Thursday, December 31, 2009

What's on your plate for 2010? What's on God's?

It’s time . . . This time of year, that statement usually precedes well intentioned resolutions. It’s time to lose some weight – eat less, exercise more. It’s time to increase the bank account – spend less, save more. It’s time to grow closer to the family – less hours at the office, more at home. Inevitably, for those of us who are Christians, we also often focus on our faith. It’s time, we say, to finally read the Bible through. It’s time, to start spending more time in prayer. It’s time to do all those things we know we’re supposed to but tend to push to the edges of our schedules until they get squeezed out altogether.

Now, the desire to take inventory over one’s life, to make changes, to improve is not a bad desire. We’re just so bad at doing it. Part of the problem in self-improvement is the fact that it’s so consumed with the self. We hear advice all the time that we have to look into ourselves, we have to follow our hearts, we have to believe in oneself. All nice sentiments, I guess, but each bit of advice asks us to do something like pick up the chair you’re sitting in. Impossible. It comes as a surprise to many to realize that Jesus never said “Believe in yourself” – he said, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him” (John 7:38). Jesus never commanded us to find ourselves – his instructions were, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). Jesus never told us to follow our hearts – his invitation was, “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of people” (Matthew 4:19).

Throughout the scripture, the paradoxical truth is that self-improvement comes through self-denial. The abundant life comes from abandoning one’s life to God. You can see then why so many of our efforts to get a little more of God each January fail – we want just a little bit of God – but God doesn’t come that way. Trying to squeeze a little bit of God into your day is like trying to capture a little bit of Niagara Falls in a teacup. The absurdity of our efforts to get just a little bit of God in our lives is made plane by author Wilbur Rees. Almost four decades ago, he wrote a tongue-in-cheek prayer that would be funny if it didn’t his so close to home. Many of you’ve probably heard it before, but it’s worth retelling.

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please, not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don't want enough of him to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

C. S. Lewis addressed this tendency in us to want only enough of God to make us moral. He said that people are always asking him “Will [Christianity] help me? Will I be a better person if I become a Christian?” He admits that he hates the question because it misses the point. It reduces Christianity and worse yet, reduces God to a self-help technique that we can possess. But God cannot be possessed. He’s not a technique. He’s either the creator and master of the universe or he isn’t – if he is, far from being “wholly absorbed with our own blessed ‘moral development’” we ought to be devoting our entire energies towards serving our maker. He concludes, “Mere morality is not the end of life. You were made for something quite different from that…"

What were we made for? We were made for Christ - To know him and to be in relationship with him, to praise him and give him glory. Therefore, our goal shouldn’t be “Can I fit a little of God into my life this year?” but rather, “Can I get my life into God?” Notice Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” Jesus is the center of the universe, not me and not you. We create a little bit of the confusion when we only frame our discussions of salvation in terms of asking Jesus to come and live inside our heart. While that’s a fine way of talking about what happens in belief – The Bible often talks about Christ in us. But it’s certainly not the only way or even the main way the Scriptures talk about salvation. Salvation is not so much about getting a little of Jesus into me, but rather getting all of me into Jesus. The question, then, is not, “How can I squeeze God onto my plate in 2010, but what is on God’s plate for 2010 and how do I become a part of it?”

4 Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.
5 Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will do this:
6 He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun (Psalm 37:4-6).

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Get the thank you notes ready

What do you think you’ll be getting for Christmas year? Do you already know? Have you already received it? Did you say thank you? Life is full of gifts. It goes to reason that life should then be full of thanks. But sometimes its easy to think what we receive isn’t a gift, but something we’re owed. We’ve worked hard this year, we tell ourselves, so we deserve this. We’ve been good and now it’s time to reward ourselves. That’s fine to a point. However, my guess is that the numbers of things in this life we deserve are far fewer than we imagine. Our lives abound in unmerited gifts.

A friend posted a G. K. Chesterton quote on his Facebook page this morning that made me smile: "When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?" I don’t know that I’ve ever called what are on my feet stockings, but I get the point. Chesterton said in another place, “The great saint may be said to mix all his thoughts with thanks. All goods look better when they look like gifts.”

Oh to have hearts of humility and eyes of gratefulness! Life would indeed look so much better. Let’s start today. What are some of the unmerited gifts in your life for which you would like to give thanks?

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you – 1 Thessalonians 5:18

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Buyer's remorse

Have you ever heard the term buyer’s remorse? Ever experienced it? I know I have (basically every piece of exercise equipment I've ever bought). Buyer’s remorse is that feeling of regret that often crops up after some major or not so major purchase. These feelings can show up for all sorts of reasons, but usually appear when the credit card bill hits sometime in January. At that point you realize that you got carried away and your purchase of a 60 inch TV doesn’t make that much sense for your apartment where the biggest room is only ten feet wide. Or perhaps by that point, your new car already has a scratch on it. Your new shirt is already stained. Your new computer is already outdated. Your Tiger Woods hat doesn't communicate the same thing that it did when you bought it.

Buyer’s remorse leaves you wondering why you liked this purchase so much in the first place or why you didn’t wait for the after Christmas sales. You’d think past experiences of buyer’s remorse would slow our spending down, but you’d be wrong. We seem to not only have buyer’s regret but buyer’s amnesia. We somehow convince ourselves that we’ll be wiser this year – that we’ll pick out better gifts, gifts that last, gifts that satisfy.

Several years ago, my father-in-law pointed out that while he’d experienced plenty of buyer’s remorse in his life, he’d never experienced giver’s remorse. That is, he’d never given a gift to a ministry or a mission or just a person in need and then later wished he had that money back. His words struck me then as truthful and have proven truthful ever since. I’m a slow learner, so I’ve continued to make purchases that I’ve later regretted. But without fail, every time I’ve stretched myself to give generously to my church, a good cause, or a neighbor in need, I’ve found joy not regret.

My guess is we’re going to continue to buy things for our own families. That’s ok. Giving my kids or my wife a gift is a form of generosity. But how might we find more joy and less regret this Christmas season? Perhaps by figuring out how to buy ourselves less and to give others more.

Here are some of my favorite places to give:
  1. Our church – give to the Christmas Offering. All gifts go to benefit the ministry of Water for All, a ministry of Southland Baptist Church led by Terry and Kathy Waller. With permanent ministries in Bolivia and Ethiopia, their ministry of digging water wells for the world’s poor also takes their team around the world. Your gift this Christmas will go a long way in helping place a cup of cold water in the hands of the least of these of our world. Our goal is $20,000.

  2. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Store – Browse the online catalog, pick a gift, send a check. An easy way to give a gift to the least of these. If you can’t get this to work online, we have catalogs in the office.

  3. The World Vision Catalog - Browse the online catalog, pick a gift (they have goats, chickens, you name it), send a check or pay online. Another easy way to give a gift to the least of these.

  4. The Preemptive Love Coalition – Started by a friend from seminary, this ministry in Iraq funds heart surgeries for Kurdish children.

The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me – Matthew 25:40.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Longing for more

Recently, I sat down in a local coffee shop in the hopes of getting some sermon work done. Alas, there was another person in the place intent on bringing the rest of us along on his own personal quest for the perfect gift. In his thick New England accent, he loudly perused the gift table next to where I was sitting. Carefully he picked up each potential gift and then extolled its many benefits to no one in particular. After what seemed like half an hour (but was probably closer to five minutes), he settled upon some Christmas mugs – on sale no less – for $3.99. He checked with one of the sales clerks, “$3.99? Really? These are great. I have some white ones like them but these Christmas ones are spectacular. They’ll look great with my Christmas dishes. . . .” And on and on and on.

Then an interesting thing happened. When Mr. Boston finally made his purchase and left the store, I breathed deeply and turned my attention back to my work. I expected others to do the same. But they didn’t. Instead, several other patrons left their tables and came over to look at those Christmas mugs. There wasn’t any shoving or pushing, but there was certainly some angling for position. Within minutes every last one of those previously ignored mugs had been sold! I laughed in slight amazement. I wondered to myself if Mr. Boston had been planted by the store to push those mugs.

Plant or not, he exposed something of human nature that day. Most of us live with a realization that there is more to life than we’re currently experiencing. We live with a fear that we’re missing out on something that other people have found. We rush to fill up that empty place with all sorts of things – something as silly as Christmas mugs – or as the recent fall of one of my favorite golfers reveals – something as tragic as a relationship with someone other than one’s spouse. But all these pursuits prove to be in vain. Next Christmas, next year, next time our significant other lets us down, without having learned a thing, we’ll be making the exact same searches for new gifts or new people that will momentarily tickle our souls.

But what if we’re taking the wrong approach altogether? What if the longing in our hearts wasn’t something to be fixed at all? What if the uneasiness that there’s something more to this life might instead be a gift from God himself? What if that longing is a gift that’s meant to keep us from settling for cheap imitations of the Kingdom of God? What if, instead of deadening our longings with the narcotic of instant gratification, we are meant to nurture those desires into holy anticipation? The practice of Advent is meant to lead us in just that direction. If we'll take time to embrace the empty places in our lives this season, if we'll resist the urge to fill them up with the first thing we find, we might be able to replace the fleeting desires for cheap ceramics and illicit affairs with a deeper longing for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. Oh Lord, teach us to long for deeper things.

I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me – Micah 7:7.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

An Advent Thought: What do you want for Christmas?

As a child, people were constantly asking me what I wanted for Christmas. Back then, I always knew. A bicycle. A basketball goal. A remote control car. Nowadays, not as many people ask me that question. And that’s ok, because as an adult, I’m not always sure.

After all, what do you want out of this advent season? Do you want to get all your Christmas shopping done early? Under budget? Do you want to see friends? Family? Maybe you want to avoid certain family. We probably each have our own secret wish lists for this season, and if you’re like me, it doesn’t have much to do with gifts.

Jesus once asked a blind man what he wanted. The man was quick to answer, “I want to see.” He had a single desire. Oh, it wasn’t that there weren’t other things on his list, but they seemed as nothing compared to this one great need. “If only, I could see,” he probably thought, “everything else would fall into place.”

I wonder, might Christ be asking us the same question? “What do you want me to do for you?” Might my answer need to be the same as the blind man’s? I want to see. I want to see You, the one who came as the Christ-Child, the one who will one day come again. In the shopping, among the friends at parties, in the carols, and through the scriptures, Lord, more than anything else I want to see you.

What do you want this Christmas? Simply Christ.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God - Matthew 5:8.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Would you attend a Baptist convention?

Monday and Tuesday of this week I attended the BGCT’s Annual Meeting. For preachers, conventions are a great opportunity to see friends, hear some good sermons, and do some networking. They are also a great time for all of us to hear from the various ministries that our offerings support. I can assure you that Texas Baptists are doing lots of good in the state of Texas and beyond. Today, I’m headed to Waco to participate in one of those things, the Texas Hunger Initiative, which is an attempt to make Texas food sufficient by 2015. San Angelo is one of the pilot cities for this initiative.

For all the good things the BGCT facilitates, there are concerns about the future of the convention. The reasons for this are many but one of the concerns that keeps popping up is the lack of attendance at the annual meeting. Now, over two thousand people attended this week (just under 1500 messengers and over 600 guests). That’s not a small number for a mid-week meeting in the fall, but it used to be much higher (say, around 5000). Of course, the most attended meetings were during the height of controversy. I don’t know about you but I’d rather have small numbers and peace than high numbers and fruitless controversy.

That being said, it is good to ask, “What could we do to involve more people in the process?” This year the question was asked in a formal way. A committee will spend next year attempting to discern if a different format or time table would encourage more attendance in the future. Praise the Lord I’m not on that committee. But I am asking you – not just what would it take to get you to come to a convention meeting – but rather, is there any religious meeting you would take days off to attend and if so, what kind? Examples include but aren’t limited to content based meetings like marriage enrichment meetings, mission trips, conventions, etc. If you would attend such a meeting what time of year would be best? Pass your answers on to me and I’ll pass the thoughts on to those in charge. Thanks for the help!

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ – Ephesians 1:3.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Our lives our not lived in vain

Like many of you, I’ve spent a lot of time this last week thinking about the tragedy at Ft. Hood. To think about the families who are now grieving the loss of a son or daughter or a mom or dad is enough to cause any of us to experience all manner of emotions – anger, sadness, fear. To think of the lives that these men and women had built, the plans they had formed, the dreams they still held onto that very morning – all gone in a moment – it can lead you to despair. Does God love us? Is he really in control or will evil simply have its way forever? Is there any reason to try and do good in this world around us?

In a very strange way, the tragedy itself, or rather the response to the tragedy, reminds us that evil has not yet won the day. That we get angry at such events (and many other smaller incarnations of evil as well) reminds us that there is something deep inside of us that recognizes that the world was not meant to be this way. The great Desmond Tutu, who has witnessed his share of evil, once wrote, “It is only because we believe people should be good that we despair when they are not. Indeed, if people condoned the evil, we would be justified in losing hope. But most of the world does not. We know that we are meant for better.” We were meant for better, indeed!

The Bible tells us that we were meant for God and for one another - that our lives were meant to bring glory to our creator and to bless our neighbor. Our efforts to do so, however, so often seem in vain. Our small acts of faithfulness or mercy seem to be a drop in the bucket compared to the selfish bullying that happens around us. My guess is the world has always seemed that way. Until that one day, when the world awoke to find an instance in which the darkness could not shut out the light. Until that one morning when the executioner’s work failed to keep righteousness at bay. Until that day when God raised Jesus from the dead. And that “better” that we were meant for was put on display for all to see.

The Bible describes this cataclysmic event as an advanced sign of what God is doing in the world. Paul calls Jesus the firstborn from the dead meaning that someday, we too shall follow in his footsteps. Those who are in Christ shall be raised! No matter what tragedies may have happened in our lives, no matter what evil has seemed to have prevailed, we shall live! And none this “sitting in the clouds playing harps” kind of life that you see on TV, that may make for good commercials but it’s not what the Bible talks about when it talks about eternal life. No when the Bible says, we shall live again, that’s what it means. We shall live, physical (though radically transformed!) lives. Evil will be undone and by the same power that God raised Jesus from the dead, he will make a new heaven and a new earth and the world will be as we have always known deep down that it should be.

This is our gospel hope. And far from escapism, the gospel calls us to persevere in goodness today. For we trust that one day evil will be a thing of the past, but goodness and mercy and love will have prevailed in Christ. This is why Paul, after expounding on our future resurrections, told a beleaguered and persecuted group of believers, “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Thursday, November 5, 2009

I need you!

Bedtimes at the Sandlin household have become quite difficult these days. John Curtis just doesn’t want to go to bed. Oh, he’ll sit in the bed, but every five minutes he’ll cry out, “Dadda, I need you!” Actually, he’s not so good with ‘y’ sounds, yet, so it really sounds more like, “I need ‘ou!” Now, by 8 or 9 o’clock at night, all I really want to do is sit in my recliner and watch TV or read a good book. My idea of a relaxing evening doesn’t include bouncing up to answer an endless round of requests So usually, before I get up, I’ll shout back to his room, “What do you need?” Sometimes he needs that classic drink of water. Sometimes he needs to go potty – this is almost always a good way to call Dad’s bluff for I have been badly burned for refusing to meet this request on occasion. Sometimes he wants me to get him a special toy.

But most often, his reply to my question, “What do you need?” is to repeat his initial request, “I need ‘ou!” Truthfully, this is what he has wanted all along. He doesn’t care about the water or usually even going to the potty, he’s just not ready to be alone. He wants me. He wants my presence. John Curtis likes company, especially if that company is Mom or Dad. I’ll admit, “I need ‘ou” is a pretty difficult request to turn down. I know, someday soon, he won’t need me anymore – or at least won’t request my presence as often.

Often I feel a lot like that Dad in Jesus' parable that even though he’s a sinner knows how to give good gifts to his kids – the best gift being the gift of being present. Very often, as I sit next to my son in the quiet of the night, my heart turns away from whatever I’m missing on TV to the God who loves us both. I find myself grateful for a heavenly Father who’s never too lazy or too preoccupied to answer his children’s most basic prayer, “I need you.”

The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. – Psalm 145:18

Thursday, October 29, 2009

When knowledge doesn't equal wisdom

Have you seen the commercials for one of the new search engines available on the internet? There’s a whole series of them, and each address the problem of information overload in this information age. In one, a wife asks her husband if he’s booked the tickets to Hawaii yet. Instead of answering her, he begins rattling off useless trivia about our fiftieth state. It’s a funny commercial. You can watch it here. It’s also reality. Who of us hasn’t attempted to find some bit of information only to be buried by the torrent of data available online?

When the Bible speaks of knowledge, it almost always connects it to wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to apply knowledge to righteous living. Every generation needs wisdom, but perhaps none so much as ours. How do we sort through the mountains of different opinions, the oceans of data, and the unending streams of new information in order to make our way wisely in this world?

Better search engines may help, but they’re hardly the final answer. What we need is perspective. What we need is a little distance – so that we might see the forest for all the trees. Of course, confined to our own little perches, we have trouble getting high enough to get such a glimpse. And then we remember, there is one who stands above it all. One who knows all things. While we may never fully gain his perspective, he does invite us into his presence, which just might make all the difference.

The trouble is, we hardly take our eyes off our screens long enough to look up and look for him. Fasting has often been a way people connect with God’s presence. This usually involves the giving up of something valuable in order to seek something even more worthwhile – like the giving up of food in order to use the time normally set aside for eating for seeking God’s presence in prayer. New technologies might demand new fasts. What would it look like to unplug for a day? What if during that day, every time you felt the urge to check for messages you stopped and said a prayer?

You might experience a little information withdrawal. You might miss some piece of news others receive. And you might, just might, find a little wisdom instead.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding – Proverbs 9:10.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Mr. Sandlin goes to Washington

Today is a pretty special day for the Sandlin clan. My dad, Rick, will be speaking before the United States Congress sometime around 10am (Washington time). He will be speaking to the Research & Science Education Subcommittee about the elementary school he principals in Texarkana, Morriss Elementary. The school emphasizes math and science education through their curriculum, through regular encounters with engineers, and with hands on experiences. On campus the school has a windmill (from San Angelo!), solar panels, high powered telescopes, and much more.

Needless to say, my dad is a little nervous. Last week he had to turn in 55 copies of his testimony. He’s been given strict instructions regarding his allotted time, who can attend with him, etc. If you’ve ever been to D.C., it’s a city that’s build to be impressive. You can get a little nervous just visiting the Capital. Sitting in its halls answering questions fielded by congressmen has to be somewhat intimidating. My guess, though, is that they’ll go easier on my dad than they did on Roger Clemens! Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure my dad will be glad when this is all over.

For as excited as we all are, it’s pretty easy to keep this all in perspective. My family has been walking the halls of power for a long time. Oh, not the halls of D.C. That will be a first for us. But I’ve watched my father (and my mother) enter the halls of the Almighty all my life. They have come before his throne of grace in prayer. They have entered his courts with praise and worship. They have walked with him in obedience and faith. They were the first to help me realize I had an audience with the King, as well.

The great truth of the gospel this morning is that you do, too. You may be ignored by the power brokers of our land, the kings of our day. But the King of Kings and Lord of Lords has extended an open invitation to you (one without time limits!). The question remains, though, will you take him up on his invitation?

Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need – Hebrews 4:16.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

When answers aren't what we need

Almost all of us at one time or another have gone to the Lord in prayer asking for guidance in some upcoming decision. Lord, is this the person I’m supposed to marry? Lord, should I move my family across the country and take this job? Lord, should I stay home and care for our parents or should we put them in the nursing home? And when I say we’re looking for guidance what I mean is that usually we’re looking for answers. We want God to tell us in ways that we can clearly understand “Yes” or “No.” Often, not always, but often, we leave such prayers as frustrated as when we started for God doesn’t show up in burning bushes nearly as often as we’d like (I can only remember one instance in all of history. And Moses hadn’t asked God anything. God just showed up.)

When I read the New Testament, I become even more frustrated. I realize that Jesus wasn’t that good at answering questions either. Half the time when somebody asks Jesus a question he asks them one right back (see Luke 10:25-26; 20:20-24). On many of the other occasions Jesus’ answer seems to go in a totally different direction. Someone asks him to settle a dispute and Jesus tells them to watch out for greed (Luke 12:13-21). Another asks Jesus about the cause of a tragedy and Jesus tells the questioner to repent (Luke 13:1-5). Throughout the pages of the Bible it becomes apparent that answering all of our questions isn’t one of God’s main goals in this life.

Does this make God cruel? That’s one way to interpret it. As a believer, though, I trust that God cares for me. If he doesn’t give me an answer to my questions, then there must be a reason (and a reason rooted in his love for me). I think of my own children. Do I always answer all of their questions? No. Some I don’t answer because I don’t know the answer – this obviously doesn’t apply to God who knows all things. Other times, though, I refuse to answer a question because I know refusing to give them an answer is for their benefit. Take for example, Sophie’s homework. She’s just in kindergarten, so I still know all the answers to what she’s working on. But does it help her if I just fill in the blanks for her? Of course, not. Part of growing wise is learning how to figure things out on her own. I don’t abandon her. I’m there to encourage, to provide her with resources, to make sure she has help when she needs it. But ultimately, for her to grow in wisdom, she must make decisions on her own.

Perhaps, this is one of the reasons God doesn't always answer our questions. He gives us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3-4). Sometimes that includes the answers to our questions, sometimes not. Because the truth is, God wants us to possess more than the answers to our questions. He wants us to be wise children who know how to discern his will and not simply copy down the answers from some heavenly cheat sheet. He wants us to grow up to be like him. While we might not like this arrangement, I hope we trust that it is for our ultimate good.

Choose my instruction instead of silver,
knowledge rather than choice gold,
For wisdom is more precious than rubies,
and nothing you desire can compare with her – Proverbs 8:10-11.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

No sex slaves from this house

I love my church. There are lots of reasons. The main one is that it's full of people who love the Lord with all their heart, soul, and mind. They're not a people who sit on their hands waiting for their pastor to tell them what to do. They're a people on the move - taking the love of Christ to the furthest ends of the earth and calling back to me to keep up. That thrills my soul.

This past Sunday I was out of town on vacation. Matt, our youth minister, gave a powerful sermon on God's heart for the poor and the need for connecting our words with our actions. Then on Monday, I received this e-mail from Terry Waller, our staff missionary and director of Water for All. Terry is wonderfully long winded which results from a true passion for telling the stories of the least of these of our world. I've only presented you with a portion of the e-mail. I hope you'll read it and get a small glimpse of his ministry but also of the truth he communicates - our small churches, our small lives, can make a big difference in others' lives and in this world:

Dear Friends

I wanted to share what WFA is doing right now. But first the other day I was watching a program on TV on human trafficking. It was just horrible. Little girls, my girls’ ages, sold into slavery, sex slavery. Some are as young as 7 or eight. Most are from poor rural families, desperate for money, usually tricked into sending their little girls away to work. I had to turn the channel, it upset me so. Rural poverty is terrible. People are desperate for a better life. People seem to never have enough food, or water, or money and it happens all over the world. What in the world is the answer? Yesterday at church Matt, our youth minister ,preached on God’s concern for the poor. How part of sharing the Gospel is the deed part. He gave a figure that said a billion people are hungry each day in our world. I have a figure that shows 6,000 babies die each day because of water related problems! Stop and pause, children sold into sex slavery, a billion people hungry, 6,000 kids dying per day because they don’t have enough water or clean enough water!!!!!. WATER! Something as simple as water!!! Selling kids into SEX SLAVERY!!! What in the world are we to do? How are we to even approach the problem? One can get political I guess, or go to concerts. I have seen those on TV. That might do something.

Jesus gave a suggestion. Go. Go and one person at a time, one family at a time, share the Good News, in word and deed and love people and redeem the situation. Love them like your brother or sister, or child. Do everything you would want them to do for you if you where in their shoes. That is my interpretation of Jesus’s approach to the sad problems of this world. Go, (or send someone) to live, engage, solve problems, teach and preach face to face, life to life. Don’t just sit there, GO (and in Jesus’ day that meant probably not coming back alive!) Jesus’ approach was to go and get at the root of the problems, the sin problem, right out there mixing and mingling where the poor live and die, and do it one person and one family, and one neighborhood and one community at a time.

Now this seems preposterous. How can that make a difference? Surely individuals or small groups of people going out is not very efficient. Surly the UN or a University or an international conference should be able to solve the problem at arms length. I don’t know. But it made me think of the 2,070 or so family wells drilled now and I hope maybe, just maybe, it made a difference to some of the 2,000 or so families. Maybe it helped some to make a better living and maybe not have to sell a little girl into slavery. I still remember Cristiana Sandolval’s from our Cotoca church, telling Kathy and I how her mother was sold to man for two bottles of whiskey. Maybe a couple of the little rural churches we helped start has provided fellowship and love and taught them not to do stuff like that.

Right now in San Julian, next door to our little church, is a family whose no count dad deserted his four beautiful little girls and a couple of boys and left them in dire poverty. Then their house burnt down with absolutely everything in it. Our little church, small and unimportant as it seems in this big mega world with mega concerts and mega everything, reached out. Josefina and her girls and boys now live in the little neighborhood meeting place next door, they come to church, they have an extended family now (the church) that looks after them. Water for All helps them a bit each month, we also give the teen age boy an after school job. Church members help with groceries. No sex slaves from this household.

The little church has backyard bible clubs for 150 kids each week. Some of those will be affected and kept from harm, coming to know Jesus.

Also the women helped by Hope Bolivia have the extra income they need and sex slavery is not necessary for their survival. It seems like little things but they add up!!

There is another family I know. Don Ciriaco. His wife died and he raised 5 or six kids by himself. He works like a trojan and is worn completely out, and now hard of hearing. His youngest 14 year old boy, Candido, helps him, no school for Candido. Candido is a perfect candidate for suicide (a big problem in rural S. America) or alcoholism. He has no prospects and no future and is sick of the drudgery and hard work his father demands. Now he has a future! He and his dad now have a well, a pond, a windmill and fish and Candido has prospects of prosperity. He realizes this now and has blossomed every time I see him. I can’t wait to get back to Bolivia in November and see him and his Dad and see his new pond again and see how the fish are growing.

I know another family, Joesefa and Armando and all their kids. They are living on the edge and always have. He told me he is too tired to keep looking for day work. Just worn out. Then there are 50 students at a very poor rural boarding school just down the road from us. All of these and the kids are candidates for the tragedies you see on the TV shows. We just finished family wells and windmills and fishponds for Armando and Ciriaco and Candido and Teofilo and the boarding school. Also we just finished a windmill and well for another village, San Juan de la Cruz. The windmill water system will serve their school and they will be more likely to attract and keep a school teacher. They are in the “sticks” and school teachers are hard to come by. Having access to abundant clean water helps keep school teachers in the communities.

. . . .
Seeing the program on rural poverty and human trafficking and Matt’s sermon reminded me why in the world we are doing all this. Why not just quit and do something different I have asked myself many times. Matt’s sermon reminded me why. We depend on all of you for your prayers and support to do this. We are a tiny ministry but couldn’t do any of it without you! I know it isn’t much, doesn’t seem like much in the face of the tremendous need all around the world, but it is something.

Pray for us. We live on your prayers.



Thursday, October 1, 2009

Table Manners

This Sunday is World Communion Sunday. This observance began with the Presbyterians way back in 1936 as a way of celebrating our oneness in Christ across denominational lines. The table reminds us that God's mercy is the source of our unity since not a one of us deserves to be there. There isn’t a secret handshake or denominational ID card we have to show. No, each of us is able to gather at the table because Christ has invited us there in his grace. His sacrifice on the cross has opened the way for all of us to have a seat at God’s great banquet table together.

The table stands as a mighty symbol of both Christ’s invitation and God’s hospitality. God not only welcomes us in but, also, takes care of us once we’re there. These two actions, inviting and extending hospitality, go hand in hand. As God’s people we must both invite people to be a part of God’s family and make room for them when they show up. It doesn’t do any good to put out the welcome mat if there’s no substance to that welcome when our neighbors come inside.

Hal Warlick, former pastor of Seventh and James Baptist Church in Waco once told a story (then retold in a sermon by Joel Gregory and now retold by me!), about an encounter with the wealthy Harvard professor and administrator, Dr. Ralph Lazarro. Each year, Lazarro would host first year students in his impressive home for supper. He would recruit second year students to help with the hosting. The year Warlick was one of these second year students, the dinner got off to a rough start. A first year student, nervous already because of the surroundings, fumbled her demitasse (a small, expensive coffee cup – I had to look it up!), and it crashed to the floor. Understandably, there was an awkward silence.

All of the sudden, the professor hurled his own cup into the fireplace and said, “I am glad someone started the Lazarro family tradition of the breaking of the cup.” He then eyed Hal Warwick to do the same. Hal threw his cup into the fireplace, followed by another second year student, and eventually by all the new students. They all just assumed it was some strange tradition among the extraordinarily rich. Then Lazarro changed the direction of the evening by saying, “Now we can move on to the next Lazarro family tradition, telling the most interesting thing that happened to us this summer.”

Later Hal Warlick asked his professor about he evening. Lazarro explained, “Those cups are valuable, but not nearly as valuable as a person’s spirit. I hope there is nothing I own or ever hope to own that would not be worth breaking for a person’s spirit.” True hospitality requires sacrifice. Jesus gave his very life that we might be welcome at God’s table. What might you be willing to give up to make another feel at home in the family of God?

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God's people who are in need. Practice hospitality. – Romans 12:12-13.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Like a drunk uses a lampost

I finished reading a great book this week by the Jewish writer David Wolpe, entitled Why Faith Matters. If you’ve read any of the popular atheists’ criticisms of faith and are looking for a thoughtful response here’s one to pick up and read. It’s well written and will certainly promote critical thinking about the issues. Towards the end of the book, Wolpe is commenting on the proper way to read the Scriptures. He paraphrases the Scottish poet Andrew Lang, writing, “Facts, some people use them as a drunk uses a lamppost, more for support than for illumination.”

To be honest, it took me a second to catch the full implications of the statement (It’s been a long week!). But the more I’ve thought about that quip, the more I like it. We live in a world that seems to be increasingly combative. Now, let me be clear, I have no problem with arguments in themselves, if those arguments include people who are attempting to discover truth, not simply beat each other to a pulp. Discussion may be a better word, but argument is fine. For even heated discussions can be good if they come from a combination of both passion and humility and move the participants towards wisdom.

But our culture, with its sound bites and Facebook statuses, has given up on discussion and embraced shouting matches as the main form of intellectual discourse. Which means there’s not too much intellect involved. People use “facts” not to enlighten their own understanding but as a way to support their own preconceived notions about the way the world is. Christians are certainly not the only practitioners of this information manipulation, but they at least should know better.

The Scriptures invite us to turn our ear towards wisdom and to apply our hearts to understanding (Proverbs 2:2). They warn us not to think that we are wise in our own eyes (Proverbs 3:7) for wisdom often comes from unexpected sources. Seeking not shouting becomes the main metaphor for the acquiring of wisdom. The challenge, of course, is that in order to humbly turn our ears towards wisdom we must shut our own mouths to make room for another voice. The apostle James, who also challenges us to seek wisdom, put it this way, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (2:19).

This posture of humble listener isn’t popular. And it isn’t an easy one to achieve. But the Bible teaches us it is the way towards wisdom. So, let’s start today. Seek out someone who holds a different point of view from you concerning some current topic. Ask them their opinion and then listen to their response. Resist the urge to argue. Ask good questions. Seek to understand. Who knows what you might learn?

Wise men store up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool invites ruin - Proverbs 10:14

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Faithfulness requires change

A meeting and funeral had me on the eastern side of the state this week, so I decided to seize the opportunity to go and see my parents for an evening. Driving into Texarkana on I-30, I almost missed the exit to my parent’s house, an exit I’ve taken thousands of times. Why? It wasn’t amnesia. It was more like disorientation. Some federal stimulus money has put a huge road construction project on the fast track. Coming into Texarkana, there is now one of those large highway exchanges with overpasses and ramps heading in all sorts of directions. To make room for this, roads that used to be there aren’t there anymore, the movie theater has been torn down, and none of the countless pine trees that used line the interstate remain. If there hadn’t been a sign labeling the new off ramp, I might have easily ended up in Arkansas before I realized my mistake.

As I commented to my parents about all the changes, I recognized that I was starting to sound like an old person. I was reminded of a story told by the dean of my seminary, Paul Powell, of a time when he had returned to a hometown for a reunion only to find that everything had changed. Places he had enjoyed as a child were no more and new places, places he’d never experienced, had been built. He noted that only one place remained the same. The cemetery. He commented wryly, “I guess dead things don’t change.”

We so often see change as a threat to life. Some changes may indeed be threatening. But no change, well, that’s always bad. For life to continue, change must happen. I can’t stay a kid forever. The only hometowns that never change are called ghost towns. Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer put it this way, “Faithfulness sometimes requires change, not sameness.” In a city, it means that being committed to providing adequate means of transportation requires the changing of roads from time to time. It requires both demolition and construction. In life, it may mean that desiring to be a person of faith requires constantly adapting to new situations, new opportunities, and new people for the sake of remaining faithful to the one, true God. Such faithfulness requires many changes as we continually seek how to make our love for our neighbor as real today as it was yesterday.

So, what changes might your life need in order to remain faithful to those things (and people) that are most important to you?

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven – Ecclesiastes 3:1.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The plot hinges on such details

Think of the most momentous events in your life. I mean those moments that changed everything. Did you know they were momentous at the time? If you're like me, not always. Often the grandest of moments disguise themselves as the most run of the mill events. Philip Yancey hits upon this truth in his book, Reaching for the Invisible God. “In a play or a movie, the most ordinary events - walking out to buy a paper, getting into a car, answering the phone - may have momentous implications. The plot hinges on such details, and the audience watches carefully because it does not know which one may prove significant or hold an essential clue.”

While we usually do a good job of paying attention during a movie (if it’s a good one!) we often have a more difficult time staying alert in our everyday lives. And yet, if we believe that God is real and active, every moment of our lives may be a moment that changes everything. Life with God fills every moment, every event with great possibilities. It’s not that we should be on the lookout for momentous moments. Often we won’t know we’ve encountered one of these golden exchanges even after they’ve happened. Instead, we should look at each moment as an opportunity to do good, to be honest, or to be courageous. Because frankly, we never know if the moment that just passed might be the moment that changes everything for us . . . or for someone else.

Think about it. The kindness you show the teller at the bank. The handful of dollars you share with the person on the corner. The smile you offer the person waiting in line next to you. These things and things like them may seem insignificant to you, but who knows what they may mean to the person who received your kindness or even to a person who witnessed the exchange take place. The plot of another person’s life may hinge on your actions today. So heed the apostles teachings, “be ready to do whatever is good, slander no one, be peaceable and considerate, and show true humility toward all people” (Titus 3:1-2).

And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this? – Esther 4:14

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Pooh Bear, Eeyore, and Compassion

In Sunday’s text, Matthew reports that when Jesus looked out over the masses of people with all their needs and heartaches he had compassion on them. Now, we often think of having compassion on someone as simply experiencing the emotion of pity or sorrow because of another’s misfortune. We feel badly, for instance, that there are people today who do not have enough to eat. We feel badly that one of our neighbors has no family to visit them and keep them company. We feel badly and call that compassion.

Too, often we are like the loveable, but pathetic Winnie the Pooh wo once was taking a stroll along the river bank. Eeyore, his stuffed donkey friend, suddenly appears floating downstream on his back of all things. The donkey is obviously troubled about the possibility of drowning. Pooh calmly asks if Eeyore had fallen in.

Trying to appear in complete control, the anguished donkey answers, “Silly of me, wasn’t it.” Pooh overlooks his friend’s pleading eyes and remarks that Eeyore really should have been more careful. In greater need than ever, Eeyore politely thanks him for the advice (even though he needs action more than he needs advice).

Almost with a yawn, Pooh Bear notices, “I think you are sinking.” With that as his only hint of hope, drowning Eeyore asks Pooh if he would mind rescuing him. So, Pooh pulls him from the river. Eeyore apologizes for being such a bother, and Pooh, still unconcerned, yet ever so courteous, responds, “Don’t be silly . . . you should have said something sooner.”

True compassion, biblical compassion, isn’t just a feeling. It isn’t pity. It’s concerned action. This doesn’t always mean concerned rescue for there are many situations in which true rescue is beyond our ability to give. But true compassion, which positions us arm in arm with another who suffers (the word literally means to suffer with), puts us on the lookout for salvation alongside them. Think of the story of the Good Samaritan, the Levite and the priest undoubtedly felt badly for the injured man, but only the Samaritan showed the man compassion. Why? Because he moved from feelings to action. Did he solve all the injured man’s problems? No, but he certainly joined the man on the road to healing.

Ask the Lord, today, to fill you with compassion for those whose paths you cross.

Summing up: Be agreeable, be sympathetic, be loving, be compassionate, be humble. That goes for all of you, no exceptions. No retaliation. No sharp-tongued sarcasm. Instead, bless—that's your job, to bless. You'll be a blessing and also get a blessing – 1 Peter 3:8-9 (The Message)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

What's the most beautiful thing you've seen this week?

N. T. Wright asks in one of his books, “What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve seen this week?” He suggests a few things, “beautiful music – perhaps in church . . . the sun breaking through the mist . . . the curl of a squirrel’s tail as he sat nibbling a nut.” He even points to the possibility of the most beautiful thing you’ve seen this week being an experience like an unexpected new opportunity or the blossoming of a new relationship.

Life is full of beauty, if we’ll train our eyes to see it. A couple of years ago, the Washington post ran an experiment in Washington D.C. They had Joshua Bell, a leading violinist, station himself in a Metro station and play the violin for passersby. Not just any violin, but a $3 million Stradivarius. Most of the thousands of people who entered the Metro that day walked right by taking no notice of this casually dressed man who, unbeknownst to them, had played to a sold out Boston Symphony Hall just three days prior. There the minimum tickets went for $100. Here in the subway, only a handful stopped and listened to the beauty in their midst.

One of the most basic acts of faith you and I can practice every day is the practice of noticing. For how shall we ever give thanks if we don’t first take time to stop and notice the endless gifts God grants us each day? The quiet of a morning. The smile of a stranger. The comfort of a nap. Getting in the habit of noticing opens our eyes to the many ways God is at work around us. It also prepares us for the possible places God might invite us as well. For when’s the last time you saw the kid behind the fast food counter for who he truly is, someone made in the very image of God? Not someone to be ignored but someone to be celebrated as a truly remarkable work of God’s hand? I know I spend most of my life walking right by. Lord, help me be a person who notices.

By the way, the most beautiful thing I’ve seen this week – not a sight but a sound. The sound of courage. As I dropped Sophie off on her third day of Kindergarten I said to her as we pulled into the circle drive at the school, “Alright, here we are.” I heard her take a deep breath, as if she was attempting to suck in all the boldness she could muster, and then say, “Alright, here I go.” And with that, she jumped out of the car and headed off to class.

So, what’s the most beautiful thing you’ve seen this week?

God has made everything beautiful its time – Ecclesiastes 3:11

Thursday, August 20, 2009

My how time flies

This next week is a big week in the Sandlin household. Sophie starts kindergarten. It’s a cliché to say, “My how the time flies” but most clichés become repeated for a reason. These first five years have flown by. There’s joy, without a doubt. Especially on Sophie’s part. Life still feels abundant to a five year old. No looking back. As she starts this first day of school, she can in no way see the end of that journey. Graduation from high school might as well be a thousand years away. But the rest of us know better. We know that time has a way of slipping through our fingers.
That knowledge, which is a gift given to those who are able to look back over a few decades, causes milestones to be marked by both joy and sadness. Joy over how far we’ve come. Sadness over the fact that we know we shall not pass that way again. If we’re not careful that sadness can turn into despair. For as time flies, it takes with it our strength, our energy, and many of our unfinished plans. Even King David, with all his previous days of vigor and vitality, could not prevent the day from coming when he would lay shivering beneath the covers, frail and aged, awaiting his departure from this world. That image is enough to depress the best of us. With this inevitable end in mind, we realize that every joyful milestone is also one more step towards that final milestone, and that knowledge tempts us to wallow in some form of perverted nostalgia.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that the last marker of this life isn’t the final marker on our road. In fact, the truth we proclaim as Christians is that in death we’ve just reached the end of the on-ramp onto a far greater road. C.S. Lewis described that road in his Narnia books as one that will lead us forever “further in and further up.” My guess is that the greater reality of our last day here on this earth will be much more like Sophie’s first day of kindergarten than we realize. While there will no doubt be a little fear of the unknown, by the end of the day there will be no thought of looking back. There will simply be too much in front of our eyes that thrills our souls.

Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever - Psalm 23:6.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

(Be)Coming Clean

The story is told of a young entrepreneur who had just opened his own office and was eager to impress everyone. So when the first visitor appeared at his door, he picked up the phone and began to fake an important conversation: "No, you tell him we won't sign the contract for less than a million! I won't hear of anything less. If he has any trouble with that, I've got a dozen top corporations lined up to pay us what we're worth! Got that?"

He hung up and smiled at his visitor: "What can I do for you?"

Sheepishly, the man at the door answered, "Um.... I'm here to connect the phone."

“Caught red handed,” we might say. While we don't wish such embarrassment upon anyone, most of us can sympathize with the man's predicament. There’s not a one of us who hasn’t at one time or another been “caught” in a sin. We've been caught in lies, caught cheating, caught looking where we shouldn't look. If we were somehow forced to make public confession of our many sins in the comment section below, our embarrassment would certainly far exceed that of this eager young man. I know I’d be embarrassed. Who wouldn’t be?

Fortunately for all of us, God isn’t in the business of embarrassing us. He is, however, in the business of redeeming us. And part of redeeming us is dealing with our sins. Now ultimately, our sins have been dealt with, once and for all by Jesus on the cross. The debt has been paid. That’s what grace is all about. No longer is there any need for us to attempt to finagle ourselves into right relationship with God. The other part of dealing with our sins, however, belongs to us. We must confess to God what we have done (or not done). This is the way in which we receive God's forgiveness. To put it simply, we must come clean so that he can make us clean.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness - 1 John 1:7.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The blessedness of rest, the danger of sloth

After a very busy summer, Alyson, the kids, and I enjoyed a weekend at Lake Granbury with no phone, no television, and no internet. Unplugged from all the gadgets that steal minutes from our day, we did things slowly. We skipped rocks. We dug for clams. We worked a thousand piece puzzle. We sat on the dock and fished without catching any fish. We rested. And it was good.

I admit such slowness doesn’t come easily for me. As I’m sure is the case for you, too, there is always something else to do on my to-do list. When tempted to skip out on moments of rest, on Sabbaths for the soul, I remember the story that’s told of a old preacher who upon coming back from a day off was met by a crusty parishioner who sarcastically noted, “The devil never takes a day off.”

Without missing a beat, the wise old preacher responded, “That’s probably what turned him into a devil.”

In attempting to work till we drop, who are we attempting to imitate? Obviously, not God. From the very first chapter of the Bible, God models for us the holiness of rest. We need rest in our lives. It is God ordained. And if you’re too busy to rest and find time to just be still in God’s presence, you’re as Alister McGrath puts it, “busier than God ever intended you to be.”

Of course, God wants us to both rest and work. Each has its proper place in our lives. All work and no play may make Jack a dull boy, but all play will make him even duller. God’s command to rest is not a call to laziness or sloth. Such overindulgence can lead to a dulling of the spirit as readily as being a workaholic. And a dull spirit is wide open to the temptations of the flesh. After all, this week’s sermon text, which reports the most notorious sin in the Bible outside of Genesis 3, begins with the often overlooked phrase, “Late one afternoon, David got up from a nap. . . ”

So let us work and let us rest. Let us do both for the glory of God.

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. – 1 Corinthians 10:31

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The trouble with prayer

This week in VBS, the kids have been studying the book of Daniel, which of course, means I have been studying the book of Daniel. This is one of the great dangers of teaching others – you might possibly learn something as well. I say dangerous because you simply never know where “learning” will take you. While ignorance might be bliss, learning something new can be terrifying. Who knows what changes some new knowledge may require of you? Especially if that new knowledge comes from God through prayer.

Think of Daniel. Daniel was a man of great prayer. Now, we often think of prayer as simply some quaint way of talking to God – kind of a superstitious way to guard against trouble. Talking to God, however, hardly ever keeps us out of trouble. For while that might seem to be our main goal in life, the scriptures seem to reveal that keeping us trouble free isn’t high on God’s priority list. Far from keeping Daniel out of trouble, prayer seemed to keep propelling Daniel right into the middle of it. Prayer kept informing Daniel of what a true loyalty to God really looked like. In at least one case it looked like the bottom of the lions’ den (remember, prayer got Daniel into the lions den well before it got him out of there).

Prayer more than anything else we might do, connects us with God’s work in the world, a work that is as subversive to the world’s ways as it is good for those who will submit themselves to it. Our primary example of this is Jesus Christ who came to undo the ways of this world, the ways of sin and death. What did we do to him? We put him on a cross. When we pray, we are asking God to replace our ignorance of his ways with a realization of his will. After all, he taught us to pray, “Your will be done.” I wonder, though, are we actually ready to do his will? What if it leads us right into the middle of the lions’ den? What if it leads us to a cross? C.S. Lewis compared a person who goes looking for God in prayer with a mouse that went out looking for the cat. That seems about right.

So why in the world would we pray? Why did Daniel pray? Perhaps he realized the great truth that for as fearful a life lived with God might seem to others – it’s nothing compared to how frightful a life lived with out him would be. For while the jaws of the lion certainly scare, Daniel knew, they’re nothing compared to the hand of an Almighty God.

For [Daniel’s God] is the living God and he endures forever . . . He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions – Daniel 6:26, 27.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Only God and well loved infants

This week is Vacation Bible School at Southland. I love Vacation Bible School. It’s a wonderful opportunity to share the stories of our faith with our children so that they can begin to grasp how wide and long and high and deep the love of Christ is for them and for others. I love that VBS is a chance for me to be reminded of that love as well. No matter our age we need such reminders and I was blessed to be given one this week. It happened when Matt, our youth minister, brought his six month old little girl, Finley into the office. As you would expect, work quickly came to a halt as we all gathered around Finley and made fools of ourselves. Finley smiled and cooed and delighted in us as we delighted in her. A precious, grace-filled moment.

The next morning, I came across a passage in one of Kathleen Norris’ writings that put that holy moment in a new light. She spoke of a similar occasion in an airport when a baby was entertaining a group of strangers with his smiles. She noted how the baby seemed to erupt in delight anytime “he recognized a human face, no matter whose it was, no matter if it was young or old, pretty or ugly, bored or happy or worried-looking.” In an unusual twist, she then compared the way this infant indiscriminately delighted in another’s humanity with the way God must look at us. God looks at our faces so that he might delight once more in those he has made and called good.

Norris goes on to encourage, “And as Psalm 139 puts it, darkness is nothing to God, who can look right through whatever evil we’ve done in our lives to the creature made in the divine image. . . I suspect that only God, and well loved infants can see this way.” We’ve grown old in our sin, as G.K. Chesterton once put it. And in our old age we judge one another upon external appearances and past offenses. But God, who is sinless and pure, is eternally young. And like Finley, God continues to look at us and truly see our humanity, his image, and it makes him smile with joy.

For the LORD takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with salvation - Psalm 149:4.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Joy in Service

Today we wrapped up our week in the McAllen area of Texas. Around thirty folks from Southland have joined other churches in a Buckner/CBF Kid’s Heart Blitz Week. We’ve spent the mornings putting on a Vacation Bible School at a Community Center in the colonia of San Carlos. Each morning we’ve had from 30-40 kids. In the afternoons we’ve been working on a couple of houses in that same area. On one house we simple painted the exterior and on another, we’ve put siding up on the entire house and then painted (see photos in previous posts). We finished up at noon today and then headed to South Padre for an afternoon on the beach.

The week has been wonderful on every front. It’s been a delight to watch our teenagers (and even a couple of our children) catch the excitement of serving others. They’ve taken the initiative in figuring out ways to serve, they’ve worked long and hard in the heat without complaining, and they’ve shared their faith with sincerity and passion. They’ve also learned that when we do missions, not only do we bless others, but we also are blessed. It’s been fun to watch them react as the children have become attached to them and as families have thanked them for their work.

Yesterday, I also received an email from some missionaries in Kenya where Jeremy and Sarah, our Water for All missionaries, have been working for the last few weeks. The e-mail went on and on about what a blessing Jeremy and Sarah have been to them, their family, and to the people they work with. I’m reminded once again that God is at work in every corner of this world. He delights when we go out of our way to love each other in his name. As your pastor, it makes my heart sing to know that we are a church who finds joy in joining God in his mission of redeeming the world.

“At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” – Philippians 2:10-11.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Kid's Heart - Update 3

A few photos from Wednesday. We completely finished painting one house and got very close to finishing the second (the one we put the siding on). Tomorrow morning we'll finish up the painting, do our last day of VBS, and then head to South Padre for an afternoon of relaxing.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Monday, July 13, 2009

Kid's Heart Mission Trip - Update 1

We just finished up our first day of manual labor - we put up siding on one house and painted another. The kids and teenagers did great. This was after spending the morning putting on a VBS at a local community center. Enjoy the pics.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Scoundrels like me.

As I’ve been studying the life of David over the last few months, I must admit, I find him a difficult character. Though he shows up as the hero in many stories, he appears the villain in many others. For all he gets right, he gets a thousand things wrong. His motivations don’t always seem pure. His actions are often self-serving. Maybe I find him difficult because he reminds me too much of me.

When we read the Bible, we often look for people that we can imitate. We want Esther’s courage or Solomon’s wisdom, Daniel’s faithfulness or Moses’ leadership skills. The problem with this approach, however, is that outside of Jesus, every character in the Bible is deeply flawed. Each, through the grace of God, gets some things right, but the flaws also abound – murderers, cowards, adulterers, the list goes on and on. While we can joyfully imitate aspects of each of these lives, we must remember that who we ultimately imitate isn’t a person, but God at work in that person.

This, of course, is good news – that God works through scoundrels like me. God has chosen to work in this world not through those who have it all together, but through real, fallen, everyday people. People like you and me, who are sometimes mean or lazy or downright selfish. When I think about it, are there any other kind? When God works through us, he doesn’t excuse our sinfulness. Nowhere does God celebrate David’s sins, instead, he chastises him. But God forgives our sins, even the worst of sins, so that he may do a new work in us.

I think the reason David’s story keeps being told, is that for all his foibles, David kept coming back to the Lord. He kept coming back for forgiveness, and strength, and love. He kept dealing with God. Remarkably, miraculously, graciously, God kept coming back to him. Kept including David in his plans. Gives me hope, how about you?

“Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the LORD Almighty – Micah 3:7.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Julie's mini-sermon

Julie Merritt, pastor of Providence Baptist Church in Hendersonville, N.C., and a classmate of mine at Truett followed me Thursday night. She's an excellent speaker and called us to love people in particular and not in general.

Oops - I went 36 seconds over!

The clock doesn't lie. I went 36 seconds over my allotted seven minutes. At least no one threw anything at me. Here's my sermon from Thursday night's CBF meeting for those who would like to see it. The sound isn't good at all. Not sure what that's about.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Singing from the cave

As we follow the story of David on Sunday mornings, it’s easy to think that his ascension to the throne was quick and without trouble – ok, without much trouble. We think of David being anointed, of tackling that giant problem the Israelites were having, and then quickly taking the throne after Saul’s death. All quick and easy, right? Maybe in the Reader’s Digest version of the story. But the story the Bible tells is one of heartache and disappointments of danger and close calls.

Shortly after his glorious victory over Goliath, David is sitting in Saul’s court playing his harp and minding his own business when he hears the whoosh of spear hurled his way. Have the Philistines invaded? Is this a surprise attack? Nope. It’s just King Saul deciding he can’t have someone as popular as David hovering around the throne. From that moment onward David’s reward for killing the giant and saving the day would be a decade of running for his life. Think about that. Ten years of looking over his shoulder, of covering his tracks, of wondering if life would ever return to normal. Some reward for doing what was right.

Most of us think that if we just do what is right, good things will happen to us. And while the principle generally holds – work hard on your homework and you’ll get a good grade – it doesn’t always. One needs to look no further than David or Job or Jesus to see that sometimes all we get for all our good efforts is other people’s enmity. The world doesn’t always make sense.

So what do we do in the midst of the chaos? What did David do? At first, the scriptures tell us, David went and hid in a cave (1 Sam 22:1). Not exactly the height of bravery. But there in the cave, David apparently went back to the one thing that always brought him solace, the worship of God. David would go to writing songs, three of which are recorded in Psalms 142, 57, and 34. In those songs David discovered that God had not abandoned him. God was still at work in David’s life and in the world around him despite the current circumstances. This awareness would give David the strength he needed to press on in the midst of overwhelming trials, the grace he needed to maintain his righteousness in the face of Saul’s evil, and the patience to wait on the LORD’s deliverance for as long as was required.

Are you suffering today for doing what’s right? Do you feel like hiding in a cave? Sing one of David’s songs and find the God who “is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).

“Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me, for in you I take refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed” (Psalm 57:1).

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Read it to me again

This Sunday we open our Bibles to one of the most familiar Bible stories of all time – David and Goliath. Almost everyone knows the story of David and Goliath. People who have never even read the Bible somehow still know the story of David and Goliath. Most of us first heard the story when we were very little children. Because of that fact, it’s easy to think this is just a children’s story. It is a children’s story – a wonderful children’s story – but it’s not just a children’s story. That is, it’s not a story that we simply stop needing to hear once we get older. In fact, most of the stories we learned as children are stories that we need to keep on hearing again and again – for stories, unlike other types of information continue to teach new truths long after their first hearings.

Eugene Peterson, a wonderful writer and teller of stories, explains, “Learning stories isn’t the same as learning the multiplication tables. Once we’ve learned that three times four is twelve, we’ve learned it and that’s that. It’s a fact that doesn’t change. The data is stored in our memory for ready access. But stories don’t stay put; they grow and deepen. The meaning doesn’t exactly change, but it matures. Having learned the meaning of love, for instance, we don’t for a moment suppose that we’ve passed that course and can now go on to other things, deciding perhaps to sign up computer science” (from Peterson’s Leap Over a Wall, his excellent work on the life of David).

The stories we tell our children tend to teach them (and us) the basics of life. But the basics of life, like what it means to love one another or what it means to trust God are something we never truly master. The basics – faith, hope, and love – are things we must keep learning to put into practice again and again and again. Which is exactly why we need to keep hearing the stories of our faith anew. We need to hear the story of that young boy facing that ugly giant once more, because, frankly, we’ve all encountered new giants since the last time we heard David shout out, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty.” We’ve struggled to internalize that same holy bravado. We’ve grown timid in our old age. We need to hear the story again so that the great truths of the scripture may reach deeper into our hearts and spring afresh into the those moments of our lives when we find ourselves unexpectedly facing an intimidating giant with only a slingshot, a handful of stones, and a prayer.

“I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” – Matthew 17:20.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Of beginnings and endings

Sunday, we at Southland, start a sermon series, Faith, Failure and the Grace of God, based upon the life of David. As with almost all good and true stories, David’s beginnings overlap someone else’s ending. Namely, those of Saul and Samuel. At the start of 1 Samuel 16 we find Samuel grieving over Saul – a strange fact, since Saul’s not dead yet. What is dead, or at least has been proclaimed dead, is Saul’s kingship. Now, Samuel was no fan of Saul’s, but he was dedicated to Israel, and his grieving may be as much for the nation as it was for the now doomed king. All he held dear, all the nation held dear, seemed to be in jeopardy.

I think we can sympathize with the old man. We’ve all had times when our dreams were dashed, when our leaders disappointed us, when denominations and churches we once counted on and believed in fell apart at the seams. When we identify our own encounters with failure with Samuel’s, we realize that more than grieving Saul’s end, Samuel is grieving the loss of hope. He’s in danger of giving up on what God might do through him, on what God might do through his people. Interestingly, God doesn’t allow Samuel to sit in his puddle of self-pity long. He tells him to stop grieving, to get up, clean himself off, and get ready for a task. God is sending Samuel to anoint a new king.

Give Samuel credit. For a man lost in grief a few verses before, he gets tuned into God’s Spirit in a hurry. He heads off on the task (a dangerous one at that – remember the present king isn’t dead yet!) and soon finds himself searching Jesse’s sons for the next king of Israel. He looks at Eliab, surely this must be the one. “No,” God whispers “he is not the one.” Neither is Abinadab, or Shammah, or any of the other sons of Jesse present that day. Impressively, Samuel doesn’t jump the gun. In his impatience, he doesn’t settle for second best. Patiently, he realizes that God must have something else in store.

Sure enough, there is another son. He’s small. He’s young. But he does exist. They’ll call him in from the fields. Neither Jesse or his other seven sons understands why Samuel would want to see this overlooked boy, but the old prophet insists. In fact, Samuel won’t even let anyone sit down until this young boy gets in from the fields. Talk about a change of heart. Samuel has moved from despair and disappointment to faith and hope. He will not sit down until God shows up. I love that. It’s a posture of expectancy.

We know the rest of the story well – or at least we will know the rest of the story well after spending ten weeks with it in worship. But I wonder, how many of us feel more like Samuel today than David? Are you disappointed, let down, almost done for? Can we hear God’s invitation to turn our eyes from what’s gone wrong to what might be? Can we like Samuel, somehow find the hope and the faith necessary to wait for God’s next move? Can we be bold enough to refuse to sit down until God shows up? Who knows, our current, apparent ending may actually be an adventurous beginning to some grand, new story God is just itching to tell.

Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – Ephesians 2:4-5.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Rolling Stones

Yes, we’re back from vacation. Lots of thanks to Matt for filling the pulpit last Sunday. Matt always does an excellent job with the sermon which allows me to truly get away on the Sundays I’m not here. Alyson, the kids, and I went to Texarkana for a few days to see my parents. We had a wonderful visit. We even managed to get in that day trip to the diamond mine at Murfreesboro that I’ve written about before. I can’t tell you how excited Sophie was. I know that in her mind she was envisioning a cave with sparkling diamonds embedded in the walls. The reality is a big field of dirt and rock with very little shade. We dug and sifted and searched, but alas, no diamonds. Sophie wasn’t too disappointed. We walked away with a big, blue *diamond* from the gift shop that’s about the size of a golf ball. It also helped that there was a swimming pool.

Although we didn’t find a diamond, we did find plenty of other kinds of rocks. Though unimpressive upon first glance, I told the kids that if we took them home and washed them off and placed them in our rock tumbler they would become as shiny and pretty as the rocks in the gift shop. They were hooked. The first thing Sophie did when we got home was ask about the tumbler. I pulled it out, filled it with rocks, grit, and water, and flipped it on. I told Sophie that she was going to have to be patient – to truly polish these rocks would take almost a month. That’s a long time for a four year old (as well as for a lot of adults). I explained that for as long as a month is, it’s a short time compared to the way God polishes a rock in nature. There it takes thousands of years of rolling around in a river bed. I’m not sure she got the point. It will be interesting to see if her attention span allows her to remain interested in this project for very long.

Of course, she’s not the only person who has trouble being patient as God does his transforming work in the world. We all do. I’m reading Eugene Peterson’s book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, in which he contends that true discipleship requires just what the title indicates. The problem is not the appeal of the gospel. Many find the gospel’s story appealing. The trouble is with our attention spans. He writes, “There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.” We find the promises of the gospel appealing – holiness, wholeness, and the whole bit. But many of us lose interest when we discover this transformation takes more than a couple of days.

The rock tumbler is now in our garage. It makes quite a bit of noise as it rolls and tumbles along. At first, the noise slightly annoyed me. I’ve started to find comfort in it, though. It is reminding me that God is at a similar slow and deliberate work in me – if I’ll be patient and not lose hope.

[I am] confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus – Philippians 1:6.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Put on your clothes!

When you woke up this morning, how long did you spend getting ready to head out the door? Did you take a while trying to pick out what to wear? Are you one of those people who picks out their clothes the night before? Did it need ironing (mine did)? How long did you spend on your hair? Makeup? Shaving? Making oneself presentable can take a little while, can’t it? That’s especially true if you’re trying to make a good impression. I admit that I spend a little more time getting ready on Sunday mornings than I do on Saturday mornings. Who of us hasn’t agonized over which shirt or dress to wear on a date?

For all the effort we put into our physical appearances, the apostle Paul writes we should put even more effort into our spiritual appearances. He writes that we are to “clothe [ourselves] with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience . . . and over all these virtues put on love.” What a beautiful image. Every morning, just as we put on our physical clothes, we are to clothe ourselves with those virtues that make us look like Jesus. Paul’s words remind us that this clothing is often a conscious effort. If I don’t choose to wear kindness today, I’ll likely be mean spirited. If I forget to consciously choose to put on humility, I run the risk of being caught in public wearing only my pride (far worse than being caught in your bathrobe if you ask me!).

But how do we choose such things? Well, just like it takes time to get physically ready in the morning, it also takes time to get spiritually ready. Spend time in God’s word which acts as a mirror for our souls. Spend time in prayer actually asking God to dress you up for the day. You can even do both at once. You could memorize this verse (Colossians 3:12-14) by writing it on a note card and putting it on your bathroom mirror. Then use it as a centering prayer as you get ready every morning. That is, repeat the verse in the form of a prayer over and over as you comb your hair and brush your teeth and take a shower as a way of getting dressed up in these virtues. And as you head out the door, don’t forget the most important part of all, throw on that coat of love which binds up the whole Christian life in one beautiful ensemble.

Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature – Romans 13:13-14.