Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Let the season begin...

Twas the night before Christmas....ummmm....I mean football season.

Well it IS the most wonderful time of the year! And it starts in less than 20 hours, when the the two Carolinas kick it off.

I always look forward to football season, and I can't remember one that I've been more excited about. I'm not sure it's anything special about this one, even though it is the last year of the BCS system, and it is a year where history could be made. I think it's just that I am feeling especially appreciative of all the blessings in my life right now - and college football is a biggie.

So, as we move toward kickoff, here are just a few quick thoughts:

  • Alabama. The Crimson Tide is coming off back-to-back BCS titles, something that is extremely rare. Even more rare is the fact that they've won three out of four. A couple of  milestones they are reaching for: In the AP poll era (since 1936), no team has ever won three in a row. And it's not just the team, but QB A.J. McCarron: no Alabama quarterback has ever gotten four national championship rings, or three as a starter. Yes, there is a lot to shoot for, and this Bama team is loaded with talent. But they do have question marks on the offensive line, and I always say that I'd bet on "the field" against any one team, no matter how good they are. So the odds are against them, but if they do it, it'll be special.
  • Ohio State. Quarterback Braxton Miller is an amazing player and he has a lot of talent around him. And let's face it, the Big Ten schedule is not exactly a minefield. So the odds are very good that they will go undefeated and play for the BCS title. But I have a feeling they'll slip up along the way. It may just be that they will have to play rival Michigan two weeks in a row. If that happens, I think they'll go down in one of them.
  • Florida State. Watch out for this team. Redshirt freshman QB Jameis Winston is going to be awfully good. I watched him play in the spring game and he looked game ready. Road games are tough for freshmen and so the Clemson game will be a real challenge. But Johnny Manziel did okay in Tuscaloosa, so it can be done. Watch out for the Noles!
  • Stanford. I really like this team to go a long way. They play the tough physical brand of football that we love here in the South, and their opponents on the left coast are not used to it. That is a tremendous advantage, and also we know that style works don't we? (The SEC has won just a few championships with it.) Don't be surprised if they are in Pasadena on January 6.

I could go on and on...I love this topic. But let's wrap it up, and look forward to kickoff. So ready.

Roll tide. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

In memory of Phil Richardson

You never know the influence you have on others. You just don't.

The year was 1987 and it was the biggest faith leap of my life. Through a series of events, I knew that God was leading me away from a teaching career but I didn't know exactly what he was leading me to. Then, at a lake party for a friend who was getting married, I was given a name and phone number. It was Phil Richardson of Alfa Insurance.

I gave Mr. Richardson a call, and over the next two weeks I interviewed with four different people at Alfa. After much prayer and thought, on July 9, 1987, I began my career as an actuary.

Mr .Richardson passed away this last Thursday morning, and we will be saying goodbye at a service tomorrow. As I look back over my career, I can't express how much this man did for me. He got the process started for me to begin my career as an actuary. His leadership created a successful company that God has used to bless me over and over. About two years into my career, he made the decision that the future of the actuarial function should be in the hands of this kid and supported me in every step of my growth. He gave me advice countless times (some would say his "advice" could be harsh - I never saw it that way) and taught me principles that I still quote today. He was a true leader and I will always be thankful.

But the thing I will remember most about Mr. Richardson was when he pulled me aside one day in the fall of 1996. I had just come back to work after facing the aftermath of a pool accident that claimed the life of my sister and left my niece horribly injured. I was crushed and it was hard to see how to face each day. Well, he took me in his office and confided about the way that he had lost his son to an accident almost 20 years earlier. And he told me that when I needed to, I needed to find a room, close the door, and just cry. I knew he spoke from experience, and it was incredibly moving.

That is the Phil Richardson I knew and will miss. He will stay with me in so many ways. Goodbye, Mr. Richardson.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

In a shell

I read the craziest article just now. The statistics in it were shocking, and yet as I read the article I could see that they were sound, and revealed a blind spot for me. The stat?

20% of non-Christians in North America do not personally know any Christians.

That's right. Any. I highly recommend that if you are a Christian, you read this In fact, if you have to choose between reading it or finishing this blog post, read the article. Here's a link:

The Craziest Statistic

Considering that 80% of the population calls themselves Christian, what an astounding result! Now, the article talks about possible causes, including immigration. But when it comes down to it, the biggest reason is that so many of us Christians stay in a shell. We hang around with people just like us - like us in status, like us in income, like us in ethnic background, like us in religious beliefs. As the article points out, there is too much apathy about reaching out to those different from us, which means doing very little to befriend non-Christians. As Jeff Christopherson said in the article, "We hide in our evangelical ghetto." Or Gina Bellofato: "I don't know how many more million Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews need to come to this country before it becomes a priority."

Now, international missions is a major priority to me. If you follow this blog, you've seen post after post about how my heart reaches out to children in Africa and how I've traveled there four years in a row. Really, it's why I started this blog in the first place. And it's still true. God has called us to go spread his love and announce the Kingdom of his Son to the entire world.

But my goodness! Can we all just start by being a little more like Jesus where we live? Like Jesus, who was always being criticized for hanging out with people different from him. Like Jesus, who left the comfort zone of his father's carpentry shop to bring hope to the lost, sight to the blight, and freedom to the oppressed. He didn't have to go far - he just had to open his eyes and leave home.

Have you ever thought about the question Jesus was answering when he told the story of the good Samaritan? He had told the crowd the need to love their neighbors, and the question was, "Who is my neighbor?" And so when you see the story in the light of the question, the answer was...Samaritans. People different from you. Half-breeds who had stopped worshipping the one true God. That is who you need to love.

No, God doesn't call all of us to go overseas - either short or long term. So good news! There's plenty of Kingdom work for you to do right here. Because if only 20% of the non-Christians living all around us even know a Christian...well, there's plenty to do. And it all starts with just getting to know people - people who are different from us.

I am sooooooooooo lacking. I definitely have four fingers pointing back at me. So I pray that God would use this article to open my eyes, and see the neighbors - Samaritans if you will - who need to be loved. And then that I would love them.

20%. That's gotta change.

Monday, August 19, 2013

They're here!

Remember that scene in Fever Pitch where Ben's Red Sox tickets arrive? He runs outside in his boxers to get them, and then hugs the UPS guy. And then he opens the box and he and his friends smell the ticket sheets and he says, "This smells like the year."

Yep, that's what today feels like. It's like Christmas for us Alabama fans - the tickets have arrived!

It's one of the signs that football season is upon us. Shark Week, the Little League World Series, and, of course, the arrival of the tickets.

Let the Road to 16 begin.

Roll tide.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

What we all want

One of my favorite places in the world is Tuscaloosa, AL. Yes, I love sports and following the Crimson Tide. But I also love the atmosphere of a college campus. It has an energy about it that draws me. So spending the last three days there has been a joy.

For the second straight year, I was there as the festivities surrounding "Rush" came to a close. Once again, I was a part of a group allowed to watch a closed scrimmage on the same day as what they call Bid Day.

Now I don't have any understanding at all of Bid Day. Or the whole Rush process. Maybe if my niece from ∆∆∆ reads this, she can sit me down and explain to me - I really do think it would be interesting. But I do know this - it involves hundreds (thousands?) of young ladies swarming around campus. When I took my dog for a walk this morning, we were surrounded. College women everywhere. 

Then there were swarms of parental units. And finally, lots and lots of young men, college guys all dressed in button down shirts and shorts. Presumably, the latter two groups were there to support their family/friends as they went through (what I think was) the process of being selected by the right sorority.

Why am I writing about this? Well, it was an overwhelming sight and worthy of sharing. But that's not it. It was watching these waves and waves of young people in a process with one goal: finding a place of community. What we all want is to find other people to live life with. To love. To play with. To eat meals with. Even to fight with. Life is not meant to be lived alone. And a college campus has to be an intimidating place for a freshman who doesn't know anybody. So there they were, all longing to be accepted by a new group of friends and find community.

This is why the Bible is so clear that Jesus came to establish a community of followers, who together would show the world that there is a loving Father who has come to redeem us and set right the things that have gone horribly wrong with the world. One of those things is isolation, which finds its end in loneliness. How do we see this in the Scriptures?
  • God called Abraham not to be a man who lived in fellowship with him alone, but to be the father of a great nation that would show the world what it's like to submit to the Creator.
  • All through the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) God tells his people that they are an example to the nations. Not individually, but as a group.
  • Jesus called 12 men to travel and live together for three years, teaching them to love each other.
  • And, while there are many other examples, I'll end the list with this: In John 17, Jesus prays for his followers - both alive then and those to come later (us) - and the essence of his prayer was that we would love each other in unity so that the world would that his message was true.
For an excellent treatment of this, take time to read this essay (Believing and Belonging) by NT Wright.

So this truth hit me as I saw all these young ladies who clearly understood the importance of community. So what if we got this? What if church wasn't a place that we go once a week because we feel obligated? What if our churches and small groups were places we could not wait to get to? What if we didn't rationalize that "faith is personal and I can do it on my own"? What if we got up on Sunday thrilled, the way these young ladies were thrilled to find a group to accept them?

Yes, what if we lived our lives the way God intended? What if we broke the chains of of our individualistic Western culture, and really opened up to each other?

Wow, what a world it would be! And what a picture of real life for the world. We might have thousands swarming around, desperate to be part of what Jesus is offering through us.

Together. Not alone. That is real Kingdom living.

See you there.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

No more night

No more night, no more pain
No more tears, never crying again.
Praises to the great I AM
We will live in the light of the risen Lamb.

- No More Night, words and music by Walt Harrah

Easter 1996 - our family, including Kim, Holly, and Mom
There is nothing that can shake your world to the core like the death of someone you love. Especially when you have no time to prepare for it. Seventeen years ago tonight, like this year on a Thursday, it happened. I don't remember ever experiencing uncontrollable sobbing before that. Or eyes that were burning because when trying to cry, there was nothing left in the tear ducts. Or being awake for almost 48 hours straight. It was terrible.

As I wrote two years ago, this anniversary has progressed from a day of pure mourning to a day of honer and celebration. And it has turned into a day to remember not only Kim, but my mother, my niece, and other people I love who have passed on. Today has been a great day of reflection, thankfulness, and sweet memories.

But in this world wracked by sin and death, the pain is still there. 

Which is why last night was so sweet.

Our choir was rehearsing for this Sunday, and it just so happened that the anthem for this Sunday is No More Night. Wait, no. "It just so happened...?" No, it was from God. I went expecting to prepare for leading worship, but instead I worshipped on the spot. Chill bumps, teary eyes, and a sense of God's presence. Because as I sang, I saw a glimpse of the future. I thought about how inconsolable I have been after death left its ugly fingerprints on our lives, and I was filled with awe at the thought of "no more tears, never crying again."

But even greater was the truth that we will be praising the great I AM, the Lord of everything, forever. And that the light will come from the light of the world, the risen Lamb of God...Jesus.

Listen for yourself:

I still believe I have plenty of work to do here, living out the resurrection in my daily life to make the reign of Jesus a reality in today's world. But it is good to know that there is a day coming when all the pain will be a thing of the past. Jesus will come to unite heaven and earth in a glorious culmination of the work that he began in Bethlehem.

And as we sing the anthem this Sunday, all that will be pulsating from every lyric and every note.

No more night.


Saturday, August 10, 2013

Come to me

A few days ago I wrote about the Matchbox Twenty / Goo Goo Dolls concert I attended. While the post was about how much I enjoyed finally seeing Matchbox Twenty, at the end I mentioned how one Goo Goo Dolls song, their latest, lingered with me long after the concert. That song was called Come to Me, and to me it's full of meaning. Here is a video of it, complete with lyrics:

What was it about this song? On the surface, it's a just love song. And I certainly believe that was all the writer intended. But it's a love song with themes that strike to heart of unconditional love. Lines like "Come to me with secrets bared, I'll love you more so don't be scared" and "I don't care about where you've been, Don't be sad and don't explain" are full of the kind of love and acceptance we all crave.

In fact, the whole second verse strikes at the heart of what it makes such an awesome song. The object of the writer's affection has been burning photos, trying to erase the past on her own. The song says, you don't need to do that. All you have to do is come to me. "This is where we start again...start again."

And then, "Today's the day I make you mine, get me to the church on time.' A wedding. Marriage. A fresh start with an eternal commitment to love each other forever.

Yes, I'm sure it was meant as a simple love song. But it dug deep into my soul as I could hear my Redeemer Jesus calling out, "Come to me." All through the Bible, God uses the picture of marriage to demonstrate the relationship of God and his people. For example, in Isaiah 62:5 we see this:
As a young man marries a young woman, so will your Builder marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.
The Song of Solomon is a pretty frank picture of romantic love between a bridegroom and his bride, and most believe it was intended to be a picture of God's love for his people. The whole book of Hosea is a painful lesson where the prophet marries an unfaithful woman and God uses it as an object lesson of what it's like for God when we abandon him for other "lovers." In John 3:29, John the Baptist refers to Jesus as the bridegroom. Paul exhorts husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church.

And topping it off, in case we didn't get it before -  At the very end of the Bible, in Revelation 21:9, one of the angels who is showing John a vision of the end of all things says, "Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb." Of course, the Lamb is "the Lamb who was slain" - Jesus. So he is the bridegroom and we are the bride.

And so, through this love song, I could hear God's voice calling out to me: Come to me. You are my sweetest friend. I will take you back to where you belong - where you've always belonged. I'll love you more so don't be scared. And more than anything else, this is where we start again...
Therefore if anyone is in Messiah, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
He who was seated on the throne said, "I making everything new!" (Revelation 21:5)
....start again.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Message received

I don't remember my dreams very much. I would say that I don't dream very much, but I know better. Scientists say that we dream every night when we enter deep sleep, but we only remember some of them.

The one last night? Oh, I remember.

This was only the third time I remember dreaming about my mother since her passing. Maybe because my subconscious thinks it's painful, or maybe...well, I have no idea. But for some reason I don't dream about her.  I wish I would, because during the dream - for just a few minutes - she's alive and with us. Dreams can seem so real.

As I've mentioned before in this blog, dreams are fascinating to me and I think they are often very meaningful. Movies (like Inception), stories, and other media that explore the nature of dreams are some of my favorites. I have come to believe that most dreams:

  • Help us process what happened that day, or
  • Bring to the forefront what our deepest desires are, or  
  • Are used by God to get a message to us.

So last night, I spent some time my Mom. It was sweet. It was also very familiar. Like she did so many times, she was giving me some advice. I can hear her now, telling me what she would do and why. I think this was the third type of dream, because 1) the advice was so wise, and 2) if God wanted to get my attention, yeah, hearing from my Mom would do that.

What was it about? Oh no...that's between my mother and me. And it sounds really good to say that, even if it was a dream.

Message received, Lord.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

At long last

Friday night was a long time coming.

I have been a fan of Matchbox Twenty for years, but somehow I had missed seeing them in concert. Ever. I love music more than I can describe and catching a live concert is one of my favorite things in the world. I've been blessed to see more of my favorite artists than I can possibly list. (I started to try, and then gave up. Thank the Lord for the backspace key.) Some of them several times. But never Matchbox Twenty.

They are a favorite for several reasons. The melodies that Rob Thomas writes stick in your brain, and have a way of being likable the first time I hear them. The lyrics on many songs dig deep into the human condition and ask all the right questions about who we are, what motivates us, and what haunts us. Sometimes the lyrics even give a picture of the answers to those questions - intentionally or not.

On example of all this is their latest release, called Our Song. I liked it the first time I heard it. And the lyrics...
I don't know if someone else could handle me
I don't know what I'm supposed to be
You're the only one who really get me. 
Don't we all want someone like that, who gets us?

But you know what? Mostly it's just fun music. It's music that I associate with how much I love spending time with my nieces and nephew, because we've spent countless hours listening to their music on road trips. It's fun.

And then there's Bright Lights. A few years ago I took a shot at making a list of my five favorite songs. Sure, a list like that will change over time. But it made the list. I consider it the perfect rock ballad. And so this moment was the highlight of their concert:


Awesome, awesome night. But I've failed to mention: they shared the evening with another iconic group, Goo Goo Dolls. And it was a new song from them that had lyrics that had me thinking even as my head hit the pillow.

And that will be the subject of my next post..............