The In-Between

Blind Willie Johnson seemed to know early on that his future lay at the crossroads of two vocations. He built a cigar box guitar for himself when he was only five and told his father that proclaiming the things of God to the masses was his desire. He grew to become a preacher, and yes, a bluesman too. The story goes that, when he was seven, his father beat Willie’s unfaithful stepmother; she took bitter revenge by throwing lye in the young boy’s face, permanently blinding him. Throughout the rest of his life, locked in a darkness fashioned by the fury of others, Willie sang songs of God, redemption and a much better future.

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The Hopes and Fears

You likely have those things that, when they come along, you know that Christmas has arrived. Maybe it is a decoration, a specific food, a particular song, or a certain smell in the air—whatever it may be, when it is present, Christmas is here.

For my brother and me, when we were children, it was “The Wish Book.” My mother would bring home that thick catalog full of nothing but toys. My brother and I would sit on the couch together with the book between us. (Legs touching, mind you. None of the usual “He’s on my side!” or “He’s touching me!” The Wish Book Peace Accord brought a temporary cease-fire to the usual sibling rivalry.) And for hours, we would look, page by page, at all the offerings. Dreaming. Wishing. Anticipating. Christmas is a time of anticipation. It is a time of waiting. It is a time of hope.

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Seasons Change

I have seen more loss, grief and death over the last year than any previous year of ministry. With that in mind, consider what follows as an open letter to all of you I have walked with during these last months and also encouragement to those of you whom I may or may not know personally, but still, my heart is with you…

It’s safe to say that there was time when you did not consider you would feel this way at this moment. You didn’t expect to be grieving. You didn’t expect to feel such loss.

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Christmas By the Book

“What do you have planned for Christmas?”

Perhaps others have asked you the same question, and maybe your traditions or your schedule have already determined which relatives’ homes will be visited, what meals will be eaten and when gifts will be opened.

Christmas usually is a season of loading the calendar to the brim with activities and logistics. During this past year, plans have been changed and shuffled so much that it is hard to see few “normal” activities at hand. But whether considering a well-defined course of action or a growing uncertainty, we must not forget that God has plans too. In fact, the first Christmas was his perfect plan played out on a cosmic stage. He knew what he was doing then…and he still does now.

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A Cold Rain and a Killin’ Frost

A frost lay heavy on the ground here this morning. After a longer-than-normal season of blooming plants, short sleeves and green grass, a sudden cold snap arrived. My grandfather would call it a “killin’ frost.” It will likely bring an end to many of the weeds that we combat regularly; ice will clear a field as surely as fire.

Though the seasonal temperatures have begun to drop to the lower ranges, the American church has seen a period of spiritual “hard freezes.” Estimates vary, but the sobering statistics as a whole should not be ignored. 1 in 5 churches may close their doors permanently due to the hardships of COVID-19. 20-30% of those who stopped attending church during the pandemic might not return when in-person services become the norm again. Add to these stressors the heightened negativity and decreasing involvement of some members, and you have a volatile mix at best. Spiritual complacency is more dangerous than a physical virus.

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Great Articles

I came across two articles that were very eye-opening and timely given our current season within American churches…

Five Types of Church Members Who Will Not Return after the Quarantine

If You Can’t be with the Church You Love, Love the Church You’re With

And a great podcast episode to help us understand what must change in our churches…

Five Reasons Why the Speed of Change Must Accelerate in Your Church in the Post-Quarantine Era

Hope Below the Surface

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They are called “hunger stones.”

Lying in certain Central European riverbeds, large stones bear messages chiseled upon them hundreds of years ago…

“If you see me, weep.”

“If you will again see this stone, so you will weep, so shallow was the water in the year 1417.”

“We cried – We cry – And you will cry.” Continue reading

Muddy Water and Changed Hearts

We often miss what we need most because we refuse to see past the surface concerns of our lives. God will orchestrate events and allow pressures to come in order to expose the deeper issues and give us a clearer view of ourselves and our greatest need. Take the Old Testament character Naaman for instance (2 Kings 5:1-14).

Naaman was a great warrior and was held in high esteem, yet he suffered from leprosy. Hearing that a healing by the prophet Elisha might be possible, Naaman made a trip laden with riches to pay for a miracle. Upon arriving, Elisha sent a servant out with the message that Naaman should go wash seven times in the Jordan River, often-muddy and creek-like, for his healing. Continue reading

The Parable of the (Other) Sower

“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”  – Matthew 13:3-9

But another sower watched the annual cycle of sowing and reaping with a sense of disappointment and despair. He saw the patches and stretches of soil where the seed would not grow and concluded that something must be done to ensure growth could take place in every place a seed might land. After gathering a team of other innovation-minded sowers, they began to implement targeted solutions to the perceived problem.

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How the Pandemic Panned Out

As the first stay-at-home mandates spread to our little town, I stood in the living room and looked through the blinds at the neighbor’s lawn across the street. On a pole in the yard a new American flag waved slowly in the spring breeze. Sipping my morning coffee (which mere days earlier would have been enjoyed at the office, but now at home), I stared at that flag and thought about how we were all seeing our nation in that way – through slatted sunlight from our couches as we watched a flattened version of reality on our various screens.

Over the passing weeks, our family did the things that became the norm for many of us… 

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A Paper Wasp, a Stoned Messenger and a Redeeming God

Sweet Pea, one of my mom’s horses, looked on with a placid stare as I growled, hissed and spat in the moments after a large, mahogany-colored paper wasp rammed its stinger into my lower eyelid. I was cleaning out the horse’s trough so I could feed her when the dive-bomb attack occurred. It was sudden, unprovoked and, all things considered, a dirty, sucker punch orchestrated in a brain the size of a pinhead. Continue reading

Lost Dogs, Wrecked Trucks and Hidden Stitches 

The massive dust cloud billowed across the highway as the eighteen-wheeler a short distance ahead of me left the road, plowed through the dry dirt and withered grass, crossed the ditch and buried itself in a pile of recently-cut pine trees.

This changed the tone of the Saturday drive.

Looking back, I am thankful for lost dogs who aren’t really lost.

I’ll explain what I mean soon, but back to the wreck… Continue reading

Two Words

By most standards, he blew it.

He seems to have been a bold one — charging ahead, seemingly without concern, the proverbial bull-in-the-china-shop with his own foot firmly in his mouth. Misspeaking was common, his overstepping of bounds was likely expected, and if one knew him, it seems that his generally-brash demeanor would come as no big surprise. Peter was quick to say exactly what was on his mind at any given moment. But then he went too far, even for himself. Continue reading

The 33 Most-Valuable Leadership Lessons I Have Learned

A while ago at a conference, I sat in a room with a group of other lead pastors. Some carried the unseen scars of many years of ministry; a few still showed a bit of the shine of idealism. The speaker in the breakout session addressed the things we needed to remember in order to make it in the “marathon, not the sprint, of ministry.”

He spoke warmly, sincerely and wisely. He encouraged, challenged and comforted us. As I looked around the room, I saw what I have seen so many times in gatherings of pastors: that worn-out facial expression. I couldn’t help but wonder if I looked as tired as the rest of them did.

When I got home, lying in bed, I stared at the ceiling in the darkened room and thought about what I have learned about being a lead pastor in the last year.

I had recently read an article that gave a very direct and honest list (and one that is perfectly accurate in every respect to my experience. You can find it here.)

Having held various church-related ministries at different churches for over a dozen years (and being involved with multiple other ministries for a decade more), there have been many lessons, but if I had to summarize things and convey them as concisely as I could to a person stepping into a ministry role, what would I say?

Though I know that the list would grow exponentially if I thought about it for any longer (because I already know many more things I could add), for now, I would give these thoughts as a primer I have gathered from moments in my own life and from watching other leaders in ministry. Some of those examples showed great leadership, deep wisdom and God-centered motives, and others I use as a self-test (when I think about possible actions to take, I think back on some of these leaders’ actions and consider what they might do in a given situation…then I do the opposite).

So, in no particular order, and as they come to mind, I humbly offer these hard-won lessons… Continue reading

The Foreword for the Chapters to Come

Over the course of three months, we have seen major changes and upheavals in our world that continue to influence daily life. One thing I keep hearing is the repeated message: “Things can never go back to the way they were before.” Usually, when that statement is made, it is spoken as a negative commentary on all the situations that are filling our feeds and screens currently.

Though none of us could have predicted that a 90-day difference would look like it does today, I would say that we could make that same statement with regard to our lives as followers of Christ: “Things can never go back to the way they were before.” Why can we say that? Because as we follow Jesus – as we cling to the hope we have in him and stay close to him by feasting on scripture – we will find that it is indeed true: we cannot go back; we will be transformed.

I know that a transformed life for Christ is not the intent of the original statement made by politicians and news anchors when they say that “things can never go back to the way they were before.” But no matter how noble-minded or self-serving their intentions may be, neither Congress nor the networks, a million activists or a single person with an axe to grind, will be able to create any positive, eternal change in a human heart by earthly means. That is God’s work.

With this in mind, perhaps the question we must ask as we follow Christ may sound like this: “If I believe that a life with Christ is a transformational experience, how do I see that Jesus has changed me over the last 90 days?” Asking myself that question, I find that God has used this time to show me many things that are of greater value than I once thought they were. He has also revealed that there are many more things that I have held as being of high importance that may be good, but they are not his best. My prayer is that God has taught, led, comforted and transformed you as well.

Situations rage around us as we are still in a hard season, and in the days to come, it might become even harder in some ways. But this is not a close; no, this is an opening. As our country reopens, my prayer is that we who follow Christ will reopen any parts of our hearts that were formerly closed to him as we consider how he has spoken to us over the last three months. The principles we practice here are preparation for what is to come. With that in mind, this is not an end; let’s consider the last 90 days to be a foreword to all our chapters that remain unwritten as of now.

So, as we open this time and step into this new season with Christ, I’d like to offer a prayer for all of us who follow him…

Father,

You are great – great beyond words. Your power is seen throughout all creation. Evidence of your goodness is clear when we look around us. As your people we have prayed, and we continue to do so. We have prayed for your wisdom, guidance, endurance and grace during this season. You have provided, sustained, protected and led us.

In the days to come, hard times will emerge. We’ll have dark nights and long days. Some of us will feel like giving up. Some of us will question why things happen as they do. Some of us will walk through our hours with broken hearts and wounded spirits. But no matter how hard it might be, you will be there as you are “near to the brokenhearted” (Psalm 34:18).

Father, I pray that we would surrender every area of our lives to the rule of Jesus (Romans 12:1-2). I pray that we would hold nothing back from his control, his power and his will for us. I pray that in the days to come that we would know the riches we have in Christ (Ephesians 1:18-19), and we would consider ourselves blessed beyond measure (Ephesians 1:3).

I pray that our prayer lives, both in private and within the church, would grow in passion and in focus – that we would be unsatisfied and weary of half-hearted devotion and routine, distracted approaches to you – so we may know you and your will more clearly and deeply. As we grow in prayer, I pray that we know what it means to walk so closely with Christ that our very thoughts are aligned with yours (Matthew 6:6; 18:19-20, 1 Corinthians 2:14-16).

May we repent quickly (2 Corinthians 6:17), walk with integrity (Hebrews 13:18) and share the gospel boldly (Matthew 28:18-20).

I pray that we will live in such a way that even when the world comes against us, our lives will bear witness to your goodness, grace, strength and love (1 Peter 2:12).

And God, while we are here, may we live by your power, on your mission, for your will, so that when we face you, each of us may hear, “Well done, my good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:23).

I ask all of this in the name of Jesus Christ,

Amen

Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. Colossians 4:2

Justice and Mercy

A writer once compared God to a judge who is sitting on the bench with a condemned sinner before him. As the illustration goes, God looks at this person before him who is lost and says, “I have no choice but to pass sentence upon you. I wish that I could change my mind, but I am bound to my Word.” The sentence is proclaimed, and God tearfully bangs the gavel. The writer related that in situations such as that, God is torn because justice won’t allow him to do what he wants to do; people perish because God holds himself to a standard that he wishes he could change. The only problem with that illustration? It is not a biblical view. God is not at war with himself. God does not regret his standard. God’s mercy and justice are linked without any contradiction.

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Settling Down

Have you noticed how many products you must “shake well” before using? Whether it’s orange juice or stove cleaner, paint or salad dressing, many of our most-common solutions need to be shaken. The reason is simple: the contents settle. When the container is at rest, gravity takes over and the heavier parts of the solution collect on the bottom. A good shaking is needed before use.    

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Just a Scratch

One of my high school biology teachers once took a trip to Australia and told us about a visit to the Great Barrier Reef. Her group went snorkeling and diving around some shelves of coral near the beach. When the group gathered at the end of the afternoon, one of the lifeguards asked, “Did any of you get scratched or scraped by the coral?”

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Righteousness and Justice

God made us in his image. That’s clear from the Bible. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). Now because of that special creation, it is understood that we are to live in a way that “images” God himself; we are not God, but we are to represent him as unique image bearers. As one writer put it, “We are more like God than the rest of creation.”

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Beyond Limits

Since God has put his work into your weak hands, look not for long ease here: You must feel the full weight of your calling: a weak man with a strong God.

– Lady Culross to John Livingston

It was a typical, hot, muggy day when my third-grade class held its annual “Olympics.” For an entire week, during the P.E. period, we competed with one another in various events and, for some reason still unclear to me, I signed up for the high jump.

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Divine Alignment

“You know…that vibration isn’t good. When are you going to do something about it?”

I heard that phrase once from someone riding with me in my vehicle. At highway speeds there was a vibration from the right front of my vehicle that annoyed me (and, yes, anyone riding with me), plus the tires were wearing unevenly. I knew that I needed to have the alignment checked and get new tires.

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Breaking with Reality

A friend once told me of an incident near the end of a road trip when returning from Wyoming. He was the only one awake in the car, and he was driving. Somewhere out in the middle of America, in the dead of night, he had an encounter. He told me that as he topped a hill and began the descent, his headlights fell upon (in his words) “a 30-foot tall Grimace.” The resulting conversation went like this:

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Finger Traps and the Ways of God – Day 81

The first time I laid eyes on one was at a fall carnival when I was six. It was a little, multicolored woven tube in a gift bag I received after a carnival game. My mom showed me how to place my index fingers into the ends of the tube and pull slightly, thus locking them in place. Any effort to extricate my digits by the most-logical means, like pulling them apart, only drew the strips more tightly around my fingers; this is the way the dreaded bamboo finger trap works. I remember trying in vain to free myself as my mother watched bemusedly. No matter how hard I pulled, I couldn’t get loose. 

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Playing Hardball

I saw one for the first time when I was in 4th grade. It was a hardball. I know that we usually use the term “hardball” to differentiate a baseball from a softball, but this was no baseball; it was a true hardball. A kid named Chris brought it to school; he was a guy with crew-cut hair and hands permanently stained from playing in red-clay dirt. A group of us were playing tag when Chris showed up with this thing in his hand. “Who wants to play?” he asked. If I remember correctly, we tried to run away; after all, it was a hardball.

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Before Anyone Else

We jockey for position. We desire to be first in line, take first place and sit in the first chair. We do whatever it takes to get ahead of the next person and make ourselves the priority. But then we read Jesus’ words: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). All things necessary for life and every provision will come from him, but to see those needs met by him, we must put him first.

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Give Up Your Ones

A few years ago, during Wednesday night Children’s Ministry activities at a church where I served, I found one of the children sitting in the back of the room away from all the others. Her knees were drawn up tightly to her chest, and tears streaked her face. I walked over to her, got down on my knees and asked her what was wrong. She gave no response except to cry even harder, sobbing with shoulders heaving. I asked her to take a little walk with me. We left the room, went to the water fountain, and in a bit, she calmed enough to speak.

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Shuffling Toward Glory

Australia’s “Westfield Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon” was a grueling 544-mile test of endurance. In 1983, as the participants gathered and awaited the starting gun, one runner seemed conspicuously out of place. At 61 years old and dressed in overalls and Wellington rubber boots, the potato farmer named Cliff Young bore little resemblance to his highly athletic, properly dressed and corporately sponsored competitors. Other than rounding up sheep on foot, he had no training in long-distance running. Spectators, officials and other participants laughed at the very idea that this man would even consider facing off against an elite group nearing the boundary of superhuman abilities.   

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Only a Test

During my years of teaching, I gave numerous tests. Some of these tests checked basic understanding: listing verb tenses for a particular word, matching definitions to literary terms and labeling cellular structures on a diagram. But most of the tests pushed the students deeper. During any given unit, I would hammer the application of the knowledge in an effort to show the students how to use the information. Knowing the facts is necessary, but applying those ideas is the source of great power. “We teach you to think better,” I would say. It’s a noble idea, but one met often with yawns and rolled eyes.

Until test time…

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Bush Pilots and Stray Cows

Some of the airstrips we fly into are short, sloped, slippery, wet, grass runways at altitude carved out of the side of mountains towering well above 5000 feet above sea level. Many of them are one-way airstrips; which means that there is an abort point beyond which the only way to avoid becoming a statistic is to somehow get the aircraft onto the prepared surface. Many that are not built on slopes are surrounded by tall trees of the dense jungle and are soft, wet and muddy due to frequent heavy rains.

                                                 -Randy Smyth (bush pilot in Papua New Guinea)

Bush pilots who fly into remote locations to deliver supplies and transport missionaries to the field risk life and limb on a daily basis. The pilots relate that the landing is the hardest part. Not only must the pilot set the plane down upon the rough, sometimes rocky terrain of a primitive airstrip, but there are other factors involved. Most-commonly, the problem is an obstacle on the landing strip. In parts of remote Africa, these obstacles tend to be livestock.

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Roots

If you have ever repotted a plant, sometimes you will find that when you pull it from the pot, the entire plant will slip out easily. The roots may be tangled and matted together into a dense, tightly-woven mass. In many cases, the plant will be rootbound. How can you tell if a plant is suffering from this condition? One indication is stunted growth. A secondary indication is if the plant’s container will not give when pressed because the roots have filled up the container completely. A rootbound plant has roots that do not spread out for nutrients but circle the interior of the container until they conform to the shape of the pot.

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Remote Control

Have you ever stopped to count how many remote controls you have in your home? We may not think about them until we can’t find one, and then our reactions my border on panic. We want the remotes out of the way until we need them, but when we want them, we want them immediately. There is something about that semblance of power in wielding a device that allows one to manipulate another device from a distance without wires. We long for control. It doesn’t stop with electronics though. We can sometimes believe that if we can control something or someone, then any potential threat to us will be lessened. All we need is the right “remote” for the person or situation; the power will be harnessed, and all will be well.

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Into the Shallows

I read an account recently about a number of killer whales that mysteriously beached themselves and died. When the marine biologists investigated, they found that the whales were not seeking the larger fish found in the deeper waters but were chasing smaller fish in the shallows. Specifically, they were chasing minnows. They gave their lives running after something small.

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Where’s My Stuff?

World War II ended many years of geographic isolation for some of the inhabitants of certain South Pacific islands. The Allied forces used some of these islands as supply depots; planes would drop cargo from the air via parachute or unload the supplies after landing on temporary airstrips. Natives living on the islands beheld such wonders as Zippo lighters that produced flames from one’s hand, Jeeps roving over the landscape, power tools and machinery leveling trees and moving earth and preserved foods eaten from cans.

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Leaps of Faith

The leaping ability of the African impala is impressive. It can jump to a height of over 10 feet and cover distances of greater than 30 feet. Despite these impressive statistics, an impala can be kept easily in any zoo. It doesn’t take a high fence or a wide moat to hold them captive. They can be kept from jumping with a 3-foot wall. This is due to a particular quirk of this animal: an impala will not jump if it cannot see where its feet will fall.

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Hammer Swings and Enduring Faith – Day 68

“There are some spiritual conditions that cannot be accomplished in a moment. The breaking up of the fallow ground takes time. The frosts of winter are necessary as the rains of spring to prepare the soil for fertility. God has to break our hearts to pieces by the slow process of his discipline, and grind every particle to powder, and then to mellow us and saturate us with his blessed Spirit until we are open for the blessing he has to give us.”

A. B. Simpson

When I was a teacher, one of our students was required to complete a community service project. He chose to repair a broken section of a sidewalk on campus. To pour the fresh cement would require breaking up the old, uneven section. When I showed up to help the team, they handed me a sledgehammer to begin breaking the concrete.

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Leaving Marks

One of the things that I heard often when growing up was the phrase: “That’s going to leave a mark.” I tripped and scraped my knee; “That’s going to leave a mark.” I ran into the barbed-wire fence; “That’s going to leave a mark.” I fell from the top of a tree I had climbed; “That’s going to leave a mark.” And those situations did, in fact, leave their marks. We all have scars from accidents and incidents. We all have marks. But it’s easier to focus on the marks made upon us than it is to focus on the marks we make.

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Knowing God’s Will

A few years, a friend of mine was trying to discover God’s will for her life in a particular area. She asked me to pray that God would give her wisdom and direction. As we talked, I casually asked her, “So, are there any things you are doing in particular to discover his will for you?”

She said, “I’m praying but also just waiting. It seems like God is not answering me at all.” 

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Self-Contained

A biosphere is a group of systems found in nature functioning together as one larger system. Just as the human body contains the circulatory, nervous, skeletal and digestive systems, the earth has geological systems, wind systems and water systems that make up the various parts of the biosphere. Since the earth is the original biosphere, Biosphere 2 was the name given to the attempt to replicate earth’s interlaced systems on a small scale.

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Forgetful Falcons

“But right at the beginning there is something you should know, even if it breaks your heart. For all your long hours, and the physical effort, and the expense, and even your genuine affection for this creature you have come to love…if you leave the cage door open, it will walk out of the door…Because this is the way of all wildlife.”
                  -Katherine McKeever on the keeping of falcons in Quality of Life
 
A few years ago, I went to an Eagle Scout ceremony for one of my former students. All his hard work and outdoor skills culminated in that high honor being conferred upon him. Since it was an Eagle Scout ceremony, another former student, who works for an organization that rescues birds of prey, brought a bald eagle as a special guest.

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Lessons from the Pit

A few years ago, 2:30 a.m. on a Saturday found a couple of buddies and me standing in a hole in the middle of a field with shovels in our hands. The plan was to slow-cook some slabs of pork in the pit for a bar-b-que party that afternoon, but to be ready in time, we had to start early. We lit the fire, spread coals by the light of the moon and the glow of a lantern and placed the meat on the grate. A remote, digital thermometer probe was inserted into the largest piece of meat with an alarm set to sound when the pork reached the target internal temperature.

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Cathedral Builders

Over the last two months, I’ve thought back on some of my favorite stories and touchstone moments. It’s amazing to me how the right example or illustration sticks with you long after the lesson ends. Though it has been retold many times with each teller adding or omitting details and though the original tale is lost to history, this is how I heard it many years ago…

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Horsehair and Hearts

Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith. – Hebrews 10:22

A close walk with Jesus requires a true heart. The word “true” indicates that the heart is matched in both appearance and reality; it is undivided by the competing loyalties which stand against full devotion to God. We might regard the Pharisees in the New Testament as the poster children for a divided heart. Jesus characterized them by quoting from the prophet Isaiah: “These people draw near to me with their mouth, and honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matthew 15:8; Isaiah 29:13).

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Soil Problems

“Keep your milk cartons,” said my fifth-grade teacher one morning before lunch. “Don’t leave any milk in them. Don’t crush them. Don’t poke holes in them with your forks. Just bring them back to the room with you.” After rinsing the inside clean, labeling the side with my name on a piece of masking tape and cutting the top from the carton with my blunt-tipped scissors, my teacher took us outside.

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Essential Unity

Many people are tired during this season. There is potential weariness and potential frustration in any time of waiting. The regulations and standards have disrupted some moments of everyday life, and many states are resuming more normalized activities while others wait for orders to expire or change. Watching and listening to many of the voices in our society reminds me of the moments after a plane lands. Passengers leap to their feet, grab their bags and pack the aisles…only to wait. You can discover much about a person’s heart near the end of a long flight, and you can discover much about a person’s heart near the end of a long struggle. That is why endurance is so important. 

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Victory in Surrender

“Following Jesus is about a relationship, not rules.”

That was the statement made to me years ago when I was teaching on obedience to Christ. When I spoke of humble surrender and spiritual discipline, the knee-jerk response of one person was to label my remarks as being legalistic because he “operated from a place of freedom.”

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Bitterness Below the Surface

Centralia is a town in Eastern Pennsylvania. In the early 1900’s, millions of tons of coal were mined from the region leaving behind an extensive web of excavated mine shafts, some more than 500 feet below the surface. In May 1962, on the outskirts of town, a garbage fire was burning in one of the old strip mine pits. This fire ignited one of the exposed coal seams which, in turn, made its way to the network of mine shafts. Over time, it spread underground until the ground began to seep smoke and fissures opened in roadways.

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Can’t Get No Satisfaction

Whether it’s thick-papered, glossy ads for various products, roadside signs or social media advertisements, products and services promise that we can become (or seem to be) more hip, smarter, of the socially elite, happier, and fulfilled. The question must be asked, “If ‘stuff’ can meet our deepest needs, why do we still want more?”

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Perfect Fit

When Spanish conquistadors marched into Peru in the 1500’s, the land was ruled by the Incas. The Spaniards found Inca walls and foundations built of stones fitted together without the benefit of any mortar. Many of these walls still stand today. Some of the stones used in the construction weigh in at over 100 tons and took hours upon hours of painstaking labor to shape using smaller “hammer” stones to chip away the excess rock on the faces. The edges of a block were shaped so they would match exactly with the contours of an adjoining block. The stones were fitted so carefully that even now it is impossible to insert a razor blade between many of them.

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Divine Appointments

I tend to collect stories. I’ll read or hear accounts that lodge somewhere in my mind, and they resurface at odd moments (those of you who have heard me preach for any length of time know this truth all too well). One of my favorites comes from Gary LaFerla’s book Finding Your Way. In WWII, Elgin Staples was aboard the USS Astoria when it was attacked in the battle for Savo Island in the Pacific. This is the story as LaFerla recounts it:

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Find Your Center

A brief history lesson, if you will…
 
For many years, people held the basic idea that Earth, not the Sun, was at the center of our universe. Ptolemy, a Greek mathematician living in the 2nd century A.D., was the first person to offer a detailed explanation of this theory. His work was accepted as truth; after all, why wouldn’t Earth be the center of all things? This proposed arrangement of the universe is known as the Ptolemaic model: Earth was thought to be in the center, and every other thing (the Sun, the planets, the stars, etc.) moved in orbits around it.

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Cramping Sin’s Style

My father raised bulls at times on our farm when I was young. One in particular hated being confined to a pen, or a pasture, or multiple pastures, for that matter. When he decided that it was time to take a little walk through the fence (and I do mean through the fence), he would do so and then casually stroll wherever he might want to go. Any barrier, whether perceived or real, was seen as a threat to his freedom and would be dealt with accordingly. 

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Limping with Grace

I know I have said it before, but this season has been revealing in many ways. Crisis has a way of showing what we depend upon, where our thoughts go in the midst of struggle and the underlining nature of our fears. After reading a truly great article yesterday (read it here), I was reminded how one thing is being revealed again and again: the lack of grace we often show each other. It surfaces in our world because it lurks within our hearts. We can talk a good talk about grace, mercy and forgiveness, but if we are not careful, gracelessness will creep into our lives and color everything we touch. If we allow the gospel of grace to work fully, it will enlighten every corner of our lives.

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The Best Things I’ve Read on COVID-19 and Church Leadership (so far)

If you are like me, you have likely noticed how everyone has become “armchair epidemiologists” during this season. I have heard church leaders across the nation state that this crisis is “unprecedented,” but then in the next breath declare that they have the perfect response to these new difficulties. No one is a complete expert on this crisis, and the conflicting information and emotional debates will likely continue for years to come.

I am often asked for information on leadership. It’s a topic that I research, write about (click here) and speak on often.

With that in mind, these two articles have been the most helpful to me personally during this season:

https://ftc.co/resource-library/blog-entries/navigating-different-covid-19-recovery-convictions

Church, Don’t Let Coronavirus Divide You

I hope you might find them to be helpful as well.

DCG

The Battle on Your Knees

Engaging in prayer is engaging in battle. Like any powerful weapon, to treat prayer carelessly only increases the danger of the given situation. I might think that I have done all I can because I have prayed, but if I am not praying with power, the words I utter on my knees may give a false sense of assurance that I have truly asked something from God in faith. Over the years, I have discovered some subtle ways that I can become careless with my prayers. 

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Hands on the Truth

According to government statistics, authorities discover counterfeit American bills totaling between $70 million and $200 million every year. With home-production of illegal funds posing such a growing problem with the arrival of advanced copiers and better computer printers, the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing works to continually upgrade the security features of some of the most commonly-counterfeited bills, thus making it much harder for would-be crooks to produce “funny money.” Color-shifting inks, watermarks, raised impressions, micro-printing and security strips increase the uniqueness of American currency. According to the Secret Service, even the paper that bills are printed on cannot be produced legally by an individual. It is of a special composition pressed to a specific thickness and contains tiny red and blue silk fibers (you can see them if you look closely enough).

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White Elephants

“A man is not what he thinks he is, but what he thinks, he is.”
– M.R. Hickerson

The human brain is the most complex biological organ in existence. Containing 100 billion nerve cells, with each one potentially linking with 10,000 other nerve cells, the brain’s capacity for calculations and the speed at which these functions occur is staggering. It is estimated with such a high degree of connectivity, the human brain is capable of 1 quintillion (1 followed by 18 zeros) calculations per second.

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Schooled

In June 1744, members of the Iroquois “Six Nations” and the Lenape tribes met with early American colonial leaders to negotiate the terms of a treaty regarding land. These meetings shaped not only the growth of the colonies, but the suggestions for governmental structure offered by some of the Native Americans influenced the development of our Constitution as well.

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Tear Down That Wall

It was Christmas day, just before I graduated from high school, when I opened a gift from my parents and found inside a small chunk of concrete. Yes, it was concrete (not coal, so I must have been a really bad kid). Alongside the jagged shard was a certificate of authenticity indicating that I was holding a piece of the Berlin Wall.
 
Let’s revisit history for a moment…

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The Unreal Temptation

I once read about a scientific experiment with butterflies. A male butterfly was introduced to an environment with two options present. Option #1 was a living, healthy female butterfly. Option #2 was a huge, cardboard cutout butterfly painted with the same colors as a real female. Enter the male. In repeated tests, the males tended to ignore the real female and try everything in their power to attract the attention of the most obvious, but the most unreal, mate.

I read this and thought, “How easily deceived those insects are. Run after a cardboard butterfly? They must really lack discernment; can’t they tell it’s a fake?!”

And then I thought about myself…What things have I pursued thinking they would bring me fulfillment? What have been the “fakes” in my life? What do I focus upon that draws my attention away from Christ? What’s my cardboard butterfly?

We find the same problem in Israel’s past. When Israel turned from the one, true God to pursue idol worship, God said, “My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn themselves cisterns–broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13).

Israel left the one source of sustenance to run after what seemed better in their eyes and minds. The idols would not satisfy because they could not compare to the “living waters” of God. In fact, the idols couldn’t even “hold water.” Israel came up dry.

There are times when we abandon God’s plan for our own. Our way seems better. “Better” usually means “more comfortable.” But he doesn’t call us to comfort, but to combat (Ephesians 6:10-17). The life that Christ commands us to live is difficult (Matthew 7:14). He calls us to the follow the best way, and usually, it isn’t the most obvious way. It’s seldom the flashiest, the showiest, or even the quickest. But it is real, and it is the only way that we will ever find true fulfillment. God wants us to see past the fakes that pose as a means to peace, joy and fulfillment and set our minds “on the things above, not on things on the earth” (Colossians 3:2).

What’s your cardboard butterfly?

Pray that…

We will place nothing before God. – Exodus 20:3 “You shall have no other gods before me.”

We will cling to God’s steadfast love and forsake all idols. – Jonah 2:8 Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love.

We would be quick to dethrone any idols within our hearts. – Ezekiel 14:3 “Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces.”

Desert Lands and Ivy Roots


“What day is it?” I have heard (and asked) that question repeatedly over the last few weeks. Without normal routines and pat schedules, this season of disruption warps our perception of time. Days blend into other days, and weeks pass without a predictable ebb and flow.

We look at the cancelled events and passing days on the calendar and wonder, “How long?” When time seems to stretch out and creep along at a snail’s pace, we can grow frustrated at our perceived lack of forward movement. But there may be deep work in progress where there is otherwise a lack of obvious activity.

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Rejection and Acceptance – Day 41

“Is that…a diary?”

The words carried an unmistakable mix of disgust and amusement. I glanced to my right at two of my sixth-grade classmates. My mother, knowing my enjoyment of writing, had given me a journal a month earlier for Christmas, and there in study hall, I was about to share my heart on that first, blank page when the question surfaced with sneers. 

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Boat Trips, Dodged Obedience and the Edge of the World – Day 40

Last November, a group of us took a trip to Israel. Later, through a series of sermons, I elaborated on many of the places we visited and the lessons we learned (even though there is no way that I could convey every detail with the richness of being in-country). The sights and landscapes helped put many biblical references into context. Early in our trip, we visited the ancient port city of Joppa where I had a perspective-giving moment.

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Cups

“What would you like to drink?” That is a question we hear often whether at a restaurant, when sitting down for dinner at home or while visiting a hospitable friend. But I have never heard God ask that question.

When God sets a cup before me, he expects me to drink. It may be that he pours a cup of wonderful circumstances, memorable moments or sunny days. But sometimes it is a cup of loss, a cup of sickness or a cup of disappointment. No matter what I may see when I peer over the rim, that cup with my name on it is mean to be drained, whether with a heart swelled with joy unspeakable or through tears unstoppable.

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Season of Sowing

Over the last few weeks of our shelter-in-place / safer-at-home restrictions, I have heard from a number of people who have shared how they are spending their time. Some have gone into a cleaning frenzy that has left no corner untouched. Others have decided to redeem the time by learning a new craft or hobby. Some have gone into exercise mode to avoid gaining the “quarantine fifteen,” and others have resorted to lying on the couch and consuming way too many snack foods. A few people have told me that they have been busy planting during this time. After the frosts passed, they put seeds into the ground and now look forward to the harvest.

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Up by Your Bootstraps

“Sometimes you must ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.’”

That phrase lingers in our vocabulary as a testament to rugged self-reliance and dependence upon no outside force to bring rescue. The idea is that in the midst of the greatest difficulty, the deepest need or the hottest battle, we can lift ourselves from the chaos and plant our feet on solid ground by nothing more than a sheer act of will, gut-level tenacity and good old “know-how.” That is how we use the phrase, “pull oneself up by the bootstraps.” You reach down, take hold of the straps or loops atop your boots and lift yourself up by them.

The problem is that is not what the phrase originally meant. The earliest meaning of this common phrase is “trying to accomplish something despite a lack of power to do so.” You can’t lift yourself off the ground by pulling your own bootstraps. To try and do so would be an exercise in absurdity.

We like to think we are completely self-sufficient, both on an individual basis and as a nation, but all our power is derived power: it comes from outside ourselves. We are utterly dependent upon God, and any strength, power or ability ultimately comes from him.

Even if we affirm our own lack of strength, often we try wrongly to split the division of power between ourselves and God in an attempt to create a false sense of checks-and-balances. We think, “God can handle the 50% of my life that I cannot or that I don’t know that is coming, and I will handle the other 50%. It’s an equal partnership.” A supreme king does not exercise 50% of the power while relying upon his subjects to fill in the gap. An omnipotent God can’t be said to be all-powerful if half his power rests firmly in our hands.

Take prayer, for example. The very reason we pray arises from a clear understanding of our limits. The author Jared Wilson states the idea well: “Prayer is expressed helplessness. When we’re not engaged in prayer, it’s because we feel like ‘we got this.’ The extent to which you are not engaged in prayer is the extent to which you are relying on your own strength.” We don’t pray for our own power to rescue us, but for help to come by way of God’s power. We also must not turn prayer into a plea for partnership that only says, “I have my plans for my life God; bless my efforts so that I may succeed.” When you know your place in God’s plan, you won’t begin with “God, bless my work with success,” but will turn to “God, thank you for your mercy in giving me breath to do your will.”

Life with God begins with a recognition of our utter helplessness, not our inner strength. Reliance upon God alone can be frightening for those who desire to avoid vulnerability and maintain rigid control. It has been said that grace is both a relief and a terror. It’s a relief in that you don’t have to do it all yourself, and it is a terror in that you can’t do it all yourself. This fact is at the very heart of the words of Jesus: “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). The word “nothing” is not a broad-brush exaggeration by Jesus; it is the hard reality of existence.

You will only value God’s faithfulness when you understand your helplessness.

There are no spiritual bootstraps.

Pray that…

We will remember that the purpose of God overrules any of our plans. – Proverbs 19:21 Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.

No matter how strong we consider ourselves to be, we will rest in God’s eternal strength. – Psalm 73:26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

We will give God thanks for providing us with all things. – Acts 17:25 …Nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.

We will embrace the “relief and terror” of God’s grace. – Ephesians 2:8-9 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

Death and the Dairy Cooler

Throughout history, people have used tangible items as reminders of the brevity of life. These are  known as memento mori

The name comes from a practice of the Romans. A slave would accompany a victorious general in his chariot as he rode along in the triumphal celebration. As the crowds cheered the warrior’s return, the slave would stand behind him and whisper, “Memento mori.” The phrase means, “Remember that you must die.” It was a reality check intended to relax the grip of dangerous pride and point toward the passing nature of human glory. It also clearly stated that life is short.

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All About the Timing

“This could not have happened at a worse time!”

That was the phrase I heard from someone recently regarding the COVID-19 crisis. Spring vacations, Easter services, senior proms, high school and college graduations, leadership conferences, business expos, sporting events, family get-togethers – all plans and schedules have fallen under the shadow of this season. We have cancelled, rescheduled, shuffled or postponed events again and again to accommodate ever-shifting requirements and needs. It is very likely that we will face more weeks of much of the same, and we will assess and adapt as many times as necessary.

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Hurting for Christ

For years now, every April, I have participated in Secret Church. This event was created by Dr. David Platt when he was the pastor of The Church at Brook Hills outside Birmingham, Alabama. Platt had visited house churches all over the globe in areas where following Christ was dangerous and, in some cases, deadly. He would meet in secret with leaders of house churches, and together they would study the Bible for hours as Platt taught them principles and truths that they would then take back and share with their small congregations and family units.

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Shake Well Before Use

Before a ship is put into commission, the crew takes it out for its shakedown cruise. They attempt to emulate the worst of all possible circumstances the vessel may face. In short, the crew pushes the ship to its absolute limit to prove it can endure the highest seas, the hottest battle and the grimmest conditions. Not only does this voyage prove the ship, it conditions the crew to function as a unit under stress. Any weaknesses exposed in vessel or crew are corrected. Only then is the ship labelled seaworthy, and more importantly, storm-worthy.

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He Loves You in Silence

It is one of the loudest things you will ever hear. The silence of God. The battle-torn heart-cry rasps your voice, your cheeks grow red, salt-burned with tears, and you raise your face hoping to hear a word — hoping to hear anything at all. But there is only the sound of the blood pulsing in your ears and the rise and fall of your breath marking out the moments of no answers. You likely wrestle at times with God’s silence just many of us who pray to him do. 

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Holy Lingering

In this time of online-only services and virtual small groups, it is easy to have moments of frustration due to slow connections, buffering videos and extra steps to engage with others. No matter the time it might take, it is well worth all extra effort to build community and continue to grow together in Christ.

In a few weeks, things will likely begin to shift toward more face-to-face meetings and a return to gathering in-person. Though we all look forward to that time, I have tried to think about the positives of the last few weeks. Despite the sometimes-negative impact of putting society on hold for the greater good, I have discovered some things that will probably be harder to maintain easily after this season passes. For me, the one that stands out above all is being able to linger in God’s presence without interruption. In the flurry of everyday life, unbroken time to be still before God is more and more of a rarity.

I was sharing this with a pastor friend of mine the other day. He said, “Preaching online is great in some ways because you don’t have to contend with yawns, blank stares and the distraction of people talking during the sermon.”

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Live Big

“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.” – December 1901

As the legend goes, that was the advertisement placed in the Times of London in promotion of Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to the Antarctic at the turn of the 20th century. Numerous men showed up to join him spurred by the promise of risk and the faint possibility of success. On the third expedition, his ship The Endurance was trapped by the sea ice. For 22 months the crew found themselves braving the elements and clinging to meager hopes. This is where the love of honor took them; it carried them to an unexplored land. The chances of survival were small, but their lives were not “small.” They lived “big.” All the men survived.

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Golden Patches and Glorious Wounds

The ancient Japanese art of kintsugi (golden joinery”) is the process of repairing pottery using powdered gold or silver mixed with lacquer to glue the broken pieces back together. A cheap, common bowl becomes a masterpiece when mended with gleaming ribbons of precious metal. As you admire such a piece, you are reminded that the beauty comes at a price: being shattered.

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From High to High

In the area where I grew up, there is a isolated back road that serves as an alternate, straight-line route connecting two counties. I would take this road daily when I was a day commuter at one of the local colleges. At one point along this route, there is a series of rolling hills that climb over a high ridge. The road rises to the crest of the ridge before taking a steep plunge from the highest point called King Hill into a long stretch of bottomland.

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Faithful in Little

bbc.com
bbc.com

The Westminster Clock Tower in London was built in the 1800’s, and has become an international, instantly-recognizable landmark. The tower is often referred to (mistakenly) as “Big Ben,” the name given to the bell within the tower. The faces of the clock stand 180 feet above ground, and each one is 23 feet across. Housed within the structure is a massive pendulum that regulates the clockwork mechanism and maintains the timing and consistency of the movement. This pendulum weighs in at over 660 pounds yet sitting on the top of this weight is a small collection of old English pennies. The small mass added by each penny might seem to be negligible amount, but for each penny removed or added, two-fifths of a second are gained or lost per day.

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Waiting Still

As a child growing up on a farm, there were plenty of opportunities to fix fence, split wood and find lost cows. At times the cattle proved too adept at breaking through or jumping over the fences, so we lengthened posts and installed more levels of rails. One day as my father and I worked on the fence, he came alongside me and showed me what he needed me to do. He measured a section of fencepost, marked it with the point of a 40 penny nail and lifted the heavy end of a plank while pushing it up to the mark on the post.

“All I’m asking you to do is hold it to this mark,” he said. “After I level out the other end and nail it, I’ll come back down here and nail this end.” So I stood there, with my back to his work, staring out into the pasture, holding the plank.

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Seeking the Living Among the Dead – Day 23

The women who arrived at the tomb of Jesus early that Sunday found it empty.

Well, almost empty.

Two angels were waiting for them. Preceding the announcement of the Resurrection of Christ, they asked the women the question, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5).

The question is not just a question for Easter, but it is one to be asked every time we run to anything less than eternal to bring lasting meaning. Too often, the “dead” things of the world are the focus of our pursuits instead of the “living” things offered to us by God.

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Cruel and Common

What’s so good about Good Friday? Click here.

All human history and the balance of the entire universe shifted some two thousand years ago through one cruel and common act on the outskirts of a dusty town in a corner of the Roman Empire.

A crucifixion.

This was a common practice. In 40 BC, two thousand people were executed by the cross in one day. Some historians estimate, in AD 70 alone, two hundred people were killed each day throughout the year by crucifixion. On the surface, one more day of executions did not stand out as anything particularly special.

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He Set His Face

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. – Luke 9:51.

Through times of difficulty, the pursuit of our purpose gives us both the direction and the endurance to continue moving forward. This truth is seen clearly in the movement of Jesus toward his death in Jerusalem. His crucifixion, ordained from eternity past, did not come about as a contingency plan, for God never has an emergency. The death of Christ was agreed upon before creation, long before guilty humanity and a sinful world limped along in a universe gone wrong. Jesus was born for this; the cradle pointed to the cross, and the cross pointed to the tomb.

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The Power of the Air

His name was John Romulus Brinkley, but he called himself “Doctor.” Attending a school that taught non-traditional medicine and receiving a certificate valid in only eight states gave him the supposed right to confer such a title upon himself to lend reputability to his “practice.” In 1923, he began selling his cure-alls via a radio show broadcast beamed from a 1000-watt tower in Milford, Kansas.

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Suspended Faith

I once portrayed Jesus in a Christmas production. I grew my hair out for nearly a year, added extensions and slathered on a fake tan. By the time of the December rehearsals, the look was complete. The show dramatized the teachings and miracles of Jesus as well as his death and resurrection. Onstage, everything was smooth and flowing; backstage was a flurry of activity from propmasters, stage crews, lighting and sound technicians, and a host of makeup and wardrobe volunteers. Near the end of the production, there was one scene requiring a specialized technical team.

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Which is Better?

I was in fifth grade when I first got glasses. Sitting in the optometrist’s chair with the phoropter (the big swing arm device with all the lenses and focus wheels on it) against my face the doctor would ask, “Which is better: one or two?” As he flipped through the lens options, I always felt like I was taking a test that I was going to fail.

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Melt Me, God

“A butterfly comes from a chrysalis; a moth comes from a cocoon.” I remember that from Science class as a kid. But I have discovered the teachers didn’t tell us everything about this topic. A caterpillar encases itself in a chrysalis to become a butterfly, but to go from ground-dwelling to airborne takes some doing. Until recently, I thought it had to be a simple process. Caterpillar goes to sleep, wings sprout, chrysalis pops open, butterfly stretches for a while, then one flap, two, and it takes to the breeze. That’s what I was taught.

Turns out, a caterpillar, well…melts.

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Light Through the Cracks

The Instagram account of one of my friends revealed the downward spiral. She and her husband have been at home with their children for the last three weeks. At first, she was posting creative activities that she had given her children. Smiles abounded. Shots of the kids playing on the lawn came often. Family bonds were strengthened.

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Two Feet from Comfort

At the time, it was the highest and fastest roller coaster in the Southeastern United States. Rising above the city like a giant, green silly straw, The Kumba reached 65 miles per hour in the initial drop and continued into a maze of track wrapped and woven through the trees and walkways in the amusement park. It was the first roller coaster I had ever ridden. I rode it once, went back through the line again, then again. On the third trip, like the previous two, I sat in the same car, but I sat in a seat that had been vacant on the other trips.

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God Honest

Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts, nor measure words, but to pour them all out just as they are, chaff and grain together knowing that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then, with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.

                                                                                        –George Eliot

When was the last time that you talked to somebody else?  Really talked?  About the hard, rough, and bothersome parts of your life? 

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The Possible Impossible

“An impossibility, with God, becomes a glorious impossibility.” -Larry Watson

I remember helping my father set a corner post for a fence once. My brother and I were just little kids, and the post was a section cut from a heavy electrical pole. To sink this post, the required hole was deep and wide. To make matters even more difficult, the section was lying on a flatbed trailer and needed to be moved to the hole and dropped in place.

I looked at the hole, then the giant-sized post, then at my brother and then at my own hands. “This is will not happen,” I thought. My father looked at the pole, then at the hole, then at us. Lowering himself into a crouch beside the trailer, he said, “Roll it off on my back.”

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Dropping Weight

I read an article recently about a man who started on a seven-month, 7000-mile hike. He began along the Pacific Crest Trail (running from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington State) before connecting with the Continental Divide Trail (running along the backbone of the Rockies from Canada to Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico to the Mexican border). The hiker explained how he prepared the supplies that he carried with him in order to reduce overall weight.

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Take Up Your Cross

“Sometimes we must experience a death to our own vision before we can catch a glimpse of God’s perfect plan.”  –Dr. Don Rauniker

“If you knew you that today was your last day on earth, what would you do differently?” I’ve been asked that question at times, and I always tell people that I would want to live the day as well as I try to live out every other day. But I suppose that we would all live differently if we knew with certainty that today was our final day of life. 

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Big Cats and Great Fear

Not all things that make noise beside the path come down the path.
-Traditional African proverb

My grandfather loved to talk the Wampus Cat. We would listen wide-eyed as he wove tales of the massive, mythical, predatory cat. I learned that it’s big: “Once, I heard about a Wampus Cat carrying off an adult cow.” It’s fast: “He can outrun cars, so you can’t get away in one.” And it has some kind of special power over its prey: “If you look at his eyes, he will hypnotize you, your feet will stick to the ground, and you won’t be able to call for help.” As a small child, I had a healthy fear of the Wampus Cat because of the powers it was said to possess, but that wasn’t the most terrifying aspect.

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True Hope

Biblical hope is not wishful thinking, like “hoping” that it doesn’t rain during a baseball game, nor is it the power of positive thought: “think good thoughts and good will come to you.” To say that Biblical hope is either of those things is to make it less than it is. Biblical hope is a confident and favorable expectation of a future reality.

That sounds like a solid definition, but how does that play out in our everyday lives? Glad you asked.

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Hard Reset

A common reality of our digital age is that at certain times a device will require resetting. The problem can lie within the hardware of the device (the actual physical components) or the software (the programs and systems installed on the device). Sometimes the reset requires removing excess data or reinstalling a newer operating system. Often it is as simple as pressing a single button, and other times, an increasingly complex procedure must take place in order to restore the normal operation of the device. A reset may take time and may be disruptive, but when it is needed, nothing else will restore everything to its correct state.

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Tested Hearts

Proverbs 17:3 The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the LORD tests hearts.

1 Peter 1:6-7 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

A man watched a silversmith sitting quietly while he gazed at the molten metal in a crucible. As the flame steadily burned underneath the container, the smith would periodically skim the silver and remove the impurities that floated to the surface.

“When do you know that it is pure?” the man asked the silversmith.

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Togetherness

As COVID-19 spreads across our country, people are social-distancing more and more out of commonsense caution. Because of this, many families are finding that they are spending more time together, and with that comes more opportunities for families to invest in quality time with each other. And, if you are like most people in the modern age, time is at a premium.

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It’s Not Persecution

A few months ago, one of the pastors on our staff and I were talking about the church culture in America. He said, “I think too many times we look at the church as one of multiple options we can engage in on any given Sunday morning. There are plenty of other things people could be doing during that time. Often, we operate as though “the church will always be there,” so we can falsely think that we can occupy that time with other things, knowing that, if we ever have a “real need” to go to church, it’s still there.”

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Who We Are, Not Where We Go – Day 2

Many years ago, a man had grown upset with some things within his church. As a result, he made a choice to disconnect from other members and refused to be a part of any of the church’s gatherings. After a while, on a cold evening, one of the man’s friends knocked on his door. The disgruntled church member eyed him suspiciously and growled, “If you plan to try and convince me to come back, you are wasting your time.”

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Still Moments

Last Sunday, I arrived at our church’s campus a little earlier than I normally do. The parking lot was nearly vacant since we were hosting our service online, and as I stepped out of the car, I was struck by the stillness of the moment. I stood there for a long while, and just thought about everything that has happened in our nation over these weeks. We have seen both concern and panic, legitimate information and unhelpful rumors, public cooperation and partisan bickering. It has been a study of contrasts.

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A Culture of Disconnection

Of all the points of discussion among church leaders in America, one currently tops the list: declining attendance among members. Books and articles explore the various reasons and potential solutions, podcast hosts ask leading experts on church growth about the most-recent statistics and conferences, research firms as well as denominational teams attempt to discover what the future might hold for churches across the nation. This is not an isolated occurrence; it is being felt in the largest of metropolitan churches as well as smaller, rural congregations, and the trend is happening across denominational lines. People attend church less frequently than ever before.

The temptation is to single out one factor and claim that it is the sole reason for the decline, but leading research shows that the problem has multiple roots. Continue reading

Prayer

I have not only been praying for our church that we would become a people of genuine prayer, but I have been asking God to teach me how to pray more intimately and effectively. Many churches and quite a few people are known for prayer that is ceremonial, polished and safe, but what I am referring to is something much more than that; I am speaking of direct and honest communication with the God of all creation.

After reflecting upon it, there are some things that I have learned about prayer that have shaped the way I approach God…

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A Lifetime in Babylon

A friend of mine held a good job and was able to freely make a difference for God in her position, but she was terminated for no apparent reason. The subsequent positions she has held have been less than what she desires and full of difficulty. She knows that she took the original job after much prayer and careful consideration, but the loss has caused her a great deal of pain and confusion. Continue reading

On Crane Flies and Creation

A few days ago, I was leaving the church late in the evening. The temperature had dropped and the rains had passed, leaving a dense, cool fog hanging in the night air. As I walked to the doors leading outside, I noticed multiple crane flies dancing on the glass, trying to get in. The lights inside the building coupled with the warmth coming off the door attracted them, and they were flying about with spindly legs and delicate wings swaying. Continue reading

Supper Club


Last night, my brother, his girlfriend and I had a little meal together. Dubbed “Supper Club,” we enjoyed fresh Maine lobster courtesy of Huckberry (for winning their caption contest on Instagram), bacon-wrapped shrimp, steamed asparagus and homemade mac and cheese. And, of course, plenty of sweet tea.


I retrieved my grandparents’ old kitchen table from storage and set it out in the field where my brother and I played often as kids. That worn table has been host to countless breakfasts of cinnamon toast, biscuits and grits, lunches of fried chicken and black-eyed peas, and now, I suppose we can add lobster to the long list of meals that have graced that simple wood surface.


The meal was one to remember: full of laughter, reminders from our childhood to “sit up straight,” and nature’s own light show. The crickets chimed along as the sky lit up like county fair cotton-candy as summer slipped away once again.


As the darkness fell, and the last plate was brought back inside, my brother looked at me, smiled and said, “Hey, let’s do this again.”
And we will.

The Preeminent Ordinary One 

Head of Christ – Warner Sallman (1940)

I once saw a mural of Jesus in the classic “sitting-on-a-rock-looking-over-Jerusalem-at-night” pose. The first thing I noticed was the way the painter had depicted the face of Christ: he was not attractive at all. In fact, the face was quite unremarkable in every way and quite unlike the “expected” image of Jesus.

Had someone taken the context of the painting away, shown me only the face and asked me to guess who it might be, Jesus would have been low on my list. In all honesty, there was a part of me that felt slightly offended by the way he looked.

There were no chiseled features.

No perfect beard.

No piercing, yet warm, eyes.

He just looked so…regular.

My view of Jesus can be too glamorous.

Certainly he is the King of the universe.

Yes, he is the unique God-man.

And all creation hinges upon him.

But then, I tend to forget about a passage in Isaiah…

For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground;he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not (53:2-3).

Jesus, in his humanity, “had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.

In his appearance, he was unremarkable.

Regular.

Plain.

There was nothing attractive about him.

Why does that unsettle us?

Maybe it is because we have seen so many depictions of Jesus as a beautiful human, and a plain-looking Savior clashes with the artistic precedent in our minds. The expectation of a carefully-tended Messiah was popularized largely by the mass spread of religious artwork in the mid-1900’s and standardized by Warner Sallman’s work, “Head of Christ.” The painting even looks like a celebrity headshot from the 1940’s. But a not-so-handsome Jesus? That idea pushes back against our collective, media-influenced preconception.

Maybe we forget that a God who came as a baby, was born in humble surroundings and labored as a common workman is the same God who would move among the masses for years, unknown and without fanfare, until beginning his redemptive work. And even then, his own family members did not see him as being a candidate for Messiah (Mark 3:21, John 7:5).

But perhaps the deeper reason for the distaste toward an average-looking Jesus lies in Isaiah 53:3…

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief…

Do I want my Jesus to be a regal human?

Yes, I want the human Jesus to be attractive to and accepted by society because he calls me to live as he did, and I don’t want to follow in the footsteps of rejection.

One does not aspire to rise to the example of Jesus, but must die to self and stoop to his example.

Would I have followed Jesus back then?

Would I have dismissed him?

Would I have been put off by his appearance instead of receiving the beauty of his message?

But a more pressing question is this…

Do I avoid following Jesus as closely as I should because I know rejection follows that kind of faithfulness?

BBC computer-generated depiction of Jesus based upon common characteristics of the time

With Him, Beside You

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved–and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. – Ephesians 2:4-7

I forget.

I forget all too easily.

I am His kid. In His presence. Before His throne.

Not only that, He has other children.

People I forget to see that way at times.
People I forget are standing in His light just as I am.
People He calls His beloved.
People in His very presence, vessels of His Spirit.
My seat mates in the heavenly places.

And when I forget that…

I stop acting like His child.
I forget I am His son,
Step away from the light and into my own darkness.
And I treat others like people they are not.

I needed to be reminded of the throne room.

And who I am.

And who others are.

And Who He is.

 

 

Yes

I don’t know what You have for me Lord.

But You have my yes.

I have fought long to view my circumstances through a safe and constricted window with a too-small view of Your eternal grandeur…

Handed my yes over to a thousand other lesser things while holding back my sacrifice at Your altar…

Attempted to fit surrender into my life instead of fitting my life to surrender…

 

Forgive me.

And accept my yes.

 

Whatever You want.

Wherever You want it.

However You want to accomplish Your plan.

Place me in the middle of Your will so that I will be out of Your way.

You have my yes.

 

You say,

“Give me your needs, dreams and hopes. Your well-worn desires and uncertain days in the unknown future. Trust that I see and know.”

Yes.

You say,

“Turn over the painful mistakes, the guilt-riddled, sleepless nights and the weight of past regret. Let My grace be more than enough for you.”

Yes.

You say,

“Surrender every moment, every breath, every heartbeat to Me–the One who gave them all to you.”

 

Yes.

Yes.

Yes.

 

To all I know and all I know not with a whole heart and without reservation.

You have my yes.

I will say what You want me to say.

Go where You send me.

Live and love and lead as You desire and direct and empower.

Your will alone.

You have my yes.

 

As Creator, You made me.

As Redeemer, You bought me.

As Lord, You own me.

As Father, You love me.

 

Being fashioned of clay,

Purchased by blood,

Designed for Your service,

And adopted as Your child,

 

You have my eternal yes.

Encouraged

God corrects, chastens and calls us to obedience, but He never discourages His children.

Since this is true, any discouragement I feel is not from Him.

That is comforting, but there is another side to that idea…

If am being controlled by His Spirit, I will not be discouraging to others.

Becoming

I usually ask God certain questions when I face the unknown…

“What do You want me to do?”

“Where do You want me to go?”

“When do You want me to act?”

Yesterday, He convicted me that I seldom, if ever, ask Him a specific question when I don’t see a clear path ahead…

“Who do You want me to become?”

I can do the right thing in the right place at the right time and still fail to become more like Christ.

I often want Him to inform me, while He desires to transform me.

An Open Letter in Time of Trouble

Dear One,

I know it has been a hard row to hoe for you lately. You didn’t ask for this situation; it dropped into your lap, or more accurately, dropped on you. It’s unfair how you have been treated; no one deserves that. Now you face the darkness and have no idea of when you will see relief. It would be one thing to face this with just yourself to look after, but you have others who depend upon you as well. It keeps you from being as lonely, but adds to the pressure to be brave, to be strong, to offer direction. You grow fearful, restless and uncertain about what lies ahead…

Can I tell you something?

A big God lives in the small you.

With Him, you are…more than a conqueror. Your battle is fierce; He is more fierce.

But that God who answers by fire is also your Father. Let Him love you as only He can. Cry to Him. Tell Him your deepest thoughts, without shame. Let the pain come before Him raw and unrehearsed. Speak aloud those desires of your heart. The fearful ones. The ones you are frightened to voice because they seem so impossible. Yes, He knows them already, even before you speak them, but speak them anyway. Feel the weight of the plea on your lips. Offer those words as a sacrifice to Him. 

Tell Him your sorrow. Let Him meet you in the pain, the hurt, the rejection and the betrayal. He is not indifferent to you. He has not forgotten you. He is near to you, loving toward you and His heart longs to restore your heart.

Rest easy in Him dear one. Even in the darkness of the now, He will be your light.

Dream a Little Dream

“Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”

-Langston Hughes

“Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

-William Butler Yeats

“I’m sick of following my dreams. I’m just going to ask them where they’re goin’, and hook up with them later.”

-Mitch Hedberg

“Never be afraid to share your dreams with the world, because there’s nothing the world loves more than the taste of really sweet dreams.”

-Despair.com

 

Many of our greatest disappointments come down to a matter of expectation and reality, or more accurately, dreams denied a place to take root. Dreams, hopes and desires have no form, no body and no real substance. Hitch them to a goal, and they become one step closer to fulfillment in our minds. Take a goal and a dream, then attach them to a person, a place or a position, and you have the potential for fulfillment of the dream if it is the right thing…or a descent into idolatry if it is the wrong thing.

Often, we hang onto the thoughts and memories of a person, a place or a position not because those people or things are irreplaceable, but because they represent our dreams. When the dating relationship (or the marriage) ends, we watch our future hopes and expectations of intimacy and companionship crumble. When the job changes, we watch as the time and effort we have invested in the hope to move forward in the organization zeroed out. When the place we once enjoyed living proves to be like any other place, we become disillusioned as the desires don’t match with reality. Not to say that things should never change; things always change. But when they do change, often we must adjust our dreams to our “new normal.”

The loss you feel now is a thread that runs throughout all areas of your life. As it is pulled free, you begin to realize just how deeply stitched it is. That person who rejected you has made you feel great pain, but the greater pain may be what has happened to your dreams. Maybe you ended a relationship but now you begin to see how much the other person truly meant to you. The well has run dry, and you are now thirsty. Perhaps you ended up with the person you thought was best, but now you see that he is, like you, a broken individual in need of grace. It could be that the person you cared for so deeply turned out to be something other than she seemed. Her seemingly virtuous exterior and false pursuit of purity hid a dark and perverse spirit. Perhaps the job struggle you face is terrible, but the limping hopes you carry are heavier still. Maybe the place you hoped to be in life that would be the answer to your prayers, the comfort to your soul and the solace for your heart has turned out to be a great deal of really hard work and an unexpected burden to bear. You may lose the person, the position or place and be forced to give up or radically realign your dreams, hopes and desires.

You are not alone.

If you glance around, you will see other people near you wearied by the storms of reality. Everyone has damaged dreams; no one is exempt. They, like you, find themselves on their knees, sifting through the debris, asking hard questions and grieving. As you sort through the damage, you will discover some treasures untouched by the rains and winds. Those closest to you, those secret-sharers with whom you bare your life, they still remain. You dig a little deeper and you find that some of your hopes and dreams are still very much alive. They may be scratched up a little, maybe they could use some drying off or cleaning up, but rest assured, they still live…

And so do you.

As long as there is breath, there is hope.

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” -Proverbs 13:12

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Reflection and Perfection

Years ago, walks through the woods were the norm for my father, my brother and me. We would explore, and Daddy would teach us about types of trees, different kinds of animal tracks and how to recognize poisonous plants.

During one such walk, on an early spring afternoon, we were all making our way up a fairly steep hill covered in a stand of old oaks and maples. I talked to my brother as we moved steadily along. I took a step, but before my foot could fall, I saw my father’s forearm as it caught me across the chest and sent me reeling downhill. I tumbled for a few yards until I managed to stop myself. Continue reading

BTN’s

Been skimming through a book: 10 Proven Steps from I Wish to I Do by Duana C. Welch. It looks at the science behind relationships and why men and women choose the people they do. I came across a chapter entitled, “Flunk Wrong Relationships to Ace the One.”

Good title, so I read it through…

Welch quotes some information by Susan Page. Among her bits of wisdom is this jewel: “The secret to finding love is to clarify what you want and then to pass up everyone who does not fit the bill.” 

But the real meat of the chapter focuses on what Page refers to as “BTN’s.” Continue reading


The promise comes from God.

We embrace it. We are overjoyed. 

And then…

He makes us wait.

And wait.

And wait.

Through silence.

And seasons.

And darkness.

The temptation is the same as that which faced Abraham: make it happen.

That never goes well…for anyone.

So then, we must wait. 

“Wait for the Lord…” Ps. 27:14

Lessons to Learn

Yesterday morning, a close friend of mine and I went fly fishing in the Smoky Mountains. We traveled up a gravel road to some fishing spots we frequented often over the last few years. As we rounded a curve slowly, we looked over to the left at the stream.

Standing on a large, mossy rock, fully outfitted with waders, vest and fly rod, was a man facing upstream. Beside him stood a very young girl with waders and vest and with her hair pulled back under a fishing cap. As the waters murmured and splashed around them, he pointed and leaned down as he spoke to her. A father and daughter.  Continue reading

An Idol Mind

Hi, my name is Dustin…and I am an idolater.

I would like to say “was an idolater,” but I still struggle with it.

Idol.

The very word conjures the image of a primitive people, crouched around a stone image by firelight, incantations and chants rising into the night air. “Those misguided and blind people,” we think. “If only they knew Jesus is enough.”

But then, there are other idols, ones not made of wood and stone, but still just as dangerous and meaningless at the same time. Continue reading

God’s Ball Game, Misplaced Jelly and Being a Baby Again

Early this morning, I came across this transcript buried in some computer files. It was a conversation from years ago, but it left an impact on me. A friend of mine asked if he could come by my office to share some things that he had been pondering. He came to faith in Christ during the Jesus Movement of the 1970’s, and that old bohemian lifestyle still infuses the cadence of his speech and the train of his thoughts. Late one rainy evening, by the warm light of a couple of floor lamps, we sat down to discuss the things that were on his mind. Continue reading