The Question I want to ask

I have the privilege of walking with people through life’s tough seasons. While my official role places me most often with college-aged young adults, I have been invited into the lives of adults of varying age, life status and perspectives. This is an honor. Often, I’m asked how I am able to handle listening to the grief and sorrow of people while maintaining my own positive outlook. Truth is, I find myself mourning and grieving deeply with those I am listening to – but I mourn differently than most. My grief leads me to questions, those questions keep me thinking, and thoughts are the fuel of my life. Yes – over-thinking is what keeps me from burning out. Maybe I’ll blog about that one day. Back to the questions.

As I attempt to love and support those around me who are suffering, the questions sprout up in my brain like wild flowers. I rarely ask the questions I really want to ask because I’m not sure it’s the right time or if I’m the right person. But when my friends and colleagues are experiencing tough moments of dysfunction and anxiety with people in their lives, I desperately want to ask one question: how have you contributed to the state of things?

It’s a tough question to ask, and I often don’t ask because I sense they aren’t ready to own any hurtful language or passive actions they have done. But man — isn’t this the root of the issue? I can confidently say that in my life almost every struggle I have had with another human being includes something I said or did that hasn’t helped the situation. Once I muster the courage to acknowledge my part, I’m capable of figuring out what to do next. That kind of self-reflection isn’t pretty. The apology that comes as a result leaves me feeling vulnerable and losing the argument seems inevitable. But I also find myself freed to dive deeper into the problem and solutions become easier to find. I want this for so many of my loved ones. If only they would be willing to process that one question.

I’ve been running to the prophet Isaiah for years. Personal and broader historical events of 2016 have given me a fresh motivation to seek the wisdom found in this book. The first chapter doesn’t offer much comfort at first. The prophet, speaking Yahweh’s heart, says in verse 2,

“Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me.”

Then again in verse 4,

“Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly!”

My honest response is, “you couldn’t be talking about me; I can’t imagine you’re saying that to me.” At the same time, I begin to think about the people Yahweh must be talking to: those folks whom I deeply disagree with on a variety of issues. They are the reason why things are so bad; they are the ones who need to open their ears to these words. It probably goes without saying, but listening to the prophet in this way is a lesson in missing the point.

When Isaiah spoke those words, he wasn’t talking to pagan nations or hard-hearted foreign leaders. Isaiah was talking directly to the people of Yahweh, those ransomed by the hand of one true living God and called to be a worshipping people for the sake of heaven’s justice in the world. He was talking to people who knew the ancient words by heart, and sang the spiritual songs on key. The prophet’s words were directed to a people whose actions have been right in their own eyes, and have turmoil and chaos as a result. Isaiah essentially says to them, you are part of the problem – time to own up to it. Isaiah believes that the problems of war, famine, dysfunction, and anxiety the people are facing are directly linked to their estrangement from the Holy One of Israel. If they want things to change, Isaiah tells them they have to change first:

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”

Yahweh’s heart appears to be, “things aren’t great right now, and you have contributed to some of it, own your stuff and repent.”

When I think about the state of our nation and the last election, I wonder if all Americans are willing to ask the question: how has my group, on either side of the aisle, negatively contributed to the state of things?

When I think about my denomination, the UMC, I wonder if we’ll pause our social media rants long enough to ask the question: how has my group (read: caucus) negatively contributed to the state of things?

When I think about the status of longtime friendships in my own life, it’s difficult but necessary for me to ask the question: how have I negatively contributed to the state of things?

Many of us in Jesus’ family are celebrating the first Sunday of Advent today. Although Isaiah 1 isn’t a part of this week’s lectionary text, I wonder if the Spirit is asking the people who are waiting on the coming of the Lord: how have you rebelled against Yahweh and negatively contributed to the state of things?

Through the voice of the prophet, Yahweh says:

“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson,  they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land…”

It’s a call to own up to our role in the mess we are in right now. The rebellious will always reject and deflect this question. The repentant will greet the question with courage knowing there is freedom in confronting the truth. In the day you hear the voice of Yahweh, do not harden your heart.

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The Question I want to ask

Three Things Leader-types tend to forget

Leadership is tough. Much is expected of those who move to the front. That first step of courage is often the loneliest. I am grateful for the people, past and present, who have been leaders for me on this journey. Some of them have seen me at my worst and still believed in my potential. Now that I have led college/campus ministry for 10 years, I have seen both sides of this conversation. I have been the leader who was praised and the leader who was avoided. I have opened doors for some who did not know their own potential, and I have run over some who needed my support and encouragement. I have made many mistakes as a leader, but I am always determined to learn from them. As I think about my journey of leadership, I have found three things in particular that leader-types tend to forget about those who are following them. I hope these points are helpful for those of you in leadership positions. I also hope that these points offer some comfort to followers who have been burned by leadership.

1. We leaders tend to forget that our followers listen to us more than we realize. I used to think that those under my direction needed me to say things over and over. I used to think that those who were working with me tended to ignore me when I would cast vision or make decisions. And in some other contexts, this maybe the case. But in my experience, I found that the people following were listening…ALWAYS. And when I refused to acknowledge this fact, it created distance — distance that made communication difficult and held back progress. This was especially true when I would say to someone, ‘you clearly haven’t heard anything I have said!” The crazy truth was that they had listened; my words were echoing in their heads. They were trying to figure out how we would practically work out what I was seeing for our work together. They were busy trying to think through all the implications of this leader’s BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals). And when I acted as if that ‘behind the scenes’ work was not happening, it took the wind out of their sales. The lesson was I was so busy trying to open the ears of my followers that I never heard anything they were saying to me.

2. We leaders tend to forget that people really want to follow us. I kept forgetting that my employees and our volunteers had a choice about where they would invest their time, resources, talent and lives. I forgot that people are always looking for doers, thinkers, strategists and communicators; and these precious people chose to bring their best to the cause I was given the honor of leading. In my forgetfulness, I would make decisions and respond to conflict assuming that they were looking for a way out. Often, the tension between me and those who were following me was simply my inability to gratefully acknowledge that they really wanted to join me in pursuing a God-inspired dream. All of their disagreements, their better ideas (ALWAYS BETTER); even the impromptu meetings in the parking lot (that I was not invited to) were the result of me assuming that they weren’t on board. They were more on board than I even knew, and my blindness to that reality caused more pain than I care to admit.

3. We leaders tend to forget that we prove our love for our followers when they can no longer follow us. We all know that seasons change. There comes a day when new doors open, promotions are offered, opportunities in other cities present themselves and dreams can no longer wait. There also comes the day when doors close because resources have shrunk, demotions are called for because we’ve missed the mark too many times or our dreams do not align with the opportunities available to us. This is a part of life. I learned, however, that the best thing I can do when the seasons change is to love those who are leaving with compassion and genuine support. I often forgot that even though she was no longer my employee or he was no longer volunteering for our events, they were all still looking to me for leadership. Maybe a different kind of leadership, but leadership nonetheless. Calls, emails, FB posts, and text messages now carried a different significance. When I neglected these things, it made those who once made sacrifices under my leadership feel abandoned, forgotten, and even manipulated. I did not even realize the impact of not speaking when I saw them at Starbucks. To me, that’s just the way things go. To them, what the? (There are people reading this post who have felt this way in my regard. And to you, I deeply apologize…I can be the most awful leader at times). The lesson: leadership is relational more than it is seasonal, and the responsibility is on me.

I am still learning how to be a leader worth following. I want to honor those who have served with me in the past and those who are serving with me today by becoming a better leader. If you are a leader in any capacity, I urge you to use the above points and ask your followers if they have felt this way. Don’t comment. Don’t offer explanations or excuses. Don’t argue. Just ask the questions, listen, and thank them for their perspective. You will be all the better for those conversations. As Andy Stanley says, “Leadership is a stewardship, it is temporary, and you are accountable.”

Three Things Leader-types tend to forget

The Scariest and Most Hopeful Fact about 2014

Of many things that will happen to most of us this new year, there is one fact that is both scary and extremely hopeful — and it all bowls down to one word: CHANGE. Many things will take place in your life over the next 12 months, but change is one of those things that we can pretty much count on. By this time next year, we will all be able to look back and point to relationships, situations, perspectives and conditions that are not as they were on 01/01/14. Like it or not, expect it or not, change is coming for all of us.

Change can be scary, especially when it comes without prior notice. It is one thing to make a new year’s resolution and intentionally pursue something new. But often, change is thrust upon us without our permission. In fact, many of us put a ton of work and energy into making sure things do not change. So when the transition comes, we sometimes ignore it, other times deny it, and even wish (or better pray) the change away. Change is probably the scariest fact of 2014 for many of us. I feel your pain.

But…change can also be the most hopeful fact of 2014, particularly for people who trust Jesus with their lives. I remember hearing the late Dallas Willard say something like this: “your life is much more in front of you than it is behind you.” I also remember hearing Bobbie Houston translate Proverbs 31:25b like this: “she smiles at the future”. And there is the ever inspiring text in Hebrews 12 where Jesus endured the suffering and shame of the cross because of the joy set before him. Change is usually the precondition for renewal, revival and restoration. Change ushers in fresh options. Yes, change is scary, but it reminds of that there is potential for more. 

Change comes to prune, because there is more fruit that can be produced. Change forces us to let go of certain things so that we have room to receive the new things. Change comes to discipline and challenge us so that we have the stamina needed for tomorrow’s opportunities. Change is a part of nature and what it means to be alive. Change is the primary way God matures us spiritually and emotionally. 

I have to tell you — avoiding change can be dangerous. Why? Without change, you will never know what you are made of and made for. If you ignore the coming changes, you risk missing out on answers to prayers. Denying that change is coming places you in an imaginary world and life can move on without  you even knowing it. Wishing change away wastes energy because change will happen whether you want it to or not. 

At the end of 2014, I want to say before God, my family, friends, colleagues and community that I greeted the future and all the changes that were coming. I want to say that, in faith, I trusted that Jesus was going to work all things out for my good as things changed around me. I want to say that I did not waste energy trying to hold on to the way things are instead of smiling at the way things were growing, evolving and transforming around me. This is my prayer for 2014.

And it is my prayer for you as well. May we all smile at the change that 2014 will bring us — knowing that despite the changes, nothing separates us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

The Scariest and Most Hopeful Fact about 2014

Why I am not reading through the Bible next year

Let me start by commending those who have read through the Bible in a year and those who will attempt to do it in the coming year. Seriously, the ‘Bible in One Year’ folks inspire and challenge me. For those who feel led to do it, this discipline has been effective for many people who want to immerse themselves in the Scriptures. I sometimes wish I had the time and the attention span to consistently push through 2 chapters of Judges and 1 chapter of Romans in a day. So for those who will engage all of God’s word this year, I commend you!

There are many reasons why I will not join vast numbers of Christians who take on this task in 2014. Issues like being a slow reader, lacking the time to do it right, and getting lost in the memories of sermons related to each scripture are just a few. But I will comment on just one reason: my philosophical disagreement with reading the Bible in a year.

The main reason I will not read through the entire Bible in a year is that I actually do not think it is the best way to read the Bible. If you have a good two hours to devote to daily study, then reading the Bible through will probably be extremely meaningful for you. But if you are speed-reading it like it is a Harry Potter novel you are trying to finish, you could be missing some important points. The thing that makes the Bible different from every other book in the world is that everything contained in it and everything involved in its delivery to us is valuable to humanity. Obviously, the words matter, but diverse literature within the Bible is also beneficial. The interpretation matters as does the intentions of the authors. The social, political and historical contexts give weight and depth to the theological implications. I am not sure one gets the opportunity to fully appreciate all of this when pushing through 66 books in a year. For me, these things are more important than accomplishing the read in record time.

Reading the Bible regularly, if not daily, is an extremely significant part of a growing journey with Jesus. Ultimately, ‘man cannot live by bread alone’, no matter how thoughtful our excuses. For many of us, reading the entire Bible in a year is not likely or practical. I share this difficulty and have felt a good amount of guilt for not being able to carry out what feels like a reasonable discipline. So what might the rest of us do to embrace the Scriptures in more meaningful way in 2014? Here are three suggestions:

1. Read and meditate on a verse a day. Just because you don’t have time for 2-3 chapters a day doesn’t mean that you have to give up the daily discipline. I would suggest reading and meditating on 1-2 verses each day. It is amazing what 5 intentional minutes could do for your day and your connection with God. There are many ‘verse of the day’ resources out there. The key is taking time to focus and meditate on the scripture. The goal is to allow the Spirit to speak those words into your very being, which probably will demand some quiet and solitude. For those who would like to one day be able to read the entire Bible in a year, this is a great place to start.

2. Memorize a book of the Bible. I have never done this, but have heard great things about this discipline. Deciding to memorize an entire book of the Bible allows the words of God to truly take up residence inside of you. It also allows you to begin to ponder on those passages from memory at random moments of the day versus only thinking about them when they are right in front of you.

3. Study a book of the Bible. I believe this is the best thing a person can do with their devotion time second only to prayer and worship. There is so much value waiting for us in the deeper study of entire books of the Bible. Imagine what might happen to your spiritual journey if you spent 2014 actively studying the book of Romans! The different translations, commentaries from diverse theologians, history of who has used this book and for what purposes; all great resources that are available to us so that we could gain a deeper understanding of the Bible. Personally, I will be studying the Corinthian letters this year. I think you might be surprised at what you would gain from spending a year or half a year in one book of the Bible.

Whether you decide to read the Bible completely in one year or go at it one verse at a time, remember to savor and appreciate it. The Word of God the primary means by which the Holy Spirit tunes our hearts and ears to the voice of God. The advice is relevant, the perspective is enlightening and the spirit behind it all transforms us. The more we understand this ancient text, the more we will smile at the days ahead. Whatever reading or devotion plan you engage in the new year, make the Scriptures a central part of it. Thanks be to God for the Word of God!

Why I am not reading through the Bible next year

Worry’s Invitation

I am worried about some things these days. Now before you all start offering me your ‘5 steps to stop worrying’, understand that I have heard countless sermons on the subject. I have probably preached some of those sermons too. But if I am honest, it is really hard for me to let go of worry once it has grabbed me. Once the issue or scenario presents itself to my brain, I cannot help but think about it over and over. I have tried repressing the thoughts and even distracting myself with varying degrees of success. But eventually, I come back to the same place of worry. This is not everyone’s story, but it is mine.

Since I am being honest about this subject, let me get one more thing off my chest. I think people who are good at not worrying are strange. Aren’t there things worth getting worried and stressed about? If I am standing in an airport security line that is not moving and my flight leaves in 15 minutes, it bothers me, If my credit card gets declined for a $5 charge, my pressure goes up. And yes, if something is happening to a family member or friend that I have no control over, you better believe I will be a bit tense. Doesn’t responsibility, affection, and dreaming come with a good amount of worry? At some point, don’t we all find ourselves in the worry spot? I think we do, and I just wanna go ahead and say that I get you.

With all that said, I am a Christ-follower. So I take the words of Jesus in the Scriptures seriously. When He says, ‘do not worry’, I know that means something. When Paul encourages us to ‘be anxious for nothing’, I take that advice to heart. But how? How do we avoid worry and anxiety over the things that really matter to us? Am I being asked to deny the significance of specific issues and struggles for the sake of finding peace. If these things are really important — if they truly matter to us — is suppression and forgetting the only path to a resolution?

I was recently inspired by the parable in Luke 18. Jesus tells a story about a persistent widow who knocks on the door of a dishonest judge. The judge decides to give this woman justice because she keeps bothering him with her case. This parable is about prayer, but it is also about something else. You have to ask yourself, ‘would this woman have been so persistent with her issue if she did not care (dare I say worry) about the outcome?’ I think we have to agree that it was probably worry, stress, anxiety and/or pressure that kept her knocking at the judge’s door. Jesus’ implicit message in this tale is that the persistent widow is our example of an acceptable prayer life.

Many of us struggle with consistency in our prayer life. Whether you are a morning or a night person, many find it hard to devote regular amounts of time to prayer. I confess that sometimes those devoted times of prayer have become stale. I have felt as though I had nothing to say to my Creator. But as soon as I get up having fulfilled my obligation of 20 or 30 minutes, the worrying restarts. Why? Because somewhere in the course of my life, I learned that prayer was supposed to be somewhat tranquil and articulate. If I really brought my worries to my prayer time, they would be loud, melodramatic and messy. I feel like I would be interrupting the angelic choir if I allowed my worries to infiltrate my prayer time. Not to mention what prayer time could turn into if I allowed my stress to show over the course of days or weeks. It would definitely not be quiet time anymore.

But what if worry was an invitation into prayer? What if worry was our soul’s way of saying, ‘we need to spend a ton of time talking (and crying and shouting) to God about this’.  What if worry was the necessary energy needed to spiritually sprint towards the throne of God. If Jesus is suggesting we should be like the persistent widow in the parable, then we will need more than a cool devotional to keep us on our knees for prolonged periods of time. If we are to protect these times from becoming ritualistic and dry, then we will have to allow those raw, untamed emotions to surface as we pursue and seek God’s will.

Be reminded that while the judge was annoyed with woman, Jesus never tires of our prayers. In fact, consistent prayer that is saturated with real emotion has a way of deepening our faith and revealing God’s passion for us. Prayer that has been entered into because of worry eventually reminds us that God has always been (and will continue to be) more invested in our lives than we’ll ever be. Luke 18 prayer is spiritual activism that will not stop until the Righteous Judge has answered. Jesus delights in prayer like this.

Most of us are worried and stressed about many things these days. It may be time for us to learn from the persistent widow. As Psalm 62 says, we should pour out our hearts to Him. Even if nothing changes about the situation, engaging the deep discipline of authentic prayer (brought on by worry) will strengthen our souls in some miraculous ways over time.  I invite you to see your worries as an invitation to run loudly and persistently to Jesus in prayer. Do it today.

Worry’s Invitation

Confidence to be me

I sat down with one of our leaders today and told her stories of the days when it felt like my confidence was being beat out of me. I told her stories of disappointment, being misunderstood, feeling left out or passed over and being told hard truths that I was not quite ready to receive. Of course I left out all of my hard-headed mistakes, rebellious gestures, and arrogant assumptions — that is sermon material! My goal in telling those stories was to illustrate how the confidence to live out your calling is deeply connected to the ability to persevere in the midst of pain and challenge.

At some point, you have to get honest with yourself and ask, ‘confident or not — who is God asking me to be?’ This is the lesson I keep having to learn. Far too often, I depend on the encouragement and permission of others when making decisions that could take me into unknown territory. There is a place for the affirmation of leaders/mentors and the blessing of your community. However, the courage to take that step into your destiny will not be handed to you…you will have to take it. Like Joshua (in the Hebrew Bible book that bears his name), the promised land must be fought for both by faith and by deed.

But what if I am wrong? What if I fail? These are kinds of questions we all ask when we sense a new season coming. For the general audience, I join the voices of many others who are saying you just have to give it a shot. I shared the following quote with my UNF Community Night gathering this past semester:“Regardless of what you want to do or who you are, fear will always see you as wholly unqualified for anything you ever dream or attempt.” – @JonAcuff. I know it sounds simple, but the truth is no one gets to their destiny by accident and fear will lie to you every time.

For the Christ-follower, I have a little more to say. As a believer in Jesus, you have decided to place all of your faith in His ability to get you to where you need to be. Your faith is not in your ability to make the right calls, choose the right opportunities or even to walk through the right doors. Your faith is in Jesus’ ability to do all that needs to be done so that your life works out for your good and His glory. At the end of the day, Jesus knows how to take the worse career decision on the planet and turn it into something beautiful. And so in response, we make the most faithful decisions we can — in light of what He has done and what He has said — and trust Him with the outcome. Which leads me back to the confidence to be me.

I am finding a fresh sense of confidence these days as I continue to learn what it means to be a leader for God’s people. I am sensing Jesus’ call to be fearless in the face of uncertainty. I am challenged in a new way by the little things that matter more than we realize. I feel the need to be more honest with myself and others as I become more patient with all that I wish were different in my life. It seems that once again, Jesus is asking me to grow up a little more. Believe it or not, all of this internal, spiritual work is giving me the confidence to be more of who God has asked me to be.

So my prayer for all of those who are reading this post (thank you by the way) is that you would not settle for a version of yourself that is less than all that you can be. I pray that you would do more than give yourself morning pep-talks but that you would act on the potential that lies inside each one of us. I pray that you would allow the gifts and talents that were given to you to be used to their fullest extent. I pray that you would have the courage to “punch fear in the face” (HT @JonAcuff) and allow the confidence that comes from the Holy Spirit to lead you to new places.

There is so much more waiting for us and all of heaven is cheering you on.

Confidence to be me

Jenkins, Idolatry, and Advent-waiting

A few months ago, I promised a good buddy of mine that I would take him to Jenkins BBQ in downtown Jacksonville. I LOVE Jenkins. There is simply nothing like the BBQ sauce from this place. I am pretty sure my first solid food meal was a rib from Jenkins. Anyways, my buddy and I decided that I would pick him up around noon on a Sunday and we would drive down to get some rib sandwiches. We arrived at the restaurant at around 12:15pm and decided to use the drive-through lane. We sat…and we sat…and talked…and I rolled down the windows and shut off the car…and we waited and waited some more. In fact, we waited until around 1pm before we ever made our order. I am pretty sure it was 1:15pm before we drove off with our food. And you know what — we did not mind one bit. Apparently, the two cars ahead of us and the 5 cars behind did not mind waiting either. Why? Because IT’S JENKINS BBQ FOLKS! You wait for that. As we ate our rib sandwiches (and free slices of sweet potato pie), the last thing on our minds was how long we waited for this precious meal. I would even say that the waiting made the meal even better.

I am waiting on God to act in some miraculous ways in my life. And I feel like I have waited forever. Unlike the story above, I am counting the minutes and wondering if I should ‘pull out of the lane’ and look for other options. I know that what God will provide for me is the best case scenario for my life. I know that if I am patient, I will truly taste and see the Jesus is good to me and for me. But I want my miracle now. I grow impatient and the clock is ticking. I am secretly (though nothing is a secret to God) devising back up plans just in case God does not come through by a certain date. No hard feelings, but I will find something else to satisfy these deep longings.

Idolatry is the act of going to anyone or anything else other than Jesus for what we need. Idolatry becomes your plan when waiting on Jesus has taken too long. Those of us who have been in church for a while know better than to build altars to Greek deities or start singing love songs to money. Some Christians, like me, have a secret timer in their hearts. When God takes one minute too long to come through, we secretly turn to an inner ‘golden calf’ to fill our desires. From the outside, you wouldn’t know the difference. But on the inside, people like me could teach a full semester course on what to do when God makes you wait. I can turn to an idol quicker than Jenkins can make a rib sandwich (wait…that wasn’t what I meant!) To be honest, none of my other options have ever given me a great outcome. Whenever I choose idolatry, I always feel cheated afterwards. But I would rather have it fast than have the best right? Right…because we have all been there.

Advent is about the discipline of waiting. This season stands in direct contrast to finding the fastest check out line at Target, spending a few extra dollars on Amazon for two-day shipping, and maximizing every minute of this holiday season so that we can knock out that to do list. We engage the waiting not because we want to, but because we need to. Waiting becomes a discipline because by it, we are able to step away from our idolatry and golden calves to find the One who truly satisfies. “Advent-waiting” is disciplined waiting so that our spiritual and emotional pallets can mature in such a way that only the Bread of Life will satisfy us. The invitation of this season is to wait because waiting does the deep work of refining our desires. This is what is meant by the scriptural suggestion, ‘let patience do its perfect work’.

So while I am waiting on God to do miracles, God is waiting for me to embrace the waiting. It is not just about good things coming to those who wait. It is about waiting long enough to know what really is good and what is actually a counterfeit. So do yourself a favor and make the choice to wait. Wait as a discipline. Wait because by it our strength is renewed. Wait because those who do are never put to shame. This Advent season, actively engage the waiting and reject idolatry. Who knows…you could discover that what waiting for you is God’s exceeding, abundant and above.

Jenkins, Idolatry, and Advent-waiting