Friday, September 27, 2013

A glimpse of glory

Last Saturday night I was doing one of my favorite things. Yeah, you know. I was sitting in Bryant Denny Stadium watching the first Alabama home game of the season. It was a long-awaited night and I was soaking in every moment. The excitement, the colors, the traditions, and the energy of over 100,000 Bama fans packing the place.

It was the end of a dreary day weather-wise, but it didn't matter to us. Rain, rain, and more rain had given way to a cloudy late afternoon, and pretty comfortable temperatures. And then, early in the second quarter, the sun broke through. Broke through right as it was about to set, and the view above the stadium walls was spectacular.

From my seat
And even better, a panoramic view borrowed from my niece Haley

At that moment, I forgot why I was there for just a moment. I was overwhelmed with the majesty of God's creation, and how he had taken just that moment to paint a spectacular picture for us. Yes, at that moment God provided us with a reminder of his glory. But even more, I marveled as I thought of the fact that creation itself was praising the Creator. As it says in the 19th Psalm, "The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge."

We usually think of praise as something that comes from the lips of humans. We  sing, we read, we pray...we praise. But the Scriptures are filled with this message: All of creation is designed to bring glory to God, and to praise him by its very existence.*

And so it was at that moment, and it was noticed throughout the stadium I don't know how many pictures I saw on Facebook from those who stopped watching football - for just a moment - to notice how the heavens were declaring the glory of God.

And then we got back to football. The Crimson Tide sleepwalked to a 31-6 victory over Colorado State. And it was fun. But the thing I'll remember most about that night was the magnificent intermission, when we saw God's glory through a stunning painting in the sky.

Thank you, Lord.

* - For a more detailed discussion, see Chapter 5 of NT Wright's The Case for the Psalms: Why They are Essential.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Just another reason

There are many reasons why I love Nick Saban. He is a winner and has brought the Crimson Tide three championships already. He has helped many young men develop to where they can be successful after college. He has a charity that helps young people with hundreds of thousands of dollars a year - and meticulously avoids getting too much credit for it. But another reason became apparent this week. 

TJ Yeldon is his top running back and maybe a future Heisman Trophy winner. But Yeldon selfishly mocked an opponent last week after a touchdown. If you are a college football fan, you know that he mimicked Johnny Manziel and then made a throat slashing gesture. Nick Saban said, "That isn't us." And he backed it up.

I don't think I've ever seen a player suspended for an excessive celebration. Until now. TJ will watch the first quarter of tonight's game from the bench.

Discipline. Nick Saban. They go together like Coke and Golden Flake.

Roll tide.


So did you hear about Nebraska Coach Bo Pilini's profane rant about Cornhusker fans? If you follow college football at all, of course you did. Now, while I like to provide media links and embedded files for illustration, I don't think so this time. The language is way over the top, and so is his temper. If you haven't heard it and want to find it, I'm sure you can.

Let me say up front that I think the release of the recording was an unfair thing to do and obviously timed to embarrass him after a huge loss to UCLA. Nebraska fans are not happy with him. But the recording was made at a time when Coach Pelini thought he was in private, and it was two years ago.

Two years ago? A fair point. In private? Not so fast, my friend.

Authenticity. It is so lacking today. We wear so many masks - one for our family, one for our church friends, one for our golfing buddies, one for our co-workers...I could go on and on. We are so skilled at letting people see who we want them to see.

We ask for prayer from some people, and try to show we are confident and self-reliant in front of others.

We watch our language around our religious friends and curse like a sailor in the locker room.

We thank God for our meal...when we are with others who do the same.

We watch our diet around people that we know will challenge us about gluttony, and then sneak off to eat a double cheeseburger as soon as they're gone.

And so on. You could probably add a dozen examples.

The fact is, we are expert mask wearers. And Jesus had a word for it, one that literally meant "an actor in a play." Hypocrite.

It's really the only thing that he chewed people out about. He hung out with sinners, tax collectors, partiers, and prostitutes. He shared God's love with them and invited them to leave their party and join the great banquet of the King. But the hypocrites? Boom!
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!
  “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity." (Matthew 23:15, 25-28)
Like I said...BOOM!

I think Jesus would say the thing Bo Pilini needs to learn from this is to be the same person in private that he is in public. To be authentic. But more importantly, that is what he would say to me. I need to be one person - the same person in private, around my family, around my friends, around my co-workers. To not hide my faults, or the things I think you wouldn't approve of. Authentic, the good and the bad, not some image that I want people to like.


Saturday, September 14, 2013


We were about to descend into Houston. The flight from Atlanta was going headlong into the western sky, and the view was spectacular. Wispy clouds in all sorts of formations. A bright orange sky with all sorts of shades - a sunset you can only see from 30.000 feet. Street lights beginning to glow in the darkness below.

And as I looked out at it, I was listening to Ellie Holcomb's song My Heart is Steadfast, based on Psalm 108:
For Thy lovingkindness is great above the heavens,
Thy truth, it reaches to the sky.
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens,
And Thy glory over all the earth....
I got chills as I looked at the glory of God's creation while listening to Psalms set to music. This was a good a glimpse of God's glory as we humans can comprehend...if we'll just stop to notice.

So there was God's glory in nature. In music. And at the same time, in the enjoyment of the life he has blessed me with. For the purpose of this flight was to go to tomorrow's Bama game in College Station, Texas, and I am blessed once again to travel with two marvelous young ladies - my nieces Haley and Macy. They are no longer college students, and it's cool - after starting our road game traditions when they were 12 - to travel with them as young adults. We are not guaranteed tomorrow, so I want to soak in every moment of these trips.

God's glory in nature, music, his word, and relationships. What a perfect day.

Good night.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Feeding fish

Yesterday morning, while visiting my friend Steve and his family, we got up a couple of hours before we had to be at church. It was a relaxing morning; we grabbed a cup of coffee and went out to the back yard to sit and relax.

And feed fish.

Steve has a small manmade fish pond in the yard, and currently there are about seven fish living in it. It is a marvelous environment and very relaxing to watch. There is a stream flowing down a hill that recirculates the water, and there is a very nice collection of plant life in and around the pond. Very nice.

As we sat there and and Steve threw pieces of fish food into the pond, he explained some things about the pond. For one thing, the fish could probably do okay feeding off the plant life, but it's fun to sit there and watch them while feeding. Let's see, what else? Oh yeah...
  • The plant life was placed there by humans, 
  • The chemical content is managed by humans, adjusted whenever it gets out of balance and threatens the livability of the pond,
  • The water flow was established by humans,
  • Steve periodically prunes the pond of excess vegetation.
  • Five of the seven fish were placed there, and the other two were born in the pond,
  • Etc.
Now, imagine for a moment that you are one of the fish. You have no idea how the pond got there, how it is maintained, why there is always food, and how it stays a good place to live. Now, for the most part the environment plugs along with natural forces maintaining it - plant growth, water flow, etc. But every now and then, the owner intervenes and makes sure things are okay. You are a fish - you don't know when. All you know is that it works.

When it comes to creation, the Creator's ways are so much higher than ours. We want to understand everything. What is a miracle? How often do they happen? How much of what goes on is the result of God just letting his creation work, and how much is intervention?

What if we just accepted that, when it comes to understanding God, we are like the fish? Actually, the gap between us and God is so much wider than that. I am convinced that he is sovereign and paying attention to every detail of our universe and, yes, my life. Listen to the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:25-32 (italics mine):
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t there more to life than food and more to the body than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky: They do not sow, or reap, or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you more valuable than they are? And which of you by worrying can add even one hour to his life? Why do you worry about clothing? Think about how the flowers of the field grow; they do not work or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed like one of these! And if this is how God clothes the wild grass, which is here today and tomorrow is tossed into the fire to heat the oven, won’t he clothe you even more, you people of little faith? So then, don’t worry saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For the unconverted pursue these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.
There is no way for us to understand how. Or separate it into the "natural" and the "miraculous." But we can know that it is true. Just as my friend makes sure that the pond is functioning properly and takes care of his fish, God is doing the same for us. We can trust that he is there, watching over us, with a loving heart we cannot even imagine.

I guess our worship yesterday started way before we got to church. What a God!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

I need you

Not too long ago, I came across two tweets within a span of 24 hours. Frankly, both made valid points. But looking deeper, these tweets presented diametrically opposing views of the role of the Church in the life of those who profess Jesus.

Jacob makes a valid point: There are an awful lot of people who just occupy space on Sunday mornings without growing closer to the living God. You don't earn brownie points with God. He desires to be involved in every aspect of our lives, and so many people put religion in a box. They are one person on Sunday mornings and a different person the rest of the week. And for such a person, even when they are there, are they really worshipping?

But it's so important to avoid falling into the trap of thinking that "sitting in church" and "developing a personal relationship with GOD" are mutually exclusive. The solution to false religion is not to stop sitting in church. Far from it. It's to spend your time - both at church and everywhere else - worshipping God and developing that relationship with him through his Son Jesus.

Which brings me to the other tweet, which really speaks for itself. One of the most dangerous things happening today for the body of Christ is a trend toward Christians who believe they can make it on their own. There is nothing in the Bible indicating that this is God's plan for us.

  • For one thing, it's like trying to keep an ember alive apart from a fire. Without the rest of the fuel, it goes out. The fire of faith is fueled by the collective process of you building me up and me building you up. Without that, I'm going to die on a vine. I need you.
  • Second, and just as important, the Church of Jesus needs us. We were not called to follow the Messiah, the King, just so we could sit around and wait for the afterlife. Jesus came to announce the Kingdom of God and call his followers to implement his reign. He came to preach good news to the poor, open the eyes of the blind, and set free those who are oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). That's not something I can do on my own. It's a team effort, and how am I going to do it if I decide my faith is "private and personal" and avoid the rest of the Church.
You know, the Church is not called "the body of Christ" for nothing. As Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 12, each part of a body has a role. And if one part decides not to be involved, the whole thing suffers.

So yeah, there is way too much idle church-sitting, people who show up on Sundays out of habit, social convention, or a false sense that they are earning spiritual brownie points. But, especially in 21st century America, I think there is even more danger in the other extreme - "me and Jesus under a tree." God protect me from falling into either trap. Make me a vital part of a living community of Christ-followers. Amen. 

For more on this topic, 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Dietrich Bonhoeffer - so much I never knew

I remember when I first heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I was working with the youth group at my church years ago, and our youth minister Greg talked about his book The Cost of Discipleship. I knew that one of the main concepts of the book was that of cheap grace. It could be summed up in this quote from that book:
Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves...(it) is the preaching of forgiveness without repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession...(it) is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Powerful stuff. But I never knew the context, what drove Bonhoeffer and his theology. But having just finished the biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, I do now. And wow.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to know more about the rise of Hitler, what drove Germany toward World War II, the resistance movement and the plot to assassinate the evil head of the Third Reich. But I recommend it even more for anyone who wants to see a picture of what it's like to turn your life over to Christ completely and live for him at great personal cost. Because that's the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer - a life cut short at 39 years of age because he stood up to the evil Nazi empire.

I learned so much from this book. I now can read the works of the great theologian knowing that when he talks about cost, he's speaking from personal experience. And as I try to live for the Messiah Jesus in an age of hostility to his truth, I can gain comfort from the fact that this man modeled what it was like to do so in an era of unspeakable evil the like of which we can't even imagine.

But there are two things that Bonhoeffer emphasized in his life that stuck with me the most. Both are important truths for living in 21st century America:

  • The Christian life is not a solo endeavor; it is meant to be lived in community with others. Bonhoeffer made friends everywhere he traveled - other parts of Germany, London, and America. He stayed in touch with many of them his entire life. And it was evident that one the things he looked forward to the most, even when traveling, was finding a place to meet with other believers on Sunday so that he could worship with them and hear the Word preached. Here was a man who dedicated his life to making sure that there was a church in his country that would be faithful to God even when Hitler's cronies were taking over the church and using it promote their hatred of Jews. Yes, the Church was important to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Because it is important to the resurrected Jesus. And it is important for us.
  • The lordship of Jesus is to be applied to the whole world and to every aspect of our lives. Ir is not to be compartmentalized as "religion" to be pulled out on Sunday mornings and when we feel we need God. He believed it was "time for the lordship of Jesus Christ to move past Sunday mornings and churches and into the whole world." (page 467) He felt that religion had made God small and only a God who filled in the gaps of life. Bonhoeffer rejected this. The God of the Bible was the Lord over everything, including what we were discovering through science. God's creation was to be enjoyed and celebrated and ultimately, redeemed. What a great concept! Living life in such a way that you see God's hand in everything, and working to make it all subservient to his lordship.
I could go on and on about what I learned, but I'll finish with this: Discovering the details of a man's life tells us so much about what he was trying to say. It's all about the story. I pray that I will live my life in such a way that the words I proclaim match the story my life tells.

As it did for Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Bama football - Week 1

206 total yards. That one stat sums up most of what we're hearing from Tide fans about the 2013 season opener. Alabama throttled Virginia Tech, embarrassed their special teams with two TD returns, displayed a smothering defense, and got to play a ton of youngsters in a game against a name opponent. But fans love offense, and so there's a lot of hand wringing.

And that's understandable to a great extent. Next up is a legitimate Top 10 opponent in Texas A&M, a team that will likely score some points even on Bama's vaunted defense.  The offensive line play has got to improve, no question about it.

But, as Tony Barnhart points out in the third item of his column today, it all plays right into Coach Saban's hands.  If Alabama had come out and looked unbeatable in the first game, it might have been difficult to get the players' attention for all the things they need to learn before the September 14 battle in College Station.  But not now. He has their full attention and I expect a ton of learning to take place in the next 12 days.

I'll go a step further. I watched a good portion of the game again yesterday afternoon, and it looked to me like the quick strike from Christion Jones allowed Coach the luxury of letting things play out.  Don't get me wrong - I don't think he went into the game against a respected opponent with the intention of holding back. But I do think that once he got a big lead, that allowed him the luxury of teaching his offense a lesson. Y'all think you're so good? Well, I'll just keep pounding the ball up the middle against a nine-man front and let you struggle. Then maybe you'll listen to me next week.

Maybe not. But that's how it looked to me. I guess we'll see in two weeks.

Football is back...isn't this fun?