Monday, May 30, 2011

The # 1 Lesson of My First Decade: Jesus Died For Me

            Recently, I began reflecting on my life, decade by decade. Just for fun, I decided to list the # 1 lesson I learned about life in each decade (I am in my sixth now.)
            I had a lot of nominations for my first ten years of life. Like most people, the growth and learning I experienced from my birth to the completion of my tenth year seem exponential. After pondering that decade, I finally concluded the most important lesson was this: Jesus died for me. Here’s why.
            I wish I could tell you I lived a perfect life in my childhood. Unfortunately, that would be a lie—a big one. Here at Shiloh, we invite those interested in becoming a part of our church to join us in a conversation we call Tell Me About Shiloh. It is a conversation about our church, our teachings, and our journey, with the desire being to help a guest decide if he or she would find Shiloh a good fit for his or her spiritual journey.
            In our dialogue, each of us shares our spiritual story. In mine, I often tell how I ran around with boys from my neighborhood older than myself. Whatever sin I could commit at that age, I think I did!
            One Wednesday night when I was ten years old, I was sitting in a congregational devotional. During the singing of a song, I suddenly had the realization come upon me, “I am a sinner!” This recognition convicted me. I felt sorry for what I had done; I wanted to stop. I wanted to leave that life behind. I wanted to start all over.
            Furthermore, I had the gnawing sensation that I was going to hell—and I should. It was what I deserved.
            Finally—and all of this took place in the span of a minute or two—I began to think, “I want to be baptized.”
            I held my thoughts and feelings to myself until I got home. Then I told my parents. They knew baptism was a big step, so my dad began to study with me. To his credit, he did something very significant—he recorded our study on an old reel-to-reel tape recorder. That way, I could go back when I became older and hear what I was thinking and processing at the time. (Later, he transferred the recording to cassette. I still have it to this day, and I have now converted the cassette recording into a digital format. It remains a precious treasure.)
            The next day, I thought about the words of our Bible study and made the decision to be baptized. On a November night in 1970, one week before Thanksgiving, I confessed to family and a few friends and members of our church that Jesus was my Lord and Savior. H. L. Shirey then took me to our old baptistery and immersed me into Christ.
            (My hometown church has since built a new auditorium and baptistery. The old one remains dry and empty as a place of storage. I showed it to my kids a couple of years ago. I think they thought the sins of my baptism broke it.)
            I remember thinking as I prepared to go under the water that my sins were about to be washed away, and when I arose from the baptismal waters, I would be clean again. Indeed, I still vividly recall my emotions as I came up out of that water.
            My baptism culminated the events of my first decade. It channeled my growing awareness from early childhood that Jesus died for me, so I could live for him—forever.
            My first ten years: initial years of innocence followed by a few years in a spiritual wilderness, and finally climaxed by a new birth—quite a decade.
            I owed all that was good to the Man who died and addressed my sins—and my sin problem.

            6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Rom. 5:6-11.) ESV
Five Things I Think I Think (with a nod to Peter King for this idea)
1. Okay, the Mavericks proved me wrong. They won their series in five games. I liked their attitude afterward—no excessive celebration. There is still work to do. I fear picking them to beat Miami; Miami is hot, playing great ball, and has three legitimate, young superstars. However, I have a good feeling about this Mav team. I think they reverse the curse of 2006. I see them winning the championship in six games.
2. Wow! This morning, I heard the news that Jim Tressel resigned. While I did not find this information astounding, I still felt saddened by it. I think Tressel is a good man who, like all of us, has flaws. This one was not corrected early on by a check-and-balance in the Ohio State system. When the flaw was diagnosed, it was too late.
            Tressel’s only chance in the moral community is this: he has got to come completely clean and say, in effect, “Learn from my mistakes.” People will forgive anything except for covering up and other forms of hypocrisy.
3. Rest in peace, Cass Archer. You were a good father to my college roommate and Argentine teammate, Tim Archer. Moreover, I hold in awe anyone who could get a Ph.D. from the University of Texas in mathematics! You were a faithful elder and offered much to the Kingdom during the course of your lifetime. I am sure last week you heard the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
4. It’s Memorial Day. This year, my thoughts go to the privilege I had in 2010, to return to Arlington National Cemetery. While there, I was moved again by the ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I do not take the blessings I enjoy in this country for granted.
5. Congratulations to my nephew, by marriage, Drew Denman, who graduated last Saturday. Great ceremony, by the way. :)

Monday, May 23, 2011

FLATLINERS: A Good Movie for Christian Reflection

            Every year, I host my senior Bible class from East Texas Christian Academy for supper. For the past three years, we have enjoyed the movie FLATLINERS. The seniors find it suspenseful, even scary; I find it richly filled with teaching on atonement.
            The movie came out in 1990 and featured some of the hottest young actors of the day, including Kiefer Sutherland, William Baldwin, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, and Julia Roberts. They play pre-med students, experimenting by medically putting each other to death—flatlining—for a few minutes, before using medical technology to bring each back to life.
            During the clinical moments of death, each-in his or her own way- experiences events reminiscent of dreams. In time, the students collectively note that each has come into contact with negative events from their past. Specifically, all reconnect with what they believe were past sins they had committed.
            The suspense begins as each character discovers a hole has been opened into the cosmos, and each faces vengeance and retribution from those they had wronged. One had been guilty of secretly taping his sexual encounters with college coeds. Suddenly, women begin seeking to manipulate and use him as he had done to others. Moreover, discarded females begin appearing, questioning why he had hurt them.
            Another character encountered a young girl he had continually made fun of on the playground in elementary school. She began to appear to him, supernaturally endowed with power over him. He was frightened.
            The most interesting character to me is Nelson, played by Kiefer Sutherland. Nelson bullied a boy—Billy—during childhood. After Nelson’s death experience, Billy returns to inflict pain upon him.
            At the climax of the movie, we learn of the guilt Nelson had carried with him since childhood. Billy had climbed a tree to escape his tormentors (which included Nelson)—and had slipped and fallen to his death. The accident caused Nelson to be taken by authorities from his family and placed in a foster home.
            Every year, I find this movie fascinating. In an age when a number of Christian leaders (some prominent) seek to downplay or eliminate any need of Jesus paying a debt for our sins on the cross, FLATLINERS demonstrates the basic human understanding that humans cannot atone for their sins. It is not enough to have God come down to earth to show us how much He loved us by dying for us.
            Deep within our hearts, deep in our subconscious minds, we intuitively sense that an act of God showing his love for us… is not enough for us to cope with this life. As Nelson’s case illustrates, there are some sins we can never atone for. We yearn to know, really know, our sin has been dealt with. The cross alerts us to the fact that God, through Christ, has truly cancelled our sin.
            Another thing I like about this movie is that it reminds us that we all need the cross—even those who are not guilty of committing the “big” sins. Yes, in this movie there were those haunted by their “big” sins. Yet, there were others haunted by “little” sins, such as Kevin Bacon’s character, who had made fun of a child on the playground.
            All of us have emotions and regrets from past sins locked away—unless we have turned them over to Jesus; they will continue to impact us negatively—perhaps even haunt us—unless we lay them down at the foot of the cross.
            I am thankful for a God who showed his love for us by dying such a terrible death; but I am also grateful the Bible consistently points forward to, or (in the New Testament) looks back at, a God who paid a debt He did not owe, because I owed a debt I could not pay. 
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed (I Pet. 2:24.) ESV
Five Things I Think I Think (with a nod to Peter King for this idea)
1. My daughter, Haleigh, graduated Saturday from high school. I am very proud of her for a number of reasons, one of them is that she was one of three recipients of the Jana Preston Memorial Scholarship--$5000 a semester for 8 semesters… or $40,000 total. This scholarship is good for any college or university.
2. I do not know the name (names?) of the individual (individuals?) who funded this scholarship—unique to East Texas Christian Academy. Still, I am struck by the number of individuals God has blessed financially, who have chosen to fund scholarships to students. Furthermore, I am amazed by how many do this anonymously—and do so to call attention to someone else they wish to honor.
            Jana Preston was a faithful Christian, wife, and mother whose life ended much too quickly—a victim of cancer. Someone (or a few) funded this scholarship in her honor. Beautiful.
            My own life has been irrevocably blessed in this way. Godly, gracious, and generous people supplied resources to pay for 75% of my Master of Divinity expenses, and 100% of my doctoral degree.
            To all of you benefactors of the world—thank you. May God continue to richly bless you; you have proved faithful.
3. I finished this week an old book written in 1973 called The Wizard of Westwood: Coach John Wooden and His UCLA Bruins. Written by two contemporary Los Angeles sportswriters, Dwight Chapin and Jeff Prugh, I found this book to be the most objective account I have read of John Wooden’s life.
            Obviously, it was written before Wooden retired, yet, for that reason, I find it fascinating. Wooden was well on his way to becoming a legend, but he had not yet achieved sainthood status. Furthermore, the sportswriters were much more willing to contribute the warts of Wooden’s story.
            For example: the basketball players on one of John Wooden’s early high school basketball teams felt compelled to join their opponents in stopping a fist-fight. The fight was between John Wooden and the opposing coach. Now that’s something about Wooden you don’t read every day!
            Wooden himself readily admits in his autobiography that his temper as a young player and coach, at times, got the best of him. Still, this is the first time of have read this account in detail.
            Make no mistake about it; the authors include plenty of good things about their subject. It’s just that they draw a balanced picture.
            Keep in mind; they were simply writing about a great basketball coach at UCLA. They were not writing about the man we know today as… John Wooden.
4. I still believe the Mavericks will win their series in six games. I thought they would lose game one and win game two. The Thunder are tough. It would not shock me to see them take it to seven.
5. Welcome back Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Sleepwalking Through Life

           Several years ago, my wife and I began to serve as foster parents for CPS. During that time, in the early hours of a Wednesday morning, probably around 1:00 or 2:00 AM, I jumped out of bed.
            I realized I had overslept. I had been given the care of ten infants. They were from Abilene. They had all had extremely runny noses and were fretful, but they had finally managed to fall asleep. Exhausted, I had fallen asleep also.
            Unfortunately, I had been terribly irresponsible; I realized I had not set an alarm!
            Those babies were supposed to be back in Abilene by 10:00 PM—and I still had them! The mothers of those infants were going to be frantic!
            After awaking, I made my way through the living room, but the babies were not there! I then hurried to the den. The babies were not there, either!
            It was at this point that something like a fog started lifting from my brain. Gradually, I realized that I had been dreaming and sleepwalking.  Yet, in that state between a deep sleep and complete alertness, a haze shrouded my mind.
            I was active. My body was moving. But there was a disconnect between my mind, my body, and my soul. In reality, my gut (my emotional being) was directing my body more than my mind or my will were.
            I think my state that night illustrates how many people live their lives. They live in a moral and spiritual fog.
            Their minds and wills are disconnected from their bodies. However, their gut feelings are very much connected to their bodies. If they feel like doing something, they do it. Sadly, too often, they sleepwalk through life--and experience the consequences.
            Jesus desires something different for us—bodies inhabited by the Holy Spirit with redeemed minds, working in harmony with God, and ultimately leading toward transformation. God yearns for us to have fully integrated minds, bodies, and spirits. One of my favorite passages goes like this:
 1 And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. 2 Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect (Rom. 12:1-2.)

Five Things I Think I Think (with a nod to Peter King for this idea)
1. I think that May is the busiest month of the year. With students working on final projects and preparing for Finals, the end of the school year parties, assemblies, banquets, and graduation--it is a crazy month. December is a close second.
2. I think the Mavericks will defeat Oklahoma City in six games, but I predict they will lose the first one. The layoff was beneficial for Dallas-essential, really considering their age-but it will take Dallas a game to get back in sync.
3. I saw a preview of COWBOYS & ALIENS during the Super Bowl. It looked to me like one of the silliest movies ever; I have no desire to see it. This probably signifies I will like it immensely and see it several times.
4. For anyone wanting to read more about our U. S. Presidents, who doesn’t have much time, I recommend THE AMERICAN PRESIDENTS SERIES, edited by the late Arthur M. Schlesinger. Each president is portrayed in a single volume, between 150 and 250 pages. I recently enjoyed listening to the audio version of the biography on Rutherford B. Hayes, written by Hans Trefousse.
5. Congratulations to my oldest child, Haleigh. This Saturday, she graduates from high school. Thanks for the memories. We’re proud of you!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Ministering to the Poor and Homeless: Another Visual Teaching From God

            Last week, Matt Winn, a member of my sermon advisory group, had a fun idea to illustrate the meaning of repentance. God shows his love for us in calling us to repent. He beckons us to leave behind our old thoughts, behaviors, and practices, and allow Christ to reshape us as we turn 180° toward him.
            To illustrate this in my sermon, Matt’s idea was to dress one of our members in old, shoddy clothes in order to make him look like a homeless person. Makeup was added, and he appeared to be in a bad way.
            As I began my sermon, our “guest” ambled up toward the front. I invited one of our members, who is known for having a heart for the poor, to escort this gentleman discreetly through one of our doors to the baptistery in order to offer some help.
            Of course, this was a setup. Volunteers cleaned the makeup off, and our “homeless man” had a nice clean set of clothes stashed away so that he could change. Near the end of my sermon, I brought him out along with our “volunteer servant.”
            At that point, most of our members recognized what was happening. To finish the illustration, I instructed our “servant” to dispose of the old clothes. At that moment, the “homeless man” tried to grab them. He acted like he wanted to put them back on again. No one in that auditorium would have wanted that for a real homeless man. To nail down the meaning, I asked our “servant” to throw the old clothes away in the dumpster.
            The hope in all this was to illustrate that all Christians are clothed in Christ. (26All of you are God's children because of your faith in Christ Jesus. 27And when you were baptized, it was as though you had put on Christ in the same way you put on new clothes [Gal. 3:26-27.] CEV Emphasis mine.)
            With this being true, why would we want to return to our old clothes? (13 Let us live in a right way, like people who belong to the day. We should not have wild parties or get drunk. There should be no sexual sins of any kind, no fighting or jealousy.14 But clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ and forget about satisfying your sinful self. [Rom. 13:13-14.] NCV Emphasis mine.)
            (12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience [Col. 3:12.] NIV Emphasis mine.)
            However, as often happens, I learned something else in this sermon, something I had never planned. When God invites his people to participate in ministry to the poor, we are channeling God. When we take homeless people and clean them up, give them nourishment, hope, and a way for the future, we are allowing God to do His work through us.
            We know what it means to take homeless people and to clean them up, give them new clean clothes, and pray that they not return to the old; however, this is also an illustration from God. Our service to the poor is a symbol of what God does for us. He allows us to re-create his spiritual acts with us, and hopefully, each time we do, it is a visible reminder of how God feels about us.
            God wants us to put away our old clothes, be clothed with Christ, and never return to the old clothes. May we remember this every time we minister to the poor.
Five Things I Think I Think (with a nod to Peter King for this idea)
1. Evidently, one of the hot new bloggers of the young evangelicals is Rachel Held Evans. She has already written one book Evolving in Monkey Town. Now she is at work on a second--The Quest for Biblical Womanhood.
            Here is how she herself describes it: “Think of it as John Piper meets Martha Stewart meets Julie & Julia meets A Year of Living Biblically. Just enough crazy to interest everyone.”
            I read A. J. Jacobs’ book THE YEAR OF LIVING BIBLICALLY. His goal was to literally live one full year according to biblical teachings—including the Old Testament. The results were sometimes hilarious.
            Now Evans aspires to do the same, except she plans to literally obey commands in scripture given to women. The book sounds promising. I cracked up when I read that she planned on staying in the back yard in a tent during “that time of the month.” (She must comply with the OT law of staying outside the camp.)
            My guess is her book will prove thought provoking and funny.
2. I refuse to get my hopes up—too much—for the Mavs. Nice win finishing off LA yesterday. Yet, I remember the Mavs destroying Miami in Game 2 of the 2006 Finals. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice…
3. Last week, we in the Shiloh office said “goodbye” to Sherry Bobbitt. Sherry began working for Shiloh before I arrived, and she was a wonderful help to me as I began to integrate myself into the Shiloh culture. Through the years, she grew to be valuable to my personal ministry. She was my proofreader, my archivist, and much, much more. I wish Sherry the very best in her next endeavor, but we will miss her greatly.
4. I finished watching the Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg mini-series, THE PACIFIC, last week. My in-laws loaned it to me. One of the series’ characters, R.V. Burgin, attended church with Judy’s family when she was growing up. It was neat having that personal connection.
            I actually appreciated THE PACIFIC more than I did BAND OF BROTHERS, which I would have thought impossible. It does a magnificent job of revealing the Marines’ inner struggles—struggles understandable when you consider the hellish conditions they faced.
            One of the Marines, Eugene Sledge, stands on the brink of losing his humanity as the Marines invade Okinawa and face an enemy unafraid to use Japanese civilians to conceal weapons for sneak attacks. The scene where he reconnects with his humanity is one of the most powerful I have ever seen in a visual medium.
            This mini-series is not for the faint of heart. It is raw and graphic. Personally, I feel a vehicle such as this demonstrates the value of a society without censorship. It is a public service for citizens to receive just a little taste of how bad war is.
            Well done, HBO.
5. Related to THE PACIFIC, Hans Zimmer's music is haunting and beautiful--the perfect score. Check it out on I-TUNES. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

A Little Dab Will Do You

             I received good and interesting feedback on my thoughts on THE LORD’S SUPPER/COMMUNION last week. What I wish to do today is unusual for me; today, I wish to make an argument for the other side.
            It would go like this.
            There is no way we can replicate the Lord’s Supper/Communion experience of the First Century. First, for a substantial number of Christians, that meal was their biggest and best of the week. (This is one of the reasons Paul jumped on the more well-to-do Corinthians—they enjoying a relatively sumptuous meal; meanwhile, the poor had little to eat and left hungry.)
            Meat was not an item Christians could always afford. For Jewish Christians, a carry-over from some of the sacrificial meals under the old law was eating meat during sacred meals. Most of us regularly eat meat, and when was the last time you enjoyed a church’s potluck more than you did food from your favorite restaurant.
            Second, for some early Christians, the only time they would enjoy a full stomach would be after the agape meal (the meal experienced in the context for the Lord’s Supper/Communion.) Were we to eat our fill during the Lord’s Supper/Communion today, we would have to wait until—the next meal… before we would fill our stomachs again. Whether we desire to admit or not, most of us have enough food in our pantries to fill our stomach’s for a week or two.
            Most of us, Christians, in the U.S. are simply affluent. So why make a big deal about eating our fill during the Lord’s Supper/Communion?
            The fact is, we are not where we are going. We have not experienced heaven’s wedding meal with the Lamb. That is to come. Indeed, it says something about our present limitations that we can eat until our bellies are full, and yet we hunger again by the time the next meal rolls around.
            Why not partake of just a taste of heaven—a reign and an experience that is not fully consummated yet?
            Someday, that age will come—but not yet. The wafer of unleavened bread and the thimbleful cup size of grape juice remind us of our present existence.
            LIFE IS BETTER, NOW THAT WE KNOW THE LORD. However, we are not where we desire to be—or where we will be.
            Until then, we will eat portions influenced by a fallen creation to celebrate God’s work in Jesus, and encourage us to wait for what is to come.
            I am not saying this should be our regular practice. I am saying how we think could redeem our current practice.

Five Things I Think I Think (with a nod to Peter King for this idea)
1. Okay, I have read messages from some of my friends on Facebook—wonderful, spiritual, and godly reactions to Osama Bin Laden’s death. These included marvelous scriptures that really made me think.
            So now, I am going to offer my initial emotional reaction. I am not saying it was right. Indeed, in light of scripture, it probably was wrong. But here it is:
            Last night, my daughter, Haleigh, woke me up from a deep sleep. Excitedly, she said, “Dad, they just killed Osama bin Laden. The president is speaking.”
               This is one of the few times I can remember being awakened from a deep sleep, and feeling upbeat about the experience. Instantly, even as my mind was processing the news, I felt positive emotions.
            Entering our den, where Haleigh had the president's speech live on the computer, I saw and heard him talking to the nation, and to the world. By then, I was fully awake, and I felt deep joy.
            Ten years is a long time. The world is a different place.
            Recently, I began watching Tom Hanks’ mini-series, THE PACIFIC. Some of those soldiers experienced perhaps the closest humans will get to hell on earth. Suicidal enemies attacking them using island civilians as instruments to blow up and destroy American soldiers. I tend to give others the benefit of the doubt when they have to choose between two or more bad choices.
            I am blessed by the world those soldiers helped protect. It is hard for me to divorce myself from this country. I have lived in other countries; there is no place like this one.
            I like feeling safe. I like feeling free.
            I appreciate our policemen. I appreciate our military.
            When others risk much (including the possibility that they might be doing something morally wrong in the pursuit of doing what is right), with the result being I am safer and free, I cannot help but feel gratitude.
2. Someday, someone should write an updated theology of government. When you wake up and find yourself the most powerful government on earth, how do you handle that responsibility?
            I suspect it is similar to waking up and finding yourself receiving the responsibility of parenthood. You cannot serve without sinning; yet, to walk away from the responsibility is sinning.
3. Way to go Mavs! Way to beat Portland.
4. DeMarco Murray drafted by the Dallas Cowboys? Please! If he cannot stay healthy in college, how in the world will he in the NFL?
5. It was five years ago this week I began my ministry at Shiloh. I am grateful, and there is no other place on earth I would rather be.