Above The Clouds

“Chicago is experiencing some stormy weather, so we’ll likely experience more turbulence as we land.”

That’s what I heard when I was coming back from a short trip to Memphis. We had already experienced a significant amount of turbulence as we took off from the Memphis Airport.  The Pilot got on the speaker and said we were in for more.  It seems as though I was flying on a day that had windy/rainy weather all throughout the middle-north USA.

I have flown before, so “turbulence” was a word I was used to. But what we experienced during takeoff was a bit more than I had signed up for, which made me nervous for the landing into Chicago.  I normally chew peppermint gum to make sure my ears pop at the right time…but during takeoff I had hoped the peppermint would calm the ever-growing nauseous feeling in my stomach.

It is not an overstatement to say that I was becoming fearful.  Not the outlandish, screaming, panic-y kind of fearful; even still, I began wondering how much jolting this aircraft was built to handle, and in my minds eye I created scenarios where I’d have to act heroically and make life-saving decisions if the plane were to go down.

Before it got too bad, however, and before anyone was reaching for the barf bag, we had broken through the clouds and when I looked out the window I saw a beautiful contrast.  Above and beside us was nothing but blue skies…while below were the dark grey clouds we had left behind.

It’s amazing the perspective you have when you’re above the problems you were just facing.

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So many times, however, we aren’t above our problems.  We’re in the midst of them.  Because of that, we allow them to create fear — a low-grade level of anxiety that sits at the pit of our stomach and the forefront of our minds.  We begin creating scenarios in our head about the worst possible outcome.  We rationalize that kind of thinking because, well…better to have a plan in case the worst happens.

All the while, if we’ll just lift our perspective so we can think above the stormy clouds, we’ll be able to see clearly.  We’ll be able to right-size fear and put it in it’s place.

“Do not be afraid.”

God often reminds his people throughout Scripture of this command.  And that’s what it is…a command.  Each time these words find their way into the narrative, God is reminding someone that fear and anxiety, although real, must not define the reality of a Jesus-follower.  There’s a better way, and God is there to help us experience it.

The task ahead of Joshua — to lead the Israelites after Moses passed — was daunting, to say the least.  But God was there.

The story God was writing for Mary & Joseph was bizarre, difficult and confusing — but God was with them.

This four-word command from God doesn’t negate the fearful situations we find ourselves in…it simply offers us a better way to engage in those situations.  We can meet the fear and anxiety when it comes, recognize it, and then immediately bring it to the more-powerful presence of God.

When our fears meet God’s presence, the feeling we get — the peace that passes understanding — will be like breaking through the clouds after experiencing some turbulence.  Calm will surround you, and the fear will be below you.

Realizing God is with us enables us to rise above the clouds.

We’re not OK, and that’s OK…but let’s get better, together.

Have you ever been to a counseling session?  I have.  Multiple times.   It’s incredible.

I’ve been to group counseling as well.  That’s great, too.

The people I hang around and work with are actively trying to take the negative stigma out of counseling and normalize it.  I sincerely hope it’s a trend elsewhere, too.  It needs to be.

Sitting in the counselor’s chair is admitting that you’re not OK and there’s areas of your life you wish were more healthy.  When you do that there’s immense freedom that overwhelms you.  A freedom that breaks the chains of performance-based living.

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I was talking to a friend recently and commenting on how, in America, there’s a desire to be seen as all-put-together (probably in other parts of the world too, but America is my context).  We live in a performance-based culture, where everyone wants to be seen when they’re at the top of their game.

Even though it’s understood that no one is perfect, we’ve created a society where perfect is what’s presented.  Airbrushed images, makeup to cover blemishes, scripted talk-shows, etc.  If it’s on camera or print, then it’s gotta be perfect.

The byproduct of this culture is when a less-than-perfect area of our lives presents itself, our first — and loudest — desire is to hide it.  No one can know that we’re not perfect. No one can know that we struggle.  And so it becomes a secret.

When sin becomes secret, it secretly grows.

Whatever you’re struggling with will grow, even though it seems as though you’re managing it.  As long as you keep it a secret, it’s gaining power behind the scenes.

James, the brother of Jesus, talks about this. He penned these words (James 1:14-15):

Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.

The word “allowed” sticks out to me.  James knows that because of Jesus, sin doesn’t have to grow…but it will if we allow it.  If we keep on hiding the failures, struggles, and sins that haunt us, they’ll eventually grow to a point where we no longer have control of them.  They’ll find a way out.

I don’t know the details, but I’m guessing this is one of the reasons multiple people are being outed for inappropriate behavior towards women.  We live in a culture that makes it easy for men to objectify women.  If we, as men, hide that sin long enough and pretend that we have control over it, it’ll eventually take us out.

My friend, Noah, is releasing a book soon – and just wrote an article for the Lansing Post – about this very subject.

The sooner we can all admit that we’re not OK, the better.  The sooner we humble ourselves, stop photoshopping our flaws so it appears we have none, and come to grips with the fact that we’re not Superman (or Superwoman), the sooner the performance-based, portray-only-perfect culture will begin falling apart.

We must begin normalizing our pain, struggles, failures and areas in need of growth.  If done in healthy community, those things that once hid in the shadows and had power over us will be brought into the light and the power deflated.

But that’s just step one.

It’s not enough just to all huddle together and chant, “We’re not OK! We’re not OK!”  The reason our Heavenly Father sent Jesus was so that, by His Grace, we can be free from the power of sin and take steps towards health.  We can join others in community and help each other grow.

If all men ever did was admit to each other that they struggle with lust, and they don’t have a healthy view of women, but never did anything about it, then nothing would change.

Accidental growth doesn’t exist.  It must be intentional.

Apply this to finances.  I’m a spender.  If all I ever did was confess, “I spend!” but then never hold myself to a budget, I’d never move forward in my finances.

We must grow.  Because even though it’s OK that we’re not OK, we were created to continually take steps towards living like Jesus.  To settle into complacency is to cheapen the grace Jesus bought us.  As Bill Hybels often says, “God has only ever given us His best.”

So here’s to throwing away perfection, setting down the photoshop brush, locking arms with other flawed humans, and running after Jesus.

We’re not OK, and that’s OK…but let’s get better, together.

 

If This, Then That

Cause and effect.

We see it everywhere.  The season changes, and so the leaves fall off the trees.  A drop of water hits a calm lake, and ripples follow.  I cheer for the Detroit Lions, and so I’m consistently disappointed.  (Or maybe this is their year?!)

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Too many times this is how we view the struggles and trials that come into our lives.  We subconsciously tie good things that happen to the good things we’ve done.  We think, “If I do enough good stuff, then good will come back to me.”

We think the opposite is true as well.  If someone does enough bad stuff, then bad stuff should come their way.  I’ve heard it said this way, “What goes around, comes around.”  And while this saying has some merit, it’s often applied too generally.

I’ve shared my cancer story on this blog, and I’ve had my eBook out for a couple of months now.  And one of the major things I’ve learned relates to this very topic of “If this, then that.”

I don’t believe that I was diagnosed with cancer because I did, or said, something that God didn’t like.  I’ve done, and said, MANY things that were outside of God’s will for me.  God is not an angry ‘being’ up in Heaven waiting to play the cause and effect game.  Cancer wasn’t a result of bad behavior (or lack of good behavior).

I believe the same thing about whatever storm you’re facing. The storm didn’t come as a result of anything you did or said.

There is one caveat.

There are times that we do stupid things and bring storms on.  For example, a thief who gets caught will suffer the consequences.  If I bang my head against the wall enough times, I’ll likely do some damage. In these scenarios, cause and effect is alive and applicable.

But I’m not talking about that.

I’m talking about the unexpected storms.  The storms that blindside us.  For me, it was a cancer diagnosis.  For you, it’s likely something else.  The question is, why do these storms come?  Is it simply “a part of life”?  Perhaps.  But could there be more of an explanation?

John 16:33 does indicate that as long as we’re on this side of the dirt, we’re going to experience hardships.  The context could have Jesus talking about spiritual persecution, but I think it applies generally as well.  We won’t leave this world unscathed.  Everyone reading this likely has a PhD in life storms — tough circumstances are a part of life.

But what if there was another way to look at the trials?  What if we began to change the question surrounding trials?  That’s the reason for my eBook.

Instead of sitting in a “why me?” mentality that is rooted in “If this, then that”; what if we were to see trials as a part of spiritual discipleship and evangelism?  What if God used the trials in our lives to grow us, and to reach others?

I think that would change the game when it came to suffering in this life.  Storms would still suck, but storms would turn into something useful.

What storms might you be facing?  How do you see God using that to grow you or to reach others?

 

Theology of Weakness

The strong survive.

Not sure about you, but I’ve heard that statement a few times in my life.  It’s embedded in our culture – the movies we watch, songs we listen to, shows on TV, etc.  The one with the most money wins.  The strongest wins the competition.

In sports and other competitions, this mentality serves people well.  And why not?  If you work hard for the trophy, and your work ethic gives you a leg-up on your competitors, then you deserve to win.  All of my strong-willed, competitive friends shout in agreement!

Because this thinking is embedded in our culture, it’s gone beyond just competitions and sports games.  It’s leaked into life.

If you’re not first, you’re last!

Ah yes, gotta love Talladega Nights.  But isn’t that how some people live?  They may not have that motto tattooed on their forehead, but their actions give them away.

God’s economy is different than the worlds.  We read this all throughout our Scriptures.  There is, woven throughout the Bible, a theology of weakness.  We see it in Moses when he runs into the desert and spends 40 years in obscurity, humility, and weakness – only then to be used by God in big ways.  We see it when Jacob wrestles with God and finally admits his brokenness (claims his own name instead of pretending to be someone else) – and walks away from the encounter limping.

This Theology of Weakness culminates on the cross of Jesus.  Criminals were killed on crosses, not Gods.  Yet there God was. In the world’s eyes, it was the height of weakness. To God, however, it was the only way.

What the world didn’t know was that true strength comes from weakness.  That’s the picture of the cross.  That’s the life we are called to.  The Apostle Paul has this in mind when he laments about the “thorn in his side” – through his own, personal weakness he finds God’s strength.

My Grad School professors called this way thinking Cruciformity.  To live a cruciform life was to be shaped by the cross of Jesus…to see the world through cross-shaped glasses.  Jesus embraced ultimate weakness – being put to death – so that He could be raised up.

When we embrace weakness, it’s then we find God’s strength to live an abundant life.

Pete Scazerro talks about the Theology of Weakness in his book The Emotionally Healthy Church.  My biggest takeaway from that section of the book?  Being Ok with not being Ok.

Here’s how Pete talks about this theology of weakness:

  • Admitting we all have pains and losses, and instead of ignoring them, we enter into them, learning how to properly grieve.
  • Naming the difficult situation we find ourselves in – be it a cancer diagnosis, a divorce, or some other disappointment.  When we do this we acknowledge that we aren’t superheroes.

Doing this results in two dynamics:

  • We are closer to our suffering Savior – a God who is not a stranger to pain and loss; and…
  • We relate more closely, and offer more compassion, to those hurting around us.

May we, today, grow in awareness of our own pain and loss; and may that awareness draw us closer to a God who is with us in the midst of of it all.

And when we win (because winning & being first isn’t a bad thing), may we not allow that to define us – may we be whole…recognizing that God can and will use all the experiences of our lives, the good and the bad.

 

 

26 Point Tutu

“Uh oh.”

That’s the thought I had after an all-too-fast 5 mile run on a Thursday…two days before my long 20 miler — the longest training run of the season for the Chicago Marathon.

My pace had been, up until that point, a steady 10:15/10:30 minute-per-mile pace…and I was happy with that.  A 10:18 pace would allow me to cross the finish line on October 8 at around 4 and a half hours.  However, this particular Thursday, I was feeling healthy and light, with a touch of let’s-just-get-this-over-with.  I ended up running the 5 at a 9:05 pace…over a minute faster than I was used to at the time.

It must have been the perfect combination of aggravation for my Achilles, but because of the quick pace, and then the 3.5 hours on my feet for the long run, the 20 miler on Saturday was the last real training run I would do before the Marathon.  Essentially, I took a 3-week break before running 26.2 miles.

I was hopeful on race day because my achilles was feeling good.  I was also hopeful that taking 3 weeks off of running right before a marathon wouldn’t effect me TOO bad.  While the Achilles did well through the race, the 3 weeks off + increased temperatures on race day seemed to be the perfect combo to zap any energy I had stored up.  A hopeful 4:30 marathon turned into a grueling 5:48 finish.

But, with anything in life, there are lessons to be learned.

It’s not about me.

This lesson was, and still is, a tough one.  All 3 of my marathons have been linked to raising funds for Team World Vision.  It’s easy to say on the surface that it’s not about me, my finish time, how well I manage the course, or how I feel during the 26.2 miles.  It’s tougher to live out those things when circumstances arise that jeopardize them.

When issues arose with my achilles, I was super bummed.  However, one thing it allowed me to do is turn my focus a little bit away from running and a shift it to fundraising.  I had more time to brainstorm ways to inspire people to join the cause and donate to clean water.  I remembered my friend Billy rockin’ a Tutu as a way to raise money, so I decided to do the same thing!

 

Was it slightly annoying running for almost 6 hours in a Tutu?  Yep.  But again, it’s not about me.

Around mile 9 or 10 I realized I wasn’t going to run a 4:30 marathon, so again I had to refocus my mind and reshape my expectations.  I was walking every few minutes so I’d use those opportunities to talk to people…most of whom I didn’t know.  One man had a running jersey that was promoting cancer research.  The back of his jersey said, “Running for Dad.”  So I walked beside him for a bit and asked him about his Dad. I learned his Dad had passed away a couple of years ago from Cancer, and since then this man had taken up marathons to raise awareness and money for the cause.

This “it’s not about me” way of running a marathon was inspiring and giving me energy.  It was put to the test, however, around mile 24.  I noticed a guy on the sidewalk bent over in pain.  I walked up to him and asked, “Hey man, you ok?”

“Nah dude, I jacked up my hip.”  (Note: He didn’t say ‘jacked’)

He then asked if he could run to the finish with me…he needed someone to run with that would motivate him and keep him going.  “Sure!” I said.

Because I had gained some energy and experienced a sort of “second wind”, I was secretly hoping to have a strong finish and run in to the finish at a quicker pace.  Running with this guy would prevent me from doing that.  “It’s Ok” I kept telling myself… “It’s not about you.”  Even still, I could feel myself wanting to tell this guy that I was going to run on.

He wanted to be distracted from his hip, so I began asking questions about his life, his family and his work.  I learned about his girlfriend of two years, how he grew up in the city, and how he wasn’t a religious person at all.  Meanwhile, I’m battling my internal desire to find a reason to run on and leave him to finish by himself.  The struggle was real, but I’m glad I chose not to run on.

We crossed the finish line together, got our medals, and then I made sure he got to a first aid tent.

At the end of the day it would have boosted my ego a little bit to have a faster finish time, but who knows where that conversation could go?  Maybe nowhere.  Maybe that conversation was solely intended for me…a God-ordained conversation to teach me that it’s not about me.

 

Make like a Tree and ______

During my work day I am trying to incorporate “White Space.”  If you’re not familiar with this concept, I’d encourage you to head this website.  Juliet Funt gave a spectacular talk at the Global Leadership Summit.  Her premise was that busyness was destroying creativity and productivity…and thus we need more “pause” time, or White Space.

During a 5 minute “White Space” break in my day, I was looking at the trees right outside my window.  This time of year in the Midwest is when leaves begin changing color and falling to the ground.  It’s expected, natural, and quite beautiful.  It’s also effortless.

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Come with me as I personify some inanimate objects for a minute.

The tree doesn’t have to sit the leaf down and have a chat.  “Um..hey.  Yea, it’s been a great summer…really.  But it’s that time of year again…well, umm…where you’re gonna have to fall.”  To which the leaf would respond, “What?!  No way, man.  I’m stickin’ around this time. I fell last year.”

That imaginary conversation would never happen.  Why?  Because I imagine the leaf understands seasons.  The leaves know exactly what season they’re in.  It’s the season where they change into beautiful colors, leap off the tree, and hit the ground softly like a whisper that, if you listen closely, sounds a lot like, “it’s almost winter.”

OK, personification over.  But allow me to make some personal applications.

Seasons in nature have always reminded me of seasons in our lives.  It’s one of the reasons I love living in the Midwest — I get 4 drastic reminders every year!  Leaves falling is synonymous with one season ending another one beginning.  It makes me think of the verse in Ecclesiastes:

There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens…

In life there are seasons.  Growth seasons.  Painful seasons.  Fun seasons.  Hard seasons.  Joyful seasons.  Fill-in-the-blank-Seasons.  God will teach us something in each season if we’ll allow Him.

What season are you in?  What season could you be going into?  Are you holding too tightly to a season that has expired?

 

Caught Scrolling

As a Christian, I’m always interested in being aware of habits that move me either closer to or further away from Jesus.  Both are important, for obvious reasons.  The habits that move me closer to Him are the ones to keep.  The habits that move me further away are the ones to stop.

There’s a habit that I’ve paid attention to for the past few months, and it’s the habit of scrolling. Whether on my phone or laptop, I’ll catch myself simply scrolling. It could be on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or even the News App.

What am I looking for?  Perhaps the next funny picture?  The next controversial post? The next brilliant quote for me to read, then forget 3 seconds later? Breaking news that no one’s yet heard?

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For the most part, this is a neutral habit. For the most part.

There are two consequences of scrolling that I’ve noticed (so far) in my own life.

  • Scrolling shuts off my mind.  Social Media (and Media, in general) has an addictive nature.  I’m sure there have been studies about this.  For me, it’s proved true.  Certain functions of my brain shut off, and I’m left just mindlessly scrolling, with no real goal in mind.  Just by itself, this fact is scary and has potentially dangerous outcomes for other areas of life.
  • Scrolling wastes time.  I hate to admit this, but I’ve wasted hours staring at my phone. I trick myself into thinking I’ll miss out if I don’t scroll.  And so I keep scrolling.

Don’t hear me say that Social Media is bad.  In my opinion, it’s a tool to be used.  For example, I’m currently using it to raise awareness and funds for clean water projects in some of the most high-need areas of the world. (insert shameless plug here)

To go back to my opening, however, I’ve begun noticing that this habit has the potential to move me further from Jesus.  If left unchecked, scrolling can lead to lots of other detrimental things (comparison, envy, jealousy, etc).

Being aware of this is key.  And because of the awareness, I’ve begun putting boundaries on how often I’m on my phone.  I’m not perfect, but I’m already liking the results.

How do you use Social Media?  Do you have any boundaries on it?