Fall Whiplash

Anyone who has known me for any length of time knows my love/hate relationship with the Fall season. Aesthetically, it’s the season when things begin to die as the seasons move towards winter. My sinuses and allergies are usually in full swing, so I’m feeling even more melancholy than usual. New things are beginning and it feels like I’m running at a frenetic pace.

When my wife and I began having kids, it just worked out that they were all born in the Fall. My wife’s birthday is in the Fall as are my mom’s birthday and both of my wife’s parents’ birthdays. It’s a season of mixed feelings with the joys of birthdays coupled with the agony of a cluttered head, both from activities and allergies alike.

Years ago, I decided that I was going to try a new approach towards the Fall. I wanted to embrace the joys of my family during this season and so I did my best to live in those moments as they came. But as the kids got older, Fall also meant an onslaught of activities. School began. Sports began. Other extracurricular activities began and it seemed that everyone decided that the Fall was the best time to hold meetings, conferences, retreats, and other events.

I found myself bracing for impact as soon as I could feel September in the air.

The other day, I found myself scratching my head over my constant pivoting during the Fall. How could I aptly prepare myself for this season which felt so harried and out of control? How could I enjoy it without getting completely caught up in the tidal wave of activities that were trying to sweep me out to sea?

As my mind whirred with activity, I had a thought. When people get into accidents, they can get whiplash with the sudden back and forth movements of their neck and spine. Days after accidents, people complain of sore muscles caused by the tension in their body as they braced themselves for impact.

I feel like I’ve got Fall Whiplash.

I’ve braced myself for the season with all its activities, and in the collision of my life with the season, my muscles are all sore. It’s almost as if it would be better if I didn’t know it was coming.

So, I’m back to Square One, trying to figure out a new approach towards Fall. The flexibility with which some people navigate life is enviable to me. The older I get, the less flexible I am, in more ways than one.

Guess I’ll just have to keep trying…….now where are those yoga pants!

Keeping It Together

I’m not always the most organized person, at least outwardly. If you looked in my head, you would see things organized nicely into categories and blocks, themes and categories. On the outside though, I’ve got a lot of work to do.

I remember the day years ago when I walked into a coworker’s office and saw the whiteboard behind his desk. I looked at all the thoughts and ideas that had been meticulously laid out with markers on that board. In that moment, I began putting the pieces together and realizing how helpful something like that would be in my office and in my life.

I’m a fairly deep thinker and can easily get lost inside my head save for my strength of communication. While I may think deeply, I am also a verbal processor who needs a sounding board to bounce ideas and concepts off of. In order for me to fully grasp an idea, especially the new ones that I am grappling with, I need to articulate it to someone else to see if it makes sense to them and to me. Sometimes that verbal processing needs to be not only heard but seen. I am a visual processor as well.

Down the road, I eventually got a whiteboard for my office and it began to help me keep things organized, at least in my head. Seeing things in black and white (or blue and white, red and white, or whichever marker I chose that day) was so helpful for me to keep things together.

How I wish that life could be organized on a whiteboard.

As some of you read that, you probably say, “Well, Jon, it can. Check this out!” Upon which you will lead me to said whiteboard and show me the intricate layout of your life’s plans.

But really, there may be certain aspects of our lives that we can plan out on a whiteboard, but the constant curveballs are enough to invest in more erasers and the solution that helps clean whiteboards from repeated use of dry erase markers.

Lately, I’ve struggled to try to keep all the plates spinning, the balls up in the air, or whichever analogy best suits you to describe just how one keeps it all together. I’m learning to say “No” to things and to do a better job of knowing my energy level, my emotional and physical bandwidth, and what kind of emotional and physical toll certain things will have on me.

I learned long ago that I have to stop living as if I’m stuck in one of the past decades of my life, you know those decades when you were younger and could at least feign control and superhuman powers that enabled you to be faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound…..oh wait, that was Superman, but I think you get my point.

I think we focus too much on optics in our society. We are too consumed with how we look and other people’s perceptions of us. The ironic thing is that most of the people whose perceptions we concern ourselves with don’t matter much to us nor do we matter much to them. There is nothing in life that tethers us together short of a random friend request that came via social media once upon a time.

In a message that I gave this past weekend, I said that failure is only failure if we don’t learn anything from it. I’m growing into my own ability to confess my failures, sins, and shortcomings. Not easy, but well worth it and anyone who isn’t happy to know those failures, sins, and shortcomings is probably not worth my time as they most likely don’t have my best interest in mind.

All of us have been doing our best to hold it together over the past two years. We’ve dutifully donned smiles and answered, “Great” when asked how we are doing, all the while we’re just barely holding on and keeping it together.

If we can’t admit that to the people around us, we probably need to find new people with whom to surround ourselves. True community will never happen until we can share our struggles, defeats, and apparent failures. Until we are known by others, truly known, we will never open ourselves to the transformation that needs to happen in us. Until we can begin to let ourselves be known by God and known by others, we will never know God and know others.

It’s a journey, but I’m dropping the mask and worrying less about optics than I have in the past. Some will be repelled by that, but some people will breathe a sigh of relief and say, “Finally!” when they realize that they can finally stop pretending and begin living into who God is calling them to be.

Live What You Learn

I’ve always struggled with hypocrisy. Since I was a kid, I would always be watching people like a hawk after I heard them make lofty claims. I would watch to see how consistent they were with those claims and whether or not their lives lined up with them or whether they seemed to be empty words proclaimed in public all the while being ignored when it came to practice and living them out.

Anyone who has hung around and observed Evangelical Christian subculture has witnessed this firsthand. There is an historical wake scattered with the lives of those who emphatically embraced things that they did not live. Most of those lives were lived behind closed doors until something happened and they could no longer hide. They were outed by someone and their house of cards collapsed.

There are some who would use this as fodder to stay as far away from anything that resembles Christianity as possible. But there are others, like me, who feel that would be equivalent to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The failure of some should not result in the abandonment of ideals. After all, Christians claim to follow a God who is all about redemption and restoration, who has the power to transform the most cynical, evil, and wayward of hearts. If that’s true, why would we completely abandon something that has the potential to be better than others have made it?

The essence of Christianity is discipleship. Too often, the Church has promoted a consumeristic ideology in which members pay a fee to enjoy certain products and programs. When members don’t get what they want, they go somewhere where they will get what they want. I much prefer the language of partnership to membership. Members pay dues and wait to receive what they want. Partners invest of themselves and help to make dreams and visions a reality. Members pick and choose what they want and leave the rest for someone else. Partners join together to ask who is best equipped to do ALL  the things before them, not just the things they want to do. In partnership, we get back what we give, there is a mutuality to it. Oftentimes, the price of partnership is higher than the price of consumerism. Consumerism is more about getting the best deal. Partnership is about giving, even when it hurts.

Discipleship involves commitment and selfless sacrifice. Jesus’ message of following him was coupled with an understanding that the message would not be received by everyone. Some would find it too hard. Some would find it too sacrificial. Some would find it too selfless. But ALL were invited into the journey of discipleship. Just because that journey isn’t accepted by everyone doesn’t mean that everyone isn’t invited. Level of commitment isn’t lowered simply because everyone isn’t willing to accept it.

Some who have been raised in the context of a local expression of the Church have been burned by man-made distortions of the message and call of Jesus. Some have grown tired of the inconsistencies between the call to commitment and the life lived by those who have called them to such a life. I get it. It’s frustrating to be held to a standard that is not embraced by those calling you to it, at best, and blatantly ignored, at worst.

The call of a disciple of Jesus is one in which we don’t simply learn and store up the knowledge for some pop quiz or test that we will one day receive. Disciples are called to live what they learn. A disciple embraces the teachings of Jesus. It’s putting on the yoke and being tethered together to Jesus. Jesus said that burden and yoke are easy because HE does the heavy lifting. But it’s not easy in the way that we know easy, anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell you something that’s different than what Jesus taught.

When Jesus called his first disciples, he chose a ragtag group of people who didn’t get it right all the time. The stories of their journey extends beyond the gospels and Jesus’ time on earth. We see in the Book of Acts that even when they were empowered by the Holy Spirit, they still didn’t always get it right.

In my own journey, I’ve embraced the fact that sometimes we learn greater lessons in our failures than our successes. I wonder if Peter, James, John, and Paul felt the same way. I wonder if those who had seen Jesus face to face felt like I do every single time that I fail? I also wonder if they realized that the lessons that they learned through those failures stood as lessons not just for them, but also for us.

Right doctrine and thoughts are important but right living is equally important. We can have all the right doctrine in the world but if it’s not accompanied by righteous living, does it really matter? If we aren’t living what we learn, than can we really say that we’ve learned anything?

Develop and Invest

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to do some professional development while on sabbatical. I had interacted with the Gallup StrengthsFinders assessment for many years and wanted to do a deeper dive into it. I thought that learning more about it and becoming more proficient in Strengths language would allow me to make better application of it in my work with people.

I look at my work with StrengthsFinders as an investment. I invest time into people to help them better understand how they were created, where their gifting lies, and how they can best use their strengths in a way that helps them feel empowered and on purpose.

Over the years that I have been working with people and their strengths, there have been many takeaways for me. I’ve become a more understanding person when I see that people’s behavior is colored by the lenses through which they see the world, their strengths. I’ve been able to consider people’s strengths when they serve to do my best to point them towards things that will energize them rather than drain them and burn them out.

As I think about the things I’ve learned, the following three points are the ones that rise to the surface.

1. Everyone has strengths

When people take the StrengthsFinders assessment, they are given their top 5 signature themes. But there are a total of 34 signature themes possible for people. Everyone has all 34 but not to the same level or ability. The general premise of focusing on the top 5 is that we want to accentuate the positive, find the places where we are proficient and see how much we can develop those things.

There have been numerous times in my work that someone has said to me, “What if I don’t have any strengths?” 

That’s not an option. Everyone has strengths. We speak out our strengths. We act out our strengths. We just need to become aware of them, learn them and their language, and learn how they relate to one another.

My experience has shown me that once people become aware of their strengths and the language around them, they become much more adept at identifying how those strengths are manifesting themselves in them every day.

While people may discover their top 5 signature themes and not be happy with those results, no one can say that they have no strengths. If they do, then we might be dealing with something else, which leads us to the next point.

2. Not everyone wants to be developed.

This was a hard lesson for me to learn and I am continuing to learn it. Whether we want to admit it or accept it, there are people who don’t want to be developed. They might not articulate it that way, but that’s the bottom line. Some people are content in staying the way that they already are.

You don’t have to like this. You don’t even have to understand this completely. But you do need to be made aware of this.

The old expression applies: you can’t push a rope. If someone doesn’t want to change or be developed, that’s their choice. There’s a difference between struggling to change and resisting change. It’s usually seen in how people respond to it.

Change is uncomfortable, especially when it’s change in and to ourselves. Before we embark on a journey of change, we should be aware that there will be resistance. The challenge is to determine whether that resistance is struggle or avoidance. That leads to the final point.

3. Invest in those who want to be developed.

This may seem callous and cold to some, but I refer back to the last point as support for this. There are people who do not want to change, be challenged, or grow. They might not express it that way, but it’s the truth.

When we encounter these kinds of people (not if, but when), we need to move on.

I know, I know, how can I be so dismissive. Maybe it’s a strength thing in me, I know my own limitations. I’ve learned this through experience. It’s incredibly frustrating to invest in someone who doesn’t want to change. It takes energy and time and effort, and none of those commodities see a return when people choose not to change.

People may say they want to change and show good faith in the beginning, but eventually, you will see that they aren’t willing to do the hard work of letting God change and transform them. Maybe they are simply content with where they are and who they are. Maybe they’re afraid of what it will cost them. There could be all kinds of reasons, but the long and short of it is that their determination to not change will only result in your frustration.

When Jesus sent out the apostles in pairs, he told them that if they were welcomed, to stay there. If they were not welcomed, he told them, wipe the dust off your feet and move on.

Invest in those who want to be invested in, who want to be developed and see themselves changed and transformed. If you’re not sure whether people want it or not, ask them lots of questions and watch them fervently. You’ll be able to tell pretty quickly whether a person wants to change.

One good way to know that someone wants someone to invest in them is if they are willing to invest themselves. A willingness to invest in another is a pretty good indication that a person is selfless and willing to serve, but also willing to grow themselves.

Whenever I sit down with someone to talk about their strengths, I always tell them that every strengths conversation for me is a new experience of learning and growth. I am constantly learning new things, about myself and about others. These conversations aren’t an arrival but just landmarks along the way. If we really give ourselves over to be changed, I think we can begin to see God’s work move towards completion in us every day.

Blame

When things go wrong, it seems that one of the first responses is to find someone to blame for it. If there are injuries or people are otherwise victimized, part of the response may be to tend to the victims, but after that, among the prioritized tasks is to find who is responsible for the outcome.

Blame is a curious thing. It started way back at the beginning with Adam and Eve. Eve was tempted to eat the forbidden fruit. She subsequently offered some to Adam and when God confronted Adam and asked him what happened, he was quick to not only throw the blame onto Eve but even say to God, “The woman that YOU put here with me gave me some of the fruit!”

The inability to take responsibility for our own actions seems to have evolved from this point, threading itself firmly through our innermost beings and causing us all to cast off blame any chance that we get. How many times I’ve heard the words, “It wasn’t me” or “I didn’t do it” or “It wasn’t my fault” over the course of years that I’ve been a parent.

There are some who may presume that owning up to our own fault is a sign of weakness, but I think it’s actually a sign of strength. When we can admit our own mistakes and fault, it not only prompts others to do the same, but it creates a culture within our families, organizations, or teams that looks at responsibility and ownership as not something shameful but rather as an opportunity from which we can all learn.

I’ve seen this play out in multiple places in my life, sometimes surprising me. I’ve seen grown men cast off responsibility and instead throw it onto others, others who are sometimes less than half their age or even children. I’ve seen pastors in churches watch as family after family walked out the door only to cast blame on those families rather than taking time to look in the mirror and ask the questions of whether any of the responsibility might lie within himself.

Recently, I felt convicted when I heard my kids talk about whose fault something was that had happened. As is the case so often in my life, I looked inward to see if some of the responsibility was mine in this blame throwing that I was witnessing. There was an irony in that, seeking blame for who had taught my kids to blame or cast off blame.

Owning your part has become a big part of my growth in recent years. Embracing the need to say the words, “I’m sorry. I was wrong” is an important part of growth and maturity. Sadly, it’s a part of maturity that I feel is rarely reached by a large population of people.

Anyone who has struggled with addiction should know that the first step to confronting your issue is admitting your issue. Although the world bristles at the word “sin,” I think it’s important to call things what they are. When we aren’t willing to take responsibility for our part in something, we are guilty of the sin of pride and dishonesty.

As I tell my children often, we can’t control anyone other than ourselves. So, the best place to start is looking at how I deal with blame? How do I accept it? How do I deflect it? Do I own my part in something?

It’s a journey, like everything else, but one that I become more conscious of every day. I am no expert in this, but I think God has begun to humble me more and more as I am willing to take responsibility and stop casting blame to avoid and deflect.

Why Does It Happen?

There are certain things in life that will keep me scratching my head until my dying day. Among them is the tendency among some beloved friends to continually find themselves in difficult circumstances that weren’t brought upon by anything that they had done themselves.

In the last few days, I connected with two good friends who have found themselves in circumstances that are beyond difficult. One friend is facing career challenges after a significant amount of time in the same position. Couple that with some other challenges like an aging parent and facing emotionally unhealthy people in a volunteer role and you have the makings of a mini-breakdown.

My other friend has been through the ringer as well. After moving forward with a home build, he and his family watched helplessly as their dreams of a new home began to slip away. While they were able to find something else, other challenges presented themself and still loomed large over the whole situation. In addition to that, he lost a long-time friend and also found out of another tragic loss in his own family.

Thinking about both of these friends, these are really just the latest challenges that they’ve been facing. I could chronicle the last few decades of their lives and point to some of the other difficulties they’ve faced. As a friend, it came to a certain point with one of them that I was fearful of what the latest news might be from them considering everything that had happened up to that point. The mantra that “no news is good news” became something I embraced because it seemed like any news that came was difficult, tragic, or just plain challenging.

There’s a school of thought that teaches if we follow Jesus, all of our problems fade away and we live in some utopian paradise where the sun shines, the unicorns frolic, and everything smells like roses and tastes like candy canes all the time. Anyone who tries to sell you that vision is full of it. Even Jesus himself spoke to the contrary, telling his followers that if they were hated, he was hated first and if they were persecuted, he was persecuted first.

It seems a hard sell to tell someone that they need a life with Jesus when these are the promises he makes to us. It would seem that we could have these things without Jesus too, right?

Earlier in the same chapter in the Gospel of John where Jesus makes the above statements, he also talks of being the vine and his followers being the branches. He urges them to remain in him, telling them to remain in his love so that his joy might be in them and be complete.

Is it really possible to find joy while difficulties are swirling around us? Some might call it ignorantly blissful, but I think that it is.

Last weekend, I read a short book written by my cousin’s husband. He has faced his own difficulties and challenges similar to the friends that I wrote about above. The book is called “Through the Valley” and is a journey through King David’s 23rd Psalm as a means for hope in suffering.

David’s words in that treasured psalm remind us that even in the valley, “You are with me” and I should fear no evil. Even in the presence of my enemies, those who want to see me fall and wish for my demise, he prepares a table for me.

It might not feel like much of a comfort to know that through our difficulties and challenges, God is present with us. We may wish for more, like an escape hatch so that we can find safety and solace rather than simply finding company in our pain. But that’s the thing about Jesus, he represents to us a God who does not remain far off and detached, but a God who is here, present, with us. Emmanuel. God with us. God incarnate. God with flesh on.

As I closed an hour and a half conversation with my longtime friend and mentor, I asked him if we could pray. Sometimes it seems like a trite and insignificant response to what seems to be monumental and impending difficulties in our lives. But prayer is meant to change us, not God. Prayer is a tether that binds us to our Heavenly Father in much the same way that a rope provides safety and protection to a rock climber.

Why does it happen? Why is it that the people who seem to be among the best people also seem to suffer as if they were the worst?

I still don’t have an answer for that one. I do know that some of these challenges have acted as refining fires for my friends and loved ones, forming them into the Christ-like people that they are and shaping them into the witness to the hope of Jesus Christ that they are.

I’m sure that they didn’t choose what they experienced, but I also think that after seeing how they’ve come out on the other side that they may not have traded those experiences either. Sometimes the most painful and challenging of circumstances are the very things that shape us to be exactly who God has been calling us to be all along.

Passing It On

This past weekend, my family celebrated the 90th birthday of my wife’s grandmother.

90 years. That’s a long time and an age that I don’t expect to get to myself. What an accomplishment and achievement. Not just the milestone age, but the things that we celebrate about her.

This matriarch lost her husband almost 20 years ago fairly suddenly. She has persisted, not survived, but thrived. She has been a source of encouragement to those in her family and so far beyond. She handwrites notes to people to let them know they are loved and they are being prayed for. She prays for her children, her children’s children, and her children’s children’s children. She has more than a quarter of her number of years in great-grandchildren. To say that a legacy has been left seems to be an understatement.

As I went for my early morning walk through my neighborhood, I contemplated all that our time with family had meant to me. A few nights before, the emotion of the week had caught up to me. It had been ten years since I had lost my mother. The stress of church planting had once again rendered me tired and worn out. The worries of tomorrow began to cast shadows that made them look far bigger than they are. 

As I sat on the edge of my bed, the tears began to flow and my crying became sobbing. While sadness was a part of it, I think there was joy in there somewhere as well. There was joy at saying that I was part of this family and knowing the legacy we are being handed.

There are certain passages of Scripture that draw me back time and time again. When the day comes and I finally meet Jesus face to face, I will be looking around for King David, having spent so many hours with his writings and reading of his life, I expect I’ll recognize him and may be waiting in line to discover whether or not we are kindred spirits.

David’s story starts in the Book of 1 Samuel. Not only am I reading through it on my own, but I am studying it together with one of my sons.

“Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the Lord.” 1 Samuel 2:12 (ESV)

It’s hard for me to walk and read, so as I walked through my neighborhood, those words rang into my ear, through my brain, and into my innermost being. They struck me in a way that they had never struck me before.

Maybe it was having celebrated a life of faith and legacy. Maybe it was the seven hour car ride home, hearing some of the petty arguments behind me between my own children. Maybe it was the emotional avalanche that I had experienced over the past week. Regardless, those words struck me.

To say that someone is worthless is pretty harsh. Of course, if we read on, we discover just how worthless they were. Their behavior was hardly becoming of anyone, let alone the sons of a priest.

It made me think about the legacy that I am passing on. I pray that the day never comes when someone says of my children, “they are worthless.” While I won’t put the pressure solely on myself and my wife, I do believe that there is a responsibility and duty to raise up my children in such a way that they know that this faith to which we adhere to is not something that’s confined to Sunday mornings.

The thing about parenting is that it’s probably more out of our hands than we’d like it to be, yet more up to us than we may be willing to admit. The words of Solomon, “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” Like riding a bike for the first time, we have to guide our children towards this faith, but we’ve eventually got to let go and trust God to do the work that he has been doing all along. It’s not totally dependent on us.

Thank God for that. If it were entirely and totally up to me, we would all be in trouble. I am grateful for God’s grace that more than fills in for my own inadequacies. His mercies are new every morning, and Lord knows that I need them.

I’m trying to leave a legacy. It’s flawed and tainted. It probably looks more like a first grade art project than the masterpiece that I’d like it to look like, but God has a way of making beautiful things out of the dust.

How’s It Been 10 Years?

Dear Mom,

Today’s the day I’ve been dreading for the last month or so. As it approached, I could feel my body reacting, telling me that something was wrong, almost as if I was bracing for impact as my car raced forward towards some immovable obstacle.

How’s it been 10 years since we lost you? A decade. A lifetime.

I, unfortunately, can remember the day all too clearly. I wish I couldn’t. Family was around, and that was a good thing. Dad was lost in his own head, still coming to grips with the fact that he had not only lost the home of thirty-six years that he had known and the career of forty plus years he knew, but was now on the brink of losing the wife and companion of more than forty years as well.

I hadn’t seen your eyes since you had last opened them to look upon me one last time. I had just had my hair cut, removing that ponytail that you had wished I’d never grown. I knew that giving you this one last thing was something that I had to do. It’s never grown back, by the way. Well, I haven’t tried, but I think those days are long over. I guess they were fun while they lasted.

What’s happened since you left? Well, your only granddaughter is on the brink of turning ten years old herself. We named her after you. She has your name as one of her middle names. To be honest, she was the one bright thing in that year. Pretty much everything else sucked. In fact, had it not been for her birth, I might just have wiped 2011 off of my radar, similar to what happened with 2020.

Yes, 2020 was an interesting year. There were countless times I wished you and Dad were still here over the years, but that thought never once occurred to me during 2020. A global pandemic hit. Friends and families were divided. A health crisis became political and continues to be so. Decisions were made and some were made for us. The pandemic continues on and everyone has become a scientist or an expert thanks to our media. While we’ve had family impacted by it, we are grateful that they weren’t hit nearly as hard as so many throughout the country and the world. I’m just grateful that you and Dad never had to face the risks and journey through it.

Your grandsons continue to grow. D has shot up like a weed and he would surely dwarf you if you were here. He still remains quiet and sweet. Sometimes when I look him in the eyes, I can still see that little boy, the one who was the apple of his grandma’s eye. He’s the one who remembers you the most. He has a picture of you and him and a picture of Dad and him on a bulletin board in his room.

We celebrated twenty years of marriage this year. We were celebrating ten years just a month before you left. Just like that celebration felt a little too self-indulging, so this year feels similar as it’s been such a hard year for so many people.

I often wonder what you’re doing. What was it like to see Jesus face to face? What was the reunion like when you saw your mother? Your father? Your grandparents and others? How does time pass, or is there even such a thing as time anymore? What happens when someone new joins your ranks? I’ve wondered what kind of trouble you and Bonnie have gotten into there, and wondered if her house is close to yours.

Today, we’ll drive through our old hometown, the place where you lived for more than half of your life. We’ll stop to see the tree we planted after you left. We may drive by the old house, the old church, and whatever other haunts I feel led to show the kids. As we drive from place to place, I’ll imagine you riding in the van with us. It will probably be quieter if I don’t imagine Dad is there too. We’ll think about all the times that we had together and long for when we’ll see you again.

I miss you just as much today as I did that hot July day ten years ago. As I think about that day, I remember T sliding up beside me, not quite three years old, resting himself against me and asking me if I was sad mere minutes after you had slipped away.

The kids hear about you often. How could I not tell the stories, the experiences that we had? You and Dad are mentioned in sermons regularly, maybe too often for some, but you are part of who I am, embedded deep within me. Removing those memories would remove a part of me that needs to continue on living.

Thank you for how you lived. Thank you for the dignity with which you died. I have thought often about those verses that you sat on your bedside table. God has spoken to me so many times through those verses and they’ve become almost a mission to me.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.

I am grateful for the values and beliefs that you instilled in me. I am grateful for the faith that you passed on, in word and in deed. I’m thankful for all those prayers that we prayed together, in person or on the phone.

I think you’d be proud of me if you were here. I’m sure we’d have plenty to disagree on as well, but that’s the nature of mothers and sons, isn’t it? We can’t agree on everything, and that’s all right. I’ve started something new and I’ve seen God carry my family in much the same way that he carried you, Dad, me, and Steve all those years. His faithfulness reaches to the skies, just like the psalmist wrote.

As I end these thoughts and this letter, my heart still aches, but that ache is for me and all of us who are still here. I know that you wouldn’t look back for a second. What you’re experiencing now is far greater than any of us could ask, think, or imagine. I’ll join you one day, but until then, I’ll continue to live with this hole in my heart. I’ll live for our Savior and do my best to let others know of the hope that I have found in Jesus, a hope that cuts through the pain and difficulty of life and reminds me of something far greater than myself.

I love you, Mom. I’ll see you again!

Your son,

Jon

What Do You Do With Loyalty?

As I’ve pondered the idea of trust lately and how we earn it and keep it, I’ve also thought a lot about loyalty. I wonder where in life we see people exhibit the greatest amount of loyalty.

There are some people who are naturally loyal people. I think that trust plays a lot into the loyalty that people have as well. If they feel that trust has been breached, their loyalty may wane.

But what makes people loyal? I think that there are three things that contribute to a person’s loyalty, things that will draw someone in and keep them there.

1. It’s familiar

Some people have said that familiarity breeds contempt. I think that there is something safe and secure about the familiar. Nostalgia may play into it, but I don’t think that’s the dominant factor for holding onto the familiar.

There are some who struggle with change. To them, the familiar will be desirable because it’s what they know and the old adage “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” still stands for them.

Others may like the familiar because it doesn’t stretch them further or make them learn. They like what they like and they don’t want to learn anything new. Give me what I know and let at least one area of my life feel secure and changeless.

While these things tend towards the dark side of the familiar, I don’t think they are the sole reasons for loyalty to the familiar. Things become familiar because we have spent a significant amount of time with them. We’ve invested in them and we don’t want to throw that all away. Familiar doesn’t have to be a bad thing and when it comes to our loyalty, the familiar may draw us in.

2. It’s trustworthy

Not only are we loyal to the things that are familiar to us, but we are loyal to those things that we trust the most. I know that there are some people who will be loyal to the familiar for some of the reasons mentioned above, but I would expect that the majority of people would be loyal to the familiar because it has proven itself trustworthy.

I’ve written on trust in the not too distant past. Trust is something that has seemed to erode greatly in our world. Trust in the media. Trust in the government. Trust in corporations. Many have trusted and been found wanting because of the lack of trustworthiness in organizations and in people.

But if we find something that is trustworthy, something that can hold our trust without abusing it, our loyalty will grow. Trust breeds loyalty and in the same way that trust can be lost, so can loyalty when things prove themselves to be untrustworthy.

3. It’s reliable

We may look at trustworthy and reliable as the same, but I think they’re different. Reliability, in my opinion, shows a history of performance and consistency. A Google search will quickly reveal that a key difference between reliable and trustworthy is that reliable means a history of consistency while trustworthy means deserving of trust.

I think it’s possible to trust someone who is not always reliable. Their lack of reliability may not make them your first choice, but you may choose to confide in them without relying on them. 

But the combination of being trustworthy and reliable means that someone or something is not only worthy of trust but they can be trusted and relied upon.

As I think through this from the perspective of leading people, I have to ask myself how I am doing with these three in particular. Am I familiar to people? Do people feel that they know me? Do I reveal enough of myself or do I feel like a mystery to people?

Am I trustworthy? Am I deserving of trust? Have I earned trust and built on it?

Am I reliable? When people ask me to do something, do I come through in a reasonable time frame? Do I get back to people when they reach out to me? Am I on time? Do I value other people the way that I expect to be valued?

Just as we need to be careful with the trust that people have given to us, I think that we need to be equally careful with the loyalty that people have shown to us. I don’t ever want people to be loyal to me because I’ve become the “devil” that they know. 

Some say that familiarity breeds contempt but I want to fight that with the loyalty with which I have been entrusted. The combination of familiar, trustworthy, and reliable seems to be a good mix for loyalty.

How about you? What are your thoughts on loyalty? What has made you loyal to people or things?

The Passing of Time

James Taylor famously crooned, “The secret of life is enjoying the passing of time.” As I inch ever closer to my own half century mark on this rotating rock, I think there’s something to that. As much as we try, there is no way to slow down the clock, to travel backwards in time.

This year marks twenty years of marriage for me and my wife. It also marks ten years since I lost my mom and ten years since my daughter was born. It seems that despite our greatest efforts, there is no way to control the fact that at any given moment in life, we will be experiencing both joy and heartache. My own experience has been that behind every celebration could very well be a tragedy and vice versa.

As I grow older, I feel like I’m learning that the word “pivot” has fully entered into my vocabulary. For years, I think the word “hold the line” seemed to define my approach better. Encounter something difficult or challenging and challenge it back, fight against it, refuse to accept it. While that’s admirable and sometimes necessary, I felt like it was more of a rebellious lack of acceptance of reality than a defiant and bold commitment to press on through the muck.

We cannot change what has been but we can change how we move on from there. We can pivot and continue to change our outlook and our approach.

The Book of Job, the character in the Bible known for his difficult season of loss and difficulty, contains words from his friends that were supposed to have been encouraging to him, or at least help him shake out of the funk he found himself in.

His friend, Bildad, said in Job 8, “Ask the former generation and find out what their ancestors learned, for we were born only yesterday and know nothing, and our days on earth are but a shadow.” Not the most encouraging of words, especially for someone who has lost just about everything.

At the same time, the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Colossae, “He (the Lord) is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” That’s a little more comforting to me than the words of Job’s friend. Before time, God was. When time is over, God will be. Before the difficulties came into our lives, before time began to drag us through this mortal coil, God was, in fact, he set the clock in motion.

Like I said, I’m getting better at accepting this, but I can’t say that I like it always. My oldest is starting high school in the Fall. Next month will mark a decade since I lost my mom. Just over 20% of my life has been spent without my mom, and it will just increase from here. That’s a difficult reality to accept, but accept I must, because what’s the alternative?

The Apostle Paul encouraged the church in Ephesus to redeem the time for the days are evil. He understood the passing of time. That word “redeem” could be literally translated “to buy out of,” in other words, drawing out meaning and purpose rather than fighting and complaining.

This is a season of transition for so many people. The pandemic seems to be on the retreat. The school year has ended. Some have graduated from elementary school, middle school, high school, college, or even grad school. Time marches on and like old JT sang, embracing and enjoying it may just be the better approach.

That doesn’t mean that we sit back and let time trample all over us. It means that we do what we can to redeem moments and days, to buy the meaning out of those moments that we experience. Because when we take this approach, I firmly believe that as the clock ticks off all those seconds, minutes, hours, and days, it can allow our vision to be clearer for the things that really matter to us.

As I look back over the time spent with my own parents, the moments that were the most significant were not the ones that had been carefully curated and planned, but the ones that were embraced, especially when things didn’t go as planned or as we had hoped that they would.

Maybe holding our plans loosely and pivoting when things don’t turn out the way we had hoped is a better approach. I think of it more like a soap box derby than a NASCAR race. In NASCAR, you can control your speed and direction. In a soap box derby, you mostly let gravity do its work, pulling you down the hill. You glide and slightly steer your way down, but to think that you have total control is probably delusional.

As you face whatever transitions lie before you, embrace the soap box derby. You can’t steer as much as you think, but you’re also not helpless to do your best as you pivot at the obstacles along the way.