Just Being Honest

This past weekend, my family and I had the chance to travel down to the church of a good friend of mine. He had asked me to preach for him and I was grateful for the opportunity to be with him and his church family. He and I have spent the last few years becoming friends. Now, I feel even closer to him as we ramp up towards starting a new church ourselves.

There were so many joys that we experienced in our time together. As we’ve had the opportunity to travel around to different churches, my perspective has grown and I have been humbled to see all the different expressions of the church in a variety of contexts.

One thing that struck both my wife and me was the authenticity of the people in his church. They were so open and honest, sharing things that surprised me considering that they had just met us. Nothing uncomfortable or awkward, just honest and real, appropriate.

This struck me so much because this doesn’t just happen, it needs to be nurtured. I know that my friend has nurtured it. As we’ve walked together in friendship over the past few years, I have had the chance to see him journey through some difficult seasons. I’ve also seen just how God has worked through those difficult seasons, how he has grown so much through them. I’m confident that God’s growth hasn’t limited itself to him but has spread throughout his faith community as well.

As I pondered on all that I had seen, I couldn’t help but wonder why it was such a surprise to come to a church and find such openness and authenticity. But isn’t the church the place where we should be encountering that kind of thing? Isn’t it the place where we should see Jesus’ words, “Come all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest?” Why is it a surprise when we experience that kind of honesty in the church?

One thing that I sure hope happens as God builds his church through us is that this kind of honesty and authentic atmosphere can be built as well. I hope and pray that people can come back to using words like “refuge” and “safe” to describe the church, and I know that a lot of that will depend on how I lead.

Honesty is only good if it leads somewhere. Our motivation for honesty shouldn’t be to just “get something off our chest.” If we are honest and have no desire for that honesty to help someone else in love, we probably need to rethink it. In fact, sometimes, we might need to withhold our honest thoughts and feelings as they just won’t be well-received by the people we feel burdened to tell.

I’ve been wrestling with this a lot lately, continuing to check my own motivations in speaking truth. Leaning into the Holy Spirit to guide and move. Holding my tongue when my motivation is wrong. Speaking even when it might be uncomfortable but doing it in love with purpose and hope.

My heart for people to meet Jesus is met equally by a heart that desperately knows that the Church has much of which we need to repent. We have not done things well in loving those who don’t look or think like us. We have not always welcomed well the widows and orphans. Pro-life has not always meant from birth to death for us. We have not always remembered that the history of the people of God includes exile, bondage, and times of wandering. We have forgotten that God’s people are immigrants, seeking solace in a land that is not their own.

I pray that the Church can begin to be honest with herself first. Once we begin to get honest about who we are, where we have gone wrong, and how we move forward, I think that kind of authenticity and humility will go a long way to letting people see beyond the Church and see Jesus.

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I Don’t Know Everything

texacoI constantly marvel at the fact that the more that I learn, the less I seem to know. I think it’s a direct result of opening myself up to new areas of knowledge which I am completely unfamiliar with and then the sudden realization that the world and universe are far greater, grander, and more expansive than my arrogant self ever imagined.

Paul’s letter to the church in Rome remains one of my all time favorite books in the Bible. In chapter 11 of that letter, Paul wrote, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?” For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.”

While I have no qualms with trumpeting the things that I know and the talents I possess, I have been humbled over the years at the realization that I don’t know nearly as much as I think I do. Despite the three degrees that I possess from higher learning institutions, I don’t really feel like I know much. Engineering and theology, two vastly different areas of study to the average onlooker, are far more interrelated than I once thought, but the study of them has not led me to somehow be more enlightened than the rest of the world.

The early learning experience in my life in which I had this realization was when I was working at the local Texaco station in high school (I guess there are still Texaco stations around, but I haven’t seen one in years). In my upper middle class town in southwest Connecticut, I may very well have been the only one of my peers who was spending his Saturdays pumping gas, washing windows, and operating a cash register at a gas station.

I remember being fifteen years old and living in my upper class world, showing up to work on the first day and thinking that I was so far above all the people with whom I was working. Needless to say, I got knocked off that horse pretty quickly.

It didn’t take long for me to begin to see that the world was far bigger and more diverse than my little bubble. I may have excelled in certain areas of academics, but all these guys I worked with far excelled me in the practical area of fixing things and knowing their way around car engines.

It was a very humbling thing for me to begin to realize this, and I was so grateful to have come to that understanding at fifteen rather than fifty. I began to look at these guys around me with a newfound respect, knowing that the was a complimentary nature to our relationships and to the world. I may have known a lot about one area that they were unfamiliar with, but their knowledge and experience far surpassed my own in other areas.

As I’ve lived a number of decades since then, I can honestly say that the lessons I learned at a little Texaco station in Darien, Connecticut have stuck with me since then and have proved to be invaluable for the winding road that followed.

I can’t say that I don’t ever fall into the trap of thinking I know more than I do, it happens more than I would like to admit, but I’m getting better at stepping back and seeing people’s knowledge beyond my own knowledge and understanding. One thing is for sure, when I’ve taken the time to step back and think through the level of knowledge that others have to offer above and beyond my own, I’ve come out the other side far better and more knowledgeable than I started.

Christian Leadership and the Cross

cross and christian ministryThe subtitle of D.A. Carson’s book, “The Cross and Christian Ministry” is “Leadership Lessons From 1 Corinthians.” Carson takes a substantial amount of time in the beginning of the book to emphasize (maybe even overemphasize) the difference between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the world.  Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians are, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.”

Carson’s emphasis on God’s wisdom and the cross of Christ sets the tone for the entire book, especially as it relates to leadership. After all, when leaders within the church overemphasize their own wisdom versus the wisdom of God, the situation within the church can increasingly look like the world.

This book should not be seen as an exhaustive commentary on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Instead, Carson focuses on a good portion of chapters 1 and 2 as well as chapter 3, 4, and a portion of chapter 9 as well. Remembering the focus here is on Christian ministry and leadership, herein is where Caron’s emphasis lies.

Although there is a great distance both temporally and culturally between the Western church and the context to which Paul was writing, the lessons are no less applicable to us. The church is not a place for celebrities, Carson says, especially not in the pulpit. We are constantly looking back to the cross, remembering that worldly wisdom pales in comparison to the wisdom of God. Relying on our own wisdom will surely lead to our own lauding and may even lead to us forgetting just where any of our wisdom comes from to begin with.

Carson gets his point across regarding the centrality of the cross and the wisdom of God. How he gets that point across may not necessarily be as engaging for some as they would like. At a little over one hundred and fifty pages, this book was not lengthy, but it was not a quick and fast read. There were multiple times that I felt as if Carson was belaboring his points, beating a dead horse even, not trusting that he had gotten his point across the first time around.

If you choose to dive into this book, be patient with yourself and with Carson. There are choice morsels within here that you can find, it just may require more patience and digging than you may be accustomed to.

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

You’re Going the Wrong Way

who can heal americaThere’s a scene in the movie “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” when John Candy and Steve Martin are driving in the wrong direction down the highway. They see a car across the way who is trying to signal to them and the driver yells to them, “You’re going the wrong way.” Candy and Martin think that the guy is drunk and don’t even consider that they actually might be driving down the highway in the wrong direction. Eventually, they crash and their car burns up, leaving them stranded with a shell of a car. I wonder what would have happened if they had simply heeded the advice of the man yelling at them to turn around.

As funny of a movie as “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” is, this scene replayed in my mind as I’ve thought about the events of the last week, month, and even year. As more and more horrible things play out in the United States, I can’t help but wonder whether or not someone is yelling, “You’re going the wrong way” to us, and in our foolishness and pride, we dig our heels in a little deeper, we clench our fists a little tighter, and we keep pressing on, thinking that we’re not the ones who are wrong.

The other day, a news headline on CNN.com read, “Who can heal America?” I thought that it was a perfect question to which many will struggle to come up with an answer. I think plenty of people will have an answer, but I don’t think that any of the answers that they’ll provide will be right. After all, politicians have been “coming up with answers” for years and it’s not gotten us any further away from the dismay that we’ve experienced. In fact, one might argue that we’re worse off than we were before, but we continue to drive in the wrong direction, thinking that it surely can’t be us that’s wrong, it’s got to be someone else. There’s no way that we could be driving in the wrong direction, right?

There’s a very powerful passage in 1 Samuel 8 in the Old Testament. Samuel, the prophet and priest, has gotten old and his sons are wayward, and the people want an answer to their problems. So, they ask for a king. Why? They say, “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.” As Samuel talks with God, God tells him all of the things that a king will do to the people, a king will enslave the people, he will steal from them and oppress them, he will take their possessions and their children from them, and when they cry out to God, God will not answer them.

It seems that America has wanted to be just like everybody else. We want a king to lead us, we want a president who can fix this mess, but if we’re looking to find someone who can save us, who can fix this, who can heal America, we’re going the wrong way, we’re heading in the wrong direction. A president will only do what we’ve seen presidents do countless times in the past, but presidents will come and go, political leaders will rise and fall, but there is only One who will remain forever.

We’re going the wrong way and we’ve got to turn around, but I don’t think that finding the right president is the way to fix the problem. The problems need to be fixed in our hearts before we can try to fix them externally, after all, you can make things look nice and pretty on the outside all you want, but if you don’t fix what’s broken on the inside, then it’s just window dressing.

America doesn’t need the right president, America needs a change of heart. We need to stop the car and turn it around, but we’ve got to humble ourselves and first realize that we’re going in the wrong direction.

If You Can’t Say Something Nice…

Cam Newton dejected

The Carolina Panthers were a machine and force to be reckoned with for the majority of the 2015-16 season. Cam Newton, their quarterback, alone was able to run the ball so well if he didn’t hand it off or find an open receiver. Going into Super Bowl 50, they seemed unstoppable.

And yet, somehow, they were stopped. In fact, they were made to look like a shadow of who they had been throughout the season. The pomp and attitude that had marked them, their celebratory dances and gestures were nowhere to be found while they watched their chance at a championship slowly fade into the California sunset.

Throughout the game, the ordinarily bouncy and boisterous Cam Newton seemed tired, reserved, frustrated, and unsure of himself. His confidence wasn’t there and it seemed as if someone had handed this “Superman” his kryptonite. His joyous celebrations were nowhere to be found because there was really nothing for him to celebrate

After the game, his comments were short. His usually verboseness was nowhere to be found. He seemed agitated that he needed to sit there and answer any questions at all from the media, almost like a child being forced to sit and take their punishment. Not far off from where he was sitting could be heard the celebratory cries and shouts of the Denver Broncos, the team that had bested him for the coveted Vince Lombardi trophy. With all this swirling around, Newton cut the interview short by getting up and walking out on the reporters.

Some critics have charged that it was his duty and responsibility to answer any and all questions that the reporters had of him. I’m not so sure that I agree with them. They thought his attitude was bad (which it kind of was) and that he should have answered the questions asked of him instead of getting up and walking out. He was accused of being a sore loser.

Newton has since come out and admitted to being a sore loser, because if you find someone who is content in losing, then you’ve found, he claimed, a loser. He quoted Vince Lombardi himself by saying, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

Remember the movie “Bambi” and the title character’s friend Thumper? Remember what he told his friends? “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all!” I think it’s pretty good advice, advice that Newton most likely took to heart himself. In his moment of frustration and weakness, I think he inadvertently embraced that very phrase for reasons of self-preservation.

I know what it’s like for me to be in emotionally charged situations. I’ve come to points where I’ve needed to embrace my own need for restraint. It’s a hard thing to do. Passionate people react passionately. As a friend and colleague often says, there is a shadow side to all of the strengths that we have. While Newton’s passion and leadership shined throughout the season, that same passion and leadership could get him in trouble should he not curb it in a heated moment.

Cam Newton is 26 years old. In our culture, it seems that we expect more and more from those who are younger. We expect them to do things we never did at their age, to act differently and more mature than how we acted when we were their age. Some might even say that we are asking them to grow up faster than we did. Sure, he’s making millions of dollars, millions of people are watching him throw a leather ball around, but he’s human, no matter how superhuman he may have claimed to be throughout the season.

Going into Super Bowl 50, I was not a fan of the Carolina Panthers. I’ve grown tired of all professional athletes showboating when they perform well, and my disdain for it certainly carried over Newton and his Panthers. It helped that the quarterback which he was up against had always handled himself with professionalism and grace. But that quarterback was also 13 years his senior and had far more experience than Newton has had.

Only time will tell what Newton learned from this beating, only time will tell whether he learned a valuable lesson in that beating. Time alone is the test of the lessons that we all learn and how well we learn them.

There’s no denying that Cam Newton has talent, the kind of talent that makes rivals hate him for just how good he is, but in the humility area, he’s got a long way to go, or so it seems. I say, give him a break, let him learn through experience, in time, we’ll see just how good he is at learning valuable life lessons.

Thinking Too Highly of Yourself

Have you ever been around someone who thinks too highly of themselves? You know the type, they walk around as if they are God’s gift to the world, as if their absence from this world would create a huge gap for the rest of us. And, if we’re really honest with ourselves, we actually might be those people, walking around as if the world would stop spinning if we stopped living.

One of the beautiful things about the Bible, to me, is that the truth it conveys makes sense regardless of whether or not you believe everything that’s written within it. Now, don’t get me wrong, I believe what it says, but if you’re reading this and you aren’t there yet, I still think that there’s wisdom that you can hear and receive from it, even if you aren’t at the point of full belief yet.

The Apostle Paul, when he was writing to the church in Rome, wrote in Romans 12:3, “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” Paul was promoting a healthy sense of humility for all, a self-image that doesn’t elevate one’s self so much as seeing one’s self in light of a bigger picture.

For followers of Christ, that bigger picture is the body of Christ, the incarnation of Christ to the world in the form of the Church. Each of us brings what we have to the table and puts it together with what God has given to others. Combine that with the power that God gives us through the Holy Spirit and we’ve got a winning combination……but it’s just that, a combination. A combination is what you get when 2 or more pieces are combined. It’s kind of like that cartoon in the 1980s “Voltron” where the individual robots came together to form one giant robot. The individual robots were fine and good by themselves, but together, they kicked serious butt!

I’ve been in a place of major humbling lately. It seems that God is trying to teach me this lesson of not thinking of myself too highly than I ought. It’s a difficult place to come to where you can honestly see that your presence and gifts are not essential for achieving and completing the work of God. It’s very arrogant to think that the God of the universe really NEEDS you to accomplish his work.

But once you come to that place where you realize that you are not essential but chosen, it’s a freeing thought. No, God doesn’t NEED me to accomplish his work, but he certainly wants me. He’s gifted me with what I have and then calls me to be part of the bigger plan and picture. When I accept that call, it’s a privilege, not a right, and I need to see it that way. When I do, it can make all the difference in the world for my own self-perception.

Part of the idea of “dying to myself” daily is just this: to realize that I shouldn’t think too highly of myself. It’s a process, sometimes slow and wearisome. I fight, I kick, I resist, but when I finally begin to understand it, when I finally begin to catch on, it’s not self-deprecating, dehumanizing, or demeaning, it’s actually energizing and invigorating.

Here’s to hoping that I continue to learn this lesson.

Compliments

This morning, someone paid me a compliment.  It’s not an unusual occurrence, nothing that should have thrown me for a loop like it did, but somehow, I felt myself tongue tied and uncertain of what to say.  In my momentary state of confusion, I think I probably said something dumb that could very easily have taken the wind out of the sail of the person who was paying me the compliment.

People are strange, and I include myself in that generalization.  When we are faced with uncomfortable situations, we have a tendency to fill the awkward silence with trite words rather than embrace the awkwardness of the moment.  Unfortunately, I don’t think I did a good job with that when I was complimented.  Sometimes, the best thing to do is simply say, “Thank you” and move on.

Compliments are funny things too, though.  Some people pay compliments easily, I am not one of those people.  As I have understood the importance of positive affirmations in leading people, I think that I’ve grown and gotten better at paying compliments, but I am always intentional about how I do it and what I say.  I don’t ever pay compliments unless I absolutely mean them.  I have encountered other people who seem to pay compliments without paying them much mind at all.

When I was younger, I remember having a conversation with my father or hearing him preach a sermon about people paying him compliments.  He had a very distinguishing voice, especially when he would sing.  He was called upon to sing at the Memorial Day service that our town had every year.  He would sing at the Good Friday service that area churches participated in as well.  The thought of my father singing brings a smile to my face.  Although his style wasn’t my own cup of tea, I knew how much he enjoyed singing and how much my mom, as well as others, enjoyed hearing him sing.

My dad spoke of how people would compliment him about his singing and he downplayed his singing until one day, someone told him that downplaying compliments stole the joy from the person who was offering up the compliment.  It made him think hard about how he was receiving compliments and from that point on, his response when someone would compliment him was always, “Praise God.”  He said that it acknowledged God as the giver of the gift which was being complimented and took the praise off of him.  He seemed to be happy with the rhythm that he had found in that.

That conversation or sermon, whichever one it was, stuck with me.  It’s rare that I receive a compliment that I don’t think back to that and think back to my father.  Being complimented is always nice, especially when you have worked hard to present something to people, be it a song, a sermon, a piece of writing, or something else, it’s nice to feel appreciated.  But in the midst of that appreciation, it seems that it could easily be distorted one way or another.  We could let it go to our heads and forget that there is a Giver of gifts or we could downplay the compliment and steal the joy from the person giving out the compliment.

In the midst of some of the stupid things that I say, I am grateful for grace.  I am grateful that people understand that there are awkward moments in life and I hope that they realize that I’m not immune to those awkward moments.  I have to work on taking compliments and do a better job with receiving them.  The next time that someone compliments me, I’m going to think twice before I say anything.  If nothing comes to me, I think the best that I can do is just say, “thank you.”

Taking Responsibility

I_Didnt_Do_It_The_Bart_Simpson_Story1There are many phrases that seem difficult to roll off of our tongues, some more so than others.  One of those phrases which seems to be building up steam in its ever-increasing difficulty is, “I was wrong.”

Who likes making mistakes?  I don’t.  When I make mistakes, I can easily take it and internalize it, blaming myself and mentally flagellating myself.  When we make mistakes, it’s hard to own them.  We quickly want to shift the blame onto someone else.  We don’t want to lose face because we’re afraid that someone might begin to question our worth and value or even who we are as a person.

Mistakes are part of life, though.  I don’t say that in a defeatist kind of way but in a realistic, “It happens” kind of way.  Think back to when you were a child and you began to do things for the first time.  Did you always get it right the first time around?  Did you make the transition from tricycle to bicycle with training wheels to bicycle without training wheels in one fell swoop, seamlessly, without hesitation?  If you did, you’re probably an exceptional individual.

Mistakes are what make us stronger, smarter, and wiser.  Hopefully, when we don’t get something right, we can go back and tweak the process to have a better and different outcome the next time around.  Hopefully, we’ve got enough humility to acknowledge that we were wrong and we made a mistake.

I wonder how many relationships go south because of this one thing.  I wonder how many marriages fail because spouses are unable to own the responsibility for breakdowns that occur.  I wonder how many people lose their jobs because, somehow, the pecking order of responsibility led to them and no one above them was willing to acknowledge their own mistakes and responsibility.  I wonder how many kids find themselves with severely diminished and tainted relationships with their parents because those parents were unwilling to own up to their own mistakes.

It’s hard to own up to mistakes, but as I’ve grown as a person, as a pastor, as a husband, as a father, and as a child of God, I’ve seen the value in it.  When we find ourselves in positions of leadership, owning that responsibility becomes a model for those around us, if we fail to model it well, we shouldn’t be surprised when that model becomes a reality for all who are watching.  If we do model it well, we will hopefully see the fruit of that humility translate to a culture shift.

Not too long ago, I sat down and had a conversation with someone who expressed some hurts that they felt I had caused.  It was a humbling time for me.  My prayer leading up to the meeting was that God hold my tongue.  In the words of James 1:19-20, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”  Slow to speak and become angry, quick to listen?  That’s pretty difficult, yet that was my prayer.

God honored the time and I was able to listen and speak very infrequently.  I learned a lot during that meeting, not the least of which is that people are people and when you cut them, intentionally or unintentionally, they bleed.  Owning up to your mistakes, though, goes a long way.  1 Peter 4:8 says, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”  When we genuinely love others and are willing to show them and also acknowledge our responsibility in hurts, God can help healing take place.

This is still a learning process for me.  I don’t get it right all the time.  It’s still hard to acknowledge responsibility, to own up to my mistakes and be humble, but I’m learning a little more every day.

A Sweet Look

My mom used to tell me the story of a time when I was fairly young and she and I were at the grocery store together.  I was old enough to be able to speak and converse with my mom, but the memory is foggy in my memory, at best.  According to Mom, there was a baby in the cart in front of us that I apparently thought was cute.  I just stared and stared at that baby and finally said to my mom, “Mommy, when I lookanne_geddes_preview_21 at that baby it just makes my eyes want to cry.”

So many times over the years, I’ve encountered babies or children that had that “cuteness” factor that evoked a similar sentiment to what my 3 or 4 year old self verbalized to my mom so many years ago.  None of those even held a candle to the feeling that I get when I look at my own children.

Every parent thinks that their kids are cute, I think it’s a requirement of parenting.  Even in the awkward stages of the teen years, parents can probably still find something about their kids about which to dote (especially moms).  I am no exception to the doting, especially as all of my kids are under the age of 10.

Since my first child was born, I have made it a point to go into my children’s rooms and just look at them.  I will often whisper endearments in their ears or quietly pray over them.  Often, I will just stand there and stare, marveling at God’s creation and the humility of being a part of it, even to the point of helping in the re-creation of life.

So many times over the last few years, my children have provided therapy for me without even knowing it.  I have laughed.  I have cried.  I’ve been frustrated.  I’ve been afraid.  They always managed to find themselves at the center of so many of those emotions, but the ones that are the most memorable to me are the ones in which I’ve experienced joy, even being overcome with tears of joy.

In those quiet moments in their rooms at night, after they have fallen asleep, there is something peaceful about listening to their breaths. In and out.  In and out.  Sometimes the breaths get louder…..even to a snore, but it’s always so peaceful.

I recount the day and all that took place within it.  I think about their smiles.  I think about their achievements.  I think about the pride I have in calling them my sons and daughter.  I think about the humility and responsibility required for parenting.  I thank God for the gift that he’s given me and entrusted me with.

I would love to have a conversation with my 3 or 4 year old self to find out just what it was that I saw in that baby so many years ago.  I imagine that if we talked, I would tell my older self that the sheer beauty, innocence, peace, and joy that I found in that baby’s face was enough to overwhelm me with emotion.  My older self would probably tell my younger self to just wait until I had kids of my own…….

Taking those moments at the end of the day to look in on my kids adds joy to my life but it also helps me to regain perspective.  What a blessing that they are, in their wild or crazy or happy or sad moments.  I think I will always look at them and just the beauty that I see in them will make my eyes want to cry.