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Santa Fe, Theology, and Babylon

As I was getting ready for work today I watched, or more listened, to the coverage of the Santa Fe shooting. The news anchors were doing what news anchors do, covering the victims' family stories, profiling the shooter, discussing the cry for gun control, and talking about how tragic this all was. They're right, it is very tragic on many levels. However, while Facebook explodes with armchair pontification from people like me, my thoughts went to another place. My thoughts stayed mostly on the shooter. Not that I wasn't deeply saddened for the victims, because I am. I can't even imagine what their parents are going through right now. One mother felt as though her daughter was the main target because she had dismissed the shooter's romantic advances in the past. The heartbreak she is feeling now is beyond the scope of my understanding.

What crossed my mind regarding the shooter and the situation in general was a sobering, saddening thought. This isn't getting any better, it's getting worse, more frequent, and seemingly with less and less provocation. What crossed my mind is that my children, the ones who are left in this age range, and my grandchildren, are growing up in a world where this is the norm, not the exception. Shootings are driving a new industry that travels to teach school aged children how to defend themselves with desks, books, and pencil bags. Our world, like the hearts of men, is dark and growing darker all the time.

I thought about how do we reach the kids like this? The schools can't fix this. The government can't fix this. Only the High King of Heaven can fix this. We, as the church, the image-bearers of the Most High, must figure out a way to bring His peace to this dark and lonely place. He is the only thing that can make this any better, and the rub is, it probably wont get better as a whole, but it can get better for some. We must be on the lookout for the lonely, the discarded, the hurting, and be the Light to them in this dark and weary place.

Everyone is hitting social media with thoughts like, "if we hadn't kicked God out of schools, perhaps this wouldn't be happening." Perhaps. However, this issue isn't coming from the schools, and I don't think the answer lies in the schools, either. Sure, arming teachers may or may not help in the moment. Sure, bringing prayer back in might help expose students to morsels of truth, but to think that a daily prayer on the loudspeaker would somehow single-handedly stem the tide of this level of darkness seems a bit odd to me. However, appealing to the Creator is our hope. The problems isn't our schools, and that's not what punched me in the face this morning. It was this:

We must prepare and train our children to live and survive in a depraved post-modern world with redefined norms where school shootings, gender confusion, victimization, trafficking, and all sorts of debauchery are no longer exceptions to the rule. Our kids are growing up in dark world that will only get darker. They are most certainly strangers in a strange land that grows more hostile each day to the ways of Jesus.

This is why it is imperative, and I can't say this too strongly, it is IMPERATIVE that we train our children up in theology. I'll be the first to admit, even as a pastor, to relying far too much on the church, round table discussions, and passive teaching moments to instill theology into my children. These are all good strategies, but they are not enough. Maybe the most important practical task our churches have before them in this time (other than pure Gospel teaching/living) is a revitalization of passion around theologically training our kids and teaching our families to do it at home, then doing it!

Soft-sold lessons that give warm fuzzy emotional feelings will not sustain them in the days to come. They need to know who God is, why Jesus came, why they need him (their own depravity before God), and how to walk upright in the ways of Jesus while standing up under the scrutiny and hatred of a world that hated Jesus, too. We need to be intentional about building strong leaders, strong servants, empowered by the Holy Spirit of God. I beg youth pastors, senior pastors, elders and all leaders, don't water down the truth. The kids can handle it. The need it. They are facing such devastating truths in the world around them, we MUST give them weapons with which to defend the faith, to guard their souls, and to lead the church of the next generation. We must teach them to rely solely on God, to stop worrying about whether they are relevant, and encourage them to be sound.

Jesus is the hope for people such as the shooter in Santa Fe. We and our children are the ones saddled with the task of sharing that hope with him and those like him. Time is short, the task urgent. We must equip them now to flourish, not just survive, in Babylon.

The Development of Sin - Part 3

The Penalty

Continuing with our Algebra lesson, let us review:

Temptation = Desire + Opportunity

Sin = Desire + Opportunity + Action

It then follows:

Desire + Opportunity + Action - Forgiveness/Repentance = Death

The imagery in this passage (James 1:14-15) and others regarding the process of sin is simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. Let’s look at two passages which deal with the severe cost of sin James 15 and Romans 6:23.

In James, we have a picture of a birth. Strikingly, the thought of a birth is almost always a joyous occasion. We envision the plump little bundles, the small whimpers and cries as the baby nuzzles close to its mother and finds comfort. The picture in James is vastly different. Roy Zuck calls sin a “grotesque child.” Stark contrast to our thoughts of a precious baby. It is born of an unholy union between an unmentioned father and our desires, or lusts: lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. This unmentionable father of death is most certainly the devil himself, metaphorically speaking of course.

Satan is the father of lies, a tempter to evil, and a perverter of truth who loves nothing more than feed on our lustful desires, arrange for opportunities to tempt us to action, then capitalize on our fleshly weakness as we plunge headlong into his traps. This unholy union breeds the grotesque offspring of sin, which in turn, matures and produces its own child, death.

As Zuck relates, unchecked lust and desire bring sin, unconfessed sin (hence the subtraction of repentance in the formula) yields death. Romans 6:23 backs up his claims and reminds us the wages of sin is death. Another interesting metaphor for this twisted child of desire.

Wages are given for something earned, something sought after. I have never known anyone paid for a job they didn’t do or hired for a position they didn’t seek. In a very real sense, the wages paid for sin are given to us for that which we have chosen. The resulting spiritual and physical death are ours to own and ours to avoid.

I firmly believe if we really understood the eternal and temporal wages of mature sin, we would be much more inclined to strive for holiness. It is popular in our church culture to draw in the crowds and pacify the hearer with thoughts of lesser degrees of condemnation which follows sin and fail to warn each other of the vicious and awful payment exacted on unrepentant sin. It will destroy us. It’s penalty is death, and it doesn’t happen to us all at once. It is a process.

So what are we to do about this burden under which we were conceived in our broken flesh? How do we avoid such terrible destruction? Our next installment will explore the depths of dealing with this destructive cycle.

Because She Picked Me

After packing up my Papaw's books and sermons, I was considering our place in the eternal future of things and our Kingdom impact. What would our legacy be? Why do we do what we do? Are we doing it well? That sort of thing. This morning I saw and heard something so affirming I don't know how to describe it. I tell my wife all the time I've fallen I'm love with her all over again. Its not a joke, I mean it. When I see her living her gift, loving us well, or simply being who God made her to be, I'm smitten. Today, it happened again.

I won't sugar coat it, being a foster-adoptive parent is hard. It's also hard on kids. Especially on days like today. Everywhere you turn someone is talking about their awesome mom and the wonderful relationship they have with her. There are sermons, cards, gifts, special food, and extra family for lunch.

What we often miss are those for whom Mother's Day is hard. Those who have tried unsuccessfully to become parents, those who have lost children, and those who are facing, maybe for the first time, the fact that they may never see their mom again. Mother's Day is hard on foster children. Period. There are floods of emotion, or sometimes a complete absence of it, and everywhere in between.

But today, today we were reminded why we do what we do. We were reminded what it means to be that someone who has lost their original someone, father to the fatherless, mother to the motherless. Let's face it, we realize some of you look at us like we are crazy when our family piles out of the car like clowns at a circus. Or when we get charged automatic gratuity at the restaurant because there are so many of us at one table. It's OK with us, we know. We simply believe James 1:27 is true: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world."

We also are keenly aware that what we do is not us, it is all Christ working to make straight the crooked paths we travel. Psalm 68:5 says: "Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation." Seeing a child with no home find one, with no mother, or at least one that is taking care of them, allowing a child to root out a spot in your heart only to leave it, hopefully better than when they arrived; this is truly the habitation of God. In the long and frustrating days, there are days like yesterday, too.

Yesterday they showed a video at church of the kids saying why they loved their mom, what made her great. When it came time for Eli's video, my eyes filled up with tears. He simply said to Tammy, "you're awesome because out of all the foster kids out there, you picked me."

He's right, you know. We did pick him. We may not have picked our biological kiddos, but our love for them is as much a choice every day as the others who came to our home later. Every day we all must choose. Choose to love. Choose to be fathers and mothers who care and sacrifice.  We have to be moms to those who have no one else to whom they can give a Mother's Day card.

Being a mom isn't always about biology, it is about making a choice; a choice to love.

Yesterday evening Tammy and I sat on the back porch just the two of us. We were talking about the spiritual legacy we wanted to leave. I mentioned something in the conversation about witnessing and telling people about the Lord. She then responded with something I thought very profound in its simplicity and impact. She said, "I don't really have the confidence or personality to go out and tell everyone I know about Jesus, but I know how to be a mom. Maybe through that these boys will see the Love of Christ in that."

I fell in love with her all over again ... again.

7 Plastic Bins

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It's been a pretty eventful couple of years. I went back to teaching after a six year break, I'm finishing my Master's, and four of the dearest friends I've ever had moved their families to Colorado. Our first grandbaby was born and the 106 year old church I pastored for ten years dissolved and joined with another church. We brought three 11 year old boys into our home. My father in law and my grandfather both passed away.

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours boxing up my grandfather's books and sermon notes. He was a preacher and missionary for somewhere in the neighborhood of 65 plus years. When I was little I would travel with him from church to church as he spoke and sang some of the corniest songs you've ever heard. I wont lie and say he and I agreed on everything, because we didn't. I wont even say he always lived out everything he studied, but neither do I, and neither do you. However, sitting there flipping through sermon after sermon made me ponder the mortality we all face. At the end of the day, 65 plus years of ministry was reduced to seven plastic bins.

That's it. Seven tubs of books, loose papers, and long forgotten sources of inspiration. This was his legacy. Or was it? I was sad. Partly because I miss him and partly because it seemed like so little, such an incredible reduction of decades worth of work into a few small piles, but then the stories came.

My grandmother came in to see how things were going. Every book, every page sparked a memory. A memory of this preacher and that church. She said when he started preaching he only preached for about 15 minutes at a time. "But he got over that," she laughed. She talked of people he witnessed to who trusted Christ and went on to share that hope with others. We visited about prayer meetings, revivals, and friends long since home with the Lord. That was his ministerial legacy, not the shards of paper in the bins.

It has been said that God makes straight lines with crooked sticks. I know for certain this is true in my case. It was true for Papaw, and it's true for us all. My heroes aren't really preachers and pastors. My heroes are their families. It is the preacher's family who sees them at their worst while everyone else sees their best. It's often hard for our families to reconcile these two sides of us; matching the marred with the redeemed.

I couldn't help but think, after serving in ministry for 24 short years, "what will your legacy be, Matt Parker?" What will be in the jumbled stack of bins representing the sum total of your efforts for the Kingdom. That's a tough question, and maybe a harder answer. For sure there will be reminders of a time when my temper defined me. There will be trinkets to echo a day when I sought more for my children's compliance than I did for their hearts. What will be my legacy with my family be? Another hard question.

There will be things my kids find when I'm gone and one of them will say, "Why on earth did he keep this?" What they may not know is it reminded me of something; something special. Like the shell casing from my brother-in-law's military funeral or the yellow Power Ranger given to me by a young man I led to Christ. They'll wonder why on earth I still have every note Tammy ever wrote when we dated or the really ugly candle one of them gave me for Father's day or some other occasion. Then, they'll put it all in a bunch of bins and try to figure out what to do with it.

Some will go to the trash, some will go to loved ones, and some will just sit there, a vault for some piece of forgotten lore. But my question is this: What will your bins represent? Will they be filled with pointless and meaningless trinkets, money, power, or prestige? Will they be filled with items for which no one can find any meaning?

Or will they be filled with evidence of a life lived pouring the Kingdom into those around you? Sadly, I fear my seven dusty bins will be filled with far more wasted time than effective effort, but it doesn't have to be this way. Today our pastor reminded us as long as you can pray, you have hope. My prayer today is for us to fill our bins with memories and stories of how we did the only thing He really called us to do; die to self, live for others, and praise His name.

God is Unbelievable!!

Yesterday I posted my annual birthday post for Brynna and talked about how we wanted to get her a bike I could push her in because she loves to be outside, but is really limited in what she can do. Though it wasn't my intent to figure out how to actually get the bike just yet, just sharing an amazing looking product we had found, God had other plans. Several people had commented they were praying about it and hoped that God would grant this for Brynna. Well, for those of you who were praying, I'll make sure you get on my prayer chain because your prayers were effective. Yesterday an anonymous donor took care of the cost of the bike and we should be able to have it by the time school is out or shortly thereafter. We are so excited and blessed beyond measure.

Image result for duet bike

God doesn't always answer our prayers in this manner. Sometimes He beckons us to simply hang on to the mast of the ship as the storm rolls through, or says "be patient" when we lay a desire out before Him. Then, then there are those times when He flexes His muscles of Goodness and does the miraculous. This is just one reminder that meeting our needs, and sometimes granting the desires of our hearts, is just something within His nature to do. Don't forget, one time when He and the disciples need to pay taxes, they found money in the mouth of a fish. Making stuff happen in this earthly realm is no hill for a stepper like our Savior.

Tammy and I are so grateful for the unmerited favor of God and the undeserving grace He shows us daily. Thank you, thank you, thank you whoever you are for blessing our baby girl in such a generous way. We will post some videos when we go on our first ride. She's gonna have a BALL!!!

 

The Development of Sin - Part 2

14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

James 1:14-15

The Sin Itself

If Temptation = Desire + Opportunity, then Sin = Desire + Opportunity + Action. I know, I know, this isn’t a math lesson and some of you just had a really awkward flashback to Algebra I, but stay with me. As we noted earlier, temptation isn’t in and of itself a sin. It happens. It is is born out of the desires of our flesh, the sinful ones that call on us to indulge in self-serving indulgence instead of trusting the Lord for our provision.

In this particular text, there is an admonition to count every situation and circumstance as joy in the midst of trial. This is a very hard thing to do. In the pit of the valley our flesh cries out for relief. Sometimes all we want is for it to stop, to return to normal, or be relieved, when what we really should be doing is simply trusting. Often in the darkest of times His still small voice gently whispers, “Trust Me.”

This desire for self-sufficiency and self-reliance betrays us when the opportunity presents itself. Instead of resting, we worry. Instead of being grateful, we complain. Instead of loving, we hate.

It’s easy to give into our desires. The hard part is to stand firm in the opportunity, look our desire in the face and deny it. I know some of you right now are saying, “but what if God wants to end the trial, or grant the desire.” In that case, it isn’t our own desire of which we are speaking, it would be His desire. This passage is dealing with our own desires, those desires that go counter to what God wants for us. To stand in the face of ourselves, deny ourselves, and move forward is no easy task.

He knows this. That’s why He gives us the Holy Spirit to empower us to obey. This is why He puts us in trials of life, in the crucible, to melt away our trust in self and transform us into a pure reflection of His image. This is where we go wrong.

When opportunity presents itself, opportunity to fulfill our sinful, selfish desires, and we act on it, then we have sinned. This action can be outward physical action, indulgence, thoughts, or attitudes of the heart such as bitterness and hate.

We are presented opportunities all the time to indulge these fleshly desires and take the opportunity to act and thus to sin. Our call before the Lord is to die to ourselves, deny those desires, to take up our cross and follow Him in holiness and obedience.

She's 11

It’s that time of year again. It comes around every May; Brynna’s birthday. It always seems a time when I contemplate the past, peer into the future, and wonder how things could have been or how they will be. I’ll be honest, sometimes it’s a sad time.

We have conversations about what we will do for her birthday by way of a gift and it always ends with something utilitarian because she needs things. She doesn’t understand what it is to even have a birthday, much less appreciate a special gift. For her an empty box can bring hours, days, and sometimes weeks of enjoyment.

This is a time when I look around outside as Spring days are filled with playable sunshine and beckoning breezes. Then I remember that Brynna can’t really take the heat, her stamina isn’t all that great for walking, her skin is sensitive to sunburn, and frankly, she doesn’t like grass to touch her feet. She does, however, love to be outside when she can, as long as she can.

This year is a bit different in another way, too. This year we have three eleven year old foster sons in the house. Everyday they go outside and play. They run, climb trees, play basketball, have Nerf wars, and hit the tennis ball with Erika’s old bat. They do what eleven year old boys do.

Then I think of Brynna. She is inside, not running, not climbing, not hitting the ball.  She is content and happy though. She almost always is, but she loves being outside. That’s why I want this year to be different. This year, I’m on a mission.

Not long ago I found something that turned my head and made me think, “Brynna NEEDS that!” It is a bike. A fancy bike built for kids and adults just like her. It’s called the Duet Wheelchair Bike by Mobility and Access, Inc. It has a wheelchair on the front and an adult-sized bike on the back. She can sit in the Wheelchair and I can pedal her around in the great outdoors! This is a game changer!


When she was smaller I pulled her in a trailer and she absolutely loved it, but as she grew she no longer fit in the little toddler trailers. Not to be stopped in our pursuit of outdoor fun, I built her a larger one with a place for her wheelchair and we used it a couple of times. It wasn’t long before we realized she was just too big for that, too. Not to mention how hard it was to drag a 65 pound kid in a trailer up East Texas hills.

This Duet Bike solves both problems. She will easily fit into the seat and there is an electric assist model that would help to push her now at 85 pounds up the steepest of hills. This year, I thought, she is getting a bike for her birthday.

Will this bike make her better? No. Will it heal her? Nope. Will it make her able to do something other kids do? Sort of, and that's exciting!

It will allow her a quality of life more like kids her age. It will provide her with the same sort of enjoyment the others get when the wind is whipping through their hair as they speed down the trail! I want her to experience that thrill. I want her to have a bit of normalcy, and somehow, by God's grace, she will.

The doctors have written a prescription so maybe insurance will help, but it's doubtful. These things are expensive. If not, we will figure out a way and Brynna will get her bike! 

The Lord has taught us so many things through this little cherub. Another year means another year we weren’t promised, or even hoped for. Another year of the child they sent home to die defying the odds as a living testimony to the goodness and greatness of God as He molds all of us into a more clear reflection of Himself, whether we like it or not.

This Duet Bike solves both problems. She will easily fit into the seat and there is an electric assist model that would help to push her now at 85 pounds up the steepest of hills. This year, I thought, she is getting a bike for her birthday.

Will this bike make her better? No. Will it heal her? Nope. Will it make her able to do something other kids do? Sort of, and that's exciting! It will allow her a quality of life more like kids her own age. It will provide her with the same sort of enjoyment the others get when the wind is whipping through their hair as they speed down the trail! I want her to once again experience this thrill. I want her to have a bit of normalcy, and somehow, by God's grace, she will.

The doctors have written a prescription so maybe insurance will help, but it's doubtful. These things are expensive. If not, we will figure out a way and Brynna will get her bike! 

The Lord has taught us so many things through this little cherub of a child. Another year means another year we weren’t promised, or even hoped for. Another year of the child they sent home to die defying the odds as a living testimony to the goodness and greatness of God as He molds all of us into a more clear reflection of Himself, whether we like it or not.

The Development of Sin - Part 1

14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

James 1:14-15

Temptation

James begins his letter with a counter-cultural call to count it all joy when we encounter trials of various kinds. This admonition is foreign to the world in which we live. Organizations and worldviews have been built and thrive on the very premise that we should avoid trials at all cost, and in turn, we should never be happy in them, much less joyful. However, joy and happiness are two very different things. Happiness is dependent on one’s circumstances, while joy is dependent on one’s position. Joy, or more importantly, joy in Christ, can be found and proclaimed from the deepest of valleys even when happiness is fleeting and transient. He tells us to do this for one simple reason: it builds steadfastness. It gives us what my Papaw used to call “stick-to-it-iveness.” A better word might be perseverance. Trials teach us to stay in the fight, or better yet, they teach us to trust; to trust Jesus as our stay and our power, the source of our joy.

In verse 12, the passage speaks again of the benefit of remaining steadfast in the trial, whatever it may be. James goes so far as to ensure us all that doing so brings more than professed or felt joy, but it even brings us a crown of life, an eternal reward with Him. Then, the text takes a seemingly odd turn. James immediately begins to unfold something that may at first seem completely unrelated to trials and the determined, Spirit-driven proclamation of joy; Temptation.

What on earth does temptation have with enduring trials and expressing joy in them? Why would he jump from speaking of trials to telling us how to deal with sin? The dictionary defines temptation as a desire to do something, especially something wrong or unwise. In this particular context the desire is on to return to a place of comfort, to a place where we are in control and there is no pain or discomfort. However, in a more general sense, temptation and the development of sin can be carried into all aspects of our walk with the Lord.

The enemy entices us with all sorts of things, with myriads of vices. Most people think temptation comes purely from without, from things “out there” in our world. While the substance of the consummation of our temptations may be external, the origin of the desires comes from the place we least expect, from within our own hearts. In this particular passage, even the devil himself is left out of the discourse of blame. The onus and responsibility of temptation is placed squarely on the shoulders of each individual and our sinful desires to self-indulgence, self-promotion, and self in general.

Another way to think of temptation is using a simple formula: Temptation = Desire + Opportunity. Being tempted isn’t a sin. Jesus Himself was tempted, yet, without sin. You and I have the same power He called upon through the Holy Spirit to subdue the desires of our broken flesh and resist the pull of temptation. Sin is far less a moment in time, one simple act, as it is a series of developments. A series of taking opportunity to give in to selfish desire. The act of sin is but an intermediate stage preceding the death of its consequence.

Given the role of opportunity as it gives expression to our selfish desires, it is important to minimize the opportunity for the enemy to capitalize on our present sinful desires. That is why we don't go to certain places or engage in opportunistic activities we already know will feed our flesh instead of stirring our affections for Jesus.

Next we will discuss the act of sin itself as well as how and why we go from Desire + Opportunity to actual sinful action.

Here I Raise Mine Ebeneezer

Stones Yesterday I posted about what it means to be "they" to someone and how wonderful it was to be "they" for someone else. Today I saw it again, but it was more than that. What I saw today may have been one of the clearer pictures of the church and the unity that Jesus prayed for in John 17. Ever since our church unified with our sister church across the way, I've spent many a day in John 17, reading about how important it was to Jesus for us to have unity, to validate the message He was sent from God.

Ephesians 2 tells the story of how two groups, Jews and Gentiles, because of the sacrificed flesh of Jesus, were brought together, making one where there was two, reconciling both to God for their good and His glory. The hostility between the two groups was obliterated on the cross, the wall of partition was broken down. This wonderful good news, this Gospel, meant for us Gentiles, those far off from the promises of God, were now in the fold and joint heirs with our brothers in Christ, brought near to His very bosom.

This glorious work dovetails nicely with John 17 and Jesus' prayer for unity. Not unity around earthly things, but unity in Christ. Today, at Chris's memorial service, I saw a beautiful tapestry unfold the likes of which I've not seen before. I stood in a Southern Baptist Church, worshiped with a lovely group of Christians who follow the traditions of Messianic Judaism (Christians who observe Jewish tradition and teachings), while we admired a casket built largely from old pews from a very conservative fundamental Baptist Church. It was as if Father was saying, "watch what I can make."

The service was one of the most beautiful I've ever seen. The name of the Lord was exalted, God on High was proclaimed, Jesus was heralded as our hope in times of mourning because we, as He will one day be resurrected and united to live with Him forever. I saw Jew and Gentile, young and old, Baptist and Messianic observers all worshiping the One True King. We wept with those who wept. We mourned with those who mourned, and we shared the hope we all have in Jesus. Who would have thought in tiny Martin's Mill, TX our sovereign Father would embroider such a wonderful work of art before our eyes.

At the close of the day we all placed a rock on the casket. There are many thoughts on the origin and meaning of this tradition, but today it was about the fact that Chris loved to hunt for rocks. That, coupled with a tradition we see in the Old Testament where the Israelites would pile up stones of remembrance for big events. They would place their Ebeneezer, or their stone of help, in places where God had brought them deliverance and protected them. The old hymn resounds as it pronounces, "Here I raise mine Ebeneezer, hitherby thy help, I've come." In 1 Samuel 7:12, Samuel placed an Ebeneezer saying, "hitherto hath the Lord helped us." Today, He truly helped us. Helped us to grieve, to mourn, and rejoice in the hope of the resurrection.

When the Israelites would pass by these stones, history tells us they would rehearse to the younglings stories of why the stones were there, of the strength of the Lord. Today's stones will be transplanted into a garden display for Felisha, Chris's wife. When their young unborn baby grows to run through the flowers and asks Felisha about the pile of stones, I'm sure she, and the rest of the family will sit and tell of Chris and how he was a stone of help from the Lord. Each stone a story. Each rock a remembrance of a life well-lived for the Lord.

Chris, you will be missed, but the testimony of how you impacted the lives of others was evident today as we filled the house to standing room only to honor you and to remember the grace and the blessing God had for us in knowing you. Rest in peace, my friend, His peace, His Shalom. Till we meet again.

They

Last week our pastor brought a great message from Mark chapter 2. It chronicles the story of a group of fellows who made sure their paralytic friend got in to see Jesus by letting him down through the roof. In the passage the group is referred to several times only as "they." "They" made sure their friend got to Jesus. "They" didn't care about what it cost them. They didn't care about their finances, their reputations, or the fallout. They cared about their friend. This past week a good friend and member of a very dear family passed away in a tragic accident. His name is Chris. His youth and station in life, newly married and newly expecting their first baby, makes us wonder many things. Why? Why him, why now, why this family, our community? Short answer: I don't know, but I trust the One who does.

As I write this short blog, there are 5 or 6 young men in my shop, 4 of whom have been here all day, and who will work through the night. Their task? They are building a casket for my friend, one of the young men's brothers. My son is out there, too. They are tired and hungry, but they haven't stopped yet to eat. You see, Chris was a craftsman. He made things. Lots of things. Cool things like homemade knives, bows from PVC pipe, and he even built his own forge for working steel. This final memento is a testament to his craft and skill. I can't imagine the weight these boys, I mean men, are carrying tonight. But I do know what to call them ... "They" are Chris's "they."

They are, in these final moments, doing what "they"s do. They are honoring their brother in the most beautiful display of friendship and family I've seen in a very long time. Chris never asked them to do anything like this to my knowledge. I'm sure there was never a conversation that ended with, "hey, will you be my 'they'?" No, he was just himself. He loved and served and his "they" developed around him. Who's "they" are you? If you need some "they"s of your own, be one to someone else. God is good, even when we don't understand.

Thank you, Pastor, for reminding us to love and serve one another.

Pinned Down

I never get used to it. That moment the doctor comes in with a syringe, a scalpel, a utensil of some sort and Brynna starts her battle to escape. Last night was no different.

Over the last 10 years we've spent more than our fair share of nights in the ER or hospital rooms. We took Brynna last night because of a serious infection in her ear that wouldn't relent. Her pain tolerance is higher than most men, so when she can't stand the pain, it's time to do something.

I can handle the waiting. I can handle keep her occupied. I can even handle lack of sleep and exorbitant medical costs. What I never get used to is helping. Helping them hold her down while they do whatever it is they must do in order to help her, to make her well.

Brynna is 10 years old and strong as an ox. She pushed back on me with all her might as I gave her the necessary bear hug to hold her still. Mom had her legs. Brynna was crying. I was crying. I tried not to let her see my face as I whispered, "It's ok, baby. I love you. We have to do this to make you well. I love you so much." That's when I caught a glimpse of her eyes.

Those little blue eyes. They were filled with huge crocodile tears, set beneath a furrowed brow that spoke a clear message, "Why daddy? Why don't you stop this? Why are you letting this happen?" I whispered to her as I held her that we had to do it. We had to make her well. I assured her I loved her and this was for her good in the long run.

How many times has Jesus held me in an appropriately strong bear hug in the middle of my hurt, my chastisement, my pain and sorrow, gently whispering, "I love you. We have to do it this way, it's for your good in the long run, to make you well."? The answer is, many.

I'm also certain his eyes, as mine and Brynna's, well up with tears, feeling my hurt, experiencing every ounce of my sorrow. But His great and surpassing love for me occasionally keeps me pinned to the table so I may learn of Him; so I may be more like Him.

Why do I think He weeps for us? Lazarus and his family. Jesus waited to arrive, Lazarus died. The whole family was pinned to the table, the sisters even approached Jesus asking why. Their eyes crying out to Him just like Brynna's to me. His response to Lazarus' family? He wept.

He wept for Lazarus. He wept for the sisters whom He loved. He wept because weeping was appropriate. He knew He was about to raise Lazarus, and He wept anyway.

Next time you are pinned to the table, weeping, know your Savior weeps with you and has your sanctification in mind. Trust Him. Yield to Him. He knows better.

When it was all over last night, Brynna sat up and, through tears, began to hug and kiss us while she cried. As if to say, "I know you love me. I know you can't fix it. It just hurts. I'm not mad at you and thank you for making me better."

Right now she is sitting and playing with her reflection just like always. She seemingly has no memory of last night's pain and sorrow. She is better. We are better, but the pain was necessary to get there.

I want to be like her when I grow up.

 

Dunkirk and Following Jesus

Dunkirk and Following Jesus We went to see the movie Dunkirk this afternoon. The movie is really intense. The warnings say PG-13 due to "peril". Peril was a good word. I like true stories and I like war movies. They usually inspire me to want to be better than I am. I romanticize the idea of being able in the fight to push through and sacrifice for my fellow soldiers in the cause. The truth is, though, I also know myself and know I am prone to fear and being paralyzed by it. This movie, and the true stories behind it, made me think over and over about the truth of what it looks like to follow Jesus.

I wont ruin the movie, but let me say the situation was dire. Men were dying, worse, they were in peril constantly. They only had a few options of hope, and those were slim. What I loved about the movie was the messages it sent, the stories it told. Stories of selfless heroics in the face of certain death; stories of self-sacrifice for a greater cause, living, and in some cases, dying, to further a brother. Comradery on a wide scale. It felt like what it feels like to follow Jesus sometimes.

Folks, this thing Christ has called us to is real. There is often real pain and suffering to be had. So many in the professing church have made it their life's work to avoid the suffering of ministry, to avoid the dirty and messy work of following Jesus, of loving people, even our enemies. We find ourselves running away from the fight instead of headlong into it. What impressed me in the movie was the reason those who rushed into harms way. They were not amped up to win the battle. That, I'm afraid, was lost for the day. They risked all because their countrymen were hurting and needed help.

Our world is fraught with broken people just like us that are hurting and need help. Will you run home to safety or risk it all to help them, to bring them home? One of the most touching moments in the movie (I'll spare details to those who haven't seen it) was the moment when the 400,000 men trapped on the beach were encouraged by the presence of so small a token of help and salvation. It wasn't enough, it couldn't stem the tide, but it encouraged the hearts of those in the direst of straits.

This is how we felt in Nicaragua when we visited. We couldn't change much, we couldn't even help very long, but the look in the eyes of the native pastors and believers when we showed up ... when the American Christians cared enough to fly all the way over there and encourage them by our presence ... that, friends, was worth millions.

Being a true Jesus follower will require us at times to take stock on what we value, on how much we love people. Do we love them enough to charge into battle, to knowingly sacrifice our reputations, our money, our homes, our families, or our lives? The world is trapped by the enemy, backed up to an unforgiving sea of hopelessness. Jesus is their hope ... and we are bringing Him to them on little lifeboats and rafts. It seems an insurmountable task, but forge ahead, we must. When they see us crest the horizon during their dark nights of the soul, they will be encouraged if nothing else. We may not make it out, but we know we will have been faithful. It's not about us, you know. It's about Jesus and He has given us orders.

When can their glory fade? O the wild charge they made!  All the world wondered. Honor the charge they made, Honor the Light Brigade,  Noble six hundred.

Charge of the Light Brigade - Tennyson

So that's what it is ...

My lovely wife loves Hallmark movies of all persuasions. She watches them a bit at a time to unwind from the day. One of the Quality Time experiences I can share with her is to sit and watch them with her. Normally if I were honest, I'm not really into them, but I've gotten hooked on the "Love Comes Softly" series based on the Janet Oke books. They are sort of like Hallmark meets Little House on the Prairie, but they appeal to me. Last night while we watched one, it hit me ... "so that's what it is!" You see, these movies remind me of the things I love about my home. They kindle a desire in my soul for simpler things. Sure, sometimes the dialogue is cheesy and the plot predictable, but they are peppered with basic Christian values our culture, even our church culture, has deemed odd or fanatical. At every turn the townspeople of Anderson Corner are giving of themselves for the good of their neighbors, giving God the glory. The stories aren't saturated with everything working out just fine, either. Babies die, people die of infection, plagues, and scarlet fever. Crops don't get rain, farms get repossessed. Real stuff. All the while they rely on God, pray, and trust Him for the outcome. Sometimes, it works out. Sometimes it doesn't. It is good to have entertainment that reminds me of the way things could be, maybe should be. Frankly, it reminds me of Martin's Mill, the Martin's Mill I grew up in. The "general store", the school, and everyone working together to help their neighbors.

Last night was the hardest episode yet. In the story, an orphan train came to town with 7 or so kids who had no families. They lined them up in front of the church and families sat out there and picked like they would pick a good horse or a used car (wagon). It was heartbreaking. This really happened back in the day. In fact, there are still events sort of like this now. It warmed my heart that family after family who had love to give stepped up to take in the children and give them a home. The train departed empty, in the name of Jesus and the Christian ethic. Oh, if we would empty the "trains" of our day. Yes, we may hurt deeply, but that only means we've loved deeply.

These shows appeal to me because they are overtly attempting to portray the way of Christians in the harsh west. They had faith, love for one another, unity, and a spirit of humility before God. I would like these people.

MiniMatt: Inoculated Against the Gospel

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One of the most difficult mission fields is in the buckle of the Bible belt.  Don't believe me? Ask any pastor who lives in a part of the country characterized by "a church on every corner and a preacher up every tree".  Our society has just enough Jesus that we don't need any more.  We have just enough Gospel that it really wont infect us. It may make us uncomfortable from time to time, but there'll be no "gospel outbreak" happening any time soon.  You see, many want to be a Christian, to be saved.  The problem is, few want to follow Jesus.  To follow Jesus is to be like Him, not just a distant observer and admirer of His ways.

Upside Down: Children In Church

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Update:  I have decided to change the name of this series of posts from Different Lenses, to Upside Down.  This term speaks more clearly about my intentions.  I want to look at "normal" things through the Upside Down way that Jesus seemed to.  He set the world on edge when he brought to the universe of faith a completely different way of seeing things. "Hey, Honey, there’s snot on your shirt." The way we see the world is tainted, or at least filtered, by the lenses we wear. In this series of blog posts I want to take some things that we may think of as “normal” and maybe look at them in a different light, through Different Lenses, if you will. Children In the Church Service I recently read an article about children in church. The article had some really helpful things to say in regards to encouraging those who struggle with small children in church. It attempted, and maybe succeeded, it communicating that they and their children are not just tolerated, but are actually welcomed and appreciated. However, I wonder if we could look at this through a Different Lens. There was something in the article that made my senses uneasy, made me tilt my head sideways a bit, narrow my eyes, purse my lips and wonder, “Hmmm … is all we can do here is ‘notice them’?“ You see, the article repeatedly said, “I see you …“, then filled in a particular struggle the mother/parent was having with the small child. I am a visual person and in my mind’s eye, I saw a lady in church, smiling gently as she looked across the room at the struggling mother, and in her heart she really was grateful to have the lady and her child there. She really was glad to see them … but … she just sat there. What would happen if it wasn’t enough to just “see them” in the service? What would happen if instead of validating their struggle by watching and not complaining and even accepting it, what if the writer got up and offered to help? What if she showed the lady where the nursery or the location of another room where she could hear the service and let the child play (we call it a Cry Room)? What if she simply sat next to her and kept the child occupied while the mother listened to the service? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to be scornful here, but I do want us to look at this differently. Accepting and tolerating this often difficult situation is great, but what we as the church are really after is relationship, first with Jesus, then with each other. To bear one another’s burdens means more than even loving acknowledgement of each other’s struggles. It means jumping head-long, or feet first or cannonball if you please, into each other’s personal struggles and grabbing some of the burden for ourselves to bear. What if the young mother didn’t need a blog post to tell her that we saw her, but she felt that we loved her? What if she knew we loved her because we offered to give her a break from her fussy, or young, or ill-behaved child while she tried to soak up some teaching or singing or maybe just an unspoiled cup of coffee? What if we went even further and modeled for her hopefully present husband (though she may be alone) that it is ok for him to also engage with the children if he isn’t already? I know that in our culture this seems intrusive and we are all afraid of being “butt-in-skees” (have no idea how to spell that), but deep relationship requires us to first, actually care about the plight of those around us and, then to act on it. To look at this through a different lens might mean that we go home that day with snot on our shirt that belongs to someone else’s kid. (I know, that’s a tough call to make). It may also mean that we miss the lesson that morning. We could listen to the recording later, you know. What it also means is that this mother / parent goes home with your love, the Love of Christ, on his or her heart. That’s a pretty fair trade for some snot.

I QUIT!

I QUIT! I quit … viewing the pastorate as a career.

I quit … viewing my community as a market of potential consumers of religious wares

I quit … seeing the congregation as a job site

I quit … looking to others for validation of the ministry that God has given me

I quit … gauging success by worldly standards

I quit … validating the worldly idea that ministers should be distant from their parishoners

I quit … succumbing to the temptation of the promise of better things

I quit … viewing my flock as anything other than what they are: my community, my family

Too many small congregations have been exposed to decades and decades of religious abuse by pastors and, indeed a culture, that views them only as stepping stones to something “really important” like the mission field or denominational leadership.  I say, “I quit!”  I quit looking at the people of God that way.  Instead, I choose to see ministry for what it is, a calling of God to serve and sacrifice in a particular context.  I would to God that men would arrive at their congregation and commit to spend the rest of their lives in service to that flock.  I wish men would stop looking for the next big thing, the next place to go, the next career opportunity.  I quit being part of the problem.  The parish church is the church of the Bible.