15 Memories from 15 Years

Fifteen years ago today, I married Jana Michelle Parker. We were 20 years young and had no idea what was before us.

It certainly feels like a long time when you say it like that:

- Fifteen years.

- 180 months.

- 5478.75 days (for you leap year enthusiasts)

- 3 kids

- 26 child birthday parties

- 3 presidents

- Lots of tears; lots more laughs.

But more than this, there have been many moments. Life, I think, is often measured more by these moments than by years; they are the moments that, for whatever reason, become milestones in life. Whether they mean you are going into a season, coming out of a season, or simply commemorating something significant that happened, they stand like trail markers showing the way you’ve thus far come.

In light of that, I wanted to record 15 memories from 15 years. If you’re brave enough to continue, know there are a lot of inside jokes that you can ask my wife about later. In no particular order, then:

1. The flight to Lake Tahoe on our honeymoon. This was one of the first true panic moments of my life when I realized that I had never before checked into a hotel by myself, much less had to pay for one. It was truly terrifying, but hey, we’ll always have Inspector Gadget.

2. Joshua’s cancer diagnosis. Another terrifying moment. I remember having so many overwhelming questions about the future as I sat in the doctor’s office alone. And then I had to call Jana and tell her the news and wait for her to join us at the children’s hospital. But, by God’s grace, we were even that night able to not only cry but laugh. Such a gift.

3. Signing a teaching contract in Birmingham, Alabama. We lived high that night because that crazy school board was going to pay Jana $28,000 a year to teach children. To celebrate, we went to Pizza Hut and BOTH ordered the buffet.

4. The first chips and cheese night on a Wednesday. Oh, if we had only known how this would change the course of our weekly routine. Thank you, Baja Burrito, for your delicious bounty that continues to deliver such joy.

5. The day the allowance went up from $5 a month to $10 a month. See, when you get married when you’re 20, you have 0 dollars. So you have to give each other an allowance to spend on whatever you wanted for the month. And then that allowance doubles, and suddenly you’re able to eat at McDonald’s once a month instead of Krystal.

6. The day Joshua was born. I was in North Carolina. Jana was in Birmingham. And she went into labor. I drove at a very rapid rate of speed, secretly hoping that I would finally have something to say when stopped by the cop as an excuse. But there was no cop. I made it in time. And then almost passed out in the delivery room.

7. The day Andi was born. This one was interesting. Joshua was doing chemotherapy treatments, so there was the possibility that he and Jana would be in the hospital at the same time, just on entirely different sides of it. We worked out a very intricate system of caretakers for both of them, but sweet Andi was born without complication. I was there, and Joshua was too… with no hair as a result of his chemo. One of my favorite pictures in the world is still him holding her in that hospital room, her with more hair than him.

8. The day Christian was born. I was gone… again. And I made it home… again. It snowed that day and it was magical. Jana ate a Wendy’s cheeseburger and I loved it.

9. When Jana went back to work. I quit my job with the hopes and dreams of becoming a really famous author and speaker and, very romantically, my wife went back to teaching to support me. Amazingly, she did so without reluctance or complaint.

10. Flood day. It was the day of Andi’s birthday party and the heavens opened on Nashville, TN. Water streamed into our house as I tried, with the help of a few really good friends, to salvage our stuff and broom the water out the back door. I remember that night crying with my head in Jana’s lap. It’s one of the times I’ve felt the closest to her.

11. Our first vacation. As we’ve established, you have 0 dollars when you get married, so where do you go on vacation during your first year of marriage? You go to Oklahoma City. And that’s when you find out that no matter how good the deal is, it’s not a good idea to book a room for you and your wife that’s attached to a truck stop.

12. The Sunday we went to Grace Community Church together for the first time. Here we were, still in the throws of Joshua’s cancer treatment, and we showed up to a new church. We had been there separately before because Joshua couldn’t be in childcare yet due to his chemotherapy, but my parents stayed with him and we went hand in hand. And we heard the gospel. A lot. And we’ve been there ever since.

13. The Christmas season, 2012. Okay, this wasn’t just a moment, but it was indeed the most trying season of life I can remember. My wonderful and courageous younger brother had a very serious surgery. Jana’s mom began treatments in Texas for her cancer. And Jana’s father went to be with Jesus after a mighty struggle with Parkinson’s disease. And I’ve never been more proud to have this woman on my arm through the whole ordeal because of her compassion, grace, and courage.

14. The first Christmas tree. I told Jana that we couldn’t afford to have a Christmas tree that year because the budget wouldn’t allow it. Then I bought one anyway and set it up while she was at a night class. It was a solid move.

15. Tomorrow. I’m calling it beforehand. The Lord has been so gracious to us in the past; He will be gracious to us in the future. So I’m already grateful that when I wake up tomorrow morning, it will be next to the same woman it has been for the last decade and a half.

 

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Four Lessons in Fruitful Time Management

I appreciated this article from Desiring God about how to make the most of the time we’ve been given:

Acts of love don’t just happen.

At times we may experience the power of the Spirit in such a way that some good deed seems to flow naturally from our heart, through our hands, to the benefit of others. But plucking a ripe piece of fruit off the bush in a moment doesn’t mean that the fruit just appeared. Weeks and months of sunlight and rain, proper nutrients and right conditions, went into the slow daily growth of good fruit. And so it is with our acts of love for the good of others.

There is a process to the production of love, as the apostle Paul counsels his protégé Titus: “Let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful” (Titus 3:14). Good works don’t just happen. Meeting the needs of others doesn’t appear out of thin air. There is a process — a learning — to devote ourselves to good.

And one significant “spiritual discipline” is learning to manage our time in the mission of love, both in terms of proactive scheduling and planned flexibility. Previously, we suggested “fairly rigid blocks for our proactive labors, along with generous margin and planned flexibility to regularly meet the unplanned needs of others.” Now to the tune of making that more specific, here are four lessons in fruitful time-management, for the mission of love.

1. Consider your calling.

2. Plan with big stones.

3. Make the most of your mornings.

4. Create flexibility for meeting others’ needs.

Read the explanations of each here.

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Frozen Meets Star Wars

It was bound to happen:

 

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Taking Purah

The story of Gideon reads like a roller-coaster. First, he’s afraid of everything, hiding in a winepress. Then he gets a call from God to lead Israel’s army, but he puts God to the test by throwing out some fleeces and asking them to be both wet and dry. Then when he’s got the assurance he needed, God dwindles down his army from 32,000 to 10,000 and then to 300.

300!

And those 300 were facing a Midianite army that were “like locusts.” And that those locust-like numbers had “camels more than the sand on the seashore.”

Up. Down. Up. Down. I can imagine Gideon getting sea sick. Then God told him this:

“Get up, go down against the camp, because I am going to give it into your hands.  If you are afraid to attack, go down to the camp with your servant Purah  and listen to what they are saying. Afterward, you will be encouraged to attack the camp” (Judges 7:9-11).

When the two men got there, they overheard a conversation where one enemy soldier told another one about a dream he had. The other responded that the dream meant without a doubt that Gideon (yes, he mentioned Gideon by name) and his army were going to come and rout them. Gideon must have been dumbstruck. Talk about a confidence-booster!

But here’s the question: Why did God tell him to take Purah with him down into the camp?

Maybe it was to carry his sword. Or a canteen. Or to keep Gideon from running away. Or maybe just for company.

Or maybe God told Gideon to take Purah because of our tendency to forget, or doubt, the things we hear.

Let’s face it – we have heard some pretty unbelievable stuff:

“There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

“He who knew no sin became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God.”

“The Lord rejoices over you with singing.”

“What manner of love is this that we should be called the children of God?”

And then there are those things that are equally powerful but for a different reason:

“Pray continually.”

“Blessed are the poor.”

“Flee from sexual immorality.”

“Woe to you when all men speak well of you.”

We are forgetful and doubting people. Sometimes because what we hear is too good to be true; sometimes because it would be easier to forget what we heard. That’s why we need Purah – someone in our lives who has heard the same things we do, and in those moments when we doubt or forget, can stand beside us to remind us of the word of the Lord.

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A Wandering Ministry

Eric Geiger:

There is a tendency in any organization, in any ministry, toward wandering. For a season, people might be focused and motivated to move in a single direction, but then something happens. Things catch their attention. Other priorities come up. The urgency that was once so acutely felt fades to the background. Slowly the organization drifts toward giving time, energy, and resources to ancillary matters. The mission is no longer central; the focus is no longer intense.

That’s why one of the duties of leadership is saying the same thing over and over again. A wise leader is a repetitive one.

Church leaders must not only be aware of their core convictions and mission but must also articulate them plainly before people over and over again. Church leaders must constantly be reminding.

Wise leaders look for the wandering, and quickly move to address it.

Maybe you’re sensing that right now. Perhaps something seems off. In many cases, that “something” is a deep-rooted understanding of who you are as a church, a deeply shared commitment to the theology and doctrine that undergirds all your church does. What’s missing is that sense of identity that galvanizes, motivates, and focuses your people on your God-given mission. In many cases, the “core values” or the “mission” are merely words on the back of a bulletin that lose meaning because the people aren’t reminded of the heart behind the phrases. So if something just doesn’t seem right, it’s often because the majority of members have not fully ingested the stated mission and values of the church.

So how do leaders communicate the church’s mission and values?

1) Live the mission and values.

John Kotter stated, “Behavior from important people in the organization that is contrary to the mission overwhelms all other forms of communication.” In other words, if leaders do NOT live the mission, the slogans and communication pieces are an absolute waste of time and money. Living is deeper than “modeling.” One can “model” mission because it is in his/her job profile without authentically living it.

2) Teach the mission and values.

Wise pastors look for appropriate opportunities in their messages to remind the people “this is who we are” and “this is our mission.” But teaching goes beyond the sermon. Wise leaders look for other environments, from leadership meetings to small group gatherings, to remind people of the church’s identity.

Because wandering and drift happens, leaders are necessary. And it is necessary for leaders to both live and remind the people of the mission and values that are beneath the surface of everything the church does.

Many church leaders are finding that small groups are an excellent environment for instilling core values into the people of the church. Think about it as you enter this Fall season of ministry. You have a chance to refocus your people, to bring them back to the core of who you are as an individual church. Your small groups can be an environment where those values and mission are imbedded deep into the hearts and minds of your people.

In the division I lead at LifeWay, we have a team of custom content creators who are creating studies for churches, based on the church’s unique mission and values. If that would serve you well, then I encourage you to check out discipleshipincontext.com. Be it with a study aligned to your weekly messages, or through studies that stand on their own, LifeWay can partner with you to create custom studies that perfectly reflect your core values and help you create the unique culture you are praying for and striving for.

Interested in customized studies for your groups? Check out discipleshipincontext.com.

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Don’t Fall Into Sin When You’re Bringing a Brother Out of It

Contrary to the popular saying, we are, according to the Bible, our brothers’ keepers. Growing in Christ, while having some dependence on the individual, is also pictured in Scripture as a collective effort. We are to grow together. Walk together. Live together. In fact, many of the commands issued in the New Testament can’t possibly be obeyed in the absence of what we do together because many of these commands directly relate to the way we treat each other.

What we do we do together, and sometimes that means helping a brother or sister come out of sin.

Yep, that’s uncomfortable. And yep, it’s pretty messy. But if we really want to grow together, then it’s something we have to be prepared to do. Knowing that, though, Paul issued not only instruction about how such a process must happen; he also issued a warning accompanying that instruction:

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. (Galatians 6:1-3).

The goal here is restoration. That word – restore – is the same word used in Mark 1 of the fisherman who were mending their nets. They were restoring them – patching the rips and tears and putting them back in order so they might be useful for their intended purpose once again. Such work is tedious, time-consuming, and careful. Such is the case with the kind of restoration in Galatians 6. It takes a long time. It involves careful personal investment. It’s something that’s only truly accomplished by those who know what they’re doing.

That’s the goal. And then comes the warning: Don’t fall into sin when you are restoring another.

I’ve often wondered what that might mean. I suppose the most obvious kind of sin we might fall into is whatever sin the person being restored has found him or herself in. In our attempts to get close and help, we might find ourselves a little too close and be tempted with the same thing that has made our brother fall. But I think there’s another kind of sin we might fall into in this process, and that’s the sin of pride.

Here you are, the spiritual one, the one who doesn’t need to be restored but instead the one doing the restoring, and look at you. So spiritual. So wise. So understanding. So lucky is this poor brother on the other side to have someone like you by their side. And slowly, during that process of helping someone else out of their sin, you begin to believe your own headlines. You think yourself too mature and too wise to ever fall like this person. Without even knowing it, you have begun to measure your own spirituality against that of another.

This is our natural tendency. Even when we believe in the grace of God, we are very easily tempted to move into the realm of comparison, you know, just to make ourselves feel a little better. And comparison is very easy when the person you’re comparing yourself too is beaten and bloodied from the battle.

Be careful. Be careful you don’t fall in the same way, and be careful you don’t subtly gloat over not having done so.

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Don’t Let Your “What” Outpace Your “Why”

Once upon a time, I ran a few marathons. Now in case you’ve never made the decision to put yourself through a 26.2 mile race, let me sum up the experience for you:

A marathon is when you pay money to feel terrible.

And I felt terrible. About mile 20, I felt like my internal organs were shutting down. And about mile 23 I was sure that this is what death felt like. But I finished the race… and then I passed out in the parking lot. But eventually anyone, including me, recovers from that kind of thing, and when I could finally move out of the bed, I found my way to a computer and checked my time.

It was bad. Really bad. Really bad for a 55 year old woman. And I remember thinking, I can do better than that. So I signed up for another one.

I started the training process over again, until a few weeks later when the alarm clock went off and I woke up to hear the sound of rain drops falling outside. It was then I realized that I just don’t like running that much. So I went back to sleep and didn’t run again for a year.

My “what” had outpaced my “why.” Under the weight of the circumstances of that morning, my “what” collapsed.

It occurs to me that this is why Paul always seems to tie his commands in the New Testament to the gospel in the New Testament. The commands are the “what;” the gospel is the “why”:

Love, as Christ has loved you.

Forgive, as Christ has forgiven you.

Serve, for Christ has served you.

Take the last place, for Christ has taken it for you.

That’s the why. And it’s important to have a really good “why” because there will come a day for all of us when we won’t feel like doing the “what” any more. The weight will be too heavy; the cost will feel too great. It’s in those moments that we must have a sufficient “why” to keep us going.

Don’t let your “what” outpace your “why.”

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A Conversation with My Soul

“Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God” (Psalm 42:5).

Good morning, soul. It’s another day that the Lord has made.

What’s that? Why am I talking to you? You know as well as I do. We’ve lived together long enough now to know that you, soul, are a listener. You are constantly listening to voices all around you. So I’m talking because you are going to listen to someone today, and I’d rather be proactive and make sure you’re hearing the right message. Now let’s get back do it. You seem downcast and troubled this morning. Why is that?

All those things are true. We do have a busy day today, and I also wish we would have had more sleep last night. And I just took a look at our calendar – you’re exactly right. There are going to be some challenging things that happen today. No denying that. The question for us, then, is how do we want to respond.

I disagree with you. I think we actually CAN help how we feel. That’s why I’m talking to you right now. See, soul, you are right now letting your circumstances dictate to you your level of joy and hope. As long as we do take that route, we are letting our emotions guide us, and that’s a misplacement of those emotions. We need to be guided by faith.

Well, faith in God for starters. You know as well as I do that God has been faithful up to this point, and if He fails us this time, it will be the first time. That of course doesn’t mean the day is any less challenging; it just means that we will go through all the things the day holds for us with a sense of purpose and hope because we believe in the presence and providence of God.

I beg to differ. I think it makes all the difference in the world. It means that whatever the result of today is, God will not be taken by surprise even if we are. And regardless of what the result of today is, we can know together that God’s love for us has not wavered. I know that there are problems to be fixed and issues to be resolved, but none of those problems are so great as the problem that God has already fixed for us.

Yes, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. I think one of our problems is that we don’t see the problem of sin and death as being big enough. If we truly did, then all the things we will deal with today would pale in comparison. We wouldn’t be so caught up in the emotion and anxiety of the moment when we see those moments in light of eternity.

On the contrary, soul. This shouldn’t make us aloof to the people and problems around us; it will actually make more attune to them. That’s because we know that God has proven His love and care for us at the cross. How, then, could we expect that He would cease caring about us now? It’s a great thing to know that no matter what happens, God is going to take care of you.

I’d be glad to say it again: God will take care of you.

Well, I suppose the way we respond to the challenges we know will come is not with fear or avoidance; instead, we charge headlong into them, and as we do, we ask the question, “What would the gospel have me do in this situation?” See, when you think about it like that, all the challenges of today are really opportunities. And no, I’m not talking about the kind of self-help talk that just says challenges are opportunities in disguise. What I mean is that every challenge is a chance for us to be reminded of the gospel. When things get tough, we get to flex our gospel muscle and remind ourselves that we are secure in Christ, no matter what else happens in our job, our health, or our relationships. We are first and foremost the child of God.

Come on, soul. You know it’s true. Think about faith like a muscle. If you want to build any other muscle, you do it by putting pressure on it. That’s how it grows stronger. So we can look at all of these situations today as that kind of pressure – pressure that will help us grow in how deeply we accept our own acceptance in Christ. How deeply we truly believe the truth of the gospel.

I’m not sure yet how we should respond to the stuff of today, because we don’t yet know everything the day holds. But the Holy Spirit will help us know. I’m sure there will be times to humbly accept responsibility for mistakes and acknowledge our shortcomings. I also know there will be a lot of laughter and freedom. Only time will let us know for sure.

I know you don’t feel better yet. That’s why I’m not done talking. I’ll be having conversations like this with you throughout the day. So, ready to go?

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Philip Seymour Hoffman Teaches Us What Ecclesiastes Teaches Us

Take a look at this video. The voice is the truly fine actor, now deceased, Philip Seymour Hoffman. The first few lines of the video are his reflections about pleasure. He notes:

“Pleasure is not happiness, because I kill pleasure. I take too much of it and make it unpleasurable. There is no pleasure that I haven’t made myself sick on.”

This is especially moving given his fairly recent death. He acknowledges that he has thought extensively about the nature of pleasure and the difference between being pleasured and being truly happy.

It’s an almost scientific reflection on the nature of pleasure and how ultimately it leaves one disappointed. That’s because, if you believe the Bible, pleasure is not the end; it’s a sign post pointing you to something greater. Such was the case with the preacher in Ecclesiastes, another who was well versed in pleasure of all kinds:

I said to myself, “Go ahead, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy what is good.” But it turned out to be futile. I said about laughter, “It is madness,” and about pleasure, “What does this accomplish?” I explored with my mind how to let my body enjoy life with wine and how to grasp folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom—until I could see what is good for people to do under heaven during the few days of their lives (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3).

Futility. Madness. Emptiness. Unless you see the pleasure behind the pleasure.

Back to Hoffman’s video, and we find him saying there is no pleasure he hadn’t made himself sick on. This is our natural propensity. We find something that brings us the slightest amount of joy, the slightest amount of comfort or happiness, and we give ourselves fully to it. We lay down our lives for it. We worship at its altar only to find that our thirst is not truly quenched; our desires are not truly satisfied; our longings are not truly fulfilled. In the end, that which promised us happiness leaves us with a gaping kind of inner sickness.

We are, as a people, stricken with the disease of falling perpetually short in our pursuits. It’s not that we are pursuing the wrong things; it’s that we are pursuing those things to the wrong ends and in the wrong ways. When everything under the sun disappoints, we have no other option to look out from under the sun for what truly satisfies, before it’s too late:

Come, everyone who is thirsty, come to the waters; and you without money, come, buy, and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost! Why do you spend money on what is not food, and your wages on what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and you will enjoy the choicest of foods. (Isaiah 55:1-2).

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What is Hell?

I think the most profound part of this video is hearing this saint acknowledge that hell is difficult to talk about because any words we find will pale in comparison to the reality. Terrible is the place where we must tread lightly even in its description:

(HT:JT)

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