Friday, March 25, 2016

What's So 'Good' About Good Friday?

I used to wonder sometimes why we called Good Friday, well, “good.” I mean, on the surface, it just didn’t seem very “good” at all.

In the span of about 24 hours, Jesus was betrayed by one of His own disciples and deserted by the rest before being sentenced to death and crucified. At the time, things weren’t looking very good at all. I’m pretty sure the disciples weren’t thinking there was anything good about this. I can imagine they were filled with fears and doubts, sadness and shame.

Not exactly what I would call a banner day.

Jesus wasn’t the only person being crucified that day. There were two other criminals who were led away to be executed with Him, one on His right and the other to His left. They both probably witnessed a lot of these events unfold throughout the day: from the crowd's call for Jesus’ death and Pilate’s failed attempts to release Him to Jesus being beaten and mocked mercilessly on the way to the cross. But they both responded to Jesus differently.

Criminal #1, after looking at all this and hanging on a cross next to Jesus, says: “Aren’t You the Messiah? Save Yourself and us!”

It appears that he was looking for a “Get Out Of Jail Free” card; a bailout from this pain and the situation. There’s no sign of remorse for his own actions. He sees Jesus potentially as some sort of genie who can wiggle him out of this jam and didn't seem to see his own need for grace. His heart was hardened, right to the end.

Criminal #2 responds to his companion's comment: “Don’t you even fear God, since you are undergoing the same punishment? We are punished justly, because we’re getting back what we deserve for the things we did, but this man has done nothing wrong.”

He acknowledges that he is in the wrong. He acknowledges Jesus’ innocence. He sees what is happening. And then he turns to Jesus and pleads to Jesus for one thing: “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!”

Before moving forward, there’s a truth here I don’t want us to miss: We are the criminals in this story. 

I struggle with this truth sometimes, to be honest. I think a lot of us do. We like to compare ourselves to other people and think we’re doing pretty well for ourselves. We’re pretty good at convincing ourselves that we’re pretty awesome.

But we are all in the same predicament. We are all broken people who have fallen short and made mistakes. We are all sinners who have missed the mark. We are all facing a death sentence. And we are all in need of a Savior.

The way Jesus responds to Criminal #2 should give all of us hope: “I assure you: Today you will be with Me in paradise.”
Before all of this went down, Jesus asked “Father, if You are willing, take this cup away from Me — nevertheless, not My will, but Yours, be done.” He was anguishing over this decision to face not only death, but the excruciating pain that came with it.

But if He hadn’t gone through it, those two criminals never would have never met Jesus or had the opportunity to have their lives changed. They would not have been able to see who Jesus was.

Criminal #2 didn’t do anything to deserve grace. And that’s the whole point -- we can’t earn our way to grace. We can’t earn God’s mercy. It’s a gift, the only gift that can save us all. Good Friday is good because we see God’s goodness, grace and mercy in full display.

In Romans 5, the Apostle Paul wrote that “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.

Jesus endured the pain, the humiliation and the cross on that day because of His love for those criminals, and for us. Good Friday proves that no one is too far for God to reach, no matter who they are, where they are or what they have done.

And Jesus’ death isn’t the end of the story. Three days later, He rose from the dead to prove once and for all that He really does have the power to bring us from death and into life, as well. To restore what was lost. To forgive us and give us a new life to live.

There wouldn’t be an Easter Sunday without Good Friday. The Gospel, which means good news, wouldn’t be the Gospel if Good Friday didn’t happen.

That’s what makes Good Friday so good.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The 14.4 Minute Challenge

When it comes to math… well, let’s just say math and I are not on good terms. There’s a reason I’m a writer and not an architect or an engineer.  

But sometimes, simple math can reveal to some profound truths that can put things in perspective. 

For example: there are 1,440 minutes in a day. Multiply that by 0.01 and you’ll get 14.4 minutes.

In other words, 14.4 minutes equals one percent of each day.   

That realization changed things for me. The “I don’t have time” excuses I had been making started to melt faster than a snowman plopped on South Beach in July.

“I don’t have time” is one of the biggest lies we tell ourselves. We do have time. We just have to fight for it.

Am I really telling myself that I don’t have 14 minutes and 24 seconds, one measly percent of my day, to spare for the things I say are important to me? Am I really cutting myself that short?

And then I started to think about how different my days would look if I spent just one percent of each day on the things I said were important to me.

What if I started setting aside the first 14.4 minutes of each morning to read a little bit from my Bible?

How many more words would I get written or how many more books would I read if I spent 14.4 minutes during my lunch break writing or reading something instead of spending it on social media?

How much healthier would I be if I spent the first 14.4 minutes after I get back from work going for a walk or a jog or a bike ride around the block?     

I’m going to go Al Pacino from Any Given Sunday on you for a second. In that movie he gave one of my favorite movie speeches of all time, talking about how life – and football – is a game of inches, and that those inches can make the difference between winning and losing, living and dying. Those inches – those minutes and seconds – are everywhere, all around us, and we have to fight for them.

Likewise, we have to fight for those 14.4 minutes that we often tell ourselves we don’t have because, whether we feel it or not, those minutes are there.

Maybe spending one percent of your day on something doesn’t sound much or nearly enough to accomplish what you want to accomplish, or change what you want to change.

But here’s the thing: one percent won’t be enough to change everything, but it will change something. I’m no math wizard, but I do know that something is always better than nothing. And that little something could lead to something more later on.

Those 14.4 minutes, and how we use them, are where we get started. 

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The 14.4 Minute Challenge: Pick one thing – running, writing, Bible study, painting, anything! – and for the next month, set aside 14.4 minutes of each day to do it.  

Thursday, January 7, 2016

No Vacancy

“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole empire should be registered. This first registration took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So everyone went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family line of David, to be registered along with Mary, who was engaged to him and was pregnant. 

While they were there, the time came for her to give birth. Then she gave birth to her firstborn Son, and she wrapped Him snugly in cloth and laid Him in a feeding trough — because there was no room for them at the lodging place.” – Luke 2:1-7

* * * * * * *

I know we’re already a few weeks removed from Christmas, but there’s still a part of the Christmas story that has stuck with me past New Year’s and into 2016: I still find it hard to imagine how Jesus, the savior of the world, was born in a feeding trough. I’m still baffled that He ended up being born in a place that was probably the filthiest and least sanitary place in the entire town of Bethlehem.

Why there? According the Luke 2:7, it was because there was no room for them at the lodging place. It was full, a ‘No Vacancy’ sign probably plastered to the front door. There was no place for Mary and Joseph anywhere in Bethlehem, so they had to settle for a filthy manager and rest Jesus in the same contraption that goats and sheep eat out of.

No one in their right mind today would think that these conditions are suitable for anyone to be born in, let alone Jesus. Yet God allowed it to happen, probably to show us something even more important.


We don’t know if there was an actual innkeeper, as depicted in countless numbers of Christmas plays over the years, who turned Mary and Joseph away from the ancient Israel version of Holiday Inn. But for some odd reason, I've thought a lot about this hypothetical innkeeper over the Christmas season.

The question that stuck with me is this: If this innkeeper did in fact exist and did turn Mary and Joseph away because all his rooms were booked, did this person ever realize what they missed out on being a part of?

This innkeeper probably wasn’t a bad guy. For all we know, the conversation could have gone something like “Hey folks, I’m really sorry but I’m completely booked. I don't have any rooms available. Every place in town is probably completely filled, too. There is a barn with a manger down the road that might have some room. Good luck!”

He probably had no idea about Jesus, who He really was or that His birth would be one of the most important events in the history of the world. Yet, in this scenario, the innkeeper missed it simply because he didn’t have any space to spare.

Throughout the holiday season, I thought I had become a lot like this innkeeper. I filled my life with so much stuff that there was no space for Jesus anywhere. Sorry, Jesus. I have all these final projects for school to do and this huge story I have to finish for work and all this Christmas shopping to do and all these friends to visit and oh my goodness, look at the time, I gotta go but we’ll catch up later, okay-thanks-bye! 

We make a huge mistake when we post a big ‘No Vacancy’ on the doors of our lives when Jesus is knocking, because we will miss out on something really special and not even realize it. We miss out on Him.          

Back to the manger and the feeding trough for a second. Jesus entered the world in, literally, the messiest situation imaginable. Imagine how chaotic that scene must have been: the pain Mary must have felt while giving birth while goats and sheep and camels were milling about nearby, the smell of a filthy barn thick in the air.

If the innkeeper had opened up any space in that lodging place, not even a guest room but maybe even the kitchen or the laundry room or any room, Jesus probably would have been born at that lodging place instead of being placed in a feeding trough.

Mary and Joseph weren’t looking for a presidential suite at the Ritz-Carlton; they just wanted an open door.    

Jesus cares about you more than He cares about how messy or crazy your life is at the moment. He will come into the messiest, craziest, and most chaotic situations imaginable – if we allow Him to. We don’t have to turn Him away or wait until we clean things up before letting Him in.

In 2016, I want to make sure there is always room for God to come in and work in me. I don’t want to wait until the ‘perfect’ time to do so. There is no such thing as the perfect time and if we wait for it, it'll never come. I don't want to miss out on what He wants to show me because I didn't think I had any room left to spare. 

I’d rather have Jesus be in the middle of everything that’s going in my life, no matter how messy I think it is or how embarrassing it might be, than shut Him out altogether. 

He is the only one that can truly bring about lasting change and a lasting peace, and He can only do that when I take down my ‘No Vacancy’ sign and let Him in.

Monday, September 21, 2015

You Can Always Come Home

There will be roads we run down in life that we think will lead to some magical place flowing with milk and honey and endless Reese’s peanut butter cups (Look, they're my roads, alright? Stay with me here!)… but instead abruptly end with a large sign that reads ‘Dead End.’

I hate those signs. They mean after weeks or months or even years of walking down this road; praying and pleading with God to make things work out after a whole lot of sweat and even more tears… it’s over. There’s nothing left here. Not even one Reese’s peanut butter cup -- maybe a wrapper, but that's it.  

You can scream and kick at that ‘Dead End’ sign until you’re blue in the face and your big toe starts to throb uncontrollably. But once you’re done with that, the sign still remains. And you realize you have to turn around and go back to where you started.

One of those ‘Dead End’ signs popped up for me a few years back, just eight months after moving out west to San Antonio for a job right out of college. After a bit of a rough start, things were beginning to look great for a while. I thought this might be a place I could call ‘home’ someday.

God had another thing in mind. The job went south after some transitions at work and after scrambling through job sites looking for a position that would help me stay in Texas, I ran out of options and time. “Dead End."      

Then I remembered something that my friend and mentor, the one who helped me get this job and who encouraged me to take this leap of faith, said to me before I left Miami for San Antonio.

“You can always come home.”

Through all of my questions and doubts and fears about moving to a place where I didn’t know anyone for a job I wasn't sure I would be any good at, he told me those five simple words and they cut through all of it.

Before hearing those words, I thought I would be jumping off a cliff, hoping I could fly without a parachute. I was reminded that at least there was a mattress at the bottom… a soft place to land on.

One of my favorite authors, Paul Angone, put it perfectly in his book All Groan Up: “God gives us ledges of grace to land on… He won’t let us fall all the way to our deaths. He’ll give us checkpoints along the way.” 

In Jesus’ parable about the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), that wayward son learned the same thing. The prodigal son ran into a ‘Dead End’ sign, too. He ran away and did things his own way and then he saw that the road he was going down led to nothing. And soon, he had nothing left and no choice but to come home, head hanging low, dreading how his father would respond. He even practiced a speech saying he wasn't even worthy to be called his son and would return to work around the house! 

Whenever I hit a ‘Dead End’ sign, I usually identify a lot with this son – feeling guilty and ashamed of my own failures, humbled by the circumstances I dug myself into. He knew the only place to go was back home, but thought his father would probably be disappointed and angry with him, as much as he was with himself. 

But we see something completely different here as the son starts coming home: “But while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him.” (v. 20, emphasis mine)

The father brought out the best robe to clothe his son in, got sandals for his feet and held a feast for him “because this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” (v. 21)

And so in this story, we see how God, our heavenly father, responds when we come back home – not with judgment or with an “I told you so,” but instead with love and compassion and great joy. Jesus wants us to know that we don’t have to fear coming back home. When we feel lost, home is where we can be found again. 

Although I was feeling about as great as the dirt at my feet in front of that ‘Dead End’ sign, coming home from San Antonio without a job and right back at Square One, I could be assured that I had parents who still loved me enough to take me in and let me regain my bearings. And, even more importantly, a God who won't abandon me and would show me later that it would all be okay.

Since then, I’ve run into some more ‘Dead End’ signs, too, and the heartbreak that comes with them.  

But as I take the long walk home from those dead ends, wondering if God will take me in again, I know He is ready to run out and meet me where I am – right there in my pain, shame and brokenness. And I know there is nothing – no failure, no mess up, nothing – that can separate you or me from His love, His grace, His mercy and, above all, Himself. 

We didn’t do a thing to deserve it, but God lavishes us with all of this grace anyway. It's always there, at home, in His outstretched arms.

And you can always come home. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Looking For Whales In All The Wrong Places

One of the last places I expected to go in 2015 was Alaska, but lo and behold, crazy things happen and a few weeks ago I found myself flying to Alaska for work.

If you're open to it, God will take you to places you never thought you'd end up. Do yourself a favor and don't waste those opportunities.

One of the first things I grabbed when I landed in Dutch Harbor, Alaska – the place where Deadliest Catch is filmed – was one of those tourist pamphlets that tell you about all the cool things you need to do while you're there.

The port of Dutch Harbor is located on the island city of Unalaska (I don’t know why a city in Alaska is called Unalaska, so don’t ask me) and one of the things that caught my attention in the brochure was that humpback whales hang out in Unalaska Bay, which was right behind my hotel, in July and August before migrating south for the rest of the year.

I have never seen a whale outside of SeaWorld so this was kind of a big deal, and I was determined to see at least one during my eight-day stay in Alaska.

One night, I walked over to the bay around 8:00 p.m. (During the summer, the sun doesn’t set in Alaska until around 11 p.m. It’s weird.) and walked along the shore until I found a big rock with a smooth enough surface to sit on. I sat and looked out at this large body of water, my eyes fixed straight ahead to where the bay leads into the Bering Sea. I didn't want to blink and miss a whale breach or come up for air or whatever else these playful humpback whales might do, so I tried to keep my blinking to a minimum. 

And then I waited. 

A few minutes passed by, then half an hour and then an hour and now I started to feel the wind start to pick up and the temperature start to dip – 'flip-flop weather' for an Alaskan, which is somewhere in the lower 60s, is still chilly for most Miamians. And still, no sign of a single whale... and I started to think maybe all this whale stuff was a trick by the locals to attract tourists to their little island 800 miles away from Anchorage.

I looked at my phone and saw that it was 9:15 p.m. and told myself if I didn’t see a whale in the next 15 minutes, I’d call it quits and try again the next day. That’s when I heard something off to the distance on my left, way out of my line of sight.

I started to walk along the rocky shore towards the other side and saw some people standing by the side of the read next to their pulled-over cars, looking out towards this thin inlet that led into the bay. Then I saw what looked like a puff of smoke coming out of the water accompanied with a faint whoosh – the sound that had grabbed my attention moments earlier. And then another and another.

Before I knew it, I was looking at a pod of at least dozen humpback whales swimming across the inlet into the far side of Unalaska Bay, coming up for breaths of air on this early summer evening. Some of the whales, as they prepared to dive deep, would reveal their flukes before disappearing below the surface.

I was mesmerized, watching from shore as these magnificent creatures just hung out in Unalaska Bay, mere hundreds of feet away from where I stood. I couldn’t believe I was here – just a few months earlier, this would have been a moment I never would have imagined possible. Yet, here I was. It’s a memory I’ll never forget, and one I’ll be thanking God for for a very long time.

But I never would have experienced that moment if I kept sitting on that rock, focusing on the same spot of unmoving water with eyes and ears closed off to everything else happening around me.

Sometimes, we do the same thing in life – we’re looking for something and we’re looking for it in a certain direction, expecting it to just show up at some point and finding… nothing. More often than not, we lose a lot more than just an hour of time.

I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I had my sights focused on a particular thing when God was gently urging me somewhere else to experience something else – something better. Come and see what I’m doing over here. Come and see how I want to use you in this area of your life right now. Come and see.

We have to be willing to lift our heads, take off the blinders and look around with eyes wide open and ears ready to listen. Sometimes we're looking for the right things in the wrong places.  The whales of our lives aren't always where we expect them to be. You never know what might be hanging out around the corner.