Ain't that a shame? No, it really isn't.

Political correctness. Just uttering those words can elicit a visceral response in so many people. Depending on what your personal worldview is will determine how you define that term. Basically, if what you say, do, or believe does not line up with "the other side's" point of view, then you are politically incorrect. By that definition, we are all guilty.

Before you read any further, I need to let you know something: This is NOT a post about political correctness, politics, or anything that has happened in the news recently. I try really hard to limit my commentaries on those things because social media is a powder keg for so many issues. Plus, whenever you or I put our thoughts out there, there really are no buffers of protection or explanation to truly make it worthwhile. But this IS a post about people, people like you and me and how we've been made to believe that what we have either done in our past or the things we are currently involved in today are worthy of shame and self-hate.

You know what I'm talking about. Think back to a mistake that you've made in the past or to some bad decisions that continue to haunt your memory. When those events define who we are today, then we find ourselves living in a bubble of shame and self-hate, convinced that we are not worthy to move on with our lives because, well, we don't deserve to. 

If you are a follower of Jesus, then I think you're tracking with me by now. If you aren't, I still think this will make sense to you. You see, the battle against sin is real and serves as a constant reminder of our fallen nature. When Jesus came and bled and died, He did so to forgive us of our sins and to redeem us for God. That's great news! If you have placed your faith in Jesus then you are forgiven and free - free from guilt and shame from your past sins and mistakes. 

But for most of us, the reality of this good news is not enough to move us beyond the incredible essence of God's grace. We still feel guilty for our past sins and, to make matters worse, we still struggle with many of those sins today. Just because we have received forgiveness in Christ doesn't mean that the temptation to sin magically goes away. In fact, I believe that it actually gets magnified because we now know the devastating effects that sin has on our lives and our relationship with God.

So we hide, lie, embellish, and exaggerate about our sins. We don't want others to know that we are struggling because, well, we are followers of Jesus and we aren't supposed to do those things, right? Yet we DO still struggle with sins, those areas that we know are wrong and offensive not just to God but to the relationships we hold most dear here on earth. Sin always hurts - whether it is ourselves or the others around us. 

Because (most) Christians hold to a level of absolute truth, when others act in ways that we know run contrary to God's truth, it is so easy for us to point the finger of guilt at them and wag it in their faces. In doing so, many hope to bolster their grasp on truth and decency while clinging to a personal track record that they hope will prove them "safe." And for fellow believers who stumble and fall? Well, this is where the shame comes in. Instead of seeking forgiveness and accountability, it becomes far easier to beat themselves up over their sin to the point of doubting not only their salvation but also their ability to even receive God's love and forgiveness.

The apostle Paul was familiar with this struggle all too well. Romans chapter 7 is devoted to the struggle that he still waged against sin that continuted to plague his life. "For I do not understand what I am doing, because I do not practice what I want to do, but I do what I hate...For in my inner self I joyfully agree with God's law. But I see a different law in the parts of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and taking me prisoner to the law of sin in the parts of my body." (Romans 7:15, 22-23) Translation: I know what's right but I struggle sometimes to do it and I hate it when that happens in my life.

Look, none of us want to be seen as failures, especially in our relationship with God. And when we do stumble and fall, it's so easy to beat ourselves up and create our own self-depreciating shaming culture. Do you know what that accomplishes? Nothing! I've never seen anyone grow in their relationship with God as a result of constantly beating themselves up over their past mistakes. 

What is the solution? Fight! Shame is not one of the weapons in God's arsenal. But grace is, and He has lavished His grace on us through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:7-8). This means that God's grace - His unconditional love and forgiveness - is greater than all of our sin. Yes, sin is real and it's ugly, but if you know Jesus as Lord and Savior then you also must understand that your forgiveness is complete. 

What about the constant struggle against sin? Again, fight! There is no magic pill to swallow that will make sin somehow less appealing when you become a Christian. In fact, because you now will be more aware of what sin is, it's draw may be even more appealing. So fight it! You have the ability to fight sin because the Holy Spirit, who lives within you, has given you that power. Paul also wrote in Philippians 3:12-14 that we are to press on in our effort to live lives pleasing to God. 

I talk to people all the time who are devastated over the sins in their lives. Some live in daily anguish and retreat to their own little prisons of self-punishment. Sadly, many Christians feed this notion into their heads, making them believe that they indeed need to punish themselves because of their failures. But last I checked, that punishment was already served. When Jesus hung on the cross, He died for sins once for all. It is finished. And no amount of shame or self-hate or punishment is going to add one measure to the forgiveness you have already received. So believe in your forgiveness and God's amazing grace and accept it, and then fight with all you've got against the sin that continues to pull you away from God. 

I ain't skeered! Are you?

Have you ever seen a big, strong weight lifter scream like a little girl when he sees a spider? Or how about a seasoned defense attorney freak out over a paper cut to her index finger? Maybe you haven't, but you can certainly picture the scenario in your head and have probably seen something similar.

We live in a world where we all want to be seen as tough and fear is a taboo to be avoided. How many movies do you see where the coward is the hero? Yet in spite of our best efforts, if we were to sit in a support group circle together and allow our defenses to come down, we would all admit to being scared of plenty of things.
  • The possibility of our health or the health of our children being compromised
  • Losing a job and being unable to support our families
  • What the future of our country will look like, which means we either have Trump-phobia, Hillary-phobia, Bernie-phobia, Republican-phobia, Democrat-phobia, etc. ad nauseum.
  • Or maybe we are afraid of what we see as international threats, such as ISIS, nuclear capabilities of North Korea, or our perceived leaky borders. 
  • The eventual takeover of the world by the Illuminati and the One World Order (c'mon, everybody is scared of a good conspiracy theory now and then!).
  • Spiders. Because spiders are ALWAYS scary.
Whatever it is that you fear in this world, you often feel justified in your fears because the media has a unique way of stoking the flames of paranoia and hysteria. A few clicks on the keyboard will open up a cornucopia of websites and facts and figures as to why your fears are legitimate and you had better start stocking up on Spam and freeze dried vegetables right away. The fear is real!

But what if you realized that your fears don't actually help you cope with the looming gloom and doom that you are so certain is coming? What if you realized instead that in spite of being helpless to defend yourself against the coming Armageddon of bad healthcare/skewed politics/imminent poverty/etc., you are perfectly safe right where you are? Would you believe that?

Truth is, bad things are going to happen in this world. We've been working for centuries to fight diseases, boost the economy, defeat fascists, and improve the environment, yet time and again we have still seen people suffer and lives lost. It's at these times we are tempted to climb in our bunkers, put on our tin foil hats, and hope for the best. What we need to realize is that not only is help on the way, but that help is already here.

Whether you see it or not or agree with it or not, God is in control. He is what we call "sovereign." Nothing escapes His sight and He is well aware of the condition of our world right now. After all, He has allowed us to make the decisions that have gotten us into the messes in which we so often find ourselves. And if you believe that and you believe that Jesus came to give you life and the relationship with God that you were ultimately created for, then you probably already know that one day the Lord will return and rescue us from this mess and carry us with Him into a perfect eternity. The best is yet to come!

But for now we must live in hope and endure the hard times. God has not left us here to blow around in the winds of uncertainty, but rather He is with us every step of the way. I love the words that He spoke to Israel a few thousand years ago when they found themselves enveloped in a tempest of uncertainty:
Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand... For I, the Lord God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, "Fear not, I am the one who helps you."      (Isaiah 41:10, 13)
Twice they were told to "fear not" because there is truly nothing to fear. Did the "wrong" candidate get elected? Fear not, God is in control. Are you afraid of what the doctor's lab work will show? Fear not, God has you in His right hand. Terrified of the world that your children will have to face in the future? Fear not, God's got this.

If we are going to "fear not" then we have to believe that God is bigger than our fears. There will continue to be many things beyond our control that will cause us to wring our hands and worry about the future, causing our fear meters to spike. Yet we can take comfort in knowing that we serve a God who is greater than all our fears. 

Will that I will know God's will, or something like that

He looked at me in all seriousness and said, "I honestly believe it was God's will for me to leave my wife and kids to be with her. She makes me happy, happier than I've ever been in my life. When I'm with her, I feel fulfilled, as if the missing pieces of my life have suddenly been put into place. God wants me to be happy, right?"

Pretty cringe-worthy statements there, huh? Maybe you're thinking that there is no way in the world God's will is for someone to get a divorce because he's in love with another woman, and I am right there with you. But the problem we all face at some point is that we struggle to know what God's will is in the first place. Truth be told, the foundation of our desire to know God's will isn't too far off this guy's desire to "upgrade" his choice in wives - we want God's will to benefit us. In other words, we know what we want and we hope and pray that God will rubber stamp it for us, hence making His will conform to our will.

When it comes right down to it, how many of us can even define what God's "will" even is? And what if what we believe God wants for our lives contradicts the truth that we find in the pages of the Bible? Can we still find ways to force it into our lives and justify it?

These questions are not meant to disparage anyone, but rather to start the thinking process. I believe we all want to know God's will for our lives, yet finding out exactly what His will is can be a lot like picking perfect NCAA brackets. It's a lot harder than it looks. Over the years I've wanted to know what God's will for my life was in very specific areas:
  • What job will I one day have?
  • Who will I marry?
  • Where will I live?
  • Will Wake Forest ever be good in basketball again?
But is that all there is to God's will, just wanting to know the who/what/where/why/how of our own lives? Doesn't that limit the scope just a bit? Yes it does. God's will belongs to God, not us, and so He is the focal point. We become the gracious beneficiaries of His eternal and perfect desires and plans, not the arbiters of how we want things to go.

The Sermon on the Mount in the book of Matthew is perhaps the most well-known and studied teaching session of Jesus. In this passage He unpacks so many nuggets of goodness that we could feast on it for weeks on end without ever getting enough. And in this amazing section of truth, Jesus actually addresses God's will for our lives, yet perhaps not in the cut-and-dry way that we would prefer.

In Matthew 6:9-13, Jesus teaches us what has become known as The Lord's Prayer, a template for how we can approach God through the discipline of prayer. In verse 10 He reveals this gem:
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
From that brief statement, we learn a ton about what God's will is - and isn't - and how it applies to our lives. We see that God's will exists in heaven and heaven is a place where God resides. Therefore, God's will is perfect, because God is perfect. His will is driven by His very nature and character, which means that His will will always glorify who He is and never point to sinfulness. As a result of these truths, we can know for certain that God's will in our lives will always involve those things that bring glory and honor to Him above all else.

This understanding may not answer the question of specifically whom you are going to marry one day, but it does tell you that whomever you pursue as a spouse should be one whose life honors God above anything else. 

And from this you may not find the specifics to where you will one day work or live, but you can be assured that whatever occupation you choose or destination you call home should be done so to glorify God above all else.

College in the future? Consider how best you can glorify God in your choice of higher education.

On and on we could go, but I think that you see the trend here. Perhaps the greatest area of God's will that we need to grasp is that God's will is all about His will and not simply what we want for our lives. God is good - all the time - and inside His perfect will lies His perfect plans and ways that often fall beyond our scope of understanding. 

God wants what is best for us. He is not a capricious God who wants to dash our hopes and dreams. After all, He is the one who gave us the ability to hope and dream in the first place! But we will only truly begin to discover God's will when we earnestly seek after Him from the get go. You wanna know God's will for your life? Then seek to know God, the designer and executor of His perfect will. Seek first His kingdom, and all these things will be added unto you (Matthew 6:33).

Expectations will go as low as you let them

I am subbing at a local high school as I type these words. Don't worry, they are taking a test so I'm not shirking my responsibilities. When I walked in the door this morning at the school, I was asked to sub for a class that I wasn't originally assigned for, but only for first period. It was a math class and they had plenty of work left for them to keep them busy.

For the most part they did really well, working to complete their assignments while keeping the noise to a minimum. I try to be a "cool" sub, the one who pushes them to do their assignments but doesn't crack the whip too hard. Plus, it's Friday, and everyone should catch a little bit of a break on Friday, right?

All was going well when I noticed this one student who wasn't keeping up with the rest of the others. He wasn't disruptive or anything like that. In fact, he was entirely quiet. That's because he was sound asleep the entire time he was in my class. Not once did his pencil move in rhythm with the other students as they completed their assignments. I didn't realize he was asleep until about halfway through the class - I just assumed he preferred doing his work with his head on his arm. But nevertheless, the only thing that finally grabbed his attention was the clutter of his classmates as they gathered their belongings to head out to their next class.

That disappointed me. I guess I expected some sort of effort on his part, even if what he had in front of him was little more than busy work handed out by a substitute teacher such as myself. My expectation for him exceeded his reality.

Have you ever expected something from someone but only been disappointed when they failed to deliver? How many times have you supported a certain political candidate only to become frustrated when he or she neglected to follow through on their promises? Pretty much every time, right?

The question that needs to be asked then is, "Do we expect too much from other people?" It's hard to give blanket answer to a question that broad, but the best answer would be NO, we should not expect less from others when we know full well they have the ability to give more than they are willing to deliver.

The key word here is willing. When people can do more, they should. A saying that I like to use is that people will often only go as low as the bar you set for them. If you run for political office and you make a promise, then you should do everything in your power to deliver on that promise. If you don't, then it shows that you are unwilling to raise yourself above the minimum height of the bar that's been set for you.

Expectations don't have to be unrealistic and they don't have to disappoint us. A good rule to go by when fulfilling your own obligations is to expect more from yourself first than you do from other people. 

Raise the bar for yourself. Don't settle for barely getting by when you know that you are capable of more. And before you become too disappointed at other people for not coming through, make sure that you are delivering on the goods that you have promised to others and to yourself. 

Share what you got or you might lose it

This past weekend there was a middle school retreat for the student ministry I oversee. Dozens of middle school students brought their glorious chaos to a weekend filled with fun, very little sleep, and lots of junk food. It was all aimed at helping them grow closer to God.

I didn't go to it.

On Wednesday night we will have our regular youth ministry time where we will begin with a teaching time before breaking up into our small groups. Well over 100 middle school and high school students will come for pizza, snacks, fellowship, and intentional time talking about God.

I won't be leading it.

What will I be doing if I am not leading these events? Am I sitting at home watching Sports Center or out on the town eating pizza and wings? No to both.  Instead, I am watching other leaders who have stepped up to the plate and taken the proverbial bull by the horns as they lead and teach our amazing students. These guys and girls aren't leading by accident. They have been placed in key positions to either lead or blend into the background.

Some may call giving responsibility to others delegation, but I prefer to see it as shared leadership. I know for a certain that I can't do everything on my own and I really don't even want to try. In fact, I am keenly aware of my areas of weakness and I do my best to bring people on board who are strong in those areas to make up for my deficiencies.

If you are in a position of leadership you have two choices: Share it or bear it alone. When you share leadership with others, amazing things begin to happen: People take ownership of the organization, they are less likely to complain, morale rises, and results improve. You have a unique vision for what you want to see happen - share that vision by inviting others to walk with you, not follow from behind. If you are hesitant to share leadership with those who serve with you, then they more than likely will not share the passion that you have.

What if you are not a leader, the one making the key decisions? You have two choices as well: Claim opportunities or clam up. Show a willingness to lead and a leader will spot you from a mile away. Don't be afraid to step up and take a chance at more responsibilities. If you choose to clam up, then you have chosen to set the bar as low as you might ever go. And what happens if you serve under someone who refuses to share their leadership? Continue to be available but also accept the fact that it may be time to look for other opportunities to serve elsewhere.

At some point in your life you are going to lead something or someone. If you are a parent, share leadership roles with your kids - allow them to invest their time in preparing meals and doing other jobs around the house. That may not sound very glamorous for your kids but it does take certain things off of your plate as well as equip them for real world challenges later. And if you are the leader of a ministry or other organization, don't even think about shouldering the burden alone.

When you share leadership you equip others to excel in areas they may not otherwise see their gifted-ness. If you aren't willing to share the leadership that you have, you might lose the opportunity to lead altogether.

If you said THAT, this it's time to gain some weight

As soon as the words left my lips, I knew that what I had uttered was not true. I was trying to make a point about what it meant to be responsible for our own actions, but what came out didn't exactly match up with the truth I was trying to convey. What I had said was along the lines of, "God only helps those who can help themselves," and I'm sure that I had crossed far more egregious lines with my words before in a more private setting, but this time I was far from being in a one-on-one conversation with a patient friend. I was preaching a message from the Bible in front of the people of my church.

Now let me set the stage a little bit better for you. At the time that I spoke these poorly chosen words, I was in my young 20's and serving as a youth director at a small church on the outskirts of an even smaller town. It was my first solo church gig. The pastor there was a really awesome guy who, in the few months that we served together, took me under his wing and made it a point to give me opportunities to preach as often as he could (or that he would dare).

Not quite ready for the Sunday morning showcase, I typically sharpened my craft in the Sunday evening service, where more often than not there would be a few dozen in attendance at best. In case you didn't know, Sunday evening services at small churches are typically reserved for faithful church goers who never miss an opportunity to sit in their favorite pew no matter what the occasion. It was on such a Sunday night service that I made my biblical blunder, and the stammering and stuttering that followed only made it more awkward for me to recover.

Now to their credit, the church members that were in attendance that night didn't seemed phased. It's probably because they weren't truly listening to me in the first place, and who could blame them - my nerves had caused me to speak so rapidly that I could barely follow along! But I did get to have a time to debrief with the pastor and I highlighted my error before he could, which resulted in a few good-natured laughs and an admonishment from him to weigh my words more carefully before they ever reached my tongue.

If you buy an article of clothing at the store and it doesn't fit, you can take it back. Unfortunately, poorly spoken words can't be returned, even if they can be forgiven. What you say has instantly been put on the record books, and no amount of hemming and hawing is going to change that. In a world where politicians are constantly trying to deny saying what has been captured on digital media for the world to hear, you would think that we would be much more careful on the front end with what we say before we get royally burned on the back end.

Just the other day a well-known pastor of a megachurch - a man whose ministry I admire greatly - said something in his Sunday morning sermon that rankled a whole lot of feathers (just in case you don't want to watch the clip, he said that if you don't go to a church big enough to provide certain environments for your kids, then you are being selfish and you don't care about your kids and their spiritual future). The response on social media - at least among those I know who are in the ministry - was swift and one-sided. True, many had been waiting a long time to take a nice swing at this guy, but most could not get over the fact that this man, who has an audience quite possibly in the millions when you count those who tune in online, would be careless enough to say what he said.

Did he really mean it? I mean, as many times as he's preached in his life and as careful as he must be with his sermon preparation, would he have said such a thing if he didn't weigh it out first? To this man's credit he took to social media a couple of days later to apologize, stating that once he took the time to listen to what he had said that he, too, was offended by it. For some, his apology will be enough for them to move on under his leadership but for others it will be the final straw.

I don't think I have to tell you this by now but I will anyway - the words that you say are so incredibly important! As a father of four kids I can't tell you how many times I have put my foot in my mouth with some of the words that I have said to them, and please don't bring up all of the misguided and just plain stupid things that I have said to my wife over the years. When you and I neglect to weigh the words that we are about to speak, we can expect to encounter some pretty awkward and painful moments.

But there is good new for us who are prone to foot-in-mouth disease! The Bible has lots of great wisdom to offer about the words that we say, especially in the Old Testament book of Proverbs:
The lips of the righteous feed many, but fools die for lack of sense. (Proverbs 10:21)
The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. (Proverbs 12:18)
The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil. (Proverbs 15:28)
Do you see the trend here? There is direct connection between wisdom and the words that we say. In other words, if we take the time to think about what we say before we say it - if we carefully weigh our words - chances are we won't have to take to social media to publicly apologize for our blunders.

I was fortunate enough when I was in my young 20's that the careless words I said before my little congregation did not have many ears to irritate. From that circumstance and others like it, I was able to grow and move on as a more careful communicator, a craft that I still work at diligently today. As a pastor I understand the awesome privilege I have to preach God's word and the accountability that goes with that. But I also know that no matter what you do in life - whether your stage is small or grand - the words that you say will always influence other people.

Learn to weigh your words on the scale of truth and common sense before you speak them. It's always better to take extra time on the front end to formulate what you are going to say than to have to spend lots of time and energy on the back end trying to explain what you actually meant to say in the first place. 

Stay in your own lane, but it's okay to be curious and take some detours along the way

As a kid growing up, I had the privilege of sitting in the shadows of some great examples. My grandfather fought in WW2 and afterwards worked as a mail carrier before opening a family grocery store with his wife, my grandmother, that they both operated until he died in 1990. My father went to a technical school after he graduated from high school and he has had the same career as a contract draftsman since the early 1970's, a job that he's pretty stinkin' good at too.

No one told me growing up that I had to pick one thing and strive to do it to the best of my ability, but there was some outside pressure that pushed me in that direction. Ever since high school I knew that God was calling me into the ministry, and student ministry was always at the heart of what I wanted to do. So it just seemed natural that I would pursue student ministry alone and then, when I became older and more seasoned, I could transition out into other areas of ministry. The only problem was that, while I did have a passion for student ministry, I also had strong desires to do other things such as preach, teach, write, and oversee other ministries.

While that may not seem like a problem to you - and it didn't seem like such a big deal to me - I did have others in my life telling me that I needed to pick one thing and focus on being excellent with it. There was actually a time when someone I considered a mentor told me that I was being wishy-washy and that what I wanted to do didn't exist in the ministry setting. "You need to figure out what it is you want to do and then pursue that one thing. Narrow it down and stop being so all over the place with your ideas and desires. You won't get hired that way."

Now I truly don't believe that those who gave me that advice were out to squelch my passion or discourage me in any way. I had living examples set before me of men and women in the ministry and other fields who had faithfully stayed in their lane for decades and not once thought of bailing out. I knew that they were only trying to guide me along a path that they believed would allow me to succeed by focusing on one area of greatest need. The only problem was that I just couldn't seem to do that. I wasn't wired that way. I'm still not.

The idea of staying in your own lane IS an important concept that I do seek to practice in my own life because, if I don't focus on what it is that I am called to do right now, then the results will be half-hearted and nothing will be excellent. But what I've also learned is that I can't be afraid to take some detours along the way. It's okay - actually, it's healthy and normal - to want to pursue other interests that exist beyond the responsibilities that know you must accomplish on your every day list of things to do.

Bottom line: Don't run from what interests you. The ideal scenario is that you are working or serving in an area that satisfies your greatest passions, yet it is also probably true that you have other interests in different areas. Shoot, you might even realize that where you are working or serving right now is NOT in the area of your greatest passion and that it might be time to consider a career move. I would rather be treated by a doctor who is passionate about medicine than one who believes he's missed his calling as a landscaper!

How do we fulfill our daily obligations yet still fill the gaps of other interests that keep knocking on our doors? You feed the need. For instance, find a book on some off-topic that interests you and then read it. Before I went to be last night I read a few chapters on the Rastafari way of life (I was going to type that it was a religion but after reading a few chapters I learned that, to those who practice Rastafarianism, that it is more than that). Before that I read a book on true crime. What do these have to do with working with students? Nothing! But I believe that I am a more well-rounded leader and thinker when I allow myself to read up on areas that interest me. And reading these books also confirmed to me that I was most certainly in the right lane for my life.

And you can do more than just read books. Take a class that will allow you to learn and explore the depths of a new subject that fascinates you. Go on a personal field trip to see the lighthouses or learn about another culture. Make friends with someone from another country and practice learning their language. Spend time with people who hold different views than yours and learn from them - listen to what they have to say, even if you don't agree. 

As children we ask the question "Why?" at least a million times a week, yet as adults we often settle for not knowing the things that continue to gnaw at us. It's okay to have your curiosity peaked well into adult life! Curiosity grows the mind and will make you into a more effective and well-rounded leader. I used to feel bad about having so many varied interests when friends of mine were already settled into their field for multiple years, but not anymore. I've allowed myself to feed those other interests that continue to knock at my door while not neglecting the most important tasks that are set before me. I agree with what Brad Lomenick wrote in his book H3 Leadership:
If you're not growing, you're not going. If you're not learning, you're not leading. And while it is great to be interesting, it's more important to be interested. Stay curious.

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...