Friday, December 31, 2010

A little child should have led us

God rails at Israel for long verses at the start of Isaiah's prophecy.

Then, stuck in the middle of the seventh chapter, there is this language: "So Isaiah told them, "then listen to this, government of David. It's bad enough that you make people tired with your pious, timid hypocrisies, but now you're making God tired. So the master is going to give you a sign anyway. Watch for this: A girl who is presently a virgin will get pregnant. She'll bear a son and name him Immanuel (God-With-Us). By the time the child is twelve years old, able to make moral decisions, the threat of war will be over. Relax, those two kings that have you so worried will be out of the picture. But also be warned: God will bring on you and your people and your government a judgment worse than anything since the time the kingdom split..."

One could question the prophecy, since part of it is hard to understand, but since there has been but one girl who was a virgin that became pregnant and bore a son named Immanuel, one could rightly see that this is talking about the coming (way down the road) of Jesus. The peace maker. The Prince of Peace.

In the Jerusalem Post Christian edition today, it is pointed out by a writer named Michael Freund that Bishops in Rome tossed theological equivalent of hand grenade, threatening to blow up decades of efforts to improve Catholic-Jewish relations. This past Saturday, a synod of bishops in Rome tossed the theological equivalent of a hand grenade, threatening to blow up decades of efforts to improve Catholic- Jewish relations. In a press conference at the Vatican, Monsignor Cyril Salim Bustros, a Greek Melkite archbishop from Boston and president of the Church’s Commission for the Message, launched a blistering attack against the very foundation of Jewish belief. “The Holy Scriptures,” Bustros declared, “cannot be used to justify the return of Jews to Israel and the displacement of the Palestinians, to justify the occupation by Israel of Palestinian lands.” Not stopping there, he went on to state that “we Christians cannot speak of the ‘promised land’ as an exclusive right for a privileged Jewish people... There is no longer a chosen people.” ... Even a cursory glance at the Scriptures makes clear that the Jewish people’s right to the Land of Israel is indisputably ordained. Take, for example, Isaiah 14:1-2: “The Lord will have compassion on Jacob; once again He will choose Israel and will settle them in their own land.”

The Prince of Peace came, fulfilling scripture, and here we are at the end of another year of incredible violence and the absolute desecration of Old Testament prophecy.

What lies ahead? Isaiah spends a great amount of time telling us that the nation was falling apart. But he spends a bit of time telling us that it will be brought back by a child. That they missed the child complicates matters, but doesn't end the covenant between God and Israel. It complicates it even more.

May this year be the year for peace in Jerusalem. May that be our prayer. A little peace around here wouldn't hurt things either. Happy New Year indeed.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Only God

Reading the local newspaper this morning seems to indicate that we're all broke. The city is broke. The country is broke. I know I'm in a perpetual state of broke. Part of the reason is we are so much in need of things that cost and the things that cost are continually going up because the ones who do the charging are, you guessed it, broke.

God says this to Isaiah:
2: 10Head for the hills, hide in the caves from the terror of God, from his dazzling presence. People with a big head are headed for a fall, pretentious egos brought down a peg. It's God alone at front-and-center on the day we're talking about, the day that God-of-the-Angel-Armies matched against all big-talking rivals, against all swaggering big names; against all giant sequoias hugely towering, and against the expansive chestnut; against Kilimanjaro and Annapurna, against the ranges of Alps and Andes; against every soaring skyscraper, against all proud obelisks and statues; against ocean-going luxury liners, against elegant three-masted  shooners. The swelled big heads will be punctured bladders, the pretentious egos brought down to earth, leaving God alone at front-and-center on the Day we're talking about. And all those sticks and stones
dressed up to look like gods will be gone for good."

The key line for me is "people with a big head are headed for a fall, pretentious egos brought down a peg." Everyone seems to think they have an idea about what to do with the economy, with health care, with this and that, and yet no one fixes anything. That's because all this starts with the person and we've become persons who are headed for a fall. Government, even governments led by the Almighty, can't fix anything. We can, but we have to sacrifice and we all know that's something out there that is difficult to do.

The second chapter of Isaiah concludes, "quit scrapping and fawning over mere humans, so full of themselves, so full of hot air! Can't you see there's nothing to them?"

Only God, my friends. Only God.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Life changing

My youngest grandson has been walking around saying, "I forget you mama." He means forgive, but he's a little out of whack on some words. The sentiment is a fine one, though.

See, we have a choice; actually we have many choices in life, but the one that matters most, some don't even recognize as a choice. We have the choice to be forgiven of our sins or to not be forgiven of our sins. Many would argue that we have no choice when it comes to sin, because we have that bred into us by Adam's grievous error. But we can be forgiven by a choice we make.

God points this out in Isaiah's first chapter:

He says, "18-20"Come. Sit down. Let's argue this out."

This is God's Message:
"If your sins are blood-red,
they'll be snow-white.
If they're red like crimson,
they'll be like wool.
If you'll willingly obey,
you'll feast like kings.
But if you're willful and stubborn,
you'll die like dogs."
That's right. God says so."

In other words, what's it gonna be? Will we do what is necessary? Or will we not? What will we do?

If we accept God's offer, he said to Zion, we would be changed. If not, we will get the back of his hand, as regretfully as he was about that. He concludes the first chapter with the line, "You'll end up like an oak tree with its leaves falling off, like an unwatered garden, withered and brown."

There was a time when that described me. I was thinking about that as I prepared a sermon series yesterday on defining moments in our lives, teaching through Genesis. The three defining moments in my life, I think, are the day I met my wife Mary because I had decided to return to Jackson after 10 months as sports editor in Reno, Nev., my decision to come to New Orleans as a journalist 19 years ago, and the day I surrendered to the Lord. Births of children and such are important, but without those three decisions, I wouldn't have had the helper I have so needed all these years, I wouldn't have reached a point where I decided I couldn't go on like I was and I wouldn't have the joy, peace, love and mission I have no without my Jesus.

That I get everlasting life out of the deal is beyond wonderful, but that I've found abundant living while I'm alive, kingdom living while I still can, is as they say down here lagniappe.

In Isaiah's second chapter, Isaiah got this message: There's a day coming when the mountain of God's House

Will be The Mountain— solid, towering over all mountains. All nations will river toward it, people from all over set out for it. They'll say, "Come, let's climb God's Mountain, go to the House of the God of Jacob. He'll show us the way he works so we can live the way we're made." Zion's the source of the revelation. God's Message comes from Jerusalem. He'll settle things fairly between nations. He'll make things right between many peoples. They'll turn their swords into shovels, their spears into hoes. No more will nation fight nation; they won't play war anymore. Come, family of Jacob, let's live in the light of God."

Choices. Do we accept that or do we not? These choices will change lives. Still.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Go to bat for the helpless

The prophet Isaiah speaks wonderfully, peacefully about what was to come in his later writings. But at the beginning of his prophecy, he speaks for an angry God:

1:10"Listen to my Message,
you Sodom-schooled leaders.
Receive God's revelation,
you Gomorrah-schooled people.
"Why this frenzy of sacrifices?"
God's asking.
"Don't you think I've had my fill of burnt sacrifices,
rams and plump grain-fed calves?
Don't you think I've had my fill
of blood from bulls, lambs, and goats?
When you come before me,
whoever gave you the idea of acting like this,
Running here and there, doing this and that—
all this sheer commotion in the place provided for worship?
Quit your worship charades.
I can't stand your trivial religious games:
Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings—
meetings, meetings, meetings—I can't stand one more!
Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them!
You've worn me out!
I'm sick of your religion, religion, religion,
while you go right on sinning.
When you put on your next prayer-performance,
I'll be looking the other way.
No matter how long or loud or often you pray,
I'll not be listening.
And do you know why? Because you've been tearing
people to pieces, and your hands are bloody.
Go home and wash up.
Clean up your act.
Sweep your lives clean of your evil doings
so I don't have to look at them any longer.
Say no to wrong.
Learn to do good.
Work for justice.
Help the down-and-out.
Stand up for the homeless.
Go to bat for the defenseless."

I believe it's clear that God is saying he doesn't care for our useless attempts at religion when the world is in such a mess. When people are without, when the homeless are indeed homeless, when things are so bad out there, God doesn't want to hear we just got out of church. Say no to wrong, he says. Learn to do good, he says. Work for justice, he says. Help the down-and-out he says. Stand up, go to bat, just do something, he says.

This coming year, 2011, let's pledge (along with reading That's Life) to do something for someone else. No matter your station in life, no matter how things are in your life, there are those who have less. Share with them. Make it a policy.

Our giving, financially, went down this year as our paychecks spiralled downward. But our giving of time and effort went up. Anyone can do that. Anyone.

God calls us to get rid of the religion and start sharing. We can do this. We don't need a government assist to help others.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Knowing up from down

Beginning a personal study of Isaiah, so ...

1The vision that Isaiah son of Amoz saw regarding Judah and Jerusalem during the times of the kings of Judah: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. Heaven and earth, you're the jury.

Listen to God's case: "I had children and raised them well, and they turned on me. The ox knows who's boss, the mule knows the hand that feeds him, But not Israel.My people don't know up from down. Shame! Misguided God-dropouts, staggering under their guilt-baggage, gang of miscreants, band of vandals— My people have walked out on me, their God, turned their backs on The Holy of Israel, walked off and never looked back. "Why bother even trying to do anything with you  when you just keep to your bullheaded ways? You keep beating your heads against brick walls. Everything within you protests against you. From the bottom of your feet to the top of your head, nothing's working right."

One of the most memorable and tragic lines in all of scripture is in Genesis when God walks through the garden and asks, "Where are you?" You feel the pain of God, a God who has lost his people. God tried to get his people back, by designating a certain tribe as his chosen. But again you feel the pain. "...I raised them well, but they turned on me."

As we journey toward a new year, let us see this notion of turning our backs on God as a real one. Look around you, look at the newspaper, look at what is happening to our world. Tell me that this world hasn't turned its back on God.

But the good news is that though it seems here as if God turned his back on us, as well, we know what is coming. The good news is that unto us a child is born, as Isaiah eventually will tell us. That keeps us going when nothing is working right.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A bath of light

It's been a slow walk to the stable for the daily reader and for this writer. We've examined the birth of Christ is every way we can. But the baby is being born...

In the second chapter of Luke we read, "They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger."

In John's gospel, however, the baby, the village, the parents, the shepherds and such are given little attention. They are a means to an end.

In John's gospel, the emphasis, the focus is on light.

"In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it."

Then it reads, "So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son."

Light into a dark world is the theme.

On that night all those years ago, on a darkened hill, God send moonlight to bathe a group of men. In the fields above a little hamlet called Bethlehem, God then send angels, heavenly beings in all their strangeness and perhaps shockingly scariness, to light up the night sky further. The angels told the shepherds about the magnificent light that was being turned on somewhere in the city below them.

On that night all those years ago, a lot was going on in the sky. The moon shined beautifully, angels lit up a small section in the sky above the city and somehow a magnificent event was occurring as well. A star, the star of Bethlehem as it would one day be known, was more than a dot in the sky. It was a sharp, bright light that someone with knowledge of astronomy would notice fairly quickly. Some men in the east of the city, maybe a great distance east of the city, did notice and they packed quickly and struck out for Bethlehem.

On that night all those years ago, the moon shined, the angels sparkled and the star burned brightly.

But John the gospel writer, the most deeply theological of the gospel writers, was for a moment the most metaphorical as well. In his first chapter, John says that the brightest of all the light that night all those years ago wasn't the moon, the angels or the star. No. It was a baby boy. In the Message translation, John writes, "Every person entering Life he brings into Light. ... The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes; the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son."

Years ago, my family moved into a house that would become our home for more than 40 years. I miss it still, having sold it around Thanksgiving four years ago as my mother's illness overtook her. But early in our stay there, as an eight-year-old, I was fearful. It was in the country, and I was a city boy. So noises at night weren't welcome, but they were plentiful.

On night, I heard something on the back porch. To this day, I promise I saw the door handle turn as I tiptoed into the kitchen and looked at the back door. My father was working away from home, so I ran to my mother's room and breathlessly told her about it. She sleepily told me to look out her bedroom window, which overlooked the back porch, and see what was what. She might as well told me to fly. No way was that happening.

After long, long, breathless minutes, with me still lying on her bed in rigid fright, she figured there was only one way to end this and send me back to my room. She got up and did the unthinkable. She turned on the back porch light. Nothing was there. The light warmed the concrete-floored porch, running off shadows, forcing away evil doers, destroying my fears in an out-pouring of  "Life-light."

John wrote, "What came into existence was Life, and the Life was Light to live by. The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn't put it out."

Light changes feelings, ideas, temperaments. Light inches into dark corners and turns them into parties. Light changes grudges into longings, turns temper into patience, fixes mistakes and applies love as band aids. Light is the difference between Eden and Hell. Light is the most physical of non-physical entities that has ever existed.

And this baby, this Jesus, was the light of the entire world.

Today, Christmas Eve, we celebrate by passing gifts to each other. But the most important gift that ever was passed from one being to another, was the light of the entire world that was passed from Joseph to Mary immediately after it was born into a dark cave of a stable. The light cried out. The light waved pudgy arms in fright and in newness of  life.

The light was born, and it was passed.

Today we can do no less. Today please, if you are a daily reader or you came across this blog on google and are reading for the first time, take up the light and pass it to someone you love or someone you've just met.

This light is life ... "The Word gave life to everything that was created and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it. God sent a man, John the Baptist, to tell about the light so that everyone might believe because of his testimony. John himself was not the light; he was simply a witness to tell about the light. The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world."

Merry Christmas, my friends. God loves you so much, he became flesh so that light could bathe you in its love. Isn't that thrilling?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A mother's love

Luke's gospel says, "As the angel choir withdrew into heaven, the sheepherders talked it over. "Let's get over to Bethlehem as fast as we can and see for ourselves what God has revealed to us." They left, running, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. Seeing was believing. They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child. All who heard the sheepherders were impressed. Mary kept all these things to herself, holding them dear, deep within herself. The sheepherders returned and let loose, glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen. It turned out exactly the way they'd been told!"

There is the birth of the child. But there are two key lines this morning. First, "They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child." Second  is "Mary kept all these things to herself, holding them dear, deep within herself."

What does that mean, you think?

First, the shepherds made the story known. So why isn't that tale in all four gospels? Why wasn't that tale told throughout Palestine the next day? Angels singing in the sky would get my attention. The obvious answer is the people simply didn't believe the shepherds. There were ignorant people who didn't get the message. Imagine that. People are told the greatest news of all time and they choose to ignore it. No one would do that today would they? Uh, huh.

Second, only Mary knew what she knew, if you know what I mean. Gabriel told her, remember, "He will be great, be called 'Son of the Highest.' The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David; He will rule Jacob's house forever— no end, ever, to his kingdom."  So that was in her mind, I'm sure, when shepherds show up to bow down before this little king. Do you think this was early fear for her baby? It might not have been such good news to some, including the blood-thirsty Herod, that the Son of the Highest had been born. The whole Messiah thing apparently wasn't such good news for those in the business of religion.

So here we have the shepherds telling everyone who would listen, not believe but listen. Love the line, "The sheepherders returned and let loose, glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen." And we have Mary keeping it all inside, trying to keep a cork on the bottle, trying to keep things a secret, trying to keep her child her child, trying to keep a rein on the runaway horse.

I'm going to make a leap here, so stay with me.

My mother, Delores Turner, died four years ago today. I'm adopted and was not flesh of her flesh, but in all ways important, she was my mother. A greater love hath no woman for child. But she, like Mary, tried to keep a rein on me all her life. The creative beast that lies inside me always wanted to pour out, and it showed itself in increasingly insane and inane ways. But my mother did what Mary did all those years...she prayed for her child. Mary's specialty was praying that her child, flesh of her flesh, love of her life, would one day do what God had called him to do, prayed that he would be great when called to be great. But I'm not at all sure she did it completely willingly. She merely prayed that God's will be done in her child's life.

My mother had an eighth-grade education, wasn't sure about a lot of things in her life that I was absolutely sure about, but she was loved by many. She prayed over many years that God's will would be done in her child's life. My mother was no Mary, but she was a mother equal in tenacity with Mary. But she could never have kept things inside the way Mary did, for she spent way too much of her time being like the shepherds and telling all about her baby.

The point?

A mother's love is unique in this world. True love wasn't known in this world till Jesus came. Therefore, the love between Mary and Jesus could not be equalled.

But I must tell you that for good or bad, my mother's love must have been close. When I was born, no shepherds showed up, no wise men came riding in, and there were no celebrations in the sky. But when I was adopted three months later, a mother's love was born in a heart and it wasn't extinguished until she passed about 1 a.m. on Dec. 23, 2006.

When the baby born in Bethlehem bled from the cross, it is instructive that no one from his childhood, no one from his teenage years, only one from his adult ministry was there at the foot of the cross. But his mother was. All of Rome, all of its soldiers and its might, all of Herod's brood, all the Sadducee's and those remarkably religious Pharisees could not have stopped her from being there.

Christ's love is amazing. The closest we can come is mother's love for a child -- a good child, a bad child, a child who returns that love or one who is cold as December's heel.

We call that love, unconditional.

We could call it a mother's love and be done with it. The strength of the link isn't weakened by death. Perhaps, just perhaps, it is strengthened.

"Mary kept all these things to herself...." Mary, did you know?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What a year

Walls of Jerusalem in January.
What a glorious year we’ve had, Mary and I. It’s been filled with ups and downs, like all years, but I must tell you that I’ve been filled with the absolute belief that I have become true friends with so many of you in the past year that I am humbled and amazed. We’ve grown closer in a way I never thought I could again after leaving my home church five years ago against my will.

This year I’ve found a full-time ministry and though you could argue its merits, I only know that I’ve worked as hard as I can to be the kind of minister both these churches deserve because of the good people they have in them.

Mary and I have lost two pets to death this year, but we’ve gained in so many other ways: We went to Israel in a true trip of a lifetime. We went to a spiritual retreat and were renewed wonderfully. I finished a book and some wonderful friends and believers in my writing are having it published in the coming year. I pray not for fortune but for someone, maybe just one person, to read it and figure out that they're being called by God and for them to answer that call. I found my true calling, I believe, in prison ministry.

We saw our youngest daughter married and we saved an abused pooch who still is shockingly scared of me. We welcomed new grandchildren into our midst and were blessed in that regard. We lost our favorite television show of all time. Oh, and there was that little Super bowl thingee.

Bottom line is God has walked with us each step of the way. What I’ve found over time is that though I tend to look to the worst in things, God picks me up and dusts me off and sends me looking toward Jesus, which is the absolute best of things.

That was this kind of year. Tears of sadness and tears of joy. Days of victory and days of defeat. Weeks of nothingness, and weeks of a true walk with God.

All in all, a typical great year with God.

Thanks to all who have joined us on this crazy walk with the Lord. Mary and I appreciate it and look forward to the next year for what God will bring.

This blog has existed five times a week for more than a year. I pray it touches someone as I walk with God the best a person of my lack of character can. I heard something last night that really spoke to me. I share it now.

This time of the year we speak a lot about naughty and nice lists. I'm probably more naughty than most, though I don't really wish to be.

But it's not about performance. Jesus comes to us and says, "I know you are who you are, I know your heart, and I love you anyway. I'll be the good one. You be in me, and I in you, and we'll walk this difficult path together."

That's enough today. That's been enough this year. That will be enough in the coming year.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

In the fields of grace

From the church above Bethlehem
 that honors the shepherds

Luke says of these unknown men: "There were sheepherders camping in the neighborhood. They had set night watches over their sheep. Suddenly, God's angel stood among them and God's glory blazed around them. They were terrified. The angel said, "Don't be afraid. I'm here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: A Savior has just been born in David's town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master. This is what you're to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger."

At once the angel was joined by a huge angelic choir singing God's praises:
Glory to God in the heavenly heights,
Peace to all men and women on earth who please him.
As the angel choir withdrew into heaven, the sheepherders talked it over. "Let's get over to Bethlehem as fast as we can and see for ourselves what God has revealed to us." They left, running, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. Seeing was believing. They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child. All who heard the sheepherders were impressed "

Unknown men, don't know what happened to them. Don't know if they told anyone about this, though clearly someone did or we wouldn't be reading it.

What a night. What a vision. What a wonderful gift to a group of men who knew few gifts. Remember, they were out sleeping with sheep, smelling like sheep. They were not a group of theologians. They weren't a group of important characters. They were you and me, workers, who had a long moment with the divine.

God uses the unimportant to make important moments in our lives. He's always done it and he still does.

Simply make yourself ready for that time when the heavens split and God sends angels. Or that time when you simply feel you should give a neighbor a lift to the doctor. Same thing; different verse.

What a life. What a vision.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Changing the world anonymously

Ah, let's talk about Joseph's role in all this theater.

We know so little about him, yet he was descended from Jacob, who traced his lineage back to David and then back to Abraham. That should have made him fairly important, but there is no writing that suggest that.

We know that he was protective of Jesus, but little else.

This is the whole of the mention of Joseph, who was at the least the step-father of our Lord, Jesus.

Matthew 1: 18-23 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about[d]: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet[e] did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,[ because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”[g] (which means “God with us”). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. ... Then later in the second chapter of Matthew, Joseph leads the family to Egypt. ... 13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” 21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.


In Luke's gospel: 26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” ...In the second chapter, 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.  ... In the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. ...

And there you have it. Joseph was a role player in the greatest of tales. He protected the child, led him to learn a craft possibly (carpentry or stone masonry) and led him to Temple when he was 12.

Then he disappeared into history's pages.

Oh, what tales he could tell us.

But the point I want to make is this: Joseph heard from God (albeit through dreams) and he answered. He took the gossip and the people's whispers as he walked by them when Mary was pregnant though they had not been together. He did what he was told. And he said what needed to be said in this instance: Yes.

Notice what we don't have of Joseph. A single word. The shepherds were there that night and we have no names. The wise men came and we have no names. With Joseph we have one name and little else.

Saying yes to God does not make us special. It makes us His. That's enough. That changes the world.


Friday, December 17, 2010

He didn't run; he obeyed

The story of Jesus' birth begins with a near "divorce," with a teenager pregnant out of "wedlock," and an angel's surprise to a man who was fearful of the future.

Sounds like an episode of reality television.

It went this way in Matthew's gospel: "His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet[e] did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”[g] (which means 'God with us.' When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.  But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus."

Apparently picking a child's name was God's business in both John's birth and Jesus' birth as well.

We hear so little of Joseph, and he is soon to disappear from history's pages. The most we learn of him is in this piece of scripture, and what we learn is he's kind-hearted but practical. Pregnant by the Holy Spirit? Sure. I will just pack up and get out of here.

But little Jesus needed a protector. Little Jesus needed someone who would watch over him and lead the family out of harm's way when Herod did his thing. Little Jesus needed someone to take him to Temple, needed someone to teach him carpentry or stone masonry or whatever it was the family business was.

Imagine the stories, the stares, the gossip about this family, about this man.

We ask the question of what Mary knew about her child. We forget about Joseph, who apparently fathered other children by Mary but was gone by the time Jesus began his ministry. We decide he must have been much older because he died, but we don't know. Interestingly, Matthew traces Joseph's line back to Abraham, though Jesus had none of Joseph's blood.

What are we to make of all this?

The key line, to me, is "He did exactly what God's angel commanded in the dream."

Obedience is key to all proper worship, key to all proper relationship. If we obey what God has told us, things are smooth and the peace that surpasses all understanding is ours. If we do not obey, things go badly and we are worried and anxious.

Joseph dreamed, then acted.
We dream, then fall away from God.

As little ones dream of Christmas Eve but a week away, let us remember Joseph, who did the best he could in the most unique of situations. He didn't run. He obeyed. For that we should be literally eternally grateful.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Pent up worship pours out

Luke's gospel tells us of the arrival of the baby Jesus:

"At once the angel was joined by a huge angelic choir singing God's praises: Glory to God in the heavenly heights, Peace to all men and women on earth who please him. As the angel choir withdrew into heaven, the sheepherders talked it over. "Let's get over to Bethlehem as fast as we can and see for ourselves what God has revealed to us." They left, running, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. Seeing was believing. They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child. All who heard the sheepherders were impressed."

An angel choir to start things off. A bloody cross to end it. What a life.

And what did the angels offer? Peace to all men and women.

Mary and I visited the shepherd fields and the caves above Nazareth in which the shepherds could have stayed in winter. Though some believe this heavenly event happened in spring or even summer, they could have survived winters in Israel by staying in those caves.

No matter. The point is the shepherds were the first to know of this blessed even. Sooner than the in laws. Sooner than Mary's parents, who amazingly have no bearing on this story whatsoever.

Peace the angels offer. They come singing.

One wonders how long the angels had waited for this night. One wonders how often the heavenly choir got together to practice the song: Glory to God in the heavenly heights; Peace to all men and women on earth who please him.

They sang for the glory of God. They sang for the earth child. They sang because their God had entered into his world as a baby, an innocent, helpless child. Surely they must have been shocked by that occurrence. Surely they must have been stunned into song that God would choose this manner in which to save his people.

So, they sang. And they praised. And they sang some more.

This is a little photo of what heaven will be like, friends. The angels will sing. Those persons who relied on grace, like the shepherds, to enter the heavenly heights will be rewarded by singing to God on the throne, and worshiping the Son on the throne, and the Holy Spirit will teach us the song.

This is preparation for that night, that glorious night, when we shall sing Holy, Holy, Holy before our King. That's what worship should be ever day: pent up emotion poured out onto the throne room floor.

Glory to God, indeed.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Everyone is invited

In the second chapter of Luke's gospel, we read, "About that time Caesar Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Empire. This was the first census when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone had to travel to his own ancestral hometown to be accounted for. So Joseph went from the Galilean town of Nazareth up to Bethlehem in Judah, David's town, for the census. As a descendant of David, he had to go there. He went with Mary, his fiancée, who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for her to give birth. She gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in a manger, because there was no room in the hostel. There were sheepherders camping in the neighborhood. They had set night watches over their sheep. Suddenly, God's angel stood among them and God's glory blazed around them. They were terrified. The angel said, "Don't be afraid. I'm here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: A Savior has just been born in David's town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master. This is what you're to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger."

There is a lot to see in this passage. But let's concentrate on the sentence, "I'm hear to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide."

The angel comes to shepherds in the fields to announce a "worldwide" event. That's like God coming to me to announce world peace is being invoked. That's like me being told to tell the president what he should do about social security.

God uses not only common folks in the fields, but those who smell like sheep, those without income, those without homes (for to stay in the fields means to stay in caves during the winter with the sheep).

God uses whom he so desires. He came first to the common (Mary, Joseph, the shepherds), then to the wise (men).

Here's the wonderful moment: God comes to us to announce worldwide the he desires the world be saved. Are we stained-glass heroes? No. But our faith can be the same. Our witness can be the same.

I love the fact that the shepherds were the first outside the immediate family to see the baby. Yet none of them are named. Framed in the gospel for more than 2,000 years, yet they are anonymous. Invited to THE event, yet without name-cards.

That's who we all are. Unnamed but saved by grace.

Everyone was invited. Shepherds came.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sing with Glee

I was at an assisted living home the other day, preaching a short sermon and helping them sing some carols. One gentleman said, "I don't sing," when I asked him why he wasn't doing any of the carols. I hear something like that often.

That makes it all the more remarkable when I read the first chapter of Luke's gospel, the early telling of the birth of Christ, for much of it is folks bursting into song like Glee.

The angle Gabriel sings to Mary.
Mary sings to Gabriel.
Elizabeth sings to Mary.
Mary sings to Elizabeth.
Zachariah sings to everyone who will listen.

Why singing?

They were filled, too filled some would say, with joy. Happiness covered them like a fog.

"I'm bursting with God-news," Mary sang. Bursting...with ... God-news. Singing a happy song like Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin or Delirious would.

The Happy Song goes, "I could sing unending songs of how you saved my soul. I could dance a thousand miles because of your great love."

We sing not because of talent or the effort to hear ourselves, but because we are so pleased and thankful that God stepped in and saved us. "You are the strength when I am weak; you are the treasure that I seek," we sing to God. "You are my all in all."

He took our sin, our cross, our pain. Sing.
He wiped out death, gave us eternal life, walks with us each dreary day. Sing.

How could I keep from singing, Tomlin sings.

Indeed. How could I?

Monday, December 13, 2010

I heard those Christmas bells

I have a friend whose grandfather said of him, "this child will be special with God's help." The friend is a pastor, and if you ever heard him preach, you would say the prophecy was of God.

God calls many at a young age.

Jeremiah, a prophet though a kid, and God had this conversation: "Before I shaped you in the womb," God told him, "I knew all about you. Before you saw the light of day, I had holy plans for you: A prophet to the nations —  that's what I had in mind for you."

Jeremiah, disturbed by this information instead of being elated, said, "Hold it, Master God! Look at me.
I don't know anything. I'm only a boy!" God told me, "Don't say, 'I'm only a boy.' I'll tell you where to go and you'll go there. I'll tell you what to say and you'll say it. Don't be afraid of a soul. I'll be right there, looking after you." 

Before Jeremiah was born, God had plans for him.

In Luke's gospel, the same is said of John, who would be called the Baptist. "A deep, reverential fear settled over the neighborhood, and in all that Judean hill country people talked about nothing else. Everyone who heard about it took it to heart, wondering, "What will become of this child? Clearly, God has his hand in this."

What will become of this child?

Think back to those times in your life, back when you were young, to those persons you were sure would (as they used to say) make something of themselves. As we've grown older, we've begun to understand that as the world sees success, someone can "make something of them self." But spiritually, God has to have his hand in the mixer for someone to be put together properly.

John's father, Zechariah was sure the boy would make a difference, but only, as God wanted him to be, he were named John. Obedience is more important than sacrifice, Zechariah -- a practicing priest of the temple -- knew.

I would suggest that John's role in all this, "to go ahead of the Master to prepare his ways," is no different than our own. I would suggest that Jeremiah's role in all this, to prophecy that the Messiah was coming, is no different than our own role of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I would suggest that we are no different than Moses, or Abram, or Joseph (early or late) or any of those who were called by God for a specific (and no so specific) task.

Today, let your yes be yes. Choose obedience. Make a difference. Let Christmas' bells ring throughout the land.

Zechariah said of the moment that John was to be circumcised but whose words would do nicely this morning to anyone reading this ,"Present the offer of salvation to his people, the forgiveness of their sins. Through the heartfelt mercies of our God, God's Sunrise will break in upon us, shining on those in the darkness, those sitting in the shadow of death, then showing us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace."

Go and make disciples, friends. Feel the heartfelt mercies. Let God's Sunrise break into your life. And especially let the shine of His light make a moment of peace for you.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The rising of the Son

Luke's gospel tells us, "When Elizabeth was full-term in her pregnancy, she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives, seeing that God had overwhelmed her with mercy, celebrated with her. On the eighth day, they came to circumcise the child and were calling him Zachariah after his father. But his mother intervened: "No. He is to be called John." But," they said, "no one in your family is named that." They used sign language to ask Zachariah what he wanted him named. Asking for a tablet, Zachariah wrote, "His name is to be John." That took everyone by surprise. Surprise followed surprise—Zachariah's mouth was now open, his tongue loose, and he was talking, praising God! A deep, reverential fear settled over the neighborhood, and in all that Judean hill country people talked about nothing else. Everyone who heard about it took it to heart, wondering, "What will become of this child? Clearly, God has his hand in this."

Then Zachariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
he came and set his people free. He set the power of salvation in the center of our lives, and in the very house of David his servant, Just as he promised long ago through the preaching of his holy prophets:
Deliverance from our enemies and every hateful hand; Mercy to our fathers, as he remembers to do what he said he'd do, What he swore to our father Abraham— a clean rescue from the enemy camp, So we can worship him without a care in the world, made holy before him as long as we live. And you, my child, "Prophet of the Highest," will go ahead of the Master to prepare his ways, Present the offer of salvation to his people, the forgiveness of their sins. Through the heartfelt mercies of our God, God's Sunrise will break in upon us, Shining on those in the darkness, those sitting in the shadow of death, Then showing us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace. The child grew up, healthy and spirited. He lived out in the desert until the day he made his prophetic debut in Israel."

Read this again: God's Sunrise will break in upon us, shining on those in the darkness, those sitting in the shadow of death.

Today, a Saturday, with gray clouds filling the blue sky, we await the birth of our Savior. We wait the Sunrise breaking in, taking us away from the shadows.

This is a special time of the year, of course, for children and for anyone with love in their heart. God so loved this old planet that he gave us his son to make sure the Sunrise would happen. It is the gift of the Sonrise that makes the light of the world shine, friends.

Today give yourself to a God who loves more than he judges, who loves more than he punishes, who loves more than he separates.

The Sunrise takes our breath away. The Sonrise gives it back as Spirit and he  set the power of salvation in the center of our lives.

Praise be to God.

Friday, December 10, 2010

"I'm bursting with God news"

And Mary said:
I'm bursting with God news,
I'm dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened...
I'm the most fortunate woman on earth.
Luke 1: 45-49.

Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?

Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered, will soon deliver you.
Mary did you know, Mark Lowry

The basis of what we call faith is that we accept it without knowing, without seeing what will come. Personally, I have no problem with that portion of it all. My deeper problem is looking back at my alternative choices.

Mary (mine, not his) and I were driving into history yesterday evening, visiting a mall we hadn't been to since we moved from our home in Lacombe to our parsonage in Covington. Just walking through a shop or a store or two moved my mind backwards.

We talked about a condo we tried to buy, right up the road from the mall. If we had been successful in the purchase, we might be living a completely different life now. We might be doing this or that or the other, we said.

Instead, God moved us to Lacombe, where there happened to be a United Methodist church that I happened to be appointed to that led the leader of the district to appoint me to another. Five years later, we're still at those two churches and are living in the parsonage of one.

If we had completed the purchase of the condo (on the golf course by the way), who know? Well, God know, which is the point.

Mary said, "His mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before him. He bared his arm and showed his strength, scattered the bluffing braggarts."

She danced. She sang. She smiled as wide as the Jordan. Why? Because God chose her. What we need today is a few more Marys who will say, "Whatever you want, Lord," and mean it. What a difference we could make, still.

Let today be the day you back up your faith with your willingness.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A YES will do

Mary meets an angel who says the Holy Spirit will come upon her and she will give birth and she scatters, running to her cousin Elizabeth's.

She says to the Angel, in Luke's Gospel, "Yes, I see it all now. I'm the Lord's maid, ready to serve. let it be with me as you say."

She said YES.

Of all the more amazing things in scripture, I find this most amazing. Mary is told she will be pregnant, though not married. A teenager with few options, perhaps a soon-to-be victim of stoning because of her indiscretion, yet she said YES.

In my coming book (February, CrossBooks Publishing) God's Calling, I elaborate on what God's calling is for all of us. But without question the persons who understand God's calling the most are the ones who despite what it might mean to answer the call say YES.

When her cousin feels her own baby leap in her womb upon seeing Mary, Elizabeth said, "You're so blessed among women; and the blame in your womb also blessed;"

Blessed? Shunned. Perhaps killed. Maybe forcing fiance Joseph to leave her. Blessed?

Friends. There might be something that God has been calling you to do, someone God has been calling you to talk to, someone God wants you to help. You might feel you don't have the words, don't have the time, don't have the talent. God knows you. God knows what you can accomplish.

He's waiting for one thing to empower you.


It's among the most powerful tools he has.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Beautiful with God's beauty

Luke's gospel tells us: "In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to the Galilean village of Nazareth to a virgin engaged to be married to a man descended from David. His name was Joseph, and the virgin's name, Mary. Upon entering, Gabriel greeted her:
Good morning!

You're beautiful with God's beauty,

Beautiful inside and out!

God be with you."
This morning I woke and fought to go back to sleep for an hour. I lost. It was cold in the house and dreary outside. The possible snow seemed to have gone the way of my savings and the cold ground was simply white with frost.
No angel greeted me.
No angel said hello.
No angel said next year will be great.
But when I pick up my Bible this morning, I read that indeed I am beautiful inside and out. Isn't that amazing? All I've done to muck up yesterday, all I've failed at, and God is with me, with us.
I discovered a couple of days ago the fact that my favorite old song writer/singer/poet Rich Mullins is featured on You Tube, still, 13 years after his amazingly untimely death in an automobile accident. I spent an afternoon listening to song and song and interview after interview and tears rolled down my cheeks.
I asked, quite seriously, why would God take him and leave me. Why would he allow such a talent, someone who could do so much for the world, be taken from the world while leaving little ol' me who does so little and can't even keep from tripping over his own spiritual feet?
And Rich finally might have answered it himself. At one point in a concert, he said, "If you want entertainment, then Christian music is good as it gets. But if you want spiritual enrichment, go to church. Read the scriptures."
He added, "I think the scriptures point out that God is right and the rest of us are just guessing."
Friends, I don't know all the people who read these little things. I don't even know why, a year passed, that I am still writing them. They bring in no money. They bring in no people to my churches. They don't change lives that I'm aware of. But I keep writing because somehow, someway I think God wants me to. I open a vein and it pores out.
God wants us to do what we've been called to do, whatever that is. Rich was called to write and sing and play and give his money to an Indian reservation in Arizona. Me? I've been called to write and preach and pray and hope and give whatever I am to whomever I can. That's it. You? You've been called to do whatever it is you do for the betterment of the body of Christ.
We all have our niche. We all are beautiful with God's beauty. In Ephesians it says that we are God's masterpiece. Let that be the way you live today. Be a masterpiece for someone who does not know Jesus.
Good morning.
God be with you.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


We read the glorious words of Luke's gospel this morning: about the appearance of an angel to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist who didn't believe what he had heard "He'll (John) drink neither wine nor beer. He'll be filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment he leaves his mother's womb. He will turn many sons and daughters of Israel back to their God. He will herald God's arrival in the style and strength of Elijah, soften the hearts of parents to children, and kindle devout understanding among hardened skeptics—he'll get the people ready for God." Zachariah said to the angel, "Do you expect me to believe this? I'm an old man and my wife is an old woman." But the angel said, "I am Gabriel, the sentinel of God, sent especially to bring you this glad news. But because you won't believe me, you'll be unable to say a word until the day of your son's birth. Every word I've spoken to you will come true on time—God's time."

We have Jesus today, without question. But don't we also need someone who will turn many sons and daughters of God back to him? Who will herald God's arrival in the style and strength of Elijah? Who will soften the hearts of parents to children? Who will kindle devout understanding among hardened skeptics.?Who will get people ready for God?

This morning's newspaper tells me these facts: A 15-year-old was beaten to death in her own bedroom in St. John the Baptist parish. A woman stole $7,000 in jewelry from a friend's mother. Teens are taking something called Bath Salt as a drug and dying from it in the area. A jury has been selected in the drowning death of a baby. A baby. And the most shocking of all, I guess, a couple of six-year-olds and a three-year-old were caught burglarizing a Covington home, stealing a board game, money and cigarettes while their mother was at a PARENTING class.

Oh, where are the John the Baptist's today?  Where are the true leaders of our faith, who will love people back into submission to their God?

While the recession kills us all, we argue about wars and rumors of wars, wars we can't pay for and don't want.

Where are the John the Baptist's today?

The conclusion of the first chapter of Luke goes like this:

"Meanwhile, the congregation waiting for Zachariah was getting restless, wondering what was keeping him so long in the sanctuary. When he came out and couldn't speak, they knew he had seen a vision. He continued speechless and had to use sign language with the people. When the course of his priestly assignment was completed, he went back home. It wasn't long before his wife, Elizabeth, conceived. She went off by herself for five months, relishing her pregnancy. "So, this is how God acts to remedy my unfortunate condition!" she said. "

So I wonder how God will act to remedy our unfortunate condition?

Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Your prayer has been heard

Let's examine some amazing statements in scripture for the coming weeks, beginning with Luke's telling of the coming birth of our Lord (as seen through the cockeyed mind that is my own).

Fromt the first chapter: "It so happened that as Zachariah was carrying out his priestly duties before God, working the shift assigned to his regiment, it came his one turn in life to enter the sanctuary of God and burn incense. The congregation was gathered and praying outside the Temple at the hour of the incense offering. Unannounced, an angel of God appeared just to the right of the altar of incense. Zachariah was paralyzed in fear.

"But the angel reassured him, "Don't fear, Zachariah. Your prayer has been heard. Elizabeth, your wife, will bear a son by you. You are to name him John. You're going to leap like a gazelle for joy, and not only you—many will delight in his birth. He'll achieve great stature with God."

What strikes me here is that that an angel appears and says, "Your prayer has been heard." And, "You're going to leap like a gazelle for joy."

Now, old Zachariah had not, one presumes, prayed for a son who would become the forebearer of the Messiah. He simply wanted a child, and his wife was barren. Imagine that you had spent years upon years as a priest and wanted one thing, one thing only, and it wouldn't happen.

Not so hard to imagine, huh?

You've wanted a home of your own, and nothing.
You've wanted a healthy mate, child, friend, and nothing.
You've wanted to get out of debt and it grew.
You've wanted to change yourself, and you drank more, snorted more, ate more, cursed more, were more selfish and nothing works and you're near your end with this prayer stuff.

And an angel appears and says, your prayer has been heard.

Oh, my, goodness.

However a gazelle leaps, that's what you would do, I imagine.

Divine promise is something amazing, to us the reader and to those who were the recepient. Old Zechariah wanted a child. He got a man of God whom the Messiah would call greatest of all men.

I'm so very proud of my children. Their accomplishments are their accomplishments big and small. But they are who they are, and I love them dearly.

But imagine if you were gifted with John. Or for that matter, Jesus.

Leaping like a gazelle doesn't really cover it, does it?

But the point is this: they didn't know when their children were born who or what they would become. They, Elizabeth and Zechariah, Joseph and Mary, only knew they had children, and prayers were answered.

Isn't that enough? Isn't that all we really want? Just a closer walk with thee, Lord, to know that you are there and these prayers we offer are heard. That is enough.

Friday, December 3, 2010

A glorious finish

What has your spiritual life been like this year? Have you grown? Are you closer to our Lord, spiritually as well as physically? Have you prayed more, more deeply, more often, more meaningfully? Have you read the scriptures? Studied the scriptures? Found truth in the scriptures.

If you're not moving forward, you're moving backward, scripture teaches. You can't be saved, and stay where you are. Just can't. You also can't be saved and then move right on into the mansion reserved for you on Heaven Boulevard. Like the original bird in a Bush said, "wouldn't be prudent."

In the prophet Haggai's writings, we get a bit of the plan for all of us laid out in the plan for the rebuilding of the Temple. A beginning and and end. The Lord tells the people of Israel that they get to "put into action the word I covenanted with you when you left Egypt." God says, "don't be timid. Don't hold back."

God tells his people in the second chapter of Haggai, "On the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the Word of God came through the prophet Haggai: "Tell Governor Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and High Priest Joshua son of Jehozadak and all the people:
'Is there anyone here who saw the Temple the way it used to be, all glorious? And what do you see now? Not much, right?
"'So get to work, Zerubbabel!'—God is speaking "'Get to work, Joshua son of Jehozadak—high priest!' "'Get to work, all you people!'—God is speaking. 'This Temple is going to end up far better than it started out, a glorious beginning but an even more glorious finish: a place in which I will hand out wholeness and holiness.' Decree of God-of-the-Angel-Armies."

Pressure. Pressure. It was everywhere. Imagine, the God of the Angel Armies, old Jehovah himself, says this temple is going to be better than it was. BETTER. Not some little thing put together for a few days. BETTER. And it was fine before with gold, silver and such everywhere. The temple mount in the middle of Jerusalem was going to be rebuilt within the very walls of the city.

As we "put together" whatever passes for our lives, it is worth noting that we should be on a progressive road. The road to heaven isn't paved, isn't easy, isn't level, but it is a road that goes two ways. You pick. It can be a forward-leaning one in which we are saved by the blood of the lamb, begin to change, begin to do things from a self-less standard, begin to read His word, begin to pray to Him. Or, we can be saved by the blood of the lamb and watch the Holy Road pass us by as others look forward to being transformed and miracle of miracles, they are.

I'm of the latter category, I can say with all humility. I read and I pray and I, I, mostly move forward. There are fits and starts and stops, but mostly, I move forward. Do I go as fast or as far as I would like each day? Nope. For all my grand plans, I go as slowly as He desires me to. There are days I even back up a bit, days when I fail, days when I'm that old selfish, only-child Billy who thinks waaaayyyy too much about himself and of himself. Mary is clapping somewhere in the house right now.

I wish I could get rid of that guy right now. But after 12-plus years of attempted holiness, it's clear I can't. But it's a process. The temple wasn't built in a day. Nor will we be. But it's important to note that though it took time, the temple was indeed built. "A glorious beginning but an even more glorious finish" the prophet tells us.

God says it was a place where he handed out wholeness and holiness. I pray the next year that your temple's construction continues and that the road to wholeness and holiness becomes easier.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Greatness is a breeze

As I tried to live through the New Orleans Saints last football game with blood pressure and stomach still intact, I heard an announcer say something akin to "I've never known a player who wants to be great as much as Drew Brees."

The announcer, former Super Bowl winning quarterback Troy Aikman, said it wasn't a matter of Brees having a chip on his shoulder because of his short stature, it wasn't a matter of him being like most players who talk about greatness. It is a matter of course for Brees, who trains that way, works that way, plays that way, imagines himself that way, forces passes into tight holes that way and so on.

He wants to be great. Not good. Not remembered. Great.

This week Brees was named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated, an award for his work on the field and off. I thought about what Aikman had said, and I marveled at Brees' humble reaction.

Can one be humble and great?

Apparently one can.

This whole notion of greatness has always interested me. I would love to be great at something, but there was always things that got in the way. Like, I wasn't...great at anything I mean. That really got in the way of my longing for greatness.

I was never interested in merely living my life and dying, leaving nothing behind. I had bigger goals. But the fact that I wasn't great at anything pestered me in my efforts to be great. If it hadn't been for the fact I wasn't great, I might have been great.

I worked extremely hard to be great in baseball. I really did. I did the picturing in my mind stuff. I practiced ... hard, long, often. But that whole hitting and catching and throwing and running thing wasnt especially in my corner. On my best days, I wasn't good even.

I wanted to be a great writer. I'm not. There are literally a million writers in this country right now better than me. I can express myself better than a few million writers living and gone. But I will never be great. I had one book published and the total of its readership was surpassed by Sarah Palin's readers of last Tuesday. Sarah Palin? I've written three or four more books and one more will be published. I have 17 followers of this blog. Seventeen.

I would love to be a great musician, but that whole talent thing was too much. I didn't mind working at it, but my voice and my ability to play were hampered by voice and my ability to play.

And that was all I could possibly be great at. No politics. No hobbies. Nothing else. The greatness pool is quiet. I've not jumped in lately (or ever).

It seems to me that those who are great, at whatever they are great at, are those persons who are willing to take enormous risks, those who are willing to put in enormous time and energy and sacrifice, and those who are willing to fail. Mark Twain said, "Be good and you will be lonely." Those out there set apart from others are those out there set apart from others, it seems. Harry Gray said, "No one ever achieved greatness by playing it safe." Though the fact I have no idea who Harry Gray was means he must have played it safe fairly often.

I'm not very good at being willing to fail, though I do...often. I hated losing more than I loved winning, thus I'm not a happy risk taker, being more joyous over the thought of winning and always counting the cost of losing as I contemplate doing whatever. Sacrifice? Not so much.

What, then, is greatness? Someone once said that greatness is what good people do on their worst days. In other words, it's reaching deep within toward those dreams we had as children even as we get old and those dreams seem so far gone.

These musings will never reach a multitude, in other words. That's okay. With God's blessings, they will reach the one who needs to read them that particular day. Would that mean greatness? No. That would mean leaving to God what is God's.

Will I ever smell greatness, as Brees yelled into his teammates' faces before each game last season in New Orleans?

Nah. But I've come to understand that it is better to know His greatness than be great on my own.

A Psalmist, a rather well-remembered writer whose name we don't even know, wrote, "Your beauty and splendor have everyone talking; I compose songs on your wonders. Your marvelous doings are headline news; I could write a book full of the details of your greatness. The fame of your goodness spreads across the country; your righteousness is on everyone's lips."

He's talking about God, and only God. He/she is the real keeper and decider of greatness. Want to know greatness? Look up.

I wanted to be great, but I will more than settle for being His. That's a long, hard-earned lesson.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Ah, December. I love December. It's an old friend, back from the days when it came so slowly I thought time was standing still. Back when I had real ideas about what I WANTED for Christmas. Back before I began to say things like, "I really don't know what I want for Christmas." Or "You don't have to get me anything for Christmas. I'm fine." Back before I lied in my false humility like a cow searching for a bit of hay-covered ground on a cold, snowy night.

Ah, December. Did I mention I love December?

This morning as I trudged out to get the newspaper, flicking aside frost as I walked, the sun made a brilliant stand against the cold. The light was shimmering, bouncing off the white-covered ground like a fullback against a defensive line. Ah, December.

This morning I had the most wonderful image as I woke. We don't really use heat in our house, being poor pastors and pastors' wives, and because my pastor's wife doesn't allow it, and I was snuggled against one of our dogs like my life depended on it. But as I awoke, I had this glorious instantaneous idea about how loved I am. Just popped into my head like a sudden desire for fried okra.

I'm loved. I didn't do all that much good for the world yesterday, but that has no meaning. God loves me. Gets past all the clutter, all the self-shiness and loves me. For me. Not for what I tried to do and flunked at. For me.

This isn't a shock. I knew this. But somehow, snuggled against the terrier-mix on a cold (I know it's colder somewhere but that's not the issue), clear December morning I knew it. KNEW IT. Didn't suspect, wonder, think about or ponder. KNEW.

Didn't last long, this idea. Didn't help my hips, back, knees, and especially the painful shoulder as I picked myself off the bed that was supposed to cure all that stuff. But there it was. A cold morning with frost on the ground ,and I suddenly am stock sure that I am loved.

Now, many of you are confirming what you suspected before right now, about how nutty I am.

That's fine. It's December. The morning is cold. The dogs are sniffing at this foreign substance on the ground, this white, frigid stuff looking for a proper place to do their morning thing but finding obstacles, unknown and cold obstacles. And I am loved.

The apostle Paul, writing in a little book called Philemon, says of all this nuttiness: "Every time your name comes up in my prayers, I say, "Oh, thank you, God!" I keep hearing of the love and faith you have for the Master Jesus, which brims over to other believers. And I keep praying that this faith we hold in common keeps showing up in the good things we do, and that people recognize Christ in all of it. Friend, you have no idea how good your love makes me feel, doubly so when I see your hospitality to fellow believers."

In other words, on this first day of December, it's good that I recognize how much God loves me, because the aftermath of that is that it will brim over to my dear wife who is loved by God and others more than I. That will brim over to other believers, who will touch others and on and on and on. This faith, and this love, that we have in common will show up in all the good things we try to do this day. We will actually pay love forward because we first were loved by a God who certainly doesn't need or have to.

And through it all, Christ is recognized.

It's December, and God loves me. This I know. For the frost (and the Bible) tells me so.