Friday, December 30, 2011

If Only It Was That Easy

According to an AP story from December 28, 2009, scores of New Yorkers and tourists seeking a fresh start for the new year gathered in Times Square to put their bad memories through the shredder at the third annual Good Riddance Day. Participants lined up near the booth where discount theater tickets are sold and pitched their bad memories into an industrial-sized shredder. According the Karen Matthews, people shredded about everything you could imagine: the box score to a losing football game which knocked the New York Giants out of the playoffs, the memory of a counselor on a school field trip who was later featured on America’s Most Wanted, bills, correspondence, memories of ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends, and much, much more. But not to worry. If someone brought something which could not be shredded—say a computer or a tin of fattening snacks—a dumpster and a sledgehammer were available them.

People come from near and far for this annual event. The turnout says something about the hunger people have to rid themselves of past mistakes, sins, bad memories, broken hearts, and hurtful relationships. Just smash ‘em with a sledgehammer or put ‘em through a shredder. There! All gone!

If only it was this easy. But it’s not. While there’s much symbolic value in Good Riddance Day, and while it surely feels good for a while, the hurt, the scars, the tough consequences, don’t go away with the swing of a hammer or the push of a button. They linger. They gnaw. They suck the life out of you and steal your joy.

It’s not just what we get rid of that matters; it’s what we embrace in their place that matters more. Jesus told a story about a man that had a demon living in his heart. What a torment that demon was to this poor man! By good fortune, however, the man was able finally to sweep that demons clean—to run it off, to shoo it away, to send it scampering away from his heart. He sure felt better … for a season. But because the man didn’t replace that demon with anything else, the demon came back home to the man’s heart, brought along some friends, and the man was worse in the end than he was in the beginning. See what I mean? It’s not just what we get rid of that matters, it’s what we embrace in their place that matters more.

Could I encourage you on the threshold of a new year to embrace Jesus? He loves you. He forgives you. And He can set up residence in your heart that makes it possible to get rid of your heart-junk once and for all. It’s a process. Jesus does His work over time, but He can fill the void left by the sins, mistakes, and bad decisions that have haunted you for so long. When those demons try to come home, let Jesus answer the door. They won’t stick around for very long.

Getting rid of the junk that weighs you down is never as easy as it seems, but Jesus is the long-term cure. No one does true forgiveness and new beginning better than Jesus. Receive Him. Embrace Him. Trust Him. And this new year could be the best one you’ve ever enjoyed.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Remember the Manger

A couple of years ago, at the end of November, I was driving up Higdon Ferry back to the church and I noticed the message on the sign at Roland’s Barbecue. I wasn’t sure what it meant. So the next time I was in there, I asked the two people behind the counter, “What’s up with the manager?”

“What?” she asked.

“The manager—is everything okay?”

“You want to see the manager?”

“No, I just was concerned that something was wrong because of your sign.”

“Our sign?”

“Yes, your sign. You know, it says ‘Remember the Manager.’ So I just figured the manager needed prayer or something.”

“Our sign doesn’t say ‘Remember the Manager.’ It says ‘Remember the Manger.’”

No wonder they looked at me like I had two heads. It’s not “Remember the Manager.” It’s “Remember the Manger.” You’d think if anyone would be able to read that sign it would be a pastor. Trust me, my antennae are usually pretty honed in to anything of a spiritual nature I see in our secular world. But boy did I miss that one.

Well, here it is Christmas week, and I’m not going to miss it this time. It’s time to remember the manger. In fact, that’s not a bad rallying cry for all believers as we approach that holy night. Remember the Manger! A cry like that rallied all of Texas toward independence as the cry rang out across the plain, “Remember the Alamo!” A cry like that rallied all of America as the cry rang out from sea to shining sea, “Remember Pearl Harbor.”

But the cry “Remember the Manger” is not a call to arms, not a call to make war. It’s a call to peace.

It’s a call to peace with God—a call to receive the gift of salvation and life God has given us in Jesus. Jesus said he came to give life (Jn. 10:10). He can do this because of his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. He is a living Savior. So receive this life already and find peace with God. Remember the manger! It’s a call to peace with God.

And it’s a call to peace with one another. This baby in a manger taught us to love one another. At His birth the angel choir sang a chorus of “peace on earth.” And when Jesus became a man He said this peace with one another looks like mercy and forgiveness and encouragement and patience with one another. He said it was by our love for one another that we prove that we love God. By sending Jesus through the virgin’s womb and to the cross when he became a man, God made clear that He was willing to forgive us and set us at peace with Him. If God will love us even though we don’t deserve it and cannot earn it, how much more should we love one another. How much more should we live at peace with one another. Wouldn’t Christmas be a good time to let go of old hurts and old grudges and give the gift of forgiveness to someone who has hurt you?

Remember the Manger! It’s a call to peace with God and to peace with one another. So this Christmas I call you to you peace. I call you to forsake your sins and your grudges and your anger and your bitterness and your ill will toward God and toward others. “Remember the Manger!” Remember the Jesus who was laid there just after His birth. And give thanks. Give thanks that God sent Him. Give thanks for the salvation that He brings us. And give thanks for His peace.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Away in a Casket

Here it is just a few days till Christmas—the story of the most important birth in history—and I’m up to neck in death. This is not unusual. As often as not I spend December doing funerals. I've done two already and another member of our church died yesterday. Away in a manger—yes. Away in a casket—that too.

At least for me death and Christmas are irrevocably linked. My father died the day after Christmas in 1987; my mother died on Christmas Eve 2009; and I do as many funerals in December as I do any other month of the year. Death and Christmas are linked together for me. Do I like it? Not particularly. But that is my reality.

Actually, it’s the reality of all those who love and follow Christ. Even though Christmas is a birth story, Jesus was born to die. Had it not been for the cross and the resurrection, we’d know nothing more of Jesus’ birth than we know of any other child born to peasants in first-century Israel. It was the cross and resurrection that caused Matthew and Luke to learn more about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. Aside from Mary, Joseph, and a handful of no-account shepherds, no one was the wiser as to Jesus’ identity at the first Christmas. Can’t you hear the conversation in the local beauty parlor a few days later? “I heard there was some commotion around your place the other night, Martha?” And Martha says, “Yes, some poor young couple, pilgrims from Nazareth, used our stable for a maternity ward. I think they had a little boy. But enough of that; what’s the latest with your kids?” No one in Bethlehem had a clue as the identity of that baby born in the stable.

But that’s okay. Jesus wasn’t born to create a holiday centuries later; Jesus was born to die. The birth was important—the eternal Word had to become flesh, had to live life as a man, had to be tempted in the same ways we are and yet never sin, had to reveal God to us in his teachings and his miracles. And when the time was right, Jesus had to die for the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus did that. And on the third day he rose from the dead victorious over sin and death and the grave. The apostle Paul put it this way: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O grave, where is your sting? But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:55-57). Away in a manger—a peaceful lullaby. Away in a casket—there’s peace to be found there too.

I hope that’s encouraging to you if you’re dealing with death and grief this time of year. Grieving is usually more painful at Christmas—the empty chair at the Christmas table, one less stocking on the fireplace, deep sadness in what is supposed to be a happy time, and uncertainty how to celebrate the season or whether to celebrate it at all. When “Away in a Manger” becomes “Away in a Casket” what do we do then?

Let me tell you a story. It’s one of my favorite Christmas stories. I read it in Walter Wangerin’s book, The Manger Is Empty. Walter is a Lutheran pastor and writer. The story grew out of his pastorate of the Grace Lutheran Church in Evansville, Indiana, and involves his daughter Mary, Miz Odessa Williams, and a funeral on Christmas Eve.

On the Sunday night before Christmas the people of the church attended to their annual custom of Christmas caroling in their neighborhood and local hospital. Once in the hospital, a group of children, including Mary, went with Wangarin and found their way to the room of one of their church members, Miz Odessa Williams, an old black lady on her deathbed. She was very weak, but as the children lifted their voices to sing the birth of Jesus, Miz Williams was stirred. Lying on her back, she began to direct the music. She lifted her thin and trembling arm and began to mark the beat with precision. Her thin face frowned with a painful pleasure as she found herself lost in the music.

The children sang for her, yet she caught them—drawing them near to her, their eyes fixed on old Miz Williams. After they finished, Miz Williams drew them still closer and said to them in a weak and husky voice: "Oh children, you my choir. Oh choir, you my children for sure, every las' one of you. And listen me," she said, catching all of them one by one and eye to eye. "Ain' no one stand in front of you, for goodness, no! You the bes', babies, you the final bes'."

The children were fascinated, listening to her as though she spoke with the voice of God. Miz Williams went on: "Now listen me, when you sing, no matter where you be, I be there with ya. And how can I say such a mackulous thing?" She lowered her voice, drooped her eyelids a bit and said, "Why 'cause we be in Jesus. Babies, babies, we be in Jesus, old ones, young ones, us and you together. Jesus keep us in his bosom, and Jesus, no, he don't never let us go. Never. Never. Not ever."

So spoke Odessa in the thin, long light, so spoke Odessa Williams with such love and conviction that the children wept and were not ashamed. The lady won Mary in those moments.

But the tears Mary shed that night were of a different type than the ones she shed on Christmas Eve. For three days before Christmas, Odessa Williams died. It was a long tome coming, but quick when it finally came. And because of the way the days fell, the funeral was set for Christmas Eve morning.

Wangarin broke the news to his family rather hastily over lunch. Mary barely ceased eating. But as Wangarin was leaving for the office, Mary stopped him at the door and said, "I want to go to the funeral." Wangarin nodded in agreement and left.

Christmas Eve morning came. The casket containing Odessa's body was in the church, and people came and viewed the body before the service. At about ten minutes till service time, Mary came in. Wangarin met her at the door. "Dad," she said, "it's snowing." It was. A light powder was falling. "Dad," she said in a more grievous voice, "it's snowing."

"I know, Mary. Are you coming in? It's about time to start."

Mary walked with Wangarin up to the casket and looked at Odessa's face. She reached out and touched Odessa's long fingers. "Oh no," she whispered. She touched them again – this time with her cheek. Then she stood straight up and said, "Oh no, Dad, Miz Williams is so cold. And it's snowing outside – it's snowing in Miz Willliams' grave." And Mary plunged her head into her Daddy's chest and wept. "Dad," she sobbed, "Dad, Dad, it's Christmas Eve."

Wangarin had no answers for her, so Mary wept and went to take a seat. What could Wangarin say to those tears? His Mary had met death on what was supposed to be a happy day. So the funeral and the graveside and a silent, broken Mary.

But it was Christmas Eve, and that night was the children's program at church. Mary was to portray Mary, the mother of Jesus. Wangarin told her she didn't have to if she didn't feel like it. But Mary said she would.

Wangarin watched Mary as she played her part. She was quiet and in grief. So the program unfolded. The angels came, giggled, and left. Mary and Joseph sat at the manger. Mary looked down at the manger and began to frown. She looked as if she was about to burst into tears, but she didn't. She just frowned hard, looking at the doll in the manger. And then quietly, suddenly, Mary reached for the doll and began to play a part not written in the script. She took the doll, walked down the aisle, and out of the sanctuary. Nobody knew quite what to do. People sat in stunned silence. But in a moment, Mary emerged without the doll. She knelt by the crib, her face now radiant and full of adoration. The angels sang, "Glory to God in the highest." And the pageant was over.

Wangarin drove the family home that snowy night wondering what Mary had learned. "Dad," said Mary, "Jesus wasn't in that manger. It was a doll." Wangarin winced at the loss of his daughter's innocence. But Mary went on: "Dad, Jesus doesn't have to be in the manger, does He? He goes back and forth, doesn't He? He came from heaven and was borned here. But when He was done, He went back to heaven again. And because He came and went He can be coming and going all the time, can't He?"

"Right," whispered Wangarin.

"The manger is empty," Mary said. "And Dad, Miz Williams' box is empty too. We don't have to worry about the snow. It's only a doll in her box. It's like a big doll, Dad, and we put it away today. And if Jesus can cross, if Jesus can go across, then Miz Williams, she crossed the same way too with Jesus."

Choking back the tears, Wangerin recalled Miz Williams words to the children at the nursing home: "Babies, we be in Jesus, old ones, young ones, us and you together. Jesus keep us in His bosom, and Jesus, He don't never let us go. Never, never, not ever."

Not in life. Not in death. Not in grief. Not ever.

The Advent hymn-writer caught a glimpse of the very same hope:

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Immanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Of Gifts and the Gift

We’ve pretty much made Christmas all about the gifts. And we have no one to blame but ourselves. Some want to blame the Magi: “They started it with those gifts to the toddler Jesus.” And their gifts were no dollar store trinkets or stocking stuffers either. They gave the Christ-child gold, frankincense, and myrrh—expensive gifts, elaborate gifts. So, some want to blame the Magi for our Christmas gift-giving madness. “That’s what happens when you get pagans involved. All Mary and Joseph brought to Christmas were their obedience and faith. All the shepherds brought were praise and wonder. Leave it to those pagan Easterners, those Yankee Gentile materialists to clutter up Christmas with a bunch of presents.”

But I’m not buying that, are you? There’s one huge difference in their Christmas gift-giving compared to ours: they give their gifts to Jesus; we give our gifts to one another. And that’s really kind of weird when you think about it. Last Saturday, my granddaughter Reece turned seven years old last Saturday. And when Dayna and I were working on our gift list for her birthday, she was the only one on the list. We didn’t take a gift to her father or her mother or her brother. And Dayna and I didn’t give gifts to one another to celebrate Reece’s birthday. We just gave our gifts to Reece, and nobody found that strange. When we gave our gifts to Reece, her dad didn’t say, “Hey! Where’s my gift?” It wasn’t his birthday; it was her birthday.

What if we who follow Jesus decided that since Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, we’ll give our gifts to Him instead of one another? A few years ago, a couple of pastors broached that idea with their congregations. They call it the Christmas Conspiracy—make Christmas giving about Jesus instead of about ourselves. What if we adopted that idea? Retailers wouldn’t like it, and who could blame them? They need a big Christmas to make a profit for the year. Children wouldn’t like it. There would be tears and anger and maybe they’d go on strike or something. And some of us wouldn’t like it either because we very much enjoy the give and take of Christmas.

So I’m not proposing any of us adopt this idea cold turkey—there would be too many painful withdrawals. But what if we scaled way back on one another and raised the bar on our gifts to Jesus? It’s a teachable moment for kids and a way to build new traditions for them and for their kids someday.

But what do we give to Jesus? Talk about trying to find a gift for a person who has everything! But really, Jesus is easy to give to. You give Him the things that are close to His heart: gifts to mission is close to the heart of Him who came to seek and to save the lost. A gift to any charity that cares for the poor and the homeless or the sick and the troubled and the orphan is a gift close to the heart of Him who loves those people and wants to lift them up. But what if you have no money? What can you give Jesus then? How about your heart? How about giving some time to the church or to charitable organizations that do Jesus-work in your community? I’m not saying don’t give gifts to people you love at Christmas, but what if you gave a little less to them and a little more Jesus? It’s Jesus’ birthday, after all, not ours.

And besides, Christmas isn’t so much about our gifts as it is about God’s gift—the gift of His Son Jesus who lived for us and died for us and was raised from the dead for us too. Jesus didn’t leave heaven and come to earth so we could have this big party every December. Jesus came not for Christmas but for Good Friday, not for the cradle but for the cross. Jesus came to give us life. To do that, He had to die for us on the cross. That’s how God can forgive our sins and still be true to himself and His holy, loving character. Jesus was born to die. The crude timber of the manger foreshadows the crude timber of the cross. And please don't be put off by that because that’s where Christmas was heading all the time.

So give your gifts this Christmas. Give to those you love; give gifts to Jesus too. But in all that giving, remember this: Christmas is not really about our gifts; it’s about God’s Gift. And when you can get your heart and mind around that truth, it will change your Christmas … and it just might change your life.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Chasing the Perfect Christmas

I read an article on last year that made this startling claim: Christmas day is better than any other at murdering us.

Between 1973 and 2001, Christmas Day netted 53 million deaths, making it the #1 killer on the calendar. And when you look at its weapons of choice, it's almost as though the entire tradition was intentionally calibrated to snuff you out with a quiet efficiency.

Picture a perfect Norman Rockwell Christmas morning—family around a crackling fireplace, including Grandma and all the relatives. Mom fixes dad an eggnog while preparing the Christmas ham, just two of the many traditional holiday foods known outside of December as "the worst things you can put in your body that aren't a live hand grenade." You've got the Christmas presents under the tree that Dad spent all night putting together, and that Mom spent the past month freaking out about buying. We’re talking stress on top of stress, and that along with exhaustion is a great way to kill your heart.

Which brings us to the crackling fire, or as your heart calls it, "my chance to test drive the body of a pack a day smoker." According to a 1999 report on what cardiologists call “the holiday effect"—"pollutants from wood-burning fireplaces trigger cardiovascular irregularities."

So according to science, you might be the only thing in your living room that's not trying to kill you this Christmas.

And yet more of us than not will be chasing a perfect Christmas once again this year. I’ve never understood the yearning for a perfect Christmas, especially since I’ve never seen one and especially since the original Christmas was anything but perfect, at least according to human standards: an unwed pregnancy, a nine-day overland journey for a woman up against her due date; a birth in a musty stable amid dusty straw, steaming animal dung, and the mother away from home and mom and everything familiar and comfortable. Just perfect, huh? Hardly.

Yet many of us still chase that perfect Christmas. How long will it take us to learn that the perfect Christmas is an illusion; it’s fool’s gold, it’s a chasing of the wind? All it does is set us up for disappointment and a post-Christmas depression—over the child who didn’t make it home or over Uncle Frank who did, or the failure to give or get the perfect gift, or the decorations that didn’t quite stack up to your neighbors, or a Christmas with no snow yet again. And the truth of the matter is that the more we chase the perfect Christmas, the farther we run away from the perfect Christ.

Why don’t you quit chasing the perfect Christmas and start chasing the perfect Christ? He is not so hard to find, you know. You might find him at work, at school, at church. You may see him in a neighbor or in the lady ringing the bell at a Salvation Army bucket. You might find Jesus in the homeless man you pass on the city street or the checker at the store. Keep your eyes peeled, your antennae up, and your heart open to see the living Christ this season. You will find him for sure.

And as you chase Christ you’ll finds something even better: you’ll find that Christ is chasing you. Isn’t that the Christmas mission after all? Jesus come to earth to save the likes of us, to grace us and forgive us and set us right with God and one another. Didn’t Jesus say to that scoundrel tax collector Zacchaeus, “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost”? So quit chasing the perfect Christmas. It could flat out kill you. Here’s a better idea, a Christian idea: chase the perfect Christ who is chasing after you. That chase ends in salvation. That chase ends in life.

Advent is upon us once again. Decoration boxes have been pulled from the attic or the garage. Christmas lists are being made. Some of you have already lost a night’s sleep doing Black Friday shopping. Some of you have already waded into debt buying things you can’t afford, and others of you will soon join them. You’re fretting over getting out your Christmas cards on time. Your calendar is full of parties to attend and year-end work to be done. Your stress level is heading to the danger zone, and your blood pressure is not far behind. The Christmas hype is upon us, and the chase for the perfect Christmas has begun as if Christmas won’t come if you don’t get all that stuff done. It’s like a mission. And for what? I mean really, for what?

Would you just cool it? If you are a disciple of Jesus Christ, here’s your mission in this season: chase the Christ who’s chasing you. Or to put it another way: worship Christ, not Christmas.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Heart-Deep Thanksgiving

Psalm 136:1 reads, “O give thanks to the Lord for he is good, and his steadfast love endures forever.” Sounds simple enough, but is it as simple as it sounds.

You ever seen the movie Shenandoah? Jimmy Stewart plays the lead—the head of a farm family torn by the tensions of the Civil War, a war creeping ever closer to their farm. It’s a fine film. And one of my favorite scenes is Jimmy Stewart’s blessing over a family meal. Gathered round the table the family bows to pray and Jimmy Stewart gives thanks … sort of:

"Lord, we cleared this land, we plowed it, sowed it, and harvested. We cooked the harvest. It wouldn't be here, we wouldn't be eatin' it if we hadn't done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you just the same anyway, Lord, for this food we're about to eat. Amen."

Huh? You’ve got to work pretty hard to find the thanksgiving in that prayer. Sometimes you have to work hard to find the thanksgiving in our prayers too. There’s a part of us that has a hard time saying thank you to God and really mean it. There’s “Thank you, God … but why didn’t I get more?” There’s “Thank you, God … but why didn’t I get something better?” And there’s “Thank you, God, but what took you so long?” See what I mean? Our thanks to God—and even others—is not always heart-deep.

Perhaps we could learn something about giving thanks from the Japanese. In an article entitled “The Parent of All Virtues,” Mollie Hemmingway writes, “The Japanese sometimes accept gifts by saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ The subtext is, ‘I’m fully aware of my debt to you. I can never repay it.’” Wow. That’s gratitude—a deep awareness of debt, a realization that payback is neither necessary nor possible.

Are we not all debtors to God and his grace? How do we pay back salvation? We can’t climb up on the cross ourselves. How do we pay back that grace that is sufficient for every need, that strength made perfect in your weakness, that peace that passes understanding when everything around you says, “Panic!” We can’t pay it back. Such mercies are pure gifts of God given freely out of the vast storehouse of his abiding love for you and me. I know it’s hard to believe. I know it sounds almost too good to be true. But the Bible bears it out. All you can do—all any of us can do—is just say, “Thank you.” Giving thanks without equivocation, without reservation, without qualification, is really the only way to give thanks to God.

So in this season of Thanksgiving, count your blessings, and give God thanks—heart-deep thanks—for the many blessings you can’t earn, don’t deserve, and could never repay. You don’t need to do somersaults and cartwheels. You don’t need to recite God a poem or sing him a song. A “thank you” is really all God’s looking for—a thank you from the heart.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Swimming Against the Tide

I’m not one to wear my faith on my shirt or stick it on my bumper. T-shirt and bumper sticker theology leave so very much to be desired. I mean, really, has the Great Commission come to that? But I did see a T-shirt once that sent a message with which I quickly concurred. The caption was simple: “The Christian life.” The picture was a shirt full of fish swimming in one direction, and a single fish swimming in the other—“The Christian life.” What serious follower of Jesus has not felt like that single fish on the T-shirt—swimming against the tide, going against the flow, feeling so very alone in living one’s faith in Jesus Christ? The woman at the office, the man at the Country Club, the kid at school—swimming against the tide. Even in our so-called “Christian nation” it’s not easy to follow Christ against a flow of thinking and talking and living that creates such a strong tide of resistance.

You think you’ve got it bad? Let me introduce you to one of my new heroes. His name is Abdou Diallo. I met Abdou while spending a few days in Senegal. For the last several years teams from our church have invested ourselves in a wonderful little village in northeast Senegal. Though getting there makes it seem like it’s about twenty miles past the Great Commission, God told us to adopt that village and invest our lives and His love there. The people are friendly, kind, and hospitable to a fault. They are also Muslim. We consider them our family and friends. They consider us to be family and friends as well. Our main contact through the village is a man named Ameth, and he is an absolute jewel: so helpful, so kind to us, such a servant to our needs when we are there. We love him greatly. We love the village too. There’s one big problem though: they speak a lot of Wolof, some Pulaar, and some French, and handful of them (like Ameth) speak a little English. Being Americans, however, about all we speak is English (and a few Wolof greetings we tend to butcher beyond recognition).

Enter Abdou Diallo. On our four trips to the village, we have had different interpreters. This time we had Abdou. He lives in Dakar and speaks Wolof, Pulaar, French, and English—amazing. On the way out to the village, I asked him if he was Muslim or Christian. And that’s when he told me his story. Like most West Africans, Abdou was raised Muslim. Yet he had no peace in his life. At a very low point in his young life, he had a dream or a vision in which a person appeared to him and told him that the grace and the truth are in Jesus. Being a Muslim, he already had great respect for Jesus, but he considered Jesus to be a prophet and not the Son of God. That vision changed his thinking. When he found those verses in the Gospel of John that described Jesus as being full of grace and truth, Abdou gave his heart to Jesus. “Jesus changed my life,” he said. And it cost him too. Aside from his mother (who remains Muslim) and a brother who has since also become a follower of Jesus, Abdou has been largely disowned from his family, including the loss of his family inheritance. And since Jesus-followers compose only about 1% of the population of Senegal, he often feels very much alone. He did find a church in which he actively participates. And he continues to grow in his faith—learning more of Jesus and sharing Jesus at every opportunity. This is a bare sketch of his testimony, but you get the idea. You remember that T-shirt with a school of fish swimming one way and a single fish swimming the other? That single fish is Abdou. Yet he swims against the tide without complaint, without bitterness, and without fear. As you can imagine, our team got very attached to him on our trip.

So I wanted to share a bit of his story with you. Would you pray for Abdou? Would you pray that God would meet the needs of his life as he swims against the tide? Would you pray that Jesus would give him courage, peace, and opportunities to quietly share Jesus with his many Muslim friends and neighbors?

Oh, and would you do something else? Would you ask God to give you the grace to swim against the tides in our own culture that would so subtly and quickly sweep you away from Christ? Yes, it might cost you something. No, it’s not easy and it’s not the path of least resistance. But this is what Jesus calls us to do: “If anyone would come after me he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.” Following Jesus means swimming against the tide. And if God can give Abdou what he needs to make that swim, God can surely do the same for us.

Dive on in … though a bit swift in the wrong direction, the water’s fine.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Learning from a Foreigner

We Americans think we’re so smart. While non-Americans often love the idea of America, they’re not so wild about Americans. They consider us loud and arrogant. You know why? Because Americans tend to be loud and arrogant. God has blessed me with the opportunity to see various places in the world. It’s usually easy to pick out the Americans that are there. They’re the loud ones. They’re the ones who seem to carry a sense of entitlement to whatever they want: attention, service, a better bargain, respect, deferential treatment, an expectation that the whole world should speak English. Nothing personal here, but compared to others in the world, Americans do tend to be loud and arrogant.

And that’s a shame because there is so much we could learn if we’d shut the heck up and listen to those outside of our culture and our country. Travel to Latin America or Africa, and if you’re paying attention you’ll learn that time should be our servant rather than our master. That’s a hard lesson to learn for those of us who live by the clock, on the clock, and with a clock on our wrist when we’re awake and by our bed when we’re asleep. But instead of learning such a helpful truth, we Americans tend to categorize the non-time-conscious as lazy or unfocused or ignorant. And we arrogantly pronounce that judgment as we pop a couple of heart pills and swig our ulcer medicine. We can learn a thing or two from foreigners.

Just yesterday, one of my Russian friends preached in the church that I serve. His name is Pavel Ruseev. He’s really good at Russian but barely speaks a lick of English. He’s a pastor in Russia with a great vision to plant churches in a nation that doesn’t have a church on every corner or even in every town. I met him a couple of years ago in Russia and bonded with him immediately. He’s young, he’s passionate, he’s entrepreneurial, and he’s trying to do God’s work in a culture that’s blowing a 100 mph wind in his face no matter which direction he turns. I don’t see how he does this and keeps his sanity at the same time. Must be God’s grace. Anyway, he preached a very fine sermon yesterday on Jesus’ great commandment to love God and love others. But I don’t want to talk about his sermon; I want to talk about the three things he said that have stood out to him about American culture in the month or so he’s been here.

Pavel said he is amazed at the size of food portions in our restaurants. In Russia, a little dab will do you. In America, load up the plate—“Can you use a bigger serving spoon, please?” “Super-size that for me, would you?” My first thought was that he wouldn’t be quite so surprised about the size of food portions in America if he would just look at the size of so many Americans. We don’t miss many meals and we usually go back for seconds. Geez … who knows what Pavel might have thought had he visited an all-you-can-eat buffet! So many in the world are hungry, and we keep piling it on the plate. Pavel didn’t seem offended by this, more amazed really. But it kind of offended me. We Americans could do better, you know. I could do better. Eat a little less, share a little more, care about the hungry and find ways to help.

Here’s a second thing that stood out to Pavel: Americans do so much of life without having to get out of the car. He said, “You go to a restaurant, and you don’t have to get out of your car to get your food. You go to the bank, and you don’t have to get out of the car to do your business. In Fayetteville, I went to a movie and didn’t have to get out of the car to see it. I was in Arkansas a week-and-a-half before I took my first walk.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that there are a few places in America he could even go to church without getting out of the car. Pavel’s right, you know. He lives in a culture that relies on public transportation and shoe leather. Only the more well-to-do can afford a personal car; everybody else walks or takes the bus. And if you take a bus you’ve still got to walk some distance to the bus stop. He talked about his grandmother who used to walk to the nearest church every weekend. It was 45 miles away. She left on Saturday and returned home late Sunday evening. “You do everything from your car,” he said. I’m just glad he didn’t ride with somebody who drove around a Walmart parking lot for ten minutes just trying to get the spot closest to the door. Even though getting plenty of exercise is not a problem for me, his comments made me want to use my body more and my machine less.

Pavel then said that the third thing that stuck out to him about American culture is this: so many, many churches. He had no idea. Oh, he knew America was far more churched than Russia, but he had no idea that there really was a church on almost every corner. This observation struck me at a deep level. On the one hand, I was grieved for Russia and the need for more gospel witness, more churches, more communities of faith for a people so in need of Christ. On the other hand, I was grieved for America: so many churches, so little gospel witness; so many churches, so few devoted disciples of Jesus; so many churches, so little impact on our culture, so little assistance to the poor and those in need—and why? Maybe it’s because we’re more about glitz than God’s glory, more about entertainment than worship, more about self than others, more about “our church” than God’s kingdom. Most American Christians see the church as an organization they can use to make their life a little better rather than as the bride and body of Christ which forms me as a disciple of Jesus and sends me into the world in His name and for His glory. How else can you explain the disparity between the number of churches and the lack of influence? Pavel’s words stirred in me a desire to be a better pastor, to love and serve Christ’s church more deeply and encourage others to do the same.

So forgive me, God, for being an arrogant American who thinks I know more than folks from other cultures. And thank you, Pavel, for teaching me a thing or two about my own culture. I’ve always wanted to be a lifelong learner—even when that learning comes through a foreigner.

Friday, October 14, 2011


So Dayna and I went to see the new Christian film, Courageous. It’s produced by a church in Georgia that has produced other films like Facing the Giants and Fireproof. Courageous is a compelling film for families and especially for fathers. If you’re inclined to cry at movies, take some Kleenex. If you’re not inclined to cry at movies, take some Kleenex.

Courageous is a film about fathering, and it stirred me to think about the way I fathered my kids. Of course, with kids who are 31 and 29, my fathering is pretty much past tense. “I’m feeling a little guilty,” I said to Dayna as we were driving home from the theater. “I could have done better with the kids.” I don’t think I was courageous.

Having been raised in a home without a father, I was ill-equipped to be one. I didn’t read any books on the subject; I just sort of followed my gut. Sometimes that worked out pretty well. Sometimes it didn’t. Like the Saturday I was supposed to watch the kids (who were about 4 and 2 at the time). I put them down for a nap about the time the Razorback game was supposed to start. Nathan, the oldest, refused to go to sleep. He kept asking for one thing or another, kept bugging me like a mosquito in a tent, kept me from being able to watch my game. Exercising zero maturity, I didn’t deal with the issue, I got into a back and forth exchange with him—my line usually being, “Don’t make me come in there.” Being a mouthy kid, he wouldn’t shut up, so (during a game timeout) I pulled him out of his room and took him to the kitchen sink. He wants to be mouthy; I’ll deal with his mouth. I’ll wash that boy’s mouth out with soap. But dang! There wasn’t any bar soap at the sink, so I grabbed the next best thing available: dishwashing liquid. (Before you judge me you must realize that I was in a hurry; the game was about ready to start again.) He was crying. I was mad. And I was going to win. So I smeared some of that blue soapy liquid on my finger and rubbed it in his mouth. And do you know what he did? He looked up at me with tears rolling down his pudgy cheeks and blew the biggest soap bubble you ever saw! Hysterical. I got to laughing and he got to laughing and I hugged to my chest the one I was ready to exile to Siberia just moments before. Not very courageous, huh?

I wasn’t much better with my daughter. Having been raised with two brothers, I had no concept on how to raise a girl. As demonstrated in the previous paragraph, I knew all about boys (yeah, right). I knew about wrestling and playing ball, about getting dirty and eating like a pig, about bodily functions and acting crude. And I knew how to discipline a boy too. They take a spanking pretty good. I could yell at a boy when I needed too. But how do you discipline a girl? From the first time I saw her, I wasn’t sure I had it in me to yell at her. And I wasn’t sure I could spank her either. So I was kind of nervous about having a girl. Could I discipline her when needed? Could I find a way to enter her world? Other than the GI Joe I played with in the mid-60s, I’d never been around dolls in my life. And even then GI Joe was no girl doll. He was always shooting the enemy and blowing stuff up. He’d have had no trouble wiping out Barbie if he thought she was a Communist. He was one bad dude. But this girl world was different—dolls and tea parties, Kaboodles and My Little Ponies, jewelry and makeup, dresses and ribbons and lace. I was glad she liked sports—we made some connection there. But on the whole, I was out of my element and would be the whole time she was growing up. But I loved her, how I loved her and love her still! Yet what’s so courageous about that? She was easy to love.

So if I was grading myself on my daddy-work I’d have to give myself a B. I think I was generally better than average but certainly not exceptional and certainly not courageous. Truth is: both of our kids were easy to raise and both turned out well. They love God, serve Him in their churches, live responsibly, and are raising their own kids to do the same. I credit this end-product to many prayers, Dayna’s influence, and two good churches we’ve been a part of. We did do our best to show them Christ, keep them in the Scripture, and keep them in the church. We did love them unconditionally. We laughed a lot—a whole lot. And we never for a moment forgot that these two kids belong to God and are only on loan to us. The bottom line is that God was merciful, and God shaped these kids into the adults they are today—in part because of us, in part in spite of us, especially in spite of me.

I can see it now: “Let’s make a movie about John’s fathering.”

“Ok, but what will we call it?”

“How about Courageous?”

“Don’t make me laugh.”

“Then what would you call it?”

“I’d call it … Blessed.”

And so would I.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Take That, Cancer!

I sure get weary of burying my friends. A week ago I spoke at the funeral of David Martin. David and his wife Debbie were part of our church family for three years or so before work took them to the Dallas area. We continued to stay connected via email.

And when David was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor a year and some months ago, we exchanged some of the richest email correspondence of my ministry. David sharing his heart; me trying to encourage him; me in my health telling David that God is with us in suffering; David on the frontline of suffering confirming for me that it’s true. I saved most of that correspondence and am very glad I did. Even though David didn’t want the tumor, he certainly embraced his condition and searched for God in the midst of it like a miner searches for gold. And David hit the mother lode. Did he waver in his faith from time to time? Yes, on rare occasions, but never for very long. He just kept leaning into Jesus and found Him in every twist and turn of his disease.

A few months ago I shared with David a poetic expression that was supposedly read at the funeral of a military chaplain who had died from cancer. Here it is: Cancer is so limited... It cannot cripple love. It cannot shatter hope. It cannot corrode faith. It cannot take away peace. It cannot destroy confidence. It cannot kill friendship. It cannot shut out memories. It cannot silence courage. It cannot invade the soul. It cannot reduce eternal life. It cannot quench the Spirit. It cannot lessen the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I had hoped to encourage David, but again he encouraged me. He sent me back a response in which he wrote his own reflection on cancer …

It’s not about the cancer; it's about the glance, or touch on the shoulder by a friend who leans forward and says "I have been thinking about you and praying for you, I love you brother.”

It's not about the cancer; it's about the concerned look/expression of a frightened family member and the comfort they experience as we all learn to hope more fully in God.

It's not about the cancer; it's about your spouse, your son, your daughter or sibling, and the pain they endure and the challenges they experience as they walk with you on this journey.

It's not about the cancer; It's about relationships—past, present and future.

It's not about the cancer; it's about living life. It's about loving life. It's about God and His glory.

It's not about the cancer; it's about magnifying the person and name of Jesus Christ—to Whom be glory, forever and ever, Amen.

See what I mean? David leaned into Jesus. Though he also wrote about his moments of anxiety and fear, he always found his way back into the peace and comfort of Jesus. And not long before the disease robbed him of the ability to concentrate or type an email, David sent me this: “God is so beautiful lately. I’m beginning to understand why Pentecostals whoop and holler.” That was David.

So it was David in one corner and cancer in the other. They traded punches in the middle of the ring for more than a year. David fought valiantly. In his corner stood family and friends, doctors and nurses, who cheered him on and tended his wounds at the end of each round. Yet in spite of the courage and faith with which David fought the battle, cancer finally took him down to the grave. The evidence suggests that cancer won the battle—his death certificate will say as much. But don’t believe that evidence. It’s tainted. It’s tainted by shortsightedness that sees life as a fixed continuum between birth and death. It’s tainted by a cynicism that believes cancer is king and death is final.

But against that evidence is the Scripture—a lot of Scripture—like this one from the apostle Paul who knew much about suffering: "Therefore we do not lose heart. Though we’re wasting away on the outside, we’re being renewed every day on the inside. For our light and momentary troubles are preparing for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen but on what is unseen. What is seen is temporary; what is unseen is eternal. And we know that if this earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house in the heavens, not built by human hands."

David believed that with all his heart. He knew Jesus was with him in the battle—the same Jesus who suffered and died and was raised from dead on the third day; the same Jesus who is the first and the last, the beginning and the end, the one who was dead but is alive forevermore; the same Jesus who holds the keys to death and the grave, who is with us and who is for us, and who is the resurrection and the life. David did cancer with Jesus. I so wish God had chosen to heal him this side of eternity, but for reasons known only to God, He healed David with the healing from which he will never be sick again. That’s why cancer didn’t win and why cancer doesn’t get the last word on David—God does, heaven does, life does.

So take that, cancer! You knocked David down, but you cannot knock him out! And even more, you will be knocked out in the end. And as you lay beaten and crushed on the mat, David and a host of other believers you’ve victimized over the centuries will raise their hands in victory and praise to the God who will finally set all things right.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Double-Nickel

It’s official. As of today I start getting my senior adult discount at lots of different places—SCORE! I had to wait fifty-five years to get it, but I got it now. And I’m going to enjoy it because I may not get any of the Social Security money I’ve been putting in since I was a like twelve. That’s right: I turned the old double-nickel today.

All in all, I’m in pretty good shape for a guy my age, thank God. In the middle of my early morning workout I knocked out a set of 55 pushups and had a few more in me. But I’m starting to show some signs of aging. A couple of Sundays ago a lady visited the church and told me she comes down once a year to Hot Springs and always visits our church on Sunday. She told me she has been coming since my first year here back in 1995. And then she said this: “I remember when you used to have red hair.” I guess my hair is s-l-o-w-l-y turning a premature gray. A lady who cut my hair a year or so ago told me it was blond, not gray, and since she’s a professional, I think I should trust her judgment more than this other lady’s. Anyway, I feel my age every now and then, but all in all it’s not so bad.

My concern at this growing old thing is that I don’t lose my mental edge (assuming, of course, that I have ever had a mental edge). There are people out there, you know, who like to take advantage of older folks. I recently heard about a lawyer sitting next to an older man on an airplane. The lawyer thought this guy might be easy-pickings, so he asked the older fellow if he wanted to play a little game. The older man wanted to take a nap so he politely declined. But the lawyer kept pestering him. "Come on, just play. I'll ask you a question and if you can't answer it you give me $5. Then you ask me a question, and if I can't answer it I give you $500." That did pique the senior's interest. So the older guy agreed to play.

The lawyer asked the first question: “What’s the distance between the earth and the moon?” The older man had no idea so he quietly pulled out his wallet and gave the lawyer $5. “Now you ask me a question,” said the lawyer.

The older man asked, “What goes up a hill with three legs and comes down with four?”

The lawyer liked the challenge, so he starts surfing the web looking for an answer, flashing emails to some of his smartest friends for their input. But nothing. So after an hour he woke the older fellow from his nap and handed him $500. The senior pocketed the money and went back to sleep.

But the lawyer couldn’t stand not knowing the answer. It was driving him nuts. So he woke up the old guy one more time and asked him, “So, what does go up a hill with three legs and comes down with four?” The old guy smiled, reached into his pocket, gave the lawyer $5, and went back to sleep.

I hope I can be that sharp as the years add up in my life, don’t you?

And I hope something else as well. I hope I’ll have the spirit to pray the prayer of the psalmist: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12). I don’t want to just add years to my life; I want to learn from them. I want to grow deeper into Jesus, deeper into the well that satisfies a thirst mere years and the things of the world cannot. I want to gain the wisdom to help not only myself but others along the way. I want whatever years I have left to matter for God, for His kingdom, and for others. I don't want to waste my life; I don't want to waste what's left.

And who knows? Even though the double-nickel is a lot of years, in some ways I feel like I’m just getting started.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Of Tent Pegs and Nails

Though he didn’t intend it to be a book on preaching, Michael Horton’s Christless Christianity has made an impact on the way I put a sermon together. Horton drew my attention to how so much American Christianity is little more than moralism devoid of the gospel: Do this. Don’t do that. Keep the rules. Smile a lot. Buck up. Be a good boy. Be a nice girl. He also bemoaned the state of preaching in such churches: “Four Steps to a Happy Marriage,” “How to Live Debt Free,” “Three Keys to Happiness,” “How to Climb Out of Depression.” Nothing wrong with any of that really, except that there’s no gospel in it, no Jesus in it. It would probably work just fine on the self-help rack at the bookstore. Any of us can work on being nice, keeping the rules, and applying a sermon’s “steps” whether we have Jesus or not.

Honestly, other than in the area of marriage and family, I’ve never done much of this kind of preaching anyway. But I haven’t always moved my sermons to Jesus and the gospel. Have I left people with the impression the Christian life is more law than grace, that Jesus is more crutch than life-support? Have I inadvertently communicated that we can do this Christian life thing on our own, leaning on Jesus only when we get in a tight spot? Thank you, Michael Horton; I think you’ve helped make me a better preacher of the gospel whether you intended to or not.

But what in the world do I do with Jael and the tent peg? Do you know the story? Jael was the Kenite tentwife who got Israel’s enemy and oppressor Sisera to take refuge in her tent. He was on the run from an Israel rout of his armies. Sisera believed Jael to be a friend, and bone tired from the fight and the flight, Sisera took Jael up on her offer. She treated him with much kindness—gave him a skin of warm milk, tucked him in nice and cozy, and told him to sleep well. But the woman was a sneak and a sly one at that. Once Sisera was happily snoring away, Jael took a tent peg in one hand, a hammer in the other, slipped back into the tent, tip-toed to Sisera who was sleeping on his side, lined up the peg with his temple, pulled the hammer back, and drove that peg right through his temples and into the ground. No more Sisera—he was dead at a tent peg. She murdered a sleeping man who trusted her. And through the act of a woman, not even an Israelite woman, Israel was delivered from Sisera and 20 years of Canaanite tyranny. Though a bit gruesome, it’s a good story.

But how do I get to Jesus and the gospel from there? I preached that story on Sunday and I never quite figured out a way? I did get it part way to gospel, I think, by reminding the congregation that this really isn’t a Jael story; it’s a God-story—that it’s more about God and His actions than about us and our actions. A noble try, I hope.

But as I continued to reflect upon that story through the day, another idea came to mind. And while it didn’t involve a tent peg, it involved some nails—as in the nails Roman soldiers drove through the hands and feet of Jesus. The story comparison is hardly apples to apples. In Jael’s story the good girl kills the bad guy, and Israel is delivered from the oppression of Canaan. In Jesus’ story, the bad guys kill the good guy, and people who believe from every nation, tribe, and tongue are delivered from the oppression of sin and death and the grave. Jael’s story is a temporary deliverance; Jesus’ story is an eternal deliverance. And while the one Jael murdered with a tent peg stayed dead; the one the Romans murdered with some nails did not—on the third day Jesus rose from the dead.

I don’t know if I’m on to something here or not. I don’t know if I’ve made a leap from Jael to Jesus that doesn’t follow. Maybe in doing so, I’m breaking some important rules of interpretation. I just don’t know.

But I do know this: the leap from Jael to Jesus gets my eyes on Jesus. That’s a good thing, right? The leap from Jael to Jesus gets me thinking of my own sin and of Jesus’ grace, of my own need and Jesus’ provision. That’s gospel, isn’t it? And this leap does something else: instead of hearing Jael’s story with the challenge to go and be as brave and cunning as Jael in dealing with my enemies, I’m reminded once again that, in the cross, Jesus decisively dealt with my worst enemies like sin and pride and self-sufficiency by doing for me what I could never do for myself. That take on the story doesn’t make me bow up; it makes me bow down. It doesn’t make me think I can deal with my enemies on my own; it drives me even deeper into dependency on Jesus and the power of His Spirit in my life. Hmm, I don’t know if making this leap is technically and hermeneutically correct, but it sure smells like gospel, and it seems to leave the fragrance of Christ over a story as brutal as Jael’s.

I wonder, isn’t that what separates Christianity from moralism? Isn’t that why the Bible isn’t just another book in the self-help rack at B. Dalton?

Friday, September 9, 2011

To Czech with Love

I can honestly say that I never thought I would visit the Czech Republic—never. Not because I have anything against the Czechs, but because they were behind the Iron Curtain for most of my life, and it is an very small country—smaller even than our small state of Arkansas. What would ever take me to an obscure place like that anyway? God would, and God did. (I never thought I’d go to Russia either and I’ve been there three times—again, at God’s bidding.)

Anyway, here’s the deal. A couple of years ago a missionary to the Czech Republic named Harold attended our church’s annual mission celebration. He and I talked a good bit. He was discouraged. He was hearing other missionaries at the celebration talking about the people who were coming to Christ and the churches that were being planted. And Harold had no such stories. The Czech Republic is not exactly primed and ready for a Christian revival. After enduring a long, bitter history of religious war and then forty years of atheistic communist domination that seemed like 400 years (the Czechs aren’t too fond of Russia), hearts have hardened to Christ and the church. Czech is one of the most irreligious countries in the world. Our Prague tour guide, Klara, told us that Czech is 60% atheist, 30% Catholic (most of whom never darken the door of their magnificent cathedrals), and 10% Protestant. Not exactly fertile soil for the gospel, huh?

I couldn’t help but think about the shoe company who sent two representatives to scope out the market in central Africa. One sent back his report, “Nobody here wears shoes so no need to send them. I’m coming home on the next flight.” The second representative sent home a different report: “Nobody here wears shoes. Send me all you got. I’m sure I can sell a boat load.” It would be easy to look at Czech and say, “What’s the use of sending missionaries or helping the local church? Nobody much here believes and they probably never will.” Thankfully, Harold, Ginger, and their kids take a different view: “Nobody much here believes. With God’s help, we think we can lead many to Christ.” And so they stick it out and plow away at the blade-dulling soil, believing that sooner or later seeds will go down and a harvest will come up.

So our church decided to help them. We like going to hard places. They wanted English teachers. Along with a very small Czech congregation in a neighboring city, Harold and the church (pastured by Vladia and Zdenek) are trying to plant a church in Hradec Karlove, a city of over 100,000 that has no evangelical church that we know of. And they believe English classes are the way to build relationships and find doors for sharing the gospel. Heck, everybody in our church can speak English (Arkansas English anyway), so were rounded up thirteen folks and went to the Czech Republic to lead English classes.

We didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t. The country is a beautiful place. I thought it would look like Russia (something of an arm pit in terms of color or beauty or pizzazz and you can’t even drink the water). But no, Czech is a beautiful place: well-maintained and colorful buildings, lovely gardens and rivers, good roads, modern water system. And best of all: wonderful people. Our team and those who came to the English classes warmed to one another quickly. We had all ages and we hit it off fabulously.

Most of the people who came to the English classes consider themselves unbelievers or atheists (which I discovered to the Czech mind is really more agnosticism than classic scientific atheism). We did what we came to do: teach English. But when asked why we came, we were quick to tell them that we are Christians, followers of Jesus, and that God loves them and that we serve God by serving them. Harold was afraid this might put off Czechs and cause them to drop out of the class, but it didn’t. In fact, many signed up for follow up English which uses Bible stories to teach the language. Yea, God!! So we’ll see what comes of that. And by the way, the Czechs and the missionaries want us to come back. We’ve already got to future dates to go.

Near the end of the English camp, a Czech veterinarian, George, an unbeliever, told our trip leader that he never liked Americans. He said that Americans are typically arrogant and think the world revolves around them. Who can argue with that? But then he added this, “After being around your team, I feel differently now.” You know, George wasn’t drawn to us because we’re good Americans; he was drawn to Christ in us, the hope of glory. By being salt in that spiritually parched land, we were helping George get thirsty for Christ. He doesn’t understand that yet, but that’s what’s going on. The “Hound of heaven” is on his heels. And I pray George and the other wonderful people it was our pleasure to serve will one day recognize God’s great love for them and their great need for God and find the life that is really life in Jesus.

So we went to Czech with love, some English lessons, and not much else. And we found that God had gone to Czech with love long before us and was already there doing His thing—preparing, wooing, loving Czech people toward a relationship with Him. I wouldn’t have said this before I went there myself, but you know what? I believe God is up to something big in the Czech Republic and I can’t wait to see it happen.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Finally Here

Okay, I admit it: I’m a Razorback junkie. I don’t have it as bad as some, but I’ve got it bad enough. I’m a Razorback junkie and I’m about to get my next fix. Football season is finally here. After that great sports desert (commonly known as summer), up in Fayetteville the pads are popping and the pigskin is once again flying through the air. Hog-elujah!

I’ve been addicted a long time—since 1969 to be exact. I was thirteen years old and few things seemed more important to me than the Razorbacks. I listened to or watched every game in a season that ended in the “Game of the Century,” when our arch-rival Texas came from 14 points down in the fourth quarter to beat us 15-14. It was the year 100 of college football. Envisioning the potential magnitude of the game, ABC Sports asked both teams to move the game from its traditional third Saturday in October to December 6, making it the last game ofthe year. In the AP poll, undefeatedTexas was ranked number 1; undefeated Arkansas was ranked number 2. Billy Graham prayed the invocation. President Nixon came to watch. It was a big deal. We had it won, and we lost. In the locker room after the game, Nixon awarded his version of the National Championship to Texas. Of course, he really didn’t have the authority to do that, but then again, as we would learn about President Nixon,he was prone to do things he had no authority to do. Anyway, watching that presentation in the locker room, I couldn’t help but feel sick that it should have been us, not Texas. I cried after that game—something I’d only done one other time in my life and something I’d never do again. Our coach, Frank Broyles, said he has never watched the tape of that game ever. I’ve watched it at least a couple of times, most recently in July, and I’m still bitter.

See what I mean? I’m a Razorback junkie. When my wife wanted to get married in the autumn, I made sure we did it on a Saturday the Razorbacks weren't playing. What's the matter with me? I'm a Razorback junkie—that's what's the matter. And it wasn’t always easy to get my fix. When I graduated from the University and left Fayetteville to move to Kansas City for seminary, it was harder to listen tothe games. Only two or three games ayear were televised, and the only station I could hear them on was KAAY out of Little Rock, and that only at night. But I listened to every night game and made due, until that one autumn when I tuned in the first game only to hear gospel music on KAAY instead of the Razorbacks. I was bitter about thattoo. And I was quite a site, sitting in my parked car, in front of the house, carefully working up and down the radio dial trying to find even a trace of a signal of the Razorbacks on the nights they were playing. Like a junkie trying to get his drug, I was trying desperately to find my Hogs. Every now and then, I would hear the faint strains of Paul Eels’ voice, but that was about it. I’ve pounded a few dashboards over it and said a few words I’m not proud of in my effort just to find some trace of the game. I felt angry. I felt lost and disconnected.

I think I have a problem. Israel worshiped a golden calf in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. Do I worship a red pig? I’ve wrestled with that over the years. I don’t think my addiction borders on worship. But I don’t know why I’m addicted at all. It’s not rational. The Razorbacks consistently promise more than they deliver. And if any team has had more heartbreak than the Hogs, I don’t know who it is. Texas in 1969. Referee Preston Watts awarding Tennessee afumble Arkansas’ Tom Reed recovered in the 1971 Liberty Bowl, giving the Volunteers the chance they needed to score and win the game. The bogus pass interference call that allowed SMU to tie us and keep us from an outright SWC Championship in 1982, and sending those bought and paid for Mustangs to the Cotton Bowl instead of us. Atwater’s drop of an interception that would have sealed the win for us at Miami in 1988 and kept us undefeated. Stoerner’s unforced fumble against Tennessee in 1998 in a game that would have made us 9-0 and sent us to the SEC Championship game and who knows what else after that. And I’m just scratching the surface. There have been plenty of other bad calls, untimely injuries, dumb plays, missed kicks, and turnovers that cost us games we should have won. We’ve certainly won some great and important games, but more often than not we usually find ways to lose them. Frustrating. Heartbreaking. Why do I keep going back for more?

Because I’m addicted, that’s why. Names like Montgomery and Dicus and Powell; Ferguson, Eckwood, Hampton, and Walker; Bull, Grovey, and Billy Ray Smith; Stoerner, Lucas, and Kennedy; Bua, Burlsworth, Jones, and Cobbs; McFadden, Jones, and Mallett; not to mention Bud Campbell and Paul Eels, are more than names to me. They are memories. They are friends. They are legends. They are part of the family—the Razorback family.

This Saturday it starts all over again, and I can’t wait.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Let It Go

You’d think after all these years of being a pastor, all these years of being tangled up in the sins and troubles of people, I’d get used to it. But I’m not. I never cease to be astounded at the level of bitterness so many carry around in their souls. And bitterness is an ugly thing. Picture the lemon: bright, beautiful, yellow as the sun, inviting. But bite into it and just see what it does to your face. That’s the face of bitterness. Not a pretty thing, huh? In Claude Lanzmann’s documentary on the Holocaust, a leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising talked about the bitterness that remains in his soul over how he and his neighbors were treated by the Nazis: “If you could lick my heart,” he says, “it would poison you.” Now that’s bitter!

Thankfully, most of us don’t have holocaust-level atrocities to forgive, yet plenty of us still carry around some bitterness: the insult, the divorce, the abuse, the treatment of our kid, the gossip, the betrayal, the firing, the criticism. And even though the affront that caused you such pain may have happened years ago, it feels like it just happened today. You remember it. You hold onto it. You chew on it over and over again like a morsel of choice food. But it is food that’s cooked in hell. There are no nutrients there, nothing to nourish you or sustain you, nothing to draw you closer to Christ or to others, nothing to make you more like Jesus.

And if anybody had reason to be bitter, it was Jesus. Innocent of any wrongdoing, Jesus was publicly humiliated and nailed to a cross. And even though the Gospels record that Jesus said seven different things on that cross, not one of them was a bitter word, not one. In fact, one of them was a forgiving word: “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.” There wasn’t a bitter bone in Jesus’ body. It’s hard to even imagine Jesus saying to the people around the cross, “You just wait! I’ll get you back for this—and twice as bad!” That’s not the Jesus we know.

And yet those who carry Jesus’ name say stuff like that all the time. This is a major disconnect. This same forgiving Jesus we claim to follow tells us that we’re supposed to love our enemies and forgive those who hurt us. Here’s the deal about bitterness and following Jesus: we’re not allowed to carry it. The Gospels forbid it, and so do the epistles. Remember Paul’s letter to the Ephesians? “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” The forgiven are called to be forgiving. In fact, there’s just enough in Scripture to suggest that we can’t have it both ways. To boast of your forgiveness in Christ while carrying bitterness toward someone who has hurt you is as ugly as the bitterness itself.

I’m not suggesting that forgiving is an easy thing to do. It may even take a little fully forgive the deepest hurts. But that’s okay. Forgiving others is one of those things that humbles us, that reveals to us our need and our weakness. Forgiving others can drive us back into the mercies of God for the strength to do it. So, run to those mercies already. And on your way, drop your bag of bitterness and just see how much that speeds the journey.

James Broderick in his book The Progress of the Jesuits says of Pope Pius IV: “He never forgot a slight done to him, and that was his fundamental weakness. He might appear to bury the hatchet, but he always marked where that hatchet was buried.” Not a pretty picture. Not a Jesus picture, that’s for sure. So if you, dear reader, are carrying the rotting seed of bitterness in your heart today, in the name and power of Jesus, spit it out, put it down, let it go.

Monday, August 8, 2011

My One Sermon

I need your help—especially if you’re familiar with my preaching. Last week a pastor-friend and I engaged in an email dialogue around an article on preaching my friend had read and forwarded to me. Growing out of our dialogue was a discussion over something I had read in Eugene Peterson’s book, Pastor: A Memoir. Peterson wrote that his minister-son once told him, "Dad, you only have one sermon." For the longest time that troubled Peterson. He thought about his hours of preparation, the variety of biblical texts he employed, his openness to the text and the Spirit, his applications to the local congregation. In Peterson’s judgment, it sure seemed like he had a lot more than one sermon in his almost three-decade repertoire. But some years later, it struck him what his son meant—essentially this: most preachers who preach their own sermons have one dominating theme no matter the text. It might be grace or the cross or judgment or moral codes or something else, but there's something inside us pastors, created by life-experience and our relationship with Christ and the Bible, that seems to find its way in content or tone or spirit into our sermon pretty much every time we preach. I think I buy that.

And it got me to thinking about what my “one sermon” might be. My one sermon is probably, “Give more money!” With all the building campaigns I’ve endured in thirty years of pastoring, it sometimes feels like it. But, no, that's not it. It's something else. As I was pondering this “one sermon” thing, a past conversation came to mind. In one of my last Sundays at First Baptist Church of Greenwood, Missouri, a church I served for more than thirteen years, one of the leaders of our congregation approached me after the service. “I’m really going to miss your preaching,” he said. “I’ve been listening to you preach for years, and no matter what your text or topic, no matter whether you challenge us or comfort us, you always leave us with hope.” Someone listening in to the conversation was quick to agree: “Yes, you always leave us with hope.” I think he meant that before I put the amen on my sermon, I try to leave people with hope in Christ, hope that God is bigger and better than we know, hope that God loves us and God is for us and God is with us, hope that God isn’t finished with us yet, hope that past sins and failures don’t define our lives forever, hope for a new beginning and a fresh start, and even the hope of heaven when we take that last breath on earth. The more I reflect on my preaching, I think he’s right. And I’m okay with that. Although, I still hope people give more money.

So, here’s where I need your help: if you’re familiar with my preaching, what do you think is my one sermon? Did the guy in Greenwood get it right, or do you hear some other more prominent theme underneath my preaching? I’ve never used my blog to get evaluation, but what the heck. I’ve been thinking about this for a few days. I’m interested in your thoughts. You can make your comments either in the “comment section” on the blog site or on the Facebook link. Fire away, my friends, and thanks in advance for your investment in my ministry. Who knows? Your feedback might even make me a better preacher. And pretty much everybody who’s heard me preach would agree that that would be a good thing.

Monday, August 1, 2011

My Favorite Noah

In the Bible book of Genesis we read these words: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God” (6:9). I really like this Noah. He was faithful to God when nobody else was. He was obedient to God when God asked him to do this strange thing of building an ark among people who knew little of rains and floods. To pull an image from the godless philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Noah exercised “a long obedience in the same direction.” Noah wasn’t perfect. He had his flaws. But the man loved and followed God as best he could through strange and amazing times. Since I am a pastor by vocation, you’d expect that this is my favorite Noah.

But you would be wrong. I surely love the biblical Noah and look forward to meeting him in heaven, but on August 2, 2001, another Noah bumped him from the top of my favorite Noah list. That would be Noah Scott McCallum, my first grandchild. And on August 2, 2011, that boy turns 10 years old—double digit years, all eight fingers and both thumbs, a decade.

What a great kid! He can be pretty funny when he wants to be—like the other day when he heard his grandmother and me talking about “back in the day.” I told him he was too young to be able to use that phrase. And he said that no, he could use that phrase. He said, “If it was 9:00 at night I could say, ‘You remember when we had lunch back in the day?’” Clever, huh? Or like the time he told the leader of his basketball camp that the leader’s gray hairs just meant he was “closer to heaven.” Funny kid. He’s also a good student: all A’s in his first four grades of school. He loves whatever sport is in season and is pretty good at all of them. And he’s a big fan of Cardinals baseball, the Dallas Cowboys and the Arkansas Razorbacks. Even better, Noah is a follower of Jesus, and it was my good pleasure to baptize him in his own church three years ago.

But what I appreciate most about Noah is that his life has not been storybook. He comes from a broken home. His parents have joint custody so that Noah and his sister rarely spend more than two or three nights in a row in the same bed. Out of that brokenness, I have seen that boy walk through some pretty deep sadness. Honestly, I don’t know how he’s done as well as he has with so much underlying sadness and even bouts of anger from time to time. Divorce-Care for Kids helped some here. A little counseling his dad got him helped a little too. And the fact that both his parents love him helps as well. Mostly, I believe the Lord has carried that little boy along on eagles' wings through his times of pain—a pain he can’t easily verbalize or fully understand. As you can imagine, a lot of prayers have gone up in his behalf. God listens and God helps. Blessed be the name of the Lord! Having come from a broken home myself, I am especially sensitive to what he struggles with and to the quiet mercies of God that tend to the heart of the child that seeks Him. I think this common pain has knitted my heart to his in some way. As I have listened to him talk about his hurt, I feel my hurt all over again. A kid’s wounds can heal, but those wounds leave scars that never quite fade away. Thankfully, as Noah turns 10, he seems to be better in this regard—open wounds are becoming scars.

As you can see, I think Noah’s pretty special. But my love for him is not blind. I know he’s far from perfect. He can be a whiny-butt sometimes—like his dad before him and his granddad before that. He can put up a good argument when he’s allowed to. He lapses into selfishness from time to time. And he can be short-tempered with his little sister more often than anybody would like. He’s a kid after all. Like all of us, he’s a sinner in need of grace and forgiveness, discipline, direction, and help. At least he knows where to find that help.

Can you tell I’m proud of him? Well, I am—very proud of him. I’m proud that he carries the McCallum name into the next generation. I’m proud that he and I share the same middle name, Scott. I’m proud that he carries the surname of one of the Bible’s great characters: Noah. And on his 10th birthday, I pray that at the end of his life, no matter what he does for a vocation and whether his years be many or few, people who know him will say the same thing about him that the Bible says about the original Noah: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.”

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

God of the Nations—Even Ours

As we once again celebrate the birth of our nation and our blood-bought independence, I want to share Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address—perhaps the most theologically reflective address in the history of the U.S. presidency. Other presidents were known to call the nation in prayer during trying times. Franklin Roosevelt even led the nation in prayer on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Bill Clinton was fond of including numerous Bible references in his many speeches. On the campaign trail, Jimmy Carter stirred new interest in Jesus’ phrase “born again.”

Religion is nothing new to American life. Our Founders spoke often of God and Christ and freely quoted Bible verses. It’s no secret that many of our national monuments are inscribed with quotations from the Bible, and that most public oaths are taken with a hand on the Bible and end with “so help me God.” Even as late as the 1950s, America was very public in our God-talk and God-dependence, adopting the phrase “In God We Trust” (which had been on our coinage since 1864) as our national motto in 1956. Two years earlier, in 1954, the phrase “under God” was added to our Pledge of Allegiance. I’m a firm believer in the separation of church and state, but for some reason our Founders and a majority of Americans up through the 1950s never seemed to find that these kinds of things violated either that cherished American principle or the constitution. It’s only been in the last 50 or so years that the tide has been moving in the direction of expunging God from public life as much as possible.

Of course, one problem with these connections of the United States and God is that we will develop a kind of civil religion which is usually both civil and religious but not Christian. You know civil religion when you see it: perfunctory prayers at civic gatherings, the singing of God Bless America, the view that America is God’s chosen nation, that God loves America more than He loves other nations, the idea that American citizenship equates to being a Christian. Civil religion tends to wrap the Bible in the flag and employ the church to make patriots rather than disciples. This is dangerous for the nation and the church, and it's one reason why as a pastor I’ve never been one to lead patriotic services of worship. In fact, I believe the American flag belongs in the foyer, not the sanctuary. I just don’t think the church’s mission is to advance the cause of America. Doing so tends to stir a nationalism that borders on idolatry. And besides, Christian values and American values don’t always coincide. As Christians, we’re certainly to seek the peace of our own nation, but our concern, like God’s, is for all nations.

With all that said, here’s Lincoln’s second inaugural address. (Thank you, Library of Congress.) He gave it on March 4, 1865. Two things happened within a month of the speech: the Civil War finally ended and Lincoln was assassinated. You could say these were his last words. And what words they were! Lincoln had the audacity to speak of God's judgment on our nation. Has any public official ever wrestled with America and her faith in the Christian God more eloquently, boldly, or profoundly than Lincoln did in this address? And in the midst of our contemporary national sins and what seem to be the judgments of God on our nation, could any words be more timely?


At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement, somewhat in detail, of a course to be pursued, seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention, and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself; and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it--all sought to avert it. While the inaugeral [sic] address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war--seeking to dissole [sic] the Union, and divide effects, by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.

One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether"

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.