The weight of the world on my shoulders

Have you ever felt like you don’t belong?

Yeah. Me too.

Cultural labels never seem to capture the essence of who I am. Even in my hometown, I feel like a fish out of water.

Rejection is a familiar friend. I have been ridiculed for my values, my lifestyle, and the color of my skin. An inner ache of loneliness follows me wherever I go. One question has always haunted me, “Will anyone ever see and accept me for who I truly am?”

I recently took my two kids along with me on a trip to the city. The energy was electric! The buzz surrounded one man. When he opened his mouth to speak, you could hear a pin drop. When he reached out his hand, sick people were miraculously healed. He showed he was strong enough to overturn tables but gentle enough to care for people who were hurting and marginalized.

There was an intense focus in his eyes. Like a runner only concentrating on her next step in a race or a boxer fixated on where he will land his next punch, it was obvious that he knew his purpose.

My kids saw something special in him. They shouted and yelled his name to get his attention. At one point, he smiled back at them and waved. That one interaction got them so excited that they demanded we follow him around for the rest of the week. Every day we wondered what was in store. We were swept up in a wonderful adventure much bigger than ourselves.  

On Friday morning, the adventure turned into a tragedy. We woke up to the sound of a crowd repeatedly chanting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” I got the kids ready as quickly as I could and we ran into the streets to see what was happening. We arrived just in time to see a brutally beaten and bloody man stumbling down the road with a beam of wood across his back. It took me forever to realize it was Jesus. He was so disfigured that he didn’t even look human. Instinctively, I reached out to turn the heads of my boys. No kid should see his hero looking like this.

I was in shock as he inched closer and closer to us. When he was only a few yards from us, I had the urge to run away. The flesh was torn away from his bones and his ribs were exposed. I choked back the vomit that worked its way up my throat. Just then, he turned his face toward me. Did he recognize me? Could he even see past his swollen eyes?

His body buckled under the weight of the beam. The toughest man I have ever seen couldn’t go on any further.

A wave of pity, shame, and disgust hit me. Before any of those emotions could sink in, a soldier pulled me by the arm and yelled in my face “Carry the beam for that man!”

Time stood still.

Why did the soldier pick me? Was it because I am African? Was it because of my physique? Was I just the closest man nearby?

My boys stared at me. What would I do? Would I stand up for myself or would I willingly take the cross of this man? It was a two-second decision that seemed to take 2 years.

A combination of fear and compassion propelled me forward to take the burden off of his back. I marched ahead of him as we made our way down the crowded streets. People jeered and spit on him. I was a laughingstock in their eyes too.

While the sun beat on my forehead and sweat poured down my face, something strange happened. The more I marched down that lonely road with him, the more peace I felt in his presence. The more I experienced the rejection that he endured, the more courage I had to keep going. By the time we reached our destination, I wasn’t concerned about the crowds. Suffering had connected me to him.

The beam fell off my back and landed with a thud on the ground. “Get out of here!” The soldier yelled at me. I hesitated. I knew they would be nailing him to that same piece of wood. Should I try to defend him? Instinctively, my hand formed a fist out of anxiety and anger. That’s when he looked at me in the eye one last time and whispered, “Thank you”. My hand relaxed. I turned and walked away as my sons ran to me in tears.

At that moment, I realized the sense of belonging I had been searching for my whole life was found on that road of suffering. I was seen and accepted for who I truly am and not even a jeering crowd could take that away from me. At that moment the burden turned into belonging.

The world may say I am a disaster but Jesus says I am distinguished. The world may call me a freak but Jesus calls me a friend. The world might say I am worthless but Jesus says I am worthy. As he was dying, Jesus gave me the greatest gift I have ever received. It is a gift I don’t intend to waste.   

*Simon of Cyrene was considered one of the early leaders of the Christian church. Evidence also suggests, his sons Rufus and Alexander became Church leaders as they grew older.

When Your Dreams Die

What do you do when all your hopes and dreams die slowly in front of your eyes?

I was making a decent living and surrounded by people I loved. I wasn’t looking for change…but sometimes change finds you.

Secretly, I knew I needed that change. An ache of insecurity followed me everywhere I went. Maybe you’ve felt it too. That persistent voice inside your head that demands attention, like a hungry dog begging for food. “You’ll never be loved for who you are”. “You’ll never be as gifted as the people around you”.

I wanted that nagging voice to go away. I wanted a life of purpose and peace. That’s why the words, “follow me” were so captivating. They weren’t simply an offer to switch my vocation. Those three syllables were an invitation to a life filled with hope.

Listening to Jesus teach made me feel like I was experiencing a beautiful piece of music or like I had just eaten one of the best meals of my life. You know, that odd state of being completely full but still wanting more. Yet, it wasn’t his eloquence that changed me.

He displayed unrivaled power. The first time I saw it was when he turned stagnant water into wine that any sommelier would envy. Over time, I saw him heal more desperate people than I could possibly count. He walked across water, calmed storms and raised people from the dead. I was left speechless by his actions but it wasn’t his power alone that altered my life.

No, my insecurity began to melt away because he had the ability to look me straight in the eye and let me know that I was accepted and loved for who I was. I began to see myself as someone “Who Jesus loved”. It gave me such confidence that I thought I could call down fire from heaven. Jesus responded to that by chuckling and giving me a new nickname, “son of thunder”. There aren’t many people who can walk the line of laughing at your foolishness while still showing you love, but he could.

Some people responded humbly to his uncompromising honesty. Others got angry, so irate in fact that they decided to kill him. Even one of my close friends decided to betray him.

This led to a hasty trial and false accusations. In the blink of an eye, the person I had placed all my hopes and dreams in was being mercilessly beaten, verbally abused and nailed to a cross.

I had a front row seat to the entire scene. I witnessed my dreams fly away with every lash of the whip, insult and scream of pain. The security I previously felt, evaporated like dew on a hot summer morning.

No one else stayed with him except for his mother, a small group of women and myself. I stood next to his mom the entire time. Jesus was disfigured so badly that even she couldn’t recognize him. The sound of her wailing was inhuman, an outward sign of the depth of her suffering.

In the midst of his pain he looked at me one last time and told me that his mother was my mother now. He looked at his mom and introduced me to her as her new son. It was typical Jesus. Even in the midst of excruciating pain, he was showing us how to love.

It wasn’t long before he breathed his last.

I hugged my new mom for what seemed like an eternity as we both sobbed uncontrollably.

Eventually, she managed to get out the words, “John, what do we do now?”

I desperately rummaged through my cluttered mind for answers but I came up empty.

“I don’t know mom, but we will get through this together.”

We were two different generations, genders and backgrounds but we shared a deep bond…our dreams had died right before our eyes.

In the midst of our sorrow and confusion we clung to each other and the example he gave us.  We didn’t know much else but we knew that Jesus loved us. Somehow, that was enough for now.

Ready Player One

I guess the modern phenomenon of “binge watching” shows and movies has more of an effect on my media consumption habits than I would like to admit. Often, my movie going experience has more in common with stuffing myself at a buffet than savoring every bite of a gourmet meal.

This past weekend, I left my house with my twelve-year old son thinking I was going to the Golden Corral. What I received was a creative five-course meal prepared by one of the best “chefs” of our generation.

The previews for “Ready Player One” didn’t inspire me to pull out my phone and order tickets from Fandango. After all, who needs another dystopian story, highlighting the dark places our current dependence on technology might take us. Little did I know, what I would actually get is a glimpse inside the soul of one of the greatest creative geniuses of our time.

Steven Spielberg is a master at taking an audience along on an emotional journey. Think about the way “Jaws” highlights our fear of the unknown or how “ET”, defined a generation by tapping into a longing for connectedness.

My theory is “Ready Player One” flips the script. Rather than Steven Spielberg getting you to experience YOUR emotions, he gives the audience permission to participate in HIS journey through aging and transitions (I realize this could be shaped by my own current journey…see my last blog post). As we are allowed access to his inner world, we come to the realization that even the most gifted people must turn their creation over for others to steward.

In the movie, the creator of a virtual reality universe dies. Everything he has built during his entire life will be turned over to someone else. In order to decide who gets the authority to rule his creation, he plants an “Easter Egg” in the game. Whoever finds it will be awarded the ½ trillion dollars that his company is worth and the right to do with the universe as they see fit.

We follow the battle between a giant corporation (that wants to rule his creation as a means to make money) and a renegade bunch of individuals (who grow to realize they need each other).

In the middle of a ton of great 80’s music, as well as references to many of his own movies, we gain an understanding of what it must be like to be a creative genius like Steven Spielberg.

I experienced three revelations through this story.

My first observation is there is an inherent loneliness in transitions. No matter the field, leaders often experience isolation and rejection. This reality can feel even more heightened as you let go and move into a different season.

The second principle is transitions bring us face to face with regret. None of us skate through life doing everything perfectly. A sign of maturity is freely admitting what we wished we had done differently.

Finally, taking the time to hand off leadership well can bring peace. By realizing our significance isn’t found in a role, we have the opportunity to return to the simplest version of ourselves. We can rest in the fact that we are loved because of who we are, not because of what we do.

I wonder if Steven Spielberg would agree with my assessment of his journey. I’d love to hear your thoughts too!

Choose wisely

Millions of Americans rushed to their local gym this past week with excitement and resolve. I should know. I’m one of them.

Over the years, I’ve tried to make exercise a regular part of my routine but a couple of months ago that “routine” became a little…well, let’s just say “sporadic”.

Maybe it started when I broke two of my toes. Perhaps my desire to spend more quality time with baked goods added to my lack of motivation. Whatever the reason, I realized I needed to start fresh.

Upon my return to the gym, I discovered something crazy. I had become weaker! The weights I once threw around with ease, were now were accompanied by involuntary grunts and groans.

It didn’t stop there. When I ran, I was considerably slower than before. I’ve never set any land speed records but even the thought of running at my previous speed made me want to hyperventilate. It was enough for me to ask myself, “What the Hans and Franz is going on?!!”

As I sat on the edge of my bench, looking like a face swap between a dejected Charlie Brown and a forlorn Mr. Clean, I had a realization. Yes, getting back into shape is a pain (in more ways than one) but there is also a valuable lesson to be learned.

Our bodies are gift to us. They teach us that the decisions we make turn us into the people we will become.

Even though we might not like it, we can understand the ramifications of our decisions on our bodies. For example, if I eat more than my fair share of Italian cookies and choose to skip the gym for a while, my physical well-being is going to suffer.

What is often tougher to see are the ways that we are affected emotionally, spiritually and intellectually by the decisions that we make.

Each of us has thousands of choices to make within the course of a day. In the end, our lives become the sum total of those decisions.

Does that mean we need to obsess over every little decision? No, but it may mean we take our daily choices more seriously.

Sometimes it’s helpful for me to look at extreme examples in order to grasp a concept. For instance, one of the biggest news stories of this past year was the rampant nature of sexual harassment across our country. I am thankful that this has become a national topic of discussion. Sexual harassment is an epidemic and it has to stop!

Interestingly enough, these stories have shown that sexual harassment isn’t a “conservative” or “liberal” problem. It doesn’t have its roots in what ethnicity or economic background you come from. At the core, sexual harassment is a heart issue.

My guess is none of the men who are accused of sexual harassment woke up suddenly one morning and said, “I’m going to start terrorizing women today”. Most likely, they came to that point after years of little decisions. One gray area turned into another and then another until finally they had become a person who could act so heinously without ever giving it a second thought.

So what’s the point? Are we all doomed to become pathological liars or abusers? I don’t think so. Still, our decisions may lead us to another tragic place. We may fail to be who we were designed to be.

Who do you want to become? Are the choices you are making today bringing you closer to becoming that person or taking you further away?

My prayer is that the decisions I make in 2018 will lead me closer living out my created purpose. I hope you’ll experience that joy too.