Laughter is Good Medicine!

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    I have probably laughed more in the past few days than I do in any given week. And, in case you are not sure…that is a LOT- I laugh pretty often! My older son was home for Thanksgiving. He was able to come home Tuesday evening, work from home on Wednesday and then have Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday off.

    That, for my family, is a HUGE gift! He is 27 years old and has, therefore, been “out of the house” for several years. And for many of those years, he has had very little time off, even at Thanksgiving. It has not been unusual that he comes home Wednesday night, celebrates Thanksgiving with us on Thursday and then has to leave Thursday evening because he has to work on Friday. So we GREATLY enjoyed the extra time!

    The truth of the matter is that we didn’t really do all that much that was so special. Wednesday afternoon, we did a decent amount of food prep for Thursday. Thursday, we finished the cooking…and did a lot of eating! Friday, my two sons, who are 12 years apart and REALLY enjoy being with each other, went to the movies. Saturday, we decorated the house for Christmas. And yesterday…we did church. No big shakes. And yet…it WAS big shakes! We talked. We laughed. We remembered. We ate together. We worshipped together. We just simply enjoyed each other’s company. And it was…GREAT!

    I know people…we ALL know people…who don’t seem to even LIKE their kids. It seems that the less time they can spend with them, the better. And I, for one, simply don’t have a gear to understand that. Not even a little bit. I LOVE my sons. But I also LIKE them. They are great fun to be around. And the only thing better than spending some time with them is spending MORE time with them! And it makes my heart sing when other people tell me they like my kids.

    The best thing we can do for our children and grandchildren (No, I don’t have any of those yet. But many of YOU do!) is to help them be decent, caring, loving, contributing members of society whom others actually enjoy being around. Isn’t that what WE want to be? Isn’t that what we want for our families? Imagine what the world would be like if we made that our goal!

    Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

The Greatest Gift of All: The Opportunity

The Greatest Gift of All The Opportunity

    There is a comedian, Jon Reep, who says that you can say anything you want about anyone…as long as you follow it up with, “Bless your heart!” You know- “You are dumber than a bag of hammers…bless your heart!”

    Last Sunday afternoon, my wife and I drove from our home in northwestern Illinois to the St. Louis, MO area in anticipation of two days of medical tests and doctor’s visits to see how I am doing- 1½ years after having a golf ball-sized tumor removed from my head. Monday went swimmingly- a “perfect” (my blood work) and an “amazing” (my recovery from facial paralysis) from the oncologist and another “amazing” (again, the face) and a “normal” (how my inner ear looks) from the otolaryngologist- the ear, nose and throat doctor. It went swimmingly, that is, until about 3:30PM. That was when I got a call from my neurosurgeon’s office. I was due for a CT scan and an MRI Tuesday morning, followed by a visit with him to get the results of those tests- definitive proof as to whether or not the tumor is still gone. They called to tell me that my insurance company hadn’t yet approved the tests I was due to have in about 18 hours…bless their hearts! And at about 8:30 Tuesday morning, as we sat in the drive-thru at Hardee’s waiting for our coffee, I got the call- the tests were NOT going to happen! After a year wait and a 3½ hour…the tests were NOT going to happen! Not gonna lie- it was disappointing.

    BUT, in the midst of the frustration and disappointment, we got…The Opportunity. Monday evening, we found out that two of my mom’s 3 surviving sisters were in town and going to Steak n Shake for dinner. So we got to see them- we hadn’t seen them in a long time. Then, Tuesday, after our plans were…squashed…we spent the morning visiting my mom’s one surviving brother and his wife, whom we hadn’t seen for a long time. After lunch with my brother, we spent the afternoon visiting with a couple we have known…forever and haven’t seen in a LONG time. On the way home, I turned to my wife and I said, “Well, that was NOT the day I had planned. But apparently it WAS the day God had planned!” In the midst of uncertainty and difficulty, I was given…an opportunity. Sometimes, the best outcomes grow out of the most unlikely sources.

    Today is the first Sunday in Advent- the season leading up to Christmas. The word “Advent” comes from the Latin word “Adventus” and it literally means “coming” or “arrival.” So during the 4 weeks leading up to Christmas, we focus on the coming and then the arrival of Jesus- Emmanuel- God with us- The Greatest Gift of All. This year, we will walk the journey Mary and Joseph walked as they traveled to Bethlehem and drew closer and closer to the arrival of a baby in a manger Who would literally split time in half…and change the world.

    If you remember, Mary was visited by an angel who told her that not only was she pregnant- she was carrying God’s Son. And Joseph, who was about to quietly divorce Mary for being pregnant, was ALSO visited by an angel, who told him that everything would be OK. And then…we fast forward to the singular event that sets this whole “last act” in motion. Sometimes, the best outcomes grow out of the most unlikely sources.

    Luke 2:1-5 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. It was the first time a list was made of the people while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.

    A woman lost her purse in the bustle of Christmas shopping. It was found by an honest little boy who returned to her. She looked in her wallet and then said, “That’s funny. When I lost my purse, there was a $20 bill in it. Now there are twenty $1 bills.” The boy nodded and replied, “That’s right, lady. The last time I found a woman’s purse, she didn’t have any change for a reward!”

    So, let’s spend a few moments on the “back story” to this pilgrimage to Bethlehem. You’ve got two major players mentioned in this passage- King Herod the Great and Quirinius. Let’s see who they are and how they fit in.

    In 63 BC, the Roman general Pompey sacked Jerusalem- the famed and fabled city was now under complete Roman rule. By the time the 1st century BC was drawing closer to the end, the Romans had placed the area under the control of King Herod the Great. It’s important to understand that, as powerful as Herod was, he was still what’s known as a client king- a puppet of the Roman Empire. He was, fully and clearly, under Roman rule and was therefore completely subject to orders from Rome…including the ordering of a census. So Herod the Great could be relied on by Rome to serve their interests. Sometimes, the best outcomes grow out of the most unlikely sources.

    That’s Herod the Great. Then we have Quirinius. In some translations, Luke 2:2, which is the information about Quirinius, is in parentheses and is presented as not being important at all. Who was he? Quirinius was the governor of Roman Syria, appointed to that position because he had distinguished himself well as a soldier in Roman-held North Africa. Then, in 12 BC, he was made Consul of Judea and was sent there to, among other things, to carry out a census for tax purposes.

    Census-taking was quite common in the Ancient Near Eastern world- they seem to have taken place every fourteen years. The date of this specific taxation recounted by Luke could well have been in 5BC, which is one of the reasons that many scholars think that Jesus was actually born a few years before the spot where we see the split between BC and AD. This census was carried out using the Jewish method- each going to their own city- rather than the Roman method. This would have been to try and placate the locals who were under Roman rule- to help maintain order.

    In these 5 short verses, Luke established some very important points.

1. He helps us understand the political situation of the time and place- why Jesus’ birth took place in Bethlehem.

2. He let’s us know for sure that Bethlehem was the town of David- supporting Jesus’ claim of being the Messiah. And

3. he establishes the humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth.

    So this is a story about a couple being forced to travel for three days, WHILE the woman is “great with child”, in order to satisfy the whims of a powerful empire and their despotic local ruler. A simple Galilean peasant travels to Bethlehem at the decree of the Roman emperor. Easy, peasy, one, two, threesy.

   At least, that’s the “lower story” explanation for this event. But regardless of what Rome and/or King Herod think, there is SO much more to this tale. Actually, it is the fulfillment of the divine King’s plan. The “upper story” is that God orchestrated the entire event specifically to enter the world and be a more direct presence in the lives of His people. This was NOT simply an historical event that can be verified and explained. This is…an opportunity. This is an opportunity for all the right elements, in both Heaven and earth, to come together for this one, singular, miraculous event. This is an opportunity for God to break into time and space and…change everything. This is an opportunity for the infinite and the finite to collide and be melded together in a way that can, thankfully, never be undone. Sometimes, the best outcomes grow out of the most unlikely sources.

    So, it’s clear that Luke, our Gospel writer of the day, wants to establish both the historical and chronological anchors of Jesus’ birth. There are definitely some “nuts and bolts” here. But it is also clear that he offers a much deeper understanding of the events that simply that. This is the “stage setting” for the greatest story ever told. This is the beginning of the singular moment that will literally split time in half. This is…The Opportunity.

    John Wesley is the founder of United Methodism. He had a theoretical structure for for reflecting on and understanding his faith that has become known as The Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Obviously, the “quad” in the word “quadrilateral” points to there being four parts…and there are. They are Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience.  But I had a seminary professor who talked about this structure as, instead of a 4-legged table, a 3-legged stool. The idea is that the legs of the stool are Tradition, Reason and Experience- equal parts, all supports the whole. But the SEAT of the stool, capping the whole structure off and serving as the “glue” that binds the whole thing together, is Scripture.

    So in that model, we are to let Tradition, Reason and Experience equally inform us on how to understand something. Tradition- what does history have to say that informs me? Reason- what makes logical, reasonable sense to me? And Experience- what do the things that I have actually done tell me? And we are supposed to weigh all of those against, or sift them through, Scripture- what does God’s Word tell me?

     When I apply Wesley’s “3-legged stool” to today’s topic, I come to a specific conclusion. When I intentionally consider Tradition, Reason and Experience and then filter those three through Scripture, I am convinced that God is squarely in The Opportunity business. God provides opportunities to us…on a regular basis. Of that I have no doubt. The question is what we DO with those opportunities.

    Think about the opportunities that God provides. He provides people with the opportunity to do all kinds of things. There are those opportunities that are physical- opportunities to walk away from addictions, to improve our physical health. There are those opportunities that are relational- opportunities to mend previously broken relationships, to build new, healthy relationships. There are those opportunities that are spiritual- opportunities to grow in your relationship with God, to step out in faith and get more involved in ministries that reach farther and deeper…helping connect more and more people to Jesus Christ.

    Again, today’s passage reminds us that God is very much in The Opportunity business. And I am absolutely convinced that He is offering us an opportunity that isn’t offered  very often…or at least not accepted very often. We have been given the opportunity to do things here at this church that most United Methodist churches only dream of. For example, we are, as of early November, absolutely current with our bills- even our obligations to the conference are current. And if you have been a United Methodist for very long at all, you are QUITE familiar with having a special “March to the Manger” offering in December just to try and pay off “conference claims” before the end of the year. I remember years in the ministry where I was on vacation the week between Christmas and New Year’s, visiting family in southern Illinois, holding my breath, waiting for the email that would tell me whether or not we got enough money on the last Sunday of the year to get out of the red. This year, as long as the offerings in December continue as they have, we will end the year in the black without having to ask for extra money. If that doesn’t seem like much to you, let me assure you…it is!

    And that’s just a symptom of what’s going on around here. More than 50% of all the United Methodist Churches will end this year with not one new member. We will end the year with somewhere around 25 new members. More than 50% of all United Methodist Churches will have not one baptism this year, while the average, nation-wide is under 3 baptisms/year. We will end the year with 8 baptisms. The average United Methodist Church will average 88 people/week in worship attendance this year. We will close the year right at a weekly average of 250. The average United Methodist Church will end this year with an average of 10 people…10 people,,,in some form of Christian Education each week. We will end the year with an average of 125/week. Sometimes, the best outcomes grow out of the most unlikely sources.

    God is moving in powerful ways here. I pray that you can feel it, sense it, see it. I sure can. And I, for one, am in NO hurry to see it end. I don’t know about you, but it simply doesn’t get much better than seeing more and more people being reached for Jesus Christ. If we were doing all of this simply to pad our numbers or be able to brag to other churches…we would be absolutely missing the point. But…we aren’t. We are fully committed to connecting people to Jesus Christ. That is the yardstick by which we measure everything we do here.

    My wife and I were given The Opportunity on Tuesday…one we didn’t see coming. Mary and Joseph were given The Opportunity…one they didn’t see coming. We have been given…The Opportunity…one we didn’t see coming. But now that we are in the middle of it, it is clear. And as we move through this Christmas season to the end of the year and into a new year, I for one can hardly wait to see what God has in store for us in 2016! Sometimes, the best outcomes grow out of the most unlikely sources.

The Advent of…Advent

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Tomorrow is a special day in the church year. Tomorrow is the first day of…Advent. “Advent” comes from the Latin word “adventus”, which means “arrival”. Advent is the period of waiting that starts on the 4th Sunday before Christmas and ends on Christmas Day. It is the time that we set aside to prepare for the arrival of a baby in a manger Who came to save the world…and to save us.

So, if Advent means arrival, what arrival are YOU waiting for this Christmas? We all know the “right” answer…but is it the HONEST answer? You know what I mean. We are well aware that the answer to the question should be, “Of course we’re waiting for Jesus, Pastor!” But are you…REALLY?

Think about it- what are the things you look forward to at Christmas? Well, we look forward to hearing the great music. We look forward to all of the beautiful decorations. We look forward to the parties. We look forward to the school programs. We look forward to the shopping. We look forward to the good food. We look forward to decorating the tree. We look forward to family. We look forward to presents- the list goes on…and on…and on!

If you are a normal, red-blooded American with a special fondness for Christmas, you agreed with several points in that list. (Shoot- I didn’t agree with ALL of it…and I wrote it!) But did you notice something? There is NO mention, in that ENTIRE list, of the real reason we celebrate this holiday. The name of Jesus didn’t appear even ONCE! And yet, if we’re honest, my list could be seen as a relatively all-inclusive list…on the surface.

It’s so easy to lose track of Christmas. It’s so easy to get so caught up in the stress and the strain of the season that, by the time December 15th comes, all we can do is pray that it will all be over soon. And what a SHAME that reality is!

What will you focus on this Advent season? DON’T ignore or forget the music and decorations, the parties and the presents. Just put them in perspective. Focus on the fact that God chose…CHOSE…to put on our skin, come down among us and breathe our air…walk our sod. And let me tell you, my friend, it simply doesn’t get any better than that!

Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Black Friday? Not on Your Nellie!

 

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It’s here. After all the hoopla. After all the build-up. It’s finally here. BLACK FRIDAY. (Cue the music) “Dum, dum, dum, duuuum!” Yes, Black Friday- the day when everybody and their dog goes out shopping. Oh. Joy!

Do you know where Black Friday gets its name? It began in Philadelphia…the city of Brotherly Love. It actually started being called Black Friday as a way to describe the heavy, congested foot and vehicle traffic that was prevalent on the day after Thanksgiving. Then, around 1975, the name started spreading beyond Philadelphia. In a case of revisionist history, the “new” explanation for the name is that retailers traditionally operate at a financial loss (“in the red”) from January through November, with “Black Friday” signaling the point at which they start turning a profit- operating “in the black”. (The truth is that for some retailers, it’s a fairly true assessment. But for others (I’m lookin’ at YOU, Walmart!), they are “in the black” WAY before Thanksgiving!

One of the funniest memes (Google it) I have seen this season shows a woman pushing a FULL shopping cart while the caption reads, “Black Friday: because only in America, people trample others for sales exactly one day after being thankful for what they already have.” Funny! Funny…but painfully sad at the same time!

Don’t misunderstand- we buy Christmas gifts. We LOVE to find just the right thing for people we love. I get MUCH more joy out of giving that I do receiving at this point in my life. But our society has gotten more than a little out of hand about the whole thing. According to the results of one poll I read, the average American will spend $801 this year on Christmas gifts. $801! I don’t know about you, but I simply don’t have $801 EXTRA to spend on gifts. So I fall back on the title of the Mike Slaughter book- Christmas is NOT Your Birthday.

Think about that for a moment- Christmas is NOT your birthday. Your birthday is an important day. Every year, for a day, the focus is on…YOU! And that’s a great thing! So we should put the focus on the birthday boy or girl, right? Then who should receive the focus on December 25th? “Aawww SNAP, Pastor…” Christmas is about a baby in a manger who came to split time in half, to change the world, to change us. Let’s focus on THAT this Christmas!

As for Black Friday, have at it…if that is your cup of tea. As for me, you will find me NOWHERE near a store today! I can’t tell the different between that and the worst idea I’ve ever heard!

Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

 

A New…and Thankful…Health Update

health update

    I have a lot to be thankful for this year! I JUST got back (late Tuesday evening) from my “one year checkup”. In case this is new to you, let me (briefly) back the truck up- on May 28, 2013, I found out I had a golf ball-sized tumor just above my right ear. A biopsy (which included taking my right ear OFF, digging around behind it and then sewing it back on) revealed a NON-cancerous tumor that we extremely rare. (I appear the be the 19th recorded case EVER of this tumor in this location!) Even though the tumor was non-cancerous, it was very destructive. Over the course of a few months, I completely lost the hearing in my right ear.

    Over the next nearly 11 months, I had a roller coaster of treatments in an attempt to shrink the tumor. They didn’t work. They DID take a massive toll on ME..but they didn’t work! Then, I lost control of the facial muscles on the right side. And so, on April 17th, 2014, the day before my 53rd birthday, I had the tumor removed in a 10+ hour surgery. Three days later, Easter Sunday, I walked out of the hospital and went home. 6 weeks later, I was back at work full-time!

    After the initial follow-up, I had a 2nd follow-up at the 6-month mark. All was well- no sign of the tumor. So they bumped me out to a year for the next visit. That visit took place the beginning of this week. My wife and I drove to the St. Louis, MO area Sunday afternoon. Monday morning, we drove to Barnes Hospital near downtown St. Louis. My first stop was the lab at the Siteman Cancer Center for a blood draw. Then, it was down the hall to the oncologist’s office.

    He said my blood work was, and I quote, “Perfect”! He then did a physical exam, asking me questions the whole time. He noticed some small things relating to my ability to move (or not move) those right-side facial muscles that most people never notice. He then said that my recovery from the facial paralysis was, and again I quote, “Amazing”! He ended with, “See you in a year!”

    From there, it was on to the otolaryngologist’s office. (That’s a fancy name for “the ear, nose and throat doctor”!) He too was amazed at how far I’d come in the recovery from the facial paralysis. He checked my right ear, which was pretty badly damaged internally by the tumor, and said it looked, and for the 3rd time I quote, “surprisingly normal”. The inner ear had been crushed by the tumor. But now, it is back in the shape it once was. The hearing is still gone…and it always will be. The bones that are essential to hearing are gone- destroyed by the tumor. He also ended the visit with, “See you in a year.” That ended Day 1.

    Late that afternoon, I got a call from my neurosurgeon’s office. I had a CT scan and an MRI scheduled for Tuesday, followed by a visit with him the talk about the results of those tests. HOWEVER…the insurance company hadn’t yet approved the tests! So we woke up Tuesday morning not knowing if the tests were on or off. And then the call came- nope..not gonna happen! It looks like I will have the tests done near where I live in the next couple of weeks and have the results sent to my doctor.

    I’m not going to lie- I was a little disappointed to not have the tests done so that I could find out for sure whether or not the tumor is still gone. BUT…I had no control over what happened and so it didn’t make sense for me to throw a fit. Instead, we visited relatives that we hadn’t seen for a long time. It was not the day I had planned…but apparently it WAS the day God planned!

    The two doctors I saw were ecstatic over how I was doing. The blood tests were perfect. So…I’m going to claim that! I feel good. The doctors are happy. All is well! Am I still going to have the other tests done? You bet! Will it be more conclusive proof that I’m doing well. Absolutely! But I’m sticking with…no tumor! God is good, all the time!

    Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Turkey Day!

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My older son is home…for FIVE days! My younger son is out of school…for FOUR days! My wife is here. It simply doesn’t get much better than that! (I WOULD like to see my extended family, but that gets harder and harder as we get geographically farther away from each other and kids keep getting married and having kids!)

Tomorrow, we will have a quiet Thanksgiving. The turkey will cook in one of the ovens over at the church- one of the perks of living next door! (There IS a down-side as well, but there are CERTAINLY some perks!) The dressing will be in our oven. The sweet potatoes and regular potatoes (Hey! We like potatoes…OK?!) will be in separate pots on the stove, waiting to be mashed. The fresh green beans will be in yet another pot on the stove. The Jello-pretzel salad will be in the fridge. The sweet Hawaiian rolls will be waiting to be heated up. Dinner will be awesome.

My immediate family- which consists of my wife, her parents, our two sons, the two dogs and me- will spend the day…hanging out. We have no big plans, other than some cooking and some eating. And frankly, I am more than OK with that!

What am I thankful for this Thanksgiving? I’m thankful that I get to spend time with my family. I’m thankful to serve such an awesome church. I’m thankful for a God Who loves me…regardless. And this year especially, I’m thankful for another day to be upright, breathing and about His business. This has been a whirlwind couple of years since I found out about the tumor in my head. I’m not going to lie- I wish I never had it. BUT…that…THING…in my head made me SO much more appreciative of…life.

This holiday season, don’t waste a moment. Don’t take your days for granted. Don’t leave things undone. Don’t leave relationships unmended. Why? Because none of us are guaranteed tomorrow. So make the most of today. As that great theologian from Kung Fu Panda, Master Oogway, says; “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the “present.” Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Unity Vs. Uniformity

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Remember Junior High? Everybody wanted to be like “the cool kids”…and I was NOT one of the cool kids! We all wanted to wear the right clothes, have the right hair style, say the right things. We wanted to be…alike! The funny thing about that it that even people who want to be different than the mainstream folk end up looking JUST LIKE the people they run with. I once heard someone ask a guy who was wearing all black with eye liner and spikes and chains everywhere, “Why do you dress like that?” The response? “I want to be different.” The irony? They were surrounded by about a dozen people who all looked JUST like them!

I have twice  taught a Bible Study on the New Testament book of Romans. (An aside- that is one TOUGH book to get through! Some of the folks in the class said, “We enjoyed that…but could we pick an easier book for the next study?!”) Late in the book, the Apostle Paul talks about unity. I challenged the class to consider what exactly “unity” means. We kicked around several possible definitions, and the ensuing discussion led to exactly the point I was hoping to get to- the difference between unity and uniformity.
Uniformity is being just like everybody else. Uniformity is wearing the same things, doing the same things, saying the same things, thinking the same things, believing the same things! Uniformity is one small goose step away from the kind of mentality that got Nazi German in so much trouble. Uniformity takes away individuality and replaces it with mindless adherence to rules and norms. Whether we are talking about faith or just…life…uniformity is something that I just can’t stomach.
Unity, on the other hand, is a whole different ballgame. Unity has NOTHING to do with lock-step adherence to a convoluted group of rules. Instead, it has everything to do with being an individual AND a part of something larger than yourself. It means having a kinship and a symbiosis with a group of people while still being able to hang on to who you are as an individual. Unity is a body of unique individuals united in a common cause.
Unity over and against uniformity is one thing I appreciate about the United Methodist Church. I have to look no further than myself to see it at work. I am about to go to Annual Conference, where all the clergy and representatives of the laity gather together once a year to both worship together and have the Church’s “business meeting”. When I attend the clergy session, there will be young clergy and old clergy, male clergy and female clergy, clergy of all colors, races and nationalities, urban clergy, suburban clergy and rural clergy. And in the midst of them will be…ME…a shaved-headed, earring-wearing, rock-drumming United Methodist minister…and I am accepted and welcomed into that gathering. We are NOT uniform, in an way, shape or form…but we have great unity in our goal to make disciples for Jesus Christ.
I encourage you to always seek unity with the people around you…while holding tightly to your uniqueness. Reject uniformity…but covet unity! Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

I LIVE For Meetings!

meeting     I LOVE meetings! Really, I do! AND…I lie a lot!! OK, I DON’T lie a lot, and I DON’T love meetings either! I was reminded of that when I attended a clergy meeting. 40+ pastors, gathered in 1 room for a “command performance”- good times! Actually, the meeting wasn’t that bad. The “worship/devotional” time was led by a young clergy couple (in our conference, any couple under 45 is young!), and they did a great job. The meeting itself was even interesting. We talked about financial planning and fundraising. (You are saying to yourself, “Self- did he say fundraising? Why would a bunch of preachers talk about fundraising?” Because the reality is that, if you are in ministry, you are, at some level, a fundraiser!)
I also got to see clergy friends that I thoroughly enjoying being around but don’t get to see often enough- including my former Associate Pastor who I miss greatly and very much appreciate! I was reminded, however, that I always get in trouble at these events BECAUSE of the people with whom I choose to sit! Get us together at the same table and NOTHING is sacred…OR serious!
“So, if the content of the meeting was good and the company was good, then what is there to witch and moan about, Pastor? Why don’t you just stop your bellyaching and get over yourself?!” Alrighty then, I will! No seriously, the reason I hate meetings is because I have ADHD- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. (Up until recently, I thought I only had ADD, but one day my wife said, “Oh no, honey…you have the “H” too!”) When you have ADHD, sitting still and quiet is a form of punishment. It is SO hard to do that simple thing. People who DON’T have ADD/ADHD seem to have little to no problem sitting still. But us ADD/ADHD folks find it nearly impossible to do. I fidget, I twist, I turn, I slide down in the chair, I sit up in the chair- you name it, I do it!
Now, I spend several hours a day at my desk in my office at church. BUT, I have the freedom to get up whenever I want. I have the freedom to turn on music if I want. I have the freedom to drive my poor Office Administrator nearly crazy with my “stream of consciousness” conversation! So I DO sit at a desk…but I don’t! And that is one of the things I love about being a minister. No 2 days are alike. There is very little repetition or routine. And while that drives some folks crazy, I thrive in that environment!
One of the beautiful things about God’s creation is that we are all different. We don’t think the same things. We don’t feel the same things. We don’t so the same things. And I, for one, thank God daily for that fact! What a wonderful world!
Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

The Exodus: Freedom

The Exodus Freedom

    Have you ever wondered why people pursue acting as a career? Well…wonder no longer! Since I pursued acting as a career, I have some insight into that question! And one of the main reasons people pursue acting is that it provides a pretty big dose of freedom. Think about it- acting gives you the complete freedom to step OUT of yourself and become someone else…even if it’s just for a moment.

    Don’t believe me? Here is one of THE most well-known soliloquies from Shakespeare’s Hamlet…as presented by 13 DIFFERENT characters! Watch the screen while you listen- you’ll be reminded who each voice is.

Hamlet-

Bill Clinton- To be, or not to be- that is the question:

Morgan Freeman- Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Christopher Walken- or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them.

Marvin the Martian- To die- to sleep- no more; and by a sleep to say we end the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.

Andy Rooney- ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.

Boris Karloff- To die- to sleep. To sleep- perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub!

Jack Nicholson- For in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.

Harry Caray- There’s the respect that makes calamity of so long life.

Johnny Carson- For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the pangs of despis’d love,

Casey Casem- the law’s delay, the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of th’ unworthy takes?

Ronald Reagan- Who would these fardels bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life, but that the dread of something after death- the undiscover’d country, from whose bourn no traveller returns-

Jerry Seinfeld- puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of?

Kermit the Frog- Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprises of great pith and moment with this regard their currents turn awry and lose the name of action.

    2Chronicles 7:14 If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

    Today, we wrap up our current 7-week sermon series- The Exodus. The first week, we looked at the beginnings of the Hebrews in Egypt- welcomed with open arms but soon enslaved. Week 2, we talked about a mother who tossed her infant son into the Nile River…to save him. Week 3, we looked on as Moses made a snap decision, killed an Egyptian and then had to run for his life…and run from God. Week 4, Moses was confronted with a bush that was burning but not being consumed. And out of that experience, God called him in a POWERFUL way. Week 5, we came to a major transition in the story of the Hebrew people- the plagues. And out of those plagues, we focused on God’s promises. Last week, we drew near the end of our journey as we focused on Pharaoh letting the Hebrew people go and the fact that release is an essential step in the journey to freedom. And today, we bring this all to a close as we consider just that…freedom.

    Exodus 14:26-31 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.” Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing toward it, and the Lord swept them into the sea. The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen–the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived. But the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left. That day the Lord saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore. And when the Israelites saw the great power the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.

     The Fourth of July was coming up, and the nursery school teacher took the opportunity to tell her class about freedom. “We live in a great country,” she said.

“One of the things we should be happy is that, in this country, we have something many people in the world don’t have- freedom. We are all free.” One little boy in the back of the room raised his hand, “I’m not free…I’m four.”

    So Pharaoh, completely broken, releases Moses and his people. The leave in such a hurry that they take the bread dough before the leavening has been added, thus creating the Hebrew tradition of unleavened bread. The shortest road from where they were, the land of Goshen, to where they were going, Canaan- the Promised Land- went through Philistine country. But God didn’t lead them that way. God figured that, if the Hebrews went that way, they may have to go into battle. And if that happened, they might change their minds and go back to Egypt. So God instead led them on a road through the desert that ended at the Red Sea.

    God was with them constantly- a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. And then, they find themselves at the shore of the Red Sea. Meanwhile, Pharaoh has had a change of heart. He is pretty hacked off at losing his free labor force. So he calls out 600 of his best chariots, mounts an army and goes out after them. And they catch up with them…at the Red Sea.

    So there the Hebrews are- between a rock and a hard place. The Red Sea on one side and Pharaoh’s army on the other. The people panic. “Why did you bring us out here? We should have just stayed where we are!” Moses turns to God, Who says, “What are you all whining about? Go forward.” He tells Moses to stretch out his staff. And when he does, the waters of the Red Sea part, making a way for the Hebrews.

    They quickly make their way across, with Pharaoh’s army hot on their trail. And just when all hope seems lost…God works another miracle. He tells Moses to again stretch out his staff. The waters of the Red Sea come crashing back down into place…wiping out Pharaoh’s army. The Bible says, “Not one of them survived.” After 430 of bondage, after so many times, so many years, when the people feared that God hasn’t even hearing them, after the horror of the Plagues, after a harrowing journey through the desert and across the Red Sea, the Hebrews have finally achieved…freedom.

    Galatians 5:1 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

    It was Abraham Lincoln who said, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” Nelson Mandela said, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” And it was John F. Kennedy who said, “Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.”

    Freedom comes in many forms, but for the most part it can be broken into 2 categories- freedom FROM something and freedom TO something. And God is at the heart of both. What do you need to be free FROM? What is that thing that keeps you from a more complete relationship with God? It may be something obvious- addict, fear, grief, sorrow, anger…whatever.

    Then again, it might be something that SEEMS like a good thing- pouring yourself into our work, getting involved in every civic organization available, worshipping your family. “Now wait, Pastor- working hard, supporting your community…loving your family?! What’s wrong with THAT?!”

    There is NOTHING wrong with working hard or supporting your community or loving your family. Nothing. The problem is when those things become obsessions that keep you from a balanced spiritual life- with God at the top.

    So…again…what do you need freedom FROM? What is it that keeps you from a deeper relationship with God? Whatever it is, seek release fro it so that you can be free from it. My experience is that, regardless of what it is, if you can get your priorities lined up so that God IS at the top of the list…everything else seems to fall in line pretty well beyond that. How can I adequately take care of my family…or anything else…if I don’t FIRST focus on my relationship with God?

    Once you have managed to identify the thing that is holding you back and gained freedom from it, then suddenly whole new worlds are opened up. Once you are free FROM, you are free TO…tackle that thing to which God is calling you. Free TO…more fully be used by God. Free TO…become the person God intended you to be. For years…YEARS…I fought directly against becoming the person God called me to be. And then, finally…I gave in. Now, don’t misunderstand- I am NOT implying that I have completed that journey, that I am, fully and completely, weho God wants me to be. Not even a little bit. I still have a LOT of rough edges to smooth out. But I am SO much closer than I once was!

    Professional baseball players dream of making it to the Major Leagues- or, as they call it- “The Show”. I saw an interview with a player who had been called up to the Major Leagues but wasn’t playing very much. He and the bench were on really good terms! The interviewer asked the player if that bothered him. The ball player simply grinned and said, “Heck, I’m just jazzed to be in The Show!” When we care about who gets the credit, we A. completely miss the point of ministry and B. threaten to derail the train before it can even get started. But if we are just jazzed to be in the show, then God can use us in powerful ways! Because in the end, it is only God Who offers us freedom…true freedom.

“It’s Like Riding a Bike!”

bike

    Yesterday, I wrote about the fact that my worlds were going to collide…yesterday. My old life as a portrait photographer and my current life as a pastor met head-on as I took portrait photographs at an annual church event called The Follow the Star Holiday Bazaar.

    I didn’t photograph very many people. But I am convinced that A. we could “market” that part of the event differently and increase the foot traffic (we will address those changes next year!) and B. what I do for this event isn’t about numbers but about connecting with people. And since that is the goal…last night was a great success! Now, the forecast for overnight last night into today was…SNOW…and a lot of it! If that comes to pass, today’s attendance could be REALLY low! By the time you read this…we will know!

    I shot pictures nearly every day for 8 years before I went into the ministry. The last 4 of those years were specifically and solely portrait photography. And that’s what I do for this event. And the interesting thing is this- Even though I haven’t done it regularly for 19 years, and even though I don’t do it AT ALL except a few hours once a year…I can still do it! Apparently, it’s like riding a bike.

    AS I thought through that, I realized something- portrait photography and ministry have some unexpected similarities. And the biggest of those is that they both hinge on your ability to connect with people and build rapport. When someone walks in to have you take their picture, you need to start building that relationship immediately. Before they EVER get in front of that camera, you’d better have conversation going and have already identified SOMETHING that you have in common that can be a topic on conversation. Why? Because the more you get them talking about something…anything…other than the fact that you are taking, the better the finished product is.

    Ministry, too, is about connecting with people and building rapport. The faster I can find that common bond with new people who walk into the church for the first time, the better. And when I am moved to a new church, the opposite it true- the faster I can build those relationships as I walk in the door…the better.

   I think that everybody should have to work retail. When your ability to put food on your table and keep the electricity on depends on how well you can connect with your “customers”…well…there is some rather substantial motivation to do the best you can! And I feel blessed that my rather extensive background in retail and management, as well as my rather…varied…background in entertainment and other things, have come together to serve as a solid foundation from which to do ministry! God is good, all the time!

    Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Today, My Worlds Collide!

family-portrait

    When you are a pastor who has also worked as a business executive, a restaurant manager, an actor, a drummer, a magician  and a juggler…your worlds collide on a somewhat regular basis. But today, I collide with yet another world!

    This afternoon and tomorrow morning, the church I currently serve hosts the annual Follow the Star Holiday Bazaar. It is a MAJOR event in the life of the church and brings hundreds and hundreds of people in the church over that 24-hour period. It DOES raise a lot of money…which is divided up and then donated to a variety of other ministries. But it also is another way for us to connect with people…and help connect them to Jesus Christ. Through the display of 100+ Nativity sets through the WIDE variety of crafts, gifts and food for sale, there are a TON of things for people to see and do.

    But it is yet another feature of this event that collides my worlds. Two years ago, we added another feature- families can get their picture taken, either in “Nativity” costumes of simply their street clothes. They receive a CD with 6-10 different shots on it. They can then take that CD and use one or more of the pix to create a Christmas card…or whatever else they may want to do with it.

    And, in case you didn’t know, the last job I had before entering the ministry was managing photography studios and training portrait photographers! I was responsible for 20 studios spread over 4 states. I estimate that, over the 8 years I was in that industry, including doing school photography and photographing sports groups, that I “shot” around 250,000 people during that time!

    And so, it was a natural fit for me to be the one who ran this particular part of the Bazaar. So today and tomorrow, my Worship Director and I will “man the booth”. Folks will come in. We will find out if they want the “costume” experience or a more traditional family picture. Then, it’s pose the group, climb the ladder (the area where I stage the pictures is a few feet about the level of the rest of the room), get some good expressions and shoot some pictures. When we’re done, I’ll pop out the memory card, give it to my “partner in crime”, who will pop it IN the laptop, burn the data to a CD and give it to the “customer”.

    In the two years we have done this, we haven’t photographed a HUGE number of subjects. But we have been trying to simply figure out what we were doing and therefore haven’t promoted it a lot so far. My gut tells me that, starting next year, if we promote it correctly, we could actually start scheduling “sitting appointments”. We’ll see!

    I must admit- I LOVE the way God gave me this REALLY weird skill set- I mean REALLY weird- and then figured out a way to make it all work in the ministry. If you sat down to create the ideal resume’ for a pastor…mine would NOT be it. But God has this marvelous way of using the least likely. And let me assure you, my friend…I am THE least likely!

    Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Early Turkey Day!

thanksgiving-dinner-ideas12

    Turkey. Mashed potatoes. Cornbread dressing. Corn. Gravy. Cranberry sauce. Veggies. Drinks. And…pumpkin pie! Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, that’s exactly what we did last night, at the church I currently serve, for 125 of our closest friends!

    As you know, if you read this blog much at all, this church has a Wednesday night ministry that begins with, and features, a dinner. Every week. And a tradition at this church is that the Wednesday of the week BEFORE Thanksgiving is a traditional turkey dinner with “all the trimmings”.

    The men of the church traditionally prepare the meal and there is one gentleman who usually “takes the lead” and plans the dinner. This year was no exception. So he planned the meal and had several people involved in the purchasing of supplies and preparing of the food. Several!

    The church kitchen was a busy place yesterday. It is always active on Wednesdays, but yesterday it was even busier. People were coming and going all day. And the building smelled…GREAT! (It’s hard to sit in the office and work when the building smells THAT good!)

    And then…5:15PM came. Actually, 5:06PM, because we were ready early and there was no sense waiting! Basic instructions were given- the “nuts and bolts” of how the serving would happen. The prayer was offered. And then…THEY’RE OFF! Three of us served from the “window” into the kitchen- Turkey, corn and mashed potatoes- (I served the turkey!) while three more served at the serving tables- cornbread stuffing, gravy and cranberry sauce.

    Within 20  minutes- two things had happened: 1. most of the people who came to dinner had been served and 2. there were basically NO empty seats available! In the end, we served right at 125 people. And the only thing…the ONLY thing we ran out of was mashed potatoes. And that wasn’t until we fed about 110 people. (Sadly, I was #112!)

    Last night was a great reminder of what church is all about. (You can insert your “Methodists love to eat” joke here!) We had long-time church members, we had folks are fairly new to the church and we had people who came simply because we had a good meal that was free. And that is EXACTLY what that ministry is supposed to be- people coming together from all walks of life to share their lives…even if it’s just for a few minutes…with each other.

    There is great power in table sharing. When we break bread together at a common table, great things can happen. Food is such a marvelously basic, common need- everybody has to eat. And when we intentionally do that together, including anybody who wants to participate, we move one closer and closer to fully being the people that God calls us to be. And THAT, my friends, is GOOD stuff!

    Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

God’s Promises: Peace

Gods Promises Peace     A journalist assigned to the Jerusalem bureau takes an apartment overlooking the Wailing Wall. Every day when she looks out, she sees an old Jewish man praying vigorously. So, the journalist goes down and introduces herself to the old man. She asks, “You come every day to the wall. How long have you done that and what are you praying for?” The old man replies, “I have come here to pray every day for 25 years. In the morning I pray for world peace and then for the brotherhood of man. I go home have a cup of tea and I come back and pray again for world peace.” The journalist is amazed. “How does it make you feel to come here every day for 25 years and pray for peace?” she asks. The old man looks at her sadly. “Like I’m talking to a wall.” ”
Tonight, we wrap up our current Sunday night series. It’s a 147-part series and, y’all, I’m REAL excited about it! No, it’s a 4-week series that takes us to tonight- just before the beginning of Advent- the season of Christmas. It’s called God’s Promises. There are LOTS of promises God makes to us, but we are looking at 5 specific promises- what they are, WHY they are and what they mean for our lives. Week 1, we looked at forgiveness. Week 2, we looked at salvation as we considered one of the best known “minor” characters in the New Testament- Zacchaeus. Last week, we looked a different direction as we considered comfort- God’s comfort. Tonight, we’ll focus on one of the most sought-after, and hard to get, frames of mind- peace. And we will seriously consider the idea that you must first find peace within yourself, then you can offer peace to others.

Question #1- How do YOU define “peace”?

Dictionary.com says peace is
“a state of mutual harmony between people or groups, especially in personal relations”. It also says
“the normal freedom from civil commotion and violence of a community; public order and security”. Then there’s
“freedom from any strife or dissension”. And
“a state of tranquillity or serenity”.

Question #2- Which part of that definition resonates best with you?

Perhaps Ronald Reagan said it best, “Peace is not absence of conflict- it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.”
   John 16:29-33 Then Jesus’ disciples said, “Now you are speaking clearly and without figures of speech. Now we can see that you know all things and that you do not even need to have anyone ask you questions. This makes us believe that you came from God.” “You believe at last!” Jesus answered. “But a time is coming, and has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
If you check into a Sheraton hotel room these days, you have a new message you can hang on your doorknob to keep the housekeeper away. Instead of “Do Not Disturb”, the message now reads “Peace and Quiet.” And at Sheraton’s more upscale sister, The Westin Hotel, the sign simply reads “peace.” But it’s doubtful you’ll find true “peace and quiet” in a sterile hotel room surrounded by 100’s of other guests and all their electronics, along with the elevators, street noises and such.
Why is that? Because we don’t just want fewer disruptions and disturbances in our lives…we want to find something more positive than that. We want “peace and quiet”…or if “quiet” is too much to ask for, then at least we’d like some “peace.” The most endangered thing on our planet isn’t the polar ice caps, the black rhino, the big leaf mahogany or even my hair! The most endangered thing in the 21st century is “peace and quiet.”
So Jesus is talking to His disciples. And, in typical Jesus fashion, He tends to speak in parables and riddles. But then He says,
“I have not been speaking to you plainly. But a time is coming when I will speak clearly. Then I will tell you plainly about my Father. When that day comes, you will ask for things in my name. I am not saying I will ask the Father instead of you asking him. No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me. He also loves you because you have believed that I came from God. “I came from the Father and entered the world. Now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father.”
The disciples have just received a major gift!
“NOW You’re speaking clearly and without figures of speech. NOW we can see that You know all things and that You don’t even need to have anyone ask you questions. This makes us believe that You came from God.”
Jesus offers up a big “sigh” and says,
“You believe at last! Huzzah! But a time is coming, and has come, when you’ll be scattered, each to his own home. You’ll leave Me all alone. Yet I’m NOT alone- My Father is with Me.” FINALLY…it’s sinking in. And not a moment too soon!
He then does a Paul Harvey and tells them…the rest of the story,
“I’ve told you these things so that, in Me, you may have peace.” You may have peace. He then adds this,
“In this world you’ll have trouble. But take heart! I’ve overcome the world.”

Question #3- How do you find peace?

Question #4- How do you know when you have it?

In tonight’s passage, Jesus says, “I’ve told you these things so that, in Me, you may have peace. In this world you’ll have trouble. But take heart! I’ve overcome the world.” So it’s NOT about “no trouble”- never was, never will be. We live in a fallen world. And so, in THIS world, we WILL have trouble, Period. It’s not about the lack of trouble. It’s about how we react to trouble. It’s about what kind of people we are.
In the classic TV show All in the Family, Archie says, “That’s you, Edith- good. You would stoop to anything to be good. You never make nobody mad. You think it’s easy living with a saint? Even when you cheat, you don’t cheat to win- you cheat to lose. It ain’t human.” Edith replies, “That’s a terrible thing to say. I’m just as human as you.” To which Archie replies, “Oh yeah? Prove it. Do something rotten!” In tonight’s passage, John reminds us that, while we live in an Archie world, we are called to be Edith Christians.
Peace is NOT found in the absence of conflict. Peace is found in our response to conflict. And it is one of God’s more awesome promises!

Men in Church

men    Men are an interesting breed. And as a card-carrying member of the gender…I feel I can speak somewhat intelligently on the subject! We all know the stereotypical descriptors-

    All men know how to fix cars, men are doctors, not nurses, men do “dirty jobs” (construction and mechanics) not “clean jobs” (secretaries and teachers), men don’t do housework or take care of kids, men love sports, men camp, fish and hunt, men are lazy and sloppy, men don’t cook. The list could go on and on.

    And the truth is that NONE of those are true…and yet all of them are true. In other words, there ARE men who fit all of those descriptions. But not ALL men do.

    Another common stereotype is that men don’t usually go to church. And if they do, they are nothing more than pew-sitters. It is the women who do ALL the work in a church. Again, those stereotypes are true AND false!

    In a LOT of Christian churches across the country, you could almost count the number of men on one hand. In fact, one of the reasons that church choirs are on the decline nationally is that it’s tough to have a choir with few or no basses and tenors! So while the stereotype isn’t always true, there IS a generous supply of examples to support it.

    Which is one of the many reasons I am so grateful for the church I currently serve. There is a rather large contingent of men in the church. And on any given week, you can found any number of them doing any number of projects around the building. Just within the past 2 weeks, the men of the church have put on two dinners, planned and hosted a Men’s Ministry night, worked all day on a Saturday (along with other times) to get a foundation dug and poured in preparation for our new sign, moved our Children’s Library, moved our Adult Library, fixed the furnace, set up the manger in the church yard in anticipation of the Nativity scene that will soon occupy it, oversaw the cleaning out of a rather large storage area, organizing the selling of dozens of old folding chairs…and I’m SURE I’m leaving some things out!

    Read that list again. Then consider…two weeks! TWO weeks! That’s more work than the men of MANY churches get done in 2 years! The church I currently serve is growing. New people are showing up EVERY week. And the only way, the ONLY way a church can sustain healthy growth is if the people in the church get actively involved. If they are helping maintain and upgrade the facility while financially supporting the emerging ministries AND actively inviting and welcoming new people, then great things can continue to happen.

    The next year or so will be “the tale of the tape” for this church- whether or not we can maintain this growth and continue to move closer to being the people God has called us to be. And I don’t know what God has in store for us. But what I DO know is that I am surrounded by men who are committed to being the best fathers, husbands and leaders they can be. And with that in place, alongside the AWESOME women of this church…oh my!

    Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

It Don’t Matter if You’re Black or White

black or white

    First off, let me say this- I ALMOST didn’t write this blog. I had some concern that it would appear racist or not politically correct. But the more I thought about it, the more I decided that was a ridiculous reason to NOT write it. So…here goes!

    For my money, Michael Jackson was a great artist. I’ll be honest- I didn’t think a lot of him as a human being, but he was a talented singer/performer. I have much of his body of of work in my iTunes library. I like it.

    One of my favorite Michael Jackson songs is Black or White. The gist of the song is found in these lyrics, “It don’t matter if you’re black or white”. The video for the song is equally powerful. And I couldn’t help but think about that song this past Saturday night.

    The church I currently serve hosted an annual event we call Men in Ministry. We invited men from around the area to attend. The music was provided by an AWESOME group from a city not terribly far from us. And the message was delivered by one of the finest preachers I have ever known.

    Right now, you are probably saying, “Did you switch to a different blog in the middle? What do the first three paragraphs have to do with the 4th paragraph?” Here you go! Every member of the band AND the preacher are African American. Those in the pews, on quite the other hand, are…not!

    The church I currently serve is in a community that is predominantly Caucasian- white. That is not intended to be a judgement, and indictment or a source of pride. It is simply a fact. Therefore, the church I currently serve is also predominantly white.

    Another fact is that, in large part, predominantly white, midwestern United Methodist churches tend to have a different approach to worship than predominantly African American churches do. Again, not an indictment or a source of pride…simply a fact.

    And yet…and yet…I saw an amazing thing happened Saturday night. A very spirited, spirit-filled group of African American musicians and singers, together with a very spirited, spirit-filled African American preacher, led worship in a rather…laid back white church. And you know what? It don’t matter if you’re black or white!

    There wasn’t a huge divide between races and cultures. Instead, it was simply a group of Christian men worshipping together. And I, for one, LOVE that! I love the fact that faith can bring people together in sincere, joyous worship that society says have NO business being together! Out there, on the street, we are simply NOT equal. Don’t believe me? Just ask someone. BUT…inside the walls of the church…inside a faith connection…we are radically equal.

    God doesn’t see color, or gender, or race, or age, or educational level, or economic status or any of the others things that society uses to separate us. Instead, He simply sees His children. So you see- it DON’T matter if you’re black or white!

    Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

The Exodus: Release

The Exodus Release

Growing up, I had a dog named Snoopy. We lived out in the middle of nowhere and someone had dumped her. It happened often, but my dad would NEVER let us keep them. Until, that is…Snoopy! She had some kind of terrier in her. She had some level of dalmatian in her. And ultimately…she was a mutt! A mutt that was so ugly, she was cute! And if you’ve lived in the country and had outdoor pets, you know that, more often than not, they would simply disappear one day…and you never know what happened to them.
Well, one day..Snoopy disappeared. We looked for her. For two days…we looked for her. By the end of the second day, it seemed clear that something had happened to her and we weren’t going to find her. So on day 3, I went to school rather sad- I had lost my dog.
That afternoon, the bus dropped me off at the end of the driveway. I walked up the driveway and around to the back of the house, walking into the garage. And there, miracle of miracles, was Snoopy! She was SO glad to see me and I was SO glad to see her! We had a great reunion! But the mystery remained- where had she been?
My mom heard me in the garage and came out from the kitchen with the answer to that question. She had my brother-in-law had decided to mount one more search on my grandpa’s 150-acre farm that was adjacent to our property. They walked around, calling her name but having NO idea where to look. Suddenly, they heard it- a bark! They ran toward the sound and found her. She had fallen in a cistern- a deep pit, lined with brick and waterproofed-designed to catch rainwater for livestock. She had been in that DRY cistern for three days and nights- no food and no water. They fished her out and brought her home, where she was delighted to eat and get a drink! After 72 hours in an inescapable hole…my dog experienced release.
   Daniel 6:16-22 So the king gave the order, and they brought Daniel and threw him into the lions’ den. The king said to Daniel, “May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!” A stone was brought and placed over the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet ring and with the rings of his nobles, so that Daniel’s situation might not be changed. Then the king returned to his palace and spent the night without eating and without any entertainment being brought to him. And he could not sleep. At the first light of dawn, the king got up and hurried to the lions’ den. When he came near the den, he called to Daniel in an anguished voice, “Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to rescue you from the lions?” Daniel answered, “O king, live forever! My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in his sight. Nor have I ever done any wrong before you, O king.”
Today, we continue our current 7-week sermon series- The Exodus. The first week, we looked at their beginnings in Egypt- welcomed with open arms but later enslaved. Week 2, the story of the Hebrews took a massive leap forward as a mother made an incredibly painful decision- toss her infant son into the Nile River…to save him. Week 3, we looked at Moses as he made a snap decision, with the best of intentions, and killed an Egyptian, causing him to try and run from God. Week 4, we moved a bit further along in the story- Moses was confronted with something he has never seen before, a bush that was burning but not being consumed. And out of that experience, he was called in a POWERFUL way by God. Last week, we came to a major transition in the story of the Hebrew people- the plagues. And out of that story, we considered the fact that God…and His promises… are always with us, regardless of the circumstance.
Today, we move closer to the end of our journey as we focus on a very specific part of the Hebrew people’s journey- release. And we will be very specific that release, while an important step to freedom, is NOT automatically freedom. But being obedient to God leads to a feeling that cannot be equaled- release.
Exodus 12:31-34 During the night Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Up! Leave my people, you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord as you have requested. Take your flocks and herds, as you have said, and go. And also bless me.” The Egyptians urged the people to hurry and leave the country. “For otherwise,” they said, “we will all die!” So the people took their dough before the yeast was added, and carried it on their shoulders in kneading troughs wrapped in clothing.
A redneck was stopped by a game warden with a bunch of fish in a bucket.  The game warden asked the man, “Do you have a license to catch those fish?” “Naw, I don’t need no license. These are my pet fish.” “Pet fish?” “Yep. Every night, I take these here fish, release ‘em in the lake and let ’em swim ’round for a while. Then I whistle and they jump right back in this here bucket and I take ’em home.” “You expect me to believe THAT? Fish can’t do that!” The redneck looked at the game warden for a moment and then said, “It’s the truth. I’ll show you. It really works.” “Okay, I’ve GOT to see this!” The redneck released the fish, pouring them into the river. After several minutes, the game warden said, “Well?” “Well, whut?” said the redneck. “When are you going to call the fish back?” The redneck smiled and said, “What fish?!”
Moses encounters God in the burning bush, somewhat reluctantly gets his marching orders and heads back to confront Pharaoh. He tells Pharaoh that God has sent him to have Pharaoh release the Hebrews from bondage. But Pharaoh is the morning and evening star- he is simply not interested in Moses’ puny Hebrew God. Moses persists…and Pharaoh just digs his heels in a bit further.
In the end, as we saw last week, Moses goes to God in frustration and says, “Why aren’t you doing anything? The people…YOUR people…are dying. Is this what you called me back here for?!” And God says, “Finally! I have been waiting for you to admit that you can’t do it yourself. Now…stand back and watch Me work!” And the 10 Plagues of Egypt begin.
1. The water turns to blood
2. Frogs
3. Lice
4. Flies
5. Diseased livestock
6. Boils
7. Hail and lightning
8. Locusts
9. Darkness
10. Death of the firstborn
There is a clear progression of these plagues- they get progressively worse. That’s NOT accidental. God wants Pharaoh to let the people go. He won’t. So God has to…persuade him. But Pharaoh is both proud and stubborn. So God makes things a little worse each time. And yet- Pharaoh stands resolute. Finally, there is nothing left but to hit Pharaoh where it hurts the most- his firstborn son. The firstborn son was the guarantee of the bloodline- the ongoing succession to the throne- in ancient Egypt. There would be little, if anything, else God could do to get Pharaoh’s attention. And boy does it work. Pharaoh is broken.
And he sends for Moses and tells him to get his people together and get out. “Take your stuff. Take your livestock. Worship your God. But please…get out.” And then, he says the unthinkable, “Bless me.” He is so broken that the Morning and Evening Sun asks these pesky Hebrews to have their God…bless him. Even the Egyptian people want them gone, “Get out or we will all die!” And so…the Hebrews are released. They aren’t FREE yet…but release has come.
So today’s word…boys and girls…is “release”. But what exactly does that word mean? Dictionary.com says, “to liberate from confinement, bondage or pain, to let go.” OK- that’s helpful- “to let go”. It also says 2 more things that I think are helpful to us- “to relinquish or surrender” and “to allow to be known”.
Let’s get our heads around that- “release”, in this context, is liberation from confinement- to let go. So there is a strong element that EITHER we let go of something that has been keeping us in bondage OR…something or someone else forces that thing to let go OF us.
And then, there is the rest of the definition. “To surrender”. To be released from something…we have to willing to surrender to something…or Someone…else. And when we do that, the rest of the definition comes into play- “to allow to be known”. As long as we let the thing that binds us…bind us…then we can never begin to move toward freedom. We first have to seek the release that is necessary. But once we surrender and let God provide the release we need. then…and only then…can we truly move toward knowing God more fully.
     1Corinthians 10:13 No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
“A way out”. Release. What is it that has you confined? Bound? Mired in pain? What is it? Whatever it is, if you have any hope of moving toward freedom from it, the first thing you have to do…the VERY first thing…is seek release from it. And I would argue that, if something has a grip on you…you are NOT going to be able to be fully released from it by yourself. You need Jesus Christ. You need to turn to Him, put your faith in Him and trust that He can provide you with the release you need. To quote that great theologian Engelbert Humperdinck, you need to say, “Please release me, let me go.”

Don’t Rush a Miracle Man!

Billy Crystal

Have you ever seen the movie Princess Bride? (It is, I will admit, one of my favorites! Some of the girls in my youth group at a previous church LOVED it, and anytime we had a lock-in or went on a Mission Trip…we watched it!) It is, for my money, a very funny movie with great performances by Mandy Patinkin, Andre the Giant and Billy Crystal, just to name a few. Billy Crystal, as Miracle Max, utters the famous line that makes up today’s title.

Miracles are a fascinating topic. We all know the Bible stories, especially the Old Testament stories, that are built around miracles. The parting of the Red Sea, the burning bush, Jonah and the whale, Daniel and the lions, not to mention all of the miracles Jesus performed in the New Testament. You can’t swing a stick in the Bible without hitting a pretty major miracle. People understand that. We grew up hearing the stories. You think Bible…you think miracle. But how does that translate to today?
I can’t tell you how many times in my ministry I have talked with people who said something to the effect that, while miracles were commonplace in the Bible, they just don’t happen today. They are an “old school”- great when they happened…but a thing of the past. And I must confess, the way we tend to talk about miracles, from a Christian standpoint, I understand why folks would think that way. I don’t see seas parting, bushes talking AND burning without being consumed, or guys being spit out on the shore by whales every day. Or ANY day, for that matter! So, from that perspective, miracles DON’T happen!
Now you’re saying, “WHAT?! Pastor, did you just say that miracles don’t exist?!” No…I DIDN’T say that…I said FROM THAT PERSPECTIVE…they don’t exist! Big difference.
I see miracles on a regular basis. I know a man who, just a few weeks ago, was in a coma, with the doctors saying he probably wouldn’t even wake up. He’s not only awake…he’s home! I know a little girl…well, she NOT little any more…who had a brain tumor, confirmed by advanced medical tests, that doctors said they couldn’t do anything about. When she went back to have another scan, to see how much it had grown…it was gone. The doctors couldn’t explain it…but I can! God is still very much in the miracle business. They may not always look like those found in the Bible, but miracles are very much alive and well. The reason many people don’t think so is they aren’t looking in the right places. Miracles are all around us, every day. Life itself is a miracle.
Where will you see miracles today? If you’re expecting to see the body of water closest to you part…it’s probably going to be a LONG wait! But if you are willing to see the miraculous power of God in the everyday, you will be nearly inundated with miracles! Watch for them, recognize them, respond to them…thank God for them! Thanks for stopping by- have a blessed day! Please make sure and stop by again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Being in Prison

Prison_10

Have you ever been in jail? I have. Fortunately, it’s always been on the OTHER side of the bars, visiting others as “the pastor”. But it is a daunting place to be, regardless.
The first time I ever set foot in a jail was in the city of St. Louis. I was going to seminary in St. Louis while also serving a church on the Illinois side of the river. As a part of my educational requirements, I was a part of group that visited several ministry settings.
One of the places we visited was the St. Louis City Jail. You need to understand that this was NOT the new (current) St. Louis City Jail. While I’m sure it is STILL no picnic to be incarcerated there, it IS new…and shiny…and clean. No, this was the OLD St. Louis City Jail. It was NOT new…or shiny…or clean! It was dark and cramped, dirty and crumbling. And the one thing that sticks out most in my mind was the hallway we had to walk down that had holding cells with bars for front walls on one side and a wall on the other side. You could NOT walk close enough to the wall to avoid the reach of anyone in the holding cells. It was VERY intimidating!
The next jail I visited was the St. Clair County Jail. I went to visit prisoners there, including one visit where I was locked IN a room with a female inmate. I couldn’t get OUT, but there were a few moments when other inmates could get IN. Again, very intimidating.
The next one I visited was the Champaign County Jail. Again, visiting inmates. Again, very intimidating. Although I never made it farther than the other side of a wall with wire glass, a stool bolted to the floor and a telephone bolted to the wall.
Most recently, I have visited the County Jail in the county in which I now live and serve. Along with visiting folks there, this time through a closed-circuit video system, I have also become the chaplain for the staff. Because of that, I have received the “behind the scenes” tour of the facility. As I walked down halls and looked into cells, I was struck by how cramped and lightless they are. Oh sure- they have LIGHTS…but there is NO sunlight.
Now, don’t misunderstand- this is NOT a piece on the poor conditions in American jails. I am NOT suggesting that we are mistreating our prisoners. I am, instead, commenting on the way I FEEL when I enter a place like that. I…feel…trapped. It’s as if the walls are closing in, and I almost feel as if I can’t breathe. You know…trapped.
It dawns on me that, if feeling trapped is the definition of being in prison, then a LOT of people are in prison. Oh, they may not be literally incarcerated behind bars, but they are no less in prison. Do YOU ever feel that way? Do you ever feel like the walls are closing in, that you can’t breathe, that you are trapped? My guess is that we have all felt like that at times in our lives. Frankly, it’s not so much THAT you feel that way, but what you do about it WHEN you feel that way? So…what DO you do about it? My prayer is that you turn to God at times like that. I pray that you seek His will, His presence, His face when times are hard, when you feel trapped. Why? Because if you do…He will answer. He will provide you with the peace that you need to get beyond the hard times. Seek God today and ask Him to free you from your “trapped” situation.

Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and stop by again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

The Nigh the Sirens Went Off

tornado-siren_33

    An interesting thing happened last night! Wednesday night is a big night at churches I serve.

At the first two churches I served, the ministry was called Wednesday Night Live. (I started and named both of those- can you tell?!) At the church I currently serve, it’s called Wednesday Night Fellowship. (It was already up and running…and named…when I got here!)

     The evening starts with dinner at 5:15PM. Anybody is welcome to come. No one has to bring anything. No one has to pay anything. No reservations are necessary. Just show up…and get a hot, home-cooked meal that you didn’t have to fix or clean up after! After dinner, there are offerings for adults, youth and children, as well as Bell Choir and Choir practices. It is a great ministry!

    Last night, the forecast for the time of Wednesday Night Fellowship was…not good. High winds. Heavy rain. Hail. Tornados possible. So…we paid attention and watched the radar. At 6:45PM, when I walked my wife’s parents back to our home next door to the church, it was BARELY sprinkling and a little windy. Within about 12 minutes…all heck broke loose!

    My Wednesday evening Bible study meets in our Fellowship Cafe, which is a good-sized room right next to the sanctuary. As we were gathering, but before we actually started, our Office Administrator, who is taking the class, said, “The sirens are going off!” Sure enough, the town’s tornado sirens were sounding.

    Spending most of my life in Southern Illinois and 8 years in Central Illinois before moving to northwestern Illinois…where I live now…tornado warnings are just part of the gig. You get used to them. You get jaded by them. You learn to ignore them. “Ho hum…another tornado warning. What’s on TV?”

    But then, in late June of 2011, a group of 17 of us, from the church I was serving then, spent a week in Joplin, MO, helping clean up from the tornado that cut a path 1 mile wide and 6 miles long through the heart of that city. “Devastation” doesn’t even begin to describe what we saw. You stand at the top of a hill and look down, over acres and acres of what used to be residential neighborhoods. And nothing is standing. OK- on every block, there might be…MIGHT be…ONE tree still standing. It has NO limbs and NO bark…but it MIGHT be standing. It was beyond horrible. In the midst of the devastation, I lost one cousin and had several others who lost everything.  

    And since then, the four of us (my wife, me and our two sons- we ALL got to go on a mission trip together! It was the first and, probably, ONLY time that happened and so we treasure that opportunity to serve together!) have a MUCH different approach to tornado warnings. When those sirens go off, buddy…so do we! We head for lower ground immediately!

    When the sirens went off, I was, as I said, at church and my wife, son and in-laws were next door…at home. They headed into the bathroom on the main floor of the house- my in-laws can’t do steps so the basement is not attainable. I, on the other hand, had everybody in my class to head down to the church basement. Meanwhile, I went down the other end of the building, to the Education Wing, to get A. the Bell Choir and B. the youth and children. Once I got them all out of that wing and headed downstairs, I looked out the lobby doors. The wind was howling. It was hailing. And it looked like someone was standing outside with a fire hose, shooting water at the full-glass entry doors. It was a serious storm!

    And yet, within 15 minutes, the wind had died down and the rain had almost stopped. After checking the radar, we decided that it was clear for everyone to go back to what they were doing. And just like that…it was all over.

    Do me a favor- don’t take things like tornado warnings for granted. I KNOW they get on your nerves. But after losing a family member and seeing the utter devastation firsthand, my jadedness is gone!

    Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

God’s Promises: Comfort

Gods Promises Comfort

    When us red-blooded ‘Mericans get to feeling down a bit, we head to the fridge for our favorite foods. And in that setting, we call them…comfort foods! Comfort foods evoke a sense of well-being and security that often find their roots in the sights and smells of our childhood. What food do YOU think of when you think of comfort food?

    Here’s a list of the statistically favorite comfort foods of those of us in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Apple Pie

Baked Beans

Banana Pudding

Beef Stew

Chicken & Dumplings

Chicken Pot Pie

Chicken Soup

Chili

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Corn on the Cob

Fried Chicken

Green Bean Casserole

Hot Dogs

Ice Cream

Jello

Mac and Cheese

Mashed Potatoes

Meatloaf

Pot Roast

Potato Salad

Pumpkin Pie

Shepherd’s Pie

Spaghetti

Tomato Soup

Tuna Casserole

    Which one is the most surprising to you- the one you would be LEAST likely to pick? The bottom line is that comfort is something we seek, actively and wholeheartedly, in our lives.

    Tonight, we continue our current Sunday night series. It’s a 147-part series and, y’all, I’m REAL excited about it! No, it’s a 5-week series that will take us to the beginning of Advent- the season of Christmas. It’s called God’s Promises. There are LOTS of promises God makes to us, but we are looking at 5 specific promises- what they are, WHY they are and what they mean for our lives. Week 1, we looked at forgiveness. Last week, we looked at salvation as we considered one of the best known “minor” characters in the New Testament- Zacchaeus.

     Tonight, we look a different direction as we consider comfort- God’s comfort. We’ll focus on the fact that Jesus cares about us so much that He wants to provide us with the best comfort possible- His comfort.

    How would you define “comfort”?

Dictionary.com says this, “to give strength and hope to, to ease the grief or trouble of, console”. OK- that’s helpful. With that as a foundation, I want to offer up a fairly well-known story from the New Testament. It’s a story that’s important to the development of Who Jesus is as the Gospels unfold. And it’s important because it shows, in plain sight where everybody can see it, the magnitude of His power. That’s what the story is about. But there is another side to this story- one that often gets lost in the miraculous event that happens. And I would argue that this “other side of the story” is, perhaps, as important to the overall story as the miracle is.

    John 11:17-33 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” And after she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there. When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.

    So Jesus and the boys are in the area around Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Lazarus, Martha and Mary live in Bethany- is only about 2 miles away. The sisters send word to Jesus that Lazarus has died. They figure His love for Lazarus will cause Him to come immediately. But apparently it doesn’t. Instead, Jesus waits. He waits so long, in fact, that when He finally gets there, four days have passed and He finds the people “sitting shiva”- the Jewish 7-day period of mourning.

   Martha comes out and meets with Jesus. They have a brief but powerful conversation. When they’re done, Martha goes back in the house, finds Mary and tells her that Jesus is there and He’s asking for her. Mary immediately comes out to meet Jesus. In reverence and helplessness, she falls at His feet. “If only YOU had been here, he would still be alive.” Jesus is very troubled by the whole scenario, So troubled, in fact, that He weeps. Jesus wept. John 11:35- the shortest verse in the Bible. Ond based on the humanity, love and comfort that it shows, I have to wonder- is it also one of the most significant? The people were weeping- the Greek word is klaio- “to lament or wail”. But Jesus wept- the Greek word is dakruo- to shed tears. This particular Greek word is used nowhere else in the New Testament.

    The crowd interprets Jesus’ tears as proof of both His affection…and His limitations. Sure, He gave sight to the blind, but overcoming death? Well, that’s simply too much, even for Him. Nobody present really expected a miracle of this magnitude! But Jesus is moved to action. He feels the pain of Mary and Martha. He empathizes with them and wants to offer them consolation, hope, strength- comfort.

    Mary and Martha both thought Jesus should have come sooner. Do you ever feel that way? “Jesus, if only You had been here sooner…my brother would still be alive, or my kids would be OK, or my marriage would be sound…my life would be better. If only You had showed up on time!” Are you in need of prayer? Are you in need of…comfort?

    When Jesus asked, “Where did you bury him?”, what He was REALLY saying was, “Take Me back to the place where you gave up, the place where you quit believing, the spot where you quit praying. Take Me back so I’ll know where to pick things back up. So I can provide comfort” Martha and Mary took Him to the tomb. Where do YOU need to take Him?

    Jesus was 4 days late answering the prayer of Mary and Martha. He was 4 days late in healing Lazarus. He was 4 days late providing comfort. 4 days late…but right on time. His delay was NOT due to a lack of love or an abundance of fear. Instead, Jesus waited for just the right moment. It wasn’t a human timetable…it was a Divine timetable. Jesus is in control. He has the power to resurrect your life, to provide you with comfort and bring you deliverance. Lazarus was bound, he was buried and then he was beckoned. Maybe life has you bound and buried. If so, remember that you are being beckoned- Jesus is calling you to come forth. He wants to offer you a level of consolation, hope, strength-comfort that only He can.