Monday, May 26, 2014

Grasping it

How big is the love of God? How deep is it and what are its limits?

It's easy to throw around terms like "infinite," "limitless," and "incomprehensible." But sometimes they are just words. They are what we are supposed to say abut God. But really, how big is his love for us? Is there a way that we can begin to grasp it?

My life experiences are limited. I have seen him work in my life, and I have seen a taste of how much he loves me. Everything I've experienced indicates that it's bigger than I can know. But how can I know more?

With the help of a book I read recently (How People Change), I saw something in Paul's letter to the Ephesians that helped me see a better way to grasp his love. Here is the relevant passage, with the key phrase highlighted:
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name…I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord's holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpassed knowledge - that you may be filled with measure to the fullness of God.
- Ephesians 3:14-15, 17-19 (NIV, italics mine) 

Yes, that's it! Paul is telling the Ephesians that the best chance we have of understanding God's love for us is together. Life is not meant to be lived solo, and following Jesus is not meant to be a solo project. we need each other. So how does this work?

Well, as the book I referenced above points out (I'm not smart enough to think of this on my own), it's kind of like how a jury relies on twelve different minds to reach a verdict based on a full understanding of truth. When we are doing life together with other followers of Jesus, we get the benefit of each other's perspective on Christ's love.

One person has been brought through incredible suffocating grief from suddenly losing family to the great enemy, death. Another has been freed from a powerful addiction. Still another has seen God's grace repair a seemingly broken marriage. This one has lost everything financially and had to depend on God for their needs, and that one has been freed from an attitude of pride over the things of the world. On and on it goes.

When we gather with other believers and share our stories, when we are open with each other, we see so much more of the picture. We see how the love of Jesus is indeed sufficient for every circumstance, seeing so much more that we could know on our own. In How People Change, Lane and Tripp put it like this:
Not only are we strengthened in our individual growth in grace, but the entire body is built up by a fuller sense of the power and hope of God's grace! The Christian life is not less than individual, but it is so much more.
And so I am thankful to my brothers and sisters in Christ. Every time they share what is going on in their journey and allow me to pray with them, even time they allow my to help bear their burdens, every time they listen, pray, and cry with me - they show me a little more of Christ's love. His love is too big to be grasped, even together. But knowing him - really knowing him - is a group venture.

And so, as Paul concludes in Ephesians 3:21…
To him be glory in the the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Keeping it going

Yesterday the Alabama softball team captured the championship of the Tuscaloosa Super Regional, and they are bound for the softball college world series. Again.

Three years ago, the Tide was a win away from the championship series before running into a red hot Florida team. And then, two years ago, they won it all on a memorable night complete with rain delays, a comeback, and plenty of drama.

Now, after falling short last year, they're going back.

It wasn't easy. Friday night I sat through one of the most tense dramatic games imaginable. Bama fell behind 4-0 early, and scratched their way back to win after 12 innings and almost five hours of softball. But the remarkable thing about that game was the play of the freshmen:

  • After senior Jackie Traina had one of her rare nights struggling to pitch, freshman Sydney Littlejohn came in and pitched 8 scoreless innings. 
  • In the bottom of the 7th (the last inning in softball), freshman Marisa Runyon blasted a shot over the wall to tie the game. on to extras…
  • And then the game ended when freshman Peyton Grantham hit another blast.
As I thought more about the game, I thought about the key players in the championship two years ago. Some of them have moved on to their post college lives: players like Kayla Braud, Courtney Conley, Kendall Dawson, and Amanda Locke. Others are about to end their careers at Alabama and turn the team over to the "kids": players like Kaila Hunt, Molly Fichtner, and Jackie Traina. So it's good to see the young ones stepping in and showing the potential for the future.

You know, it's kind of like life. We all have a very limited time on this earth. The 75 years or so that we average is but a breath; we are here today and gone tomorrow. Time will, as the Indigo Girls song says, "make history of us." There is so much to be accomplished, so many people to help, and such a need for us to spread God's love and enhance the kingdom of his Son.

So it's good sometimes to sit back and realize that it's all part of a much greater plan enfolding over thousands of years, under the direction of a very patient God. Like Alabama's seniors, I need to work hard, prepare hard, and do all I can. But when I am done, others will step in and probably do even better. Others like my nephew and nieces, like the young people I have met through YoungLife, and like the children of my friends. Lie those Tide freshmen softball players, they are stepping to the plate and I know they will hit it out of the park.

So, anyway….softball. Yeah, great series. Now let's take home another championship. Roll Tide!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2


A few days ago I went to see the latest telling of the story of the amazing Spider-Man. This is a story I have loved for most of my life. I remember reading the comic books and watching the TV cartoon for hours as a child. I would dress up and pretend to be Spider-Man. (In fact, dressing up and playing superheroes was something I spent way too much time doing.)

As I got older, I appreciated something about the Spider-Man legend that made it different from other superheroes I liked. I realized that this was the story of a young man - really a teenager - who was confused about life and how to deal with it. Raised by his aunt, never knowing his parents, trying to figure out how to have a girlfriend and a double life…Peter Parker is a conflicted character. Which makes him a great subject for a story.

I loved the movie series that starred Toby Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, and the first installment of the new movie series was, in my opinion, even better.

I even enjoyed the Broadway musical, Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark. Although I was definitely in the minority on that.

But this movie. What I really, really loved about it was something that a lot of people hated. The ending.

When Gwen (Emma Stone) fell down that clock tower and Spider-Man's attempt to save her failed, it was one of the most powerful moments I've seen in this type of movie. It felt real, and it was heartbreaking. Then watching him visit her grave for months, and watch the video of her graduation speech…seeing her memory inspire him to keep going in honor of her memory. That was the stuff life is made of.

Really, this movie was about facing death and how we handle it. Peter (Andrew Garfield) learning about his parents and processing that, the things he learned from Aunt May about how she moved on from Uncle Ben's death - they all came together when all of sudden Gwen was snatched away from him.

Death is our greatest enemy. It snatches those we love away and suddenly our lives are never the same. Thankfully, it is a defeated enemy, but that's the subject for other posts (like this one). The point from this movie was: It's real, we have to accept it, and we have to process it so that we can live productive lives.

Jesus has the last word over death. But while death is allowed to continue its doomed reign, we can - and must - go on living.

Yes, movies with happy endings are awesome. We all like happy endings. But in life, there is heartache. And I love a movie that reminds us of that and helps us process it. This was a good one.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Do something…it makes a difference

What do you think is the leading cause of apathy? There are lots of reasons.


Too busy.

Lack of knowledge.

But I think the biggest reason for apathy is that people have come to believe it doesn't make any difference anyway. For example, people don't vote because they think one vote is meaningless.

Well, a recent study by the Barna Group indicates that this is the case with world poverty. People don't want to try because they think it's pointless. But the study also indicates that they are wrong.

How so? In the last 30 years, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty has dropped from 52% to 31%. However, 2/3 of Americans think it has increased.

A summary of the study can be found here:

Global Poverty Is on the Decline, but Almost No One Believes It

I encourage you to read the article slowly, and digest what it is saying. But even if you do not, the bottom line is this:

The fight against world poverty is making a difference. It's not a hopeless cause. So please realize that you can make a difference. And if you are a follower of Jesus, it's your responsibility to do your part.

So..let's get to it.
Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink?" The King will answer and say to them, "Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of the least of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me." (Jesus, in Matthew 25:37,40 [NASB])

Monday, May 12, 2014

Pages and everything

Sometimes, moving forward is taking a step back.

As you may have been able to guess, I am huge fan of technology. I love being connected on social media. I enjoy my Macbook, my iPhone, my Kindle, and I will probably be on board at the next great breakthrough.

The thing I love about reading books with the electronic media is that I just have to take one item with me, and I'm able to jump back and forth between various things I'm reading. I am usually reading two or three books at the same time: one fiction, one nonfiction, and one to help me dig deeper into Bible study. This is all possible for me - who misplaces things a lot - because of the Kindle and the Kindle app.

And of course, I have the Bible app on my iPhone. Just pull that baby out and I have the Scriptures available anywhere. When you see me staring at my phone in church…yeah, it's the Bible.

But I've made a decision…I'm going back to using the Good Book. Emphasis on book.

Recently I noticed something about my Bible reading. I noticed that I was reading way too fast. Once I noticed it, I really started noticing it. I would skim, I would rush, and I would not settle down mentally to really get into it. I have a theory as to why. That's the way we read everything else these days. We scroll through twitter, see links to blogs and article of interest, and we skim through the ones we pick, looking to see whether they are saying anything new, anything to make us slow down.

At least I do. And I've read research indicating that you might too.

That's fine for blogs - heck, you're probably doing it right now. It's fine for articles, and it may be okay for books.

But to me, it's not okay for God's word. The authority of God is dripping from every page, and I need to slow down and absorb it. Take the time to learn the context, so I can distinguish what is really being said from my own personal biases that I try to read into the Bible.

I just don't think I've been doing that with the electronic versions.

And I also miss highlighting, underlining, and making notes in the margins. I miss turning to another passage to see what the writer might have been referring to. I miss a lot of things.

Not anymore.

I'll still use my Bible app for convenience when the book isn't at my fingertips. It's so cool to always have the Scriptures with me. But when it's time to sit down and really read, really study, I'm making a change.

Give me the Book.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

A special day

It's only happened four times. Ever. Today is both Mother's Day and my niece's birthday, a day of remembrance for me and a day of celebration.



Among other implications, I only have one place to put a profile picture on Facebook.

But seriously, it is a day full of mixed feelings. I miss my mother terribly, and at the same time I am so thankful for what she did to make me the man I am today. (To get a wonderful description of her, take time to listen to the audio link at the bottom of this blog post.) And I am so very proud of my niece Haley, who has graduated from the University of Alabama and has a wonderful heart, following in the footsteps of her mother on that.

Two amazing people being celebrated on the same day.

It calls to mind a scripture that seems to be very strange. In the second of the Ten Commandments delivered to Moses, the LORD instructs his people not to make any graven images - any idols to worship. And then he says this,
(F)or I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, responding to the transgressions of fathers by dealing with children for the iniquity of their parents to the third and fourth generations of those who reject me, and showing covenant faithfulness to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. 
- Exodus 20:5-6 (New English Translation)

What a seemingly odd statement - difficult for our Western minds to get our arms around it. We are so individualistic, and we tend to think of God's action in terms of intervention and miracles. But this statement would not have been at all surprising in its cultural context, for they understood YHWH to be God who works through history and his hand is in the details of daily life. So really, this passage is just expressing a truth that we all can observe:

The choices we make have consequences.

When people follow the instructions of the Lord - living consistent lives of loving God and loving people - and teaching their children to do so, the way God has wired human nature means that there is an excellent chance of that faithfulness being passed down. And unfortunately, the opposite is true - when children have terrible examples to follow, the results are tragic way too often.

This would be a principle that Paul in the New Testament would call "reaping and sowing" - you get what you plant. Now through Jesus we have the  amazing grace of God, which busts up the cycle and gives people from the worst backgrounds a brand new start.

I say all this to make a point about my mother. She fostered an atmosphere of love, obedience, and trusting God with the details of her life. She helped those who were in need, often without anyone ever knowing. She provided a listening ear for her children and grandchildren so that we knew someone was there who would love us no matter what, but guide us to the truth.

And, true to the passage above, I see her fingerprints on her grandchildren. Holly. Hunter. Macy. Haley. Brooke. Her grandchildren, the nieces and nephew I love so much, bear the mark of their grandmother's faith. So, there it is - to the third generation.

The hard scriptures are just as important as the easy ones. I am thankful for this one - and for my mother who lived it out.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Going Back for More

This is the text of a guest post I did for the Frazer OneFamily blog. I thought this would be a good time to post it here, as we have a little less than ten days to get new sign ups for this year's Visiting Orphans trip to Ethiopia (details here). If you're even thinking about it (or even if you're not), this is why we go:

It was a normal December day less than four years ago. My phone rang at work and I recognized the number. It was my niece Brooke. 

I had promised to take her on a trip for graduation. She was calling to tell me that she wanted to go on a mission trip. 

To Africa.

Africa? Umm, ok. 

I’ve got to confess that in my 50 years I had never once had a thought that I wanted to set foot on African soil. I was so proud of her for wanting to do this, but this was intimidating. Maybe her mom would tell us she couldn’t go.  

I am so glad she didn’t. 

Through the wisdom and heart of this teenager, God moved my heart and gave me an incredible love for the children of a community on the west side of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  A place called Korah.  Out of a two-week trip, we only spent two days in Korah. But God spoke to me and I knew I would be back. 

We spent time with a ministry that was doing a summer camp (VBS-like) program for the children, and setting up a programs that would allow many of them to break the cycle and get an education while hearing the Good News. 

This summer I will be going back for the fourth time.  I can’t stay away. 

There are some who would say, why? 

Why keep going back to visit the same children? 

Why not donate money rather than spend it going over there? 

What good are you doing by seeing them one week a year?

Fair questions.  I could probably write a book about why I believe God is leading me to travel across the world to see these people again and again. Or I could just quote James 1:27. But here are just a few reasons I keep going back:

Well, James 1:27…and dozens of other passages about God’s heart for the oppressed. Actually, not just dozens of isolated passages, but a theme – a thread – running through the entire Bible. Jesus came to rescue us when we were most helpless, just as the God of Israel had done throughout the Old Testament. He didn’t just send us provisions to meet our needs; he came in person. We are called to do the same. There is no substitute for a smile, a kind word, a touch, and time spent with someone. I don’t know about you, but my greatest need is to know I’m loved. There’s nothing that says, “I love you” like a personal visit.

I think we have fallen into the trap of believing that money solves all problems. We believe it about our own lives – if I just had a little more, I’d be happy. Well, it’s not true for us and it’s not true for them. Yes, financial support is important. But it is no substitute for what happens when they see a bus roll down their street full of Christ-followers who cared enough to come spend time with them and share not only the gospel of God, but our lives as well.” (1 Thessalonians 2:8)

I can’t share my life with them without ever seeing them. I love my friends who are investing their lives in these children full time. This is so important, because I’m fooling myself if I think one week a year is going to change the lives of the people in Addis.  Right? 

Wrong..... if my visits encourage the hearts of those God is using there 365/24/7, then yes, it is making a difference. I’m talking about both the leaders who were born in Addis and devoted their lives to changing their community and those from other countries who have been called to live there full time. I go each year praying that something about my visit will help my friends there lift up Jesus and change the lives of the children. It’s not hit-and-run ministry; it’s a small part in a bigger plan. 

To the extent that I remember that, I can get excited about how God is using me without getting a false sense that I have to save everyone because I have limited time. I am there to serve the people God has placed there.

It changes me. 

God has worked through my Africa experience to give me heart for orphans in our community. My eyes have been opened to needs all around me, and it began when he opened my eyes to the needs of children 8,000 miles away. 

I have a much greater view of how big God is and his plan for the nations because I’ve seen his work among the people of Addis. If you want to really see the heart of God, spend time with the people he has a heart for.

Those are just a few reasons – well, looking back maybe I did write a book! But there’s just so much to say. God is more awesome, merciful, loving, powerful, and wise than I ever imagined before July 2010.  And I owe that to my dear friends in Ethiopia.

And so I keep going back for more.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Attention span

Graduations are very cool things. For every single person who walks across that stage, it's one of the most important days of their life. Family and friends are there, because they all want to be there for the graduate who has worked so hard for that day.

I attended a graduation ceremony today for the University of Alabama. So first let me say congratulations to my nephew-in-law-to-be (that's not a word, is it?) Drew, who was graduated today with an engineering degree. A major accomplishment, believe me. And he deserves double congratulations, because he will be marrying my niece Macy, one of the three top young ladies in the millennial generation.

So…I was sitting in Coleman Coliseum and the graduation candidates began to file in. It took around 25 minutes for them all to get to their seats. It was quite a sight - rows and rows and rows of young college students (for another hour or so), and for each one of them, this day was huge. I estimate that a little over a thousand names were read in this ceremony. A thousand! And it was only one of three ceremonies that were necessary to get all the students graduated.

So what do you do when you are about to listen to a thousand names being read? Names being read, with no commentary in between, for well over an hour. Well, you can zone out. You play a game, or surf Facebook or Twitter on your phone. You can use your Kindle app to read something. Or you can try to actually listen to every name. After all, the thousands of people sitting in Coleman were really there to hear one name, and one name only, read - their loved one.

I must confess that I go through all of the above every time I attend a graduation. It's hard. I really do even go through a time period where I'm trying to think how important it is for each person and listen…but the mind wanders so easily. The human attention span has its limits.

That's why I am absolutely in awe of my Father in heaven. His does not. For him, it took no effort at all for him to give complete and undivided attention to each and every graduate who crossed that stage. He knows them all by name, has numbered every hair on their heads, and cares about every single detail of their lives. While I'm struggling to listen - in spurts - he is reacting to every single one of them the way we reacted when it was Drew's turn. For him, like us, the ceremony is about the one he came to see. Except…it's all of them!

Hear what the Scripture says about each of them - and all of us…
O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD. You hem me in - behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.
- Psalm 139:1-5

He got that right! Way too wonderful for me to grasp. Yeah, I knew that already, intellectually. I knew it was impossible to grasp how in the world God could know every single one of us personally - and love us. But as I listened to name after name after name after name……………it began to hit me. God's ways are so much higher than mine. There's no point to me ever trying to second guess him.

But I am convinced that it is true. And I am thankful.