God of My 20’s: Understanding Connectivity

(Post #9 in a collaborative series)

Guest Blogger Rick Howell

I felt the call of God into the ministry at the ripe young age of 17. While I obediently began to make decisions consistent with this understanding of God’s direction for my life, I thought it was the dumbest thing God could do. I was active in a small Baptist Church that only had two staff members: a pastor and a choir director. I knew I couldn’t sing; therefore, my calling must be to be a pastor. The problem with this, from my perspective, was that there was very little that I saw my pastor do that I thought I would either be good at or enjoy. Nevertheless, to the best of my understanding I proceeded forward. After getting married, my new bride and I moved to Louisville, Kentucky, to begin my pastoral preparation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I was 22 years old. Through the course of the next five years, God used a variety of circumstances to guide my journey to places I did not even know existed when Debbie and I packed the U-Haul and headed north. At a certain point in my ministerial formation, I experienced a crisis of self and faith that, I would learn one day, was complicated by my misunderstandings of myself, God, and our relationship. Fortunately, for me, Southern had an arrangement with a local counselor with whom I began to meet. This counseling relationship became a vital tool of the Holy Spirit to begin to attend to some very unhealthy dimensions of my relationship with God and with myself. This exploration of self and God was at times very painful, but also life giving. I began to experience a deepening intimacy with God that would have not been possible if I had maintained my previous perspectives. Ever so gradually, I began to wonder if my particular God-given gifts and talents were intended for a ministry of pastoral counseling rather than the pastorate. As my calling began to be clarified and focused, God’s idea originally communicated eight years earlier became much less dumb. Isn’t it interesting how that transformation occurred?

My relationship with myself and God continues to grow and become, now 32 years later. I have come to understand that God is not nearly as concerned about my productivity as my connectivity. Staying grounded to myself enhances my willingness to be connected to God as I am clearly aware of my longing for God. Staying grounded to God, being reminded of God’s deep desire to hang out with me, enables me to be honest in my self-assessment thereby improving my relationship with myself. From time to time, I experience unhealthy remnants of my immature understanding of myself and God. I get caught up in impressing God with my activity or achievement. While these vestiges continue to disrupt my journey, I am committed to my own healing. God is patient, kind, and clear as I encounter these setbacks. God’s calm voice keeps calling me back. “Be still and know that I am God.”

At the same time and as a result of God’s calling on my life, I have had the privilege of serving God by walking alongside of people who are loved by God, for whom God desperately desires healing and wholeness. Through the years I have discovered that I am not unique, as it is common for folks to need a safe relationship with whom they can explore themselves, God, and their relationship. Perhaps this familiar human journey is what The Holy Scriptures is referring to when we are told to “Work out our own salvation in fear and trembling.” Relationships (with self, God, and others) are like bottles of Ketchup. It doesn’t matter how full they look from the outside; it takes a lot of work to get anything out of them.

God of My 20’s: From Going Fast to Resting

(Post #8 in a collaborative series)

Guest Blogger Aaron Pilant

To put it plainly, I’m slower.  This reality came crashing down upon me several months ago.  My 17-year old son came home from school, and he couldn’t stop talking about this basketball game with his friends.  He kept saying how amazing he was, and how he did all these moves that made his opponents look bad.  So, in an effort to connect with my son, I decided to show this young whipper snapper a thing or two on the basketball court.  It all started off good, but shortly I realized how slow I had become.  I used to be able to dribble effortlessly.  I used to be able to move so quickly.  I used to be able to jump so high.  Now, I am just slow.  Being slow can sound bad, but it can be good.

Twenty feels like such a long time ago.  My twenties started by me asking my future wife to marry me.  I was later married that year.  A few years later, we purchased our first home.  Shortly after moving in, my wife became pregnant.  We welcomed my son later that year.  I was working as a part-time youth pastor in a small church.  I was living the dream.  I graduated from a Christian college with a degree in church ministry.  I was married to a beautiful woman.  I had a beautiful baby boy.  I had just started a career path that I felt was my calling and future.  Truth be told, I was living the dream.  I was a passionate Christian.  I had my struggles like anyone, but I was walking with God daily and serving Him in a field that I knew He wanted me in.  We didn’t have a lot of money, but we were happy.  I worked so hard with that youth ministry.  We loved our “kids,” and they loved us.

In my mid-twenties, we moved our little family to Missouri to serve as a youth pastor at a larger church.  We loved youth ministry.  We loved serving God.  It was great!  The youth ministry grew so quickly and large that it baffled me.

In my late twenties, God radically changed the direction of my life.  After several years of praying and talking with several people, I stepped down from the youth pastor position and became a Police Officer.  Yeah, I know.  Crazy, right?   We went where we felt God was pulling us.  Shortly after becoming an Officer, we became pregnant with our daughter.

That was my twenties in a nutshell. So how is my relationship with God different now than it was then?  That really is a tough question.  When I was in my twenties, I had so much passion and energy for God.  I was going to set the world ablaze with the message of His Son.  I spent so much time studying the Bible.  I just couldn’t get enough.

One thing I lacked, though, was the ability to slow down and truly listen to God.  I thought being busy, “going fast” constantly was the right thing to do.  I had never learned how to slow down and truly rest in God.  Truth be told, I would still be that way if I had the energy.  When I was in my mid 30’s, I began to realize that I couldn’t keep up with the pace I set for myself with everything.  I had to learn to rest.  I had to slow down.

Some good friends began to challenge me to think about my life and, more importantly, my relationship with God in a radically different way.  I had grown up in a pretty legalistic religious setting.  I had broken away from most of that thinking except for working myself to death.  I felt that was the only way to please God, to burn as hard and as long as you can.  At the end of the day, this was destroying my relationship with God.

Thankfully, my 40’s have started differently.  I am more at ease with myself and a slower pace.  I am more comfortable looking at life like a marathon rather than a sprint.  I’m learning more and more how to rest in God.  I am growing more at ease with boundaries.  I am okay with saying no.  I am slower, but slowing down has been good.  It has given me a chance to take in the beauty of God and a relationship with Him based in His grace rather than my pace.

Vulnerability

One effort, and it is for me, to achieve better and deeper this year is to listen to more podcasts. I don’t tend to follow every episode of a podcast; therein lies my effort. Rather than just tune in for every episode dropped, I have to search for episodes that speak to what I’m looking to receive, areas of growth I need to pay attention to.

My friend Mark cohosts a podcast called The Next Man Up. His target audience is fathers. Since I’m not his target, I tend not to tune in to every episode. Reality is, though, most of the content is for men in general; so regardless of your stage of life as a man, you get something from each episode.

For example, I just listened to Episode #91. The subject is vulnerability, which men stink at. I’m not the worst at it, but I’m not the best either. But I know this, if a podcast episode has the name Brene Brown in the show notes, I’m probably going listen. I haven’t regretted doing so yet.

Guys, I’m not going to rehash the episode’s content. Odds are pretty high you need to get better in this area also. Click on the link. It’s a good use of thirty minutes today.

52: A Better & Deeper Birthday

Got a call this morning asking if I felt wiser. Took me a moment, but I figured out that was their way of saying, “I know you had a birthday yesterday.”

I don’t know about wiser, but I can say yesterday (#52) was an illustration that I am certainly better at acknowledging my birthday as I age.

Last decade my “go to” celebration was traveling to run a race: ’11, Snickers Marathon; ’13, Tuscaloosa Half; ’17, Little Rock 10k; ’18, Mississippi 50k; ’19, Rhode Island Marathon. No race or traveling this year. Just let it flowed.

Instead of running elsewhere, I enjoyed a midday run sporting my birthday gift to myself: 


Roll Tide!

Other treats of the day involved free food: a chocolate cupcake that appeared on my desk, then a Firehouse sub and a Chick-fil-a shake courtesy of their mobile apps (you should get them if you don’t have them).

But the best gift given to me was from an unexpected source. Through sign language in a movie, God gave me clarity about a project that has been shelved for a couple of years. And it came out of nowhere. I wasn’t looking for it. But it was quite clear and brought peace. Makes sense that God gave me the best gift of the day.

If this is an indicator of what’s in store on birthdays the rest of this decade, I’m in. Better and Deeper! Let’s Go!

3 Embraces for Healthy Fear

College Student: “I’m a little scared about this.”

Me: “Well, that probably means God is going to have a better chance to do what he wants.”

These two lines were from a conversation yesterday in my office. This student is stepping out to do something new, on her own. Admitting her fear but not reluctant to be obedient, she illustrated what healthy fear does. Healthy fear embraces rather than coils, hides, runs, or any other flight responses. If you’re facing a fear with unhealthy tendencies, see if any of these mindsets help:

  1. Embrace Being Uncomfortable…think Daniel in the lion’s den. Satan wants you to believe you’ve made the wrong choice, you can’t count on God, you’re not ready, and any number of other lies. Whatever den door your obedience to God has led you to enter, choose to embrace that discomfort and watch how God shuts lion’s mouths.
  2. Embrace Moving Forward without all the Answers…think Noah first day on the job. Doubt wants you to believe it’s not possible, you’ll never finish, you’re not smart enough, and any number of other unknowns. Whatever task your faith in God has led you to begin, choose to embrace what you know and watch how God completes an ark.
  3. Embrace Relying on God…think Esther walking up to the throne. Insecurity wants you to believe you are all alone, you lack courage, you will crumble, and any number of other nightmares. Whatever sacrifice your confidence in God has led you to offer, choose to embrace the vision of God’s best and watch how God honors the reliant.

How will you embrace fear in order for God to get what he wants?

God of My 20’s: My “Pharis-ectomy”

(Post #7 in a collaborative series)

Guest Blogger Mark Stanifer

It is July 2005. I’m 32 years old. On this hot summer day I’m disoriented, sitting in an unfamiliar church auditorium, listening to an unfamiliar dude. He’s got long hair, tattoos, a Canadian accent, and is wearing shorts and sandals. He seemed innocuous enough, but he’s just rocked my world and I didn’t see it coming. That’s when my spiritual surgery began, and it would take years to fully recover.

To understand why this is so significant, roll the clock back 20 years to 1985. I’m 12 years old, mid-way through the usual summer church camp and God grabbed hold of my heart. Growing up a church rat—you know, the kid who is always there because his parents were always there—I knew the language and the routine. This summer I began a deeper understanding of why. I remember tears, talking with one of the camp counselors, and an intense resolve to pursue God from that point forward.

My life has always be defined by coloring inside the lines. I like to know the rules and the right way to do things. For some, that is suffocating. For me, it is comforting. This is how I am wired. It has advantages in the right context. It can also create problems. One of those problems is a too-familiar relationship with fear. Another is an inclination toward stasis unless the way forward is clear. These two are related, for sure. They both have dogged me.

In 1995, I graduated from college, married my high school sweetheart and began life out in the “real world.” It felt like I had waited a long time for these things to happen, so the excitement was real. As we built our life together, we invested heavily into our local church. It was part of the real world requirement for a God-follower. Nursery duty, teaching younglings, helping the teens, leading small groups, starting whole programs, serving as an elected leader. Name the church thing and I had done it. My church resume was impressive. So much so that “churchianity” had started to replace Christianity for me.

In reality, I was becoming more like a chief priest or ruler of the law. I see that now, although at the time I didn’t. My spiritual swagger from right believing and right living was becoming arrogance. Non Christians were more like projects. Christians who weren’t in my tribe were marginalized. All the while, I lived with a strong fear, just below the surface, that unless my beliefs and actions were right God would be disappointed in me. As Wayne Jacobsen says, I was trapped in the “obligation of religious performance.”

By the time my 20’s came to a close, I was on my way to becoming a righteous Pharisee. This wasn’t the path I intended. My desire was to follow God, to know Jesus. However, in my attempt to find that path I drifted toward religiosity. It was seductive—measurable activity, documented beliefs, outward proof of my allegiance to God. There was also my “good life”—good job, good wife, good kids, good health, good [fill-in-the-blank]. I equated good life with God’s love. The problem was, it was never about religious performance. God’s love isn’t evidenced by good circumstances. I was missing the whole point. It has always been about an intimate relationship with Jesus.

Which brings us full circle back to 2005 and the Canadian. I had no idea that this was the first incision of the surgery. A surgery that I would eventually refer to affectionately as my “Pharis-ectomy.” It took years of incisions, healing, and recovery to get to where I am. Yet I am grateful for it all. Why? Because I have today what I didn’t have before:

  1. A deep, abiding confidence that I am loved by Father, regardless of what I do on His behalf
  2. An intimate and growing relationship with Jesus
  3. A immense freedom that I didn’t realize was possible; a freedom to live for Jesus way beyond rules; a freedom to engage others from a place of love rather than fear and judgement

Who was God in my 20’s? The same God I know and follow today. I just better understand who He is. And I better understand who I am in Him. This is what He’s wanted for me from the beginning. It took a journey through my 20’s to be ready to embrace it. One that I will always value. One that I’m happy to have behind me.

God of My 20’s: Mourning Replaced with Savoring

(Post #6 in a collaborative series)

Guest Blogger: Dawn Stark

Throughout my 20’s I worked for an international airline and traveled the world for almost nothing. But all I really wanted was a baby.  I mourned continually over my empty arms.  Nothing else would appease me: Hawaii, the Greek Islands, Europe, sailing down the Nile – a decade of beautiful places and experiences that I mainly viewed through the lens of pain. I didn’t understand God’s love language to me in the waiting season.  I missed so many amazing places of worship on the way to my arms being filled to overflowing.

The way I spent my 20’s shrouded in mourning is a life regret.

Today I am traveling again, for different reasons, but still very similar to the way I did so many years ago. I know without a doubt God has once again given me this season as a gift in a beautiful way of merging mission and passion. It’s a do-over of sorts. Life is full of long, complicated, and painful journeys; infertility was only one of many that I’ve endured. In my early 50’s now, with 5 miracle children in my life, there is sufficient evidence that I cannot fret or worry or mourn my way through this life.

Recently, work led me to Puerto Rico. A traveler to my core, I was so excited about this new adventure I couldn’t fall asleep the night before my flight.  I’ve been to the island years ago on two other occasions, but only in the San Juan area.  This trip required me to rent a car and travel to Mayaguez, on the western side of PR.  I padded my travel time on each side of work events to allow for moments of spontaneity: pulling over to enjoy look-out points, taking the temperature of the Caribbean water with a quick dip, snapping photos of interesting sites, and choosing local eats over convenient chain options.

Puerto Rico did not disappoint!  I so enjoyed spending time with ministry partners, learning about the heart-breaking impact of Hurricane Maria, and discovering the resilience of the people. I intently practiced present-moment mindfulness by not letting my thoughts creep back to other weighty matters and instead choosing to focus on the “great and small” of life happening right in front of me:

  • the vibrant colors saturating the Puerto Rican culture through nature and art.
  • the proud rooster walking down the sidewalk, crowing like he totally belonged in that human space.
  • the irony of eating St. Louis (my hometown) style rib from the BBQ joint I just happened to stop at for dinner.
  • the newlywed who coaxed me to jump into the rough shore break and enjoy the sunset with her family.
  • the experience of driving in San Juan’s rush hour traffic when 12 lanes of inbound cars merged into 4 without traffic lines or signals of any sort.

While travel is all a little harder on my body these days, I am intent on not missing the moments made for worshipping along the way this time.  I cannot reverse the way I lived my 20’s, doubting the goodness of God, but I can learn from that experience.  My trip to Puerto Rico reminded me – again – to savor the gifts I’ve been given. The song, Peace, written by Michael McDonald and recorded by Russ Taff, perfectly captures my thoughts:

I have come from so far away

Down the road of my own mistakes

In the hope you could hear me pray

Oh Lord, keep me in your reach.

 

How I’ve longed through these wasted years

To outrun all my pain and fears

Turn to stone from own cried tears

And now its your grace I see

 

Love won’t compromise

It’s a gift, it’s a sacrifice

My soul renewed, and my heart released

In you I find my peace.

 

Wonderous child of whom the angels sing

Know my joy, feel my suffering

Shining star make this love you bring

So bring that I may believe

 

That my way will not be lost

From now on, ‘till that river’s crossed

My soul renewed, and my spirit free

In you I’ll find my peace

3 Questions to Refresh Your Bible Reading

If you’re reading this post, you most likely fit into two categories:

  1. You read the Bible regularly, or at least try, and know that at times you need a “pickmeup.”
  2. You have yet to really figure out how to make Bible reading a thing you do.

Guess what…God knows it and understands. Yet, I’ll paraphrase Max Lucado, God sees where you are but isn’t content to leave you there. So when it comes to Bible reading, God desires for you to enjoy communing with him through his words to you.

Whether you are flowing along completely satisfied in your approach to Bible reading, or if you try one more devotional plan that leads to “failure” you are done with it, or you’re indifferent about it, indulge me to encourage you to consider asking yourself these three questions the next time you open your Bible.

  • Who am I when I approach the Bible?

I’m not suggesting you have to flash your official birth certificate heavenward to remind your Creator that you are his handiwork. He knows you, trust that. But do you know your spiritual identity? What if that’s how you approached the Bible? 

Rather than the father of four who wants out, you are God’s son who needs advice, courage, wisdom. 

Rather than the wife of Mr. Grumpy Pants, you are God’s daughter who needs empathy, forgiveness, patience. 

Rather than the employer who wrestles with growing your business, you are God’s servant who wants direction, guidance, blessing. 

When you open the Bible, what might happen if you engaged it with your heavenly identity over your earthly title?

A note to those in category #2: If your answer to who you are is something like Skeptic, Doubter, Curious, First-Timer, or anything that sounds unacceptable to those church-goers, it’s worth repeating. God knows you. He wrote the Bible for you, too.

  • What question focuses my reading?

Once you’ve landed on who are you, then it’s time to figure out why you are reading the Bible. If your answer is because I’m supposed to, let’s go ahead and admit this-that ain’t cuttin’ it. Legalism leads to exactly where you are.

You have to have a reason with purpose that says, “I know God sees me where I am, and I’m not content staying there either.” With that in mind, word a question that will give your heart and mind direction. 

For example, “As a child of God, what is God saying to me?” Or, “As a follower of Jesus, how does this apply to me today?” Or, “As a believer seeking transformation, what steps of growth are possible?” Or, “As a skeptic, what hope do I see in these words?” Or, “As a first-timer, what can I learn about God?” Or, “As a doubter, how does God show himself?”

Once you’ve worded that question, post it somewhere in your eyesight every time you open your Bible. Maybe it’s on a post-it. Maybe it’s at the top of a notepad. Maybe it’s on your computer screen. Write this question in your heart as well as in your vision.

  • Which part of the Bible allures me?

Now that you know who you are and what question is guiding your heart and mind, here’s where I believe freedom shows up. Your entry into heaven isn’t based on did you read the entire Bible or any other works orientation. Free yourself from any system that enslaves you. If you feel God guiding you to read from Genesis to Revelation, fantastic. But if you find yourself stuck in the dull drums, give yourself the freedom to sit as long as you want where you are getting the most from it. God isn’t abusive. He may be corrective as a Good Father and Shepherd, but when you know who you are and why you’re reading his word, all his words can fulfill you. Choose to read where God leads you and feast as long as you want.

One last note for those in Category #2: If you don’t know how to answer this question, here’s a suggestion. Go to the New Testament and try one of the first four books. Most people like to start with the Gospel of John.

God promised that when we seek him we will find him. May these questions assist you in finding God.

(This post was prompted by a coaching session. If you have yet to receive the benefits of a coaching relationship in your life, let this be a testament to what’s possible.)

Jesus’ Lifestyle

If you want to experience the life of Jesus, you have to adopt the lifestyle of Jesus.

In prepping for a talk, this John Mark Comer quote from The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry made the notes.


If you were to make a list that described Jesus’ lifestyle, what would you include? I made a list of five. Here they are with scripture that illustrate them.

  1. For his Father. “If you keep my commands you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.” John 15:10
  2. Balance. “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and with people.” Luke 2:52
  3. Prayer.  “Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go ahead of him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After he said goodbye to them, he went away to the mountain to pray.” Mark 6:45-46
  4. Non-materialistic. “So don’t worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ Or ‘What will we drink?’ Or ‘What will we wear?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things, and your heavenly father knows that you need them. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.” Matthew 6:31-33
  5. People. “When he saw the crowds, he felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew 9:36

What else would you add? Consider completing this for a devotional exercise and reply with your thoughts.

Looking for Gold

I heard this quote today during a webinar:

“Men are developed the same way gold is mined. When gold is mined, several tons of dirt must be moved to get an ounce of gold; but one doesn’t go into the mine looking for dirt—one goes in looking for the gold.” -Andrew Carnegie

My mind immediately tried to connect this thought to scriptures like Job 23, Psalm 66, and Zechariah 13. But the context isn’t the same. These writers were referring to the outcomes of testing by fire. The imagery of mining for gold brings out a different challenge, even opportunity.

The webinar focused on a style of coaching labeled compassionate. Bottom-line premise: approach coaching as both you and the coachee looking for gold. Expect dirt moving to be necessary, but be more focused on the gold to be found.

Brene Brown would call this generosity. Regardless of whether we call it generous or compassionate, what might happen if we all approached our relationships and conversations, including self-talk, with such focus? It could impact…

  • …how we give employees annual reviews.
  • …how we discipline our children.
  • …how we chat with our neighbors.
  • …how we engage gossip.
  • …how we receive, “I’m sorry.”
  • …how long we coddle anger.
  • …how we analyze guilt.
  • …how we pursue dreams.
  • …how we set goals.
  • …and most impactfully, how we surrender to God’s testing.

Here’s to better and deeper gold looking!