Insights

We’ve been using an app during our Sunday morning gatherings at my church. The app allows you to do a live event during the message and to ask questions of those who enter the app. On the Monday mornings after I preach (and on some when I don’t) I check in online to read through some of the answers to the questions I’ve asked that I’ve gotten from people. It’s been insightful.

People can remain anonymous and share their honest answers to questions that we pose to them through this app. While there are times when we get the cookie cutter answers to questions that we ask, there are other times when the level of honesty can be downright brutal.

As I get older, I am learning more and more the level of brokenness in this world, in myself and in others. The deeper you dig, the more you see it and, sometimes, you don’t really have to dig very deep at all because we all want to be know and we all want to belong. It’s a valuable lesson for me to learn when in regards to listening to others. As someone who talks…..A LOT….I’ve been learning more and more to be a better listener, to ask good questions, to offer advice only when asked.

I appreciate the fact that I can be part of a community that is seeking to journey together. The life of faith is not always easy. Jesus never promised us that it would be easy, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to us when it takes effort. Community is such a huge part of the equation when it comes to life and faith that I just don’t know what people do without it.

I appreciate the level of honesty and the bravery that comes from sharing one’s thoughts, feelings, and pain. I’ve found that when we step into that level of honesty and bravery, we find that although we thought we were all alone on the journey, there are more people walking in step with the same struggles, fears, and anxieties.

I don’t have it all together and I am so grateful to be in community with others who don’t claim to have it all together either. Life is a journey and the best journeys always leave space for adventure along the way!

For the Love – A Book Review

For the LoveAlthough this is the first of her books that I’ve read, Jen Hatmaker has been on my radar for years. If you roll in Christian circles at all and aren’t familiar with who she is, chances are that you aren’t paying much attention. Her book “7” garnered rave reviews and a faithful following as she counter-culturally challenged people to cut down the excess and move towards a life of less, pointing people towards ways of narrowing things down to just 7 items in all areas.

Jen Hatmaker wrote “For the Love” to remind women (and anyone else who reads her book) that in this world of impossible standards where grace is hardly extended, that same grace is necessary for survival. In a society driven by social media, Hatmaker says that it has a way of making it seem like everyone else is just killing it at life, cooking meals, parenting like a boss, and being as creative with projects so as to be called a master artist in the world of Pinterest.

She talks about the need to stay connected. In a society where the hum and buzz of social media and technology can too easily replace the actual heartbeat and breath of real life flesh and blood, she stresses the importance of community, noting that, “Instead of waiting for community, provide it, and you’ll end up with it anyway.”

Hatmaker has some quality wisdom and advice to share, reminding people of the fact that they are not alone in their imperfections and shortcomings. She reminds people that there are others out there and points people to find those people; build relationships so that you can hang with people who get it.

In “For the Love,” Hatmaker takes the opportunity to vamp on everything from getting older to calling, fashion to using your gifts, cooking to parenting, children (“If they don’t love Jesus and people, it matters zero if they remain virgins and don’t say the F-word.”) to school, marriage to difficult people, and church (“If folks don’t recognize God is good by watching His people, then we have tragically derailed.”) to mission trips (“The world is so done being painted by the American church.”). She shares her heart with honesty and spunk, using her own brand of self-deprecating humor and wit to get her points across, and she does it masterfully.

Throughout the book she has a section called “Thank-You Notes” where she takes the opportunity to sarcastically thank people, places, and things. From NetFlix to the skinny girl in the dressing room, from Facebook to Angry Birds to Yoga pants, Caillou to Target to Pinterest to automatic flushing toilets, it seems that no stone is unturned and nothing is “off-limits” while Hatmaker takes time to vent about humiliating, frustrating, or fulfilling experiences.

I know I’m not the target audience for a Hatmaker book. As I read this book, there were moments along the way when I felt like I was eavesdropping on a women’s book club, Bible study, or phone conversation. There’s no denying that she has to offer a lot to anyone who takes the time to read her books.

As a pastor, there were moments when I resonated deeply with some of what Hatmaker writes. She says so many of the things that I have thought and often wanted to say but either never had the opportunity or knew that if I wanted to keep my job, I couldn’t. It’s an interesting thought considering that she’s a pastor’s wife, so it’s encouraging to think about the kind of culture that she and her husband, Brandon, have created in their church.

After reading “For the Love,” I can see the draw of Hatmaker, Where we’re so used to being politically correct and pussyfooting around issues, Hatmaker has a knack for telling it like it is. She doesn’t hesitate to voice her thoughts and opinions, opinions that some might feel are a bit abrasive.

The book isn’t for everyone, especially those who are easily offended. There were moments when I bristled a little bit and thought, “Can she say that?” Ultimately, this Northern boy felt like it was a breath of fresh air and was actually surprised that a Southern girl could speak so frankly without adding “bless your heart” to the end of the phrase.

If “For the Love” is any indication of who Hatmaker is and the insights that she has to offer, then I think I’ve just added a few more books to my “To Read” list. If you want to laugh, be encouraged, and be challenged, then pick up “For the Love.” You won’t be disappointed.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

The List

It seems that most people that I talk to who have faith in God have a list. Now, I’m not sure whether it’s a real list or if it’s a list that they’ve compiled in their brains, but this list is purported to be made up of all of the questions that they plan to ask God when they come face to face with him. Somehow, I get the feeling that there might be somewhat of an overwhelming feeling when that actually happens, causing them to forget the list if it’s simply stored within their heads. So, I think I’ll write mine down.

My anger with God rises and falls and I have to face it from time to time, acknowledging its presence and coming face to face with the grim reality that although I believe in him, I still struggle with the decisions (or seeming indecisions) that he makes at times. I struggle with his blatant ignoring of requests to intervene in the areas of peace, hunger, cancer, and many other issues and situations that seem to impact us all. Of course, his hand is at work, but I don’t always see it and in the midst of my own selfishness, I struggle.

On the heels of the third anniversary of my mother’s death, I was hit with the news that another saint breathed her last after succumbing to cancer…….and I was angry.

I was angry not so much that God hadn’t healed her but that she got sick in the first place. The same could be said of my mom, my anger stemmed more towards the sickness coming at all and not so much at the “not being healed” part. More importantly, again from a selfish standpoint, I was frustrated not so much by what was gone but by what was left behind. It’s always seemed the case, to me, that those we wish would stick around end up leaving far too soon.

And if we’re honest with ourselves, there might even remain some of those whom we kind of wish had been taken. Don’t gasp in horror! If you are REALLY honest with yourself, you know exactly what I’m talking about, those people who seem to be fueled by piss and spite, those who seem to take vindictiveness, criticism, and bitterness to a new level of super villain proportions. In fact, I’ve often wondered whether scientific experiments had been performed on these individuals to see if all of this spite and bitterness has acted as a kind of preserving agent, like formaldehyde, prolonging their departure from this world while the rest of us suffer.

But the sweet, gentle, loving saints seem to leave us behind, asking questions, scratching our heads, compiling our lists.

The Psalms have often been a solace and resting place for me in my time with God. My mom showed me a method of getting through them all within a month’s time and it has stuck with me for years since. Their raw honesty and forthrightness remind me that God can handle honesty, disappointment, and even anger. The question is what do we do with those things once we discover that they’re there.

While taking a preaching class in seminary, I preached a sermon on Psalm 131. It’s a very short Psalm, only 3 verses, but those 3 verses struck me in a powerful way, particularly the first verse, “My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.”

After listening to his friends ponder what might have brought upon his recent clash with disaster, Job continued to believe in God. When God finally spoke to Job, he asked him where he had been while God was laying the foundations of the world. In many ways, Psalm 131:1 seems to remind me of the same thing, that God is in control and his ways are not my ways, that his knowledge is higher than mine and I just can’t understand. His ways are too wonderful for me, but it doesn’t always stop me from trying to understand them……..and coming up short pretty much every time.

Yes, a saint has left this world and another one of God’s children has entered his eternal kingdom. It doesn’t change my disappointment, but it does help me to keep things in perspective. We continue here on earth with hope of the resurrection. We don’t always like it, we’re not always happy with it, but we know that there are some things that are just too wonderful for us to know. I guess I’ll just have to keep adding to that list.

Why I Blog

I’ve been getting together with a friend every Tuesday morning for the past half a year or so. We’re going through our second book together. Having started with “The Ragamuffin Gospel” by Brennan Manning, we’re finishing up “To Be Told” by Dan Allender. Allender is the president of Mars Hill Graduate School near Seattle, Washington. He is a professional counselor, therapist, speaker, and author and speaks/writes/counsels not only out of his education but out of his own story and experience.

As I come to the end of Allender’s book, I come to realize more of why I choose to blog. Allender shares that we all have a story to tell. While many of those stories have their fair share of victories, joys, and celebrations, many of those stories are also marked with hurt and pain. Part of our responsibility as followers of Christ is to share our stories, to allow others to enter into those stories. In doing so, we allow them to know us more but we also allow them to know that the hurt and pain that they have experienced or will experience was not specific to them. In other words, they aren’t alone in that pain and hurt.

Writing is therapy and I have had to write a lot over the past few years. Out of the brokenness that I have experienced and the pain that I have been through, it felt like an essential part of who I am to write, to do my best to put into words what I have experienced, what I have felt, in order that others might know that their stories are not simply floating out there in space, solitary and alone. Allender even takes a step towards saying that sharing our stories is required of us as Children of God. Our stories are what God has given us and they can be used for the benefit and healing of others. If we fail to share out stories, we fail to be stewards of the gift that we have been given.

I’ll be honest, my story doesn’t often feel like a gift to be shared. The hurt, the pain, it isn’t something that I would have chosen for myself, but at the same time, I can’t let it be wasted, especially when there is a chance that it might connect with someone. In my blogging, I have encountered others whose stories have far outdone my own as far as tragedy is concerned. But it’s not about outdoing one another in pain and suffering, it’s about entering into one another’s story, learning to listen, learning to practice the gift of presence with those who simply need to be heard.

More than once over the past few years, I’ve heard from others who have experienced loss. They have shared with me that the words that I have shared have had the power to capture feelings and emotions that they’ve felt but were never able to fully articulate in words. Those messages have made it all worthwhile to me, even if there are only a handful of them.

It gets very tempting for me to write in order to get more hits on my blog, and I will admit to pandering towards certain topics which I know will generate more interest. But I can also admit that some of the pieces that I have put the most effort into are the very pieces that go seemingly unnoticed, and I have to be okay with that. Quality is important. Quantity? Not so much.

I will keep writing. Writing is as helpful for me as it is for those few that have somehow connected with what I have written. I hope and pray that I am being a good steward of my story and in being a good steward, I hope and pray that my story can be used to help others in the midst of whatever story in which they find themselves.

Accentuating the Positive

plus signI’ll be the first to admit it, when given the opportunity to discuss the positives and negatives, I might find myself gravitating towards the negatives first.  It’s not that I don’t see the positives, it’s just that, somehow, I’ve been wired in such a way that my “Default” switch always seems to find the places labeled with the “Needs Improvement” sticker on them.

Recently, I was hanging out with a group of friends after a conference.  I was asked my thoughts and takeaways from the conference and immediately I went to my struggles before I could unpack what I liked and appreciated.  Before I could get very far, someone came down hard on me for being so negative.  Funny, I hadn’t seen it that way, it was just the way that I was processing all the information that I had taken in.

As I think about my approach towards assessing situations, I wonder how much of it was a product of conditioning.  In other words, have I gravitated towards focusing on the negative and the “needs improvement” areas because that’s how people have always focused on me?

Over the years, I have had supervisors who have done just that, they have focused on the growth areas rather than commending the strength areas.  I always marveled at the review process for jobs when I would have an hour with my supervisor.  I was a good worker, I got the job done, I met deadlines, yet that hour was very lopsided.  It seemed that maybe 5% of the time was spent on strength areas, areas where I had excelled, and the rest of the time was for all the ways that I needed improvement.

This all came to a head a few years back when I felt that things had been going well only to sit through my review.  I was blindsided by all of my “growth areas” that seemed to have been readily apparent to my supervisor.  How could I have not seen them?  How was it that they were so apparent to him and he felt no need to share them with me until it was time for an annual review?

Since then, I’ve taken the “what am I missing?” approach towards things.  I have surrounded myself with people who can help me see my blindspots.  I call those people my “rearview mirrors,” they help me to see the things that I am unable to see myself.  They help me to constantly assess how I am doing.  They have strong enough relationships with me that allow them to speak honestly and openly, even when it’s uncomfortable.

I have always said that criticism is autobiographical, the things that drive us crazy about other people are usually the things that, if we look hard enough and dig deep enough, we find in ourselves.  I have rarely seen exceptions to this.  There is something within us that triggers a disdain or dislike for someone else.

I am growing, I am working towards accentuating the positive, not only with myself, but with others who I lead.  This includes my children.  If the only thing that they ever hear is that they are missing the mark, that they have a long way to go, what kind of people will they turn out to be?  If the critical eye that has been formed in me is passed on to them, it will just continue from there.  But I don’t want that to happen, I want to break that cycle…….here and now.

It’s a constant process of growth, a journey that we are on.  I am grateful for those who can speak honestly into my life.  It’s a process that some might call “editing” your life.  I have editors that I trust, who know me, who care for me and love me, who have right motives in why they want me to succeed, why they want me to grow and get better.  Unfortunately, there are many people who are much older than me who have never had that privilege, they have never had someone who can speak honestly to them for fear of the offense or hurt that might result from that kind of honesty.

What kind of a person are you?  Do you accentuate the positive?  Do you focus on the negative?  How does that translate to others?  How will it translate to those who you lead and mentor?

What the blog?

It’s been about 6 years since I started blogging.  I remember when my wife first broached the subject with me.  “You should start a blog,” she said.  I tried not to act stupid, pretending that I actually knew what she was talking about.  I think I had to sneak off and secretly Google the word “blog” to see exactly what it was.  It’s nice to have a wife who’s one of your biggest fans.

It’s an intimidating thing to start putting your life into words and then to have the audacity to think that someone will actually care about it.  You feel exposed, naked, vulnerable.  You wonder whether people will keep coming back, keep reading.  You hope that what you say might actually be worth something.  In many ways, when I started writing, it felt like it did for me when I used to play coffeehouses with music that I had written.  There is a side of yourself that you can share in words written in songs or blogs that’s not quite as easily shared outside of those places.

I have constantly tried to find some kind of explanation or parallel, maybe a comparison for bloggers.  While it might seem a stretch, bloggers can be the prophets of the modern day.  Of course, that comparison breaks down, it’s not universal and it’s fairly generalizing, but the bloggers that I find myself reading and following are the ones who speak truth, who invite conversation, who try to wade into issues without blowing them up, overexposing them, overgeneralizing them, or dogmatically addressing them.

The best bloggers that I know are ones who leave me thinking at the end of what they’ve written.  They don’t necessarily provide answers so much as they give me cause to search for my own.  They provoke me, they cause discomfort, they cause stirrings in my soul that result in action.  That’s what I have tried to do since the beginning of my blogging career.

I want people to see something different in me.  I want people to see me as a man of conviction rather than dogmatic.  I want people to see me as compassionate and not obsessed.  I want people to know where I stand strong but not be afraid to offer contrary opinions or views.

Electronic communication can easily be one-sided, and most of the times, it is.  There are many people out there who simply want to offer unsolicited advice and opinions.  I hope that I am not one of those.  I hope that I can listen as much as I speak.  I hope that I can learn as much as I teach.  I hope that I can love as much as I am loved.  I hope that I can care as much as I am cared for.  If I can do all these things, I’d say that’s a pretty good start.

Here’s to many more years of blogging.  Thanks for reading.

Losing Faith?

obama frustratedIs there anything worse than knowing that you have lost the trust of someone?  But what if that loss of trust is warranted?  What if betrayal was what led to that loss of trust?

Recently, the news has been filled with reports of things falling apart for our current administration.  Websites crash.  Glitches prevail.  Information is leaked.  The truth becomes apparent.  While some of it may be sensationalized, especially given the impending mid-term elections next week, it can certainly not all be discounted as “mudslinging” and efforts to defame the name of the president.  So, how much did the administration really bring upon itself?

That’s the question, isn’t it?  When we fail to live up to our promises or, worse yet, we change our promises or even deny that we made them, we are bound to pay the consequences.  Once upon a time, people would say that their word was their bond, that what they said was truth and you could take their word to the bank with you.  People were people of their word and there was no need to question whether or not they were telling the truth.  But truth has seemed to take a slippery path downward, not remaining constant but rather being circumstantial, pinned to a moment and seemingly unreliable.

Granted, we may project what the future holds and we may be wrong in those projections.  But when that happens, how willing are we to admit our shortcomings?  How willing are we to say that the blame lies with us rather than seeking out the closest scapegoat who can take the fall for us?  When we fail time and time again and refuse to take responsibility for our failures, how willing will people be to believe us?

I’ve heard it said that it takes a lifetime to earn trust and just a moment to lose it.  I’ve seen that played out on more than one stage in my life and it’s gut-wrenching.  Faith is lost in a person and there seems to be an incapacity for understanding that no one trusts them anymore.  Is it really an incapacity or is it simply a denial?

I hate politics.  Our government seems a broken system in which anyone with any ounce of integrity would steer clear of for fear of the corruption that might take place should they hop on board.  Is it asking too much for leaders with integrity, leaders who are willing to admit their mistakes, and leaders who can be honest about what their intentions are?  I don’t think so, but maybe I’m naive.

So much that has happened has caused many to lose faith in an already unsteady and somewhat unreliable system.  What is the hope for a rebirth?  What is the hope for gaining faith and trust again?  I think the first step is transparency.  An admission of mistakes and a humble apology can go a long way towards restoration.  It’s just a question of whether humility has any place in politics, or at least in this administration.

The Day I Saw My Dad Cry

gladys and clarence - tony and irene weddingWhen I was a freshman in college, my dad’s mom died.  The timing of it was a little crazy as it fell during spring break.  Friends had been trying to get me to go on a missions trip to Florida during that week all during the late Fall and early Winter semesters, but I just didn’t feel right about going.  I’m not sure what was irking me at the time, but I just had a sense that I needed to stick around at home.  Turns out the Holy Spirit was guiding me.

My grandmother lived only about an hour or so from us in Astoria, New York.  My dad could easily get down there if he needed to (if anyone can easily get to New York, that is).  He would talk to her every few days and she would come to visit every so often.  She wasn’t always the most amiable person, at least not to me, so she never stayed with us for extensive periods of time.

She had a tough life.  She raised 2 boys in New York City by herself after her alcoholic husband left.  Her building did not have an elevator in it and she walked up the steps to her apartment right up until the time she went into the hospital at the end.  My dad had actually tried to contact her and was getting worried, so he drove down to her apartment.  He had to break through the deadbolts as she had fallen and was on the floor, unable to get up and let him in.

I wish that I had taken better mental notes of those days.  I know that my dad was trying to be strong, but I am sure that it was a hard time for him.  He seemed strong at the funeral, although I don’t completely remember the whole thing.  I know that it was the first time that I had ever seen a dead body before, not something that I had prepared myself for.  I think it was hard for my dad to watch his mom in those final days, especially because it stuck with him and hit him a few years later.

Around my junior year of college, my mom’s mother’s health had started to deteriorate.  She was living in a retirement community in upstate Connecticut and we would get to see her fairly often.  She was one of the sweetest people that I knew.  She was always smiling with such warmth that it was hard not to smile back.  Despite the difficulties that she had during her life, she always had such an incredible outlook.

I remember going to the hospital with my mom towards the end.  My grandma was unresponsive and it was hard to see.  I know that my mom was struggling, but my mom had gained her own compassion and sweetness from her mother, something that I think she passed on to me.  That may have been the last time that I saw my grandma alive.

Within those last days, I remember waking up one morning to a noise that I hadn’t heard before.  As I sat up in bed and listened more closely, I realized that it was the sound of my father sobbing.  I wasn’t sure what had happened, so I threw on some clothes and went to the kitchen where I found my mom and dad.  Dad was sitting in a chair with his head in his arm as he sobbed.  Mom just stood there with her hand on his shoulders, trying her best to comfort him.

I wasn’t sure what was up.  I asked my mom if he was okay and she told me that seeing my grandma in the state that she was in reminded him of his own mother and all that she had been through.  I think the sheer emotion of the moments had weighed him down and he just broke.

As I think about the top memories that I have of my father, that certainly ranks up there.  When I let my mind go back to that day and think about it, it’s almost as if I am there, watching it happen all over again.  What my dad expressed in those moments was so important to me.  He gave me permission to cry.  He gave me permission to express my feelings outwardly, not something that many guys can say about their fathers.  He showed me deep down what it means to be a pastor, to share in someone else’s pain, to weep with those who weep.

My grandma eventually passed away, but I haven’t forgotten her or the impact that she had on my dad.  My dad felt so loved and accepted by my mom’s family.  They always loved him and cared for him, something which probably helped to ease the pain of losing his dad so many years earlier.

I’ve never forgotten that day.  When I lost both of my parents, I did my best to make sure that my kids saw that it was okay to grieve and to cry.  It’s such an incredible lesson that I learned from my dad that day, every moment that I reflect on it, it seems to mean that much more to me.  I miss him so much, but what a better man I am because of all of the things that he taught me.

Help! I Need Somebody

beatles helpI’m not sure what lies within the DNA of the male species that makes it so hard for us to ask for help.  It’s almost as if there’s something that screams inside of us, “If you ask for help, they’ll see you as weak” or “If they know how much you need help, they might run away.”  Somehow or another, our confidence seems to be based on our perception of how people perceive us.  Amazing how a wrong perception can mean so much to us.

I once worked with a pastor who fell into this trap.  We were in a difficult place in ministry and people were just dying to connect with each other.  One particular Sunday, during the service, he really “let his hair down” and allowed people to see a bit of his soul, who he really was.  My wife and I were almost giddy with joy as we talked that afternoon.  It seemed like just the thing to see a breakthrough in our church.  I couldn’t wait to get into work the next day and have a conversation with him about our observation.

The next morning, when I rolled into work, I remember our conversation.  He was almost in panic as he thought about what he had said and while I may be misquoting here, the gist of what he said was, “I’m never doing THAT again.”  My heart sank.

Over the last few years, one of the key things that I have learned is that it’s okay to ask for help.  It’s okay to be honest with people and let them see you struggling.  It’s okay to let them know that you don’t have it all together.  Reaching out to others actually has a way of giving others permission to do the same thing.

There is a generation of people who fall into this category, those who are afraid to ask for help for fear of being labeled “weak” or “insufficient.”  Thankfully, there are breakthroughs happening within that generation as people come to the realization that their own mental and emotional health hinges upon their ability to ask for help when in need.

To think that we have it all together and don’t need any assistance is to be ignorant.  We are holistic people in need of caring for our emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical beings.  If one area begins to falter and sink, we can’t think that it won’t affect all of the other areas.  We will rise to our lowest level before we begin to feel parts of us begin to spill out and over.

I have learned that asking for help doesn’t signal weakness but strength.  It takes a big person to acknowledge their own limitations and to be willing to accept the help of others.  It also provides opportunities for people who are just aching to reach out and lend a helping hand.  When we are connected with other people in deep and intimate ways, when we ask for help, they are ready and waiting to do whatever they can to lighten our load.

The Beatles said it best when they sang, “Help!  I need somebody.”  The words to that song seem fairly appropriate and true, “When I was younger so much younger than today, I never needed anybody’s help in any way.  But now these days are gone, I’m not so self assured.  Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors.”

Next time you find yourself sinking in the midst of what life has to throw at you, don’t be afraid to cry out for help.  The people who love and care for you may just amaze you at how much help they’re willing to give.  I know I’ve experienced it and I hope you will too.