I Will Follow

keyboardI am not a very good follower.

I like control. I like to see the steps that I am taking and just where my foot is gonna fall. I don’t trust easily and even when I trust, I still have to see enough of the road ahead for me to feel like whoever I am following knows what they’re doing, even if that someone happens to be God (as if he doesn’t know where he’s going and I do).

It’s a funny place to be when you kind of know where you are going but the details aren’t all ironed out. It’s like, you know what the destination is but you aren’t quite sure what the actual route you’re gonna take to get there looks like. The Israelites through the desert may be too vivid of a picture to better understand that.

I’ve spent a good portion of my life in full-time ministry trying to prove to people that I am more than a label, more than a role, more than the box that so many have tried to put me in. It’s been somewhat exhausting, to be honest. For how much I hate labels, you would think I wouldn’t use them as often as I do. Maybe I just hate them when they apply (or don’t apply) to me.

I’ve always been one who does more than most people know. Behind the scenes, there’s a whole heck of a lot more going on than most people will see and I generally don’t care whether or not everyone knows what I’m doing. As long as things are getting done and moving along, I don’t typically care who gets the credit.

The problem with this approach is that you can easily get pigeon-holed, people think that you’re more two dimensional than you really are and label you by what they see, not by what you really are.

My journey over the last few years has been a journey of pressing into the things that I know I’m good at doing. That doesn’t mean I avoid the things that I’m not good at doing, it means that I look to surround myself with others who excel in those areas. It’s a journey of living into strengths and relying on and empowering others in the places where their strengths lie.

As much as I don’t usually care what others think about me, when I’ve been labeled, especially falsely so, I struggle with that label. I don’t like to wear it when it’s either not true or only part of the story. It’s restrictive because it’s wrong or incomplete, not because I don’t like to wear it. But if we’re all honest, there are just some outfits that we don’t look good in, even if those outfits are metaphorical and not physical.

So, my tendency is to run away from the labels. If I know that there is more to the story, I want to tell the rest of the story rather than reading the same old section over and over. Why rehash on what you already know when there is so much more to the story to hear, to learn, to tell?

I’ve kind of been in that place of running. Not from everything. In fact, I’ve been running towards some things that are incredibly uncomfortable, that are taking an awful lot of faith. But I’ve been running away from certain things that have felt restrictive, that have felt confining and incomplete.

Sometimes, we have to do that. If we’ve got a healthy dose of self-awareness, we should know ourselves better than the ones who throw the labels on us. We should know if there is more to the story to be told and we shouldn’t really be afraid to tell that part of the story, regardless of the pushback that we might get from other people. I’m all about telling the whole story, no matter how uncomfortable that might make certain people, no matter how much they might want to dwell on their favorite part of the story (even when it’s not true).

A few months ago, I met a new pastor in the area. In our brief introduction, it sounded like we had some common interests and visions for the future. So, we connected over lunch and the story of that friendship is still being written.

In our lunch conversation, he said something that really stuck out to me. He had a similar musical background to mine and he told me that he had put it aside since he came here. I could relate, I had been trying to put mine aside for some time because it was the label that I had reluctantly worn. But, he said, when the people who had known him for and with that gift came back into town and saw him not using it, they asked him why he had put it aside, why he wasn’t using it.

When he said that, his words hit me right between the eyes.

I had been running from something that I was good at because it was only telling a portion of the story. But that part of the story was some people’s favorite part, and they weren’t going to let it go. That doesn’t really fly well with an Enneagram 8, the Challenger. Don’t tell me what to do or who to be, I will resist.

But God has a funny way of bringing you back around, especially when you don’t necessarily follow or trust well. He may bring you back to the very thing you’ve avoided just to remind you what he’s given you and what you’re supposed to be doing with it.

That’s kind of been what’s happened lately. I’ve avoided music, legitimately avoided it, because I was tired of being labeled by it, but God doesn’t care how others label me, he only cares how he created me. If he wants you to live into how he’s created you, it’s gonna happen.

So, in the course of ten days, I find myself not just playing music again, but playing a lot of music. Four times in a ten day period. Four fairly unique and different venues. Four different ways for me to use the gifts he’s given me and not avoid them anymore.

In the midst of using those gifts though, a funny thing happened, I realized that I kind of enjoyed using those gifts, I just didn’t want to be labeled by them. I found myself with new friends in a setting that I’d been in many times before, and everything clicked, it all fit together.

From a musical perspective, that doesn’t happen all the time. I’ve sat through plenty of rehearsals (led a ton of them) where things just wouldn’t click. Whether it was the timing or the harmonies or pitch, something kept it from getting to the place where everything fit together well. And those times are beyond frustrating, especially when you know how it’s supposed to fit together and sound.

But then there are those other times, when you pull pieces together that have existed separately until the moment you pull them together (God pulls them together?) and when you do, they just fit. And when I say they fit, I mean they fit well. The work is effortless, the results are beautiful, and when you’re done, you wonder just how you experienced what you had just experienced.

I’m still skeptical. I still don’t like labels. I still don’t want to be stuck in a hole in which some keep trying to put me. But I’m also seeing this through my identity in Christ. That identity isn’t defined by those around me, nor should it be heavily influenced by their myopic view of it. God sees me as I am, as he’s made me. As Brennan Manning wrote, God loves me as I am, not as I am supposed to be. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t see my potential and desire to move me there, but his love for me isn’t based on getting to that place, that would be a love based on my work, not his.

Yes, I’m a terrible follower, but I’m learning to follow God a little better every day. I don’t like following when I feel like there’s a better way, a more productive way. I’m not always crazy to take the scenic route, even when the scenic route involves being used more effectively than I might choose for myself. But I’m getting to the place where I care less about how people want to see me and I care more for how God sees me and the potential that he has for me.

It’s a somewhat unnerving and painful journey. It’s a loss of control, but who said that I actually had the control to begin with?

15 Years

jon carrie bermuda 2001How do you sum up fifteen years? How do you find words to describe an adventure that’s taken you to places you never imagined, that’s helped you to learn things you could never have dreamed of, that’s made some of the things that you longed for seem so inconsequential compared to what you actually got? How do you find words to describe the gift that God has given you?

Fifteen years ago today, on a very hot day in upstate Connecticut, my wife and I were married. Even though it was hot and there were some hiccups along the way, it was a perfect day. The storybook wedding that my wife had always dreamed of took place in a country church in Woodstock, Connecticut followed by a reception under a tent.

If you had told me that day where we would be today, I’m not sure what I would have said. I don’t know that I would have believed you, but I don’t know that I wouldn’t have believed you either. My wife married an engineer. We lived in Connecticut for the first three years of our marriage. I eventually left engineering when God called me to be a pastor.

We’ve hardly been the perfect couple or had the perfect marriage, but we’ve knew early on that the big secret of our marriage would be to make sure Christ was at the center and to make sure that we always worked together. We eventually adopted the phrase “better together” as our motto, realizing that separately we might have been good, but together we were so much better.

I don’t know that I would have believed that we would have three kids, but we do. After I held the first one, I didn’t think I could ever love another human being the way that I loved him, but I did. After having two boys, I wouldn’t have imagined that we would have had a little girl, but we did. I wouldn’t have imagined how crazy, funny, sweet, and unnerving that those kids could be all at the same time.

I never would have imagined that I would have lost my parents at this point in the game either, but I also don’t know what I would have done had I not had my wife by my side through all of the storms. Her empathy and experience in counseling was exactly what I needed to help me through the struggles. Her quiet strength, faith, and trust in God were just a few of the qualities that would be so essential for me to weather these storms.

People who have been married for a long time might look back at their own fifteen year mark and think that it feels like yesterday. I think that we can say the same thing about that day fifteen years ago, that it feels like we blinked and we got here. Time has both flown and crawled at the same time, if that makes any sense. There are days that it feels like all fifteen of those years have passed while there are other days when it feels as if I stepped into a time machine to fast forward to this day. Then I just need to look in the mirror at the face I see staring back at me to know that there was no time machine, but in fact, I can see all fifteen of those years lined out on my face, in my hair, and in my body.

No, I can’t adequately describe fifteen years, but it certainly hasn’t stopped me from trying. The one word that means the most to me in all fifteen of those years is “grace.” If it weren’t for grace, those fifteen years would have never happened. If it weren’t for grace, my wife would never have put up with me. If it weren’t for grace, I wouldn’t be able to wake up every day and realize that no matter how badly things went yesterday, there was today before me, allowing me a second chance.

Today is a day of celebration, and for that I am thankful. God is good and I am blessed. Happy fifteenth anniversary to my wife, I love you. Here’s to many more.

A Broken Toy Christmas

Christmas with Steve and Jon-2I’ve had so many people make reference to this story that I’ve shared personally, via sermons and my old blog, that I felt the need to dig it out, dust it off, and retell it for the sake of those who have never heard it before. Maybe also for the sake of those who have heard it because sometimes a retelling can make you notice something else.

One year, when my brother and I were probably about 11 and 7, respectively, we had been pretty terrible in the months leading up to Christmas. We were constantly fighting and getting at each other and my parents had constantly warned us that if we didn’t stop, “Santa” would be bringing us nothing but broken, old toys for Christmas. Now, regardless of the fact that we didn’t believe in Santa Claus (nor had we ever), we still used that language for whatever reason. My parents knew that both my brother and I were not believers in the big, fat guy in a red suite.

My parents were jokers, although not many of our friends and some of theirs didn’t believe it. They could joke with the best of them and I think my brother and I thought that they were kidding in this instance too. Our parents would never dream of withholding presents from us at Christmas, right? After all, everyone should get presents, right?

Regardless of their constant threats, Christmas morning approached with little to no improvement in our behavior. I guess we were just stupid enough to believe that our parents would never dream of holding out on us.

Christmas morning finally arrived and we woke up with excitement to see what might be waiting for us under that tree. Imagine the surprise on my brother’s and my face when we arrived at the Christmas tree to find that the only thing underneath it was a pile of broken and old toys with a note that said something to the effect of, “You’ve been naughty, and here’s what you get!”

My brother and I were devastated. Me being the younger of the two of us, I think that I was probably more so. I remember whining and crying and trying to convince my parents that this was unfair and unjust (trying to capitalize on the biblical notion of justice, because that’s what pastor’s kids do to win an argument, invoke the “God” excuse).

I’m not sure how long my parents let this whole thing go on. Like most things that happen when you’re young, it probably went on for far less time than it felt like it had gone on. Finally, after my parents had felt that their point had been sufficiently made, they went to a closet and pulled out all of the “real” presents. Replacing all of the broken toys under the tree were these beautifully wrapped presents. Of course, my brother and I played it up as if we knew our parents would do this all along. We were overjoyed by this gracious act, telling our parents that we knew all along that they would never do this to us, while secretly taking in a deep sigh of relief.

No matter how far I get away from this story, I just can’t forget it. Years go by, both of my parents are gone now, but I still remember the Christmas which has affectionately become known to my brother and I as “The Broken Toy Christmas.”

Parenting experts may call the exercise cruel and unjust, some people may think that it was harsh, and to be frank, I’m still not exactly sure how I feel about it. My leaning is towards the fact that my parents showed my brother and I an incredible amount of grace. What we deserved, based on our actions and behavior, was the broken toys. What they gave us were the presents that showed that despite our imperfections, they loved us. My parents had shown grace in a way that rarely gets seen in this world.

Too many people cower to the whines and complaints of their children. There rarely seem to be consequences when behavior that is less than stellar is displayed. Instead, parents idly threaten their children and then give them what they never deserved with no hesitation.

I didn’t have to go through years of counseling to get over this and yet I still remember the Christmas vividly. In a lot of ways, I can’t help but connect what my parents did to what God did for us when he sent Jesus to the world. The history of God’s people is full of stubborn and obstinate people who thought that regardless of their behavior, a loving God would never turn his back on them and would never mete out justice on them. They were right, but someone still had to pay the price. That someone was Jesus. He is the gift of grace that God gave to us. When we deserved nothing but “broken and old toys” God gave us the best thing that he had to offer: his only son.

As I raise my kids, I hope and pray that I can instill in them the fact that Christmas isn’t about getting what we deserve, it’s about receiving the gift of grace from God. Christmas isn’t about all the commercialism that is preached at us from Black Friday on, it’s the realization that no gift could ever compare to what we receive in and through Christ.

May we come to the realization that the best thing that we can get and give is the news of this gift of grace. May our hearts always be reminded of what we deserve and be thankful of what we receive instead through grace.

Merry Christmas!

What Are You Known For? – Director’s Cut

I’ve asked 2 good friends and loyal readers to share their favorite blog posts.  Over the next few months, I will be sharing their thoughts and insights that they have shared with me regarding some of these posts.  I hope that what they share will add some new insights to some of my previous posts.

[Lesley writes: I love the reminder in this post that we all have a gift. Sometimes we hurt ourselves by comparing ourselves to others. This post helped to reinforce within me that I am important and I need to be consistent in standing up for what I believe in. It’s crucial that I use my gifts to consistently convey my beliefs.]

Everyone has a gift. Everyone has something that makes them stand out a little bit above the rest. Sometimes, it might not be as visible as you might think. Gifts manifest themselves in all different shapes and sizes, but they’re there. How do we use them?

What is it about us that distinguishes us from other people? When people meet us, what are their first impressions? What are the things that they see in us that last long after we have walked away, long after the conversation or interaction has ended? What are known for?

Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about this in regards to followers of Christ. Any time that things bubbled up on the public scene that Christ followers were opposed to, you would begin to hear the murmurings. The murmurings would turn into full-fledged press releases, or at least, it seemed that way. People began to know us more by what we were against rather than what we were for.

The challenge here is in an age when orthodoxy is being questioned at every turn, we feel that if we don’t stand up for what we believe and stand against that which seems contrary, we are condoning that which we don’t believe. Is that the case? If we take no action, does that mean we are agreeing with something? Do we have to stand opposed to something to indicate that we believe the opposite or is a viable alternative to stand for the opposite with conviction and consistency?

Honestly, I think those last two words are the key in the conversation: conviction and consistency. We can stand against things all that we want, but if we do not consistently stand for the opposite with conviction, will our argument really be convincing? An innocuous example. If I say that I am opposed to the cruel treatment of animals and picket and demonstrate against all who use animals for tests or subject them to harsh conditions and yet don’t do anything to show my own compassion towards animals, how good is my argument?

Our argument is much stronger when we actually can prove our convictions with consistent lives. If all that I do is shout on a street corner against the sins that seem contrary to my own orthodoxy and then leave that corner and do nothing different in my life to live in opposition to those sins, how strong is my argument and example?

Again, the challenge is that not speaking out against what is contrary to our own belief system seems like support or apathy. There are plenty of “banging gongs” out there who give great speeches and then live lives that fail to support their beliefs. If we really stopped to work on our convictions and consistency, I wonder whether our message would be heard louder and more clearly. I think that it would.

I want people to know what I believe because that’s the way that I lived my life. I don’t want people to have to ask what I believe, I want it to be clear by what I do, what I say, and how I live. If my convictions are coming through loud and clear in my actions, people will know what I stand for, they will know me for these things, and it would follow that I don’t support those things that stand in opposition to it. So, how am I doing? How are you doing? Are you known more for what you are opposed to or what you stand for?

Heirs

My parents were not rich, but they were smart and frugal. For years, my mom would buy my brother and I clothes from a local thrift store. She did her best to make sure that we still managed to “fit in” among our peers. We never took lavish vacations but instead opted for family road trips to South Carolina, Chicago, Florida, and upstate New York. My father was almost obsessive about saving money so that he was safe and comfortable for retirement.

When my parents died, my brother and I didn’t quite become millionaires, but we inherited money that my parents had saved in the form of retirement funds, cash, and other investments. We were the heirs to the estate, inheriting everything that they had worked so hard for years to save. We hadn’t done anything to earn that money other than be born of my parents, yet we reaped the benefits of being their heirs.

In Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia, he talks to them of the fact that they are heirs of God. They inherit from the estate of God by being adopted to sonship. He tells them that they, and subsequently we, are no longer slaves but children and heirs of God. We receive an inheritance not because we have done anything but because we are God’s children.

It’s one thing to think about the inheritance that my brother and I received as natural born children of my mom and dad. It’s another thing to think about the inheritance that we receive as children of God because we were not naturally born into his family, we were adopted, chosen, selected to be part of that family, and because of that selection and adoption, we become heirs with Christ Jesus.

Too often, we can fall into the trap of thinking that we earn our salvation. But our adoption wasn’t because we made ourselves look good, in fact, while we were still separated from God, Christ died for us. We couldn’t make ourselves look good enough to be adopted, but by his grace, God chose to graft us into his family.

It’s always interesting to watch the fiasco that can play out when someone dies and all of the heirs come together to claim what they “rightfully” are due. It seems that people can become so selfish and self-consumed when it comes to something that they really didn’t earn to begin with. Multiple times over the past few years, my brother and I have talked about the fact that we would give all of the money back just to have Mom and Dad back again. The inheritance wasn’t something that we felt that we deserved, but there are so many people who will fight and bicker over their inheritance.

An inheritance is a gift given. Gifts aren’t usually deserved or earned, they are given as gifts because a person wants to be generous and loving. That is what our inheritance from God is…..a gift. We may act like we deserve it or are rightfully due it, but that’s not the case. It’s a gift and we need to be grateful for that gift.

This was a good reminder to me this morning. It was a humbling thought to help me remember that my inheritance was a gift for which I am grateful. I’ve done nothing and yet God has given me everything. That’s a thought that I can take with me through the rest of this day.

Whatever You Ask?

What would you do if someone came to you and offered you anything you wanted? Imagine yourself as Aladdin, rubbing the magic lamp and having a genie emerge. Out of everything that’s possible in the world, what would you choose? Would your choice be different depending on when in life this opportunity was given to you?

Well, this actually happened to a king that lived a long time ago. Solomon was King David’s son and the next in line for the throne of Israel and Judah. He was given the opportunity to ask for anything that he wanted when God spoke to him in a dream.

Solomon’s response is pretty fantastic, at least it is to me. He could have asked for anything and this is his response, “Now, Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?” (1 Kings 3:7-9)

Solomon knows that he can have whatever he wants and he chooses to have a discerning heart. He understands the task set before him and the potential difficulties in that and asks for the very thing that can help him out. He doesn’t ask for riches or power or fame or any other selfish desires, he asks for wisdom. So God grants him wisdom and along with that, he grants him all of the other things that he never asked for.

I think about the many times that I have been offered something, the many times that I have been given a gift and I wonder what my initial reaction is in how to use that gift. Do I want to use it and spread it around? Do I want to keep it to myself?

More often than not, if I’m really honest, if someone gives me a gift, I want to be selfish, I want to keep it all for me. God has been changing my heart to help me realize how much better it is when I take a gift and share it around. Instead of me being the only beneficiary of that gift, I can let others in on the benefits. How cool is that?

I’m not sure that I would have had the same response as Solomon if this opportunity were placed in my lap, even at this point in my life. I hope and pray that my heart is changing and that if given this opportunity, I would choose the gift that would benefit the most number of people.

How about you? What would you do? How would you react if given this same opportunity? Would you use it for yourself or would you use it so that the greatest number of people would benefit?

Merry Christmas

MerrHappy-Birthday-31y Christmas!

There is so much to be thankful for this year.  It’s hard to be spending this Christmas without my parents, but as I watched my children unwrap presents and saw the joy in their faces, I got the sense that Mom and Dad were there in spirit.  The legacy of who they are lives on in me and my children and I could imagine their smiles as they saw the joy in my children that they had probably observed on the faces of me and my brother so many times in years gone by.

As difficult as holidays can be even years after loss, I was reminded of the fragility of life again as on the eve of Christmas Eve, a friend of my wife’s and many other women in my church lost her husband after his own battle with cancer.  While it’s difficult to face holidays after a loss, to have that loss occur during the holidays has to be incredibly difficult.  Every year is marked by the celebration of the holiday and the pangs of loss that never quite go away.

I heard the story of a mother who had to return Christmas presents in order to pay for her gas to get to work.  Somewhere in parts of the world where I have never been, little children are opening up shoeboxes prepared for people and delivered by Samaritan’s Purse.  These are probably the only gifts that these children have.  These realities are good reminders to what I have and am blessed with, not the things that are rights, but privileges for me and my family.  It helps me to remember that thankfulness needs to start with the smallest things…..everything else is just a bonus.

As old as I get, I never grow tired of watching the joy on someone’s face when they receive a gift.  When someone knows that you thought of them enough to give them something, it’s a feeling that cannot be compared.

Today is the day that we celebrate the greatest gift that has ever been given to us.  Sure, Jesus was probably born in the Spring.  Away In A Manger is most likely wrong, because what baby doesn’t cry?  The wise men weren’t at the manger.  And Jesus wasn’t blonde haired and blue eyed, looking like he walked out of an Abercrombie ad.  He was much darker than Caucasians think he was and he was probably not much to look at, at least according to Isaiah’s prophecies.

But he came….

He lived…..

He died…..

And he rose…..

He gave us the gift of life that we could never give ourselves.  That’s the one thing that I have tried hard to let my kids understand this year, and I think they can see it….at least the two older ones.

Merry Christmas.  I hope that today you feel the love of family and friends.  I hope that today you can find thankfulness amidst the gifts that you have been given, regardless of whether or not they were wrapped and under a tree.  I pray that you might know the greatest gift that you could ever receive.

Merry Christmas…….and Happy Birthday, Jesus!