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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Opening Day

I think I really got the fever yesterday. I was with Lisa in Orlando for a speaking engagement with some old friends at the Orlando Regional Medical Center. The weather was a little overcast but warm and muggy. It really felt like spring. As we sat in the Orlando airport waiting on our departure, my eyes were glued to the last few pitches of spring training as they were flashed across ESPN. Heck, I was only a few miles from the place where the Braves had just wrapped up another spring training. It was then that I really felt the excitement starting to build for opening day.

It's my 43rd one. I know, I don't even remotely remember the first few. But by age 5, I was hooked. My dad was a baseball fan. I remember the thrill he got when WTBS in Atlanta started carrying the Braves games for us in our area. Atlanta's team was my dad's team. Because of their nationwide broadcasts, it became America's team...and, very quickly, it became mine.

I spent many nights listening to my dad as he would cheer on his "Bravos." He would alternately scream at the umps, gripe at poor playing and cheer for his favorite players. It was because of him that I fell in love with the game...and with America's team. Night after night, from spring through summer and into late fall, I would watch guys like Bob Horner, Biff Pocoroba and Glen Hubbard. Dale Murphy was my first real sports hero. I tried to pitch like Al Hrabosky (the mad Hungarian) and to lay down bunts like Rafael Ramirez. And, like most of America, I watched with admiration as "Hammering" Hank Aaron cleared the wall with home run number 715 and trotted the bases at Fulton County Stadium.

It's back. That game I love so well. The one that makes me act like a kid. The one that compels me to rearrange my schedule for the first pitch, sacrifice time to make an annual visit or two to the "Ted", and to spend hours in my yard throwing a baseball with Harrison. Today, millions of kids (and dare I say more than a few 43 year olds) across this country will dream of what could be or could have been. And quietly, from their lips, will slip a phrase that grants a rush of adrenaline like few others. "Play ball!"

Monday, March 28, 2011

Discouragement

I just recently read an email from a new friend I have made in my travels. I read with interest as the young man shared his personal discouragement regarding some troubles he had been through and the challenges they had presented for his faith. I could sense the desperation in his situation as he shared his story. I could tell that there were moments of hope and faith as well as deep, dark frustration.

I was reminded of what a great weapon discouragement can be. When the spirit of a person is crushed, they lose a willingness to carry on. Discouragement can sink us so deeply into our problems that it literally takes our breath away, much less our will to keep moving forward.

Those are the times that we have to remember the greatness of God. The devil loves it when we blame God for our problems. In doing so, he causes us to turn our eyes away from the one Person who can lift us from despair. Many times in the Bible we read of people who became afraid or discouraged or even hopeless. In each of those times, the difference came when they lifted their eyes back to God. They asked God to deliver them from despair and He did.

Don't let the enemy keep you from the promises and power of God today. Your situation may seem as desperate as my friend's but God has promised to stay with you, to even carry you in the worst of times. When we remember the power of God, it is impossible to lose courage no matter what our situation.

The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge. He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call to the Lord, who is worthy of praise, and I am saved from my enemies....In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cary came before him, into his ears. Psalm 18:2-3, 6 NIV

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Abigail

As hard as it is to believe, it's finally here. That day that every father dreads and every little girl seems to long for. Abby turned 13 today. She is...gulp...a teenager. Now, I know that 13 is just an age. The truth is that Abby is still a child in many ways and she has been a teen for a long time in many others. But it became official last evening when Abby finally got her own Facebook account (Lisa and I are some of those "mean" parents who made Abby wait until thirteen to get her account like the Facebook restrictions actually require).

So, there she is, on the internet. This is quite unsettling for me. Let me explain why. As much as I want my daughter to have those cool experiences and to enjoy sharing with her friends, it's like one more layer of safety has been removed. One day we are taking off her training wheels and the next we are putting her picture on the World Wide Web. Seems a little scary to me.

But I'm proud of Abby, just as I am with all my kids. As frustrating as parenting can be some times, I thank God frequently that I've never had to pull my kid out of jail or pick them up at school because of a suspension or that I haven't been forced from my neighborhood because of something they did. I have, by and large, been blessed with some amazing kids that bring me great delight.

They definitely have their moments (like the time Harrison decided to stop up the drain to the shower and make it into a giant "bath tub"). But I thank God for all four of them.

And today, I am specifically thanking God for one very special little 13 year old. She stole my heart 13 years ago when she was born and she's been making it dance with delight ever since. I love watching her mature and grow in her intimacy with Christ. I cannot wait to see what God does with her and how He uses her passion and compassion. The good news is she is a blessing to me.

The bad news is I can't hold her back and keep her to myself. God has a plan and a purpose for her (Jeremiah 29:11). I don't dare get in the way. I've just been giving the joy of caring for her and loving her the best I know how until she is ready to fulfill that purpose. So, happy birthday, Abigail. Your daddy loves you and always will.

(NO, Abby, this does not mean you can date before you are 16. It's not THAT kind of plan).

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

You are more

I have had conversations in recent weeks with people who are struggling with a pretty common problem. They've been beating themselves up for past mistakes, unable to move on to what God has for them. I can identify with that. I did the same thing for many years in college, even after I had given my life to go into ministry. I confessed past sins. I committed to following Christ closely. But I was having a hard time forgiving myself for what I had done and moving on long after God had already forgiven me. I was reminded of those frustrating days of self-doubt as I listened to a song on the way to work this morning (many times other people say it far better than I can). This is from the band Tenth Avenue North. It's called "You Are More." If you find yourself thinking those very thoughts about your worth this morning, read them carefully.

There's a girl in the corner
With tear stains on her eyes
From the places she's wandered
And the shame she can't hide
She says, "How did I get here?
I'm not who I once was.
And I'm crippled by the fear
That I've fallen too far to love"
But don't you know who you are,
What's been done for you?
Yeah don't you know who you are?

You are more than the choices that you've made,
You are more than the sum of your past mistakes,
You are more than the problems you create,
You've been remade.

Well she tries to believe it
That she's been given new life
But she can't shake the feeling
That it's not true tonight
She knows all the answers
And she's rehearsed all the lines
And so she'll try to do better
But then she's too weak to try
But don't you know who you are?

You are more than the choices that you've made,
You are more than the sum of your past mistakes,
You are more than the problems you create,
You've been remade.

'Cause this is not about what you've done,
But what's been done for you.
This is not about where you've been,
But where your brokenness brings you to
This is not about what you feel,
But what He felt to forgive you,
And what He felt to make you loved.

You are more than the choices that you've made,
You are more than the sum of your past mistakes,
You are more than the problems you create,
You've been remade.

I think the issue for me lay with my perception of who God is. I saw God as someone who was watching over me--not out of love but out of a desire to catch me doing wrong. When that chance came, He would use that as the excuse to punish. The more I grew to understand the passionate love God had for me, the easier it was to see that He would go to any length that His character would allow to rescue me from my sin. (I do not agree with the recent teachings of some pastors that God will eventually allow all people into Heaven. He is, after all, still a God of righteousness and justice).

The bottom line is this. I am not worth what God did for me...and neither are you. Our worth comes from the fact that He did die for us and that He loves us deeply today. That's what makes us more than the sum of our pasts. A relationship with God is an invitation to move beyond our poor choices and to feel the deep, deep love of our Creator. For those who have chosen to receive that Gift, we have been remade.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Peace

DISCLAIMER: Over the last several months, I have been encouraged to write regularly about the accident from 2004. I am working my way through writing a book about the incident. So, every Tuesday, I've taken the opportunity to write, remember and share snapshots of that tragic event.

I think one of the greatest fears I faced in my life was raising two kids on my own--even if it was just for three and a half years. I can, to this day, tell you the exact moment that the fear struck me--April 9, 2004, sitting in the passenger seat of a crushed Chevrolet mini-van. A stranger--some good Samaritan who had come upon the scene of our accident--stuck his head in my broken out window. He checked on my status and then matter-of-factly gave me the news that I never dreamed I would hear: "Sir, I don't think your wife is going to make it."

My mind raced in several directions at once. I was checking on the kids...responding to this stranger's questions...trying to figure out what had happened...trying to determine the extent of my own injuries...all at once. But one thought was louder than all others in my head, "Could this stranger be wrong? There's no way my wife is dead. God will pull off a miracle and she'll be okay. She has to be...doesn't she?"

As soon as the man disappeared to begin his search for Josh, I turned my conversation to God. Whether it was out loud or just loudly in my head, I do not know. "She can't die, God. I need her. The kids need her. God don't let her die. Please!! Take me. Let me die. My kids need their mom. I can't do this all by myself." Over and over the fears came at me. With each minute that passed, I felt myself sinking.

The strangest thing happened that day...it wouldn't be the last time. God came into that van with me. He comforted me. It was a peace I can't adequately explain but it was a peace that He gave me repeatedly over the next 3 years. I would get into those places of doubt and fear. I would question why God had allowed the accident and how He expected me to parent two kids alone while pastoring a church. His peace would come, just as it did in that van. He's shown Himself faithful many times over the last 43 years of my life. Every time I've faced a fear on my own, I have shrunk away unsure and unconfident. But when I faced those fears holding tightly to His promises, I knew it was somehow going to be okay. The situation may not change (it didn't in April 2004 nor any of the other times that followed) but God changed me in the midst of that situation. Trust that for your own fears. Know that His peace is enough and He is able to carry you through the doubts.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Unraveling my mess

Like many of you, I've enjoyed reading Lisa's blog the last few days (read here). It was educational for me to hear the thoughts and feelings of my kids as they answered Lisa's questions. It was equally surprising to hear my own answers to her questions.

I try from time-to-time to sit and unpack "Ridley." (admittedly, it is not an easy task). I try to sort through the journey of the last 43 years. One of the things I must admit is that the changes that have occurred in me have been accelerated these last seven years. Life and death. Old and new. Changes that were planned and those that were unseen. It's crazy to try and unravel all that God has done in this time.

The greatest comfort comes from knowing there is a God--not just any god but a powerful, all-knowing and loving God--who is absolutely crazy about me. He sees me where I am, in the midst of the darkest moments and the highest celebrations. He loves me when I am the least lovable. He works behind the scenes of my life to bring things that I never thought possible.

Unraveling "me" is an ugly job. It comes with sins I'd rather ignore and faults that I'd like to wish away. But God's great love for me promises that He can take it all and make something worthwhile. I don't deserve any of it...and that's the beauty of what I see God doing. It's not mine to take credit for.

I share this just to say to you...He feels the same way about you. As you sit there feeling low, inadequate, ugly or insecure, know that He sees you differently. God came up with the word potential. Here is the cool thing, though. Potential does not depend on what you and I can do when we try harder; it depends on what He can do when we surrender more often. All He needs is a willing heart.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

End times

With the turmoil in the Middle East and the vicious earthquake that hit Japan, I've gotten a lot of questions regarding the end of time and what the Bible has to say. It's come from those near to me, like my daughter, as well as from some relative strangers in the community. I imagine most ministers get some kind of questions related to the subject when things like this happen. So, I thought I'd take this space today to answer the biggest question...are these signs that the world is about to end?

Yes...and no.

Allow me to explain. There is no doubt that what's going on in the world are indications that the end of time is coming. Matthew 24 leaves little room for question. There Jesus talks about wars, famines, earthquakes and the general "labor pains" of the world as it faces its end.

But we must remember two things. The same Bible also says no one--not even Jesus Himself--knows exactly when the day will be. For anyone--and I mean anyone--to predict a time and place is a waste of time and a warning that they don't have a clue what they are talking about.

Secondly, we have to remember we aren't the only ones to ask this question or to face difficult "signs." Americans in the 1860's were quite sure that the Civil War was a sign things were coming to a rapid conclusion...but no more than the rest of the world felt it during the The Great War (World War I). It was the largest war ever...until World War II came and convinced everyone that Jesus would be here any day. Even more recent conflicts like the Gulf Wars have raised the eyebrows of those who live in anticipation of the end time. Both of those wars brought a flood of books to the shelves about why this was the end. That's not all...

As bad as last week's earthquake was, it ranks seventh on the list of severity in the recorded history of such events. So, as afraid as we became last week with that event, can you imagine what others felt during those six tremors that ranked higher? Other events such as oil spills, large hurricanes (remember Katrina) and great blizzards have led people to announce the end was near.

Here is my point. Yes, it is very apparent that events and signs are all around us. Jesus said there would be. He also said they would increase in intensity. But there are many more signs to be fulfilled from Scripture before we face the end of the earth.

Now, this is the most important part. I shared this with a young man yesterday as we interacted about this very subject. We have two choices. We can live in fear of what we know is coming. Or, we can live with confidence that what is coming is not to be feared. The difference is Jesus and what you do with the reality of His existence. Deny Him and live in disobedience and you have much to fear. Know Him and surrender to His desires and you'll find great peace knowing that the future you question is a future He holds in His hands.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Japan

The tragedy in Japan has resonated deeply with me this past week. I have watched, with a heavy heart, the images that are being broadcast from the island. There is such despair, such loss. And I have to be honest and tell you that it makes me think of April, 2004. The loss of my wife and son brought such a huge burden on me. But it was a burden I was able to withstand thanks to my faith in an all-surpassing God and amazing family and friends.

I began to think about the levels of hurt that are going on in Japan. It is one thing for a family to grieve as they are surrounded by their friends; it is something entirely different when that grief is just one in a mountain of those who are grieving.

There is no one in Japan who has not been effected by last week's disaster. With death tolls creeping higher and estimates saying that climb is not yet complete, the Japanese people are finding death and mayhem every where they turn.

But in the midst of this tragedy, my prayer has been not only for peace and healing. My prayer has also been that the people touched by this chaos would "stumble upon" the great God who delivered me and my kids through our own "quake." The God who moves mountains and stirs up the seas is the same God who is desperately seeking the people of that nation. He longs to have their hearts as His own. He will go to the ultimate lengths to reveal Himself to them. I pray that they will find Him amid all the rubble of their nation.

God is our refuge and strength,

an ever-present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way

and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,

though its waters roar and foam

and the mountains quake with their surging. Psalm 46:1-3 NIV

Monday, March 14, 2011

Hugs

I am a hugger. Always have been and I guess I always will be. Maybe it is because I come from a very affectionate and very large family. Maybe there is something deeper, more psychological at its core. Whatever the root of it, I have been told it makes me everything from loving to downright annoying. Nevertheless, I remain a hugger...whatever you think of me.

The way I see it, we live in a world where there is enough hatred, enough loneliness, enough pain and enough rejection. Heck, who in the world couldn't use a hug?

Apparently there are such people. This morning as I watched the news, I was shocked to find out that there is apparently some author who thinks we hug too much. Really? Are you serious? Too much?

This train of thought leads me to several questions. First, why would anyone feel this way? Was he not hugged enough as a child? Was this person hugged too much by someone he didn't like? What would lead someone to such a conclusion?

Secondly, why in the world did some publisher feel that this was a topic worth publishing...or, for that matter, why did the news organization feel like it was worth a headline on the news?

I believe in the power of touch. It communicates acceptance and love. It breaks down walls and removes fears. It can calm a child who is afraid and ease the pain of someone who is struggling. Yes, I'm a firm believer in the value of a good old-fashioned bear hug. Look, if there are things we are looking to cut out because we've got too much of it, I can give you a long list of nominations: taxes, awards shows, "Housewives" from any major metro city with their own TV show, Miley Cyrus sightings, and Charlie Sheen updates. Speaking of someone who needs a hug...

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Prayer and new friends

Lisa and I had a wonderful time with some new friends in New Jersey this week. As cool as it is to see God using Josh's story to bring positive change in the health care industry, it is a thousand times better to see how it opens doors for both of us to talk with the new people we meet. As we do, I am challenged again and again by the reminders that Scripture gives us to pray for each other.

I often wonder if God arranges these conversations more for the people I talk with...or for me. I'm being stretched. He is using these opportunities to show me how to love others, to have compassion for their needs. He's opening my eyes to the needs around me. And He is reminding me how critically important prayer is to Him...and me.

It's no mistake. Look at what Luke says in the New Testament.

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. Luke 18:1 NIV

It's a good reminder for us. As I shared with a friend earlier today, I've never met a person whose prayers went unanswered. There are "yeses", "nos" and "not yets." The problem when someone says their prayer is unanswered is not that God has not heard, it's that He chose to answer in a way we didn't expect and we fail to recognize it. I encourage you, when God gives you a chance to pray--for your own needs or someone else's--pray with all your heart. Entrust every bit of every need to Him. Then trust that He will do what is best in the situation that lies before you. His answer may not be what you prayed for but it will always be what's best.

For my new friends in New Jersey, please know that Lisa and I have prayed for you since we left. You will be in our hearts and we thank God for each of you.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Thinking about...

I've started this blog about four times. Seriously. I've gone from one thought to the next, from one topic to the next. None of them want to flow easily.

I had to ask myself why. I feel like my mind has been just a little bit overloaded. I heard someone say recently (I think it was Lisa) "the more you know, the more your heart can be burdened by what you know."

From time-to-time my heart can get burdened for what I know. Rather than a trickle of feelings, the thoughts will come like a flood. My mind is thinking about an adult friend who just realized that she has been in the church her whole life and has never been truly discipled in her faith. I'm thinking about an 11 year old kid who has anger issues and is making bad choices with school and his family. I'm thinking about a church friend who is torn between a brother with cancer and an elderly mom with pneumonia. I'm thinking about a blog reader who has been told by her friend that God can forgive everything but divorce. I'm thinking about a close buddy who has amazing knowledge, incredible leadership skills and tremendous drive...but can't get a job to support his family. I'm concerned for a dying aunt and my mother who is worried about her sister. There's also a friend who is hurting because his relationship with his daughter is broken and he's working hard to restore it. I could go on and on...

And to sit and dwell on these things would do no good. None. Instead of dwelling on them, I've had to give them all--one-by-one--to the God who knows each situation better than me. I've had to entrust them to His care because He cares more than I ever could.

I wish that had led me to some amazing words for your heart or some great challenge for you life as you read this blog today...

...maybe it did.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Hidden sin

Mark Twain once said, "We are all like the moon; we have a dark side we don't want anyone to see."

I was talking with a friend earlier this morning about the dangers of that dark side, those hidden areas of our lives we want no one to know about. Whether it's a long history of repeated failures or a recent decision that has caused you to stumble, all of us will face the challenge of sin in our life. Let me share just a few of the dangers of hidden sin...

....hidden sin seldom stays hidden. It will eventually come out into the light and you (and everyone it effects) will have to deal with the consequences.

...hidden sin is like hidden disease--it makes no difference who knows about it, it still wreaks havoc on the one who carries it. Silently, without fanfare, it ruins your relationship with God and with others. It eats at you whether you acknowledge it or not.

...the longer that sin stays hidden in the human heart, the harder it is to root it out. Poor choices, broken relationships, addictions or dangerous behaviors can grow roots that are hard to dig out if we leave sin "unattended."

...Satan always makes us more afraid of revealing the sin than we should be. It is one of his favorite tactics as the "father of all lies." He makes us fear the things that most can help us. Exposed sin loses its lethal nature and becomes easier to deal with in the company of other Christ followers where there is accountability and encouragement.

Examine yourself. What lies on the "dark side" of your character? What areas of compromise or sin have you explained away or ignored or excused? Is there sin that you have justified as being no big deal? Healing begins with confession--bringing the sin out into the light. Find a brother or sister in Christ or talk with your spouse. Find someone you can trust who will speak to you honestly and lovingly.

The next step is repentance. This is the conscience decision to take your life in a direction 180 degrees away from the sinful past. Confession without repentance is anemic. It carries no power. Confession with repentance is the foundation of the gospel...it is life-changing.

Finally, there is accountability. The company of believers is the safest place for every sinner. There we find the strength to come clean and the help to be restored when we fail.

Remember it's much easier to deal with sin now than to let it spin your life out of control.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Ministering in loss

DISCLAIMER: Over the last several months, I have been encouraged to write regularly about the accident from 2004. I am working my way through writing a book about the incident. So, every Tuesday, I've taken the opportunity to write, remember and share snapshots of that tragic event.

It was--not sure if this is the best word or not--interesting to watch the responses of people after the accident, particularly those who knew me best. The funny thing was that when they came to offer me comfort, I often found myself reassuring them that their feelings were okay. I think many of them were at a complete loss for words, not knowing how to express their feelings. I assured them that words weren't necessary. Their presence was enough.

After the kids and I made our move back to Franklin, people who had known us from our previous time here became quickly involved. Some of them were too involved. Keep in mind there were those who I invited to come closer. My family, of course, was always ready and willing. They, along with the previously mentioned friends, were the ones I turned to when I had a need or simply wanted to talk.

But there were also friends who weren't as close who immediately became "more involved" than I desired. I chalk it up to what I mentioned above--not knowing what words to use. So, rather than using words, they did the only thing they knew to do which was to try and serve. Looking back, I thank God for every single one of them. At the time, it was annoying. I had people telling me how to raise my kids (as if my wife's death had suddenly made me an incapable dad) or wanting to show me how to wash my clothes (unfortunately, none of them felt compelled to take it on as a weekly service for their friend).

Hear me again when I say this: looking back I have a deeper appreciation for what they were doing and the ways that they were expressing their own grief. It was just that at that time it was very overwhelming and...invasive.

Some of you may be at that place right now. You've got a friend or family member who is going through a difficult time. Love them. Love them deeply. But be respectful of boundaries--real and implied. Don't force yourself into places where you don't get invited. Don't overwhelm someone when they are already overwhelmed with the situation before them. It's okay to say nothing...to just be present in their pain. The best way to know the difference? Ask...and then be respectful of the answer you hear. Your goal is to minister to them, not become a menace to them.