Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Christmas: A real event in space-time

Yes, I admit it. What a geeky title for a blog post. Bear with me a little though, if you will.

There is a Christmas song I heard on the radio the other day. I've known it for most of my life, and I've even sung it as part of a choir. It is a beautiful sentiment, and makes its point powerfully. Its name is Some Children See Him.

Yes, it is a beautiful song. Here is one of the best renditions ever, recorded by James Taylor:

The main point of the song is a good one. The gospel is intended for all people everywhere. At the time when Jesus lived on the earth, many of his fellow Jews felt that the Messiah was coming exclusively for them. So many parables, so many actions, so many teachings were designed to show that he had come for the whole world - Jew and Gentile. The gospel, the Kingdom, was for the nations. The message was there throughout he Hebrew Scriptures, from Adam, to Abraham, to Moses, to Isaiah. But they just didn't get it. After his resurrection, Jesus said to go into ALL the world. Reaching out to all people, of all races, with all skin colors.

And we in the Western church can be just as stubborn as the people of 1st century Palestine. So much of our Christianity is centered in what's good for us. We see a lily-white Jesus who wants to make all people more like us. We may not say it, but it creeps into our subconscious so easily. And I think that is what the song is speaking to.

But to me there is one thing we have to watch out for as we sing these lyrics. The objective is good, but the execution may be flawed. You see, one of the biggest dangers to faith today is the idea that truth is relative. "That may be true for you, but it's not for me." The word of the day is "tolerance," and it's clear that as a society we are defining it as total acceptance of everyone's belief's as equally true.

This is contrary to both Biblical revelation and common sense. Either your car is red or it's not. We can';t say with a serious face, "That car is red to me, but if you believe it's blue I'm sure that's equally true."

And now back to the geeky title of this post. God entered the world in the person of Jesus, born as a baby. The miracle of the incarnation: the Word became flesh. The creator of space-time entered his creation at a specific time in a specific place.

And with specific skin.

So yes, children all over the world may see Jesus as being like them. And that's great....as long as they are also taught that he was actually one person with one body and one skin tone. He is not a concept, a spirit, a symbol. We must not spiritualize his coming. He was, and is, a person.

The song gets this right: It is likely that most of our depictions have been wrong. He was Jewish and therefore probably had darker skin that most of our paintings. But he had one skin color. He was really in the flesh. We don't know what it was. But we know it was real.

A picky point? Maybe. But I just worry that when we de-emphasize the humanity of Jesus, we lose the truth of the incarnation. The real God of the universe became a real person with real human characteristics based on real human DNA.

Maybe the fact that for almost all of humanity (all but Jewish) he is a different ethnicity from us means this: we don't have a corner on his nature. He's not our Jesus - he's everyone's Jesus. And he came to save people from every corner of the earth.
And they sang a new song, saying, "Worthy are you to take the scrolls and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. (Revelation 5:9)

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Star Wars: A story we know (SPOILER FREE)

We arrived about an hour before the scheduled start time. Having bought the tickets around two months ago, the anticipation in the air was palpable. For we knew that everyone else in the house had done the same. And there they were, sitting in a nearly-full theater that early.

As the movie unfurled, you would have thought we were watching live theatre. When beloved characters appeared on the screen, there was applause - just like what happens when a lead actor makes their first appearance on stage. There was even applause for the first appearance of a spaceship. When we saw the Millennium Falcon, the place erupted.

And thus opened what I'm sure will be a long run of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

It was a marvelous thing, a riveting story in a familiar galaxy with familiar characters, as well as new characters who quickly captured our minds and hearts. Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe), and Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) were all amazing, continuing the Star Wars history of introducing new talent that become, and always will be, their Star Wars characters. At least to me.

There were old plot concepts, arcs, and themes that seemed to be a repeat of the prior movies but on a larger scale. My friend Rob commented on this in his blog (which was overall a very positive review):
(S)ome ideas from previous installments get recycled to the point of me wondering if it was just lazy writing.
Yes, some ideas were recycled, and I can see how one might wonder. But I saw something else. Star Wars is a story we know. Not because we have seen the previous movies. no, it's a story we know because it touches on the themes of our history and God's plan of redemption.

We all know that Star Wars is a battle between good and evil, both in the cosmos and in the hearts of individual heroes and villains. The struggle is real for Anakin, Luke, Obi Wan, Han, and now Rey, Finn, and Kylo. It's also real for the rebellion and the empire.

And it's real for us. It's real for you and me, and it's real in the story of humans. God created. We rebelled. God saved Noah through the flood. God saved Abraham to raise a people for himself. God saved Israel from slavery in Egypt. And then, as they progressed slowly toward bringing us the Messiah, they repeated the cycle over and over. Read the book of Judges. Rebellion-consequences-rescue-repentance-rebellion-consequences.... Over and over. And it continued on through the exile in Babylon.

So I'm not surprised at the recycling of ideas. That makes it more real to me. God has a master plan for our universe that has involved a lot of setbacks that led to salvation. And his plan for me does too. So a story where the galaxy has to learn the same lessons over again is one that captures me.

I can't wait to watch the final two installments, where our new friends will learn that the legends are true, evil is real, but good is more powerful. And it's there not just for the collective, but for each one of them.

I also can't wait to watch this one...again. I'm sure there will a ton of stuff I missed.

It's a rich story...as is our story. Thanks be to God who has a larger purpose for it all.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A fragile Christmas

"This nativity is fragile."

It was a display in our church atrium. I noticed it Sunday while we were preparing to present our annual Christmas musical. It was, and is, a beautiful nativity scene. Angels, shepherds, Magi, Mary, Joseph....and of course the Baby. A picturesque display of the moments after God entered human history.

But isn't the sign a little distracting? Doesn't it break the spell?

Not for me. After all, it got me thinking - how fragile is the nativity scene? The real one.

In one sense very fragile, by choice. God, the Creator of everything, the King of the universe, chose to become a little baby. He needed his mother. He cried. His diapers needed changing. He had to be fed and clothed and shielded from the elements. So fragile. By choice. He became vulnerable so that he could identify with me and my kind. And so we could see that God loved us enough to do that.

But, oh, how powerful. In that manger lay the One who would heal the sick, raise the dead, comfort the afflicted, walk on water, calm the seas, and feed 5,000 men with just a few loaves and fishes. All the power behind the universe was focused in the one bundle of flesh. Doesn't sound too fragile to me.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8, ESV)
But powerful:
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11, ESV) 
So yes, the nativity scene is fragile. As the sign says, "please avoid touching." But it is more powerful than anything else in the world. So instead, let it touch you.

Let the One at the center touch you. And give you life. To the glory of God the Father.

Merry Christmas...

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Nothing Compares

Count your blessings, my mother used to say. She has been gone nine years today, and I still miss her so much. I miss everything about her, and it hits hard on a day like this. But this happens to be a day where this one lesson of hers shines. And it shines through the Christmas story.

Count your blessings. I have so many. Do I dare start listing them? No, I would surely leave off something or someone important. The list is as close to infinite as something created in a finite time can be. Can I at least list categories? Maybe. Family. Friends. Church. Career. Mission. Wow, just to start to list them would be daunting.

But it is a finite number. And I guess I could count them.

So there is this song from our Christmas musical that we sang tonight. And there is this line:
I could count all the ways that my heart has been blessed. But nothing compares to this.
What is "this"? What could there possible be that would dwarf all orther blessings? Take a few minutes to listen:

The gospel of Jesus the Messiah. There is nothing - nothing - that compares to it. The incarnation - God taking on flesh as a baby. The cross - God taking the punishment I deserve on himself and defeating evil. The resurrection - Jesus conquering death, so that one day I will see him face to face.

Truly, it's a story without compare. And it's my story.

There is another song, one that was a favorite of my mother:
This is my story, this is my song.
Praising my Savior all the day long.
It's a story without compare. No, nothing compares with this.

Thank you, Father.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Mockingjay, Part 2

Last week, we finally witness the fourth and last installment of The Hunger Games movie series, based on the books by Suzanne Collins. It did not disappoint. This was a story that gripped me from the first chapter of the first book, and its echoes linger with me today. Unlike some other recent movie adaptations, this whole series captured the spirit of the original story. The finale was no exception.

 The interesting thing is that in my first post on this story (2012), I jumped ahead to Mockingjay because the themes of the story needed to be seen from the vantage point of their conclusion. In that post, I made the following observation:

Ultimately, the Hunger Games trilogy is a story of redemption, setting captives free, and standing up for "the least of these." And doing so at great personal cost. It reminds me alot of a true story, one that happened about 3,500 years ago.

And the final movie installment was true to this theme. It was powerful.


The highlight of the movie for me was the scene where District 13 President Coin (Julianne Moore) had gathered Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and her friends in a conference room to discuss what to do now that the evil Capitol regime had been overthrown. How do you punish the oppressors? How does such a damaged society move on? Is there room for vengeance? How do you move on?

After the Exodus, the Israelites faced the same dilemma and they didn't handle it so well. They went through judge after judge, trying to find a godly leader to make them the people that God intended when he led them out of Egypt. But the subsequent history consisted of a repeated pattern of 1) promising to serve God and do things his way, 2) failing, 3) reaping the consequences, and then 4) starting over.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

And so, as the new makeshift council met, President Coin proposed the unthinkable. A new Hunger Games to kick off the new society, supposedly as a substitute for mass executions.

As the proposal was put to a vote, it was hard to imagine how anyone could even propose such a thing. We began to see in the eyes of Coin and Katniss the same thing, but from a different prospective. This government would be no better than the old. Symbolic gestures designed to keep the people under oppression.

Yep...Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

What happened next gave me chill bumps. Katniss voted for the new Hunger Games, but with a condition. A condition that would allow her to put a stop to Coin. And then, in a marvelous piece of acting by the brilliant Woody Harrelson, Haymitch votes the same way with a look in his eyes that said, I don't know what you're up to, but I trust you."

Stories tell us about ourselves. This one told us about our self-destructive tendencies, our longing to overcome them, and our repeated failures to do so. But it also tells us about hope, about the need for someone to stand up and break the cycle. Thank God for the Messiah Jesus who came to break the cycle for us. If we will follow him, if we will trust him even when we don't know what he's up to in our lives, there is hope.

And for that I am thankful.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Martian

I've always loved space travel. Not that I've actually done it, of course. But it has always fascinated me, and as a kid I dreamed that I would go one day. As a 10-year-old, I followed closely as NASA fought to get Apollo 13 home. And I thought sure I would be the first man on Mars. So that's why I was so excited to see The Martian.  

It was a fantastic movie, living up to the book by Andy Weir. There were so many things I loved about it. But I think there were three reasons that it resonated so deeply.
  1. It was based on science that seemed to be actually achievable in our lifetime, rather than being fantasy space movies like Star Wars and Star Trek (which I also love). If NASA were to get the funding to send someone to Mars, this is about how they would do it. So it reminded me of how I loved space travel as a child.
  2. It involved going to Mars, which, as I said, was a childhood dream.
  3. It was built around a rescue mission, with similarities to the real-life drama of Apollo 13. 
For those of you who don't know the premise, here's a trailer:

There were two strong themes that ran through the movie. First, there was the human spirit shown by astronaut Mark Watley (Matt Damon), who was trapped alone on Mars with no apparent prospect of escape. He proclaimed with determination, "I'm not going to die her." Then, there was the incredible teamwork back on earth (including multiple countries) and from the crew of his ship. So many people working overtime, racking their brains, investing unbelievably expensive resources, with the goal of saving one life.

Those two themes seem, at first glance, to conflict. A movie about individual determination, but also about working together and realizing you can't make it on your own. And yes, both are true.

This is the same apparent - but not actual - paradox we see in the 6th chapter of Paul's letter to the Galatians. In verse 2, he writes, "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." And then, just two sentences later (verse 5), he says, "For each one will have to bear his own burden."


Yep, it's true. In the movie, Watley had to take responsibility for his own survival. He had to grow food, chemically manufacture water, and use every resource available. But none of that would have meant anything if there weren't others taking responsibility for his rescue. Similarly, as I follow Jesus I have to take responsibility for my growth. I need to pray, study the Bible, and apply its principles to my daily live. But God didn't just called individuals; he has always been calling a people to be his. I can't do it on my own. I need brothers and sisters walking beside me, praying for me, holding me accountable, and enjoying God's creation with me.

So yes, both are true.

I'm glad God loves me personally, individually. And I'm glad he has called a people to be his and by having faith in Jesus I can be part of it. I pray that I will carry my burden in a way that glorifies him. And I pray that I will help my brothers and sisters bear theirs.

Will you join me?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Try harder

Today was kind of a rough day. I started out at work, getting my annual flu shot. Now, I'm not sure whether there's really any effect of how you feel that day; I never had really noticed anything before. But I've heard they can make you feel a little yucky.

Then I went to the doctor for a 9:30 appointment. No big deal - just making sure my prescriptions are up to date, going over test results, and the like. Blood pressure was good, previous blood work was fine. But to get ready for my next follow-up, I did have to go to the lab to update the blood work. They filled somewhere between 6 and 8 tubes - I wasn't counting, but they took some blood, no doubt about it.

So when I got back to work after lunch, I noticed something right away: I was getting a little short with people. Patience was not overflowing, as I could feel annoyance bubbling to the surface. I think being low on blood and having the remaining life fluid gunned up with a vaccine may have been getting to me. So, on to the point...

I was in a meeting with two of our other actuaries, going over some data and how we might organize it to minimize manual work. Impatience bubbled up, and the numbers on the screen were just running together. I wasn't picking up what they were putting down.

At that point, I sent up a short, silent prayer. (When you're lacking patience, "it's what you do.") I simply asked the Lord to send me a little patience and power from his Spirit. And then I felt it in my spirit - an answer from the Lord, as clear as if it were audible.

"Try harder."

And it hit me. I was letting my impatience stand in the way of my effort to really follow what I was being shown. So, with renewed energy, I started asking more questions. Specific questions. And before I knew it, three things happened: I understood what I was looking at, I provided helpful feedback, and...I felt patience starting to take over my psyche.

Now, folks, as believers we have the power of the Resurrection at our disposal. It can be released through prayer and dependence on God. But he wants us to take a step of faith. After all, Moses was instructed to move forward before the Red Sea was parted. In my case - in this case - it was simply taking a closer, slower look at the data. Actually putting forth an effort. And so I did.

And that, friends, was the highlight of the day. When we feel God working through us for his glory, it makes it all worthwhile.

I wonder how that will happen tomorrow.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Walking Dead - First Time Again

This past Sunday night, the new season of The Walking Dead began with our survivors trying to adapt to life in the so-far peaceful town of Alexandria. The people of Alexandria have been living a sheltered life, almost completely oblivious to the dangers outside. And so comes our group - Rick, Glenn, Maggie, Daryl, Carol and the rest. They have been fighting "walkers" (zombies) for around two years, but they have an uphill struggle convincing their new friends to learn. Because where is the danger?

It was a very puzzling plot line for the last few episodes of Season 5. Yes, the people of Alexandria were naive. No, they were not equipped to deal with the dangers of the zombie apocalypse. But why? Why had they been so sheltered? Why were their walls not being swarmed by the walking dead?

And then, as the new season opened, we saw this:

It was a quarry. A ravine filled with hundreds - no, thousands - of walkers. Trapped by the walls, and trapped by some large commercial trucks that blocked the openings. There they were, all these deadly creatures. The town had been safe because they were trapped, trapped nearby, just out of their view. But always out there, always on the verge of escaping. And the time was coming when they would escape. Soon. How would Alexandria prepare? What was the plan?

And so it goes. For many of us, we are cruising through our day-to-day, mundane lives. We're reasonably happy. We're mostly safe. We have fallen into a routine that we fool ourselves into thinking will go on forever. Or at least for a while, and we'll worry about the after when we get there.

But lurking are the walkers. Just beyond our walls in the quarry. Danger, heartbreak, cracks in the armor. Things that can bring the walls come crashing in. Walkers named...

  • Cancer
  • Greed
  • Accidents
  • Selfishness
  • Hatred
  • Heart disease
  • Resentment
  • Hurricanes
  • Lust
  • Death of loved ones
  • Earthquakes
  • Sexual permissiveness
  • Laziness
  • Anger
  • Tornadoes
  • ..................................
And on and on and on.

Lurking in the quarry, waiting for an opening.

Rick and the residents of Alexandria have a plan. What is your plan?

My only plan, my only hope, for dealing with the hundreds of manifestations of death waiting to devour me is this: Trust in the God of the universe, and put all my hope in the saving death and resurrection of his Son. He is sovereign over the world and over all the forces of sin, evil, and destruction that want to take me down. He won't keep me from having to face them. But his power will bring me through them.

How about you? You have a quarry full of walkers too; I know you do. Please don't just whistle in the dark, pretending they'll never come out. Oh, they will. And what will you do?

Monday, October 12, 2015

You downloaded WHAT?!

The other day I downloaded a new book for my Kindle.

Yeah, it's the book pictured here. The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller.

Say whaaaat?!

Why in the world would I want to read that? Not married. Never been married. Not sure that God has marriage in my future.

But Keller is one of my favorite authors and the premise of this new book grabbed me. You see, whether I get married or not, I firmly believe that the Scriptures portray the union of a man and a woman as the predominant picture of God's relationship with his people.

We have become very cynical about marriage in our culture. The divorce rate...the trend of so many couples living together without the vows...the growing belief (now institutionalized by our government) that a person is free to define marriage however he wants - in so many ways we have let go of the original intent when marriage was ordained by God.

In Genesis it says that a man should leave his father and mother, hold fast to his wife, and they should become one flesh. This was the first picture of how Jesus would leave his father, hold fast to his people the church, and make us all one flesh with him - the body of Christ.

All through the Bible we see God portrayed as the bridegroom and his people as the bride, right up to the culmination of history in Revelation 21. I firmly believe this, as stated beautifully by author G.K. Beale:
As husbands unconditionally love their wives and as wives respond to this liven a faithful manner, they are actors on a redemptive- historical stage performing a play before the onlooking audience of the world. As husbands and wives perform their roles on this stage in the way God has designed, their roles are an object lesson to the watching world that Christ has left his Father to love and become one with his bride, and that those who respond in faith can become part of this corporate bride.
What a beautiful way for a family to tell the story of Jesus.

I definitely look forward to Chapter 7, "Singleness and Marriage." Keller definitely intends for we singles to be part of his audience and I know he'll have a lot to say for me. But even if that chapter were not included, I'd read it anyway. Why? I love the picture of Christ and the church that will be portrayed. It's a portrait of his love for me. And it's a foreshadowing of eternity with our Bridegroom.

 Let's read....

Friday, October 9, 2015

He's baaaa-aaack

So yesterday I got a Facebook message from a friend. It was short and to the point:

"Is the blog dead?"

Yeah, I can see why he asked. I last posted in July, a summary of our latest Visiting Orphans trip to Ethiopia. Over the past five years I've averaged 5-10 posts a month, and suddenly...nothing.

I'm not sure exactly why. I have been learning amazing things through reading the Scriptures, life experiences, and seeing the hand of God in media (movies, TV, etc.). All things that I like to write about. But for some reason, lately I've gotten this nagging feeling every time I started to write: Am I really saying anything new? Am I starting to repeat myself? Is the blogging avenue played out for me?

Let me just say, no. I don't believe that. I can't believe that. I may be more selective about what I write, how often I write, and whether it's fresh. But I'm ready to get back in the game.

So if ever been a regular and you've let your link to this site slide to the bottom of your reading list, maybe try to get back in the habit of checking for posts. I can't promise I'll have anything interesting to say...but then I've never promised that.

But maybe, just maybe, you'll find a nugget worth thinking about. Or laughing at. Or crying about.

Let's give it another shot.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Ethiopia 2015 - looking back

Well, we've been home for a few days. It's always a challenge getting adjusted, and this year is no exception. It's my prayer for our team that they would carry the spirit of our time in Ethiopia into their daily lives, and find ways to serve him and others like never before.

Speaking of our team...what a group!

Every single member of this team was amazing. During the time leading up to the trip, we went through a book to help us prepare. It talked about things like teamwork, flexibility, unselfishness, love for the group, being submitted to God's will and many more. I've got to say, these friends of mine got it. Everything they did was about God's glory, loving the children, respecting the culture, and loving each other. It was a joy to work with them. Here they are, in action:









And then, there was our team member who supported us in prayer all week. Steve really wanted to be with us but circumstances prevented him boarding the plane. But through prayer and encouragement, he was with us all the way:

Steve, 2013
And so we are home. There is still work to do. There are our families and friends who need to see Christ in us every day. There are people in need right here in our hometowns. There are things we can do to support the work in Ethiopia from afar. And then, God willing, there is the opportunity to go back.

Whatever we do, I pray that for each team member, God will use the experience to bring them closer to him, so their lives can be an expression of his glory every day.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Ethiopia 2015 - last night in Addis

An empty living room. Our team has retired for the evening, and all that is left is one more day in Addis - a day that will end with us boarding a plane. I can't believe the time has passed by so quickly. It seems like a day or two ago that I was seeing old friends and meeting new ones in Dulles International Airport. We qucikly meshed into a team, but more than a team, a body of Christ-followers who have grown to love each other.  I am staying up a little while longer, savoring the glow of God's love that has filled this place throughout the week.

The last day is always a hard one in the field too. You spend time with kids, share the gospel, visit some of their homes, and see them every day for four days - it's not easy to leave. Thankfully, we still have tomorrow morning with one group of children. But that will be over soon too. I expect to be back soon, God willing. But that doesn't make it easy.

I will write more about the team after we get back - that is after the 43-hour jouney that begins tomorrow night. But I'd like the focus of this post to be on the ones who make this kind of ministry possible. I want to thank all those who have supported our team from back home. I mean:

- The spouses, parents, and other family and friends who will have gone 10 days without seeing their loved one(s).
- Those who have provided financial support for team members.
- Everyone who has been praying for our time here.  
- The staff of Visiting Orphans, Out of the Ashes, Mercy Ministries, and Holy Savior Guest Home.

All of you have made a difference in the lives of chidlren and adults here in Ethiopia. Your support has allowed children to know that God loves them enough to send us halfway around the world to see them. And you have been part of spreading the glory of God to the ends of the earth.

God's richest blessings on each of you. God said, "Go!" And you made it possible.

So let me finish with a few more pictures of what we have been doing here:

Thanks again from the bottom of our hearts. God bless you. See you all soon!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Ethiopia 2015 - Wednesday

Today was another awesome day in Addis Ababa. It had everything we've come to expect: time playing with the children, opportunities to talk about Jesus, meeting some needs by bringing needed materials. And serving lunch to But more than anything else, it has been fun watching our team pour out their hearts to children. Here are a few shots of that...

Hard to really see from pictures - but an amazing day!

We also got to spend some time with the local workers from Out of the Ashes. These dedicated men and women spend their lives year round making sure that the children have their physical needs met while hearing about the One who loves them more than they can imagine. It was an honor for us to get to know them better.

This is a special place. We love being here. Another great day in store tomorrow. We appreciate your prayers.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Ethiopia 2015 - what a start

Hello friends and family! I just wanted to write a short blog post to let you know thigs are going very well here in Addis Ababa. I have not had the internet connectivity I would have liked so this is my first post. And since the clock just struck midnight, it will be short. But I did want to let you know the wonderful things the Lord is doing.

First, our team is meshing and has already become an amazing group. Their selflessness, love for Jesus, love for the people of Ethiopia, and joy is evident. They are fun to be with, which helps to fill the work with enthusiasm. I can already tell this week will be way too short.

One way that spirit showed up today was when the OA staff asked for our help in moving some beds. They are moving some of the children from one location to another and today it was bed moving time. So without hesitation, our team jumped right in and carried these beds a fairly good distance. All with an attitude of wanteing to do whatber they could to serve the local workers - the ones who are with the children all year. God is working through these friends.

So here they are moving the beds:

And just a few more pictures from our first couple of days. Hope you can sense the joy:

Well, that's about enough - gotta get some sleep. Thank you for all your prayers. It's an awesome privilege.

Good night!

Saturday, June 20, 2015


Yesterday at noon, I was privileged to be part of something that can only be described as transcendent. In the aftermath of the unspeakable tragedy in Charleston this week, Christians from across our city gathered to pray. To pray, to sing, to worship, and to join out hearts together. Citizens of Montgomery from across multiple churches, in a rich mixture of black and white, gathered to come before God as one. There was no message being sent. And that's what makes the message so powerful. If you are in God's kingdom - part of God's family - nothing else matters.

Over the course of an hour, we were led in prayers by ministers from across our city:

  • A prayer for the nation by Rev. Lawson Bryan of First United Methodist Church
  • A prayer for our state by Rev. Claude Shuford of Mount Zion AMEZ Church
  • A prayer for forgiveness by Rev. James Turner of the Victory Through Faith Worship Center
  • A prayer for the Church by Rev. Farrell Duncomb of St. Paul AME Church
  • A prayer for reconciliation by Rev. Emmanuel Williams of Resurrection Catholic Church
  • A prayer for the family by Rev. Brian Miller of Aldersgate United Methodist Church 
  • And a prayer for unity by Rev. E. Baxter Morris of First Baptist, Ripley Street
And then our mayor shared some remarks leading into the singing of Amazing Grace.

You should have heard it!

The focus of the day was of course the victims of the Charleston shooting. It was not about us, not about our city, not about our problems. But I have to admit that I could not help thinking about those things. I saw hope, springing from the only place hope comes from.

From the the only answer to the madness around us - the gospel of Jesus the Messiah.

We have seen it in the way the victims' families have responded to their loss. (If you've ever read a link from my page, read this one!) And I saw it yesterday in the prayers of my fellow believers.

Love. In the face of hate. That's what we saw in Jesus at the cross, and it's a big part of what makes the Gospel different from religion.

And it's why evil will not win.

For that I'm thankful.

And hopeful.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Channels of water

The king's heart is like channels of water in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever he wishes. (Proverbs 21:1, NASB)

Have you ever gotten frustrated at the brick wall? You know, the brick wall. The seemingly unbreakable tide of public opinion that goes against what's right. 


Sexual permissiveness.


Approval of all lifestyles as equally valid.

Double standards.


It seems that the momentum is squarely in the court of evil these days. We lambast those who have sinned and turned to Jesus for redemption and a new start, while praising those who have the "courage" to set their own standards for happiness. We shout down anyone who expresses that there is an objective standard of truth...all in the name of tolerance. Which ironically is not very tolerant.

So should we fight these battles on Facebook? Twitter? Should we try to outnumber those whom we see are having strayed from the path? Is the answer in the court of public opinion? Or even in court?

That's where the Scripture at the top of this post comes into play. In his book A Hunger for God, John Piper talks about standing up for the little ones who have no voice. His particular issue is abortion, but it could be one of many other current hot buttons. So in the book, is he hanging his hopes on our ability to argue? Our ability to change things by voting for the right politicians? 

No. It's all about prayer. Prayer and fasting. The fact is, we serve a sovereign God. He is there only one who can turn the hearts of our leaders. Proverbs 21:1 says he does just that. He has done it before (read the book of Ezra and note what it says about kings Cyrus (1.1), Darius (6:22), and Artaxerxes (7:27)), and he will do it again. We can't change our culture, but God can. Here is how Piper put it:
I appeal to you to seek the Lord with me concerning the place of fasting and prayer in breaking through the darkened mind that engulfs the modern world...This is not a call for a collective tantrum that screams at the bad people, "Give me back my country." It is a call to aliens and exiles in the earth, whose citizenship is in heaven and who await the appearance of their King, to "do business" until he comes. And the great business of the Christian is to "do all to the glory of God," and to pray that God's name be hallowed and his kingdom come and his will be done on earth.
Prayer. Appealing to God to change hearts. For him to direct the "channels of water." This is our hope. Let's get to it. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Taking care of business

Judge not, so that you will not be judged.
- Jesus, in Matthew 7:1 (NASB)

To listen to some talk recently, one would think this isolated quote was the gospel. What is the greatest commandment, Jesus? Apparently not his answer, to love God with all your being. No, it must be this, right?

The rest of Scripture? Take it with a grain of salt, or at least interpret in the light of this one.

Until there's something we really want to judge.

There's a really popular term these days. It's hypocrite. Anytime the world sees a Christian fail to live up to the standards of our message, it prompts one reaction: hypocrisy! See? They must not really believe what they say. They don't practice it.

Of course, this is absurd. The absolute beauty of the gospel, the absolutely most marvelous thing about what Jesus did for us, is that he knows we are flawed, messy, broken, at times disgusting - and he loves us anyway. "But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8, NASB, emphasis mine)

You know who wrote that verse? A guy named Paul, who wrote several letters making up most of the New Testament. Paul's background? He spent much of his early adult life traveling about putting Christians to death. Murder. Cold-blooded murder. Grace was enough to cover him, and he never forgot it.

Now at this point, what you're thinking about depends on when you read this. If you're reading it near the date I wrote it, you're thinking about Josh Duggar. But I'm sure if you're reading it six months from now there will be another issue, another follower of Christ in the spotlight for some way in which their actions did not match up with what they believe. It has happened since the beginning, and it will happen until the end. So I'm going to try to keep these thoughts at a more general level, and not make it about one situation. Does it apply? Sure, but enough about that.

So followers of Christ fail. It does not invalidate our message, and in some ways it highlights the true message. Christ came in the world to save sinners. But we do have to acknowledge this: when those hostile to our cause see those failings, it does cause some to stumble. We should always take sin seriously, for many reasons. One of those reasons is that some will use it as an excuse to reject the Savior. And the more excuses we can remove, the better. Which brings me to 1 Corinthians 5, and the real point of this post.

Please use the link above to read it yourself; I'm going to assume you have done so from here on.

This is a passage we don't talk too much about, at least in my church. There are probably several reasons for this, all of which are reasons we need to talk about it:

  • It talks about a perverse sexual situation - even for our desensitized culture.
  • It proposes that the church discipline the person for the behavior.
  • It criticizes the church for standing by and letting it happen.
  • It says we should hold believers accountable for their behavior.
Now, there's a word for what Paul is asking the church to do. He uses it four times in the passage. It's not a popular one. It's the one in our opening passage:


So, if you read this passage carefully, it's pretty clear we have misinterpreted what Jesus meant. But that's a topic for another day. The topic for today is this: If we are going to be lights in the world, we have to take care of our own business. The time to say that anything goes in the church because we want to be loving and accepting is...well, it's not gone - it never was here. Yes, we have to speak the truth in love. But when we see our brother or sister doing things clearly against God's word, we need to react. If they claim the name of Jesus, they are by definition submitted themselves to the correction of the church. And we must start exercising it.

 As Paul says in verse 10, he doesn't mean that we should expect nonbelievers to behave like us. That is not the gospel. We should show them Jesus, let therm know God loves them despite their sin, and let him change their hearts. But once they are one of his, the world is watching. The world is looking to see whether belonging to Christ really changes anything. So it's critical that we help each other to show them that it does.

True followers of Jesus will grow in love for God and their neighbors. They will increasingly want to do good, and find themselves desiring evil things less and less. And it's our job to help each other do that.

So how about it, church? Can we commit to helping each other? How? Well, look at the passage. Watch each other's back. When we see things that need to be addressed, stop turning away - do whatever is necessary to get each other back on track. And when we do, forgive and forget the past. Welcome the straying brother/sister back into fellowship, without reservation. 

Do this, and the world will see that Jesus makes a difference. They may not like it - darkness has never done well around ther light. But maybe a few more of them will be attracted to a fellowship where people really love each other, love each other enough to keep them on track.

That's the church. And it is awesome.

Monday, May 11, 2015


Wanna see a good example of what makes the gospel of Jesus different from the world...different from what everyone around us thinks it takes to live a good life? Check out this meme, which I saw on Instagram last night:

A good, solid Christian message, right?

Not really.

The first part, okay. We definitely should not waste our lives on things that don't matter. The focus of life should be on people, relationships, and loving God. Those are things that matter.

But the second part? Well, it sounds good. Who wants to to waste time on people that don't appreciate it? What a waste.

Except that is exactly what Jesus did, and it's what separates true discipleship from a feel-good, me-first, get-me-to-heaven, meet-my-material-needs gospel.

This meme says, Love those who love you. Those who can and will return your affection.

Jesus said, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

The meme says, If they mistreat you, don't give them the time of day.

Jesus said, If they strike on one cheek, turn the other. If they ask you (unfairly) to carry their stuff one mile, volunteer to carry it two.

The meme is saying, You can only take so much. If they treat you as worthless, give up on them.

Jesus said, Forgive them over and over and over and.....(70 x 7).

And most importantly, Jesus put his words into action. He went to a cross and died for everyone, including millions and millions who reject him and say with their lives, You don't matter, Jesus. He died from them, and still pursues them desperately urging them to change their hearts and minds.

A waste? No, it's what God designed us for. And the way we can tell someone who is really captured by the Spirit of God is when they do "waste" their life on those who think they don't matter. That is not natural. Or more precisely, it's supernatural. Nobody would do that on their own; it takes the resurrection power of the Messiah living in them.

When is something wasted? Here's the perspective of a woman whom Jesus encountered:

What did you think of the meme?

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The diversion

It was a trying time in the history of our country. One like no other.

I remember when I was middle school (or, as we called it then, junior high school) and I heard about Watergate. Are you too young to have experienced it? If so, surely you studied it in history classes. Over the course of about two years, we went from a back page story about a simple hotel burglary to a full-blown conspiracy that infected the top levels of our government. There were Congressional hearings. Special prosecutors. Resignations left and right. And finally, in an unprecedented scene, the President of the United States admitted his role and resigned.

Here's the thing about that period from June 17, 1972 to August 9, 1974: Our government could not focus on anything else. Every white house briefing was dominated by Watergate questions. No matter how much officials would try to talk about the economy or national security, the questions came back to Watergate. No other topics could compete.

This is the dilemma we see in the little book of Jude, the next to last book of the Bible. It's a short letter, only 25 verses. When we think of the New Testament, the gospel, and Jesus, we think of love mercy and grace. And like other New Testament writers, Jude really wanted to focus on those things. But alas, the church was facing its own little Watergate...and it had to be addressed.
Beloved, even though I was very anxious to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were destined for condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
  - Jude 3-4, ESV; emphasis mine

See what I mean? He really wanted to write an upbeat letter. But there were things that needed to be said. Things that were corrupting the good. Two things in particular:
  • The idea that grace allows people to do whatever they want, turning it into a license for sexual immorality, and 
  • The idea that Jesus was just a good teacher, one way among many to God.
It's right there in the passage. This passage from the New Testament, which so many want to turn into a one note song: "Judge not."

The gospel is a wonderful thing, the best news ever. All of us who follow Jesus want to spend all out time proclaiming the love, mercy and grace that God has shown us through the cross. But there comes a time when we have to contend for the faith. So let me ask: do these two poisons sound familiar to you? Are they not the essence of some of the biggest hot buttons in our country right now?

The book of Jude reminds us that there are times that call for a firm response. Love is not waving cheerfully to our friends as they head toward a cliff. Jude says that sometimes love means having to take a stand. As he says in verses 22-23a: "Have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire."

Friends, you do not know how much I wish we could just talk about the gospel. But the metaphorical reporters keep asking about Watergate. So we've got to tell the truth.

That's love...which is so much greater than tolerance.

Which leads Jude back to where he wanted to go...
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24-25, ESV)

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Ode to Joy

Do you ever have those moments? You're singing something you sang all your life, and suddenly it expoldes with meaning. Well, a couple of weeks ago at church, it happened. We were sing the second verse of Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee - aka Ode to Joy since it was set to the Beethoven musical piece by that title.

So we were on the second verse, and....
All Thy works with joy surround Thee
Earth and heaven reflect Thy rays.
Stars and angels sing around Thee
Center of unbroken praise.
Field and forest, vale and mountain,
Flowery meadow, flashing sea
Singing bird and fountain, 
Call us to rejoice in Thee.

Yes! They all call us to rejoice in him. And I was overwhelmed by that thought.

It hit me at that moment what I was signing about. The verse is a list attributes - attributes of God's creation. Things in which we can find joy if we just slow down and pay attention. Stars. Fields. Forests. Mountains. Meadows. Seas. Birds singing. Streams flowing.

All beautiful. All wonderful creations. And - most importantly - all pointing to their Creator. All of them exist for one purpose...to bring glory and honor to God. This is the purpose of every good gift.

Every good gift. As the verse starts: All thy works with joy surround thee. All.

And the list could go on. Music, Art. Color. Language. Sports. Technology. On and on.

Where we mess up is when we start to take these good gifts for granted. When we start to forget the One who gave them to us. When we allow them to become the focus of our lives instead of something God provided to point to himself. There's a word for that...idolatry. And it's the essence of sin.

But they are good. And they call us to rejoice in him. If only for a few moments when we were singing this song, I got that.

Lord, let me never forget it. May I always allow Your gifts to point to You.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Music Man

The Music Man is considered one of the classics in the history of musical theatre. It was a beloved musical when it hit the stage of Broadway in 1958 (yes, before I was born), and the film produced in 1962 solidified its position.

So when I heard a few months ago that a friend had landed a major role in her school production of the show, that settled it. I had to travel to Pennsylvania for the weekend and see it. After all, it was the perfect combination - a perfect storm if you will. First, I got to visit the Swank family, some of my favorite people on earth. Second, I was able to support Rachel as she performed the key role of Mrs. Paroo. And finally, I got to watch a show that I've love for most of my life.

So it was a wonderful weekend all around, and I wrote about that in my last blog post. Here is the whole gang at lunch Sunday, before I went to watch the first act for the second time, before leaving to catch my flight. Yes, it was so good I cut it very close just to watch as much as could for a second time.

Scott, me, Sarah, Rachel, Emily, and Lori

So anyway, back to the show. Which is what this post was supposed to be about, right?

For those who don't know, The Music Man is set in 1912 and is about a conniving traveling salesman (Harold Hill) who rolls into an Iowa town and uses the illusion of a crisis (a new pool table!) to manufacture the need for a boys' band to keep kids out of trouble. He uses this illusion to sell musical instruments and band uniforms even though he "don't know one note from another." A part of his plan  is to romance the local piano teacher (Marian Paroo), both to keep her off balance and, well, because he's a man. Since the show is 57 years old, I'm not going to worry about spoilers: At the end, he gets caught but the people he's befriended - especially Marian - stand up for him because of the joy he brought to the town over the summer.

(Again, it was done extremely well and was very enjoyable. I would have been happy I saw it even if I had not known one of the actors. And by the way, playing Marian's mother Mrs. Paroo, Rachel was awesome.)

So is this a story about just getting away with something? That is what had troubled the director of this production, Jill Panyard, for a long time. In her director's notes, she wrote about how she had resisted this play for years:
It has challenges, like every musical, but my problem was with redemption. With every production I saw, I never believed that Harold would actually stay in River City...How does a director direct Harold to portray true redemption? I think I found the spot. As I read the script several times over, I saw the scene where it can happen. With eyes damp with hope, I thought, 'We can do this. And Harold will be redeemed!' I hope you see it too.
Ah! A challenge!

And I watched with that challenge looming before me. If any of my friends in PA happen to point Ms. Panyard toward this post, maybe she will see whether I got it.

As I saw it, the director had Harold carry a card around the entire play - the ace of spades. (Yes, I had a very good seat.) Every now and then during the long con, when he was laying it on thick, he would pull the card out and look at it. It was symbolic of the fact that he was only there to trick people, to take their money and be on his way. No matter how sincere he might appear, that card was always there.

Then as the play nears its conclusion, he meets Marian at the footbridge. He is there, just like always, to use her and then discard her - taking his "reward" before leaving town. But a funny thing happens. For those who don't know, she is carrying a page with evidence that he is a fraud. When they meet, she gives it to him and discloses that she has know for weeks. But she didn't turn him in.

Grace. Total, unadulterated grace. Despite all his shenanigans, his rotten-to-the-core deceitfulness, she forgives him and hands him the page. "With my whole heart," she says.

And then - in this production - he puts it in his pocket and drops the card in the water, never to be seen again. He drops his sinfulness in the water, replacing it with the grace of the page Marian handed him. And for the rest of the show, he pulls the page out like he had the card, reminding himself of who is is now.

And, no doubt, he stays in River City.

Wow! Well done!

It reminds me what grace is for me. God forgives and loves me despite knowing what a fraud I am. And when he gives me that grace, if I will just let go of the old life, he will change me forever.

Yes, it was a marvelous show. And a marvelous time with friends. Rachel posed with her family right after the performance...

...and then I got a picture with the star. I may need to print one of these and get an autograph one day:

And I will never watch this show, on stage or screen, the same way again. Every Harold Hill I see will be walking around with an unseen ace of spades.

As I was. Thank you, Lord, for replacing it with your grace.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Weekends like this

God made us for relationships. For relationship with him, and relationships with each other. Love God and love others.

That is one of the wonderful things about the short-term mission trips I have been blessed to be a part of. Not only have I seen the Lord do wonderful things in the lives of people all over the world, but every time I go I make the best friends. God has put some amazing people in my life.

Some of those people live in the Harrisburg, PA area. I never would have met any of them without going to Ethiopia. But I'm so glad I did. Last weekend, I visited one such family after a long absence from seeing them. The Swanks of Lebanon, PA.

It was so much fun hanging out with Scott, Lori, Sarah, and Rachel. And another friend from past trips, Sarah's friend Emily. I wish Jesse had been there too. The focus of the weekend was Rachel's performance in The Music Man as Mrs. Paroo. She did an outstanding job in the role, and I was very proud of her. But we also had a blast with great dinners, a monstrous breakfast, and a very cool coal mine tour.

However, the weekend did not get off to a great start.

I landed a little before 5:00 on Friday afternoon, ahead of schedule. When I landed Scott texted me and we decided I should just get my rental car and drive to their house before we decided what to do for dinner. Well, I got to the rental car and was putting my bags in the trunk when I thought, Hmmm. Is my Kindle in this bag?

It wasn't.

Of course it wasn't. It was in a seat pocket on the plane where I had left it. That's me - always forgetting things. I'd forget my head if it weren't attached to me. So I drove back around, parked, and went to the Delta counter. Yep, they found it. Unfortunately, everyone was about an hour late going to dinner because they had to wait on my boneheaded mistake.

And that's not all. I drove to dinner because, hey, I have a rental car. Well, we got to the restaurant... Wait - gotta point this out: It was the first restaurant we tried. It had a one-hour wait so we gave up on it. If I hadn't forgotten the Kindle.......

So anyway, I parked there and opened my door to get out of the car. It beeped. And beeped. And beeped. Beep beep-beep-beep-beep........


Well, there was the little matter of the fact that I had opened the car door and started to get out while it was still in drive!

Why did I do this? Here is the only explanation I have:

This picture is the gearshift panel on my car. MY car. There is no stick, only a bunch of buttons. And if I open the car door, it automatically shifts back to Park. So I guess I have gotten so used to this feature that I stopped shifting to Park myself.

How embarrassing. Fortunately, however, I stopped the car before we hit anything.

Notwithstanding this wonderful start, we had a great time. Weekends like this are what life is made of.

And I did see Rachel's show. One and half times. That's right...but that's a story for another time.

Finally, the director's take on a show I've known for a long time was very interesting. So much so that it deserves its own post. So next time, let's talk about that.

Okay....shifting into Park......and DONE.