Meet the Parents

Meet Roger and Zela. A civil engineer. A secretary. A deacon. A church volunteer. A photographer. A high school valedictorian. An audio enthusiast. My parents.

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and after looking at the list I just typed, I guess they’re right. I may not be a civil engineer, but other than that, I’m pretty much a carbon copy of these two, and it goes deeper than the fact that my dad and I both love cameras and audio equipment.

For better or worse (mainly better), I am what I am because of these two. All the hobbies I enjoy today and all the skills I use to make a living can be traced back to investments they made in me. Things like piano lessons, tennis lessons, video cameras, PTA meetings, class trips — one sacrifice after another.

They say they’re proud of the man I’ve become, but what would I have become without them… and so many others? What if I hadn’t gone to a school with teachers who loved me, saw a spark in me and fanned it to flame? What if I hadn’t had great pastor-mentors over the years who took me under their wings? Where would I be?

All this makes me think a few things: First, don’t delay saying, “Thank you.” Dad is turning 90 this year. Every time they come to Florida, they say it may be their last, as chronic illness and arthritis take their toll on him. As they left this time and headed back to snow-covered West Virginia, I made sure to thank them for all that they did for me. I told them I loved them, even though that doesn’t come natural for us introverted Whitts.

Second, investment in others pays the best dividends. Looking at my own life, I see a powerful direct correlation between what my parents sewed and what I’m reaping now. They got me started on a good trajectory, and I want to do the same for others. What if we all had that mindset?

Third, we need to have compassion on those who did not have the blessing of a good upbringing. It’s not their fault they went to a school with incompetent teachers who didn’t care about them. It’s not their fault their parents were strung out on drugs. It’s not their fault no one modeled responsibility for them or gave them the skills and tools they would need to be able to get a good job. Maybe we should stop judging them and instead offer a helping hand.

Who do you need to thank today? Who can you invest in today? Who needs compassion today?

In Memoriam

Cemetary

The first thing you notice is the stillness, the quiet that gently wraps around you, even in a place of death. I’m standing in a mausoleum just outside town, having just guided a man named Dario though the most difficult day of his life. He has said a final goodbye to his wife, kissed her on the cheek and watched through tears as workers took her casket away.

He and the others who loved Mary Lou so much have begun walking to their cars, but I stay behind. I find myself surrounded by walls of numbers and letters, names and dates, each one with a silent story to tell.

Mary Lou’s story was one of finding hope in a hopeless situation. She had been living under a medical death sentence handed down in 2004 when she learned she had a chronic, untreatable condition that would take her life — and yet she had joy.

She was confident her life would not end when she stopped breathing. Everyone who spoke at her memorial service commented on the peace she found in Christ. Every last person. Even people who didn’t believe what she believed!

She loved to tell the Good News, and even in her death, she was spreading the Gospel. She knew that Jesus paid the penalty for all the wrong she had done, bringing her into God’s family. There was a place for her in heaven! That was her story.

In the quiet of this mausoleum, I’m surrounded by thousands more names, each engraved into stone, each with a narrative to tell. And I can’t help but wonder what mine will be. Will every single person at my memorial service say just how much the Gospel impacted my life? Will even those who don’t believe in God remark on what peace I found in my faith? Or will it be a hodgepodge of, “He was a good guy,” and, “He did a lot of good things.”

I, for one, hope no one talks about how good I was. I wasn’t good. I was a sinner from my first day to my last, and if I was less sinful than I could have been, it was only by the grace of God. Let’s not pretend otherwise. Let’s not turn me into a caricature of myself to make people feel more comfortable at my memorial service. There’s no comfort in pretending the deceased were perfect. But there’s tremendous comfort in proclaiming that imperfect people who make a ton of mistakes can still be forgiven and go to heaven.

This is my story. This is my song. Praising my Savior all the day long.

What will your story be?

P.S. The Gospel seeds Mary Lou was sewing in her sickness and death are already germinating and growing. Her husband now attends our church, and her daughter in New York has begun reading the Bible and attending church as well. Thank you, God, for the privilege of being a part of her story. Rest in peace, Mary Lou.

Cemetary

The Gospel is for Everyone!

Sometimes we pastors tend to forget that the Good News is not just for those outside the walls of our church. It’s still good news for us too, and we desperately need it everyday. This quote from Paul Tripp explains why:

If you are in ministry and you are not reminding yourself again and again of the now-ism of the gospel, that is, the right-here, right-now benefits of the grace of Christ, you will be looking elsewhere to get what can be found only in Jesus. If you are not feeding your soul on the realities of the presence, promises, and provisions of Christ, you will ask the people, situations, and things around you to be the messiah that they can never be. If you are not attaching your identity to the unshakable love of your Savior, you will ask the things in your life to be your Savior, and it will never happen. If you are not requiring yourself to get your deepest sense of well-being vertically, you will shop for it horizontally, and you will always come up empty. If you are not resting in the one true gospel, preaching it to yourself over and over again, you will look to another gospel to meet the needs of your unsettled heart.

 

Listening is Hard

Blue Spring

Three-dimensional art floats above my head. Drops of paint flung into the air, frozen in time, hanging by the hand of their Creator.

I’m all by myself at Blue Spring State Park today, and if I’m honest with myself I’m seeking more than just escape from construction and Christmas craziness. I’m chasing after a hard reboot. Like one of those pesky Windows XP machines that just won’t work until you hold the power button down for what feels like forever. That’s how I feel. And it feels like forever that I’ve been sitting out here under this tree, waiting on God to show up.

It’s beautiful. But I’m impatient. My feet twitch. My cell phone vibrates. My mind wanders. Everything in 2014 came with urgency and break-neck pace. Was I wrong to expect that my devotional time alone with God would be the same way? I need refreshing, but I also need to get back to life.

Except this is life. Breathing in and out and waiting on God. Coming with no agenda. Leaving with no measure of productivity. Sitting and thinking and writing words that no one else will ever read or appreciate. This matters too.

Blue SpringI open to Galatians. I know the Gospel. But do I know the Gospel? Do I understand that, at the center of the universe is a being who cares deeply for me, not because I’m a good student or a good singer or a good worker, but simply because He loves Jesus, and I’m in Jesus?

Speak, God. I’m listening. Pen in hand. Chasing daylight. Finally ready to hear. Remind me of who I really am… and who You really are. Words fill the page. Slow drips of revelation at first, then a flood. “Called by grace. Sent from God, not from man or by a man.” A pause, then more. “Recipient of grace, steward of it. Recipient of truth, steward of it.” Wave after wave, crashing in. “Starting and finishing by the Spirit. Not finishing by my own efforts.”

Such freeing truth, but the knockout punch was still to come:

“Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10).

My Achilles’ heel aches as God begins surgery on open wounds. “You can try to win the approval of human beings, but you can never do it.” But I need approval, God. “Whose servant are you, anyway?”

The chains of followers, friends, likes and favorites — the stats of your worth in the 21st century — they keep me from being a servant of Christ. It’s dark now, but I see clearly — I’m a slave to people. To public opinion. To the need to be noticed. Thick, heavy chains.

Surrounded by such beauty, the contrast of my own heart is even easier to see. It’s a mess. I’m a mess. But I’m God’s mess. I belong to Him, and He took all my messes — past, present and future — and put them on Christ, who paid their price in full. So I’m free. I’m not a slave to anyone or anything but God.

Time to head home. Long, quiet drive ahead. Thank you, God, for a beautiful, painful lesson in who I am and who You are. And thanks for the fuel to take the next few steps with You by my side.

What Really Matters

Candlelight

Sunlight ended 2014 with a bang. Having endured a year of construction growing pains, we are finally in our new sanctuary, which has more than triple the number of seats and cutting edge technology.

I feel like I’m literally living the dream.  For years, I’ve dreamed about programming intelligent lights to create an artful worship experience. For years, I’ve longed for the ability to use audio plugins live so that Sunday morning sound as polished as a professionally mixed and mastered CD. All those dreams and more came true this year!

New StageWhat’s interesting, though, is that some things never change.  Whether it’s an auditorium of 50 people, 250 people, or 750 people, what matters most is that God is at the center of our hearts and minds. Technology can facilitate worship, yes, but what really fuels worship is the Word and the Spirit. Specifically, God’s truth is the fuel, and the Spirit is the fire.

We still do the same thing as always, just in a bigger room, with more bells and whistles, involving more friends and guests. We still aim to facilitate a conversation between God and His people by presenting His message in a memorable, impactful way and by assisting His sons and daughters to raise their voices and live their lives in grateful response.

I can’t wait to use this new blog to tell you all about how we’ve done what we’ve done — from the house lights that change color to the triple-wide screen on stage to the recessed, backlit crosses in the walls. But wherever you are, whether your church is smaller or bigger than ours, know that success isn’t measured in number of lights or in sound pressure levels. It’s simply these two things: Are you helping your people see God and understand His Good News? And are you helping them respond to Him?

As we dive into specifics later on this blog, let’s never forget the foundation!

Losing Weight And Feeling Great, Part 3

Recently, I bought a 26-pound kettle bell from Sports Authority, and I had an epiphany. As I struggled to lug that thing around the store, I realized I had been carrying around that much extra weight for years. No wonder I feel so much better now. As I posted about in Part 1 and Part 2, getting to a healthy weight did require some hard work, but it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. In fact, with just a few good tips and tricks, it is almost easy.

DumbbellsLast week, I shared about nutrition, and this week, I want to share about exercise. For me to lose 10 pounds per month, it took both a change in diet and a change in activity level. If I had only reduced the number of calories I took in, my body would have went into starvation mode and ramped down my metabolism. I needed just the opposite! I needed to regain the metabolism of my teenage self.

Do you remember when you were young, and it seemed like you could eat anything you wanted without gaining weight? As kids, we ran, we jumped, we played basketball. We weren’t stuck behind a computer screen all day. I found that, even if it’s only 20 minutes a day, getting more physical activity can really help your metabolism a lot!

Again, I made use of the My Fitness Pal smartphone app, which I mentioned in my last post. It not only estimates how many calories you take in when you eat food, but it also estimates how many calories you burn when you exercise. I found that jogging a mile could burn about 100 calories and that 10 minutes of aerobics or swimming could burn a similar number of calories. Even better, I found that playing tennis for an hour could burn over 600 calories!

I made it my goal to find one or two activities per day to keep my heart rate elevated for at least 20-30 minutes.  On days when I was very busy, I would run a mile and then use a 7 Minute Workout  app for some light cardio. On other days when I was tired of jogging, I would swim laps instead. Twice a week, I would visit the gym to do weights, knowing that increased muscle mass would also contribute to better metabolism. The time investment was minimal, but the payoff was huge!

Daily BurnOn days when I had more time, I used dailyburn.com, and it kicked my butt (in a good way). It’s like Beachbody (P90X) but “in the cloud.” You don’t buy DVD’s. You stream workouts on the Internet as you need them. It was great. I put in my current weight, desired weight and other goals, and it suggested that I start in the Tactical Bodyweight Training program.

Daily Burn’s 45-minute workouts are INTENSE, but they are fun and can burn 500+ calories at a time! The typical workout starts with mobility warmups, which is a great way to increase range of motion and ensure good joint health as you age. Then, there is a 20-minute period of HIGH intensity interval workouts. Lastly is static stretching to cool down, increase flexibility and prevent soreness.

There’s a workout for everyone! Having finished Daily Burn’s Tactical Bodyweight Training series twice, I moved on to a series on kettle bells and then one with dumbbells, while my wife is trying out something that’s more cardio-focused. I also continue to do interval training through running, swimming, tabata training, etc. Because I have so many options available to me, there’s almost always some type of exercise I am eager to do! Even within the broad concept of running, I mix things up by doing either a 5K at a slow and steady pace or one mile in intervals approaching 5 minutes-per-mile speed. I also like to go exploring when I run, so I’ll drive somewhere with interesting architecture to mix things up even more.

The most important thing is just to do something. Make it your goal to engage in strenuous cardio for 20 minutes everyday. It’s easy to rationalize that you don’t have time for it or that you’re too tired. The truth is, you will feel better after you do it. The energy and positivity it gives you is amazing. The health benefits are easy to see. So start big or start small, but get going! If I can do it, you can do it too!

Losing Weight And Feeling Great, Part 2

Over the past few months, I’ve lost almost 30 pounds and 5-6 inches off my waist. People are always asking me how I did it, so I decided to write a series of blog posts to give a good answer.  In Part 1, I said that we have to talk about the “why” before we talk about the “how.”  And next week in Part 3, I’ll discuss exercise.

This week, I want to talk about nutrition!  I found that by making small tweaks to what I eat, I was able to save a substantial number of calories.  Further, I found that doing simple arithmetic (less calories in, more calories out) was the best way to achieve quick weight loss.

Healthy FoodThe biggest secret that helped me get started eating healthier was a smartphone app named My Fitness Pal.  It helped me understand the impact of what I was eating.  You begin by telling the app about yourself (current weight, target weight, activity level, etc.).  It gives you a target number of calories to hit each day.  When I was losing two pounds a week, my goal was to eat about 1,500 calories a day (unless you exercise which adds back calories to your daily budget, but that is a topic for my next post).

You log what you eat in the app, and it is very eye-opening.  For example, I used to eat hotcakes at McDonalds for breakfast.  Did you know three hotcakes are over 300 calories?  Syrup adds almost 200 more calories, not to mention over 200 calories in butter.  A medium frappe would add over 500 more calories.  Do the math!  That’s 1,200 calories.  Holy cow!  That’s almost a whole day’s worth of calories.  By contrast, I also used to get a breakfast from Dunkin’ Donuts that I liked just as much.  Did you know that an egg white veggie wrap  has only 150 calories, and a small latte has about 200 calories?  I like both breakfasts equally.  Now, the choice is easy!  It’s either 1,200 calories or 350 calories.

Seeing the calorie content of dinner choices was eye-opening as well.  Did you know a half order of Texas cheese fries at Chili’s is almost 1,300 calories?  Chili’s flatbreads are over 1,300 calories too.  Again, almost a full day’s worth of calories for someone trying to lose weight!  In contrast, Panera’s French onion soup is under 200 calories, and a small Outback sirloin is also about 200 calories.  Again, the choice becomes easy!  Both options are very tasty, but one has 5x the calories.

With the empowerment of the My Fitness Pal app, I began to understand why I had gained so much weight.  I stopped going to Chili’s and other similar restaurants so often.  When I did go, I made smarter choices.  I ate smaller portions.  I left off calorie-heavy condiments.  Even the reduction from a medium latte to a small latte made a difference.  Limiting myself to one soda a day made a difference.  Experimenting with various healthy cooking options at home also helped.  It all adds up, and the My Fitness Pal app helps you see that very clearly.

I guess you could say that the method that worked for me was calorie counting.  I know many different “diets” exist and are popular.  Some say you should limit your carbs.  Others say no animal protein at all.  But I wanted a sustainable plan that allowed me to feel like I was still enjoying life!  I still ate everything I loved (just less of it and less often).  This made it possible for me to stick with it.  God bless those of you who are strong enough to not eat bread, cheese, meat or whatever else it is that you’ve completely given up… but I can’t do it, and I didn’t need to to get healthy.

SupplementsI also want to give a quick shout out to a few of my favorite supplements and substitutes.  I regularly enjoy chia seeds, which are a great source of Omega-3 and fiber.  I also take a Mega-Red fish oil pill.  My doctor said that the fish oil was probably one reason my triglyceride levels fell so drastically.  I also take a raspberry ketone pill, which is supposed to make fat cells available to be burned during exercise.  Don’t know if it helped or not, but it definitely didn’t hurt!  I also began using Truvia as a zero-calorie sweetener.  I’ve never found a sugar-free sweetener that I’ve liked before, but this one is pretty good.  In a blind taste test, my wife actually liked it better than sugar!

All of this was fueled by a sense of urgency because I had considered the “why” more than the “how” of weight loss.  I knew I had to make a change.  I also knew that I had to explore why I was eating the way I was.  I had to stop eating for non-nutritional purposes.  No more eating when bored.  No more eating when sad.  In those moments, I instead began to turn to exercise, and I found that it made my mood feel much better than eating.  And exercising actually took the hunger away!  Win-win!  More on exercise in Part 3 next week.

[ht: Colin Dunn for the supplement photo, creative commons license]

Losing Weight And Feeling Great, Part 1

This picture from July 2014 shows me after losing 20 pounds. I could already begin to see a difference in the shape of my face. Losing weight and getting in shape takes work, but it is worth it.

This picture from July 2014 shows me after losing 20 pounds. I could already begin to see a difference in the shape of my face. Losing weight and getting in shape takes work, but it is worth it.

I’ve dropped almost 30 pounds in the past few months, and everyday, people are asking what my secret is.  I do have some pretty cool recommendations to share — websites, smartphone apps, foods, supplements, exercises, etc.  But before I get to the details about nutrition (in part 2) and exercise (in part 3), I want to first mention the foundation on which they’re  built.

I’ve carried more weight than I should have for years, but I never had a good reason to make a lifestyle change.  You have to have a reason.  That’s “Step 1.”  We have to talk about “why” before we talk about “how.”  Doing it to impress a girl isn’t enough.  Doing it to look like your favorite athlete isn’t enough.  It may sound cliche, but you have to do it for you… and ultimately for the Lord.

My wakeup call came in the form of blood work that revealed my triglycerides were over 500, noted on the printout as “critically high.”  Not “elevated” or “borderline.”  “Critical.”  My LDL cholesterol was 186, which was high.  All my numbers were off, and my doctor wasn’t smiling.

I have always only half-jokingly said that I eat like I do because I prefer to die by heart attack.  (I mean, really, cancer or dementia or a hundred other ailments seem a much worse way to go.)  But I didn’t exactly want to die right away by a heart attack.  And I didn’t want to compromise the quality of my life due to poor health.  It was time to make a change.

My doctor gave me two months to try lifestyle changes, and after changing some habits, re-testing showed dramatic improvement!  My LRL cholesterol had dropped to 107, which was comfortably within the normal range.  And my triglycerides had dropped all the way down to 154, a reduction of over 3x.  My doctor said she almost never saw those kind of results from lifestyle changes alone, let alone so quickly!

This picture of me from 2012 shows the extra weight -- not enough to technically be obese, but not within a healthy BMI either.

This picture of me from 2012 shows the extra weight — not enough to technically be obese, but not within a healthy BMI either.

I had also lost 20 pounds and several inches of my waist in just two months, and since then, I have not only not gained the weight back, but I’ve lost another 10 pounds.  My new lifestyle has helped my heartburn and joint pain.  It’s given me more energy.  It’s helped me feel less anxious or depressed.  It’s even helped my tennis elbow.  I’m now living a much richer, fuller life, full of the things I love.

Getting healthy has positively affected my ability to live and to minister in God’s world.  In Mark 12, Jesus summed up all of the law by saying it came down to this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”  A lot of us leave off that last one, forgetting to honor God with our bodies.  God created our bodies, God redeemed our bodies, and we will live in glorified bodies forever.

Our bodies and souls are married together in this life (and in the next).  There are some exceptions, but generally, when my body is not well, my soul is not well.  My ability to serve God cheerfully and skillfully depends on taking care of the body he has given me.  What better reason to get fit?

I’m excited to share with you the things I’ve found that have made a tremendous difference in my life, but if you don’t first understand the “why,” no number of posts on the “how” will make any difference at all!

Tim Keller on Sabbath Rest

This week in church, we studied the fourth commandment.  As we step away from our work once a week, we acknowledge in faith that we are finite and God is all-powerful.  As a worship leader or church leader, it’s of first importance that we incorporate the rhythm of Sabbath rest into our schedule.  Tim Keller also has some interesting thoughts about Sabbath rest:

In the Bible, Sabbath rest means to cease regularly from and to enjoy the results of your work. It provides balance: ‘Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God’ (Exodus 20:9–10). Although Sabbath rest receives a much smaller amount of time than work, it is a necessary counterbalance so that the rest of your work can be good and beneficial.

God liberated his people when they were slaves in Egypt, and in Deuteronomy 5:12–15, God ties the Sabbath to freedom from slavery. Anyone who overworks is really a slave. Anyone who cannot rest from work is a slave – to a need for success, to a materialistic culture, to exploitative employers, to parental expectations, or to all of the above. These slave masters will abuse you if you are not disciplined in the practice of Sabbath rest. Sabbath is a declaration of freedom.

Thus Sabbath is about more than external rest of the body; it is about inner rest of the soul. We need rest from the anxiety and strain of our overwork, which is really an attempt to justify ourselves—to gain the money or the status or the reputation we think we have to have. Avoiding overwork requires deep rest in Christ’s finished work for your salvation (Hebrews 4:1–10). Only then will you be able to ‘walk away’ regularly from your vocational work and rest.

Sabbath is the key to getting this balance, and Jesus identifies himself as the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:27– 28) – the Lord of Rest! Jesus urges us, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls’ (Matthew 11:28–29). One of the great blessings of the gospel is that he gives you rest that no one else will.

Leading Critics

For as long as I can remember, I’ve clung to the false idea that one can lead and bring about positive change without encountering critics.  My experience thus far in life tells me this is by no means true.  Still, I often look to my idols — Andy Stanley, Mark Driscoll, Steve Jobs — and long for their supposedly critic-free lives.  They lead on Easy Street, right?  Wrong.  Check out the video below:

I believe Steve Jobs has brought about more positive change than any other leader in my lifetime, but even he had critics.  Why?  Because change was involved, and change is never easy.  I’m just glad Steve followed his vision instead of letting the critics take the wheel.

This video is cool because we know how the story ends.  I don’t even want to try to imagine what the iPhone would look like if Apple had bowed to its critics.

Also, the specific way Jobs handled his critics is inspirational to me.  In the video above, you can see how he compassionately acknowledged that change is hard.  He even admitted that Apple had made mistakes and would continue to make mistakes.  But, that didn’t change the fact that they were heading toward their vision and would not be derailed.

There’s an art and a science to taking criticism well — accepting the kernel of truth but rejecting the personal attacks… making some course corrections but not allowing negativity to eat you alive.  It’s an art I’m still learning, and thankfully, I’ve got some great examples of leaders who do it very well.  Furthermore, the “advanced class” is learning not to just tolerate and endure critics but to lead them — to take them with you on your journey instead of discarding them.  That’s tough, but as you can see, Steve tried to do it.  And that’s my ultimate goal too.