Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Dangling garland, and how God uses things that don't go according to our plan to accomplish a greater purpose

Perhaps the best part about our “Hanging of the Green” service at church last Sunday  night was the garland that wouldn’t hang right. The right side held up just fine, as did the middle. But not the left side. So it dangled for the rest of the service right over middle of the baptistery like an Oregon pickup truck hanging off the highway overpass. 

This was not the way the service was scripted. The garland was supposed to be hanging proudly, not dangling precariously. And right up front and center for everyone to see. We had guests with us; what would they think?

I had thought the best part of the service was seeing all the children come in ringing their bells, singing songs about Jesus and decorating the tree. The thrill and joy of children at Christmas has a way of keeping the season exciting for us older people, too. 

I had thought the best part of the service was hearing different church members read from the Bible about how Jesus came to be the light of the world, and how His arrival in Bethlehem led the angels to burst forth in joyous praise. Everything else is second to the proclamation of the Word of God and the worship of the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us, without whom we wouldn’t have Christmas at all. 

I had thought the best part of the service was listening to Lauren Morrow and Rachel Warren sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Or maybe it was hearing Tiffany Owens sing beautifully the song, “Mary, Did You Know” while her father accompanied her on guitar. Or perhaps it was the choir singing a hymn from their upcoming Christmas cantata, “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.” These and other familiar Christmas carols sung we sang together add rich and meaningful flavor to our Christmas experience. 

I had thought the best part of the service was that Logan Withers didn’t set anything on fire when he lit the advent candle. I had thought the best part of the service was that no youth fell off the ladders while hanging up the wreaths. I had thought that Mike Bennett’s professional-quality reading voice as he explained the meaning of some of the decorations was the best part of the service. I had thought that Chery Stacy’s prep work in getting things in place was the best part. I had thought that the teamwork involved from everyone participating was the best part, or maybe it was the soup and sandwiches and snacks we enjoyed afterward. 

As it turned out, however, the one thing that didn’t go well may have been the best part of all. The morning after the service one of our newer members told me that she knew she really felt at home here when we couldn’t get the evergreen to hang up right. 

So no matter how much we can plan and prepare for everything to go “right,” or at least the way we think it should, maybe it’s okay if it doesn’t. God can still (and often does) use our imperfections to accomplish something our best laid plans never could. 

Having his bride-to-be become pregnant was never in Joseph’s plan (especially since he wasn’t even the father), but that worked out pretty well in the end. Watching Jesus get arrested, beaten and crucified wasn’t in the disciples’ plan for their Messiah, but that worked out pretty well in the end, too. 

We don’t have everything figured out here, either. I certainly don’t anyway. But I am more than willing to let Jesus come and “steal my show,” to borrow a line from TobyMac’s newest CD, which my wife let my listen to all the way through on our trip to visit family last week! “So I’ll step out the way, I’ll give You center stage.” 

And, friend, if you’re wanting to feel at home, please know you’re welcome to come and join a bunch of other people who don’t always get it right, but we’re trusting in the One who does. Lord Jesus, take center stage in our lives this Christmas, and always!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving

Apart from Columbus Day, which happens to also be my birthday, Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays of the year. Thanksgiving’s not glitzy or strangely extravagant like Christmas. It’s not disturbingly eerie like Halloween. It’s not quite the drinking party like New Year’s or St. Patty’s Day. 

Thanksgiving is the holiday where you pack the car and go visit your family. You make sure to bring along your boots and gloves because it might snow. You bring the kids’ latest school pictures to hand out to all the relatives. You bring the TobyMac CD your wife got you for your birthday, even though it’s not really her favorite, so you can listen to it on the way, even though you know that by the fourth song she’s going to nicely ask you to turn the volume down so far you might as well turn it off altogether.

Thanksgiving is the holiday where somebody brings a football so that during halftime of the Cowboys game you can go out in the yard and play catch with the guys. And even though you haven’t warmed up at all you still throw it as far as you can to show them you’ve still got a little something left, knowing all along you’ll pay for it in the morning when you feel like your arm’s about to fall off.

Thanksgiving is the holiday where your wife makes some of her delicious potato casserole and brings it to the family gathering. And you know that Uncle Jim is going to fix some of the best stuffing you’ve ever had, and Grandma’s going to make a pecan pie you’ve been waiting for since last year. You always eat way too much at dinner, but you still go back for more dessert because you didn’t have room on your plate the first time.

Thanksgiving is the holiday where you see the cousins whom you remember being about four like last year now in their first semester of college. You see other children running around who look exactly like your cousin did when she was that age. You wonder where the time went, and you realize that you’re now one of the old people.

Thanksgiving is the holiday where you meet some of your in-laws you’ve never met before, even though you’ve been married for over 19 years. Or maybe you have met them at a family reunion or a funeral but you sure don’t remember them.

Thanksgiving is the holiday where you draw names to see for which relative you’re going to buy a Christmas present. You don’t really have a clue what to get, but you let your wife do the shopping anyway, and when they open the gift you’re just as surprised as they are. They say thank you and you graciously receive their appreciation, but secretly nod and give your wife a thumbs up for being such a good gift giver.

And Thanksgiving is the holiday where you ultimately give thanks to God for being such a good gift giver. You realize that every good and perfect gift comes from Him. And while so often you take His blessings for granted, you’re reminded that surely goodness and mercy has indeed been following you all the days of your life, and the promise of dwelling in the house of the Lord forever is an undeserved, unparalleled gift.  

This will be our fourth Thanksgiving without my Granddad. That doesn’t seem possible either. He was a U.S. Army Veteran of WWII and the Korean War, fiercely and lovingly loyal to his country, his community and his family.

Many times when I’d ask him how he was doing, he would say, “Better than I deserve.” I love that answer. Granddad knew something about grace and gratitude that has taught me to be more thankful. Even when life’s not perfect, God is good. He’s good to imperfect people. His grace has saved a wretch like me. I’m doing far better than I deserve. Those who know Jesus know how true this is.

Happy Thanksgiving, and may we all give thanks to the Lord, for He is good.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Thanking God for His Word

Do you remember as a child singing the song, “The B-I-B-L-E”? We still sing this with our Kids Klub on Wednesday nights sometimes. I think it’s a great song.

It goes: “The B-I-B-L-E / Yes, that’s the book for me / I stand alone on the Word of God / The B-I-B-L-E!” Pretty simple tune, pretty simply lyrics. Maybe that’s why I like it. I’m pretty sure that’s how I learned how to spell the word “Bible” many years ago. But even more, this song gives us a good reminder that God’s Word alone is the foundation upon which we stand and base our hope.

And so, in this season of Thanksgiving, I thank God for giving us His Word.

I praise God for so many other blessings, too. I thank God for a wife who is loving and faithful, manages a pretty ornery household and directs a pretty mean church choir. If you don’t mind I’m going to put a plug in for our Christmas Cantata coming up Sunday, December 16, at 10:45 a.m. We previewed one song for the church this past Sunday and we’re planning another one this coming Sunday night during our 5:00 “Hanging of the Greens” service. If you don’t already attend church, then we invite you to come anytime, but especially on December 16 to hear the choir.

The Bible says in Proverbs 18:22: “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord.” I say Amen, and thank you, Lord, for such a good thing!

I thank God for our two energetic boys. The Lord has given me greater insights into His own fatherly compassion for people as I raise and lead these precious gifts. I’m so not adequate for the job, but by His grace I’m helped. And I’m blessed, and thankful.

I thank God for His church. We’re not perfect, but we belong to the One who is. Christ Jesus is building His church. He’s using some pretty raw material, granted, but He knows what He’s doing, and it’s coming along just fine, thank you. There’s great joy and friendship in the fellowship of the church, and I’m grateful to be a block in the building.

There are so many other blessings for which I’m thankful. I don’t have room enough to begin counting them all here. Okay, I’ll begin anyway, randomly. Loyal and genuine friends. Fellow pastors and ministry partners in the work of the gospel. Creation’s beauty. Small town charm. Big city vibe. Good coffee. Reliable internet access. Old hymns. New worship songs. Chocolate chip pancakes and bacon for dinner.

And the list could go on and on. But central to my gratitude for all these joys in life is the Word of God. The Bible is universal, unchanging truth in world of constant change and chaos. God’s Word informs my understanding of His character and His ways. The Bible reveals God’s goodness and mercy, His promises and provision, His faithfulness and His love. God’s Word shows us the pathway to the storehouse of God’s richest blessings, and all who walk in it find the way of abundant and eternal life.

The Bible tells the story of Jesus, God’s salvation offered to mankind to those who believe in Him as Savior and Lord. And therein lies hope for the hopeless, joy to the downtrodden, peace to the burdened and rest to the weary. In Jesus we find comfort for the afflicted, healing for the broken, redemption for the wayward and love for the outcast.

In Jesus there is forgiveness for all our sins, past, present and future. In Jesus there is victory over sin and death and hell. In Jesus there is the assurance of everlasting life, the promise of dwelling forever and ever in that place where, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

I thank God for His Word that gives me this blessed assurance in Christ. Yes, the Bible is the book for me. I stand alone on the Word of God, the B-I-B-L-E.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Whatever the outcome may be...

Unless there’s a hanging chad issue or hurricane Sandy has wrecked the voting system, our nation will today elect the one who will lead us for the next four years. Either way, half of the country will be optimistic things will get better while the other half will be sure things can only get worse.

Whoever our next President is, he has been appointed to that office by Almighty God. And whoever it is, we all need to pray long and often for him, and we all need to submit ourselves to and honor the governing authorities.

Appointed by God, did you say, pastor? Yes, I know how the democratic process works. You vote and the guy with the most votes wins. Maybe. Except for that whole electoral college thing, which may mean the guy with the most votes didn’t win. So if we the people are the ones voting, how is it that God appoints a person to such a position?

Here’s how the Bible answers that question in Romans 13:1-2: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

The real authority above all authorities, then, belongs to God alone. Apart from His sovereign purposes and divine wisdom, no king on earth has ever reigned.

Sometimes those authorities God institutes among nations are good and upright men who bring a blessing to the nation. Other times God institutes evil rulers to bring a means of trial or judgment against a people.

Even the Egyptian Pharaoh who enslaved and cruelly oppressed the Israelites was a man whom God appointed. “But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exodus 9:16). Pharaoh was an evil ruler whom God raised up and used for a greater purpose.

You may also remember the story of Israel’s king Solomon. Though Solomon was blessed beyond measure by the Lord early in his reign, that favor disappeared when the king did evil in the sight of the Lord. God was angry with him because his heart turned away from the Lord and he did not keep God’s commandments. It wasn’t long before the kingdom of Israel was divided, with God raising up an enemy to lead a campaign against His own people for a divine purpose (see 1 Kings 11).

God has the sovereign authority and ability to appoint whomever He ordains into office, and to use them for whatever purpose He desires. That may be to bring blessing, or it may be to bring judgment. There are times when God, in bringing judgment against an unholy and disobedient people, gives them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels – and to face the consequences of their sin. And He may go ahead and appoint the ungodly leader they want to let them keep leading ungodly lives. And if that’s the case, then may God have mercy on that nation!

Whatever the outcome, part of our responsibility as citizens is to pray “for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:2). We are also commanded to “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men,” and “honor the king (1 Peter 2:13, 17). That doesn’t mean we have to agree with everything they do, nor does it mean we sit idly by and allow unrighteousness to go unchallenged. It may even mean that we choose to obey God rather than man if the two conflict. But respecting and honoring authority ought to mark the people of God who recognize that it is God who appoints leaders, and who sometimes also brings them down to accomplish His purposes for His glory.