When Another Legend Dies

kobe bryant and daughterIt was just two weeks ago that I was writing about the loss of drum legend, Neil Peart, from the rock band Rush. This morning, the news has spread rapidly since yesterday afternoon about the loss of Kobe Bryant, basketball legend.

Unlike Peart, Bryant’s reputation was far more widespread. It wasn’t limited to fans of the Lakers or even fans of the sport of basketball. It’s hard to believe that anyone didn’t know Kobe. Heck, it wasn’t unusual for me to hear my 11 year old shout out, “Kobe” when playing NBA Live on Playstation 4 with his friends. Like so many other celebrities, Kobe Bryant could easily drop the last name and be known by just that single moniker, Kobe.

I was stunned to get the news of Bryant right before a church service that I was leading. I was actually more concerned for my son and how he would react. My heart sank when I heard that his daughter was on the helicopter with him and then that there were other fathers and daughters with them. What a terrible tragedy.

In the wake of the tragedy, I started going through my own mind of what I knew about Bryant. I seemed to have remembered a scandal in the early 2000s about him and looked up the information. What’s a celebrity without a scandal, right? But since that scandal, it seems that Kobe was really a family man. While he may have had his struggles, it seems he had made things right since.

It’s interesting that I had been speaking about the celebrity culture in which we live just hours after this news broke. As I got up to give a message last evening about being a compelling community, I spoke of ordinary people who God used to do extraordinary things. Most of those ordinary people are overlooked because of how obsessed our culture has become with celebrities.

In our celebrity obsessed culture, it seems that we know so much about celebrities so that when a tragedy like this takes place, we feel it more deeply. While most of us didn’t know Bryant personally, we knew so much about him and it feels a little like we actually knew him. The pain hits us deeply and we grieve. We grieve for the tragedy. We grieve for the family. We grieve at the senselessness of it all.

Bryant’s daughter aspired to one day play basketball for the University of Connecticut. My wife and her siblings all went to UCONN, so the news hit them deeply as well, having been Lady Huskies fans for years.

All I know is that tragedy continues to strike our world. Sometimes it hits us close, other times far away. Whether close or far, it always seems to have a deeply penetrating impact on me, reminding me of the brevity of life, the importance of family, and the need to do my best to keep my relationships free from the things that would cause conflict and division.

My heart breaks for Bryant’s family, not just grieving a father and husband, but a daughter and sister as well. That hurts no matter what.

It’s interesting too, as I opened up Facebook after I got the news, I saw post after post about the tragedy. It didn’t matter what people believed, who they voted for, what their stances were, somehow, tragedy was bipartisan and everyone could set aside their differences to agree on this one thing, tragedy had struck.

As I thought about that, I wondered to myself, isn’t there something easier that could happen that could bring us all together other than tragedy?

The State of Things

I woke up this morning, in the wee small hours of the morning, and found my mind racing as it does often when this scenario plays out. If I’ve got a lot going on, it’s not unusual for me to find myself preoccupied by deep thoughts about what’s been happening during my days.

It’s been a strange week for me and there have been a number of things consuming my thoughts. One of my closest cousins lost her mother-in-law in a tragic accident. The details around the accident and some of the back story have caused me pause even more and I’ve spent more than a few minutes not just thinking but praying on it since I got the news.

The governor of my great state declared a state of emergency leading up to a rally causing the extremes on both sides of the political arena to react. Reactions had me scratching my head because it may have been the first time that people very close to me were getting caught up in the fray and getting hyped up about something that seemed perfectly reasonable to me.

This week, I got back to one of my loves: StrengthsFinders. Years ago, I went through training as a Strengths Communicator and I enjoy having one on one conversations with those who go through the assessment. In the busyness of life, I haven’t had as many opportunities to spend in conversations with others about it, but this week I was privileged to do it once again. It’s inspired me to schedule a seminar where I can present an overview to those who are interested along with some of the ministry partners that I work with.

I had dinner last night with some old friends. They’re friends that I still see separately, but it was the first time that we had all been together in a long time. One of those friends felt a burning desire to “get the band back together” and scheduled this dinner. It was great to catch up, to share about life, and to laugh a lot about some of the things that we all experienced together.

Funny thing is, this week seems fairly normal to me. My weeks are generally full of highs and lows, of both the heavy and the fun. I don’t know if it’s just me and life as a pastor or if this is pretty typical of everyone, but it can honestly get exhausting. The emotional toll that this kind of roller coaster can take on a person if they don’t find time to step away is excessive.

So what do I do? I choose to spend the day subbing for my middle child’s fifth grade class. Not exactly relaxing, but it’s an opportunity that I won’t always have, and one that I definitely want to seize.

Through it all, I’m reminded of the tagline of the faith community that I lead: where life and faith meet. Through the ups and downs, the highs and lows, one of the most important question that people ask is, “How do I get by?” Just because I’m a pastor doesn’t make me exempt from that question. The juxtaposition of life and faith is where I live and while it can feel like a jolt to the system and somewhat harsh at times, I don’t think there’s any other place that I would rather be.

 

When A Legend Dies

Rush In Concert At The Nokia TheatreLast week, one of the greatest drummers of all time passed away. While he didn’t make any huge humanitarian contributions to the world nor did he make any medical advancements, he made an impact on the lives of many socially awkward youth across the decades that he wrote and played music with his band.

As an aspiring musician in middle school, I was introduced to the music of Rush through my brother. As the younger brother, pretty much everything my older brother did for a time was cool to me. It was even cooler when I saw some of his friends donning the band’s T-shirts as they maneuvered their way through those awkward teenage years. All I knew is that this music didn’t fit neatly into a category. It wasn’t Top 40. It wasn’t metal. It resided within a realm that was outside of norms with lyrics that were far deeper than most of what was being played on the radio.

Having been indoctrinated to CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) as a kid, my first foray into “Secular” music felt much like other forays that I would eventually experience, dangerous and risky but so exciting. To begin to open myself up to music outside the concentrated bubble that I had found myself in for years was more than just a new experience.

As I continued deeper down the rabbit hole that was Rush and their music, I found more kindred spirits among their fans. Eventually, in college, I found my way to see them in concert. On the brink of my 21st birthday, I dissed my brother and my best friend to instead treat myself and my girlfriend at the time to a concert at the Spectrum in Philadelphia.

I honestly don’t remember it as much as I would like to remember it, not because I had drank too much or taken some kind of mind-altering drugs, but just because that’s what ends up happening when I experience something so new and mysterious for the first time. There was so much to take in that I feel like I probably missed half of it because I was putting too much pressure on myself to drink in the moment.

Years later, Rush remained on my radar, churning out music, reinventing themselves, but their earlier music had made a significant mark on some of the most memorable years of my life. Funny, the music that has been indelibly tattooed on my brain isn’t the greatest of their catalog but rather hit me at a significant emotional and spiritual moment in my life. It was the music and the moment colliding at that time that left the mark and listening to that music today transports me to another time and place, a time that seems far less complicated than today.

It’s funny how someone that you don’t know personally can have such an impact. It’s not so much what they did but what they represented. The death of Neil Peart meant more than just the end of an era for a band, it meant the death of a part of my youth. It symbolized my mortality, standing there as a poignant reminder that, in the words of Peart himself, “We are only immortal for a limited time.” While that doesn’t speak to my faith and belief regarding what lurks beyond death, it seemed a true statement for the moment in which I found myself last week.

Neil Peart and Rush represented youth to me, but so much more. Dreams. Aspirations. Change. Discoveries. These things and so much more. Within those notes and within those lyrics a new world was found. So losing a piece of that felt as if I was losing a piece of myself.

Days later, having immersed myself once again in their music, having watched countless videos of the band and documentaries about them, it’s as if I’m still grieving a family member. Again, that’s weird considering that statement comes from someone who has experienced a significant amount of loss. Just like pictures of deceased family members can transport you to the place and time the picture was taken, so music can do the same. As I close my eyes and let the sonic movements wash over me, I am transported to the first time I hear these notes, where I was, what I was doing, who I was at that moment.

Eventually, the initial shock of loss is normalized, the freshness wears off. While the impact remains, life moves on. We maneuver through the waves to find ourselves once again sailing through the waters of life.

And so, I continue on, hearing songs as if for the first time. I smile as I think about who I’ve become. Once upon a time, decades ago, these same notes hit me differently. An era has ended but there will always be that indelible mark, an almost everlasting reminder of what was. We’ll always have the music.

 

Book Plan for 2020

open-booksLast year, in an effort to read more of the books on my list, I dropped the number of books on my book plan to 24. I still was only able to get through a little more than one third of those books.

It hasn’t discouraged me at all that I’ve never made it through a year having successfully read all the books on my book plan. Life has a way of taking us through twists and turns that we never expected. I find myself picking up books that have sat on my shelf unread for a long time only to find that when I come to that book, it’s the perfect moment in time for its contents to hit me in a way that I will be shaped and formed by it.

Some of these books are carryovers from last year, books that I never finished or didn’t even start. Hoping to get through those. If I can get through half this list, I will be happy. Having a focus is the most helpful thing about this list.

Without further ado, here is my plan. Feel free to comment or add your suggestions. I am always open to hear new thoughts and ideas.

James Baldwin “Notes of a Native Son”

Samuel Chand “Leadership Pain”

Ashley Cleveland “Disunity in Christ”

James Cone “The Cross and the Lynching Tree”

Matthew Everhard “A Theology of Joy”

Dominique Gilliard “Rethinking Incarceration”

Darrell Guder “Missional Church”

Daniel Hill “White Awake”

Wesley Hill “Spiritual Friendship”

Alan Hirsch and Debra Hirsch “Untamed”

Alan Hirsch & Mark Nelson “Reframation”

Zora Neale Hurston “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

John Irving “A Prayer For Owen Meany”

Philip Jenkins “The Next Christendom”

Tim Keller “Ministries of Mercy”

Tim Keller “Center Church”

Jack Kerouac “On the Road”

Stephen King “It”

Patrick Lencioni “The Ideal Team Player”

Alister McGrath “C.S. Lewis”

Sally Morgenthaler “Worship Evangelism”

Michelle Munger “Margins of Grace”

Carey Nieuwhof “Didn’t See It Coming”

John Pavlovitz “A Bigger Table”

Soong-Chan Rah “The Next Evangelicalism”

Alan Roxburgh “The Missional Leader”

Fred Schruers “Billy Joel”

Robin Scruggs “The New Testament and Homosexuality”

Sylvia Thomson-Smith, Johanna W.H. Van Wijk-Bos, et. Al. “Called Out With”

Howard Thurman “Jesus and the Disinherited”

Jemar Tisby “The Color of Compromise”

Frank Viola “Reimagining Church”

Mark Yarhouse “Understanding Gender Dysphoria”

Books Read (and finished) in 2019

20180103_090939In 2019, I read 51 books. That’s down from 2018 when I read 66 books. Of the 51 books that I read, 14 were books that were reviewed for publishers (that’s about 27% of my total 51). 9 of the books were from my reading plan (about 18% of my total 51). My reading plan for 2019 contained 24 books total, so I didn’t quite get through half of the books that I planned to get through.

I’ve been doing this for about 5 or 6 years and I continue to set myself up to be as successful and efficient as possible, but focus has never been one of my strengths and I easily get like a dog with a squirrel when it comes to books. Distracted. But having a list is helpful to provide some amount of focus that I don’t have without it.

Out of all the books that I read in 2019, these were among the top. Two of the five of them have reviews written on them by me, click on the titles to get to those reviews.

Tod Bolsinger “Canoeing the Mountains”

David Kinnaman & Mark Matlock “Faith For Exiles

Will Mancini “Church Unique”

Simon Sinek “Start With Why”

Ryan Thomas “You of Little Faith

Here are the other books read this year:

Mark Achtemeier “The Bible’s YES to Same Sex Marriage”

Vicky Beeching “Undivided”

Nadia Bolz-Weber “Shameless – A Sexual Reformation”

D.A. Carson “Basics For Believers”

Edmund Chan “A Certain Kind”

Francis Chan “Letters to the Church”

Phil Collins “Not Dead Yet”

Andy Crouch “Culture Making”

Dominic Done “When Faith Fails”

David Duchovny “Bucky F*cking Dent”

Shusaku Endo “Silence”

Christopher L. Heuertz “The Sacred Enneagram”

Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers “I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening)

Brian Hunter “The Hunter Equation”

Wayne Jacobsen, Arnita Taylor, and Robert Prater “A Language of Healing for a Polarized Nation”

Skye Jethani “Futureville”

Beth Felker Jones “Faithful – A Theology of Sex”

Erik Larson “The Devil in the White City”

Lecrae “Unashamed”

Justin Lee “Talking Across the Divide”

Patrick Lencioni “Death By Meeting”

Tremper Longman III “Confronting Old Testament Controversies”

Bryan Loritts “Right Color Wrong Culture”

Eric Mason “Woke Church”

Alister McGrath “Narrative Apologetics”

Cara Meredith “The Color of Life”

Henri Nouwen “Adam: God’s Beloved”

Barack Obama “The Audacity of Hope”

Kevin Palau “Unlikely”

Jackie Hill Perry “Gay Girl, Good God”

Kara Powell and Steven Argue “Growing With”

Thom Rainer “Scrappy Church”

Jim Russell “Between the Ears”

Fleming Rutledge “Three Hours – Sermons for Good Friday”

Scott Sauls “Irresistible Faith”

Francis Schaeffer “The Church at the End of the 20th Century”

Nelson Searcy and Jennifer Dykes Henson “The New You”

Kim Walker-Smith “Brave Surrender”

Steven K. Smith “Ghosts of Belle Isle”

Ron Stallworth “Black Klansman”

P.L. Travers “Mary Poppins”

Dee Ann Turner “Bet On Talent”

Timothy B. Tyson “The Blood of Emmett Till”

Dan White Jr. “Love Over Fear”

Albert L. Winseman, D. Min, Donald O. Clifton, Ph.D., and Curt Liesveld, M. Div. “Living Your Strengths”

J.R. Woodward “Creating a Missional Culture”

Ravi Zacharias “The Logic of God”

 

New Year, New Decade

New Year’s Eve has always been an enigmatic celebration to me. While I understand the turning of the year and people’s need to mark it and celebrate it, it’s never felt quite as significant to me as it does to others and, maybe, as it should.

I prefer constant assessment and course corrections over annual resolutions. If I don’t have enough self-awareness to keep tabs on things throughout the year, I don’t feel quite up to speed. Considering the percentage of resolutions that end up on the trash heap within the first month or so, it never seemed incredibly important to me.

I do appreciate thoughtful processing done with trusted friends. As I get older, I find myself gravitating towards these meaningful conversations. What’s the purpose of an unexamined life?

I heard it expressed multiple times as we moved towards the turning of the year that people couldn’t believe that it had been 20 years since Y2K. Thinking back to the significance (or insignificance) of that, it was much ado about nothing. That seems to be the case with so many things though, let’s hype it up only to find out that it wasn’t as big of a deal as we thought it would be.

As I sat around a circle of family listening to everyone talk about their last ten years, it was a new experience for my wife to take the lead when it came to our turn. Usually, I’m the one who talks and she fills in everything that I miss. This time though, she led the way and it was really good for me to hear it.

As the words spilled from her mouth and she described the difficulties of this last decade, it was affirming to me to realize how I wasn’t alone, how she had felt what I had felt as deeply. When I lost my parents, she felt it. When we were part of a church split, she felt is. When I struggled towards the finish line of seminary, she felt it. When our last child was born just two months after my mom died, she felt it.

Sometimes, taking a look back to see just where you’be been can be so helpful. It reminds us of just how far we’ve come, what we’ve conquered, what we’ve endured. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right? Looking over the past decade, it seems that it’s easy to see a few near misses along the way.

No resolutions for me, just to continue to press on in obedience. I want to make the most of the days ahead. I want to make a difference, to feel like what I am doing is significant. I want to leave a legacy, one that points to Jesus so that my children’s children’s children can know what was most important to me.

Good-byes get harder as time goes by, or maybe I’ve just become more sentimental. 15 years ago, I had no children. My wife and I were living in Asheville, North Carolina and we had flown to Wilmington for my aunt’s funeral. Funerals can bring families together, which is good, but the circumstances around that reuniting are certainly not ideal.

As my parents dropped us off at the airport, I remember embracing my mom as the tears began to flow. Although I would have her around for another seven years, the frequency of our times together would vary. But there was a palpable sense that every good-bye seemed more significant and important. It could be the last good-bye, or among the last.

Those same feelings rise up as we leave behind our family after visiting with them over the holidays. Those good-byes just feel heavier to me and I find my emotions rising up as the day approaches when we’ll head home once again.

I am grateful for yesterday as I look forward to tomorrow. I’m not guaranteed the one and I can’t change the other. All I can do is the best that I can do.

So, I’ll wake up and keep pressing on. Today is a new day. Tomorrow will be as well. New days will add up to weeks and months and years.

May the new day hold new opportunities. May we look back at yesterday not with regret but with a posture of learning, both what we did right and what we did wrong. Not so that we can feel guilt or remorse, but so that we can course correct to make sure we don’t duplicate the missteps of yesterday today.