Saturday, June 25, 2016

Love in 140 Characters

We live in a high paced world. We eat fast food. We drive on highways in fast lanes. We check our calendars and our email at stoplights. We are constantly trying to figure out how to streamline our lives, and as we do, we cram even more into our schedules. We work all day and spend our evenings in front of our televisions and on our smart devices searching for anything to distract us from the troubles of this life.

In the midst of all our busyness, we all are looking for one thing – love. What if we slowed down, backed away from our devices and our agendas, and showed each other the love we all so desperately desire? What if we took a walk with our spouses, played with our kids, met a friend for coffee or invited the family next door over for dinner? What if we picked up the phone and called a family member or a friend just to say hi?

Sometimes, the simplest act of kindness can make someone’s day or even change a person’s life forever. If we have time to babysit our electronics, we have time to impact one soul each day. Love can’t be squeezed into 140 characters, but it begins small. We just have to choose to take small steps towards the things that matter the most. What can you do today to change your world?

“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Heb 10:24-25

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Swimming on Sunday

With the onset of four, Joshua has become increasingly curious about spiritual matters. Recently, he’s been trying to grasp the concept of faith. Often, when I put him to bed, he’ll say, “Daddy, what should we talk about tonight? I know, let’s talk about Jesus!” He then asks me why he can’t see Jesus. I explain to him that Jesus is real even though we can’t see Him, much like our breath is not visible. Sometimes, I do this while blowing air in his face. He then returns the favor by blowing air back in my face!

We’ve also explained to Joshua that there are people in other countries who are not supposed to talk to Jesus or about Jesus. We’ve been praying for a couple in a country where Christians are persecuted for their faith and we have their picture on our refrigerator. Joshua understands that not everyone likes Jesus and he knows some people don’t even believe in God. We’ve also explained that people need to hear about Jesus because He is the best friend anyone could ever have.

One day as we were leaving for church, Joshua saw people at the swimming pool and remarked that they should go to church. He added that they probably didn’t like Jesus. As we were eating lunch at a restaurant after church, he looked at the people in the booth next to us and asked, “Do they like Jesus?” I responded, “Why don’t you ask them?” Suddenly, he leaned towards me and whispered, “You ask them.” Feeling a hesitation, I realized that my four-year son had unwittingly exposed my own reluctancy towards sharing my faith.

So often, I go through my daily routines and other people get pushed into my peripheral. I wonder how many opportunities I miss because I am too consumed with where I’m going and what I’ve got to do. Today, I’m praying God will help me to see the needs around me. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with swimming on Sunday. However, as a Christian, I’m just reminded that no matter where I go, whether it be the pool or elsewhere, I need to keep a fishing pole handy.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes...” Romans 1:16

Saturday, June 11, 2016

What Happened To My America?

When I was a kid, I rarely paid attention to the news unless something monumental was taking place. With this being said, there are a few situations over the years that I can vividly remember. I recall watching a live video feed of the Challenger exploding as I sat in a fourth grade classroom in 1986. I remember when Bill Clinton was accused of a scandal in 1998. I will never forget the day I pulled into work and my boss looked at me and said, “Did you hear about the bombings?” I went inside only to find my fellow employees watching the TV in shock as the Twin Towers fell in New York City.

Our country has always had tragedies and problems, but as I watch the news these days, I wonder if things have gotten worse. Who could have predicted that our flag would become a symbol of disgrace and discrimination in our own nation? Who would have thought that a government once founded on religious freedom would force churches and private schools to violate their beliefs and conscience? Who would have imagined that our own president would publicly mock Christianity?

In this election season, the search for the right leader has become a heated and central issue. Certainly a strong and morally centered president could reroute a nation headed for derailment? The problem isn’t the American people, right? We just haven’t had a leader who “knows what Americans want.” So goes the political ads and debate rhetoric. But maybe the issues in our nation are more deeply rooted? Maybe the solution won’t come from having the ideal leader in Washington?

As a Whale Through a Net
I am convinced that most of our issues in America stem from a cultural shift away from God, and no one leader can change a swelling army of human hearts set against their Creator. Founding father John Adams wrote, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” I am amazed how our leaders are now overriding systems that used to keep our freedoms intact. The Constitution, which used to be our nation’s key road map, has become a suggestive visitor’s guide. Our government and our courts use the Bible as a symbol of truth, but ignore truth contained within. The Home of the Brave and Free is filled with cowards who refuse to stand for the truth, and tyrants who honor power above freedom.

Like many Christians, I am bothered by the current cultural climate. I am upset at the injustice I see in our world and in our government. I am angered by the immorality that is redefining the very fabric of our society. I am worried about our kids, and I wonder what kind of moral storm they will face growing up. I pray that the Holy Spirit will be their lighthouse in a world following the all-consuming compass of self.

Nevertheless, I am reminded that this is not our home. I often wrestle with a desire to make this world a better place. I keep hoping that a garden will miraculously appear in a weed patch and frankly, I’ve wasted a lot of energy trying to pick weeds out of a plot of land filled with rocks. I’ve noticed that I’m not alone. I’ve seen some Christians who seem to have one goal in life of letting everyone on Facebook and beyond know that “this world is a bad place.” I wonder sometimes if we are barking up the wrong tree.

Love and the Truth
America may have changed since I was a kid. What used to be done in secret is celebrated on prime-time television and in the pulpits of some churches. It’s not what some of us are used to. We want the old America back. We want the America where all the sinners kept their sins quiet. We want to live in the allusion that we are in the majority.

As uncomfortable as it may be, I wonder if God is using our country’s moral erosion to separate the true Christian from the masquerading Christian, or as the Bible puts it, the “sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:32). Churches and private schools are being forced to stand with culture or stand against it. Christian businesses are being fined and even shut down for supporting traditional marriage. Students are being disciplined for believing in the existence of God. Terrorists are targeting people who follow Jesus, even here in America. Every individual, from the atheist to the pedophile, is welcomed to have a voice, except for the Christian, who is being pressured to keep quiet and even celebrate what violates the teachings of the Bible.

America may have been founded on Christian principles, but it is in no way a Christian nation. The United States is a melting pot of many ethnicities and religions and Biblical Christianity is becoming less prevalent and less accepted every day. We shouldn’t be surprised if things only get worse. Jesus didn’t say, “In this world, you will be comfortable and will get pats on the back for living a moral life.” And He certainly didn’t say, “Go into all the world and make everyone a conservative.

I do see some benefit in defending our personal and religious freedoms, especially as I am now a father of two young children. I want our kids to be safe and I want them to have the Christian education I had. I want them to be free to worship God and obey the Bible without being harassed or imprisoned. However, I wrestle with this dichotomy of being a light in a dark world and fighting for my freedoms as an American. If I stand publicly for Biblical truth, the world calls me “unloving” and “bigoted.” Regardless, there may be times when I need to refuse to bow down to the idols of this world just as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to worship the statue of the king (Daniel 3:12).

On the other hand, I may choose to remain silent in some situations for the purpose of showing the love and grace of Christ. Paul was everything to every person. He didn’t condone or participate in their sin, but he built relationships with people and met them where they were (I Corinthians 9: 19-23). Jesus spent much of his time hanging out with tax collectors and prostitutes. He broke cultural norms by speaking to the woman at the well and focused on her need for living water instead of on her sin (John 4:1-26). Jesus was at times angered by sin, but his anger was aimed towards the Pharisees and other religious people who claimed to know God, but lived in pride and idolatry (Matthew 23).

Living in the Real World
So often, Christians can hyper-focus on the sin of the world and miss the desperate needs of the world. Jesus came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10) and that should be our goal as well. However, finding a balance between loving the world and holding to the truth can be a challenge. There will always be people who make Christianity look bad and the unbelieving world will do all it can to capitalize on such misrepresentations as to give Christianity a black eye.

The other day, I read an article about a Christian rock musician who recently announced that he was gay. Part of the headline divisively inquired, “Will The Christian World Embrace Him?” The implication seemed to be that Christians are unloving people and don’t accept others with different views or lifestyles. This is a tough stereotype to break because many people equate disagreeing with non-acceptance. This, however, is an absolutely ridiculous argument. I don’t always agree with my kids and I don’t appreciate everything they do, but I love my kids. I don’t agree with every member of my family, but I accept and love my family.

If we are to show Christ’s love to a lost world, we must begin at a grassroots level. It’s critical to build relationships with people we don’t agree with - in our neighborhoods, in our schools and in our churches. Did Jesus agree with the lifestyles of the “sinners” he hung out with? No, but He was somehow able to show them that He loved them. As Christians, we need to pray for guidance from the Holy Spirit. We need God’s help to know how to walk the line between love and truth.

A Few Good Men
Frankly, at the end of the day, politics are a waste of time and our country is no better than any other country on this planet. I’m not suggesting that we should let America waste away. I’m not implying that Christians shouldn’t be involved in politics or run for public office. However, we need to strike a balance between caring for our country and setting our eyes on a higher country. Ultimately, God’s Kingdom is what matters most. Our purpose as Christians isn’t to spend all of our energy pulling weeds in a rock patch. Jesus didn’t call us to reform America and push everyone into a single file line so that everyone looks like he or she is walking the straight and narrow. First, it likely won’t happen and even if it did, God isn’t searching for good Americans. He’s looking for humble men and women who are honest about their own sinful condition and open to their need of a Savior.

This country is a needy place. People are hopeless and lost and are trying to fill the void in their lives. They are searching for peace. They are longing for love. True peace and perfect love won’t come through a new president or new policies. The only solution to our problems as a country and as individuals is a relationship with Jesus.

Forever Remembered
We have been called to be salt and light, but sometimes we need help knowing how to use the saltshaker and where to place the lamps. Will the world see a difference? Will they be drawn to us as crowds were drawn to Jesus? Will we have compassion on the world as Jesus did and see them as sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36)?

As I reflect on news stories of the past, there are some events that I will never forget. These moments made such a lasting impact that I still remember exactly where I was when I first heard the news. What if Christians embraced a dying world as Jesus did? What if we left an unforgettable positive legacy? What if we made such substantial marks in history and in relationships that people could only stop and say but one thing - “That was love.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Come On, Brain!

The brain is an amazing tool. It can multitask. It can compensate for injuries and disabilities. It works while the body is sleeping and keeps the heart beating and the lungs breathing, all the while re-organizing thoughts. It can make decisions based on logic, despite opposing emotions. It can follow emotions regardless of logic. It can learn from mistakes. It can think abstractly. It can imagine possibilities, and it can create.

Nevertheless, there are times when the brain will not cooperate. A person’s will desires one thing while the brain refuses to work, much like an over-exerted muscle or an engine that won’t turn over because of a dead battery. This is especially true for the creative brain searching for new ideas.

Through the years, I’ve gone through phases when I’ve felt exceptionally creative and periods where I’ve felt mentally famished. There have been times when I couldn’t wait to get to the piano or guitar to capture a new song possibility and there have also been moments when I’ve wanted to do nothing but watch movies and eat frozen Snickers bars.

So, what does it take to jump-start a tired and unmotivated creative brain? I’m certainly no expert, but I have discovered some methods that have helped to get my lazy brain off the metaphorical couch.

1. Get the Blood Flowing
A change of scenery often helps to reset my brain or free it from what seems to be a creative dead end. Even a brief trip to the Keurig machine or a short walk outside can provide a missing word or solidify an uncertain musical direction. Some of the most profound thoughts have showed up in the most unlikely places.

2. Be Drastic
Often, the only way to fix a creative idea that isn’t working is to give it a complete overhaul. As an example, I struggled for almost a year with a guitar intro for one of the songs on the new album. Recently, I decided to completely remove the guitar and begin the song with a synth sound and some crazy sound effects. This took the song to a whole new level and I can’t stop listening to that intro!

3. Get Inspired
Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been listening to some great Christian podcasts, particularly one from Ravi Zacharias. Crystal and I also recently watched an eye-opening movie about the life of Christian musician, Rich Mullins. Even though free time is scarce with kids, I am trying to find time to feed my spirit and my brain, both for spiritual nourishment and creative inspiration. It’s no surprise that a well-nourished brain is more focused and productive!

4. Take Advantage of Your Mood
I’ve discovered that there are always things that can be accomplished regardless of my mood. Saturday night, I may feel like plunging headfirst into writing a new song or blog. However, on Monday morning, I may not feel as ambitious, but I may have random thoughts that are worth jotting down. These may very well become part of the content of better-formed ideas down the road. Sometimes, I may simply copy and paste verses into a document for future use or I may just fiddle around with a new sample library to see what kind of sounds I can make. At the bare minimum, brainstorming is a good way to stretch the mind muscle. Life rarely provides the perfect creative environment so it’s good to train the brain to drive on any terrain!

5. Try On Someone Else’s Sneakers
For years, I wrote songs that were solely from my own perspective. Eventually, I decided to experiment with putting others’ feelings to music. This opened up a world of possibilities, especially when I was dry or disoriented emotionally. It also gave me a deeper sensitivity to the world around me and allowed me to bless others by voicing what they were feeling.

6. Be Patient
There is no such thing as a creative fast track. Occasionally, neatly wrapped songs will conveniently fall from the creative vending machine, but usually, great art needs time to marinade in the crockpot for days, weeks or even years. It requires practice, passion and persistence. I’ve learned to never throw in the towel assuming that I am forever out of ideas. A creative person is always a creative person. Typically, I’ve found that creative drought comes when I am unfocused or tired or when I don’t have enough time to dedicate to creating.

7. Let It Go
Not all songs are equal. Some songs are good, some are duds, and occasionally, a song is great. I’m always frustrated when I write a dud song. No matter how much I dress that song up, it still looks like a dud. If it didn’t start out well, it is likely that it will never finish well. If the melody is weak, it’s challenging to force a strong melody into a particular chord progression and tempo. If I’m not passionate about a subject or if I don’t have enough content, it’s hard to come up with something that doesn’t exist (at least in my own mind and heart). Letting one song go may be the first step to writing the song I was hoping to write all along.

8. Rest
A good night sleep can do wonders for the creative brain. There have been times when I’ve wasted hours late at night trying to wrestle a song or lyric idea into submission. In the end, I go to bed frustrated feeling like I wasted my time, only to wake up exhausted the next morning. I’ve learned it’s not worth wandering into the woods if there aren’t any footprints leading you on an adventure.

9. Stay Positive
Creative people can be extremely particular about their art and often their art is tied to their self-esteem. When they are creating, they feel good about themselves. When the creative pool dries up, they can feel unproductive, discouraged and even depressed. For years, I’ve been working to separate my self worth from what I accomplish. At times, it’s felt like I am attempting to cut an avocado in half with my bare hands, but I do feel like I am making progress. I’ve watched many creative and driven people lose their identity and even their will to live after they lose their ability or will to pursue their passion. I don’t want to be one of these people. I’m learning the importance of looking at the big picture. My art may encourage and benefit some people, but at the end of the day, everything I create will be destroyed and forgotten. Keeping an eternal perspective allows me to enjoy things in this life without clinging to them for meaning. It helps me to see that what I do is simply an avenue to relationships and people are what matter the most. The opportunity and ability to create are simply extra blessings that come and go. My ultimate source of joy needs to come from knowing Christ and blessing the people He has put in my life, whether that is through art, words, actions or time.

10. Ask for Help
I’ve certainly been guilty of jumping right into a project without asking God for ideas and direction. I really should be praying before I ever pick up an instrument or boot up my Mac. I do believe that God can inspire the artist as he or she creates, especially if the artist is creating for God’s glory, but that won’t necessarily happen if the artist isn’t seeking God’s guidance. Exodus 31:3-4 reads, “And I have filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works, to work in gold, in silver, in bronze, in cutting jewels for setting, in carving wood, and to work in all manner of workmanship.” God was specifically leading the artists as they worked in the tabernacle. How cool is that! As a Christian, prayer needs to be central to everything I do. God is the one who invented music and language and He is the One who gave man the ability to think, reason and imagine. Who better to ask for the help than the Creator of all things?