Monday, September 26, 2011


          I want to say something here that may confuse some and offend others. We live in a very self-centered culture. One of the marks of our culture, according to Charles Colson, is that we pass all of our decisions through basically two grids—two funnels if you will: personal success and personal pleasure. In other words, in our society today, behind each decision, one of these two criteria has to be met.
I want to talk about the funnel of personal pleasure and its impact on the lives of Christians. This funnel has influenced many of our spiritual activities. I see the quality of some Christians’ prayer lives to be in direct proportion to the amount of vivid personal pleasure they expect prayer to provide.
Someone speaks on the powerful experience he or she is finding in his or her prayer life, and some of the hearers think, “I want to experience that too!” What is often occurring is these Christians are passing data through the funnel of vivid personal experience.  
Careful. That motive for prayer easily morphs into self-centeredness. I know, because I have tried it.
We cannot sustain Christ-like prayer lives with self-centered motives. The motive for prayer is rooted in relationship with God. I wonder how many people fall in love with prayer more than they do with God.
Just to clarify, I am not saying that it is wrong to desire to tap into the power of God, nor is it wrong to desire a profound spiritual experience through prayer. However, if these are our dominant motives, we are ultimately going to experience pain and heartache. Our prayer lives will suffer; our spiritual lives will suffer.

Five Things I Think I Think (with a nod to Peter King for this idea)
1. Today I am blessed to be in Searcy Arkansas with my beautiful daughter, Haleigh. The Harding University Lectures are going on this week, too.
2. Great job Case McCoy and David Ash. You two are already serving as marvelous quarterbacks for the UT Longhorns.
3. I must thank the Winnsboro Church of Christ for making me feel so welcome on FAMILY DAY yesterday. This is my old hometown church, and they honored me by inviting me back to serve as their resource speaker. Since it was Family Day, I decided to lay a little Proverbs on us concerning parenting, purity and partnering (marriage.) It was especially neat to see some of the other guests who came in for the day.
4. Texas Rangers—I believe in you.
5. I felt so bad about this error, I felt compelled to put it in my blog in case anybody listens to last Sunday night’s sermon (Sept. 18) on the Internet. The following is actually from the apology I wrote in our church bulletin:

            I am so glad we are saved by grace. I could never live a perfect life. To illustrate, I want to offer an example from last Sunday night.
            I arrived home and I asked Judy about a lingering doubt in my mind from that evening’s sermon. She confirmed my error.
            “During my sermon, I mentioned that watching the ten o’clock news could disturb a person’s sleep. My encouragement had been to pass on the late news; it can wait until morning.
            “I then ad-libbed that if something important should happen, somebody will let you know. As an example, “If someone kills Osama, your daughter will awaken you and tell you.” This is exactly what my daughter, Haleigh, did last spring—she awakened me to tell me that Navy seals had killed Osama Bin Laden.
            “Unfortunately, my mental gears were out of whack, and I substituted a “b” for the letter “s.” I’m sure I sounded flippant and even disrespectful as referenced our president, instead of Osama. I apologize, and I want those present to know that I would never intentionally show any disrespect to anyone who is serving as our president.”           
            My mistake was an honest one, but it was still a mistake.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Time to Pray

There have been times in my life when I have struggled with prayer. I struggled in the sense that I did not make time to pray in my everyday routine. Without question, a big reason for my struggle was selfishness.
In college, I had to make time for my studies. I was preparing myself to be a preacher after all. I also had to make time for my friends. Obviously, I had to see the sports report every day on TV. And I enjoyed reading a TIME or SPORTS ILLUSTRATED when I got the chance. When I was in student government, there were meetings to attend. There were also spiritual activities: church, daily chapel, Tuesday night devo... Many times I found myself doing no more than beginning a prayer as I lay down at night. Usually I fell asleep before finishing it.
Finally, I graduated from college. But guess what? I was still too busy to pray. A few years later, I moved to a foreign country to do mission work—still too busy to pray.
Finally, I had to get real. What I had was not a time problem. What I had was a priority problem. I had about 163 things that I wanted to do before I prayed. The issue was not that I needed more hours, more minutes, or more seconds in my day. The issue was that I needed more Jesus and less Mark in my day.
Today, spending time in prayer is still a battle. I often reflect upon the absurdity of that reality.
Think about it. When I spend little time praying in a given day, what am I saying? I’m saying with my attitude, “Excuse me, God. But I think I can make it on my own today. I’ll call you when I need you.”
I’m saying, “No offense God. But today, ‘Good Morning America,’ ‘The Dallas Morning News,’ five telephone calls, two appointments, two ham and cheese sandwiches, one ten minute nap, two hours of research, two more appointments, time with two of my kids, two phone calls, one visit with a neighbor, a conversation with my wife, playing with another child, putting my children to bed, and reading from a good book are more important to me than spending time talking with you.”
Take what I just said and apply it to couples and marriage. I know of too many couples that divorced because they allowed an aggregation of little things to prevent them from spending time with their mates. What is it about taking such a relatively minute portion of our day to talk with God that makes it so difficult for us?
I think one reason is that the god of this world has so much power. Satan has tremendous resources, one of which is our nature, which is predisposed to sin.
Another thing that Satan has going for him is that he is one of the most humble beings on this planet. Much more humble than we are. He doesn’t care if we realize we are serving him. What matters to him is that he’s got us. And if we are living to please ourselves, he’s got us.
Can you imagine if I treated one of my four kids like I do God? What if the standard that determined if I fed my kids was the same as the standard I have that determines when I pray—personal desire.
“What sweetie? You haven’t eaten all night? You want some breakfast? Well I’m watching ‘Good Morning America’ right now. How about after it’s over?”
After ‘Good Morning America’ is over: “What sweetie? You’re hungry. Well I’m reading the paper right now. How about if I get you some later?”
We have a name for parents whose quality of treatment for their children is based upon personal desire—child abusers. Obviously, a parent does not determine the feeding of a child based on what is personally most satisfying for himself. The fulfillment of the physical and nutritional needs of a child is based on a commitment. Personal desires and conveniences cannot be the priority.
I wish we took the nutrition of our spiritual needs as seriously.
             A good prayer life is a decision. It is not based upon when we want to do it. It is not even based upon when we feel like doing it. It is based upon a decision by our minds, by that special place called the will.
Five Things I Think I Think (with a nod to Peter King for this idea)
1. What an exceptional TV Special by Diane Sawyer on the just released tapes of Jacqueline Kennedy. If you have not read about it, Caroline Kennedy recently released the audio tape recordings of interviews that historian Arthur Schlesinger conducted in early 1964. Having read many historical works on the Kennedys, I heard some insights I had never read. Very well done.
2. Just finished an audio book for the second time—BABE by Robert Creamer. It is a biography of Babe Ruth. Scratch that—it remains THE biography of Babe Ruth.
3. Next movie, see WARRIOR. I am not a fan of UFC fighting (although people occasionally confuse me for a UFC fighter), but this film is not about UFC. It is about family, including a dysfunctional family, and it is about people. UFC is the tool to tell the story. Mark my words; Nick Nolte will win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. His portrayal of an alcoholic father is perfect. I especially love the added detail of his character listening to tapes of the book MOBY DICK. You will appreciate this movie.
4. I owe the Dallas Cowboys an apology. I pronounced them dead last night to my church. Season over, I said. Afterwards, one of our elders gave me the news—the Cowboys’ pulled it out and Romo’s a hero. Okay, rumors of the Cowboys’ death are exaggerated. Time will tell if the exaggeration was great.
5. Happy 78th birthday today, Martha Edge. Much love to you.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Prayer Preoccupation

Have you ever been listening to someone pray and your mind wander? I can be in church, in a prayer group, listening to my wife or daughter pray, it makes no difference, and I struggle with keeping my focus on their prayers. Shoot, I sometimes have trouble keeping my concentration in my own prayers! Why is that?
I truly believe a major barrier to an effective prayer life is a preoccupation with self. It is selfishness.
I’m not proud to admit this, but when someone is praying in church I sometimes have a problem tuning in. I find my attention being naturally drawn to income taxes, or financial problems, or a family problem, or a Dallas Cowboy problem, or any problem that is important to my life in that moment. Sometimes, I find myself thinking about my sermon. Sometimes, something the guy mentions in his prayer causes me to stop and reflect on his point. Meanwhile, his prayer has left me behind.
In Argentina, a teammate and I use to meet with the college students of our church at 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday mornings to pray. It so happened that because of scheduling difficulties, we had to choose that particular time and day of the week. Wednesday was my day off, but since the prayer session took place before my family awoke, I cheerfully went.
You might think my struggle there would have been to stay awake. It wasn’t. Instead I found myself making a massive effort to stay focused on what the person was praying. Time, however, would chip away at my concentration, and, at about the third or fourth person in the group, I would begin to struggle with the distracting thoughts. (“It’s my day off, what should my family and I do today?”)
Now, we can say that all of these struggles are human. And they are. And you can tell me that you struggle with this too. I appreciate your honesty. But the fact is, the reason this is a shared human experience is that our own selfish interests basically dominate us.
We want to talk about what we’re interested in. We want to focus on our concerns. Let’s face it. Sometimes it’s not fun to listen to what someone else is praying about. Sometimes, someone else’s problems don’t compare in our minds to our own.
We say we are God’s people, and we are. We say we are New Testament Christians. And we are. But, as God’s people, as New Testament Christians, we should pray along with other Christians in their prayers.
It is simply the right thing to do.

Five Things I Think I Think (with a nod to Peter King for this idea)
1. I read LARRY KING’s TRUTH BE TOLD. I got to tell you, it is a fun, fascinating, and quick read. Larry is the king (get it?) of anecdotes; nevertheless, there are some profound insights from his life and connection with his guests as well. Our local library has a copy—read it.
2. I think Brad and Colt McCoy’s new book is so impactful, I have decided to read it to my son—a little bit every night.
3. A friend of mine recommended we see SEVEN DAYS IN UTOPIA, so Judy and I saw it Labor Day. Good flick. Robert Duval basically plays a Christian “Yoda” to Lucas Black’s “Luke Skywalker.” It is a sweet movie with Christian and spiritual themes. My kids could have watched it. I recommend it.
4. It is hard to believe ten years have passed since September 11, 2001. I think few people have changed the world like those 19 hijackers did. Unfortunately, they have changed the world for the worse. When I think about the thousands of lives lost that day and in the wars to follow, all of the freedoms lost, all of the tens of billions of dollars that day has cost the world (the economic impact), I feel saddened.
5. Nothing worse than seeing the Cowboys almost win a game I expected them to lose, and, then,right at the very end--lose a game they should have won.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Failure Is An Option

I have an interesting sermon looming ahead. In a few weeks, I will be preaching on Elijah's great depression. This text has offered me much to think about.
            For those of you who may not remember, Elijah went into a period of depression (I would call it a deep depression) following his confrontation with the prophets of Baal. I could not help but reflect upon the life of preachers as I read that story.
            Let me offer you a peek into the world of a preacher. A lot of preachers I know feel depressed on Mondays. I am an optimistic person by nature, but even I have negative feelings on the typical Monday. Most Mondays, I feel down; some Mondays, I feel downright melancholy.
            Preaching is a strange endeavor. It involves acute mental concentration, extensive physical involvement, a high emotional commitment, and of course, it is by definition a spiritual exercise.
            Some preachers I know preach three or four assemblies a Sunday. I preach two, but each one is a different sermon. You add to that teaching a Bible class, conducting meetings with guests who are interested in the church, as well as other meetings that occur on Sunday—and by Sunday night, most of us feel physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted.
Depending on how the day goes, we can either feel exhilarated or deeply disappointed. For this reason, some preachers take Monday off. I take Saturday off so I can be with my kids; consequently, Monday is a full day. My feelings Monday characteristically range from “feeling down” to a growing melancholy by the afternoon.
            Interestingly enough, the way I perceive how the sermon goes does not affect the outcome. There have been times when I think everything went well, and I still feel down the next day. At the very least, I always feel worn out.
            I usually feel the most tired on Tuesday. I get through the day, and sometime on Tuesday afternoon, I pick up my second wind. I then move into the phase of the week when I grow increasingly more alert. By Saturday night, I am oftentimes so keyed up, I'll sleep only an hour or two, wake up, and sleep fitfully the rest of the night.
            I don't want to preach my sermon now, but let me put in here the passage from I Kings Chapter 19. Notice how Elijah feels:

 1 Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.”
 3 Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, 4 while he himself went a day’s journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep.
   All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked around, and there by his head was a cake of bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.
 7 The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” 8 So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. 9 There he went into a cave and spent the night.

    And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
 10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
 11 The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.”
   Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
   Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
 14 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
 15 The LORD said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. 16 Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. 17 Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. 18 Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him.”

            Again, I don't want to give away all that I have learned here. Not in this blog. However, I do want to address a different reality. What I have been describing about preachers has been going on for thousands of years. I don't see it changing. Consequently, as my old Prof, Charles Siburt, used to say, I believe it is essential now for us to “make reality our friend.”
            More than many realize, part of the Christian life is striving, feeling bad, feeling melancholy, feeling depressed, and dealing with what we perceive is failure. Notice I said, “perceive as failure.” Elijah’s depression followed the heels of what we would call his most successful triumph for God.
            In light of that, here is something important to note: we do not have the universal insight into the world or even into our lives that God has. We cannot see the future. What we view as failure, God may view as success. Furthermore, as my friend Steve Hemphill says, we must remember, “We play to an audience of one.” He means—God. This understanding is essential.
            It is fascinating to me how many great men of God in Scripture end their ministries and lives in what we would call failure. Everybody wants to go out on top, but not many do.
            Moses, I'm sure with great embarrassment, died on a mountain overlooking the Promised Land. Jeremiah probably died in exile from his homeland. John the Baptist died a violent death after having served God in prison. Tradition tells us that Peter died crucified upside down. Paul spent his last years under house arrest and, ultimately, being executed (tradition says) by Rome.
            People usually do not throw triumphant parades in honor of God's men and God’s women at the end of their lives. Few of us are sent to heaven in a chariot of fire… and that's okay.
            When we signed on to do God's work, we signed on to do GOD’S WORK. We play to an audience of one. As long as He is satisfied, that is enough.
            Recently, I saw the movie SOUL SURFER. I was struck by how, even as a young teenager, the sensational surfer, Bethany Hamilton, had such a strong sense of discipleship. Ultimately, she could say, in essence, you want my arm, God? Here–take my arm—use it for the Kingdom.
            My goal for the rest of my life is to walk so closely with God that I can sense when God feels pleasure–and, consequently, God's pleasure becomes my ultimate motivation.
            I have resigned myself to moody Mondays. As long as I don’t let my feelings rule, I think I am going to be okay. What is there to be depressed about?
            With God, “failure” is always an option.
Five Things I Think I Think (with a nod to Peter King for this idea)
1. I have started reading GROWING UP COLT by Brad and Colt McCoy. I’m thoroughly enjoying it. The part I most appreciate? How many times Brad and his wife, Debra, had to spank Colt when he was growing up. There is hope for all of our kids!
2. Speaking of kids, my family had a much needed diversion at supper last week. Now, you’ve got to understand, I am usually focused at supper on training my kids to at least half-way offer the appearance they have table manners. At this stage, I’ve given up on them eating with the Queen of England. All I want now is for them to be able to have a picnic without the wild animals saying, “Hey, I think they're one of us!” Consequently, I probably can get a little uptight at supper.
            The other night, one of the younger ones was sharing a joke from school. That jogged the old memory bank, and I shared one from my school days. Do you remember the story of “Pete and Repeat?”
            “Pete and Repeat,” I explained to them, “were brothers. Pete and Repeat went to the candy store. Pete bought licorice; Repeat bought peppermint.”
            “Now, which brother bought the peppermint?”
            Timothy answered, “Repeat.”
            “Okay,” I said. “Pete and Repeat were brothers…”
            Well, you never heard laughing like my kids did when I told that joke. They said, “Tell it again.” So I did. They laughed harder the second time. By then, they had me going. Before long, all of us were laughing so hard, we were crying.
            That was a good reminder to me—sometimes, you need to just loosen up and laugh with your kids.
3. Incidentally, Timothy took the joke with him to school the next day. That night, he reported to us at supper.
            “How did it go?” we asked.
            “Not good, nobody laughed.”
            “Let me hear you tell it,” I asked.
            He told the joke. Everything was perfect until the end. Instead of asking, “Which brother bought the peppermint”, Timothy asked, “Now, what did Repeat buy?”
            Morale: if you’re going to tell an old joke, be sure to get the punch line right!
4. I loved seeing Boise State march into Georgia and clean up on a SEC team.
5. Some of you read articles written by Skip Hollandsworth of TEXAS MONTHLY. Skip is my second cousin. Last week, Skip’s dad, Ned, passed away. Ned was a highly thought of preacher in the Presbyterian fellowship for many, many years; he blessed a lot of lives, including my own. For the past few years he battled Alzheimer’s. Rest in peace, Ned.