Thursday, March 2, 2017

Whom have I in heaven but you?

Copyright: stanslavov / 123RF Stock Photo
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever – Psalm 73:25-26
Yesterday marked the beginning of Lent, a six-week season that leads up to Easter. While not a traditional part of Baptist life, many Baptists have begun to take a serious look at this season which has been observed by some Christian groups for centuries. For instance, for the last few years I have attempted to give something up for Lent. I admit that I am not always good at this. I fail as often as I succeed. I’m more ok with that than you’d think. Lent is one of those times in which attention to our failures may be as helpful achieving our goals. The point of the season, after all, isn’t to accumulate gold stars for how well we’ve done but to practice recognizing our need for God.

The tradition of giving something up for Lent is connected to the spiritual discipline of fasting and can be traced back to the early days of the church. In his book, Living the Christian Year, Bobby Gross notes that early Christians fasted on the Friday and Saturday before Easter as a way of remembering both Christ’s death and entombment. Later the fast stretched to include all of Holy Week. By the Council of Nicea in 325, some churches had extended such observances to a forty-day period of fasting and repentance much like the modern Lenten season.

In fasting, a person temporarily refrains from something good to make room in one’s life for something better, namely, the moving of God’s Spirit. For instance, a person refrains from eating for a period to dedicate the time normally given to meals to the seeking of God in prayer. For a more modern twist, a person might choose to give up TV, Facebook, an hour of sleep, or some other activity for the very same reason - to fill that time up with the pursuit of God's presence.

In the process of fasting, we are reminded of our dependence upon God and our freedom from dependence upon anything else. Most of the things in our life are fine in themselves. In fact, they are gifts from God, but it is amazing how we can become consumed by these things without even realizing it. We think we can live without them if we so choose, but of course, we rarely get around to trying. Fasting during Lent is a time to try. Giving up a favorite activity or a favorite thing for Lent is a way of allowing one’s spirit to remember, "I may enjoy these things, but I do not need them. They are not my master. God, alone, is my portion."

The inward discovery that all we need is God should lead to changes in outward behavior. Discovering that God is enough leads us toward greater generosity. In giving something up we discover that we can also give something away. For example, if you have a Starbucks a day habit that you lay aside for forty days, that’s a decent chunk of change you’ll have come Easter morning. What will you choose to do with the extra money? One possibility is to give it away to those who need not practice fasting because their lives are already an exercise in need.


Online Lenten Devotionals
  1. Bible Gateway is providing three Lenten devotionals straight to your inbox, including one from the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and another from Dallas Willard. 
  2. Lent for Everyone is a Lenten Devotional available on the YouVersion app/webpage written by one of my favorite scholars, N.T. Wright. If you search the YouVersion site, you’ll find Lenten devotionals by a number of other famous authors, scholars, and ministries (Tim Keller, Max Lucado, etc).

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Power of Presence

Few things communicate love quite like spending time together.

Copyright: weerapat / 123RF Stock Photo
In the New Testament, the followers of Jesus are commanded to visit those in prison (See Matthew 25:36-40; Hebrews 13:3). The concern for prisoners likely stemmed from the fact that believers often found themselves in prison. Peter, John, Paul, and Silas all spent time behind bars. It was also because Christianity is at its best, a ministry of presence. God made his love known to us by becoming present with us in the person of Jesus Christ. We make God’s love known by being present in the lives of others. This is especially true when we are present with those who find themselves in times of great need.

Just this past weekend, the adult choir spent the weekend ministering to inmates in one of the correctional facilities in Gatesville, Texas. Everyone I’ve talked to who went on the trip has gone on and on about how God moved during this trip. Both the inmates and the choir discovered God’s presence as they spent time being present in one another’s life. This is how God often works. He shows up among us when we show up in each other’s lives.

In our church, there are those who regularly visit those in prison through a jail ministry here in town. I want to take the time to thank these volunteers for their faithfulness. These men and women go weekly to the Tom Green County jail and lead Bible studies for the inmates. Tonight, Pastor Matt will go and baptize fifteen inmates who have recently accepted Christ. Matt knows that he is reaping the fruit, but it's these faithful men and women who sowed the seeds by being present in the lives of others over the long hall. They’re living testimonies to the power of being present in another person’s life.

You don’t have to be a prisoner to know the importance of love made known in presence. I am grateful for those who have made God’s love known to me by being present in my life. I think of the director if the Baptist Student Ministry, the late Bob Mayfield. Bob wasn’t flashy. He wasn’t cool. He wasn't young. He was present in my life. We’d regularly spend time together just to spend time together. Even though Bob had been in ministry for decades at that point, he treated me like an equal. He’d ask my opinion about things and then took the time to listen to my answer. Years later I’ve forgotten almost all the cool conference speakers and preachers I heard during my college years, but I’ll never forget Bob. Love, made tangible through being present in each other’s life, leaves an imprint that’s not easily forgotten.

I wonder, who are the people whose presence left an imprint of love on your life? On whose life is your presence leaving a similar imprint of love?


Additional thoughts:

  • Show Up by Jill Phillips. Alyson and I enjoy Jill’s music. This song reminds us “If you want to change the world, all you got to do is show up.”
  • Sitting with Suffering by Richard J. Foster. We know that true love weeps with those who weep. Still, being present with those who are suffering challenges the best of us. What do we say to those who are hurting? What do we not say? Richard Foster has some helpful suggestions on the Renovaré blog.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Jonah: Reluctant Prophet, Merciful God

I'm grateful to Smyth & Helwys for the opportunity to write this year's Annual Bible Study. You can get your copy today here.

Book Description

Jonah: Reluctant Prophet, Merciful God is a four-session Bible study for individuals and groups. The study guide revisits the classic story of “Jonah and the Whale” and discovers a rich and complex tale that proves far more interesting than we might suspect. First, the Bible makes no mention of a whale. Instead, we learn about a great fish that has only a minor role in the narrative. The main character of the story is not the fish or even Jonah; the main character of this story is God. Furthermore, the book of Jonah invites readers to ask important questions about who God is and who God calls us to be in response. Along with the prophet, we ask questions such as What kind of God is the God of Israel? and Who falls within the sphere of God’s care? Most importantly, perhaps, we find ourselves asking How will I respond when I discover that God loves the people I love to hate? These sessions invite readers to wrestle with these questions and others like them as we discover God’s mercy for both the worst of sinners and the most reluctant of prophets.

Jonah Teaching Guide

This Teaching Guide for the Smyth & Helwys Annual Bible Study on Jonah includes teaching options, suggested worship and sermon outlines, and approaches to leading discussions and group study. This study also includes relevant lesson plans for including youth and children in a congregational study of Jonah.

Jonah Study Guide

This Study Guide for the Smyth & Helwys Annual Bible Study on Jonah serves three purposes: to educate the learner on major issues of appropriate interpretation, to offer an overview of theological themes, and to build the learner’s Bible study skills by reviewing significant interpretations. Each session comes with thoughtful questions for reflection and discussion.

Monday, February 13, 2017

My Favorite Books on Prayer

Sunday's sermon explored the ways that prayer for others is a form of love in action. Below, I've listed a few of my favorite books on prayer for those interested in exploring more on the topic. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section.

Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home by Richard Foster. In this Ephesians 6:18, the apostle Paul writes, "And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests." In this classic work on prayer, Foster explores twenty-one different types of prayer giving us some idea what Paul might have meant by "all kinds of prayers." Drawing on a variety of Christian traditions, Foster's list will likely include some prayers you are familiar with and some that are new to you.

Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? by Philip Yancey. I started reading Philip Yancey's work in college. His writing is purposefully accessible to anyone regardless of where they are on their spiritual journey. At the same time, he blends this accessibility with a willingness to press readers just beyond their comfort zone. He continues this pattern in his work on prayer exploring many of the questions we have about prayer but are too afraid to ask.
Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott. In this simple little book, Anne Lamott contends that the three basic prayers all of us pray are "Help," "Thanks," and "Wow." If you are new to Lamott's writing, be prepared. She does not fit the traditional religious writer's mold. More confessional than guide and aimed as much at the skeptic as the already religious, this book will encourage anyone who has struggled to find their voice in prayer.

Check out a fuller review I wrote for The Baptist Standard.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Amateurs at Prayer

Copyright: tomsickova / 123RF Stock Photo

I don’t know about you, but I constantly feel like an amateur when it comes to prayer. I do pray – for you, for the church, for myself, for the world. My prayers are not always smooth or eloquent or even consistent. Sometimes, I get distracted. Sometimes, I get bored. Often, I’m simply at a loss for words. I know people often consider pastors professionals when it comes to the spiritual, but truth be told, I’m no professional prayer. Maybe, that’s not a bad thing. In the book of James, the apostle presents Elijah as an example of prayer, not because he had some supernatural gift of intercession, but precisely because he “was a man just like us.” He could get frustrated, tired, doubtful, just read his story in 1 Kings 17 and 18. Clearly, the man had his ups and downs. And yet, he was a man whose prayers changed the world.

In our slick, glossy, overly marketed world we’ve been taught to think poorly of amateurs. Nobody wants to do an amateur job at anything, we think. But the word amateur comes from the verb to love and means “for the love of it.” Being an amateur means doing something for the sheer love of it. Amateur athletes play the game, not for a paycheck but because they love the game. So too, we amateur prayers. We pray for the love of it, or more specifically, for the love of the one who first loved us. We pray because we serve a God who makes himself known in the depths of our troubles and the heights of our joys. We pray because we serve a God who heals our broken bodies and makes whole our broken souls.

We could (and often do) wish prayer was easier, like so many of the sermons and books and talks make it out to be: a method, a formula, a magic incantation. But prayer, biblical prayer, is not magic and there’s no set method. It’s communication. It’s a relationship with the God who is able. So pray when you can, and where you can, and how you can. Mess up and make mistakes. Be an amateur like Elijah and pray for the love of it that the world might be changed - and you right along with it!


Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. – James 5:13-16


Further Reading on Prayer
  •  5 Misconceptions that Hinder Prayer by Richard Foster. Foster, author of the classic book, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home helps us move past five common misconceptions about prayer.
  • A Prayer That’s Not Just for the Pulpit by Mark Roberts. Roberts reminds us that Psalm 19:14, a prayer I’ve prayed in the pulpit many times, is a good prayer to offer throughout the rest of your week.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Go and Do Likewise

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

                                                - Luke 10:36-37

Luke describes this anonymous young man as an expert in the law.  We might first think of him as a lawyer, but because this is primarily religious law we’re talking about, we might equally call him a seminarian.  Now, my brother is a lawyer and I am obviously a preacher. And I can tell you, there are some similarities in our training.  We were both taught to examine things, to analyze them, to ponder the possibilities in front of us.  Most of all we’re both taught to ask good questions in the search for truth and justice.  Theoretically, the questions asked by lawyers and preachers are supposed to eventually lead not simply to the discovery of truth and justice but to the enacting of those virtues as well.  Of course, we all know it’s easier to ask the questions and discuss answers than it is to put those answers into practice.
The young man in our text, in keeping with his professional training, had questions for Jesus.  Good questions, even if his motives were a little mixed.  Luke writes that he stood up to test Jesus with perhaps the question of all questions, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus proves, that while he might not have the training of the lawyer, he’s not afraid of asking questions himself.  “What is written in the Law?  How do you read it?”

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Buyer's Remorse

Have you ever heard the term buyer’s remorse? Ever experienced it? I’ve felt it with every piece of exercise equipment I've ever bought. Buyer’s remorse is that feeling of regret that often crops up after some major or not so major purchase. These feelings can show up for all sorts of reasons, but usually appear when the credit card bill hits sometime in January. At that point, you realize that your purchase of a 70-inch TV doesn’t make that much sense for your apartment where the biggest room is only ten feet wide. Regret strikes the moment you realize that your new car already has a scratch on it, your new dress showed up in the styles-to-avoid column, and your new cell phone is already on sale for half of what you paid for it.

Buyer’s remorse leaves you wondering why you liked this purchase so much in the first place. Why did you pay so much? Why couldn’t you wait for the after Christmas sales? You’d think past experiences of buyer’s remorse would slow our spending down, but you’d be wrong. We seem to not only have buyer’s regret but buyer’s amnesia. We somehow convince ourselves that we’ll be wiser this year. We think that this next purchase will do what all the other purchases did not, satisfy our souls.

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

My guess is we’re going to continue to buy things for our families. That’s ok. Giving my kids or my wife a gift is a form of generosity. But how might we find more joy and less regret in 2017? Perhaps by figuring out how to buy ourselves less and to give others more.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Three Reasons to Attend Church this Sunday

‘Tis the season for New Year’s resolutions. I wonder if you’ve included in your to-dos for 2017 the commitment to regularly participate the corporate worship of God? Many of us have the idea that going to church is something we should do, and that it is something that is good for us, but we struggle to put this desire into practice. What would happen if we committed to attending weekly worship services and stuck to that commitment?

  1. Our deeds will match our confession of faith. The truth is, all of us are works in progress. We declare with our mouths that “Jesus Christ is Lord,” and then struggle to implement that truth in our lives. If Jesus is our Lord, then we will want to do what he commands. One of the things God desires from us is regular attendance with a worshiping community. The author of Hebrews challenges us, “Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten in the habit of doing.” (Hebrews 10:25). Regularly attending worship helps our words match our deeds. If Jesus is our Lord, we will join others in worshiping him as such.
  2. We’ll discover God’s presence. I know that we can discover God’s presence in all sorts of different places. I often stumble upon God during time with family or when I’m hiking through brush looking for butterflies. I also know that the one place Jesus promised to show up is among the gathered people of God (see Matthew 18:20). I recognize that we don’t always feel God’s presence in worship each week. We cannot manipulate God into showing up. God shows up when and where he desires. Regular worship helps us to be ready when he does.
  3. We might be the presence of God in another person’s life. The temptation to skip worship is great. We think about how good it will feel to sleep in or get some quiet time just to ourselves. We know we might miss out on something at church but figure the only person we are hurting is ourselves. What if we are the instrument God intends to use to bless someone else? What if it’s your smile, your singing, your handshake that God uses to speak to another person. What if your presence encourages someone else’s attendance? What if that person, encouraged by your presence, hears the life-changing good news of Jesus Christ?

The full quotation from Hebrews is this, “Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing. Instead, encourage each other, especially as you see the day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:35). Regular participation in worship encourages the body of Christ to be faithful until Christ’s return. I know that I am regularly encouraged by the presence of God’s people each week. I encourage you to put church on your calendar this week. If you don’t have a regular church home, I invite you to worship with us at Southland this Sunday.