Over the past month or two, I have had the opportunity to view an entire season of the U.S. based reality show called “Extreme Couponing”. Now, I’m not even sure that I am comfortable admitting to the entire world that I have been watching this show, but for the sake of my art here and also the betterment of humankind, I want to talk about it. I’m okay with it. Really. I have likened it to watching a car wreck or a train crash that I just cannot help but watch. I’ll be the first to admit that I am absolutely fascinated by getting a good deal. I love the art of the deal and these folks simply have it down to, very literally, a science. They utilize all kinds of different spreadsheets, web properties filled with all sorts of information, and good old fashioned cataloging of their coupons. It really is impressive. Here is where my problem with this whole way of getting deals: No one needs all that stuff in their own house. There is absolutely no way in this world that you need 96 bottles of laundry soap or 850 packs of razors. I get it, they come in handy if there is some catastrophe or if the world comes to an end. Believe me when I say that I tend toward the worst case scenario, end of the world, stockpile-huge-preparations-to-survive kind of mentality. But, I also know that if it comes down to that kind of scenario, I have other things to worry about other than cleaning laundry in a machine that probably doesn’t work anyway.

I read an article the other day from the Orlando Sentinel about food insecurity among our elderly population. For the past few years, I have been a student of some of the activity surrounding the homelessness epidemic facing the nation and particularly the Orlando Metro area. Seemingly, every week there is a new program or organization that is seeking to combat all of the issues that many folks are facing. But, as with many epidemics, there is always more. So, when I read this article I was really broken hearted. I immediately began thinking of ways that folks can help. I began to think about all the people I had seen using their extreme couponing efforts to basically stockpile stuff in their garage, spare room, every available closet, and under their beds. I also began to think about all the survival and homesteading tactics and ideas that I have read about over the years.

As I pondered all of this, I began to think about the generation of folks that the article was talking about. I thought about all of the things that they have seen happen in the world and how things have changed. These are the folks that planted Victory Gardens and survived some of the worst economic conditions our nation has ever faced. I find it ironic that here they are, some nearing the end of their tour of duty here on Earth, and they are basically starving to death. Now, the problem is probably not that grave, but think about your great grandparents huddling around a warm cup of water for dinner because they have no food in their cupboard.

In response to a piece on 60 minutes, our church launched a feeding program where we help families with kids on free and reduced lunch programs during the summer months. What if we launched a similar outreach for the elderly folks. What would it look like to launch community gardens in assisted living facilities or even just on that unoccupied stretch of land near your house. What if we utilized some of the technologies from aquaculture and built gardens like Do Good Farm.

Here is the deal, United States of America: When we are extreme couponing to pile up stuff under our beds, we are not like Jesus. He didn’t even have a bed, so there. (insert Jesus juke here, thanks @jonacuff) I know this is a little crazy, but what if we extreme coupon-ed to get stuff to give stuff. What if instead of piling it up for ourselves, we fed grandmas and little kids. What if we coordinated efforts with our local grocer to get the most bang for our buck and coupon. I know this all sounds a little wacky, but seriously if you watch an entire season of that show, see people walking out of stores with thousands of dollars in food for basically free you would tend toward the wacky side, too. As an aside, if you’re reading this, live in the Orlando area, and are into this wacky world of couponing, I sincerely would like to chat. It is absolutely nuts, but I imagine warehouses filled with stuff that was “purchased” with coupons.

The bottom line really is that no one should go to bed having not eaten during that day. In this country, we throw away more food than many nations would use. We go out for lunch and eat only a portion of what we order, then throw the rest out. We cook dinner at home, eat some, keep some for leftovers, then forget we made it and have to throw it away. You can’t tell me that you have never done any of that, because I have. I’m guilty just as much as the next guy.

I don’t know why exactly, but this whole idea of hunger bothers me. Maybe because when I was a kid, we went to a food shelf for help sometimes, and I understand where they are coming from. Maybe because I’ve experienced times of need, I don’t know. But I do know that we as a nation have failed if we are letting our grandparents starve. Hear me out on this, I understand there are organizations that are in this hunger fight and are there to help folks. However, they don’t just have shelves that magically fill themselves with nutritious food. Vendors don’t just hand out free truckloads of food to food banks. Someone has to fork over some cash for the product! Maybe that is where we come in, too. My grandfather was on the board of a local food bank where they live, so I got some insight into how it all works. People are really quick to participate in a canned food drive, but really what can do the most benefit is just sending the cash. If you take $10 and buy food with it to donate, you’ll get a few things. If you gave that same $10 to Second Harvest Food Bank, they can purchase about three times as much food. I am not a financial or math wizard, but I do know that getting three times more food for the same amount of money is a good thing.

I have a confession to make: I want to save the world. But I can’t. Neither can you. But, we can make a difference. We can be a part of the solution. We can be the hands and feet of Jesus to a watching world. Sure, the Government can help all these people. Maybe. Eventually. But you can, too. You can help your neighbor who is hungry. And that kid on the street corner. And that Vietnam Vet you pass by at that same intersection every day. It all starts with one step. When I get done here, I’m going to load up some response packs that we have prepared and give them to the Vets that I passed today on my way to lunch.

It all begins with one step. I don’t know what that is for you, but there is one. I’ll bet you know what it is. I’d love to hear about it.

I speak often of the past decade of my life. I speak about the things that I have thought of doing, the things that I have dreamed about doing, and sometimes just plain old schemed about doing. Now, I’m not talking about the kind of scheming that defrauds widowed grandmas of their life savings schemes. I’m talking about the kind of schemes that basically get me to the place that I’d like to be, or maybe just get me into the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too kind of place.

You see, I’m often like 5 year old Tony that wants to play with Hot Wheels while eating Popsicles and watching Saturday Morning Cartoon Express. But, as any good parent knows, you can’t do all those things at the same time. Why? Because that Popsicle will turn to mush and juice as that little 5 year old guy watches Captain Caveman with mouth agape. Then, all the sticky juices will flow down his arm, to his elbow, and land half on the carpet and half on that brand new Hot Wheels track. See, it just won’t work.

popsicle-baby

Sometimes I’m like this baby. I just want the Popsicle! (ht spullara on FlickrCC)

Why do I think that it will be any different in adulthood? Why do I often find myself dreaming and scheming toward some idyllic life where everything is puppy dogs and sunshine? Now, I’m not asking for perfection. I’m not asking for everything to be perfect because as I look at the world around me, the people I work with, the people I minister among, my life is pretty dang good.

What I’m really asking for is freedom. I want to be free to pursue all the things that God has laid on my heart and mind to do. I want to be able to give of my time and resources freely and I get downright frustrated, and dare I say, a bit righteously angry. I basically get sick of wasting my life, not adding value to that which I spend the majority of my time on. I think, on some level, I want what most people want. I want my life to count. I want to matter. And, I know that I do. But, I want to say, if to no one else other than myself, that I do something that matters. Every. Damn. Day.

I’m asking for story. I want to be able to sit back on my front porch thirty years from now and tell good stories to my grandchildren. I want to tell them about that time that our family did something worth talking about. Now, don’t get confused, we live a pretty cool story. We have a great family and I would sacrifice telling great stories for just telling good ones if it meant it was all for my family. But. But, I get the sense that this isn’t really part of our make up. You see, five years ago we did something that everyone who knew us thought was nuts. We packed up a huge truck and moved to a far away land. I had, again, some grand schemes that I thought would work out to be puppies and sunshine. And, truth-be-told, things have turned out better than I could have planned. We are deeply immersed in a really great story, but I feel like there is some piece of the story line that just doesn’t fit. There is this large part of the story board that belongs in a different story. I usually liken it to living someone else’s dream. I get a little sad inside when think about it like that.

I often tell my wife that if it weren’t for my family, I would have done two things long ago: I would have given up on what God called us here to do and I would have quit my job a long time ago. There is a cool story there that I usually cannot see because I live it, but there is something to be said for honoring your family and doing what it takes. I’m not patting myself on the back, but I do find it somewhat beautiful.

I’m asking for challenge. I’ve been looking for a new position at work, something, almost anything. I’ve got a great job, for what it is. But, it just isn’t a challenge. It is pretty routine and frankly, deals with a lot of garbage that I’m not really interested in. I’m not passionate about it and find it really hard to go really above and beyond. It isn’t that I don’t do my job, I do. But, like most people I work with, I do what is asked of me because generally that is all that “they” want us to do. I work best when I’m given freedom to make decisions, go above and beyond, think for myself, and really am allowed to flourish. I’m a leader. I’m a decision maker. I’m a catalyst. But, in corporate America, I’m an eight digit number with absolutely every part of my day dictated by someone else. Back to freedom, I guess.

Maybe I’m not so much a schemer, after all. Maybe, just maybe I’m just a dude who wants to live a great story. I want to inspire others to live great stories. I want to pursue all the things that I feel compelled to do. But, there is something that holds me back. Maybe it is fear, maybe it is laziness, or I’m just comfortable holding down the statusquo. I don’t know.

I have been having a conversation with one of my best friends over the past week or so. We’ve been talking about much of the same stuff I’ve talked about here. We’ve talked about the pursuit of that which our heart longs to do and how to arrive at that destination. He has been on the road to his passion for some time now, in a sense feeling stuck in the place that he finds himself. Which, like me, isn’t a bad place, but it just isn’t his ideal place. So, where do you go? Do you chase after anything that isn’t what you currently have just because it isn’t what you currently have? Do you hold out for that perfect moment? Or maybe, just maybe, there is a moment when you have got to just go for it. So what if the next step is more lateral than forward. So what if you’re not immediately in the place that you dream to be. Maybe a change of place will bring a change of perspective. And then, maybe then, you’ll be able to pursue the deep longing.

So, maybe I’m a schemer, after all. Maybe I do think that five year old Tony can eat Popsicles, watch Captain Caveman, and play with Hot Wheels. Is it so bad that his elbows turn green, his track gets sticky, and the wheels on his cars won’t move? Pursuit of your deepest longings might be a little messy. It might get a little sticky at times, but nothing that a little soap and water won’t fix. Just to be clear, I don’t mean that you should shirk all responsibility to pursue your dreams. And, maybe you shouldn’t quit your day job to pursue your side gig full time. But, you knew that. I know that, too. But, I do think that you (and I) need an exit plan. We need to be able to say, this is how I’m going to transition from my day job to my dream job. Or even, this is how I’m going to survive my day job so that I can pursue my dream job. Or, maybe it is about getting another day job that better supports the dream job. Or, creating work that you love to pursue that other work that you love.

I’m trying to distill what it is for me. I think I’m coming to a solution, but in all honesty, it is still pretty murky. What about you? Do you need transition? Do you need freedom, a challenge? What is it going to take in your life to make the leap or to bridge the gap between dream and reality?

Love to hear your thoughts.

And once you live a good story, you get a taste for a kind of meaning in life, and you can’t go back to being normal; you can’t go back to meaningless scenes stitched together by the forgettable thread of wasted time.”
― Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life

The above quote is from a book that has been rocking my world lately. In fact, I’d venture to say that it has spurned a mixture of laughter and tears more than any book I’ve read in recent years. I began to think about why that is, I mean I’ve read A LOT of books in my life. In fact, just this year I’ve read more books than most people will read in 5 years. Why did this ONE book impact me in so many ways? As with most things (and, I’d love to say something profound, here), it is because this overarching idea of meaning and living good stories resonates so deeply within me.

I’ve heard it said that when you get right down to it, all people want out of life is to give themselves to something bigger than themselves. But, I don’t think that is exactly true. It IS partially true, but there is more. it isn’t just the idea of something greater than you are…There are lots of things that are neater, more important, or cooler than we are. I think it really is about living, being, and breathing better stories. So many of us spend our lives waiting for the next great story to happen in our lives, like stitched together by meaningless, wasted time. For me, I think this whole idea really clinched some thoughts I’ve wrestled with about my own life and story. I’ve jumped from one “great” thing to another, trying to tell some great story, and really found myself wanting. I’ve tried dedicating myself to some great cause or another, or some great company or another, or even some great person or another. Those are all a part of my story, but they aren’t THE story. My problem is that I’ve tried to make them the story. It is a neat story to tell my grandkid one day that I took a test to join the Secret Service or enrolled in motorcycle mechanic school…but those stories don’t really make the fabric of my life. Story happens in the surroundings of life, shaped by the everyday activities of just living.

I’ve been noticing more stories lately..they come in all shapes and sizes, some are simple, and some are profoundly powerful. They can incite a bevy of emotion, or simply a smile. Just today, I was sitting on a bench in the sunshine (and getting paid!), and thought about the story of my family. I couldn’t help but smile thinking about the family life that I get to share with my wife, our daughter, and our soon to be born daughter. I felt dorky for smiling to myself and getting the warm fuzzies..but THAT is part of a great story. I was talking with a co-worker who was telling me about a family he knew in the military that lived in tents for three years while stationed in Hawaii. On Base housing is usually full and renting or buying real estate in Hawaii is quite spendy, but I couldn’t help but think about how incredibly cool this must be for the family now. Think about gathering around for Thanksgiving and recalling that time when _________. I’m smiling for them, now. :)

Don Miller says (quoting someone else), that a great story starts with a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. Thinking along those lines, I’ve been wondering what it is that I want most…and what the conflict is that I’ll need to overcome to get it. I’m convicted that I’m living a decent story, and I often liken it to living someone else’s dream. At least in my corporate, professional role, there are many people who would LOVE to live that part of my story…but for ME, that part of my story is quite mundane and in the grand scheme leaves me feeling as though I’m wasting huge amounts of time on stuff that doesn’t matter (at least to me). I probably won’t be telling a whole bunch of stories in 10 years about the stuff I do for work everyday…and that, my friends, is where I struggle. Sure, I do some good while I work. Yes, I help people and even spurn them on to change their lives positively. However, there is more, way more that I’m called to do and it has almost nothing to do with a cartoon mouse. God has been challenging me in this lately. I feel like there will be, as Miller puts it, an inciting incident that causes the character (me) to do overcome the conflict/obstacle that exists. I get the sense that I’ll be at a precipice, with a choice to make…and I cannot wait.

I’ve lived a life filled with stories…some heartbreaking, some immensely beautiful, and some just nice stories to share with folks at any time. But I feel like I’m entering into a different period of story right now. I feel like I’m at a point that I can’t go back to living a normal story any longer. I feel foolish, nervous, a wee bit scared, and amazingly enough, confident. I’m totally excited about this chapter of my story, it is a page turner!

What about you? Are you living in the meaningless threads that stitch life together or are you making the beautiful fabric that makes up the rest of life? I’d love to be a part of your story, if you’ll share.

Giving Away the Chicken

Tony —  February 28, 2013 — Leave a comment

Today was a day that was poised to be much like most other days…You know how the days go: Wake up, shower, breakfast, have a meeting over coffee, go to work, have some discussions, meetings, etc. Then, you go home to your awaiting family, have dinner, then head off to the grocery store for the weekly stock up.

Pretty normal, right? Except for me, this day started out talking and strategizing about God’s Church and how we can make a greater impact. Then, I had an incredible conversation with a really cool organization working to fight hunger globally as well as locally. I did a lot of thanking God for my calling and life today. In all honesty, today was hugely refreshing in terms of where I’m at with my vocational life and the amount of ministry that I “think” I can accomplish. I’m often stuck thinking about and spending energy on things that are far from what I’d deem as fulfilling God’s calling on my life. But, today was different. It was steeped in great amounts of gratitude, prayer, and life giving conversations with like minded folks. It was just good.

Back to the aforementioned routine trip to the local grocery store. This trip was almost an afterthought, kind of a closing activity to the end of the day. A family outing, none-the-less. We gathered our listed items and headed out to our car. As I was loading the bags into the cargo area of our car, I noticed a lady sort of fluttering around the area. Now, I am constantly on the lookout for suspicious activity…hazard of the job, I suppose, so I was paying attention to her. She meekly approached me, addressed me as sir (which, by the way, makes me feel silly. I’m just Tony), and asked very shyly if I had any extra money so she could buy some food for her family. She just needed something to get her by until she gets paid tomorrow. I don’t know about you, but I don’t typically carry any cash. My wife sometimes does, but she rarely even buys anything other than groceries, so her cash on hand is normally not much. I was really quick to reply to this young, fluttering lady, that I didn’t have any cash and apologized. The lady thanked us for our time, apologized for the intrusion, and wished us a good night.

So here we were. Me, having spent much of the day thanking God for what he is doing in my life and asking him to break my heart for what breaks his (and, I didn’t even sing it, until just now), and my family watching while I lead them in how to respond to this young lady. Maybe you’ve already come to the conclusion that it took me literally leaving the parking lot and starting our drive home, but somehow after a little discussion with my family and some conviction from the Holy Spirit I had a bright idea. You see, I didn’t have any cash, but I did have a trunk full of food. I’m pretty dense sometimes, but I said, “Hey, we have some chicken. I wonder if that would help.”

We set out to find this fluttering young lady again. We finally caught up to her and told her, very randomly, that we had some chicken (it was the only thing that I could think of that we had in the trunk). Her shy demeanor quickly changed from this shy girl to one of gracious thanksgiving, stating very quickly, “Yes! It will help! I have a griddle that I can cook it on. God bless you all! I mean that!”

I found myself driving away, praying some more, and mostly just trying to hold back the flood of tears that were cresting my eyelids. My heart was broken for this lady..and I don’t mean in a church-y kind of way. I mean I was wrecked over this and then thought of a thousand different things that I should have said or did. I’m praying for her and her family tonight. I’m hoping that next week when we go back to the same store for the same supplies, that we get to meet her again.

The only problem…There are thousands of people just like her walking the parking lots all over this city. What will be our response to them? We are only one family…but what if every family with the means had a response bag of “chicken”? What if we were able to literally feed thousands of hungry people? Honestly, my mind is blown.

This is the culmination of a day and week spent thinking about fighting hunger….I don’t share this story to toot our horn. I’m simply blown away at how God works. My wife and I were thinking about having a strategy pertaining to giving money/food to folks like my fluttering lady, but honestly I think that takes some of the beauty and mystique away. We’ve decided to simply be responsive to needs that we see and listen when the Holy Spirit is leading. It has worked for us so far (except one time when I bought meth for a lady…but that is a different story).

How about you? Are you willing to give away the chicken?

Tooth Fairy Theology

Tony —  February 13, 2013 — Leave a comment

Last night was a big night. Huge, in fact. You don’t believe me? Just ask Sophia. She told me, “Daddy, it is my big night.” I wasn’t really sure what that meant, but she let me know. You see, she lost her first baby tooth yesterday. THAT, my friends, is a big deal to a 5 year old. Now, as a Christ following, God honoring family, we had some struggle wtih figuring out what to tell Sophia about the Tooth Fairy. Okay, well, I had a struggle with what to tell her about the Tooth Fairy. As the theologian-in-residence at our house, all the toughies get delegated to me.

IMAG0106-1

“Daddy”, she says, “I wonder if the Tooth Fairy is from God like St. Nicholas is from God.” Now you know where I’m coming from. We have steered her away from believing in a jolly fat man who climbs down a chimney, leaving presents behind. We have tried to steer the Christmas conversation away from materialism and made up fat guys toward honoring Christ’s birth. That is pretty easy. On the other hand, figuring out what the Tooth Fairy does with the baby teeth of children, not so easy.

So, off to Google I went. Turns out, the Tooth Fairy isn’t from God. There are several legends out there, but none that really made sense for me to share with Sophia. A mouse that hides under a pillow didn’t really make sense. The Norwegian legend made the most sense, a tooth fee. So, I chose the best route…ignore the question. You know how 5 year olds are, they’ll forget in a little bit if you just don’t answer.

The cool thing: It was still her big night. She didn’t have to wrestle with Tooth Fairy theology. This guy did. She didn’t have to weigh the consequences of telling her 5 year old that the Tooth Fairy is just made up. She didn’t have to break the news that God didn’t send a tiny, winged creature to pick up old teeth and leave coins behind. But, I’m praying that someday she will have to. I’m praying that she handles it much like I did. I’m praying that she understands the difference between salvation issues and plain old folklore.

The bottom line that I came to understand: There are some things that don’t need a theological framework. Does that make me a bad parent, a bad Christian, or a bad Church leader? Actually, I think it would make me all of those things had I really tried to form a theological answer for folklore. And, I certainly would have been a bad parent had I crushed that beautiful little girl’s enthusiasm for her “big night”. It really was a big night. Do you remember losing your first baby tooth? Pretty big deal! For Sophia, it is more about growing up into a big girl than some made up creature changing teeth for cash. And I’m okay with that.

All this to say…There isn’t really a theology of the Tooth Fairy. In fact, there is something cool about the mystery and excitement surrounding this winged creature! This isn’t the hill to die on, people! What say you?

Immeasurably More

Tony —  October 11, 2012 — 1 Comment

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. — Eph. 3:20-21

Do you have periods in your life where you just reflect upon what God is doing in and through you? There are a few times a year where I find myself really thinking about where I’m at as a human, more specifically where I see God working and leading in my life. One of those times is generally the New Year…Lots of reasons, but I’d venture to guess that most folks do some measure of soul searching during that time period. The other is my birthday. I’ve recently started my 34th trip around the sun. To those of you who knew me when I was a 3lb, 5oz premie, this probably makes you feel a bit old. Heck, it makes me feel old. Typically around my birthday, I compose a piece for this site that sort of gives a state of the human address. I really do enjoy recording what has been going on in my life and then sharing with those who read this site. For me, it really serves two purposes. One, it helps me to remember. When you’re living your life, often the details just get lost in the shuffle. Two, the record is a testimony of what God has done and is poised to do in my life.

This week, the church I serve in had an all staff dinner that basically served to remind us of where God brought the church from and where we believe that God is telling us to go. The story of Real Life truly is an amazing story of submitting to the leadership of Jesus, giving him his church back, and doing whatever it takes to make his name famous. I’m amazed every time that I hear the story and truly humbled that God allows me to serve with people who love Jesus and His people as much as this church does.

During the close of the dinner, we sang “God of this City.” Singing this song brought me back to four and a half years ago, sitting in First Baptist Church of Orlando, worshipping with 3,000 Church Planters and leaders from around the globe. We too, were singing this song. A group of passionate people intent on changing the world for good. Singing a song about recognizing that the only hope for our cities is God. He alone can bring hope to the hopeless, peace to the restless, and a light to the darkness. In that moment, hearing all these men and a few women singing about this great and powerful God of THIS city, in MY city, the one that He called me to…was breathtaking and heart breaking. There is no one like our God. He alone is the change needed. He was, is, and ever will be the God of THIS city.

Whooo is Like Our God?

Whoo is Like Our God? There is no one like our God.

I’ve thought, prayed, dreamed, and strategized about this city probably more than I care to admit. For whatever crazy reason, I love this place. I’m burdened by this place. Much like Jonah, I’ve tried everything to get out of this place. And much like Jonah, I had to surrender to God’s plan and simply do what He called me to do. I dreamed of planting churches in one fashion or another all across this city. While what we are engaged in doesn’t look like what I thought it would, it looks like MORE. So much more. In the time that we have been here, Real Life has grown from one church in one location to one church that meets and ministers in multiple locations. God allowed us to have a campus of Real Life in East Orlando, then he sent us to South Orlando/Hunter’s Creek area to start a church, and now God is leading us to the northern parts of Orlando near Apopka/Altamonte Springs to start another campus. More. Immeasurably More. I couldn’t have dreamed of this kind of God directed mission. So amazed to be part of the mission of God with people who love Jesus and love people. Seriously, I wouldn’t want to be any where else, doing anything else right now. If you’re in the Orlando Area and need a church, I encourage you to check out one of our campuses. We have churches in Clermont, near Hunter’s Creek at The Loop, and East Orlando on Goldenrod Road. I’m partial to the South Campus of Real Life in the Hunter’s Creek/Kissimmee/South Orlando area as this where I serve…but I love all locations.

My family has been through a ton of trials in the past four and a half years, but I think we would all agree that life is good. We are very blessed to have such a great family, a roof over our heads, food in our tummies (gluten free and largely Paleo food :) ), and money to pay for stuff. We are growing in love for God, love for people, and love for each other. We really are living the dream…Thank you to those of you who support us, think we are crazy but love us anyway, and those who pray for us daily. We need those prayers. We love our lives and can’t wait to see the MORE that God has in store.

“We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty.” – Mother Teresa

Thought on Poverty — Mother Teresa