Glad Tidings of Great Joy

ChristmasIt is highly likely that the last thing you want this morning is a Christmas sermon, so in the spirit of Christmas cheer, I’ll keep this as brief as possible.

Most of us, religious or not, probably know by heart the St. Luke, Chapter 2 (King James Version) of the Christmas Story. I memorized it as a young child and that translation is still my favorite for Christmas reading.

Do you remember this part, “And suddenly there were with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly host, praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men’”?

I thought you did.  Did you know, though, that there are some translation and punctuation issues that once fixed, deepen the Christmas message?

First, some background; when Luke wrote his Gospel, there were no punctuation marks in the Greek Language.  Heck, there were only capital letters and there was no spacing between the words. IMAGINETRANSLATINGTHISSENTENCEINTOANOTHERLANGUAGEWHICHISWHATBIBLETRANSLATORSDOSOTHATWECANREADGODSMESSAGEINENGLISH

Anyway, we have a much better handle on ancient Greek grammar these days than King James’ team did; and a better translation reads; “Suddenly a great multitude of the heavenly host joined the angel saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest; and on earth, peace to mankind; on whom His favor rests.’”

Shazaam! Do you see it? Wow!  In this one declaration, the angels proclaim that the human race is special above all creation. These mighty warriors and messengers, who live, worship and work daily in the physical presence of almighty God, announced that out of all the starry host, out of all the worlds and creatures and beauty and majesty that exists in the universe, it is we, mortal human flesh, who are the special recipients of His Grace.

How many stars fill the skies? How many birds fly? How many fish swim beneath the ocean waves? How many tiny microbes wrestle and play and thrive beyond the naked eye? This world is a complex, diverse, amazing masterpiece, yet out of all the species in heaven and on the earth, it is we, the human race, who are the special objects of his affection.  He made this universe as a gift for us. Then He made us. We treated it all, including Him, with utter contempt. And still He loves us.

It’s easy to imagine a love that is requited, but a love that keeps going despite rejection upon rejection? Who ever heard of such a thing?  “Unto us a child is born. Unto us a son is given. And His name shall be called, Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Watchmen or Whiners? Perception Hurts. Truth Sets Us Free.

WatchmanDisaster movies, are, and pretty much always have been, a popular genre in both novels and films. A typical scenario is that with trouble imminent, a protagonist runs around warning people who are too busy, too disinterested or too selfish to pay attention. Then once the flood comes, the fire burns, the earth quakes, the dinosaurs stampede or the shark attacks, the bewildered, frightened masses, turn to the protagonist to save them.

These stories are exciting and entertaining on the big screen, or in print, but when they happen in real life, they are frustrating and discouraging.  Whether we’re dealing with a country, a corporation, a congregation or an individual, it can become quite exhausting to cry, “The bridge is out”, only to discover those you are so desperate to warn, are too ignorant, too arrogant or too distracted to listen.

I am reminded of the prophet, Ezekiel, in the Old Testament.  Most people know him as the eccentric preacher who saw the vision of the ‘wheel in a wheel’ and the ‘valley of dry bones’. Ezekiel’s story is much richer than those to events, though; much richer.

On two different occasions, God tells Ezekiel that he is a watchmen and needs to warn the nation that trouble and judgment are coming.  God says, (I paraphrase), “If you warn the people and they change and return to me, everybody wins.  If you warn them and they refuse to listen, the judgment will come and they will pay the consequences, but your hands are clean.  If, however, you fail to sound the alarm, they will still suffer judgment, but I will hold you accountable.”

For what it’s worth, Ezekiel DID warn the people and they did refuse to listen.  The story does not end well.  You can read all about it in 2 Chronicles, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

The truth will not always make us popular.  Sometimes it will turn us into outcasts, perceived as whiners who are not with the program, or fundamentalists stuck in the past.  Sometimes speaking the truth hurts both the speaker and the hearer, but it is always the right thing to do. Win or lose, the truth will set us free.

When the bridge is out, the storm is coming or the waters are shark infested, our task it to ring the bell, sound the alarm. We can’t control the response. Sometimes, all we can do is make the announcement and then ensure we take our own advice and get off the train, take shelter or get out of the water.

Never be afraid of telling the truth. Never be a jerk about it. Never back down. Always do the right thing.  We are watchmen, and watchmen watch.

Memories: The Thirty Fifth Anniversary of My Ordination. I know, I Look Younger…Or Not…

It was a pleasant Autumn Sunday morning, in North Central Kentucky; cloudy, a light breeze, but warm, as the Elders of the Church called me forward to lay hands on me and set me apart for Christian Ministry. It was somewhere around 11a.m.when I rose from my knees and took the pulpit to preach my first sermon as a fully ordained minister of Christ.

The day plays out in front of me like a series of photo albums. Thousands of snapshots bound together to tell the story of one of the most important days of my life.  This month marks the 35th anniversary of that event and I’ve spent a great deal of time recently reflecting on that October Sunday, and the three and a half decades of adventure, excitement and heartache that have followed.

Please indulge me in a brief trip down memory lane and a couple hints at what lies yet ahead.

I couldn’t help noticing how much larger the audience was than on a normal Sunday, as I looked over the congregation in the moments before launching into a message on the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, simply called, “Paid in Full.”  Besides the normal members and attendees, the pews were crowded with family and friends who had traveled from all over to witness my big day.

I can’t ever remember a time in my life when I wanted to do anything other than Preach the Gospel.  Some encouraged it, some shrugged at the notion and one particular High School counselor had tried her best to mock it and talk me out of it, but a passion of indescribable proportion burned inside of me, and here I was, barely past my 22nd Birthday, and my dream was coming true.  Tears welled up and I could not contain them.

The congregation that October Sunday included my parents, my two incredible sisters, my paternal grandparents, my Dad’s brother, Jerry and his three beautiful daughters.

Center stage was to be mine, but for a brief moment, it was stolen by my infant son, who appeared to be sleeping peacefully in my mother’s arms, but promptly awakened on hearing my voice, and puked down his grandmother’s brand new dress.  My preaching has continued making people sick ever since.

After Church, we retreated to my Father’s place of business for a pot luck picnic. People came and went all afternoon, stopping by to grab a bite to eat, congratulate me and wish me well.  I remember my head spinning and the feeling of being completely overwhelmed by the moment.  It was surreal, almost like an out of the body experience.  I wanted to capture every memory and hold it tightly forever.  Sadly, like most men of my age, my grip on memory isn’t as firm as it used to be and I only have fragments of pieces of those moments, but I do cherish them.

One thing that does stand out from that afternoon was the extra attention I was getting from my three cousins.  Normally, Joy, Jill and Jane reserved all their affection for my Dad, their “Uncle Buddy”, but on this day, the fair haired, quiet Joy, sat by me at dinner and talked a blue streak.  Jill, in her lovely, frilly frock, and barley knee high, sat on the other side and sang songs while toddler Janie, insisted that I hold her, which I ended up doing for the better part of three hours.

My son, Doug, however, exhausted from his morning projectile vomiting, slept the day away, with only the occasional disturbance when someone needed him for a photo opportunity.

I can close my eyes and see my sisters, Denise and Lisa, laughing and helping Mom with some project.  I can see my Dad, my Grandpa and my Uncle as they shared a mutual, silent moment of pride at their legacy interacting before them.  It was a good day, a very good day.

I could not possibly have known the tremendous heights or the great depths my journey would take over the next decades.  I have sipped tea from the finest china with members of the British royal family on castle grounds in Scotland and have drunk kool aid from polluted wells in the poorest homes in Latin America.  I have been wined and dined by political dignitaries and business tycoons and have been heckled by drunks at events on three continents.  I have slept in opulent quarters in exotic places, and I have slept on the ground in filthy ones.  I have shared the stage with some of the most famous preachers of our lifetime and I have shared it with toothless nationals from faraway places, whose names will never be known here, but are etched into the annals of Heaven.

I have preached to crowds of thousands upon thousands in mega Churches, to crowds of unknown number and origin in open air campaigns, and to the ‘two or three who are gathered’ in buildings with leaky roofs and poor heating.  I have been lauded, applauded and feted.  I have been mocked, ridiculed and rejected.  I have been interviewed on radio and TV and been arrested behind the old ‘Iron Curtain’. Three times I’ve been held at gunpoint, my freedom and my life in the balance.  I remember the elders of a Church in the War Zone in Northern Ireland, begging me through tears, to come and stay with them.  I remember Churches in America refusing to take my phone calls when my world had gone dark.

The first 15 years following my ordination were an unbelievable adventure. Then it all came crashing down in the blink of an eye.

We all know the stories of professional athletes who, in the prime of their careers, plant a foot wrong, ruin a tendon throwing a curve ball or take an awkward hit that brings a promising future to a screeching halt and finds him or her watching from the sidelines in street clothes rather than on the field in uniform.

My story is like one of those.  At the height of my ministry, with my calendar booked years in advance, with people coming from all over to participate in what God was doing through me, I took a hit that drove me from the game I loved.

Through a series of events and choices made by people close to me, I found myself without a ministry, without a family, without a job and eventually, without a home.  I was a broken, empty vessel.

For 7 full years I floundered.  My life, my dreams, my world, lay broken, shipwrecked on the rocks of some desolate shore.  With a few notable, but extremely rare, exceptions, Churches wanted little to do with me.  I wore a Scarlet Letter.  For many congregations, the unpardonable sin for a Pastor was not adultery or financial malpractice, those could be forgiven and a new life started in a new place. No, the unforgivable stain upon an ordained life, was, and often still is, divorce.

The scars on my heart from being rejected and divorced have long since healed.  I hold no grudges and God has given me a most incredible wife, who has stood with me, fought with me, wept with me, survived with me and thrived with me for the last 16 years.  It’s very difficult to live with hurt from the past, when the present and the future are paved with support and love.

The scars from wounds inflicted by the Church, though, still sometimes seep and fester. For years, it was my scarlet letter that banished me from most pulpits. I have lost count of the number of places who saw my resume or heard me speak and showed interest, only to balk once my divorce became known.  These days, though, it is not so much the limitations of my past, but those of my future that disqualify me.  The date on my birth certificate has become my mortal enemy. Time is a cruel thing.  When we are young it moves too slowly, then suddenly, almost overnight, it transforms into an irresistible force that cannot be restrained.

As I stand in the shadow of the 35th anniversary of my ordination, my emotions are bittersweet.  The passion of my call burns as brightly, and as hotly, as ever. The gates of Hell still need to be breached and the hostages bound inside liberated.  I stand, sword in hand, wounded, but unbowed.  I do not know what role I will play in the battle.  The future is dark to me. I cannot see. I will await the voice of my Master and I will wreak what havoc I can upon the prince of that darkness. Thirty Five years behind me, Eternity before me.  I am a warrior.

Some Election Reflection – Content Warning: Explicit Spiritual Themes

America has spoken. We have endured two years of hard campaigning, incessant rhetoric, name calling from pundits, threats from extremists and propaganda galore. Yesterday we voted. We had our say.

Nationally, we didn’t say much.  On the surface, it looks like we voted the status quo. Mr. Obama is still President, the Democrats still have the Senate and the Republicans still have the House. Ho Hum.

Digging in a little deeper, two or three State specific decisions stand out to me as quite telling. First, popular conservative, Allen West, lost his seat in Florida. Two States voted to legalize same sex marriage and two more voted to legalize recreational marijuana usage.

To my poor, simple mind, I think all these results suggest that America is no longer a center right country. We look a little more center left to me.  This may be a phase, it may be the start of a long term move, I can’t tell.  Either way, it is clearly the world we live in right now.

I make a lot of noise about running for political office, and sometimes I am tempted, because I want to make a difference. I am flattered by the support I get from friends and family.  It’s great to know that I’d get at least SOME votes if I ran.

The simple fact is, though, my calling is not a political one, it is a spiritual one.  My task, my purpose, my passion, is not to call America to the voting booth, but to call the Church to the prayer closet and to call the world to Christ.

America’s political shifts are fascinating to me. I truly love the cut and thrust of politics. It’s challenging and fun, but it is a superficial thing, and can be a distraction. When my candidate wins, I can become overly content, even smug.  When my chosen candidate loses, I can despair and grieve.  I am so easily drawn in to giving way too much importance to temporal things.

My foundational document is not the Constitution, but the Scriptures.  My true allegiance is not to the flag, but to the Gospel.  My hope is not in America, but in Christ.  I am more interested in tithes than taxes.  There is more promise in prayer than in politics. I need a Savior more than I need a Senator. The world needs the Great Physician more than we need health care. We need pulpits more than we need political stumps.  We need deliverance more than Democrats and we need revival more than we need Republicans. It is by His stripes rather than the stars and stripes that we are healed.

Yesterday, I voted. I cast my ballot for some winners and some losers. Oh, well.  Yesterday (and today), I also prayed. I cast my cares on the One who cares for me.  My vote will stand for 4 years. My prayers will stand forever. My life is in His hands.

I believe the world can change.  I believe we can become more loving, more giving, more secure, more free,  more just, more peaceful, more holy, more neighborly, more content, more balanced, more united than we ever imagined.  And I not only believe it, I know the Way. I think I’ll spend the next four years, point it, er, Him, out.

 

A Paradigm Shift Game Idea For Christians And Churches. Wanna Play?

Simple, Self-Supporting, Sustainable; these are three concepts that are great for farming and also pretty darned good for Churches, too.

Those who’ve been reading my rants for a while know that I’ve been calling for a lifestyle paradigm shift that will allow us to prosper in tough times, as well as in good ones.  The abridged version is; dump debt, simplify your life, live on less than you earn, give 10%, save 10%, live on the other 80% (my next book, ‘No More Paycheck to Paycheck’ is even going to raise those stakes, so get ready), store up at least a year’s supply of staples and cash, and enjoy a life of real freedom.

Now, I want to play a ‘what if’ game and adapt those same principles to Churches.  Since it’s just a game, you don’t have to be afraid, you can let your mind and spirit roam free with these ideas.  When the game is over, you can return to your boring, old, traditional reality if you like.

Imagine you’re part of a congregation or fellowship or a small group that was totally debt free.  What if you had very little overhead because you didn’t have a big campus to maintain or facilities to keep going? What if everyone was tithing his/her income?  How much service could you perform for your community?  How much money could you give to missionaries? How many hungry people could you feed?  How many Bibles could you distribute?

My guess is, you can’t really even imagine it, because it’s as far from your experience as Jupiter is from the sun.  It’s been done, though.  Look at this passage of Scripture from Acts, Chapter 2;

Acts 2:42 they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

I can see eyes rolling, already.  Someone is saying, “That was then.  Things were different then. Get real.”

Relax.  We’re just playing a game, remember?

I’m going to use the small group Bible Study Brittan and I are a part of and use it as an example of what is possible.

The group consists of 4 to 5 family units and regular guests.  We have singles, empty nesters and families with children still at home, so we represent a bit of a cross section of American suburban life.

Within our group we have the following skillsets; farming and gardening, food preservation and cooking, carpentry, woodworking, sewing and quilting, decorating, heating and air, rudimentary plumbing, electrical and auto mechanics, teaching, music, writing, financial management and preaching (depending on who you ask).  There may be more, but these skills come to mind easily.

We are ordinary people in an ordinary suburban/semi-rural community on the edge of a large metropolitan region. We are the perfect guinea pigs for my game.

The median household income in our county is just a shade under $50k. The average household income is more like, $60,000.  We have some in our group who earn less, some who earn more, but let’s use the median number as our base.  We will create our opportunity assuming we have 4 tithing units, earning $50,000 per year.  On a combined income of $200,000, we could expect a tithe of $20,000 per year.

The typical American Family spends 10% of their income on food.  In our combined case, that would be another $20k.  By pooling our resources, i.e. ‘having all things in common’ we could raise 100% of our own food for half that amount and have enough left over to sell to raise some money and even hire someone part time to help with the work.  Over time, by saving seeds, breeding our own animals, etc. those annual costs could be reduced even more (for those who are wondering, yes, our group is fortunate enough to have several acres of land at our disposal).

Now, by combining our skill base, we could reduce our collective car repair and household maintenance expenses by at least half, freeing up even more money.

Let’s keep going, since we’ve almost lost our minds completely.  Let’s imagine each family gets themselves debt free; no house payments, no loans, and no car payments.  How much would your family life improve if you had no debt and your food and maintenance costs were cut in half?  Would you be able to sleep better?  Would you be more relaxed?  Would you be able to save more? Would you be able to give more?

The book of Proverbs says, ‘two is better than one. A cord of three strands is not easily broken.”  Can you see the value of having all things in common?

Here’s some of the cool part of my game.  In this picture, no one has to give up their job, their house, their cable or weekly hair apt.  It should be a no brainer.

We need to move along; I’m starting to bore people.  Let’s go back to that $20k tithe money.  How much good for God could we do with that?  I mean, that’s ‘wow’ money.  We could feed multiple people, provide livestock and clean water in developing countries, stock missionary doctors with supplies and evangelists with gospel materials.  We could provide clothes and shelter for numerous people.  The opportunities are mind boggling. If, though, we were trying to be a traditional congregation with a building, Pastor, etc. 100% of that $20k would be tied up in overhead.

Our Life Group alone has the skill set to work in soup kitchens, assist single parents and battered women with home repair and basic car maintenance.  We could hold worship services for the elderly in nursing homes, or open air evangelistic campaigns.  We could tutor students with learning issues or make quilts to keep a homeless man warm on a cold GA January night.

We could provide a healthy, tasty, fun tailgate party for a local High School football game, or give free tickets to a musical being performed by a local theater company.  I can do this all day.

Now, multiply our group by 20.  Imagine 20 groups of 10 people in one community doing and living like I just described.  How many needs could we meet?  How many people could be brought to Christ?  How many mission trips could be taken?  My head is about to explode just thinking of the possibilities.  No wonder Acts 2 says, ‘They enjoyed favor with all the people and the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.’

Ok, you can step out of the game and back into reality now.   So tell me why it can’t be done?  Sure, there are some who won’t want to get that close to other people.  I mean, sharing gardening duty or plucking a chicken or repairing an old person’s toilet, or handing soup to a homeless drunkard is a step than many won’t be willing to make, but that doesn’t mean WE can’t (whoever WE might be).

Michael Pollan, of Food, inc. and The Omnivore’s Dilemma fame once said, “Sure, not everyone can afford to eat organic, but those of us who can, should.”  That same principle seems to apply to my game.

Yes, I created a world of hypotheticals and best case scenarios.  I wanted us to look at possibilities.  Those early Christians changed the world. Their legacy lives on to this very day.  They were also persecuted, martyred, got caught up in fights, dealt with false teaching, screwed up on a regular basis and made some bad decisions from time to time. Each obstacle, stumble and barrier was met with prayer and persistence and the Kingdom spread like hot butter on warm toast.

Would you consider playing a game like this?  I have to admit, I think it would be a hoot.  And I don’t like games!

After 2K Years, Jesus is Still Pushing Buttons

He mingled with outcasts; they called Him a Sinner

He healed their broken; they called Him a Devil

He forgave the sinner, yet told them to ‘sin no more’; they called him a hypocrite

He told them to repent; they called Him trouble maker

He told them to love; they called Him a meddler

He fed their hungry mouths; they abandoned Him in His darkest hour

He told them they were hypocrites; they took out a contract on Him

He forgave them; they beat Him within an inch of His life

He told them He was God; they executed Him

He rose from the grave; they covered it up

He said, ‘Come to me everyone who is weary and burdened and I will give you rest’; they called him intolerant

He said, ‘whoever believes in me shall never perish’; they called Him a hater

Weird

Some things never change