Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Another year

Another year is gone. Another one about to begin. Of course, this is true every day. Every day ends a period that is one year long and starts another one. But when a calendar year comes to an end, it's typically a time for reflection and looking forward.

I've got to say, the thing that strikes me as 2013 comes to an end is how fast the time of this present age is rolling by. 2013 was another remarkable year, but it really doesn't seem like it could be a whole year. It seems that life unfolds like a roll of toilet paper. The closer you are to the end, the faster it unrolls. It truly won't be long before my time in this life is done, and I need to make the most of it.

Of course, it's easy to focus on the big events, and they were memorable.

Alabama winning its 15th national championship only 7 days into the year:

Traveling to London with my awesome nephew and nieces:

Serving God with an amazing team of friends, old and new, in Ethiopia:

And, afterwards, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a little sightseeing in nearby Tanzania:

All very exciting, and times I will never forget.

But 2013 was defined just as much by daily life, the little moments that emerge a day at a time. The ones that are part of doing life with family and friends. Things like:

  • Weekly Monday night gatherings at my sister's house with family and a couple of close friends,
  • Getting to see my dad almost every day as I pick up my dog from his house after work,
  • Getting together with a small group of close friends to eat pad thai, talk, pray, and even watch a little TV,
  • Lunch after church on Sundays with family,
  • Going to work each day, looking for ways to glorify God through my work and working relationships,
  • Going to football games in the fall with my family, allowing us to spend a whole day together,
  • A weekly Wednesday morning small group, challenging each other to live out our faith,
  • Weekends visiting good friends and family, and being there for each other in times of need,
  • And sooooooooo many more that I don't have time to name.
It's this daily march toward the future, loving God and others in work and leisure, that really defines a year. And I am so grateful for every person that God has put in my life, making those days seem to fly by.

So, for events big and small, 2013 was another fantastic year.

And now it continues, just with another number at the end of the date. Hello 2014. Let's do this.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The other side of Christmas

YHWH is close to the brokenhearted,
And saves those who are crushed in spirit.
- Psalm 34:18

It was seven years ago, and Christmas was not normal. Not by any means. My dear mother had just passed from this life 12 days earlier, and it was there second year in a row where pain seemed to cast a shadow over the joyous holiday. The previous Christmas had been one of trying to find joy in the midst of her very serious illness. And now she was gone.

It was not the first or only time that I had to dig deep beneath the tinsel and bright lights to find the joy of Christmas. There was 1996 after my sister had been taken and my niece was gravely ill. There was Christmas Eve 1995 when I was inexplicably sad - for no reason I could think of. There have been less severe bouts with loneliness, in short bursts between truly joyous times with family.

Does any of this sound familiar to you? If you're human, I'm guessing it does. Especially if you have your mind saturated with the expectation that the lights, the trees, the presents, the music, and the whole extravaganza will be happy, no matter what.

Well, I've got good news for you. These emotions you struggle with - they are exactly why God took on flesh and entered this world. He knew that, left on our own, we were empty, lonely, and prone to base our happiness on our circumstances. He knew that there would be times where we would be brokenhearted. Poor. Blind.

And that's why he came. He told us so when, some 30 years after that remarkable night in Bethlehem, he began his ministry by quoting from Isaiah 61, saying,
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; he has appointed me to preach Good News to the poor; he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted and to announce that captives shall be released and the blind shall see, that the downtrodden shall be freed from their oppressors, and that God is ready to give blessings to all who come to him." (Luke 4:18-19, Living Bible)
And then, after a long dramatic pause, he declared that this passage was about him and his mission.

So if you're down this Christmas, if you are brokenhearted, God has good news for you. If you are dealing with sickness, death, uncertainty, loneliness, divorce, work problems, or a dozen other reasons that it might be tough to put on a smiley face and say Merry Christmas, take heart. THIS is exactly why Jesus came. This is why he was born to humble parents in a dingy corner of the world and was only visited that night by the poorest of the poor - shepherds. (The Magi came much later.) Because he came to ease our pain. He came to bring life in the midst of death.

Christmas is no cherry on top on of an already happy life. It is the basis for any true joy that we might have in the midst of our pain. Jesus came because we are a hurting people.

That's life. Not a counterfeit brought by Santa and his elves. But real life, from the one who made us. He will bring light to our darkness. If we'll just let him.

I've seen some dark Christmases. Thank God for the light of the Messiah. And that is why we celebrate.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Truth and grace

He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness
And wonders of his love,
And wonders of his love,
And wonders, wonders of his love.
- Joy to the World (Isaac Watts)

We sang this great song at church today, one of my favorite songs of the season. I wrote about it in this space last year. But as we sang this verse, it hit me how much we need its message today.\

Truth and grace. Jesus came into the world to bring us both (John 1:14), and as the Word made flesh, he brought them in perfect balance. If we are to be followers of his, both are vital. But oh, how hard it is to keep them in balance.

Some of us - those who have been hurt by words where truth was proclaimed without any grace - want everyone just to shut up about truth, especially unpopular truth.

Others - those who see the truth being watered down by the new tolerance (all views are equal) - long to remind everyone at every opportunity that there is objective truth that does not change with the wind of popular opinion.

All of us need to go back to Jesus. All of us need to ask him to restore our balance. To season our proclamation of truth with a healthy dose of grace. Or to fortify grace with the rock of truth.

As Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:15, "…(S)peaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in very respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ."

Both. Truth and grace. Joy to the world!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

What Child Is This?

How can one birth in a remote corner of the world change the world? What kind of child was it who lay in an animal's feeding trough in Bethlehem? One of my favorite Christmas carols asks that question..and gives one of the best answers I've read:

If you look at the lyrics on the page above, you'll see that they are probably not quite the same ones in the same order as you are used to singing. Most of our hymnals have taken the second half of verse 1 and made it a chorus, and used it to replace the the second half of the other two verses. So we sing that three times and miss some key lyrics.

That is a shame.

The miracle - the mystery - of the Messiah's mission is that the God of everything there is entered his creation, and launched a kingdom. He is the King, but he claimed his crown in a surprising way - through suffering. When you sing this carol with all the lyrics, this is the story it tells…and it is magnificent.

The first verse asks the question, What is it about this baby? Why did angels proclaim his birth and why did shepherds come to see him? 
What Child is this, who, laid to restOn Mary's lap is sleeping?Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,While shepherds watch are keeping?
Answer…because he is the Messiah, the King of the universe, and deserves all our praise:
This, this is Christ, the King,Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:Haste, haste to bring Him laud,The Babe, the Son of Mary.
Well, if he's the King, the nest question is, Why wasn't he born in a palace? Why would he be born in such an insignificant, smelly place?
Why lies He in such mean estate,Where ox and ass are feeding?Good Christian, fear: for sinners hereThe silent Word is pleading;
How will he plead on our behalf? What will be his plan for announcing that the Kingdom of God has come? The answer is surprising, and one of the biggest mysteries of history:
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through;The cross be born for me, for you:Hail, hail the Word made flesh,The Babe, the Son of Mary.
So was he defeated? What is the result of the nails and spear piercing him? Victory over sin and death! And so the last verse returns to the manger, and proclaims joyfully - along with the Magi who brought him gifts - that the babe of Bethlehem is the King of all...and it explodes in worship.
So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh,Come peasant, king, to own him.The King of kings salvation brings;Let loving hearts enthrone Him.Raise, raise the song on high,The virgin sings her lullaby:Joy, joy, for Christ is born,The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Lowly birth…to death on a cross…to coronation as King. What a story.

This is Christmas - not just warm fuzzes about a cute baby born in a manger. But the coming of the King.

What child is this indeed!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A subtle lie

I came across this on Instagram this evening:

Now, first off, please try to ignore the fact that I follow Melissa Joan Hart on Instagram. She's a Bama fan, ok? Ok.

Now, with that over with, take a close look at the expression in the picture:
Whatever makes you feel bad, leave it.
Whatever makes you smile, keep it.
Yes, this is what the world definitely wants us to believe. It's all about our feelings. The greatest good in life is happiness. I should do whatever is best for me.

What a contrast with what Jesus taught. He told us that whoever would lose his life would save it. He said to expect suffering, and to rejoice in it. He called his followers to be willing to give up everything, including their very lives, for the sake of the kingdom of God. More of Jesus, less of me.

So forget my feelings and what makes me feel good. I would restate the meme like this:
Whatever magnifies me and my ego, leave it.
Whatever magnifies the Creator of the universe, keep it.
Sorry, Melissa. Roll Tide anyway.

Friday, December 13, 2013


I love Christmas music, and even 30 years after it was released, Amy Grant's A Christmas Album is still one of my favorites. Great songs:  Love Has Come is a simple yet powerful presentation of the incarnation. Little Town introduced me to an alternate tune for one of my favorite hymns. Emmanuel proclaims with authority who Jesus is. Tennessee Christmas grabs me with its simple message that is basically the same as that from The Wizard of Oz - there's no place like home.

And then there's Heirlooms.

I was driving around today listening to Christmas music, and there it was. Hitting me broadside like it always does.

This powerful and emotional song wraps together the two most wonderful things about Christmas - the coming of the King and the importance of family. I've got to confess: If I hear it and tears don't come to my eyes (along with chill bumps on my arms), then I'm only half listening. After all this time, it still gets me. It did today. Take a listen:

Can you listen to it without thinking of your family? Of countless Christmases with them, days gone by with your parents, and new memories being created with your current family? I can't. It's so vivid.

And then, as it moves to the second verse, I love the parallel she draws. Yes, my family is precious and the memories are irreplaceable. But an even greater treasure came into the world 2,000 years ago, and that is what we are celebrating. There are all sorts of heirlooms lying around my house to remind me of good times with family. But the greatest treasure of all came as a baby, and brought life.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I was especially susceptible to the emotion of the song today. Seven years ago today, my wonderful mother went to be the Lord. And so the song today - uniquely today - brings together two of the things I love the most. The memories of time with my mom, and the fact that I know she is in the hands of the Savior who was born in Bethlehem.)

All that I come from (thank you Mom and Dad),
All that I live for (thank you Father God)
And all that I'm going to be (thank you Lord Jesus)
Not heirlooms. Life.

And that's cool.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Nativity: glory through suffering

Last night I continued a Christmas tradition by seeing Andrew Peterson's Behold the Lamb of God for the fourth time. Every time I see this program, I am overwhelmed with the wonder of the fact that all of history is the story of God pursuing the rescue his children. But every year, there is a different theme from the redemption story that stands out. This year it was the way that God uses our pain to reveal his glory.

What are some of your favorite Christmas hymns? I have so many. Silent Night. O Little Town of Bethlehem. Away in a Manger.

There are wonderful themes in these songs, which I will probably write about in the future. But when I hear them, when I look at manger scenes on lawns, when I go to a traditional nativity play, it is always such a tranquil scene. Quiet. A few animals mailing soft sounds ("the cattle are lowing, the baby awakes"). A baby sleeping.

Nice. But here's something you may not think about much: Before there was a baby in a manger with Joseph and Mary watching him sleep, there was something called…..labor.

Ughhh. As a man I don't like to think about it. And I'm sure if you're a mom, you want to think about it even less. There is pain which I am told is much worse than anything I will ever experience. I can't even imagine it.

Well, as I was listening to the song Labor of Love from the program, I suddenly thought about it, really thought about it. There is no birth without labor. And there is no labor without pain. And 2,000 years ago…no, there were no epidural pain killers. So as I listened to the lyrics of the song, I began to think about what Mary went through so that Jesus could come rescue me. Here are the words that grabbed me:

It was not a silent night
There was blood on the ground
You could hear a woman cry

In the alleyways that night
On the streets of David's town

And the stable was not clean
And the cobblestones were cold
And little Mary full of grace
With the tears upon her face
Had no mother's hand to hold

It was a labor of pain
It was a cold sky above
But for the girl on the ground in the dark
With every beat of her beautiful heart
It was a labor of love

Can you picture it? Can you picture what Mary went through that night so that the Messiah could be born to usher in God's kingdom and bring us back to him?

It's all through the Bible. There is a mystery in God's plan, and it seems that his glory is most prominent when it comes through suffering. Jesus' passion and death on the cross. His admonition to us that we would suffer on his behalf. One thing is clear: we do not follow Jesus because we want an easy pain-free life. That would be a mistake. Following Jesus is to realize that any suffering we experience is just a finger prick compared to the surpassing glory of knowing him.

Childbirth. An unpleasant thing, but one which brought us the world's greatest treasure, the glory of God wrapped in flesh. I pray that I, like Mary, will embrace whatever God sends my way so that he can be glorified.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Christmas music

Like so many of us, I love the Christmas season. I love the lights, the glitter, the food, the parties, the time with friends and family, and the music. All the music, both meaningful and silly. But mostly I love the mystery that we celebrate in this season - the mystery that the God of the universe would wrap himself in flesh and come to be with us. And not just be with us, but through his death and resurrection would bring about a kingdom that would supersede all the kingdoms of men, and that he is working through us to bring about his reign through the whole earth. No wonder so many Christmas songs refer to "the newborn King."

Christmas music has some of the most powerful expressions of this theme that I can imagine - just one of the reasons I love the music of the season. This month, I want to once again highlight songs that have reached deeply into my heart and mind to show me the eternal purposes of God in the incarnation.

Before I begin though, here are links to posts where I highlighted some songs during past Decembers. So, if you have a few minutes, check these out. And then we'll move on to a new song in a couple of days.


Merry Christmas (Third Day)

Labor of Love

Someday at Christmas

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing  

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The power of a good meal

Last week, a friend of mine posted a wonderful narrative on how God has designed us to come together over a meal. He talked about all the Scriptural references to eating together, and how God's invitation to us is one of coming in to dine with us (e.g., Revelation 3:20). And the Lord's supper itself is an example. Please read his entire post here:

Thanksgiving and the Eucharist

Well, this struck a major chord with me, because I thought about how rich my life is because of meals I get to share with family and friends. It truly is one of the great blessings God has provided.

That's why a book passage jumped out at me today during lunch.

I am currently rereading Mockingjay, the third book in the Hunger Games trilogy. Without revealing any major plot points, I was at a point in the story where Katniss and other key characters are in the midst of some very stressful training. They have been through so much together. They were strangers, then in some ways enemies, and now in a weird way have bonded as friends. Adversity tends to do that.

And so our heroes are gathered in this extraordinary situation, and the description - from Katniss' narration - is this:
All around the dining hall, you can feel the rejuvenating effect that a good meal can bring on. The way it can make people kinder, funnier, more optimistic, and remind them it's not a mistake to go on living. It's better than any medicine. So I try to make it last and join in the conversation. (p. 240, italics mine)
What a wonderful description of the power of eating with others.

So yes, Patrick, you are right when you point out the power of eating together. God made us that way, and we can see it not only in Scripture, in our lives, but in modern literature as well.

Thank you, Lord, for good friends and good food. Amen.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Seven days of grumpiness

Okay, so what's deal? All through your Facebook news feed you have been seeing your friends share the things their thankful for. It has become a November tradition for many to publicly thank the Lord for all the blessings in life. I think it's a wonderful thing, and I've done it a couple of times.

So why did your weird Facebook friend Donnie decide to list things he's grumpy about? After all, the preacher tells us we need to "move off Grumpy Street and onto Thanksgiving Avenue." Aren't I thankful? What good does it do to complain?

In case you missed it, here are the seven statuses that were strewn through my timeline over the last week:

Day 1: Today I'm grumpy about religion and religious leaders that are a hindrance to God' kingdom by getting in the way of true faith, humility, and a relationship with God.

Day 2: Today I'm grumpy about the fact that I have this sin monster in me that keeps rearing its ugly head. I know it's dead and defeated, but it still keeps getting me to do and think things I hate. Ughhhh!

Day 3: Today I'm grumpy that I'm using this ticket - the last home ticket from the 2013 season ticket package. Football season is waaaaaaaaay too short.

Day 4: Today I'm grumpy about death and the devastation, heartbreak, anger, and emptiness it lays on those who are left on earth. Death stinks.

Day 5: Today I'm grumpy that the wicked and corrupt have so much wealth and prosperity.

Day 6: Today I'm grumpy that my knowledge and capacity to understand is so limited. I love to learn and wish I could solve all the mysteries of the universe.

Day 7: Today I'm grumpy about the plight of the disenfranchised of the world - the widows, the orphans, the poor, and the oppressed.

And now it's Thanksgiving Day.

So why grumpiness?

I guess the first thing I was doing was trying to get out of the box. The thankfulness list has become so common that I wanted to do something a little different. That's the rebel in me coming out. But then I thought, this has potential. Maybe by listing some things that make me grumpy, I can create a contrast with the overwhelming thankfulness that permeates my life.

Second, I really do think I need to guard against using this season to be thankful and then go back to complaining the other 11 months. Thanksgiving is not just a day…or it shouldn't be. It should be the way I think about life every single day. So I was sort of saying this: Instead of getting my thanksgiving our of the way in November and going back to being grumpy, why not get my grumpiness out of the way and go back to being thankful?

Third, there are some things God is grumpy about. Grumpy, and downright angry. Hypocrisy. Oppression. Neglect. Poverty. Sin. I think the things that make God angry should make me angry too. So I've got to say it felt good to express those. And in all likelihood I'm not nearly as grumpy about those things as I should be.

(Note: Clearly, Day 3 did not fall into this category. :) )

So I listed them, and I'll let you in on a little secret: It was hard for me to just do that and not explain why. But I'm glad I did, because now - on Thanksgiving Day - I can tell you that I am so thankful for the blessings God has provided. I am thankful for life, health, creation, and for redemption through Jesus.. I am thankful beyond words for my friends and family. But I'm also thankful for blessings related to every complaint:

Day 1: I'm thankful Jesus came and called the religious establishment on its bluff, stripping away the hypocrisy and showing us how to live in relationship to the living God.

Day 2: "What a wretched man that I am. Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God - through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Romans 7:24-25)

Day 3: I'm thankful for football season and the enjoyment it gives me as I spend time with family and friends for a few short months each year.

Day 4: I'm thankful that through the death and resurrection of the Messiah Jesus, death has lost its power and no longer has the final word.

Day 5: I'm thankful that God's justice ultimately prevails, and that I enjoy fellowship with my Creator - something the wicked, rich or otherwise, will never know.

Day 6: I'm thankful that I have a God who does know everything and I can trust him completely. (Deuteronomy 29:29)

Day 7: I'm thankful that God loves the disenfranchised so much that Jesus announced there coming of the Kingdom as good news specifically for them. (Luke 4:16-21) And I'm thankful that he has called me to be part of the solution.

So there you have it. Seven days of grumpiness. May the things that break God's heart break mine too. And may I be filled with thankfulness all year, not just one day.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

One play at a time

As the Tide pursues an historic third straight national championship, it has come down to the final regular season game. Win this one, they go to the SEC Championship. Win that, they go to the big one…where they can wrap up the quest.

But that's thinking way too far ahead. This program has learned that you win championships by winning the next game. And you win the next game by winning the next play. Not one game at a time, but one play at a time - that's how it's done.

And so this week Bama faces another team with big aspirations, and as a result this is being billed as like, the biggest game ever. And from a two-sided perspective, yeah, it is. But for the Tide, they need this game the same as they needed it last year. There is no difference in how important it is to them. They needed to beat a 3-8 Auburn last year as badly as they need to beat a 10-1 Auburn now. They can't meet their goals without it. It's all - all - about the championship.

So it's a big game for the media and most fans because it matches two highly ranked teams from our state. But it's a big game for Alabama…because it's the next one.

Roll tide.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Catching Fire: Yes, it's that good

When you anticipate anything for as long as fans have waited for this movie, there is always a great risk of disappointment. You can build up something in your head to where there's no way to live up to it.

This is not one of those times.

Last night I saw the premiere of Catching Fire, the movie adaptation of the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy. It was amazing.

First, the pacing was outstanding. The movie ran over two hours but it seemed like about half that time. I know a movie is good when I don't have the slightest inclination to check the time. Last night? Not even once.

The casting for this series continues to be outstanding. I cannot even imagine anyone other than Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. But that's true now for all the major characters from the first movie. I would make special note of one though. Donald Sutherland embodies the subtleties of President Snow's character in a way that I can't even describe. Slight changes in the his face's muscle tension communicate as much as lines of dialogue would. It's a pleasure to watch.

The new characters are very well cast too. They are are all so good. But with very limited lines, Jena Malone's Johanna Mason just about stole the show. I loved her portrayal.

As for the story, I could write for pages about places where this movie made the story come alive, giving us just the right blend of drama, humor, and action - at just the right times. Since the movie only came out last night, I'll avoid details that would be spoilers. I'll just say that I fully experienced the evolution of emotions in a group of people as they realized that they were being drawn into something greater than themselves.

Book adaptations are tough. There is so much material and so little time. If you are a fan of the books, you will undoubtably have a favorite part that you will miss, be be slightly disappointed. That was true for me as well on a couple of my favorite details. But remember, mine are probably different from yours. So I will make this bold statement: This is one of the best adaptations I've ever seen. They were faithful to the story, the spirit of the book, and many more details than most adaptations.

Do you want to see a story about tyranny, freedom, oppression, human dignity, power, courage, and, most of all, fear vs. hope? Then this is your story.

Check it out.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Catching Fire: In just a few hours

If you know me, you know I love great stories. Especially ones that make me think and inspire me. You also know that I love big events with lots of hype. And you know I love hanging with my friends and family. So this is one of those days where it all converges - a perfect storm if you will. In a few hours I will be heading to the cinema with friends for the opening of the movie Catching Fire:

For a detailed discussion of why I love this story so much see this previous blog post (but not if you haven't read the books - it contains major spoilers):

The Hunger Games…what's all the fuss about?

The local AMC is doing something cool. They will be showing both the previous movie and Catching Fire back to back, to allow us to experience the story continuously. It's going to be awesome!

So after about 5, yeah, I'll be in up to my neck in the story. See you on the other side.

Tick tock.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

What is praise?

It's all through the Psalms…in fact, it's all the the Bible. Praise the Lord. Over and over, there are not only expressions of praise toward God, but exhortations to praise him? Why? Is it an obligation? Another rule we're supposed to follow if we want to please our Creator? Or maybe something else?

On a seemingly unrelated question, why do we post what we post on Facebook? What compels us to share certain things with our friends?

For some awesome thoughts that I think apply to both questions, check out this link (and then come back):

Praise: The Consummation of Joy

So, condensing and paraphrasing, God wants our praise not because he needs our approval, but because it is the expression of the fact that we get it. We understand just how awesome he is and how much he's done for us, and so of course it spills out. If it is not my natural inclination to praise him, it's a sign that I really don't understand.

So, it's natural for us to say things like

  • That was the best movie ever!
  • I couldn't put that book down!
  • Did you see that game yesterday? It was amazing!
  • You've got to try the new Thai restaurant!
And, if you're really experienced it,

  • God is so awesome!
And that's the essence of true praise. Not something we do because we're supposed to. But something we do because it spills out.


This also helped me understand why social media blows up when something happens that fills a lot of people with joy at one time. It could be a TV show that captures the imagination. Or a movie that a lot of people have been waiting for. Or, yes, a spectacular football game.

It's natural to want to share joy; it's not natural to keep it to yourself. And so now there is a place where we go and share it. I think it's cool.

So when the Lord blesses me - when I see his handiwork in nature, when he shows me something in his Word, when I think of how Jesus came to bring me life - it's natural to share it. And so, the Psalmist would say, go ahead.

Share it.

Long and loud.
Praise the LORD, all you nations,
extol him, al you peoples.
For great is his love toward us,
and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever.
Praise the LORD.  (Psalm 117)

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Learning from history

About 33 years ago on a Saturday in November I was at YoungLife weekend camp. Fortunately (I thought) we had free time in afternoon and so I was listening to the Alabama game on the radio. Alabama was the two-time reigning national champion (familiar?), ranked #1 (familiar), and had a 28-game winning streak. On the road at Mississippi State. And then this happened:

Maybe the most stunning upset of the Tide in my lifetime. And it was not fun to listen to.

And so as I head to Starkville today, I am wary. Take this thing seriously. Don't let it happen again.

Roll Tide!

Thursday, November 14, 2013


It was Tuesday, and a very hectic day. I had gone through a series of meetings and was running a little behind on some work that was due. AS 3:30 approached, I was about to pick up the phone to keep a call appointment I had made.

And the phone rang.

I picked it up, and I was immediately stressed. It was a call about about an important business decision and I needed to explain the current status carefully. But I didn't. I was thinking about the person who was waiting for my call...I got in a hurry...and I bit the head off the coworker on the phone. I was short, irritated, and, IMO, rude.

As I hung up, I looked down at my wrist and saw this:

Yep, it was a wristband I got at church recently, one to help remind me that life is about Jesus. As the other side says, "All Jesus All the Time."

So after my call, I got ready to go see the coworker, apologize, and start the conversation over. And, like any self-respecting Christian who just got caught falling short, I pushed the wristband way up my arm under my sleeve so it wouldn't show. i was embarrassed.

How silly of course. Because I don't claim the name of Jesus just by wearing a wristband. I talk about him on a regular basis and everyone knows that I consider him the King of the universe who came to bring us back to God.

Wristband or no, I represent him. And wristband or no, I fail. Every. Single. Day.

Fortunately, his plan, purpose, and Kingdom don't depend on me being good enough. It's because he is worthy that I want friends and family to follow him. Because he is, not me.

But I do need to remember - I am wearing his mark everywhere I go, and people are watching. Thank God for grace that works in peoples' lives despite my failings. But even more, thank God for grace that works in me to make me more like him as I submit. And hopefully, through all my goof-ups, friends can see that he is changing me a little at a time, and so he can change them too.


Friday, November 8, 2013

Red light

Are red lights a bad thing? I tend to think so; when a light is red, it keeps me from getting where I want to go as quickly as I would like. When used symbolically, a red light is anything in my life that tells me to stop. I generally don't like being told to stop. Do you?

Yesterday I was in a car traveling from a service celebrating the life of my friend's mother, and we had a couple of cars that needed to stay together. Unfortunately traffic caused us to get separated and so we were a little concerned that the car behind us might not know how to find my friend's house.

As we pulled up to the next intersection, the light changed on us at the last second. That usually frustrates me - I almost made it! But in this case, Steve slowed, stopped, looked for the car behind him, and said, "The red light may have brought us together."

I think that in life we see a purpose to red lights sometimes. We know that things are bad for us and God puts red lights to protect us. But this was a purpose I never thought of. What if sometimes the red lights in our lives are God trying to slow us down....slow us down not because of any bad thing we're headed toward, but to let our friends and family catch up to us?

For example, I can think of a time when I was in a hurry to jump into a career and move away from my hometown. God put up red lights, and looking back I can see that it brought me together with my family and countless friends who have built me up as a person. The red light brought us together.

So I think next time God says stop,  it will be time to look in the rear view mirror for people he may want me to be with. The red light may be bringing us together.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


Last Saturday I was in Tallahassee. I thought I was here for one thing, but I was wrong. I was here presumably to see the big football game between Florida State and Miami. I often come to see an FSU game when Alabama is off. But God really had me here to be with my friend Steve and his family as his mother Karen went to be with the Lord.

I won't even try to describe how wonderful she was as a mother to my friend and his sister. I'll leave it to her family who wrote the extended obituary in the link:

Yes, she will be missed terribly. But as I reflect on her life tonight, I know that she lives on in two important ways:

First, her character lives in everyone that took time to let her into their lives. God has put each of us on earth to make a difference, and each of us will change the lives of those around us, for better or worse. For Karen Elyea, it was so much for the better. Her husband, son, daughter, grandchildren, and yes, friends (like me) are different and better people because we knew her.

Second, she literally will live forever. This is the hope that was brought to fruition by Jesus when he died and rose from the dead. Death is the enemy; don't let anyone try to tell you otherwise. It is not just a peaceful means to pass into eternity. But it is a defeated enemy. When Jesus was resurrected, death lost its power and we no longer need to fear it. 

So when we say goodbye to Karen at her service tomorrow, we can and will be sad. But we will also be flooded with hope, the hope that comes because Jesus lives. Not only is she in God's presence now, but one day she will rise like him and participate in the coming together of heaven and earth for eternity. And so will we, if we put our faith in Jesus.

And that makes all the difference. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Can't look away

I was reading an article today that was all about the magic of college football. It captured the spirit of the game and why it is that so many of us love it. It's rather lengthy, but it got me thinking about why it is that it captures me - why I can't look away. This quote really summed it up for me:
College football is the world's biggest insiders' club, a sport with too many inane, insanely enjoyable traditions to count. It is off the beaten path. It is messy and absurd. It is nonsensical. It is wonderful. It is always changing, and it never changes.
What a wonderful description. It seems that at least once a week there is a game - not involving my team - that makes me say, "Wow, I love this game." One of the truly marvelous things about the sport is that on a football Saturday it seems like the whole country is in one place. Radios are tuned, TV's are hooked to satellite dishes, and scores are announced. It's truly not just about your team's game - it's about the entire picture, with each Saturday being its own work of art.

But one particular point of the article grabbed my imagination. The author talked about that moment each of us has when college football grabs hold of us. When we realize that it's something that will hypnotize us every fall, making the days of the season fly by like a speedy freight train. And making the days of the off season drag like a tortoise.

And so I thought back to my childhood, looking for a moment when I knew that loved the game - not just Alabama football (that moment would be the first time I walked into the stadium and saw Kenny Stabler lead the Tide to victory), but college football. The game, the pageantry, the whole picture.

It's the first time I remember building a day around watching a non-Bama game on TV. I was ten years old, and the hype was at an all-time high. Two undefeated teams, playing for #1. President Richard Nixon was there, and was planning to present a championship plaque to the winner after the game. And what a game it was! Arkansas jumped out to a....

You know what? Watch this 6 minute highlight video - I don't want to spoil it for you!

So, wow, right? If you didn't watch it, Arkansas jumped out to a 14-0 third quarter lead and looked to be in total control at home over the top-ranked Longhorns. But quarterback James Street (who passed away earlier this year) led an amazing 4th quarter comeback, which included a 43-yard touchdown run, a two-point conversion on the option, and then a long pass on 4th and 4 to set up the winning touchdown. It was dramatic, it was riveting, it was exciting. And it didn't even involve a team I cared about. I was hooked.

Yes, it is a wonderful thing. And it's going by way too fast. It doesn't matter that it's a Saturday like this one where the Tide has an open date. It's college football. And it is awesome.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Monday musings

Just a few random thoughts on a Monday night....

  • In football, things are getting really interesting right now. The Crimson Tide sits atop the standings and probably just need to keep winning. If they do, they'll have chance to play for their third straight BCS Championship. That would be amazing. They seem to be getting better every week, but LSU is coming up and that will be a huge test. In the meantime, Oregon and Florida State are neck-and-neck for the second spot. Right now it looks like we are headed for controversy, but I have a feeling some folks are going to lose before it's all over. It may even be the Tide. So much fun to follow - the best time of year!
  • I have the best family and friends in the world. No stories supporting that, just stating the facts. Sometimes it just hits me - today is one of those days.
  • Finally, we are 23 days and change from THIS:

Tick tock.....

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Keep me on the path please....thanks

Accountability. It's not a word we like, is it? We live in an individualistic society. Each one of us must carve his own path...set his own standards...worship God his own way. I don't need you to tell me how I'm supposed to live.

And we often quote the New Testament in support of this. We like to find every passage that tells us not to judge. But I came across a passage tonight that shows how I (and maybe you?) have a tendency to pick out the ones I like and discard the ones I don't.

The context is something pretty distasteful. There was some sexual immorality in the church of Corinth and it's clear the people and leaders were ignoring it. "Live and let live." Who am I to judge?" And so on...

Here's the chapter in its entirety. Read it slowly, maybe twice. Read it for context, trying not to take individual verses out of context:
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this? For my part, even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. As one who is present with you in this way, I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this. So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord. Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolator, slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”
 [ 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, NIV]

What are we to make of this as we try to live life in community with each other and with the Messiah Jesus, who came to bring God's love and mercy? 

Than answer is pretty clear: We have taken the judging commands way out of context. Instead of a one dimensional view of judging, we can see from the entirety of God's word that:
  • Judgment belongs to God, so the standard should always come from God rather than our opinions. Cheating, lying, oppressing the poor, sex outside of marriage, jealousy, hatred, racism...the list goes on. These things are not to be a part of the Kingdom and it is the right thing to say so. Paul did, in several places. So did Jesus.
  • There is no point for a follower of Jesus to hammer nonbelievers about these things. Why should we expect them to adhere to a code of behavior that they have not signed up for? Jesus didn't come to give the world a set of rules. He came to change hearts. Even the passage above says, "What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?" We are to love people and invite them to a relationship with Christ.
  • Finally, and most important, I need to open my heart to the correction of my fellow believers. Can I do that with you right now? Keep me on the path please. When I stray, when you see things in my life that do not bring glory to God, please help me. I need you. And if you are earnestly seeking to follow Jesus, you need it too. 
It's time for a new attitude in the 21st century church - one where we welcome and even solicit correction. Using a few isolated Scriptures about judging to tell people to leave me alone serves no one - not God, not my neighbor, and not me. If we are to change the world, we need to let the Gospel change us...and we need each other for that.

[ For more, check out this article from Relevant Magazine - good stuff!]

Monday, October 21, 2013

And here we go....

So another week passes, and the Crimson Tide dominates another opponent. But this week is different. Why?

Because the first BCS standings were announced last night. And here we go.

Here we go with the endless speculation about who deserves the second spot. With discussions of whether the current standings will hold up as the season progresses. With constant reminders of how the computer formulae don't make sense and the human polls are the result of people not watching games.

But also...here we go with the question, Who can beat Bama?

As a fan, it's fun being on that end of the speculation. Some of my friends are upset that the Tide is hated; I'm not, because I know it's a reflection of how good they are. It's hard to get it to sink in sometimes, but when the rest of the country watches my team, there is a mixture of SEC fatigue, Alabama fatigue, and boredom. Being the gold standard is lonely.

But I'm also very cautious. It's about this time last year that many of us thought Bama was unbeatable. Nobody had given them even the slightest competition, and we wondered whether anyone could hang with them. Then came LSU - and a last minute rally to come from behind and win. Then Texas A&M - and that story is all too familiar.

Yes, they got help after that and rallied to win their third championship in four years. But they can't count on that happening again. They need to take care of business week by week. If they do, the pieces will fall into place.

Get better every week. And start by beating Tennessee.

Roll Tide!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Tapestry

There is something new online. And I'm excited about it. It's called Tapestry Online, or I guess you could simply say, The Tapestry.

Basically, it's a series of video talks and conversations about some of the most difficult questions of the Christian faith. It deals with them honestly and frankly, recognizing that it's our nature to approach such questions with doubts. Scripture, reasoning, and tradition are all brought to bear on the meaning of life and why we're here in a fresh way that I believe will often have you seeing God's truth almost as if it were the first time you've heard it.

There's a link to it here, and also over to the right of my page under the section "Cool Links." That link will always be waiting for you when you return to my page.

Check it out...it's worth it.

Friday, October 11, 2013


While on our way to see the Bama-Kentucky game tomorrow, we stopped in Nashville tonight and saw the movie Gravity:

Having seen this trailer weeks ago, I had looked forward to seeing it very much, and I was not disappointed.

I expected a thriller with the suspense of whether the astronauts played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney could survive. But it went way beyond that. It addressed questions like...

  • How does our life experience affect us when we encounter a crisis?
  • What would I think about if I believed this was the day I was going to die?
  • What is it that makes us want to keep fighting when everything is against us?
  • Do you and I have something like that in our lives?
All these questions addressed against the backdrop of lonely souls high above the earth. Throughout the movie, you could see the earth below, a mass of water, land, and clouds. And it made me think about the billions of stories going on below, all obscure and of little importance to our characters.

While those stories are unknown and in the background, the desire to be part of the earth's big story is at the heart of all of us. Gravity, drawing us back to earth. 

Not a bad night at the cinema. Now...on to Lexington for some football.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Psalm 47 and national health care

What do we do when we get frustrated with life? How about when we are frustrated with the world and the power structures that seem to have dominion over our lives? There seems to be a lot of that lately, and it has exploded onto the pages of Facebook and Twitter. National health care, government slowdowns (called a shutdown, but let's face it - the government has not stopped), and politics in general.

One place we can go is the the Psalms, referred to by Dietrich Bonhoeffer as the "prayer book of the Bible." And one Psalm in particular showed up in my reading plan this morning - I think just in time. Read it carefully, slowly, digesting every word. Let it sink in where the real power is. Psalm 47:
Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy.
For the LORD Most High is awesome, the great King over all the earth.
He subdued nations under us, peoples under our feet.
He chose our inheritance for us, the price of Jacob, whom he loved.
God has ascended amid shouts of joy, the LORD amid the sounding of trumpets.
Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises.
For God is the King of all the earth; sing to him a psalm of praise.
God reigns over the nations; God is seated on his holy throne.
The nobles of the nations assemble as the people of the God of Abraham,
for the kings of the earth belong to God, he is greatly exalted. (Emphasis mine) 
 What a marvelous Psalm! In it we see that the God of Israel is not just the king of the chosen people; he is the King of all the earth. Every king, every power, every authority has been made subject to his rule. There is no power that exists outside of his control. Pharaoh's Egypt. Nero's Rome. Stalin's Russia. Idi Amin's Uganda. Who was in charge?

God. God reigns over the nations...the kings of the earth belong to God.

So when I'm tempted to get bent out shape about earthly powers, I can come back to this prayer, this Psalm.

Will everything turn out like I want it to? Will my health care remain affordable for me? Will government provide every service I need? Will I continue to experience the lifestyle I've grown used to?

Maybe, maybe not. Probably not. But it doesn't matter, because life is not about my comfort, my needs, my happiness. It's about bringing glory to the only true God, whether in plenty or want.

So I will sleep well tonight, knowing that YHWH is the King over all the earth, and above all kings. Whatever they do to me, it will be for his glory. Bring it on.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Prisoners - addendum

I left out an important point in my blog post last night. (Before finishing this post, please read it here.)

Multiple times in the movie we see Keller Dover reciting the Lord's prayer. There is little doubt in my mind that the faith-based depiction of evil is intentional. So it was powerful when Dover was sitting outside the room of the man he was torturing - the man he was convinced had kidnapped his daughter - and started praying again.
Our father, who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses, as we.....................................
At which point he broke down. Because he could not forgive the one who, in this horrific act, had trespassed against him.

So this is the essence of the kingdom of God. Jesus came to enable us to do the impossible. Anybody can forgive those they love. But this kind of forgiveness is beyond natural - supernatural - and comes from God.

So how does evil triumph? When we stop short in praying the prayer. Forgiveness - that's where the power to defeat evil comes from.


[Note: When you are done reading this post, please click here to read an addendum. Thanks!]

Last week I went with a friend to see the movie Prisoners. It's a very intense movie and not exactly family fare. But a couple of things stood out that were worth sharing in this space.

For those of you who are not familiar, here is a brief plot summary:
When Keller Dover's daughter and her friend go missing, he takes matters into his own hands as the police pursue multiple leads and the pressure mounts. But just how far will this desperate father go to protect his family?
The first thing that was striking, really disturbing, was watching the lengths to which Keller (played by Hugh Jackman) would go. I think we can understand it, and those of us with children certainly can, But as I watched the evolution of the character from a grieving father to someone who was so desperate that  nothing - and nobody - else mattered, I could see what evil does to us if we let it. The forces against which Keller Dover was fighting were as dark as they come. But evil is insidious - it wins by transforming us into itself even as we fight it.

As I watched, I was reminded of Mr. Jackman's most recent acting effort, Jean Valjean in Les Miserables.  In that performance, he played a character where the opposite happened. Valjean encountered an ultimate display of grace and forgiveness shortly after being released from prison, and it changed his life. The two films released in less than a year gave Jackman a chance to show both sides of the coin - how giving in to grace or to evil can determine your path.

There was a scene about halfway through the movie that pretty much defined the theme. A priest who had encountered a notorious child murderer quoted the murderer as uttering this phrase: "I'm waging a war against God." And he was. Not just by doing evil things, but by doing things that would cause people to question God's goodness and to respond with hate. This is how evil has always waged war on God. How do we beat it? Not by responding in kind, but by putting into practice the words of Romans 12:21 (Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.)

Prisoners. The movie title referred to the children. And to the alleged perpetrator that Keller tortured. But it also, I believe referred to Keller and to all of us who allow allow evil to capture us in its web. What do I allow to imprison me?

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.