Sunday, June 26, 2016

Helping teens learn leadership skills

One rising seventh-grader said to another, “Which school supply is the most important?” She replied, “I don’t know, which school supply is the most important?” He said, “The ruler!”

That’s how one of the AYLA presentations began last week at Elon University. AYLA stands for Alamance Youth Leadership Academy, and rising seventh-graders are chosen to participate each year. The program began with two schools in 2007 and currently serves 205 seventh and eighth-graders in 11 public, independent and charter middle schools in Alamance County. The Alamance Chamber of Commerce program is supported by the Elon University Center for Leadership, Alamance-Burlington School System, Alamance Citizens for Education, and Leadership Alamance Alumni. The model includes a three-and-a-half day summer experience, school-based chapter meetings that take place during the school year, and quarterly joint events hosted by the Chamber’s AYLA Advisory Board. Developing and implementing a school improvement project is at the heart of the learning experience. (

I had the privilege of presenting a workshop with the students on public speaking. Each workshop lasted about an hour, and I spoke to 50 young people at a time. It was a lot of fun, but when one of them asked me during the question and answer time if I ever get nervous before speaking, I had to say, “Yes! I was nervous before I came here today.” I was being truthful. Hey, you never know what to expect when you are trying to give a speech to several dozen preteens. But they were excellent listeners, full of energy and genuinely interested in hearing what I had to say. It was a blast, and I was happy to whet their appetite for learning to speak in public. I loved hearing their hearts in their questions. One student asked, “How can I learn to not be so nervous?” Another said, “What do I do if I stutter or have trouble getting my words out?”

The next day, 300 family and friends gathered to hear these students give presentations about the strengths and weaknesses of their schools, and what they hope to do in the next two years to improve them. They did a great job, and took my encouragement seriously about being enthusiastic, organized, and interesting.

Several groups started their presentations with some kind of hook, in order to get the attention of the audience and make them want to listen. One student started with, “How many of you have been frustrated about poor internet connections?” Of course, nearly every hand went up. Another student started her presentation by asking, “How many of you have served on student government?” Then, with a smile she said, “And how many of you enjoyed it?” One of the improvements her group was proposing would re-establish a thriving student government in their middle school.

My favorite hook was a two-man standup routine that was short but sweet. One boy said to the other, “Why don’t they give tests in the jungle?” The second boy said, “I don’t know.” The first replied, “Because there are too many cheetahs!”

It’s a tough world we live in, and a scary proposition to be raising children these days. I am thankful for this program, for the adults and college students who are taking time to invest in future leaders. They are showing them a way to go beyond just recognizing problems in their ‘community,’ but looking for and implementing solutions.

Jesus would say, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

Monday, June 20, 2016

This is what we desperately need

When was the last time you heard a graduation speech that mentioned wisdom and how desperately we need it? What the world says we need and are lacking in is tolerance. Or diversity. Or greater distribution of wealth. Or education. Here’s what Harvard University believed about education in the 1600s, taken from an early document: “Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well, the main end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, John 17:3, and therefore lay Christ in the bottom, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning.” That sounds like wisdom to me.

You don’t hear about wisdom in graduation speeches, because its very meaning takes you to a moral foundation, which takes you to God. The word is Sophia, and it means “knowledge of how to regulate one’s relationship with God; related to goodness.” Who needs wisdom? Everyone. Even kings. Solomon could have asked for wealth or longer life or power over his enemies. But he prayed, “I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or to come in . . . Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this great people?” Wisdom is knowing the difference between right and wrong, and choosing to do what is right. Jesus illustrated wisdom and foolishness with the parable of the builders in Matthew 7. One man built his house on the sand, and the other man built his house on the rock. Two men, two builders, two houses, two foundations, one storm. The house built on sand fell, and the house built on rock stood. And Jesus said, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” Knowledge hears. But wisdom does.

Wisdom is what we need . . . so, what do we do? Ask God for it. I truly believe that God delights in answering this prayer when we are going through a trial and don’t know how to respond to it. James writes in his letter that when we ask God for wisdom, believing in faith that He will give it to us, God will heap wisdom upon us, and He will do it gladly every time we ask! If I could turn back the clock, one of the things I would want to go back and do over is to change how I responded, much too often, when one of my children would ask me a question about a school problem, or about a chore I had assigned them, or how to do something. Too many of those times ended in tears from the child, because of my impatience. It is a point of shame in my fathering. I am grateful to God who covers our shame, and I am grateful for sons’ and daughters’ resilience and willingness to forgive. I think back to my own childhood and teen years. The teachers I loved the most and the employers I loved the most, and wanted to work the hardest for, were the ones who showed great patience with me when I didn’t understand how to do something. They were willing to teach me every time I asked. They were teaching me something much more important than math or how to do my job; they were showing me what God is like.

What the world needs now, and that includes you and me, is God’s wisdom. Ask for it.

Monday, June 13, 2016

I was safe, and then I was out

The lady at the ER asked me if I was safe. That was after I explained why my right ring finger was bent in an unnatural way, like the two bones met at the knuckle and decided one would go right and the other would go left. Hey, it’s an election season. It looked like that because I was on first base during a church softball game when the next batter hit a line drive toward the second baseman. I thought it was going to get past him, so I took several steps off the bag and watched as he caught it and wheeled to throw back to first. Not wanting to be ‘that guy,’ I dove toward the bag. The ring finger on my right hand collided with the bag, and my finger popped out of joint, causing confusion in its ‘direction’ and intense pain for its owner. Anyway, the lady asked if I was safe, and when I nodded she said that was all that mattered. I was safe. But then I was out. Out of the game and headed to the hospital.

The nice lady at the ER then asked for my ID, which was a problem. I had ridden to the game with my son, and then left the game with my daughter to go to the hospital, and my wallet and ID were at home. I told her I didn’t have my license with me but, waving my phone, I offered to take a selfie and show it to her. She laughed out loud, and genuinely seemed to appreciate my attempt at levity. I’m guessing there’s usually not a lot to laugh about at the ER on a Friday night.

Two sets of X-rays, a visit with Chris the orthopedic PA, a shot of painkiller and a simple yank to bring about ‘reduction’ (medical-speak for putting the finger back into its proper place), it was done. We walked out and my youngest drove the old man home from the hospital.

Because my ring and middle fingers have to be buddy-taped for a while, I have gotten lots of questions about it. When I tell the story, the question is universally asked: “Were you safe?” It made me think about the life of the followers of Jesus around the world.

There are 51 countries (out of 166 on the earth) where it is either illegal or very dangerous to profess faith in Jesus Christ. A North Korean pastor was murdered on April 30. Hindu radicals attacked a church in India on April 15, sending one young woman to the hospital for an emergency C-section. Tohar Haydarov, a 33-year old convert from Islam to Christianity is serving a ten-year sentence in an Uzbekistan prison. Grace was married to a Muslim in Uganda, but when he died she converted to Christianity and refused to marry her husband’s brother and practice Islam. Her husband’s family twice has threatened to kill her and her daughter. Multiply these stories by the tens of thousands, and you will get part of the picture. Go to Voice of the Martyrs’ website to read more. (

Persecuted Christians are suffering greatly. But they are safe. Jesus said, “I have said these things to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world, you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” Those who walk with Jesus will suffer. But they will always be safe. Even when they are taken out of the game completely.

Monday, June 6, 2016

They will make beautiful music together

Last Sunday night I went fishing with Jesse, my 22-year-old son, in the little pond near our house. He said after a cast, “Dad, this morning was the last time I will drive to church as a single man.” That’s because today he will marry his best friend and favorite singer, Koehna. We talked about some of the “last time as a single” moments he’s been piling up over the past few months, and the exciting firsts that lie ahead. We have talked many times about the blessing of entering a marriage with no regrets and a clear conscience, of striving to “love your wife as Christ loved the church,” of being a man who stays, who doesn’t run away when difficult days come. Today, Jesse’s life will change forever.

My, how the years have rolled past. One of Cindy’s favorite memories of Jesse was when he appeared to her after church one morning with hot chocolate dripping off his face and a cup of the steaming stuff in his hands. He held it up and said, “Mom, will you ‘bwoh’ this for me?”

One of our treasured home movies includes a two-minute solo of Jesse belting out “Bare Necessities” in his pajamas one evening when he was 4 years old. It’s a classic, including his inventive re-scripting, as Jesse sang, “the simple bare neh-whessipees.” We knew then that this little boy loved music, and when he asked for his first guitar at age 8, we did not hesitate. Here we are years later, and through diligence, dedication, and the Lord’s blessing, Jesse has become a skilled craftsman with his instrument and his pen. His song, “Truly Dear” is garnishing attention from music lovers everywhere, and his band, “Love and Valor” is being blogged about by people all over the country.

I am not surprised. Jesse has always been a keen observer of what is going on around him, and can quickly articulate a response, usually a funny one. He has made us laugh until we are struggling to breathe at the dinner table. I can remember on more than one occasion at a family meal being thankful that there is a bathroom just a few steps away. Most of us have had to run there after a crack by Jesse threatened to turn our mouthful of tea into a family shower.

But Jesse is more than a comedian. He also is the one we could always count on at church or community events to befriend the little boy that everyone else seemed to be ignoring. He cares about people and relationships, and that comes through loud and clear in his music. And in his life.

One recent conversation we shared, through tears, blessed me beyond words. Jesse was telling his mom and me about spending several hours recently praying, while he fished the pond alone. He asked the Lord to help him love Koehna with the love that can only come from Him, and to always be patient and tender with her. My fifth-born is still a young man, for sure, but his heart spoke wisdom beyond his years.

Jesse reeled in two large-mouth bass last Sunday evening as the sun went down while our Golden Retriever happily splashed in the water nearby. Today, he will complete an even bigger catch, and Jesse and Koehna will begin their life together, as husband and wife. Their harmonies will be even sweeter, their music more true, and their love for Jesus more complete.

I am proud of you, son.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Free Will is an Illusion: Yes or No? (C'mon, hurry up and decide)

While I would love to spend hours unpacking this article with you today, I've also got a sermon to write for Sunday, so for now you'll just have to be content with two quick thoughts.
Determinism (the belief that free will is an illusion) is growing in popularity in recent decades, set in motion by Darwin's theory of evolution 150 years ago. The sciences have grown steadily bolder in their claim that all human behavior can be explained through the clockwork laws of cause and effect. This is the idea at the center of Stephen Cave's recent article published on The Atlantic, "There's No Such Thing as Free Will".

“We cannot afford for people to internalize the truth”, says Saul Smilansky, a philosophy professor at the University of Haifa, in Israel “the more people accept the determinist picture, the worse things will get.”

Two quick thoughts:

1. If determinism is true, if our decisions are really just dominoes falling and free will is an illusion, then how can society believing it make things worse? How can more people accept the determinist picture in the first place? Aren't we all either genetically determined to either believe it or not believe it (and by the same logic, isn't society determined already to either get worse or better)? 

So both the choice to believe this theory and the attempt to prevent society's worsening are both logically incoherent on this view. Both my beliefs and how bad society gets are already determined, and we're all just along for the ride. So kick back your heals, Smilansky, and enjoy the ride (and I'll come plunder your house of all your valuables and you'd better not complain about it).

2. If the clear outcome of your worldview is “the more people accept [my proposed worldview or philosophy], the worse things will get", at what point do you start asking yourself if the juice is worth the squeeze? How bad do the logical outworkings of your worldview have to get before you start doing some serious soul-searching? How far down the slippery slope do you have to slide before you start thinking "This view is not only logically inconsistent, but it goes again the deepest human intuitions"?