What I Learned from a Broken Dog

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Growing up, we had a dog named Trixie. Everyone thinks their dog is special, but none of them were as special as ours. Trixie was smart, happy, and very protective of the youngest member of the family (that was me). One of the most distinctive things about her was her tail. A car had run over Trixie’s tail long before I was born. As a result, she couldn’t wag her tail. It just hung there, limp and lifeless.

Trixie and me (Trixie is on the left)

Having a dog with a broken tail gave me a strange perspective on dogs. Trixie was the first dog I knew, so to me, she was a perfectly normal dog. When I saw other dogs wagging their tails, I assumed there was something wrong with them. “Tails can’t do that!” I knew that was true because Trixie’s tail didn’t do that. And yet there they were—wagging tails, curly tails, happy tails, tails in the air, and tails that moved so fast they were a blur. Those tails weren’t anything like my dog’s tail!

Obviously, there was something wrong with those dogs!

Something happens to us when we grow up with the belief that broken is normal. We simply accept that things are the way they are, and there can never be anything better, whole, or healed in our lives. Broken homes are supposed to be broken, broken dreams were never meant to be, and broken hearts will never mend. You see, in a broken world, normal seems abnormal.

So, when we see something that’s not broken we don’t understand it. How can anyone be that happy? How can families be that kind to each other? How can someone have that much hope?

That’s not normal!

The promises Jesus makes are for broken people in a broken world. In Mark 2:17 he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” That’s you and me! Broken as we are; sick as we are. Can we even imagine being well and whole?

The promise of Jesus seems unbelievable because it’s beyond our broken experiences–
and our broken experiences are exhausting!

The promise of Jesus seems unbelievable because it’s beyond our broken experiences–and our broken experiences are exhausting! Even though it hung there dead, Trixie could make her tail move, but it required her to move her whole body. While running at full tilt, her tail would twirl like a propeller, looking like it was about to send her flying! Of course, it was just an illusion. As soon as she tired out, her tail would fall back, paralyzed and dead.

Brokenness is exhausting. The effort to appear normal is simply too much to maintain. But there, in the face of our exhausting brokenness, Jesus promises, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29)

In the face of our brokenness, Jesus offers rest. In our weariness from simply trying to appear normal, his call to us is, “learn from me.”

He can show you how to wag again.

What I learned from Watching The Lion King a Bajillion Times with My Daughter

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Remember Who You Are

We raised our oldest daughter, Megan, in the dark ages of the early 90s. This was a time before flat screen TVs and DVD players in cars. It was awful, I tell you!

And home was no better. The TV was massive and weighed a ton and we still used VHS tapes and our old VCR. One of the first things Megan learned to do was toddle over to the TV, click “stop,” “rewind,” and “play” on the VCR and watch The Lion King over and over again.

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We Do Not Lose Heart

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One of These Things is NOT Like the Others

I said in my sermon Sunday that I had permission to share this photo, but I’m probably pushing my luck now!

This picture was taken two summers ago as we rode The Voyage roller coaster at Holiday World. Connor grabbed my hand and dragged me to the line. Trish went along because she was convinced he’d chicken out at the top.

It was one of those rare occasions when Trish was wrong. Seriously, they don’t happen very often.

In fact, this was one time when daddy absolutely was NOT going to leave!

We Despaired of Life Itself

As I stated in the sermon, I don’t think that smile on Connor’s face is just about the roller coaster. I believe it’s because he knows his daddy is sitting next to him. More importantly, he knows that just because things are dark and chaotic at the moment, that doesn’t mean daddy’s going to get off the ride and abandon him.

Sunday we took a serious look at Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 1:8-11. In this passage he reflects on a time in Ephesus when he was so overwhelmed with fear and uncertainty that he didn’t think he could go on living.

He wrote, “For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.” If any of you told me that, we would have a serious talk about what you might be contemplating. We dare not minimize the pain Paul was feeling.

And yet, on the other side of such a great despair, Paul found hope. Later in the same letter he wrote, We do not lose heart. . . For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:16-17). You don’t come to a place where you can call your struggles “light and momentary affliction” without first feeling despair and finding hope.

I think this is a very important message for everyone who has ever been on the dark and scary ride of life and felt they didn’t have their Heavenly Father to cling to. When the darkness hits, remember your Father is right beside you.

Some Thoughts Following the Suicide of a Pastor

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I seldom write anything on this blog. That needs to change someday.

Like many of you, I was deeply moved this past week when I heard of the suicide of Andrew Stoecklein, the 30-year-old pastor of the Inland Hills Church. Those who know me likely know how deeply this story touched me. My brother committed suicide in 1999. My grandfather had also committed suicide just months before I was born. The stigma of suicide has been an ever-present cloud over my family.

And so, I hope it was more than just morbid curiosity that moved me to listen to Andrew’s last two messages. I wanted to hear something familiar in his voice—maybe something I missed in my brother’s last conversations with me or something I could listen for in the next conversation. I may have even curious to hear something I might have caught in my own voice when I’m experiencing times of excessive stress.

Maybe it’s hindsight—and it likely is—but Andrew’s second to last sermon sounded like a cry for help to me. His final sermon, full of rabbit trails and slurred speech, seemed less a cry for help as a resignation that this was now his normal.

Having given a week to process the news and the grief I have felt for this pastor and his family, I’ve come away with no answers but a few thoughts and concerns. I offer them here with no promise of deep insights.

His Leadership Did Everything They Could to Help

The story of Andrew’s stress didn’t begin two weeks ago, obviously. His story is one of his father’s death from cancer, the stress of ministry and being in the public eye (including a stalker), and stress from building a new home. He experienced a breakdown about six months ago, at which time his leadership graciously stepped in and gave him a sabbatical. I’m sure they’re feeling a lot of guilt, but they should be commended for such gracious and loving care.

And for every one of my colleagues who seem to believe that a sabbatical will fix everything—pay attention! Your six-month sabbatical isn’t the golden ticket out of your mess. Stop approaching it as such.

Maybe There’s Something to This Notion of “Too Young, Too Much, Too Soon.”

Andrew was 30-years-old and leading a large congregation. Admittedly, I haven’t seen thirty since the Clinton administration. Back in my twenties, I was “lead pastor” at a church (mind you, we just called it “preacher” back then). It was a church of about 50-60 people, and I was in way over my head.

The trend for some time now has been younger and younger people leading bigger and bigger churches. I’m sure what I say could easily come across as a grumpy old guy complaining about the dang kids on his lawn, but I’ll admit that at thirty I didn’t have what it would take to lead a large church. I still don’t have it at fifty-one!

We need to admit; some very foundational benefits come with age. Over and over again in the Bible, we see the example of God taking time to mold and mature his leaders. Joseph spent years in prison honing his skills on leadership. Moses spent 40 years as a shepherd, and then when he was finally ready to lead his people, he still relied on the advice of his elders and the support of a team. Paul went home and made tents until he was ready to take his first mission trip.

And I know we pay lip service to these stories. Maybe they deserve more. Maybe we need to stop worshiping youth and actually follow the examples God has laid out for us.

Can you imagine what perspective a 60-year-old Andrew Stoecklein might have been able to offer to struggling young believers? What wisdom could he have gained in his own wilderness before stepping into leadership?

And Finally: There But for the Grace of God Go I . . . Or Any of Us

I often think about my brother’s suicide. I know he suffered from depression, and I know he was stressed about his job. But I look at my own stresses, and at times I wonder, “Why am I not depressed?” And, “What if I’m depressed and I don’t know it?!?!?”

I’ve honestly asked that question of a counselor. He patiently listened to my story, assessed my stress, and then told me all the things I was doing right and a few things I could do better. I truly appreciated that conversation.

Yes, I have stress. Most of my stress is named Connor. Connor, my 15-year-old son who is profoundly autistic. He requires constant care. Sometimes sleep is elusive for our entire family. There are tantrums, breakdowns, and occasionally really bad days. But there are also hugs, tickles, and a lot of laughter. Still, understand this: I might be able to take a sabbath from my ministry, but I can never take a sabbath from Connor. This is the life I have, and it’s stressful.

But I also have a team. I have counselors I speak to, friends who pray with me, eat lunch with me, and occasionally ask some hard questions. I have a wife who gives me time away as I give her time away. I’ve carefully built a safety net for myself. I don’t doubt Andrew Stoecklein had his own safety net though. It’s not a cure-all, but I know we’re far better off when we stay connected to others instead of bearing all our stress alone.

In fact, the Bible says as much

Teach Us to Number Our Days
A few years ago I preached a sermon about suicide. Click Here to listen to the message.

Galatians 6:2 tells us, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” That verse tells me two things. First, I need to pay attention to the burdens that my friends are bearing. Are they too much for them to carry alone? I fulfill Jesus call to “love one another” (John 13:34, the “law of Christ” Paul was writing about) when I help someone else carry their burden.

But there’s another side to Galatians 6:2 that I need to remind myself of, and you likely do as well.  I also fulfill that call when I let someone close enough that they bear my burden with me. If I’m truly obeying the call to love one another, then I need to let another love me also. I’m not doing myself or the Kingdom of God any favors by keeping it all inside and simply saying, “I’m fine.”

I’m not fine. You’re not fine. Let’s be sure other people know that. Let’s fulfill the law of Christ together.