Thursday, September 17, 2015

"Wherever you are, be all there."

Three weeks into the September and summertime boredom is a distant memory at the Sandlin household. The boxes on our calendar aren’t big enough to write in all we have to do each day. Carpooling, lunch making, and homework checking have filled up our schedule. It’s easy to wish we could somehow go back to simpler days or fast forward to some future, imagined season of peace. We know all too well, however, that life can’t be lived in any moment but the present.

I am reminded once again that our lives tend to occur in seasons. Some seasons of life, it’s all you can do to simply keep up. During other seasons you find yourself wishing for more to do. Whatever season of life we happen to find ourselves in, we have a tendency to quickly wish that we were somewhere else. One of the greatest lessons of life is to learn to be present wherever you happen to be.

The missionary Jim Elliot once said, “Wherever you are, be all there.” I like that even if I struggle to live it. One thing that has helped me learn to live it a little better in the present is to ask myself at the end of each day, “Where did I most sense God’s presence today?” And also, “Where did I struggle to be aware of God’s presence today?” The difference often has to do with whether or not I am living in the present season or attempting to fast forward (or rewind!) to some other place.

Is your life hectic? Learn to find God in the chaos. Is your life a bore? Learn to find God in the slowness. Wherever we are, God is there, too. We can find him if we look. To see him, though, we have stop gazing at the place we wish we were and start looking carefully at where we are.  

“The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything” - Philippians 4:5-6.

Extra Reading:
  • The Virtue of Patience – Looking for a deeper study on the Christian virtue of patience? Try this online Bible study from Christianity Today.
  • The Cure for Impatience: Gratitude – I always love it when secular authors stumble onto biblical truth. Jessica Stillman writes for Inc. magazine about the connection between gratitude and patience.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

6 ways to refresh your soul this summer!

“One more day until summer vacation!” announced my children this morning. Alyson, a third grade teacher, and the kids have been counting down the days for a few weeks now. Tomorrow afternoon that vision will become reality. Their souls seem refreshed already!

No matter how lovely a school you attend or how much you enjoy your work, the best routines can start to feel more like ruts without the occasional break. This is true in our spiritual lives as well. Let me suggest six ways you can refresh the soul this summer with simple changes in your spiritual routine.
  1. Eat breakfast with Jesus – For many of us, breakfasts during the school year are hectic affairs. In the summer, however, our mornings slow down. Seize the opportunity by enjoying a cup of coffee on the back porch with your Bible before heading to work or the pool. Reading just one chapter a day would easily get you through Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
  2. Start a thankfulness journal / chart – Nothing rejuvenates the spirit quite like thankfulness. Practice thankfulness by recording at least one thing for which you are grateful each day. At the Sandlin house we keep track of what we are grateful for on a calendar on the refrigerator.
  3. Take a real day off – Summer vacations are nice, but sometimes we fill our vacations with so much activity that we long to return to work just to slow down the pace! The Bible teaches us that God often does his best work in us when we truly slow down and spend time alone with him. Try taking a day or half a day totally off. Leave your electronic gadgets behind. Take a walk. Take a nap. Leave yourself open to the presence God that sometimes can only be found when the calendar remains empty.
  4. Eat together – Few things connect us to one another like a shared meal. There’s a reason Jesus left us the Lord’s Supper as an enduring reminder of his presence among us! Eat more meals with other people. Force your teenagers to eat with the grownups (they’ll thank you later!). Invite a new friend from Sunday School to share a burger together. Cross the street and invite a neighbor over for lunch. Don’t be surprised when chips and hotdogs serve as appetizers to the kingdom of God.
  5. Go to church – I know that it’s easy to skip church when you are on vacation, but don’t! Vacations are an excellent time to drop into a sister congregation’s worship service. When I’m on vacation, I especially like visiting churches in other traditions. I’m always fascinated by what is different and almost always encouraged by the many, many things that remain the same. Going to church on vacation reminds me that the kingdom of God is much, much bigger than my one particular congregation. 
  6. Have fun! – Somewhere along the line, we got the really bad idea that fun and faith don’t go together. That’s a lie straight from hell. God is the one who invented play! Just look at how even the animals love to play. Laughter, creativity, joy – all of these result from play and are gifts from God’s hand. So whether it’s at the pool, over dominoes, with a guitar, or on hike, have fun! You’ll not only feel better, you might just discover the joy of the Lord in the midst of the fun.
Whatever you do this summer, I pray you’ll discover the refreshing presence of the Lord.

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul – Psalm 23:1-3a


Good Reads from the Internet: This week’s good reads come from the same source. Author Amy Julia Becker authors the blog “Thin Places” for Christianity today. She writes about Faith, Family, and Disability. I’ve enjoyed her writing. The posts below each call us to take a break in the profoundest of ways.
  1. Want a Better Devotional Life? Buy a Bird Feeder
  2. What Slowing Down Teaches You that Rushing Never Will
  3. The Serious Pleasure of Summer Reading

Thursday, February 26, 2015

"I am not"

Last Sunday we began a sermon series that will walk through Jesus’s seven “I Am” statements in the gospel of John. These seven statements give us a robust picture of who Jesus is in our world and who he desires to be in our lives.
I am the Bread of Life.
I am the Light of the World.
I am the Door.
I am the Good Shepherd.
I am the Resurrection and the Life.
I am the True Vine.
I am the Way and the Truth and the Life.
Each phrase echoes God’s self-disclosure to Moses at the burning bush: I AM who I AM. Each phrase adds a beautiful layer of color to our understanding of Jesus Christ as LORD.

There is an eighth “I am” statement in John’s gospel that gets less attention. In part, because this eighth phrase is uttered by someone other than Jesus. This eighth “I am” is no less important, because it paves the way for understanding Jesus as the great “I AM.” It’s found in the very first chapter of John’s gospel when some folks asked John the Baptist if he was the Messiah. He responded plainly:
I am not.
The eighth “I am” statement reminds us that we can only acknowledge Jesus as Lord when we lay down our own claims to the throne. To know Jesus as the Bread of Life requires acknowledging that I cannot sustain myself. Without his grace we will starve both physically and spiritually. To know Jesus as the light of the world requires acknowledging that we walk in darkness without his presence. To know the Way the Truth and the Life requires admitting that we are flat lost without his guiding care.

Jesus is the great I Am. Thankfully, blessedly, we are not. The sooner we admit that, the better off we will be.

For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Luke 14:11

Good reads from the internet this week

  1. Why People Don’t Leave Your Church – Plenty of articles explore why people leave churches, but have you ever wondered why people stay? George Bullard explores ten reasons why people stick with their church.
  2. Chicken and Fries – Jen Hatmaker explores the damage that can happen when we refuse to entertain other options in our life and our thoughts and how humility can keep us from hurting others and making fools of ourselves.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

"Friendship is a sheltering tree"

This week, Southland celebrates the life of two wonderful men, Lonny Whitehorn and Dwain Dodson. Sitting with both of these families this week, I’ve been reminded once again that more than anything else, life is about relationships. Family, friendship, community these are gifts from God. They’re what make life worthwhile.

When we search the scriptures, what we learn from the very beginning, is that life was meant to be lived together. Creation itself speaks to this great truth. For what good is a creation, thought God, without someone to share it with. Remember the story. After each day of creation God would look at it and say, “It is good.” But after creating man and woman on that sixth day, after creating someone who could share in the wonders of what had been made, only then did God look at it and declare, “It was very good.”

Relationships are what constantly transform things from being good, to being very good. We’ve all seen it. A joke, that’s pretty funny on its own becomes hysterical when shared with the right set of friends. A story that’s decent enough, all the sudden becomes a classic when shared among the right companions. Friendship makes meals taste better, conversations richer, and vacations more memorable. Friendship makes our days a little brighter.

Friends do more than make life a little sweeter. They make trials more bearable. The book of Proverbs tells us “A friend loveth at all times and a brother is born for adversity” (17:17). It doesn’t take very much living in this life to recognize that adversity comes to each one of us. God has never promised us a life without trouble – but in our friends and family and church – he’s promised to give us everything we need to persevere. I think of Jesus in the Garden. On the eve before his death, even there, especially there, the Son of God chose not to be alone but to be among his friends.

Samuel Coleridge wrote a poem titled “Youth and Age” with the line, “Friendship is a sheltering tree.” What a great image. Friends are those people in our lives who provide shade from life’s heat, refuge from life’s winds. You can find comfort in their arms, strength in their faith. Their words, like sweet fruit can bring encouragement to your soul.

Both Lonny and Dwain blessed our faith community through friendships they developed. We are grateful to have called them our friends.

I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends. – Jesus, in John 15:15


Good reads from the internet this week
  1. Brian Williams and the Ugly Allure of Embellishing the Truth – Brian Kammerzelt resists the urge to pile on the hate towards Brian Williams. Instead, he turns the attention back on our own hearts and the lessons we can learn from another’s mistake.
  2. MySpace? My friend, Pastor Katie McKown, writes about the sacredness of relationships and the space that makes those relationships possible. A beautiful essay that will move anyone who has a treasured space in a church building.
  3. Lenten People and Easter People – Another friend, Craig Nash explores the ways different people can embody the already and the not yet of the Christian faith. He encourages us to learn to love and to learn from each other in the mist of our differences.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Of Baseball and Beggars

We Have Passed the Baseball EquinoxNow that the Super Bowl is over, my family is turning our attention to baseball season. One of my favorite baseball memories involves a couple of trips to watch the Texas Rangers play with Mission Waco, a ministry to the down and out. Each year, a few volunteers from this ministry would load up a bus with a bunch of homeless guys and head to the game. The years I went proved to be an enormous amount of fun.

I always laughed as they entered the stadium because the first thing many of the guys would do is head to the tent that was offering free t-shirts for filling out a credit-card application. Somehow I didn’t think they would qualify. 

I also got a chuckle as the beer vendors came around hawking their ware. “Ice cold beer, six dollars” they’d say in their practiced cadence. Several of the guys began to mimic their sales pitch with their own street-smart perspective, “Ice-cold relapse, six dollars.”

On one occasion, my laughter turned to concern when one of the guys got into a heated argument with a lady sitting in front of us after she made a rude comment about the way he smelled. At first, I was furious with the woman for being so unkind. Then, as the guys quickly put on display their poor people skills, I found myself embarrassed by my own company. 

There’s nothing romantic about being homeless. These guys could be as crude and rude as you can imagine. I found myself wanting to say to the lady and to anyone else who was watching, “I’m not with these guys. Well, I’m with them, but only because I’m trying to help them out. I’m not actually one of them. In fact, I’m a ministerial student.” 

I realized then, and try to remember now, that my desire to distance myself from those literal beggars, meant I still had much to learn about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Most of us don’t want to be known as beggars. We want to be known as hard workers, as people who make a contribution. In contemporary political discourse we want to be makers and not takers. And yet, over and over again, the Bible makes clear that the kingdom of God can’t be earned, only received. That makes all of us in the church, as C.S. Lewis once put it, nothing more than jolly beggars.

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. . . Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” – 1 Corinthians 1:26-27, 31


Good Reads from the Internet this Week
  • 4 Bible Verses That Are Constantly Used out of Context – It’s easy to make Bible verses say what we want them to say. Author Thomas Turner takes a look at for verses that are frequently taken out of context and helps us understand what they may have meant to the original hearers of those words.
  • Four Lessons From the Super Bowl Losers – Jim Denison draws some insights from the team that lost the super bowl including this gem: “A score is not a soul. We are human ‘beings,’ not human ‘doings.’ We are more than our achievements and failures, no matter what the world thinks of them.”
  • Right or Wrong? Morning Prayer – The Baptist Standard recently published an article of mine on morning prayer. If you’re a Southland Member you’ve heard something similar from me before, but it might be a good refresher, nonetheless.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Consumption, Communion, and Caring for the Least of These

All across our country people are preparing for this upcoming Sunday. Mainly they’re preparing for Super Bowl Sunday by buying super amounts of food! Economists estimate that over $55 million worth of food will be purchased in the next few days. All that money buys us among other things, 20 million pounds of chips, 3.8 million pounds of popcorn, and get this, 12 million pounds of avocados. The only other day we Americans eat more food than Super Bowl Sunday is Thanksgiving. Fortunately, much like Thanksgiving Day, we will not be attempting this marvelous feat of consumption alone - according to Hallmark Cards, the Super Bowl, is the #1 night for in home parties all year long, outdoing another festive holiday, New Year’s Eve.

At my church, Southland Baptist Church, we are also making preparations for this Sunday that also involve a bit of food. Last night our children baked the bread that we will use in our Communion service. While we primarily know the Lord’s Supper as a ritual we do at church in a very solemn manner at very set times, in the early days of the church, it may have looked more like what will be going on in our homes Sunday night. No, there wouldn’t be a football game, and I’m not sure they had guacamole in the first century. But there would have been a gathering of family of friends in someone’s house, and there would have been a meal.

This gathering would include singing, reading of scriptures, prayer, probably a reading of one of Paul’s or another apostle’s teaching, and almost certainly a meal which would come to be known as an “agape meal” or love feast. Think of it as a weekly pot luck. Far from being a separate, ritualized affair, church history tells us that the Lord’s Supper most likely occurred either during or after this agape meal. If there were leftovers, they would be distributed to the poor. Later, as the meal became more of a ceremony and less of a meal, the distribution of leftovers was replaced by a monetary collection for those in need.

We continue this practice at my each time we observe the Lord’s Supper by taking up an offering for World Hunger. Other churches take up a collection for their own benevolence ministry during their Communion services. What a difference it might make if this upcoming Sunday if we gave to the poor that which we intended to spend on junk food? Our waistlines and our neighbors would both thank us for this very different kind spending in preparation for the big game.

With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need – Acts 4:33-35


Read more on this topic:

  1. Texas Baptist Hunger Offering – See one of the ways Texas Baptist churches care for the needy around the world.
  2. 49 Things You Need to Know About Super Bowl XLIX – OK, you don’t really need to know these things, but this Forbe’s article contains a lot of fun facts about this year’s game.
  3. Souper Bowl of Caring - Nationwide, youth-led effort which encourages people to give one dollar while leaving worship services on Super Bowl Sunday.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Most Important Question for Christian Leaders

Following mom
Following Mom by Tambako The Jaguar on Flickr

One of the great blessings in my life is a pastor peer group that I meet with once a month. We gather to pray for one another, learn from each other, and just as importantly, to enjoy one another’s presence. That last part is the most important part. Everyone needs friends who love them just because.

Our desperate need for unconditional love has been reaffirmed by a book we've been reading together by Henri Nouwen entitled, In the Name of Jesus. In classic Nouwen style, the book makes the case that Christian leadership is not primarily about leading, but rather, being led. If we are Christian leaders, the leadership we most need to be concerned about is Christ’s leadership in our own lives and not our influence in the lives of others.

That our relationship with Jesus is primary is a reminder even preachers need to hear on a regular basis. It’s easy in this life to think that our value and our worth and our significance depend upon any number of factors other than our relationship with Jesus. Nouwen especially takes to task the temptation of thinking our importance to God depends upon our relevance to the world around us. The desire to be relevant is basic human desire. We want to believe that our lives matter. We want to believe that we have made a difference in the world. We are tempted to think that is only possible if we remain relevant on the world’s terms.

This is not only a problem for individuals. As the church’s influence in our culture diminishes, it is tempting for the church at large to spend an inordinate amount of time on issues of relevance. Nouwen reminds us that we follow a Savior who was not relevant in his day. Instead, he was “crucified and put away . . . by a world in search of power, efficiency, and control.” Nouwen goes on to challenge us by writing, “The question is not: How many people take you seriously? How much are you going to accomplish? Can you show some results? But: Are you in love with Jesus?”

To be significant in the Kingdom of God requires not relevance but love. Jesus loves us. That makes us relevant to him. Let us now, in gratitude, love the one who first loved us, and love our neighbors as ourselves.

We love because he first loved us – 1 John 4:19

Read more on this topic:
1. In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen. This is the book I mentioned in the post. It’s aimed primarily at ministers, but would be valuable to anyone who longs to find their worth in Jesus alone. You can read this book in an afternoon, but the fruit of its wisdom proves long lasting.
2. The Church Needs More Followers – a book review of Len Sweet’s book, I Am a Follower over on Scot McKnight’s blog, Jesus Creed. Good conversation starter about the evangelical church’s views on leadership.
3. Leading the Follower by Bob Wells. This is a lengthy essay on the healthy tension between pastoral leadership and active lay followership. Wells argues that there isn’t a one size fits all model for congregations but that every congregation needs an engaged laity that is willing to both follow and challenge their leaders.