Thursday, November 29, 2012

Who am I?

Recently a tiny little phrase caught my attention, and helped me to realize all over again the simple truth that God is HUGE and I'm not even blip on the radar screen yet He desires a relationship with me.

Who am I that He would create me, save me, have a plan for me, bless me, not destroy me? I don't get it, I never have and I never will, that's what makes God and His plan so _______________...I can't think of a word to insert here, because "amazing", "awesome", "incredible", "super fantastic" and any other describing words just seem to fall way short, and I'm left with this shrinking question in my mind..."Who am I?"

The Psalmist actually added some depth to the question as well when He said "When I consider the works of your hands, the sun, the moon, the stars. What is man that you are mindful of him?"

Well, the phrase that caught my attention is actually found after He created the Seas and Sky and Sun and Moon and one of the reasons I love it is the way it's listed in the sequence of events and I love the way it almost reads as an "oh by the way" or "oh yeah...almost forgot...He also did this..."

Genesis 1:16 says...

God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars."

He also made the stars...I love this video clip by Louie Giglio that really helps us realize how huge this "oh by the way..." kind of statement really is. My prayer is that you will be as blown away with the enormity of our God as I am at this moment, and you along with me would ask the same question as the Psalmist..."Who am I?"

I think that's where we need to begin, then God can use us to accomplish the plans He has for us, plans to prosper not to harm, plans to give us a future and a hope!

So, who am I? Well, according to the Creator of all things, I'm not just Brent the Pastor, Brent the Husband, Brent the Dad, Brent the former halfway decent athlete (in his own mind), Brent the scholar or any other temporal identity attachment phrase I could add.

I'm Brent, the blip on the radar screen who just so happened to be created in the image of God! That's where my idenity lies, that's who I am, and now because of what Jesus did I'm also known as "Brent, the child of God"

I don't know about you right now, but I'm totally (insert another totally overused cliche') BLOWN AWAY!

Please be encouraged by this today...You're not randomly placed here to take up space, God has a plan, and a purpose and it involves us!

Thank you God, that the answer to the question of identity is answered in YOU!

The Majesty of the Manger

“Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” (John 4:23)

Suppose you could give a gift to Christ, what would it be? How could you possibly select a gift for the One who not only has everything, but who made everything?

The Wise Men did. They can be an example to us. In addition to the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they gave the Savior some gifts we can give him today: their hope, their time, and their worship.

The wandering wise men gave Jesus their hope. When everyone else saw a night sky, this small band of men saw the light. The sight of the star sparked a desire in their hearts that send them packing. They went, seeking Jesus.

When night comes to your world, what do you see? The darkness or the stars? Hopelessness or hopefulness? Sometimes, just as he did so long ago, God uses the darkness to reveal his stars—“The light shines in the darkness” (John 1:5). Give God your hope for Christmas.

While you’re giving, give God your time. The wise men did. Before they gave God their presents, they gave their presence. It’s likely that these men traveled as long as two years before locating the prince of heaven.

Before that one incredible moment when they knelt before Jesus, the wise men spent many moments, months, perhaps years searching, in anticipation of that meeting. Just as the wise men devoted themselves to seeking the Savior, so can you: “You will seek him and find him when you seek him with all your heart” (Duet. 4:29).

And when they did find him, the wise men gave Jesus another gift: their worship. Men of wealth, influence, and intellect: what did they do when they saw Jesus? “…they fell down and worshiped him” (Matt. 2:11)

Worship. It’s a gift that extends to the giver as well. Through worship, we come to see God more clearly. God invites us, through worship, to see his face so he can change ours. In worship, we simply stand before God with a prepared and willing heart and let God do his work. And he does. He wipes away the tears. He mops away the perspiration. He softens our furrowed brows. He touches our cheeks. He changes our faces as we worship. The wise men sought the child of God, just as God seeks his children. “The Father is actively seeking such people to worship him” (John 4:23).

The gifts of hope, time, and worship. Three gifts the wise still give.

From One Incredible Moment: Celebrating the Majesty of the Manger © (J Countryman, 2006) Max Lucado Used by permission.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Grand Slam question

We're getting ready for Christmas at the Carl household and I was reminded of this "blast from the past" from my son...Good times, Good times...

Last night my family and I splurged and went to Denny's for dinner.
I had been whining about wanting pancakes all week, my wife had worship team practice, and kids eat free on Tuesdays.

It was a perfect storm situation that had "Grand Slam" written all over it.

So we loaded up the Carl family cruiser (aka 1996 Dodge Grand Caravan, with a newly replaced windshield, after the Western NY snow load cracked the old one), and headed to Denny's for some food, and fellowship as a family.

Everything was going great, the kids were coloring, Bonnie and I were gazing into each other’s eyes (at Denny's...hmmm) and the waitress had just taken our order. It was shaping up to be a pretty awesome night.

Pretty awesome until my son, slid his placemat to me to read a freshly written question, complete with a YES or NO response section that demanded an answer right NOW.

If you can read first grade penmanship, take a look at the picture and you can tell exactly what he was asking his "always truthful, always trustworthy, Never deceitful...DADDY."

For those who are a little penmanship boy asked me point blank, "IS SANTA REAL? YES or NO."

It was tough because I was just about to dig in to my grand slam when he wrote that question on the placemat and slid it over to me.

Of course there were kids everywhere because it was Kids eat free night.

So, I told him it was a cool story, and lots of fun, and then I started to eat my full stack.

He wouldn't let it go...He kept saying "daddy, is he real or not?" So finally I said, (in a low voice so as not to tip off the surrounding kids, and tick off the surrounding parents) "Christmas is about Jesus, buddy...Santa is just a small part of the story, and he's made up...Jesus is real though!"

He looked a little surprised at that (santa being made up, not the Jesus is real part), and then 2 seconds later was like "huh, ok...oooh Mozzarella sticks!"

When we got out of the danger zone, we explained a little more in depth, and told him that it's ok to play along with your other friends that believe in Santa...don't ruin it for them...that's their parents job...ha ha.

I told Bonnie later, that I felt bad for him...I remember when I found out the truth...that's one of the reasons why 8th grade was the worst year of my life.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

This is Christmas

I'm deep into my annual reflection and pondering of what Christmas is all about, why we celebrate it each year and basically what difference it makes...and as usual I'm reminded all over again that without Christmas there would be no Easter, and without Easter there would be no salvation!

I love Christmas, that goes without saying but I also love the fact that this season is really the pre-season for what would come next in the life of Jesus on earth and what that would mean for every person for the rest of eternity...including me!

So, as I continue to prepare my heart and mind for another incredible Christmas Season, it's with an eye towards the celebration of the fact that my Savior not only lived 2000 years ago, but is alive and well in my life today!

This song by Kutless is a great encouragement to me and asks an awesome question that I'm thinking about this season..."What is Christmas without Christ?"

God's Great Gifts

Thanks be to God for his gift that is too wonderful for words. 2 Cor. 9:15

Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday and all the other reminders that it's gift giving season reminded me of a great little nugget of truth found in these words by Max Lucado and a catchy little tune by the Newsboys called "Adoration"...

Why did he do it? A shack would have sufficed, but he gave us a mansion. Did he have to give the birds a song and the mountains a peak? Was he required to put stripes on the zebra and the hump on the camel?... Why wrap creation in such splendor? Why go to such trouble to give such gifts?
Why do you? You do the same. I've seen you searching for a gift. I've seen you stalking the malls and walking the aisles. I'm not talking about the obligatory gifts. . . .

I'm talking about that extra-special person and that extra-special gift. . . . Why do you do it?... You do it so the heart will stop. You do it so the jaw will drop. You do it to hear those words of disbelief, "You did this for me?"

That's why you do it. And that is why God did it. Next time a sunrise steals your breath or a meadow of flowers leaves you speechless, remain that way. Say nothing and listen as heaven whispers, "Do you like it? I did it just for you."

I don't about you but I continue to be in awe of who God is, and that He would want anything to do with me...He left heaven to come live among us...Come let us adore Him!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Reverse thinking

We started a new series today at my church on the book of James. I've always loved how James doesn't mess around with religiously pious platitudes or over the top "christianese" not James (most likely the brother of Jesus by the way). 

He just nails it head on for the reader with stuff like, "consider it pure joy (not if, not perhaps, not quite possibly sometime in the far off distance) WHEN you face trials of many kinds."

That's James for you right there telling like it is. You and I will face trials of many kinds, it's inevitable so get ready to realize that God allows tough stuff to come our way for a reason but while we're facing it down remember that God is in control and right there with us as we go through it.

James is filled with "reverse thinking" types of scenarios that I'm really excited to walk through with the crew at my church because we're going to learn and apply so much together.

We played this video clip today to kick off our series on the book of James and I think it really sums up what  the book is all about and it helps us realize that our perspective needs to be God's perspective, which as we all know is counter-cultural and definitely reverse thinking.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Lead me

With all the craziness that is going on in our world these days, it's easy for us to get overwhelmed isn't it?

I don't know about you, but as I weigh the responsibility of leading my family, and leading in my ministry I'm always feeling the tug to "be all things to all people." In reality though, I can't do any of it alone!

Over the last 22 years of full time ministry that I've been blessed to be a part of I haven't always kept the balance like I should, and many times when my life has been out of balance it has tipped toward ministry and my family gets shorted.

As I'm processing, evaluating and reflecting on who I am, and what God wants me to become, I'm realizing even more how important it is for me to be led so that I can lead!

My wife shared this song with me, and it stopped me dead in my tracks, as I listened to the words. The band Sanctus Real nailed it. In a less than four minute song they captured the essence of what I've been feeling for years, especially as I'm always seeking to lead in a balanced way.

My prayer today is that the words of this song will speak to you like they did to me, and more than ever you'll realize along with me how important it is for us to be led so we can lead.

I can't do this alone, and neither can you!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Inward appearance

This "consultant's" report on Jesus' Disciples is a great reminder that "man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart." I'm so thankful for that!

Jesus, Son of Joseph
Woodcrafter’s Carpenter Shop, Nazareth 25433

Dear Sir:
Thank you for submitting the resumes of the 12 men you have picked for management positions in your new organization. All of them have now taken our battery of tests and we have not only run the results through our computer, but also arranged personal interviews for each of them with our psychologist and vocational aptitude consultant. The profiles of all the tests are included and you will want to study each of them carefully.

As part of our service and for your guidance, we make some general statements: this is given as a result of staff consultation and comes without any additional fee. It is the staff’s opinion that most of your nominees are lacking in background, education, and vocational aptitude for the type of enterprise you are undertaking. They do not have the team concept. We would recommend that you continue your search for persons of experience in managerial ability and proven capability.

Simon Peter is emotionally unstable and is given to fits of temper. Andrew has absolutely no qualities of leadership. The two brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, place personal interest above company loyalty. Thomas demonstrates a questioning attitude that would tend to undermine morale. We feel that it is our duty to tell you that Matthew has been blacklisted by greater Jerusalem business bureau. James, the son of Aphaeus, and Thaddaeus, definitely have radical leanings, and they both registered a high score on the manic-depressive scale.

One of the candidates however shows great potential. He is a man of ability and resourcefulness, meets people well, has a keen business mind and has contacts in high places. He is highly motivated, ambitious, and responsible. We recommend Judas Iscariot as your controller and right hand man. All of the other profiles are self explanatory.

We wish you success in your new venture.

Sincerely yours,
Jordan Management

1 Samuel 16:7 - But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Peace beyond all doubt

It seems like I've been sharing alot of these illustrations in various conversations with people I thought I'd re-post one of the most difficult and at the same time eye-opening and freeing reflections I've ever pecked out on my computer.

It's called "Do you trust me?" and it was written a few years ago.........

Man it seems like lately God is just nailing me with thoughts, and concepts through the tunes in my mp3 player. He does that some times, I think it's a cool variation that He uses to get my attention with something He has for me to ponder and pray about.

I love my time in His Word, it's always so fresh and new, but it's amazing to me how God in His mighty repertoire can use things like music to get through to me as well.

Recently as I was listening to some music on the way home from a ministry trip to North Carolina a blast from the past came on my player, and in my mind I was immediately transported to a quiet time with the Lord that I was having in NYC...Let me explain.

One of the things I loved about being on staff at the church I was in north of NYC, was the mandate and precedent that my Senior Pastor put on spending quiet time alone with God for each of us staff members.

In fact his rule was that once a month for the same amount of time we would put into our ministry in the church office (9-5) we had to spend that alone with God (now this was of course in addition to our regular daily times, and really sent a message to the church that we were serious about our ministry and wanted God's Power to be driving it!)

It didn't matter where we went, but it couldn't be in the office and it had to be a place where we were focused on God and what He wanted to say.

I always looked forward to those times. I'm a little twisted I know, but I would always spend my day alone with God on a bench in Central Park with my Bible, a notebook and my cd player.

I would take a few cd's for the quick train ride in and then mix up my time with things like, reading the daily Proverb, praying some Psalms, listening to some worship music, praying for the people that I saw go past me, and journaling my thoughts.

I would usually include the discipline of fasting with my day away, and that always added to the realness of what I was doing. I couldn't wait to get up early and hop the train to the city; it was always with great excitement that I would head out to see what God was going to do that day.

As I captured my thoughts, prayers, lyrics to the songs and the words of scripture I then began to look for themes that emerged from what I was experiencing. I guess my attitude was one of anticipation that I was going to really be spending my day with was all about Him, His Word and being open to what He was saying, and I couldn't believe that I was even getting paid to do it!

Well one particular day in 2004 was especially soul rocking and direction changing as I sat there reading, journaling, praying and listening to music that all seemed to have the theme of "Things are going to change, and change big time for you my friend!"

You see I had just come off an incredible spring where our ministry saw 90 skaters come to Christ in a month, one of my best friends and beloved youth leaders pass away, and many more events that God was using to get my attention that the comfortable life in Student Ministries that I had grown to love and appreciate was going to be turned upside down on it's ear and things were going to get tough, and quick!

Here are some of the things that happened in 2004 that God was using to get my attention...

1. 90 skaters come to Christ in a month - May 2004
2. Larry passes away - May 2004
3. Hang Time gets shut down after a BMXer breaks his leg (Over 500 in attendance that night) - June 2004
4. I develop Eurlychiosis (Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever) and am literally down for a month - June 2004
5. I have a prayer session with 2 very special people who basically tell me that they believe that my upcoming trip to Ukraine is going to change everything for me! - June 2004
6. I have a youth leader tell me that he's praying that God would shake things up for me in Ukraine. - July 2004
7. I get to Ukraine and everything I have prepared to speak about is basically thrown out the window as I find out that over 90% of the audience that I'm going to be speaking to each day for a week has little or no knowledge of who Jesus is (I was prepared for more of a growth level type ministry taking the students to the next level in their faith...well, these guys don't even have a faith to begin with...prayers are being answered...God is shaking things up). - July 2004
8. While helping a missionary move books at the Kiev Seminary I see a sign on an office door that says "Youth Ministry International", I ask him what that was and I get introduced to the world of International Youth Ministry Training (Things are changing). - July 2004
9. I get home from Kiev and say to my wife "Umm...I think God may be calling us to move to Ukraine!" - August 2004
10. I nervously walk into my Sr. Pastor’s office and say “I don’t know where, I don’t know when, but I believe God is in the process of shaking things up in my life, and I think He may be calling me into missions, will you pray with me about discerning His voice correctly?” He was the best during the next several months of listening to God’s leading…never once did he say “Dude, you’re out of here…it’s this ministry or nothing buddy!” He had such an amazing Kingdom mentality! What a mentor! – August 2004
10. My grandmother was dying with Pancreatic Cancer (The same thing that I had just witnessed my friend Larry battle and lose). - September 2004
11. Our ministry had an open door to over 10,000 students in our area through the ministry of a nationally known abstinence speaker and we held nightly meetings at our church where the students who heard his captivating message in school that day were invited to come back at night to hear him explain how he made it through his earth shattering experience of losing his wife and child to AIDS...His relationship with Christ is proclaimed loud and clear! - November 2004
11. Bonnie and I go to Ukraine for a vision trip to see about joining YMI in Kiev, and come back even more confused because we didn't necessarily sense a call to the place, but more to the function of what YMI does. - December 2004
12. We go to YMI headquarters to tell the President that we won't be going with YMI - January 2005

These things and actually many more were all going on and swirling around me like a tornado when I boarded the Metro North train headed to Grand Central that particular day in 2004. I needed to get away; I needed to hear from the Lord in a very real and powerful way. My life was spinning around and I felt like I was on a roller coaster of emotions and feelings, and desperately needed God to step in and tell me what was going on and reassure me that He was in control.

As I sat there on the bench watching, reading, listening, praying and expecting, God used the lyrics to a song accompanied with words from Scripture to tell me exactly what I needed to hear.
The song that He used was "Lord, I don't know" by the Newsboys and as I sat there listening to the words I just broke down and started crying right in the middle of Central Park.

I didn't care, my world was changing, everything I knew and loved in ministry and relationships was changing and God used the lyrics of this song to help me start to make sense of it all. He is in control, and knows what He's doing.

As I listened to that phrase “Lord, I don’t know where all this is going and how it all works out, Lead me to peace that is past understanding, a peace beyond all doubt.” I kept thinking of all the “this’s” in my life that needed explaining.

I mean why did Larry have to die? Why did Hang Time have to get shut down, and over 500 skaters be turned away from their church that just celebrated 90 of them coming in to the Kingdom? Why did God captivate my heart so much on that trip to Ukraine when I’ve been on tons of mission’s trips and never experienced anything like that before?

Why did I get so sick in the middle of that crazy summer? And why did the most amazing, God fearing, prayer warrior and incredible rock of my family have to die of Pancreatic Cancer? Why, Why, Why, God I want to know WHY!

As the song played and the tears flowed God began to answer my questions, with a simple reassuring voice that said to my spirit, “I am the peace that is past understanding, the peace beyond all doubt, I know who you are, I know what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling, what you’re struggling with, and I am in complete control…the real question is…Do You Trust Me?

That was a few years ago, and since then all kinds of new “this’s” have come my way. “This’s” that have caused me to do a lot of soul searching and even though I don’t have all the answers and the “this’s” keep changing and morphing into new and some times more complicated ones, deep down I know that God knows what He's doing.

I keep thinking about that fateful day in 2004 in the middle of Central Park, alone with my Savior who was totally focused on His child who was struggling, and doubting and questioning and wondering where He was in the middle of all his “this’s”.

The truth of the matter was that today’s “this” will always turn into something else and something else and something else, there will always be “this’s” that’s not the point. The point is do we trust God, that in the middle of all our junk that He is who He says He is, and He will guide us through all our rough waters.

He is the peace that passes understanding, the peace beyond all doubt, and even though I don't always understand Him...I need to Trust Him, He knows what He's doing!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

No Doubt About It

A few years ago I was going through a difficult period in my life and God did what He likes to do a lot in my relationship with Him; He started bringing back memories of the times He showed Himself real in my life. 

He brought back memories of times when He went beyond the everyday supplier that He is, and sent some “no doubt” kinds of things my way so that I could see clearly that He is God, He loves me, He has a plan for me and he will provide for me, and my family!

The examples that he brought to mind were of His provision and affirmation that He is faithful and true in every situation even if it doesn't necessarily make sense.

Here are three times in the fairly recent past that He showed up and left no doubt that He is in control and cares for me and my family.

1. 1992 Subaru SVX – The very car I was driving in 2008 was a gift…sure it was 16 years old and had over 200,000 miles on it, but it was an awesome gift, that God sent at just the right time. My wife and I really believed that God was moving and wanted us to become missionaries, we were working on getting rid of some debt so I sold my 2000 Grand AM to pay some bills.

We thought one car would work, and after like 2 days realized that it was not reality for us. So I asked a friend of mine who deals in cars to keep his eyes open for me, and I told him how much I had to work with.

Well, after about a week of looking based on my meager budget he basically told me that there wasn’t anything out there for what I could afford.Then he said “Brent, if you don’t mind me asking, why did you sell your Grand Am? That was a nice car.” I hadn’t announced to my church yet that I was leaving to become a missionary, so I asked if he could keep it under his hat until I told the church, and proceeded to tell him what God was doing in my life, and that I believed He was calling me to become a missionary.

He was a little surprised by that as he processed what he had just heard. Then he said “let me get this straight, you’re going to have to raise support, and live on faith that whatever people send in each month is going to be enough to provide for your family?” I said, “Yes, that’s right.”

He then said “wait here a minute, I’ll be right back…about 5 minutes later he returned with a piece of paper and a set of keys and said “here, this is my way of supporting your ministry…here’s the title and keys to a car!” Now not only was this a car, it was his favorite little sports car, the one he babied, spruced up and personally took care of…God provided, No doubt about it!

2. 1996 Dodge Grand Caravan – Sure it had 156,000 miles on it and was 10 years old, but just like the Subaru it was a gift. A gift from some missionary friends after our 2001 Dodge Grand Caravan was totaled in a car accident that was a miracle in itself. Every Scar Tells a Story, chronicles that one. God protected, No doubt about it!

3. Mission House – Upon announcing our resignation from our church and new adventure in missions, the reality of having enough money to pay the mortgage on our house began to settle in.

A few months into the support raising process a friend of mine from college, who is the Senior Pastor of a church where we lived contacted me and said, “Brent, we're excited about what you and your family are doing in this missions calling, and our church would like to help in some way. We aren’t taking on any new missionaries right now but we do have a house that is available for you guys to live in while you raise support…RENT FREE! God supplied, No doubt about it!

I could go on and list many more examples of His faithfulness to us, but the bottom line for me is that God is with us and knows what He’s doing. He is powering our lives, and will continue to power it.

In a world filled with broken promises and disappointing situations I'm so glad that He's a promise keeping God who was, is and always will be in control. No doubt about it!

Monday, November 12, 2012


One of the things that I've gotten to do a lot over the years in my ministry is travel. I love to travel, in fact I was curious one time and did some calculating, and realized that I’ve been to 16 countries and 34 states in my lifetime.

I also realized that the majority of these trips were for the purpose of ministry. Ministries such as, building projects, evangelism, discipleship, basketball camps, speaking, training, youth programs, leadership development and encouragement, to name a few.

God has really blessed me in terms of ministry opportunities that, with His life changing power are going to make a difference in the lives of people for His Kingdom, and to me that’s what it’s all about.

I remember having a conversation with a former student of mine that reminded me again that it’s about perspective in life. You see, the world says that in order to be happy, and experience success one needs to have a lot of stuff, you know…Money, Power & Fame. The only problem with that is you can’t take any of that with you when you leave this earth.

The conversation I had was so encouraging to me as I realized that this student really understands that to experience God’s kind of blessing, we need to live counter culturally.

He told me about a trip that he had taken, where he had an opportunity to tour some pretty amazing places in Europe, and had a ton of pictures of things that most people would love to see in their lifetime. Places that have incredible historical value, and structures that have stood the test of time, and are simply breathtaking to behold. As I listened to him talk, I admit I was a little jealous, as the places he said he visited were places I’ve always wanted to see and experience as well.

He then said something that totally amazed me, and made me stop and thank God for His work in our hearts, minds, and perspectives. He basically said “You know, all that traveling and sight seeing was great, but all I came back with was a really cool photo album. When I sat and compared my photo album with my friend’s photo album I changed my perspective about what really matters.”

He went on to tell me that his friend had recently returned from a missions trip to Africa, where she was used of God to meet physical, emotional and spiritual needs of children in God’s name. He said that every picture she showed him had a lengthy story attached to it. A story of what God was doing in their life. He told me that as he sat there and took it all in, He realized that all he had were stories of buildings and places that will someday pass away, and she had a treasure box of children whose lives will never be the same because of Jesus!

He gets it…It’s all about perspective!

On my trip to Kenya, I had some perspective shaping happening in my life as well. I came back from that trip, a totally different person. God really used the sights, sounds, smells and everything I experienced to help solidify my belief that it really is all about our perspective.

I don’t know about you, but I need to continually sharpen my focus so that my perspective is in alignment with God’s perspective. It’s not about stuff, it’s about lives, lives that have been changed by the Power of Jesus!

It really is all about Perspective…GOD'S PERSPECTIVE!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

What is valuable?

It’s hard to believe but another Christmas season is almost upon us. In a few days we will begin another month of "shear pandemonium and utter chaos" for many an experienced “black Friday” deal sniffer as well as the last minute, Christmas Eve “whatever is left on the shelf” hunter.

The aisles, the parking lots, the shops and malls will all be packed, and just try slithering into that last parking spot or grabbing that last present without a comment, a nudge or even an all out “stern talking to” from the person who “saw it first.”

It’s become the month of craziness to millions of Americans that’s for sure, and as I prepare for my annual month of processing what Christmas really is about, I’m reminded that when you strip away all the parties, and cookies, and presents and egg nog and…fruit cake, Christmas is really the most amazing time of the year for the Christian.

It’s the time of the year when all the bragging rights go to where they should go…God and God alone.

I mean, it was a brilliant plan if you think about it. The whole world was looking and waiting for the prophesied Messiah to come, the only problem was they were operating under faulty assumptions of how He would actually show up. They were thinking about a high rolling Kingly type entrance but God snuck Him in right under their noses.

About six miles from the religious epicenter of the day actually, in a little town called Bethlehem is where He was born. The birthday of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The day when the whole world should be thanking and praising and bringing gifts to Him for His love and grace…why is it then, that the guests at His party receive all the gifts?

Every year at this time I think about what it means to truly go through this season with the right motives, for the right reasons, and honestly every year I find myself getting sucked right in with all the worries and baggage that goes along with what Christmas has become in our culture.

The more I've traveled and have seen how others live and have to deal with things that I can’t even understand, the more I’ve realized that many times my definition of what really matters most in life is way out of whack. The things we place value on and the things people in Africa or Mexico or Ecuador place value on are so very different.

I remember this principle becoming crystal clear to me a few years back while building some houses in Mexico with my youth group. We had a large group that particular year so we split up and actually built three houses in a very poor community along the Rio Grande in a village known as JP Mendez.

The church was the center of the community and the houses (12x16 shelters with no electricity and no running water) were all about a half mile walk to the church. Each day we met at the church, got our plan together and walked to the building site to begin the day’s work.

We would work until noon and then walk back to the church where we would eat our lunch. The organizers were very clear and extremely specific when they told us to never walk alone and never leave our “valuables” on the work site unattended, because they would surely be stolen.

One particular day I learned a very valuable lesson about the definition of the word “valuable.”

It was noon and my group was hungry, so as I was finishing up tacking down some shingles on the roof, I told them to go on ahead and the four students that were helping me on the roof and I would be right there, as we wanted to finish the last row of shingles that we were working on.

We got them done, climbed off the roof and headed to lunch. We got about half way there and realized that we had left a backpack, a purse, a video camera and a digital camera at the work site. We immediately stopped, turned around and began to run to the work site. I mean, our “valuables” were there unattended. The video camera was worth about $500, the digital camera about $300, and the backpack and purse had about $100 in them as well.

As we rounded the corner from that filthy mud caked and pot hole ridden street what we saw next forever changed us with the truth that what is valuable in one culture may or may not hold value in another.

There were about 10 kids gathered on our work site, they watched us leave and waited until the precise moment to make their move, they were stealth-ful and quick. They were thieves, that’s for sure, but what they were stealing was the one thing that they placed a huge value on in their culture. It wasn’t the cameras, or the bags or even the money. They were gathered around our giant thermos…stealing our WATER!

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, the things we placed value on were of little interest to them, especially when faced with an opportunity to drink some cool, clean, disease free…WATER!

So, this year, with that illustration in mind, I’m going to try to keep what is really most important in the forefront of my thinking. God sent His only Son to be born on this earth so the people who rejected Him could have another chance to be reconciled with Him, through the sacrifice He would pay…Now that’s Valuable!

I admit, it’s a busy season with lots of pressures and worries, but this year my prayer is that we would stop and just listen to what God would have us to take away from this Christmas season. He’s still at work, the enemy is still at work and we are still needing to totally rely on our Creator for everything.

So, why don’t we start the Christmas Season off right, and Be Still and KNOW That He is God! Let what is valuable to Him become valuable to us, this Christmas Season.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Stay Focused

We’re good at making excuses and changing the subject when we’re confronted with truth, or when we mess up, or just about any time we’re about to look bad aren’t we?

I mean I think we’re born with the ‘change the subject” gift, we don’t even need to be able to talk and we can lose focus and change the subject with people.

I remember when my son was about 18 months old, he had no fear! He started walking at about 8 months, and began running, jumping, diving, and tackling at about 8 months and 1 day.

One day he was in the living room watching a certain kids TV show with 4 extremely wealthy 40 year old Australian men who do a lot of, shall we say wiggling while they “sing” their incredibly deep lyrically challenging songs to packed stadiums around the world.

These composers are credited with songs like “Fruit Salad, Yummy Yummy”, “Get ready to Wiggle” and my son’s personal favorite “Quack Quack, Quack, Quack, Quack, Cock-a-doodle-doo”.

Anyway, I walked into the living room and there he was standing on the back of the couch with his arms stretched out wide, smiling from ear to ear. I said “Ethan get down right now”.

He looked at me and in a precisely timed and choreographed maneuver fell forward, arms stretched out wide and tumbled with a perfect tuck and roll right to the floor when the “band” said Cock-a-doodle-doo!

It was like a “Chariots of Fire” slow motion moment for me…I was like…NOOOO EEETHHANN, but I was too late he fell smack down on his head.

Then he did something that told me a lot about my son. He didn’t cry, he didn’t whine, he didn’t even let out a screech. No, not Ethan, he picked up his little 18 month old body and before I could reach him, darted back up the couch, over the cushions and straight to the top to do it again.

Why is it that we go back to things that cause us pain? I know it startled him on his previous tumble, but as soon as he could get back up he went back for more.

This time I was right there though, I was just about to grab him and take him for a piggy back ride that he would never forget, but I had a “brilliant” idea. I thought, “why don’t I use this as a teaching moment for my son, while he is actually in the act of doing something painful, this will be great, I’m sure he’ll always remember this active learning lesson I’m about to bestow upon him.”

So, I said to my 18 month old. “Ethan, don’t do that again. You could really get hurt, what do you have to say for yourself?”

There, I confronted him with truth, I did it in love and I asked him a question that would help foster accountability. Dr. Dobson would be proud.

Ethan, however wasn’t too impressed with my parental skills, because before I could get him down, and before he could verbalize a remorseful response to my question. He answered me by changing the subject without words.

He took his arms and placed them as if he had wings (much like a duck would do), and he flapped them 5 times (Quack, Quack, Quack, Quack Quack) and then he placed his 5 fingers on top of his head and jiggled them (much like a chicken’s head looks on the top), then put his arms straight out, smiled from ear to ear and dove forward off the couch, AGAIN!

In essence, my son lost focus and changed the subject with Quack, Quack, Quack, Quack, Quack, Cock-a-doodle-doo! When confronted with truth, and an accountability question.

I couldn’t believe it…blown off by an 18 month old with a song by the Wiggles, unbelievable!

He got back up shook his head, started laughing and went back for more. This time, I was in his path and grabbed him before he could inflict more pain on himself.

You know the whole “changing the subject” idea isn’t anything new. There are many examples in scripture where people were confronted with truth and rather than stay focused, answer the question with integrity and make appropriate changes in their lives, they changed the subject.

In Jesus’ encounter with the Woman at the well, we see this maneuver as well. When she came face to face with the truth of her past that He wanted her to focus on, she changes the subject in an effort to put off the reality of needed changes in her life.

Jesus sees right through that though, and challenges her with truth and love, because that’s what He is…Truth and Love!

This is a lesson I constantly have to re-learn. Jesus knows what’s best for me, and expects me to respond straight up with Him and not try to hide or go off topic. My words often hurt others because I don’t confront with love, or I try to evade the question with “cleverly crafted retorts” that are hollow and empty.

I’m so glad that Jesus knows what’s best for us, he gave everything so that we could be in relationship with Him, and everything He does, He does head on…I need to stay focused on what He wants me to deal with in my life. No subject changing with HIM!

Forbidden fruit

I landed in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia got my bags, found my guide who was also my ride, and headed to the place where I was going to spend the night. I was tired from a long trip from the States and was ready to hit the hay.

We made it to the place where I would crash for the night and as I was getting ready to go to sleep, I was asked if I had ever tried Durian. I had never heard of it, and wasn't quite sure what he was talking about, so I asked "what is Durian?"

My host said it was a Malaysian fruit that people either absolutely love, or absolutely hate! He went on to say that it stinks to high heavens and has incredibly foul after effects.

I thought maybe he was getting ready to take some out as an example, but he didn't. He just said, basically "get ready, you will be "invited" to take the challenge by the time your visit to Malaysia is over."

Sure enough, it didn't take long and I was posed the question I knew was coming sooner or later..."Have you tried Durian yet?" When I said "no, I haven't had the "di-stinked" honor yet, I was posed with the following statement..."I invite you to take the Durian Challenge!"

Now I was a Youth Pastor for a long time, and have been challenged with all kinds of things over the years. You know, things like Goat brain, cow tongue, ostrich, crocodile and downing a whole bottle of Tabasco sauce, but I can honestly say I was not ready for what I was about to embark upon by accepting the Durian challenge.

When I first became a Youth Pastor I thought I had to accept every challenge and overcome to prove my manhood and worth. In fact my comeback line to many of the challenges over the years was something like this..."Oh, yeah you think you can take me on and beat me in that...well bring your 5 biggest friends and pack a's on!"

As I've gotten older I figured I didn't have anything else to prove and would usually give this response when I was told that I wasn't man enough to accept the challenge..."You know youngster, the way I look at it, just like the Michael Jordan's and Wayne Gretzky's of the world, I went out on need for me to prove anything anymore!"

That attitude is all fine and good in the old US of A but this was Southeast Asia's time to put up or shut up with these dudes! My famous "get out of challenges line" wasn't going to cut it here and I knew it.

So, I accepted the challenge and after class one day a bunch of us loaded into a seminary van (even the school leadership was in on it), and headed out to find the nearest Durian stand to eat up.

It didn't take long and we found one (the smell gave it away)...This is how one person described the smell of Durian "its odor is best described as pig-dung, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock. It can be smelled from yards away. Despite its great local popularity, the raw fruit is forbidden from some establishments such as hotels, subways and airports, including public transportation in Southeast Asia."

Aha, that's why the first thing I saw when I entered the condo building where I was staying was this picture. I thought that Durian and Mangosteen were two people groups that weren't welcomed in the building or something, but boy was I wrong!

So, in the name of international awareness, cultural acceptance and down right manhood proving, I did it...I accepted the challenge and have the video clip to prove it. I am now welcome in Malaysia. I'm glad I accepted the challenge...I wonder if I can now invoke my usual "get out of challenges" comeback line the next time I visit...I sure hope so!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


There are many things in life that bring me joy, and one night as I sat at the dinner table with my family, I had a flash back to a time when God used a great meal, a messy kid and church meeting to teach me what unconditional love is all about.

I got home from work just like any night and was welcomed by the amazing aroma of one of my favorite dishes of all time…Beef Stew! My wife had prepared it just like I like it, tender roast beef, succulent potatoes, melt in your mouth carrots, onions and celery all held together by a savory sauce. It was piping hot and the whole house was filled with the mouth watering scent of "stewnaciousness."

It was a rainy, wet and dismal night outside and the thought of being treated to such a delectable dinner got me very excited (when there’s food involved, it doesn’t take much).

The dishes were filled, we prayed and without a seconds hesitation we all dug in to our feast. As usual it was so good, and wouldn’t you know it, I was not only filled with food, I was filled with joy!

You see, as I was enjoying my meal and my family, my mind went back to a time when my daughter was just a little tike sitting in her high chair and I had one of those “Bob Carlisle, Butterfly Kisses” moments.

I thought of how fast she is growing and much of an incredible young lady she has become.

In so many ways she’s just like her mom. She’s spiritually sensitive, loves God’s word, has a passion for her friends, and tears up every time we talk about the Compassion Child we support in Kenya.

I’m so blessed and as I sat there basking in the moment, I remembered a time when I came face to face with what unconditional love is all about.

Here’s how it went down…

I got home from a busy day at church where I served as Student Ministries Pastor. My wife and I were privileged to have a little baby girl, and every day I would rush home to play with my little bundle of joy.

One particular day I came home and was greeted with a welcoming smile and a hearty scent of bone warming beef stew, so I was doubly excited!

It had been a long day, and unfortunately it was going to be a quick dinner because I had to be back at church for a meeting.

Well, we sat down, prayed together and dug in to dinner, and as usual it was very, very good. In the back of my mind though I was thinking about all I had to do to get ready for the meeting, you know make copies, set up chairs, hand out pens and a few other “top priority” tasks that seemed to always take precedent in my life those days.

Looking back on it, it doesn’t seem that important now, especially when I think of how my little girl has gone from toddler to young lady right before my eyes.

One of the things that my wife and I tried to do with our kids is to create some traditions or things that they would look forward to, to help develop stability in their lives.

One of the things I did with my daughter before bed time was to sing her a lullaby, do butterfly kisses with our eyelashes, rub noses, give her a hug and a kiss before I put her in her bed, or before I left the house.

So, the meal was great, the time with my family was great and as I looked at my watch I saw that I was late for my “very important” meeting. I got up, thanked my wife, grabbed my keys and started to head out the door.

I didn’t even get through the doorway when I heard these words coming from my little girl, “Dadda, ekimo…buuffly?

I stopped dead in my tracks. With those two little mispronounced words, I was nailed with a huge reality, and an even bigger choice to make. A choice that would send a message loud and clear to my daughter, no matter what I chose.

You see in essence what she was saying to me was, “daddy, every time you leave or put me to sleep you  sing me a lullaby, do butterfly kisses with our eyelashes, rub noses, give me a hug and a kiss. It’s what we do; now you’re rushing out of here for your “all important” meeting which is telling me that work is a higher priority to you, than our relationship. Is it because you’re too busy, or is it because I’m covered from head to high chair with beef, potatoes, carrots, onions and broth?”

I forgot to mention that while I enjoyed eating the beef stew, she enjoyed playing in it and by the end of the meal she was absolutely covered in stickiness…she was a mess!

So, as I stood there thinking all these things in my head, and looking at my beautifully messy little girl, I began thinking about how much God loves me, and accepts me just as I am.

I mean think about it, from God’s perspective we’re just like my daughter. We’re covered in our junk, our issues, our baggage. It’s all over us!

Many times we operate from the assumption that we have to clean up before God will accept us, but God says “come to Me as you are.” Unconditional Love.

I had a choice to make, (I’m making it much more dramatic than it really was), and as soon as I heard those words “Dadda, ekimo…buuffly?” I turned around, looked right at my beef stew covered daughter, walked right over gave a huge hug, big kiss, Eskimos and butterflies and even added a new twist to our routine as I picked her up out of her high chair, held her tight and spun around a while.

Needless to say I was now also covered in beef stew from head to waist, my shirt was dirty, my hair was matted, my face was sticky and I was now LATE for my “very important meeting!”

Oh well, looking back on it, I have no idea what the meeting was about, but every time I eat beef stew I’m reminded of how at least one time in my life I made the right choice to not just talk the talk but walk the walk with my daughter.

In that simple act of showing love regardless of the mess she was in, I was reminded again at how much God loves us and accepts us as we are, and for that I am eternally grateful!

You know what else I learned in that moment?

I learned that another key part of unconditional love is the part that sometimes we forget or skip over. It’s the whole “cleaning up afterwards” part.

My daughter was filthy, and we still loved her anyway, but what kind of parent would I have been if I went to my meeting, and came home to find my daughter still sticky and now crusty? A terrible one right?

What if,  I was sitting there at the table years later right next to my daughter who was still covered in beef stew? What kind of love would I have shown to her then? It’s hard to even fathom that kind of disregard isn’t it?

That’s the part of unconditional love that we sometimes forget about. See God loves me just as I am, that’s true, but He also loves too much to let me stay that way!

I love that about God, and I love the fact that He sent His only Son to engage with the likes of me!

He loves me just as I am, but because of His incredibly indescribable plan, He loves us too much to let us remain in our current state!

That’s Love...Unconditional!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Rush of your life

I remember the first time I took my youth group to Adventure Camp in West Virginia. It was a miracle that we were even allowed to go in the first place especially after the parents meeting I had in order to explain and convince them that it was going to be all right to take their kids rafting, rappelling, and Mountain Biking for a week in the New River Gorge of WV.

I think it was probably the “Assumption of Risk” form that they had to sign that made them a little edgy. The form said “All of the activities at Adventure Camp have an element of risk involved. You are assuming the risk for your child…If they get hurt or die you are releasing the camp, and won’t sue!”

Yeah that was an interesting meeting, but the bottom line was that I knew that if we could get our kids out of their comfort zone and challenge them with some things they would probably never get do, we would start to see some qualities like, faith, teamwork, unity and trust begin to emerge.

Well, they bought it, and we loaded up the van and headed south to Wild, Wonderful West Virginia for a week of fun and challenge through extremely risky adventures like rafting, rappelling and mountain biking.

Everything was going great; we were ready to tackle our first challenge of the week, whitewater rafting the class 3-5 rapids of the lower New River. We got our life jackets, oars and helmets on and proceeded to the waiting area where the guides were assembled to go over the rules and expectations for the day. We were really excited and full of anticipation; there were smiles galore, as we thought about how awesome this day was going to be.

Excitement abounded, that is until the head guide stepped to the front and for the next 30 minutes explained to us how risky this adventure really is. He didn’t pull any punches. He had kind of a monotone low speaking voice that would get louder and louder until he would come to his crescendo, which was also the main point he wanted to deliver to us. It went something like this…

“Ladies and gentleman it is my job to inform you of the inherent risks, and dare I say DANGERS of what we are about to partake of today. Rafting may look like a fun sport to the novice, and fun it is, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the crucial elements that you need to abide by if you want to come back from this trip ALIVE!”

What? I sat in the back of the group, and when he proclaimed that little gem, every single one of my leaders and students swiveled their heads in my direction and glared the most hideously evil glare I have ever seen in my life. Without words they were saying to me “Pastor Brent, what have you done? Have you brought us out of our land of comfort to die here in this gorge? Dude, when we get back… if we get back, you are SO FIRED!”

I admit I was a little concerned as well especially when the guide continued his explanation of each of the pieces of equipment that would hopefully keep us alive on the trip. Here’s basically what he said…

“Ok, if you want to come back alive, actually enjoy this day, and experience the incredible things we’re going to experience here’s what you need to know about your equipment. See this yellow plastic hat? It’s called a helmet, it belongs on your head at all times, it is a very important device because if…I mean… when you get flipped out of the raft today and your head hits a rock…if you don’t have your helmet on (Insert Crescendo) YOU’RE GONNA DIE!

See this oar? This oar is a very important tool, it will help direct you and your fellow raft mates through very treacherous waters today…if…I mean… when it gets stuck under a rock it will act like a catapult and send you flying across the river, usually headlong into a rock, which if you don’t have your helmet on and firmly fastened (insert crescendo) YOU’RE GONNA DIE!

 See this beautifully adorned flotation device? It’s called a life jacket…key word…LIFE! If…I mean… when you get tossed, chucked, launched and or catapulted out of the raft, and fly headlong across the river and hit a rock, you may have a temporary reprieve since you were wearing your helmet, but if you don’t have your life jacket on and securely fastened, you’re going to find yourself swimming with the fishes and (insert crescendo) YOU’RE GONNA DIE!”

At this point those evil looks that my group was giving me had turned into some serious laser guided death glares complete with a few hand motions of clenched fists being shaken in my general direction.

What had I done? Why did I bring my group on this adventure experience only to be known as the Youth Pastor who went to camp with 20 kids and returned with maybe half of them? Why couldn’t we have just gone to “Kumbaya Camp” like every one else? I felt so bad, until the guide began his monotone caveat to his previous truth filled monologue of death.

Here’s what he said, and I am so glad he added this next part, not only because it relieved some of the pressure from me, but it became the theme for our week, and for many of our kids, for the rest of their lives…He said…

”You know guys, life isn’t easy, in fact it’s downright dangerous, and too many times in life people set out without knowing the real deal. Today I want you to know the real deal, but you know what, if I stopped there and didn’t tell you the rest of the story what a message of doom that would be. You know God is that way as well, He wants us to know that there are dangers out there, the devil is sneaking around ready to pounce, but if we follow Jesus’ way and obey His commands for our lives, we will experience life in a way that others can only dream of…Today on this rafting trip, I want you to obey the rules, keep alert, trust your equipment and more than anything follow the guide! You see if you follow the guide, you will not only come back alive, you will experience (Insert Crescendo) THE RUSH OF YOUR LIFE!

The Christian life is that way as well, if you keep your eyes on the Guide (Jesus) He will lead you through tough, choppy, class 5, 6, and 7 waters and even though you may not understand it at the time, you will look back on it and realize that He knew what He was doing all along, and was right there with you in your boat…That’s the real deal! Now who wants to go rafting?" (Insert Eruption and mass jubilation from the crowd).

What an incredible day we had...each adventure was introduced in a similar way, and each adventure taught us in vivid fashion what things like, faith, trials, pain, hardship, trust and Salvation are all about.

The guides gave it to us Real, and my group responded, in fact they responded so much, that for the next 12 years or so every single year we took a group to experience the life changing adventure that events like rafting and rappelling afford to those who are willing to obey and follow the lead of the guide.

The guide's message then is still so relevant today...”If you follow the guide, you will not only come back alive, you will experience (Insert Crescendo) THE RUSH OF YOUR LIFE!