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.    

Thursday, July 30, 2015

4 Ways To Refresh Your Goals

“Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans.” - Proverbs 16:3

* * * * * * *

Flashback: It’s New Year’s Eve. I spent the last two to three weeks planning and brainstorming new goals for a new year. It’s usually one of my favorite times of the year: the promise of a clean slate and a chance to start over.

And that was especially so for this New Year’s. I was hopeful that I’d make great strides forward spiritually, mentally, physically and relationally. And now I had a list of goals to strive for that would help me closer to where I wanted to be. It was gonna be awesome!

Fast forward a few months: I glance up at that list for probably the first time in two or three months and I cringe looking over it. It was like making awkward eye contact with that person you were once great friends with but you’ve been avoiding for them, making excuse after excuse for not making it out to T.G.I. Fridays for endless appetizers.

There’s good news, though: summer is the perfect time to revisit some of those dusty goals. Summer is our halftime. Katy Perry and Left Shark are out on the field performing a few songs while we sit in the locker room, take a breather and make adjustments for the second half.

Maybe the first half didn’t go as you hoped it did: There were some changes at work that you had to navigate through. Your car betrayed you and you had throw money at it or on a new car, putting a huge dent on your financial plans. Or, let’s be real, sometimes we just don’t feel like following through on some of those goals.

If you’re on that "It’s-The-Middle-Of-The-Year-And-I’m-Way-Off-Track" island with me, we don’t have to toss all of our goals into the dumpster with last year’s goals.

Whether you have three goals or 57 of them (if that’s you, you should probably trim that list a bit -- more on that later), go down your list and consider these four options for each goal. Hopefully it'll help you get your goals, and you, back on track:

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Find Your Subway: Why Your Small Platform Matters

Photo courtesy of Rico Albarracin 
When I visited New York for the first time last fall, I could barely go more than a city block or a subway stop without running into an aspiring artist, musician or performer of some kind.

A guy belting out on a saxophone at a subway stop. A young opera singer performing under a bridge in Central Park. One older gentleman was even banging on a couple of large empty buckets like they were bongo drums.

Hundreds, maybe even thousands of people pass right in front of these subway musicians and street performers everyday. Most of them probably pay them little attention, street performers being as common as street lights in the city that never sleeps.

If the performers are lucky, a few pedestrians stop and listen for a few minutes until their train arrives. And if they’re luckier still, a fraction of those who listen will drop in some spare change and loose dollars.

I’m sure many of them dream about landing on a bigger stage. Or maybe they just love to play. Both could be true. Regardless, they found a subway or street corner and decided to let the world hear what they had to offer.

Maybe your subway is a little online business you created, a blog you started or a little studio where you display your art. It could be the job you go to everyday.

If you haven’t found your own subway yet, here’s why you should:

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites a study conducted by a team of psychologists in Berlin, Germany in the 1990s that observed the habits of a group of violin students. All of the subjects, who began playing at five years old, were asked the same question: “Over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practiced?”

All the violinists performed roughly the same number of hours over the first several years of playing, but beginning at around 8-years-old the practice hours began to diverge and an interesting observation was made: the elite violinists of the group had put in 10,000 hours by the time they were 20 years old while the rest had played considerably less.

10,000 hours. That’s how long it takes to become an expert at a particular subject or skill. Put it another way: If, starting today, I decided to practice piano for two hours every day, it would take me about 13-and-half years to become an expert pianist.

Makes you kinda wish that download feature in The Matrix where Keanu Reeves learns kung fu in a matter of seconds was real, doesn’t it?

In New York, I wondered how many days, months or even years some of those subway performers had been out there for. Some of them were extremely talented, capturing my attention and the attention of others who happened to walk by. That kind of talent and ability doesn't happen by accident. Getting good at something demands a commitment to consistency -- a willingness to keep showing up in the same spot and keep putting in the work.

Once we find out what we want to do and why we want to do it, we have to find a place to actually do it. We can't become an expert unless we find our own subway -- a place where we can do our thing, receive feedback from others and put in the hours we need.


If 10,000 hours of doing X, Y, or Z sounds intimidating, that’s because it is. You’re going to be spending a lot of time in that subway of yours. And as you put in your hours, you’re going to realize one of two things: you really do love that thing you’re doing... or you don’t love it as much as you thought you did. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are times where I don’t necessarily feel like writing and would rather do something else. There are even parts of the writing process I don’t really (e.g. I loathe transcribing interviews).

How did I figure out writing was my thing?

  1. I weighed what I loved and didn’t love about writing. The former outweighed the latter.
  2. I wrestled with my motivations and figured out my ‘why’ (honestly, I still regularly do this).
  3. I figured out I can’t not write. It’s part of who God created me to be.

Writing is a part of my worship. When I’m not writing, I feel like something is missing. That’s how I know this is what I want to do. That’s why I’m still working on my 10,000 hours.

Maybe this thing you want to try isn’t for you. But maybe it is. The only way to find out is to go find a subway, and do your thing.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Going Jonah

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’” - Jonah 1:1-2

God gave Jonah pretty clear instructions. He wanted to use Jonah. He called him out for this mission in order to warn Nineveh and give the city's people a chance to turn things around.

But instead of doing what God asked him to do, Jonah went AWOL. He "ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord." (Jonah 1:3, emphasis mine)

I mean, Jonah didn’t even stop to ask God to send someone else or at least attempt to give God some reasons why he wasn’t the man from the job. He just looked for the nearest exit and booked it.

I don’t know why Jonah ran. Maybe it was fear; fear of what the Ninevites would do to him after delivering God’s warning to them. It could have been laziness; Jonah might not have felt like fulfilling this responsibility. Or it could have been indifference; maybe Jonah didn’t like or care enough about Nineveh -- If Nineveh’s going down, so be it, he might have thought.

Whatever the reason, Jonah decided he wanted nothing to do with God’s plan for Nineveh and took his chances going on the run. But the reluctant messenger quickly found out that you can’t outrun God. Hopefully for most of us, it won’t take a giant fish or a whale to figure that out.

Many times, I’ll go Jonah on life. I’ll do exactly what Jonah tried to do and run from my responsibilities. Instead of doing what I know God has called me to do, or at least trying to find out what to do next, I’ll run as far and as fast as I can.

While you and I might not end up inside the belly of a fish, we’ll end up in the belly of something else -- maybe isolation, toxic places or relationships, or even just exhaustion from trying to running for so long with nowhere to run to. When we run away from where God wants us to be, we end up in places we shouldn't be.

And, like Jonah, we have two choices when we find ourselves trapped in the belly of a difficult situation: turn around or stay there.

“In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry… When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple,” Jonah cried out from inside that fish (Jonah 2:2, 7).

And then God commanded the fish to spit Jonah out onto dry land. And Jonah went straight for Nineveh. I think he got the message.

In the belly of his dire situation, Jonah discovered what we all do when we run away: God is always right there. We can’t outrun His love, grace or mercy. We can’t outrun Him. God is not finished with you or me just yet. He never is.

He’s ready to take us into His arms again and steer us back on course once we turn back towards Him. Like the father in the prodigal son parable, He’ll meet us where we are and bring us back into the fold. We don’t just run to God; He runs to us, too.

Where is your Nineveh? What job or responsibilities are you trying to run away from? Who are the people you’re called to love and serve despite not really feeling like it? What dream or side hustle have you been neglecting in favor of a modern-day Tarshish called “Netflix”?

Let’s listen to God the first time around. Let’s do what He says. Let’s go to Nineveh.