Planning With The Future In Mind

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Two of the most incredible events that I’ve had the privilege to be a part of took place at my church the last two weeks. Summer is a tough time to corral elementary age kiddos into event driven programming. It sounds backwards, but the community where I live, many kids spend summers or portions of summers with grandparents or on several vacations. However, there became a growing need to link events together that carried on the highlights of camp, VBS, or any other high impact event. Thus God placed it on my heart to do a specific boys event and a specific girls event – both taking place on different nights, both being highly intentional.

The best part of lock-ins, at least from my memory, were the first three or four hours. After about 10:00 people get tired, bored, or a combination of the two. At our church, we held 3 hour lock-ins that were placed on a Thursday night in the summer, and man oh man were they successful. Perhaps not successful in the way you assume.

The boys lock-in was entirely western themed. Mechanical bull, shooting gallery, roasting marshmallows, a visit from mounted police, cowboy costumes, wild west grub – it was every bit an pioneering spirit event. The crux of the evening was encouraging the young men to live an adventurous life devoted to becoming more like Christ. We talked about Saul and his journey from hatred to love, and how he poured into the life of Timothy. The boys got the message, and they connected it to the theme.

The girls lock-in was quite the opposite. Dubbed “Glitz & Glamour” night, the girls came dressed in their very best, made bracelets, applied their own make-up, took turns in a photobooth, designed tiaras, made toilet paper fashion statements, played a fashionista scavenger hunt, and ate like princesses. Yet it was the “sweet smell of God’s aroma” that was the central theme, that is, God sees inner beauty. It was a sweet event unlike any other I’ve been a part of.

On their own, these events were very fun. They were exciting, relevant, perfectly timed, and well executed, but that’s not how we measured their success.

On both evenings older men and women (some in high school, others grandparents) served the 1st through 6th grade cross-section of our church in a way that they hadn’t had the opportunity to do in quite some time. We saw this, to some degree, at VBS where it was an all-hands-on-deck type of situation. However, this was much more one-on-one, personal, and likely more impactful. The desire to pour into the lives of someone much younger than yourself, and model for them what it means to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord” (Colossians 1:10) was the most successful thing we could have done this summer.

I love still photographs because they allow you time to pause, and briefly contemplate what’s going on in the frame. I’ve stumbled upon frame after frame after frame of photos from these two lock-ins, and the backstory of investment going on whithin them makes my heart joyful. It also has caused me to rethink the other opportunities that might place older Godly men and women in the company of young children. It’s worth it, trust me.

Signs Of Salvation, Are They Thirsty?

Are they thirsty? Important question.

One of the biggest questions I get from parents, as a Children’s Pastor often does, is simply, “How do I know if my child truly made a decision to follow Christ?”. The answer is simple, but often lost on those of us who are desperate to see our children’s lives begin to have eternal, spiritual meaning. One of my favorite websites, Practical Shepherding, has summed up the expectations of new, young believers in five bullet points. They are:

1. Growing affection and need for Jesus and the gospel.

2. Heightened understanding of the truths of Scripture.

3. Increased kindness and selflessness toward siblings.

4. Greater awareness of and distaste for sin.

5. Noticeable desire to obey parents.

That’s a great list. Yes, it’s a specific set of “things”, but ultimately they boil down to one theme – is the Spirit working? I call this thirst. Is there a consistent desire to be more like Christ? Is there a pursuit of valuing His way above any others. This, of course, is the hope we have for each new believer, and the evidence of their salvation.

Parents, don’t look for a moment in time where a child said the right words that point to a clear decision of following Christ and understanding all that entails. Instead, look for the fruit. Do they thirst for Christ?

The Craving That Doesn’t End

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My newborn son, now approaching five months, is a joy. As he grows out of the quiet newborn stage and into the I-want-to-do-more-things phase of life, I can’t help but find humor in his awkward discovery of the world around him. He’s a sweet boy. He’s easy on his parents. Smiles more than he cries. Eats well. Sleeps well. Is loved by everyone. Yet his transitions in life are coming at him full force, and it’s high comedy watching him maneuver through the very early portions of his life.

Upon his first spoonful of horribly bland oatmeal he gave his sister, mother, and father a look of questionable tendencies. “What is this, why are you giving it to me, and where’s my milk,” undoubtedly was spoken in his baby mind. But he semi-swallowed, opened for more, and entertained many additional feedings since.

Then comes the cup. The natural progression of table food eating ends with a healthy swig of water to cleanse the palette. And much like the meal of oats before, his face upon learning to suck was absolutely priceless. I’m glad things like camera phones and camera videos exist, because he’ll want to see the precocious look he gave his family during this moment.

The food. The cup. He’s simply learning to eat. But along with eating also comes a craving. Bound to a schedule very quickly, my son now has a strong desire to eat. And not just the simple compound of vitamins in milk, but oats, pears, peas, water, etc., etc. And sometimes this craving is overwhelming. So much so that he cranks up the vocal chords and tear ducts faster than his parents can open the refrigerator door to prepare his smorgasbord.

Through his craving of food, and messy faced inhalement of nutrition I’ve learned something about myself. What things do I crave?

In 1 Peter we learn a lot of things about who we need to be as people who sincerely follow the God we call all-knowing, all-seeing, in-all, and of-all. We first are commanded to seek holiness, and Peter leads us down the next turn in the path by assuming we’ve surrendered our lives to constantly separating ourselves from the things that separate us from God. Through that, and Peter points this out, we learn to live selfless lives dedicated to others. And that’s not always easy. And the author knows this, and turns a fantastic theological moment into a beautiful word picture.

1 Peter 2:2

Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation.

So if I’m sold out to God, I’m to crave the Bible as something I need rather than something I want or entertain occasionally? Indeed, Peter is telling us to dig deeper into the essential truths found in Scripture. Not only to dig, but to have an unadulterated or pure need for Godly wisdom found in the Bible.

Like my son, I need food. Together, we also crave food. But what things do we crave? For me, it’s Asian noodle dishes. For him it’s the purity of a smushed pear. The reason we crave two vastly different things is because I’ve experienced things outside of the realm of nutrition. My cravings aren’t built on the absolute need to eat for fear that I won’t eat again, but rather because my mind tells me I like rich foods. Something that he’s yet to find out, but likely will soon enough.

I get what Peter is saying here – he wants me to rediscover a pear. The Bible, and thus the things of God, should be absolutely essential to who I am. Not a side dish or a extra helping of mashed potatoes, but the healthy portion of my spiritual diet.

There’s a reason that God intended babies to drink milk when they were born. He knew thar from an early age the makeup of our bodies could be sustained with several ounces of natural nourishment throughout the day. And while we are dependent on our mothers (and fathers as well) to provide us with that dosage of food, we soon begin to wander outside the simple mineral breakdown of vitamins found in milk. We discover new things. New tastes. New spices. New combinations. But it’s important to always be grounded on the foundational structure that milk originally intended.

God is not calling you or me to buy cows, live on farms, and drink nothing but milk. We all know better (unless you buy cows, live on farms, and drink nothing but milk…you win). What he’s asking us to do is to return to the fundamentals of digestion, spiritually speaking. I should find my craving so insatiable that I constantly munch on Scripture. This becomes the food that fuels every step I take through life. It’s my dietary necessity for living life.

Much like my son craves nourishing foods, and to some extent his milk, I too need to crave the God who formed me in his image, and by extension the road map given to me to accomplish his glorification. So skip the Oreos the next time you are at the store.

The Grandest Of Parents

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One of the most endearing qualities of most grandparents is their patience. The things that make we parent’s blood boil, our children’s grandparents find cute. And as parents we find this quality to be most admirable and almost unattainable in most circumstances. But it doesn’t stop there. More senior adults (ages 65+) than ever have embraced technology as a means of communicating with their loved ones – grandchildren included. Where we at one time found distance to be a road black for interaction with our grandparents, we now live in a world where we are more “wired” together than ever. Grandparents will go to any length to connect with their kiddos and grand kiddos.

Back to patience.

Proverbs 25:15 highlights the simplicity of patience as well as its huge impact. “Patience and gentle talk can convince a ruler and overcome any problem.”

Sometimes we, as human beings, like to think that the loudest voice is the most important. Or that get-it-now is the way things get done. I slowly choose to believe that neither one of these is true.

As so beautifully demonstrated by patient grandparents, the lasting impact of endurance and soft voices is felt for generations. Tough less to swallow for me, a parent of two.

For some of us, our grandparents are slowing passing on. But their legacy of patience and endurance will always live on.

Somewhere around the early 90′s I got a new pair of Rollerblades. Mind you, this is when there was one company making these skates, and they were simply called Rollerblades. They were matte black with white and purple laces, and glow-in-the-dark wheels. They were beautifully triumphant attached to my skinny legs.

On the Christmas that I received these skates, I was spending the holidays with my grandparents in snowy Ohio. The home that they lived in had a huge wrap-around style basement that was neatly organized, and thus an incredible fun house of sorts for young children. I laced my skates, tore down the stairs, and skated for hours in that basement.

Never once did my grandparents seem concerned that I was knocking over golf clubs, carefully stacked boxed, and trinkets stowed appropriately for another season.

As I was wrapping up my 1000th trip around that basement, I caught my grandfather watching me from the top of the wooden stairs. Just smiling. He was relishing in my joy. He was focused intently on the sheer fun I was having. I’ll never forget that. Patiently he waited until I was done, and knowing full well I likely made a mess, he encouraged me to skate more.

Let’s learn from our grandest of parents. Learn to be patient, reflective, and tender. It’s the key to grandness.

Social Media – The New Mood Ring

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We’ve all done it. We may not realize we do it, but we do. Middle of the night, and you aren’t feeling well. Maybe it was the bad day you had, or the fight you had with your boss, or that cheesy thing you ate at the new sketchy Mexican restaurant down the street. You sit down, login to Facebook to peruse the tirades, temper tantrums, and tender moments others are having in your own circle of friends. You see that long, rectangular box that contains four simple words heard around the world “What’s On Your Mind”, and you can’t help yourself. You unpack the days activities like they are a duffel bag returning home from a month long trek in the Himalayas. The ins and outs, ups and downs, lefts and rights, spew from within. You get dangerously close to maxing out Facebook post length and you hit enter. Suddenly the world knows your problems. Behold the new age mood ring!

Several years ago even the English royal family suffered a Facebook moody moment when a Buckingham Palace guard had some angry things to say about Kate Middleton. Why did he feel the need to do this? Simple. He was angry. She’s the new princess, he’s the lowly guard, she ignored him out of the 100,000 people in attendance; stuff happens. But he, along with the rest of the largest country in the world (you know, Facebook) have suddenly created a sliding mood scale that can be downright confusing, and often times hurtful.

The original mood ring created by Joshua Reynolds, who was heir to the R.J. Reynolds tobacco fortune, came up with one of the most fad-worthy items of the 70′s – the mood ring. The mood ring really came down to a matter of science. A heat sensitive liquid crystal encased in quartz or glass would bend colors based on body temperature. In theory, your body temperature would indicate what mood you might find yourself in the moment. Yellow meant you were tense while blue meant you were happy. Purple said you were moody, and black equalled depressed. Of course, we all realize that our bodies fluctuate in temperature based on the circadian rhythm of our 24 hour cycle. Body temperature can also elevate when fighting infection, and can decrease during a menstrual cycle (had to get clinical, sorry).

Like the mood ring of the 70′s, Facebook, Twitter, and the other various avenues of social media have become stomping grounds for, well, stomping around. Whatever pops into your mind, regardless of your mood, becomes eternally locked (yes, there is a delete button in some cases) into the timeline of your social circle. Remember that scene in The Social Network where Zuckerberg gets pummeled by his girlfriend, heads home, turns to typepad, and destroys her via his tiny blog? Great example of the moodiness of social networking, but also the great weight it brings.

I’ve learned a thing or two since opening my Facebook and Twitter accounts. I’ve developed rules for myself in these environments. Rules that not only protect my integrity, but keep me from flying off the handle. They are simple, yet useful.

First, I never say anything that can’t be completely understood by everyone who reads it. For instance, I could say “Life, why is it pushing my buttons today?”. Nothing too painful about that statement; except that it leaves minds to wander. Is something wrong with Neal? Is his family okay? Did someone hurt him? It’s a Choose Your Own Adventure style of posting. I’d like to leave a mark in this world with my personal integrity in-tact so I’ll let me yes be a clear yes, and my no be a clear no. Instead I could write, “That DMV is always so busy. Why is that?” So as a general rule, I only post what makes sense to EVERYONE, not a select few.

Second, I choose to pause, and re-read. Not only because of the auto-correct feature that leads to some hilarious and awkward moments, but because I need to think about what I’m communicating. Following step one of being clear, I always double-check my words. Not to necessarily censor myself, but out of consideration of those who have chosen to connect with me in the online world. Earn their respect by writing respectfully.

The mood ring of the 70′s, much like the pet rock, was a fad. People thought they were able to determine peoples moods by looking at a piece of cheap jewelry on their finger, but in reality it was a myth. The digital social world that is now commonplace in society is not a fad, and the lasting impression you leave in these corners says a lot about who you are as a person. So choose to not let these avenues of communication be your personal mood ring. Choose to effectively, and strategically communicate clear, precise, funny, and honest thoughts while under control. You’ll thank me later.

Juicing With Love

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One of my favorite things to do with my daughter is to cook simple meals. Let me preface anything else I’ll say from this point forward with this – I’m not a great cook. As a matter of fact, I’m not a good cook. And it’s not for lack of trying because I have and continue to do so. It’s also not a result of my disinterest in food (I love you Chopped). I can follow a recipe, the food is fine, but the hard truth is that cooking requires heart. It requires love and patience. The best foods on the planet take time to prepare. From Coq au Vin to beef brisket, there’s a healthy dose of long suffering that goes into whipping up a truly great meal. And apparently I don’t posses these qualities. 

And yet, I love cooking with my daughter.

On a recent sick day for my wife (and truly, when mama is sick, ain’t nobody happy), my daughter and I squeezed our way into a juicing situation. As we carefully selected four large oranges, four ripe lemons, four aromatic limes, a cup of sugar, and water I noticed something beautiful. And trust me, it wasn’t the pain in my hands from the manipulating of citrus. Rather, it was my daughter.

Her outward beauty is apparent, but I caught a really quick glimpse of her inward beauty in a way I hadn’t before. As she lovingly handed me each piece of fruit to squeeze into submission she quietly gave them a kiss. Unbeknownst to me at the time, she had heard a relative mention that meals are always prepared with a little love around here. After the aaaaaahhhhhh’s wore off I asked her how long she’d been doing this. Her reply, “Just now”.

Like my daughter’s insistence on placing a little love on each piece of fruit, so is the love we are to show others.

The Bible teaches very simply that we are to love each other. Not because we receive anything in return, but simply because that’s the opposite of who we feel we need to be. Knowing this, we are encouraged (by Paul) in Ephesians 4:2 to do this - “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love”.

It’s hard to love people. Why? Because they are just like us. But with the right perspective and a lot of humility we can accomplish  the goal set forth by the writer of Ephesians. Love isn’t love unless it’s humble, gentle, patience, and consistent. And putting that into practice is exponentially harder than saying it.

Mother Teresa so poignantly pointed out the need for love inside every individual when she said, “The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread”.

Choose today to remember to add a little love in everything that you do.

Blog Redux & Our Interesting World

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Over the last couple of years, I’ve used this space at my personal site to write about sports. While that endeavor was and still is a worthy cause, there’s a vast majority of my life that is spent away from writing about local Oklahoma City hockey teams. For those that aren’t aware, I’m a full time pastor. I serve a local community that is both unique, young, spirited, and curious about life. To bring my pastoring to a sharper focus, I primarily work with young families and young children, thus making my “unique, young, spirited, and curious” comment even more understandable.

Beginning today, this space will be devoted to life. Not necessarily my life, but life in general. One of the greatest blessings of being a full-time pastor is discovering the lack of sameness in every individual you come in contact with. In other words, we are all vastly different. And to me, that’s exciting and worth discussing.

There’s no doubt that I will pull from my life struggles and situations (as I’ll do today) heavily in stories and words written within the confines of this site. I just can’t help myself. But know that the overall arc will be about encouraging you to look at life around you. Pause briefly as you eat your lunch. Step back as you shop for groceries. And most importantly, relish the fact that you live in a world where things are interesting. Yes, sometimes our world seems more ugly than good, but you’ve been given an opportunity to learn from mistakes (including your own), and attempt to make the world a much more enjoyable place.

So enjoy. The posts are coming.