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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.