Closing the Book on Football

Last Saturday, my youngest son played in his last high school football game.  The loss that ended his season also brought to completion an era in my life.  My four boys have been involved in football for a total of 14 years.  All of them played in youth leagues, Pop Warner, Jr. High, and High School.  At one point, my wife and I were watching four games every week.  She and I have spent an unbelievable amount of time in the stands and on the sidelines watching the boys play every position on the field.  Our stories are many, and we have learned a couple of lessons along the way.  Today I wanted to share the most significant thing we learned.    

Youth sports should be FUN. 

In the early days, I was an obsessed father.  I pushed the boys to work hard, got angry at refs, and yelled at people, especially coaches.  When others were not meeting my expectations, I stepped up as a coach.  Then the game happened where I had a meltdown.  I screamed and yelled and let out all my frustration.  It embarrassed me, but it forced me to take a long look in the mirror.  As their father, I had to admit I was one of the people who was killing the fun of sports.  From that day on, I began to adjust my attitude and shut my mouth.  If I were honest, it took a few more years before I was completely willing just to let sports be fun. 

Don’t build your life or your child’s life around sports.  If you do, it will set both of you up for heartache and disappointment.   Scholarships are a mirage, and professional sports are for elite players.   Overpriced colleges like to offer small scholarships to get your kids to come to play so that the college receives the large tuition.  It is a business that thrives off the dreams of young athletes.  You know by the time they are in high school if they are a one in a million elite kid.  They win state championships for big schools or physical gifts that make them a freak of nature. Parents have to get their kids to understand the point of each sport is not some payout at the end but a journey of enjoyment with friends. 

Since those early days and my attitude changed, my boys have been criticized for one thing.  Usually, a coach tells me, “They don’t take it seriously enough.” Others have said, “They spend too much time having fun in practice.” Every time I hear something like that, I smile and laugh.  I know what I want my boys to remember about these days of youth football.  I want them to look back with joy at the good times they experienced, the friends they made, that one memorable play, and smile over all the fun it brought to them. 

When my son walked off the field on Saturday, neither he nor I cried because it was not the end of a dream. Instead, he came over with a smile and hugged his mother and me.  We told him we were proud of him, and we look forward to the next thing in his life.   No regrets, only happiness. 

A Time to Be Thankful

As he writes the story of his life in Ecclesiastes, Solomon says that there is a time for everything under heaven.  Here in the United States, this is the week of Thanksgiving, and tomorrow will be the time set aside for us to be genuinely thankful. 

While I believe we ultimately need to thank God for every good gift in our lives, this is also an excellent time to be thankful for what other people have done for us.  My encouragement is that over the next few days, you say these words to people, “I am thankful for the way you have blessed my life.” You can be specific, or you can leave it open-ended.  Either way, take the time to send the text, make the call, write the email, or sign the card. 

Here is the exciting twist as you show your gratitude, the recipient will be blessed through your appreciation of them.  They will be happy that you noticed their behavior and said something.  It truly is a win-win whenever you take the time to say thanks.  It is great to find a way to be a blessing to others during a year full of uncertainty.  There is no better time to be thankful than the present. 

Thankful for 2020

Is that even possible? Can someone truly be thankful for a year filled with so much turmoil, uncertainty, and restrictions? There have been ugly political battles, racial tension, and overwhelming disagreement on how to handle Covid. How can you have thanksgiving amid these days of upheaval?

Paul writes in Ephesians 5:20 “…always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (NIV 2011) Christians are people who give thanks for everything. That means even 2020 has contained reasons for us to be grateful.

I put together a shortlist of the reasons I am thankful for 2020.

  1. This year taught me the value of community. This year I have connected to people in the Church I lead at a level I have never experienced. First, I missed being with fellow believers. Then I felt frustrated by some of the decisions and conflict. Finally, I opened my heart and life to those who decided to stick together through this year. The result is that I have felt closer to people, shared more, opened up to others about my joys along with frustrations, and now I have a community who stands beside me.
  2. This year has taught me the value of technology (and its shortcomings). I, like everyone, have been blessed that the internet, social media, live streaming, and digital communication could help the Church survive this time. It also made me see the limitations and the need we all have for real human connection.
  3. This year has taught me the value of every day and hour. When the future is uncertain, you learn to appreciate today. Each worship program, football game, fellowship meal, youth group, and connection time feels like it could be the last for a while. We might have to social distance or spend time in quarantine, or even shut down any day now. This forces me to enjoy the moments the Lord is giving me. Knowing that sickness could come and be fatal at any time forces you to give thanks for every day you have with someone you love.

These were the three biggest reasons I am grateful for in 2020. This is not a complete list as I could spend time writing about personal changes and growth, the Core52 journey, the upgrades at the Church building, the people willing to continue giving, and my new friends in ministry. Even while the funny memes keep coming out about how bad the year 2020 has been, I still have dozens of reasons to be thankful. I pray that for the next few days, you will quiet the sounds of struggle in your mind and sing out a song of praise for all God has done, even in such a strange year.

My Slow, Average, Quiet Life

The Apostle Paul writes to the Church in the city of Thessalonica and gives them several instructions on what to believe and how to live in light of that belief. In chapter four, the section is entitled by the translators “Living to Please God.” In the middle of that section, he says that this type of life is filled with love for others. Then he adds a line that I find profoundly inspiring. He says, “…and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you” (1 Thessalonians 4:11 – NIV 2011).

He writes to “make it your ambition.” Some translations say “aspire,” and others say “desire.” When we think of someone who has ambition, we usually picture a person driven to achieve. They have a goal and will stop at nothing to accomplish their dreams.

The goal of a believer’s ambition is quite unlike others in one way; they desire to “live a quiet life.” I think to understand this statement, you must picture the opposite. Someone who lives a loud life is always trying to draw attention to themselves. They talk loudly, post everything on social media, speak of themselves frequently, and love the spotlight. Paul writes that a believer’s life is entirely different. They do things in private, no one really knows how they spend their time, and they usually step away from the stage to work behind the scenes.

Paul then gives us two follow up phrases to make sure we fully understand. He tells people to “mind your own business and work with your hands.” A person living a quiet life is not interested in gossip or possibly the latest social media updates. Instead of being curious about other people’s affairs, they throw themselves into their work and do the tasks only they can accomplish.

Occasionally, we are called upon to lead and use our gifts for God’s glory in front of others, but our primary ambition is to live a quiet life. I know this type of person will never become famous, win awards, or be the talk of the internet. But if our goal is to live a life that is pleasing to God and give you peace in your soul, then none of those things matter anyway. Perhaps Paul writes this because he is not so interested in us being known as having a life well-lived. If that is God’s desire for us, maybe it should be our goal as well.

Learning Through Experience

Can we agree that some things in life can only truly be learned through experience?

You can date people, read romance novels, and even do Bible studies on the topic of love, but you do not understand marriage until at least 25 years of being married to someone. If you disagree with that, then you have not been with someone that long.

You can watch other people’s kids, read books about parenting, and even talk to other parents, but you do not understand being a parent until you have children. Even then, it takes a good 21 years to get any handle on what you are doing.

My dad spoke about knowledge in two ways. There was book learning. He often included the word “fancy,” as in “that fancy book learning.” The other type was what he called “street knowledge.” Those are life lessons you gather from having experiences, both good and bad, that make you wise in a practical way.

I believe that faith is really only understood through experience. You can read your Bible, books about religion, and even attend a Church, but you will not know faith until you have tried to do it. Nothing can compare to risking it all on God and then seeing him show up with ten seconds left on the game clock. No book can tell you what it feels like to be at the end of your rope, and God sends a sweet messenger of grace to speak light and life into your soul. I cannot put into words the emotions of watching someone positively rebuild their life because of something you taught them. Some things defy explanation and are only obtained through street knowledge.

This Sunday, I will step to the front of the Church to preach again. The words are full of hope, life, and grace, and I pray that people will listen. My biggest hope is that people will take those words and attempt to do them throughout the week. Information is useful, but personal experience is a much better teacher. If you want to know what it means to be a Christian, plan on coming Sunday, but you will not completely understand what I am saying until you do it next week.

The Problem With the Search Button

Google is the granddaddy of search buttons, but there are many others.  My computer has a little bar in the lower-left corner that reads, “Search for anything.” The Bible software program that I use has a place to search a word in the scriptures or topics found in books explaining the Bible.  Every piece of software or app has a search button to help us.

There is a couple of problem with this feature.  First, it assumes you know what you are looking for. It is possible that the solution to our issues are not what we think.  Second, the only answers it can give are those that are popular.  It points you toward things that everyone else uses.  Is it possible that the answer to your struggles is not popular or is seldom used? 

This morning I spent some time searching the internet for the answers to substantial life issues.  I looked at things like meaning in life, filling an empty soul, and overcoming our past.  The search leads me to university studies, psychology web sites, life coaches, and YouTube videos produced by various gurus.  There were almost no links to anything religious, although a Buddhist website popped up a few times. 

Unfortunately, most people do not truly know what they need, and they are looking in all the wrong places.  This leads us to a confusing world that is cynical about Jesus because nothing else has worked.

I often think that the world will not have much interest in following Jesus until they see how his followers’ lives are decisively different from the people around them.  What the search button lacks is the hope that can be seen at moments of overwhelming loss.  It cannot capture the joy of a burden finally removed from a soul and placed at the foot of the cross.  It misses the love expressed when a person humbles themselves and helps someone without the expectation of repayment.  The search button cannot capture what Jesus brings into the world through you.  I think that is why Peter writes to believers and tells them always to have an answer when someone asks about how their life is different from the world.  He knows that the best response to a searching heart and mind is a life well lived for Jesus.         

Two Types of Ministry

There was always this idea inside of me that saw itself materialize in 2020. With the Covid shutdowns and quarantines, it has become clear to me that there are two basic types of ministries within the body of Christ.

The first is Relational Ministry. This is a style of ministry that is based on interaction with people. It goes into homes, visits hospitals, shares coffee and is demonstrated in a hundred other ways through person to person contact.

The other is Teaching Ministry. This type is focused on people learning what the Bible says and how it applies to our lives. The Bible is the biggest priority, and it is taught in sermons, Sunday schools, small groups, and every time people gather.

Both of these ministries are vital to the life of a Church. Believers need to know the right things to believe in, but they also need to be connected to other believers in meaningful ways. And that is the point where 2020 has clarified this issue. Throughout this year, most of the forms of relational ministry have been shut down, so leaders focused on the Church’s teaching ministry. They went online with sermons, devotions, and Bible studies.

The problem is that people are missing a vital part of their walk with Jesus. The relationships are strained, distant, or nonexistent at this point. Somehow the community of believers needs to help people connect while maintaining safety standards. I am not sure I have an answer for this, but I see the lack of genuine human relationships having an impact that might far outweigh Covid.

God created us as relational beings. It was not good for the man to be alone in the garden of Eden, and it is still not right in our digital garden of virtual reality. We need a connection to other humans to meet the needs of our souls. God did not just save us through Jesus; he put us into a community of people who were also saved by Jesus.

I desperately want you to know your Bible. This is a great time to grow through the teaching ministry of the Church. A few minutes of searching will make some of the most outstanding teachings in history available to you. But do not ignore the other side of ministry. Find a way to bring meaningful human interaction into your life. Being truly alone is a type of sickness for which we will need to find a cure also.

Your Personal Journey with God

You and I are not perfect.  There is no arguing against that single truth.  The question is, “Are you better than you once were?” 

One goal for each of us to have on our journey with God is to be a better Christian than we were just a year ago.  There needs to be a continual improvement in our faith.  We need to be growing spiritually every year, even if it has to be measured in inches and not miles. 

The temptation is to judge ourselves against others.  When we do this, we tend to think, “I am not perfect, but I am better than them.” That type of thinking is never a fair assessment.  They are not in the same place as you in their spiritual journey.  You may be a long-time believer, and they may be new to the faith.  The only way to assess ourselves accurately is by looking back on our journey to see any progress we have made.

I am not perfect, but you have no idea how far I have come in my faith.  I am a hundred miles from where my life once was located.  Inch by inch and mile by mile, I have slowly transitioned myself into a new and better person.  While I am still a long way from where I want to be, I am happy with my progress.

How is your progress going?  If you went back and looked at yourself one year ago, what has changed about you?  What areas have you molded, so they look more like Jesus? I don’t care if you are still a good person compared to others. God desires people who take their personal journey with him seriously each day and every year, one decision at a time.   

Serving the Lord, Together

I stood at the back of the room and let my gaze move slowly over the group of people. It was a Saturday night, and at least a dozen people had come to clean the Church building, move chairs, and reset everything for Sunday morning.

What caught my attention was not that these people were blessing our Church community, although that was certainly what they were doing. I was not caught up in how they were using their gifts and talents for the Lord, while that is what they were also doing. No, what caught my eyes and mind that night was that all the people helping were in little groups ranging from two to four people and talking while they worked.

Ministry and serving the Lord through the local Church is a blessing in so many ways. It touches the lives of other people for Jesus, and it helps you to use your gifts. One of the most significant benefits I have seen is that it connects an individual to the other people who serve. The group becomes like a band of brothers or an extended family with a common mission. People who help, talk to one another, meet new people, and they experience the joy of the bond we have in serving Christ together. They become part of team Jesus and have a connection with the rest of the teammates.

People who sit in chairs on Sunday morning come and go quite quickly. When someone steps up to serve, they cement their faith and the relationships that will last a lifetime. I saw it clearly that night, and I hope that one day you get to experience the joy those people had as they worked together for the glory of the Lord.

Giving Help and Accepting Help

Preachers like me, repeatedly speak on the topic of giving. We are always encouraging people to be more generous with their resources. Recently it dawned on me that I have never talked or written about receiving resources. This came clear when I told a person where they could receive some help, and they were not willing to take it because they were “going to make it on their own.” Then it hit me that we need to let people know it is okay to accept help too.

Jesus is our model in everything, and he not only taught about giving, but he also accepted the help of others. Think about it; he received housing as he had no home. He took meals from other people. His ministry welcomed money to support the work. People like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus supported his mission in all these ways. And Jesus gladly accepted it.

The Apostle Paul worked as a tentmaker and often did not need others’ help, but sometimes he did. He accepted financial assistance, food, and shelter as he traveled about the country preaching. Paul was not always willing to welcome others’ generosity when he felt there were strings attached, but most of the time, he was ready to take whatever people gave him.

For someone to be generous, someone else must allow them to share their resources.

Throughout my ministry, I have seen two extremes. First, there are a group of people who are always asking for a handout. They waste more than they are given. This group must have accountability and financial planning in their life. Second, there are a group of people who need help but will not accept it. Their pride and ego stand in the way of them ever getting any handout or gift. Unfortunately, one side is as wrong as the other.

When life gets tough and you struggle to make ends meet, it is okay to ask for help. You allow others to be generous, and both of you will be blessed. You are not somehow more righteous for rejecting the aid of others. You are allowing the Church to be the community God created it to be.