Sunday, July 29, 2007

God owns the spedometer.

God owns the speedometer.

Occasionally, I forget that God created time. We may have placed the structure around it, with words like “hours” and “weeks” but he knit the very fabric of what is morning and night. And as the creator, he knows better than anyone, how to use it. He knows how to expand it or constrict it or bend it around his will. Have you ever thought about that? God could make a single day feel like twenty or a year feel like an hour. He is not limited by the constraints of a calendar day or what can reasonably fit within a workweek. He owns time. It’s his responsibility to do with it what he will, a thought I am increasingly finding comfort in.

I believe that ultimately there is nothing I can do that is going to change or prevent God from doing what he wants to do. There’s not an action or work he’s waiting on from me that will be the key that opens his handcuffs. His wrists are unbound. No rope or nail can hold him still any longer. He is not awaiting my deed to set him free to be powerful and allow him to move with mysterious love. He does so because that’s who he is, that is his character.

His will is not helped or hampered by my efforts.

He does not need my permission to unleash his power.

He does not need my participation to complete his plan.

He invites me to take part, but regardless of if I accept the call, regardless of if I move a single inch, his story marches on. His power and love and story move forward. All I can do is accept the invitation. Run, wait, sit still, change jobs, it doesn’t matter.

All I have to do is accept the invitation and when I do, I get to see the wisdom and gentleness he uses to guide my steps. In Exodus 13: 17-18 we get a glimpse of this:
17 When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” 18 So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt armed for battle.

God knew the Israelites weren’t ready for a war so soon in their journey. Even though the Bible makes a point of saying they were “armed for battle,” God knew the consequences of a skirmish with the Philistine would be devastating. He could see further down the road than they could so he took them what felt like the long way. He did what was best for them.

I don’t like taking the long way. I generally prefer the “right now” road, but God doesn’t seem to care for that one very much. I used to think that God only had two speeds, 0 or 100 mph. When I’d look at people I admire or were doing what I wanted to do in life, Rob Bell, Jarrett Stevens, Donald Miller etc., I’d feel that they were going 100 mph and probably got there in 30 seconds or so. And if my life didn’t go from 0-100 in 30 seconds I was doing something wrong.

I don’t think that anymore, or I think it less. Now I think God likes 6 mph and 10 mph moments. He likes to teach us new things at 17 mph and pick us back up if 56 mph feels too fast and we fall down. He likes to slowly shape us and make sure we’re ready before he leads us through Philistine country. And that’s ultimately his responsibility not mine. I just have to accept the invitation. And there’s wonderful peace in taking your foot of the gas pedal.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The little David Caruso on my shoulder.

The little David Caruso on my shoulder.

Some people have a little angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other that argue with each other. I have TV’s David Caruso.

You may know him as the redheaded, pale-skinned Spanish Lieutenant Horatio Caine on CSI: Miami, but in 1994 he was redheaded, pale-skinned Irish Detective John Kelly on NYPD Blue. At the time, NYPD Blue was one of the grittiest shows on television.

Caruso was at the top of his game, getting Emmy nominations, setting the tone for shows to follow like the Sopranos and the Shield. Life was going so well but then he walked away from it all to pursue a film career. His first two movies after his departure from NYPD Blue were “Kiss of Death” and “Jade.” Don’t worry if neither of those sounds familiar, no one on the planet saw them. They’re horrible. They made about a dollar. And for the next seven years Caruso couldn’t get any acting gigs except a string of movies that sound like Steven Seagal films:
• Body Count
• Cold Around the Heart
• Deadlocked
• Black Point
• Session 9

The list goes on and on until he finally landed the aforementioned role on CSI. For some reason though, the media’s lampooning of Caruso’s stupid career move impacted me. I was a freshman in college at the time and was making a lot of big decisions. That’s when I started to hear David Caruso on my shoulder. When I stood at a crossroads with two options before me, he’d quietly whisper “be careful, don’t make the wrong decision, remember Jade. Remember Jade…”

I’d lock up. I’d get nervous that I was going to make a disastrous decision I could never recover from. I was afraid that if I jumped to new job, after a few months I’d realize that the job sucks while the one I used to work at was amazing. The new job or my Jade if you will, would go out of business while the old job would be giving their copywriters bags of gold and ponies to ride to meetings.

But I can’t trust the little David Caruso on my shoulder. He’s a really bad judge of when to wait and when to run. And so were the Israelites.

In Exodus 14 the Israelites are starting their journey out of Egypt. Pharaoh has changed his mind about their freedom and was driving toward them with 600-armed chariots to sweep in for the kill. The Israelites are trapped between an oncoming army and the Red Sea.

In panic, they tell Moses, “Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone?’ It would have been better to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert.”

Moses responds by saying:
“Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. 14 The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

The first time I noticed that verse in my Bible I underlined “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” I remember thinking, “Wow, what a clear, simple reason I can wait. The Lord is going to fight for me. All I have to do is be still. That verse is definitely going in the God Wad.” (The God Wad is a collection of Bible verse note cards I often carry around in my pocket.)

But then in classic God fashion, in the space between verse 14 and verse 15, He completely changes course.

15 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on.”

I can just imagine Moses, the words “be still” barely out of his bearded mouth, getting that message from the Lord. “What’s that God? Move on? Because I just said wait and there’s, I don’t know probably two million of us and it’s not the easiest crowd to get moving.” But we don’t see that in the chapter so we can only guess at what Moses thought. Based on what happens next he probably just turned to the mass of people that were stuck between the Red Sea and certain Egyptian death and yelled, “Go!”

God told Moses to move on, because he had something better planned. He had something bigger and more spectacular and more dramatic than the combined intelligence of every Israelite in that desert could fathom. He was going to march them through what looked like history’s first and worst recorded dead end, the Red Sea, and wipe out the Egyptian army in one fell swoop. So it wasn’t time to wait, it was time to run.

Traffic lights don’t change yellow before they turn green. They go immediately from red to green. Stop to go. Wait to run. Sometimes it’s like that with God. Wait becomes run within a single breath. Suddenly what felt like it was going to take forever is streaming by you at light speed. And you’re running as fast as you can down the shores of the Red Sea.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Is Kevin Bacon's arm longer than God's?

Is Kevin Bacon’s arm longer than God’s?

Last week, after much debate, prayer and counsel, I decided to get back in contact with the only person I know in the publishing industry. I was hesitant to do so because the last time I interacted with her I was definitely off the reservation, sprinting ahead of God, trying to frantically force my way into the book writing world.

So I sent her an email about the new book I am working on and said, “OK God, it’s on you.” That’s one of my favorite prayers, “It’s on you.” Sometimes I think God is like some sort of Sensei that trains me how to fight in a secluded mountain top dojo. After months of painful, difficult learning I am able to snatch a rock from his hand before he can close it, which signifies I’m ready to go back into the world with the skills he’s imparted to me.

Forget that. If anything, the more I learn about God, the more I learn how dependent I am on him for my every breath. The closer I get to him, the more I find myself saying, “Really, you want me to go where and do what? OK, I’ll keep moving forward in that direction, but it’s on you. Seriously, you saw what happened last time I tried to do it on my own. That really tall guy stole all the money and I’ll never be able to get another tuxedo from that place again.”

Seconds after I sent the email, there was a response from the editor. Wow God, you move quickly when you’re into something, I thought. I opened it up and here’s what her email said, “I’m on maternity leave and will be back in September.”

Awesome. 100% of the channels I know to get this book published are out of the office for the next 10 weeks. I paused and thought, “I guess God doesn’t want me to get this book published right now. That’s the only way to interpret this.” But what does that mean?

Do I really believe that in order to prevent my book from being published, God made sure this editor got pregnant? Am I really believing that some baby’s purpose on the planet is just to provide a “maternity leave blockade” to my book proposal? Twenty years from now is that kid going to go on a backpacking trip through Europe to find himself only to find that his reason for being was to temporarily delay the writing career of some guy named Jon? Isn’t that a little narcissistic?

It’s a lot narcissistic, but at the same time, isn’t God in control of everything? Doesn’t his vision for our lives unfold with far greater connectivity than the six degrees of Kevin Bacon? Is there anything that happens that he is surprised about? If he pushed on me to send the email to the publisher, was he shocked to see she was on maternity leave? Did he think, “What? Maternity leave? That’s bananas! I really thought this was going to be the group that published your book Jon.”

So I’ve got two options. Believe God enlisted the very miracle of life to stop me from writing a book or God doesn’t really know everything and was surprised by the editor’s pregnancy. Ugh, those both stink. Hopefully there’s a third option in some portion of the Bible I haven’t read yet.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Poison and the Watermelon.

The poison and the watermelon.

Six months ago, during several quiet times, I felt like God kept asking me the same thing over and over again. This is what he laid on my heart: “If you don’t ever get to publish a book, if the only thing you ever get out of writing is a closer relationship with me, is that enough?”

I’ll tell you what I told him more than a few times, no. No, I have to publish a book. If I don’t publish a book and see my name on a shelf somewhere, it’s all been a waste of time. It doesn’t count. I’m not a real writer.

It’s easy now to see the foolishness in that logic. Publishing a book isn’t any different from any other accomplishment. It’s fleeting. It’s a temporary success. It, like a medical degree, owning your own business or running a marathon, is not enough to sustain joy. I might be able to ride the wave of happiness from anyone of those accomplishments for months, maybe even years, but at some point, every way ends flat against the shore no matter how big it first swells. Whereas a closer relationship with God, the very creator of the universe is overflowing with promise and potential, love and adventure.

It took me a while to come around. I had to sacrifice the belief that publishing a book would make me the person I’ve always wanted to be. I still feel a quick surge of anger and jealousy flood my blood when I see ten new authors in the Christian bookstore advertisement that aren’t named me. But getting published is no longer the reason I write.

If it were and I got rejected from every publisher in the nation, I’d no longer have fuel to keep doing what I do. If it were and I got published, I’d suddenly find myself slapped in the face by the “what now” that often accomplishes long sought after success.

It would be a lose-lose, but I’m not worried because God took the publishing motivation away. And in it’s place, he dropped a rather curious one. The reason I write now is that the box labeled “poison” is actually full of watermelon.

The labels that were on top of the God box my entire life were things like, ”Judgmental, The Punisher, Killjoy, Sex Hater, Sir-Bores-A-Lot.” I thought he was uncreative because the pictures on the box were so boring. I thought he was cheesy because the design of the box was so poorly done. I thought that to open the box and drink him in was to ingest a poison that would forever ruin any fun I ever hoped to have.

And I was wrong.

Upon cracking upon just a tiny portion of the God box, I am amazed at what I’ve found. Acceptance. Humor. Mystery. A loving father that knows about my faults and has already forgotten them. Intelligence. Patience. Deep pools of creativity. The God box is full of my wildest dreams and I’ve only taken a peek.

That’s why I write, because maybe you grew up around people that told you the God box was full of poison. Maybe their treatment of you was poisonous and if Christians could hurt you like that, surely God would too. Maybe every box you ever saw told you that instead of freshness and creativity God was most pleased when people represented him with church-flavored cheesy campaigns stolen from corporate America, e.g. Got Jesus, Got Destiny, Got God etc.

I’m here to tell you I was wrong. So many labels on the God box were wrong, because there’s no poison inside. It’s watermelon. And if you hate watermelon then switch this metaphor out with ice cream. And if you’re lactose intolerant, then the box is full of Orbit gum, Mint Mojito flavor. And if you don’t like that then you’re just being difficult because it’s probably the best flavor of gum ever.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The cure for cancer and the alpaca addiction.

The cure for cancer and the alpaca addiction.

As a teenager, the acquisition of alpacas* dominated most of my waking hours. Honestly, there was very little I wouldn’t do to get more of those llama-like animals. I walked the woods looking for them, hoping that someone had thrown a few away that they no longer wanted. I would go to the dump near our house hoping to find some. I eventually got the courage up and started buying my own.

I watched my grades plummet as schoolwork took a back seat to alpaca adoration. My teeth became riddled with cavities because I would stay up late thinking about how I could get the next alpaca and would fall asleep without brushing them. What little bit of life I had as a teenager unraveled as I threw hour after hour, day after day, at my alpaca addiction. And when I wasn’t actually spending time with the alpacas, I was actively engaged in keeping this secret struggle, a secret.

As you can imagine, a herd of alpaca is not an easy thing to keep from your parents, but I made due. I poured out my best creativity into finding them new hiding places in my small room. I built elaborate raincoats for them should they be forced to shelter in the woods for a few nights if my dad got too close to their trail inside our house. I dedicated every living cell of every part of my body to the collection and protection of my alpacas.

I’ve since kicked the habit. Not for good mind you, an addiction is always interested in re-establishing a relationship. My friend that went to AA told me a joke they have – “When you’re inside an AA meeting working on your issues, your addiction is out in the parking lot doing push ups.”

I’m not sure if physically an alpaca can do a push up, but you get the point. I know they’re out there lurking. But sitting with a few friends the other night that have also had their own alpaca struggles, I was struck by the amount of time and energy we’d all dedicated to the pursuit of alpacas. Don’t get me wrong, I was surrounded by men that had carved out decent lives. There were doctors and lawyers and CEOs in the room with me. But I have to wonder, what could we each have accomplished had we not wasted the majority of our lives with addiction?

What if the guy that had the cure for cancer somewhere deep in his untapped brain was an alcoholic? What if instead of unlocking the answer to the disease in years dedicated to the lab and the library he gave all his time to the bottle? What if the woman that holds the key to cold fusion won’t ever get to it because she floods her calendar with shopping?

What if I’m supposed to write 15 books but instead I invest 2 hours a day for the next 10 years watching people get hit in the groin with wiffle balls on Youtube? (That never gets old.) What are we missing when we don’t give the things that need time and energy, time and energy?

I don’t have your answer, but it’s pretty easy in my own life to come up with a list of things I missed out on because of my alpaca affiliation:

1. Going to school with my friends.
After bombing most of the 9th grade because I was so busy with alpacas, my parents strongly encouraged me to leave all my friends and go to an all boys catholic high school.

2. My sister’s birth.
I have roughly zero memories of when my little sister was born while I was in high school because I was in such an alpaca-fueled stupor.

3. Getting into a fraternity.
The Greek scene definitely has its minuses but I think I could have avoided years of loneliness in college had my focus on getting alpacas now that I was out of my parents house not helped me become a huge jerk to every fraternity on campus which earned me zero bids. (Whoa run on sentence)

4. The first four years of my marriage.
The thing about a golden wedding band is that it’s not magical. I thought it was, but alpacas stampeded into my marriage and subsequently stole four years from me.

That list could go on and on, but fortunately for you, the length of my daughter’s nap forces me to keep things fairly brief. I’ll leave you with this though. Do you have any alpacas? Is there something you’re missing because your time and energy are being spent in places you wish you didn’t spend them? There’s a limit on both and it would be a shame to look back from your deathbed and only see a herd of alpaca steering back at you.

*Alpacas are not what I struggle with. It’s just the first thing that came to mind when I thought to myself, “how do I write an idea on addiction without people getting stuck on the symptoms when it’s the core issues that really matter?” Plus, it’s a fun word to say. “Alpaca!” Try it at home. It’s delightful.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

My no plan always fails.

My no plan always fails.

“I had sex with a stranger I met over the Internet this weekend.”

There’s not a great response to this statement. When a friend I was having dinner with said this to me a few weeks ago I really didn’t know how to reply. This was not an activity he was proud of. He was not boasting, this was more of a confession. And it was not what I expected to talk about that night. But there it was.

After a fairly exhausting process of getting the back story to a week he was doing his best to forget we came to a stopping point. And I only had one question for him.

“How is next week going to be different than last week?”

He pondered the question for a few seconds and then said with utter sincerity, “I’m going to make better decisions next week.”

That’s not a plan. It sounds a little like a plan. I mean “make better decisions” seems like something you could put on one of Successories posters of golf that you see in corporate offices. If someone told you they were going to make better decisions next week you might even think they’d have a fairly successful week ahead of them. But they won’t, because “make better decisions” isn’t really a plan. It’s a hope. And it’s a hope everyone starts every week with.

No one begins their day by saying, “I’m going to make some horrible decisions today that have dire consequences for my career, my health and my life in general.” My friend didn’t say to himself, “I hope I make a series of poor decisions this week that eventually set me up perfectly for sex with a stranger. That way I won’t be able to look at myself in the rear view mirror when I drive home from wherever it is I meet this person.” On the contrary, he, like me and you, silently hoped that he’d make wise decisions. But hope, without the support of a plan, rarely withstands the pressures of reality.

Hope says, “I hope I don’t spend anytime on chat rooms this week. They’ve proven dangerous to me in the past.”

A plan says, “I’m not going to go online this week. I’m feeling too vulnerable to temptation.”

Hope says, “I hope that when everyone that cares about me is out of town I don’t get lonely and use that unmonitored time to misbehave.”

A plan says, “Whenever I go off the radar of my accountability partners I tend to get into trouble. I’m going to fill this weekend with healthy uses of my time. Boredom is dangerous for me.”

Hope says, “I hope that my thought life isn’t connected to my action life. That way I can feed my head fuel all week and then feign surprise when I light myself on fire this weekend.”

A plan says, “Strangers to sleep with don’t just fall down from the heavens in front of my car.

There’s always a starting point down that path, little steps I take during the week. I’m going to actively and passionately pursue avoiding those little steps and it starts with my thought life.”

Hopes and plans. Plans and hopes, the only reason I know this game so well is that I’ve played it for so many years. I bought into the lie of hope and saw life turn hopeless when I did. But through it all, I came away with one simple idea and that is this. Hope without a plan, is a plan to fail.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The "owning a guitar will make me a guitar player" lie.

The “owning a guitar will make me a guitar player” lie.

Owning an apple laptop will make me a better writer.

Owning a snowboard will make me a snowboarder.

Owning running shoes will get me in shape.

Owning a blackberry will make me organized.

This lie has about a billion variations, but they all come back to the same truth - a possession will never create desire or talent.

I thought it did, which is why I got a $1,000 Martin acoustic guitar. I played the first few notes of Poison’s “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn” about four times and then stood it up in a corner of my home office. Every day it would mock me with its existence when I’d come downstairs.

“Look at me you loser. I’m a freakin’ Martin! Play me. You are killing me.”

I’d look away in shame and then go about the rest of my day. My younger brother is a musician and when he’d come over, he’d tune the guitar and quietly apologize to it, “It’s OK, I’m sorry. Don’t worry, I’m trying to guilt my brother into giving you to me. I’m sorry.”

I was sorry too. I wanted to be a guitar player. I liked the idea of it, the concept of being a guitar player was appealing to me, but not the actual work involved in learning how to play. When I got one I didn’t instantly find myself a guitar master. I sucked at it. Like I sucked at painting despite the professional oil paints I bought. Like I sucked at snowshoeing despite buying really nice snowshoes. Like I, well you get the point.

Why do I do this? Because when it comes down to it, I hope that the things I buy will help me be who I want to be. That contentment is not something slippery, it’s something available at the mall. But stuff never satisfies. It’s such a temporary high and my in-laws basement is a museum of purchases I’ve made in the hope of being satisfied. Like the boxes of skateboard decks or comic books or basketball cards. There’s always a “next,” when it comes to shopping your way to satisfaction. Stuff never really allows you to stay very long in the now because if you did, you’d realize that buying something didn’t make you a different Jon, it’s just made you a Jon with more stuff.

And if you realized that, you might not buy more stuff, and stuff hates that. What stuff hates even more than that is when you ask yourself honestly why you’re purchasing something. When you pause long enough before you get to the cash register and ask what you’re expecting this purchase to do for you.

I do this regularly with Specialized Mountain Bikes. I have an old one in, you guessed it, my in-laws basement that I have not ridden in three years. But I subscribe to Outside magazine and often they’ll have an article about some Swedish guy named Jorn that has mountain biked some remote corner of the world. And when I’m stuck on a Saturday night at Chik-Fil-a and one of my daughters is finger painting with ice cream on the window and the other one is screaming about not wanting to eat her dinner, and I look outside and see a guy with a mountain bike strapped to his Jeep I wonder what life would be like if I owned that.

Would I be somewhere jumping logs in the forest instead of apologize to patrons at a fast food restaurant? Would I have really cool scars and probably a tattoo and a dog named Mack that wore a bandana? Would I have friends that didn’t shower that often but were great at Frisbee and camping? Maybe. Maybe that mountain bike would make all that possible.

But it won’t. I know that deep down inside. And usually by the time we’re driving home I’m laughing at something my three year old has said and singing along to some Veggie Tales song on repeat and grimacing that I might be the worst dad in the world for thinking a mountain bike might make me life more exciting than raising a family.

It’s not accidental that I slip into this logic, most marketing is geared to making us think that a particular product is the missing piece to a happiness puzzle. Jewelry ads are great at this. I saw one the other day for diamonds that said, “What extraordinary love looks like.” Imagine walking into that store and telling the cashier, “Hi, I saw your ad. I’d like to buy some extraordinary love please.” I saw another one for a watch that had Kate Moss in it before all the cocaine. The headline read, “Who will you be in the next 24 hours?” The truth is, that if you buy their watch, you’ll be a lady with a new watch. But the hope is that you’ll think, “I’ll be exactly who I want to be, thanks to that new watch.” Again, what would that conversation look like at the store, “Hi, I’m unhappy with who I am inside. Do you have a watch that could fix that? You do? Great. I’ll take one for each wrist.”

But it’s just a watch. It’s just a guitar. It’s just a blackberry. It’s just stuff. And stuff can never save the day.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Why aren't there more maulings at Christian book conventions?

Why aren’t there more maulings at Christian book conventions?

Writing a book about God should be a terrifying experience, but based on the number of new Christian books that come out each year, it’s not for most people. I don’t know how they do it. For me, trying to capture God on paper or frame the creator of the universe in some sort of metaphor for a book is a fairly ridiculous exercise. When I asked God if he was cool with an analogy I was thinking about using to explain his love, it felt like I was asking a hurricane whether crayons or markers would best capture its might.

And what if I’m wrong? What if what I’m writing isn’t what God wants people to think about him? What if that concept I’m exploring is just an outward expression of my massive ego, not a call to write a book from the Lord? That’s dangerous stuff. Christ couldn’t stand people that did that in the New Testament. He was always raging against the ways the Pharisees misrepresented God. And so many Christian books do that every year.

Sometimes, when people got out of line in the Old Testament, God would simply send a few lions to kill them. I wonder if in my generation we’ll ever see a pack of lions get loose at a Christian book convention. They’ll just be running between booths at the trade show of new titles, picking up the books and skimming through with massive paws.

“Ugh, this book is horrible. Seriously, what did you spend an hour writing this before you tried to make some money off it? And are a third of these ideas evident in your own life.” Hack author would then get mauled.* (If these literary lions can stand on their hind legs and flip through books, I’m assuming they can talk too.)

The other thing about writing a book about God is that eventually you’re held accountable for it. That’s not true about any other subject in the world. A volleyball will never get mad at you if you write a sucky book on how to play the game. Cats will never strike you with lightning if you misrepresent the relationship you have with yours in a book. But God is different. If you half-heartedly extend a Christian fiction series passed where it was meant to go just because you want more money, or write about a certain way of Godly living that is secretly not evident in your own life, then God’s going to ask you about that. You’ll have to answer to God just like I have to answer to God. That’s a terrifying proposition. Or it should be anyway.

*That’s the second idea I’ve written about lately that involves mauling. If there’s a third, please hold some sort of “mauling intervention” for me.

Monday, July 16, 2007

What a Cuban torture specialist taught me about forgiveness.

What a Cuban torture specialist taught me about forgiveness.

A few months ago, a close friend from church stole thousands of dollars from me and the one client our struggling “ad agency” had. The client was a church that my only living grandparent has attended for about 30 years. It was all together, a pretty disgusting experience.

For a while, I would just get drunk on rage anytime I saw his name on my instant messenger list. I wanted to punch AOL in the face every time he logged on. I am not awesome at forgiveness.

While in Charlotte for said grandmother’s birthday, I overheard my uncle telling my father about what it means to forgive. A few hours later I was able to ask him a couple of other questions on the topic I was clearly failing.

My uncle is a 6 foot 3, carved from stone, retired Air Force Colonel. He’s one of the most Godly men I’ve ever met and when he talks, rooms tend to go quiet. When I told him about the money that was stolen from me, he shared a story from his days in Korea.

While he was stationed there, someone he knew got captured by the North Koreans. While he was sitting in his cell, other American prisoners started to tap out an urgent message to him in Morse code. The faint sounds through the wall told him, “Don’t hate Raul. Don’t hate Raul.” Over and over again, these words were repeated. The message went on to say that Raul was a Cuban torture specialist that had been brought to North Korea to work over the prisoners. (That there is an international network of torture specialists is a little terrifying.)

The message they were so frantic to give this new prisoner was that, yes, Raul was going to torture him, but that was only physical pain. That would end eventually, but it would be the seeds of hate for Raul that would threaten to eventually kill him. It would be his anger and rage against Raul that would eat him like a cancer, leaving him empty long after Raul had stopped the torture.

My uncle thinks holding a grudge is like carrying the offender’s dead body around with you. You have to let it go, or it just weighs on you and suffocates all the good things in your life.

I’d like to say I had a Eureka moment that night talking to my uncle and all my anger toward my former business partner instantly disappeared. It didn’t, but I did write him an email when I got home. I told him I choose to forgive you. You might never ask for it, but I choose to offer you forgiveness.

And now, when I see his name pop up on my instant messenger buddy list and I’m tempted to pick back up his 6′4″ dead body, I remember, “Don’t hate Raul. Don’t hate Raul.”

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Lebron reminds us we were created for worship.

Lebron reminds us we were created for worship.

During the NBA Finals this year Nike rolled out a new campaign for Lebron James. The images in the campaign were black and white with Lebron either soaring through the air for a dunk or thrusting his head back with both arms stretched out as if drinking in talent from the heavens. The only thing written on both black and white images was the simple tagline, “We are all witnesses.”

It was a beautiful campaign, reflecting the very best of what makes Nike the very best. But advertising lessons aside, the most interesting idea it drove home was that we were all created for worship. That is what Nike was attempting to tap into. Not our desire to own sneakers or wear cool warm up shorts or even support any particular basketball player. They were skillfully trying to touch on that part of us, buried deep down inside that has a need to worship.

A need to bask in the presence of greatness. To stand in awe at something bigger than ourselves. To feel a sense of purpose and energy. To witness.

Nike got it right. The millions of dollars in research they spent on figuring out how to write those four words were dead on. We are all witnesses. But Lebron didn’t win a single game in the finals. And that doesn’t sound like God to me.

Would I do that with a guy?

Would I do that with a guy?

I’m married and if you are too, then according to statistics one of us is going to get divorced. No offense, but I don’t want it to be me.

That’s why I developed the “would I do that with a guy” question. You see I rarely take the time in my life to question my motives. I’m impulsive, so usually I just act and end up figuring out the motive while I’m figuring out the consequences of a poor decision. But lately I’ve become like a Zen master of motive identification. Unfortunately my best and most recent example of this in practice is going to make me look like a jerk. But oh well, here goes.

The other day me and some friends were getting coffee. An attractive friend of a friend was there. She pulled from her purse the same kind of European notebook I carry in my pocket to make sure I don’t lose gems like “you’re lucky I don’t have access to bears.” I was just about to tell her excitedly how we shared the same somewhat obscure taste in notebooks when the Holy Spirit threw up a caution question, “Would you do that with a guy?” Ohhh, well played Holy Spirit, well played indeed.

I thought about it for a minute. If that was a guy sitting across from me, would I go out of my way to tell him how we must think alike because we use the same kind of notebook? Honestly? No.

I was going to tell this girl about my notebook because she’s attractive. And despite being happily married, I apparently still like attractive girls to think I’m interesting or cool. I was going to show her my notebook because I wanted to impress her. When I came to grips with that shameful realization I decided not to show her my notebook.

If you’re thinking that’s pathetic, then I agree. It is, but I don’t think I’m that unique. I don’t think that I’m the only guy out there acts different around different people, especially attractive women. What am I going to do about? I’m going to ask that question in every situation I get in like that. Would I do that with a guy? Would I say what I am about to say, do what I am about to do, act the way I am about to act if the attractive girl I’m interacting with was just another guy? If the answer is no, then I’m not going to do it.

It’s clearly not a foolproof trick, but it’s only one of the ways I’m starting to protect and nurture my marriage.

What are you doing to protect yours? If the answer is nothing, then statistically speaking, you’re getting a divorce.

Would you trade your dad for a Mini Cooper?

Would you trade your dad for a Mini Cooper?

Before you answer I should say that I’m not talking about the base model Mini Cooper. I’m talking about the S-class. Probably a convertible. Definitely with a cooler built into the glove compartment for sandwiches and fruits of the forest. Given the choice, would you trade your dad for the car? Let’s say you got to use it during the weekdays but you didn’t get to see your dad. Then when he was home on the weekends and mildly connected to your life, you had to give back the Mini Cooper temporarily until another Monday rolled around. Pretend that you had a good dad if yours was a failure of a father. Would you make that trade?

I don’t think anyone I know would. I think any kid on the planet would choose their dad over any thing on the planet. But lots of dads disagree with me every Monday morning. They must, because so many dads choose there jobs over their families. Few people ever say that outloud. Rarely do you hear someone begin their work week by getting in the car and singing, “I love my job, I like my kids.” But this weekend in the July issue of a business magazine they actually had an interview with a CEO that admitted he knew the words to that song. Here is his quote about why missing family meals isn’t a huge problem for him:

“My real preference is that she and the kids eat because I don’t want the pressure of letting someone else down. This (his company) always take precedence over that. Sh*&^% thing to say, I know, but that’s me. I’m doing this so that they can have a lifestyle that they want. I have an obligation to all the shareholders who put, in this case, $46 million into this place. That obligation comes before anything else. They know that that’s priority. If that sounds really bad, because I’m here telling you I put work first and not family first, I’ve tried it the other way around. You cannot serve two masters. You can only serve one master well.

I try to compensate for that by being pretty protective of my weekends. First thing and last, I’m checking my Blackberry, but I’ll go to the park and play basketball with the kids or go bodysurfing. I try to keep the weekends for the family so they know that during the week I’m pretty much a nonentity.”

Wow. That is an amazingly unintentional description of how so many fathers think. But before you unpack what’s wrong about that logic, unpack what’s right … at least he’s honest. At least he’s being upfront about making his family at best a second or third tier priority. He’s not working 80 hours a week and thinking he’s still being a great father to his kids. He’s recognized that what he’s doing to his family is Sh*&^%. He’s recognized that it has consequences and he’s comfortable with them.

But there are a couple of key phrases in there that you can’t help but highlight:

“I have an obligation to all the shareholders …”

The biggest obligation he has, bigger than 46 million dollars, is that he helped create some kids. He’s obligated to grow them, nurture them, and show them how to do this thing called life. The shareholders in his company are faceless strangers with money that probably fund dozens of companies just like his. But it’s always easier to fulfill an easier obligation so meeting the financial needs of people you might never meet versus meeting the intimacy needs of kids under your own roof, is a simple choice to make.

“I’m doing this so that they can have a lifestyle that they want.”

I don’t know anyone that has deep “lifestyle wounds.” I’ve never met anyone who has said, “My dad gave me lots of love, but my lifestyle wasn’t as involved in my life as I would have wanted.” But I know plenty of people that grew up with amazing lifestyles and absent fathers. They never seem that happy. And when their dads retire and suddenly want to dive into their lives they are overwhelmed with the sense of “Where were you for the first 30 years of my life? What makes you think that being compassionate to your grandson is going to make things magically better?” And seriously, what four year old has ever said while her father was reading her a bedtime story, “Dad, I appreciate the stories, I do, but could you put in some more hours at the office? My lifestyle is starting to suffer.”

“Sh*&^% thing to say, I know, but that’s me.”

When they hand you a baby in the delivery room you should hand them back your right to use the phrase, “but that’s me.” Go ahead and retire it, because you’re no longer a “me,” you’re a “we.” And to become a we means that some degree of me needs to die. Not all of who you are, but you can’t be the same person after you’ve had a kid. Your time isn’t just yours. The decisions aren’t just about you. Everything changes. And note here that he’s flip-flopped from “I’m doing this for my kid’s lifestyle” to “that’s me.”

“You can only serve one master well.”

It’s true, and kudos to him for recognizing it. What does that really mean though? For me it means getting home from work at 4:30. That gives me on average 2.5 hours with the kids each weekday. If the CEO above only sees his kids 30 minutes a day then every week, I get 10 hours more with my children. That makes me better at being a dad. Not automatically a better father, because I have loads of faults and don’t know the CEO, but by hours alone I have to know more about my kids than he does about his. Think about it. If you and I were taking Karate and I practiced 10 hours more a week than you did, who would know more about Karate? If I spent 520 hours more a year practicing karate, which one of us would you say is more serious about becoming better? Why do we pretend that the same time principle doesn’t apply to raising kids?

“they know that during the week I’m pretty much a nonentity.”

The good thing about this statement is that whatever therapist works with this guy’s kids in 20 years isn’t going to have a difficult task. Have you ever learned anything from a nonentity? Have you ever felt loved by a nonentity? Have you ever had the deep questions about being a teenager answered by a nonentity? Has a nonentity ever taught you how to throw a baseball or intimidated your prom date before you went out? Nope, but that’s what this guy is telling his family he is 5 out of 7 days a week.

This whole piece feels kind of judgmental. Maybe this guy’s kids are really happy. Maybe his wife is glad he’s not around. I don’t know this guy at all. But I know me and when I lived like he was living, it sucked. I used to work 70+ hours a week. I became an uncle to my oldest daughter and a roommate to my wife. I made lots of money, but I was rarely home and when I was there physically, I certainly wasn’t there mentally. That my wife didn’t divorce me is miraculous. I guess I want to share the lessons from that season with you in the hope that you won’t experience it.

It’s just a job. Kids aren’t desperate for lifestyles. It’s not just you anymore. And the world is full of nonentities. Don’t be one.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

You're lucky I don't have access to bears.

You’re lucky I don’t have access to bears.

Would it be wrong of me to pray that bears maul my seventh grade orthodontist? I know we’re called to love our enemy, but is there anyway that I could get maybe a handful of people I know attacked by bears in the name of God? These are the types of questions I was left with when I read about the bear attack in 2 Kings 2: 23-24. (I know what you’re thinking, I too would have read the Old Testament a lot sooner had I known there were chapters on “when bears attack.”)

Here’s the scene. Elijah has just been taken up to heaven. Elisha, his confusingly named replacement prophet, is just starting to shake things up. The first thing he does as God’s new prophet is heal some water. The second thing? Bear attack.

Check out the verses in question:

23 From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. “Go on up, you baldhead!” they said. “Go on up, you baldhead!” 24 He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths.

That story is crazy. Some teenagers called Elisha bald, which to me doesn’t seem like that big of an insult. I’ll probably be called worse things today. Instead of walking on by, he turns around and says, “Baldhead huh? Bears, attack!” And 42 youths are mauled.

Can you imagine if God still operated that way? If at any given point in my day I had access to bears? Man, oh man I would abuse that. I can just see myself getting frustrated by some teenager that is having a conversation on his cell phone in the middle of a movie. (Comedian Daniel Tosh came up with this scenario but used fire instead of bears. I'm sticking with bears. He's a PK too so I'm pretty sure he's cool with me using his concept.) Without asking him to keep quiet so I could enjoy the film, I’d mutter under my breath, “God, bears please.”

Suddenly said teenager would feel a tap on his shoulder from what he assumes is an usher. But oh know, he realizes upon turning around, it’s a bear!

How many bears would I launch on people during my commute home? Cut me off, here’s a bear. Rode all the way up the breakdown lane while I waited in line, how about a bear? Gave me the middle finger? Three bears.

I would be bearing people all day. Which is why God won’t give me access to them. He knows I’m a jerk a lot of days and would abuse the blessing of attack bears. So consider yourself lucky. Had you ever accidentally cut me off in traffic you probably would have found yourself with a bear riding shotgun.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

The “I’m lying because I love you” lie.

The “I’m lying because I love you” lie.

I remember the last time I lied to my wife. It was about three months ago. We were planning a trip to a city I didn’t every really want to go back to. The last time I had visited this particular city I had done some really hurtful things to my wife. Just talking about going back with her stirred up a lot of shame I had not dealt with yet. I particularly didn’t want to see people that had been witness to my horrible behavior.

So when she asked me where I wanted to stay, I made up a really lame excuse of why I didn’t want to stay with some particular friends. (If you’re playing along at home, “lame excuse” is an attempt to drape a lie in nicer clothes than it deserves.) She bought the lie, or so I thought, and we went to bed.

Why did I tell her that? Why did I lie? Honestly because I love her. I thought that if I told her the real reason I didn’t want to see our friends it would force her to mentally relive that chapter of our lives. That if I were honest, it would bring back that unpleasant memory for her and she would experience more pain. So I lied to protect her. I lied out of love.

When you write it like that, it’s pretty simple to see the foolishness of that logic, but it’s so easy to do. Think about a time when you’ve not completely disclosed some financial truth to your husband or wife because you don’t want them to worry. “We’re a little over our budget this month, but I don’t want Pam to freak out so I won’t bother her with what’s going on.” Or you hide something from your spouse because you know they’re insecure about that particular area of their life. “My husband is insecure about his physical appearance so I won’t tell him I’m worried he’s making some unhealthy decisions with his diet because I don’t want to hurt him.” Or in my case, “I failed in the past and I don’t want my wife to think about that failure, so I’ll lie in the future.”

So dumb, but again, I really thought that I was lying to my wife because I didn’t want to hurt her. My small group leader always says, “It’s interesting that when you were messing up, when you were failing, you didn’t have a problem with hurting your wife by your actions.” He’s right, the truth is, that lying is always about protecting me, not someone else. In the example above, I didn’t want to deal with the consequences of my actions, so I tried to cover them up with the false nobility of protecting my wife.

But it never works, it always catches up with us. The next morning after I told that lie, I felt like God called me out on it in my quiet time. That night I confessed to my wife that I had lied. Her response? “I know. I know why you didn’t want to go back to see those friends, I just wanted to hear you say it.” The takeaway? Lying is never an act of love and people that are close to you usually know when you’re pushing them further away with a lie.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

My daughters are wearing snowsuits as teenagers. Every day.

My daughters are wearing snowsuits as teenagers. Every day.

I know it will be hot considering that we live in Georgia, but that’s too bad. Unless modesty comes back into vogue, fingers crossed, then they’re going to be wearing snowsuits to high school. And not those skanky snowsuits that show your legs above your boots. I’m joking, sort of. But as a dad that understands how guys think and a writer that understands how marketers think, I’m not excited about them growing up. Today, a commercial for Kidz Bop 12 reminded me why.

Kidz Bop is a CD with popular top 40 songs sung by 10 year olds. I’m cool with the concept, my 3 year old daughter loves to sing in the car, but the songs they put on these albums are clearly not written for little kids. Take these lyrics from Hinder’s “Lips of an angel” found on Kidz Bop volume 11. It’s a heartwarming, childhood favorite about getting a phone call from an ex-lover while your current girl is in the other room:

Well, my girl’s in the next room. Sometimes I wish she was you. I guess we never really moved on. It’s really good to hear your voice saying my name. It sounds so sweet. Coming from the lips of an angel. Hearing those words it makes me weak. And I never wanna say goodbye. But girl you make it hard to be faithful, with the lips of an angel.

What 10-year old can’t relate to that song? What 11-year old hasn’t cheated on his girlfriend a time or two? You know how it is. You’re on one slide on the playground, your lady is playing hopscotch and an old flame winks from the swing set. What’s a kid to do? Thankfully Hinder and Kidz Bop have prepared you for this moment and upon taking a long, hard pull from a cold chocolate milk, you can stare off into the distance and wistfully say in a voice that hasn’t gone through puberty yet, “Girl you make it hard to be faithful with the lips of an angel.”

p.s. I hate you Kidz Bop.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

The "you can't choose who you love" lie.

The “you can’t choose who you love” lie.

Recently in an article on, a young man explained the relationship he was in by saying “You can’t choose who you love.” That’s not true. It’s pretty. It makes for good fodder in romance novels, but the reality is it really doesn’t make sense. Here are three simple reasons why:

1. Love is a horrible God.

If you buy into the idea that you can’t choose who you love, then you are ultimately saying that love controls you. It’s a power bigger than you, a force that guides your actions and your attitude. You turn love into a God and yourself into a slave. And what a horrible god it is. Always fleeting, always changing it’s mind. Never making it’s intentions clear. Always drunk on emotion. Raging like a storm one day and laying calm and cool the next.

2. Love fades.

If you’ve ever had children or been in a long-term relationship, you know that the mushy, romantic, high feeling of love fades away under the harsh glare of reality. Love, by itself, is not sufficient to sustain a relationship. There are many days that my wife does not wake up thinking, “Once again, I find myself intoxicated with love for Jon. I will shower him with my love.” On the contrary, she must choose to love, even in my foolishness and ugliness and mistakes. She has to be deliberate. Same with my two young daughters. When they’re trying to recreate some Ultimate Fighting Championship moment at the mall, it is not some deep pool of bubbling love I tap into to keep from transforming like David Banner into Angry Dad. It’s my decision that I am going to love them because they are mine. I am their father and I choose to love them.

3. Love is not an excuse.

In 1992, as justification for having a relationship with his adopted daughter, Woody Allen said, “The heart wants what the heart wants.” In one stroke, he made love his God and threw it under the bus as an excuse for his actions. But love isn’t an excuse. True love is just the opposite. It makes you responsible for someone else’s heart. It makes you intentional in the way you treat someone else. And it doesn’t offer you an excuse to explain why you are the way you are. It offers you the freedom to be who you are without fear of losing that person when they look behind the curtain of your life. You no longer need excuses. Love covers your flaws, it doesn’t try to justify them away.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The cocaine question.

The cocaine question.

A friend of mine cheated on his wife. She knows about one of the affairs but does not know the full scope of his unfaithfulness over the years. My friend has flirted with the idea of coming clean, but in the last few months he’s made a number of decisions that indicate he’s miles away from being true to his wife, true to himself and true to God.

A few weeks ago, when he came to our men’s group, the leader essentially told him to go home. He said if you’re not serious about working on your junk, why even waste your time here? I haven’t seen him since that happened and I thought about emailing him last night, but I didn’t know what to say.

I’m praying for you?
Are you going to come back to group anytime soon?
Is there anything I can do for you in this difficult time?
Have you thought about trying cocaine?

One of those questions is not like the others, but it’s the one I thought about the most. And this is not just me trying to write something inflammatory that I don’t believe in. I would have used meth as the drug if that were the case. This is me remembering one of the most powerful testimonies I’ve ever known.

My wife’s friend starts of her testimony saying that she is thankful for cocaine. This is not a phrase that regularly makes a cameo in church, but there is. And as she unpacks it, it began to make sense. You see, she was an alcoholic. She knew that she was facing a slow, 30-year death that would have stripped her of life, inch by inch. But then she met cocaine. Cocaine, she says, sped up her demise. It put her crash on hyper speed and did in a period of months, what would have taken alcohol years. And there, in the depths of her worst moment, a moment that came much faster than it should have, she found the Lord.

Now, years later, gently cradled in the hands of God she reflects back on cocaine with a heart of thankfulness, because ultimately it rushed her into God’s arms.

Maybe more than anything, what my friend needs is a cocaine moment. Maybe he needs a crash and burn. In the book “Boundaries on Marriage,” Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend say, “People in denial are deaf to words. They only understand pain and loss.” I’ve talked with my friend about his life. The leader of our men’s group has talked with my friend about his life. A thousand people could talk with my friend about his life. Ultimately, he might be deaf to words. Ultimately it might take the loss of his children, his wife, his job and everything he has to break him of the hurt and lies he’s defining his life with right now.

That feels counterintuitive to God’s call that we love our neighbor. Shouldn’t I love him and try to drag him back to the men’s group and force him to make healthy decisions? I don’t know, but that’s not what happens in one of my favorite parables in the Bible, the Prodigal Son.

In Luke 15, when the Prodigal Son says to his father, “Give me my share of the estate,” that’s exactly what he does. He divides up the property and gives his youngest son the money he wants. Now, do you think the father had any doubt what he was going to do with those funds?

After essentially telling his father he wants him dead, is the Prodigal Son going off into the world to start a homeless shelter? Is there any question that the money is going to be used for gross purposes like prostitutes and wild living?

Then why didn’t the father, or God if you will, withhold the money? Why did he help fund the downfall? Couldn’t he have said no, which would have meant the son didn’t have any money for prostitutes and would maybe have avoided ending up in the pigpen? Maybe, but that’s not what happens. The father puts money into the son’s hands, and with that money, his crash is put on hyper speed.

Is it possible, the father gave him the money because he wanted him to return faster? He didn’t want him out in the world struggling to sin over a 30-year period, dying by inches? I don’t know. Maybe it was just an expression of God’s gift of free will. The son had the freedom to spend that money in anyway he wanted to. And that he choose prostitutes was his doing, not something that God made financially possible.

I don’t know. It’s difficult to root for someone’s downfall, to cheer the arrival of cocaine. But in my own life, I am thankful for the things that combined in a perfect storm during the summer of 2005. The parade of hurts and mistakes that eventually became too overwhelming for me to run from anymore. They might not have come in the form of cocaine, but come they did. And I was broken.

Now, I can honestly look back on those things with thankfulness. I mourn the ways I hurt my wife, my family, my friends and myself. But, I would rather survive that storm with the Lord, then wake up at 60, with a wasted lifetime of not knowing myself, not knowing my wife and not knowing my God. Slow death is an option for all of us. For me. For my friend. For you.

I pray you’ll meet your cocaine long before that happens. I pray that like how my wife’s faith bloomed in childhood without a crash moment, your walk will be free of pigpens. I pray you’ll never have a demise, be it fast or slow. I’ll just pray and trust that God is the great storyteller and knows what each of our stories really needs.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Waiting for touchdowns.

Waiting for touchdowns.

For most of my life, I’ve been waiting for a football to land at my feet. When it does, I’ll hopefully be standing a few feet away from an NFL practice field. The offensive coordinator will see that the football has rolled near me and will yell out “hey kid, throw that back.”

I’ll reach down, pick it up and proceed to throw a perfect 90-yard spiral to a receiver running drills at the other end of the field. Practice will grind to a halt as they gather round to gaze at this diamond in the rough, this passerby that just might guide them all the way to the Super Bowl.

I’ve never played football. I played soccer growing up but despite David Beckham’s arrival to the US and the growing popularity of the sport, it still makes for a pretty weak metaphor. I don’t particularly want to play football, but I do want to be ready for the one defining moment in my life that will save me from being ordinary. The one touchdown event that will rescue me from, well me. So for years, I’ve had my head down looking for the football at my feet.

This is not a particularly fun way to go through life. For starters, if you look hard enough and squint your eyes, just about anything can look like a defining moment.

A year ago, I tried to force one out of Relevant Magazine. I was three or four months into an intimate relationship with Christ. I was dealing with issues that I think a lot of guys struggle with and I wanted to share what I had learned. I became obsessed with writing a book.

I emailed Cameron Strang, the founder and editor of Relevant Magazine. Relevant is kind of like the Rolling Stone magazine of the Christian world. Their stuff is well written, getting better designed by the day and they deal with things most Christian media shy away from. It should be noted that directly emailing the founder of the publication is a classic football moment. Why didn’t I email my friends and ask them if they knew anyone in publishing? Why didn’t I self publish the book first? Or even start by emailing an associate editor or someone lower down the food chain at Relevant? Because all those options felt like short passes and I was looking for the touchdown or nothing at all.

I ended up getting a little of both.

In the email, which was absurdly written, I told Cameron that I was:

A son of a successful preacher who had climbed the ranks to the executive board of the Southern Baptist Convention. An award-winning copywriter whose greatest sell had been pretending to be a Christian.

I went on to say:
“regardless of whether it gets officially published or if I sell it out of my trunk like MC Hammer, if God wants me to tell millions and millions of people that he loves them, I’ve got to trust it will happen.”

There’s a lot more nonsense where that came from, but you get the point.

That night Cameron wrote me back:
“You have an amazing story and we’d love to hear more about your book idea.”

Touchdown right?

Not really. After a few back and forth emails with their editorial director I stopped talking with Relevant. I wanted to write the book. I’ve wanted to write a book since the third grade when Mrs. Harris published (also known as laminated) a collection of poems I wrote. Maybe it was fear of success or just the regular kind of fear, but I just couldn’t do it.

I felt like a football made of granite had landed at my feet. I could see it. It looked exactly how I thought it would look. But it weighed a thousand pounds and I couldn’t pick it up.

It’s frustrating when these defining moments look like how we’ve always expected them to look, except for one detail. When we’re 90% sure that this is the right person to marry or the right job to take or the right time to publish a book. But that other 10% always seems to refuse to shut up.

I can try to minimize the 10% or maximize the 90% but I still end up trying to force a defining moment. And defining moments hate that. In the Relevant situation I simply wasn’t ready to write that book. I had basically carried around a backpack of lies and grossness for about 20 years.

Three months into my walk with God, at a point where I was at best beginning to recognize there even was a backpack, never mind emptying it, I demanded that God let me write the ultimate guide to getting rid of backpacks. It would be like writing a book on how to be a parent from the delivery room of my first child.

The other frustration is that by looking at for defining moments all the time I put incredible pressure on everyone that crosses my path. “Are you the person that’s going to radically change my life?” a quiet desperate voice inside me asks.

I am not exaggerating when I say everyone. Ask my 3-year old. When someone told me that being a father was a great way to understand God’s love for me, I starting expecting a life transforming lesson from my daughter L.E. For an entire weekend I was secretly mad at her because the things she was doing weren’t giving me a clear understanding of how God loved me.

If I told her out loud my expectation for the weekend on Friday night I would have realized how ridiculous it was: “L.E., I know you’re only 3, but I’m struggling right now with believing that God loves me. If you could somehow show me that or explain that to me this weekend, that would be great.”

She didn’t though. As hard as I tried to tie her refusal to eat a piece of chicken for dinner to my own rebellion and the hurt God must have felt when I rebelled against his love, she was just a 3 year old. And I was just a dad looking for a shortcut to a defining moment.

I also miss some really amazing things God is doing all around me when I laser focus on defining moments.

Before our honeymoon, my future wife told me a girl she worked with still stayed in touch with a couple she had met on her honeymoon. They had become lifelong friends while at a resort in St. Lucia and still got together regularly.

Deep inside, I got the idea that if my wife and I didn’t make lifelong friends during our weeklong honeymoon in Jamaica we’d be missing a defining moment and the whole thing would be a complete failure.

The first day we were at the Sandals Resort I started to get really anxious because other couples were pairing off together to go snorkeling or play two on two volleyball. Jenny and I weren’t getting invited or doing a very good job of laying the groundwork for life changing friendships. In fact, most of the time we spent alone with just each other! Even with all the new things that Christian couples get to enjoy on honeymoons, there was a part of me thinking “Maybe that guy I played ping pong with is going to be my next best friend.”

Pathetic, but true.

There are a lot of things I believe in my head or my mouth but deep down inside I doubt. I know that I don’t get to define my own defining moments. I know that I’ll never be able to come up with a better defining moment than God. There’s not a thing I am going to do on this planet that will leave him surprised up in heaven thinking “wow, Jon really pulled that one out. I gotta tell you, Samson, I did not see that one coming.”

But I still think I might know what a good defining moment can be, which is why I feel blessed when the fog clears just long enough for me to see one God has orchestrated and marvel at how connected his creativity is.

In 1971, it just so happens that my dad’s roommate during his freshman year at the University of North Carolina was a man named Al Andrews. Al is the funniest person I’ve ever met. He explores life with the kind of unabashed wonder of a little kid stuck in an adult-sized world, like Tom Hanks in the movie Big. I love Al.

After college, it just so happens that Al moved to Colorado to study counseling with Larry Crabb, whom he would later coauthor a book with. After he finished with the program, it just so happens he decides to stick around and teach.

Calendar jump to my life. I graduated from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. In addition to writing church prayer devotionals for a living I was self destructing on ecstasy and raves. I called my dad for help. He called Al. Al says he had a student named Gordon in Colorado. It just so happens Gordon is in Alabama now.

I called Gordon. Despite starting his working life in the Merchant Marines, it just so happens he’s recently opened up a counseling office. It just so happens that office is one mile away from where I live in Birmingham.

Fast forward a few more years. I drove from Atlanta to Birmingham to see Gordon because life was coming unraveled. He refused to placate my funk with soft-pedaled “it will be alright” counseling and suggested I see someone regularly in Atlanta.

It just so happens he had a friend named Jeff that specializes in my particular brand of failure. It just so happens that his office is ten minutes from where I work (a miracle in and of itself because everything in Atlanta is 43 minutes away from each other.) Jeff just so happened to live next door to Gordon in Colorado, where it just so happens they were both taking classes from a man named Al.

A man that 34 years earlier had just so happened to knock on a door in a freshman dorm and say, “Hi, I’m your new roommate” to an 18-year old that would just so happen to be my dad someday.

I don’t know
I used the phrase “it just so happens” 12 times in those last few paragraphs, which just so happens is really bad writing. But that’s not the point. The point is that’s one of the places where God lives in our lives, in those small actions or events that in retrospect have tremendous impact.

All too often I miss them, even when I take the time to look back on the seemingly unexplainable chapters. Even worse, I steal God’s glory and instead credit these moments to coincidence or ownerless ideas like “it was just meant to be.”

When I paved the inexplicable connections from Al Andrews in 1971 to me in 2005 with the phrase “it just so happens”, I was able to see how ridiculous it was for me to doubt God is the master of arranging those moments. Try it sometime with the story of how you met your spouse or someone special to you. I promise that if you’re honest, each time you attempt to write away the hand of God with “it just so happens” it will get harder and harder to think happenstance is controlling your world.

I can’t logically explain how intricate connections over a three-decade period ended up saving my life and my marriage. I could try, with six degrees of connectivity and how we’re all tied to each other on a global scale now because of the Internet, but it still wouldn’t make sense. I would still come back to thinking that one of the reasons God introduced my dad to Al Andrews in 1971 was because he knew that I’d desperately need to be sitting in Jeff’s office in 2005.

Situations like that make me feel like God knows what he’s doing. More than that though, they teach me it’s OK if I don’t know.

I used to think being a Christian meant you had all the answers. I’ve never really shared my faith because I’ve always been afraid it would turn into one of the moments on the show Politically Correct with Bill Maher. It always seemed like he would invite two brilliant people that hated God and one back-country hillbilly that loved God into a round table discussion about faith. The guy with the PhD in atheism and the woman that won a Pulitzer Prize in evolution would just go to town on a church secretary from Table Top, Arkansas. And I didn’t want that to happen.

I also didn’t want to misinterpret something from the Bible. I know there’s Greek and Hebrew involved in the Bible and that other than not getting into a frat and the phrase Oy Vey, I have very little experience with either. I’ve always worried about saying “I really liked how Isaiah said in rest and repentance is your salvation” only to have a real Christian reply “Well the original Hebrew for “rest” means “don’t ever quote this verse” so by doing so you’re really revealing how much of a sinner you are Jon.”

But the more I learn about God, the more I realize how much I don’t know and I’m beginning to think that might be one of God’s favorite things to hear me say.

Saying “I don’t know” takes the strength and pressure of arranging my life out of my hands. When I say “I don’t know,” I’m acting out of authenticity, not apathy. I’m not saying I don’t care. I’m admitting I don’t have logic or knowledge or formulas that justify my faith. I have faith despite the absence of those things not because of their arrival.

In the book Addiction and Grace, Gerald May describe the spiritual growth process as one that involves “far more relinquishment than acquisition.” I think he’s right and that by being honest with the Lord and others, I relinquish my mask of perfect son, perfect employee, perfect Christian author, etc.

I also relinquish the future, which was never really mine to begin with, but still something I have to give up. Daily.

I don’t know if this book will ever get published.
I don’t know why God has me working at AutoTrader right now.
I don’t know what hardships or joys will tackle me next summer.
I don’t know if my daughters will be popular in high school or if I’ll have to explain to them why it’s OK that they didn’t get invited to the Prom.

And that’s OK, because I know who does know and it’s in His hands, which are bigger and more creative than mine.

Nothing deflates a forced defining moment faster than the phrase “I don’t know.” A few months ago I had the opportunity to brainstorm a sermon series with Andy Stanley. Andy is Charles Stanley’s son and in my mind he ranks up there with Rick Warren and Bill Hybels. He’s written countless books, built a church of 15,000 people and is definitely one of my heroes. When I got the email invitation I almost threw up out of excitement.

At the end of the meeting, I was talking with him and the woman that had invited me. He asked me a little about my thoughts for the church, my background as a pastor’s son and my family. Then he threw a football at my feet, a question that I longed to turn into a defining moment:

“What do you want to write?”

In my mind I instantly envisioned me giving Andy a perfect answer that made him exclaim “Dear Lord, this boy is brilliant. How would you like a 5-book deal and a speaking gig at church here?” I thought about all the ways he could connect me and help me get started. I thought about being on a book tour with Donald Miller and maybe playing Frisbee with John Piper. I thought about kissing goodbye every bit of less than exciting advertising copy I’d ever written in my life and starting my trajectory to the moon.

And then out of my mouth I heard the phrase “I don’t know.”

Pop went the football. Stop went the mile a minute manipulative thoughts running in my head.

“To be honest with you, I don’t know. I’m trying to figure that out with God right now.” I finished the conversation and walked out of the office.