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!

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

I Am Blessed

As I write this post, I have just finished my lunch from Taco Bell. It was the exact same thing that I have eaten for lunch the last three days, and the same thing I've had almost every weekday over the last 14 months (a chicken soft taco, chunky-style, Fresco-style, with added black beans and a steak soft taco, Fresco-style, both with Mild, Hot, and Diablo sauces... for those who are interested).

I'm feeling blessed... and not just because I love Taco Bell. No, I have been feeling blessed all week long.

When I taught on Jesus' Beatitudes a couple weeks ago, I said that the Greek word makarios (μᾰκάριος) in Matthew 5:3-11 that is often translated "blessed" is a word that's unlike any word in our English language. The meaning is hard to pin down, and so its translation is all over the place, including "happy" (Good News Bible) and "very fortunate" (The Living Bible).

Happy... fortunate... blessed... 

Yep... guilty as charged.

The reality is that all of us are blessed. Even in the most difficult times of our life, we are an incredibly blessed people.

Charles Spurgeon said: "In prosperity, God is heard, and that is a blessing; but in adversity, God is seen, and that is a greater blessing."

This past Sunday afternoon, my wife and I had the privilege of both "hearing" and "seeing" God's blessings through our church family. Reidsville Christian Church had a reception honoring my 30 years as minister (the first five years were as the youth minister, then the preaching minister for the last twenty-five).

It was an incredible afternoon!

To start with, there were numerous varieties of kringle (for those who failed to click the link in my 11/25/18 post, here's another chance), delivered fresh from Racine Danish Kringles in Wisconsin. Both the cinnamon roll and cream cheese flavors are enough to make anyone feel blessed!

In addition, I spent over an hour Sunday night reading the more than seventy cards and the gracious comments written in them. As if the words weren't a blessing enough, many of them also contained gifts. (I now have enough Taco Bell gift cards to last me for the next three months!)

I am blessed.

But the greatest blessing of the day was the opportunity to reminisce with so many who I have the privilege of doing "church" with... some who have been with me for the entire thirty years, some who have just joined the journey, and many in-between. Through both laughter and tears, we shared together how God has blessed all of us in so many ways.

Having been here for so long, I've had numerous opportunities to see God at work in the lives of people who I dearly love, both in their good times and bad. I have also had the privilege to come alongside them and celebrate or mourn with them.

You know, I never wanted to be a preacher; I've said that a number of times through the years. And I certainly never intended to stay at one church for my entire preaching ministry (At the risk of sounding like I might be leaving, I need to insert "thus far" here or it will sound like I am retiring. Please know that I have no desire to do either!)

Through the years, there have other ministry opportunities, but there was never really a peace about any of them. To be honest, as my wife and I were talking earlier this week, the "extras" that each new ministry offered were always things that we wanted to experience with our church family in Reidsville, rather than leave and experience them ourselves in some other place with another group of people.

I recently read that the average tenure of a pastor is now 6 years; 85% of seminary graduates entering the ministry leave within five years; 90% of all pastors don't last to retirement. 

I am confident that those statistics cover much better preachers and leaders than me, who simply did not have the opportunity that I have had to stay in a single church for three decades. The reasons for that could be numerous: Their church polity may not have allowed for it... or the people... or the minister him/herself.

But I tend to think the reason why so few ministers have stayed at a single church for the entirety is simply because they never had the opportunity to serve with a church family like the Reidsville Christian Church family.

I have no idea why God allowed me to be a part of RCC. Again, it was certainly not because I am the most skilled or gifted speaker or pastor...  or that I have done anything to deserve my congregation's encouragement, patience, love and generosity.

But He did. He has. And, hopefully, He will continue to do so.

I am blessed.

By the way, everyone who has said, "I hope you stay another thirty years," I really appreciate the sentiment... and I do hope that I have many more years with you... but we both know you don't mean really mean it... and that's okay.

No amount of Taco Bell could keep me going that long!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Take the Challenge!

Even if you've never watched what some are calling Netflix' "first cult classic" (a record 45,037,125 accounts tuned to it during its first week last November), I'm still guessing that since you're reading this, you probably have a computer, and so it's possible that you've at least heard about the movie Bird Box and the "Bird Box Challenge." In the challenge, people pay homage to the flm by blindfolding and then filming themselves doing everyday, mundane tasks, such as petting their dogs, playing basketball, and putting on lipstick. But some of the activities that are filmed should never ever be done with eyes closed, like giving a tattoo or driving a car.

The phenomenon got so out of hand that earlier this year, Netflix released a Twitter statement saying:

"Can't believe I have to say this, but: PLEASE DO NOT HURT YOURSELVES WITH THIS BIRD BOX CHALLENGE. We don't know how this started, and we appreciate the love, but Boy and Girl have just one wish for 2019 and it is that you not end up in the hospital due to memes."

(It's okay if, at this point, you need to stop and Google "Boy and Girl" and/or "memes.")

Now, I understand the challenge; I just don't get it. I mean, if you want to experience life without light, you really don't need a blindfold. You can have the exact same experience in the middle of an Indiana cornfield.

It was Mark Twain who supposedly said, "The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco."

Well, I've never been to San Francisco (but I kinda like The Beatles.)

Wait a minute. Wrong song.

How 'bout this?

"The darkest night I ever spent was in the middle of a cornfield in Indiana." (That doesn't quite have the same ring to it, but it's true.)

First off, I'm a city boy. My wife tells me this all the time. While I thought I grew up in the country, apparently having driven on a dirt road at some point in my life and having viewed (not milked) a few nearby cows does not mean that I lived in the country.

That said, most of my life has been lived "in the light." Whether it was the security light on the Duke Power pole outside my childhood home or the streetlights outside my current home, I have never really had to fumble around in the dark, no matter what time of night it was.

Except for that one night in Indiana in the middle of a cornfield.

Okay, it wasn't really in a cornfield; there were just cornfields as far as the eye could see. I had driven my parents up to northern Indiana for my sister's and her husband's graduations from Purdue University and we ended up staying a couple nights in their home.

Remember that line from The Fugitive where Tommy Lee Jones asked for a search of "every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse, and doghouse" in the area?

Well, with apologies to Deputy Marshall Gerard, that night in Indiana there was no sunlight, moonlight, starlight, streetlight, flashlight, candlelight, or even lightin' bug light.

It was dark.

And so, when I got up in the middle of the night, it was a completely new experience. I literally could not see my hand in front of my face, much less the furniture in front of my shins!

While I've always just sort of taken it for granted, looking back, I can't imagine a world without light. I don't want to even think about a world without light.

And yet, we live in a world where, albeit the minority, there are voices at two extremes:

1) Those who want a world without the light of Jesus.
2) Those who are convinced that the light of Jesus has been extinguished from the world.

First, there are those who actually dream about a world without Jesus. I mean, isn't that what John Lennon sang? "Imagine there's no religion..." (Okay, maybe I don't kinda like the Beatles.)

How dark would that kind of world be?

In his book, How Christianity Changed the World, Alvin Schmidt lists fifteen changes that the light of Jesus brought to our world, including the sanctity of human life, sexual morality, the freedom and dignity of women, hospitals and healthcare, and liberty and justice for all.

I mean, a world without just those five would be so much darker than that Indiana cornfield!

But then there are also many (Christian?) naysayers who lament the fact that the darkness has overtaken us. Like Elijah falsely believing that he was the only one left on God's side (only to have God tell him, "Nope, you're one of thousands"), they take their cue from the nightly news and report that, "Evil has won. The light is gone."

Jesus says, "Not as long as you're around."

"You (the clear emphasis in the Greek) are the light of the world." (Matthew 5:14 ESV)

Visible...

Unmistakable...

Undeniable...

Light.

By the way, it's impossible for the darkness to extinguish the light. The light will always shine. It isn't even dependent on if we hide or shine the light ourselves. The light shines on... but it will be so much brighter in our world if we will just allow it to shine through us.

So, here's my challenge to each of us light bearers (and it has nothing to do with a blindfold):

Don't hide the light; instead, show it. Even when it's uncomfortable, shine the light.

And, if you ever find yourself in an Indiana cornfield in the middle of the night, take a flashlight. You're gonna need it.

You might even run into Boy and Girl!

Monday, January 28, 2019

Ode to Tony Romo (aka What If?)

Twenty-three years ago today - January 28, 1996 - the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX. It was the Cowboys eighth appearance in the "big game," their third win in four years, and their fifth Lombardi trophy... at the time, an NFL franchise record. (The Steelers have since won their sixth championship, with the Patriots playing for their sixth this coming Sunday).

Things were looking pretty good for Big D.

Now, for those who know me even just a little, you know that from this point on in this post, there will be no more praises for large men wearing stars on their helmets, because I am an avowed "Anti-Cowboy."

In fact, in the almost twenty years I played fantasy football, I only had one rule when drafting:

Never draft a Cowboy. 

And I never did.

So, it is with complete dry eyes that I share the news that over the last twenty-three years, "America's Team" has been to a total of zero Super Bowls.

Nada.

(By the way, the Patriots have been to ten of 'em during the same period of time... just saying.)

Not only that... they haven't even been to a single NFC title game for the chance to get to the Super Bowl.

Now, I don't pick my friends based on their team allegiances. It might influence whether we watch the game together, but never my friendships. So, over the last twenty years, I have heard quite a few "what ifs" from my friends who are, if nothing, loyal fans.

(Please be sure to read the following with some passion in your voice, if not also a bit of whining.)

"What if Jerry Jones (owner) and Jimmy Johnson (former head coach) had both just set aside their massive egos and learned how to love one another... or at least live together? How good could the Cowboys have been?"

"What if Tony Romo hadn't fumbled the snap on the potential game-winning field goal against Seattle in the 2006 NFC semi-final?" (This, along with Jessica Simpson and the next "what if" would, I believe unfairly, define Romo's career.)

"What if Dez Bryant's 'no catch' against the Packers in the 2014 playoffs had been ruled what it actually was... a catch?"

I agree completely. No doubt about it. It was a catch. (Oh, my goodness! Please tell me I didn't just say that out loud.)

"What if?"

You know, I have my own "what-if's" about the same date in history, and they have nothing to do with football. On January 28, 1996, I didn't even watch the Super Bowl.

That's because that was also the day my dad died.

Twenty-three years ago today... the day after his 60th birthday... four days after the doctor had told him that he had "six months or less to live"... while I was preaching a sermon in Reidsville about "Jesus and the Hurting" less than fifty miles away, my father passed from this life... and with him, my greatest earthly influence.

Again, I have a collection of "what ifs"?

"What if my father had been successful in one of his many attempts to quit smoking in the years before he developed lung cancer?"

"What if, after his diagnosis and ensuing surgery, his follow-up treatment had included any type of chemotherapy or radiation?"

"What if he had lived long enough for his grandchildren, including my own son, to know him and his incredible influence?"

But my greatest "what if" is easily, "What if I had just left the church when I got the call that morning (even though there was nothing to suggest that he would die that day, much less in a few hours)? Why in the world did I stay?

It wasn't because the church didn't give me the opportunity to leave. They did.

But I didn't.

And so, by the time I drove the hour to Forsyth Hospital, my dad was gone.

Twenty-three years later, I am stilled plagued with the "what ifs."

Only recently... surprisingly, only recently did it dawn on me where these "what ifs" come from.

They come from my accuser. They come from the one who not only accuses me of my sin before the Father (Revelation 12:10), but who also whispers (and sometimes even shouts) at me the accusations of "What if?"

This coming Sunday, I am teaching about Jesus' three temptations (Matthew 4:1-11). While Satan never accused Jesus with a "What if?" from His past, he does begin the first two temptations with a question: "If you are the Son of God..."

In other words, he tries to get Jesus to doubt His own identity.

Doesn't he do the exact same thing to us with every "Woulda, shoulda, coulda?" Every time Satan gets us to focus on our past, our mistakes, and our failures, in part, he causes us to forget who we are.

We are loved. (John 3:16)

We are accepted. (Romans 15:7)

We are forgiven. (Colossians 1:13-14)

We are shown grace beyond anything that we deserve. (Psalm 103:10-12)

Any accusation that tells us otherwise is nothing but a lie.

It's natural to regret our mistakes... to want to go back in time and change things, or fix things, or do things differently... but we can't.

We would, if we could... but we just can't.

Thankfully, the One Who holds not just our present and future, but also our past, He calls us to...

"... focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us." (Philippians 3:13-14 NLT)

And trust me, that's a prize beyond anything that's going to be handed out on Sunday!

Side note: I'm really looking forward to Tony Romo's color commentary this weekend. He did such a great job last week, seeming to know exactly what play was coming next, that I was sort of surprised he didn't win more games as a quarterback.

(Oops, did I say that out loud?)

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Where Did This Change Come From?

Seven strange little coins. If you do the basic math, sixty-four Euro cents. That's what I had in my pocket when I landed in Delhi, India, with absolutely no idea where they had come from.

Let me backtrack just a bit.

In January 2006, I traveled to India with a good friend of mine. Our reason for travel was to join with eleven others from across the United States for a two-week trip to India with Central India Christian Mission. While our specific goal was to be involved in the dedication of the church building that our church had raised funds for in 2004, our general duties were to help and encourage the mission and the people in any way that we could.

My friend (whose name is withheld because of our differing views of the facts) had worked out the flight from the US to India, via Amsterdam, and had calculated that if we slept from Detroit to Amsterdam, then stayed awake on the next flight to Delhi, our bodies should adjust to the ten and a half hour time difference and be ready to sleep again after we landed.

My question: "How in the world are we going to sleep on the flight from Detroit when it's only 5:30 PM?"

His answer: "I've got something that will help us sleep." (At this point I should probably mention that he's a doctor, so it was legal.)

My response: "I don't take medicine very well."

His rebuttal: "Don't worry. It'll be alright. Trust me."

So, when our flight left Detroit, we took the "sleep aid" in preparation for our Transatlantic snooze. However, almost as soon as we were in the air, the flight attendants brought us dinner... and here's where the discrepancy in our stories comes in.

His account: "You (that'd be me) told me (that'd be him), 'Hey, we just ate a meal. I think I should take another.'"

My account: "He told me, 'We just ate a meal. You should take another.'"

Now, regardless of whose recollection is more accurate (and knowing me, I'm pretty sure his version of the story is the correct one), the end of the story is the same.

I took another.

And, as a result, I have no memory of Amsterdam.

None whatsoever.

Now, I understand that there are a number of people who are in the same boat - they don't remember their time in Amsterdam either - but I'm guessing their reasons may be a little bit different than mine.

Thirteen years later - still nothing.

I was told later that there was a question as to whether I was even going to get off the plane, and that when I did, I would have made a great "walker" on the AMC show. I was also told that while in the airport on our layover, I got a massage and I took a shower.

News to me.

Oh, and apparently, I bought something. What I bought, I have no idea, but obviously I spent some money there because I've still got the change.

It will probably be the only time in my life when I have change without knowing where it came from.

Because you see, change, and now I'm speaking about "the act of becoming different" as opposed to "coins," change doesn't just happen.

That's one of the main reasons why we make resolutions, right? We know that the change we want to see, for it to really happen, we must do something.

To that end, I personally have set a few goals for 2019. Now, the goals are not really the goals, but hopefully measurable ways to get to the goals.

This year, some of my "goals" are to...

1. Read 30 books
2. Walk/run/walk 365 miles and ten 5K's
3. Maintain my weight within in a five-pound window
4. Have lunch with a non-Christian friend at ten different hot dog joints
5. Stop biting my fingernails
6. Start/finish some of the home projects that I have neglected
7. Be more thankful

So, fifteen days into the new year... now's a good a time as any to take stock:

1. Nothing yet (but I'm in the middle of three)
2. 18 miles and one 5K
3. Every day but January 1st (so I'm cutting myself some slack)
4. Had one lunch and some very tasty hot dogs - please pray for me and my influence
5. To date, I have been able to get my protein from other sources. I now have this weird white stuff on the end of my nails that seems so foreign.
6. See #1
7. ??? (I know I'll be thankful when this post is finished!)

Here's the thing... and I will try to wrap up this lengthy treatise. Thanks so much for staying with me this far.

When I make a list of goals, I tend to think that I'm the one who's in control. In other words, if I do the things on the list, then I will see the results I want.

Maybe... but the reality is, for most changes, I have no control.

None.

Oh sure, I can crawl out of bed at 4:30 AM to walk/run/walk in the cold January air, but ultimately, I don't even have control over waking up that morning, much less the health that is required for me to get up and move.

I can eat what I believe are healthy foods, but I still have no real understanding of metabolism and thermogenesis (Googled it!), much less any control over them.

I can have a monthly meal with a friend and ask God to use me in his life, but in the end, He is the One Who changes hearts... not me.

In fact, looking back over my list, keeping my fingers out of my mouth may be the only thing that I really have complete control over (which means I'm doomed!)

As I referenced in a recent sermon (or is it upcoming? This snow/ice has got me so mixed up!):

[Jesus said] ... apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5 ESV)

Kind of humbling, isn't it? And yet, so very encouraging!

When God led John the Baptist to call each of us to "Bear fruit in keeping with repentance (Matthew 3:8 ESV)," He knew that we could never make those changes on our own, not completely.

That's because God and God alone is in the change business. He calls us to be a part of the process... He allows us to be a part of the process... but in the end, He is the only One Who can do more than we could ever even ask for or imagine... around us, and in us.

That's the kind of change we want.

That's the kind of change we need.

And there's no question where that kind of changes comes from!

Monday, December 31, 2018

Page 69

Almost twenty-five years ago, my predecessor at Reidsville Christian, Robert Forrester, retired, and in doing so, handed me, a twenty-eight year-old kid, the reins of the church (has it really been that long?). At the same time, he also left behind quite a few volumes from his personal library. While many of them have since found their way into our own church library or been donated to other ministers, I kept one book for me, for one reason and one reason only: Page 69.

Let me try and explain. The book is Christ in the Fine Arts, published in 1938 by Harper & Brothers Publishers. It is an anthology of the life of Christ as portrayed through multiple mediums of art - pictures, poetry, music, and stories.

Confession time: I got that information from the book's introduction. Quite honestly, I couldn't really tell you what the book is about... because I've never read it. In fact, I'm not so sure that I've ever even ventured past page 69.

You ask, almost in a hushed whisper, "Do tell. What exactly is on page 69?"

The answer is the artwork that's pictured above - Rest on the Flight into Egypt, which was painted in 1879 by French artist Luc Olivia Merson and is currently hanging in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (the hyperlink will give you a great close-up view).

Now, just so there's no misunderstanding: I don't normally "go" for art museums. In fact, when we were in Washington D.C. over the last couple springs, while the rest of my family hung out in the National Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum, I was out on the National Mall, Munzeeing (another obsession for me to explain another time).

However, there is something about this painting that has stuck with me over the last two and half decades. I just can't seem to shake it. I've asked myself, "Why? Why has this canvas made such an impact on me... especially when all I've really seen of it is a black and white picture in a book?"

I've come up with a few possible reasons.

First, while I grew up in the church and have heard the story about Jesus' birth and eventual escape to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-17) countless times, I don't believe it was until I turned to page 69 that it dawned on me that the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Sphinx would have been on the Egyptian horizon as Mary and Joseph made their trek. Now, since they were both constructed 2,500 to 3,000 years before the birth of Jesus, of course they were there, but that thought had never even entered my mind... not until page 69.

I'm not so sure what that says about my I.Q.

But a second reason is the picture itself. Scroll back up to the top of this post and click on the "Museum of Fine Arts in Boston" link. Take a look for yourself.

Go ahead, I've got time. I'll wait.

Oh, it's too much trouble for you to scroll up? Well then, just click here.

Did you look? Okay, now, look at it again... this time closer.

Do you see it? Do you feel it?

Do you sense the weariness of Joseph and Mary? Joseph lies by the dying fire in a protective stance, and yet, he looks exhausted. Mary cuddles the baby Jesus to her as she leans against the Sphinx, her legs dangling off the side. The darkness of the sky seems to envelope them both.

To me, it's an image that is so different from the traditional nativity scenes that depict the wide-eyed couple as they gaze upon God's gift, the Babe, while the bright star shines down upon them all.

No, this looks more like real life.

Real life can be dark. Real life can be lonely. Real life can be exhausting.

Real life can be the call in the middle of the night that you weren't planning on getting, with news that you never wanted to hear. For Joseph, the news was simply, "You've got to go... now!"

I personally would have had a very hard time with that sort of news. Assuming that I could have even just gotten up and left, I still would have had a ton of questions:

"How hard is the trip going to be? Where will we stay? What's it going to be like? How long will we be there? What about the language barrier? Will there be anybody there that we know?"

I could go on.

That's because I'm a Planner... a Planner with a capital "P," but sometimes real life can make a mockery of our plans.

In fact, there are times throughout the Bible when God seems to intentionally mess up people's plan... and yet, if they choose to follow His plan, it ends up being a really good thing.

That's because God always has a better plan.

Always.

Trust me, I really need to remember that as I move into a new year... as I make plans as to where I want to go and what I want to do. Even if God chooses to lead me into the desert, I wouldn't be the first, He knows exactly what He's doing, and He has promised that He will not leave me there alone.

In fact, in the middle of the darkness, He offers rest.

This is the way God put it: 'They found grace out in the desert, these people who survived the killing. Israel, out looking for a place to rest, met God out looking for them!' God told them, 'I've never quit loving you and never will. Expect love, love, and more love!' (Jeremiah 31:2, The Message)

The same God Who gave rest to His children as they left Egypt also gave rest to Joseph and His family as they entered.

And He will give rest to us as well.

That's the last reason why I like this painting so much - it's name: Rest on the Flight into Egypt. I mean, it almost seems like an oxymoron - rest as they're running - but it's just the sort of thing that God specializes in.

This next year, wherever we find ourselves, whether it's a part of our plan or not, when we find ourselves looking for a place to rest, may we meet up with the God Who is already out looking for us!

Monday, December 17, 2018

Pinky Promise?

Have you ever seen two people (probably pre-teen girls, but we won't go there) make a promise to one another, then seal it by linking their pinkies together to make a "pinky swear" or "pinky promise?" That's one thing I don't believe that I've ever experienced, but I do understand the concept.

Did you know that this little gesture originated in Japan with the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia? Supposedly it was the highest seal of all oaths, with the understanding, "If I don't keep my promise, you can cut off my pinky."

That really makes me glad I've never "pinky swore" before.

I mean, that seems a little extreme.

Until I read (Genesis 15:7-21) about God's willingness to "walk" between butchered birds and animals and basically say to Abraham, "This is what'll happen to Me if I don't keep My promise to you."

But He did.

And He has.

And He will.

Every single time.

In fact, the Hebrews writer tells us that "God can't break His word! (Hebrews 6:18, The Message, emphasis added)

And while that may not be the first thing that we think about when we read Matthew's genealogy, that's exactly what he's saying. Not only does God use all kinds of people, but He also keeps all of His promises!

God promised Abraham, "I'm going to bless the world through your family." (Genesis 12:2-3) 

God promised David, "I'm going to put your descendant on the throne forever." (2 Samuel 7:9-11)

And with the New Testament's very first verse, Matthew lets us know, “God keeps His promises. He said the Messiah would come, and He has!”

"The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham."  (Matthew 1:1)

Now, from our vantage point in history, we might catch ourselves thinking, "Okay, great. Jesus is the Messiah. God kept His promise. Gotcha." 

But would we really be that flippant if we were living during the "waiting?" I mean, it's always easy to look back, but living "through it" is something completely different.

Yes, there were prophets, men who spoke on God's behalf. He would send them to His people from time to time to remind them, "I know that things look bad right now, but just remember: The Messiah is coming. I promised!"

But then, four hundred years before Jesus was born, nothing. No prophets. No revelation. Nothing but... silence.

What would that have been like? How would we have felt about God and His promises then? 

"Has He forgotten? I mean, it's been four hundred years... did He change His mind? Where is He?"

And David’s lineage? If you look at Matthew's genealogy in verses 6-10, it starts out strong:

King David... King Solomon... we might even recognize King Uzziah and King Hezekiah... maybe even King Josiah.

But then, in verses 12-16, seriously? How many of us have ever heard anything about Jeconiah, Shelatiel, Azor, and Mathan? 

Famous kings... unknown kings... and then, no kings at all... just people.

Sure, we all know Mary and Joseph's name now, but who were they back then

Joseph wasn't a king. Mary wasn't a queen. They weren't rich or powerful or influential. In the eyes of the world, they were just two nobodies, engaged to be married, living in a little hick town called Nazareth... just a small town, filled with poor people, all who were simply trying to make it.

"Just a small town girl..."

I digress.

If we're honest, that is what Matthew's genealogy looks like. It looks like God forgot.

When it's been two thousand years since He first made the promise...

When there have been four hundred years of absolute silence...

When the kingly line has dwindled away through barrenness, civil war, slavery...

When hope seems lost...

When it feels like God has forgotten...

"and Jacob, the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ." (Matthew 1:16)

And it all happened at just the right time. (Galatians 4:4)

I'll be the first to admit it: Sometimes God seems slow. Sometimes it even looks like He has completely forgotten.

But He hasn't. He never has before, and He's not going to start now.

Here's something to think about: It's been another two thousand years since God made another promise, this one that Jesus is coming to this Earth a second time. He's coming back!

Today, I think we probably find ourselves in the same place that the people of Matthew's day were. 

Now, I don't believe that our problem is that we've become hopeless and weary and tired of waiting. Instead, I would guess that our problem is more likely that we've all-together forgotten about the promise itself.

Personally, I didn't wake up this morning wondering if Jesus might come back today.

Did you?

But He might.

Do you know why? Because God keeps all of His promises.

He always has.

He always will.

Every single one. Every single time.