Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Lopsided Christmas Trees

The tree is lopsided this year. Despite my best efforts, it either leans, or the star bends one way or the other, and don't get me started on the ornaments. There are broken ornaments, ornaments that look like they came from garage sales or thrift stores, and even a few home-made ornaments. Some parts of the tree have two or three ornaments on a branch while other parts are as bare as Charlie Brown's Christmas tree. But what do you expect when you have four children age 10 and under that try to help decorate? Add to that two cats (one who thinks the branches are chew toys and the other who likes to use the upper boughs as her personal sleeping space). The tree has been nearly knocked over once, re-decorated twice and re-arranged more times than you will hear "White Christmas" on the Christmas music only radio station. Still, it's lopsided.

Yet, to my children, it is the most wonderful thing in the living room. When they see it, their eyes light up brighter than the tangled strands that adorn the limbs. It is their tree, and it is in their living room. And that makes it special to them. They can't see that it's lopsided.

I imagine God looks at us the same way. We have parts that are broken. We have areas of our lives that we try to cover up with superficial decorations while other areas remain unattended and bare. We are lopsided. Yet God sees us differently. We are His people; the objects of His affections. We are special to Him. It's not that He can't see we're lopsided, He chooses not to. That's why Christ came into the world... to set the lopsided things of this world straight.

So to all my lopsided friends out there, from one lopsided tree to another, I wish you a Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Liturgical Year by Joan Chittister

In The Liturgical Year, Joan Chittister explores the liturgy of the Catholic and more orthodox faiths. She begins by explaining what the liturgical year is and that it's purpose "is to bring to life in us and around us, little by little, one layer of insight after another until we grow to full stature in the spiritual life." She then moves into more specifics, like advent (the beginning of the liturgical year), and Christmas, and Lent, then Easter followed by the Saints days and Marian feasts. Not only does she describe the symbolism of each, but also what the spiritual implication is to the believer who observes them.

I picked up this book from a purely educational standpoint. I am not a Catholic and their practices have always seemed mysterious to me. Overall, I enjoyed the book. I greatly appreciated the emphasis on Christ's redemptive work on the cross that is weaved throughout the yearly observances. The chapters dealing with advent and Christmas helped me appreciate even more the Christmas season and the "coming" of Jesus. I did find the chapters on the Saint days and Marian observances a little at odds with my protestant beliefs, yet they were historically enlightening. I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to walk closer with Jesus on a daily basis or for anyone trying to understand what their Catholic friends are doing.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What Will You Give Jesus?

It must have been a long journey. Twenty-four months on camel back eating dust and sand. Two years following a star that pointed out not just the birth of a king, but the birth of THE King. Now these wise men, these magi, have arrived in the sleepy little town of Bethlehem. I wonder if they were taken aback by the humble surroundings. Were they dumbstruck by the fact that royalty did not dwell in the Herodian Palace, but in what was most likely a two room flat in an unimportant town? I bet they asked themselves, "Is this the right place?" Nevertheless they proceeded to the appointed destination.

Now put yourself in Mary's shoes. A caravan of perfect strangers arrive at your house asking if this where the King of the Jews live? That must have been an amazing conversation.

In the most humble of dwellings, a King receives His court. The king is a toddler and the court is a group of complete strangers from thousands of miles away. God loves to work through contradictions, and Jesus came to point out that God shows up in the most unlikely of places

But notice the wise men are truly wise, for they do not let doubt arrest their worship. They not only worship the God-child, they unveil the gifts they brought to Him. Expensive gifts. Thoughtful gifts. Gifts that not only proclaimed His royalty, but foretold His death. These were not only gifts of sacrifice, but gifts of worship.

As the Christmas season approaches, I have been consumed with what gifts to give to family and friends. After having a year of moving expenses, picking up two car payments, and going from two sources of income to one, I have been preoccupied with the fact that this Christmas may not be as nice as previous ones. But as I prepare my sermon this week God is pricking my heart. I have been convicted by the fact that my focus is on the wrong things. It's not about what I give, but about what God gave and continues to give. I've been reminded that most of those moving expenses were paid for by a loving congregation, that my job with it's benefits of parsonage and utilities pays nearly as much as the previous two incomes did. That while I have two car payments, I have one less college loan payment. God has given me so much this year, not to mention the bottomless well of grace that I drink from everyday.

So while the gifts under the tree may not be as numerous or expensive, my focus is elsewhere. It's on what can I give Jesus this year. He gives me so much, I feel compelled to give to Him. Not to earn grace, but because of my love for Him. What can I give Jesus? I can give Him the same things the Wise Men gave Him... worship and sacrifice. Worship as my God and Savior and sacrifice in the form of not living for me but living for Him.

I sacrifice my desires to His will.
I sacrifice my dreams to His plans.
I sacrifice my self-reliance to His care.
I sacrifice my family to His upbringing.

Now, what will you give Jesus this year?

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Testimony

Have you ever encountered someone whose life has radically changed because of Jesus? You know, the type of person that was totally lost before Jesus.

The pusher turned pastor.
The murderer turned minister.
The abuser turned anointed.
The sinner turned saint.

I can remember growing up in church an hearing about how someone was able to conquer the demons in their life because of Jesus. In Bible College I met many people who did not come to Christ until their adult years, including one guy who dabbled in things like the occult and satan-worship. When I heard their testimonies, and how real God was to them at the moment of their salvation and I saw how God was using them, there was a part of me that got jealous.

That's right; jealous. I used to feel that I had no testimony of my own. In my opinion there was no major life change that had occurred. I grew up in a Christian family with a strong Christian heritage. Everywhere I looked there were examples of faith in my grandparents and parents lives and examples of God's grace as they raised me to the best of their abilities. Going to church wasn't an option, it was a requirement when I was growing up. Dad was a deacon/sunday school teacher/ board member/ interim preacher while mom was a sunday school teacher/VBS worker/volunteer. Both were incredible examples to my sister and I. Not because they were perfect, but because they lived what they believed. What I saw in them on Sundays I saw on Mondays-Saturdays. It's no wonder that they raised a son to be a preacher and a daughter to be a missionary.

But this upbringing, in my younger mind, was no earth-shattering testimony. I used to think that growing up in a Christian family and carrying on that tradition was nothing to brag about. There are no surprises in that story. No life-altering, heart-moving moments. No one would shed a tear at that kind of testimony.

However, over the last several years I have started to come to grips with something. My grandparents' testimony was a life that was sincere and integral enough to produce God-honoring children. My parents' testimony is the same. As I have grappled with this idea, I have recognized that my witness, my testimony, my gift to God must be my children. This is difficult as I realize what this may entail. I have watched as my parents pray and support a daughter in Muslim Africa. I have heard the concern in their voices when their preacher son struggled to make ends meet because the small churches he served could not afford to pay much. I have seen them lay their Isaacs on the altar of God and give them to Him, and to be honest, the prospect of doing that with my children scares me.

But, I am my mother's testimony. I am my father's testimony. More importantly, I am God's testimony to the world that a life lived for God, no matter how "mundane" is a light that shines in darkness. If I am to stay true to my call, to my heritage, I must trust God not only with finances and choices and relationships, but with my most cherished possession, my children. I want my children to be God's testimony. To reflect their Father in heaven. That will be my testimony.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I Once Was Blind...

Yesterday my wife had a PTO meeting to attend, which gave me the rare opportunity to watch whatever I wanted on TV while she was gone, so like most red-blooded American males the clicker clicked and ESPN tuned in. The show was E60, a sports news magazine that covers some of the more personal interest stories in sports.

One story, titled "Blindside" was about High School freshman Charlie Wilks (see the video @ http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=4642733 ) who, because of a brain tumor, lost his sight at the age of five. It was an inspiring story of how a kid would stop at nothing to pursue his dream of playing football. His grandfather was an offensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs and played in the first Superbowl. The story covered all the obstacles and objections that Charlie had to overcome just to play football.

I couldn't help but be moved by this young man's story. There were so many lessons to take from it, like when a teammate admits that Charlie's example makes him try harder. There's also the lessons of hard work and determination. But, by far, the most thought-provoking of the entire segment was when Charlie stated his biggest fear. It wasn't getting hurt. It wasn't not making the team. His biggest fear? Getting his sight back.

You heard me right. There's no need to re-read, and if you don't believe it, hear it in his own words by watching it yourself. Charlie Willks biggest fear is getting his sight back. Why? Because he, like many blind people, envisions the world to be a perfect looking place, and he doesn't want to lose what his mind's eye perceives the world to be.

There are so many things to take from this. I could talk of this young man's maturity as he learns to not only accept his condition, but chooses to thrive in spite of it. But as I mulled his words over, I couldn't help but wonder about the spiritually blind. Could it be that the real reason that some chafe whenever they hear the gospel is because it threatens their perception of reality? They feel their little world is perfect, and Jesus' call would shatter that world. His light of holiness would expose their flawed lives and sin-filthy souls, so rather than be cleansed and perfected, they choose ignorance and blindness.

Maybe some of you remember that dark existence. You might even remember the trepidation you first felt when the good news of the Gospel began to challenge your fictitious, perfect lives. But now you see. You see that the world is flawed, but you also see the danger before you are upon it. Remember your darkness when you proclaim sight to the blinded. Recall why they are fearful, and encourage them that Jesus wants to give them sight so that they can see the truth, and as Jesus said, "the truth shall set you free."

If I could speak to Charlie, I would tell him how amazed I am at his abilities, how impressed I am by his spirit and determination. But I would also tell him not to fear sight, for although the world is imperfect and ugly at times, the beauty of God's creation overwhelms the imperfections, and the same can be said of our re-created souls.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Living with Confidence in a Chaotic World

Living With Confidence in a Chaotic World is a refreshing, practical look at end-times prophecies. Dr. David Jeremiah looks at several passages, that at first glance may appear all doom and gloom, and mines out of them a message of hope and a call to return to practical Christian living. Admittedly, I was reluctant to pick up the book, because most books that deal with prophecy involve themselves so deeply in trying to "predict" the end of time, that they forget the point of the prophecy. Dr. Jeremiah does just the opposite as he outlines ten specific actions we can "stay" involved in, while anticipating Christ's imminent return.

The positives of this book are it's practicality to everyday life and the real-to-life illustrations woven throughout the teachings. It made the points easy to understand and easy to apply. The only negative was that I found this book simplifying truths to the point of redundancy. Some chapters that took twenty-plus pages could easily have said the same message in less than ten pages. This made the book, at times, a difficult read as you mulled, "didn't I just read this point." Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who is struggling with their faith in the midst of troubling times.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What I Learned in Louisville

For those of you who don't know, last week I went to the Leadership Conference at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, KY. This was their first conference in five years, and it was worth the wait. I've been to their conferences twice before, and one thing that impressed me then continued to impress me this year and that is ANY size church can benefit from the principles that Southeast is committed to and has built upon. Not once did I ever get the impression that I was a small fish in a big pond or that "well, yeah, of course you can do that, you have an army of volunteers" feeling. The stress was always on the principles of a healthy, Biblical Church. I just wanted to share a few reflections, or lessons, from my experience.

LESSON 1: It's not the size of your congregation, it's the size of your God that matters. If we believe that God is all-powerful and can do anything, then we must believe that He wants His Church to prosper and that He can enable it to succeed. I am not saying that every church must be 18,000 members in order to be considered faithful. That is a ridiculous assumption. Take the congregation I serve as an example. There is not a population base nearly large enough to warrant that size of a congregation. I don't think there are 18,000 people in a 10 mile radius of where I sit right now! However, I believe God wants us to grow and reach people with the Gospel, and if we believe in His power, we must put faith into action and try some things that stretch our faith and will fail if God is not in it with us.

LESSON 2: God cares about lost people, and so must we. Every community, large or small, has people who are outside of Christ. When's the last time you wept for them? I'll admit, until this month as I prepared a series of sermons on God's prodigal prophet, Jonah, it had been a long time since my heart was broken for the lost. All too often we make excuses, "what can I do?", "I might offend someone," "evangelism is not my gift," "isn't that the preacher's job?" I'm so glad Jesus didn't make excuses. Imagine if He told God, "I might offend some people, and it will hurt, and death just isn't my gift, especially death on a cross, and it's not my problem anyway, I didn't sin." God has a passion for the lost, and that passion must be translated through us into our communities as we meet needs and proclaim Jesus.

LESSON 3: Everything we do should be done as an act of worship to God. As I mentioned before, this was my third trip to Southeast. I have also had the privilege of attending their worship services there occasionally, and for a brief period of time my sister called this congregation home. I have yet to see any church more committed to excellence than Southeast. Whether it is their music, videos, teaching, preaching, greeting visitors, childcare or simple building maintenance, Southeast is committed to doing everything with excellence. Why? Some say it's a show. Others say it's all to get numbers. But when you talk to the leadership, the real reason is because they love God and want to give Him the best they can humanly offer. In other words, it's about worshiping God. I challenge you to approach every task as an act of worship. Meeting a deadline is being obedient to your boss, a principle found in scripture. Do it, not because you might get fired, but because you love God and desire to obey God. Not only will you meet the deadline, but you will do better work. This principle applies to everything, from family to financial to free time, everything can be an act of worship to God and thus it deserves your best effort. When this principle is applied and practiced in our churches it results in a congregation that not only works together, but worships together, and that unity attracts people to the God we worship.

LESSON 4: It's God's Church. If there was any one thing that struck me more than anything else, it was the humility of the elders and lead ministers. Not one of them had the attitude of, "That's the Southeast way!" or "Look what we've accomplished." Rather, they were humbled that God had used them to help build what is now the largest church in our brotherhood and one of the largest in the world. They all gave credit to God, and continually mentioned how they always sought God's will above their own in each and every situation. God honors such humility, and we would do well to remember that the Church is God's. Our opinions should take a backseat to what Christ desires for His bride. Jesus once said, "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." More than once I have heard of or even experienced the damage that can be done when the "vocal minority" forces their agenda above God's in a small church. Let's not play politics and give to God what is rightfully His to begin with.

LESSON 5: Truth matters. It's human nature to second-guess success. When an athlete has a better-than average year we wonder if he's using steroids. When somebody strikes it rich on a business deal we assume they had insider information. Even long and sustained success brings out the inner skeptic as we question business practices and integrity. Unfortunately the same is true of churches. We see a large church and are tempted to assume they have compromised on some Biblical truth. It was refreshing to see such a large church that had so many "traditional" elements. Many of our churches have done away with the invitation at the end of the service. "We address those issues in small groups, etc." is the explanation given. Not at Southeast. They still believe in the power of preaching, and offer an invitation. Some of our brotherhood churches have adopted the denominational practice of having "baptismal services." Now in a church plant or building where a baptistry is not readily available, this is understandable. But Southeast believes in having baptisms as part of their worship service. Not only is it an act of obedient worship, but it becomes a teaching moment for all who are in attendance. I was privileged enough to witness 6 new births into Christ. Southeast's commitment to truth stands as a testament that truth does not need to be compromised in order to achieve growth.

These are just a few things I picked up while in Louisville. I already find myself looking forward to next year!

Some more pics from my trip are below.

The Main Worship Auditorium, seats 10,000+

Exterior of the Worship Center, all 7 stories

One side of the Student (High School) Center, aka "the Block"

The other side of "the Block." Seats 1,000+

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Faith that Climbs Mountains

Last weekend Mandy and I took the girls for a drive through the Blue Ridge Parkway to enjoy the glory of God's creation in Autumn. The trees, not quite to their full splendor, were beautiful nonetheless. As we hiked to Indian Rocks, an outcropping of some very large rocks and boulders off the Parkway, our three-year old informed us she was going to climb a mountain. Then, with a confidence that only comes from being the youngest of four and having to prove yourself, she sprinted to the rocks.

Up, over, around, always a step ahead of her mother and I, she climbed until she ran out of rock. She then boldly proclaimed, "I climbed the mountain!" Now you know and I know that she only climbed a rock, but in her mind, she scaled Everest itself. All the way home she spoke of how she climbed a mountain with Mommy and Daddy. Mandy asked her why she climbed it, to which Charley answered, "Daddy said I could do'd it, so I do'd it."

We often quote Jesus when He told us that "If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can tell this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move." (Matthew 17:20). In fact, we often come to God, as we should, asking Him to move the mountains in our life.

There's a Kilimanjaro of debt that looms before us. (move it Lord)
The Matterhorn of cancer blocks our way. (please, move it)
A Mt. Vesuvius, smoking with doubt and worry, chokes our faith. (O God, please move it)

But what if some of these mountains we are meant to climb, instead of move? What if God wants us to stand at the summit in victory and triumph over that which blocked our way? What if the mountain is there to make us stronger?

Travel with me to a garden nearly 2,000 years ago. There, in the midst of a grove of olive trees, stooped over with a burden of prayer is God in the flesh. He has a mountain looming before him. Physically speaking, it's more of a hill, but historically, spiritually and emotionally speaking, Mt. Calvary casts a long dark shadow that rivals our highest peaks. Listen to His prayer. Three times He asks the Father to move the mountain. Three times the Father says, "Climb."

So the next day, Jesus climbed Golgotha. His back is bent under the weight of our sin. Still He climbs. His head is pained by the thorns that came into being because of sin (see Genesis 3). Still He climbs. His steps are heavy with burdens that we should bear, but he bears them in our stead. Still He climbs. Up, over and around, He climbs, until at last, He reaches His goal: the place of crucifixion. To this day, the sign of a cross on a mountain is not a sign of defeat, but one of victory. There, on that mountain, Jesus defeated sin and Satan.

What mountain are your praying for God to move? Perhaps it hasn't moved yet because God is waiting for you to climb it. Not alone, but with Him. So get climbing, after all, your Father says you can do it, so do it!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Search for God and Guiness by Stephen Mansfield

Stephen Mansfield invites you to take a look at history through the lens of beer in his book, The Search for God and Guiness. Mansfield masterfully tells the story of the Guiness family's work and impact over the last 250 years. The story begins with entrepreneur Arthur Guiness and his twofold pursuit to not only provide his countrymen with a safe alternative to hard liquor and contaminated water, but to also produce a superior product. To quote Mansfield, "In the minds of most of the people in the world, Guiness is beer and that is all there is to the story. But this is far from true." To prove his point, the author paints a picture of generosity and faith passing from one generation to the next, and as the family business grows, so does the giving.

This work conveys the importance of the lost art of handing down a trade through the generations. It also shows how the values of hard work, commitment to excellence, generosity to the poor and innovative thinking all stemmed from a deep faith in God and a sense that a man can fulfill God's calling in any chosen profession. The epilogue was a refreshing call to return to ethically sound business practices which contrasts greatly with the greed that preceded our current economic state. This book would be a great read for anyone looking to practically live out their faith and their calling.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Wonder Lamb

Every morning I drive my three-year old to her pre-school. Usually the radio is off as I listen to her chatter and sing to herself. This morning was no different. She sang some of the usual songs, 'Jesus Loves Me' and 'Itsy-bitsy spider'. As I listened I took a certain amount of joy in her unashamed expressions of what was in her heart. To me it's a picture of what worship is supposed to be: the overflow of joy from a heart filled to the brim by a love and dedication to God.

Then she started singing a different song. "Mary had a little lamb," has long been a nursery rhyme staple and some have even attached theological undertones to the song. Charley sang and, as often is the case with three-year olds, fumbled with the words. I listened as she tried to find a word or words with the correct number of syllables that would fit for the word she forgot. The solution she came up with was at once cute, bemusing, and profound. She began to boldly sing, as if her word was the right one all along, without doubt or fear of rebuke. I smiled and was humbled as the depth of her "new song" hit me, "Mary had a wonder Lamb."

My mind swirled with the implications of her unintentional revelation. Was this how John the Immerser felt when he saw his cousin coming toward him, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!"

Behold the wonder-lamb.
Behold the perfect sacrifice.
Behold the sinless Son.
Behold the Hands that created all we see as they willingly allow nails to pierce their flesh.
Behold the eyes that have seen the darkest depths of our soul and are wet with tears of compassion.
Behold the feet that once walked the streets of heaven, now covered with the blood and grime of our sin.
Behold the lips that spoke the universe into existence as they now pronounce forgiveness for all who have fallen short.
Behold the sin-taker.
Behold the cross-conqueror.
Behold the death-defeater.
Behold the hope.
Behold the grace.
Behold the Lamb... the wonder-lamb.

Let me ask you, when was the last time you felt wonder? When was the last time your heart was filled with awe over the grace of God? We lose the wonder in the mundane. Every-day life ceases to amaze us. But think about this: God's grace reaches to us every moment of every day. The Christian doesn't merely have everyday life, he has everyday grace, and believe me, there is nothing mundane about grace.

So take some time to be amazed. Take some time to behold the Lamb. After all, He is wonder-full.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Ministry of Reciprocation

I love the "aha!" moments in life. As I was sitting in my office this rainy, Friday morning, putting the finishing touches on this week's sermon, I had one of those moments. My text this week includes the famed "golden rule" of Jesus found in Matthew 7:12, "In everything, therefore, treat people in the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets." Being the good Bible student that I am, I determined to find out what the "therefore" was there for. Let's be honest, when we quote this, we leave out the therefore as we say, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." But Jesus precedes it with a therefore. In other words, what He is about to say is the logical conclusion of what He just finished saying. That's when the "aha!" moment came.

In the preceding verses, Jesus speaks of how God blesses us when all we do is ask of Him. It's as if Jesus is telling us, "since God has blessed you, you need to bless others." Dallas Willard, in his book The Divine Conspiracy, describes this type of command as a matter of "spiritual orientation" and he lists, very succinctly, a few other areas that this principle seems to apply. His point is, if we are correctly "oriented" towards God in our spirit, how we treat Him and how He treats us will spill over onto those we relate to in everyday life.

I prefer to call it the "Ministry of Reciprocation." To reciprocate is, according to Webster, "to give and take mutually." Here's the "aha!" How we treat others directly reflects how we treat God. If we love God, we will love others (see I John 4:7-8). In fact God "gives" us love, which we "take" and "give" not only as a return to God, but to others as well.

Check out the other areas this "give-take-give" principle of reciprocation takes place.

Forgiveness- In Matthew 6:14 Jesus tells us, "For if you forgive others (give) ... your heavenly Father will also forgive you (God gives, we take)."

Confession- Jesus teaches in Matthew 10:32-33 that "whoever confesses Me before men (give) I will confess him before My Father who is in heaven (a gift we take)." Add to this principle that those who hear our confession that we give publicly and respond to it will be saved (see Romans 10:9-17) we have reciprocation.

Blessing- James takes a different approach (as is so like him). Rather than demonstrate, he points out the absurdity of when we fail to engage in the ministry of reciprocation. In James 3:8-12 he describes how with one tongue we bless God and curse men. He compares this to the same bizarre behavior of a fig tree growing olives or a grapevine growing figs (v. 12) and rightly sums up God's opinion in v. 10- "My brothers, these things ought not be this way."

So what does all this mean? It means if we fail to "reciprocate" God's actions toward us, not only back to Him, but unto others as well, we reveal how close (or far apart) we are in our relationship with God. A failure to love people means we are falling short in our love to God. A failure to forgive reflects that we feel unforgiven in our hearts. Cursing people but blessing God reveals a duplicity that shows what we offer God is nothing more than "lip service" and is not a genuine, heartfelt response to His goodness.

So how is your walk with God? Perhaps I should ask, how are you relating to people? The two are linked. The golden rule is much more than a rule; it is an indicator of our relationship with our Maker. So go. Do unto others, and remember, what you do reveals your standing with God.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

All-Consuming Passion

I hate to lose. No, I really, REALLY hate to lose. I also hate watching my teams lose. I am a huge Nebraska Cornhuskers fan. For those not familiar with the history of college football, you would be hard-pressed to find a team with a deeper heritage, a better history of success or a more loyal fan base than the Huskers. The 1995 Nebraska squad is often touted as the greatest college football team of all time. The second best? The 1971 team.

Needless to say, I grew up watching them win... and win... and win. Losing not only wasn't an option, it wasn't fathomable. Then came the days of decline after legendary coach Tom Osborne retired, followed by the dark days of the Bill Callahan era. Now the Huskers are rebuilding and regaining prominence and it's exciting to watch... until they lose.

Saturday, September 19. 19th ranked Nebraska has led and defensively dominated the 13th ranked Hokies of Va. Tech. However, despite their defensive domination, the offense of the Huskers floundered and the lead was only 5 points. I watched, praying the clock would tick faster.

Five minutes to go.
Three minutes.
Two minutes.

Two minutes until Big Red snapped a decade long losing streak against top 20 teams. 2 minutes until their return to prominence was legitimate. Two long, agonizing minutes.

Then it happened. First a long pass play to get Tech to the three yard line. Then with 21 seconds on the clock, a touchdown pass. Game over. Nebraska loses by one point.

I was livid (remember, I hate losing). I ranted. I stalked around. I yelled at inanimate objects. I acted like a two-year-old.

I even went outside to finish some outdoor work just to blow off steam. As I reflected, I realized how foolish I must have looked. Then I got angry with myself (which didn't help, it only complicated matters). But I realized something; why don't I get that passionate over lost souls? When was the last time I got angry at Satan for deceiving millions? When did I last allow my hate for losing apply to spiritual warfare?

I felt small. There I was, upset over a football game, and every day souls die without knowing the Lord. All I could do is wonder, "Where is my passion for them?"

Lord, give me an all-consuming passion for the right things and an attitude of contenment for the non-essential things.

Until next time,

P.S. I have recently become an official "book reviewer" for Thomas-Nelson publishers. My pay? Free books! My job? Post the reviews on my blog. So be watching out for book reviews!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Here I Am!

For the most part, my children have never experienced a high-school football game. For the last several years I worked with a small private school in Maryland that did not have a football team. As a result, this corner of American culture was left unexplored by my children, until a couple of weeks ago.

I grew up going to all the home football games that my high school played. While never a natural athlete, I have always enjoyed the excitement and thrill of sports, and in small towns across the nation, Friday nights in the fall are nearly as sacred as Sunday mornings. It's not just the game. It's the conversations in the stands. It's being with people who, while they differ from us in many ways, are there for a shared purpose: to root the home team on to victory. This camaraderie combined with the adrenaline of the game draws a community together, even in the cold and rain. Needless to say, when we moved to Lunenburg, I wanted to get involved in the community and introduce my kids to this staple of Americana.

As the game progressed, the home team (the Central Chargers) was getting closer to the end-zone. The crowd started cheering as each play brought them closer to the goal line. The cheerleaders began to lead the crowd in some chanting, three-syllable cheer. Every high school has such a cheer. Sometimes they are simply the initials of the school (C-H-S! C-H-S! C-H-S!) other times they are more encouraging in nature (GO! FIGHT! WIN!). The crowd was thoroughly involved in the cheer, and I was enjoying the atmosphere. When there was a break in the action, I turned to find my wife fighting to control her laughter. I gave her the quizzical "What's up?" look, to which she answered, that while the crowd was chanting, our youngest daughter, Charley, made up her own cheer. Even though her small voice was drowned out by the scores of football fans around her, she was loudly saying, "HERE I AM! HERE I AM! HERE I AM!" It was as if Charley wanted the fans to notice her and her efforts.

Have you ever felt like Charley? You go to church, because in it you hope to find a group of people from various backgrounds tightly knit together by a common Savior.

You attend.
You get involved.
You volunteer.
You work hard to get your life straight.

Then something happens. Maybe it's small at first. Just a feeling deep inside that you rarely give credence to, but it grows. You begin to notice that everybody seems to be doing better than you are.

His Sunday School class is more popular than the one you teach (but you have put in so many hours of study).
She gets an appreciation award for her involvement with the seniors ministry (but you take communion to them every week).
That deacon gets a public 'thank-you' for his donation to the building fund (what about your weekly gift. It's not much, but it's all you can afford).
That elder seems to have everything in his life in order (yet you try so hard)

Before you know it, you feel like screaming "HERE I AM! I NEED HELP!" but you feel nobody would notice or care. They seem focused on something else.

Been there? I have.
I've felt unappreciated;

So let me give you some advice. First, realize that people may be focused on someone else and that someone else just might be Jesus! If you are in a church that is focused on Jesus, you may have simply lost your focus. Don't do things for personal recognition (see Matthew 6:1ff) do them for Jesus. It's His approval we should strive for, not man's. Make sure you have "fixed your eyes on Jesus" as you strive to do His will.

Second, your tank may be empty. I love D.L. Moody's metaphor of the human soul, a "leaky pitcher" that must stay near the Holy Spirit's stream in order to remain full. You can't feed others and not feed yourself, eventually you will starve. Don't fall into the trap of substituting devotional reading with study for a lesson. Feed yourself! Let God's Word replenish you. Also, make sure you have mature Christians in your life to encourage (not brown-nose) you in your efforts. We all need a pat on the back. It shouldn't be our goal, but we need that "atta boy!" sometimes.

Finally, cry out for help. Someone will hear you. My wife heard her daughter's improvised cheer, and God will hear your impoverished cry, no matter how "loud" your world seems. God will hear, and perhaps, so will God's people. I honestly think that sometimes we don't give people enough credit. Give them a chance to help and heal you. That's what the Church is for, let them do their job.

Do these things and know that God is cheering you on. He is your biggest fan and He wants you to succeed. Moreover, He has given you the ability to.

Until Next Time,

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

What Happened to Biblical Preaching?

I'm a huge fan of podcasts. I download several every week of different preachers that I enjoy listening to, and as I drive around or work in the office, I plug in my ipod and enjoy a good sermon (hey, us preachers need to be fed too!)

Recently, however, I noticed something. Several (not all) of the messages I listened to had little, if any, scripture references in them. Were they based upon biblical principles? In my opinion, yes. Did they say anything that would have constituted a "false doctrine". Not that I could tell. But still, this realization disturbed me. Some used a scripture here and there, almost like they were garnishing a dish. It was there, but not as the main meat of the message. One sermon in particular (I listened to it twice to make sure) never referenced or quoted a single passage of scripture. It was polished, well-delivered, motivational and had an impact. The illustrations were fresh and thought provoking. The points were both comforting and compelling. But there was no reference to or quotation from the Word of God.

"Now wait a minute..." someone may say, "...if it's got a Biblical theme, and is well delivered, do you really need to quote the Bible? After all, that might alienate someone who is not familiar with the church." To that I would answer with the apostle's words in Hebrews 4:12, "For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart." Now the question is, do we believe this? Do we believe the Word of God is a sword; a weapon against the temptations of Satan? Do we believe that it can change lives and hearts by cutting away that which distracts us from God? If so, then the Word of God must be present in every sermon for it to produce the effects of piercing the soul, judging the thoughts and intentions of the listener and producing a lasting change in the hearts of people. If scripture is not present, in my mind it is not a true sermon, but rather a motivational speech, nice and uplifting to listen to, but incapable of any eternal impact.

My other concern with Bible-less preaching is a question of authority. If I stand before a congregation, and give a "motivational speech" that contains no scriptural references, and people respond, even if they give their lives to Christ, I must ask myself, "Are they coming to Christ, or coming to me?" Without the Word of God there, I usurp God's authoritative call with my own sad imitation. Yet, if my message is bathed in God's Word, it rings with the sound of truth and authority, an authority that is not my own, but God's. If someone disagrees with my message, or finds it "too difficult" to apply, I merely have to point out the authority of Scripture to justify my message. No such option exists for the one who abandons his Bible in order to preach a more "acceptable" message.

Finally, a sermon without the Bible is like an empty bottle. It has shape and form, but it's contents can never satisfy. It might look like a sermon at first glance, but it will leave you thirsty and dry in the long run. Let those of us who preach put our faith in God when He told the prophet Isaiah, "My word...which goes forth from my mouth; it will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it." (Is. 55:11, emphasis mine). I want my sermons to accomplish something. I want my messages to succeed. I want God's word to return overflowing with results. For those who do not preach, challenge us who do, to keep God's Word at the center of every sermon, because His Word will be the final word.

Until next time,


Friday, August 21, 2009

Let's Do'd It!

Our 3 year-old is fiercely independent. Recently potty-trained and armed with a tremendous amount of self-confidence, there is nothing she cannot conquer. The phrase of the week has been "I'd do'd it myself." It's an interesting construct of toddler grammar, accomplishing both present and past tense, which is essential in the mind of our daughter who considers her present task already accomplished.

However, even Charley has her limitations. This morning she came into the living room with both arms though one sleeve hole and a T-shirt so tightly wrapped around her upper torso she was forced to walk with her arms straight-up in the air. The shirt was wrapped around her head, preventing her from seeing, so she bumped and banged her way into the room. Obviously frustrated and getting angry I asked her, "What happened?"

"I'd do'd it myself," was the response.

I mused it over and asked if she wanted help. Again, "I'd do'd it myself," was the curt reply. I watched as she spun around in circles, swaying like a palm tree in a hurricane, until, inevitably, she fell over. I restrained from laughing (no easy task) as I watched Charley lay on the ground and think over her predicament. Finally she asked, "Can you help me do'd this myself?"

I wonder how often God watches us from heaven as we "do'd" it ourselves? When we think we know better, and there are times we do, we end up so wrapped up in our situation we can't function. Then, when we finally are humbled enough to ask for help, we ask God to help us "do'd it ourselves." In other words, we want the credit for God's help.

How often I've seen people struggle with a situation in their lives, whether it be at work, in the family, at school or dealing with relationships, and they are at the end of their rope. Then God provides a way out, and instead of giving Him the credit, they say, "Look what I accomplished and overcame, all by myself." In other words, "I'd do'd it myself."

Let's try something different. Instead of being fiercely independent, let's depend on God to work through us. Let's give Him the credit for our talents and abilities. Let the praise go to Him. Let us rejoice in the fact that, despite our weaknesses, God still chooses to accomplish His will through us. Then we can say, "He do'd it Himself."

"Let your light shine in such a way that men may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven." -Jesus

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Perfectly Crazy Love

As summer winds down, I can't help but wonder how it went by so fast! I see my kids excited for the beginning of the school year and I know, I'm more nervous than they are. This is their first year in public school. Their first year without Mom and Dad working in the same building. Their first year (gulp) alone.

My mind keeps racing with the "what ifs". "What if they get hurt?" "What if someone picks a fight with them?" "What if their teacher hates them?" I know, I'm irrational. But what parents aren't when it comes to the welfare of their child? I can't think of a single parent who isn't insanely concerned for his/her children.

You know, it was the same with God. He was just as irrational and insane when it came to His love for us. In fact, God was so concerned for our welfare, that He did the most irrational act I can fathom: He sacrificed His Son for our benefit. God didn't play the "what if" game. He knew His Son would be rejected. He knew His Son would be ridiculed. He knew His Son would be killed, but He sent Him anyway.

When I think of that, sending my kids off to school doesn't seem nearly as scary. I am also comforted by the fact that God can sympathize with my anxieties. He's been there. The same can be said for you. Whatever you are fearing in life right now, God has looked it in the eye and conquered it.

Do you fear rejection? Jesus was rejected, but is now glorified.
Do you fear the doctor's diagnosis? Jesus can heal any disease, spiritual or physical.
Do you fear being alone? Jesus is with you always.
Do you fear death? Jesus left behind an empty tomb as evidence of death's futility.

Just give your fears to God, and He will conquer them for you because, "perfect love casts out fear." I John 4:18.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


We have a new addition to the Richmond household. Apparently two kittens have taken up residence beneath the shed in the back yard. As far as I can tell they are only a couple of months old and my guess is that the mother abandoned them there. Of course as soon as they were discovered my daughters were begging to keep them. We already have one cat and the last thing I wanted were two more. But one kitten was so timid and cowed by the other. She almost never ate because her sister would eat all the food and keep her away from the food dish. So we brought the abused one inside, bathed her and fed her. Our other cat seemed none too upset over the smaller feline, so reluctantly (alright, I'm a big softy) we decided to keep the gray and white kitten (named 'Storm' by Ellie's friend, Jackie).

What about the other kitten? We took her to a shelter to be adopted by some other soft-hearted family. As I thought about it, I realized what we did for Storm, God does every day. He takes the weak, lost and abandoned and claims them for His own. He takes those who hunger and can do nothing to satisfy their appetites, and He feeds them (see Matthew 5:4ff). He takes those covered by the filth of this world and cleanses them (Titus 3:5). He takes the abused and neglected and protects them.

He adopts us.
He cares for us.
He shelters us.

Why? Because, like me, God has a soft spot for those who have been orphaned by the world. He takes the shut out and opens His doors for them. He offers His hospitality to those who realize that this world is not their home. God's love is both inexplicable and limitless. His ways are mysterious and sometimes He uses the weakest things of the world, like an abandoned kitten, to teach us a lesson in how to view those who we deem unlovable, unacceptable and unworthy of our attention.

It's my prayer that my heart is softend to the point where I feel the same compassion for the addict, homeless and vile as God did for me. May your heart be softened also.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Just another week in the Kingdom

I find myself split in two this week. It is VBS week, which means I spend the better part of my afternoons prepping for VBS and my evenings are consumed with the program itself. Yet we also had a prominent member of the church pass away this week, which means I am also in the midst of funeral planning with the family. What it boils down to is on the one hand I spend my time celebrating with a bunch of kids and on the other I try to comfort a man who has lost his wife of nearly 50 years.

But isn't that life? When I look at Jesus' ministry I find Him constantly pulled in many different directions. While in the midst of dinner at a religious official's home, He is interrupted by a "sinful" woman seeking acceptance. Immediately after the mountain-top expereince of the transfiguration, Jesus descends the mountain to break up an argument amongst His disciples and cast out a demon. We see Jesus entertained at parties one moment and healing the sick the next. He plays with the children while rebuking the Pharisees. He casts out demons while enduring accusations of being in the same league as Satan. Ups and downs. Highs and lows. Let's face it, Jesus lived a life the same as so many of us.

It's into this life that His words resonate with the ring of truth as He boldly proclaims, "Seek first the Kingdom of God..." How do we survive the roller coaster of life? We live it with the Kingdom in view. Keeping His rule and dominion in mind, we can face both the victories and tragedies of the day with a proper perspective knowing that our needs will be satisfied. That's what Kingdom living is all about... keeping focused on Jesus.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


I know, two posts in one day! It's like the bogo sales at payless! I couldn't resist though. Today as we traveled to Richmond to eat lunch with my father we noticed this Blue Heron in the parking lot of one of the shopping centers off of route 1 in Hanover. What is so funny about this is that for the last four years I have lived on the eastern shore of Maryland, within a 20 minute drive of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. I have often driven out to Blackwater to try to capture one of these majestic birds on film so that I may use it as a reference in some of my artwork. After dozens of attempts I could never get close enough to one to warrant a good picture.

Now I have moved to southern Virginia, and am in a busy suburb of the city of Richmond, and this bird, so elusive in Maryland, walks right up to my van! I didn't even need the zoom feature on my digital camera. The irony struck me as profoundly humorous, but more than that, I think God was trying to prove a point to me. My best efforts could not get me close enough to this Heron. I tried so often, waited long periods of time, and exerted a lot of patience, and never did I get the picture I wanted. But when I least expected it, outside of my own doing, God provides the opportunity for a picture. I can't help but think of God's providence in all things.

We often try to force opportunities. We seek to do things "our way" and we get frustrated when we fail. Whether it be something as trivial as trying to get a picture of a bird or as important as receiving salvation, we receive the best outcome when we trust in God's timing and in God's way.

I can't wait to see what God provides next., and to all you driving in the northern Richmond area, watch out for herons!


Have you ever been hungry? I mean really, really hungry? I have been blessed enough in my life that I have never known true, brink of starvation hunger. Now, when I was a teenager, I might have argued this point. It seemed I was always hungry and could never get enough to eat. (Proof is in the half-loaf of bread and box of cereal I would eat every morning for breakfast). My mother swore that our refrigerator came with a teenager's rear-end hanging on the door.

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness." The phrase is so familiar to the mature Christian we often skim over it without a second thought. But if there's anything that I'm starting to learn, none of Jesus' words are to be taken lightly. His words recorded in scripture were never spoken casually. They were pre-meditated, intended for His followers, who millennia later would read them. I like Arthur W. Pink's term for the beatitudes. "Spiritual torpedoes," intended to explode in the depths of our soul when we least expect them. So it is with this beatitude and myself.

I am often harder on myself than I should be. I kick myself every time I sin. Every time I lose my temper I feel terrible afterwards. I blame myself, demean myself and all but fully convince myself that God's grace can't reach me. That's where this beatitude explodes into hope. Jesus doesn't say, "blessed are those who have attained righteousness" but rather those who hunger for it are to be blessed. I don't have to be perfectly righteous to attain God's blessing, I simply must hunger for, dare I say crave, perfection.

What do you do when you are hungry? I know what I do. I eat. When you hunger for righteousness then your desire will be to do right actions. That is the only way to saistfy your appetite, nothing else will do. And like the ever-hungry teenager, our appetite for righteousness must be perpetual. We must continue to grow in Christ, just like in order to stay physically healthy we must eat on a regular basis. God wants us to grow spiritually, so one meal of right actions may saisfy for a short time, but before too long, the Holy Spirit prompts us to another. In this way we begin to strengthen our walk with Christ.

But there is another benefit of this blessing. Here the Great Physician gives us the prescription for defeating sin. Most of our sins are ingrained in our habits. We do them so often they become second-nature. Then we complain to God when we can't break our cycle of sinful addiction. If you want to break a habit, you must replace it with another. Here, Jesus challenges us to replace our hunger/addiction for sin with a hunger/addiction for righteousness. And here is where the blessing truly takes hold, "they shall be filled." How often I have counseled those who thought that their sin would fulfill some desire in their life only to find that it left them empty inside. Whether it be a teenage girl who thought sleeping with her boyfriend would bring emotional fulfillment, or the young man who thought that drugs would give him an escape from the troubles of this world, or countless others, they all had the same empty feeling inside. Only a hunger for righteousness can be filled. Need proof? Try Revelation 7:16 which tells us that the righteous in heaven will never hunger or thirst again. Jesus gave a similar promise to a woman at a well in John 4.

So the next time your stomach grumbles, think "What do I really hunger for?" Your answer will determine if you will be filled or not.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

God's Word in Real Life

I never cease to be amazed at how God chooses to reveal His Word to us. As I have studied for my sermon this week (on the first three beatitudes in Matthew 5; "blessed are the poor in spirit... blessed are thos who mourn... blessed are the gentle") God has chosen to show how His words spoken two millenia ago are still relevant today.

About once a week I make a trip to a little coffee shop in Victoria, Virginia (Uptown Coffee for my fellow caffeine addicts) to enjoy a sandwich and a great cup of coffee. This week as I sipped my coffee and put some final touches on my website a couple of guys came in. They were dressed in the spandex outfits of byciclists and looked like they hadn't shaved in weeks. A quick glimpse outside revealed two Schwinn 10-speeds loaded down with the modern-day equivalents of saddlebags. I asked the two travellers where they were from. "San Antonio," was the reply that started a pleasant conversation between them, the waiter and myself. They had decided to spend their entire summer biking up the eastern seaboard hopefully as far north as Boston, which, to a Texan, is a foreign country. Eventually our waiter asked what they did for a living to help fund this trip. Their answer was both humorous and thought-provoking. "We're professionally poor," was the quip by these two college students.

My mind, consumed with all the theological nuances of the beatitudes lit up with an epiphany of sorts. As I watched these carefree trekkers who were spending nearly every last dime they had on this trip, I realized they were happy. "Blessed are the poor in Spirit."

Today I made two visitations. The first was to an elderly lady in a nursing home. The facility has been her residence for the past 9 months, and she does not like it. She has no surviving family to visit her, and thus she depends on caring people from her congregation to keep her updated on the events of the world. I could tell by looking at her that she was afraid. Afraid of ending up unable to sit up straight or to communicate the simplest of thoughts. Afraid of dying alone. She was mourning the loss of her freedom and individuality. As I held her hand and prayed with her, all I could think of was, "Blessed are those who mourn."

My second call was to the home of an older couple that are very active in the church. The wife was recently diagnosed with cancer, and the prognosis is not good. As I watched her husband feed her and care for her I was struck by his gentle demeanor. Here is a man who has worked his own farm for nearly 50 years. In fact, when I visited a couple of weeks ago, he had just gotten in from making hay on over 100 acres of land. Yet here he was, as gentle as could be, helping his wife by feeding her one spoonful at atime. He never complained, in fact he seemed more than content to do it. "Blessed are the gentle."

Now we look at the beatitudes, and we often list them as qualities we should embrace (but how does one embrace mourning?). But as I looked at these very different people in very different circumstances, I was struck by the fact that Jesus was using these qualities to illustrate that the kingdom of God was available to all people. Whether you feel like "the professional pauper" or are mourning the loss of something/someone dear to you, or are a practitioner of gentility in the face of death itself, the Kingdom is for you. This was my epiphany in the coffee shop: if we look at the beatitudes as merely a list to conform ourselves to, then we commit the sin of the Pharisees and begin a whole new practice of legalism; but if we look at the beatitudes as the extent that God's blessing can reach, we can be assured of being a "blessed" people, no matter our circumstance. No longer are the poor to be considerd poor, for God can bless them despite their poverty. No longer should the mournful be pitied, for God's comforting hand can reach them, even from beyond the grave. The meek in heart are no longer to be considered weak, for God's blessing is giving them the strength to be gentle.

Truly God can bless any person in any circumstance.

This was Jesus's message in the beatitudes.

This should be our message to the world.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Kingdom of the Now, part II

If God's Kingdom is as near as the air we breathe, why is it that we have such difficulty recognizing it? Let's face it, humans tend to believe in what they can see, taste, touch and smell. But Jesus has come on the scene proclaiming a Kingdom that surrounds us as the atmosphere does, but is so large that our galxy fits in one small corner of it. Before we can live according to the rules of this kingdom (which is what we will examine next week), we must first believe that it is what Jesus says it is.

If the Kingdom is all around us then we must first consent to one very important fact; we live in a spiritual world. Despite all that science has taught us, our post-modern culture is starting to awaken to the fact that if we look only at the physical, the BIG questions of life go unanswered.

"Why am I here?"
"What is my purpose?"
"Will I be truly loved?"
"What can I do to make a real difference?"

Look all you want for answers in your science books and nature journals, but no satisfactory answers will emerge. If all we are is a cosmic accident of chemical reactions, then life is random and purposeless.

Something deep within us refuses to accept that we are random. We want meaning. We desire purpose. We long for love and we all desire to leave our impact on the world. These desires are much deeper than carnal instinct, and to satisfy them we must turn to the spiritual realm. Only then will answers start to emerge.

Yet we must be careful, for the spiritual realms are unfamiliar to our physically minded souls. Satan lays in wait behind many a false teacher or vain philosophy. Many, longing for answers, have turned to spiritists, wicca, and othe new age practices to find answers. But these are not of the Kingdom Jesus speaks of. While His kingdom is spiritual, it seeks to help us thrive in the physical world, not retreat from it.

This leads to the second fact we must accept: God's kingdom exists in the physical world. Jesus' words are not the ramblings of a far-east mystic telling us to ostracize the physical world. On the contrary, He is teaching us how to make a real difference. Just read Matthew 4:23-24 and you will see why there was a crowd on the mountain. It was because Jesus was meeting physical needs. He was healing physical bodies. His kingdom, while spiritual in nature, was concerned with the physical welfare of others.

Go through the New Testament and see how often the Church (the physical representation of the Kingdom of the Heavens) is challenged to meet the needs of the poor, the orphaned, the widow, and the hungry. For the world to take our spiritual message seriously, we must take their physical needs seriously. Too often the church emphasizes one over the other. Bread is handed to the hungry with no connection to the Bread of Life. Or, sadder still, the poor are prayed for with nothing being done to clothe them.

Jesus' kingdom is both spiritual and physical. It is too big to be regulated to only one realm. Therefore we, as her citizens, must be concerned with both the physical and spiritual needs amongst our fellow humans. The Kingdom exists in the now, and we must serve others in the moment of their need.

I pray the world sees the immediacy of the Kingdom of the Now. "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!"

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Kingdom of the Now, part I

"Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!" Matthew 4:17

This week I started a sermon series on the greatest sermon ever preached, The Sermon on the Mount. As I introduced the sermon I referenced Matthew 4:17 to indicate the content of Jesus' message. His was the proclamation of an entire kingdom, and not any earthly kingdom, but the kingdom of Heaven itself! For everyone who has longed for a word directly from the Spiritual realm, open your mind and read Matthew chapters 5-7.

But first, before you dive into the message of Heaven, you have to make sure you have a proper understanding of Jesus' statement, "the Kingdom of Heaven." The phrase is unique to Matthew's gospel. The rest of the New Testament writers are content to use the phrase "kingdom of God," but not Matthew. He wants to wake up his Jewish readers. Matthew's purpose in writing his gospel was to prove that Jesus was the Messiah promised in the Law and Prophets. Therefore his use of the phrase, "kingdom of heaven" is significant. To a people expecting a political Messiah to establish an earthly reign, Jesus fell short of their lofty expectations. They failed to understand the Kingdom.

Heaven? What do you think of when you hear the word. Pearly gates? Crystal seas? Golden streets and harp music? That's not what the Jews thought. Their understanding of heaven was much simpler. They actually had three "heavens" that they could refer to at any time. The first heaven was the atmosphere of our planet. Literally the air we breathe. The second heaven is what we like to term, "outer space." This heaven is the home of the planets, moon, sun and stars. The third heaven was the spiritual home of God. The throneroom in Isaiah 6 describes this third heaven as understood by the first century Jews.

Now for the mind-blowing part. Jesus doesn't merely say "the kingdom of heaven." No, a literal translation of Matthew's gospel would read "the kingdom of the heavens." What does Jesus mean by "heavens"? What He means is that His kingdom is not confined to any one realm, but all three. The Kingdom is as near to us as the air we breathe, yet expansive enough to envelop the entirety of the universe. His Kingdom exists in this physical world, but is entirely spiritual in nature. In other words, it is in the world, but not of it, just as its citizens are.

But not only that, this Kingsom is "at hand." When I paint, I like to keep a rag at hand in order to clean anyspills or smudges that may occur. When my wife cooks, she likes to keep a pot-holder at hand in order to move a hot pan when the time calls for it. "At hand" means readily accessible. Jesus, in one phrase, is proclaiming that His kingdom is both nearby and readily accessible. The citizens of the Heavenly Kingdom can enjoy the benefits of citizenship now! We too often feel that eteranl life is a future asset. While in some ways it is, it's benefits of joy, power and peace are accessible now! We can start living like we are living forever now. We can enjoy God's presence now. We can be amazed at forgiveness now. That's what makes Jesus' proclamation so life-changing and breathtaking. He is here now, just as he has always been.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

New Discoveries

Wow, it has been nearly two months since I've written! (you may now commence with all the slacker jokes) But what a two months it has been. In eight short weeks I had to do all the things associated with leaving one place of work and going to another. On one end farewells had to be said, social obligations met, loose ends tied up, and boxes were packed while on the other end I was greeting new people, re-adjusting to my surroundings, unpacking the afore-mentioned boxes, getting used to living in a very rural setting (which I love) and discovering my job responsibilities. All this coupled with trying to figure out the best way to get internet connections to the tobacco fields of southern VA has seriously hampered my blogging abilities.

Amidst all this chaos, I have discovered a few things. One is that my children are incredible. In the month since we have arrived they have adapted far better than I had hoped for. They have already made friends, they love the outdoors and not having television for four straight weeks has forced them to find other avenues of entertainment ranging from reading library books in the morning to catching fireflies at night.

Another discovery is that television is overated. Five days ago we had the satellite installed and for the first time in four weeks we had live television. What's amazing is that I doubt we have turned it on for much more than an hour a day since. Without it, we talked more as a family, played more games, read more books and got more work done. While it's nice to watch a ball game and keep up with current events and even enjoy a favorite TV show now and then, I've decided that perhaps a little less TV is exactly what I need.

The final discovery is actually more like a reminder. God has taught me not only over the past several weeks, but over the past four years, that He knows best. I have been reminded constantly of God's promise to Jeremiah, "I know the plans I have for you; plans to prosper you..." Several times over the last few years I doubted that promise, but what I saw as being stuck and stagnant God saw as a time for growth. He was seasoning and preparing me for His plans and not my own. I pray that my eyes and heart continue to stay open to His will.

Until next time,

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Silent Nights

I'm a night-owl. I can't help it. Ever since childhood, I can remember never being tired when I was supposed to be. Sure, I had bedtimes, but that didn't keep me from laying awake in my bed. Even now, as an adult who routinely wakes up before 7am every morning, I still can't fall asleep until at least midnight.

But there are benefits. It's quiet at night. Life with four kids is... well... it's noisy. There are arguments, conversations, squeals of laughter, screams of delight, sobs of disappointment and that's just breakfast. So when night falls, and children are fast asleep, I enjoy my peace. I can read, relax, watch TV and, most importantly, talk with God.

I keep a journal by my bed. I don't write in it everyday, but I write often. I write down my fears (can I really do this God?) My successes (I can't believe You did this God!) My failures (I can't believe what I did God.) And my hopes (Will you really do this God?) Every once in a while, I leaf through my past writings and reflect.

"Boy, I was immature."
"Man, I can't believe how great God is."
"Wow, I really lacked some faith there."

Then these reflections grow into conversations as God reveals Himself to me through out my life's journey. He tells me how He seasoned me and prepared me. He reminds me of how He provides for me. He encourages me to have even more faith to trust His way instead of my own.

Without my quiet night time there would be no conversations. No reflections. No perspective. No relationship with God. So my question is: what's the noise in your life? Is it kids? Finances? Job? Relationship troubles? Health Issues? Addictions? Whatever is making noise, you need to find a way to put it to bed. God speaks loudest in the silent moments. Remember Elijah and the "small voice"? That came in the midst of chaotic noise. When you want to hear God loud and clear, you need silence. Turn off the cell phone. Unplug the TV. Log off your computer and, as the Psalmist prescribes, "be still and know that [He is] God."

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Get Sharp!

"As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." A familiar proverb to me, and one that has proven true this week. I sit in my best friend's living room, a room I haven't sat in for nearly three years. It has been way too long since I've been in Kentucky. I have missed my friends, but more than that, I have missed our "sharpening sessions."
In the mornings, when we walk the dogs, we talk.
"What books are your reading?"
"What's God doing in your life now?"
"What are you struggling with?"
"Where is God leading you?"
These are wighty questions, but for iron to sharpen, it must face something equally as hard as it is. The sharpening process involves two things. (1) The blade must be "uncurled" or straightened. Whne you see a chef use a sharpening rod, this is what he is doing. A blade will actually "roll" over time. It's nearly microscopic, but that rolled edge means a dull blade. (2) Friction is used to hone the blade to the sharpest possible point. That is when a whetstone comes into play. The blade is dragged across the stone to remove any nicks and imperfections.
When my friend and I ask these questions we are uncurling ourselves, exposing our hearts, passions, dreams and fears to one another. We are opening ourselves to God's whetstone so that we can be honed as instruments for His glory. The questions aren't always easy to ask, and sometimes they are even more difficult to answer. But I want to be sharp. I want to be useful.
So as I sit in this familiar room I realize, I need to visit more often. My blade was dulled. My effectiveness slowed. I needed a good sharpening. After all, that's what friends are for.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

When Integrity Hurts

20 seconds on the clock. A whistle blows as the ball gets tied up by two opposing players. The score is tied, tensions are high and, oh yeah, I'm the ref. Because of the flu, our regular ref had to cancel, and since we don't play in a conference and are therefore not bound by referee qualification rules, or have a conference to appoint a substitute referee, the only resolution was for the person in the school who knew the most about basketball to ref. That would be me. The head coach. Talk about a conflict of interests. I ran it by the other team's coaches and they were okay with it (another benefit of playing Christian schools). So now I find myself in a tight game praying that the teams play clean and keep it out of my hands.

That's when it happened. I turned from checking the scoreboard for the possession arrow only to find our star player pushing an opponent and slamming the basketball to the ground. Any level, any time, a basketball slammed to the floor is an automatic technical foul. Add to that the pushing of the opposing player and now I have a dilemma on my hands. Do I call the foul which not only gives the other team two foul shots, but also possession of the ball, or do I turn my head and let the call go? Do I risk our team's first win of the season or do I give them the ball... and the chance to win the game?

Integrity. It's not always easy. I had a decision to make in a split second. There was no time to call a trusted friend and ask for advice. There was no opportunity for me to spend a "quiet moment" with God. In one of those moments when a million thoughts are rushing through your brain faster than you can comprehend them I blow the whistle and put my hands in that familiar "T" for Technical. The deciding factor? I realized if any other team had committed those actions I would make the call, and so in that instance I could not make an exception. I was not a coach. I was the referee. My players were upset. My assistant coach just lowered his head and the other team was relieved to have the foul called.

The outcome: another loss. This time by a mere two points. My star player was heart-broken. My team was angry, and I was hating myself. But then God intervened. He often works through people without them knowing it. Our starting center, a kid who has a lot of promise, but also has a tendency to foul came up to me. He was well acquainted with referees and bad calls. He has a tendency to complain about bad-calls and non-calls, and to be honest, when I saw his gangly form approach I had that sinking, "oh no, not more criticism" feeling. Instead, he extended his hand and complimented me on a well-reffed game.

I don't know if I reffed the game that well, or if he was simply trying to cheer me up, but I took it as God saying, "You did the right thing and your team has learned a more valuable lesson than winning would have ever taught them." I hope they did, I know I did.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Big Things First

I hate moving. I loathe it. I despise it. There are not enough synonyms of hate to describe how much I hate to move. All the stress. All the headaches. All the backaches. Every time we move I swear it's my last. Unfortunately that doesn't free me from the obligations of being a guy who is way too willing to help. Recently we helped a friend move and I can still hear him saying, "Let's get the big things on the truck first." Yeah, you know what "big things" mean. They are the refrigerators, washers/dryers, sofa beds and some insanely heavy coffee table designed to dislocate your toe in the middle of the night. Yep. The first things on the truck and the last things off. That's right, after a day of moving boxes, climbing stairs, tying down loose items and feeling stressed, you still have the big things to worry about.

Sound familiar? To many of us it sounds like our everyday lives. We wake up in the morning and the "big things" confront us. A refrigerator of bills, a sofa bed of health problems and a coffee table of doubt that trips us up when we least expect it. These are the first things we pick up when we start the day. We carry them with us all day long, and after a day filled with pestering people, frantic phone calls and the normal stresses of life, they are the last things we take off. The "big things" cause us to be tired out, stressed out, and put out with life.

Now consider Jesus' words: "Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest... my yoke is easy and my burden is light." Jesus invites you to let go of the appliance dolly and walk with Him. He says, "I will take the burden. I will shoulder the load. Give me the big things of your life and rest." Can he do it? Can He bear such a load? Absolutely! The shoulder that carried a cross to Calvary can surely heft your trunk of worries. The back that bore the load of our sins will easily hold up under the weight of your heaviest fears. Yes, Jesus is strong enough. The question is, will you let go?

Jesus. Give Him your big things first. If you do, it will be the last you have to worry about them.