The Message is in the Manure

I tell you, No; but unless you repent (change your mind for the better and heartily amend your ways, with abhorrence of your past sins), you will all likewise perish and be lost eternally. And He told them this parable: A certain man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he came looking for fruit on it, but did not find [any].  So he said to the vinedresser, See here! For these three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree and I find none. Cut it down! Why should it continue also to use up the ground [to deplete the soil, intercept the sun, and take up room]?

But he replied to him, Leave it alone, sir, [just] this one more year, till I dig around it and put manure [on the soil].  Then perhaps it will bear fruit after this; but if not, you can cut it down and out.

Luke 13: 5-9, The Amplified Bible

When Pastor Paul (Christ Community United Methodist) taught from this portion of Scripture on Sunday, if you know me very well at all, you know that the only word that stuck out in my head from the entire passage was "manure".

I love "potty humor".  Love it.  I am the perpetual 10-year-old boy and there is nothing funnier to me than a fart or a poot or something passing gas or "breaking wind" or talking about poop or dropping the kids off at the pool or taking a dump or a slam or taking the Browns to the Super Bowl or filing paperwork, or whatever else you might call it.  Nothing.  There is nothing funnier to me.  If that offends you, I'm almost done.  But you may not want to watch this video clip if you don't like bathroom humor.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b7l6jg4Hlog

I warned you.

But in all seriousness, what the crap is this post about?  (See what I did there?)

So you have this fig tree.  At least it looks like a fig tree.  One problem: no figs.  How can you prove that it's a fig tree if it has no figs?  And if you're the owner of a vineyard, what good is a tree to you if it produces no fruit?

This story is messy and beautiful for two reasons:

  1. The gardener has mercy on the fruitless tree and says to the owner, "Give me more time. Let me work with this one.  Let me fertilize it.  Let me cultivate it.  Give me another year and let me see if I can get it to produce fruit."  The gardener believes that the tree is able to perform the task it was designed and destined to do.
  2. The fertilizer was manure.  I have seen, in my brief life, the truth that poop produces.  Manure is simply the waste of an animal  It's dung.  It's feces.  And it stinks.  There is nothing good-smelling about a load of crap.  Here's the strange thing: sometimes the only way to get results is to let the Gardener of your Soul pile that $h!t on.

Lindsey and I have been going through a tough time of transition for the past several months, with the birth of Baby Caroline in March and the fact that Lindsey is no longer working.  We are BLESSED that Lindsey is able to stay home with our two beautiful children.  I can't imagine anyone else watching our children for 8-10 hours a day, but it is a learning process for us financially and we have truthfully faced some very difficult times, especially within the last month.

But remember, the message is in the manure.

I told some close friends yesterday that it seems like God is truly stripping away everything we have so that we have to COMPLETELY rely on (and trust in) Him.  We are having to make major budget changes, and He has helped, in the most mysterious (and shocking) ways to trim our budget.  Just trust me on that one.

So what do you do when the poop piles on?

Know that you are being cultivated for a purpose that is greater than you could ever imagine and that the Gardener of your Soul is getting His hands messy with the one He loves so very much.

--Steve

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1dbrHPIrwA

 

The Value of Brokenness

Today's Guest Blogger is Justin Vess, a long-time friend of mine and former roommate. I'm honored to share his story here. The Value of Brokenness

When we speak of things broken, we naturally think of something that has lost its usefulness.  We think, in a sense, of waste, regardless of its previous worth.

Priceless vases, heirlooms, glassware, machinery; when its broken, we instinctively go to throw it away.  Unless, of course, we can see the value in the broken things.  Those who can are blessed with the gift of creation, and restoration.  They are the craftsmen, the artists, the experts in repurposing, redefining, and recreating that which was once refuse.

Majestic works of glass are created by crushing and refining broken glass.  It doesn’t matter what it was before.  What matters is that it’s broken, and ready to be refined.  The same is true of precious metals.  They are broken down, stripped of everything but their very core, crushed and refined to be remolded and reborn into marvelous works of art, the very foundations of science and progress, and the inventions that shape the world around us.

Our lives are no different.

When we are broken, we only see our brokenness, and so does the vast majority.  However, there is a creator, the master of refinement, who can redesign and repurpose anyone or anything.  The only requirement- brokenness.  To be remade, and to be reborn into a purpose greater than that which you designed for yourself, you must first be broken, crushed, defeated.  You must reach the point of letting go of control, and let Him remake you.

Failure is closely associated with brokenness, and often leads to the latter.  Introspectively, we sense the sting of failure as a sign of defect, but failure should only serve to prove that it is not who or what we are that is defective, but the plans we have made for ourselves.

Failure is inevitable when we throw out the blueprints of the master, and replace them with our own design.

This leads to a malfunction, because we were not created to act according to our own design, and we will break.  We will reach the point of failure.  When this happens, it’s imperative to let ourselves break, pick up the pieces, and lay them on the table to be fully disassembled, crushed, melted, and redesigned once more.

This is the essence of grace and redemption: brokenness, refinement, and rebirth.

--Justin

Even Preacher's Kids Need Messy Grace

I'm so honored to have Ethan Boggs as a guest blogger today.  Portions of this story were originally published on Ethan's blog as "A Dirty Jesus" and when I read it, I sent him a message that basically begged for him to tell me more!  So here it is.  Thank you, Ethan, from the bottom of my heart, for the willingness and the courage to tell your story. cropped-image1I grew up in the church where My dad was the pastor...that's right...I'm a PK (pastors kid).

Growing up my relationship with God was extremely performance driven. I believed God loved me more based on my ability to "stay clean".

So whenever I failed or messed up I would feel dirty. As a result I would hide from God.

It wasn't until I found Grace that my life was altered forever.

Let me share this thought with you...it has forever changed me.

I personally think that most people don’t have a problem with God they have a problem with religion.

One of the reasons people are not interested in church is because they feel that they are not good enough; they feel guilty. They feel dirty. Often time religion makes it seem that you have to meet a spiritual quota for God to even be interested in you. When in fact, Jesus is drawn to the people who are not “OK” rather than the people who pride themselves on thinking they are “OK”. Here’s an example. . .

The religious crowd brought a woman to Jesus who had been caught in the very act of adultery. The religious people are all “gun ho giddy” about stoning this chick. While the crowd is roaring with accusations and judgment, Jesus does something crazy. . . (Jn. 8:6) “. . . Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger”.

We all know the story. Think about it, “. . . Jesus stooped down . . .” To think that the all-powerful God stops everything and completely focuses on this one woman. A guilty woman. A woman who does not even defend herself. She knows that she is guilty. We must ask the question: What would make such a good God stoop down for such a bad woman?

He stooped down to her because she couldn’t stand up to him.

He stooped down to her not because she knew how to pray and read her Bible . . . but because she needed Grace.

It was her imperfection that drew him to the dirt.

Religion can make you feel that you have to climb this ladder to get to him whereas in reality the cross was the ladder of which Jesus came down to us, the dirty.

We all hate our dirt. I know I do; however, just know that the dirt doesn’t distract Him from showing you His Grace.

He is willing to get dirty to get to us.

Final thought: Religion is always looking for a “move of God” . . . start looking in the dirt . . . He seems to like it there.

Ethan Boggs

www.ethanboggs.net

www.citichurch.tv

Why It's Good to Wrestle with Your Spouse

Lindsey and I have been married for seven years now. Our marriage isn't perfect, but God is growing us closer together than I ever imagined possible. 2014-06-16_23.47.26

But it hasn't always been this way...

Lindsey and I talked about this topic yesterday and had a HUGE heart-to-heart a couple of nights ago and I can't help but tell you about it now, because the lesson I am learning is life-changing.

It is good to wrestle!

I never knew that before.  I didn't know that it was okay and even HEALTHY to wrestle with her.  So now, we lock arms and go toe-to-toe.  We grab each other by the hair and we grapple and toss each other around the room in heated passion.

Okay, maybe not.  Not exactly. But my name is Steve Austin and I have heard the jokes about my name for the past thirty-one years, so why not?

But seriously, it is good to wrestle!

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I remember being in a "Nearly and Newly Married" Sunday School class at the church we were attending while engaged to be wed.  I think they must throw engaged couples into the class with the newly marrieds and the older married couple that is teaching the class to do their best to scare you out of the decision!  I remember Lindsey and I getting in the car after nearly every time with that class and being appalled at the way the people talked about their guy or gal!  Any time we would split up the guys and the girls, several of the guys would talk about their "other half" like it was the worst thing in the world to deal with them!  Apparently the girls were just as bad: gripe and growl about their man.

For the first several years of our marriage, we were so stuck on "pleasing" one another and doing things different from what we had seen with our own parents, we both held so much inside and buried it down deep.  We never wrestled.  We never ripped our shirts and smashed beer cans on our heads and jumped from the top rope.  We never screamed and yelled.  We never foughtWe barely argued.

People thought our life together was absolutely perfect. I wouldn't go back to that place for all the gold in the world.

Wrestle1

We could learn a lot about relationships from the rules of wrestling (italics are mine).

Wrestling Terminology:

  • 1) Takedown: Points are scored for taking your opponent down to the mat.  If we would hit our knees together in prayer more often, we would view our spouses less as opponents and more as partners.
  • 2) Escape: You score one point for getting away or getting to a neutral position when your opponent has you down on the mat. Sometimes the best thing is to take time to "cool down", but it is never okay to have something that serves as your "escape" from your family.  If you feel the need for a constant "escape", you may have something you need to wrestle about.
  • 3) Reversal: You score two points when your opponent has you down on the mat and you come from underneath and gain control of your opponent. You will not always "win" the argument and that's okay.  The point isn't "winning or losing" in the confines or marriage; the goal is mutual understanding and respect of one another's views.
  • 4) Near Fall: You get near fall points when you almost but not quite get your opponent pinned. This is my favorite one.  How many "near falls" have you had?  I've had one major near fall and so has Lindsey.  I'm thankful that His perfect grace empowered and compelled us to wrestle through it and stay together.  God will give you what you need at the exact moment you need it, but you may have to wrestle him for it, too.  (See the story of Jacob.)
  • 5) Penalty Points: Your opponent is awarded points if you commit the following infractions.  Just like in wrestling, there is protocol that must be followed in marriage.  You can only wrestle within the confines of the mat and there are rules that should be followed to make the match (or the marriage) safe for each participant.
      • Illegal Holds: There are several holds that the referee will penalize you for without warning. (There are other holds called "potentially dangerous holds" which the referee might make you let go of but will not penalize you for).  Each marriage is different, just like each person is different.  Only you can decide what is an "illegal hold" for you.  I believe that is why the Bible says, "The marriage bed is undefiled."  If you are both comfortable with what you are doing, GO FOR IT!  Have fun!  Life it up!  Make love!  But you should both mutually agree on what the "illegal holds" are and agree to keep them out of your bed.
      • Fleeing the mat: In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with leaving the house, but the #1 rule should be that as you are leaving, you say, "I am leaving, but I will be back".  Sometimes you have to take that "cool down" session in order to show your significant other the mutual respect and understanding that he or she deserves
      • Locked or overlapped hands: If you are down on the mat in control of your opponent, you cannot lock or overlap your hands, fingers or arms around your opponent's body or both legs unless you have met criteria for a near pin of your opponent.  Don't kick them when they're down.  We all go through seasons and have tough times.  Choose your battles and your timing wisely.
      • Reporting to the mat not properly equipped or not ready to wrestle: To use a little "Christianese", don't show up to a wrestling match if you aren't prayed up.  If you haven't wrestled with God first, you may want to reconsider wrestling with your spouse.
      • Flagrant Misconduct: Ejection, the match is over.  Again, only you and your "better half" can decide what counts as "flagrant misconduct".  No one else can tell you to leave him or leave her.  You have to make that decision on your own after a whole lot of wrestling with God.

And as a side note: People will watch your marriage.  People will judge your marriage.  People will typically always believe a rumor before they believe the truth, but there is nothing in this world that matters less than the opinion of an ignorant fool and there is nothing in this world that matters more than what you have in your intimate relationship with your partner.  If someone isn't sleeping with you, then their opinion REALLY doesn't matter.

My wife and I have been through Hell and back and still have to face the gossip and criticism of others, but we continue to wrestle with God and one another and we know that this marriage has been blessed by God and that nothing in this world will ever tear us apart.

I love you Lindsey Austin.  This one's for you:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ooiLP_zqnFs

*Overview of Wrestling Rules from wvmat.com

Tajuan's story: I was exploited.

As founder and executive director of The Wellhouse in Birmingham, Alabama, Tajuan McCarty is very familiar with the horrors of domestic sex trafficking. The organization has rescued over 120 women since it opened its doors in 2011. Not only does The Wellhouse provide a safe place to live, special emphasis is placed on the victims' mental, emotional and spiritual recovery.

Before she opened The Wellhouse, Tajuan spent several years working for the Alabama Department of Human Resources, gaining extensive experience in social work and community outreach. She teaches at the University of Alabama in Birmingham as an adjunct professor, preparing future social workers to serve the needs of the community. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Social Work and two Master's degrees in Public Health and Public Administration respectively. She knows how the system works and how it can unfairly punish vulnerable women, such as the drug addicted, the abused and the prostituted. She is a very vocal advocate for women's issues, having helped set up the first program in Alabama to help chronically homeless, severely mentally ill women. She has also served as a mentor to female offenders, helping them re-integrate into society.

However, Tajuan's experience with the grim reality that so many women face is personal. Very personal. Born and raised in Georgia, she grew up in a home where much emphasis was placed on the wrath of God, rather than His grace and mercy. As a young teenager, she was in and out of foster care and group homes, having run away from home many times. By the time she was 15, she left home. She soon found out how frightening the world can be.

Tajuan was exploited by a boyfriend-turned pimp, someone who promised to take care of her. First, he made her sell drugs, then made her strip in clubs. Before long, he started to prostitute her, at truck stops and motels, before trafficking her for sex across all 48 contiguous states, Mexico and Canada. For over ten years, this was Tajuan's life. To cope with the pain and confusion, Tajuan became addicted to the drugs her pimp made her sell.

Recalling her childhood lessons about God, she was convinced that everything that happened to her-- the beatings, the brutal rapes, the kidnappings, the psychological torture-- was her just punishment for running away from home. Her multiple arrests for prostitution reinforced her thinking. At age 26, Tajuan was arrested again. This time, something was different. She saw a way out of the dark world she was trapped in. She began attending a 12 Step Program and from there, embarked on her education, gaining her degrees. But the most important thing that changed in her life was truly discovering who Jesus was and His love for her.

It took 25 years, but she finally understood that she had been victimized and that she didn't deserve anything that happened during that frightening period. Tajuan allowed herself to be lost in His restorative love and continues to let Him heal her emotional wounds. She is determined to help other women who are lost and afraid because she knows their pain all too well. And in helping others rebuild their lives, she is able to understand why she had to go through the things that she did so long ago. Tajuan McCarty has definitely received God's beauty for the ashes of her past.

Splash in the Puddles

Alabama weather: you really just never know.  I'm sure folks in other parts of the Deep South feel the same way, but let me give you an example...Saturday and Sunday, I had a photo shoot each day.  I wore shorts and t-shirts each day and was as comfortable as could be.  Sunday, I was even sweating a little.  It was warm, but the weather was picture perfect for this photographer!

And then Monday showed up...

It rained all night Sunday night and into Monday.  I wore long pants and a pullover to work on Monday.  Today it's even colder.  But the rain--oh my gosh--it rained so much!

A friend of mine posted a couple of pictures on Facebook Monday with this as the caption, "I just want to splash in the puddles!"

It gave me pause.

Isn't life so much like our infamous Alabama weather?

We're rolling along, whistling, "Zip-a-dee-doo-da-zip-a-dee-aye-my-oh-my-oh-what a wonderful day!" and then all of a sudden, the bottom falls out.

Crash!

Boom!

Bang!

It's raining cats and dogs and we're stuck in a downpour!

Or are we?

Are we stuck?

Or is it really all about our perspective?

I think we've forgotten that this Christian life never promised to be all roses and kittens and a cotton candy.

Jesus told us in the book of John, Chapter 16, verse 33, "In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties. But take heart! I’ve conquered the world.”

The very Son of God gave us a promise that life wouldn't always be a cake walk, but that in fact we WILL continue to have bad days, hard times, and that it won't always be easy.

Life, this side of forever, sucks sometimes.

There's sickness.

Poverty is real.

Racism wasn't left behind in the 60's.

Death happens.

Shit happens.

There's the quote you need to put on your next little E-card, "Jesus loves me, this I know, but shit happens."

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It makes me think about some valleys that my Lindsey and I have walked through in our life together (we started dating eight years ago, yesterday, and I can truly say that I am more in love with her than I've ever been!):

  • After Ben Thomas was born, my Lindsey spent two weeks in the hospital.  Read her story here.  Here's part of what Lindsey wrote, "Realize that you can't separate anything from God.  Healing comes in many forms...and you are not your diagnosis."
  • You can read my experience during that time here.  Here's an excerpt, "Random moments during those weeks, it seemed like Satan was winning the battle for my mind. I have never been more scared or sad in my entire life.  Would I be living the life of a single Dad? Would she be permanently “damaged goods”? Would I be providing long-term care for a crazy person? These were very real fears that I tucked away, hidden in the shadows of my soul."
  • Of course there's the stories of my chilldhood.  From that post, "Being real is so freeing. Setting aside the mask of religion and regulations, I am now free to love others and myself with the grace of God that is radically transformative."
  • There's also the story of my suicide attempt.  Here's a bit from that post, "Some people will not understand your struggles. Some will never understand your pain. Some people can never “get” your decision to try to end it all. I pray that they never do. Your story isn’t for everyone, but don’t let the ignorant words of a few silence your song of deliverance. Your story must be told, because once you couple that story with the Hope and Freedom found in Jesus Christ, you can overcome any obstacle! It’s your story. Own it."

Like I said, Mrs. Lindsey and I have been through some STUFF, but so have you.  We've all had our ups and downs, been thrown curve balls, and felt all alone in the middle of a downpour, but the good news is that we have NEVER been left alone!  Jesus said we would continue to face hard times, but that He's already won and that in the end, when we see Him again in Heaven, it will all be worth it.

John 16:21 and the verses following says:

When a woman gives birth, she has a hard time, there’s no getting around it. But when the baby is born, there is joy in the birth. This new life in the world wipes out memory of the pain. The sadness you have right now is similar to that pain, but the coming joy is also similar. When I see you again, you’ll be full of joy, and it will be a joy no one can rob from you.

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That is exactly what it seems like we are experiencing right now!  Caroline Grace Austin was born two weeks ago and her name means "Free Grace" (how fitting, right?).  Lindsey and I see her as such a gift--she's just one more example of God's never-ending fountain of second chances.

We all have choices in life.

Stuff is going to come our way that is less than desirable, but we choose our response.

We choose to wallow in the mud or splash in the puddles!

"I see the moon and the moon sees me..."

Yesterday, I wrote about my little boy wanting to catch airplanes and hold the moon.  A blog buddy of mine, Michael, commented with this:

I used to love to lay back into the back window of the car and watch things in view pass by or the road rush away…the lines part and rejoin. I also loved watching the moon chase us no matter how fast we moved. Those were the days!

Those who know me well, will understand that portions of this comment sent my mind spinning with all sorts of comparisons with God and possibilities for a new post!

"...watching the moon chase us no matter how fast we moved."

Can you see it?  Do you remember being a little one and being fascinated with the moon and stars?  Or maybe you're like my friend Gigi who is still fascinated by it all.  It makes me smile just thinking about how much she loves all that stuff.  I think God really speaks to her through the sky.  He certainly speaks to me through sunsets, but I've never really thought about God and the moon.

"...chase us..."

Romans 5:6-7 says, "Christ arrives right on time to make this happen. He didn’t, and doesn’t, wait for us to get ready. He presented himself for this sacrificial death when we were far too weak and rebellious to do anything to get ourselves ready. And even if we hadn’t been so weak, we wouldn’t have known what to do anyway. We can understand someone dying for a person worth dying for, and we can understand how someone good and noble could inspire us to selfless sacrifice. But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him."

"...no matter how fast we moved."

Luke: 15:3-7: By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their grumbling triggered this story.

Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!’ Count on it—there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue.

The moon is always there and no matter how fast we are moving or what our location on the grid may be, we can always look up and see the moon in the sky.  It's the same way with God.  He is ever-present in every circumstance, whether we "feel" Him or not.  There are times when it's hard to "see" God in a particular situation, but the truth is that He never changes.  He is constant and always looking over the children He created: the children He loves.  Even if we are running away from Him at warp speed.

“But even when the moon looks like it's waning...it's actually never changing shape. Don't ever forget that.”  --Ai Yazawa

Catching Airplanes

Ben Thomas and Lindsey were riding in the car the other night and he had his hand up to the window in a funny way.  When his Momma asked, "Whatcha doin'?", BT replied, "I get the moon, Momma!"  He wanted to hold it.

He has one heck of an imagination for a 2 1/2 year old.

He was playing at the park with his Momma on Monday and this is what he started doing...

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There was an airplane overhead, and he wanted to catch it.

There are days when I think I could hold the moon if I could just reach it. Or catch an airplane and fly to Costa Rica for dinner on the coast.  Ben Thomas reminds me of my buddy Dennis Gable and me.  We're pretty big dreamers, and pretty big believers in our dreams, too.  Thankfully, we're both blessed to be married to women who are patient with our wild-hair ideas and love us through the whole crazy process.

Here's where I get stuck: I have all these ideas bouncing around in my head like the die in Popomatic Trouble, and every once in a while, I can't stand it any more and go ahead and do Phase One of whatever project I am obsessing over at the time.

I've started:

  • A radio show.
  • A worship band.
  • A blog on beauty.
  • A blog for anonymous questions that you "aren't supposed to ask".
  • A book club.
  • A podcast.
  • Talked about starting another podcast.
  • Talked about starting a home church.

I have talked about and planned and started many things, several of which haven't "stuck".

But God...

God rejoices when we reach out to hold the moon, even if it's a bit too far.

God is thrilled when we try to catch an airplane, even if the world tells us, "Get a balloon, kid.  That's much more practical."

God is quite a dreamer and inventor and we are His children, so why wouldn't we dream and invent?

God loves dreamers!

Here's a few of His words on the matter:

  • Psalm 145:6, "Do you think you can mess with the dreams of the poor?  You can’t, for God makes their dreams come true."
  • Acts 2, "Your young men will see visions, your old men dream dreams."
  • Ephesians 3:20, "God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us."

I smile as I read these Scriptures again.  I hear God saying, "Your dreams are not your own.  Neither is your life.  They are mine.  They have always been mine and the more you commune with me, the more your dreams become like my dreams.  You dream the dreams I have for you.  Some of them "stick" and some of them don't.  Maybe you jump the gun.  Maybe the idea is for someone else to pick up and run with.  Either way, your obedience in dreaming, vision-casting, creating, it's all out of love for me.  And for that, I am proud."

So dream!

Go ahead and dream!

Cast your vision!

Reach for the moon!

Catch an airplane and soar!  Allow the wind of God's Holy Spirit to take you to place you could have never imagined for yourself.

Let your obedience and God's whimsy take you higher than you could ever go alone!

DREAM BIG!

DREAM CRAZY, BIG DREAMS!

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” --Mark Twain