do you hear what i hear?

Just recently, I spent some time in a crowded shopping mall.  It was full of the typical holiday commotion that you would expect to find in a mall this time of year.  It was nearly in a state of complete chaos, but I will dismiss it as “general holiday excitement.” People were bustling all around, trying to find the perfect gift.  In the midst of the busyness, I sat down, enjoyed a cup of coffee and watched.

As I watched the shoppers scurry around I sipped my coffee and listened to the Christmas songs that were playing over the mall PA system.  For whatever reason, I began to pay close attention to the words that were being sung.  “In the dark streets shineth the everlasting light…” Song after song poured out of the speakers. “Come adore on bended knee, Christ the Lord the new born King…”,  “The holly bears a berry as red as any blood, and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good…”

I felt like I was the only one who was listening, or the only one who cared about what was being sung.  “These songs should be acknowledged as more than just background music,” I thought to myself.  Wonderful truths were being proclaimed to the mass of oblivious shoppers. “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!”  But no one batted an eye at this incredible announcement.

“God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay.  Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day.”  No one acknowledged the song, but it continued all the same. “To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray. O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy!”

One after another the songs came.  And not the typical mall Christmas songs either.  They weren’t playing songs like “Here Comes Santa Clause” & “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”  They kept playing the good ones.  O Holy Night, What Child Is This, The First Noel… With each song, it was as if someone was intentionally trying to get a message across.

I understand that people had other things on their minds.  Not everyone had the luxury of sitting with a cup of coffee and simply observing & listening.  But still, the contrast of beautiful, life changing truths being sung to people who appeared to be completely indifferent was stark.

I kept listening.  I sat and thought about the words I was hearing.  Tears welled in my eyes.  I felt overwhelmed by God’s love.  I felt thankful.  I felt sad for those who weren’t hearing what I was.

I have been back to the mall since then.  Unfortunately, I think I was more like the other folks as I attempted to get some shopping done.  Not only when I am at the mall, but just in life in general, I can get so distracted and caught up in the frantic pace of life.  What was it about that day at the mall?  Why was I so moved by the beauty of Christ coming to save sinners?  Why was the significance of Jesus’ work so apparent to me then? I think, very simply, the difference was that I took time to be still.  I took time to listen and to let the truth settle in my heart.   Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”

It becomes more pronounced around Christmas, the rushing around and forgetting what the “season” is really all about.  But it is a problem that we deal with all year round.  Take some time to hear.  Take some time to “be still & know.

 

 

thankful

It was mid November two years ago that my wife and I were taken off guard with bad news.  My wife was 12 weeks pregnant & her doctor had set up an ultrasound.  We went in for what we thought was a routine test to confirm that everything was ok.  The nurse moved the ultrasound device back and forth across my wife’s pregnant tummy.  We held
hands and watched the black and white shapes on the screen, waiting to be told what, exactly, we were looking at.  Then, as the nurse pulled the device away from my wife’s stomach and began to wipe it with a cloth and put it away, she casually told us, “yea, it looks like this terminated a couple weeks ago.”  We couldn’t comprehend what she was saying.

What had “terminated?”  And what in the world did she mean by “terminated?” This was just a test to confirm that everything was still “ok” in there, right?  Why was she tossing around words like “terminated?” The cold delivery seemed to amplify the impact of the news.  My wife had miscarried.  It was the week before Thanksgiving.  We spent the holiday trying to wrap our minds around what had happened and struggled to understand why.

In our time of confusion and pain our church family comforted us.  A surprising number of women had experienced this same heartache.  They willingly opened up old wounds and shared my wife’s sorrow.  Some of them had miscarried multiple times.  Women recalled painful memories in order to comfort my wife and assure her that she was not alone.

Almost exactly a year later my wife gave birth to our 3rd little girl. Again, the week before Thanksgiving. (November 17th). With the birth of each of our children, my wife has struggled with postpartum depression.  As we brought our new baby home and prepared for the holidays, the symptoms began to intensify.  This was her third time through postpartum depression, but this time seemed more severe.

As church folks often do after the birth of a baby, people began to bring meals to our home.  But somehow, with my wife struggling with depression, these meals took on greater significance.  These nightly visits from friends brought us more than food.  They brought comfort and peace.  They brought reassurance and strength. They brought concerned family members sharing our burdens. They brought love.

I ate meals that had been prepared by friends with tears in my eyes, overwhelmed by God’s love for me and for my family.  His love took on many forms.  It was meals delivered to our home.  It was a woman willing to sit with my wife, just to keep her company, or watch our kids so she could rest.  It was a friend who took our older girls to play at her home at a moments notice.  It was friends lifting up my wife and our family in prayer. Our church family became a very real expression of the love of God.

Two years in a row I have seen the incredible love of God expressed through the church. Of all the things I have to be thankful for, I am  most thankful to be a part of the Body of Christ.

“If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad. All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it.” 1 Corinthians 12:26-27 (NLT)

just a matter of time

I can’t seem to escape it sometimes.  Occasionally, I will try to put the thought out of my head all together, but the reminders are everywhere.  Pictures of my kids from just a couple years ago remind me of how much they have changed and how quickly they are growing. Birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, changing seasons… they all work together to keep me aware of the ticking of the clock.  Even subtle wrinkles, just beginning to form at the corners of my eyes, seem to insist that I remain conscious of the fact that time is passing and there is nothing I can do to stop it.

An awareness of how short life is can almost haunt me at times.  I think it used to be a good thing.  When I was younger and would hear the “old-timers” talk about how short life is and how quick it goes, I believed them.  I took them very seriously.  In high-school I kept myself reminded of their warnings .  When others would complain about teachers, classes & school assemblies, I did not share their disdain.  When they would talk  longingly about graduation  and “getting out of here,” I knew that it was a time to be enjoyed and would all too soon be gone.  I feel like this awareness also helped me to thoroughly enjoy my years in college as well.  But now…. now it causes me to be anxious. If I will allow it, it will fill me with dread.  Time is moving too quick.  Time with my kids, time with my wife, time to accomplish anything of significance… It is running out!

In my struggle with the fact that I have an ever approaching expiration date, I find 2 significant comforts that I need to be reminded of regularly.

1.  The idea of time “running out” isn’t something that bothers me alone. It didn’t sit too well with God either.  John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Our mortality upset Him to the point of taking extreme action. He gave His Son so that we  “shall not perish but have eternal life.”

2. The second comfort I find is the result of this “extreme action”- eternal life.  In a very real sense, time is not ticking.  Those of us who believe in Him will not perish!   My time with my wife, with my kids, with many of my family and friends, it is unlimited.

What a relief.  I find an overwhelming sense of peace knowing that I’m not the only one concerned with the fact that “the end is coming soon.”  Not only was someone else concerned, it was someone who was able and willing to do something about it.

Through God’s love and through Jesus I don’t have to wring my hands as I watch the pages of the calendar steadily fall away. Instead, I confidently look forward to eternal life.

“And this is the promise that He has promised us—eternal life.” 1 John 2:25

Pride & Theft

Just recently I was approached by the parent of a student in our youth ministry.  This parent was very complimentary and said some incredibly kind things about myself and our ministry.  In my attempt to be humble I responded by saying things like, “that is very nice of you to say that,” and, “well, we have some great young people…”

I walked away from the conversation secretly pleased with how humble I had been.  However, the next day while taking a run, I had some time to reflect on the situation.  I have concluded that my “humility” was deceptive pride. I had seemingly deflected all of the credit and praise that was being given.  I had carefully crafted my responses to appear as though I refused to take the credit, while in reality taking both the credit that was being offered as well as credit for being humble.

My error was two-fold.

1. Pride.  Pride is a serious offense.  So much so that the Bible says in James 4:6 that “God opposes the proud” or, “God resists the proud.”  The definition of “oppose” is “to actively resist or refuse to comply with, disapprove of and attempt to prevent, to compete with.”  When I am proud I put myself in a position where God “actively resists” me.  I can not think of a less desirable place to be than in direct opposition with the creator of the universe. But that is the direct result of pride in my life and repentance is necessary.

2. Theft. The second part of my error is that of thievery.  Even if my attempts to deflect praise had been sincere, they still would have been wrong because the praise belonged somewhere.  Romans 13:7 says, “Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.” (NKJV)  The compliments that were being given to me were genuine.  The student that was being discussed has undergone serious life change.  There is beautiful fruit growing in this student’s life and someone is responsible for that and is due the credit. Correctly identifying who the praise should be given to, then, is an important determination.  I underhandedly took the credit, though it did not belong to me.  That is theft.  However, simply refusing to accept it is inadequate as well. When I am given something that belongs to the Lord I must give it to “whom it is due.”

“Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” 1 Timothy 1:17 (NIV)

bully

My oldest daughter is in kindergarden at the local public elementary school.  She seems to be adjusting well to her new surroundings and her new role as a student.  Unlike when I was in kindergarden, she attends school for the full day.  Her day consists of things like art, music, computer class, “circle time,” recess, nap-time and of course, lunch.

One of the new and exciting things about school is getting to choose between eating the lunch prepared at the school cafeteria (aka “hot lunch”) or bring her own lunch from home (aka “cold lunch”).  She puts considerable thought into which lunch she will be enjoying the next day.  Her decision making process is not centered on what is being offered for lunch, but on who she would like to sit with during lunch.  The “hot-lunchers” and “cold-lunchers” are segregated from one another and sit at seperate tables.   For the last couple of weeks she has been on a hot lunch streak.  Day after day she has chosen to eat the lunch prepared by the school, even when it was something less than desirable, just so she could sit with her friends.

Yesterday that changed.  She is ready to switch back to being a cold-luncher.  Her decision is not based on food but on company.  A couple of the boys at the hot lunch table (referred to at our house as the  “bad boys”) began to pick on her.  When I heard of her reasons for making the lunch room change I felt anger beginning to stir in me. One of the bad boys began to kick her under the table.  Another bad boy took a banana and poked her in the face leaving wet “banana-smudge” on her cheek.  As I heard about what the other kids had done to her I became more and more furious.  While I was still listening to the details of the story I was envisioning showing up to her lunch table unannounced to intimidate the boys that were bothering her.

“They kicked you under the table?!?” I thought to myself.  I was already choosing the words for my threats.  I would give the “bad boys” the scare of a life time.

“Wiped banana on your face?!?” my inner dialogue continued. If my scare tactics and intimidation prove insufficient other action may be necessary.  Perhaps waiting for them after school….

“And you just had to sit there? Helpless? Defenseless?” I will hold teachers and school administrators responsible for this injustice!  Doesn’t anyone monitor these children as they try to eat their lunch in peace?!?!

I eventually managed to calm myself down.  Maybe fighting 5 year old boys isn’t the best way to resolve this problem.  My daughter’s solution of simply moving to the cold lunch table is probably a much better idea.  I am sure the lunch room is full of that kind of behavior on a daily basis.  A kick in the leg and a piece of fruit to the face.  I know that in the long run it is not that big of a deal but I hate the thought of it happening to my kid.

This morning I thought more about my outrage at how my daughter was treated.  As I thought about it I realized, again, how staggering God’s love for us is.  It hurt me to think of others hurting and humiliating my kid.  How much would I need to love someone to allow others to beat and brutally kill my little girl?  I can hardly stand the thought of it.

But there is something God loves so much that He was willing to pay that inconceivable price.  What could He possible love the that extent? You and me.

“But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. 6 All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the sins of us all.” (Isaiah 53:5-6)

Fall

It is now officially autumn and there is “a feeling in the air.” The air is getting crisper in the evenings and the leaves are, ever so slightly, showing signs of changing.   I don’t understand how fall is not everyone’s absolute favorite time of year.  I really don’t.  I don’t dislike any of the seasons.  I enjoy them all and I would not want to live somewhere where they don’t get to enjoy all 4 seasons.  There is just something extra special about autumn.  My wife and I even named our first child “Autumn Grace.”

I recently read Bubba Smith’s blog where he discusses his favorite things about fall. (You should check out his site at http://www.BubbaSmith.net) Reading his blog both got me excited about autumn and inspired me to write about the things I love as well.  So here you have it, a few of the many reasons why autumn is far and away the best season.

1. The feeling in the air.  I am not sure if anyone remembers the band “Better Than Ezra,” but they had a tune that talked about “a feeling in the air” called “This Time of Year.”  They were on to something.  I don’t know quite how to describe this wonderful aspect of fall other than “there’s a feeling in the air.”

2. Changing leaves. This is an obvious one.  Certainly some years are better than others, but it is hard to beat the beauty of Autumn leaves.

3. Hunting season.  When fall arrives so does one of my favorite pastimes. I love getting out in the woods and hunting gives me an excuse to do it during the most beautiful time to be out there.

4. Blue sky. This one may just be me, but I think the sky is “bluer” in the fall.  Every thing seems more vivid and beautiful to me.  It could simply be that I can finally see things clearly after the humidity and haze of summer has gone, but either way, I love it.

5. Holidays.  When Autumn rolls around we are also moving into the “holiday season.” Looking forward to time with family, focusing on being thankful and preparing to celebrate Jesus’ birth go in the “plus” column for fall as well.

6. Breaking out your favorite sweatshirt, jacket or other cool weather clothing.

7.  Football season is here.

8. Beverages.  From apple cider to hot cocoa, there are some drinks that just seem out of place when enjoyed outside of fall.

9. Fire.  Whether it is an outdoor bon-fire or indoors in a fire place, it is nice to enjoy some warmth instead of trying to escape from it.

10. Hay rides, harvest parties, the smell of the air in the morning, jumping into leaf piles…

Ok, there are lots and lots of reasons to love fall.  Did I miss any?

It’s that time of year

Well, I have done it again.  I have watched a group of young people work their way through middle school and high school and then go off to college.   And, once again, I have underestimated the toll it would take on me emotionally.

Just this past week the last few students from the class of ’10 left for college. They have been slowly trickling away for 2 or 3 weeks.  And now, they are all gone.  They attend their last youth service, say their good-byes, then they pack up their things and leave town.  I know I will miss them, but it is not until they are gone that I realize just how much.  I suppose it is the nature of youth ministry, something most youth pastors can identify with and experience at the end of every summer.  After spending 4, 5, or 6 years investing in, pouring into and loving these students, the time comes for them to move on.  My first time through this cycle it caught me off guard.  I became nearly depressed when students I had grown so attached to left.  Now I know what to expect, but it is still no fun.

I knew I would miss them, but last night, after the kids were in bed, and I had a moment to sit and reflect, it hit me.  I became quite emotional as I lamented that my time with these students has essentially come to an end.  In 1 Thessalonians 2:8 Paul said, “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.”

It is one thing to simply preach to people.  It is quite another to share your life, to love those you minister to and to allow them to become dear to you.  Learning to care more deeply makes you incredibly vulnerable.  It makes you susceptible to heartache. But I am learning to be more like Paul, and despite these risks, I am “delighted” to do so.