Saturday, July 25, 2009

Sand Dollar People

The bad thing about blogging is you’re always looking for material.

The good thing is you sometimes you find it.

Since an early age, I’ve been a sand dollar freak. Waking up early in the morning and walking on the beach in search of the wild and elusive whole and perfect sand dollar has been a simple pleasure I’ve always loved. And…I’ve been pretty successful. One year on the Oregon Coast I found more than two hundred whole and perfect sand dollars.

So here in 2009 I’m back again and still find it a wonderful past time when the tide is right, my legs are strong, and it’s not too cold or foggy to go early. So far in my first week I’ve found about 80 (and others have snagged another 150 or so).

Years ago, I likened sand dollar hunting to our pursuit of God. We needed to:
1. Get up earlier
2. Go further than others are willing to go (more than a mile down a beach)
3. Look closer for the buried ones
4. Then you’ll find the treasure you’re seeking (with God).

Today, however, with my focus on becoming a better and more perceptive lover of souls, I’m naturally looking for lessons on that. But first a few observations on being a good sand dollar hunter…

1.The whole and perfect sand dollar can only be found in the company of broken ones. If you find broken sand dollars, you’ll eventually find whole ones. They’re always mixed in together.

2.The more rocks you see on the beach next to the sand dollar pieces, the fewer whole sand dollars you find. The rocks simply do a number on them and few survive the journey to wholeness. Sand dollars are fragile and easily broken, so they must be handled with care. The ocean and then getting washed up on the beach is a dangerous thing.

3.Most whole sand dollars aren’t found just laying out in the open; they are half buried, many with just a small portion of it sticking out of the sand. You have to see the tell tale signs of a potential whole sand dollar (the top sticking barely out, a corner of one turned up), then dig it out, put it in some water and brush off the sand to see if it’s damaged or whole.

4.There are a hundred times more broken sand dollars as there are whole ones. Most are broken in half; though many are still round, but have varying degrees of holes in them, some large, but some with just a small hole.

5.Most sand dollars start out as whole while they’re in the ocean, but as they’re washed up on the shore they become broken and “imperfect.”

6.While there are lots of shapes and sizes of whole sand dollars, each is beautiful in its own way.

Without going overboard on the similarities, I see some familiar lessons about people:

1.All of us start out fairly whole, beautiful in our own way. We’re in our element for a season, but then comes the eventual tossing and turning about that life gives us all.

2.The tides of life wash us up on the shore, out in the open. A few arrive unscathed by the pounding of life, but most have traveled to shore mixed in with rocks (difficult circumstances; difficult people); therefore, there are holes in the perfection that once was, some large and some small. But no one escapes imperfections.

3.While it’s nice to find the whole person who has lived life unscathed, we ought not to be drawn only to those who look perfect. We can find the treasure of a whole sand dollar and admire it, but we cannot do so with people (unless we only want one or two friends).

4.No matter the quality of glue; no matter how steady a hand, I cannot make a broken sand dollar whole and beautiful again with my own skill. Nor can I do so with people.

5.God is able to remember the wholeness in each of us that once was; and then he’s able to see beyond our brokenness and to create a wholeness inside of us with such skill and love that anyone would have to admit that it was done supernaturally through Jesus.

Most people are broken in some way. Nearly all. There is beauty in the brokenness, though it must be looked for more carefully. What makes sand dollars (and shells) so wonderful is they are so intricate; so wonderfully made.

And that’s why, to me, people are the main thing in life; that’s why we look beyond the imperfections and go deeper and look more carefully at them to see their beauty…their beauty in the wholeness that God can re-create in them. A beauty that gets a push from us when we love well.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

When to (or not to) Confront

On occasion, caring for others means you’ve got to kindly, but firmly call them on their junk. If you’ve won the right to be heard, and the other person wants to hear from you, sometimes you’re the wake up call they truly want. This situation happened to me a couple years ago. One young married guy (who I’d spent a lot of time with) wasn’t doing much of anything he agreed he wanted to do. His plan, after we’d spent hours talking through options, was to get his mind and body healthy so he would feel better about life and himself. The ultimate goal, however, was to be less self-focused and more wife-focused. Week after week he’d meet me with the same lame excuses on why he hadn’t done a dang thing to help himself. “Couldn’t apply for jobs; couldn’t take his meds; couldn’t say nice things to his wife…”

My first reaction was to kindly but directly ream him out a bit to get his attention. But since I’m more of a people pleaser, and I’ve learned the value of taking the long view with most men (giving them time to make changes on their own while still staying their friend), I kept quiet…for two more months! He was a hurting soul, I reasoned, so staying longsuffering with him was a better way to go. But eventually it became apparent that unless I talked to him directly and firmly, he may never change. I knew I’d won the right to be heard in his life, so I was fairly certain he’d listen. But for some reason I kept delaying.

It was when I realized I was delaying and delaying that I knew I should talk to him. I did, it was with good motives and without anger, but it was direct. Ultimately it also proved effective. He finally got off the schnide and made some of the changes he wanted to make.

A principle I’ve tried to live by is that when I REALLY want to confront someone, I probably shouldn’t. And when I’m delaying and waiting and putting off talking to someone about something important, it’s at this point that I likely should. I can’t recall a situation where this has not been the best strategy.

Do you have someone you’re dying to call out? Then you probably shouldn’t.

Are you dreading having to talk to someone about something important? Then you likely should.

Do you have any stories that either confirm or deny this principle?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Givers Overload

I always cringe when I hear another high energy pastor say something like “I’d rather burnout than rust out.” The message being that pushing the pedal to the metal on a continual basis is something Jesus would be proud of; something you ought to wear as a badge of honor; or something every Christian should aspire to.

No one knows the temptation of allowing the needs of others drain your tank more than those who have a good heart and a little time for people. We already carry the weight of our friends’ burdens around our neck, we already spend countless hours holding hands, listening, praying, counseling…no one has to tell US that the needs of others come first! But do we give and give until we can’t give any more?

Being in the empty nest years, without kids underfoot (well, at least not continually), Becky and I have time we love to give to others. We don’t have to pick up the phone, it rings daily with someone wanting an hour or two here or there. Again, we welcome the chance lend an ear to a friend. But there are times when we’re “peopled out.” Not often, and never because the people we’re spending time with are burdens to us, but our love tank needle starts bouncing on “E.” Sometimes we fight our way through it and continue to meet the pressing needs of our friends. And sometimes we just have to schedule “nothing time” in our week.

If you’re a people person whose life finds joy and fulfillment in being with friends, then you must know what to do when you’re running on fumes:

1. Identify the signs of people fatigue. Irritability, loss of sleep, dread. Dread is the big one. When you think or say “Ugh” when another appointment is made, then you’re on people fatigue. People should mostly be a joy to be with and when it ceases to be so, it’s time to step back and reload.

2. When the phone rings and it’s someone else wanting your time, and you know you’re peopled out, we’ve just been honest: “Our tank is a bit empty and we need some time to refuel. We’d love to see you, but can it wait until…?” Unless it’s an emergency, and sometimes it is, most people understand and don’t mind waiting.

3. Some are more draining than others. Some folks are just super needy and yet seem to just want someone to whine to, more than a constructive conversation that encourages change or hope, or action. When this happens, it’s time to see if you can schedule them less often. It’s not that you’re trying to avoid needy people, but if after several months of attention on demand they’re still draining you dry, it may be a sign you’re not the one to help them turn an emotional corner.

Burnout is an awful thing. One of my old friends is Wayne Cordeiro, a pastor of huge church in Honolulu. He hit the wall with burnout a couple of years and it nearly cost him his life. He described himself as a “dead leader running.” He was quickly becoming no good to anyone. He wrote a book about his experience that ought to be required reading for any pastor or people helper called Leading on Empty. The key is not only building healthy boundaries, but understanding what it takes to fill your tank.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

No More Targets

When I was a magazine editor back in the early 90’s, I interviewed a well-known major league baseball player who had come to faith fairly recently. He was a rough and tumble-type of guy and took that same approach with his new-found faith.

“Some say you’re too vocal in your faith. How do you respond to that?” I asked, trying to be journalistic. I knew he had come under criticism for being too pushy with his teammates; people were put off by it.

He looked thoughtfully in the distance and said, “If I really believe in heaven and know there must also be a hell, and I don’t tell the people I care about how to live in the good place and avoid the bad . . . what does that make me? I just cannot in all good conscience not tell people about my new faith in Christ.”

In author and blogger extraordinaire John Shore’s book I’m Okay--You’re Not: The Message We’re Sending Unbelievers and Why We Should Stop*** (now out of print, but available from his website,, he makes a strong case that fulfilling the Great Commandment (“love your neighbor as yourself”) trumps the Great Commission (“Go ye therefore into all the world and preach the gospel”). Especially here in the U.S. where pretty much everyone has heard or has access to the story of Jesus’ life and death.

His point is that if we really love someone the way Christ did, then we must respect them enough to not barge into discussions about religion without an invitation. To do so wouldn’t be respectful, and therefore could not be loving.

John had come to faith late in life and had previously always been put off by Christians. Why? Because they typically viewed him as a target. They would, often unasked, tell him about their faith, let him know where he was headed if he didn’t turn his life around, then proceed to try to convert him. When their efforts wouldn’t bring the “say the prayer and sign up now” conversion they wanted, they would quickly fade away. When John didn’t buy into their version of the gospel, they chose to move on to greener possibilities.

As silly as that sounds to some of us, this still goes on amongst a variety of strains of Christianity. People view others as targets to be hit, rather than a precious soul to be loved. Some of this may have to do with their outgoing personality or church theology, and I must admit that many of these types have wonderful motives, but people in America have changed and are not as receptive to unsolicited spiritual help as they may have once been.

I wish I could say that I never was like this, but I likely cannot. In the decade of the 80’s I was a “go out and get ‘em” youth guy with Campus Life. I felt called to let teens know about the new and wonderful life they could have with Jesus. I had lived my teenage years without knowing anything about Christ and knew what a mess my life had been before hearing the “good news” -- and knew how happy and at peace I was after believing God loved me enough to die for me, that my life mattered.

So my heart was right…but my methods were off. The ends (getting people into the Kingdom) justified the means (sometimes “trapping” teens at events where they thought they were going to have fun—and did—but had to hear about the gospel as payment). Ugh, I hate admitting this. My motivations really were right, but in hindsight I realize that I was part of a style of Christianity that didn’t see the wrong in being less than forthcoming.

On the far end, being “obnoxious for Jesus” used to be a badge of honor, and sadly it still is today for some Christians. Rejection was a form of persecution, so therefore when people were rude or verbally disagreed, God must approve of it (or so the “logic” goes).

While I can certainly appreciate the heart of someone like my baseball interviewee and millions of other Christians who believe they are just trying to fulfill the Great Commission, I’m fairly convinced that we ought to just shut up and love others as we would wish to be loved. People are tired of our words, tired of the politics that are too often attached to our beliefs, tired of being targeted and then dropped, and tired of all of the disrespect we show them in our zeal to share a message that means so very much to us.

I’ve also learned that it’s pretty much God’s job to reach people; to bring them to a place where they’re asking questions about eternity, God, the Bible, Jesus…and how it all fits together. My job is to love my neighbor as myself, which means never targeting anyone, never disrespecting them by handing them a tract or dropping a gospel bomb on them, and never leaving them as a friend if their own current journey doesn’t include believing in Jesus.

Does this mean I never share the hope in my heart and the faith I rely upon with others? No, it just means that I love them without a motive other than to be, hopefully, a living breathing example of Jesus to them. Which includes a real desire to hear about their own beliefs.

People are not targets to me any more. They are fellow human beings struggling to get through this life, just like me. I am not better than or wiser than others who believe differently. I have found a faith that comforts, assures and guides me. If asked, I’m delighted to share what I’ve discovered about God on my journey thus far. In the meantime, I don’t talk about Jesus as much as I just try to live more like he did.

*** In the course of researching I’m OK—You’re Not, a lot of non-Christians wrote to tell John Shore of their experiences with having Christians try to evangelize them. He published about 50 such statements in his book. To read what some of them had to say on a blog of his, “What Non-Christians Want Christians to Hear." The link to that post is:

Friday, July 3, 2009

Lives That Touched Us All

In 2007 Becky and I went on a "Band of Brothers" trip with two of the original men: Don Malarkey and Buck Compton (pictured at left). Here we are in Ste. Mere Eglise in Normandy, France.

Instead of a normal and promised post on a different subject, I thought I'd share some of what my wife Becky shared on her blog today ( Though this is not Memorial Day or Veteran's Day, it's certainly a day we must remember those who were willing to sacrifice all to insure our way of life. If you know a serviceman or a veteran, it's never too late to say "thanks" for all they've done/are doing to give us the freedoms we enjoy...

From Becky's blog...

For those of you who have watched the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, you may recall the choking-back-tears comment from Don Malarky as he described his comrades of the 101st Airborne, many decades after WW2. "Brave, so brave.. it was unbelievable."

Greg and I had the privilege of a lifetime 2 years ago, when we got to spend 2 weeks in Europe with Buck Compton and Don Malarky, two of the paratroopers portrayed in "Band of Brothers." We stood at the sea of white crosses in Normandy as a friend played taps. Don, Irish and emotional, wept openly as Buck wiped away a tear and swallowed hard.

We walked with these old soldiers through the Bastogne forest where they once nearly froze and starved in foxholes to protect our freedom in the Battle of the Bulge. They remembered their dear friends whose legs were blown off in this lovely green forest, once white with snow and red with blood and lit up with terrible fire and noise of war. I gathered pinecones on this misty summer day to give to my children and grandchildren. To help me remember the sacrifice so many made to secure our freedom.

We visited with a family whose parents/grandparents were liberated from their own home by Easy Company soldiers. The family showed us a room with a red stain on the floor. It was where two Nazi officers died from their wounds. They look at Don and Buck with such admiration and gratitude.

Everywhere we went these two vets were instantly surrounded when people heard that there were American paratroopers among us. They are rock stars in Europe where children grew up hearing of the "angels coming out of the sky" in parachutes to save them from the German soldiers.

They are rock stars to me.

Thank you, Don & Buck, for your service to our country, and for sharing your stories and a lifetime of memories with us.

If you'd like to read more about Buck and Don check out their books on
Call of Duty by Buck Compton (with Marcus Brotherton) (Marcus is the collaborator and has fabulous video/pictures relating to Buck's book)

Easy Company Soldier by Don Malarkey (with Bob Welch)

Recently Marcus Brotherton interviewed and collected stories from the 101st airborne (Easy Company) into a book called: We Who Are Alive and Remain: Untold Stories from the Band of Brothers by Marcus Brotherton. It has been called the very best of all the Band of Brothers books by many of the soldiers as well as literary critics. (website with video)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Friending Well

(Our grandsons: Georgie patting his new cousin's head in welcome.)

Sooner or later, life kicks us where it counts.

Either through the willful or accidental mistakes from others or through our own stupidity and choice...we all get our turn at the bottom of the compost pile.

I've never really done the math, but I've had likely hundreds of thousands of phone calls in my life. I remember several of those that brought me bad news, of course, but just a very few that brought me good news; the type of news that would change my life.I was going through the roughest patch of my life up to those 45 years. The details aren't important, but let's just say my problems were self-inflicted. I was as low as I'd ever been. I was on the phone with a very old and dear friend, telling him my story of shame. I had no idea how he'd respond to my revelations of my behavior that was so out of character.

"I know some of the life you've lived, Greg. And I understand," he started.

And then he said words I'd never heard from anyone before."But you're my friend, Greg, and I will walk arm and arm with you...all the way to the Kingdom."

When you're at the lowest point in your life, what other words could bring not only tears, but healing? I cannot tell this story without tearing up, even seven years later. The words were simple but the message more deep than I thought anyone would ever give me.

"You're valuable to me, Greg. Your life counts. There is nothing you can do that will ever change it. We're in this world together so let's walk the path...arm and arm. All the way until we cross over to heaven."

Being a Christian for 30 or so years at the time, I expected these words from Jesus, but to hear them from another--especially at a time when I needed it most--helped reset my life. Through the course of the next year, I saw old friends fall off the map in silent and vocal ways, and lots more friends stay close by my side. Naturally, I got a new appreciation for those friends who stayed!

And I determined, even more than I had done in the past, that I would be that type of friend to anyone who needed one. It wasn't my role in life to condemn behavior, change behavior, judge behavior...but rather to simply listen, stick by, offer counsel (if asked) and try to represent the character of Jesus as best I could to all who came in my path; to walk with others arm and arm all the way to the Kingdom.

My wife Becky and I have attempted to do that with our family, those from our small church and anyone else who wander in and out of our lives. We take this role more seriously than our work by day as agent and writer. We see a lot of self-inflicted mistakes, and a lot of people stuck in circumstances that aren't pretty. People rarely need lectures or our sage advice, but they always need a friend who will never leave. That seems universal.

This little blog is dedicated to all of those who want to touch another life through unconditional friendship. Like with anything in life, we can either do this poorly, mediocre or well. I've made reams of notes, have hundreds of stories (that, if shared, won't carry real names), and am pouring through the Bible to get the best advice on how to "friend well." I know of very few things more important for a Christian to do and be than to love our neighbors the way Jesus would. In this world of "me first" it doesn't come naturally, but it is absolutely the most important thing we do.

William James once said, "The greatest use of life is to live it for something that will outlast it."

What outlasts our life? What's eternal? I know of only two things: God's Word and the souls of people.

So walking well with people is what this blog will be all about. But what's the goal of taking that path with precious souls? Is it to convert them or simply love them? My next post will talk about this tension.