Thoughts on always being a father…

On a very snowy May 29th at 5:03am, Alexandra Jane Bullard was born. In the days, weeks, and months leading up to her birth, Melissa and I were often asked, “are you nervous?” My typical reply, after thinking about it, was, “not as nervous as I probably should be.”

In my mind, I understand that the role of a father is complex. I know characteristics, qualities, traits, gifts, etc. of good fathers and I am excited that I get to turn all those hypotheticals into realities. As we all know, it is a far different thing to know about something–the idea of it–and to actually live it.

On a related note, I had another new experience on June 19th: my first Father’s Day as a father. Of all the thoughtful people who gave cards, one sentence of one card has stood out to me. I think it’s very appropriate that it’s a sentence that my dad wrote. Amidst some very encouraging and thoughtful words he wrote, “…remember, you will always be a father.” That’s awesome.

Everyone learns from their father, whether good or bad. Some have fathers from whom they have learned what not to do, others have fathers who they I can emulate. I am very fortunate to have the latter. Everyone also tends to project the image of their father onto God, their heavenly Father. I am confident that the parents that God gave me were paramount in His calling me into a saving relationship with Him; I can see God’s attributes displayed in tangible ways through love: sacrifice, discipline, and encouragement.

For the past 12 years, I have seen literally thousands of families come in and out of my life as a pastor. I have had the privilege of joining with many of them in some of the most significant events in their lives, from the most joyful to the most painful. So much of our world is shaped by the people that fathers raise. The state of the family in our culture is frightening and, thus, the state of the upcoming generation is likewise. Seeing again and again the sins of fathers (and mothers) revisited on their sons (and daughters) it breaks my heart and makes me long for God’s intervention in the domino effect.

Thankfully, in the famous words of Edmund Burke, all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. Without getting into the (very important) subject of who is good, my pledge is to not do nothing. I know many great men and women who pledge to do the same. We do not need to, and we must not, sit idly by while the world around us goes to hell.

I love my daughter, and even more I love the God Who made her and entrusted me to raise her. Fathers, thank you for all you do. Joining such an exclusive club is an honor. I know that I will lean heavily on others for wisdom and guidance. As I learn I will offer whatever I have and I’m confident that together, and most importantly with God’s strength, we can see a great Light permeate this dark world.

Fathers, what advice do you have for a new dad? How have you been challenged and what have you learned? Thank you again from the bottom of my heart, especially to my dad who will always be my father.

Good vs. Not Bad

Think for a moment about these words: temptation, compromise, shame. What comes to mind when you think of the presence of them in your own life and in your past? Temptation can make a bad idea seem good. Compromise can justify a bad decision, and shame can keep us dwelling on the past (or even our current reality) so much that we feel too discouraged to do anything about it. As is your experience, so is mine. For as long as I have been a Christian I have recognized the need to address these issues on a constant basis but have often allowed their deceptiveness to keep me from doing so.

To give you a little background, I used to travel and speak for a few organizations whose mission is basically to equip leaders both inside and outside of the church; they seek to resource and train them in such a way that they might be as successful as possible in their efforts to reach people for God’s glory.

We all have an audience virtually all the time whether it’s a large crowd or one or two people during daily interactions at work, and our audiences likely have a diversity of opinion and worldview. Oftentimes, when you’re dealing with a diverse audience there is an urge to speak and act in such a way and to such topics that will be of broad appeal. That is in and of itself not a bad thing. The trouble begins when that temptation leads us to begin to compromise our message for the sake of minimizing disapproval. I’m sure we can all point to moments when we wish we had “rocked the boat” a little more for some reason and because we didn’t, our cause suffered.

Sometimes I have a hard time distinguishing between when I am legitimately bringing some light into a dark place and when I am conforming too much to my surroundings. I know that there are a couple ways of looking at these issues, and for a while I thought if I had the chance to bring some of my views to the table that maybe things would even out and I wouldn’t feel so bad. What I failed to take into consideration was that sometimes merely by my presence I can bolster the opinions of others that I flat out disagreed with.

Finally, there is a fine line (not as fine, though, as some may think) between legalism and drawing legitimate lines for the sake of accountability and true refinement. To quote Pastor Dan Frank, “Legalism is the great counterfeit of Christianity” and “Religion is not the friend of God.” We can needlessly distance ourselves from a world in need of the Savior or we can over-indulge in the world which creates hypocrites and people who’s witness is worthless.

How do you strike the right balance? Step back and honestly evaluate your life and the impact (positive or negative) that you’re having on the case for Christ. Spiritual disciplines lead not only to a deeper interactive relationship with God, but also a life that can effectively reach a lost world for Him.

Rescued From a Low Point

My wife, Melissa, and I spent about a year and a half living and serving in Iowa. While the whole circumstance surrounding our journey there is a subject for another day, the point at which I knew we must discontinue our service there–or at least make some major change–is the experience I will write from now. To put it plainly, it was a low point; I was in a place of depression, questioning my effectiveness as a leader and wondering if I should even continue on in full-time ministry. It was also a time of great introspection; I looked deep into myself and into what exactly God was doing through the pain.

C.S. Lewis said, “Introspection is in one respect misleading.” The following is a short selection from “Surprised By Joy” (C. S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces, ed. Lesley Walmsley (London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2000), pp. 218-219.):

You cannot hope and also think about hoping at the same moment; for in hope we look to hope’s object and we interrupt this by (so to speak) turning around to look at the hope itself. . . . Introspection is in one respect misleading. In introspection we try to look inside ourselves and see what is going on. But nearly everything that was going on a moment before is stopped by the very act of our turning to look at it. Unfortunately this does not mean that introspection finds nothing. On the contrary, it finds precisely what is left behind by the suspension of all our normal activities; and what is left behind is mainly mental images and physical sensations. The great error is to mistake this mere sediment or track or by product for the activities themselves.

At my low point, I found rest in a week away to spend time seeking God at a conference for pastors in Minneapolis, MN. I went with this intention: if I had anything worth giving left, I needed God to show me what it was and confirm that He had more for me to do in His service. This may seem like a drastic state of mind because it was; I was ready to make whatever changes I had to in order to find refuge in the will of God. What God showed me was a quite unexpected and very welcome reality; I was making the mistake of focusing on experiences rather than on the Source.

I firmly believe that if you get this idea, it will change your life; it changed mine. Authentic experiences are suspended when they’re being analyzed to see if they’re real. Think of it like this: the authentic experience, God speaking and working in and through you, is like a shout. When you start thinking “is/was this real?” then you leave the experience and begin looking at it from the outside. What is left at that moment is not the original shout; it is the echo. As you distance yourself further from the original shout, it seems progressively less significant until eventually it’s nearly non-existent. That is why you can be discouraged by focusing on the (temporary and fleeting) experience rather than on the (awesome and unchanging) Source.

That week in Minneapolis, John Piper said it like this: “When we are trusting Christ most authentically, we are not thinking about trusting, but about Christ. When we step out of the moment to examine it, we cease what we were doing, and therefore cannot see it. My counsel for strugglers therefore is relentlessly: Look to Jesus. Look to Jesus in his word. And pray for eyes to see.”

As in the title of C.S. Lewis’s book I referenced earlier, I was “Surprised By Joy.” That God would meet me so faithfully, that He would call out to me in my moment of discouragement, surprised me. It shouldn’t have; I know God knows me intimately and desires me to know Him, but I was believing a lie. I had my eyes on the wrong things and I came dangerously close to allowing that lie to determine the direction of my life.

If you are there, if you are at a low point and feel unsure whether you have anything to give that is worth giving, please call out to God. Ask Him what He thinks about your circumstances and if He is not, in fact, big enough to be in control of them. The answer is clear but you may need to quiet certain other distractions in order to hear correctly.

Pastor Dan Frank has a sermon on the issue of “God’s App for Rest” that you may want to listen to. It’s available through the Grace Church web site or through iTunes. He is preaching it this weekend, so it may not quite be available yet… It’s worth waiting for and listening to:)

Lastly, if you find yourself resonating with anything I’ve written and I can be of any encouragement to you, please contact me. I would be honored to pray for you and speak with you from the perspective of someone who was surprised by joy and rescued from a low point.

Let Your Mind Wander

Any time I’m doing something monotonous–shoveling snow, working in the yard, driving long distance, etc. I find that my mind wanders. During our 18 months in Iowa (from Dec. ’08 ’til July ’10) I found my mind wandering quite a lot; life in Iowa is extremely slow-paced. One day as I was mowing the lawn and kind-of praying, I felt like God put a very specific idea into my mind:

“I find it profitable, when my mind is wandering, to allow it to wander toward heaven.”

Simple, right? Well, actually it is, or at least it should be. The default for my mind is not Philippians 4:8 (…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.). I wish it was my default, but, if I’m totally honest, I really need to set [my] mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (Colossians 3:2).

It’s so easy (and common) for Christ-followers to be rendered useless for the Kingdom simply through apathy; we can just meander through life failing to acknowledge God’s existence and His purpose for our lives. The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever (according to scripture and succinctly stated in the Westminster Shorter Catechism). To put it succinctly: discipline yourself. Next time you’re mowing the lawn or cleaning the garage, don’t be fooled into thinking that your mind isn’t a battleground; ask God to captivate your thoughts and usher you into His presence. It will turn even the most tedious tasks from simply productive to downright profitable.

Why I’m Unremarkable

Last week we had a staff/leader day at the Reno Ace’s ballpark. We spent the day learning about our personalities, emotional IQ’s, and how we can leverage technology to better influence our community for the sake of our cause, the Gospel. The training itself was led by Shandel Slaten and Dr. Bret Simmons and as we were challenged to look into how our personalities function together I took note of how my strong “D” tendencies make my life and job easier, but in some ways more difficult.

I am not an extrovert by nature; I have learned that it is helpful (useful) to be more outgoing to further my cause. I pray that God would give me boldness to live for Him and to live beyond simply accomplishing tasks. I have learned the discipline of being extroverted and have seen myself grow in compassion; I have been truly blessed by the relationships that have come from my God-given concern for people and can honestly say that I have a new passion for serving that even five years ago was missing.

Additionally, something that Dr. Simmons said really struck a chord in me. He mentioned something to the effect of if people are not “remarking” about you, then you’re not remarkable. Of course I know that, but it stuck out. Why do I have such an over-inflated idea of my own influence? I have taken it to heart and to prayer. I believe strongly that anyone who follows Christ must be all about drawing people to Him, not to his/herself. If I am going to increase my influence for Him, then I need to increase my influence in the things that He has created me to do; I need to be remarkable.

Here’s the problem: I don’t want to be remarkable. Does that sound strange? Yes. Why? Because I have an ego that wants to be remarkable, just for the wrong reason! So, let’s open up the conversation. I will do my part to be excellent because God deserves my best and then when I am able to give Him my best, He also deserves the credit.

What does this look like for you? What do you think this looks like for me? How can we be known for excellence and hold each other accountable and not become arrogant?

Calculated* Risks

Take risks. Why? Not just to earn a reputation as a risk-taker, that’s empty. Be known for your cause.

Life is full of opportunities to take risks for a cause. Our willingness to risk, though, is limited by many factors; at the *risk* of stating the obvious, I don’t think when we shy away from taking risks it says nearly as much about our cause as it does about our convictions. Taking calculated risks is what we all do and I have a tendency to mis-calculate often!

I am a Christ-follower, so I will use what I think is a great example from the Bible. Paul writes that, essentially, he has a great deal to boast about. If you want to compare credentials, he will win (period); Paul tried harder, suffered more, and made more impact on the world for the cause of Christ than just about anyone. After stating his case, he says, “If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my infirmity.” Basically, he will boast about the things that show not how strong he is, but how weak. I think this is the essence of accurate risk-taking calculation.

If I must boast, I will boast in the things (or the One) that warrants my risk-taking. It’s not about the cost of taking action; it’s about the cost of not taking action. We usually calculate our risk-taking by asking questions like:
“What harm might come to me?”
“What is this going to cost?”
“How much will I be inconvenienced?”
“What comfort will I have to give up?”

Here are some questions I think should be asked:
“Who asked me to take the risk?”
“What is lost if  I don’t take this risk?”

And if you really identify yourself with a cause:
“What does my level of willingness to take risks say about the value of my cause?”
“How will my cause be furthered if I don’t risk; will it be harmed?”

The topic of what causes are worth risking for is a topic for another day. For now, don’t let your cause suffer because of your selfishness. I think these ideas are at least worth looking into.

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