Underwear is meant to be comfortable. Life, not so much.

I am serving as camp pastor at a placed called Laurel Ridge in the NC moutains this week, so today I decided to go hiking on some trails in an effort to keep from gaining 15 pounds from all the camp food I’m going to be consuming. These trails aren’t new to me - I’ve hiked them countless times over the years as I have been up here as a camper, counselor, and pastor, so when I approached the trail head I was more than ready to get my sweat on and burn some calories.

There are four different trails and they are labeled according to color. Yellow is the longest, red is the steepest, green is not as challenging, and blue takes you to some scenic overlooks. I decided to start at the red/yellow point and then venture down the red trail. I thought about the yellow trail because it’s the one I remember the best from years past, but I wanted to give myself a bit of a challenge since I am such an outdoorsman (cue the sarcasm).

The initial decent on the red trail was pretty steep and I new that when it looped back around I would have to come back up, and I was already dreading the burn that I would experience. After about a quarter of a mile on the red trail, I noticed that the footpath that I was on was no longer clearly defined. It honestly looked like no one had hiked this trail in years. Was I lost? No, because the red markers were clearly visible along the trees at the trail wound along the side of the mountain.

As I continued on this trail, the actual path itself ceased to exist. Instead of hiking, I found myself bush whacking, tramping through patches of ferns, hopping over downed trees, and jumping small creeks. Every step I took felt as if I was pioneer trail blazer, minus the covered wagon and team of mules. Yet every step I took was with a purpose, because the entire time I was following this series of red markers spaced evenly on the trees.

Then things got a bit sketchy. At one point, I completely lost sight of the red ribbons and I was standing in the middle of a patch of brush and downed limbs. I continued to walk forward when suddenly I spotted a red ribbon on a tree in the distance. This happened to me on several occasions. It dawned on me that if I died out there, no one would find me for years. I would be nature’s compost. Then I began to wonder if someone had placed these ribbons on these trees just to see if anyone was a sucker enough to actually follow them. They say there is one born every minute…

Drenched in sweat and realizing that the shoes I had worn were woefully inadequate for such a trek, I finally looped back around to a piece of ground that looked vaguely familiar. The red ribbons had led me into a circuit that ended almost where they began. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason as to their placement, yet someone had taken the time to put them there knowing that eventually they would lead whoever followed them back to their starting point.

The whole time that I was hiking this oddly marked trail, two thoughts continue to go through my mind. First, I hope I can find my way out of here before I starve to death. And second, walking along a trail like this reminds me of how so many people traverse their spiritual journey through life.

Think about this for a minute. How easy is it for us to take the yellow trail, the one that we know best? Yes it’s long but it’s also safe. The red trail is the one the we often avoid because even though it’s marked for us, we seem to take every step with uncertainty because the path is not always clear.

If you are a follower of Jesus, then you know that God has not called you to safety or comfort but rather to share the good news of Jesus with the rest of the world. Yet doing so seems an awful lot like the red path. You can see the objective ahead of you - the people that you know you need to pull alongside of - but getting to where they are seems awful difficult if not just downright scary.

Underwear is meant to be comfortable. If it’s not, you put on a new pair. Life, however, holds no such guarantees. There are times when you will wonder if you are on the right path and more than once you will be tempted to turn around and call it quits. But that is not what Jesus did and that is not what we are called to do either. Take the red path. Sure it’s hard and it might hurt your feet, but there are people along the way on the red path that otherwise would never understand the meaning of life's journey if you don't meet them on it.

Boredom is all in your mind

"I'm bored."

"There's nothing to do."

"Can we go somewhere and do something?"

Growing up, I am certain that I uttered those same phrases at least a million times, especially during the summer months. It didn't seem to matter that I had two older brothers close to my age, a huge backyard to play in, neighborhood pool that never seemed to close, and was surrounded by woods and creeks that never ceased to invite me for an adventure.

Yet even then, I often struggled to find things to do. Since this was the era before computers and cell phone technology, sitting in front of the television was about as lazy as I could get away with until my mom made me go back outside. Most days I was out the door after breakfast and had to be called home (via my mom's vocal chords, not a phone!) for dinner. Boredom wasn't much of an option or a privilege for me and most of the friends I knew.

Now don't get me wrong - I'm not claiming to have lived some idyllic childhood where we churned our own butter and went on Robinson Caruso type adventures. But I do believe that my generation was better equipped to deal with how we would solve the problem of too much time on our hands.

Look around you today and you will see that people in America are as busy as they have ever been yet seemingly more bored than all the other past generations combined. Everywhere that you look, teens and adults are glued to their phones in hopes of finding something - anything - to entertain them for the next few minutes of their lives. Texting, SnapChat, and other forms of social media have replaced real live conversations. And no, FaceTime does not count.

Do I love my phone? Yes, I do. I admit that I have to fight the urge to waste precious minutes and hours on my phone looking at everyone else's pictures and posts and reading up on the news. But I also grew up learning the value of a book, of spending time outside, and being with friends talking and laughing with each other deep into the late hours of the night. Face-to-face, not phone-to-phone. These are the things that I still so greatly value.

Boredom doesn't really exist. What does exist is the fact that we've often forgotten how best to utilize the time that we've been given. Gizmos and gadgets are artificial ways of stealing what precious time we actually do have. They can't truly teach you anything. Rather, they often rob you of what you already have.

Imagine how much sweeter life would be if, instead of grabbing that rectangular device every time we've got a few moments to kill, we would instead choose a book or an adventure in the woods or a conversation on the porch until late in the night. I don't know about you, but that doesn't sound boring at all.

At the beginning and the end

Today I am officiating a wedding and also speaking at a funeral. I love officiating weddings because they are beautiful opportunities to be a part of the beginning of something so special between a man and a woman. Being able to speak God's truth into the lives of a couple as they say "I do" is a powerful thing. Plus, there is the benefit of enjoying all of the food at the reception - definitely a plus.

Funerals, on the other hand, are not so high on my list. It's not that a funeral isn't important - it certainly is - but the reality is that a majority of the time they are somber and incredibly sad events. Even when the one who has passed has lived a great life and is now in eternity with Jesus, those left behind still feel the sting of their lost presence.

But regardless of my feelings towards funerals, I have the honor of speaking at the service today of a woman named Cheryl who passed from this earth on Monday at the young age of 38. Let me tell you about Cheryl. I met her last year at my church and was immediately struck by her warmth and grace towards others. Cheryl was pretty much on her own - not much family in her life - yet she found herself surrounded by a community of friends and faith that loved and supported her and became her true family.

About the time I met Cheryl she informed me one Sunday that she had been diagnosed with cancer of the liver. She told me that she was going to fight it with everything she had. Once the treatments began she shaved her head as an act of defiance against the inevitable effects of chemotherapy and not once did she gripe or complain about the process.

As the months and treatments went by, Cheryl continued to fight but it became apparent that her cancer was fighting just as hard. Over the past several weeks she began to face complications and hospital visits became a part of her weekly routine. Last week, her best friend took her to the hospital one last time.

This past Sunday I received a text from Cheryl's friend asking if I could come see her at the hospital. I arrived at the ICU unit to find her hooked up to a respirator, dialysis, and all sorts of other tubes that were feeding medications into her failing body. She was resting peacefully, as if none of this cancer nonsense was all that big of a deal.

The next day I received another message - Cheryl was ready to go home. The decision had been made to terminate all of the artificial measures that were keeping her alive and I was asked to be there when the time came to turn them off. I'm not going to lie, I was conflicted. Watching as someone passes from this earth is incredibly difficult and is not something that I would naturally choose to do. Nevertheless, I drove to the hospital to be there with Cheryl and her friends when the time came.

As we were waiting in her room for others to arrive, I talked to Cheryl and read passages of Scripture to her - Psalm 19, Psalm 23, I Corinthians 15, and Revelation 21. These passages are beautiful reminders of God's love and purpose for us, not just here on earth but also for all eternity. Throughout the entire time she remained in a deep sleep, but I do believe she heard me. It is widely accepted that hearing is the last sense to leave prior to death and I firmly believe that she could hear and process my every word.

When the time came for the machines to be unplugged and the IV lines to be shut off, there was peace in the room. We all gathered around her bed and prayed over her, telling her that we would miss her but that it was okay to let go and go home to Jesus. As the minutes passed her vitals signs began to slow until she quietly took her last breath and the monitors fell silent. Without realizing I was even saying it, I exclaimed, "She's home!" and her friends gathered around her for one last goodbye.

Over the past sixteen years I have had the privilege of being in the room as all four of my children were born, assisting in the delivery of two of them. I've watched in awe and wonder as new life entered into the world, taking in that first lung-full of breath and crying out with the announcement that they have arrived.

I've also enjoyed the honor of officiating many weddings, celebrating with the bride and groom and their families as two lives merge together on a new and exciting journey. Their shared enthusiasm and giddiness during pre-marital counseling, the look on the groom's face when we first sees his bride, and the exhausted yet deeply in-love look they give to each other at the reception are memories that don't easily fade from the mind.

And then there is the end of life. Contemplating someone's years on this earth as you honor their memory is very sobering, yet it is also a wonderful opportunity to consider just how good and faithful God is. In the New Testament, James wrote that "life is a vapor," just a moment on earth in contrast to the continuum of eternity (James 4:14). During our time here, we live and breath because of a God who desperately loves us and wants us to know Him in a real and personal way through faith in Jesus Christ.

I am so very grateful that my friend Cheryl knew this and placed her faith in Jesus some time ago. As I speak on her behalf today, finding the right words won't be all that difficult. It's easy enough to speak about a life well lived. It's even easier to speak about a life well lived for Jesus.

Life in the new hood

This past Saturday night my new neighborhood - Wrightsville Green, aka The Hood - celebrated its annual 4th of July gathering. Before we even moved in, several of our neighbors were quick to tell us how fun and amazing this night was. Our home owner's association sent us emails reminding us of the festivities and we were asked to sign up to bring food at the community mailbox.

Seeing this as an opportune chance to get to know pretty much everyone in all 50+ homes, we agreed to bring cantaloupe (because you can't have a party without melon) and a cucumber/tomato/onion salad (because if they didn't eat it, I would). The days leading up to the shindig were filled with stories of past 4th of July celebrations and how this year's was going to be the best ever.

Finally the big day had arrived. The party officially started at 4:00 but we planned to be fashionably late because it's really awkward when you don't really know many people and you are the first ones to show up. Our posse left the house at 4:30 to make the short walk down to what is known as the common area, which is composed of the back yards of several houses that share Bradley Creek as their border. This creek is a meandering salt water marsh creek that eventually feeds into the Atlantic Ocean and it is an ideal spot for launching a small boat, kayak, or stand-up paddle board, which I haven't done yet but plan on doing soon.

As we rounded the bend of one of the houses, I was immediately struck by the decadent smell of smoked pork. Jamie, whose house lies in the common area and is also the pit master, lifted the lid to a rather large smoker to show me a behemoth of a pig that was almost cooked to perfection - all 140 pounds of it. He let me know that he also had a secret sauce that was willed to him by man whose barbecue sauce was locally famous but who would not give up the recipe until after he had crossed the threshold of heaven. I ain't gonna lie - that was some good sauce! Another neighbor, Steve, was also there and very attentive to the needs of this simmering sow.

It wasn't long before the rest of the neighborhood began to roll in (we weren't as fashionably late as I had hoped) and that's when the party really started hopping. Kids were absolutely everywhere! And the food just kept coming - chips and dips, rice and beans, chicken wings and some green rolled up things, as well as cookies and brownies and lemon squares, which I'm pretty sure Jesus Himself enjoys as a late night snack. When the pig was done and the men had begun to chop her into a million little pieces, the feast officially began.

Our two oldest daughters, who didn't know a soul, played it pretty close to the vest at the beginning, preferring to hang near mom and dad. Not so with our two youngest ones. You would have thought that they shared crib space with all of the neighborhood kids! Meeting new people has never really been a harrowing experience for my wife and I either, and we quickly found ourselves engrossed in conversations with people whom just a few moments before had been perfect strangers.

My wife met another neighbor who is also a professor at UNCW, teaching in the area of creative writing. I may or may not have told her to read my blog to see what she thought. There was sophomore at UNCW who will be living in his parent's newly purchased home (they live in another city) during the school year and who is interested in some of the same areas of ministries in which I have served. Chris is a guy from England who I kept having a conversation with because I enjoy discussing English soccer but mainly because I loved to hear his accent. There were also surfers, entrepreneurs, stay-at-home moms, an MMA trainer, photographer, a couple who helps rescue girls from the sex trade, and many, many others.

The evening culminated in the grand finale for the 'hoods annual celebration - a fireworks display that was not only illegal but incredibly dangerous. The aforementioned Jamie and Steve were also a few of the pyrotechnic experts who had assembled an obscene amount of gun powder fueled entertainment, much of which I am pretty sure would get you locked up in Mexico.

Positioning ourselves a "safe" thirty-some yards away from ground zero, several of us oohed-and-aahed at the amazing display of glittered colors in the sky as the more responsible adults assembled the kids a safer distance away. Even more entertaining than the fireworks were the antics of several grown men as they lighted wicks and danced out of the way before certain disaster happened.

As the evening was about to come to a close, a near catastrophe of cataclysmic proportions happened. A mortar tipped, sending its wayward cargo shooting in all directions, including straight at me and my youngest daughter who decided to join me closer to the action. Instinctively I stuck out my sandaled foot as a shield to block the fiery missile, hoping for a split second act of heroism to save the day. Thankfully, it fizzled out right as it was about to make contact, saving both my lower leg and my Rainbow flip flops. Several of my neighbors reacted with horror at the fact that they had almost killed the new guy, but we were able to nervously laugh it off once we saw that no damage was done.

Indeed, this was a memorable night in our new neighborhood, one that we won't soon forget. We are grateful for the new friendships that were made and can't wait to grow and foster them more in the future. Lying in bed later that night, my wife and I were recounting our day when we both realized that something really cool was occurring in this neighborhood of people that we had just met: They were doing an amazing job of living in community with one another.

Community is what so many of today's churches are seeking after yet are failing to achieve. Relationships are built on more than just shared belief; they thrive on a shared connection, one that is rooted in a genuine interest in not only the well-being of others around you but in also sharing life with them - the good, the bad, and the ugly of it all.

I think we're gonna like it here.

We aren't starting over, we're just turning down a new road

This past Monday morning June 19, 2017, a couple of trailers and a whole host of people showed up at our town home in Southport, NC, to help us pack our lives up and move us up to Wilmington, NC. For several hours we sweated, laughed, grunted at ridiculously heavy pieces of furniture, and laughed some more.

Our journey to Wilmington began towards the end of last summer with a bit of a nudge. Both my wife and I sensed that God was moving us in that direction, but we weren't exactly sure why. My position at the church I was serving in was going and growing well - I truly enjoyed being both a Teaching Pastor and Connections Pastor there, helping people plug in and take their next step with God. Even though my wife is a nursing professor at UNCW, she was okay driving back and forth a few days a week. Our kids had all of their friends in Southport and we lived in a really cool community. Why move?

God continued to nudge us and we continued to pray for His wisdom and guidance. At the beginning of December, some dear friends of ours from Wilmington told us about a house in their neighborhood that had just gone on the market, for sale by owner. They said it would be perfect for our family and we should check it out. Being familiar with the neighborhood and loving how it was laid out, we said why not, let's take a look. We loved the home the moment we set foot inside of it.

Things began rolling after that. Within a week's time we had come to an agreement with the home owner and on January 31, 2017, we closed on our new home. We decided that we would wait until the end of the school year before we moved in, giving our children the chance to finish at their respective schools and to have that valuable time with their friends. In the meantime, we would venture one or two days a week to change paint colors and put our own touches on the place. Three days ago that house officially became our new home.

As you read this story, you may notice that there is one element missing. What am I going to do as far as ministry is concerned now that I am in Wilmington? That's a great question - I'm glad you asked!

Even though the future for my ministry was unclear, from the very beginning my wife and I had a peace about this move. Let me rephrase that. We had a intermittent peace about the move, interspersed with doubting and second guessing and moments of panic. Are doing the right thing? Maybe we misunderstood what God was trying to show us? Why move now when things are going so good?

As we wrestled with these realities, there was one constant at the forefront of all our planning, dreaming, excitement, and worries - God is faithful. He has a plan and His plan is always better than anything I could possibly scheme. So as far as what I will be doing up here, the moment those trailers pulled up in front of our new home this past Monday, my new ministry began.

I want to be the best neighbor that I can possibly be, loving my new neighbors well and being a godly influence in my new community. But my plan is not to just sit at home and be nice to people - I am actively seeking opportunities where I can serve and work and give of myself, utilizing the gifts that God has given to me. We are also now just a short drive from UNCW, which means that our new home will be open to college students who are looking for a place to "get away." In short, this new home is the beginning of an exciting new ministry for our family.

Moving is hard and unbelievably fatiguing. But moving is also exhilarating when you are following the path that you believe God has set before you. For me and my family, moving to Wilmington doesn't mean that we are starting over, because God's path for our lives hasn't changed. Instead, we are taking a turn along the way to somewhere new. Life is a journey and life is ministry. Y'all come see us!

That's not a tear, I just have something in my eye

Yesterday I attended my fourteen-year-old daughter's last dance recital. I say "last" because she is heading to high school next year at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem where she will focus on music, specifically the clarinet. She has made it clear to us that she sees her future in music, not dance, and that she is ready to move on to the next chapter in her life.

The next chapter? At age fourteen?

As I watched her dance in her three performances, so much flashed before my eyes. I recalled her first dance classes as a three-year-old. For three solid weeks all she did was stand there stiff as a board, unwilling to participate with the other girls as the teacher was instructing them in all the finer points of dance that a three-year-old can digest. Finally, my wife laid the gauntlet down - either you dance or we're going home for good! Miraculously, from that moment forward dancing was never an issue with her.

Memories of her first recital, with the poofy costumes and the awkward but unbelievably cute dance moves, came to mind. For a moment she was my little girl again, complete with glitter and feather costumes that served as dress-up play clothes for years to come. Then when the littlest girls from the dance school came on stage after my daughter's performances, it was like a flashback to the past and I saw her again as my little girl up on the stage with them. I'm not gonna lie, I may have had a tender moment right then and there.

This is not unique to just my second oldest child - I am living through it with all four of my children as they grow up before my eyes way too quickly. And it's not that our children don't need me and my wife anymore, it's just that they now need us in different ways. "Mommy" and "Daddy" have been replaced by "mom" and "dad" and hand holding has been supplanted by hand outs. When my wife and I started to have children, I remember someone saying to us that we would blink and they would be grown up. I never realized how right that person would be.

As of this past Friday I now have a junior in high school who is bravely going to a new school in Wilmington next year; a freshman in high school who will be four hours away at the UNCSA; a fifth grader who is one step away from middle school; and a fourth grader who is smarter than I could ever hope to be.

I wish I could stop blinking but I find that I have something wet in my eyes that forces me to close them on occasion.

What's wrong with ch_rch today? Could it be u?

There has been a lot of discussion over the past few years about why younger people are not returning once they graduate high school and why younger adults are checking out of church as well. A whole host of reasons have been given to explain this phenomenon: A lack of relevancy in today's church, this younger generation expressing a much greater need for community than church can offer to them, and a shift in theological perspectives.

It is likely that all of these reasons, and many more like them, are partially responsible for the church exodus from many in the younger generation. What is not apparent is whether there is one dominant reason that people just aren't all that crazy about church today. Let me be up front - I don't have a clue as to what that primary reason could be, or even if there is one. All I know if what I hear from those who find themselves less than enthused about going to church today.

Recently I had a conversation with a man who had not been to church in seventeen years. Growing up as the son of a pastor, he told me that there weren't many days that he was not "forced" to be at the church, including Friday nights when all his friends were out having a good time. Throughout his childhood he had expectations heaped on him that he felt were unrealistic and he faced what he considered unfair judgment from those he considered to be hypocritical in their treatment of him. Now a thirty-five year old father of two children, this man was still bitter about his experiences, yet he had never lost his faith in God.

What do you say to someone like that? Do you invite him to come to your church because your church isn't like that? Or maybe you secretly roll your eyes, assuming that the problem is him and not the church in which he grew up. Regardless of how you view this situation, what so many in the church today don't do is take a close look at themselves and ask, "Could I be part of the problem?"

I realize that we live in a postmodern culture where so many want to rewrite the laws of truth, and that at no time should the church ever compromise its stand on the authority of Scripture. Yet I also believe that today's church is still entrenched in a methodology that is more polarized than it is engaging.

As one who grew up in a church culture that was more formal in nature, I have a healthy respect for the traditional church. But what about those who have felt abandoned by the church? Or those who like the idea of Jesus but are completely baffled by the perceived requirements of being part of a church today? Do we just assume that they need to get over it and jump on board or are we willing to take a closer look at how we receive them when they come through our doors?

Maybe the problem isn't that people are disinterested and unwilling to accept truth. Maybe the problem is that we've unknowingly manipulated people to fit into our mold of what we believe should be acceptable for church. I believe more than ever that today's culture is screaming for relationships that are real and attainable. While church can and should provide some of most meaningful relationships possible, none of these men and women will know the joy of these kind of relationships unless we love them where they are and not where we want them to be.

Underwear is meant to be comfortable. Life, not so much.

I am serving as camp pastor at a placed called Laurel Ridge in the NC moutains this week, so today I decided to go hiking on some trails in ...