Saturday, April 28, 2012


Growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, I came to expect certain things were “normal”.   My “normal” world view said;

  • Spaghetti does not come out of a box and it certainly does not come out of a can.  Being raised by a first-generation Italian mother, pasta was always made by hand and started with a five-pound bag of flour and a dozen eggs.  She never used one of those hand-crank metal pasta machines either; it was cut by hand using a “chitarra”; something that looked like a guitar that took too many steroids.  Sauce always started with a pound of beef, a pound of pork, a pound of veal and a pound of Italian sausage.  It took hours of hard work and skill.  I didn't know Spaghetti came out of a box till I was 20.  I would no more eat a can of Chef Boyardee than stick a hot wrench in my mouth.

  • We “NEVER” drove or parked on grass or dirt roads.  Cars were new and clean while dirt and grass were filthy.  While I have been able to share this valuable insight on numerous occasions with the less knowledgeable, the most memorable and lasting incident occurred when I informed my date that, “Walking in the woods would dirty the bottom of my shoes.”  It may be difficult for some to believe, but that that girl became my wife 36-plus years ago.

Time prevents me from giving more examples of my “normal;”

  • Leaving church exactly three minutes and forty-seven seconds early was the optimum time to avoid traffic in the parking lot
  • Putting mayonnaise on each individual layer (bread, mayo, meat, mayo, lettuce, mayo, tomato, mayo, bacon, mayo, cheese, mayo, bread) was the only way to make a proper sandwich

After getting married we moved to Wilmington, Delaware.  Then to Danbury, Connecticut.  Then to Scottsdale, Arizona.  And finally to Lake Wales, Florida.  Imagine the stress and cross-cultural disorientation of landing in Imperial Polk County (pronounced “Poke” and yes, that’s the official name of the county) in central Florida.  One of my new found friends in Lake Wales informed me that the three basic food groups here were “Bar”, “B” and “Q.”

As you’re reading this, I bet that you have come to the settled conclusion that not only is my view of “normal” twisted, but you have serious doubts about me as a person.  And that’s OK because I have the same exact thoughts about you and everyone else.

So, what really is “normal” for us here in Polk County?  And for that matter, everyone else here on planet Earth.

I don’t know where you come from; your color, cultural heritage, if you are rich, poor or somewhere in the middle.  What you’ve done or what’s been done to you.  But I think we can all agree on something, and that’s this world and our lives are broken.  Life and things always seem to go downhill, from good to bad.  People get old, get sick and die.  Things go from new to old and broken.  All you have to do is nothing and your kids room goes from clean and orderly to dirty and a shambles.  An orange grove goes from beautiful and fruitful to dead and full of weeds.  All it takes is time and nothing else.

So, where does God fit into all this?  What are his thoughts, feelings and reaction about this "normal" state of things and our lives? As I reflect on this very important question, I come to two words;

“Jesus wept.” John 11:35

That was his firsthand reaction to experiencing the death of his friend Lazarus and its impact on family and friends.  Jesus does not turn away or abandon those hurting people.  He personally experiences the loss and enters into their pain.  It hits him right in the gut and tears flow from his eyes and heart.

He didn’t stand up and yell, “Well, that’s what you deserve, you and everyone else.  I made everyone and everything perfect but you’ve screwed it up.  You turned away from God so this is your just deserts.  Death, pain and destruction are what you asked for, what you’ve earned, so go ahead and enjoy it.”

And, in comparison to a perfect God, he could have said that and been absolutely right.

But Jesus came looking for “normal” people, just like you and me.  Hurting, bleeding, broken, lonely, separated, weak, sick, dying, insecure and uncertain.  As we experience this “normal” life, his perspective on pain is not someone that dumps on us; but as God who has responded to comfort and restore.  He doesn’t sit in some faraway place and send judgments to ruin us, but comes as a savior to restore us.  Jesus feels our pain and longs to restore us and our brokenness before God, each other and life.

But more than just feeling and experiencing our pain, Jesus offers restoration and renewal.  His offer is not through what we do but through a personal relationship with him.  Instead of a checklist, Jesus says that we agree with him about being “normal” and turn over our weakness and brokenness to him. In exchange, he takes us back and gives fullness of life for our emptiness.

If I were a betting man, I’d bet the farm that we are about the same.  I’ve tried to do things right, but I always fall back to “normal.”  There have been times when I was going to “get my stuff together,” change my life, walk the straight and narrow path.  But I always slid back into the same old habits.  Sound familiar?

That’s where the relationship with Jesus comes in.  We bring our hurts, habits, humiliations and hang-ups.  In brokenness we agree that we’ve failed, can’t fix ourselves and need his help.  He takes our “normal,” receiving us as his children and starts the restoration process for time and all eternity.

So, as we noodle on what’s “normal,” let’s run to Jesus.  He is the only one that can truly take us and save us from “normal.”

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Taking aim

In the ever continuing struggle for truth, justice and weight maintenance, I try and play golf on a regular basis for exercise.  It’s about the only sport (other than NASCAR) where you get to ride in a vehicle while you do it.

I like golf because it’s a simple game – the goal is to get the ball into the hole.  That’s about it in a nutshell.  And to make golf simpler, there are an abundance of signs to help you along the way.  At every hole there’s a sign with information about the shape/length of the hole, where water and sand traps are.  There are markers to show you where to hit the ball from, signs/arrows where the next hole is, red sticks showing where out of bounds is (I’m all too familiar with these last markers).  And to help you get to the goal, there’s even a stick with a flag on it (called the pin) to show you where the hole is.

For me, it’s all about aiming at and hitting towards the pin.  Hitting the ball off the tee is ok, but if I can hit that shot into the green and towards the pin, then I’m going to have a good round.

Last time I played there were good shots and some not so good shots.  I could tell you about the drives that went directly to jail (a.k.a. woods, lake); they did not pass “GO” and did not collect $200.  Or the shot where the dirt went further than the ball (let’s not dwell on the negative).  But the shots I remember most are the ones where I took aim, envisioned the shot, stood over the ball, took a breath, swung, stayed balanced, hit the ball and watched as it landed on the green and stopped close to the pin.

It feels so good when you take aim at something, prepare, execute and see results.  I don’t care if it’s fishing, cooking, painting a room, washing your car.  There is something about setting a goal/direction, working/walking towards that goal and then finishing.

This may sound like a weird idea (but you wouldn’t be reading this unless you expected something weird), have you taken aim and set spiritual goals for yourself?  Do you have any goals (or even just one) for inviting God into your daily life?  Are you intentionally seeking God in some meaningful way?

Let me share three helpful ideas on how to start doing this;

  • Seek – We need to purposefully seek after God.  This is more than flipping through some preacher on cable TV, or sitting with your arms folded in church.  Seeking God is constantly and consistently pursuing after him on a daily basis.  Think about the last time you lost your keys or cell phone.  Did you just sit back with your feet up and arms folded, thinking that they would just show up?  I don’t know about you but I just about come unglued if I can’t immediately lay my hands on them.  In the same way, with equal focus and intensity we need to constantly and consistently seek after God.  Colossians 3:1 - Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.
  • Set – Once we have committed to seek God, the question of how immediately pops up.  While there are many things that could be said about “how” practically to do this, I’m going to suggest that it starts with setting our mind.  We need to focus our mind and lives around the person of Jesus Christ, who he is, what he has done, his purpose for us and our lives.  Like a compass keeps pointing north no matter what happens and where it is, so we need to keep our mind and life pointed towards Jesus.  When we set our focus, this immediately implies that other things will no longer be our focus.  Directing our time and attention towards Jesus also dilutes our focus on other things.  Colossians 3:2 – Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.
  • Solve – When the Bible talks about “working hard” on our relationship with God, the word picture is like solving a puzzle or math problem; it requires time and work to bring it to completion.  And that effort is not sporadic; it takes time, over time.  When I first met Mary Ann, she was interested in all sorts of plants, flowers, vegetables, trees.  To me, they just grew in the ground and that was about it.  Now I can “solve” the question of what plant we’re looking at by their leaves, the shape/color of their blossoms.  You have to realize that being able to “solve” the question about plants is nothing that I would choose on my own, but because of love for her, I am willing to invest time and effort to learn.  All relationships need time, attention, correction and renovation.  We are to be committed to our relationship with God through Jesus, no matter what, working hard to “solve” it, bring it to conclusion and fulfillment.  Philippians 2:12 – Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear.

On one occasion I hit a decent drive down the left side of the fairway.  I felt OK about the drive, it wasn’t terrible nor was it great, but I knew that everything depended on that next shot to the green.  I had about 135 yards to the hole, and since the green was uphill, I couldn’t see the hole.  But I could see the pin and the flag flapping in the breeze.

I didn’t do anything special, didn’t take any extra practice swings, didn’t breathe a special prayer under my breath, I didn’t even mumble to myself “Just don’t screw up too badly.”  I just did what I’ve done thousands of time before, swung and hit the ball.  As the ball left the club, I thought “Oh no, I’ve hit it too hard.”  After a few seconds then there was that distinctive “clunk.”  “Oh no” I thought again, “I’ve hit the pin and the ball ricocheted into the next time zone.”  Somewhat dejected, I approached the green.  Since I hit the ball too hard, and heard the “clunk” I immediately started looking beyond the green for my ball.  Then I heard a loud scream.  Someone in our group discovered the ball in the bottom of the cup for an eagle-2.  We laughed, high-fived, taking pictures on our cell phones to commemorate this once-in-a-lifetime achievement (a.k.a. luckiest shot of my life).  But the best news of all – I have a witness!

Now I’ve never hit a shot like that before, nor am I likely to do it ever again.  But it is a vivid reminder to know what your goal is, aim at it and take action towards it.  As memorable as that shot was, it’s nothing in comparison with knowing God through Jesus Christ.  Living daily with him; moving towards goals that focus on developing that relationship, becoming more like him day by day.

Now that’s worth a scream, high-fives all around and celebration.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Heavy weight

I recently spoke with Jane, a friend living in a different part of the country, who shared her oh so familiar story with me.  Her situation and environment at work were getting harder and more painful to endure.  Her managers expected more and more while they withdrew resources, support and encouragement.  Those she served also demanded more time and attention.  Whenever someone made unreasonable requests or acted-out, she got zero help or backing.  You could sense the level of frustration and pain in her voice.  Through Skype, I could see lines of worry in her face; her shoulders were slumped from the weight of pain.

And if this was not bad enough, next week was going to be even more demanding and stressful.  In addition to her normal staggering workload, she was expected to perform an extra job.  This additional responsibility was going to be watched carefully, and if she did not do everything as prescribed in a 600-page manual, she could be disciplined and potentially terminated.

Jane is not afraid of measurement or accountability; she truly wants to do an excellent job.  But her ability to succeed while expectations rise like the tide is really discouraging.  Additional weight and pressure was put around her neck while receiving threats of discipline, reprisals and termination. 

With this as a backdrop, we prayed.  We poured out our hearts to God, asking him to provide comfort and relief.  As we concluded with AMEN, Jane did feel somewhat better and encouraged.  But there still was that sinking feeling – had anything really changed?

Little did we realize that God was already listening.

The next morning she was called into her manager’s office.  Because of the constant demands, she was nervous about what it meant.  Her manager said, “You’ve been called to a meeting by corporate, so you will be excused from the extra job next week.”

In an instant, Jane’s heart went from concern to celebration.  More than just an individual situation was addressed when she realized afresh that God is alive and personally involved with her and her life.  Her hope was renewed.

When I got an email about the news, I knew this deserved more than just the normal “Reply All.”  I was able to catch up with Jane later that day, you could hear the excitement and release in her voice.  Together we thanked God for his personal concern and care.

As I write about Jane’s true short story, there are five truths for us:

  • God’s nature – God has a personality and nature to which he is always true.  He does not change and we can depend on him not to turn on us[1].  This means that we don’t have to wonder what God is thinking about us, we can be free to trust him.
  • God’s control – God remains in control during the storms of life[2].  He is never overpowered or outmaneuvered by anyone or anything[3].  While he is in control, pain and hurt come from our personal decisions, choices others make and the spiritual enemy.  This means that when pain and sorrow do come, he stays by our side, he is not forced outside, he is still in control.
  • God’s humor – God has a great sense of humor and laughs at those who think they can ignore him or abuse his people[4].  God is not worried or wondering what the enemy is going to do next.  There is great comfort in seeing God laugh at his enemies.
  • God’s timing – God has promised to take care of us, but the timing may not be what we expect.  We want it now while God’s plan and timing are not based on our expectations, what is most convenient or pleasing to us.  We are encouraged to wait on God, trusting that he knows not only what is best but the right time to deliver us[5].
  • God’s glory – Glory is the idea that encompasses everything that makes God known[6].   God wants to let people know who he is through these shouts of “glory”, words and actions that point to him.  This can be his actions and expressions that show who he is.  It can also be our words and actions that show/tell everyone about God, who he is and what he means to us.

During an interview with Oprah, someone said; “Trouble is given to make us stronger.”  And on some level, that’s right.  We can and do grow stronger through pain, problems and persecutions.  But if trouble just stops at the “why” level of our heart, it will not fulfill its destiny.  There comes a time when we need to move beyond “why” and onto “who.”  Is God good and can I trust him?

Job came to the same fork in the road through his physical suffering followed by the greater pain of rejection from his supposed friends.  At the end of all his misery, Job and God had a long and straightforward talk.  When all was said and done, Job came to the realization that before his pain, he had only heard of God.  But now, after the suffering, Job sees God and is willing to release his pride and life to the greater freedom of a personal relationship with him[7].

Hearing God is good, but being able to see him is so personal and fulfilling.  I like talking with people as much as anyone else, but you have a greater relationship with those you meet face-to-face.

Isn’t it time for all of us to see our pain in this same light?  Moving from “hearing” to “seeing" - transitioning from “why” to “who”.  I promise you, it makes all the difference in the world.

[1] Malachi 3:6
[2] Job 38:1-2
[3] Psalm 48:7
[4] Psalm 2:4
[5] Habakkuk 2:3
[6] Philippians 2:11
[7] Job 42:5

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

And the data will set you free

While waiting in line for a bagel, I asked people if they knew where a certain store was.  Before I could put the question mark at the end of my sentence, the guy next to me sprang into action.  Like the Clint Eastwood of old, he pulled his smart phone from its holster faster than Dirty Harry Callahan facing a gang of evil punks.  With breathtaking speed, he rifled through screens, web pages, search engines and maps.  I was amazed at the velocity and poetry of his fingers flying across the screen.  Before you could say, “Go ahead, make my day.” he discovered that the store had gone out of business.  Turning to express my personal thanks, I grabbed my bagels and started to leave.

“Now wait just a minute” he barked, “I bet we can find another store just like it.”  With my arm in one hand and his smart phone in the other, he continued his frantic search by shouting voice commands into his handheld device.  As his voice moved the decibel meter ever upwards, so too his level of desperation rose.  Other patrons in the bakery started sliding away as the volume and intensity of his commands grew, and grew, and grew.   It quickly turned into one of those times that you just wanted to melt, find a crack in the floor and slip away quietly.

Now, if I was looking for a store to pick up my new kidney transplant, I might have wanted to go the extra mile in finding an alternative.  Not knowing where the closest fabric store was located is not a crushing blow to me, my wife nor will it have a dramatic impact on western civilization.  Life was going to continue on planet Earth.

With enough information instantly available, he truly believed the solution to my fabric store problem (or any problem for that matter) was within reach.  Unfortunately, this incident is neither strange nor abnormal to us.  Our culture has a belief (dare I say faith) in the idol of instant information.  There seems to be an ever accelerating demand for more data (most of it useless), and the ability to get to it right away.  In all areas of life, we need to know more.

Bob Woodward of Watergate fame recently said “The truth is not on the Internet.  The truth resides with people[i].”  Bob’s insight and clarity is spot on.  When we go looking for truth, it will not be found in a cold repository but rather in a relationship.

When looking for truth, meaning and purpose in life, it will only be found in a relationship.  And the only person ever claiming to offer a relationship addressing both truth and our deepest needs and longings is Jesus Christ.  Take a moment to look at three of his truth claims;

  1. The truth starts with Jesus – When Jesus said that he was the way, the truth and the life[ii], he is making a totally unique and extreme claim that truth about life is only through him.  Jesus claims that he can unmask our twisted view and show us ultimate reality, releasing us from ourselves and all that pains us.
  2. The truth frees through Jesus – As we look for freedom from the prison of pain, loneliness, fear, guilt and shame, a relationship with Jesus brings us to true truth.  He said that as we follow him, we will know the truth and he will set us free[iii].  The offer of freedom from all that haunts, hurts and harms is exactly what we desperately need and long for.
  3. The truth speaks through Jesus – Jesus claimed everyone that is of the truth hears his voice[iv].  When we go looking for truth, Jesus promises that he will speak, giving us strength for today and hope for tomorrow.

I know that there are many who are in desperate need and pain.  As you think back on Easter and the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, isn’t it also time to think about our own need for resurrection?  Resurrection from the pit of petty selfishness, arrogance and pride… Release from our personal prison, where we have hammered out the handcuffs that bind us.

I have found Jesus to be the truth that has set me free.  Free from myself, my past, my pain and anxiety.  Along with that freedom has come the power and desire to change, living for him and others each and every day.  I invite you to turn to him for yourself.

[i], April 4th 2012
[ii] John 14:6
[iii] John 8:32
[iv] John 18:37

Monday, April 2, 2012

Not so social

If Shakespeare were alive today, he would no doubt pen, “To post or not to post, that is the question.”

There seems to be a real difference of opinion as to how Christians, pastors, churches and Christian leaders are to employ the social media juggernaut.  Everyone seems to have a strong judgment on the question; very few silently sit on the sideline.  No matter what your opinion, Nikon recently provided an extremely valuable lesson for everyone about social media.

Nikon has over 1.2 million Facebook fans and normally gets between 100-to-500 comments per update.  However, it only took 57 arrogant and insensitive words for Nikon to blatantly tell the world that their equipment, not the photographer’s skill, was necessary for truly good photography.  The colossal blunder moved across the internet at the speed of light, enraging thousands (dare I say hundreds of thousands) of fans.  The 4,000 plus people that took time to respond were pointed and harsh in their criticism, many suggesting they were going to sell their Nikon gear and switch to Canon.  In light of their arrogance, the quick apology issued by Nikon sounded hollow and insincere.

While I’ve come to the conclusion that Jesus was not referring to social media, His words ring truer today than ever.  In Luke 12 Jesus says, “Everything that is secret will be brought out into the open. Everything that is hidden will be uncovered. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight. What you have whispered to someone behind closed doors will be shouted from the rooftops”[i]

While everyone deserves grace and forgiveness, the Nikon debacle is just another in a long string of social media gaffs.  Christians, churches and pastors are not immune to these same issues, committing public “hamartia – missing the mark” with their status, blogs, posts, tweets.  Here are 4 important lessons to consider:

Lesson 1: Listen Wisely – You may be tempted to be guided about social media by someone younger.  While they are comfortable with technology and social media, without wisdom this is a recipe for disaster.  I love working with young leaders, but as the description says, they are young and have not acquired wisdom or discernment.  There may be a tendency to react and post quickly as opposed to wisely.  Again in Luke 12, Jesus talks about the master who puts a faithful and wise manager in charge[ii].  Part of wise leadership is to listen appropriately.  And with a world-wide audience via the internet, we need to carefully consider who we listen to when speaking from so lofty a pulpit.
Lesson 2: Expect Problems – Just as news about Jesus traveled quickly[iii], digital and social media moves fast, not constrained by geographic boundaries.  I wish this was not true, but bad news always travels louder and faster than good news, igniting electronic firestorms.  Personal and organizational social media mistakes are coming your way like a freight train.  Just think about the rapid-fire response you get for something as innocuous as a typo; then magnify it times ten if there is even a hint of arrogance, pride or sarcasm.  While some may hide and not participate in any social media outlets, I don’t see Jesus hiding from “the crowds”[iv].  Just like any public building has a fire escape route, you need to pray and think through how you will response in advance, not when your phone is vibrating feverously from emails, instant messages and phone calls.

Lesson 3: Move Forward – Did you jump off the high-dive into the deep end of the social media pool or did you step into the shallow end?  I’m all about aggressively leveraging technology, but there is a danger with the “fire, ready, aim” approach.  Even if you’ve not had a catastrophic event yet, it’s never too late to pause, evaluate and adjust what you are doing.  While social media can be a force for good or evil, we need to “count the cost” and plan accordingly.  Luke 14:28 – “If any of you wanted to build a tower, wouldn’t he first sit down and work out the cost of it, to see if he can afford to finish it?” 

Lesson 4: Humility and Sincerity – When Nikon apologized saying it ‘wasn’t their aim’ to insult anyone, their fans were only infuriated all the more.  The original post and update were clearly insulting and full of conceit.  The correct approach is to freely admit the mistake – period.  Instead, Nikon stayed arrogant, aloof and faceless.  To many their apology was hollow and meaningless. Don’t commit the same arrogant sin!  We jump all over David and Bathsheba for not immediately admitting their affair and murder[v], yet we do exactly the same thing when we try to explain away our failures.

Though these events caused real problems for Nikon, and they seem to have recovered, significant damage has been done to their reputation.  All future posts are surrounded by the fog of past failures.   Social media really is all about fast, instant news…but at what price speed?  As Davy Crockett said, “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.”  Speed does not excuse lack of planning or oversight followed by thinly veiled attempts at an apology.  If the first step of repentance with God starts with admitting our wrong without excuse, so should our social media sins.

[i] Luke 12:2-3[ii] Luke 12:42[iii] Mark 1:28[iv] Matthew 9:36[v] 2 Samuel 12:5-6