Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Light Brighter

"There's a storm inside of us. I've heard many team guys speak of this. A burning. A river. A drive. An unrelenting desire to push yourself harder and further than anyone could think possible. Pushing ourselves into those cold, dark corners, where the bad things live. Where the bad things fight. [The Navy Seals] wanted that fight at the highest volume. A loud fight. The loudest, coldest, darkest, most unpleasant of the unpleasant fights."  This is the account of Marcus Luttrell, Lone Survivor:  The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10.  The SEALS train for this kind of a fight.  It's a fight most of us wouldn't dare engage in, a door too terrifying to open.  When Luttrell had lost his entire combat team and was left for dead in the mountains of Afghanistan, he could only do the next thing:  keep moving and pressing forward.  "I had no answers," he said, "only hope... I was not giving up..."  Against seemingly insurmountable darkness, Luttrell held only  the flickering light of hope.  "My God had not spoken again. But neither had He forsaken me. I knew that. For damned sure, I knew that." 

In the final scene of Night of the Museum 3, the late Robin Williams tells his friend to smile because the sun is rising.  He's right, you know.  The sun is always rising, always on its way to dispel the darkest night. If only those words had jumped from the script and into the soul. 

I walked the black dog around the lake not far from our home on a cold winter's afternoon.  As the sun bowed below the mountains south, the last light of the day reflected off of the cold waters.  The Christmas luminaries, artfully placed by volunteers celebrating the Light, sparked awake ready to bridge the dark until the new dawn. It is never the last light. 

A famous Catholic priest, Martin Luther said as much.  “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”  God doesn't call us to perfection. He calls us to show up with Christ-courage, reflecting the perfect Light cast from heaven.  We're called to plant a tree when the world is stripping the forest bare.

The greatest heroes are sometimes the ones who simply just show up.  The heroes are those who fail and try again.  The true superheroes are those who rise, perhaps wearily, but stand steady on legs of faith.  Luttrell  said, “I will never quit.  ...If knocked down I will get back up, every time. I will draw on every remaining ounce of strength to [keep going]. [We are] never out of the fight.”  

This is the season of Advent.  It's a season of hopeful expectation.  Then the world was dark and a Light arrived in the unlikeliest form.  Now the world is dark and the Brightest still reflects every day, us mirroring Lasting Light to the world.

Author Ann Voskamp writes that anxieties crowd and that peace is a Person and that Advent signals a time for us to make room.  May we make room this season.  May we pay attention to slow, look, listen, and find opportunities to reflect the Light that drives out all that's dark.  May we have the strength to stand up, show up, and look up for the courage to mirror Light. As poet Elizabeth Elliot writes,

"Fear not tomorrow, child of the King,
trust that with Jesus do the next thing.
Do it immediately, do it with prayer,
do it reliantly, casting all care.
Do it with reverence, tracing His hand,
who placed it before thee with earnest command.
Stayed on omnipotence, safe 'neath His wing,
leave all resultings, do the next thing."

Some nights are darker than others.  Yet, the sun is always rising.  The Son, even brighter, has risen.  Both always pushing back the dark.  You can trust.  We're safe to do the right next thing.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Fear, Freedom, Cornfields, and Rap Music

Driving home from a summer concert with both of my sons asleep in the back of the car, I felt free.  Maybe it was because it's been a long time since I've been to a concert, maybe it was the summer scent blowing across fields of corn, or maybe it was the blaring rap music that reminded me my younger days when life was simple.  Will Smith's Summertime echoed in my head.  "Drums please, summer, summer, summertime.  Time to sit back and unwind."

I've seen the Rolling Stones in Pittsburgh, Pearl Jam in Las Vegas, and Dave Matthews in California, but this small summer festival at the Shippensburg fairgrounds was special.  The Uprise concert featured multiple stages and a eclectic mix of musical performances.  Part of the day was spent with my sons and friends.  The day was complete when my wife arrived at sunset.  Looking back, I learned many great lessons that day. 

First, the diversity of this concert must be some reflection of what heaven might be like.  The band Red sounded very angry and awfully loud, yet they were singing (I use that word loosely) messages of hope.  The headliner Lecrae, looked out into the minimally-diverse crowd and said, "ya'll look like a deer in headlights" and encouraged everyone to "get your peace signs up."  The crowd began to bounce.  Sanctus Real encouraged guys to man-up and show-up for their families.  Unspoken had the crowd worshipping.  Duck Dynasty's Uncle Si talked about Vietnam, I think.  None of it seemed to fit neatly together.  It was a diverse, messy, imperfect, beautiful group of people unified only in Christ.   Just like heaven?

Next, it was encouraging to hear people in positions of influence talk vulnerably about their fears.  Our culture touts emotionally-detached, success-driven, fearless stereotypes that don't exist.  In the Lecrae song aptly named Fear, the rapper speaks of his own struggles with naming fear.  "I'm scared if I confess it...That you gon' look at me like I'm something less... And I'm such a mess."  Next, a woman speaks an insert in French.  The translation, "It is he who is afraid to admit his fears and it is he who will not overcome them... we found the freedom in confession and freedom in the recognition."  Great stuff that I want my kids to hold onto.  The No Fear mantra is a myth.  Boxing trainer Cus D'Amato told his protégé Tyson as much. "They both feel the same [fear], the hero and the coward. People who watch you judge you on what you do, not how you feel."  Naming and facing your fear is everything.  Strength in weakness.

Finally, I was reminded that pausing to soak in the rays of life is what makes life worth living.  In the heat of the day, KJ-52 had everyone crowded to the stage "jumping around" to remixed beats of rap classics.  Picture five kids under the age of 10, hands raised, bouncing, dancing, and shouting "hip, hop, hooray... ho... hey... ho."  Now picture the kids surrounded by their almost-40-year-old parents doing the same.  Middle aged parents dancing to hip hop at a rap concert with their kids.  It's only a few more years that the kids wouldn't be horrified by the thought.  I'll take these moments as they're given.   Laughing at ourselves, taking life a little less seriously, and laying on blankets at a summer concert festival surrounded by cornfields - this is life. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Toxic Emotions

Scripture Art - 2 Corinthians 12:9 - PrintSoccer Mom has tattoos that she doesn't reveal.  She conceals the art as they invoke painful reminders of decisions made amidst chaos, life decisions that tattooed her heart with shame that's embedded deep, like inked-skin.

Mr. Executive climbs relentlessly toward a corporate peak he'll never reach.  The climbing distracts him of the pain with no trigger.  It's the cascading fear, that drives him to climb, to escape.   The climbing exhausts and he numbs with the intoxicating medications that society offers.  An insatiable appetite for all the things of this world drowns the raging self-doubt churning in his soul.

I sit at a diner and listen to the waitress talk of her estranged children.  Her past haunts.  She tells of her teenage son and how he's been thrown out of school.  She says he's been labeled oppositionally defiant.  She says they're trying to work through it, but the counselors say the boy is really just angry from the abandonment of his father.  He carries an uncertainty of who he is and what it means to be a man. 

Business author Michael Hyatt writes, "In my experience there are four emotions that usually come mixed in a powerful cocktail, sure to undermine our goals: fear, uncertainty, doubt, and shame."  Hyatt contends that as he's written about these topics, many people admit their wrestling with general feelings of inadequacy.  We ask ourselves, "Would I still be accepted if people really found me out?  What if they knew I don't have it all together?"  Hyatt continues, "[the struggle with these emotions are a] universal affliction.  And it’s natural. There’s no playbook for leaders, no manual. We’re all making it up as we go. Under those circumstances, who wouldn’t feel like they might blow it?  But just because I wrestle with these four emotions doesn’t mean I have to succumb to them." 

We have the Light within us to drive out the darkness of these toxic emotions.  That Light bursts forth not when we yield some Jedi-mind-trick to tap into its power, but when we open our hands and let go of our desire to control everything in our path.  We can't embrace anything when we live tight-fisted.  We can't offer grace to another until we've first received it ourselves.

In a letter written to the early church, the Apostle Paul wrote of his own personal demons, "... and so I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations... At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me, My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness.  Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—...I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become." (The Message).

The Light can't drive out the darkness until we turn toward it, not denying the existence of the dark, but rather choosing to live in the Light.  Blogger Ann Voskamp writes, "...all the shadows we all live with everywhere just prove there is Light."  And because of that Light, we can always get up again.  Prizefighter Jack Dempsey said, "A champion is someone who gets up when he can't."  (via John Sowers in The Heroic Path).  May the Light brighter than all darkness lift you above any toxic emotions you may face today.   

Saturday, August 9, 2014

When the World Says Go, Slow

Last week I attended a training in New York City.  Each morning, as I walked to the skyscraper where the training was held, I was swept away with the throngs of suited professionals walking in unison, yet isolated from one another with their eyes glued to small screens and their ears filled with buds.  New Yorkers are a hurried bunch.  I'm not sure what they are all listening to on their headsets, but apparently it's fascinating enough to capture their full attention.  My training class consisted of all men in the construction trades.  There was a lot of power positioning and pretending.  I tried to be authentic, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't participate to some degree in the competition of proving oneself to a group of insecure strangers.  It's a strong temptation to try and prove that we're enough to everyone we meet.  Or, are we only continually trying to convince ourselves?

I sit on a non-profit Board of Directors.  Recently, we were interviewing a candidate for a leadership position.  The interview was going well, however I wanted to turn up the heat a bit.  I painted a chaotic picture of the stressors and the loneliness of leadership.  "Do you think you can handle that?"  I asked.  The candidate paused and after a few moments replied, "I believe that I am called to do this work and I believe that God can use me to do what's necessary in this role."  She should have responded confidently saying that certainly she could handle whatever comes her way.  She should have told me that she had the iron-clad guts and rhino-thick-skin to deal with the tough stuff of leadership.  She said nothing of her own merit.  She only said matter-of-factly that she believed that this was God's call on her life and, if that's the case, He would equip her accordingly.  She was hired.

Early in my career, I came upon a kind, gentle man who wore a lot of sweaters.  He could talk sports and the origins of the earth, however he always held his opinion until after others had a full opportunity to speak first.  When decisions of any weight were needed from this man, he almost always requested the opportunity to pray about it first.  I thought this man's delayed decision making was more a reflection of his lack of fortitude to lead.  Over the years, I've seen this man enjoy a quiet life with many joys but also a fair share of hurt and pain.  Through it all, he is notably resilient because a Power greater than anything he could muster dwells deep within his soul.  He's anchored by a Love greater than anything that he could garner from this world.  He continues to lead well because he, the creation, doesn't attempt to outpace the Creator.

My identity was built upon navigating my own direction.  As I journeyed, the accolades of the crowd was a drug that I'd sacrificed much to gain.   This pursuit might have cost me my life.  Not in a tragic accident kind of way, but more akin to a slow disease where something eats slowly away at you without you noticing much is going on until you're on life support, trying only to hold on.

Tonight, I write from a cabin in the woods.  I'm so thankful to be here with my family, us pushing the world back for a weekend to just be.  I'm thankful that I now find my identity in something deeper, an inexhaustible love that never fails.  I'm a beloved son of God, born to do good works that were planned before the world began.  I don't have to pull myself up from my bootstraps and prove my value to a society that's sadly lost it's own in many ways.  Tomorrow, I only have to trust that God will show up for me, as He always has, working through my life in ways that I could never do on my own.   Some days that's me being afraid to lead in certain areas, but doing it anyway, because I've been called and I trust that God will equip me as necessary.  Other days, that's me slowing to bathe decisions in prayer and listening for God's still small voice.  Every day, that's us choosing to be thankful and to receive each moment as a gift - God's grace all wrapped up and given. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

A Letter and a Prayer for My Sons

My sons are still at an age where they think I'm an all-star basketball player and that my office job is on par with that of Jack Bauer.  They naively promise that they'd never imagine going to the movies with a girl over going to a ballgame with their Dad.  They soak in my stories, laugh at my jokes, and are always watching and sometimes to my horror, mirroring my actions.

I know that they'll not always be as open to my voice in their lives as they are today.  I know that they'll have to find their own way.  When the difficult seasons of distance arrive, may The Word be their compass.  And may some of the other words that I've collected for them be an anchor when they drift.  Perhaps this will be one such note.

To my sons,

You are both asleep in your bunk beds tonight.  Tonight we battled with swords.  Last weekend we built a fort.  The weekend before that we caught fish.  I love being your Dad.   

There are so many life lessons that I wish I could imprint on your hearts and seer into your souls.  I know that I can only imperfectly attempt to model and teach these things to you.   Here are a few of those lessons, a backdrop for your unique story. 

Treat women with respect.  Love your future wife selflessly, the way Christ loves the church.  Entering into marriage with prideful self-interest is like trying to bring luggage that exceeds the weight limit onto a plane.  It's possible, but you'll pay handsomely to do it.  It's best to shed the baggage of self-interest before you cross the threshold of marriage.  The apostle Paul gives us a beautiful description of what true love looks like in 1 Corinthians 13.  Paul authored this knowing that the only thing that casts our fear, is Perfect Love.  Which brings me to my next point;

Live your life like you are not scared.  We are all scared.  Kobe Bryant is scared.  "I have self-doubt,” Bryant said. “I have insecurity. I have fear of failure. I have nights when I show up at the arena and [I don't feel like I can do it]. We all have self-doubt. You don’t deny it but you also don’t capitulate to it. You embrace it. You respond to it. You rise above it."  The greatest moments of my first 40 years are the times when I've done things that I was terrified to do, but did them anyway.  My greatest regrets are the times when I listened to the voice of fear calling me to stand down, leaving me to wonder how those opportunities may have evolved.  Nelson Mandela said it best, "I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear."  Conquering fear isn't about beating our chests in bravado, it's about finding our greatest strength in our weakness.  Which brings me to my prayer for you;

Author Ann Voskamp prayed an amazing prayer for her child.  It's my prayer for you. "May [you] be dead to all ladders & never go higher , only lower, to the lonely, the least & the longing.  [You] led of the Spirit to lead many to the Cross that leads to the tomb wildly empty."  Society nudges us toward  the pursuit of happiness via the social, spiritual, career, political, power, and position ladders each leaning alongside one another, calling us to climb.  This is a lie as these ladders lead to nowhere.  Always go lower, to the least of these.  Cast out fear with Perfect Love.  Live life like you are not scared, as if the God of the universe is walking alongside you.  Live boldly as if the Author of all life created you for good works, all prepared for you in advance.  Find a woman to journey with and love her deeply.  Be led by the Spirit of God.  Lead others, pointing them to the Cross that unites us both in our brokenness and in our Hope.  In the words of Bob Goff, "Love God, love people, and do stuff."  I can't wait to see the stuff that you will do, the places you will go.  I love you more than you'll ever know.

With grace,


Sunday, May 4, 2014


A few months ago my wife sent an email to the elementary teacher of one of our boys.  She let the teacher know that our son confessed to taking a piece of candy from the teacher's desk without asking.  She let the teacher know that his punishment at home was minimal because of his willingness to tell the truth.  Also, she let the teacher know that he was quite upset about the issue and that he had written a note of apology for her, however he was awfully scared to give the teacher the note.  It's the telling that's often the most difficult.  And most freeing.

We make bad decisions.  We cut corners.  In the busyness and business of life we fall prey to the lure of the shiny piece of candy that's so easily taken without notice.  Instant gratification with risky consequences can often outweigh healthier decisions offering long-term positive outcomes.  We've all been there.  And, it's so easy to justify these decisions to ourselves.  "I deserved what I stole," we say.  "I never get recognized and it's about time I get something for me."  "If you want something, take it," we foolishly tell ourselves.  "It's just candy, she would have given it to me anyway."  I deserve, I am due, I have a right to this, and I am owed are all lies we tell ourselves to numb our prideful power-moves to trample others and take what we want. 

When the dust settles, our lies are revealed, those we hurt are painfully evident, and our takeovers aren't filling the void we thought they would - then, we see our prideful desires for the destructive narcotics they are and we know that we need forgiveness.  Too often, we do not ask - as it's too painful to face.  Instead, we ignore and we numb, allowing the wounds we've caused and those inflected upon us to fester for years. 

One of my favorite stories in the Bible is recounted by the Apostle Luke.  He tells the story of the prodigal son who chose to receive his inheritance early - it was rightfully his - and went off to waste it all on the vanishing pleasures of the world.  Broke and broken, the lost son decides to return home and ask for his father's forgiveness.  Luke writes, "His son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.'  But his father said to the servants, 'Quick!  Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him.  Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his fee.  And kill the calf we have been fattening.  We must celebrate with a feast, for this son mine was dead and has now returned to life.  He was lost, but now he is found.'  And so the party began."
The son barely got the words out of his mouth asking for forgiveness when the father interrupted him and showered him with adoration and love, asking those around to tee up the party in store.  "My son has returned."  The Father says.  And so the party began. 

My son's teacher sent this email in return.  "He gave (the apology note) to me shaking.  Wow, what a brave boy!  I forgave him and expressed how proud I was that he made the decision to make it right.  ...He feels relieved.  He has it written all over his face.  We all can relate with these moments." 

We carry tremendously heavy loads of shame and guilt around because we are too afraid to simply tell.   Our pride blocks our apologies and our fear stops our returning to those we care about.  All the while, those we've wronged often just want us to return.  They don't want our apologies, they want our presence.  Like the father in the story, they can't wait to order the party to begin and celebrate our renewed relationship.  The Bible says that heaven celebrates when anyone lost is found.  Let the party begin.

I'm thankful that my son goes to a school where teachers respond to the return from his prodigal journey with nothing short of grace and forgiveness.  May we do the same. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Living Free

I went to a funeral a few months ago.  Like hospitals, I typically avoid funerals like the plague.  I suppose I don't like to be reminded that our lives are really a passing breeze.  In this case, I wanted to go to honor a friend and former coworker.  My friend was way too young to go and lived such a pure life you wonder why God didn't bless us with just a few more years of her presence here on earth. 

I worked alongside my friend for only four short years.  I had stepped into a leadership position in an organization that was in a state of great change.  I was focused on leading well, implementing change, and making improvements.  My friend had been with the organization a long time.  Our offices were side by side, separated by a single door.  After about a month into my role, she left a note in my mailbox that said she was glad I was there and that I was doing a good job.  I needed that affirmation.  I didn't keep the note, but I wish I would have. 

At the funeral, my friend's family told of her life before she "found a relationship with Jesus" and after.  It was quite different.  It was a wonderful, tranformational, and redemptive story.  I didn't know this story.  I wish there had been the chance for my friend to tell me more. 

When we worked alongside each other I was focused and intense.  I thought a lot about performance and production.  These aren't bad things.  In fact, I'd say that we improved in these areas together and that the organization benefitted from this.  Sitting at the funeral, I couldn't recall a single organizational performance improvement that we accomplished.  I did remember that she liked hot dogs on the grill, that it made her smile when her husband dropped by with lunch, and that she often played the beautiful music that her daughter recorded.  The louder she played the music, the more she needed peace in any given stressful day.  I found myself wishing that I had left the door between our offices open more often.  I wish that I had allowed more time for real conversation, for sharing our stories.

At the funeral they played video clips of her last days.  She was in very poor health, yet she told her husband (who was shooting the video), "God's been good to us.  He's good to all of us.  It's just too many don't realize it until it's too late."  From her hospital bed, she sang hymns with her daughter.  She was at peace.  She was ready to meet Jesus.

 I cried when I told me wife about the funeral.  I hadn't stayed in touch with my friend for a few years and I wasn't close to the family.  Yet, I cried because we lost a very good woman too soon.  She didn't wear masks and position herself to be someone she wasn't.  She didn't try to impress.  She was simply who she was - a broken, beloved child of God, saved by grace.  She was a grandma who loved her family and had a wonderful marriage.  She often spoke of weekend rides on the Harley with her husband.  She lived life that is truly life.  She will be missed. 

The card at the funeral included a poem entitled, I'm Free.  "Don't grieve for me, for now I'm free; I'm following the path God laid for me."  I want to live life like my friend - to ride through this life on a Harley with a smile and to approach death with a peace and contentment that only comes from a life immersed in grace - to live free.