Best of What I’ve Come Across This Year

One of the things I am most thankful for is my job. While about 6% of our nation is jobless, I have one. But that is not the apex of my vocational thankfulness. I work for a great Christian man, whose generosity and integrity shine brightly in the work we do. But that isn’t the part I am most thankful for. That I work, and where I work are secondary to the actual work that I do. I get to market products that can change a person’s life for a living.

I get paid to help connect consumers with books, Bibles, music and movies that may draw them closer to their Creator. The diversity of those products is as expansive as the diversity of the population. And a product that hits one person between the eyes will never be considered by another. So needless to say, I do not get to simply promote my favorite books and CDs for a few reasons. First, the best way to hit the vast majority of the consumer audience is to aim at the high part of the bell curve, focusing on the popular. Second, marketing dollars do not allow for the promotion of even all the bestsellers. And finally, and possibly most pertinent, is the fact that I am drown to some of the less-popular titles that are available.

But here, I can throw the populace aside and get to the heart of some of the products that have impacted my life the most this year. As you begin your Christmas shopping, maybe consider a few of these life-changing gifts.

The Sacred Year – Mike Yankoski

There are hundreds of books on spiritual formation, so I would understand the easy dismissal of this book. But what a shame it would be to overlook this beautifully written, honest, and poignant look at living a disciplined life. Do not expect to blow through this book in a couple of sittings; this book is to be savored, allowing plenty of time for Yankoski’s words and observations to simmer as you learn to apply these ongoing disciplines to your spiritual formation. You won’t look at apples or cemeteries or silence the same way. It’s a good guide to a monastic life for those of us who are not monks.

Vanishing Grace – Phillip Yancey

I’ve said that I think this book should be required reading for anyone who claims to follow Jesus. I Still believe that, although I know it’ll likely never happen. Yancey’s premise for his new book is quite simple: although Christians have been saved by grace, they generally do a crappy job of showing grace to others. That’s the primary reason so many like Jesus but hate his bride. What’s not so easy about this book is seeing yourself in the mirror that Yancey holds up. Thankfully, a bit of a path is revealed to take us out of this current state of affair, and into a fresh awakening of grace giving. This is probably the most popular of the titles on this short list, but not one to be overlooked.

I Must Find You – Young Oceans

There is a certain formula to Christian music (or any pop music for that matter) that bores me. The redundancy runs rampant, both musically and lyrically. One of the problems is that everyone thinks they need to write worship music, even if they are not worship musicians. Another problem is that radio has certain narrow criteria for what they will play. So what if a group of musicians didn’t care about radio play or formulaic music, and instead to the pleading of their heart and set them to the music that ignites them? That’s exactly what Young Oceans did. An overflow of corporate worship, the band started as a collective dedicated to the subdued nuances of Psalmic petitions and prayers. The music is hauntingly simple; electronic and acoustic instrumentation colliding in pool of post-rock. I can’t count the times this record has been the perfect plumb-line in my day. What starts as background music quickly forges its way into the foreground. This is a meditative experience that rises far above whatever popular worship record you have in your car right now.

Cottonmouth & the River – C.S. Fritz

Yes, a kid’s book made my list. Fritz book is, first of all, visually stunning. The black & white drawing that illustrate this short tale are captivating and perfectly complement the story. Ah, the story… What a brilliant take on sin, sacrifice, and redemption. I was surprised by the emotions this story brought out of me! There is a depth to this story that isn’t out of place, although rarely found, in children’s literature. Please note, this is the first of three books from Fritz that encapsulate a full story revealing God’s love, plan, and perfect care for His children.

Shadow Weaver – The Choir

Okay, I do have a bias towards The Choir. Ever since I first saw them live in 1986, I have hung on their every word. If you have listened to the popular City on a Hill CDs from years gone by, you have been acclimated to The Choir, as their creativity was behind and woven throughout those projects. Shadow Weaver is not a neo-worship record, though. Here, personal introspection has never been so universal. The pain of seeing your kids grow up and start new lives of their own; the dichotomy of natures within us and those we admire; the ease at which we forget to follow through on the slimiest of things. This is pure poetry, bot lyrically and musically. Not a note or word is out of place, as The Choir reveals our fallen nature and our need for a Savior.

New Morning Mercies – Paul David Tripp

So many daily devotionals follow the same formula” random verse pulled out of context, warm and fluffy thoughts about that verse, and a trite prayer that replaces your own outpouring. This is why I am not generally drawn to devotionals, although I do know that millions of people draw inspiration from them each day. For me, though, I look for more depth. And depth is what I found in Tripp’s devo. Depth without being unattainable. Every single devo I have read in this collection forces me to take a different perspective of God and the way I try to live for Him. This is one devo that will cling to you long after you close the book and set it back on your inn-table.

That’s just six of the books or CDs that have stopped me this year, making me reflect and respond. There are dozens more that I have engaged with. But these six will likely stand the test of time for me. Although I can’t offer a “money-back guarantee” or anything, I do think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the nuggets you’ll find in these. They may not all be popular, bestsellers – but they are worthy of more attention than they will likely get. And I hope they bug you throughout the coming year as they have with me this year.

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Top 10 Upcoming Christian Books

So my workweek consists of working with a few dozen publishers to make sure the right readers see the right books at the right time. Through catalog, email, and display advertising, tens of millions see new, bestselling, and sale priced books that will bring them into a closer relationship with God. I work pretty far out, so the books you see in promotions and on shelves today, I saw in February. (Just yesterday, I was working on a plan for August 2015!)

By the time a book hits the shelf, it’s almost “old news” to me. That’s one of the things I have yet to come to grips with about my profession. When I initially hear about or read some great books, it’s way too early to tell people about them. They will forget all about it by the time the books are available months later. When people ask what I am reading, it’s usually something they can’t read for some time.

I was recently asked what ten books I’m most excited about releasing through the rest of the year. These are the Christian books I am happy to see on shelves of Christian bookstores. There are a number of mainstream releases I am anticipating, too ((Nick Hornby), but here’s why I am looking forward to these ten upcoming book releases.

1.       Vanishing Grace – Phillip Yancey

My one snetnece summation of this book is this: although Christians are saved by grace, very few know how to show grace. And that is why the world tends to hate Christians. People who didn’t follow Jesus still wanted to be around Him, yet his followers repel those who don’t agree with their convictions. So how do we fix that? This is a core message on the nature of grace that should be required reading for anyone who claims to follow Christ.

2.       Jesus Daily Devotional – Aaron Tabor

Jesus Daily is one of the most popular Facebook pages, and the leading faith-based page. Each day, multiple posts are made with inspirations thoughts and images coupled with Scripture. I usually think these are cheesy, and often taken out of Biblical context. But at least millions of people are reminded about God’s presence and role in their life. The devotional will give a bit more in depth inspirations each day, and encourage some social media action related to that day’s devotional. Engaging millions to act on their faith each day could have a big cultural impact. With 27 million fans on Facebook, even if only 5% buy the books it’s a huge seller!

3.       Prayer – Timothy Keller

There are a LOT of books on prayer (and other spiritual disciplines) coming out this Fall. Seeing multiple publishers release books around a singular theme shows how God is working amongst His people. And for some reason, slowing down to nurture the soul is a big topic this year. No offense to other books on prayer this fall, but Keller’s sensitivity and brutal honesty to a skeptical audience will be a welcome voice on this topic.

4.     30 A.D. – Ted Dekker

This is going to be the most surprising read for the fall. When you pick up a Ted Dekker novel, you expect to encounter absorbing characters whose stories are filled with twists and surprises, a take that evokes wonder and intrigue. Ted has brought us to a dark world the last few years, a step away from his earlier work in more traditional contemporary fiction. But with A.D. 30, Ted stretched himself and his readers by working within a completely new genre, while still giving us the intrigue he’s known for. I’ve long expected Ted to provide a read of thrills and even horror. But nothing caught me by surprise more than an historical fiction novel set in biblical times. Ted’s faith is worn on his sleeve in A.D. 30, as he shares the story of Maviah, a reluctant desert queen who encounters the teachings and person of Jesus. Reading the familiar Bible stories now, Maviah is found in the crowds around Jesus in my mind’s eye. Ted’s fans are in for a surprise with his latest book; but those who have never read Ted (or those who gave up on him when he took us to darker corners) are in for an even greater surprise as they discover the storytelling expertise revealed in A.D. 30.

5.      New Morning Mercies – Paul David Tripp

Dozens of devotionals release each year. I am sure that each one of them will be a wonderful point of spiritual connection for someone. And I’ve already mentioned one devotional on this list. But after a while, so many devos just start saying the same thing. For reflections from a book that is called “the LIVING Word of God,” I’ve found a lot of devos to be dead. Then I pick this one up and start reading it, finding daily thoughts that will stick with me throughout the day. That’s what I look for in a devotional. The couple weeks that I’ve read of this devotional have made it my top choice for daily readings in 2015.

6.       Miracles – Eric Metaxas

I’ve seen miracles happen. And I’ve seen them NOT happen. When and how and who and why and where miracles occur is beyond my comprehension, but I am still inclined to believe they can/do/will happen. Jesus performed them, and said that his followers would do “even greater things,” so I think miracles are real. Perhaps they are not as rare as we think, and maybe miracles are smaller (or bigger) than we ever thought.  I’m really interested in Metaxas’ take on a subject that hasn’t been addressed this way since C.S. Lewis.

7.       Agents of the Apocalypse – Dr. David Jeremiah

Fascination with the “end times” is a relatively recent development in Christianity. It’s only been in the last couple hundred years that Christians are speculating about every facet of the Lord’s return. Although I don’t find this subject as intoxicating as many others, I do value a voice like this in the conversation. With all that is going on in the world, Jeremiah’s critique of the end times will open awareness without naming names with a trusted voice.

8.       The Sacred Year – Michael Yankoski

Every now and then you read a book that slows you down and makes you reevaluate the way you exercise your faith, both the private and public aspects of living as a follower of Jesus. Although we don’t have this plugged into any upcoming promotions at this time, this thoughtful, well-written look at spiritual formation is one of my favorite reads this year. I savored every word I read in this book, with anticipation for what I’d read next while simultaneously wanting to bask in the words I had just read. This is absolutely one of the best books that I have read in the last year, and ranks as one of the favorite books in my vast library. I’ll revisit this one often.

9.      The Complete Illustrated Children’s Bible –

Remember those Bible storybooks at the dentist office when you were a kid? If not at the dentist, surely your grandparents had one or two. This book is like those on steroids. So many lush illustrations with around 300 stories. Nearly 25,000 copies have already sold in the last month! I think this will be a great seller through Christmas as the early adapters begin sharing this with their friends. If a family with children is on your list, here’s a no-brainer.

10.   The Grave Robber – Mark Batterson

Last year, Batterson was early on the prayer bandwagon with The Circle Maker. I liked that book, and may have even written a blog about some things it challenged me with. (If not my blog, definitely in my journal). This time out, Batterson tackles the seven miracles of Jesus that John wrote about. I’m sure that he’ll have many stories about miracles his church has seen, but more importantly he’ll point us to the One performing the miracles.  Batterson’s book on miracles will be a more accessible look at the subject than Metaxas, but a welcome study of the ministry of Jesus.

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Being Like John the Baptist

So a couple months ago, the faucet broke on our kitchen sink. We have one of those faucets that is also the sprayer, and the thing just broke off. I told my wife and daughter not to use it until it could be replaced, because it’ll spray them in the face.

During dinner that night, Sally needed to wash something off and walked over to the sink. I looked at Audrey, and motioned for her to not say a word and just see how wet mom would get. Sally turned on the water, and a steady stream of water shot from our kitchen, across the dining room, and sprayed a picture on the living room wall. The picture is of Jesus…

Sally was shocked to see the water shot across our house, and shot it off quickly. Somehow, she escaped without getting wet. But I did point out that my wife baptized Jesus.

With the humorous scene replaying in my mind long after the rest of the family went to bed, I grabbed my Bible to read the biblical account of the Baptism of Jesus. (Not surprisingly, it is a very different account of my wife baptizing Jesus). You can read the account in Mathew 3:3-17.

So John the Baptist baptized many people who were looking for the Messiah. Some even thought that perhaps John was the Messiah, but he quickly pointed out that he was only preparing the way for the long-awaited Savior. One day, John’s cousin Jesus shows up to be baptized, and John is humbled in front of his followers, acknowledging that Jesus is the promised One.

I wondered how that music have felt for John. As a fetus, John recognized that Jesus was different. We read earlier in Matthew that he leapt within his mother’s womb when Mary showed up, pregnant with Jesus. Yet John seems to be taken aback that Jesus is the Messiah at the baptismal scene in Mathew 3. John knew before he was born, but then life happened. Did the older cousin grow up without seeing Jesus for who he was? Did he forget? Or maybe there were things that made John doubt the deity of his cousin. He’s supposed to save the world, but he let uncle Joseph die? Some Messiah that is…

Even after John realized Jesus as the Messiah at the baptism, John still has his doubts. In Matthew 11,, from prison, he sends Jesus a message. “Are you sure you’re the Messiah? ‘Casue I was your hype-man, preparing the crowds for you; and now you’re out there and I am in prison here waiting for execution. I’m starting to wonder if you are who you say you are. I’m starting to think I’ve wasted the last few years of my life. This isn’t worth it, Jesus. Maybe we should wait for someone else to save us…”

Jesus replies by telling the messengers this: “Tell John what you’ve seen and heard – the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor. Oh, and remind him that ‘God blesses those who do not turn away because of me.’” Jesus was quoting Isaiah 42. People would have recognized this; it’s a passage that had huge ramifications as Jesus was making a very public declaration that He was indeed the promised Messiah.

But Jesus left out part of Isaiah 42. The part that would have been most important to John the Baptist. Jesus left out the part that talks about the Messiah who “Sets the captives free.” Had I been John, those would have been the words I wanted to hear most! That Jesus was gonna put the smack down and get me out if this cell! But Jesus give John a Good News – bad news message: “Yes John, I am the Messiah. I’m doing a lot of great things… But you won’t be able to see it all.” That’s the message Jesus sends to John.

Matthew 11 picks up the story this way. “As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began talking about him to the crowds. ‘What kind of man did you go to in the wilderness to see? Was he a weak reed, swayed by every breath of wind? Or were you expecting to see a man dressed in expensive clothes? No, people with expensive clothes live in palaces. Were you looking for a prophet? Yes, and he is more than a prophet. John is the man to whom Scriptures refer when they say, ‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, and he will prepare your way before you.’”

Jesus pretty much gives John an early eulogy here. Often, I hear the reference to “a weak reed blowing in the wind” in a bad light. That we should be more strong than a reed. But I think a reed blowing in the wind is a strong thing. Jesus actually asks if John was a weak reed. Growing up in Iowa, I’ve seen the difference between a week stalk of corn and a strong one. Weak ones are blown around and uprooted. But a strong reed can withstand a tornado better than an oak tree. The tree is uprooted;  a strong reed blows around but often is the only sign of life after the storm passes. A strong reed can withstand ice or snow better than an oak tree. An oaks branches will crumble under the weight; a strong reed may be forced to the ground but it isn’t broken.

Like a strong reed, John’s faith is resilient. He bounces back. He’s not uprooted by the storms or crushed under the weight of the world. He may get knocked down, but he gets up again.

That resilience is what makes John a pillar of faith. Not his skills in water submersion, but his stalwart faith in tough times, even when he has questions.

We don’t plan on baptizing Jesus anymore in our house. We have the faucet fixed now. But I pray that we are all like John the Baptist, not letting life keep us from seeing Jesus for who He really is.

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Reflections From the World of Christian Retail

Last week I attended the International Christian Retail Show in Atlanta, Georgia. This was my 18th such event, put on by the Christian Booksellers Association. This is an annual gathering of the creators, publishers, suppliers, and retailers of almost all the product you could find in your Christian bookstore, as well as several products that don’t make their way onto the shelves of your local stores.

Over the years, my involvement in the show has changed, moving from a retailer to my current role as a marketing specialist for The Parable Group. The show itself, has changed, with the decline in sales being felt by all involved in the industry. (Or any industry with annual trade shows, for that matter). But as my role has changed, and with nearly two decades of experience in this industry, I am more and more impressed with what hasn’t changed.

  1. What speaks/ministers to one person will not speak/minister to another. It never fails, year after year… Let me get this one out of the way first. The cynical observation. There are products at the show, and in your local Christian store that are cheezy. They take Scripture out of context. They reduce theology to a bumper-sticker. They are trite and they are inferior duplications of what is offered by mainstream counterparts. You have seen these, and you have likely been to the websites and blogs that find their purpose in collecting such items for public ridicule and judgment. But with each one of these products that I find ridiculous (and no, I will not name them), I know there are people who will find them to be just the thing they need to be given hope. Why we think every Christian product has to be about us individually is a mystery to me. You see, we are all at different stages of our walk with God, every single step important. What used to speak to me no longer gets my attention; and what I find to be profound others may see as arcane or boorish. Different strokes for different folks. Which means there is validity for much of the products you see, even if you’d never ever partake in them yourself.
  2. There are real people behind these products. These things didn’t just mutate onto the shelves we peruse, they were created. By creative people, too. They invested a lot of time and effort and money to get their idea to market. When I read a life-changing book, there is a person on the other side whose ideas met my heart. That painting or photograph took real live work. That song or movie took an investment. The more I am involved in the Christian bookstore industry, the more opportunity I have had to meet and know the people behind these products. They get hurt when criticized, they are elated when their work connects with someone, and very few of them are getting rich in the process. They do it because they have something to tell the world, and they use the medium that they are best versed in.
  3. Overall, the heart passion behind the product is commendable. A comedian I like once made fun of Testamints, those little breath-candies with a cross on them. He said they didn’t work, because he still swore. I kinda thought they were silly, too. Until I met the people who make them. To hear this man talk about Scripture Candy was inspiring. He wasn’t trying to make a mint off of his mints, he was just trying to get people to think about Jesus more. And he’s not a rich man. The folks at the publishing companies are likely not making as money as you are. And the guy who owns the Christian store in your town isn’t making a fortune, barely scraping by on a second mortgage on his home so the store stays open. I look at these guys as missionaries more than anything.
  4. This truly is a business world. Just because someone is doing something for a good reason doesn’t mean they don’t have bills, though. They still pay rent and have electric and water bills and all the overhead any business does. So they have to build a margin into what they sell. Unfortunately, that margin has only gotten smaller as online businesses have become the go-to. Businesses who can survive with lower margins because of lower overhead and no passion other than the almighty dollar. Regardless of what the growing public may thing, music and movies are not made for free, and writers and artists still need to be paid for their words and pictures. What they do is a ministry of sorts, with the sale of books and Bibles and music and films and framed art similar to a missionary raising meager support. The marriage of ministry and business is a delicate thing. I think it was Eddie DeGarmo who I heard tell a fitting story. A fan at a DeGarmo and Key concert was enraged that they were charging money for a gospel CD, because, the fan asserted, “The Gospel is free. Eddie answered perfectly, saying, “The Gospel is free, but the CD is gonna cost you fifteen bucks.”
  5. Not every product idea needs to be available at a Christian bookstore. With all the passion and business savvy, all the reality behind different products having their place, not everything needs to be at Christian retail stores. I have seen items the last few years that would surely get attention in playful ways, allowing people to talk seriously about Jesus. But the products would offend more than they would attract. And keeping a business mind, you gotta dance with your date. Taking care of the people who are responding to your efforts is a whole lot better investment than hoping the bolder products would bring in someone new. That coupled with the expanding product offering in a shrinking retail environment simply means that not all products need to be readily available.
  6. We need Christian retail. With all the available product to a Christian consumer, it’s important that we have gatekeepers who can find what is likely going to be the most appealing. Sure, my taste in music may not always be reflected in the CDs they stock, and I still can’t find a Christian version of my favorite authors, but I can usually trust what they have on their shelves. As more and more clamoring takes place for shelf space, there will likely be mistakes made in the product selection. But the Christian bookstore is still the best place to find the right Bible for your thirty-something cousin, or the appropriate novel for your teen niece. It’s the only place you can find a sales associate who not only helps you find the right book addressing your struggles, but also prays with you about that issue, too. Amazon will never do that, and I’ll choose a prayer over a price any day.
  7. The message will long outlive the industry. The way I make my living is going through a lot of changes, as evidenced by the stores I serve and by the industry that serves us all. Times are tough for everyone involved, and as in other industries we are expected to do more with less. But I still believe that the quickest route from the heart of God to the heart of any of us is with a good song or a good story. And at the end of the day, I work not to keep my business of my industry alive, but to deliver products that are created to tell the age old story of a God who is madly in love with people like you and me. People like the homeless guy a few feet from my office door and the lady at the grocery store.
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I’ll Do the Work Each Day

I love my kids. If you don’t know this about me it’s because: a) we’ve never met, b) you’ve never read anything I have written, or c) you are hopelessly clueless. All three of my kids (15 year-old, 3 year-old, and 19 months) fill my days with laughter and joy. I never tire of their hugs and laughter, I am amazed watching them learn things on their own, and I am proud when they excel at the things they attempt.

At the same time, I have never been a fan of dirty diapers or the phrase “wipe me.” Too much whining and crying are like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. I have no tolerance for disobedience. And I get tired of always having to pick up after them. Yes, all of these things are part of parenting and part of each of them learning to grow up. But when it comes to children, frustration is the flipside of elation.

Case in point, for the last little while I have I been on my fifteen year-old to take care of a few things she is responsible for. Or she is supposed to be responsible for them anyway. She began a yard project two months ago, some work that she asked to do so she could have some money to go out with her friends. I spotted her the money, with the expectation that she’d put in the work. That job, and some of the tools, have been ignored in my back yard for over eight weeks.

Even though she knows to keep her room clean, that is ignored worse than the yard work! It’s been way more than two months, more like about fifteen years! I don’t ask that she keep her room spotless and perfect, I just ask that she keep it picked up enough so people can walk into her room to get to the printer or to sit and talk with her while she does her homework. Every day, I ask her to clean her room. Every day. And every day when I leave for work or when I walk by her room a dozen times a day I see what looks like a rummage sale after gale force winds, clothes, books, garbage, and other things strewn across her floor. Every day.

Or her laundry. When she does actually do her laundry, it sits on top of the dryer for days. Even weeks. Now, she accesses the clean clothes regularly, pulling an item or two out of the basket, but then leaves the basket on the floor with clean clothes falling out of it. To get to the dog, the ironing board, or to the garbage cans, someone has to pick up her basket of clean clothes and set it atop the dryer again. Only for the whole process to be repeated at least once the next day. The most recent accumulation of clean, unfolded laundry was an eighteen-day collection, the genesis of clean clothes beginning a few days before she left town for a school trip a few weekends ago.

Now she is a great kid. She’s doing all right. Getting good grades. She is a good example to her friends, and she is a lot of fun to be with. She was chosen for the school trip to attend a statewide student leadership conference. So really, I have very little to complain about with her. All in all, I am very proud to have her for a daughter. But these three things are a source of frustration to me like nothing else.

When I have asked her to take care of these three things, I am told, “I will.” But history has proven to me that she won’t.  She has time to watch movies, hang out with friends, and spend endless hours staring at her iPhone looking at Pintrest, but not for what I have asked. Or I am told, “I’ve been at cheer all night. I am too tired.” But not too tired to go to a friend’s house. Or I hear, “Can I do it tomorrow morning when I wake up.” Great…if she ever would follow-through.

Admittedly, when I would see these three things every day, day after day, it created a distance between me and my daughter. Daily reminders of how she was choosing to do other things, or nothing, rather than obeying what I had asked her to do. Disobeying. Lying. She was telling me that her room, laundry, and job were not as important as what she wanted to do. Or that she was too lazy to do what I had asked. And if not too lazy, she was too busy doing what she would rather do. Or that if it was really that important, someone else would do it for her. Infuriating. After all of this, I really didn’t want to go out of my way to give her the things she asked me for. Things that would make her life better, more enjoyable, and maybe even easier. Things I really want to give her.

So when I woke up today, I took matters into my own hands. I folded the nearly three weeks of clean laundry that was in baskets in the laundry room. Before I put the clean clothes away for her, I cleaned her room, picking up her shoes and dresses that were being vomited out of her closet, gathering another load of laundry to do, putting her books and schoolwork back on her bookshelves, and picking up the garbage that was thrown around her room. After that, I did the work that I had already paid her to do. In all, it took an hour and a half. That’s it. Ninety minutes had kept us from having a better relationship. She chose a strained relationship with her dad over less than fifteen minutes of responsibility each day.

I didn’t do her work today because she deserved it. I didn’t give up my morning because I wanted to make her feel bad. It wasn’t because I think she is incapable. And I didn’t fold a fifteen year-olds laundry and clean her room and do her yard work just because I was sick and tired of seeing the messes. My motivation was simply that I love her and I want her to see how much.

You see, I too have a messy life, with things not put away properly, making it hard for others to navigate. I too have piles of things I do not manage and value enough. And I also have things growing in my life that are out of control and need to be pulled out. I played super-dad today because Yahweh is a super Heavenly Father who does the same thing for me each day.

Every day, He sees my mess of a life. Every day He has to move things He gave me so other things can be done. Every day he sees a weed infestation choking out what He has planted in me. Every day is filled with constant reminders of what keeps us from having the relationship He wants us to have. Every day.

Why would I do this to God so often? Well, just like my fifteen year-old daughter, I am too busy, too tired, and too interested in other things to care. So today I imitated God. Because everyday, He comes into my room and cleans it up for me. Every day He moves heaven and earth so the abundance of what He’s blessed me with doesn’t get in people’s way. Every day He pulls weeds in the Garden of Eden He planted in me.

In Jesus, we see God doing the very thing I did for my daughter today. He steps into our mess, doing the work we can’t or won’t do, simply so we can have the relationship we both want to have. We don’t deserve it. He doesn’t do in an effort to make us feel bad or to prove a point. He just loves us enough to do the work for us.

This afternoon I told my daughter that I’d clean her room each morning for her if it was dirty. And that I’d fold her clothes each night if they were still in the laundry room. And that I was happy to give her money so she could go out with her friends. I love my kids.

Now the big question is, what’s the response going to be? Will she continue to let me clean everything up while we continue to pollute it?  Will she keep on being too busy and too tired and too engage with the things I’ve blessed her with? Or will she step up and take responsibility?

My work for my fifteen year-old took ninety minutes. That’s less than fifteen minutes a day for a week. Not much effort and commitment is needed to pull that off. Or to maintain it. And it changed how I look at my daughter. I don’t see the mess, just the open path to live each day with her, no garbage and baggage clouding our relationship. How would fifteen minutes each day this week change your relationship with your Heavenly Father?

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What Keeps Me From Blogging

Wow. Look at the date of that last post. Nearly a year and a half!

I pay my hosting and domain fees, so I can’t blame my lack of blogging on not having an outlet.

I speak to a small group of people a couple times a month, sharing a devotional thought. I read nearly 75 books since my last posting, and many of those books impacted me in both entertaining and insightful ways. I’ve listened to thousands of records in that time, with opinions about what I heard. And I have had some live changing events happen in my life. So I can’t blame my lack of blogging on not having anything to say.

I wrote a book for my wife in just two months, and am working on another special project, too. So I can’t blame my lack of blogging on not actually writing.

So what has kept me from writing a blog post for nearly a year and a half?

Fear.

What if I say something stupid? I was  a youth pastor for twelve years. I recently came across some of the notes from the talks with Jr. and Sr. Highers and I can’t believe I actually said some of those things! Not because they were not delivered well, but because they were so dorky. What if I say something wrong? There are much more learned people than I to listen to. I may misinterpret something or not have all my facts straight. I definitely would change some of the things I told the kids in my youth group if I had it to do all over again. What if I am not consistent in what I blog about? In one post I try to open up a passage of scripture or inspire, and the next post I write about what was missing from a new indie-rock record. Or about a book I recently read. One day it’s about my work week and the next I write about what I miss about the Midwest. A week later I write about my children or my marriage and what I am learning about life. And then there’s the post about why I am not writing blogs as I think should.  What if what I write isn’t that good? Churches have taught from my first book many times. Pastors have said it’s the most accessible book about sharing your faith that they’ve ever read. Then I see that it’s not selling like it needs to for the publisher to recoup. A friend tells me that “it really wasn’t that good, you  know.” Maybe I should just give up.

Pride.

Because I want what I write to be good! I wasn’t an English major. I didn’t take a lot of classes on the art of writing. I’ve read a few books since my first book, but I still pretty much just write the way I talk. But I am not a pro, and others are. We all want to be liked, but maybe even more we want our kids to be liked. And when time is invested in creating something that is criticized, it hurts. And that’s only if anyone pays attention to what was written!  Do you know how many people mentioned that I hadn’t written on my blog for a year and a half? Two. My publisher and an old friend. That’s it. So maybe I shouldn’t waste my time by taking risks that are ripped apart and largely ignored.

Fear and Pride. Those two things are what have kept me from writing on this blog. An idea would come to me, and I’d grab my laptop. Then I’d pick up a book or watch a film instead. The monsters of fear and pride invited complacency to a party in my head that has left this place empty. But maybe that party is over now. Maybe instead of fear, I invite the thrill of risk to the party. Maybe instead of pride, hope is invited to sit with me on the couch. Maybe instead of complacency, adventure or ambition is welcomed.

Enough. That’s enough. This page has been silent too long. So if you read this, feel free to bug me about sharing my thoughts, regardless of how stupid, wrong, inconsistent or armature they may be.

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Dealing with Stress

It’s been one of those stressful seasons at work. Budgets, deadlines, and meetings are filling my days. My hours. I know, stress is a part of everyone’s work. That’s just one of the reasons it’s called “work” and not “recess.” I am not complaining, just honestly assessing a reality. As much as I like to get a paycheck every other week, work sucks. It sucks the energy out of me! I am grateful I have a job that takes it out of me. But it is stressful. Come to think of it, life is stressful. I have budgets and deadlines and meetings outside of work, too. Maybe more than I have at work! Kids are stressful. Spouses cause stress. Family causes stress. Household maintenance causes stress. I trust I am not alone in this, and that you face stress, too.

So stress happens. Got it. Agreed. Scientists will tell us there are different levels of stress. There’s acute stress, manifested in headaches and upset stomachs and wild emotions. There is episodic stress, leading to migraines, depression, and even stroke. Chronic stress just grinds away at us from the inside, breaking down all resistance. Then there is traumatic stress, a full-on medical disorder. That doctors have even identified four levels of stress speaks volumes into the commonality of stress.

That we have stress is one thing. More importantly, how do I get rid of it?! Psychiatrists will tell you to identify your triggers and attempt to remove them or come to terms with ways to minimize their influence in our emotional wellness. Others will tell you to get a massage or to practice breathing exercises. Aerobic exercise and yoga may be recommended. And a sociologist will emphasize the importance of a network of support that you should surround yourself with, sharing the burdens you face. All of that is fine and dandy, but what does the Bible have to say about stress?

If there is a Bible character who knew stress, I think it would be David. His stress came at him in droves. Vocational stress, emotional stress, relational stress, psychological stress, and spiritual stress: David knew stress. Every night, I assume he had a war waging in his head. I think that was evident in Psalm 4. He also offers a sort of biblical prescription for stress here.

The first thing David did to deal with stress was pray. “Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness. You have given me relief when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer.” The first thing David does here is praise God for who He is. Some would say he gains perspective, realizing that even in stressful times, “it’s not about me.” David continues with appreciation, recognizing that even though he is stressed out, God has a history of doing great things. Then he makes a request of God. He asks for grace and mercy. To alleviate stress, prayer is always a good starting point.

The next thing to do when dealing with stress is to just chill out. The spiritual term for this is “stillness.” David writes, “…Ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.” There are many scriptures that talk about “waiting.” Calm down, be strong, and give God some time. David encourages meditation. You should pray, go ahead and ask, but don’t forget to wait for God. This is not an instant gratification relationship with God. My workweek is run by my calendar. With a Jr. Higher in the house, my evenings and weekends are pretty calendar driven these days! But where is my God time? As I write this, I am by myself in a small town 40 minutes from my home sitting a café. This is my time with God. This is my opportunity to chill out and be still.

The last thing David does in Psalm 4 is give. He makes a sacrifice. I know, generosity is likely the last thing to think about when you are stressed. But it’s what David gives that is of importance here. He gives his trust. “Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord.” Another wise man said not to casually trust God, giving an obligatory surrender to Him, but rather to trust in the Lord with all of your might. He went on to say that you can’t trust your understanding because you don’t see the whole picture. One thing I have learned is that the more I learn to wait on God in stillness, the more I have to learn to trust Him. Experience tells us that problems are not fixed immediately. God unveils our steps one at a time, not all at once. You have to trust Him.

So with all the stress relief techniques and tools, God gives us a pretty simple three step plan. (Probably because when I am overwhelmed, I need things to remain simple!) God asks us to bring our worries and woes and fears to Him. And leave them there. How many times to we “bring something to God in prayer,” only to take it with us when we say amen! God asks us to be still and meditate on His greatness. To wait on Him patiently and restfully. And God tells us to trust and obey Him. As an old song says, “There’s no other way to be happy in Jesus than to trust and obey.

Because of all these sure things we can depend on in the midst of our stress, David closes his Psalm by saying “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for You alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” That’s one of my grandma’s favorite verses. And the older I get, the more it resonates with me. But I cannot just jump to the lie down in peace until I am willing to surrender my stress through prayer, stillness, and sacrifice.

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Cake and Sunsets

I recently read a new memoir by Tony Kriz that I thought was pretty cool. Tony is also known as “Tony the Beat Poet” from Donald Miller’s very popular book Blue Like Jazz. Tony’s book, Neighbors and Wisemen, takes a look at how people outside of the Christian faith have positively contributed to Tony’s relationship with Jesus. The people in Tony’s life are rather eclectic, from Muslim families to bartenders, atheistic academics to chastised Christians. It’s a good read, and I think it’s a fine use of $15 if you are into memoirs.

Tony reminded me that God can, and will, work through any person to make Himself known. Since that is one of the things written on the back of the book, I am glad it actually panned out that way! Early on in Neighbors and Wisemen, Tony recites an ancient prayer that I’m attempting to fuse into my days as well. “Be in the heart of each to whom I speak, and be in the mouth of each who speaks to me.” This thought is a great guide to keep aware of what I say and of what I hear, giving God room to infuse both with His power, creativity, and purpose.

There is one section of the book I really wish I had read before I wrote my book, Glow.* If I’d read this part of Tony’s book, I would have incorporated it into Glow somehow. I really appreciate what Tony wrote, and I hope you do to…

“Sharing my faith.” Is it like sharing a cake – where I have a cake and another doesn’t? I want them to have some cake, so I “share it” with them. Now both of us have cake! Or is “sharing my faith” more like sharing a sunset where neither of us possesses the she sunset but we both experience it. And as my friend and I talk about the sunset, we are both exposed to a new appreciation of the sunset. When we look at that sunset next time, we both take on new aspects of it, sharing something exponentially bigger as we continue to “share.” “Sharing my faith.”

I love it. No steps. No rules. No real plan. Just an organic appreciation and conversation of something we may never be able to fully articulate. A work in progress, where subtle nuances are brought to light the more it is discussed. I don’t know how you approach sharing your faith, but Tony and I agree that it is not the production that many make it out to be.

Does the cake or sunset analogy resonate with you in any way?

What can you do today to “Share your faith” the way Tony suggests?

*If you have not read my book, please do. I need to make sure the publisher makes a return on their investment. Many people have told me that my book takes the fear and apprehension out of sharing their faith. Others have said that it is the most natural look at evangelism that they have ever heard. And a few have said that it’s like sitting down to chat with me over a cup of coffee. I’ll never know what you say unless you give it a read. Glow is available in paperback here, or as an ebook here.

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Covenant Relationships

Promises. We’ve all made them. And, we’ve like all broken a few, too. In our early childhood, we learned how important it is to keep a promise. “Do you promise?” Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye. That’s a serious commitment there! Cross my heart makes since, but hope to die? Wow. And it would make sense for the whole needle thing to precede the death part. But anyway, we are taught the importance of promises early on.

As we grow older, the promises we make get pretty varied. We make promises about silly things, like “I’ll be there at 7:30. I promise.” We make business promises, signing contracts and leases. And we make relational promises, like “For better for worse until death do we part.” Silly promises. Serious promises.

In the Bible, the most formal of promises was “the covenant.” A covenant is a binding, formal agreement between two people to do (or not to do) something. This type of promise is modeled by God’s commitment to us. His word is His bond. That is a promise that will NOT be broken, and that is how God expects us to commit to Him. Foxes Book of Martyrs is filled with examples of Christians who made this kind of covenantal promise to God.

And yet the frequency of promises made is getting closer to the frequency of promises broken. People just don’t take their promises as seriously as they once did. Have you ever been betrayed? Did your spouse bail on you? Ever been screwed over in a business transaction? We live in a world of broken promises!

I recently read an awesome book about spiritual journeys called The Road Trip That Changed the World. The book isn’t really about promises or covenants, it’s more about how people are looking for ways to “find themselves” or even to “find their way” in a spiritual sense. It’s about how so many try to chase God and their vices simultaneously. But in this new book by Mark Sayer, he writes, “The surest way to revolutionize our world is to practice coventality in our own lives.” Think about. Keeping your promises will totally change the way things are seen by your family and neighbors and friends and coworkers and church.

This made me think: who do I have covenants with? I am committed to my wife and daughters and my unborn son. I have a covenant with The Parable Group. I work for them. I am a part of New Hope church in Arroyo Grande California. I have friends and family stretched all across the nation. Some around the world. I have made a commitment to God. I want the best for these people. I want them all to succeed. And if I really think about it, I want the best from each of them. These are covenant relationships.

But sometimes these relationships are weakened. I have “bad history” with some of these people. I can never rely on some of my favorite people. With some people, I am always giving and never receiving. Some of these relationships haven’t changes in decades, creating serious ruts. Others have had drastic changes because of betrayal and lies. With some, there is a connection, but no growth.

I donlt think it’s a far stretch to say that God expects us to honor the covenants to make, to keep our promises. I mean, “Thou shalt not lie” is pretty to the point isn’t it?! So how do I practice coventantilty, as suggested by Mark Sayer? I think it boils down to one thing: be a man or woman of your word. If you say you’ll do something, then do it.

I used to be a traveling musician. I have 500-600 solo concerts under my belt as a jazz musician. I remember booking a concert in Minneapolis one winter. I’d booked the show months in advance, but a blizzard was expected the Friday night before the Sunday concert. It would have been totally understandable to cancel the show. The drive to Minneapolis was going to be dangerous, and who knew how many people would even turn out if the snow storm lasted longer than forecasted. I kept my word. I left a day earlier than I planned, arriving in Minneapolis right at the beginning of the storm. I needed to find my own housing for the estra night, but that expense and the total inconvenience of it all was more important than backing out of of my commitment. And it was a wonderful concert. I kept my promise to play for them.

What would motivate me to do this? My commitment to God. I already pointed out the whole “Don’t lie” thing from the original Top Ten List. But during His only sermon, Jesus commanded us to “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” And in James 5:12, it says, “But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.” The Scriptures that I promised would guide my life demand that I keep the promises I make. I try. I have failed on numerous occasions, but I try to keep the promises I make.

The bottom line is that God wants more from our covenantal relationships. He expects us to be people of our word. He expects us to not have to “prove” that we are serious by making frivolous promises. He expects us to model Him, honoring the people we are committed to… even if they are not always committed to us.

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True Belief

There are certain Scriptures I read that really make it evident that the Bible was not inspired by humans. Sometimes I read things that I would have taken out so I wouldn’t have to deal with them. “Love your enemies?” I’d rather not. “Die to myself?” I think I am much more important than that, thank you. All that talk about surrender and sacrifice and submit? Nope; I’d rather my faith be comfy than challenging. But I don’t get to give input. I’m asked to obey.

Other times I see things Jesus said that are just hard to understand. You don’t hear a lot of sermons on Jesus command to be as shrewd as serpents. Not many small group exercises involve an examination of God telling Abraham to circumcise himself. As an adult. Or to sacrifice his son. Sometimes the Bible is just hard to hear. I don’t always like what I read in there! I was recently reading through the gospel of John and came across a passage I don’t really like.

“Because of the miraculous signs Jesus did in Jerusalem at the Passover celebration, many began to trust in Him. But Jesus didn’t trust them, because He knew human nature. No one needed to tell Him what mankind was really like.” – John 2:23-25

What?! I don’t like hearing that Jesus didn’t trust people! Or that He didn’t have faith in the faith they said they had in Him. But reading that challenged me: could you and I be an exception to this? Does Jesus trust us? What makes true belief something that Jesus would recognize? How do I develop “true belief” in Jesus? As I chewed on this for a while, I came to the conclusion that true belief is based on four things.

First, true belief is about the experience. It’s not about the signs. The popular rationale driving many who were following Jesus around was that the more miracles Jesus performed, the more people would follow Him. But when the show stopped, and the hard teaching started, people bailed. I think this is evidenced in the entertainment based ministries in churches these days. I was once asked to speak about spiritual disciplines at a youth retreat. I had 6 sessions across three days. Each session was an hour long: 30 minutes for games, 10 minutes for worship, 15 minutes for teaching, and 5 minutes for announcements about the next fun activity. So across 72 hours of a youth retreat, 90 minutes was really looking at the Word. The rest was all signs and wonders! Jesus did many great things for people. I believe that He did more miracles than the gospels record. And I believe that He continues to do miraculous works in the lives of people today. But He doesn’t exist for my entertainment. He cannot be both Lord and jester. If I follow Him motivated by “What trick can Jesus do for me today,” I am no better off than the ones Jesus didn’t trust.

Next, true belief is about the fellowship. It’s not about building a Team-Jesus. The passage in John tells us that a lot of people believed in Jesus, He just didn’t believe in them. He wasn’t looking for fans. Kyle Idleman has a wonderful book called Not A Fan. It’s all about defining our relationship with Jesus. I am a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers, but I am not committed to them. I don’t follow their personal lives, and I likely cannot recite their current roster at all. But I root for them. I want them to win. I am a fan, but not a disciple. Jesus didn’t invest in fans, only disciples. He wasn’t into drawing crowds, rather drawing people to God the Father. Jesus wasn’t into people merely liking Him; he wanted a deeper relationship and fellowship with them.

And true belief was never about meeting Jesus’ needs, although embracing His service to me is the mark of a true believer. Here’s a hard fact to face: Jesus doesn’t need you. He is not better off with you. His work won’t fail if you are a failure for Him. He doesn’t depend on you. But, He created you and died for you because He knows how much you need Him. LeAnn Rimes sang a song called “I Need You.” It was written for a mini-series about Jesus that ABC aired a decade ago. I loved this song. “I need You like water, like breath like rain. I need you like mercy from Heaven’s gate. There’s a freedom in Your arms that carries me through. I need You.” Jesus would never sing that song to me. But He invites me to Himself because He knows my life is pointless unless I sing that song to Him! Jesus doesn’t need me, but He certainly loves me.

Finally, true belief is about the person of Jesus; it’s seeing Jesus for who He truly is. So who is that? He’s the only one that saves. He’s my only hope. True belief is trusting that He transforms. He changes water into wine. He transforms the dead things into living things. And most importantly, He is transforming the sinner into a saint.

“Many trusted in Him, but Jesus didn’t trust them.” Ouch. May we all grow in our faith to be disciples of Jesus that He can trust in…

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