The Climb

Posted: October 25, 2010 in Uncategorized

As followers of Jesus Christ we all know the deep pain of watching a beloved leader fall. What’s more, is we know the anger that comes when that fall seems to stem from blatant hypocrisy. In most cases this is because the given leader has lived a duplicitous life, putting up a facade as if they have it all together. In some ways this is understandable. As a leader I identify deeply with the pressure to please, and to conform to people’s expectations or perceptions; so how do we as leaders protect ourselves from this?

The Bible is amazing. No I’m serious. I’ve read through the Scriptures many times over the years, and it never fails that something new will grab my attention, no matter how familiar I am with a given passage. So I shouldn’t have been surprised this week, that as I was praying I Timothy 4:15 over my life (as I do several times a week) that a phrase jumped out at me. Paul tells Timothy to, “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.” It’s that last line that grabbed me- so that all may see your progress. Here Paul is talking to a pastor, a leader of the church of Jesus Christ at Ephesus, and he tells him to keep progressing!

There’s an unwritten rule that so many leaders have tried to live by- come across as if you have arrived. Be the standard for maturity. Hide your faults. Part of the reason why so many leaders go down this path is because the people who follow us put us there. It’s hard to come off the high horse people put you on. Yet Paul’s words to Timothy is to refuse any notion of being perfect. The fact that Paul tells Timothy to not only progress, but to do so in a manner that everyone sees it, suggests that we leaders are to present ourselves as fellow travelers who have faults and blemishes just like those we lead. Like them, we need to be progressing, growing and maturing…always.

Putting our deficiencies on display, and being vulnerable with ourselves and the people who follow us will promote the following:

1. It will protect the sheep from spiritual devastation when the leader fails. If I have been open with my shortcomings, refusing to hide them, the people will be less prone to idolize me. So if I fail, and God forbid, the less likely are the people to be struck a severe blow that will cause them to leave the church or question the faith.

2. Humility. Speaking openly about my deficiencies, and being upfront will better position me to walk in humility instead of pride.

3. It stimulates vulnerability among the people I lead. Followers mimic the example of their leaders. When the leader is vulnerable and authentic, so will they be.

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What I Did This Summer

Posted: August 14, 2010 in Uncategorized

Maybe it was a Fulton County public schools thang, but when I grew up one of the questions we had to answer in elementary school was what we did over the summer. Anticipating this question and the audience that was before me I made sure that I counted all the states we went through and to in our white Ford station wagon (later on it was the Ford Aerostar!). I’d tell them about the blast we had playing twenty questions in the car ( we were much more creative during the pre-dvd days). I’d go on and on bragging about the incredible time we had hanging out with extended family in Philly, where my great grandmother made sure we brought our trunks and played in the street with the fire hydrant blasting. I’d share about the cheesesteaks we ate, sights seen and friendships made- even at times embellishing, because my vacation was surely the best.

Well, I guess I decided to take it back and tell you all what we did on our vacation this summer. We really had a phenomenal time. In fact, Korie and I looked at each other and said that this was the best vacation we’ve had as a family. Yet what made it great wasn’t so much the destinations (though they were fun), it was the journey.

Sure Savannah was incredible. No kids, just Korie and I. Long walks through downtown- stopping to read just about every historical marker. Great places to eat like Paula Deen’s spot- Lady and Sons- and Five Guys (yeh they are just a bit better than Inn and Out, blasphemy I know). And late night pillow fights with my bride, or something to that effect…

We grabbed our kids and went up to Charlotte where we were inspired at the Billy Graham Library, and by hanging out with some great friends of ours- Bobby and Heather Conway. Later it was Hershey Park, where my wife broke her silly vow of no sweets at the “Sweetest Place on Earth” (how silly of her to even swear off sweets on vacation in the first place!), rode crazy rollercoasters, hung out with some more friends, and then ventured down to Philly for cheesesteaks, Italian Water Ice, good friends and great worship. We wrapped things up with a week on the Chesapeake Bay that was really refreshing.

While we created great memories, and appreciated the places, what made this vacation one for the ages was the people that we were able to reconnect with along the way. You know when you’ve lived in six states over the last fifteen years, you tend to meet a lot of people from a lot of different places, and Korie and I count ourselves blessed beyond measure to have made some great friends, who really encourage us in our walk with Jesus, and make us laugh.

There’s Bobby and Heather who showed us how to make great smoothies. After downing what he calls, “The Deliciousness” we’d sit outside and smoke cigars, while getting under the hood of our lives and challenge us to be more like Jesus. There’s Derek and Cheryl Hicks who were in our wedding, and got married two weeks after us. I couldn’t help but smile at Dr. Hicks who because of a little nudging from me, left his job in the insurance world, to get a master’s and then a doctorate degree from Rice, and is now writing his first book and serving as a professor at Lancaster Seminary. Over dinner at Houlihan’s on Chocolate Avenue in Hershey, we pressed rewind and reminisced about years gone by when we would spend just about every evening together in Los Angeles…the four of us.

There were not so good, but good times on the trip. Like sitting down with three friends at a restaurant in the heart of Atlanta, and hearing the pain of one of them, who also was in my wedding, share about a recent divorce he’s gone through, and his decision to give up on Jesus and the gospel. That was hard, especially when I had a hand in connecting he and his now ex-wife. Wow.

There were times when I had to discipline my children, and yet there were also times when those same children would grab my arm and put it around their neck as we’re walking through an amusement park. There were times when my oldest wanted to go on an especially crazy rollercoaster…WITH ME, and I was scared to death, but I got on with him, and closed my eyes as my heart was break dancing in my chest, because I knew it wasn’t about the rollercoaster to him, it was about being with dad, and finally not having to share me with a lot of people. The places were fun, but the journey was much better.

Sometimes I’m asked the question, “So what’s God teaching you?” If you were to ask me that question now, the answer is easy- God’s showing me to stop being in such a hurry to get to the places you want to be at in life, and enjoy the trip. I can move at such a frenetic pace- earn the doctorate, prepare the sermon, get ready to preach at that next place- that I miss out on the people and things that come across my path in the process.

Jesus shows me this. Sure he had a lot of places to go, but if you study his life he was constantly teaching or being interrupted by someone who needed something from him along the way. In each instance he took the time to enjoy the community with his followers, serve the needy and take in the trip. In fact, I think a case could be made that much of Jesus’ ministry took place along the way and not at the destination.

In a rush to get somewhere, to be at some destination? Slow down, you might miss something much more important along the way.

Parenting on Purpose

Posted: June 12, 2010 in Uncategorized

Sustained greatness is not a product of chance, nor even of talent, though certainly giftedness does play a role. But greatness over the long haul is the result of intentional hard work. This is exactly Malcolm Gladwell’s point in his critically acclaimed Outliers. In fact, Gladwell goes onto say that anyone who achieves sustained success has put in at least 10,000 hours of hard work in their specific field. From Bill Gates to the Beatles, Gladwell encourages us that greatness is achievable if we’re only willing to sweat a little…or rather a lot!

This encourages me as a parent. Sure I know that I can’t control my kids, and that no matter how hard I try my children can turn out to be rebellious snots who end up on the Maury Povich show. If God can have wayward kids I guess I can too. But nonetheless, there are some things that I can do as a parent to cultivate the probability of children who love Jesus and engage their culture for the glory of God.

No, this isn’t about giving you a list of things to do as a parent to cook up a batch of a godly brood. But what this is about is taking a page out of Gladwell, who really took a page out of the Bible, and to encourage us to put in the hard work as parents, and to be intentional with our children.

To be sure, Gladwell’s “insights” about hard work and intentionality is nothing new (to paraphrase King Solomon). The bible exhorts us to do the same, and especially as parents. Take a moment and read Deuteronomy 6:4-9, this incredibly essential passage on the family, and message to us parents. Moses is desperate with the nation of Israel because he knows that they’re about to march into a land called Canaan, that while flowing with milk and honey, it was also filled with some serious challenges that if not navigated properly could end up being the demise of the nation of Israel. How was Israel going to not only survive, but transform Canaan from a godless culture to a godly one? Interesting, the family. Moses tells us in so many words, that one of God’s ordained institutions for changing society is the family. No his words aren’t the stuff of bumper stickers- you know the family that prays together stays together- they’re much more! He’s not just concerned with the family staying together, he wants the family to be a powerful force in the world that God uses for his redemptive purposes!

Yet his words are nothing more than a great pep talk by some desperate coach to a locker room full of players, unless we parents are going to execute. See, at the heart of what Moses is getting at when he tells us to talk of the Scriptures when we sit down, walk, lie down and rise, is the concept of intentionality. Moses is clear, great families are not the product of wishful thinking, no they happen on purpose! Passive men who refuse to lead their families won’t produce great one’s. Parents who get caught up in the haze of the daily-ness of life, instead of lifting their sights to higher altitudes won’t have dynamic counter-cultural families. And families that are more concerned about living in certain zip codes, and vacationing in certain other one’s won’t point their children to heavenly treasure, because they’re too focused themselves on earthly treasure. There’s got to be some intentionality.

To be sure, Moses’ words about intentionality are not pointed to developing the child’s intellect, or athletic abilities. A lot of parents are really intentional about that. And if you could permit me a bit of a rant here. Stop obsessing over your child making it to the professional level. Chances are they won’t for one simple reason- they have your genes! I digress. The direction of intentionality that Moses is pointing us to is developing our kids into men and women who love God with the totality of their being. That’s what ultimately matters- not education, what kind of job will they have, how beautiful they are and who they will marry. It’s developing God lovers and world changers. That’s the direction our intentionality must be headed.

So how intentional are you? What’s your game plan with your children? Parenting on purpose, or by accident? At the end of the day you will produce something, the question is exactly what will you produce?

A Praying Life

Posted: April 2, 2010 in Uncategorized

I’ve pretty much made up my mind that I will struggle with prayer for the rest of my life. In a lot of ways this makes sense, seeing how our enemy is not big on people talking to his enemy- God. So it’s no wonder why trying to hold a conversation with God is my biggest fight. But I guess that’s the whole key isn’t it- fight. I’m not caving in. I’m going to struggle and try to make due as best as I can.

It seems like I have spiritual ADD, and I haven’t found the appropriate spiritual medication that will make me just sit down and focus the way that I need to…until recently.

So I’ve been reading this guy’s book…you’ll forgive me, the guys name slips my mind, and I’m in somewhat of a hurry (could that be why I have a problem with praying). Miller, that’s it, Miller is his last name, and I think Paul is his first. But his book is called, A Praying Life. One of the ways I’ve resolved to fight this prayer battle is to read books on prayer. And Miller’s book on Prayer is really good. I mean his chapter on Prayer and Cynicism is worth the price of the book, along with his helpful system that he provides on prayer in the back, which is what I want to talk to you about.

I think one of the things that keeps me from praying is I don’t see a lot of results, and this wears me out. Sometimes I get really discouraged wondering if God even hears me, because he for sure doesn’t seem to be speaking or moving in my life, at least not in ways that I want him too. Well, Miller’s system on praying has been beyond huge and inspirational for me. In short, what he recommends is that we get an index card, write down the person’s name, a Scripture to pray over their specific need, date it, and add any other thoughts that you may have. I’ve been doing this and it’s been pretty amazing. Let me share a couple with you.

Recently some friends of ours had a health crisis. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I wrote up a card, jotted down Isaiah 53, you know the part that says by his stripes we are healed, and prayed it over her. Three days later she was healed!

Another couple that we know confided that they were struggling with infertility. Pulled out a card, wrote down an appropriate Scripture that I wanted to believe God for, and a week or so later they called to tell me they were pregnant.

Still another couple called and said they were having a hard time selling their house. I wrote that down with a Scripture and a week later their house sold!

One of my sons has been struggling with lying. Pulled out a card, prayed Scripture over him and he’s stopped…at least as far as I can tell. Either he’s stopped or has gotten REALLY good…anyways, I’d like to believe the latter!

To see God answer these specific prayers in accordance with his Word has given me a HUGE boost in my prayer life! I guess it’s like going on a diet, seeing the results and being motivated to continue on! WOW!

The Gods

Posted: January 4, 2010 in Uncategorized

In the 19th century there was a theologian by the name of Abraham Kuyper who articulated a ground-breaking insight…a real paradigm shifter in how we should view the world. He said that God looks at every inch of his universe and declares, “Mine!” For Christians I know this sounds pretty simple, and somewhat elementary, but we should ponder this a little deeper.

Historically, most Christians have seen the world in two parts- the sacred and the secular. This unfortunate compartmentalized view of life has caused us to send the message that if you really want to live for God then you need to quit your job at Starbucks, or any other “secular” business, and become a preacher, pastor or missionary. Because after all being in “full time” ministry is the varsity side of the kingdom, everything else is jv! So wrong.

I say this is wrong, because Kuyper helps us to understand that for God to declare, “Mine” over every inch of creation means that not only does the church, and the mission field belong to him, but so does music and the arts, business, government and landscaping! All of these and more, are all positioned neatly under the thumb print of God! The implications of this is astounding- namely that it changes how we see our jobs. No matter what our profession, when we go to work in the morning, wherever we go is as viable a mission field as any missionary (in the traditional use of the term)! With God there is no sacred verses secular, because it’s all his!

But another implication to Kuyper’s statement is that in every sphere of life we should be able to catch glimpses of God, because it’s all his. From hip-hop to golf, we should be able to see God, because after all, it’s all imprinted by his hand.

See, I think God intentionally creates and endows certain once in a generation kind of people with extraordinary, God-like gifts, to let us capture a glimpse of him. Skanky clothing aside, Mariah Carey gives us a glimpse of God. I mean her gift of singing is not an ordinary gift. It’s other-worldly. Jordan rising for what appears to be another dunk against the Lakers in the 1991 Finals, and then at the last minute switching to his left hand for a lay up gives us a rare peak at God. And Tiger Woods, philandering aside, with his historic 15 stroke win at the 2000 US Open, showed us a window into the heavens. I think God, for all of his greatness, endows these people with a little more gifts to allow us to see Him more clearly.

I know this to be true, because what’s our typical response to any human who performs in an other-worldly fashion? We deify them. We worship them. We set them on an altar and bow before them (sometimes literally). And this I think is a source of great frustration for God. Because what was intended to be used as a tool to point us to Him, was instead perverted as an ends unto itself. It’s the whole Romans 1 thing all over again- people worshiping the creation over the Creator!

So how does God respond to our idolatry? In most cases he cracks open the closet door into the lives of the people we deify, allowing us to see their humanity. It’s as if he’s saying, “Oh, you want to worship Tiger, and put him in my place. Okay, let me show you how unlike me he really is.” God is clear- while He uses people, all kinds of people, even unsaved people, to give us a window to Him, He won’t share His glory with another. Respect the talent. Honor the talent. Don’t worship the person.

The Necessity of Normal

Posted: December 30, 2009 in Uncategorized

Everything has to be a big production now. I’m not sure the genesis of this. The advent of the video games maybe? Not certain. But if I hear one more parent say the words, “children…vacation…make a memory,” I think I’m going to puke. Our vacations have to be the best, date nights a new all time high, birthday parties the greatest. I was once speaking to a mom’s group in Snottsdale, Arizona (don’t ask me how that happened), and one woman was bemoaning the fact that she felt all this pressure to outdo her next door neighbor who threw a birthday party for her five year old son complete with snow, and ice sculptures in Arizona! I mean who does that?

Most of us. No, I don’t mean we do exactly that, but most of us have a natural uneasiness with normal. We like living from mountaintop to mountaintop, peak to peak, experience to experience. And we have yet to grasp that the best things in life are often down in the valley of normal.

I do a good deal of speaking. The worst part of speaking on the road is that normal is never good enough. I like to tell people that when I go to speak somewhere the expectation is that I have to hit a homerun. A triple is no bueno. If that’s the case can you imagine a double, single or a walk for a message? What’s the result of just being okay? Devastating.

For example, I’ll be in Denver speaking to a lot of college students. My face is on the website. They’ve run promos for the conference using me as a selling point. Some poor soul is going to actually pay money they probably can’t afford and pack in a car with 10 other college students all because of me. Think it’s okay for me to just be okay? No. I’ve got to be yet another mountaintop in what has to be the greatest week of their lives.

Once a year I typically hang out at Oxford University. There’s a little pub there called, The Eagle and Child. This is the place where C.S. Lewis and his friends used to hang out. It’s a pretty normal looking place. C.S. Lewis is quoted as saying that he longed for his weekly boys night out with pals like J.R. Tolkien. Why? Because among other things he wasn’t a world renown writer or professor to this group. He wasn’t a name brand. He was just a normal guy they called Jack. And it was in this environment of normal where Jack could exhale and thrive.

In our video game, attention deficit culture most people don’t do well in the valley of normal. In fact most marriages divorce because it got, well, too normal. Our celebrity driven culture has lost the normal family dinners; normal father’s who lay on their stomachs while their kids pile on their backs. Many people church hop, or stop going altogether because church for them is too normal.

But Jesus said that normal is necessary. His major beef with the crowds who flocked to him at the height of his popularity is because they wanted to be entertained by another miracle. Like a genie in a bottle they wanted to rub the belly of Jesus and get him to perform another healing trick. He warned very sternly about pursuing him because he was the flavor of the month, the next mountain peak.

A man came to Jesus out of the crowds one day who was obviously stirred by the mountain peak Jesus that he and the crowds had perceived. Filled with the emotion that comes from being on the mountain of excitement he yells, “HEY JESUS I WILL FOLLOW YOU.” Jesus calmly responds, “I need you to think about this. The foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but I have nowhere to lay my head.” In that moment Jesus is giving this man a jolt of reality by reminding him that the Jesus he had seen in public is not some celebrity, but a homeless man who lives in the valley of normal. His point is clear- if following Jesus is just about instant gratification or some cheap thrill, we’re barking up the wrong tree. We need to man up and get ready for a journey through the valley of normal.

They tell me that food rarely grows on mountains. Certainly not in abundance. That if a person really wants to eat they have to come down to the valley, because that’s where the food grows. Because of this if I’m looking for fulfillment on some stage at some event I may get it momentarily if I hit a homerun, but like a shot of heroine I’ll come down and be more depressed than when I started. Instead long term fulfillment comes in the valley of normal. For me it’s at home with my wife and kids- the people who love me even when I strike out.

The Sin Beneath the Sin

Posted: December 27, 2009 in Uncategorized

I’ve never really had a great experience loaning money.  One of the first times I did it was when I was finishing up grad school and in love with the woman who is now  my wife.  Being in grad school and in love pretty much means you qualify for food stamps.  Words like “po,” and “broke” describe who you are.  While words like vienna sausages and top raman describe what you eat.  Don’t act like you’ve never been there.  Add to this that the woman I was in love with (still am) had a very good friend who had fallen on hard times and she looks at me like I need to give her some money.  Being a typical man meant that I couldn’t let my girl know how broke I actually was, so I dug down deep and gave her friend a couple of hundred dollars.  Long story short, I never got the money back.  And to add insult to injury, I once went over her house for a party, and she decided to show Korie and I some new clothes she had just bought, obviously forgetting that she owed me some paper.  Hot didn’t even begin to describe me.

Like I said, I wish I could say I’ve gotten better when it comes to the issue of loaning money over the years, but I haven’t.  In fact, as I write a very dear friend of mine owes me some money (and I hope this blog brings you to repentance…jk…sort of???).  In the scope of things he doesn’t owe me a whole lot, but it is just enough to irritate me every time I see his name on the caller i.d.  In a recent conversation I actually was feeling myself get angry, and after we hung up I had to cool down and then do an interesting exercise.  I thought about all of the things that I love about him, and the great times we’ve had together over the years.  I got real specific.  Then I wrote down the amount of money he owes me, which as I said isn’t a lot.  And I asked myself if our friendship was just worth the amount of money he borrowed from me.  And of course I had to say no.  So why am I so hacked over this money thing to the point that I want to not answer the phone, and pretty much do a 187 on our friendship?

I just finished reading Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods.  It’s a great book on this whole issue of idolatry- it’s what he calls the sin beneath the sin.  Keller points out the obvious- that while we’re not bowing down to physical inanimate gods like the ancients did, we still have them.  Gods like money, love, self (which is the root of all idolatry) and so on.  He says that one of the signs of an idol is what makes us angry, because we typically only get angry over what we truly care about, love and/or worship.  With this grid I had to ask myself why I was so angry over this money that had not been returned to me?  Was this pointing to an idol?  And I have to confess it is pointing to one- the idol of money.  I tend to care way too much about money.  No, that’s being too nice.  I actually have a habit of worshiping it.

The idol of money, like all idols, can have many different faces, with some of them being polar opposite but still pointing to the same idol.  Those who use money as a tool to provide them with a certain kind of life, spending it on things that they think will bring them satisfaction and security are clearly showing that money (and themselves) is at the center of their worship.  But those who horde it, who don’t spend it but save and save and save (without being generous) are actually as bad as those who do spend because they’re using money as a means of security.  Same idol, just different faces.

So when I got off the phone with my friend, and I’m steaming as I drive down Shelby, I ask myself a penetrating question, “Bryan why are you so angry?  Why are you willing to throw away a friendship that is well over ten years?  What’s the sin beneath the sin here?”  Asking this question leads to the unfortunate discovery that there are idols in my heart.  And one of them is the idol of money.

Learn to take a look beneath the hood.  Discern the idols by addressing the sin beneath the sin.