Raw Fish and Worship

I first tried sushi about five years ago and found it to be not nearly as terrifying as I anticipated. Two years later, I found myself dining in Nashville with a sushi connoisseur who talked me through some of the finer points of Japanese cuisine and fully converted me to #teamsushi. When a hibachi restaurant opened up near my house a couple years ago, I was there on opening day to sample the sushi with a friend. That became a weekly fix for us, and was dubbed “Sushi Thursday.” I have never been a “foodie,” so to speak, but for the first time in my life I thought about and talked about food obsessively! I was an addict!

Raw fish reminded me that a small shift in my affections can drastically transform me over time. Sushi was a simple picture of how affections steer our focus, and an increased focus also increases our desire. Soon, our thoughts, actions, and emotions become so tied up in that thing - whatever it is - that it becomes part of who we are. For better or for worse, we make decisions that often defy logic (at one time I was spending upwards of $50/week on sushi alone, despite the fact that my wife and I were on a tight budget to pay off a significant home renovation project), and even the most negative consequences or rational arguments are not enough to alter our course.

That’s how I developed a taste for sushi, it’s how I fell in love with my wife, and it’s why I became a pastor. It's why people get married, and, sadly, it's the reason so many marriages fall apart. 

Photo credit: JAPANKURU, Get your Eat on @ Shabu-Shabu & Sushi Hassan via Photopin

Photo credit: JAPANKURU, Get your Eat on @ Shabu-Shabu & Sushi Hassan via Photopin

I grew up in the Church and can't remember a time where I didn't know - or at least know of - God. I always had faith, always wanted to please God, and always understood that actions - good, sinful, or somewhere in between - had eternal ramifications. The older I grew, the more I understood of God's character and heart. Simultaneously, I became more and more aware of my own brokenness and sinfulness. For years I wrestled with a constant tension: how can I know things to be true about God and His kingdom and yet so consistently say and do things that stand in complete opposition to those beliefs?

I felt like a hypocrite. Maybe I was one. Anyone observing my life at any given moment would most likely find my trajectory and decision making to be at odds with that which I claimed to believe. It was classic "do as I say and not as I do" Christianity. My faith was first and foremost intellectual. Coming in at a distant second was my practical faith - the way my beliefs manifested themselves in my day to day life. Buried somewhere underneath all of that was my emotional faith - the raw heartbeat for the things of God. (This is not to suggest that I think the human spirit can be compartmentalized into such neat divisions; rather, it's attempt to understand why I found myself resonating so strongly with Paul's struggle in Romans 7).

At some point in my early twenties, I started to come to terms with the fact that I simply didn't love God like I thought I did. I wanted to love God more than anything, but it simply wasn't true. My heart was fickle and was too wrapped up in things of this world. I began praying a simple, yet honest prayer: "God, help me fall in love with you." For the first time in my life I stopped praying for self-control or will power or strength to stay the course, and instead began to seek after a nothing more than a heart that burned for God.

Nothing helped shape and lead that passion and love more than learning how to worship. It was during that season of my life that I abandoned once and for all the teenage dream of being a songwriter and touring with a rock band. My love for music and affecting hearts with lyrics and melodies found new life as I stepped into the role of Worship Leader for our church. This affection suddenly had a new focus that had nothing to do with self-promotion, merchandising, or gig-booking; instead, the singular aim was to fix my heart and mind on Jesus, and to help a church to do the same. As I worshiped, God became more clear, more real. His presence was felt in ways I had never experienced. I began to long for the weekends, the time when corporate worship would echo off the walls of our small theater. 

Worship was the action, the response, that stirred my heart towards God. It's how I learned to love Him, first. Genesis 1:27 tells us that God created us in His image. When we worship God - when our affections, thoughts, feelings, and actions are stirred towards Him - we increasingly take on that God-shape in our lives. And in giving us His image, God also gave us His purpose. God commanded the first people to “be fruitful and multiply,” thereby spreading His image and glory throughout the Earth. Jesus did the same thing with His followers, telling them to multiply disciples in His image to the ends of the Earth.

We worship what we love, and we become like what we worship. That is the way we spread God’s glory, and it’s why He calls us worship Him. If you have ever found yourself living in that kind of tension between thought and action, let me encourage you to learn to worship. Don't force it and don't put a time table on it. Infuse the journey with grace. Allow your affections to be stirred for God, and your actions will follow. 

I've Never Felt Less Like Jesus

Our second foster care placement came just two months after the first. We were still readjusting to life with an infant when our worker called with another child needing care, this one fourteen months old. The worker sounded desperate. I made a quick phone call to Erica to talk it over. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: "Can we take a 16-month-old boy?"

Her: "I don't know. What do you think?"

Me: "Where would we put him? Does he need his own room?"

Her: "Nope. The babies can share a room. Do you think we can handle another?"

Me: "We're crushing this right now. Why not?"

Her: "Okey dokie."

Saving the world one child at a time, we thought.

It was a Monday when we arrived at the Cabinet, where we were ushered back to a conference room and seated across the table from a mother and her young son. A social worker - not ours and not his - stood silently at the door. Awkward silence gave way to ice-breaking questions. Johnny* watched shows on his mom's phone and bonked his head on things as he walked around. After 30 or 40 minutes, the social worker spoke up.

"There's no one else coming. You can leave whenever you want." Awkward.

We walked outside, where Johnny's mother broke into tears, weeping hysterically as she buckled her son into the back of our car. "Please don't cut his hair!" she begged though tears as I closed the door. What do you say to a mother when you are about to drive away with temporary guardianship of her kid? I glanced at Erica, who was fighting back tears but failing miserably. It isn't typical to have the biological parents present when the foster parents take custody of their children. Now I know why.

I pulled out of the parking lot while Erica sobbed in the passenger seat, her heart breaking. As difficult as it was to experience this moment, it left us with a resolve to love this kid well and to support the mother however we could, so that the two could be reunited as soon as possible.

The next three weeks were the hardest I can remember in the life of our family. We had just added a non-verbal toddler to a household that was already in a state of change. The Winter had brought us our first placement, a newborn, which should have been enough of a shock to parents whose kids had been pouring their own cereal and dressing themselves for the last 6 years. As if that wasn't enough of an adjustment, I had, just a week after that, started a position at a new church. It was a healthy change, but one that brought with it a new 45 minute commute and an imminent move to a new city. Erica did all she could do to keep us above water as we tried to get the house ready to sell in the midst of all the chaos. 

Photo credit: Andrew Seaman, Ezra in the basement via photopin

Photo credit: Andrew Seaman, Ezra in the basement via photopin

Within 24 hours of bringing a second foster child into our home, we questioned if we had bitten off more than we could chew. The boy was adorable, but unable to communicate apart from screams and tears. At times, he would play happily for a couple hours on end. More often, though, he was crying. Loudly. To top it off, a violent stomach bug worked its way through our home that first week, hitting everyone in the family, foster children included. In the span of 7 days, our household saw more vomit and diarrhea-stained baby clothes than we had in the past 15 years combined.

In just a matter of days, after exhaustion was besting determination at every turn, there was a seeping realization that my heart just didn't seem to be in it. Emotionally, I had not attached to Johnny like I did to Miggy. Perhaps it was the stress level in our house that seemed to hang steadily at Code Red, or maybe it was because I knew that Johnny's presence in our home was almost assuredly going to be temporary; regardless, I did not feel love towards Johnny like I did my other children. When I had to clean diarrhea out of the crib...again; or when he woke us all up screaming (baby included) at 2:00am...again; or when he wandered around the house crying inconsolably for 75 minutes on end...again, I found myself becoming resentful of his biological mother. She had been irresponsible, and now it's me changing the diapers and losing this sleep. It should be her. Now, these weren't constant thoughts - they were hardly conscious ones. These were the thoughts that crept into my mind in the darkness and sleeplessness and in the moments of pure chaos. Nevertheless, they were real, and I had to deal with them.

Erica and I found ourselves in our first real struggle as foster parents. How was it possible that we could bring one baby home and love him immediately as our own, but then add another child into the mix and feel little sense of connection to him? I felt guilty and ashamed for my lack of affection toward the toddler. We decided to give it a week - not to see if we would feel anything towards Johnny, but to see if we could hold him without breaking ourselves. By Saturday, we knew it was too much. All of our energy and attention was being poured out onto this child. Whatever we had left in the tank was spent taking care of the baby, who thankfully was peaceful and content. Our eldest two children were all but neglected. The only thing they received from us during this time was additional housework.

We contacted our R&C worker first thing Monday morning to put in a two-week notice requesting a new placement for Johnny. We had failed. At least, that's what it felt like. We failed the mother, we failed Johnny, we failed our social worker, and we were failing our family. The promises we had made in silence as we drove out of that parking lot just days prior had quickly been replaced by silent curses of desperation.

For two more weeks, we cared for Johnny, enjoying some moments of playful fun, but mostly counting down the sleepless nights until he would be moved to a new home. We felt horrible, but all we could think about was catching our breath. James 1:27 had been a guiding force for us in becoming foster parents: pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress. Foster care was supposed to be something that drew us closer to the heart of God. During those days, however, the truth is that I had never felt less like Jesus. Our emotions and tempers hung by a thread, and the slightest incident could sever all brain-to-mouth filters. Erica and I tried our best to serve one another through mutual exhaustion, but our relationship lacked any sense of affection or kindness. Self-preservation was the name of the game, and we were united and motivated only by the thought that the end was in sight.

Our two weeks came to a close, and a new placement had been found. As we dropped Johnny off with his ongoing worker the next morning, I felt relieved and ashamed. Erica cried. We had just done what we had both previously thought was unthinkable: we had welcomed a child in need into our home, and then sent him away because we couldn't handle him. I thought back to the ten weeks of training that we had worked through 9 months prior as part of our licensing. "Know your family," the instructor had told us over and over. Our exuberance and idealism about impacting young lives through radical, sacrificial love came crashing down to reality when presented with the wisdom of the age-old axiom: Never take temporary guardianship of two children under the age of 16 months while simultaneously changing jobs and trying to get a house ready to list on the market. 

Three weeks with Johnny almost pushed us to the breaking point as a family. But those days also gave us clarity about a number of other things, not the least of which were our limitations as parents. All things considered, that's a valuable lesson. As we walked away from the wreckage of that experience, we were also all the more determined to love well those who were in our charge: our kids, Miggy, one another.

Saving the world, one child at a time. It's not a bad approach, really. 

* The names of our foster children will always be protected online. This little feller was our second placement, John Adams was the second President of the USA...so we'll go with Johnny.

Sunburned Drifters and Soap Sud Beards

One of the weirdest and, in my opinion, most oddly hilarious characters ever to appear on Saturday Night Live was Stefon Zelesky, played by Bill Hader. Stefon was a club kid who would join Seth Meyers from time to time as a city correspondent on the Weekend Update to give viewers the low-down on the latest and greatest (and fake) underground clubs in New York City. Stefon had the skinny on the hippest and most elusive party scene in the Big Apple; without his insider information, none of us would have a clue that these clubs existed, much less have access to them. 

During one episode, Stefon introduced us to the club Crease. "This place has everything," he said. "Lights, psychos, Furbies, screaming babies in Mozart wigs, sunburned drifters with soap sud beards."

"Soap sud beards?" Seth interrupted.

"You know, that thing where the hobo becomes a rich man, so they take that big bubble bath?"

(Side note, if I had won the billion dollar Powerball earlier this year and was asked by a reporter what I was going to do with the money, I was definitely going to say "soap sud beard"!)

Image via NBC.com

Image via NBC.com

Stefon's club scene was ludicrous and nonsensical, but always good for a laugh. The image of a hobo taking a giant bubble bath strikes an especially funny chord simply because we are so familiar with that "Trading Places" kind of plot line: a rich man trades places with a poor man and through the experience they both end up finding their own kind of redemption. The premise itself is as almost as absurd as a screaming baby with a Mozart wig. What billionaire would give it all up and trade places with a sunburned drifter?

And then I remember that I am the sunburned drifter. And that I have been given keys to the mansion, giant bath tub and all.

At the risk of sounding irreverent, I think that Jesus would do well filling in for Stefon on the Weekend Update one of these days. There's a pretty amazing party called Kingdom I'm sure he'd like to tell us aboutand while the invitation list is wide open, you do have to know the right person in order to find your way in. And, like Crease, this place is going to be full of sunburned drifters with soap sud beardsEvery single guest at the party has been dirt poor and covered in filth; but the club owner traded his riches for our rags, and we get to trade our ashes of mourning for a crown of beauty, and our despair for a garment of joy. 

The party starts now, and closing time is never. Furbies not included.

When God Hardens a Heart

Not long ago, I had a conversation with one of the most incredible people I've ever had the privilege of meeting. Garnett Jones left me a voicemail one afternoon in August of this year wondering if the new campus that our church was launching would be interested in helping meet some of the needs in a local trailer park. By 10:00 the next morning she had called twice more and left another message.

"The woman is persistent, I'll give her that," I thought, tapping her number into my phone. She answered, and I introduced myself.

"Oh, thank you for calling me!" she said, excitedly. From there, Garnett jumped without hesitation onto her soapbox and for the next seven or eight minutes proceeded to tell stories, cast vision, and plead for help in her work. Unable to fully process all that she was saying at the time, and hesitant to commit too much assistance without properly assessing the real needs, I placated her with the promise to meet soon, face to face. 

For the last eleven years, Garnett has been investing all of her waking energy into a trailer park community on the outskirts of town. This particular neighborhood is one of the largest communities in our county, with a high population of hispanic families. Many of the children there speak English as a second language. Some don't speak it all. Poverty is high, literacy is low. These kids face an almost insurmountable uphill battle, but it is one that Garnett is willing to fight on their behalf. 

She has organized cookouts, recruited people for Trunk-or-Treat events, and orchestrated outdoor movie nights. Firmly and steadily pressing on the park management, she acquired donated lots on which to build a playground and soccer field. With the same determination, she rallied support from the YMCA to donate cleats, balls, and jerseys to help build a soccer league. She even managed to recruit some volunteer coaches for the in-park teams and scheduled matches against other local Rec teams. 

But that is just the beginning of Garnett's vision. Soccer is a way in, but it is not a way out. She is in talks to receive - free of charge, of course - a trailer home and a lot on which to place it. With some financial assistance (that's where we come in), she hopes to remodel the trailer as a multi-purpose facility in the middle of this community. She envisions free health screenings, immigration assistance, tutoring, English lessons, Bible studies, and so much more. If a few people - one church, perhaps - could come along side her and join this work, Garnett truly believes that this community can be transformed.

Oh, and by the way, Garnett is 84-years-old. 

Airstream 1, Miguel Tejada-Flores

Airstream 1, Miguel Tejada-Flores

My friend, Janelle, and I met up with Garnett a few weeks ago over lunch, as promised. Garnett rattled off these possibilities, and many more, barely pausing to sip from her tomato soup; Janelle and I listened in quiet awe. Occasionally she and I would glance at each other with wide-eyed wonder at the energy, determination, and unshakable compassion that this woman, well into her "retirement years," poured out each and every day, without ceasing, on behalf of those in need of an advocate. 

After casting vision and listing projects for well over forty minutes, Garnett spoke for the first time about herself. "I'm glad that you want to help," she said, "because I'm running out of time."

"Of course you're running out of time," I thought to myself. "You're 84!"

"My doctor told me I have arteriosclerosis," she continued. "The arteries in my heart are hardening, and he said I can't keep doing what I'm doing for much longer." As with everything, she spoke these words matter-of-factly. It wasn't an emotional revelation for her; it simply was what it was. 

I walked away from that conversation both encouraged and humbled. It certainly was no surprise that someone of her age would eventually need to slow down, but the irony of Garnett's condition struck me. Here is a woman who has seen the needs of others and has responded with vigor and compassion. How unfitting it is that this person who has loved so tangibly and sacrificially would be slowed, and perhaps eventually stopped, by the hardening of her heart. 

In the Bible, we are told on a number of occasions that God hardened the heart of specific people (i.e. Exodus 4:20, Deuteronomy 2:30John 12:39-40). Theologically, this is tough concept for us to fully wrap our minds around, as our perception of free-will doesn't play well with the idea that God might be interfering with our ability to choose things for ourselves. In the end, though, these passages of Scripture force us to relinquish control and trust that God's ways are higher and greater than our ways, and that in His sovereignty He is working things out for good. And that's truly what we find when we understand this concept in light of all of Scripture and eternity: when God hardens a heart it is ultimately for His glory. Every time, for all eternity. 

Truly, this is the case with Garnett. The most incredible thing about her life is not what she has been able to accomplish in a trailer park in Central Kentucky; it is the work of salvation and regeneration that God has accomplished in her that will stand out for all eternity. If/When her heart stops functioning and she passes from this life into the next, God will receive the glory for a dead soul that was made alive in Him. As she works feverishly and without ceasing, children and families are being transformed and shown the love of Christ; when she takes her final breath and enters into her Rest, all of heaven will celebrate, thanking God for His grace and mercy. Glory to God on both accounts! 

Epilogue: I happened to run into Janelle yesterday, less than 12 hours after writing an initial draft of this post. "How's Garnett?" I asked. "Have you heard from her lately?"

"Get this," Janelle smiled. "She called me the other day. Actually, her call went straight to voicemail because she was calling at 8:00am on Saturday morning and I was still in bed." Typical Garnett. "Hey, Janelle," she said. "I just wanted to let you know that I have more time. My doctor told me that my arteries are just fine right now. The hardening seems to have stopped. It looks like we can keep going for a while longer. Okay, call me back." 

To God be the glory.


An Empty Seat on the Plane

We boarded the plane and took our seats, thankful that, despite a steady and increasingly thick snowfall, our flight was still scheduled to depart on time. Evan had flown to New York a few times with me in the past, so he was totally cool with the boarding process and not at all concerned that his ticketed seat was a row in front of the rest of us. He would be relatively oblivious to strangers, engrossed in whatever the iPad game-du-jour happened to be. I took my seat with Elysia; I normally prefer a window seat to help prevent motion sickness, but I acquiesced to my daughter and let her have the view. We were only looking at a wing, anyway. 

As we settled in and began to taxi across the tarmac, I leaned forward to check on Evan. "You okay, bud?"

"Mmm hmm."

I paused, reflecting on the empty seat next to my 11-year-old son. His mother should be sitting there. I had her ticket in my pocket. Instead of speeding to sunny Florida at 550 miles-per-hour to kick it with Harry Potter and company for a few days, however, my bride was at home. I leaned back to my seat, letting my hand linger for a moment on the unoccupied armrest. I hated that she was not with us. I was relatively confident that I could Father my way through a vacation without backup, but I knew that she wanted to be with us. In all honesty, she probably needed the getaway more than I did.

For months we had been wanting to take a family vacation to visit some friends in Daytona and to unwind for a little bit. As we started to gain clarity about our future with the timing of a job change, Erica and I decided one night that we just needed to make it happen. It had been far too long since our last getaway as a family, and we desperately needed some time to recharge. I spent a few days scoping out options, and finally was ready to pull the trigger on a weeklong trip that included a couple of days at Universal Orlando. Our kids had just read and watched through J.K. Rowling's series for the first time, so we thought it would be great opportunity to enjoy the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. 

I sat on the couch that night one mouse click away from purchasing our plane tickets. Hesitating, I looked at Erica and asked, "Are we good?"

She stayed my finger for just a moment. "What if we get called with a placement for foster care before we leave?"

"I guess we'll just roll with it," I answered. Foster care was a priority for us, but we also didn't want to put everything on hold for what was, at the time, a completely unknown possibility. It had been well over a month since we signed our contract as a foster family and we had yet to receive a single placement.  If we happened to get called in the next few days, then we would just improvise and make it work however we needed to. Worst case scenario, we'd eat the cost of a few plane tickets.

"Let's do it," she said, with only a little hesitation.

Click. Four plane tickets in the bag.

That was on a Tuesday. On Friday, we were given a baby. When a phone call comes in for a placement, you only have moments to accept or decline the opportunity before the social worker moves on to a different home. In those brief moments on the phone, Erica and I had a thousand thoughts that we tried to process simultaneously, not the least of which was, "What about our family vacation?" My suggestion a few days ago that we "roll with it" was now out of the realm of the hypothetical and had taken on flesh and blood. In this case, "rolling with it" meant that Erica immediately knew she would not be going to Florida with the rest of us. Just like that, we began to feel the weight, the impact, and the responsibility of stepping into foster care. 

Erica had already requested vacation time for the following week; she would use that time instead to care for Miggy while I was away with the kids. That left a gap of three days where one of us needed to stay home before our scheduled departure. The leadership at my church was wonderful to us during that time. I called our Senior Pastor, Mike, as soon as I could to let him know that we would soon have a newborn baby in our house, and I asked if he would allow me to work from home for a few days so that I could care for the little guy. This, after I had given him my two-weeks notice just a few days earlier. He was extremely gracious in allowing me to fully focus on the baby without having to think about exit details. 

For the next few days, it was me and Miggy. He was an incredible baby, really. Unlike many infants who are born into foster care situations, Miguel was not addicted to any drugs. Quite the contrary, after having spent his first 10 days of life in the NICU nursery, he was on a regular schedule of sleeping and eating. All I had to do was stick to the schedule, and the boy was quite content. He was more than that: he was beautiful, and he was at peace. Though he slept in his crib quite well from the get-go, it was nevertheless difficult for me to put him down. It wasn't for fear of waking him, mind you, but simply because I didn't want to let him go. I wanted this baby boy to know the warmth and strength of being held in a father's arms, and I wanted him to hear a heartbeat that was steady, ever-present, and for him. 

The airplane was quiet at cruising altitude, save for the constant hum of the engine and the occasional cough from a passenger. Elysia sat next to me, playing Minecraft on her iPad. "My arms feel empty," I said, breaking the silence. "I've done almost nothing other than hold that baby for the last three days."

"You miss Miggy?" she asked, already knowing the answer. 

"Yeah, I really do, sweetheart."

"Me, too," she replied. "He's really cute."

The next five days were spent in two worlds. By day, I was preoccupied with entertainment: visiting friends, playing at the beach, riding roller coasters, sipping Butterbeer, cruising in the Camero convertible rental upgrade that Elysia somehow talked me into. (I told you, her smile is perfect.) By night, however, I was in agony. Erica was home alone with the baby, left to care for him 24 hours a day by herself. He was an "easy" baby, to be sure, but five days is long, long time to go without reinforcement. 

With each passing night the phone calls became more strained. Saturday's conversation was a perky FaceTime call. By Monday night, I could feel her exhaustion and frustration. I immediately messaged our friends an "SOS." The next day they were there for Erica with dinner, conversation, friendship, and nap breaks. (For anyone venturing into foster care, I highly recommend having amazing friends. They will save you over and over again.) Knowing that my wife would be taken care of gave me enough peace of mind to enjoy our final day at the theme park. Nevertheless, I could not wait to get home. We were less than two weeks into our experience as foster parents, and we were already feeling the strain on our marriage; life as it used to be was just that - a thing of the past. Things were different now, and we were going to have to learn how to "roll with it" each and every day. We are compelled to do this for the sake of the children, and with the faith that it will ultimately be to the benefit of our family, to the mission of the Gospel, and to the glory of God.

We boarded the plane on Wednesday morning, and the short flight felt like an eternity. I listened to Ed Sheeran and stared at another unoccupied plane seat in front me, counting down the minutes until our wheels would touch down and I could slide into the empty seat on the couch beside my wife. And I absolutely could not wait to snuggle that little boy into the empty space in my arms. 

The Thin Blue Line

Officer Daniel Ellis was shot in the head Wednesday morning while investigating a robbery. He was doing his duty, and was gunned down in an act of senseless cowardice and violence. Despite the prayers of a community, and the best efforts of medical professionals, Officer Ellis was pronounced dead yesterday morning, leaving behind his wife and four-year-old son.

The easiest response to a tragedy like this is, of course, to point fingers and shake fists. It would be easy, and justified even, to highlight the accused. To condemn actions of evil. And make no mistake, there is a time and a place for that. Yet such a response will not often assuage any anger, sadness, or grief. More often than not, anger begets anger and hatred begets hatred. Swift justice may bring retribution, but it is powerless to bring reconciliation. So while, yes, I - like anybody else - am angry and sad, and while I certainly believe that justice should be served, I want to respond by focusing on the best of who Daniel Ellis was, and how it can encourage us all to strive for so much more in our own lives.  

Officially or unofficially, police officers live under a simple motto: "to protect and serve." That is their call; that is their commitment. To protect and serve. These men and women are equipped and empowered with a special authority to enforce the laws of the land, for the betterment and protection of our communities. Through training and the resourcing of specialized equipment, these public servants are called upon to do just that: serve the public. In short, they are the strong committed to serving the vulnerable. 

It's a tremendous responsibility, really: to carry around power in the form of legal authority, specialized training, and weapons that can potentially be used for lethal force, all in the service of local communities. This is what we ask of our officers: to wield that power and authority as servants to us all.

The word meek it's not often associated with police officers, but it captures the very essence and ideology of what call we ask of them. Meekness is perhaps best defined as strength under control. It is not timidity, it is not shyness. It is willing submission of one's strength and power. Now, of course, we don't ask our law-enforcement officers to completely lay down the power and authority that they have. We fully understand and expect that they will use force when it becomes necessary in order to protect others. But even in the face of taunting or rising threats, police officers are called upon to use restraint and discernment with regard to all lives, and to display their power only when absolutely necessary. 

The best example of what meekness looks like is seen in Jesus Christ. History records the incredible power that this man, the son of God, had. He was able to heal sickness and he had control over the natural elements, the wind and the waves. Demons would flee from him, and even death could not hold him. But as startling and incredible as all that might be, it's not as astounding as the fact that Jesus kept all of that power in submission to a greater purpose: the redemption and reconciliation of the world. This is meekness, that the one who is able to do all those things would allow himself to be arrested, to be brutally tortured, humiliated, and executed. This, truly, is absolute strength and power under complete control and submission to serve a greater plan and purpose.

"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." Mark 10:45

It might seem a stretch, and even an offense to some, to compare a police officer to the Son of God. But is that not the ideal that we ask of them? We grant them power, and we expect them to protect and serve us. We applaud when we see this done with compassion, authenticity, and kindness. Videos of police officers playing basketball with street kids or diffusing fights by means of a dance off go viral and are met with both relief and thankfulness that there are those in uniform who are still counted among the good ones. 

Unfortunately, we are all too familiar with stories and videos of those officers who seem to have forgotten their calling. We cry in outrage when we hear of an officer using unnecessary physical or lethal force. We know this is not how it should be. When someone has been entrusted with power and authority and uses it to serve themselves rather than those around them, or who is unable to restrain that power appropriately, we call it abuse, corruption, or criminal. But let's be honest, this is not a police issue, it's a power issue. All of mankind is bent towards selfishness. We know the phrase, "absolute power corrupts absolutely." Law-enforcement officers maybe under the spotlight at this time in our nation's story, but the abuse of power certainly is not limited to them. From politicians to parents, from schoolteachers to church preachers, we see over and over again how authority can so easily be turned toward selfish gain rather than selfless service.

Without a doubt, the path of meekness and selflessness is a narrow one - a thin blue line, as it were. It's all too easy to stray in one direction or another, and we are all guilty of it in our own ways. Who among us has not used the power of our words to cut down someone else or to exalt ourselves? Hardly comparable to a uniformed police officer with a badge and a sidearm, you may think, until we pause and look around at the widespread anti-bullying movement permeating our schools and communities.

On a day when our community in Central Kentucky is mourning the loss of one of their servants - one of the good ones - let's choose to uphold this ideal that Officer Ellis lived for, and ultimately died for. He was a servant of the public, choosing to make himself vulnerable so that you and I would not feel as such. Let us thank his family with deep gratitude for his meekness and sacrifice, and let us mourn with them in deep sadness for their loss. 

So, to Katie Ellis and others who grieve most deeply right now, thank you. Thank you for submitting everything that you hold dear in service to all of us. May the God of comfort uphold you in the days to come, and may His presence be felt in the community around you as they pour out love and support from this day forward. To young Master Ellis, may you always know that your father was a hero; that he was a man of great strength, resolve, and courage, and that he modeled Christlikeness in this: that in meekness he served his community, and in humble service he lay down his life for his friends.

To our law enforcement officers - to my friends David, Clint, and Steve - we see you. We love and support you. May you continue to press on in the duty to which we have called you. May you pursue peace and justice with all meekness and compassion. We ask you to do the impossible, and we stand by you as you walk that thin blue line. To the women and men - to Kristy, Kelsi, Lauren, and so many others - who, as spouses, carry the weight of this calling and this tragedy in ways that the rest of us will never understand, we love you. May we honor you and your spouses in the way mourn and in the way we live every day, choosing to act justly and honorably, serving and protecting your husbands/wives as law-abiding citizens.

To all of us: may we ask more of ourselves. May we recognize the power that we have each and every day, and may we choose to submit that power to serve and honor those around us. Where husbands and parents have power and authority in the home, may we choose to serve and protect our families; where managers have authority over employees, may we serve them and remain committed to their growth and development more than we are to a bottom line; where politicians have power and authority in government, may they serve our communities and constituents rather than agendas or the aggrandizement of power; where communities rise up with strength in numbers to combat an injustice, may we learn to channel that strength and determination to serve one another wisely and with a steadfast resolve, and not succumb to the temptation to rally that strength in violence and rage; where students have the power of words and friendship, may you make the hard choices to build up and include rather than cut down and exclude.

We asked Officer Daniel Ellis to give everything. Let us all, so much as it depends on us, strive to do the same. This is a hard, narrow line to walk, for sure, but it is the only one that leads to reconciliation.  

via Pam Benge, FB

via Pam Benge, FB


Miggy was placed with us on a Friday afternoon. The next day, Erica went to the NICU to visit him for the first time. We were no strangers to this part of the hospital; our eldest son, Evan, had spent a week in the Special Care Nursery following his traumatic birth 12 years ago. We didn't know the circumstances surrounding Miguel's situation, we only knew that he was there and that we were his, at least for the time being.

(Note: For safety and confidentiality reasons, the real names of our children in foster care will never be shared online. As our first foster child, he could easily be referred to as "One," "First," or something of the sort; instead, for kicks, I prefer to nickname the little guy after a stud of a First Baseman: Detroit Tiger and one of the best pure hitters to ever play the game, Miguel Cabrera).

Erica spent the day at the hospital, feeding and changing MC every few hours, and holding him in between for as long as the nurses would let her. She came home that night smiling and raving about Miggy's nurse, a young thing named Carrie. I still felt distant. Intellectually, I knew that we were now responsible for an infant, that we would be taking him home from the hospital in a matter of days, but his life had not yet intersected with mine. I was holding down the fort with our two children and finalizing details of the next day's worship services at our church. On Sunday morning, I would stand before the congregation to lead worship, and then to announce my resignation. After spending the last four years pouring my heart and soul into the life of this church and community, this was a task I was not looking forward to. 

The truth is that the past nine months had been the most challenging season of ministry that I've ever encountered. It was possibly the most difficult season that I had ever been through in my life. While the details of what transpired during those months need no elaboration at this time, the result was that I was a different person in January than I had been when we started the foster care process back in May. Typically a jovial, lighthearted, and optimistic person, I found myself - for the first time in my life - dealing with anger, bitterness, and a biting disappointment. Erica and I had taken some pretty hard shots at the hands of people we cared about, and we felt very much like we had been kicked to the curb. Emotionally and spiritually, I was walking wounded - we both were. Most days I fought hard against these forces that were tearing my heart apart; most evenings Erica and I wept, shook our fists, and shrugged our shoulders. This was new territory for me, for us both, and I was unsure of how to deal with the pain.

All of this bore down on my soul that Sunday morning, less than 48 hours after receiving word that Miggy was being placed in our care.  God had provided clarity with a new ministry opportunity, and simultaneously He provided us with a brand new life to love. I led worship that morning and then stood by our new pastor as he made the announcement of my upcoming move. I shook hands and shared embraces with many people who meant more to me than they will ever know, and then I drove to the hospital. 

I was a bundle of nerves walking into the NICU. Our youngest child, Elysia, is ten years old, which means it had been a full decade since I had held a newborn baby. Miggy was a tiny thing, still hooked up to wires in his little plastic tub-on-wheels. Carrie The Nurse was every bit as gracious and helpful as Erica had described. I fumbled to keep the wires straight as I picked the baby up for the first time; Carrie untangled them with a smile. She walked me through a refresher course on diaper changing and explained pleasantly the way she tracks his eating habits and bowel movements. The whole thing was felt awkward and perfect. 

My first visit with MC was short-lived, as we were asked to leave so the nurses could manage their shift change. Erica and I had a quiet dinner in downtown Lexington as we counted down the minutes until we could go back for the baby's evening feeding. Upon our return, the nurses put us in a separate waiting room and brought Miggy right to us. We were allowed, for the first time, to hold him in privacy. I still had a hard time processing the fact that I was in a hospital feeding an infant who would soon go home with me, and I was mesmerized by this little baby in my arms. I tried to understand how a child like this could be left alone, but that kind of question defies any rational answer. 

"I think I love him already." I said, hesitantly.

"That's ok." Erica said with a gentle smile, as if giving me permission.

I woke early the next morning so that I could drive to the hospital and take care of Miggy's morning feeding. The nurses can do it when we're not able to be there, but that was out of the question for me. This child needed to know that he was loved and that he belonged somewhere. I wept uncontrollably whenever I thought too hard about how a baby could be without a family. I was a mess.

I made it in to work that morning just a little later than normal, but my mind wandered. All morning long, all I could think about was wanting to be back in the NICU, holding onto this fragile, fatherless baby. My coworkers could see this all over my face and simply said, "Go." I was back at the hospital by 11:00 for another feeding. There were six other infants in the room with us, and I wondered about each of them as I sat holding ours. My prayers covered him, but worked their way around the room to each of the others as well. The child in my arms had no biological connection to me, but he was all I could think about. My heart broke for the other babies in that room. In the hours that I had spent with MC so far, some of them had received no visitors. No father or mother had come in to hold, to cry, to pray, to be with. Some of these babies were far worse off physically than our Miguel. A wave of emotion swept over me again as I thought about the possibility that some of these infants could possibly die without ever being wrapped up in the arms or prayers of a parent. 

Erica and I returned in the evening for another feeding and a chance to hold Miggy. "This kid has completely wrecked me," I whispered to my wife. It absolutely broke my heart to think that this child - that any child - could find himself born devoid of love and family. At the same time, I was overcome with a profound sense of gratitude, joy, and humility that Erica and I could have the opportunity, if even for just a few days, to provide stability and love. If ever I lingered on any of those thoughts for too long, I would have to turn my head away so that the nurses would not see me crying.

We got word that evening that a member of our church had a family member who was in the same hospital with some potentially life-threatening heath complications. Normally, I would have dropped everything to spend some time with them, praying and comforting in whatever ways I could. This day, however, I simply couldn't bring myself to walk up to the next floor of the hospital. Miguel had wrecked me in ways that I had never known, and I was emotionally fragile. I didn't want to stand by the bedside of someone who was fighting for her life and break into tears. 

In the months that followed, there were many ups and downs for our family. We said goodbye to one church and hello to another, sold a house in one city and bought one in another. There were stressful days, sleepless nights. But there was also something new. There was new joy, new laughter, new purpose. In opening our hearts and our home to a child who was not our own, it was changing us - changing me. This was love like I have never known before, a new understanding of what it means to love without rules or borders. 

But there was more. Miguel had given us something else to focus on. In the middle of some of the deepest pain and frustration I have ever experienced, God gave us a child. It was an opportunity to rediscover God's goodness, in obedience to his word that had long been ignored or cast aside in our lives. We had spent so much time in the last six months looking at ourselves – the good the bad and the ugly. And now out of one simple step towards the heart of God, he was drawing all of our thoughts and emotions toward himself, manifested in the life of an abandoned child.

Miggy is the happiest baby I've ever seen. Even now, more than nine months later, I don't think I've ever come across an infant who is so cheerful, so happy, and who brings so much joy to everyone with whom he comes in contact. Not long ago, Erica sat in our living room playing with MC, and I watched as her shoulders relaxed and a smile swept across her face, pushing aside all the tensions of work and questions about the future. She felt my gaze, and looked up at me with an expression of complete contentment.

"He is so healing, isn't he."

It wasn't a question. It was a statement of fact. God has been using Miguel, this tiny infant who is not our own, to help us heal. I realized something in that moment that, on some level, I think I had known all along: we needed this baby as much as he needed us. 

Taylor Swift and the Power of Verstility

This post was originally written as part of the Daily Devotional series for Southland Christian church. It has been adapted and reposted here, with permission. To read or subscribe to Southland's Daily Devotions, click here.

Last week my social media feeds were all abuzz with pictures and videos from Taylor Swift's concert in Lexington. I'll admit, I was a little jealous of all my friends who took their wives/daughters/selves out for what was undoubtedly a phenomenal show. And T-Swift does know how to put on a show.

My wife and I have a love/hate relationship with Taylor Swift: my wife hates her, and I love her. We have both agreed that Swift is a gifted songwriter, but Erica just can't get past her eccentricities. The red lipstick, the dancing all the time, the acting like she's still surprised - every time - when she wins an award...it's all just too much for my bride to handle.

Me? I'm willing to put up with a few quirks for the sake of artistry. Make no mistake, Tay is an incredible songwriter; but she has also managed to cross genres with a level of success that very few other artists can boast. We all know that Elvis Presley was the King of Rock n' Roll, and the man knew how to handle a gospel tune or two. Michael Jackson was dubbed the King of Pop, Rock, and Soul; even then, however, the musical development from his first solo album in 1972 to his last in 2001 never strays too far beyond variations of pop evolution. Now hear me, I'm not trying to suggest that Taylor Swift is somehow a better or more influential artist than either The King or MJ - that would be foolishness; what I am suggesting is that she has been able to grow & adapt as an artist - with astounding success - in ways that few others have. Swift, in just 10 years, managed to completely swing the pendulum from being a young country starlet to a full-fledged pop princess.

She is both/and. It's an impressive feat, and it has solidified her status among the greatest American entertainers. Good on ya', Taylor.

To a much greater and glorious extent, the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews makes a similar case for Jesus as the greatest High Priest, albeit without all the lipstick and dancing. We are told that Melchizedek [was] the king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He was the only priest who was also a king. When God established His covenant with Israel, He initiated a line of kings from the tribe of Judah, and a line of priests from the tribe of Levi. It was impossible to cross over between tribes and/or roles. You were on or the other...or neither. 

Jesus is both the High Priest of Heaven and King from the line of Judah. His very being allows Him to do what no earthly priest ever could. As the writer tells us, Here is the main point: we have a High Priest who sat down in the place of honor beside the throne of the majestic God in heaven. (Hebrews 8:1). What does this mean for us, that Jesus is both King and High Priest? It means we can worship Him with reverence today, for He is truly worthy; and it means we can approach Him with confidence today, knowing that we will receive mercy in our need.

Tweet: "Worship Him with reverence today, but approach Him with confidence."

Yes and Yes Again: Our First Foster Placement

On a Wednesday afternoon in January, I received the phone call I had been praying for. After many, many weeks of conversations and visits, Southland Christian Church called to offer me a position as the Campus Leader for their new venue that would be launching in the Fall. Erica and I had known for a few months that God was leading us somewhere new, but this phone call would confirm the exact direction. As is often the case in an interview process, I had moved through stages of increased emotion regarding the potential change: intrigue, optimism, excitement, and, finally, expectation. Receiving the job offer and the call to ministry was the penultimate stage in the whole process, and by far the most elating - and relieving - moment of all. The only thing left to was accept the position, which I wanted to do immediately; nevertheless, I calmed myself enough to say that I'd take a few more days to pray about it. I'd call back on Friday to let them know. 

When Friday morning rolled around, I stalled for a couple of hours, not wanting to seem too overly eager about joining their staff, as if that wasn't the only thing on my mind. Sometime in the late morning, I picked up the phone and said "Yes," making it official. A new job. A new church campus. A new community. All of this was imminent on the horizon now, and I was thrilled.

Less than an hour later, my phone rang and my wife's picture flashed on the screen. Assuming she was calling to offer some final congratulations, I answered, "Well, babe, it's official. Looks like everything is about to change."

"You have no idea," she responded. 

Erica had just received a phone call herself, this one from our local R&C worker. She wanted to know if we could take a child into our care. Since getting our foster care certification and signing the contract in November, we had received a couple of calls with possible placements, but they had all fallen through for various reasons. This placement, it seemed, was real and it was happening. All we had to do was say, "Yes."

It is important to note that I had spent the better part of the last decade convincing myself - and trying to convince my wife - that we were done with babies. Going through the diapers, the sleepless nights, the potty-training, the Terrible Twos, (not to mention the Terrible Threes and Fours), and all that nonsense - it was all quite enough. We had done it twice already. There was no reason to go back. During the foster care training process, our family had processed together about the kind of children we would be able to take in. We discussed age rage, gender, ethnicity, language, medical needs, learning disabilities, different kinds of abuse....everything. In the end, we specified that we would be open to taking care of children ages 3-10, and who were not considered "medically fragile." Infants and extreme medical needs were situations we did not feel equipped to care for at this time. 

Apparently neither God nor our social worker cared about my preferences or plan. This placement we were being asked to take was a newborn infant. Erica shared with me what little detail she had about the child. "I need to let her know immediately," she said. "So....[long pause]....what do you think?" I could hear the hope and excitement in her voice.

Though I couldn't discern it at the time, I also heard her heartbeat. She wanted desperately to love more and again. She wanted to pour herself out on behalf of a child who was powerless in his or her situation. She wanted to be a mother to the motherless. Erica had cried each time one of the previous placements fell through. All of this was hanging out there over the LTE network in the silent milliseconds following her question. And for me, it was no question at all. The answer was "Yes" and it was "Of Course." We didn't have time to take a few days to pray about it, to consider the implications, nor did we need to.

Yes and Of Course.

"We will need a few things for the baby," I said. "Like...all of the things." 

We were totally unprepared. There was no nine-month gestation period leading up to this. We went to work that day a family of four; we would go home as a family of five. Erica hit up a couple stores and quickly stocked up on diapers, wipes, clothes, and a car seat. Some good friends brought us a vacant crib. Over the next days and weeks, we were showered with gifts for this tiny boy. It turns out we didn't need to be completely prepared, we just needed to be willing. God and friends have a way of filling in the gaps.

I always knew that God makes all things new; what I didn't fully realize until that morning is that He literally means ALL the things (new job, new church, new city...why not add a new baby into the mix as well?), and that He is already at work doing this. The Kingdom of God is already at hand, and the work of heaven is already breaking into this world, and into our lives. Our family was about to go through some radical changes in almost every way imaginable, yet fear and doubt were noticeably absent in our hearts. We knew that in all these things we were ultimately saying "Yes" to God and His ways. Though it took those two phone calls to clarify the specifics and the circumstances, the truth is that we had long ago said "Yes" to all of these things in our hearts. Through faith and a pursuit of God in Christ, our desires and dreams had already been shaped for all of this. 

We were totally unprepared, but completely ready.

How Handcuffing Your Team Can Increase Productivity

I could tell that my team was drained. We were two weeks into the launch of our brand new campus for Southland Christian Church, this one in Georgetown, KY. The campus staff had been in place for three months, every one of them stepping into to brand new roles with increased responsibilities. As part of a multi-site church, we had tons of central support from within the church organization; nevertheless, the launch phase of a new campus is inherently stressful and chaotic. In addition to recruiting, interviewing, and training leaders, each staff member had to grapple with the logistics of carrying the model and "DNA" of his/her particular ministry area into a facility and environment that they had little control over. (As a "portable church" campus, we load in and load out of an elementary school every single weekend).

The stress and fatigue that comes with setting up and tearing down every environment, every weekend, was impossible to prepare for. Weekend hours are long and tiring, leaving little time and even less energy for family relationships and activities once we get home. We were all fighting to settle into the new rhythms of portable multi-site church, and some on our team were barely keeping their heads above water.

The day after we launched, our team gathered in the office for our weekly campus staff meeting. I knew that they were thrilled and blown away by the success of the first weekend, but the exhaustion on their faces and in their voices was palpable. They had been given incredible tasks, incredible responsibilities, and extremely high expectations...and they were knocking it out of the park! But they were spent. Emotionally, physically, spiritually, and relationally, they were spent. 

As a Campus Leader, one of my primary responsibilities is to ensure the health and effectiveness of my staff team in carrying out the vision and mission of the church. In terms of effectiveness, they were crushing it; but a season of stress can quickly turn to a pattern of unhealthiness if left unchecked. It was obvious to me at this stage of our launch that productivity, morale, and overall effectiveness - not to mention relationships at church and at home - would soon begin to suffer.

The following Monday, the day after our second weekend as an official campus, I cancelled our staff meeting and abducted my team. Literally, I blindfolded them and handcuffed them to a metal bed frame in a dark room.  

In lieu of "business as usual" where we would debrief about the weekend and discuss necessary adjustments and priorities for the coming week, we went out to play. We spent the morning at Breakout Lexington, pretending to be kidnapped by a psychopath. We solved puzzles, we followed clues hidden in jars of (fake) severed fingers, we learned Morse code and tapped messages on the wall in hopes that someone would hear us, we laughed a ton...and we didn't talk about volunteer recruitment or portable church logistics a single time. Following our escape, which we proudly managed with more than 16 minutes left on the clock, we took a long lunch together where we ate too well and laughed too much. 

It would have been really easy to stay focused on our responsibilities that morning. After all, we were a fledgling campus, just two-weeks-old, with lots of needs to address. And, of course, it's not always possible or prudent to take an entire team away for food and fun; and we certainly never want to detract from hard-work, perseverance, and stewardship of resources. But if, as Bill Hybels so often says, everything rises and falls on leadership, then the health of our leaders needs to be a top priority. In this instance, in this season, handcuffing my team for a couple hours was probably the healthiest thing I could have done, and it has already proven to pay dividends over the long-haul.

Leaders, make sure you invest in the overall health of your teams. Play a breakout game, ride go-karts, eat good food, watch a funny movie, bowl...do something to let your team be a team.