READ MY $%@#& BLOG!!

cursingWhen I was about 13 years of age, I developed a forked tongue.   At home, I spoke in a manner that was pleasing to my parents.  Outside the home, my vocabulary shrunk and 4 letter words dripped off my tongue like honey.   When I used the forbidden words at school, I thought I was cool.  After all, a lot of my friends spoke the same way.   When I was home, I was nervous that an “F-bomb” would slip out of my mouth and my cover would be blown.   As I look back, this may have been the beginning stages of me eventually living a double life.

As a teenager, I found myself living with a lot of anger – dealing with difficult life circumstances thrust upon me (my Dad’s death, my Mom’s remarriage, moving schools, etc).  I didn’t know how to process it or handle it and my anger and frustration about my situation tempted me to express it verbally with a string of expletives.   In some ways, I felt a sense of control in my decision to curse.  Whereas I could not control the chaos in my home, I could control how I spoke and enjoyed the feeling of being able to say adult words – even when I knew I shouldn’t.   But along the cursing way, something interesting happened…

As I was growing accustomed to cursing, deep down it never made sense to me.   The 4 letter words seemed unnatural coming out of my mouth.  With each word I used, I felt like I was ignoring the intelligent side of my brain.  As I looked at those who cursed around me – they never seemed like the most intelligent in the room.   Slowly, I began to equate ignorance with cursing.  I began to view those that cursed as having a limited vocabulary – and that seemed very unattractive to me – a future wordsmith.   As I cursed, I began to experience this uneasy feeling.  On one hand, I enjoyed the release of anger that the curse words seemed to help with.  On the other hand, I realized that others probably thought I had a limited vocabulary too.   Knowing I did not, this bothered me.

And then one day, I actually thought about what I was saying in the heat of the moment.  This single-handedly stopped me dead in my tracks.   In one enlightening moment, I realized just how silly most of my curse-filled sentences really were.   If you are honest, you have to admit that most of the curse words/phrases that are used are completely nonsensical.   Only when you stop and actually hear what is being said, do you begin to realize just how foolish it sounds, not just to your own ears but undoubtedly to others who are listening.

Here are a few I heard just recently.   Out of respect for others, I will “BLEEP” out the curse word.   You get the idea…

  • “That tastes like (BLEEP)!” 
  • “She’s cool as (BLEEP)”  
  • “What the (BLEEP) is he doing?”
  • “What a (BLEEPING) idiot!”
  • God’s name in vain.   (Can someone explain to me why we do this?   Why is God’s name “damned” while Satan, Allah, or Buddha never get cursed out?  Why in the world do we blame God for traffic jams, stubbed toes, missed flights, and bad news?  Even if it was His “fault,” does trashing His name {one of the 10 commandments, mind you} suddenly warm His heart to motivate His help towards our situation?)

I have been on both ends of the foul language spectrum.  I have heard (and given) all the arguments for why cursing is acceptable/necessary, etc.   “Sometimes,” the argument goes, “a curse word is the only thing that can adequately express how you are feeling in that instance.”   While I understand the sentiment behind that statement, I disagree with it wholeheartedly.   It may be your current choice of emotional release but to say it is the ONLY way to communicate in that setting is a cop-out.   When we are upset, frustrated or angry – we tend to justify (in our head) all kinds of actions (smoking, over-eating, physical violence, porn, drinking, gambling, verbal abuse, etc.).   Just because that is how we normally handle our stress does not mean it’s the ONLY way to handle it.   As a recovering curse-aholic – I have come to realize there is a better way.

One of the original purposes of this blog is to provoke thought.  From it’s inception, it has certainly done that as I have received a fair share of criticism for the various opinions I have expressed.   This particular post will be no different as I am knowingly stepping on many people’s idol and common practice.   Even so, I want to leave you with a thought-provoking list of 7 reasons why you shouldn’t be cursing, regardless of who you are or what’s going on around you.

  1. Cursing is inappropriate and offensive.   Granted, not everyone in earshot will find it offensive but across the board – it offends more people than it does not.   For this reason, we tend to find ourselves only cursing in certain environments and around certain people.   How we speak around children, the elderly and authority normally reveals what we think is most appropriate.   Most people will refuse to curse around those three people groups, thus proving my point – cursing is generally inappropriate and offensive.
  2. Cursing is a bad example.   We know this.   This is why we often will change our language around those younger or more impressionable than us.  Deep down, we recognize that what we are doing (or saying) is not “good” and we don’t want to be the one to teach a younger set of ears a certain word/phrase or vocabulary.
  3. Cursing degrades & disrespects your audience.   Words are like toothpaste, once they are out of the “tube,” you can never take them back.   Negative words have the power to really destroy someone’s morale, esteem & confidence.  Since cursing normally occurs during a time of extreme frustration or anger, this is why we like to use them.  It is our way of not only releasing our pent up anger, but we can hurt our intended target much quicker with a few choice words.   But consider what happens in the process when you choose to curse at someone.   The reason you are tempted to curse is usually because they hurt or frustrated you with something they said or did.   Intentionally or unintentionally, their hurtful words or actions created in you a desire to hurt back.  Unfortunately, this is human nature: hurt people hurt people.   Even if what they did/said was intentional, how does retaliating with negative words help the situation or the relationship?  It merely exasperates the situation, complicates the solution and further alienates the relationship.   Instead of choosing to take the harder moral high road, you become just like them – even if your choice of weapon is a bit different.
  4. Cursing points to a diminished intelligence.   Although I know I will receive criticism on this point, hear me out.   Granted, there are many highly intelligent people that curse.  Perhaps this particular point does not apply to you.  However, may I suggest that when we curse we temporarily suspend our intellectual acumen when we use language that reflects a lack of education, vocabulary or intelligence?  Your choice of vulgar words normally points to a diminished intelligence, verbal laziness or darker heart – none of which are very flattering for the intelligent being you think you are.
  5. Cursing is a spiritual barometer.   Jesus made this clear when He said, “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”  (Luke 6:45)  In other words, the words we say are drawn from the well of our heart.   Loving words come from a loving heart.  Angry words come from an angry heart.   Impatient words come from an impatient heart.  Nothing reveals what’s going on in our hearts more accurately and consistently than by listening to what is coming out of our mouths.  So, take your spiritual temperature.   What comes out of your mouth most days?   Encouragement?   Love?   Patience?   Praise?   Or is it merely cursing, complaints, crude conversation, etc?   James, the brother of Jesus, said it best, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.  Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.  Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?  My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.” (James 3:9-12)
  6. Cursing enflames conversations.   Throwing water on a fire puts the flames out.  Throwing gasoline on a flame merely creates more heat.   Cursing is the gasoline of conversation.   As Solomon once penned, “A gentle answer turns away wrath but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1)   Talking through opposing opinions is hard enough with kind language.  Why add unnecessary fuelant when water is needed?
  7. Cursing is unnecessary.  Only the proponents of cursing will argue with this point.   What value does cursing bring to any conversation?   There are plenty of words in the English language (or any language for that matter) to express your current level of frustration or anger.  You don’t HAVE TO use the words in the bottom of the vocabulary barrel to communicate your point.

The Bible refers to the tongue as a “restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:8)  For many, a loose tongue is the epicenter of ruined relationships.   The Greek sage, Publius, once said, “I have often regretted my speech, never my silence.”   How many of us can echo that sentiment?  In the book that bares his name, James warns us to be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” (1:19).  Perhaps we were given two ears and one mouth for a reason.

If you struggle with keeping your tongue in check, remember that language flows from the well of your heart.  Work on your well and begin filling it with better water.   You may have to stop listening to certain music or watching certain shows.  You may have to stop reading certain books or spending time with certain people.  Do whatever it takes to improve your well as you are not the only one who drinks from it.   And consciously change your vocabulary.  Decide now what words you will say when you are triggered to curse.  Instead of using a bad phrase, replace it with a good one.   As unnatural and stupid as it might feel in the beginning, the results are worth the effort.

As many of you know, I used to travel in some pretty judgmental circles.   I used to dwell around “perfect” people.   I was perched atop a pretty high pedestal at one point in my life.  Over time, I became a full-fledged hypocrite and a pretty good Pharisee.   Even though cursing was listed on my moral rap sheet, in typical hypocritical fashion I looked down upon those who cursed.  And then my “perfect” world came crashing down and I was forced to look at my sinful face in a holy mirror.   I realized that I am just a sinful person who happens to struggle like every other person on this planet.  My struggle might be “X” while yours may be “Y” but it doesn’t make one struggle or person better than another.  We all have our struggles and thankfully cursing isn’t my struggle anymore.   It doesn’t have to be yours either.

On a windswept hill in an English country churchyard stands a drab, gray slate tombstone.  The quaint stone bears a sad, yet powerful epitaph.  The faint etchings read:

  • Beneath this stone, a lump of clay,
  • Lies Arabella Young,
  • Who on the twenty-fourth of May,
  • Began to hold her tongue.

Don’t wait for the grave to tame your tongue.  The consequences of loose lips has a price tag you don’t really want to pay.

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29)

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The breath in my shadow’s nostril

timeIf you have ever spent time with little kids, you will remember how slow the clock moves for them.   Send a disobedient three year old to their room for a 5 minute “time-out” and they will complain how long they have to stay in there.  If you didn’t know better, you would think (by the sound of their whiny complaint) they had been rotting in their room for days.   Or tell a 10 year old they can have an ice cream cone after you are finished with your errands.   The errands (from their perspective) take “forever,” just ask them.  Recently I heard a young woman (mid-20′s) in Wal-mart tell someone on the phone that she had been in the check-out line for “an eternity.”  I smiled as I heard her description when I realized we were in the express lane.   My belief about eternity is that you experience it in Heaven or Hell.  I can only assume which one Wal-mart would be.

I have noticed that our perspective of time changes with age.   The younger we are, the slower the hands on the clock seem to move.  The older we are, time literally flies – as the saying goes.  How many parents and grandparents have told me how quickly their children have grown up!  As a parent myself, I now understand what they mean.   One day they graduate from diapers.  The next day they graduate with a diploma.   In between those bookmarks is a blur.  

Since the clock ticks and tocks at the same rate for all people of all ages in all time zones, what is it about our perspective that seems to influence it’s pace?  Elizabeth Taylor echoed this sentiment when she penned, “It is strange that the years teach us patience; that the shorter our time, the greater our capacity for waiting.”

I recently pondered these thoughts on time as I stood next to Christopher, a friend of mine for the last 24 years.   On Monday night, June 23rd, Chris was living his life like he did every day.  By 6am Tuesday morning, Chris was laying in the ICU trauma unit, literally fighting for his life.   One day he is fine.  The next day, he is not.   One moment, he is healthy, conscious, mobile.  The next moment, he is in critical condition, unconscious and motionless.   Though no one is exactly sure what happened, his nearby mangled scooter seems to indicate an early morning accident… cause unknown.

In a room down the hallway lay another man, half his age.  Another victim of a bike accident.  Another severe head trauma.   Another one fighting for his life.  Chris was wearing a helmet.  The other man was not.   Both now waiting for the one commodity that apparently waits for no man:

Time.

At 38 years old, you would think Chris had plenty left on his clock.  In spite of his severe injuries, he still may.  Or the good Lord could take him tonight.   Only the Keeper of the clock really knows.  

One thing we do know is this:

LIFE.  IS.  SHORT.

In fact, repeatedly in His love letter to us, God seems to remind us of the brevity of life.  Notice what the Everlasting Creator says about our temporary time on earth:

  • “Our span of years is as nothing before God.” (Psalm 39:5)
  • We are “but a wind that passes and does not return.” (Psalm 78:39)
  • “…our days are like a passing shadow.” (Psalm 144:4)
  • Our “days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle...” (Job 7:6-7)
  • Our “days are swifter than a runner; they flee away” (Job 9:25)
  • Our “days are like an eagle that swoops on its prey.” (Job 9:25-26)
  • “Everyone is but a breath, even those who seem secure.” (Psalm 39:3)
  • …humans, who have but a breath in their nostrils.” (Isaiah 2:22)
  • “Like a shepherd’s tent my dwelling is pulled up and removed from me…” (Isaiah 38:12)
  • “All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass.   The grass withers, and the flower falls off, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” (I Peter 1:24-25)

Think about the imagery that comes to mind with each description.   

A breath in your nostril.

     A passing shadow.  

         A wind.  

              A runner.  

                  A swooping eagle.  

                      Grass.  

                          A tent.   

                             Our YEARS are like NOTHING to God.

It’s as if the Heavenly Author does not want us to miss the message:

LIFE. IS. REALLY. SHORT.   

For some reason, we tend to forget this truth until it’s too late.   Too often that reality becomes crystal clear when we are lowering a casket or watching a loved one lay motionless in an ICU bed.   Our poor memory is jarred when we can’t see our children.   Our amnesia lifts when a precious relationship is no longer available to us.   It’s not until we are kneeling next to a tomb or listening to the beeps of the life saving machines in the ICU wing of a trauma unit that we recognize “the most precious resource we all have is time.” (Steve Jobs)

It’s a painful lesson I have learned and re-learned my entire life.  I buried my biological father at age 5.   I attended the funeral of several classmates in high school.  I said farewell to my best friend and youth pastor in college – both of whom died in the same tragic “accident.”  From grandparents to neighbors to co-workers to students… I have heard the mantra like an unwelcome drum beat: LIFE. IS. SHORT.  And thanks to some selfish decisions on my part, I now know a pain worse than death – the loss of relationships delivered via divorce.

What is your relational status?   Some of us are estranged from our children.  Others hold a grudge against a parent.   Some haven’t talked to their sibling in years.  Others have let pride keep us from former best friends.    

The shadow is passing.   

The breath in your nostril is brief.

The wind comes and goes before you know it.

The grass is withering – even now.

What will you do with the time you have left?  

  • Ask for forgiveness.
  • Accept the apology.
  • Spend time with those that you love.  
  • Mend the relationships dear to you.
  • Reconcile relationships while you can.  
  • Say I’m sorry.
  • Tell them you love them.
  • Pick up the phone.
  • Write the letter.
  • Work out the differences.
  • Stop by for a visit.
  • Give up the grudge.

Don’t wait for the ICU room.    The grave-site is simply too late.   

funeral

The only pain greater than saying goodbye to someone before you’re ready is to do so with the olive branch still in your hand.      

I hope I have another opportunity with Chris.  

By God’s grace, I pray I will.

“So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.” - Moses (Psalm 90:12)

********** UPDATE **********

Chris went to be with the Lord on July 11, 2014 at 5:24pm.  I was honored to be one of the few friends and family in the room to witness his last breath and watch him step out of time and into eternity.   He is now pain-free and more alive than ever before.

The other man mentioned in the post, age 19, has regained consciousness and is expected to make a full recovery.

One family ran out of time.   The other family was given some additional minutes on their clock.

Remember, “Everyone is but a breath, even those who seem secure.” (Psalm 39:3)

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Map My Run – death trail version

map my runI decided to go for a run last night.  It’s the first time I have run (without chasing a soccer ball in the process) in a long time. At least since last week.  In the neighborhood I currently live, there are “trails” (think wooded with sidewalks) that weave around townhouses, past tennis courts, lakes and through tunneled roads.  Since this was my first time on this trail, I was unsure as to where it led, how far it went or how to get back home.  Notorious for a poor sense of direction, I figured I better bring my i-phone and i-pod as back up.  The i-pod would undoubtedly distract me from the pain.  The i-phone would allow me to dial 911 quickly or use the google map app for when I get lost.  (Yes, I fully expected this to happen.)

I started out like any serious runner: walking.  Almost immediately, two physically fit white men sprinted past me.  I’m pretty sure they were Kenyan.   Afraid they would detect my novice running status, I tried to give them the impression that I had just finished a triathlon and was in my cool down stage.   I don’t think they were buying it as triathletes do not (I’m sure) run this trail.   Triathletes sweat a lot and I, somehow, was as dry as a Q-tip.  I decided to stretch various limbs prior to my run as I felt that was a prudent idea for a man in his upper upper 30′s.   39-ish.   With 5 years of experience.

After a full 20 minutes of employing every known exercise in the universe (aka stalling) as my pre-run ritual (stretching, synchronizing my watch, getting my playlist together, adjusting my ear buds, praying to the god of oxygen, faking the aforementioned cool down stage, checking for ticks, checking my stocks, checking my email, double knotting my shoestrings, jumping jacks, etc.) – I was finally ready to begin.  Like the majestic trot of a pure breed Arabian racehorse I began the “jog pace” (minus the majestic, pure breed & Arabian part).

I took about 3 steps into my run and remembered the “Map My Run” app on my phone.  I downloaded the app the same time everyone else downloaded it – January 1st, Resolution Day.   Mine still had cobwebs on it.   Apparently there is an option for every type of pace (walk, cross-country, power walk, dog walk, etc).  Though the “sprint” option was tempting (I could die sooner), I selected “trail run” as that most closely resembled what I wanted to do.   At least in theory.  On paper.   Vicariously through someone else.   After that, I hit the “start workout” button and my jog had officially commenced.

At first, it felt great to get outside and be on the trail.  Of course, I was still standing still.  When I actually started to move forward, somehow all hell broke loose with my body. It was as if 44 years of resentment built up and my body was now angry or something.  Shin splints appeared out of nowhere.  My tongue immediately became devoid of all moisture.  My lungs collapsed.  At least they felt like they did.   My legs seemed heavy.  Incredibly, someone – without my knowledge – succeeded in placing lead bricks in my sneakers.   I think I got chicken pox.  How was I going to be the first man to run a 3 minute mile with all of these medical anomalies happening at once?  To make matters worse, the stupid app had a timer on it and I knew time was ticking.  Why do we add unnecessary pressure on our run with a ticking clock?   Is the universe going to explode if I don’t make it home in 30 minutes?   I’m already stressed about my run – I don’t need some ticking metric to point out how slow I really am.   I looked at my watch with disdain.  I had been officially “running” for about 30 seconds now.  This was not a good start.

By all accounts, my pace is slow.   Think turtle with a sprained leg after triple bypass surgery.   Keeping up with the Kenyans (or the Kardashians) is not the goal.  Jogging this trail, I reminded myself, is not a race.  So what if the white Kenyans were in another zip code by now?  This is not a race.  So what if the elderly man in the motorized electric chair is passing me?  It’s not a race.  So what if the seven-year old girl walking her disabled poodle lapped me – twice?  It’s not a race.   So what if I’m already parched within 50 feet of my door?  It’s not a race.   I’m here to get some exercise and lose some weight and enjoy God’s beautiful creation.   Oh, and die of cardiac arrest.

Trail runs are interesting, if I can even call this one a trail.   Apparently, in America, we can’t even allow our trails to be natural.   Just a few suggestions for the future trail makers of America:

  1. First of all, there should be a law requiring neighborhoods to mark their trees.   Ribbons or spray paint would work just fine.   How can I know where I’m going when every tree looks identical to each other?  I mean, they all have bark and green leaves.  How in the world could I possibly tell I was circling the same Pine tree for 45 minutes straight?
  2. Second, there should be signs at every “V” in the trail.  Numerous times I had to choose between going “right” or “left.”  I felt like Neo in the Matrix picking a pill.  It reminded me of the Encyclopedia Brown book series I read as a kid – determining my own ending.  If I went “right,” was that where lemonade and Dr. Scholl’s inserts would be?   If I went “left,” would I encounter snakes, leprechauns or other dangerous creatures?   Which way did the freaking Kenyans go?
  3. Third, where are the helpful “you are here” maps that they provide in the malls?   Granted, they would be impossible to create as even the “you are here” map makers would have no clue where they were.   Even so, it’s the thought that counts.   If you are lost in a mall, at least you are indoors and not far from the food court.  Survival is not a question.   On the trail, sunset was imminent – at least 4 hours away.  That didn’t give me much time to find my way home.

As I continued to wander in the wilderness like Moses, I thought about those wilderness survival shows on TV.  I wondered if I would have to cut off my arm to survive or what animal I’d have to kill and eat to make it through the night.  I mean, it was 68 degrees out and I was developing a slight chill.   At one point, I recalled a story from childhood that may have proven helpful.  It was a beautiful story about 2 trail running children.  Something about leaving food on the ground.  Wait a minute, wasn’t someone trying to kill them?  I really should have paid more attention to my bedtime stories.  Besides, I wasn’t sure how feeding the squirrels was going to help me so I immediately abandoned that train of thought.

About 55 minutes into my “run,” I came to the conclusion that I was officially lost.  Even though I had only traveled about .3 miles from my front door, I began to panic.  I wondered if Park Rangers had been deployed to look for me yet?   Were there teams of individuals canvassing the neighborhood organizing a search for me?   Was the local police chief holding a press conference?  I wonder what picture my roommate provided to show others what I looked like?  Secretly, I hoped a Facebook page was created for me (“Support group for fans of the pseudo trail jogger“).   Then the thought hit me – “What if I became the next Reader’s Digest story?”   Those stories always seem to involve a bear mauling.   This, by the way, is not helpful thinking when you are alone, on a foreign trail, in broad daylight, in the middle of suburbia.   At one point, I was so concerned, I almost drew a panicked self portrait of myself to hang on a nearby tree – left behind as a clue to my whereabouts.  (Note to self: bring a sharpie and paper next time I go trail running.)

As for the i-pod, which was to serve as the ultimate distracter of pain?  It’s final song was ironic, if not taunting.   “You’re only human (2nd wind)” from Billy Joel:

“Don’t forget your second wind
Sooner or later you’ll get your second wind
It’s not always easy to be living in this world of pain
You’re gonna be crashing into stone walls again and again
It’s alright, it’s alright.

Don’t forget your second wind.   Wait in your corner until that breeze blows in.”

Note to self: Update my playlist before my next trail crawl.

As I finished my near death trail running experience, it led me to think about running as a past time.   We don’t time our experience at the grocery store.  We don’t time our dentist or car mechanic.  And yet, somehow, we put this pressure on ourselves that we have to run a certain distance in the speed of light or we are out of shape.

No sir.   No more.  

As for me, I’m getting rid of my watch.  In it’s place, I’m strapping a calendar to my wrist.   It doesn’t “tick” and is much more encouraging and gracious.  

I began my run in May.  If, by the end of June, I’m not back – come look for me.  

Until then, I’m circling the trees and feeding the squirrels in search of some Kenyans… who I have a feeling are back at home “liking” some Facebook support page.

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Stress relief: Where we go when life falls apart

stress-reliefYesterday was a rough day.  For the sake of privacy, I’ll just say I experienced another significant loss in my life and it left me feeling empty.

We all experience loss throughout our lives; relationally, financially, emotionally, physically, etc.   It’s part of the human process.   We all handle losses differently.   Losing (anything) creates a certain level of disappointment and stress which forces all “losers” to figure out a way to deal with it.   The emptiness we feel from the loss tempts us to find a way to fill the gaping void.  The question isn’t whether we will try to fill the void or not.  Every void begs to be filled.  The question is whether we fill it with a positive or negative, good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate filler.

Some friends of mine, when experiencing some level of stress or loss, bite their nails.  Somehow that makes them feel better.   Others smoke.   Some begin drinking.   Others work out.   Some of us have been known to bury our troubles in our work.   I know a few that comfort themselves with food.  I know a few others that refuse to eat.  I know one lady that cleans her house when she is stressed. (She needs serious help.)  Others become a couch potato.   Some people run to the opposite sex.   Whether it is gambling, sex, pornography, movies, Yoga, books – there is no shortage of void filling activities.  For every 10 people I know, there are 10 different ways that people handle their stress.

As I was struggling with my loss and trying to figure out how to handle it, I thought about some of those options available to me:

  • Bite my nails.   Unfortunately, I wasn’t given the Beaver gene.  My teeth simply lack the mobility to actually do it effectively.   Besides, that wouldn’t relieve the stress for me.  It would just make me slobber on my fingers, mess up my cuticles and require me to eventually sit in some poorly ventilated Korean nail salon while I struggled to breathe amidst the fumes.  The thought of this actually stresses me out more.
  • Get drunk.   Fortunately, this option is not tempting to me. Though I do occasionally drink socially, I have never been drunk and therefore have never used it as a way to drown my sorrows.  With my “luck,” I would end up getting a DUI, thrown in jail and spend my time trying to avoid being someone’s prison girlfriend.   This thought also brings me stress.
  • Do drugs.   Other than the bottle of Ibuprofen in my bathroom cabinet, I wouldn’t know the first thing about acquiring drugs not available in CVS.   Besides, how many Ibuprofen pills would I have to take to relieve this stress?  I normally take 2 for a headache.  So, 4?   (You can tell I live on the edge).   Knowing me, I would go crazy and take 6 and immediately call 911 and tell them to “come get me” in my best Brian Regan voice.   I have never smoked pot or cigarettes or even a cigar for that matter, so the idea of using this as a stress relief option doesn’t make sense to me.   Actually, taking drugs would stress me out more than the stress of my loss.   Then what?  What do you do when your stress reliever causes more stress?
  • Netflix.  Honestly, sitting at home and watching hours of movies sounds very appealing to me.  But I know me, after the second movie, I would be bored stiff.  I’m pretty sure I would develop a bed sore.   Experiencing a loss is bad enough.  Experiencing a loss while nursing a bed sore – that must be unbearable.

These options, while appealing to some, just would not suffice for me.  Of all the available options known to me, I’m embarrassed to admit to you how I handled yesterday’s stress.

I ran…

…to the opposite sex.      (Don’t judge me.)

You see, there is a woman in town who is quite fond of me.  Honestly, she is a beautiful person all around and she has made it clear that she would love to spend time with me, whenever I am available.   She is also a great listener and gives the best hugs.  In light of my loss, I decided I wanted to fill the void with her.   I drove to her home unannounced.   When I arrived, her face lit up when she saw me and immediately gave me a huge embrace.   I could already feel the stress leaving my body.   She invited me to sit down with her and visit for as long as I could stay.   She complimented my appearance and was constantly putting her hand on my knee, seemingly aware of my primary love language of physical touch.   We sat in her front yard on a bench under the tree and talked and laughed.   She was overjoyed by my visit and told me repeatedly how glad she was that I was there.   I was thankful for her time and loving presence.

Our conversation was seamless.   We covered a wide variety of topics and current events – never once mentioning my loss.  We even spent some time looking at the clouds and talking about what we see.   Honestly, I could have spent all afternoon with her.   It was exactly what I needed in light of my rough morning.   Unfortunately, I had to run some appointments and she had her own things to do.   After all, when you’re a 91 year old woman, you have a very busy schedule to keep.

helen sanders

The truth is, we all have our stress reliever of choice.   While many of us struggle with inappropriate stress relieving outlets (like cleaning your house), there are appropriate options out there to help you cope with your disappointments and loss and grow from the experience in responsible, healthy ways.

In the past, it is no secret that I have chosen some pretty self-destructive coping mechanisms.  Instead of facing my problems, I have run towards people or things that merely complicated my stress.  Though they may have distracted me for a moment, in the long run they have added more stress and further complicated the situation.   I have made a conscious effort to stop that and by God’s grace and some much needed accountability, I will continue to make good on my promise.

As I look around the human landscape, stress seems to be a common denominator for every earth dweller.  Everyone seems to have some healthy dose of it, in one form or another.  Emotional, physical, mental, financial, relational & spiritual pressure points abound.   And it seems to be no respecter of age, gender or persons.  Our stress levels are as high as ever and many people struggle with how to cope.  We can blame our problems on things like drugs or guns all we want, the truth is stress is the culprit and our inability to handle it appropriately.

As Creator, God seems to not only understand our capacity for stress but desires to lovingly address it on our behalf.   A brief glance through Scripture reveals two things:

  1. Stress is not a new struggle for mankind.  It began the day Adam left the Garden of Eden and has just gotten more complicated ever since.
  2. God is in the business of helping us handle it.

When Moses was stressed about his inability to lead God’s people out of slavery, God relieved His stress with 5 words: “I will be with you.” (Exodus 3:12)  THAT is all Moses needed to remember.   For many of us today, we still need that reminder.

When the disciples realized the threats against Christ were a very real and present danger, they were obviously concerned about their own physical safety.   Jesus put their fear into perspective, “My friends, are not five sparrows sold for two cents?  Yet not one of them is forgotten before God.  Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  Do not fear, you are more valuable than many sparrows.” (Luke 12:6-7)

When the disciples were stressed about their Master and His impending death, Jesus relieved their stress by reminding them, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”   That promise is still in effect today.

When the Apostle Paul was distressed about his “thorn in the flesh,” Christ reminded him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” (II Corinthians 12:9)   That grace, Paul realized, was all he needed.  From that understanding Paul wrote, “I am well content with weaknesses… with distresses… with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (12:10)

Mary, Jesus’ mother, had to be stressed the day she watched her Son hang on a cross.  What greater torment is there than watching your own child die?  And yet, while Jesus hung suspended between heaven and earth, bleeding and dying – He was concerned about His mother’s well-being.   While He could have easily been distracted by His own life-threatening situation, He wasn’t.  Just moments before He breathed His last – one of His final acts was to make sure that someone was appointed to look after His mother.   He didn’t randomly assign a disciple to the task.  Rather, He chose “the disciple whom He loved” to oversee His mother’s care.  (John 19)

It’s not just a cute, church cliche that “Jesus loves you.”   He actually sincerely, genuinely cares about YOU and whatever situation you are going through right now.

Over 100 times in the Bible, God reminds His children to “fear not” or “do not be afraid.”   Apparently, He understands that we are a people under stress and there is no shortage of things that we let grip us with fear.

What is in your life that is currently stressing you out?  How are you handling it?  Know this – you have access to Someone who wants to help you.   And He offers you blanket assistance:

Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

I don’t know about you… but I have some pretty enormous things in my life to be anxious about.   I often feel weary and burdened.   I could use some rest for my soul.  And running to women, drugs, alcohol, pornography, food or Netflix merely distracts me from God’s offer.  A clean house, though important, can’t ultimately solve my problems.

Come to Me,” is the offer of God.   He wants us to come with our weary and burdened stress and He exchanges it for rest – even rest for our souls.

He invites our problems because He knows He’s the only one truly equipped to handle them.

And why does He want to help us?   Why does He encourage us to share our stress with Him?   What could possibly motivate Him to embrace our messy life?

Love.

He actually cares.

Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:6-8)

“God is good at all times, but He seems to be at His best when we are at our worst.”  – Charles Haddon Spurgeon

“The Bible that is falling apart usually belongs to someone who isn’t.” – D.L. Moody

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Mr. Restoration

photoLast week my company sent me to a home about an hour north of Charlotte to visit with a couple whose home had recently caught on fire.  Apparently the fire began in the garage, quickly spread to the kitchen and traveled through the attic before it was able to be contained.   By the time I arrived on the scene, 3 days later, the flames were extinguished, the smoke had subsided and the homeowner was left with the task of figuring out what could be saved.

My specific job is to meet with the homeowner, work alongside the insurance adjusters and contractors and try to see what fabric-related items can be salvaged.  Traveling through 6 South-Eastern states, I am in fire-damaged homes every week.   To date, this one was by far the worst.   True, the fire was indeed a bad one.   Most of their furniture and possessions were destroyed.  But what complicated this one even more was one added element.   By anyone’s standard, this couple would be defined as HOARDERS.

It’s bad enough to be in a hoarder’s home on a normal day.  It’s truly an eye-opening experience to see a hoarding home damaged by fire.  To say it was a mess, would be an understatement.   There was a pile of clothes (about 4 feet high) in front of the bedroom closet.  In fact, every closet was jammed packed with hanging clothes.  Over 2,000 clothes hangers were found strewn in various rooms.  Dozens (think 15) of empty shoe boxes littered the home.  Even a piano was discovered in another room under another pile of clothes.  (Yes, a piano!)  I understand that many ladies have a thing for shoes.  This hoarding woman is your leader.  We discovered over 600 pairs of shoes from this 1400 square foot home.   From what I could see, she only had two feet.

Being in the home and interacting with this couple was – at the same time – both disturbing and fascinating.  It was a train wreck that I could not stop looking at.   It made me realize why we are intrigued by the various reality TV shows.  As the couple sat outside their home, a half dozen of us men were in the house doing what we could to help.  Two men were focused on structural issues.  Two examined the furniture.   A fifth man, the insurance adjuster, was there to see what could be claimed.  I was interested in the fabric.  (There is a sentence I have never said before!)   Regardless of why our various companies had sent us, we all were there for one primary reason:

RESTORATION.

We all were interested in helping this family restore what had been lost.

Walking around their home was overwhelming.  Every room desperately needed to be restored.   Between the fire, smoke, water and filth, there was literally a gaping black hole of need everywhere we looked.   Privately, we joked that the fire department should have just let it burn.  The project was so daunting, even the trained professionals weren’t exactly sure how to get started.   And honestly, as we looked around – we didn’t see much worth restoring.  The clothes were not particularly nice.  The furniture was not particularly expensive.   Their taste in art work, carpet, and other household items were tacky, at best.  No one thought what they had left was worth saving.  Fortunately for them, none of us “experts” had a vote as to whether we should try to restore their items.   In these situations, value is determined by the homeowner and validated by the insurance company.  Our job was not to place value.   Our task was simply to restore.

Unsure of what they valued, we brought them bag after bag of clothes from inside the house.   IMG_0379Blouse after painstaking blouse, pant after pant, shoe after shoe – Mrs. Hoarder would tell us (one by one) what she was willing to give away and what she still wanted to keep.   To be fair, she did surprisingly well – willing to give away over 65 bags of clothing.  Sadly, she was not able to part with over 250 bags of clothes – still maintaining her status as a hoarder.  As I looked around, I saw a house full of trash.  The hoarders clearly saw treasure.   I saw a room full of old clothes.  They saw a closet full of “Sunday best.”  In fact, many of the things they wanted to save – I would have thrown away years ago.  Such is the difference of opinion on worth.  On this particular day, I learned a lesson about value and who establishes it.

As I have thought about this family over the last week or so, it seems that we often look at others’ personal lives in the same way.   We tend to stare at their mess in disbelief.  We are shocked to see how they have kept the closet of their heart.  We marvel at their once hidden depravity and ponder at the number of sinful “shoes” they have accumulated over the years.   How did it get that bad?  How did they keep it from others for so long?  As we walk through the rooms of their lives, we are overwhelmed with their black hole of need.  As we gaze into their moral basement, we are left with two burning questions.   The first is asked in a moment of compassion, “How can I help them?”  The second question, if we’re honest, is a bit more transparent, “Do I even want to?”  For many of us, we are not sure we even want to get involved.  I mean, helping a moral hoarder can’t be done from the front lawn.  They don’t need money or prayer as much as they need an investment of sweat.  At some point, you are going to have to walk in, walk around and begin touching the mess yourself – if you truly want to help.  And sadly, for too many of us, we just don’t want that kind of contact with those who are morally messier than us.   We begin ignoring phone calls.   We stop reaching out.  We stop asking dangerous questions like, “How are you?”   We quit giving a hand or our shoulder or our ear or our money in hopes that maybe someone else will get involved.   We abandon those who need us, not because God released us from the relationship – but simply because we got tired of being in the hoarder’s heart.  Let’s face it, it’s just not a comfortable place to dwell.   We prefer easy and those who need to be restored are far from it.

As I read the Bible, I see the thread of restoration running through every page.

  • Adam & Eve: Before our First Parents were even out of the Garden of Eden, God had restoration on His mind.  As He was doling out the consequences for their idolatry, He was also paving the road of restoration back to Himself.
  • Israel: As a nation, they abandoned God and as a result were led into a 400+ year bondage at the hands of Pharaoh’s Egypt.  God never forgot His chosen people and raised up His rod of restoration, the servant of Moses.
  • Jonah: The prophet of God who would rather have died than follow God’s plan for his life.  From the “stomach of the fish” and from the “depth of hell,” Jonah “cried for help” and God “answered” him.   Why?  God could have easily raised up someone else for the task.  But that’s not how God works.  God doesn’t throw away people or His relationships.  We run, God pursues.  We ruin.  God restores.  While we are swimming in our moral abyss, God is preparing our mansion.
  • The madman: In Luke 8, we are told that Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee with His disciples.  His men probably assumed they were on another field trip with their Leader.  Jesus was actually on a restoration mission and not even a raging storm could stop Him.   Waiting on the other side was a man known throughout history as the “demoniac.”  If there was any man not “worth the effort,” it would have been him.  By all human accounts, he was beyond “saving,” just ask the townspeople who lived near him.   In fact, Scripture paints a pretty dim moral portrait describing him as demon-possessed, naked, chained, under guard and living in the tombs.  Literally, his home was the community cemetery.  Within moments of landing ashore, Jesus rolls up His sleeves and gets to work.  With one question, Jesus began the restoration process.   Others treated him like an animal.  Jesus wanted to know his name.  Seconds later, he is a new creation – “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.”   Such is the effect of a messed up life in the path of a restoring God.

I think about restoration a lot these days.   For starters, I’m in need of it.   I’m a man who understands what it’s like to cling to the bottom knot of a moral rope… and then let go.  Again and again.  Foolishly, I have spent time with “bad company” and like the Bible predicted, it corrupted “good character.”  (I Corinthians 15:33)  Like a negligent captain, I have run my moral ship aground and have, as a result, lost my most precious cargo.   The lyrics to the song “In the Light” by DC Talk resonate with me:

I keep trying to find a life
On my own, apart from You
I am the king of excuses
I’ve got one for every selfish thing I do

The disease of self runs through my blood
It’s a cancer fatal to my soul
Every attempt on my behalf has failed
To bring this sickness under control

What’s going on inside of me?
I despise my own behavior
This only serves to confirm my suspicions
That I’m still a man in need of a Savior

Ironically, I drive a company vehicle with the word “restoration” on it.   Every day I am in a home that has experienced tremendous loss.  Every day I interact with people who know what it’s like to lose something precious to them.   A few have lost loved ones.  All have lost possessions.   Some have lost hope.   Whether it was fire damage from a stove, smoke damage from an appliance, soot damage from a chimney or water damage from a busted pipe, my entire focus all day, every day is restoration.   As I walk through devastating home after devastating home, the one question that permeates my work is “What can be restored here?”   I find myself asking the same question in life; for me and others.

mr restorationAs I drove off the property that day, I saw the name of the company that was working alongside of mine,

“Mr. Restoration.”

How fitting, I thought.  I was struck with the irony.  Yes, it is the name of a franchise business.  But it’s also the name of my God.   This company restores furniture, my God restores lives.  The business does it for money, God does it for glory.   And this company operates their business just as God operates His, one person at a time.

Whether you live in the cemetery, struggle with an addiction, wrestle with your tongue or your temper or battle a bitter spirit, restoration is on the heart and agenda of God.  And if it’s on His mind and schedule, it should be on ours too.

“This is all that restoration requires most of the time, that one person not give up.”  - Anne Lamott

Then I will make up to you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten.” (Joel 2:25) 

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4 blessings of the Billboard

BillboardI used to have a secret and by all accounts it was a juicy one.  It was the kind of secret that - if it got out – would be BIG news to a large number of people, literally all over the globe.  It was a secret so salacious that it would – without doubt - forever impact the lives of thousands of people – beginning with mine.  It was a secret so potent, so dark, so unbelievable that at first, no one would believe it.  Eventually, when reality set in, most everyone would turn on me for having it and keeping it so long.  Because of the damning nature of this secret and the irreversible damage it would cause, I thought it best to keep it hidden, covered under the proverbial lock & key.  And I did.  For many, many years.   I covered my tracks.  I erased my fingerprints.  I rehearsed and remembered my story.   In the process, not only did I become good at hiding the secret, but I became good at becoming something I never intended on becoming – deceitful.  As I discovered, secrets and deceit always go hand in hand.

And then it happened.

One night, while on vacation in Hilton Head, SC with my family, I broke down.  Emotionally broke down.  As they slept in the next room, I was on the condo floor with my Bible and a bucket of tears – realizing it was time for the secret to be shared.  My guilt, suppressed for years, had taken its toll on my soul.  My secret was beginning to crack.  The safe it was in was no longer safe.   Figuratively speaking, the bodies I had buried were apparently not buried at all.   My skeletons were coming out of the closet and there was nothing I could do – but confess.

And so I did.

In the beginning stages of brokenness, the only ones who knew the secret were the ones that were in a position to help.  That is, until the secret jumped out a window, ran into the front yard, got into a nearby taxi and made its way down the street.  Very quickly, it travelled beyond the walls of help.  Apparently, the town gossip (a ministry leader in town) made it her mission to share it with others and, as a result, my secret was leaking faster than Wiki.   Life, as I knew it, would never be comfortable again.  My darkest sins felt like they were on the city billboard.   The scarlet letter was now permanently branded on my chest.

In the early days, I resented this woman and those who were sharing my secret with others.   Not only did I hate the sin, hate getting caught and hate the consequences they brought – but I hated the exposure that came with it.   My once good name was no longer good.   I had fallen off the pedestal.  All the good deeds I had done were simply erased from the ledger.  It is hard enough to go through a personal crisis or moral failure privately.  It is excruciating to wade through the moral muck publicly.  I can’t even imagine the celebrities (actors, politicians, musicians, etc.) that have to publicly climb out of their immoral fishbowl after national or international exposure.  The pain, at any level, is virtually unbearable.

For me, several years have gone by since the initial exposure.  I have had time to work on my “stuff” and begin to heal from the pain caused by the sin, broken relationships and public fall from grace.   And I have come to a surprising revelation – after the dust has settled.  Simply put,

There is a blessing in the billboard.

Billboards are the highway’s advertisements.  Located off of major roads, they are designed to get the message out to as many people as possible.  Yes, it’s hard to have your sins listed publicly.  It’s really tough to have your long-held secrets shared in open forum.  It’s deflating to discover your darkest stain is mentioned under the guise of a prayer request, the church’s justification of gossip.  And when living in the age of Google and Bing – the search engines used by the planet – a traditional billboard would be a welcomed alternative.

As time has gone on, I have discovered some blessings in the billboard.  There are 4 distinct advantages in having your darkness exposed publicly by the light:

1) For starters, the secret is no longer a secret.  Bad things grow in the dark.  Good things grow in the light.  The cockroach of your secret scurries away from the brightness of the light.   Like hydrogen peroxide on a fresh wound, light has a purifying effect.  Though painful at first, the light will soon become the preferred environment to dwell in.  A secret-free life is a free life indeed.

2) As painful as it is, your past mistakes (publicly mentioned) can help others avoid the pothole you fell in.   Though most of us have to learn the hard way, there are a precious few who learn by the mistakes of others.  Your sins on a billboard help them see the “bridge is out” sign long before they get there.

3) Everyone can fall.   You are in a unique position to show others how to rise again.   If your secret was revealed privately, very few people would know what you are overcoming.  But when your name is in lights – everyone can see that restoration is possible and what it can look like.  Public disgrace can turn into a trophy of grace.

4) Pride is the root of all sin.   We often get into the trouble we do because of pride and pride keeps us from getting help or getting out.  When your world does finally crash on you, a humbling of sorts takes place.  When your private moments are broadcast on a public billboard – it creates a humility that can scarcely be found anywhere else.  And that humbling experience, as hard as it is, can keep you from moving back to the land of secrets.

The truth is, secrets live where God wants to dwell – in the heart.  And God doesn’t share His space well.   When He finds darkness where there should be light, He does what He does best – heart surgery.   And unfortunately for us, His kind of surgery is often without anesthesia.

It’s painful.

It’s public.

It’s necessary.

And it’s motivated by love because He likes His children in the Light – away from the bondage of secrets.

“I am not what I ought to be, not what I want to be, not what I hope to be. But still, I am not what I used to be. And by the grace of God, I am what I am.” – John Newton, former slave trader & writer of the popular hymn, Amazing Grace.

“For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.   It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret.   But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.” (Ephesians 5:8-13)

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Law to the proud, Grace to the humble

Rod with his players during a time out.

Rod with his players during a time out.

Last year I had the privilege of co-coaching a girl’s volleyball team for a local high school.  Like most coaches, I love my team but sometimes struggle with the various personalities and abilities represented.  Some of the nicer girls can’t hit a ball to save their life.  A few of the attitude problems seem to also be my better players.  Obviously there are those who maintain a great balance between ability and pleasantness.  As a coach, you are wired to win.  However, you also attempt to teach sportsmanship and emphasize the importance of positive attitudes and teamwork, regardless of score.   attitude quote

One night during a frustrating match, I had an attitudinal “coup d’etat.”  One player refused to give me eye contact when speaking to her,  blatant disrespect.  Another player rolled her eyes when given instructions.  Another athlete responded to me “curtly,” obviously frustrated by her lack of performance.  Another one sat sullen on the bench after realizing she wasn’t going to play that much.   The reason she was on the bench?  Her sullen attitude.  The girl who could barely do anything on the court immediately found herself in the game.  The “gifted” girls sat on the bench stunned by this move.

How do you handle such behaviors?  How do you know when someone deserves the law or whether they need to be shown some grace?  If you are too soft, the team won’t respect you.  If you are too hard on them, you could crush their spirits.  What if you yell at the girl who needed a pat on the back?   What if you pat on the back the one who is stabbing yours?   These questions don’t just plague coaches, but parents, teachers, employers, etc.  How do you know when to be lenient or just “throw the book” at them?   Believe it or not, there is a 2,000 year old principle that gives us insight on this question.

It’s best illustrated in the lives of two different people, each possessing two different hearts.   One is a man, the other a woman.   One looks great on the outside, seems to have everything we all want in life.   The other can’t look any worse, at the lowest point in life, on the verge of being executed.   One struts in pride.  The other is drenched in humility.  Both represent mankind.   We are either like the man or we are like the woman.   Which one represents you?

Meet the woman (John 8:1-11):  It’s bad enough to be having sex with someone you shouldn’t be.  It’s even worse when you are caught in the very act and drug into the public square about it.   That’s where we meet this woman.  Clothes barely on.   Hair all messed up.  Tears streaming down her face.  Sitting alone, in the open square with judgment and shame all around her.  Her sins are listed on a billboard on Main Street.  Her dirtiest secret is now front page news.  In her case, her sins are not only immoral but illegal.  According to Jewish law, sleeping with someone you shouldn’t be was punishable by death – death by stoning.  With rocks in their hands, the men surrounding her were more than happy to execute.

They bring her to Jesus, clearly setting a trap for Him.  She is the bait.  They want His opinion on how to handle such a sinner.  It is obvious by her crime that she deserves the law.  If He agrees, she will be dead in about 45 seconds.  If He says to show grace, He will be violating Jewish law – the very Law handed to the Jews by His Father and the very law He has claimed to fulfill.

Meet the man (Mark 10:17-27):  Rich, young, powerful.   Isn’t that what we all want?  Who doesn’t want to be rich?  Who doesn’t want to be young (again)?   Who doesn’t want to be in charge?   Yet, in spite of being in possession of all three of those desired traits, this man still knew he was missing something.  And oddly, he knew that a poor, homeless, carpenter from Nazareth had his answer.

Good Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to get eternal life?”   (In other words, how do I get to heaven?)

The question is cloaked in pride.  By outward appearances, he looked good and he wanted to look even better.   The common view in 1st century Jerusalem was that the rich were blessed by God.  Naturally, this guy would be in Heaven.  His life is too blessed (materially) not to be.   21 centuries later, our views have barely changed.

When the rich, young ruler asked Jesus his now famous question, he was not expecting Jesus’ answer.  Of course, that is typical God.  He never answers our questions the way He’s supposed to.  He spent His entire life on earth turning our logic on its head.  His faith often baffles our reason.  Every word He uttered was contradictory to His culture.  As the prophet Isaiah reminds us, “His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts.” (55:10)   This is clearly the case here.   The man had earned salvation.  If anyone was getting to Heaven because of their good deeds, this man was it.   At least, that’s what he thought before Jesus opened His mouth.

It’s a fair question and one we still ask today.  In other words, what spiritual coins do I have to put into the cosmic vending machine to get the spiritual goods?   Live a good life?  Be more good than bad?  Don’t kill people?  Don’t rob banks?  Don’t commit adultery?  Just obey the 10 commandments, right?   As long as I follow those rules, I’m in?

In the case of the woman, her deeds clearly earned her a spot in hell.   I mean, next to murder, adultery is #2 on the sin list.  In the case of the man, his deeds clearly earned him a spot in heaven.   He is a pillar of the community.  And they both stand in front of a Holy Christ – certain to confirm what their hearts already told them.   Their deeds are recorded.  A human court would agree.  The divine courtroom awaits the Judge’s verdict.

Notice how Jesus addresses each one individually.  Notice how each one receives something completely unexpected.   Why?   Why would He give the law to one and grace to the other?   Why not give the law to both or grace to both?   The answer is found in the heart of each person.   Herein lies the 2,000 year old principle:

Law to the proud.  Grace to the humble.

Jesus takes the man to the only place you can take a proud heart.   Directly to the Law.   To him He says, “You know the commandments, ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.”

The man, in his pride, was quick to say he obeyed them all.  Pride often does that – blinds us from our faults. It obscures our inadequacies.  Makes us think we are better than we are.   It prevents us from seeing ourselves as God sees us.  We obey the verses we want to obey and think we are fine. We keep the law physically and assume we’ve kept the law morally.

It’s true, he had never killed anyone.  He probably didn’t sleep with anyone’s wife.  He had no reason to steal.  He most likely visited his parents weekly.   Man always focuses on behavior.  God always looks at the heart.   And when a heart is filled with pride, the only thing that can break it is the law.

By contrast, the woman knew she was sinful.  If her deeds didn’t remind her daily, her reputation did.  And she was caught in the very act of adultery – sex with someone else’s husband.  There is no hiding such exposure.   There was no where for her to go.  Caught and in custody, she had no reason to assume that she would ever be free.  If the stones didn’t kill her, shame certainly would.   Humiliated beyond repair.  Humbled beyond hope.  Only a miracle would save her now and that, she would learn, is all she needed.

So, on a volleyball court in Columbia, SC – as I watched my team of 12 struggle during one of our games, my mind flashed back to this 2,000 year old principle.  How do I address these girls?  How do I know who needs to be benched?  How do I know who should be on the court?   And it hit me.   Their heart.  “Let their heart guide you.”    And so it did.

The rich young rulers were benched.   The girls who were humble and respectful finally saw playing time.   Ability, talent & performance, for this moment, were secondary to what was really needed – heart.    Hubris may win a few more games, but heart makes a better team.   Ask any coach.

So, next time you are at home and dealing with children… or at work and dealing with employees… or on the court and dealing with players… look at the heart.   Think about the principle.

2,000 years may have gone by but the human heart is still the same.   Some of us are Pharisees and some of us are prostitutes.   Some need the law to change.  Others need some grace.  And though our habits do matter to God, He’s really interested in our hearts.   And He’ll bench you all day long if it will help make your heart more like His.

Law to the proud.  Grace to the humble.

What’s in your heart?

God opposes the proud

 

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Lovers: Pridefully hidden or humbly caught

One of the most well-known verses in all of Scripture is found in John 8:1-12, most commonly referred to as the passage about “the woman caught in adultery.”   Though her name is unknown, her sin is well documented.  To the biblically literate, her story is as familiar as it is powerful.   One minute, she is enjoying a passionate illicit rendezvous with a lover.  The next minute, she is before a kangaroo court with her life hanging in the balance.  One Man, stooped on the ground, seems to hold her fate in His hands.   A group of men, self-proclaimed executioners, await His verdict.  And off in the safe distance, barely visible and barely dressed – is her hidden lover. Equally guilty. Completely uncaught. The story represents all of mankind.  Before a loving God, we are either the hidden man or the caught woman. We hide in pride or confess in humility. Which one are you?

Below is the possible perspective of the hidden man.  Click here for the possible perspective of the caught woman.

*************************************************

They gave me 30 pieces of silver to sleep with the town whore and then they bust in the room and take her away?  What kind of move is that?  It looks like they are dragging her to court.  How is that for justice?   Why would they pay me to sleep with her, anyway?  That’s certainly an odd request coming from the Pharisees. Makes me just like her, I guess.   I thought it odd that some of them seemed all too familiar with her name and whereabouts.   This obviously isn’t her first rodeo.  Strangely, I don’t think it’s theirs either.  I wonder what she got paid for our tryst?   Doesn’t matter really – this whole experience is going to end up costing her.  

(He watches)

She must be cold – only wearing that robe.  She certainly looks scared.  I would be too if I were facing her judgment with all those stones.   woman caught in adultery 2Her cries for help seem to be falling on deaf ears.  Honestly, I think her fate was sealed before she ever came to the room today.   And now she sits, sobbing, dirty, soiled, on the ground in the middle of the temple court – a public spectacle for the people to see.  It’s not like her reputation could be worse.  But clearly, in this case, she was set up for a fall.  Such is the price of being a first century woman.

(Continues watching.  Sees a lot of commotion.)

Now, this is interesting!  They are bringing her before Jesus.  I’ve heard about that Man.  Strange Fellow, really.  Obscure background.  Odd companions.  Weird cousin.  Outrageous claims.  But, I have to say – He does some amazing things and everyone loves Him.  Well, everyone but the Pharisees.   I wonder why they are bringing her to Him?

Pharisee: “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery, in the very act.  Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women: what then do You say?”

Wait a minute!  The Law says both parties should be stoned, not that I’m going to come forward with that legal fact right now!  I wonder how Jesus will respond to this one? I wonder if He knows this is a trap?  If He says stone her, He will be violating Roman law since only a Roman judge can convict someone of murder.  Besides, He preaches too much grace and love to say such a thing.  If He lets her go, He will be contradicting the Law of Moses – the very law He keeps saying He fulfills.  Man, He’s stuck either way.   No matter how He answers the Pharisees are going to use this against Him.   This should be good. 

(He continues watching)

What is He doing?  Why is He stooping down like that?  Is He writing on the ground with His finger?  Man, this guy is strange!   I wish I could see what He’s writing.  The seasoned Pharisees seem to be reading it.  The younger guys keep demanding an answer.   I’ve got to say, this Jesus guy does everything in His own time.  He doesn’t seem in any hurry to answer these men.   Oh wait, He’s standing to speak.

Jesus: “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Now He’s writing on the ground again.   He writes something and stares at one of them.  Writes something else and stares at the next guy.   His eyes are piercing.  They are all squirming and whispering now.  What is in the world is He writing?  I wish I could see!

(Thud.  Thud.  Thud.)dropping rock pic

Wow!  The older ones are dropping their rocks!

 (Thud.  Thud.)

Seriously?  They are walking away!  I can’t believe this!  Not one of them is going to stone her??  Is Jesus picking up a stone?!   The woman is sobbing again.   Maybe Jesus is going to stone her??  After all, He seems to be the only One without sin here.

Jesus: “Woman, where are they?  Did no one condemn you?”

Woman: “No one, Lord.”

Jesus: “I do not condemn you, either.  Go.  From now on sin no more.”

(The woman walks away, right past her semi-hidden lover.)

Who is this Man??  If He is really sent by God like He claims to be, why isn’t He judging her?  Is my view of God all wrong?  A God who cares?  A God who forgives?

I have spent all this time hiding in the dark, afraid of being judged.  I wonder if it’s safe to come out now?

Jesus: I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.”

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“What are you here for?”

untitledIf there were one question that was most commonly asked to someone in jail, it was this one, “What are you here for?”

Correction officers asked this directly to inmates.  Inmates frequently asked it to each other.  Guards, inmates, prison workers – everyone wanted to know what you did to get there.  They knew there was a background to the story and many wanted to hear it.  After all, no one ends up in jail accidently.

Every inmate is there for a reason.   Some, as you can imagine, committed pretty heinous crimes.   Others were in for less violent reasons.  The crimes varied across the board.  For example:

  • I slept thirty feet away from Mr. Johnson, a quiet, elderly man serving a life sentence for a double homicide.
  • One man, named Paul, I met while doing some work in the Maximum Security wing.  He was an enormous man with an award-winning smile and fantastic personality.  On the few occasions that we spoke, he was a very engaging conversationalist.  He was there for raping his three-year-old niece.
  • A twenty-year-old named Chris was there after kidnapping a ninety-year-old woman during a botched armed robbery.   Chris and I spoke every night.  That is, until he attempted to assault me when I refused to give him a piece of candy.
  • One of my cellmates was there after his sophisticated shoplifting ring at Walmart was finally busted.
  • Another cellmate (I had six overall) named Andrew, a truck driver, had failed to pay a speeding ticket seven years ago.
  • One guy was locked up for cursing at the Judge during his hearing.
  • Many men I met were there for manufacturing Meth, a rampant problem in Lexington County (SC), where I was detained.
  • As I mentioned in a previous blog post, hundreds were there for their failure to pay child support.
  • Public drunkenness, simple possession, resisting arrest, DUI, driving under suspension, driving without a license, trespassing - the list of charges was as long as it was varied.

Some, like myself, were taken into custody immediately after a court hearing.  Others were arrested at work.  Several were taken from their beds.  One was detained right from the shower.   It was fascinating to hear their stories and the background of events that led to them being in jail.

And while I listened to literally hundreds of stories, two thoughts constantly came to mind.

The first was the level of transparency each man possessed while sharing his particular story.   As they were telling their version of events, most did not sugarcoat the offense but instead provided details I would have no way of knowing – details that could not be shared if they weren’t telling the truth and details that would not help “spin” their story more positively in their favor.   I was impressed with their candor.

And their candor got me thinking.

Why are we not (usually) this transparent in free life?  Why do we not share at this level with our families?   Why do we not talk this openly around the water cooler at work?  What keeps us from providing such damning details about our previous lives to those in our current social circles?   What is it about the truth of our past that forces most of us to want to live a present lie or pretend it never happened?

I think the simple answer is… relationship.

If we actually shared (out-loud) the things we have done or thought about doing – we’d have no friends.  No one, we think, could hear about our past and still want to be in the same room with us.   What I have done (fill in the blank) is so bad/so wrong/so dirty/so deviant (etc.) that no decent human being could hear it, let alone relate to my actions.   If they knew I think about such things (or gasp – did such things), it would certainly affect my current relational status.

So, we keep quiet and force our painful past (or current thoughts) to endure years of solitary confinement.   We keep the demons locked up behind a freshly painted door and hope that their screams will not be heard by those on the other side.   They can kick, scratch or yell all they want but as long as we keep that door closed, we’ll be fine.   This is what we tell ourselves in the free world.   Keeping the door to our past closed, I have come to realize, puts us free people in even greater bondage than those I met in jail.

Jail is one place where the demons come out.   It is where the past torments the present.  And in the darkness of a place like that – it has a way of doing what the free world cannot – level the playing field.   In the free world, I can hide my past deeds or current thoughts and blend in rather nicely in the environment I’m in.   In jail, I cannot.   I might be in for jaywalking and you might be in for disturbing the peace but the point is – we are both still in.  Our very presence there points to an embarrassing reality.   And because incarceration is such a public event, your private deeds are no longer private.   This, I think, is why I saw such refreshing transparency in there.   It’s easier to talk about your wrongdoings in the midst of other wrongdoers.  Is someone there going to judge you because you committed a crime?   Can someone in jail look down on you for being incarcerated?   Your offense may be different but you’re both there for a reason and therefore you share a common bond that few on the outside can understand.

This leads me to the second thought that hit me as these men were sharing transparently with me.  Why isn’t this same question (“What are you here for?”) asked in more often… in Church?

Our normal answers to this question reveal more about our propensity to deceive than we care to admit:

  • “I’ve heard great things about this church and wanted to check it out.”
  • “I like the music.”
  • “The sermons are always challenging.”
  • “They have great programs for the kids.”
  • “It’s close to home.”

Is there some truth to all these answers?   Sure.  But does it really address the true reason why we go to church?   Is it really about the music?   Or the youth programs?   Or even the sermon?

When I walk into a hospital, there is no shame in telling everyone I meet that I have a broken bone.   In fact, I’ll even show it to you if it means you’ll fix it.  And I’ll tell you how it happened and how it feels in the moment and answer any question you ask without shame or embarrassment that I’m there.

When I walk into a doctor’s office, I don’t feel any temptation to hide my flu-like symptoms.   I’ll sneeze my head off and blow my nose like a trumpet without a second thought because I’m sick.  I know I’m sick.  You know I’m sick.  The doctor knows I’m sick and the sooner I’m honest about every last symptom – the sooner I’m walking out of there a healed man.

For some reason, though – we do not view our soul sickness the same way.   Our mind could be corrupted, our heart could be deceitful, our tongue could be forked and our hands covered in blood – and we would still have trouble admitting why we are really in church.   What if we heard the following answers to the same question, “What are you here for?”

  • I’m a functional alcoholic and desperately need help.
  • I fight with my spouse every night and I don’t know what to do.
  • I am addicted to pornography and I obviously cannot stop on my own.
  • I need help forgiving my parents for something that happened years ago.
  • I am the victim of domestic abuse and am looking for a safe place to heal.
  • I am divorced and very lonely most nights.   I need a supportive community.
  • I am struggling financially and want to know what the Bible says about money.

What would happen to our communities if church was THE place where these real life needs were talked about from the pulpit?  Even better, what if the members of the church were equipped to handle visitors walking in with real life issues like these?

Recently, I attended a local church that addressed some real life issues from the pulpit.  The series was called “The Bible’s Biggest Problems” and I was impressed that the Pastor was tackling some of these taboo subjects head on.   The Sunday I was there the topic was “Homosexuality.”  Could there be a more divisive topic than this one today?   Click here to see for yourself how this particular Pastor handled it.   In my opinion, it was refreshing.

The truth is, we ALL have a past and we are all called to use that past to help others.     A recovering alcoholic can empathize with and help those who struggle with that addiction.   Only someone who has buried a child can understand the devastating pain of a grieving parent.  Whether you are a survivor of rape, a person with a criminal domestic violence charge or the woman who experienced a miscarriage – your painful past can help someone else’s current painful present.

This is why the Apostle Paul reminds us that the “God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (II Corinthians 1:3-4)

Church wasn’t meant to be a country club to go to on Sundays before lunch.   It’s not designed to be a place where you can drink some coffee, meet up with friends, enjoy a rock concert and hear a humorous motivational talk.  It is THE place where the spiritually sick can find, in the Person of Christ, their cure.   And God puts people with a past in positions of comfort and encouragement – for those walking into the building – looking for help and hope.

What’s in your past?   Have you received the comfort of God yet?   If so, pass it on.   There are those sitting next to you (in your family/at work/at the gym/in the pew) who need to know that their past deeds or present struggles can be redeemed.

After all, it’s what they’re really here for.

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I fought the law and the law won

handcuffed handsAs they were putting handcuffs on me, I had a flashback of a chorus of an old song playing in my head:

“I fought the law and the law won. 

I fought the law and the law won.”

Like catching a case of the giggles in a funeral, I found myself smirking at the remembrance of this song – though I was not at all happy about the circumstances or the reason I was being “locked up.”

Growing up, I had a record player in my room.  As best as I can remember it, I only owned 2 records myself; one of a Bill Cosby routine and the other was Bob Newhart – both delivering hilarious deadpan comedic genius.   I listened to both of them repeatedly for years.  When those two were not spinning in my room, I would borrow some LP’s from my step-Dad’s collection.   One favorite from the Bobby Fuller Four was called, “I fought the law and the law won.”   The lyrics, “I needed money because I had none” and “robbing people with a six gun” lead the listener to assume the nature of the “fight” with the law.

Last August, I had my own “fight” with the law.  Needless to say, my “fight” was a bit different than the one in the song.   I wish I could tell you I was a fighting a speeding ticket or that I appeared before a judge because of a parking violation.   No, my “crime” was a bit more serious.   And no, it did not involve “robbing people with a six gun.”

Unfortunately, my “fight” with the law had to do with child support.   Like most divorced Dads, I am required (by law) to pay this each month.  However, instead of my child support amount being determined by my income, I am required to pay a flat amount regardless of how much money I make.  (For the record, I foolishly agreed to this arrangement while unemployed unaware of how difficult finding a salaried position would be.)  The amount I owe, by anyone’s standard, is high – particularly in relation to my income.   To make matters worse, I have really struggled to find consistent employment and employment that will pay consistently.   I have sent my resume to hundreds of companies (literally) and have found that the only companies that will pay what I need are the commission-only sales jobs.  As those who share a similar compensation can attest, commission-only sales can be “feast or famine.”  Some months you make quota, some months you don’t.   Given this economy, it’s been mostly famine.  Many months I have been unable to pay rent, and barely able to put gasoline in my car or keep my electric on.   It’s been that bad.   It’s not that I didn’t want to pay my child support – I literally couldn’t and still survive.  The months I had the money, I paid.   As the saying goes, “you can’t get blood from a stone.”

So last August, I found myself back in court – as a Defendant, trying to explain to a family court judge as to why I was behind (yet again) on the child support.   Though there were many factors that attributed to my inconsistent track record, I tried to merely explain what caused the most recent infraction.  Not being able to afford a lawyer, I reluctantly represented myself and was given only a few minutes to plead my case.   In my possession I had proof of employment, proof of why I was not able to pay child support that month (I lost an unprecedented 5 sales in one month thus causing a charge back of commission) and proof of incoming income.  The judge was not interested in seeing any documentation.   My request to approach the bench with this information was denied.  Shockingly, he then turned to the Plaintiff and asked for their suggestion on how to handle this situation.   Their suggestion was crystal clear… I should be sent to jail.   Apparently there I would “learn my lesson.”

Within seconds, the judge declared his verdict, grabbed the gavel and slammed it on the mahogany wood “bench.”   I was to be sentenced to six months in the local county jail.   Needless to say, I stood there a bit stunned.  All I kept thinking was, “How is this in the best interest of my children?  How does me being in jail get them the money they need?”   Within 30 seconds I was in custody and whisked away by the courtroom bailiff.

Once I was out of the courtroom, I immediately surrendered my personal belongings and three different set of cuffs were placed on me; one on my wrists, one around my waist and one binding my ankles.   I was treated like a dangerous serial killer.   A bit extreme, I thought, for a man who unintentionally violated a civil court order.

Over the next hour, I watched man after man enter in from the courtroom, all before the same judge, all violating the same order, all receiving the same exact sentence.   As we compared stories in our 10 x 15 cell, it was obvious that justice was the last thing being served that day.   The family court’s objective is to determine what is in the “best interest of the children.”   The court is the established keeper of this mantra.   That is the standard that all parties (Judge included) are supposed to follow.   It falls to the court to determine not only WHAT is in the children’s best interest but how to enforce it.  Granted, it is in the best interests of the children to receive child support.  Raising children costs money.   Most divorced dads understand that and 98% of us want to get the kids what they need.  98% of us pay what we can as soon as we can.

That morning, in that tiny little cell directly behind the Judge’s chamber, every divorced dad in chains asked the same question, “How is THIS in our kid’s best interest?  How is losing our jobs in their best interest?  How is losing our homes and worldly possessions in their best interest?   How can a Dad be expected to provide anything for his children when everything is being taken away?”

Over the next few months, I sat, ate, worked and slept next to over 250 divorced dads incarcerated for their failure to pay child support.   I learned their names and heard their stories.   Of the throng of men I met, only a handful were truly “deadbeat dads,” the scarlet letter title automatically given to men in our predicament.   The majority of the men are dads who love their kids.  They are dads who want to provide for their children.  They are dads who, for various reasons, are victims of this economy or the target of an ex-wife who just wants to see them punished for past sins.   And sadly, the courts facilitate such revenge with counter productive punishments like jail sentences.   Jail should be for criminals.  Or actual deadbeat dads (the few I met).  Jail should be for dangerous people; drug dealers, drug users, shoplifters, murderers, rapists and burglars – not loving dads who are struggling in a hurting economy.

On August 27th, 2013 – ten dads had a fight with the law and the law won.mugshot

Ten dads lost their jobs.

Ten dads lost their homes.

Ten dads lost their worldy possessions.

And what about the children represented in those 10 families?   They lost too.

The children lost their dads for a season of their life – a season they can never get back again.

And they lost the financial support they needed while their dad was incarcerated.

But hey, the law won.

And THAT is in the best interest of the children.

IMPORTANT NOTE:

  • Sadly, this was my fourth appearance before a family court Judge in four years.  Every time, the Judge has threatened me with jail.  (It is their default threat since the County financially benefits from dads being incarcerated.)  All three times previously, the Judge required me to pay an extraordinary amount of money, within days of that hearing, or a bench warrant would be issued for me.  All three times, I was able to borrow that sum of money to avoid jail time.  As is their custom, the Judge oftentimes will ask the Plaintiff what outcome they would like to see happen.  (I have since learned that Moms hold tremendous influence as to what happens to the “deadbeat dad.”)  In a previous hearing, the Plaintiff did ask the Judge to keep me out of jail since I played an instrumental role in the children’s schedule – taking them to and from school every day (a 2 to 5 hour commitment per day, depending upon the after school activity).  By the time of the hearing mentioned in this post, the Plaintiff had re-married, moved the children out-of-state and I was no longer needed to help with the children’s daily schedule.
  • A note from an eyewitness that day: “I am honored to be a friend of Rod Arters.  I was privileged and pained to be in court with him on the day he describes in this blog.  I can attest that everything he writes about the courtroom experience is true.  I was there.  I was a witness.” – Reverend Michael Holt

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Please don’t step on my blue suede shoes…

blue suede shoesMy foot hurts.

To be exact, the third toe on my right foot is hurting.

Somehow I got a small cut on it and both my sock and shoe keep rubbing against it.  In fact, I discovered today that I cannot even walk normal because of it.  I kind of have this hunchback of Notre Dame gait.   No wonder women are bringing their children in closer as I hobble by them.  “Mommy, why is that man walking like that?”    Ugh.

I was walking out of a store last night, every step a painful one and some guy walking in looked at me with odd compassion.  He never said a word but he looked at me like I was a wounded warrior.  Perhaps he thought I was injured in Desert Storm?  Or maybe he thought I suffered a career ending sports injury?   Or that I permanently damaged my leg after heroically pulling a small child out of a burning house?

Nope.

I merely have a teeny, weeny baby cut on my 3rd toe.  Who would have thought that such a little injury could impact the rest of my body so much?

Now that I’m home with my shoes off and feet kicked up, I’m pondering a few things about this underwhelming injury.

The smallest cut still hurts. I cannot overemphasize how ridiculously small this cut is.  Even so, IT HURTS!  However, a physical cut will eventually heal but what about the verbal cuts we give to others each day?   We toss a verbal dart at a co-worker.  We use biting sarcasm with our spouse.   Maybe you speak in curt, annoyed tones with your parents.  Or yell at your kids?  We might even say what we say teasingly or jokingly but others can receive it seriously and personally.  I still remember with vivid clarity some choice words said to me by various people over the years.  The nursery rhyme promises, “Sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me.”   We all know this is a lie.    No matter how small, words can still hurt and leave a permanent bruise.

Every part of the body is important. I am not sure what role my third toe plays.  Some of my other toes have been given names like “Big toe” or “pinky toe”. So insignificant is this one that I had to assign a number to it just so you could know which one I was talking about. To my knowledge, it can’t do anything spectacular.  I can’t move it independently of the other toes.   It doesn’t give me any athletic edge (that I know of).  No one ever compliments it when I’m, say, at the beach.  “Wow, you have a handsome third toe.”   In the 43 years that it has been with me, I don’t recall ever giving it any thought – until tonight.  But cut the little sucker open and all of a sudden I’m thinking it plays a much more important role than I ever thought. I can’t even walk normal because that little #3 is hurting. It’s affecting my body more than I ever thought possible.

This makes me wonder how many #3 toes are in my life.  How many people are a part of my “body” that I barely give any thought to – until I’m forced to?  Do I know the name of the janitor at work?  Do I know the family background of the woman who does the menial tasks at the office?  Do I give eye contact to the teenager at the check-out counter of the grocery store or even address this person by name?  Though these people may not be a part of my family or in my friendship circle, they are a part of my life – my daily body.   And I’m realizing that every part of the body is important – even those who play (like #3 toe) an unseen role.

If one part suffers, all suffer with it. If you were to ask me how I’m doing tonight (and I felt like complaining), I would say I’m in pain.  But isn’t that interesting? Technically, only my one dinky toe hurts but that somehow affects my whole outlook.  All that tells me is that the way a body works, if one part suffers, all suffer with it.   My hands might be having a great day but does it really matter if I can barely walk?   How important is a great hair day if my bad breath could stop an attacking bear?

So, who in your “body” is suffering today?  Do you feel it?  Is there a friend that needs some of your attention?  Is there a troubled teen that needs your time? Is there a single mom not able to pay her rent and needs your money? Is there an elderly widow who is lonely this time of year and needs your hug?  Do you know someone who merely needs your ear?  There are parts of the body that are suffering out there, the question is do you notice it?   More importantly, do you even care?

I got a phone call this weekend from a man I have not talked to in over 18 years.   We were good friends in high school – communicated briefly in our 20′s and then that relationship went dormant for the last 18 years.  We didn’t have a “falling out.”  There was no broken relationship – we just simply fell out of touch.   In that time, lots can happen.   For me, it was college, marriage, kids, divorce, moving, unemployment, jail, etc.

Out of “the blue” I received a phone call.   It turns out, he heard through the grapevine, that I had a rough 2013 (understatement).  So rough that he felt compelled to break the nearly two decade silence and reach out to me.  In many ways and at no fault of his own, I became a #3 toe in his life.  Easily hidden.  Unnoticeable.  Adding little to no value to his daily life.   Merely a small, distant part of his childhood memories.  And yet, he heard that I was hurting and could not ignore that fact.  He invested the time to track me down and took 67 minutes out of his family schedule to find out how I’m really doing.  At the end of the conversation, he asked how he could help me in my diminished state.  If you’ve ever been a “number 3 toe”, words cannot express how it feels to be treated with “Big Toe” status.

Next time you think there are people in your life that you do not need, think again. It is not accidental that you were placed in your family, your school, your plot of land, or your workplace.  There is a reason you shop at your particular grocery store, get your clothes from that department store and get gasoline at that specific gas station.  The plumber, mechanic, dentist, and barista are in your life for a reason and it may not just be because of your toilet, transmission, cavity or coffee.  There is a reason you are in relationships with those in your sphere of influence. If the other toes in your world are rejoicing, rejoice. If one of them is suffering, figure out what your role is in helping them.  You make up a body and the body is only truly healthy if every member is healthy too.

As for me, do me a favor… please don’t step on my blue suede shoes.  My #3 toe would appreciate it. :)

I Corinthians 12:14-27
For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot says, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. And if the ear says, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members, but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it.

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The price is right and the importance of new

price is rightWhenever I can, I try to watch the evening news and hear what is happening in our world.  Before the end of each show, they normally try to highlight at least one uplifting human interest story.  Given the massive amounts of coverage that wars, scandals, robberies & murder are given each night – it’s nice to hear a story with a happy ending.   One such story was shared this week and it came from (of all places!) the popular game show, The Price is Right.

Most everyone is familiar with the show.  Contestants are chosen from the studio audience and told to “Come on down!”   They must correctly predict the price of various household items and are given opportunities to participate in various games (like spinning the wheel) to determine their prize.  The reason this story became newsworthy is because the winning prize was the largest in the 41 year history of the game show.  The “lucky” contestant, an older woman, went absolutely crazy when she won.  It was a Publisher’s Clearinghouse moment… the common reaction of every lottery winner.   Everyone is happy to win a prize.  This lady went nuts.  From running around in circles, screaming, crying, hugging, clapping, jumping up and down – virtually every positive emotion one could experience – she had them all simultaneously and in a matter of seconds.   It was both hilarious and uplifting to watch.  No wonder it made the news.   I’d much rather watch this than hear another story of how the Obama-care website is down.

Her prize was a coveted brand new car.   In fact, it wasn’t just a car.  It was a black Audi R8 Spyder Quattro, valued at $157,300… just above the value of my car.  0 miles on the odometer. Unmistakable smell of new leather.  Immaculately clean.  Sleek, shiney, powerful.  You name the amenity, it had it fully loaded.   No wonder this aging Mom loved it.  She gets to finally retire her old mini-van.  She no longer has to sit in seats made sticky from years of fast food spills.  She has the luxury of driving to the grocery store in style.   She has the benefit of getting to her future destinations in record time.   I think it is safe to say that she is the only normal grandmother on the planet driving such a vehicle.   Even the game show host, Drew Carey, was jealous!

Who wouldn’t like to receive a brand new car?   In fact, who doesn’t like to receive a brand new anything?   Everyone likes something new.   Whether it is a new pair of shoes, a new outfit, a new car, a new computer or a new haircut – we all like something new.  And “brand new” is even better.   It means we are the ones that get to “break it in.”   We are the ones that get to enjoy it like no one else ever has.

During the Great Depression, broken things were mended and repaired because people could not afford to replace it.  In our affluent culture, we are quick to replace our old items with new ones.  Why drive an old car if we can drive a new one?  Why wear the old dress if we can afford a new one?   Why keep the old computer when the new ones are faster/better?   In many ways – particularly with things – new is better.  Sometimes we need to say goodbye to the old thing to make room for the new.  Sometimes we need an upgrade or a change of pace or a change of scenery to help us get where we need or want to be.  The old adage “out with the old, in with the new” can often be the best course of action.

Even God Himself seems to desire for us to experience new things.  Throughout the Bible, He reminds us of His desire to remove the old and bring in the new:

  • “Do not call to mind the former things, or ponder the things of the past.  Behold, I will do something new… I will even make a roadway in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:19)
  • “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone… and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26)
  • “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)
  • “Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump.” (I Corinthians 5:7)
  • “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” (II Corinthians 5:17)
  • “… but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ.” (Phillipians 3:13)

As humans, we tend to focus on the physical components of our world.  We tend to concentrate on material things.  God, being Spirit, focuses on the spiritual.  We both enjoy new things – we just go about getting them differently.  We like to exchange old for new.  God likes to transform one to another.  We like to replace an old hat.  God prefers to transform an old heart.

We replace.  God restores.

And therein lies a significant difference between the two of us.  It is one thing to replace an damaged item.  We can do that – even without God’s help.  But only God can restore a broken life, straighten a crooked heart or mend a damaged relationship.  It is for this reason why we see Jesus take the broken and damaged people in His path and create newness in them.   Jesus was constantly introducing new into the human experience:

  • A new teaching (“You have heard that it was said, but I say…”, Matthew 5 & 6)
  • A new skin (for the leper, Matthew 8)
  • A new body (for the paralytic man & bleeding woman, Matthew 9)
  • A new Sabbath (for the Pharisees, Matthew 12)
  • A new sight (for Bartimaeus, Mark 10:46-52)
  • A new birth (for Nicodemus, John 3)
  • A new hope (for the woman at the well, John 4)
  • A new life (for Lazarus, John 11)
  • A new chance (for the woman caught in adultery, John 8)
  • A new destiny (for the thief on the cross, Luke 23)

I think that is what makes this first day of the year so special for so many of us.   We get a brand new year ahead of us.  Though we are not promised tomorrow, we have the hope of next week in front of us.  We haven’t spilled our milk on it yet.  The weeks and months ahead are not yet tainted.   The New Year has 0 days on the odometer.   Our resolutions are still intact.  It smells like a brand new calendar and we get to “break it in.”

I don’t know about you, but 2013 was a rough one for me – a year of repeated loss.  I lost jobs, a home, material possessions, precious relationships and for a season, even my freedom.   In spite of the intense loss – God met me in the ashes and revealed Himself in new ways.   Though I wouldn’t want to repeat the difficult experience, I am grateful for what I learned because of it.  My yesterday is messy but today is a new day filled with new opportunities, new possibilities, new hopes.  And because of my yesterdays, I can appreciate the todays so much more.

Reminds me of this poem I once read.   Perhaps you resonate with it too?

He came to my desk with a quivering lip, the lesson was done.

“Have you a new sheet for me, dear teacher? I’ve spoiled this one.”

I took his sheet all soiled and blotted, and gave him a new one all unspotted,

and to his tired heart I cried, “Do better now, my child.”

 

I went to the throne with a troubled heart, the day was done.

“Have a new day for me, dear Master?  I’ve spoiled this one.”

He took my day all soiled and blotted, and gave a new one all unspotted,

and to my tired heart He cried, “Do better now, my child.”

(- author unknown)

Regardless of the blots I may have on yesterday’s paper, God is interested in giving me a new sheet.   The age-less God desires new and improved people.   He is in the business of “restoring what the locusts have eaten.” (Joel 2:25)

Have the locusts eaten some of your crops?    Be encouraged, a harvest is still possible with God handling the plowshare.

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A special needs dog: The power of perspective

pic of buzz

“Buzz” also known as “Bumpy.” His eyes alone tell the whole story. This dog is crazy about people and ready to love anyone in his path.

I was visiting some friends recently and as I walked into their home, their dog began barking ferociously.  I immediately froze in my tracks – convinced I was about to be attacked by some large, rabid, starving, trained to kill pit-bull.   Nope.   The dog turned out to be a small Boston Terrier.  Fortunately for me, he was caged.  When I approached the safely contained beast, it went nuts.   This animal spent every ounce of energy trying to get out of that crate to “eat greet me.”   He was briefly released and I left shortly thereafter, grateful that all my limbs were still intact.

A few days later, I returned to the same scenario.  In fact, every time I am in this dog’s presence, he goes stark raving mad.   Initially, I was convinced he wanted to hurt me.  Now, he just wants to play… I think.   Honestly, I’m still cautious in his presence.   “No sudden movements Rod,” I tell myself.   I am never far from the “treats” in case I need a life-saving distraction.

His owner, used to this behavior, recently gave me some helpful advice: “Rod, you have to think of him like a dog with special needs.

I laughed.   A special needs dog??   Is that even possible?

The advice clicked.  Ah, yes.  The dog has special needs alright.  He has a need to maul me.   All dogs like to chew on bones.  This one just wants to chew on mine, all 206 of them.

As I thought about this description, I found myself immediately possessing a bit more understanding.  Instead of being frustrated at the dog’s inability to control himself or his over-enthusiastic desire to love (aka chew) on me,  I began to change my perspective on him.  After all, he was a rescue dog.   He was hit by a car and left for dead.  Perhaps he learned not to trust any humans?   Maybe he was mistreated by an adult male with a goatee?   Perhaps his capacity for love exceeds his capacity for self control?   Clearly, something in his past is hindering his ability to relate to new strangers, especially males.

I thought about what would happen if we applied this same perspective to the difficult people in our life.   What would happen if we changed our perspective on the following types of people that we all have encountered?

  • The overbearing boss.   Perhaps he grew up in a home where he was never praised?  Maybe he has never experienced the powerful motivator of encouragement?   What if he is treated the same way by his superiors and this form of leadership is all he knows?
  • The rude neighbor.  Maybe she has experienced previous neighbors who have disrespected her property or wishes?   Perhaps she is suffering from a chronic pain unknown to people outside her family?   Maybe your yard is nicer than hers and it makes her jealous?
  • The “know-it-all” friend.   Obviously, this person is struggling with massive amounts of insecurity.   Perhaps she grew up feeling insecure about her intellect or academic abilities.  Maybe she struggles with feeling accepted and this is her way of desperately trying to “fit in.”   Maybe you intimidate her in other ways and this is an area she can feel better than you?
  • The “black sheep” of the family.   Every family seems to have a black sheep in it.   It may not be an immediate family member but someone in the extended family is not like the others.  Maybe their past has brought the family shame.  Perhaps they presently struggle with some sort of vice?   Whether it is an addiction, mental illness or just an annoying personality, this individual makes you want to run.   Your family relation makes that impossible.

The truth is, there are a lot of special needs people out there and I’m not talking about those with mental or physical handicaps.   In fact, you may be considered special needs to someone else and don’t even know it.

Think about it.   The guy who cut you off in traffic today may not be a jerk after all.   Perhaps he was rushing to the hospital to say goodbye to a passing loved one before it was too late?   When you cut someone off in traffic, is it because you have hate in your heart?   Were you trying to get the other driver to spill his coffee in his lap or give him a heart attack?  No.  You got distracted.  You weren’t paying attention.   Your mind was on your upcoming meeting.   You know what you did was unintentional and yet it does not stop the other driver from letting you know you are the scum of the earth.   Obviously, his perspective on you is not the same as your perspective on you.

Sometimes what we see or hear is not really the way things are.   At times, there may be another perspective out there and too few of us are willing to take the time to look for it.

St. Francis of Assissi, the 12th century Catholic friar and preacher once wrote, “Seek first to understand, then be understood.”   I have found that those seven words can radically transform relationships, when applied.  I know they have helped me numerous times as I have encountered a difficult or even abusive person.  Even when I’ve been hurt by a friend, I have tried to understand (in the midst of the pain) their perspective first.

What would happen if we did that, in each relationship we had?   How might our relationships improve if everyone stopped long enough to ask the question, “What is going on in their world that caused them to say or do that?”  Or “What happened in their past (today or years ago) that is making them act this way?”

I remember when I was working with youth, a particular middle school boy was acting out during one of our meetings.   I had a good relationship with this kid, and yet on this one particular day – he disagreed with everything I said.   If I asked the teens to do one thing, this kid would do another.  If I was talking, he was talking.  As I was giving instructions to the group, he was distracting other kids.   Finally, after exhausting my patience, my frustration level was through the roof.  I stopped the meeting and abruptly escorted him outside.  I was on the verge of losing all self control and giving this kid a well deserved verbal lashing for his rude and disrespectful behavior.   As we walked outside the room I was thinking about what to say.   Suddenly and unexpectedly, I felt compassion for him.  Something told me that something else was going on, under the surface.   His behavior was being caused by something much deeper and THAT was the root issue I needed to address.   My demeanor changed.  I pulled up a chair and we sat down and I merely asked, “What’s going on?   Everything ok?”  The flood gates had opened.   This tough kid who had spent the last hour of our youth meeting acting like a rodeo clown started to cry.   Over the next 30 minutes he shared about his parent’s divorce and difficult home life.  At the end of our time together, I wanted to cry.  In fact, after hearing all that he was living through – I wanted to act out.  No wonder he was behaving the way he was.   I realized that though he was wrong to behave the way he did, I needed a different perspective on him.  I needed to figure out a way to help him.   That day, our relationship changed.   I saw all future behavior through a much different lens and it helped me to handle him with more love and grace.

Do you need to change your perspective on certain people in your life?  I know I do.   Are you seeking to understand them before seeking to be understood?   I find myself tempted to discredit anyone who doesn’t understand me.   I don’t think that is what St. Francis had in mind.

I think this is why Jesus had the impact on people that He did.   He saw what others could not (or would not) see.

  • When people looked at Peter, they saw an uneducated, impulsive fisherman.  Jesus saw a disciple, a leader, and one eventually equipped to lead His church.
  • When people saw a leper, they saw an unclean man, unworthy of entering the temple.  Jesus saw a man who needed to be healed and welcomed back into the community of believers.
  • When people saw a tax collector, they saw a dishonest government employee.  Jesus saw a person who needed forgiveness and a new way of doing business.
  • When people saw a prostitute, they saw someone who deserved to be treated like the social outcast she was.   Jesus saw a sister who needed someone to love her in her sin and give her the grace required to get out.
  • When people saw the thief on the cross, they saw a criminal deserving of the law of death.   Jesus saw a repentant heart and a man who desperately wanted a second chance at life.

How do you look at people in your world, especially the people who have hurt you?   It’s easy to villianize them and keep our tainted perspective on them.  After all, they lied/cheated/stole/gossiped/slandered/abandoned/hurt us in some form in the past.   But is that the perspective we are supposed to maintain with them?   Do you want your past to be remembered against you for the rest of your life?

I saw “Bumpy” again yesterday.   In typical fashion, he went stark raving mad at the sound of my voice.   When he was released from his crate, he came after me like a bullet.  But now, my perspective has changed.   He’s no longer a dangerous, mean, “special needs” dog to me.   I’m learning to love this wild beast and learning how to let him love me.

Like it or not, there are some “bumpy” people out there and they want to be loved just like you do.   They probably have a difficult past.  They may respond to you from their wounded well.  They might not have learned certain social graces yet.  They may not act as sophisticated or righteous as you.   They may not improve the quality of your life but I’m pretty convinced they can help improve the quality of your love.

God didn’t put us on earth to become more educated.  He didn’t create us to be more politically correct.  We aren’t here to make money or collect more toys.   He created us to love Him first and others second and He intentionally puts us around the stark-raving mad bumpys of the world to exercise that love.   Easy people are easy to love.   Anyone can do that.  (Matthew 5:46)  It’s the difficult ones that require us to lean on His supernatural strength.

And before we can love some of the these people, we must change our perspective about them.

Some crazy dog is helping me do that.

Me and my new friend, "Mr. Bumpy"

Me and my new friend, “Mr. Bumpy”

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Loving the lepers in our land

lepers1I walked into my local hair cuttery place this week to relieve my sweaty head of its growing mop. I was greeted by “Anna,” a young, thin woman, with long black hair and a sleeve full of tattoos on one arm. I was drawn immediately to her warm smile.

As I sat, we made small talk about the hot weather, her long hair, our children, our siblings and the city where we live. During the conversation she alluded to a strict, Christian upbringing and how she grew up as the homeschooled daughter of an ultra-conservative Baptist minister. With that brief summary of her life, her tattoos suddenly became much more interesting to me. I asked about her conservative parent’s reaction to the controversial, visible art on her arm. Within 5 minutes of conversing, she casually admitted to me she was a lesbian. So much for light conversation.

As I sat in her chair, losing hair rapidly, I was amazed at her transparency. Talking to a total stranger, she just shared something so intensely personal that it literally takes most people years to admit. As the talking continued, I quickly realized we were no longer in the kiddie pool of conversation. Somehow, we dove immediately into the conversational deep end and showed little sign of coming out of it. By the time I was done, I had shared a bit about my religious/ministry background, sordid past and some of the broken pieces called my life. By now, there is a small poodle on the floor next to me, known formerly as my hair. I was pretty sure that if the conversation continued at this depth, I would be bald in record time.

“Anna” and I were separated by age, gender, race, sexual orientation, culture, tattoos, political affliliation & family background. Yet, somehow I felt oddly close to her. Moments earlier, she was a total stranger. In just 15 minutes, she was a kindred spirit, even though our experiences were quite different.

Since church was obviously a big part of her upbringing, I asked where she went now. Knowing most of the churches in this “Bible-buckle” town, I was curious as to where she would feel comfortable attending. Not surprisingly, she doesn’t go anywhere anymore. Though I was sad to hear it, I completely understood why. Where does a “real sinner” go to church? What church in my city would preach the truth and still accept a living out loud lesbian? Most churches tell you to “come as you are” but few know how to love you there. As a card-carrying sinner myself, I have witnessed the church’s struggle first-hand.

As I talked to “Anna,” I found myself wanting to apologize for the Church’s inability to love “them” as they are. On one hand, I understand the church’s theological position. Sin, on any level, cannot be condoned by the church. But, on the other hand, we are called to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” (Matthew 7:12). In other words, Christians are supposed to walk the tough balance between loving the sinner while hating their sin. Many churches have the hate part down. The love feels lacking… just ask the sinners.

The truth is, closet adulterers sit in church pews every week. Concealed alcoholics take the wine of communion every Sunday. Embezzlers count the offering. Pornography addicted Pastors hide behind their pulpits as they preach. Overweight, gluttonous Deacons serve their appetites as much as they serve their parishioners. Church folk have become adept at hiding their sin.

Trust me, I know.

And some sins are more acceptable (to the church) than others. The first sin ever committed and the root of all other sins (pride) is alive and well in most churches. From our moral ivory tower we tend to look down on the big visible sinners while we nurse an invisible spiritually proud heart. But is the hidden sin of pride better than the visible sin of stealing? In God’s eyes, it’s all the same – even if the consequences are different.

I remember my reaction when a friend in college, a Christian, one day claimed he was gay. I struggled with the implication. From my perspective, I didn’t think you could be both. Christians, I thought back then, didn’t sin like that. As I have (regrettably) fallen to my own sinful areas, I now understand Christians who sin.

If you commit adultery, you are forever known as an adulterer. If you kill someone, you are known as a murderer. If you steal an item you are known as a thief. Even if you your behaviors are part of your past, you are still identified by your sins – particularly by those affected by your vice. Some people are tempted to steal. Others are tempted by the “greener grass” on the other side of their married fence. My college friend was tempted by other males. Some would say you cannot be a Christian and sin “big” like that. My Bible is filled with stories of saints that sinned BIG and were still claimed and used by God.

  • Abraham was a liar and God used Him to father a nation.
  • Moses was a murderer and God used him to set His people free from slavery.
  • Jacob was a deceiver and God created the twelve tribes of Israel through his lineage.
  • King David was a liar, murderer and adulterer and God called him a “man after His own heart.”

The list goes on and on. In fact, take a look in the New Testament. A quick glance in the Gospels seems to indicate that Christ spent more time with the big sinners of His day than church leadership. The point is, even “saved” sinners struggle with the sins they were saved from. Their sin doesn’t disqualify them from salvation or Christ’s love, it merely points to their need for it.

Gay sin is no better or worse than straight sin. From casual attenders to ordained minister, what gives any heterosexual sinner any right to look down at gays when we are no better than the social lepers of sexual orientation? The only difference between heterosexual sin and homosexual sin is familiarity. Heterosexual sin, for the church, is just a tad easier to swallow since more of its members understand those temptations.

Years ago, I was speaking at a summer camp in upstate New York. While I was teaching, my eyes were making contact with the youth in the room. As I scanned the room, I noticed one boy with a hat was wearing a mask. I began to think, “What is this kid doing? Why is he wearing a mask while I teach? Is this some sort of joke?” I continued to teach and decided to take a closer look as my eyes came back towards his direction. Our eyes connected as I tried to figure out what he was doing. He was doing nothing but listening intently to my words. The mask was not a mask at all. It turns out, he was a severe burn victim and what I thought was a mask was actually his scarred face. My heart broke at his disfigurement. I got to watch him throughout the rest of the week interact with people and see others reaction to him. Most people just stared. Except for a precious few, most did not know how to act around him. As a result, he seemed largely ignored. You could tell he was used to it. People avoided contact because his presence made them uncomfortable. We tend to do the same with those who sin differently or bigger than us, especially in the church.

Today, I have several gay friends who also claim to be Christians. Some still struggle with their sexuality. Others have simply embraced it. Gay or straight, the issue isn’t whether you are tempted to sin. We are ALL tempted in our own ways. The issue is whether you are falling to those temptations. And we ALL fall from time to time. “To err is human,” as the saying goes. It’s the common denominator we ALL share. Men or women, black or white, gay or straight, church leader or gang member, we ALL possess a fallen human nature. That doesn’t give us a license to sin (Romans 6) – it merely explains why we do it. We ALL are one decision away from trouble, whether we work at a church or refuse to walk into one.

I relate to “Anna.” I relate to a messy, complicated life. I have experienced the social shame of a leper. I have felt the pain of rejection from the church. I know what it’s like to feel the icy stares of people who are “better” than me. I know what it’s like to be ignored and avoided… especially by “good Christians.” My social circle has greatly diminished over the last few years. My phone doesn’t ring as much as it used to. Invitations to do anything are few and far between. Living a sinful life has that affect on your relationships. And yet, like my gay friends, we were all created for relationships. As God reminded Adam in the Garden, “it is not good for man(kind) to be alone.” Straight sin or gay sin – it’s all still sin to God. His job is to judge and transform sinners into saints. Our only job is to love one another. What would happen if we left the judging to Him and actually started to love everyone as we should? People like “Anna” might be in church.

It’s no wonder, when you read the Gospels, that you see the public sinners chasing Christ around Galilee. Known prostitutes fell before Him and washed His feet with their repentant tears. Lepers lined up for healing. Tax collectors had Him in their homes for dinner. Women, children, and everyone else who was an outcast were invited “in” by Him. Why? Because He manifested the one characteristic that we most lack today. He lived out what we merely preach. Love. He LOVED them. As they were. In their sin. Messy.

Gay men need love just as much as heterosexual men. Lesbian women need to be accepted as much as straight women. Unmarried, heterosexual sex is just as wrong (in God’s eyes) as homosexual relations. Whether you are a pastor or a predator – both need the transforming love of Christ. And Christ’s transforming agent of choice, like it or not, is the church. After all, who better to love sinful people than other sinful people? Who better to help the alcoholic than the one who has recovered from it? The church was never designed to be a palace for the perfect. The church wasn’t created to be a place where people pretend they aren’t sinning. It is supposed to be THE place where sinners can walk in with their sin and walk out with His grace. It is to be filled with beggars telling all the other beggars where to find Bread.

Christianity is supposed to be a “rubber meets the road” kind of faith. Is that the kind you possess? It’s one thing to read about love in a book. It’s another thing to put on its shoes and walk around.

If a leper approached you, would you touch them? Christ did.

If you caught the woman in adultery (John 4), what would you do with your stone? Christ dropped His.

As Jesus hung on a cross, between two thieves – both were hurling insults at Him (Mark 15:32). During the most painful hour He has ever experienced, He was mocked and jeered by common criminals. They watched Him suffer. They saw the abuse inflicted upon Him by the Romans. To the world, Jesus was merely hanging on a cross. Jesus, however, was still working – changing hearts – and He had one more heart on His schedule.

The thief didn’t confess his many sins. He didn’t make excuses or even say he was sorry. He didn’t promise to change his ways or try to make a deal with God. He was in no position to barter on any level. He merely watched Love absorb hate and that Love changed him. On the cross, Christ didn’t preach a sermon. He didn’t do anything but hang and bleed and yet, somehow, His love for a common thief was so unmistakable that it caused a hardened heart to break.

That is love.

That is what we are called to share.

Especially to those who sin differently than us.

Love more. Judge less. And watch what kind of people God starts bringing to church.

Real sinners.

Just like you.

Just like me.

See you on Sunday.

—————————————-
“Lord, now indeed I find
Thy pow’r, and Thine alone,
Can change the leper’s spots
And melt the heart of stone.”
- Jesus paid it all, hymn

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A day of Independence?

Stock Photo of the Consitution of the United States and Feather QuillToday is July 4th, known in America as “Independence Day,” the day our nation officially proclaimed our independence from the British monarchy.    We now have 237 candles in our national cake.   Happy Birthday to us.

As this holiday has approached, I have been thinking a lot lately about our independence, as a people and nation.

When you are born, you are immediately dependent upon your parents for survival.   By age two, however, you begin to develop some level of independence.   You want to feed yourself, walk where you want, do things on your own.  This is normal and quite healthy as we grow.  Time passes and that “terrible two” eventually realizes that he/she still needs Mom and Dad a bit more than they thought.   The child again recognizes their dependence.   This dependent/independent pendulum swings again at least three different times over the course of your  life; during the teen years, in young adulthood and again as we enter the elderly phase.   These independent/dependent stages are very normal.   On one level, we desperately want our independence.  On another level, there are seasons where we are dependent upon the very people we desire independence from.   Such is human nature and the way life works.  As much as we desire it, we are not as independent as we like to think.

237 years ago, we officially declared our national independence from the British government.   Like a prodigal son, we left the shores of England and embarked on a dangerous journey “across the pond.”   Against incredible obstacles, we created our own constitution and laws and began a new country with new traditions, like none the world had ever seen.   Today we take a day as a nation to celebrate our independence.  

But are we really independent?   

By definition the word implies that an independent one is “free from the control, influence, support, aid, or the like, of others.”   By that definition, are any of us truly free?

  • I don’t need to tell you how important oil is to our nation’s economy and lifestyle.  The U.S. imports approximately 10.6 million barrels of petroleum (per day) from about 80 countries.   That sounds like dependence to me.
  • Of our $16 trillion in debt, approximately $5 trillion is held by more than 35 other countries, with China and Japan topping the list.
  • 51% of the world’s coffee consumption comes from Brazil, Colombia & Indonesia.  These countries (among many others) control our access to the number one drug in America.  In other words, if it wasn’t for Latin America, you would be late for work, grumpy and experiencing caffeine withdrawal every day of the week.
  • Your cell phone, computer and flat screen TV are brought to you by rare earth minerals such as neodymium.  Unfortunately, the United States only possesses 13% of the world’s rare earth reserves.   Because of this, we have become heavily dependent upon numerous foreign countries (like China) as these rare earth minerals are crucial in the manufacture of jet fighter engines, antimissile defense systems, and smart bombs, among other advanced military systems.   Even our military dominance is dependent upon others.
  • We are even dependent upon the continent of Africa.  75% of the world’s chocolate comes from this third world nation.   As we all know, this can singlehandedly control a woman’s mood.  <wink>

As great as America is, as sovereign as we are, as dominant as we are in world affairs, we are still massively dependent upon other countries.   We can celebrate our independence and even enjoy the perks of being a world power, but we must not forget that we are not the world’s parent – merely one of the larger siblings in a global family.

As I reflect on our personal dependence upon family and friends and our nation’s dependence upon other nations, I can’t help but think of our collective dependence upon an Almighty God.  In His grace, He “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45)  Christian and pagan alike are all dependent upon the One who “holds all things together.” (Colossians 1:17) 

For example, modern scientists marvel at the human brain.  With more memory and capacity than our fastest computer, we still haven’t come close to uncovering its magnificence or even tapping its full potential.  Without the creative power of the brain, we could not develop any “smart” technology in our hands today.  Without our intelligent designs and industrial strength, we could not build the homes, structures, highways & vehicles that allow us to live and work and travel like we do.   But how did our human brain come to be?   Was it the result of a random big bang?  Could it have evolved over millions of years from a single cell out of a stagnant lake?   Or did an alien life form actually drop the beginnings of life to Earth?   Honestly, it takes more faith to believe some of these theories than it does to believe that an Intelligent Creator created an intelligent creation.  The truth is, God created us and then gifted us with such immense creativity and ability, that He Himself once said of mankind that “nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.” (Genesis 11:6)    How staggering is that comment from the Creator of the universe, One who creates something out of nothing??   Even the atheist, as he proclaims his independence from God (Proverbs 14:1), does so with borrowed air in his lungs while standing on a planet that hangs precariously balanced at just the optimal tilt and distance from the Sun.  

The point is, the concept of independence is somewhat ridiculous.   None of us are truly independent.   In spite what we might think, none of us are “self-made.”   As you stand at the summit of your mountain, career or personal achievement, just remember – you arrived at the peak with some help – even if you choose not to recognize it.  

Just as we can scarcely call ourselves independent as a nation, likewise we are equally dependent (personally speaking) on others.   For years, I spent most of my life living on an emotionally independent island.  For the most part, I kept my feelings, thoughts and struggles to myself.   Though I helped others with their problems, I never allowed anyone to help me with mine.  Fearful of transparency and intimacy, I lived behind a safe emotional wall and enjoyed my fascade of emotional independence.   Others needed me.   I convinced myself that I didn’t need them.  Sadly, what I didn’t realize at the time was how that thinking was killing me and destroying the relationships of those I loved.  One day, my emotional wall came crashing down and I became instantly dependent upon others for survival.   Five years later, I still find myself leaning hard on family and friends – like I never have before.  It has been a frightenly refreshing experience.  English poet, John Donne, once wrote, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”   He was right.   The ferry to my emotional island is now closed.   I’m enjoying my new life back on the mainland.

As you celebrate Independence Day today, take a moment to recognize your dependence on others and your dependence upon an Almighty God.  Thank them for the role they have played in your life.   You wouldn’t (and couldn’t) be where you are today without them.   

As the Apostle Paul reminded those in Athens, “God is not far from each one of us for in Him we live and move and exist.” (Acts 17:27-28)    Jesus reminded His disciples about this same truth in the Book of John, “I am the Vine and you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he will bear much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

No one is truly independent.   Not you.  Not me.  Not even the powerful United States of America.  

  • “The Declaration of Independence laid the cornerstone of human government upon the first precepts of Christianity.” - John Adams
  • “The Fourth of July ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.” - John Adams
  • “And whereas it is the duty of nations as well as of men, to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God … and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.” – Abraham Lincoln
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The Facebook Fraud

I have a confession to make.

I have deceived you, my readers, friends and family. I’d like to say it was the first time I have ever done this, but unfortunately it is not.  In fact, if I were to be truly honest, I’d have to admit I deceive you more times than I don’t.  What I did is done every day by literally millions of people. You have probably done it too. That makes me feel better. It doesn’t make it right, it just makes it rampant. Like speeding on the expressway, this deceit is done so many times by so many we have almost forgotten how bad it is. And sadly, it perpetuates a myth that is as strong as a fairy tale and wrong as a white-collar crime.

What did I do? I call it the Facebook Fraud though it doesn’t need Facebook or even the internet to exist.  What Adam & Eve began in the garden, we still do today – covering up the truth and pretending we are in better shape than we are.   They used fig leaves.  We use Facebook.   It’s deceitful at its core.   Simply defined, the Facebook Fraud is this:

facebook fraud pic“The act of posting something on Facebook (a picture or status update) that leads others to believe your life is better than it really is.”

The reality is, these days – I’m having the struggle of my life.   On every level, on most every day – I’m hurting and can’t seem to catch my breath.   Only a precious few know this, however, since the majority of people out there only know me from what they see me post.  Like you, I tend to only post positive things or things that make me look good.   My rationale is this – who wants to read about my actual, depressing day?   In the spirit of Colossians 3:2, I try to set my mind on “things above” even if I spend most of my days struggling with “earthly things.”  If you’re honest, I have a feeling you do this too.  I mean, could it be possible that as I glance at my news feed and look at the pictures of my hundreds of friends that everyone is living their “best life now” like they portray and I’m the only one struggling?   I don’t think so.

shirt_plate_cheetos

Not me… but sometimes I feel like this. :)

Whereas the town drunk wears his miserable existence on his sleeve, the rest of us are able to create the image we want others to see.   Like slick marketers, we post happy pictures.  As sophisticated public relation professionals, we post pictures of our latest success.   How many times have I read how many miles someone ran that day while I sit on my couch with a bag of Cheetos?   Did they really run all 10 miles?  How come I didn’t post a picture of me with the Cheetos on the couch?  How come we don’t read status updates like:

“Got up to run 4 miles today but only ran to my mailbox.  I then jogged about a mile stopping every 100 yards to breathe.  The next 2 miles I crawled with my lips.  Finally had to be picked up and driven home.   On the way back, stopped at Chick-Fil-A for a milkshake.”

Are we being honest with our public persona?  Is your husband really that loving all the time or do you just want us to think he is?  Are your kids really that obedient and sweet?  Do you really look like the picture you just posted of yourself, in the right lighting, from the right angle?   Is your house that clean normally or only before you have guests over?

Are we being real or honest about our life?   If our offline life is a mess, why do we pretend its successful online?   How come we don’t post pictures of the cake we baked that did not turn out right the first time?   How come we don’t post pictures of the bank overdraft statement we just received?   How come we don’t show video clips of what our kids room really looks like?   How come we don’t include shots of bad hair days?   Where are the photos of us looking overweight and with bad posture?   We are quick to show the award we just received at work, but forgot to mention the speeding ticket we received on the way.

One of the inerrant problems with Facebook or our online media presence is that (for the most part) we are the sole overseers of what is posted.   You only know what I want you to know about me.   You only see what I want you to see.  Only our “friends” have access to our page.   Only those who love us can comment on our stuff.   And in the event that something is said that paints a different picture than what we desire, we can immediately delete it.

Recently, I wrote a blog entry that was read by a former friend, vocal about their disdain for me.  I was actually impressed that a declared hater would read anything I wrote.   I know this person read it because of the nasty comment that was left for me, on the blog.  As the creator and moderator of my blog, I can choose whether I want the comment to be approved and visible or simply deleted.  I was actually tempted to leave it because it was refreshing to receive an honest opinion from someone on the other side.  In the end, I decided to delete it as the comments barely focused on the content of the blog and was designed to be a personal attack against me.   As I read their venomous comment, I was reminded of the value of them.   I thought, “Not everyone likes you, Rod.  Not everyone thinks your writing is great.   Not everyone allows you to get away with the fraud.” 

This is one of the reasons why I appreciate the Bible.   God does not allow the characters mentioned in it to have access to their image.  A person’s life, in the Scriptures, runs the gammut of the good, the bad & the ugly.   Few mentioned in its pages come out squeaky clean.

  • Noah built an amazing structure called the Ark and saved his family from destruction.  3 chapters later he lies naked, drunk in his tent.  (Genesis 9)
  • Abraham was certainly a man of great faith but God also includes how he was a chronic liar. (Genesis 12)
  • Lot was considered righteous and yet he offers up his own daughters sexually to evil men. (Genesis 19)
  • Jacob may have been the father of the nation of Israel, but God makes sure his deception is well documented. (Genesis 27)
  • Moses was indeed a great leader, by all accounts, but he was a murderer as well – a glimpse of his past that I am sure he wished was not recorded for us to read.  (Exodus 2)
  • Rahab definitely acted bravely but is remembered more by her affiliation as a prostitute, the world’s oldest profession.  (Joshua 2)
  • Samson was a judge known for his physical strength and mighty victories over his enemies even as his moral strength was non-existent and the cause of his eventual downfall.  (Judges 16)
  • David, the beloved King of Israel, and writer of Psalms – committed adultery, murder and was a pretty horrific parent.  (II Samuel 11)
  • Daniel, as godly as he was, apparently bowed down to a golden statue.  (Daniel 3)
  • Peter, the “Rock” of the church denied Christ on more than one occasion. (John 18)
  • Thomas, a committed disciple of Christ, doubted his Leader publicly.  (John 20)

The truth is, there are Elders at their church who are filled with spiritual pride, Deacons who get drunk and Pastors who look at porn.  There are housewives that cheat on their husbands and famous actresses that steal.   There are politicians who accept bribes and university coaches who abuse their players.  There are writers who plagiarise and speakers who embellish the truth.   In short, as great as any of us might be at any given moment – we have glaring weaknesses that accompany our amazing strengths.

I am quite sure that Pastor Rick Warren, author of the “Purpose Driven Life”, leads a purpose driven life.   But there is also no doubt that his purpose driven life is grief driven today as he wrestles with the news of his son’s death.   It’s easy to talk about book sales and our time with the President.  It’s much harder to admit publicly that you need prayer because your son just killed himself.   Those who live in the fishbowl of fame don’t mind the eyes on them while they are successful.  But the moment they experience failure, most wish to do so privately as if the world doesn’t need to see both sides of life.

This morning I will be getting ready for Church.  As occurs most Sundays, I will sit amongst some well dressed, smiling people.   People with perfect clothes, perfect families, perfect lives.   They all probably got 8 hours of sleep, had a protein rich breakfast and had no problem finding their shoes in their neatly organized closet.   Their car, washed yesterday, is full of gas and they sang together, in harmony, as they drove to church.   Meanwhile, at the other end of the pew, sits me – fraud free, before the One who loves me in spite of my mess.

What’s your status today?  How are you doing really?   Be honest with someone, starting with yourself.    I’m not suggesting that we all want to see pictures of your bad hair day or hear you rant about your miserable situation.   But if I hear one more person tell me how they ran a 4 minute mile or lost 22lbs yesterday from their new diet, I’m going to scream.

That is, after I finish this bag of Cheetos.

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