Take Aways

This week I participated in Seth Godin’s #YourTurnChallenge. My goal was to blog everyday (Mon-Sun) here on my site as well as on the challenge’s official Tumblr blog. This is my Day 7 (and final) submission.

The writing prompt for today is: What are you taking away from this challenge?

I’ve been blogging for over 7 years now. I jumped at this challenge not to motivate me to post everyday, or to simply get something going. I said yes to the challenge so I could see just how large my tribe is. I wanted to know I wasn’t alone.

I’ve not been disappointed.

For the longest time, I thought I could take my skills as a writer and turn them into something profitable. I imagined that my writing would impact so many people that folks would trip over themselves to get to me.

I had the wrong mindset. It’s no wonder my imagined “success” never came.

This week, my blog stats have been meager. But I’ve had upwards of 10-20 people share my links. Once upon a time, I would’ve been bummed by the low visit totals; but now, I’m ecstatic that 10-20 people thought enough of some of my posts to share them.

I’m slowly learning it’s not the size of the tribe that matters.

It’s not even how much that tribe supports you.

It’s the fact you have a tribe at all.

I take away gratitude to know I’m not alone in my journey to create things that help provide perspective and meaning. I take away joy in knowing I’m not flying solo when it comes to writing words that inspire or encourage or uplift. I take away humility in knowing that there are members of my tribe who are much better writers than I.

I take away commitment to keep pounding out words that might help one person over the course of a lifetime.

So to all my fellow #YourTurnChallenge authors, thank you for the journey. Thank you for some stunning and insightful blog posts as well as some I truly didn’t understand. Thank you for putting fingers on keys and keeping with it, for sharing your work, for shipping your gifts to the world at large.

If we keep at it, we will eventually change the world for the better.

The Needed Intrusions of Life

There’s currently a man I barely know, kneeling down in the most private area of my home. He’s there by request, installing a toilet. I’m sitting in the kitchen, hiding at my laptop. I can’t bring myself to face him.

First of all, I don’t want to be the hover-client, hanging around while he does his work. Jim’s a certified master plumber, so he knows what the heck he’s doing. Me standing there like an idiot isn’t likely to aid his process.

But the real reason I don’t want to face him is because he’s fixing my toilet. And I don’t mean that in some snotty, he’s-a-laborer-so-I’m-better-than-him way; I mean it in the sense of he’s working in a place that very few people go. He’s getting to see a part of my daily life that even I don’t examine all that much.

We keep our bathrooms clean (well, as clean as you can keep them when you have a 5 year old boy), but when you take a potty apart you’re getting into spaces to which most folks don’t attend. It’s invasive.

Which makes it uncomfortable.

He’s already found several problems we didn’t anticipate, and he’s doing his best to fix them. But the fact that he found them – even though they were hidden from me and not things I could’ve identified or fixed with my limited knowledge – means imperfection was present in my life and I couldn’t discover it on my own.

Which makes me uncomfortable.

It’s a great big metaphor for life, I suppose. We often have to invite people into the most sacred places of our lives and ask them to poke around, if only because they have a perspective different than ours. With a fresh point of view, a different pair of eyes, they see things we wouldn’t know to otherwise look for. They help us solve the problems we didn’t really know we had.

We could choose to keep our heads in the sand, pretend like everything’s okay, and keep chugging along until our metaphorical toilet backs up and spews ugliness all over our lives. But that would just make us dumb.

Sometimes we have to let people in to do what’s necessary. And if that means we hide in the kitchen just to survive, so be it.

The goal is coming out better on the other side.

When Christmas Sucks

This is a repost of a blog I wrote last year. After cruising through my social media feeds this morning, I felt like today was a good day to repost it. Feel free to share.

Sometimes, Christmas sucks.

It’s not a popular sentiment, I know, but I’ve seen a large number of Facebook posts this year decrying the Christmas season. Lots of people, going through difficult times, don’t want cheer spread into their lives, kind of like how I don’t want my neighbor’s leaves spread into my yard. It’s a war on Christmas of a different sort, and I can understand how some of those folks feel.

See, Christmas is the one time out of the year when we’re supposed to think about good things. It’s supposed to be a time when we tell others how much we love them and discover how much we are loved as well. It’s harmony and charity and family and joy – but some people simply don’t have that in their lives.

The wife grieving the loss of her husband. The child struggling to understand the illness of a parent. The suddenly single person sleeping alone in their bed. The family Santa Claus won’t be able to visit.

They are around us, everyday, and we do well to remember them. I’ve been there. There was a time when I didn’t want to see lights on a tree, or hear songs about joy and laughter. There was a time when all I knew was the freshness of my pain; everything else seemed silly.

Some people get angry over stuff like that. They insist that people in pain suck it up and not “ruin things for everyone else.” But here’s a secret, and it’s something that only those who’ve experienced a sad Christmas season know: hurting people don’t want Christmas to go away for everyone else, they just want it to go away for them.

In realizing that, I’m drawn back to something I read in Frederick Buechner’s book, Telling the Truth. Buechner talks about the tragedy of human life, how each of us will go through dark days that make us feel as though all hope is lost. This death of hope is never more profound then during the season of hope, when the disparity between what the grieving feel and what the populace celebrates seems almost unfathomable. And when your world is filled with pain, the last thing you want is a reminder that for other people, life is joy.

I’m not asking anyone to abate their Christmas celebrations. I’m not suggesting you curtail your festivities, or hide your happiness at the fullness of the season. I guess I just wanted to speak for those who, through the pain of life, might not have the energy to speak for themselves. I know how they feel. I know how it stings. I also know that healing comes with time.

If there’s no other comfort to be found during this time of year, the thing that gave me most comfort during the sorrowful Christmases of my past was the knowledge that the celebration going on around me was due to the birth of a small, helpless child. Unlovely, unknown, he came into this world to alleviate our sorrows, not by pushing past them, but by taking them as his own. He lived and died knowing the depth of human pain, feeling the sting of heartbreak within himself.

Christmas heralds the coming of God as the man of sorrow, well acquainted with grief, who would take our sin and sorrow within his own soul so we might be freed from such things.

There is comfort, however small, in that knowledge. Christmas honors the sadness of the broken by revealing the promise of their healing. May God bring those distraught during this season the peace of knowing that truth.

My Struggle Against Grace

ImageThe students at my church, whom I love dearly, whom I would gladly do just about anything for (except for the typical stupid-youth-pastor stuff), have organized multiple benefit events to help my family with medical expenses. No one in my family is deathly ill, as one might think whenever the terms “benefit” and “medical expenses” are used. Rather, we’re just like a lot of American families who are besieged by medical costs in the 21st century: we make it, but just barely.

I’ve not talked about this much at all with anyone other than my wife and couple of close friends, mainly because I am ashamed that the kids believe my family is worthy of such lavish love.

Hello, my name is Jason, and I am a Christian who absolutely struggles with grace.

I am much more comfortable sacrificing. I don’t believe in a salvation that comes from works, but when it comes down to practical things, I’m quicker to work and suffer than I am to bask in unearned favor. Up until a few weeks ago, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate that truth; but now, thanks to the extravagant and beautiful love of a few teenagers, I’m forced to admit that I have a problem with the essential truth of the Gospel.

I’m not good enough, and yet God saved me anyway. And not just saved me, but fills me, indwells me, uses me, and loves me as His own.

To be honest, I like suffering and sacrifice because it makes a good shield against those people who aren’t gracious at all. That sounds stupid, I suppose, but there are people who constantly remind you that they don’t think you’re special, that they don’t see any reason why you should be treated better than they. In reality, their attitude has more to do with their own inherent selfishness than with my undeservedness, but the subtle slings and barbs sting all the same.

Often, people on the road to hell want nothing more than to take you with them. And so I like being able to point to my life and use my works as a defense against those who would want to remind me of my unworthiness.

But when people come alongside you and overwhelm you with love that simply cannot be justified by your life…well, that strips away those defenses. It lays you bare before God and everyone else, and it exposes you for what you are: unworthy. Imperfect. Flawed.

The human response is to either recoil from such love, or to lamely attempt to justify it. I know that’s certainly been the case for me. Before my students put their plan into motion, one of their parents came to me and asked for my permission, told me that if I didn’t offer my blessing, the kids probably wouldn’t go through with it.

I hesitated. The large part of me, the part that knows my flaws and sins and unworthiness, wanted to put and end to it right then. A simple no, and I could go on living my life comfortably uncomfortable. The justifications were plentiful: it’s a down economy; we’re not that bad off; I don’t want the kids getting hurt if people don’t respond the way they might imagine; I don’t want them to feel like they have to do this.

But at my core, in my soul, I felt a conviction that told me I couldn’t say no. That I was going to have to, as my friend Polly Sage put it, suffer in a different way: receiving a love I could never earn or repay. So I gave my blessing. And thus began one of the most powerful struggles of my soul, a statement I don’t make lightly. The only other time I have felt this conflicted was after my daughter, Ruthanne, was stillborn.

In death, most people retreat from you. There is an instinctive notion within the human heart that a person who is grieving needs space, and so people withdraw, leave you alone; they don’t look at your life or question what you do. You are anonymous in grief, and even though your soul and mind might be melting from the white-hot pain and confusion, you learn to find a desirable peace in the solitude. Your foibles and internal flaws remain yours and yours alone.

Life – love – is the opposite. It doesn’t leave you alone, it drags you onstage, warts and all, and proclaims from the top of its lungs that you are special, beloved, worthy. And it’s there, in the spotlight, that you as the object realize fully just how flawed and ugly and worthless you really are. And you feel acutely that the audience can see – if not all, at least some of – those same flaws. You can feel the eyes of judgment on you, even if those eyes are far fewer than your mind tells you. You know the truth, and yet you’re spoken of with such loving terms that you want to believe and run away all at the same time.

Folks, that’s the Gospel in a nutshell. And I’m struggling with it.

I am so blessed to have students who have listened to my incessant cries for the church to be more compassionate, less judgmental, more others-focused, more willing to help the poor and unfortunate. Not just because they are a beautiful picture of the ability of the youth of our world to shine brightly the Light of Christ, but because they are showing me that God’s love is greater, deeper, truer “than tongue or pen could ever tell; it goes beyond the farthest star and reaches to the lowest hell.” I just never expected that they would then turn that love on me.

But no one does. That’s why the persistent cry from the lips of Christ was that “God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever would believe in Him would not die, but gain everlasting life.”

Today, I understand in an entirely different way, not just that God loves me, but that inside of that love are things I cannot comprehend, much less make my peace with. I am stripped naked, shown undone, and yet He still says, “Beloved.” Not because of me, but because that’s just who He is.

The same is true for you.

May you be so blessed as to discover the terror and wonder of that love so deep.

Heroes All Around

Major Walter D. “David” Gray, killed in action on August 8, 2012. A husband, father, and local hero.

Tomorrow afternoon, the family of a hero will pass quietly through the streets of my almost-hometown Loganville, headed towards a memorial service to honor their slain loved one. On the Loganville Patch website, Jeff Allen has written of the community-wide request to line the sidewalks and driveways on Highway 78 with people as a way of saying thank you for Maj. W. David Gray’s service and sacrifice for our country and to support his family in their time of grief.

Next Tuesday, assuming all goes well, another hero will pass quietly through the streets of Latvia, looking to complete a quest that will change the life of a young woman and his own family. If he does so, it will be because our community supported him in his time of need. Kris Parker may be better known for his work as a blogger, fire fighter and youth pastor, but next week he will (God willing) travel to Latvia to assume the role of a superhero and bring his daughter, V, back home.


I have no desire to debate what makes a hero, because I firmly believe that heroism, much like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. What may seem like a small act of kindness to you and me might be an outrageous act of heroism to the beneficiary. You just never know.

So without belaboring the point, I’d like to say thank you to the heroes all around us everyday. Whether you wear a uniform, get written up in the papers, or go about your business minus any fanfare whatsoever, your selflessness on behalf of your fellow men and women is a blessing to us all. You inspire. You heal. You make the often overwhelming miseries of this human life bearable because you give the truest gift of all: the gift of knowing that someone cares.

Kris Parker, with V, is a fire fighter, minister and local hero as well. Let’s help him bring his daughter home from Latvia.

The gift of knowing that, even if only for a second, we matter.

Tomorrow, if you can take the five minutes required to find a parking spot and then walk to the side of 78, you can be a hero to Maj. Gray’s family. You can remind them that the Major wasn’t the only whose sacrifice we will remember and honor. For the few seconds it takes for their caravan to pass by, you can be a hero to a fallen hero’s family.

And if you can spare a couple of minutes to read Kris’ blog, and then spare a couple of dollars via the PayPal link at the bottom, then you can be a hero not only to Kris, but to V as well. She may never know the names of every person who gave her a chance for a family and a life beyond the orphanage walls, but that will not make those anonymous folks any less heroic.

The beauty in both of these opportunities is that we get to turn the traditional hero narrative on its head: instead of the hero saving the community, the community can save the heroes.

Now if only we could all wear capes…