Hanging the Greens


     My college-student son was home for Thanksgiving, so we took the opportunity to decorate our house for Christmas this past weekend- and we have LOTS of Christmas decorations! We arrived back home from our Thanksgiving sojourn to the ancestral manse in Southern Illinois mid-afternoon on Saturday, and a-decorating we did go! Here’s how it happens at our house- we start by packing up all of our “ordinary time” stuff! You see, in the church, there are “seasons” and “days” that have special themes and colors associated with them. When we aren’t in one of those “special” times, we are said to in ‘ordinary time”! (It sounds so…I don’t know…ORDINARY!) Anywho, after our “ordinary” stuff is packed away, we begin hauling out the Christmas storage units. Let’s see: we have 2 large storage tubs marked “Christmas” in the garage (not to be confused with the 3 large tubs marked “snowmen”- they go up in early January- or the other 3 large tubs marked “Easter”- they go up when the snowmen stuff comes down!); we also have 2 larger wooden, wheeled Christmas storage units in the basement. (Did I mention- we have a great deal of Christmas STUFF?!) Meanwhile, the cookies and hot chocolate are served. (Are we Ward and June Cleaver…or what?! Just don’t call my older son Wally- he HATES that!) We crank up the local Christian radio station, which broadcasts Christmas music 24 hours/day from Thanksgiving to Christmas. (I listen to it SO much that I drive my family crazy…a short drive some days!) And with the smell of warm cocoa and melting marshmallows blending with the dulcet tones of Nat King Cole crooning “The Christmas Song” (ONLY the BEST Christmas recording EVER made!), we start unpacking. So much stuff pours out in such a short period of time that, at one point, our dining room table is COVERED in Christmas! My wife and kids put stuff where it belongs while I unpack and re-pack. Things go great until we near the end of the decorating. 
     After all the stories have been re-told and all the laughs had, a remarkable and sadly predictable thing happens- the boys…disappear. It’s like a David Copperfield thing- one minute they’re there, the next minute…presto change-o…they’re gone! (It’s really quite impressive! I can only assume the older one taught it to the younger one. Either that, or it is some sort of genetic marker!) So, we “find the lost sheep” and impress upon them the importance of finishing strong! Counting church and my in-laws house, we have already decorated 3 places for Christmas…and it’s NOT even December yet! 
     Tradition is an interesting thing- it can be a warm, comfortable friend that makes you feel safe and secure, or it can be an anchor, tethering you to the ground, making it impossible for you to move forward. I would argue that tradition which provides those positive feelings and experiences is important, perhaps essential. We need the stability it provides to ground us in that which feeds our souls. However, when tradition crosses over into the “boat anchor” realm, it is not only NOT helpful…it can be QUITE harmful. If you find yourself, your family, your workplace, your church, whatever, saying things like, “we’ve NEVER done it that way” or “we’ve ALWAYS done it that way” or “we tried that once, 40 years ago…it didn’t work”, your traditions have nailed you to the ground. It all boils down to how we respond to change. (Ooooooo…THAT’S a BAD word!) Where in your life do you resist change, rebel against it? Let’s be honest, we ALL do it in some area of our lives! But the truth is that change is inevitable. Change is natural. Change is healthy. Look at your life now, and compare it to your life 30, 20, even just 10 years ago. There is NO facet of your life that is the same NOW as it was THEN. So why would we think that we could freeze some portion of our lives in the past, so that it would NEVER change? Now, I am NOT saying you should throw out your traditions- not at ALL! But you SHOULD consider them, weigh them, decide if they are healthy ones or not.  As hard as it may be to jettison some of those traditions, to free yourself from the ones that weigh you down is so…well… freeing!  What traditions will you be a part of this Christmas season? More importantly, what loved ones will you spend quality time with? That’s the key to this season- relati
onships! 
     Bake some cookies, make some hot chocolate, put a little Nat King Cole on the stereo, and wait with anticipation for the coming of a baby in a manger who split time in half! Please take a moment and join my Facebook Fan Site, or Tweet me, or email me. Also, I encourage you to share your prayer requests with me. All of these things are found on this page. Thanks for stopping by today. Share this with your family and friends, be sure and come back tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Adoration

 

     A little boy is going to bed, and he stops to say his prayers. “God, bless my mom, bless my dad, and CAN I HAVE A NEW BICYCLE?!!” His brother, in the bed next to him turns and says, “Keep it down! God is NOT deaf!” The little boy replied, “No…but Grandma is!” What IS prayer? Prayer is, simply put, conversation… with God. And perhaps the most well-known prayer in Christianity is the Lord’s Prayer. Today is the 1st Sunday in Advent- the time of waiting leading to Christmas.  For the next 4 Sundays, we will pick apart and examine the Lord’s Prayer. Then we’ll reassemble it, complete with a new understanding. In the process, we’ll see what new insights we can glean from those familiar words.
     The Greek phrase “Kyrie Eleison” translates “Lord have mercy”, and that’s what the Lord’s Prayer seeks to offer…mercy. God’s mercy, offered in the Lord’s Prayer, comes to fruition in the Christmas season, when the birth of a baby in a manger changes the world.
     In the 11th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, the disciples say to Jesus, “Teach us how to pray”. Jesus’ response is the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer is sometimes known by its 1st 2 words in Latin- Pater Noster…Our Father. It is perhaps the best known and most quoted of all Jesus’ teachings. In this prayer, Jesus moves us from images of God as remote to images of God as one who is always with us. Today, we focus on the 1st 10 words: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name”.
     Our
– the 1st word
suggests that this is a corporate prayer. It reminds us that we are not alone; we are linked to one another through God. When we draw closer to God, we are drawn into a closer relationship with each other.
     Father- a completely uncommon term in Old Testament prayers, where a chasm often seems to separate us from God. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus invites us to draw close to a God who is not only holy but personal. When we call God “Father”, it more rightly describing us and our relationship to God. We can approach Him with the familiar confidence a child has with their parent. How awesome that we can come to the maker of all things and call Him “Father”! Kyrie Eleison- Lord have mercy! Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “My religion is summed up in the 1st 2 words of the Lord’s Prayer!” It’s a simple, clear-cut statement in which Jesus lays out the relationship between God and humanity.
     who art in heaven– God is not just anywhere; He is in the place of power, the seat of love, the time of eternity. And He offers that same eternity to us.
     hallowed be thy name– “hallowed” has the same meaning as “holy”, “wholesome”, and “healed”. It means we are to hold God in reverence; it reminds us that the basic posture of prayer is one of awe. In ancient writings, “name” is often seen as the essential nature or character of a thing. When we are told the name of God, we are told His nature as well- God’s nature is “hallowed”.  Kyrie Eleison- Lord have mercy
    God is the perfect Cause, but a Cause has to be expressed. God expresses Himself through…us. Every feature of our lives is really just a manifestation of something in our soul. Life isn’t easy- there are daily battles, trials that can crush our spirit. So we ask God to keep us from falling, to help us know the right thing, to deliver us. Are you reluctant to approach God? What expectations do you have about God that interfere with your ability to pray? There is a structure of prayer that I have shared before called ACTS. The 1st step of that structure is captured in today’s section- A…for adoration.
“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name”. Although His name is honored above all names, we are still His children; we occupy a place of privilege in His heart. On this 1st Sunday in Advent, we say, “Come, Lord Jesus, come!” Kyrie Eleison- Lord
have mercy!

     Thanks for stopping by today. I pray you have a great day! Share this with friends, come back tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

   

Decorate For Dax

     I will tell you up front that I don’t know this family or this boy. I never met them, and it seems I never will. But I have been touched by their story and wanted to share it with you. Dax is a 2-year old boy from Illinois suffering from a rare form of leukemia. After a great deal of treatment, the doctors have said there is nothing more they can do. In an effort to make his time as happy as possible, his family lovingly decided to celebrate every day like it was Christmas, even decorating their house. What 2-year old kid DOESN’T like Christmas? The idea spread to their neighbors…and has just mushroomed from there. Today, if you visit his web page:

you will see that MANY people have put up their Christmas decorations, photographed them, and emailed them for him to see. What a marvelous, simple, touching thing to do for  little boy who seems to have touched so many in his short life.
    I encourage you to do two things this holiday season: 1) visit Dax’s website…and consider putting up some of YOUR Christmas decorations early. Photograph them and email them to his website so he can enjoy them. You can also send him a card at the address found on the website, and 2) focus on the simple things this Christmas. You’ll hear a lot about that from me between now and December 25th, but it is important that we remember why we celebrate, what we celebrate. Do something nice for someone (a random act of kindness, if you will) every day bewteen now and Christmas. Do your own small part to help make this season a bit brighter, a bit more Christ-centered!
     Have a great day, thanks for stopping by, share this with someone, be sure and come back for “church” tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Black Friday

     By now, the crowds have already inundated the stores where you are. People who camped there overnight, or at least arrive in the wee small hours of the morning, have the Wii game or the computer or the IPod or whatever they went to get. The stores, restaurants, and gas stations are PACKED as “the shoppers rush home with their presents”. (I write this in advance of Friday, praying that I don’t have to go to any stores…but knowing that I will probably end up at one!) Thanksgiving is already but a distant memory (except for ALL the leftovers in the fridge. How many ways CAN you creatively re-use turkey?) And we have arrived firmly in the midst of Black Friday. I have always found it interesting that today is called Black Friday. As someone who has managed my share of  businesses, I fully understand the concept that today is the day when many businesses get out of “the red” and move into “the black”…ergo Black Friday. But when I hear the term, I can’t help but think about October 19, 1987, which is commonly referred to as Black Monday. Now, you would assume that Black Monday and Black Friday would somehow be related. That would not, however, be the case. We KNOW what Black Friday is, and Black Monday was the day the United States Stock Market devalued by 22.68% in one day. The name was patterned after Black Thursday, Monday and Tuesday, days in October of 1929 when the Stock Market also crashed.
     It will be interesting to see, at the end of today, what the sales totals are like. On the one hand, the economy is bad, many people’s wages have been frozen, and banks are failing. On the other hand…it IS Black Friday! What we do surrounding Christmas says a great deal about our priorities. So many people spend way more money than they actually have to spend buying things for other people that they really don’t need and might not even really want. At some point in the past several years, my extended family came to the awareness and understanding that what we DIDN’T need was another tie or pair of gloves, let alone that ONE fruitcake that just gets passed from person to person each year, never actually getting eaten…or tossed! We realized that we really didn’t NEED much of anything. So we have pushed further and further into the realm of doing other things with our money- donating it to charities, using it to help provide for families in need, etc. Now, I still get my wife something nice. We still get our kids things. We still buy my dad a shirt! But we have grown to understand the actual point of Christmas…and it’s NOT about how far into debt we can go to wow others! I don’r mean to preach, but I am…after all, a preacher! So my prayer for you, going into this Christmas season, is that you don’t feel the compunction to provide expensive gifts to everyone, regardless of the literal and figurative cost. Instead, that you will focus on the celebration of the greatest gift ever given…a baby in a manger who came to save the world. This Christmas, give your family your time, your attention, your love…that’s what they REALLY want!
     I pray you have survived Black Friday in one piece, and if you HAD to get some bargains today, I pray that worked out the way you wanted it to! Have a great day, thanks for stopping by, make sure you come back tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Thanksgiving Prayer

      My most enduring Thanksgiving memory is perhaps the oddest as well. I was about 8 years old. Many family members came to eat with us. The house smelled WONDERFUL. The food looked great! And…I had a loose tooth. It NEEDED to come out, but I was being a big wuss (a technical term!) and didn’t want to pull it. My mom, tired of hearing me complain about it while being unwilling to actually DO anything about it (a typical “modus operandi” for me as a child!), said she was going to pull it for me at the end of the day if it wasn’t out. That didn’t sound good. You know how your mom brushed your hair when she was mad at your dad? I feared that would be the approach she would take with my tooth! (By the way, looking at my profile picture, perhaps my mom brushed my hair one too many times while mad at my dad!) Well, I fretted and stewed over that tooth all day, too big of a coward to actually pull it out. Then, we sat down to eat. Now, you know that, when you have a loose tooth, it is a challenge to eat. You try and work the food AROUND that tooth, without actually hitting it. So I sat down, excitedly  and expectantly filled my plate, waited impatiently for “grace” to be said (a once-a-year occurrence at my house growing up) and then…dug in! The first thing I took a bite of was the turkey. It looked and smelled SO good that I couldn’t contain myself. It got a big bite on my fork, quickly shoved it in my mouth, and bit down…forgetting all about the tooth! The turkey hit that tooth and POP…it came out. It hurt enough and surprised me enough that tears came to my eyes. And as I pulled the tooth out of my mouth, blinking back those tears, I held it up and said, “Now mom won’t have to pull it!” My day was made!
   So, what are YOU doing for Thanksgiving? Our tradition is to spend it with family…family that we don’t get to see often enough throughout the year. I love white meat turkey, with homemade gravy and stuffing. I love my sister’s mashed potatoes, which sadly I didn’t get to eat today! I love sweet potatoes, and my sister-in-law’s green bean casserole.  Nothing…let me repeat NOTHING…beats my wife’s pumkpin cheesecake! (Although, I must admit, you could probably smear pumpkin on DIRT and I would deem it “OK”- I just love pumpkin!) There is not enough coffee in the world (decaf for me, thank you, since I gave up caffeine a few years ago!) to go along with all that good food. Not being a huge football fan (and sadly, there is NO baseball being played on Thanksgiving!), I won’t watch much TV today. But I just LOVE Thanksgiving. I’ll be honest…I USED to love it for the food. But now, I love it because I get to see people I love. I NEVER get to see ALL the people I would like to see on Thanksgiving (some are in other parts of the country, spending time with other loved ones, and my mom, who’s birthday is tomorrow, passed away 5 1/2 years ago), but I have grown to appreciate and cherish the time I DO get with the people who ARE here! I pray you are able to spend time today with people you love. What you eat, and where you eat it is, in the end of all things, pretty irrelevant. THAT you get to spend that time is what matters. Make the most of it.
     At the end of this post is “prayer requests”. Today, I would encourage you to use that to post A) your favorite Thanksgiving memory, B) what you’re thankful for this year, or C) a Thanksgiving message to the other readers of this blog. Have a safe and blessed Thanksgiving. Thanks for sharing just a bit of your day with me, come back tomorrow for a break from Black Friday, and stick with Jesus!

Lend a Helping Hand

     Over the past few days, I got to do something…remarkable. And I can say that without fear of sounding like I’m bragging or full of myself, because in the grand scheme of things, I did VERY LITTLE to make this happen- I just set up a few things…and then got to go along for the ride! A young woman who is a small business owner in our town AND attends my church (and, by the way, is pregnant!) has a passion for helping others. She contacted me and laid out this plan she had for collecting food and money that would be distributed to families in need for Thanksgiving. Our community has a Food Pantry and a Helping Hand fund- but this was something she felt led to do over and above those existing programs. So…she arranged that services rendered through her business during this time period would generate a $5 donation to go into this fund. Likewise, anyone who brought food in would receive a discount on those services. She laid this plan out for me and then asked me if A) I would help her (she told me she couldn’t do it if I didn’t help…how can you say “no” to that?!), and B) would I get the church involved in it? I assured her the answer was “yes” to both questions, and away we went. I gathered food at the church while she gathered food at her business. When the dust settled, we had collected about 2 shopping carts overflowing with food (the IGA supplied actual shopping carts to collect in!) and nearly $200 in cash! In addition, folks donated whole turkeys. So, we gathered all the food in one place, got the information from the families we had found to receive this bounty, and she went shopping for the perishable items. And BOY did she shop! She bought milk, eggs, cheese, butter, bread, along with paper plates, soap, toilet paper, paper towels, salad dressing, pasta…the list goes on! We then “divvied” up the food between three families, loaded it into my van and her car, and off we went. As we got in our vehicles, she said to me, “Don’t be surprised if I start bawling!” Little did she know!
     We got to the first house, where we were met by a grandma and her granddaughter. They helped us carry all the food in, which literally COVERED their dining table and part of their counter top. The look on their faces was all I needed- I don’t know if SHE was bawling or not, because I was too busy wiping tears from MY eyes! (Must have been hot in there or something!) We then pulled out and went to the 2nd house. There we found a family of 5, including a tiny little baby, who was asleep on the couch. The house was clean and tidy, but it was apparent these folks needed some help. This time, I hadn’t even set the first bag of stuff down before the “waterworks” started again. I just…FELT…for these folks who were trying to do the best they could with what they had.
     I have been involved in a pretty fair amount of missional work over the past 12 1/2 years of ministry. And the one thing it has taught me, above all else is this- when we set out to “help” someone, we often go into it thinking we are going to GIVE these people so much…and it makes us feel good to give. But my experience is this- any time I go into a missional situation thinking I’m going to GIVE something, I ALWAYS come out the other side have received much more than I gave. When you give from the heart, God has a way of blessing you at the same time. Society says, “Take all that you can. Look out for yourself. Cling to your “stuff” with a death grip and DON’T give anything away.” God, on the other hand, says, “Give, and it will be given to you- a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over…” Let me tell you, when I helped  make those deliveries, those families got a lot of food. But I got a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over. How will you show God’s love this Thanksgiving? You will NOT be disappointed if you do! Thanks for stopping by, have a great day, see you tomorrow for Thanksgiving, and stick with Jesus!

The Winds of Fortune

     The winds came without warning. Later, The National Weather Service said they were “straight line” winds, but THEY didn’t come out and inspect the damage at my parent’s house. We all claim “tornado” as the event that occurred that day. I was serving a church near St. Louis, which put me about a 45-minute drive from the “ancestral manse” (Google it) as it were. A severe storm hit the area, causing a great deal of damage across a wide swath of Southern Illinois, including the area where my parents lived. We called to see if they were OK, only to find that, while they AND their house were unharmed, some 24 trees were down in their yard and barn lot alone, along with dozens of trees and power line poles up and down the road on which they lived. They were in NO position to tackle the mess by themselves, and we were all worried about the cost of hiring a service to come in and do the clearing. Then…God stepped in. Someone at my church, who had heard about what happened, said, “why don’t we just put together a work crew from here and go take care of it?!” Gee…what a GREAT idea. Wish I’D thought of it! So we asked for volunteers. 36 people later, we were ready to head out!
     We loaded chainsaws and hand saws up and caravaned to their house. When we turned onto their road, the devastation became apparent. Their house sat 1/2 mile from the end of the lane, and we could only make it a few hundred feet in, blocked from driving any further by trees and poles across the road. So…we unloaded and walked the rest of the way, lugging all the equipment with us. When we arrived at their house, it truly looked like a war zone. Miraculously, not one tree hit the house, although several came REALLY close! My folks were delighted to see all the help. and people jumped right in. The sound of chainsaws and the smell of burning gasoline/oil mix filled the air as we worked. At one point, we found a man in his late 70’s (the SAME man mentioned in previous blogs about Outhouse Evangelism and a preacher with his microphone on in the restroom) standing on a limb, 20 feet off the ground, cutting branches off with a chainsaw! From that day forth, Chainsaw became his nickname! By 2PM that afternoon, ALL the trees were cut up and piled for burning. all the workers were fed, all the equipment was loaded, and we were saying our goodbyes. An amazing amount of work got done by a relatively small group of people in a relatively brief period of time.  As I reflected on what had happened that day, I remembered a quote by Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
     How often do we think, “Why bother? I’m just one person- I can’t make a difference!” But imagine if we all took Margaret Mead’s philosophy to heart. Or if we truly BELIEVED what Helen Keller said, “I’m only one…but I’m still one. I can’t do everything, but I can do something, and I won’t refuse to do the something I CAN do.” We are often so quick to dismiss the possibility of getting involved. We either are too cynical to care or too unsure of ourselves to feel we matter. Know what? None of us is SO awesome as to not care and none of us is so unworthy as to not be able to make a difference. In this current economic climate, there are many things that have been bedrock for us forever that we can no longer cling to: our jobs, our pensions, our 401K’s, Social Security, etc., etc., etc! So to where do we turn? You KNOW what my answer is- God. We turn to God, we ask for guidance, strength, discernment. And then we roll up our sleeves and get involved. We seek out the least, the lost, the hurting in our communities (believe me, when you look, they are NOT hard to find!), and we…get…involved! How awesome would it be if that happened? If people once again acted like…well…PEOPLE, and cared for, and about each other? Who can you help this Thanksgiving week? What difference can YOU make in the lives of others?
     Thanks for coming by, have a great day, come back tomorrow for the Thanksgiving Eve post, and stick with Jesus!

A Lesson From the Miss Illinois Pageant

     I have been told that I have some of the STRANGEST stories around…well…here you go! When my oldest son was about 8 years old, I had the pleasure (?) of serving as the “warm up act” for the Miss Illinois Pageant. (Don’t ask…it’s a LONG and rather dull story!) As I have mentioned before, I am a magician/juggler, and they needed someone to come and simply warm up the crowd. I was NOT televised or featured- instead, I was the sacrificial lamb who was led out to get the crowd “off their hands” as they say and get them ready to make some noise. SO…I packed up my cases AND my son, who wanted to serve as my “assistant”, and headed out. What I found was rather interesting! There were people there who were glad to see me, seemed to thoroughly enjoy the show, and responded accordingly. And then I found some people who came to see the pageant and couldn’t tell the difference between my presence there and the worse idea they had ever heard!! Well, my portion of the show started, and my son- the assistant you may remember- was a bit…scared. Stage fright set in and he just kind of stood there, deer in the headlights look plastered on his face, for the first part of the show. But as we went on, he began to loosen up a bit. By the time I got to the juggling portion, he was pretty comfortable. SO comfortable, in fact, that he ad-libbed a line that stole the show and was the biggest response of the whole night. One of the things I do is juggle a butcher knife along with two juggling balls. Leading up to it, I do what I call “The Lettuce of Death”! I begin with the obligatory 2 balls and an apple, eating the apple while I juggle. Then I switch from the apple to a head of lettuce. I build up the lettuce as being SO dangerous- “look at these razor-sharp edges…” You get the idea. Then, I juggle two balls and the head of lettuce, eating the lettuce as I go. The result is that lettuce flies EVERYWHERE and pieces of it end up hanging out of my mouth. (My mother would be SO proud! An expensive, 4-year college degree being put to GOOD use!) Well, right at the end of The Lettuce of Death, as I began to transition into the butcher knife as the REAL dangerous part, my son looks at me, walks over, picks up a big leaf of lettuce, takes a bite, looks at the audience and says, “You know, actually, The Lettuce of Death is QUITE tasty!” The place went up for grabs and any tenuous hold I had on the audience to begin with was gone, never to be regained! I muddled through the rest of the act, realizing this classically-trained performer had been upstaged by an upstart!
     Ego is an interesting thing. You need SOME- confidence in your God-given gifts is essential to using them to their fullest in the world. But too much causes all sorts of problems. It causes us to lose focus, to become obsessed with ourselves, and to forget Who it is that gave us the gifts we have in the first place. Now, I find when I talk about this, folks fall into 3 camps: 1) “I HAVE no talent”, 2) “I HAVE talent- I don’t need God”, and 3) “I have certain gifts and graces, given by God, that are dependent upon Him for their success.” Where are YOU in that spectrum? Only you (and God) know the answer to that question. But the answer affects how you use those gifts- how you live your life.
     If you feel you HAVE no talent…sorry, but you’re wrong. We are all gifted by God- not in the same way, but we all have things that we are good at that can be used to serve God through serving others. If you feel you have talent but no need for connection to or thankfulness for God…again, sorry, but you’re wrong. What you have is a gift- you need to be mindful of the fact that the gift could be fleeting AND that there should be thankfulness to the One Who provided it. If you recognize that you have certain gifts and graces which are wholly dependent upon God for both their presence in your life and their power to impact others- you’re on the right track! It took a dressing down from an upstart 8-year old to help me understand this concept- I pray it settles into your soul in an easier and less embarrassing fashion!
     By the way, there was a rather staggering drop in readership yesterday. I would love to hear from you, letting me know your input on the current format of Sunday’s post being a bit more “churchy” than the rest of the week. Facebook me, Tweet me, email me (all on the left side of the page)- I really want to offer something that people want to experience daily. Also, if you have a prayer request, feel free to share it with me (just below this post). Have a great day, come back tomorrow, share this with your friends, family and co-workers, and stick with Jesus!

A Transforming Moment

     I am NOT the person I was. Now…whether I am a BETTER version- 2.0 if you will- or not is debatable. But THAT I am a different person than I was is not open for discussion. There can be no doubt. For me, the change wasn’t instantaneous- there was no “blinding flash of light on the road” moment for me. I’m a bit too hard-headed for that. Mine was more along the lines of what George Carlin said about saliva, “best if taken in small amounts over a long period of time”! The change I have experienced was slow, nearly glacial sometimes, in its movement. Not really measurable for day to day, or even month to month. But when I look back across the past several years…I see it. Now don’t get me wrong- by “change” I don’t mean to imply that A) I was such a horrible person before, or I’m such a saint now. Neither is true! But before, I was living my life for…me. It was “was can this do for me” or “what do I get out of this?” that motivated me. Today, the motivation is very different.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is out and about, doing “Jesus stuff”, when he has an encounter with a leper. Today, leprosy can be treated with drugs; it can be cured. But in the Ancient Near Eastern world of Jesus’ day? Not so much. Of all the diseases of that time and place, none were more feared than leprosy. It starts innocently enough- with the feeling of being tired. Then your joints start to ache. Then white spots begin to appear all over your skin, and the spots begin to harden. They turn from white, through pink, to brown…and
scaly. They begin to ulcerate…and they smell bad. Not a pretty picture. Leprosy attacks the nervous system, causes the afflicted to lose the sensation of pain. This leads to greater problems. And the physical issues lead to emotional ones- social isolation, as you are banished from society.
The person with leprosy had to tear their clothes to identify themselves, like a mourner at a funeral…their own funeral. After a time, their own family would actually have a funeral service for the, regarding them as already dead. People made them feel unloved, unwanted, uncared for. In fact, it was unlawful for a leper to get within 50′ of a “clean” person, and the had to wear a cloth over their mouth and yell, “Unclean! Unclean! Unclean!” if they got to close to people, to warn them! In the midst of this nightmare…along comes Jesus. And the leper reaches out to him (against the law) and says, “If you are willing, You can make me clean.” He doesn’t say, “Heal me” but “make me clean”. He understood that his affliction has done more than hurt him physically- it has isolated him from his family, his community, even his ability to worship God with his church. He is saying, “I want to worship with my church family. I want to sit in the synagogue with the others and sing songs of joy. I want to be able to touch others. I want to be clean!” And Jesus…shows compassion. He reaches out and touches the man…and he is instantly cleansed…healed. In a sneak preview of what will happen at the cross, Jesus stretches out His hands and takes the “unclean” away.
     Many of us have no trouble believing God CAN work powerfully in our lives. Were we have the hard time is in believing that He WANTS to- why would He be interesting in “lil’ ol’ me”? But He DOES want to. He IS interested in you. He LOVES you, regardless of your feelings for Him. And when He touches your life, the effects are noticeable, to you AND to others. Do you ever feel like the leper? Spiritually diseased, in need of help to be cleansed? Do you know how it feels to be locked in darkness, to be helpless, hopeless, lost? Here’s the Good News- jesus is STILL in the life-changing, soul-saving business. He is still touching people today. It makes NO difference who you are or what you’ve done- you are NOT beyond His touch. If you come to Him, your life can be forever changed. And speaking personally, what a testimony it is when God changes your life! God was willing to do amazing things in the life of the leper. He is JUST as willing to do amazing things in YOUR life…if you will but let Him. All you have to do is come to Him, humbly and hinestly, and ask Him to cleanse you. He can make your life beautiful. NOT perfect…but beautiful!
     Thanks for stopping by today. I pray you have a blessed Sunday. Please come back and visit tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

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Overture! Curtain! Lights!

     I walked into the building. A FLOOD of memories came to me…a flood 30 years in the making. It looked EXACTLY as I remembered it…frighteningly exact. Nothing looked different than I remembered, right down to the color of the carpet. There was the box office, the coat racks, the faculty offices, the curved wall, the restrooms, the stairs lead up…it was as if I had hopped into the DeLorean, got it up to 88 MPH, and…ZAPPED…back in time 30 years. I nervously looked for my younger self among the crowd, fearful that a meeting of then and now would somehow cause a rift in the space-time continuum! Then…I walked up those stairs. As I turned the corner, I WAS 18 years old again, and I could ALMOST see all the other kids (yes, we were KIDS. Didn’t think so at the time…KNOW so now!) waiting for Theatre Pro to start. It felt like the proverbial “acid flashback” I have heard about. (And YES, I have only HEARD about it, never experienced it!) The first thing that struck me was that perhaps the stage, the very space itself, had been left in a cosmic dryer a bit too long- it seemed…smaller than I remembered. Then the lights dimmed, the show started, and I was suddenly “treading the boards” (Google it) myself, back in all the old roles, and more importantly, all the old familiar places. To quote those great theologian/wrestlers The Road Warriors, “What a rush”!
     You see, my older son is about to graduate from my alma mater. I was a Theatre Major, he is a History Major. BUT…he is also an excellent guitarist and has become the “go to” guy when the Theatre department has need of a guitar. And they are in the middle of a production of the musical Pippin. He called us and asked if we could come and see it- how can you turn down THAT offer?! The show was being produced in the university’s mainstage theatre, the very theatre where I spent SO much time and energy learning a craft that would eventually lead to the incredibly unlikely vocation of ministry. I REALLY wanted to go- I LOVE watching my kids “do stuff”. But I really DIDN’T want to go- I had this nagging thought in the back of my head that returning to the place where I had the most success as an actor would simply remind me that, although I worked in it for a time after graduation, I ultimately didn’t make it in that field. I feared that perhaps Thomas Wolfe was right when he said, “You can’t go home again”. But I SURE wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to see my kid succeed, so we “loaded up the truck and ‘a moved to Beverly”. (Actually, we loaded up the van and drove to Bloomington…close enough!)
     Do you ever have those fears? Perhaps you have a place you avoid because it is the location where you failed at something. Perhaps you have a business you won’t frequent because you used to work there, were let go for being late, and now fear what people will say if you go back. OR…perhaps you have a relationship that is broken, and although you would like to see it mended, you avoid it for fear of rejection, or anger issues resurfacing, or old wounds re-opening, or…or…or… It is SO common to have those kinds of fractured relationships. Sadly, it is even more common that they are with people REALLY close to us. We love them, have fond memories of them, and yet, because of some event that happened in the past, both sides sit stubbornly and fearfully back, not willing to be the one to first attempt to breach the chasm and seek reconciliation. Well, I was reminded of something last night- no offense intended to Mr. Wolfe, but you CAN go home again. You CAN step back into that relationship that is fractured. You CAN make amends, “bury the hatchet” if you will, and begin the process of renewing and restoring that which has been broken.
     Who is it in your life that you are estranged from? Who is it that you used to be close to, but now there is a rift between you that seems impenetrable? Here’s my advice- fix it! Be the one to step forward and begin reconciliation, knowing all the while it won’t be easy. Knowing that it will be a challenge. Knowing that it will be painful. But knowing that it will be worth it! You’re thinking “but what if I risk all that and it doesn’t work?” It will STILL be worth it…because you will have no regrets. Life is too short. Don’t let some event that happened in the past keep you from a relationship that you once valued so dearly. Be the bigger person. Make the effort. Go home again…you can! You will be so glad you did.
     By the way, the play was great, but the guitarist was FABULOUS! And I am SO OK…in fact, perfect…with the fact that, as much as I loved my time as an actor, God was using that time to prepare me for…now! If I COULD get in that DeLorean and head back…I wouldn’t change a thing!
     Join my Facebook Fan Site, Tweet me or email me (all on the left side of the page). Share your prayer requests with me (just below this post). Pray about your damaged relationships…and I’ll pray for you as well. Thanks for stoppping by, have a great day, come back tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

I’m Sorry…I Didn’t Get Your Name!


     I have a pastor friend who used to pastor a church down south- in the “Bible Belt”. He said he was asked to do a funeral one day- we’ll call the deceased Joe Smith. When he got there, a 2nd pastor was ALSO there, having been asked by the family to participate. After some initial awkwardness, they decided that my friend would open the service, hand it over to the other pastor, and then take it back to close the service. My friend got up, opened in prayer, offered a Scripture reading, said a few words, and then turned things over to the other pastor. He got up and talked for about 20 minutes, mentioning the deceased by name SEVERAL times. That’s all well and good, except…he called the deceased BILL Smith! He used the WRONG name! SEVERAL times! During the poor man’s funeral, no less! When he was done, he sat down and my friend stood up. “Well, JOE Smith was a good man.” He turned and looked at the other pastor just in time to see him groan loudly and put his head in his hands! Ouch! As a pastor, it’s hard to recover gracefully from something like that!  
     OK, I’ll admit it- I’m bad with names. I mean BAD with names. And that’s NOT a great trait for a pastor, as we’ve already seen. When I arrive at a new church, the first thing I tell them is, “EVERY time you see me…tell me your name! Assume I know NOTHING! (You WON’T be far off!)” And let me assure you, when you are bad with names, you learn to make adjustments. Have you ever seen the Seinfeld episode where Jerry is trying to remember HIS GIRLFRIEND’S name? She says, “Oh, Jerry!” and he says, “Oh…YOU!” I understand that! If you ever come up to me in the grocery store and I say to you, “this is my wife” without telling her your name, you can be fairly certain that I didn’t leave your name out of the equation by accident- I left it out because I have had a brain freeze and don’t RECALL your name! (For those who see me on a regular basis and are suddenly putting 2 and 2 together here, let me say a couple of things: 1) SORRY!, and 2) please don’t take it personally. Some days I barely remember my way home for lunch!)
     Your name is important. It is a part of your identity- who you are. It does not DEFINE you…but it helps! And regardless of whether I remember your name- regardless, in fact if ANYONE remembers your name…God does. Whether you are at the top, middle or bottom of the SOCIAL strata, you are #1 with a bullet on God’s top 10 chart. He knows you. He loves you. He…remembers…your…name. You matter to God. What a realization that is, in a world that often doesn’t value the individual. Let me say again…YOU MATTER! Remember that…and I promise I’ll try to do better with then names!
     Join my Facebook fan site, email me or Tweet me (all on the left side of the page). If you have a prayer request, share it with me just below this post. Thank you so much for sharing a bit of your day with me! Have a great day, share this with others, come back tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Lawyers in Training

     I don’t know if they STILL do, but the Illinois State’s Attorney’s Office used to do mock trials as part of their training process. When I was in college, studying to be an actor, I saw a posting looking for actors to portray witnesses for their mock trials. It was a chance to “ply my trade” AND, better yet, it paid REAL money! So I called, filled out the necessary paperwork, and, on the appropriate day drove to Springfield. I had receieved a packet ahead of time that laid out the 3 different trials that would be going on simultaneously in different courtrooms throughout the building. We were to study these “stories”, learn the “characters”, and be ready to play ANY gender-appropriate character in ANY trial. There were SEVERAL males involved in these 3 trials, and I WAS a college student- not prone to the best sturdy habits!
      When I got there, they put us in a large room (we called it the Green Room- Google it) complete with snacks and beverages. I was MADLY trying to cram for this final, fearing I was not as ready as I could be.  Throughout the day, I was called about 4 times, each time playing a different character, as they rotated trials and attorneys among the available courtrooms. All went well, until my last appearance. They came in, said , “We need a ‘Russell’ for trial 3 in courtroom B- YOU!”, and pointed at me! Well, it was like when you were in grade school and your teacher asked the ONE question you didn’t know the answer to. You PRAYED she wouldn’t call on you…but she always did! I could NOT place this character. Didn’t even recognize the name! But when you are an actor, you don’t ever say you CAN’T do something- you will lose the gig.So I got up and followed them to courtroom B. I was “sworn in” and took the stand. The “lawyer in training” began to cross-examine me. I started out OK…for about the 1st 3 minutes! Then he asked me a question that I was SUPPOSED to know the answer to…but didn’t! So…I made something up! Off the top of my head. Completely out of the blue. And the look on the face of the attorney-in-training was hysterical! He started to proceed, based on what he THOUGHT I was going to say. After about 2 words, what I DID say sunk in. He stopped, looked at me as he if wanted to make sure I was speaking English, and then…stammered. He stuttered and sputtered and went nearly apoplectic (Google it). He looked at me again and said, “Are you sure?” I responded, “As sure as I CAN be…given the circumstances!” He looked from me to the judge, back to me, back to the judge, and said, “That’s not the way it’s SUPPOSED to go!” The judge gave him a look that said, “Deal with it.” So he said, “Your honor, I contend this witness is lying and I ask that he be removed from the courtroom.” The judge replied, “I hereby remand the witness on a charge of perjury. Bailiff, remove him from this court.” At that moment, it no longer seemed like a pretend trial but a very REAL trial! It felt like they were really going to put me in jail. Fortunately, the bailiff walked me out of the courtroom and simply told me to return to the “witness pool” room! In the end, I made it out with my dignity (and my freedom) intact!
      What is the last thing you messed up? I realize that’s a rather blunt question, but let’s be honest- we ALL make mistakes. So the question isn’t “HAVE you messed up?” but “WHEN did you mess up?” And to take that a step further, what do you DO when you mess up? Do you own the mistake? Or do you pray the fake attorney and fake judge will look the other way?! We are human- we WILL make mistakes. But we need to own them…and confess them. If we go to God, confessing our sins, asking for repentance…God will provide it! There may still be some consequences of your mistake, but you will be forgiven of it. And let me tell you, from personal experience, forgiveness feels GREAT! That’s the beautiful part of faith- regardless of what others think (or DON’T think), God KNOWS you, forgives you, and loves you! There is no better awareness in the world!
     Thanks for stopping by, have a great day, share this with someone, come back tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Why, Oh Why, Oh Why Oh…

     When my oldest son was a baby, he was colicky. And when he does things…he does them ALL THE WAY!! So, he was not just a bit colicky. He was not just sorta’ colicky. He…was…COLICKY! For three and one-half months (it only SEEMED like 3 1/2 years!) he was colicky. If you have been around a colicky child for any length of time, you understand when I say that you will try ANYTHING to quiet them down. We tried bouncing. We tried walking. We tried more food. We tried less food. We tried putting the pumpkin seat on the dryer. We tried car rides. We tried skin-to-skin/belly-to-belly contact. We tried all the little oral home remedies everyone shared. And still, he would cry. It breaks your heart AND makes you think that this will go on forever! He’ll be 27 years old and you’ll still be walking him around trying to quiet him down! Another thing we tried was singing to him. And when you have sung to a child for 3 1/2 months solid, you start to run out of songs! One day, I was singing to him as I walked him and bounced him, and I was trying to think of a song I hadn’t sung. I suddenly remembered this silly little song  called “Ohio”.  It’s from the musical “Wonderful Town” and was recorded by (among others) Rosalind Russell. In it, she sings, “Why, o why, o why o, why did I ever leave Ohio? O why, o why o, did I leave Ohio? Maybe I’d better go (O-H-I-O), maybe I’d better go home.” Now, I’m not from Ohio. I’ve only been to Ohio once or twice. I’m not sure that I even KNOW anyone from Ohio. But having a background in acting, that song just…JUMPED…into my head that night. So…I sang it! And…he stopped crying! The next time he cried, I tried it again! Again he stopped! Soon, I became “the baby whisperer”- the whole family picked up on the song, learned it, and began to sing it to him when he would cry. I can remember once 6 adults, ranging in age from 27-80, crowded around this one little baby, singing “why, o why, o why o…”! (If only I had video!) The song had such an impact on us during that time that it still holds a special fondness for us, even 21 years later!!
     What silly, funny, warm memories do YOU have? Clearly (if you read this blog regularly),  you know that I have MANY! And I must admit, when things aren’t going so well, when I’m having a particularly bad day, those memories help sustain me. I think about the good times in my life. And they don’t have to be the monumental moments- just the important ones. Carmel popcorn and a movie with people you love. Playing ball in the park. Walking on the beach. Decorating the Christmas tree. Read a book together. What are the memories that sustain YOU?
     There is one other thing that sustains me, in addition to my family and the memories we have created together, and that is my faith. Because I know that, no matter what happens, God will ALWAYS be with me, I am sustained during the difficult times. Let me repeat…I KNOW that God will always be with me. People say to me, “So, you believe in God?”  My response is, “No. I don’t believe in God”.  Saying I believe in God is like saying I believe the train is running on time. In the end- it may or may NOT be running on time…I just BELIEVE it is. Therefore, I don’t BELIEVE in God…I KNOW God. I have had too many personal encounters with my Creator to NOT know Him. And I know that, no matter what, He will be there to sustain me through everything that comes. Have you experienced that? You can!
     To help grow this fledgling ministry (and yes, it IS a ministry!) I encourage you to: 1) join my Facebook Fan Site, 2) become a follower of this site, 3) email me, or 4) Tweet me- all those options are on the left side of this page. I also invite you to share any prayer requests you have with me- you can find that link just below this post. You can share your name…or you can remain anonymous. Either way, I take prayer seriously. I don’t say this enough, but thank you for coming every day and reading. I pray that you find something to “chew on” AND I pray that you share this with your family and friends (those options are ALSO on the left side of this page). Have a great day, think fondly on some of your memories, come back tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

The Smell of Victory

     The past few days’ posts have been relatively heavy on theology, so I decided an excursion into the land of humor was needed! I grew up in the country. Our nearsest neighbor was 1/4 mile away. We didn’t even lock our doors when I was a kid…that is, until we got robbed! I was at a neighbor’s house after school that day, and from their house, you could see our house (when the crops were out and the leaves were down). I watched as two guys pulled up in the driveway, got out, and disappeared behind the house. A few minutes later, they re-appeared, hopped in the car and drove away. When I got home, I found out they had entered the house, walked straight to my mom and dad’s bedroom…and STOLE the portable COLOR TV (remember, this was about 1970!).
     Well, PRIOR to that event, when I was about 6 years old, we had a babysitter named Linda. Both my folks worked, so she was almost a member of the family! Early one summer evening, we were all (me, my brother and sister and  Linda) in my sister’s room on the bed, and Linda was reading to us. We didn’t have AC back then, so the windows were opened. As we listened to the story, we heard something scratching around outside the window. We went outside to look, and found a skunk in the window well under that bedroom window. He was scared by our presence…and we weren’t TOO happy about his presence either! Not knowing what to do, we called the neighbors…the same neighbors whose house I was at earlier in this story. The two adult sons came to see what was what. And they brought with them…some fire power! A rifle. For real! (Or as we say at my house, “freal”!) They surveyed that situation, and then informed us, “Uh…yeah…you got yourself a skunk!” (Wow! Next stop for these guys- Wild Kingdom! Clearly advanced education in zoology!) AS we stood there, scared of the skunk and trying to decide what we should do, “the boys” took matters into their own hands- they stepped up close to the trapped skunk and, right at the moment he had had enough and begins to spray, they…(wait for it!)…SHOOT it! RIGHT THERE IN THE WINDOW WELL! You can imagine, much screaming and mayhem ensued. WE had just, in rapid succession, 1) had a gun go off, unannounced, right by us, 2) seen a cute, furry creature blown away right before our very eyes (whatever very eyes are!), and 3) had that horrible aroma carry out a full-body assault on our sense of smell! To make matters worse, “the boys” said, “Welp, guess that ’bout does it! Glad we could help.” And they…LEFT! With the dead skunk STILL in the window well. We all tried to tell each other to get it out of there- in the end, none of us got it out of there! Meanwhile, do you recall that I pointed out we had no AC in the house? And that…the…windows…were…opened? Oh, yeah, you got it! Dead, spraying skunk in window well just beneath open window is a recipe for aromatic disaster! The WHOLE house reeked of skunk! And let me assure you, you CANNOT easily dunk an entire house in tomato juice!
      So, let’s check the scorecard at the half- dead skunk in window well, HORRIBLE smell permeating the entire house, permeating my very SOUL, mom and dad still not home! We did the only logical thing we could do- NOTHING! When mom and dad got home, we really didn’t need to TELL them there was a dead skunk in the window well- they could just pull a Toucan Sam and follow their nose! Poor dad, the person LEAST involved in the whole thing, had to get a pair of gloves on and fish the dead skunk out of the window well and dispose of him. It took days to get rid of the smell.
     The choices we make linger in our soul like the smell of that skunk. When we make good choices, the fragrant aroma of a life well-lived permeates us, precedes us, lingers after we’re gone. Likewise, When we make poor choices, the results infect our soul, causing a spiritual stench that is almost palpable. Good choices build on one another, strengthening us, filling our souls with light. But poor choices ALSO build on one another, weakening us, tearing down our resolve. Once that downward spiral begins, it escalates. It gets harder and harder to re-gain control. We slip deeper and deeper into a spiritual hole. BUT…we have the power to stop that downward slide and begin to build ourselves back up. How? Make good choices. Do the right thing. Treat other people the way you would want to be treated. Focus on making a difference everyday- even if it’s just a LITTLE difference! What choice will YOU make today? Please feel free to email, Tweet and/or Facebook me (left side of page). Join my Facebook Fan Site (also left side). Share any prayer requests you have with me just below this post). Have a GREAT day, make GOOD choices, come back tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Angel Story #3- Angels Among Us

     First things first- Saturday (the 14th of November) marked the two-month anniversary of this blog. I had no idea what to expect when I began, but the response has been surprising! The first month saw 1,913 hits (I reported 2,413 at the time…but forgot I started the counter at 500! Oops!) Month 2 saw 2,633 hits- an increase of about 38%. In addition, it has been read by folks from 40 states and the District of Columbia, as well as 27 foreign countries! May I say…THANK YOU! If you have any questions or suggestions, something you would like to read about, don’t hesitate to let me know- you can Facebook, Tweet or email me (all on the left side of the page).
     Now then…where were we? Ah, yes…angels! I have had some interesting responses to the 2 pieces that have already run (see Angel Story #1 and #2). Some have shared their own stories with me, while others have voiced scepticism about angels in general and the veracity of my 2 stories specifically. Let me say up front- the stories about Joe and the mysterious business man are both accurate- they happened exactly the way they are presented. Now, on to angels in general!
     First- do I believe that angels exist? Yes! Seminary pounded home the notion that the Bible is, in fact, a marvelous “morality play” that teaches us how to live our lives but has little to no actual basis in historical fact. My response to that was, and continues to be, that while there is absolutely no hard, definitive proof that the Tower of Babel was real or that Noah actually built a large boat…there is likewise no definitive proof that those things DIDN’T happen either. So, we are left with a personal decision, based on what we understand and have experienced. So, for me, the Bible is, at its heart, accurate. Might some of the details have been altered or embellished over the centuries? Absolutely…but that same fact never stopped history books from being published! And when I read the Bible, I find MANY stories about angels or messengers from God. Therefore, I’m “good” with an understanding that angels exist.
     Another factor that comes into play is that there seems to be a current movement afoot to almost deify angels- make them gods on their own. That seems misplaced to me. In whatever form they appear, angels are messengers…NOT God. To worship them and focus great attention on them is to turn from God.
     “So, then, Mr. Smarty Pastor, if you’ve got all the answers…what ARE angels?” First off, I don’t have all the answers. (I’m not even sure I have all the questions yet!!) Secondly, I can’t say what angels are…because I don’t know! Are some of them literal heavenly beings, sent by God from on high for a specific purpose? Yes. Are some of them good ol’, plain ol’ folks, like you and me, sent to accomplish a certain task? Yes. Do some of those folks not even realize that they are serving as a messenger from God? Yes. What kind of “angels” were the 2 people I wrote about? Don’t know! Both stories have odd, unexplainable features to them, but that doesn’t automatically take them out of the realm of normal people carrying out extraordinary tasks for God.
     Angels have been portrayed in a variety of ways in the movies- from the rather addled Clarence of “It’s a Wonderful Life” to the hip, nearly blasphemous Michael from the movie of the same name (see the picture above) and everywhere in between. Some are attempts to capture someone’s concept of what angels are really like while others are just attempts to entertain- nothing more. But the bottom line is this- we don’t know, CAN’T know what angels are really, fully like. Our finite minds can’t understand the ways of the infinite. But do I know that angels (messengers from God) are active in our world? Absolutely- I have experienced them personally. Guess what? So have you! You have had God put someone in your path for a specific purpose or to deliver a specific message. What ARE those stories? Share them!
     Again, I want to thank you for being a part of this fledgling effort to spread a bit of Good News. I welcome your thoughts, your ideas, your experiences, your input. My goal with Stick With Jesus will never be to take myself TOO seriously. There are lots of folks out there smarter than me who are writing about deep theological issues. God love them. My goal is to simply dig around into what it means to be a human being, and how a relationship with God impacts that. Life is hard, life is fun, life is goofy, life is precious. It is a gift from God…spend each day trying to use that gift to make the planet a bit brighter! Have a GREAT day, come back tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

A Trusting Moment

     (Note: Sunday postings are homilies- brief messages based on the Scripture I am preaching on that day. Tomorrow’s post will be the 3rd in the 3-part series on angels. Based on feedback I’ve received, you won’t want to miss it!) I recently read a story about a marine who fell off an aircraft carrier. He wasn’t missed for 36 hours. They spent the next 24 hours searching for him, after which they gave up- with no life jacket, survival in the open ocean was not likely. He was listed “missing and presumed dead”. However, 72 hours AFTER he fell in, 4 Pakistani fishermen found him…ALIVE- he had made a makeshift life vest from his pants. He was delirious, his tongue was dry and cracked, his throat parched. Fortunately, he recovered. The irony of being stranded in the ocean- you are surrounded by water, yet there is none to drink.
Have you ever been thirsty like that? Not your average, run-of-the-mill thirst, but a REAL thirst- your tongue is stuck to the roof of your mouth, your lips are stuck to your teeth. If you’re like me, you really haven’t experienced thirst to THAT extreme. Physical dehydration draws the whole of your physical being into a deep longing for water. Likewise, spiritual dehydration draws your spirit into a deep longing for greater meaning in your life. Today we look at the Gospel of John, chapter 4, beginning at the 5th verse, where a Samaritan woman comes to Jacob’s Well for some water…and leaves with much more. You see, the Jewish community had some…issues with the Samaritans. They didn’t like them! They would go out of their way to avoid crossing into “Samaritan country”. This particular woman lived in a town called Sychar, and Jacob’s Well was about a mile outside of town. Early every morning, before the heat of the day, the women of Sychar would come out to get their water for the day. This PARTICULAR Samaritan woman, however, waited until later in the morning to go out. She had…a…reputation. She had gone through 5 husbands and was with a new guy. She didn’t need the gossip that was to be had at Jacob’s Well. So…she goes later. And this particular day, she finds Jesus there. Jesus tells her she’s been looking for the wrong water. The water she came to get will only satisfy her needs temporarily- she WILL get thirsty again. But the water He offers her- living water- is such that she will never be thirsty again. She is so excited, she runs to town to tell about what she’s experienced.
A boy had gone to bed when he called out, “Dad, I’m thirsty. Can I have a drink of water?” Dad replied, “No, you had your chance. Turn the lights out.” A few minutes later, the boy again asked for water and again Dad said, No.” When the boy asked a 3rd time, Dad was getting a bit upset, “I told you NO! If you ask again, you’re getting a spanking!” A few minutes went by, then the boy spoke up, “Dad, I’m still thirsty, so when come to spank me…could you bring me some water?!” Are you world-weary? Tired of walking on the gerbil wheel, getting nowhere? Tired of the way things are? It’s a terrible position to be in- to lack the ability to fully live. But we tend to try and draw water from the wrong well, trying to quench our thirst in all the wrong places, with all the wrong stimuli. There is an Irish proverb that says, “As good as drink is, it still ends in thirst.”
If you’ve seen the Sprite commercials (or even if you haven’t!) they say, “Image is nothing. Thirst is everything. OBEY YOUR THIRST!” Even when we feel lost, without anything to satisfy our thirst, we are surrounded by an ocean of “living water”. To satisfy our spiritual thirst, we have to draw water from God’s well. Imagine for a minute you have been in the desert for several days- you’re delirious, your lips are parched, your skin is cracked. All of a sudden, you come upon a river…what do you do? “Well duh, preacher! I’d..you know…DRINK!” And yet we walk around spiritually delirious- parched, dry, empty…but we don’t drink from the living water. It’s right here, but we miss it. We come and stand at the banks, we see the water, it’s SO inviting…but we don’t drink. God invites us to come to Him for spiritual renewal; He wants to bring us to a place of peace and trust. Are you spiritually thirsty? Turn to God. When we accept Him, it changes everything! We walk differently, we talk differently, we think differently. Come and drink, fill yourself to overflowing. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose water never fails. You’ll become a river of living water, you’ll be blessed, and you will bless others. Have a great week, come back tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Angel Story #2- The Shadow Does It Again!

     It was rush hour. I-270. North County St. Louis. And…(amazingly like yesterday’s story)…pouring rain! I was trying to get home with a car full of photography equipment. And I was driving the Shadow. That’s DODGE Shadow…the WORST car ever made! (Not that I’m bitter about it or anything!) We were silly enough to buy a car the 1st year it rolled off the line. (Apparently we got the FIRST car off the line. The fact that it had BETA stamped across the side of it should have been an indicator!) On the plus side, we put 185,000 miles on that car. On the minus side, a good 20,000 of those miles were seen while attached to the back of a tow truck! This car was SO bad (how bad WAS it?), that, if the gas tank got lower than half full (not MORE than half full, just less!) AND you made a left hand turn (JUST a left turn, never a right turn!), the car would die, and would not re-start for 30-60 minutes! (I’m NOT making that up!) Anywho…I was driving down the interstate in the blinding rain when the driver’s side wiper blade came OFF the car, never to be seen again! So, I’m flying down the interstate, can’t see out of the windshield, wondering what to do next. Well, I didn’t have to wonder LONG! The car started sputtering. I pulled off onto the shoulder just as it died. There I sat. Again, NO CELL PHONE, so I couldn’t call anyone. I did the only thing I could think of…took off my suit coat, got out, locked the car…and started walking in the rain! I hadn’t walked more than about 3 minutes when a car pulled up. Now, I am NOT the type to jump into a stranger’s car- have NEVER hitchhiked, NEVER will…HOWEVER, pouring rain will do things to a man! I ran to the car and opened the passenger door. A middle-aged man in a suit and tie leaned over and said, “Look a bit wet! (No…duh!) Need a lift?” I thankfully jumped in. He asked me where I was going. I told him, “Home”, but home was still about 30 minutes away. My office, however, was about 10 minutes away. I suggested he could just drop me at the nearest pay phone and I would deal with it from there. He offered instead to go out his way and take me back to my office. I accepted, and off we went. We chatted, pretty superficial stuff, and got there soon. As I got out, he handed me a business card, wished me luck with my car, and drove off into the rain-soaked dusk. I went in, dried off, made the necessary calls, and moved forward with life.
     The next day, I came across the business card I had received the previous day. I decided I should call him and offer thanks. So I dialed the number on the card. A woman answered. I asked for the man on the card. She had NO idea who I was talking about. Turned out, the number on the business card, supposedly a number for a local business, was someone’s home- someone who had never heard of the name on the card. After further checking, the business listed on the card…didn’t exist! So, let’s pause for an inventory- guy shows up out of nowhere, gives me a card with a bogus phone number AND bogus business on it, goes OUT OF HIS WAY to take me back to my office…and vanishes! ‘Splain that, Lucy!
     So was this guy a deranged psychopath who got his jollies driving around with bogus business cards doing good deeds for unsuspecting samaritans? Or was he a messenger from God, sent to rescue some poor sap stranded on the interstate? I posed the question yesterday- do angels exist? If so, what are they? Mythical winged beings magically appearing with word from God? Ordinary folks sent to carry out a particular mission for a particular person? Or something else entirely? I unintentionally lied yesterday- tomorrow (being Sunday) will be a homily based on the Scripture I am preaching on tomorrow (John 4:15-19). We will finish up thi 3-part series on angels on MONDAY! Thanks for reading, share your prayer requests with me (just below this post), have a great day, come back tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Angel Story #1- An Angel Named Joe

     The car broke down. Again! Only this time I wasn’t there. My wife and then 8-year old older son were in the car. It broke down at the corner of Salu and Washington…not the greatest place to have car trouble. It was also raining…not the greatest circumstance to have car trouble. It also broke down on the way to school…not the greatest time to have car trouble. So, here they were…stuck. Cell phones didn’t exist and car phones were large, unwieldy things that cost a small fortune, so NO way to call anybody from the car. BUT…my wife remembered that THIS was the corner where THE PAPER GUY stood! You see, the hometown newspaper tried putting folks at street corners, selling the morning edition. Since they were adults, you couldn’t very well call them paper BOYS, ergo- he was the paper guy! Every morning, they saw the same friendly face selling the paper. They waved every morning and got a responsive wave back…every morning! Surely HE would help them! Only trouble was, he was nowhere to be found! And to make matters worse, just at that moment, up walked  his replacement. He looked…a bit…JUST a bit…scary! He hadn’t shaven in days, his clothes were ratty and dirty, dental hygiene wasn’t the greatest…you get the picture. And here sits my wife, all dressed in her “teacher” clothes, with an 8-year old in tow, wondering, “What next?” Then he banged on the window… she HAD to respond in some fashion. She rolled the window down just a CRACK. He leaned in close, flashed a somewhat toothless grin, tinged with what seemed to be a bit of a sneer, and said, “Looks like you in some trouble!!” NOT what she wanted to hear! As she searched her mind for what to do next, she heard the rest of his introduction, “Put ‘er neutral and I’ll push ‘er out of the street for ya’.” Surprised, not knowing what to think, she did what she was told, and put the car in neutral…and HE did exactly what he said he would do, pushing the car of the street and out of immediate harm’s way. He then walked back to the driver’s window and said, “Have ya’ got someone to call?” She shared that she had no way to call anyone. He pointed to the house on the corner and said, “I know the folks live there…they’ll let ya’ use the phone.” She got out and walked to the door with him. Sure enough, someone came to the door and let her use the phone. She called her dad, who just lived a few minutes away, he came and picked them up and took them to school, and we dealt with the car later.
     That evening, my wife realized that, in the midst of everything else, she never thanked the man (who we named Joe) for helping them. So the next day, when they went by that intersection, they looked for Joe. He was not there. No problem- they would get him the next day. But…not there. Not there the 3rd day…or the 4th day. The 5th day…they asked the “regular” guy, who was there every day before AND after the day the car died about Joe. He had NO idea who they were talking about! As far as he was concerned, there WAS no Joe. They watched that corner for weeks…no sign of him at all. It was as if he never existed.
     What do you do with stories like this?Some would scoff and say, “Some drunk wanders into your path and you think it’s Divine Intervention?” And of course, I have absolutely NO proof they aren’t correct. BUT…how does it happen that the ONE day that my wife needs help is the ONE day that this mysterious…Joe, never seen before or since, miraculously shows up at the right place and time, hawking newspapers and pushing cars.
     Do you believe that God puts people in our paths (call them angels, call them messengers, call them helpers) to impact us in some way? What do YOU think about the whole “angel phenomena”? Have you ever had an experience with another person that felt like a “God moment”? I’d love to hear about YOUR stories of Divine Intervention. AS I said at the top of today’s blog, this is the first of a 3-day arc on this subject. Tomorrow will bring another “car breaking down” story (in fact…same car!) involving a mysterious stranger. Sunday will focus on the subject of messengers of God. Please share your angel stories with me (Facebook, Twitter, email- all on the left side of the page), share any prayers requests with me (just below this posting), make sure you come back tomorrow for Part 2, and stick with Jesus!

Oh…the Humanity!

     Remember the Hindenburg tragedy? Radio reporter Herbert Morrison and sound engineer Charlie Nelson had been assigned by Chicago radio station WLS to cover the Lakehurst Naval Air Station landing of the Hindenburg. (Interestingly, they were there on a “test run”. The only pre-recorded sounds the network allowed to be broadcast were sound effects for radio dramas. But Morrison and Nelson were sent, without any equipment to broadcast live, to test out recording news events for later broadcast.) The now famous (perhaps infamous) video footage includes Morrison’s description of the crash- “It’s burst into flames, and it’s falling, it’s crashing…It’s burning and bursting into flames…It’s smoke and it’s flames now…and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity…!” It is a moment seared into the collective conscience of all who have seen it. And for me, the key word there is “humanity”. What does that word ACTUALLY mean? According to Merriam-Webster, it means “the quality or state of being human”. 
     Yesterday, one of my parishioners said to me, “I appreciate the HUMANITY that you bring to this congregation.” The more I have thought about that, the more I think she gave me one of the nicest compliments someone can give their pastor. A decent number of clergy seem to feel they need to project this image of “having it all together”- knowing all the answers to life. They are experts on the human condition…just ask them!I am well aware that not only do I NOT have all the answers…most days I couldn’t even tell you what all the questions are! And, for me…that’s OK. Because I’m about as “human” as they come- full of foibles and flaws that crop up on a regular basis. We ALL are. Life is too tough, too complicated to even pretend to have a handle on everything. But do you want to know the “beauty part” of all this? God loves us anyway! Not only because of who were are, but often in SPITE of who we are! God created you the way you are, warts and all. And God loves you like that. It doesn’t mean He doesn’t want to see you contionue to strive to be more; it just means that you don’t have to reach some magic level before you have God’s acceptance.
     The world tells us constantly that we aren’t good enough. If we don’t buy that product or drink that drink or eat that food or wear those clothes or hang with those people…we are somehow incomplete, not good enough. God’s message is 180 degrees the other way. Don’t let other people dictate your self-worth- let God do it. If God can think that I’M OK the way I am…there’s hope for everybody! Are you human? Of course you are? Are you perfect? I hate to burst your bubble, but no! But you are perfectly and wonderfully amde in the image of God. You have value, and you are loved. And since I KNOW the parishioner who told me about my humanity reads this blog…thank you! Know that you are loved, you have great worth, and you matter to God. Have a great day, come back tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Don’t Look a Gift Van in the Mouth

     We were doing just fine with 2 cars. Really. We were. Neither could be remotely construed as a luxury vehicle…but they ran! A 2002 Ford Windstar and a 1995 Pontiac Sunfire. And, did I mention? They ran! So…with a kid in college, we decided the LAST thing we needed was another car payment. So we agreed that we would keep these vehicles through “the college years”. Apparently they had a different plan! At least one of them did. My older son was driving the Sunfire home from work. It was SO close to the end of the summer, you could taste it. In 10 days, he would be heading back to school and the Sunfire could go back to barely being driven. We were SO close. But…he called me and said, “the car died and I can’t get it started.” With great trepidation, I drove out to where he was, managed to get it started and limped it about 2 miles to the repair shop. (And when I say “limp”, BOY do I mean “limp”!) I’ll save you the gory details, but suffice it to say that, when the dust settled, the Sunfire was on its back, big X’s where it’s eyes should be- dead. Doornail dead. Never to start again dead. D-E-A-D dead! So…what to do now? We decided to not “knee-jerk” it- wait and see what happened. OH…and a GREAT deal of prayer was being had! About 3 weeks passed. We managed with only one car. The only REAL inconvenience was that I had to walk to church on Sunday mornings because I am SO obsessive-compulsive that I get there more than 2 hours ahead of our 1st service, and AMAZINGLY, my wife and youngest son don’t want to go that early! (Can’t imagine it!) But with bad weather coming, it was growing more apparent by the day that we needed to do SOMETHING. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, our neighbor was trying to sell an older model Dodge Caravan for $2,995. Well, that’s all fine and good but, when he put it up for sale we didn’t NEED another vehicle and once we DID need another vehicle, we didn’t have an extra $2,995 laying about with which to buy it. So I gave it not another thought. Oh…and a GREAT deal of prayer continued to be had! (Did I mention that?) Then one day, my younger son and I were playing in the front yard when I said to him, “What does the sign on our neighbor’s van say?” He looked over and said, “For Sale. $995.” I said, “That’s what I THOUGHT it said! Let’s go talk to him!” He told me that he was tired of trying to sell it and therefore knocked $2,000 off the asking price! Within 24 hours, we plunked down $995 and bought ourselves a 2nd vehicle that looks great and runs great! We are now know as the family with 2 “soccer mom” vans…and I wouldn’t have it any other way!
     So, what does this story say about prayer? That, if we pray hard enough, God will give us whatever we want? No. That “faithful people” get great deals? No. That God is a cosmic Santa Claus, just dying to heap gifts on us? No. What it DOES say is that God provides for our needs. Notice I DIDN’T use the word “wants”. Prayer isn’t a “wish list”, where we look through God’s Sears Catalog and circle the things we REALLY want. Instead, prayer is a conversation where we pour ourselves out to, AND listen for, God. Prayer is us telling God how much we love Him, how we have fallen short, how thankful we are for Him,  and what is on our hearts. Instead of telling God you need this or that…ask God to give you the strength, patience and courage to make it through another day. Ask God to help you find a way to tackle the seemingly insurmountable difficulties that lie in front of you. Ask God to walk with you daily. God WILL provide your needs…He just won’t always do it in the manner YOU think He should. Look at it this way…if your child or grandchild came to you and said, “I broke the lamp, but I think if I put the pieces in the microwave, they will fuse back together!”, you would (hopefully) help them…but you would refrain from using THEIR suggestion! It’s the same with God. Although we think we ALWAYS know what’s best for us, how many times has something NOT gone the way YOU wanted it to, and after the fact, you recognized that your way kind of…stunk anyway?!
      On the altar in my church is a glass container holding about 225 red stones. Each stone represents a prayer someone in the church had. They placed their stone on the altar because they recognized and wished to acknowledge answered prayer. It boils down to this- pray. Pray daily. Pray often. Pray for the right things. Pray until something happens. And remember- prayer is conversation. And the BEST conversations include AT LEAST as much listening as talking. Have a great day, join my Facebook Fan Site, email or Tweet me (all on the left side of the page), share your prayer requests with me (just below this entry), don’t forget to pray, come back tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!