In 2001 I began to cultivate the habit of keeping a journal. Five years later I thought it might be worthwhile to go back and read past journal entries. Each year since then I have devoted the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas to reading the past year’s reflections. It can be a bit depressing when I face the brutal truth that I have made no progress at all in some areas, that the inner conflict I was wrestling with in February remains unresolved at the end of the year. But it is quite uplifting as I see concrete documentation of growth in areas that matter.
If one thing stands out from reflecting on 2014, it is the value of vision, that is, the act or power of anticipating that which will or may come to be. Goals can be of value as well, but I am reluctant to set goals, based on my early career experience. As a radio ad salesman I was required to turn in 90 day sales goals at the beginning of every month. It was never enough for the sales manager, so he would set the goal for me. I never achieved it. Not once. Later, as a fundraiser for a small, private university, I would submit annual fundraising projections based on the last year’s results and what I believed to be a reasonable, challenging increase. That, too, was never sufficient. The president and vice president would convene behind closed doors, then hand me the revised fundraising goal. It was not based on past results and well-calculated projections. It was based on the difference between projected earned income (tuition) and projected operating expenses. “Fill the gap, Richard.” In six years at the university I never once achieved my fundraising goal.
I recognize the value of having a goal as a target to aim for. “Shoot for the moon,” the management gurus tell you, “even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” But that’s not how I felt as an ad man or a professional fundraiser. I felt like a failure.
My experience with vision is much more positive. It wasn’t long after seeing the Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 that I began to envision myself on stage, playing guitar and singing with other musicians. The vision was realized when I played and sang in a rock band for my junior high talent show. It took ten years, and we sucked, but it didn’t matter. I found something I could do that fueled my passion, and I’m still at it today.
In 1996, my wife Tracy and I moved from Dubuque to Kansas City. Our daughter, Xandra, was four years old; our son, Philip, was not quite one. Tracy and I envisioned a church where we could invest our passion for the arts to draw people closer to God. It took us a year to find what we were looking for in the form of a start-up church that was leasing space on Sundays from the local community center. Shoal Creek Community Church had been “planted” about two years earlier, and was committed to using contemporary music and short drama sketches to highlight the spiritual message. In those days, there were sometimes more people involved on stage than there were in the auditorium seats. But the pastor and his wife had a vision for reaching spiritual seekers who were turned off by the traditional church setting. Their vision was in sync with our vision, and we poured ourselves into it. Today Shoal Creek’s weekend attendance often exceeds 1,000 people.
When my son, Philip, was five or six years old, sitting in a car seat was a major pet peeve. But he loved listening to the church band play, especially when we covered classic rock songs. I remember sitting beside him one Sunday as we made final preparations for the service. “Dad,” he said to me, “when I’m a teenager can I sit in the front seat with you, AND can I come to band practice with you?” Much like my experience watching the Beatles — and at about the same age — Philip could envision himself playing in a band. He picked up the bass guitar in middle school, and at 13 he successfully auditioned for the church band. He and I have been playing together ever since.
About the same time my son began to play bass, my daughter envisioned herself serving overseas. When one of her teachers announced plans for a summer trip to Tanzania, Xandra was one of the first to sign up. Unfortunately, the Tanzania experience proved to be cost-prohibitive, so they began to consider alternatives. Fortunately, our church had for several years been engaged in outreach to AIDS orphans in South Africa. A young couple from Shoal Creek was living in South Africa at the time and offered to be “guides” for the student trip. Xandra and her classmates spent 10 days with them in the summer before her senior year of high school. But the experience did not fulfill her vision. It fueled it. As a college student, South Africa was her first choice for a study-overseas experience, and her vision expanded far beyond the six-week internship offered by her university. She reached out to a youth ministry, applied for an intern position, and interviewed with their leadership. Everything was set for a six month stint, six months ahead of time.
Not long after Xandra had finalized these plans she learned that the youth ministry was in less-than-stable condition. Things might turn around by the time she arrived, but it was also possible that the organization could cease to function. She was quite uncertain about what to do. Her sense of responsibility said she should stick with the organization; they were counting on her. But the reality was that she could end up with no place to serve. Upon reflection, Xandra realized her vision was not to serve that organization, it was to be of service to the youth of South Africa. She could still realize her vision, but she needed to adjust her strategy. So she sought advice from worthy counselors who helped her find another internship opportunity. She worked hard to earn and raise the resources to fund the experience. In May 2013 she arrived in Cape Town and stayed for six months. In that time she touched the lives of hundreds of young South Africans. Vision realized; dream come true.
Last year was a big year for my son. Philip had dreamed of being a Marine since he was 12 years old. He entered the early enlistment program in August 2013 and got good and serious about physical training to prepare for boot camp. In May 2014 he began to experience pain in his lower leg. Pushing through the pain only made it worse; a visit to the doctor confirmed that tendonitis had set in. The Marine recruiter decided to delay Philip’s entry into boot camp. Although he was disappointed, Philip carefully followed instructions to rest, ice his leg, and accelerate the healing. On July 21 he left for Camp Pendleton, just two weeks later than originally planned. But the path toward his vision was filled with obstacles. Less than a month into boot camp, in a letter he (fortunately) never sent, he wrote:
Dear Mom, Dad, and Xandra,
I have pneumonia and I’m very afraid I’m going to be dropped to another platoon. This means I’ll graduate later. Please tell our church community and ask them to pray for me. This place is terrible. I’ve been IT’d (incentive training) multiple times. Look them up on Google and you’ll get a basic idea. The idea of being dropped is very real and so scary. One recruit I know of is for sure getting dropped, which only worries me more. I miss home so much, and the thought of having to stay here longer is awful to think about. Anyway I hope all is well for you. Please keep praying for me. Also I know you’ve probably replied to my letters but we haven’t…
And that’s where the letter ends. Not long after writing it he recovered and began receiving our letters. In the weeks that followed he went through another bout of tendonitis, numerous “ITs,” and the Crucible, but he never got dropped. Our family was were there, along with my sister, our mother, and a couple of very good friends, to see him graduate in October. Completing boot camp was “the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Philip says. I envy him. The experience has granted my son an air of confidence and maturity of faith that I never had at his age. Vision realized; dream come true. If he can make it through USMC boot camp, he can accomplish just about anything he wants to.
When vision intersects with passion, amazing things happen; but if you don’t cultivate your passions, you might miss out. As a new father, I came close to concluding that it was time to put the guitar aside. I mistakenly thought guitar was a young man’s folly, unless you got lucky like Keith Richards (guitarist and founding member of the Rolling Stones). Real men put their toys aside. When we were on the hunt that led to Shoal Creek Community Church, my vision was less about playing guitar and more about being part of a church community that leveraged the arts to reach people and draw them closer to God. Apparently God had other things in mind. When I contacted the Shoal Creek music director, he told me he was looking for a “plug and play” guitarist who could fit a variety of musical styles. In 25 plus years as a guitarist I had played acoustic, electric, classical, rock and roll, country, jazz, bluegrass, folk, even musical theater. Jack of all genres, I passed the audition.Three years later, the music director was gone and I took over on a volunteer basis. After five years I happily handed the reins to a very talented young woman who has taken the music program to new levels of professionalism. She values me as much more than a guitar player; I am one of her trusted advisors. But I am also the principle guitarist. They call me the Grampa of the music team.
Vision realized; dream come true. And when God is truly smiling down on us, I get to play me some rock and roll.
Despite my distaste for setting goals, I admit they have played an important role in each of these stories. But when your vision is clear, in sync with your passions, and part of a purpose larger than yourself, the goals become obvious. They set themselves and are naturally accomplished as you pursue the vision. My New Year’s Resolution is to keep that in mind as I move through 2015, and I invite you to join me.
If only it was as simple as this.
Two or three times a month I have a BLAST playing guitar at Shoal Creek Community Church. Last summer we covered the Who, Janis Joplin, Blood Sweat & Tears, Jimi Hendrix, and more in a celebration of the music of my generation. Best of all, my son, Philip, played in the band with me. I was in heaven.
But sometimes I wonder, is this legitimate? I mean, we invest a lot of time, energy, and money in our Sunday services. Are we reaching people? Are we making a difference?
Last week I read Jennie’s story. She and her husband were searching for answers to spiritual questions, and found what they were looking for at Shoal Creek on Christmas Eve 2010. Their story, and others like it, remind me that what we do on Sundays and special holidays is totally worth it. It’s okay to have fun at church. In fact, if you aren’t having fun at your church, there is probably something wrong! God meant for us to be joyful. That’s why we sign Joy To The World at this time of year. Christmas is a celebration of how God became human so that His joy might be in us, and that our joy might be made full (see John 15:11).
Jenny has graciously agreed to share her story here:
Christmas Eve 2010
Growing up, Kenny and I had very different “church” experiences. Kenny faithfully attended with his family every Sunday until he left for college. Although, it was more like a location for an obligatory appointment. God did not receive much mention except for that weekly hour. For me, church always left me wanting more. I learned to distrust the institution of “church” during my parent’s divorce in early childhood. My family became unwelcomed by our home church, and my grandparent’s church made me feel like an outsider from a broken home. Because of this, the majority of my life has been spent avoiding the church.
Though Kenny and I were both spiritual, religion was not a part of our relationship with each other. We talked about God while dating, and knew that we wanted to pursue our faith, but we had so many questions. It was overwhelming and intimidating, so we just lowered the priority and went on with our lives on our own. We married in a small non-denominational ceremony, officiated by an ordained lawyer in a campus chapel. It painted the perfect picture of where we were spiritually – we wanted God in our lives, but weren’t sure how He would ﬁt in, so we included him just enough that we weren’t intentionally leaving him out.
Our marriage was always good, but there was element of our relationship that felt empty. It wasn’t until the birth of our daughter Kyla that we began discussing God, and his role in our lives, again. The topic of Kyla’s baptism created a lot of stress in our relationship, primarily due to family expectations. God wasn’t a major player in our lives, so we felt it hypocritical to have a ceremony that symbolized otherwise for her. Additionally, we didn’t belong to a church, and I wasn’t even baptized myself. Ultimately, we followed our hearts and decided to do what was right for us, not our families, and not pursue her baptism. And again, the topics of God and church were pushed aside.
As we approached our ﬁrst holiday season as a family, it became increasingly apparent that we wanted, and needed, something more. We felt very isolated and alone. While Kenny coped by throwing himself even more into his work, I secretly began church shopping, online. I longed for a community of friends and a place to explore my faith. We didn’t know many people in the area, and didn’t know anyone here who attended a church regularly. I had noticed Shoal Creek before, by driving by, but hadn’t paid much attention. When I found the Shoal Creek website, it was a different story. I liked what I read, and I wanted to learn more. So, I began watching the services online, and I was captivated. I couldn’t wait to share my discovery with Kenny, but he was skeptical. Understandably so. But, it re-introduced a dialogue of religion and faith.
I craved for more out of Christmas for our family. I wanted it to be more than just the presents, the food, the sleeping in (which let’s face it, as new parents was impossible anyways). I wanted to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas, but wasn’t even sure what that was. We ﬁgured that going to church on Christmas Eve was a good tradition to start. If we didn’t like it, we wouldn’t have to go back. There wasn’t anything to lose. And besides, our daughter had an adorable party dress that wouldn’t have gotten worn otherwise! I still remember our nerves as we got ourselves ready for church that evening. We obsessed over what to wear, worried about being judged for being too dressy or too casual. We over-packed the diaper bag full of distractions for our baby girl, anticipating that she would become restless from a long, drawn out and boring service. The drive to church that night was a long one. Five minutes felt like eternity. So many “what if’s” went through our heads, primarily negative ones. It took a lot to get us to the point of trying church together, and we really wanted a positive outcome.
We walked in to the auditorium and took a seat toward the back, probably much like the other once per year attendees. I remember looking around and seeing all of the kids playing in the aisles before the service, and the interactions between many young families. So many smiles. And I wanted that for my own. As the lights dimmed and the music started we quickly realized that this was a church unlike any we could have imagined. We were blown away from the very ﬁrst song. All of those preconceptions of a Christmas service were quickly changed. We felt welcomed, we were wanted. The people sharing their stories were so real, relatable. The message that night spoke to me personally in such a relevant way. Tears ﬂowed down my cheeks as I listened to church members being so honest. We weren’t alone. God was with us. My husband held my hand tight. And for the ﬁrst time in a very long time, I prayed. I asked God to please impact my husband’s heart as He was inﬂuencing mine. On our drive home, with my eyes still full of tears and overcome with emotion, I asked Kenny if we could please come back to Shoal Creek. There was no hesitation in his answer.
With that beginning, Shoal Creek has become our home. We never expected to get out of a church what we have gotten from Shoal. We not only found a place to worship, but a community of people who have completely changed our lives. We have started a spiritual journey together and it is incredible. We are learning, growing, and evolving. God has become a major player in everything we do. We still have a lot of questions, but we are in an environment that makes it okay. This journey is an exciting one, and it is amazing that it all started with the simple desire to start a Christmas Eve tradition.
Jennie and Kenny
Here is a video of the 2010 Christmas Eve Service that Jennie wrote about: http://vimeo.com/18164973
If you live in the Kansas City metro and are looking for a place to explore the meaning of Christmas, please join us at Shoal Creek Community Church – December 22 and 23 at 7pm, and December 24 at 5pm, 7pm, & 10pm. If you live outside the metro, you can watch live and previous services here: http://www.shoalcreek.org/video?albumId=266357&videoId=33169719.
PS If you have a similar story, please share it in the comments below.
The road to redeeming your purpose cannot coexist with the path of least resistance. Last week I worked up the nerve to enter @gutsyliving’s My Gutsy Story contest, where blogger Sonia Marsh is recognizing one mini-memoir (1000 words or fewer) each Monday. I whittled this story down to the maximum, and am surprised and honored that Sonia chose to feature it as today’s guest post.
Please visit Sonia’s Gutsy Living web site, read My Gutsy Story, and record your reaction in the comments section. At the end of the month, Sonia will ask readers to vote on their favorite Gutsy Story, and the winner has the choice of a number of awards, including advice and counsel on getting your story published. I can use all the help I can get!
Thanks for reading!
One of our family’s Christmas traditions is to draw names to give a “found” gift to another family member. The rules are simple: you can’t spend any money on the gift, it has to be something you found or made; and you must write a note describing the significance of the gift for that member of the family. Last year I drew my daughter’s name, and I gave her the key to the house that I grew up in at 2210 Rainbow Drive in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (My parents sold the house four years ago, so I had no reason to keep the key anymore.) Here is the letter I wrote to go along with the key.
December 24, 2010
It is still hard to believe that you are 18 years old, a legal adult. You can leave home any time, do whatever you want, and there is nothing your mother and I can do to stop you. But you know what? That doesn’t scare me one bit. You have demonstrated time and time again that you are a responsible young woman. God has indeed begun a good work in you, and I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that He will be faithful to complete it. One of my greatest joys in life is that I get to play the role of your earthly father in the good story you are living.
In his book, A Million Miles In A Thousand Years, Don Miller defines “story” as a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. No conflict, no story; or at best, a boring story. Jon Franklin, in Writing For Story, provides a simple model for a story outline: complication, development, and resolution. The way an author weaves those threads together is what engages the reader in a good story. Your story is already exciting, not because of the conflicts you have encountered (like an upset stomach the day you left for South Africa, or a looming PEO scholarship deadline at Thanksgiving), but because of the confidence and persistence you have applied toward finding resolution.
As you go off to college and from there to life on your own, you will encounter numerous conflicts. Life is complicated, and your faith will be tested when resolution is vague and uncertain. When those times come, you’ll need a reminder that there is hope. Perhaps my found gift for you will serve that purpose. It is my key to 2210 Rainbow Drive. I haven’t lived there for almost 30 years, and even though I can no longer return – in a physical sense – it still feels like home. It reminds me that our heavenly Father has reserved a place for us in His eternal home, that one day all the complications of this world will be completely resolved, and we will forever experience the happy ending for which we were created.
My primary role as your earthly father is to point you toward the heavenly Father, and to encourage you to return to Him daily. Sometimes you’ll feel very close to God, as close together as you and I were the night before last, when you rested your head on my shoulder as we watched the video of the Christmas Eve service. That moment, I think, was a foreshadow of eternity. But there will also be times when God seems far away, completely detached and disinterested. Kind of like when you come home from school with something on your mind and I’m busy working on the computer. But you know that I love you, and that God loves you infinitely more than I do. Keep this key close at hand. May it remind you of my love and God’s love; may it offer hope in seemingly hopeless situations; may it give you strength to persist in pursuit of the happy ending.
The role I play as your earthly father will diminish in the coming years. Someday I’ll exit the stage completely but, God willing, I’ll always be watching from the wings. May this key also remind you to return to your earthly home for a visit now and then. I love you so much, Xannie. You make me so proud to be your dad. Listen… do you hear what I hear? It’s an echo from the future as God welcomes you into His eternal home: “Well done, sweetheart. Well done.”
Do you have a favorite family holiday tradition? Please feel free to share it in the comments.
I love memoir. I love reading it, because 9 times out of 10 it’s a story of someone working to redeem their purpose. I love writing it, because it is one way in which I redeem my purpose.
Last month, Shirley Showalter of 100memoirs.com invited me to write a guest post, a review of singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell’s memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks. You can read the review here, and I encourage you to poke around Shirley’s blog. If you like memoir, you’ll love her site. If you aren’t familiar with memoir, it’s a great place to learn more about the genre.
My favorite memoirist, Mary Karr, posted this video yesterday on her facebook page. It’s all about philanthropy (love of humanity), which is what this season is all about. If you are feeling hungover from Black Friday and/or cyber Monday, this could be the cure you’re looking for. Best wishes for a blessed holiday season!<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/30556886″>%5BAC%5D Promo 2011</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/adventconspiracy”>Advent Conspiracy</a> on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>