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.