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The Anxious Christian – A Sermon

The following sermon was preached on July 23rd, 2017 at the Clarksville Highway Church of Christ in Joelton, Tennessee. The sermon title is borrowed from the book The Anxious Christian by Rhett Smith (see endnote below). As with any sermon I preach I use some of the material and others I leave out. I tried to stay as close to the manuscript as I could. Grace and peace as you read this.

The Anxious Christian

It was the Fall of 2013 and we had just completed a crazy summer in youth ministry. Most summers are hectic but this one served as one of the craziest I have ever experienced. I honestly felt like responsibilities came at me in supersonic waves and before I knew it I was put through the ringer. Couple all those responsibilities with some major changes at church and I was ill-prepared for what was about to happen. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18% of the population.”[1] I remember sitting in my office one day while I was studying Scripture and a wave of dread came over me in an indescribable way. It was like a cloud of darkness suddenly engulfed my thinking and all I could think about was the pit of my peril. The anxiety manifested itself into a belief that I was dying and I became obsessed with small pains in my body that, through the lens of anxiety, seemed like signs of cancer or a life-threating illness. I Googled symptoms and things got worse. I was in my house one day and felt a sharp pain in my leg and immediately started to panic and rushed to the Emergency Room. I thought it was blood clot. After extensive tests their conclusion was that nothing was wrong with me.

I kept getting headaches and I learned that anxiety will sometimes lead into other symptoms and cause serious physical problems. Consider Job’s experience:

The churning inside me never stops; days of suffering confront me.  I go about blackened, but not by the sun; I stand up in the assembly and cry for help. I have become a brother of jackals, a companion of owls. My skin grows black and peels; my body burns with fever. (Job 30:27-30)[2]

I called a Psychiatrist because I knew something very wrong was going on with me. I didn’t grow up with anxiety problems or depression issues and so I had no language to describe what my mind was thinking. In fact, my mind kept playing tricks on me. In one month I visited the ER a total of three times, the doctor four times and various specialists two times thinking something was drastically wrong with me. I finally got my diagnosis a month and a half later: I had what was called Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I tried different medicines and eventually settled with one that helped reset the chemicals in my brain. I started to work out more, read more and with the help of God I slowly have learned to cope with anxiety.

So why am I sharing this with you right now? When I first started struggling with anxiety I felt like churches were not really a safe-haven for those inflicted with anxiety. I would talk about my struggles and people would say, “Robbie just quit worry about stuff and trust Jesus” or they would say, “Perhaps you need to pray more” as if my mental plight is directly related to how many times I pray (or don’t). Church, unfortunately, was not safe space for me. So I started blogging about it and droves and droves of people started messaging me describing their anxiety and how they wish the church could be more of a safe space for folks. A place of healing. A place of learning about our struggles. So this message comes to you in the audience who are currently in the thicket of anxiety and you feel like nobody is listening. This message is for you. It is also for those of us who are called to “bear one another’s burdens” which means walking with people in this difficult time. A caveat is I am not a mental health professional and so most of my message is learned from folks who poured into me to help with healing. So I have two groups of people to talk to today. The first…

To the church in general…

I think we need to do better at helping people who struggle by admitting our own.

Whether explicitly or implicitly we have made the church to look like a collection of nice folks who have it all together who meet a few times a week for a “pick me up” by singing a couple of happy songs and sharing in on a positive message. The closest we get to talking about our problems is quoting Romans 3:23 saying “all are sinners” but rarely does our struggle sharing delve deeper than that. The result is people simply go elsewhere with their problems or worse; they don’t even address them at all. I remember sitting in an AA meeting one time and the topic of church came up and one particularly disgruntled man said about his alcoholism, “We can’t talk about this stuff (he used another word) at church. There’s no place for us there.”

Church if we are not helping the brokenhearted and struggling people then we are simply setting up shop and wasting our Lord’s time. I read the pages of my New Testament and there were some pretty messed-up folks that our Lord loved. When it comes to anxiety I didn’t know where to turn and people from church didn’t seem to resonate with my struggle.

I think we as a church also need to work on good ways to help but also understanding bad ways to help folks with anxiety.

People simply are just not educated about how to help so sometimes they say the best thing that they know about at the time.

  • Quit worrying…I wish I could. It is not like a microwave that has a power button.
  • It’s all in your head…of course it is. I need to deal with it though.
  • Doctors are just trying to shove meds down your throat, don’t take them…But what if I need them? Shouldn’t a professional make that decision for me?

You want to know how a person can help folks with anxiety? Presence. Not an answer. Not a formula for getting rid of it. Simple presence. Someone who advocates to the father on your behalf and is willing to pick up the phone when you are having a tough time. I once thought about starting a support group for those with anxiety and calling it something unique like AA 🙂 or something but I have yet to do it.

We need more support.

We need each other.

Now a word or two to those in the audience who are struggling with anxiety.

First of all, anxiety is a gift.

I read a book in 2013 during my struggles that changed my thinking. It was called The Anxious Christian by Rhett Smith and in that book he shared a couple quotes that I will not soon forget. He said:

  • Anxiety can often indicate to us that there is something constructive happening within us, beckoning us to follow it in order that our lives may be transformed.[3]
  • Anxiety reminds us that we are alive, a feeling that is important in keeping us from going numb and withdrawing from the life God desires for us.[4]

In the moment of angst when the world is spinning around it is hard for us to fathom that what we are struggling with is a gift. Curse is more like it. But gift? Yet through my anxiety I have been able to know God deeper than ever before. Paul said, “We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5).

That leads me to my next point…

God is not absent in our anxiety but right in the thick of it.

Psalm 94:19 in the Common English Bible reads: “When my anxieties multiply, your comforting calms me down.” Rhett Smith is again informative in his book:

One of the reasons we experience anxiety is that God is persistently trying to move us through the wilderness, because it is in that wilderness that we are most dependent upon Him. It is in that wilderness experience that God shapes us into the people He desires us to become.[5]

I remember coming home from work early one day wondering why I could not shake this anxiety deep within me. At one point I remember running into the boys’ room, locking the door and I started balling like a baby. Uncontrollable sobbing. With my hands clinched I punched the bed and yelled, “Why God? I have everything I could possibly imagine and I still am miserable.” I couldn’t hear God then but slowly I started getting an answer from him. He said to me, “You’re right Robbie. You do have everything. A loving wife, a nice home, a wonderful job, beautiful kids. But you don’t have me.”

In my worries and angst I had neglected reading of Scripture, praying and God was there even in the midst of all of that. When I look at many of the characters in Scripture I see a lot of humanity in turmoil. Death, financial hardship, frustrations, anguishes is all part and parcel for the course of life in this world. The dream God has for us is not the same as the American dream. Folks, if all we get is God then we have gained the entire world.

Dear friend, in your anxiety God is with you.

Thirdly,

You are not alone.

When I endured this I remember thinking that I was the only one feeling this way. What made it worse was that somehow in this struggle I felt like less of a man. I remember apologizing to Heather a lot because I was not the man she deserved. In one particularly weak moment I remember calling my dad trying to explain to him what I was feeling and not having the right words to say so I just inaudibly cried while trying to talk to him.

After walking through my struggles with a counselor I remember feeling a sense of peace when she assured me that I was not alone and that many men feel this way. Then soon my friend began to struggle this way too and he and I began to journey together.

Friend, I am not sure where you are at in anxiety. Perhaps you worry about the future and it paralyzes you from making decisions. Maybe you have anxiety because of some physical ailments that leave you weak or disabled. Maybe your anxiety stems from chemical imbalances in the brain. Maybe you are afraid of something happening to your family and anxiety keeps you from letting them mature like they should. Maybe anxiety has led you to cope with life’s difficulties through alcohol, pills, drugs or some other coping mechanism.

I don’t know where you are at but I do know one thing.

You are not alone.

Here’s the thing, God wants you to open your eyes to him and in the midst of your struggle to hang on with him. I am not promising your anxiety will be gone as mine comes and goes. It may become more difficult before it gets better. I am not promising an easy solution that God is going to miraculously take your anxiety away (although I pray for that).

What I do promise is God’s unwavering presence in your plight and you will have my arm around your shoulder in the midst of this. Then my prayer will be that others will look at your struggle and will come to one conclusion and one conclusion: How great is our God.

 

__________________________________________________

[1] https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/any-anxiety-disorder-among-adults.shtml

[2] All Scripture comes from the New Revised Standard Version.

[3] Rhett Smith. The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? (Kindle Locations 383-385). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[4] Ibid., (Kindle Locations 387-388).

[5] Ibid., (Kindle Locations 541-543).

 

Devotion to God – A Frustrating Endeavor – Chapel Speech

Devotion to God: A Frustrating Endeavor

Goodpasture Christian School Chapel Speech – February 9, 2017

By Robbie Mackenzie

            “What is the toughest thing you have ever done?” I wonder what your responses, as a relatively young group of people, would be to that question. No doubt many of you have encountered difficult situations growing up or perhaps many of you are in those types of situations even as you hear these words. Doing some research across the Internet I am astounded by what difficult things humanity has accomplished.[1] A man by the name of George Hood was able to hold a plank for one hour and twenty minutes. I don’t know about you but after thirty seconds of a plank my body is convulsing and pretty close to forcing anything stored in my stomach to projectile outward. Nik Wallenda was able to walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. A guy named Dashrath Manjhi did an amazing and most difficult thing:

His wife died due to lack of medical treatment since the nearest doctor was 70 km away from his village. He did not want anyone else too suffer the same fate, so he carved a through cut that was 110 meters long, 7.6 meters deep in places and 9.1 meters wide to form a road through the mountain. He worked every day and night for 22 years to do this and reduced the distance between the Atri and Wazirganj areas of the Gaya district from 75 km to 1 km. He was given national acclaim for his feat.[2]

Humans have done some pretty difficult things. What I want to speak about this morning is that the toughest thing you will ever do is following God. The theme for this month, so I have been told, is devotion to God and what I want to speak to is about the frustrating aspect of following God.

Following God, I thought, was like growth in a stock market. Sure there were some ups and downs but mostly it was an upward trajectory. After almost eighteen years of following God I must admit it looks more like that pile of Christmas lights you find in the attic. It is convoluted, jumbled and hard to define where it stops and where it starts. Mike Yaconelli in Messy Spirituality once said, Spirituality is a mixed-up, topsy-turvy, helter-skelter godliness that turns our lives into an upside-down toboggan ride of unexpected turns, surprise bumps and bone shattering crashes.”[3] I know you are supposed to have chapel speakers come and be funny, cute and say weird things and while I have done that before my goal this morning is to speak truth with you and share what real devotion to God looks like. I have prayed over this message and while I never place too much stock in one speech nor do I anticipate many lives to change because of one message I still pray that your heart will melt and you will experience God in a real and tangible way.

WHY IS DEVOTION TO GOD SO HARD?

In the first place, devotion to God is hard because this world is filled with confusingly rampant painful circumstances. A former elder at the church I used to work for recently died at the age of fifty-seven from a fungal infection that came undetected and by the time treatment was started it had already accomplished its destruction. I asked Facebook the same question I opened this speech with, “What is the most difficult thing you have ever experienced?” Below are some of their heart-breaking responses:[4]

  • Bury my son a week after his 9th birthday.
  • Dealing with a miscarriage after fertility issues and treatment.
  • Breast Cancer.
  • Losing my mom after watching her lay in icu for a month before. Opening the Christmas gifts she had already gotten for all of us while she was in the hospital, unconscious.
  • Coming to grips with the fact my daddy wasn’t going to make it and having to let him go.
  • Facing divorce and being a single mom.
  • Consequences of past choices made while living in sin.
  • Losing my one of my twin sons the day after their birth.
  • The divorce of my parents.
  • Probably the most prevalent spiritual marker in my life was the eight or so years in a deep battle with depression brought on by the disappointment of expecting other humans to be my savior.
  • Getting my son through his first year and a half trying to correct his clubfeet, having colic and me fighting postpartum depression.

The biblical writer David once said, O LORD, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way?” (Psalm 13:1).

Secondly, I think we struggle with our devotion to God because of our sin. Paul said we are all sinners and the psalmist declared that there is no one righteous but when we continue in sin it becomes hard to hear what God wants. It is like our mind has become clouded with things in this world and we then lose our focus on anything spiritual. Paul, an apostle, even struggled: “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:19).

Thirdly, devotion to God is frustrating because, in my opinion, we weren’t taught how and we weren’t taught well. In other words, many times nobody sat down with us and explained how to walk the Christian life. The fancy term is nobody discipled us. Your experience is not like mine but basically my discipling was like this: 1) Somebody studied with me about the Scriptures, 2) I was baptized and 3) I was handed a bible and told to keep coming to church services and praying. They had great intentions but nobody coached me on how to handle life when your best friend growing up overdoses. Nobody helped me when one of my family members embarrassed me at a family reunion making fun of me because I believed in Jesus. My gut tells me that many of you are not being discipled and mentored on how to handle difficult situations.

WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?

First of all, quit sinning. It’s hard to trust in God and become devoted to him if we are neck deep in willful sin. We will never completely rid ourselves of sin but my goodness we can avoid the obvious. If you are partying, sleeping around and addicted and wonder why you struggle with God then you are missing the obvious. It’s not easy, but you must quit sinning. “No one who lives in him [God] keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him” (1 John 3:6).

Second, find a mentor. Find someone whom you respect and is at a place in their life where you would eventually want to be. The tragedy of our spiritual lives is that we always think we are on the right path. Find someone who will tell you what you need to hear instead of what you want to hear.

Third, become disciplined. Most of my mess-ups in life can all find their way back to one reality: I lacked self-discipline. I am reading a book about the 1936 US Men’s Rowing Gold Champions called Boys in the Boat. In that book author Daniel Brown chronicles how post Great Depression Era kids from the sticks in Washington who hardly knew how to row ended up becoming gold medalists. When author Brown talks about the difficulties of rowing it struck a chord with me. Listen to this quote:

The common denominator in all these conditions— whether in the lungs, the muscles, or the bones— is overwhelming pain. And that is perhaps the first and most fundamental thing that all novice oarsmen must learn about competitive rowing in the upper echelons of the sport: that pain is part and parcel of the deal. It’s not a question of whether you will hurt, or of how much you will hurt; it’s a question of what you will do, and how well you will do it, while pain has her wanton way with you.[5]

Pain comes to all Christians. It is an inevitable and frustrating part of the deal. Yet I see people who have unspeakable tragedy thrown at their face and they develop an even more intense devotion to God than before? Why? They are disciplined to keep at it. Some of us need to become more disciplined in our devotion to God. Last time I checked the word “devote” is embedded in devoted and so we would be wise to do the hard work of following God.

Fourthly, trust that God is at work and in your midst. I have had some very dark times as a God-follower but in those times God has always showed up. I am not here to try to explain the difficult things in your walk with god but I am here to testify that God is here even as we speak. He told Isaiah long ago and this is a verse I cling to when faith in God is laughable to me: “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isa. 41:10).

Devotion to God is worth it. Frustrating? Yes. But worth it.

__________________________________

[1] https://ashotofadrenaline.net/amazing-human-feats/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mike Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007): 27.

[4] I didn’t share all of them because of time constraints. So if you are reading this and yours was not shared it was because of time. I love you for sharing though.

[5] Daniel Brown, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (p. 40).

Living a “Lesser Than” Story

On Wednesday nights the youth group and I are walking through the book of Galatians. Paul wrote this fine document to a group of struggling Christians who were living jacked-up stories. It gets ugly quick when Paul calls out Peter face-to-face because Peter is busy trying to appease the Jewish brothers and sisters to the neglect of the Gentile ones. Then you have some folks in Galatia who are trying to say “circumcision” is a necessity for Christians and that all Gentiles must do it. In chapter three Paul gets sick of it all:

1You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? (Gal. 3:1-5)

Some of the Jewish Christians were making the law more important than Christ. Paul then spends a couple chapters discussing how we are freed from the law and we are justified by faith (see especially Gal. 3:23-4:7). I made two observations from Galatians 3:

  1. There are many who try to bind on Christians what God has not bound.
  1. Our only way of being right with God is with/in/through/by Jesus.

The truth that many of us do not want to accept is that we are elevating our stories above Jesus. Like the foolish Galatians (Eugene Peterson calls them “Crazy Galatians”) we try to insert our own way at living a fulfilled life. We think we are living a “greater than” story. We convince ourselves that if we just make enough money then we will surely be something. Chasing the dollar around every corner we become consumed by our “greater than” story and our lives soon pass like our money.

Some of us with good intentions hope to earn God’s favor by living a pious life and doing good things. We throw money into a plate, promise not to swear, attend worship services, act nice in our communities and read Scripture trusting that our good works will translate into favor with God.

Foolish Galatians?

No…we are the fools.

I advocate we live a “lesser than” story that will eventually free us from the chains of the rat race.

I advocate that we live “lesser than” Christ because he is greater than all. Click To Tweet

Our stories should never point to our good works but should inevitably point to Jesus who accomplished the greatest work of all: the redemption of our souls. Paul said this: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’” (Gal. 3:13).

The word for redeemed is only used four times (solely by Paul) in the New Testament. One person defined it as “one who takes full advantage or seizing a buying opportunity.” This means that Jesus seized us at the right opportunity and saved our souls so that we would stand justified by faith in him in front of the Father.

So until we grasp that fact then our “greater than” stories will always miss living a fulfilled life. Instead, we must live a “lesser than” story because Jesus is the greatest of all.

Let’s move toward that.

Grace and peace,

Robbie

On Following God

In spite of my best intentions to break myself of a life-long habit I have yet to do so. I am stubborn. You don’t even have to ask my wife as many of you reading this are probably muttering “mmmmhhhhmmm.” I can remember many times Dad saying, “This is probably what you should do but I know you are going to do what you want anyways.” A few times I succeeded but more than most I did not. It is like the father who told his son not to pee uphill because it would end in disaster. The son, not fully understanding or believing his father, decides to test this little theory out and so he drops his drawers and with all the self-confidence in the world shoots a stream of unbridled urine effortlessly up the hill. There is physics at work here, as urine will flow faster downhill while one is peeing than out of one’s bladder. I think it is called Pythagorean’s Peeum or something (you can roll your eyes). Soon the son realizes what his dad meant and learned his lesson the hard way.

I know what you’re thinking. “Robbie, you are the idiot who did that aren’t you?” So let me change the subject and get to the point. In the many years of following God I have learned valuable lessons but the greatest bit of introspection has led me to the conclusion that following God usually comes only one way: the hard way. There are many ideas out there that suggest following God is simple, easy and is a progressive trajectory toward heaven filled with bliss and flowers.

I wish it were.

I am fresh in the wake of mourning the death of one of my former elders who was such a mentor to me. He was only 57. Death makes sense in some cases but in so many others it leaves me wondering and wandering. I wish I could slap a bible verse straight from a coffee cup and solve inexplicable tragedies but in my 12th year of ministry with two graduate degrees I am still at a loss as to what God is up to sometimes.

Tragedy makes following God all but simple.

Then there are the complexities of the faith that leave me theologically hampered. Why are there so many streams of Christianity? If we all have the same thinking capacity then why is there so much division among us? One could argue (justifiably I think) that we agree on things like the Apostles’ Creed but in other “non-essentials” there is room for disagreement. Who gets to decide what are non-essentials?

Then comes my personal struggle with anxiety. The best way to describe how anxiety affects me is to use an analogy from the weather. Anxiety is like a swift storm that comes two or three times a year. The climate and atmospheric pressure has to be just right for the storm to come and when it does it is an immediate impact. It cripples everything in its path and takes a while to: 1) assess (it’s spelled right…I checked) the damage and 2) rebuild.

And so many times I find following God like the young kid not listening to his dad: peeing uphill.

But…

My lack of understanding of God’s ultimate will in the disappointing details of this crazy life does not impede my desire to follow him.

Read that again and let it sink in before you move on.

Just because I do not know, does not mean I do not believe Click To Tweet

The old rationalistic Robbie would have flipped out over that and perhaps that has been the catalyst for many existential nightmares but it is not the case anymore. Following God is a bit like raising kids: it is mostly filled with joy, peace and indescribable fulfillment but accompanied with heartache, frustration, anger and disbelief. Mike Yaconelli in Messy Spirituality once said:

“Spirituality is a mixed-up, topsy-turvy, helter-skelter godliness that turns our lives into an upside-down toboggan ride of unexpected turns, surprise bumps and bone shattering crashes…a life ruined by a Jesus who loves us right into his arms.”

So if you are out there wondering and wandering like me struggling at following God just know that you are not alone. Know that there is no such thing moving upward toward God as most often it involves us moving downward. Henri Nouwen explains this well in the Selfless Way of Christ:

“The story of our salvation stands radically over and against the philosophy of upward mobility. The great paradox which Scripture reveals to us is that real and total freedom is only found through downward mobility. The Word of God came down to us and lived among us as a slave. The divine way is indeed the downward way…The disciple is the one who follows Jesus on his downward path and thus enters with him into new life. The gospel radically subverts the presuppositions of our upwardly mobile society. It is a jarring and unsettling challenge.”

So press on my friend and go down to see God who is up.

Grace and peace.

 

Robbie

 

Dear church, our struggle is not against a denomination…

For those of you reading this and are a bit baffled I want to extend both an apology and an explanation. I am a youth minister for a church of Christ which is a small local expression of a larger movement which has historically opposed denominationalism maintaining a strict adherence to Scripture as authority and not some ecclesiastical hierarchy. Anything that smells denominationally is to be rejected because it must hail from some sort of human innovation and is thus not God authorized by God. If you talk to many ministers from the Churches of Christ they will tell you that we are, in fact, not a denomination but each local church is its own expression of the original first century church. When it gets down to it I think it is more semantics than actual biblical mandate as to why we are not a denomination but that is not the point of this post. I actually think the autonomous nature of the church is more theologically accurate than hierarchical structures but another post for another time.

The point of this post is to apologize to other expressions of Christianity that have been maligned, castigated and disregarded as “unfaithful” because of _______________________ (insert doctrinal qualms here). Christianity seems to be one of the fewest movements that actually eats their own (aside from American politics). I actually had this conversation with someone before:

Concerned church member: “Hey Robbie did you hear about Jim Bob and where he attends worship now in college?”

Me: “Ummmm no I didn’t.”

Concerned church member: “He actually goes to a Baptist church and is plugged into their college ministry. Can you believe that?”

Me: “I am so thankful.”

Concerned church member: “That is a denomination and…”

Me (Interrupting): “Would you rather have them doing keg stands at I Tappa Kegga and attending a church of Christ once a week?”

Concerned church member: “Well no Robbie but clearly it is wrong for them to be involved in that ministry because they _________________(insert doctrinal qualms here).”

Me: “ I support them because they are with a ministry that believes in advancing the gospel, baptizing the lost and plugging them into the kingdom to do the same thing. That is alright in my books.”

Many of you reading this are probably throwing your hands up and screaming, “Flaming liberal!” I think you miss the thrust of my conversation and the point of this post. Our struggle, brothers and sisters, is not against denominations but against the unseen forces of evil. Does that mean every doctrine a denomination practices gets a nod? Of course not. Does that mean you endorse everything denominations do? Stop it!

It means that my focus and energy are fixed on those who have no concept of Christ. Many denominations are so focused inwardly anyways that there is no room for discussion of those who are on the outside (wink-wink my Stone-Campbell brethren). I also do not have time to engage in discussion about minute differences in theology. I am sure this is a fruitful and necessary endeavor but one that I am most assuredly ambivalent to. I am not creating a dichotomy in which one chooses over the other but I am simply not interested in those discussions. Ripping apart denominational doctrine is low-hanging fruit for a Wednesday night bible class but for me I simply have no energy to do so.

I understand that doesn’t mean churches should blindly give the high-five of fellowship to any and all movements but I also believe it says something when all churches in a community practice solidarity except for some that believe their way is the only way. I also try to give folks the theological benefit of the doubt. I was reading a paper I wrote many moons ago and if I was a professor reading this for the first time I would be ashamed I what my student wrote. I was (still am?) so presumptuous in my conclusions that I failed to grasp the big picture.

So can we stop the kindergarten my-church-is-better-than-your-church conversations and shift our focus more towards those who are not in any church at all? Can we leverage our combined focus on Christ and use that to advance the gospel in our own context? Can we eschew our foolish pride that says we have to have our name stamped on a program and unite with other brothers and sisters to be light on a hill?

That sounds more eternally minded to me…

 

How do you handle someone who dislikes you? For all you people pleasers…

Part of my genetic makeup is that I care too much about what people think of me. When I learn that someone dislikes me it tears me up inside because I go out of my way to serve people, especially those who do not like me. I have had this quality ever since birth so the likelihood of me trying to erase it is near impossible. My best bet is to try to enact some principles that help my sanity but also my spirituality. I remember when I was a freshman in high school trying to navigate a new school, city and friend group all in one year. There was this one punk kid who made my life a living hell everyday. I don’t know what I did to him other than I simply showed up in his class and he did not like that. He mercilessly made fun of me calling me names and acting like he was going to fight me. He did this every…freaking…day. It tore me up because I had no clue what I did to him and the fact that he hated me tore me up inside.

 

So what do you do when someone does not like you? How do you handle situations like mine and a million other situations where people, for one reason or another, hate your guts? I don’t have the best advice but the following principles help me move on and focus on more important things.

First of all, I ask the question, “Have I wronged them in some way?”

Without sharing too many details there was this situation where someone was passive-aggressively slamming me on social media to their friends. Well, I was this person’s friend as well and so I see everything they posted and without a doubt it was about me. I was hurt. I was angry. I typed my essay in the comment section but then soon deleted it because I asked myself this question, “Have I wronged them in some way?” The answer was a clear “NO” and I soon realized that this person just didn’t like a decision I made. It was not an amoral decision just one they did not like and so at that point there is nothing I can do about it. Jesus said, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:23-24). Sometimes people do not like us and we have wronged them and we need to reconcile that before we can move on.

Secondly, realize that hurt people, hurt people.

Why do they not like you? One reason may be that they are broken and come from a long line of brokenness. If scripture is right in saying we are all sinners then somewhere down the line that is going to infringe on your relationships. People are going to have skewed worldviews and this side of eternity we will never truly have perfect or complete relationships. There will always be prejudices, animosity, hatred and disdain. I hate that but it is true. I was working a particular job one time and I had concern about a hose that was leaking on the property. A guy was in the process of building houses (yes plural) and they were large and roomy. This guy clearly was blessed with financial means. I expressed my concern of the leaking hose to another worker on the property and his response was, “Who gives a $#@* about it? This guy is loaded anyways and as far as I am concerned he can just pay for it.” The worker clearly resented the man and was jealous of his financial means. You find me a section of humanity and no matter how genuine or utopic the community is there will be brokenness and hatred.

Thirdly, I always try to realize I live not to please man but to glorify Christ.

This is a tough one for me. First, I often find that my level of glorifying Christ is often in need of repair. Progressive sanctification means we are theoretically getting better at following God but many times, like the apostle Paul, I find that “when I want to do what is good, evil is right there with me” (Rom. 7:21 CEB). Secondly, if people killed Jesus who healed and saved them then why would I be spared from the same fate? So instead of returning evil for evil our efforts should be to love and serve people whether they are friend or foe. I have one Lord to impress and really what I do is not that impressive. He looks at me and says, “Robbie you pitiful thing you. You are a spiritual nincompoop and the fact that you are a minister is laughable. You know what? I love you. Nothing can change that.” So I live in that knowledge of his unfailing love and leave the peripheral “liking and unliking” to God.

Fourth, when and where possible I try to confront the problem head on and talk with the person.

This dovetails on the first point but I am amazed at how passive aggressive people are at handling their problems. Not many people I know enjoy confrontation (there are a few masochists out there) but many times it must be done to solve the issue. Sometimes we perceive a person dislikes us (“they won’t talk to me” or, “they seem quick when we talk”) when something else may be going on unknown to us. This could be tricky especially when the perceived person is your boss. In that regard I usually approach the situation like this (after much prayer and then setting up a face to face meeting):

Robbie: I am grateful you decided to meet with me as I know you are a busy person. I wanted to come to you with a struggle I am having lately because I need some clarification. For some reason I perceive you disliking me in some way and I am unsure if it has to do with my job performance or if I have wronged you in some way. I do not want this to affect our working relationship and so if I need to do better at my job then please give me a list of things I need to improve on. If I have wronged you in some way then let me know so I can make it right.

I have done that a few times and just about everytime we come to an amicable agreement and a lot of times it was just my perception that was wrong that needed clarification. Notice I used this to clarify instead of condemning. I didn’t rush to judgment on their behavior and made sure I used plenty of “I” statements.

So those are my thoughts. What are some things you would add?

 

 

Georgia Pine Straw, 12 Stones and Telling Our Story

What do these stones mean?” (Joshua 4:21)

In my office I have a plastic bag filled with dead Georgia pine straw (needles). The bag has been in my office ever since I started working in ministry in 2004. Most people walk in and look at the bag with curiosity, baffled at the sight of a plastic bag filed with pine straw.

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Most of the time people do not know what it is but one time I had a person come in and say, “What are you doing with marijuana hanging on your wall?” That made for a good laugh. The question I most often get though is, “What in the world is that about?” I love that question because I get to tell a story. A story about God and his providence. The pine straw that is in the bag hanging awkwardly out of place on the wall was from my driveway in Marietta, Georgia. After living in the same house for twelve years my dad got a new job in Chattanooga, Tennessee and we were forced to move from our friends, loved ones and everything I knew. The day we moved (August 14th or 15th, 1995) I grabbed some pine straw from our driveway and put it in a zip-lock bag for safe keeping. Twenty-one years later I still have that bag on my wall.

In Joshua 4 the author tells us of the people of Israel finally crossing the Jordan after hundreds of years of Egyptian bondage and forty years of wandering in an austere desert. The fulfillment of Genesis 12:1-3 is becoming a reality and so God, like he did with the Red Sea, parts the Jordan River (because it was the harvest season and the river was high) and allows Israel and the Ark of the Covenant to pass through. Then he asks them to make twelve stones to serve as a memorial for the people. The explanation for this seemingly bizarre moment is powerful:

19 On the tenth day of the first month the people went up from the Jordan and camped at Gilgal on the eastern border of Jericho. 20 And Joshua set up at Gilgal the twelve stones they had taken out of the Jordan. 21 He said to the Israelites, “In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ 22 tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ 23 For the Lord your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The Lord your God did to the Jordan what he had done to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over. 24 He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the Lord your God.” (Josh. 4:19-24).

The stones served as a way to tell the story of God and his provision for his people. Perhaps you have “stones” in your house that remind you of good times that have gone by that serve as a memory of God’s work. Perhaps it is a pair of your child’s baby shoes sitting on the mantle reminding you of those precious years. Or maybe you have a love letter your spouse sent you that reminds you of the romance that began your relationship.

Mementos like these help us imagine what is good, wonderful and redemptive in this life and, in my opinion, point to something better in the life to come. Looking through one of my Facebook friend’s pictures I noticed one of his profile pictures was of he and his son hugging when his son was young. His son is now deceased. The moment captured reminds my friend of better times but also of the perfect which God has not revealed.

I advocate we do these in our families and in our ministries. At my former church I started something in the youth room where graduating seniors outlined their hand in permanent marker and shared their favorite verse. When I left the church it was my turn to do the same.

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Since then the wall was painted over but between layers of paint a story still remains. I am thankful for all the times when we can have these “stones” in our lives that point us to something greater and more meaningful.

What are your stones?

What is your story?

Share some of your thoughts below…

Kaleb and Christ: A Story of Redemption

Nothing prepares you for the moment a child decides he or she believes in Jesus. All the emotions leading up to that moment puts a smile on my face even now as I type the words. My oldest child and son, Kaleb Christopher, was baptized yesterday as the culmination of the Spirit working on his heart, his mind and his soul. The process started many years before he was even created. The story of redemption began as a promise from God that he would bless his people and would be present among them. What started as presence in fire and flame now sees its culmination dwelling in the hearts of his children. “God with us” is not merely words etched in parchment like those in the Iliad or the Odyssey. Those words become life manifested in things like confession, repentance, worship and other disciplines that are countercultural to a society positioned to focus on this world.

Baptism is a special moment for many parents and one I honestly didn’t think would happen this early. It caught me off guard a year ago when he started asking about it. My first reaction was, “Son, you’re too young to do this” but who am I to question how God works and when God works? “Does he really understand the ramifications of his decision?” At 35 there is not a day that goes by where I do not fully understand the ramifications of that decision and furthermore I am in a constant process of growing toward Christ-likeness (progressive sanctification). So we had the conversations in the car about what baptism meant but more so what walking in the kingdom of God meant.

The process was very informal and more like a journey than it was deductive logic. I didn’t set any standards upon which I assumed he was ready for baptism because really no such standards exist. I doubt the Ethiopian Eunuch knew much about kingdom life other than he wanted Jesus to be his lord. We talked about some of the things that will frustrate him in his decision but also how rewarding it is to walk with God. Of course, the kid has heard and absorbed close to 500 sermons in his life coupled with bible classes and a host of other things a youth minister’s kid is dragged to. Needless to say this past week when he said, “Daddy I am ready,” I believed him.

So Kaleb is now, as Heather so succinctly put, “my son and my brother.” The moment was so special as we had friends from both churches I have served there to support him. Before he confessed that Jesus was his Lord (more like professed) I shared with him the lyrics of the old hymn “Jesus Paid it All” and prayed with him. His baptism was routine for many in the auditorium but for some it was otherworldly. Coming out of the water was a new person who is now a “new creation.” Somewhere in the metaphysical expanse where angelic bodies dwell there are some entities that are rejoicing because Kaleb is now a disciple.

Speaking of disciple. As the weight on Kaleb’s shoulders was lifted I felt it transfer to me. I have always felt a responsibility to lead my kids to Christ but now that he is “in Christ” I feel the weight of leadership even more. But I look forward to it. I no longer lead to but I lead with. With the help of Heather, the Spirit and a village of believers holding him accountability we have now embarked on a journey that sees no end where one day we will all sit in eternity basking at life free of sin. Sitting there with saints from the past but maybe more special he will be there with family members he never knew and some who left this world too quickly and he only knew for a little while. But until then, Kaleb and I both cry out, “Come, Lord!”

On Labeling

I am a sucker for anything that helps me become more organized. I am one of the few people I know that actually gets kind of giddy walking through the aisles at Office Depot or Staples. There is something complete about the ability to keep things in order that feeds to my personality. I can control the things I organize because I know where to find them. Sitting on my desk I have an inclined file sorter that allows me to see the various projects I am working on in the youth ministry. Each file has a hand-written label on it so that if I have a need or a thought I could add it to the file or take it away. You get the picture.

Labels.

They are nature’s gift of identification. “Turn here” one label might say while another cautions you before you open the package. Labels work for inanimate objects and many insects and animals in our world.

For humans on the other hand, labels are fickle. For instance, I have always struggled at answering this question, “Where are you from?” I was born in Canada but only live there for 18 months or so then we moved to Marietta, Georgia. We lived there for twelve years then moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Then after college I have lived in Springfield, Tennessee ever since.

How would you label that?

Everywhere I go and everything I do people try to label. If I tell someone that I am a youth minister then immediately a label comes to his or her mind: “Close-minded bigot.” Within the church context if, by way of example, I tell people that I vote Democrat then out comes a litany of labels. I didn’t let my son play on the “coveted” all-star team this past summer. BOOM! Labeled. We wear jeans to Sunday morning services! POW! Labeled.

The list goes on and on and on.

The problem with labels is that usually people give them because you are different than they are. So by giving you a scarlet “A” on your chest they feel better about themselves because, at the very least, they are not like you. Thank the Lord himself right? My problem is that I don’t even know how to label myself. I am not quite the typical Church of Christ guy and I don’t fit in with the typical minister model. I am not your typical dad, husband and son. I am not a redneck nor am I a Yankee (however one defines that).

So if I struggle at labeling myself why would I spend a nanosecond of my time labeling someone else? Insert Jesus’ verse on judging others here (Matt. 7:1). So here’s to progressive sanctification, growth and being a unique creature of God.

David’s Harp and my 10th Grade English Assignment

One of the servants responded, “I know that one of Jesse’s sons from Bethlehem is a good musician. He’s a strong man and heroic, a warrior who speaks well and is good-looking too. The Lord is with him.” – 1 Samuel 16:18 (CEB).

It was tenth grade at Boyd-Buchanan School in Chattanooga, Tennessee in English class. Having transferred the previous year from public school to now private school I had to make friends all over again. The previous year was my first year in Chattanooga having lived in Marietta, Georgia for twelve years before that and so needless to say the transition was not going well. My freshman year in the public school I was zoned for just did not go well and so my parents found this private school that some of the kids in the neighborhood attended and my brother and I was accepted (by the grace of God) and we started in the Fall of 1996.

Back to English class.

One of my first assignments was a paper I had to write about a significant event in my life. That was easy. I wrote about my move from Marietta to Chattanooga but I also told about some relationships I had that turned sour from the move. My heart was broken and so I shared about it. I am not sure if the teacher required this or asked me based on the paper but I had to present my paper in class.

Bummer.

To my knowledge up to that point I had never spoken in front of an audience for an extended period of time. My knees shook, I had a bit of nausea and, to give you a bit of TMI, I probably battled diarrhea all morning long. Nevertheless, I got up and spoke balancing reading my paper and looking at my audience. I became more nervous because they actually laughed and were engaged in my story the whole time. I tempered my nervousness with some jokes and ended the speech with some laughs but mostly acceptance. They seemed to enjoy my rendering of relational heartbreak and life altering moves so much so that throughout the day a random group of girls would come up and say, “Tell the story again Robbie.” So I would.

I learned something that day. I had a gift of speaking. What I did not know was how God was going to craft that gift to use it years down the road for His glory.

Back to the verse way up at the top. Saul was rejected as King because of some very poor choices he made during his reign. Samuel summed it up best, “I will not return with you; for you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel” (1 Sam. 15:26; NRSV). Later we learn that the rejection of Saul by the Lord was also accompanied by an “evil spirit” that wreaked havoc on him (16:14). The only thing that could help Saul was this little Bethlehemite named David (already chosen and anointed as King unbeknownst to Saul[16:1-13]) who could play the “lyre” that would eventually relieve Saul and make him feel better (16:23).

A lyre was an instrument used in ancient times that was much like a harp (see picture). It probably took years to master the skill of playing this instrument. You could make the argument that David probably was also the one who fabricated the instrument with his own hands. The point I make with this verse and my story is simple:

God will use the gifts we are blessed with in the present, to give Him glory in the future. Click To Tweet

I had zero inclination that God was going to use my public speaking skills to speak in front of crowds as big as two thousand but continually speak weekly to a couple dozen. Some have the gift of art and wonder how God is going to use that but then they are able to design cool t-shirts for youth groups and amazing graphic design for PowerPoint slides. Some have the gift of listening and God uses that gift to help you to become a counselor and you end up helping so many save their marriages.

One thing on giftedness: Giftedness does not guarantee God’s blessing. How many of you have seen prodigy athletes waste their gift by turning to drugs, violence or just plain laziness? Our gifts require hard work, dedication, accountability, ongoing tweaking, humility and undeterred patience.

What are my gifts? Lifeway did a “Spiritual Gifts Assessment” which you can view and print at your home. It is not 100% fool proof but will give you an idea. Download it by clicking here. My prayer is that you will mold what God has blessed you with so that you can be ready when he calls you further down the road.