12 Witnesses

Let these stones be a witness to what we have done here this day.

Grace: Why I am grateful for the hard Grace I’ve received

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Grace is not just the soft comfort of God loving the broken.  That is a part of Grace, but not the whole of it.  Grace is also God denying us those things that we chase that are not Him.

Grace is God pursuing us in redemption to establish that relationship with Him for which He longs and for which we were created.

But the brokenness of us is often pursuing cheap substitutes.  We crave satisfaction but are only briefly numbed by infatuation with one relationship after another, chemical distortion of drugs and alcohol, sexual exploits that mock true intimacy, money and possessions that trick us into thinking that we are valuable or important or even cared for by those around us who really just want our stuff.

But God is gracious and will, in His mercy toward us, kill that cheap thing and rip it from our clutching hands so that we will realize the shallow nature of that which we’ve worshiped.  He does it so that we will turn to Him and find what we really need.  We find what will actually satisfy and in which we will find ourselves complete.

We find Him.

I have always been moved by the love and acceptance of others.  There are many reasons why, but for now let us just say that need for approval is just the way I’m broken. It numbed me, temporarily, to the reality that I was a mess.  I felt good about myself, for a minute.

So last year I found myself in the process of having that idol crushed and torn away.  When acceptance and adoration of others is your idol, the way God kills it, at least in my case, is public contempt by others.  A year ago, I faced several public meetings where people I cared about assaulted my character, my skills and my value.

The good news is that, though some of those relationships remain wounded, others were restored and our church experienced healing, unity and peace during this year.

The best news is that in God taking from me what I should not have worshiped, He replaced it with Himself.  In that, I have found myself in the greatest time of growth and peace in my walk with Him.  I’ve never been more close to Him than I am.  I’ve never loved Him more. I’ve never been more sure of His love for me.  I’ve never needed public adulation less.

And I owe it all to the hard Grace of public ridicule.  Thank God for His Grace.

To the pure, all things are pure

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Paul writes to Titus these words concerning the distinction between those who are regenerate and those who are not:

“To the pure, everything is pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; in fact, both their mind and conscience are defiled.  They profess to know God, but the deny Him by their works.  They are detestable, disobedient and disqualified for any good work.”   -Titus 1:15-16

Titus was commissioned to correct false teachers and to “rebuke them sharply.” (1:13)  Apparently, a part of the false teaching that was in need of correction was the constant need for ritual cleansing from those things considered “impure.”  Paul’s word here says that if the heart is impure, one finds impurity in everything.  The inherit filth of the corrupt heart drives people to perceive filth in all things and attempt to perfect (according to their warped perception) themselves and everything around them in hopes of pleasing God.  Moreover, they hold others to the same twisted ideals and teach them to conform their hearts to what can not please God.

It is so contrary to the Gospel.

The Good News is that if Grace has cleansed our hearts, nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 8:35-39)  Which is not to say that we don’t struggle with sin or even that we shouldn’t war against it in our lives, but it is to say that contact with that which would once have made people ceremonially unclean can no longer do so.

Once covered by Grace, it is impossible to offend God by the touching of a dead thing.  Once covered by Grace, it is impossible to offend God by being imperfect by anyone’s standards, including His.

Sadly, even within the body of Christ, I have often been confronted by the hearts of those who perceive impurity in everything.  Everything that is not perfect in their own perceptions, and nothing ever is, is unclean and ungodly, rejected by the Lord and certain to bring condemnation and ruination. They see the spending of money this way as “wrong” or the counting of people in that way as “wrong.”  They become bitter and in their bitterness, they become hurtful.

While I wouldn’t say that such a person is not a Christian (they may or may not be), I would say that their heart has surely not comprehended the fullness of the Gospel of Grace.

Grace covers the imperfections of our lives. Grace not only gets us to eternity, but Grace also gets us through the day.  When we are confronted with either the willful rebellion of our hearts or the inadvertent shortcomings of a fallen mind, Grace covers all.

And when we are covered by Grace, when our hearts are satisfied in the free gift of God’s unmerited favor, it is not just easy, but it is also natural, to extend grace to others around us.

The heart that wallows in the Grace of God takes no offense in the rebellion or imperfection of those around.  When the service of a waiter is slow and lethargic, Grace manifests itself in a generous tip, rather than the stinginess of heart that counts wrongs against another.  When you are verbally attacked by another parent at the game because their child didn’t play the position or time they expected, Grace listens patiently and realizes that the person spewing venom is in need of something much deeper than they have.

The extension of Grace to them in that moment will likely be the rare exception in their life and will surely be the clearest picture of the Gospel that they will see that day. Month. Year? Lifetime?

To the pure, all things are pure.

A reputation means… ?

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When working last week in the DFW Metroplex with Mission Arlington, I had the unexpected opportunity to observe the reputation of MA among the larger Metroplex community.

Before I tell the story of my observation, I should tell you that the leaders of MA went out of their way to coach volunteers on the handling of their reputation.  Matt Hart, one of the leaders, frequently helped us to understand the attitude with which we should engage the world around us when we performed our assigned task.  At one point, our group was asked to execute a “Free Garage Sale” at an apartment complex that was known for its residents not having many possessions – or even any furniture at all.  Matt coached us that our instinct may be to regulate how much anyone takes, trying to ensure that there may be some equity in the taking or even that some may be hoarding for reasons that we might suspect to be vaguely inappropriate.  Matt encouraged us to be generous.  No matter what anyone took, we should help them carry it to their homes and bless them on the way.

As MA would be continuing to work with these people long after we were gone, they were hoping for the reputation left by all of us to be one of gracious concern for the community, no matter who they were.

Seeing that their reputation was so carefully cultivated (and I mean that in the most positive way), it should not have surprised me, then, to find it working in our favor not long after we arrived.

On our trip down, I noticed the engine sounding as though there were a leak in the exhaust system.  By the time we got to Dallas, the leak had become problematic – meaning that the exhaust had come completely apart just after it left the engine which caused the van to run very rough under acceleration.  It sounded like a redneck pickup, and as a recent owner of a pickup, I say that with all due respect. ;)

I talked the situation over with Matt, and he handed me off to a mechanic not far from the MA facility.  This is where my observation of the MA reputation began.  The mechanic said that he did not deal with exhaust issues much, but would look into it.  He later would tell me that the exhaust was indeed in two parts and that he wouldn’t be the man for the job, but he had noticed the low mileage on the van and called a local dealer to see if the problem might be under warranty.  They thought it could be, but would have to see it before they could commit.  When I offered the first mechanic some money for diagnosing the problem, he wouldn’t take any.

Upon arriving at the dealer, I told him what was going on, that we were down from Tulsa working with Mission Arlington and needed to get the van back into action as soon as possible.  I then asked him to check if we were under warranty.  It turns out that, while we were well under on mileage, the time on our warranty had run out.  The dealer service rep then gave me directions to a muffler shop that would do a good job.  When was the last time a dealer rep helped you find his competition?  It’s never happened for me.

I took the directions to the muffler shop and told him our story thus far, including our need for the van in use with our Mission Arlington responsibilities.  He walked over to the van, listened, looked and then said, “No problem.”  He was going to fix it while I waited, but we were due at our ministry spot, so I left the van with him.

When we pulled up to the ministry responsibility less than an hour later, he called and gave me the run down:  Someone in Tulsa had tried to steal our catalytic converter, but had not gotten all the way through cutting the pipe.  Under pressure of driving, the pipe ruptured the rest of the way and was in two pieces.  He had welded it together and was charging us $20, a bare minimum for time and labor.

Each of these men was encouraging and deferential.  All of them wished us well in our efforts with Mission Arlington.

Later in the week, we went to a local Cici’s Pizza for the buffet.  It was the only time we went out for supper during the week.  When they found out that we were from MA, they knocked the price of the buffet and a drink down to a flat $5 from the $8 and change range that it normally was.  It saved us about $50.  They told us how happy they were to help us as we helped their community.

Proverbs 22:1 says: “A good name is to be chosen over great wealth; favor is better than silver and gold.”

Matthew 5:16 says: “In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

As I reflect on my unexpected observation of the reputation for helping the community that Mission Arlington has earned over the last 25 years, I am torn.

On the one hand I am astounded and inspired by how powerful that reputation is among so many in the Metroplex and how it elicits aid from people, some of whom were not a part of the Kingdom of God.

On the other hand, I am grieved by how non-existent that reputation is around the world where other parts of the people of God gather to worship and work.  Especially those in the part of the world where I live, work and worship.

Making a difference among the impoverished

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A few thoughts:

This is not about immigration, but poverty.  Immigration is just an example of one thing we do poorly and say we are making a difference.

World poverty will be eradicated when the individual economies that are producing the radically poor are stabilized and access to opportunity is given to all.

Some of this is beyond our control.  Politics, both local and global, are not always accessible to us beyond grass roots engagement.

The improvement in economic conditions can work in America and around the world. We should do our best to affect both arenas, according to the doors open to us.

One thing left out of this video is the role of Education in economic development:  it’s vital.

For the church, specifically, the better educated and more economically stable/advantaged, the higher the receptivity to the Gospel.  It’s vital.

The question left to us is whether or not we have the responsibility to develop the economies of the poor around us locally and globally.  My answer is yes.  To the best of our ability.

The Camel in the Christmas Musical

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A lot of churches will host Christmas events this time of year.  Skelly Drive (where I pastor) used to have a Living Nativity that was somewhat groundbreaking in its day and is still remembered fondly by everyone that I’ve ever met that either put it on or attended.

Invariably, these productions, be they musicals or whatever, will begin to journey into the untested waters of live animal participants.  Usually, this works well until they bring in the camel.

Camels are some of the most ill tempered animals you can ever be around.  I saw one in a musical with a muzzle on to keep him from biting passersby.  They stomp on you, lay down when you want them to stand, stand when you want them to lay down and are generally naughty in every way they think will aggravate you.

And they spit.  Nasty stinky spit that you might be able to use as masonry compound in a pinch.

Not to mention that they smell horrible.  You can’t bathe these guys often, it’s winter and the water is cold.  But even if you can, they’ll be curling the nose hairs of your attendees within a few hours.  It’s just their nature.

And pray they don’t pass gas during your event, especially if you are insane enough to bring them indoors.  They can have your whole cast on the ground before the first wave hits the audience.

So, a little advice to you Christmas event planners out there.  If the donkey, the cow and the occasional goose have worked out all right so far, stick with them.  There really is no need to “up the ante” here.

Just because there are camels in the Middle East, doesn’t mean you have to have one in your church to make your event “authentic.”

But if you are stubborn and won’t heed my advice, pray this doesn’t happen to you:

I didn’t even notice it the first couple of times I watched it, but did you observe there was some poor woman, serving God the best way she knew how, coaxed up on top of the camel?

You see her bare feet and then, moments later, her head pops up.  She looks a little disconcerted, don’t you think?

To someone considering the ministry…

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I’ve had a few people I’ve known consider going into the ministry at one point in time or another.  A few things to consider as you discern your path.

  • Obviously, be convinced God is leading you to this.  I’ve known people in ministry that God never called there, but they thought it would make a good career.  Aside from the bumps and bruises that you might avoid not being where you should be, you will actually be in the way of God’s work, since you will be attempting what you are doing on your own.
  • If you are able to lay out a plan for higher education, get an undergraduate degree in something other than theology, ministry, Christian education, etc.  You can get your theological training in Seminary afterward and then you will be very broad in your knowledge and abilities.  It might come in handy one day when you are called to a mission filed, bi-vocational ministry or even if you are fired from your church.  Hey, it happens.  A lot.
  • Tend to your personal spiritual growth.  Education is important, but it is no substitute for a deep walk with God.  Leadership of the Holy Spirit means more than your IQ ever will.
  • Develop organizational skills.  You have to be organized to lead.
  • Develop personal relationship skills.  You have to love people to lead.
  • Develop thick skin.  You will be critiqued (fairly and unfairly) when you lead.
  • Be the example.  You can’t ask others to do what you aren’t doing in giving, service, passion, discipleship, positive talk or friendship.
  • Don’t let your failures get to you.  You will make mistakes and you will not be the shining example you want to be.  Confess and do better.  This is called growth.
  • Don’t let people hold you or your family to unreasonable standards of perfection.  They aren’t the Judge. (But don’t take that whole, “Only God can judge me” thing as a license to be an idiot.)

Other thoughts?

Tulsa’s Christmas… er… Holiday Parade

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The city of Tulsa has had a “Christmas Parade” downtown for about 70 years, put on privately.  Originally it was moved to downtown to attract business, or so I’ve been told.

Last year, the organizers changed the name to the “Holiday Parade” to be more inclusive.  I don’t remember a flap about it then, but we have one now. The publicity seemed to have taken off when Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe declined to participate as a form of protest over the name change. Since then, the situation has been mentioned by Conan O’Brian, John Stewart and Bill O’Reilly.  And by a few locals who have felt compelled to address the issue.

Earlier this week, the City Council approved the parade permit amidst a torrent of discussion.  The Tulsa World carries the story here.  You might also be interested in some of the other articles, including letters to the editor concerning the situation.

While I am obviously a Christian and not a participant in anything else the organizers are trying to include… my primary concern is with the behavior of people who have reacted negatively toward the move.

More specifically, I don’t think people calling themselves Christians should sin in defense of, well, of anything, much less the defense of a parade’s name.

If you don’t agree with the parade organizers, then you are free to say so.  If you don’t want to participate, then you are free to do something else with your time.

What you are not free to do is incriminate the Name of Christ by doing what He would not.  Be careful with your words.  People are listening.  Jesus said it is not what goes into a man’s mouth that defiles him, but what comes out.

Example:  I have a friend, a Christian, who works in a local business participating in the parade.  After the City Council meeting where the debate and subsequent permit approval vote was held, a woman attempting to represent Christ called the business where my friend works and berated him over this issue for ten minutes.  When he got off the phone, his coworkers told him that it was because of that kind of stuff that they didn’t want anything to do with being a Christian.

Bottom line:  Take every stand you feel you should, but do so in a way that Christ would, or have you to do so.

Goals for my 45th year

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The day after my birthday, Friday, I spent some time in introspection and came up with a list of goals that I wanted to accomplish in my 45th year on the earth, if God is so gracious to leave me here that long.

I shared one of these goals that had been bouncing around in my head for a while with some friends last week and one of them replied, “It’s good to have goals.”  The unspoken phrase that followed in my mind:  It’s better to actually achieve them.  Or at least attempt to do so.

So here are my goals.

Spiritually

  • Continue to grow in the practice of Spiritual Disciplines.  This is something that has been a point of growth for me over a couple of decades, but I have much farther to go, I feel.
  • Take at least 2 Spiritual Retreats by myself.
  • Explore the Spiritual Discipline of Silence.  I don’t know much about this and I can tell you that my mind is rarely quiet.  I want to study and begin to practice this.

Financially

  • Eliminate (certain $ amount) of spending.
  • Apply above described saved money to debts. For reasons I won’t enumerate, though likely obvious for those of my generation, we took on a lot of debt early in our lives and have been working our way out of it for years.  While we have made significant progress at times, I am frustrated with how slowly it is going.  I want to move faster.
  • Give more to opportunities beyond my normal avenues.

Family

  • 1 Vacation with just us this year. Typically our vacation is spent visiting extended family, which is a good thing.  Still, we need some time with just us together.
  • Read more on marriage.  While I love my marriage and think it’s pretty awesome, everything is capable of being improved and I can do that best by improving me within our marriage.
  • Date Bonnie more.  We’ve been dating quite a bit since our kids got older, but we need to do this more.
  • 1 event (big, not small like an ice cream cone over 45 mins) per month with each child – just me and them.

Physically

  • Eat better, lose weight.  Again.  My weight is like a yo-yo and I struggle with it.  I need to get better control of it.
  • Continue to exercise regularly.  I’ve joined a gym for $10 a month and have been working out there.  Got to keep going.
  • Start running triathlons.  I know.  That sounds crazy, especially for a person struggling with their weight.  But it features running, swimming and cycling and variety keeps me engaged.  Also, I am not running Iron Man level triathlons.  Whenever people hear that word, they think of Hawaii and the Iron Man they do there.  That’s for elite athletes.  They have much smaller events (sprint triathlons) that are manageable for beginners.  Still, this is likely to be the most demanding goal on the board.

I have a few other thoughts about lifestyle issues.  I intend to read more, take more pictures, paint more, write more, etc. but they aren’t goals, so… I’ll just stick them here at the end.

Life Lessons on my Birthday

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It’s my birthday, and I’m 44.  According to the Insurance Actuarial Tables, I’m probably more than halfway through.

That just sounds depressing.  Especially if you are older than me.  Sorry.

Let’s look at it another way…  About half of my life thus far was spent just learning the basics, let’s say to my early 20′s.  After that, I’ve been in adult life graduate school, learning the more intricate things that I need to know.

That means that probably have 2/3 of my adult life left (let’s hope and pray) and I’ve learned a lot of good stuff on the way.  Here are a few lessons off the top of my head as I write this the night before.

  • Life’s not easy, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad.  Sometimes the hard things make life easier later on.  I could never have dealt with some of the things I deal with now on a regular basis, had I not been through what I thought was horrible earlier in life.  Now I think I was a wimp before.  Which I probably was.
  • Marriage is cool.  Be sure you get the right one.  It’s hard at first for everyone.  It gets easier if you just have one rule:  Nobody gets out alive.  That’s actually in the vows, if you look them up.  If you know that you are in it for the long haul, you work hard to make it better.  Go to counseling if you need it.  We did and it made an enormous difference for the better.  And remember that your family is the most important thing you are responsible for in this life (I’m including taking care of yourself in this sentence on the family).  If you don’t take care of that, what point is the rest of it?
  • Do what you love, if you can make a living at it.  If you can’t, then do what is helpful and do your best to love it.  It’s easier to do a job that you love and wretched to do what you hate.  A lot of the attitude you bring to the job is up to you, though.  Be positive in your mind about it, but if you just can’t do that then find something else as quick as possible so that you and everyone around you aren’t miserable.
  • Argue less.  A lot of things I used to think were life and death aren’t even close.  Most stuff that we get upset about isn’t worth the energy of being disconcerted and probably, if we are honest, we don’t have a right to be angry about it.  Let it go, if you can.  If not, deal with people in a way that brings reconciliation.  Don’t dump people if you can help it.  It’s probably a mistake to cut them out of your life.  Unless it’s not, in which case you should choose carefully who influences you.
  • Have a hobby.  Have twelve.  You need something to enjoy and accomplish that isn’t tied to work or making ends meet.  Consuming media (tv, music, internet, etc.) is not a hobby – it’s a pastime.  You accomplish nothing and get no sense of self worth from it, nor do you get to be creative and do things without limits from others.  You need creative, accomplishy sorts of things and lots of them.  My list of hobbies (some I am doing more than others) are:  cycling, exercising at the gym (I know, don’t laugh), frisbee golf, golf, photography, guitar, water color painting…  I’m sure there’s more.  Oh, yeah.  Writing.
  • Be outside more.  I had become accustomed to air conditioned office life and the heat was not fun.  Then, last summer, I started doing a lot of outdoor activities and my body adjusted to the heat.  It was awesome.  I loved it.  Outdoors is way more cool than indoors.  WAAAAAYYY more cool.  In the “hip” sense of cool, not the temperature sense.  You probably knew that.
  • Take care of your body.  It declines quickly and the more you ignore it early, the harder it gets later.  A 50 year old that has been fit all his/her life is in much better shape than the 50 year old that got in shape in his/her mid forties.  I learned this the hard way.  I’ve got so many things deteriorating on my body, it’s silly.  One of my biggest regrets is not staying shape.  I used to be in shape. Then I got married.  I did marry the right one.  The one I married is an awesome cook.  I quit even trying to burn off anything I consumed.  18 years later (the day after Christmas is 18 years), one of my hobbies is working out at the gym.  Ugh.

That’s all I can think of at the moment.  Any you’d like to add?  Feel free.

Great Expectations

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I had a church member say something last year that was quite profound:

“Expectations are premeditated anger.”

It’s true, though I would modify it to say that expectations are premeditated frustration and division.  Anger is also an option.

Are expectations wrong?  No.  Some expectations are necessary, such as the expectation that your children will grow in maturity and take on more and more responsibility.  This is, most times, a healthy expression of expectation being placed on people around you.

On the other hand, unhealthy expectations are that described premeditated source of anger, frustration and division.  What are unhealthy expectations?

I would say that, mostly, they stem from prideful arrogance, though we rarely see them that way.  But what else can you call it when you anticipate that those around you will do things the way you want them done without first evaluating whether or not the way you want them done is anything other than your personal preference?

I suppose the final modification to the saying would result in this, “Expectations stemming from unevaluated personal preference are premeditated anger, frustration and division.”

Doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily, does it?  Still…

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