“I wanna be a billionaire so freakin’ bad Buy all of the things I never had.” – Billionaire, Bruno Mars
Janet and I are slowly making our way up the West Coast towards Washington state, where our first sojourn begins next month. We’ll be attending a workshop and then working at Delano Bay Christian Camp, getting it ready for summer camps. Along the way, we’re taking long walks on beaches, visiting historic sites, and doing other touristy things that TripAdvisor tells us we can’t miss.
We recently stayed at Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station, southeast of Los Angeles. Before missiles and ammunition are loaded on Navy ships from the Pacific fleet, they are stored here. Surrounded by bunkers and other restricted areas, we were about as heavily protected as RV dwellers can be.
Being movie buffs and in the vicinity of Los Angeles, we signed up for the Warner Brothers Studio Tour followed by the driving tour of celebrity homes. Warner Brothers was amazing…a behind-the-scenes look at how movies and tv shows are made. We toured the Big Bang Theory sets, the massive movie props archive, and the fake outdoor neighborhoods which are transformed into something that looks real. We played Quidditch and rode Batman’s motorcycle against green screens and sat on the Friends’ couch. While passing Kathy Bates’ RV positioned behind a soundstage, I wanted to tell her, “Hey, we live in an RV too!”
Next came the celebrity homes tours. Most celebrities are well off the beaten path, protected by high fences and manned security gates. I suppose they are trying to avoid people like…us. I can’t blame them. Other homes are partially visible at certain angles, or fully visible but off in a distance. As we drove along Mulholland Drive, our tour guide rattled off a who’s who of celebrities…
“To the left is Sacha Cohen’s home…he’s better known as Borat.”
“Over there…Drew Carey’s home.”
“Off to the left and down, along the canyon, that’s where Katy Perry lives.”
“Up on the cliff…way up…with the American Flag flying…that home belongs to Capt. America…Chris Evans.”
“Look down this driveway. Oh, check it out! I think that’s her getting out of her car! Yep, that’s Charlize Theron!” (Upon seeing us, she ducked back into her car until our tour bus departed. That might have been her only chance to meet Fob!)
“Way down there in the valley…the big one…that’s Bruno Mar’s $18M mansion.”
“Up on that ridge, the big one on the left…Gwen Stefani’s mansion…used to be owned by J-Lo.”
“Off to the right…see those big gates? Behind that is the mansion where they tape The Bachelor.”
This list went on and on…Tyler Perry, Adam Levine, Justin Timberlake, Madonna, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore, Warren Beatty, Sting, Justin Bieber, Donald Southerland, Jaclyn Smith, Lucille Ball, Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher, etc. As we drove through Beverly Hills, Bel Air, and other high class neighborhoods, I was struck by the over-the-top luxury and million dollar views. Janet and I discussed what it would be like to live like that…with a personal staff attending to every need and millions of adoring fans. Lush gardens, multi-level swimming pools, luxury cars, fountains…the entire world at your fingertips.
It was impressive, to say the least. For a moment, I got caught up in it. I picked out my home…sorry, Bruno, you gotta move. I imagined living the celebrity lifestyle and having what they have. I’d get a daily massage, for sure. I’d drive a different high-end sports car every day of the week. Or maybe I’d have my chauffer drive me. (I’d probably keep the Honda Fit as a reminder of my humble beginnings.) My personal chef would fix all my favorite meals (OK, so I kinda have that now). My clothes would be designed by Ralph Lauren, rather than Bob Dorsey. No wonder these people are always smiling on the Red Carpet, happy to be alive.
My fantasy celebrity bubble burst towards the end of the tour. Our guide reminded us that things aren’t always as they seem…
“That mansion to the left…that’s where Michael Jackson lived. When he overdosed and died, they took his body by ambulance right through those gates.”
“Behind that hotel over there, the Chateau Marmont…see the bungalow behind it? That’s where John Belushi injected a mixture of cocaine and heroin…it killed him.”
“See that purple awning over there? That’s the Viper Room. River Phoenix died there of a drug overdose. Collapsed on the sidewalk just underneath the awning.”
“Off to the right…the glitzy Beverly Hilton. Fifteen years ago, in room 434, Whitney Houston overdosed and drowned in the bathtub.”
Had we had more time, I suppose we could have morbidly driven by the homes of other celebrities who died tragically…Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Elvis Presley, Amy Winehouse, Anna Nicole Smith, Nicole Brown Simpson, Chris Farley, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Prince, etc. An even longer list would include celebrity families ravaged by divorce, infidelity, and other issues.
I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong with being super wealthy, or that all (or even most) celebrities will overdose on drugs or have messed up families. There are good and decent celebrities…Tom Hanks comes to mind. Many of them give large sums of money to worthwhile causes…a good thing. I’m also not suggesting that normal, middle class people don’t have drug overdoses or messed up families. These problems affect all classes of society.
My point is simply this: be careful who and what you idolize. God doesn’t call us to be rich, famous celebrities. He calls us to be humble servants, taking care of the needs of others. While it’s possible to do both, that’s no easy task. No wonder Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:23) He didn’t say it was impossible…just hard. With so many distractions and so much luxury surrounding you, I can see where it might be hard to find a need for Jesus. With so many adoring fans and so much seemingly going for you, it might be hard to turn your life over to Jesus and let him call the shots.
If you’re not a follower of Jesus, then perhaps you’ll consider the words of a mere mortal who has “been there, done that.” Jim Carrey once commented, “I think everyone should get rich and famous and do everything they dreamed of so they can see it is not the answer.”
“The answer” is not found in an $18 million mansion on Mulholland Drive. The answer comes from Solomon, another rich man, in Ecclesiastes 12:13 – “Now all has been heard, here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.”
The LORD is My Sherpa ~ an aspiring thru-hiker’s perspective on Psalm 23
~ by Sir Fob W. Pot
The LORD is my Sherpa, my Leader, my Model, my Defender and my Protector. He hikes out in front of me, showing me the path to follow to reach the finish line and the crown that awaits. He hikes behind me, nudging and encouraging me to stay focused and to take it one step at a time. He walks beside me, as a friend, and we talk things out, like good friends do. He surrounds me with Trail Angels, both seen and unseen. I don’t want Him on my team; rather, I am on His team…a team that has already defeated Satan and this fallen world.
With Christ as my LORD, I have all that I need and many of the things I want. I trust that I’m better off without some of the things I want, as they might distract me from more godly pursuits. I need to keep my focus on Him, not the temporary trappings of this world.
Each and every evening, there is a safe place to lay my head. I may set up my tent in a green pasture or on a rocky mountaintop. Or perhaps I’ll find myself in a shelter, a hiker hostel, a hotel, a friend’s home, or even the loft of a barn. I may be alone or surrounded by others. It may be snowy, rainy, or sunny. Regardless, without fail, every night I am eventually safe, dry, and warm, and I thank God for that.
God has provided life-giving water. Sometimes the water is fast moving, a place to get good drinking water. Sometimes it is a hot shower, a place to wash my tired, dirty body. Sometimes the waters are calm, a place to fish, soak my feet, or just sit and reflect on this marvelous world He has created. I have been thirsty, but never for long. I have been hungry, but have never run out of food. God sustains me.
Each morning, I’m renewed and restored. I feel the prayers of family and friends that have been lifted up for me and my fellow hikers. I feel a sense of purpose that goes beyond just hiking miles. He has put me on this earth, and this amazing trail, with a mission in mind. Perhaps I can help someone to see that this incredible beauty and amazing design around us is the result not of chance, but the work of an amazing Designer. Perhaps today I can encourage someone with a kind word or good deed. Or maybe today I will be the one needing encouragement. Regardless, God will fill my soul today as only He can.
He leads me on the right, true path, because that path leads to Heaven, my final summit. Katahdin is a goal, a dream, and I hope to get there. But it is an earthly pursuit, with only temporal benefits. If I fail, so be it…most do. But Heaven! Majestic, glorious Heaven! May I always strive to follow His Holy Word, the Bible, as it provides the path, the white blazes if you will, that lead to that final golden summit and an eternity with Him! God’s Word teaches, comforts, instructs, rebukes, and challenges me. May I take its messages to heart and encourage those around me to follow it as well.
Even though I hike in and through some dangerous conditions…lightning storms, heavy rain, freezing temperatures, and searing heat…with bears, snakes, and ticks posing potential trouble, I’m not afraid of ANY of those things. God has my back. He comforts me. He calms me. He protects me. His Holy Spirit lives and moves and works within me. He’ll bring me home to heaven when He is good and ready and not one moment sooner. Even if tragedy were to strike me, do not worry about me, friends. All is well with me and will remain well with me. My future is secure.
There are a few enemies out here on the trail, or at least scoffers, who doubt my faith, reject God’s Word, and on occasion put temptations before me. God is there even then…especially then. He picks me up and dusts me off and forgives me when I fail.
God provides spray to prevent insect bites, ointment for scratches, sunscreen for protection, and bandages for blisters. Like His Word, they must be applied to be effective. I have all that I need, and then some, thanks to God.
As He has watched over me in the past and now on the Appalachian Trail, my hope and assurance is that He will be with me until the very end. I have experienced and benefitted from His goodness my whole life. He has shown mercy to me as a sinner in need of grace. I am sad that Christ so willingly paid my debt, but I am oh so thankful for it. May I show that appreciation in the way I live my life and treat others, even here on the trail.
And some day soon, may Christ return and bring me home, along with other Christians who have staked our hope and future and eternity on Him. We want nothing more or less than to live forever, together, in the home Christ has prepared for us. Come quickly, Lord Jesus!
“He took his stick in his hand and chose for himself five smooth stones from the brook, and put them in the shepherd’s bag which he had, even in his pouch, and his sling was in his hand; and he approached the Philistine.” – 1 Samuel 17:40
We spent our last six weeks in Florida at the Sojourners workshop and then on a sojourn at Mount Dora Christian Academy. The workshop featured a combination of good speakers, singing, a banquet, games, future mission planning/sign-ups, and all-around fellowshipping with a tremendous group of people. Workshops are how Sojourners sharpen the saw, re-energize, and re-connect.
The first highlight of the workshop for me was a visit on my 50th birthday by our youngest son, Kyle, and his fiancé, Laci. The visit was made possible by Dr. Bruce McLarty, the President of Harding University. Bruce was a keynote speaker and banquet speaker at our workshop. His parents were there with us, and he knew that we were there and were Kyle’s parents. So he invited Kyle and Laci to fly in with him on the Harding jet and spend about 24 hours with us. Kyle mentioned to me that he and Laci would have to miss a day of classes. I told him that when you are flying around with the president of the university, that’s probably an excused absence! I really appreciated Dr. McLarty’s thoughtful gesture and can’t imagine a better birthday present. We took full advantage of Kyle and Laci’s visit to show them around the Central Florida Bible Camp campus, go zip-lining, eat German food in Mount Dora, and get updated on the various details of their upcoming wedding. I’m biased, but I think this young Christian couple is going to have a really powerful impact on the world. In many ways they already have.
The second highlight of the workshop involved my upcoming AT thru-hike attempt. As previously blogged about (AT Thru-Hike #3: Julio and “Amber Alert”), I’m using my thru-hike as a way to help our friends, Julio and Amber Colon, adopt a child. A dear sweet lady, who will remain unnamed, approached me at the workshop. She said, “Steve, I read the blog on your friends and I want to help them adopt.” She then handed me a $10 bill and wished me luck. I thanked her and she walked away. A short time later, I learned that she has had some difficult family challenges and is certainly not well-off financially. Suddenly her $10 donation took on increasing significance to me. Mark 12:41-44 came to mind…
“Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
I’m not suggesting our sojourner friend lives in poverty. I am suggesting her $10 was not an insignificant amount to her…she was not giving “out of abundance”. It got me to thinking…I wonder if I should make a personal appeal to these fine people. Asking for money is not something I enjoy doing. I would fail working in a Development office. When my sons were young, it even felt a little awkward watching them sell candles and cookies and things to raise funds for various causes. Still, I felt like these folks should hear about the Colon’s adoption plan in order to decide for themselves whether they were in a position to give. So I addressed the group and made a short appeal. When we went on break, several sojourners made their way over to Janet to donate. Long story short…within 10 minutes, they had pledged $1700 toward the cause! News of their generosity spread, additional donations and pledges have come in, and our total is now at $3673.94… 68% of their $5375 balance! I know of 3 additional pending pledges, and perhaps some others reading this will join in on this worthy cause (if so, contact Janet…703-403-8492). Never underestimate what God can do with a couple of “small copper coins”.
Our sojourn at Mount Dora Christian Academy was a lot of fun. The work included construction, demolition, repairs, painting, pressure washing and cleaning all over the campus and at the school’s thrift store. Lil Jan primarily painted and pressure washed all over campus. In fact, she may have found her sojourners calling with a pressure washer in her hand. I helped remove a fence, replaced damaged patio tiles, painted, and helped Lil Jan with the pressure washing. I may have also sprayed a lizard with a 2700 PSI pressure washer blast. The MDCA team was gracious enough to provide our team breakfast and lunch every day, and we enjoyed getting the chance to interact with the students. In fact, they were impressed with my tongue-twirling abilities and sought me out on campus so that I could show my trick to others who hadn’t seen it.
A final story once again showed God at work. Tonya, one of the house parents at Mount Dora, made our team several delicious breakfasts while we were there. Tonya has a love for God and a love for children that you might expect to find in a house parent at a children’s home. On one occasion, we asked her what was on her wish list (because everyone has one of those). She paused for a moment, because the thing she had in mind was, to quote her, “really big”. I was thinking she might be thinking about a new car or perhaps a Hawaiian vacation. Instead, she said they could really use a picnic table. Yes, a picnic table was her big item. I laughed, because in my mind it’s not that big of an item, quite doable, and well within the capabilities of our team. But to her, it was a big deal, and she gets to decide that. She didn’t have one simply because she hadn’t asked for one…perhaps because she thought it was “too big” of a request. After initially planning to pool our resources and just buy her one, our team instead was made aware of one elsewhere on campus that wasn’t being used and just needed some TLC. So we dried it out, planed it, sanded it, and stained it. It looked as good as new. In fact, it looked better and more solid than the one that was available for purchase. So on our final day there, at our final breakfast with her, our team surprised her with the table and a new large coffee pot. She was thrilled and touched by the gesture. It wasn’t that big of a deal…really, it wasn’t…and yet to her it was.
After the sojourn ended and we were heading north toward South Carolina, Janet got a text from Tonya that I don’t think she’d mind me sharing: “When Daniel (who is 10) came home yesterday and discovered the picnic table, he got all excited and shouted that his teacher had told them to go outside on a picnic table to pray and write in their journals. He said, “Can I go sit at the picnic table and pray?” He went out and I watched him sit down at the picnic table, fold his hands, and start praying! He did it again today! Already put to good use!! Thank you all so much for blessing us!”
God works in mysterious ways. He can turn a few fish into a feast for thousands. He can use a small stone and a brave young man to slay a giant. He can multiply a seemingly modest donation by touching the hearts of those who hear about it. And he can use a simple picnic table to inspire a young man to journal and to pray. Never under-estimated what God can do with the little and simple things in your life. Give him a chance, and he can turn them into something big.
Sometimes the most scenic roads in life are the detours you didn’t mean to take. – Angela N. Blount
August 29, 2015 – Day 8 – Grand Detour, Illinois
Today was supposed to be just an easy travel day for Big Steve and me. There were no attractions to see or agenda items to check off. We simply wanted to get from Huntley, Illinois to Davenport, Iowa to rest up before continuing our journey down the Great River Road. Sometimes God has other plans.
As we traveled through the aptly named little town of Grand Detour, Illinois, Steve noticed a sign for the “John Deere Historic Site”. Being a history buff and fan of unplanned stops, Steve said, “let’s check this out” and went down a side road and into the parking lot. Honestly, I had my doubts. I’m not all that in to tractors, so I thought we should probably pass on this one. That would have been a mistake. Steve would want me to add here…that for the record he was RIGHT in choosing this stop!
We paid a modest entry fee and began a guided tour of the John Deere homestead. It was incredible…what a pleasant surprise. I quickly became aware that John Deere was an actual person, not just the green and yellow tractor we associate with that name. The tour guide had a firm grasp of John Deere’s story, and walked us around the property and through the main house. He went through key events in family history and pointed out several features of the house and its furnishings. It was like stepping back in time. One of my favorite items in the house was a rocking chair. The tour guide explained to us that they used the rocking chair as a way to dry their hair by hanging it over the back of the chair. How creative is that? We then headed over to the original blacksmith’s shop, which is an archaeological dig and historic site. Our guide pointed out the artifacts that had been dug up and their purpose, and then we watched a video of the John Deere story. Three things stood out to me:
1. John Deere didn’t invent or build tractors. In fact, the first Deere tractor prototype didn’t come along until nearly 30 years after his death. He never used any of the fancy green and yellow farm equipment that is associated with his name. The first John Deere tractors were created by his son.
2. John Deere was an innovative problem solver. He noticed that plows that easily cut through soil in the Northeast struggled in the sticky black earth of the Midwest. Farmers had to constantly stop to wipe soil off the plow, which made farming more difficult and less profitable. So John Deere went to work in his blacksmith shop. Through trial and error and perseverance, he built a better plow…a steel one that would easily slice through midwestern soil. That 1837 innovation opened the vast rich prairies to agricultural development and laid the groundwork for what eventually would become the John Deere Company we know today.
3. Most people aren’t familiar with Captain Benjamin Lawrence, but he plays an important role in this story. You see he was the blacksmith who invited 17-year-old John Deere to apprentice in his shop for three years. He taught John the tools of the trade, like sharpening hayforks and rakes, forming and fitting shoes for horses, and later fixing ironwork for stagecoaches. As a result, John Deere became a master of his craft. Later, he himself took in apprentices and taught them the craft. Our society values and honors the “John Deere’s”, and rightly so because their innovations have changed the course of history. But behind every John Deere there is a Benjamin Lawrence who plays an important role in mentoring, shaping, and encouraging future inventors and innovators. We may never become a famous John Deere, but I hope all of us will try to be a Benjamin Lawrence to someone.
Our final stop on the tour was the working blacksmith shop, a recreation of the one John Deere would have used. The blacksmith who gave the blacksmithing demonstration was Rick, who just so happened to be an Air Force veteran. That gave him an instant bond with Steve, and the two of them shared details of their careers using acronyms that only military people can understand. He gave us even more details on John Deere’s life and work as a blacksmith, and then expertly demonstrated how to turn a steel rod into a beautiful, decorative leaf petal. He was really good. In fact, if John Deere hadn’t invented that new plow, I think Rick eventually would have.
As the demonstration came to an end, he asked where we currently worked. We told him we had taken some time off to tour the country by RV, but that we had previously worked at a private Christian school. His ears perked up, a smile came across his face and he said, “So, you’re believers, then?” Steve and I nodded and he then proceeded to roll up his sleeve and proudly show us his cross tattoo. In addition to the military bond, we had identified a bond that goes much deeper…our Christian faith. He said, “hold on for a minute…don’t leave…I’ve got something for you” and then politely waited for the other customers to exit the shop. He went back into blacksmith mode and heated up the steel rod with the leaf petal on the end. After a few more steps, this master craftsman presented me with a beautiful leaf petal pendant, forged in fire. It was really touching. And then he said, “Let me tell you one more blacksmith story.” He then told us the following fictional, but inspiring story, which I have attempted to capture from memory. We hope it blesses you as much as it blessed us…
There was a blacksmith about 2,000 years ago who was working hard in his shop. He had finally begun to make a name for himself in town and had several orders to be filled. This was good news to him and his wife. One day when he was working in his shop a Roman soldier came rushing in and ordered that he stop whatever he was doing and make his order top priority. When the blacksmith asked him what he needed, the soldier said, “three long nails” and commanded that they be ready upon his return. He turned and rushed out of the shop. The blacksmith knew it was in his best interest to do exactly what the soldier had ordered him to do, hoping this might lead to future jobs for the government. The blacksmith was a crafty artisan and nails were not the most intriguing product, but he knew he needed to do his best and have the nails ready when the soldier returned.
The soldier returned shortly and the blacksmith had the nails ready and waiting for him. He came rushing in again and asked for the nails. The blacksmith presented the three nails to him and the soldier grabbed them, threw some change his way, and turned to leave. As the soldier was leaving, the blacksmith said, “Sir, do you mind telling me what you’re making that you only need three nails?” The soldier turned and looked at him and said, “We are crucifying the King of the Jews today, and these are the nails that are needed for his cross.” Then he turned and left.
The blacksmith had heard of this man that people were calling the “King of the Jews” and his special powers, but he wasn’t so sure what he thought about the guy. So he didn’t think much more about the nails, and went back to work on his other orders. A few hours later, the sky went black, the earth began to shake and rocks were split, the temple’s curtain was torn in two, tombs were broken open and dead bodies were raised to life. This certainly got the blacksmith’s attention. He began to think there might be something more to the story of the “King of the Jews”. Maybe he really was who he said he was? He began to feel bad that he had played a part in crucifying this man.
What this blacksmith didn’t understand was that even though he furnished the nails that were used to crucify this man named Jesus, this was all part of a bigger plan…God’s plan. Jesus had to be the ultimate sacrifice for all and the nails were a necessary part of the event. We should all approach the things we do for a living as a means to fulfill God’s plan. We should choose to do whatever we do with all our might and give God the glory for it. He will take our actions and efforts, however small and meager, and work them into his marvelous plan.
We thanked Rick, our new favorite blacksmith, for the story and leaf petal, and then exchanged hugs and got back on the road. As mentioned in the opening quote, sometimes the most scenic roads in life are the detours you didn’t mean to take. Today we took an unplanned detour…a Grand Detour, in fact…and it was the most pleasant and encouraging surprise on our trip thus far. We learned about John Deere, an innovative blacksmith who invented a better plow, founded a company, and changed farming forever. More importantly, we were reminded of a Jewish carpenter who, 2000 years ago, selflessly gave up his own life, and by doing so made redemption possible and changed the course of history.
One of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite movies, Apollo 13, involves a crisis situation with the crew facing dangerously high levels of carbon dioxide. The engineering team is challenged to quickly make the Command Module’s square filter work in the Lunar Module’s round receptacles. Several technicians gather around a table and dump boxes containing the same tools and equipment that the astronauts have on board.
Technician: We’ve got to find a way to make this… [the square CSM LiOH canister]
Technician: fit into the hole for this [the round LEM canister]
Technician: … using nothing but that.
In other words, we’ve got a job we must do, using only the tools and equipment before us. To quote another line from the movie, “Failure is not an option.”
I wonder how often people don’t do things…in fact, they don’t even try doing things, because they believe their perceived inventory of skills, knowledge, and ability is insufficient for the task. I do this far too often. I believe that not enough supplies have been dumped on my table, so I walk away from it, leaving the crew stranded.
In Luke 19 Jesus tells the parable of the ten minas (units of currency). A rich nobleman went on a trip to be crowned as king…a coronation that many of his people feared because they hated him. He gave three of his servants his money to invest while he was away. Two of them followed his instructions, assumed some risk, and earned a good return on his money. They risked not only losing the money, but possibly being harmed by all the people who opposed the nobleman and his pending coronation. The third servant played it safe, refusing to take any risk in investing the money. Specifically, the money was “laid up in a napkin”…safe and secure, but unproductive. When the nobleman returned, he rewarded the two faithful servants who made money for him, and punished the one who played it safe.
The message here seems to be that God (in the parable, Jesus is the nobleman) expects his servants (that’s you and me) to use…even risk…what we’ve been given (talents, abilities, money, resources) to productively serve others. Preserving and protecting our talent, laying it up in a napkin, constitutes failure…and that’s not an option. According to Vincent’s Word Studies, the Greek word used here for napkin… (σουδαρίῳ) … comes from the Latin sudarium … which comes from sudor, or perspiration. In other words, the napkin is a cloth used for wiping off sweat. It’s ironic that the servant who refuses to sweat is using a sweat rag to store and protect (but not invest) his master’s money.
Francis Chan illustrates this idea in a classic balance beam video–see link below. He portrays a gymnast who lays on top of a balance beam, clinching it tightly, throughout the duration of the routine. At the conclusion of the routine, the gymnast carefully steps off the beam and raises his hands in victory, expecting applause from the crowd and big scores from the judges. The gymnast was given a balance beam, a mat to land on, and presumably some talent, but played it safe. No risk was taken…the level of difficulty was zero. He compares this to a Christian who plays it safe, never risking anything for God, and then expecting God to reward the effort. It doesn’t work that way in the Olympics, it didn’t work that way for the servant who took no chances with his boss’s money, and it doesn’t work that way in how we handle our talents and abilities. Whether we’ve been given many talents or perhaps just one, we can’t safely wrap them in a napkin and leave them on the table.
But what about failure? What if we attempt to do something for God and it doesn’t work out? What if the servant loses the money in a bad investment? What if the gymnast attempts a difficult dismount and doesn’t stick the landing? The parable doesn’t specifically address this, but the implication seems to be that God applauds the effort…the attempt…regardless of the outcome. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 3:6, Paul says, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” Paul emphasizes that his job, Apollos’ job, and by extension our job, is to make a good-faith effort…to try…and then to leave the results up to God. God wants us to take however little or much we’ve been given and do something with it…to take some risks in serving Him.
Fortunately for the astronauts on Apollo 13, the NASA engineers didn’t step away from the table due to a lack of tools and equipment. They aggressively worked the problem and took risks, with no certainty that their gizmo would connect the square canister to the round receptacle. Fortunately, the procedure worked, the carbon dioxide levels dropped, and the astronauts ultimately survived. Had the procedure failed and the astronauts died, at least the engineers could have looked their next of kin in the eye and said, “We tried. We gave it our all.”
Your talent may be teaching a class, or singing, or encouraging someone in a hospital. Perhaps you have accounting skills to help someone with taxes, or plumbing skills to fix a leak, or counseling skills to help someone get through a tough time. Maybe you can cook a meal for a funeral, or for a family in need. Maybe you’ve got money in the bank to share, or a home that could host a visiting missionary or a youth group event. Whatever your talent is, whatever God has placed on your table…be it one thing or many…put it to use! Don’t lament the fact that you used to have more tools on the table when you were younger and more vibrant. Don’t delay action because you’re young and “someday” you’ll have more tools and talents at your disposal. Use whatever talent or resource God has given you and take some chances with it. Work diligently, do your best, and leave nothing on the table. When you are finished, use the napkin for its intended purpose, to wipe your brow. As Francis Chan once said, “Don’t get to the end of your life and have God say, ‘Why’d you play it safe? Why didn’t you take any chances for me?'”
– Big Steve
Francis Chan’s Balance Beam video link… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LA_uwWPE6lQ
On our journeys down long stretches of road, Lil Jan and I sometimes pass the time by playing “3 Questions”. We ask each other three questions, with the goal being to learn something about the person not already known. When you’ve been married 27 years, this is no easy task.
We recently traveled to our alma mater, David Lipscomb University, to attend Summer Celebration…previously known as the Lipscomb Lectures. It involves three days of praising God, hearing great speakers, attending Bible classes, and fellowshipping with other Christians. There’s also a variety of concerts, games, food, and merchandise, along with early morning yoga, fireworks, prayer sessions, and the showing of not-yet-released Christian movies. I will have more to say about what we learned there in a future blog.
On our journey to Lipscomb, Lil Jan was put in time-out by Candy Crush and decided to launch a round of 3 Questions. One of her questions to me was, “If you could meet any living person and talk to him or her, who would it be?” This should have been a softball of a question given the 7 billion people alive on Planet Earth today. But I struggled with it. In my mind, I changed the question to, “Who are the greatest people living in the world today?” I then rationally came up with some categories to think through this question (because that’s what ENTJs do). I’m sure there are some great living scientists and researchers out there, and I would like to think one of them is on the verge of the next great scientific discovery. But sadly, I couldn’t think of any of their names. I thought of the greatest sports stars and imagined what it would be like to meet and talk to them.
Big Steve: “Hey, Lebron, I can’t tell you how excited I am to meet you!”
Lebron: “Hey, what’s up?”
Big Steve: “My son, Kyle, loves you. He defended you even after the disastrous TV special, The Decision, where you announced your intentions to sign with the Heat. Can I have your autograph?”
Lebron: “Sure. You play any ball?”
Big Steve: “I made the All-Star team in 5th grade at Reily Brown Elementary School in Dover, Delaware. I started at forward and scored 4 points per game. Then I moved on to Caesar Rodney Junior High but didn’t make the basketball team. According to the coach, apparently I was “not good enough” and “lacked skills” and should consider “focusing on academics”. More recently I played a time or two at the school playground with church friends, but had trouble posting up Cliff Latimore.”
Lebron: “That’s a lot of information, perhaps too much. Where do you live now?”
Big Steve: “In a van down by the river.”
Lebron: “Sorry, bro, times are tough.”
My imagined conversations with other “great” people…Bill Gates, Sting, and Tony Romo…turned out just as awkwardly. Actually, the people I most want to meet…the Lewises (C.S. and Meriwether), Steve Jobs, Ronald Reagan, and various biblical characters…are already dead (like our dog, Mandy…moment of silence). I ended up passing on Janet’s question, which felt like striking out in softball.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time at Lipscomb…running into old friends, marveling at how the campus had changed, and reminiscing on our time there two-plus decades earlier. But the highlight for me was on Thursday night, when keynote speaker Dr. Kent Brantly took the stage with Randy Harris to present their thoughts on Revelation 6-11.
Dr. Brantly is impressive in every sense of the word. He had the willpower, intelligence, and dedication to become a medical doctor. More importantly, he has a heart that called him to use his medical training to serve those in the worst situations and conditions. I’m not sure there is a greater medical need or more desperate situation than what is faced by suffering Ebola patients in West Africa. During my military career, there was a common expression that we were expected to “Run to the Sound of the Guns”. Although the natural response is to run away from gunfire, or to remain in your foxhole, we were held to a higher standard. We, like first responders, were expected to leverage our training and courage and run toward trouble…in order to do something about it. I suspect Dr. Brantly’s training, courage, servant heart, and love for God called him to run to the sound of the guns…a poverty-stricken, dangerous part of the world full of suffering people whose very lives are on the line. Dr. Brantly answered the call and served faithfully. He saved lives and changed lives. And then he contracted the Ebola virus himself and nearly died from it. God heard the prayers of many and spared Kent Brantly’s life. Since then, Kent has prayed at the National Prayer Breakfast, spoken to the President, Congress and at various other forums, and been named (along with other Ebola-fighting doctors) Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. Dr. Brantly didn’t become a hero by contracting the virus, surviving the virus, or winning an award. He became a hero the moment he decided to risk his life and focus his considerable talent and energy on serving the less fortunate.
In Mark 10, James and John let their egos get the best of them and asked Jesus if they could sit at his left and right in heaven. Their jockeying for status and prominence upset their fellow apostles, and probably broke Jesus’ heart since he had just explained to them that he was about to be mocked, spit on, flogged, and killed. Rather than rebuke them, Jesus used the situation as a teaching moment. In verses 43-45, he says, “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Similarly, in Luke 9 we have an argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Jesus responded by placing a little child beside them and saying, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.” In both instances, Jesus reminds them that greatness is not about status, popularity, wealth, or any of the other things that society values. Rather, greatness is a designation reserved for those who serve others.
When Dr. Brantly took the stage, he spoke about his experiences in Africa and related them to the text in Revelation. He made a lot of great points. Allow me to paraphrase a few of them…
1. As Christians, we shouldn’t pretend to have all the answers. We don’t. We can explain some things, but we can’t explain everything. We can tell people the future…you’re going to get old, and sick, and then die…if you’re lucky. That’s an appointment we all will keep.
2. Revelation teaches us that God’s people…Christians…ultimately win because God has already defeated Satan. However, that doesn’t mean Christians (and others) won’t experience hard times and suffering while here on the earth. In fact, we should expect difficulty and suffering. Kent knew his time in Africa would be difficult, and he closely identifies with Paul’s sufferings discussed in 2 Corinthians 11. In Africa the locals believe Ebola to be a curse. In a sense they are right because we live in a world which is cursed, as a result of what went down in the Garden of Eden.
3. The low point in Revelation occurs in chapter 11. The powerful, faithful witnesses of the Lord are destroyed, and their enemies gloat over their dead bodies and refuse to bury them (see verses 1-10). Sounds pretty desperate for the faithful, but you have to keep reading. Starting in verse 11, “But after the three and a half days the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here.” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on. At that very hour there was a severe earthquake and a tenth of the city collapsed. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the survivors were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.” So, yes, being a Christian…God’s witness…doesn’t mean everything will be okay in the here and now. We are surrounded by chaos. But the happiest of endings awaits those who remain faithful, even in the face of suffering and chaos.
4. We are called to bear witness and have hope in God in the face of chaos. Kent’s hope didn’t magically make any of his patients recover. Rather, his hope is in a God who is who he says he is and who will do what he says he will do. He will one day set everything right. God indeed reigns, not through technology or political majority or Supreme Court decisions, but through and as a slaughtered Lamb (Revelation 5:5-6). Powerful words, my friends.
After the program ended, Lipscomb sponsored an alumni reception and Janet and I had the wonderful privilege to meet Dr. Brantly. He was kind, unassuming, and humble. He told me that his wife would love to travel the country in an RV like Janet and I are doing. He had no “handlers” and no entourage. He is just a quiet, introspective, normal guy. But make no mistake, he is a “great” guy. I know that not because of the things Kent said to the audience or to me that evening, but by the way Kent chooses to live his life. I know that because of the words Jesus gave to his apostles in Mark 10 and Luke 9. Knowing Kent the little that I do, I suspect he would want any talk of “greatness” directed not toward himself, but rather toward the God that created and sustains him. So, we praise God for Kent and for everything that God has done through Kent.
I look forward to future rounds of “3 Questions” with Lil Jan. And next time around, I hope she will give me another shot at the question concerning a great living person I’d like to meet. If she does, I will answer, “I already met him, and his name is Dr. Kent Brantly.”
One of the benefits of full-time RVing is getting to worship God in a variety of settings and getting to hear God’s Word preached from many different perspectives. We also get to see the unique, creative, and innovative ways that different congregations accomplish the different elements of organized worship. We hope to occasionally share some “best practices” along with inspirational, challenging, or otherwise helpful lessons that we come across on our journey.
On June 14th we worshipped with the church of Christ at Cedar Lane in Tullahoma, TN. Steven Hovater, their preacher, spoke that morning about 45 ways to enhance the worship experience. Ideally, worshipping God would always be inspiring and meaningful…and we’d always give it our all. But, like everything else in life, it’s possible to sometimes lose our focus a bit and begin going through the motions. What should be inherently inspiring can become routine.
Here, then, are 45 ways to give your organized worship a booster shot. Some are more useful than others. Some you’ll reject outright. But hopefully a few of Brother Hovater’s suggestions, as paraphrased below, will be helpful.
Come with a listening spirit. Have ears ready to hear what will be offered from Scripture. Have an attitude that God is about to communicate something important to me and I need to be listening for it.
Come early. Give yourself time to settle in and prepare for what is about to happen. Rushing in at the last minute or arriving late sends the wrong message.
Stay late. Give your conversation with people time to breathe. Have more to say than “hi” and “good to see you”.
Unplug. Leave your phone at home or turn it off. You can check the news and weather and send texts when you are through.
Plug-in. Yes, this contradicts #4; but, rather than be distracted by technology, use it to engage others. Tweet/Facebook/Instagram things that thoughtfully struck you about the service/lesson.
Move. Sit closer to the front or further back, or on a different side of the building. This will help you to meet new people and have a different vantage point of the service.
Sleep well/long the night before. Come rested and ready to worship.
Expand your scope. Think about other Scriptures, Bible stories, and songs that might support the lesson theme.
Receive a song. Don’t sing a song, but let the family sing it to you. Hear their hearts. (Of course, don’t do this for every song!)
Turn up the volume. Sing louder than you are comfortable. This encourages others around you to sing out.
Be hospitable. Welcome people, especially visitors, like they are guests in your home.
Read ahead. Meditate on the sermon text (possibly found in the bulletin) or some other Scripture before worship begins.
Take notes. Take notes about everything, not just the lesson…communion devotional, favorite song, prayer list, etc. Writing in general helps disentangle our thoughts.
Be physical. Worship with your body. Consider your posture.
Stretch. Intentionally wake your body for worship beforehand. Get the blood flowing.
Talk in church. If a particular song or sermon point or something else had an impact on you, lean over and share that with your neighbor. This doesn’t mean carrying on a 20-minute conversation.
Talk back. Appropriate responses at the appropriate time (Amen, Yes, Alright, That’s right, Come on, etc.) Most preachers appreciate the feedback and encouragement.
Pray for God’s Spirit to work. Pray for yourself and pray for others that have heard the lesson. Pray that you or someone else will be touched by the service in some way.
Smile at children. Learn their names. Help them know that this place is home to them; that they belong here.
Write at least one thing down. Something significant about the sermon, a song, communion, or a conversation you had. What’s the one biggest thing you took away from this experience?
Don’t be a critic. Worship is not the movies, not a show to be judged or rated. We are there to worship God, not be entertained.
Sing to someone. Give the song to someone else. Think about someone else as you are singing a song.
Sing the words. Pronounce the words; understand the words. Don’t just regurgitate lyrics.
Fast. The huge breakfast just prior to worship may not always be the best approach.
Sketch. Capture something meaningful with an image.
Commune with intent. Seriously think about each aspect of the communion with the Lord and the worship service.
Attend to the absent. Notice who wasn’t present. Send them a card or call them to let them know they were missed. Give them a short synopsis of the sermon.
Debrief. Talk about the service and lessons learned with others (not critically). Ask your spouse or children what was the most important thing they learned.
Practice. If there was a song you didn’t know, work on it throughout the week.
Recreate the text in your memory. Try to write down or verbalize what the main Scripture reference was word for word. Then decide what’s missing that you didn’t recall.
See anew. Enter the worship assembly as if it was your first time to worship God. Reflect for a moment on what it means to be in the presence of God.
Pick a hymn. Take one of the hymns that was sung and sing it throughout the week.
Pre-pray the order of worship. When you arrive, look over the bulletin worship schedule and pray for those presiding.
Seek the Lord. Think about how God has been revealed through the worship. As you depart, ask yourself, “Where did I see/feel God today?”
Free your worship tone. Allow your worship to have a range of emotions (laugh, cry, reflect, nostalgic, etc.)
Surrender. Come in and allow the lesson or worship experience to create problems in your life. Let it convict you of something awry in your life.
Explore the places of worship. Think about each act of worship and its significance.
Shift perspective. Worship with someone else’s mindset. How might my son/mother/friend be receiving this message?
Consider God’s character. Encounter a God who is love.
Own worship. Don’t let somebody else worship for you. Don’t think worship is just for those leading the worship service.
Keep a worship journal. How is worship shaping you?
Connect the dots. How is today’s worship service connected to your past, present and future?
Prepare to be prepared. Become malleable. Allow the worship experience to change you.
Accept the sending. Imagine each week is your missionary send-off.
Fully engage. Leave all outside thoughts at the door and fully focus on what is happening.
We are called to worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). We hope you can find a few items on this list to enhance your worship experience. If you have additional suggestions, please post them in the comments section.
One thing that derails some well-intentioned Bible study programs is a focus on quantity (reading the entire Bible in one year) rather than quality (doing a “deep dive” on a particular story or a specific verse). Both approaches are beneficial, but lately I seem to get more out of going in-depth on specific stories or verses.
One verse that has meant a lot to me this year is Ephesians 2:10, which reads “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” I’ve always liked this verse, but after studying it in more detail, it now amazes me. Meditating on it has changed my life. God’s word has a way of doing that. So let’s take a closer look at the words God, through Paul, had to say to the church at Ephesus, and to you and me…
We are God’s handiwork… Some translations use workmanship in place of handiwork, and the Greek word used here is poíēma which means “that which is made” or “workmanship”. The idea here is of an artisan designing and creating a product. It is from the Greek word poíēma that we get the English word poem. So when God created mankind…when God created you…he was a poet writing his very best poem, a sculptor creating his very best sculpture, and a painter painting his life’s masterpiece. Let that sink in for a minute. The creator of the universe…the all-knowing and all-powerful entity that created everything…was at the top of his game when he created you. Ever struggle with self-esteem? Remember that you are God’s handiwork. Feel like you are not up to the task before you? Remember that you are God’s masterpiece, made in his own image (Genesis 1:27). It’s no wonder that when God looked over all that he had made, including man, he knew that it was very good (Genesis 1:30). I hope that makes you hold your head a little higher and walk with a little more confidence in your step. You’re not patting yourself on the back; rather, you’re giving God all the credit for having written such a beautiful poem when he wrote you into existence.
Someone may ask, “But what about the sorry state of mankind? What about all the crime and corruption and hate in the world? What about all the people who live a life that sure doesn’t look like the masterpiece of an all-powerful Creator?” Those are fair questions. I guess my first thought is that some choose not to become Christians, but instead remain in their old selves. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” Those who are in Christ, then, seem to have ripped the packaging off the product and are daily being transformed into the full masterpiece that God intended. That’s simply not going to happen if you haven’t turned your life over to God. My other thought is that some masterpieces never reach their full potential. Someone can sell an old painting for $5 at a garage sale, not realizing that it’s a famous work of Picasso. Someone can allow an original Shakespearean manuscript to crumble away by not properly preserving it. There is no telling what masterpieces waste away through indifference and neglect in attics around the globe. That doesn’t change the fact that they started out as masterpieces with great potential for good. It’s also possible that, with a little effort, a neglected masterpiece could be cleaned and restored to its original, wonderful condition (in the spiritual sense, a process called repentance). Regardless of what condition you and I are in, at our core we are something amazing created by God.
Created in Christ Jesus to do good works… So why would God create his masterpiece known as mankind? Why do you and I exist? What’s our mission? The answer is simple…to do good works. Our purpose is not to accumulate money, although money can be used for good works. Our mission is not to attain high-ranking positions in a profession, although those positions might give us a larger platform from which to do good works. We are not here to be the most talented or best looking or to die with the most toys. Our mission, rather, is to do good works. As Christians, we don’t do this to get saved, to somehow earn our salvation. Rather, we do good works because we are saved. These works are the natural outpouring of someone who realizes what God has done for them. If you miss that point, you miss everything. As God’s handiwork, you and I were uniquely and wonderfully created to do good works, both big and small. Your good work might be helping a stranger fix a flat tire. Or perhaps it’s building a house for a poor family in Honduras. Or maybe God needs you to mentor a troubled teenager, or buy Christmas presents for a family that has none, or build a well or a clinic for a poor village in Haiti. Or perhaps your mission is to spend time with a loved one dying from cancer, and to encourage her worn-out, caregiving husband. No matter how big or small the work, it all matters. It all counts. And God gets all the glory, because he made you, his masterpiece, with the skills and abilities to accomplish these good works of service. So, we’ve established what you are…a masterpiece…and we’ve covered why you’re here…to do good works.
Which God prepared in advance for us to do… This is where things really get interesting. Because all those good works we just mentioned, along with all the ones not mentioned, were put there by God with our name on them. Let that sink in for a moment. Before you were even born, God had in mind some good works for you to do 10, 20, 30, or even 70 years later. There is something God wants me to do later today that I don’t even know about yet. But God has prepared it for me to do. When that moment comes, it won’t be by chance or luck. God is intentional, not random. I no longer believe random stuff happens. Even when bad things happen, based on our poor choices or natural disasters or whatever, God is right there preparing the opportunities for good works that will follow. The question, then, is whether we will seize the opportunity and accomplish the good work prepared by God in advance for us to do, or will pass on the opportunity with some lame excuse like we’re not good enough, or someone else will surely do it.
Several years ago some missionaries headed out into the Honduran countryside to bring a bus full of food to a women’s prison. Their driver ended up getting lost, and the team ended up on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. At the end of that dirt road in Nowhere, Honduras was an orphanage called Didasko that had literally just run out of food. In fact, the director had just said a prayer asking God to work a miracle as they had run out of food along with the money to buy more food. The bus pulled up, the missionaries distributed the food, God answered the prayer, and missionaries (including Lil Jan and myself) have been going there ever since. It’s a great story, but I don’t believe chance or luck or randomness were involved. Rather, God was very intentionally at work throughout. He might have even confused the bus driver just enough to get lost. I believe God saw to it that a bus full of food-carrying gringos (his masterpieces) would have an opportunity to fulfill their mission by doing a good work. And I bet he prepared another good work which involved the women at the prison being fed as well.
I suspect Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:10 were a great encouragement to the Christians at Ephesus. They lived in a big, bustling city full of people who frequently did wrong, to include worshiping at the Temple of Artemis, among other temples. The Christians there were known for their deeds, hard work, and perseverance, and yet apparently some of them had forsaken their first love (Revelation 2:2,4). Paul encourages them and challenges them by reminding them that they are God’s masterpieces, uniquely and wonderfully made. He tells them what their purpose is…to do good works. And he reminds them that God has already prepared the works for them to do.
To sum it all up, we are masterpieces on a mission. God is counting on us to do good works in order to fulfill that mission. Whatever the opportunity is that you will face later today or tomorrow, God put it there. And as his masterpiece, you are uniquely qualified to perform the good work and accomplish your mission.