I want to be like Tabasco

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DMVs, airports, Post Offices, the doctor. What do these places have in common that causes me to cringe even typing the words? Waiting. Standing still. Not being somewhere else. Having zero control over anything. Never mind the fact that nowadays we have the entire Internet at our fingertips and can read a book, creep on the activity of all of our friends who are not presently stuck in a waiting room or purchase something on Amazon. It is an awful feeling to have to sit in a holding pattern and have no guarantee when the waiting will end.

Life these days is more and more being engineered to where we don’t have to wait. New phones show up in the mail without having to go stand in line at Verizon or the AT&T store. New movies are downloadable without even having having to go to a RedBox, much less a Blockbuster store where you would rent a VHS tape that had to be rewound like back in the day. (To my younger readers, yes that actually happened.) Arguments are easily settled simply by asking Siri or spending ten seconds on Google. Less and less is gratification deferred. More and more everything we want is available on-demand. That phrase is telling. On-Demand. We strut about like little emperors receiving everything we want simply by pushing a button or voice-cue (a buggy feature which we complain about when it doesn’t works as though life were just oh so cruel.)

There is no doubt the world has violently changed and it will only get crazier in the days to come. One has to wonder what impact this will have on the invisible parts of who we are. One obvious downside is that the less we have to wait the worse we become at waiting when we have to. Flight delays, full queues, and lines of people stress me out to the max. I went to the DMV needing to renew my drivers license a while back. When I saw the crowded waiting room and began to comprehend the fact that there was no way around this line, I genuinely felt myself panic.

What about the upside of waiting? The character that it builds. The way our souls are stretched and honed through it. The way it gives us the opportunity to exercise faith and build patience. In the book of Proverbs we are told that when hope is deferred it makes the heart sick, but when the desire comes it is a tree of life. Translation: Good things come to those who wait.

I saw a special on Tabasco sauce recently that was stunning. What was most amazing to me was hearing that it takes four and a half years to make a batch of the hot red condiment! They put it into barrels and let it age for almost five years. Talk about patience. Why? You just can’t rush perfection. Think about that next time you douse your eggs with a bottle of the stuff. No, it is no fun to wait. But if you feel like you are in limbo today, know this, God hasn’t forgotten you, He is trying to grow good things inside of you. I don’ t know about you, but I want to be like Tabasco.


Take some risks

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Have you ever seen an indecisive child trying to jump rope? They have two friends swinging it round and round in a circle and they are just off to the side trying to feel out the rhythm of the rope. Their head and hands bob up and down every time the rope passes by and it seems as though they will dive in at any moment, but then they don’t. They just stand there telling them self they will hop in the next time the rope passes by, but each time finding some reason to wait for a better swing. The problem is that the longer they wait the more they psyche them self out.

There will always be a reason not to take action on a daring plan or bold idea.  Whether it is something you want to create, like a company or piece of art,  a brand new approach to an area of your life needing renovation or something you sense God wants you to do to bless someone; if you wait for everything to fall in place and line up perfectly to take action, you will never do anything. Birth involves both beauty, agony and mystery. Without uncertainty there is no need for faith. Risk is essential for reward.

If the dream that lies in your heart is something the world truly needs to see. If it will inspire people or be disruptive in an industry, it is probably somewhat shocking, will most likely be misunderstood, and doesn’t look, feel or sound like anything anyone’s heard before.  If there is nothing new, unfamiliar or foreign about it than dream bigger. Don’t peddle a carbon copy of someone else’s passion. There is greatness inside of you waiting to come out and the only way that will happen is if you face your fear and take a risk.

The downside of being original is that until people love it, they won’t understand it and will not see the need for it.  There was a day when air travel was seen as impossible, computers unnecessary and rock and roll  controversial.  We take for granted their place in our life now but that’s because people were willing to press on in spite of all the reasons why they should stop and just accept the world as it is. They stuck to their guns, took reckless steps of faith and changed the world as a result. Never forget this; conventional wisdom can keep you from a miracle.

Perhaps you are not supposed to do something entirely new but do something you are already doing with an entirely new mentality.  Zacchaeus didn’t do a different job once Jesus rocked his world. He approached his same old job with a fresh set of eyes and a new value system that flew in the face of the prevailing best practices of tax collectors in that day.  Instead of greed he was fueled by integrity and generosity.  It would have been shocking to his peers and there would have been many shiny, gold reasons why he shouldn’t tip over the apple cart or wait until the end of the fiscal year.  He took action. The right time to do the right thing is right now.  If you wait until you have answers to all your questions or can guarantee a favorable outcome you will still be standing there forever, the rope swinging by again and again while your life passes you by.  You just gotta go for it. 

Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap. (Ecclesiastes 11:4 NIV)


Just Keep Swimming

The only way to get to victory is to be willing to fail on the way there. True overnight successes are rare. Far more often you have people who kept showing up day in and day out until the hard, unglamorous work added up and paid off. It’s easy to misunderstand what you are seeing when you look at people who are taking a victory lap or receiving attention or promotion. What is happening there in that moment is only the tip of the iceberg. Invisible to your eye is what’s under water —the hell they went through on the road to success.

I recently read a story in the news about Kristen Anderson-Lopez that was powerful. She (along with her husband) wrote the song “Let it Go” from Disney’s “Frozen.” As the father of four daughters there are very few Disney princess movies I haven’t seen, and like many of you, we have not only seen this film multiple times but we own the soundtrack as well. (And no, I would not like to build a snowman.) The song “Let it Go” is not just a great song, it is literally the best. It won an Oscar for the best song in a motion picture. It was so good that it changed the course of the movie. Apparently Elsa, a character in the movie who freezes everything, was originally going to stay evil, but when they heard “Let it Go”, the song caused them to rewrite everything so Elsa could sing it and be redeemed.

That’s powerful in and of itself, but the best part of the the article was where it said that Kristen also wrote 17 songs that weren’t included in the movie. SEVENTEEN times her songs weren’t right. SEVENTEEN times she heard “no.” Most of us would consider ourselves a colossal failure to be shut down five or six times. It would be difficult to keep pressing full steam ahead after being rejected a dozen times. But she continued writing and creating and inventing and putting herself out there SEVENTEEN times. Let that sink in. Songs #1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14,15, 16, and 17 weren’t good enough for the movie. Attempt number 18 was a different story. This time the movie, as it was currently written, wasn’t good enough for the song.

The point is, to envy someone’s success is to completely misunderstand the nature of it. To covet the limelight and the accolades is to focus on the wrong thing. Yes, there are those who are given every advantage and people who are raised with a silver spoon in their mouth, but far more often the recipe for success is simple and unpleasant. You persevere through difficulty, bad ideas, bad days and bitterness again and again and again until something clicks. It’s not sexy, but it’s true. What you were willing to do in secret is responsible, so often, for what happens in public. It would be nice to crank out a hit on your first attempt, but those unlucky enough to do so often end up unable to replicate their accidental success. Far better to be ok with writing some duds and be able to just keep swimming.

1 Chronicles 28:10 “…be strong and do the work.”


That time I went to China

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One of the standout moments of last year was a quick trip I took to China. There is technically no such thing as a quick anything when travel from Montana to China is involved, but I was only there for a short time. Regardless of how much of a whirlwind it might have been, it was certainly an amazing experience.

The trip was put together by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and lead by Franklin Graham. The purpose of the trip was to encourage dialogue and relationship between the Protestant church here in America and in China. Pastors and Christian leaders from both nations spent several days talking on the subject of reconciliation and the Gospel. Billy’s wife Ruth was born in China and the country has always been a place near to his heart and a focus in his ministry.

I was, by far, the youngest American pastor on the delegation. (I can’t even spell delegation.) Most of the others were not just leaders of individual churches but heads of whole denominations or presidents of seminaries. I assumed it was a clerical error that I was invited to be a part, but I didn’t ask any questions fearing the mistake would be discovered and corrected. Fortunately I have been watching Kai-Lan (basically Chinese “Dora the Explorer”) with my girls so I knew enough of the language to say “hello,” “please” and “thank you.”

We spent time in Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai. We made our way across the country, in between these cities, on bullet trains that fly along at 200 mph. I have traveled to Asia a number of times but this was my first trip to China and I loved it. It is an amazing country. So cool. The fact that it is home to 1.3 billion people is astounding. Getting to spend time with Chinese pastors was a genuine pleasure. Hearing what the Lord is doing in and through their churches blessed me greatly. There are somewhere over 23 million registered Christians in the state-sanctioned Protestant church. It is estimated that the true number could be over 100 million if you include those who are a part of house churches.

In Beijing, we were hosted for two formal, 14-course dinners. One was put on by the State Administration of Religious Affairs. We visited their headquarters in a building the emperor’s father used to live in (the movie “The Last Emperor” was filmed there) before eating at a hotel that 10 years ago only state guests could enter. The second was at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, a place that is their version of Camp David, where we were hosted the former Chinese Ambassador to the United Nations and to the United States. Ambassador Li Zhaoxing told us that he has hosted every American president from Nixon to Obama right there. Amazing. He also told me that he has visited every state in America and he loves Montana.

With our very limited downtime we explored, walking through the iconic narrow Hutong alleyways, watching random groups of people dance in the streets (it would be hard to get noticed doing a flash mob over there), walked on the Great Wall of China, and visited Tiananmen Square. I took advantage of being in these spots and captured some messages that we used for our seven year anniversary at Fresh Life. (Check it out here.) It’s not everyday you find yourself in China on the verge of a new year — the Chinese “Year of the Horse” — but when you are, and you are all about running with horses … well, you gotta do what you gotta do.

More than anything, the trip intensified my desire to get the Gospel to as many people, in as many places as I can before my time on this earth is done. It’s a big earth full of souls and Jesus loves and died for each and every one of them. We must do what we can to share His love and get His Word to the ends of the earth!

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Forbidden City

Starbucks in a Hutong

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Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing

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When we stop worshipping, we stop winning

Praise is powerful. Worship is a weapon. We must approach every battle with arms raised and swords drawn. We are to do everything we can do but we must trust God for what only He can do. When we stop worshipping, we stop winning.


My top ten blog posts of 2013

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I enjoy writing. It doesn’t come as naturally to me as speaking but once I force myself to begin it usually flows with minimal psychological trauma. Especially in this past year it has proved to be a cathartic experience as most of my writing has been focused on Lenya and Heaven and grief. Journaling and blogging has long been a discipline I have tried to maintain, if only to have a record of things I have been learning or musing on, even if it all doesn’t end up getting posted.

Looking back on the blog posts from this past year was challenging as there are some very strong emotions and memories that they triggered but they also contain some very powerful lessons that God taught me in difficult times. I picked out ten of them that are some of my favorites and they are presented here.

Thank you for reading this blog and for sharing my posts with other people! Knowing that God has used something I have written to give hope or encouragement blesses me greatly. I hope and pray that God, who crowns the new year with goodness, would shine His face upon you in 2014 like never before.

10. A question I don’t need answered
There has been one question I haven’t asked. That question is, “why?” I have never found my heart bubbling up with that. Even in my darkest moments of unfiltered pain and confusion: “Why did this happen?” or “Why did God let my daughter die?” wasn’t what gushed out. To be honest my lack of thirst for those answers has shocked me a little bit…

9. The honeymoon is over
When you first get married there is a newness to it that causes everything to glow. It is surreal, like living in a dream. No more saying goodbye at the end of the night. No more falling asleep with your mobile phone because after you dropped her off you still wanted to talk as you drove home and got ready for bed, brushed your teeth and drifted off together. (Thanks Verizon.) Now you get to brush your teeth together! …

8. Pastor Chuck Smith: A Life Well-Lived
Early this morning I received a text that made me pause and breathe deeply. It said, “Pastor Chuck just passed into glory a little while ago.”

7. Good Grief
At various points in the last three months I have wanted to find out whoever came up with the phrase “good grief” and do physical harm to them. Too honest? Sorry. I suppose these are the sorts of thoughts you have when you are grieving. For the record there’s nothing good about it from where I am sitting…

6. A Distant Shore
Her pink bike is in the garage with her helmet hung by its strap from one of the handlebars. It has white-walled tires. Just like mine. Every time I walk by it I take a deep breath in and let it out slowly as I think about how spring will come and the snow will melt and we will go on family bike rides in the evenings, but her bike will stay parked in that spot…

5. The Pain of Searing Loss
In the movie The Avengers there is a scene where Tony Stark and Bruce Banner are having a conversation. Bruce feels as though being the Hulk is nothing but a curse, a nightmare. He feels exposed, like a nerve, and sees no good in it. Tony, on the other hand, views being Iron Man as a responsibility…

4.The Vanishing Point
While on a recent trip to the coast Alivia snapped this polaroid of Jennie and I staring out into the mysterious and gloomy sea on a foggy day. When she showed it to me it seemed to perfectly encapsulate life for us right now. Our eyes are straining to see something that we can’t. The sun is hiding behind clouds and refusing to shine. Life is unfolding in muted colors and in a minor-key…

3. Meeting Billy Graham
Last week Jennie and I were given the opportunity to meet Billy Graham. We traveled to his mountainside home in North Carolina and were honored to sit down in his kitchen and spend some time with him…

2. There’s no such thing as a wireless anchor
The Bible tells us that we have hope as an anchor of the soul. It is both sure and steadfast. Translation: It is unmovable. A permanent anchor that will never budge. We can know this is true because it is Jesus who is our anchor. He is our hope. He has entered God’s presence and has promised to bring us to be where He is. Our hope is not dead either, it is a living hope, because He lives forever…

1. 30 Days in Heaven
It has been 30 days now since my second born child Lenya stepped into eternity. Her last breath, which she took in my arms, was immediately followed by her first breath in the arms of her Savior and Creator Jesus Christ. Scripture promises nothing less than an instant transition to Heaven for the believer–to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. In her final moment on the earth…


Why I love to give

At one point in my life I attended a church that was extremely laid-back about the subject of giving. It wasn’t talked about much at all. There was no offering of any kind and the issue of money came up extremely infrequently. It was downplayed to the point of being out of sight, out of mind. Whether this was in response to an overemphasis that had left a bad taste in the pastor’s mouth or the desire to rely fully on the Lord’s provision I am not sure. I certainly am not judging that ministry decision, but what I do know is that it wouldn’t be until later on that I would discover the richness of all that the Bible has to say about the subject and it floored me.

Consequently, during that period I sporadically gave when I felt “lead,” which, if I’m honest, wasn’t all that often. It was more like a “tip” for a good sermon, or when I felt extra generous. I might have called it a tithe but it wasn’t, it was nowhere near a tenth of my earnings. Things certainly seemed to be humming along at the church though, and for all I knew the congregation was full of millionaires that gave so much that it really didn’t matter if I contributed or not. Also, I made very little in my job at that time and so I felt justified in keeping almost all of what I earned for myself.

Looking back, I am horrified that I would enjoy teaching that I didn’t support, be lead in worship by a team using equipment that I did nothing to offset the cost of, and bring friends to church, taking for granted that a chair was there for them to sit in and hear about Jesus but not help cover the costs to make it all happen. If I could go back in time I would tell a younger version of myself that only having a little to give doesn’t let you off the hook either. God expects us to honor Him with what He has entrusted to us and He is able to do a lot with a little. Yes, the amount I would have given (if I had been tithing) would have been a relatively insignificant amount compared to the staggering costs of all these things, but what I would later learn is that giving is less about my money being needed, and more about me needing to give it.

I could give many, many more but here are five reasons why I love to give and why there is nothing on earth that could stop me from returning the first and the best of all God puts in my hand right back to Him.

1. You only get to keep what you give away
Every penny I keep and everything I buy here on earth I will eventually walk away from when I die. Naked I was born and naked I will return, but every cent I have given to God is waiting for me in Heaven with serious interest. My daughter Lenya who is in Heaven left all her toys and clothes behind, but everything she gave to God is hers to keep forever.

2. It breaks down idolatry and greed
When your hand is clenched and you hold on to things tightly it is easy for your possessions to possess you. When you open your hand to give it is easier to keep a light touch on things. Worshipping God through giving money away is the only way I know to keep myself from worshipping money as god.

3. You get equity in the only thing that will outlast everything
No earthly companies, businesses, institutions or non-profit organizations will be in Heaven, but the church that Jesus Christ is building on earth will go marching on. The church is the only thing that exists today that will be here forever. By helping fund the building of the House of the Lord, as Jesus constructs it out of living stones, there is fruit that abounds in your account.

4. It causes you to be obsessed with the things of God
When you invest in the stock market, be it technology or agriculture, you don’t have to remind yourself to check up on it. You automatically think about it. To a degree that is borderline OCD if you have an obsessive personality like me. It’s the same way with giving to God. Where your treasure goes, there goes your heart. The fastest way to have a greater heart for God is to invest in His Kingdom.

5 You are opened up to God’s blessing
This has been the biggest surprise to me. It shouldn’t really, because He is God after all. I have found that He can’t be out-given. No matter how much I have increased my giving over the years above tithing (fair warning—giving is addictive) He has boomeranged it back to me and then some. Not just in entrusting me with more money to steward, but with opportunities, answered prayers, peace in storms, and dreams that have come true far beyond what I could ask, think or imagine.


I am scared of Christmas.

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For the last year I have been dreading the end of fall because I knew that it would signal the start of the Christmas season. Christmas is always a force to be reckoned with. On a normal year it approaches with the subtlety and restraint of a runaway locomotive. We began planning for Christmas at Fresh Life this summer and even then, when it still seemed far away, it was difficult to think about facing the world wrapped in lights, silver bells and and holly. Last week I walked into a Starbucks in New Mexico and saw eggnog lattes were on the menu and they had a big display of Advent calendars near the counter. Ready or not, here it comes.

The truth is, every holiday has been difficult this year. Mother’s day was really hard. My birthday was too. As was Alivia’s birthday, the Fourth of July, Father’s Day, and Easter. These days are when the pain of Lenya’s absence is exaggerated. We miss her every day, but on days when you would always be together or have special traditions the ache just gets a little bit louder. The hardest, by far, this year was Lenya’s birthday. Not being able to be with her on a day that is all about her was unspeakably difficult. We know that Christmas will be very hard. She went to Heaven on December 20th, and we celebrated her life and had her funeral on December 26th.

Back to the runaway train. As I was falling asleep on Halloween I was thinking about how Thanksgiving is all that separates us from Christmas now. Once December begins everything in our society is built into making the ramp up for Christmas as loud and as visible as possible. Twelve days of Christmas. Little numbered doors hiding chocolate. These days and numbers all bring painful memories and traumatizing associations with them. Lenya’s favorite Christmas carol was “Santa Clause Is Coming To Town” by Justin Bieber, but truth be told I wouldn’t really mind it if old St. Nick got lost instead. I realize that I sound like Ebenezer Scrooge, and I am ok with that. Naming your fear is a part of getting through it and I am scared of Christmas.

Fortunately, I know that God isn’t scared of what scares me. Jesus is going to be with us, just as He was last year and just as Lenya is with Him now. I don’t have to pretend like I am not frightened either. I trust Him. He will walk with us through the flashbacks and the associations and the sleepless nights and the tears and the lack of tears. We will celebrate the birth of the One who came to destroy death and bring light and immortality to light through the Gospel. We will sing until our voice won’t let us. We will preach and celebrate seeing people come to know Jesus just like we did days after Lenya died in my arms. We will party if we can muster the courage, cry when we miss her and collapse if we have to. Even though He slays us we will bless His name. We always have a choice and I choose to rejoice.


Grapefruit // Great fruit

About once a month we take a day to fast and pray as a church. This is one practical way we live out one of our core-values and that is: “3. We bow before the battle.” On these very special days we get together in the evening, across the state, and pray and worship together. Nothing flashy or fancy, just an old-school Holy Ghost prayer meeting. It’s awesome.

The format changes, but I often have different campus pastors give devotional thoughts. Sometimes we take communion. I love these nights so much. No webcast or time crunch. They are some of the most extraordinary and powerful worship experiences. I often will share something about our vision or something the Lord puts on my heart right then in the moment. Last night we also heard something very special from a daughter of the house, my oldest daughter, Miss Alivia Sky Lusko. Check it out:


Pastor Chuck Smith: A life well-lived

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Early this morning I received a text that made me pause and breathe deeply. It said, “Pastor Chuck just passed into glory a little while ago.”

Instantly I felt my heart simultaneously sink and then soar. I thought of the sadness of his wife, his family and Christians around the globe who will miss him; and yet I also knew the great cry of his heart had been answered — he was present with the Lord. Pastor Chuck Smith, who pastored Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, that lead to an entire tribe of Calvary Chapel churches that would spring up the world over, was intrinsically connected to the storied “Jesus-movement” of the 70’s. He who faithfully and relentlessly exposited scriptures, pointed people to grace and trusted in the Holy Spirit has left the tent and gone Home.

I thought of how he was no longer in the tent of his body, a tent that had been afflicted by a stroke and then through a prolonged fight with cancer, and how he would never struggle or feel pain again. Like my daughter Lenya, he was in the Paradise of God, in Heaven. The house has got what the tent does not. He had run his race, fought the good fight, and there was laid up for him a crown of righteousness that waits for all who love His appearing.

Pastor Chuck is a hero of mine. There is no doubt that there would be no Fresh Life Church if it weren’t for him. He directly impacted those who impacted me, and through attending the Bible College he started I learned so much. As part of our curriculum we listened to hundreds and hundreds of his messages through the Bible. I thoroughly enjoyed it. His distinct, rich, warm voice and loving tone as he methodically worked his way from Genesis to Revelation, chapter-by-chapter, verse-by-verse is permanently engrained in my heart. I still regularly listen to him teach, both on Fresh Life Radio and as I teach through books of the Bible myself. Just a couple months ago I spent several hours listening to him teach the entire book of Philippians in two monster-sermons in prep for the Rampart Series. Speaking of Fresh Life Radio, it was Pastor Chuck who gave us the radio station we operate in Billings, Montana. Which is a perfect snapshot of his generous heart.

I had the chance to say hello to him just a few months ago when I saw him in passing at a conference. It was brief but in his eyes I could see he was as strong as ever inwardly, but you could tell he was in pain and a shell of himself outwardly. Last summer, however, we were both backstage at a Harvest Crusade and I had the opportunity to sit down with him and tell him how thankful I am for him. I told him that what God is doing through Fresh Life is all fruit to his account — the thousands of decisions for Christ and all God has done. I will never forget when I was trying to decide whether I should stay in California or move to Montana and I went to see him in his office. As I communicated the options, I waited for him as the General to tell me where I should deploy to. He wouldn’t. Instead, he told me, “Both options are good Levi. People need Jesus everywhere.” I see his wisdom now. He refused to be Yoda. He knew I would put stock in his opinion and wanted me to discern the will of God myself.

I celebrate the tremendous life he lived and marvel at the impact one man committed to Jesus can make. Millions and millions of people experienced God’s love because of him. Much like the late Steve Jobs, who innovated in not just one but in multiple areas, God used Pastor Chuck to change the game on many different levels. He altered the landscape when it comes to Christian music by embracing modern worship and giving birth to Maranatha music, pioneered in church-planting, and disrupted ministry in general through his evangelistic approach that reached out to a counterculture while maintaining both doctrinal orthodoxy and an openness to the Holy Spirit (Ed Stetzer made the case on his blog that he altered the face of Protestant Christianity in America). I grieve that we will see his face no more on the earth but rejoice over what he is now experiencing and the way his life will continue to make waves and ripples for many, many, many years to come and on into eternity.

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