Do or Die: Beating the Critics

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It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

(Theodore Roosevelt)

This is probably one of my favorite quotes of all-time. I love the imagery. Blood, sweat and tears. Standing alone in the arena to the cheers and jeers.

Falling. Failing. Rising. Winning.

It speaks to courage, risk, vulnerability and persistence.

If you’re going to get in the arena with the wolves, bears and lions, you better be ready to get mauled, gouged, punctured and torn to pieces. That’s what happens in arenas. They aren’t for the light-headed, tender-hearted or soft-boned. The arena is more than a game. It’s a fight for life. A battle for survival.

The lone advantage to arenas: you’re fully in the spotlight.

Most people, I think, would love to be famous…if only for a day…just to feel important, wanted, special. What we don’t realize is that fame costs a fortune. Popularity steals your privacy and pilfers your time. Everybody wants to be recognized until you learn that public recognition carries a vicious consequence. When you’re famous, you can’t go anywhere without someone wanting a piece of you…and most people aren’t interested in you anyway. What they want is what you have: fame.

That’s why the arena is a dangerous and desperate place.

It’s also a place where the critics speak their loudest. At a recent World Series game, President Donald Trump and first lady Melania were booed by the fans. It wasn’t a polite boo either. It was loud, raucous, even mean-spirited. That’s what happens when you step into the arena. You face the critics without filters. In those moments of truth, no tweet will save you.

It’s a moment when we either ignore what people think, become defined by their judgments, fight back or go crazy. There’s a fine line between discerning constructive criticism and believing destructive opinions. One will save you and the other kill you.

Dr. Brene Brown, an expert on shame, writes: “When we stop caring what people think, we lose our capacity for connection. When we become defined by what people think,
we lose our capacity to be vulnerable.”

For many years, I used to think I needed to “stop caring what people” thought of me. It seemed reasonable on the surface. When students, peers, administrators, bosses, family and other people criticized me, the most natural reaction was to ignore them and grow apathetic. But that didn’t work. The truth is I do care what people think of me. I want to have a good reputation. I want to be known for my creativity, insightfulness, joy, courage and other personal qualities that make me who I am. And I bet you do too.

As I considered Dr. Brown’s statement, I think she’s right. When I stopped caring about my critics, I only disconnected myself from their critique. Instead of finding the grain of truth in their jeer, I put up walls, built fences and dug holes to protect myself from the fiery bombs. I erected a mote around my soul’s castle and filled it with gators and snakes. I did disconnect and that’s not a good thing.

Connection is our deepest relational need. If we don’t belong, it’s so long. Insulation can easily become isolation.

Similarly, whenever I allow myself to be “defined by what people think,” I lose my capacity for transparency, risk and vulnerability. It’s hard to stand “naked” before the crowd in the arena and courageously share my ideas. It’s even harder when I think (they think) I’m stupid, out of touch, incapable or crazy. And don’t forget the worst critic of all: yourself. Who hasn’t felt paralyzed by the self-criticism and self-condemnation that we freely let speak? We tell ourselves junk that we’d permit no one else to say.

Shame keeps us imprisoned to our fears. And fears shackle our courage to risk.

How many opportunities in life have I steered away from…just because I was afraid? How many times did I miss the brass ring because I feared jumping into the unknown? How often did I lose a good friend or short-circuit a relationship because I was unwilling to commit, be open, risk my heart or sacrifice my time and energy?

It takes courage to be in the arena. We need the heart of a soldier.

In November we celebrate Veteran’s Day. We take some time to cheer, affirm and thank our military personnel. We remember our own family and friends–many who are no longer alive–and the service they gave our nation. We hold parades, ceremonies and other gatherings to appreciate our military veterans.

Why? Because they had the courage to do what we could not, to go where we would not, to sacrifice, serve and save. When you join the military, you know that your life is no longer your own. You are now the property of the United States of America. Your personal desires, interests and will no longer matter or apply. Only one thing matters: doing your job. It’s all about completing the mission, no matter the cost…including your very life.

I sometimes wonder what would happen if we approached life with that same resolve? If we chased our dreams like an army pursues a foreign enemy? If we were willing to sweat, cry and bleed to accomplish the Plan that God has carved for our lives? If we fearlessly dug a foxhole and trenched our lives in a never quit fire-fight to the very end.

The poet Alfred Lord Tennyson once penned:

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

It’s not ours to wonder why. It’s only our duty to do or die.

That’s the courage we need today.

That’s the courage that will strengthen a home, a classroom, a workplace, a church, a community or even our country. Do or die. It’s the “I can” in American. I can do it. I can work harder. I can last longer. I can live better. I can love deeper. I can go further.

When we hitch our courage to the Divine and not to the critics in the arena, that’s when we enjoy supernatural strength to accomplish the impossible and change the world.

When Life Gives You Leamons

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It was a blustery, cold Thursday afternoon. January is always a bit nippy that time of year in eastern Kentucky.

My meeting with Bill Leamon—the maintenance manager for Kentucky Christian University—was scheduled for 3 p.m. It was, in my mind, to be a short meeting. I planned to announce my resignation from the youth worker team for Bill’s upcoming mission trip to Mexico. I should never had said yes. I wasn’t overly interested. My daughter had roped me into going after her Mexican experience with Bill in 2004. This was his trip and his work. He annually led our church youth group to Ciudad Acuna to serve impoverished families, do home repairs and lead Vacation Bible Schools.

The trip was 1400 miles away from Carter County, KY. It was a grueling, non-stop, 24-hour, one-way drive that only a 15 year-old kid would love. My daughter’s enthusiasm evidently proved contagious.

I said yes.

But I never really wanted to go.

Mission work, I believed, was for someone else.

For most of my life I resisted working in a foreign field…any foreign field. It wasn’t my “calling.” I happily supported missionaries and promoted their work. I gave time and money so friends could serve in short-term missions. Over my ministry career I interacted with dozens of missionaries. I was inspired by their stories of sacrifice, courage and perseverance. Nevertheless, my desire to travel abroad was limited…to more exotic locales like Alaska, Hawaii and my current job in eastern Kentucky. It was a mission field too. At least it sounded and looked like it.

I also told God I wouldn’t do foreign missions. I was firm. He knew my heart and I tend to manhandle my convictions like a dog on a new bone.

And that’s never a good idea.

Oh, I occasionally worked a local or U.S.-based mission situation. I served with groups that painted homes, built fences, fixed roofs, mowed lawns and raked leaves. I did service projects for the aged, poor or disabled. My heart was open to mission work…but remote African villages or dangerous Amazon jungles were not options (and I said “no” to a few invites). Frankly, I have no stomach for exotic foods and avoid dysentery, dengue fever and malaria like the plague. I also prefer pythons, cobras and other pit vipers behind glass…television glass.

So all was copacetic…until my daughter signed me up.

I did try. I gave it some effort. I went to the informational meetings. I listened to the stories of previous trips. I learned Spanish. I even watched Telemundo television. Still I was uneasy. I imagined all the dangers that lurked in Mexico. I could be kidnapped by the cartel. I could get deathly ill from bad goat cheese. I could die by rattlesnake bite.

Now to be fair, we didn’t actually stay in Mexico. I never would’ve done that. We planned to spend our nights in Del Rio, TX then daily cross the border to do our work. Since I liked Mexican food, I figured I could survive on burritos, chips and Coke.

And yet, as this trip neared, my interest faded. I decided to quit.

My meeting with Bill would be short and sweet, I figured. I’d share my situation, my busy schedule and a dozen reasons why I couldn’t go. I wasn’t necessary to this trip. There were other adult leaders. Somebody else could step up and drive. My sales pitch worked well for about five minutes. That’s when Bill Leamon—a really nice guy with an undying love for Jesus, Mexico and teenagers—commandeered the meeting for the next ninety minutes. He enthusiastically re-recruited me to help lead this trip. He assuaged my fears of getting lost, food poisoning and Mexican drug lords.

How could I say no? Bill was right. I was needed on this trip.

“Okay, okay,” I told him, “I’ll go.” Bill just smiled. It’s like he knew what was coming.

The following day I was home from work early when the telephone rang. There had been a car accident outside of Grayson.

Bill Leamon was dead.

The news was shocking. Why would God let this happen? Why Bill? Why now? There were no easy answers. Nothing in that moment or about this moment made any sense.

Three days later Bill was buried. It all seemed surreal.

All I knew was this mission trip still needed to go. It required leadership and a leader is what I am. Thankfully, there were other experienced youth leaders going. I wasn’t doing it alone.

And so I went on that mission trip to Mexico.

And, yes, I did survive. Like my daughter, the experience ignited a fresh desire for intercultural work. I went back to Mexico the following spring with a group of my youth and family ministry students. A few years later I accepted an invitation with KidZ at Heart International to train in Tanzania. I didn’t hesitate. I went to the eastern slopes of Kilimanjaro–twice–and fell in love with Africa. I eventually joined the KidZ at Heart staff and became a self-funded missionary. I traveled and trained in South Africa, Uganda and Moldova in July 2016.

Those international experiences forged a passion to build my own nonprofit educational services ministry to train leaders, teachers, pastors and parents, not just in the States but also abroad.

I’ve now been to Cote d’Ivoire and Italy to lead additional trainings, and remain open to serve foreign missionaries and their leadership teams wherever God leads…whether I like the food or not.

And to think it all started with a Leamon.

And a chilly conversation that converted a no into a yes.

And then a tragic death that opened a new life chapter and greater Calling.

God truly works in mysterious ways.

*******

This revised article originally appeared in the November 2019 edition of The Christian Standard magazine.

Decisions. Decisions. Decisions.

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Yesterday was Election Day. Hopefully, you voted.

Most of the races in this off year election were local in nature. We were voting for mayors, city council officials and an array of propositions that will shape our lives in the coming years. Its sad, but many Americans skip these off-year, odd-year elections because they don’t have national or state consequence. Nevertheless, these elections do tend to impact us in greater ways…all because they are local. And that’s why I hope you voted.

Life is full of choices, isn’t it? And not just at the ballot box.

Every morning we make a choice to get out of bed, shower, shave, brush our teeth, and comb our hair (or in my case shine up the noggin). We choose what to eat and what to wear. We choose what to do and where to go. We don’t think about these decisions too much. Many are routine, even tradition. We do them because we’ve always done them. We do it because we don’t have a choice. It’s our job. It’s our priority. It’s our responsibility.

And that’s the problem, isn’t it? What if our choices are slowly killing us?

Too many of us, for example, choose late nights and early mornings, losing precious sleep in the process. Our tiredness then impacts our work all day long, controls our thoughts (“I need a nap!”), and can possibly endanger our life when we drive. It’s a choice. We could go to bed earlier, but we don’t.

Four weeks ago, I decided to get serious about some weight loss. I hated the way I looked on stage and my new book promo photos didn’t help my self-image. The truth is I do choose to eat the wrong stuff. I grew up dining on foods that are not good for me. I love the carbs, sodas, the sugar and most things fried. And my weight was showing the truth. I couldn’t wear my favorite clothes anymore. I couldn’t walk without getting winded. My knees and back were hurting. I was a hot, heavy mess.

And so I hired a health coach and dived into a special new lifestyle that re-trains my thinking on food. I learned, for example, I often ate out of emotional need and that’s not good. Food is fuel. It’s not a Band-Aid. The decision wasn’t cheap and there was motivation to not waste money. I had to sacrifice to live this lifestyle diet plan (but that’s also a decision). Therefore, I decided not to cheat. I wanted to walk the narrow path, eat my vegetables and lean meats. I made a promise to do it, no matter the pain, inconvenience or lack of desire.

This morning I weighed myself. I’m now down 25 pounds! The new choices are working. And that’s just in one month (I have my eyes set on 55 or more pounds. Still, in one month I lost almost half of my target weight loss and all because I chose to do the right thing, the best thing, for me.

Choices have consequences.

Decisions create fresh chapters, good or bad.

It’s why addicts can’t escape their drug of choice. They want to change but can’t follow through on the choice to change. It’s too hard. It hurts. It’s inconvenient. It doesn’t feel good. It’s not worth it. But all those are lies. The truth is our addictions–bad decisions that keep us in chains–will also steal our money, health, brain, physique, marriage, career and eventually our very life. A serious drug addict spends over a hundred dollars per day on drugs…that’s $365,000 a year! Just to stay high. And you can bet they’re not working for that money, as their habit has already cost them employability. No, they steal. Another bad decision. Obese people have greater health risks. They also are perceived differently. Obesity can cost you jobs, relationships and opportunity.

It’s why we need good filters for our choices.

Too many of us live unsatisfied, discontented lives because we CHOOSE to live unsatisfied, discontented lives. Our past decisions now have us in bondage to a bank, a job, relationship, pant size, or even a bad tattoo.

So maybe you didn’t vote yesterday. That’s okay. You’ll probably be okay with that decision. But how did you eat? What did you allow your eyes and ears to consume? How did you spend your time and money? You won’t get yesterday back, but you still have today to change your choices.

Choose best. Choose right. Choose God. Choose healing. Choose now.

God IS working, my friends. He’ll help you make those tough decisions too. I know, because I feel His Power in mine. It’s a choice to write, create and produce the work that do (including content for this blog). Some weeks it’s inconvenient. But whenever I complete this final sentence, I always feel empowered.

I love what I do and am fortunate to do what I love.

I hope you do too.

Living in a Culture of Fear

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This past weekend has been brutal. Two mass shootings in two different parts of the country have set off a firestorm of blame and shame. Social media has buzzed with finger-pointing, political demagoguery and conspiracy theories.

The body counts are what’s truly staggering.

Twenty-two dead and dozens injured in El Paso, TX. Innocent shoppers shot down in a busy Walmart by a white supremacist upset about illegal immigration. And then, hours later, this time in Dayton, OH, another mentally unstable shooter killed 9 and injured 27 before police ended the carnage (and a young man’s life).

All this death happened on the heels of the Gilroy, CA Garlic Festival shooting six days prior. In that shooting, four were slain (including the gunman) and thirteen injured in that tragedy.

And now a mere backfire of a motorcycle or a falling sign can create a panic.

It’s not helped by a news media that stokes the fear and politicians who use these tragedies to promote their own agendas.

Like I said, it’s been a brutal, scary week. When you can’t visit a Walmart on Saturday morning or attend a local festival without fear (or at least awareness) that you could become a victim, something’s wrong in America. We have a right to fear. It’s natural to be afraid for our well-being and the well-being of our children and grandchildren.

Fear is a natural and common emotion.

Fear happens when we are in crisis mode. Our bank account dips too low. Our relationships start to fray. Our life is endangered. We can be afraid of a lot of things. I’ll confess that snakes, wasps, being burned alive and falling off steep cliffs can agitate my fears. People are afraid of many things, but the more common ones include the dark, tight spaces, heights, big dogs, drowning, bugs, ghosts, public speaking, blood, flying, zombies (I kid you not!), failure and, of course, death.

The fear of death is why terrorism works.

People don’t want to die prematurely nor do we want to pass away in pain. However, have you noticed how first responders–police and military–bravely enter situations of terror? What gives them the courage to run headlong into whizzing bullets, burning buildings and exploding bombs? I once asked a veteran battle-worn soldier that question. His answer: you live as if you’re already dead. Dead people have no fears or anxieties. Dead people can’t recoil at trouble. Every battle is just another job. You do it and if you live through it, good. If not, it is what it is.

It’s not a sentiment merely for the military.

One of the qualities of early Christians that caught the attention and affection of their culture was a similar attitude. Christians had no fear of death.

For them, death was a blessing. It was a final release and a doorway to a better world. Consequently, they had no problem living as dead people. These early Christ followers loved like there was no tomorrow. They gave like it was their last day on earth. They served without respect to their own needs. When a great plague struck the Roman Empire in the second century, leaving behind countless sick and dying people, it was Christians who stayed to care and nurse these souls–without regard to their own health.

We live in a world of fear. Terror is all around us. But let’s be honest. If we seriously considered all the threats to our lives, we’d never leave home. We’d stop driving cars, flying on airplanes, jumping on trampolines and attending movies. We’d never swim, surf, bike, jog or camp. We’d seclude ourselves behind heavy steel, barbed wire and concrete. But if you think about that option, you’ve basically described a prison.

And that’s the problem with fear. It imprisons us from living.

Fear holds us back from fully experiencing life. We miss out on travel. We forego risky, yet exhilarating activities (like skydiving and fire-walking). We resist opportunities to speak to a group. We stay away from nature (especially stuff that bites and stings). We don’t go, give, serve, lead, build or love. Fear creates a prison cell from which there is no escape.

Unless you live like you’re already dead.

I know for me, that attitude has helped me overcome a few of my own fears. It gave me the courage to launch myself out of plane at 13,000 feet. It gave me the fearless strength to go far outside my comfort zone to Africa to train leaders and teachers. It gave me the persistence (and faith) to start a nonprofit ministry work like MANNA! Educational Services International and solely rely upon the generosity of people to supply my living needs. I’m not saying I still don’t have fears. I do. Snakes and wasps remain pretty high on my list. But this attitude of “living like your dead” has opened up a world I never would’ve attempted in my younger days.

And I love it.

All I know is if today is my last day on earth, that it’s been a good ride.

I’ve seen as much as I could–gone as far as God allowed–and I have no regrets. Perhaps the only “fear” I retain is a biblical fear–or better “awe” and “respect”–for God. When God is working, you just go with the flow and respect the process. That’s what Peter learned when he did a little water-walking with Jesus. And his fears didn’t get the best of him until He took his eyes off Jesus and put them on those waves. Peter’s fears never surfaced until that moment he focused on the temporary and superficial. It’s a good lesson for you and I to remember.

Walking on water is for the fearless, for the living dead, for those who know WHO’S got their back and front, head and toe, left and right.

Do you have fear today? Let go. Let God work.

Live like today is it, then be grateful when the sun rolls around again tomorrow. The devil deals in terror and his days are numbered. We have nothing to fear from El Paso or Dayton. We can enjoy the social spaces unafraid.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt famously quipped, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

It’s Your Choice!

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We live in a “choice” culture.

Everywhere you look there are choices to make and decisions to consider. Yesterday I was in my local Walmart and took a turn down the cereal aisle. Now I remember a day when the options for morning breakfast were pretty simple: Lucky Charms or Coco Crisp or Quisp. I ate Quisp for my morning breakfast and nightly snack for years. I ate Quisp all day long. I snuck it to school and church. I sometimes ate 2-3 bowls. There was nothing better than Quisp. Now my brother favored Quake. Maybe that’s why he’s much taller and has hair. Come to think of it, I do look like the Quisp guy now. I guess it’s true: you are what you eat.

But I digress.

As an adult I’ve come to appreciate more mature cereals like Special K. But Special K isn’t all that special anymore. There are now 15 types of Special K cereals: Original, Chocolatey Delight, Chocolatey Strawberry, Cinnamon Pecan, Red Berries, Vanilla Almond, Fruit & Yogurt, Brown Sugar Gluten Free, Oats & Honey, Touch of Honey Granola, Chocolate Almond, Cranberry Granola, Protein, Cinnamon Brown Sugar Crunch Protein, Blueberry Lemon, and Apple Cinnamon Crunch (Seasonal).

Now that’s a lot of choices.

Or take television. When I was a kid back in the Stoned Age (a.k.a. late 1960s and 1970s), there were only three stations and two of them were weathered (we called them “snowy” because the rabbit ears couldn’t pick up the signal well). Basically, you watched what was on and learned to be content, even if you couldn’t or see very well.

And then cable television came along, and later satellite. Suddenly there were dozens, then hundreds, of channels. I never heard of HBO until around 1979 when one of my friends’ parents had it added to their seven-station cable lineup. It was pretty cool to watch theater movies in your home. Today there are seven HBO channels, including distinct ones for “family” or “Latino” or “comedy” persuasions. We can now watch our favorite sports team exclusively, even if we live out of market. We have the Weather Channel uniquely designed to feed us our local temps and forecasts. We have news channels for every political view. CNN. MSNBC. FOX. Newsmax. We have home shopping and home improvement channels, travel and outdoor channels, history and biography channels. There’s even a channel just to learn.

Since the advent of 19th century technology in cars, communications and cyber networks, Americans have never had more choices.

And the more choices we face, the faster we shut down. It’s why most Americans rarely venture beyond their preferences. We go to restaurants and order the same meal. We buy the same brands. We drive the same way to work or church. We play the same games and eat the same foods.

Dan Gilbert has a Ted Talk on “why we make bad decisions.” He revealed how we tend to choose based upon what we gain and the value of that gain. This is a significant revelation for those who have ears to hear, especially for those who lead in churches, clubs and other fraternal organizations (all of which struggle to attract and retain members).

There’s no doubt that church attendance, for example, is shrinking. Every major pollster (from Gallup to Pew to Barna) have noted the fact that Millennials–who enjoyed the best resources, facilities and professional staff in church history–is walking away from the church in droves. And it’s not just churches. I belong to Toastmasters and it’s well-noted that many of these speaking clubs are packed with the over-50 cohort. Same with Rotary, Kiwanis and Soroptimist clubs. The Elks, Moose, Masons and other fraternal organizations report similar declines in membership.

Maybe Gilbert gives us the reason why.

When it comes to joining these communal entities, the Millennial Generation is not seeing a gain nor a value of gain to participate. They are, consequently, choosing better options (in their minds and from their experience).

Church has become just another choice.

And we may not agree with it. We may detest it. We may even preach and teach against it. But that won’t bring people back.

Joshua had the same problem back when Israel was a young nation. His people were also choosing to follow other gods. Joshua recognized the problem and drew a line in the desert sand: Choose this day whom you will serve…but as for me and my house we will choose the Lord (Joshua 24:15).”

Throughout the Old Testament you hear the same call to “choose wisely” taught through prophets like Samuel, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel. You hear it in the wisdom literature of Solomon’s proverbs. You see it in the lives of Peter, James, John and the other disciples who chose to follow a Galilean guru who taught he was the way, truth and life (John 14:6).

Life is full of choices.

The best choices are the ones that create liberty and life, beauty and bounty, honor and happiness. It’s when we choose to be kind, humble, righteous, joyful, good and patient that things turn to our favor.

We all choose our gods. Some choose alcohol or drugs. Some choose pornography or greed. Some choose a life philosophy or a religious system. Some choose not to believe in anything at all.

As for me, I still choose Jesus. Jesus is enough. He’s always been enough for me. It’s why I still make “church” and my two life groups a priority.

I have a feeling that most of you reading this today, feel the same. I also think you’d agree we need more “Jesus” in our world today. Well that can only happen if we choose to make it happen. So let’s choose to live like Jesus today. Let’s love without condition, serve without discrimination and give without restraint. Let’s be the change we want to see. And it starts in our families, our churches, our schools, our workplaces…and eventually in our communities, country, culture and world.

Let’s make the world a bit better TODAY.

We don’t have to do much as long as we all do something.

Beauty and the Beast: Finding Authenticity in a Plastic Culture

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I’m going to be honest.

I can’t get “authenticity” off my mind today. This idea of “being real” is bugging me.

It’s probably because I still fall short of living a truly authentic life.

I want to be “real.” I want to lead and teach authentically. I want to be transparent in my closest relationships. I know it’s what I need, but sadly I still prefer the masks, the medicated solutions and the manipulative strategies to keep my world “perfect.” I have a feeling that I’m not alone. Probably preaching to the choir.

After all, to live authentic means to accept that I’m not “perfect.”

It means I know I’m not in control. I recognize my flaws, faults and failures. I’m even willing to embrace my brokenness and cling to a Grace that can only seep from an old rugged cross. Real people are actually a bit “unreal” to me. They don’t make sense, they aren’t the most handsome or gorgeous types, they don’t look the part, and they don’t have it all together.

And that’s exactly why they’re real.

I’ve got a confession: I’m not what you think.

I suspect that’s not news to you, but it’s good to get it off my chest. My life is hardly “perfect.” In fact, on most days, I’m a hot mess (probably just like you). It’s just that I don’t like to admit it. Why? Because there’s a problem with being “real” and transparent. What if I openly reveal “who I am” and it leads to your rejection of me? What if I’m honest with you and, consequently, you quit reading and walk away? Or worse, what if you turn on me and become my enemy (using my confessions against me)? And what if you now want to hurt me? Those are very real fears, my friends. It’s happened to me before. And I suspect you probably have the same fears. We’re in this hot mess together.

Brene Brown talks a lot about this struggle in her popular TedTalk  on shame. She explains why so many of us are captive to our fears and slaves to our vices. We live in a shame that we’re not good enough, that IF people knew the “real” “us” they would head for the door. It’s what drives us to mask our lives. We numb our shame with stuff that soon becomes an addiction. We hide our shame with mascara (do you hear the word “mask” in that cosmetic word?). We cover our shame with shopping, booze, television, food, exercise, hobbies and a million other things. Shame is a cancer on the soul that keeps us from becoming the “real” you (and me) that you (and I) were “really” meant to be.

Dr. Brown reveals that authentic people have learned to accept themselves “as is.”

They don’t need validation or blessing. They don’t need accolades or awards. They don’t need other people to define their moods, shape their methods or guide their mission. It is what it is. They have learned to like and love themselves first…which is why they are so attractively authentic to others. They’re just real people with some scars and tattoos.

So how (and when) do we become “real?” I think it happens as we put on wrinkles and collect some scars. The older we get, the more we realize the masks don’t truly hide our blemishes. I think we also discover our “realness” as we embrace a lifestyle of God’s Grace and Gratitude. We confess our spiritual weaknesses and accept our physical deficiencies. We work on what we can. We get honest about our reality. Most of us aren’t going to be famous, powerful, rich or good-looking (and it’s all downhill after 50 anyway). Most of us are pretty average in the wider scheme of things. We are known by a few people at best. We have limited power and ability in our work, play or home. We’re mostly middle class–neither rich nor poor. We’re neither ugly nor gorgeous (except to our spouses who truly must be blind!).

If there’s any good news, it’s that we’re not as ugly or poor or rejected as Jesus.

You think you’ve got it bad? Jesus never saw his 35th birthday. He was sentenced to death on an ancient torture device in front of his own mother. He was buried in a borrowed tomb and abandoned by nearly all his disciples. Oh sure, he had his thousands who followed him (once) but in the end it was his mom, a few women and a single disciple who remained. One of his best friends denied knowing him three times! Another sold him for the price of a 60″ high definition television.

Jesus could’ve been the toast of the town. He could’ve come to earth and lived a royal rock star life. He was GOD after all. He made this planet. He didn’t have to live in poverty and wander the dirt roads of Palestine. Jesus could’ve been born beautiful, rich, and regal. But that wasn’t the case. In fact, Jesus chose to be ugly, poor and rejected. The prophet Isaiah foretold this reality, hundreds of years before his birth, in Isaiah 53:2-3:

He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Jesus “had not beauty” and “nothing in his appearance” produced “desire.” People “hid their faces” when Jesus came around. He was physically unattractive. Let that one sink in! Jesus was ugly. He wasn’t cute or handsome. He was a plain guy (and that might be giving him a compliment!). Maybe Jesus had a big nose, floppy ears or chronic bad breath. Maybe he was too short or excessively tall. There’s no doubt Jesus was bullied as a kid (children can be cruel). If Isaiah’s prophecy is right, and I believe it is, people made fun of his looks. It might explain why, as an adult, that most of his disciples were the disenfranchised, low-class, despised and wounded type. Ugly people tend to hang around ugly people, and beautiful people hang with beautiful people. Just watch Entertainment Tonight.

But looks aren’t everything.

And Jesus wasn’t born to win a beauty pageant. He didn’t come to get elected King of Kings. He was dirt poor, had no home and few belongings. He walked not rode (save an occasional boat ride and one donkey). But Jesus was the real deal. He was authentic. Jesus was open to those that others discriminated against: tax-collectors, fishermen, prostitutes, demoniacs, Samaritans, women, children and Gentiles. He broke all the religious rules and shattered every concept about what a Messiah would look and act like.

So let’s get real today: the secret to authenticity is to simply be YOURSELF.

Embrace your beauty (whatever beauty you’re blessed with) and your ugliness (in whatever form it presents itself). Accept your failures, work on your faults and confess your flaws. You’re a CHILD OF GOD. You were created for a Purpose. You don’t need to hide behind makeup, numb yourself with a needle or cloak yourself in false pride. Learn to be imperfectly “perfect.”

Love who God made you to be, even if other people don’t get you. Even if they make fun of you. Even if they ridicule, wound and reject you. It’s okay.

So I guess I now know where this post is going.

It’s pointing me (and you) HOMEWARD.

It’s a simple reminder that Jesus loves us and God really doesn’t make junk. And all ugliness–like beauty–is in the eye of the beholder. Some of God’s most interesting creations (like aardvarks, platypuses and bombardier beetles) aren’t very handsome. We are like that timeless tale about a “beauty and a beast” where true Love and blessed Joy delivers a “happily ever after” ending.

We might be living in crap (and feel or look like crap)…but God has still planted us as roses to beautify his world. We truly smell (good) to high heavens!

True Grit: Going Above and Beyond

Female climbing the rock on mountain

The Big Dance is here!

I’m not talking about prom, a “Dancing With The Stars” number or a St. Paddy’s Day jig. I’m talking about the NCAA basketball tournament. Also known as “March Madness” this 64-team tourney is an annual highlight reel to glory. It’s where Cinderella teams–underrated and underdog–knock off Goliaths on their way to hoop dreams.

Over the next three weekends those 64 teams will be whittled down to the sweet sixteen, elite eight and final four. The winner of the championship game will not just enjoy the trophy but bragging rights for the following year.

All over America, men and women are feverishly filling in their tourney brackets for office pools, fantasy tourney pick’em games and family fun.

Of course, after the first weekend, most of our brackets will be busted by unexpected upsets and shattered by undesired outcomes. Did you know the odds of picking a PERFECT bracket are 2.4 trillion to one? That’s a stack of odds! Just for perspective, if you lined up 2.4 trillion dollar bills end to end, it would travel from earth to the sun and back (nearly 200 million miles) and leave still more dollars in your hand! That’s also a lot of money.

What’s all this have to do with persistence?

Actually, quite a bit. First all, no matter the odds, you only have to be right ONE time to be a winner.

Call it luck, fate or God’s Will, anything can happen. So no matter how high or long the odds are stacked against you, keep going.

The truth is we often sell ourselves short in life. We work from wimpy dreams. We abbreviate our goals. We do the least and say it’s our best. I love this scene from the movie Facing the Giants. It’s a beautiful picture of persistence. The role of the coach in this scene is as critical as the player’s accomplishment. The coach believes more than the football player can imagine. He sees a bigger picture and a grander Truth. What if? Why not? What if we could do this? Why not us?

The Navy Seals have a 40% Rule that states when you’re completely exhausted and your mind is telling you to give up that in reality you’re only 40% there. The mind will always quit before true exhaustion.

In the running world, this is called the “wall” or that point in the marathon when your entire body is aching and dying to quit. But the reality is you still have more than half of what you need in the tank. It’s why most people (and churches, businesses, organizations) never achieve their dreams, make the necessary changes or accomplish their visions: they give up too soon and too fast. We THINK we’ve given all we’ve can but in reality 60% is still out there for our use.

I like to think most of that 60% is GOD.

It’s a Divine thing to supernaturally transform what is natural. What’s natural is that 40%. What’s supernatural is the 60% and that’s the miraculous part of leadership, teaching, pastoring a church or even parenting your kids.

It’s not the 40% you see but the 60% you can’t see. It’s having FAITH in something bigger than yourself. That’s how Cinderella teams outlast and outscore a giant in the NCAA tournament. That’s how a football player performs a death crawl more than double what he imagined. That’s how Navy Seals discipline their minds and bodies to accomplish tasks no human can do.

I’ve been learning a lot lately about persistence. Last December I signed a book contract with a publisher but then the work began. It’s easy (and exciting) to sign that contract. It’s a joy to see the finished product on a shelf. But the true test and hard work lies in the writing. It’s hours of extra work to find just the right word, illustration or insight. It’s editing and re-editing not a few times but dozens of times. It’s very late nights and very early starts to squeeze as many writing hours as possible.

I’ll confess: I’m exhausted today. But here I am, still writing. Still searching for that perfect thought and word.

I love the idea of “grit.” Grit is that extra 60%–a steeled persistence to take just one more step, do one more lap, work one more hour or open one more door. It’s failing over and over and over and over again…until you get it right. It’s working to the point of pure exhaustion only to find you still have more in reserve. You ain’t finished yet.

The chances of perfectly picking all 32 games in the NCAA Tournament might be 2.4 trillion to one, but that only means there are 2.399999999999 ways to pick wrong. You only need to pick RIGHT once and that pick can happen early, middle or late. So don’t give up or give in. Push through the pain. Fight the 40% of your brain that’s telling you to call it good or done. Discipline your brain to keep thinking, learning and growing.

Who knows? Maybe this week will be the week that everything changes. But even if it isn’t I’m not quitting on God or the dream or this column. I’ll keep writing and thinking and taking the next step.

And leave the remaining 60% to God. He is, after all, still working!