Monday, December 22, 2014

A Christmas Story

With Christmas just a couple of days away I want to tell you what Christmas means to me.

I was 16, in fact it was only a few days after my birthday. My father gave me independence as a birthday present, telling me that he wanted nothing more to do with me. So I did what any normal kid would do...I went to my mom. The problem is: my mom didn't want me either. In fact my mother informed me not two weeks after I moved in with her that she was leaving the state and that I wasn't welcome to come with her.

Happy Birthday.

To make a long story short: a family that I had known from church took me in. This family had known me for 6 or 7 years by this time and took the chance that I wasn't some homicidal maniac or Norman Bates in training. The lady who took me in recently told me the story of how tragic I looked as she pulled into my mother's driveway and found me sitting on the steps waiting to be picked up, all my possessions in a paper bag. There was no one there to say goodbye, no one to offer words of comfort, no one even to mark the death of my family. I remember very plainly feeling that I was worthless trash; unwanted by anyone and not worth anything.

Those first few days and weeks with my new family were filled with uncertainty. I was sure that I would soon wear out my welcome and find myself again on my own. I knew that it would all end soon and I lived daily with the certainty that this family would come to their senses and throw me away as well.

But the days came and went and I was still there. And along the way  something wonderful began to happen. My "dad" (the one who took me in) and I began to spend time together. He and I would stay up late talking. We mostly talked about Arkansas Razorback football and basketball, but we talked. He never yelled at me or raised his hand at me, he just talked. It's funny, but I cannot remember any serious talks or deep conversations, but I remember those talks with such passion that just writing about them brings tears to my eyes as I write this.

There have been only two times before the birth of my kids that I have cried. The environment that I spent the first 16 years of my life in was not conducive to got you hit some more. But the day that my adoptive dad told me he loved me (I was a high school senior) I went to the bathroom and cried for at least 20 minutes. The second time was in the car as my dad and I were driving to the store. I hadn't been married very long and we had bought a house. My parents had come to look at it and he went with me to the grocery store. During that ride he told me that he was proud of me.

No one had ever said that to me before.

My biological dad died a long time ago. My dad is still alive. I had the chance to spend a couple of days with my parents around Thanksgiving. My dad and I stayed up late one night and talked; just like we used to. His last words to me that morning were "I miss staying up late talking with you."

I cried myself to sleep that night.

You may be asking by now what this has to do with Christmas. Christmas is about God loving us. We have and can do nothing to warrant His love, but He chooses to love us anyway. His love is without qualification, without requirement. God gives His love freely and extravagantly. His gift of Jesus is the perfect example of that extravagant love.

My dad taught me about that  extravagant love in those simple late night talks and in the birthday cakes and the Christmas stockings. He lived it out in the meal blessings and the Bible study and his faithful service to his church. But mostly he showed me that great love in the gentle moments and the laughter we shared during those difficult uncertain early days of our time together.

If Christmas is about giving...then A.J. gave me the second greatest love I've ever known. His love was a powerful picture of the love that God demonstrated at Christmas.

May you know that love on Christmas day...and every day.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Counting Down the Days


We hate it.

How many of us walk back and forth at the checkout lanes at Wal-Mart hoping to find a line that is both short and quick. Who of us hasn't looked judgmentally at someone in the 20 items or less line who seems to have more than 20 items. Yes, we are not good at waiting, patience, long-suffering or anything else you might call it. 

We want it NOW, if not sooner.

The sad fact is that impatience is a universal human trait. We all share this impatience and we all display it from our earliest days. The best of us are unable to completely control our impatience and struggle to keep it under control on a daily basis. 

Think with me for a moment of two about impatience...well, actually, let's think about God's complete and perfect patience.

In Eden Adam and Eve were impatient to know things they were not ready to know. Their impatience led them to disobey God and thrust them into judgment. But God practiced patience when He didn't immediately destroy Adam and Eve at the moment of their sin but instead lovingly and patiently provided for their care and their future (Genesis 3). 

Joseph had dreams that were great and grandiose. His impatience to tell everybody about his dreams led to family strife that ultimately got Joseph sold into slavery and separated him from his family for many  long years. But God used those years to mold Joseph from young dreamer to a mature man who was able to understand the purpose of his struggles was the ultimate salvation of his own people (Genesis 38-50).

Joseph was a good man who faced a hard decision. His fiancee was found to be pregnant, and Joseph was not the father. He was within his rights to break off the engagement and to have nothing to do with Mary ever again. But God sent an angel to instruct Joseph in the wisdom of allowing God's plan to go forth and the Son of God was born (Matthew 1).

Jesus was facing the longest night of his, or anyones, life. His closest friends and followers had fallen to fatigue, leaving Jesus to struggle with the weight of the burden that he was about to bear. Yet in that dark night Jesus was given the strength to say "not My will, but Yours" and our salvation was secured (Mark 14).

Between the last words of the Old Testament and the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist (Mark 1) there are roughly 400 years in which God was quiet. Scholars call this the intertestamental period. Others call this the 400 years of silence. 

But silence does not mean inactivity. 

During this period of history God was busy. Busy protecting his people, busy preparing the world for the coming of His Son. By the time of Jesus' birth there was a common language and an empire-wide system of roads that would make possible the rapid spread of the gospel. Everything that was necessary for the proclamation of the gospel was in place when Jesus was born and it was the work of God that made it so.

You might not like waiting, but God is using that time to prepare you and those who you will come into contact with. He is placing everything for its maximum effectiveness, including you. In your waiting God is busy. When the time is right He will unleash you on a world made ready to receive His message and His messenger. 

Don't see it as waiting....see it as a countdown.

Are you ready?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

One Small Child

Christmas is big. Big decorations, big menus,  big trees, big sales, big spending, 

Christmas is BIG!

Americans like big. We have made a lifestyle of "over." Overspending, overeating, over exaggeration. The "American Dream" has become something more than freedom and liberty, it has become all about acquisition, having more than we need. We super size, king size, and over size everything from cars to houses to food portions to our clothing. And we pay over sized prices for everything. And Christmas has not escaped this uniquely American treatment. 

We want bigger trees, more lights, and larger yard decorations. I simply want to ask if anyone really needs an 8ft. tall inflatable snow globe in their front yard or lighted moving reindeer and sleighs.

Is it possible that in the midst of all this big have we lost the real meaning of Christmas?

Mary and Joseph weren't big, important people. Bethlehem wasn't a big town. Shepherds weren't at the top of anyone's invitation list. God didn't announce the birth of Christ on over sized TV screens or on Fox News. If you slow down long enough to read the Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke you'll discover that the birth of Christ was a small, intimate affair. 

God deals with us individually. He wants to be in relationship with us. Each one of us is important to him on our own. Our value to God is not based on family lineage or fame and fortune but on the fact that He created us and values us above all things. You are important to God because of who you are, the creation of His hands, and not because of what value you might think you have or whether or not you can be an asset to His plan. 

God loves each of us individually...and that love was so great that God sent His Son to die for us, not  in groups, but for each of us individually. That's love. That's Christmas...the gift of God for each of us. None too unworthy, none too insignificant. 

This year I challenge you to personalize Christmas. Spend some time with the Savior. The quiet moments will allow you to see Him, know Him, and experience His glory in a far more intimate and meaningful way than any 8ft snowman ever would. 

Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What Do You Believe In?

Abraham kept believing even as the childless years passed. Joseph never lost faith when slavery led to prison. Moses kept walking through a wilderness that was not of his own choosing. David sang even when being chased by a king intent on killing him. Jeremiah kept on preaching in spite of the fact that no one seemed to be listening. Mary and Joseph never stopped believing, regardless of what the town gossips might have said. Jesus set his face to Jerusalem even knowing that a cross awaited him there.

Each one of those people faced down greater obstacles than most of us. They endured longer than most of us could imagine. How did they do it? Perhaps more importantly: why did they never give up? The answer is one and the same; they believed that God had something better in store for them. Their lives weren't perfect, with the one most notable exception, but they knew in their hearts that God was the true source of their hope. They believed with more than their heads and saw with more than their eyes. When tough times came their faith carried them through. Their faith impacted their heart, and that kind of faith overcomes circumstances.

If I might be so bold, I believe that most of us, in fact, all of us, play games with God. We are all for faith when faith is about material blessings or bigger ministries or attention and adulation. But biblical faith is not built on or about those things. Faith is about God, period. Faith has its foundation in His character. Salvation is built upon His love and grace. There is no part of faith that exists apart from God. That knowledge should cause us to reevaluate everything about what we call faith in our day and age. The comfort and ease of being a Christian in North America in 2014 has led us not to a deeper more vibrant faith. Faith in our time has become a means to an end for many in our churches.

But faith is not some magic potion, some panacea that clouds our vision and better judgment. To be blunt, faith is hard work. Our natural inclination is to solve our own problems, to "fix" whatever is broken. Faith goes against that way of thinking. Faith requires that we look beyond ourselves in the realization that we are not the be all and end all. We are challenged to acknowledge that God is greater than we are, and we don't like that. Trusting God is an easy thing to talk about but a very different thing to practice.

Faith is the confidence that God will keep His word, regardless of circumstances, regardless of feelings, regardless of what anyone else might say. This confidence is not without struggle, but it does have history on its side. Those who possess this kind of faith have earned it. They remember how God has kept his word, they have seen God move in their lives and in the lives of others.

What they have seen in others has created in them a desire to have that same kind of relationship. They have made a relationship with God a priority in their lives and build everything upon that relationship. These people have never given up on God and have been careful to give the credit to whom the credit is due. They have taken to heart the truth that God cannot lie (Titus 1:2); that He will never abandon us (Heb. 13:5); and that He will complete His work in us (Php. 1:6). These promises have kept them walking, singing and following whether thy understand the circumstances or not. That kind of faith is rare in this world.

What is faith to you? If your faith holds no influence over your thoughts and actions then chances are you don't have faith in anything to begin with.

Just something to think about.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

When Did Evil Become Stronger Than Us?

I have long enjoyed the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. I first read the Lord of the Rings trilogy when I was twelve and soon after discovered his other works. They have kept me entertained many times throughout the years. You will understand my mixture of excitement and apprehension when I learned that the Rings trilogy would be made into full-length feature movies. On the whole I felt that Peter Jackson did a great job adapting the story to film. I own all of the Rings movies and enjoy watching them when I have the time.

I recently purchased the second Hobbit movie; "The Desolation of Smaug." While watching it again I was struck a line of dialogue that occurs between Legolas and Tauriel; two elves who are pursuing the orcs that are hunting down a company of dwarves. Tauriel asks Legolas: "When did we allow evil to become stronger than us?" The first time I heard that line I was struck by how telling it was for our time.

It has become accepted practice in the church to ask how our culture has become what it is, and many in the church have begun to ask how it is that the church has come to be in the shape that it is in. We seem surprised that our churches are seemingly powerless in the face of our culture's slide into wickedness, but anything more than a cursory glance at the condition of our churches will provide the answer to our cultural decline. The cultural decline in America is tied directly to the health of our churches. A sick and dying church leads to a sick and dying culture.

And the church is sick because the church has chosen accommodation and acceptance over devotion and dedication. Since 1960 we have seen the dishonoring of Sunday as a day of rest and worship, the wholesale acceptance of death on demand for those in the womb, the resignation to the idea that "everybody's doing it," and innumerable other social sins. And throughout all of this "progress" (how is it that those who promote sinful, ungodly behavior have been allowed to label such behaviors as "progressive?") the church has grown more and more mute and more and more irrelevant less and less influential. If I might be so bold, I believe that the church has become this way because the pulpits of our churches have lost the power of God. I don't want to disparage pastors, I am one myself, but our pulpits have lost the power of God. Most of the pastors I know are good men who love God, but they struggle with and increasingly indifferent local body that doesn't want to heart the truth as much as they want to have their ears tickled, to be told that they are "special" and that God is all about their happiness and giving them all that they wanted. Whatever happened to dying to self, taking up your cross and following Jesus?

In short, we don't need more Joel Osteen's or Joyce Meyers'...we need more W.A. Criswell's and John MacArthur's. The American church public may not want it, but they need it. The Word of God contains the only answer to what ails America. Another program, another emphasis, another building or catchphrase or best selling book won't fix the church or our nation. The answer to what we need is found in 2 Chronicles 7:14:

and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

We all need to forsake the self-centered, materialistic, comfortable religion of our day and embrace the cross of Christ. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Fiddling While Rome Burns?

Today is election day. There is much at stake in today's choices, or at least it seems that way. The control of the Senate is very much on the table and a strengthening of the control of the House of Representatives as well. Lost in all of this, perhaps, is the very important role of the appointment of the judiciary. There is much at stake,

Yet I must confess a growing pessimism in regards to government. No representative democracy has survived as long as America has - and if the last fifty years are any indication - we may not last another fifty. The political process has been co-opted by those who seek one the advancement of personal agendas and self-aggrandizement. Neither political party has more than a marginal interest in the things of God. And even that interest is little more than a self-serving attempt to gain votes.

Sadly, the American Church and American Christianity have played a large role in the decline of our nation and culture. The church has grown silent in my lifetime. We seldom speak prophetically concerning the sin of our people or our culture. When we do speak it is with a voice that is so muted by our own worldiness and timidity that no one hears.

Could it be that the "American Experiment" is failing because the American Church has embraced the American Dream? Are we more concerned with large buildings, public acceptance and overflowing coffers than with faithfulness to the Gospel? Have American Christians become so indistinguishable from the world around us that we no longer exhibit the characteristics of salt and light that Jesus said should be the hallmark of our lives?

I place the blame for the state of our nation at the feet of the church. Like the church at Ephesus (Rev. 2) we have left our first love and like the church at Laodecia (Rev. 3) we have become lukewarm. We are seeing the events of Romans 1 being played out before our very eyes. Until we arise from our slumber and embrace the cross we will continue to oversee the death of our land.

Judgment is coming. What will we do?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Would you give me five minutes?

I'm not sure what it was about the place that drew me to it time and time again. Perhaps it was the solitude of the place, or the sound of the rushing water, or maybe it was the fact that I was seldom interrupted while I was there. The place was a a refuge for me from a rapidly disintegrating life.

There have been few places like that in my life since then. 

That place was a spot on a waterway called the Bayou Meto in my hometown. There were a number of us who found the place while on one of those adventures that 13 & 14 year old boys like to have. That great adventure brought us to a wide spot on that creek. There were a number of rocks at this particular spot, perhaps an old road bed that had long been abandoned. We set about moving the rocks in an attempt to create a crossing through the rapidly moving water. We visited there often during that summer, but the fall pushed it farther down the list of priorities and we eventually quit going to "the Rapids" as we called them. 

Except that I didn't forget. I would visit there often in an attempt to get away from the mess that was my life. I would spend weekends there just so that I didn't have to face my reality. But life caught up with my escape and eventually I abandoned that place as well, leaving it to other young adventurer s.

But I sometimes find myself longing for a place like that again. 

Psalm 46:10 reads "Cease striving and know that I am God" (NASB). Other translations translate the opening phrase as "Be still," but I believe the better translation is cease striving. There could be no better instruction for our busy, distracted, connected lives. As a 14 year old I cherished those moments when I could escape the constant warfare that was "home." As a 54 year old I have to admit that I grown weary of the constant conflict and heartache that fills our world. The only anchor that I have is found in my relationship with God, and that relationship too often gets pushed farther down the list than is healthy for me. 

By nature I'm a fixer. Whether it's cars, small appliances, or spats between my kids, I've always tried to fix things. But the truth is that there are things we cannot fix. Not you, not me, not the. But we just keep on trying, growing more and more frustrated. The answer is to just let go.

There are things that happen in our lives that we cannot do anything about. Our response should be based on our relationship with God. Children of God do themselves and the Lord a great disservice when we keep wrestling with things that clearly are beyond our ability but are clearly His responsibility. The struggles that fill our lives are far more often beyond our control but within God's ability. 

Beyond that is the issue of all the "conveniences" that are really nothing more than chains that keep us enslaved to a way of life that is destructive spiritually. We fill our lives with computers, cell phones, televisions, text messages, tweets, and a million other things that are of questionable value at best. The life that all of this connectedness gives us is filled with activity but completely devoid of meaning. What we need is to unplug, withdraw, and cease striving.

If Jesus would regularly withdraw for times of spiritual renewal and fellowship with the Heavenly Father why do we think that we can do without those same types of times? I'm more guilty of that than anyone I know. Will you find the time today to "be still"? 

I'm about to put the phone on silence, turn off my computer, shut my door and spend some time in the presence of the Holy One who loves me. 

I encourage you to join me. I don't think any of us will die from it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

If You're Perfect Don't Bother Reading This

I had just come back to church after my heart surgery in 2010 when I was asked this question:

"What sin did you commit that caused God to punish you like this?"

Now that may seem to be a completely inappropriate and unthinking question to ask a man who had only recently had bypass surgery, but it doesn't come close to the following question I was asked after the death of our second son:

"Why do you think God took your son?"

I must confess that I did not answer that second question very fact, I unloaded on the person who asked me that question. I have asked the Lord to forgive me many times for my attitude toward the person who asked me that question. 

Let me answer those two questions in the order I have listed them.

First, it was not a "sin" that I committed that caused God to punish me with heart problems. My heart problems sprang from diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and genetics. My choices, and my choices alone are the causes of my heart problems. 

My sons (our first and second) died from immaturity. That means that they were born too soon in the pregnancy to survive. They died because their lungs and hearts were not developed enough sustain their tiny bodies. It is bittersweet to me that if they had been born today that at least one of them would almost certainly have survived. 

Those questions reveal what I call an Old Testament understanding of how God works. When reading the Old Testament it is easy to draw the conclusion that God zaps people immediately when they step out of line. That's a wrong conclusion, but easy to draw nonetheless. But the truth is something altogether different. 

God is always gracious, seldom pouring out on us the justice that we deserve immediately. I remember a song from a number of years ago titled "God of the Second Chance." The truth is that our Heavenly Father is the God of another chance. I like to believe that as long as there is breath God gives another chance. 

Be even more than an Old Testament understanding of how God works I think those questions reveal the innate ability man has for creating additions to the way God does things. The Pharisees were masters of that....adding to what God says is enough. The sad thing is that Pharisees are not the only ones who do such things. We are all guilty of this practice. 

I was reading an article recently in which the pastor of a large church was talking about all the things that would disqualify someone from serving in his church. My first problem with the article was his constant reference to "his" church. Now I know that I'm majoring on a minor...but I've seen and been around enough pastors to know that some, if not many, have come to believe that they are the ones responsible for the church. The last I checked the church belonged to the Lord and I don't know a single pastor anywhere who gave his life for the church. I know I'm ranting, but I've got a feeling that this rant is probably more true than any of us realize. 

The second problem I had was the apparent lack of grace involved. There are so many Christians who have forgotten where they have come from...that we are all sinners with no redeeming qualities of our own. I've worked in some churches that were like that; unforgiving of any mistake, unwilling to extend grace, legalistic while proclaiming that they are loving.

Please don't misunderstand me...I am not saying that there should be no disqualifiers when it comes to serving in ministry. The Bible is quite clear about the qualifications. But I am saying that we must be very careful not to take on a responsibility that is not ours. None of us, no one, is the Holy Spirit for another person. The truth is that we are all messed up and that we will be messed up all of our lives. It is only the grace of God that redeems us, not our goodness, real or perceived. 

Questions like those at the beginning of this blog and articles like the one I read recently only serve to fuel the misconception that we have to have our acts together before God can love us or even do anything with us. Nothing could be further from the truth. God loves us and has loved us long before we ever thought about our unworthiness. It seems that we've forgotten that fact. 

Maybe it's time to remember.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Michael Phelps and Fallen People Like You and Me

Michael Phelps has been in the news again. On September 30th Phelps was arrested for driving under the influence. This was not his first arrest for driving while impaired. Phelps' was suspended by USA Swimming for six months and will miss next year's World Championships. This is a black mark on Phelps' image and reputation that could potentially tarnish him for years.

In case you are unfamiliar; Phelps has won more Olympic medals (22) than anyone else in history. He has graced Wheaties boxes and made millions in endorsements. But there has been a dark side to Phelps' greatness. There have been rumors of PED use (never verified) and other arrests for DUI. It seems that Phelps' single minded determination doesn't extend to life outside the pool.

Tragically, Phelps is not the first and will certainly not be the last of our heroes to take a hard fall. There have been many who have followed the tragic arc that Phelps seems to be set upon. The recent spate of stories concerning domestic abuse and NFL players; performance enhancing drugs and baseball players leave us wondering with Simon and Garfunkel: "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?"

The truth is that Phelps and all our other fallen heroes are all human, just like you and me. None of us are able to overcome the allure of evil. There is none of us who are good. The Bible tells us that no one has ever been wholly good. People are fallen and need help. Yes, I'm going to say it: We've fallen and we can't get up (I'm sorry, I can't help it).

So before we rush out to condemn Michael Phelps or any other fallen hero lets remember that we are all capable of his transgression and so much more. Perhaps what Phelps and so many others need is not another dose of condemnation, but an understanding word and the gentle guiding hand of one who has walked the path before. Jesus instructed that "those without sin" should cast the first stone.

I wonder what we could be doing instead of ignoring Jesus' words. Perhaps our witness and our churches would be more effective if we started loving more and judging less. I'm not saying that we should turn a blind eye to Phelps' issues, or anyone else's for that matter. The church, and Christians in general, have become known more for what we're against than for our Savior. But perhaps we should learn to deal more redemptively than punitively.

At any rate, I will cheer now for Michael Phelps to get back on the right track...and not necessarily in the pool. Will you?

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Meaning and Necessity of Scars

My body is covered with scars. My first scar came when I was five years old and fell and split my head open. I have scars from the top of my head to the bottoms of my feet. I counted my scars once (I know it's creepy) and have over 30 all across my body. I've been pretty hard on my body through the years.

I can tell you the stories behind almost all of the scars, or at least I how I came to get them. Some are accidents, some are the result of poor and reckless choices, but there is one that saved my life. Starting at the base of my neck and extending nine inches towards my navel is the scar from my heart surgery. That scar is a constant reminder of the fragile nature of life and the gift that God gave me when He guided the surgeon's hands.

But I'm not taking your time today to talk about my heart surgery...I want to talk with you about what scars mean. So many of us try to cover up our scars, to remove the memories that they carry with them. We all share an aversion to pain, it's written in our genes. But without this massive scar in the middle of my chest I in all likelihood would be here today. The scar in the middle of my chest is no longer a reminder of the pain that I endured but a symbol of the life that it gave to me. 

One of the most difficult things I have ever done was make a trip to the hospital after the death of a church member just months after my heart surgery. He was younger than and I dropped dead going up the steps to his home one evening. I struggled to perform his funeral service and I struggled to understand the "why" of my survival and his won passing. My own scar seemed to constantly haunt me with the what might have been. My soul hurts for him and his family even today.

But scars carry different meanings, come from different origins. Jesus bears scars. The gospels record for us that Jesus' resurrected body bore those scars. They are a testimony of the power of God's love. That love which willingly gave His life for each of us. Jesus is not afraid of those scars, he embraces them willingly, gladly. He took them into himself so that we might be redeemed. You might say that Jesus' scars display the truthfulness of his claims about himself. Who else but the Savior of the world would willingly receive the scars that proclaim our redemption. 

What story do your scars tell about you? Do they draw you into a life of appreciation and thankfulness for the scars that Jesus bears for you? I have come to be thankful for this one particular scar and am learning to be grateful for all the rest. May they all remind me of the love that truly saved my life.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Anonymous and OK with it?

I recently met some new friends....well, they are new to me. They are actually friends of my wife. They are really nice people and I look forward to getting to spend time with them as our friendships develop. When meeting them I received compliments on this blog. The person said that they had read these posts and made a (joking, I'm sure) remark about my internet presence and, in their words, "fame"


I believe that this blog has a grand total of nine followers and that my last post was seen by a grand total of thirty-two people. Did I mention that I have something like thirty-six followers on Twitter? I have never pastored a megachurch, never been asked to chair any important committees or task forces. In short...I'm anything but well known and famous is not a word that I would associate with myself.

And I've become ok with that.

I must confess that this has not always been the case. My childhood was very difficult and it left me with a huge void in terms of self confidence and a sense of my purpose and worth. For many years I longed to know that I was worth something to someone. I tried playing sports, mostly in an effort to gain the approval of my father, but that didn't work. I participated in drama and speech contests with some success but not the recognition that I hungered for. My college career was nothing special and was noted more for my lack of academic achievement than anything else. With the possible exception of the cafeteria food fight...but we don't talk about that.

I struggled into adulthood and marriage feeling lost in a way. I desperately wanted my life to mean something to someone. I believed that God loved me but I wasn't sure why. I was convinced that my wife was going to wake up one day and realize the loser that I was and leave me for someone who would make a difference in the world. 

I was anonymous and miserable. 

I wish I could tell you that there was a Damascus-road type experience in which God broke through my misery and overwhelmed my disbelief with his love. That's not the case. The truth is that I struggled for many, many years and that I came to spiritual and emotional health through small doses of that still, small voice and the Bible. The Job like patience of my wife was so very vital in all of this. She continued to model for me the love of God...the truth is she still does.

I reached a turning point one day through the actions of one of my kids. One of my sons had inadvertently caused a minor disaster while I was working on our car. It was nothing major but was just one of those "perfect storm" moments. I overreacted and exploded all over him, saying things I didn't mean and should never have said. He ran into the house in tears and stayed there while I laid under the car fuming. 

I'm not sure how long I laid there but my fuming turned into self loathing. I was certain that my actions were proof of my absolute worthlessness. But then I heard my son come outside. I came out from under the car and before I could apologize he rushed up to me and threw his arms around me and told me he loved me. I was stunned that his heart would want to be on the same planet as me, much less express his love for me. 

God had me right where he wanted me. I was listening to Dr. David Jeremiah the next morning and he read Psalm 27:10 - "My mother and father have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me up." A light went on in my head. 

I came to realize that God picked me up all those years ago when I accepted Christ as my Savior. He knew what was coming then and He loved me anyway. His plan for my life included all the struggles, all the heartaches. He has been there all the time, wanting and waiting to wrap me in His arms. All those youth leaders, the senior adults, my wife and so many others were the instruments of His grace and love in the long, slow drawing of my burdened heart to Him.

I discovered that I wasn't so anonymous after all. I was the object of the affections of the Creator of the universe. He picked me up all those years ago and had been carrying me. 

The truth is that none of us are anonymous. God knows each of us in ways deeper than we can imagine, and He loves us with a love so passionate and fierce that He gave up his son for us.

No one from high school, college, or even seminary may remember me. No one at the headquarters of the SBC may know my name and I may never be remembered as a great pastor...But God knows me, loves me and has prepared a place for me. 

If that's anonymity I'm okay with it.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Where Never is Heard a Discouraging Word?

Oh give me a home
Where the buffalo roam
And the deer and the antelope play
Where never is heard 
A discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day. 

This blog was originally intended to be about the power of words...the power to build up, to tear down. I had intended to address the foolishness of Victoria Osteen's words...the President's seeming obsession with calling the Islamic State "ISIL" and what the meaning of "is" is. But technological issues derailed that post and so I find myself thinking of other things this morning. 

Mondays tend to be "Mondays" for me. They are often the most physically, spiritually, and emotionally challenging days of my week. I know many pastors who feel that way. It seems that the preparations for Sundays consume our emotions, intellects, and efforts and then we find ourselves spent come Monday. This is especially true for me because I don't sleep well or in great quantity. So I find myself on many Monday mornings struggling to get started; much less build any great momentum.

I have to admit that this was true this morning. I don't drink coffee (I know, I'm a weirdo!) and was having a hard time generating anything resembling enthusiasm for the day (I've been up since 3:30 am) when someone sent me a text message. I didn't recognize the number, but that's unimportant. 

The message was one of encouragement. The sender wanted to thank me for my service to our church. 

There was power in that message, at least for me. My heart was encouraged by the simple message and the words of thanks for my preaching. Those words penetrated my heart and unleashed joy. I cannot say that they made my day, but they sure helped me get off to a better start than I would have otherwise. 

So I guess I am still speaking about the power of words...but in the positive sense. We live in a world that delights in tearing things down, especially people. What a joy to receive a message that was intended to build up, to encourage, to strengthen. 

My response to that test message? To be someone who encourages others today. 


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Read This Before You Give Up

Our world is full of strife.

I doubt that anyone anywhere would argue with that statement. The situation in the Ukraine, ISIS, murders, assaults, seems as if everything is caught up in turmoil. Our world has become a place of war, pain, and despair. Hopelessness appears to be the theme of our days. Who could blame us if we decided to throw our hands up and give up?

I will.

I have known my share of heartache and troubles. An abusive childhood, abandonment, disappointment seemed to be the story of my life...and that was before I turned 18! The death of children, chronic health conditions, dismissals, personal attacks, and struggles have filled my days since. But I will not give up, will not give in. I can no more give up on this life that I could suddenly grow eight inches and regrow all my hair (if you're reading this but don't know me....I'm short, fat, and bald). But I have learned one or two things during my troubled time on this planet and those things give me the ultimate hope. I will list the most important thing first:

I know Jesus as my Savior and Lord.

Jesus became my Savior as a ten year old and I have been trying to submit to His lordship ever since. I haven't always followed Him as I should but He's never given up on me. That alone is the greatest hope I will ever know. I am not dependent on being smarter than everyone else, or faster, or more handsome or anything. In fact, there is nothing that you or I or anyone can do to be worthy of God's grace. I depend on the sacrifice of Jesus for my right standing before a holy God. That grace is a gift of God and I will never be able to do anything to make Him love me less or remove His grace from me. 

That grace is available to all men because God loves all men. I'm not going to debate predestination or election, or any of that stuff. All I know is that God loves all of us...offers His grace to all...and doesn't desire that anyone be separated from Him. He actively calls men and women just like me every day and as many as who will receive Jesus by faith will be saved. In a world filled with hopelessness and futility that's truly good news. I believe God is going to keep things under control until his plan it finished and then wraps things up. Not a day sooner or later. God is in control.

I will never give up because His grace shows me that it is never too late for God to reach down and change the world. 

Please think a moment or two about this for a day or two....I promise you that this truth alone will change the way you look at this world.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Jesus, the Celebrity Culture and the Church

I have observed with some interest over the last few weeks the ongoing Mark Driscoll saga. Unless you are a pastor or some other church leader chances are that you are unaware of who Mark Driscoll is and why he is important. Driscoll is the pastor of the Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington.

The controversy surrounding Driscoll took a disturbing turn in the last two weeks when the Acts 29 network, a church planting organization that Driscoll himself helped found, asked Driscoll to step down from his position and removed Mars Hill from the membership of the organization. This is just the latest brouhaha involving Driscoll in the last few months. Accusations of plagarism, inappropriate speech and abusive behavior towards church staff have swirled around Driscoll and there seems to be no end in sight. Recently Driscoll announced that he would be taking a leave of absence as the charges against him are examined.

Driscoll represents, at least to me, part of a greater problem for North American Christianity. I am speaking of a celebrity culture that seems to have crept into every corner of our faith. Strong men with strong personalities have become the "stars" of the American version of the faith. The same problem is present in the world of Christian music. I am not saying that Driscoll or any  other "famous" pastor has actively pursued such a status. But the truth is that we are wired to worship, and in our fallen state we will worship just about anything. The early church was not immune to this struggle, as illustrated by Paul's comments about the controversy between followers of Paula and Apollos in 1 Corinthians 1. The problem that Paul deals with there, and that the current controversy surrounding Mark Driscoll illustrates so well is one of following men rather than God. The amount of heated emotion and vitriol on both sides of the Driscoll controversy demonstrates the dangers inherent in tying our faith to men, no matter how good (or even great) they may be.

The answer is not simple. Pastors need to make themselves accountable to God and seek, as Paul did, to take every thought captive (2 Cor. 10:5). I know from personal experience how difficult it can be to take those thoughts captive. How difficult to let go of the praise that people want to give you, especially when praise and encouragement is so hard to come by. We need not only accountability before God but we also need to make ourselves transparent, willingly allowing God and others to have access to the far corners of our lives.

But mostly we/I need prayer. We don't need fawning fans or book deals. We need the fervent prayers of those who fill our pews, those who serve with us, those who serve around us. There are too many men who serve "alone," without the benefit of accountability and encouragement from fellow pastors and elder saints. Many of us don't have that, some by deliberate choice, but some by circumstance.

I have begun to pray for Mark Driscoll. I trust that God is not through with him yet, that there are still great things for him to accomplish for the kingdom. Will you join me in praying for him....and will you pray for me?

We both need it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Somebody's Watching....Always

One of the regular parts of my morning routine is listening to sports talk radio. While I spend time in front of the mirror shaving I like to listen to Mike and Mike. I find that sports is both a distraction and a reasonable reflection of our culture. I must also admit that I like sports, especially football.

This morning as I was shaving I heard about an incident involving Johnny Manziel. For anyone who might have been in a cryogenic sleep the last two years or so; Manziel is a rookie quarterback for the Cleveland Browns of the NFL. He has a tremendous amount of ability, and an ego to match. Manziel is a polarizing either love him or you don't. It seems that Manziel has been in the news more for his lifestyle than his ability over the last few months. That's not a good thing, at least in my opinion.

During a recent preseason game Manziel made an obscene gesture towards the opposing team's sideline. Not a smart thing to do, especially when you are the visiting team. When asked about the gesture during the post game press conference Manziel attempted to downplay his actions. Needless to say those actions have been the talk of sports radio this morning. Johnny Manziel can't seem to understand that the spotlight he's living under is harsh, unforgiving, and never turned off. His actions will only hurt his team and himself.

Manziel claims to be a Christian, and I'm not here to debate the relative merits of his faith claim. But I do want to consider for a moment the reality of the life that Manziel lives and its comparison to our own. Each of us is a billboard that displays much more about us than we would like to admit. Johnny Manziel can't seem to allow his talent to overcome his character struggles. The sad truth is that we are all like him, struggling to balance character, talent, and expectations.

Please understand that I am not talking about perfection....I talking about living honestly. We will make mistakes. Hopefully not as severe as Manziel's, but we will make mistakes all the same. We need to live in a way that owns up to our shortcomings and displays the grace and forgiveness that are ours through Jesus. The best Christians are the ones who get up after falling down, seek forgiveness and make amends to those who they have wronged. In short, they demonstrate the presence of the Holy Spirit and the character of Jesus.

Jesus said in Matthew 5:16 "Let your light before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven." That's a tall order that is much more difficult that it might seem. The world is always matter the venue; work, play, school, home, even the football field. Our every word, every gesture and action are on display and are seen and evaluated by those who see us. Pastors aren't the only ones who live in fishbowls: quarterbacks and moms and you and me do too.

So today when you mess up...and we all will. Simply confess, make amends and keep trying. I think we will all find that we will escape being the subject of talk radio.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Life, Death and Empty Nests

August 12th is always a different day in our house. It used to be a difficult day, perhaps the most difficult day of the year, at least for us. You see it was on August 12, 1987 that our first child was born. His name is Johnathan. He lived less than four minutes.....the time of his life on this earth is not important, that he lived is. His birthday was for many years a day of tears and mourning. There was very little to celebrate. For many years I would take the day off from work so that I could spend the day with my wife. I can remember feeling guilty on the first day that I chose to work rather than staying home to mourn.

Today Johnathan would be 27 years old....I imagine that he would have long ago left the safety of our home to engage the world. Perhaps he would have married by now and even given his parents a grandchild to spoil. The thought gives me pause to smile. I look forward to one day having a grandchild to pass on my "wisdom"....if it could be called that. I'm sure that my wife would have a different opinion.

When Johnathan died a part of me died. That death became even more pronounced when 19 months later our second child died shortly after birth. His name was Timothy and he would have been 25 now. The combination of blows left me staggering, reeling, breathless. There are no words to express the depths of our pain. It was the love of God that brought us through those long, dark days of pain and questions. Our marriage survived and we have been able to pick up the pieces.  That doesn't make their birthdays any less difficult, but we know hope and it is that hope that we cling to everyday.

The news today has been dominated by the death of comedian/actor Robin Williams. It is indeed sad that a man of his immense talents apparently decided to take his own life. I will not judge him. Indeed, none of us is in the place of God. Robin Williams will stand before God and be judged not on the method of his death, but on his relationship with God. My prayers are lifted for his family.

This day is a difficult day not because of the loss of Robin Williams or the anniversary of the birth and death of my son Johnathan, but because the emptying of our nest continued today with the departure of our second son for college. Matthew has chosen to go back to Southwest Mississippi Community College. He has just completed a term as a summer missionary in Oklahoma. His mother and I joked with Matt that we would move while he was gone, and that is just what we did! But we did pick him up at the airport and he was with us for a couple of weeks. But today he loaded up his truck and moved away. There were tears in his parents eyes as he drove away. Matthew may or may not be ready to face the world, but I can assure you the world isn't ready to face Matthew. He has a way of changing the lives of everyone around him and I am sure that he will continue to do just that.

Tomorrow his twin sister Rebekah will go back to college as well. Our nest is slowly but surely emptying. The beginning of May found our house full but by the end of May two-thirds of our kids had moved away. My wife and I have always known that our nest would empty....we just never saw it happening so quickly. Four kids leaving in one month was a lot harder than we ever thought it would be.

The days of summer saw not only four of our kids moving away, but we also left our place of service after six years and moved away from an area that we had been in for the last fourteen years. All of these transitions have been difficult. But God has been with us throughout each of them and we cling to His promise that He will be with us through all the days that are yet to come. We have learned not to despair but to rejoice. God has turned our mourning into dancing and our tears into laughter. I have joked many times that the reason we had six kids (eight counting Johnathan and Timothy) was that I wanted to change the kid at a time. My plan is about to be put into motion!

I thank God for August 12th. On each August 12th and every day that surrounds it He has proven his love and power and goodness. In spite of life's changes, death, and even empty nests.