…and God is still good.

Has life ever felt like one brand new experience after another, some experiences you have asked for and some that you haven’t?

Personally, I think that we are often prepared only for those enterprises in life that are familiar and rote.  Rarely are we prepared for those experiences and times that hurt, that would offer us growth as a person.

A recent example is an outdoor adventure involving refugee kids from a local community here in Charlotte.  Our church partnered with Camp Canaan to bus in about 50 kids to experience a sand island in the Catawba River, complete with hiking, soccer and a zip-line.

Camp Canaan, Refugees, Birchcroft, Renovatus

As I approached this zip-line with its platform approaching the lower canopy of leaves, I already began to feel a little shaky.  The wooden planks forming this veranda in the sky seemed to me to be a bit too small.  Yet, what better motivation for a new adventure than watching 6 year olds scale this ladder of wood and bark, leaving only their fear behind to taunt me upward too.

I was the adult there.  As in, I have responsibilities like…breathing and…my legs…but that didn’t stop me (or my pride rather) from tracing the steps of many brave souls gone before.  Maybe the platform was about 30 feet up but then again, it could have been 100 feet up.  It didn’t matter because I was there and people are watching and I may not ever be here again.

So I climbed…

…and God is still good.  But what makes Him good isn’t my understanding of the word “good” because I often ascribe a definition of goodness that would benefit my current state of being, or doing or thinking…

…and I climbed…

…because you see I have a rather small definition of goodness.  This definition of God’s goodness generally revolves around me getting something positive or feeling a certain way.  The inverse of this small definition, or rather, the risk of this small definition is that if things aren’t going my way or if don’t feel a certain way then perhaps God isn’t quite as good as I think He should be…

…and I stood on the edge of that platform…

…realizing that the problem for me isn’t that the Lord is good but that I often put Him in a box of ‘goodness’ that is just too small…kind of like the platform I was standing on.

“God, you are good while I’m here on the ground.  You are good while gravity is my friend and while I’m looking up instead of looking down.  God, you are good when I have a bed to sleep in, clothes to wear, family and friends to love.”

There’s only one way off this platform that allows me to keep my dignity.  Of course that’s just my pride talking because I can climb back down.  The deeper issue is that there is only one way off this platform that lets me leave all the questions behind…questions like, ‘what if I had just jumped’ or ‘what does it feel like to fly’?

Shaking, nervous, scared, unknown…God is still good.  There’s only way to know that goodness and leave the questions behind: to trust Him and jump.  The Lord was good way down there on the ground, safe and comforted.  Up here…my definition of goodness has to expand.

There’s only way to know that God is still good despite the hurt, pain, confusion or anger and that is to trust His goodness in spite of it.  There’s only one way off this platform that redeems every aching, scary step up to it and that is to let go and jump.

“God, you are good while I am way up here on this platform.  You are good while gravity is vengeful and while I’m looking down instead of looking up.  God, you are good when I don’t have a bed to sleep in, naked and ashamed having lost all family or friends.”

God, you are good and we leap…

…and we laugh, breath taken, loving deeply this wind in our hair and this view so magnificent and we laugh…

…because You are still good, so very good to us.  Not because we jumped but because that’s just who You are.  A different experience, another stretch, a bigger definition and the box I’ve kept You and my heart in is slowly crumbling.

Hey, look back there…do you see that?  That platform isn’t quite as high anymore.

Camp Canaan, Refugees, Birchcroft, Renovatus

A Birchcroft kid coming down after the long zip!

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political conventions and permission to doubt.

As I write these words, Ann Romney stands at the podium admonishing the nature of love in a Republican-Mormon family.  This week the Republican National Convention is taking place in Tampa, FL.  Next week, in my hometown of Charlotte, NC the Democratic National Convention will meet.  There will be political maneuvering behind the scenes, back-slapping and high-fives on both sides of the political aisle.  2016 is already in the sights of many ambitious politicians.

Name dropping is the vernacular.  You don’t actually talk to other people at the convention, you simply look at them and say a name.  They in turn say another name, you both nod and then walk away.

Seriously though, these types of events represent the pinnacle of American political idealism.  The real question is, “Who can be the most optimistic about America’s future?”  Which political party can paint the most vivid picture of a dream that we all want to be a part of?  Promises like “not failing and not being let down” get thrown around so lightly that they are almost believable.  Please don’t interpret my cynicism as opposition to a particular ideology.  Rather, read my cynicism as a set-up for a deeper truth…

The staff at Renovatus has recently read Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk.  In it, he writes, “It is common sense that some situations call for pessimism, but as a culture Americans have strangely decided to endow optimism with unqualified favor.  Politicians today compete to be the most optimistic, and accuse their opponents of pessimism, as it if were a defect.

If optimism is seen as an asset to a political agenda then pessimism is a liability.  If joy and happiness are the obvious outcomes to voting one way, then depression and melancholy must be the outcomes of voting another.  What provokes my thoughts about these political conventions are questions like, ‘How much of a liability is it to be authentic’ or ‘What would happen to my political career if I was to doubt something?’  It seems to me that building a platform around having all the right answers is flawed from the beginning.

I don’t think the speechwriters will work in the phrase ‘I’m not sure what we should do about the budget deficit.’  If a candidate approached the podium and began their speech with, “This is a crazy world, I don’t have the answers and frankly I’m a little doubtful”, that candidate would lose their platform instantly.  While I’m not saying anyone should start a speech that way it will always be easier to start a political diatribe with the ‘answers’ rather than authentic questions or doubt.  As valuable as optimism is to the American ideal, so is quick access to solutions for all that ails us emotionally, physically, spiritually or mentally.

Shenk continues:

Over the past few decades, a stigma in politics against emotional health treatment has extended to any display of unscripted emotion…Somehow, anything short of constant cheer has come to be perceived as a violation of the American religion.  Even as we practically drown in the information about politicians’ predilections – from snack foods to underwear – a kind of supposition of infallibility keeps us from a real discussion of character, because the real things human beings actually experience are considered taboo.  We all know that our presidents, as Bob Dylan sang, “sometimes must have to stand naked.”  Yet anyone who dared to be nakedly emotional would face death by a thousand cuts.

I think there’s an alternative model to having all the answers often seen in politics.  Let’s take a quick look at man called John the Baptist.  John wasn’t running for political office.  If he was running for office he wouldn’t have publicly called out the local king, Herod, for taking his brother’s wife as his own.  It landed him in jail and it ultimately cost him his life.

While in prison, John heard of the miracles that Christ was doing and he sent two disciples to ask, “Are you the Messiah or should we be looking for someone else?”  This wouldn’t be so awkward if John himself hadn’t been the one to baptize Christ, subsequently watching the heavens open up and hearing a voice from heaven declare, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”  There’s not exactly a lot of ambiguity here.  It sounds like this might be the Son of God you baptized, John.

I don’t know why John doubted Christ while in prison.  Maybe it was prison that did it.  Regardless, when John’s disciples found Christ and asked Him that question, He didn’t get angry.  He didn’t rear back and declare, “Why, that no-good, ungrateful low down, dirty…”  He told the disciples to run back and tell John of all the miracles that were taking place.  He then turned to the gathered crowd and he declared, “Among those born of women, there has not been one greater than John the Baptist.”

Christ didn’t chastise John or his disciples…instead, He praised John.  Jesus didn’t get offended by John’s authentic doubt, he praised John as more than a prophet!  It sounds like Christ is comfortable enough in Himself to encourage an authentic answer over a religious answer.  It sounds like God honors authentic doubt when that doubt is fostered in an authentic search.

It’s hard to imagine what religious tradition would be,” says scholar Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of Doubt: A History, “if there weren’t people looking up and saying that they disagreed with what had come before.”  Maybe this is why John the Baptist felt so comfortable challenging the traditions of the Pharisees and religious teachers.

While American politics and civil religion may not lend themselves to doubt or authenticity, I find it encouraging to know that Christ values my authenticity and vulnerability far above my struggle to be eternally optimistic.  I would rather be in prison with John than in the throne room with Herod.  Christ praised the former over the latter and eventually elected to identify with death as well.  Like John, He knew what was worth dying for.  Perhaps a better understanding of reality would help us to know that truth as well.

I hope I’ve encouraged your doubting and your authenticity a little.  Thank you for reading this and as always, God bless you and God bless…wait, there’s a better ending to this speech.  How about, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…”

5 social media schedulers and why you need one.

Small businesses, large corporations and now churches are engaging the world through social media.  If Facebook were a country it would be the world’s third largest country.  Social media has forever changed how you broadcast your message.  The question is no longer “if or why you should utilize social media” but “how most effectively and efficiently can you?”

Consider that from the combined 1 billion+ Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn users, a majority of your congregation, classroom, denomination or audience is jacked in.  This is where social media schedulers come in.

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in celebration of blogging: my 50th post.

This is kind of a big deal: my 50th post in the 5th month since I started.  I can’t think of a better thing to write about than ‘writing’ itself.

This whole thing has always been cathartic for me.  I enjoy finding just the right words to express what I’m thinking and feeling and then emptying myself of them.  What is not cathartic (and downright stressful) is attempting to publicly legitimize my thoughts as actually interesting.  A pen-and-paper journal would have been much safer.  I’ve always felt trapped by the opinions of others, so exposing my thoughts on the internet has not been an exercise in comfort, to say the least.  I would still consider myself an intrinsically and categorically ‘guarded person’ in this regard.

Todd Henry points out that “It is human nature to default to the path of least resistance.”  It’s not necessarily hard to type some words on a screen.  It is hard to suffer the fear of misinterpretation which in turn spurs the need for disclaimers and increased verbiage.  Ironic, isn’t it?  I would write shorter posts but I just don’t have the time.  I’m not saying all of this for pity or empathy.  I’m actually trying to say that blogging has been good for me.  If resistance is a hallmark of progress, then I must be growing.

It’s been good because I’ve encountered the styles and disciplines of others.  I think of writers like Seth Godin, marketing guru and imminent blogger whose influence across so many flavors of business is astounding.  His posts average around 175 words and he get’s about 500,000 page views a day.  I think of Jonathan Martin, a modern-day Thomas Merton but with swag, who writes in the neighborhood of 1,000 words per post.  He defies convention and creates loyal followers at the same time.

I just had a conversation with fellow blogger Sarah DeShields about how our vocations/professions can manifest themselves via blogs.  They have all helped me to understand that my individuality is far more important than following some writing rules.

What has surprised me (even when it shouldn’t have) is the evolution of my need to accelerate my readership.  I didn’t start out on this journey thinking of platform, SEO, RSS feeds, tagging keywords, short-links, monetization and so on.  Is this the tyranny of perfectionism rearing its ugly head or just the inevitable fork in the road for all bloggers?

It’s funny how bloggers are like all creatives, keeping a shroud of secrecy around the unfinished work until a moment of unveiling.  Then we expect instant fans.  It’s like a writer before the book is published or a musician with an album coming out or a preacher who’s prepared a sermon.  Is it the product that attracts us or the process?  Yes.  Do I write about what I do or who I am?  Yes.

So to resist the secrecy and risk transparency, here are some of my stats so far: as of this writing my all time page views are 2,671, my busiest month was November with 509 views and my busiest day was November 9th, when I posted ‘sweet [baby] coen james‘ with exactly 100 views that day.  Contributing to the busyness of that post was the addition of pictures which each added to the total views.  My most popular post is ‘my wife + the gift of mercy = leadership‘ with 130 views.  Fittingly, it’s my most poignant post to date.

I have a running joke with my boss Tracey Rouse, who just started her own blog (fantastic by the way).  The joke essentially revolves around us tossing out our page views and how she’s pretty much stomped my numbers without even trying.  Next to guys like Seth Godin and Michael Hyatt, we’re small potatoes but that’s not the point.  The point is to keep writing because it’s a good thing.  If you’ve read this far and there’s an itch of creativity within you, please stop waiting any further and start scratching.

Resist the ping, power through the dip and find your space.  Here’s to the next 50 posts.

3 lessons learned from my first WWE Smackdown.

All good things come to those who wait.  That’s what they say right?  At least, I think my first WWE Smackdown was a good thing.  Come to think of it, I wasn’t really waiting for it either.

Like most young American boys, I grew up with the WWF & WCW on the periphery.  The superstars of this entertainment mostly came to me in the form of little plastic toys.  My parents didn’t approve of the TV programs so what I knew of wrestling was informed by playground chatter more than anything.

Today, that information comes to me through my much more grown up friends who still enjoy the entertainment of it all.  Some guys have video games, some have books, some have WWE.

When offered a free ticket to Smackdown, I unhesitatingly accepted.  My curiosity sought satisfaction and the boy in me knew this would be fun.  So here are some of my thoughts and observations of the event…

The National Guard was everywhere.  I’m not sure at what level they were sponsoring the event but uniformed recruiters were abundant.  I look a lot younger than I am so they approached me.  I was offered a lanyard with Mark Henry’s picture on the front and links to free stuff on the National Guard website.  The appeal of a free lanyard fades with age so unfortunately, their Jedi mind tricks fell on deaf ears.

As you can see, however, digital camo draws little boys like moths to a porch light.  What’s cooler than the fantasy of wrestling superstars?  The fantasy of war.  So my first lesson learned from Smackdown is ‘guerilla marketing’ and ‘target demographics’.  Geez, these guys are brilliant…or is it ruthless?  I couldn’t tell the difference because I was distracted by all the bright lights.

The middle picture above is pretty ironic though.  It looks like boot camp already.  Speaking of bright lights…

Another lesson I learned from Smackdown is to always build a culture.  The signs of which become most evident when you get a lot of like-minded folks together.  This must be where Republican’s and Democratic’s get their tips on how to put on a convention.  It seemed like everyone spoke a similar language, knew all the same war-cry’s, and communicated with the same sign language.  No, seriously, they all held up signs.

Sitting directly in front of me were two little boys, maybe about 7 & 9 years old.  When the crowd began to chant, “You suck, you suck” the boys started to chime in.  They were quickly scolded by their mother.  Finally, someone with sense.  If you’re going to support violence and male chauvinism, let’s at least use nice words about it.

My favorite moment came when Mick Foley and Booker T. Washington were in the ring.  These superstars just keep it coming.  Since this was a special edition Smackdown, they had to dress for the occasion.

All this leads me to my third and final lesson – invest in the future.  I would say the average age of the kids were probably around 7 years old.  I can honestly say the show was rated PG and the guys who run WWE are smart for it.  Get a group of grown men together and someone will inevitably reminisce of the good old days of Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant and Randy Savage.  All these little kids will one day stand at the water cooler and say, “Hey, do you remember Randy Orton, Mark Henry and CM Punk?”

It’s because nothing fuels the fantasty of boys like the notion of invincibility.  The wrestlers are literally bigger than life.  They can’t be hurt.  They can fall 10 feet on to the mat and get back up to ‘hobble’ out of the arena.  Just watch boys during play as they adopt the persona’s of their heroes.  In competition, somebody has to lose and it won’t be “me”.

I won’t lie…I bought into it.  I left the arena feeling like I need to work out.  I was genuinely entertained.  Overall, it was a fun night and I’m glad I went.  Despite the satirical tone of this post, I’m not on a crusade against WWE.  However, I do recommend Chris Hedges’ book “The Empire of Illusion” for a critique of wrestling that will challenge the way you think about entertainment and America.

By the way, thanks Doug and Ashley for the free ticket!

the quickest way to lose your influence.

If you are in any position of leadership, you are in a position of influence.  The longevity of your influence is a direct result of your gratefulness for those you influence.  Klout can’t measure this.  Whether your followers are continents away, hidden behind a computer screen or invited into your living room on a weekly basis, they need to know you’re grateful.

The quickest way to lose your influence is to be ungrateful.

I lead a team of volunteers every single week in the care of children for our faith community.  There’s absolutely no way I could ever watch 150 kids, aged 0-10, by myself.  I need a team to do it.  If I could give each of them a salary, I would.  What I can give them, however, is specific, heartfelt thanks. Continue reading