The Face of Grief

A child doesn’t have to be born to be loved or for her premature death to be mourned. Our family experienced the joy of learning a new baby was on the way — a granddaughter for me and my wife — then the pain of learning she was very sick, the closeness to God that comes from desperately praying for a miracle, and the sadness that comes when God’s plans don’t align with our desires. She was unborn, but 27 weeks old when she left us. Don’t tell me she was anything other than a child, fully human and loved by her parents and all who are close them and to her.
I’ll never forget the courage and faith displayed through this process by my daughter and her husband — how they leaned into God and found peace in the pain, how they treasured each moment with their child. All of us, but especially the child’s parents, are left with a hole in our hearts that won’t be filled until we reach heaven.
When I learned that our granddaughter had passed away, I immediately connected to those raw psalms that cry out to God in pain and frustration. And I was thankful for a mysterious but loving God who allows us to express how we feel, even when — especially when — we are sad, angry, hurt, and confused.

The Face of Grief

By Podge, June 1 2017; For Hadley Reece White

Hello Grief, I know your face
You spit in my eyes
And claw at my joy;
That is who you are, I know,
A tormentor of souls,
Who lives to break hearts,
Leaving a tear-stain path of pain
Wherever you go.
Yes, I know your face.
You do your work well, of course.
Something in the way I’m made,
In the way we’re all made;
We can’t escape you.
Yet, we don’t give into you, either.
You play your part and have your day … or days … or longer
But that’s all it is – and then you fade
Never gone, but always smaller
Replaced by something bigger
Something more real and eternal
Yes, Grief, I know your face.
But I also know the face of God.

 

One Year Later …

A letter to a 1-year-old

Happy Birthday, Grow Like Jesus!

You were years in the making, so it’s amazing to celebrate this day with you. It was one year ago today that you officially “launched,” which is book-trade jargon that means you officially became available to the public. There were pre-orders before that, of course, but it was on this day that those orders shipped and sites like Amazon.com changed your status to “available.” No more waiting.

I’ll never forget that day, especially when it comes to Amazon.com. It seems the big, bad online bookseller didn’t have much faith in the demand you would create, so it didn’t stock up. Within a few hours it indicated you were “out of stock.” I took it as a good sign, but it would have been better if Amazon had started with, say, 1,000 copies rather than … well, let’s just say it was far fewer than 1,000. Nevertheless, it felt like there was a gold rush of demand for you.

Truth is, sales have not been spectacular. That’s no surprise, frankly, because, as you know, salesmanship and marketing are not my forte. Oh, I know how to market books. I just don’t execute it very well. It’s a learning opportunity, I guess. But the truth is, I’m pretty content in the background. I don’t mind speaking to audiences, but it’s not my calling to be a sage on the stage. I’m not naturally self-promotional, and, unfortunately, it’s hard to promote you without feeling like I’m promoting me. I have friends who are great at this. They promote themselves and their books, and somehow they seldom come across as egomaniacs who are only in it for the fame and the spotlight. I’m happy for them and all, but I’m not gifted in that way. As a result, my “platform” is limited and, thus, so have been your sales.

That’s not to say sales are non-existent. People are buying you. In fact, several people bought 50 to 100 copies. You’ve been read and shared and gifted. You’ve had an impact on teenagers, as well as folks who are older in life. You’ve been there for people who are new in their faith in Christ, and there for people who are looking for new ways to experience growth.

In fact, I want to make it clear that modest book sales is not an indication of success. Indeed, my first measure of success for you is found in the reality that you actually exist. I felt called to write you and find a publisher and, albeit reluctantly at times, I followed that call. So obedience is one measure of success.

Another measure of your success is found in the feedback. Not everyone who has read your pages has provided feedback. But among those who have, only one offered what I would consider a negative review. He said the book didn’t “connect to his heart,” which, frankly, stung more than a little bit. Many others have found your pages helpful. Here’s a link to read some reviews, if you’d like a few ego biscuits. Aside from those written reviews, I’ve also heard positive feedback from several pastors and friends and business leaders.

The greatest measure of your success, however, is still unknown. Audrey (that’s my wife) and I have prayed from the beginning that you would make a difference in the lives of people who read you. We believe that’s happened, but that’s still our prayer – that God will use this book to help people who want to grow in their faith in Jesus.

Whatever happens, with sales or with impact, God gets the credit. Everything valuable in your pages, after all, came from Him. And everything that happens with you or through you will come by His hand.

So happy birthday, and here’s to many more bright days and deep influence. God willing, you will continue to make a difference in the lives of more and more people.

Oh, yeah. Sorry I didn’t bring a cake or presents. What would you do with them, anyway? You’re a book. But I love you just the same.

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Click to buy Grow Like Jesus 

Theology lessons from my coffee mug

Who Broke My Coffee Mug … And will God Restore it?

I was definitely ill and perhaps a bit delusional as I pondered two deep theological issues: One about heaven and one about blame.

It had been a rough day. As I mentioned, I was sick. And to make matters worse, I experienced an unexpected loss. As I unloaded our dishwasher that morning, my favorite Arkansas Razorbacks coffee mug fell from the cabinet shelf, shattered on the counter, and sent pieces large and small across the kitchen.

Audrey and I found this Razorback in Siena, Italy …

This led to my first theological pondering: Since we know that God makes all things new (Revelation 21:5), will I get a renewed Razorbacks mug in heaven?

I’m mourning the loss of my mug. I’d like to think God will make it whole again the way He restored my shattered life.

Then again, who can fathom the majesty of heaven? So I decided some research was in order. I Googled up an article by John Piper on this subject, and he mentions four ways God makes things new. One is “the new creation,” but – shockingly – he doesn’t address if that includes an Arkansas Razorbacks coffee mug. So for now, I’ll take comfort in the reality that I’ll either see my restored mug in heaven or something so much better that I’ll not even remember it.

My second theological issue centered on who/what broke the mug. You know, who is to blame?

I was putting other mugs into the cabinet when, weaken and delusional due to my illness, my normal near-perfect coordination went askew, causing me to nudge my Razorbacks mug off the shelf. So, obviously I didn’t break it – it didn’t break until it hit the counter; thus the counter broke it. Furthermore, any role I played should be absolved by the fact that I was, as they say, not my right self. Clearly the world owes me a new mug!

I was joking with myself, of course. But I also know that most of us are regularly guilty of blame shifting. Look around. Better yet, look in the mirror. Notice how often you make a mistake and explain it with a passive-voice sentence instead of an active-voice sentence.

Passive voice: The mug fell and broke.

Active voice: I broke the mug.

So here’s my reminder, to my delusional self, as well as to anyone else it might help: Take responsibility for your mistakes, seek forgiveness, walk in that forgiveness. Jesus can restore your shattered life. Stop worrying about broken coffee mugs. And, oh, yeah, and be more careful when you’re unloading the dishwasher!

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Click to buy Grow Like Jesus or Forging Grit.

The Growth Benefits of Fasting

Some followers of Jesus like to start the New Year with an intentional time of prayer and fasting, a practice that I’ve found helps me grow like Jesus.

The church my wife and I attend (Cross Church in Fayetteville, Ark.) is among those that promotes this spiritual discipline. We’re blessed to have leaders who value the things Jesus values and who challenge us to live like Jesus. And it’s encouraging to know we’re going on this journey as a collective body.

We know that Jesus went through an intentional Spirit-led fast as he launched his earthly ministry (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-4). We know He was tempted during this time. We know it prepared Him for what was to come. We know He gave us instructions on how (not if) to fast (Matthew 6:16-18). And we know there are many other examples in scripture of people fasting to strengthen their walk with God.

So there’s no doubt that followers of Jesus should follow Jesus by fasting.squirrel-monkey-1438538_1920

There are many ways to fast. Our church asks us to sacrifice something for 21 days. Some people give up food and live on juice and water. Some give up television. Some stay off of social media. The point is to give up something (or some things) so that you can focus more intently on your relationship with God. My wife and I adjust our diet and scale back our television hours.

Here are some benefits I’ve experienced:

  • Hunger pains (or the “off” button on the TV remote) become a reminder to have a conversation with God.
  • We start the fast by updating our prayer journal, which lists 63 things we regularly pray about throughout the year. This is an amazing opportunity to re-focus our prayer life.
  • We eat a pretty healthy diet to begin with, but the fast helps cleanse us physically and that makes us feel better in every aspect of life. (The Daniel Plan is an excellent resource for a healthy approach to food and exercise.)
  • Some of our most transforming spiritual disciplines began with a fast. God has used it to help us create good habits.

A fast isn’t something you only do at the start of the year or only in one prescribed way. I’ve fasted to help me make what I saw as life-altering decisions, to seek God more desperately during times of trouble, and to support a friend who was going through the ringer.

I’m no expert, but God has always connected me when I’ve sought Him in this way. As you continue to grow like Jesus, ask God how He wants to use this discipline to help you on the journey.

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Resolving to Surrender

Life is tough. Feeling trapped by our own expectations or the expectations of others makes it even tougher. So how do we set goals and make plans for the New Year without feeling the inevitable tidal wave of pressure that comes when our best laid plans go the way of mice and men?

Personally, I’m a fan of the “one word” approach. Several years ago, authors Jon Gordon, Dan Britton and Jimmy Page wrote a book about this idea — One Word That Will Change Your Life. I confess that I’ve never read the book, but I’m sure it’s fantastic. I know others who have read it and shared the premise with me, which is to zone in on one word that you should commit to living out during the year. It’s a great alternative to New Year’s Resolutions.

I’ve noticed, however, that I always come up with the same word. I think about it. I pray about it. I ask my wife about it. And the one word I always land on that I believe needs to drive my life in the coming year is this: Surrender.surrender-1311215-639x1021

There are lots of other good words out there – purpose, service, forgiveness, peace, humility, love… Somehow, for me at least, they all come back to surrender. Even love. Because when I try to be “loving” on my own, I mess it up.

I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to pick that word, but I believe everyone can have a better 2017 if surrender is included. Make it a part of your New Year’s Resolutions or your goals or your “one word.” Whatever it takes.

Surrender to what, you ask? Or to whom?

When I was a pagan, I believed I was fully in charge of my life. I was the highest authority. Then I realized that I’m a poor substitute for the God of the universe, and I surrendered to the authority of Jesus. That means I submitted to the covering protection of God – to His Word and to His will for my life.

The more I surrender each decision during each minute of each hour of each day, the more my life bends toward His will and His glory. I might not always get what I want when I want it and how I want it. But I don’t live with regret, I find joy in the moment, and I ultimately end up with more than I expected or deserved.

The problem is, surrender is tough. We live in an “I did it my way” world. And I’m selfish, needy and, frankly, a bit of a whiny-baby when I don’t get what I want. I’m OK with the idea of surrender, but I don’t do so well with the reality of it.

I relate to my former Sunday School teacher/dentist down in Fort Smith, Ark., who said it’s always hard for him to sing the great Judson Van DeVenter hymn, I Surrender All. You remember that classic, don’t you?

All to Jesus I surrender,

All to Him I freely give;

I will ever love and trust Him,

In His presence daily live.

I surrender all,

I surrender all;

All to Thee, my blessed Savior,

I surrender all.

“That’s a big challenge,” my teacher/dentist says. “The song doesn’t say, ‘I’ll surrender some.’ Or, ‘I’ll surrender what I want.’ It says, ‘I surrender all.’”

Truth is, most days I surrender some. And that’s probably why it keeps coming back as my “one word.”

The good news is, I’ve surrendered to a God of grace. He doesn’t expect or require perfection from me. He loves me unconditionally for who I am not what I do. He’s a God of judgment, yes. But He’s also a God of love. Because I can surrender to that God, I know I’m in good hands. How about you?

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For a limited time, you can still get 40% off the cover price of Forging Grit or Grow Like Jesus when you order direct from the publisher.
Go here for Grow Like Jesus and use GLJTHANKS as the promotion code when you check out.
Go here for Forging Grit and use FGTHANKS as the promotion code when you check out.

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The Mystery of Faith in Action

I wasn’t searching for the most mysterious concept in the universe, but I think I somehow found it: Faith.

The more I think about it, pray about it, read about it, hear about it, or believe I know about it, the more mysterious it seems to be.

It’s easy to talk about faith as if it’s a tangible object we can hold like a phone or our favorite coffee mug. But it’s more like air … we can’t see it or grab hold of it. Yet, we can’t live without it. And we’re supposed to stretch it and share it.

Faith seems like something we either have or we don’t have, but it’s not stagnant – it shrivels up when it’s not used and it grows when it’s exercised. So it’s not enough to just have faith, we have to live with faith so we can grow our faith.

And therein lies the challenge: Acting in faith. Living in faith. Jump-out-of-the-airplane faith.parachute-713654_1920

Oh, it’s easy when the object of our faith is easily seen – when our experiences tell us that something is true and believable. But when we’re called to believe in something that’s less tangible – something like the power of God – well, that’s a bit more difficult. As long as we’re looking right at Him, we can walk on water; but as soon as we  focus on the storm and the waves, we sink like a rock.

Intellectually, we might find it easy. But the challenge is moving from words to actions – to quit a job that feels secure because God is calling us to something new … to give money or time that we don’t seem to have because God is challenging us to let go of what is His … to trust God to bring conviction on someone when everything within us tells us it’s our job not God’s to set that person straight.

In Hebrews 11:6 we learn the critical importance of active faith: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”

Without faith it is impossible to please God. Not challenging or difficult. Impossible.

When I was working on Grow Like Jesus, I took a deeper look at what it meant to grow in “favor with God” and I came to the conclusion that a key way we do that is simply by trusting in Him. Regardless of the situation and regardless of our actions, nothing we do will please God if it’s not rooted in faith.

But if we have that faith and earnestly seek God, He will reward that belief – including by giving us more faith when we need it.

Mark’s gospel tells about a man who took his troubled son to the disciples in hopes that they could relieve the boy of an evil spirit. When they failed, the father asked Jesus to help, saying, “if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” (Mark 9:22)

“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes” (v.23)

To which the boy’s father immediately shouted in desperation, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (v.24)

This is oh-so-familiar refrain in my life, and, I suspect, in yours. But here’s the great news: When the man asked, Jesus answered. He helped him overcome his unbelief. So whenever I’m struggling to live out this concept called faith, I know right where to start: By surrendering it to Jesus. How does that work? That’s the mystery of faith.

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Read Hebrews 11

Read Mark 9

 

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A Biblical view of the politics of fear

We’re all afraid of something.

For Clifford Franklin, Orlando Jones’ character in The Replacements, it was spiders. Shane Falco (Keanu Reeves) took it deeper: quicksand.replacements

“You’re playing and you think everything is going fine,” he said. “Then one thing goes wrong. And then another. And another. You try to fight back, but the harder you fight, the deeper you sink. Until you can’t move… you can’t breathe… because you’re in over your head. Like quicksand.”

That’s the type of fear I’m talking about. And that’s the type of fear both political parties seem intent on using as their No. 1 campaign strategy in the presidential campaigns. “You should be afraid (of pretty much everything), but our party offers the only real hope. Don’t focus on what we’ve done for you (or to you); focus on what we say we’ll do for you.”

So what do we do in the midst of all these fears?

If you do a word search of your Bible, you’ll find that God uses the word fear more than 300 times (NIV). Over and over, God tells us about a healthy fear and a harmful fear.

Healthy Fear: Fear God.

Jesus said, “But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” (Luke 12:5)

Healthy fear saved Isaac from the knife of his father. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” (Genesis 22:12)

Healthy fear saved Moses. “The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.” (Exodus 1:17)

Healthy fear was a qualification for leadership: “But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.” (Exodus 18:21)

When people have feared God, they have thrived and grown in their faithfulness and obedience. When they have not feared God, they have struggled, stumbled and disobeyed.

“Yet because the wicked do not fear God, it will not go well with them, and their days will not lengthen like a shadow.” (Ecclesiastes 8:13)

Harmful Fear: Fear of the world.

In Isaiah, God tells us not to have “fearful hearts” (Isaiah 35:4) and not to fear “conspiracy” (Isaiah 8:12), the “reproach of mere mortals” (Isaiah 51:7), or disgrace and humiliation (Isaiah 54:4).

Peter tells us that even if we suffer for what is right, we are blessed. Then he quotes Isaiah 8:12 – “Do not call conspiracy everything this people calls a conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it.”

The reason we don’t need to fear the things of the world is because we belong to God. If we fear Him and put our trust in Him, then whom shall we fear?

“But now, this is what the Lord says – he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.’” (Isaiah 43:1)

John lays it out clearly in 1 John 4. God is love (1 John 4:8 and 4:16) and embracing the love of God is the only way to fully abolish our harmful fears. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18)

So what does this tell us about the elections?

Fear God. Trust God. Do not fear this world.

(Click here  to watch the “fears” scene from The Replacements.)

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Grow older but don’t stop growing

Confession: There are times when I feel like taking a break from making myself a better person.

It can be hard work, after all, this whole sanctification thing. Sometimes I see some fruit from all the work and sometimes I don’t. Either way, it can be draining. So there are times when I’d like to coast … to put life on cruise control.

Then I re-read Daniel 6.

You might remember Daniel 6 as the chapter that tells us about his trip to the lions’ den, and that’s a great story. But what’s easy to forget is that Daniel was probably in his 80s when this story took place.

And what was the octogenarian doing? Growing.

Check it out: As Daniel reached what most of us would see as the twilight of life, King Darius took over. Great time to slip out of the leadership limelight, right? But not Daniel. He was one of the top three commissioners and he supervised dozens of satraps who were in charge of running the day-to-day aspects of the kingdom. In fact, Daniel was such a great leader that the king planned to appoint him over the entire kingdom. (Daniel 6:3)

Why was he such a good leader?

First, he had an “extraordinary spirit.” (Daniel 6:3)

Second, he was trustworthy (not corrupt). (Daniel 6:4)

Third, he was diligent (not negligent). (Daniel 6:4)

And while this impressed the king, it ticked off Daniel’s peers. So they conspired against him, tricked the king, and used the elderly Daniel’s faith against him. The result? Daniel became lion food, or so it appeared. You know the story. God saved Daniel, those evil peers (and their families) ended up as dinner for the lions, and King Darius sang the praises of Daniel’s God.

What we see in Daniel is a man who never put his life on cruise control. He continued to grow in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man. (Luke 2:52) He worked with excellence. He maintained a vibrant prayer life. He strengthened his fellowship with God. And he held firm to his faith. So when he was put to the test, guess what happened? He was ready … because he never stopped growing.

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On the base paths to repentance

We don’t have many high-profile role models these days when it comes to genuine repentance, but I may have come across one last week thanks to a social media link shared by former Major League star Torii Hunter. The link took me to a video by Dee Gordon, one of those up-and-coming professional athletes who was riding the wave of his talent and hard work until he tripped over his own poor choices.

That’s not breaking news, of course. Celebrities (including sports stars) fall off their pedestals so frequently that we hardly notice. It’s like politicians telling lies – we don’t condone it, but we’ve come to expect it.

In this video, however, Gordon did something I rarely see from celebrities in his situation – he apologized. I’m not talking about the typical PR-driven, carefully crafted written apology that tends to admit nothing, blame others, and promise no change. I’m talking about what appears to be a real, heartfelt apology that’s born of repentance and leads to true forgiveness.

I don’t know much about Gordon. I know he plays second base for the Miami Marlins. I know he’s a really good player – a Gold Glove winner on defense who he led the National League in hitting (.333 average) and stolen bases (58) in 2015. I know he’s 28 and looks like he’s about 18. And I know he was suspended for 80 games after he tested positive for using performance-enhancing drugs.

If you dig a little deeper into his story, you find that Gordon probably just wasn’t careful enough about knowing what was in the supplements he was taking. At 185 pounds, he’s known for speed, so it’s not like he was bulking up to hit more home runs. But he didn’t make excuses or blame others. He owned the mistake.

I don’t know if he’s a follower of Jesus or if he was as sincere in his apology as he came across. But when I watched his video, I saw someone doing pretty much what Jesus told sinners to do:

Step 1 – Confess (to God and to anyone you’ve offended). “Repentance always brings a person to the point of saying, ‘I have sinned’.” – Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest

Step 2 – Repent (turn from sin). “Repentance involves deliberate turning from sin to righteousness” – Kenneth Barker, NASB Study Bible

Step 4 – Go in sin no more. “Repenting is what happens inside of us that leads to the fruits of new behavior. Repentance is not the new deeds, but the inward change that bears the fruit of new deeds. Jesus is demanding that we experience this inward change.” – John Piper

I’ve never played professional baseball, and I’ve never been suspended from any sport for using performance enhancing drugs. But, like Gordon, I’m a sinner. We’re all sinners. The question is, how do we respond to our sins? Do we continue to live in them? Or do we grow like Jesus and live in forgiveness?

I might never feel the need to repent publicly like Gordon did, but I hope I never let my pride and ego prevent me from taking those key steps toward restored fellowship with Christ: Confess, repent, and stop sinning.

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GLJ Cover

Celebrating Dependence Day

I love holidays largely because of the one thing they all have in common: A call to gratitude.

Holidays remind of us of who we are, where we’ve come from, our shared struggles, and our common victories. And if we aren’t too caught up in the surrounding hype – the food or the presents or the festivities – we reflect on all those things with shared gratitude.fireworks-710375_960_720

We live in a great country, don’t we? A country built on the sacrifice and service of men and women who fought for and, in some cases, died for the freedoms we share and enjoy. And while we might lament much about where we are and where it seems we’re going as a nation, we can still be grateful for all that we have.

So I’m grateful for our independence. And I hope you are, too.

At the same time, there’s an ironic twist to the strength of American independence: It’s founded on complete dependence. Thus Independence Day also can rightly be celebrated as Dependence Day.

Dependence, you say? On what?

Our country was founded and has grown to greatness because of the independence of a people who have been dependent on God.

George Washington said, “It’s the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.”

The more we stray from that dependence, the more we risk the freedoms we’ve inherited. Our country simply is not designed for independence without dependence. As John Adams put it, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

So now that we’ve rightly celebrated our independence, let us live in full dependence to the One who allowed us to have it.