Monday, December 26, 2016

God moves into surrendered hearts

One verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” goes like this: “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

“How will this be?” That’s the question Mary asked the angel Gabriel when he announced the news that she would give birth to a baby boy. It was a legitimate question since Mary had never been with a man. She was betrothed to Joseph, a young carpenter who lived in Nazareth and whose ancestors came from Bethlehem. But they had not consummated their marriage. Mary was a virgin.

Have you ever compared the two visits by Gabriel in Luke 1? Look at the similarities between his visit to the priest, Zechariah, and to the young Jewess, Mary. In each case, he came to foretell a miraculous birth. For Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, the birth would be a miracle because, to be real honest, they were just too old to have a baby. In Mary’s case, she was not able to conceive because she was a virgin.

In the two angelic visits, Gabriel told the listeners that sons would be born. He even told them their names. He told them their sons would both be great. John, born to Zechariah and Elizabeth, would be great because of the things he would do. Jesus would be great. Period. He was the Son of the Highest, the Holy One, the Son of God.

It is interesting to note the two responses to Gabriel’s message. Gabriel told Zechariah that he had just come from God’s presence, so this news came right from the top. Zechariah asked anyway, “How shall I know this?” In other words, he asked for a sign. “Prove it to me, Gabe, old buddy. I don’t believe it!” Mary responded quite differently. She asked, “How will this be?” Her heart believed what God was saying to her; she just didn’t understand it.

Do you see what is happening here? It doesn’t make sense to Zechariah that he and his wife could have a child; therefore he refuses to believe without a sign. It does not make sense to Mary that she can have a baby and still be a virgin; but she chooses to believe the Lord while seeking to understand. It was Zechariah’s unbelief that motivated his question. It was Mary’s belief that motivated hers.

How did Gabriel respond to each? Zechariah was escorted quickly offstage by Carol Merrill where he received the consolation prize of a tongue that would not work for nine months. Gabriel said to the priest, “You will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” Mary’s quest to understand found answers: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

Zechariah’s unbelief led to the sound of silence. Mary’s belief led to a surrendered heart. God moved right in and took up residence. He still does that today, in every heart that is opened to him.

May Christ’s presence fill your heart and your home this Christmas.

Monday, December 19, 2016

This is your trigger warning

I wrote this (now updated) column 10 years ago, when “The Nativity Story” came out. It remains one of my favorite Christmas movies.

Hey, lean in closer. I want to tell you something, but I have to be careful. There are lots of those right wing Christians running around here, and I don’t want them to hear what I am about to say. The last thing I need is to be hounded by those people, you know what I mean?

OK, here’s the deal. I know it’s time for “the holidays,” and I just want to warn you about a certain movie that just came out and that you definitely don’t want to see or let your kids see. Under any circumstances, I’m talking. There is no way you should go see this movie because it is highly offensive. I mean, I go in there taking my whole family to see this movie when it comes out, because I think it has something to do with Native American history or something, you know? I had no idea that I was going to be subjected to this blatant violation of the separation of church and state! I mean, here we are, eating our popcorn and enjoying upcoming previews to great flicks that won’t offend nobody, you know what I mean? Movies like this “Trolls” flick or whatever. Yeah, and there’s one about some beasts that is supposedly fantastic. And there’s one about a Bad Santa. I mean, any movie about Santa is fun, you know what I mean? It’s probably good, clean family entertainment that’s not going to be trying to cram some kind of religion or something down your throat.

But this Nativity movie was just plain nasty. It was right up in my face with this whole thing that Christmas is about Jesus or whatever. It made me so mad I could see red. And I really hate when that happens. I try to calm down quick because you know, red is a Christmas color, and whenever I see red or green I have to look down or cross my eyes, so I don’t think about Christmas. Those born-agains got some nerve, you know what I mean? Trying to take over the best time of the year and make it into some religious fanatic fairytale.

So I’m sitting there, you know, with my family, right? I mean, I plunked down like 50 bucks so we could see this Nativity movie, and I wasn’t about to just walk out and throw away 50 bucks. What do you think, I’m crazy or something? So, we sit there and watch this movie, and you have got to be kiddin’ me. I mean, this lady, no, this young girl gets a visit from some guy in white looking like he was an angel or something, and this guy is telling her that she’s going to get pregnant, but there won’t be no man. Yeah, right. But here they go, trottin’ off to Bethlehem because some king wants to get more taxes. Now that part I can believe! Anyway, this young girl has a baby, and every shepherd in the county shows up looking like they’ve never seen a baby before. And these wise guys come too, giving the baby gifts like he was a king or something. The truth? This movie’s offensive. Don’t go. Stay home. It is just wrong.

“And she gave birth to her firstborn Son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Go Get Some Free Christmas Music!

Hey all! I know, it's been a while. I apologize. I have no excuses. 

But I haven't been completely wasting my time. And to prove it, here's an album a friend and I just finished for our church. It's FREE right now on NoiseTrade and we'd be honored if you downloaded a copy and shared it with friends. Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 12, 2016

The source of quarrels and fights

Thom S. Rainer wrote a blog about church fights he had heard about, and offered commentary (in quotes) on each. Here’s a sampling.

A battle over whether to build a children’s playground or to use the land for a cemetery. “I’m dying to know the resolution to this one.”

A fight over which picture of Jesus to put in the foyer. “I just want to know who took the pictures.”

An argument over whether the church should allow deviled eggs at the church meal. “Only if it’s balanced with angel food cake for dessert.”

A disagreement over using the term "potluck" instead of "pot blessing." “I get it! The concept of luck contradicts the theology of a sovereign God. This issue is very serious. Good luck trying to resolve it.”

These are funny. And sad. But James was not laughing when he wrote to the churches, “What causes quarrels and fights among you?” The answer may surprise you, but it is the same, whether the quarrel is in the bedroom, the boardroom, the church house or the White House. James goes right to the heart of conflict by identifying our passions, our desires, our pleasures as the culprit. What happens when our desire for something is interfered with? You may have seen the commercial where the wife says to her husband, “Don’t forget we’re taking my mom and dad out on the boat this Sunday.” The man grimaces. Then we see him drive his Hyundai to the marina, untie the boat, and shove it away from the dock with his foot. As it drifts away he says, “Not my Sunday.” The voiceover comes up: “Hyundai, the official car of the NFL.”

Here’s the thing. God created us with an incredible capacity for pleasure. He wants us to enjoy the earth He fashioned, and its many delights. But hedonism is a pursuit of pleasure for its own sake. It is the belief that pleasure really is the chief end of man, the reason we exist. If we stumble down that path, we will find ourselves in all kinds of trouble.

A desire for pleasure was the root of David’s sin of adultery with Bathsheba. And it started when he saw her taking a bath on a nearby rooftop. There were three "ways of escape" the Lord gave him, I believe, that David blew right past in pursuit of the fulfillment of his lusts. First, it was spring, “when kings went out to war.” Not David. Not that spring. Second, when he got his first glimpse of Bathsheba, he could have turned away, shut his chamber windows, and taken a cold shower. Nope. Third, when his servant delivered Bathsheba to his door, he could have sent her back home, and fallen on his face and repented. He did not. Instead, he coveted another man’s wife. Then he stole her. Then he had her husband killed.

Ok, if the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake leads to empty lives at best, and destroyed lives at worst, what then?

John Piper argues for a pursuit of pleasure in God, something he calls Christian Hedonism. “My shortest summary of it is this — God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Or: The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever. Does Christian Hedonism make a god out of pleasure? No. It says that we all make a god out of what we take most pleasure in. My life is devoted to helping people make God their God by wakening in them the greatest pleasures in him.”

Monday, December 5, 2016

Ultra-marathon means uber-pain

Just for fun, I ran a 50K ultra-marathon last Saturday. No, it wasn’t a mid-life crisis thing. I’m way too old for that. And no, nobody was chasing me, except the slow, graying guy who stares at me in the mirror every morning as I shave. This was just something I wanted to try, especially since a man named Mark who has run several ultras started coming to the church last year. He told me about this one, convinced me that I could do it, and we started to do long runs together every week as part of our training.

The run started and ended at the Derby Community Center which is “in the middle of nowhere,” as the race website stated. It also says, “This is a very low key, no frills race.  If you are expecting port-a-potties, expos, or to be waited on, I suggest you stay home.”

We did three laps of 10.5 miles each, on mostly paved roads and a two-mile stretch of a sandy road. Derby is in the sand hills (emphasis on “hills”) of North Carolina, not far from Ellerbe and Pinehurst. I expected the course to be fairly flat, and my running buddy assured me that it would be. Until we were almost through with our second lap, somewhere around 18 miles and Mark turned to me and said, “This course has a LOT more hills than I remember.” I grunted something back, lacking the energy to form a full sentence at that point.

Here’s the story of lap one. The day was beautiful and the weather was perfect. The sun was shining, the wildlife was plentiful, the temperatures stayed in the 40’s or 50’s, and the runners were happily talking in small groups as they ran. Very few of us were walking up the hills on lap one (big mistake), and I had the fleeting thought at about mile 9 that the pace we were keeping was going to come back to bite us in the end.

Lap two began hopefully, and we decided to run halfway up all the hills and then walk to the top of each. The runners by this time (there were only 63 of us) were spread out more, and friendly chatter had given way to deep contemplation, or something like that. I tried to listen to a podcast at about mile 14, but couldn’t concentrate enough to enjoy it.

When we completed the second lap, I said to my buddy, “Mark, you have no idea how much I would like to quit right now.” We had completed 21 miles and I just could not imagine running or even walking another 10.5. My legs ached, my feet screamed at me, my toes throbbed. All the while, my mind told me that a chair and a hot meal were just twenty feet away. All I had to do was quit. But on we went; we had not come to Derby to stop short of a 50K.

I have never been as happy to cross a finish line as I was that day. As I hobbled toward the community center for spaghetti, I met a 72-year old who came in about five minutes ahead of me. But this was not his first ultra, as it was mine. It was his 340th. And he had just run 92 miles in a race one week earlier. I hobbled more slowly towards the chow hall after hearing that. Talk about perspective.

The Bible says of those who pursue God’s wisdom, “…if you run, you will not stumble.” He promised nothing about pain.