Who's got your back?

As I have gotten older I have grown to truly appreciate history. Not that I didn't enjoy history when I was in school, it's just that it didn't click with me as much as it does now. Of particular interest to me is the World War 2 era, probably because my grandfather served on a bomber in the Pacific theater. While he was alive I never heard him speak about  his experiences from the war, and what little I have learned has been from combing through old scrap books that my grandmother made and a small box of memorabilia that I discovered years after his death.

Books about the men and women who served during World War 2 absolutely fascinate me. How did we defeat Japan and Germany with little more than nineteen and twenty year old kids serving so selflessly to defend our freedom? Time and again I read of their sacrifice and work ethic and I think, "What in the world is wrong with me?" Harrowing stories of young marines storming the beaches of remote islands in the Pacific in order to root out the Japanese make for good drama, but beyond that is this sense of brotherhood that boggles the mind. Men running through withering machine gun fire to retrieve a wounded buddy because no man is to be left behind. Soldiers who, just months prior were complete strangers, now step in the line of fire to protect the lives of the guys next to them. A mantra of "we're all in this together" that superseded any rank or hierarchy in the midst of battle. These and countless other accounts amaze and inspire me every time I read them. Someone always seemed to have your back. 

This morning as I was having some time in the Bible and in reflection, I began to think about the many men and women in my life who have had my back over the years. As names came to mind, I wrote them down and my eyes began to sweat just a little as my list got longer and longer. Older couples who mentored me and my wife when we were newly weds and still trying to figure out how to figure out both marriage and parenthood. Childhood friends who stuck with me in my darkest days and are still there today when I need them. Mentors in the ministry who helped to keep me grounded and worked to gradually sand off the rough edges of my pride and arrogance. These men and women had and still continue to have my back!

I honestly do not believe that I would be where I am today if it were not for the many people that pulled alongside of me along life's journey and made critical and timely investments. Their impact in my life reminds me of how much the apostle Paul meant to a young man named Timothy who was charged with overseeing a fledgling church early in the expansion of the gospel into Asia. Timothy was young, but Paul reminded him that young people can still do great things for God (1 Timothy 4:12). Timothy was impressionable, so Paul spent much time giving wise counsel so that he would know how to discern truth from the lies and to understand the dangers of loving things more than God (1 Timothy 6:1-12).  Ultimately, Paul served as a mentor to young Timothy, loving him enough to give him gentle but firm guidance so that he could flourish in his life for Jesus:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing those from whom you learned. (2 Timothy 3:14)
I am thankful to say that I have had several serve as Paul's in my life. And I certainly want to do the same for others, serving as a voice of reason and wise mentor-ship as they grow in their faith and careers. So, who has your back? Are you allowing others to speak wisdom and truth into your life even if it's painful, or are you convinced that you've got it all figured out and can do it on your own? And who is looking to you for guidance and mentoring - are you taking advantage of this awesome responsibility? 

All cats are bad. Except for Bubba the cat.

I am not a cat person. Truth be told, I am not much of an animal person at all. As a kid, I grew up with dogs, a cat, and a couple of gerbils that got eaten by said cat. RIP Lenny and Squiggy. So it’s not like I am an anti-pet person at all. I like animals just fine, as long at they are the ones that I can eat.

Khaki was the name of the family cat that I grew up with. She was a calico cat and had this really cool vibe about her all the time. She wasn’t mean, always did her business outside or in the litter box, and gifted us her fair share of chipmunks and birds custom delivered to our doorstep. I’m pretty sure she was well over the age of nineteen when she went to that great litter box in the sky, so I don’t have any childhood memories when she was not a part of our lives.

Fast forward to the summer of 2012. My wife and I are living on the coast of North Carolina and we have four kids, each of whom who have been asking for a pet pretty much since they left left the womb. My answer has almost always been “No!” with the caveat, “I have four kids, why do I need to introduce another mess-maker into the family?” I have been accused of being mean and insensitive and an animal hater, but for years I have stood my ground. Except for that one time we actually did get a dog.

The year was 2010 and we were living in the first house that we had bought with our own hard-earned money. It was great first home - lots of land for the kids to explore and a pond loaded with fish and an elusive giant snapping turtle. It only seemed natural to my kids that a dog would complete the picture of the ideal family and in a moment of weakness I gave in. We researched online for rescue dogs and found one that was predominately chocolate lab (which, if I was pressed to admit, is the perfect dog). After a few phone calls and lots of questions, I drove an hour and a half to South Carolina to pick the pooch up from a family that was fostering this soon-to-be member of the Griggs family.

This exciting new canine adventure didn’t last long. Bella, the name my kids bestowed upon the dog, was not a cuddly kind of dog. Apparently she had previously been owned by a guy who liked to hunt and most of her life was lived in a kennel. She wasn’t aggressive or anything like that, she just didn’t do much of anything. Fetch a ball? Nope. Come when you call her? Good luck with that. But Bella did enjoy running the property and splashing in the pond and one time she even dragged up part of a deer carcass in the yard for us to admire. But it was no secret that she was not the best fit for the Griggs family. So when we decided to load up the family and move to the coast in early 2012, we were able to find a new home for her where she could run and play with other dogs. The kids were mad at me, but I tried to convince them it was for the best.

We found a charming townhome near the water in Southport, NC, perfect for our family and not quite suitable for a dog. Although they continued to ask for another pet, I was able to deflect their request by reminding them that it would not make a lick of sense to have a dog if we didn’t have a yard for it to run in. Plus, lots of people in the community had dogs and they constantly had to walk them day and night and engage in the disgusting act of picking up their poop in a plastic bag. Being a dad, I knew how this would work. I would be the one walking the dog and picking up after it, not the kids. Thanks but no thanks.

Summer arrived and my family enjoyed all the benefits of living at the coast. Why would my kids want a pet when so much of their lives would be lived outdoors? I could feel their angst toward me starting to fade over being a pet-less family and my second oldest daughter had even stopped accusing me of being an animal hater. Life was good.

Until August. That’s when everything changed.

Our neighbor across the street was a college professor, a grandfather-type figure who would give my kids odd jobs such as watering his plants when he was away. One day he called me from across the street to tell me that there was something he wanted me to see. Lo and behold it was a tiny orange and white tabby kitten who was lapping up milk from a glass dish. “Oh, that’s nice,” I said. “You have new cat.” I wish that was how the conversation needed. “No, Sterling, he’s not my cat. He showed up in my yard and I’ve been feeding him everyday. He now relies on me but I have to go back to teaching full-time this weekend and I can’t stay to take care of him. I want YOU to take him in and care for him.”

No. Freaking. Way.

Well, that’s not exactly what I told him but he pretty much got the point. We were not in the market for a cat and I am sure that this little guy would be just fine living with all the other feral cats for which Southport is semi-famous. Satisfied that I had averted this cat-astrophe, I went on my way and thought no more about it. Then, like being blindsided by a linebacker in the open field, I came home to my wife and four kids huddling around this tiny kitten that I had politely declined just a short time before. It seems as if the good professor was smarter than I gave him credit for - he circumvented me and went straight to the source of pet desire.

There was no fighting it at this point. Once mom was on board the only choice I had was to go along with this whole nefarious scheme. The kids batted around all sorts of potential names for the kitten until they decided on Bubba. Bubba Jingles to be exact. Personally, I voted for Meow Tse Tung but I was overruled.

I was off to Walmart where I dutifully purchased a litter box, food, and cat toys so that our kids could help their new little furry friend acclimate to his new home. Whether I liked it or not, I was now the owner of a cat named Bubba. All of the cat jokes that I had told over the years now were now coming back to haunt me, being swallowed like a bitter pill. I needed an antacid and quick.

Sure, he was super cute, but I was waiting for the inevitable messes to start taking place. And it wasn’t all that long before they did. There were a fews accidents here and there that were not all that egregious, but when Bubba decided to use our Lazy Boy couch as a litter box, effectively ruining it (have you ever smelled cat urine or tried to remove it from furniture?), it was the only weapon I needed in my arsenal of cat-disdain to evict this little guy from our home and our lives. I looked at the kids and declared, “He’s gone!”

Tears ensued, followed by pleads of mercy and grace. “Dad, are you really going to get rid of the cat? Mom didn’t even like that couch anyway!” I had to admit that they had a point there. This was the perfect excuse to get a new couch that matched our beach decor. In my utmost benevolence, I agreed that the cat could stay but that we was now to be an outdoor cat. The litter box got tossed and Bubba spend the next few weeks outside, entering our home only to eat his food. Yet gradually, if not inevitably, Bubba found his way back into our home full-time, sans litter box.

And do you know what? This cat figured it out. Somehow, someway, his three week banishment from the kingdom had cured Bubba from needing any kind of reminder of where his messes were to go in the future. When he needed to relieve himself, he would wait patiently by the door or loudly meow in our general direction until someone let him out. This guy was easier to potty train than any of my kids had been!

Then something unexpected happened - Bubba decided that I was his primary master and he began to favor me over everyone else. When I would go to the mailbox, he would follow me. Bubba would come lay beside me when I was sitting on the couch and would come when I called, recognizing the sound of my voice, resembling more dog than cat. I had to admit that this feline was growing on me but I would never admit it to my kids as much as they tried to get the truth out of me.

Bubba has now been in our home a little over five years. The move this past summer up to Wilmington, NC, was a bit traumatic for him but he quickly adjusted, treating our cul de sac and surrounding yards as his personal kingdom. He still is fully potty trained, waking me up most nights around 3:30 so that I can let him outside when he does sleep inside. The neighborhood kids thinks he’s the coolest thing ever and he still lets my youngest daughter hold him and pose him like a toy doll.

So yeah, I guess I am a cat person of sorts. I like to say that I am more of like a one-cat man. Bubba has effectively become part of the family, for better or for worse. And just in case you are wondering, I still manage to deflect the constant barrage of pleas for another pet - except for the hermit crab and two mice that my kids brought home this past, but that’s another post for another day.

Jesus in the midst of instant replay

I want to go ahead and put this out there from the very beginning - Lost is the greatest television show that has ever been broadcast in the history of entertainment. If you ever attempted to watch Lost, then you know that it was a thrill ride of twists and turns that often made little sense unless you were able to go back and reevaluate just exactly what it was that you had just seen - if that was even possible. I’ve watched the series all the way through several times and each time I discover some new wrinkle of information that I never noticed the first couple of times.

In the sports world, instant replay has allowed officials - and all of those armchair officials at home - to reanalyze ad nauseam every angle of a controversial play to find out exactly what did nor did not happen so that the outcome could be properly employed. Every time that an instant replay cycles over and over again on the TV while the officials hash it out, it’s then that we see all sorts of things that we never noticed when the action was being played out in real time. Sometimes I wish that instant replay would be banished since it takes away the purity of the game, but then I instantly change my mind when I realize it sometimes benefits my team.

Rarely do you or I ever fully understand everything that we encounter the first time we see or read it. That doesn’t mean that we are unintelligent or dimwitted, but rather that our minds are capable of processing only so much before they go on overload. Instant replay, whether it is re-watching a show or reading the same book or passage numerous times, helps us to grasp what we have missed.

If you have ever tried to read the Bible, then you know that this applies. I have made it my goal to read the Bible daily and more often than not I encounter something that I either never saw before or suddenly realize that I don’t truly understand its full meaning. That happened to me this morning.

Matthew 21:18-22 is a passage that, until today, I simply read without really thinking about what it meant. In the first couple of verses, we see Jesus cursing a fig tree, which in turn withers. He does so not because He's being petty and mean but rather as an object lesson about Israel - their rejection of Him as the Messiah signals their failure to flourish as God's people. That part I get. The next part is what I struggle to understand:
When the disciples saw it, they were amazed and said, "How did the fig tree wither so quickly?" Jesus answered them and said, "I assure you: If you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you tell this mountain, 'Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,' it will be done. And if you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer."
 Hmmm. Does this mean that I can do cool tricks like killing trees or moving giant obstacles great distances if I only believe that I can in Jesus' name? And if so, what is the point in that? As I sat and scratched my chin at the possible meaning of this, it suddenly hit me right between my eyes. Jesus wasn't trying to tell me about all the things that I can do if I believe, but rather He was showing me - and all of us - how amazing He is if we will simply look.

The Jews of Jesus' day missed it because they were looking for someone different - a Messiah that they wanted to craft into an image that fit their own narrative. That's why they withered like the fig tree in the story. But we - if we seek Jesus in faith with all that we have - won't wither; we'll thrive! Following Jesus taps into His incredible power, greater than anything we can imagine and certainly greater than causing a tree to be unproductive. Think moving mountains and you get the idea.

Here is the point: As you move on in life and seek out what it all means, don't miss Jesus because it's all about Him! Forget what you have heard from skeptics and overzealous Scripture-twisters. Open His book, the Bible, and see for yourself who He truly is. Ask tough questions and then dig for the answers. Ask others for help along the way while allowing Scripture and His truth to be your guide.

Keep on reading and keep on seeking the truth of Jesus. Like instant replay, the more that we dive into God's word, the more we will see all sorts of amazing things that we missed on the first couple of passes. Jesus is someone you don't want to miss.

Give me those old time relationships

When I was a kid the world around me was unique and often intimidating. The mall where my parent's shopped was this huge complex of endless stores and easy places for kids like me to get lost. Fast food restaurants were exotic stops reserved for special occasions where I could peek over the counter as the workers whipped up a milkshake for me while steaming hot fries awaited me beside a fresh made burger. Even my backyard appeared as big as a football field on which I could wear my little self out everyday running and playing with my brothers and my friends.

As easy as it is to romanticize about the "good old days," it's also easy to realize that those places and events weren't so exquisite as I once believed. I can now walk from one end of the mall to the other in a matter of minutes and there are virtually no stores in which I would choose to venture, much less get lost in. Those milkshakes, fries, and burgers are certainly not a treat anymore and the older I get the more I realize that meals from those places did not constitute special occasions; rather, they were convenience stops when life got too busy or mom had not gone grocery shopping yet. That old backyard is still pretty awesome, but it's really more the size of a tennis court than an NFL stadium.

Perspective is everything when it comes to assessing the experiences from our youth. I still choose to romanticize those early days of my existence because those times were so essential to my formation as a young man. Even when those good old days turn out to be not as sacred as I remember, I still find benefit from clinging to a version of the past that causes me to pause and smile, pondering simpler times and experiences that appeared bigger than life. No harm in that, right?

Don't you wish all of life's experiences were that way? Unfortunately, reality has a way of smacking you in the face as you approach adulthood and you realize at some point that living in the past isn't going to get you all that far. This doesn't mean that you have to grow up as a cynic - life is still pretty sweet and the new experiences that you face everyday can be just as good as the ones in your past, ones that you will probably romanticize about ten or twenty years down the road.

Some of my fondest memories are of sitting beside my grandfather on hard wooden pews in a small Baptist church as he gently nudged me to stop fidgeting during the sermon and then listening to his deep baritone voice as he belted out the chorus to I Surrender at the altar call. I don't remember all that much about the content of what I heard or the organizational structure of that little church, but I do remember the people there and how special they made my experiences in Sunday School and at church fellowships. It was those humble beginnings that fueled the fire within me to serve the Lord full-time in vocational Christian ministry.

As good as those times were, I knew that they could not last. Today, that little church is a shell of what it used to be. Most of those congregants from my early days there have either moved on or gone home to the Lord, while the church never was able to move on beyond those simpler times in the 1970's. Those traditional ways were eventually eclipsed by the inevitable shift in our culture with people today preferring a more modern approach to their Sunday experience. Debates have been raging for decades over whether the traditional style church has its place anymore or whether the contemporary structure is what we should all embrace.

Yet if we take a really close look at what is going on in the churches around us, we will see that it's not really about stye or structural changes that are getting people all worked up. Instead, it is the radical change in relationships that so many are experiencing as life gets more complicated and families have less and less time.

Today, people are hungry for real "I-get-you-and-you-get-me" relationships - but they always have been. That's what held that little Baptist church together for all those years, the men and women who "did life together" and invested so much time in each other. Having the pastor preach a sermon that was rooted in the truth of God's word was and still is essential, but even when he had an "off day" those members still had their community rooted in faith to stand upon.

Those memories of people who loved and invested in me are the ones that I cherish the most but they also remain my deepest desires. I honestly no longer have all that much of a preference of style when it comes to church because I believe that when the men and women of God are seeking His face above all else and intentionally engaging in meaningful relationships with one another, all of that pans out in the end. I'm not so sure that we need to "rethink church" or craft newer expressions of worship. Maybe it's as simple as reevaluating the relationships that we have with each other regardless of the size of our gathering. When Christ is central and we are seeking to meet the needs of each other, I will romanticize about that all day.

We can do better

When social media first came to my attention years ago, I made a decision that I would avoid political and controversial posts if at all possible. Of course, I wasn’t always successful early on, garnering my fair share of harsh responses and a few posts that I deleted after I went back and re-read some of my words which made me look like “one of those guys.” Life has been a lot easier using social media for nothing more than posting cute pictures and keeping up with what all of my virtual friends around the world are doing.

Of course, it becomes harder and harder to peruse many of these sites because, more often than not, they are filled with nothing more than caustic opinions about politics and social issues. Yes, American politics is a hot mess and the media is nothing more than a feeding frenzy waiting to unearth the next savory morsel of ill repute that will hopefully doom another candidate or celebrity or turn an issue into a one-sided free for all. The funny thing about all of this is that I’ve yet to see a social media post that successfully sways the masses into agreeing with their point of view. If anything, all they do is cause further division and rupture budding virtual friendships. So not worth it.

The point is: We can do better. It’s not that I don’t care about your views. I truly do care and would be more than happy to discuss them over coffee and doughnut. I realize that you have every right in the world to post whatever you wish on social media and I will defend that right - while at the same time “unfollowing you” because I just can’t handle all of the negativity and one-sided vitriol that consumes my news feed.

Instead, let’s post more pictures of cute puppies and even cuter kids, Bible verses that inspire us to seek after Who really matters, cool videos of amazing guitar solos or soldiers being reunited with their families, requests for good restaurants and better recipes, and of course life events such as births and marriages that need to be celebrated.

Do we truly need social media? I don’t know, and I certainly don’t use it like I used to. But in light of the fact that we no longer send letters or make phone calls like we did back in the “good old days,” it doesn’t seem like such a bad idea as long as it is not abused. Still want to shout about your opinions and political views? Then run for office and be the change you so desperately want to see.

I guarantee that people would be able to accomplish so much more in this world if they stepped away from their keyboards and put their energy into actually trying to solve these problems that make them so angry in the first place. And, I bet that they would be so busy seeking to accomplish these changes that they wouldn’t have enough time to post about it. That would be awesome because it would free my feed up so that I could see more of those cute kitten videos.

Why are all these new "original" shows anything but original?

"Help, Lord, for no faithful one remains; the loyal have disappeared from the human race...The wicked wander everywhere, and what is worthless is exalted by the human race." - Psalm 12:1, 8

I love a good story. For years books have been my go-to if I want to lose myself in a thrilling plot twist or I simply wish to allow my mind to meander through deep wooded areas that are cut off from all civilization. Whoever said that it is easy to get lost in a book was not kidding. I somewhat lament that my kids don't enjoy reading as much as I do, however when they do find a book that captivates their imagination, I love to see how it invigorates their creativity and moves their souls.

With all of the technology of today, books have not necessarily become passe - but they have been somewhat replaced by the visual medium of movies and television as the dominant storytellers of our time. This isn't such a bad thing, even though most people will admit that "the book is better than the movie."

Streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Video have produced more than enough original options to entertain the person who desires to spend his weekend binging on the latest new series or movie. In fact, these two services are seemingly pumping out more new content that the average consumer can watch. However, as I have taken the time to check out some of this original content that is being produced, I have noticed the tiring trend towards over-sexualization that has caused me to push the stop button and move in a different direction.

Why must there be so much trashy content in an otherwise compelling show? People complain about the sexual content of broadcast television shows and with good reason, yet streaming services have no buffer against the amount of sleaze that they can include in their original creations. And this is a shame, because honestly most of these shows contain enough suspense and intrigue to drive the plot forward without having to throw in sex scenes or NSFW dialogue.

Before you call me a prude and tell me that this is just art and should be interpreted as such, let me remind you that there have been decades of great movies and shows that have relied on the ability of the actors and dynamic plot lines to drive the story forward without the necessity of having someone bare it all or tell it all. "But this is the real world - it's everywhere! You can't hide from it and act like it doesn't exist!" True, but why embrace it if I don't have to?

The above verses from the book of Psalms illustrate where we have come as well as we are heading as a society. And you don't have to be a Christian or even a religious person to see the truth in this. What was once sacred has now been stripped of its value and has been put on display for the whole world to gawk at as if it is some county fair sideshow. When we as a society begin to place a higher value on that which cheapens a healthy and holy view of intimacy and sexuality, then indeed "the wicked wander everywhere, and what is worthless is exalted by the human race."

Yes, I am free to turn the channel and to choose not to watch these shows and movies. Unfortunately, there is so much freedom of content out there that one has no idea when a racy scene in an otherwise enjoyable show will pop up out of nowhere. I desire to not only protect myself from this kind of stuff but my children as well. You can watch what you want and tell yourself that it's just art, but I want to protect my heart and my mind from that which will drive me farther away from Jesus.

To all of you writers, producers and directors - I promise you, if you make a great movie or show and drive it forward with a gripping plot and awesome character development, people will watch and you won't need to capitalize on skin and trash to gather an audience. Now THAT would be original!

Stripes and plaids DO go together!

I-40 from Wilmington to Winston-Salem has been a regular companion of mine the past several months. Road trips can be awesome, but I honestly don't enjoy the driving part. I am still trying to figure out how to invent the "Get There Button" that can magically transport me to wherever I want to go with the push of a button. So far, I got nothing.

On my recent travels, I have noticed an odd traffic phenomenon that I simply have no explanation for: As soon as I pass into Wake County going west bound, traffic suddenly slows down for a few miles to about 40 mph. There is not a wreck ahead, no traffic cones signaling caution, no speed traps that are making drivers paranoid. Traffic simply slows with no explanation. And this happens any time of day that I hit that same section - it can be morning, afternoon, or late at night. It's the craziest thing and it's especially irritating if I am caught up in it.

This got me thinking: Who or what started these kinds of patterns that we see all around us? And I'm not just talking about odd traffic patterns that drivers fall into. Think about music - who decided that the majority of songs that we hear on the radio should all last around four minutes? Is there some unwritten rule that says that if you record a song any longer than that then people will tune out? And have you ever wondered who comes up with the change in style from decade to decade? Today's music sounds nothing like it did in the 1960's, but none of us seem to notice how or why these changes in patterns take place until we see the change that has occurred.

Then there are fashion and beauty trends. In the 1970's, it was perfectly normal for a guy like me to wear plaid pants with a striped shirt. Everyone was doing it and I have no idea who started that trend. When the 1980's rolled around it was acid-washed jeans, shirts tucked in to pants that were tight rolled at the bottom and held up by extra long belts, and oversize t-shirts that were rolled up at the sleeves. And the hair! Big and frizzy and heavily hair-sprayed. Looking back at my middle school and high school pictures, I shudder to believe that I ever participated in any part of those fashion debacles!

Patterns are all around us. They define our lives and how we relate to others. Social media has capitalized on this phenomenon, pushing people into categories and causing cultural uproars on a daily basis. The pattern that so many people fall into now is to look at their phones and their social media sites for every bit of information and news that they can find. Sadly, most of this information is false at best, damaging and divisive at worst.  

Even though the patterns we see around us can often be negative and questionable, it doesn't mean that all patterns are bad. When Jesus came on the scene some 2,000 years ago, He turned the religious establishment on its head because not only did He buck the backwards trends of the day, but He set up other patterns for men and women to follow. Love your neighbor as well as your enemy. Don't put your hope in your possessions or standing among men but rather serve others. Turn the other cheek. Go the extra mile.

And then Jesus set the ultimate pattern for us to follow - He denied Himself and took up His cross, not for His own benefit but for our gain. Jesus calls for us to look beyond ourselves and our own desires to a life that will glorify God above all else.

That's a pattern you don't see advocated much on social media today, do you?

Who's got your back?

As I have gotten older I have grown to truly appreciate history. Not that I didn't enjoy history when I was in school, it's just th...