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If you know me at all you know I am a HUGE Christmas fanatic! I love the season, I love the carols, the traditions, being with family, making memories, etc. But this old carol has one verse that beautifully states why I love Christmas so much:

Christ by highest heaven adored

Christ the everlasting Lord

Late in time behold Him come

Offspring of the virgin womb

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see

Hail the incarnate Deity

Pleased as man with men to dwell

Jesus, our Immanuel

I grew up with a deep love for Christmas in my heart. As most, I believed Santa Claus brought gifts and we chased elves around our house who would leave us small presents (a family tradition that goes back FAR before Elf On the Shelf). I love and cherish those memories and I couldn’t wait to have children of my own to continue it on.

But imagining what you will do when you have your own children and actually having children, are two different things.

I have always struggled with telling my children about Santa Claus and the elves. For some of you, you may scoff at this – I could care less b/c this isn’t for you. We have always taught our children the true meaning of Christmas and why we celebrate Christ’s birth. But we have also taught them who Saint Nicholas truly was and why we celebrate him  at the time of Christmas.

I wanted my children to have the same memories and fun at Christmas as I did when I was a kid. But I couldn’t get around the fact that I, their father, was not telling them the truth. I would tell my kids straight up that monsters aren’t real, the Hulk isn’t real, orcs from Lord of the Rings aren’t real – but when they’d ask about Santa I’d dodge the question with a question of my own, “Well what do you think?” Not wanting to tell them the truth, but not wanting to lie. Recently Cadon, my 6 year old, said, “Dad, I wish you’d just tell me!”

After some more thought and reflection, I came to a very simple conclusion: I didn’t want to tell my kids the truth about Santa Claus because I was being selfish. That’s right, my motivations were driven out of selfishness. I wanted to created those memories, I wanted to experience those things with my kids, I, I, I, I I realized I was more concerned about myself than I was about truth.

As a father, I could not allow myself to live another day without being honest and speaking truth to my children. I refuse to lead my family this way, and I had to realize it was my selfishness that was keeping me from leading honestly in this area of Santa and Christmas.

So we sat them down and here is how the conversation went:

1. We asked our kids why we celebrate Christmas: they answered that it’s all about Jesus! (proud dad!)

2. We reaffirmed why we celebrate St Nicholas. That Nicholas was a Bishop of the early church, attended the Council of Nicea (which is the creed we recite as a family each night before they go to bed – that’s right, my 5 & 6 year old can recite the Nicean Creed). That while at the Council of Nicea, tradition says that as Arius was denying the deity of Christ Nicholas punched him in the face! (Go Santa!) That Nicholas was wealthy, and provided for the poor. He gave gifts to children, and even provided a wedding for a poor young woman. I think that’s someone worth teaching our children about at Christmas time that embodies the spirit of the holiday.

3. But we told them, alas, that St. Nicholas died a long time ago. But people liked to tell stories about him. And eventually, over the years, people added a red suit, a sleigh, 8 tiny reindeer, elves, and the North Pole.

4. When we finally reiterated that Santa Claus, Père Noël, Saint Nicholas – was real, but has died, I was not prepared for their response.

Sitting on my lap, my children looked at me and said, “So you and Mama gave us those presents? And the gifts from the elves?” I said, “Yes, we did.” To which they immediately said, “Ok.”

Um…”Ok?” That’s it? I just destroyed Santa Claus and all you say is, “Ok?” I looked at my wife, and we cracked up laughing! I was prepared for tears! But they simple took it at face value. Do you know why? Because I’m their father. And my children trust me to teach them the truth about reality. They trust me – and that is something I wasn’t willing to risk in the future.

Here is our conclusion: We told our kids the truth about Santa, but we also told them that we an still have fun and pretend. The elves will still come – they aren’t real – but that doesn’t mean we have to turn into Christian Scrooges who can’t have fun! I don’t see anything wrong with that now that they know the truth!  It’s one thing to “pretend” when your child is innocent of the truth. But it’s another thing to pretend when they’re in on the inside scoop – and they know the truth.

So there you have it. Why we told our kids the truth about Santa Claus. Christmas is about Christ, veiled in flesh, Immanuel! We all know this without argument. But we also remember a man named Nicholas, who stood up for the person of Christ and realized that his money was not his own and showed his love for Christ through his actions to the poor. That is someone I want my children to emulate. That, is who Santa Claus really is…and I’m proud to say my children know it.

We’ve reached that time of year when Facebook and Instagram are lit up with pictures of kids heading back to school. I always enjoyed the first day of school. New clothes. New shoes. New Trapper Keeper. Seeing your friends after a long summer away. But I also enjoyed school because I’m one of those weird people who actually liked school! 

And maybe you’re not one who liked school, but you like to learn.  Because the new clothes and shoes will wear out pretty quickly and soon kids will be asking, “Why do I need to go to school? I don’t wanna go!” As a parent, what will your answer be? If I may offer a suggestion to you that we share with our kids. Let me begin it with a passage from the Bible:

“…in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” – Colossians 2:2-3

Why do we tell our kids they need to go to school? It’s not so they can get an education so they can get a good job. It’s not so they can get into a good college. It’s not so they can get lots of money one day. It’s not so they can be well respected. Because none of those goals are not the most important thing. You can have a great job, a wonderful college degree, respect from peers and more – but ultimately they don’t provide meaning to life. So why do we tell our kids they need to go to school? 

One reason: To learn and be smart like Jesus.

You see, the more our children grow in knowledge, really, it’s helping them become more like Christ. “In HIM are ALL the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” I want my children to study, I want them to excel, I want them to read, I want them to do their best in school, I want them to be challenged to grow. Why? Not so that they can get a good job one day. But because I know it will help them be more like Jesus. Plain and simple.

So when the time comes in the next few days or weeks when your kids ask, “Why do I need to go to school?” I hope you’ll have a better answer then saying, “Because you need a good job so you can make money.” I hope you’ll provide them with the greatest of reminders, “Son/Daughter, you go to school, so that you can learn, so you can be smart like Jesus.”

I have been thinking about my values the last few months. The powerful thing I’ve learned is that values help to give us focus. They help define what success actually looks like in our lives. What are the defining characteristics of my life? What do I want people to remember me for being? Honest? Loyal? Hard working?

One exercise I came across to help figure out your personal values is to think about the people that had the greatest impact on your life and why you believe that to be the case. In doing so, you may discover characteristics that you find valuable to follow. So I began thinking about people that have impacted my life the most. Interestingly enough, there seems to be one man for each stage of my life. Most of the time we wait till people die to tell how we really feel about them and then what good does that do!? I want to share about these men to whom I am grateful to God for crossing my path with theirs.

1. Greg Cranfield (Younger Years)

The first church I felt like I could call home was Duncan Christian Fellowship in Duncan, OK. I think my family alone made up 1/3 of the church it was so small! But I loved it nonetheless. It was my first experience with Pentecostalism. But I grew to know one man who would dramatically change my life. The pastor, Greg Cranfield. Why did Greg come to my mind first? Well, the first thing is his laugh! There is no other person on this planet I would rather laugh with then Greg Cranfield. It’s so hearty. When he laughs, I can’t help but laugh myself – it’s contagious! It warms my heart and brings joy to my soul.

But more seriously. There were two moments in my younger years that were incredibly difficult for me: one had to do with a girl, the other happened when my parents decided to leave the church. Why did Greg Cranfield change my life? Because he cared. Because he listened. Because he was present. With a warm heart, a kind smile, an open ear, and wisdom from God. He’s one of those people that we all know in our lives, that you love to spend time with just because they are a pure soul. Who’s very presence brings reassurance, comfort, and peace. While we see each other less often these days, I look upon those moments with affection. Who he is, is why he changed my life. And for that, I cannot thank him enough.

2. Scott Morris (Teenage Years)

As the years passed, we became committed to Bethel Assembly of God in Duncan, OK. Soon after we started attending the youth pastors changed, and Scott Morris came in to the role. He is the first, and only, person I can truly say was my youth pastor. Certainly a very close runner up when it comes to people I want to laugh with! And he changed my life.

The first way is how he was willing to trust me with leadership. I started leading worship for our youth group as a junior in high school if memory serves me well. I suppose I can carry a tune, but I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a great singer. When I sing to the Lord, I like to sing loud and probably off key a lot. I remember leading worship, and Scott saying, “Ya know why Mikie leads worship? It’s not because he’s the best singer, it’s because he has a heart of worship!” Hahaha! I still laugh when I think about it. When I look back at that time in my life, his willingness to let me lead, even make mistakes, helped put me on a path to leadership later in life.

The second way he changed my life is one of the best memories I can recall. It was a Sunday school moment. I always prided myself, and often still struggle with this, with being the “answer guy.” And one day he asked, “What keys did Jesus take when he resurrected?” To which I immediately answered, “The keys of death, hell and the grave!” Only for him to reply, “Really? Where in the Bible does it say that?” I immediately turned to Revelation 1:18 where Jesus says, “…And I hold the keys of death and hell.” Hmm…’the grave’ seemed to be missing. Scott Morris changed my life because he taught me to question my beliefs and the things I heard and read. Not in a rebellious fashion that seeks to argue and find fault. But just because someone in authority says something, doesn’t mean it’s true. On that day, I learned to question everything and allow the evidence to lead me where it would. I have never been the same since that day. And for that, I cannot thank Scott Morris enough.

3. Donny Lutrick (College Years)

I wish all people can find a person in their life like I did in Donny Lutrick. He was, and still is, more then just a friend, a coach, a mentor, a leader…on too many occasions to count he was the still small voice of the Holy Spirit being my counselor. For lack of better phrase, I found out more about who I really was through my conversations with Donny Lutrick then I have at any other point in my life. I came to realize that I didn’t have to be who everybody thought I was or wanted me to be. I didn’t have to bow to the pressure to perform the way others thought I should. I could be who God made me to be. I could embrace my personality. I could appreciate what made me unique. Heck, I discovered what my personality even was!

Over the years, under his mentorship, as I look back, I can see chains that were hindering me that were exposed. The proverb “wound of a friend, and not the kiss of an enemy” comes to mind. Short comings I didn’t even know were there, failures in character I’d overlooked, honest evaluation of my life that showed how immature I didn’t know I was. Encouragement to keep going, to study, to learn, to never accept the status quo, to serve others, to rise to the occasion, and to truly love and hold dear Jesus Christ and Him alone.

He has a picture framed on his wall that I saw again just recently while visiting him. It’s a picture of a preacher standing at a pulpit with a Bible in hand, and he is surrounded by the glowing figures of Christ, angels, John the Baptist, Elijah and others. When I think about preaching the scriptures, that image comes to my mind. While Donny Lutrick may be short of stature, he has served as a giant of a man in my life. For that I have not the words of gratitude to express other than to simply say, thank you.

4. Ron Meador (Starting Out Years)

After college I got married to the most amazing woman in the world and we got started in life together. It wasn’t long after we got married that the student pastor position opened at my home church and we were given the opportunity to come serve by the man I will always affectionately call “Pastor.” Ron Meador is a pastor’s pastor. The man who taught me how to preach before I ever set foot at bible college. Certainly he would be the first to admit he isn’t perfect, but when I think of what it means to be a pastor, his life and my experiences with him, scroll through my mind. His calm presence exudes reassurance in times of crisis, his countenance channels the wisdom of God in uncertainty, and his actions demonstrate an unstoppable and unrelenting faith in God.

I learned more about being a pastor by being with him, serving with him, and talking with him then I ever did sitting in a classroom or reading a book. He is, and forever will be, my friend, and a wonderful mentor that gave me an opportunity to serve. That sowed seeds of wisdom, purpose, mission, and love for God into my life. That always had an ‘open door policy’ and would enter my office and sit down just to talk about life. I’ll never forget him telling me, “Junior, people won’t remember the sermons you preached, but they will remember the life you lived.” The only person I’ve ever known who can kneel at an altar, and immediately begin weeping over people who don’t know Christ. I’ll tell you reader, that makes an impact on your life when you witness it. I learned to deal with pain in ministry when people attack you. I learned to deal with doubt. I learned to stand for what was right even when people didn’t like it. He was, and still is, one of the greatest teachers of my life. And for that, I say thank you Pastor. You changed my life.

5. Michael Lepien Sr (All My Years)

What can I possibly say about my dad? He is the greatest man I have ever known. Perfect? No. But perfection is not required to fill that position. In fact, he made lots of mistakes in life, but it was how he dealt with them that showed me how great he was.

Dad’s body died 3 years ago in June of 2011, and my life has never been the same since. I’ve thought about death on a daily basis since then. The sting of death is powerful and will remain until the resurrection when it will finally be defeated. I don’t think about death in a morbid depressive way. But in a way that makes me appreciate every moment of this short breath on planet earth we call ‘life.’

My dad taught me about honor. He taught me how to be a gentleman. He taught me a love for nature! To this day I think may dad could identify every tree, root, bird, and animal we came across.

The reason I have such a high standards for men today, is because of my dad. He set the example. He was a strong rock for my family that grounded any attempt to chase after the wind. He had a short temper, but I never felt unsafe. He wanted to do right by all as best he could. He set the standard for generosity that I have yet to see matched.

After becoming an adult I realized how our personalities were opposite from each other, yet very similar in others. While there were times I felt distant from my dad because of our differing interests, while he never seemed to know exactly how to play with me as a child, he was always there for me. He always did right by me. Always was willing to help me. Always listened. Always taught me. He disciplined me as a child, encouraged and taught me as a teenager, and respected me as a man. What more could I ever ask of him. For that and much more, I cannot thank my dad enough.

These are the 5 men I look upon with great fondness. Men who changed my life for many different reasons and for many more that I haven’t the space to write. Men whose lives I pray I can emulate for the generations that come after me. I pray I have the wisdom to continually discern what they taught me, and that I have the courage to live it out. May we all do the same.

On April 5th of this year I picked up a book I had bought months before. Little did I know how much of an impact it would make on my life. I read it in less than 24 hours. Why? Because I couldn’t put it down! Because it answered a number of questions I didn’t realize I was asking for years as a pastor and leader. It raised issues in my own life I didn’t even know were there. It provided words and direction that filled my heart with inspiration and drive. It gave me the answer to the “How?” question I’d been wondering for years. As a pastor my job description is pretty explicit in the scripture. “Equip the saints for works of service.” Sounds easy right? I was trained and have a four-year degree on how to equip people biblically. I know how to disciple people, teach them how to study the Bible, how to apply the scriptures to their lives, etc. – but it wasn’t until April 5th, 2014 I began to see my purpose as a pastor as much more; I saw my role much more clearly as a leader. I can disciple people without ever equipping them to be leaders. I can encourage people to serve, but am I training them to lead others? I’ve always been told that great leaders “replace themselves.” But what does that really mean and how do I do it? Am I raising, training, and equipping people to lead or am I being, as Jim Collins in Good to Great calls it, “a genius with a thousand helpers?”

It was on April 5th a new path was opened up for me as clear as day. I was like Dorothy being transported from the black and white world of Kansas to the beauty and wonder of Oz in color and full HD. God began stirring a passion and desire in me I haven’t felt since I was young. I knew that my role as a leader, as a pastor, as a Christian, was taking a turn for the better.

On April 5th I came to realize if I wanted to lead others, I had to lead myself. I had to pay the price of leadership and growth. I had to fill my soul with so much inspiration and passion and love for God that it poured out of me in every conversation and in every relationship. If you don’t fill your life you’ll have nothing to give. Thus began a journey of filling my soul. I set a personal goal to read 26 books by the end of 2014. I had no intention of reading 20 in just April and May alone. A few folks have asked me if I’m a speed reader – let me assure you, I am not. I have two jobs that I work from home, take care of three kids, have an amazing marriage, while also being the best housekeeper I can be (which usually fails). When I entered Oz my eyes were opened to all the time wasters of my life. It’s truly unbelievable how much time I was wasting on meaningless things. As a result, I simply stayed focused, hungry, and alert to how I spent my time.

My goal for reading is not so that I can grow myself alone, it is so I can help others grow from the knowledge I gain. Most people will not read like I am. But perhaps from what I have gained it can inspire others to challenge themselves to step up and pay a greater price in ministry and leadership. I thought it would be helpful to pass along what I have been reading and make any recommendations I can. Perhaps something will stick out and you’ll find what you’re looking for. Consider me a simple coffee filter. I will share with you the books I read in April and May, filter out any meaninglessness and provide quick take-aways I have from them. If I get around to it, I’ll post another blog of the books I’ve been reading since. I hope you find something to help inspire you, grow you, and expand your perceptions of God. Many of you have probably read most of these books, but I had never been challenged to do so, so I didn’t! In some respects I felt I was playing catch-up with the rest of you. If you haven’t read these, I hope you find what you’re looking for.

1. Ready, Set Grow (Scott Wilson) 4 StarsImage

This was the book that started me on my journey. It’s based on the 3 year plan Scott Wilson put his staff through in order for them to grow personally as well as to push through the ceiling of growth they’d experienced at the Oaks Fellowship. I felt like a fly on the wall of their staff meetings. A fantastic story that kept me fully engaged. I took the challenges Scott Wilson gave to his staff very personally. A big takeaway for me was that staff members at a church are one of these three, “a worker (who is concerned with to-do lists), an equipper (who is equipping others to lead), or a multiplier (equipping others who are now equipping others). I realized I was a worker and things needed to change. So I took on the challenges his staff came up with, modified them for myself, and took off running.

2. Knowing God (J.I. Packer) 4 Stars

This is an oldie, but a goodie. I have come to understand it’s sort of a foundational Christian classic. It may be a bit difficult for some because of its size. It is definitely one I’d say to buy in hard copy because you’ll want to reference it later. Packer’s first section on what knowing God looks like, what it is, what it is not, is some of the most practical teaching in the book. Wow! I was deeply challenged! One of the other big take-aways I had was how much he describes God’s wrath, jealousy, and judgment. He makes the case that if we fail to understand these, then we can never truly embrace God’s love, mercy, grace, forgiveness, and sacrifice. In our modern culture of grace, grace, grace with very little talk of God’s wrath – it was quite eye opening.

3. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t (Jim Collins) 5 StarsImage

Jim Collins has quickly become one of my favorite authors. This book has been read by most and rightly so. You could write a whole blog just about this one book! But here are a few takeaways. He talks about having a ‘hedgehog concept.’ A hedgehog is basically good at one thing and one thing only: defending itself. So what is the one thing that you can be the best in the world at? Don’t become distracted by something you can’t be the best at. Another takeaway was the flywheel illustration. We look at great people or great companies and ask, “What’s the one big push you did that made you great!?” But it wasn’t just one push. It was a lot of little pushes that slowly built momentum! So don’t give up after a few small pushes. Stay focused and keep pushing.

4. Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? (Seth Godin) 3 Stars

I was a little disappointed with my first Godin book. I found it quite repetitive and full of zing words like “art” – which he didn’t really define until about half way through the book. But I loved his central idea: are you a cog or are you a linchpin? Are you indispensable to your company or organization? What is it that you bring to the table that sets you a part and makes you unique? That was right where I was at when I read this book. If you identify, you’ll love this book!

Image5. Circlemaker: Praying Circles Around Your Biggest Dreams and Greatest Fears (Mark Batterson) 2-3 Stars

I was very disappointed when I read this book. Of course, coming off of greats like Knowing God and Good to Great, Circlemaker lacked a lot of substance for me. Full of Christian cliches and stories, I found it lacking and certainly not the best book on prayer I’ve read. I even questioned some of the premises. That being said, I still would recommend it depending on the person. If you have been a Christian your whole life, and you’re looking for an in-depth study of prayer: skip this one! If you’re struggling with prayer, if you need a shot of encouragement, or you are unfamiliar with prayer: this would be a good start.

6. The Social Church: A Theology of Digital Communication (Justin Wise) 3-4 StarsImage

I really enjoyed this book! In fact, our media team is currently reading it together. The only reason I give it a possible 3-star is because if it’s not something you’re interested in, you probably won’t enjoy it. Justin Wise is a sharp guy when it comes to utilizing social media in the church. If your church is involved in social media (which it ought to be) someone on your staff needs to read this book. A big takeaway was “the medium is the message.” The way we communicate says just as much as the content we communicate. Good stuff!

Image7. Be Our Guest: Perfecting the Art of Customer Service (Disney Institute) 5 Stars

I was given this book years ago, but because I had no context for it, it was irrelevant. I couldn’t put it down now! You might wonder, “What does customer service have to do with church ministry?” Well, do you want greeters to have a smile on their face? Customer Service. Do you think they should open the door for folks as they walk in? Customer service. Are the restrooms easily to find and are they clean? Customer service. Is the temperature of the room comfortable? Customer service. That’s just a start! Yes, customer service matters in churches. I’m not saying it’s the answer to everything, but it may be a start for you and your organization. I highly recommend this book!

8. Coaching Life Changing Small Group Leaders (Bill Donahue) 3 Stars

Buy this book in hard copy. I bought mine digitally and I regret it. In fact I plan to buy it again…in hard copy. There are lots of bullet points and step by step conversations to have with people. It had some really good stuff in it if you are leading small group leaders. However, it’s not the best small group book I’ve read. So if you’re looking for a quick reference guide, this will be the book for you. If you’re looking for a more in-depth look at small groups, stay tuned to a recommendation I’ll make later.

Image9. The Leadership Challenge (James Kouzes & Barry Posner) 5 Stars

This book is like the bible of the leadership world! Not only does it form an incredible foundation for leadership, but it seems everybody quotes it in their own leadership books. lol When everyone else is quoting a single book, you know it’s probably one you need to read. It’s a monster to get through, but it is clearly one of the most comprehensive works on leadership I’ve ever read. Big takeaway was the idea of “Modeling the Way.” The best leaders always model the way for their followers. Leadership is a relationship. A relationship between the leader and the follower. And if you want to be a great leader, you need to become a person worth following.

10. Elijah: A Man of Heroism and Humility (Chuck Swindoll) 5 Stars

What can you say about Church Swindoll? Elijah is an older book I’ve had for a while but never picked up. Swindoll just has a way of walking you through the Bible and drawing out incredible application to everyday life that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Elijah goes before King Ahab of Israel, proclaims it will not rain until he says so, and then…is led out into the wilderness. Oh, and the brook that gives him water there, dries up. Ever felt like God directed you to do something and then the brook dried up? This is a short read, but a very powerful study of the life of Elijah.

I hope you’ve found the information on these first 10 books to be helpful. I’ll add the other ten soon.

I usually like things the way that they are. I’m not a fan of change, as many people are not either. Perhaps it’s not so much ‘change’ I dislike, because often I need to rearrange the furniture in the house because…well, just because! More particularly I am not a fan of trying new things that are untested. For example, when I find something I like, I stick with it and rarely will venture out to try something new.

Going to Sonic? Footlong chili-cheese hotdog, cheese french fries, medium grape slush. (My wife knows what to order if she goes there without even asking.) Go to Bahama Bucks? Baby-grape with creme. Texas Roadhouse? 12oz prime rib, baked potato (everything on it), house salad – extra ranch. You get the idea.

My family and I went to Bahama Bucks a week ago and I thought I would be ‘adventurous!” So instead of grape, I got strawberry daiquiri with creme. I think my dad would be disappointed at my use of the word ‘adventurous.’ I took one bite, and immediately started asking if either of my kids (who both got grape) would like to trade. My son bit on the offer first, but perhaps is a bit like me and wanted to switch back for grape. My daughter, who is more like her mother, took up the offer to try something new and had red lips the rest of the evening because of it.

I just text my wife because she got strawberry cream cheese for the bagels instead of regular cream cheese. I thought, “Okay, I’ll give it a try.” Well…I have half a bagel sitting on a plate in front of me right now as I type this because, you guessed it, I didn’t like this ‘new thing’ that entered my home. I text her and asked about it and she said, “I liked it!” I couldn’t help but laugh and take a moment to be grateful for a wife who is always pushing me to try new things.

The point is this: If we only fixate on what we prefer, then we can miss out on what is better.

I don’t think that God is a stagnate being. Throughout the Bible God is continually revealing new things about Himself, culminating in the person of Jesus Christ. Theologians call this ‘progressive revelation.” But if you are like me, and you are hesitant to try new things, then when God starts to do something new in your life, when He wants to ‘progress you’, you will often be hesitant and even downright resistant to what He is trying to do. That is when growth begins to slow, we become frustrated, and we feel left behind.

I came across a quote the other day while reading Steve Gladden’s book Small Groups with Purpose. He writes, “We would have missed the wave God wanted us to surf.” And the thought hit me, Don’t miss out on the wave God wants you to surf just because you aren’t ready for it.

So maybe God is pushing you to step out and try something new. Sure, it probably won’t be a different flavor snow cone. But whatever it is, step out, trust Him as He encourages you to try, and maybe it’ll be the best wave of your life!

I have said for years that Christians need to know what they believe and why they believe it. We do not have the privilege of living in a culture that is biblically literate, much less one that will stay with you long enough to expound upon a core doctrine of Christianity without getting distracted because they are Instagraming your conversation. So we have to be prepared to not only share what we believe, but why we believe it.

Have you ever thought about that in the context of your own personal life? What things do you stand for? What things make you angry when you hear about them? What things keep you awake at night because you can’t do anything about it? What qualities do you admire in leaders, role models, friends, and family? What character flaws drive you insane to the point that you can’t be around “that person?” Have you ever sat down and thoughtfully worked through your own person core values and principles?

Unless you are super amazing or have been challenged in this area before, chances are you are like me and think, “Huh, I haven’t thought about that before.” I’ve thought about it in terms of an organization, but not really sat down and ask, “What is my life about? What things do I stand for? What qualities do I want to exemplify in my life?”

Before I get into a few tips for doing so, let me first explain why I think this is important for you to do personally. First, we all have core values that we innately live by even if we don’t know it. Have you ever walked into an establishment and immediately thought, “I don’t belong here” or thought “This place is for me!”? It’s probably because there was something there that resinated with you on a subconscious level that you have yet to articulate. But what if you could articulate it? What if you could actually talk with someone about your core values and why you agree or disagree with someone(thing) based upon those values?  

The second reason I think it’s important for you to do so, is for the simple fact if you don’t know what drives you, then you’ll eventually run out of steam. If you put a 17th century person in a modern vehicle and said “Drive!” – how far would they go? That’s right, as far as that tank of gas would get them. Although I’m sure they would slam into the nearest tree before doing so. The problem for them would be that they have no idea that the vehicle requires gasoline to run. That gasoline is like a core value. Similarly, if you don’t know what floats your boat, fills your cup, gets you jiven, energizes you, and likewise what discourages you, bothers you, or keeps you up at night – then how do you ever expect to get where you want to go in life?

When you have clearly articulated your values and core behaviors that you live by, decisions become a lot easier don’t they? Do I take this job or that job? Do I borrow money to buy this item or save up for it? Do I homeschool my kids or put them in public school? Do I break up with this person or are they “the One” for me? Do I forgive them or do I hold a grudge? When you’ve defined your personal core values (and maybe some family values you live by as a family) the foggy waters of decision-making become much clearer.

So how do you do it? Here are a couple ideas that I have found from numerous sources that have helped me:

  1. Think about people that you have looked up to as models throughout your life. What types of behaviors did they engage in that made you want to be like them? What do you remember most about them? If you could sum up aspects of your experience with them what would they be? What did you learn from them? This is a great starting point to find out what qualities and characteristics are valuable to you.
  2. Write a eulogy for yourself. Okay, I realize this sounds quite dark and dreadful. But seriously think about it. What would you want your spouse to say about you if you died? What would you want your kids to say about you? What would friends say about you? I promise this exercise will start bringing into focus your core values and what you want to be remembered for very quickly!
  3. Ask your friends and those closest to you for feedback about your behavior. Ask them questions like: What qualities do I exemplify most often?  What characteristics do I show on a regular basis? Are there areas of my life that you think I need to clean up? Wow! Are you ready to open yourself up to constructive criticism? Are you ready to hear the types of behaviors that shine through in your everyday life? Maybe you will need to do this one very carefully and prepare emotionally for it. You may be disappointed afterward, find fresh direction, or be pleasantly surprised.
  4. Last, and most importantly, take time to pray and reflect. Find a quite place. It’s so easy to be swamped by electronic devices, phone calls, emails, Facebook notifications, and pictures of food that need to be Instagramed – slow down, take time, meditate, reflect, and pray. Ask the Lord to guide your thoughts. Open the scriptures and investigate what qualities Jesus showed that stand out to you. What about other Bible characters that you admire – what values stand out to you that you can adopt for your own life?

I hope that you take time to figure out what your values and core behaviors will be. Why? Because I want you to succeed in doing what God calls you to do. And that becomes more clear as you clarify the values and principles that motivate you to move forward.

I was sitting on the couch watching the rain hit the window, and had the random thought, “If we walked away from our house, set up a high speed camera, how long would it take for it to crumble to the ground and disentagrate back into the earth?”  I wondered what events would take place to bring about its slow destruction?

First, I thought that would be sweet to see!
Second, I wondered if those same events applied to our own lives and how we succeed in life as followers of Christ. I think they do, and here are some ideas:

1. Damaging Events
Imagine a window becoming damaged. Over time, the outside elements begin wearing away at the break until a hole appears. It eventually gets larger and larger and the elements infect the integrity of the houses structure. Mold and fungus grows, insects and animals move in. These damaging events in our lives, are things like weaknesses and predispositions to behave or believe certain things – especially things that are untrue. This damage can be done by relationships that affect our lives – sometimes without us even noticing. These behaviors, beliefs and relationships become destructive to our lives, allowing outside influence to rattle the integrity of our lives.

2. Infestation Events
Infestations are those things that slowly eat away at us on the inside. Imagine what an unattended termite infestation would do to your house? These events are like bitterness, unforgiveness, vengeful thoughts, pride, an unrepentant heart. These are the “termites of our lives.” (Maybe a good soap opera title?) They eat away at the structure of our souls, slowly destroying them. If not dealt with quickly, a kingdom of wickedness can fester in us that can eventually play a major factor in the destruction of our lives. And it often takes place below the surface, unseen by others and even ourselves.

3. Catastrophic Events
These events are huge. They are the tornados, hurricanes, and wild fires that threaten to completely wipe us out in one fell swoop. These catastrophic events can’t be planned or stopped, they just happen, and they are big when they do! These events are things like experiencing the death of a loved one or dear friend, losing your job unexpectedly in a career you’ve had your whole life, having a spouse just up and leave without any word. These events have the potential to wipe us out, and sometimes the only thing we can do to save ourselves is to hide in the storm shelter and wait for it to be over so you can begin to rebuild…maybe in a better location? maybe with stronger materials?

4. Time Events
Everything is subject to disentegration (such a cool word!) and decaying over time. Given enough time the structural integrity of this house will become compromised and it will fall apart and decay – even if none of the previously described events takes place. It might take longer, but it would happen. Events (1) and (2) could happen as a result of (4) taking place like a window becoming weak and cracking (this begins a damaging event), but (4) would happen even if they didn’t. Given enough time, the house would fall apart. The simple fact is that we are unable to remain at a constant level of structural integrity without proper maintenance. Be it our intelligence, generosity, emotional stability, faith/trust, relationship with God, our job, our marriage, our health, our finances – you name it, it applies. Given time, these things fall apart without proper maintenance.

Maintenance is simply the process of keeping something in healthy condition.

Maintenance is rarely, if ever, fun and entertaining. I don’t know anyone who gets excited because a pipe has burst in the wall and now they have to shuck out money and time to repair and maintain their home. I don’t know anyone who gets excited about fixing a broken window. But we all do it. Why? Because we know the results that a lack of maintenance will incur. A home in poor, weak, and unsatisfactory condition.

In your life, what events have occurred that require some time to maintain? To bring it to a healthy condition? Are their internal infestations that have taken root in your life? Some unforgiveness that has festered into downright bitterness and hatred? It may even require some money to maintain. If you need to receive professional help because your emotions are not stable, or your marriage requires some counseling – aren’t those things worth maintaining? Even though disciplines like prayer, Bible study and regular church attendance and service aren’t always glorious and wonderful, isn’t it worth maintaining a healthy relationship with God? What you don’t intentionally set out to maintain and improve, will ultimately grow unhealthy, fall apart, and decay. After enough time, you’d never even know it was there.

I waded through a rough timeline of the time Jesus was crucified today. When we think about the crucifixion and the time Jesus spent on the cross we usually imagine it to be a fairly short time. Nail him to the cross, He dies, put Him in the tomb. Done deal, let’s get ready for Sunday.

 
But by waiting through and actually contemplating the time that our “Scape-goat” spent paying for my sins and yours on a Roman crucifixion beam – it was gut wrenching. To think of the hours that the Logos, the creative/rational/mind of God, by whom, for whom, and through whom all things were made, spent on an old rugged cross – hours and hours feeling the most excruciating pain. No wonder we’re already talking about “Sunday is on it’s way” before the ninth hour even hits.
 
My challenge to you is to stop and reflect on the wonderful thing that Good Friday truly is. 
 
In His book, “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man,” author Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher of communication theory, makes a very profound statement : “The medium is the message.” The medium…is the message. Let me illustrate. In scenario A, I write my wife a wonderfully beautiful love letter and email it to her. In scenario B, I write the same letter with the same words, but instead, I hand write it on paper and lay it on her pillow for her to discover before she goes to bed. The medium (the email/hand written letter) is the message (how much I love my wife). The medium, the way in which I choose to communicate my love to my wife is expressed far far more in a hand written letter, isn’t it? It says as much, if not more, than what is actually on the page! It communicates that I took time, effort and planning to express my love. It demonstrates that I have thought through (because you have to think much more slowly when writing than typing) my words with precision and taken time to actually FEEL what I’m writing and not merely emblaze the message in a Tweet or email at 100 words per minute. The medium is the message.
 
Now translate that to what Christ did today, Good Friday. The medium is the message. God chose to become one of us. Immanuel, oh take a moment to ponder that meaning. To become truly man – to feel emotion, hunger, betrayal, pain, the joys of sitting at a meal with friends, the hardship of work and toil, the anxiety of stress. What does the medium (the Word become flesh to take our curse) say about the message (His great love for us)? Reflect on that today. The way in which God went about fulfilling His plan of salvation says as much as the actual message itself doesn’t it? He didn’t take shortcuts, He didn’t take the easy way out – He took the time, He took the pain, He took the cross – for you and for me.
 
No sin goes unpunished. In a culture that highlights only God’s love but does not also emphasze His wrath and judgement, we cannot hope to grasp how wide and deep and long the love of Christ is without considering the judgement that should have been OURS, but was placed on one who was innocent in every way that we are guilty.
 
So take time to endure Good Friday. Yes, Sunday is coming and I look forward to it! But don’t pass up an opportunity to reflect on the message that is shown us through the medium – Christ become man, to take on the curse of God, for us who were far from Him. 

We live in a society today that has abdicated critical thinking for catch-phrases and slogans. Too often people are more concerned with being right, than thinking through issues and  getting it right. Some of these catch-phrases and slogans are issued almost like punch lines in a dialogue. Like the final punch that KOs the opponent to your view. When it’s dropped, discussion is over! One such phrase is, “Jesus said ‘Don’t judge’ so don’t judge me.” I hear people say this, I see it posted on Twitter and Facebook – and quite honestly I’ve had enough. Let’s use the minds that God has given us and think through this idea of ‘judging’ and whether or not it is something we ought to do.

1. What Does It Mean to Judge?

There are several definitions of the verb ‘judge’:

  • to hear evidence or legal arguments in order to pass judgment
  • to form an opinion or come to a conclusion about something
  • to make an assessment or careful estimate

In a ‘pursuit of pleasure’ society, it’s easy to see why people don’t really like the idea of judging. We are not as interested in the pursuit of virtue (the classical view of ‘happiness’), we are more interested in pursuing things that bring us pleasure. And when someone tells us that our pursuit of pleasure is morally wrong, we don’t like it. Even within the church. Many people do not want other people forming opinions of their behavior and character unless it agrees with and affirms them. But is that what we are supposed to do? Simply affirm everyone’s behavior and agree with whatever everyone wants to do? Let’s look at what Jesus has to say.

2. What Does Jesus Actually Say About Judging?

I am beginning with Jesus and the passage that many like to quote snippets from found in Matthew 7. What is interesting is how often Jesus’ own words are cut off, lines are drawn, and implications are left out. In vs 1 He says, “Do not judge, (which is where people usually stop – but let’s continue) or you will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” 

So the same measure that we form opinions and make careful assessments of others is how it will be measured back to us? That seems about right to me. If you use fair and measured balances in your life, what have you to fear? Let’s continue.

Jesus continues with this illustration, “3 Why do you look at the speck of sawdust (not a very obvious thing) in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye (a very obvious thing)? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Bold-Emphasis Mine)

I don’t know how someone doing an honest reading of the text can walk away and think that Jesus is explicitly instructing us to not judge, period. Which is usually what people mean when they say ‘Don’t judge me.” This would be inconsistent with Jesus Himself, who often judges others: in verse 6 He says ‘do not give dogs what is sacred’ – sounds like a judgement to me. In verse 23 He says, ‘Away from me, you evildoers!” Whoa! Jesus calls the Phoenician woman a ‘dog’ in Mark 7 and he lays into the Pharisees and teachers of the law on nearly every occasion He speaks with them. And what about the clearing of the temple courts? Jesus straight up WHIPS people! Sounds like He made a few judgement calls wouldn’t you agree? Even later the Apostle Paul tells the Church of Corinth to expel someone from the Church in 1 Corinthians 5. Wow…how judgmental of him.

The context of Matthew 7 is not that Jesus is saying don’t judge, period. But rather Jesus is calling us to not judge hypocritically. Notice in verse 4 that Jesus says, ‘and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.’ He’s not saying don’t make judgements, but rather don’t be guilty of the very thing that you are judging another for. He is setting boundaries on how we ought to make judgments. Because he very clearly does not say, “leave the speck in your brothers eye so he won’t be offended.” NO! He says you should take it out – just don’t be guilty of the same thing!

I think an important key to understanding what Jesus is saying here is that we’re always more willing to judge others than to judge ourselves. When we make judgements of others, we’re also judging ourselves. So we must remember to not judge hypocritically, and I believe we should also judge graciously.

3. We All Make Judgments Everyday

When I see or hear someone say, “Don’t judge” I immediately want to ask, “Why are you judging other people for judging!?” It’s self-contradictory to make that statement unless you qualify it. I further want to ask, “If we’re not to judge, then why do we make judgments everyday?” Because if we’re not to judge, period, then how can we say what happened at Sandyhook Elementary School is wrong? How can we say that terrorists flying planes into the towers was wrong? If you say those things were wrong, wow, how judgmental are you? You just judged them and came to an opinion or assessment about their behavior. And you did so on the basis of the moral law God has placed within us all. If you’re a Christian, you did so more explicitly by measuring their lives against the teachings of Scripture. You really shouldn’t be so judgmental.

We make moral judgments every single day don’t we. But nobody stands up and says, ‘You shouldn’t judge that man at Sandyhook” do they? Of course not! I have found that usually saying “Don’t judge” is a way of deflecting the spotlight of truth from our own lives. 

My point here, is that it is inconsistent to say “Don’t judge” when we all make judgments every single day. The only time we usually have a problem with it, is when it involves us, our own behavior, and our own decisions.

4. You Haven’t Experienced What I’ve Experienced

Someone might say, “Well you haven’t experienced what I’ve experienced, so don’t judge me.” Sometimes women who are pro-choice use this type of argument. “You’re not a woman, and if you’re not a woman than you can’t judge this issue.” (Personally, I would further respond to this specific objection by saying, ‘Well, you are not a fetus. But that’s for another time.) 

This is a very strange form of argumentation to me. It’s like saying I have to go home and beat my wife before I can make a moral judgment and tell a man who is beating his wife that what he is doing is wrong. That is no different than saying I have to fly a plane into a building before I can make a moral judgment and say flying planes into buildings to kill innocent people is wrong. Really? Do I really have to experience something before making a careful assessment of it?

See, this is what happens when we abdicate critical thinking for catch-phrases and slogans. We think we find safety behind them, but really, they are just a smoke screen to hide behind and they provide no tangible protection. A small breeze of reason can blow them away.

5. Saying ‘Don’t Judge’ Is, Itself, A Judgment

As I mentioned briefly above, when a person says, “Don’t judge!” what are they doing themselves? They themselves are judging!  That statement doesn’t stand up to it’s own standard. It’s like saying, “All English sentences are false.” Well…is that English sentence false too? You see what I mean?

When people say, “You shouldn’t preach at people.” Well, isn’t that statement preaching at people as well? This is why it is so important for us to think about what we say before we say it. And why, as believers, when we stand up for what is true we don’t need to fear the comments about judging.

Conclusion

So the next time someone tells you, “Don’t judge me” you’ll know how to respond. Not with crass or rudeness or an intellectual eliteness – but with reason and thoughtfulness recognizing that phrases like this are merely smokescreens people throw up to justify their own decisions and behavior. I believe that we ought to be gracious just as God has been gracious to us all. Grace and justice meet at the cross, and Jesus died to endure God’s judgment for us all. None of us are perfect, and that is exactly why we need one another. We need people to help point out the specks of sawdust in our eyes when we miss them. As we live self-examined lives, we need one another to come along side us and with graciousness (and maybe a bit of firmness), to help point out the things we’ve missed. We need others to help point out the dirt pile under the rug that we have swept everything under and don’t want to deal with.

When I’m looking for something, I can walk in a room and it can be right in front of me and yet I can’t see it. My wife walks in, looks at me as if to say, “Are you joking? The vacuum is right in front of you.” How much sense would it be for me to blow up at her for my lack of vision to see what was right in front of me? It wouldn’t. I acknowledge that I missed it, I didn’t see, and then I grab the vacuum and finish cleaning. May we be as gracious as my wife is to me when she sees I clearly looked over something. And may we be willing to admit that we have looked over something in our lives, and move on in the right direction.

I hope you have found this blog post clear and thoughtful. Feel free to make your own judgment. 🙂

This Saturday, June 2nd, will be one year since Dad passed away. Even after a year it still feels so strange to say that he is gone. It feels like yesterday, and yet it feels like 10 years. You can’t help but replay the week leading up to the event. Smoking ribs on Memorial Day with family (both Lepiens & Jones’) present before he and Mom flew out to Mexico. I think about the conversation we had out on the patio about what his wishes were if he didn’t make it back home. I think about Ayla hugging her Papa before going to bed that night – holding on to him for so long it’s as if she intuitively knew that it would be her last. I think about our last hug and words we exchanged when I dropped them off at the airport. That voice and tone saying, “Love ya Son” one last time. I think about the letters that family and friends wrote that I gave to Dad before they left to encourage both he and Mom while they were away. I think about that last day getting updates from Mom on Dad’s condition; walking around on the patio holding my phone while the kids played in their pool. And finally that evening when the final phone call came. I don’t know if those memories will fade over the years, but certainly they are very vivid in my mind this year.

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t miss my dad. The talks, the advice, the laughs, the gun-slinging and explosions. lol The taxidermy, the time wasted looking for tools that he never organized only to find he’d bought 3 more already, the silly grin he’d get on his face when talking about a new gun he wanted, the burst of laughter when wrestling around on the floor with the kids and tickling them till they couldn’t get a laugh out anymore. That famous quick way he’d say, “Howdy” when he saw someone and throwing up the iconic two-fingered ‘Peace’ sign when he was driving away.

I think about the wisdom my dad was given. How he always seemed to have the right words to say for the occasion. He wasn’t the greatest public speaker, but was more of a private counselor who was understanding and could recognize when to simply nod along as you talked with him. I think about all the times I’d pick his brain about life and how he was always willing to share his experience (of course he’d always leave out the funny stories of mischief – that was reserved for Thanksgiving meals while my uncles were present lol). 

He wasn’t perfect. But there was always this sense of honor. This sense of traditional manhood, if you will. Love your God, love your bride, love your children, do what is necessary for your family to succeed, spend time outdoors on personal adventures, appreciate the gifts God has given you and don’t worry about what you don’t possess. Material things are fun, but your family and the memories you make are worth more than what any amount of money can buy. I’m deeply challenged by what Dad once wrote:

A man doesn’t have to be a hard speaking, domineering dictator to be a man. That’s not a man. That’s a very hurt and frightened person. A man is understanding, wise, loving and kind to his wife and children. He doesn’t need to use harsh words to get his point across. Must be flexible to take on blindsides that are unexpected, but also to have a life. An adventure! To keep life in focus, that it’s not all about getting ahead of everyone in the office, to have all the ‘things’ we can get. It’s being able to take off on a camping trip, a road trip to go to the mountains and the wilderness to see the rest of God’s creation meant for us to enjoy. Don’t waste the time being booked up in an office where you can’t get to the outdoors, the wilderness. Sometimes it’s right in your back yard. Spend the time with your family. Remember you have to do memorable things to make memories. Replenish the wilderness experience within you. Commune with our Lord when you get the chance to get out there. It’s okay to do that. Heading out to the mall isn’t it…fulfill this adventure in you…Take one. Weekly, daily if possible. You don’t have to go to Alaska to have one either. Don’t try to make everything you do into an adventure. That will take away from the excitement in it. Try something that’s daring, not stupid. Be smart, be dangerous, take a risk trying new things. That’s part of life. Be a wild man from time to time.

My dad was a good man. He was a faithful man that put God first and his family second. Nothing would keep him from being faithful to us. And it challenges me to do the same. Dad was tough, but he wasn’t so tough that he wouldn’t share his hurts and thoughts. There was never a time I felt more honored then when my dad would seek for my advice. When your own father comes to you, it has a way of impacting you. Realizing that he sees you, not just as a child any longer, but as a peer, as a fellow man. 

On the week of Dad’s passing anniversary I think about my family. I think about the difficulties we’ve faced and I think about the difficulties that are yet before us. But I believe my dad set a good example for us to follow: God first, family second – and then everybody else. That is certainly a model I hope to emulate. Because everybody else may come and go, but your family will be yours forever. Love your family, take care of your family, make memories with your family, heed your family’s advice even if you don’t like it, and enjoy every moment with your family. Be present when you are with them. Don’t let work, or worries, or whatever, cause you to be somewhere else while you are with them. Be present. 

I am encouraged today and this week by Dad’s writing and pray for us that I have only recently read that he wrote in February of 2005. I don’t think he’d mind if I shared it with you today. May it be a prayer you pray for your family:

I pray a blessing over my children and Nancy today. That they would be strong in the Lord and have the doors open and the Lord’s Spirit be upon them and anoint them with boldness, strength, and prosperity and long life. They have been honorable to their parents and respectable. Expand their territory, increase their harvest, their wisdom beyond their age, and their discernment. I bless them with joy unspeakable and full of glory. I bless them with a peace that surpasses all understanding. All that they place their hands to shall be blessed and they shall be respected and held in high honor among their peers. May they never end their hunger for our Lord Jesus Christ and live according to His Word. I love you Stephanie, I love you Michael, I love you Nancy my beautiful wife. You all are my greatest gifts the Lord has blessed me with. Let this be a reminder to you, that I love you all very much, I am very proud of what you all have accomplished already in your lives and for the plans you have for the future. I pray God grants me long life to see all this happen. I would do anything for any one of you, I really would die for you. I hope some day that you would find this and read it. That when you do, if memories return of the good days we had, the laughter and the crying, that a tear would form in your eye in a love that you have for me, that I feel even to this day that I am writing. For it is the ending years of life that its the time we spend together, the making of those memories and the retelling of them all, that really matter. The good times will weigh out the bad times and everything will seem as a fleeting moment passed by. But, life goes on. You all will be blessed. I have professed it before Jesus Christ as the head of this family. You will teach it to your children and your grandchildren even to the fourth generations. Let their be a legacy of this kind passed down that will bring encouragement, laughter, joy and peace to you and your families. To my grandchildren: listen, learn and you will grow strong in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Alpha, the Omega, the First and the Last. The Way, the Truth and the Life. Amen and Amen. I love you all very much.

I am both challenged and warmed by my father’s words and prayer. May you be challenged to pray this way for your own family as I have been. May you be ever present when with your family and make memories that will outlast you. May you grow to appreciate those near you more than you do right now. May you live a life that leaves a legacy that outlasts you, so that when your time comes to leave this world, those that are left will face the future with a challenge in their hearts. And may we all learn to have a bit more adventure in our lives…with, perhaps, a safe explosion here and there. 🙂

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