Friday, August 16, 2019

Big Finish!

For the record: I hate to run.

No matter what you might surmise from anything that you read me write, hear me say, or see me do... and despite what my wife might naively tell you, the truth is, I hate to run.

Maybe hate is too strong a word, since a lot of my family runs. Both of my sisters run, participating in 5Ks, marathons, and Ironman triathlons, while my nephew has competed in at least two Spartan races this year.

However, until a year ago, the only two times I had ever set out to just run - once in Georgia during my first ministry and once in Reidsville when I was new in town... so, both over 30 years ago - ended with me bent over on the side of the road, losing weight in a way that most doctors simply would not recommend.

In fact, while the header image looks much "cooler," this image is definitely more accurate:

I hate to run.

Yesterday morning, after moving my son into his college dorm the day before, facilitating a small group that evening, and visiting in the hospital that night, when my wife's alarm went off at 4:15 AM (Yes Virginia, there is a 4:15 in the morning, and it just so happens to be one of the few times in both of our schedules that is free!) ...

I digress. When the cruel alarm sounded, I can't tell you how much I hated the thought of getting up to run, as well as how much I wanted to "run over" the sick, demented individual who first came up with the idea of running for leisure/sport/exercise.

But we ran. Or rather, we walked/ran (and for the purposes of this post, run and walk/run are synonymous).

Have I mentioned that I hate to run?

And yet, I run, not because I love to run, and certainly not because I am a fast runner (although I did finish second in my age division in my last 5K. A cynic would, at this point, mention that there were only two runners in that division, but hey, second is still second!).

No, I run because I love the benefits of running, including the (hopefully) healthier lifestyle, the 5K t-shirts, spending together-time with my wife doing our "thing" (which this summer has included our son), praying for certain people as I pass their house, and of course, the numbers.

I absolutely love the numbers. And when it comes to running, there are all kinds of numbers - distance, pace, and time, just to name a few.

Now, I understand that it's simply not realistic for each run to be better, time-wise, than the previous run, but there is still that push from my competitive side to try and make it so. Which means that at some point in the last minute or two of our runs, I usually shout out to my wife, "Don't give up. Big finish!"

I tell you all that to tell you the same thing: Don't give up. Big finish!

I wrote back in January that to get the change I want for my life, I need to do something. It's not just going to happen on its own. To that end, I listed seven measurable "goals" to help get me to where I want to be.

Sadly, of my seven, I am probably only on-pace with two (numbers 2 and 4, for those keeping score).

It's almost September. Almost two-thirds of 2019 is gone, and yet I am encouraging me (and you, if you have any plans or goals for the year that are still unfinished) ... I am encouraging all of us to finish big. Rather than get lazy, or quit, or simply wait until 2020 to rehash my unrealized "goals" from this year, I need to pursue all seven as much as possible over the last four months of this year!

Don't give up. Big finish!

Speaking of 2019, Reidsville Christian and Gaston Christian have been about Just Jesus all year as we've studied through the gospel of Matthew. Our churches' goal has been to know Jesus better than we know ourselves. With four months left, but almost half of Matthew remaining, there is still plenty left for each of us to learn about Jesus.

So, if you haven't read Matthew's gospel, it's not too late to start. If you've already read it a time or two this year, read it again. Using this schedule, you've still got time to read it twice.

And now that summer is over, vacations are done, and school is starting back, we hope to see you as many Sunday mornings as possible.

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us." (Hebrews 12:1 NLT).

Don't give up. Big finish!

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Judged by a T, Saved by a ♰

"That road you're on is crowded, boy. Do you know where you're going? You're going to Hell, son!"

It was the summer of '79 (not '69, no matter what Bryan Adams says). I was 15 years old, and I was on the beach in Charleston, S.C.

"You're going to Hell, son!"

Never mind that I was there with my church youth group, in town to attend the Southern Christian Youth Convention. I had been singled out for a verbal assault about my eternal destination.

"You're going to Hell, son!"

Now, to be completely transparent, I was wearing a black, three-quarter-length sleeve baseball t-shirt with some rock-and-roll slogan on it (sorry - it's been too long to remember. I do know that it looked a whole lot less lame than the picture above). I had seen the shirt in a bar on the boardwalk the day before and, because I wasn't old enough to go into the bar myself, had asked one of my sponsors to buy it for me.

Okay, that was pretty transparent.

But the shirt was pretty tame. I mean, I know for a fact there was nothing on it about sex and drugs. I could never have brought that home and hoped to have it washed, much less wear it again, even to mow the backyard!

And yet, the rebuke was pretty public, and pretty loud:

"You're going to Hell, son!"

Maybe you've had a similar experience. Maybe, like me, it was a street-corner (or boardwalk-corner) preacher with fire in his eyes and anger in his voice. Or maybe it was some well-intentioned (or not so well-intentioned) friend or co-worker.

Whatever your experience, it's possible that it is all brought back to the surface when you read Jesus' words in Matthew 7:

"You can enter God's Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way." (Matthew 7:13 NLT)

It certainly sounds like Jesus is talking about an eternal destination, doesn't it? But what if that wasn't His only intent?

You know, when I first had the idea for our JustJesus blog, my thoughts were that it would be a good outlet for Scott and I to dig deeper into Matthew in a way that we couldn't on Sunday mornings, or to address any text that we didn't get the chance to deal with.

It's the latter in this post, because somehow, at RCC, we completely missed teaching Matthew 7:13-14, not because it is controversial, and not for fear of offending anyone. No, we just missed it. I just missed it.

So, if you will, join me for a few moments in a study of this powerful (and maybe misunderstood) text.

I grew up hearing Jesus' words from the NIV:

"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destructions, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." (Matthew 7:13-14 NIV84)

Before we go any further, here's a quick original language lesson from somebody who only had one semester of Greek (and made the "Delta" Society, not in a good way).

The word Jesus uses for broad can also be translated "easy." The word narrow can also be translated "hard" or "difficult." And the word road comes from the Greek word ὁδός (hŏdŏs), which can be translated as "way."

All three of those choices were used in the English Standard Version's translation:

"Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13-14 ESV)

hŏdŏs in the New Testament
That Greek word hŏdŏs, or way, appears exactly 100 times in the ESV. While Matthew uses it more than any other writer, the word is used in thirteen different New Testament books by at least nine different writers. In addition, for many early Christians, Jesus' teachings, including the Sermon on the Mount, were simply known as the way.

The imagery is that Jesus, as our Rabbi, is out in front on the road of life, while we, His disciples, His followers, are behind Him, staying close to Him by following His teachings. In fact, long before the church was ever called the church, Christians were called "followers of the Way." (Acts 9:2)

So, for the early Christian community, Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7 - the Sermon on the Mount - was an important road map for them to navigate the road of life. And at the end of His sermon, Jesus says, "Okay, listen up! Don't go through the wide gate. And don't take the broad, easy way."

In Jesus' world, towns were built with walls, and in those walls were gates. Some gates were really wide... I mean hundreds-of-men-women-children-donkeys-camels-oxen-carts-wagons-all-going-through-at-once wide.

But other gates were small, and narrow, and sharp. You could only go through those gates one at a time.

Like with all of His teachings, Jesus was using imagery that made perfect sense to first-century ears.

But what was He saying?

I believe that Jesus' point was, "Don't follow the crowd. I know that everybody is going through the wide, easy gate, but there's another way to live - My way - that goes against the flow of traffic. You go through the small gate. And you walk down the narrow, hard way."

What exactly is the small gate? Or, put another way, Who is the small gate?

For those of you who aren't tracking, I'll go ahead and give you the answer (and, by the way, it's usually a good answer to give to most Bible questions):

The answer is Jesus. Jesus is the small gate.

Later, in John 10:9, Jesus flat out says, "I am the gate," meaning, "I am the entrance to life."

So, if Jesus is the small gate, what is the hard, narrow way or road? (By the way, Jesus is not a good answer to give here.)

Well, if you remember from like two minutes ago, way can mean "teaching." The narrow, hard way is Jesus' teachings, including everything that He had just taught in Matthew 5-7.

"Love your enemies."

Is that the easy way or the hard way?

Are you kidding me? There's nothing easy about it.

"Live with generosity... with open hearts, open palms, and open pocketbooks."

Is that easy?

Absolutely not.

"Put your treasure in God, not in stuff on Earth, and in doing so, be set free from your worry and anxiety."

Is that easy?

Not even on a good day!

So, Jesus says, "Every day, you have a choice. There are two roads. You can go down one, and it's really easy. I mean, it's downhill. It's paved. Everybody's on the road - just follow the crowd. But here's the problem with that: It leads to destruction."

And now, we're back to my t-shirt.

Notice how ambiguous and elastic that word destruction is. There are no time-tables. Jesus doesn't say when. He doesn't say how. Jesus simply says, "Destruction."

In the age to come? In eternity? Absolutely, I mean, I do think that's in there, but also here and now, in this life.

There are ways of living that the crowds go after that are destructive in nature. Would you agree? At first, they feel like life and freedom and fun, but at some point, you wake up and you're in chains. The next thing you know, your life is marked by pain, and regret, and shame, and consequences, and brokenness. It leads to destruction. It is destructive here and now, and into eternity.

But Jesus says, "There's another way to live... My way... My teachings... and it's really hard."

Don't you love Jesus' honesty? He would have made a lousy salesman! I mean, there's no sales pitch or gimmick - "It's a small gate, but it's cozy. It's a narrow road, but it's level. And there's air conditioning... and free iced-tea!"

There's none of that.

It's narrow. It's hard. It's difficult.

But it leads to life!

If you have followed Jesus for any length of time, you know that is spot-on! Obedience to Jesus is difficult. It takes energy. It takes time. It can be costly.

But it leads to life!

Life in the future? Absolutely! But life today as well. Joy, peace, freedom from anxiety, freedom from fear...

Jesus' way... obedience to Jesus' teachings leads to life.

Put that on a t-shirt!

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Thank You, Jimmy

It was the first time in my life that I knew there was such a thing as death.

My first encounter with death was not because of the loss of a grandparent, a parent, or a sibling, although I have experienced all of those losses in years since. It was, instead, as I remember it, because of the left-hand bottom corner of the front page of the Winston-Salem Journal, the newspaper that was delivered daily to my home when I was growing up.

I don't really know exactly when I first noticed, but at some point, almost fifty years ago, I read a list of names in that small section (that unfortunately grew over time) and asked my parents about it.

"Those are the names of local boys who recently died in Vietnam."

I honestly believe that was my first introduction to the reality of death.

Over the years, I have visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, or as it is sometimes referred to, "The Wall," on several occasions. Each time was moving, but I will never forget the emotions of my very first time. 

It was the summer of 1986, less than two years after the memorial was completed and maybe a month after the death of my sister. My parents believed it was important that they take my other two sisters and me out of town on a trip. Not the best of ideas, but it's hard to fault them... and besides, this really isn't about my family.

I can still remember arriving at "The Wall" with my parents, and my father almost immediately going to the book to try to find the particular panel of a certain name. I almost asked who he was looking for, but then I remembered. 

Jimmy Westmoreland.

I never knew Jimmy. I'm not even sure my father ever knew Jimmy, but we began going to church with his mother and father and brother not too long after Jimmy's death. 

As I browsed the internet earlier this afternoon, I discovered that Jimmy... rather, PFC Jimmy Roger Westmoreland with the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army died on April 8, 1969, less than three months after his tour began.

Some fellow soldiers who served with him have left personal comments on the "virtual wall" through the years. One described him as a "quiet, baby-faced kid." Another wrote, "I remember the first time I saw you, I thought to myself, 'This guy should be in Junior High instead of Vietnam, but I see we were both about the same age."

Jimmy was 20 years old.

On that day with my parents, seventeen years later, as they found Jimmy's name on the wall, they wept... not because of their relationship with him, because again, I'm not sure they even knew him. Looking back all these years later, I believe that their tears flowed out of an unsolicited bond with his parents and a common grief for a lost child.

I read a statistic recently that really struck me. During World War II, 12% of our population served in the Armed Forces. However today, less than 1% of our current population is serving or has ever served in our military. 

Gala True, of the Department of Veteran Affairs says, "That small figure influences the way the general public thinks about the cost of conflict."

To be clear, this is not a pro-war post. That issue can be debated in other circles at other times by people far more qualified to do so than me.

But it is a pro-honor post.

The Apostle Paul wrote... 

"Give everyone what you owe him... if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor." (Romans 13:7 NIV84)

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, the most solemn of American holidays... a day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice while defending our nation.

It is a day to remember Jimmy, and the more than 1.1 million other men and women who have given their lives for those who, in most-part, they didn't know either... for those who are still giving their lives for you and me.

Join me in giving to each of them what we owe them - our respect and honor. The reality is, we owe them so much more than we could ever repay.

Since that summer with my parents, with every subsequent visit that I have made to D.C., if I find myself near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I stop and look for Jimmy's name myself.

I never knew him, but I never want to forget him.

Thank you, Jimmy.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Fire! Ready? Aim.

"How do you plead?"

Before you even start down that road in your mind, I'll go ahead and let you know - it was traffic court.

The year was 1988, I was living in Woodstock, GA, where I was serving at my first full-time ministry, and my car of choice was a real speed demon - a Hyundai Elantra. But speed was not the issue.

"How do you plead?"

In late 1987, I was driving through downtown Woodstock around 9 PM (so, I was probably "coming from church, officer") when the blue lights appeared in my rear-view mirror.

Quick side note: Is there any worse feeling... that gut-wrenching sight of the blue and/or red lights flooding the back seat of your car as you watch in your side mirror as the officer approaches your car? Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Actually, not so hypothetically.

"How do you plead?"

This particular night in Woodstock was, unfortunately, not the first time that I had the experience (I think the number is actually four, including one time when I was running on the side of the road... but that's a story for another time).

After getting my license and registration, taking them back to his vehicle, and making me wait for what seemed like an eternity while he determined that I was not "on the lam," he returned and proceeded to tell me that he had pulled me over for O.C.G.A. §40-6-49.

O.C.G.A. §40-6-49 states: "The driver of a motor vehicle shall not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent, having due regard for the speed of such vehicles and the traffic upon and the condition of the highway."

What? Are you kidding me? I never follow too closely!

That's not true... at all. I am, shall we say, not the most patient of drivers. My family will very quickly tell you that many times they feel like they have a closer kinship with the passengers in the back seat of the car in front of us than they do with me.

However, when I am driving, I am still the picture of "reasonable and prudent."

Okay, that's not true either... and especially not thirty years ago.

So, after the officer explained to me my infraction, he handed me the ticket and said that I could either pay the fine or go to court.

I was twenty-three years old - that really should be enough explanation - and I felt like I really just needed the judge to hear me out so that he could understand my situation. (Even as I write that, I realize that I'm not all that different even today).

Which is how I ended up in traffic court a couple months later, being asked the question...

"How do you plead?"

I obviously answered, "Not guilty, your honor," to which came back his reply, with no hesitation, "Guilty. Next!"

What? Are you kidding me? I just sat in a smoke-filled room (remember, it was the 80's) for more than two hours with upwards of seventy to eighty other people, rehearsing clever arguments in my head. And now, after uttering only four words, I'm dismissed without even the opportunity to speak?

I really didn't know what to say. Thankfully I didn't say anything, but apparently, I didn't move away quickly enough either, because the judge looked at me and repeated, with emphasis, "Guilty. Next!"

The thoughts rolled through my mind: "What kind of back-woods justice is this? I mean, how can he sit there and make a judgment about me and my situation without ever even hearing a single word from me? He doesn't know me. What evidence does he even have, other than the report of a single police officer?"

Another quick side note: The above is not to in any way speak disparagingly of any police officer and especially the one who issued me the ticket. While I have not really thought too much about this over the last three decades, in writing about it today, and knowing that what I wrote just a few paragraphs earlier about my patience, or lack of it, while driving, is the truth, I know that the officer had it right.

I was guilty.

But we've all been there, haven't we? I mean, even if you've never been to Woodstock, GA (or even have a clue where it's located), we have all been there. We have all made snap-judgments and decisions about an individual without giving them a chance to speak even a single word. And many times, those decisions are based on far less credible evidence than a police officer's word.

You know, regardless of which side of the political aisle you align with, I believe that most of us would admit that our media, at times, has been guilty of failing to do its due diligence on a story, ignoring the "facts" for the privilege of getting to tell the story first.

However, before we cast that stone, we probably need to look in the mirror first.

I need to look in the mirror first.

Whether it is selecting a cashier at the grocery store (and usually my only criteria is, "Will he/she be faster?" My hours spent in line only serve to show how horrible my judgment is in that area) or any number of other mundane choices, we make judgments every single day.

That's to be expected. That's normal. That's life.

But, with the increasing number of users of social media over the last decade, almost everyone has, in some way, become a journalist and/or a critic. And while it is easy to point fingers at the "media" for their failings, all of us have or know someone who has suffered because of hasty words and hurtful judgments.

Whether we are the "author" (and trust me, you don't have to be on Facebook to author a judgment against someone. It only takes being willing to share the words with another person.), or we hear/read someone else's judgments and jump on the bandwagon with either the inability or indifference to actually separate fact from fiction, we are guilty.

"How do you plead?"

I am guilty.

So, here's my commitment to you (and for "you" to be "you," we really do have to have some sort of relationship, okay?)

Maybe I should rephrase that. Here is my commitment to you, my friends and family:
  1. I will believe the best about you.
  2. When other people assume the worst about you, I will come to your defense.
  3. If what I personally experience begins to erode my trust in you, I will come directly to you to talk about it.
  4. If/when you confront me about any such areas, I will tell you the truth.
The above ideas are not original - they are borrowed, some almost word for word, from Andy Stanley - but I like them so much, I want to try to make them a part of my own relationships moving forward. I feel like I have lived some of these out in the past, but maybe just as often, I've ignored some and possibly let down people who I care about. Moving forward, I want to be intentional... and consistent.

Because the truth is, even with all of my sin and faults (yours too, but we're talking about me), God chose to see me, in His Son, as holy and blameless.

"Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes." (Ephesians 1:4 NLT)

And although I know it's on a completely different level, I want to make a similar choice. I want to be the kind of person who, given both options, chooses to believe the good much quicker than I believe the bad. I want to give the benefit of the doubt.

I'm pretty sure I know exactly how that can happen... where that change can come from. 

It comes from following Jesus more (not too) closely!

Friday, April 19, 2019

She Thinks You're Jewish

"Here's a card."

I was sitting in the library stairwell with my then-girlfriend, looking at the envelope in her hand, wondering if I had missed an anniversary. She must have seen it in my face, because she said, "It's not from me. It's from Jane."

Jane was her best friend. Why in the world would Jane be giving me a card? Only one way to find out: I opened the card.

I don't remember what the card looked like, or what it said on the outside, but I will never forget the words on the inside:

Happy Hanukkah!

I looked at her, puzzled.

She said, "She thinks you're Jewish, but that you're in denial."

Oh.

Seven years later, I went with my then (and still) girlfriend (and wife) to meet her grandmother for the very first time. This would actually be one of the few times I got to spend with her grandmother, as she died less than a year later, just weeks before our wedding.

Later in the car, I asked Kerri, "So, how do you think it went?"

"She thinks you're Jewish."

Oh.

Or maybe rather, "Oy vey!" (a Yiddish phrase expressing dismay or exasperation)

You know, I never grew up with a knowledge of having any Jewish heritage. My DNA results show "no connection" to the six European Jewish regions. (Then again, they also show "no connection" to the Native-American regions, even though my mother swears I am 1/16th Cherokee!)

So, who knows? I mean, anything is possible, especially since I know absolutely nothing about my father's heritage, since he was adopted.

I mean, it would certainly explain my love and appreciation for the Jewish culture, especially when those Jewish roots help me understand my own Christian faith in a deeper and more meaningful way.

So, here's my quick public service announcement. For those who may have never received a Happy Hanukkah! card themselves and so, you may just not know, the Jewish Passover begins tonight, at sundown. Tonight, all around the world, families will gather for the main Passover ritual, the seder - a festive meal that involves the re-telling of the Israelite exodus from Egypt through questions, stories, songs, and symbolic foods.

Our church family has been spoiled over the last few years to have a relationship with Aaron Abramson of Jews for Jesus. He has led us in the seder meal three different times and shown us the links between the ancient Jewish festival of redemption and Jesus as our Lamb of God.

This past Sunday evening was one of those occasions, and Aaron led us in a song that, even though we've sung it at our last couple seder meals, I had forgotten about it... but haven't been able to get out of my mind since! It's the song, Dayenu, a fifteen-stanza melody that is sung during the meal after the retelling of the Exodus story.

The Hebrew word dayenu loosely means, "It would have been enough."

While we didn't sing all fifteen verses, I have printed them at the bottom of this post for those who are interested. Essentially, the song is broken into three different sections, with the first five verses about the Israelite's release from Egypt, the second five about their time in the wilderness, and the third five about their spiritual life, giving thanks for the Sabbath, Mt. Sinai, the Torah, the land of Israel, and the Temple.

In each verse, there is thanksgiving to God for His kindness and mercy, ending with dayenu - "It would have been enough."

I like what Erica Brown writes about the song:

"It's rare to hear people say, when commenting on a blessing in their lives, 'It's enough.' When it comes to goodness, we are greedy. We want an abundance of happiness, and sometimes think of it as our due. But immediately after we tell of the Exodus from Egypt in the Hagaddah, we break into... song where we sing jubilantly and in unison, Dayenu - It is enough."

But in reality, it wasn't enough. I mean, that's why God sent His Son Jesus as the perfect Lamb of God, the once-and-for-all sacrifice that took away, forever, the sins of the world.

"The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship... 11 Under the old covenant, the priest stands and ministers before the altar day after day, offering the same sacrifices again and again, which can never take away sins. 12 But our High Priest offered Himself to God as a single sacrifice for sins, good for all time... 14 For that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy." (Hebrews 10:1, 11-12, 14 NLT)

Jesus is enough! 

But sadly, millions of people tonight and beyond will miss this eternity-changing truth.

So, first, pray for the millions around their tables tonight, but don't you miss the truth. Don't miss the gratitude either!

Erica Brown continues...

"We don't realize how lucky we are until we speak our blessings in detail. Dayenu is not merely a reflection on Passover, but a template for true thanks."

As I was walking/running downtown this morning, I had this post on my mind when I hobbled past the store "Blessings by the Bushel."

You know, I am certainly blessed, and I definitely, in my own life, have received blessings by the bushel. But my thought on this Good Friday morning was, "If I had a bushel basket and it only had one thing in it, if that one thing was Jesus, would that be enough?"

On this day when we remember His sacrifice, for us, may we offer up the prayer that let's God know just how thankful we are... and that Jesus is enough!

"If the only prayer you say in your life is 'Thank you,' that will suffice. (Meister Echkart, 13th century German theologian and philospher)

I hope you will join me today in praying that simple prayer.

"Thank you."


-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


  • If He had taken us out of Egypt and not made judgments on them; [it would have been] enough for us.
  • If He had made judgments on them and had not made [them] on their gods; [it would have been] enough for us.
  • If He had made [them] on their gods and had not killed their firstborn; [it would have been] enough for us.
  • If He had killed their firstborn and had not given us their money; [it would have been] enough for us.
  • If He had given us their money and had not split the Sea for us; [it would have been] enough for us.
  • If He had split the Sea for us and had not taken us through it on dry land; [it would have been] enough for us.
  • If He had taken us through it on dry land and had not pushed down our enemies in [the Sea]; [it would have been] enough for us.
  • If He had pushed down our enemies in [the Sea] and had not supplied our needs in the wilderness for forty years; [it would have been] enough for us.
  • If He had supplied our needs in the wilderness for forty years and had not fed us the manna; [it would have been] enough for us.
  • If He had fed us the manna and had not given us the Shabbat; [it would have been] enough for us.
  • If He had given us the Shabbat and had not brought us close to Mount Sinai; [it would have been] enough for us.
  • If He had brought us close to Mount Sinai and had not given us the Torah; [it would have been] enough for us.
  • If He had given us the Torah and had not brought us into the land of Israel; [it would have been] enough for us.
  • If He had brought us into the land of Israel and had not built us the ‘Chosen House’ [the Temple; it would have been] enough for us.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Our Father's Smile

"I'm sitting beside you!"

At the time, I was standing in line to buy blueberry chocolate truffles from the Vosges Haut-Chocolat candy store in the O'Hare airport in Chicago. I looked up to see an unfamiliar woman who, as she gestured to my chocolates, repeated, "I'm sitting beside you."

I thought to myself, "Lady, this is one of the busiest airports in the world. Almost 225,000 people fly in and out of here every single day. (Okay, I didn't actually think those numbers, but I have since done the research on Google.) Odds are that we're probably not even going to be on the same plane, much less sitting together."

Those were my initial thoughts. What I said, instead, was, "Well, even if you do, we can't eat these chocolates. My wife and son would kill me if I got home with any of 'em missing!"

She laughed, and that was it... or so I thought.

I didn't think about it again until I boarded my plane bound for Greensboro, found my seat, got situated, and then looked up to see saw her walking down the aisle toward me... only to stop at my row and take the seat right next to me.

"Told you so."

Now normally, I am all about trying to have as little conversation as possible with the people sitting near me on a plane, but I was so struck by the circumstances that I had to ask, "Do you live in Greensboro?"

"No, I live in Chicago."

"What brings you to Greensboro?"

"My brother and I are presenting at the U.S. Figure Skating Championship there tomorrow night."

"Really? Do you skate?" (Trust me, you have to get up pretty early in the morning to slip something by me. I am the master of the obvious!)

"I used to. Ronnie and I skated pairs. In 1965, we finished first in the U.S. and second in the world."

Okay, this conversation was headed in a direction that I had not been expecting.

I said, "You know, I'm sorry, but I really don't know too much about pairs skating." 

(Now, I specifically said "pairs" because I just didn't figure that, at this point, she had any business knowing about my crush on Kristi Yamaguchi.)

I continued, "I can only think of one skater from around that time. Wasn't Peggy Fleming skating then?"

"Yes, she was. She and I were roommates."

"Did you and your brother skate in the Olympics?"

"We did... in 1964."

"Did you medal?"

She paused and said, "Um, that's complicated."

And then she began to tell me her story.

Her name is Vivian Joseph and she and her brother, Ronald were the second-ranked American pairs team at the 1964 Olympic Games in Innsbruck. They exceeded all expectations by finishing fourth.

However, at the time, there were numerous rumors that the West German silver medalists had signed a contract with the professional ice show, Holiday on Ice, thus violating their amateur status. After a three-year investigation, the I.O.C. stripped the West Germans of their silver medals, elevating the Canadians from third to second and the Josephs from fourth to the bronze medal position.

And that's where the story gets really strange.

As we sat on the plane, Ms. Joseph told me a part of her story that I ended up reading more about in the New York Times after I returned home.

She said the she was at a party and was introduced to someone as an "Olympic medalist." A week or so later, he called and disputed that claim, saying, "You may have a medal, but that's not what the record books say." 

After much digging, her brother and she discovered that twenty years after they had originally been awarded their medals, the I.O.C. had re-awarded the silver medals to the West Germans, returning the Josephs to fourth place.

Now, while she had told me the entire story to this point in a very matter-of-fact way, when she began to talk about her parents, her voice started to break. She talked about their sacrifice, and how excited and proud they had been when their children won their Olympic medals... but then how hurt they were when they learned that the standings had been changed.

When she concluded her story by telling me how she and her brother had officially been re-awarded their bronze medals just a couple months earlier, she said, "I just wish that my parents had still been alive to see it. I wish they could have known how things worked out."

We never get too old to want that validation from our parents, do we? We never get to a place in our lives - or at least I haven't yet - when we don't want to bring that smile to their face.

After challenging us to "set aside" the things in our life that keep us from running the race like Jesus, the writer of Hebrews then tells us how that is even possible:

"We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross..." (Hebrews 12:2 NLT)

What exactly was the "joy awaiting him?" Well, that's above my pay-grade, but I've got to believe that it included the Father's smile.

We all want our Father's smile, which may be one reason why Jesus says what He says in Matthew chapter 6 three different times:

"... And your Father who sees in secret will reward you." (Matthew 6:4 ESV)

"... And your Father who sees in secret will reward you." (Matthew 6:6 ESV)

"... And your Father who sees in secret will reward you." (Matthew 6:18 ESV)

One of the keys to interpreting God's Word (Biblical Hermeneutics, for those of you who want the "big" word) is to look for words or phrases that are repeated in the text. If it's repeated, then it's important.

Obviously, this is important. Jesus wants us to know that God sees and knows.

It doesn't matter who else sees or knows.

It doesn't matter if everybody sees and knows.

It doesn't matter if nobody sees and knows.

God sees and know. And He will reward us.

Now, what exactly that reward is... again, way above my pay-grade. However, I think, at the very least, part of our reward is our Father's smile.

He sees and knows it all. He is the One Who is always sitting beside us (with or without the chocolates)...

And hopefully smiling!

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Big "C"

119 words.

That's all that was showing in my sermon file when I opened it last Wednesday afternoon.

119 words.

Just 119 words.

Immediately, all kinds of thoughts screamed through my head:

"Wait just a minute! How can this be? I mean, I just finished this sermon earlier today. I've been working on it for almost three weeks... and I was finally finished! And that was this Sunday's sermon too! I mean, I know that there were almost 4,000 words! What happened? Why are there now only 119?"

Panic set in. I had thirty minutes before a counseling appointment, and two hours before I was supposed to teach my Wednesday night lesson. I immediately called my Bible software's technical support line, explained the problem, only to be told after just a few minutes, "Unless you deleted the file, there is really no way for us to retrieve the lost data in a file. The easiest fix is to reenter the data."

Easiest? I was obviously speaking to someone who had never written a sermon in their life!

When my counseling appointment showed, I was literally numb, possessed with a single thought: "How can I get those words back?"

I wish I could tell you that was the only time that I had ever had that thought, but unfortunately, it's not. There have been more times than I would like to admit where I've had the exact same thought - "How can I get those words back?" - but none of the previous times had anything to do with a sermon.

You know, when it comes right down to it, most of the words that we want to "get back" are those that we have "let loose" in one of three forums:

1) Gossip
2) Angry remarks
3) Careless criticism

I would be lying if I said that I'd never been guilty of the first two (and I just preached Sunday about honesty, just saying), but my main issue, I know all too well, is the big "C." Way too many times, my words are simply careless.

I'm not sure who originally said this, but I saw it online today and it made me laugh (which I needed):

"If writers wrote as carelessly as some people talk, then adhasdh asdglaseuyt[bn[ pasdlgkhasdfasdf."

But, not so funny:

"Careless words stab like a sword..." (Proverbs 12:18 NCV)

And...

"I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak" (Matthew 12:36 ESV)

You see, my original thoughts for this post (that I was supposed to write last week but didn't because of the "missing words") were in the abstract. But this morning, God decided that He wanted for it to be personal.

So, just a few hours ago, somebody commented to me about something that I said a few weeks ago that, quite frankly, I don't even remember saying.

Now, I trust that I did say it, because unfortunately, it sounds like something I would say... not out of spite, not to inflict hurt or pain, but to just try and be funny... to try and get a cheap laugh, even at the expense of someone else, who may or may not know anything about what's being said (which, in this case, they didn't).

I'm really not so sure what that says about me as a person; I just know that I don't like it. Not one bit.

In the short time today that I've had to think about this, I now believe that my words may very well have been the catalyst for incredible harm.

Which brings me back to... "How can I get those words back?"

I can't. I mean, it's just not possible. That ship has sailed.

All I can do now is own them... and do my best to try and make amends for them... and hope to never forget this feeling so that I am more careful with my words in the future.

I fear that I may be sharing too much information about my "fallenness," but I am reminded every day just how much work (and sometimes how much hard work) there is for me to be more like Jesus.

I have so far to go.

But I desperately want to get there.

In an earlier post, I shared some of my 2019 goals, including to "walk/run/walk 365 miles." My wife and I have been able to keep that pace, thus far, in spite of the cold, wet weather that we've had so much of this winter.

However, a few weeks ago, while running downtown in front of the Police Station, I tripped on the uneven pavement and went sprawling. Wearing gloves (again, it's been cold!), I landed on my left hand but immediately rolled on my shoulder and got up, injury free (or so I thought), other than my pride.

I was reminded of my falls (both the physical and the verbal) when I read Patrick Allan's words last week:

"If you trip with your feet, you can get back up again and carry on business as usual... If you trip with your tongue, you unleash more than just words. You share thoughts, desires, or perspectives that may hurt others. Once you've said something hurtful, you can't undo it. There's no getting back up; there's only asking for forgiveness and hoping they'll pull you back up."

So, that's what I will do. I will extend my right hand (not the left - my finger hurts too badly!) and pray that those who my careless words have hurt would be willing to help me back up again.

And, I'm going to do my very best to make sure that the next time I say, "How can I get those words back?" I'm talking about nothing more earth-shattering than a misplaced note from my desk.

(By the way, God is good. Through some technology gymnastics, I was able to recover more than 60% of my sermon last week. But more importantly, when I extended my hand earlier today, I was graciously pulled to my feet and given forgiveness.)

God is good. That is anything but a "by the way." And it's so much more than even a main point. It is our entire message!

And it can be said in a lot less than 119 words!