Thursday, December 22, 2011

Wait, wait. I'm not ready for Christmas.

This morning I had to convince my overly eager children that there were still three days left until Christmas. Sophie saw no need to count one of those days claiming there were only two days left. “Depends on how you count,” she said.

It’s easy to tell, my kids are ready for Christmas. I am not.

All I can think of is how much I have left to do. I have to finish up a couple of sermons. Fine tune a couple of gifts. I have to double check all my lists and make sure I haven’t forgotten anything. I find myself pleading with the calendar, “Could you slow down just a bit? I’m not quite ready for Christmas.” Maybe you feel the same way.

Ready or not, though, Christmas is on the way. It will show up regardless of whether or not my to-do lists are complete. Surprisingly, Christmas’ stubborn refusal to delay is a form of grace. For who can ever be ready for Christmas, really. Not just the day, mind you, but the Christ who came and still comes on Christmas day. How does one get ready for the coming of one’s King?

Sure there’s the repentance and the straightening up of one’s soul. Both good and proper things, no doubt. But after one has done all the cleaning up of one’s heart, a quick look around our lives reminds us that our meager souls are still pretty poor quarters for the Lord of all creation. The closer he gets the more we find ourselves saying, “Wait, wait. Things are not ready. I am not ready.”

And yet, Christ comes anyway for his coming is not about our worthiness, but his mercy. Not about our togetherness, but his care. Not about our worthiness, but his love.

Maybe that’s why kids are always ready for Christmas and adults are not. Children are always ready to receive a gift, even a gift they could never earn. We adults on the other hand, have trouble just standing there with open hands, especially with boxes on our to-do lists unchecked.

But Christmas is coming whether we’re ready or not. Thank the Lord.

What do you have that you did not receive? – 1 Corinthians 4:7

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Get the Thank You Notes Ready

This post was originally published in December of 2009.

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

Friday, December 16, 2011

Longing for More (Revisited)

This post was originally published in December of 2009.  I've added several coffee mugs to my own collection since then.

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.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Learning to Appreciate our Gifts

Shoppers are beginning to get that look of desperation in their eyes. They scramble to and fro on these last days before Christmas, searching now, not for that perfect gift for the ones they love, but simply for a gift so that the tree will not be bare. I’m doing the same. I still lack a couple of gifts before my gift buying is complete. In all the stress and trouble, I wonder: do we even remember the gifts we gave last year? Do we remember the gifts we received? If you’re like me, it takes some effort. If I can’t even remember those gifts, can I really be said to appreciate them?

G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “The aim of life is appreciation; there is no sense in not appreciating things; and there is no sense in having more of them if you have less appreciation of them.” Part of the problem is that appreciating things takes time. We rarely get off the treadmill of consumption long enough to recognize the beauty and the value of the gifts we already possess.

Sometime this Christmas, either before or after you unwrap the packages, pause and do some appreciating. Take time to give thanks for the greatest gifts in your life. My guess is that they won’t be things but people. And the things that matter most, will be the things that are most intimately connected to the people. I think of my grandfather’s watch. It’s not an expensive watch, nor is it a style I’d buy for myself. But it was his, and now it’s mine. And of all my various possessions, it’s probably one of the few I appreciate the most. Which reminds me, the perfect gift is not so much about the one who receives it (his likes, her tastes, their desires), but about the one who gave it (her love, his care, their kindness). At least for me, remembering that truth replaces much of the stress of this season with the joy of gratitude.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son . . .” – John 3:16

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

God as a Toddler (Revisited)

My little boy turns five this week.  With its nearness to Christmas, his birthday is always a time when I find myself reflecting upon the meaning of the incarnation.  Here's a blog post from 2008 in which I pondered what it must have been like for God Almighty to turn two.

He so loved us that, for our sake,
He was made man in time,
although through him all times were made.
He was made man, who made man.
He was created of a mother whom he created.
He was carried by hands that he formed.
He cried in the manger in wordless infancy,
he the Word, without whom all human eloquence is mute.
— St. Augustine

My youngest will turn two tomorrow. Two is already proving to be a tough age. For the last couple of weeks our once happy-go-lucky baby has increasingly become a frustrated and upset toddler. I think the reason is plain enough. His doing and thinking are progressing faster than his speaking (or at least faster than his parents’ ability to interpret his speaking). On numerous occasions John Curtis will say something which makes perfect sense to him but to my adult ears sounds something like “blah-blah” (think a reversal of Charlie Brown’s teacher here).

I’ll ask, “Do you want a drink?”

He’ll respond, “No” – a word he articulates clearly – and then say again “more ‘blah-blah.’”

I’ll try something else, “A snack?”

“No. More ‘blah-blah.’”

“To sit with Daddy?”

“No! More ‘blah-blah.’”

“To go back to bed?”


I can understand why the boy gets frustrated. I get frustrated for him (and in weaker moments with him). I’d like to comfort him with the thought that he’ll soon outgrow this particular limitation. He will, but the truth is, there will be others. So goes the constraints of our humanity.

As I pause this Advent season and think once more of the incarnation I wonder what it was like for God Almighty to be God-the-toddler. Was it frustrating for the God who spoke the universe into being to be forced to learn to use lips and tongue to form the most basic of requests? Did he get frustrated when Mary and Joseph looked down at him in their own frustration, not having a clue what he was talking about? Like any two year old (but unlike any of them, as well), I’m sure he did. Why did God submit himself to such troubles and many more? St. Augustine put it well, because he loved us.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us – John 1:14.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


Alyson and I were talking the other day about the way things were when we were a kid (a sure sign we’re getting older). We were remembering life before cell phones and e-mail and instant messaging. We remembered with some nostalgia back when you didn’t even have cordless phones in your house. Both of us can remember as children, talking on the kitchen phone wondering around the kitchen stretching that long, curly and often kinked cord to its full length (which was quite long). With such limited telecommunication tools available, you couldn’t talk to anyone at anytime. Sometimes you had to wait. 

We’ve come along way. Information flows at the speed of light. Life seems speed by at the same rate. Just this week, I marveled at the speed with which certain college football programs fire and hire head coaches. Sometimes the transition took only hours. In one case, I’m pretty sure the previous coach hadn’t even cleared out his office yet. Obviously, the speed with which we talk to one another has had unintended consequences. 

As a society we have become an impatient people. And yet those who long to encounter the miraculous must be a patient people. Just think of Mary hearing the angel’s words, “Mary, you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.” The thing with the miraculous (not to mention the thing with being pregnant) is it can’t be rushed. It happens according to a heavenly schedule that can’t be hurried or fast forwarded.

So we patiently wait for God to move. What unexpectedly happens for the patient person is they discover God not just in the moving but also in the waiting. Henri Nouwen put it this way, “The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us. Impatient people are always expecting the real thing to happen somewhere else and therefore want to go elsewhere. The moment is empty. But patient people dare to stay where they are. Patient living means to live actively in the present and wait there.”

Let us be a people who have the guts to stay where we are and seek God there.

“Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; 31but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” Isaiah 40:30-31.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

It Doesn't Feel Like Christmas

For most of us, family traditions surrounding the holidays are what make the season feel like Christmas. There’s just something about us humans that loves doing things the way we’ve done them before. And for what it’s worth there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Putting the decorations in the same places every year, eating the same foods, seeing the same folks can all serve as a wonderful way to knit a family together and emphasize their collective values. At our house, we know it's Christmas when the advent wreath shows up on the coffee table. The kids enjoy the lighting of the candles and the reading of a Christmas devotional. Actually, what they enjoy is blowing out the candle each night! Alyson and I trust the truth of the stories is sinking deep into their hearts even if their immediate focus is elsewhere.

But, traditions alone do not make Christmas. For one thing, the very best of our traditions can be undone by life’s circumstances. Alyson’s sister likes to tell the story of how my coming into their family’s life thoroughly messed up their Christmas. Growing up, after all the festivities of Christmas Eve, Alyson and Lindsey would crawl into bed together and read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Obviously, that wasn’t going to work now that Alyson and I were married. They tried reading it to one another over the phone, but like every family who’s ever had to adjust one of their cherished traditions, they lamented, “It’s just not the same.”

Truth be told, no tradition lasts forever. This year, families in our church are having to change treasured traditions because of job loss, illness, kids growing up and moving away, divorce, death, and more. Perhaps, your family is one of them. You have my prayers. A word of encouragement, though, don’t give up on Christmas. Christmas is more than our feelings about the season. Christmas is primarily God sending a light into our darkness. Henri Nouwen puts it this way, “Songs, good feelings, beautiful liturgies, nice presents, big dinners, and sweet words do not make Christmas. Christmas is saying yes to a hope based on God’s initiative, which has nothing to do with what I think or feel. Christmas is believing that the salvation of the world is God’s work and not mine.” Nouwen has hit it on the head. Christmas is so much bigger than our family traditions, Christmas is about the salvation of the world. So, when our traditions fall apart, and the world around us darkens once more, that’s we need Christmas more than ever.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Semantics of the Season (aka. "The War on Christmas")

“The War on Christmas” has made quite a few headlines over the last few years. This battle, according to those doing the reporting, pits secular humanists against religious zealots in an all out fight over the semantics of the season. “Happy Holidays” vs “Merry Christmas” dominates the Christmas e-mail rounds among other things so that one almost feels like a heathen if one’s Christmas card happens to use the wrong phrase.

My two cents for what it’s worth. I understand that most good Christian folks in this fight have good intentions. They want people to know the true reason we as Christians celebrate Christmas. Nevertheless, the whole fight seems a little silly to me. If we are truly going to have a battle for Christmas shouldn’t it be a little more substantive than this? The words we use are important, but only if they reflect our true values and our actual actions. It’s one thing to say “Merry Christmas,” it’s a whole other thing to allow the Christ of Christmas to reign in one’s heart and home. 

The true battle for Christmas has to be in our own hearts and souls as we try to determine which call we will respond to, the call of Christ or the call of the shopping mall. I just don’t think that a fight over the words we use for a holiday greeting are going to bring a lot of folks to the true meaning of Christmas. Second, in light of the way Christ came, doesn’t the whole concept of a “battle” for Christmas seem a little odd? A battle is exactly what the Jews of Jesus’ day were expecting - a messiah who would come and wipe the Romans off the face of the earth. Instead, God sent a baby in a manger. Hardly, a leader ready for war. 

The late Madeleine L’Engle put it this way in her poem about Christ’s birth, “Like Every Newborn.”
               Girded for war, humility his mighty dress, 
               He moves into the battle wholly weaponless. 

If you’re really concerned about the state of Christmas this year, follow the example of Christ. Humble yourself, discard your possessions, and give of yourself to others without regard for how they will respond or what words they will say. Against all expectations, it worked for Jesus as his gospel took hold and changed the world. Such unlikely methods would probably work for us as well. 

“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” – Philippians 2:5-8.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Finding God this Christmas

Every evening in December, as lie down to sleep, I notice that I am more exhausted than the night before.  School programs, extra services at church, family get-togethers, the shopping: these are all good things, but they take their toll.  Fatigue sets in and then frustration.  The simplest of troubles cause you to start to lose your cool.  What’s supposed to be a season of reflection and joy passes by at such a frenzied pace that we find ourselves like the people of Bethlehem – close to Christ, but ignorant of his presence in our midst.

We do trust that Christ is near, even if we are unaware.  That is the message of the season. But how do we tune our hearts so that we might be sensitive to his presence in our lives?  Three suggestions for finding Jesus this year:
  1. Schedule a day of peace – We schedule days for parties and for shopping and for family.  Schedule a day of reflection (or even half a day).  When others invite you to do something on that day, politely respond, “I’m sorry, I already have plans for that day.” Unplug the TV, turn off the computer and the cell phone (all of your emails and texts will be there the next day).   Spend the day reading a good book (include The Good Book), listening to your favorite Christmas music, and resting in God’s presence.
  2.  Look for God in the busyness – I know, this sounds weird, but hang with me.  Yes, God is often found in the quiet moments of our lives, but he’s also there at the parties, family get-togethers, and church services (Lord, we pray!).  We just need to be on the lookout for him.  One thing I’ve gotten in the practice of doing before I go into any setting with other people is to pray, “Lord, help me find your presence among the person/people I am about to interact with.”  It’s amazing how that simple prayer changes tasks on my to-do list into opportunities for experiencing God’s presence in my life.
  3. Do something for someone else – I don’t mean just give money to someone in need.  That’s one thing we can do for other people. Giving money is a good thing, but there are many others.  Take time to visit someone in nursing home who doesn’t get many visitors.  Invite someone who can’t go home to see their family to enjoy your family’s Christmas celebration.  Write a letter to someone letting them know what they mean to you.  As you do things, remember that Jesus said, “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

 At Christmas, we celebrate God with us.  Trusting he is here, let’s not forget to be on the lookout for his presence in our lives.

“So roll up your sleeves, put your mind in gear, be totally ready to receive the gift that's coming when Jesus arrives. Don't lazily slip back into those old grooves of evil, doing just what you feel like doing. You didn't know any better then; you do now. As obedient children, let yourselves be pulled into a way of life shaped by God's life, a life energetic and blazing with holiness” – 1 Peter 1:13-16, The Message

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Go Stick Your Head Under a Tree (Again!)

I realized this year that I've been doing Christmas devotionals for enough years now to have one for almost every day until Christmas.  Mainly for own enjoyment, I'm going to re-post several again.  Hopefully, they'll be a blessing to you, as well.

The following was first blogged in December of 2008.

The other day I walked into the living room and chuckled. Out from beneath the newly decorated Christmas tree stuck two little bodies. The heads of those two little bodies were tucked deep underneath the evergreen branches. My children, Sophie and John Curtis, looked up mesmerized at all that glittering, sparkling Christmas glory. Laying aside my to-do list, I joined them for a little Christmas tree gazing. It had been a long time since I’d stuck my head under a Christmas tree just to enjoy the view.

Aided by the eyes of my children, the tree was as beautiful as I remembered my own childhood tree. After all, my brother and I used to do the same thing when we were little. We’d stare into the depths of our tree for hours finding an ornament we’d never seen before or one we’d long forgotten about. Every day the tree seemed to reveal some new view. It didn’t matter that we stared at that tree for twenty-five straight days, it never got boring. It had more beauty than could be exhausted during the month of December.

The scriptures that tell the Christmas story capture my attention in much the same way. At first, as I pull these passages out for another look, I think to myself, “I’ve seen these before. We read them last year and the year before that.” But as I stick my head beneath the branches of these stories of fearful young teens comforted by heavenly host, of a tyrant of a king and some wily star gazers, of patient old prophets and a baby who is God-With-Us, inevitably I see something I hadn’t seen before or something I’d long forgotten. God speaks to my heart once more and it is beautiful.

“She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” Matthew 1:21.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Getting ready for what?

It’s Advent again. Advent literally means arrival. It is the season in which we remember Christ Jesus’ first arrival and anticipate his second. The church has historically used this as a time for preparing our hearts for Christ’s arrival. But which arrival are we preparing for? I was amused by the response of our youth minister’s son Evan, who upon having Advent explained to him once more by his father, replied, “Wasn’t Jesus born last year?” It can be confusing. In the season of advent, we practice waiting, but what is it we wait for? Jesus to be born once more in the manger? No. We do await the celebration of his birth, but our waiting is for so much more than the coming of a holiday. We wait for Christ to come again.

Why do we tend to emphasize the first advent over the second? Simply put, waiting for Christmas is fun. There are the decorations, the lights, the presents and the fun, the family in from out-of-town. There is the story of the infant Jesus who has come to save from our sins. Good news delivered via the least intimidating way possible – a newborn baby. Waiting for Christ’s return is not so much fun (at least not in the way we usually think of fun). In the second coming, the old creed tells us that Jesus comes to judge the quick and the dead. Not quite as warm and fuzzy as the nativity story (which wasn’t as warm and fuzzy as we make it out to be!).

Despite our preferences, the true preparation of the Advent season, in fact the true preparation of the entire Christian’s life, is for Christ’s second coming. Evan was right. Jesus has already been born. That truth has changed our lives in countless ways. But one of the ways is by transforming our concept of history from being a story that goes on and on forever without any ending, to a story that is headed towards a definite conclusion, Christ’s return. But how do we prepare for that Advent? What does it mean to wait for that day? It means keeping our attention on the kingdom of God and it’s values as it breaks forth into the kingdom of this world.

Keeping our attention fixed upon God’s kingdom come, changes our waiting in this life from self-centered, passive twiddling of the thumbs to a waiting that’s an active, God-focused time of preparation. First, there is the inward preparation of introspection, confession, and repentance. We allow the Spirit to search our own hearts and determine what in our lives is incompatible with the kingdom Jesus is bringing to fore. Second, there is also the outward preparation of sowing mercy and justice, kindness and compassion, generosity and forgiveness to those we encounter. More than Christmas trees, more than garland on the mantel, and lights on the house, it’s these kinds of preparations that helps us to be ready for the day our king arrives, again.

“Men of Galilee,” the angels said, “why do you you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” – Acts 1:11.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Gratitude has gone viral.

Taking the time to be silly and to give thanks.

Gratitude has gone viral.  If you’re a Facebook user, perhaps you’ve noticed that your newsfeed has become a much happier place over the last few weeks as many people have begun using their status updates as an opportunity to give thanks.  People have offered up thanks for family, friends, jobs, churches, and health - just to name a few.  These offerings of thanks have pushed to the edges the usual status updates that tend to complain about, well, family, friends, jobs, churches, and health – just to name a few. 

What’s made the difference?  Have people’s lives dramatically changed over the last few weeks?  Probably not.  My guess is that the difference is primarily found in the fact that people, prompted by the Thanksgiving holiday, have become more intentional in looking for reasons to be thankful.  In other words, they’ve just taken the time to look beyond the surface of things (most of the reasons we complain are found on the surface of things!) to the deeper realities of life.  There, in those moments of reflection, people almost always find a reason to be grateful.  To our great surprise, these reasons for thanks often lie just below the very things we so often complain about (ie. family, friends, church, jobs).

We know it doesn’t take a holiday to live this way – or at least it shouldn’t take a holiday to live this way.  It does take the discipline of reflection and the time to see the deeper truths of life.  That requires a slowing down in our living.  When our lives are crowded, even with good things, we tend to only notice the irritations.  But when we slow down, when we give ourselves time to think about the people and things in our lives we leave room for the surprise of discovering gifts where we previously thought only frustrations could be found.

Take time today, to pause, reflect, and give thanks.

 I will give thanks to the LORD because of his righteousness;
   I will sing the praises of the name of the LORD Most High – Psalm 7:17

This is Life with a capital L

Last evening in prayer meeting, we read aloud from Jesus’ prayer in John 17:3 “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”  We were reminded once again that while eternal life does have a quantitative component (it goes on and on, forever and ever), eternal life is first and foremost about a relationship.  Knowing God is life.  Notice Jesus doesn’t say that knowing God brings life, as if that life is somehow secondary to the relationship, no, the relationship is life.  This is good news for it means that our lives with God are not in some kind of holding pattern until we die.  We can experience eternal, abundant life today through a relationship with God.

But if knowing God is life – why do so many Christians seem so lifeless?  I think the reason lies in a simple mistake we often make.  Knowing God is not the same thing as knowing about God.  A lot of people know about God, but knowing about God isn’t life, knowing him is.  J. I. Packer in his classic text Knowing God explains it this way, “We are perhaps, orthodox evangelicals.  We can state the gospel clearly; we can smell unsound doctrine a mile away.  If asked how one may come to know God, we can at once produce the right formula: that we come to know God through Jesus Christ the Lord, in virtue of his cross and mediation, on the basis of his word of promise, by the power of the Holy Spirit, via a personal exercise of faith.  Yet the gaiety, goodness, and unfetteredness of spirit which are the marks of those who have known God are rare among us – rarer, perhaps, that they are in some other Christian circles where, by comparison, evangelical truth is less clearly and fully known.  Here, too, it would seem that the last may prove to be first, and the first, last.  A little knowledge of God is worth more than a great deal of knowledge about him.”   He’ll later go on to say, “You can have all the right notions in your head without ever tasting in your heart the realities to which they refer.”

The scriptures invite us to “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”  It’s the difference between knowing the recipe for your favorite dish, an actually tasting your favorite dish.  It’s the difference between knowing about someone you’ve never met or knowing your best friend.  Think about it.  Best friends are life giving.  If you’re fortunate enough to have a spouse as a best friend, then all the better.  Knowing Alyson provides me with life.  Not the information of knowing her – like when her birthday is, or where she grew up, or what her favorite flower is – I know those things – but what gives me life is knowing her.  It’s our interactions, it’s her smile, it’s sharing in her joy when she’s had a good day at school, it’s the feeling her comforting embrace after a tough day.  It’s the relationship, not the information that gives my life value. 

If this is true for a friendship with one who is equally sinful, how much more life-giving is a relationship with God. 

“This is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.  He who has the  has life” – 1 John 5:11-12

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Good news from Amarillo

Tim and I spent Monday and Tuesday of this week in Amarillo, TX at the annual meeting of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. For those of you unfamiliar with Baptist life, the BGCT is the place where Baptist churches from all over the state gather to set the budget and agenda for our cooperative mission endeavors next year. This work includes Texas Baptist universities, children’s homes, chaplaincy programs, collegiate ministries on state campuses, and much more.

Beyond the business meeting side of it, the annual meeting always a good time for ministers to see old friends from around the state. I enjoyed catching up with seminary classmates who now serve in churches in almost every corner of Texas. I was glad to hear from the dean of Truett Seminary that theological education in Texas continues to thrive and grow. Nationally, seminary attendance dropped 2% last year. Truett’s attendance increased by 10%. Two of those new Truett students have Southland connections – Isa Torres and Jeremy Boucher.

Another highlight of the meeting included the Christian Life Commission’s Hunger Luncheon. The Christian Life Commission is the arm of the BGCT that manages the Texas Baptist World Hunger Offering that we collect each time we observe the Lord’s Supper. My heart was moved by testimonies from ministers who receive those funds to feed the hungry. One such testimony came from a pastor in the Houston area whose church feeds over 100 children every day after school. Many of these children are from immigrant families who are hearing about Jesus for the very first time. Another testimony came from missionaries to a country in North Africa who use a grant from the hunger offering to feed girls who have been abandoned by their families. In doing so, they are also spreading the good news of Jesus Christ in that predominantly Muslim country.

All in all, I left Amarillo encouraged by the work that’s being done through Texas Baptist ministries here in our great state and across the globe. You should be encouraged that every time you place money in the offering plate a portion of it goes beyond the walls of our church to support the various ministries of the BGCT, ministries that are doing good work for the kingdom of God.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” – Matthew 28:18-20

Thursday, October 13, 2011

What makes your heart sing?

Having just finished up a sermon series on music, I’m reminded of a delightful question my former pastor used to inquire of those in her care. “What makes your heart sing?” she’d ask. And then she’d listen. It was a way of getting to the heart of the matter. Inevitably, a blank look would come over the person’s face as they began to search their brain, unprepared for this moment of introspection. You always knew the moment they’d found what they were looking for because the blank stare would give way to a broad smile. The very thought of this thing that makes them sing created an involuntary light upon their face.

 The answers would vary: family, making music, teaching, one guy loved classic cars. In the two years I attended that church, I never once heard someone reply, “Making money.” Apparently, we all had enough sense to know that wasn’t the correct answer for church. And yet, I wonder, if money doesn’t make many of our hearts sing? It certainly can make us most of smile when we have it and frown when we don’t. Of course, the second part of that sentence may be a key reason why nobody ever mentioned money as a something that makes their heart sing. As often as money makes us smile, it can also make us want to curse.

Jesus said that where a person’s treasure is, there will be that person’s heart. In fact, what we treasure tends to dictate how we spend our lives (and not just our cash). Some treasures prove better investments than others. Some treasures fill us with songs of joy, while others leave us constantly singing the blues. The wise person learns to treasure that which cannot be lost to the whims of the market or the current status of the job market.

 This leaves us all with the question, “What makes your heart sing?”

Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. – Luke 12:33-34

Thursday, October 6, 2011

You keep funeral files on people?! Yep. I do.

This morning a friend of mine stopped me and said, “This may be weird, but I want you to know that if I die, I have a slip of paper in the front of my Bible that has all the songs I want sung at my funeral. I thought you might want to know since you’d be the one doing my service.” I told her that wasn’t weird at all. In fact, it was really good idea. If she wanted to, she could e-mail me the list because I keep file of that sort of thing for folks and I’d be glad to make a file with her name on it. She thought that was weird! “You keep funeral files on people?!” Yep. It may be weird, but it goes with the job. Actually, it goes with life.

If the Lord doesn’t return in our lifetime, all of us will die. It’s one of the most basic truths about life, and yet, a truth we ignore. One time, I was sitting in a hearse with a funeral director and he admitted “My life is funerals and yet I don’t ever think about what I’d like done at mine.” We might wonder how that could be for someone who works with dead people every day, but it doesn’t surprise me at all. As humans, we have this logic defying ability to look at reality and say, “Yeah, but it won’t happen to me.” Just drive by the hospital and look at how many doctors and nurses are outside smoking! Denying death doesn’t mean it won’t happen. We will all die.

A wise person will seek to be prepared. On a very practical level, we can think about what we would like to happen at our own funeral. Making a list of your favorite songs and passages of scripture for use in your service can be a big help to the loved ones you leave behind. On a deeper level, facing one’s mortality helps you to be prepared to meet your Maker. If I were to die soon, what things would be left undone? Would there be sins that needed to be confessed? Relationships left unreconciled? Words left unsaid? Taking care of those things today not only helps you be prepared for your death somewhere in the future, it also helps you to be the person God wants you to be today.

“Show me, O LORD, my life’s end and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting is my life. 
You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Each man’s life is but a breath.
Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro:
He bustles about, but only in vain;
he heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it.
But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you.
Psalm 39:4-7

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Singing for Fun

Section 8 having some fun playing music at Southland for the Birthday Bash.

I love to sing. So do my kids. In fact, we don’t just like to sing, we like to make up songs. Usually, these are silly songs that play with my kid’s names or what we’re eating for breakfast. I make up songs so often that when singing, my four-year-old son will often interrupt and ask, “Dad, did you make that song up?”  My daughter, who’s older, can already tell which songs I’ve made up and which songs have been composed by more skillful hands (my songs lack a certain level of quality, to say the least). But she likes my songs anyway and now has picked up my habit by making up her own impromptu tunes. My wife looks at us all like we are a little crazy. I think we’re perfectly sane – for nothing is more natural than having fun while making music. 

Having fun with music is something we haven’t talked about in this sermon series on the gift of music; that’s a shame. One of the preacher’s great struggles is that there is always more to say. So let it be said here: the delight that music can bring to the soul is a gift from God. Even the seemingly silly can honor God if offered up with a pure heart and at the right time. What did the writer of Ecclesiastes say? Oh yes, “There’s a time for everything.” Certainly, that includes the fun that comes through singing.

We know the fun we can have singing in our cars or in the shower or with friends through a karaoke machine. But some of the best fun can be had singing with the saints. I remember as a child listening to the men singing the bass part to many a hymn and thinking – that’s fun. There was one man in our church growing up who sounded just like Elvis. When he’d sing a song, I’d close my eyes and imagine we had the King of Rock ‘n Roll singing to the King of Kings that day in worship! That was fun. And to this day, on Easter, when we sing plaintively, “Low in the grave he lay, Jesus, my Savior! Waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord!” my heart fills not only with hope but also with a childish giddiness waiting for the boisterous interruption, “Up from the grave he arose! With a mighty triumph o’er his foes . . .” That’s not just the gospel truth, it’s also a lot of fun. I think it’s ok to admit that. For fun, in its best forms, is a foretaste of that very joyful morning when Christ returns and we all lay life’s burdens down so that we may sing and dance like a kid who’s having the time of her life.

“Be of good cheer. I have overcome the world” – Jesus in John 16:33.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Favorite Hymns

The last few weeks in worship at Southland, we’ve listened as friends have shared with us some of their favorite songs. I’ve been blessed by each testimony and look forward to hearing another one in worship this week. All this testifying has me wondering, what’s my favorite song? An easy candidate would be that classic hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Barely old enough to read the words from my hymnal, I remember singing those words, “Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty! God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!” and giving my heart to the Lord. It’s been well over two decades since that moment and the first few notes of that song take me right back to my first conscious encounter with the Almighty.

Still another would have to be “Come Thou Fount.” For one, it’s one of the few songs I can sing all the way through. I’ve never been good at remembering the words to songs (just ask Alyson). I’ve always enjoyed the tune and the words. I may be a preacher, but my heart has been just as prone to wandering as any other (see verse 3). The song’s message of grace has always filled me with hope. For whatever reason, this is the song I most often sang over my children when they were infants. On many a dark night, I’ve raised my Ebenezer in an attempt to get a crying baby back to sleep. I’ve sung that song so often to the two of them that whenever they hear it now, they recognize it, smile, and say, “That’s Daddy’s song.”

And so it is.

Come, Though Fount of ev’ry blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise:

Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above;
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,
Mount of Thy redeeming love;

His mercy truly does call for songs of loudest praise. May we, his people, never stop singing.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Mere worship

This week in worship, we will continue our series on the ways God blesses our lives through music. We’ve talked before about how people were actually made to praise. We know this, in part, because we take to praising so easily. This is likely because, our enjoyment of an activity, a work of art, or even a person, doesn’t find completion until we’ve offered our praise. After a meal or perhaps an exciting sporting event, we continue the enjoyment with praise. “Mmm…that was good!” “What a game! Did you see that play?” In praise, the enjoyment of something continues and finds completion.

The praise we give to God in church, is in part, our attempts “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” We sinners, of course, still do this only poorly. And our efforts at praising God in church often fall well short of our expectations of what that event ought to be like. I’ve known many people terrified by the idea that heaven involves the perpetual praise of God because their experience of worship at church has been so disappointing. Worship seems like it should be easy, but it’s not. It’s hard work to pay attention and to keep one’s focus on God. While there are moments in which our praise of God leaves us in a state of bliss, more often we’re left wondering what went wrong.

In his book, Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis reminds us that “Our ‘services’ both in their conduct and in our power to participate, are merely attempts at worship; never fully successful, often 99.9 per cent failures, sometimes total failures. We are not riders but pupils in the riding school; for most of us the falls and bruises, the aching muscles and the severity of the exercise, far outweigh those few moments in which we were, to our own astonishment, actually galloping without terror and without disaster.”

I’ve come to love Lewis’s image. I’m certainly no horseman. The few times I’ve been on a horse, it has been a near disaster. While most of my riding has been awkward (for me and the horse) there was that brief moment when we did gallop and the horse and I were in the same rhythm, and I thought, “Yes!” I understood why people love riding so much. Of course, afterwards, I was sorer than I think I have ever been. Riding is glorious, but it isn’t easy.

The worship of God is much the same way. When it’s right, it’s glorious, but it’s never easy. Which is why we practice every week. And why, when it doesn’t work because we were distracted, or worried, or somehow out of rhythm with the rhythms of God, we don’t give up, but give it a go again the next time God’s people get together to give God praise.

Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together – Psalm 34:3.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Hurricanes, the Waffle House, and your Spiritual Health

People are always trying to figure out what’s going on in the world around them. Because none of us can posses or digest all the data that exists in the world we turn to what are called indicators. Indicators are single bits of data that give us a glimpse into the larger reality of what’s going on in the world. The Dow Jones Industrial Index would be a market indicator. The GDP would be a national economic indicator. That vein on your father’s forehead, that’s a mood indicator. Now, according to the Wall Street Journal this morning, there is the “Waffle House Index” which indicates the severity of natural disasters.

Apparently, a person can judge the severity of a hurricane or other natural disaster by how quickly the local Waffle House gets back open for business. Waffle Houses don’t tend to advertise much. Their entire marketing strategy revolves around being open when others aren’t. This means that if your local Waffle House is closed, the storm was really bad. If it’s open, you can trust things will get back to normal pretty soon. This indicator works because the fact of whether or not the Waffle House is open is connected to a whole host of other issues like supply lines, electricity, safety, etc. It’s these factors that really tell the story of how bad a storm was. But since these issues determine whether or not the Waffle House is open or not, the Waffle House becomes a solid indicator for how bad or good everything else is, as well.

What makes for good spiritual indicators? We all have them. Not all of them are good at predicting spiritual health. Think of the Pharisees. The assumed that if they avoided sinners, said their prayers before mealtime, and followed proper religious protocol down at the synagogue, then they could be assured of their spiritual health. And yet, Jesus said, such things were pretty useless in helping a person determine whether or not they were close to God because such procedural issues did not connect with the heart of the matter (which was the heart of the person).

Instead, Jesus explained, we can now if we love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds, mainly by looking at how well we are loving our neighbor – by which he meant almost any soul we come in contact with whether they be a nobody or even an enemy! Too often, we’re like the Pharisees. We have our church attendance index, or our alcohol consumption barometer, or our denominational affiliation indicator. We think these alone can tell us all we need to know about our spiritual health. But what we really need, according to Jesus, is our own version of the Waffle House index. For how you love and care for the people you meet at the Waffle House (or anywhere else) may be a far better indicator of your spiritual health than anything you do at church.

Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:37-40.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Don't like change? Don't follow Christ.

This week marked the beginning of the school year for a majority of the children in San Angelo. Some have had a better start than others. Most of the kids I talked had some measure of nervousness about the new school year. Almost all the parents I spoke with did. One of the basic truths of life is that people generally prefer what they know over what they don’t know. This is as true for adults as it is for our children. This tendency holds even when what we know isn’t that good. Time and time again, we’ll prefer the misery we know over an alternative that is uncertain.

This common human tendency to prefer the known over the unknown works against our relationship with Jesus, whose first and most frequent word to us is, “Follow me.” Follow me in serving others. Follow me in praying for your enemies. Follow me into a deeper relationship with God. Follow me to the cross.

Instinctively, I think we know that a relationship with Christ means change, which is why we church people prefer religion over relationship (and nobody loves predictability at church more than preachers!). Religion helps us keep God at arm’s length. We’re able to consistently check off the boxes of what we’re supposed to believe and do (and not do) in such a way that we never hear Christ’s voice to step out into the unknown.

Religion kept Jonah away from Ninevah and the possibility of an enemy’s repentance. Religion had the potential of keeping Peter away from Cornelius’ house and a stranger’s salvation. Religion threatened to keep Paul fighting against a new work of God, all because his religion had convinced him that God didn’t do anything new. Only a word from God (and a giant fish) convinced these guys otherwise.

I’ve become convinced that if God hasn’t recently challenged our preconceived notions about life, other people, morality, even God's will, then we might not actually know God, not the God revealed to us in that rabble-rouser Jesus Christ. No, if our god is constantly confirming our suspicions about other people and our fears about this life and our vision of how the world should work, there’s a good chance the god we worship is only an idol created in our image. That god might be safe and predictable, but he’s not a god that saves.

Only Jesus saves, and he is constantly calling us to leave what we know so that we might follow him into the unknown, unpredictable, but ultimately incomparable kingdom of God.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known – 1 Corinthians 13:12.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Help! I've lost control!

The drought. Riots in London. The Warren Jeff’s trial. The Economy. The gridlock in Washington. I don’t know about you, but I’ve about given up on watching the news. It’s too depressing. The world seems like it’s coming off its hinges. Sometimes I prefer to live uninformed, so that I can keep up the fa├žade that everything is ok in this life.

But even if I build a wall around my house and cancel my cable and internet connections, I can’t totally escape bad things from happening. Illness, conflict, and troubles of all sorts wreak their havoc in the most personal ways as often as they make global headlines. As much as I’d like to control everything in this life, I can’t.

I’m reminded of a word from Barbara Brown Taylor: "’I've lost control!’ That is what good people say when bad things happen to them. ‘I've lost control of my life!’ I have said it myself, but it is not true. Human beings do not lose control of their lives. What we lose is the illusion that we were ever in control of our lives in the first place, and it is a hard, hard lesson to learn.”

Is it ever. I, along with lots of other people, buy in to the myth that if I just do things correctly, my life will be orderly and safe. I also buy into the collective version of that myth, if we just do things correctly, if we legislate correctly, if we defend ourselves correctly, if we worship correctly, life will be orderly and safe. We will manage to keep things under control.

But we’re not in control. I’m not in control. None of us ever were. God is, even if it doesn’t always seem like it. Part of the problem, I think is this. If I was in control, we’d all be safe and secure. But God’s concern doesn't seem to be that we are safe, but that we are being saved. There is a difference.

Being safe involves my present circumstances. Being saved involves the state of my soul. Being safe means keeping evil at bay. Being saved means overcoming evil with good. Being safe necessitates looking out for me and mine. Being saved calls on us to trust the only One who cares for all. Being safe means trying to control my life. Being saved means giving my life over to the One who will one day, maybe not today, but one day, make all things new.

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” – Romans 8:18.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

What's in your box?

The other day, my four-year-old son, John Curtis came into my room with arms wrapped around a cardboard box that he uses to tote small toys around the house. He joyfully declared, “Dad, look what’s in my box.” Fully expecting to see a pile of his favorite toys or, because it’s John Curtis, a bug or two, I was completely caught off guard when I looked into his box and saw cash – lots of cash. John Curtis, looked up at me with a smile, and said proudly “I’ve been good at finding money today.”

“John Curtis, where did you get this money?!” I asked. It was way more money than he had in his piggy bank. I was sure of that.

The tone of my voice must have clued him in that I was not happy. His smile disappeared, his head lowered, and his will to speak disappeared.

“John Curtis, I have to know where you got this money, so that we can put it back. We can’t go around taking other people’s money.”

John Curtis admitted that some of it had come from his piggy bank, but not all of it. Some he reluctantly confessed had come from his sister’s bank. “O.K.,” I said, “and where did the rest come from?” Like I said, there was a lot of cash in that box. Minutes passed. Finally, he walked over to where my wife keeps her extra cash and held a finger out indicating the final victim of his crime spree.

After returning all the money to its rightful owners, we had a long talk about what it means to respect each other’s property and about the honest ways we can “find money” each day.

I was recounting this story to a friend, when she wisely noted, “At least he came and showed you the box. Sounds to me like he was looking for some kind of indication about whether or not this was a good thing to do.”

Her comment got me thinking, how often do I bring my box to my heavenly Father for review. “Hey God, look what I did today. Look what’s in my box.” How often do I bring before him what I think is a good thing I’ve done, just to make sure?

“Look how good I was at defending my honor today.”

“Look how good I was at getting revenge.”

“Look how good I was at getting what’s mine.”

“Look how good I was at playing it safe.”

If I’m honest, I don’t do that very often. Mainly, because I’ve got a few years on John Curtis, and I know that often what I think is good God does not. God looks in my box and says, “You were very good at that today. Unfortunately, that’s not something we want to be good at.” Who, really, wants to have those kinds of conversations? John Curtis didn’t enjoy the correction he received. But, how else can we learn God’s ways? We aren’t perfect, but God has promised to make us so. The only way for that to happen is for some correction to happen along the way. The good news is that we can trust that God’s correction will be full of the grace and compassion of a loving Father as he points us in the direction of true life.

I want John Curtis to keep trusting me enough to be willing to show me what’s in his box. If that’s the case, I’ll need to model the way by trusting God enough to keep showing him what is in mine.

“God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” – Hebrews 12:10-11

New video from the Preemptive Love Coalition

My friends over at the Preemptive Love Coalition know how to make cool videos (see below). But what they do day to day in bringing about reconciliation through healing - that's infinitely cooler than even their videos.

Reconciliation Through Healing from Preemptive Love on Vimeo.

If violence 'unmakes' the world, healing rebuilds it.

Generations of 'unmaking' resulted in a backlog of children born with heart defects, but a $670 lifesaving heart surgery can change everything for a child and their family. It can provide the healing that leads to wholeness.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Learning new questions to ask.

Yesterday, a friend of mine posted this quote on his blog:

“To consider persons and events and situations only in the light of their effect upon myself is to live on the doorstep of hell” (Thomas Merton in No Man is an Island).
Ouch! I have to admit, I hang out on that doorstep way too often. When I meet a new person, when someone proposes a new idea, when the temperature stays above 100 degrees for far too many days in a row, my natural response is to contemplate only how I am affected. The questions that normally run through my head focus on . . . well . . . me:

     What is this going to cost me?

          How much of my time is this wasting?

               What is this keeping me from doing that I want to be doing?

How different such thoughts are from the way of Christ who considered people and situations only in light of his mission of reconciliation. Paul, contemplating Christ’s willingness to pay any price for us, writes, “He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view” (1 Cor 5:15-16). That is, we view no one (and we might add, no situation) solely in the light of their effect upon us. We no longer live for ourselves, but for Christ. He is to be the filter through which we view the people and the circumstances in our lives.

To live this way, we need new questions as we approach each new circumstance in our lives:

     How can I live for Christ in this situation?

          How might God be redeeming this moment for his glory?

               How does God view the person in front of me? How then should I?

If you’ve lived on the doorstep of self-absorption as long as I have, it’s difficult to imagine another way of living. But it is possible to change. Not on our own, granted, but God is at work in us. The Bible promises: “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (1 Cor 5:17-18).

Thursday, July 7, 2011

On birthdays...both biological and spiritual

Tomorrow, my daughter, Sophie, will turn seven years old. Five years ago to the day, Alyson, Sophie, and I stood before our current church in view of a call (That's the Baptist version of an interview Sunday).  My son, John Curtis was on the way but had not yet arrived. Day to day, you don’t notice your children growing, but growing they are. How different Sophie is today than the little toddler she was just five years ago. Then, she needed her mom and me for almost everything. Today, she still needs us, but she also has her own interest, her own books, and her own opinions. She is also, Lord willing, developing her own faith.

It was twenty-six Julys ago that I gave my young heart to the Lord as a seven-year-old boy. I don’t remember much about that day. I couldn’t tell you what the sermon was about or what the weather was like. I do remember singing the treasured hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!” I also remember vividly the experience of being awakened to God’s presence for the very first time. No doubt, God had been with me since he knit me together in my mother’s womb, but on that Sunday, for the first time, I became aware that he was there. The God of my biological parents, the God of my spiritual forefathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, became the God of Taylor Sandlin.

Since that day, I have not always been as aware of the Lord’s presence as I was in that moment. Every now and then I get a glimpse of his workings, but mostly, I have to trust that like a seed in the ground or yeast in the dough, his kingdom is at work in me even if that work is difficult to discern. Jesus encourages us, that’s just the way of the kingdom. It’s small, hidden, at times, irrelevant to the world, but it’s accomplishing its purposes in you and me and all who believe, nonetheless. Someday, at the Father’s choosing, the seeds of the gospel that have taken root in this world will bear much fruit. On that day, we’ll no doubt be surprised at how much we each have grown.

And what shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough – Luke 13:20-21

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Leader or follower?

It’s been almost a month since I typed out one of these Thoughts-for-Thursdays. It’s not that I’ve had no thoughts. But most of my thoughts have been aimed in other directions – namely a doctoral seminar and then recovering from a doctoral seminar. The seminar was on leadership. Thankfully, the seminar was not one of those overly pragmatic looks at the topic. You know the kind I’m talking about, those that tell you if you’ll follow these three easy steps you’ll be a great leader. Seminars and books like that don’t sit well with me. Life is never that easy.

This seminar pointed us in a different direction altogether. Namely, the readings and discussion reminded us that if any of us want to learn to be leaders in the Christian sense of the word, we must first become followers. The calling of every Christian (not just of pastors) is first and foremost Christ’s invitation to “Come, follow me.” It’s funny, for all the emphasis we Christians put on being biblical, when is the last time you heard about a seminar or conference on “Followership”? And yet, followers are what we are called to be.

Where does following Christ take us? If the words of Christ are any indication, following Jesus will usually take us in the opposite directions of our instincts: we are to love enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, and to return evil with good. We are to care for those who are different than us and to give to others without expectation of anything in return. I don’t know about you, but for me, none of those things come naturally, which makes it all the more important for us to work on our followership skills even more than we work on our leadership skills.

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me – John 10:27

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

New TX BSM website for college freshmen

Alyson and I love Texas Baptist's BSMs (Baptist Student Ministry).  We met each other at the Aggie BSM.  And through the ministries there, also discovered much about God's calling in our lives.  I'm glad to say that BSMs are still making a huge difference in the lives of students.  Whereas 70% of students stop going to church when they head off to college, 80% of students who attend the BSM on their campus continue being active in a local church in and beyond their college years.

Are you a recent high school grad heading off to college?  Or do you know someone who is?  Texas Baptist Student Ministries has a great new website  There students can find out where and when the BSM meets on their local campus.  The best thing about the sight?  It features testimonies by two folks we know and love at Southland - Jeremiah Banks and Isa Torres.  Check out their videos below.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The most difficult place to be a Christian

Daniel Vestal, executive director of the Cooperative Baptist Convention, tells of a time, several years ago, when he attended a conference where former Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield spoke. After his speech, there was a period of discussion. Someone asked the senator, "What is the greatest challenge you have as a Christian?"

Vestal remembers Hatfield’s response, “I was intrigued and surprised by his answer. Here is a man who served in the United States Senate with great power and prestige and made decisions that affected millions of people. He responded quickly, ‘My greatest challenge as a Christian is in my home.’”

In other words, Vestal comments, “If you want to know what kind of Christian I am, don't evaluate me on the platform, ask my wife, ask my children and ask my mother-in-law. The first place we build community is in our homes.”

Both Vestal and Hatfield are on to something. Our world is full of communities that require very little of us. We come in and out of people’s lives so quickly that we never have to give too much or sacrifice too deeply. At home, however, where these handful of people keep showing up over and over again, Christ’s commands become more daunting. Forgiving as often as is necessary, giving without expecting in return, and turning the other cheek can feel impossible with the people we are supposedly closest to. And yet, if Christ’s words don’t apply there, where do they apply?

Maybe our prayer everyday should begin with the simple plea, “Lord, help me the Christian you want me to be right here at home.”

Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God – Ephesians 5:1.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Character is more than who you are when you're all alone. It's also knowing when you shouldn't be alone.

This week at Southland, we will continue our series on Living Virtuously in a Virtual World. Such a series would be incomplete if it did not include a discussion about how Christians should respond to the proliferation of pornography on the Web. Pornography is nothing new. My guess is that as soon as human beings figured out how to draw pictures, they started drawing dirty pictures. What’s new is the volume of dirty pictures that are now available with just the click of a button.

While statistics on pornography prove to vary wildly depending upon the source, many estimates put the number of pornographic websites in the millions. One article in Christianity Today noted that 60% of the sites on the Internet are sexual in nature. That same article noted that the danger is not just for men. The numbers of women addicted to pornography is on the rise. I have no idea of knowing the accuracy of these statements, I do know from my experience as a minister and from interactions with other ministers that pornography is wreaking havoc on our marriages, our families, and our souls.

How can Christians be faithful to Christ’s call to honor God with our bodies? We’ll explore that topic more broadly on Sunday, but a simple word to start the discussion today. We don’t do it alone. God gives us his Spirit, who both forgives our sins and empowers us to new life. And God gives us one another. I always heard that character is who you are when no one is looking. While there is some truth to that statement, I’ve come to think there is a needed corollary. Character can also involve knowing when you shouldn’t be alone. Think about it. When an alcoholic says, “I need help in staying sober,” that person has shown character. He or she isn’t weak but wise.

As we’ll talk about on Sunday, God made us with strong sexual desires. Often, if left to ourselves, we will seek to satisfy those desires in ways that pervert God’s intentions. We need help. We need people who can help us stay accountable to one another and to God’s ways. As far as the internet goes, one of the ways we can do that is through internet accountability programs. Programs like Covenant Eyes or Safe Eyes, don’t filter internet use so much as they bring it into the light. You install the program on your computer and then put in a trusted friend’s e-mail knowing that they will get a log of every sight you visit. It’s like having someone constantly look over your shoulder which is what some of us need.

Again, such a move isn’t a sign of weakness, but of wisdom that says a God kind of life happens best when lived via the community of faith.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

There's always more to say - another thought on sarcasm

In last Sunday's (5/8/11) sermon, I spoke about practicing kindness in a world that favors snarkiness. One area of our language that I took particular aim at was sarcasm. This wasn’t the only form of unkindness we spoke of, but rather just one example of our culture’s propensity to elevate oneself by putting others down. This week proved that the topic of sarcasm in our culture probably can’t be covered in a forth of a sermon. As is the case with every sermon ever preached, there is more to say, more to think about.

One, this week confirmed that sarcasm is everywhere. Before the day was even over on Sunday, Alyson had caught me in several acts of sarcasm. Throughout this week, in staff meeting and in conversations with others, it’s been noted time and time again how sarcastic we all are.

Two, this week proved that not every bit of sarcasm feels the same. Some of our sarcasm fits exactly what I was talking about on Sunday – it’s mean spirited; it has a victim; it is meant to elevate oneself above another. Thanks to God’s grace, I’ve caught myself this week before I uttered a phrase like this. I feel better, no mark that, I am a better person for having bit my tongue. But not all sarcasm fits that category. Sometimes what we call sarcasm is just a light hearted comment about a light hearted topic. I’m not sure such comments even deserve the title sarcasm and aren’t what I’m worried about. Such levity can be joyful part of life.

How can we tell the difference between that which tears down and that which lightens the mood? How do we know what kinds of sarcasm to avoid? There’s probably no hard and fast rule, but the actual definition of sarcasm helps – “Harsh or bitter derision or irony; a sharply ironical taunt; a sneering or cutting remark.” In the Latin it means to rend the flesh of something or someone. Compare that to 1 Peter 3:8-9 and I think with a little help from the Spirit, we can know exactly when to speak and when to hold our tongues: “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” (from The Message).

For an fair and thorough look at the topic of irony and the Christian, read Brett McCracken’s “The Importance of Being Earnest for an Irony-Obsessed Generation

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Love never delights in evil

In a world of technological advances, it is easy to fall into the temptation of forgetting that the greatest wisdom often comes with age. While it’s true that if you need help figuring out how to send a text on your newest cell phone you should probably ask someone under the age of 15, it’s equally true that in regards to the deeper truths of life, age can often give us a perspective of deep wisdom.

Take for instance the preacher Haddon Robinson’s thoughts on what fuels so many websites’ popularity. The 80 year-old recently noted in a sermon, “We often take consolation in someone else’s failure. Doing that is not loving; it is the essence of selfishness. But we live in a culture that tempts us to do that, a culture that majors in looking at other people’s failures. Survey the blog world. You’ll discover that most blogs focus on what a politician or a celebrity or a preacher has done wrong. They’d soon go out of business if they only talked about what other people did well.”

I don’t know how much pastor Robinson knows about computers, but he knows an awful lot about the people who use those computers. He knows how often we, because of envy or insecurities, delight in other’s troubles. He’s, no doubt, been watching people do that for decades. Robinson also knows his Bible well. He knows that love never delights in evil, but rejoices with the truth. If we want to love like God loves, then we won’t delight when other people crash and burn, even if those people are our enemies. Instead, we will be a people who long for goodness and mercy and the love of God to prevail in every person’s life.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Living the Resurrection

Eugene Peterson begins his book Living the Resurrection: The Risen Christ in Everyday Life by recounting Billy Sunday's ideal Christian life: "Hit the sawdust trail, fall on your knees, and receive Christ as Savior. Then walk out of this tent into the street, get hit by a Mack truck, and go straight to heaven." Peterson notes the appealing nature of the old-time evangelist's formula. "No time to backslide, no temptations to bother with, no doubts to wrestle with, no spouse to have to honor no kids to put up with, no enemies to love, no more sorrow, no more tears. Instant eternity."

Of course, just because something is appealing doesn't mean it's advisable. And if we believe the testimony of the scriptures, even profitable. Sunday's philosophy certainly doesn't seem to be par for the course when it comes to God's will for most of our lives. God could have, at the resurrection, ended it all, I suppose. He could have in that great act brought history to a close and carried his people away to an eternity with him.  But God seemed to have other purposes with this post-resurrection world, purposes that involved more than whisking away his people to the sweet-by-and-by.

When we read the testimony of the book of Acts and the letters of Paul, God seems to be intent upon getting the sweet-by-and-by inserted into the lives of his people in the hear-and-now. After all, didn't Jesus teach us to pray, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven"? That seems a far cry from Billy Sunday's ideal Christian life. As believers we are confident that Mack trucks can't separate us from the God's presence. If and when we die we will be with God.  But we are equally confident that neither can the ordinary stuff of life separate us from his presence. We can, through the power of God's Spirit, the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, experience eternal life today in the carpool and at the grocery store, in the staff meeting and while having supper with the in-laws.  Thanks to the resurrection life at work in us, we need not wait for our deaths to experience eternity's fruit.