Loving When It Hurts

February 6, 2017 — 2 Comments

Have you ever purchased furniture that comes in a box? Our office is full of IKEA desks and bookshelves from the Swedish furniture titan.  As I begin each assembly, I open the manual, look at the simple pictures, and review the short list of required tools. Filled with unbridled but unfounded optimism, I naively dive into the assembly.

However, as each project unfolds, my frustration inevitably grows.  The simple pictures are never simple to follow. In fact, I’ve never reached the end of a project and thought, “That was easy!”  Each piece takes far more time to assemble than anticipated, eroding my patience to pitiful levels and causing me to mutter Swedish words.

This doesn’t just apply to furniture assembly. For many of us, when we first stepped out into the work of loving and serving others, we had a simplistic (and perhaps naïve) vision of just how easy it was going to be. Turns out, loving others is far more complicated and difficult than we originally imagined.

Several years ago, my wife and I attended a summit designed for families walking through adoption and foster care. I imagine that most of the attendees found themselves in the same place that I did: armed with the ardent conviction of our call to love and care for orphans, widows, and vulnerable children. God has been unmistakably clear in His charge to the Church to care for them. To Laurel and I, our next step seemed obvious: Kids in crisis were in need of a safe place to live, and we had room in our hearts and our home. The math was simple, and love rooted in the Gospel compelled us to respond.

But cheerful brochures with smiling children hide the reality that between those moments of giggles are a lot of tears.

Our family took a deep breath, and plunged head-first into a world of addiction, hurt, and pain. We opened up our home to provide respite care, knowing that loving people is an inherently dangerous thing to do. We genuinely believed that we were ready.

Nothing could have prepared us for what was coming.

Our experience in welcoming a child turned into the single most painful season of our lives. I experienced fear like I’ve never felt it before. Pain and resentment became constant companions—and the most wrenching pain that I experienced was watching the people that I love the most become deeply wounded.

Here is what I’ve come to believe: There are no simple ways to love others. Love is costly. Indeed, as people invited to incarnate Christ in a broken world, if our love looks anything like Jesus’ love, it could cost us everything that we’ve got. Faithfully loving others like Jesus loves them inevitably means that you will experience hurt.

Stepping out to welcome the foreigner, protect the widow, defend the fatherless, and love our brothers and sisters living on the fringes of society isn’t comfortable or safe. Empowered by the Holy Spirit and motivated by the same wild, scandalous love that once rescued us, we are called to step into the good works that God has prepared in advance for us. If you have embarked on a journey to love the vulnerable and found it to be more difficult than you imagined, do not lose heart!

How are we to respond to the pain that accompanies living lives marked by costly love?

 1. Expect that loving others is going to be hard.

Don’t believe the IKEA manual claim that the task ahead of you will be simple, or that trite explanations and simple solutions are going to fix all the problems. Real life rarely presents itself in a sanitized, comfortable way.

Instead, lean into the truth that the world is broken. We know that Jesus has won the war—but the battle rages on. We shouldn’t be surprised when life is painful. We shouldn’t be surprised when relationships are difficult. We shouldn’t be surprised when hurt people hurt us.

We are to go into our service with our eyes wide open that “in this world you will have troubles” (John 16:33).

What’s the benefit of expecting it? It helps us to more fully enter into the beautiful moments of life—the hugs, the smiles, the “I love you’s.” Enjoy these moments. Savor them. But don’t be surprised when they’re intertwined with heartbreak.

When we expect challenges, we increase our ability to savor the moments of joy and cling firmly to the second part of the verse from John’s gospel: “Take heart, for I have overcome the world.”

 2. Call for help.

IKEA manuals always have the same last picture: Call someone.

Pierre, a friend of mine, told me that in rural Rwanda, it’s common knowledge that you always need at least four close friends, people you can call at any time, day or night. It’s four, because that’s the number of people it takes to carry a stretcher.

Strong lifelong friendships don’t just happen; they take intentionality and commitment. Invest in the relationships that matter, and they will sustain you in all seasons of life.

When we reached out to a friend in the midst of the pain of adoption, she responded, “We are going to walk this together, and while we don’t know God’s big picture or the end result, I believe many lives will be changed and hearts will be saturated with the reality of true Kingdom loving. Don’t look ahead. Just do the next thing. Trust and obey. One loving act at a time.” In that moment, it was exactly what we needed to hear.

3. Look up. Constantly.

In moments of incredible trial, where do we fix our eyes?

  • We might look back and obsess over our past. Previous failures and “if-only” scenarios can crush us, if we let them.
  • We might look forward and fret over our future. This is especially easy when we still have questions about what is going to come in the next moment, let alone the next month or next year.
  • We might look inward and become paralyzed by our hurt.
  • We might look side-to-side and ask why other people seem to have it infinitely easier than we do.

Yet we are to be a people of hope who look up. This is not a cliché. These are true words. When life feels impossibly hard, we remember that we have nowhere else to go. As we read in Psalms 121, “I lift my eyes to the hills, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, Maker of Heaven and earth.” Look to Jesus, the One who perfectly shows us what wild, scandalous, costly, fearless love looks like in practice.

Friends, as you step out in the significant work of loving others, do it empowered by the Spirit and saturated in grace. Do it surrounded by a community of people cheering you on and supporting you. Do it knowing that God has promised to use all things, both the moments of great success and moments of heart-wrenching pain, for our good and His glory.

My hope is that we will be known as people who run to the suffering and the hurting, instead of running away. That we will stop to make time to respond to the needs all around us—even though doing so will bring both beauty and pain. That we would be prepared to live fearlessly and love boldly. And that we will continue to press into the dangerous work of loving like Jesus.

For many living under the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus’ birth, there was only one ruler, and that was Caesar. Following years of war, infighting, chaos, and uncertainty, Augustus Caesar’s reign brought historic peace and unity to the empire. His military triumphs and political successes caused Roman citizens to view him not just as their leader but a god, a “messiah.” He was so revered that in 27 BCE, the Roman Senate changed his name to Augustus, meaning “worthy of veneration and worship.” And whenever Augustus’ feats were announced, they were described using the term euangelion, the Greek word for “gospel” or “good news.”

But Caesar wasn’t the Promised One. Built on the backs of slaves and conquered peoples, his rule elevated the powerful while oppressing the vulnerable, relied on peace begotten by violence, and, ultimately, was centered around himself. Despite his conquests, Augustus wasn’t the savior. He wasn’t the one worthy of worship.

In the surprising story of God’s faithfulness, Israel’s rescue—and our own—didn’t come through an emperor but through a child, born to a teenage girl in a smelly stable. Hardly a place fit for the King. But this is the mystery of our faith. This baby is the only one who is, in Isaiah’s words, our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. He is the one who rescues and redeems. He is our Messiah, the only one worthy of our worship.

This Christmas, let’s turn from lesser rescuers to adore the Christ Child about whom Isaiah prophesied—the King who has come and who will come again, just as He promised.


For more on the cultural and political context of the Roman Empire during the time of Christ’s birth, read “Behind Luke’s Gospel” by Kurt Willems.

Dealing with Failure

December 2, 2016 — 3 Comments

Recently, some friends asked if I would provide a keynote address at an organization’s 10-year anniversary. It’s an incredible privilege to receive invitations like this; they offer opportunities for deeper relationships, collaboration, and (hopefully) encouragement. I take these invitations seriously.

In preparation for this event, I thoroughly researched the organization and carefully prepared my remarks. Knowing that this was a major organizational milestone, I wanted to ensure that my comments helped advance the organization’s mission.

The talk went well—or so I thought. As I sat down after the talk, the fleeting glow of a job well done was replaced by horror as I realized that throughout my remarks, I had referred to the organization by the WRONG NAME! It wasn’t that I’d simply fumbled it once or twice—the organization’s name had two words, and I’d consistently switched their order throughout my talk.

In the world of special events, there are few things worse than an external speaker who gets the name of your organization wrong. And to my great embarrassment, that’s precisely what I’d done. Beyond embarrassment, I felt like I’d let the organization down.

How do we respond when we make mistakes?

Unfortunately, I seem to have experienced my fair share of leadership blunders, and know that mistakes can have a dramatic impact on your future effectiveness. They can sideline you. It’s easy to spend so much time obsessing over your failures that you are rendered helpless to accomplish anything else.

If you feel like you’ve failed, you’re in good company here. Welcome! Here’s my simple process for not allowing it to defeat you:

1. Own it.

Don’t try to sugarcoat your mistake. Refuse to blame somebody else or pretend that it didn’t happen. Don’t run from what you’ve done or attempt to cover it up. Acknowledge your mistake, and own it as yours. Go directly to the person you’ve offended, and admit what you’ve done. Cover-ups never work, and pretending that it never happened simply isn’t honest. Running to escape it will keep you at its mercy. Instead, choose to be honest with yourself and others. You may find that it’s a far bigger deal in your own mind! In my instance, the CEO of the organization was deeply gracious when I apologized profusely and helped me see the bigger picture of the event beyond this blunder.

2. Learn from it.

What lessons can you glean from your experience with failure? Moments of weakness can and should be redeemed, bringing deeper wisdom, greater empathy, and better practices. Following my experience, I have made it standard practice to always print the name of the organization at the top of my remarks, just in case. If correct pronunciation is a concern, I write the words down phonetically and practice saying them ahead of time to ensure that I don’t misspeak in the moment.  I sincerely hope that my error was the last time I will ever make a name mistake like that.

3. Get over it.

If you’ve owned your mistake and learned from it, it’s critical that you refuse to let it take you away from the good work that lies ahead of you. Instead of regretfully looking back, look hopefully forward. Welcome the next challenge that comes your way as a new opportunity to learn and grow.

And remember that getting over it doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting it. Use the memory of your experience to more quickly extend grace to others when they find themselves in a similar position. Moments of failure are never easy—but they’re an inevitable part of our shared human experience and serve as one more unifying thread that bonds us together. What a relief to know that we’re not alone in failure and that there is always, always hope on the other side of it!

Getting loaded into the ambulance after my injury on the soccer field

Not a fun moment…

A collision on the soccer field didn’t just shatter my ankle—it shattered the myth of my own importance.

As paramedics hastily carried me off of the field on a stretcher last month, my frantic mind was racing. It seemed like my accident couldn’t have come at a worse time. In only 12 hours, I was scheduled to be on a plane to Dallas, then Houston, then Raleigh. A few days later, I was slated to deliver a talk in Santa Barbara, and then Orange County. With my ankle precariously bent at an angle that the human ankle was never designed to bend, it was instantaneously clear that I was going to miss our largest events of the year.

“Will we have to cancel the events?” I wondered.

Before I had even been discharged from the hospital, my colleagues and friends began responding with thoughtful action. Within a matter of hours, my flights had been canceled, and plans had been set in motion for team members to step in and take my place at each event. With grace and incredible speed, these friends deftly agreed to cover all of my responsibilities.

As the following weeks of events unfolded, while I kept my ankle elevated on the couch, the results exceeded previous years’. Both HOPE International and the rest of the world kept on spinning.

After one event, I received a text that read, “Of course you were missed by those of us who have a personal love for you and your family, but it was evident this morning that others can equally do the job.” In other words, We missed you. But everything went beautifully without you.

Listening to the response from those in attendance at each event, it’s clear that my colleagues didn’t simply do the job; they knocked it out of the park.

My injury turned into one of the most freeing moments of my time at HOPE. I know that our mission would undoubtedly carry on with excellence when the time comes for my transition.

I believe it’s a high compliment a leader could ever receive in the midst of a transition would be if everyone—employees, outgoing CEO, incoming CEO, management, and clients—all thought, This isn’t such a big deal.

Healthy organizations refuse to become dependent on any one person. They build teams with multiple people who are each ready to step up at any moment.

My guess is that, due to a perilous cocktail of pride and lack of planning, few organizations are well-prepared for a leader’s transition. In fact, a 2011 study by CompassPoint reports that “just 17% of organizations have a documented succession plan.” It takes courage and humility for leaders to prepare for the moment when they transition, to ensure that, in a way, their absence is not felt.

Perhaps part of the reason that we don’t plan for what comes next is that we like to be needed. The idea that we are somehow indispensable to the mission feels good. Yet it is critical that we grapple with the fact that placing our egos over the mission inevitably sabotages long-term organizational impact.

If we deeply care about the mission of our organization, we will care deeply about what will happen when we’re suddenly out of the game. Perhaps one of the healthiest things we could do as leaders would be to shatter the illusion of our own importance.

(And to my coworkers, I hope to continue serving with you for years to come . . . but when it’s time to transition, there is no question in my mind that HOPE’s mission will continue! What an honor it is to serve with you.)