A Cathartic Bump In The Night

It’s 1 a.m. The rest of my family is sound asleep.

I’m up because–well, it started in a dream.  About a half an hour ago I was having a bad dream; one of those bad dreams that ends in a loud noise that your mind swears happened outside the dream.  Jarred from my deep sleep, I woke with the very convincing notion that someone was at my front door, trying to get in.

I’m a lover, not a fighter so the only weapon I have is a fixed blade knife.  And since I’d never be willing to get close enough to any intruder to use it, its pretty well pointless.  But just in case intruders read my blog, I’ll keep its location to myself.

It turned out, no one was at my door.  So I went back to bed, only after checking around the house while swallowing my heart repeatedly.  While lying in bed wide awake, I heard another noise.  This time I KNEW I wasn’t asleep, and that this noise was definitely real.  Out of bed I sprang again, and once I again I felt the “what if someone’s really around that corner” lump in my throat.  Knifeless, I checked around each corner.  No one there.

After yet another round of noises and checks, I decided that the noise is coming from my air conditioning ducts–well, actually its coming from my house that is literally being sucked inward when my air conditioning kicks on.  Since my vent filters apparently need cleaning, its working a bit harder to do its job and therefore sucking in creaks and squeaks like I suck in my gut at the pool.  So, here I sit at my blog which feels to me much more like a long lost friend than a website address.  I decided to come down and write because quite frankly I have had a ton of things on my mind and laying in bed thinking about them doesn’t do me a bit of good.  So here I am.  Let me tell you about some thoughts I’ve been thinking recently, in no particular order, and with no particularly well-crafted substance to prop them up.

For years I’ve wanted to write a book.  I can’t tell you how many people have told me I should.  I’ve been told by many that I have a peculiar knack to be able to bring the reader into my thoughts, and that’s a sign of a talented writer that people want to read.  I want to say that I whole-heartedly would love to write a book.  I’ve actually written several in my head and am constantly starting what I think are great ideas for great books on a fairly regular basis.  But I’ve got to tell you that I view the publishing world as an incredibly confusing place.  As much as I’d love to see a book published, I haven’t the first clue as to how to go about getting a book published.  Now, I’m sure someone is sitting there reading this saying, “Oh, it’s easy. You just do this, this, and this.  That’s all.”  Well, if you’re that person, please drop me a line and tell me what those three “this’s” are because I’d gladly listen.  I once went to a seminar on getting published and left more discouraged, frustrated, and confused than when I went in.  It seemed the consensus of the published authors that led the seminar was that there really wasn’t any more room for more authors.  It felt like they were behind a huge door saying, “Sorry, its really crowded in here.  Besides, you don’t know the secret handshake. Go away now, thank you!”  So, my latest book idea is titled “This Way To The Publisher”.  The book cover would have a standard diamond-shaped road sign with a black arrow on a yellow background, but the arrow wouldn’t be pointing in any direction at all.  Maybe by writing a book about the arduous adventure of getting a book published, I’d learn along the way how to do it.

I’m afraid that “para-church” organizations are contributing to the death of the Church.  I should have warned you that I’ll be changing topics with little or no warning whatsoever.  This thought about the parachurch came to me last week when I attended a quarterly regional luncheon for Richmond-area youth leaders and out of the 30 or so people present, I was only 1 of 2 other pastors from actual churches.  Every other person there was representing some parachurch organization.  The reason I fear that the parachurch is contributing to the death of the Church isn’t the parachurch’s fault.  So if you work for such an organization, please back away from the red button in the corner you’re about to click.  Parachurch organizations are organizations designed to come alongside, support, and supplement the Church.  However, not one of them would exist had the Church stayed true to fulfilling its mission on Earth.  It hasn’t or even if it has, other pursuits have crept up and seemed like really good or noble or necessary pursuits.  Even though they were not, enough people thought they were and as a result, here they are.  Not only that but more times than not, the parachurch-to-Church connection isn’t strong enough and even if the bridge is visible, not enough people are walking across it.  Some people will contend, “But we’re all the Church.”  I don’t know how to argue that point at 1:15 a.m. except to say that I don’t think that’s true.

I’ve spent far too much time in ministry giving attention to those who make God sad rather than those who make God happy and I’m taking responsibility for this wrong decision.  Lately I have given far more mental energy toward people who’s decisions frustrate me to no end, and not nearly enough investment and attention to those who’s decisions and actions reflect the attitude of Christ.  It may seem like I’m saying I’ll only interact with Christ-like people.  That’s not what I’m trying to say at all.  It’s just that with the sheer numbers of people I see knowingly living lives contrary to the right decisions they should make, I often find myself shaking my head in disbelief.  I’m not talking about people living in ignorance or unbelief; I’m talking about disobedience despite full knowledge of the truth, and for no other reason (that I can see) than that of utter selfishness.  And don’t think I think I’ve arrived anywhere.  I certainly know my own faults, shortcomings, and sins.  (Heck, writing this paragraph might be viewed as one of them.)  But one thing I do: “forgetting what lies behind, and pressing on to what lies ahead”, I lean toward the person of Christ and in Him find rest, salvation, satisfaction, and a Lord I can gladly serve.  And I only find my greatest desire is that others would do the same, and far better than I have.

I think I’m in a time of reflection and I’m guessing that since I’m 37 years old, you might suspect that its nearing “midlife”.  I suppose it might have a hint of that, but really its not nearly that purposeful or thought-out.  Instead, I find myself to be observational–even more so than usual.  By nature, I’m a listener/processor.  I liken myself to a crock pot:  my thoughts may take a while longer, but what you get is correspondingly more flavorful.  Or so I like to think.  Along the lines of my reflections has been that my greatest fear is uselessness.  Like I said, I’m 37 years old.  I work with teenagers and have been in one way or another for nearly 20 years.  Wow.  And I’ve had 20 years worth of experiences; highs, lows, bedsides, roadsides, gravesides. Courtrooms, police cars, bedrooms, counseling sessions, housing runaways, and trying to be a soft place to land. Not only that, but speaking truth consistently, understandably, and practically.  20 years of working with, teaching, standing by, crying with, reaching out to, sharing God’s Word with, and investing in teenagers.  I’ve always wanted to do this ever since I learned that I could.  And as long as God will allow me to, I’ll keep on loving teens and their families.

I’m excited about an upcoming speaking engagement this fall.  If all works out, I’ll be sharing a number of revival service messages with some of the good folks of North Carolina.  If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of revival, its the week or so out of the year that Southern Baptists are excited about Jesus.  And if there’s a week that you want to be with a bunch of Southern Baptists, its that one.  Having grown up in a small Baptist church, I’m familiar with the concept of revival and have all confidence in the Spirit of God that He will be pleased to use even a flawed vessel like me to bring it about.  Honored to be invited, I’ve been thinking often about this special and precious time we’ll have together in God’s Word, in all-out worship, and in deep-fried fellowship together.  And what a powerful opportunity to again tune my own heart to God’s praises and to His voice regarding revival in my own life.  While I may have been asked to serve the meal, don’t think for one second that I’m not going dig in to it myself! I have a spiral notebook where I’ve been keeping the things God has been nudging me with and impressing on my heart through Scripture, by His Spirit, and in our talks together.  And if that group of His children in NC will still have me after reading this paragraph, then I can’t wait to get there and experience this time together!

I haven’t contributed to my blog for nearly a month now, and while I’d say that’s mostly been blamed on time, I suspect that there’s more to it than that.  (Not to mention “lack of time” gets way too much use and is way too lame to be used that often.  We all know that, but no one likes to admit it.)  I talked with my Dad recently about his regularity in contributing to his blog (check my blogroll to find it).  He’s a bit more systematic than I am.  Scratch that–my Dad’s writing schedule is more like a well-tuned machine while comparatively speaking mine would be more like a pile of dirt.  Nonetheless, I like to think of it as good soil that occasionally springs up a blade or two of green grass now and then.

I’ve been writing for over an hour now and I feel less burdened than I did before.  I suppose whatever else lies just inside the fingertips of my feverishly typing phalanges might just have to wait until next time to emerge.  Until then, whenever that may be, whether sooner or later, good night.

“You’d better sit down for this one…”

Spring has sprung and that means one thing:  yard sales.  My wife and I hit a community yard sale this past Saturday and while most of what we saw was better suited for the donation box than the yard sale box, I did see a really nice looking recliner….that swiveled…..and rocked…..and reclined…..all in leather.  And the seller even knocked $5 off the price when she found out I bought her couch the year before.  Not sure how I feel about my “frequent buyer” status at a total stranger’s house, but the discount was a nice thought and made the deal even more tempting.  Still, I turned it down. I did buy a classic game “Pit” (harkening back many childhood memories of the adults yelling from the livingroom, “Two! Two! Two!  Three! Three! Three! One! One! One!….DING!”) and “The Diary of Anne Frank” for my 8th grade daughter who is currently reading it and doing a project on it for school.  I figured $.25 wasn’t too steep a price for her to have her own copy.  So even though I left the recliner behind, I did hold onto my “repeat offender” status in this woman’s front yard.

I sit at a desk a fair amount of time when I’m working in the office.  There is quite a bit of administrative work to be done and even with an administrative assistant (who rocks), there’s plenty of screen time in the life of a youth pastor–and I’m not talking about video games.  Emails, reports, publications, curriculum writing, promotion of upcoming events, video editing, social media, and countless other ways that put my duff in a seat looking at a screen.  And that doesn’t even touch the meetings and the sit-time they bring.  Or the time in the car.  Or the couch.

A few years ago, I tried to acquire a stainless steel stand-up height desk for my office.  Its still around, but being used somewhere else and I still have my eye on it.  I’ll keep you posted.

You know how it works…the longer you sit, the longer you want to sit.  The less active you are, the easier it becomes to be less active.  And I can tell you personally that while I can accomplish a whole heck of a lot at work while sitting on my can (yesterday is a great example), I feel much more alive and even stronger when I limit my time on my derriere.

I wrote an article months ago called “Ministry Saddlebags”.  It is about the dangers of a sedentary ministry lifestyle.  Of course, there is by nature a demand to sit down, pound the keyboard, and get stuff done but it seems the larger the ministry, the more demanding the desk chair is for my rear end to be in it.  The bigger the ministry (I moved from medium-sized to larger-sized nearly 7 years ago), the more administrative work seems to be necessary…and that leads to one thing: “saddlebags”.  And not the leather pouches you throw over the horse, but the fatty cellulite ones attached to your (my) outer thighs.

So all this to say that I’m currently looking for creative ways to get off my butt and onto my feet more and more, especially at work.  Just a century ago (you remember those times, don’t you?), America wasn’t as physically stagnate as we are now.  Who knows what trends we can reverse if we get up and move more than we do?  And as strange as this may sound, I’m not even looking at this strictly from a physical perspective, but from a spiritual and ministry perspective.  And I’m looking forward to seeing what develops.

For more on what sitting does, check out this link.

A Bad Gratitude?

Okay, go ahead and file this one under “iffy”.  I’m typing this without a clear sense of “conviction” per se; but rather a “what if it’s possible” or “let’s think about this” type of feeling.  In other words, I’m not sure I’d be willing to die on the hill of the words I’m conveying.  At least not yet.  That might sound weak or indecisive to you, but if you’ve read this far you might be willing to go a bit farther into what’s coming in the next few paragraphs.

We’re in the 2nd week of November, and that means that the smells of stuffing, gravy, and turkey are beginning to waft through the neurons and synapses of my brain.  I love Thanksgiving.  It’s such a magnificent holiday that I think doesn’t get its due shake.  It’s often sandwiched between the hub-bub of Halloween and the hustle-bustle of Christmas.  Some view it as nothing more than the starter’s pistol of the holiday shopping season.  And by the looks of the crazy glazed-over eyes of those in line at 2 am outside Target (I know because I’ve been there), we’re not too far off.

So, with Thanksgiving comes the idea of giving thanks.  But is there a wrong kind of thankfulness?  I believe there is, and I want to cite an instance Jesus talked about.  But before I do that, I want to share an insight I’ve picked up from the wide range of “mission” trips I’ve been on (and I’m leaving for another one in just a few days).

I’m a youth pastor.  I spend a huge chunk of my everyday existence thinking about, communicating with, counseling, praying for, and loving teenagers and my stellar team of adult leaders.  And at least a couple times a year I take teens on a trip, often out of the country.  When we go to another culture, its usually one that is impoverished, a place where we can do something helpful–feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, providing shelter for the exposed and homeless, and lots of other activities that hopefully leave a place better off than when we arrived.  And to me, a “mission” trip is only as successful as the difference it makes not just “over there” in that distant land, but “right here” in my heart.  A difference that is reflected in my priorities, my passions, and sense of purpose in life long after the trip is over.  If there isn’t a change in me, then I feel I’ve missed a big part of the point of the trip.  Of course, we still did good things over there, but does it make any difference after the luggage is unpacked, the jet lag is subsided, and the routine is restored?

More often than not,  when I ask students what difference the trip has made in their lives, I get a recurring response.  A response that goes a little something like this:  “What did I get from going on this trip?  Well, for sure I’m going to be more thankful for the nice stuff I have (that these people don’t have).   I’m going to be thankful for the food in the fridge, and the clothes in the closet, and the bed I don’t have to share with my family.”

Now, I’d be nuts to say that hearing an American teenager say such things isn’t a wonderfully remarkable thing.  It is.  But what I’m getting at is the idea that a thankfulness that is thankful for me being better off than you isn’t quite the thankfulness that the Bible teaches.  It’s a starting point to be sure, and I truly don’t believe that the students who have it are wrong, or bad, or anything close to that.

Let’s take a look at Luke 18, verses 10 & 11:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.'”

Now, clearly in verse 11 we see a “bad gratitude” exhibited by the Pharisee.  It’s a thankfulness that’s only present because there’s someone worse off than him.  It’s a thankfulness that does nothing more than acknowledging that we’re not as bad off as others.  So, how do we foster a genuine thankfulness?  Let’s look at the tax collector’s prayer in verse 13:

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”

First of all, thankfulness MUST be unhinged from any/every other contingent and external reality.  Thankfulness ought to be independent of anyone we know or anything we have.  Thankfulness is first between God and me.  That is the start of a right heart of gratitude.  Certainly we can and should be thankful for what we have and the people in our lives.  But when we attach our thankfulness to things and people, where are we left when those things and people are not around, or even gone from our lives?  The tax collector in verse 13 made no comparison to those around him as the Pharisee did.  His focus was on his own depravity, and the merciful grace of God who accepted him, justified him, and loved him right where he was.  His humility was such that it would not allow him to even lift his head heavenward.  And I’d dare say that between the lines of that verse, we see a piercing gratitude–a gratitude that stands alone, separate from anything God has done–focused only on who God is.

A simple question to gauge our gratitude would be:  If I lost every possession and every person I hold dear, what would happen to my view of God, His goodness, and His presence? Don’t think I think that’s an easy question to ask or answer.  I certainly know that it’s not.  But I think that a gratitude that is detached from what I possess demands such a hard-hitting introspection.

As we approach this Thanksgiving season, may we be a people who most definitely hold dear and are grateful for all the good things and relationships that we enjoy.  But may we also find within ourselves the willingness and courage to stand in gratitude to God even when those other things aren’t there.

As always, I welcome your thoughts or comments on this issue.  How do you approach Thanksgiving?  What do you most commonly thank God for?  Is it possible to separate thankfulness from what we’re thankful for (that question even sounds crazy)? Have I completely lost it?

Thanks for reading.

Aware, yes. Yet Awry.

Sometimes I just have to shake my head in disbelief at the sinking-boat society we live in.

I know it sounds unfair and awfully judgmental, but if you know me you know that’s not who I am.  It’s just that I marvel at how educated our American society can be, and yet have no bearings on what is right.  We’re educated for the purpose of knowing things.  But to what end?

I just finished reading another article outlining a long overdue research project done by a study group.  While I always approach “research” with a skeptical eye (especially when I’m not the one who did the research), I find that again the research has served no purpose in the larger scale, but to give us a snapshot of ourselves.  Knowing statistics is utterly pointless unless learning those things steer our society in a better, more positive, more constructive, healthier direction.

Finding things out about our society is only part of the equation.  I was recently vacuuming and noticed the vacuum was giving off a high pitched sound.  I thought that the sound perhaps was the result of something wrong with the machine, so I decided to take it apart and investigate.  Sure enough, I found that the drive belt had broken and needed to be replaced.  Once I discovered the issue, I most certainly didn’t continue to use the vacuum and expect it to clean the carpet properly.  That would have been insane.  After all, it was broken.  It was not working.  It was effectively inoperable.  If research doesn’t ultimately bring repair, then what good is the research?

We’re more aware, yes.  But still awry as a society.

Suppose I could invite America to go on a cruise with me.  Suppose that during the course of our cruise, someone discovers a leak in the hull.  Would discovering that leak make us any better off?  I suppose you could argue that point; that at least we now KNOW something isn’t right.  But what we REALLY need is a welder–someone who can fix the leak.  What America seems to do is point out the leak (through research) and then go back to the lido deck for a limbo contest.

Here’s the problem.  Some people like leaks.  And for me to suggest that the leak is a sign that something is wrong is, well, judgmental.  Who am I to say that a leaky hull will lead to a sinking ship?  This is precisely what we seem to do with research in our country.  Its a finger that points out leaks and yet leaves us sinking.

Even if we could agree that we need a “welder” who can fix the leak, we then can’t agree on which one.  The most popular is the welder of education.  The idea is that if we can just get smarter about things, we’ll be just fine.  Can somebody please show me how and where that has ever worked?  I’m not saying education is a problem, but it certainly isn’t the solution some people seem to think it is.  Again…we’re aware, yet still awry.

Having research and/or statistics in hand is a good start; it can serve to show us where we are.  But the critical issue is where we’re going from where we are.   Are we aiming at peace?  Are we shooting for universal harmony?  Are we striving for a wide variety of cures?  Is it tolerance we’re after?  Are we going for a world where I’m okay, and you’re okay, and that’s okay?  To me, our societal direction is indiscernible, and what which is discernible is disconcerting to say the least.

And I’m no Eeyore.  If you know me, I’d hope that I’d rank among the cheeriest and carefree people you know.  I’m optimistic to a fault, so don’t think I’m some doomsday kind of guy either.  That’s just not me.

What I AM is I’m someone passionate about what’s true, and therefore right, and therefore should be repeated.  I have a feeling that cuts across the grain of our society, but quite frankly I’m at a point in my life where I simply don’t care about lesser things.

So, what should we do with research, statistics, and findings?  Let me suggest a few things:

1.  Test the “facts”. I recently heard the 87% of statistics are made up on the spot.  As funny as that is, I wouldn’t be surprised by it.  So, do your due diligence to find the facts…the real ones.

2. Steer away from danger.  I know it gets sticky here because as a nation, we don’t all agree with what constitutes danger.  Let me give an example.  I believe its dangerous to reject God’s teaching on marriage.  The ramifications of turning our collective backs on what God says on this issue are numerous.  We would be wise to not merely see the facts, but use them to steer ourselves into a different direction.

Suppose we were taking a trip, your family and mine.  We’re going to drive across the country.  My minivan is full of my wife and kids, so you take your own car.  We do our best to stick together, but I’ve got a heavy foot which causes me to get up ahead of you.  As I’m driving (with you a couple miles back), I come across a barricade that blocks a bridge we had planned to use as a part of our route.  So, I quickly stop, get turned around, and very soon our vehicles meet up once again.  I roll down my window, and say to you, “Don’t go that way! The bridge is out!”  Imagine you yelling back, “That’s okay, I’m going to go that way anyhow!”

Sounds crazy, right?  But it seems that no matter what piece of information we get as a nation, we continue to fly down the highway, shrugging off any and all warnings that the direction we’re headed isn’t a good one.

3.  Share the truth. We’ve got a problem here in our country.  It’s the idea that you have nothing to do with me.  Let’s go back to the bridge illustration.  Imagine that I’m up ahead of you on our trip, I come across that bridge that’s out, so I turn around heading back in your direction.  Only this time, when we meet up again, I don’t roll down the window.  I don’t even slow down.  I don’t say a word.  I don’t warn you, I don’t stop you, and I don’t share what I know with you.  How has this way of living become the norm?  How have we gotten to where you don’t matter enough to me to share the truth with you?  We have no problem sharing “The restaurant has terrible service and awful food. Don’t go there” and “That hair stylist has no business cutting anyone’s hair” and “That movie plot went nowhere.  Save your $10 for something else”, but one the bigger issues of life, we’re much slower to say, “Hey don’t go that way. The bridge is out.”  Why?  Because my business is none of your business…or so we think.

So, being aware is only one part of the equation.  Learning things and even discussing things is only a portion of what must be done.  What difference does it make in the long haul?  What are we DOING with what we’re LEARNING?  That is the issue.