Emmanuel

Might sound crazy to you, but I’ve often asked God to give me more tears.  I don’t cry much.  Not at good things, not at bad things.  No “tears of joy” or “tears of heartache”.  Some might argue that I haven’t lived yet.  That my passion for life haven’t yet risen to a point where tender moments–both bright and dark–bring me to weep.  And to them I’d say, “You’re probably right.”  But be that as it may, I have to say that one thing that does get me closer to (and a few times past) tears is dwelling on the incomprehensible love to Jesus Christ.  And not generically, but specifically.  The love that drove him from his throne to this earth.  The love that puts me at the center of his affections.  The mind-blowing thought that the same voice that spoke galaxies into existence has spoken my name in loving, gentle, redemptive tones. The unsearchable reality that there is a God who so loves me and you that He laid down His life for no other reason than to secure my and your eternity with Him.

We’re 2 days away from Thanksgiving and I’m already soaking in Christmas music and the joy of the season.  I love all that comes along with December: the crowds, the busyness, the activities, the decorations, the food, the Truth Story, and the music.  I was driving to work this morning listening to Chris Tomlin’s Christmas cd called “Glory In The Highest”.  Wow.  Powerfully crafted music.  There is a particular song called “Emmanuel [Hallowed Manger Ground]” and this morning as I drove, I approached that sensation of my eyes filling with tears at the very thought of this God coming to me, coming to you, coming to us, coming to love, coming to heal, coming to show the way, coming to teach, coming to serve, coming to give, coming to die, and coming to rise again!  I fought back tears for fear of not being able to see the road, but what a powerful reminder of just how much Jesus loves us–“…in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

I found a video that someone put together of this song “Emmanuel”.  Its not an entirely captivating song; that is, until you believe it.  And my desire for you this season is that you will.

“God incarnate….Here to dwell….Emmanuel….Emmanuel….Praise His name, Emmanuel!”

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“Band-Aid”

My youngest son has taken an interest in sign-making.  He’s got the downstairs pretty much covered.  He has labeled most of the rooms and closets so that guests in our home can know that when they walk in the kitchen, they are indeed in the “Kitchen”.  And if you happen to need tooth supplies, just look for the door with the sign “tooth supplies”.

As I watched him this morning making his next sign (which happened to be the “kitchen” sign to the left), I noticed that when he would have to go back and correct a mistake on one of his letters, he’d whisper the word “Band-Aid”.  I can only guess that his mind has made a connection between making a mistake and actually calling it a mistake.

In our culture, it’s becoming harder and harder to be wrong.  After all, if everyone is right and has a right to be right, then what happens to the whole concept of wrong?  We may have speed limits and jaywalking laws to keep us safe, but what about the boundaries that keep us civilized and dare I say it– moral?  As we move forward as a society, I fear that we’re truly moving toward a precipice that is going to be irreparable to us as a people.

Now, if you know me then you know I’m no wound-up fuddy-duddy who doesn’t know how to relax.  Some might say I’m the definition of relaxed.  But what I’m witnessing is our collective abandonment of objectivity in exchange for the more comfortable subjectivity when it comes to what’s right and what’s wrong.

Is it wrong for a husband to abandon his wife?  Yes it is.  Is it wrong for parent to verbally abuse their child?  Yes it is.  Is it wrong for me to steal from you?  Yes it is.  Is it wrong for an adult to have any sexual contact whatsoever with a minor–even a consenting minor?  Yes it is.  Is it wrong to smoke marijuana?  It used to be in most places.  Is it wrong to keep incorrect change the cashier gives you?  Yes it is.  Is it wrong  for a wife to chat online with another man that does for her what her husband does not?  Yes it is.

Through all of those examples, there are some (and many others) where we might be tempted to say, “Well…it depends.”  And this is the slope of ice that we find ourselves currently on.  Instead, we need to know what’s wrong, why it’s wrong and turn away from it.  Its the concept of repentance, and it is to feel sorrow for one’s actions to the point of changing one’s behavior.

2 Chronicles 7:14 says it this way:  “If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, pray, seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, forgive their sins, and heal their land.”

Knowing that something is wrong is one thing.  But we need to go beyond simply knowing and start calling “Band-Aid” and then go to acting upon, with God’s enabling help, the changes that need to be brought so that we can stop doing the wrong thing we are doing.

This isn’t a tie-it-up-with-a-nice-bow kind of blog.  So, I’ll just invite your thoughts.   Go ahead, give them.

Thanksliving

I was talking recently with a small group of adults that I hold dear.  We gather weekly to (in order of prominence): 1. Laugh, 2. Eat, 3. Share life, 4. Study God’s Word, & 5. Laugh some more.

We were recently talking about contentment and gratitude.  We all know that Thanksgiving is fast approaching and we also all know that as Christians, Thanksgiving should be a non-event.  A day to give thanks?  Seriously?  Do we really need to set aside a day when we shut everything down in order to give thanks?  It’s a ridiculous notion that I’m all for.  Why?  Well…in a word: turkey.  But that’s another blog.

What giving thanks does, as we discussed is…

1. It precludes & fights selfishness. Thankfulness cuts selfishness off at the knees.  When I’m thankful for what I have and who I know and where I am, I’ve taken my attention off of reaching for the self-serving things that quite honestly turn me into a jerk.  Greed takes my eyes off of what I already have and puts it on what I don’t.  It bathes me in discontent, bitterness, and resentment toward those who have what I don’t.

2. It cultivates humility. Keeping our eyes on being grateful begs the question: “Where did that come from?”  Understanding that ultimately what I have and enjoy is a gift from God puts me in the correct position of someone who is humble, not prideful.

3. It protects me from comparing myself to you. When I compare myself to others, I will end up with one of two conclusions: pride (because I decide I’m better than you, or pity (because I decide I’m not as good as you).  Neither of those are things God says about me–so I ought not dare say it about myself.

4. It cheers God on.  Simply put, thankfulness is our message to God to keep it coming.  It recognizes His provision, His protection, and His power to give and take whatever He chooses for our lives.

 

In just under 2 weeks, I’m going to be sharing a message called “Thanksliving” to a large group of students.  Pray for me as I convey the truth of what a thankful heart can do!

12 Hours One Saturday

It’s Monday morning, and I’m still basking in the amazing events I had the chance to witness this past Saturday.  A friend of mine, David Lacy had learned about a woman named Mrs. Woods who had such a heartbreaking story including losing her husband 4 years ago in an accident, being unable to work due to her own injuries, and trying to care for not only her own children, but also those of her siblings while they work.  To help out, her mother moved in their small home in Kilmarnock, VA where Mrs. Woods sleeps in a chair each night, having given up her own bed for her mother to sleep in.

The response of about 60 people from our church was to take on the challenge of building an additional bedroom for the Woods family….in one day.  What a phenomenal blessing to watch God’s people do God’s work for God’s glory!

 

A Bad Gratitude?

Okay, go ahead and file this one under “iffy”.  I’m typing this without a clear sense of “conviction” per se; but rather a “what if it’s possible” or “let’s think about this” type of feeling.  In other words, I’m not sure I’d be willing to die on the hill of the words I’m conveying.  At least not yet.  That might sound weak or indecisive to you, but if you’ve read this far you might be willing to go a bit farther into what’s coming in the next few paragraphs.

We’re in the 2nd week of November, and that means that the smells of stuffing, gravy, and turkey are beginning to waft through the neurons and synapses of my brain.  I love Thanksgiving.  It’s such a magnificent holiday that I think doesn’t get its due shake.  It’s often sandwiched between the hub-bub of Halloween and the hustle-bustle of Christmas.  Some view it as nothing more than the starter’s pistol of the holiday shopping season.  And by the looks of the crazy glazed-over eyes of those in line at 2 am outside Target (I know because I’ve been there), we’re not too far off.

So, with Thanksgiving comes the idea of giving thanks.  But is there a wrong kind of thankfulness?  I believe there is, and I want to cite an instance Jesus talked about.  But before I do that, I want to share an insight I’ve picked up from the wide range of “mission” trips I’ve been on (and I’m leaving for another one in just a few days).

I’m a youth pastor.  I spend a huge chunk of my everyday existence thinking about, communicating with, counseling, praying for, and loving teenagers and my stellar team of adult leaders.  And at least a couple times a year I take teens on a trip, often out of the country.  When we go to another culture, its usually one that is impoverished, a place where we can do something helpful–feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, providing shelter for the exposed and homeless, and lots of other activities that hopefully leave a place better off than when we arrived.  And to me, a “mission” trip is only as successful as the difference it makes not just “over there” in that distant land, but “right here” in my heart.  A difference that is reflected in my priorities, my passions, and sense of purpose in life long after the trip is over.  If there isn’t a change in me, then I feel I’ve missed a big part of the point of the trip.  Of course, we still did good things over there, but does it make any difference after the luggage is unpacked, the jet lag is subsided, and the routine is restored?

More often than not,  when I ask students what difference the trip has made in their lives, I get a recurring response.  A response that goes a little something like this:  “What did I get from going on this trip?  Well, for sure I’m going to be more thankful for the nice stuff I have (that these people don’t have).   I’m going to be thankful for the food in the fridge, and the clothes in the closet, and the bed I don’t have to share with my family.”

Now, I’d be nuts to say that hearing an American teenager say such things isn’t a wonderfully remarkable thing.  It is.  But what I’m getting at is the idea that a thankfulness that is thankful for me being better off than you isn’t quite the thankfulness that the Bible teaches.  It’s a starting point to be sure, and I truly don’t believe that the students who have it are wrong, or bad, or anything close to that.

Let’s take a look at Luke 18, verses 10 & 11:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.'”

Now, clearly in verse 11 we see a “bad gratitude” exhibited by the Pharisee.  It’s a thankfulness that’s only present because there’s someone worse off than him.  It’s a thankfulness that does nothing more than acknowledging that we’re not as bad off as others.  So, how do we foster a genuine thankfulness?  Let’s look at the tax collector’s prayer in verse 13:

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”

First of all, thankfulness MUST be unhinged from any/every other contingent and external reality.  Thankfulness ought to be independent of anyone we know or anything we have.  Thankfulness is first between God and me.  That is the start of a right heart of gratitude.  Certainly we can and should be thankful for what we have and the people in our lives.  But when we attach our thankfulness to things and people, where are we left when those things and people are not around, or even gone from our lives?  The tax collector in verse 13 made no comparison to those around him as the Pharisee did.  His focus was on his own depravity, and the merciful grace of God who accepted him, justified him, and loved him right where he was.  His humility was such that it would not allow him to even lift his head heavenward.  And I’d dare say that between the lines of that verse, we see a piercing gratitude–a gratitude that stands alone, separate from anything God has done–focused only on who God is.

A simple question to gauge our gratitude would be:  If I lost every possession and every person I hold dear, what would happen to my view of God, His goodness, and His presence? Don’t think I think that’s an easy question to ask or answer.  I certainly know that it’s not.  But I think that a gratitude that is detached from what I possess demands such a hard-hitting introspection.

As we approach this Thanksgiving season, may we be a people who most definitely hold dear and are grateful for all the good things and relationships that we enjoy.  But may we also find within ourselves the willingness and courage to stand in gratitude to God even when those other things aren’t there.

As always, I welcome your thoughts or comments on this issue.  How do you approach Thanksgiving?  What do you most commonly thank God for?  Is it possible to separate thankfulness from what we’re thankful for (that question even sounds crazy)? Have I completely lost it?

Thanks for reading.

40 Minutes From Now.

I was overwhelmed as I walked through row after narrow row of shack after tin shack.  Most of them no bigger than a jail cell. And for all I knew, that’s exactly what the inhabitants of the shacks felt like–prisoners in their own homes, in this abjectly empoverished part of the Dominican Republic.  I was walking through the community of tin and sticks after having spent the week with them.  Now, the only question in my mind as I walked with the local pastor there was a simple question and yet one that put my heart into such a vise of anguish; anguish I have not felt since.

The question:  Which one?

It was my responsibility as the leader of our group to choose one family from a sea of people.  That one family would receive a new home, just across the river bed.  A home that our group had sponsored and had built.  A home with block walls, a solid roof, and even a concrete floor.  A home in a community called “Villa de Ascencion”, just a short distance away and yet lightyears away from where they were now.

My heart pounded as the pastor gave me a description of each family we walked past, how many children, their ages, what the parents did for money to feed them, and other details.  I walked through several shacks as children moved from one shack to another, and adult would pull children who weren’t theirs close to them so as to appear to be a larger family, and perhaps garnish the favor of the foreigner who’s task it was to choose one family to receive a new home.  I don’t think my heart could have taken any more weight than what I felt on that day.

After meandering through the entire village, I returned to the home of Marcelles.  Marcelles was a single father with 4 children.  His wife had left him soon after the twins were born.  He was doing the best he could do raising those 4 children, while trying to scrape out a living doing clothes repair.  His antique looking sewing machine set neatly on a wobbly wooden table in a corner of his home; a home of mostly thick straight branches framing the house and sheets of tin attached to them.  A thin fabric curtain was his front door.  The pastor pulled the curtain back and I ducked my head as we went inside.  The darkness of the interior in midday give me a glimpse of the sense of darkness that contrasted what Marcelles and his kids were about to receive.

I greeted Marcelles with a handshake while his kids were standing in the doorway of their shack, looking on.  Through the pastor’s interpretation, I told Marcelles that our group was choosing him and his children to receive the new home we had built for them.  Before the news could get all the way past the interpreter’s lips, Marcelles lunged at me, buried his head in my chest and sobbed.  His arms wrapped around my ribs, his hands clasped tightly on my back.  I’ll never forget the feeling of handing someone a new home, a new hope, and a new life.  After letting go of me, Marcelles gathered his children all around himself and somehow seemed to be hugging all 4 at once.

The celebration was interrupted by our urgent request:  Please put on your best clothes and meet us at your new house 40 minutes from now.  We’ll welcome you to your home, give you a few gifts, and dedicate your house to the Lord.  The entire family immediately burst into activity, speaking feverishly with each other instructions on who would do what.  After all, not only were they moving, but all they possessed must come with them.  No doubt what would happen as soon as they left their shack is that another family would move right in and anything left there would become the property of whoever took their place.

We left them their joyous work and walked across the riverbed to Villa de Ascencion, a community being built by God through CrossRoads Ministry, our partners on that trip.  The difference between the two villages was more than what can be described. 

So 40 minutes later, sure enough Marcelles and his 4 children were dressed in their best clothes, smiles beaming as we stood at the front door of their new home.  With tears in his eyes, Marcelles listened as we prayed a prayer of dedication over the house and blessing over his family.  I simply will never forget the powerful privilege of giving to this family a new beginning, nor will I ever forget the heartfelt, sincere, and incredible gratitude with which they accepted our gift.

I think of that day often and whenever I do I cannot help but place that story alongside of God’s grace, love, and compassion which He lavishes upon us.  There we were in our spiritual darkness, our soul empoverished, without hope for an escape.  And then He came along, pulled back the curtain, stepped inside and said “I have a new life for you, if you’ll take it.”  And when I think of that gift of God’s grace shown through Jesus death on the cross and his resurrection from the grave that makes my new home a living reality, I can’t help but respond as Marcelles did, to throw my head into his chest, my arms wrapped around his scarred ribcage, and my hands clasping his once-scourged back.  In gratitude I’ve accepted a new home, a new hope, and a new life.

I hope to return to the Dominican Republic in the summer of 2012, but I doubt I will ever know again the overwhelming power of what happened just “40 minutes from now.”

Hell Yeah, It’s Christmas!

Jesus came to earth because of hell.  Maybe you never thought of it that way.

We’d rather say that He came for you and for me and for us and for all.  Maybe its more comfy to say He came for the redemption of man and the reconciliation of the creation to its Creator.  Or that He came to “seek and save that which was lost.”  After all, that’s in the Bible (Lk 19:10).  So, we should say that.  And we do.

But let’s not forget what we’re being saved FROM.  This is the underside of Christmas.  This is what we leave unsaid while we trim the tree and bake the cookies.  This is the message that doesn’t make it into our line-up of Christmas carols, Christmas movies, and Christmas messages.  But make no mistake about it–this truth is THE truth of why Jesus came to earth.

When He left heaven, His destination was hell.  His advent on earth was the conduit, the method, the way in which He chose to travel from the throne of God to the throne of Satan.  And let’s not be unclear.  His sole purpose was to take the keys of death and hell from the hands of Satan.  The manger, the star, the magi, the disciples, the miracles, the cross, and the tomb were all part of the unfolding story of exactly how Jesus was going to take those keys.

Consider the words of God the Father to the serpent in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3:15:

“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

Three measly chapters into the Scriptures and the Messiah is revealed!  Not merely the Messiah, but the Messiah’s mission; to “crush the head” of the serpent, that is Satan our adversary!  Jesus Christ left heaven at the appointed time, made a 33 (or so) year stop through earth and achieved the objective of His mission when, through His death and resurrection, He stripped Satan of the last shred of power he had.  Satan continues to reek havoc in many lives, but be sure that he is nothing more than a fish flopping on a pier, gasping for air.

Read the words of Jesus the risen Messiah in Revelation 1:18:

“I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”

What does Jesus display as proof of His accomplished mission?  He holds out “the keys of death and Hades”!  Yes, Jesus came for you, for me, for us, and for all.  Yes we’re right to celebrate the Advent season.  Yes, its good for us to decorate, sing, give gifts, eat cookies, and be with family.  But this Christmas season, even if  only in your own heart, would you be willing to celebrate Jesus our Messiah by declaring that it was for the defeat of death, hell, and the grave that Jesus came to the manger?