Loving your neighbor is easy, said no one ever

In the almost 17 years that I have been married to the woman of my dreams, we've lived in four different locations. When we lived in a country setting, our neighbors were maybe within shouting distance if the wind was at our backs. At other times, only a wall stood between us and our neighbors, leaving us feeling as I we needed to whisper a lot.

As very social people, my wife and I truly enjoy trying to get to know the people around us, and it's not uncommon for our kids to barge right on in someone else's home without even thinking about it (although we do tell them to at least knock first). We love having neighbors and being able to share life with them.

Except for when we didn't.

A few years ago a new family moved into our neighborhood and immediately our radar tracked them down. Where were they from (that way we could have an instant conversation starter)? Did they have kids close to the ages of ours? Were they outgoing or interested in spiritual things? All of these questions and more were on our minds except for one: Will we get along with them? We didn't even think that because, well, we get along with everybody!

Let me cut to the chase here. Things did not go smoothly with our new neighbors. It wasn't so much that we had little in common with them or had completely different backgrounds and world views than they did, which was true. What really strained any potential relationship was that their kids didn't play well with our kids. This may sound trivial at first, but when their kids started saying bad things about our kids started sharing negative things with us about their kids, the protective mode kicked in and we found it hard to be objective, especially when what our kids were telling us appeared to be true. Bottom line: It was hard for us to like, much less love, our neighbors. 

As followers of Jesus, this put us in a pickle. After all, in Matthew 22:38 Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves. That meant that in spite of what I perceived was going on down the street, I needed to be committed to love them anyway. Yet this was exactly what we struggled most to do. We didn't enjoy their company and I'm pretty sure they  weren't too crazy about hanging with us either. We wanted to love them but struggled to know how. 

As time would have it, they didn't stay our neighbors that long before moving to another state. I would be lying if I said I wasn't a bit relieved when their moving truck headed out of town, yet I knew that I had failed on one of the most basic commands that Jesus had ever given. I had failed to love my neighbors as myself. 

Let's be real for a minute. Many of us prefer to tolerate other people as opposed to truly seeking to love them. But tolerance isn't love. Love is love. And  I don't know about you, but I've never tolerated anyone into a relationship with Jesus. It simply doesn't work that way.

After realizing the error in my perspective on loving my neighbor, I also came to the realization that loving others is a whole lot harder than I was willing to admit. Yes, I have traveled all over the world and loved on complete strangers, yet I had missed out on the greatest mission field I could possibly find: My own backyard.

If you or I can't love our neighbors then we can't really love God either. Loving God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength is irrevocably connected to loving other people. You can't do one without the other, for if you truly love God then you will find a way to love your neighbor. 

I've learned my lesson. Bring on the next moving van.

My favorite season is family

As I type these words, I am finishing up an awesome 24+ hour guy time marathon with my son. As soon as my son learned that my wife and daughters were going out of town overnight, he announced that it was guy time and thus far here is a list of all that we've done:
  • Watched a Jason Bourne move. Actually, one and a half of them.
  • Ate chicken wings and banana pudding
  • Watched Wake Forest beat Boston College in basketball
  • Rented the Goosebumps movie (which was surprisingly good)
  • Spent time reading a book before bed
  • Slept in
  • Had cookies for breakfast
  • Checked a book out of the library
  • Made a purchase at the local candy store
  • Had sushi for lunch
  • And now he is in his Eno reading his library book while I type

So yeah, this has been a really good time with my son, time that I won't forget or regret taking.

Did I just say regret making time for my son? I can understand making changes in your schedule to have time for your kids but regret taking that time? Do parents really regret taking time with their kids?

No, they don't. At least they shouldn't.

I've never known a parent to say that the quality time that they have spent with their kids was a big mistake, but I have heard my share of parents express regret over not spending enough quality time with their kids. I've also heard parents say that it's difficult to make time for their kids. That's a pretty crappy excuse if you want to know the truth. We can't make time - time is a constant and we know how much we have and don't have to spend. It's a precious commodity that, once lost, can never be found again. So when it comes to the time that you have, there are only two choices that you can make:
  1. You can choose to manage your time
  2. Or your time will manage you
If you have kids, then I want you to think of their lives as a season, perhaps your favorite season, which for me would be summer. Each day that I get to spend with my kids is like another day of summer. But as with every season, there is an end date to it. As the end of August draws near, I begin to dread losing the warm weather, days at the beach and the pool, and the less stressful lifestyle that, for me, summer represents. I hate to see it end.

The same is true of the time that you have with your kids. Just as you long for your favorite season to last a few days or weeks longer, you will want to take advantage of every moment that you have with your kids. Yes, there will be days when your schedule is a whole lot busier than you want and your time will be consumed by work, projects, and other responsibilities that have to get done. But you will still have lots of time in the bank to what is most important. Regret only exists if we miss out on the opportunities that matter the most.

Do it here before you do it there

Recently while I was killing time (i.e., procrastinating) on Facebook, I came across some pictures of a family that I had not seen in a long, long time. This family lives overseas as missionaries and when I connected with them over ten years ago they were serving in northern Africa. Scrolling through their pictures brought back cool memories of playing with their three younger sons, walking dusty streets, and eating strange and exotic foods.

As my mind reminisced over those almost two weeks that I spent with that family, I began to process all that went into that trip. The cost of airline tickets, lodging, food and passports was a staggering amount, but it had all been worth it. At least, I believe it was worth it. Come to think of it, this amazing trip halfway across the world - as exciting as it was - left me with memories of an incredible cultural experience but little else. I was instantly reminded of how little I knew of the opportunity that awaited for me when I got there.

I just assumed that when I arrived I would dive right in and do what the other missionaries were doing, seeing people come to faith in Jesus and traveling the countryside like Jesus did. If I had just done more of my homework and interacted with the missionaries a bit more, I would have learned that in countries like this where Christianity is a minority religion, those opportunities to share my faith are not only rare but are also illegal. For the missionaries serving in this kind of environment, their goal was to assimilate into the culture over a period of time while creating relationships that they could nourish over several years. There was no way I could accomplish something like that in ten days.

Was it a waste of time for me to go on this trip? I wouldn't say that, for I learned a lot about a foreign culture and the challenges that missionaries face in countries that are closed to Jesus. Plus, I hope that my presence there was a blessing to this family and their kids, whom I have a blast entertaining. But when it was all said and done, I didn't really DO anything that could be counted as missions. Years later I have to ask myself, "Was this really a mission trip?"

I have had the opportunity to go on numerous short-term mission trips during my lifetime - Orlando, Bahamas, Turkey, New York City, and Antigua to name a few. All of them provided me with hundreds of memories, pictures, and souvenirs and there were even a few long-lasting relationships formed along the way. But if I can be totally honest with you, I am left with more troublesome thoughts and questions than I care to admit. Maybe you've had the same concerns.
  • Instead of gearing up to paint a church in South America, would it have been a better idea to send the funds to the local missionaries who in turn could hire local workers to do the painting, thus offering much needed employment and putting money back into their economy?
  • As we train to reach lost people living in foreign cultures, are we as passionate about reaching lost people in the neighborhood across the street?
  • When you prepare for a mission trip by volunteering in a local community center or other nonprofit, do you continue that local ministry when you return home or do you view it as necessary pre-trip training and nothing more?
Let me go ahead and say what some of you might be thinking - no, I do not believe that short-term mission trips are a waste of time. God has used opportunities in other states and countries to grow me in my faith and give me a zeal for the nations to hear the gospel. But I also believe that on many occasions I have been guilty of participating in nothing more than Christian tourism, a multi-billion dollar industry that provides us with amazing experiences that can be devoid of real missionary value (see Toxic Charity for more on this subject).

As a result of all of these experiences that I have had - and the opportunity to take a good, hard look at mission opportunities as a whole - I have come up with a rule of thumb for myself when it comes to participating in any sort of short-term mission project that I want to share with you:
Before I travel there, I have to look at what needs to be done here.
For me, I can't justify spending all of my time and resources helping out over there unless I first am invested in reaching people for Jesus here. If I ignore the lost or the poverty-stricken down the road, then how can I as a follower of Jesus put so much energy somewhere else? This does not mean that I will never take another short-term mission trip but rather it ensures that my view of missions doesn't become so narrow that others around me become marginalized.

The conclusion for me is that the lens through which I view missions must be panoramic in nature. It starts at home and then necessarily extends to the nations. Because of the opportunities to serve overseas or in other states that are often placed before us, it is easy to have our heart strings pulled in that direction before we can even gain a firm footing on the needs that exist right now in front of us. Let's not be so consumed with traveling over there before we have first loved our community in Jesus' name right here.

There is no justice. At least not yet.

Have any of you seen the Netflix series called Making a Murderer? It's a fascinating 10-part documentary that follows the life and crimes of a man named Steven Avery, a man convicted in 1985 for a brutal sexual assault which, it turns out, he never even committed. After serving 18 years in prison, DNA evidence exonerated Steven Avery and he was released in 2003. But that's just when his story really got started.

Knowing that he was wrongfully convicted, Steven Avery sought justice against the system that he believed negligently incarcerated him. As his attorneys were preparing to bring their lawsuit on behalf of Avery, another tragic event happened. Avery was accused, then tried, and then convicted of murdering a woman with the help of his nephew, who confessed and testified against Steven Avery. He is now serving life without parole for another despicable crime that again he claims he didn't do.

When crimes or committed or wrongs are done against us, we want justice and we want it now. Avery's case is classic example of injustice - a man serving 18 years for a crime he didn't commit. But then with his conviction on murder, the picture of justice gets more cloudy. Making a Murderer carries with it a slant toward Avery's innocence and many people, after watching all ten episodes, are convinced of his innocence and demanding a new trial.

So what does it take to get justice in our world? Better yet, what is justice in the first place? A layman's understanding of justice would mean that when someone is guilty of a crime, they do the time. Yet in our fast-paced, instant access culture, the ideas of innocence and guilty no longer appear to be so cut and dry.

Whether it is the Serial Season 1 podcast casting doubt on a high school senior's murder conviction or the Paradise Lost trilogy which actually resulted in the release of three men who were convicted of murdering three children in 1993, there is no consensus anymore on who is innocent or guilty or where justice truly lies. If you aren't convinced, watch a presidential debate and tell me afterward who told the whole truth!

As the great show The X Files used to proclaim, "The truth is out there!"

But where is it?

First, we have to understand that when we're dealing with human beings there will always be the potential for deception. That's because people lie. All the time. And they do so to cover their tracks, take unwarranted credit for success, or to deflect blame on someone else. This is what people do. I'm not condoning it at all, just explaining it as part of the process.

Second, people are never going to fully agree on innocent vs. guilty, true vs. false, even if the obvious evidence is right in front of their faces. We want to believe what we want to believe about certain people and nothing will change our minds. I'm sure there are many mothers of sons on death row who still believe that they are "good boys."

Finally, there is a solution. In fact, the truth IS out there and it's not far away at all. No, I'm not talking about uncovering hidden evidence that will either exonerate or implicate someone in a real-life crime. I'm talking about a much deeper truth that serves as a foundation to all of life. I'm talking about Jesus.

In John 14:6, Jesus dropped a bombshell on His disciples when He claimed, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No once comes to Father except through me." With those words Jesus wasn't claiming to deliver everything that we would need to solve future court cases. Instead, He made it very clear that if we would believe in who He said He was - the Son of God - and accept what He was about to do at that time - offer Himself for the sins of the world - then we would be embracing the truest true that man could possibly fathom.

This truth leads us to the reality that, no matter how hard we try, we can't save ourselves.

This truth leads us to the reality that, if we want to have a relationship with God, Jesus is the only way.

This truth leads us to the reality that we aren't here by some cosmic accident, but rather God has placed us here for a purpose - to know Jesus.

And this truth leads us to the reality that, while things in this world are messed up now and the good guys don't always win, there is coming a day when that will all change. Jesus is coming back, and when He does return all the evil and wickedness and injustice in the world will be abolished forever. And if you have a relationship with God that only faith in Jesus can provide, you will be forever wrapped up in that truth as well.

As time goes by, I will be interested to see follow ups on some of these now high profile crimes and how, when, and if they are resolved through our justice system. In the meantime, I anticipate that many more men and women will declare their innocence or we will declare their guilt. All of this makes for good entertainment but, unless we know all the facts - which we most certainly never do - we have to rely on what we are told to form our opinions.

Thankfully, your life in Christ never has to rely on such shaking footings. Your faith in Jesus doesn't guarantee that you will never be falsely accused or that our courts will fail to prosecute the right person. But your faith in Jesus does guarantee that while injustice may be elusive in your lifetime, after your time on earth is through you will spend eternity with the righteous King who will make all things new. No more crying, no more pain, no more injustice, just perfect peace.

Cam Newton, grow up! But only if I let you...

By now you've all seen or at least heard what happened. Cam Newton, the Carolina Panther's MVP quarterback and emotional leader, sitting sullen before a bank of hungry reporters. His answers are brief, his mood dark. Having just lost the biggest game of his career barely half an hour before, he's still trying to process it all while the world is demanding that he give a polished thesis of the results. Finally, after only a few minutes and within earshot of an uber loud opponent's comments, Newton abruptly stands and walks away from the interview, leaving the media with all sorts of ways to spin what they had just witnessed.

Yes, Newton could have responded better and most talking heads and Monday morning quarterbacks have been very critical of him for that. But of course, that's easy for us to say. When the team that I cheer for loses, I usually am not gung ho about it. In fact, I can get a little bit sullen myself and I didn't even get close to sniffing the field of play.

What I've been hearing this entire NFL season as the Carolina Panthers have shot to the top is that, while they are a solid team with legitimate talent, Cam Newton lacks maturity on the field and he can't lead them all the way. Why have people said that? Is it because he actually has fun with the game, gives balls away to little kids when he scores, and celebrates on the sidelines the success of his teammates? Heaven forbid a leader do that. Or could it be that off the field he give back to his community and hasn't been found in any police blotters? Alas, it rubs many the wrong way and there have been cries all season for this young man to grow up.

But here is the problem with that. Many want Newton to grow up, but only on their terms. 

Most leaders who find themselves in a situation like Cam Newton's - having to rebound from a major disappointment or failure - learn from these moments whether we allow them to or not. Cam has been criticized for being a poor leader, but what we don't see is what is going on behind the scenes with his coaches and teammates. You see, this young leader is surrounded by other leaders who no doubt are speaking as wise voices into his life. None of them have publicly lashed out harshly at him because, well, that's not what leaders do. And frankly, if all he did was give a less than stellar interview after a heartbreaking loss - minus any screaming or throwing of objects, which didn't happen - then the Panthers really don't have a whole lot of damage control to do.

This whole docudrama reminds me of someone else who had a much worse moment in the spotlight, yet rebounded remarkably well. The apostle Peter started the whole awful interview concept to begin with. Before his big blunder-fest, Peter was with Jesus declaring that He was indeed the Messiah (Matthew 16:6). Bravo, Peter! Way to lead the pack! 

But fast forward a short amount of time and we see Peter dropping the ball big time. Confronted by others about his association with the newly arrested Jesus, Peter denied ever knowing the guy. Not once, but three times. In fact, he became so eager to clear his name that he publicly cursed as evidence that he and Jesus were strangers. On the biggest stage of his life, and before the eyes of those who are eager to hear his side of the story, Peter blows it.

The rest of the story turns more tragic before a beautiful ending that is still being written. Jesus is crucified, which doubtless would have happened even if Peter had declared his allegiance from a mountaintop. But then, history turns on its ear as the grave that held the body of Jesus bursts forth in glorious emptiness as He conquers death and leaves His death shroud behind.

When Jesus and Peter link up later on a beach, the scene is much different. Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him, and three times Peter publicly declares that he does. Do you know what just occurred in that incredible moment? Redemption. Growth. Restoration of a leader.

Not to be lost in all of this is the fact that Peter was already a leader - he had been with Jesus for over three years, serving by His side. And Jesus knew that one moment of failure was not enough to define the life that He had called Peter to live. So He reminded Peter of who he was and what he was called to do, and with a newfound energy Peter took that challenge and began his path of altering the course of history for the glory of God.

True leaders grow from adversity while others fade. Peter did just that, and if you know Jesus then you can be grateful that Peter moved on after what seemed an unforgivable moment. Because that's what leaders do. 

Give Cam some time to process what he's been through. I promise that if he is the leader that I think he is and listens to the voices of truth that surround him, he will rebound well from this. Some won't accept anything that he says or does from here on out, but that's okay. Leaders will always have their share of haters and they will thrive off of their venom. As for me, I'll be watching him again next season and cheering him on, because I don't believe this leader has come close to seeing his best days yet.

Christian Cuss Words and Other Lame Excuses

I was informed by a student yesterday that there are such things as "Christian cuss words." Did you know about this? Apparently you can call people names such as "butt-monkey" or exclaim "Shut the front door!" and these are acceptable alternatives to those words that we shall not utter, at least while no one from church is around. What a relief to know that we can cuss holy, right?

Funny story, I know. "Those crazy things that kids say!" might come to mind. But let's be honest, the concept behind the "Christian cuss word" has oozed its way into our thinking so stealthily that we apply this illogic to so many areas of our lives.

Let's consider the issues that many Christians champion, for instance. The entire world is well aware of what Christians are against because we do such a darn (oops, Christian cuss-word, sorry!) good job of vocalizing those very things. We are against abortion, against same-sex marriage, against radical Islam, and against anything anti-Chick-Fil-A. And don't get me wrong, if you are follower of Jesus, taking a stand against things that offend the heart of God are what we should be doing. Yet I am afraid that while most people know what Christians are against, they aren't quite sure what they are for.

So, if you are a follower of Jesus, what ARE you for? Better yet, WHO are you for? The way you answer this question is incredibly important, because I have never known anyone who was shamed or bullied into an authentic relationship with Jesus. Just in case you aren't sure how to verbalize what you are for as a follower of Jesus, let me remind you of what Jesus is for:
  • Grace - Jesus gave us the greatest gift possible without the hope that there was anything we could to earn it. His death gives us life, His shed blood forgiveness. Jesus is all about loving the unlovely in spite of the fact that no one else does. We should be too.
  • Forgiveness - Hurt feelings yield hard grudges. But not so with Jesus. Whatever sin you commit, you ultimately commit against the heart of God, and this is incredibly personal to Him. Yet Jesus offers forgiveness for a flat fee of $0. In fact, Jesus offers you forgiveness before you know you even need it. We need to be like that.
  • Second Chances - I love the story of The Prodigal Son found in Luke 15:11-32. Long story short, youngest son takes dad's wealth and blows it on sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll lifestyle before coming to his senses and crawling back home. Dad, who represents God, sees him coming and runs to welcome his son back, offering him a second chance to live life the way that God intended. Jesus came so that we all could get that second chance from God. Has anyone in your life blown it so bad that they don't deserve a second chance from you?
  • Obedience Over Perfection - In 1 Samuel 15:22, the prophet Samuel told King Saul that "to obey is better than sacrifice." Translation: God loves it when you do your best for Him, but what He really wants is your heart. He isn't looking for perfect Christians because there aren't any. But God is looking for those who will love Him with heart, soul, mind, and strength. If you anchor you ship to your works, you'll go down with that ship.
  • Loving Others - Jesus tells us in Mark 12:30-31 that the two most important commandments are to love God and love people. Some of you are really good at loving God but pretty lousy at loving other people, especially when their skin color, lifestyle choices, political beliefs, or past failures get in the way. So get this: If you can't love people, then you really don't love God in the first place. Jesus is for others.
  • Personal Holiness - If you take any time at all to read the gospels (the first four books of the New Testament in the Bible), you will find that Jesus spends a lot of time rebuking those who thought themselves to be uber-religious. Why? Because they flaunted a version of holiness that was phony at best and hypocritical to the core. The whole plank-in-the-eye analogy is for those of us who believe that we have the right to regulate the lives of others without first making sure that our walk with Jesus is actually a walk in the first place.
This list could be much, much longer, but you get the idea. What does any of this have to do with "Christian cuss words"? I'm glad you asked.

When we choose to live out our faith in Jesus screaming about what we are against rather than who we are for, we are doing nothing more than making excuses for our lack of spiritual integrity. Maybe we think our Christian activism will make up for a lack of personal responsibility and holiness that we pray no one sees up close. I realize this may sound harsh and unfair to paint all Christians with such a broad brush, but when we choose to lump ourselves together to fight for causes, we ought to be able to take it on the chin when we lose sight of where we are going. And yes, I include myself in this discussion as well.

Let's not be this way any longer. May we be a people united for the cause of Christ, desiring to see as many men and women come to faith in Him as we possibly can. And let the world see us loving the unlovely, seeking to lead the broken, hurting, and confused to healing and hope found only in Christ. Because dangit, we don't need any more excuses. 

The best leaders lead from the front, not the back

This past weekend I had two conversations regarding the state of public education in the state in which I live. Okay, they were more muted down diatribes delivered by yours truly than they were conversations, but I had a captive audience and I just couldn't help myself.

If you are resident of the great state of North Carolina, then you know the rough state of affairs that our public schools and teachers are facing. With four children of my own in public schools, I share your concerns. And as one who tries so hard not to be overly political with issues - I call them as I see them and am a proud registered Independent - it's hard not to get frustrated with the perceived lack of concern for our public schools from those in Raleigh whom we all had a hand in electing. Besides, I've yet to see a legislator sitting in a classroom in my community striving to understand exactly what is going on before he or she casts their next vote.

It gets frustrating to see a revolving door of seemingly qualified school leaders that get the boot when the least bit of trouble comes along. It seems as if those who hold the keys to power like to knee jerk and replace superintendents and principals every other year when test scores or performance standards aren't met.

This confuses me because I don't know one principal who has the time or ability to sit down with each individual student and personally tutor them and monitor their progress. Yes, that is where the teachers come in, and the ones that I know do the best they can to ensure that students will succeed. But let's be honest - when our teachers have to go to their second job of the day as soon as the final bell rings, that tells us that not only do they not have the proper amount of time in a given day to invest in the students as they would like, they also aren't paid enough to do the work that otherwise they would gladly do. At some point parents come into play in this whole equation, yet their influence is often not even mentioned when it comes to the success or failing of our students.

What am I getting at here? Am I about to go off on a political rant? No, not even close.

My point is that when we see any system in our world - whether education, business, non-profit, etc. - in action, we should do our best to learn from what we see. Leadership is such a broad subject to tackle and I don't pretend to be an expert on all things leadership. But I know what I see and I am able to discern the good leaders from the bad ones in hope that I will be considered one of the former.

So here is my point: The best leaders are those who lead from the front, not the back.

It is so easy to call the shots sitting in a cushy chair behind a glass window. That's what a manager does. But leaders are those who leave the office and get on the ground level with their employees, choosing to treat them as co-workers and not hired hands. Leaders steer the car. Managers are back seat drivers.

As one who has been entrusted with overseeing people, I never want to be that guy who points his finger and tells people what to do without actually being there with them to do it. The greatest example I have ever seen of this was Jesus. He recruited twelve men to minister with Him and gave each of them certain tasks to perform. And when He sent them out on their own, He didn't retreat to the casa and wait for them to come back. Instead, He stayed in the field with them so that He could observe their progress and celebrate their successes with them.

Jesus never led from the back and we shouldn't either. As the ultimate leader, Jesus did what we could not do - He gave His life so that we could know God. But from this we understand just how important it is that we lead from the front, modeling the same style of servant leadership that He mastered. And we do so not to be promoted or have a banquet in our honor, but rather so that we can see others around us flourish as they are striving to reach their God-given potential. When others around you succeed, we all win.

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...