Long After the Thrill of Living is Gone

I was in 5th grade when Jack and Diane fell in love. John Cougar was an Indiana boy, and we didn’t know at that time he had changed his name or actually reduced it. His song of a young couple in love filled our classroom every day. One boy loved the little ditty so much that he played it over and over again on my boom box. Finally, the teacher yelled at him to “find another song.”

The other day the song came on the radio, and I listened to it for the first time in years. While I was initially drawn into the love story of two American kids growing up in the heartland, I now was caught by something else. The chorus is a depressing look at life and the years that lie ahead for both Jack and Diane. It declares simply, “Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.”

Now in my middle forties and having recently lost my dad the words of the song hit me like never before. Eventually, the thrills of being a teenager with a wild and free attitude disappear. I don’t really know the day it happened but somewhere the thrills of those years faded and a change came around that made me a man. Now I live in the place that I heard about so many years ago, I have learned that the thrill has actually changed into joy. Here is what this has meant for me –

1. Embrace Real Love. The song is basically about the infatuation of youth between a boy and a girl. One part of maturity is when we abandon infatuation and begin to look for something more. We move from the thrill of the moment into the joy of a lifetime. One of the greatest parts of growing older is that I give up looking for someone else to offer me some new sort of thrill. Now I enjoy the love of my wife who has stood by my side through some really tough times. I thank God for a great mother, siblings, and wonderful children who love me. The momentary euphoria of those teenage encounters has been replaced by the deep satisfaction of real love.

2. Use Your Gifts for Others. During those early years, for me at least, life was all about pleasing myself. Each day was a search for something that would make me feel good. As an adult, I have discovered that I feel the greatest joy when I serve others. The media had taught me the awesome power of climbing a mountain and standing alone with God. Real life has taught me that those feelings are nothing compared to looking in the eyes of a child when you give them their first gift. The thrill of self-gratification is nothing compared to self-sacrifice.

3. Find Satisfaction in Your Soul. Those exciting moments of youth often carry with them guilt and shame. The longer you live, the more the snowball of our mistakes grows into an avalanche. Slowly you become bitter and angry, or you slip into that place where our senses are dulled, and we feel nothing. I believe faith offers a better solution. Allow the work of Jesus to penetrate our hearts, and we can experience forgiveness. There is a solid reason that the older people get, the more they find comfort in faith. I am no longer restless about the mistakes of my life, rather I am filled with peace because of forgiveness.

I know it is hard to explain to a young person what John Cougar Mellencamp was singing about in Jack and Diane. Getting older seems like a scary and boring prospect. The reality for me is that my life is far better now than during those teenage years. I am thankful to God for the direction my life has gone since I live past the thrill of those days. My life is full of love, joy, and peace. I hope yours is too.

Reflections on My Son’s Final Basketball Game

On Saturday night, my second son’s basketball team lost in district play and their season came to an end. Somewhere in the third quarter when I realized we were not going to win without a miracle, I took out a sheet of paper, and I wrote down a few thoughts about my son and his senior year of basketball.

I share these with you for two reasons. First, I want everyone to know how proud I am of my son. He is a great athlete and a great young man. Second, I want people to know you can still be good at sports without compromising anything. Now, I am not saying my son is perfect, far from it, but he is a great kid who represents our family and his faith well.

1. Good Sportsmanship – I am proud to say that over the years he has never received a single technical foul or even a flagrant foul. He had pushed the limits on this a couple of times when he was getting hit, and no calls were made by the refs, but he never crossed that line. He has not thrown any temper tantrums on the sidelines and got into any heated conflicts with teammates. He has proven to me that you can be intense at sports without being a jerk.

2. Not Selfish – One thing I have seen this year is that my son would pass to anyone. He was often reminded to “know who you are passing to” but that did not stop him from passing. If someone was open, he threw the ball to them no matter what. Even in the final two minutes of his last game, he shared the ball with a couple other seniors in hopes that they would score. You do not have to be selfish to be a great ball player.

3. A Friend to All – Even though we have only been in Adrian for a little less than three years my son made some great friends. Over the last few months, my wife and I have enjoyed having a group of 3-5 boys over to our house before a game. In fact, over the last month, we just came to plan on having a meal for them before they left. My son has some great friends on the team.
On top of that, my wife and I have collected pictures and stories of my son talking to the other team’s players. Quite often during the game, especially free throws, he would stop and talk to the boys on the other team. Several of them he has then followed on Instagram and Snapchat and went on to become friends. Being competitive does not mean you have to hate other people, they are all just high school boys trying to have fun.

4. Brotherly Love – It is always a great joy to have my boys on the same team. Last year my two oldest played together. This year my middle two played together. My wife and I both cherish those moments when they give each other high-fives and celebrate together. My boys are not only teammates, but they are also friends.

5. Christian Faith – I know my son is not perfect as a player or as a person and I do not want to elevate him as a perfect model of faith. I do want people to know that since he started playing basketball in the 3rd or 4th grade, he has missed only one Sunday because of basketball. One time we let him travel to a tourney in Alaska over a weekend. Otherwise, he has never played on a travel team or spent weekends on the road to get better. Nope, faith and Church are a priority in our family, and I want parents to know that you can be good at a sport without compromising your values.

I will be honest it was hard to watch his walk off the court on Saturday night. I hugged him, and I didn’t want to let him go. Later that night as I lied in bed I was reminded that one of the biggest goals of sports is to prepare kids for real life. I know without a doubt that as my son goes off to college this fall, he will make me proud. He already has.

True Confessions from a Pastor

It is time to get honest. I am not proud of these, but I need to tell someone.

-When I learned to ride a bike, every time I fell I would get up and kick the bike as if my failure was its fault.
-I skipped 32 days of high school for no real reason other than to have fun. No one noticed I was gone.
-I hold a pillow when I sleep.
-I occasionally cheated in Bible college.
-I eat my food so that my last bite is the best. That means I eat my pizza and pie backward.
-I have left a store because I saw someone I didn’t care for and didn’t want to talk.
-I have no plans to use Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat. Facebook already drives me crazy.
-I have purposely parked too close. Just to annoy people.
-I don’t understand Jazz music.
-Sometimes I take naps in my office because I stay up too late.
-My dad used to say when we were in a large crowd, “If a bomb went off in here, it would sure kill a lot of people.” I still find that one of the funniest things he said.
-I remember almost everything that has happened to me, some with vivid detail. It is both a blessing and a curse.
-I am forcing myself to quit yelling at referees at basketball games.
-Asking people for anything personally I find almost impossible to do, even if I need the help.
-I listen to music in my headphone way too loud. Now I am getting deaf.
-Twice in my life I seriously considered suicide, now I thank God for getting me through those dark times.
-I am paralyzed by the fear of something bad happening to my children.
-I have nothing saved for retirement.
-Sometimes I have to fake caring about people. Is that wrong?
-I hold my tongue all the time, I have so much I really want to say, but I know it will hurt people.
-I daydream about what it would be like to live my life over knowing what I know now.
-I still struggle with that same old sin.
-I frequently make up percentages on the spot. Well, I do 78% of the time.
-When I see 11:11 on the clock I always say, “You only see that two or three times a day.”
-I love to buy books but rarely take the time to read them anymore.
-I despise soccer, cats, dogs and bananas equally.
-I have embarrassed myself more times than I can count. And no, I won’t tell you the stories.
-I don’t understand why Jesus chose Judas, but I also don’t understand why he loves me.
-It wasn’t until I was in my 40’s that I learned to embrace my uniqueness … I mean weirdness.

I believe all of us have a closet full of junk. Your parents do. Your pastor does. Everyone you know has a long list of secrets.

You are normal. Confess it to God. Maybe have a laugh … or a cry. Throw yourself on grace. Move on. Today is a new day. Thank God!

The Scars That Shape Us

My hands have three noticeable scars. Each one is the result of the misuse of a knife. Each one has taught me something. Each one has shaped the way I handle a knife currently.

Scars shape us. I know of people who have large scars from surgery and those who have injuries from accidents. They are physical reminders of pain and hurt along with the joy of being alive.

What is true physically is also true emotionally and spiritually. Those deep hurts we have felt in our souls are also part of what God uses to shape us if we allow him.

These are some of the biggest incidents that God has used to shape me.

1. Loss of Loved Ones
I have lost two people in my life whom I loved deeply. Along with those losses have come a number of other friends who have passed. Each time I have lost someone it has changed the way I treat the rest of the people in my life. It has made me more loving and sympathetic. Loss has a way of making us either bitter or better.

2. Self-inflicted wounds
I will not list all the sins I have committed that have shaped me. Let’s just say I have done some incredibly sinful and stupid things in my life. Each time it has left a deep scar on my soul. These experiences drive me to grace. I have become more dependent on the grace of God and more grace filled in my handling of other people. Sin can either dull our senses or wake us up to God.

3. Lies of leaders
Unfortunately, I have experienced the pain of watching leaders, mentors, and teachers fall. The same sin that caught me at times has also caught them. It is hard to watch someone you deeply care about make enormous mistakes. Sadly, it happens on a regular basis. These situations can remind us of the vulnerability of us all and the need for a close walk with God.

4. Friendly fire
Many well-intentioned Christians have said some very hurtful things. When this happens, it feels like a bullet rips away a little piece of your soul. Occasionally people have given up on their faith because of the careless words of others. Incidents like these can push us to become more forgiving people. They force our hand at either anger or grace.

5. The presence of nothing
Numerous times I have been hurt because the people I know did nothing. They didn’t come to speak with me when I was hurting. They didn’t say anything negative in my situation, but they didn’t help either. They watched me drowned from the side of the pool and just walked away. Some of my greatest pains have come from the absence of love and concern. These hurts are the type that reminds me to always show my compassion. They teach me to speak words of truth and love wherever God places me. They teach me not to turn a blind eye to those who are hurting because it will just cause more pain.

My soul is scared. Some deep emotional cuts will never completely disappear. I hate that they happened, but God in his mercy has used those situations to teach me and mold me into a more Christlike person.

Our scars shape our lives. The pain of scars can make us better people or bitter, angry people. How have your hurts changed your life? How will your injuries shape you?

Some Thoughts on Being Called a Christian

I hate labels. I hate calling a group of people Boomers, Busters or Millennials. I hate labels like Republican or Democrat. I hate titles like liberal and conservative.

The reason I hate labels is that they are generally true but specifically false. I might be considered conservative on most issues, but also liberal on a few topics. I don’t align myself with all the items on the platform of any political party. My age, my location in the country, my school and even my family do not clearly define me.

I hate labels, and yet the New Testament calls the followers of Jesus “Christians.” The book of Acts states in chapter 11 verse 26 that “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” Apparently, the people who were learning the way of Jesus decided to place his title on themselves. Like a bride taking her husband’s name, those who want to learn from and follow Jesus take his name. We are now members of Christ, we are Christians.

Even though I hate this label, I accept it willingly. I want to wear the name of Christ. I want people to know my allegiance. I want to equate my life with that of Jesus in every way.

The real problem is that it lumps me together with every other person who calls themselves Christians. This issue became very apparent to me over the past week as I have read three separate articles in which people used the name Christian in a negative manner. These reports claimed Christians were mean, judgmental, and supporting ungodly behavior.

As I read these stories I could not help but think, this applies only to a few of the people who call themselves Christians. It is not true for all of us. In fact, I believe it is not true of the majority of us. Please do not paint me with the same brush as you paint those people. I am different from them even though we wear the same name.

With all of that in mind, let me say a couple of things.

1. True Christians are committed to living like Christ. The passage in the book of Acts is used at the Church in Antioch. The whole passage describes people who are coming to faith in Jesus, who are studying their Bibles, learning from the Apostles, and having their lives changed to look like Jesus. These are not people who have a general acceptance that there might be a God. These are people committed to what they believe and are living it out.

2. Just because someone calls themselves a Christian, doesn’t mean they are. If your faith amounts to attending Church a couple of times a year, you are not a Biblical Christian. Sorry. True Christians are someone trying to love God with their whole being and loving their neighbor as a result.

3. All Christians still make mistakes. Even I have said some incredibly stupid and insensitive stuff. I let sin take over my mouth for a time, and I fail to represent Christ. Unfortunately, it happens. Please extend grace to other people in the measure you would want it for yourself.

4. No two Christians are alike. Each one of us is unique. We all have different personalities, different backgrounds, different experiences and different emotions. God calls the many together to form one community. We are not the same, but we have the same God and Savior.

5. Be careful with labels. Every time you say or type the word, Christian, stop and think about how generically you are using the label. Are your words true of everyone you know or just a couple? Is it a personality issue and not a faith issue? Put yourself in their shoes. Categorical statements are often specifically false, so be careful.

I know this is not easy. It is a tension that each one of us lives with as a believer. A friend of mine said he simply stopped using the name Christian and calls us “Christ followers.” It is just another label. Changing the label is not the solution.

The goal of a believer is following Jesus until we become like him. On this journey, we need to learn to work together in spite of our differences. Being called a Christian is not a bad thing if we are all doing it correctly.

Dancing on My Own

In the Old Testament, there is a story about King David bringing the Ark of the Covenant up to Jerusalem. Actually, it is the second movement in the journey of taking the Ark to Jerusalem. The first attempt was interrupted by the death of a man named Uzzah as he reached up and touched the Ark with his bare hands (2 Samuel 6:1-8).

The second leg of the journey comes a short time later as David moves the Ark from the house of Obed-Edom to Jerusalem. As the story unfolds, there is an excellent description of David,

2 Samuel 6:14-16 David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the LORD with all his might, (15) while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouts and the sound of trumpets.
(16) As the ark of the LORD was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD, she despised him in her heart.

I love the picture of David dancing and leaping all by himself. The Ark leads the way, and the people of Israel are in the rear walking while some are playing instruments. There in the middle is King David dancing alone with all his might.

As I read the story, I have several thoughts that come to my mind.

First, “Do I worship with all my might?” I am not a dancer, but each week I attempt to sing. Do I put all my energy into my worship of the Lord? What am I withholding from God?

Second, “Am I willing to dance on my own?” I mean this metaphorically. Am I ready to put myself out there? Am I willing to do something radical for God? Am I willing to do my own thing for the greater glory of God?

Third, “Am I willing to be rejected for my actions?” The most interesting line in the story may be the statement about Michal. “She despised him in her heart.” Whenever you do either of the things above, there will be someone to criticize you. “What are you so excited about?” “You are just seeking your own glory.” “You are an embarrassment.” Criticism abounds for those who dance by people who set on the sidelines.

David, this great leader, and a deeply religious man dances before the Lord with all his might. Out there on the road, he dances all by himself in front of the people. I often wonder why no one joined in the dance. Maybe because they joined in with the singing. Maybe they were just afraid. Maybe they didn’t have the faith to step out on their own?

Perhaps the bigger question is “why don’t we dance?” Why don’t we step up and do something radical for the Lord? When are we going to give all of our energy to God in some form? Why not today?

Why It is Okay When We Feel Incompetent

Reading articles about being a Pastor make me feel like a failure. Through the years, I have attended conferences, listen to tapes and CD’s, subscribed to magazines, purchased books and read hundreds of blog posts. There is no lack of information out there on how to be a good pastor or Church leader. My problem is that every time I get more information, I realize how incompetent I am as a leader.

Some people get up at 4:00 am in the morning and keep a disciplined schedule all day. Some people have goals about how many books they read, and they consume more than 50 books a year. Some people have detailed plans of how to connect with other people and network with leaders in both the community and the Church. These guys have excellent skills, and there is no doubt that God will grow their Church.

Me, on the other hand, I like to sleep in if possible. Some days I barely make it out the door on time. Personally, I would like to read more, but can’t seem to find the time. I want to connect, but find myself hiding in my office dreading the work of connecting with people. Most days I struggle between productive labor and a total lack of competence.

Before you make comments and send me notes, know that I am completely okay with this truth about myself. When I started into ministry, it really bothered me that I felt like a second-class pastor who would never get invited to headline a big conference one day. Then one day I read a passage of scripture that changed my life. The Apostle Paul is writing about his ministry and a struggle he had with a “thorn in the flesh.” There he writes;

2 Corinthians 12:9-10 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. (10) That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (New International Version)

The Apostle Paul struggles with some issue, I am convinced it was a problem with his eyes, but that is another post. He struggles, and it left him feeling incompetent compared to other people. God then gives him a clear word, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul realized that anything he accomplished in his life would not be because of his own power, but rather the power of God.

Each day I am learning that God uses me despite my weaknesses and my shortcomings. Anything good I accomplish in my life will not because I am something special but because I worship and serve an all-powerful God. I am incompetent and yet God chooses to use me every week.

I know a large group of believers who feel just like I do. They do not feel adequately prepared or gifted to handle what life is throwing at them. If that is you, I want you to know that God has the power to take our weakness and use it for his good. Availability is more important than ability.