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?

 

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.

 

Running for Them

I began running so that I could eat extra food on Thanksgiving.

While the above sentence might be a slight exaggeration, the first race I did was with my sister and best friend – and it was the Detroit Turkey Trot.  I don’t remember a lot surrounding that race, but I do remember finishing and getting the runners “high”.  And then they handed me a finishers medal?  I was hooked.

(And I did eat extra food that day, as well.  Because…Turkey.)

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Since that race, I’ve run a few half-Marathons, a few more Turkey Trots, some 5K’s, and a couple of Marathons (both Chicago).  I tell people that I enjoy running – but truth be told, I enjoy finishing runs.  The sense of accomplishment is addicting!

Running for a cause, specifically Team World Vision, began in 2012 with my first Chicago Marathon.  This kind of running was different.  Sure, I was running the same miles…but there was an added element of putting myself out there for the sake of someone else.  #Fundraising.

As I’ve grown over the years and learned more about how I’m wired, I’ve learned that I can lean towards finding worth/value in what other people think of me.  This shows itself in my running.  When I post about a run, will people think I’m awesome?  Will people notice my time, or how many miles I ran?  That kind of thinking is not always prevalent, but it’s there more than I’d like to admit.  It’s the ugly side of how I sometimes use social media.

For me, running for a cause turns that type of thinking on its head.  I’m no longer posting so that people think I’m awesome (although battling that mindset still exists).  Now, I’m posting so that people…kids…in Africa don’t have to walk 3 miles one way just to get water (and the water they do get is often dirty).

I’m posting so that communities can gain access to a sustainable source of clean water.  Water equals redeemed time.  Water equals education.  Water equals health.

Water Equals Life.

So will you join me?  $50 allows one kid to never have to walk for water again – ever.   My goal is help 200 kids experience that reality.

I’ll run the miles (and not just because it allows me to eat a little more on Thanksgiving).  My hope is that you’ll join in and help bring clean water to those who need it.

We’re Still Climbing

Often times on Wednesday morning I’ll attempt to make a 5:00am spinning class (indoor cycling) at the gym at which my wife and I are members.  I don’t have perfect attendance, but I’m fairly proud to be among the 8-10 crazies that could be called regulars.

The instructor that leads the class is quite intense.  What comes to your mind when you think “Military Drill Sargent”?  Yep.  That’s what comes to my mind too.  And that describes this instructor perfectly.

One thing this instructor LOVES to do is “gradual climbs.”  Basically we ride for 15 minutes or so, and every 20-30 seconds we increase the tension on the bike one-half-turn.  We do this at least twice, sometimes three times if he’s feeling extra generous.

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One Wednesday morning, during one of our gradual climbs, everyone thought we were coming to the end of the climb and so we all looked at the instructor, waiting for the “ease up the tension!” command. But it never came.  He saw our tired eyes staring at him, and so he offered some encouragement.

“Don’t worry, we’re still climbing!”

He had a smirk on his face…as if to say, “Nice try, suckers.”  And so we kept climbing.

But it got me thinking.  That’s how life is, right?  It really doesn’t matter what aspect of life we’re talking about – navigating marriage, parenting kids, launching a new business, building a ministry – there’s an aspect where we will always be climbing.  There will always be a hill in front us.

Sure, some hills may be bigger than others, but rarely in life do we get to just coast.  And come to think of it – would we want to coast if that was an option?  Isn’t climbing hills, taking new ground, changing personally (inside and out), and creating momentum part of the excitement of life?

As image-bearers of the Creator God, part of our wiring is to build, create, move, change, inspire and empower…we were made for climbing life’s hills!  I’m seeking to change my perspective on the hills of life – big and small.  Hills can mean pain and struggle…but they can also be great indicators that it’s not over yet, no matter how we feel.

What if we saw the challenges of life as an opportunity to stretch our God-given muscles to climb?  What if challenges were proof that we were, in fact, still in the game and have something incredible to offer our world?

Maybe you think you’re about tapped out of energy, and you can’t do much more.  I’d offer the same words my instructor offered the class:

Don’t worry, you’re still climbing.

 

Reflecting vs. Dwelling

A friend asked me recently, “How often do you think about your diagnosis/cancer journey?”

It’s been 3 years, today, since I was diagnosed.  How often do I think about it?  Often.

There two main reasons for that.  The first reason is quite practical. There are scars on my body from two surgeries that weren’t there before.

Practicality doesn’t necessarily mean mundane.  Reflecting on my scars can be an exercise in worship, because it’s a reminder that God brought me through some difficult times.  Elevation Worship wrote a song a few years ago that deeply affected me the first time I heard it.  Here are some of the lyrics:

Thank You for the scars I bear
They declare that You are my healer
How could I have seen your strength
If You never showed me my weakness?

I was able to see God’s strength in that season of my life because I was brought to weakness.  Seeing my scars allows me to remember that.

Beyond practicality, I reflect on that season of my life so that it’s not wasted.  I want that season to be one of many things God uses to shape and mold me into who He created me to be.  That won’t happen unless I reflect on it.

Reflecting and Remembering.

I think they’re essential ingredients to the Christian life.  All throughout the Old Testament we see the practice of remembering.  The Psalmist will remember the good deeds of the Lord and it will give him strength.  The Israelites will fail to remember God’s provision and it causes them gripe, complain and eventually turn away to false gods.

This is one of the reasons I journal.  It’s a built-in way for me to reflect and remember.  I recount the ways God has been faithful to me in the past, and that practice gives me strength to trust Him in the future.

Reflecting is different than dwelling.  Dwelling on something in the past isn’t always a good thing.  Reflecting on it sets the expectation that things will change because of it.

So today, 3 years after my diagnosis day, I reflect…expecting that my life, way of thinking and behavior is different because of what happened that day.

You can read more about my journey here, here…and here.

Why Not Me?

About one week before I was diagnosed with Testicular Cancer, I came across a Matt Chandler video that he recorded for his church when he was first finding out about his Brain Cancer.

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I was inspired by Matt’s resolve to love and serve Jesus in spite of this challenge he was facing, and I was inspired by his ability to see it as just another thing in life to trust God with and use to build his faith.

He talks about Hebrews 11, and how some great men of God shut the mouths of lions and fought injustice and did phenomenal things in their lifetime…but then some great men were killed and tortured for their faith; yet both were counted as ones who had great faith in God.

Then, he said something that would completely change my perspective on trials and challenges for a follower of Jesus:  He felt honored to be considered worthy to endure this trial (brain cancer), and be given a chance not only to praise God in the good times, but to praise God in the tough times.

I remember sitting in my bed, watching that video, thinking to myself, “I hope I would have the same response if something like that happened to me.”

Fast forward to the hospital bed I was in on May 8, right before my emergency surgery.  I truly believe it was Gods grace and strength that allowed me to lift my perspective, but I turned to my family and said, “ya know? Why not me?”  It’s hard to explain, but in that moment, I felt a sense of honor that God would trust me with this trial.  I had that video in mind that I had seen just the week before.

Theologically, I believe God was aware and allowing this to happen in my life.  And since He was allowing it, I had the choice to trust and praise Him through it, just like I’ve trusted and praised Him through all of the good times in my life.

Pause & Sidenote:  I realize this could sound super prideful…it even reads that way as I write it.  But I hope my heart’s intent comes through these words – nothing I did enabled me to have this response.  I believe God allowed me to see the bigger picture.  Did I have my doubts and down-days?  Absolutely.  Not every chemo day was all smiles and Bible verses.  It sucked, and it’s ok to be human, and weak, and honest about those days. 

That Chandler video shifted my perspective on life, how I read the Bible, and how I viewed trails and challenges in this life.  Why not me?  If trials are inevitable (and they are), then may they be yet another way to lift up the name of Jesus.

Also, if trials are inevitable, then why not allow Jesus-followers to experience them?  We can be the people to walk the tough road differently.  We can be the people of peace, grace, and kindness in the midst of a storm.  The world will be able to look upon Christians walking through trials and notice how different our response is to theirs.

I’m not confident I know all the reasons I had to walk through Testicular Cancer.  When I think about my life and where I was at the time, perhaps God wanted to show a youth group of Junior High students in Michigan what it looks like to be a Christian and still walk through really tough times.

If I could be part of God’s illustration in a broader teaching to the watching world…then, why not me?

A Season’s Song

During the first few weeks of me being diagnosed with Testicular Cancer, I was able to get to church a few times. As a Pastor, I’m often “putting on” church for others, so this was a time of refreshment, refocus, and much needed stillness for my mind.

My friend, Kristi, was leading worship this one particular weekend, and I couldn’t have been happier about it.  Her voice is angelic, and her worship-leading style is one that draws lifts high the name of Jesus rather than lifting high her talent.  She was teaching our church a new song…rather, a newer rendition of an old hymn, “It is well.”

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It’s no surprise to anyone who knows me that I love worship music – in fact, it’s mostly all I listen to.  So I already knew the song she was teaching the church.  And I was excited to declare the truth embedded in its melody.

The entire song spoke to me.  Especially in the season I found myself in.  But a few lines in particular really touched my heart.

Far be it from me to not believe
Even when my eyes can’t see
And this mountain that’s in front of me
Will be thrown into the midst of the sea

My eyes couldn’t see what my future held.  Would cancer take me out?  Sure, testicular cancer has a high cure rate…but it’s still cancer.  There was still some uncertainty in my mind, no matter the percentage of success the Doctor gave me.

Would I accept all the blessings I had received from the Lord, and not accept this trial?  Far be it from me to not believe in the Lord just because a hardship had entered my life.  The text that Christians read and believe is full of trials and hardship.  The Apostle Paul went as far as to say that it’s when he is weak, that’s when he feels God’s strength in him.

Whether this mountain that was in front of me was going to be thrown into the sea by way of miraculous healing, healing through medical treatment, or ultimate healing in heaven – I didn’t know the answer to that.  I just knew the mountain would ultimately bow to our Almighty God.

So let go my soul and trust in Him
The waves and wind still know His name

This line of the song brought to memory the Bible stories of Jesus calming the storms.  There’s the one when Jesus is asleep during the storm and gets awoken by his buddies. He speaks a command and the lake calms down.

Then the other one when he’s walking on top of the water during a storm and calls Peter out to take a walk with him.  Peter does…for a minute.  The waves scare him and so he begins to fear, which leads to sinking.  Jesus catches him, asks him why he doubted, then calms the storm.

This man, Jesus, was in complete control of physical storms on the water.  And I believe He is in complete control of storms in our lives.  The waves and wind still know their Creator.  And they still obey Him.

I had this song on repeat.  It was my mind’s mantra.  And I was encouraged every time I heard it.  This storm I was in surely was a storm – no denying that.  And there were moments I doubted.  But the God I believe in was in control of this storm.  And this song was an especially beautiful reminder during this season.