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Monday, December 29, 2014

Unbroken - The Rest of the Story

My wife and I like going to the movies. There is something about spending two hours in a cocooned space removed from daily distractions.  We settle down in our seats in a dark room, midway up in the center and wait to be whisked into another dimension. The magic of surround sound and cinema stimulates our imagination and emotions allowing us to enter into other lives in another time and place.

Sometimes we scan the marquees to see if we can find a movie that interests us.  Once in a while a movie is released that we anxiously await, ready to join the crowds who anticipate its arrival.  Unbroken is one of those movies, the remarkable true story of Louis Zamperini.

I was introduced to Louis Zamperini in 2012 when I stumbled across Laura Hillenbrand’s book.  I was unfamiliar with his life or his story, but had a hard time putting the book down once I started reading.  I wrote about Zamperini in July of this year when he died. He was 97.
Zamperini’s story is remarkable for what he survived: his youthful beginnings as a thief on the streets of LA, his achievements as an Olympic athlete singled out by Hitler for his performance in the Berlin games, multiple bombing missions as a bombardier during WW II, the crash in the Pacific, 46 days at sea in an abandoned raft, years of torture and imprisonment by the Japanese. 
The movie ends with Zamperini’s victorious return from the war.  It stops short of telling his descent into bitter hatred, beset by nightmares from his tortured past. He turned to alcohol, trying to drown his painful memories in liquor.  His life was unraveling and his marriage was on the rocks.  Hillenbrand’s book describes in detail how his life was later turned around when he trusted Christ in the 1949 Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles.  
The real story of Louis Zamperini is the remarkable transformation God brought into the life of a man tortured by nightmares and rage.  When Louis Zamperini invited Christ into his life he quit drinking. The nightmares ceased.  He later returned to Japan to seek out the captor who tortured him in prison so that he could personally forgive him.  He established Victory Boys Camp and gave the rest of his life to rescuing juvenile delinquents from the back alleys of Los Angeles.
In his book, Devil at My Heels, Zamperini says, “True to His promise, He came into my heart and my life. It was the most realistic experience I’d ever had. … I felt no tremendous sensation, just a weightlessness and an enveloping calm that let me know that Christ had come into my heart.”
The movie pays tribute to Louis Zamperini’s remarkable ability to survive the war. The full story is beautifully portrayed in Laura Hillenbrand’s book, Unbroken,  and in Louis Zamperini’s autobiography, Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In, Lessons from an Extraordinary Life.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Thank You for Coming - Tsunami Special Edition

Ten years ago, children in South Texas woke up on Christmas morning to a thirteen inch snow fall. 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 towering 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-Organizations 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 season 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.”

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Day After Christmas

It will soon be “the day after Christmas.”  The house will be littered with empty boxes, scraps of wrapping paper and strands of ribbon, evidence left from the gathering of family and the giving of gifts.  With kisses and hugs, children and grandchildren will start their long journeys home not to be seen for many months or another year.  Life will return to the challenges of work and school. But the memories of laughter and loved ones will remain.

For some, of course, Christmas can be a painful season. A few years ago I preached the funeral for my wife’s favorite aunt during the holidays. On another occasion, many years ago, I officiated a funeral on Christmas Eve for one of our best friends 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 stall where the child was born;  the hovering star that led the Magi from the east bearing their 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 down their son.  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 places 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. 

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.  Shortly after Jesus’ birth, the prophet Simeon told Mary, “A sword shall pierce your own soul.” (Luke 2:35).  Many years later, after Jesus had finished all that He was sent to do, Mary watched Him die for our sins on the cross. Luke says she “pondered all these things in her heart.”  May we ponder these things, too, on this Christmas Day, on “the day after” and throughout the year that we might know Him and embrace His love in every circumstance.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Finding Christmas

Christmas is the time to communicate and gather with friends.  In spite of Facebook, email and e-cards, Americans will purchase and send approximately 1.6 billion Christmas cards this year.  Christmas cards lift our spirits, keep us connected and represent a tangible expression of thoughtfulness in an increasingly cybernetic world.

The gathering part can be a challenge. Office parties, church groups, close friends and family quickly fill the calendar.  Some of us will travel great distances and juggle schedules to spend this special time with family members we have not seen in a year. 

All of this communicating and gathering challenges us for control of our time and our lives.  With continuing duties for work, school and family overlaid with Christmas commitments, we sometimes find ourselves weary and exhausted, feeling as if our lives are spinning out of control.

Part of the tension comes from our effort to create the perfect Christmas. We have made Christmas a spectacular event: spectacular performance, spectacular lights, the spectacular gift. But, we know down deep, that our lives are not spectacular. Most of our days and most of our lives seem rather common and ordinary.  

It might help to remember that the first Christmas had little resemblance to our contemporary traditions and expectations. The birth of Christ occurred in the chaos of the common and the ordinary: a common stable surrounded by common animals in a common village.  Few took notice.

There was no extravaganza staged in the cities. The angels’ announcement occurred in a remote region with only a few simple shepherds present.  The Magi, who observed the star in the east, came and went almost unnoticed.  

 It was for the common and the ordinary that Christ came.  He grew up in a carpenter’s shop in the remote village of Nazareth.  He owned no house and had no possessions.  He had no place to lay his head.  And, after a brief public ministry in which he healed and taught thousands, he died upon a common cross outside Jerusalem and was buried in a borrowed tomb.  In birth, life and death, Jesus redeemed the common and the ordinary and elevated each of us to an extraordinary relationship with God. 

The first Christmas was an “out of control” event for Mary and Joseph.  The tax summons that took them to Bethlehem could not have come at a worse time.  The baby was due.  She was in no condition for such a long and arduous journey. When they arrived, the town was a bedlam of people.  No one wanted to be there.  They had come because they were obligated under Roman law. Of course, what appeared to be an onerous obligation and an inconvenient time was actually a fulfillment of prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. 

Perhaps God planned it this way to teach us that His intervention must be experienced in the common and the ordinary chaos of life. When we look for Christmas in the spectacular, we can only experience it once a year. But when we discover Christmas in the common and the chaotic, it can change our life every day.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Buddy's Christmas Gift

Buddy came into our lives five years ago, a sick and skinny rescue dog picked up off the streets of Fort Worth.  When we went to meet him at Corgi Rescue, we could feel the bones in his hips and he was suffering from “kennel cough.”  But fifteen minutes with Buddy won us over.  We left committed to adopt him.

It took six weeks for him to get over his kennel cough, put on weight and get all his shots from the vet. I drove back to Corgi Rescue to pick him up and, in a matter of minutes, we were Buddy’s proud, and nervous owners.  It took a couple of weeks to adjust.  He was nervous too. 

It was a mystery to me how a tri-color corgi as intelligent, well-mannered and affectionate as Buddy could become a stray on the streets. Then, one day, on one of our neighborhood walks, Buddy told me his story.  I wrote it down, “just as Buddy told it to me.”  It became a children’s book published on Amazon Kindle, Buddy the Floppy Ear Corgi.

I printed out a copy for our next door neighbor whose daughter was in the third grade.  He read it to his daughter and she took it to school.  The teacher read it to the entire third grade class. “One boy cried,” she said. 

Apparently Buddy had this problem when he was young, a floppy ear that proved to be an embarrassment.  All the other respectable corgis had ears that stood up straight and alert, except for Buddy. So, he ran away and became lost on the streets where Barney the Bloodhound befriended him and taught him how to survive. That is, until they were picked up by the dog police.

Along the way, Buddy learned to love himself and others just the way God made them.  It is a good lesson for all of us to learn.  He also learned the importance of being rescued.  Sometimes we all need to be rescued by someone.  Sometimes we all need to rescue someone else.

This year, Buddy wants to make his book available for free as a Christmas gift to all of our readers.  Just click on Buddy's photo on the right side of the blog and download  Buddy the Floppy Ear Corgi  for free on December 8 or December 11-14. 

Buddy is now five years older and on a diet to keep from getting too fat.  We still go for walks during the day. He loves strolls on Jamaica Beach near our beach house on Galveston Island. He constantly introduces me to other dogs and other people.  He never meets a stranger.  It’s something I think he learned from Barney.  His ear doesn’t flop anymore, but he still has a small scar on his nose, a reminder of his “lost days” on the streets in the city. 

Buddy and I both hope you have a very Merry Christmas with people you love.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Reflecting On The Ferguson Protests

Every so often our nation’s façade of calm and quiet is peeled back to reveal racial unrest that simmers beneath the surface.  In 1992, smoke rose above the skyline of Los Angeles where businesses and abandoned cars burned following the acquittal of white police officers in the beating of Rodney King.  Last year thousands protested across the nation when George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.  And last week, once again, protests boiled to the surface when the grand jury declined to indict a local police officer who shot an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.   

Prejudice is a universal problem of the human condition.  It exists in every generation and every nation. Wherever there are racial, tribal and cultural differences, prejudice will take root, fueled by pride, ignorance, fear, bitterness, resentment and anger. 

So what can we do?  We must affirm the rule of law in our land. We must live up to our pledge to provide “liberty and justice for all.”  And we must recognize the problem is ultimately one of the heart that requires a transformation of soul and spirit.

We can do what Bennie Newton did during the Los Angeles riots.  Risking his life to save a truck driver who was being beaten to death, Newton rushed to the victim’s side, lifted a Bible above his head and cried out, “Kill him and you have to kill me too!”   We can do what the churches in Ferguson did last week. Worshipers from the mostly white St. Stephen’s and the Vine Church joined the predominantly African-American Wellspring Church for Thanksgiving dinner.  We can embrace one another across racial divides, like the white officer who embraced the black youth in Portland during one of the protests. We can take actions, little and large, to reach out as Jesus did, across the chasm of prejudice to embrace those of different ethnicities and cultures.

Jesus gave us the example when he found it necessary to go through Samaria, a forbidden territory where no respectable Jew ventured.  It was there that he sat down by a well, alone,  entered in to conversation with a Samaritan woman, and extended to her the water of life.  He crossed cultural, racial and traditional barriers to demonstrate God’s love for every person.  As the children’s song says, “red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.”

When Paul was a young man he was filled with self-righteousness and contempt.  He considered himself a Jew of the Jews, born of the tribe of Benjamin, superior to others by race, class and intellect.  He once set out in an angry rage to arrest innocent men and women who disagreed with him.  But after he met Christ, his heart was changed. He later wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourself.” (Philippians 2:3).

Monday, November 24, 2014

Make It Your Best Thanksgiving Ever

I took the title of this column from a Martha Stewart Living Magazine. Before you get the wrong idea, I have to explain that I don’t read or watch Martha Stewart, but my wife does. We have these magazines lying around the house and it is difficult to ignore what is on the cover.

So there she was, Martha Stewart, offering a perfect piece of pie while smiling a perfect smile with perfect teeth, wearing a perfect dress with perfect hair, surrounded by a perfect kitchen with an open window that looked out on a perfect garden. Like Oprah and Paula, every wrinkle and excess pound had been photo-shopped away so that she looked decades younger than her actual age. And, over her head hung the words, “Make It Your Best Thanksgiving Ever.”

Unlike Martha, when we sit down to Thanksgiving dinner we will show up with wrinkles, warts and all. We look our age. The kitchen is a mess with spilled flour on the cabinet and sinks full of dirty dishes. The food, of course, is great because my wife is a great cook: baked turkey, mashed potatoes, giblet gravy, her famous dressing passed down from her mother, green beans, fruit salad, cranberry sauce, pumpkin and pecan pie.

But, it occurred to me, when I saw that magazine cover of Martha Stewart, that Thanksgiving isn’t about the food or the perfect picture. Real Thanksgiving is about the heart. It is difficult for a heart that is not thankful every day to be truly thankful on Thanksgiving Day.

Which brings up a concern about this Thanksgiving. A few years ago the retail stores invented black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving when one-day discounts lure mobs of hysterical shoppers into their stores before dawn. At first, I didn’t understand black Friday and, except for one occasion for which I repented, I avoided it. But black Friday began to creep. Last year many of the major stores opened on Thanksgiving Day.  This year, it seems that Black Friday has already started and will continue with no letup.

I am nostalgic for the traditional American Thanksgiving we knew a few years ago. There was nothing commercial about it. All the stores were closed. Workers could spend the day with their families. No one had to shop for presents or send cards. All we had to do was enjoy getting together with those we love and be thankful. This year our tradition of gathering around bountiful tables with family and friends seems more like a brief interruption to the more important business of shopping.

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 or stood in check-out lines that stretched to the back of the store. Black Friday seems to symbolize our rush through life, our efforts to get the best deal, to be first in line. 

I hope this week we will cultivate a thankful heart and grateful spirit and take time to truly “be” with family and friends so that this is “the best Thanksgiving ever.” Let us "praise God's name in song and glorify Him with thanksgiving." (Psalm 69:30).

Monday, November 17, 2014

Why Go To Church

Given the secular focus of our culture with football dominating Sundays and Black Friday overshadowing Thanksgiving, it is easy to conclude that very few people still attend church. But, according to the best research, that is just not the case.  More people attend church than we might think. 

Estimates of church attendance on a given Sunday vary.  If you ask Americans, as Gallup has done for the past 70 years, 4 out of 10 will tell you they attend church each week, roughly the same percentage that said they did so in 1939.  Attendance rose to 49% in the 1950s, but otherwise has remained fairly constant through the decades.   If you ask The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, it will tell you less than 20% actually attend church on a given Sunday.  The Pew research estimates attendance at 37% of the U.S. population with only one-third who seldom or never attend.

This, it seems to me, is remarkable.  What other voluntary activity could attract this many people on a regular basis?  According to the most extreme estimates, between 50 million and 125 million people attend church every week.  By comparison, the average attendance per week to all NFL football games combined totals a little over two million. Although the percentage of those attending church has declined over the years, church attendance is still a huge part of our lives. 

As I have thought about it, I have asked myself the question, “Why do I go to church?”

I go to church because, down deep, I believe in Jesus Christ.  I think it is what He would want me to do.  Even though the Jewish authorities turned against Him, it was always Jesus’ custom, or “habit” to attend the synagogue each Sabbath.  (Luke 4:16).  And even though churches are seldom what they ought to be, I need to follow Jesus’ example.

I go because I need to be encouraged in my faith and I want to encourage others.  While I have been disappointed by some pastors and church leaders over the years, I find that going to church lifts my spirits.  Other believers take an interest in me and pray for me.  And I seek to do the same for them. (1 Thessalonians 5:11; Hebrews 3:13; 10:25).

I go to church because churches make the world a better place. All churches, as we know are flawed. Someone once asked me if I knew of any churches that did not have any problems.  I asked if he knew of churches that didn’t have any people.  Where there are people, there will be problems. But most churches seek ways to feed the hungry, help the poor, comfort the grieving and care for the aging.  Churches pull us outside ourselves and call us to a higher and better world.

I go because I want my children to go.  Even though my children are grown and gone, I still want to be an example to them, as I sought to be when I was raising them.  Going to church is a discipline. Sometimes I don’t feel like it. But I have learned over the years that the best things in life require effort.  Worship, Christian fellowship and service are disciplines that I believe are worth passing on to the next generation.  

I am sure there are many other reasons why people attend church.  There are other reasons why I do as well, but these are the three that stand out the most in my mind.

If you haven’t been attending church.  I hope you will do so this week. 

Monday, November 10, 2014


I recently assisted in the funeral for a close friend.  He was older by almost twenty years, and became my mentor more than thirty years ago.  He was a take-charge kind of guy and I always imagined him going out like John Wayne in The Shootist.  Consistent with his personality, he left specific instructions for his funeral, including the passage he wanted the pastor to preach and the three points he wanted him to make.  To his friends he wrote, “I want there to be more laughter than tears.  After all, I will be in Heaven.”

I watched him age like I have watched others, the same process I am beginning to see in myself.  As he entered his eighties his strength and vigor began to slip.  The last time we went out to eat he needed a walker to make his way to the table.  Aging is an inescapable experience for all of us who live long enough.  But in the end, in the “twinkling of an eye … we shall all be changed.”  (1 Corinthians 15:52).

When my mother was young she was a beauty and a fast runner who won several ribbons in track meets.  But in her last years she was feeble and almost blind.  When she was 89 years old and dying, we talked about what it would be like when she woke up in Heaven, able once again to run through the meadow as she did in her youth.  Her body once again characterized by energy, strength, beauty and grace. 

I have often thought about Heaven and what it might be like.  Someone once said that we might think of everything that is beautiful and good on this earth and multiply it by two.  That of course is a small number, but anything more defies imagination.  I like to think about the sun rising in the east, its light filtering through the leaves warming my shoulders on a cool morning; the birds calling to one another as the day dawns; the scent of freshly cut grass and new turned earth; the fragrance of lilacs in spring and roses in summer; the laughter of children on the playground; the crack of a baseball bat and the smack of a ball in the glove; the weight of a sleeping baby in my arms.  On this earth and in this world, they are enough.  But multiplied by two, or a thousand?  Incomprehensible!

Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, so that where I am, there you may be also.”  (John 14:3). “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.” (John 11:25-26).

The Bible says, “It does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” (1 John 3:2). “If we have been united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of his resurrection.”  (Romans 6:5).

Monday, November 3, 2014

What You Won't Do For Yourself

 Left to myself, I will sit around and vegetate. I know that other people don’t do this, but I do. When I look across the room at my dog who follows me from room to room and is happy to be wherever I am, I know that he needs to walk. So, I get up, put on my shoes, find his leash and off we go. It is good for him and it is good for me. What I won’t do for myself I will do for my dog.

This little act highlights an important point I have discovered. We all need to be motivated for someone or something outside ourselves. I have heard it said, “If you won’t do it for someone else, do it for yourself!” But I have discovered that doing it for myself is the lowest and weakest motivator in my life.

Some have assumed that our democratic system works because it is based on self-interest. If everyone looks out for himself, seeks to make the biggest profit and accumulate the most wealth, it all just seems to work out for everybody. But that isn’t true. Our democratic system works because people are willing to sacrifice their own self-interest in the interest of others. The key to American democracy is selfless altruism. Not greed.

Life is not like Monopoly. We don’t win by owning the largest number of properties, raising the rent and amassing stacks of money on our side of the board until we drive everyone else into bankruptcy. That might work for a board game, but even then the players seldom feel good about it. In life we win by giving ourselves away.

We are made in such a way that we must be called to something higher. We will endure great pain, hardship, discipline and even death for people we love and causes that challenge us.

When we live our lives and make our decisions based upon self-interest and self-gratification we are led into dead end tributaries, into a shallow existence that results in isolation and loneliness. When we choose to orient our lives around serving and helping others, we launch out into the deep where we discover meaning and fulfillment.

Howard Hughes, one of the wealthiest men of the twentieth century who spent lavishly to indulge his whims and idiosyncrasies, died a recluse, lonely, isolated and mentally deranged. The FBI had to resort to fingerprints in order to identify his body.

Mother Teresa, who was penniless, spent her life caring for the poor, sick, orphaned and dying. When she died in 1997 the Missionaries of Charity, which she founded, had over one million co-workers serving the “poorest of the poor” in 123 countries. In 2010, the 100th anniversary of her birth, she was honored around the world.

This is why the Scripture urges us to put others first. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4).  Jesus said, “Give and it shall be given to you, good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over shall men give into your bosom.”  (Luke 6:38).

Monday, October 27, 2014


This Friday miniature ghosts, goblins and super heroes will emerge at dusk to comb the streets in search of candy.  It is a long tradition in America, one I grew up with as a child and one I enjoyed as a parent. It is, perhaps, one of the few traditions we still celebrate outside with our neighbors. Manicured lawns are transformed into a mystical world of floating cobwebs, jack-o-lanterns and tombstones.

Watchful parents huddle at the curb and visit while their little ghouls cheerfully threaten their neighbors with tricks for treats. Expectant children hold open hopeful bags and peer into their dark recesses trying to determine what luck they might have had at the door. 

I always enjoyed taking our kids trick-or-treating. We had fun dressing them up and entering, at least for a night, into their fantasy world.  I liked watching them celebrate their growing assortment of candy gathered from well-wishing neighbors, until a costumed spook jumped from the bushes and convinced our five year old he had enough candy for one night.  

I still look forward to answering our door bell on Halloween night.  I enjoy trying to guess who is hiding behind the princess mask, what little boy is growling in the Ninja Turtle costume.  I like it when ET and Yoda drop by for a visit with their pet ghost-dog. They are polite ghosts and witches and extra-terrestrials. They almost always say, “Thank you.” 

Halloween, of course, has its dark side. Our 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.  Our world needs deliverance from evil.

Jesus once met a man filled with destructive demons.  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 the demons 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.  (Mark 5:1-20). Forces that we cannot understand or control always scare us.

This Halloween we will celebrate an occasion to enjoy our children and their imagination. We will 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.  

Monday, October 20, 2014


Last week I was in Minnesota. As winter draws near, the maple and oak set the distant hills ablaze with yellow, orange, red and rust.  I walked beneath a gold and crimson canopy of color and was struck with the majesty and the beauty of the trees that surround us.  

Trees are majestic, mysterious and essential to our existence on earth.  They sprout from tiny seeds that can be held in the hand.  They send their roots deep beneath the earth and extend their limbs to the sky as if in prayer, transforming soil and light into substance.

They bear the snow of winter and explode with blossoms in the spring. They whisper in a gentle breeze and howl when the wind whips their branches.  Their life-giving leaves filter the air to produce the oxygen that we breathe. 

They give shelter to the birds that build their nests, perch among their leaves and sing their songs.  Their forests form the homes and habitat for wildlife. For thousands of years the trees have provided the wood with which we build our homes, fashion our furniture and produce the paper to preserve our written records.  They feed both man and beast with their nuts and fruit.

Trees remind us of those who have gone before, those who planted them and those who lived among them. We sit in their shade in summer as our mothers and fathers sat in an earlier day. And we walk among them as I did today, struck by their beauty.

The oldest trees date back more than two millennia. The “Arbol del Tul,” a Montezuma Cypress in Mexico has the widest trunk on earth and may be 3,000 years old.  The “Cotton Tree” in Sierre Leone marks the place where freed slaves gathered beneath its branches to give thanks for their freedom in 1792.  “General Sherman,” the Giant Sequoia, one of the largest trees on earth is believed to be between 2,300 and 2,700 years old. The 500 year old “Treaty Oak” in Austin, Texas was once the sacred meeting place for Comanche and Tonkawa Indians. Stephen F. Austin met with them beneath its branches to form the first peace treaty for his colony.

The redemptive story of the Bible begins and ends with trees.  It starts with the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” in Genesis and ends with the “Tree of Life” in Revelation.  Psalm 96 proclaims, “Let the field exult, and all that is in it. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy before the Lord, for He is coming!”

In the fullness of time God chose a tree in the form of the Cross to accomplish our redemption. The Bible says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles.” (Galatians 3:13-14).

Trees remind us of God’s goodness and grace by which he created the beauty of the earth and redeemed us for his glory.

Monday, October 13, 2014

When God Seems Far Away

When we experience God’s nearness we feel his forgiveness, acceptance, comfort and peace.  Our hearts are filled with joy and songs of praise for His goodness and beauty. But what about the times when God seems far away?

King David sometimes felt this way.  Repeatedly he asked, “Why are you in despair, O my soul?  And why have you become disturbed within me?” (Ps 42:5, 11; 42:5).  “O Lord, why do you reject my soul? Why do you hide your face from me?” (Ps 88:14).  After confronting the prophets of Baal, “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life … he went a day’s journey into the wilderness … and prayed that he might die.  ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life, I am no better than my ancestors.’” (1 Kings 19:3).

Going through times when we feel God is far away is a normal human experience. The prophets felt it.  God even allowed his own Son to experience it. At the moment He paid the penalty for our sins,  He cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). So, when those times come, what are we to do?

We are to remember that the feeling of God being distant is temporary. This is what sustained King David in his dark times. In every case, he declared, “Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him.”   When we feel God is far away, we are often filled with worry, uncertainty, doubt and despair.  But this will not last.  We will yet feel His presence again and praise Him.

We must rely on God’s promises and not on our feelings. Even when we don’t feel His presence, He is near. Repeatedly God has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deut. 31:6,8; Joshua 1:5; Hebrews 13:5).  Jesus said, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20).  David wrote, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the dawn, if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there Your hand will lead me, and Your right hand will lay hold of me. If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me, and the light around me will be night,” Even the darkness is not dark to You, and the night is as bright as the day.”  (Ps. 139:7-12).

Monday, October 6, 2014

Finding God's Vision

For several years I led an organization that asked two questions:  “What is God’s vision for your life?” and “How can we help you fulfill God’s vision?”   Some churches are beginning to ask these questions regarding those who attend.  They are, I believe, the right questions.  Unlike the institutional and program oriented question, “How can you help our church?” these questions help people discover the transforming dynamic of God that changes their lives and the world.  Most people have an innate sense that God has a vision and purpose for their life.  At the same time, most people have difficulty finding God’s vision and living it.

Next week I will lead a Peer Learning Group for pastors in Wisconsin. One of the pastors in the group is a young man I met twenty years ago when he was 23.  When he graduated from Bethel Seminary in St Paul, he sensed God’s vision to start a church in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Today that church averages more than 2,000 in attendance.

When I visited that church a few years ago, I met a woman who was obviously very involved and comfortable at the church.  I asked if she was a staff member.  She laughed and said, “No, I am a volunteer.”  I later learned that two years before she had been addicted to drugs and battling depression. When we follow God’s vision for us, we enable others to find God’s vision for their lives.

Ten years ago I answered my cell phone and listened as a young woman with a speech impediment introduced herself.  “I’m Heather.  I have cerebral palsy.  God has called me to India.  How can you help me?”  That brief conversation started a long friendship.  I drove to Waco to visit Heather and found her confined to a wheel chair with limited use of one arm. In spite of her disabilities, she radiated the presence of Christ. She said God whispered in her ear, “India.”   Since that time, she has been to Bangalore three times to help people who have similar handicaps to her own.  Later, she wrote a popular children’s book entitled “My Friends and I.”  Heather recently became a volunteer at “FaithAbility” in San Antonio, a non-profit that seeks to “make known the gifts of people with developmental disabilities, revealed through mutually transforming relationships.”

God has a vision for every life.  It is just a matter of finding God’s vision and living it out.  Here are some clues I have discovered that help people get started on that journey: 1. Trust Jesus Christ and welcome Him into your life, 2. Study the Bible, 3. Pray, not just for yourself but for others, and 4. Listen to other believers who seek to encourage you.  Get involved in a healthy church and a small group of authentic followers of Jesus Christ.

When Paul neared the end of his life, he said, “I have not been disobedient to the vision.” (Acts 26:19).  He followed the principles in the previous paragraph.  When he got stumped, he looked for God’s vision for the next step on his journey. (Acts 16:6-10).

Monday, September 29, 2014

Disciples in Disguise

A number of years ago I attended a conference at the Harley Davidson factory in Kansas City.  A group of pastors and church leaders gathered at the factory to spend a few days touring the facilities and visiting with the administrators.  Some of us were there because we had a lifelong love of motorcycles.  Most of us were there because we wanted to learn how the Harley Davidson leaders had transformed a nearly extinct motorcycle company into a model of success at the turn of the century.

The thing I remember most about the conference was a statement made by a young executive who spoke to the group.  He had just returned from Europe where he helped introduce the Buell sport bike.  He stepped to the microphone and introduced himself.  He said, “I am a disciple of Jesus Christ disguised as a Harley Davidson Executive.” 

Since that time I have discovered disciples disguised in many walks of life:  teachers, doctors, mechanics, students, professors, engineers, nurses, administrators, athletes, grocery clerks, farmers, businessmen, soldiers, homemakers, … the list is almost endless. 

Many people consider themselves to be Christians.  Far fewer think of themselves as disciples of Jesus Christ.  To be a Christian usually means we give assent to the Christian religion, that we are comfortable with occasionally attending church, and we know we are not Muslim, Buddhist or some other religion.  To be a disciple, however, raises the expectations to a whole new level.

Interestingly, Jesus never used the term Christian.  In fact the term is only found three times in the Bible, and twice it is used by non-believers.  Jesus chose to speak about disciples. He said, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27). “If you continue in my word then you are truly disciples of mine. (John 8:31). “By this shall all men know you are my disciples, that you have love for one another.” (John 13:35).  “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” (John 15:8).  “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19).

So, what does a twenty-first century disciple look like?  They look a lot like those we find in the first century.  Those who followed Jesus then were fishermen, tax collectors, business men and business women, mothers and fathers. Today, they look like you and me.  They come from every nation and every race.  They can be found among the rich and poor, the educated and uneducated, the famous and obscure. Wherever you find fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ who have received God’s grace and love others as God has love them, you will find disciples in disguise.


Monday, September 22, 2014

Parenting and Discipline

Adrian Peterson’s whipping of his four-year-old son has catapulted the issues of parenting and discipline to the front pages of the news.  Peterson’s actions are universally deplored.  According to Peterson, he sought to discipline his son for pushing other children on the playground.  He took a limb from a nearby hedge, stripped it of its leaves and used it as a switch.  Many of us have memories of our mothers doing the same.

But Peterson’s discipline of his son bordered on the brutal. According to the Montgomery County District Attorney’s office, Peterson’s son suffered cuts on his thighs and hands and bruises on his lower back and buttocks.  Peterson was indicted by a grand jury charging him with causing injury to a child.  As a result the Minnesota Vikings have placed their star running back on an exempt list preventing him for any participation in team activities for an indefinite period of time.

Parents have often quoted “Spare the rod and spoil the child” as Biblical support for spanking their children.  The only problem is that this statement does not occur in the Bible.  There are other references to the “rod” in Proverbs, but not this one.   “Spare the rod and spoil the child” first appeared in a poem by Samuel Butler in 1664.

The Proverbs verses about correction could be interpreted symbolically as well as literally.  It could be a dramatic and poetic way of underscoring the point that good parenting includes wise discipline and correction. Nowhere does the Bible condone injury to a child. 

In fact, Jesus had some of his harshest words for those who would harm a child.  Jesus said, “And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me;  but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”  (Matthew 18:5-6).

Paul gave these instructions to parents: “And you fathers, provoke not your children to wrath, but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4).  

Children need correction.  They need it for their own safety so that they don’t put their fingers in electric sockets or run across the parking lot into the path of oncoming cars.  They need correction regarding interaction with other children, to learn the manners and respect that will make them successful and benefit society. They need discipline to do the right things and avoid the wrong. 

But that discipline needs to always be wise, without injury, whether mental or physical, supported with love and affirmation.  They need the discipline that comes from observing the examples set by their parents in the way husbands and wives treat each other and how they conduct themselves in difficult situations. They need nurture, instruction and explanation.

Hopefully we will all learn lessons along with Adrian Peterson that will make us better parents and a better people.

Monday, September 15, 2014

When God Comes Close

Celtic Christianity has a term to refer to those moments when the separation between this world and heaven becomes so minimal that we sense the presence of God. They call these the “thin places.” They are the places where love and compassion reign. Where forgiveness overcomes resentment. Where selfishness is swallowed up in sacrifice. Where prejudice surrenders to acceptance. Where the violent flame is quenched and people live in peace. They are the times when our soul is overwhelmed with awe and we worship God.

The news usually focuses on “thick places” where our world is farthest from God. For some strange reason people gravitate to the sick stories of murder, corruption, abuse, crime and war. But God gives us moments when He comes near, moments when we sense the fragrance of His presence and we hear the whisper of His voice.

Sometimes the “thin places” make their way into the media. We witnessed a thin place when the Amish community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania provided food and comfort to the family of the killer who murdered their daughters in the Amish school a few years ago.

Sometimes we sense the thin place when we stand before God’s creation and marvel at its majesty, beauty, complexity and balance. My wife and I felt we were observing one of those “thin places” when we watched the full moon slowly rise over the ocean last week at Galveston. 

Sometimes we feel it in cathedrals and churches or informal and intimate gatherings with other believers. Sometimes the thin places appear in everyday life. Often, when they do, they are unexpected..

When Jesus came, the reign of God broke through upon the earth so that we were able to see, in a brilliant flash, what God’s Kingdom really looks like. This is what John meant when he said, “That was the true light, which, coming into the world enlightens every man … we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father.” Wherever Jesus went he created a thin place. This is why Jesus said, “the Kingdom of God is at hand.”

When He sent his followers out, Jesus taught them to live and speak in such a way that people would know that they had come into a “thin place.” “Whatever city you enter and they receive you, eat what is set before you; and heal those in it who are sick, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.'” (Luke 10:8).

As followers of Jesus our task is to help create the thin places. We do so by living in such a way that the reign of God rules in our hearts, controlling our speech, our actions and our decisions. We are to create “thin places” wherever we work or study, among our co-workers, fellow students, family, friends and even our enemies.

Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” He was teaching us to pray that we might become instruments for the thin places. This is why Jesus said, “You are the light of the world … let your light so shine that men may see your good works and glorify your father who is in Heaven.” God desires that His reign and rule should be displayed and celebrated.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Ebola Crisis

Ebola continues in the news.  Last week another doctor returned to the United States who was infected with the disease while treating patients in Liberia.  Dr. Rick Sacra, a family physician from Massachusetts is the latest US victim diagnosed with the disease.  He arrived at the Nebraska Medical Center on Friday, September 5, where he was declared “sick but stable” by medical staff.

That same evening  Matt Lauer’s interview with Dr. Kent Brantly was aired on NBC.  Dr. Brantly and his colleague, Nancy Writebol, were the first US medical personnel diagnosed with the disease.  Their diagnosis and return to the United States for treatment ignited global fears of a worldwide epidemic.  Writebol and Brantly were treated in Atlanta.  

In Liberia where Brantly, Writebol and Sacra served as medical missionaries, the ebola virus has killed more than 1,000 people since its arrival six months ago.  There is no known cure for the disease.  Up to 90% of ebola victims die suffering from acute diarrhea, vomiting, uncontrolled shaking and, in many cases both internal and external bleeding.

Both Writebol and Brantly recovered and were declared free of the ebola virus last week.  Their story raises several questions.  The first question many ask is:  What saved them?  Did we find a cure? 

The medical community is guarded in their response.  Perhaps they found some clues that will help discover a cure.  But others have received similar treatment given to Brantly and Writebol and died, including two doctors, one from Spain and another from Liberia. 

When asked about his treatment and recovery, Dr. Brantly was clearly convinced that the real secret to his recovery was prayer.  Brantly said, “The people in the room taking care of me, they began praying over me. What I didn’t know at the time is that there were also people outside my house praying for me.” He thoughtfully added, “There were thousands of people, including my teammates there in Liberia who were begging the Lord to save my life.” 

A second question is: Why were these saved and not others?

Nancy Writebol responded, “We don’t understand the way the Lord works. Why did God allow us to receive treatment? Why were we saved and not others? I don’t know that we can ever answer that question.”

But there is a third question.  Why did these individuals leave their successful medical practice and the safety of their homes to put their lives at risk treating impoverished patients in Liberia? 

Dr. Kent Brantly released this statement in response to that question: My wife Amber and I, along with our two children, did not move to Liberia for the specific purpose of fighting Ebola. We went to Liberia because we believe God called us to serve Him at ELWA Hospital.
“One thing I have learned is that following God often leads us to unexpected places. When Ebola spread into Liberia, my usual hospital work turned more and more toward treating the increasing number of Ebola patients. … I witnessed the horror firsthand, and I can still remember every face and name.

“When I started feeling ill on that Wednesday morning, I immediately isolated myself until the test confirmed my diagnosis three days later. When the result was positive, I remember a deep sense of peace that was beyond all understanding. God was reminding me of what He had taught me years ago, that He will give me everything I need to be faithful to Him.”
The ebola crisis is expected to escalate in the next few weeks.  Hopefully Dr. Brantly’s illness, along with Mrs. Writebol and Dr. Sacra will signal a global call for prayer, courage and sacrifice to stamp out the disease and rescue the victims in west Africa.   

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Stephen Hawking, ALS, The Ice Challenge and Faith

I like Stephen Hawking.  I admire his brilliance. Even more, I admire the courage he has shown in his fight with ALS.  Last week he took the ice challenge for ALS awareness.  Actually, since he suffered with pneumonia this past year and his health is frail, his children took the ice dunk for him.

Hawking was diagnosed with ALS in 1963 when he was 21. The doctors gave him two years to live. That was 51 years ago.  Since then he has won numerous awards and made major contributions to physics.  His best known work is “A Brief History of Time,” with more than three million copies sold.

I was saddened a few years ago when he said, “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

It is difficult for me to comprehend how such a brilliant mind can reach the conclusion that all we observe in the universe is an accident, that there is no intelligent force or design behind our existence.  It seems as illogical to me as finding a state-of-the-art functioning PC in the desert and concluding it just accidentally originated from nowhere. 

Science and empirical evidence can only take us so far.  The question Hawking is dealing with is bigger than any religion or denominational expression. It is also bigger than science.  It is a question we all must face and answer.  How we answer it makes a great deal of difference in how we live and how meaningful our lives are. 

Hawking concluded that since there is no God, humans should seek to live the most valuable lives they can while on Earth.  This too, makes no sense to me. If there is no God, where is the motive to live responsible and valuable lives?  We are sucked into a black hole of non-existence and non-meaning.  What does it matter?

If we argue that love matters then, it seems to me, we are thrown back into the very lap of God.  Love is the greatest and most mysterious reality in our existence, eclipsing all other discoveries.  Who wants to live in a world of technological perfection and scientific achievement without love?  A loveless world would leave us shallow, fragmented, lonely, isolated, fearful, and miserable.

Here lies the greatest truth:  “God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”  (1 John 4:16). 

Ultimately, I suppose, faith or non-faith is a choice.  We can choose to believe that our world is the result of a creative God who desired and designed our existence from the tiniest molecule to the most distant star or we can choose not to believe.

The idea that human beings are no more than computers that will one day crash and be discarded as junk leads nowhere.  For my part, I will choose to believe.  It is the only conclusion that seems to make any sense.