Sunday, January 30, 2011

Carpe Diem

I find that it's pretty easy to get into a routine of streamlined days. What I mean by that is, it can get really simple to wake up, go through the motions of the day, and then find myself back at my bed, wondering what in the world I actually accomplished in the day. Having held jobs using opposite sides of my brain in the years since I graduated from college, I can find myself at odds with myself in settling into a groove. The analytical and structured side of me wants order and form while the artsy/creative side of me wants to rebel against the very idea. If I'm not careful, I can find myself standing still.

I heard a great sermon this morning from Acts 8:26-40 about Philip and his encounter of an Ethiopian official who was on the side of the road reading the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit had spoken to Philip and told him to go along the very road where he met this Ethiopian. The general idea of the message was that in order to maximize our presence and have an impact on the people around us, we need to be faithful, attentive, focused, and ready..

At my best, I sometimes feel that I have half of those things covered, but hardly all four. Ironically, I received a gift within the past six months from someone who claims that the fruit of the spirit that I readily exercise is faithfulness. So, I feel like I've got that part covered. I would also say that 85% of the time I feel ready and expectant of what might be coming my way. I have learned to anticipate things in my life and while I still encounter surprises, I am still ready for them, if that makes any sense.

So, the remaining two things are attentiveness and focus. I would love to meet someone who never struggles with these. As our culture gets more saturated with "stuff" and as we become increasingly more visual, I think that it gets harder and harder to maintain focus. I have often found myself multi-tasking to such a degree that I wonder what is being accomplished: reading a book while watching TV with the sound muted and listening to music, all the while keeping a window open on the computer to check in on Facebook or CNN. Attentiveness and focus are difficult for me.

There are two things that I have been doing to make strides in these areas. The first thing is a consistent morning time block spent in God's Word and other devotional material. If there is anything that can help us focus better than God's Word, I'm not sure what it is. The psalmist wrote in Psalm 119:105, "Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path." While we will rarely get specifics, God will give us direction through His word that can give us clear insight to be attentive and focused.

The other thing that is helping me to make strides in this area is accountability with trusted people. It seems like it becomes increasingly more difficult to hear truth from people. Everyone's trying to candycoat reality rather than give a clear picture of what's going on. I was amused this past week when American Idol fans were posting on Facebook their approval of the new judges and the absence of Simon. The thing is though, Simon spoke truth into people's lives who desperately needed to hear it. While I would hardly hold him up as the accountability partner that I am looking for, he hit the nail on the head so often with people whose own family and friends had been feeding them a line of crap that they could actually sing. But I digress.

It's easy to stay inattentive and focused when no one's asking me which direction I'm headed. When I know that I will have to answer certain questions though, it keeps me aligned and focused.

Back to Philip. He followed what the Spirit was telling him and ended up engaged in conversation with a powerful man who he was not only able to answer some deep spiritual questions for, but was also able to baptize and help get started in his journey of faith. How awesome is that? What would have happened if Philip hadn't paid attention and if he had said, find someone else other than me? Someone else would have gotten the blessing that he did.

I'm convinced that we miss opportunities all the time. Fear ends up driving our decision-making process and I think that we chicken out a lot. Our pastor used the "carpe diem" clip from "Dead Poets Society" this morning to illustrate his point. Are we taking advantage of what comes our way or are we remaining unfocused and inattentive? I would hate to stand before God while looking at a large pile of missed opportunities that I might have taken advantage of if I had only been focused and attentive.

Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it. Mary Oliver's simple words are words to live by. May we hold them close to our hearts that we might not miss opportunities that come our way.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Continuing In Between

Three weeks ago, I posted a blog entitled "In Between Days" about those times in our life when we find ourselves in transition. I am a fairly avid reader and have been blessed to live within close proximity to a place called Ollie's. Their motto is "Good stuff cheap!" They also have a healthy selection of "Inspirational" books. I have been fortunate to have found many books, both required and supplemental, that I have used for my seminary coursework. As an avid reader though, I have the same problem at a place like Ollie's that people with weight issues have at the all-you-can-eat buffet. I find myself loading up more than I can process or go through.

I made a trip this week to Ollie's in search of a book that I am preparing to lead a group through. While I had that specific book on my radar, I was still open to other books that might present themselves to me. In my perusal, I came across a book called "The Land Between." The title and cover caught my eye enough to have me pick it up and examine it further. The subtitle of the book is "Finding God in Difficult Transitions" and that really sparked my interest. I have been in the process of walking with some people through some major life transitions and I am always seeking wisdom in how I can best encourage them. So, I picked up the book.

I'm not one to recommend books which I haven't read before, though I have done it on occasion. I knew, though, that the person to whom I was going to recommend this book would probably not look favorably on it had I not read it myself before recommending it to them, so I dove into it yesterday. I finished it today.

The one word that I would use to describe Jeff Manion, the pastor and author who penned this book, is humble. I don't think he ever mentions the exact size of his church, something that pastors have a tendency to do in a similar way to men comparing any number of various conditions or conquests. His 25 years in the same church gives him incredible clout in my book having a father who retired after 36 years in the same church. Manion never comes across as a "know-it-all" or attempts to belittle, his writing style is very conversational, winsome, engaging, and disarming.

Manion uses the story of the Israelites as they journeyed through the wilderness as a comparison to those who find themselves in difficult transitions in life. He interjects personal stories, both his own as well as of people whom he knows. Ultimately, he points out that there is hope. Regardless of what our situations may look like, regardless of our feelings in the midst of them, if we trust and put our faith in God, he will truly make all things work together for good. There is no guarantee that it will happen on this side of eternity, but it will happen.

After finishing the book, I was so antsy I wanted to run to Ollie's to see if I could find a few more copies to give to 2 special people in my life. I will settle for loaning out my copy for now. My prayer is that the truth of God's word will strike them in the same way that it struck me, or even more powerfully.

Transition is such a funny word to me. I was led to my former church because it was a church "in transition." A pastor friend of mine wrote books on having "transitioned" churches. Generally, transition and change can easily be placed in people's "4 letter words" category. The reality is that life is full of transition. If we're not encountering some level of transition, we're probably doing something wrong. As I surveyed my life, I found that I am no exception to the rule. The transitions that I am or have experienced may not be as significant as other people's, but every transition feels extreme when you are in the thick of it.

My church recently finished a series called "Reset" where we talked about waking up, paying attention, and telling about what God has done in our lives. We're jumping into a series called "Maximum Impact" tomorrow. As we all try to slow our lives down and find more breathing time in the spaces, it's so important not to fill in the space with more stuff. When we make space in our lives, we will only help ourselves when we encounter the inevitable transitions.

If you have a couple of hours, pick up a copy of "The Land Between." It might not impact you in the same way that it did me, but the story of God's people and their transitions can be encouraging to anyone, regardless of what they are in the midst of. If you're facing major transition, may God be your guide in the midst of it. May he shower you with grace, peace, and mercy as you listen for a familiar voice in unfamiliar territory. If we seek after his face, he will lead us home. It may not be in our time or even in our way, but it will be the best possible timing and the best possible way.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


The majority of my adult life I have been a moviephile. I love watching movies and engaging in their story. I especially love it when movies explore issues of spirituality and challenge me in my thinking. As I have grown older, and hopefully more mature, I have begun to appreciate documentaries more as well. I am assuming that around the time that the switch gets clicked where parents begin to look smart is around the same time that documentaries begin to offer some appeal.

After finishing some of my schoolwork for this week and next, I watched a documentary called “Barberland” about the barber profession. In my lifetime, I have known two barbers personally. One was the father of an elementary school friend and the other was a church member in my former church. Thinking back on them both now, they seemed to have been cut from the same mold: both gentle, kind, warm, compassionate, and easy to talk to.

The film was fascinating as it highlighted barbers in the United States from coast to coast. Interestingly enough, a number of the barbers were from San Francisco. Not sure what it is about San Francisco, but their barbers were not afraid to talk on camera. Many of them told their stories, how they came to become barbers, what they liked about the profession, whether or not they would ever retire, and various other things. The turning point for many of them in the barbering world was when the Beatles came on the scene in the 60’s. From that point forward, they needed to adapt to a changing society. Flat tops and crew cuts became passé and “Beatles cuts” became standard.

The barbers talked about how they loved what they did, they loved their customers, and they didn’t feel that they were simply customers, but family as well. They see their jobs as low-stress. A number of them highlighted a statistic that said that among professions with the longest life spans, barbering was among the highest. They love what they do and as someone once told me, “Find a job that you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Towards the end of the film, many of the barbers expressed their opinion that barbering is a dying profession. They encounter barbers in their 40’s and 50’s and older, but there are no barbers in their 20’s and 30’s. As I heard that statistic, I wondered to myself whether or not any of them had seen the movie “Barbershop” or “Barbershop 2” with Ice Cube and Cedric the Entertainer. While they are fictitious movies, the majority of the barbers portrayed within the film were in their 20’s and 30’s.

It seems that barbering is headed in the direction that so many things go in our fast-paced society. It may be destined for distinction. That concept keeps emerging in my life lately as I look around. After spending some time on the phone speaking with someone in a similar predicament, I recalled “The Shawshank Redemption” and the character of Brooks. Here was a man who had been behind bars the majority of his adult life and when he was finally released from prison, the world outside the bars had not stopped. He was ill-prepared to meet that world and was unable to face it and cope.

Change is hard. While I do know some “change junkies” in my life, they are the exception more than the rule. More often I encounter people who loathe change and while they may not say it this succinctly, they fear it. The world changes and they want nothing more than to find stability somewhere. Ironically, this attitude continues within the Church as well. I say ironically, because as followers of Jesus, change is who we are.

Transformation has become a buzz word within the Church. We are called to be transformed by the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:1-2. Many books on preaching emphasize that preaching can be informative or transformative.

Jesus was all about the “new.” He came to make all things new. In Luke 5, Jesus speaks these words in verses 36-39, “He told them this parable: “No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’” This passage is sandwiched in Luke between accounts of Jesus challenging the “norm” of the day. All of the laws that had been held to were being challenged. Jesus was changing everything.

And that’s how it should be when we encounter him too, everything should change. We are no longer the same, everything is different. I’m reminded of a song by Jason Gray called “I Am New” of which the lyrics of the chorus are, “I am not who I was, I am being remade, I am new. I am chosen and holy and I’m dearly loved, I am new.” Jesus came to make all things new, that includes us.

So, the question is, will we be open to the transformation? Will we be destined for distinction because of a refusal to change or will we be open to the change that God has to do in us?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

In Between Days

I was listening to the Cure the other day, and my brain was sparked by hearing their song "In Between Days." I feel like I am always between things, coming and going, never ceasing or resting. Right now I am between school quarters, gearing myself up to start into another quarter within the next 10 days. Until the other day, I was between Christmas and New Year’s, and we have traveled many miles in the past 5 days on our way to visit family.

When I find myself “in between” it seems that I always want to be here or there. I find it hard to exist in the in between. I feel unsettled and unresolved, waiting to move backward or forward. At the same time, this tension of the “in between” is something that I feel like I am being forced to embrace. The reality of life is that we are always somewhere in between. We find ourselves to be students and teachers, givers and receivers, children and parents, beginners and experts.

Considering that those transitional and in between states are where we spend most of our lives, should we not embrace them? Instead of quickly wanting to rush to the next thing, should we really stop and embrace the process? After all, growth happens through process, not through an instantaneous happening.

I am reminded in the midst of these “in between” days that I am between worlds as well. I long for my eternal home and yet need to find solace where I am. I am an exile, one who is without a home and I need to heed the words of Jeremiah to the exiles from Israel to “seek the peace and prosperity” of the place where I am planted at this moment.

Worrying over my “in between” state will not get me out of it any faster. Ignoring what is happening around me will do more damage than good. So, I find myself having to embrace the “in between.” I need to keep my eyes fixed on things in front of me and yet live in the moment, realizing that yesterday was the day before’s tomorrow, and today was yesterday’s tomorrow. When tomorrow comes, it will be today, and the days will continue to pass. Do I lament the passing of those days or do I embrace them as they come, regardless of whether I feel “in between” or not.

Paul wrote in Galatians 6:9, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” If we persist, we will reap a harvest for what we are doing. If we do not give up, we will see the rewards of our labor.

Rather than going into the New Year making resolutions that I will never keep, I would much rather move into each new day with the expectation that I will make the most of it, whether I’m “in between” or not. May you find rest and solace in today and seek out the peace and prosperity of wherever you are. May you realize that the work that God has begun in you has made a little bit more progress today and that it will continue to do so. May you seek to live your “in between days” without dwelling in the past or getting lost in the future.