The day after the day after

Memories are an amazing thing. Those moments that you have experienced in your life - the laughter, adventures, times you have felt most alive and daring - are things that no one can take away from you. Memories are God's ways of allowing us to hold on to the best of times so that we never have to let them go.

Of course memories can serve a different purpose than just allowing us to revel in the past. When I was a kid, I can remember times when I wish I had made different decisions. Throwing a rock and hitting the neighborhood bully was one of those memories I wish I could forget. Yeah, he may have deserved it and if it wasn't me then it probably would have been someone else throwing that rock, but what sticks with me more is the vivid recollection of the whooping I got with my dad's leather belt when he got home from work later that day. That memory still stings! But I can also tell you that I never threw rocks at that kid or any other kid again and somewhere along the way I actually learned to be civil with that neighborhood bully.

Two days ago my little community of Southport, NC, lost one of its own, Lily Beatini, a high school senior who was set to join her fellow seniors for graduation practice today. There will be an empty chair where she should have been, and for many students and teachers there is still an empty place in their hearts reserved for a friend that they desperately miss. Pain, anger, frustration, and hurt are in a constant battle to fill that spot, and for many of them the feeling of despair is almost too real and overwhelming. It's been a hard couple of days and the day after the day after will be another challenging one. My heart aches for her family and these students and this school who are struggling to carry on.

Yet there are some pretty amazing memories out there as well, aren't there? Memories of a short fire plug of a girl who was just as quick to share her opinion as she was her smile. Memories of a friend who drove a larger-than-life Suburban that made her look like the queen of the highway. Memories of a someone who made everyone smile when they saw her in the halls. These are just some of the memories that have been shared with me these past few days, and I have seen many find comfort in the laughter amidst the tears. It's been so easy for Lily's friends to share funny stories and meaningful times that they enjoyed with her because those sweet memories far outweigh any of the bad.

And that's the way it's supposed to be.

No one can take the memories of the good times away from you. When the tears start to come again and you find yourself starting to recede back into a dark place, allow those memories to flood your soul. Let them propel you to remember the best of times, because those times are what God has given to you as a gift. Eighteen years may not seem like enough time on this earth, but it's more than enough time to live an amazing life and leave friends and family with incredible memories that can never be taken away. Lily, thanks for the memories.

Life is precious and oh so sweet

I just returned from South Brunswick High School where almost all of the high school students in my youth group attend as well as my oldest daughter. Normally, this wouldn't be an unusual event at all since I sub there a few times a month and I man the carpool duty there every afternoon. But today was different. I was there for the worst possible reason.

This morning a high school senior, a vivacious and popular fireball of a girl named Lily Beatini, died tragically in an auto accident not far from the school. Word in the form of rumors spread fast - I got my share of text messages - with everyone wanting to know what was going on. When my phone rang and I was officially told the tragic news, my heart sank. I didn't know this young lady personally other than being her substitute teacher on a couple of occasions and watching her play lacrosse, but I knew that she was well-loved and respected by all of her classmates. Her death has left so many students staggered and at a loss for words.

I drove with a heavy heart to the high school to see if there was any way that I could help. When I arrived I was told that several of the students in my youth group were assembled in a classroom and were expecting me. Tears of grieving teenagers greeted me at the door and I saw first hand the pain and anguish in their eyes. As I sat down with them to talk and listen, the first question I knew that I had to address was, "Why?"

Why? Why does God allow things like this to happen? Why does an 18-year-old who is set to graduate in a couple of weeks have to die? It just doesn't seem fair, does it?

Honestly, I have no good answer for those questions because I simply don't know the answer. But there are some things that I do know about tragedy and death:
  1. We will all one day die. I don't like to think about this for myself or for anyone else that I love for that matter, but death is the reality, not the exception. And for most of us, we are given no warning when it will come. I hate death. Not so much because it snatches away loved ones from but because when God created life in the beginning, death wasn't in the equation. We were made to live, not die, but sin ruined all of that. Death makes me hate sin all the more.
  2. God is good. In spite of all the tragedy that seems to surround us everyday, the one constant that we can rely on is the goodness of God. Oh, I know it doesn't seem that way when bad things happen and there may have been times where you were convinced that God was anything but good. Yet when we examine our day-to-day lives and we realize how God sustains us and meets our needs and answers our prayers and blesses us in spite of what we deserve, that's when we gain the proper perspective. God is indeed good and He grieves over the same frustrations and tragedies that almost devastate our souls.
  3. Death does not have the final say. Death stings and it stings badly, but it does not win in the end. When God sent His Son Jesus, He came to defeat sin and conquer death. On the cross, Jesus forgave the sins of the world. When He rose from the grave, he told death to literally go to Hell. For those who place their faith in Jesus, this life is only the beginning. What awaits us when we pass from this earthly existence into the presence of God in heaven is what we are truly waiting for, for that is when life really begins.
Those words make sense and many of you believe them as I do. Yet still, the sting of death is hot and the pain is real. And that's the way it's supposed to feel. It hurts and it sucks. So allow me to leave you with a few suggestions on how to face the pain that death brings while also embracing the life that you were meant to live:
  1. It's okay to cry. Pain is, well, painful and it touches us to the depths of our emotions. So go ahead and cry and get it all out. It's okay. God created your emotions and that's what they are there for.
  2. Don't go at it alone. We were all made to live in community with each other, not be Lone Rangers. As you struggle to understand why these things happen to people that you love and care about, choose to struggle together. Be with your friends, sit around and talk and laugh at the good memories, cry on each others' shoulders, and enjoy being together. We are always better together.
  3. Take advantage of the simple things. A simple wave at a friend or even an acquaintance always means something. Smile at people. Take time to watch the clouds as they roll by on a sunny day. Walk barefoot. Stop to chat even when you're in a hurry. Think about what you say before you say it. Call or text a friend you haven't seen or heard from in awhile. Ferris Bueller said it best: Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.
  4.  Seek after God with everything you've got. Remember, as awesome as this world can be, you were created for so much more than this life can possibly offer you. Jesus came that we might have life and life to the fullest, so seize every opportunity to connect with God and live in awe of your Creator. Pray to God and give Him your needs, go to church or youth group, take time out of your busy day to the read the Bible, enjoy the fellowship of other Christians. Do all of this in anticipation of much greater things to come.
Life is precious and life is sweet. Don't miss it.

Don't be THAT parent!

My son played in a local recreation league soccer game this past weekend against a team from another part of our county and, as has been the result all season, they lost. Each week I go to watch my son play and support him from the sidelines, and this winless streak has been really challenging to digest. You see, this is the third season in a row where his soccer team - which have all been different teams with different players - has yet to win a game. They say that losing builds character. Honestly, I don't know how much more character my son needs.

When you have a child who plays a sport, you of course want them to win, but at the same time you have to realize that your nine-year-old child is probably not drawing a lot of college scouts at this point, so it's okay to not stress over the outcomes too terribly much. When I am on the sidelines, I am there to watch my son play. What I mean is, I don't holler at him and try to coach him from the cheap seats. He has a coach for that. I go to support him and then when we get home we talk about the game and I encourage him and offer instruction in areas that may need improvement. He doesn't need me to push him unnecessarily. Most kids don't need or want that anyway.

But of course, if you are THAT parent, this is exactly what you do.

THAT parent had a child on the other team that my son played and lost to on Saturday. THAT parent constantly verbally challenged the referee on the calls that didn't go his team's way. Ironically enough, THAT parent was incorrect about almost every challenge that he verbalized, but I didn't want to interfere with his delusion. Finally, THAT parent's son challenged a ball that our goalkeeper had already grabbed, kicking at the ball when our keeper already had it well under control. The referee cautioned this young man against committing such an action again, when THAT parent decided it was time for him to take over the game.

THAT parent loudly called out from the sideline to his son, "Good job, son. Do it again." Was THAT parent actually encouraging his son to kick another player when he had the ball? Uncertain of what had just been said, the referee stopped play and looked at THAT parent and cautioned him against such behavior. Sure enough, THAT parent yelled to his son again, "Hey son, good job at trying to kick that ball away. Do it again." The referee then cautioned THAT parent that, if he has one more such outburst, he would be asked to leave the field. Guess what happened? THAT parent called to his son one more time, "Do it again son, you're doing great!"

Imagine the scene for a moment. Here is THAT parent encouraging his son to commit a sports act that was forbidden in the rules. Think of a parent yelling from the bleachers for his son, who is a baseball pitcher, to throw the ball at the next batter's head. Yeah, that's not very cool. Yet this is what we were all witnessing and the kids on the field from both teams just stood there and took all of this in. Parenting Fail 101 in full display.

The referee approached THAT parent and asked him to leave the field, which to no one's surprise he refused to do. The referee then had to approach the coach of the team for THAT parent's son and asked her to intervene, which she did. She told THAT parent that, if he did not leave the park, then their team would have to forfeit the rest of the game that they already had well in hand. At this, THAT parent threw his hands up in innocent protest and walked to the parking lot, where he attempted to take in the remainder of the game from a distance.

Once the game was over, the first thing my son said to me had to do with the incident involving THAT parent. Sure, he was upset about another loss, yet more vivid in his mind was what he had witnessed THAT parent doing and saying on the field of play. We had a brief conversation about the incident, but there was no need for me to tell my son about the ethical nature of that situation. He had seen THAT parent acting the fool and no one needed to explain to him what he had seen.

Look, I want to win just as much as the next guy. I long to see my son attain soccer glory and hoist the league cup one day on the shoulders of his teammates. Yet I also realize that if fail to teach my son how to win with grace and lose with class, that I have indeed failed my son. I could imagine THAT parent taking his son to Chuck E. Cheese's after the game and reveling with him over his near miss at inflicting injury on another player. And then I can only hope that THAT parent's son will be able to detach himself from such insanity and realize that there are certain legacies that are not worth attaching himself to.

Winning will always be awesome and losing will always stink, but the greatest victory is the character that we as parents can instill in our kids as they play the sports that they love. One day my son will win his fair share of soccer games and I hope that he goes far as an athlete. But either way, I am committed to avoid being THAT parent in front of my son and his teammates. He could win every game from here on out, but what would it matter if I lose all respect in the process?

And the next President of the United States will be...

When it comes to politics, I typically keep my opinions close to the vest, and that is not really going to change now. As a registered Independent, I love the feeling of not being key holed into one particular party or ideology. I'm a maverick, a renegade who arrives at the voting booth on a Harley wearing a leather vest while the crowds part as I swagger my way to the voting booth. Or at least I like to see myself that way. In reality, I am just like everyone else when it comes to politics. I have to make an informed decision and so do you. This is where it starts to get tricky.

This election cycle is unlike any I have witnessed in my 46 years on earth, at least from the years that I can remember. I purposefully don't get too involved in political discussions because I value healthy relationships and a stable blood pressure. Besides, I've never engaged in a political debate where either side has emerged saying, "You're exactly right! Silly me, I see it your way and now I've changed my mind!" 

Yet what lies before us on the presidential political horizon is truly historic. The candidates that are set before us are almost cartoonish - not that they are unqualified on some levels, but it's as if someone reached into a grab bag and pulled out the first two items they could get their hands on and said, "Choose one!" I almost expect to find a hidden camera somewhere gauging America's reactions and at any minute a TV host will pop out from around the corner and yell, "Smile, you're on Candid Camera!" Yet all of this is very real and, as Americans, we have some really important decisions to make in the coming months.

So what are we supposed to do? Some of you reading this might be thinking, "What's the problem? My guy/girl is gonna get the nomination and I'm pumped!" If that's you, then this post probably won't mean that much to you. Others of you are already declaring gloom and doom and are preparing your bunker somewhere in the desert where you are convinced you will survive as the world implodes around you. If that is you, then I also suggest that what I am writing may not be of much help. But if you are like most of the people that I know, the future of our country concerns you and you have felt this way long before this election season began to dawn on the horizon.

November is coming, whether you like it or not. I will not tell you how you should vote, but I do want to share a few facts that I hope will be helpful to you in the decision process:
  • Whether you choose to vote or not, SOMEBODY is going to be elected as the next President of the United States of America. With Cruz dropping out of the Republican side, it looks like our options will be Trump, Hillary, and a possible third party candidate, that is unless some back room deals take place to totally throw the nominees in disarray. If you are boycotting this next election, then please do so with a clear conscience. I am going to vote, and you should too. If you don't you lose any voice that you want to have. And understand that someone will be elected regardless of whether or not you are part of the process.
  • There has never been a perfect presidential candidate and there never will. As a follower of Jesus, I always prefer a candidate who shares my faith values to be the man or woman in office. However, I have never expected that when I cast my vote I am doing so for a messiah who will make America into some sort of theocracy. That's not gonna happen. Regardless of whether the commander in chief shares my faith in Jesus or lives as a blatant hedonist, that will have no effect on how I will live and serve my Savior. The president is not my king - Jesus is.
  • Finally, and most important, whoever the next President of the United States is going to be will have absolutely no effect whatsoever on the sovereignty of God. I know that saying "God is in control!" sounds pithy and kinda churchy, but it is absolutely true. There will be no man or woman who can take the reins of control of this world out of the hands of the Creator of this world. Even though events happen that will often shake us to the core of who we are, nothing that occurs will ever catch God off guard. Where we are as a nation, society, and world is exactly where we have been heading since Adam and Eve's first act of defiance against God thousands of years ago. And God's ultimate plan has not changed: Jesus will return one day triumphant and all evil, heartache, and pain will be finally vanquished in full.
Truthfully, I do not know how I will vote in the coming presidential election this November. I do know that I will do my homework on the candidates and the issues that they represent, and that I will always vote my conscience. In the meantime, I will continue to pray for America and for who the next president will be, not because I am worried about the candidates that are looming on horizon but rather because I so strongly desire to see a mighty move of God in this country that I call home. And whoever the president is, he or she will continue to have my prayers for wisdom as they lead this great nation.

Yes, I want there to be political and economic stability in this land. But more than that, I long to see men and women place their faith in Jesus and receive the incredible gift of forgiveness, salvation, and hope that only He can bring. And I'm pretty sure that there is no president nor ballot issue that can limit that from happening.

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...