Top ten road trip takeaways

Our family just returned from a quick weekend road trip to Williamsburg, VA., the primary purpose of our little jaunt was to spend a day at Busch Gardens on Saturday. However, we also threw in a ghost tour of historic Williamsburg on Friday night, which allowed us to take in some of the history even though we did not have enough time to spend a whole day there.

Up and back in 48 hours does not necessarily allow one to take in all there is to see or do, but that does not mean that a lot can’t be seen. Believe me, whenever you find yourself surrounded by hordes of people, there are A LOT of things that you see and some things that wish you could un-see. So, if you will indulge me a few minutes of your time, I would like to replay the top ten high – and low – lights of our little family getaway.

1) Intestate 95 is not a fun highway on which to drive. Lots of tractor trailers, phantom traffic slowdowns, and ridiculously crowded gas stations at almost every exit. But, we did find a pretty sweet Cook Out a few miles down an exit road that was clean and contained friendly people that were not overly stressed out. Bonus.

2) Coffee is essential for life, period. When you do not have good coffee available, then you find yourself embracing desperate measures. Because the hotel coffee was nothing more than heated dirty water, we have no choice but to stop on the way home for a cup of Starbucks, which barely rates it on my quality scale but enters a whole new arena of repulsive when you purchase a cup at one of their locations inside of a rest stop gas station. Again, we were desperate, so please don’t judge.

3) Busch Gardens is an amazing place to take your family. There are boatloads of roller coasters and other rides to choose from and the thrills are pretty easy to come by. We also chose to buy one of those all-you-can-eat passes which allowed us to eat at one of the on-site restaurants every hour and a half, which saved us tons of money at the end of the day. We may or may not have stopped to eat 4 times regardless of whether or not we were hungry.

4) Fanny packs for guys are apparently back in. I don’t even pretend to understand this nor do I condone the practice.

5) Parents who drag their toddler-aged children around a theme park for hours on end in the 90 degree heat look ridiculous when they stop to yell at them for being tired and slowing the rest of the group down. Please, mom and dad, have a heart and take your children home.

6) The excitement level of a ten and a twelve year old child does not wane in spite of twelve straight hours at a hot and crowded theme park. Hearing the awe in their voices because we let them ride that one last roller coaster just as the park let off their fireworks display: Worth every second of it.

7) Buffet lines are a good idea until they are not. Moms and dads, do your kids a favor now and help them to say no to Mt. Everest sized portions from the buffet that you know they have no intention or ability to finish. My family did not get pancakes and bacon this morning at the hotel because you allowed your kid to slap a ridiculous amount on his plate, most of which he never touched. Is that Mrs. Butterworth I heard weeping in the corner?

8) The popularity of tattoos is on the rise. The amount of really crappy tattoos is also apparently on the rise as well.

9) History is really cool, especially when learned in the form of stories. Bravo, Mr. Ghost Tour man, for keeping my kids enraptured for almost two whole hours.

10) Time away with family is a choice I will never regret. Even when it’s just quick trip to a theme park, the memories made will last a lifetime.


Steve reached into the kitchen cabinet for a real plate, not one of the cheap paper ones that his family normally used. With a large family, paper plates were the typical go-to for any occasion, but sometimes you need the real thing to get the job done, such as heating up leftovers in the microwave.

As he eyed the stack of mid-sized plates, he paused, not reaching for the one on top. Instead, reaching down to the fourth plate, he lifted it and gently slid the fifth one in line out of its position, careful to not let the stack slam back down when he was done. With his conquest in hand he could now commence with satisfying his hunger with leftover meatloaf from last night’s dinner.

Why grab a plate from the middle of the stack and not the one on top, you may ask? The answer lies in the story of the underdog. Steve considers himself to be a champion of the underdog, that one guy who will cast his bet on the horse with the longest odds or the team that Vegas won’t touch. Okay, so why is a plate considered an underdog? That’s a fair question that Steve is more than happy to answer.

Let’s begin with dishes and how they are washed, dried, and then stacked for future use. Unlike stock that is rotated in a grocery store, dishes are usually placed on top of others in the cabinet. This means that the dishes toward the bottom of the stack might rarely if ever be used, consigning them to a life of uselessness as other kitchen objects get all the love and the glory.

Sound crazy, maybe even a bit neurotic? Steve wouldn’t blame you if you thought he was and honestly, it does seem a little bit wacky to him, too. But to understand his desire to see all people - and kitchen objects - treated as equals requires that you dig a bit deeper into Steve’s background.

Growing up in the 1970’s, there simply wasn’t an easy way to follow sports from across the country. There were no 24-7 sports channels or internet sites that gave real time scores and information. Instead, you had to rely on the newspaper or the occasional Saturday sports broadcast on the national networks. Because of that, local teams gained a much more loyal fan base since they were easily accessible. Steve, naturally, followed his beloved Demon Deacons of Wake Forest University, his hometown team.

If you know anything at all about Wake Forest University then it’s probably because you grew up near the school or you are a fan of ACC sports. With an enrollment that hovers around 4,000 students, it is one of the smallest universities that participates in NCAA Division 1 sports. And with schools such as UNC, Duke, and NC State right up the road, recruiting gifted athletes can be a most difficult prospect, leaving Wake fans to be believe that they often received the leftovers that the other big schools chose not to pursue.

Attending Wake Forest football games on a crisp fall afternoon always gave Steve a thrill, even when it was obvious that the opposing team often had more fans in the stands than Wake Forest did. And then there were the consistent beat downs received on a given Saturday. But these lopsided scores didn’t faze Steve. If anything, they endeared him even more to his beloved Demon Deacons, for with each gut-wrenching effort his boys gave on the field he could see a fierce pride in the eyes peering behind the face masks, even if victory was a far fetched proposition. As a result, Steve never saw the Wake Forest players giving up on the field so why should he give up on them?

Sure, there were those glorious days when victory was achieved and the thrill of it was sweet. Consider the 2006 football season. Picked to finish dead last - again - Wake Forest put together a season that ended with an ACC championship over Georgia Tech and a trip to the Orange Bowl in Miami, FL, which they ultimately lost to Louisville. He vividly remembers looking around at the sea of black and gold in those stands in Miami, not sure that he had ever been prouder. He couldn’t remember exactly where he had heard it, but it was said that there were more Wake Fans assembled at that Orange Bowl game than at any other even in the history of the school. Steve believed it.

Off and on for decades, Steve had experienced the highs and much more often lows of being a Wake Forest fan, and not just in football. Wake Forest basketball had long been considered the calling card for the athletic program, but even then the victories were more often overshadowed by the difficult defeats. Winning back-to-back ACC tournament titles in 1995 and 1996 with the likes of Tim Duncan and Randolph Childress at the helm were some of the most exciting times that Steve could remember, but even then the disappointing early NCAA tournament exits left an even more bitter aftertaste.

Still, Steve was not going to ditch his team in spite of inconsistent performances and years where the rains never seemed to quench the parched land. He had followed the Atlanta Braves during their brutal seasons in the 1980’s for goodness sakes, refusing to jump on the bandwagon of other more successful teams. If it meant that cheering for his beloved Demon Deacons meant that he would be championing a perpetual underdog year after year, then so be it.

Unbeknownst to Steve, this devotion to a team that he knew would have more of its share of losses than wins would cause a shift in how he viewed people as well. The changes were subtle at first but over time they became a habit that never faded away. For instance, there was Edward, the guy in high school who didn’t wear fancy clothes and whose glasses were held together by tape in at least two places. As the other guys mocked and jeered at him, Steve stood up for Edward. He often spoke to him when he saw him in the halls, learning that he was a whiz at math and science and that he had a chance to attend the North Carolina School of Science and Math his junior year. When his acceptance letter came, Edward sought out Steve first to share the good news. While the rest of his crew of friends look on perplexed, Steve was busy giving Edward high fives along with a roar of approval. Here was a guy, one of whom most people thought very little, going off to do great things in his future. Chalk one up for the underdog.

And then there was the softball team at his church that Steve played for. A gifted hitter and fielder who was able to track down almost any ball in the outfield, Steve was a sure lock to play for the gold team, the adult church recreation team that almost always won the coveted county trophy each year. But Steve didn’t want to be just another good player on a team of good players. Instead, Steve chose to play on the youth coed softball team, positioning himself in center field and allowing his female teammate in right field first chance at catching fly balls that came her way. There was no doubt that he could have shagged every fly ball that came within fifty yards, but Steve was more satisfied offering encouragement to his teammates, giving them praise when they made a good play and backing them up when they dropped the ball. Although they didn’t come close to finishing in first place, the coed team was able to win a few games and he saw the flame of confidence burning brighter in several of his teammates. Once again, chalk one up for the underdog.

Where did Steve’s passion for seeing the little guy do big things come from? Perhaps this view was first formed in him from his first days of Sunday School, where he learned about a man named Jesus who gravitated towards those who were less fortunate or whom the world seemed to care little about. Jesus was a man who could have commanded the best seats at any of the most prestigious banquets, yet He preferred to invest Himself and His time in those who had very little if anything to offer to Him.

Hey Jesus, want to join us on the A-list for this weekend’s big party?”

Nah, I’m okay. There’s this widow that I want to visit and then there is this guy who used to be a tax collector who wants me to come to dinner with him and some of his other ex-tax collector buddies. I’ll catch up with you guys later.”

Time and again, Steve heard stories from the pages of the Bible of how Jesus would go to the “least of these” and do whatever He could to not only meet their needs, but also to show them how much worth they had in God’s eyes. These stories fascinated and motivated Steve, causing him to see others in a new light. Suddenly the “dorky” kid at school who nobody wanted to eat lunch with didn’t seem so dorky to him when they were eating a sandwich together. And the girl who always sat in the corner by herself during recess? Steve began to invite her to play four square with the rest of the kids, in the process finding out that she was really good at playing the piano and singing. How cool!

One phrase spoken by Jesus seemed to stick with Steve more than any other. In the New Testament in Matthew 9:12, Jesus was confronted by a group of religious critics who couldn’t understand why He spent to much time hanging around “sinful”people who obviously didn’t have their acts together. His response to them was amazing to Steve: “Those who are well don’t need a doctor, but the sick do. For I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” In other words, Jesus came for the underdog, not for those who believed they had it all figured it out.

It was words such as these that led not only to Steve’s own personal faith in Jesus but also to a life of serving all the underdogs that God might put in his path. This is why he chose to volunteer with students in the youth group at his church. Steve’s love of the underdog also prompted him to get more involved in his community, giving his time to his elderly neighbors when they faced challenging household projects as well as serving as a mentor and a tutor to several underprivileged kids at the local elementary school.

Today, everywhere that Steve goes, he looks for those whom the world has stopped having faith in or has simply forgotten altogether. And while this shift didn’t happen overnight, it has taken Steve down a path that has led to more joy and real friendships than he could have ever imagined. This is also why Steve chooses a plate in the middle of the stack instead of the one on top, because he believes that every underdog deserves a champion.

The honest hypocrite

The Bean There, Done That looks like any other coffee shop near a major college campus. Olive colored walls, dim lights, students hidden behind laptops sucking in the free Wi-Fi, college-style music playing from a worn out radio in the background, stools and rickety tables scattered throughout, a well-worn bulletin board with fliers for the next great social event or call to action plastered all over it. Yet this visual panorama isn’t what captivates the senses. No, it is the smell that draws you in. That rich, almost floral scent of coffee that permeates the place and sticks to your clothes for hours after you leave. This place smells like heaven on earth and that’s why Stewart comes here almost every day.

Stewart is a bit of a celebrity at the coffee shop. His stay at the university has been a bit longer than most (six years and counting) but that’s because of the multiple majors and minors that he’s been pursuing. Philosophy, art, psychology, even a little bit of Mandarin thrown in. He considers himself incredibly well-rounded and is not afraid to share his opinions with anyone. If you have an opinion and the courage to share it, the table in the back will become his bully pulpit for punching holes in your line of thinking. Not that he is unpopular. He actually has a little bit of following at the shop, a fan club if you will. The running joke is that Stewart has a cot in the back room and that his apartment is simply an ingenious ruse to throw the government off his track.

Stewart’s professors are usually patient with their little protégé. There have been occasional clashes with the more lecture and business minded ones, but most of the faculty enjoy his constant questioning and interjections, even entertaining more of it after class. He has been groomed by so many of the staff at the university that one would think that his matriculation is more of a tenure.

But now Stewart has a problem. Well, not really a problem – perhaps more of a puzzle inside of him that can’t be solved by mere analysis or clever reasoning. And it all begins with a girl.

Sara caught his eye the second she walked into his Governmental Ethics class last fall. Yes, he thought that she was beautiful, but not in the way that everyone gushed over the plastic Barbie-type sorority girls who would never even look his way. Sara was different. Earthy, trendy, not made up or pretentious. And, she was easy to talk to. Stewart had uncharacteristically given up his prominent seat in the middle of the class (that way everyone could be blessed with his verbose wisdom and insights) to move to the fringes of the room where the slackers normally inhabit. That’s where Sara sat, not because she wasn’t studious but rather because she had another class halfway across campus as soon as Ethics ended so she needed a head start as she dashed for the door.

And Sara was smart. Ever since he took the empty seat beside of her, the way that she could carry on a conversation and organize her thoughts captivated Stewart. She wasn’t afraid to speak up in class and she showed even more courage in often disagreeing with Stewart, intriguing him all the more. Yet in all of this she wasn’t pretentious or proud. Sara seemed real, authentic, relevant. She also possessed something that Stewart had never experienced firsthand before and the thought of it almost terrified him to the core.
Time in class with Sara wasn’t enough. He had to have more than Tuesday and Thursday mornings to get to know her on a more intellectual and personal level. She barely had time to utter the words goodbye when class was over so he began to scheme a way for them to be together apart from the academic world. Therefore, Stewart decided to invite Sara into his world.

She met him at the coffee shop around 6:00 on a Thursday night. Sara worked part-time in the library and also volunteered at a local homeless shelter, so free time was at a premium. Stewart had patiently worked out this schedule with her and it took a couple of weeks before it all finally played out. As he sat at his table waiting for her arrival, he noticed that his heart was beginning to beat a little faster and that his palms were moist. Did his breath stink? Was his hair combed? Hey, get yourself together Stewart! After all, this isn’t a date. Or is it? He couldn’t let anyone see him like this so he snuck off to the bathroom to splash water on his face and get his wits about him.

When he returned to his seat he saw Sara searching the room for him. There it was again, the sweaty palms, racing heart, anxiety that he had never felt before. Trying his best to shrug it off he moved rapidly across the room to reach her, desperately hoping that she would not disappear out the door before he caught her. Before he arrived at her side she turned and saw him, immediately flashing that comfortable smile that melted him all over again. For the first time in a long while, Stewart wondered whether he was he was about to embark on something that might be too much for him to handle.

“I’m not much of a coffee drinker but I’m willing to try something new. What do you think I should have?” Sara asked. Eager to regain his composure, and remember that this was his turf and second home, Stewart walked Sara up to the counter and began to explain the different varieties of coffees and teas and their methods of preparation. The barista could barely hide her snicker when she saw this softer side of Stewart, and the look that he gave her suggested the he desperately wanted her to ignore this lapse and respect his reign in this coffee kingdom. Sara settled on a Chai Tea latte (she had really enjoyed sipping Chai Tea while on a mission trip to India when she was in high school) and the two of them settled back at Stewart’s regular table, he with a double shot espresso in hand.

Their talk at first was pleasant and non-descript, yet Stewart wanted to know everything about her. What made her tick? Was she a deep thinker like he was? Did she care about the same issues he was so passionate about? Why did she seem so mysterious to him? Who was she?

He decided to open up that can of worms first, telling her everything that he could think of about himself yet struggling to be purposefully brief so that he could find who more about her. Sara listened politely and seemed genuinely interested in his opinions and beliefs. Did she agree with him or was she just being nice? What is wrong with me? Why do I care so much about what this girls thinks?

For what seemed like minutes (it was actually only a few seconds) Sara took her cue and began to tell Stewart about herself. She was the oldest of four children who was on partial scholarship while working to earn the other half to pay for school. College was her first experience being away from home and this year was much easier than the first. The sorority life wasn’t for her (Yes!) and she didn’t seem to have much time for social events between her work schedule and volunteering. But she was involved in at least one campus organization that she was truly passionate about. Which one? Intervarsity Christian Fellowship! Seriously? Those words didn’t actually roll from his tongue but his look of bewilderment bordering on almost anger must have caught her off guard. “Do you have something against Intervarsity?” she asked with a tone of honesty that did not betray any hint of being defensive. Stewart felt all of the air leave the room. He feverishly tried to collect himself and his thoughts before he gave his answer. He liked this girl – a lot – and he didn’t want to blow his chance on their first “date.” Surely she wasn’t one of “those” religious people, was she?

“They” and “them.” That’s what it is has been about from the very beginning. Stewart hated it when his parents used to drag him to church. It was boring to him and he never quite believed all of those stories those two old ladies used to feed him in Sunday school. Miracles, raising people from the dead, heaven and hell, none of that made sense to him. His junior high and high school years were filled with even more skepticism, with such brilliant thinkers as Nietzsche and Sagan fueling his animosity for religion and his thirst for rationalism and “real answers.”

The other kids that went to church were just stupid sheep. “Sheeple” he called them. Mindlessly following the beliefs of their parents and following a God who, if he really did exist, certainly didn’t care enough about this world to make it a better place. He was smarter than them all, making his decision too early for them to brainwash him. If they truly believed all of this God and Jesus stuff then they would be better qualified to argue with him and answer his seemingly endless questions about their beliefs. Truth be told it didn’t matter what answers they gave him because he still wasn’t going to believe. He simply wanted to hold them accountable for their belief system. What was wrong with demanding a little intellectual integrity?

College would be his proving ground. This place wasn’t ready for a mind like his, he knew, but soon enough everyone would know about him. It wasn’t that he saw himself as arrogant or even as intellectually elite, it’s just that while other high school students were thinking about sports or the prom he was engrossing himself in the rigors of pursuing knowledge of philosophical and scientific constructs. They were building up their social networks and bodies while he was busy building his mind. His pursuit was more noble and advantageous for the greater good. They were the posers, he was the real thing. This coffee shop had become his little corner of the universe where he was championing his system of beliefs that had no room for the supernatural. It didn’t take long for most dissenters to keep their opinions to themselves. No one challenged him anymore. Not until now.

The sweat must have been visible on his brow. Stewart couldn’t begin to explain why he was having so much trouble formulating an answer. Never before had he flinched to come back with a caustic response that would prove once again that his view was superior to all others. But he didn’t want to do that with Sara. Alienate her now and she would never come to his way of thinking much less want to go on another date with him. Scrambling, he quickly came up with an answer that would deflect the true depths to which his loathing of religion went, yet at the same time pierced his soul more than any other reason.

“Oh, I have nothing serious against groups like Intervarsity. I just can’t stand the hypocrisy that surrounds Christianity. I saw it as a kid, people acting one way in church and then living opposite to what they claimed to believe. If you truly say that you believe in something then your life should reflect those beliefs. I don’t function well with those who don’t.” There, he said it, and all with a believable air of decorum. But how would Sara respond to that? Suddenly how she felt meant more to him than it ever had before.

To his relief Sara didn’t seem to be thrown off by his response. In fact, she almost seemed pleased. Her answer even caught him more off guard. “I understand your feelings about hypocrisy within Christianity. It bothers me too. But what I’ve found is that when you truly believe in something then your life will reflect those beliefs. Hypocrisy is incompatible with Christianity. For those that don’t live what they say they believe, one has to wonder if they truly believe at all.” 

Wow. But wait, where was she going with this. Was she agreeing with me or was she posting yet another rebuttal to my theory? He had to know. This ran much deeper than just an attraction. Here was someone sitting across from him who was intellectual just like him, yet was she claiming to cling to an untenable system of beliefs?

“So, you’re a Christian?” The words tumbled from his mouth almost as much as an incredulous statement as they were a question. Again Sara seemed unfazed. “Yes, I am a Christian, but perhaps not in the sense that you understand a Christian to be.” Okay, exactly who is this girl and who does she think that I am? Christianity holds no weight, period. What kind of Christian is there other than the deluded kind?

He took a slow sip from his now lukewarm espresso before speaking. He noticed that she had barely had any of her Chai and found himself concerned with whether or not she liked the drink at all. Wait! Don’t get off track. “So what kind of a Christian are you?” Surely he wasn’t going to hear anything he hadn’t hear before. All of this talk about Jesus and relationship with God was old hat with him. What more could she bring to the conversation?

“Stewart, a Christian is one who is a follower of Jesus. My goal isn’t to be religious or even a faithful church attendee. And I’m prone to the kind of hypocrisy of which you speak. But the standard I strive for isn’t to be like other people; it’s to be like Jesus. He saved me from my sin and gave me hope and purpose that I could never find on my own. I live the way I do not to earn favor with God but rather because God has shown His favor to me through the cross. Everything I do and say is with gratitude for the salvation that I have received through Christ.”

Hope. Purpose. Favor. The cross. Salvation. All of these were words that numbed the brains of the religious people that Stewart knew; yet when Sara said them they sounded different. Was it because he was attracted to her that he somehow wanted to buy all of this? Or maybe it was the fact that she did live a life that backed up these Sunday teachings that he learned as a kid. One thing was for sure, he had not run into many people that possessed this kind of peace that Sara seemed to have. He was almost envious of her.

His freshman year roommate convinced him to come to church with him once. Stewart didn’t want to go but it seemed that his great mental acuity was keeping him from gaining many new friends, so what did he have to lose? He would go, hear the same old crap he had always heard, see a bunch of sheeple following a hypnotized shepherd, and then he would have no problem poking holes in all that garbage. It didn’t seem to bother him at the time that what he saw and heard was unlike anything that he expected. He was so hardened against religious things that nothing was going to change that. Yet the words of the pastor seemed to ring true in his heart that day and those around him didn’t seem to just be going through the motions. They were taking notes, carefully reading the book in their laps. Mind control did not seem to be taking place. These people seemed to really believe. But it was just an act, right? All religion was the same. Right?

His mind raced back and forth from that day freshman year to the present moment with Sara. Why was he now feeling so conflicted? Had he so repressed his feelings with rational thought that he was incapable of processing anything that required more than just knowledge to accept? He vividly remembered on numerous occasions explaining his rationale for believing that the origin of the universe could be proven scientifically, even when his mind was conflicted with his inability to explain where matter came from in the first place. This wasn’t a leap of faith like those religious zombies had to make. The whole of science made so much sense. What was the problem?

Until now there had not been a problem. Stewart had carefully skirted any potential potholes in his intellectual road with further reading and commiseration with those who shared his like-minded worldview. Then came Sara. In the brief time that he had known her he had sensed something about her was special, different, intriguing. And now she tells him that she is a Christian and suddenly what she is saying is starting to make sense. She doesn’t appear to be a hypocrite. Maybe he could debate her into the ground with all of the inconsistencies of the Christian faith and that would solve the problem. But what solution – or even relief – would that really give to him? Certainly it would not assuage the war that was suddenly raging in his heart, conflicting him on all sides.

It felt as if the room was now empty except for him. Here he was, confronted with a reality that he had spent his whole life trying to disprove if not altogether avoid. The hypocrisy angle was getting weaker by the second and his desire to offer yet another humiliating blow to those gullible in the faith was nonexistent. These simple words from a girl who seemed as real and authentic as anyone he had ever met were now branded onto his heart. What in the world was he going to do?

Coming back to reality, Stewart rather suddenly and politely excused himself to go the restroom. He washed his face again and tried to get a grip on himself, but all he could think of was if his life had any true meaning. Why was he here? Was there more than just this life and reality? Can science really explain everything? Why can’t all my years of study and learning help me right now when I need it the most? God, if you are real, what am I supposed to do?

He wasn’t sure if he asked that last question audibly or not, but those words shook him to the core. Had he just really called out to a God in whom he claimed not to believe? An unexpected thrill of exhilaration coursed through his body. He slowly made his way back to the table, suddenly unsure of how much time had passed since Sara answered him with those haunting words. She was still there, smiling that simple smile and finally sipping on her latte. Never one to give in to the opposition so soon, Stewart changed the subject to talk about their Ethics class and Sara diplomatically obliged the change of course. An hour passed, one filled with laughter over the professor’s obvious hairpiece to their personal views on topics ranging from just war and abortion. While their opinions tended to differ fairly radically, he found that she didn’t judge him or seem to mind that his views were so diametrically opposed to hers.

Glancing at her watch she noticed that it was almost 8:00 with an hour of calculus study lying ahead for her. Although he normally stayed at the coffee shop until closing, Stewart muttered something about needing to study as well and he slowly walked with her until they were out the door and onto the sidewalk. The night air was crisp and cold, betraying the fact that it was only early October. There was an awkward pause, a moment that he desperately wanted to fill. Sensing that he was squandering an opportunity that he might not again regain, he asked her when and where the Intervarsity group met. “Friday nights at 8:00, Mackey Hall room 121.” “Cool, I’ll try to make it,” he said. And he meant it. 

The Jesus dilemma

All the tax collectors and sinners were approaching to listen to Jesus.
And the Pharisees and scribes were complaining, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!’” (Luke 15:1-2)

In those two brief verses, the entire ministry of Jesus can be summed up as well as the legacy of the church that has been tasked to follow after Him. While He was on earth, Jesus loved those who were far from God while the religious leaders of His day hated Him for it. Unfortunately, that pattern still holds true today.

Years ago, someone coined the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” (WWJD) and from that spawned countless bracelets, t-shirts, and Wednesday messages from youth pastors. The idea was that if it was good enough for Jesus, then it should be good enough for us, too. And what exactly was good enough for Jesus? Luke 15:1 gives us the answer – He loved those who were far from God.

Today’s Christians – myself included – have too often chosen to take this idea of loving those who are far from God by sending the love of Jesus to far away places in the form of missions and charitable giving. This isn’t a bad idea because, after all, those places have lots of people who are far from God and if we take Jesus to them then maybe they will love Him too, right? Besides, we are going to give them and their kids lots of cool trinkets and hard-hitting gospel messages that will warn them of God’s wrath to come. And then, of course, we will pack up our stuff, drive or fly back home, and have an emotional Sunday service where participants wearing matching t-shirts share testimonies and slides illustrating just how much God did through them when they went to these faraway places to share His love to those who desperately needed it. Can I get an amen?!?

Before you send me hate mail for being so incredibly cynical about the short-term mission trips you have participated in, hear me out. The above illustration is only one example of the dilemma that Christians find themselves in when it comes to loving people like Jesus loved people. I don’t know that I have ever been around a group of believers who did NOT want to see people far from God come into a saving relationship through Jesus Christ. I have never heard a fellow Christian pray, “Lord, DON’T save this person and DON’T let them know the love of Jesus.” To say those things would be absolutely ridiculous, right?


How easy it is for fellow Christians to act and sound more like the angry old man who demands that those punk kids stay off his lawn:
  • “We can’t put more in the church budget for missions or charitable giving – we need to get this building paid off!”
  • “I can’t believe that anyone would support an organization like Planned Parenthood! Those people have no value for human life! And while I’m at it, I hope they catch that immigrant who shot that woman. He should hang for his crime – he doesn’t deserve to live!”
  •  “Let’s plan another fall festival for October. Maybe all those people from the neighborhood down the road will come this year so that we can finally reach out to them.”
  • “I don’t think I have enough to time to volunteer at the homeless shelter. There is this new Bible study on Tuesday nights that I am in – it’s about loving your neighbor. And then I have choir rehearsal for Sunday morning and don’t forget Sunday night Bible study at the Martin’s house. Oh, and Wednesday we will be at the church leading the children in how to write letters of encouragement to missionaries overseas. Maybe I will have more time later to help out.”
  • “Did you hear what that other church down the road is doing? They have members that are opening their home to immigrants who are being relocated to our town. How dangerous does that sound! I would never take the chance of putting my family at risk to help those people – Lord only knows what kind of criminal things they want to do in our country.”
If you have heard or experienced these same kinds of statements, then you can understand how we may be in far more danger of sounding and looking like the religious leaders in Luke 15:2 – complaining about others who are striving to live and love like Jesus did – than we are of actually living and loving like Jesus did.

It is not easy to be a follower of Jesus in the 21st Century. Jesus Himself even said that following Him would be difficult. But it is much more difficult to truly follow Him and love those who are far from God when we as His church have created so many boundaries and safe zones for ourselves that we never actually have to be in close contact with those people in the first place. When the life that Jesus lived every single day looks more like an isolated mission project to His followers, then we have indeed found ourselves in a most precarious dilemma.

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.

Top ten road trip takeaways

Our family just returned from a quick weekend road trip to Williamsburg, VA., the primary purpose of our little jaunt was to spend a day at ...