Runners are funny. Dedicated, determined, and slightly insane (I mean that in a mostly complimentary way). I’m sitting in a small bakery café on a rainy Wednesday morning and several feet from me right now are at least half a dozen runners chatting together about life, the day’s activities, the weather, and of course…running. While they chat, they stretch those hammies, lift those knees slowly chestward, and are apparently trying to limber up in the warmth of the café after the cold of this rainy, early morning. Funny people, runners.
On my way to this café, I passed several of their type. Its still dark outside even now, so safety-conscious beings that they are, the runners I passed all had something in common; they each had neon colored, battery-powered lighted vests. They were unmistakable as the glow of these vests bounced along down the sidewalk, breaking up the dark, one after another like psychedelic ducklings following their mama duck. No question about it: You weren’t going to miss them, and that was the point.
Never one to miss a chance to connect a silly observation with spiritual thoughts, something occurred to me as I cruised past them in my manivan, dry and warm and not running. Here’s the thought in question form: Does anyone see me coming? Am I unmistakable in the darkness of the world around me?
There are several verses throughout the Old and New Testaments that indicate our position of being clothes in the righteousness of God. One such verse is Romans 13:14:
“But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
When those nut-brained runners got up and slid all that Lycra over their limbs and laced up those Sauconys and Brooks (from what I can tell the preferred running shoes by at least the small crowd in this café), and pushed whatever you push on your Apple watch to start recording whatever a runner records, the last thing they did was to grab that trusty glowy vest and switch it on. For them, it’s about safety.
But for me and maybe you and definitely all those who love and follow Jesus, “putting him on” is about serving, about seeing the opportunities He constantly gives, and about being identified as one of those kooks that dares believe in the love of God that shakes us free from sin and shapes us into the One in whom we are clothed. We believe that Jesus is true, and real, and alive, and worthy of our shining in the darkness. It is He who lights our lives and makes us weird in a world of darkness.
So today, as you bounce down the sidewalk of whatever you day holds, remember that you’re clothed in the the Light of the World. You’ve got your own glowy vest that illuminates your life with love, with care, with dignity shown for all, with hands that serve the least of these, with sacrificial attitudes that drive you to give so that others can know that same Jesus.
I’ve seen hundreds of them. So have you. Those bumper stickers or jeep spare tire covers that say “Not all who wander are lost.” True enough. However, I’ve found that many people who DO wander DO feel lost. I’ve spoken with enough people over the years to develop some observations, and the things that are most common among those conversations include things like…
“I don’t feel like God hears my prayers.”
“I struggle with sometimes feeling like I’m close to God but then a lot of times I get distracted or discouraged and lose that feeling of His closeness.”
“I might have a dynamic spiritual experience and really sense God’s presence, but then that fades and everything goes back to normal and it’s gone.”
My most recent conversation was with an individual who was discouraged because of the ups and downs they saw in their own spiritual life; they felt like they just can’t get it right, that they can’t find that rhythm, or that cadence that would keep them at a spiritual “high” and feeling and knowing that they’re as near to Jesus as they could be. I bet you can relate, can’t you? I had a wonderful conversation and time of prayer with this person and I’ve committed to doing all I can to be an encouragement to them in the future. But I also wanted them (and you) to hear some truth. Because I fear we’re a little sideways in our collective perspective on what it means to be a follower of Jesus. If what you’re about to read doesn’t describe you, then promise me you’ll pray for those who resonate deeply with what I’ll share here. I know there are plenty who do.
Let me preface this with the acknowledgement that I’m no guru, no expert on why people wander from God or even dismantle and dismiss their once-held faith all together. But I can say with confidence that these three areas constitute much of the landscape of spiritual bewilderment, discouragement, and deconstruction.
We’re emotional beings. We all live somewhere on the scale of emotionalism. Some very light, some very heavy–but all of us are here and feeling things as we live. I believe God created humans “in His image” as Genesis 1-3 tells us. I believe God has designed humans with the capacity to feel, and to feel deeply. Nothing wrong there. Emotions are not the problem. The problem arises when we place too strong an emphasis or give over too much decision-making authority to our emotions. I’ve said it countless times: Put emotions in the driver’s seat and they’ll drive you into a ditch or over a cliff. Every. Single. Time. The simple wisdom is this: Do NOT let emotions have decision-making power. Do NOT place them in the driver’s seat of your life. Sticking with the driving analogy, emotions might be better described as dashboard indicator lights. They communicate a need in our lives, but are not the need itself. You can YouTube how to clear those indicator warning lights, but you have not dealt with the actual issue. That’s how emotions are. They always point to the problem but are not the problem itself.
The American evangelical Church, to a dangerous degree, seems to have given itself over to connecting feeling with faith. We couple how we feel about church, the music, the sermon, that person who said that thing, and even our own mood with the perceived value of any spiritual gathering, church service, or event we’re a part of. The so-called “worship wars” that many pastors deal with is rooted in how different people feel about different worship expressions. In doing this, we unwittingly place our own preferences over God’s own presence. What can be more tragic?
(Jerry, tread carefully here. You can’t possibly speak for every person’s experience.) For many people, they’ve had an experience that has left them with the perspective that placing faith in God turned out to be as worthwhile as putting their faith in a paper plate. They had a tragedy, a hurt, a broken relationship, an abusive experience, an unanswered prayer, a wrong-answered prayer, a conflict with another person who claims to love Jesus, a pastor who left them feeling neglected, a small group that ostracized them at some point for some reason, silence from a pastor on a particular social justice issue, a church leadership who seemed to ask for money one too many times, a loss in their life where people who said they love God didn’t love them in their pain, or they experienced more acceptance, understanding, support, community or love from the other parents on the soccer field sideline, or in the PTA, or at the bar than they ever experienced from “Christians”. OR they simply experienced a worldwide pandemic along with the rest of humanity and in the waylay of shutdowns and restricted gatherings, they simply found it profoundly easier to NOT gather, even when all restrictions were lifted. It was too late; a new habit had formed, and they were fully disengaged and perfectly okay with that.
Experiences are perhaps the most influential aspects of our lives. What I see, touch, hear, do, and speak is what makes up my experience. So my senses are dictating to me what is and what isn’t. Experiences can often lead us to a new perspective on what’s real and true. Most humans have a default setting of doing nothing when they don’t know what to do. Doing nothing seems safer and certainly easier. A story was told where a car had come to a complete stop right in the middle of a busy highway in Florida. People honked and went around until finally someone stopped to see what the issue was. Turned out, an elderly woman had simply died while behind the wheel. Her car came to a stop and when the medical examiner determined the time of death, it was well over an hour before she was finally discovered and seen. The experience of many is that they believe they are unseen and therefore uncared about. This is merely one example of a possibility that stems from experience. For many people, one hurtful experience can far outweigh the possibility (or reality) of countless positive experiences. I’ve lived enough and learned enough to know not to say “Just get over it”. I don’t want to be calloused or dismissive. But I will challenge any person that’s hurting to ask, “Is the reality of the hurt more prevalent than the availability of the help?” and then “How do I begin today to engage the help and release the hurt?”
Confession time: I put this one last to give my brain as much time as possible to formulate just want I want to convey just the way I want to convey it. If talking about emotions is the most flighty or subjective, then talking about evidence is the most grounded, weighty, and objective. To put it simply, even to someone who perhaps had a faith in God that was at one time real, the evidence mounts against Him to the tipping point where they cannot logically remain in that faith. I realize this is closely related to experience, but when it comes down to it, the evidence speaks and cannot be ignored. Think of a courtroom and the onus of the prosecution to present an airtight case that brings a conviction against the defendant. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” is how we put it in our judicial system. And quite frankly, faith in God or walking with the invisible Jesus gets to the point of being illogical, based on the evidence, even if that evidence is not rooted in personal experience. Suffering, injustice, depravity, greed, exploitation, natural disasters, famine, and imbalance of all kinds tip the scale in favor of faith dissolution. In other words, there is not only not enough evidence to prove God (a point I concede), but the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming and to many people turns out to be irrefutable. And boom. Those who once didn’t wander now do. And some do so blissfully.
Take the well-known examples of Rhett (Rhett James McLaughlin) and Link (Charles Lincoln Neal III), hosts of the ever-popular YouTube show “Good Mythical Morning”. Both of these incredibly talented, articulate, hilarious, and faith-filled men each underwent their own crisis of faith. If you’d like to listen to each of their stories, visit the podcast “Ear Biscuit” where each of them tell the story of their dismantling of faith in Jesus. I listened to both stories carefully as they both with beautiful vulnerability drew their own conclusions about their once-dearly-held faith in God. For many like these two men, the evidence simply becomes too strong to ignore while the gravity that keeps a soul grounded in God seems to dissipate. The result? We’re left floating. And floating isn’t bad if you want to be floating, but many one-time-disciples lament what was their faith; they simply could not continue in it. It got to the point of integrity. They couldn’t pretend to believe something when the evidence said otherwise. So they wandered. Left, really.
I’ll simply say that evidence for faith, God, spirituality based on the unseen, or Jesus is plentiful and varied. You can take any aspect of life on planet earth and you won’t have to trace it very far to something unexplainable outside of divine/supernatural activity. So in short, unsatisfactory evidence for some is not the same as no evidence for all. In my experience, atheists would do well to dial back the vitriol and disciples of Jesus would do well to dial up the evidence of a truly transformed life. Have you been saved? Tell your face.
Whether you resonate most with emotional reasons, experiential reasons, or evidential reasons, the ability to recalibrate and recenter on the Jesus of the gospels is always in front of you. I have found time and again that nothing–no emotion, no experience, and no evidence can compete with the person of Jesus; who He is, what He has done (all verified historically, archaeologically, and biographically), and His very real desire for closeness with every human. I realize this is easier said than done, but whichever of the 3 areas described above is where you struggle and what causes you to wander, let me entreat you not to allow any of them to outweigh the gracious love of God. When emotions win out, we essentially declare that they are God. When experience wins out, we essentially declare that experience is our gospel. When evidence wins out, I’m sorry to say that a part of our hearts have turned away from what is true and real, to the detriment of our souls.
Some of my posts attempt to be neat and tidy. They can be wrapped up with a bow and presented and concluded. This one isn’t one of those. So I welcome your thoughts, or any other area you can add to my list (whether it starts with an E or not–you’ll need to forgive my tendency to alliterate; its the curse of the pastor).
At any rate, know that you are loved, cherished, adored, and purchased with the very blood of God. That same God is near you now, calling you quietly, and waiting for your next step in His direction. Grace and peace to you.
I’m totally okay with PDA. When I see couples being affectionate in public, I think, “How nice that they’re in love.” Now, there’s a limit to what I can take and what I feel is appropriate, but there have been so few instances when I felt like couples crossed that line. For the most part, hand-holding, hugging, leaning, and the occasional smooch is all okay with me. Go for it.
What I have found is not my strong suit is PDE. That’s Public Displays of Emotion. It’s not that I’m not an emotional guy or that I don’t feel things and feel them deeply, it’s just that I’d rather not erupt my innards for all to see. I tend to play things a little closer to the vest, whether I’m wearing a vest or not. I’m usually not.
I want to talk with you today about distances. Distances are funny things. Right now, there’s a distance between where you are and where you want to be. To help you come along, ask yourself this question: What is the distance between where I am and where I want to be? Or maybe even start with: Where do I really want to be? What is between where I am and where that is? Next, ask yourself honestly what that distance is made up of. Is it repression? Is it wastefulness? Is it laziness? Is it misaligned priorities? Is it fear? Is it busyness? If I could have anything happen for you (and for me while I’m at it), it’s that this coming season would find us with a much smaller distance between where we are and where we desire to be. But I think that starts with addressing the monster called distance. Give it a name. Be brazen in naming it. Name it, and you’ll chip away its power.
A friend recently asked me which of the Bible stories I gravitated toward most; people connect to different stories for different reasons. I did give him an answer, but honestly, I didn’t have a single story I could pick out from all of scripture. That’s too tall a task.
But one that connects with where I am and where I have been for the past couple of years happens next to a pool. Let me set the scene but promise me you’re not going to jump to conclusions or tune out, okay? It’s such a brief exchange between Jesus and a particular man, it’s easy to overlook.
Let me first go back to PDE. It’s happened a few times in the past couple of weeks. Someone will see me, approach me, and weirdly, tenderly ask, “You okay, Jerry?” with that cocked-head, soft-eyed look. Clearly, I haven’t held things as close to the vest as I have wanted. Recently someone right out of the blue asked me, “Jerry, how can I pray for you?” I hadn’t asked for prayer, I hadn’t frowned, I hadn’t pouted, I hadn’t–that I was aware of–given any indication of stress or distress. Still, the question came. Likely prompted by some kind of vibe I was giving off. I shallowly admitted to them that I was a bit stretched thin, but nothing out of the ordinary. I thanked them for the question and never answered it. Kind of a jerk move, now that I think about it. Or my personal favorite: “Jerry, you look tired.” How do I respond to that?!? I usually smile while performing a set of jumping jacks. Proving them wrong. See? I’m fine.
Okay, back to the Jesus story I was mentioning. This brief exchange holds 6 words at its core. Just six. Look it up in John’s gospel, chapter five. Read the first nine verses. Go ahead. Never read the bible before? Don’t know where to find it, you say? Technology to the rescue. Just click here. What did you notice? What detail(s) stood out to you? Did you figure out the six words at the core of the story? They were: “Do you want to get well?”
Here’s a mindblower: Jesus is standing by the pool in your life and asking you. The. Same. Exact. Question. “Do you want to get well?” So do you? Do you want to close the distance? Do you want to move past pain? Do you want to reprioritize things? Do you want to stop being lazy? Do you want to reignite a brighter fire that drives a stronger focus? Well…do you?
Secondary to the story is the man’s response. Let’s be honest, it was as lame as he was. But so relatable. He was like, “I can’t catch a break. I can’t get ahead. I’m always behind. It seems like the system is twisted and favors the faster, cuter, better, richer, and stronger, and I’m none of those things. It’s all so unfair.” He made excuses that to him were legitimate, and maybe there was some validity. But notice Jesus never gave them credence by even acknowledging them. Jesus didn’t commiserate. Didn’t coddle. Didn’t console. So you and I can keep making excuses for the distance, but Jesus is already ready to meet us past them. The question then echoes: “Do you want to get well?” Jesus is all-at-once with you, immanent in your problems and yet already beyond them inviting you to see things differently.
Do you remember the pool party episode of “The Office”? They were all partying poolside in Robert California’s soon-to-be former home and Daryl was explaining that even though he’s been working out so he’s got muscle, it’s still buried underneath the fat that still needs to be burned off. Why do I bring this up? Because even though there might be muck and gunk in your life that you’re still working through, that doesn’t mean there’s not truth and beauty present as well. Both are possible. There’s a mess, but there’s also a masterpiece. One doesn’t negate the other. At its heart, this is the process of sanctification. You are a mess and you are a masterpiece. You’re a messterpiece.
What of that distance though? What are the things that make it up? Name them clearly. If you want to slay that giant, you’ll have to look him in the eyes first. What are the things that you want to define the next season? You’ll need to name those as well. This is perhaps even more critical to do. I’m going to rattle things off right now; unedited, unprocessed, unpolished, in no order…
I want to stop living with the present and past constricting my future.
I want to step out in ways that frighten me but are good for me.
I want to double down on the over-quarter-century of experience I have in my field. I have so much to offer. I’m not done. Not by a long shot.
I want my marriage to find its strongest days, stronger than ever before.
I want to let go of expecting so much from others and expect more from myself.
I want Jesus far more than any other person, institution, organization, position, success, or accolade.
I want clarity to drive my decisions, even in the minutia.
I want to reacquaint my world with the idea of zeal. I want others to know it by knowing me.
I want to forgive myself for the countless failures in my past. Not in a way that diminishes their impact, but in a way that frees me from how they’ve held me in shameful shackles.
My mind stopped there. So I’ll end the list there. I’m sure there are more, but for integrity’s sake, I’ll stop the list. That list flew out of my fingers as I typed as quickly as I could to get it down. I hope there’s something there for you because there’s definitely a truckload there for me.
Where is the distance in your heart? In your thoughts? In your desires? In your plans? In your attitudes? What is that distance made up of? What are you wanting for your life in the next season you’re headed into?
You can certainly leave a comment. I’d love to know where you’re at (if anywhere) in all this. If you’d rather email me privately, you can use the email: firstname.lastname@example.org
On social media, there’s this event called a “photo dump” when someone indiscriminately (or so they say) simply dumps a bunch of photos they’ve had on their phone. This supposedly isn’t to show off, impress anyone, or to even make sense of the content. It’s merely a dump for dump’s sake.
Every so often, I hope you have a place where you can do this on the mental/emotional/spiritual level. Some go to therapy, some engage in a sport, some go running, some paint, some smash things, some have coffee with a trusted friend. Me? I write. I’d like to say that all I’m about to dump is valuable, helpful, redemptive, or at least clear. But I won’t.
So I welcome you to witness my dump. Oops. That came out wrong. Oops. So did that. Oh dang. I’m not off to a great start, am I? Anyway. Onward.
My thoughts as of late are centered on ambition, drive, results, purpose, calling, and disorganization. Do you ever feel that on the other side of a piece of glass is You 2.0? But that glass is bulletproof and you can’t drag them over to your side. That other You is like you, but is crushing it. The vision and the reality match up, the potential is realized daily, the way you wish you were, You 2.0 is. The pane of glass though. How do I take what I am and make it better? Is it a step thing? A gotta-really-want-it thing? A systems thing? A missing ingredient thing? A grind-it-out thing? A fake-it-til-you-make-it thing? An organization thing? What is it that keeps you from You 2.0?
I want so many things. I want my life to reflect untouchable joy. I want my wife to daily drown in a tsunami of love that I have for her but can’t quite express effectively. I want my children to walk more closely with Jesus than I do. I want to let my wife choose not to work. I want a house on more land with plenty of room for my future grandkids to visit. I want the people I serve to love Jesus and live Jesus in their world. I want to write a book. I want to travel through Europe. I want to connect with as many young(er) student pastors as I can in order to encourage them not to view their ministry as less than critical to the Kingdom and the Church today. I want to ride a motorcycle. I want to play the drums. I want to stand on a stage and deliver the truth to young people and watch God’s Spirit do in them and for them what only He can do. I want to take a selfie with my wife in every state as we travel in an RV and see them all. I want to see young people living in love with Jesus, with His Word, with His style of love, with His commandments, and with His passion for the least of these. That’s not all, but it’s a good start.
I’m what you call a “slow processor”. Last night for dinner we had sumptuous barbeque sandwiches, dripping with flavor because it say in a crockpot for 8 hours while we were all at work. I like to think of my mind as a crockpot; it’ll take a little longer to get there, but (hopefully) it’ll be worth the wait. However, in the crockpot of my thoughts, there is often trouble brewing. I’ve got fears that somehow got into the mix.
I’m afraid that I’m actually not doing the good I want to be doing. I’m afraid that I’m unwittingly perpetuating the reasons that the young people I serve today will turn it all down in the near future, citing inauthentic “Christians” as their evidence for the flimsiness of “religion”. I’m afraid that where I am now is where I’ll be tomorrow and next year. I’m afraid that I didn’t get the memos most other adults seem to have gotten on how to do life effectively. I’m afraid that sharing what I’m afraid of might change your view of me. I’m afraid that my wife isn’t actually receiving the life I wanted to give her. I’m afraid that my kids look at me and wish I was a better dad to them. I’m afraid of too much change too quickly and I’m afraid of not enough change not quickly enough.
I know that everyone has both wants and worries. I know I’m not unique. But I’m the only one inside this cranium, so to me whether any of it is unique or not is almost irrelevant. This is what I live in and think about every day. Here’s some solace: You ever seen someone walking their dog but they’ve got that dog one of those fancy retractable cable leash thingies? The human holds the reel of cable on this spring-loaded mechanism and the dog can choose to go 20 feet ahead or 2 feet ahead? When I get into my own thought life and really dig into where my thoughts lead me, frustrate me, challenge me, teach me, frighten me, or comfort me what I’m really doing it taking that leash out to its further reaches. I know certainly that I am God’s and God is mine. I know that the relationship I hold dearest is also held by His hand. I know that I cannot go anywhere He does not see and care supremely about. But when I let my thoughts dwell more on my worries than my worship (to limit it to those two), I feel that I’m way out on the end of that cable; still connected, but perhaps out further than is wise or healthy.
I swear to you I had no idea where this blog post would go. I almost always have a good solid plan of beginning, middle, and end when I write these. You might have picked up on this one that I barely had a beginning. So, this is stream-of-consciousness stuff, for better or for worse.
Behind the curtain of this blog page are the drafts that have gone unpublished. I recently noticed I have 64 drafts. SIXTY-FOUR. I’m not sure how that number strikes you, but to me, that seems like a lot. That’s 64 undone things I wanted to get done. What’s one thing YOU want to get done?
Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to recapture my thoughts. Typing that makes it appear on a screen and reading what I just wrote makes it sound preposterous. You ever gone to a zoo and inside one of those butterfly sanctuaries? This is what I imagine my attempts to better capture my thoughts will be like. But when you do–when you get that winged creature to land on the back of your hand you get to see it more clearly; to see the vibrant colors that were once not only inside the chrysalis, but inside the butterfly itself in the form of “imaginal” discs….well….hang on. We’ve got to stop here. We’ve stumbled onto something weird and possibly potent. The beautiful color of a butterfly’s wing started off inside the body of the pupa. This is called the imaginal disc. You see the word Imagine in there right? I’m not a butterfly expert, so I’m not sure this is a correct derivative, but it’s pretty cool that the wings of a butterfly that we all are so struck by are not unlike what we dare to imagine for our own lives. What do you imagine right now? What future image do you have of yourself?
I want to make sure I’m not saying something that I don’t want you to hear me saying. I’m not about chasing dreams. I’m not about living in some lofty transcendental state that (while serene) is also out of touch. I’m not about shirking what’s in front of me today in some pell-mell goose chase of what I’d rather be and see. No, that’s not it.
When I say I want to recapture my thoughts, I suppose that ultimately what I’m doing is merely echoing the Apostle Paul when he said, “…we take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Cor. 10:5) For me, that starts with corralling. I’ve got to coral my thoughts. Many of them are wild and don’t want to be hemmed in like that. I don’t care. If a horse is going to be useful it first must be broken. So first step is to corral. I can do better at this than I’ve done. I often treat my thoughts like I’m sitting in a deli window counter and watching them pass by on the street outside, admiring them momentarily and watching them wander off. I can do better than that.
After corralling, I’ll critique. Is this a keeper? Is it worth going any further? What practical use is there for this one? Go into your closet. If you haven’t touched it in a year then get rid of it. What’s left? Those are the keepers. That’s what critique for me needs to look like. Critique for me assesses if a thought has long-term value and unless I can assign it a date, it’s just a nice thought. No offense nice thought, but kick rocks.
After the critique comes the _________. The alliterist in me (bonus points for making up the word alliterist) wants so desperately to put a “c” word there. C’mon, Jerry. Coral…Critique…C______. Are you shouting at the screen? If so, could you shout a little louder? I’m still searching. I wanted to say “control” but there’s something about that that feels too rigid. I actually just Googled “what’s it called when you put a horse in a starting gate for a race?” There’s no official term for that, but I’m sure if there was it would start with c. That’s really how I view my thoughts that I’ve corralled and critiqued. They need to be released with their strength harnessed and leveraged for all the good they can do.
UPDATE: That last C: Catapult. Yep. There is it. Shout out to my co-worker Wendy for handing that word to me. (I’m not sure how I missed it, but I did.) Let’s review: Coral, Critique, and Catapult. What is a catapult move? A catapult ratchets back and activates the thought that’s waiting to be launched. (I had previously thought of “chamber” as in “chamber the round” but anyone not into guns might have lost the imagery.) How do I catapult the thoughts that are keepers? After a fair amount of learning from some trainings I’ve taken, I’ve come up with a tool to help activate thoughts and complete tasks. I’ve tweaked it many times, but I’m happy to share it with you. You can download it here…
I’m going to work on this more so that I can continue to grow as a person; intellectually, emotionally, mentally, socially, and spiritually. As always I welcome your thoughts on this and thanks for coming along with me on this dump.
What do you really want to be doing right now? Many people might answer “nothing”. Some might answer “traveling”. Some might say “not this”. But I’d dare say that very few people would respond with “exactly what I’m doing now”. There’s a common experience among us humans that we not only aren’t where we truly want to be–vocationally, financially, emotionally, spiritually, physically–but most of us don’t have a clear path in that direction; the direction we’d rather go toward the destination at which we’d rather be.
You may consider this to be far too simple and that’s okay. Like Lynyrd Skynyrd, I’m a simple man. I like simple things.
Many of us look at our visions of where we’d rather be and immediately we see obstacles, reasons we can’t, and excuses that stand directly and seemingly immovably between us and the vision. I want to move, as in buy a different house than I’m currently living in. I want a different view out the front window. A different address. As soon as I think those thoughts, I also think, “Now’s not the time. I can’t do that. I have too much to do with this house to get it ready to sell. The market isn’t right. I don’t want to start my mortgage clock over again. A new place comes with new problems. There are too many steps between wanting to buying a new home and laying your head down on your pillow in your new home. Nope. I can’t.”
You do this too, right? We all turn “wants” into “can’ts” without anyone’s help. The progression is lightning fast and concludes with you right where you are: 1. I want to… 2. I can’t… 3. I won’t. (I was tempted to throw in a “Gimme Three Steps” joke here, but two Skynyrd references is one post is too much, I think.)
But what if you started something? What if you could see a small “can” right in front of you right now? It’s not the big WANT, it’s a small can. What if the can’t you feel were easily kicked by the can you can?
What’s your small can? Don’t “shouldn’t” it to death. Don’t rationalize your inactivity regarding it. See that can and do it. And do it now.
Right now, I can write a page of that book I’ve wanted to write.
Right now, I can lift both legs under my desk and tighten my abs for 10, 20, or 30 seconds.
Right now, I can click “contact agent” under that house listing I’ve been looking at.
Right now, I can text or call that estranged relative or friend.
Right now, I can take the $3 in my wallet and fold it in half as a reminder not to spend it and start a habit of saving.
Right now, I can sign up for updates on Indeed and entire the criteria for that job type I really want to get alerted when those kinds of jobs are available.
Right now, I can do something that makes me more excellent at the job I currently have.
Right now, I can stand up and walk for 10 minutes to clear my mind and relieve stress.
Right now, I can give faith a shot and have a conversation with God.
Right now, I can read one article or watch one short video about that hobby I want to take up.
Right now, I can order those running shoes.
Right now, I can pull up my calendar and start getting my days and tasks more organized.
What can you do, even the smallest of “cans”, right now in order to take you closer to where you want to be?
I think it often and live it always: I missed my calling as a racecar driver.
I remember my first slot car race set that my parents got me. I was the youngest of 3, but the only boy so I got my own room. For some reason, my bed was a “trundle” bed which meant it had another mattress, basically in a large mattress-sized drawer that rolled out from under my bed; presumably for when friends would visit. Not sure what type of commentary this is on the amount of friends I had, but we took that mattress out and replaced it with an electric racing set. So anytime I wanted (and it was often), I could pull that trundle out and my imagination took me 900 mph to the track where I’d swap paint with all the other drivers on that track that day.
If you’re not familiar with this kind of race track set up, let me explain it. Each race car was probably 2-3 inches in length, of a wide variety of designs and colors, and each had a single metal pole that came out under the car between the front wheels. This was intended to keep the car in its lane. Each racecar also had two metal pieces that made connection with metal rails on the track and provided the motor with the electrical current it need to propel the car around the track.
The track took any shape I wanted it to take, but was mostly limited to the few layout suggestions from the box it came in; after all, the ends had to meet up for obviously reasons–the primary reason being that you had to complete the electrical circuit in order for the track to work at all.
Finally, the most critical piece of the set up were the controllers. They came in different styles but the most common and the ones I’m certainly most familiar with are the pistol grip/trigger type. Held in your young hand like a toy gun, there was but one moving part: the trigger. The further you squeezed that trigger in, the faster your racecar would race down the track. To me and my young imagination, it was nothing short of magic.
I spent hours alone and with friends racing cars around the tiny little track, cheering when I won and jeering when I lost. But between the green flag and the checkered flag is where the drama lived. You see, it wasn’t just about going “pedal to the medal” the whole race. No, no, no. You had to know when to gun it and when to back off. After all, there were turns and hazards to be mindful of. If I entered a hairpin turn with my proverbial hair on fire, I could count on flying over the half inch plastic safety rail and maybe even go flying out of the trundle all together and then I’m liable to get some shag carpet wrapped up in the wheels or inner workings of my finely tuned racing automobile. Nope. Couldn’t have that!
I remember when I was introduced to the switch track. In normal racecar track set ups, the two lanes that the cars race on ran parallel for the entire race. But at some point some toy race track manufacturer got the idea of introducing a short segment of track that was essentially an “X” that caused the two lanes to switch places. I don’t think I have to tell you what happened if those two cars happened to be side by side when entering that section of track. Oh, I do? Okay well, they would collide and usually BOTH go flying off the track. It was a scene of carnage and devastation the likes of which no human can fully fathom. And I loved it. When racing a friend, I approached that section actually HOPING for a collision. After all, what could be more thrilling?
The power of the speed at which the car went, and consequently the outcome of the race was literally in the palm of my hand in the form of that pistol gripped trigger mechanism. If I squeezed it on the straightaways and let off just enough on the turns, I could all but guarantee the victory.
Go with me for a second on an analogy that struck me yesterday. It was to do with the power we find in our lives; the power to live, the power to love, the power to forgive, the power to overcome, the power to wait, the power to give sacrificially, the power to serve, and the power to see what others can’t. All the power I need to live the life I desire to live in Christ is within my control. I get to choose how much of my life is filled with the power that is available through God’s own Spirit. Just like that trigger in my hand, I decide how much of the motor of my life is energized by who He is. The more I squeeze that trigger, the more of myself (my agenda, my desires, my will, my plans, my ideas, my preferences) I submit to Him and the power He provides, and consequently the more I am in a position to see that His ways and His will are vastly superior to mine. Consider the game-changing, race-winning, life-altering truth of Romans 8:11:
The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you.
What about that slot track, though? It feels quite scripted, doesn’t it? Am I fated to never veer or diverge from this predetermined course? To answer that, let me say that I am not fatalistic in my attitude. What I mean is that I do not think that all the turns and twists are already set in stone and I’m merely a passenger on my own journey, powerless to navigate or change. Not at all. However, I DO believe what Paul said to the disciples in Ephesus during the first century:
“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10)
As I submit to God’s power and control in my life, the journey He has in mind is revealed, and I am gifted with a view and experience I could have never imagined.
So you can face each day with a pathetic resignation that all is set and you are powerless to affect change, OR you can (and I pray you will) enter this day and all days with a finger on the trigger of control and power that God has supplied, and ready to compete in the race He by His infinite grace has set out for you to complete; a journey of twists, turns, and triumph that you could have never created for yourself.
I spent last week in and around Boston, MA with a group of high school students and adult leaders. This experience was a thought/idea/dream I had last year. Let me explain. I’m a student and young adult pastor in the Richmond, VA area. The church I serve at is part of the Church of the Nazarene, which is part of the Virginia District, which is part of the Eastern Field. The Eastern Field stretches from Virginia to Maine and our “assigned” denominational college is Eastern Nazarene College (ENC) in Quincy, MA, just outside Boston. As a pastor to students, many of who are looking at their college options, I thought I should be doing a better job of exposing them to the option of ENC. What if–I thought to myself–we could use ENC as a base of operations and hold our annual high school mission experience on campus and launch out to different places in the area each day in order to serve and grow together? Turns out, ENC was down for it. So that’s how we ended up there this past week. Shout out to Mark Brown, our coordinator, ENC staffer, and good friend who helped with all the many logistics. Mark CRUSHED the planning details and really helped make a memorable week.
*Full disclosure: I didn’t hear anyone say “Wicked Ahh-some” all week. Well, except for me.
I’m going to try and recap some of the most poignant moments we shared from the past week. Hopefully not in some boring, “Hey, don’t you want to watch my home movies” or “Hey, let’s sit down and look at my high school yearbook even though you know no one in it but me” kind of way. I promise if you read this through you’ll come away with some good stuff.
The first moment happened within two minutes of us arriving on campus. We stepped into our dorms and dorm rooms. I mistakenly thought Massachusetts would be at least a little cooler than central VA in July. I was wrong. It was hot. I mean HOT. These old brick dorms were not equipped with air conditioning. My phone rang just after I set my bag down in my room. It was one of our female leaders: “Jerry. Were you aware there’s no a/c?” I replied calmly, “Yes, I’m aware. Just open a window. You’ll be fine.”
If you’re living your daily life on the path of least resistance let me implore you to find the nearest off ramp and live differently. If your motivation is comfort and convenience, you’ll be soft and weak in no time flat. I can now confess that I in fact DID know there’d be no a/c before we went on this trip. Since there was nothing to do about it and there would be no room in the luggage for fans, why bother sharing that info? Call me cruel for withholding that detail, but I didn’t see the point.
What can you do today that you didn’t do yesterday? What is one purposefully uncomfortable thing you can do, if for no other reason than to experience a different reality than you normally do? You never know what learning is lurking just outside your grip on comfort.
A couple days later, we went into the city of Boston and partnered with a local church called Congregation Lion of Judah. We met Evelyn and Jeff, heard their stories and were led by them (in two groups) around the city streets in order to pray, meet those on the street in need, hear their stories, and serve them in some way. Not sure if you’re familiar with Boston, but Congregation Lion of Judah is located in Boston’s “South End” neighborhood in what is called “Methadone Mile” or what has been renamed by that local church as “Miracle Mile”. We walked the streets in small(er) groups and interacted with those experiencing homelessness, drug addicts, and those in the very act of drug use. Again, putting suburban teenagers into the context of the sketchiness of such a location was an intentional move. I believe it was very valuable for them to be eyeball to eyeball with pain, hopelessness, and chaos. It was intentionally uncomfortable and that discomfort proved powerful.
We are strongest when we are most reliant on God’s presence and enabling power. We couldn’t have imagined just what we’d see on those streets, but we saw loved and cherished humans for whom Jesus shed His very blood and we sought to serve them accordingly. We wanted to meet them with dignity, humility, and deep care. It was so special to watch our students interact with these precious ones with the love of God; not in a way that puts anyone above anyone but rather in a way that is relational, personal, and intimate–I imagine that’s much the way Jesus met people in need. Not in a “Oh, you poor thing.” kind of way, but in a “I’m here with you.” kind of way.
I truly believe that this is what it means to be a disciple. The word “Christian” is found in the New Testament just 3 times. The word “disciple” is seen 261 times. Why, oh why have we decided to call ourselves “Christians” then? A disciple is a far better term to use. A Christian may be someone who believes something, but a disciple is someone who DOES something with what they believe. The week was filled with opportunities to not merely believe good things, but DO good things. And its in the doing that the believing is verified and validated.
What am I doing today with what I’m believing today? How about you?
Later that same day, we took the “T” to Jamaica Plains in Boston and to Awaken City Church. Pastor Melinda Priest was there to greet us and lead us in prayer and on a prayer walk around that neighborhood. As we walked, I noticed a building that really looked like a church but clearly it wasn’t being used that way. I learned quickly that this building actually was a church building but had since closed and been converted into apartments. At first, I thought to myself, “What a shame. I really wish that church building were still being used to house times of prayer and worship and other “churchy” things. But God spoke to me almost immediately and challenged my lamenting attitude. Essentially, He said, “How do you know I don’t still have disciples in that building, living among and loving their neighbors and sharing my gospel, and serving selflessly?” Then I thought, “You know what, God? You’re right. After all, shouldn’t the church be IN the neighborhood in every sense?”
We shared lunch together after our prayer walk and heard more about the mission of this young church plant and what brought Melinda with her family from Michigan to Boston. In short, it was God’s clear directive call; a calling that still sustains them despite a constant flow of adversity in carrying out the mission of loving those who are far from Jesus. I found her story to be incredibly inspiring and my heart was challenged in a way that caused me to ask “What have I risked, surrendered, or endured for the gospel?” I’m still wrestling with that question even at this moment.
After lunch, we put “blessing bags” together and left those for the church’s future use. However, Pastor Melinda challenged students to take one with them and ask God to show them who needs to receive it in the coming hours or days as we travel around Boston. Each bag had personal essential items: water, fruit/grain bars, washcloth, soap, toothbrush, comb, and other basic necessities. All in a durable backpack that those experiencing hardship or homelessness would find useful.
Later that week, I found myself still toting that blessing bag on my back. It was a physical reminder that I was carrying a blessing with me that someone else needed. You may not have a literal sack on your back, but if you consider yourself a disciple, you most certainly have a blessing to give to someone today. And as long as I felt the bag on my back, I was mindful of where and who around me needed it. More on that later.
On Wednesday and Thursday of the week, we ventured to Friends of the Homeless in Newell, MA. This was not at all the kind of “homeless shelter” I was expecting to see. I had been to and served at homeless shelters in the past. But this one was remarkably different. This was a unique setting and ministry that provided homes for families specifically. Each family had their own dwelling and met certain criteria in order to stay there, whether for weeks or months at a time.
When we arrived, we met Tandah and Herb, the leaders of this powerful ministry which we learned was also a Nazarene Compassionate Ministry site. They had not had any volunteers in two years and they had never had a group of volunteers of our group’s size. But I give them credit because they were prepared! They had a few pages of tasks that they had wanted us to try and tackle. As the two days came and went, it was so gratifying to know we were helping them accomplish things that had long since sat dormant. We cleared out an entire box truck of supplies and donations that had been sitting for 2 years. We gave that space back to them for far more efficient use. We built 3 brand new picnic tables/benches so that each area on the property (15 dwellings total) could have a place for families to sit and eat together. We installed new ceilings in the basement, covering up insulation so that this space could be better utilized for storage. We reorganized a neglected “baby pantry” and installed a/c in that room so that it could be far more useful for families to get diapers, clothes, formula, and other needs for newborns and young children. We cut the grass, repainted the sign by the road, and power washed buildings to name a few more tasks we accomplished.
We met Bill, who was celebrating 40 years of sobriety on the second day of our visit. We created a big card to give him, that everyone signed and congratulated him with. Bill was just one of those guys you want to hang out with all day. A gentle and generous soul that Jesus had rescued. Not a man of great means, but still Bill decided he wanted to bless our group so during the day he went up the road and bought a gift certificate to a local dairy farm and ice cream stand so at the end of the day, our entire group could have fresh, delicious, homemade ice cream.
We wrapped up our two days at Friends of the Homeless and said goodbye to our new friends. That experience tenderized hearts and reminded us that there is no such thing as a small thing done in the name of Jesus. Like the fish and loaves, he takes our smallest offering and multiplies its impact far beyond what we can see.
As I’m writing, I just went back to the beginning of this post to read and edit mistakes. I’m tempted at this point to shut it down and end it. Kudos if you’ve read this far. If you’ll stick with me, I’ll share something from our last day in Boston.
Friday was our planned “free day”; a day we set aside to reflect, rest, and enjoy the sights of Boston. We spent the morning at Nantasket Beach in Hull, MA. It was hot and wonderful. The water was quite cold and as I stood in the shallows on the shoreline, I thought back over the week and thanked God for all He had shown us, the changes He used us to affect, and the ways we had been stretched. We walked up the street, found a mural to take a group photo in front of (see below), and enjoyed some DD on the way back. After all, “when in Rome”, am I right?
Then on Friday evening, Mark our guide led us to Boston Garden, Boston Common, and finally to Quincy Market where we split up for dinner. Quincy Market is a veritable smorgasbord of food options. I’d never had a lobster roll, so opted for that. If I’m being honest, I can mark it off my culinary bucket list, but I’ll never wake up craving one. But I digress.
Remember that blessing bag I said I still had on my back? The evening was winding down (after a visit to Mike’s Pastries and Old North Church) as we headed back to the T for the trip back to ENC’s campus. I started thinking that perhaps my best efforts to offload and bless someone, I just hadn’t felt like I saw anyone to give my bag to. But then I did.
I saw a small group of men that seemed to be experiencing homelessness. My son Hudson and I approached one of them to introduce ourselves and to let them know about the bag, what was in it, and to offer it to him. His name was Miguel and in short order he let us know he had served in the United States Army as a cryptologist (?) for 9 years and had been homeless for the past 28 years. Clearly, he had no love loss for the military and the government’s treatment (or lack thereof) for his situation. After a few minutes of listening to his stories peppered with wisdom directed at Hudson, he stopped and asked us a rather unique question: “Are you guys with God?” Caught slightly off-balance by his phrasing, I paused, looked over at Hudson and turned back to Miguel and said, “Yes, we both love Jesus.” He immediately gripped my neck with his hand, drops his head, and starts in with “May the Lord bless you and keep you, may His face shine upon you…” You can find this blessing in Numbers 6:24-26. This blessing is known as “Aaron’s Blessing” or the “Priestly Blessing”. It’s short but beautiful. When he was done reciting it, we asked Miguel if we could pray for him to which he immediately agreed. We all bowed our heads, his hand still on my neck, Hudson’s hand and mine on his shoulders, and my hand to heaven. And we prayed for Miguel; his mind, his heart, his future, his relationships, and his walk with God. Meanwhile the entire group of 20 stood nearby waiting for us before crossing the street. Honestly, it was perhaps one of the best ways I could have thought of to wrap up this powerful week, praying with my own son for a hurting man facing homelessness on the streets of Boston.
I suppose there is far more that happened that week that I could tell about, but quite honestly I’m still processing those moments and those thoughts. They were moments of raw worship, deep conversations, hilarious laughter, and unmistakable bonding with those around me. I want to thank several people including Mark Brown, our coordinator and host. Big thanks to Jeff and Evelyn at Congregation Lion of Judah for their hospitality. Thanks to our special guest speakers: Crystal Erb, Melinda Priest, Steve Kindt, & Stretch Dean. Huge thanks for Missey Kindt for making 20+ sandwiches and snacks for us EVERY day. Thank you to Nonny and Amarisse for being phenomenal worship leaders, hosts, and friends. Thanks to Herb & Tandah for allowing us to partner with them for the sake of families. And I want to give the biggest thanks to my phenomenal team of adult leaders: Katie Badgerow, Sharon Little, Ray Powell, Will Poynter, & Wynter Van Syckle.
Our theme for the week was “Mission:Boston” but for you and I right now (unless you’re in Boston while reading this), it should be “Mission:WhereverYouAre”. What does it really mean to live on a mission every day we’re on earth? What would the outcome(s) be if we lived in a missional mindset? Let me share with you the things I’m praying for myself and for our students going forward:
That we would focus more on…
Seeing the mission every morning.
Being selfless enough to embrace surrender and serving.
Pushing into places where faith is needed, not just ability.
Speaking words of truth and life to those in need, while being vulnerable with our own scars so that God can use our story in others’ stories.
If you’ve got thoughts on missional living or you’ve got your own stories where you encountered Jesus in uncomfortable places, I’d love to hear about those in the comments. Or send me an email. Either way, I’d really treasure hearing from you.