Merry Christmas???

I’m going to come right out and say it. Christmas is far from my favorite time of year. I hate the rush, the constant push of advertisers, the endless Christmas songs that speak of what it could be, when the reality is that it is something far more shallow. Of course, my working in retail doesn’t help with that.

Add to that that my daughter Anna has been struggling a lot over the last few weeks. She wonders why she can’t be “normal.” She wonders if she will ever be happy again. She has been struggling with cutting again. In fact, last week while I was on air recording our weekly cigar podcast, The AshHoles (yeah, that’s the name they gave it, but it’s actually a very fun show and I enjoy doing it. In fact, it is one of the fastest growing podcasts in the country), she sent me a picture of her hand with needles stuck in it. She was begging for help. Fortunately, my dad lives close by and was able to head right over, and I left for home as soon I could. That was a hard night.

In a word, the last few weeks have been brutal. More so for my wife who is with her much more than I of late. It is hard for her to see her daughter struggle so hard. She struggles with the voices in her mind that try to convince her that it is her fault. Of course none of it is. She could no more cause Anna’s mental illness than she could alter the rotation of the earth. But a mother’s love and personal connection makes those thoughts hard to fend off sometimes. Truth be told, she is not happy with God’s providence right now. She feels ignored at best and punished at worst. Will things ever get better? Will things ever change? Her questions are very similar to Anna’s.

I keep this picture of Anna on my tablet.

It was taken in September. She and I were able to enjoy some daddy daughter time in Wolfboro, NH. We were staying with some friends who took us out for a ride on their boat. She was, as the picture testifies, genuinely happy. I loved the joy on her face. I wanted to remember it. I wanted her to remember it. I wanted her to remember that it is not always Dark; that joy was not something she never experienced. I wanted to remind her that her heavenly Father would not leave her in the Dark, or forget about her. These times have not come to stay, they have come to pass. How or when I do not know, but I know that they will. That is what that picture means to me.

For similar reasons, I have been learning that is why it is important to keep in the Word and to pray. Keeping in the Word reiterates God’s promises of grace, love, forgiveness, and redemption. Reading Scripture I find not only God’s promises, but the stories of people whom I identify with. I’m sure Isaac was wondering what was going on when he was on the altar. Joseph, I am sure had times when he looked around the foreign prison he was in and wondered if the dreams of God’s blessings from his youth were more delusion than prophecy. I can only imagine what Jonah was thinking when salvation from drowning meant being eaten by a gigantic fish. And we all know that Job was asking the same questions, and clearly wondered if death was preferable to living through his crap. But in all these cases, God came through. They all found God’s mercies abounding on the other side.

Rotten circumstances, lousy people, headaches and heartaches cannot undo what God is doing. They cannot kill the grace that is in your life. But they can cover them like smog and lead you to think they are gone. Prayer, I have been learning builds thankfulness and reminds you of the blessings that God has been planting in your life. They are still there! Smog may hide the Golden Gate Bridge, but it can’t make it disappear. Scripture and prayer act like the wings of a plane that can fly you above the clouds and let you see that the Son is still shining.

That said, do not think for one minute that prayer and Scripture reading are going to make your problems go away. Oh, some might that is true. But that is not always the case. And as tempting as it may be to believe that if we prayed better, or studied the Bible harder, or had purer faith that our problems, doubts, and pains would evaporate like the morning dew, you need to know that that idea is categorically false. This is one of the points of 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 (NIV), Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Sometimes, to grow in grace we need to see how weak we are, how powerless we are, and how dependent on the Father’s grace we are.

Lessons from the ER

Sunday night I found myself at the hospital with Anna again. Her feelings of depression, anxiety, and anger have been uncontrollable. She was at the point where she did not trust herself to not hurt herself again and wanted to go to the hospital. I went with her. I was there with her until Monday evening. It took that long to find an open placement for her. But against the odds she got one.

What a way to spend Memorial day weekend right? But I learned a lot over that 21 hour wait:
Again I learned what a privilege it is to be with Anna and to advocate for her and stand with her when she is weak.
I learned that I can still do all-fighters and/or function on very little sleep.
I learned that being there with Anna meant everything to her.
I learned that when I am punch-drunk tired, I can be very funny.
I learned that you can be both amazingly strong and beautiful and extremely fragile and broken at the same time.
I learned that the prayers of friends and family are effective and necessary to keep me going.
I learned that Anna loves to play with hospital bed controls… especially if they are yours and not hers.
I learned that I do love being her dad. =)
And I learned that right now I can’t be in formal pastoral ministry. Family needs me too much. I can’t give the kind of time and energy to Anna and the rest of my family and also look after a congregation. I need to focus on them right now, and for the foreseeable future. So I have decided to switch gears and stay at Two Guys Smoke Shop and not consider fulltime ministry positions at this time. I will still take advantage of speaking and preaching opportunities, and I will still write and post on my blog here.

Ironically, twenty years ago today, I graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando. I was set to go from there into a lifetime of pastoral ministry. Now it looks like I may never go back. When I decided to go to seminary, I went with the attitude that there was no downside to it. At best, I would have the necessary academic credentials to pursue my calling into pastoral ministry. At worst (if you an say worst) I would be well educated in my faith and that would set me up to excel in my own faith and in practice as a husband, father, and worker in Christ’s kingdom.

You see, there is no not being a worker in His kingdom. I don’t see myself as having been demoted or benched. In some ways I feel promoted! We sometimes are guilty of thinking that pastors and missionaries are the ultimate Christians. That, my friends, is not at all the case. In truth the most influential Christian leader, mentor, and spiritual father I have ever met was an insurance salesman! That man loved Jesus better than anyone I know… and that includes all the pastors I know. Never confuse a degree or a title or a position as necessary things to possess in order to do “real” work in the Father’s kingdom. Most kingdom work happens in the everyday, common, and normal places of life where none of those things really come into play… like spending 21 hours in an ER with your anxious and hurting daughter.


Why Celebrate?

My daughter Anna struggles with depression and anxiety because of her Non Verbal Learning Disorder (NVLD). She was hospitalized eight times within a two year period. It was hard, real hard. Basically every three months she was in a hospital or C-BAT unit. But after that, because of her hard work and the prayers of many friends she started to make significant strides in learning to cope with her NVLD. When we came to the one year anniversary of her being free of self harm and hospitalization we had a celebration going to her favorite restaurant, the China Buffet. When she made it two years, we had a party with family and friends to celebrate her accomplishment.

But three months after the two year celebration, she hurt herself again and ended up back in a C-BAT unit.

The question has come up: what is the point of celebrating such milestones of recovery when there is no certainty that the recovery will continue without times when we fall? Does the fact that she fell again say that our celebration premature?

The reason for celebrating is not about what you are going to do tomorrow. It is acknowledging the work that was done in the past. She worked hard. She accomplished a lot. That was worth celebrating. We weren’t celebrating the expectation that she would never fall down again, we were celebrating the fact that she had gone so long without failing down again.

And you know what? She had a much easier time getting back on her feet this time. She is not the same person she was four and a half years ago. She is in not in the same place she was either. She is stronger, wiser, and more resilient. And so are we and the rest of her support system. Celebrating her milestones is about building her up, giving her hope, and acknowledging her work on her journey, not setting expectations for perfection in the future. She knows that.

I say, yes, it was worth celebrating. It was not a mistake. It was not premature. If I had the chance to do it over again, I would. And when we get to a year from her latest trip, we will all celebrate again. Love drives us to celebrate these milestones with her, no less than it drives us help her up when she falls.

Lessons from Marriage

Want some secrets for a good marriage?

So do I. I haven’t found any. I don’t think there is a secret ingredient or hidden key to making a marriage work. But twenty-six years of marriage has taught me a lot. I thought I would share some of the things I have been learning over the last two and a half decades.

Marriage is work. It is not easy. Anyone who says marriage is easy is selling something you don’t want to buy. Bumps and bruises, headaches, heartaches, and heartbreaks are part of the deal. Don’t be surprised when they happen. In fact, I would be worried if there are none. Marriage remember, is about learning to love as Christ loves the church. If the Gospels’ show us anything about that, they teach us that there were days when loving Peter, James, and John and the rest of “the gang” took a lot of patience, compassion, understanding, and commitment.

And that leads me to another important thing I’ve been learning. And that is being gracious and forgiving. If there is anything I have been learning its that no matter how I hurt Jesus, He forgives me. His love doesn’t stop, His commitment doesn’t waiver. His patience doesn’t dry up. And His kindness doesn’t cease. And a day doesn’t go by when I don’t hurt Him by what I do or don’t do. If He doesn’t ever give up on me, how could I give up on her? Grace is one of the things God wants us learning, and marriage is one of the prime places He uses to teach us.

Marriage is not about waiting for your spouse to change. It is doing whatever it takes, much as it depends on you. You can’t wait for your spouse to pony up, fess up, or ask for help. You need to be the one who takes that step. I’d doesn’t matter that your spouse should. If they don’t, you need to. Marriage is giving 100% not 50/50.

I have also been learning that sometimes the shoe is on the other foot. Sometimes it is you that did the hurting. Sometimes it may be intentional. Sometimes unintentional. But when it comes to light that your spouse has something against you, it is up to you to come forward and make it right.

I have also been learning that few things are as important to marriage than communication. Taking to each other takes time. You need to take the time. You also need to be honest, transparent, and venerable. That takes trust. Not only trust that your spouse is being honest, but trust that it is safe to be honest. That is crucial. If you do not feel like it is safe to share what is in your heart, you are not going to be able to be honest with one an other. Cultivating an atmosphere where that is safe is crucial. A big part of that is learning to listen. By that I mean listening to understand, not just listening to respond. You know what I mean. How often are we thinking about what we are going to say before the other person has even finished communicating what they want to say? When we listen like that, we miss things, misunderstand, and often come to the wrong conclusion about how to respond. Take the time to listen, reflect back what you heard to make sure you got it right. Ask questions to clarify and deepen your understanding. Follow that with questions to find out how your spouse wants you to respond. For instance:

Maybe they are just looking to share and not wanting help or counsel.

Maybe they are looking for your take on things.

Maybe they need you to do something.

Maybe they just need encouragement.

Maybe the best thing to do is pray together about it.

The better you get at listening to hear and understand and letting him or her direct how they need you to respond, the safer they will feel about opening up and being honest about what is on their mind and in their heart.

And that leads to my last lesson–I have been learning how important it is to take time to be together. And by that I mean quality time. As in dating. Sitting in front of the TV doesn’t count. I don’t mean you have to go out for a night on the town or go on a cruise. I mean you need to spend time together where it is just the two of you focused on the two of you. Having three kids makes that a real challenge for us at times. Sometimes it is hard to getaway. One of the things Mandi and I have done to help with that is to have what we call “date night in.” We will make a simple dinner the girls like for them and then while Mandi does the bedtime routine, I will make a really nice dinner for two. You can make a really nice meal at home for a lot less than going out and then you don’t have to pay for a sitter either. That has been a big thing for us.

I love my wife. She is freakishly awesome in every way. We love being together. And I can honestly say that we are more in love with each other now than we ever have been. It is just betting better and sweeter for us. That doesn’t mean that there are not bad days, weeks, or even months! But we are committed to learning to be humble, to be patient, to be gracious, and to be listening to each other. And the truth is, God has been working in us through those lessons to deepen our love and joy for one another. I am sure He will do the same for you too.


Get Peace

If you have been walking this earth for any length of time you have probably been learning that people sometimes to dumb things. The one thing people never need to be taught is how to fail, hurt, let down, disappoint, and betray one another. There is no need for self help books on how make dumb decisions, or hurt the people we love, or on how to better misunderstand people.

Disagreements, disappointments, and disillusionment are part of life. They are common place. What is not common is love, kindness, grace, and peace. I think this fact is one of the reasons that Paul wrote these verses in Romans 12.

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:18-21, NIV).

The distinguishing mark of the Christian is, I submit, not that he or she doesn’t sin or sins less (at least compared to some), but rather how the Christian responds when they sin and how they respond when others hurt them. Christians are to be peacemakers. Peace does not just happen. It does not just magically appear. It must be made. Anything that is made takes work, it takes effort, it takes intentionality. Look at how Paul puts it:

If it is possible. If there is a way to make peace, we are to take it. If it is at all possible, we need to be pursuing peace with one another.

As far as it depends on you. Paul knows that making peace is not a one way street. Sometimes the other person or party is not willing to go there or do the work. But as far as it depends on you, you are to do it. We need to do everything that is possible to make peace with people, whether the other person or party is doing everything they can do or not. This isn’t quid pro quo.

Live at peace with everyone. The original Greek for “everyone” is everyone! Paul is not just talking about pursuing peace with Christian brothers and sisters. No one is exempt from this. If there is a breakdown in relationship (be it our fault or their fault) the thing God wants us to do as His sons and daughters is to do everything that is humanly possible to live at peace with one another.

We aren’t to rub people’s faces in it. We aren’t to seek revenge. We aren’t to respond in kind when we are hurt. We are to leave that to God. That’s what it means to “leave room for God’s wrath.” He knows best how to judge. We need to leave that to him. Not only is He the only one with the right and authority to do so, but He is the only one who can convict and judge and discipline with a perfect loving respect to the offender. When we judge someone–not judge an action but judge a person–we will inevitably hurt them. Whenever we try that, not only will we fail at helping the other person, we end up committing a serious sin ourselves by taking God’s place as judge. Ours is not to be God’s hammer, our job is to love others as He loves us.

And if you think about How Jesus lived this out for us, you will see how inconsistent it is when we justify our not needing to repent, or when we rationalize our giving up on peace. Jesus found the one way possible to make peace between us and His Father. He had to leave His Father’s side, become a man, and live a perfect life and be willing to be hated, misunderstood, lied about, betrayed by His friends, and murdered by His enemies. It all depended on Him, so He did it. And just in case you missed it, I was His enemy… and so are you. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8, NIV). That was how far He went to pursue peace with you and me. And I don’t know about you, but I know no one has ever hurt me as much as I hurt my Jesus every single day. Yet He does not give up on me. What right do I have to give up on others?

Friends, pursue peace. Life comes with enough consequences for our actions. God sees to that. Let Him determine what blessings or discipline a person has. If He decides to be gracious who are we to argue with Him? Let us do whatever we can, give what ever grace we can, give all the patience we can, suffer as long as we can, and be as kind as we can so that we can say that as far as it depended on us we lived at peace with everyone.

For Mom

That rascally, reclusive, and reluctant varmint, Punxsutawney Phil, saw his shadow this morning. Cold snowy weather for the next six weeks if you can trust the groundhog. He’s not actually all that reliable. He’s been right 50% of the time since he and his forehogs started this tradition back in the 1886.

While I am not so hot on today being Ground Hog Day, February 2nd is also my mom’s birthday.

That makes today a great day.

My mom is one of my favorite people. She’s funny, happy, always interested in what you are doing, and loves to laugh. She has a real servant-heart attitude, and loves to help people–maybe by making some of her famous chicken soup, or just by stopping by and letting them know she’s thinking of them. She is very compassionate, kind, and gracious. I learned about those things from her. She’s not afraid to tell me what I need to hear when I need corrected, but she is always excited to tell me things she is proud of or thankful for related to me. And honestly, those calls are far more common.

She is a great example of what it means to be a spiritual mother. She conducts herself in the truth and responds in grace, and is sold out to her Lord Jesus Christ and lives for God through Him. I can honestly say, I would not know Jesus was well as I do today if not for my mother.

Happy birthday mom! Love you!

Image may contain: 11 people, people smiling

PS: She’s in the back in the middle, at the center of the fun.