Monday, December 13, 2010

Repost: The Two Christmases

Originally posted December 2009:

As I walked through the front door of the Post Office, I was faced with a choice. On my left was a vending machine from which I could purchase books of stamps, and to my right was the customer service desk, where I could make the same purchase from actual human beings. Because there was no line at the moment, I chose the human interaction. I strolled up to the middle-aged, slightly balding postal employee, read that his name was "Rex", and I asked for two books of stamps.

As it was mid-December, Rex asked me "would you like Christmas stamps, or...".

Once I realized he wasn't about to complete the sentence, I looked down and saw that he was holding some very un-Christmas-like stamps bearing images of the Liberty Bell and the word "Forever." Knowing that my wife had planned to mail several Christmas cards, I told him "One of each."

To my surprise, the decision-making did not stop there. Because I had asked Rex for the one set of Christmas stamps, he asked me to narrow down my choice even further. He held up two types of stamps: one had a picture of Mary and Baby Jesus, while the other had various non-sectarian Christmas symbols like snowflakes, Frosty, and Santa. As he held these two up for my perusal, he asked me "religious or irreligious?"

I am not making this up.

I began to process the word “irreligious”, which I had never heard before. But as a long line was forming behind me, I quickly told Rex I'd like the "religious" ones. It turns out the image contained on these stamps is by a 17th-century Italian painter named Sassoferrato. It’s a nice picture.

Still, the fact that I had to choose between two alternatives, and do it twice, is very telling. The Postal Service, in an effort to not offend anyone, has recognized the dichotomies that exist, and has chosen to offer something for everyone. The second choice I had to make—between Mary holding the Christ child and the snowman—makes it clear: in 21st-Century America, there are two Christmases to choose from.

The two Christmases are separate and distinct. For the sake of discussion, let's call them Christmas #1 and Christmas #2.

Christmas #1 is the so-called religious way to celebrate the holiday. It emphasizes the entrance of Jesus into a sinful world. It's certainly an event worth rejoicing over, as He came to rescue mankind, who had sinned and become separated from a holy God. A Savior was necessary, and His birth is what is celebrated.

Christmas #2 invokes sentiment, nostalgia, and feel-good moments. It urges Americans of all faiths to enjoy family and friends, to shop for loved ones, to give to charities, to eat, to party, to take some time off of work. It’s about chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and silver bells. It results in timeless stories and movies like Clement Moore's "A Visit From St Nicholas", and Chevy Chase's "Christmas Vacation".

Each of the two Christmases manifests itself in parallel ways. The perennial TV event for Christmas #1 is “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, with Linus’ stirring recital of the 2nd chapter of Luke. Christmas #2 is about Will Ferrell’s "Elf", or, for older viewers, "A Miracle on 34th Street."

Christmas #2 has songs like "Silver Bells", "Winter Wonderland", and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus". Christmas #1 gives us "O Holy Night", "Silent Night", and that "In Exelsis Deo" song.

Both Christmases are prone to nostalgia. Those who prefer Christmas #1 get the warm fuzzies when they think about baby Jesus, the manger, and the Wise Men. Mention Christmas to #2 folks and they smile as they remember Ralphie and the quest to acquire that BB Gun.

Of course, this dichotomy needn’t exist. It doesn’t need to be an either/or thing. But each of the two Christmases has adherents, a small minority of which are very vocal, a bit snobbish, and suspicious of the motives of the other Christmas.

Some of those in the Christmas #1 camp are offended that the clerk at Target says “Happy Holidays”. It is seen as not just an affront, but part of a greater conspiracy to rid America of its Christian roots. A few who hold this view see a hidden agenda in every component of Christmas #2. They can’t just sit back and enjoy “Elf.” While wearing their "reason for the season" t-shirts, they complain that characters in that film are willing go all out to say they believe in Santa, but will not be so bold in saying they believe in God. They shake their head when they see Hanukkah or Kwanzaa greeting cards at Wal-Mart.

The Christmas #2 folks have some conspiracy theorists, as well, and a few of them arrive at conclusions just as irrational as their counterparts. They protest the inclusion of nativity scenes on public property. They insist that songs like "Silent Night" have no business being in the school program.

Both Christmases have folks who go overboard. On the Christmas #1 side, there’s this from the American Family Association:

It’s a "Naughty vs. Nice" list of which retailers won’t let their ads contain the word “Christmas”, the implication being that real Christians should spend their money elsewhere.

[2010 update; First Baptist Church of Dallas has created a similar site at]

Lost on the AFA and First Baptist leaders is the fact that the stores in the "good" list have their ads full of Santa, elves, etc. There's not a baby Savior to be seen anywhere. Ah, the irony.

(One well-known Christian leader allegedly said that Christians who celebrate Christmas are being “persecuted”. If we could ask 2nd-century Christians who were torn apart by lions what they think of that statement, I wonder what they’d say.)

Christmas #2 people can be just as silly. Some retailers, thinking they are walking on PC eggshells, have renamed Christmas trees to “holiday trees”, a ludicrous over-reaction. Has anyone ever walked out of a store and refused to do business with them because they still call it a “Christmas” tree? I doubt it. Renaming a very traditional item to appease non-existent protesters qualifies as going overboard.

To be fair, most people, while preferring one Christmas or another, are reasonable. They realize that the two Christmases need not divide us as bitterly as the divisions like that between Republicans and Democrats, dog and cat lovers, the Ginger/Mary Ann debate, or the one where the sparks really fly: PC vs. Mac.

This is the state of Christmas in 2009. It's very different from 30 years ago as I was growing up.

What does the future hold? What will Christmas in America look like 30 years from now? Will the two Christmases grow further apart, creating a huge chasm? Will the two Christmases converge?

One thing’s for sure: if we ever get to the point where we stop allowing ourselves to be divided over Christmas, we will find something else. We always do.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Is it our duty to call out businesses for this?

Good news, Christians!  First Baptist Church in Dallas has created a website where you, the average working-class, red-blooded, patriotic, God-fearing American, can tell the world which businesses are naughty, and which are nice.

The basis for such assignments is your assessment of whether or not said businesses are following your idea of an acceptable celebration of Christmas. If there are nativity scenes, references to 8-lb. baby Jesus, or the clerks greet you with "Merry Christmas" (just like the shepherds did in the bible), then they qualify as "nice". But if they say "Happy Holidays", they are clearly tools of the devil and must forever be branded as "naughty".

(Side note: what about the Little Drummer Boy? If a place has him in their decorations, is he naughty, because he's not in the bible? Or is he nice, because he played drums for baby Jesus?)

And once you know if a place is naughty, then...well, I'm not sure what you are supposed to do with that information. I guess you show them the love of Jesus by boycotting them or something. That way, you ensure that good God-fearing Christians like you will be a light on a hill, just like Jesus said. Only you won't, strictly speaking, carry that light into an actual dark place or anything. Because Jesus wouldn't want that.

I hate to state the obvious, but this is a horrible idea for a website. The fact that it's driven by a large evangelical church is mind-boggling. Is the church of Jesus Christ in the business of complaining, or of actually ministering to people? One would think it's the latter. So how is this ministering to anyone?

I don't profess to know all that the world needs, but one thing it doesn't need is more Christians complaining about how unbelievers don't embrace our values. They're unbelievers; what do you expect them to do?  We should all be amazed that they allowed "Merry Christmas" for so many decades!

We are to be a light to those who don't yet believe. Unbelievers need Jesus. They don't need angry Christians being more divisive toward them, perpetuating the stereotype of the hateful Christian. They need Jesus. They need to know your story. They need to know how Jesus changed your life, healed your wounds, restored your marriage, brought back your prodigals, and gave you hope in this life and for eternity.

The Jesus they need to hear about never once complained about how culture was shutting Him out. How in the world can any follower of Jesus think it's OK to do the very thing Jesus never did? 
I am truly saddened, as a believer, by this site and the perceived need to paint a scarlet "N" on those businesses which don't have the "right" kind of decorations. This hurts my heart.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Why Should Marvin Miller Be Honored?

The Baseball Hall of Fame voters turned down Marvin Miller today. In the 1970's, Miller took over the baseball players' union and built it into the most powerful union in the world. Because of him, the worst major leaguers are guaranteed salary ranges in the mid-6 figures, and countless mediocre ones have been able to lock teams into multi-million-dollar deals, driving up ticket prices exponentially in the process.

The Hall of Fame is there to remember the best of the best in baseball, whether they are players, managers, umpires, or those who contributed in some other way. The idea that a union leader, especially this one, should be honored is ludicrous.  In the last half-century, labor unions have done more harm than good in our nation, and have been instrumental (along with numerous other contributing factors) in creating an entitlement mindset among most modern U.S. citizens that is truly saddening.

Some won't like the previous paragraph because they are convinced that unions are all about the little guy. I understand that. But even if your local truckers' or electricians' or auto workers' union does focus on improving the status of hard-working people with normal wages, that's still no reason to honor Miller. His union doesn't fit that description at all. The fruit of Miller's work has been an increase in team revenues and player salaries which goes way beyond the normal rate of inflation. Each team has 25 players on the roster who are doing well because of Marvin Miller, but those teams have hundreds of other employees who haven't seen that kind of windfall. How is that helping the little guy? Is the beer guy or the team office receptionist better off today because of Marvin Miller? Do any of the MLBPA members even acknowledge the existence of the folks who work the hardest in each organization, let alone share any of their bounty with them?

Marvin Miller's legacy is about millionaires arguing with billionaires, as well as the occasional strike. Such a legacy is not worthy of being immortalized in the Hall of Fame.

Disclaimer: I let Google put ads on the right. I never know what they are gonna be ahead of time. I'm often as surprised as you are.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Stevie Johnson let God down....didn't he?


There's lots of talk about Stevie Johnson, the Bills wideout who dropped the game-winning touchdown and then, after the game, tweeted:


I feel bad for the guy. He’s getting mocked across the nation, and some of the criticisms are along the lines of “it’s just a game.” Such criticisms are very ignorant. Catching a ball is what this guy was hired to do. It’s his living. I get upset when things I try to do at my job don’t go well. Doesn’t matter if your job is a plumber, programmer, pastor, doctor, or athlete.

In the case of an athlete, a failure on the job is witnessed by millions of people. To this day, athletes like Leon Lett, Bill Buckner, and Robin Ventura, who should be known for having great careers, are instead known for one bad moment. They’re regarded as failures despite being better at what they do that 99.9% of people who judge their performance and assess their worthiness.

My hope for Johnson is that he will have a game where he does something really well, and alters the way people think about him. And my other hope is that he will see God as He really is.

I have never received a dime for playing sports, but have felt his same frustration when my softball team, or the kids’ baseball team that I coach, has had a heartbreaking loss, a dropped ball, or missed opportunity. In fact, I’ve had it outside of sports, as well. This isn't about money; it's about a guy who had thoughts like we all do, only his went public.

Note: much of this blog post originated in comments I posted on Karen Spears Zacharias' excellent post at

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Book Review: Snow Day, by Billy Coffey

I was alerted to Billy Coffey by a tweet from Karen Spears Zacharias earlier this year. He's a blogger who has a day job and lives in Virginia, and has just published his first book, Snow Day. After reading several of his blog posts, I was intrigued by the book and had meant to purchase it. As it turns out, I won a free copy in a promotion by the publisher. I am under no obligation to give any review, positive or negative, about Snow Day.

Having said that, I'm recommending Snow Day very highly.  This is a story about a man named Peter whose circumstances are similar to that of Mr Coffey (mid-30's, wife and two kids, one with diabetes, factory job), with some differences. In particular, Peter is facing a very tough situation:  an impending layoff in a small town with little in the way of alternatives for him if he should lose his job.

Snow Day takes place in one day: a winter day in which the protagonist decides to take a day off. He spends the day running errands at the store, meeting interesting people, watching local kids sledding, and thinking about people and life in this small town. The gray cloud looming over all these thoughts and encounters is the sobering prospect of joblessness.

There's not a lot of plot to get in the way of the story, and that's a good thing in this case. It's a simple account of one man's thoughts and attempts to keep his chin up as he faces not being able to provide for his family. Along the way, he meets several characters, and learns a lesson from each one. My favorite is chapter 4, where Peter mocks an imperfect toy Santa, only to learn that this world is full of imperfect people, each of whom has value.

If you're up for a nice story which teaches some things without being preachy, and which is hopeful in the midst of hopelessness, I recommend Snow Day.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Elections results

With the recent mid-term elections, I've been hearing a lot about how wrong it is for evangelicals and social-justice Christians to hold to the political right and Left, respectively, as the answer to the nation's problems.

I, too went through a time where I questioned why so many Protestants wrapped up their faith and their politics to the point where the two couldn't be separated. I, too, want to see this stopped, because Christians fighting Christians about whose politics are more Christian is, um, not Christian.

But as much as I love these calls to stop the madness, I don't think it will work. As long as political liberals hold and defend the party line on the two big moral issues (abortion and gay issues), there will always be a backlash from those Christians on the Right.

Like many Christians, I've asked the questions about why these two issues are picked as hot-button topics. In particular, why are conservative Christians so vocal about homosexuality and not other sexual sins? I think there are three answers to this:

1. It's a false supposition: Many evangelical Christians leaders preach just as much about other sexual sins, but nobody is noticing.

2. If right-leaning Christians do focus on one sexual sin over the others, it's because they cannot relate. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul lists several sins that are problematic: witchcraft, fornication, alcoholism, homosexuality. But many Christians are more forgiving when it comes to alcoholism and fornication because they engaged in that behavior in their youth. Most do not have any incidences of homosexuality or witchcraft in their past, so those two sins are elevated. This particular charge against evangelicals is right-on.

3. Homosexuality and abortion are unique in that they are the only sins which have organizations which seek to make them acceptable. Is anyone out there advocating bank robbery as an acceptable way to earn a living? Is anyone lobbying legislatures to legalize murder? Is there a push to get churches to drop the idea that fornication is sin?  No. But there has been a major push over the past 3 decades to make abortion and homosexuality acceptable, both socially and legally. A backlash from conservatives is to be expected. It's not evidence of meanness or intolerance. It's an obvious, predictable reaction from those who hold to a particular worldview. To cast is as intolerance or hate is nothing less than dishonest.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Way Home

Not a lot of phrases these days have the ability to produce extreme reactions in people like "Christian movie".

Think about it: when you read it just now, you either cringed at the memory of past experiences watching lame stories with terrible dialog, or perhaps the phrase filled your heart with warm fuzzies. The former reaction is likely if you saw atrocities like "The Omega Code", and the latter is true for you if you forgave the substandard acting in "Fireproof" or "Facing the Giants" because you agreed with the message.

The good news is, the quality of the post-"Facing the Giants" movies aimed for a primarily Christian audience has been steadily, though slowly, improving. It's not quite up to Hollywood standards yet, but it's getting better.

A recent entry into this field, The Way Home, was recently provided to me for review purposes. The only "stars" are Dean Cain, formerly Superman on ABC's Lois and Clark series, and, in a small but significant role, the guy who played Cletus from "The Dukes of Hazzard."

Despite the lack of A-list actors, and the predictable ending, The Way Home turned out to be pretty good. It won't be an Oscar contender, but it was worth my while.

The story, in a nutshell, is that a family is packing for a vacation, and the toddler takes advantage of his father's momentary inattention and disappears. The police are called, and a search team is formed to comb through the woods near the house.

Particularly uplifting are the various ways in which the community comes together and supports the family, prays for them, and helps in the search. Yes, the ending was a little too warm and fuzzy, but it is a true story, after all.

As much as anything else, The Way Home resembles one of the better episodes of "Touched By an Angel": emotional, heart-warming, and button-pushing.  I give it a solid B.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Thoughts following Game 3 of rangers/Yankees

1. This is a real confidence-builder: The Rangers ran the Yankees' best pitcher out of the game Friday, and outplayed the Yanks for 8 of the 9 innings. The fact that they have now slammed the Yankees for 26 out of 27 innings has to be a real confidence-boost for the Rangers, and has to be causing doubts in the minds of the Yankees players. Don't underestimate the mental side of this game.

2. Feliz's speed in the last AB against Texieria: 98, 98, 99, 100, 98, 99. It's very significant, because it means the batter and pitcher look each other in the eye, and they both understand what kind of pitch is coming. They're daring each other. Even if Feliz had a great breaking ball, it wouldn't have been right, and he knows it, to pitch anything but a fastball. Great way to end it.

3. The toe-to-toe, man-to-man aspect mentioned in #2 above is vital. Tex has been around a while, and can hit a fastball as well as anyone. But for Feliz to take his challenge like that says a lot about his ability to shine when it matters most.

4. Hope this performance in New York doesn't make the Yankees want Lee that much more.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

MLB greed-a Double whammy

Major League Baseball has come in and told the Rangers to tell their tenants--small businesses who rent space in the offices of the Ballpark--that the precedent which has been set for the last 17 seasons is now no longer in effect. They can no longer watch games from their office without purchasing a ticket. At least for the playoffs.

MLB has always had ridiculous rules which come across as greedy. For example, go try to find a clip on Youtube. If you do get lucky enough to find one, bookmark it and come back in a week, and it won't be there. That's because MLB won't let any game footage be shown online, because they want you to view it on the league's website.

A great example of the ridiculousness of MLB's policy is in that article linked to at the beginning of this post. Watch the video, which comes from a news report on local DFW station WFAA. When it gets to the 1:22 mark, the original clip shows some baseball action as part of the news story. But that part is blacked out in this clip because the MLB won't let the news station--reporting a legitimate news story, mind you--show baseball players playing baseball. Because, you know, it might infringe on MLB's copyrighted material. Or something.

Not a lot of things sadden me like greed does. Before money was invented, people found ways to do evil because they wanted more. Eve was convinced by a snake that God was holding out on her. So she and Adam sinned. Later, they had kids, and one was upset that his brother had something he didn't get. So we have history's first murder. Greed is arguably the root cause of most of the world's troubles. Ultimately, the MLB is simply an example of the human condition. The MLB's actions are a symptom, not the problem. But the MLB still has the freedom to make the right choice. Hopefully they'll change their mind.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Love and War--A Review

It's only natural that, after writing about the topics of God's design for men (Wild at Heart), women (Captivating),  spiritual warfare (Waking the Dead), and the parallels between human romance and our relationship with God (The Sacred Romance), it's only logical that John and Stasi Eldredge expound on, and combine, all of those ideas in a book about marriage. Those already familiar with the ministry and writings of both Eldredges will see many similarities in their latest book, Love and War.    But it's not merely the same old regurgitated stuff. Love and War is full of fresh ideas, filtered through the familiar Ransomed Heart framework.

Marriage is perhaps the most covered topic in all of American Christianity. And judging by the way marriage among professing Christians has been getting bludgeoned, it's understandable why.  But Love and War differs from the bulk of marriage-themed books in most Christian bookstores in at least two major ways.

First, there's the transparency of the authors themselves. John and Stasi share their victories, their defeats, their success, their failures, their ups, their downs, their fights, and their sins.  They are open about the topic of sex as it has played out in their marriage. They are open about expectations, and falling short of them. They are open about their pre-marriage pasts, each of them. The authors are open even as they urge the reader to adopt the same kind of transparency. 

Secondly, the authors are not afraid to point out that marriage is hard. Some marriage books will tell you that marriage is hard work. But this is the first I have seen which says, in frank terms, that marriage will, at times, test you, break your heart, confound your expectations, and ultimately drive you to God as the only One who can answer your questions and heal the damage done in the process. Like other Eldredge books, a certain amount of emphasis is given to the topic of past hurts, and the need for healing.

Although I was provided a free copy from Ransomed Heart for review purposes, I am free to say what I want about Love and War. That said, I highly recommend the book for all people who are married, or someday wish to be.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Beyond the door greeter: The most important contribution of Tim Wright

My sons Jacob and Zachary have baseball cards. Hundreds of them. They like to spend time with them, because the cards feed two of their passions: baseball and numbers. They organize and re-organize the cards. They play fictional baseball games, complete with playoffs, with them. Most important, they show the cards off to their friends. Even adults who come over to the house are likely to be introduced to the baseball cards collection by my sons.
I have a friend named Frank. He's retired, and is an expert woodworker. Visitors to his house will be treated to the tour: he loves to show you the gorgeous cherrywood rocking horse, the grandfather clock, and countless other items he has made out of wood. They're all quite beautiful; very impressive. It's Frank's passion, and he loves to share what he has done with others.

For the last 15 years, I have had a friend named Tim Wright. His title was Pastor of Small Groups and Assimilation. We all know what a small group is, but "assimilation" means that Tim did much more than meet you when you first visited Grace Community Church. He got to know you, figure out your experiences, your gifts and talents, and what is most important to you; what really gets you going. Armed with that information, Tim had a knack of finding a place for you to serve. Typically, but not necessarily, within the church, he'd find a ministry that needed someone just like you. If there wasn't one, he'd create it. He was a master at helping you find your place in advancing the Kingdom of God.
Now, here's where it gets most interesting: once he helped you find your place, he liked to brag about you to others. I cannot count the times I'd be sitting in a small group setting, and Tim would ask everyone to go around the room and introduce themselves. You might say your name and your spouse's name, maybe one tidbit of information, but Tim would always interject some ministry you were involved in.
It would go like this:
"Hi, I'm Bob, and this is my wife Kathy, and we've been at grace for 8 years". And Tim would interrupt and say: "You know, folks, Bob and Kathy have been leading a home group for 7 years. It's been really life-giving, and we've seen some great new leaders come out of that group."
A few years ago, Tim got to hire an assistant, Carol. He never introduced her as Carol, though. It was always "This is my awesome assistant, Carol Weideman." Tim introduced people that way because that's how he thought of people.

At the beginning of 2010, when Tim was undergoing treatment for his brain tumor, I read Don Miller's heartfelt tribute to his friend and mentor David Gentiles, who had just died suddenly. In it, he said that the people in Gentiles' life were like his baseball card collection. I knew instantly that God was speaking to me that this was true about Tim Wright. He not only loved to help people excel, to be all that they were made for, but he loved to brag about it. Not to brag in a sinful prideful way, but to rejoice, to enjoy that his life's work was making a difference through so many people. Thankfully, I got a chance in January to share this insight with Tim personally.

By himself, Tim could only impact a few dozen people, but through others, he could impact thousands. And when he saw that people were finding a way to make an impact, he loved to tell others about it. Like Jacob and Zachary and the baseball cards, he showed you and me off to others. Like Frank and the things made of wood, he wanted to display you to the world. Tim took a special kind of satisfaction in watching his friends find their place.

Since Tim passed away, many people have joked that Tim has replaced St Peter as heaven's door greeter. On earth, Tim was great at that initial meeting, but he didn't stop there. He got to know people long after that first day. So my vision of what Tim is doing now is a little different from the door greeter scenario envisioned by others, and it's probably just as biblically sound ;)   In the picture in my mind, he is hanging with his new friends, saints from years past. he has special-ordered some laminated cards, the size of baseball cards, and he has a stack of them. And each card has a person, a friend who Tim helped find and fulfill their purpose in this life. And Tim's pulling out a card, telling his new friends about this person on this card. "Here's my friend James. Let me tell you about him..."

"For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them." Ephesians 2:10

Friday, September 10, 2010

Outlive Your Life--A Book Review

In "Outlive Your Life," author Max Lucado takes the reader on a journey through the book of Acts, painting a picture along the way. A picture which describes the need for all believers to carry out God's work and make their life count for something. Ideally, such work will last beyond the lifetime of the worker. Lucado skillfully uses the history of the beginning of the Church, as told to us in the book of Acts, to teach the reader why helping others in Jesus' name is part of Christian life.

Along the way, he backs up this idea not only with verses, but with statistics and with real-life stories of modern believers who chose to make their lives count by blessing others.

If this sounds familiar, it's because the ground treaded by this book has been covered over and over again. I could not read "Outlive Your Life" without being reminded of "Purpose-Driven Life", "The Hole in Our Gospel", "Don't Waste Your Life", "A Million Miles in a Thousand Years", and "Crazy Love" among others. Many others.

While the message is a great one for anyone who hasn't read those other books, for me it was very familiar stuff. Certainly a worthy topic. But if you have read the books I listed--and chances are you have--you'll realize it's not really telling you anything you haven't already heard before.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, Thomas Nelson, for review purposes.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

You Changed My Life--A Book Review

"You Changed My Life" is Max Lucado's companion piece to "Outlive Your Life". "Outlive your Life" is about the need for Christians to take action by blessing others in their lives. In "You Changed My Life," the author takes the reader into the lives of many people who have done exactly that.

The book's inner flap says it's a gift book intended to be awarded to someone who has made a difference in the life of someone. It consists of several inspiring anecdotes about real people who made a conscious choice to love others in some way. My favorite is "Love Makes a Difference", about Catherine Lawes, wife of a prison warden, who treated prisoners as if they were just as important as she was.

"You Changed my Life", while a companion piece to "Outlive Your Life", would go well alongside other books such as "Crazy Love", by Frances Chan, or "A Million Miles in a Thousand Years", by Donald Miller, in that it doesn't so much preach about spiritual truths as much it personalizes them. Miller says you should make your life into an interesting story, and Lucado tells the stories. Very nice read.

Disclaimer: The publisher furnished me with a copy of this book for review purposes. Check out the Booksneeze program!

Monday, September 06, 2010

Book review: "Permisson to Speak Freely", by Anne Jackson

Anne Jackson's "Permission to Speak Freely" is an astounding piece of work. It’s amazing. In my many previous book reviews, I save my superlatives and only bring them out on rare occasions. But I’m unleashing the floodgates for this one. This book will touch anyone who feels they are or have ever been “damaged goods”, which means just about all of us. I got this book for free from the publisher, but in hindsight, I’d have paid $100 for it. It’s that powerful.

It's divided into 3 parts. The first part consists of Jackson's background story, mostly sad vignettes of how she was betrayed by people in the church. This betrayal was extended in many cases to her other family members, and clearly had a lasting effect on the author.

Part 2 explains her adult life so far, and how she has come to realize some truths about her past. Of all the things she learned, the biggest impact came from the realization that many people in churches everywhere have hurts, secrets, pasts, and things on their heart they want to share but feel they cannot.

And that's where the 3rd part comes in. In it, Jackson describes ways she is encouraging others to come forward, and say those things that are hard to say in church. Among Christians, transparency should be priority one, but in reality, that's not usually the case. She describes "the gift of going second", which is her showing leadership by telling someone something difficult about herself, so they will be more willing to get past their fear of opening up. 

And that's the ultimate goal here: to get people to open up. Because Jesus cannot heal any wound that's still hidden. We have an enemy who likes to work in the dark, and Anne Jackson has discovered the value of exposing things to the light. Only there can we find freedom.

Way to go Anne. You have done good.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Following in the footsteps of Gomer, Jed Clampett, and Barney Fife

As a kid, I watched a lot of TV after school. At that time of day, the choices were soaps, game shows, and reruns of shows which were popular in the 50's & 60's. I typically chose the reruns. The list of shows I liked included Gilligan's Island, I Love Lucy, Lost in Space, and many more.

Five TV shows in this rerun rotation had one thing in common. See if you can tell what that one thing is:

Gomer Pyle
The Andy Griffith Show
The Beverly Hillbillies
Petticoat Junction
Green Acres

That's right: they all featured hillbillies: characters with Southern accents, limited formal education, and a glaring absence of sophistication. When the hicks crossed paths with non-hicks, hilarity ensued. Many laughs were squeezed from the contrast between the hillbillies and "book-smart" people. Of course, the moral of many of the episodes was that the dumb hicks often had more wisdom than the city folks whom they were up against.

Around 2000 years ago, a God-man named Jesus chose to use a dozen guys to get the ball rolling on the greatest movement in the history of the world. A revolution that would put all the rest of them to shame. A message of hope, eternal life, healing, purpose, destiny, and God's love for all people.  

Who were these guys He trusted to start this thing with?  You'd think a bunch of dour-faced, seminary-trained Type-A men who were well-versed in Scripture and prayed 10 hours a day and spoke multiple languages. Guys with first names like Biff or Blake who worked on their thesis while on the Yale rowing team. But instead, He chose hillbillies. Tax collectors. Fishermen. Even the guys who fixed nets used by the fishermen. The only educated one of the bunch was a doctor, which hardly was a qualification for leading this initiative that was about to turn the world upside down.

These guys were the Jethro Bodines, the Gomer Pyles, the Floyd the Barbers. That's who He chose. And like Barney Fife, they shot themselves in the foot a time or two. But God chose these hicks to confront the educated Pharisees and tell them what's what about the Messiah and the real meaning of the Law.

These doofuses were to teach the so-called teachers about how God wanted to bring the message of His love to the Gentiles, the poor, the prostitutes, and even those dastardly Samaritans. The hillbillies got to be the ones who showed the world how Jesus paid their ransom with His death, resurrection and ascension. About how God has work for us to do.

To this day, many supposedly wise people, whether or not they are professing God-followers, look down on the unsophisticated, the uneducated, the people with a shady past. Heck, I know I do. All the time. But modern Christians are following in the footsteps of the 1st-century versions of Jed Clampett and Mr Haney. They don't look like much, but with God equipping them, they did great things.  And so can we.

What does this mean for us in the 21st-century? It means that if we're willing to not worry about looking undignified, God will be able to use us to do something spectacular. It's not just for the "smart" people, or the smooth talkers. Nobody is ineligible. No one.

My new motto: Be a hillbilly; make a difference.

1 Corinthians 1:25-27 
Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong,

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

God's Promises for Girls-Review
Thomas Nelson provided for me the book God's Promises for Girls, by Jack Countryman and Amy Parker.  This is a devotional-type book designed for young girls. My 8-year-old daughter read it with no problem and it seemed to be just right for her reading level.
Beyond readability, of course, is the content of the book, and it's very well done. It divides each day into two pages (one page spread).  For each day, there is one topic (example: Trusting God) and a few verses to meditate on. There is no commentary; just the verses, plus some very nice illustrations.
I highly recommend this book for girls around age 8, give or take a few years. In fact, as an adult male, I found I could get a lot out of this book as well.

Note that there is also a boys' version of the book which I did not review.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Crazy moving story

Ever have an incident so crazy that you say "if someone wrote this as a sitcom script, nobody would believe it!"?  In 1987, I was leaving the army, and experienced that very thing.

I'm getting out of the Army. It's a Thursday. Snowstorm closes the finance office, so I cannot out-process. It's closed Friday, too. Snow melts Saturday, but they're closed on weekends. More snow Sunday night. Monday morning, finance is closed again because of snow.
Monday afternoon, finance opens, they out-process me by 4:30. I load stuff from my barracks into my car. When almost done, I realize I don't have quite enough hands to carry last load, so I leave one item in room. On way back from car, fire alarm goes off. Fire trucks come. I'm prevented from entering building to get my one last item and heading into civilian life.
An hour later, firefighters call it a false alarm, let me in to get that one thing. I load up. It's 6:00. Rush-hour traffic in DC area is always bad, but especially bad today. My car has no heater. After freezing myself in car, in traffic that is basically standing still, I check into hotel, 40 miles from where I started. I finally depart for home Tuesday morning, 5 days after I thought I would.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Rainbows and Other Reminders

Perhaps you can relate to the following scene: I'm driving along, with my kids in the back seat, and suddenly, I spot a rainbow. I make a point of saying something to my sons and daughter, so they won't miss it. "Look, a rainbow!" About the same thing I do with we drive by something else I'd like to point out, like cows or fire trucks.

Only thing is, there is something different about a rainbow, something which separates it from cows and other attractions.

Genesis 9:14-15 "And it shall be, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the rainbow
shall be seen in the cloud. And I will remember My covenant which is between Me and you and every
living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh."

God looked at the destruction, which He had sent as a way of dealing with the sin of the world, and said to Himself that He needed to find another way to deal with it. He would send His only begotten Son, to become a sacrifice for our sin, so that you and I would not have to go through the same kind of destruction that had just been visited upon the world.

The Rainbow is a reminder to you and me of what Jesus did on the Cross. Even though you and I are staring death in the face, because of sin, we've been given a pardon. We've been rescued. When you see a rainbow, think of it as much more than a trick the sunlight plays on airborne water particles. It's there to bring to mind for us Who God is, what He did, and who we are in Him.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Sammy vs. David Lee Roth

20 years after Sammy Hagar replaced David Lee Roth in Van Halen, it occurs to me that I like the Hagar-era songs better. Why? I'm not sure exactly. I have a theory, though. 

When I was single and hanging with other singles, we'd be in a large gathering at someone's house, and there's always that one person who came in and announced him/herself with a shout. Something like "Who's ready to party?" or maybe just a simple "Woohoo!"    People who do that have always been a turnoff to me. 

Now that I think about it, Dave was more like that guy. Always having to draw attention to himself, reminding people how fun it is to have him around. But the songs of the Hagar era were more about the song than the guy singing them. They didn't scream out "see how cool I am!?!" They were just good songs.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Father's Day

I didn't realize, growing up, the cost of not having a relationship with my father. It's only in recent years that the weight of the impact on my life has become evident to me. This new realization comes to me for many reasons. Becoming a dad is the obvious one, but in addition, it's helped that I have read several books which emphasize the importance of a dad. Finally, I've noticed several films where the main character fathers his kids, and the children have an understanding of their father's role that I never did. I have learned of a father's importance by watching dads ranging from good ones, as in "The Pursuit of Happyness," to ones who fell way short, like in "Shine", "The Great Santini", or "Up".

The benefit of gaining this new understanding is that it forces me to pay special attention to my role as father. I'm pretty sure I would have been too self-absorbed to have had a good impact on Abby, Jacob, and Zachary if it hadn't been made known to me how important it is to try to do it right.

It sounds funny now, what with "Wild at Heart" and Promisekeepers and all, but there was a time when fathering wasn't strongly emphasized. When it was mentioned, it was all about passing along good morals. Being a good father meant being a disciplinarian and making your kids call you "sir".  "Spending time" with kids meant that we should take them along with us to the hardware store.

So now I'm nearly a decade into fatherhood, and about that many years into examining my own father and what I had and didn't have with him. He left when I was 4, and I have scant memories of living with him. To be honest, I have no memory of him attempting to father me. In fact, I cannot say to this day that I understand what it means to look to someone as a father figure. I hear others talk of the way they look at their dads, and it's like I'm a blind man and they're explaining the color blue to me.

Back then, the court-ordered duo of child support and custody weren't tightly regulated like they are now, so I didn't see him very often. Maybe 3 or 4 times growing up, and then maybe 6 or 7 times as an adult. I called him by his first name, Randy. It was always cordial; he was nice to me and, by all accounts, was a good guy.

But I never experienced that child-to-father thing, whatever it is supposed to be like. I knew him, but I never knew him. I don't say that in a self-pitying way, and I certainly don't say it with any sort of anger toward him. I think there's something to the command of honoring your father and mother. It's a command that doesn't seem to leave room for exceptions. So there is no anger coming from me to him; I simply didn't know him. Sadly, I will not get to know him: he ended his own life in 2000, so that ship has sailed.

Interestingly, in the last few years, I can point to multiple occasions where God showed me that the absence of an earthly father in my life isn't a total disaster. He did it using, of all things, music and movies. Here are two examples.

1. In "A Knight's Tale", with Heath Ledger, there's a scene where the dad, seeing no opportunities for his son in the poverty-stricken situation they were living in, sent his boy to a farm where he could learn by being someone's apprentice. Father and son didn't see each other again during his childhood. When the dad met his grown son many years later, it was clear that he did the right thing for his son, by letting him be raised in another environment.

In my case, my dad was very unlike me: rural, very outdoorsy, and also (I want to say this without dishonoring, but it's a truth that is integral to this story) he was an alcoholic and, as I recall, had a bit of a temper. If I had been raised with him, who knows how I would have turned out? I'd have to say that alcoholism or some other addiction, or the tendency to be abusive, would be very possible, maybe even probable. It appears to be for the best that I did not grow up with him.

2. A few years ago, I was home on the Friday before Father's Day. I was alone for an hour or two, so I pulled up something on the internet. A singer I really like was about to release his new CD, and it was being offered for listening at a website. One of the songs is called "You Don't know My Love". It's ostensibly by a man wooing a woman, but I could hear God speaking to me, about His love for me. He was saying that although I hadn't always been open to letting Him love me in a father/son sort of way, He still wanted to Father me.

The relevant lyrics:

If you've cried a river
If you doubt your dreams
If you've waited in vain for a phone that won't ring
If you think a promise is something you can't trust
Then you don't know my love

I've been falling, falling
Ever since I met you
Trying to get you to finally see
That no one is ever gonna love you like Me

I was mesmerized when I heard that, and played it over and over again for the next several days. I couldn't get enough of that song. It was clear that God was speaking about pursuing me, telling me to open up and let Him father me. I wish I could say I have done that and my whole life was miraculously changed that day, but the reality is that it's been gradual rather than instantaneous. And that's OK.  I'll get there.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Book Review: Jesus Manifesto

Jesus Manifesto, by Frank Viola and Leonard Sweet, aims to, as the subtitle states, "Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ." It does an admirable job of just that. 

I'm not familiar with the work of either Sweet or Viola, but read this book because it was provided to me by tghe publisher, Thomas Nelson. The writers have turned out something that is impressive, and which has the potential to be a timeless work.

The point of the book is simple: our focus as Christians should be on Jesus. Not causes, not personalities, not politics, and certainly not ourselves. Scriptural proof is offered in the form of Paul's' constant references to his desire to preach Christ.

Key passage: "So many Christians are blissfully unaware of His vastness. They have settled for so much less and have known Him so little.  But...when the people of God get a sighting of their incomparable Lord...every idol will be forced to the ground. The clouds of doubt will part from our eyes, and Jesus Christ will displace everything."

The authors task us, the reader, with (a) learning to see the real Christ; (b) centering the Real Christ in our lives; and (c) proclaiming to others that they must do the same.

I found the book to be challenging on a personal level, and I found that its points were well thought-out and well-defended. I recommend it highly.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Will Jesus Buy Me A Double-Wide? by Karen Spears Zacharias--my review

A few months ago, I was given a free copy of "Will Jesus Buy Me a Double-Wide?", by the author, Karen Spears Zacharias, for participation in a Haiti relief effort. I mention this for two reasons: first, a new law says that bloggers who review a complimentary book must disclose that they didn't pay for it; in this case, it's worth adding that Ms. Zacharias didn't ask me to review the book.

Reason #2 why I mention that the book was a free gift is that, frankly, I most likely wouldn't have read it otherwise. After all, it's about the damage done by the teaching known as the Prosperity Gospel. These days, it seems that we are bombarded with people telling us they are against things. Everyone from Beck to Maher to Limbaugh to Olbermann tells us constantly why they are against something. So this book's main point is that there is one more thing to be against? No, thanks. I'm good.

But when it comes to this book, throw all of that kind of reasoning out. "Double Wide" is wonderful, and is nothing like I imagined it. If I would have skipped it, it would have been my loss.

Rather than lay out an extended theological manifesto, Zacharias simply tells stories of individuals, one per chapter. Real people, living out their lives while influenced, in varying degrees from one end of the spectrum to the other, by the Prosperity/Word of Faith/name-it-claim-it teaching.

Because Luke 6:44 says we are to judge a teaching by its fruit, we are compelled to see how this teaching plays out, and Double Wide offers us a chance to do exactly that.

In one chapter, we see a godly woman's body get ravaged by cancer, an apparent conflict with the word of faith belief that good health is ours if we stay true to God. In another chapter, we see a woman who starts a business, only to see the business blossom; she becomes a millionaire, then proceeds to use her wealth to help orphans in the Ukraine. The former story is simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting, while the latter episode demonstrates what I believe to be more theologically correct: God does in fact bless some people with more wealth than they need, but with the purpose of blessing those who have less. The term I like for this is "The Gospel of Generosity".

If this were a sermon rather than a book review, I could lay out the Gospel of Generosity theology very nicely, with several supporting verses. Zacharias could do the same, but she wisely chooses to tell stories. As many post-2000 authors from John Eldredge (Epic) to Donald Miller (A Million Miles in a Thousand Years) have pointed out, God lays out His truth to us in story form. It's a much more readable, graspable, and ultimately more powerful way to deliver a truth to a reader. And Zacharias does it masterfully.

More than anything I have read this year, I highly recommend this book.  You'll be glad you read it. 

On the outside chance that the author see this: Thanks for the book, Karen.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Book Review: Plan B, by Pete Wilson

Pete Wilson's "Plan B: What do you do when God doesn't show up the way you thought He would?" has a title that is perfectly descriptive, yet had me convinced it wouldn't be terribly interesting. As someone who's been a Christian for many years and heard a lot of sermons, I thought going in that I had this book pegged. And in one way, it does repeat the concepts that have been preached countless times, only because those concepts are based on truths found throughout Scripture. And in fact, the first few chapters lived down to my expectations. Not that the message isn't a valid one, but I simply had no interest in hearing something that is not news to me.

But to my pleasant surprise, the message grew on me, and offered this veteran believer some fresh things to ponder. The message, at its core, is a simple one: in life, stuff happens. Nobody's immune to failure, disappointment, even death or divorce. Things happen in the course of a person's life which take them by surprise, slap them in the face, or knock them down. And as much as the Prosperity Gospel crowd doesn't like to admit it: these things happen to Christians, too.

I'm going to quote a long passage here from page 96, because I think it's very well said:

I'm wondering how different life would be for each one of us if we chose to view our circumstances and our relationships as the gifts they are. What if we viewed our hardships and challenges as opportunities to be the men and women God has created us to be? ...
God is God, and He doesn't owe any of us anything. But He gives us everything including Himself. ...
He does it His own time...with the big picture in mind, with little regard to the way we think it should go. And so often, ...instead of taking away our pain and frustration and confusion in our Plan Bs, He offers us the promise of His presence. But this is not a consolation prize."

For some who are confused about why things are not going as planned, this is a must-read. For those for whom things are going well at the moment, this is worth reading. You never know when the truth contained therein will come in handy. Just knowing He is up to great things can be helpful when life is tough.

Disclaimer: The publisher of this book, Thomas Nelson, provided me with a free copy of Plan B for review. There was no obligation to give a favorable review. I liked this book and I recommend it.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Review of Wild at Heart--10th Anniversary Edition, by John Eldredge

It's hard to believe it's been 10 years since John Eldredge's Wild at Heart was released. Actually, it's more like nine, but who's counting? The book, love it or hate it, has been influential in ways nobody could have imagined upon initial release.  It will be remembered as one of the most important books of our time. Now, Thomas Nelson has released an updated version.

Wild at Heart, with its assertions that God is wild, that feminism has removed from men the most valuable thing they have to offer (their strength), and that women want to be rescued, created a bit of a firestorm almost as soon as it was released. It has been the subject of criticism from Christians and non-Christians alike, banned from some Christian bookstores and even churches. It was blamed for a killing. But on the other hand are those who assert that WAH has been immeasurably influential and healing in the lives of countless men, and by extension, their wives, and their children.

Because of the detractors, it's not a bad idea for Eldredge to take some time to offer clarifications on these and other controversial stances. But Eldredge doesn't just change a few words in the 2010 version. He has also added a new introduction, a new epilogue, and inserted two daily prayers.

For those who haven't read the book, I highly recommend it.   If you have heard of it but chosen to stay clear of it because you heard complaints such as those mentioned above, such claims are unfounded or are based upon distortions and out-of-context quotes from the book.  What Wild at heart is really about is exposing how the Enemy has used a variety of means to take men out. to keep them from being what God made men to be. Yes, there are some points in WAH that I don't agree with (and I could say that about nearly every book I have ever touched), but the essential messages are true, they are powerful, and they are freeing. They are potentially life-changing and marriage-saving, and relationship-restoring.  To me, the most power-packed truths were (a) warnings against asking your wife to validate you; (b) the subtle damage being done in our culture by fatherlessness; (c) the way a lie believed in early childhood can continue to derail a person for decades; (d) the necessity of inviting Jesus to come in and heal our wounds.

Anyone who hasn't read Wild at Heart, and is a man, a mother to a boy, or is married to or wants to be married to a man, or who simply wants to understand your father, needs to read it. It's this well-known for a reason.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Is it catastrophe--or is it beauty?

The Iceland volcano is understandably getting the headlines this week. Mostly, the reporters, journalists, and such are telling us about the results: grounded flights: the economic impact, the Europeans who cannot get home.

While I understand this perspective, I can't help noting that the majority of the things being damaged (essentially planes, trains, and automobiles) are man-made.  If one can suspend their concern for such things for a minute, and look at the event itself, it's quite stunning. I'm not trying to be insensitive to those being adversely affected, but asking all of us to see the incredible event folding before our eyes. Only God could do something like this. Amazing.

Click the photo above to see it full-size. It's breathtaking. Click this link to see the original, as well as many more which will make you want to worship the One who created it all.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Is It Impossible To Come Back to God?
--What's the point of Hebrews 6:4-6?

Hebrews 6:4-6 (NIV)
"It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted of the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subject Him to public disgrace."

Many have read Hebrews 6:4-6 and interpreted it to mean that someone can be saved, choose a sinful life, and then can never recover their salvation. However, a close examination of the surrounding scripture makes it clear that what the author of Hebrews was saying has nothing to do with the impossibility of returning to God.

Is the passage about losing salvation?
Whether or not one can lose salvation is an age-old debate and has caused much dissension within the Church. It is possible to come up with many convincing verses for both sides, if one is willing to read them in a certain light. It is not the intention of this article to try and answer that question once and for all for all mankind. You likely have made up your mind already about this polarizing topic, and it is tangential to the real point of this passage, anyway. The fact is that whether or not you can lose salvation, this passage is about something else entirely.

This passage, like most Scripture outside of the Gospels, goes beyond the issue of salvation. Most of the New Testament is about the fact that once they have become saved, different people have different levels of success in their walk with God. The New Testament consists mostly of letters written by Paul and others to Christians. For the most part, Paul’s letters aim to tell believers, "OK, now that you've begun this journey, here's how to live it." The whole thought process is how to grow as a Christian. Never is there any thought given to the idea of becoming a non-Christian.

Before Paul, of course, there was the Lord Jesus Himself, and many times He made it clear that our heavenly Father wants to take us back if we do stray. One of many examples is the story of the Prodigal Son. This illustrates the point well, because as Jesus tells the story, we see one very important thing: the son never ceases being his father's son. The fact that he is His son tells us that he symbolizes a Christian, a child of God.

The story of the Prodigal son should always be kept in mind when considering the meaning of Hebrews 6:4-6. If that passage truly means that one cannot leave, and then return, to a relationship with the Lord, then the story of the Prodigal son has no place in the Bible, because leaving and return to a relationship with our heavenly Father is exactly what that parable is about.

So what about the word impossible?
So let’s go back to Hebrews 6:4-6. Why does this passage say that it is "impossible" to be brought back to God? The truth is, it doesn’t. The statement is that it is impossible to be brought back to repentance. While it is true that one must repent to become a new Christian, one need not be a new Christian to repent. The key phrase in the NIV is "brought back", but King James and NAS say it is impossible to renew them again.

The question is, who's doing the renewing? It may be impossible for you or me to bring them back, but that doesn't mean that God cannot. This idea of what is "impossible" shows up in the Gospels, when Jesus is talking. Take for example the following verses, which are parallel: Matthew 19:26, Mark 10:27 and Luke 18:27. The Luke verse tells us: "Jesus replied, 'What is impossible with men is possible with God.' " So don't let the word 'impossible' fool you into thinking that this passage in Hebrews means that there is no way a saved person can leave God and come back. It happens all the time, actually. (I’ve done it myself). It is God, working through His Holy Spirit, who brings His lost sheep back.

So what does the passage mean, then?
So if this passage isn’t about the loss of salvation, what is it about? A key to the answer to that question is in the second half of verse 6, which says 'since they again crucify Jesus'. This is where the context is useful. Please take a look at the end of Chapter 5 through the first two verses of Chapter 6. A modern paraphrase might be, "OK, enough talk about the simple issues of salvation; because we could go on and on and talk about resurrection, eternal judgment, the laying on of hands, etc. But there are deeper issues to discuss in order for you to see measurable growth in your Christian walk." It is important to keep in mind who he was writing to. The recipients of this letter were Hebrews (hence the title of the book), a group of folks who had a hard time getting rid of the concept of salvation by works, because it was something they grew up with. The writer is imploring the Hebrews: Jesus paid for your sins with His death, now accept it and move on. Bottom line: this passage is about performance-based Christianity, a line of thought we all need to be careful not to fall into.

Slurpee Example
Let’s look at a modern example: Let's say you and I are driving around on a hot summer day. We decide a cold treat of some sort is in order. We see a 7-11, and we go in and each get a Slurpee. I offer to pay for both.

If that episode played out as I just described it, you most likely would accept my offer as a gesture of friendship and thank me for it, and we would go on about our business. But if you were to accept my free gift and then turn around and try to pay the clerk anyway, even after I had paid, you would be defeating the purpose, nullifying my gift to you.

I would think to myself, "What an idiot I am! I just wasted a buck on this person. Well, I’m sure not paying for that Slurpee again. I already did it once, and it's paid for." This is what that part of verse 6 is saying when it says we are crucifying Jesus all over again. We don't need to get stuck on our works, or on performance, because Jesus has paid for our salvation. It's a done deal. It is finished. Quit trying to pay for your own Slurpee!

The writer says in verse 1, "Therefore, leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, . . . " In other words, let's stop going on about the fact that faith, not works, is what gets you salvation, let's talk about how to grow in Christ now that you have become a child of God.

The frustrating thing for the author of Hebrews is that once these people have accepted salvation as a free gift, some have fallen back into their old ways of thinking that works is what saves you, and that is the “falling away” mentioned in verse 6. The author is warning them (and us) that once someone gets the whole idea of salvation as a free gift, and then blows it off, then that person is going to have a hard time growing in Christ.

Ok, what about getting “burned?”
Verse 8 contains a word which would lead some to think the writer is talking about Hell. The word to which I refer is "burned." The fact is that not every Biblical reference to burning has to do with eternal damnation. I could give several examples, but the one that fits best here is found in 1 Corinthians Chapter 3:12-15:

"Now if any man build upon the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man's work will become evident; for the day will show it, because it is revealed with fire; and the fire itself will test the quality of each man's work. If any man's work which he has built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, as through fire."

Key point being that he is still saved. There are many passages, verses, and phrases about which Christians may disagree, but there is no other way to interpret that past phrase, "but he himself shall be saved . . ." except to say that he is still saved. Here is a clear case of burning being associated with someone who is still saved.

Actually, that set of verses in 1 Corinthians is life-altering when understood clearly. If you want to find out more, I strongly recommend a book by Rick Howard and Jamie Lash called "This Was Your Life." It seems God gave Mr. Howard a dream about the Judgment Seat Of Christ, where all believers will have their works judged, not for salvation purposes, but for rewards. Your can read about it at The portion here which is relevant to our discussion is that the burning in Hebrews 6:8 is not talking about a believer going to Hell because he fell away. It is, however, talking about a believer, which we can see by looking back at verse 5.

Bottom Line
The intended point of the writer of this passage in Hebrews is that those of us who have tasted what the Lord offers should not let ourselves get caught up in the idea that our works are what saves us, because it is a slap in the face of the One who died for us. Rather, we should concentrate on maturing as believers so that we can reflect Him more.

Unfortunately, the whole idea of “Performance Christianity” is more prevalent among Christians than we think. It is true that almost all believers will say that they believe salvation is a free gift, most of us at one time or another still fall into the trap of believing we can get more of God’s love by performing, and that we risk the very existence of our relationship with Him based on our actions.

God doesn’t like our failures, but when we don’t fail, it is because of Him and the abilities that He has put into us that enable us to move forward in our Christian walk. Get out of the trap of worrying about the effect your actions might have on your salvation, thank God daily for His free gift, try to be more and more like Him, and tell others the good news!

Friday, April 09, 2010

The Differences Between People in the Real World and People in TV Land

When a guy asks a girl for a date on TV or a movie, the two of them invariably come to an agreement for him to pick her up at 8:00. When you count the time he will come in for a minute while she finishes getting ready, then their drive to the restaurant, then waiting to get a table, and then waiting for food after ordering, you're looking at maybe getting some food into your gut by 9:00 if you're lucky.

For some reason, when he says "I'll pick you up at Eight", this is acceptable to her. This brings several questions to my mind: Why? Who the heck eats supper at 9:00? Do people in TV Land eat another meal earlier in the evening to tide them over between lunch and supper? Do they call it Lupper?

I don't know about you, but if it gets to 6:00 and I haven't eaten yet, my tummy starts barking at me.

This is just one more of the many differences between people in the real world and the people in TV Land. Others that come to mind:

--People in TV Land never go to the bathroom. Their bladder control is amazing.

--People in TV land never go to church, except for weddings.

--Conversations in TV Land always start with insightful lines, followed by well-thought responses, the kind of responses I always kick myself about, because I think of them several minutes after the opportunity has passed.

--Weddings in TV Land never go on without a hitch.

--The only home PCs in TV Land are laptops.

--Houses in TV Land are never messy

--In TV Land High School, when two students are talking to each other, every other person in the room or hallway is silent.

--Nobody in TV Land has a cat. A few have dogs. Most have no pets, but if they do, it's always an unconventional one, like the monkey on Friends, or the Cockatoo on Barretta.

--When someone wants to pray, they always go to a church, which is always empty except for them, until someone who is looking for them comes and sits in the pew just behind them to talk to them. Praying at home or any other location is not allowed in TV Land.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Book Review: A Hole in Our Gospel, by Richard Stearns

In "A Hole in Our Gospel", Richard Stearns tells his story: a story of leaving a position as CEO of a well-known manufacturer to CEO of World Vision, taking a 75% pay cut and uprooting his family in the process. That story only takes a couple of chapters; the rest of the book proceeds to open the reader's eyes not only to some severe and difficult realities, but to the responsibility of believing Christians to address those realities.

I must confess: about halfway into this book, I was unconvinced. Sure, there is value in helping the poor, but it seemed that Stearns was making a mistake that so many well-meaning Christians make: they work to convince others that their particular passion should be the passion of everyone who claims to follow Christ. By the end of the book, however, the truth is inescapable: we (Christians in America) are the richest church in world history, and we're falling so short of Scriptural directives on this topic that it's heartbreaking.

Stearns makes his case utilizing a combination of Scripture, reason, and compelling stories. It's something that many American Christians simply don't get, and therefore don't act upon: the direct connection between spreading the Gospel and helping the needy.

It's hard to see how anyone who reads "A Hole in Our Gospel" will not be compelled to help. Not only to help, but to make changes in their lifestyle, their spending, and their priorities, in order to meet needs here and abroad.

Perhaps that thought will keep you from reading it, like the old adage of not wanting to know how sausage is made so you can keep eating it. But don't let that stop you. This book is not a guilt trip. It's a challenge to make a difference.

Disclaimer: Thomas Nelson Publishing gave me this book for review purposes, but gives me the freedom to write as positively or negatively as I choose. That said, I highly recommend "A Hole in Our Gospel".

Inexplicable unwritten rules of sports -- #1

One of the more inexplicable unwritten rules of sports is the one that says that when a team is playing for a championship, someone from the team or school must have pre-ordered some caps and/or t-shirts that declares them the champs, and then they will force the players to wear it within 30 seconds after the clock has ticked down to 0:00.

Caps are worse, because you can't recognize the individual players on TV when they wear the cap. But the t-shirts are bad because the losing team has those shirts that nobody will ever wear. Sure, they tell you they donate them to homeless shelters, but have you ever seen a homeless person wearing a "Philadelphia Eagles--Super Bowl XXXIX Champions" t-shirt? Ever?

Sunday, April 04, 2010

The Death, the Resurrection, and Will Ferrell

Today, we celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus. I can't not think of this scene when I think about this day:

Think about Jesus, praying in the Garden, knowing He's about to go through an agonizing death, is about to bear all the sin of the world, and about to be separated from the Father for 3 agonizing days. Jesus prays to Him--the Author of the greatest story ever written--asking if there's another way. But there isn't, so Jesus says "Finish the book. It's a great story. If I have to die so that this story gets written, I will."

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Male Mentors in movies

I'm only recently discovering the powerful affect a mentor can have on a kid when the father is absent, for whatever reason.

Here's my ranking of best movies in which a man takes on a pivotal role in the life of a kid (or kids) not his own:

10. Stand and Deliver;
9. Karate Kid;
8. The Cowboys;
7. Finding Neverland;
6. Dead Poet's Society;
5. Secondhand Lions;
4. Antwone Fisher;
3. Simon Birch;
2. About a Boy;
1. Up

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Top Ten List: My favorite movie heroes

My favorite movie heroes of all time. Listed like this: Character name--actor name--Movie name

10. Neo--Keanu Reeves--The Matrix
9. Maximus--Russell Crowe--Gladiator
8. Simon Birch--Ian Michael Smith--Simon Birch
7. Chris Gardner--Will Smith--The Pursuit of Happyness
6. Jim Braddock--Russell Crowe--Cinderella Man
5. Jean Valjean--Liam Neeson--Les Miserables
4. John Creasy--Denzel Washington--Man on Fire
3. Paul Rusesabagina--Don Cheadle--Hotel Rwanda
2. Atticus Finch--Gregory Peck--To Kill a Mockingbird
1. Oskar Schindler--Liam Neeson--Schindler's List

Note: Jesus--Jim Caviezel--The Passion of the Christ should be #1, but really, He's kind of in a league of His own. My list consists of great heroes, but none of them are on the same level as Jesus. If I listed Him, there would be an insurmountable gap between #1 and #2.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Passed over yet again

The Country Music Hall of Fame just made their annual announcement of new inductees:

--Billy Sherrill (a producer who is a great choice)
--Ferlin Husky (one of those guys who sang in the 50's and nobody who is still alive actually remembers, but whatever)

And two very curious choices:
--Jimmy Dean
--Don Williams

Dean was famous essentially for one song (Big Bad John), and then some acting and building a sausage empire. He is in no way a music legend.

Williams had a nice run of hits in the 70's and 80's. He's a borderline HOF-er, at best; he cranked out hits for several years, but he was not spectacularly popular nor did he have a profound impact. If you want to induct him, fine. But not at the expense of Ronnie Milsap.

I am befuddled why, in the last several years, many lesser talents than Milsap have been placed in the CM HOF. Roy Clark? Emmylou Harris? Vince Gill? Mel Tillis? Are you serious? All are nice artists, and I own a lot of their work, but they are simply not in the same league as Ronnie Milsap.

Let's look at it this way: Choose any criteria for a Hall of Famer, and Milsap is far and above the new (or even recent) inductees. What is the criteria, anyway? Successful sales? Mass appeal? Versatility? Impact? Awards? Quality?

Hits: he has somewhere between 36 and 40 #1's, behind only 3 artists in the history of country music: Strait, Haggard, and Twitty; he has two and a half time as many as Don Williams and about 18 times that of Jimmy Dean.

Or maybe you want to judge on broad-based appeal, because you value the ability to bring country music to a wider audience. That's fine. Milsap has had several hits on the pop charts, including one Top 5 hit on the Hot 100 (There's No Getting Over Me) and the #1 Adult Contemporary hit of the entire year for 1981 (Any Day Now). He started with hits on the R&B/Soul charts in the 1960's, and has had a couple of songs which were big hits in the disco era and got extensive play in dance clubs (Get it Up and Hi-Heel Sneakers). He was the first country artist to have a video break into the regular MTV rotation (She Loves My Car).

Don Williams, by contrast, has one sound. He does it very well, mind you. But there is absolutely no versatility in his body of work. He does two types of songs: toe-tappers (It Must Be Love, Tulsa Time, Heartbeat in the Darkness), and contemplative (every Don Williams song besides those three, but the standouts are "Good Old Boys Like Me" and "I Believe In You").

Can you imagine Don Williams belting out "She Loves My Car"? Can you imagine Jimmy Dean singing "Stranger In My House?

Maybe you just like a guy who has made an impact. Milsap's refusal to be pinned down to one type of music has opened the door to many other artists trying new sounds, and he has influenced many followers who are currently successful artists, including Trace Adkins, Keith Urban, and, in the rock world, The Los Lonely Boys. Does anyone cite Don Williams or Jimmy Dean as an influence?

Do awards impress you? He's got Grammys, ACMs, and CMAs, including the ultimate one: Entertainer of the Year, and several Album of the Year and Male Vocalist trophies.

If you value innovation, then Milsap is king. At a time when country music was full of traditionalists and slick pop crooners, Ronnie Milsap was trying several new sounds, and I'll be the first to admit that not all of it worked well ("I've Got the Music In Me" being Exhibit A), but most of it did. Yet he continued to crank out hits with a traditional country sound when he chose to do so, and he excelled at it ("Don't You Ever Get Tired Of Hurting Me"). He was the first to bring digital recording into country music.

Are you a pedigree person? Milsap was encouraged in his early career by Ray Charles, and then worked with Elvis, J.J. Cale, and T-Bone Walker.

Maybe you're a music snob who sets aside record sales and simply wants quality. Fine. Listen to this all the way through, and I dare you to not be moved. Other examples which don't have Youtube links: His renditions of House of the Rising Sun, and Johnny B Goode, as well as John Hiatt's "Old Habits Are Hard to Break" are as good as anything anyone has done on those tunes.

Look, even though if I'd place Milsap at the top of my list for the CM HOF, I am a reasonable man. There are a few artists who, if they were inducted before Ronnie Milsap, would not get any objection from me. Hank Jr is one. Garth or Kenny, maybe, because of their immense popularity for a short time. Ricky Skaggs, possibly. Perhaps if you want to bring some sorta-country artists in, I could allow for Rondstadt or John Denver.

But I question the country music credentials of any voter who, when faced with a choice between Don Williams and Ronnie Milsap, chooses Williams, let alone Jimmy Dean. It's inexcusable. Those guys don't have anything on Milsap.

I wonder who he ticked off.

Monday, February 08, 2010

The NFL in the 2000's: The Decade of the Lovable Losers

Now that the last NFL season of the first decade of the new century has completed, a look back is warranted, and such a look reveals the theme: This was the decade for the triumph of the perpetual losers.

Before this decade began, the Patriots, Buccaneers, Saints, and Ravens/Browns were known for their losing ways. The Pats had been to the Big Game a couple of times, but fallen short. The Bucs had actually started out by losing their first 22(!) games as a franchise. The Browns had not won a Super Bowl, but had been the victim of The Drive and other heartbreaking defeats. And the Saints,'s simply enough to point out that their nickname was "The Aints", and their fans were famous for wearing paper bags over their heads.

But in this decade, all of these franchises broke through their past failures and won it all. If you wanted to end decades of frustration, this was the decade to do it. It started with the 2000 season, in which the Ravens (the original Cleveland Browns) won Super Bowl XXXV. It ended with the Saints winning Super Bowl XLIV. In all, the Pats, Ravens, Bucs, and Saints accounted for 6 Super Bowl wins for the 2000 thru 2009 seasons.

Note that if we want to bring baseball into this discussion, this was also the decade in which the Red Sox and White Sox won world championships after nearly a century of not quite being good enough.

If only one of these monumental events had occurred, it would have been a major upset on par with a guy like me getting to marry Beth. Well, not quite that unbelievable, but almost. But when it happens this many times in one decade, it's a sign. Of what, I'm not sure. But as a long-suffering Texas Rangers fan, I hope it carries into the new decade.

Verbal pet peeves

Here are a few things that come out of the mouths of well-meaning people, but which drive me nuts:

Time Clock: I work on salary, but many of my co-workers get paid hourly, and must punch in and out. The device they use to clock in is usually referred to as a "time clock". Why is this? Every clock is a time clock!

Literally: I once heard a news reporter say "people here in this small town are literally bursting with pride that this young man from their hometown has won a Gold Medal..." Wait! Did you say that people are literally bursting? Like a whole town is full of exploding people? Shouldn't this be front page news?

Awesome: I also once heard a waitress say that the tortilla soup is "awesome." No, it's not. It might be really good. But save the word "awesome" for God, or a volcano, or the Grand Canyon, or a cure for cancer. Your soup is not awesome. It can't be.

Redundancy phrases:
ATM Machine (because the M stands for Machine)
PIN Number (because the N stands for Number)
VIN Number
Hot Water Heater (it's a water heater, not a hot water heater. Why would you want to heat hot water?)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Teachable Moment: Taking advantage of technology on MLK Day

I didn't want my kids to think of January 18th as just a day off from school. I wanted them to understand the importance. So the night before (Sunday night), I gathered them around the computer, and we viewed 3 short clips.

First, we watched the "I've Been to the Top of the Mountain" speech from the night before he was killed. In only a little over a minute, he delivers one of the most passionate, inspiring orations I have ever heard:

then, I went to Patty Griffin’s song based on that speech:

I paused the song a couple of times to emphasize the following points:

MLK said in his speech that he knew his life might be cut short (as it was just 24 hours later), but he was satisfied just doing God's will. He was convinced that God had asked him to take on this role, and he readily carried out God's calling, knowing it would be painful.

In the song, Griffin sings directly to God, from MLK's perspective, saying that he is doing it "because You asked me to," and being satisfied with God's acceptance and love, even as this calling has meant hardship, rejection, threats, and hatred for him:

"I see nothing at all
Then I hear your sweet voice
Come and then go
Telling me softly
You love me so"

I explained that this wasn't just about race. It was about how God has a calling for each of us, and in many cases, it's hard. It's much easier to do our own thing, but in the long run, we're better off when we accept God's call and walk in the path that God has laid out for us.

Finally, I showed U2’s “Pride”, which is about MLK. I really like this particular clip, because it features news clips relevant to the topic. The kids had not realized that just a short time ago, blacks couldn't go to school with whites, or that they were treated as second-class citizens:

A couple of years ago, I would have laughed at the thought of using video clips from the Internet to educate my kids. But though the tools change, teachable moments never do. The moments need to be recognized as they happen, so we can grab the opportunity and make the most of it.

Thank God for YouTube, an imperfect tool which can be, and often is, used by God for His purposes. Thank God for MLK, an imperfect man, used by God. May we all learn these lessons well.