Structure and the Spirit

Today, I had a chance to speak with Calisto Odede, the Urbana expositor for this year's conference. Every day, he is expositing passages from the Gospel of Luke to 16,000 Urbana participants.

Last night, he told a story about his first experience preaching. He was ambushed by a friend. Young. Unprepared. He preached for an hour with no preparation, except the quiet time he had that morning. He preached for an hour with no training, except for the quiet time he had regularly. He preached for an hour and God used it and people responded.

He gave credit to God's Spirit, who gave him the words to say.

And I think there's a story here.

Decades after that first sermon, ambushed and at the mercies of God's merciful Spirit, Calisto Odede is preaching at Urbana. He's been working on this material for two years. He's spent years praying for the 5 expositions he will give this week. He's been to the Urbana speakers retreat where he received feedback on his expositions from a global network of seasoned and godly men and women.

Is there any more structured preaching environment than Urbana?

How do these two go together: the Spirit and our structures? Calisto had an answer for me: "God's Spirit works in us during our preparation even as he works in us in the moment."

When we pray, God's Spirit is at work.
When we select a text, God's Spirit is at work.
When we study the selected text, God's Spirit is at work.
When we listen to commentators, God's Spirit is at work.
When we craft a sermon on the text, God's Spirit is at work.
When we solicit feedback, God's Spirit is at work.
When we pray again, God's Spirit is at work.

When we stand up to preach ... even in that moment ... the same Spirit who has been working, that Spirit, God's Spirit is at work.

Even in our structured environments, God's Spirit is at work.

Good Enough

I struggled with the "Good Enough" tension today at Urbana.

My job at the conference is to work as the Editor of Urbana Today, the daily paper for the Urbana Missions Conference. I have a team of writers and designers who are wildly talented. Every day, we produce a newspaper that will be read by over 16,000 people.

None of us will win Pulitzers for the work we're doing on Urbana Today. We move at a million miles an hour, short-staffed and under-funded (in solidarity with all newspapers, nowadays ... though we were doing it before it was cool). We have rock-solid, hard-as-adamantium deadlines. If we miss our deadline, there will be no paper for the day. Students will miss out. Advertisers will be upset. Chaos will ensue.

So, we ship.

We send the paper in at the deadline. It isn't perfect. I already know about a flaw or two in tomorrow's edition. It isn't perfect. But it's good. Actually, it's good enough.

And here's where the tension appears ...

Tonight's message from Calisto Odede challenged students. He challenged them to be filled with the Spirit and to minister in the power of the Spirit. He challenged them to preach. And he challenged them to begin now.

Here's a powerful quote from Calisto tonight:

If it is not good enough for local consumption, perhaps it is not good enough for export.

Calisto was urging students to share the gospel with people in their local communities, with their neighbors and their families.

And in his challenge, this "Good Enough" tension appeared. Refusing to share the gospel locally communicates that the gospel is not good enough for people like you. And if it isn't good enough for people like you, why would it be better for people who are different from you?

Tonight, the Urbana Today newspaper was good enough to share with the printer. But is the gospel, according to the evidence of my day-to-day life, good enough to share as well?

I found my self convicted. Not guilt-tripped. But convicted in a wonderful way.

Where do you find yourself feeling the "Good Enough" tension?

Check out Calisto Odede's talk from tonight's session at Urbana ( Calisto's portion begins an hour and a half in).

Urbana Bound

Every three years, InterVarsity hosts the Urbana Missions Conference. Thousands of students and missionaries from around the world gather in St. Louis, MO. We engage in multi-ethnic worship. We hear speakers from all over the world. We have meaningful and challenging conversations about God’s mission in the world. It’s a phenomenal experience.

This year will mark my fourth time participating in Urbana.

In 2003, I went to Urbana for the first time. I was in graduate school and had noticed a shift in my interests. I found myself spending much of my free time volunteering in student ministry and loving it. I started to wonder if this might be good work for me (at least for a season).

I went to that first Urbana looking for a call from God. I interviewed with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in the Blue Ridge Region. And though the interview was pretty intense, I received a call on New Year’s Eve offering me a job. That job moved me to Virginia, where I met Amy and had tremendous experiences following Jesus.

Fast forward six years and I was at Urbana ’09. Amy was pregnant. I was exhausted with work. I felt like I had nothing more to offer the students I was working with. They needed someone with more energy, someone more outgoing, someone who fit them better if the work at Washington and Lee was going to grow to the next level (and it has … Kevin, the Staff who took over for me at W&L, has done an amazing job).

So, I went to Urbana ’09 wondering if it was going to be my last. I was going to interview for an Area Director position in South Florida. I didn’t think the job would fit me perfectly, but the idea of working with Latino students and community college students really excited me. If that job didn’t work out, I’d go off to grad school or find a business job.

Today I'm going to Urbana again. I still feel in over my head with the Area Director position. I still fight the urge to push the plow with one eye looking over my shoulder. And I still wonder what God will do in me at Urbana.

Would you consider virtually joining me at Urbana this year?
  • Join by praying for the conference
  • Join by following on social media (@UrbanaMissions and Urbana on Facebook)
  • Join by watching the conference (

A Model Savior

Will got a lot of cool toys from my parents for Christmas: a toy helicopter and footballs and kiddy computers. But he got two big toys: a ride-on 4 wheeler from my Dad and a ride-on dune buggy from my Mom.

With each of these toys, Will did the same thing. He smiled and jumped on the toy. He hesitantly pushed the gas pedal. He pulled his foot off as soon as he started moving. He played along for a few minutes, then hopped off. That's it.

These are great toys. Why didn't he play on them all day?

As a two-year-old, he can only share so much about what he's thinking. We have to guess at a lot. But like any good scientist, I paid careful attention to see if there was any difference between the two situations. And there was.

At Dad's house, there was another little boy, a four-year-old. This other boy jumped on the 4 wheeler and started riding it. When Will saw this, his interest was re-engaged. He wanted another turn. He hopped up behind the boy and rode along.

At Mom's house, there was another little boy as well, a six-year-old. This other boy arrived right as Will went down for his nap. He left before Will awoke. They never got to ride the dune buggy together. And Will's interest was not re-engaged today.

Now, tomorrow's another day. And Will will love each of his toys. But I found this trend very interesting.

The other boy, not the type of toy, determined Will's level of engagement. When he saw another boy playing with the toy, he wanted in.

When we think about Christmas and what it means to us that God became present in our midst, I wonder if Jesus didn't become the other boy for us. We've tried to ride the dune buggy of the godly life. For whatever reason, we all lose interest, all fall off the machine, all go astray. And when we encounter Christ, we re-engage. He models a godly life and we strive to imitate him.

Recent evangelical theology has a hard time with this idea. We tend to pit the idea of Jesus as a Model against the idea of Jesus as a Substitute. Did he come to show us the way? Or did he come to help us because we are incapable of following the way? It feels like an either/or option.

But ancient theologians felt no pressure to make the choice. They could, in the same breath, affirm that we needed a substitute to live the sort of life we wanted to live and die a righteous death in our place and, remember that this is the same breath, affirm that Jesus showed us a new way to live and that we are called to imitate him.

A lot of us need to unresolve this tension. We need to find a way to talk about imitation without letting go of our language of grace and mercy. Because Jesus did not just complete a transaction on our behalf. He did it in full view. He did not pay through the mail. He did not send in a check. He commissioned his disciples to bear the good news of salvation and to look at his life and "go and do likewise."

We needed a Savior. But we also needed a Model. In Christ, we have both.

Let's get back up on that dune buggy.

The Gospel of God's Presence

The entire gospel hinges on God's presence with us.

Remove God's presence and there is no good news. And if God is present in human history through Jesus Christ, then everything else that we think about when it comes to the gospel - salvation and substitution and healing and justice and reconciliation - all the rest must follow.

"If God could just see what we see, hear what we hear, suffer what we suffer, he would do something about it all." This lament echoes through human history. And that echo smashes into Jesus Christ.

Our understanding of the character of God hinges so much on what we saw of him in Jesus Christ. As much as we talk about the loving and gracious God of the Old Testament, He seems to have few friends, few people with whom he is intimate enough to share their sorrows. And yet, Jesus' life is full of relationships. Disciples and friends. Family. Acquaintances, fans and enemies. He shared life with all of these people. And so he knew the hurts inflicted by the world. He saw and heard and suffered.

We Christians claim that God saw and heard and suffered, that God did something, that he was present and is present and will be present throughout human history. Time bends and folds itself around his coming. Shockwaves roll along the strings of history. It's because he was present in Bethlehem that we can believe he was present in Bethel and Bethany and Bethesda, MD (or anywhere else for that matter).

This is one of the things I love about the old, rolling patristic theology. Athanasius got this. He said something like ... "Human history was a town besieged by bandits" he said. "The people of the town suffered, overwhelmed by evil. Yet one day, the King of that country took up residence in that town. He took up residence and took up arms. And from that day forward, the bandits harried the town no longer." And here's what he says next (this was so good I had to look it up):
Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be. For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death.
I love that Love doesn't love us from a distance.
I love that Love shared the house of bread and the cup of wine.
I love that Love endured the rude wind's wild lament and the bitter weather.
I love that Love embraced the slings and arrows of the outrageous human experience and entered as a player on the small stage, sans wealth, sans privilege, sans safety, sans everything.

Greater love has no one than Love. 
And Love is present with us.
And this is good news.

Illustrating Emotion in Preaching

The Bible is full of emotional content.

In Luke 2:8-20 (the passage I preached on at Crossway this morning), emotions careened all over the place. Sadness and fear and joy and extreme joy.

A great deal of preaching ignores these emotions. Preachers tend to teach the intellectual content of the passage and then move to application. They explain what words mean. If they're fancy, they refer to the Greek. They share illustrations to help people understand what's going on. They make the meaning clear.

Their hope is that if the meaning becomes more clear, the hearers of the sermon will be more willing to live in the reality of the passage: believing and obeying. And I think this is probably true.

But what do we do with all of this emotional content?

Every once in a while, I'll structure a sermon in order to help hearers connect with the emotion in the passage. Illustrations are organized around a desire to bring the emotional content of the passage to the surface, not necessarily to improve hearer's intellectual comprehension of the passage. This technique is extremely useful in familiar passages and straightforward narratives.

Illustrations that help people connect emotionally with the passage will usually answer these two questions:
  • How did the characters feel in this moment? 
  • How do we feel as we hear this story?
This technique works wonderfully when you're using a narrative-weave sermon structure. This is my preferred structure for preaching in the field. Here's one example:
  • Passage Part A - Story Part A (Setup)
  • Passage Part B - Story Part B (Conflict)
  • Passage Part C - Story Part C (Resolution)
In today's sermon, I used this structure [listen here]:
  • Luke 2:8 - Infertility Story: Sadness/Frustration (Setup)
  • Luke 2:9 - Breaking the Baby Story: Fear (Conflict)
  • Luke 2:10-14 - Dressing as Santa Story: Joy/Unselfconsciousness (Climax)
  • Luke 2:15-16 - We're Pregnant Story: Extreme Joy (Resolution)
  • Luke 2:17-20 - Busy Life Story: Confusion (Denouement)
The weave structure is very important here. If the thread that connect the illustrative stories is too weak, they will feel random and hearers will feel lost. Why is he telling this story? The opportunity to connect emotionally will be lost in the confusion.

This is something I stumbled onto when preaching in the field. Preaching multiple times every week with very little time to prepare, I found this structure to really work for me. If you listen to any of the old GCF podcasts on iTunes, this is invariably the structure that I used.

I realize that a lot of this material may not be relevant for you. If you don't get to preach often (or ever), you may feel like there isn't much to do with this. But I wonder if you would consider conducting an experiment.

The next time you hear a sermon, listen to hear how the preacher communicates the emotions that swirl around the passage. If Paul is angrily writing a letter to the Galatians, can you hear it? If David is joyfully praising God, can you sense his joy? If Mary is afraid, can you tell? If you can, encourage the person preaching.

Illustrating emotion is hard work.

Practically Present in Every Way

I struggle to be present.

I show up. I've taken very few sick days in the last decade. I didn't miss very much school. I come home when I'm expected.

But I check my email all the time. And Twitter and Facebook. I'm always reading: books, news, blogs. My mind is always running.

I'm finding myself more and more distracted lately. Distracted more easily.

It's possible to be present in the body, but no where else.

Many people are present in the body, but not in the emotions. They are cold and distant. They are uninvolved. They aren't moved. They don't seem to care.

Somedays, "they" are me.

Many people are present in the body, but not in the heart. They want to be somewhere else. They are looking at the green grass on the other side of the fence. They show up but don't really show up.

Somedays, "they" are me.

Many people are present in the body, but not in the mind. Their attention is elsewhere. They skip and skim along on the surface of life. They communicate your insignificance by through their inattention. They are checked out.

Somedays, "they" are me.


In this season, I find myself thinking a lot about the Incarnation. God himself becomes present to us in Jesus. Not just present, but fully present.

Jesus never appears distracted. His mind never appears elsewhere. His heart is fully there. His emotions are deeply engaged.

I so deeply would love to be like this.

Can you imagine what would have happened if Jesus was only partially present? If his emotions weren't present, we'd wonder whether or not he was fully human. If his mind wasn't present, we'd wonder if we mattered to him. If his heart wasn't present, how would he have endured the suffering of life, death and the grave?


Even as we worship a fully present God, we remain practically present people.

Checking out in emotion, heart and mind is a mechanism that we've developed to survive a world that makes vigorous demands on us. Checking out channels a vein of selfishness and arrogance and protectiveness.

How do we become more present?

I wish I knew.

Stopping by Jesus

In our never-ending attempts to wear out our two year old, we took a family outing tonight. We went on a picnic in downtown Davie, where the city offices are covered in thousands and thousands of twinkly Christmas lights.

After finishing our food, Will decided he wanted to run and be chased. He ran down the lighted path, switching from concrete to grass to mulch and back to concrete. He ran around the giant tree, which in its hundreds of years of life has never been circled by so much joy as fills Will when he runs and us as we chase him. He ran past dozens of Christmas trees and brightly lit menorahs. And then he passed a manger scene.

Except, he didn't exactly pass the manger scene. He stopped and counted the 7 animals and said hello to Baby Jesus.

Then he started running again. Concrete, grass, mulch, concrete, giant tree, Christmas tree, Christmas tree, Christmas tree, menorah ... and then he stopped. Back at the manger. He waved to Baby Jesus and waited for us to catch our breath. Then, he was off again.

In some ways, this is what we do every Christmas. We race through our year, joyfully flipping pages on our calendar, January, February, March, concrete, giant tree, Christmas tree, menorah ... and then we stop. We pause at a manger. We remember Jesus. We encounter Jesus. We complement Jesus on his beautiful diaper (as Will did). Then, we're off again.

It's tempting to berate ourselves in this season, wishing we remembered Jesus more frequently, thought about him more as we run laps beneath the lights. It's tempting to roll our eyes at the image of a tiny infant 8 pounds 6 ounce cuddly and omnipotent Jesus, wishing more people thought of him as a grown man. There's a lot we'd like to change about our spirituality and our culture.

But it's a beautiful thing to stop when you get to Jesus. To pause there.

If you do find yourself encountering Jesus at any point in your headlong dash through your calendar or through the holiday season, I would encourage you to pause there. Ask how he's connected to the rest of this. Ask what he's doing in that manger. Complement him on his beautiful diaper. Don't just run by.

How are you stopping by Jesus this week? What does that look like for you?

Childlike Optimism

We were walking back to the car tonight. Amy carried Jack in a sling and Will rode on my shoulders. We had gone to the fair to watch the rides and enjoy the lights and tire out our 2 year old. And we were on our way back to the car ... or so we thought.

As we approached the car, I asked Will where we were going. Without hesitation, he said "Ice Cream" and pointed across the parking lot. 100 yards, maybe more. Poorly lit. Filled with cars. No ice cream in the parking lot.

Beyond the parking lot, there was a half-abandoned strip mall. Actually, we were looking at the side of a half-abandoned strip mall. One store had a light on. The rest was dark.

I was faced with a choice.

I could shut this down. I could say something like "There's no ice cream store here, buggy." He would be fine. We'd get in the car and go home.

I could discourage this. I could say something like "I don't see any ice cream store here, buggy." There might be ice cream on the unseen side of the half-abandoned strip mall, but it was a low probability. My discouragement might lead him to withdraw his request. We'd get in the car and go home.

I could do something else. And this is what I did. I shrugged my shoulders (shrugging him in the process). And said "Let's see." We hiked through the dark over to the corner of the building. We looked around the corner. And there, right there, was an ice cream store.

Call it what you will: faith, hope, optimism. Will led us to ice cream tonight, through the dark and even when no one could see it.

What would change in your life if you had a little more optimism? What would change if you were willing to shrug your shoulders a little more and say "Let's see" a little more? What would you find?

Go the extra 250 miles

There is so little that I can do for my Staff team.

I wish I could raise all of their money for them. I wish I could spend time with them every week, mentoring them and prayer-walking the campus and talking strategy. I wish I could be in the trenches with them day in and day out, all in, all my attention on them.

But that's not what an Area Director does. That's beyond my capacity.

But every so often I get an opportunity to do something special for members of my team. I can do a training on campus. I can run out and pick up coffee during an exhausting afternoon. I can grab a truck and help someone move.

I got to do one of those special things today. I drove 250 miles to take one of my Staff for lunch on his birthday. Sure, we talked about campus strategy and new student outreach and chapter camp and leadership succession ... we talked business. We could have talked about this over the phone or over email. But today was his birthday. And he deserved a visit.

Taking the extra step to do something special communicated some things to my Staff ...
  • He is doing excellent work, work worth supporting.
  • His work is important and matters to me.
  • He's not just an employee. He's a friend.
I remember Patrick Lencioni's theory that people will enjoy their jobs when they feel like they're doing good work, when they feel like they're doing important work and when they feel known and cared for by their organization. Creating an environment where these three things happen is one way I put fuel in the motivational tank of the people I work with. It's a huge part of my job.

And I love it.

If you're curious, the Lencioni book I'm referring to is Three Signs of a Miserable Job. The core summary of the book is available here:

Reading Revelation

Over the last 22 days, I read through the book of Revelation, one chapter every day.

Revelation was actually the first book of the Bible I ever read, almost 20 years ago. It captured my imagination. War, flood, famine, conflict. A fierce and fair God. Wild images of the end of the world. The imagery of the Bible and the world of John's apocalypse resonated with my love of fantasy literature and distopian science ficiton.

Why I started with the last book, I'll never know. But I haven't spent much time in Revelation since. I discovered Moses and Mark and Daniel and Ruth and Jonah. I met Jesus. And the speculative and confusing world of Revelation seemed just a little less relevant.

So, why did I go back? I decided to read in community. Some friends in Tampa were reading a chapter every day, tweeting a quote and I joined them. Along the way, I noticed that Wes Foster from Orlando was doing the same thing. Every day, my reading was complemented by what the community shared.

Here is what I shared on Twitter (@yostevetamayo):

"I hold the keys of death and Hades. Write, therefore, what you have seen ... " - Jesus

"Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches."

"I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name."

“You are worthy, our Lord and God ... for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”

"With your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation."

"the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind"

There before me was a great multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne

"When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour."

"The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent" ¦ Repentance is not automatic 

“Take this scroll and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, but in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey."

"We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty ... because you have taken your great power and have begun to reign"

"He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short"

"This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people."

"Then I saw another angel ... and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim ... to every nation, tribe, language and people"

"Just and true are your ways, King of the nations" ¦ However this works out, in the end, God is praised for being just 

"The great city split into three parts, and the cities of the nations collapsed" ¦ Broken and divided cities are tragic

The waters you saw ... are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages Isn't water usually associated with chaos? 

"In one hour ... " How quickly even the most secure can fall!

Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!

"Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them"

“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people ... " O come, O come, Emmanuel 

Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.

Book Review: This Ordinary Adventure by Adam and Christine Jeske

At some point, we each look at the life we've created and ask "This is it?" Dreams, plans, and goal all give way to the ordinary from time to time.

Adam works with me over at InterVarsity. He has brought a fresh injection of passion and creativity to our organization. Even in a missions agency with almost 2,000 Staff, Adam finds ways to stand out. When I heard that he and Christine were writing a book, I was excited.

This Ordinary Adventure traces Christine and Adam's journey from college to free-wheeling, globe-trotting 20s to cubicle-filled, stay-at-home 30s. The book is full of stories and full of angst. They ask challenging questions of themselves and refuse to settle for easy answers. There isn't a lot of resolution in the book. It doesn't solve problems. But it's a story worth reading.

As I enter my 30s, I frequently find myself wondering what happened to the life I was planning on leading. My 20-year-old self would be surprised to see how I spend my time. Disappointed, perhaps. But, then, that kid didn't know what I now know and hasn't seen what I have seen.

How do you live an ordinary life in an extraordinary way? This Ordinary Adventure offers some clues. I'd recommend you check it out!

The 100 Things Challenge

I'm getting rid of 100 things.

Some of these things are going in the trash. Others are going to the consignment store. Still others will make their way to Goodwill.

But, in the next week, 100 things are leaving my house.

It's easy to lose track of how many things you've accumulated. Drawers fill up. Bookcases get crowded. Closets ... don't get me started on the closets.

I think I can get rid of 100 things without feeling any pain, without experiencing any inconvenience, without breaking my stride. I just have a lot of things.

Have you ever thought about getting rid of things?

I'm going to get rid of books I'll never read and books I'll never read again.
I'm going to pass along clothes that no longer fit.
I'm going to empty drawers that never get opened.

I'm going to make my wife very happy. She loves to get rid of things. If I let her, she'd help me get rid of 10000 things. But I'm not ready for that ... yet.

Every so often, it's healthy to shimmer free from the hold that things have on us.

Possessiveness is dangerous, deadly. We start to pour our identity and sense of value into things. These things hold onto our memories. They are trophies to a life we've lived in the past. But some things can get in the way of the life we're living right now.

Free from an unhealthy attachment to excess things, we find ourselves loving people more. People are more important than things anyway. We don't try to impress them with our things. We don't try to bottle them up as ghostly memories attached to objects scattered around our houses. We love and pay attention to and cherish time with real people.

And perhaps, if you get rid of 100 things, you might find yourself more grateful for the hundreds of things you choose to keep, keeping them by choice, aware of them. And few things are more beautiful than gratitude.

So ...

Would you consider taking the 100 Things Challenge?

Join me. For one week. Between now and Christmas. Get rid of 100 things. And let me know how it goes.

Stories for Children

Amy and I had a chance to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

The Hobbit was originally published as a children's story. It was a ground-breaking work. JRR Tolkien took a genre that focused on short stories - children's fantasy - and stretched it out to novel length. He did this in the same year that Walt Disney stretched the cartoon genre from short to feature length in Snow White (there must be something special about dwarfs).

Throughout his life, Tolkien continued to fiddle with the Hobbit story.

First he darkened the "Riddles in the Dark" chapter, where Bilbo battles Gollum with riddles to win his passage out from under the mountain. In the original chapter, it's a fun game, simple and pleasant. Great riddles. Bilbo's last riddle - "What have I got in my pocket?" - rings a little hollow, but it allows the narrative to introduce the magic ring that Bilbo found and kept in his pocket.

Later, Tolkien decided that Bilbo's magic ring would have an evil origin and corrupting influence. This is the ring that stands at the center of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. This ring leads it's owners to destruction. Betraying Isildur, the ring led to his death. Twisting Smeagol, the ring drove him away from community and flowers and sunlight into the dark under the mountain. Possessing this ring became a big deal. Bilbo, coming into possession of the ring, begins lying. And the loss of the ring has to be devastating for Gollum. None of this exists in the original, children's story.

Tolkien kept fiddling with this story.

He wrote something called The Quest of Erebor, which tells the story behind the adventure recorded in The Hobbit. Whereas The Hobbit focuses on a journey from the Shire to the Lonely Mountain to recover gold and kill a dragon, The Quest of Erebor plays with the broader context. The journey / quest of Bilbo and his dwarven friends established two healthy kingdoms in the North (Dain in the Lonely Mountain and Bard in Dale), greatly diminished the goblin population (in the Battle of the Five Armies) and removed Smaug the dragon as a possible ally for Sauron and threat to Rivendell.

For Tolkien, The Hobbit was not just a children's story.

What if there were truer, darker stories behind all children's stories? Those might be fun to discover. Those might be fun to tell.

Always ready to receive children

Events like today's school shooting raise dozens and dozens of questions. Maybe you're asking them yourself: Where does evil like this come from? What could we have done to prevent it from happening? How can we keep it from happening again? Where was God in all this?

There's something particularly tragic whenever a child dies, no matter how the child dies. A bombing in Syria. A flood in Peru. A famine in the Sudan. A shooting in Connecticut. It's entirely appropriate that these deaths unsettle us.

In times like these, I draw some small measure of comfort from the passage in Luke 18 where Jesus welcomes the children. The disciples try to keep the children away, telling their parents not to bother the Teacher. But Jesus welcomes the children, interacts with them, makes time for them.

Our world has ways of rejecting children. We see the ultimate rejection of children when we're faced with the tragic death of a child. The world darkened by evil rejects children.

And yet, this rejection is not the final word. Into a world that rejects children (with bullets at times), God came as a child. God of all gods, a man among men. He accepted childhood for himself, endured rejection, so that he could welcome children. And this God challenges us as individuals and as a society to receive children.

But know this: when we refuse to receive children, we do not get the last say.

God is always ready to receive children. The children who died under the world's rejection today also, on this same day, experienced the welcome of the Lord. 

So, we grieve and mourn but also hope. Perhaps the God who received these children will also one day welcome us. Perhaps the power that overcame the world's rejection will one day affect the world's transformation. Perhaps the tears that fill our eyes will one day be wiped away.

But, until that day, let us always be ready to receive children. And let us encourage others to go and do likewise. And, in so doing, perhaps we will encounter the God who became a Christmas child.


We made a last minute decision that brought us to Orlando today. My brother is graduating from UCF and we wanted to be here to celebrate with him.

Last minute decisions don't give you a lot of room to be picky. A lot of the hotels in the area were sold out. We ended up at a Days Inn, cheap and close to campus.

And here's where Coincidence shows up.

Our hotel is just around the corner from the new home of some of our good friends. They happened to be free tonight and were willing to come over to the Days Inn. We talked and played cards and talked until late, late into the night. Amy and I had a wonderful time.

What do you do when Coincidence shows up?

I'm tempted to shrug it off.  Coincidences happen. It's cool. That's it.

But I'm also tempted to turn my gaze heavenward with wonder. What are the chances that, of all the hotels in Orlando, we'd end up in one that is walking distance to our friends' new home? What are the chances that they wouldn't have to work? What are the chances that their daughter would be hanging out with her grandmother? What are the chances that they wouldn't have plans?

I think my soul has been hungry for friendship lately. And friends keep crossing my path. Might God be stirring up that appetite? Might God be feeding my soul with friends?

What do you do when you encounter Coincidence? Do you ignore him? Or do you embrace him and thank the One who sent him?

Where does jealousy come from?

One of my co-workers asked this question the other day.

I had just shared that I felt strangely jealous that another campus ministry had planted at one of the Miami-Dade College campuses before us. Don't get me wrong: the emotion I feel in hearing that this campus has a ministry presence ... that emotion is 95% positive. Joy. But there is some jealousy. Where does it come from?

I have a couple of ideas.

Perhaps jealousy comes from a place that says that in order to have value, you have to have a high rank. Top of the class. King of the hill. When others threaten your position, achieving something you haven't, jealousy ensues.

You've seen this, right? Jockeying for position in a market. Angling for a promotion. Keeping track of a parent's praise. Someone else lands a client, scores points, earns praise ... and there's the jealousy.

Perhaps jealousy also comes from a perception of scarcity. If someone has something you don't, you wonder if there will be enough to go around, if there will be enough for you. Zero sum. Two for me, none for you.

You've seen this too, I'm sure. Sibling rivalry. Crunching budget numbers. Playing time. Though we know we worship a God of abundance, we worry that we'll be sent away from this day, this week, this life empty-handed. And it's in that worry that jealousy inserts its green face.

One last thought, perhaps jealousy comes from a place of laziness. The easy ladder gets climbed and then pulled up after. We'll have to walk the long way around. The easy path of being first, of getting the first pick, of getting there first ... when that path gets taken, jealousy isn't far behind.

Think about the areas where you experience jealousy:
  • your workplace
  • your career
  • your family
  • your friendships
  • your ministry
  • your generation
What other insights do you find about jealousy?

Wanna tella betta story?

I have some friends who are great story tellers. I got to hang out with some of them tonight. And they got me thinking ...

How do you tell good stories?

Not everyone is good at telling stories. Some people are Toppers, only listening to your stories in order to tell a better story. Other people are Droppers, forgetting important details. Still others are Stoppers, leaving you hanging.

Have you ever had a bad story teller drive you crazy? Have you ever wanted to help them tell better stories?

There are probably a million things you could tell them. I know I still have a lot to learn about storytelling. I've seen eyes glaze over when I'm telling a story. But here's one thing I've learned about telling better stories ...

Include the right details

The right details ... the right amount of detail

Jesus did this beautifully. He told a story about a farmer sowing seeds in different types of soil. He didn't give too much detail: what kind of seeds, how many seeds, what was the farmer up to while the crop was growing. Jesus didn't give too much. But he also didn't give too little. He did give real details: what kept the crop from growing in the bad soil and what was the yield of the crop in the good soil.

Good storytellers give enough to detail to get you interested and keep you interested. But good storytellers don't bury you under detail. They keep the story moving along.

The right details ... the right texture

I love that the Bible tells the story of Jesus four separate times: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Each of these authors has a specific purpose behind the telling of the story, a specific angle, a specific perspective. And the details that they choose to include lend their stories a certain texture. Mark's story zips along, rushing you toward an open-ended finale. Matthew includes sermons. Luke notices the poor and the outsiders. John has seven signs. Weight and weakness and wonder. Each of these wrap flesh around the stories.

Good storytellers use details to bring stories to life. Bald facts and efficient words prove too slick to stick to our mental pinboard. The right details roughen up the story and this texture gives a story impact and memorability.

The right details ... _______________

What are some other benefits of the right details?

Beyond including the right details, what would you tell someone who wants to tell better stories?

Count Others

I got stood up today.

This happens to me frequently. Last-minute cancellations, forgotten appointments, missed phone calls. Every campus minister faces this reality.

We work in an environment where we are at the bottom of the food chain. Faculty tower above us. Administrators hold the keys to campus access. Students buzz along, making time for us when we have time. We stand at the edge of campus, in the margin of people's schedules. We are the ones on campus for the most unusual reasons.

So you would think I would understand getting stood up. You would think I would be used to it. You would think I wouldn't mind.

But you would be wrong.

Every time I'm stood up, a battle rages in my soul.

The voices start: "My time is valuable. I could be at home with my family. I'm fundraising for this? Am I less valuable that everyone else?" I start to write a script in my head: "You should have and you could have and why didn't you and do you realize ...". My heart starts to beat a little faster, adrenaline pumps through my veins and color begins to spread across my face.

Sometimes, this is all that happens. The rage.

But sometimes, I remember Paul's command: "Count others as more significant than yourself."

Count others.

The passage doesn't say that "others" are more significant than you, just that you should count them as if they were, treat them as if they were, consider them as if they were. If they were more significant than me, this would shape my response to them.

The source of my rage is that my significance is threatened. But if I voluntarily set it aside, no one can take it from me and I will have no reason to be angry.

Where do you find yourself straining to count others as more significant than yourself?

Book Review: Deep and Wide by Andy Stanley

I love Andy Stanley's work. I've enjoyed his books: Visioneering,Communicating for a Change,Seven Practices of Effective Ministry,and Next Generation Leader.When I heard that he had a new book out, my ears perked up.

Deep & Wideworks on so many levels. Andy's insights into why he and his church do what they do will get you thinking and rethinking why your ministry does what it does. On top of that, scattered throughout the text are wonderful asides that make this book more than a book about ministry strategy.

Some highlights to look for ...

Andy tells the story of the start of Northpoint in a way that both introduces his core values and shifts him out of the role of expert. Andy doesn't claim to be the model everyone should follow. He isn't claiming to be the Master Planter. And this made it so much easier for me to listen to him. The story about Andy's relationship with his father fits beautifully here.

In Sections Three, Four and Five, Andy really gets into the weeds.

In Section Three, he shares Northpoint's model of spiritual formation. He writes about what he calls 5 Faith Catalysts:
  1. Practical Teaching
  2. Private Disciplines
  3. Personal Ministry
  4. Providential Relationships
  5. Pivotal Circumstances
This model resonated so deeply with my experience in campus ministry. When I've seen students experience sustained growth in their faith, these five catalysts have always been present. Despite the alliteration, I have to admit I loved this insight. This model would be useful no matter how large or intentionally small your ministry is.

In Section Four, Andy gets into the work he and his team have done to create environments that unchurched people love. He believes that people hear a dozen sermons before the sermon even starts, from the signage to the parking to the entry to the greeters ... all of these communicate. Some environments communicate "We've been expecting you and we're glad you're here." Others communicate "Run!!!" Andy provides practical guidance to design helpful systems, from the overall Sunday morning experience down to the structure of sermons.

In Section Five, Andy deals with the reality that your ministry will require leadership if it's going to become and remain deep and wide. He talks about creating change cultures and challenges people in positional leadership to consider whether or not they are the right ones to lead the change (counting the cost, so to speak).

I would heartily recommend this book. It's a "best of" book, sharing the best ideas in many of Andy's earlier books in a way that's very focused, very clear and very fun to read.

We're Glad You're Here, Kinda

We went to a Christmas light show tonight. A few families set up thousands of LEDs in their front yards. They had trees and stars and angels. Blinking and flashing. And all of it was set to music.

In the back corner of their display, once you made your way past the inflatable Santa Clauses and Snoopy and penguins, they had a manger scene - baby Jesus flanked by Mary and Joseph. Next to the manger scene, they had spelled out in ruby red lights: "Jesus is the reason for the season." Wonderful.

Jesus truly should be on our hearts and minds during this season. We celebrate God coming to us in the flesh, taking on the form of a servant and being found in human likeness. This is a wonderful time of the year.

But something caught my attention in the display.

Shiny and gray, with one candle lit, they had arranged to have a menorah in the display. Next to it was a blue and white light lit Star of David. I think it was intended as a generous nod to the folks who enjoy Christmas lights but don't celebrate the holiday around the birth of Jesus.

These two messages - "Jesus is the reason for the season" and "We're glad you're here" - appeared side-by-side. Literally, you could reach out and touch the two sets of lights.

To me, this seemed to communicate a mixed message. We know you're here (menorah, Star of David). You're missing out (Jesus is the reason). I imagine a Jewish child, wandering through a sea of Christmas kitsch and seeing an island that belonged to him, a solitary candle of familiarity. Then, through the menorah, the child would see the Christian claim. And I imagine that the brief spark of welcome would be stomped out.

Have you ever experienced this?

We're glad you're here, kinda.

Christian communities struggle with this. Perhaps every human community struggles to communicate welcome to an outsider. We like the way we do things. We believe the things we want to believe. We want to assert our truth claims. And if you surrender truth for the sake of welcome, you have nothing to welcome people into, right?

What would you have done? Would you put up the "Jesus is the reason" light? Would you put up the Star of David and menorah? Would you put them next to each other?

How do you live with the tension between truth and welcome?

Where does poetry come from?

Putting Will to bed tonight, I followed our usual routine:
  • negotiate toy acquisition
  • settle in
  • re-negotiate toy acquisition
  • talk and sometimes pray
  • book, song and/or story
  • kisses
  • lights out
  • exit stage as fast as possible
But tonight was a little bit different.

When telling Will his story, I found a rhythmic, driving rhyme and a whole original story rolled out in near-perfect metre for 10 minutes or so.

Here's a sample ...
Cowboy Peter and Hero Will
Lived in a house at the top of the hill
And they loved to play
Every night and day
In the field at the foot of the hill.

I didn't intend to tell the story in rhyme. I didn't plan the rhythm or the plot. But it appeared.

Where did it come from? Where does poetry like this come from?

Some poetry is the result of hard work. Shaped. Crafted. You can smell the sweat of the artist laboring over the words. But this poetry wasn't like that.

I wonder if there's a type of poetry that comes out of the poet's heart when the poet is in a certain state: exhausted or content or emotional. For me, a playful mood often draws poetry out of me. But I don't know why.

Maybe this is something that isn't meant to be examined too closely.

The Secret to Asking Good Questions

Be curious.

You wouldn't think it's that easy, would you? Some people seem to have a magical skill when it comes to asking questions. They provoke your thinking, draw out your story, shape conversations. There is some skill here.

But all you really need is curiosity.

A curious person may lead the conversation into a dead end. The seven minute stall. These conversations are not magical. Being curious doesn't mean that you'll be charismatic or magnetic. Awkward people are awkward people, even if they're curious.

But curious people will push through the stall. They will keep asking questions. And they'll stumble onto a good question. Eventually.

A curious person may occasionally make you feel like you're being interrogated. I know I do this to people sometimes. We talk and talk and they realize that we've talked for an hour and they know nothing about me. Have you ever experienced this? This is curiosity at work.

When you're curious about people, they sense it. For most people, your curiosity communicates that you want them to share their story, that you'll listen, maybe even that you care. The questions you ask will be good questions, if you're truly curious, because you'll actually be interested in the answers.

A curious person may give you a headache. They may look at the world in a way that's a little askance. They may come at things from unusual angles. They may have thought about the think they're asking you about before they ask you about it. It may feel like they're inviting you into conversation you don't understand.

That's what curious people do. They ask questions to a lot of people. They explore. They pay attention. And they learn. Their questions have weight behind them. That's why curious people ask good questions.

So, here's the secret ...

If you want to learn how to ask better questions, you need to learn how to grow your curiosity. If you can become more curious, you'll automatically ask better questions.

So, here's the question ...

How do you become more curious?

I forgive you

Will has spent some time in time-out recently. He's an awesome two-year-old and that's what they do.

Our time-out routine ends like this ...
  • The parent who put him in time-out walks over to him
  • We sit down next to him
  • We remind him why he was in time-out
  • We ask him to say "I'm sorry"
  • He says "I'm sorry"
  • We say "I forgive you"
  • Hugs and kisses
  • Time-out is over

Now, I'm not sure we're doing time-out perfectly. Some more-perfect parent can chime in and give us advice.

But I've noticed something recently ...

When the time comes and Will says "I'm sorry," I struggle to say "I forgive you." Now, this isn't because I'm angry or harboring unforgiveness in my heart toward my son. No, it's something else.

I want to say "It's no big deal."

This is my default response to tense, awkward or painful situations. If someone hurts me and then apologizes, I say "It's no big deal." If someone says something that dings my pride, I say "It's no big deal." If someone says I'm sorry (whether they mean it or not), I move quickly to downgrading the situation. No. Big. Deal.

But this isn't a helpful practice.

If it's no big deal, then why shouldn't I do it again?
If it's no big deal, then why am I apologizing?
If it's no big deal, then why am I in time-out?

So, I'm left with a conundrum. I know that "I forgive you" is a better response. Why is it so hard for me to say?

Has anyone else given this some thought?

Side work

Side work keeps us sane.

This is a theory I'm toying with. I wonder if everyone needs a sideline, something they do on the side, something out of the ordinary. Sure it may distract from your main thing, but it can be so life-giving.

Writing does that for me. I don't know if I'll ever write anything worth publishing, but it's good for my soul to do it.

I know lots of folks that have sidelines. Some write like me. Some write a lot better than me. Some have Etsy sites. Some bake amazing bread. Some sit on non-profit boards. Some nail boards together for non-profits.

Why do we feel drawn to side work?

Maybe it's a symptom of a tough economy. Wages have been fairly stagnant over the last several years. More and more of us know people who have been laid off, which makes us feel less secure in our jobs. Sidelines may provide a bit of insurance and insulation. But I think there's more behind our attraction to side work.

Maybe it's a sign that our jobs aren't challenging us fully. Many of us work in jobs that require an increasing amount of specialization and focus (and changing diapers requires a lot of focus). These jobs don't engage every facet of our creative energy. We have something left over. So we do side work. But I wonder if there's something more.

Maybe God designed us in such a way that we come alive when we're pursuing mastery. We aren't just called to fill the earth, but also to subdue it. The hard work of acquiring new skills, pursuing new interests, and exploring new horizons ... all this work keeps us sane. Something unhealthy happens in us when we get bored, when we stall out.

What do you think? Why are people attracted to side work?

I'm not the right person

Last week, I spent several hours with a group of friends studying scenes from the life of Moses. We looked at the situation around his birth, his mid-life collapse, his season of life in Midian, his return to Egypt, his confrontation with Pharaoh, and his leadership in the desert.

Knowing the whole story, Moses looks like he has been perfectly positioned by God for the moment of the Exodus. But when the moment of his call comes, Moses is convinced that he's not the right person for the job.

Do you know this feeling?

I found myself last week arguing that I wasn't the right person for a specific ministry assignment. I'm not _______ enough. Other people are more _______ than me. Surely, I shouldn't be considered for this work.

And here's the weird thing: on one level, I knew that this wasn't true. I knew I was qualified. Not perfect, but good enough for the task at hand. I knew I could do it. I knew I wanted to do it. I knew that this fit with God's calling for me. I knew. I knew. I knew.

And yet, I still gave excuse after excuse.

I'm so grateful that God pushed Moses past his excuses. And I'm glad my friends pushed me past mine.

My friends knew that my excuses were coming from a place of insecurity and a place of fear. I ducked opportunity because the risk of rejection terrified me. I dodged responsibility because I feared failing. I put my head in the sand because the sand is safe and familiar.

What about you? Where do you duck and dodge and put your head in the sand? When do you hear yourself saying "I'm not the right person"? Where does that come from?

Book Review: Protege by Steve Saccone

I just finished reading Protégé by Steve Saccone. This is one of the best how-to books on mentoring I’ve ever read.

Some highlights to look for …

The book includes an opening section on character. What are the struggles and sins that derail emerging leaders? Imitation. Performance. Overconfidence. Entitlement. (Also known as envy, self-reliance, foolishness and greed). Saccone sensitively explores how these character deficits affect leadership and then gives practical suggestions for mentors to help their protégés develop character and put these sins to death.

I found his section on developing young communicators to be incredibly challenging and practical. So many ministries bottleneck as the growth of the ministry outpaces the size of the team capable of communicating vision and teaching. The labs and exercises Saccone describes seem like they would really help. I plan to put them to use.

Lastly, his material on evangelism training is the best I’ve ever read. He digs deeply into the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch and helps us apply what he finds. The idea of creating experiences where your protégés are being evangelized in order to help them understand what it’s like to be on the other side of the fence … genius! Why haven’t we all done this?

Each chapter ends with a quick summary, a set of immediate application ideas and a tip. I love the deep commitment to making the material practical.

I’d highly recommend this book. Check out Protege on Amazon here.