Authenticity – A Lecture on Fearlessly Being Who You Are

It happened again.

Every so often I will dig out some old music and when I hear it I get the uncontrollable shakes to play my guitar(s) “just like _________ on the record.” Typically that is John Denver, but it could also be Noel “Paul” Stookey or some other musician. Sometimes I even think I can sing like Harold Reid (the bass singer for the Statler Brothers) or Charley Pride or the aforementioned John Denver or the aforementioned Noel Stookey. It drives me crazy. I pull out my guitar.

And it just does not work. It. Does. Not. Work.

It hit me this morning just why it does not work. There are a number of technical reasons, of which I will list a few. But there is a really bad reason why it does not work, and an even much worse, awful reason why it does not work. More on that in a moment.

Technically why is does not work is because no two people are ever exactly alike. Therefore, the desire to sing, or to play, “exactly” like someone else is just doomed from the get-go. There are just far too many variables to match in order to do anything “just like” someone else.

The bad reason why it is wrong to want to do something “just like” someone else is that it really diminishes who you are as an individual. It is basically saying, “I am personally no good (or at least far sub-average), but if I could just sing/play/do something ‘just like’ so-and-so, then I would be worthy.” I know that most of us would tend to play that down, but it is really true. We tend to think that aspiring to the heights that someone else has climbed is validation – and to a degree it might be. But, ultimately its is still just trying to be where someone else already is, to achieve what they have achieved. It is not about personal achievement or personal accomplishment. I know that is a very fine line, but if you stop and consider it for a moment you will see that imitation is not true accomplishment, in the sense of individuality.

But, really, what is for me the absolute worst reason why being “just like” someone never works is that it is a profound denigration of the other person’s giftedness. Let me explain with a couple of examples.

What would it say if I, below average to low average guitar player, could suddenly (or even eventually) play like John Denver? What is it, exactly, that draws me to his music? One, his guitar playing artistry is, quite honestly, beyond compare. Most of his playing is disarmingly simple, and can be duplicated readily enough (I even had the opening riff to “Rocky Mountain High” down for a brief period.) However, it is not just the technique that makes his playing unique. During most verses his playing is uncomplicated, but in-between verses or in bridges his playing can be extraordinarily complex. But, it is not just the guitar – it is also the lyrics. The guitar ascends with phrases that call us to ascend, and moderate when the lyrics get a little melancholy. His vocal range is unique as well, and the guitar accompaniment and the lyrics are designed to elevate that vocal range. But, it does not stop there – his ability to play an audience is just as critical as his ability to play an instrument or use his voice. Yet another piece, his band members loved playing with him because he allowed them to express their individuality. So, what makes me want to play like JD? The entire package, not just one tiny little piece. Denver himself put into words on a number of occasions what I am aiming for here – he never really took credit for writing his songs. The way he put it, he was just there when the song came floating by, and he was the lucky one who got to write it down, “I had nothing to do with it” he would say.

I can’t, and I don’t really want to after all, be “just like” John Denver, because when all is said and done that would be a blight on my memory of John Denver. It was the gift that John Denver received that made him who he was, and I never want to claim his gift. It was his, and only his.

As a student-in-training-to-be-a-preacher I always wanted to preach like Harvey Porter. I have said this on numerous occasions. From a preaching perspective, Harvey Porter was my idol. I wanted to think like Harvey, to have a command of Greek like Harvey, to be able to combine humor and emotion like Harvey, to be able to speak to thousands at lectureships and to write books and to visit the Holy Land and to be invited to be on university boards of trustees and to be recognized everywhere I went just like Harvey Porter. I think that is a quite common aspiration – young men shape and fashion their dreams to fit their personal hero, be it an athlete or a teacher or a preacher or a fireman or a policeman or a doctor or – the list goes on forever. But, once again, what would I have accomplished if I could have achieved everything I set out to do? I would not have been Harvey – there could never be another Harvey Porter. But, I would not have been myself, either. I would have been a cheap imitation of someone. I would have actually been denigrating, or insulting, Harvey’s true value. I can honor Harvey Porter more completely by being who I am, and in striving to follow the Lord of Harvey’s life.

You see, the real gift, the real blessing, of listening to John Denver or the Statler Brothers or Peter Paul and Mary or in sitting at the feet of Harvey Porter is not the inspiration to play just like John Denver or sing like Harold Reid or preach like Harvey Porter. The real gift is their inspiration to become what you are especially gifted to become. Don’t aspire to play just like your favorite musician, aspire to take what has inspired you through them and then make it your own. Sure, there is nothing wrong with wanting to learn the guitar, but the goal should be to let the guitar become the living, breathing instrument that it can be, not to force it into a box that says, “John Denver” or “Paul Stookey” or “Chet Atkins.” Learn to sing, but don’t limit your accomplishments to a list that is limited to Harold Reid or Charley Pride or C.W. McCall. Let your voice be your voice, and in so doing you will honor your favorite hero more than any other gift you can give.

I wish I could have learned this lesson back when I was a teenager, or a young adult at the very least. Maybe I would not have listened even if someone had given me this article to read. I was (am still?) pretty hard headed. But, I think it is good I finally learned it anyway. I can listen to my records and cds of John Denver and Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Charley Pride and many, many others with less agitation now. Not complete contentment, because those “I want to play/sing just like _________” yearnings are still deep within me. But, I can admire and be amazed by their artistry with perhaps just a little less jealousy now. And, perhaps just a little more maturity that can say, “Wow, I sure am glad they used their own gifts, instead of trying to be just like someone I never heard of.”

Honor your heroes to be sure. Just be sure to do so by becoming the best you can be. You will ultimately achieve far more, and be blessed with a far greater peace.

 

What Color is the Sky in Your World?

Sorry if you were expecting a great burst of optimistic sunshine today. I’m just not sure what is going on in the world today – you might say I am in the funkiest of funks. To wit:

  • A major league baseball team cheats to win at least one divisional and league championship, and perhaps a World Series, and the owner and players get off completely free. The management gets fired. Sooooo much justice there. (Pleeeeeze don’t argue that 4 draft picks and $5 million dollars are “punishment.” Baseball does not function like football or basketball regarding draft picks [most, if not all, draftees are years away from seeing a major league ball park, and very, very few end up playing an inning for the team that drafted them], and $5 million for a baseball owner is like you or me scrounging through the sofa looking for pocket change to go buy a cup of coffee.)
  • State legislatures across the country are brazenly attacking the Second Amendment right to self-protection by the ownership of firearms. These are not “common sense” approaches to gun violence, but are vaguely disguised attempts to restrict, or out-right ban, private use or even ownership of guns. I have written previously that I do not consider the U.S. Constitution to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, but seriously, if we can simply eliminate the second of our most cherished “Rights,” which will be the next to go? The first?
  • I’ll be honest here (although greatly in the minority, and probably greatly to be hated) but I am sick to my stomach with the adulation and hero worship afforded to the death of a basketball player. Kobe Bryant was a human being, a deeply flawed human being. If justice was served, he should have spent several years in prison for rape. Justice is rarely meted out against “heroes,” and Bryant has been dutifully beatified and enshrined among the pantheon of distorted American saints. It is amazing what absolution a little money and the right colored jersey can buy you.
  • In the fetid swamp that envelopes Washington D.C., a grotesque parody of epic proportions is on stage for all the world to see. A party that was absolutely aghast at the lurid behavior of a Democratic president now shrugs its shoulders at the lurid behavior of one of its own, as if to say, “nothing to see here, move on.” Meanwhile, the other party – which was totally oblivious to perjury and obstruction charges against one of their own – now sees the machinations of the Republican president as somehow equal to George Washington fighting for the British.
  • Every day a new story breaks about the “progress” of the current rage of gender dysphoria – be it homosexuality, gender “reassignment” or some such other nonsense. We are not just dealing here with the questioning of reality, but the very rejection of any semblance of reality.

Pardon my jaundice here, but has anything happened in 2020 that has been praiseworthy or admirable? It just seems like we have been given a re-run straight out of the 1970’s. Only worse.

I am working on teaching through the minor prophets on Sunday mornings, and I wonder – did Amos and Micah and Joel and Hosea and all the others see the same things in their decadent cultures? Many of the minor prophets were writing at the peak of Israelite (and south Judah) power. They were not just rejected because their message was counter-cultural (it was!), but also because it was considered ludicrous, insane even. How dare you challenge the status-quo, especially when the status-quo brought so much economic, political, and military power?

I have noted this elsewhere (and if you want a far more erudite exposition of that to which I am referring, see just about any offering by Os Guinness), but our culture cannot exist for long going the direction it is currently headed. Only two options exist, as far as I am concerned. One, there will be a huge, epic, tectonic, quantum change in our collective conscience and we will be spared from certain annihilation; or two, the American dream will collapse like a soggy house of cards, and sooner rather than later. The weight of the debris from the disintegration of any semblance of sustainable morality or ethic is simply too much for our tottering foundation to bear.

If you are tempted to pshaw at me, just ask yourself – exactly when did it occur to you that protecting the perversity of transgender people to be the “Civil Rights Issue” of our generation (as identified by Bernie Sanders, or was it Joe Biden – I lose track)? I rest my case.

When I was a kid we would tease someone who made an outlandish statement by asking with mock seriousness, “What is the color of the sky in your world?” I am not sure what color the sky is in the world of many people.

As I look around me, I’m not even sure I know what color the sky is in my world. It used to be all colors of beautiful blue and gold and orange and red and amber and even black, depending on the time of day. Now . . . it is just all so . . . funky.

I Am a Very Lucky Man

In the great classic “A Christmas Carol,” Ebenezer Scrooge says wistfully at the end of the movie, “I am a very lucky man.” As I sit at the end of 2019, I too feel like I am a very lucky man. As an old saying goes, you can’t count on luck, but sometimes being lucky counts a whole lot. I want to share a few of the reasons why I feel particularly blessed at the end of this calendar year.

  • My wife has battled back from cancer, twice! Every follow-up blood test is nerve wracking, but as we have learned, it is the “new normal.” We are so grateful to have been blessed with two oncologists that have given her the strength, and the medical knowledge, to overcome. I realize this narrative can change at any time, and not every battle against cancer ends in victory –  I lost my father to cancer 29 years ago. So, for now I will consider myself very lucky, and blessed, to share in this moment.
  • I have the most amazing, articulate, artistic, and beautiful-in-every-sense-of-the-word daughter. She amazes me more and more every day, in ways that I find hard to explain. One of my long-running jokes with her is that after she was born, the nurses switched babies because there is no way this girl could be mine. Well, in a serious way that is very true – I really wonder how this girl could be the way she is with me as her father. I’ve made so many mistakes and failed her in so many ways. Maybe every father feels that way – but to have her in my life seems to me to just be pure luck.
  • I’ve been given a new “leash” on life. Not “lease,” as the saying usually goes, but a new leash. I’m beginning to realize that I am tethered to something different, something new. I have had to come to grips with some rather hard truths over the past few months, and have had a lot of time to evaluate my priorities. I’ve said good-bye to some long held dreams, and have come to embrace some new (or, at least, renewed) goals. In one sense it is kind of scary – the old was so comfortable and predictable. In another sense it is liberating. Either way, it is certainly real, and I look forward to seeing how 2020 plays out.
  • I have some of the most amazing, thoughtful, and generous friends. Really – some of you reading this are who I am talking about. The last half of 2019 we could not have survived without the financial generosity of many, many people. It was a deeply humbling experience. I’ve already referenced Ebenezer Scrooge, so I guess I might as well mention George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The angel Clarence got it right – every man who has friends is rich indeed. My wife and I are already looking for ways in which we can pay this blessing forward, and our hope is that we can help others in same or similar situations. Whether that happens in 2020 or not, I look forward to being an angel in someone’s life as so many were angels to us.

I am a very lucky man. Maybe blessed is the more proper, biblical, spiritual term, but today lucky just seems to be more appropriate. I did not, and do not, deserve the gifts I have listed (and there are many more!), but I do recognize how my life has been made fuller and richer by having received them, and I do not want any one to think I am ungrateful for having been given these gifts. If I can see anything more clearly or more profoundly, it is because I stand on the shoulders of some prodigious giants.

In the coming year may we all ascend higher by climbing lower.

Back in the Saddle Again – and Thanks for a Great Year

Okay, so I’m not Roy Rogers or whoever it was who sang that old western standard, but after 4 months plus some days I am once again sitting in a “saddle” of sorts preparing to serve a congregation of the Lord’s church. It’s been a long, hard stretch, but there are always some silver linings that come out around dark clouds, and not to say that I want to do it again, but I have learned some things in that four month stretch that I can appreciate now.

I want to take this time to thank my readers for a great year. Every year I play a little game with myself – or challenge myself – that I will increase the number of views to this blog over the course of the year. I was hoping to surpass last year’s total viewership sometime in December, or if I was lucky, maybe in November. Well, thanks to you all, I did not just surpass my 2018 total, I smashed it – in August! I have to admit a minor technicality– I think a lot of those views were related to my search for a new preaching position and people were “checking me out” to see what kind of a nut I am. Whatever the reason, the total number of views for 2019 went way beyond what I was expecting and for that I am truly grateful. It also humbled me and impressed upon me the need to present solid, useful information.

I do not want to be just another voice in an echo chamber. I hope that my training, my experience, my education, and my own unique personality can be used to further God’s kingdom. I’m not the world’s greatest evangelist or the world’s greatest speaker. But, I have been given some incredible blessings through the course of my life and ministry and I hope I can pass a little of what I have learned along to others, so that they can take whatever is beneficial and add that to their special experience, training, education, and personality. This blog helps me to do a little of that, and, once again, I thank all of you who visit this space for sharing a little of my world.

On a related note, I am tossing an idea around in my head and I am wondering what level of interest there is out there for a video version of this blog. I don’t mean to replace it, but to supplement it. I was thinking about posting a 10 minute (give or take) video to my YouTube channel every week exploring some aspect of theology and/or life in general. It would not be anything special, that’s for sure. I just have a basic computer video camera. It would give me an outlet to present some of my thoughts via a visual outlet, and for me I think it would be fun and perhaps, just maybe, a little more personable than just reading my thoughts on a screen. I may give it a shot and see what happens.

As always, I have a few more issues and thoughts to discuss, so I look forward to a great 2020. So many of you have expressed support for me and my family as we searched for a new ministry position, and I want to thank you so very much for your love and concern. I believe we are in a good place, and we look forward to many good years here in our new church home.

9.11.19

Today’s thoughts are going to be more along the lines of “stream of consciousness,” so please bear with me. I have written about this before, so I apologize if it sounds a little like a re-run.

I was in a unique position on 9.11.01. I was flying an airplane. I was flying with a company check pilot on a FAA mandated recurrent check ride (something we had to do as commercial pilots every six months.) We announced our arrival and intentions to the airport to which we were flying (no control tower, just announce where you are and look for other traffic), and a voice came back (which was very unusual for that airport at that time of the morning), “Well, you can land but I will not let you take off again.” Well, the check pilot (an experienced pilot with a major air carrier) got kind of huffy and said back, “What do you mean, we cannot take off again?” (or words to that effect). The strange voice came back, “Because of the attacks on the towers in New York, all air traffic is grounded by order of the FAA.”

Shock, and dumbfounded silence.

What do you do when your happy place is turned into your casket?

I grieved for all the victims of that horrible attack, but I guess my heart went out to the pilots and their families just a little bit more. There is a kinship among pilots, a kind of social attachment that only can be experienced by someone who has commanded an airplane. Talk to a pilot and he or she can tell you exactly when and where he or she first soloed. I had a pilot friend who took everyone out to eat every year on the anniversary of his first solo. We all understood.

In 2001 the doors to the cockpits were not secure. In the cockpit of a major air carrier the space is extremely cramped. The pilots had their backs to their attackers, and stood no chance to defend themselves. They probably fought as best they could – but with multiple attackers coming with complete surprise, they really had no chance.

A group of people gathered around the TV and watched the towers fall – again and again and again. In somewhat of a stupor I walked out onto the parking ramp where my plane sat, almost as if it was saying, “Hey, we have a job to do – why are we not in the air?” I looked up. At that moment not a single airplane was in the air – except for our nation’s air defense planes.

Not one single airplane in a nations of hundred of thousands.

A co-worker and I were housed in a hotel for the next several days (three, if I remember correctly). Finally the FAA allowed planes to fly again, but under extremely strict guidelines. We had to file very specific flight plans. We had to use a special call sign. There would be no deviations, no special requests granted.

As the city of Albuquerque came into view the Air Traffic Controller in the regional center “handed me over” (as pilots say) to the Albuquerque approach controller. Because we flew in and out of Albuquerque daily, we sort of knew the controllers by their voices. There was a tenseness and a kind of sadness in everyone’s voice that first day back in the air. The voice who responded to my initial call was a familiar one, although I could never know who I was talking to. After the required information was exchanged, I said, “Sure is good to hear your voice again.” He responded, “Sure is good to hear your voice too.”

I lost it.

Its kind of hard to fly an airplane through tear filled eyes, but I managed to get mine down. The day was absolutely beautiful, a splendid example of a September day in northern New  Mexico. The airport was overflowing with parked jets. The contrast in feelings was surreal. The beauty of the day was beyond description. The sadness and the bitterness of the reality of a world gone mad was palpable.

We were all, pilots and air traffic controllers, just happy and comforted to hear the voices of people we had never met, but upon whom we relied for our lives and livelihoods on a daily basis.

“We will never forget” is so often said, and is genuinely expressed, no doubt.

I will never forget 9.11.01, nor the day I flew back into Albuquerque and heard those words that I never expected to hear.

I wonder what it will be like when we see Jesus, and we can say, “Sure is good to hear your voice!”

But, even more, I wonder what it will be like to hear Jesus say, “Sure is good to hear your voice again too.”

Let’s be careful out there today, okay?

Not Every . . .

Not every mountain is a molehill . . .
Not every molehill is a mountain . . .
Not every misspoken word is a heresy . . .
Not every thought needs to be acted on . . .
Not every major news story deserves a sermon on Sunday . . .
Not every sermon deserves discussion on Monday . . .
Not every change in worship order represents a rejection of truth . . .
Not every prayer is answered the way we want it . . .
Not every answered prayer is met with gratitude or thanksgiving . . .
Not every gift is a blessing . . .
Not every hardship is a curse . . .
Not every truth is benevolent . . .
Not every lie is malevolent . . .
Not every kindness is returned . . .
Not every act of evil needs to be avenged . . .
Not every person who dies goes to heaven . . .
Not every Bible is read . . .
Not every sin is confessed . . .

And,

Not everyone is perfect.

Why can’t we learn these things?

Some Times There Are Just Not Enough Rocks

What a difference a year makes. This time a year ago I was on the top of cloud nine. I was on the 9th peak of cloud 9. I was going to return to my beloved Colorado, in a place where I once truly felt like I was home – close to the mountains, in a veritable Garden of Eden.

I have always loved Colorado. When I was younger we would spend weeks up near where I am now, fishing on one of southern Colorado’s best, although not that well known, trout streams. When I am here I feel a connectedness not only to the land, but to God as well. There is a line in John Denver’s song, Durango Mountain Caballero that says, “I can hear my mother speak to me and hold my father’s hand.” Well, I can hear and feel my parents, and I can hold my spiritual Father’s hand as well. I am truly, deeply, alive when I am in this place.

So, on Tuesday I was dismissed from the position I had dreamed about having for two years, and where I have served for one. It was sudden – I had no clue it was coming. No reason was given either, save for a generic “it is just that you are not a good fit for this congregation.” Hmm. Too much of something? Not enough of something else? There was, at least to this point in time, no explanation, and I do not anticipate one forthcoming. It is my experience in a long, long history of preacher dismissals. We love you right up to the day we fire you. Next!

I have to say the past three days have been a roller coaster of emotions. Crushing sorrow, bitter tears, enough anger to fuel an aircraft carrier, utter and total confusion.

In the movie Forrest Gump, Forrest and his friend Jenny are walking along and come out of a line of trees in front of her childhood home. It was the place where she had been abused, and all the bitterness and anger came flowing out of her as she hurled everything she could at the house – her shoes, rocks, rocks, dirt, and rocks. Finally she collapses in a heap and Forrest, who is watching in silent shock and confusion, slowly walks over and in tender compassion sits on the ground near Jenny. The scene ends with his slow drawl,

“Sometimes, I guess there just aren’t enough rocks.”

I always understood that scene, but I never really got it until this week. Sometimes, there are just not enough rocks.

But, there are some moving John Denver lyrics about this beautiful country.

You know I love the trail I’m on and the friends who ride with me,
The country that we’re passing through is a paradise to see.
A haven for my spirit, the homeland of my dreams,
My heart flies through the wilderness, and on an eagle’s wings.

Durango mountain caballero take me for a ride,
on the back-bone of this mighty land, the continental divide.
To the place where earth and heaven meet, the mountains and the sky,
In the heart of Colorado, Rocky Mountain High!

You know I love  the campfire, and the circle that I’m in
The stories and the laughter, they should never, ever end.
Forever in my memory, forever in my song,
On a San Juan mountain trail ride
I’ll carry you along.

Amen.