the earful I was about to give the other youth pastor and b) the angry phone calls I would receive Monday morning after we get back.
After speaking with the youth pastor and voicing my concern in no uncertain terms, he apologized and assured me there was no intention to harm, and that we should mix up the teams and even them out. I could not have agreed more.

(I’ll say here that there really was no malicious intent from the other team, they were just really REALLY good at dodgeball! We still love them and many of our kids have dedicated the next year to training and steroids, looking forward to a rematch!)

After we evened out the teams, most of my students actually BEGGED to keep playing, even after 3 more rounds.

This was a situation where no one was “wrong” per se; we just had 2 very different approaches to the same game. And I also learned that their students play dodgeball religiously every time they get together.
That would explain the special shoes and the tattoos.

So, since returning from that trip, I’ve been sleeping, reminisching, and thanking God for the fantastic time that we had.  Hopefully that explains my absence from blogging as of late.