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The Good Old Days

I found this picture of my grandmother and my grandfather.  I guess this is what they call “The Good Old Days.” IMAG0008 (4)

I got to see an old friend the other day.  I sure miss him since he moved away.  I’m not a good long distance friend.  I have a hard enough time with the relationships right in front of me.  Even with Facebook, email, texting, and more means of communication than we have ever had before I simply stink at it.  Back to my friend.

My friend and I have the type of relationship that some think  edgy.  The Bible talks about a good friend being one that is like “iron sharpening iron.”  That’s us, and I love it.  He must also because he keeps coming back for more.  It takes time to have a friend that sharpens us.  It also takes God’s grace to have a friend willing to speak honestly and truthfully (they are different words) and sometimes make us face some things we don’t like.  Best yet, even if we disagree on anything, we can still love each other.  

Often when we have these type of conversations, God uses him hours later as I think about his loving care for me.  It is not uncommon for me to call him back or email him and tell him how God used him in my life to bring an idol of my heart to light.  We are often the last one to see those idols hiding in the crevices of our soul.  We need a friend like Jonathan was with, eventually, King David in the Old Testament.  It saddens me that so many people don’t have these types of relationships.  

This time he asked me if I have read anything lately that challenged me.  He knows that I can be, at times, an avid reader.  Unfortunately, since November, that has not been the case.  I hung my head and said it seems that I’m a little dry these days in the books read category.  Being a smart guy full of common sense, he challenged me to go back and re-read the books that I claim have molded me in ministry.  

At first I was thinking it was a waste of time.  Rereading books is like watching a movie over again.  It can be quite boring.  Then he asked the magical question that penetrated my inner being, “Can you remember everything you have read?”  I wanted to answer, “Yes!”  I would be declared a liar at that moment.  So, I humbly lowered my head and told him, “No, of course I can’t remember everything I have read.”  

A few hours later (remember, I often am moved by God hours later) I decided to read one of the faith-molding books a month for the rest of 2020.  I got 11 months left this year.  If you are looking to read something that will grow you consider reading with me.  It looks like I will be reading:

February      Dangerous Wonder.    Mike Yaconelli

March.    The Ragamuffin Gospel.    Brennan Manning

April.    Blue Like Jazz.    Donald Miller

May.     Same Kind of Different As Me   Ron Hall and Denver Moore

June.    Prodigal God.    Timothy Keller

July.    Extravagant Grace.    Barbara Duguid

August.    Idols of The Heart.    Elyse Fitzpatrick

September.    Scandalous Freedom.    Steve Brown

October     Broken-Down House.    Paul Tripp

November.     Not The Way It’s Supposed To Be   Cornelius Plantings Jr.

DecemberThe Jesus I Never KnewPhilip Yancey

The last book to read was a hard choice.  There are a few honorable mentions for sure.  I can read anything by Steve Brown and Timothy Keller as well as Paul Tripp.  These books listed above have taken a young and crazy man and molded me in a way that only God could.  

I was raised in a very legalistic environment.  Grace was something we said at meals and that was about as far as it went.  The Christian life wasn’t a life we wanted to live, it was a life that was full of demands and expectations.  I didn’t necessarily love God at that point. I probably feared him more than anything, like I feared my dad’s discipline.  Do your best to make God happy and watch out when you don’t.  When you fall, fake it.  That was my limited view of God full of false theology and practice.  

That was till I started to be schooled in His grace.  In John 1, the Apostle John tells us that he has seen the “glory of the only Son….full of grace and truth.”  Jesus’ best friend while here on earth says he saw him as God, and what he saw was the nature of his grace.  That is what these men and women of God have taught me.  They taught me the nature of the Son of God who welcomes sinners, seeks us when we are wandering, forgets our sins, and promises never to leave us.  Enjoy the journey with me. 

Sitting in a meeting can be really boring.  I love it when a leader says, “I don’t want to have meetings for the sake of having a meeting.”  Even with that kind of attitude, there are way too many meetings in my world.  One would think with all the technology we could figure out a way to have more meetings via the “cloud.”  Communication is important.  Surely we can find better ways to use our time.  

Last week I was in a meeting.  Again.  I guess sometimes there are a few that are necessary.  We were discussing the Stephen Ministry at the church.  It is a group of people who went through 50 hours of training to become lay ministers.  They walk with people through the struggles of life.  They don’t fix their problems.  They walk with others waiting and looking for the Lord to do his mighty work.  

I mentioned the Stephen Ministers have a minimum of 50 hours of education.  Many have more as the training continues beyond the initial classes.  I like to remind them they receive more training than many ordained ministers.  If an ordained minister graduated from seminary, he may have one class on pastoral care.  That makes these valiant volunteers very prepared to walk with people through the valley of death.  

At our meeting, I asked them what they have learned in their first year.  As they were sharing, one brought up a Henry David Thoreau quote when she said, “I’m now aware of the many people walking in quiet desperation.”  She has crossed the line between Christian life and ministry.  I could have jumped up, and given her the biggest hug at that moment.  

As she spoke this truth I quickly looked around the room. Heads were nodding in affirmation.  There was not one single person acting offended or confused.  As the discussion continued, many affirmed the observation.  So many put on their smiles and act like they are good-to-go while they carry the burdens of this life.  

Recently, I was at a very traumatic scene as a police department chaplain.  One of the family members asked me to take a walk with him.  The elderly gentleman was reflective as we walked a bit.  He suddenly turned to me and said, “Don’t let anyone tell you this life is easy.  It’s hard.  It’s full of trouble.”  I was not going to argue with him.  

No wonder addictions continue to rise.  No wonder we try to achieve financial success.  If we aren’t looking for heaven, we’ve got to try and make our lives a little piece of heaven on earth.  From what this troubled grandfather was saying to me, it is a waste of time. We might be able to numb out a little bit, but that numb goes away and often leaves us with more troubles and issues than when we started.  Only problem is we like to keep it to ourselves.  The fear of nobody caring scares us more than the cause of our desperation.  

Some, at this point, would call me too serious or negative.  It’s not like I’m trying to paint a horrid picture, but,Jesus doesn’t necessarily make a rose garden out of a manure pile.  All through the Bible, we see the human condition of believers and non-believers in Christ.  It is ugly.  

I love it when the Apostle Peter called our faith in Jesus Christ “hope.”  Sometimes we think Jesus is supposed to make life on earth heavenly.  Not so.  Our eternal rest with Jesus is our hope.  Our hope is that all he said is true.  He doesn’t have to make this world heaven, it says in Ephesians we are already seated with him in heaven.  How is this possible you ask?  Christ made it possible that God is with us all the time by the work of the Holy Spirit.  God with us is heaven.  

Since we have God with us 24/7 and heaven is our guarantee, our call is to be real.  Be real with the fallenness of man, redeemed and unredeemed.  Be real with the only hope man has.  His name is Jesus.  All others call for man to scratch and claw his way to finding God’s favor.  Our favor is found in the already finished work of Christ.  All he says to do is believe.  

There will be valleys of the shadow of death.  Sin remains.  The heart is still enslaved at times by the old nature.  Dreams will be busted.  Expectations will cause failure.  Then suddenly my favorite word in the Bible happens.  That word is “but.”  But God moves.  But God redeems.  But God reveals our hope.  

Fear the depravity wrapped around us?  Constantly in the Bible we read, “Fear not.”  Act like this is heaven?  No, however “Be wise as serpents,” Jesus said.  I like the verse in I Chronicles 12 as David was looking at his valiant soldiers.  It says there was the tribe of Issachar.  It reads, “men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.”  We are called to be men and women of Jesus who understand this world and know what to do.  Be real.  Be ready.  Walk with each other in our not-so-quiet desperation, but keep your heads up.  “But Jesus” is coming.  This is our hope. 

How bored was I?  This past Sunday afternoon I watched 4 hours of “Searching for Big Foot.”  It amazed me how silly the whole thing was.  Each show led the viewers to believe there was a possible sighting which might include a thermal image, a very hard to discern picture, a smell, and, of course, the call of the Sasquatch.  After they rope you in, the amazing thing is not a single “sighting” can be verified, and there is no evidence of the first one anyway.  This goes on show after show, and I watched it all.  I need a life.

A friend of mine called today asking me to pray for him.  He had a really bad case of the “Who Cares?”  I told him I would pray, but it was a prayer of the blind leading the blind.  We shared stories.  Yup!  We needed God to ignite us for sure.  Getting back into a routine after a very eventful holiday season is a journey into the mediocre zone.  I don’t plan on retiring.  It seems too boring.  

I’ve noticed the “vanilla zone” in my articles lately.  A friend who reads them religiously felt I wrote a good one two weeks ago.  My response was, “You are the only one.”  I have gotten a lot of feedback from these articles, especially on my blog.  However, the last 4 weeks have been quiet.  It’s not the readers.  It’s the author.  Honestly, I think they have been pretty bad.  I hope Bluffton Today doesn’t show me the door.

A few years ago the same friend wanted me to publish a book with the top 100 articles.  I’ve been writing for about 9 years now.  52 weeks times 9 years equals 468 articles.  He wanted to go through them and pick out the best ones.  It would have been titled “Articles of the Faith.”  It’s kind of funny.  The articles I thought were really good got a poor to mediocre response.  The ones I thought should have ended up in the trash  had many very positive comments.  Goes to show you, what is good to one person isn’t to the other.

I remember two of my favorites.  My very first article stands out to me.  I wrote about how a pastor should spend about 15 hours a week on his sermon if he wants to give a decent one.  I added that 8 of those hours should be spent at the local bar talking to people.  Then the sermon will take on relevance.  

The other one was when I wrote about asking Brian Dannelly, author and director of the movie “Saved,” to forgive me.  He was a student in a Christian high school I taught at.  I asked him to forgive me for not being a good example of the grace and love of Jesus Christ at the time.  Brian actually got a hold of me and forgave me and was very gracious.  I appreciated his response.   

It’s hard to come up with something new every week.  I don’t like to write like I just read a theology book.  If Jesus is who he claimed he is ,our relationship should be experienced.  For me to know God is to experience God.  All the time.  So, that is what I try to write about, experiencing God on a day-to-day basis.  Or at least experiencing him week to week.  So, how does all this relate to experiencing God?

Getting into writing ruts is no different then falling into spiritual ruts in our everyday lives.  We do tend to be pretty programatic.  We do about the same thing everyday.  I don’t know how assembly-line workers do it.  They deserve a standing ovation.  It would drive me personally nuts.  Then again, our lives are very much like an assembly line.

Experiencing God on a regular basis is not so much looking for the spectacular.  It’s finding God in the details.  If I kept track, I could probably graph that my life in “vanilla” corresponds with my walk with Jesus.  Boy, it is easy to put that in a rut.  I can read the Bible and pray everyday and yet live not looking for Him.  That is a receipt for boredom.  However, when I read the Bible and see Him at work and then pray expecting Him to show up, He does!  He does in conversations with others.  He does in nature.  He does in songs that don’t even have to be labeled “Christian.”  He does when my kids and grandkids show up.  He does when I read a book.  Any book.  

He shows up because he is alive and well.  The Word of God is the story about man and God and guess what?  It’s not about man showing up.  It’s about God showing up, and, boy, did he in grand fashion when the Son of God was born into our world.  If God is experienced in the Bible, I’m sure he didn’t go to sleep for the next 2,000 years.  Looking for Him is the key.  I love the phrase in the movie “Young Frankenstein” when Oscar Wilder declares “It’s alive.”  Google it.  He is ecstatic that Frankenstein lives.  That’s how I want to live.  Ecstatic!  Jesus was dead.  But, he lives!  

The Super Bowl is here!  I used to think two teams played in the game.  After asking everyone I meet who they are going to root for, I found out it’s actually three.  This year it’s the Kansas City Chiefs, the San Francisco 49ers ,and the I Don’t Cares.  From what I can tell, the I Don’t Cares have an incredible fan base.   I think they might be going against the I Watch the Commercials.  Their fans don’t get passionate, but they are pretty consistent.

I admit, being a Cowboys fan, it’s hard to get excited this year.  So far, every team I have rooted for in the playoffs has lost. The Boys didn’t even make the playoffs.  The first week I went with the Saints and the Ravens.  The next week it was the Packers who fell.  You might want to avoid the Chiefs this week since that is who I’m going with.  After the Chiefs, I’m going with the I Watch the Commercials team.  

A lot of conversations this week have surrounded my choice for the Super Bowl.  Next week, I’m sure it will pick up even more.  After the Super Bowl, I think the impeachment proceedings rank #2 on the meter.  I can end that conversation real quick.  I have no idea what’s going on.  In 3rd place, my guess is work related questions to be answered.  After that, who cares?

They say women use more words in a day than men.  I’m not so sure about that one.  Actually, depending on your profession men and women tend to speak around the same amount of words a day.  We do talk a lot.  Linked In, The Learning Blog, says we use at least 7,000 words a day.  Another resource says we speak up to 16,000 words a day.  Let’s get that into useable terms.  Let’s say we are asleep for 8 hours a day and eating and other personal chores take another hour.  That means we are communicating via our mouth 15 hours a day.  With that in play we speak 467 to 1,066 words an hour.  Obviously, some speak more and some speak less.  

Anyway, talking is an important means of communication.  I wonder what the count would be if we included texting and emailing.  If you Google it, like I just did, you will find out that the average Joe or Jane sends and receives on the average 94 texts a day.  No wonder we are getting less done in a day than we used to.  When it comes to emailing, one resource said we send and receive close to 130 emails a day.  We send 40 and get 90.  Combine texts and emails and we are communicating another 224 times a day using words.  By the way, that’s 14.9 digital communications an hour per day.  

No wonder we are having a problem with silence.  No wonder God says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”  More and more people have a voice in our lives than ever before.  I wonder what GenAlpha, that’s the next generation being born these days, will be like since they will be the first generation with a means of communication in their hands basically from birth to death.  I just wonder what voice will dominate their lives?

 I’m not so sure this is going in a good direction.  After taking a couple of moments looking at the statistics, I’m amazed and yet not surprised when an important question is asked and people respond, “I don’t know.”  I used to say, “You are an adult, you know; you don’t want to face the answer.”  I’ve stopped that one.  With so many voices running our lives, I actually think we don’t know anymore.  It’s plumb too noisy.

Kenny Chesney, country singer, sang a song in 2016 titled “Noise.” The chorus summed it up.  “Yeah ,we scream; yeah, we shout til we don’t have a voice in the streets, in the crowds; it ain’t nothing but noise droning out all the dreams of this Tennessee boy. Just tryna be heard in all this noise.”

As we read the gospels, we find a lot of commotion around Jesus.  It’s pretty noisy if you ask me.  Here he is teaching the disciples, fighting off the religious leaders with a constant file of those in need of his healing touch.  They say we only have about 10% or less of Jesus’ words.  Can you imagine the Bible if we had just double that?  We would need a forklift to carry it to church on Sunday.  I forgot; few carry it to church anymore.  

Here Jesus is with all the noise around him.  I was reading in Matthew, and twice he ended up feeding the crowds.  One was over 5,000 people and the other was over 7,000.  That’s a lot of people.  That’s a lot of noise.

What did Jesus do?  He got away from it.  Why did he get away and go on a walk?  To commune with the Father.  He had a purposeful retreat.  It wasn’t a vacation.  It was a means to communicate with the Father.  I know it is not uncommon to have our days filled with noise from about 6 a.m. till our head hits the pillow.  With I-devices we can have more noise and nobody else gets to hear it long into the night.  Maybe more than ever we need to purpose some alone time.  Not so much to let our ears rest.  A time away to let our hearts be reset by the words of the living God who we hope and pray never goes silent.  If he does, duck! 

The dad looked to me with eyes full of tears.  He was looking for someone to rescue him from his grief.  His daughter wasn’t coming home.  She was another victim of the opioid epidemic sweeping though our country city by city, town by town, community by community, and house by house.  This was not a conversation about the drug world.  This was a time to mourn regardless of the circumstances.  

As we talked, the conversation moved to his daughters inability to be honest.  She was not honest with her disdain for her mom.  She was not honest with her parents divorce, her anxiety, her lack of interest in education and her boyfriend.  Yes, she talked with her dad but honesty, that is a different story.  I know many are thinking, “addicts can’t be honest.”  It’s a circular hell.  The addiction feeds the dishonesty and the dishonesty keeps the addict ensnared.  

I asked the dad, “How are you with honesty?”  The tears came running down his cheeks.  He explained as a man he had no place to be honest.  He himself has attended recovery meetings.   As he explained, as long as nobody really knows you, you don’t have to be honest.  

Truth and honesty are two different creatures.  One can speak truthfully and never be honest.  As this devastated dad explained, “I taught her well.”  

This was the third discussion about the simple word, “honesty” I had in one day.  In all three, men and women alike, each was perplexed with the ability to be honest in our culture.  Each feared rejection and even being ostracized.  What made matters worse?  Each was a member of a local church.  They felt their church would do the same thing.  Reject.  Ostracize.  I was not amazed one little bit.  It seems to be a worse problem for men than women. 

Years ago at a Celebrate Recovery meeting a young man walked in  the door.  As we broke into the small meetings he came to the one I was leading.  In his once and only once attendance he sat in the meeting and dominated it by quoting from memory the Big Book.  He quoted line after line.  It was pretty amazing.  He had us spellbound for a few minutes.  That was until someone in the group asked him what one of his quotes meant to him personally.  He could not answer.  Looking back at that moment I realized he thought memorizing the book would rescue him but since he could not look at himself honestly his memorization was a waste of time.  He could not be honest.  He never came back.   

A friend of mine spent about a year and a half in prison a few years ago.  He was in the drug rehabilitation unit.  After he came out, he talked a lot about his recovery program.  He remembered one thing very clearly and preaches it to this day.  He will boldly remind everyone who wants to talk about it, “Honesty is the foundation of change.”  One will not change if they cannot be honest.  One cannot be honest if he does not want change.  I sound like Yoda now!  However, it’s true.

I think the girl introduced above didn’t really want to change.  Change scares us.  It’s painful.  It takes us way out of our comfort zone.  It was described to me in a picture of a pig in the mud.  We are like the pig in the mud.  We will bathe in the mud because we know it and we can control it.  Clean us off and we won’t know how to act.  So, back to the mud we go.  That is a bit simplistic but true.  

Those who change usually have to get to the point where if they don’t life is going to go big time out of our control.  They will have to be honest.   Be honest or lose control and possibly if not probably lose your life.

We like to think honesty is a problem with the addicts of our world.  It’s not.  It is a problem amongst every sector of our society including those who believe in Christ.  If anyone should understand sin and the issues that surround it, it should be the follower of Christ.  So why do the three people I talked to not want to be honest in their church relationships?  Be honest.  It’s hard since who we are talking about is ourselves.  

Recently a man revealed his deep issues to another man I knew.  I was grinning from ear to ear.  The one man was honest about his issues.  The other man did not condemn or reject him.  They actually walked together for a few minutes.  Grace won.   

Everyone needs change somewhere in their life.  None of us are exempt from the deteriorating effects of living in a fallen world.  The only way to begin the journey is to be honest.  Be honest with yourself.  Be honest with your God.  Be honest with a trusted friend.  Once this level of grace ignites the love Jesus talks about soured on by compassion and mercy then maybe, just maybe young men and women might be able to come to a safe house (church) to be honest with their life and the grave and their addictions won’t be able to claim them.  One of Jesus’ last instructions was “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.  By this all people will now that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.” 

I have not run a marathon.  I haven’t even run a half marathon.  There have been no 5k’s either.  It’s been over a year since I’ve done any hiking.  While I love kayaking, my kidney issues eliminated that for most of last year.  Yes, I walk the dog twice a day and put in about 3 to 4 miles a day, but that is about it.  I go to bed early and get decent sleep.  

I’m tired. 

Some people worry I do too much.  Funny.  I think I do less than I ever have before.  Sometimes it’s not easy to put together three lessons a week, write this column, and perform my normal chaplain duties with the police department.  But, it’s not like I’m on overload.  Teaching double studies on Wednesday can strain the energy reserves, but it’s not all that bad.  Yes, Saturday night service and then again on Sunday morning is my most tiring venture, but ,then again, it’s not like I’m working a construction or roofing job.  

I’m just tired.  

Maybe I’m getting older and I’m starting to slow down.  The right knee is a little bit of a problem, and I’m sure there is some arthritis hanging around.  My family has been plagued with the big A through the generations.  I limp sometimes, but, as the doctor told me a few months ago, other than carrying a few extra pounds, I’m in good health.  

I’m tired in my brain.

I’m tired of death.  I actually prayed that this past Sunday during our prayer time in church.  I was honest with God.  I heard an affirming mumbling in the crowd.  It’s been one of those seasons.  Today I got word that a friend’s son died from an accidental overdose yesterday.  That will make the 18th person I have been associated with in some way who has died since three days before Thanksgiving.  That is 18 in 45 days.  I have had to face death once every 2 and a half days, and I’m sick and tired of it.  

Most of the people who have gone before us have been believers in Jesus Christ.  Yes, there is a great hope associated with people of the faith.  But, it still stings.  Jesus understood that sting.  In the beginning of his ministry he blessed those who mourn.  He connected with all of us in the loss of those we love.  Jesus understands and affirms our humanity and its relative limitations.  Later on, he wept at the death of Lazarus.  We don’t know why he wept, but his emotions came pouring out of him.  If Christ can weep so can I, and so can you.  

Tears display great love.  We don’t cry over those we don’t love (most of the time).  A friend of mine recently suffered the loss of his wife who battled cancer for years.  Even having time to prepare he said, “I don’t know where all the tears come from.”  I do!  They come from the heart.  

I’m tired of crying.

I got shocked yesterday.  I was looking at the obituaries from my mother’s funeral home and a local one as well.  I was shocked at the amount of young people who are dying in our communities.  I expected the old ones like me.  There were more than I expected in their 30’s and early 40’s.  Death has no respect of age or position.  

I’m tired of losing my friends and family.

A friend contacted me when my mom died.  He put it the best.  He said, “John, you know all the platitudes, and you can quote all the right verses.  However, death still sucks.”  I could have kissed him right there.  It does.  It’s the result of the curse, and the curse is Genesis 3 comes from sin.  I know all the facts.  It doesn’t make it any better.

There is only one answer.  Maybe I have crossed a line in my life where I will start to stare at the obituaries, looking for friends from long ago like my dad did.  Or maybe, I’m more aware than ever that there is an answer.  The only answer for the plague of death is for Jesus to return and redeem this world as he has said in the book of Revelation.  I used to think only the crazy people said things like, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”  Now I see that they aren’t crazy.  They are the realists.  

Come Lord Jesus.  I’m tired.  

Brooks Robinson dove to his right across the third base line.  He stood quickly and threw the batter out at first base.  He might not have the best bat in the history of third basemen, but his glove did more than any other I know.  He did get the hit the team needed at the right time.  I grew up wanting to emulate Brooks Robinson come every spring.  He was not only a great third baseman, he was a nice guy as well.  

When fall came, it was Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry in my backyard.  Johnny Unitas was the great quarterback for the then Baltimore Colts.  He was great as well.  Raymond Berry was his wide receiver who wasn’t the fastest man in the world, but he sure could catch the ball.  I met Johnny Unitas before his death.  He was a nice guy as well.  In our backyard games, I tried to throw the ball like Johnny Unitas ,but it wasn’t going to happen.  But catch the ball I come by my middle name honestly.  My parents being avid Colt fans named me John Unitas Raymond Berry Ring.  Only by the grace of God and my mother’s huge handwriting it was shortened to John Raymond.   

These were my heroes.  No one ever worried about their behavior.  They gave their best on the field and were well worth naming your kids after.  My kids grew up with Cal Ripken, another Baltimore boy who gave his best and was a nice guy.  I didn’t think about naming my son Cal only because he was born on my birthday.  I do think there were plenty of others with that name running the streets of old B’more.  

All four of the men mentioned above are in the Hall of Fame.  They deserved it.  

There was a day I wanted to be a baseball player.  I knew I was never going to be able to play football.  My body wouldn’t take it.  But baseball, that was a different story.  I had soft hands, knew how to pitch and understood the game.  I wanted to be at bat with 2 outs in the ninth inning, and the bases loaded with a 3 – 2 count, game seven of the World Series.  I dreamed of it.  Just like Brooks Robinson, I might not have the best bat, but, on this one, it was going over the fence.  

My son wanted to be a pro golfer.  He was pretty good.  At 6 foot 3 inches tall he could hit the ball a ton.  His short game was better than worthy.  He could putt with anybody.  As the number one golfer on the golf team, he usually won.  If things aligned well, there was the possibility.  Honestly, I’m glad it didn’t happen, and I’m glad I was not blessed with the physical ability to do so as well.  

Here I sit watching the first round of the NFL playoffs.  These guys are talented for sure.  There are plenty of decent guys on the field, I’m sure.  It’s not the players of the game that cause my fear.  It’s not the game or the state of the game that is the problem.  It’s the critical world in which we live. If a player has one bad game or one bad play they are branded.  

Now I am not a New England Patriot fan.  However, Tom Brady has had a tremendous career.  They lost yesterday.  He’s playing into his 40’s, winning all along the way and now the critics get their chance to chastise him.  They lost.  He threw an interception.  One bad play, for some reason in our world, wipes out all the good ones.  

Miss a putt, drop a pass, strike out or throw a wild pitch, and suddenly it opens the gates to critical analysis that is unending.  I don’t know how these guys handle the pressure.  I’m not sure some do.  Last time I checked, they are human.  Give Tom Brady a break.  Give ‘em all a break.  

I’m so glad faith in Jesus Christ is not dependent upon my performance.  At least I hope we and your church understand that.  Our hope is not a works-based, performance-driven hope.  The Apostle Paul told us, “By grace we are saved, through faith, not by works…”. We don’t have to live to make Jesus smile.  We live for Christ because he has us covered.  His blood was enough.  Yes, we have our warts, wrinkles, scars and sin.  Yes, we are to live worthy of the gospel (Philippians 1:27).  But in the end of the day, if we miss a pass, strike out on three pitches, drop the ball like Bill Buckner (see 1986 World Series) or fumble on the one yard line of life, I’m loved.  That makes Jesus smile.  

Here we go!  Another decade is behind us and on to 2020 we go.  Ready or not!  If anyone has been reading this column for the past few years (amazing), you know I am not one for New Year’s Resolutions.  Statistics support my stand.  I will not go all out explaining my reluctance to put one iota of credence behind such resolutions.  I don’t want to bore you.  For the few that by this time next year can look back and credit your resolve, congratulations.  You are the less than 25% that made it.  For the other 75% plus…we have to find another way.

Most New Year’s Resolutions are trying to eliminate a negative aspect of our lives.  For many it’s a weight issue or a health problem.  I will admit, this year I ate more than I should have on Christmas Day.  My family went all out to fatten me up.  Like I need help?  

Others resolve to mend a relationship, get a new job, or make a change in their lives to improve their situation.  Often the midnight vow is forced upon the unsuspecting and the suspecting by those around him or her. Good intentions are not called into question.  Resolve.  That’s a different subject.

The biggest problem is most of our issues define who we are.  I have wrestled with my weight since I became an adult.  It has stabilized in the last 15 years, but it is still a struggle.  At one point, I went to the doctor and asked him for some medication to take the pounds off.  He let me in on a secret that most don’t want to hear.  He began to ask me the body shapes of my living relatives.  After a few minutes, we figured out I am the skinniest of them all.  Mom, Dad, 2 sisters and 1 brother have or had bigger weight issues than I do.  He looked me in the eye and said, “I hate to inform you, but most weight issues are hereditary in nature.”  What?  He went on, “You can diet, exercise, and get the pounds off however, the day you stop you will return to your current weight if not more.”  I knew it all along.  It’s in the genes and not the Levi type.  It’s who we are.  

Yes, we can exercise great self-control.  Yes, we can put the issues high on our priority list on a daily basis.  Yes, we can get some help, counseling, therapy and more.  However, in the end of the day, we might change the outside, but the identity still lingers within us.

I have high respect for the alcoholic who goes to weekly meetings on a continual basis.  A friend of mine has been sober and attending AA meetings for over 30 years.  Each day is still a victory of great worth to him.  Ask him why he still goes to meetings and I know what you will hear.  “I have to,” will be the reply.  Why?  It’s who he is.  You might not see it.  He knows.  He knows like we all know.  We don’t tell anybody.  

So how does a person change?  Some would say a traumatic event has to happen to wake an individual up.  Others would say, “You have to hit bottom.”  A nihilist might say, “We can’t so don’t try.”  There is a good part of me that agrees with the nihilist.  I’ve been counseling people for over 17 years now.  I have seen over 1,000 people in that time.  I’ve heard story after story.  I’m not sure very many if any actually change.  I feel they adapt.  Doesn’t sound very hopeful, does it?  

For me, that is where Jesus comes in.  I have no faith in man to make himself better no matter what the humanists say.  Something or someone has to change us.  The Apostle Paul wrote that “we are a new creature, old things are passed away, all has become new.”  In Luke 6, the good doctor wrote that Jesus said, “no good tree bears bad fruit and no bad tree bears good fruit.”  So what makes the difference?

Jesus went on to say it was a heart issue.  Our inside determines what goes on outside.  Jesus came to save his people from their sin.  Our sin is the net result of our active hearts.  Most think that when Jesus saves us from our sin it makes us good people.  Well, not quite.  The old man still wars with the new heart.  Often the old man wins.  One of the reasons he wins is we think being a good moral person is the goal.  Not so.

Jesus, in John 17, defined a changed person.  He did not say that person was a law keeper.  He did not say that person gets it all right.  He said we will be known by our love.  He went on to define that love as being between believer to believer.  It was to be so amazing people would stop and pay attention.  The church was to be a place where we lay down our lives for one another not a place where we sing some songs, pray a few prayers and listen to the preacher for 20 minutes.  It was to be a place where we don’t run from our issues but to them.  Jesus talked more about grace and love than he did about the law.  Why?  He knew who we are and knew we couldn’t go it alone.  Yes, the battle rages but when Jesus brings change, love wins.  How is your church known?  How are you known by others?  In 2020, I want God to continue to change my heart.  Join me.  If enough can get together and lay their lives down for each other we might not be a church but w will be the church.  Happy New Year!

We were driving to Maryland a few weeks back.  Since the family doesn’t care for my eclectic choice of music, I put the ear buds in and turned them up.  A few minutes in, one of my favorite groups, Carbon Leaf, was shuffled in.  It was “Life Less Ordinary.”  I sat back in the seat and enjoyed the ballad.  

Suddenly, my eyes popped open.  The line “live a life less ordinary, live a life extraordinary with me,” woke me from my long journey funk. While the song is talking about a human relationship, this line was like God was speaking.  

Often we as Christians try to figure out how to live a life with the least amount of disruption possible.  We kind of drag God along with us.  After a while of “ordinary” life, we begin to doubt the greatness of our God.  This allows thoughts and philosophies of this world to invade not only our daily function but our practical theology as well.  It ends up being an ordinary life that happens to hope Jesus is for real.

Open the Bible.  Seriously.  Open the Bible.  Every time God shows up there is no such thing as an ordinary life.  It’s full of crazy stories where man is always getting himself in trouble.  Why?  We weren’t made to be ordinary, and when God isn’t in our life, we will do all sorts of things seeking the extraordinary.  Did you catch the last word of the last sentence?  It’s the combination of two words, extra and ordinary.  We are made for the fantastic, wonderful, and not-so- predictable life with God. 

How ordinary was it for God to walk with Adam and Eve in the garden?  How ordinary was it for Abraham to abandon the security of family and, by God’s command, travel (not by car, bus or plane) to what we now know as Israel?  How ordinary was it for a young David to pick up a few stones and slay Goliath as he boasted his invincibility?  Was it ordinary for Joseph to go from shepherd boy to 2nd in command of Egypt and then forgive his abusive brothers to redeem his family?  Let’s go fast forward.  Was it ordinary for the disciples to drop their nets and life to follow Jesus?  Was it ordinary for Paul to abandon his beliefs to follow Jesus after he got knocked off his ride?  Was it ordinary as the women came to the tomb to find it empty?  Every time God shows up, life immediately goes to extraordinary!  An exclamation point doesn’t do the word justice.  

Here we are entering 2020.  I meet so many fellow believers who have no plans at all, even for an ordinary life.  They are struggling to survive the day, and others are waiting to leave this world since th- cultural shift has left them feeling disconnected.  They fear.  They live disappointed dream busted lives.  There is a lessening sense of purpose and hope.  The ordinary is swallowing them.  

We recently celebrated Christmas.  In Luke chapter 1 we have the angel Gabriel coming to the virgin Mary and announcing she would give birth to Jesus.  How ordinary was that one?  She questioned Gabriel as we all would have.  Gabriel gives her a response that remains true to this day.  He said, “Nothing is impossible.”  Hold on for a minute.  That is not Gabriel’s total response.  He actually said, “Nothing is impossible with God.”  

Ordinary leaves us thinking, believing, and functioning without the amazing.  We pray with no power. We wake up dreading the day.  The past holds us in it’s clutches, telling us there is no extraordinary and impossible.  Live a life for Christ?  Why?  

We tend to not have a life less ordinary as we cling to the ordinary.  As believers, we aren’t made for the hum drum anymore.   The vanilla, gray, mediocre life is for those who are not called by God to not just believe but to follow.  It gets scary to follow.  The ordinary talks to us.  We all hear it.  “God wouldn’t call me to do that?”  “You can’t.”  “God wants you to be comfortable.”  “It’s too late.”  “You are not skilled, talented or educated enough.”  “Live a life ordinary.”

This week we begin a new year and a new decade.  Maybe you are thinking about goals to achieve in the next 365 days.  Maybe you are thinking about the next decade and what there is to achieve in the next 10 years.  They will come plenty fast enough.  Join me.  I don’t want to spend the next 365 to 3,650 living a life defined by the ordinary.  I thirst for the impossible.  The only way to shake out of the ordinary is to have the response Mary gave Gabriel.  She said, “Behold I am a servant of the Lord….”  Her life was not so ordinary after she placed herself in position to serve the Lord God Almighty.  Interested?  I’am.