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Thursday, December 23, 2010

On The Glory of God at Christmas

Luke 2:8-15

8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 "Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."

Sometimes in the busy-ness of finishing up a semester, turning in grades, anticipating spring semester, buying Christmas presents, planning travel, participating in December work and church activities...well maybe it's just me but sometimes the manic schedule can seem overwhelming at a time when we are supposed to be reflecting on the enormous impact of Immanuel, God dwells among us.

Tomorrow night, while worshiping with my friends and family for Christmas Eve services at University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, I will read the Christmas story. Luke 2 tells of the shepherds and the wonder and awe they experienced at God's activity among humans. I feel I am sometimes at risk of letting the majesty become mundane.

My computer Bible has a daily devotion that pops up when you open the program. The devotion for this morning was written by Charles Spurgeon. As you read Spurgeon's words which I respectfully re-print, get alone for a minute. Get quiet in your spirit. Pray the expectancy of the shepherds. Then let these devotional thoughts return your spirit to the truth of what God did through Jesus...let our hearts prepare Him room.

When first the life of grace begins in the soul, we do indeed draw near to God, but it is with great fear and trembling. The soul conscious of guilt, and humbled thereby, is overawed with the solemnity of its position; it is cast to the earth by a sense of the grandeur of Jehovah, in whose presence it stands. With unfeigned bashfulness it takes the lowest room.

But, in after life, as the Christian grows in grace, although he will never forget the solemnity of his position, and will never lose that holy awe which must encompass a gracious man when he is in the presence of the God who can create or can destroy; yet his fear has all its terror taken out of it; it becomes a holy reverence, and no more an overshadowing dread. He is called up higher, to greater access to God in Christ Jesus. Then the man of God, walking amid the splendours of Deity, and veiling his face like the glorious cherubim, with those twin wings, the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ, will, reverent and bowed in spirit, approach the throne; and seeing there a God of love, of goodness, and of mercy, he will realize rather the covenant character of God than His absolute Deity. He will see in God rather His goodness than His greatness, and more of His love than of His majesty. Then will the soul, bowing still as humbly as aforetime, enjoy a more sacred liberty of intercession; for while prostrate before the glory of the Infinite God, it will be sustained by the refreshing consciousness of being in the presence of boundless mercy and infinite love, and by the realization of acceptance "in the Beloved." Thus the believer is bidden to come up higher, and is enabled to exercise the privilege of rejoicing in God, and drawing near to Him in holy confidence, saying, "Abba, Father."

"So may we go from strength to strength,
And daily grow in grace,
Till in Thine image raised at length,
We see Thee face to face."

From Spurgeon's Daily Devotional, December 23

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On Lighting the Candle of Love

On Lighting the Candle of Love--Fourth Sunday of Advent

As I was walking this morning (yes I was walking/shuffling instead of running) I couldn’t help pondering the paradox between the majesty and accessibility of Jesus. I was reminded of an old drama, set in heaven as a dialog between two angels.

One of the angels mentions a rumor that God is about to intervene in human history or as one of them explains, “He’s planning to straighten out the situation down there.” One of the angels is astounded that the rumor is that “He’s going down Himself.” The other angel assumes that Jesus will go to Rome to take over the government, but the other angel corrects him:

“I hear He’s planning His entry as a baby.”
“A what?”
“A baby. A humanette.”
“Incredible! But Isn’t He taking a big chance? The security will be fantastic. Why, we’ll have to form a couple myriads of bodyguards 24 hours a day.”
“He’s going to be on His own.”
“And turn Him loose with that pack of ‘crazies’?”

The dialog goes on for a while with the angels discussing the choice of a birth mother, Jesus’ birth in a stable/cave and the choice of shepherds as the witnesses to the miracle of His birth. They talk about what an unorthodox plan it is that Jesus would grow up as a human and somehow convey a message. They discuss how fickle humans are (yet the Father loves them) and the possibility that this plan could go horribly wrong and that Jesus could even get Himself killed.

In the poignant final exchange between the two angels, one says, “But what if the humans don’t listen? What if this plan doesn’t work?” The other angel somberly replies, “There is no other plan.”

Sunday morning, I want to look at two of the most amazing passages of Scripture, which have special significance when placed together and examined at this time of year.

From John 1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God....And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

And from John 3, “For God so loved the world, that he gave His only begotten Son , that whoever believes in Him would not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”

That’s worth lighting a candle to celebrate.

Monday, December 6, 2010

On the Music of Christmas

It’s about the music. My iTunes playlist is rather eclectic. I have a lot of Christian music, a good bit of classic rock and roll, a smattering of country, some classical and a couple of selected hip hop that my children or other teenagers told me I couldn’t live without.
My favorite playlist though, is my Christmas collection. I have everything from Bing Crosby to Mannheim Steamroller to Handel to Alvin and the Chipmunks. While a lot of Christmas music is sort of fluffy and not very inspirational (did I mention Alvin and the Chipmunks?), most of the rest of it lifts my spirit like few other kinds of music. For me, the specific worship of the incarnation through music is a language of adoration.
The music of Christmas seems to cross lines of age, tradition, background, and even language. During World War I, British and German troops in Ypres, Belgium, put down their weapons, sang Christmas carols and met in ''No Man's Land'' to exchange gifts in what later became known as the Christmas truce of 1914.

It’s all about the music. But the music is all about Jesus.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

On Money and the Heart

I have been told before that sometimes my timing is awful. I tend to
say the wrong things at the wrong time or to not say the right things at
the right time. So naturally I wait until a recession to preach about
money. Let me give you a few of my favorite quotes about money:

I'm living so far beyond my income that we may almost be said to be
living apart. — E. E. Cummings (1894 - 1962)

My problem lies in reconciling my gross habits with my net income.
— Errol Flynn (1909 - 1959)

One must be poor to know the luxury of giving.
— George Eliot (1819 - 1880)

I've been rich and I've been poor. Rich is better.
— Sophie Tucker (1886-1966)

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
— Jesus (4 BC- 30AD)

The last one is where I hope we spend some time in our personal meditation. If the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, then the way out of a man's (or woman’s) heart is through the wallet or checkbook or credit card.... Our priorities are reflected more by our use of money--spending and our saving-than anything else. During lean times the unexpected expenses are amplified. The air conditioning unit goes out, the strange noise under the hood isn't a little thing, or a hospital stay has a substantial insurance gap. Even the expected expenses like tuition checks to various universities are a shock to the system.

But put it in perspective. If a child on the other side of the country calls and says, “Daddy I need you,” then money is no object. If a loved one passes away, we honor them without as much concern for the cost. The price of an anniversary gift is not evaluated the same way as a present for the office party at Christmas. Jesus knew that we would be mad about our money, reserved about our resources, and possessive about our possessions. That is why He spoke to our worship by saying that our true nature is revealed by what we do with our things.

Three things that were foundational in the birth of the New Testament church (Acts 4) were redemption through Jesus, eating together, and giving to the point that nobody in the community of faith was in need of any kind.

So when we celebrate the Lord's Supper, we eat together in memory of what Jesus is to us. And when we bring offerings, we make sure that the church can do the work that He called us to do.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

On Communication and Trust

On Trust and Communication

My wife forwarded me an e-mail that appealed to the wordsmith in me. It defined a “paraprosdokian” as a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part. It is frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect, sometimes producing an anticlimax... For example,

• I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn't work that way. So I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.
• Do not argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience.
• I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather. Not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.
• Light travels faster than sound. This is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.
• If I agreed with you we'd both be wrong.
• Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.
• The early bird might get the worm, but the second mouse gets the
• Some people are like Slinkies ... not really good for anything, but you can't help smiling when you see one tumble down the stairs.
• Whenever I fill out an application, in the part that says "If an emergency, notify:" I put "DOCTOR".

So you can imagine my amusement when I got a brochure for a youth conference that is coming up in the spring. The event planners intended to advertise a special rate for the spouse of the youth minister at a church. They also hoped that the youth minister would round up a group of youth workers to attend, but wanted to say that only one person per church could register using the special spouse rate. However, what was printed was

Spouse (max 1) $59.00

Communication seems to be a bit out of sync, doesnt’ it? We have been talking about trust for a month or so now. I appreciate the kind comments about last Sunday’s message. This Sunday we talk about trust in our family, or more specifically, “Trusting God with Our Family” and upon reflection, I have to admit that good communication is a big part of it. As a dad, if my tone is harsh, my words are often lost. If my words are unclear, my meaning is often lost. If I remain silent, my family members are left wondering what I am thinking.
Our words, our meaning, and our intention is so much a part of trust. God’s words to us are as much a part. I am humbled by the simple trust of a father (Abraham) as he completely gave his son over to God’s purposes, not knowing the outcome. As the son (Isaac) watched his dad, the trust was apparently passed down as he showed no apprehension as to what was going on that day on Mount Moriah.
Let’s imagine the implications of such communicated trust–in our personal worship, in our families, and in our church. Let's talk about it.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

On Usefulness in the Hands of God

This past summer, my daughter took me to see “Toy Story 3" --in 3D. She worked at the Prytania Theater which was awesome because it is a great place to watch a movie. The movie is about Andy, a boy who is now seventeen years old, but was younger in the first two movies. Yes, I quickly grasp the obvious. Now Andy has outgrown his old toys. Some of them have been sold, given away, or thrown away. The others have been stored in his toy box. Andy is getting ready to go to college and we get to eavesdrop on the conversation between the toys. Stay with me here–I know that toys really cannot talk to one another.

Anyway, the green army guys see the handwriting on the wall and Sarge and the rest them escape out the window to avoid getting thrown away. Andy decides to take Woody with him and packs the other toys in a garbage bag, intending to store them in the attic, but Andy's mom mistakenly puts the bag out on the roadside as garbage. Believing that Andy no longer wants them, the toys sneak into a box to be donated to Sunnyside Daycare. Woody, who saw what really happened, tries to clear up the misunderstanding, but the others refuse to listen. The rest of the movie is about toys trying to be with someone who wants them.

The reason I remember this movie as I ponder how we can trust that we are useful to God, is because the whole Toy Story series is basically about our fundamental need to be needed. The toys cannot come to grips with the possibility that their days of being valuable and useful have gone. They cling to a desperate hope that someday the boy who needed them will need them again.

We humans are like that. We worship God and are amazed that He would send His Son so that “we would not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16). We who follow Christ have accepted His gift of grace and are humbled by the great sacrifice that made us whole. But wouldn’t it be nice if He needed us for something? Wouldn’t it be great to be useful?

I can only imagine the stories that the owners of a donkey told after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Before Jesus entered into Jerusalem for the final time as a man, He sent disciples ahead to procure a donkey colt to ride on in order to fulfill a prophecy (Mark 11:1-6). Jesus told the disciples that if anyone asked, they were to say, “The Lord has need of it.” What a powerful statement. Not to compare us to a donkey (too easy, I’m not going there), but for it to be said of Allen, “The Lord has need of Him” would move me into a whole different confidence as I journey through this world as a follower and proclaimer of Christ.

Psalm 139 is our text this week. The Psalmist has a thought that perhaps he is useful, that he was created for a purpose. Even then, He glorifies God as he declares,

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

We are useful. We are tools in the Hands of the Master who will use us to make Him known and to visit the lonely and to soften the suffering in our world. I am thankful and humbled that He would use me.

Monday, September 13, 2010

On Trust and the Prodigal's Mom

My bride of 27-plus years and I had a conversation on the phone today that got me thinking. She wondered out loud what the mother of the Prodigal Son must have felt like. We really don’t get her story in Luke 15. “You know the father looked for his son every day, but he still had to make a living.” True, beautiful bride of mine. We may get the idea that the older son was doing all the chores and that is why he got so self-righteous at the return of the prodigal, but I don’t believe it. This father was a hard worker and while he never gave up, he had to get his work done.

What do you think the Mom was doing all that time? Was she thinking that the dad must be insane to keep the light on for a son who had hurt him so badly? Was she staying awake at night, wondering if her son was okay, heartbroken that she couldn’t be there to nurture him? Had she mentally written him off because of the pain he had caused the family? Was she conflicted because, though she worried about his safety, the house was a more peaceful place with the self-centered one off in some far country–out of sight, out of mind? Was she wondering when she would get her husband back as he seemed to be far away as well with his daily treks up the driveway hoping to see his boy coming home?

I included the word “trust” in this article because I think it was the key for both parents. The father had to trust his Heavenly Father for the protection of the wayward son. The husband and wife had to trust each other. Even though they were on the emotional roller coaster of parenthood, I hope that somehow they knew that when they had exchanged “better or worse” vows, it meant their love and commitment could--and would--survive the drama of a son who had disregarded, disrespected, and disappeared. The mother had to trust that, in her absence, the One who can comfort and awaken the spiritual man within would do so.

This Sunday, I will begin a sermon series on Trust. The conversation that Judi and I had reminded me of how complex trust can be, and how difficult it is to restore once it has been broken. Robert Schuller told a simple but poignant story:

One problem I remember was a time when our son Bob broke our trust and lied to his mother and me. He was still young, dating Linda, his wife-to-be, and was only allowed to see her on certain nights. Well, one night he wanted to see her without permission and told us he was at his friend's house. When we found out the truth, there was a real scene between us. He had violated our trust; it was like a crack in a fine cup that marred its appearance.

In the confrontation, I smashed a fine English tea cup on the floor and told Bob that to restore our trust would be like gluing that cup back together again. He said, "I don't know if I can do that." And I said, "Well, that's how hard it is to build confidence and trust again." The outcome was that Bob spent literally weeks carefully gluing the pieces together until he finished. He learned a very important lesson.

Dr. Robert H. Schuller, Homemade, Jan 1985

I am sure the “lesson learned” was not as simple as the story sounds. It never is. We all hope for the happy ending of a son learning his lesson by gluing glass together, but it is not that easy. Unkind things have been said, promises have been broken, lies have been told, words have been distorted. Trust has been lost . Only grace and humility will restore it.

The restoration of trust is three-dimensional. We have to trust God. He is the Creator of the Universe, of our hearts and minds, and of our relationships. We have to trust that God is at work in us, that we are good because He pronounced us good and, as He sustains, we can believe in ourselves. Finally, we have to trust each other. We must, at the very least, be willing to dialog about differences. If both parties enter with a heart of humility, healing can take place. The prodigal son “came to his senses” and came home in tearful repentance. The father surrendered his right to be right and threw a party for his son’s return.

In the coming weeks, we will examine “Personal Trust” which involves the first two of the three dimensions. Then we will look at “Corporate Trust” which is more difficult, because as the Word of God opens us up for spiritual surgery, it may hurt a little. I pray for me and you that it is a “good hurt” and results in persons of faith, living as brothers and sisters in a community of faith. Not perfect, but forgiven.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

On God's Will and My Agenda

God’s Will and My Agenda

A while back, Henry Blackaby in his important book, Experiencing God said that the question, “What is God’s will for my life?” is the wrong question. The right question is “What is God’s will?” with the thought that if I figure out where God is working, then I can go there and join Him.

Dr. Blackaby’s words are true. We make a mistake in perspective if we insist that God design a plan for our life. God is God and we are not. His plans will go on without our participation. Implied in the belief that God has a plan for my life is that it will be something that is pleasant and agreeable and allows me some degree of control. Maybe the difference is praying in God’s will rather than praying for God’s will.

The danger is when our dreams are too small, our visions are too narrow and our version of God’s will for our life is man-sized instead of God- sized. We believe that God loves us. We believe He wants the best for us. However, as C.S. Lewis wisely observed, “We're not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be”

So there is the honesty of it. God’s will, but in a controlled environment. We want the tame version of God’ will that fits into our agenda. Pastor and speaker Wilbur Reese called it “Three Dollars Worth of God” in a classic poem:

Three Dollars Worth of God

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man
or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

I study Jesus in the Garden and I see Him praying in God's will. It is about the relationship and God's unfolding redemptive plan for the world, not the outcome or what it might mean for me. Nevertheless, not my will but Thine be done.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

On Forgiveness

Forgiveness. What a tricky concept. When we read of or experience injustice (especially if it is personal), the “get even” juices start to flow. We may say the words, “I forgive” but the emotional release is much more difficult. But hold on for just a minute. Forgiveness has at least three aspects:
1)Asking for and receiving forgiveness from God
2)Asking for and receiving forgiveness from another person
3)Forgiving someone who has wronged you

Let me visit them in reverse order. To extend forgiveness to another is still to keep “the power.” What? You mean we should release our right to be right? I might consider it if the person who offended me grovels a bit. An even trickier decision is to forgive even if we aren’t asked. Yet secular psychologists seem to grasp what the Jesus says about extending forgiveness.

Matthew 18:21-22
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. (NIV)

To be a person with an attitude that extends forgiveness is to be a person who does not harbor a lingering bitterness.

The second part of the equation is to ask forgiveness from someone whom we have offended. In order to do that, I have to admit that I was wrong and then approach another person with that admission. Even though it likely restores the relationship, the conversation is one of the more difficult ones that humans ever have.

Finally, the forgiveness that seems to be easy is to ask for and receive forgiveness from God. We just throw up a quick prayer and say “Sorry, God, I messed up again. I’ll try to do better.” Too often, I go to God for forgiveness without lingering on the realization of what it cost God to offer it.

John 3:16-17
16 "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. 17 "For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him. (NASB)

For me the really difficult part is to see the many verses that seem to link the three aspects of forgiveness together. For us to receive forgiveness from God, we have to see the connection between all of them. If we will not ask for or extend forgiveness, how can we embrace the tremendously powerful dynamic of forgiveness from the Heavenly Father. The uncomfortable truth about reciprocating forgiveness is the subject of many passages and verses. Let me include two as representative

Matthew 6:14-16
For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (NIV)

We also forgive so that our prayers will not be hindered:

Mark 11:25
And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. (NIV)

As I pray for forgiveness today, I might linger awhile. It is a divine transaction.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

On the Sons and Daughters of Eve

I have just finished re-reading the C.S. Lewis classic, The Chronicles of Narnia. The entire set, including the prequel to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was a gift from my daughter Sarah. It is a hard back edition and she wrote a thoughtful note in the front. I love my daughter. We share a love for reading, for stories and for Jesus (or Aslan as Lewis called Him).

I cam away from reading the last of the books, The Last Battle with a sense of profound sadness. In previous readings, and throughout the series, I have been overjoyed with the promise of Aslan's land beyond which represents the heaven that awaits the followers of Christ. Lewis called it "the real Narnia" as opposed to the Narnia of most of the stories which represents earth.

I always see new things when I read something again, and this time I read of the apparent choice made by Susan, one of the children who visited Narnia in the early books in the series. In the final book in the series, The Last Battle Peter, Susan's brother, was asked why she didn't return to Narnia for the final battle. Peter replied, "My sister Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia." Eustace, one of the primary characters of the last two books added, "and whenever you've tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, 'What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we sued to play when we were children."

Compare Susan to her sister Lucy who apparently made the connection between Aslan and the Christ of her world. The last battle takes place in a stable which is actually a door that opens up into the New Narnia. the Lord Digory (of the first of the Narnian stories) said of the stable, "Its inside is bigger than its outside." Lucy remarked, "Yes, in our world too, a Stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world."

So Susan was not present at the end of things. She was not in the representation of heaven. She is the only character that is left unresolved. Apparently her faith in Aslan was only a child's fantasy and not one she claimed as an adult.

Powerful theology. The decision that Susan foolishly made to relegate all things faith to the fairy tales of children is like a refusal to acknowledge that Jesus is real and alive and a Savior for the young and old alike. There will be a day when all tongues will call Him Lord. Susan represents those who will call Him Lord but only from a distance. May we worship our King regardless of our age or place in life. He will be with us at the "end of things."

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

On the Warning Signs

Pay attention to the warning signs.

Okay, I will admit it. I am not a twenty or even thirty year old youth minister any more. I am in the middle of my third week of preaching youth camps and my body has told me to slow down. At first, I tried to ignore the “warning signs” that my body was sending. I would just work through the tiredness and fatigue. But I couldn’t ignore the warning signs forever. So I slowed down. I went inside when it got really hot. I tried to rest a bit between activities.

I caught myself wondering if I was paying attention to the warning signs that James has been giving me concerning so many thing about my life as a disciple. He has told me to rejoice in my trials because they make me stronger. He has told me to listen more than I talk and to be very careful with anger.

He has told me to be one who does what the Scripture says and not just a reader and a teacher. He has told me to be careful what I say, especially as it concerns others. He has told me to approach life, love and the community of faith with a measure of humility that does not come naturally.

It is easy to read, teach, preach or study without feeling like we personally need to pay attention to what we are telling everybody else. I appreciate the pain that forces us to pay attention to the warning signs. It is one of those "hurts so good" moments. The writer of Hebrews reminds us,

11 All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Heb 12:11, NASB

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

On Summer and Summer Camps

Pray now. Pray for youth camp. I am privileged to be able to preach at four camps this summer--Skycroft in Maryland, Jonathan Creek in Kentucky, Great Escape in Mississippi, and Camp Caswell in North Carolina.

Many of you who honor me by reading this blog are involved with youth ministry. So you know that summer means summer camps. Youth groups will hit the road throughout the summer. In addition to the "big" camps--Student Life, Centrifuge/MFuge, Fun in the Son, Great Escape, Youth camps put on by state conventions--there are lots of small camps, some even "one church" camps.

All of them are staffed by adults who are passionate about seeing kids become followers of Jesus and become disciples. These incredible adults will stay awake beyond imagination, plan creative ways to study the Bible, play some great games, and listen late into the night as students visit and re-visit what it might mean to take some risks in faith.

All sorts of students are at these camps. There are students who made a profession of faith in Christ as a child and are now examining that faith as an abstract-thinking young adult. There are friends of the faithful who have never been to church or church camp in their lives. They are at camp because a student in a youth group convinced them that it would be the funnest week of the summer. And their eternity will change as they hear and process the Good News.

There are skeptics, seekers, believers, blamers, fakers, takers and difference-makers. They are students and the Holy Spirit is relentlessly pursuing them because adults loved Jesus enough to create the environment called camp.

We can pretty much imagine what is going on at camp--arrival on Sunday or Monday, getting into the rhythm of camp on Tuesday or Wednesday, establishing trust, getting comfortable, barriers breaking down...winding down on Thursday and Friday and heading home...followed by nonstop sleep until church on Sunday.

Prayer is critical at every stage, right up to the prayer for parents and church members to fan the flame of camp instead of throwing water on the fire. Pray for the thousands of students who go to camp this summer that they don't get over it. Pray that a generation will teach an entire convention what it means to reach lost friends without any fanfare--just life on life, ropes courses, and late night junk food.

To God be the Glory.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

On thinking about the Great Commission

I have a lot to learn. I know that the leaders of our convention are good men with hearts for God and with a passion for the message of redemption in Jesus to be known across the world. I believe that the mission field is ripe for harvest, both in the United States and abroad. I believe that there are “unreached people groups” in every corner of every city, county (parish), and state in the USA as well as in every country in the world.

This is on my mind because I am in the airport in Cancun, waiting to catch a plane for Havana, Cuba where I will (with my co-laborer in ministry Tim Searcy) work with Cuban students who are also professors and pastors. They will take my notes, such as they are, and translate them, correct the cultural difficulties, and make them their own. Then they will take their lessons and teach pastors, youth ministers, children’s workers, and laypersons all over Cuba. So far, over 1800 followers of Christ in Cuba have been trained by Cuban professors.

As we had to get to the airport 4 hours ahead of our flight in order to buy a ticket on Mexicana Airlines, we were able to sit in a coffee shop and watch the worship service at my church, FBC of New Orleans via internet streaming. Our waiter looked over our shoulders and Tim was able to witness to him and to lead him in a prayer of decision for Christ. A lady from TGI Fridays (Selena) walked out where we had found a plug to recharge computers (where I sit now) and Tim was able to witness to her in Spanish as well.

My point is this. What if instead of making such a big deal about redirecting funds to the International Mission Board (which I do not necessarily oppose), we spent our personal funds and energy simply learning another language? It is said that if you speak three languages, you are trilingual, and if you speak two languages, you are bilingual, but if you speak only one language, you are an American. I can converse enough in Spanish to tell the security lady who just came by that I am boarding a flight in an hour. But I do not know enough to share the Gospel and respond to her questions. And that is to my shame.

I wonder what might happen if I–if all of us–pick a language and learn it well. I need to pick up both Tagalog (Filipino) and Spanish which are used in the two places that God has seen fit to allow me to minister the most. I have seen faces light up when I tried to learn the language–it is a sign of respect and a pathway to sharing the Gospel.

Rosetta Stone, here I come.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Holding on in a Hurricane

I am preparing a sermon series on the book of James. I just discovered an old blog that I never published. It was a bit eerie to read the recollections of the initial evacuation for Hurricane Katrina.

On Friday, August 26, my world began to change in a hurry. I had just returned from a meeting in Birmingham and at 8:20 that morning, I took Aaron to the doctor to get a CT scan. The reason for the visit was a recurring nerve condition that was brought on by a viral infection, and the doctor wanted to make sure that there was no abnormality in the brain.
I was scheduled to fly out on Friday evening to speak in Owensboro, Kentucky. It was a bit unusual in that two youth professors from New Orleans had been enlisted to travel for this event. My friend and colleague, Dr. Rick Morton was on the same itinerary that I was.
As the afternoon went on and I had not received word from the doctor’s office regarding the results of the CT scan, I became restless about the idea of leaving before I knew. We were supposed to hear from the doctor after they finished with their patients on Friday, but by 4pm, we had not heard from them. I called my good friend in Owensboro, Tom Cruisenberry, and asked him if he would be too upset if I let Rick go and carry the load for the weekend. Tom is gracious, and has had enough experience waiting on doctors for his son Tristin, so he understood. I cancelled my airline reservation.
Before 6pm on Friday, we had heard from the doctor that the brain scan looked as normal as it can be for a 16-year old male child, so we went on to see Aaron’s football game and later Sarah’s play. Oh, and there was a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. Her name was Katrina.
In New Orleans, we always watch hurricanes as they approach the Gulf of Mexico because for as long as I can remember, there has been a fear of “the big one” that tracks directly toward the city and is a either a Category 4 or a Category 5 storm, meaning that winds are somewhere around the 150 mph range and the storm surge would be 15 feet or more. Katrina was a Cat 4 when we went to bed on Saturday night, and we had decided to ride out the storm. We did, however talk about some contingency plans. Because I was scheduled to be away, a guest preacher was arranged for my interim pastorate at Crosspoint Baptist Church in Baton Rouge.
On Sunday morning, we awoke to a phone call from a friend who was asking what we were going to do. “Make coffee” was my immediate thought, but then I turned on the television and saw that Katrina had become a Category 5 and the track had not wavered from a New Orleans heading. We lived in a new house, well-built and we were not worried about it withstanding a storm. However, a Cat 5 is different. It is like an F4 tornado that just stays on the ground for 6 hours if the eyewall makes a direct hit. So we got out.
We video taped all of our possessions, more because we had a relatively new digital camera and we could do so without difficulty. We took pictures and coin collections and probably not enough to the second floor, laughing at ourselves at being so silly. We couldn’t comprehend that this house–on relatively high ground would be in danger of flooding that would rise much above a foot or so. Realists that we are, a foot or so was very much within our thinking. We always anticipate power outages, so we froze some bottles of water and put them around the perishables in the freezer. I figured out that we might be out of power for a week at most.
We packed the Mercury Mountaineer and the 1986 F-150 with enough clothes for a week, ice chests with food and drinks. We packed the dog, the kids, and started for Baton Rouge where we could stay a couple of days with friends from Crosspoint Baptist Church in Baton Rouge where I am the interim pastor. We experienced “Contra-flow” where the eastbound lanes of I-10 had been converted to westbound for the evacuation of New Orleans. All in all, it felt like an adventure.
We went to bed Sunday night to the sound of rain and some wind. We were exhausted, so we slept well. Sometime during the night, I realized that it was storming, so I got up to look out the window and observe the awesome power of Hurricane Katrina. Sometimes I forget how powerful God is. I went back to bed, then got up early on Monday to wait out the rest of the storm. Nobody was working, so we alternated between watching the reports on television (we didn’t lose power) and playing Scrabble. We ate continuously and eventually went out to allow Aaron to spend time with some friends.
We returned to our friends’ house around 10:30 pm on Monday night. On the way home, we talked to someone who had stayed on the campus. She told us that our house had lost some shingles, that the fence had blown down and a tree had fallen on our neighbor’s car. Otherwise, we were in pretty good shape.

Then the levee broke.

The city of New Orleans is protected by a levee system that keeps water out. We are below sea level and when it rains, the water has to be pumped out into canals that take the water either to the river or the lake where it is pumped out of the city. In other words, the city is a bowl nestled between levees that keep water from filling it up. For decades, engineers have warned that if the levees failed, that it would put somewhere between 12 and 18 feet of water throughout the city. Doomsday prophets spoke of bodies floating in the street and widespread destruction.
What they couldn’t predict was the effect of the tons of concrete that have been poured or the inability of the very poor to evacuate or the actions of the morally bankrupt who would stay behind and loot and intimidate. My emotions vacillate between being desperately compassionate towards a society that would produce people who would have to steal food during an emergency when they didn’t have a place to go if they evacuated and being angry at people who would take advantage of a disaster to steal televisions, beer and Nike shoes. My pastor-shepherd-seminary professor-Christian person says that we should wake up and never have a world where people are that desperate. My justice-seeking quasi-red neck person says that we should just clean up the gene pool by shooting these looters in the head. I have a great deal of guilt in recognizing that the latter person exists.
We are now aware that we have water in our house up to the ceiling of the first floor. Anything that is on the second floor is more subject to mold with each passing day. If there is water below and humid air all around, then the probability of mildew and mold becomes a certainty. But enough of the negative.
I have worked this week at Crosspoint church where I have served as an interim pastor since last September 12. The people here are gracious and welcoming–it is a great environment to grow and learn and lead. I have observed God’s hand in this whole process from staying in town instead of leaving, evacuating when the macho in me said to ride it out, having a place to go. . .
At the same time, I am on the edge enough to have to trust God. Is my house being looted? Can I find a place to stay? What should I do about my children’s schools? What is the future of the seminary? It has been, is, and continues to be an interesting faith journey. My bride pointed me to a Psalm that she had discovered.

Ps 31:1-5

In you, O LORD, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame; deliver me in your righteousness.
2 Turn your ear to me, come quickly to my rescue; be my rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save me.
3 Since you are my rock and my fortress, for the sake of your name lead and guide me.
4 Free me from the trap that is set for me, for you are my refuge.
5 Into your hands I commit my spirit; redeem me, O LORD, the God of truth.

I couldn’t help but focus on the phrase in v. 3–for the sake of Your name, lead and guide me. I want to pray selfishly–for the sake of my name, but Sovereign Father, You have reminded me that all things that happen in the life of one who chases after a relationship with You are for the sake of Your name.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

On Belonging, Believing, and Behaving

I had lunch with some new friends and church members on Sunday. My hosts served up wonderful food and great conversation. During the course of the dessert course (raspberry cheesecake, yum), we talked about the attitude of doing church, both generally and specifically at UBC.

The conversation repeated a word play that has been around since the early 2000s--

"Belong-Believe-Behave" is a mantra or a way of looking at doing church that contrasts with the allegedly mainstream paradigm of "Believe, Behave, Belong" or as perceived in some churches, "Behave, Believe, Belong." It was a challenging conversation for me that continued to marinate in my head as I drove back to New Orleans.

Belonging is crucial. Sinners clustered around Jesus. He defended the disenfranchised like women, children, and Samaritans. He insisted on inclusion, that He was not willing for a single lost person to perish.

Believing is crucial. Jesus was grieved when His disciples didn't get the real reason He had come. In His last extended conversation with them, He said the words which have been used to help us understand that Christianity is through Christ alone: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life--no one comes to the Father except by Me."

Behaving is crucial. Jesus offered a man eternal life, but saw that the young adult was to enamored with himself and his possessions to embark on a life as a disciple where the cross would be taken up daily.

As individuals and as churches, we are guilty of 1) emphasizing one over the other two, or 2) getting two out of three, or 3) putting them in the wrong order (perhaps permanently putting them in any order). AGREED!!!

I rather think that church is more like a three-legged stool: we need all three legs for the stool to be used as it was designed, and we constantly have to evaluate the "wobble" (putting the folded up paper under a leg so it will even out is a temporary solution). :)

If we overemphasize belonging, then theologically anything goes and sin is not discussed.
If we overemphasize believing, we tend to camp on peripheral theological issues and argue endlessly.
If we overemphasize behaving, we become legalistic and Pharisaical and allow guests to feel judged members to become hypocrites.

We won't solve it. But we do church as a community of faith, on a journey and in a dialog about what it means to be a disciple. The Bible has survived more human challenges than we can imagine, and yet it endures. I don't understand it all, but when I do wrestle with an interpretation or a passage and come out with a sense of "thus says the Lord," then I have a choice to make.

I must lay my pride aside and admit that I sometimes don't radiate "belong" and that I struggle with "believe" when my faith wavers and I often don't "behave" like I should in areas of words, charity and evangelism.

We are on a journey. We have problems to work out. We have sins to confess and Scripture to learn and conversations to have about the truths we are learning. I am thankful to the people of University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for walking together with me on it.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

On Graduates and Graduation

Today, I will put on my graduation gown and walk in the processional as another great class of graduates walks across the stage at the New Orleans Seminary. It is something like my 30th graduation ceremony and it never gets old.

The robes and the colored hoods and the gathered families all represent a bunch of accomplishment. Such stories.

My fraternity brother and friend, Danny Havard will graduate today with his Doctor of Ministry degree. Danny has a degree in Real Estate and Insurance, but he chose to follow God in a different road. He is one of dozens of pastors in a large church in Houston, but he felt like God was challenging him to another level of education, and despite an insanely manic schedule, he has completed this journey.

The first Master of Divinity, Problem-based learning cohort will graduate today. Jeremy, Casey, Tim, Richard, Wes, Chris and Courtney have taken on a new way of doing an MDiv in a Pilot program that was part of the sabbatical project that Dr. Tim Searcy and I did this past year. They allowed their last year of seminary to be an experiment, one that may help future classes of seminary students.

Kelli Hill is my new friend on staff at University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge. She will graduate with a degree in Marriage and Family Counseling. She has been commuting back and forth, nurturing a new marriage, leading a children's ministry at the church, and maintaining a 4.0 GPA.

Randy will receive his degree while motoring in his wheel chair. He is, by reports from the counseling department, one of the most effective counselors we will graduate, especially among men who are working on second and third chances.

Missionaries will graduate, having been away in a countries I cannot print. They have completed their degrees online and through visits back to the states, many of them raising young children as they make the name of Jesus famous throughout the world.

My friend Malinda, a former student here, having moved away for a variety of reasons (including a hurricane), received her PhD at Southwestern Seminary last week, under the direction of Dr. Ian Jones and my friend Dr. Wes Black. He father, Dr. Al Fasol is a legendary prof as well and he was present at his daughter's graduation.

What great stories of people who have accomplished much, persevered much, sacrificed much, and been supported by many.

But more important than all of that--and what defines us all–-is that they are followers of Christ, sinners saved by grace. I am a sinful man in a fallen world, and whatever accomplishments I can list on a resume are secondary to that of being a child of God, a husband to Judi and a father to Aaron and Sarah.

I hope we are known as Christians who happen to be students and ministers and missionaries and parents and friends rather than people who are all of these things and, oh by the way, Christians as well.

I am excited about all the stories that will collide today in and around Leavell Chapel. I am equally excited about the stories that will emerge as these graduates are unleashed in a world that needs their stories and their energy.

Way to go, class of 2010.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

On Celebrating my Mom

My Mom is very much like many of the faithful members of University Baptist Church. She was born in the midst of the Great Depression, graduated from high school after 12th grade, and didn’t attend college. She was employed in the work force, but also did a stint in the circus as a member of the (then) only “all-female acrobatic tumbling team in the nation.” (For those uninitiated in circus lingo, she was the skinny lady who got flipped off the end of the see-saw and landed into a chair on someone else’s shoulders).
Mom married my Dad in the mid fifties and raised four of us Jackson kids, spread out over 11 years. She was the quiet rock in our family, with a mischievous smile and a great sense of humor (which she got from her mother who, while my Mom was in the hospital having my youngest brother, actually starched my basketball shorts just for fun). She fed, chauffeured, tutored, bandaged, rescued, consoled, and disciplined two girls and two boys.
She can set up a tent, upholster car seats, repair small appliances (including the garbage disposal), fix broken furniture (she had two boys), cook anything from gourmet to backyard barbeque, and sew dance costumes (my sister, not me). She could whistle loud enough for the neighborhood to hear but distinctively enough for the Jackson four to know it was time for us to come home. She dispenses better advice than Dr. Phil and Oprah combined. Her musical ability was passed to her oldest daughter, but not her oldest son.
My folks were godly, but not regular church attenders. As I put together my Mom’s story (in my adult years), she was baptized at the East Berry Street Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Tx. and as Mom to us, she made sure we attended a variety of Sunday schools and Vacation Bible schools. When God started moving in my life, she was very supportive and our house was always open for youth group fellowships, spontaneous sleepovers, and unplanned late-night buffets for one or more of us kids (plus friends). Her cheesecake is legendary.
She was incredibly strong when her husband of 45 years passed away but still allowed us to see the total vulnerability and frightened look in her eyes as she wondered how she would make it through the day. She has fought through multiple health issues of her own. She is active in her church and has built friendships in her Sunday school class, her Grief Support group, and her Water Aerobics class.
By the way, as I write, she is planning a trip with her older sister to take a train up a mountain in West Virginia where they will then detach the caboose car, spend the night sleeping in a train car in the isolated mountains, and wait until the train comes back the next day to pick them up....just because it is something they have never done before.
My point in this little walk down memory lane is to say that some Moms have impressive academic, vocational, or community service resumes, but all Moms have the not-so-public resume that my Mom has. My wife has an equally impressive Mom resume in a completely different generation, with a completely different set of challenges. Yet, both of them–as have you, Moms of the University Baptist Family, have shown themselves to be Proverbs 31. The end of that great proverb says that this woman of excellence,

27 She looks well to the ways of her household,
And does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children rise up and bless her;
Her husband also, and he praises her, saying:
29 "Many daughters have done nobly,
But you excel them all."
30 Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain,
But a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised.
Prov 31:27-30 NASB

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Time of Refreshing

Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord. Acts 3:19

This Sunday (tomorrow), I am beginning a series at University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge where I am the interim pastor. The series seeks to see ordinary people become heroes as God empowers them, and my first text is from Acts 4. Doing a bit of background, I came across a verse that I highlighted in a previous reading, the verse above.

I need times of refreshing. Like the rest of you, I am weary of politicians acting like middle schoolers on a playground (with apologies to middle schoolers). I am weary of (borrowing a phrase from Paul Turner's blog), paying taxes to a government that does not seem to represent me any more. I am weary of travel, though it energizes me to be around good and godly folk. I am weary of thinking that there isn't enough money for two kids in college and the seminary to keep going and, and, and.

So you wouldn't think that to find refreshing, I would have to look inward to do some soul searching, would you? You would think that I can blame politicians or late arriving airplanes, or "those people" who need to give to the seminary. You would think I could just make my kids work more hours to support themselves and for my wife to return to June Cleaver days with slippers ready when I get home.

None of that. The Scripture (context is Peter's sermon to a 1st century culture that is a lot like a 21st century culture)says that I need to repent and return. I would like to claim ignorance as Peter allows for the hearers in v. 17, but I can't. I am the one who insists on attitudes, appetites, and actions that do not put me closer to Jesus in my journey, but farther apart. I am the one who sins, not everyone else.

I am again sitting in the Atlanta airport where so much of my blogging is done. I helped Adam and Kristen get married today, a beautiful couple so refreshed by the ceremony celebrating their vows of faithfulness to God and to each other. But I am aware that I have taken for granted the covenant relationship that God allowed me to have through His Son.

So I repent. And return. And allow that once again, He wipes my sins away and allows my spirit to be refreshed from the presence of the Lord. If you join me, I bet worship will be better tomorrow.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

My Favorite Easter Story

Philip's Egg (author unknown) is my favorite Easter story (besides the original). I think that the story of redemption that is found when we "get it" regarding the true meaning of the resurrection--that God made a way to set us free from our sin, our darkness, and our indifferent-ness. Enjoy.

Philip was born with Downs Syndrome. He was a pleasant child . . .happy it seemed . . . but increasingly aware of the difference between himself and other children. Philip went to Sunday school faithfully every week. He was in the third grade class with nine other eight-year olds.

You know eight-year olds. And Philip, with his differences, was not readily accepted. But his teacher was sensitive to Philip and he helped this group of eight-year olds to love each other as best they could, under the circumstances. They learned, they laughed, and they played together. And they really cared about one another, even though eight-year olds don't say they care about one another out loud.

But don't forget. There was an exception to all this. Philip was not really a part of the group. Philip did not choose, nor did he want to be different. He just was. And that was the way things were.

His teacher had a marvelous idea for his class the Sunday after Easter. You know those things that pantyhose come in . . . the containers that look like great big eggs? The teacher collected ten of them. The children loved it when he brought them into the room and gave one to each child.

It was a beautiful spring day, and the assignment was for each child to go outside, find the symbol for new life, put it into the egg, and bring it back to the classroom They would then open and share their new life symbols and surprises, one by one.

It was glorious. It was confusing. It was wild. They ran all around the church grounds, gathering their symbols, and returned to the classroom.

They put all the eggs on a table, and then the teacher began to open them. All the children gathered around the table. He opened one and there was a flower, and they ooh-ed and aah-ed. He opened another and there was a little butterfly.

"Beautiful!" the girls all said, since it is hard for eight-year old boys to say 'beautiful.' He opened another and there was a rock. And as third-graders will, some laughed, and some said, "That's crazy! How's a rock supposed to be like new life?" But the smart little boy who'd put it in there spoke up: "That's mine. And I knew all of you would get flowers and buds and leaves and butterflies and stuff like that. So I got a rock because I wanted to be different. And for me, that's new life." They all laughed.

The teacher said something about the wisdom of eight-year olds and opened the next one. There was nothing inside. The children, as eight-year olds will, said, "That's not fair. That's stupid! Somebody didn't do it right."

Then the teacher felt a tug on his shirt, and he looked down. "It's mine, Philip said. It's mine."

And the children said, "You don't ever do things right, Philip. There's nothing there!"

"I did so do it right!" Philip said. "I did do it right. The tomb is empty!"

There was silence, a very full silence. And for you people who don't believe in miracles, I want to tell you that one happened that day. From that time on, it was different. Philip suddenly became a part of that group of eight-year old children. They took him in. He was set free from the tomb of his differences.

Philip died last summer. His family had known since the time he was born that he wouldn't live out a full life span. Many other things were wrong with his little body. And so, late last July, with an infection that most normal children could have quickly shrugged off, Philip died.

At his memorial service, nine eight-year old children marched up to the altar, not with flowers to cover over the stark reality of death . . . but nine eight-year olds, along with their Sunday School teacher, marched right up to that altar, and laid on it an empty egg . . . an empty, old, discarded pantyhose egg.

And the tomb is empty!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

On the Book of Maps

On the Book of Maps

My wife and I just got back from Greece. The plane landed about 1:30am! on Tuesday. We went on a journey to to retrace many of the Apostle Paul’s missionary efforts. You know, the ones featured in the book after the Revelation in your Bible--the Book of Maps.

I was particularly impressed with a place called Mars Hill which is the location of Paul’s sermon recorded by Dr. Luke in Acts 17. The word, “areopagus” comes from “Ares” who was the Greek god of war and the suffix meaning “hill”-hence, “Mars Hill.” The Scripture tells us that

Some of them asked, "What is this babbler trying to say?" Others remarked, "He seems to be advocating foreign gods." They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection… 22Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

24"The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. 25And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. 26From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28'For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.'

We are His offspring—sons and daughters—and our task is to engage with culture in such a way that we start wherever the culture is and lead them to a discussion of how Jesus came to allow us to be a part of the redemption story that God has written. Paul understood that the culture of the Greeks was such that they entertained any new thought of any new God for fear that they would miss out on something powerful. Paul sought to put one name to one God and that was no simple task for that context.

Our Greek tour guide struggled a bit as she tried to translate her thoughts to English, but at one point she said, “we are going to one of the places where St. Paul did a good job.” Our faithfulness of telling the story of Jesus and our story of Jesus to a cynical culture is what defines a community of faith. I hope that people say of me, long after I am dead and gone, "this is a place that Allen did a good job." I have no illusions. My travels will never be in a map in the back of a Bible, but I would like to think that as I walk and talk with people, I would do a good job.

Paul's life was up and down. He had opposition from without and from within. He battled politicians, church members, other ministers, and sometimes even his own sense of loneliness. Yet, as he looked back over his journey he could say that he fought a good fight.

May it be said of me.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Kids are Allright

Every now and then, we get a glimpse of what God is doing in the world through His generation of students. Last night, I attended a student-initiated, student led, student-advertised (via Facebook) prayer meeting. We were called to prayer specifically for a Tulane University student who has a serious medical condition.

I (as the oldest person in the room) had the privilege of starting the prayer time. And by the way, the prayer time started the time--no singing or announcements or games or food--they had issued a call to pray. I heard some of the most mature, heartfelt prayer that anyone could imagine. They prayed Scripture, they prayed emotion, they prayed specifically, they praised for answered prayer, they bowed to the holiness of a Sovereign God. It was amazing.

I snuck a peek and saw about 40 of the brightest and best that a generation has to offer. These were students who will be doctors, lawyers, engineers, businesspersons, teachers, and perhaps some will become ministers. They are students at one of the most prestigious universities in the nation and they do not speak of faith, church, prayer, worship or Bible study as if it is a default position--they have lots of other commitments, lots of other responsibilities, lots of other pressures.

Yet they gathered to pray. The church gathered. Not Baptist or InterVarsity or Episcopalian or Campus Crusade for Christ. The church. Not divided by skin color, hometown, or gender, but united by an agreement that their sister needed to hear their voices raised to the Great Physician.

Yes, the Kids are Allright.

Monday, February 22, 2010


Each faculty member at the Seminary takes a turn leading fellow professors. This is my week and I chose to do devotions that corresponded with one of the Bible passages on the "Read Through the Bible in a Year" journey that the NOBTS family is sharing this year. The four passages listed are the daily reading, and the devotion features one of them. I hope they minister to you.

Faculty Prayer Meeting 2010
February 23-26, 2010

Scripture this week from The Message

Tuesday, 2/23 – On Pride and Perspective
□ 1 Kings 22:24-2 Kings 1:18
□ Acts 2:22-47
□ Psalm 76:1-6
□ Proverbs 16:18-19

1. Introduction. Don’t travel if you want to be in control. O the ground, traffic keeps you humble and dependent. In the air, almost everything keeps you humble and dependent. The pilot sounds so smug when he tells you why you won’t make your connection or why your luggage probably won’t join you in this journey. It did my heart good to read about a couple of exchanges where the pilots understood their dependency on air traffic controllers:

The air traffic controller working a busy pattern told the 727 on downwind to make a 360 (do a complete circle, usually done to provide spacing between aircraft). The pilot of the 727 complained, "Do you know it costs us two thousand dollars to make a 360 in this airplane?" Without missing a beat the controller replied, "Roger, give me four thousand dollars worth."

> -----------------------------------------------

A DC-10 had an exceedingly long landing rollout after landing with his approach speed just a little too high...San Jose Tower: "American 751 Heavy, turn right at the end if able. If not able, take the Guadeloupe exit off of Highway 101 back to the airport."

2. Scripture (actually just through v. 6, but let’s read the whole thing)

Ps 76 (An Asaph psalm)

God is well-known in Judah; in Israel, he's a household name. 2 He keeps a house in Salem, his own suite of rooms in Zion. 3 That's where, using arrows for kindling, he made a bonfire of weapons of war. 4 Oh, how bright you shine! Outshining their huge piles of loot! 5 The warriors were plundered and left there impotent. And now there's nothing to them, nothing to show for their swagger and threats. 6 Your sudden roar, God of Jacob, knocked the wind out of horse and rider. 7 Fierce you are, and fearsome! Who can stand up to your rising anger? 8 From heaven you thunder judgment; earth falls to her knees and holds her breath. 9 God stands tall and makes things right,he saves all the wretched on earth. 10 Instead of smoldering rage — God-praise! All that sputtering rage — now a garland for God! 11 Do for God what you said you'd do — he is, after all, your God. Let everyone in town bring offerings to the One Who Watches our every move. 12 Nobody gets by with anything, no one plays fast and loose with him.

3. Takeaway: let us who love to be in control be reminded that our dependence on God is total.

Wednesday, 2/24 -- On Mentoring
□ 2 Kings 2:1-3:27
□ Acts 3:1-26
□ Psalm 76:7-12
□ Proverbs 16:20

1. Intro–the Appalachian Trail
I have shared many times of my experience as a youth minister who took a group of high school students on a hike on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. It sounded like a good idea at the time, but as I was getting off the bus, I realized that I hadn’t the first clue how to lead a youth group on a hike on a wilderness trail. One of my Eagle Scout teenagers came alongside of me and said, “Allen, you don’t have a clue, do you?” Of course he was right. I was not a hiker. He told me that all I had to do was follow the marks on the trees–blazes which led you down the trail from tree to tree.

It was comforting to know that someone else had gone before me and marked the way.

2. Scripture Reading for the Day

2 Kings 2:1-6
2:1 Just before God took Elijah to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on a walk out of Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, "Stay here. God has sent me on an errand to Bethel." Elisha said, "Not on your life! I'm not letting you out of my sight!" So they both went to Bethel. 3 The guild of prophets at Bethel met Elisha and said, "Did you know that God is going to take your master away from you today?" "Yes," he said, "I know it. But keep it quiet." 4 Then Elijah said to Elisha, "Stay here. God has sent me on an errand to Jericho." Elisha said, "Not on your life! I'm not letting you out of my sight!" So they both went to Jericho. 5 The guild of prophets at Jericho came to Elisha and said, "Did you know that God is going to take your master away from you today?" "Yes," he said, "I know it. But keep it quiet." 6 Then Elijah said to Elisha, "Stay here. God has sent me on an errand to the Jordan." Elisha said, "Not on your life! I'm not letting you out of my sight!" And so the two of them went their way together.

3. Takeaway: Thank your mentors and give some thought to calling one or more students alongside of you.

Thursday, 2/25 On Boldness and Personal Testimony
□ 2 Kings 4:1-5:14
□ Acts 4:1-20
□ Psalm 77:1-6
□ Proverbs 16:21-22

1. Introduction. Generally, newspapers rely on eyewitnesses in order to formulate stories. Sometimes, however, the headlines reveal that the writer either didn’t actually interview anybody or that they just didn’t have enough caffeine.

a. Plot to kill officer had vicious side (The Chicago Tribune)
b. Some phone psychics provide useless, erroneous information (Staten Island Sunday Advance)
c. Infertility unlikely to be passed on (Montgomery Advertiser)
d. Study Finds Sex, Pregnancy Link (Cornell Daily Sun)
e. Whatever Their motives, Moms Who Kill Kids still Shock Us (Holland Sentinal)
f. Survey Finds Dirtier Subways After Cleaning Jobs Were Cut (The New York Times)
g. Larger Kangaroos Leap Farther, Researchers Find (The Los Angeles Times)
h. `Light' meals are lower in fat, calories (Huntington Herald-Dispatch)
i. Alcohol ads promote drinking (The Hartford Courant)
j. Malls try to attract shoppers (The Baltimore Sun)
k. Official: Only rain will cure drought (The Herald-News, Westpost, Massachusetts)

2. Scripture for the day

(Peter and John on trial in Jerusalem)...While Peter and John were addressing the people, the priests, the chief of the Temple police, and some Sadducees came up, 2 indignant that these upstart apostles were instructing the people and proclaiming that the resurrection from the dead had taken place in Jesus. 3 They arrested them and threw them in jail until morning, for by now it was late in the evening. 4 But many of those who listened had already believed the Message — in round numbers about five thousand!
5 The next day a meeting was called in Jerusalem. The rulers, religious leaders, religion scholars, 6 Annas the Chief Priest, Caiaphas, John, Alexander — everybody who was anybody was there. 7 They stood Peter and John in the middle of the room and grilled them: "Who put you in charge here? What business do you have doing this?"
8 With that, Peter, full of the Holy Spirit, let loose: "Rulers and leaders of the people, 9 if we have been brought to trial today for helping a sick man, put under investigation regarding this healing, 10 I'll be completely frank with you — we have nothing to hide. By the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the One you killed on a cross, the One God raised from the dead, by means of his name this man stands before you healthy and whole. 11 Jesus is 'the stone you masons threw out, which is now the cornerstone.' 12 Salvation comes no other way; no other name has been or will be given to us by which we can be saved, only this one."

13 They couldn't take their eyes off them — Peter and John standing there so confident, so sure of themselves! Their fascination deepened when they realized these two were laymen with no training in Scripture or formal education. They recognized them as companions of Jesus, 14 but with the man right before them, seeing him standing there so upright — so healed! — what could they say against that? 15 They sent them out of the room so they could work out a plan. They talked it over: 16 "What can we do with these men? By now it's known all over town that a miracle has occurred, and that they are behind it. There is no way we can refute that. 17 But so that it doesn't go any further, let's silence them with threats so they won't dare to use Jesus' name ever again with anyone." 18 They called them back and warned them that they were on no account ever again to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John spoke right back, "Whether it's right in God's eyes to listen to you rather than to God, you decide. 20 As for us, there's no question — we can't keep quiet about what we've seen and heard."

3. Takeaway: Let your words tell of your relationship with Jesus. Let your life echo your words. You will be recognized as having been with Him.

Friday, 2/26 On Gracious Speech and Good Leadership
□ 2 Kings 5:15-7:9
□ Acts 4:23-5:11
□ Psalm 77:7-12
□ Proverbs 16:23-24

1. Introduction: I love books of quotes. They seem so wise. Especially when they give perspective to leadership–and in this case, governance:

a. Politics, it seems to me, for years, or all too long, has been concerned with right or left instead of right or wrong. ~Richard Armour
b. Politicians are like diapers. They both need changing regularly and for the same reason. ~Author Unknown
c. We live in a world in which politics has replaced philosophy. ~Martin L. Gross, A Call for Revolution, 1993
d. We'd all like to vote for the best man, but he's never a candidate. ~Frank McKinney "Kin" Hubbard
e. Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule - and both commonly succeed, and are right. ~H.L. Mencken, 1956
f. In order to become the master, the politician poses as the servant. ~Charles de Gaulle
g. Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where they is no river. ~Nikita Khrushchev
h. When I was a boy I was told that anybody could become President; I'm beginning to believe it. ~Clarence Darrow
i. George Washington is the only president who didn't blame the previous administration for his troubles. ~Author Unknown

2. Proverbs kind of reminds me of quote books. We haven’t been talking much about Proverbs this week, so maybe the wise words from the author can help us out. The daily readings this week contain wisdom about leadership

Prov 16:10-24

10b A good leader motivates, doesn't mislead, doesn't exploit.
11. God cares about honesty in the workplace; your business is his business.
12. Good leaders abhor wrongdoing of all kinds; sound leadership has a moral foundation.
13. Good leaders cultivate honest speech;they love advisors who tell them the truth.
14. An intemperate leader wreaks havoc in lives;you're smart to stay clear of someone like that.
15. Good-tempered leaders invigorate lives;they're like spring rain and sunshine.
16. Get wisdom — it's worth more than money;choose insight over income every time.
17. The road of right living bypasses evil;watch your step and save your life.
18. First pride, then the crash — the bigger the ego, the harder the fall.
19. It's better to live humbly among the poorthan to live it up among the rich and famous.
20. It pays to take life seriously;things work out when you trust in God.
21. A wise person gets known for insight;gracious words add to one's reputation.
22. True intelligence is a spring of fresh water,while fools sweat it out the hard way.
23. They make a lot of sense, these wise folks; whenever they speak, their reputation increases.
24. Gracious speech is like clover honey — good taste to the soul, quick energy for the body.

Takeaway – All of us are leaders. Politics and politicians are taking a lot of heat these days, but so are members of the clergy and academy. Consistent Godly lifestyle plus careful words make good leadership.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

On Solomon's Exception

In the seminary's daily Bible reading plan (yes, it is Saturday morning, and yes, I am catching up yet again), I was arrested by a verse in 2 Kings 3

3Now Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of his father David, except he sacrificed and burned incense on the high places.

Except that he...

I was privileged to have an amazing morning of worship with Youth Ministry friends at a meeting in Alabama. Billy Beecham led us in a devotion that pointed us to a renewed heart connection with God. My friend Jane expressed what all of us felt as we heard the stories of God "showing up" -- WE WANT THAT! We want to be present when God's glory falls, we want to see the un-seeable, think the unthinkable, imagine the unimaginable.

On the way back to the Atlanta airport in the rental car, I was surfing the satellite radio and I scanned through some station options that had language that I don't use or hear in daily conversations. I had to ponder the movie choices, the television options, the e-mail forwards--all the little stuff that invades my world.

I had to ask myself if my life contains "Solomon's exception clause. "I love and desire God to move, "except" I won't let go of the earthly distractions.

I don't have a formula here. I am not one who believes in a God who punishes me for my sins--He has forgiven me through His gift of Jesus. I do believe that like Solomon, the choices I make have consequences.

It reminded me to evaluate my exceptions.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

An Open Letter to My Children

Sarah and Aaron

In my time with God today, I feel like I have to say something to you. I love you more than life, but I don't love you enough if I don't share what God is teaching me today. I have been going through the motions spiritually, and I need to ask your forgiveness for that.

I am convinced again today that Jesus has to be at the center of my world or I have nothing. I am convinced that God wants me to count for something. If I lose all of my money, possessions, position and even my life, if I can serve God, it is enough. My life verse is Philippians 3:10, but I need to reaffirm the truth of the words there. In the Amplified Bible, it reads like this.

10[For my determined purpose is] that I may know Him [that I may progressively become more deeply and intimately acquainted with Him, perceiving and recognizing and understanding the wonders of His Person more strongly and more clearly], and that I may in that same way come to know the power outflowing from His resurrection [[b]which it exerts over believers], and that I may so share His sufferings as to be continually transformed [in spirit into His likeness even] to His death, [in the hope]

11That if possible I may attain to the [[c]spiritual and moral] resurrection [that lifts me] out from among the dead [even while in the body].

12Not that I have now attained [this ideal], or have already been made perfect, but I press on to lay hold of (grasp) and make my own, that for which Christ Jesus (the Messiah) has laid hold of me and made me His own.

I just had to write. I love you.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On Jesus and the Neutral Ground

It goes without saying, but I will say it anyway that this has been a remarkable week in New Orleans. The world champion, Super Bowl winning, proud warriors of the Who Dat Nation, New Orleans Saints came home to a crowd of 30,000 simply to greet their flight from Miami and an estimated 800,000 Who Dats gathered for the victory parade.

Over and over common folks and talking heads alike used the phrase, "this has brought us all together." It is about time.

New Orleans has medians in the middle of the beautiful boulevards throughout the city which we call "the neutral ground" a label that goes back to a time when the neighborhoods and sub-sections of the city were divided by these wide streets. The division went way deeper than the streets--the parts of the city (the French Quarter, the Irish Channel, Carrollton, the Bywater) were home to a particular ethnic group and people who weren't residents of each neighborhood simply didn't go in the area at all.

The leaders would meet on the "neutral ground" to discuss matters of importance to both communities. As the years went by and the neighborhoods became ethnically mixed (to a point), the neutral ground was no longer a place of negotiation and dialog.

I think I need to seek to focus on the neutral ground again instead of the boulevard. Maybe we can look for a place of negotiation and dialog rather than a boundary around our community. The Saints have showed me that once we identify some common ground, we can move on to other ideas and beliefs in a spirit of love and trust--community--rather than to be separated by the things that traditionally and wrongly convince us that we can't get along.

I spend way too much time in my relationships, both close and casual identifying things that irritate me because they aren't the way I would say it, do it, or avoid it. I think Jesus would hang out on the neutral ground.

I need to hang out there too. I think that Jesus can bring folks together.

Who Dat.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

On Who Dats in Exile

I am in the Atlanta airport on the way back from Macon, Ga. and Ray City Ca. In Macon, the privilege of watching over 400 students seeking clarity on a call from God on their lives. Amazing.

Then I got to worship with the folks at FBC Ray City Ga. I was honored to preach the morning service and hang out with some former students and dear friends.

Now I am watching my beloved Saints in the Atlanta airport. It is a good exercise in patience and perspective for me. Nice people to watch the game with. Mostly, though a reminder that I can stress about not getting on the earlier flight so I could watch the game or I can just remember the incredible experience of watching God at work in young and old lives over the weekend.

I choose to do the latter.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

On Conclave and Community.

I got to minister along side of some pretty amazing people this weekend. The Southeast Youth Ministry Conclave in Chattanooga is lots of great training, lots of inspiration and lots of community. It has the feel of a youth ministry family reunion.

We were blessed with a beautiful snowfall--though the idea of snow in the Southeast is a travel-stopper. I must confess, and maybe even apologize for being distracted with the question of if and when I would get out, what it would cost, how the details would work out...a wise youth minister in Nashville postponed an event and I received the gift of time.

I am reminded that if we aren't careful, we can get so caught up in the details of the "next" that we miss the "now." I was blessed to have great conversations with some dear friends in ministry--and to spend some time with some amazing teenagers, breakfast with colleagues, dinner with former youth groupers who now lead ministries of their own.

It was truly a family reunion.

Monday, January 25, 2010

On Worship and the Saints

Those of you who know me know that I mean my beloved New Orleans Saints. I am a season-ticket holder (if you are from another city, understand that the season tickets in New Orleans are to this point very affordable). Thus I was at the epic game on Sunday night.

It brought back a memory. Several years ago, Louie Giglio described the reception that Michael Jackson received around the world as an earthly imitation of worship. Among the MJ fans, all the biblical components of worship were present--hands raised, unashamed adoration, falling on faces, shouting, singing...

On Sunday night, I may have stumbled on another earthly metaphor. I would never reduce heavenly things to earthly imitations, but the atmosphere in the Superdome was an earthly imitation of what heaven must be like. All of one mind. Community to make the most ardent postmodernist jealous. Shouting from the top of our lungs. Adoration for our heroes. Singular focus. Complete an undivided attention. Unscripted shouting (when the Vikings offense was on the field) spontaneous hand raising (when we waited for the referees to get Reggie's touchdown call right). Animosity towards anything that hindered the cause, be it purple and white or black and white striped...

Wonder why we don’t do that in church? Now that would be attractive to people who are wondering what's the big deal about a relationship with Jesus.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

On the Privilege of Preaching

I get to preach at the University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge for the next two weeks, FBC Ray City on Super Bowl Sunday and fill in for my pastor (and one of my heroes) at FBC New Orleans on Valentine's Day.

I love to try to understand the Word and then try to make it understandable to hearers. I am terrified at the thought that I am responsible for bringing the Word, yet I am burdened with the practice of hearing it. I confess that one reason I love to preach is that I work harder at worship. As a leader, I am more invested than when I am a hearer and that is sad.

In Ephesians 2, Paul presents the process of redemption in Christ as restoration. Tomorrow morning, I will compare the process to my dream project--that of restoring a 1968 Camaro. I envision finding a rusty but salvageable '68 in a junkyard (like nobody else has seen this hidden treasure). I will negotiate a purchase price, claim it as my own and bring it out of its graveyard. I will give it a new name (all classic cars have to have a name), and lovingly and painstakinigly begin the process of restoration. It won't be finished all at once, but it will change ownership all at once and be placed in the diligent if not competent hands of a wannabe mechanic.

Before God began to restore me, I was dead (Eph. 2:1-3). I was claimed and put into drivable condition (v.4-9) and even though I am not perfect, I am on the road to run errands for the One who Restored me.

As a personal note, the plan and hope is that my son would hear me preach tomorrow. He is a Camaro who has not allowed the oil to be changed in a bit. Pray for him--and me--and you as you process the incredible news of restoration.

I can't wait to get back on the road again (has someone else said that before?)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Parents and The Call

Some close friends of ours got "the Call."

As a youth ministry professor, you might think I am talking about "the call" to ministry, but not this time. I am talking about one of the worst nightmares for parents-- "the call" in the middle of the night from the sheriff, the state patrol, or the doctor in the emergency room, telling you that your teenager is in trouble.

Judi and I have received "the call."

When you get "the call" your world changes. You shift into autopilot. Dad wants to fix things, accuse the person or persons who let this happen. Mom simply wants to get to the side of a child in trouble.

Powerless. Answers slow to come. Staring at your cell phone trying to think of the name of a doctor, lawyer or close friend to give advice. Each decision is one you haven't made before. You woke up in the middle of the night, so you are a bit slow in processing all of the potential outcomes of "the call."

At the end of the day, I take comfort from the story of Elijah (1 Kings 17-19). After some incredible moments where the prophet watched God show up in mighty ways. A very short time later, Elijah was terrified of an insane queen. In the midst of the insanity, God showed up again, but in a mighty whisper.

Parents, it is frightening. We may not be able to control or even reduce the tragic consequences of the decisions that our children make. But we can, in the midst of the uncertainty, listen for God's voice to remind us that He is still God.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

On Distance and Disasters

I almost hesitate to write about the most-published story of the week, if not the new year. The earthquake in Haiti that has claimed thousands of lives is a tragedy beyond measure. The compassionate response of the world community is appropriate and needed.

I need to use this space to confess. Disasters from a distance seem to bring about a distant response. I caught myself feeling deep sadness for the people of Haiti, for the daunting recovery that will follow, for the unfortunate possibility that much of the aid will not reach the intended victims. But my sadness is from a distance. My life is not disrupted and my future is not uncertain.

My college roommate and good friend Wayne Fairley posted a status update that he was getting on the first plane that Angel Flight could provide to deliver the donations from his church. I wish I could go, but life gets in the way. For the people of Haiti, it is an "in-your-face" nightmare from which they cannot wake up.

How do I know? In 2005, I was in the middle of Hurricane Katrina and my experience was numbness followed by frustration, followed by confusion, followed by despair. My disorientation was mediated by the closeness of friends and the reminder that I had not been physically injured, nor had any family member. But as the days, weeks, and months moved on, I felt like the rest of the world had as well. Katrina was yesterday's news and the celebrities, the headlines, and "text your donation" movements diminished to the point of silence.

I was hurt deeply by some of the idiotic comments about whether Katrina victims deserved any help given the perception that Louisiana has government that is more corrupt than other places. I was angry enough to call a radio show when the host repeated the comment that others had made, that America should cut its losses and abandon New Orleans since it doesn't make sense to build a city below sea level. I asked him if Atlanta should be deserted since there were constant water shortages or if California should be deserted before the rest of it burned from wildfires...

The people of Haiti will need our help for a long time. They don't need us to be cynical about their culture, their economy or their government. They need us to pledge to stay in touch with their plight and not let it be the flavor of the month disaster which will lose its Hollywood shine as soon as something else comes along.

If we believe that God uses us to mediate the tragic effects of the fallen world in which we live, we should pray. If possible, we should give of our resources, or even go (thank you Wayne). And for those of us who because of life's demands cannot go or give, we can pray. Most of all we need to pray. If we believe that God hears the prayers of the widows, orphans and oppressed, then we should pray.

I am not going to let this disaster stay at a distance. It is going stay on the current prayer list.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Speak, LORD, for Your servant is listening.

The Word of God is always timely. I am at the beginning of a semester, always overwhelming and exciting at the same time. I love the freshness of students in classes and the challenge of making old notes new again. I am also a parent of two college students and the husband of a wonderful woman and the blessed friend of many friends. See earlier post.

But I am aware that I talk too much. I am asked for advice and I give too much. I am not asked for advice and I give it anyway. I know that God has given us each a measure of wisdom to share with others and a big part of the wisdom is knowing when not to share. I am learning.

As usual, the daily Bible reading in the journey that we are on at NOBTS to read through the whole Bible is right on target. In 1 Samuel 3, as a young not yet prophet, Samuel is confused when God talks to him because he "had not yet experienced the Lord" (v.7). When the wiser Eli instructs him to simply affirm his availability, Samuel starts a remarkable ministry to King David and all of Israel.

I think today, I will try to simply state the words that Eli gave Samuel:

Speak, Lord for your servant is listening.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Stones in the Jordan

I am kind of new at this blogging deal. I am kind of old at this writing articles deal. I wrote one for Group Magazine back in 2001, co-authoring it with a former student (now wife of a youth minister and mother of three). As youth ministers, it is possible that you start 2010 with the "is it really worth it?" that we all feel occasionally.

It is. Here is the article

Stones in the Jordan

By Allen Jackson and Amy Howell

Subplots and Stones From the River

I have always been fascinated by the stories within the stories in the Bible. It seems that when there is a great plot unfolding in the Word, there are subplots that run underneath. For example, in the story of Moses, Joshua, and the battle with the Amlekites (Exodus 17), the story within the story is that of Aaron and Hur holding up the arms of the patriarch. If I understand the position of the two arm-holder-uppers in relation to Moses, I conclude that they were “armpit sniffers for the army of God.” And you think youth ministry is sometimes a smelly job.

In the story of David and Goliath, there is the family struggle within David’s family. In the story of Barnabas and Paul, there is the little matter of Barnabas’ nephew, John Mark. In the story of Samson, there must be some untold incidents which lead the writer of Hebrews to declare him to be a man of faith.

I am especially intrigued by the minute details that God has His people take care of. In one story, the details become the subplot of the larger story. In the book of Joshua, the namesake of the book had just replaced Moses as the leader of the Israelites. Moses had been prevented from entering the promised land (as had a whole lot of middle-agers). Joshua was to lead the Hebrew people across the river Jordan to begin the conquest of the promised land.

The only problem was that the Jordan River was at flood stage. I live near the Mississippi River and when it is flooding, it is a scary thing. However, God had a miracle in mind for Joshua and the gang, and most of you are probably familiar with the parting of the waters and the Israelites subsequently crossing on dry ground. But the story within the story is the rocks. Consider the account from the first nine verses of Joshua chapter four:

Now when all the nation had finished crossing the Jordan, the LORD spoke to Joshua, saying, "Take for yourselves twelve men from the people, one man from each tribe, and command them, saying, "Take up for yourselves twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests' feet are standing firm, and carry them over with you and lay them down in the lodging place where you will lodge tonight.'" So Joshua called the twelve men whom he had appointed from the sons of Israel, one man from each tribe; and Joshua said to them, "Cross again to the ark of the LORD your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Israel.

"Let this be a sign among you, so that when your children ask later, saying, "What do these stones mean to you?' then you shall say to them, "Because the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD; when it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off.' So these stones shall become a memorial to the sons of Israel forever."

Thus the sons of Israel did as Joshua commanded, and took up twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, just as the LORD spoke to Joshua, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Israel; and they carried them over with them to the lodging place and put them down there. Then Joshua set up twelve stones in the middle of the Jordan at the place where the feet of the priests who carried the ark of the covenant were standing, and they are there to this day.
Joshua 4:1-9 (NASB updated)

So a pile of rocks was set up in the middle of the Jordan. My guess is that when the river was no longer at flood stage, that these would be visible–after all the priests were not in the deepest part of the river when the waters dried up. Another pile of rocks would come out of the river. These would be set up at Gilgal, were the Israelites would camp (v.19-21):

Now the people came up from the Jordan on the tenth of the first month and camped at Gilgal on the eastern edge of Jericho. Those twelve stones which they had taken from the Jordan, Joshua set up at Gilgal. He said to the sons of Israel, "When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, "What are these stones?' then you shall inform your children, saying, "Israel crossed this Jordan on dry ground.' (NASB updated)

While credible scholars, including the translators of the NIV believe that the language in v.9, coupled with the context of the memorial at Gilgal indicate that there was only one memorial at Gilgal, the point is the same. The purpose of the stones was that they would forever be a memorial of God’s intervention in the lives of His people.

So I Got to Thinking
As a youth minister, I had recently become convicted that we move quickly from event to event without adequately celebrating what God has done at the last one. As I read of the importance that the Hebrews, under God’s direction, placed on memorializing that incredible river crossing, I had an idea.

I had often seen the students in the youth group have significant encounters with God while they were at a retreat, a camp, or on a mission trip. What if I suggested that they take note of times when they were aware of God’s activity in their lives, particularly as it related to Him moving them toward a deeper or different commitment? And what if I suggested that they find a “souvenir” that would remind them of the place and time where they had a clear sense of His direction? I did not want it to become trivialized one more tradition at camp, so I usually related the suggestion in private conversations as students shared what God was up to in their lives.

One girl showed me a shot glass that marked her decision to quit drinking. A boy in the group showed me his matchbook cover from the lodge where he understood that he had to be a disciple at home as well as in youth group. Still another student literally brought a rock from a riverbed in the retreat center where we were staying.

An incident that stands out as particularly significant involved Amy. Amy was a senior in high school when she picked up her, “rock from the Jordan.” I contacted her when I agreed to write this article, so I will let her tell her story.

Amy’s Story
I grew up going to church and learning about God both there and at home. I accepted Christ when I was ten, but it wasn’t until I was in youth group that I began to experience real spiritual growth. When I was in Junior high I was in a discipleship group with an adult in our church. I began to learn the value of memorizing scripture and spending quality time with God on a daily basis. As a result, I began to actually develop a relationship with God that would make all the difference in the world in my life.

When I was fifteen I had to face an unexpected tragedy in my family. My dad had cancer which would take him to be with God after a fifteen month struggle. The relationship I had with God as a result of hiding His Word in my heart served as a guide and a comfort at that very crazy time in my life. I have no doubt in my mind that God used my youth group to grow and prepare me for such a difficult year and a half. God didn’t just leave me there; He was faithful and continued to work in my life through my high school years.

I got to go on several mission trips which always seemed to leave deep impressions in my heart and mind. The summer after my senior year I went on one particular trip that changed my life forever. Our youth choir went to Detroit, Michigan in June. We did the usual--Bible School, Backyard Bible clubs, and neighborhood canvassing. We also did a concert in a number of different places. The event that stands out to me the most was a concert we did at a park in downtown Detroit. Even though it was in a tough neighborhood, it was your typical park. A notable difference was that instead of being filled with children playing, it was the home to many homeless people who found comfort in the hard benches, where they slept and sorted their treasures.

I can still picture that park as if it were yesterday… A purple and green iron playground that had seen its better days, the public housing across the street, the young children wandering the streets appearing content in their situation. A scattered crowd gathered to watch us sing, mostly wondering what a bunch of middle class Southern kids were doing singing and smiling in a place like this.

As we sang God began to break my heart. I couldn’t help but cry as He showed me His great love for all people. As our concert came to a close we sang a song. I knew as I sang the words that God was asking me, “Do you really mean that?” And I knew more than ever that I did mean those words. I also knew that He was telling me that he wanted me to commit to serve Him for the rest of my life and that he was preparing me for serving Him. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I told God that moment that I would do whatever he wanted me to do.

After the concert I went immediately to my youth minister to tell what had happened. As we talked he told me about how in the Bible there were times when people had significant moments with God they would take with them a object as a reminder of their experience and commitment with God. I walked around the park and quickly came across a bottle cap that still had a piece of the bottle attached. Someone was so desperate for a drink that they broke off the top of the bottle when they could not find an opener. I kept that bottle cap (the broken bottle part eventually came off) and stuck it in my pocket as a reminder to me of what God had done and had promised to keep doing in my life.

All four years of college that bottle cap stayed pinned to my bulletin board as a reminder that God was preparing me and that I had committed to serve him. Today, I am married to a youth minister and he and I are looking forward to many years of ministry together as we pass on what God has done in our lives with teenagers. I am convinced that even in those times when I’m not sure what God is doing and where He is moving me and my husband, I know that He is using me and will be faithful to His promise.

Copyright Group Publishing, Inc. May/Jun 2001