Living on the Edge
*Continued from the prior post “Taking Risks.”
Amy recently told me about a post she read on Facebook where a Christian leader was bragging about how God had “miraculously” provided a way for her to trade in one vehicle for another. It has always driven us crazy when we heard Christian leaders tell stories about how God had miraculously provided for their “first world needs.” Sure it makes for a great story that further elevates that person on their pedestal, but it damages the people listening. There are many times where the person hearing the story is left wondering, “Why doesn’t God do those things for me?” “What’s wrong with me and my faith?” I believe many people’s faith is damaged and warped by this dynamic, or worse some people set out to engineer their owns “stories” so that they can say, “Look at what God did for me!” It grieves me when I see these dynamics playing out in church theatrics. In the words that follow, I am attempting to share an honest story of risk, faith and the journey of growth.
*Spoiler Alert: There is no time in this post where I part the Red Sea, feed 5000 people or miraculously get a new truck.
My phone rang at 5:30AM; it was a Sunday morning and I had been laying half awake in my hotel bed. I raised up and answered the call almost immediately. A calming friendly voice asked, “Did I wake you up?” I chuckled and said, “No, you knew I would be awake.” The voice on the other end had known me for over nine years. We would soon be planning how to end our relationship. It was 8:30AM Indiana time.
I have forgotten all the details of this conversation as well, but it was generally pleasant. I voiced my deep frustration with the situation at hand. My client seemed either disconnected from or stuck in the current circumstances. I wondered to myself if there were contractual obligations involved that I was not aware of. We agreed that it was time to bring our business relationship to an end. I had emailed him the night before after I returned from my walk on the beach. I triggered the 120 day clause in our agreement that allowed either party to end our contractual relationship. March 31 would be the last day.
We both reaffirmed our intentions to part ways on the best terms possible. He assured me that there would be apologies waiting for me when I returned to the office that morning. And that was basically it. Three months later I would find myself hugging his mom and shaking his father’s hand, for the last time. Over the years I had gotten to know his family well and was very fond of them. Then the end of March came, and it was all over. I returned to Louisiana and made plans to close my consulting business by the end of that year.
While my roots had been in information technology, I had always been a “jack of all trades” in my secular career. I’d been in the ministry since I was 19 with most of my time in ministry spent church planting. As a church planter, I needed a job. I got my first secular job in IT at 25. Because of opportunity, curiosity and drive, I quickly became involved in payroll, HR, accounting and management, usually making process improvements along the way and impressing the right people. Over the next 15 years I would also be exposed to finance, large scale building projects, project management, facilities management, logistics, data analytics and the wide variety of IT systems used to support these activities. If there was ever a “Jack of all trades,” it was me. Typically my people and IT skills would create opportunities and then my ancillary talents and experience would create further value for my employer. This skill set is what created opportunities for my consulting business in Indiana. Having my own business had paired perfectly with being in the ministry; it had provided the income and flexibility that I needed.
I now needed to start over in Louisiana. I did not feel like I had the contacts to spin up a consulting business in Louisiana and I liked the thought of having a full time job with a benefit package. So, I set off in that direction. However I soon realized it more difficult for a “Jack of all trades” to land a job than I expected. Meanwhile Amy found a job working in the commercial appraisal department at a local bank. The salary was modest but it was a good opportunity for her to be exposed to a different career opportunity. I eventually found a job working in a state data center. This was not my first choice, actually at the time it was my only choice. Both our salaries combined did not replace the income that my business had generated, not to mention Amy’s teaching salary. As a result the income from our new jobs did not even come close to meeting our monthly expenses. We started to watch our savings fall like a rock. Our situation was not sustainable.
To make matters worse, I had miscalculated our income taxes the year before. I knew something was up when my CPA interrupted our email thread with a request for a phone call. Wow… I had taken a side job teaching and then added extra classes to help build up our savings in preparation for the move back to Indiana. I misjudged the tax consequences and neglected to keep our CPA in the loop. That mistake wiped out almost half of the savings we had built up. How could I have made such a mistake? Finding out about the income taxes that were due was like hanging 100 pounds of extra weight on my shoulders. Our financial burdens had just gotten heavier and our margin for error had lessened.
My job situation was frustrating and humbling. I interviewed with a genuinely sincere CIO who told me, “I think you are a very personable and all around talented guy, but you do not have any specializations.” At that time all I had was a bachelors degree in General Studies and no professional certifications. While I had a very diverse toolbox of skills that I picked up over the years, outside of an executive or other management role, my technical skills were that of an experienced systems administrator.
For a planner and strategic thinker, the situation was very uncomfortable. If I did not act, I knew what the future held and because of my nature, I actually began to plan for it. I met with a bankruptcy attorney. We had not been late on a single bill, but I was watching our savings drop. At that point, I knew we only had few months left before our savings ran out. If we were going to fall off the edge of a financial cliff, I was going to drive off with my eyes wide open and strategically plan our descent. I had been working with a few recruiters; I contacted them and lowered my salary expectations. I remember one saying, “But you are worth more than X.” My reply was simple, “I thought so too, but right now the job market determines what I am worth, and it does not agree with us.” I saw the edge of the cliff coming.
So let’s talk about the view from the edge for a bit. It was a long way down… We know the view well; we walked right up to the edge and took a long soul searching look down to the bottom. At first it was unthinkably terrifying. We could go bankrupt! What would people think about us? What about our reputations? What about the kids? How would we recover? The best thing you can do in a situation like this is make plans to deal with the worst case scenario -and not count on a supernatural miracle to bail you out. After we looked over the side, calmed ourselves down and began to do our best to respond responsibly and work to resolve the situation, the bottom did not look so scary. The view was terrific from the edge of that cliff. In the clarity of that moment, you could see for miles. We were able to identify what was important to us and what mattered much less than we had realized before. Walking up to the edge of that cliff and taking a long look over the side was good for us. Priorities were made clear and excess baggage was tossed over the side. My pride was one of those heavy bags that was tossed over early. A carry on that was saving a few lingering unfulfilled dreams was jettisoned as well. Giving in to the realization that we could not protect our teenage, soon to be young adult children from “life” was another piece of luggage that had to be thrown over as well. We found ourselves at a place of resolution. We were not happy about our current situation, but we knew we would be okay. Maybe different, but still okay. It is difficult to capture everything that happened in me during those few months and put it into words, but that experience changed me for the good. I am better for having walked up to the edge, appreciating all of the dynamics of the view and evaluating what would happen if I slid off the side.
A few months passed and our savings balance continued to drop. The edge of the cliff was getting so close, but we delayed going over by using our credit cards to supplement our income. And then one day while I was in Sam Club I got a phone call. It was an internal recruiter for a large local logistics company. My skill set was a very good fit for them. The chief technology officer was actually an old friend. I had no idea he was working there and he had no idea I had been looking for a job. I applied, interviewed and they offered me a salary $5000 more than what I had asked for. And just like that, it was over.
While going over the edge had been diverted, it would take us years to rebuild and financially recover from our decision to shift directions and reset our careers. Unlike Amy’s Facebook friends, no one waved a magic wand and made everything okay. We made tough decisions and worked very hard to get to where we are now. -And, we are still working hard. I remember talking to Amy during the most unnerving part of our “edge of the cliff” experience. I said, “Amy, if we take the risks, make the right decisions and put in the work, it will be worth it. It might take us a few years to get there, but it will be worth it” I made that statement six years ago and it has survived and surpassed the test of time. While our story is not nearly as sexy as Amy’s “Christian” Facebook friends, I think it is a more appropriate description of what the journey looks like.
A few months ago someone told me that I should learn to take more risks. I later shared with my wife that I had been given that advice, her eyes got big and she laughed out loud and said, “They really do not know you do they?” In many ways taking risks has always been a part of my life, some times out of what I felt was necessity, other times because of my refusal to follow the status quo, and yet other times I took risks that were motivated by curiosity and adventure. Regardless of the reasons, I have embraced the principle that a life worth living will have risks.
Amy and I had our most profound encounter with risk six years ago. After moving back home to Louisiana we struggled settling in to life here. The kids were not happy, Amy and I both were not happy with our jobs and we had not been able to connect with a new church family. After months of wrestling with what to do, we made the decision to move back to Indiana. It was tough to tell our extended family, but we both felt like it was the best decision. I still had my consulting business in Indiana and Amy had connections to help her get a job teaching there. We started making plans and decided to move at the end of the year.
Fast forward a month or so, it was October. Our house was listed for sale and Amy had given her resignation notice to her school; she would not return after Christmas break. Meanwhile my biggest client in Indiana decided to start a sister logistics business in Portland Oregon. It was a quickly decided and ambitious effort. With only a few days notice I found myself taking a cross country whirlwind trip. One day I was flying to Atlanta to help sell the first large customer for the new business and tour facilities. The very next day I flew to Portland to help find the right building to lease and begin planning what was needed to begin operations. The evening of our first full day in Portland we signed an agreement with the first customer. We needed to be ready to start receiving truckloads of material by December 1.
The next month was a blur as I operated in three time zones. I was teaching part time at a local college in Louisiana, supporting clients in Indiana, helping setup a new business in Oregon, trying to sell our house in Ponchatoula, and looking for a house to buy in Terre Haute, all while making plans to move. Life felt like chaos.
My client hired a VP of operations to run the Portland business. He was supposed to be experienced in the industry and experienced at starting new businesses. At first he seemed like a nice enough guy with a strong personality, probably a good fit for running a new logistics business. For the new business my responsibilities were to be IT related only, which seemed easy enough. I made the calls to source the needed services and equipment and outsourced most of the equipment installation. All I would need to do is fly out to Portland, install minimal equipment and finish setting up a few systems. Easy enough, I was ahead of schedule.
In the middle of November, I made a trip to Portland to finish the setup for the new business. I found a few surprises when I got there. First, the start date had been pushed up by a few weeks. We would start receiving inventory in just a few days, lots of inventory, like truck loads and truck loads of inventory. Few staff had been hired, not to even mention trained and the warehouse layout had not been completed. I surveyed the situation and decided to focus my energy on getting the warehouse management system ready; you cannot manage inventory without a WMS.
The next few weeks would be a nightmare. The VP of Ops was not experienced at running a logistics business that offered warehousing services, the temporary employees that were hired were not trained, and my time began to be split between getting the IT systems setup and helping get the warehouse ready for operations. The trucks started showing up and we were not ready. We were all tired and aggravated. You can do the math from there, things went downhill quickly.
The VP of Operations and I did not like each other. I felt like he misled my client (and friend) in regard to how much he knew about warehouse operations. He probably had me squarely in the “IT box” and had no clue how much I knew about logistics, warehousing and running a business. As the days passed it became clear to everyone that he needed help, but he was to proud to ask or listen to advice. To make matters worse, the owner of the company was 1500 miles away in Indiana and did not handle difficult situations or confrontation well.
The powder keg blew just before noon on a Saturday. The VP of Operations wanted to start receiving inventory into the warehouse management system but it was not fully setup because the warehouse had not been properly laid out. I knew it would be an absolute mess if we started adding inventory into the system. He told me, “Do it or you can get your ass on a plane and go back to Louisiana.” He did this in front of the VP of Sales and two other managers. I looked at him, smiled and said, “That is a great idea! I am going find a plane and fly my ass back to Louisiana.” and promptly left the building.
My frenemy was left standing speechless in the shipping & receiving office. At this point, I knew he needed me to get the warehouse running. I would let him sweat for the rest of the day and then return the next morning. He needed a lesson in humility and I had been pushed to the place to give it to him. My client had known me for nine years. Even though I was upset at him for putting me in this situation, he knew me well enough to know that I would never desert him. I needed a break anyway. I decided to drive out to the coast and see the Pacific Ocean; it would be the first time for me.
Well, that was the plan until the VP of Sales called me. I have forgotten the details of the conversation, but in his “sales” oriented way he tried to put a spin on the situation in an attempt to talk me into coming back to the office. That was probably the worst thing he could have done. I was not buying anything he was trying to sell and at some point in that conversation I hit my breaking point and lost it. I mean I completely lost it. This was the most anger that I ever have felt in my life. Amy and I had been together for over twenty years at this point in time and I later told her, “Amy, even you have never seen me this upset.” I snapped. I was screaming into my mobile phone at the top of my lungs. Honestly, it scared me that I had gotten that angry. I did not know that was in me, everything had just built up. The stress from preparing to move, the new business in Portland, being away from my family, financial stress, worrying about my family, knowing that I had been neglecting my students back in Louisiana, and now this situation, all that stress came out and erupted at once. I turned into into this person who I had never met before -and I did not like him.
We somehow ended the call. I was in a daze for the next twenty minutes or so… How did I get here? What has happened to me? I was at a loss. I did not have the answers to those questions, but I knew this was about more than an arrogant VP of Operations and a VP of Sales trying to sell me on a dysfunctional situation. I had to clear my mind, do some soul searching, pray and ask myself some hard questions. A long walk on the beach was just what I needed.
I finished driving to the coast and found a place to park. It was beautiful. Think of ideal picturesque scenery from the northwestern shoreline and that was it, but a picture or video is nothing like being there. The view, the wind, the sounds, the smells, it was breathtaking. I started wondering down the beach. I gave myself 30 minutes or so just to take everything in, the view, the thoughts rolling around in my mind, the weight that I was feeling. I gave myself time to process, to slow down, to cry a few tears. It was okay, no one was watching and the sounds of the wind and the waves covered up any sounds that I made. As I slowed my mind and my emotions began to subside, I started asking the questions that mattered. How did I get here? God, how did I get here? Did you lead me here? Would “You” really lead me to this place? How did I screw this up so bad? Oh my God, what I am going to do? It would turn out to be a very long walk.
As time and a few miles of shoreline passed, I exhaled a deep breath and gave into the reality that the day’s events had been set in motion some time ago. I had actually helped create them. Things could have been different. There were several times where I had been offered a leadership position in this business. VP of Finance, VP of Ops, the owner’s “wingman,” those were his words, virtually any position I wanted. For various reasons I had turned him down, repeatedly, purposefully keeping myself in a “consulting role” and then eventually moving 725 miles away to Louisiana. After I moved away, I was still able to reasonably manage IT remotely, but I had missed out on most of the management conversations. I was simply “no longer in the room.” The business owner filled the roles that he had first offered to me. He had moved on; he had to. Whether or not I agreed with some of his decisions was irrelevant. It was his business and I had passed on those opportunities. When I pulled my mind out of the weeds of all the details, I realized that this business relationship was no longer a good fit for either one of us. While I still enjoyed and wanted the financial benefits and stability of a long term contractual agreement, it was time to move on. This dynamic was the root of the unbearable tension I was feeling. It was time to end a very profitable nine year business relationship and move on to the next chapter in my life.
Ending this business relationship would change everything… It had been the anchor of my consulting business in Indiana since I had started it. Without this client and his businesses I would virtually have to start over. Was I contemplating putting my family in a situation where Amy and I both were unemployed? Could we move back to Indiana with all this uncertainty? Should we stay in Louisiana? But Amy had already resigned from her job -and she had been miserable there anyway. She was so relieved to be able to quit; I could not ask her to go back. What about the kids? They so wanted to move back to Indiana. Louisiana was “home” to us, but they grew up in Indiana. Indiana was “home” to them. If we decided not to move, I would be taking that from them. There were so many moving pieces to this puzzle. I had lots of experience at taking risks in all areas of my life, but the stakes were very high this time. My wife and kids were involved and the kids were now old enough to care and ask the tough questions, and experience the impacts. My career was involved. Any hope or thoughts of future ministry were involved as I was still wrestling with that. And obviously, Amy was involved. I had put her through so much. Twenty years of ministry, planting two churches, multiple building projects, dragging her and the kids to Indiana, putting up with me being gone most of the time as I worked full time jobs and pastored churches and not to mention the financial stress caused by all of the above. In this moment I felt like I had to make a decision that would dramatically impact the course of our lives, but the decision had already been made. The fact of the matter was it had become obvious that it was time to move on. The more I walked, the more my mind cleared. I knew what I needed to do.
Late that evening I called Amy and shared the experiences of the day -and my reflections from my walk on the beach. She was receptive as long as she did not have to return to teaching in Louisiana. As the emotions of the moment and the fear subsided, Amy and I considered a curious and ambitious thought. “What if we take the risk and reset both of our careers, -at the same time?” It was our BHAG. Over the next few months we began to carefully plot our course, taking a few steps at a time as we got clarity on the directions we should go.
Not taking that “unthinkable” risk six years ago, is simply “unthinkable” to us today. Taking this risk ultimately helped lay the foundation for our lives as they are today. I will continue to share that journey in the next post.
An Update from the Journey
After a long hiatus, I am feeling prompted to write something for my blog. So much has changed in my life over the past 10 years. My kids have grown up. I have been out of the ministry for a long time now. I completed my MBA and several respected industry certifications, -formal education had always been a weak area for me; now it is a strength. I have found success in my secular career; they tell me I am an “executive” now. Having weathered various trials over the past decade, my marriage is the strongest it has ever been. Sure I am dealing with a few challenges here and there, but life is good. I am blessed and very fortunate.
I find myself surrounded by a new group of people. Friends, coworkers and neighbors who never knew me as “Pastor Eric” or the “300+ pound Eric.” It is interesting to think about that. I was recently introduced to a new employee at work with the phrase, “This is Eric Starkey, our CIO. He is a runner!” 300 pound Eric never dreamed of an introduction like that.
Times change and people change. While I am proud of myself for all the healthy changes I have made, I still miss friends and loved ones who I parted ways with on this journey. I still grieve over lost relationships and deeply miss old friends. The truth is change can often be like a deceptive mistress. She will lead you to the places that you want to go, but neglects to tell you what the full costs are.
So what’s next for me? What does a passionate former pastor, CIO, contemplative minded, theologically reformed, Jesus following, craft beer aficionado who is never satisfied with the status quo do with the rest of his life? What do you do when you are neither conservative or liberal, when you refuse to be on the Left or the Right, when you feel the grounding of the deep roots of church history, yet also embrace the mystery of things beyond our comprehension, when you refuse to “pick a side?” What do you do when your conscience will not let you fully adhere to any single minded group’s rigid doctrine?
I have had several friends and neighbors invite me to go to church with them. A few have even told me, “You can still drink beer and come to my church!” I smile and formulate a response to kindly and respectfully decline. But what goes through my mind is, “You don’t want me in your Sunday school class. I’ll probably fit right in and make some new friends. My wife and I usually mesh quite well in new groups. But just as we settle in, one Sunday morning a topic will come up where I will ask a question, or give a response to a question that pulls a thread on some ungrounded theological “truth” or political belief (from the Right or Left) held dearly by your church and denomination. And trust me, I am very good at pulling on those threads… What happens then?” At best it is an awkward moment and all our new friends see us “differently.” At worst there is confrontation. I am so tired of confrontation and debate. And, I am tired of losing friends due to trivial differences and stubborn pride.
So there you have it. Change. She brings you to places. She can be so good for you and give you exactly what you asked for -and what you really needed. But she can also be a fucking bitch who steals so much from you. And there’s no going back once you change. You can’t go back and you don’t want to go back. All you can do is allow yourself to feel the pain and grieve the loss because you know that is the only healthy way to get through it.
Then you move on, or at least you try to. You keeping asking the questions, where do I fit now? Where can I fit in and help? How do I help make this world a better place? How can I use my talents for good? What about that “calling” that is still in my heart, that I never walked away from but knew it was in the wrong wineskin? You keep your eyes open for opportunities and trust that when God is ready, He will show you what is next. You remind yourself to be very grateful. You made it through a tough journey without losing your wife or your kids. And you didn’t go bankrupt! You are in a so much better place now. Just chill out and wait. Keep your eyes open, always be looking and be careful not to miss the things right under your nose, but learn to wait. Learn to be grateful and wait.
No Pain, No Gain: the story of my first painful morning run, my weight loss and a few other thoughts.
(Edited on 7/16/2016)
The blog post below was written over 9 years ago (May of 2007) on my old blog. It would be an understatement to say that I was a different person then: spiritually, mentally, physically and emotionally. This blog post is important to me because I wrote it at the beginning of a long season of transformation in my life. The person who wrote this post was very different from the person editing it now. I think the “old Eric” would be both afraid and proud of the Eric who writes this update. Afraid of him because he would eventually put most of the “old Eric’s” dreams to death. -And proud of him because he had the courage to do so. This blog post is a watermark in my life.
It seems that as with physical activity, for any positive change that we attempt to make in our lives there are “negative” forces that come against us. Often those “negative forces” are causes of pain, sometimes great pain. With weight loss and physical fitness, the pain is physical. However, there are other times when the pain can present itself in different forms. I truly believe that there is a lesson to be learned in “not running” from the pain. From my experiences, I have found that great benefit can be found by confronting, enduring, and at times even submitting to the pain created by making a positive change. I have lost track of the physical aches and pains that I have experienced over the past nine years as I attempt to stay physically active; something is always sore. However, the results that I see in my body and in the way I feel far outweigh any ache or pain that I have experienced as a result of working out and becoming more healthy.
I believe there is no “happily ever after” when it comes to our health. Staying healthy has not been easy; especially since moving back to south Louisiana. As of right now, I weight around 225 pounds -roughly what I weighted when I graduated high school. I have been as heavy as 315 pounds and as light as 200 pounds. This has been a journey; a journey of ups, downs and hard decisions. A decision to get out of the bed at 5:45am in the morning to go workout, a decision to NOT go to the Chinese buffet for lunch, an overall decision to eat healthy food and live a more active lifestyle. -AND many, many decisions to get “back on the wagon” after I had fallen off. But the “painful” decisions do pay off and the results are worth every ounce of pain caused by the “negative” forces that came and still come against me.
The most humbling realization that I have had to come to terms with is the fact that I still struggle in my relationship with food. I know that there is the potential for me to “fall off the wagon” at any moment and go back to my old lifestyle. I HATE that fact, but I am learning to come to terms with it and cope with it. I wish I could say, “I have obtained total victory over my relationship with food,” but I would be lying. This is probably a struggle that I will have for the rest of my life. I can honestly say that I think I have a hint of what it feels like to be an alcoholic, drug addict, etc. The alcoholics and drug addicts may get the most attention, but we all know there are a number of things that we can be addicted to; and yes food is ABSOLUTELY one of those things among many, many others.
We live in a society that runs from pain. We intoxicate ourselves with “painkillers.” Food is the potential painkiller for me; just as physical fitness, alcohol, drugs or even sex can be a painkiller for someone else. In the midst of the pain, and all of our assortments of our painkillers, there is a Man named Jesus who commands us to pick up our crosses and follow Him. Has it ever occurred to you that He commands us to deal with the “pain” of life by bearing “our own” crosses? But, maybe that is the whole point of taking up our crosses? If we stare the pain down, endure it, and face it, then maybe that is how we can overcome it. (When I first wrote this, I had no idea of the depths this nugget of wisdom would take me to.)
My weight loss is the most noticeable change in my life only because it is a physical change. God has made more profound changes in me in these past nine years that cannot be seen with the naked eye. ALL of those changes required me to deal with the pain of facing situations and coming against negative forces as I made positive changes. Often times the pain caused by those changes seemed simply unbearable, and I mean that literally. There were times when I wondered if I could handle the cross I was bearing… -the cross that God refused to take from me. In the end, when God finally weaned me off painkillers and refused to give me anymore, I faced the pain. I endured the pain. And then I overcame the pain. It was not pretty. It was not fun. But I am so glad that I did it. –And God ***proved*** His faithfulness to me in the process. –No pain, No Gain.
We often look for a painless gospel; I have found that it simply does not exist. Therefore, when we attempt to fashion a “painless gospel” it is counterfeit and therefore a “cross-less gospel” and a “power-less gospel.” We wonder why we do not see the power and hand of God revealed or lives transformed. Perhaps our Christ-less gospel becomes empty and dead religion -full of judgemental people and lifeless rules.
My blog post from nine years ago is below. I weighed approximately 310 pounds at that time. It is also worth noting that I first attempted this “change” in May of 2007. It was not until the end of that August that Amy and I made the health changes permanent. In other words, I FAILED and fell back into my old routine for 3 additional months after I wrote this post.
REPOSTED FROM WEDNESDAY, MAY 2, 2007
No Pain, No Gain…
During the past few weeks I have been making some lifestyle changes. My latest change that I added yesterday was jogging every morning. I got up at 5:15 (a.m. that is) and walked/jogged for 30 minutes. I was not naive going into this; I knew it would be difficult and painful at first. When I started yesterday, it was not that bad. I walked for about 1/2 mile to warm (and wake!) myself up and then I jogged for 1/2 a mile. Then I repeated that routine again. My first morning jog woke me up and stimulated my mind and body. Then… this morning happened. When my alarm clock went off my legs immediately made me aware of their condition. I had not jogged in over 10 years. Overnight my muscles must have went into shock or something; my whole lower body was very sore.
Even though my aching legs contested, I forced myself out of the bed. As I headed out the door I was determined to at least walk for 30 minutes and stay committed to my new routine. After I walked my first half mile and painfully loosened my muscles up a bit, I decided to continue my jogging and repeated the same walking/jogging routine I had completed yesterday. By the time I made it to the second 1/2 mile of jogging, it was really tough and painful but I made it.
After I finished, I completed my regular morning routines and went to work. When I got out of my truck at City Hall, I realized that my legs were very, very sore. To make matters worse, I had a large blister on one of my heels- I’ll spare you the gory details but let’s just say it was a bad blister. I found myself almost limping up the stairs to my second floor office, in pain the entire time. Every time I had to leave my desk today it was very painful. This was probably the most pain that I have felt in years.
However, a strange thing happened to me during the day as I limped around in pain. In an odd sort of way, the pain I was feeling fueled my determination to stay committed to my new routine. You see, I knew I was feeling the pain because I am out of shape. The very pain that I was feeling reminded me of the process that was taking place in my body. The muscles in my legs were being torn down and rebuilt- better and stronger, my metabolism was increasing, and my heart rate would begin to drop. The sometimes EXTREME pain I was feeling served as a reminder that I was on my way to being a healthier person and thus a better husband, father, and pastor. Therefore, I found myself driven by it.
Then, this thought hit me. “What if those of us who have committed to the journey of following Jesus viewed pain the same way?” What if instead of running from the pain and discomforts we sometimes experience as we follow Jesus, we embraced them. What if we realized that during the times of our pain, discomfort and sacrifice, he is actually crucifying our flesh, imparting life to our spirits, building our characters, and teaching us a different way to live. Though this process may be painful, it is necessary… and good.
What if, rather than running from this pain, discomfort and sacrifice, we embraced it? What if we allowed ourselves to be driven by it?
What Does a Healthy Church Look Like?
Some time ago, I received a question via private Facebook message that made me stop and ponder. The person said something like, “I think I might be in an unhealthy church environment right now. But before I leave, how am I supposed to know what a ‘healthy’ church looks like?” I answered her question the best I could at the time. However, I still found myself pondering that important question. I even threw it out at our local pastor’s prayer group. I dare say that their response was very similar to my own. As I was, they were caught a bit off guard by such a simple but direct question.
I think the hesitance of a seasoned pastor to quickly answer this question is caused by the need to reflect on past experiences and current situations. As we reflect and evaluate, we find ourselves asking more questions like: What is the Biblical definition of a healthy church? What does “healthy” look like? And probably the most important question for each of us, “Is my church healthy?”
I will be the very first to say that I certainly do not have all the answers. However, I am willing to ask the hard questions and I am willing to wrestle with answering them. I think there is definite value in the wrestling and reflecting. So… in my wrestling and reflecting this is what I have come up with so far. I have tried to keep my thoughts as simple and concise as possible.
Here are my reflections on what a healthy church looks like:
- A healthy church is centered around authentic relationships that have real depth. These relationships extend beyond Sunday mornings. Authentic relationships require time, trust, love, communication and grace.
- A healthy church practices discipleship and realizes that discipleship is much more than a sermon, class, or a program. Authentic discipleship requires authentic relationships. I like to say, real discipleship happens when “life rubs up against life.” This is how Jesus did discipleship.
- A healthy church experiences organic evangelism. Organic evangelism happens because the Christians who make up the church are maturing and are naturally reaching out to those around them. This is not because of a top notch evangelism campaign or a flashy church sign, it is simply natural. Keep in mind, this growth does not need to be explosive -and it is probably better if it is not. Some of the best church growth is… s-l-o-w. That large oak tree in your back yard did not get there over night, -but the weeds around it may have. Think about that.
- A healthy church has a plurality of New Testament leadership. Call them elders, deacons, or just “the leadership team.” The label that is used does not matter. What matters is: there is more than one or two of them, they are clearly biblically qualified, are gifted to be elders, take the role very seriously, are in authentic relationship with each other and are accountable to each other. BTW, you cannot be accountable to someone you are not in authentic transparent relationship with.
- A healthy church is diverse. Diverse in its people. Diverse in age. Diverse in opinions. Diverse in experience. Diverse in it’s creativity. And diverse in the expressions of the people who form the church. God made us all different; if he wanted us all to be the same, he would have made us robots. I believe a healthy church celebrates the diversity of its people rather than forcing everyone to be the same.
- A healthy church is governed by Grace AND Truth. If all we focus on is the grace of God, then “anything goes” and our sin nature reigns. If all we focus on is the law and rules, we become legalistic pharisees who are constantly casting stones at each other. I have seen both extremes and neither one is healthy or God honoring. However, if we allow the Holy Spirit to govern us by grace AND truth a beautiful thing happens. -We begin to be transformed into who God created us to be. The theological termed used to describe this process is called “sanctification.” Sanctification naturally happens in healthy churches as well as healthy people.
- And obviously, a healthy church is a group of people who are in relationship with God. Meaning than that prayer, the Word and worship are practical parts of their everyday lives and continuously steer them along the journey of following Jesus.
What Does God Look Like?
I can remember being asked “What does God look like?” as a child in Sunday School. Glimpses of the pictures we drew as children come to mind: an old man with a beard, crayon rays of light zig-zagging out of the clouds, lopsided crosses -and then a simple stick figure of Jesus.
So what does God actually look like??? -These question marks punctuate a profound theological question. As Christians, if we allow ourselves the freedom to respond with the simple child-like faith that God calls us to, we find the answer. Our God looks like Jesus. Whenever we have a question about God’s character or His posture towards humanity, all we need to do is look to Jesus as our divine reference point. Famous preachers, our own religious preferences and even trusted denominational doctrines are not reliable points of reference for what God looks like; only His Son is qualified to show us the Father.
As St. John said in John 1:17-18:
“For the law was given through Moses; but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”
Jesus has made God (the Father) “known” to us. In other words, we KNOW exactly what God looks like; He looks just like Jesus.
- So… Jesus eating a meal at a DESPISED tax collector’s house, was Jesus making God known to us.
- Jesus taking the time to speak to that MESSED UP half-breed woman at the well, was Jesus making God known to us.
- Jesus confronting and REBUKING legalistic religious leaders, was Jesus making God known to us.
- Jesus attending a wedding CELEBRATION and turning water into wine, was Jesus making God known to us.
- Jesus WEEPING over Israel’s rebellion, was Jesus making God known to us.
- Jesus chasing the MONEY CHANGERS out of the temple, was Jesus making God known to us.
- Jesus REFUSING to stone the woman caught in the “very act” of adultery, was Jesus making God known to us.
- Jesus being CONCERNED about the practical needs of people and feeding the five thousand, was Jesus making God known to us.
- Jesus distancing Himself from FICKLE crowds seeking a sign, was Jesus making God known to us.
- Jesus not being afraid to speak the TRUTH (in love,) was Jesus making God known to us.
- Jesus FORGIVING the Roman soldiers while they were crucifying Him, was Jesus making God known to us.
- Jesus pursuing the disciples who DESERTED Him (at the cross) would also be, Jesus making the Father’s heart known to us.
- And finally… “the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us” would be, EMMANUEL declaring God the Father and making His Kingdom known to us -by way of a baby in a manger.
Jesus is what God looks like. Do not make the tragic mistake of cherry picking versus from the Bible and then saying, “God said!” NO; that is simply incorrect. JESUS is what the entire Bible has to say, in perfect context with human history. The Bible tells us a vivid story of humanity desperately in need of a Savior. The sole purpose of the Bible is to point us to God’s Son; the True Infallible Word of God. If we cannot reconcile a religious teaching directly to Jesus, caution flags should fly up in our hearts and minds. There is no biblical character or contemporary religious figure with the authority to critique or tweak Jesus’ teachings and actions.
We must learn to reconcile ourselves back to Jesus and His teachings. Jesus is what God looks like -and Jesus is what God has to say to us as we prepare to celebrate His birth. Merry Christmas!
What does “Real Freedom” look like?
“You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” -Jesus
While Jesus has never let me down on this “journey to freedom,” He has led me down some unplanned paths over mountains, through valleys and across rivers that I thought were absolutely impassable. And so, I have discovered this elusive thing called “freedom” to a greater extent -in the most unexpected places. I am often pleasantly surprised when I catch a glimpse of what lies on the other side of the hill I have been climbing. You think you are “free,” and then He takes you to that new place that He has never shown you because you were not ready to see it yet. -Before “that moment,” you could not yet handle the experience and you did not have the capacity to truly appreciate it. Just a few years before you would have sped over the crest of that hilltop -not fully appreciating the view and perspective He wanted you to see at that beautiful summit.
But now, you stop at the top of the hill and you inhale a deep breath. You take in God’s wonderful scenery and you appreciate the majesty of it all. You savor all of the new insights that you gain from that view. -And then, from this view you are reminded that there are countless others who are struggling down their own paths to freedom and you feel a great sense of responsibility to help them. So it is with the Kingdom of God.
So what does true freedom look like? Freedom from child abuse, alcohol & drug abuse, spousal abuse, divorce, obesity, a traumatic health event, a soured romantic relationship, sexual abuse, dysfunctional family relationships, spiritual abuse, abandonment… and I know I have to be leaving dozens of others off this list. Freedom has many perspectives; it all depends on the chains that are binding us…
All of these wounding agents have at least two commonalities that link every single one of us together. -Regardless of where our place is in society, we all get wounded and we all need healing. The “sickness of sin” has infected us all. We all need freedom.
So what does freedom look like??? Well, I can tell you this: it is NOT a magic pill, a magic prayer to Jesus or a single session with a counselor, therapist or even your pastor. IT’S JUST NOT THAT! And if someone tells you that, even with a well-meaning heart, they are simply wrong. Freedom is not found in those places. -At least not in those places alone.
To my wife and I, freedom has been a process. Though at times I desperately searched for the fast forward button to speed up that process, it simply was not there. Real freedom is a godly phenomenon that takes place over time. Freedom has been a process of time and relationships for us. And when I say relationships, I mean with common everyday people that God put in our lives. Some relationships are very short lived, -and some are long. But regardless, as we follow Jesus on this search for freedom, He will lead us down paths that intersect with just the right people. And sometimes we have no clue what is actually happening. -While we are busy focusing on the ordinary, the Spirit of God is working on the extraordinary the entire time. You see, God knows that we need each other.
Then… that moment comes when we realize that we are indeed becoming more -and more free… We find ourselves experiencing a level of freedom that we never even knew existed. We smile, a few tears roll down our checks and we think to ourselves, “This must be what ‘Real Freedom’ looks like.”
A Few Thoughts from the Wilderness
I really appreciate those people who are bold in speaking the Truth, but also humble and vulnerable in sharing their experiences, lessons learned and the mistakes they have made.
Wisdom, patience, the future and calculating the risks have been the elements of my contemplation for sometime now. And just about the time I think I am dragging my feet in making an important decision, God sends a messenger my way to reinforce the reality that true wisdom is the fruit of patience; a lot of patience…
Here is what I am learning in this season: true wisdom, good decisions and God’s will often do not come quickly. Sometimes they do, and I praise God for those times. But often Godly wisdom is the fruit of patience. Sometimes God will lead you into the wilderness… -And yes, while you might very well be in the wilderness, GOD is the one who led you there. He wants you there. Any attempt made to leave this foreign, uncomfortable place “early” negates the wisdom that He is imparting in you.
So we are back to patience… -and then contemplation. You see, being in the wilderness gives you time to think, time to wrestle… You find yourself at the feet of Jesus asking questions like, “Jesus, what is this following you thing supposed to look like anyway?”
“And what is ‘a call to ministry’ and ‘the pastor thing’ supposed to look like?”
“Jesus, what does it mean to practically love you and my neighbor? -And just exactly who is my neighbor??? -because I am starting to get the feeling that You might want me to love some people that I might not want to love…”
Patience… contemplation… wrestling… in the wilderness… And before you know it, you begin to see things differently. Your appetite begins to change… You begin to sense God’s heart and your prayers even change…
I am learning that I must lay all those “God Dreams” that I had at the foot of the cross -rather than chasing after them. By “God Dreams,” I mean the dreams that I was absolutely convinced that God planted in my heart. For me, right now wisdom is the willingness to lay everything down -and to allow those dreams to die. -Then trust Jesus to resurrect what dreams were truly from Him. if any…
But this means I must take my hands off! No scheming, no planning, no “making things happen! No plan B.” Eric must stand in the back of his own end zone and punt the ball…
And I’m not even a good punter…
My intellect and emotions protest, “Who wants to be a punter anyway? I want to be the quarterback, a middle linebacker or free safety! Heck, I’d even be the fullback or an offensive lineman! Jesus, do you really want me to just stand here and hand the ball over to the other team?”
In the midst of my fear, rebellion and wrestling Jesus softly whispers, “Yes… Trust Me.”
I sense His loving soothing voice, so I submit. Yet, I am still fearful.
Patience… Contemplation… Wrestling… Wisdom… Trust… Faith… in the wilderness. I am learning that this is what it looks like for me to follow Jesus.
…I thank God for the wilderness.
Why Should I Forgive?
Forgiveness is much more about YOU -than whoever hurt you.
The act of forgiveness releases us from the wounding agent. I have witnessed countless people refuse to forgive. In turn, I have watched those same people repeatedly tear their own wounds open, time and again. Forgiveness releases us from the wounding agent and allows the healing process to begin and continue. It is the well medicated bandage that is placed on a wound that has been properly cleaned and dressed.
Forgiveness is also the antidote for the infection of bitterness. I have witnessed bitterness eat people up like a vicious emotional and spiritual infection, causing even more damage than the initial wound. We have all heard stories where a person would get a small cut on a finger or toe and not treat it properly. Then infection set in. As a result, death and decay set in. The tissue around the “small” wound begins to rot away. If the infection is never properly addressed and treated, limb or life can be lost. Forgiveness is the much needed antiseptic treatment for deeply infected emotional wounds. While unthinkable to some victims, forgiveness is the ONLY way the pain will ever begin to subside.
In addition, forgiveness protects relationships. Some of the most miserable people I have met are bitter people who refuse to forgive. They become hard, calloused and simply difficult to be around. While they remain steadfast in the reasoning that justifies their bitterness, the fruit that it bears makes it very difficult for them to actively participate in healthy relationships. No one wants to be around them. Bitterness hinders and corrupts healthy relationships.
Forgiveness is NOT simply giving the offender a “pass” on their misbehavior and looking the other way. Forgiveness is God’s blueprint for enabling us to heal and begin the path towards emotional, spiritual and even physical health and happiness. This is exactly why Jesus responded “seventy times seven,” when he was asked how often we should be willing to forgive each other.
Healthy living is impossible without forgiveness.
What Some Christians Have in Common with the Ancient Greeks and Trojans
Am I writing a blog post that compares some modern day christians to the pagan Greeks and Trojans who worshiped false mythological gods? Why yes, I sure am.
Last night my wife and I watched the movie “Troy” for the fist time. For various reasons we are not typically drawn to movies like this, but due to boredom, sleeplessness and curiosity we decided to watch it. I found it intriguing when I noticed a few similarities between some of today’s christians and the ancient Greeks and Trojans -as portrayed in the movie. Here is what I observed:
-Buildings, statues and other objects were held in very high regard and often worshiped as the gods themselves.
-Determining the “god’s will” was simply a guess made by the priests, often with catastrophic consequences.
-The rulers used the gods to manipulate the armies and people in order to get what they wanted; more power, treasure and territory.
-When something bad happened because of the leader’s own stupidity, selfishness or poor leadership abilities, it was explained by saying, “It was the will of the gods.”
-Terrible things occurred, -and was justified in the gods’ name.
I am sure I am missing a few other similarities. I was not actively looking for them while watching the movie. These are just the glaring ones that I remember as I reflect for a few moments.
If you are a christian and this post unsettles you a bit, good. Maybe it will cause you to think about how people in today’s culture view Christians. Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not of this world.” This means that His Kingdom looks nothing like our pagan worldly kingdoms. If what we sometimes call “God’s Kingdom” can be so easily compared to “pagan kingdoms,” perhaps we need to stop, reflect and ask God to search our hearts in order to make a few adjustments.