West, Texas and the Memory of a Song

0417_czech_stop01Last night, the world changed for many people in West, Texas.  Volunteer firemen were attempting to put out a fire at a fertilizer plant when a massive explosion rocked the entire community.  In fact, the shock of that explosion could be felt for miles.  Over 160 people were injured.  Authorities are still trying to determine the number of fatalities.

West is a small town with a population of less than 3,000 people.  It is a favorite stopping place for travelers between Austin and Dallas.  The Czech Stop is known for its kolaches. Many other people travel through this small community and hardly notice it.

Yet, years ago, F. L. Eiland went to West to visit a friend.  Eiland, who was born in 1860, loved music.   In 1898 he established the Southern Development Normal in Waco, Texas. This was a school where one could study theory, harmony, composition, and voice.  Eiland wrote a number of Christian hymns, one of which was composed that day when he traveled to West to visit his friend.

Eiland had been concerned about his friend’s life.  His friend was a Christian who apparently had little regard now for the desires and teachings of Jesus.  Eiland went to his friend’s house in West and tried to encourage him to live in obedience to Jesus again.  The conversation did not go well. Deeply troubled by his friend’s attitude, Eiland went outside to take a break from the conversation.  While sitting outside under a tree, he wrote the words (or perhaps the music) to the hymn “Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand.”

I have always liked the refrain to that song: “Hold to God’s unchanging hand.”  It is a reminder that regardless of what happens in this life, including tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombing and the West explosion, God is constant and faithful.  He is unchanging.

Question:

When have you most needed a reminder that God is unchanging?

 

 

Fear

(I am away on a vacation/study break during the month of July. The posts that appear during the month are from the archives.)

Fear.

It is everywhere! No, I am not talking about the fear of the Lord. Nor am I talking about any sort of healthy fear.

No, I am referring to another kind of fear — an unhealthy fear.

She sat just outside the main doors to our auditorium (sanctuary, worship center, etc.). She was in her late 40s, had alcohol on her breath, and looked as if she had been crying for days. The doors were open and the service was about to begin. She sat in a chair and refused to go in. She said something about not being worthy. She sat in that chair, legs crossed, and rocked.

I knew this woman and some of her family. She was an alcoholic and had lived in much pain and had caused much pain for many years. She had lived a sad life.

Deep within this woman was much fear. She was fearful that God no longer loved her. She was afraid to stop drinking and afraid to continue. She had been hurt deeply by others. She had been through one broken marriage and wondered if she would be loved again.

Learning to Finish What You Start

Many people start. Fewer finish.finish.jpg

Consider what we begin:

  • A marriage begins with a wedding.
  • A student begins an academic program.
  • A homeowner begins a do-it-yourself project remodeling the family’s kitchen.
  • A person begins a blog.
  • A church member takes on and begins a project for the congregation.

Many people begin. Fewer finish.

This past weekend, our family and some friends gathered in the Lloyd Noble Arena at the University of Oklahoma to support our daughter Jamie, as she received her Master of Social Work degree after several hard years of study and work. As you might imagine, I was a very proud father.

I was especially proud that she had finished.

Years ago, I received a Doctor of Ministry degree from Harding Graduate School of Theology. Shortly after graduation, Ken Dye, a longtime friend, said to me:

“You finished! A lot of people start things, but you finished!”

I especially appreciated this because I once came very close to dropping out of college as an undergraduate at the University of North Texas.

I was a first semester junior and was very discouraged. I was struggling in several of my classes. One day, I decided to quit. I cut my classes that day and went to Dallas in search of another direction. I first went to an electronics school and talked with them. Then I went to a school that trained radio announcers. Finally, I went to the Dallas Police Department.

At the police department, I talked with a person about the application process. Then at the end of the conversation, another officer joined us. This officer was an African-American gentleman in his late 40s. He was dressed in plain clothes, a sportcoat and slacks. He sat across the table from me and smoked his pipe. At one point he said,

“Son, if you are interested in this, we will be glad to talk with you. My suggestion to you, however, would be to finish college. Don’t quit now.”

The Sickness Unto Death (Soren Kierkegaard)

Soren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher and theologian. He was born May 5, 1813 and died November 11, 1855. During his lifetime, he wrote a number of books. In 1848, he wrote SicknessUntoDeath.gif The Sickness Unto Death. In the book, Kierkegaard discussed the idea of despair, which he equates to the Christian understanding of sin. Kierkegaard believed that if an individual did not align himself with God or the ways of God, despair would be the result.

Some years ago, a friend gave me a quote from this book that I have kept and read occasionally.

The trouble is not that Christianity is not voiced . . . but that it is voiced in such a way that the majority eventually think it inconsequential . . . . Thus the highest and holiest things make no impact whatsoever, but they are given sound and are listened to as something that now, God knows why, has become routine and habit like so much else.


The 10 Temptations

A few years ago, I asked a friend of mine, “When does temptation ever end?”

I suppose that on one level, it never does end.

Do any of these temptations sound familiar?

  • The temptation to insist upon a soft, risk-free life.
  • The temptation to power. Life is only good when I get my way, whether in my home or at my work.
  • The temptation to say “yes” to whatever might bring me a moment of pleasure. If I have to choose between pleasure or morality, pleasure trumps morality.
  • The temptation to coast. To work the system and to not do anything that might upset this system.
  • The temptation to demand attention. “That’s nothing,” he said, “you should have seen what happened to me.”
  • The temptation to play by different rules. Tell the kids one thing and then do another. Preach one thing to the church and then do another.
  • The temptation to live by fear instead of by faith. Consequently, the fear of what could happen rules your life.
  • The temptation to manipulate instead of love. After all, manipulation allows you to pursue your true agenda.
  • The temptation to flirt with evil. To see evil as simply being naughty instead of the soul eating cancer that it is.
  • The temptation to use God for your purposes instead of loving God for who he is.

You may know what it is like to be tempted to buy something that you really don’t need. After being married for a couple of years, we went to New Orleans for a few days. Neither Charlotte or I had been there before. Money was tight—very tight. So we really had to budget this trip very carefully—what we were going to do, where we were going to stay, etc.

We were walking through the French Quarter one day with all of the other tourists when we were approached by a person who said, “If you would like $50 just go to this address and take a brief tour through a new condominium. Well that sounded great. This sounded like a very easy thing to do. So we walked around the corner and stood in line for this tour.

At the end of the tour, our guide asked us to be seated at a table. I thought, “This is where we get the $50.” Wrong! This was where we listened to this man tell us just how urgent it was that we act today. It was a special deal. On sale. Next week the price will be different. Don’t pass this up.

Not a rental. Not exactly owning a property. No, we were invited to purchase a “Time Share.”

He said, “You aren’t going to pass this up are you?  The price will never be lower.” I wondered, “Are we passing up a deal?” By the time he got through with us, I was really wondering if this was our last chance at one of the all time good deals in life.  

Charlotte and I looked at one another and then said “No.” He looked at us as if we just didn’t get it. He reluctantly handed us $50.

Now I was glad to get that money. However, I kept wondering, “Did we pass up a great opportunity?”  

Maybe temptation is like that.


Question

What temptation would you add to this list of 10?


Are You Worried?

WORRY.JPGSometimes I worry.

 

I don’t think that I live each day in worry.    But — I do know how to worry.  Sometimes I notice that these worries seem to stand in line waiting for me to examine each one.  One by one they parade in front of me, each one of them demanding time, space, and energy.  Each one seems to be clamoring for my attention.  I think about one of these and plan to move on to something else when another worry pops up demanding its own place in my mind.  

 

Does this sound familiar to you?  I suspect it does, at least to some of you.    

I decided one day to write down every worry that I saw in the parade.  I’ve got a list of them.  In front of me at this moment is a "worry list" written in my journal.  My worry list was not difficult to write.  I encourage you to do this sometime.  Just list everything that you see in your parade of worries.

  • Worries related to your children.
  • Worries related to your marriage or other significant relationships.
  • Worries related to your health or the health of people who really matter to you.
  • Worries related to your work.
  • Worries related to your church or your personal ministry.
  • Worries related to your finances.

Now maybe some of these are not in your parade, but I suspect that many of them are.  Write down your worries.  Be brief but specific.

 

The other day I was with a good friend at lunch and he said, "You know fear and faith always point to the future."  He went on to say, "Fear anticipates the future.  So does faith."  Hmmm.  In other words both of these are connected in some way to our view of the future.

 

Then I read Psalm 33.  The author praises God for who he is.  In particular, I like these lines:

 

4 For the word of the LORD is right and true;
       he is faithful in all he does.

5 The LORD loves righteousness and justice;
       the earth is full of his unfailing love.

 

Faithful.  The Lord is faithful.  When everything around me is uncertain, unpredictable, changing, and unstable, God is faithful.  He is like the house in the middle of the hurricane that stands firm while everything else is blown away.  He is like the mighty oak tree.  He is stable, secure, and solid.

 

If I am living in him and he is living in me, my life takes on his stability and security.  I become more and more solid.  All of this is happening because I am holding on to God who is stable, secure, and solid.  My life begins to take on more and more of his character. 

 

Consequently, when my parade of worries begins, I want to focus on the one who is faithful instead of watching the parade.  I want to place my life in his hands.  If I focus on my parade of worries, fear will rule me.  Fear will always paint a bleak picture of the future.  I want to instead put my faith in the faithful one.  I want to put my faith in the Lord who will never leave me or forsake me.  

 

Maybe this will help you today.  Maybe you too have a parade of worries that is demanding your attention.  Keep your eyes focused on the one who is faithful.  Hold on to the one who is your help, shield, and hope. 

 

Psalm 33 closes with these words:

 

20 We wait in hope for the LORD;
       he is our help and our shield.

 21 In him our hearts rejoice,
       for we trust in his holy name.

 22 May your unfailing love rest upon us, O LORD,
       even as we put our hope in you.

Do You Believe in God?

_1In the New York Times Sunday Book Review (October 3, 2008), Garrison Keillor wrote a review of the book Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes.  The review begins with the following paragraph:

 

I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him,” the book begins. Julian Barnes, an atheist turned agnostic, has decided at the age of 62 to address his fear of death — why should an agnostic fear death who has no faith in an afterlife? How can you be frightened of Nothing? On this simple question Barnes has hung an elegant memoir and meditation, a deep seismic tremor of a book that keeps rumbling and grumbling in the mind for weeks thereafter.

 

There is something about that first line that captivates me.  Perhaps it is because this man, who is a self-proclaimed agnostic, seems to want to believe but just doesn’t.  Some of us could say that we do believe in God but at the same time we miss him.  In other words, some of us claim to believe in God, yet we behave as if he is absent and nowhere to be found.

 

Perhaps this is most evident in our prayers.  Some of us pray almost anemic prayers.  We pray but only ask God to do what seems reasonable or normal.  We don’t pray for anything large or incredible because it just seems impossible.  Consequently, our prayers are not God-sized.  In fact, we may find ourselves praying for something that really doesn’t seem to require God’s divine intervention.  In the words of one person, "I’m sure everything is going to work out nicely, but it can’t hurt to pray."

 

Do you relate to this?  Do you find yourself praying for only what seems reasonable or normal?

Having the Nerve to Follow Christ (Part 1)

coffee24.jpgIt takes a lot of nerve to follow Christ.  It takes a lot of nerve to minister to a church and to a community. 

 
No matter who you are and what your vocation might be, if you are going to follow Christ, it will call for courage.  Before the late Edwin Friedman passed away a number of years ago, he had been working on a book entitled A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.  The book is very good and I recommend it highly, particularly to Christian leaders.  However, I love this title!  A failure of nerve.  I suspect that if you have wrestled with fear, as I have at times, you relate to this line.

 
Christians have always struggled with fear, timidity, and cowardice.  Early on in the book of Joshua, God reminds his new leader Joshua: 

". . . As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you or forsake you.  Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them.  Be strong and very courageous.  Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go.  Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it.  Then you will be prosperous and successful.  Have I not commanded you?  Be strong and courageous.  Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go."  (Joshua 1:5b-9)

Courage!  One Christian writer has said that courage is the willingness to say or do the right thing regardless of the cost.  For most of us in the West, the cost comes in the form of mental and emotional pain.  Yet, perhaps such pain really shouldn’t be a surprise to Christ-followers.  After all, the earliest Christians suffered for the sake of his name.

 
Friedman spoke of the danger of being a "peace-monger."  This is the person who often disrupts the Christian who is displaying courage.  This person, according to Friedman, is actually a highly anxious risk avoider.  He described this person as being incapable of taking a stand.  This person functions as if he/she had been "filleted of their backbone."  Such a leader may be nice but spineless.  When a church leader hears the words, "I’ve never heard anyone say anything negative about you," that is not necessarily a compliment.  In fact, such statements may actually feed a person’s addiction to good feelings rather than God-centered progress.

 
What kind of courage is needed by believers in general and Christian leaders in particular?
 

  • The courage to keep your marriage covenant even though the present season of marriage may be far from satisfying.
  • The courage to be faithful to your husband/wife even when you are traveling and are away from home and enticing opportunities for sin appear.
  • The courage to trust God when faced with opportunity to serve and do good instead of yielding to fear and then using your fear to terrify others in the church.
  • The courage to model personal holiness and purity in an R-rated culture.
  • The courage to challenge believers to move toward risk and sacrifice for the kingdom of God instead of ease and a soft, easy, self-indulgent life. 

What evidence of courage do you see among some Christians today?  What evidence do you see that fear has been allowed to rule some Christians?

 
More later. 

Worried and Anxious?

coffee11.jpgI am not sure where you are at the moment.  You may be reading this early in the morning.  Perhaps you are reading these words in the middle of your workday.  You just can’t get that situation out of your mind.  I am talking about that particular situation that really has you concerned.
 

  • Perhaps you are very concerned about your high school age son.  He seems to be drifting farther and farther away.
  • Perhaps your financial situation is weighing on you.  You wonder again and again why you bought that car and then allowed yourself to carry such debt on your credit card.
  • Perhaps you wonder how much longer you will have a job.  You hear rumors at work that make you feel very uncomfortable and insecure about your job.
  • Perhaps you have been betrayed by a friend.  You wonder if you can be close to anyone again.
  • Perhaps you have a family member whose life is spinning out of control.  You wonder how much longer it will take before she finally hits bottom. 

These kinds of situations can become very heavy.  You might wake up in the middle of the night worrying about the situation.  You imagine what life will be like if things continue to get worse.

 
I have found great help and encouragement in the Psalms.  The Psalms often help me shift my focus from the source of my anxiety and fear to the source of all comfort and encouragement.  In particular, I have found it helpful to read these Psalms looking for God.  I look for his name and descriptions of his work or character.  I look for phrases that describe his action or that detail his promises.  In recent years, I will read the Psalms highlighting in yellow everything that in some way says something about God.  When I am doing this, I often pray aloud (if I am where I can do this) that particular Psalm. 

 
Consider Psalm 100.   Consider what this Psalm says about God.
 

  • He is the Lord.
  • He is the object of my joyful and exuberant praise.
  • He is worthy of worship.
  • He will receive my joyful song.
  • He is our creator.
  • He is the one to whom we belong.
  • He has made us "a people."
  • He will receive us as we enter his presence with thanksgiving and praise.
  • He wishes to receive our thanksgiving and the praise of his name.
  • He is good.
  • His love endures forever.
  • His faithfulness continues through all generations. 

Marriage and Following Christ

driveway.jpg
You may have seen the cartoon that showed a father walking his daughter down the
aisle to be married.  They are arm in
arm, and he is holding on to her hand. 
He leaned over and whispered to her: “Okay, I’ll fake a heart attack and
then you run for your life!”  I don’t know
if that is what she had in mind for that moment.  A lot of you probably understand that
cartoon.  It is not that this the
daughter was about to get into something bad.  In fact, marriage is a good thing! 
But—it is a big thing!  Marriage
is something that requires a lot of grace, much forgiveness, and solid
commitment.   It can be very, very difficult. 

 
The great Christian writer Francis de Sales (17th century) was answering a question from
a woman who was contemplating marriage. 
He told her that marriage might be the most difficult ministry she could
undertake.

 
The state of marriage is one that requires more virtue and constancy than any other.  It is a perpetual exercise of mortification….  From this thyme plant,
in spite of the bitter nature of its juice, you may be able to draw and make
the honey of a holy life.
(Quoted in Sacred
Marriage
, Gary Thomas, p. 13)

 
Why is marriage difficult?  There are many reasons that we could
give.  Fundamentally, however, marriage
is difficult for us because every married person has married a sinner.  You married a
sinner, and your spouse did as well.  At the
heart of that truth is the implication that we have a tendency to look after
ourselves and depend on other things instead of God.  There is something in us as broken people who have a tendency to pursue self-interests.

 
This is true no matter how great the person I married is.  No matter how
committed I am.  No matter how much I
love him or her, Yet, God has a way of redeeming our marriages and helping us move toward
Him.  God has a way of redeeming these marriages so that they become relationships characterized by self-giving, service, and love.

 
Let me suggest a few complications for many people today who are Christian people and married.

 

  • Unfortunately, through no fault of their own, many people in churches never had the opportunity to see a healthy marriage up close.  As children, they just never had
    that opportunity.  Fortunately for many, they did have the opportunity to see such a marriage in their church or other family members.
     

  • Some of us are moving so fast and are so busy and overloaded
    that our marriages and families suffer.  I think many people will tell you that marriages erode not because of some dramatic event that occurs at a point in
    time but from months and months of neglect.
  • Some of us see ourselves as spiritual people. 
    Yet, there seems to be a disconnect between our faith and the way
    we behave in these relationships. The husband who loves to hear preaching,
    teach Bible classes or sing hymns but neglects his wife or mistreats her with
    his harshness.

In our own marriage, it took me some years to see that my behavior and attitude toward Charlotte were a part of my ministry as a Christian.  I think I can honestly say that from the time we were first married that I wanted to do the right thing (though of course falling short).  However, it took awhile before I began to see that this was a relationship in which God was forming me to be like Jesus.  (The best book I have read on this is Gary Thomas’ Sacred Marriage.  I’ve read through it several times).

 
Does this connect with you?  If you are married, in what ways has God used your marriage to help you become more like Jesus?  What about the "complications" that were listed.  Do you relate to one or more of these?