Good or Great?

It’s an interesting week in my life, as God has taught me a major lesson in priorities and selfishness.  I feel like I can relate to Archippus, who was reminded by Paul the Apostle:

Say to Archippus, “Take heed to the ministry which you have received in the Lord, that you may fulfill it.” (Colossians 4:17)

Allow me to back up.  If you know me, you know that I am a gun nut.  I just dig firearms.  I love to shoot and love to hunt.  Some guys like cars, some are into computers, some play lots of sports. (I do all of that to various degrees, too…)  But for me, shooting is it.  I am good at it, I enjoy it, and it is stress-relieving.  It’s not any more expensive than golf and there is less beer involved. Smile

So a couple of months ago a friend encouraged me to send in an audition email to the producers of Top Shot.  I am a big fan of the show, so I went ahead and sent their producers a casting email just for fun.  I got a call from their producers!  After a 20-minute phone interview they asked me to make a casting video for them; this is what we made. (hat tip to Lowman Photography for the amazing video)

After the video was submitted, Laura and I started really praying in earnest about it.  It wasn’t a slam dunk that I would be cast, of course, but there was a real chance that I could be chosen I think.  (I have friends who have worked in the industry and they liked my chances)  The hitch: the production schedule.  Filming for the show is August 3rd-September 15th, during which time the cast is sequestered.  They go live in Southern California and have no contact with friends and family for 6 weeks. 

That was a pretty steep price to pay.  I was asking my wife to let me have 6 weeks of no contact with her; same with my kids.  I was asking my church to allow me to basically take a sabbatical of 6 weeks and our two other pastors to pick up the slack.  I was asking both schools I teach at part time (ACU and Phoenix Seminary) to let me take about 4 weeks at the beginning of the fall semester off or maybe replace me for a semester.

So I did what I always do when things are not clear: I started praying, and started talking to my mentors.  I talked to the man who led me to Christ, Keith, who is a wonderful mentor and friend.  His advice was that this is a great, national opportunity to preach the gospel but if Laura wasn’t fully on board I should let it go.  I talked to several other people about it too.  We decided just to let the process take its course and hey, if they said no then fine.

After awhile of not hearing, I finally sent a follow-up email to the producers asking if I had been eliminated to just put the idea to rest.  I didn’t want it hanging around if I were out of the running!  He emailed me back and said that I was still “in the running,” and that was when I really had to make a decision.  That email, telling me I was still in, didn’t fill me with excitement or joy; instead I felt a sinking feeling because I still had to decide if I could ask everyone to go out of their way for me.

But more than anything the advice of the man I call my “hunting mentor,” Norm, rang in my ears.  Norm reminded me that I have a very unique calling and opportunity.  He reminded me that I get the unique privilege to be a shepherd and to serve people with the message of Christ.  And that got me thinking about underlying motives.  It got me thinking about why I wanted to be a contestant on Top Shot.  It’s because it is a cool show and the contestants get to participate in some awesome marksmanship contests. 

So, at the core of it, I was asking everyone around me to sacrifice a bunch so that I could go play with guns for six weeks.  Now, how much does that sound like what Jesus says?

“And He was saying to them all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself?’” (Luke 9:23–25)

 
Yeah, not much.  Sounds pretty selfish to me.
 
So Laura and I prayed.  And Wednesday I sent the producers an email asking them to take me out of consideration.  They were disappointed, but understood.  Someone else will take my place for sure!
 
I don’t post this to toot my own horn, but just to let you, dear readers, in on my thought process.  As Paul tells us, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything. ” (1 Corinthians 6:12) It would be “lawful” for me to go, but even if profitable for me it wouldn’t be for my wife, my kids, and my church. (okay, if I won the $100,000 grand prize it would be…but there are no guarantees there for sure) 
 
So God reminded me that I needed to focus on the great rather than the good and the fun.  That I needed to die to self a little and think of those around me.  After a few early days this week of self-focus about this, He has reminded me again to put others ahead of my pleasure and seek the kingdom of God. 
 
How about you?  How is God leading you to put aside ambition and self-interest in His cause?  How is God changing your priorities and habits to be more like Him?

The More Things Change…

On June 23rd, 1995 I graduated from US Navy boot camp in Great Mistakes Lakes, IL.  My parents, grandparents, and girlfriend Laura came to see me graduate.  After the graduation ceremony Laura and I went to the mall somewhere north of Chicago and picked out an engagement ring.  I got down on one knee that day and asked for her hand in marriage.  She said yes, not knowing when we would be able to actually tie the knot because we had no idea what the Navy was going to do with me at that point.

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This picture is us after the proposal with my grandparents.  I lived in their home as a young boy; they are both very dear. (Grandpa is a WWII combat-wounded Marine; grandma went home to be with the Lord in 2001)  And for the record, Laura is DEFINITELY wearing one of my old-school Bill Cosby sweaters in this picture.  And I weighed 147 pounds.

Turns out, things moved VERY quickly.  I got to my new command on July 1st, 1995, and they told me that if I was going to get leave to go home and get married it had to be the following week.  I flew home on July 6th (a Thursday), and we made hasty plans for a wedding.  On Saturday, July 8th, 1995 we drove with my parents, my soon-to-be in-laws and grandparent-in-laws, my best friend, and my aunt and uncle to Lake Tahoe, NV for a wedding.  To say that it was a slapdash affair is an understatement, but in the interest of space I will save you the more arcane details.

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At first we were supposed to get married at some place that was called something like “Lake Tahoe Moose Lodge and Wedding Chapel,” but it looked like a dump so I sent my aunt on a race to find us a nice place to say our vows.  We ended up getting married that afternoon at Caesar’s Lake Tahoe, in a pretty wedding chapel off of the casino floor.  (Note the classy video camera and mood lighting “EXIT” sign in the picture!)  Frankly I wasn’t too concerned about the location of the wedding; my attention was focused far more on the beautiful woman who I wanted to be my wife.

Laura was ravishing, and we were just excited to be able to become man and wife before I had to start my rigorous training in the Navy to become a nuclear reactor operator.  We were incredibly young; I had turned 19 in January, and Laura would not turn 19 until three weeks after the wedding.  You know what, though?  That didn’t matter to us.  We were young and in love.

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The picture below is one of my favorite pictures of Laura and me.  This was taken at the dinner that my parents hosted at some local restaurant after the wedding.  When I picture Laura in my mind, this is what I see: (note that I wore glasses at this time [see above pic]; I likely took them off for this pic purely out of vanity)

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We set out on our life together as husband and wife, with everything we owned in our 1989 Honda CRX.  The grand estate we had was that CRX, a bag full of clothes, a set of dishes we had been given as a wedding gift, a 13” TV, and two cartons of cigarettes. (feel free to insert redneck comment here…at least it wasn’t a ‘77 Camaro)  Man, we were living high on the hog!  We were going to move to Orlando, Fl for me to become a Naval nuclear reactor operator and for Laura to take her first professional ballerina position with Southern Ballet Theatre.  She was going to be a prima ballerina and I was going to use a naval career to become President of the United States of America.

My, my…how the years twist and turn our path.  After a year of dancing Laura was fed up with company life; so we decided to have a baby and conceived before we left Orlando.  I was on track to become a Naval Officer in 1998 when I became a Christian and everything changed.  A car wreck derailed my commissioning bid and God called me into ministry rather than military service.  We had three more children after Elizabeth, and rather than pursuing politics I went to seminary and now pastor a church and teach the Bible at a local college.  I can well attest to the truth found in Proverbs 16:9:

The mind of man plans his way,
But the LORD directs his steps.

Through all of the ups and downs, Laura has been by my side.  We are in many ways COMPLETELY different people than we were when we said our marriage vows.  When we said “I do” Laura never wanted to have children; now she has 4 and home schools them, plus helps other women with labor and delivery.  I was a staunch atheist when we married; today I am a pastor!  God has changed a lot of the basics of both of our lives, but through it all my wonderful wife has been a source of blessing, help, and joy.

Today marks our 15th wedding anniversary, and through it all Laura has been my steadfast companion and encouragement.  She married me when I was going to be a sailor; she followed me around the country from station to station; she opened the door for me to be introduced to and accept Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord; she carried, birthed, and has raised four amazing children.  She was there to walk me through the dark days after my car wreck and put up with me as I transitioned out of the Navy a couple of years later.  She bore a HUGE burden for three straight years as I went through seminary, working long hours with no pay because I was either in class, at church or at work for 80+ hours a week.  She has truly been “a helper suitable” for me (Genesis 2:18) through the thick and the thin.

I am continually impressed with her willingness to laugh and love.  I am thankful to God that she is so patient with me and with my many faults, sins, habits, and selfishness.  (just ask her how much money and time I have spent on my hobby in the last year…)  We have worked diligently on our marriage over the last 15 years, but I can honestly say that it is her willingness to forgive me and love me that has made all the difference.  I can see so much of the woman of Proverbs 31:10-31 in her; she is truly an amazing woman.  Particularly appropriate in my opinion are verses 26-30:

      26       She opens her mouth in wisdom,
And the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
      27      She looks well to the ways of her household,
And does not eat the bread of idleness.
      28      Her children rise up and bless her;
Her husband also, and he praises her, saying:
      29      “Many daughters have done nobly,
But you excel them all.”
      30      Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain,
But a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised.

Many daughters have done nobly; I know many men who have wonderful wives.  Laura Marie, without hesitation I can say that you excel them all.  I am the man that I am because God has given me an amazing gift of a wonderful wife.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart.  Thank you for your love for me and for our children.  Thank you for standing by my side for the last 15 years through thick and thin, whether I was lovable or not.  Thank you for helping me grow in Christ, pick myself up when I fall and start again.  Thank you for never giving up on me and for loving me unconditionally.

I know that whatever comes, I have you at my side and we will live together forever in the grace of God.  You provide me a safe place from which I can take big risks in life and in ministry, and for that I am too grateful to put it into words.  I love you, and can’t wait to see what God does in the next 15 years we will have together, let alone the 15 after that and the 15 after that! (heck, we won’t even be 80 yet when we hit our 60th anniversary!)

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Does Christianity Have to be Boring?

A friend of mine shared this video on Facebook today, and it really got me thinking. It’s only 1:48 long, so watch it!

It doesn’t necessarily make me want to buy a VW, but the “fun theory” makes sense. People’s lives are so boring and mundane. What would happen if we injected a little fun into them? Would we take the stairs more? (apparently yes…ever run up the down escalator and laugh when you got to the top?)

What about with our walk with God? I think that we can focus so much on the “boundaries” of Christian discipleship and forget about the fabulous fun that we can have within those boundaries. Maybe we think that we can’t get drunk like we used to, so Christianity is no fun. We get caught up in the day-to-day grind of devotions, mealtime prayers, and so on that we forget to see God in the fun in our lives.

Have we forgotten how to laugh? Ecclesiastes 3:4 tells us that there is a season to laugh; Jesus tells us that those who weep will be given laughter in the kingdom of God. Heck, in Deuteronomy 28:47-48 God tells Israel that they will serve their enemies because they chose not to serve God with joy and a glad heart!

When our discipleship is fun, it is more enjoyable and therefore we are more likely to come back for more. On Thursday night I got to experience this firsthand. We had a family night on Thursday; it was the first time we had nothing on the schedule for a whole evening in a couple of weeks. (I know, I know…you want to lecture me about boundaries, about my schedule…) We played Life (the board game) as a family and had a great time. We laughed so hard my sides hurt! We made jokes, cracked up at the foibles of life, and had a blast. We built memories as a family and guess what? We want to do it again this week. It’s amazing how fun makes it more likely to happen again.

I had something similar this morning on my way to school. I ride a motorcycle (this one, though mine doesn’t look quite so nice), and this morning I simply enjoyed the ride. The air was cool, the sun was shining, and I simply enjoyed the feel of acceleration as I rolled on the throttle. I thanked God for bringing joy into my daily commute and the feeling of freedom that riding brings.

How about you? Where is your walk with Christ becoming a total drag? Go find some fun with God; just make sure it is good, clean fun! 🙂

If you came through the doldrums and made your life with God fun again, how did you do it?

The Parable of the Road Trip

I’ve wanted to do a post in the “style” of a parable for some time. Jesus taught in parables all the time because everyday life can show us so much about God and His kingdom. So indulge me a little as I spin this lesson God taught me through everyday life as a parable. 🙂

The kingdom of heaven is like a family that went on a road trip to see the dad’s parents. When the trip was planned and arrangements had been made, the family set off on their trip with great expectation and excitement. This would be a six-hour drive, so the family planned to stop for a quick lunch and then get to their destination as fast as possible. The drive would be a little monotonous but that wasn’t the focus of the trip!

As the family stopped for lunch, though, they realized that there was a pretty significant rattle in the front end of their vehicle. They ate their lunch and somehow hoped that the rumbling would cease. Alas it did not; in fact it had gotten worse while they ignored it.

The family used a smartphone to find a tire store in the town they were in; when the tire store personnel looked at the tires they all needed to be replaced. The parents were stressed out at the $865 bill, but relieved when the staff took off a tire on the front and showed them the ten-inch bubble that had formed in one tire.

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The wait of 90 minutes was a combination of frustration at the delay and relief that the tire had not completely failed while driving. The parents finally thanked God that the tire had not blown at 80 miles per hour on the freeway, paid the bill, and started again on their journey expecting a smooth trip the rest of the way. Of course, nothing more could happen on this trip, could it?

Dad called his mom to tell her that they would be late, and mom asked if they still really wanted to come. The family all still wanted to continue, despite the setback. So the family drove on toward their destination.

Not long after getting back on the freeway the family ran into a 30-minute traffic jam caused by a tractor-trailer changing a tire while blocking a lane. It was hauling a HUGE dump truck, couldn’t get completely off the road and the driver looked like he was hurrying. Nevertheless the trip was delayed more, this time for a half hour. Once it was past, the dad thought for sure that the hard part was behind them and the trip would go smoothly.

Alas, the trip would get harder. After a half hour of smooth travel the family saw a sheriff’s deputy flagging traffic to a stop. Thus began the worst traffic jam that anyone in the family could remember. There were periods of 5 minutes or more when no movement occurred at all and the car was placed in park. The father considered breaking the law, off-roading over the median (confident in the ability of his new $865 tires), and turning around to head home. However, there was too much invested in the trip to stop now.

The family kept looking for the cause of the backup. They were sure that someone had died in a traffic accident or at least something significant had gone awry on the freeway. An hour and fifteen minutes later, the family finally got to the reason for the incredible five-mile backup: road construction. A totally needless activity (why do that during commute hours on a weekday?) had cost another 90 minutes.

The family was now 3 hours behind schedule on a trip that was supposed to take 6 hours. The trip cost 5 times more than they had planned on when they left. The children, as wonderful as they were, were totally worn out and everyone was grouchy. Dad’s back hurt, mom was tired and stressed over the cost of the trip, and everyone was at the end of themselves.

And yet, as the family pulled up to their destination all thoughts about the arduous journey vanished. The joy of reunion so outweighed the cost of the trip that the cost and time was no longer an issue. The kids were overjoyed to see grandma and have her cook them dinner, even if it was so late. The dad and mom basked in the joy of their kids and in the reward of paying the price to be there in time and money.

Though the journey was harder than they had planned and took more resources than they thought they had, it was worth it. The joy of the destination was worth the trials and foibles and struggles that accompanied the journey. The rest of the family time was worth the cost, and the whole family was glad that the family had come. By the end of the weekend, the kids didn’t even remember the trip and mom and dad were joking about the challenges.

Whoever has ears to hear must hear!

Guitar Hero and God?!?

Laura and I have had this recurring discussion about Rock Band and/or Guitar Hero for the longest time. Her conscience is more sensitive than mine to the songs in these kinds of games. I am not about letting my kids play Slayer or Megadeth, but I love the genre of music games so I wanted one of them. Laura could have lived her whole life without it and has been worried that it exposes the kids to music we wouldn’t let them listen to.

A couple of weeks ago, one of the major video game chains had the Guitar Hero band kit (with the drums, guitar, and mic) for $90. That was half price, so I finally got my way. We agreed to go through the songs as a family, and to agree as a couple on which songs the kids could play. Since Laura’s conscience is more sensitive, she gets final say.

Well the kids had two songs they could start with: Beat It and Eye of the Tiger. Nothing like bringing out the 80’s! 🙂 We have been playing through them in career mode, and decided that many of them are not okay for our family content-wise. Others can be okay with instruments if the volume is low enough to keep the lyrics at bay.

Last night, though, I got to finally see the potential of this game. James came home from kenpo camp, so after a great dinner we fired up the Wii for some GH:WT time. We switched off playing the drums, guitar, and mic for over an hour for sure. I love the new nuance in this game that has a “beginner” difficulty. That let Sarah and Abby play too! So all six of us took turns. It was a fun night of gaming as a family, giving high fives and encouraging one another in our pursuit of five stars for “Sweet Home Alabama.” (I rocked the lyrics to that one!!)

What a great time playing as a family. We had fun, laughing and joking and pretending that we were a rock and roll band.* It was a fun night of victories, as well as discussions about what is okay and what is not in our entertainment choices. We did something as a family more involved than watch TV! Okay, it wasn’t like we studied Obadiah together or something, but we thanked God for it nonetheless in our family prayers last night.

So where did I see God in all of this? Well let’s just say that I needed the laughs a lot. I had had about 72 really tough pastoral hours, with 2 families deciding to leave our church (without any discussion with me, of course…) and a company demanding our church pay them for their mistake and threatening legal action if we didn’t. I had asked the Lord to give me some sense of His pleasure, and he did so through the smile of a 10-year-old boy and the look of success in a little girl’s eyes who just finished a song on the guitar (with her mama helping!).

No, all my problems didn’t evaporate. There has been more struggle, and the problems didn’t go away because of a video game. Life is not so simple. But it started me on the path to getting over myself and that was a great reminder today as I thought about it of how blessed I am by Him.

So go find something to do with your loved ones today. It might not look like the epitome of growing in Christ together, but sometimes God works on our hearts just by making us laugh together.

*I SOOO wanted to link the Shel Silverstein poem “If we were a rock ‘n roll band” here, but for the life of me I couldn’t find it on the intertubes…props to the person who finds it for me!!