Being Ready

Sorry I haven’t been writing lately. This is the first time in forever that I have simply been too busy to write. Some of you may have missed it. But you haven’t missed it more than me.

Over the years, writing has become my friend. It’s therapeutic. It’s healing. It’s a safe place for me…even tho you get to invade it. I’m glad to be back.

As those of you that are close know, the North Point family is sharing in the tragedy of one of our own this week. It is not the first. It will certainly not be the last. Tragedy and sadness and sorrow is what bonds us all together. Even more than joy and happiness and shared interests. A hurting heart knows no strangers.

I said this on Sunday. I want to say it again. Every time I watch someone go through the valley of darkness, I ask myself, “Am I ready to face this same kind of pain? Is my heart and mind prepared for the onslaught of emotion that inevitably come with great loss?”

Are you?

Is your foundation solid? Are your support systems in place? Do you have the kind of friends who will dare to speak truth into your soul, when you are unable to do it for yourself? Is your your faith placed firmly in the sovereign stability of a God who is fully revealed in the Word and who never changes…or will you be left clinging to a mystical god of your own making?

Tragedy and death seldom give us much warning. Catastrophic change doesn’t stop by a couple of weeks in advance to ask our permission. It just happens. Life…and death just happen.

Don’t be foolish. Be ready. Be alert. Be sober-minded.

And be ready to stand by those who aren’t.

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A reality check this afternoon

when i got out of high school, i looked at my friends who were getting married and thought i knew more than they did.  i thought they were too young or too unprepared or that they were just stupid for saying goodbye to their freedom at such an early age.

but then i got married.  and all the judgment and criticism i freely gave to them became strangely prophetic for me.   i needed to put up or shut up.  and thus, a trend in my life was started.

at a young age, i started giving advice.  oh, i was covered under the cloak of ministry or education or counseling…but it was clearly advice.  and at every turn,  i have stood at the crossroads of needing to take my own advice.

before i had children, i helped parents understand their kids.  i didn’t know it from raising my own, but before my first son was born, i had logged more hours with teenagers than the average parent would spend throughout their lifetime.   from experience, i knew what kids were like.  i knew their characteristics and patterns.  i knew youth culture.  i knew what made them tick.  and i was helpful to parents.

once i had my own,  i needed to be willing to take my own advice.  and it wasn’t always easy.

with just a few years of marriage under my belt,  i started counseling married couples.  husbands and wives with deep dysfunction.  the kind that bleeds over into every area of their lives.  i helped couples communicate and resolve conflict and problem solve and grow deeper.

i have been married 37 years and i have had to constantly take my own advice.  and it hasn’t always been easy.

i’ve made a career of counseling people through financial crisis.  many of those people made significantly more money than i did.  but it didn’t make the truth any less…true.  or the reality of their pain and fear any less paralyzing.

throughout our life together, wanda and i have faced some financial mountains that seemed impossible to climb…and i have been forced to take my own advice.   and it was definitely not easy.

i have helped parents face the rebellions and failures and mistakes and questionable decisions and struggles and sicknesses…and successes…of their children.   i have spent countless hours helping parents build, fix, restore, strengthen, and heal brokenness and distance in their relationships with their kids.  it happens to the best of families.

as a parent, i have been called to take my own advice.  it was never easy.

long before it happened to my own boys, i walked with many parents who watched their kids grow up and get married.  i carefully tried to guide parents through their changing roles and evolving relationships with their adult children.  i helped them embrace the idea of becoming an “in-law” and the dynamics of merging a new, extended family into their own.

and then it happened to me.  twice.  and i desperately needed to listen to my own advice.   and the listening hasn’t always been easy.

it’s crazy to think how young and inexperienced i was when i first started helping parents wrestle with the complexities of becoming grandparents…and how often they came to me for counsel and support through their struggles.  it’s almost laughable to remember that i was helping parents with what it was going to be like to watch their own kids raise kids…and how it was going to feel to be on the outside as a spectator of that thing they did so well when they were younger.

and then it happened to me and i have had to work hard every day to remember the truth and live by the advice i have always given others.  and there is no way this is easy.

one of the greatest privileges i have been given in my life is to walk with people through death.  to have the joy and struggle of helping people face their mortality…and to challenge them to believe in the truth of god’s revealed word as their only hope…has been the greatest of the great experiences of my life.

i am not dead yet.  far from it, i hope.  but it is one of the few life experiences i have yet to encounter personally.

and i’m glad i’ve got some advice to follow.

Today was a good day

this is a mother’s day i won’t soon forget.

growing up in a family where i was an only child had it’s benefits.   a bunch of  them,  as a matter of fact.   but one of the things i missed out on was a sense of extended family.    my mom and dad’s brothers and sisters all lived on the other side of the country.   that meant no cousins to interact with.

i only knew one of my grandparents.   and that was from a distance.   i had no brothers or sisters.   it was really just me and my parents.   mother’s day was always just the three of us.

(though wanda’s life growing up was very different from mine,  we shared a commonness in our limited extended family).

after i grew older and got married and moved away,  mother’s day became more about wanda and helping our boys celebrate the special day with their mom.   but i always remembered my mother.   a phone call.   a gift in the mail.   maybe even a quick trip down to see her.

for me,  mother’s day was always still about her.   sorry wanda.

she passed away when our boys were really young.   they didn’t get much of grandma.   they missed out on a lot.   i guess that’s why church has always meant “family” to us.    without the benefit of aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents,  we got to see what deep friendships were meant to be.   friends became family for us.

it’s a balancing act now for me and wanda.   our two boys have their families…and both of them married into much larger extended families that they are learning to be part of.   it’s fun…and sometimes amusing…to watch them figure out stuff they never learned while growing up in our tidy little family unit.

for the elder farra’s,  though,  it’s still all about loving and giving and including others into our lives…new and old…and letting them grow to become family.

it was cool today to bring alan and jen and young beau up in front of our church family and pray for them…and to watch the eyes of so many people connect with them.   i think that moment is one of the reasons why people are drawn to a smaller church.   that moment never gets old.   and jen will have another reason to never forget her first mother’s day.

speaking of north point,  where else could someone get away with teaching from the passage,  “lead us not into temptation,  but deliver us from evil”… on mother’s day?

it’s pretty encouraging to realize there are still people who believe in the greatness of god and the value of the church…in spite of what popular culture says.   i realize church people have presented our world with such a distorted view of god’s love in the past few decades.   i wish it were different.   it makes me all that much more grateful to be part of this  group of people at north point…people who don’t run from their weaknesses and willingly admit their need for grace.   and friendship.

very humbling.

my day was finished off with a phone call that marcia strong had passed away this evening.   marcia has been barely holding on to life for the past few months.   watching harrison sit by her bedside day after day has been sad…but affirming.

(for non-north pointers,  marcia and harrison were one of the few “true” elder couples we have had at north point over the years!)

after spending a lifetime together,  i watched him say goodbye tonight.   his love for her was evident.   she was his partner for going on sixty years.   tonight will be difficult.   so will tomorrow.    but his confidence that she has received her final reward will sustain him.   faith is like that.   and so is love.

it was fitting that she passed on mother’s day.   i suspect the day will never be quite the same for him.

i’m not sure it will be for me,  either.

A sad, sad day

i’m sure there are going to be layers and layers of coverage of the death of junior seau in the days and weeks to come.   it always happens when a celebrity dies a tragic death.

for the uninitiated,  seau was the long-time san diego charger captain and one of the greatest linebackers in the history of the national football league from 1990 – 2009.   he was found wednesday morning in his san diego home with an apparent self-inflicted gun shot wound to his chest.   dead at 43.

so many feelings.   so many thoughts.   here are two tonight:

first,  san diego is unlike most other major metropolitan areas in the united states.   there’s nothing like texas homerism… but san diego has a different kind of loyalty.   small town vibe.   mega multi-cultural.   red-headed step child of los angeles…and no true san diegan would have it any other way.

texas is home now,  but i will always be from san diego.   and every san diegan knows that there are two icons that will forever own san diego.   the first is tony gwynn.   graduate of san diego state…20 years with the san diego padres…and now the coach of the san diego state aztec baseball team.

the other was junior seau.   he was a local boy from oceanside.   a samoan by decent,  who went on to star at southern cal.   drafted by the chargers in 1990,  he defined the linebacker postition for a new generation.   but more than that,  his presence in the locker room,  on the field of play,  and in the community defined superstar humility and charity.

i’m pretty confident that most anybody from san diego feels this loss in a personal way.   this is not celebrity idolatry.   this is more like a loss in the family.   the explanation is lacking,  but not the sincerity.   i am profoundly sad tonight.   for his mom.   for his children.   for the rest of his family.   his presence in his hometown…my hometown… will be missed.

my second thought is this:  in a twisted sort of way,  i hope it is found that his death was a homicide.   suicide is unspeakable darkness.   it is overwhelming to imagine what emptiness must have led up to the decision to take his own life.   and this sadness is not just for seau,  but for anyone who is so overcome by internal pain they would choose to end their existence.

if his death was truly by suicide,  there is a tremendous lesson to be learned.   it is pretty well documented that junior seau was immensely private when it came to his injuries.   he never wanted his teammates to know when he was hurt.   he counted it his duty to be strong for them…if they were really going to follow his lead.   he never wanted their attention and he never wanted to show weakness.

as heroic as that sounds,  it may have been the very thing that set him up for the ultimate failure.   i wonder if there was emotional pain and disconnect that nobody ever knew about?   could this moment of dark despair have had a different outcome if he would have just let somebody know of his personal demons?

friends cannot really be friends,  if there is no honesty.

the lesson in this tragedy is for all of us…especially men.   we’ve got to let people inside.   we’ve got to share the pain of our journey with those we hold closest.   we’ve got to let people who are wiser,  stronger,  deeper and more experienced show us the way to the light.

before it’s too late.

i hope his death will help somebody make the decision to leave their private prison and go get help.   maybe that’s you.

I thought I was a smart guy

not that anybody ever asks…or even cares,  for that matter…but i actually have a master’s degree.

i got it years ago.   i worked really hard for it.   tons of reading.   a 150-page master’s thesis/project.   i got a nifty diploma…i have no idea where it is.   and i got a really cool green hood.

i don’t know why,  but i reminisced about it tonight.

my master’s is in church growth,  with an emphasis in preaching.   church growth is an area of study.   there are hundreds of books written on the subject…maybe thousands.   all of them dedicated to educating church leaders on the discipline and strategies of growing the church.

there are hundreds of workshops and seminars and conferences that pastors and church leaders can attend (for a pretty hefty fee…usually charged to the budget of the church they serve) to learn the newest techniques and creative ideas for how to grow bigger and stronger and even,  healthier churches.

pastors of large,  influential churches are always in demand to speak and teach and pass on their wisdom and proven approaches that have produced the successes they have experienced in their church leadership and the growth of their churches.

yup.   and i’ve got a master’s degree on the subject.

here’s an irony:   for all of our talk about church growth,  jesus just doesn’t use the same kinds of words we use.

we use terms like growth…

  • and success
  • and strategy
  • and programs
  • and leadership
  • and design
  • and paradigms
  • and theories
  • and organizational shifts
  • and goals
  • and objectives
  • and praxis
  • and concepts
  • and operational models

and jesus said we need to come and die.

apparently,  jesus’  “strategy”  for  “growth”  was for his followers to die to self  and pick up their crosses and follow.

i don’t really mean to be argumentative or judgmental…or even snarky.   i guess i’ve just come to the conclusion (since i am a master of church growth,  you know…) that the church’s job is not to grow.   it’s really not even our job to survive.   our job is to die…continually…on behalf of the kingdom and on behalf of the world.

with every death,  there is resurrection and life and hope.   paul writes to the corinthians that it’s god’s job to make things grow:

I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.   So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.   1 Corinthians 3:6-7

i’m content to let god do as he wishes.   big of me,  isn’t it?   i figure that dying to self and helping others to do the same is hard enough for me.   trying to create a strategy for growing the church is something i would have probably screwed up anyway.

so get out there and die.

Sermon on the Mount – recap

it seems so arrogant…so foolish…so spiritually shallow.

when i was a child,  i had a fear of death.   not just my own,  but of those that were near to me.   i had a fear of the unknown.   i had a fear of pain.   most of all,  i had a fear of sadness.   especially about the ultimate loss.

i’m not sure where this fear came from,  but i know it lingered into my young adulthood.   even as one who believed in god and eternal life and salvation through the death and resurrection of jesus…death still choked my confidence and loomed like a dark cloud.

it was out of this inner darkness that i developed a way to cope with this fear.   it was a lame theology,  but it worked for me.   at least for a while.

i began to believe that if i was busy doing god’s work,  i would become indispensable.   i believed that if i was involved in important kingdom affairs,  god would protect me.     so i dedicated myself to serving people and giving myself up to the things of god.

(my motives for ministry were not completely dominated by a fear of death.   far from it.   but i would be less than honest,  if i didn’t own up to this kind of perverted life insurance policy i had made up in my mind…)

but like all stupid theologies,  this one was exposed as a fraud.   three times.

the first was the shocking death of keith green in a plane crash in 1982.   i was totally unprepared for this.   i was 28 years old and had already confronted the deaths of many others.   as a young pastor,  speaking at funerals was neither awkward nor distressing.   it was part of life.   just not keith green’s.

in my estimation,  keith was doing significant kingdom work.   his life was making a difference.   thousands of young people were being exposed to jesus through keith’s singing.   the church was being rocked by his call to uncompromising commitment.

for me,  if there was anybody who was whose life was going to be protected…whose life was vital to god’s ongoing mission on earth…whose mere existence merited special favor and safeguard from harm…it was keith green.   dang.   my theology was on shaky ground.

1997.   if there was ever a man guy who knew the heart of god,  it was rich mullins.   rich was also an artist…a renegade troubadour who surrendered himself to the master.   i remember the day…the moment…i heard of rich’s death.   he died in a gruesomely tragic crash on the way to a concert.   sheesh.   my theology that god would protect his most important and essential servants had moved to thin ice.   really thin ice.

as if i needed a final nail in the coffin  (sorry..)  of my lame and dim-witted protectionist theology,  along came october 30, 2003…the day my friend and youth ministry guru,  mike yaconelli,  died when his truck veered off the highway late at night and struck a light pole.

enough already.   if there was any doubt in my mind that god can complete his work on earth without me…or anybody else who thinks god needs him…mike’s death put it to rest.   there are multiple generations of youth ministers that were mentored by mike’s words and life.   he was easily the most important and significant person in the world of youth ministry.

and he died.   and finally…brutally…with great relief…so did my errant theology.

if god didn’t need keith or rich or mike to carry out his plans,  he definitely didn’t need me.   and what an incredible weight was lifted from my puny shoulders.   god does not need me.   oh…he uses me from time to time…but nothing others can’t do.   nothing so vital that he would ever have to protect me or save me or put up some special shield around me.

blessed are the poor in spirit.   blessed is he who understands that god does not need  him.   blessed is he who finally understands that he is absolutely nothing without god.

Walk by faith

i had a full day today.   but not the normal kind of full.

at north point this morning,  i spoke about the difference between walking by faith  and walking by feelings.  

you and i can either grow accustomed to listening to our feelings,  impulses,  and circumstances…and letting them control us…or we can be in the habit of simply taking god at his word despite our feelings and life experiences.   we need to choose with our wills to believe that his word is truer than our feelings.

but in spite of how influential the daily circumstances of our life journeys are in defining our faith,  it’s really the bookends  of our lives that signal what our belief is all about.

what we believe about conception and genetics and birth speaks either to the genius of the mind of purposeful and powerful creator…or the emptiness of natural selection.

also,  how we go about facing the end of life  (our own included)  and the mystery of the death process and afterlife is a defining characteristic of a life of faith…or a life defined by nothing more than nihilism,  fatalism  or some other ism. 

today,  i got to experience both…and come face to face with what i really believe.

my new grandson,  nolan,  came into the world today…and i got to have my belief that life is more than a random  accident affirmed in a personal way.   although i don’t really subscribe to the whole miracle of birth  thing  (seems a little silly to ascribe “miracle status” to something that happens with such predictable regularity),  the affirmation of the creation process is always overwhelming to me.

on my drive home from the baby hospital,  i stopped by the hospital close to my house to see my friend jim,  laying nearly lifeless in the ICU,  his body organs shutting down…a shell of the man he once was.   i got to speak with his daughter,  jamie and his wife,  linda…and see and hear their confidence and trust in the god of life…and afterlife.   my own faith powerfully affirmed for a second time in an hour.

faith is simply taking god at his word and believing his promises are unchangeable.   mystical?  a little,  i suppose.   but in the end,  it is totally objective.

will you choose to walk by faith this week?