Her Fault

I left town earlier this week to attend a writer’s conference in North Carolina. When I called home to catch up on the day’s events in Knoxville, my wife shared a telling story from daycare.

Our daughter had recently graduated into the next age group at school, leaving behind some of her friends.  On this particular day one of her former partners in crime had graduated to the new class – a reunion accompanied by much rejoicing.

Their former teacher peaked into the new room and immediately started composing a text message to send to my wife. Away from the frenetic activity, a safe distance from the shouts of “Mine” and “No”, my daughter and her friend had escaped to the corner of  the room with the only friends they needed – piles and piles of books.

File one in the win column for nurture. This was a development that surprised no one in our families.

There’s a story my in-laws like to tell on my wife – about the time, in a fit of rage at a baby-sitter she deemed immature, she stormed off with a charge that still echoes: “I don’t like you. I’m going to my room to read.”

Years later, there’s not a room in our house where you couldn’t do that, because every one of them is filled with books. Most of them are mine.

They say confession is good for the soul. But I do have a defense. When it comes to my guilt in the passing on of this genetic obsession, it’s clearly my mother’s fault.

While our house is a minefield of books and toddler toys, there’s no such competition for space in my parents’ house. Words fill the house at the top of the driveway – books, magazines, newspapers, cookbooks – there isn’t a room that doesn’t bear witness to our need to turn letters into words and to group words into sentences. I suggested to my father that we buy my mom a Kindle for Mother’s Day a few years ago, an invitation he quickly accepted: “Anything to keep any more books out of this house.”

My first memory of yelling “Read!” to my mom was for more Cat in the Hat. She later badgered me into picking up Run With the Horsemen and even introduced me to John Irving, the gift that will never stop giving.

There was the time she told me I had to read this book on my high school summer reading list. It was so good, she told me. It had changed her life. Apparently this life change wasn’t as accessible to high school boys, because when it came time to discuss the book in September, I was the only guy in the room.

When I was trying to figure out what to do with my life in college, she wouldn’t shut it up about it – “Why don’t you go write for the campus newspaper?  You love to read.”

I put her off as long as I could. You go to college to get away from your parents telling you what to do – not the other way around. But it was like she knew. I didn’t hate it. I loved it. I loved it maybe like I hadn’t loved anything else.

The truth is that I exited the womb with the cynicism of a curmudgeon and the mouth of a sailor – which is to say that when it came to newspapers I was a natural. Before long I wasn’t just a reporter but an editor. The office on the top floor of the student center became a second home, reading and writing, cutting and fixing, all in anticipation of the feel of the fresh copy in my hands when I was one of the first to liberate it from the rack.

It wasn’t long before my Tuesday and Friday nights were spoken for and I was off working for the local newspaper. You can actually get paid to chronicle high school sports and write about the exploits and heartaches of small town heroes.

Eventually I left the newspaper and ended up in seminary, where I read a lot and wrote even more. I started writing and preaching sermons and one day I started researching what some people told me were called blogs.

I started one – and after I posted a few times I began to hear it again. She was relentless. I guess that’s the way moms are. At least mine is.

“You have a gift. You have to keep doing this.”

That’s how I ended up this week on the front pew of a church in North Carolina, pen in one hand and notebook in the other, writing and scribbling as fast as I could. In a sanctuary full of writers, I was just like everyone else, a hungry pilgrim searching for inspiration to form the letters and make the words sing.

What brought us together was more than those letters and words, however. This was a journey to rest in the presence of the Spirit.

As I walked out the door of that thin place where I glimpsed the work of God, I imagined my wife and daughter a few hundred miles away, reading together. I thought about the computer in my bag that was was going to birth some new stories. And I gave thanks for the books that had been hoisted upon me and the vocation that someone wouldn’t let me escape.

It’s her fault.

Thanks Mom.


Thank You So Much For Sharing...

When Harvard Discovered the Sabbath

I was struck by a headline that came across my Twitter feed on Monday.

According to the Harvard Business Review, the key to being happy and not becoming a grump at work is to have a life outside of it.

The article was written by Ran Zilca, the Chief Data Science Officer at Happify. That there is a website called Happify is certainly a topic for someone to explore.

The idea that the key to happiness comes from realizing that there is more to life than work isn’t a new one. The work that God has given us, as significant as it is, doesn’t define our life.

Instead, as Luke Timothy Johnson taught us in Introduction to the New Testament, the Bible’s view on work-life balance isn’t that nuanced – regardless of your job your primary vocation is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Period.

According to Zilca, overworked and overwhelmed workers who haven’t been able to experience a life outside of the one their employers create for them showed much lower levels of gratitude than others.

In sum, being chained to your desk isn’t the best way to become a grateful person.

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about this all the way back in 1951: “This is our constant problem – how to live with people and remain free, how to live with things and remain independent.”

The research reminds us that Sabbath is as important today as it has ever been – no matter where or how we work.

In Exodus 20 God gives us the command to the Sabbath: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work…For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.”

The Sabbath isn’t just about taking a break from work. No, we are commanded to take a break because that is what God did, in resting on the seventh day of creation. After all, if God can take a break who are we to say that we can’t?

But it is more than that. In obeying God’s command to observe the Sabbath we realize that despite what we tell ourselves the world will go on just fine without us. By taking a 24-hour break from the constant cycle to produce, we create the space for our souls and our bodies to become renewed. In ignoring the foreman’s whistle we are reminded that what we have isn’t of our own making but instead is the gift of the God who loves us more than we can imagine.

Sabbath helps us discover the way God’s love expresses itself in providing for us. We remember all the ways we have been taken care of and we allow God to teach us and show us again the particulars of grace and mercy.

In short, Sabbath teaches us how to become grateful for all we have been given. We experience gratitude by remembering all we have received from God. We become thankful by recalling all the ways God made a way for us. We experience renewal by recounting all the undeserved gifts that have been dropped into our laps.

This is what Heschel reminds us in the definitive book on Sabbath, appropriately titled, The Sabbath: “The world was brought into being in the six days of creation, yet its survival depends upon the holiness of the seventh day.”

The same could be said for us. Our ability to experience real life depends on our ability to turn our business off. The first step to experiencing contentment is realizing joy doesn’t come from our paychecks. We were created for more than work and life is about so much more than promotions earned or tasked completed.

Whether you trust new data or old wisdom, the lesson seems to be the same. Put your phone away, leave your calendar in your desk and rest and revel in real life.



Thank You So Much For Sharing...

Football, Faith and A Flashback to 2005

I didn’t get much work done last week.  NFL Free Agency hit a week ago today, with its rumors and signings and gossip and trades, and it was hard not to get sucked into the frenzy that dominated my twitter feed, my television, and quite honestly, a lot of my conversations.

In between trying to figure out just what my Eagles are doing (honest answer, I have no clue) and just how the Dolphins think paying a defensive tackle more than $100 million makes any sense, another news trend got me thinking – people started retiring.

First, it was running back Maurice Jones-Drew who retired, more proof that running backs over 30 are an endangered species. Then Patrick Willis, arguably the best linebacker of our generation, retired. Closer to home, Titans quarterback Jake Locker gave it up because he didn’t have the passion for the game anymore. But the one that got my attention was when Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds quit instead of signing a free-agent deal worth around $6 million per year. I was hoping he would trade Steelers Black for Eagles Green this year, but he had another trade in mind. Worilds is a devout member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and if the reports are to be believed, he gave up football for faith.

Kudos to him, but that’s nothing new.  In fact, that’s so 2005.

My career in sports wasn’t spent knocking heads on the gridiron but analyzing trends in the press box. For five years in my early 20’s, I covered high school and college sports in North and South Carolina.  By the time I was 24, I had the job most every American male and many American females wanted – I watched college football and basketball every weekend, and they actually paid me to do it. My family was jealous, my friends couldn’t believe it, and one life-long friend nearly wrecked his car when he heard me introduced as a guest on hometown sports radio.


Picture Day was apparently a bad hair year. T. Wayne didn’t care.

But despite landing the job I always wanted, deep down I knew that it wasn’t what I was looking for. Courtside seats at Cameron Indoor and weekends at Death Valley couldn’t suppress it. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it initially, but something wasn’t right. I had experienced a spiritual awakening while in college, and despite everything I tried, I couldn’t get rid of the gnawing sense that for me following Jesus didn’t mesh with my life that involved spending 80 hours a week diving into the daily minutia of the College Sports Industrial Complex.

I responded by doing the one thing you shouldn’t do if you want your life to stay safe and predictable – I started asking questions.  There’s a longer story to be told, but eventually I left the newspaper, enrolled at Emory University for seminary, and began the journey that now has me serving as a pastor in a local church.

Although the Bible might describe the difference in my annual salary at the newspaper and the one Worilds just left with the Steelers as a great chasm, I think I know why he did it.  I know, because there is a universal truth in the search for something more. Once you begin asking those questions – like what am I really here for, who has God really created me to be, what could I do if I was willing to bet my life on what I say I believe – it’s hard not to want something different. Once you consider the possibility that there might be something more than the thing you’ve been dreaming about your whole life, a new world opens up. And when you begin seeing your life over and over again in those call the stories in the Bible, where people are just going through normal everyday life when God shows up and invites them to follow a different path, well, what happens next is inevitable.

Most of my friends were supportive, but not everyone thought I was making a great decision.  The question they asked me was the question I most often get asked these days in church when people find out about my first career – “Don’t you miss it?”  They want to know if I miss the games and the famous people and the ability to be in the know about mostly trivial things that for some reason matter greatly to lots of us. And the honest truth is that I don’t. I don’t miss that stuff.

I do miss the people though – the good and decent people who were just trying to make their way in the often crazy world of big time athletics. People like Mike O’Cain – a faithful United Methodist who quietly witnessed to his love for Jesus in real ways, most notably when he was overwhelmingly gracious while having to meet and talk with reporters after he had been fired. Friends like Jon Solomon – one of the best reporters and writers I ever knew, who showed me every day what it was like to get to do what God created you to do and helped me see that there was something else out there for me.  I miss so many of the good and genuine people who worked behind the scenes, people like Tim Bourret and Anne Miller Holmes, who never got the headlines but every day were doing their best to make their little corner of the Upstate better, and who were always happier when the Tigers won.

Ogle AK Christmas

Some conversations are more important than the ones you have on talk radio.

Some days the church seems like about the craziest place to invest your life – with its ordinary and broken people who remind you of how ordinary and broken you are. There are days when it seems that the least likely place to make a difference in the world is in the church – we are by nature averse to change, we get caught up in a lot of the same fights you see every night on cable news, and we know all too well what its like to not have enough – enough people, enough space, and of course, enough money.

But my prayer for Jason is that he will experience what I have since trading a daily byline for a Sunday sermon.  It’s hard work and there are days when it will push you to the end of your rope, but there’s nothing better than the experience of knowing you are doing the very thing you were made for. The headlines can’t match what happens when someone tells you that your ministry and your commitment made a difference in their life.  There’s no front page story that can top having a front-row seat and getting to watch God changes someone’s life.

Of course, that’s nothing new either. But there’s still nothing any better.

Thank You So Much For Sharing...