Friday, December 21, 2012

Hope of the World

"I want so much to believe, but sometimes it feels so beyond me. . . . That's when I have to tell the story all over again."

The Hope Of The World from The Work Of The People on Vimeo.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The story behind "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"

Behind the Music- Christmas Bells from First Christian Church on Vimeo.

Sowing Tears this Christmas

This is a sermon I preached this past Wednesday night at my church's annual Service of Consolation, a worship service for those who are grieving during the holidays. In light of today's news, I thought it might appropriate to share with a larger audience.

Sowing Tears, Reaping Joy

A sermon from Psalm 126

When the LORD brought back the captives to Zion,
we were like men who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
"The LORD has done great things for them."
The LORD has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow in tears
will reap with songs of joy.
He who goes out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with him.

The now classic A Charlie Brown Christmas begins with the title character sitting by a wall watching snowflakes fall from the sky. As his best friend Linus approaches, Charlie Brown turns to him and confesses, “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I'm not happy. I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel. I just don't understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I'm still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.” Whether we’d like to admit it or not, Charlie Brown speaks for a lot of us. Many of us find ourselves each Christmas feeling depressed.

I have a friend who has a little bit of Charlie Brown in her. She says that her least favorite Christmas song is “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” She says the song puts just a little too much pressure on the season for her taste. She says that her Christmases have difficulty living up to all the hype. Maybe that’s the problem – the hype. And I don’t mean here, primarily the non-Christian, commercialized hype that we so often complain about – although that doesn’t help either. I mean the good hearted, old fashioned, Christian hype surrounding the season. The kind we pile on year after year after year. The hype that talks all about the joy of Christmas and nothing about the sorrow. The hype that makes it seem as if we can have peace without pain, hope without patience, love without vulnerability

What I mean is this. It is right and good to stand in awe of the Christmas story. To take time each year and pause at the manger scene, standing with the shepherds mouths agape. In such moments we rightly declare with the Psalmist, “Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. . . . The LORD has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.” But when we stop the story there in the manger, as we often do, we turn the story from one of good news into holy hype ignoring the fact that neither Matthew nor Luke report that Jesus was born and then immediately move to “and they all lived happily ever after.” This baby that we fawn over and worship didn’t stay a babe in the manger. He grew up to be called a “Man of Sorrows.” Even before then, his childhood was marked by many tears. For all the hype surrounding the first advent, it only takes twelve verses in the second chapter of Matthew for the greatest story ever told to turn horrific:

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more (Matthew 2:16-18).

You won’t find that scene on too many Christmas ornaments or sung about in too many Christmas cantatas. We’ve made Bethlehem so sentimental that we’ve sanitized it. That’s too bad. For the world we live in looks a lot more like the Bible’s version of Bethlehem than Hallmark’s. There are still a lot of tears in the world today. Tears that can’t be wiped away by simply watching a few Christmas movies. A sanitized Bethlehem won’t do because we need more than a sentimental gospel that fills us with only temporary warmth. We need a gospel that will save. We need a gospel that’s light in the darkness. We need a gospel that can be sown in tears, so that we might one day reap salvation with songs of joy.

Perhaps the reason so many of us have been disappointed with the Christmas story is because we’ve been sold the wrong story, or at least been misled as to what part of the story we are presently in. We keep thinking that happily ever after has already arrived. As a result, we keep being tempted to despair every time evil raises its ugly head. But Christmas, at least the Christmas in the Bible was never meant to be the end of the story. Christmas is the beginning of the story. To borrow from the Psalmist's agricultural image, Christ’s first advent isn’t meant to be viewed as harvest time, but as spring planting. And as our passage makes clear today, spring planting isn’t always a happy time. Think about the farmer. When he sows there is no sign of life. Everything looks dead. If we didn't know better, everything looks hopeless. But looks can be deceiving. That seed, buried in the ground, contains life – and the one who waits for it, even through the tears, shall one day witness life break through.

That in a word is the Christmas story. It’s God sticking his finger into the sorrows of this world and dropping Jesus right in our midst. To walk our sod and breath our air (to borrow a phrase from Chris Rice) - to be one with us, in all our sorrows and grief, that he might bring us new life. On the cross, like a seed splitting in half, Jesus reminds us that their will be no easy victories for love in this world. As he’s covered up in the grave, like the seed in the field, it looked like the end. But it wasn’t the end, was it? The shoot of Jesse sprung forth and the resurrection gave us the first sign that new life was on the way.

St. Paul would use a similar image in his letter to the Corinthians, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. . . . But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.” This is not hype – it’s hope. Hope that even though we die, yet shall we live. Hope that the wrong, though strong, will not prevail. Hope to keep facing the sorrows of this world without giving way to despair. Hope that motivates us to keep engaging the world in its most broken places. Loving its most unlovable people. True hope doesn't avoid grief, it embraces it. For grief reminds us that this world is not yet as it should be. True hope, then keeps on sowing in tears, yes, even at Christmas, trusting that thanks to Jesus we shall one day reap with songs of joy.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Why I'm still in favor of exchanging gifts

I don’t need to tell you it’s almost Christmas time again. All the advertisements warn us well in advance of December 25 that Christmas is on its way. They want us to know, it’s time for the buying and sharing of gifts. For all of the times that you and I need to hear that we’ve made this season too commercial, that we’ve mistakenly bought into the fact that things will make us happy, we also need to hear that the impulse to give gifts to the ones we love is not an evil impulse. In fact, it is an impulse born straight from the heart of God. After all, this season is the season in which we celebrate God’s greatest gift to us, his own son.

When we love someone, we want to give them good gifts. In fact, few things give me more pleasure than giving good gifts to my children or to my wife. I think I have more fun on Christmas morning as a dad than I did as a child. This creates two issues that push me in the direction of over-consumption. One, the joy I get from giving my kids presents at Christmas or on their birthdays is so rich that I find myself tempted to give them more than I should. Two, I love my children so much, that I feel as if what I give them is never enough. Like I said, those emotions push me towards buying too many gifts that have too little meaning. The answer to this problem involves not less gift giving (although it may involve fewer gifts), but rather, involves the giving of better gifts.

In regards to the first temptation, I need to realize that it isn’t actually a gift to my children to spoil them. It’s a detriment to their souls. It is good to teach them how to receive presents with gratitude. It is also good to teach them how to appreciate good gifts. After all, all of life is in one way or another an exercise in learning to appreciate the good gifts God gives each one of us. On this front, simple, meaningful gifts probably go further in symbolizing our love for one another than in a multitude of thoughtless gifts hastily purchased. This is an instance where less may really be more. One of my favorite possessions is a small, simple pocket knife given to me by my grandfather before I was even old enough to handle such a tool. As such, it was a gift I would have to grow into in the best sort of way. As a child, this was a gift that displays his trust that I would indeed one day grow up. That was meaningful to me as a child. As such, it’s been a gift I’ve appreciated across the decades, even as many other gifts have come and gone.

The second temptation, which was to give my kids too many gifts as an attempt at expressing my love, can be combatted by realizing that I simply can’t give them enough things to accurately reflect my love for them. That’s not how love works. Giving a multitude of material gifts is no replacement for learning how to give them true spiritual ones. How can we give good spiritual gifts? Richard Foster writes, “If we truly love people, we will desire for them far more than it is within our power to give them, and this will lead us to prayer.” What’s one of the best spiritual gifts I can give my children this year? One has to include the taking their needs and their souls before the Lord on a regular basis. His hands, after all, are bigger than mine; his gifts, far better.

The advertisers are correct. It is the season of gift giving. I pray that the gifts we give be the absolute best they can be.

Every good and perfect gift comes from above – James 1:17

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Will we ever get home in time for Christmas?

In case you were under the impression that a busy Christmas season is a challenge people have faced only just recently, here is G.K. Chesterton lamenting the rush of the season way back in 1929:

"The Christmas season is domestic; and for that reason most people now prepare for it by struggling in tramcars, standing in queues, rushing away in trains, crowding despairingly into teashops, and wondering when or whether they will ever get home. I do not know whether some of them disappear forever in the toy department or simply lie down and die in the tea-rooms; but by the look of them, it is quite likely. Just before the great festival of the home the whole population seems to have become homeless" - from The Thing: Why I am a Catholic

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

And now back to our regularly scheduled programing

Last night, we let the kids stay up a little later than normal watching election coverage. Alyson had printed out a map of the United States. The kids colored in the states red or blue as the newscasters called each state for one candidate or another. As they colored we talked about how elections work, the electoral college, and even the three different branches of government. The evening was a fun one for the kids who as grade-schoolers were in no way emotionally invested in the outcome. They thought the pageantry and the process were pretty neat. I tend to agree with them. Plus, the night was a good lesson in geography and government.

Remarkably, this morning we all got up and went about our daily business. The kids got ready for school. Alyson and I got ready for work. Life goes on. As Christians, our work goes on as well. As Scot McKnight put it in a wonderful post, whether your candidate won or lost doesn't "make one bit of a difference for our obligation to follow Jesus today. Not one bit." That got me thinking, "What are my obligations to Jesus today?" They are the same as yesterday. I'm to love God with everything I've got. I'm to love others as myself.

1) Love God. This is the greatest commandment. Who one's earthly leader is does absolutely nothing to diminish this commandment's importance in our lives.
  • To love God means to worship him. Whether your candidate won or lost yesterday, God is still on his throne. When we worship God as king we put the kingdoms of world on notice: their days are numbered. The Kingdom of God is on its way.
  • We love God when we learn to be content in his love alone. His love and presence in our lives really is all we need. Earthly leaders come and go. Kingdoms come and go. Economies go up and down, but God is our portion forever. This is why Paul says, "I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength" (Phil 4:12-13). 
2) Love others. Voting is important, but it pales in comparison to actually loving people. Jesus said with his life and his words - you want to change the world? Love like I have loved.
  • Pray for people. Loving others starts with praying for them. Pray for their blessing and not for their demise. Pray for leaders. Pray for neighbors. Pray for that "friend" on Facebook that you're sure is crazy.
  • Live generously towards others. Be liberal with kindness to those with whom you disagree. Be quick to forgive. Give others the benefit of the doubt. Let go of slander, gossip, unwholesome talk, malice, etc. (see Ephesians 4:29-32). Replace these with encouragement, kindness, and love.
  • Go out of your way to meet other people's needs. No matter what the government does or doesn't do, God's people care for those in need. Jesus said at the end of days we will be judged on what we did for the least of these (See Matthew 25). Cups of cold water to the thirsty, pieces of bread to the hungry, these, and not votes, are what will matter to the King of Kings. Find someone to help today. Do your best to stay anonymous as you do.
To these I would add, Christians are to live in hope. To put it frankly, hopelessness and despair are unbecoming for a Christian. Too many Christians seem hopeless on this side of the election. That's just silly. It borders on sinfulness (The opposite, placing one's hope in the winning candidate would also be sinful. That just seems much less frequent an occurrence in my part of the country). We serve a resurrected Savior. We are a people who trust that this story of ours ends well. Smile more. Sing more. Laugh more. Against such things there are no laws.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Perfectionism or Perfect Love?

I don’t know if you saw the movie Talladega Nights (I’m certainly not recommending it. It is funny, but also very crude.) but it tells the story of a NASCAR driver, named Ricky Bobby, who’s life motto is “You’re either first, or you’re last.” While the movie makes fun of Ricky, the joke is really on us, for we are the ones who far too often live by that absurd statement.

Desmond Tutu, who for years suffered under the oppression of Apartheid, critiques modern culture in his book, God Has a Dream:

[Western] culture places a high premium on success, based as it seems to be on unbridled, cutthroat competitiveness. You must succeed. It matters little in what you succeed as long as you succeed. The unforgivable sin is to fail. Consequently, it is the survival of the fittest and devil take the hindmost…

We find that stomach ulcers become a status symbol…

We infect our children with this virus early in life. We don’t just want them to pass their exams at school and do well at sport, we expect them to wipe the floor with the opposition as it were. We make them believe that we cherish them only if they do well, or behave well.*

In our personal life, this "You're either first or your last" kind of attitude takes the form of perfectionism. Perfectionism is the thought that the only way to be significant in the world is to be perfect, flawless, to stand out. We think, especially in evangelical circles, that such perfectionism is a way towards being like God. And yet, far from making us look more like God, perfectionism makes us look a lot more like that first couple who attempted on their own efforts to be like God. The very nature of perfectionism flirts idolatry. It is the assertion that I, in my own power, can be perfect. I can do it without help, without cooperation, without others. I can be the greatest. Perfectionism creates isolation. If I’m the greatest, you are not. If I’m the greatest, I can’t even let you be a part of the process because you’ll mess it up, after all, you’re not the greatest.

Grace, however, draws us together. Grace recognizes that doing something together is more important than doing it “perfectly.” For in God’s eyes, “Doing it right” has much more to do with doing it together than anything else. I believe, that when Jesus commands us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, he means, be perfect in love. Perfect love learns how to include others even when others will make a mess of things.

Just think of Jesus and the disciples. Jesus didn’t go it alone even though he was the only one who could do it perfectly. No, he involved these goofballs every step of the way. If Jesus had wanted a perfect ministry, he wouldn’t have chosen the disciples as his sidekicks. To make this point, Jesus  once pulled a child from the crowd. Children in Jesus’ day were insignificant. They were pushed aside. They were left out. Children in every age are, by their very natures, imperfect, mistake prone, and mess inducing. Children, before they are ruined by their parents, are every perfectionist’s nightmare. And yet, with an imperfect child pulled close to his side, the perfect Son of God said to all who would hear, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all—he is the greatest” (Luke 9:48).

Did you get that? Jesus is putting to death once and for all the idea that we need to be perfectionists in order to be acceptable to him. This kid with snot smeared across his face, dirt under his fingernails, prone to interrupting his elders, this imperfect kid, had perfect access to the Son of God because of God’s perfect grace. The truth is, so do you. We find ourselves closest to the kingdom not when we close in on perfectionism, but when we take up the very messy task of perfect love.

* Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream (New York: Doubleday, 2004), 31-32.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Finding God in the distractions

Prayer, at its most basic, is our attempt to pay attention to God. It’s not always easy to pay attention, though. In his book, Prayer, Richard Foster tells of a time he and a group of believers were gathered in a home for a time of prayer. As soon as they bowed their heads and closed their eyes, however, a cat began to scratch at the door. Richard notes that no matter how hard he tried, he could not turn his attention away from the cat and back towards God. When the prayer time came to a close, Richard confessed that he hadn’t spent much time in prayer because of the cat. All the other began to laugh and confessed that they too, couldn’t get past the cat. Everyone that is, except for Bill. Bill sat thoughtfully as everyone else chatted away about the cat. Richard noticed Bill’s contemplative posture and after a moment asked him what he was thinking. Bill responded, “Oh, I was just wondering what God wanted to say to us through the cat.”

Try as they may, no one could come up with a message from the cat, except that maybe the message was that sometimes what we think of as a distraction, may be God attempting to get our attention. Our days our filled with distractions. While it is a good thing to find time away from those distractions for solitude and silence before our Maker, it is also true that God can sometimes be found in those things that arrest our attention by force. How we view such things will be determined by how we look. Do we look in annoyance or do we look with a soft heart, one that’s always open to a new message from God?

Today, ask God to help you look at those things, and even more importantly, those people that distract you with a heart that’s open to finding God even in the distractions.


“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” – Matthew 7:7-8

Thursday, September 6, 2012

In search of a modest truth

What we say: "We're #1!"  The Truth: "We're 2-8."
One of my favorite theologians, Miroslav Volf, writes, “The belief in an all-knowing God should inspire the search for truth; the awareness of our human limitations should make us modest about the claims that we have found it, however.”* In the heat of the political season, humility in our speech and modesty in our claims are about as rare as football fans cheering honestly, “We’re #56!,” instead of the obligatory, “We’re #1!” The truth, whether in football or politics, doesn’t seem to carry enough weight or enthusiasm for our taste, so we often resort to exaggeration. I mean, could you imagine a politician getting up and saying, “We know that my opponent is not totally at fault for the ills that plague our society. The causes of our troubles are complex and multifaceted. We also know that electing me will in no way be a miracle solution to these problems. After all, it will take lots of people and groups working together for an extended period of time to find even moderate solutions to what ails us. But, I do believe that my approach moves us in a better direction than my opponent’s. So I’m asking you to vote for me.” Such a person would not be allowed to even run for office, even though, he would be speaking something much nearer to the truth than the normal round of political exaggerations: “My opponent is to blame for everything! I have all the answers!”

In a world as complex as ours, the truth often presents itself modestly. As result, we distrust the truth, for we don’t think that a modest truth will win the day. The truth appears understated, weak, and even indecisive. We think we have to build up the truth by resorting to hyperbole and overstatement which attempt to bolster the truth by mixing it ever so slightly (or sometimes not so slightly!) with falsehood. Over four hundred years ago, Sir Francis Bacon explained the trouble with this approach, noting that truth “is the honor of man's nature; and that mixture of falsehoods, is like alloy in coin of gold and silver, which may make the metal work the better, but it embaseth it.” In other words, a little nickel in your gold may make it more functional, but it also makes it less valuable.

Exaggerating the truth, bending the truth, or omitting part of the truth may serve one’s political or even personal purposes, but it does so at the expense of the truth, itself. And if we believe Jesus’ assertion that only the truth can set us free, the truth, and not political or personal victory, is what we’ll seek. So this election season, be engaged. Seek the truth. Engage in robust discussions about what course of action is best for our country. The Lord knows we need thoughtful consideration to the challenges our country and our world face. But in service to the Lord, do your best to seek truth instead of victory. Resist the urge to say more than you know. Stay humble in your debating by admitting that you might be wrong. Be willing to change your mind. Avoid exaggerations. Be modest in your political claims. You may not win the election but you just might find yourself a step closer to the truth that will set you free.

*Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 243.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Reading the fine print

It’s a rare day when you find anything worthwhile in the comments section of most websites. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I once found this jewel in the comment section of an article on religious faith in America:

“People treat the Bible like a software license agreement - they just scroll to the end and click ‘I agree.’” 

Anyone who has ever installed a program on their computer has been confronted with the license agreement. Few actually take the time to read it. I know I certainly don’t. I once heard someone say that the most frequent lie told every day is “I have read and accept the terms of the license agreement.” That’s probably not too far off from the truth.

But could it be true that many people treat the Bible in the same way? Unfortunately, studies show that at least some people do. A 2008 Baylor University study revealed that something as awful as racism is actually more prevalent among people who claim to take the Bible literally than those that make no such claim. This is despite the fact that the Bible makes clear that characteristics that once divided people such as race have now been eliminated as causes for division in Jesus Christ (see Gal. 3:28). That’s just one example of people saying they believe the Bible, but failing to do what the Bible teaches. I am sure there are others.

Jesus made clear that it’s not enough to say we agree with the Bible if we don’t actually follow its teaching, saying, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). To do God’s will, we have to know it, which involves spending time in the scriptures. A good place to start is with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

Why don’t you start today?

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. – James 1:22

Thursday, August 23, 2012

As Accident Prone as Possible

Thanks to the good and gracious people at Southland Baptist Church, I have spent the last six weeks on sabbatical. I realize that a sabbatical is a true gift, so let me say it here, thank you to my church for allowing me this time for study, rest, and family time. I spent a portion of my sabbatical in Estes Park, Colorado. This was Alyson’s and my third trip to Estes but the first with the kids. On the way there John Curtis and Sophie asked if we would see animals. I explained how elk are all over the place in Estes Park. I also told them we’d see lots of chipmunks, birds, and maybe even some of these small animals called marmots. The kids asked if there were bears. Yes, I told them, but we would probably never see any. There are only twenty or so bears in all of Rocky Mountain National Park, and in our two previous trips to Estes, we’d never seen one.

You can imagine our disbelief, when one morning John Curtis awoke us with shouts of “It’s a bear! It’s a bear!” He had a habit of getting up earlier than the rest of us (around 6am!), but we had trained him to simply go downstairs and play quietly. Alyson and I tried to wake ourselves up and figure out what he was shouting about. I thought I had heard “bear,” but thought he must have said “deer.” Sophie’s shouts soon let me know, nope, he had seen a bear. Right on the porch! It was a comedy of errors as we tried to find a camera with a memory card in it (our evening routine was to load pictures onto the computer). We found a video camera just in time to catch our hungry friend hoist himself over the porch railing, climb down a tree, and trot away. It’s funny, Alyson and I had complained all week about how early John Curtis was waking up, and yet, it was precisely his frustrating habit that provided us with the most memorable portion of our trip. In some ways, that’s how the entire trip went. Our best discoveries, our most memorable moments, often came when we least expected them. We saw the biggest elk we’ve ever seen on an afternoon in which I took a wrong turn and got lost. We knew it was big when most of the cars that had pulled off the road to look at him had Colorado license plates. Without the wrong turn, we would have missed that moment.

In Colorado, it was easy to stay on the lookout for blessings even in the midst of wrong turns, because even wrong turns took you into another beautiful valley. In everyday life, it’s not so easy. Not every corner of life contains a majestic view, and yet, I think the truth holds. Often the greatest God-moments show up in those instances that if given a choice, we would change – in the midst of boring routines, frustrations, wrong turns, and flat out mistakes. The challenge of the spiritual life is to learn to strike a posture that allows you to be on the lookout for God, no matter the circumstances. Philip Yancey tells the story of a rabbi who taught that experiences of God can never be planned or achieved. "They are spontaneous moments of grace, almost accidental," he would say. His student asked, "Rabbi, if God-realization is just accidental, why do we work so hard doing all these spiritual practices?" The rabbi replied, "To be as accident-prone as possible." Amen.

You are resplendent with light, more majestic than mountains rich with game – Psalm 76:4

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Family Devotional Resources

What a great week of VBS we are having! Over 120 children have attended the past four days learning about the book of Daniel. Through the experiences of Daniel and his Hebrew friends, our children have learned about God’s faithfulness to us through difficult days. What a wonderful truth to have hidden in one’s heart! Who knows how God will use this truth in the lives of our children in the days ahead?

As important as Vacation Bible School can be in the life of a child, it pales in comparison to the role parents and grandparents can play on a daily basis. Five days of sharing the stories of our faith at VBS is helpful for developing a child’s faith. Sharing the stories of our faith on a daily basis around the family dinner table or before bedtime is life transforming. Just ten to fifteen minutes a day can fill our children’s hearts with the stories of our faith. And those stories can alter the course of their lives forever.

My family has found each of the following resources helpful in teaching our children the stories of our faith.

The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name by Sally Loyd-Jones : Sally Loyd-Jones presents the stories of the Bible in a way that captures the entire sweep of the scriptures. Every story helps children understand God’s great plan to redeem the world. The stories take about five to ten minutes for an adult to read. The illustrations are beautiful and the book has kept my children’s attention well.

Read with Me Bible: An NIrV Story Bible for Children : This is the Bible we give to families during baby dedications. I like it because it isn’t a paraphrase of the Bible but rather an easy to read translation of the Bible’s text. This would be great for an early reader. The illustrations are fantastic. The stories only take an adult a couple of minutes to read. Our kids always want us to read more than one story.

Psalms: For Young Children by Marie-Helen Delval : This book includes paraphrases of the Psalms and beautiful illustrations. Although its target audience is younger children, our entire family has been blessed by reading this book. Delval doesn’t just paraphrase the happy Psalms but also includes many of the laments, as well. My children have latched on to these. What child hasn’t wondered if God hears their prayers or if God is there for them in the dark? What adult hasn’t wondered such things? These Psalms give voice to those prayers. One Psalm takes less than a minute to read.

These are books that have helped my family during family devotions. What I like about them is that they tell the stories of the Bible in such a way that these stories are quickly becoming a part of who my children are. I’m sure there are many other good resources. Of course, the best resource is the one you use. So give something a try today. Not only will you be investing in your child’s life of faith, but you’ll be improving your own, as well.

Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth – Deuteronomy 11:18-21

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Virtue and Matt LeBlanc

When we read through the Bible, especially books of the Bible like Daniel, it is easy to be intimidated by the acts of faith one reads about in its pages. People like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego seem like an entirely different class of people than the rest of us. We might go so far as to call them heroes. In fact, when they’re alluded to in the New Testament in Hebrews 11, it’s in a chapter we often call the hall of faith. And yet, the Bible makes clear, they were people who shared our same struggles, shortcomings, and limitations. What was it about their that allowed them to respond to great crisis with an even greater faith? In the case of the Hebrew children in the book of Daniel, the key was consistently making a thousand small decisions by faith, so that when the big moment came and it was life or death, they chose faith, come what may.

In his insightful book, After You Believe, N. T. Wright explains that very few people end up heroes by accident. He doesn’t mean people set out to be heroes. No. People set out to be good people or honest people or caring people. In order to become that kind of person, they consistently make countless small decisions along the way to be that kind of person, so that by the time crisis hits, they act out of the character they have already developed. At that moment of crisis, their actions look as if they “just happened” but in truth, it’s not as simple as that.

In religious language, we call such people, people of virtue. Almost everything in our culture today works against becoming a person of virtue. Primarily, we are a culture that has lost patience for such personal development. Long gone are the days when we believed the best things in life come to those who wait. After all, those glass ketchup bottles are now all made of squeezable plastic.* Why? So we don’t have to wait. But some things can’t be had quickly. The way of Christ takes time to become second nature for us who are proficient in the way of sin. Becoming a person of Christian virtue takes making a thousand small decisions during good times and bad so that when it really matters and the stakes are higher, you do what virtue requires almost automatically.

The Hebrew children were people of virtue. When the stakes were high, they did what was right because that’s who they had become through a lifetime of faithfulness. We can become people of virtue, too. Not by the making of one grand decision to be faithful, but rather by making a thousand consistent decisions along the way. What can you do today that will help develop a character of faith?

“Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” – Romans 5:3-5.

*If you don’t get this reference go ask someone over thirty or watch this:

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Delighting in other people's troubles

I once heard Haddon Robinson tell the story of a Baptist deacon who stood up at the annual meeting to give the report. Things weren't going very well. There were no new conversions. Attendance in worship had fallen by about fifteen percent. Even worse, according to this deacon, the offerings had fallen about twenty percent. Nevertheless, at the end of his report, he said with some pleasure, "At least I can thank God that the Methodists and the Presbyterians aren't doing any better."

It is a strange thing to take delight in another’s troubles. And yet, often we do. We snicker to ourselves when a famous person falters. We smile self-satisfied smiles when our opponents stumble. We might even put a link to it on our Facebook walls or our Twitter feeds. Big money can be made today by capturing in photos or videos well-known people in, well, less than flattering situations. News agencies would have little to report upon if they chose not to highlight the failings of the famous. It’s a part of human nature to delight in someone else being knocked down a peg or two. Of course, it’s a petty part of human nature.

How different such an attitude is from the attitude prescribed to us in the New Testament. There we are challenged to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). Far from being petty, we’re called to be generous, humble, and kind. Every person, whether they’re famous or not, enemy or friend, is made in God’s image and deserves to be treated as such. In our text this Sunday, Daniel’s opponents will falter while he succeeds. Far from using his success as way to shame them, he will use his achievements as a way to save their lives. Daniel knew that as a child of God he was called to imitate the character of God – a character marked by concern, compassion, and unwavering care for each and every one of us. We, who are also God’s children, are called to do the very same thing.

“Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others” – 1 Cor 10:24

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Faith and Culture

Summer is upon us whether we are ready or not. Before we know it we’ll be in the midst of all our summer activities, which at our church includes Vacation Bible School (June 18-22). This year’s Vacation Bible School theme is Babylon: Daniel’s Courage in Captivity. Of all the books in the Bible, Daniel has to be one of the tops for VBS material. There’s the story of the Hebrew children turning their noses up at the king’s food, the story of those same boys getting thrown into danger of the fiery furnace, and, of course, who can forget Daniel and the lions’ den. What kid doesn’t like these stories?!

Because these stories make such good VBS material we sometimes miss an important fact, the book of Daniel wasn’t written just for children. In fact, its primary audience was to Jewish adults who found themselves living in a foreign land generations after the exile had begun. These people were struggling to know how to live out faithful lives in a culture that encouraged them to do anything but that. Was it ok to compromise one’s faith in order to get along at work? At school? Down at City Hall? How much should one engage their culture? How much of one’s culture should one resist?

In that sense, Daniel is one of the most modern of books in the Bible. Who of doesn’t struggle with figuring out how to live a life of faith in a culture that often pushes us in the opposite direction? So we’re not going to just study the book of Daniel in VBS this year. We’re going to study it in worship the entire month of June that, like Daniel, we might learn to be a people who learn to have courage in a world that is often dismissive or even hostile to our faith.

In order to get the discussion started, I wonder would be willing to share, where do you find it most difficult to live out your faith? 

“The world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever” – 1 John 2:17.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Working hard at the wrong things.

Last summer, my youth minister, Matt, was wanting to get a head start on his doctoral work before all his youth activities got going. The only problem was that the school hadn’t issued a syllabus for his first class yet. Knowing I had taken that same class the summer before, he came and asked me what the assignments had been. I showed him the list of books and papers we had been assigned but warned him that they had told us that they may change up some of the readings. We pondered which books they might keep on the list. We both thought that the book authored by one of the professors teaching the class was the most likely to remain on the syllabus. I think I remember telling Matt he should e-mail the professor to make sure. I’m not sure that Matt remembers me saying that. Anyway, he didn’t. He did set out reading the book, taking copious notes, and writing a seven page paper – all just in time to get the actual syllabus and realize – that book was not on the list! All that work for naught.

All of us have had moments like that, moments when our best efforts prove to be misguided and end up having been done in vain. It’s bad enough when that happens to us at work or in school, but the potential is there for us to waste an entire life’s effort on things that matter not. We can work diligently all our days, only to find out at the end that we were working hard at the wrong things. The late Richard John Neuhaus wrote, “A life is measured by its telos. The question of how a person lived is important, but the how is subordinate to for what a person lived." For Neuhaus, as for us, the for what is actually a for whom. Unless our lives are given over to the purposes of God, our work is done in vain, no matter how well we worked at it. As Jesus said, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and yet, lose his soul?”

 Maybe we should pause and ask, “What have you been hard at work upon today?” Or better yet, “For whom have you been working?”

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters – Colossians 3:23

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Looking Good

Last Saturday my family had the fortune of celebrating my sister-in-law’s wedding. One of my jobs was to get John Curtis in his tuxedo. We weren’t quite sure how he’d take to wearing a tux so we’d been talking up the occasion. We’d explained how the whole family had special clothes picked out for that day. We highlighted the fact that his tux was extra special because only he and the groom had a white vest. Apparently, all the build-up worked. By Saturday morning, John Curtis was itching to get into his tuxedo. He asked about every part of his ensemble. Why are the shoes so shiny? Why do the pants have these stripes? Why do we have to wear cufflinks? I just kept telling him that these are things that help make these clothes special for this special day. When we finally got him all dressed, John Curtis looked in the mirror and with an unpolluted kind of pride said, “I look good, Dad, don’t I?”

He did. In fact, the whole day looked good. Everyone looked striking in their wedding clothes. The decorations underlined the care that had gone into this day. Lindsey and Brian made for an exceptionally beautiful couple. The gardens where the wedding took place highlighted the fact that we serve a God who delights in beauty, who, like John Curtis, can look down upon what he has made and declare it not only good, but very good.

The beauty of that day extended well beyond the appearance of things. Family and friends gathered to celebrate two people who have committed their lives to God’s work and were now committing to serve God together as husband and wife. From God’s word, we were reminded that for the Christian, every day is worthy of special clothes, because every day is a gift from God. Oh, we don’t have to put on a tuxedo each morning, but we are encouraged as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved to clothe ourselves with “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” and “over all these virtues [to] put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:12, 14).

When we get dressed up in such things, we can also look in the mirror and say, “I look good, Dad, don’t I?” And our Father in heaven smiles and says, “Yes, you do. You look very good.”
“Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the peace of God will be with you” – Philippians 4:8-9.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Mom is home base!

This past winter, my family took advantage of a warm day and headed out to a nearby park. Sophie, John Curtis, and I were running around playing tag-your-it. We were having a grand ol' time running and jumping. John Curtis started to get winded and yelled out, "Mom's home base." He ran over to Alyson who was sitting on a bench. He placed his hand on her shoulder and leaned into her. He took deep breaths and found rest. Sophie quickly did the same. I smiled. One, I needed a break from the running as much as they did. Two, I realized that there was probably not a better truth spoken that day for our family, “Mom is home base.” Nor was there a better picture of God’s love.

Jesus once said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Who of us hasn’t been weary and burdened at one time or another? Many of us feel that way today. We wonder in this world of push and shove whether or not there is a place where we can lean into someone stronger than ourselves and find rest. God is that place. We can trust that his love for us is unconditional. We can trust that he is stronger than whatever circumstances we face. We can come to him and find rest.

Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer.
From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint;
lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe. 
- Psalm 61:1-3

Dry Spells

Every life has them. Valleys. Dry spells. Seasons of doubt. Times when we don’t feel God’s presence. Times when it’s difficult to tell if our lives are bearing fruit for God’s kingdom. Times when we wonder if God’s kingdom exists at all. Sometimes we find ourselves in these desert places because of our own sins. Remember Moses in the desert? Not the Moses leading the Hebrew children through the wilderness – we’ll get to that. No, before that Moses had another desert experience. After he’d killed the Egyptian, what did he do? Exodus 3 tells us that out of fear for his life, he went for a self-prescribed exile to the far side of the desert. Other times, it’s not our sins that bring us low, but life’s circumstances. Like Hannah, our barrenness knocks us to the ground so that even our cries for help are mistaken for drunkenness.

In both cases, such seasons of doubt can be debilitating. But while the pain is great, we usually understand the reason for our desert experience – whether it be our own sins or the result of living in a sinful, fallen world. There are still other desert experiences for which there are less clear cut reasons. For instance, the desert we are least prepared for, is the desert that comes as a result of faith. We assume that if we follow God in faith, our experiences with God will be fresh, intimate, and rewarding. And yet, throughout the scriptures, there they are – places where obedience leads individuals or even whole peoples out into the desert.

Which takes us back to Moses and the Hebrew children. We often think that their wilderness wonderings were the result of sin. And to a degree, we’re right. They did wonder in the desert for forty years because of their sin, but friends, it’s the length of the wondering that was affected by their sin – not the crossing of the desert in the first place. Even if they’d trusted God completely, the journey from the bondage of Egypt to the promise of the Holy Land required a desert crossing.

The more I read the scriptures, the more I study the lives of the saints, the more I come to the uncomfortable conclusion that obedience rarely takes us straight into the promise land for there almost always seems to be a desert between the Egypt of our bondage and the Israel of God’s promise. Think about it. Obedience is what landed Joseph in jail after he refused the advances of Potiphar’s wife. Obedience and faith got Daniel in the Lion’s den before it got him out. As we’ll see this week, obedience led Philip down a desert road when common sense told him to go in the opposite direction. Obedience led the first American missionary, Adoniram Judson, across the seas. But instead of a ministry of fruitfulness, he found a life of despair. First his wife died in child birth, and then only a few months later, the baby, Maria, died as well. Swamped with waves of spiritual despair, he lamented, “God is to me the great Unknown. I believe in him but I find him not.” In a similar fashion, Mother Teresa, late in her ministry confessed to her spiritual mentor, “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss – of God not wanting me – of God not being God – of God not really existing.” These great saints are in good company. For obedience likewise led Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, out into the wilderness to be tempted and then down the lonely road to a barren cross to be crucified. It was there he cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

If Jesus experienced times in the desert, should we, his followers, expect anything less? Can we, because of the great testimony of the scriptures, learn to trust that far from being a sign of failure, the desert may just be evidence that we are obeying the call of Christ?

You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land where there is no water – Psalm 63:1

Thursday, April 26, 2012

That can't be good! But you still can be.

This has been one of those weeks for the Sandlin household. There has been vomit, broken toes, lack of electricity, and all sorts of other minor inconveniences that can sap your energy and steal your joy. Things seemed to culminate this morning when in a bathroom full of kids getting ready for school, I managed to knock some thermometers out of the bathroom cabinet and into the toilet at the precise moment that one of my children flushed. Before we could even react two electric thermometers vanished before our eyes. I thought to myself, “That can’t be good.”

Ever had moments like that? Moments where your only reaction is, “That can’t be good!”? Our tendency when things go bad is to go bad with them. But the good news of the gospel is that we don’t have to. Just because circumstances aren’t good doesn’t mean that you can’t be. God, through the power of his Spirit, enables us to respond to any circumstance with grace. Recognizing this is the first step towards developing a character of godliness.

Think about it. Every frustration we encounter in life is an opportunity to put into practice the Christ life. When we respond to interruptions in our schedules with grace we develop patience. When we respond to frustrating people with grace we develop kindness and gentleness. When we respond to our own mistakes with grace we develop humility. When we respond to insults or offenses with grace we develop goodness and love. When we respond to setbacks in health or career with grace we develop a dependence upon God that will see us through the darkest of days.

Strangely enough, daily frustrations can become the agent by which God transforms us into his image, if we respond to them in and with God’s grace. So, the next time you find yourself saying, “That can’t be good,” remember, you still can be.

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness – 2 Peter 1:3

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Lent Day 37 - The Way Up is Down

Read Matthew 20:20-28 

Growing up, my brother and I were intensely competitive. Whether it was basketball, ping-pong, or board games, each of us wanted not only to beat the other, but destroy him in the process. Along the way, we discovered ways to emphasize the score when we happened to be on the winning end. One of favorite things to do during a game of checkers came from an early episode of The Cosby Show. Rudy, the youngest of the Huxtable clan, is only about five or six and challenges her older brother Theo to a game of checkers. Theo doesn’t really want to play, he’s got more important things to do as a teenager, but agrees anyway. At first, Theo puts it to Rudy jumping quite a few of Rudy’s checkers, but he is soon distracted by some of the other family events about him. All the while Rudy stays focused on the game. Eventually she sees her chance and seizes it. Jump. . . double jump . . . triple jump and then the now famous line, “King Me! King Me! King Me!” At least it is famous in the Sandlin household. My brother and I both loved to be able to yell that line at each other.

Most of us like to be the king. Maybe we don’t want to be king of the world, but all of us want to be numero uno at something. Whether it’s being the leading salesman or the best athlete or the gal with the most Facebook friends, we want to stand out; we want to be noticed; we want it to be our name on people’s lips. Our attempts to get to the front of the line can be innocent enough. Often we get there fair and square. Sometimes though, if we’re honest, we bend the rules to our advantage. Either way, rarely does our climb towards the top occur without some collateral damage. We trample on another person’s feelings, or interests, or rights in order to steal the spotlight, to grab the headlines, or to guarantee the promotion. Not that any of us would admit to such blatant disregard for others. As Phil Lineberger, pastor of Sugarland Baptist Church once said in a sermon, “We all want to be great, but we don't want folks to know we want to be great.” So we become masters of subtle self-promotion, but don’t be deceived, we all are looking for our own chance to yell “king me.”

This Sunday is Palm Sunday. Those who saw Jesus on that day may have thought that’s exactly what he was doing – grasping for power. As far as they could tell, Jesus had been jockeying for position for a few years now. They’d heard the reports of large crowds and miraculous healings. There were even a few rumors of mass feedings. He seemed to have everything in place for quite a run. He still had quite a few hurdles to jump. Mainly Roman hurdles, but the people longed for liberation and thought Jesus might just be the one whose shouts of “King Me! King Me!” could bring an end to the Roman occupation. So the people shouted and laid their coats at his feet because they could see that Jesus was a man on the move.

 Jesus was on the move that Palm Sunday long ago, but not in the direction of the people’s expectations. He wasn’t on the way up, as they hoped, but the way down. He wasn’t grasping for power but letting go. At least, that’s how Paul would describe Jesus’ journey a few decades later when he wrote, “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. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross.” In other words, Jesus was showing us that the way up, is actually the way down. The path to a God kind of power isn’t in figuring out how to be the king, but in following the King who gave up his glory to serve us all.

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many – Matthew 20:26-27.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Lent Day 30 - Hide your face from my sins

When my children were younger they would often ask me to turn around when they wanted to do something that they didn’t want me to know about. My son was especially prone to this very direct form of parental evasion. “Dad, could you please turn around for a minute.” “Why?” “No reason, just turn around.” As I turned around, I could usually spot him doing something out of the corner of my eye that he had already been instructed not to do, like picking his nose. As he’s grown older, he’s learned better forms of dodging his father’s gaze.

Old habits die hard for all of us, though. How many adults still practice this childish behavior when it comes to seeking forgiveness from God? We pray God, please forgive me for what I’ve done, or sometimes even, for what I am about to do! We may even quote a scripture, like Psalm 51:9, “Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquity.” What we mean, of course, is God, please don’t look at me right now while I do what I want to do even though I know it’s not what you want me to do. What we want isn’t forgiveness but for God to feign ignorance of our transgressions.

True repentance looks different from that. The truly repentant heart desires not only to be set free from the consequences of sin, but even more so, to actually be set free from sinning. Look at the next few verses of Psalm 51. David doesn’t just want God to hide his face from David’s sins; he wants God to set him free from sinning. Verse ten continues, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” David wants his heart to be pure. Far from wanting God to turn around and avert his gaze, David longs to be assured of God’s attention and presence. “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” God’s attention and gaze provide David with both the ability and motivation to do what is right.

The next time you seek God’s forgiveness, remember, forgiveness isn’t about God pretending to be ignorant about our sins. True forgiveness is about God seeing our sins and doing something about it, namely, setting us free from both the stain of our past sins and the slavery of future sinning.

 Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting – Psalm 139:23-24.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Lent Day 16 - The blessedness of breaks

This Sunday marks the beginning of spring break for many in our community. Friends and family will embark upon road trips across this country. For many, a road trip is a necessary evil required for getting from point A to point B. For the attentive, however, the trip can be as meaningful as the destination so long as we remember to stop along the way. Eugene Peterson, who makes his home in Montana, explains that when his family takes a road trip they make a point of paying attention to those signs that announce “Roadside Vista Ahead.” He writes, “In anticipation we slow down. And then we look. We see where we’ve been; we see where we’re headed. Take a breather. Eat a snack. Enjoy the scenery. We can’t always be driving, watching the road closely. Not driving is also part of the trip – savoring what we’ve done, absorbing the landscape, letting the contours of the land and the colors of the horizon sink into our imaginations.”[i]

In the road trip of life, we often call such moments holidays or vacations or possibly even Sabbaths – moments when we can pause and relax and reflect. Sometimes, like during spring break, the holidays are set on the calendar for some general purpose – like resting in the midst of our work or school. Other times, these “rest stops” occur at the culmination of some great process and are often accompanied by some type of ceremony – a wedding, a graduation, the birth of a child. Sometimes they surprise us – like when we realize our children are no longer babies and wonder when that happened and how we missed it. Some such moments grab us when we’d rather not be taken hold of, like the death of someone we love. It seems almost sacrileges to call the death of a loved one a holiday – but if we trace the root of the word back to its original sense – a holy day, perhaps you’ll understand what I’m attempting to get at. For what can be more holy than pausing at the time of a friend’s passing from this life to the next to offer thanks, to express grief, and to ponder the meaning of it all?

True life requires such moments, moments of thanksgiving, moments of grief, moments of reflection. That is, if you want your life to be a human life and not like those of the animals who rush from moment to moment with no thought for the past and no understanding of the future. Moments of reflection help us put today in its proper perspective. They help us see the truth of our present situations in light of the larger narrative of our lives and, ultimately, in the light the even larger narrative of God’s life. Sabbath, after all, is not a repudiation of the rest of the week, but rather an invitation to put the rest of the week into proper perspective. Rest stops, whatever form they take, don’t keep us from the journey so much as they keep us journeying in the way God intends.

So this week blessings on you many travels, but also, blessings upon the pit stops along the way.

[i] Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over a Wall (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 137.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Lent Day 14: A Masterpiece of My Mess (Revisited)

Easier Than Honesty by Erick Sandlin
This is a re-posting of the very first entry on this blog. It fits in well with the season of Lent.

Have you ever had something you were working on become messed up? It’s a horrible feeling. I can remember a time as a child I was working on a painting. I had been taking art classes, and whether or not my talent warranted it, I took the whole endeavor rather seriously. Just weeks before the county fair (where I hoped to enter my painting and maybe win a prize) I was putting the finishing touches upon a dramatic landscape filled with billowing clouds and mighty evergreens. I was cleaning some brushes when I turned in time to see a classmate bump up against my painting creating an ugly streak right across the face of the clouds. “AHHHH! It’s ruined,” I exclaimed. My third grade heart with its oversized ambitions was devastated. My teacher came over to see what the commotion was about. She tried to calm me and assured me, that sometimes, what are initially mistakes, can become the workings of a masterpiece. And with skill and grace, she took brush in hand and worked magic on that canvas, redeeming the scar and making it an integral part of a glorious sky.

When I think about the grand story of the Bible, I see God at much the same work. Again and again, through our sins, we mar the work of God. Last Sunday, we looked at that first sin in the garden. We talked about the sad fact that in Adam and Eve we became takers instead of receivers. The pattern plays itself out in the next few chapters. Cain took Abel’s life. Lamech took revenge on a young man who had injured him by killing him and then took delight in having done so. Evil became so great that God attempted a new start with Noah after the flood, but even then, our fallen humanity failed to receive the new start with open hands. With the ground still moist, Canaan took some potshots at his drunk, naked father. Noah then took Canaan’s folly as a chance to curse his own flesh and blood. And then in chapter 11, the whole world, it says, took on heaven, building a tower to the skies that they might make a name for themselves.

The first eleven chapters of the Bible are enough of a mess that it’s a wonder God allowed there to be a twelfth. But as is his nature, we find God giving once more. His gift in chapter 12 is a simple but lasting promise. God gives Abram a promise that serves as the initial brush strokes in his great work of salvation history. For the rest of the Bible, the painting unfolds, stroke by stroke, color by color until God redeems our errors for his glory by painting the picture that culminates in Jesus Christ and the redemption of our souls – God’s masterpiece from our mess. Whatever messes existed in your past or exist in your life today, take time to thank God that he makes, as Isaiah puts it, beauty of our ashes (see Isaiah 61:1-4).

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

Monday, March 5, 2012

Lent: Day 13 - I'm bad at Lent (and I'm ok with that)

Read Luke 11:37-44 

Every religious tradition has a set of rules that helps distinguish insiders from outsiders. In my tradition (at least in the past) that involved no dancing, no drinking, wearing nice clothes to church, etc. I imagine in your tradition the rules might be a little different but the point is the same – to differentiate us from them. Where’s the danger in that? Well, Jesus says there’s plenty. First, we tend to pick the rules we like to keep, the rules that are easy for us to keep – so that we do indeed look different from “sinners” (at least on the outside, on the inside we have a way of looking a lot like them). And we create these little systems by which we reward one another for keeping the rules that are easy for us to keep. We puff ourselves up and put others down. And that’s why Jesus gets so upset. He’s upset with our self-deception. He’s upset with our self righteousness. He’s upset with the fact that we think we’ve arrived without his help. He’s upset, because he loves us and he knows that our game of self-righteousness is mortally dangerous. Unlike the grosser sins where our distance from God is fairly obvious, we’ve whitewashed our tombs so that no one, at times not even ourselves, knows the deadness inside. This is dangerous because we tend not do anything about the sins we are unaware of. It’s like undiagnosed high blood pressure. Self-righteousness is the silent killer of a life of faith.

Lent, itself, can be a practice that when done poorly perpetuates self-righteousness. One of my professors, Roger Olson, recently wrote of the trend of more and more Baptists celebrating Lent. He doesn't view Lent as an evil, but rather, something that's not necessary for the life of faith. As one of those Baptists he talks about, I appreciate his article. First, I appreciate it because I firmly believe that wisdom is often found in a dissenting voice especially when that dissent is about popular trends (This keeps me squarely in the Baptist tradition!). Second, I appreciate the warning that whether we observe Lent or not, the issue of our spiritual vitality cannot be reduced to our religious practices even if it involves them. Observing Lent or not observing Lent, just like the washing of hands or not washing hands, isn't what matters. Rather, Jesus says, what's required is obedience to all of God's ways, a complete surrendering of our lives to him. When we reduce our faith to either keeping or not keeping a certain ritual, we run the risk of thinking that by keeping our small list of rules, we have arrived at God's will for our lives.

Truth be told, I’ve had a lot of trouble keeping up with my Lenten commitments. And at least for the moment, I’m glad I’m not good at it. You see, I’ve been a Baptist for a long time. I’m pretty good at being a Baptist. I know all the ins and outs of keeping the outside of my Baptist cup pretty clean, as I’m sure you know how to keep the outside of your Methodist or Episcopalian or Catholic cup pretty clean as well. But I’m not so good at Lent. I’ve already messed up plenty this year. You'll notice I have not blogged like I said I would. Remarkably, like I said, I’ve found that failure to be a gift – a reminder that I too am a sinner in need of grace, a work in progress, a person who though not perfect, is still being made perfect by the One who already is.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Lent: Day 8 - The Lord is my portion

Read Psalm 73

"In Feast or Fallow" by Sandra McCracken

25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.
27 Those who are far from you will perish;
you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
28 But as for me, it is good to be near God.
I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge;
I will tell of all your deeds.
                    - Psalm 73:25-28

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Lent: Day 7

Read Mark 8:31-38

At the center of the Christian faith stands the cross of Jesus Christ, which would appall most of us, if we identified the cross with actual crucifixions and not simply as a symbol of faith or a piece of jewelry. Remember, the cross in Jesus’ day didn’t represent faith or hope. It certainly didn't represent love. If it represented anything it represented the end of such aspirations. A cross was the symbol of a lost cause, a dead end, the place where messianic pretenders and common criminals shared a humiliating fate.

We might wonder why the early Christians did not adopt another symbol – there were other symbols to be found – the Chi-Rho, the Icthus, even the peacock, a symbol of resurrection. But the symbol that stuck was the cross. Try as we may, we can never quite escape the truth that at the center of our faith stands a horrific defeat. Paul makes clear that the crucifixion was a centerpiece of early Christian preaching, “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

The cross is still a stumbling block when we read passages like Mark 8 and hear Jesus speaking not just of his own cross but ours as well. The cross remains palatable so long as it's just Jesus upon it. It becomes less so when the conversation turns towards our own cross bearing. But the scriptures make plain, the cross isn't just the price paid, it is also the path paved.

David Garland explains this dual purpose of the cross with a simple story (that he borrowed from scholar Eduard Schweitzer) about a heavy snowfall that strands a young boy in the home of a friend after school. “He cannot get home, ‘until his father comes, with his strong shoulders, and breaks the way through three feet of snow. The boy ‘follows him’ in his footsteps and yet walks in a totally different way. Father is not merely his teacher or example – or otherwise the boy would have to break his own way, only copying the action of the father – nor is it a vicarious act of the father – otherwise the boy would just remain in the warm room of his friend and think that his father would go home instead of himself.’ The problem is that the way Jesus prepares for us to go home is not the one we want to travel. It is arduous and paved with suffering, but it is one that we must journey to get home.”

Dr. Garland's words ring so true to my own experience, "The problem is that the way Jesus prepares for us to go home is not the one we want to travel" and yet "it is one we must journey to get home."

God, thank you for making a way home for us where there was no way.  Give us the courage to now walk in your steps as we follow you towards the kingdom come.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Lent: Day 6

Return of the Prodigal Son
Return of the Prodigal Son
The Church of St. Mary Abott
Kensington, London
Photo by Lawrence OP
Reading for Today: Psalm 32

Christians often have a reputation for sourness. Misunderstandings about the season of Lent can perpetuate this perception. During this season, we often spend even more time than normal focussing upon our sins. We confess, and we repent. If we're not careful, we stop there. Our spirit becomes trapped in perpetual state of sorrow over our sinfulness. While sorrow over one's sin is a part of the Christian life, it is meant to be a fleeting part.

The overwhelming emotion that Christians ought to experience when thinking of their own sins, is joy, not joy over the sin committed, but joy over the sin forgiven.   The Psalmist declares, "Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the LORD does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit" (Psalm 32:1-2). There are no Christian merit badges for wallowing in guilt and shame. God has spoken the ultimate word of forgiveness over our lives in and through the person of  Jesus Christ.

Our appropriate response should be nothing less than joy!

"Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death" - 2 Corinthians 7:10.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Lent: Day 3

Today's reading: Matthew 4:1-11

When we read the Bible we often jump straight to the application of a passage asking, "What does this text say about me?" While there are plenty of passages in the Bible that have a word to say about us, many passages don't have us as the subject. The primarily word these texts speak is a word about God. The story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness is one of those stories.

We read this text and often jump straight into a lesson on how to resist temptation, but if you'll notice, we are nowhere to be found in this story. Our representatives in the scripture had already had their shot at resisting temptation and failed. We now follow their well trodden path. This is a story that tells us that Jesus took a different road. When faced with the temptation to be driven by his desires or to take an easier, less painful path to the kingdom come, Jesus remained faithful to God's will and not his own.

During this season of Lent and during every other season, as well, our hope is not found in our ability to resist temptation, but in the fact that Jesus already has. We shall find release from those sins that so easily entangle us not by reinforcing our already broken will power, but by fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart - Hebrews 12:1-3.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Lenten Resources

For too many, the focus of Lent is on giving something up. To only focus upon what we give up misses the true focus. Lent is a season of turning our attention evermore towards Christ. We give up something good in order to lay hold of something better. The best approach to Lent may be to say, what shall I take up this season in order to focus on Christ. Then only secondarily, to ask what one could give up to make that pursuit of Christ a reality.

One of the great things to take up would be an additional devotional time each day. Here are some online resources I've found that might be a good place to start.

  • Journey to the Cross - this online devotional is from the folks over at The devotionals are simple and yet stirring. It's worth stopping by for the the Ken Medema music alone.
  • Lent for Everyone - This is a Lenten devotional by one of my favorite writers, N.T. Wright. I can only find this on the YouVersion website / app. I don't think you have to sign-up in order to use it, but you might. It's free, and the YouVersion app is a great way to read the Bible on your phone or tablet. 
  • Lenten Blog by the Huffington Post - As strange as this one is, two days in I've been pleasantly surprised by this Huffington Post Lenten blog. I'll say up front, I have no idea who all the contributors will be and so I don't vouch for any of them. That being said, so far they've had piece from the late Henri Nouwen and from Walter Brueggemann two of my favorite authors.

Lent: Day 2

Today's Reading: Matthew 3:1-12

Political season is in full swing here in the States. That means debates and ads and any number of speeches in which politicians tell us what is wrong with the world and how they aim to fix it. As of yesterday, we also entered into the season of Lent, a season which also invites us to diagnose the world’s ills and move towards a remedy. Some of can’t get enough of the politicians speeches. Others do their best to avoid them altogether. But all of us, could benefit from listening to and meditating upon the words the church associates with the Lenten season.

When reading through the gospels, the first sermon we hear is a Lenten sermon found on the lips of John the Baptist. “Repent,” he shouts, “for the kingdom of heaven is near.” How different are his words than so many of ours. We assure ourselves of our status with God. We’re the good guys we think, because of our denominational affiliation or our nationality or our political affiliations which ever they may be! We can think of plenty of people who need to repent. We just don't think of ourselves as needing to be on that list.

We know the world is a mess, but we didn’t make it. We blame it on the poor or the rich. We blame on the immoral or the religiously uptight. We blame it on the older generation for not knowing what we now know or we blame it on the young for squandering all we provided them. We blame it on those who refuse to take individual responsibility for their shortcomings. We blame it on systems that keep people from reaching their full potential. We blame it on anyone and everyone but ourselves. Above our political debating, John, waist deep in the Jordon keeps shouting from the water to anyone who will listen, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” – 1 John 1:8

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday (a former post revisited)

Today is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. While more and more Baptist churches are learning the benefits of observing the season of Lent, some still wonder if this isn't too Catholic for we Protestants to bother with. "You know, pastor" a concerned church member will say, "I can't find Lent or Ash Wednesday anywhere in the Bible." I always find such objections a little weak. In my tradition we gladly celebrate Mothers Day, the Forth of July, and a number of other secular holidays with out batting an eye or caring that they aren't in the Bible. But we've had objections to observing a holy day that had 1500 years or so of church history behind it. That just doesn't seem right.

Whether we officially observe Ash Wednesday or not, the themes of this day are essential to any person's life of faith. "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." That exact phrase is not in the Bible, but it is thoroughly biblical. Job, in the midst of his suffering laments, "I will soon lie down in the dust; you will search for me, but I will be no more." We are mortals - though we spend a life time trying to forget that fact. As a preacher, I've attended more funerals than most, and yet, I admit, it takes a conscious effort to remember as I leave a cemetery, "One day they'll lower me down in this ground, too."

Remembering one's mortality is important for a couple of reasons. First, it keeps things in proper perspective. On those rare moments when my mortality sneaks up and slaps me in the face, like after the death of a friend, I find myself taking better stock of life. What matters? What am I after? Who do I love? Do they know I love them? Stuff and stats cease to be as important. Also, facing one's mortality sharpens the realization that one needs a Savior. I can do lots of things. I can't escape death. I've lived long enough to realize, I can't even get ready for death without some major intervention. My sins are too great, my will too weak. I need a Savior. And there it is. That's why I need days like Ash Wednesday. Because too often, I forget that I'm going to die (one thing I am good at is self deception!). When I forget that, I forget almost everthing that matters.

Dear God of life and love,
Remind me of who I am -

a man of dust and doubt and
deceit - of others and myself.
a man of sin in my core
and in my deeds.
a man of limited days.
a man who'll die.
a man who's dying.

Dear God of life and love,
Remind me of who I am -

a man who's been found, forgiven, and
restored - to you and to others.
a man who's been bathed in grace
and raised to life.
life with you, today,
and forevermore.
a man who, yes, will die.
but also a man who will live!
a man who lives!