December Links

The last links of the “aughts“! (Laura thinks I am weird for using that terminology; I am weird, but not because of that terminology)  These are the funny, thought-provoking, interesting, or complete wastes of time.  Or they might be a combination of any of the above.  At any rate, hopefully they will give you a chuckle or make you think as you head into 2010.  Happy New Year!

Biblical:
Practical Tips for developing accountability/mentoring relationships.   These kinds of relationships are critical for walking with Christ.
Michael Patton’s take on prioritizing.  Great thoughts on what comes first in life, and probably not what you’d expect from a theology teacher.
How Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25th.  Good stuff and interesting reading (i.e. not stuffy and boring).  Biblical archaeology can be very helpful!
A great article on the effect of the prosperity gospel on the economic collapse. I have some theological questions on the author’s definitions in the article, but it is a thought-provoking piece.
Is you focus on being successful or being faithful? A great, honest, heartfelt outpouring of emotion. (to paraphrase my good friend Michael)
We have it way easy in America.  ‘Nuff said.

Parenting:
Hard Fathers, Soft Sons.  This is a very thought-provoking article on fatherhood.  It has made me really re-think my approach with my son (and daughters too!).
A Heartwarming Story.  Praise God for families like this!

Funny:
Top Ten Urban Legends of 09.  I get asked about #7 all the time.

Wedding Gift FAIL.  I took this at Wal Mart a couple of weeks ago.
Caroling Chins!  Enter a Christmas Carol and they will sing it to you.  Enter a non-Christmas song for a chuckle.

And I never thought that anyone got me singing on tape:

The worst beat-boxer in history.  Isn’t Run-DMC looking for a rapper?  Laura found a link to him singing “5 octaves,” which makes her laugh so much that I have to put it here too:

Miscellaneous Interesting stuff I read this month:
A story on Wired about diploma mills.  The passion for this topic displayed by a particle physics professor is awesome and a good reminder that anyone can make a difference.
An argument in support of the 2nd Amendment from the unlikeliest source.  I NEVER would have expected this from the Daily Kos!
Prosthetic arms that can do all kinds of tasks. I am a geek and this stuff fascinates me.

Here is to a great 2010!

New Year’s Guidance

Generally I am not a fan of New Year’s resolutions.  They strike me as attempts to undo the bad decisions I made all year with one or two good decisions that give me a false optimism for what life is going to be like.  Now, don’t get me wrong; I am not against change, and when the calendar changes is as good a time as any to plan some, change habits, and make improvements in life.  I just prefer to set goals and focus on improving my life rather than “resolve” to take on something that is either too vague to measure or too big to attain.

To that effect, every year I like to have a particular focus in my prayer life.  It’s a “goal” for my spiritual health, if you will.  This focus helps me keep my mind on God during my day, and gives me something particular to keep in mind as I ask God to change me from the inside out.  It is simply a tool that I use to guide me as I pray, much like I have a list of ministries, people, and activities I pray for before church every Sunday.  In years past, my prayer “key” has been:

  • For God to show me how to love Him with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength.  I wanted so much to know what the Great Commandment meant in practice! (2007)
  • For God to show me His face.  This was a heart for me to really know God in a new and deeper level. (2008)
  • For me to have a heart to follow God, eyes to see Him, ears to hear Him, and feet to follow Him.  This was a desire I had to see God in my life and a request to build in me obedience that comes from within. (2009)

Every year I can point to the growth in my life as I have prayed these prayers.  Since I began doing this as a part of my devotional life, God has really used it to make me into the man He wants me to be.  He has molded me as a husband, as a father, as a pastor, and as a man.  If you were to ask my wife she would probably agree that the last three years have been a time of significant spiritual growth for me, and part of that is a result of the growth of my prayer life in this area.

What about for 2010?  For the last month or so, God has really been working on my heart via Micah 6:8.

He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the LORD require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?

What a great cry!  What a succinct statement of the desire of God for His people as individuals and as a body.  So my prayer for 2010 will be for God to show me how to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with Him.  When I pray in the morning in 2010, this will be part of my agenda.  I always love these prayer keys, because as I continue to pray them God opens new doors of understanding and new opportunities for love and obedience out of them.

I bet you can see what my overall goals are for 2010, just from what I will be praying.  I am asking God to show me how to “do justice,” in other words how to act in ways that honor Him in everything I do.  I am looking forward to having opportunities to “love kindness,” or showing others mercy and compassion.  I am also in need of continual reminders of how to “walk humbly with my God,” or making my relationship with Christ more important than any external success I may achieve.  I know that if I allow God to have His way in me with these goals that 2010 will be a year like none I have ever had.

I hope you have goals in your spiritual life in 2010 as well.  Maybe, like me, you need a prayer “key” to help you focus. (feel free to use this verse or anything else you see on ABF!)  Maybe your spiritual goal is to truly work on a life of holiness, or to turn a particular besetting sin over to God, or to serve in ministry faithfully, or to make Bible reading a part of your life in a more meaningful way.  Whatever you do, make your walk with Christ an integral part of your 2010 “resolutions” or goal-setting.

Here’s to a great 2010 walking with Christ into a new adventure!

The Last, the Least, and the Lost!

Merry Christmas!  I am enjoying a day hanging out with my wife and kids, talking to the family on the phone, and playing my son’s new XBOX 360 with him.  We have had a good Christmas this year and my prayer is that you do too.

Christmas 2009We also had a great Christmas Eve service last night; I was so blessed by all the hugs and handshakes of my church friends and family who came to worship Christ.  We tried something a little different and had services earlier than in years past.  I really enjoyed having just a 5PM service because it meant that I was home by 7!  I was able to grill dinner for the family (James helped), which hasn’t happened on Christmas Eve for at least the last 7 years.  All in all it was a pretty excellent evening.  I even got a card and present from a couple who has been doing marriage counseling with me, and the words of the husband in the card made me cry.  That was honestly the best gift that I have ever received from a person in a church I served at; it made the hard work and struggle and effort worth it!  Let me just say, that card is going to stay close by to be re-read when times get tough.

I preached last night from Luke 2:8-20, which is well-known but perhaps not thought about in detail much.  We know that angels appeared to shepherds who came and talked to Mary and Joseph, but when was the last time you really stopped to think about what God did in appearing to them?

8  In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night.
9 And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened.
10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people;
11 for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
12 “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”
15 When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.”
16 So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger.
17 When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child.
18 And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds.
19 But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.
20 The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.

In the midst of the story of the birth of Jesus, Luke takes time to talk about some lowly shepherds who God announced His kingdom and His Son’s birth to.  Shepherds were nowhere near the high and mighty of society.  These guys weren’t kings; heck they probably weren’t even all that particular about their faith!  Despite that (or maybe because of it!) God decided that they should be the first outside of Jesus’ mama and daddy* to know that God had come in the flesh!

God uses the least, the last, and the lost to accomplish His plans.  Just because we are not among the high and mighty of society, that means nothing in God’s eyes.  I am really blessed to pastor a church of 150 or so (with gusts up to maybe 200); though in the world’s eyes I haven’t achieved the marks of pastoral success (read my friend Kent’s blog about that for an excellent perspective), God nevertheless chooses to use me to serve His people and announce His good news to them.  What a blessing!  The same is true for each of us.  No matter where you are in life or how “public” or high profile your position God still wants to use you accomplish His plan and tell others about His good news.  He isn’t nearly as concerned for your position in life as He is about your disposition to life.

Likewise, when these shepherds listened to God and went to see Jesus, God changed their own lives as well as the lives of all who “wondered” or “marveled” at what they had to say.  They were the first heralds to the people of the great love of God in sending the Lord Jesus!  What a great reminder to all of us this Christmas to be faithful with what God has revealed in our lives, knowing that if we are He can and will use it to His glory to change us and others around us.

Merry Christmas from my family to yours.  May today be filled with worship of God through His Son, Jesus Christ.

*We know from earlier in Luke that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, not by the sexual union of Joseph and Mary.  Yet in any sense that really mattered Joseph was Jesus’ daddy.  I know how that goes; my mom married my dad when I was six and he adopted me when I was eight.  I know the difference between a father and a daddy! I also know that Elizabeth and John knew, but you get my point about these guys.

It’s Not Like I Remembered…

Man it gets my goat when my old Christmas traditions and memories come crashing down around my head.

I watched two Christmas movies this week that were childhood favorites.  The first was “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and second up was the 1983 classic “A Christmas Story.”  Watching these movies as an adult, ESPECIALLY with my kids, was a way different experience than I remembered from my childhood.  What I remembered as funny and encouraging stories about Christmas turned out to be some of the craziest and most horrifying movies I have seen with my children.  Boy, how times have changed.  Boy, how I have changed!

For the record, I can’t find many videos on YouTube or elsewhere with the scenes I am talking about in these movies (the sole exception is below).  I am not sure if it is a conspiracy by “the man” to keep the bad in these movies out of the public conscience or if everyone else just watches them and forgets about some of the content.  Whichever it is, there are almost NO videos I can find that have these scenes, so if you want to verify that I am not a raving loony you’ll have to watch the shows yourself.  Don’t say you haven’t been warned though!

We gathered all four kids around to watch the Charlie Brown Christmas special on Thursday night to get into the Christmas spirit.  It had to be safe for the whole family, right?  I mean, after all, it was made in 1965!  There couldn’t be anything offensive in there, could there?  Laura and I and our kids (ages 4-12) all sat down to enjoy some of the Christmas spirit together.  The best part of the show was Linus quoting a good chunk of Luke 2 near the end, which never would fly in today’s TV culture.  However, the movie was absolutely filled with the other characters calling Charlie Brown names.  He was told that he was the stupidest blockhead in the history of humanity.  Linus sighed and told him that of all the Charlie Browns in the world, he was the Charlie Browniest.  They ridiculed him, browbeat him, and laughed at him to his face.  We had to stop the movie on several occasions to remind our younger ones that we do not treat people that way!  There was some good for sure, but a lot of questionable stuff that I had forgotten about.

Then last night we decided to watch “A Christmas Story.”  My recollections about this movie revolved around the Red Rider BB gun and the slightly off-color lamp that his dad wins.  There was a bully as I remembered, and his brother was annoying.  But it was a good Christmas story!  We sent the littlest two to bed just in case, and with the older two and a good friend who had never seen it we settled in for a good old cup of Christmas joy.

Good night!  Where do I begin?  There was more cursing in that movie than  could possibly have been there when I was a kid.  We had a memorable mute button FAIL when Ralphie utters a bad word when he gets his Annie Oakley decoder ring.  I knew it was coming (it was the only one Laura remembered) and muted it, then un-muted it right before he says a quite inappropriate phrase, especially out of the mouth of a 9-year-old.  Don’t believe me? (WARNING: one bad phrase in the last 2 seconds of this clip)

There was WAY more than this.  His dad rages and curses in the basement throughout the movie, and though you never hear him cuss it’s clear that Ralphie picks it up from him.  In the famous “mother of all curse words” scene he ends up with his mouth washed out with soap, and soliloquizing that he got it from his dad.  On several occasions his friends let loose with curse words.  Also there is an awful lot of sexual innuendo from the lamp his dad wins.

Neither of these shows stood up to my memory of them.  What I remembered and what I saw as a dad were completely different!  Now I am not a kid just enjoying Charlie Brown being laughed at by his friends; I’m watching it wondering how my own kids are taking it and what it is telling them.  It really made me think and consider the call of God on me as a parent in Deuteronomy 6:6-7,

“These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.”

Rather than chalk this up as worthless nights that did harm to my kids, though, I decided to make the most of them.  “A Charlie Brown Christmas” teaches that materialism and consumerism can’t replace the story of the birth of Christ, and teaches that truth explicitly.  So we “chewed the meat and spit the bones” with the kids, reminding them that we didn’t treat people like Charlie Brown’s friends treated him and at the same time reinforced the message that Jesus is the reason for the season.

With “A Christmas Story” is was a bit more complicated.  There really was not much of a redemptive theme; in fact the overriding message of the movie was that Ralphie cajoled his parents into getting him a Christmas gift, then lied and got away with it when he hurt himself with it.  So we talked about that, about the peer pressure that Ralphie faced, and about the message concerning Christmas that the movie gave.  I suppose the best that I could say about it is that we used it as a bad example and “inoculated” the kids a little, then had a laugh and a face-palm over our parenting fail after they went to bed.

It also reminded me that the Christmas that I experienced as a kid is very different than that Christmas that I celebrate now.  I grew up as a typical, secular American kid without any thought about the history and tradition of Christmas.  We didn’t go to church at all when I was young (I became a Christian at 22), and movies like “A Christmas Story” were relatable to me because I saw a lot of that in my childhood in the 80’s.  Bad words weren’t a big deal in my house.  Though sex was a taboo subject, fighting certainly wasn’t.  (don’t get a wrong impression; I’m grateful for my upbringing and parents and they have a good marriage) 

Today I am a lot different.  Now I am concerned with making today count forever, and about serving Christ out of gratitude for His sacrifice for me.  I suppose I see it in the sense that I am not the man I used to be, which means that I need to put stuff like that behind me without being morose about it.  As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:11-12,

Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.  All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.

I am not the guy who wasn’t bothered by those things.  Christmas is about Christ, plain and simple, and this Christmas I am grateful that amidst the noise and busyness I can hopefully spend some time with Him.  And though as a Christian these two shows were certainly not sinful for me to watch, nevertheless they weren’t a good use of my time or a helpful way to spend my Christmas.  As Paul says, they are lawful but not profitable.  So I am going to try to get some more profit into my Christmas and less spiritual junk food.  More Jesus, less mall.  More love, more peace, more good times and less stress over deadlines.  More thought into my entertainment choices!  That way, in the years to come my kids can enjoy the movies we watched with their own kids and not have the same chagrin that I had this weekend.

The Christmas Spirit

Holy cow it’s been difficult for me to get in “the Christmas spirit” this year.  I’m not all “humbug” or anything, but it’s been busy pretty much nonstop.  From Thanksgiving until now it seems like it’s been one thing after another, from grading final papers at school to late nights in pastoral care to making the 2010 budget and the Christmas play at church this weekend, I have been running around like mad.  We adopted a stray dog (who we found a home for today!), and I am in the final stretch of training for a half-marathon.

The past two weeks I have been trying to get some more quiet and reverence since school has been out, but it hasn’t been easy or particularly successful.  I’ve had several marriages in significant crisis that I am trying to help; the holidays increase money stress, which increases marital stress.  I have 4 sermons in the next 10 days (Christmas play, this Sunday, Christmas Eve, and the following Sunday) to prepare for, and for me sermon prep is a time-consuming process of study, prayer, writing, outlining, and thinking.  We are inviting the church to come to our house on Sunday afternoon for Christmas carols, cookies, and fellowship, which is stressful because we’ve been cleaning and de-cluttering the house in preparation.  (If you’re in town, you better come see us!  The house will NEVER look this nice again!)

I know that I am not alone in my craziness.  I took Laura out to lunch yesterday at a restaurant near a local mall, and at 11:30 on a Thursday morning the mall parking lot was completely jammed full of cars.  The consumerist cycle continues unabated in America, with news reports touting better-than-expected holiday sales and parents rushing to get the latest toy craze for the kids. (this year it’s the zhu zhu pet)  Like I said earlier I am seeing a lot of marital breakdowns right now, much of it centered around money and holiday stress.  Several good people I know are out of work right now and looking for a job that will last beyond the New Year.  I have military friends trying to cram in some family time before deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan.  My heart aches as a pastor when my congregants hurt, so I work hard to help them.

Throughout all of this, God has been calling me back again and again to a particular verse of Scripture that isn’t normally associated with Christmas; even though it’s not really “Christmas-y” it has spoken to me powerfully this December.  The prophet Micah wrote it during a time in Israel and Judah when they had fantastic wealth but also a smugness and contentment in their lives that took them away from the worship of God.  They had class warfare and financial ease, and since life wasn’t too bad their hearts got hard before the Lord.  In Micah 6:8 God looks at them and points a finger at their debauchery, showing them the simple yet profound demand that He has on them as His people:

He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the LORD require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

In the midst of all of the busyness, God has called me to three simple habits and attitudes.

  1. “To do justice”: I like the way that the NIV puts this: “to act justly.”  God wants me to be upright in my thoughts and conduct.  Despite the hustle and bustle He calls me to do the right thing, all the time and as an act of worship.  That means I look out for others this Christmas, be they the kid lost in the mall or the clerk who gives me too much change at the store or the friend who needs a call.  God is just and wants me to be as well.
  2. “To love kindness”: God wants me to love kindness, to be merciful and loving to people.  He wants me to share the good news of Christ with others, to help them live to honor God (how unloving to allow a friend to debase themselves in sin and never try to help!), and to be there for them when they fall.  He wants me to extend forgiveness to others just as He has to me.  So when someone cuts me off in traffic or hurts my feelings I need to forgive them in love.  I need a soft heart with thick skin!
  3. “to walk humbly with your God”: How hard it can be for a type “A” personality like me to walk humbly with God.  He is the one responsible for any success and goodness in my life.  He is the one who provides it all, and yet how often do I take the credit!  He wants humility; He wants me to know where I stand in His eyes and to shine His glory rather than my own into His world.  He wants me to be His instrument rather than use Him as a tool to build my career or the path to my own success. 

This is the call I have from God this Christmas.  It’s been a busy one, and frankly I don’t see it letting up before the New Year.  Even so, I can enjoy the spirit of Christmas by remembering the cry of the prophet Micah.  God sent His Son into the world to pay the price for my sins and yours (1 John 2:1-2), living the words of Micah to perfection.  He came not for His benefit but for mine, so this Christmas I want to focus on doing the same to the best of my ability for His glory.  My prayer is that perhaps the call on me this Christmas can help you live out the call He has in your life too.

Merry Christmas!