December 21, 2007

Homecoming Joy

One of the great joys of the Christmas season is going home. Many will leave big cities and travel to small hamlets scattered across this great land; some finding their way back to home places that have been in the family for generations. There are a few of us who will find ourselves celebrating the home going of loved ones. I am one such person this season.

Just this morning I stood by the bedside of a sainted lady in our church mere moments after she had taken her last breath. She was 5 days shy of spending 94 years on this earth and had consistently wondered for the last several years why God had left her here so long. Widowed for 60+ years, no children, and little other family remaining she had not outlived she felt quite lonely. However she never felt alone. This dear woman always shared about the nearness of God in her life. I often listened with rapt attention to her accounts of God's nearness longing for that same, irrefutable sense of His presence. Her words to me were, "But you are so busy, and I have nothing to do." I knew then, and I certainly know now, who was the one more blessed.

Several years ago my youngest son accompanied my wife and I to a funeral. He was 4 1/2 and intensely interested in the solemn proceedings of the day. As the graveside "Amen" was said and others were hugging family and sharing some final words of kindness Clayton was insistent that we move to the graveside. I obliged and took him to where the casket was about to be lowered into the ground. He very studiously peered into the hole in the ground for several moments. His curiosity satisfied he took my hand and we began to walk away. After a moment he said, "Dad, I don't think I like heaven." I sank to one knee looking into his intelligent eyes and said, "Oh, son, heaven is not a hole in the ground!" Taking him into my arms I shared with him what a wonderful place heaven is for those who know and love the Lord. It is a moment, with my son, which I cherish.

In the midst of this Christmas celebration there will be those who go home. Some to houses full of laughter and joy. Some to homes prepared for them by the hands of the Maker Himself. "I go to prepare a place for you, if it were not so I would have told you." (John 14:2) Joy shall reign.

For more advent reading check these blogs...

December 18, 2007

An Artful Dodge

Browsing the morning on-line news ran across this Q&A concerning Mormonism. Interesting that the LDS church took a pass on seriously coming to grips with some of its most nagging questions. Funny reading their responses. Sounds like they've been listening to Collin Raye's "That's my story (and I'm stickin' to it)".

Let's face it, Mormonism, no matter what kind of socially acceptable dress you put it in, is still a very different theological animal than biblically orthodox Christianity. I've posted on this topic before and will likely post again because it will continue to come up with Mr. Romney's run for the Oval Office. (For the record, I have ZERO problem with him as a candidate for president because of his Mormon beliefs. "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." (The Constitution of the United States of America) Still exploring the field to see who I like.)

Mormonism is like a birthday cake I once had the pleasure of eating. A "friend" baked a pone of cornbread and then covered it in wonderful butter cream icing and completed it with candles and birthday wishes. To all outward appearances it looked like a birthday cake but one bite quickly dispelled any notion that this was birthday cake. Mormonism looks like a Christian religion, but alas, it is not.

One question I would enjoy hearing the Mormon church come to grips with is the absence of archaeological evidence for this grand civilization which they purport existed in the western hemisphere. To my knowledge not one of the cities mentioned in the Book of Mormon has ever been discovered.

December 14, 2007

He Came Like This?: A Consideration of "The Adoration of the Magi in Snow" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The Adoration of the Magi in Snow
Pieter Bruegel the Elder
(~ 1525/1530-1569)
1567 - oil on wood

If you, like me, are new to this great work of art, stop here and open this piece full screen. You need to first react to this piece without a lot of commentary.

I showed this piece to our church family at a Wednesday night gathering and simply asked, "What do you see?" I did this without telling them the title of this painting and their observations were intriguing. Here are some of their comments....
"Lots of snow!"
"Looks like people are struggling just to walk."
"Is that a church on the right hand side? Are they building it, repairing it, or tearing it down?"
"All the people are dark."
"It's bleak."

After a few minutes of hearing their comments I shared the title, "The Adoration of the Magi in Snow" with them. Here's what they said then...
"Jesus wasn't born in the snow!"
"Where are they?"
"I'm pretty sure Bethlehem doesn't look anything like that."
"I don't see any manger scene in this painting."
"Are you sure there are magi in this painting?"
"If this painting is about worshiping the baby Jesus, why is everybody running around doing other stuff?"

Shortly after pointing out the enlightened magi all of their other observations began to coalesce into a firm understanding. Bruegel got the birth of Christ right and the message is inescapably powerful.

John 1:14 states, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us..." For Christ to come to Bruegel's world that meant a world of cold and darkness; a world of self-absorbed survival. Into the business of drawing water and gathering wood Christ came. In the middle of a busy afternoon Christ arrived. Not in the middle of town but in a stable. Off the beaten path and out of sight. Only those who were looking for Him found Him. This truth speaks to us. We are intimately acquainted with this condition.

After viewing this work by Bruegel I have found myself wondering what he would have painted if he were from Alabama instead of Northern Europe. I'm pretty certain there would be a train passing through town in the background with a couple of log trucks waiting at the crossing gate. There would be some old timers smoking cigarettes outside the auto parts store, a few teenagers oblivious to all but themselves and their cell phones, the trustee's from the local prison cleaning the curbs, and the stop light dutifully changing from red to green. Somewhere on the edge, maybe at the flop house that passes for a hotel in our town, would be the marvelous event. Sure, a few would notice the strangers in town and wonder what was going on but wouldn't be concerned about their presence so long as they didn't hang around too long.

That pretty well sums up our experience with this marvelous event. Whether it's trudging through a relentless snow or through an uninspiring life we're not likely to look up and discover the marvel among us. The very thing that could bring hope to this hopelessness will likely, yet again, pass unnoticed by the vast majority of us as we fight the crowd at the mall or spend unnecessary energy on cleaning the curtains for the company that's coming. He is Immanuel. God with us. Right here. Right now. Oh for the grace to see Him.

(Be sure to read Carol's review of this work and check here for more advent reading.)

December 13, 2007

Saints with Dirty Feet

Carol has posted her side of our continuing conversation of art, history, and religion. She writes from the perspective of one "in the know" and I write from the perspective of a pastor viewing art for the first time (in most cases). Don't miss the comment posted by Toby. I fear his insight and keen pen (or is it keyboard in this digitized era?) will far exceed my small ability. It is worth your time to read and consider. Please check in tomorrow for my comments on this marvelous and relevant message.


December 11, 2007

Merry Tossmas!

Thanks to Mike over at The Upper Room for posting this at his place. I enjoyed it so much that I too wanted to get in on the "holiday" fun. I think my family will be participating in this new "holiday" tradition! Take a look for yourself here and let me know what you think about the idea of Merry Tossmas!

December 7, 2007

Hope Comes Softly

Harsh reality can knock the shine right off the tinsel. There won't be enough money to buy everything we want to buy. $3/gallon gas will keep some from making a journey to be with family. Airport delays and cancellations will frustrate the travels of many, unmercifully stranding them with thousands of other disgruntled strangers in airports across our fair land. An unexpected death will cast an inescapable chill over an otherwise warm home. Notices of foreclosure or garnishment will reach mailboxes just in time to be placed under the Christmas tree with all the other gifts.

These are only the headlines on page 1 of the daily paper. Dig deeper and discover the student struggling through finals wondering if this single test grade is enough to salvage a semester or open the door to the next step. Find also the family entertaining the visitor from the Department of Human Relations questioning whether the kids should stay or go. There on page 3 is the man undergoing triple by-pass surgery the week before Christmas and the 97 year old lady who has outlived her family spending another lonely holiday with other forgotten people. I could go on but it seems this imagined paper is better suited for fire starting than enlightenment.

Most of us will pass through this season with a dim recognition that not all is well. Most will seek to push back the ugliness with a few extra ornaments. Others will seek to stifle the stench with another sprig of evergreen. Still others will drown the sorrow in glass after glass of Christmas cheer, only to discover that it is anything but cheer-filled. The pursuit of the perfect gift will preoccupy the thoughts of some, allowing them to ignore the dull ache behind the heart. However, there will be moments of quiet when the anything-but-lovely pokes its head through our consciousness to disturb us yet again.

And hope comes softly. As unmistakable and unobtrusively as Christmas lights shining from a front porch on a dark night, it comes. Made welcome by its absence, hope comes breathing life into our lifelessness, light into our darkness. It doesn't erase our burdens, it merely makes them bearable as we remember we are not abandoned to the darkness nor enslaved to despair. "In Him was life and that life was the light of men" (John 1:4). It comes softly, almost imperceptibly. Nevertheless it comes. Will we recognize it when it comes or will we rush by it in our pursuit of peace and joy?

Hope comes softly. A child. "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory... full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).

(For further Advent reading start here.)

November 30, 2007

Advent Blogging 2007 - Synchroblog event

I will be participating on Fridays in this synchroblog event imagined and engineered by Brother Maynard over at Subversive Influence. Feel free to click on the title line of any of my posts and you will be linked back to the latest synchroblog posting at Bro. Maynard's place. In addition, you may find various links to the others who are synchroblogging as I run across those that ring the jingle bells in my head and heart.

Here's a list of the participants:

I encourage you to stop by their places of blog and enjoy the journey.

A starting place for me today is to begin at the ending. Revelation 22:20 reads, "He who testifies to these things says, 'Surely I am coming soon.' Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!" As I come to this season of celebration I find myself in a Janusian quandary; wishing I had two faces. One to look back through history to the blessed first coming of Immanuel and one to look forward to the imminent blessing of His return. Alas, I have but one face and but one set of eyes with which to look upon this event that was and is to be. Is it possible that by gazing upon one I will be able to see the other? This is my hope and prayer.

"And because of His visitation, we may no longer desire God as if He were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to Him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore at every moment we pray that, following Him, we may depart from our anxiety into His peace." (From The Meditation of Simeon in For the Time Being by W. H. Auden)

November 28, 2007

A Cartoon for the Blogging Community

Carol at Watch Me Paint emailed this to me and it was just too good not to share. You will need to open the image in its own window in order to read the complete text of the cartoon (blogger cuts off the last frame). I think it's a fair description of most of the blogs I've read (including my own!). I find it particularly entertaining in light of the fact that two blogs I read are in the process of publishing a book and a third is participating in the National Novel Writers Month Challenge! (Insert laugh track here.) Keep blogging my friends!

November 26, 2007

Monday Morning Message - Mission

"The church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning. Where there is no mission there is no church; where there is neither church nor mission, there is no faith." Emil Bruner, The Word and the World.

Missions defines us as a body of believers. In 1707 a group of baptist churches came together in Philadelphia for the purpose of working together. Admittedly missions was not their first thought, but their association became the vehicle through which the task of missions found broad support. Baptist have always been a people on mission. Dr. Rick Lance, the Executive Secretary for the Alabama Baptist State Convention, has become well known for his statement, "We have one mission, the Great Commission." He's right on the mark. Missions defines us.

Missions also directs us as a church. All we do must be passed through the filter of missions. I was recently listening to NPR and a church had sponsored a segment of the broadcast. What caught my ear was the tag line the church used, "A church committed to social justice." Now I am in no way opposed to social justice, I am glad to see social injustice righted. However I take strong biblical issue with it being the primary purpose directing the activity of any church. The church is entrusted with the message of reconciliation by God? (See 2 Corinthians 5:14-6:1) If the church pursues tangential matters, it's resources and energies are drained from its primary purpose and objective. I believe as the church fulfills its mission the issues of social justice will also be addressed. As the hearts of men and women are transformed so to will the heart of a society be transformed. The axiom, "Keep the main thing the main thing" is readily applicable here.

Missions drives us as a church. Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:14 states, "The love of Christ compels us..." Because we are loved by Christ we also love others. Especially those who are not reconciled to God in Christ Jesus. This is what drives our lives, to see all kinds of people from all kinds of places come to know the wonder of salvation; to help them experience the grace of God for themselves.

Unfortunately the statistics say that our walk does not match our talk. A recent study conducted by LifeWay Christian Resources states, "A majority of the unchurched (57%) wonder why their Christian friends and neighbors never talk with them about spiritual matters. 82% say they would be open to attending church if a friend invited them. Unfortunately, only 21% of active church going Christians invited someone to church last year." (LifeWay Research, emphasis added). Beloved, we have work to do.

November 20, 2007

Of Saints, Angels, and Politicians: A consideration of Jean Bastien-Lepage's Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc, 1879
Jules Bastien-Lepage (French, 1848–1884)
Oil on canvas; 100 x 110 in. (254 x 279.4 cm)
Gift of Erwin Davis, 1889 (89.21.1)
Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York City, New York

My friend Carol has given me an arduous task. The first part I volunteered for by suggesting that we collaborate on this project from our unique points of view. The second part was more than I bargained for! After refreshing my memory concerning Joan of Arc's story I had to introduce myself to Saints Catherine and Margret and upon completing that I was then engaged in revisiting the theology of saints and angels. I feel as if I am preparing for an undergraduate paper! (Here's hoping that what follows is not too sophomoric.)

Allow me to begin by offering my philistine observations of this painting. I would love to see this marvelous work personally. I somehow believe seeing it on a computer monitor does it a severe disservice. One thing that immediately catches my eye is the distinct difference in the figure of Joan and everything else in the painting. Joan is painted with an almost photographic clarity while everything else is impressionistic and ethereal. It would seem the message Bastien-Lepage is communicating through this is the clarity of purpose in Joan's life. There is also a note of urgency about her as the stool she was apparently sitting upon has been overturned in her pursuit of the path being laid before her by the voices of Michael, Margret and Catherine. I note that the path also stands out with unusual clarity (a clear path to follow?) even though it may wind with unexpected turns. The images of Michael, Margret and Catherine very nearly blend into the background. It is as if they are a part of the scenery until you look more closely and discover them "hiding" there. This is, I think, a clever representation of the influences upon Joan's upbringing as well as a commentary upon the forces that shape all of our lives; they tend to blend into the background yet exert great influence on the trajectory of our lives. A beautiful and meaning-filled message in paint.

Now to the theological and pastoral considerations of this subject. Let's talk first about Saints. Do I believe in them? Unequivocally yes. Hebrews 11 and 12 speak of our being "surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses". (On this note, Carol, you must find your way to Birmingham, AL and tour the Chapel of Beeson Divinity School for a marvelous rendering of this scripture). However, my protestant heritage and Zwinglian penchant for iconoclastic thinking prevents me from embracing the notion of long departed saints speaking any word to me other than through their example. I cannot imagine pursuing a course of action because Adoniram Judson instructed me to do so, but I can easily imagine following his courageous example because, like him, I too am called to be a follower of Christ. So, imagining Joan acting on the direction of these voices borders on the absurd for me. After all, people that hear voices of the long departed are either in the looney bin, taking serious medications, or giving psychic readings at Lilly Dale.

The only recollection I have from the Bible of the dead speaking with the living is that of Samuel being called upon by the witch of Endor at the request of King Saul (See 1 Samuel 28). It was not a happy reunion. So, can it happen? Yes. Is it a course of action recommended to us by Scripture? No.

I am aware, if dimly, that in the Catholic church and tradition there is the belief and practice of praying to the saints for help and direction. This is certainly reflected in Bastien-Lepage's painting and, apparently, in the experience of Joan of Arc. Candidly, I find this to be incredible on two fronts. First, as I have already mentioned, the notion of someone who is dead communicating with me in the here and now is not beyond possibility but it is beyond the norm. Secondly, my protestant background questions the efficacy of such an exercise. My theology informs me that through the sacrifice made by Jesus upon the cross there is no longer any wall of separation between me and my Creator. If I can go directly to the source why would I rely on or request the help of some lesser intermediary? As a follower of Jesus I am promised the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life, "But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you all thing and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you."(John 14:26). Having the very presence of God with me to guide and sustain me causes me to question why anyone would rely on something less.

As for angels, they have enjoyed a resurgence of interest over the last couple of decades. Our increasingly secular culture seems to be feeling that "God shaped void" of which Augustine speaks and is seeking to fill it with a variety of spiritual substitutes. Angels are a more palatable commodity than many things found in the modern spiritual marketplace. Typically imagined in feminine tenderness as a caregiver or rendered powerfully masculine as a defender and protector, the notion of "angel" brings to mind benevolent faces, gentle wings, and able defenders. This is so far afield from the Hebrew concept of angel that it is difficult to bridge the gap. Certainly there are Cherubim and Seraphim with wings, but most times angels appeared to individuals, in both the Old and New Testaments, as humans. What caused them to stand apart was the message they brought. In fact, the word "angel" means messenger.

Karl Barth has given the most extensive treatment of the subject of angels in any recent theology textbook and describes the topic as "the most remarkable and difficult of all." There are numerous references to angels in Scripture, however, the nature of those references is not very helpful in developing an understanding of angels. "Every reference to angels is incidental to some other topic. They are not treated in themselves. God's revelation never aims at informing us regarding the nature of angels. When they are mentioned, it is always in order to inform us further about God, what He does, and how He does it." (Millard J. Erikson, Christian Theology, p. 434).

But what about Joan? She was apparently examined by the theologians in residence and was passed as sanely sincere in her pursuit of a path defined for her by long dead saints and a warrior angel. Is it possible that she had an encounter with the divine that shaped her destiny or is it possible that she became an unwitting, if powerful, pawn in a game of thrones that consumed her brief and bright life? In truth, both possibilities exist here. It is even within the realm of reason that both possibilities came together in Joan's life.

Carol, in communicating with me about this particular painting, mentioned "the conflation of religion and politics", a nice turn of phrase for an historically bad arrangement. It seems to be a particularly cogent point for the right understanding of this painting as well as the right understanding of many bad chapters in human history, both ancient and modern.

In Joan's life the vision of the warrior angel Michael holding forth a sword for her to take up combined with the martyred saints, Catherine and Margret, seem to play into her psyche. Michael clearly points toward a military role most unusual for a woman. Catherine, martyred for out thinking the political heads of her day, and Margret, martyred for maintaining her virginity against the advances of a powerful magistrate, both point toward her too young death. It is entirely possible that those in power saw in Joan an opportunity to play upon the naive faith of a desperate people to move them to action in accordance with their plans for power. It is not the first time this has been done, nor will it be the last time.

In our own day there are concerns about just this sort of thing happening within American Christianity. There are those who seem bent on imposing their view of the Christian faith, not only on other Christians, but also, upon all who fall under the reach of their influence. Are there truths we should uphold? Absolutely! Some of the truths which find their source in the understanding of the existence of God are firmly planted in the founding documents of our nation. Truths like, "all men are created equal", and "the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are "endowed by our creator" upon all men everywhere. However, these very truths uphold the right of others to disbelieve. It is a perilous balancing act but one which must be maintained at all costs. "Baptists know from experience that when the interests of the church are no broader than the interests of the state, the church loses its leverage to reconcile those divisions that condemn the world to perpetual strife. The distinctive Baptist understanding of religious liberty is not some denominational oddity, a mere hiccup on the side of history. Rather it offers an essential contribution to the development of a post-9/11 geopolitic by enshrining the insight that the awesome spiritual power of religion may not be linked to the equally awesome temporal power of the state if any semblance of freedom is to survive." (Bill Hull, The Meaning of the Baptist Experience, p. 21, emphasis added)

Abraham Lincoln famously said, "Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right" This is indeed the great challenge of our present day and it will be the great challenge of every coming day, to be on God's side. May He grant us grace to follow so closely as to always be found on His side.

We Treat Our Spiritual Treasures Cheaply

"O Lord God, how comfortable we are.
How exquisitely complacent.
How deliciously at ease.
We, you church, loll drowsily amid our privileges.
We treat our spiritual treasures cheaply,
as if possessing them in abundance
were a natural state of affairs,
always to be expected."

-Ray Ortland, Jr.

November 19, 2007

Monday Morning Message - Giving

The Bible has more to say about money and possessions than ANY other topic. That comes as a surprise to many people. Most think the Bible is all about praying, or heaven, or hell. The Bible is about God's relationship to man and God certainly knows the single greatest hindrance to that relationship is "stuff". All too often our goods become our gods. How are we to keep our possessions from possessing us? I believe we need to practice the discipline of giving.

We need to give graciously, not greedily. 2 Corinthians 9:6-15 recounts Paul's encouragement to the Corinthian church to give. The chief reason he offers them for giving is that they are recipients of God's grace. "And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things you may abound in every good work" (v. 8 ESV) . Those who have entered into a saving relationship with Jesus understand and know from firsthand experience that God is able to supply every need. We can give from a position of confidence because of the confidence we have in God's ability and willingness to supply all of our needs.

There is a popular brand of "Christian" teaching out there which leads many to give out of greed. The teaching goes something like this, you give a little and God will give you a lot. Greed motivates the gift. It is selfish rather than selfless. It is a pattern of giving that is focused on getting rather than giving. Unfortunately, it seems that the only ones benefiting from this teaching are the ones doing the teaching.

We not only need to give graciously, we also need to give intentionally rather than incidentally. Giving should be planned and systematic. Paul encouraged the Corinthian church to "put something aside" on the first day of each week. (1 Corinthians 16:1-2) The weekly practice of "setting something aside" serves to remind us of God's grace and provision. We can easily become wrapped up in our own importance and forget God is the one who gives us strength for the work. There will be opportunities for incidental giving, the friend in need, the unexpected windfall that allows us to bless others, however, incidental giving should not be our plan for giving.

As believers we can also give victoriously! Trusting God's continuing provision allows us to give victoriously as an act of worship. It is incredible to drive through some neighborhoods and see the incredible homes being built. I often wonder how people can afford to build such lavish places of habitation. I also find myself wondering to what end are they being built. The terrible reality is that the day will come when another will come and live in that place. Death will visit all and then what good is all our wealth? (For more on this visit the book of Ecclesiastes). But, for the Christian death is no threat!

Finally we need to give with excitement. There are three kinds of giving: 1. Grudge giving says, "I have to give.", 2. Duty giving says, "I ought to give.", 3. Thanks giving says, "I want to give!". I can honestly say, "I want to give!" because I see where the gifts I give are making a difference close to home and far away! Through our church we are able to help support over 5300 international missionaries, 5000 North American missionaries, 3 colleges, and a myriad of other ministries. Every time I give a dollar, I know a portion of it is going to support these wide ranging ministries. I am excited about giving!


November 9, 2007

Some Project Updates and NEW Project for Christmas

Project #1. Carol, over at Watch Me Paint, has posted her end of the conversation about the painting she chose for us to engage. It is a marvelous painting (and apparently huge! 100 x 110 inches. Would love to see it up close and personal...) with some equally marvelous things to say to us. I'm still working on my end of the conversation and will likely post sometime over the weekend.

Project #2. Peggy, over at The Virtual Abbess, shamed me into reviewing the Reader's Digest Condensed Version of the Bible. I have posted once and should post again late next week by which time I should be well into the prophets. It has been a remarkable adventure racing through Scripture like this. I feel like I'm taking in all the wonders of God's Word on an interstate doing about 80 m.p.h. Quite a different view than the scenic by-way I am accustomed to driving. I know I'm missing some wonderful stops along the way but I have somewhere to be in a hurry so, I'll keep zipping along.

Project #3. Back before shepherd work went crazy busy I started a pilgrimage called "A Shepherd's Tale". But as wanderings and journeys are apt to do, this one was interrupted. Well, perhaps a resumption of the pilgrimage is in order. There is surely some spiritual insight to be gained from this experience on pilgrimage...I'll have to work on that one. A fresh installment is on the drafting table now and will be ready for daylight soon.

NEW project!

I'm officially creating a meme (what the heck does that stand for anyway?!). Here's the drill...

Whatever you view of the war in Iraq may be, the reality is there are men and women who, in the faithful dispensation of their duties, have been seriously wounded and are recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Here's an opportunity to let some of them know they are not forgotten.

1. Send a Christmas card to...
A Recovering American Soldier
c/o Walter Reed Army Medical Center
690 Georgia Ave. NW
Washington D.C. 20307-5001

2. Tag 5 others with these instructions.

3. Post this info, along with your tags, to your blog.

4. Send the card!

I hereby tag Idaho Paul, "Idaho, By Way Of New Mexico" John Martinez, Lucy, Kuya Kevin, and Four Eyes. Enjoy the blessing of blessing someone else!

November 7, 2007

Remembering those Who Can't Remember

There are now more than 5 million people in the U.S. living with Alzheimer's and unless a cure is found that number will increase to 14 million by 2050. Every 72 seconds, someone develops Alzheimer's. Almost 10 million people are caring for someone with Alzheimer's and approximately one out three of these caregivers is over the age of 60. (Statistics from The Alzheimer's Association)

I have not been in the position of dealing intensively with someone with Alzheimer's but I have been alongside some of those caregivers from time to time. My friend, Netherlands Paul participated in a wonderful discussion on Alzheimer's disease and how we, as the body of Christ, can engage and minister to those with the disease and those caring for the sick. This is a discussion worth 10 minutes of your time. Read it at Postings from Prairie Hill.

November 6, 2007

Hilarity Near My Home

This sign ALWAYS makes me laugh. You may need to open it full screen to be able to read the smaller sign below. Why, oh why did My Beloved and I not get married here!

November 5, 2007

Monday Morning Message - The Call to Worship

There are some things you just can't do by yourself. Exhibit A, have a good argument. I know, I know, some of you argue with yourself all the time. However, to engage in a robust disagreement you need another party involved. Exhibit B, be in a relationship. As the old wag states, "It takes two to Tango." I could go on here but you get the idea. (Feel free to submit your own exhibits in the comments section.)

Worship is something that we need to do together. Gathering with others in times of worship is a necessary spiritual discipline. There is certainly a place for worship in the daily life of the believer. In fact, all that we say and do, every circumstance we encounter, and every relationship in which we engage is an opportunity for individual and personal worship (See Colossians 3:17). It is my firmly held belief that if our personal, daily worship is not lively then our times of corporate worship will not be lively. That said, there is a call for God's people to gather in worship on a regular basis.

Throughout Scripture there is the repeated call for God's people to gather together. Psalm 95 is one such instance. "Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD our Maker! For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand. Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts." (Ps. 95:6-7) Why do we need these reminders to worship God together?

One reason is that we are a forgetful people. I don't know about you, but the memory thing is getting worse for me. Those who are older than I tell me it's going to get still worse in the years to come. I'm in trouble. I'm the kind of guy that can go to the grocery store with a list in hand and still manage to forget something on the list! If I can be forgetful about simple things in my life I'm fairly certain that I am prone to forgetfulness about the truly important things in my life. I can even forget to worship God. Deuteronomy 6:10-12 stands as one of the most relevant warnings in all of Scripture for the church in America. "Take care lest you forget the LORD" Prosperity, comfort, and ease can easily cause us to forget the only one worthy of our worship.

Another reason we need the reminder to worship God together is that we tend to wander. Even after we experience all the marvelous benefits of knowing and following God we can wander away from Him. Following their miraculous deliverance from Egypt the people of Israel began to wander away from the One who had delivered them. God, speaking to Moses, asks, "How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?" Remember these are the people who saw the Red Sea parted. These are the people that picked up manna every morning. These are the people who saw water flow from a rock. These same people saw a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. They saw all kinds of evidence for the presence and provision of God in their lives and they STILL turned their backs on Him. Incredible, I know, but it's still happening. We need to be called to worship on a regular basis because we tend to wander away from Him.

Finally, we need the reminder to worship because we need to worship. We are created to worship. It is an anthropological note of interest that in every culture there is a system of worship. There is within mankind a need, a hunger, an understanding that worship is necessary to our existence. St. Augustine famously and eloquently stated, "Our souls are restless until they find their rest in thee, O God." Alan Reynolds writes, "Worship is essential to our humanity because it gives us insight into who we are and why we are here. But gives be what we are not yet but yet may be, that which we become by God's grace."

We need to worship. We need to get together with others to worship. It is a vital spiritual discipline that will shape our life of faith. Don't miss the opportunity to get together with others and encounter God among His people this week.

November 3, 2007

Involved in a bit of a tiff

From time to time I get involved in conversations over at Josiah Road. Currently involved in one that has ignited some pretty strong reaction. I'm wrestling with this one. I feel pretty strongly that the evangelical Christian community is largely going about "the culture war" in a way that simply doesn't square with scripture. However, I see my brother's POV. Below is a summary post I placed in the midst of the discussion (read the entire thread here). Would love some feedback here, and yes my rhino skin is firmly in place so fire away.

I in no way dispute that there is an enormous battle being waged for the hearts and minds of our children. I am simply raising the unpopular question of whether or not we are engaged in this battle in the right way.

The easy way is to beat the war drum, get the troops mobilized, create yet another stir that gets some results (albeit temporary) and pat each other on the back for “standing up to the evil empire” and all the while losing more ground. (Do you hear anybody talking about how much better it’s getting because of all these efforts? I don’t - just the opposite in fact.) The hard, but in my estimation, more effective way is to teach our children and our brethren to critically and biblically examine the culture in which they live and to respond to it in a biblical fashion. (See 1 Peter 3:15-16 for guidance).

It simply causes me to grind my teeth when we run around shouting about all we are “losing” when the understanding I have of our position in Christ is that we’ve already won.

There seems to be some expectation that a fallen culture is going to reflect and embrace God-honoring principles. I just don’t see it happening, no matter how many companies or movies we boycott. Without changing the hearts of the people we have little hope of changing the heart of the culture. “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” (John Adams, 2nd President of the United States)

Saying no to “The Golden Compass” may be a right decision to make. I’m just not sure creating another cultural firestorm is really productive

November 2, 2007

My Art Teacher Told Me I Needed To Write

Carol, over at Watch Me Paint, and I are attempting to collaborate on a blog project. Utilizing her expertise and my willingness to give my opinion about any and everything, even (especially?) things I know next to nothing about, we are going to attempt to bring some culture to this corner of the blogosphere.

I suggested that we choose (more she than me) some biblically inspired artwork and comment upon it. Carol from the artist's viewpoint and I from a pastoral point of view. Carol readily accepted and immediately suggested a couple of works with which to grapple. I've got to tell you, she's throwing me into the deep end of the pool immediately! (Like I indicated, I'm into stuff WAY above my pay grade here.) You will find the relevant posts linked to each other to make it easy to follow both conversation threads.

All that aside, I am excited about the opportunity to learn and discuss some wonderful pieces of art and the attendant issues they bring to our attention. If a picture is truly worth a thousand words I think it well worth a bit of our time to discover what these men and women are trying to say to us.

October 31, 2007

The Little Gate to God

In the castle of my soul is a little garden gate,
Whereat, when I enter, I am in the presence of God.
In a moment, in the turning of a thought, I am where God is,
This is a fact....

When I enter into God, all life has meaning.
Without asking, I know; My desires are even now fulfilled,
My fever is gone. In the great quiet of God
My troubles are but pebbles on the road,
My joys are like the everlasting hills....

So it is when my soul steps through the postern gate
Into the presence of God.
Big things become small, and small things become great.
The near becomes far, and the future is near,
The lowly and despised are shot through with glory...
God is the substance of all my resolutions;
When I am in him, I am in the Kingdom of God
And in the Fatherland of my Soul.

Walter Raushenbusch (1861-1918)

October 29, 2007

Monday Morning Message - Pink Slipped!

Well, it happened. What more can I say. I got pink slipped yesterday morning. I never saw it coming. As far as I could tell it was a pretty normal Sunday morning. Little did I know that I was about to lose my job. I can honestly say it was one of the best experiences of my life.

It happened like this...

I stood to give the morning announcements and get our service started when our Chairman of Deacons interrupted and insisted on taking the floor. This unusual circumstance was compounded by the presence of the Vice-Chairman of Deacons joining him on the platform. I knew something was up. Mr. Vice-Chairman proceeded to read the notice of termination for me and our Minister of Music while handing us our pink slips. While the shock was settling in I noticed coming through the rear doors of the sanctuary two men carrying a sofa. The sofa was brought to the front where Minister of Music and I were instructed to be seated. We were then informed this was only a temporary termination for reasons of appreciation.

Somehow our entire church family had planned an appreciation service for us with us being none the wiser. Everything was taken care of and Minister of Music and I "took the day off." We enjoyed a memorable time of worship as a church family. It was marked by tears, as stories were shared of God's goodness, and laughter, as a "guest music director" led the choir (trust me, you just had to be there). It was amazing to move from side splitting laughter to spirit filled worship in song as God's people worshiped together. One of our young deacons brought the morning sermon that challenged and moved our congregation. The service closed with the church gathering around us and praying for us. It was truly a time of wonderful celebration and affirmation of all that God is doing in this place.

I am uniquely blessed to pastor this flock.

BTW - I got my job back after the service was over :-)!

October 26, 2007

A Free Gift for You!

Hey... you lucky blog visitor - this is your opportunity to get something for free. Yeay!
I've just read about this idea at Paul's blog. Okay, here goes!

Be one of the first five to leave a comment on this post and I will send you a gift by year’s end. In order to respect privacy as much as possible, we can work out shipping matters via email. It won’t be an expensive gift mind you, but it will be one that I hope will remind you that God loves you and is active in your life each and every day.

Like all other memes, this one comes with guidelines: 1) Be one of the first five to leave a comment on this post and you will receive a gift. 2) The gift must be a tangible item. A donation to charity, for example, does not qualify. 3) Make the same offer to five other people on your blog.

That’s it. Leave a comment and I’ll send you a gift.

The Reader's Digest Condensed Version of the Bible

You've got to be kidding, right? A condensed version of the Bible??? I know, I know, there's something about the whole concept that just doesn't sit well with me. I'm wondering what "jot's and tittle's" are missing.

A conversation on another blog concerning modern translations of the bible led to my being chastised by "Peggy" for simply assuming this whole condensing thing was a bad idea without first checking it out. I responded by stating that I would secure a copy of the RDCV ASAP and offer up my thoughts. Consider this a first installment on my opinions.

I asked my masterful ministry assistant to secure a copy for me from a used book seller. Expecting a cheap paperback I was pleasantly surprised by what she procured. Pictured above is the beautiful edition that is now part of my collection.

The edition is worth the $7 (plus shipping and handling) paid for the artwork alone. (Watch Me Paint Carol, I immediately thought of you and how nice it would be to sit down and let you walk me through this art gallery!) My life has already been enriched by this particular volume and I have a greater appreciation for religious art (Isn't all art religious? Another topic for another day). Each book has a brief introduction in the tradition of most study bibles out there. However, these introductions are graced with dynamic original etchings. You will notice in the right hand margin a smaller picture which is a notable piece of artwork that has a relationship to the adjacent text. Almost every page has one or more of these contributions. This volume is a treasure trove of art history. Below is a sample of one of three full color sections. One section focuses on artwork inspired by the Old Testament, another on the New Testament, and the third offers some photos of the Holy Land. As I said, a bonanza of art history and a beautiful edition.

I could go on and on about the trimmings but I agreed to review the main course, the Scripture. Here are some initial observations. The introduction by Bruce Metzger, attempts to define the difference between a condensation and an abridgment and states, rather emphatically, that this (the RDCV) is not an abridged version. Metzger then goes on to describe how this version is approximately 40% shorter than its traditional counterparts through the condensation methods "perfected" by Reader's Digest through the years. Interestingly, a brief trip to your local dictionary reveals little, if any, difference between "condense" and "abridge". If you're having difficulty hearing my skepticism through these typed words let me say it clearly, I'm skeptical.

After reading the first three books (Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus) I would call this an abridged version rather than a condensed version. Reading comparatively (RDCV side by side with my ESV) through Genesis sealed that observation for me. They have preserved the critical story line while sacrificing some marvelous stories that attend and illuminate the central story. I understand that something had to go in order to "condense" it and I am intensely interested about the process of elimination that was used in order to achieve this. By what criteria did a particular section get pink slipped? (There's a fun Bible Study idea for you...if you were "condensing" the Bible what would you leave out?).

Some things I like. I really like no chapter and verse references. (Footnote, Stephen Langton is reputed to have been the first to put the chapter divisions into a Vulgate edition of the Bible, in 1205. They were then inserted into Greek manuscripts of the New Testament in the 1400's . Robert Estienne (Robert Stephanus) was the first to number the verses within each chapter, his verse numbers entering printed editions in 1551 (New Testament) and 1571 (Hebrew Bible)) It is nice to read through a text without artificial divisions. I think this will make an even greater difference in reading the epistles (check back later).

As one who is acquainted with the general sweep of the scriptural story I like the job the editors have done of preserving the central story. It was nice to "get the point" of Leviticus without getting bogged down in the repetitive ritual instructions. (OK, by show of hands, how many of you have read every word of Leviticus without skimming?) That said, there is still a big part of me that cringes at portions of this lying on the cutting floor somewhere. Maybe I prefer to be my own editor...

I'm still wrestling with whether or not I can, in good conscience, recommend the RDCV to others. Maybe if it didn't proclaim itself as the BIBLE I would be a little more at ease with it. (But what would you call it?)

I will be back with other observations along the way. Today I'm reading Numbers and Deuteronomy.

October 23, 2007

Huckabee for President?

I'm still thoroughly undecided about the '08 Presidential election. One candidate that has stirred some interest is Mike Huckabee. I must admit that what was first purely curiosity (after all he was a Baptist pastor at one time) has become a more serious look. My blog-friend Idaho Paul has posted Huckabee's interview with Glen Beck for your information, entertainment, and/or teeth gnashing. Interesting stuff.

It's going to be an interesting Presidential race.

October 22, 2007

Monday Morning Message - The Pattern for Continuing Revival

We enjoyed a wonderful and memorable week of revival services at our church this past week. The music was a celebration of our life in Christ and led us to whole-heartedly worship. The messages were challenging as they held up a mirror to the spiritual reality of our lives, suffice it to say I didn't like what I saw and had real business to do with God about issues in my own life. I believe this will be one of those high-water marks we look back on as a key time in our lives.

It was a good week, however that was last week. We are now facing a new week full of of challenges, opportunities, crises, and unexpected events. How do we continue in revival? Revival is more of the Holy Spirit actively working, stirring, and moving in our lives. How can we have this be the norm rather than the exception? I believe there is a clear pattern in Scripture for us to have more of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives.

It begins with encountering God. Anytime we encounter God is a crisis moment. It will always result in a reaction on our part. Very often it is in the midst of crisis that we encounter God. C.S. Lewis famously stated, "Pain is God's megaphone with which He rouses a sleeping world." When things in our life are difficult or painful it is an opportunity for us to seek God. Hosea 6 speaks of this, "He has torn us to pieces, but he will heal us" Is God trying to get your attention through circumstances or events in your life?

An encounter with God always produces a recognition that things in our lives are not as they should be. Just like dirt shows up in intense light (I think this is why a lot of restaurants are dimly lit;-)!) sin shows up when we encounter God. God is deadly serious about sin. In fact, throughout Scripture God has only one response to sin - wrath. He hates sin because He know what it does to us. It kills us. The Biblical formula never changes, Sin = Death. Death in our relationships, death in our ability to love and enjoy life, death in our pursuit of personal satisfaction, death to contentment, death to peace (both personal and corporate - even international) all brought about by sin. When we encounter God we immediately recognize our sin. (See Isaiah 6 for a clear example of this).

Recognition of sin offers us the opportunity of repentance. Repentance is the clarion call of all the prophets in Scripture as well as the singular message of John the Baptist, "Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!". Jesus began His public ministry with this same message, "Repent." There must be a turning in our life. A turning from the path we've been following to the path laid before us by God. A turning from self-directed and self-destructive choices to the God-centered and life giving ways offered to us in Christ. Not a half-hearted glance over the shoulder at the things God is offering us while desperately clutching the very thing that has been bringing death into our lives, but a whole-hearted, unreserved turn to God. The time to do this is NOW.

As we repent we discover grace. Grace that says, "You're forgiven." Grace that says, "You're accepted and welcome." Grace that says, "What I have done for you is sufficient." We can quit trying to impress or earn the favor of God. What He's been trying to tell us all along is that He loves us and has simply been waiting for us to turn to Him and discover arms wide open ready to give us real life. It is amazing that we resist this amazing grace.

And in grace we discover His greatest of gifts to us, the very presence of the Holy Spirit living within us. To dust dry throats crying out for water and seared souls the Spirit is water to slake soul thirst and balm to heal the worst of wounds. But there is more. The Spirit of God at work in the life of the believer is power to display the very nature of God to a world desperate for a touch from the Creator. Paul, states in 2 Corinthians 5:20-21, "We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God."

It is possible to live in a continuing state of revival. The question is will we?

October 17, 2007

Lucy's Fine Answers

Lucy, over at Well Behaved Women, has responded to my interview questions. I think you might find them interesting. I'm glad to have Lucy among my blog-friends. Conversations with her are always lively and informative, even if they occasionally cause me to grind my teeth.

A Word From Scotty...

We have been in revival this week and it has been a wonderful time of spiritual refreshment and challenge for our church family. Scotty Davis has been preaching some powerful messages to a receptive church family. Scotty has a brief post (with others to follow, I understand) over at his blog, ...too small a thing. You will find his other exploits in missions of interest as well. Talk about your well traveled man! He's got stories to tell. Maybe he can tell them to you!

October 15, 2007

Monday Morning Message - Leave Your Water Pitcher

Among the best known stories of Jesus' ministry is the story of the woman at the well in John 4. Like so many things with which we are familiar we often fail to take note of some of the telling details. This is the case (at least for me) with this story. In all the times I've read it or heard it told or worked it over in my mind there is a startling detail that had always eluded me, until now. Now I don't think I'll ever encounter the story the same way.

The woman left her water pitcher. There it is. Nothing dramatic. In and of itself it is a pretty nondescript action. However, placed in the context of the story and the reality of her life it is a story that stands alone. I could go on for quite a while on this point, but rather than me filling in all the blanks on this one why don't you just let this rattle around in your head a while. I think you will, like me, come to the place that seeing that woman walking away from the well without her water pitcher will communicate much more than I ever could with a few typed words.

One more thing, are you carrying a water pitcher today?

October 11, 2007

Riot Breaks Out In This Shepherd's Backyard!

News Flash! This morning a peaceful demonstration ran wildly out of control leading to an unexpected riot in this Shepherd's backyard. What would have been an otherwise non-descript October day quickly became a technicolor trip to remember. A quick scan of the participants ruled out any illicit drug use as well as putting to rest any concerns about the scene turning ugly. The only casualty of the event was the use of a swing, often enjoyed in the evenings by the Shepherd and his Beloved.

One of the demonstrators was asked about the reasons for this display and had this to say, "The heavens declare the glory of God...Day to day pours out speech."
Another demonstrator shed some thoughtful light on this display. "Why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like on of these. But if God so clothes the grss of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?...Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you."

One other demonstrator was in a decidedly pensive mood and shared this arresting insight concerning the temporal nature of the display. "A voice said, 'Cry!' And I said, 'What shall I cry?' All flesh is grass, and all beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers and the flower fades whe the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever."

October 10, 2007

An Interview with Lucy

What seems like an age ago I was interviewed by Paul Abspoel and part of that interview was to offer to do the same for others. Lucy, over at Well Behaved Women..., volunteered. So, Lucy, here are your five questions (finally).

1. You are a self-described hemorrhaging heart liberal. I am a hand-over-my-heart conservative. Why should people like us "waste time" talking to each other?

2. You have been convicted of a crime (hypothetically, of course!) and your judge passes the following sentence on you for your crime..."You can only eat one meal, watch one movie, read one book, and listen to one album for the rest of your life." What are your choices and why?

3. You spent some time in Sweeden as an exchange student. What are the lingering life-lessons you carry from this experience?

4. Name 5 simple things that bring joy to your day.

5. You enjoy cooking. My Beloved and I are coming over. What's for supper? (Spare no details. Make our mouths water.)

If you would like to be interviewed follow the instructions below!

1. Leave me a comment saying “Interview me.”
2. I will respond by emailing you five questions. I get to pick the questions.
3. You will update your blog with a post containing your answers to the questions.
4. You will include this explanation and an offer to interview someone else in the same post.
5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.

October 8, 2007

Monday Morning Message - Dry

The drought down our way has been remarkable. Statistically it was the driest spring since they began keeping records back in 1895. Practically, that means that everything is bone dry. I read with jaw dropping interest that at one point water had not flowed in the Kissimmee River in Florida for 212 days. That, my friends, is dry.

The drought has everyone talking about it. I overheard some of the guys at the coffee shop trying to "out-dry" the other. One old head, with a grin on his face, said, "It's so dry that my cows are giving evaporated milk." His friend dryly replied, "That's nothin'. I caught a catfish the other day and had to pick the ticks off of it before I could clean it."

Donald Wilhite, writing about the Sudan drought in 2003, asks a stop-you-in-your-tracks question, "We think of water as an unlimited resource. But what happens when you turn on the tap and it's not there?"

The Bible is literally filled with thirsty people. People who are looking for water. Abraham fought battles over water. Elijah prayed for rain. David wishfully desires a drink of water from a memorable well from his childhood. There's the woman at the well who comes to draw water in the heat of the day. Even Jesus on the cross declares, "I thirst." The Psalmist sighs, "As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God." (Psalm 42:1-2) I know what he's talking about. I guess you could say I'm a parched preacher. My shriveled soul needs a drink. I'm thirsty.

"On the the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, 'If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, 'Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water." (John 7:37-38). Maybe it's time for me to go to Jesus. Are you thirsty?

October 5, 2007

Hello Blog Flock! I'm back.

"Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home." (Luke 15:3-5)

I'm back. To all of you who have checked in and found me missing I apologize. However, I gladly tell you that an intensive season of ministering to the flock I have the privilege to pastor is moderating a bit and I hope to be back to my blogging with more regularity. I miss you guys!

Three births, two weddings, numerous health crises, a revival, various board meetings, two funerals and nearly 4000 miles logged in 3 weeks have kept this shepherd on the run. It is nice to be still for a few moments.

I've got some good stories to share, some new thoughts rattling around in my head, and several unfinished blog projects to pick up. Plenty to do. Monday Morning Message will resume October 8 - feel free to tune in!

A quick quote of note for the day...

"I have never heard anyone says, 'The really deep lessons of life have come through times of ease and comfort.' But I have heard strong saints say, 'Every significant advance I have ever made in grasping the depths of God's love and growing deep with him, has come through suffering.' Samuel Rutherford said that when he was cast into the cellars of affliction, he remembered that the great King always kept his wine there. Charles Spurgeon said that those who dive in the sea of affliction bring up rare pearls." (John Piper, Desiring God)

September 17, 2007

Monday Morning Message - Marriage and Gay Pride

This Monday Morning Message is a little different as I did not preach yesterday. My Beloved and I were returning from beautiful Savannah, GA where I had the privilege of marrying two wonderful people. It was a nice trip that gave My Beloved and I the opportunity to celebrate, a little early, our 19th wedding anniversary. We had a wonderful time together as we reminisced, laughed, ate way too many pralines, and saw some beautiful places. It was a reminder of why 19 years have gone by so quickly, we are definitely having fun!

In the midst of all our personal celebrating and helping the families prepare for the wedding there were a few experiences that struck me simply because of their contrast. If you'll bear with me I'll try and relate them succinctly.

The first was on the day of our arrival in Savannah. My Beloved and I boarded the elevator with some other guests and entered polite conversation with them (I detest not talking with people in an elevator! How dare we not acknowledge each other's existence! But I digress...) and we shared that we were celebrating our 19th anniversary. I was saddened by their response of shock and surprise. One even indicated they were now in their 3rd marriage. My Beloved and I entered our marriage with no back doors. Ours was a commitment "till death do us part" even if it meant one of us killed the other! It is sad that the expectation for so many marriages has been cheapened. Instead of being one of the finest and most treasured commitments of life, it is all too often a disposable commodity.

Another moment that struck me was immediately following the wedding. I was talking with a member of the bride's family and she stated, "I wish my husband had been here. He needed to hear that. We've been married for three years and I think he's forgotten what he promised." I tried to offer her words of hope and encouragement but inside, my heart was breaking for this beautiful young woman. Her story is repeated far too many times in this world that thrives on broken promises. I will never forget counseling a man who was having an affair and he asked me how I kept from doing the same, "After all, you are a man." My reply was simply that I had made promises that I intended to keep.

One final event was happening a couple of blocks away that stood in stark contrast to the joy-filled celebration of God's design and plan for marriage and this wonderful couple . At the very same time this couple was affirming before God their desire to live in a way that honored Him, a Gay Pride event was taking place. It was quite the picture of contrasts to have this bride and groom in all their wedding finery walking across the square where drag queens were performing for a couple of hundred people celebrating Gay Pride. I could not help but think of the words I had shared with the couple only moments before, "Your marriage is a picture of Christ's love for the church. Put it on display for all to see." They had the unique opportunity to do just that immediately following their pronouncement as husband and wife.

To all of you who are married I say, love your spouse. Treasure them. Be certain they know it today. Keep your promises. Be that picture of Christ's love for His bride, the church.

To those of you waiting or preparing for marriage, I challenge you to consider the weight and responsibility of joining your life with another. It is not something to be entered into lightly.

And finally, to those of you involved in a homosexual lifestyle, I ask you to examine your life in light of God's word and in so doing, discover a love and mercy deep and rich enough to truly satisfy your soul.

September 10, 2007

A Shepherd's Tale - Beginnings

"For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!" (Psalm 139:13-17)

I don't much remember those first days, but what a marvel they were! Just imagine, an egg and a sperm got together and the result of those two tiny and unremarkable cells linking up is me! Oh sure, there are 40 years and 9 months of growth, learning, and experiences thrown into the mix now, but it all started right there! What a miraculous and wonderful process got started at that moment! I found the following information on the National Library of Medicine's website. It is amazing all that was going on with me in those early days...

Week 3

  • My brain, spinal cord, and heart is beginning to develop
  • So is my gastrointestinal tract.

Weeks 4 to 5

  • My heart started beating in rhythm
  • Blood started flowing
  • My eyes and ears got their start
  • My brain developed into five areas and some cranial nerves began to be visible
  • My arms and legs start growing!

Week 6

  • My lungs get their start this week
  • And my arms and legs are longer. Guess what, I've got feet and hands now complete with toes and fingers!

Week 7

  • This week you can see my elbows!
  • All my essential organs are starting to form.

Week 8

  • My dashing good looks are taking form as my face continues to develop.

Weks 9 to 12

  • I've got a big head right now. It's about half of my body!
  • No mistaking it now. I'm definitely good looking! My face is fully formed.
  • Getting ready to have teeth too. My tooth buds are forming but they won't show up for almost a year!
  • Guess what I can do now! I can make a fist!
  • And look at that! I'm a boy!

Weeks 13 to 16

  • I'm almost 6 inches long!
  • My muscles and bones have developed too!
  • I'm beginning to move around some.
  • I've learned how to suck. Gotta' be ready to eat!

Week 20

  • To complete my boyish good looks I now have eyebrows and eyelashes!
  • Oh yeah, my toenails and fingernails have started growing.
  • Mom felt me kick her this week and the doctor heard my heartbeat with his stethoscope.

Week 24

  • I'm almost a foot long this week!
  • Everything I will need to see is now in place. My baby blues are ready to take a look!
  • Things startle me now. My reflexes are coming along.
  • There is no longer any mistaking me for someone else, I've got fingerprints!

Weeks 25 to 28

  • I'm starting to pack on the pounds now. I'm weighing in around 2.5 pounds.
  • I'm getting smarter too. My brain is getting its act together for my debut!
  • I'm learning how to wink as my eyelids are opening and closing.
  • If I was born at this time I could survive. It would be tough but possible.

Weeks 29 to 32

  • I'm a foot and a half long and still growing!
  • Mom has been eating good so I'm getting fat.
  • My breathing is regular now and my bones are fully developed now.
  • I've started storing iron, calcium and phosphorus as I get ready to take on the world.

Weeks 37 to 40

  • I'm now 18 to 22 inches long and about 7 pounds.
  • My fingernails may need to be cut as they are past my finger tips now
  • And I have a beautiful head of hair now!

On February 1, 1967 (I'm 40, just to save you the math) around 5 p.m. I came wailing into this world. What a miracle! Something even more astounding is that God loved me from long before I got my 2 celled start in life. In fact, the Bible says that He has loved me from the foundations of the world. Since before time began, He's been loving me. What's more, He's got plans for me! He told Jeremiah, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations." (Jer. 1:5). Sure, God was speaking to Jeremiah, but if He knew Jeremiah and had plans for Jeremiah's life I believe He also knew me and has had plans for me from before I got my two celled start. How cool is that!
At this first stop on our pilgrimage you may want to take a moment to simply take in the wonder of your own birth. It might be an opportunity for you to remember your wondrous worth to God. You may feel pretty worthless, but discovering a God who loved you even before you got your start can change all that!

Monday Morning Message - Welcome to the Neighborhood

(Sing along if you like!)

It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?

It's a neighborly day in this beauty wood,
A neighborly day for a beauty.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?

I've always wanted to have a neighbor just like you.
I've always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.So,

Let's make the most of this beautiful day.
Since we're together we might as well say:
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won't you be my neighbor?
Won't you please,
Won't you please?
Please won't you be my neighbor?

I can't tell you how many times I watched Mr. Rogers walk through his front door and change his sweater and shoes while singing this memorable tune. I find myself humming or singing these lines at various and unexpected moments in my life. They always bring a smile to my face. You are likely to be singing them today as well (you can thank me later ;-)). (For my international readers who may not be familiar with this piece of Americana you can listen here)

The final plea of Mr. Rogers' little ditty has turned poignant for me. I think everyone desperately wants a neighbor. So, just who is my neighbor? It's a good question, but not a new question. Jesus was once asked this very question by a well educated and well to do man. The story Jesus told in response to the question is among the most famous stories ever told. We even have laws in our country based on this story called "Good Samaritan" laws. (You can find the story in Luke 10:25-37)

The question the man asked was, "Who is my neighbor?". Jesus never answers this question! I know, it astounded me too when I finally realized the impact of what Jesus does here. I am very much like the man asking the question. I want to identify who it is I'm supposed to treat nicely and in so doing I can exclude everyone else without my conscience bothering me. Jesus doesn't give us that luxury. Rather than identifying who is and who is not a neighbor, Jesus, in essence, tells the man (and us) to be a neighbor.

Glandion Carney tells a moving story of his return to the inner city neighborhood where he grew up. There he met a middle aged woman whose personal and family life was in a terrible mess. After listening to this woman share her story Glandion asked her, "What is your greatest need? Glandion says, "In labored but clear words she said, 'I need someone to tell me that I am worth something. I need someone to look me in the eye and say that I am a a person of dignity, that I have worth, that I have value in this world.'"

It strikes me that this is exactly what Jesus has done for us. In Eugene Peterson's wonderful rendering of John 1:14 it says, "And the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood."

Jesus says to the man asking the question, "Who is my neighbor?", "Spend less time determining who your neighbor is and more time loving them." After all, my friends, the commandment is to love our neighbor, not to identify them.

September 5, 2007

This Shepherd is with His Flock

Please pardon my absence. I have been intending to post and I even have a couple of posts in draft form just not ready to show to the world. The Monday Morning Message this week may be a Friday morning dispatch and the first stop on the pilgrimage (A Shepherd's Tale) is just around the corner. I am simply with my flock right now. Numerous people and families dealing with numerous issues from births to deaths and all the things in between.

If you have moment pray for me it would be appreciated - strength, endurance, and a sensitive spirit for what looks to be a long run of intensive ministry.

August 29, 2007


Some of you may not be aware of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief work. I think these folks are modern day heroes! Take a look at this recently updated response to disasters all over our nation, and for a more personal view check out Idaho Paul's recent experience with the Utah Mine disaster. What a wonderful opportunity to offer a "cup of cold water" to those who are in need. It's good to see the church in action in positive, tangible ways.

Thank you to all of you folks in the yellow hats and t-shirts!

Hey, if you are in one of these affected areas why not make sure you local news media knows about this. It sure would be good for people to hear some good news about Southern Baptists!

RFD Church Forum

This is a free advertisement. No actors were paid and no commissions will be received as a result of this post.

If you know pastors in small churches - particularly those in communities reminiscent of Mayberry (i.e. rural) please let them know about a new forum created for just these kind of folks. It's called RFD Church and I think it offers a unique opportunity to talk about a unique ministry setting. So, if you know a pastor that fits this description let them know about it!

Thanks Sermonator for creating such a place for the backwater pastors making a splash in the kingdom of God.

August 28, 2007

A Shepherd's Tale - The Invitation

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The drogh
te of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,

From the Prologue of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffery Chaucer

You're cordially invited to take a virtual pilgrimage with me. It will be an honor to have you accompany me along the way. The intent of this pilgrimage is to walk the path of my spiritual journey so far. There are places I would like to visit with you where God made Himself clearly known to me . I would also like to introduce you to some grace filled (and maybe even a few grace-less) people who have left an indelible mark on my life. There may be a side road or two we will travel for the simple joy of the view. With God's grace we will return safely to this place, the place where we begin, because this is where I am on my spiritual journey.

August 27, 2007

Monday Morning Message - Think and Love

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." Matthew 22:37

What do you love? That's a question easy enough for most of us to answer. Our thoughts immediately turn to that which is the object of our attention and adoration. Jesus knew what He was talking about when He said, "Where your treasure is there your heart will also be." (Matthew 6:21). You see, our thoughts drive our loves.

When I began dating My Beloved in college no one had to remind me to think about her. In fact, I often had to be snapped back to reality from thinking about her. I was often imagining the next time I would get to see her or remembering the sweet moments we had recently shared. I was always thinking about her. I can gladly say things haven't changed much in that department. I still think of her all the time! The point is, of course, that our thought lives drive our love lives.

Dallas Willard, in his book Renovation of the Heart, cogently states, "To bring the mind to dwell intelligently upon God as He is presented in His word will have the effect of causing us to love God passionately, and this love will in turn bring us to think of God steadily." Our problem is that we have become lazy lovers of God. We make bold professions of love and follow them with pitiable pursuits of that love.

Let me challenge you to fix your thoughts upon God this week. Make it a point to pursue Him through His word. Determine to call to mind throughout your day the goodness and glory of God. Allow Him to become that all consuming thought in your life. In so doing you will take significant strides toward loving Him with all your mind.

August 24, 2007

An Interview with Paul Abspoel

Five questions for John (The Shepherd’s Staff)
1. You are a pastor, a shepherd. Please tell us some things about this occupation. And let us know: who is shepherding you?

Tell you some things about this occupation, hmmm. The standing joke is that I only work on Sunday’s and Wednesday’s and then I work too long! (There seems to be no end to “long winded preacher” jokes.)

As a pastor I am called on to perform a wide variety of tasks. The most visible, of course, is the Sunday morning sermon. This is an opportunity for me to share the Word of God with the people of God and it is truly a humbling endeavor. When I stand in the pulpit and look across the congregation I see people who are rejoicing and people who are suffering; I can see those who have come to the end of their hope and I can see others who are moving from strength to strength; I know the woman who has just lost her husband and the couple who is celebrating their newborn child. I see all these people and their cares and know that they have come expecting to hear from God. Let me tell you, I am unequal to the task. Yet, miraculously, Sunday after Sunday God speaks to His people. Did I tell you this was humbling work?

As pastor I have the simple joy of holding newborn children, baptizing newborn believers, and blessing the union of newborn marriages. I also have the quiet and solemn task of burying the dead, consoling the sick, and listening to the suffering. There are lost sheep to find, ornery sheep to corral, and new sheep to welcome to the flock. Somewhere in the midst of this work there are committees to guide, staff to supervise, and sermons to prepare. It is a work that is never completed and it is a work that brings me great joy.

You ask, “Who shepherd’s you?” My “Paul” passed away this year and I am looking for another to help me grow upwards and onwards. My “Barnabas”(my encourager) is a fellow pastor in a neighboring city whom I talk with weekly. My “Epaphroditus”(my companion on the journey) is actually a group of men I meet with each Sunday morning. Sometimes we talk of deep spiritual matters, but most often we just share our lives with each other.

2. Are there any opportunities in life that you regret to have missed and are there any dreams of the future that you would like to see realized one day?

I am largely content with my life. As I look back, most of the opportunities I may regret having missed are largely due to the foolishness of youth. I regret that I didn’t learn more about gardening from my grandfather. I regret that I didn’t spend more time talking to my great-grandmother about her life. She lived to be 103 and was born in 1888. There are a few changes she saw first hand that I would love to have her perspective on now.

As for dreams, I am always dreaming new ones. It is an intrinsic part of my nature. Selfish dreams include: thru hiking the Appalachian Trail, working on a sailing vessel for 6 months, and completing a marathon. Dreams for my family include: all kinds of travel adventures (too many to list here), continued closeness in the coming years of change, and dinner tonight around our table. Dreams for my church include: to reach all kinds of people in all kinds of places, and a vision that is truly God-sized instead of being limited to the size or geographic location of our church.

3. Is there a part of Jesus’ message that you find hard to understand or obey? If so, please let us know which part and why.

Ah, Paul, the question is too big! The more I know the less I understand. The more I obey the more I realize the depth of my disobedience. If Jesus’ message was a simple issue of black and white/good and evil I could come to grips with it, but Jesus demands so much more than some standard of behavior, He demands my heart!

Jesus’ words to Peter in Matthew 16 always cause me to pause in my pursuit of “God’s purposes” for my life. Peter has just confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God and has been affirmed by Jesus as being in tune with God. (v.17). In the next breath Jesus is rebuking Peter for “not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (v.23) He even calls Peter “Satan”. Pretty strong stuff. I’m amazed that Peter goes from getting right to getting it wrong in the blink of an eye. I wonder how many times I get something right but then begin to use it in a wrong way? I’m guilty.

As I said, my friend, I find this question too big to sink my teeth into here. The bottom line, is that we live in a bottom line driven age. It’s all got to be measured, quantified, codified, and cataloged, but living by Jesus’ standards is not conveniently measured. I am desperately tempted to live by the measures (both secular and spiritual) of this era when I know that Jesus is patently unimpressed with those standards. He is always looking to the heart.

4. What do you consider to be your greatest achievement? Please explain.

My children. I am increasingly convinced that the single greatest contribution I will make to this world will be the lives of my children. They are a joy to me and I see in them the ability to do more than I ever dreamed of doing. The Psalmist describes children as “arrows in the hand of a warrior” (Ps. 127:4). Arrows are to be released from the hand of the archer to reach a target that is beyond his reach. I clearly see my children doing just this sort of thing. They will have more influence, more ability, and more opportunity than I will ever achieve. What a marvelous opportunity I have to “aim” them in the right direction!

5. Please name your favourite a) actor / actress, b) author, c) musician / artist and d) sports hero. Of course we would all like to know what you admire so much in them and why.

First, a disclaimer: These kinds of questions are patently unfair to me. I don’t do “favorites” very well. I have an eclectic sensibility when it comes to these kinds of things. I enjoy all kinds...but, if I must…

Favorite actor/actress – John Wayne. There is not a more classic expression of the American spirit than John Wayne. Rugged individualism, determination, swagger all show up in this man. Of interest is the fact that one of my favorite movies starring Mr. Wayne is his comedic role in North to Alaska. I can remember as a kid trying to imitate his signature walk.

Favorite author – Ah, see, here I am unfairly cornered. Fiction, I love J.R.R. Tolkien. His imagery and adventure are spectacular, but it’s the underlying story that compels. The least of all make the greatest difference. Non-fiction, I enjoy Thomas Cahill and his “Hinges of History” series. A remarkable view of the broad sweep of history. For something to challenge me I enjoy Phillip Yancey. Yancey never fails to ask questions about spiritual matters that, I believe, many people ask but are afraid to voice. His fearless grappling with matters like prayer, miracles, and grace are always thought provoking. In the classic vein, I am a great fan of Andrew Murray. I could go on and on here.

Favorite musician/artist - Again, unfairly cornered. I think of Sherrill Richardson who plays banjo in a local bluegrass band. I’m not a big bluegrass fan, but I love to watch him play. I think of my grandmother sitting at a poorly tuned piano in her living room playing “The Old Rugged Cross” and the family singing in four part harmony. I also think of the music that has moved my soul, IONA’s music stirred the earthy echoes of a spiritual heritage from Ireland, Steve Camp’s lyrics stirred the needful response of action to God’s call upon a life, and Brahms Concerto No. 2 for piano stirs the joy of the ear to hear.

Favorite sports hero – At last an easy one! I grew up in the shadow of Paul “Bear” Bryant and Alabama football. His legacy of winning and character made an impression on my young life. His benevolent image smiles down on me even as I write these words. Historically he provided a troubled state a rallying point during a troubled era. It was before my day, but the legacy of Alabama football helped to transcend the racial upheaval of the 60’s. I clearly remember the racial rumblings that were silenced by this larger than life man when he started the first African-american quarterback in the University’s history.

Whew! That was a harder assignment than I imagined. Thank you for the opportunity to share these things. Thanks also for some excellent questions!

If you would like to be interviewed follow the instructions below!

1. Leave me a comment saying “Interview me.”
2. I will respond by emailing you five questions. I get to pick the questions.
3. You will update your blog with a post containing your answers to the questions.
4. You will include this explanation and an offer to interview someone else in the same post.
5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.