Saturday, December 31, 2011

2012 - Bring it on

New Years' Day is one holiday that I have never seen as a huge deal. I mean, it's fun because I grew up watching lots of college football that day. And my mom would make sure I ate blackeyed peas. And everyone would remind me that it was a time to look forward and make resolutions about what you would do better the next year.

But I pretty much saw that last point as artificial - it's just when the calendar changes, but we can work on changing our lives any day of the year, right? And most of us never follow through on our resolutions. But as 2011 ends and I look forward to the next year, I have come to realize that we need milestones to order our lives. They help us reflect not he things we need to remember and to refocus our priorities for the future. Yes, we can do that every day, but there's something about a milestone that increases our focus. With that in mind, here are some thought on this milestone.

I don't think it was a coincidence that my Scripture reading this morning was Joshua 1.

In this passage, Joshua was ending a period of transition, and big things war about to unfold. He had followed his leader Moses around in the desert for 40 years; God had freed his people from slavery years ago and now they were ready to enter the land He had promised them. But Moses wasn't around to lead them Joshua was going to have to do it. What a daunting task for such a young man! A young man who, judging by the number of times he had to be told to be "strong and courageous", was  conservative, non-assertive, and prone to  hesitation.

But God made promises to him. He promised that he would go before him, go with him, and give him success at the thing he was being asked to do. What did Joshua have to do? He had to be strong and courageous, study the Word, and be obedient.

So as enter 2012, I feel in a lot of ways like Joshua must have. In alot of ways, 2011 was a year of transition and preparation for me. The previous year had brought changes in my life, especially as God had used my niece Brooke to introduce me to a passion for the people of Ethiopia and for orphans. How was I to apply that? Also, multiple changes began to take place at work, as some great leaders neared the end of their careers and the company began to focus on what the future might look like under new leadership. And of course, there was the tragedy of the April tornadoes and how that brought the need to share God's love with hurting people so much closer to home than just Africa.

So, I stand at the cusp of 2012 feeling alot like Joshua. 2011 was somewhat like the time in the desert: learning to obey God while waiting for him to bring some things into focus.
  • I went to Africa for the second time and worked alongside some wonderful young people from Pennsylvania. I feel that God used this confirm his calling for me to take a leadership role in taking some young people from a ministry called TheTransMission over this summer. (If you are a high school senior and interested in that opportunity, check out this link: TheTransMission to Africa 2012.)
  • Several major retirements in our company have been announced and a vision for the future has been scoped out. I won't lie, this is, at the same time, kind of scary and exciting. Much like standing on the edge of Canaan and wondering, "Can I do this?" There will be change, and in the change will be lots of chances to be dependent on God.
  • Among my nieces and nephews whom I love so much, at least two of them will be finishing education and moving into the "real world". Will God have a role for me in helping them make the transition? And how will my life change?
Yes, I can see that 2012 will be a year when great strength and courage will be required. I will need to stay connected to the Source. I will need to make hard decisions and be ready to withstand adversity. And I will need to stand up and be a leader so that Christ can be glorified at work, in Africa, among the young people he is preparing to go to Africa, and in my family.

Am I up to the challenge? No. Stinking. Way. Neither was Joshua. But the One who commanded him to go was. And he still is today.

2012 - Bring it on.

Friday, December 30, 2011

A football tale

Once upon a time, in a parallel universe, there were two football teams. Two physically dominating football teams, that won games by playing relentless football that wore down the will of their opponents.

One of them had been in the national spotlight for four straight years, having won the championship two years prior. There was only one opponent on their schedule that was able to stay within two touchdowns of them. They had a dominating defense giving up less than nine points per game and gave up by far the fewest yards of anyone. And on offense, they averaged over 35 PPG despite a low scoring game against another overpowering defense. They did all this while playing in the toughest conference in the country.

The other team also played in that conference. And they were equally overpowering. They opened the season by destroying an opponent who had played for the championship the previous year. Other than one game, their closest margin was 13 points. And like the first team, they held opponents to around 10 points per game while scoring an average of nearly 40.

These two teams played several common opponents, and the similarity of the score were uncanny. 41-17 vs. 38-14.  19-6 vs. 24-7.  41-11 vs. 37-6.  52-3 vs. 52-7. And so on.

And so it was destined that they were to meet. During the regular season. It was a classic, a physical clash of titans. Back and forth, back and forth. Finally it ended in a tie. 6-6.

But in this parallel universe, the NCAA never instituted an overtime procedure. Over there, games that ended in a tie, well, ended in a tie. And so it was never settled. Who was really the better team?

If only, as in our universe, there was a way to settle the tie. To decide who was the better team. If only...if only...

But they found a way! They were allowed to play again. At a neutral site. A 60 minute overtime for all the marbles. And so, in that universe, the tie was settled after all.

Who won? Well, tune in January 9 in our will see.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Painful to watch

Last night, after the Saints' rout of the Falcons on MNF was complete, I was flipping the remote before going to bed. I stopped on MTV and watched a little bit of a reality show called FriendZone.

I've got to admit it was fascinating. I think most of us can identify with the show's premise. You really like someone romantically, but you spend so long getting up the nerve to ask her out that you end up, like, best friends.

The name of the show comes from the expression for that dilemma - an expression that, as best I can tell, was coined in this scene, linked from the TV show (ironically) FRIENDS. (Embedding was disabled in YouTube, so you'll have to click the link to watch - sorry.)

The show last night was painful to watch, to be honest. However, as with a train wreck, I couldn't look away. I can see why it would might be a successful show. I found myself watching two whole episodes, which meant four scenarios. In each one, the person with the crush told their story, and then we watch as they scheme to set up a situation where they can tell their friend how they feel. ("This date is for you" seemed to be the thing each scenario moved toward.) In three of the four, the person did not get the answer they wanted - which seems pretty realistic to me, based on my own experience. (No, this post is not going there!) The tension leading up to the moment of truth was almost unbearable, because you could see the crushing moment coming from a mile away. Painful.

As I snapped out of my trance and headed to bed, I reflected on what I had just seen. You could almost see hearts breaking as these poor souls expressed their love to someone who wanted to be their friend, but to keep them at arm's length.

And I thought about God. I thought about how he loves me so much. He has made no attempt to hide that love, as he entered the world and endured the humiliation of the cross. Like the ones who risked it all on TV (who would do that, by the way???), he has laid it all out there. There is no mistaking where he stands.

How painful it must be for him to watch the way I respond to his love. How his heart must break.

How often do I want to be "just friends", including him in my life when it's convenient? Asking him to do things for me in prayer? In effect having all the trappings of a relationship without the real thing? In other words, am I one those described by Paul in 2 Timothy 3:5 as "having a form of godliness but denying its power"?

The Bible uses marriage as a picture of our relationship with God and refers to the Church as the bride of Christ. Brides are never in the friend zone. So I don't want to be either.

God, thank you for loving me. I love you too. I pray that I would live my life in close relationship with you - all the time, not just when it's convenient. Amen.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas, the winter solstice, and redemption

Merry Christmas! What a wonderful season, where we celebrate the birth of Jesus, time with family, and the spirit of giving. I am home from another memorable Christmas Eve, including a candlelight service where I experienced anew a sense of awe that the God of creation entered the world as a baby. And then time with family as we exchanged gifts and felt the joy of seeing how we made someone we love happy. Tomorrow? More worship time and a big family dinner. Good times!

It is a wonderful time, but also a time of tension for those of us who endeavor to follow Jesus. We want to keep the main thing the main thing - we want to keep the birth of Christ at the center of our celebration.  But it's not easy, is it?

As I was reflecting on this today, I thought about the origin of the Christmas season. We did not pick this time of year to celebrate Jesus' birth because we know when he was born. We don't. (In fact, it's more likely that shepherds would have been "abiding in the fields" in the spring.) It is primarily because Christians living in a pagan society wanted something sacred to celebrate while their peers were celebrating the winter solstice, one of the biggest pagan holidays around. The secular world around them had this huge party because it was the longest night of the year and now days would start getting longer again. Probably included a lot of lights and even the giving of gifts.  So instead of just refusing to celebrate, Christians decided that this was a wonderful to time celebrate the coming of the Light of the world. A wonderful idea.

So what does thins mean for us? First, I think we fret a little too much about society "losing the true meaning of Christmas". Why do I say that? Because I don't think they ever really had it. It's only those of us serious about following Jesus that have ever seen that as the primary reason. And that's because we are taking something that the world created, and through Christ we have redeemed it.

Yes, that's it! And it makes me marvel at the wonder of the Incarnation even more. In Jesus, God entered the world to redeem it. To bring life where there was death. To bring light where there was darkness. To bring forgiveness where there was revenge. To bring love and compassion where there was selfishness. In the person of that little child, God began his plan to redeem a fallen world. A plan that culminated with a cross and an empty tomb.

In fact, where Jesus appears, he brings a "Midas touch" of redemption. And so do his followers if we are living in fellowship with him.

And so it should not surprise us that he has redeemed a pagan holiday as well. Yes, there is too much commercialism. Yes, there is a danger of children (ok, adults too) getting selfish and thinking only about what they want for Christmas. Yes, there is probably too much partying, to the point of debauchery - both in drink and in overeating.

But there is also a warming emphasis on family. There is a spirit of giving, not only to the ones we love but to the poor and oppressed. And, for those of us who know Jesus and base our lives on following him, there is a wonderful celebration of the mystery that God could take on flesh.

And that, to me, is the definition of redemption. I don't think Christmas is a naturally religious holiday that has been corrupted by too much worldliness. I think it is a naturally worldly holiday that we have redeemed  by celebrating the birth of the Messiah. Just as we are naturally sinful people that have been redeemed by the presence of that Messiah in our lives.

And so I don't think I'm going to let myself get discouraged by all the trappings of commercialism. Instead, I will rejoice as I celebrate the holy birth. God becoming one of redeem me, to redeem the world, and yes, to redeem Christmas itself.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

I've liked the Mission Impossible movies, although the second one was kinda all over the place. The third one, with JJ Abrams on board, took them to another level. This one, Ghost Protocol, is on a completely different altogether.

It had everything you would expect in terms of action, suspense, and international espionage. It had an amazing backdrop with portions filmed on location in Budapest, Moscow, India, and most spectacularly, Dubai. Definitely a great ride.

But this one was much more than a great ride. It had smart dialogue and a plot that kept me mentally engaged throughout. There was a great chemistry between the four members of Ethan Hunt's (Tom Cruise) team, and even some humor. And, more than anything else, it had a major thread dealing with revenge, and whether it really satisfies. Heady stuff, handled in a way that really made me think.

Yep, fantastic film, very entertaining. Not a bad way to spend a Thursday night.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas favorites: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

In the category of hymns, here is my Christmas favorite:

That is a strong statement. There are so, so many beautiful Christmas hymns. Silent Night. O Come All Ye Faithful. Angels from the Realms of Glory. I could go on and on. But this one, written by Charles Wesley, is right at the top. Why? Why?

I have always been fascinated by the mystery of the Gospel. More specifically, I am fascinated by the mystery of the Incarnation. The idea that the infinite Creator of the universe could choose to live inside the world he created. That he would take on flesh and live as a human being. That a teenage girl - a virgin at that - carried around in her womb the King of kings. That he lay homeless in a feeding trough on the night he was born, showing the extent to which the Lord would lower himself to reach us. That he would die on a cross.
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
  Who, being in very nature[a] God, 
   did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 
 but made himself nothing, 
   taking the very nature[b] of a servant, 
   being made in human likeness. 
 And being found in appearance as a man, 
   he humbled himself 
   and became obedient to death— 
      even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8)
So, there it is. For me, more than any other Christmas hymn, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing captures the mystery of the Incarnation and leaves me breathless. Lines like "Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die." And "God and sinners reconciled". But the heart of the song, and the reason I love it most, is contained in this passage:
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the Incarnate Deity,Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.
What a powerful statement of how God came to be with us. To show us his character, his love, and to bring us back into relationship with him.

Thank you, Charles Wesley, for putting into words the greatest mystery of all time. I am in awe.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas favorites: Three-in-one, songs from past posts

On Saturday I shared one of my favorite Christmas songs, Someday at Christmas. Before moving on to a few more new ones, I thought I would revisit three that I shared last Christmas. So here are links to the three blog posts from December 2010 with Christmas songs embedded:

Just for fun: Elf's Lament

The birth of the Christ: Labor of Love

A dedication and tribute to adoption: Merry Christmas


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christmas favorites: Someday at Christmas

I love Christmastime. I love the lights, the music, the presents, and the times gathered with family and friends. And I love the worship services and family traditions that celebrate the coming of Jesus. Tonight I want to begin a series of posts sharing about some of my favorite Christmas songs. There may be a post or two about some other favorite traditions as well.

I could start with one of my longtime favorite Christmas hymns: Silent Night, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, O Come All Ye Faithful....the list goes on and on. But there are other more contemporary songs that put me in the spirit - some about Christ, some about family, some about the peace Christ came to bring, and some that are just fun. Tonight, here is one of my favorite contemporary songs.

Someday at Christmas. A song written by Stevie Wonder, but recorded by other artists such as Jack Johnson, Mary J. Blige, and even Justin Bieber (which fortunately has not ruined it for me, haha). Here is a YouTube version of the original recording, followed by the lyrics and some comments:


Someday at Christmas men won't be boys
Playing with bombs like kids play with toys
One warm December our hearts will see
A world where men are free

Someday at Christmas there'll be no wars
When we have learned what Christmas is for
When we have found what life's really worth
There'll be peace on earth

Someday all our dreams will come to be
Someday in a world where men are free
Maybe not in time for you and me
But someday at Christmastime

Someday at Christmas we'll see a land
With no hungry children, no empty hand
One happy morning people will share
Our world where people care

Someday at Christmas there'll be no tears
All men are equal and no men have fears
One shining moment, one prayer away
From our world today

Someday all our dreams will come to be
Someday in a world where men are free
Maybe not in time for you and me
But someday at Christmastime

Someday at Christmas man will not fail
Hate will be gone and love will prevail
Someday a new world that we can start
With hope in every heart

Someday all our dreams will come to be
Someday in a world where men are free
Maybe not in time for you and me
But someday at Christmastime
Someday at Christmastime


It is s song that brings out so many emotions and thoughts for me. Hope. Joy. Compassion. Thankfulness. Challenge. It looks to a day when the world will be the way God intended it to be: no hate, war, hunger, or need. Plenty of love, hope, and giving. And I can't listen to it without thinking of my friends in Ethiopia and Uganda and how much God loves them.

The thing I love is that it puts Christmas in the context of those things. Christmas is about God coming into the world, and the Baby born in Bethlehem began his ministry by quoting this Scripture and claiming it as his own:
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, 
   because he has anointed me 
   to preach good news to the poor. 
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners 
   and recovery of sight for the blind, 
to release the oppressed, 
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
Jesus came to bring about the things the song proclaims. May all of us who claim Jesus' name obey him and work to bring about the Lord's favor. Someday. At Christmas.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Wo zai na li?

It was an early morning in a northeastern China city, a little over two years ago. I had spent about a day there visiting friends who were living there at the time. I was staying at a flat about 15 minutes away from theirs, and I had no idea how to get there. In preparing for the trip, I had learned a little Mandarin, but not enough to give good instructions to a taxi driver. So I was very dependent on my friends to make sure I could get back to them.

On this brisk August morning, Clark and I were going to catch a plane to Beijing to do a little sightseeing. He had arranged a cab to come and pick me up, take me to his place, and then take up both to the airport. So at 6:15 am, a van transportation. I threw my luggage inside and jumped it. I said "Ni hao" (hi) to the driver, but that was about it.

Well, after about 10 minutes we suddenly pulled into a parking place and stopped. We were in some downtown district and I had no idea where we were. Where were we? Why had we stopped? Where were my friends? Did I even get in the right cab? After all, it's not like the driver and I were able to discuss it. Dang!

I had no clue what to do. What to say. How to find out what the heck was going on. I was in a foreign country where I spoke very little on the language. So I blurted out the only thing I could think of. Amazingly, in Mandarin:

Wo zai na li?

That is, where am I???

I don't know exactly where that came from, but when I got over with the situation, I was pretty proud of myself. When I panicked and blurted something out, it was actually in the right language!

Well (fortunately), the rest of the story turns out not to be nearly that suspenseful. Turns out, the guy was stopping at his cab company's office to switch cars because he didn't need a huge van for just Clark and me. He called Clark's wife Laura (who speaks excellent Mandarin) and explained the whole situation to her and then handed the phone to me so that I could understand. We changed cars, picked up Clark, and headed to the airport. Beginning an awesome three days where I got to see:

...the Olympic Stadium...

...Tiananmen Square...

...the Great Wall...

...and many other awesome sights. We had a great time and I will never, ever forget it. I will also never forget that moment of panic, that moment when I realized that I was totally helpless and needed my "peng you" (friend) to rescue me. These kinds of adventures are the stuff life is made of.

Can't wait for the next one!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Whose stamp is on you?

   Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
    But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax. They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?
    “Caesar’s,” they replied.
   Then he said to them, Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. (Matthew 22:15-21)
Is this conversation really about paying taxes? Or something much more profound? Well...

A few weeks ago, I was in Tuscaloosa for an Alabama home game. As is often my habit, I attended Calvary Baptist Church on Sunday morning before heading home. On this particular Sunday, they had a guest speaker by the name of Dan Arsenault. Dan is a former atheist who has devoted his life to sharing the case for rational belief in God as revealed through Christ. This particular Sunday, he talked about the above conversation in a way I had never thought about it. I'll be interested to hear whether you have. Here goes:

Walking through the passage, first we see that the question being asked by the Pharisees wasn't sincere. There were simply trying to trap him because he was stirring up so much trouble for them. (Authentic faith always makes religiosity uncomfortable...but that is a subject for another blog post.) So they buttered him up with a lot of insincere praise ("We know that you are a man of integrity, blah, blah, blah..."). And then they put him on the spot by asking him, "Is it right to pay taxes?"

And then Jesus answers their question with a question. But, and this is the cool part, he doesn't ask an even more important question...but the second question is implied and means everything.

The question he asks is whose image is stamped on the coin. Easy. Obvious. It's Caesar, the sovereign ruler  of the Roman Empire. So Jesus gives them the rather simple answer that since the ruler's image is on the money, the money belongs to him. The property belongs to whoever's image is stamped thereon. And then...and then...

And then he goes beyond the answer to that question, answering another one at the same time. He says, give it to Caesar; his image is on it so it belongs to him. But he doesn't stop there. He says to give God what belongs to God. What? Who said anything about something being stamped with God's image??

They all knew - God did. In Genesis 1:27:
So God created man in his own image,
   in the image of God he created him;
   male and female he created them.
Caesar's image is on the coin, and God's image is on us. So Jesus was saying to give the government what belongs to it and to give God what belongs to him. What? Ourselves.

God's stamp is all over us. It shows in the yearning for meaning in life. It shows in our self-awareness that does not exist in the animal kingdom. And it shows in our awareness that there is a right and wrong.

I had never looked at that passage this way before, but it is so obvious to me now. So what will I do with it? I think it can be summed up in the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross by Isaac Watts (who also wrote the Christmas classic Joy to the World):
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

"Well, then I'm gonna say no"

First...yes, it's been a while since my last post. Almost a year ago I promised that I wouldn't blog just to be blogging; I would make sure I had something to share. Thus the drought. Anyway, now I have something to share that that was pretty funny. At least to me.

So earlier this week I had to fly to Richmond, VA for work. I flew from Atlanta to Richmond on the same flight with my friend and fellow actuary Lee - we were both headed there for the same meeting. I had checked luggage and Lee (who had not) went to get a rental car while I picked up my bag. When I got to the rental car counter, he had a big grin on his face. I had missed a really amusing conversation.

The car was with Advantage Rental Car, a fairly small and low-budget company without many vehicles there to choose from. So Lee and the rep at the counter had agreed on a particular car early in their conversation. After having all that set, the guy asked him, "Would you like to add satellite radio for $5?" At which point Lee asked if it was in the car they had already selected. "Yes."

Amused, Lee responded, "We've already picked a car. What if I say no?"

The answer? Well, the car would have the satellite radio anyway. At which point my friend said, and I still laugh thinking about this, "Well, then I'm gonna say no."

How funny! You ask if the customer wants to pay for something that he's going to have whether he pays for it or not! Yeah, I think no was the correct answer. But the funniest part, according to Lee, was the look on the guy's face. Apparently, nobody had ever said that before. He didn't know what to say, so he just stared with a confused look on his face.

How often do you ask questions where the answer doesn't matter? I know I do it. A friend calls and tells me his car broke down and he's stranded. "Do you want me to come get you?" Well, duh! That's why he called me right? I'm sure you can think of your own examples. Maybe life would make a lot more sense if we would think a second or two longer before we spoke.

But maybe a little less funny.