The Suffering Olympiad

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Have seen this meme making the rounds the past few years.  Man, I am NOT with this cold, compassion-less cliche that does nothing but amp up the pain and suffering of other people a thousand times worse than it already is.

While we can certainly draw inspiration from one another and the various ways we suffer, the Suffering Olympics and the comparison shopping people regularly do when it comes to pain is a cancer in dire need of eradication.

Seriously.  We don’t have to continue regurgitating this same old wore-out script.  We can think differently.  We can approach suffering in brave new ways that actually move towards the pain.

Like Jesus does.

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If we’re going to do it like that, then what about the kid in Malawi whose a 26 pound starving skeleton and has HIV?  By that logic, the woman whose mother just died needs to just forget her “problems,” put on a plastic smile and pretend like everything is  perfect!!!!!!!!!!

…Even though it’s NOT.

…..What about the kid in the village down the street who weighs twenty-FOUR pounds who has HIV AND is blind?  Does this mean the other kid who weighs twenty-SIX pounds should just sweep his pain under the rug and think about how fortunate he is to be two pounds heavier with merely AIDS and 20/20/ vision and pretend his suffering and disease doesn’t really exist?

Uhhhh….no? lol

Pain and suffering is to be embraced with every fiber of our being and submitted to the lordship of Christ.  Not swept under the rug or to be in denial of.  This is where the realest, deepest transformation comes from whether it’s a woman with a stuttering disorder or a man whose entire family was just murdered.

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Human pain is human pain.  It’s not a competition.  And we have no right to tell someone else that their pain is illegitimate or fake.

As followers of Christ, we are to mourn with those who mourn.  Not shame them or call their manhood or Christianity into question for doing what Jesus says we’re blessed if we do: mourn.

Thankfully, there are better ways to respond to mourning than “Just get over it,” and “Everyone has problems (and theirs are so much worse than yours).”

What a Jewish Rabbi Taught me About Embracing Suffering from Claren Consulting on Vimeo.

 

Mr. Amanda Smith

So many people come and go in our life’s.

Some befriend you today only to replace you tomorrow.  Some never belonged in your circle in the first place.  Others hate you “just because they ain’t you.”

But then there are those rare, extraordinary souls who actually dare to love you – and who somehow love you even more, after they’ve seen your humanity and its litany of grotesque imperfections in the absolute worst form.

This girl is the rarest, most extraordinary kind of beauty there is.

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No one placed in my life will ever have as seismic of an influence in making me a better person, a better man and a better imitator of Jesus than her.

In so many ways, I am Mr. Amanda Smith so much more than she is Mrs. David Creek.

And that’s all I have to say about that! ☺️

stop trying to climb mt. everest

It feels good to grow, to positively change, to learn by way of faux paus.

Case in point: A decade ago, I remember being an absolute nervous wreck every single week leading up to the sermon that was to be given.

All it takes is one armchair quarterback-cynic who wasn’t hugged as a little boy or girl (whose incapable of being pleased) to start showing you their daily list of 101 reasons why everything you do is wrong and how you could never possibly measure up to their impossible expectations of you.

If you allow them to, your purpose can drastically shift from doing it for God to doing it so you can try to please Edward the Pessimist, who will always have that list all ready to go to beat you over the head with no matter what.

Like, Jesus Christ could come bursting through that door on a golden unicorn, wearing a t-shirt that says He’s Jesus Christ.  And He wouldn’t be good enough for them.  He wasn’t two thousand years ago…  So how could I or anyone else who isn’t Jesus Christ be good enough for them?

Like many, I fell into that trap as a young minister.  So as a result, there I sat every single week.  Staring at a flashing dot on the word processor, 11 P.M. Saturday night.

I’d type a killer line.  “…No….  So and So will object and say this….”

I’d type a few more ideas when they hit me.  “…………………NO….  So and So will say that…”

What in the world am I going to teach tomorrow?  What am I going to say?

I was so paranoid and self-conscious about what someone else might say, I’d type every single word out.  12 pages stacked up on top of my Bible.  Often, I’d sit there until the sun came up typing away.

Every single week, I thought I had to write and deliver the greatest sermon to ever be preached.  I felt like I had to be the greatest minister, orator and theologian to ever live.

Ha!  No pressure.  No pressure at all!?  lol

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So imagine how good it feels ten years later as I sit here calmly looking over tomorrow’s message as a Johnny Hodges record pops in the backdrop, understanding that I don’t have to climb Mt. Everest and replicate the Sistine Chapel on top of it tomorrow morning.

I prayed and read and studied and researched and brainstormed and contemplated and edited to the point of spiritual exhaustion.  There are four dozen wads of notes overflowing the waste basket and spilling out onto the floor.  I prepared for this message down to the last drop.

But my reliance is no longer on me and how I can say everything in just the right way to where it’s perfect.  That reliance rests serenely in the Spirit.

THE GREATEST SERMON EVER HAS ALREADY BEEN GIVEN.  THE GREATEST MINISTER, ORATOR, TEACHER, THEOLOGIAN, ANYTHING, EVERYTHING (!), ALREADY WALKED THE EARTH TWO MILLENNIA AGO.   ALL OF THAT PRESSURE IS OFF. 

ALL I’VE GOT TO DO IS SHOW UP, BRAG ABOUT JESUS AND LOVE THE PEOPLE I’M SPEAKING TO.  AND THEN PREACH THAT SERMON LOUDER WITH MY HANDS AND FEET THAN I DID WITH MY MOUTH WHEN I WALK OUT THE DOOR.  

Whether you’re a minister or a barista or you sell insurance, stop trying to climb Mt. Everest.  Stop living to satisfy Edward the Pessimist.  Love him like Jesus.  But don’t be his psychological slave.  Don’t be the piñata he goes to take his childhood out on.

Good things happen when we seek to please no one but God.

Of everyone out there, it seems He’s the only one whose actually capable of being pleased.

“For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God?  Or am I striving to please men?  If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.”  – Paul to Galatia 

 

Manhattan on 10 Bucks

Just before we went to New York for the workshop of one of Amanda’s colleagues last week, we had an unexpected expenditure that set us back a little.  Suddenly, all we really could afford was the $2.25 subway ride each way from Hoboken to 33rd Street in Manhattan.

It was the greatest possible blessing for our day.

The picnic I shared with my wife in Central Park on a perfect New York afternoon was a vastly happier and more endearing experience than what the most expensive plate at the most decorated 5-Star restaurant in the entire city could have offered.

Often, less is so much more.

Usually, true richness is discovered in what is small.

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I’m weary tonight.

I’m weary of empathy and compassion so often being refused access within the evangelical heart.  It’s a DISEASE.  It’s an epidemic.  It’s a cancer of the soul.

How a brother in Christ goes to his fellow brother, pours his heart out to him; confides that he is being tormented by clinical depression – one that has driven him to the precipice of suicide.

And the response is, “Man up,” “Do some push ups,” or even worse, “You don’t love God.”

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How the social media landscape is crawling with memes and content of people who seem strangely delighted when people fleeing oppressions and tyranny we cannot fathom; horrors that we have had the silverspooned privilege of never having to experience ourselves, are called “animals.”  When victims of horrifying injustices who are peacefully making their voices heard are colluded against and kicked in the teeth ten times harder and their commentary to them is, “Well, if you won’t take it laying down then get on the ship and go back to Africa.  Or Cuba.  Or wherever.”

This is the Christian voice we want the world to hear?  This is a light flashing upon a dark sea?  In what world?

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I’m weary of the elegance of patriotism and the American flag being concocted into a golden calf and a bronze serpent and becoming the god the evangelical unconsciously genuflects before as LORD and MASTER.

I’m weary of the politics of this temporary, corrupt and dying world taking on a more passionate and zealous precedence within the evangelical spirit than the gospel, the great commission and the greatest commands (Matthew 22:36-40).

I am so unspeakably weary.

Weary of the dividing delusions of political-dyed-in-the-wool-gang-mentality-tribalism of “Trump can do no right and Obama could do no wrong;” of “Trump can do no wrong and Obama could do no right.”

I’m weary more than anything of the cowardice and the fear that still somehow exists within my heart at times. I’m weary of the gurgling disgust that festers and lurks within me at this moment where there ought to be peace and overflowing Spirit.

I’m weary of the societal antidotes of empathy and compassion being rejected and dismissed as being too “girly” too “sissy” and too “soft.”

Jesus did not hang His head and breath His last on a Roman cross in order to raise up an army of headstrong, machismo Americans who are too tough to enter into the pain of others or to weep at the plight of those who don’t look like us. He desires an army of compassionate, tender-hearted, grace-loving CHRISTIANS, commissioned and possessed by His Spirit to love everyone in their sight with the same amazing grace that saved a bunch of wretches like us.

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All I know is, when Jesus comes, He won’t care who embraced the Elephant and who embraced the Donkey.

The only thing that will matter when the world is on fire will be who embraced the Lamb.

And who loved his fellow human being as much as he loved himself.

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Congress Contemplating Steroid Hearing for Miami Pastor

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Washington (A.P.) –  2007 was the year of the extensive probe into the treacherous underworld of human growth hormone (HGH) and anabolic steroids in Major League Baseball – a 21st century Salem witch hunt that went all the way to the U.S. Federal Court.  Spearheaded by Maine Senator George Mitchell and his 409-page dossier known as The Mitchell Report, accusations were levied against 89 baseball players.

Vanishing from the limelight for the past decade, the now former Senator made an unforeseen return to the cameras Tuesday morning in Washington, whereupon he announced his new target: a Miami pastor named Danny Prada.

Prada, who pastors the effervescent Heartway Church of Davie, Florida, is known for a transcendence far beyond public oration or ministerial excellence.  The legends circulating of his weight room exploits and freakish superhuman strength have long since reached mythical proportions.

In October of 2016, Prada saved the lives of a tour group, single-handedly slaughtering a horde of ferocious lions while on an African safari – doing so with nothing but the jawbone of a donkey.   In July 2017, stunned onlookers at Aventura Mall witnessed him help three men who were attempting to push a Jeep Grand Cherokee by lifting the sports utility vehicle over his head and carrying it forty yards into a Macy’s parking lot.

“Aw man, Danny Prada.  That dude is a workout monster!” Hector Sulgaro exclaimed at Equinox Gym.  “When anyone else is there, it’s just the gym.  It’s boring, you know.  But the second Prada steps in, it ain’t the gym no more.  It’s a performance.   Everyone just stops whatever they’re doing, everyone’s whipping out their phones and it’s like, ‘What’s this crazy guy gonna do this time?’  Even the professional bodybuilders who come in here are blown away and take notes.  We’ve seen as many as two hundred people gathered around when he hits the weights.  It’s pretty wild, man.”

Two weeks ago, ESPN’s Sports Center aired footage of Prada holding court at the Miami Dolphins practice facility, leaving everyone in the room awestruck.

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“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Dolphins wide receiver Jarvis Landry said.  “All the big boys were throwing down – Laremy Tunsil, Gavin Escobar, Akeem Spence, all the usual suspects.  Tunsel lays down 315 pounds, he busts out 17 reps and starts hollering at Prada like he don’t belong in there with us.

“Prada is wearing this collared shirt, slacks and dress shoes.  He was there to do a devotional for us.  Dude smiles, walks over – with no warm-ups, and throws down 780 pounds and reps it fifty times.  I mean, just lifting the house:  26!  27!  28!  29!  Then he starts doing tricks and does this thing where he throws it in the air and catches it one-handed and reps it with a different hand each time.  And keep in mind, all this was going down while he did a Bible class lesson with us and was asking us questions about Galatians and stuff.  He was doing things in that weight room that weren’t humanly possible.”

But while everyone else gushes and captures his feats of strength on Instagram, George Mitchell has arrived at a different response, hypothesizing Prada may have an illicit advantage over other pastors, who more resemble the Pillsbury Dough Boy than a Greek statue.

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“When you look at this guy running around doing all this stuff, do you really think this is the byproduct of normal human ingenuity?” Mitchell asked a throng of reporters as the cameras popped.  “We’ve got to start going after some of these preachers.  We’ve got to get to the bottom of this.  When I think of a pastor, I think Reverend Camden from 7th Heaven.  My mind never takes me to the Incredible Hulk or to that orange fellow from Fantastic Four.”

The Senator’s suspicions run even deeper than originally thought, extending far beyond Prada’s gargantuan biceps.

“His sermons are uncommonly good,” Mitchell added.  “So good that I’m left wondering if any performance enhancing drugs he may be experimenting with are beginning to seep into his brainwaves and emblazon his word selection, his flow of speech.  Something’s up here.”

The Senator may be onto something.  Prada’s  sermon “Life Sucks, Then You Die” garnered an unparalleled number of downloads, even by Pradain standards, logjamming Itunes and momentarily breaking the internet Sunday afternoon.

“Maaaaaan, this is crazy talk,” Heartway congregant Brendan Byrne told TMZ, Tuesday afternoon outside a Hialeah Denny’s.  “My boy Danny is clean.  You see how he always smilin’.  He’s just full of the Holy Spirit.  That’s how it’s goin’ down.  This politician needs Jesus, brah.”

As for Prada, he unabashedly welcomes any steroid and HGH test to come his way, even inviting Mitchell to be his guest at a worship service at Heartway.

“Bring it on, baby!” he shouted, amid the clamoring spectators at Equinox Gym, while casually deadlifting a soda machine while swinging upside down from the chin up bar.  “Truth fears no investigation.  This is 100% Jesus, Holy Spirit joy and perseverance.”

He then followed it up by lifting a keg of beer up and down while stepping barefoot on a trail of broken glass shards.

It remains unknown if there will be a Prada steroid hearing at Capitol Hill.  Pundits indicate any case being heard could commence as early as February 2019.

If found guilty, Prada could face a fine of $27.

The Story Behind My Mug Shots

(for spoken version read aloud by the author, click here)

It’s the cry of despair I’ve heard far too many times from across the table.  Where once upon a time, in the heat of some savage moment, somebody made an outrageously terrible mistake.  One that would irrevocably alter the next 5…7…15…25 years of their life.  5…7…15…25 seconds of pure reckless abandon that would haunt their every waking moment from that time forth; that would stain their orange prison jumpsuit with sweat from the nightmares that grieved them in their sleep.

And now, here they sit with me.  Their earth-weary eyes, so ragged and sad, are welling up with bitter tears.  At a loss for true words, I look away as if to search for them, and whenever I reestablish eye contact, there is a melancholy on their face that can be felt.

People like “Jay,” who was arrested ten years ago for breaking and entering a house he burgled to feed his heroin addiction.  Or like “Ricky,” who once assaulted a police officer after committing a heinous crime.  Or, like “Maria,” whose facial tattoos etched from her jail cell were as grisly as the aftermath the crystal meth had inflicted upon her frame.

“They wouldn’t love me,” “Jay” gently laments to me with this erratic cadence.

“I was so happy to be there,” he elaborates.  “Couldn’t wait to get there.  I did my time.  I learned from my mistakes.  I came out a changed man, all brand new!  But they wouldn’t accept me.  It was like no one cared about me.  Until three of the biggest men there came up to me and told me that I wasn’t welcomed and that it was time to go.”

Where this becomes heartbreaking and in other ways, downright infuriating, is that this kind of thing didn’t happen to them at a bar, at the public library or at a job interview.  It happened to them in churches.  By people who wear the name of Jesus Christ.

It wasn’t the facial tattoos, though they were certainly a factor.  It wasn’t that they smelled differently than everyone else, though it played a role in it .  What brought about the rejection and the ostracizing more than anything else was that somebody had the dirt on them.

“It was the mug shots,” “Ricky” says.  “When someone is arrested, they put it up there for all the world to see.”

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“One of them took my name down and googled me and they found all my mug shots on the internet from way back when.  I told them exactly what happened with each one.  I came clean and told them that I was guilty of those things.  And then I shared the story of the pastor who told me about Jesus, and about the day he baptized me and how I came out of that jail a child of God.  I pointed at those mug shots and told them, ‘That’s not who I am anymore!  I know that some people break the law again after getting out.  But I’m walking with Jesus now.   I’m your brother in Christ.”

And that was when they told him it was time to go and appointed three bouncers to send him right back into the street he had come in from.

And it was then as I sat there, having once again heard the cry of despair from yet another rejuvenated human being, in a different place, with similar details but with the identical, sick outcome, that it fiercely registered in my mind.

In the eyes of the law of our land?  They very well may have been the only ones in the room with the mug shots.  But in the eyes of God throughout our lives?  They’re not the only ones with the mug shots.

We all have blood on our hands.  We all have an excruciating past.  Every single one of us have skeletons in our closets.  And in the attic.  And in our basement.  And in the trunk of our car.  And buried six feet deep in our backyard.  We all have stepped into the darkness and made the demons gush with glee.  We all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

And no matter how hard we may try to excuse our carnality away, making ourselves to be harmless misdemeanor sinners, while looking at the “Ricky’s” and the “Maria’s” and the “Jay’s” of the world as the felony sinners, we’ve all committed outrageously terrible heinously savage sin crimes against our Creator.  Every last one of us has a rap sheet.

I have never been arrested for anything in my life.  I’ve never been to jail.  In the eyes of the government databases, I have an immaculate criminal record.

But, I had a spiritual rap sheet.  I had so many mug shots from my crimes against the kingdom of God, that it froze the screen and shortcircuited the computers.

Imagine it – an embarrassing, disheveled mug shot for every single time that we have ever sinned.

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I know sometimes we like to think that serial killers and rapists and pedophiles and people who commit bestiality are running around committing the real sins; the big sins.  But the crimes of lying, of worry, of selfishness, of cowardice once had us in the same pin as the Charles Manson’s and the Ted Bundy’s of the earth.  It doesn’t matter what sin one commits – the very first sin we ever committed made us a bunch of Jeffrey Dahmer’s.  One sin made us lawbreakers and necessitated the Lamb of God to offer Himself as the sacrifice.

But it’s also what makes me the happiest.  The one person in Scripture who reminds me the most of myself isn’t Abraham or Moses or Paul.  It’s Barabbas.

Barabbas was the notorious thieving-insurrectionist-killer who was inexplicably exonerated when he should have been executed.   What set him free was Jesus being crucified in his place and becoming sin itself so that He might make Barabbas and us and the entire human family the antithesis of what we were – the righteousness of the Divine.

There we sat in our jail cells.   Haunted night and day.  Guilty of every disturbing detail our rap sheet had documented.  But now, thanks to the grace of heaven, such a one that reaches even me and even you, our chains have been unshackled, our prison cells are swinging open in the night and the criminal record listing all our felonies has been erased and replaced with our names being added into the registry of heaven.

We can look at those mug shots and know  – “That’s not who I am anymore.”

Until then, the “Jay’s,” the “Maria’s” and the “Ricky’s of our broken world continue to search for someone who will love them.  Someone who will acknowledge their transformation.  And someone to celebrate life in Christ with.

What a sadness it is – that everyone else in the circle gets to be forgiven and to be defined no longer by their worst day.  But certain people’s must forever be ostracized and defined by those 5…7…15…25 seconds of their life, because of what happened in ’83.

Perhaps the way we will learn to destroy this practice is to view the grace of God as something that’s even more blessed to give than it is to receive.  Then, as it is in any real family, “me” becomes “us;” “mine” becomes “ours,” and suddenly, now we’re sharing Jesus and we’re sharing redemption instead of trying to hoard Him all to ourselves.
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“Jay” found that belonging at long last sometime later when he discovered not all churches are like the one he experienced.  “I’m back!” he exclaimed to me with the smiling exuberance of a first grader.

I’ll never know if “Maria” or “Ricky” ever did.

What I do know is, whenever we encounter the “Maria’s” and “Ricky’s” of our future, we need to address and own up to the elephant in the room:  that their mug shots and crimes are no less hellish than ours were.

And then, if we do, when we look into their faces, we will see who we used to be, looking back at us.

“When Paul (*the one who called himself the chief of all the sinners) came to Jerusalem, he was trying to associate with the disciples but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple.  But Barnabas took hold of him and brought him to the apostles and described to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had talked to him, and how at Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus.”
– Acts 9:26-27