My Story (Part 1)

Four years ago, about halfway through seminary, my life changed forever. Radically. I grew up in the church, had been studying and teaching the Bible for years, but for the first time in my life I was about to see Jesus in a completely different way. Or, maybe I should say, for the first time I would come to a transformational understanding of how Jesus sees me.

One of the requirements for my particular degree program was a 30 week concentration in spiritual formation. The requirement, though time consuming, was relatively simple: meet with a local ministry leader once a week for mentoring. At the end of the 30 weeks, I would present my mentor with a project entitled “My Story”; a simple narrative of my testimony.

I still remember that fateful day, sitting at my local Starbucks, presenting my paper, clearly and concisely sharing my testimony with a woman brave enough to take on the job of mentoring me. It’s wasn’t a job for the faint of heart. But, this final meeting was easy. I’d given my testimony a hundred times, learning to keep it sweet, simple and too the point.

Box checked. Moving on.

Or so I thought.

That night I tossed and turned for hours, but sleep eluded me and I had absolutely no idea why. Did I consume too much coffee after 4:00pm? Were the kids okay? Did I forget to lock the doors? It went on for hours. And then, out of nowhere, it hit me. Almost like God was talking to me. (He wasn’t. At least, not audibly.) Maybe I was talking to myself. Whomever was behind that still, small voice… my deep subconscious was breaking through with four simple words:

“That’s not your story.”

I’m sorry. What?!? What do you mean it’s not my story? Of course, it is! I’ve told it a hundred times, if not more. The Carry On Project was based on that story. I mean, I LIVED it.

But, then, almost like an answer to what I thought was a rhetorical question, the Lord brought the story, ready to be told, into focus. This wasn’t a forgotten tale repressed in the cob-webbed crevices of my mind, nor was it a story I chose to ignore. It was just so far removed from my life… decades removed. Before I knew Jesus. (Yes, you read that right. It IS completely possible to be raised in the church, even be baptized, and have absolutely no idea who Jesus is.) And for someone who had first hand experience of how the church shoots it’s wounded…

Yeah… no thanks. I’m good.

But, the Lord was unrelenting and the turning point finally came in a moment of frustration as I screamed in my pillow, “For the love of Jesus.”

It was almost like the Lord answered, “That’s what I’m trying to tell you.”

Well… crap.

So, I did the only thing I knew to do when faced with a decision I didn’t want to make. I pulled a Gideon and threw down my fleece. But, this was no ordinary fleece, mind you. This fleece had points and sub-points. In no uncertain terms, if the Lord wanted THIS to be “my story” then He needed to make it UNDENIABLY clear.

Here were my conditions (laughable, I know): #1 He needed to clearly confirm this was the story I was called to share; #2 He needed to clearly articulate WHY I was the one to share it; and #3 He had to do it within the next 24 hours.

Yeah, I know. I have some nerve, right? Questioning the Lord of all creation? Giving Him a timeline to meet MY demands? Who the heck do I think I am?

Truth: in that moment… Jonah. Ready to run as far away from Nineveh as possible. And, thankfully, the Lord extended to me ALL KINDS of CRAZY GRACE. Because He answered all of my questions by the following night.

Lesson for today: When you try to paint God unto a corner, He might just blow that corner up.

Abortion: The Carry On Project

Over the next five or six posts, I’m going to dive deep into this topic of abortion. Today I’m sharing Sydney’s journey with The Carry On Project and what we’ve experienced on the road. In the subsequent posts, I’ll share my story with you, tying up this series with a look at the conversation surrounding abortion in the Church and the ministry the Lord has called me to as we move forward. But, first… Sydney.

Part of our RV adventure across the country has included stops to pregnancy care centers as part of The Carry On Project. (You can read more about the project here.) We’ve had the opportunity to visit centers from New York to Texas, sharing the music, but also the heart behind the mission. The ministry, on its own merits, is beautiful. I remember Krissy sending us the unfinished version of Carry On and immediately knowing this song needed to be in the hands of every woman facing an unplanned pregnancy. But, I also remember Sydney championing the song’s other significant ministry… to the Church. Over the last year, Sydney has constantly, consistently, reminded us of this.

She reminds everyone of this.

Sydney has always been apprehensive of The Carry On Project. Not in the mission itself, but in the assumptions others would make. From the VERY beginning, Sydney made it abundantly clear to her management team that she wanted to avoid using the term “pro-life” when describing the song. It was too politically charged and, for those Sydney had a heart to reach, it would be a repellant.

The album art for Carry On is a picture of us with Sydney when she was two years old.

I will never forget the night the publicist called to tell us that CCM Magazine wanted to do a story on Sydney and The Carry On Project. They wanted to use term “pro-life” in the title. Sydney’s response: Absolutely not. The management team was baffled. Why in the world would you say no to that kind of exposure? In her abundant wisdom, and as a foreshadowing of future events, Sydney explained that using the terminology would align her with people and movements she doesn’t want to be aligned with. She was confident the Lord wasn’t calling her to the politics and policy side of the conversation.

But, Sydney also felt called to speak to the Church. To Sydney, Carry On is a reminder for the Church to surround women facing unplanned pregnancies with love and support, not hate and condemnation. Sydney knew there were TWO lives at stake and the best way to save the life of the child was to chase after the heart of the mother. This is the beat of Sydney’s heart… and not just on this topic.

Eventually, Sydney agreed to the CCM Magazine article. I still remember the conversation. In the end, it was one comment that changed her mind: Sometimes (probably ALL the time, in my opinion) the Lord opens a door and we have absolutely no say on the terms… and that’s when our pride can get in the way of us living out our purpose. So, she agreed to have the story run, and then about one week later, during an interview with a radio station in London, her worst fear came true.

God’s timing around the circumstances in our lives the past three years has been impeccable. Spot on. 100% of the time. And this interview, unfortunately (or, fortunately, depending on how you look at it) was no exception. The DJ informed Sydney that the previous person interviewed for her show had also written a “pro-life” song. I wish you could have seen Sydney’s face as she listened to the DJ set up the question. It was a mixture of dread, frustration, and anger, with a tad bit of I-told-you-this-was-going-to happen thrown straight at me. (I remember covering my head with a pillow, praying the Lord would give my girl a double helping of grace and discernment when she opened her mouth to speak.)

Truth is… we were very much aware of the person and song the DJ was referring to. It was written by a male worship leader at one of the bigger churches in Franklin, Tennessee. The focus of the song was different from Carry On, as was the ministry surrounding it. For this other song, the life of the unborn was the focus and a pro-life activist asked the artist to join a few events around the country.

The DJ wanted to know how Sydney felt about creating a song that was part of this pro-life movement taking over the country. A movement that has, at times, brought out the worst in people as they stand outside of abortion clinics with hate-filled signs calling women murders. Sydney has seen this. She has watched mothers and fathers encourage their children to speak words of condemnation to complete strangers… in the name of Jesus.

And without missing a beat, Sydney set the record straight, informing the DJ she wasn’t a part of that movement. Period. She offered no other explanation. She refused to whitewash her answer in an effort to diminish some of the apparent sting. There was just silence. Awkward, long silence.

Sydney LOVES those moments.

So here we are on the road. Birmingham to be exact. Right as Alabama is passing state abortion laws that will undoubtedly make their way to the Supreme Court. As men and women, Lord help us even children, stand in front of abortion clinics holding posters with pictures of aborted babies, calling the women entering these clinics murders and damning them to hell.

All in the name of Jesus.

But through all of that, you have a 17-year-old girl visiting a local pregnancy care center to give them the download cards for Carry On. Wanting to share her story… our story… in hopes that extending love will be more powerful than casting stones. At the clinic in Birmingham, the impression Sydney made was lasting. That evening, one of the women working there made a purchase from our website. She included a note to Sydney saying how impressed everyone in the office was with her poise and her heart for the women entering these clinics.

Sydney visiting a pregnancy care center in Rochester, NY

Here’s the truth: Years ago, I told Sydney that our story might have been a whole lot different if I was met with protesters outside of that Planned Parenthood. Instead, a woman working there listened to me and Jamie wrestle through the pain of this life changing decision and then she told us to go home. Not a story you hear very often, but it’s one that has shaped Sydney’s heart. This woman working at the Planned Parenthood extended love to me when my church kicked me out.

Ironic, isn’t it.

A Much Needed Meeting with a Friend in Alabama… and Sitting Down with a Trump Supporter

Me and Melody

We found ourselves in a very frustrating holding pattern at this point in the story. (I can’t help but laugh at it now. There have been SO MANY holding patterns since this period of time. And a moment of complete honesty: our lives before this adventure were so busy, scheduled… predictable… that waiting didn’t really exist. Even if we put something before the Lord, our petitions weren’t consistent because there were so many other balls to juggle in life. But, living your life in such a way where almost everything depends on the Lord… when your prayers aren’t scheduled, but are a constant flow from your lips throughout the day… it changes how you see this life. It changes how you see your purpose as a child of God, a servant of the Lord. But, we were about to embark on the most trying season of our lives because EVERYTHING depended on waiting…on Him. Even now, we have no idea where we’re going to be in a month. We are going through our savings faster than we want. We are praying for the Lord to make the next step clear. Some nights I can’t sleep. I wonder if I missed something. Would things we different if we were more faithful in some area of our lives?

But, then I remember that He is always faithful, no matter my lack of faithfulness. (Plus, that line of thinking in a form of prosperity gospel, or Christianized karma. Following with Jesus doesn’t work that way.)

We had two weeks before Sydney’s last show in Georgia and no idea how we were going to fill it. (But, the Lord did.) We decided to head down to Alabama to visit another one of my Noonday friends. I went to Uganda several years ago with Melody. We were actually roommates. She and her husband have a wonderful ministry called LIFE Ministries and meeting with them came at the absolute right time.

We met Melody and her husband, Randy, at a local Chick-fil-A in outside of Birmingham. Our time with them was so short, but for the first time since we had been on the road, someone looked at Jamie and I and said, “How is your marriage?” I remember wanting to cry and fighting to hold back the tears. It’s such a simple question, but so profound. Truth be told, our marriage was great. The only time our marriage MIGHT have been better was during our time church planting in Rhode Island. Almost nine months in, our family is closer than ever. But, our time with Randy and Melody helped prepare us for the trials ahead.

Randy hammered home the importance of protecting our marriage. He asked probing questions about our personalities and communication styles, how we handle conflict and prioritize time away as a couple and as individuals. At this point in the adventure, we were still trying to figure out how six people (and a dog) can live in 300 sq. ft. without killing one another. We were winging it, so to speak. But, that wasn’t a strategy for longevity. Randy knew we needed to be proactive in protecting our family in order to give us the best chance of thriving in an absolutely chaotic existence.

The verdict might still be out…but we’re still at it and no one had died yet. I’m counting that as a success.

While in Birmingham, I also made a new, and unlikely, friend… at a local Starbucks. SURPRISE! I had dropped Sydney off at the gym to work out while I went across the street to write. But, I got absolutely no writing done that day. Almost immediately after sitting down and taking our my laptop, this older man took a seat near me. As a die-hard people watcher, this individual intrigued me from the moment he sat down.

First, I’m pretty sure this man knew absolutely everyone who walked into that Starbucks location. (Maybe this is why I was drawn to him! He was ME!!!) This man, Wayne, sat down right next to the table with milk dispensers ands sugar packets… right smack-dab in the path of all the foot traffic, and EVERY SINGLE PERSON STOPPED TO TALK TO HIM. I couldn’t stop laughing. Eventually, he turned to ask WHY I was laughing! Which made me laugh even more.

Over the course of the next hour, I sat with a man who is about as Republican as they come. We talked about politics, abortion, immigration, gun laws. You name it, I asked him his thoughts. And we disagreed more than we agreed. But, here’s the beauty of this conversation: Wayne gave me permission to push back on some of his views… and even conceded to some of my points. And better yet, I gave him the same permission and he pushed back on some of my views… and I conceded to some of his points.

Me and Wayne

I walked away from my time with Wayne with a renewed sense of hope. We became friends on Facebook, but the request came with one IMPORTANT caveat: I told him that, inevitably, I would post something he doesn’t agree with, politically speaking. I asked him to push against any inclination to “unfriend” me, and, instead, enter into a conversation… offering a different perspective.

Six months later, we’re still friends on Facebook. And we recently found out that we also share the same birthday! I’m convinced that isn’t a coincidence. The Lord is constantly showing us that our connections in faith run deeper than our differences in politics… as long as we focus on nurturing our connections in faith more than exploiting those differences.

But, six months after this meeting, we’re finding this to be increasingly more difficult.

New Music, New Beginnings

David, Brayden, Sydney and Brad outside of The Creak Studio.

Next month will mark our three year anniversary of meeting David Leonard. When I think of all the things that have happened in our lives over the past three years, arguably, NONE of them would have happened if we hadn’t met David. He was the catalyst for a myriad of chain reactions that have led us to where we are today.

First, and probably most importantly, David and the guys at The Creak Music (Seth and Brad), have been instrumental in restoring Sydney’s confidence in both her God-given abilities and her unlimited potential; but also her faith in the church. He has also introduced her to people in the industry that have helped her grow as a writer, musician, and as a person.

David and his wife have taken Sydney into their home when we couldn’t travel with her to Nashville, shuttling her to the airport and providing her with a family as she enters into this awkward phase of young adulthood. But, it’s more than that. When I got sick a few months ago, David was one of the first people to reach out, making sure we were okay and seeing if we needed anything. There aren’t many people I would trust with my children, but he is most definitely one of the few.

Our original plans for this short three-day stop in Nashville were to record three songs at the studio: One for Be The Change Collective and two new songs for Sydney. Over the past six months, Sydney’s style had evolved, matured, becoming more folky. But, her lyrics were also becoming more powerful. She was excited to move into a new direction and start something on her own, apart from Be The Change Collective.

Brayden and Sydney talking with David during the recording of Conscience.

This also marked Brayden’s first time recording at the studio and because he was so excited, Sydney decided to work on the the next Be The Change Collective song first. Conscience, written by Brayden, gives you a glimpse into some of the darkest moments of his life. During their shows on the road, Brayden shares how he struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts for years. There is such a stigma around mental health, ESPECIALLY in the church, and Sydney and Brayden are trying to use their music to break down some of those walls.

Brayden, Zion, and Sydney

This also marked the first time another teen would be in the studio recording with Sydney. For this song, she actually had two joining her. At a show in April, we met an extremely talented musician named Zion Goins. The kids hit it off with Zion and invited him to be a part of the process. So, for the first time, Sydney’s vision of creating a place for teens, like herself, to create music with industry professionals, was becoming a reality!

But, unfortunately, things didn’t go exactly as planned. Something we didn’t anticipate… but we MOST DEFINITELY should have… was Brayden’s creative mind going into hyper-drive. Add to that three professional musicians/producers who LOVE to experiment with new sounds… and what was suppose to be a one-day project became a THREE day project! (And to be fair, the song sounds AMAZING!)

Our take-aways six months ago: Sydney, despite being incredibly disappointed about not recording her new music, was so incredibly gracious to her brother. She was maturing in ways that would serve her well in the months to come. For Brayden, we often joke that getting him to graduate high school will be a miracle. The kid creates music morning, noon, and night. But, during those three days, at different times during the process, the guys separately pulled Jamie and I aside to tell us that Brayden has what it takes to “make it” in the music industry. We’ve always known our kids are talented, but actually creating a career in an industry known for killing people’s dreams… it’s not the road we would choose for them. But, if it’s the road they feel the Lord is calling them to… it helps (a little) to know that others in the industry see their talent and potential, too.

What we’ve learned over the past six months: SO MUCH. The Lord is still writing this story, so I can’t share everything. But, I will say this: The Lord had different plans for Sydney when it came to recording her new music. A new plan. A new producer. A new direction. And it was ALL the LORD. (Seriously. It’s a crazy story.) Also, making the decision for our kids to focus on, and grow in, their faith before taking the “next steps” with their musical aspirations was the BEST decision we could have made. Our kids have been forever changed by the people they have met over the past eight months. Their music has changed. Their goals and aspirations have changed. Their love for others has changed. Their dreams have changed.

Truth be told: EVERYTHING has changed.

Why I’m Hopeful

Eight months into this journey, there have been days when I simply want to pack it up, sell the RV and buy a home in the middle of nowhere… and talk to absolutely no one. Ever again. The End. But, thankfully those days are few and far between. If nothing else, our search for unity in the church has grown both our compassion for others, as well as our patience. But, even with that, I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that sometimes I question whether true unity is possible, under the current circumstances, in the American church.

Then I think about the people with whom I differ in political leanings and/or theological interpretation. I know it’s possible because I live it out with those individuals. But, I’ve never really thought about WHY it works (in those rare instances) until our stop in Arkansas.

Years ago, the Lord crossed my path with a woman who would forever change my life. She became a spiritual mother, then a surrogate mother, during a season of life when I desperately needed it. It’s a role she took on for many women in our growing church. Yet, when she and her family left Maine to return to Arkansas, she remained a very important person in my life. She’s always been the first person I call when we’re desperate for wise counsel, need something covered in prayer, or find ourselves questioning the Lord… and ourselves.

Our time with Lisa and her family was short. Less than 24 hours. But, it was so sweet. All of her three kids happened to be in town as well, including her youngest, who had just taken a job with Liberty University. We sat at the table over dinner, catching up on life. It’s crazy to think that Lisa’s oldest kids were in middle school when we first met them. Jamie and I only had Sydney and Brayden at the time. So much had changed, yet so much seemed the same.

I remember looking around the table and feeling like I was home. And I was.

After dinner, we took dessert out onto the front porch and began sharing with them what the Lord had been showing us over the past couple of months. We talked about politics. We talked about differing theological interpretations around homosexuality. We talked about social justice. And here’s the thing, while we are more aligned on some issues compared to others, we don’t see 100% eye-to-eye on any of them.

On politics… most definitely not.

But here’s what I love about Lisa. She’s acutely aware that her political leanings might be a relational road block in the current climate and for that reason, she isn’t vocal about how she votes, or for whom she votes. (She also doesn’t shy away from talking about those things if she’s directly asked, which is another reason why I love her!)

For me, talking about these things isn’t a road block, (though some might argue differently!) because it’s what I’m called to. A couple of months ago, Jamie and I sat in our car, at a RV park in Washington state, and told our pastor we thought the Lord might be calling us to something that might hinder our ability to make (or maintain) friends on either side of the political (and theological) spectrum: To speak out against the entwining of faith and government in our country. (And just for the record, Jamie was the one who shared the epiphany. He’s actually the one who gets ALL KINDS of riled up over it.) I’ve become the contemplative one, while he’s become impassioned. It’s almost like our personalities have been switched. For those who know us, let that sink in.

Here is the unavoidable truth: I love Lisa and I know that no matter what, she and her family will ALWAYS be there for us. And the same can be said about us for their family. I will also admit that this might be one of the exceptions to the rule. (Jamie is having a really hard time talking politics and policy with his family right now… like so many other people we know.) It’s a tightrope we walk sometimes and, admittedly, it’s A LOT easier talking to strangers about these things than friends and family. Recently someone asked why I felt this way and the word that immediately popped into my head was UNITY.

Disagreements, by design, disrupt unity. And right now, some of the most divisive disagreements are happening within the church body. Usually on social media. With everyone watching. (If I had a dime for every time I saw a popcorn emoji on someone’s thread, I wouldn’t have to limit my Starbucks visits on the road!) And with a HUGE election cycle coming at us in 2020, and the evangelical vote, arguably, a deciding factor on the national stage, our unity, as a whole, has never seemed more fragile (in my lifetime).

Scripture tells us that the church will be sifted, separating the wheat from the tares. Yet, even in the sifting, we are called to fight for unity. But, what in the world does it look like?

That’s what we’re trying to find out.

We Did NOT See That Coming (Part 2)

The final rapid-fire head turn came at the end of the service as a woman was brought infront of the congregation as a confirmation of her membership into the church body. Those sponsoring her membership joined her at the baptismal basin, along with the pastor. A short mediation was repeated by the new member as well as the congregation. And, then the new member was given a rainbow pin.

Imagine how much my repressed Southern Baptist upbringing was squirming at that moment.

The final head turn occurred, but I didn’t have it in me to even look their direction. Honestly, I was in shock. I was at a loss for words. Differences in theology aside, I couldn’t wrap my head around what I was seeing. Why was this pin given at THIS moment? I’ve seen churches give people Bibles, or a pendant of the cross, as a sign of them being welcomed into the body of Christ. I’ve even seen churches give people t-shirts with their logo front and center for everyone to see… maybe as a sign of welcome into a particular church community? (I have issues with this as well, just so you know.) But I’ve never seen, or heard, of new members being given a rainbow pin under these circumstances.

After church I fielded all the questions from the kids the best I could. One of them included my 8-year-old son asking why this woman was given a pin about “God’s promise to Noah to never kill His people again.” (PROFOUND words coming from the mouth of a child and something we all should push into a little more as those in the LGBTQ community are being murdered around the world… in the name of God.) But, honestly, I had a lot of questions of my own and told the kids to wait until after their event was over that evening. In hindsight, that was a good call, but, honestly, I was just trying to buy time at the moment.

Up to this point, the kids “performance” was routine. They didn’t deviate much in what they shared and the same songs were played at each show. They knew what they were doing and had become familiar enough with the material that they really had every detail down with few, if any mistakes. And, hands down, 100% of the time, the audience has always been attentive and engaged. Without exception… until this performance.

I really don’t know how to explain it. From the very first song to the closing remarks, almost every person in that room was on their phones for the entire hour… including the adults. And to make matters worse, they were only sitting a few feet away from Sydney and Brayden… who were acutely aware of their inattentiveness. Jamie and I sat there for the entire hour watching it play out, praying the kids could persevere and completely confused by the response (or, lack of response). I mean, when a 14-year-old kid tells you about his struggle with depression and shares how his thoughts of suicide consumed him… it’s a pretty compelling moment.

After the event, I went to the lobby to help people wanting to purchase some of our merchandise. (We don’t charge for these events, but ask for permission to sell our merchandise to help offset our costs.) Almost immediately, Sydney found me and very bluntly whispered, “Okay, did we suck tonight?”

All I could say was, “Nope. It was actually your best show so far.”

I know she didn’t believe me, but it was. She was slightly dismissive with her response… or lack there of, but kept focused and interacted with the kids from the youth group. At the end of the day, this was her passion and no matter what happened during the past hour, she would make the most of the interpersonal time given to her.

After the event, our family was invited to join the youth group for a meal. I ended up sitting next to a volunteer who was incredibly personable and I asked if he could share his faith journey with me. He was more than willing and over the next ten minutes I found out he was the father of two sons and married to another man, who also happened to be there that evening. I listened to him talk about the church and the importance of having a place where he felt welcomed, as he was, to worship God and serve others. I just listened. I had so many questions and wanted to ask them, but it wasn’t the time, nor the place. (The Southern Baptist in me was hyperventilating, on the verge of losing consciousness.)

It’s interesting to me. I’ve heard it more times than I can count. A common belief is that many have “sound theology” until someone they know tells them they’re gay. It’s one of those pendulum swings… from one extreme to the other. But, that just seemed to be an oversimplification of a subject matter that has more nuances than I ever imagined… even within conservative circles. Don’t believe me? Try sitting down with a group of Baptists and asking this question: Which is the sin: being gay or acting on homosexual desires? (And before anyone gets mad at me… that wasn’t MY question. It was the topic of a conversation I walked in on last year, and there were about as many different opinions expressed as the number of people in the room. (Now imagine adding some Methodists, Catholics, and Presbyterian to that conversation. That conversation can be as combustible as gasoline on a space heater!)

But here’s the question: Does it even matter?

From an eternal perspective? (I’ll share my opinion on this in the weeks to come.) From a unity perspective? (Whether it SHOULD matter is a different question. But, from everything we’ve seen on the road, it DOES matter to a lot of people.)

And while these questions are acutely important when it comes to the question of unity in the church, I think this experience was about something else. Our family walked into a church where we questioned both the teaching and what seemed to be the elevation of an individual’s sexual identity over their identity within the body of Christ. Even if we pushed aside the topics that some argue could be boiled down to a difference of biblical interpretation (homosexuality), there were CLEARLY inaccurate teachings (definitively Numbers 20, arguably the reference of the Holy Spirit as “She.”)

Our kids then walked into their performance only to be received by ears unable to hear. Maybe unwilling to hear. I really don’t know. I just remember sitting at the RV park after a very long day and being overwhelmed by an epiphany. What if we just witnessed a modern day version of Isaiah 6? What if their ears WERE unable to hear? It’s definitely a possibility. But, PLEASE hear me out: This is NOT limited to the “liberal, progressive” church and I’m not tying it to their stance on homosexuality. Over the next few months we would enter into conversations about incredibly divisive issues in our church today and those on the conservative end of the pendulum are equally at risk of hardened hearts as those on the liberal side. More so in some cases, I think. Honestly, none of us are immune and I think understanding this is the first step towards unity.

Just to make sure I underscore my take-aways from this experience and you understand a foundational premise for our family as we move forward in this journey, I began wrestling through these issues in the church: The importance of biblical literacy (both sound teaching by leaders and independent study for individual congregants); The temptation to place any identity over our one true identity as Christians (specifically sexual identity and political identity, but most definitely not limited to those two areas).

Are you guys as uncomfortable as I am?

We Did NOT See That Coming (Part 1)

In some ways, I feel like the last post was the close of one chapter, and this, the beginning of another. But, it’s more than that. A shift in our story begins here. I often talk about how this journey compares to putting together a puzzle. As if the Lord dumped all the pieces on the table, leaving us to put it together without a picture to go by. But on the day I’m about to share with you, it’s almost like He changed the puzzle right under our noses. He didn’t, of course. I really don’t know how to describe it, except to say that up until this point, the puzzle was only two-dimensional.

He was about to completely rock out world by throwing in another dimension to all of this…. one we weren’t prepared for.

The day started like any other. The kids were speaking at a local youth group in Louisiana. When they have an event on a Sunday evening, we try to attend the church service that morning. On this particular Sunday, that meant visiting a Methodist church. It wasn’t our first visit to this particular denomination, so we were very much aware of our theological differences. But, even so, there was something different about our experience at this church.

What I’m about to share with you is obviously from our perspective and it’s incredibly important for you to know that our reception from the people of this church was warm, welcoming, and encouraging. This church community blessed our family in SO MANY ways. This is about the Lord’s revelation to us, through our two interactions with their community, and the PROFOUND effect it had on our family. Some of the potential dangers we had only read about in scripture became very real to us. I’m not sure I can clearly articulate the burden this day placed on our family… on our kids.

Our first interaction: By the time we pulled into the parking lot, I knew some level of discomfort was waiting for me behind the doors of the church. Their tag line is “No Judgement, Just Grace” (For the record, that wasn’t a typo… that’s how they spelled the word judgment.) The repressed Southern Baptist in me was having a hard time. I understand the concept of “no judgment,” but accountability is a real thing. Yes, Jesus tells people to take the log out of their own eyes before approaching their brother about the speck in his, but that passage doesn’t end there. Jesus was a proponent of accountability. His harshest words reserved for the Pharisees. I’ve seen many people bypass accountability by calling it judgment, causing them to avoid sanctification (at best) and/or continue on in unrepentant sin.

There’s a tension there we can’t ignore, or escape.

But, the real tension was felt during the sermon. It started with the pastor’s constant reference to the Holy Spirit as a “She.” This was followed by the FIRST, and VERY visible, swish of my children’s heads… in unison. I tried to assure them, with a casual lifting of my hand, that their heads would not explode, as Jamie and I tried REALLY hard to not die of laughter. Right or wrong, their reaction was hilarious.

Side note: I had an entire class in Seminary dedicated to this issue, so to unpack this subject in a short blog post won’t do it justice. However, I will say this: Throughout the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is referred to in the masculine, although the word for “spirit” (pneuma) is actually gender-neutral. I’m, personally, uncomfortable with referring to the Holy Spirit as a “He” because of this… but, also shy away from the reference of “it.” However, scriptural support for “She” just doesn’t stack up. My opinion. My studying of God’s Word. My wrestling. This is where I land.

This was followed up with the pastor’s interpretation of Numbers 20. To be frank, I’ve never heard a pastor tell the story of Moses’s disobedience the way this pastor did. The short version of the ACTUAL Bible story: The Lord specifically tells Moses to take his staff, instructing him to SPEAK to the rock, telling it to pour forth water. But, instead of doing as the Lord requested, Moses STRUCK the rock with his staff. The consequences of his disobedience led to his inability to enter the Promised Land.

This is a story my kids know well. I mean, I feel like this is a story most people in the church know well. If, for nothing else, the idea that TELLING a rock to pour out water is absolutely ridiculous. But, this pastor COMPLETELY botched it. First, he said that Moses was supposed tap the rock with his staff. Again, in unison, my children rapidly turn their heads in my direction. And then the pastor goes on to explain WHY Moses chose to strike the rock… and his explanation wasn’t biblical. Literally… it’s NOT mentioned in the Bible.

He went on to explain how Moses was rightfully angry with the Israelites, specifically because of their disobedience. He rationalized his anger as being completely understandable given the constant sinfulness of those people. But, there’s a HUGE problem with this… it’s NOT what scripture says. In fact, the blame for Moses’s disobedience actually fell squarely on the shoulders of Moses himself because he didn’t trust the Lord. That’s what the Bible actually says. (And for the third time, the four heads belonging to the children sitting next to me violently turned my direction.) I’m pretty sure Sydney’s was just spinning non-stop by this point though.

But that wasn’t the last of it. (Oh… how I wish it was.)

There is No Explanation Except… God

There are many facets to Be The Change Youth Initiative (BTCYI), but one of the most far reaching (and personal) is Be The Change Collective, the music arm of the ministry. BTCYI was built on the idea that every child has a gift or talent they can use to help others and, for Sydney, her’s has always been song writing and sharing her music with others.

Over the past couple of years, the Lord has connected her with some amazingly talented artists who have given their time to help her make the Collective a reality. (The larger goal is too create a space where teens, like herself, can work with industry professionals to make music that champions others… and they are in the final stages of production for the first song that includes two other teens!)

In 2019, Sydney released four songs under the Collective. Her goal was to reach 100,000 streams by the end of the year, which was a HUGE goal. But, with one month still remaining, the song count is already over 200,000 streams. We don’t really know how to explain it… and neither does anyone else… except to say that it’s the Lord. But, there’s one conversation in particular I want to share with you, that might help shed some light on our inexplicable faith walk.

That last week in May, I had a phone call with the booking agent from the management team. She’s also the person in charge of playlist pitching for Spotify. During the phone call, she made a confession to me about Sydney’s latest release, The Journey. The team had another song releasing on the same day. One that was more upbeat with a contemporary pop sound. (The Journey, written and performed with Ryan Delange, is a song about the journey parents go on when their children are facing potentially life threatening diseases. It was specifically written for the parents of children involved with Make-A-Wish America.)

The team member went on to explain that everyone in the office was convinced the other song was going to out perform Sydney’s song. It was more in line with what people want in music and it was getting placed on twice as many playlists as The Journey. But, here’s the thing: The Journey had THREE TIMES as many streams as that other song and no one could explain it. But, we could.

It was Jesus.

There was an anointing on that song, from the moment Sydney and Ryan wrote it, that was inexplicable. I went on to explain to her that we knew our approach to the music world was different than most everyone else’s. To those on the inside, it might look like we don’t take it seriously, or that we’re not really invested, but that’s not the case. Not by a long shot. We’re just not interested in MAKING something happen. If the Lord wants to open doors, He will open them. And He has. There were a lot of things we were absolutely clueless on, but of this we were MOST certain: The Lord was calling us on a different path when it came to “business” practices. We knew it didn’t make sense to the world, but, I guess that was the point. No one could look at us and say that we’ve manufactured this.

The following day, this young woman sent me a text. In her daily bible reading, she came across Proverbs 16:20, “One skilled in business discovers prosperity, but the one who trusts in God is blessed beyond belief.” Almost like a sweet reminder from the Lord that we were, indeed, on the right path. Something we questioned ALL THE TIME back then. But, we haven’t questioned at all recently.

In fact, now if we get an idea that resembles the ways of the world in any way, we’re more likely to put it aside. It’s not the path He’s calling us to. Sometimes I feel like He’s calling us to make our own trail and, honestly, we hate it. It’s so much easier to follow a path that’s already there. Creating a path takes work and you’re always second guessing yourself. We expend so much energy carving out the path…. and maybe that’s the point.

Following the Lord can be a lot easier when you have no expendable energy left to do your own thing! And if that’s actually true, then I guess we’re doing it right because that’s exactly where we are.

Saying Good-bye to Texas

The month of May was a LONG month. We were only two months into the journey and already exhausted… physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually drained. But, we ended the month on a high note: one more overnight with strangers that would welcome us like family, and a meeting that both challenged us and encouraged us to continue on in the work the Lord was preparing.

I mentioned in the previous post how Jamie and I were wrestling through all the connections the Lord was making for us. The only commonality seemed to be the pendulum swing. We were connecting with people who were both ultra conservative and ultra progressive in their theology. I found both incredibly fascinating, probably those with the progressive bent a little more because it’s not my natural inclination. But more than that, the fascination they had with one another was even more intriguing.

When we went back to the Dallas, we stayed with a sweet family we had met during our previous trip. (Their son-in-law was the youth pastor of the church where Sydney and Brayden spoke.) The wife is one of the more knowledgeable women I personally know when it comes to the Bible. You can tell that she has studied the Word for most of her life and she has a naturally inquisitive mind, which showed itself when I told her that we had breakfast with the pastor of Austin New Church and his wife.

When I think about division in the church, specifically the American church, the issue of homosexuality, and gay marriage in particular, is front and center. There are other issues, like gender equality, racial equality and reconciliation, and a myriad of other “social justice” issues. But, gay marriage is a definitive line-in-the-sand issue and that line is causing a deep fissure which is fracturing denominations, and the church as a whole, as we speak.

This woman had so many questions about our meeting, about their theology, about their (mis)understanding of the Bible, about why we would WANT to meet with them. All fair questions. And, questions we have heard before. When you have a ministry/business that depends on the generosity of others, who you choose to “side with on theological issues” becomes important. And, honestly, it’s why most people don’t, unless, of course, you can actually increase your revenue from theological divides. (But that’s a COMPLETELY different conversation.) Regardless, I can say with 100% certainty, ESPECIALLY after this trip, it most definitely doesn’t apply to us.

But. I’ll confess, in that moment, there was this sense of uneasiness. It was becoming more clear that the Lord was calling us, not only to deep waters, but ROUGH waters. I hear people say that social media brings out the worst in people and they will say things on Facebook that they’d NEVER say in person. Well, that might be true for some people, but take my word for it. There are people out there who will say it to your face. It’s become a crazy world over the past few years. People will say things they wouldn’t have considered saying 10 years ago. (They were probably thinking it, but they NEVER would have thought about saying it out loud.) Those days are long gone I fear. Some people get easily offended and they will tell you so in an equally offensive way. (And trying to raise financial support from people is REALLY hard when you’ve offended them… even when the offense was unintentional.)

There was also another issue, we pretty much give away all of the money we bring in. That was by design. (Like I said, we don’t have a business model many would want to adopt.) Again, EVERYONE has advised us to stop giving money away and we get it. But, the Lord has made it clear this is what we’re suppose to do. While we could be out there fundraising for Be The Change, our kids feel strongly about advocating for others… and we support them. The Lord has continued to provide for our needs so why do we need more.

Isn’t that the model we see in Acts?

So essentially the two most important rules in running a business (don’t offend people and don’t give away your money) were becoming foundational components of the work the Lord was calling us to. (And just to be clear, we’re not intentionally offending people but we are asking them to take their views on certain issues and filter them through the gospel. That makes some people uncomfortable, especially when their views are shaped more by the world than by the work of Jesus.)

I won’t lie, we have questioned our methods more than once. They most assuredly don’t make sense from a worldly perspective. And here’s the CRAZY thing: Our biggest critics come from within the church… and some of the people most excited about our work aren’t even Christians.

Not yet anyway.

At the end of the day, all our second guessing was, for the most part, laid to rest after meeting with Dr. Ramesh Richard, founder of RREACH, a global proclamation ministry. The first thing we noticed off the bat was Dr. Richard’s attentiveness to our story. With pen and paper in hand, he continued to write notes as Sydney and I took turns sharing our story up to that point. But, more than that, it was his ability to understand Sydney’s vision that encouraged me more that anything.

Through the process of asking questions, Dr. Richard was helping Sydney pull together constant themes the Lord was underscoring in her life. And with the answers to these questions he was helping her articulate a vision for what the Lord might be calling her to. You can never see the forest through the trees if you’re constantly in the thick of it. Allowing her the space to pull back and see an aerial view of God’s work through her gave us both a deeper appreciation for where we were on the journey.

But he also said something that would forever solidify what we already felt confident in… our finances. When it specifically came to the idea of fundraising for others, Dr. Richard said, “In God’s economy, the well NEVER runs dry.” Essentially, if God is calling us to it, then He will provide for it.

We are literally six months out from this meeting and we can testify EVEN THIS PAST WEEK to this truth. Honestly, this whole trip is a testimony to it. And Dave Ramsey would cringe at how we manage our money. But, from our perspective, saving up for a future “rainy day” doesn’t really make sense when someone else is in the thick of their rainy day right now. And if we’re suppose to be trusting the Lord for our “daily bread” why are we building up our storehouses anyway?

It’s always there. The principles of the world, no matter how “sound” or “practical” they may be, often (if not always) find themselves in direct opposition to the way followers of Jesus are called to live their lives. I think a lot of us, my family included, have tried to play it both ways for a long time.

But what if we didn’t? What if we said no to the storehouses and rainy day funds? What if we just lived a simple life, taking only what we need and giving everything else to those in need? Is it even possible in today’s Christian culture?

It is. And while not completely impossible in today’s entertainment driven church culture, it is incredibly (and increasingly) more difficult. But, not impossible.

The MOST Unlikely of Friendships

Brayden, Mark, and Sydney

Our last week in Texas was jammed pack full of stuff. As we approached the end of the month, our fundraising efforts were pretty remarkable given our actual number of participants. The goal was to have approximately $3,250 raised by the end of the May, which equated to one-third of the total amount needed to grant the wish. And, by the end of the month, we had close to $3,500… thanks to that $2,000 key chain! (At least something was going as planned… sort of.)

We were leaving Houston for the last time, making a quick stop in Austin and then finishing up our month long tour of Texas in the Dallas area.

We were heading back for two purposes: #1) Mark, one of the worship leaders at Austin New Church, invited our family to spend the night at his house while he and the kids wrote a song; #2) Jamie and I were having breakfast with the pastor (and his wife) of Austin New Church to talk to them about their immigration ministry. Needless to say, we were SUPER excited for a number of reasons.

First, let me talk to you about Mark. True story: When you ask my kids for their top five favorite people they’ve met on this trip, there are TWO people who make the list for all four of my children. Mark is one of them… and for good reason. I’m pretty sure I’ve NEVER met a nicer human being in my entire life. He’s one of the few people we regularly keep in contact with as we continue our travels. (That’s probably because he gave my kids an EPIC list of all the MUST SEE places across the country and I’m sure they send him pictures at every single one of them. He also taught them how to make “proper” English tea and our lives have never been the same since.)

Sydney, Brayden, and Piper enjoying their tea. Note Piper’s pinky finger!

And here’s another interesting fact: We hit a pivotal turning point during this visit with Mark. Within minutes of arriving at his place, we decided to head into town with him to visit some local hot spots. The boys hopped into Mark’s car and the girls stayed with us. As Jamie pulled off to get gas, I made a stunning realization. We LITERALLY let our boys get into a car with someone we didn’t know. (I mean, TECHNICALLY, we knew him… but not well!) I remember looking back at the girls and a momentary look of panic came across their faces, but then we all busted out laughing. Whether we liked it or not… we were officially missionaries. (A shout out to all our missionary friends who know what that means!)

But, here’s the thing about Mark: We NEED more people in the world like him. Period. He loved on our family. He baked with our kids and played games with us. After the little ones went to bed, it was probably midnight at that point, he stayed up and talked to us about church stuff. I shared with him my issues about Austin New Church and we wrestled through some of the theological tensions. We didn’t know each other well and we didn’t agree on some theological points, but our unity in Jesus was real. He was my brother in Christ. Period. The Lord was grafting another branch into our tree; He was growing our spiritual family in ways we desperately needed.

Mark baking with Holden and Piper.

The following morning, Mark spent some time writing music with Sydney and Brayden while Jamie and I went to have breakfast with the pastor of Austin New Church and his wife. For the first time on this trip, I think Jamie was more excited about meeting with someone than I was. Of course, given his professional background, Jamie was incredibly interested in learning more about their immigration ministry and what was actually going on at the border. I was still wrestling through all my “liberal, progressive” theological issues with ANC, so I didn’t plan on talking too much.

But, that didn’t last long.

I feel like I could write so much about our breakfast meeting. But, for the sake of story progression, I’ll hold off on a few points for now. But, I will say this. Jamie and I consider ourselves pretty informed, especially given the fact that Jamie served as a federal DRUG prosecutor for the Department of Justice. When the constant pro-wall diatribe began taking over the media, specifically the misinformation about the way drugs come into the US from Mexico, Jamie’s level of irritation escalated to a place I had never seen before. (But, it’s a frustration I’ve become accustomed as the political climate has become increasingly toxic these past few months.)

Sitting there, listening to Jason and Ashley explain what was actually going on, it was hard not to become overwhelmed by the magnitude of work that needs to be done… and become downright irate with the lack of humanity in the systems we use to protect our country. (And just so we’re clear, this has nothing to do with the wall. Whether you’re for it or against it, our sense of decency should never be questioned. A Christian “pro-life” stance isn’t dependent of the color of your skin, your nationality, or you ethnicity. Pro-life is ALL life. Period. But, again… I’m getting ahead of myself.)

What I loved about Jason and Ashley were their hearts for their neighbors. They, and many others at their church, were fully invested in helping those seeking refuge. It challenged me. A lot. (But, I like to be challenged. I’m an 8 on the Enneagram.) They offered to connect us with some people actively engaged in ministry at the border and we hope to visit there in the New Year.

While 90% of our conversation focused on the issue of immigration and the Christian response to what was going on at the border, things took a decisive turn towards the close of our time together. I don’t really remember the context of the comment, but Jason made some reference to institutions, like Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and Dallas Bible Church, and people associated with those institutions writing him off as a heretic because of his stances on certain theological issues. The reason I remember the comment was because I’m a graduate of DTS and we had visited Dallas Bible Church a few weeks before. (We were actually spending the night at the house of some of the founding members of Dallas Bible Church THAT night!)

I was quick to inform Jason that his assessment wasn’t entirely correct because I was sitting at the table with him. I wish I had a picture of his face at that moment. The temptation to jump head first into a potentially theologically divisive conversation/debate was more tempting than I care to confess. But, if I’m honest, so was the temptation to run as fast as I could away from the table. We had spent almost 90 minutes with two people who professed to believe in the same Jesus as me, but who were, quite literally, on the opposite end of almost every theological spectrum. In fact, the only common ground we really shared was our annoyance of Franklin Graham, but, in part, for different reasons. But, hey… I guess you have to start somewhere, right?

Jamie and I with Ashley and Jason Morriss.

Jamie and I left breakfast and just sat in our car for a few minutes, trying desperately to process what was going on. How was it possible that we were having breakfast with, arguably, one of the most progressive pastors in the state of Texas… and then spending the night at the home of the some of the founding members of one of the most conservative churches in the state? What in the world was God trying to show us, or teach us?

We wouldn’t know the answer to that question for a few months, but there was a reason. A couple of days later, I sent Jason a text asking him to prayerfully consider being someone I reach out to when I want to wrestle through my questions about unity. I knew they likelihood of him agreeing was practically 0%, but the worst thing people can say is no. And we’ve heard that word so many times that it has no power over us. We’ve heard it so many times that we forgot what it sounded like to hear the word yes.

Which was Jason’s answer to my question.