What Others Say

We use your column in our Saturday Spiritual Life section, so I always read it. The new one about Rafael is just totally cool. Again, great column. It touched me enough to email you.
- Greg Jaklewicz - Editorial Page Editor, Abilene News Reporter

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Day After Christmas 12-26-2009

It’s the day after Christmas. The house is littered with empty boxes, scraps of wrapping paper and strands of ribbon, evidence left over from the gathering of family and the giving of gifts. With kisses and hugs, children and grandchildren have started their long journeys home not to be seen for many months or another year. Life returns to normal, challenges of work and study and a new year. But the memories remain, of laughter and loved ones.

For some, of course, it has been a painful season. During the holidays I preached the funeral for my wife’s favorite aunt, and recalled memories of many years ago when I officiated the burial for one of our best friends on Christmas eve who was barely twenty-nine. The Holidays are not always joyous. But the meaning of the day when God sent His Son to save us from our sins is all the more meaningful.

We all know the stories that led up to the birth: Joseph and Mary on their long journey to Bethlehem, turned away from every inn until they found a resting place in a stall where the child was born; the hovering light that led the Magi from the east, bearing their prophetic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The shepherds shocked from their sleep on the hillside by the angels of heaven proclaiming a Saviour. But we pay little attention to what happened “the day after.”

Like most of us, Mary and Joseph had little time to enjoy the Christmas events that surrounded them. They were immediately faced with Herod’s efforts to hunt out their Son, the prophesied King of Israel. The soldiers fell upon Bethlehem with a vengeance, slaughtering every male child two years old and younger. (Matthew 2:16). Warned in a dream, Joseph fled with his little family to Egypt where they spent eight years hiding as refugees from Herod’s wrath.

Thousands today are living in exile, refugees from war. In some countries believers are spending these days in prison for their faith. Some are facing death because they have embraced Jesus as Son of God and Saviour. Many others have heavy hearts from the loss of loved ones missed at family gatherings.

The full story of Jesus’ birth embraces both the heights of joy and the depths of sorrow. Whether we are filled with celebration and happiness or thrown into heartache and despair, God is sufficient. He has been there. He knows our joy and our sorrow, and He has given His Son that we might know Him. Many years later, after Jesus had finished all that He was sent to do and Mary watched Him die on the cross, Luke says she “pondered all these things in her heart.” May we ponder these things, too, on this “day after Christmas,” and throughout the year to come that we might know Him and express His love every day.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Thank You For Coming 12-25-2009

Children in South Texas woke up on Christmas morning to a thirteen inch snow fall.in 2004. The next day, while impromptu snowmen melted in the Texas sun, an earthquake equal to 23,000 Hiroshima Atomic bombs struck the Indian Ocean. The resulting Tsunami obliterated the city of Banda Aceh in Indonesia. More than two hundred thousand people died as a result of the killer wave.

A few years later, I stood on the beach at Banda Aceh, Indonesia and listened to the gentle waves wash upon the shore while the Indonesian people strolled along the jetties. It was a beautiful and peaceful afternoon. Behind me stood a lighthouse. It had been erected as a beacon to passing ships, but it now stood as a monument to the tragic moment that struck this place on December 26, 2004. . The top of the lighthouse, more than one hundred feet above me, had been blown apart by the tsunami.

Aceh is perhaps the most rigid Muslim state in the world, governed by strict Sharia law. It is ruled by the Koran and the Muslim Imams. It prides itself as the “gateway to Mecca.” Prior to the tsunami Christians were not allowed entrance into the region. But the day the tsunami struck, everything changed. The city of Aceh was virtually wiped out by the force of the wave.

I was visiting with a group of Christians, surveying Non-Governmental-Organizatoins that had been allowed into the country to help the citizens rebuild. Separated from the rest of the world and taught that Christianity was evil, many of the people were beginning to ask why the Christians were the ones who responded the most to their disaster. President Bush immediately pledged $350 million to help with the recovery. Like many Muslim countries, the people of Aceh equate America with Christianity..

I noticed a woman watching us. She was sitting on her motorcycle. Almost all Indonesians ride motorcycles. The streets are filled with them. For days I had watched them leaving for work in the early morning, weaving their way along the streets, whole families balanced on two wheels, the father driving, one or two children in his lap, the mother behind him with another child. I watched young women, their blue and green hijabs flying in the wind. Through an interpreter I struck up a conversation with the woman.

She asked if we were Americans. We said yes. She told us that she was at this very spot when the tsunami hit. She said it carried her and her two children more than two miles inland. One child was separated and drowned. Her husband and the rest of her family were killed. Only she and her son survived, but he was badly injured. His wounds were infected and he was dying. She said an American doctor came and treated her son and he lived. In spite of her deep sorrow and loss, she smiled, not just her face, but with her eyes, and said, “I want to thank you for coming.”

This Christmas we are all like that Indonesian woman. Christmas is our way of smiling as we look into the face of God and say, “Thank you for coming.”

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tiger and Priorities 12-15-2009

After weeks of spiraling rumors and speculation about infidelities and marital conflict Tiger Woods has made a decision. He will step away from golf and work on” becoming a better husband, father and person.”

No professional athlete has ever burst on the scene with greater talent and more success than Tiger Woods. No one has risen to such heights in such a short time, the world’s first $1 billion athlete. And perhaps none has fallen further faster than Tiger has fallen in the last three weeks. In that short time, Woods has gone from the pinnacle of sports with a pristine image to the butt of late night jokes and the number one subject for tabloids and gossip columns.

I have watched Tiger from the beginning of his professional career. I have been awed by his talent and skill, and, like millions of others, my interest in watching golf wanes when Tiger isn’t in the hunt. But I am glad to hear of his decision to step away from professional golf to work on his priorities.

No trophy, no professional accomplishment, no amount of wealth or fame is as important as nurturing the soul to be a better person. Life is ultimately about relationships, with God, our family, our friends and ourselves. And, for those relationships to be healthy, we must get our priorities straight. Jesus said, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?”

When Tom Landry was hired to coach the hapless Dallas Cowboys, a 1961 expansion team in the NFL with little hope of winning, he introduced himself to the team by telling them his priorities. He said he would put God first, family second, and then football. Bob Lilly, the all American recruit from TCU and the first draft pick in Cowboy franchise history, listened to Landry’s list of priorities and said to himself, “We will never win.” Years later, when Landry ended his career with 13 Divisional titles, 5 NFC titles and 2 Super Bowl rings, Lilly and others realized Landry had his priorities right. And, throughout his career, he helped others get their priorities right.

When our oldest son was struggling with how to find his way in the world, I reminded him that if he would put God first, everything else would come into focus. Fortunately he chose to do that. God has blessed him with a loving wife, three beautiful children and a Christian home.

Millions of marriages are in trouble. Many are walking away from responsibilities at home. Millions are sacrificing family relationships and responsibilities for career advancement and wealth. I am praying for Tiger Woods and his family. I am praying he will emerge from this tragic moral failure and set an example of recovery for others who are struggling with greater issues than how to play golf. I would like to see Tiger Woods play professional golf again and I expect he will. But I am more concerned that he, like all the rest of us, discovers the priorities that will last a lifetime and more.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Christmas Blind Side 12-9-2009

I like going to the movies. I like sitting in the front row of the upper section, my wife’s favorite spot. We prop our feet on the rails in front of us, sit back buried in surround sound and share a box of popcorn and a diet coke. I especially like movies that are based on true stories: Akeela and the Bee, The Great Debaters, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Chariots of Fire, The Soloist. They capture faith, hope and courage greater than any fiction: Last week, for my birthday, we went to see The Blind Side. I will have to add it to the list.

The movie opens with the actual footage from Joe Theisman’s career ending injury. I watched it live when it happened. It still makes me cringe. The offensive tackle’s job in football is to protect the quarterback and keep that from happening. The title of the movie comes from the role of the left tackle who protects the quarterback’s blind side.

The movie is based Michael Oher’s true story. A homeless youth who wandered the streets of Memphis, Oher was befriended by a well-to-do Memphis family who took him in. Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy made him part of their family, paid for his education, encouraged and befriended him. Oher is now the rookie offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens. He played the entire game last Monday night against Green Bay.

All of us have a blind side just as we all have blind spots. Our eyes have blind spots created by the optic nerve head. Our brain fills in the picture so we don’t realize it. But the blind spots in our field of vision are very real. (To check out your blind spot go to www.blindspottest.com) When something, or someone, is outside our peripheral view or in our blind spot, we can be “blind sided.”

The title of the movie, “The Blind Side,” could stand for those moments in life when God blindsides us with an opportunity to be transformed by making a remarkable difference. Leigh Anne and Sean Touhy were, quite literally, blind sided by a homeless black youth named Michael who gave them the opportunity to make a difference. When commended by a friend for changing Michael’s life, Leigh Anne responded, “No, he is changing me.”

Jesus was the master of the blindside. He never missed an opportunity to make a difference. When others tried to silence a blind beggar by the road, Jesus called for him and gave him sight. When his followers urged him to ignore a woman who timidly touched the hem of his garment, Jesus stopped and healed her twelve-year hemorrhage. When the citizens of Jericho rebuked the despised tax-collector, Zacchaus, Jesus visited him in his home. When He encountered a crowd of men about to stone a woman caught in the act of adultery, he exposed their hypocrisy and forgave her.
Christmas is, of course, about being blindsided. The whole world was blindsided by the birth of the babe at Bethlehem. Few took note, and those who did totally misunderstood. Most just didn’t see it. Maybe this Christmas God wants to blindside us with an opportunity that will change us and make a difference in someone else’s life. Sean Tuohy said regarding Michael Oher, "We think God sent him to us. Earthly explanations don't make sense."

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Clues From Islam 12-2-2009

While millions stormed the stores last week in search of bargains on Black Friday, twenty thousand Muslims filed quietly into the Dallas Convention Center for prayer. The occasion? Eid-al-Adha, “the day of sacrifice,” one of the holiest days in Islam. Some refer to it as the “Muslim Christmas.” The day is set aside to commemorate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son.

The Old Testament story is familiar to students of the Bible. Abraham had obeyed God, launching out into an unfamiliar land with his wife who, in her old age gave birth to a son of promise. Like most fathers, Abraham doted upon his cherished child of promise until his faith in God was tested. Would he be willing to offer his son as a sacrifice to God? In ultimate obedience, Abraham prepared for the sad climb to the mountain’s peak, loading the wood for the sacrificial fire on his son’s back.

At the last moment, with the child laid upon the sacrificial pyre and his hand grasping the knife, God stopped him dead in his tracks and provided a ram for the sacrifice. Eid –al-Adha celebrates God sparing the son for a sacrificial ram instead. Abraham called the place “The Lord Will Provide” because God provided his own sacrifice. (Genesis 22:13).

Abraham’s experience changed our understanding of God. Instead of seeking sacrifices from us, God pays the penalty of our sin with His own sacrifice. When the prophets looked forward to the coming Messiah, they described Him as the One who would become the perfect sacrifice for our sins. Isaiah wrote, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:6-7). The Psalmist described this sacrifice saying, “They have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.” (Psalm 22). John introduced Jesus to his future followers by saying, “Behold the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29).

Islam has always recognized Jesus as a prophet. Increasingly, Muslims are discovering clues within their own religion that indicate Jesus, or Isa as he is called in the Koran, is more than a prophet. He is God’s gift to us in order that our sins might be forgiven and we might have eternal life. By some estimates, sixteen thousand Muslims turn to Christ every day in Africa alone. Many cite a growing movement in Islam to embrace Jesus as the Savior.

No amount of sacrifice on our part can pay for our sins, but God provided the perfect sacrifice in His Son, as the Scripture says, “God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son, so that whoever believes in Him might not perish but have everlasting life.” God desires that we accept His amazing gift in Jesus and live lives that honor Him. What better way to begin the Christmas season than accepting God’s life transforming gift in Jesus.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving and Black Friday 11-25-2009

I like Thanksgiving. I think it is my favorite holiday because it has not been hijacked by commercialism. I like the sounds of family and friends laughing around the table. I like the fall leaves scattered about the lawn, the crisp mornings and the smell of turkey baking in the oven. I like what goes with it: cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, green beans, salad and pie (any kind of pie). And, most of all, I like dressing, the one thing that still divides the north from the south. Those from the north prepare bread dressing. Those with southern roots cook corn bread dressing. Turkeys come and turkeys go, but my wife’s corn bread dressing is to die for. She learned the recipe from her mother: corn bread, celery, onions, chopped boiled eggs, broth, butter and other ingredients I will never figure out. With giblet gravy, it is a meal in itself.

By Friday the tryptophan and carbohydrates have worn off. After missing the third quarter of the Thanksgiving ball game we regained consciousness enough to stumble into the kitchen for leftovers. Loaded up again, and slept the sound sleep of a thankful soul. And now we are ready to get on with the real business of the American holiday season: shopping!

Lines form in front of Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Target long before the first gray light of day. A few spend the night there, camped out in tents on concrete sidewalks, huddled in parkas against brick walls, fulfilling a holiday tradition. Our pilgrim fathers knew nothing of this. They hunted and harvested and cleaned and cooked, but they never stood in lines in front of glass doors waiting for the opening bell. They never rushed through aisles searching for treasures that were sure to disappear. They never stood in check out lines that stretched to the back of the store. They had it easy.

Fifty years ago we eased into Christmas. No one had heard of Black Friday. We used Friday to digest the Thanksgiving feast. It was a quiet day, the day after we gathered at grandma’s with cousins and kin. Christmas decorations were not yet up, not even thought of. We savored the season. But today, we are jolted from Thanksgiving into Christmas.

Black Friday seems to symbolize our rush through life, our efforts to get the best deal, to be first in line. It seems to represent the commercialization of Christmas and threatens to turn Thanksgiving into a season of “thanks getting.” Don’t get me wrong. I like a good deal and deep discounts. I want the American economy to thrive. But, along the way, I hope we cultivate a thankful heart and grateful spirit that is not measured by the sum of what we can get at the cheapest price. “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” (Colossians 3:15).

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Ants 11-18-2009

We have ants. We have kept them at bay inside the house, but outside, that is a different matter. A single dropped crumb on the patio and the next morning a stream of ants appear, hundreds of them in a neatly organized operation to dismantle the discarded food and store it in bits and bites for later use.

How do they do this? Do the wandering scout-ants have cell phones? When they make a discovery do they place a call back to home base and say, “Send the troops. We have food!” Who organizes the operation? Who tells these worker ants to answer the call, and who plots the route, usually the shortest and least obstructed line to the treasure?

If they were humans, the searchers who discovered the food supply would immediately stake a claim, lay title to it and horde it so that they could be wealthier than all the other ants. They would let the weaker ants in the colony starve. And, they would probably spend most of their time in “ant court” defending the right to their possessions. “Ant lawyers” would probably claim the greatest portion of the wealth.

Why can’t we learn from these little creatures? Every year a billion people on the earth die of starvation. Every day 25,000 children, world wide, whose stomachs are bloated and empty draw their last breath. They die in remote villages far from public scrutiny. Over half the world’s population, three billion people, live on less than $2.50 per day.

I have to admit this convicts and alarms me. I need to be more like the little critters who invade my patio. I need to sound the alarm, send out the signal, marshal others and join them in distributing food and resources to those who need it. But how do we do this? How do we know that our gifts get to the people and places where they are needed? There is so much graft and corruption in the world that charitable gifts are often routed into the pockets of the greedy.

I guess the best thing is to be alert to opportunities. When a beggar approached me on a parking lot in downtown Dallas, I took him across the street to Subway and bought him a sandwich. Unfortunately, as I listened to him, his story seemed to unravel and I am not sure it was the best thing to do. But it was something. When one of our church members returned from Kenya and made an appeal for people she knows who are starving, I sent a check. When I visited Tillie Bergin at Mission Arlington and saw the difference she was making among the poor in the inner city, I sent a gift. It’s not much. But, for me it is a start. If all of us gave more generously we could make a difference, like the ant.

Proverbs says, “Go to the ant … consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.” (Prov. 6:6-8). John, describing true repentance and faith, said, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” (Luke 3:11)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Fort Hood 11-10-2009

Two weeks from now we will gather with family and friends for Thanksgiving, a peculiar American tradition, peculiar because it is unique to our country and its history. As we have done many times before, we will do so against the backdrop of a tragic evil. Looming in the backs of our minds will be images of Fort Hood and the innocent men and women who were slain.

I must admit that this crime has raised deeper feelings of anger and resentment in me than most. Perhaps it is because the crime was committed by one who wore the uniform of our country and was perpetrated against young men and women who had volunteered to place their lives in harms way for the rest of us. Perhaps it is because he was a trained psychiatrist who was supposed to identify and prevent this kind of insanity. Or perhaps it is because it could reflect a radical religious element that somehow celebrates innocent bloodshed and slaughter as something heroic. If it is the latter, we must remind ourselves it is the twisted tenets of this radical element that we are to abhor and hate, not the person or the people.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I have decided to focus on those who are truly heroic rather than the perpetrator of this crime. I will focus on Kimberly Munley, the Fort Hood police officer who sought out the killer and stood her ground exchanging gunfire with him to end the slaughter. I will focus upon nineteen year old Amber Bahr from Wisconsin who, after being shot herself helped drag her buddies to safety and tore up her jacket as a makeshift tourniquet to save a fellow soldier. These women are truly heroic because their first thoughts were for the safety and welfare of others. They are heroic because they were willing to lay down their lives that others might live. I will focus upon the thirteen who gave their lives, the twenty-nine who were wounded and the thousands, both military and civilian, whose bravery and unselfish sacrifice go unknown and unreported every day, those who choose goodness and grace in obscure places without thought of reward.
I will choose to believe the Bible’s promise that goodness and grace ultimately overcome hatred and violence. I will believe this because God has not only declared it to be true; He has demonstrated it by the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus. As the Scripture says, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know … what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.” (Ephesians 1:18-21). Because of this, I will seek to follow His instruction, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:20). And, when we gather with family and friends in a couple of weeks, I will give thanks.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Understanding the Bible 11-1-2009

My wife and I took Saturday off for a quick trip to southwest Arkansas, a chance to see the changing leaves in the Ozarks. The hills were ablaze. The change in scenery was invigorating. We celebrated the zenith of our trip eating dinner at Queen Wilhelmina State Park with a view of the Ozark hills in the distance.

We struck up a conversation with a couple from Oklahoma. He was a semi-retired math teacher. When I mentioned I was a minister, the conversation changed. I have seen this happen many times. But this one was a bit different. Fire entered his eyes as he told me of his recently purchased assault rifle, his membership in the NRA and his commitment to the right to bear arms. He then proceeded to explain how Jesus identified Barack Obama as the Anti-Christ. His reasoning was based on an interpretation of Jesus’ statement in Luke 10, that He saw Satan fall like lightening from Heaven. He had seen a wildly popular video on youtube and was convinced.

“If you read it in Hebrew, the original language,” he said, “you will find that the words Barack and Obama are the words he used.” I listened to him waxing eloquent about the evils of our President for a few moments, as if he were rallying recruits for a revolution to reclaim our government, before informing him that the passage he quoted was written in Greek, not Hebrew. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew. The New Testament was written in Greek.

The wind had been robbed from his sails and the fire in his eyes dimmed a little. But his mind was made up, and something as trivial as a mistake about the language wasn’t going to dissuade him. After all, he explained, he had read Strong’s Concordance. After I got home I looked it up. The video he had seen admits the text was written in Greek, but does some fancy foot work mixed with a little imagination to reconstruct Jesus saying, “I saw Satan as baraq ubamaw.”

It was a reminder to me that we get ourselves in trouble when we build our beliefs on obscure and questionable interpretations of the Bible, especially when we go to great lengths to make the Bible say what we want it to say. Whole denominations, sects and cults have been created around disputed passages. We need to build our faith on the clear and plain sections of Scripture. The most obvious and apparent meaning is almost always the right one. The Bible was not meant to be a puzzle or an obscure book that only the most educated or imaginative could figure out. The Bible was given to us so we could discover the important answers to the meaning and purpose of life, and, most importantly, so we could have a relationship with God that changes us to reflect His character. If we want to know what the character of God looks like, we need only look at Jesus without trying to reinterpret what He said.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Halloween 10-29-2009

This Saturday night miniature ghosts, goblins and super heroes will emerge from houses at dusk to comb the streets in search of treats. I always enjoyed taking our kids trick-or-treating in our neighborhood, watching children hold open hopeful bags, peering into their dark recesses trying to determine what luck they might have had at the door. A costumed ghoul that jumped from the bushes once convinced our five-year-old that he had enough candy for one night.

I still enjoy little ones ringing our door bell. I enjoy trying to guess who is hiding behind the princess mask, what little boy is growling in the Ninja Turtle costume. I especially like to have ET and Yoda drop by for a visit with their pet ghost-dog. Most of them are very polite ghosts, goblins and super heroes. They almost always say, “Thank you.”

Halloween, of course, has its dark side. Our anonymous neighborhoods, nightly news reports of abducted children and maps dotted with sexual predators have erased the naïve world of Halloween past. We are more aware that we live in a dangerous world where evil is real and present.

Many churches are more than a little uncomfortable with Halloween. After all, it has definite pagan roots. On the one hand, it is enjoyable to celebrate community with imagination, fantasy and neighborly generosity. On the other hand, there are demonic and destructive forces at work in the world that kill and destroy. It is one thing to celebrate fall and harvest and indulge in imagination. It is another to celebrate the occult, witchcraft, the devil and demons.

Many struggle with addictions and impulses they seem unable to control. They find themselves on a collision course with destruction, both their own and the destruction of those they love. Our world needs the deliverance from evil that Jesus offers.

Jesus once met a man who was outcast from his community. He lived among the tombs of the dead, often cutting himself with sharp stones. Local citizens tried to control him by putting him in chains, but he broke the chains and escaped back to his home among the graves. When Jesus ordered the demons that were destroying the man to leave him they entered a nearby herd of swine that immediately rushed into the sea and were drowned. The man was healed. When his neighbors found him, he was in his right mind, sitting with Jesus, no longer a threat to himself or to them. But it scared them. They asked Jesus to leave their country and not to come back. I guess forces that we cannot understand or control always scare us.

We can celebrate Halloween as an occasion to enjoy our children and their imagination. We can celebrate the turning leaves, dry corn, pumpkins and harvest. Halloween can also serve as a reminder that in our struggles with the unseen forces of good and evil, both in our hearts and in the world, we have a deliverer.

Encouragement Factor 10-21-2009

We have all seen it, the power of encouragement. It is what sports calls the “home field advantage.” The length of every football field is 100 yards, every pitcher’s rubber is sixty feet six inches from home plate. The bases are ninety feet apart. Every basketball hoop is ten feet high and every free throw line is fifteen feet from the backboard. But one thing is different. One athlete is playing before the home crowd and the other isn’t. The cheers of encouragement that fill the stadiums for the home team make a difference. People perform better when they are cheered on.

We also know the ravages of discouragement. Discouragement can paralyze and make it impossible to act. It can steal our confidence and throw us into a deadly downward spiral. Some remarkable people have the ability to resist discouragement and retain their focus. Tiger Woods has it when he has hit a series of bad shots or finished a bad round of golf. He keeps his spirits up. But most of us are more vulnerable to the voices of discouragement from within and from without.

The Adversary whispers into our ear words of discouragement and doubt. But God always encourages us, just as Jesus encouraged the heartbroken father whose daughter had died, “Stop fearing, only believe!” (Mark 5:36). God is our constant encourager. He believes in us. He has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Joshua 1:5, Hebrews 13:5). Moses’ success depended upon how well he encouraged Joshua. (Deu.1:38, 3:38).
During his father’s funeral, Ted Kennedy Jr. recounted the turning point of his life as a twelve year old boy. He had just lost his leg to bone cancer. He says, “ … a few months after I lost my leg, there was a heavy snowfall over my childhood home outside of Washington D.C. And my father went to the garage to get the old Flexible Flyer, and asked me if I wanted to go sledding down the steep driveway.
And I was trying to get used to my new artificial leg. And the hill was covered with ice and snow. And it wasn't easy for me to walk. And the hill was very slick. And as I struggled to walk, I slipped and I fell on the ice. And I started to cry and I said, “I can't do this. I said, I'll never be able to climb up that hill.”
And he lifted me up in his strong, gentle arms and said something I will never forget, he said, ‘I know you can do it. There is nothing that you can't do. We're going to climb that hill together, even if it takes us all day.’
Sure enough, he held me around my waist and we slowly made it to the top. And you know, at age 12 losing your leg pretty much seems like the end of the world. But as I climbed on to his back and we flew down the hill that day, I knew he was right. I knew I was going to be OK.”

Encourage someone who needs it. It might be the most important thing you will do today, this week or in your lifetime.

Beyond Religion 10-14-2009

A young friend of mine recently wrote on his facebook page, “Religion is still the opiate of the masses.” He got some interesting responses. One person agreed with him. Another wrote, “It can’t be. If it was, I would take it for recreational purposes.” Of course the statement originated with Karl Marx when he was developing the Communist Manifesto, the philosophical foundation that would eradicate religion in Russia for seventy-five years. When I visited Moscow and Lenin’s tomb nine years ago the hopeless despair left in atheism’s wake was palpable.

My first inclination, like many, is to jump to the defense of religion. But that might not be the most thoughtful response. After all, religion killed Jesus. The Roman government reluctantly carried out the crucifixion only after Pilate had repeatedly tried to release Jesus concluding, “I find no fault in him.” It was the religious leaders of Jerusalem who incited the crowds and demanded Jesus be crucified.

Mankind is incurably religious. Every culture on every continent has spawned religion. And, more often than not, the results have not been good. 9-11 and the Twin Towers serve as a monuments to the deadly effects of Islamic Jihad. The Hindu caste system of India consigns millions to poverty without hope.

The Christian religion can often become corrupt, self serving and self absorbed. Perhaps Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, found credibility with so many because they suspect that religious systems can become politically vicious when their survival is threatened. Religion can become sick so that the mentally unstable justify atrocities against the innocent. We cannot forget the 909 people, including women and children, who voluntarily drank cyanide out of religious devotion to Jim Jones in Guyana. We shudder when we read the emerging story of Phillip Garrido who abducted Jaycee Dugard 18 years ago and claims to be a Christian.

Religion can become a poison, not just an opiate.

Jesus, on the other hand, makes people less selfish, more generous, fills them with hope and leads them to sacrificial efforts to help others. Jesus transformed a little Albanian girl named Agnes into Mother Teresa who spent her life living among the poor of Calcutta and caring for them. Faith in Jesus made William Wilberforce the leader of reform in England to abolish slavery in the British Empire. Faith in Jesus Christ changed a backwoods playboy from North Carolina into Billy Graham who preached grace and forgiveness to millions. Faith in Jesus Christ catapulted Martin Luther King, Jr from the backstreets of Atlanta into the forefront of the Civil Rights movement. The list is almost endless. Religion can be an opiate or a poison, but faith in Jesus Christ transforms the world into a better place.

State Fair 10-7-2009

Oprah shined the national spotlight on the State Fair of Texas this year. I have been visiting the State Fair since I was a kid, wandering the sprawling grounds that circle the Cotton Bowl, birth place of the Cowboys, site of the Texas OU shootout and the Grambling game. There is something about the State Fair. Maybe it’s Big Tex, standing at the entrance where he has stood for generations, welcoming all comers with his Texas drawl. Maybe it’s Fletcher’s corn dogs smothered in mustard and ketchup, or cotton candy, sugar sprinkled waffles, roasted turkey legs and the deep fried “whatever” that reflects the Texas motto, “If you can fry it, you can eat it!”

Maybe it’s the midway with barkers promising prizes for a ring toss, a plastic duck plucked from the pond, a water balloon filled with water guns or the bell rung by a powerful blow with the sledge hammer. It could be the rides rotating with screaming and squealing kids. Or maybe it’s the pig races, the animal barns with blue ribbons or the tastiest jams and jellies. It could be the bird show, hawks launched from the ferris wheel swooping low over our head to the crowd’s applause. It could be the auto show where the Mustang was introduced in 1964, where today’s cars are on display with gleaming chrome and glistening paint.

Most of all, I think, it is the people, people who come together to laugh and celebrate family, heritage and culture. I like to see parents pushing babies in strollers, children dancing with excitement, grey haired men and women smiling at private memories, and lovers lounging on the grass beside the reflection pool.

God loves people, and he must like laughter. If the laughter of our children thrills us, how much more does our laughter thrill Him. God likes to see people coming together to enjoy one another. That may be why Jesus performed his first miracle at a wedding feast, providing new wine when the wine ran out. It may be the reason His teaching is filled with references to banquet feasts and parties, like the fatted calf killed and cooked to celebrate the prodigal’s return. Heaven is described as a great banquet feast, a mansion with many rooms, a place where all the peoples, cultures and languages of the world gather in celebration and joy.

The State Fair, of course, isn’t heaven. It certainly isn’t perfect. But Heaven is. Our moments of celebration and enjoyment are dim glimpses of what God has prepared in Heaven. The Bible says, “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’” (Rev. 21:3-4). This, of course, is why Jesus came, so that we might experience glimpses of heaven here, and eternal life with Him in Heaven when we die.

Winning the War on Terror 9-30-2009

The failed attempt to bomb Fountain Place in Dallas last week brought back visions of the twin towers in New York. It also brought the war on terror closer to home, a stark reminder that we live in a different world since September 11, 2001. A year after 9-11, my wife and I visited ground zero in New York, stood in silence and pondered what happened there. Ground zero has become a pivot point in history. It is sobering to realize that there are now children in the second and third grades who were born after 9-11. They have never known any other world.

For every generation there are a few dates and places that stand as markers, places where the world as we knew it was altered. For my generation it was the assassination of JFK at Dealey Plaza, Neal Armstrong’s first step on the moon, Watergate, and 9-11. For my parents’ generation it was the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, D Day, Hiroshima and Nagasaki..

When the Twin Towers collapsed on September 11, 2001, all our old securities collapsed with them. Prior to that moment, we lived with a sense that we were protected from the dangers and atrocities that plagued the rest of the world. All of our wars since the Civil War were fought on foreign soil, thousands of miles away. We watched images of Vietnam and Desert Storm, but they were distant places that did not threaten our neighborhoods or our work place. With 9-11, the security of two oceans that protected us from the enemy vanished. The whole idea of a “star wars” protective shield from missile attack became obsolete. Our world became far more dangerous than we had ever known it.

Every generation has lived with the threat of war, injustice and terror. When Jesus was born at Bethlehem Herod’s henchmen ransacked the city stripping infants from the arms of wailing mothers, dashing their sons to death upon the stones (Matthew 2:16-18). Jesus’ death by crucifixion was an act of terror. The Roman army created crucifixion as a gruesome public torture to strike fear and terror into the hearts of its citizens. Under Nero, Christians were burned upon crosses where they were crucified in the streets of Rome..

The resurrection of Jesus broke the grip of terror because it broke the grip of death. Early believers knew they were going to heaven through faith in Jesus Christ. Even Nero’s attempts to strike terror into their hearts could not stamp them out. Faith in Jesus Christ prevailed until three centuries later it permeated the Roman Empire.

The war on terror is ultimately won or lost in our own hearts. When we live in fear, terrorism wins. When we live with confidence and faith, it is defeated. Jesus said, “In this world you will have terror (tribulation), but be of good courage, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33).

Dog Theology 9-23-2009

Last week I introduced my dog, Buddy, to you. I thought that this week, I would let you in on a few other things Buddy is teaching me. It could be called “dog theology.” It might sound strange, even sacrilegious to a few, but Bob Sjogren and Gerald Robison have developed whole seminars and books around “cat and dog theology.” (www.catndogtheology.com). Put simply, cats say, “You feed me, shelter me and care for me. I must be god.” Dogs say, “You feed me, shelter me and care for me. You must be god.” If you have ever had a cat and a dog you know what I mean. Cat theology is me-centered. “What can God do for me?” Dog theology is God centered. Here are a few things I am learning about “dog theology” from Buddy.

Buddy trusts me. Whenever I get in my truck he jumps in and takes his place, ready to go. He doesn’t know where we are going or what we are going to do. But he believes that if I am driving it is okay. I need to be more like that with God. I always want to know where we are going, when we are going to get there and what we are going to do once we arrive. I need to jump in the truck with God and give him control of my life.

Buddy wants to be with me. He doesn’t care if he is at the lake running, splashing and rolling in the mud, sitting in a chair next to me on the patio or in my study lying at my feet while I write. He just wants to be where I am. He even follows me from room to room in the house. I need to spend time with God. What made the early disciples different was the fact they had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13).

Buddy follows me. Whenever we go for a walk in an open field I let him off his leash and he runs free. But he keeps an eye on me. He has developed a radius of his own, about thirty yards from wherever I am. Within that radius he feels comfortable exploring smells and marking trees. Occasionally he gets out of eyesight. But, when I call his name he comes running. Not real fast, but as fast as he can. After all he is a Corgi. It reminds me of what Jesus said to His disciples, “Come, follow me!” “My sheep know my voice.”

And, he is teaching me patience. He will wait on me forever. If I am writing, he lies down, rests his head on his paws, keeps one eye on me and waits. If we are walking and I stop, he sits down with his tongue hanging out and waits. If I go to the store, he waits in my truck until I return. Buddy never complains about waiting on me. He never gets in a hurry. Maybe I should be more like that with respect to God and those I love.

Learning From Buddy 9-14-2009

A few months ago we adopted a dog. Well, I guess “I” adopted a dog. My wife finally gave in. But he won her over and now he is “our” dog. Across the years we had pets, mostly mutts and strays, that wandered into our lives. They helped us raise our kids. Each was different. “Punkin” was our first. I brought her home for Christmas. I was too busy to give her much attention, but the boys loved her. She grew old, blind and died before our daughter was born.

Rascal was a stray gray-and-white kitten our boys picked up off the street. He was part of our family for fifteen years and made the move with us from Texas to Minnesota. We picked up a puppy we named Max from a Minnesota farm. We thought he would be a small dog, but in six months, he was bigger than our daughter, had eaten all the furniture and dug up the back yard. We offered him to a good home. One interested lady tried to take his picture and he ate her camera. Finally a young couple with a farm adopted him. We threw in his crate, dog food and anything else we could think of. We last saw them chasing him down the street.

So we went back to cats. My wife and daughter found a cute black and white kitten that our son named “Fido.” Our daughter loved Fido. But, Fido was apparently insulted by our move back to Texas and ran away. When our daughter left for college we found ourselves in an empty nest, the kids grown and the dogs and cats gone. It was peaceful. I guess a little too peaceful. After awhile I realized I missed having a dog.

A few months ago we found Buddy. He was picked up starving off the streets of Fort Worth by Corgi Rescue. When we first met him he was skinny and sick. But we instantly knew he was right for us. Buddy and I have bonded. He goes with me just about everywhere I go. He is helping me put my life in perspective and teaching me some things about God.

Buddy is teaching me to live in the moment; to celebrate each day as a gift. So often I spend time reminiscing or regretting the past and dreaming or worrying about the future. But Buddy takes each day as it comes. Of course it is good to cherish memories and learn from the past. And it is good to dream and plan. That is part of what defines us in God’s image. But I am prone to miss the moment. Jesus said, “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself …” ( Mt 6:34). “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Ps. 118:24).

Living With Respect 9-11-2009

The flap over President Obama’s address to students has raised some interesting questions. Perhaps most significantly, it causes us to ask, “Can we honor and respect our elected officials?” It seems that the response is, “Yes, if we voted for them.” When President George H. W. Bush spoke to students in 1991, Democrats complained that it was paid political propaganda. When President Obama announced a speech to students Republicans cried foul. Bush’s speech can be found among his presidential library papers online at www.bushlibrary.tamu.edu. Obama’s speech can be found at www.whitehouse.gov. Both President Bush on October 1, 1991 and President Obama this week focused on the need for students to stay in school, be responsible, get an education and have a future.

We need to step back and think about what we are teaching our children by our attitudes and actions. Our youth and children need to see us as adults demonstrating respect for elected officials and one another, whether Republican, Democrat or Independent. Too often we have been disappointed by elected officials who manipulate the system, seek their own self interest and disappoint us with their private moral behavior. Of course, we have a remedy, which is not to elect them back to office. But, respect for one another and for those we elect to serve our cities, our state and our nation is important. The way we conduct ourselves toward one another and our elected officials teaches something to our youth that cannot be duplicated in the classroom.

Speaking about attitudes toward government officials, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” (Romans 13:1 NAS). “The first thing I want you to do is pray. Pray every way you know how, for everyone you know. Pray especially for rulers and their governments to rule well so we can be quietly about our business of living simply, in humble contemplation. This is the way our Savior God wants us to live.” (1 Timothy 2:1-3 the Message). If Paul could give these instructions to Christians living in a corrupt Roman Empire during the first century, how much more do they apply to us living in our American democracy.

We need to demonstrate to our youth how to disagree with one another with respect. We need to show them how to rise above name calling and derision. We need to pull together to encourage our youth to stay in school, pursue an education and have a future. They need to know that we believe in them. That this is one thing we agree on. The days when mere muscle was enough to get someone by are gone. More than any other era in history, the increasingly technological world of the twenty-first century demands an education.

Labor Day 9-2-2009

Labor Day is a great holiday, especially in Texas. The scorching heat of summer has broken. The air is invigorated with the first breath of fall. Kids are back in school. Friday night football is here. Frisbees fly in parks where hamburgers sizzle on the grill. The lakes are still warm enough for skiing. Fishing is good. The Cowboys are playing and the Rangers have a shot at the playoffs. It is a great weekend to gather with friends and family and relax.

Underneath all this lies the significance of the day, a time to step back and celebrate the importance of labor. It is the core of our culture: the value of hard work, perseverance and discipline. Most of the time we fawn over celebrities. But on this day, the common laborer takes the stage.

I think of my father, a blue collar worker who started out trimming grass around telephone poles and worked thirty-five years for Bell Telephone before his death at age fifty three. I always admired his example of honesty, generosity and hard work. He taught me something about Jesus, who chose to spend most of his adult life working in a simple carpenter’s shop in Nazareth. Jesus’ life elevated the role of laborers and craftsmen for eternity.

In our current economy many are taking jobs that are not their first choice. Some who have trained and studied for years to launch a professional career are finding themselves in the position of accepting jobs that differ from their dreams. It is important that whatever job we find, that we give our best. The Bible says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” (Colossians 3:23-24).

Alexis de Toqueville visited America in the 1830’s in search of the secret that enabled the young democracy to succeed. At its root, he discovered what would come to be known as the American work ethic founded upon Christian faith. It was not, he observed, merely hard work that made American Democracy successful. It was the other values along with it that made work meaningful: honesty, integrity and generosity.

Many Americans are discovering, after decades dominated by greed and materialism, that the value of labor is never truly measured in monetary return. The way we choose to invest the labor of our minds, our hands, our hearts and our energy will produce fulfillment when the object is not our own self gratification but the service of others. Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant … just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28).

Lessons From Korea 8-25-2009

No one is promising quick fixes to our current economic crisis. As we look for the “long term” corrections that will make a difference for the future, we might learn some lessons from Korea. Euna Lee and Laura Ling’s four month ordeal in a North Korean prison brings into stark focus the differences between the two Koreas. Fifty-five years ago the conditions in North and South Korea were almost identical. Today the gap between the two is huge.

A few years ago my wife and I boarded a plane at DFW and landed sixteen hours later in Seoul, South Korea. We found a prosperous modern city in a growing economy. We rode efficient subways in complete safety while visiting the city. At 6 AM one morning, we attended a prayer meeting in one of the churches where more than one thousand South Koreans gathered to pray quietly with friends and family. Today South Korea sends out more Christian missionaries than any other country except the United States. It is the fourth largest economy in Asia and it is referred to as the “Miracle on the Han” because of its remarkable economic progress in the last fifty years. South Korea has one of the smallest gaps between the rich and the poor in Asia.

North Korea, by contrast, is poverty stricken. It’s economy is a fraction of that in South Korea. Ruled by a strict Communist regime, its only hope for economic improvement rests in global nuclear intimidation. In 2007 the U.S. and other nations sent more than 1 million tons of fuel oil and other benefits in exchange for an agreement to dismantle its nuclear facilities. However, in 2009 North Korea conducted its second underground nuclear test and boasts more than 1,000 missiles that can strike as far away as Hawaii. More than 3 million North Koreans died of starvation in the 1990s in what some have called the “last slave society on earth.”

Clearly much of the difference between North Korea and South Korea is found in the contrast between Communism in the North and a free market Democracy in the South. But at a deeper level lies the difference between a nation where faith in Christ is illegal, punishable by death, and a nation where many embrace faith in Jesus and His teachings. Democracy, in and of itself, can neither set people free nor guarantee prosperity. Only faith that creates people of honesty, integrity, character, generosity and hard work can do that. We ourselves are learning hard lessons about the ravages that greed, corruption and short-cut economics can cause.

Perhaps the most helpful thing we can do to hasten the long term health of our nation and its economy is to follow Jesus so that we live our lives with integrity, honesty, generosity and faith. Jesus said, “Seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness and all these things shall be added to you.”

Back To School 8-19-2009

Children and youth are headed back to school. Summer break is ended. Silent buildings and empty playgrounds roar to life with classroom lectures and children’s laughter. It is a time to put away the lazy days of sleeping late, tv, video games, camp and vacations to wake before sunrise and wait for the bus. The smells of erasers, crayons, markers and freshly painted classrooms, along with tax free weekend and the rumble of yellow buses mark an annual rite of passage. It forms the rhythm of our lives, as surely as the first crisp scent of fall and the turning of green leaves to gold. We wake up to the echo of school bands, coaches’ whistles and the smack of shoulder pads practicing for the big games to come.

It is a time of deep emotion filled with conflicting currents of freedom and fear, opportunity and obstacles. Younger children are finally old enough to follow older brothers and sisters off to school with their own backpack of books. College freshmen are finally off on their own, away from home, their heads spinning with dreams and doubt. Babies become children, let go by weeping parents. Houses that vibrated with teen-age noise surrender to the silence of an empty nest. And college freshmen are shocked with the stabs of homesickness. It is, of course, the stuff of life: joy and sorrow, celebration and challenge, learning and growing.
I am a fan of public schools. I like the fact that, in our imperfect system, every child has a chance to learn. I love movies about public school teachers and the difference they make in students’ lives, like Freedom Writers or Mr. Holland’s Opus. My wife is a career public school teacher. Across the years she has taught high school, third grade and kindergarten. She now teaches pregnant and parenting teens with a ninety percent graduation rate. She is on the front line.
Even though public schools take summer breaks, school is never out. Children and youth are always learning, and sometimes the most important lessons they learn are the moments when parents and adults are least aware. They learn honesty, generosity, courtesy and faith by watching us in check-out lines, in traffic and in the home. They are always watching and always learning, even when we think they are tuned out.
Last week, I was visiting with the seven year old granddaughter of one of my best friends. She is very bright and entering second grade. I said, “You are very smart. But it is important as you grow up to be wise.” I asked, “Do you know the difference between being smart and being wise?” “Sure,” she said, “smart is knowing that 3 + 3 equals 6. Wise is doing the right thing.” I think she nailed it.
No person ever lived that was as wise as Jesus. Jesus concludes his most famous message by telling the story of two men who built houses, one on the sand and one on rock. When the storm came, the house on the sand crumbled and the house built on rock survived. “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them,” Jesus said, “may be compared to the wise man who built his house upon the rock.” (Matt. 7:24). If we would be truly wise we must hear what Jesus said to do and do it.

Josh Hamilton's Confession 8-10-2009

The sports headline last week read, “Hamilton had January relapse.” Of course the reference was to Josh Hamilton, the star center-fielder and batting champ for the Texas Rangers. Everyone, I guess, knows his story, a top drafted player who hit the skids due to drugs and alcohol, then, through a deeply spiritual faith experience with Christ and his grandmother’s love, made a comeback to major league stardom.

When Hamilton hit thirty-five home-runs in the home-run derby before the All Star game last year, my mother claimed him as family …”Maybe a long lost cousin,” she said, since her mother’s maiden name was Hamilton. My mother is a baseball fan. At 87, she almost never misses a televised Rangers game, even when they are on the west coast and play until 2 AM. When her vision started to fail this year she chose to have cataract surgery so she could watch the game.

I guess I am a baseball fan too. When I was fifteen I followed every home run by Mantle and Maris in their race to break Babe Ruth’s record. I could shag flies and grounders all day in the Texas heat and go back for more. I resonated with Field of Dreams, and watched it over and over. I’ll probably watch it again.

So, Hamilton’s story caught my attention, not just because he is a gifted ball player, but because he represents everyone who struggles with addictions and weaknesses. He says his relapse last January started with the thought, “Maybe I can just drink one.” Of course, that is the way the sins that seek to destroy us always start.

He had learned something along the way as a follower of Jesus that makes this relapse different than his earlier demise. He immediately confessed it where it needed to be confessed, to his wife, Katie, to his family and to his employers. Now that it is public, he is confessing it to us. The Bible says, “He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy.” (Proverbs 28:13). And James states, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed..” (James 5:16). Whenever we sin, we should confess it to those who are closest to us and those it directly affects.

I like the way Hamilton’s teammates responded. Ian Kinsler said, “We don’t need an apology. That’s his battle. We’re here to be his friend and love him as a teammate.” It sounds a lot like the way Jesus wants His churches to work. I suppose it was the way Peter’ s friends responded when he told them about denying Jesus at the trial.

I recently picked up Mickey Mantle’s autobiography at a used books store in Terrell. According to Mantle, he always struggled with excessive drinking. Mantle did not grow up in church. He attended prayer meetings convened by his teammate Bobby Richardson for awhile, but never learned “church speak.” He concludes his story by saying, “I guess we are all on the same team now … It’s even like Casey [Stengel] is running it. I might not know what he is saying all the time, but if he tells me to bunt, I’m going to bunt. If he tells me to swing away, I’m going for the fences.”