Thoughts in the wake of a tragedy

They say it is the worst mass killing on U.S. soil, and it happened today.

Fifty people dead, and 53 more wounded, they say.

All across social media, people have one resounding question: WHY?

Some say religion is to blame, while others say things like “intolerance” and “hate.”  Some say the fault belongs to gun laws in our country (or the lack thereof) while some blame law enforcement for not acting on prior concerns about the killer.  Still others will claim this tragedy is “God’s judgment” on our nation, or even on a particular group of people.

May I suggest an answer that is far deeper, yet far simpler than any of these?

There is a violence that springs out of a sense of self-preservation, but this was not that kind of violence.

There is a violence that is birthed by a desire to protect people we love or things we care about, but this was not that kind of violence.

The kind of violence that causes a man to take multiple weapons into a crowded nightclub and open fire has its root in one simple thing: the devaluing of another human being, and there is one key belief that causes this behavior.

Self-righteousness.

I believe the reason fifty precious lives were extinguished is because one man felt he was above them in some way, which to him justified his heinous actions.  He thought he was better than them, therefore their lives were less important than his, and worth taking.

You see, when a person believes themselves to be morally superior to another, it’s only a matter of time before they stop seeing the other as a person at all.  They are something different, something less, some thing that has a name and a category, but isn’t the same as them.

This is when the broad brushes come out, and the self-righteous person stops seeing certain people as fellow human beings and instead sees “gays,” “Christians,” “Muslims,” “conservatives,” “liberals,” “fundamentalists,” “white people,” “black people,” “rich people,” “people on welfare,” and the list goes on and on.

And we all do it.

Maybe you’re feeling that way right now towards the killer, thinking of him as an “extremist,” or a “terrorist,” or a “fanatic.”  Maybe these labels apply, but here’s the deeper truth: he was a person, too.

I’m not saying he deserves pity, or that his actions were in any way right or justifiable.  I’m saying that for all of us, we would be wise to use caution as we ponder this incident, because if we’re not careful, our broad-brush statements about the kind of people who do this sort of thing have the potential to put us in the same boat as him, not as murderers with our hands, but as murderers in our hearts.

This is why the Gospel of Jesus is so powerful, because at its core is the truth that nothing you or I can ever do will make us better than anyone else.  No amount of rule-keeping or moral behavior can earn us the right to be called righteous; only Jesus can do that.  The best we can do is receive a gift we didn’t earn, and remember that all of us are broken and in need of grace.  Embracing this reality sets us free from the need to place ourselves on a pedestal for our performance, and releases us to truly love others as full equals in the human race, regardless of who they are or what they believe or what they’ve done.

Every human life is precious, valuable, and worthy of respect and dignity.  When you realize that you’re no better than anyone else, then whether you agree with their beliefs and behaviors or can’t stand anything they stand for, you can still choose to see them for what they are: a person just like you.

So, if you’re a praying person, pray for Orlando.  Pray for the victims and their families.  Pray for the people of the surrounding communities, and for the law enforcement and medical personnel who will continue to sort through the pieces in the days and weeks to come.  Pray for the killer’s family as they bear the shame and guilt for the actions of this man.

And pray for yourself, as well.

–Pastor Phillip

Get Back on the Bike [An Encouraging Word]

“Why does this always happen to me?”

Bradley had fallen a second time on his bicycle, his 7-year old, 72-pound frame tangled up in steel and rubber with a handlebar poking him in the belly.  The injuries to his body weren’t serious, but the hurt in his heart was real.

He actually hadn’t been falling much at all.  In fact, other than two accidents that particular day, he had stayed upright just fine for most of our rides together.  He’d even begun to regularly muse out loud, “How can I be so good at riding a bicycle so quickly,” and “I don’t think there’s really anything else for me to learn about riding a bike.”

And that was his problem.

My son’s mental anguish at a second tumble wasn’t really about the frequency of the fall.  It was about the breakdown of his feelings of invincibility.  In that moment, my little boy’s greatest struggle wasn’t overcoming the pain in his tummy or the awkwardness of the twisted bicycle.  His greatest struggle was having to come to grips with this simple truth about life.

Everybody hurts.

He needed to know there was no grand conspiracy that made him fall, sometimes things just happen.  He needed to know this wasn’t a great failure on his part, just a part of the learning process.

Most of all, though, he needed to know that no matter how hard he tries, he is not invincible, and that’s okay.  He is not immune to trial and trouble, and that’s a good thing.

You see, to hurt is part of the human experience.  Falling is part of being fully alive.  This is why Jesus’ promise is so hopeful, “You will have suffering in this world.  Be courageous!  I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33b)  By acknowledging the inevitability of suffering, Jesus sets us free from feeling like a failure when we can’t avoid it, and gives us hope that He will see us through it.

How about you?

Have you felt the bite of rejection or the sting of failure?  Have you experienced the pain of loss or the drain of long-term struggle?  Have you ever found yourself asking, “Why does this always happen to me?”

Be courageous!

You and I need to remember there is a time to learn from our mistakes, and a time to accept that things just happen.  We need to remember there is a time to evaluate ourselves to grow, and a time to embrace the truth that sometimes God allows things for reasons we’ll never know.

Most of all, though, you and I need to remember that there’s a time to cry and hurt and grieve and retreat, but there’s also a time where we must receive the word I gave to my son after I comforted his heart and dried his tears.

It’s time to get back on the bike.

–Pastor Phillip

Anniversaries and Expectations [An Encouraging Word]

Two years ago today, my wife and I said “I do,” and we’re not doing a thing to celebrate.

Why not?  First, we both work today, and second, we’re watching our finances, staying on-budget and paying off debt (you know, those boring details of married life that don’t get special days or cards or celebrations.)

For us, this is the best anniversary gift we can give each other, because by exercising restraint for the short term, we’re actually investing in our relationship for the long term…but that’s a topic for another day.

Third, because of our time and budget, we actually celebrated yesterday by driving around Southwest Florida and enjoying some of the simple (and inexpensive) pleasures we have in our own backyard.  We didn’t spend lots of money, but we did spend the whole day together, and that’s what made it special.

Yet, there’s another reason our modest anniversary plans haven’t been a bad thing for my wife and me, and it’s far deeper than schedules and spending.

I talk to people all the time that are disappointed the bright surface on their relationships faded, because they got together for the shine instead of the substance underneath.  It seems like many folks jump in to commitments expecting non-stop stellar moments, and then are dismayed to find it’s mostly just steady going.

For us, two whole years in (epic, I know), I’ve noticed something about our relationship that’s different from the ones I see in movies or the ones divorce lawyers see in their offices.  Through wise counsel, diligent work and the grace of God, we found a truth that makes sacrifices feel easier, or at least a lot more doable than they might be otherwise.

Here’s what we discovered: If you go in looking for the highlight reel, you’ll get out mostly disappointment, but if you expect the heavy lifting, then even little breaks will be a big delight.

You see, the fact that we didn’t get a whole weekend away in some exotic locale wasn’t a big deal, because that’s not why we got into this in the first place.  We committed to build a life, not just take a ride.  We devoted ourselves to seek the greatest good for each other, not just the most fun for ourselves.

For us, it’s not the mountaintops that bring us the most joy, but the moments in between, and that makes all the difference.

So, I don’t know what expectations you have for your current situation, but can I encourage you to try something?

Stop wishing for a never-ending string of weekends and welcome the rough, raw beauty of the daily grind.  When you learn to embrace it, you’ll find the little blessings that come your way won’t feel as much like drops of water in a mostly empty bucket; they’ll feel like diamonds in the dirt, far more precious and worth the wait.

–Pastor Phillip

 

Nightmares [An Encouraging Word]

It was 4am when my son’s little hand rapped loudly on our bedroom door.

The “shave-and-a-haircut, two bits” pattern I taught him echoed through the caverns of my subconscious mind, dragging me up from a deep, clear sleep into the  groggy fog of a much-too-early morning.

“Come in” I moaned, loud enough for him to hear through the white wood, but hopefully soft enough to not wake my still-sleeping wife.  Lucky her.

“Daddy,” he said with the adorable pleading tone of a seven year old boy, “I had nightmares.  Can I sleep in your bed?”

Now, for some people this request might be a no-brainer, but for us it’s a problem.  You see, my son is not a stationary sleeper.  Like a fish out of water or a presidential candidate, he flips and flops and shifts positions all over the place; not exactly the kind of bedmate that is conducive to quality R.E.M.

I knew, too, that not only did I need to sleep, but more importantly, my wife would be waking up early for a long day at work, so she needed as much rest as she could get.

The answer was clear.

“No, son, you can’t sleep in our bed tonight… but I’d be happy to come stay with you in yours.”

After a quick trip to the bathroom, we padded our way quietly back through the dim blue landscape of the night-lighted apartment, grateful that all the Legos had been picked up before bed and weren’t waiting for us like foot-stabbing landmines.  He climbed up to his wooden bunk bed, and I slowly and carefully made my way after him, up the creaky ladder and under the “Star Wars” sheet and comforter.

I knew that for him, being in his room alone would have been difficult, because for this moment it was associated with his nightmares instead of a good night’s rest.  So, nestling close to my son, I settled in for a sleepless hour that I knew would be well worth the sacrifice.

My little boy needed me in his season of fear, and it was my joy to be by his side.

Did you know that’s how your heavenly Father feels about you?

Speaking to the worries and anxieties of the people of His day, Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father delights to give you the Kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)  Sometimes we think of the “Kingdom of God” as only a future destination, but Jesus taught that it’s also a present experience of God’s presence and power on earth.

What does that mean for you?

It means that wherever you’re afraid today, God wants to speak words of courage to you, because He’s with you.
It means that wherever you’re in turmoil today, God wants to speak words of calm to you, because He’s with you.
It means that wherever you’re anxious today, God wants to speak words of peace to you, because He’s with you.

“Don’t be afraid, little child,” He wants to say to you.  “It’s my joy to be by your side.”

Will you listen?

–Pastor Phillip

Two Perspectives on Pull-ups in the Pool [An Encouraging Word]

The clock was ticking, and we weren’t getting anything done.

My son Bradley loves the pool, and this particular morning I had agreed to join him in “training” together, practicing laps to help us both prepare for the triathlon he wants to do with me in the fall.

Pull-ups in the PoolThere, in tepid waters of our little neighborhood pool, I started out by explaining the difference between “lengths” and “laps,” and we started swimming… but not for long.

Instead of doing significant training, we explored new ways to splash each other, played make-believe for a little while, and yes, got in a bit of exercise, though not as much as I would have liked.

Then, as our alotted time was almost up (I had to get to work), Bradley decided he wanted to get a little more exercise, not by swimming, but by doing pull-ups… in the water on the side of the pool.

Pull-ups in the pool.

To be honest, I didn’t quite know what to say. I’d already been a little annoyed at having done very little actual training, and while I’m all about encouraging physical fitness in creative ways, I was pretty sure doing pull-ups in the pool wasn’t actually doing anything!

Or was it?

Maybe the greater purpose of that morning before work wasn’t helping my son strengthen his body, but helping the two of us strengthen our relationship. Maybe the real value in those moments wasn’t found in the exercise, but simply the experience of us being together and him feeling like his ideas had value and worth.

Maybe I needed to adjust my priorities.

Another thought occurred to me in the water that morning. This one not about relationships, but effectiveness.

I wondered, what are the “pull-ups in the pool” that I’m doing right now in other areas of my life? What activities am I doing that keep me preoccupied, but don’t produce much progress? What things are giving me a busy schedule, but aren’t helping me build success?

Maybe I need to adjust my work habits.

How about you?

You see, when our relationships become all about productivity and progress, we can lose sight of the bigger picture. We need to remember that “pull-ups in the pool” are okay, because what matters most isn’t accomplishing goals, but cultivating hearts.

On the other side of the equation, when our work becomes more about routine than results, we’re out of balance there, too. We need to remember that “pull-ups in the pool” must be avoided at all costs, because life is too short to spend it doing things that don’t really make a difference.

Wherever you are right now, relationally or professionally, here’s my encouragement to you today.

Ask God for the clarity to evaluate your priorities and activities, and the courage to make the changes that lead to the result He wants for you: a flourishing life.

–Pastor Phillip

The Paper Clip [An Encouraging Word]

I confess, I probably love paper clips a little too much.

I am that guy who will throw away a whole stack of papers but remove the paper clips first so I can reuse them. I carry two of them on my keychain and others in my car. I’ve used them for clipping papers, of course, but also for picking toy handcuff locks (when I was younger), for resetting any number of little electronic devices, and even for cleaning under my fingernails.

I love paper clips.

The Paper ClipThat’s one reason I noticed it the moment I sat down at the long, dark brown wooden table at Starbucks: a jumbo silver paper clip, abandoned and unused by a previous guest. It had curves in all the right places, and boy did it shine.

I wondered why on earth someone would leave a perfectly good paper clip behind. Why not take it with them? Why not use it again? Why the waste?

I started to ponder what its use had been before I found it. School assignments? Job applications? Legal documents?

Then I had this thought: even though I didn’t know WHAT its purpose had been, I knew THAT it had a purpose once and could have one again in the right hands.

Even though someone else hadn’t considered it worth bringing along, that paper clip still had usefulness left in it, still had value, still had potential if someone was willing to give it a shot.

Just like the people in the coffee shop that day.

Just like me.

Just like you.

When the Bible teaches that, “God created man in His own image; He created him in the image of God; He created them male and female…” (Genesis 1:27), it isn’t just making a theological point. It’s revealing a personal promise.

If you’re human, then it doesn’t matter what other people have said about you or done to you; GOD says you have value and potential and worth just because you’re you.

If you’re human, then whether you’ve been lifted up or trampled down by this life, GOD says you can have power and purpose and hope in Him!

I picked up that paperclip because I saw there was still life left in it.

May you look to Jesus today and let Him pick you up, because He knows that wherever you’ve been, and whatever you’ve been through, there’s still life left in you.

–Pastor Phillip

Running Again

Running Again

(Or, “How the Worst Itch Ever Reminded me of the Best Fix of All”)

The itch was so bad I could barely stand it.

There I was, surrounded by the beauty of a fresh sunrise, sidewalk-jogging past a serene waterway and a meticulously trimmed golf course, and all I could think of was the fire under my skin.

It was my first time running in a while, and based on past experience, I knew exactly what this was: my blood vessels overheating because they simply weren’t used to that kind of throughput. The sensory result? Itch, itch, itch, itch, itch.

What made it worse was the fact that I knew a surefire solution that could stop the discomfort. I knew there was one simple action I could take that would completely stop the agony and return me to sanity: quit.

If I just stopped running, gave up on the whole thing and returned to a leisurely pace, the itching in my legs would go away.

Have you ever been there? Maybe not with jogging or physical activity, but have you ever been in a spot where you were in so much discomfort, so much pain even, that it seemed like quitting was your only option to make it go away?

The whole thing reminds me of a passage from a letter written by the Apostle Paul to a group of Christians in the city of Galatia. He knew that following Jesus in their day –as in ours– definitely brought with it an element of discomfort. Yet, this seasoned saint also knew that when it comes to our walk with Christ, the prize is always worth the pain. Look at what he reminded them…

“So we must not get tired of doing good, for we will reap at the proper time if we don’t give up.  (Galatians 6:9)

There it is, a simple reminder with staggeringly powerful implications: don’t give up.

When the discomfort threatens to derail you, don’t give up.

When the struggle feels like it will sink you, don’t give up.

When the pain eclipses your perspective, forget about what you feel, and simply remember to DO this: Don’t. Give. Up.

It may seem like quitting is the only option to deal with the pain, but that would mean ditching the prize. It may feel like stopping is the only way to survive, but failing to finish would mean relinquishing the reward.

You see, in that itch-filled moment on the jogging trail, I knew that quitting might fix the discomfort, but I would have surrendered the satisfaction of a job well done. I also knew that if I kept at it, not only would the itch eventually fade away, but in its place would be the power of better blood flow and the pride of an accomplishment, a much better “fix” indeed.

So, what did I do that day? I kept going until I hit my goal.

Where do YOU need to keep going today?

Maybe you have a relationship that’s seen better days, but don’t give up.

Maybe there’s a workplace conflict you can’t seem to resolve, but don’t give up.

Maybe it’s a habit or sin or addiction that feels impossible to break, but whatever it is: Don’t. Give. Up!

If you’ll keep on pressing forward, I can’t promise your circumstance will improve right away, but I can guarantee you’ll receive a breakthrough in the one place that matters most…

Your heart.

–Pastor Phillip

Christmas Lights

Christmas Lights

(Or, “How I Found Perspective Because My Son Really Had to Pee”)

My son really had to pee.

We’d been driving for an hour through a display of brilliant Christmas lights in a neighborhood miles from our home. The Christmas music was turned up, the windows were rolled down, the atmosphere was festive… and my 7-year-old had had enough.

I’ll be honest, I was a little annoyed, not that he had to use the bathroom and that traffic was slow –God knows we can all relate to that– but that he was making such a big deal about it! I mean, come on, kid, I get it. One too many juice pouches can take its toll on any of us, but you don’t need to broadcast it every 12 seconds.

Then, somewhere between the festive music and the fidgety moans, something dawned on me that changed my attitude completely.

As we were making our way out of the menagerie of cars and carols, I noticed a detail about the Christmas lights that I’d never thought of before… the lights looked more beautiful because of the darkness between them. It was the blackness that made the lights seem brighter, the space that made them sparkle.

There was goodness in the gaps.

In that moment, I realized something. Just like there were gaps between the beauty of the Christmas lights and the blackness of the night, there were gaps between the kind of family moments I wanted that evening and the kind of moments I got.

But there’s goodness in the gaps.

I would have preferred for my son to have been less vocal about his discomfort, but that same little voice also filled our car with laughter that night. I would have preferred for us to not have to end the night before we’d seen every house, but that made the time we did have seem all the more special for its brevity.

There’s goodness in the gaps.

Maybe that’s what the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes meant when he commented on the ebbs and flows of life: [God] has made everything beautiful in its time. (Ecclesiastes 3:11a) Maybe he knew something about the gaps between what we want and what we get. Maybe he knew that sometimes the moments we’d gladly wish away actually sweeten the ones we’d like to savor forever.

Have you experienced any “gaps” this season?

Maybe family gatherings brought more complication than celebration this year. Maybe gifts weren’t given or received the way you would have wished. Maybe a certain person went away, or a certain problem came around.

I won’t pretend that it hasn’t been difficult, or that I understand your situation. I can’t promise that solutions will be quick to appear or easy to apply. I learned something, though, on that noise-filled night, in between the creative displays of lights and the clamoring of the son I love.

I found out that if you’re willing to look hard enough and trust God long enough, you’ll discover for yourself:

There’s goodness in the gaps.

–Pastor Phillip

P.S. We made it to a restroom… just in time.

Don’t let politics derail your perspective

An Encouraging Word

DON’T LET POLITICS DERAIL YOUR PERSPECTIVE

Today my friend texted me in despair.

“I’ve given up on everything political,” he said.  “If things are going to change for the better, it’s going to happen by changing the hearts of men.”

How right he was.

Today’s landmark Supreme Court decision will forever alter the fabric of our society.  It will have far-reaching effects in our families, businesses, schools, churches and beyond.  It will impact our lives in ways we can’t see yet, affecting issues we haven’t even begun to imagine.

Even so, this thought gives me peace:
God is still on His throne.An-Encouraging-Word-WP-Logo-2015

“Of course He is,” you may say, “that’s why we need to __________.”  But maybe, just maybe, what we need to do most is simply breathe.

Government is neither a Messiah nor the Anti-Christ.  It never has been, and it never will be.  Both great and evil things can and do happen through political process.  It’s always been that way.  It will stay that way as long as humans are involved in the process.

But God is still on His throne.

If you rejoice in this decision and expect it to usher in a golden age of tolerance and diversity, it won’t.  If you mourn this decision and see it as the end of morality in America, it’s not.

This is simply a step.

For some it’s a step forward, to others, a step back, but it’s only a step.  It’s a big step, to be sure, but it’s only a step.

Don’t hear me saying this is not a big deal, because it is.  Don’t hear me saying there won’t likely be hard times ahead for the Church, because there will be.  I’m simply saying this…

God is still on His throne.

This decision changes everything for our country, but changes nothing for Christians.  Why?  Because the Christ we follow never commanded us to seek political solutions to spiritual problems.  Nor did He tell us to be disengaged, but rather to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  (Mark 12:17)

This means that all of us, whether we agree or disagree with the decision, have both an opportunity and an obligation to do what Jesus has always commanded us to do: deal kindly with those on “the other side” of our position.

It means as the sticky situations and uncomfortable conversations begin to increase, we must respond with wise and thoughtful dialogue, not foolish fear-mongering, name-calling, and doom-saying.

So, whether you feel elated or defeated by today’s ruling, take a deep breath today, and remember this:

God is still on His throne, so don’t let politics derail your perspective.

 

–Pastor Phillip

PowerPoint-Title-Card-[Counter-Culture]p.s. Do you want to engage helpfully on issues like these but aren’t sure how?  Join me starting tomorrow night at 6:00pm for an all-new outpostChurch teaching series called, “CounterCulture: navigating the war zone between culture and Christianity.”  We’ll explore what the Bible says about many hot issues of our day, and how Christians can respond well as we engage with the world around us.  (Can’t make it tomorrow night?  Listen or watch online at outpostChurch.org!)

Are you ready for delight?

An Encouraging Word

ARE YOU READY FOR DELIGHT?

I’ve never been very good at packing in advance.

When I was a boy, our family would go on vacations to various places, and there was always packing going on until the very last minute…and sometimes a little beyond.  We scrambled to get ready because we knew that the better prepared we were, the more fun we would have.

Been there?

Later in life, I entered the work world.  Though thankfully it wasn’t a regular occurrence, I remember days at various companies where I had a performance review or manager’s visit coming up and I found myself scurrying around trying to look busy.  I scrambled to get things done because I knew the better prepared I was, the less likely I would be to get in trouble.

Sound familiar?

The Bible says in many places that Jesus is coming again.  He will take His sons and daughters away to be with Him in a New Heaven and a New Earth, and it will be a new life for us that will be very, very good.

When Jesus talks about it, He often uses the language of “being ready” for when He comes, like He does here in Matthew 24:44, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

The question is, what does He mean?

Does He mean, “Be ready, because if I catch you doing something wrong you are in SO much trouble…” or does He mean “Be ready, because I don’t want you to miss a bit of the wonderful things I have planned for you“?

The Bible is clear that judgment and wrath await those who refuse to trust Jesus for salvation, but that for believers, the level of our reward will be determined by the level of our obedience.

That is what Jesus is talking about.

He loves to bless His people, to lavish His grace upon us and display His glory through us.  His desire, then, is not that we would live in fear of not having “done enough” to pacify Him when He comes, but that we would live in joyous anticipation of His reward, and use our life now to participate with Him as much as we can.

He is coming soon, so may you use your time wisely in His service, not out of fear, but out of the joy of future delight.

-Pastor Phillip