Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Fine Art of Falling

I am thinking about writing a book. Failure And How I Achieved It: AGAIN. I just have a talent for not getting it right. It amazes me how many times I can fall down, even on the lessons I’ve spent a lifetime learning. I have 3 weeks of great devotions, then for a week, nothing. Doris and I have 20 wonderful days together then I will get crabby, cranky, and contrary. I do so good at staying truthful then out of the blue I will exaggerate to the point of lying. (Like I just did when I said I have 3 weeks of great devotions before I miss.)
A couple of days ago we took Jon-Mical to the local tennis courts and let him run and chase tennis balls over this huge expanse of green concrete. He’d run great. (We’ll as great as a 2 foot tall, 21 month old kid can run.) Then all of a sudden he would just fall. No hole to step in. No object to trip over. For no reason he would just sprawl out on the pavement, little hands outstretched, face down. Just like my walk with God.
Then he’d do an amazing thing. He would hop back up and start running again. He never looked back. He didn’t stop to analyze the fine points of kinetic energy, optimum balance, and gravity. He just started running again. Full of life and joy, enjoying the next steps.
I guess there is a lesson to be learned there. (You knew there would be, didn’t you?) We are all going to fall. You might stay on your feet longer than I do. You might not make quite as spectacular a splash when you go down, but I promise you this, you will fall. Remember the verse of scripture, “Where two or three are gathered together, one of them will take a nose dive.” (Mike 4:15) It’s just the way we live in a fallen world, fallen.
The good news is we don’t have to stay down. We do not have to remain on the pavement. If there is one thing I have learned it is that falling is not final and failing is not fatal. Listen, fallen brother or sister, God loves you as much when you are nose down on the sidewalk as he does when you are flying down the track. He does not give up on you. Let me say that again, He does not give up on you so don’t you give up on yourself. Here is a real verse, I John 2:1 says, “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin (fall). But if anyone does sin we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ the Righteous One.”
So, try not to fall. Keep fighting the good fight. Keep running the race. But when you fail (and you will), hop up. God is not finished with you. He has so much more growing for you to do. Hey, maybe you could write a book about it?

Thanks for your prayers,

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


There is a peace that comes in appropriate exhaustion. Not the exhaustion of trying so hard on my own, giving everything I have to fix everybody I know. That kind of exhaustion contains an element of frustration and anxiety. Inherent in it is the understanding that tomorrow I will simply have to do it all over again. That kind of exhaustion eventually breaks the spirit and wears out the body and forces me to what recovery language calls “my bottom.” From there I am certainly capable of making horrendous decisions to mask the pain and hide the hurt of yet another failure to live up to expectations, real or imagined.
Days melt into days and weeks fly by in a flurry of activity and tasks. There is so much to do and the urgent usually supersedes the really important. At the end of the day I am not satisfied by what has been accomplished but rather frightened at how much farther behind I have fallen. That exhaustion is fitful, frightening, and frustrating. And I know it too well.
But there is a peace that comes from appropriate exhaustion. This exhaustion is centered in the will of the Father. It is a satisfying ache, a gratifying soreness that can be either or both, mental or physical. At the end of the day, or the week, or the journey, it is an exhaustion that whispers to ourselves, “I have fought the good fight. I have kept the faith. I have finished the race….” That exhaustion comes with confident trust in the faithfulness of God to pick up the slack, make up the difference, fill in the gaps. It comes when we are lost in Him.
I have known that exhaustion a few times in my life as well, not enough, but a few. And the difference in that exhaustion versus my own, self created fatigue is astounding. The exhaustion that comes from doing His work, His way is temporary. It is resolved by the Sabbath rest. It is limited. It does not reach out of me to the circumstances around me but stays connected to the task at hand. And it is shared. There is a clear sense of being a “partner in the Gospel” as opposed to the panic of carrying this weight on my own.
So here’s what I think about exhaustion. It is from there that I am able to look back and see what path I am really on. When I am so tired I cannot move then I am finally able to stand still long enough to reflect back over my steps, to check my bearing, and to confirm that I am listening to the heart of God say, “This is the way. Walk in it.” Being exhausted is not such a bad thing when it turns my face toward Him.
Oh, there is much to do today. I am sure at the end of the day I will be, well, you know, exhausted. But I am equally sure that if He is my focus and my guide, if my steps are ordered by Him, and if all that I do I do in His name and for His glory (whether standing on the assembly line or in front of the classroom), then there will be great peace in my exhaustion. And with peace comes rest. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. The courage to change the things I can. And the wisdom to know the difference. Just for today.” Mike

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Green Hammer

One of the most significant moves that Doris and I made was the move from Augusta, Georgia to Mt. Vernon, Ohio. We had been married just a few years and I was called from being a youth pastor at a small church in the south to become the associate pastor at a very large, university centered church in the Midwest. (Translate that NORTH. Yankees.) It was one of those churches that didn’t even have a full name. You just said “First Church” and everyone knew what you meant.
I was out of my league from the first day. I was replacing a high quality, experienced staff member that was incredibly well organized and had it all together. Not only did I not have it all together, I couldn’t even remember where I put it. I was intimidated and anxious. The staff was gifted. The congregation was massive. And the job was overwhelming. I was thrust from the relative obscurity of a small, southern church to the limelight of the entire denomination. Scary!
The second day on the job I was in my office, the largest office I had ever had or have had since. I was doing all that I knew to do. I was hanging pictures. And even that wasn’t going too well. I was using the back of a Hebrew Dictionary to try to drive nails in places that didn’t want to be nailed. The pictures were pretty crooked, not very secure, and kind of wobbly. Other staff members were hurrying by outside my office doing far more important things. Parishioners were scurrying in and out on missions that I knew nothing of. No one was stopping in. No one made conversation. And I just kept thudding away with the Hebrew book.
In the middle of the morning, a nice, old guy named Delmar poked his head in. He said, “Reverend Courtney,” (I was a kid still wet behind the ears and he was at least 120 but he always called me Reverend Courtney. Still does.) “Reverend Courtney, I saw you in here this morning. I went home and got you a present. I thought you could use this.” There in Delmar’s gnarled old hand was a green hammer. If he was 120 the hammer was ancient. It had a fiber glass handle with flaking paint, straight claws that were chipped from pulling years of nails, and it looked to me like the best tool in the Sears and Roebuck catalogue. Delmar grinned a kind of sloppy grin and asked, “You mind if I help?”
He pulled out a tape measure and a level and for the next two hours we hung pictures and diplomas while he told me stories about the church, his family, and how good God was. He was meticulous in his work, every picture was exactly the same height and perfectly straight, and profuse in his conversation. He told me all about Stella, his wife. About Jan and Denny, and Trish and Ton-ton. He laughed at my nervous jokes and admired the pictures of Doris. And when the picture hanging was done he smiled, handed me back the green hammer, and said, “You’ll do fine here.”
A few months later Josh was born. Delmar and Stella became Papaw and Mamaw to Josh. They “adopted” him from the first and were our go-to babysitters and our surrogate grandparents. Every holiday, when the “Yankees” huddled up alone in their northern houses, we were invited out to Mamaw and Papaw’s to boil corn or play Rook. Whenever there was a hard decision to make or a question about being a father, a husband, or a minister, I would find myself talking to Delmar, usually not about the problem but about family, wood burning stoves, and how to plant a great garden. But every conversation would end with, “Reverend Courtney, you’ll do fine.”
My “career path” changed dramatically with that move to Mt. Vernon. God used that position to open doors of ministry for Doris and me that I never dreamed possible; national boards, great churches, international travel, college trustees. And when the job seemed overwhelming and I started to really doubt, I’d pull out my green hammer and remember my talks with Delmar.
It seems to me that life is full of situations for which we feel ill-prepared and under qualified. Nobody told me that parenting would be so hard, or that married life took so much work. I’m not trained in growing old or saying goodbye to dreams. The economy has me baffled and my ministry is not going where I thought it would. My family is a mess. I’m looking at divorce. My health is getting bad. I am battling depression. My addiction has the best of me. I feel all alone and scared to death.
Listen to me, in those moments, if we will just get still, God almost always pulls out some kind of tool, lays it in our hands and says, “You’ll do fine here.” Proverbs 3:5-6 says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your path.” He has the tools. He has the stories. And he has the time to sit with you and put your heart at ease. You may not figure it all out at once. You might not know what happens way down the road. But I promise you He will show you the next step and give you the grace you need for today. For all of your struggles, He has a hammer.
There have been a lot of moves since then. I’ve made more than a few decisions, some of them not so good, as you know. The green hammer goes with me every time, and the grace and kindness of an old guy that believed in me. In fact the hammer is in my desk drawer at the counseling center that I direct. When a new counselor or staff member comes looking a little wide-eyed and overwhelmed I take it out and we go in their office and hang pictures. We talk about Doris, my sons, and my grandson. I laugh at their nervous jokes and I assure them that God is still in control.
Delmar is still in Mt. Vernon. He’s pretty sick right now and I imagine facing some things that seem overwhelming. He is looking at a battle that even my green hammer can’t fix. For those of us that love him, and maybe even for him, it’s scary. You know what I believe. I believe that in the middle of this terrible time God is even now pulling out His own version of the green hammer, the tool that Papaw, (and us) needs to get through this. I believe He is laying it in Papaw’s hand and the God of the universe is taking the time to bring grace and kindness to all of us. And He is saying, “Delmar, Trust me. Whatever you face in the days ahead, you’ll do fine here.”

Monday, June 8, 2009

Real Men

A few weeks ago I spoke for another retreat. This one was for men. Just men. All shapes and sizes. All kinds of backgrounds. I’ve done this is Texas, South Carolina, Ohio, Florida, California, and a dozen other states. I have spoken to fathers and sons, promisekeepers, men with a mission, biker’s for Christ, and sissies for the Savior. (Okay, I’m just kidding about that last one.) I have talked to men in recovery, men in ministry, and just men.
There are some things I have noticed about men’s retreats. For one thing there is just as much hugging as their female counterparts but it is a lot louder. Hug. Three loud, manly smacks on the back. Let go. That’s the accepted formula for men. On the other hand, men’s retreats are usually quieter. Not a reflective, meditative kind of quiet. Just a, “I don’t want to talk about it” quiet. I think we probably have as many hurts, habits, and hang-ups as any women’s group but with a much smaller vocabulary to express that.
“How’s it goin’?” “Good”
“How’s the fam?” “Fine”
“Work?” “Good”
“ Gonna’ be a good year for the Titans.” “Yup”
“Any thing I can do?” “Nope.”
“Well, good talkin’ to ya.” “Me too.”
So here’s the deal. After speaking to all of those men’s retreats, and after being one for all of these years, I’m still not sure what makes a man a real man. What really does separate the men from the boys? Or from the girls for that matter? I mean apart from the obvious biological differences (which we DEFINETLY don’t talk about) what does a man do that makes him a man?
I know what he doesn’t do. He doesn’t cry. Real men don’t eat quiche. Real men can’t jump. Well, actually only white, real men can’t jump. They never let you see them sweat. They never say never. They never quit until the fat lady sings. It just goes on and on, the things that we know that men are not supposed to do. But what do men do that makes them, well, men.
I don’t know, but there are three things that come to my mind. First, they work. Now I know that some jobs are different from other jobs. Some men where suits and some men suit up. Some men get their hands dirty and some men get their nails done. I know great stay at home men. I know retired early men. I know men that were wounded in battle and unable to work since. But, when it gets right down to it, all men have buried in the double helix of their DNA the unquenchable thirst to be productive, to matter, to work.
Now, don’t get your panties in a wad, I know women work too. They work hard. They work more than one job. They never stop. But for men it’s different. For women, work is what they do. For men, work is who they are. “Hey, my names Mike. So whadda’ you do for a livin’?”
There is something in men that calls us to work. And when work is going well, life is good. When it’s not, we’re not. I have this conversation with men almost every week. “So Bob, what brings you to see a counselor?”
“I don’t know. My wife thinks there’s something wrong with our marriage. She’s just not happy.”
“Do you agree?”
“Well, we don’t spend much time together. She seems to cry a lot. I’m not really sure.”
“So, tell me Bob, how about you? Are you happy?”
“Me? Sure. I’m great. Work’s good. Got a promotion last week. I’m good”
We are men. We work. And that work defines us whether we like it or not.
The second thing that men do is play. More than women, men focus on, get involved in, subscribe to, obsess over play. Maybe God made us this way because we need the relief from the work gene, but whatever the reason, men are good players. I know men that would miss the birth of their third child for opening day at the stadium. I have a friend that has season tickets to every team in town and can balance his schedule like an accountant so that he doesn’t miss a game. He may not remember his wife’s birthday but he knows what time they drop the puck on the next home stand.
We know batting averages and fantasy draft stats. We fish and hike and run and lift. We might not be able to quote John 3:16 but we know what number John Riggins wore for the Washington Redskins, (44, so did Reggie Jackson, Chuck Foreman, and my college roommate). Women do stuff to be with other women. Men do stuff to do stuff. We play.
And finally, one of the things that men do, we die. Okay, I know that women do to but men do it sooner, more often, and more spectacularly. We were born to die. James Dean, Billy the Kid, John Kennedy, John Lennon, and those guys that are lifting up the flag on Iwo Jima. Men just die. Have you ever been on a cruise when they take you out at the beginning of the trip and give you the lifeboat speech. “Here’s how you put on your life jacket. You are to go quickly and safely down this corridor to boat number 12A. Don’t take time to pack your belongings. And, oh yes, women and children first.” To which every man on the ship puffs out his chest and looks at his buddy proudly, “Yes, we die.”
As clearly as we feel the need to work and the urge to play, men have the capacity to die. Not just to die but to die with purpose. In John 13 it is not coincidental I think that Jesus says, “Greater love has no man than this; that he lay down his life for his friend.” Jesus knew that women live sacrificially. They do that far better than men. But men are hardwired to fall on the grenade, to take the bullet, to give their lives for their friends, their family, and their country. We may not do much else right but, when the time comes, we die.
So if that is true, if that’s what real men do, then how do we live? In a world where it takes two incomes to survive, where leisure has become a business, and playing is an industry, and where frankly, there are nearly as many opportunities to die like a hero as there once was, how are men to be real men.
Well, this may be the longest blog I’ve ever written so let me just give you three examples. There are three men that come to my mind that I would call real men. Three men, fairly obscure that frankly I would be proud to pattern my life after. They are Sammy, Jerry, and Pa.
Sammy is my step-father. He is a good man. A simple man with simple tastes. And he works. As long as I have known Sammy he has worked hard. Getting up early every morning, rain or shine, being on the job long before other men punched in, and staying to clean everything up long after others were gone. Nashville Wire, Krogers, Sammy has worked hard and always taken great pride in his work. I can’t tell you how many times he has been named employee of the month or the year. The wall above his tool bench in the garage is covered with plaques. He is a hard worker.
In fact, Sammy works too hard to be doing it for some company. I think he works too hard to even be doing it for the money. Somewhere, deep inside Sammy there seems to be this conviction that the way he works is a reflection of his character as a man, as a Christian man. He may not be eloquent. He doesn’t get up and sing in church. But everyday Sammy testifies to the integrity of God by the way he gives his very best effort to his work. He is a living expression of, “Do all that you do as unto the Lord.”
Jerry is my cousin. And Jerry plays. He is one of the funniest people I know and I come from a family full of funny people. (And some of us that just think we are.) Jerry’s funny is soft, understated, self-effacing, just enjoying the situation kind of funny. He brings a smile and a chuckle into every circumstance. He brightens a room by walking in it. And he laughs so that he can help you laugh.
Jerry has seen his share of hard knocks. His job hasn’t always gone great. His dad died when he was way too young. He has dealt with disappointment and disability. But he has always played. Dancing on a desk when Ann (his wonderful wife) was worried about finances, putting a dead bird in the salad when his mother was taking things to seriously, and giving me a coke tab instead of a wedding ring during my wedding, (he was my best man), Jerry has taught me to play my whole life.
But Jerry doesn’t play because he doesn’t care. He cares deeply. No, I think he plays because he trusts. I think he is so sure that God is able, that God is in control, that he is willing to relax and leave the outcome to the One Man who can make a difference. “And our God is able to do exceeding, abundantly more than we can think or imagine.” If that is true then we should feel free to play.
Finally, Pa is an example of a real man to me. Pa dies. Now Pa by the way is 124 (at least it seems he’s been around that long. Actually, Pa is 87 and his name is not Pa. His name is Charles Cantrell and he is my father-in-law. He is a good, deeply devoted, Godly old man. And he dies, daily. As long as I have know him, well over three decades, he has given his life to God and to others without reservation. He is a walking example of, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless, I live.”
Every time I hear Pa pray he says, “Only one life, will soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.” And he lives that way every day. He has given his last dollar to strangers. He has gone out in the middle of the night to pray with broken men. He has shared his faith and his heart with more people than we could ever count. He has literally given his life away for the sake of the Gospel. Not for recognition or reward but because He just loves Jesus. He dies like a man in all that he does.
Well, in these three men, and in dozens of others that have spoken into my life I am beginning to see what makes a man a man. And I hope I am beginning to find a model to try to embrace in my own life. I want to work well, play hard, and die for the Kingdom. If I do then perhaps my sons can look at me and say, “He is a man.”

Friday, May 22, 2009

I Know

On Monday I wrote in the Branches Newsletter about the need to know and be known. I call that intimacy and I believe it drives the heart of men and women in the choices they make, the goals they set, and the desires they follow. That's why we Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace. To be known is why we join groups, buy BMW's, and do Jenny Craig. For kids, the need to be known leads to piercings, sexting, and drooping pants.
But as hard as we fight to be known, we may strive even more to know. The quest to know, to really be sure, is the constant in the human struggle. We live as post-postmoderns. The postmodern said, "We cannot know." Now we say, "I want to." Skepticism, doubt, and the agnostic are no longer in vogue. We have become again searchers, seekers of the truth, people who want desperately to know.
So how do we know that we know? Well, I don't know. There are sometimes I am so sure about things. I am convinced I have this all figured out. I really, really have the answer (or answers.) But other times, usually at 2 o'clock in the morning. My eyes open wide and a tiny, terrified voice in me says, "I don't know."
Take just one piece of this knowing stuff for instance, the Jesus story. I mean, come on, a baby in a manger, walking on water, alive-dead-alive again. How can we know something like that? It seems a little far-fetched really.
Well, here's one thing I know, knowing is a choice. I have chosen to know what I know. And I choose to know Jesus. Everybody has to start somewhere. I choose to start by believing there is a God, He is good, and His Word is true. From there it’s just a matter of knowing what He says about who He is. In John 17 Jesus says, "Father, though the world does not know you, I know you." He goes on to say, "I have made you known to them and will continue to make you known." Jesus was just so sure!
So, on those days when I just don't know, and believe me there are plenty of them, I return to what I do know, to what I have chosen to know, "I know in whom I have believed. And I am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed to Him until that day that He returns." everything else seems to fall in to place when I remember what I know.
The things on my prayer list, I don't know about them. A little kid with cancer. A good man who is losing his job. A fit young man who is stricken. A pastor couple that tried hard and now it's all coming apart. A mother dying. A father leaving. I don't know...But, I know that Jesus loves me, that God is able, that this world is not all there is. That's all I know for right now, and that seems to be enough.
Listen, whatever you are going through, you can make it. God loves you with an everlasting love. I know that. Mike

Intimacy: Know and be known

There is written into the DNA of every man the need to know and be known. From the very beginning God created man in community. He said, "Let us make man in our image." He gave man a name, Adam, and of all His creatures only called Adam by name. In fact God assigned to Adam the responsibility of naming the other creatures. Then God said, "It is not good for man to be alone." And He made woman. God knew that men needed to know and be known. Another word for that is intimacy.
Emerson Eggerichs in his book Love and Respect reminded us that only human beings are intimate face to face. Of all other creatures, God made us to "know" each other looking into one anothers eyes. This need for intimacy, to know and be known drives us when we are dating, moves us to the altar in marriage, creates a constant, subsurface yearning in us that can, when not fulfilled lead us to the most unhealthy of choices.
This sexual illustration of intimacy points us to another issue, men confuse intimacy with sexuality. We even use that language. "My wife and I were intimate last night." "Have you been intimate with her?" Men are intimate in order to be sexual. (Women are sexual in order
to be intimate.) But intimacy is not the same thing as sex or sexuality. The truth is that the need for intimacy is incapable of being satisfied by sex or any other human/physical means. The hunger is far too deep.
C.S. Lewis speaks of this hunger when he says, "We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives, chose our friends, or chose our work, and which we shall still desire when we are on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friends or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all."
There is an insatiable need written into the DNA of every man to know and be known. And that need can only be met in a face-to-face, deep and dedicated relationship with the One who created us. Intimacy is a part of my relationship with my wife. It fuels my love for my children (and for Jon-Mical.) It moves me to desire strong male friendships. But true intimacy can only finally be found in my walk with the One who really knows me. Paul says, "I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection, the fellowship of sharing in His suffering, becoming like Him as He is, and so somehow to attain to the resurrection of the dead." That is intimacy.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Good Friday Tornado

Last Friday, Good Friday, Doris and I were sitting in our family room visiting with some of our very best friends from Ohio. The TV was on providing background noise to the animated conversation of catch-up and the loud laughter that marks such moments. The weather the day before had been gorgeous with lots of sunshine and temperatures in the 70’s. On Friday it was a little cooler and the sunshine was broken from time to time by a dark, heavy cloud.
As we talked the television became more insistent and after awhile we were focused on the red swirling circles tracking their way from Spring Hill, Franklin, and Almaville directly toward Murfreesboro. The weather map was vivid with storm warnings and watches and a big TORNADO WARNING that flashed repeatedly on the bottom of the screen. We watched and the talk turned to basements, or the lack thereof, roof structures, and the Wizard of Oz.
Just a little after 1, as the sky was getting really black, our electricity went out. I don’t know if you know this but cable TV, satellite internet, and home phone service are all pretty dependant on electricity. Even our cell phones quit working as we found out later, the nearest tower was downed. It is hard to imagine that in our society, in the midst of the information age, that we could so quickly become so absolutely isolated. We were cut off from the goings on of the storm, the weather channel, and all that was happening around us.
We watched intently the black sky out the windows and the trees bending to the ground. There were no funnel clouds. We did not see cows flying through the sky. We didn’t hear a train. All we saw was ugly, angry sky, torrential rain, and a black TV screen. Our cell phones worked, not to call out, but to receive calls, we found out when family and friends began to call and text, asking if we were alright.
While we sat in the dark and made nervous jokes about squeezing into the bathtub with couch cushions (Doris’s 1st plan of escape) an F3 class tornado was hitting within a half mile on three sides of us. The national news later reported there were 92 homes destroyed, over 50 people injured and, both tragically and miraculously, only two deaths. We were without power for 30 hours. It took us several hours to get our friends back out to the highway. (I don’t think they stopped until they were all the way back in Ohio.) The road was blocked on both ends from our house and within easy strolling distance office buildings, churches, and whole neighborhoods were leveled. Even as we were going to the airport on Monday, traffic was being diverted to side roads and back streets around the rubble and clean-up efforts.
We have been amazed and humbled by the hundreds of emails, text messages, and phone calls from people that we love and that love us, checking on us and asking about our safety. God was merciful to us. Neither our home nor Branches was damaged in any major way. All of our family, Chonda and David, mom, Josh and Jennifer and Jon-Mical were unharmed. Jacob, it scares me to even think about it, was driving to our house from the campus of MTSU during the height of the storm and drove right across the path of the tornado literally moments after it passed. He said he knew he was still in Tennessee when he saw a guy in pajama bottoms and a camouflaged flannel shirt, walk out of a building with no roof, holding a can of beer, scratching his belly and looking up into the sky. Jacob was safe. Thank God.
Well, because I’m writing a blog and not a book I need to wrap this up. Here’s the message of the morning, the moral of the story. We just never know. We think we are so well informed. We feel like we have a purpose and a plan. We have it all together and all figured out but the very moment that we are “crying peace, peace sudden destruction is upon us.”
Now I figure we can do two things with that. We can spend our lives like Chicken Little saying, “The sky is falling.” Preaching gloom and doom and living in a spirit of fear and anxiety. Or, we can be busy about the Father’s business. I live in a world full of broken people, watching black TV screens and listening to cell phones that will not work. The message is all around them but they don’t hear it.
I’m not going for melodramatic here but I am reminded that, as my father-in-law always says, “There’s only one life. It soon will pass. Only what’s done for Christ will last.” At Branches, and in my own life, I am determined to get the Word out. Oh, I’m still going to laugh, and tell funny stories, and show pictures of Jon-Mical. But always in the background there needs to be an undercurrent of urgency. The storms are still coming and only Jesus has the safety we desire. Whether its demolished houses or shattered marriages, damaged roofs or hurting hearts, Jesus is still the answer.
The people I love, heck, the people I don’t even know, deserve my best effort, in the words that I say and the way that I live, at showing the love of God to them and for them. “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight oh Lord.” Or as St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach Christ and where necessary, use words.”
Now, that’s enough for today. I’ve got to go get Doris out of the bathtub and put the cushions back on the couch. By the way, we love you all.


Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Jon-Mical is our 14 month old grandson and he is so smart. Yesterday Doris and I taught him a new trick in 5 seconds. We were listening to a worship CD and I noticed his little arms up over his head so I threw both of my arms up and said, "Praise Jesus!" You are not going to believe this but he caught it right away. He raised both hands up in jubilee and then clapped. HE IS SMART! The rest of the day every time I was around him I'd say "Praise Jesus" and both arms would go straight up in the air.
I couldn't wait for Josh to pick him up so we could show off this new trick. When Josh came in I said, "We taught Jon-Mical a new thing today." Before I had a chance to show of my toddler training skills Josh said, "Oh yeah? I forgot to show you what he's been doing for a week." He turned to Jon-Mical and said "TOUCHDOWN." Jon-Mical's arms shot straight up in the air and then he clapped and clapped. great.
I wonder how many times we are faced with new and challenging circumstances. Everything looks different and we are frightened. We turn to God in desperation hoping He has some new trick up his sleeve to teach us. Maybe there's some special plan that He has kept hidden for 2000 years until just this minute, just for us.
And I wonder if God is not saying, "I taught you what to do a long time ago. Now just do it. The same old stuff works today like it did then. Consistent prayer. Confident faith. Unwavering trust.
Doris and I read every morning out of a little book we love titled, "Jesus Calling." The verse for yesterday was old stuff. No new, fresh, revolutionary idea. Just the things we learned as kids in Sunday School. Say it with me. "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your path."
We are facing a new day. There are things in the world, in the economy, in our lives that we have never seen before. I have a new suggestion. Let's get back to the old ways, prayer, faith, trust. It works.


PS The story above may have been embellished by an overly proud grandfather. Hey, what else is new?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Hold On

My blog today is actually an email response to a friend in ministry that is feeling the effects of the economy. He is frightened and discouraged over the inability to spin enough plates to takes care of his family and also build a fledgling ministry he feels God has called him to. Maybe his plight strikes a chord with you. If so, read on…

“Don't worry about sounding glum. I appreciate knowing where you are and knowing how I can pray for you. I know these are very difficult days and it sounds like the stress is hitting you doubly hard. We men are wired to be the providers and when that role is threatened nothing is more debilitating. You are in my prayers.

I wish I had a fail proof, "do this and everything will be okay" answer but we both know there isn't one. I can tell you some things God is teaching me in all of this.

First, I am learning to focus. When I begin to panic I start frantically running in every direction. When God has called me to do something I need to maintain that focus and work toward that goal. I can't give every effort to my ministry because I have to work hard to feed my family. My days are short and I am stretched thin. But, that is all the more reason to not give my energy to too many things. I work to provide a living and all my other focus goes toward building what God has called me to build. At times like these the thing I have said to my sons for years is especially true, “You can do anything you want to do. You just can’t do everything you want to do.” Paul said it best in Philippians 4, “This one thing I do.” Examine your activity. Look closely at where your energy is going. Regain your focus.

Second, don't discount what God is doing while you are on the backside of the wilderness, both in you and with you. At one period in my life when Doris and I were just entering “recovery,” I had to go to work for Tractor Supply. I can’t tell you how I felt putting on my little pink striped shirt each day and going to sell lawnmowers to young, yuppy, housewives, half my age and ten times my net worth. It was in those days of sheer drudgery and discipline that God did some of his best work in me. I proved to myself, my family, and everyone watching that I could be counted on. I learned the value of putting the one foot in front of the other and doing the next right thing. Both Moses and David had to tend sheep before God could use them fully. That's the "in you" part.
The “with you’ part is that He, in those circumstances is still using your testimony and your talents. Come on, your email said you led someone to Christ. Most believers go their whole lives and never do that. If you starve to death tomorrow (which you won't) you have laid up treasures in heaven. You are a mighty man of God and that is true whether you are sitting on the platform of a mega church or fixing lawnmowers at TSC. God WILL come through in your behalf.

Last thing, I didn't mean to preach but I care about you guys, God will honor the prayers of His people. You know that better than I. I will put you on our prayer list. This Tuesday 279 people around the country will pray for you. You have a network of prayer warriors. God is going to provide. You have the privilege of being a great example of faithful living. Some people God can't trust so He keeps them hedged about and protected. You He loves enough and trusts enough to know you will stand strong in the face of seemingly insurmountable opposition so He lets you be at the forefront of the battle because He knows He can use you for His glory. Somewhere He is whispering to another struggling soul today, "Look at my man over there. He doesn't quit." And that soul is encouraged through you. You are Hebrews 11 material. This season in your life is You are Hebrews 11 material. This season in your life is Hall of Faith kind of stuff. If God is who He says He is, (and He is) and you are who He says you are, (and you are) then we know that “all things work together for good.” Don’t even think about giving up. We who are watching you need you to hold on because it gives us strength.

Enough rambling. We will get through this. We will look back someday (face to face) and laugh at how wonderfully God came through. Doris and I will pray for you all today and each day in our devotions. Thank you for your friendship.”

And for the rest of you, “Take your stand…and after you have done all, stand.” You are an inspiration to someone, (someone like me.)


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Geriatric Jesus

“I wish Jesus had lived to be 60.” Isn’t that a strange thing to say? But a former pastor of mine, a man I worked with for several years used to say that all of the time. He was a little eccentric so I just chalked it up to terminal weirdness. Now, at 55, I’m beginning to see the wisdom in such a musing.

There are some things I would like to have seen in the Son of God. Every chapter of life brings new challenges. Every curve in the road opens new vistas. Wouldn’t it be nice to see how He would have walked some of the paths that we face?

For example, how would Jesus have handled the reality of a diminishing voice? Every time I turn on the television and see what’s in vogue, what is being talked about, where the interests of the populous lies, I am reminded that the older I get the less likely I am to be heard. Now I’m not complaining mind you. There is something nice about not having to solve the problems of global warming or economic meltdown in every conversation. I am at the place in my life where I enjoy talking about my grandson and that’s about all that is expected of me anyway. But let’s face it a younger world is listening to a younger voice. From Wall St. to Hollywood Blvd. it is a youth driven culture. Music, money, and mission are all dictated by the leaning of the young. In the most recent presidential election the political pundits touted what the “youth vote” was doing. Like I want the fate of the nation decided by someone who has barely survived puberty. (Ok, maybe I am complaining a little bit.)

The point is, would we listen to a geriatric Jesus? Would we have followed a Savior who shuffled along with an old man’s gait? Now I know we are all quick to say, “Well of course, it’s Jesus.” But I don’t know. We have been pretty fast to turn to the latest fad or give credence to the newest gimmick. Even in the church. Maybe especially in the church. All I’m trying to say is it would be neat to be able to get on Facebook and read the blog of a gray haired Messiah. Did I catch my pastor’s weirdness?

Well, here’s an idea. Maybe Jesus does live at 45 and 60 and 83. Maybe as He breathes in me and you, maybe as He gives us a voice, He is teaching a younger generation how to live with and in grace. Maybe my job as a rapidly maturing old codger is to speak for Jesus to all those young whipper-snappers and say, “He is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.” The same Jesus that called me to arms at 20 calls me into his arms at 70. The Christ that drove me with fire in my eyes to win the world is the Master that teaches me with a whisper to love it. Maybe His voice is not diminishing, nor is mine. Maybe the work He has for me is as vital and as vibrant as ever. It has just changed its focus.

Well enough rambling for now. I’m going to go Twitter.


Saturday, March 7, 2009


Twelve years ago Josh and Jacob decided to get me the Christmas gift of my dreams. I have always wanted a chocolate Lab, a beautiful dog, as noble in its stature as it is gentle in its demeanor. Just before Christmas in 1997 the boys came walking in with a brown bundle of fur, complete with red bow on its head, and my heart was captured. We named her Coco. (Okay, so we’re not the most creative people in the world.)
If you know anything of my story you know that Coco has been an integral part of it. It didn’t take long for us to recognize that this cute little puppy, a refuge from the local dog pound is about as much Lab as I am British rock star. Her face lacks the strong, bull-like stockiness of a Lab. Her chest doesn’t have the broad, confidence. She is brown and she is big. Beyond that she looks a lot like an 80 pound Chihuahua. But she is mine and I have loved her for 12 years, as much for where she came from as who she was. She was a loving, thoughtful gift from my sons.
Now I confess it has been kind of a love/hate relationship much of the time. Coco has been the topic of many sermons and a number of fits of rage. She has eaten at least a dozen shoes, three tennis rackets, a gas grill, and the engine of a riding lawnmower. She has managed to escape from the most detailed (and expensive) backyard security systems you could imagine. And she is a master of the “I look like I’m coming when you call, no, I’ll runaway” maneuver. She can take me from patting her head and rubbing her belly to screaming obscenities that would make my mother cringe faster that any living creature I know. (She’s kind of like golf in that sense.)
Those of you (all 14) that have read my book, Failure and How I Achieved It, know that Coco was the topic of an entire chapter and has become for me a metaphor for grace and second chances. She was hit by a car 10 years ago, left to die, and I nursed her back to health. From that moment on our relationship changed. She lies on the deck on lazy summer afternoons with her head in my lap and we talk (well, I talk) for hours about things that need to be talked about but never heard. On really cold nights, when we can shame Doris into it, we let her sleep on the kitchen floor and I sleep on the couch in the family room so that she can see I’m close. (And so she won’t pee on the carpet.)
It’s been 12 years, one car wreck, and a lot of miles. Last summer it became obvious that I had to pick her up to put her in the truck to go for walks or out to the cabin. She has been getting slower and slower to move. And last week we took her to the vet. Severe arthritis. Bulging disks. Creeping paralysis. And that was just me. You can’t believe what he said about Coco. I’m not going to go all “Marley and Me” on you but the time has come to say goodbye to Coco.
A couple of nights ago I found her in the corner of our yard, unable to get up to come to the house. This morning I had to pick her up and hold her while she got her wobbly legs under her. She stumbles more than walks now and is starting to vocalize the pain when she moves too quick. Jacob is out of town. We’ll let him get back and on Monday we’ll take her back to the vet for the last time.

Now I can think of a thousand lessons in Coco’s story. I want to write about changing your ways, being accepted even when you don’t look like what others think you should, or learning to trust the heart of the one who takes care of you. Heck, I’ve preached on most of those and used her as an example. I could talk about grace, loyalty, and perseverance. She is a treasure of illustrations and object lessons.
I think what I need to say though instead is just thank you. Thank you Josh and Jacob for tapping into your allowance and your hearts to give me a gift that has lasted 12 years and will live with me forever. Thank you Doris for gritting your teeth and forcing a smile when Coco tracked mud on your carpet and wallowed dog hair on the sofa. Thank you neighbors for being kind and understanding when you called for the hundredth time to let me know she was out. (Except for that one jerk that lives at….oh, I got sidetracked.) Thank you Coco for unashamed enthusiasm and unabashed love, licking my face when I shed unseen tears, for listening to my stories when I was afraid to tell the truth, and for laying at my feet when it felt like I was alone in the world.

And by the way, thank you Master for loving me in the very same way, no, in a far, far greater way than I loved Coco. You have overlooked my messes, indulged my escapes into fantasy, and always, always brought me back home. You have picked me up and held me when I couldn’t get my wobbly feet under me. You have carried me from the pit of my paralysis to the warmth of your chest. You have lifted me up and taken me places that I could never have imagined existed without you. “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor” Psalm 8:4

So Monday we’ll do the deed. I hope Josh and Jacob don’t get any ideas about where to take me a few years from now when my joints ache and I fall face down in my food bowl. But, when that time comes, as it will, whatever it looks like, I imagine they will tell funny stories and remember some of the frustrating times that I put them through. Maybe they will try to decide what object lessons to draw from my life and what illustrations to gain from my journey. There will be a lot of things they can say I’m sure. I hope they’ll remember the change, the grace, the transformation. I hope that they feel compelled to just say, “Thank you,” to God and everyone around them. That will be enough.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

I have an idea. It came to me about 3am this morning which is when most of my ideas come. The problem is that by the time the sun comes up and its bright enough to write them down I can’t remember my own name much less the idea. But this idea is different.
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. It was the beginning of the Lenten Season and for many Christ-followers a sacred and holy day. The tradition of Ash Wednesday goes as far back as the Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah who covered themselves with ashes to signify their mourning for the nation Israel. In the New Testament ashes were again a symbol of the recognition of our mortality and death. And in the early church Ash Wednesday came to be a day of “celebrating” the beginning of the 40 days of mourning that begin today and climax with Good Friday, the day of the Crucifixion of Jesus, and then Easter Sunday.
Now in my tradition these holy events were less prominent and less celebrated. Perhaps we would think a little about Good Friday. We seldom considered making a life change for Lent and we never even discussed Ash Wednesday. Easter and Christmas were the two holy days and all we knew of celebration involved Easter lilies and poinsettias.
But yesterday Josh and I sat beside each other in a very solemn and sacred service that culminated with the priest rubbing ashes hard on my forehead in the sign of the cross. For the rest of the day I sat in counseling sessions aware that my clients were not looking at my eyes but focusing clearly on my forehead. Last night at Soup & Group my mother actually tried to spit on a napkin and rub the ash off of my face. That’s something I want to give up for Lent.
Well, back to my idea. What if, rather than a mark on my head, I put a couple of things in place for the next six weeks to remind me of just who I am in the great scheme of things? What if I tried to live just a little bit different for 40 days or so to remember that I am just dust, but such good dust that the Son of God gave His life for me?
So at 3 o’clock in the morning I had this idea, to invite you to join me in a very simple celebration of discipline. Here’s what I propose:

We read 1 chapter of the Bible each day from now until Easter. (That’s a little more than 40 days but who’s counting.) I suggest the writings of John. Start with the Gospel (21 chapters) Read the Epistles (7 chapters) And then the Revelation (22 chapters) Yeah, I know that’s 50. So sue me. Read a couple of extra once in awhile and by April 12 we will have read a huge chunk of the New Testament together. Everything written by John.
Second, we pray together 1 full day. Now you can do this one of two ways. Sometime during the next 40 days you could set aside 24 hours and just pray non-stop without eating or sleeping. I vote for number two. We can pray 36 minutes a day for 40 days. (12 minutes each morning, 12 minutes each evening, 12 minutes at night) Come on. You can do that. Think what a difference we can make by praying together for 36 minutes a day. If you skip Sunday’s by Easter we will have prayed 24 hours, I full day.
Third challenge, read a book. I suggest one of these three, Adam’s Return by Richard Rohr, Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, or Believing God by Beth Moore. (Doris made me put that one in) No really, for the next 40 days give up a little TV and read one really good, life changing book.
Finally, do one selfless, anonymous act of service each week for the next six weeks. There are about 1000 of us that read this email. That is 6000 God moments in the lives of people over the next 6 weeks. That’s world changing.

What do you think? Is this a good idea or what? All I’m saying is that rather than just give something up for lent or wear ashes on your head, that you make an intentional effort to celebrate God in your life for 40 days. We may not turn the universe upside down but we will make a difference in ourselves and in our little corner of the world. I’m going to do this. Think about joining me. Oh, and we start today…right after I take a nap!


Blessed are you, O Lord our God, the all-holy one, who gives us life and all things. As we go about our lives, the press of our duties and activities often leads us to forget your presence and your love. We fall into sin and fail to live out the responsibilities that you have entrusted to those who were baptized into your Son.
In this holy season, help us to turn our minds and hearts back to you. Lead us into sincere repentance and renew our lives with your grace. Help us to remember that we are sinners, but even more, help us to remember your loving mercy.
As we live through this Ash Wednesday, may the crosses of ashes that mark our foreheads be a reminder to us and to those we meet that we belong to your Son. May our worship and prayer and penitence this day be sustained throughout these 40 days of Lent. Bring us refreshed and renewed to the celebration of Christ’s resurrection at Easter.
We ask this through your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Focus and the Inner-Life

Focus. Laser-beam, deeply centered, all encompassing focus is an incredible feat. I live in a world that screams for attention, smacks of distraction, salivates for confusion. It seems the call of the gods of the air is to come away and not be focused. And yet,

In every area of my life I am hungry for and in need of focus. To be present with my wife and sons, to be attentive to my work, to even be focused on my fun would be such a change. I am doing the one and thinking of the other continually. While I am going through the motions of the first thing I am busy planning the steps of the second, third, or fourth thing. So unfocused.

Especially I am learning, and desiring to learn to be focused on the Center of the Universe, the One who created me for Him, the only true object of focus. I am trying to take time, quietly, to sit in His presence, to hear Him speak, to sense His will, to be focused on His desires. And I am terrible at it. When I am quiet my mind races with my own thoughts. When I am active for him, reading, verbal prayer, my mind drifts to the daily to do list, the unfinished tasks from yesterday, even the score of the last tennis match. It seems the harder I try to be focused the worse I am at it.

So, where do I go? How do I focus? What steps must I put in place?
Here are some:
1. Study a life of focus. I am reading David Benner, Brennan Manning, Richard Foster, men who seem to know how to be focused on Him. Surely they can teach me more about focused, centered living.
2. Just do it. I am trying the Nike approach to being centered. I am at least making space for it in my life, waiting, meditating, thinking. I am going to just give myself a chance to be focused.
3. Relax. The harder I try…. Perhaps I can learn to just relax in Him and allow Him to bring focus to my very unfocused world. I am after all, deeply in love with Christ, I believe that to be true. He is certainly focused on me if I am not on Him. He knows the desires of my heart and in Him I can find the focus that I need.
In the meantime, where was I? Oh yes, I am going to focus the few, fleeting moments my mind gives me on living, being, and thinking as a God-focused creature, giving my self to his thoughts. “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Phil. 4:8