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Criminals.

Have you ever heard a train coming from a long way off?

It’s barely audible at first. It’s almost as if you feel it before you hear it. The pebbles around your feet begin to shake and squirm as if they are trying to become something more than their very nature. It is the dead coming to life almost as if they were pulled out of an ancient valley which had seen dry bones find new life.

Then you hear it. It’s still a long way off but you can tell something big is coming. The rocks around your feet begin to bounce around, tossing and turning, struggling for breath to fill the emptiness inside. And the low rumble under your feet causes your toes to tingle and you squint beyond the horizon trying to catch a glimpse of what you know is coming.  You know it must be big, because what thing, still so far away, could cause the earth to rumble? What thing, so large, could send a low hum to announce it’s presence from such a distance? What thing, so terribly mighty, could cause the air to feel electric as if it had been charged by some unseen magic? All creation knows it is coming, waiting for its arrival, its passing.

It’s like all the world is groaning, yearning, striving, for what is coming to pass already and leave it as it once was, silent, peaceful, undisturbed. And there, a black dot appears on the horizon. Just a speck on the landscape, unrecognizable except for the pebbles twisting and turning and the steady rumble spreading its way up your legs and into your heart.

You know this. You’ve seen this before. You have heard this story before. It’s about a man, living the last week of his life. The culmination of everything he has ever lived for rapidly approaching, causing the rocks to cry out and the people to shout and the air to be filled with something other than air, something that seeps into your bones and into your heart. A black speck on the horizon.

It begins to grow, coming swiftly now, counting down the days, the minutes, until its terrible glory is upon you. The trees begin to shake and the people cry out and the sound of it turns into a dull ache as if a dam has broken and a thousand years of water is rushing forth threatening everything in its path.

You know this story. It’s written on your heart or in an ancient text written by the hands of common men. You want to turn and run, to hide your face, to flee; anything but stand where you are watching it come, faster and faster.

“Save yourself,” your heart screams. “Save yourself,” screams the people gathered around to watch.

“If you are who you say you are, come down from there! Save yourself, and us!” shouts a man hanging there.

The train is only getting bigger and you know it won’t be long now. You can hear the high pitched squeal of its whistle warning all in its terrible path to clear the way because what is coming can only bring death to those who stand in its way. But your feet, their feet, are stuck to the ground like trees growing up from the earth, shaking at this unbelievable site unfolding in front of your eyes, their eyes.

A terrible blackness fills the sky as the train, or God, covers the sun and fills your eyes, your heart, with a sudden coldness. Like all the hope of the world has been sucked out of it. All your dreams, all your passions, all of your future, crushed under it the weight of it all.

The whistles screams, or you scream, again. It screams the thing you have been screaming your whole life. Even though it only comes out as a whisper, it carries the weight of thousands of years and billions of people. It’s the echo of generations of parents, children, students, men and women.

“Remember me,” the criminal whispers. We are all criminals, aren’t we?

Yes. In some ways, we are. We have lied, stolen, and cheated. We have hurt those we care about. We are guilty of doing or not doing. We are guilty of all of it and as the train comes upon us, we stumble back, falling hard. Hurting. Crying. Dying.

“Remember me,” our hearts say, echoing the words of a criminal who hung on a cross on top of a hill. And just when our tears dry up and the pounding in our chest slows down, the train whistles again as it passes out of site.

“Today, you will be with me in Paradise,” it seems to say before it disappears over the horizon.

A fresh breathe of air follows in its passing, filling your lungs with a hope that replaces the despair you only felt seconds before. Somehow, in spite of it all, a smile creeps its way onto your face and you know that whatever comes next, it’s nothing compared to Paradise.

But this is just what happens when a train passes by.

Or when a criminal dies on a cross next to the Savior of the world.


The Measure of a Man

This past week, my Granddad passed away a hero, mentor and a friend to all of us. As details of my granddad’s life continue to come out, it becomes more and more apparent the legacy he leaves behind is one the world would be proud of. He died a WWII hero, having served on the USS Arkansas at D-Day as troops rushed the beaches of Normandy, bombarding the shores of Italy as Patton marched toward Germany, and then traveling to the Pacific to serve at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Even more, he died a father of four who continue to follow in the footsteps of our Savior and who are, even now, raising their children and grandchildren to do the same. As my granddad took a turn for the worse, we all gathered in his hospital room for what seemed like the last time. I was amazed at the influx of people who flowed like water in and out of his room to pay their respects and tell him they loved him. For five days, his hospital room was full of family and friends who came and went, a testament of the impact he had on their lives. And what was amazing still, my granddad knew everyone of them by name. He knew the details of their lives and cared for them up until the last.

I stood in amazement as it struck me the measure of a man is not in the details of accomplishments, even those his were great, or the size of his bank account, or his possessions, or his rise up some corporate ladder. It struck me that perhaps the measure of a man is found in the lives of those who would never be the same because of his influence. That, perhaps, the measure of a man is not power or wealth, but in the names of those who came in the last days to pay their respects.

And if that wasn’t enough, to each who came to say bye, my granddad took every person by the hand and blessed them with words of encouragement and words which echoed the love of our savior, who with his life, conquered death and made a place for my granddad in paradise. Until the very last, my granddad continued to bless each of us with his great faith and the overflowing love he had for the one man who died to take the sins of the world.

And so, my granddad followed Jesus all the days of his life, taking great strides across the face of this planet, and then, when the time came, walked with Jesus into eternity where he is even now, sitting at the feet of Jesus reveling in the glory that is now his.

My granddad taught me lots of things, but the last might have been the most important. You see, the measure of a man is not in his wealth, his title, or his earthly possessions, but in the names of those who lives are forever changed by his impact.

I’m proud of the man my granddad was and the legacy he leaves behind to all of us. If I could by half the man my granddad was, I’d consider that the greatest success.

When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ 

 


Upon the Rock.

In Matthew chapter 7, Jesus says some really hard things. And honestly, they are things not too many people like.

There are only a few who find the path to life? And if they do find it, it won’t be an easy journey? Dang.

And then, even harder still, there will be some who think they have found it only to be told by Jesus he never knew them. Double Dang.

Then he says something really interesting. I have read these passages hundreds of times and even sang songs about it in Sunday School, but there is something beautiful hidden here if we would just take a second to change our perspective. I’ll get to that in just a second.

Here’s what he said…

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7.24-27)

There’s a clue here. Jesus says if you listen to his words and do them, your house will be built on the rock but if you listen to his words and ignore them, then you have set yourself up to come tumbling down.

Follow me here.

Why would we ignore the words of Jesus? Because we think we don’t need to hear them. We think this way because we don’t fully understand grace. Here’s what I mean. If you and I truly understand our depravity, would not the words of the savior of the world mean everything to us? It’s in feeling like we have it all together that we don’t think we need to obey Jesus at his word because we don’t feel like we need to change. Right?

Ahh. But in the recognition of our total depravity, Jesus’ kindness leads us to repentance and his words are life to us. Would we not do anything to follow him? To do what he says?

It’s only in the recognition that we are forever separated from Christ and are at a total loss to change our outcome that we hang on the words of Jesus; then we build our house on the rock.

Here’s the perspective change for me. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a culture of materialism, or legalism, or something else, but here’s what I thought about that verse.

If Jesus is my foundation, then I can build a bigger house. However, if something other than Jesus was my foundation, whether it be pride, recognition, popularity or reputation, then at the slightest agitation, my house would come tumbling down.

And while all of that may be true, it doesn’t quite go far enough because when it’s said and done, it’s about my house.

Then I caught a new glimpse of what this might mean. If it’s only at the recognition of my depravity that I can understand and do the what Jesus says, and build my house on the rock, then maybe it’s not about my house at all. Maybe it’s about the rock, which is Jesus.

Well, duh, Jonathan. But listen… if the storm comes and knocks my house down, who cares? Because my feet are firmly planted on the rock which is Jesus and his wonderful grace, and we realize we don’t even need the house in the first place because we have everything we need in Jesus.

Don’t you see it? It’s a subtle difference, but it’s there.

Let me try and sum it up really quick.

When I recognize my depravity and hopeless condition, then I can fully surrender and obey Jesus. Why? Because his grace looks at our awful condition and loves us anyway. We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus.

Then we recognize that it’s only his grace and through this same grace, we have all we need. All the validation. All the qualification. All the justification. All the approval. All the love. All the everything. And when the storm comes and knocks our house down, it doesn’t matter because on the rock of Jesus we have all we ever needed anyway. Bye bye house.

Bye bye expectations.

Bye bye dreams.

Bye bye hopes.

Bye bye life plans.

Bye bye self.

You’ve been replaced by the rock; Jesus and his wonderful grace.

Let us, then, stop living under the burden of building our own tiny, little house because it’s going to get knocked down.

Every.

Time.

The real question is, what’s at your foundation?

 


Immutable.

Anxiety exists in the gap between what we think should be and what actually is.

Think about it.

We all believe life should be a certain way. We have an expectation, whether we made it up or someone set it for us and when our life doesn’t meet our expectation, peace goes flying out the window. The whole “peace that surpasses all understanding” really is too impossible to comprehend because it seems so unlikely to be real. It’s almost like peace hopped on the last train leaving the station and we are running after it, loosing our breath and getting all sweaty and gross.

And where peace exists, anxiety quickly follows to take it’s place. We can’t rest. We can’t enjoy life. We can’t laugh. We can’t do much of anything except think about everything we think is broken or not “where it should be.” We sit there and contemplate the gap between what should be and what is almost like if we scrunched our eyes tight enough, we could control whatever it is we need to control. And the great irony is this: we can’t control much of anything, and even if we could, it certainly won’t be for long.

There is only one who controls it all. There is only one who holds all things together, who was before all things, is in the middle of all things, and will be after all things. The reality is this, God will do what God will do when and how he wants to do it whether I am in peace or awash in anxiety. Enough said. So, why fret it at all?

Yet we do. All the time. Over and over again.

Fortunately the Bible speak to this (a whole bunch of times.) Paul tells us in Philippians he has learned the secret to true peace, true contentment. Now, what I’m about to say is going to burst some bubbles and I say shame on sunday school teachers only teaching half the passage.

Paul’s secret is going to sound very familiar and it isn’t about winning football games or being successful or winning or anything like that really. Paul says this in regard to finding true peace…

I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength. 

And there it is. True and perfect peace is found in focusing our eyes on Christ, lest we look at the wind and the waves and we start to drown. Christ gives us strength for peace for one reason and one reason only; he is unchangeable. He is the rock on which we stand. He is the cornerstone on which the foundation is built. He is the beginning and the end and as such, has always been sovereign and always been good.

Yes, that God is immutable is our peace; our contentment. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. His love never changes and it never fails. He is the heavenly father who loves to give good gifts to his children. He is the man who spoke to waves and calmed the raging sea. He is the one who broke the bread and broke his body. He is the one who kicked death in teeth and told it to get to steppin’.

And he is the same God today. 

Unchangeable. All powerful. And good.


Why Mattering Doesn’t Matter.

 

There is a feeling we all feel. I don’t care who you are. I’m serious when I say this, we all feel it.

Every.

Single.

Person.

It’s a feeling that keeps us up at night. It’s a feeling that breaks us down into tears. It’s a feeling that drives most of our behaviors. It plays out so differently for all of us. Some of us channel it for good things while others let it drive us towards destruction (see Lance Armstrong.)

Every.

Single.

Person.

It’s simply this: We want to matter.

Maybe it sounds like this for you, “I want to do something great.” “I want to make a difference.” “I don’t want to be average.” “I want to change the world.”

Haven’t you felt it? Or maybe you’ve at least felt the side affects of it. Maybe you’ve felt that you don’t matter, that no one notices you, and that you’re not important. Perhaps you have. Probably you have.

I know I have. Listen, I’m living through the death of a self-created dream right in this moment wondering if I’ll ever matter; if I’ll ever measure up to whatever that imaginary standard of the world is. And it’s been hard.

And you have been there, haven’t you? You want to matter. As well you should. Here’s the deal, who says what it means to matter? By who’s standard are we measuring our ability to matter? You see, we look at all the people around us and then look at our lives and we measure our success verse theirs.

Everywhere we go, people tell us what it means to matter. All around us, the world is defining what it means to be successful and we measure our worth against some standard someone else created all because we want to matter.

But let me tell you what mattering doesn’t matter. When it’s all said and done and you’re entering that final stage of life and you look back on your life, what are the things you are going to wish you had and hadn’t done? Made more money? Been more successful? Climbed higher on the corporate ladder? Closed that big deal? I doubt it. I’d be willing to bet, for most of us, it’ll be along the lines of relationships we wish we had, people we wished we would have spent more time with, or help we could have offered to more people. Don’t you think?

 

Paul, in his letter to the Galatians says it this way:

Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. 

At first glance, it appears Paul is saying stop trying to win approval from people and try to earn God’s. However, he’s saying you don’t need man’s approval, and you already have God’s. He died on the cross for you, clearly he approves because he deemed your life worth saving. So, just stop. Stop trying to measure up, to meet some standard for success, or to matter. Don’t live under that burden any longer, you don’t have to.

So, what do we do? How do we live? I say we live in response to what God has done for us and live our life to the fullest. I don’t mean being irresponsible by ‘living like there’s no tomorrow’ which seems to be so popular nowadays. No, live your life to fullest extent to what God has for you out from under the burden of ‘mattering.’

In the book of Matthew, the disciples asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was and what they were asking was this, “which law should we follow that will make us matter? Which one should we pay attention so we can feel like we are succeeding?”

And Jesus says this, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the law and the prophets hang one these two commandments. 

Seems simple doesn’t it? Love God. Love people.

You don’t have to matter in the ways the world says to matter. You already matter. Now, be free to love those around you because that’s what matter and what ultimately advances the kingdom.


What I’ve Learned So Far…

In my short time working in ministry, I have learned a few hard lessons. These are things I was probably told before I started, but you never really learn something until you learn something. Ya feel me?

Not only do I believe these are valuable to working in ministry, but just about any place where you are given the reigns of leadership and yet still work with a team. All that being said, here are seven things which have become abundantly clear to me over the last few months…

1. Perception is reality.

What I mean is this, if someone you’re working for/with perceives something to be true, for them, it’s their reality. Not really fair, is it? But it’s true. If there is a member of your church or youth group or team or business who doesn’t feel cared for then it’s very real for them that no one cared for them. Now, you have probably experienced this. As a matter of fact, I’d be willing to bet you are thinking of a situation right now and more than likely you are running down the list of things you did right to convince the other person their perception is wrong.

I’ve been there, and so have you. But what if, instead of stiff arming them with “what you’ve done” why don’t you listen and change your tactics? It’s hard and altogether not fair, but when you’re working with people, things get messy. And they should.

2. Be a team player.

If you ever hear yourself saying, “that’s not my job” you’re not being a team player. If the team wins, you win. Go out of your way to help other team members. Stay longer. Get there earlier. Take on an extra task.

And you know what, do it even if they never offer it back. Because like I said, if the team wins, you win, and so does everyone else.

3. Be teachable.

Plain and simple; leaders are learners. Never stop learning. Ever. You can learn in just about every situation, whether it’s learning what not to do, or how you could have done it better. I believe there is value in sitting down with your boss and hearing all of what he has to say and processing it all to become a better leader even if everything he is saying you believe to be wrong.

On the flip side, I can not be teachable and have a stiff neck and just keep doing the things I’m doing. After all, if you want the same results you’re currently getting, keep doing the things you’re currently doing.

4. Protect your vision.

For those of us in ministry, this one is especially hard. Everyone has an expectation. Parents. Students. The lead pastor. They all think you should do ministry a certain way. As a matter of fact, managing expectations may be the hardest part of working in ministry. And as you all probably know, it’s easy to drift to the loudest voice in the room.

But here’s the deal, you have the inside track on how God has called and equipped you to do ministry. Find people with similar vision, who get what you’re trying to accomplish, and ask them to be your guardrails. Ask them to keep you straight and true in spite of what everyone else is saying. Protecting your vision keeps you sane and makes sure you are honoring what God has called and equipped you to do.

5. Know your strengths.

There is freedom and power in knowing what you’re good at and where you have gaps in leadership. Determine what kind of leader you are and lean into those strengths as best you can. A pitcher for a major league baseball team are very rarely hit a lot of home runs. They know they are pitchers and they do everything they can to be the best at pitching. It would be sideways energy for them to practice anything else. The same is true of your leadership skills.

What kinds of things give you energy and fill you up when you do them? What kinds of things irritate you and drain you? Taking steps to figure out where your niche is means you’ll find satisfaction in what you’re doing and decrease the chance of experiencing burn out. And besides, you can always delegate what you aren’t good at to someone who’s better than you. Being ambitious outside of your gift set is arrogance.

6. Create a culture of affirmation.

Affirming those around you makes them feel like they are winning. Tell the people you work with how you appreciate what they’re doing and how they are helping your team win.

This one is so hard for us as leaders. Somewhere in the back of our mind we think affirming what someone else is doing means elevating them above what we are doing. However, creating a culture of affirmation not only creates positivity on the team, but also unlocks some sort of hidden potential in people to be more than they currently are. Give it a try.

7. Lift up the name of Jesus. 

All throughout the Bible, where Jesus was lifted up, people seemed to gather. I believe with all my heart, the same should be true of us in ministry. It’s so hard to look at the number and the giving statements and then compare them to what the next guy is doing. It’s easy to get lost in the emotion of creating the “next best thing.” And while gathering momentum, building cool buildings, and having the sweetest student ministry may get people in the door, it won’t keep them.

When we make much of Jesus, things happen. People’s lives are changed. Churches begin to grow. Spiritually healthy people give sacrificially and they want to give hours of service.

People will be more compelled to follow when they are on board with the mission of Jesus rather than the catchy mission statement your church created. Without Jesus, nothing we do has legs to stand on.

So, these are the things God has been doing, teaching, and working out in my heart over the last few months. I’m sure there are a billion things I could have put in this post, but these are the ones currently relevant to my circumstance.

Thoughts? Any to add?