Monday, June 17, 2013

Things I Learned from my Father-in-law

I have a good Father-in-law.  Now, I realize that's kind of like saying, "I have the good kind of cancer", but in my case it's really true.  "Pop", as I like to call him, is a good man.  He has been a great Dad to his children, and, even though it's taken me a while to figure it out, he's been really good to me and my kids.  And, by the way, "Dad" is a big deal to me because I lost my Dad when I was 6 years old, so for me to feel good about a Father is no small thing.  In light of Father's Day, I thought I'd take some time to write about some of the things I've learned from my Father-in-law.  Here goes:

1. Fishing is a Sport - My Father-in-law is a brilliant fisherman.  The man could throw a bait into a mud puddle and retrieve a 5 lb bass.  If Jesus tried to tell him to throw his line on the other side of the boat, Pop would find a way to correct Him.  He can flat out fish, and if you ever go fishing with him, you'll come to realize that he's not interested in some therapeutic boat ride to a place of emotional tranquility.  For Pop, fishing is a sport, and you better come ready to play.  You'll be standing and casting and reeling the entire time, and if you don't completely wear your shoulder out by the end of the trip, you're a wuss in his book.  

2.  Don't do People's Jobs for Them - Let me give you a fine example of this "Pop-ism".  Let's say you're at the grocery store and you need to grab a couple of jugs of milk, some cereal, a few bags of chips and two or three 12 packs of your favorite beverage.  You load everything into your grocery buggy and proceed to checkout, after which you push the buggy to your car and unload.  Now, at this juncture, we all have a decision to make: to return the buggy or not?  Some of us will push the buggy all the way back to the front of the store where we got it.  Others will simply push it to the striped yellow fake parking spot and hope it doesn't careen out of control into the sweet Cadillac that just pulled up to rent a movie from the Redbox.  

Well, Pop is not a buggy-pusher-backer.  In his world, the grocery market pays someone good money to comb the parking lot for stray buggy's and bring them back to the front of the store where they belong.  Why would he presume to do that fine person's job for them?  You know, I hate to say it, but he's kind of right!

3. "You need to..." is not a bad thing - It's nearly impossible to have a conversation with my Father-in-law without hearing the words, "You need to..."  It took me a long time to get used to this aspect of Pop's personality.  In the early days, when he said "You need to...", I didn't really hear anything else he said.  In my mind I heard "You're not doing it right", or "You're an idiot", or "I can't believe I let you marry my daughter." But what I've come to realize is that Pop is a believer in constructive criticism, and the emphasis here should be on the word "constructive."  He doesn't think I'm an idiot (most of the time!).  At the core, he's just trying to help, and I've found that what follows the words "You need to..." is usually worth listening to.  

These are only a few of the things that I've learned from my Father-in-law, but there are many, many more.  When I married my wife, I knew I was signing up for "Pop's School of Hard Knocks", but what I've come to realize is that those hard knocks were really just love taps.  I love you, Pop, and I'm real glad you're in my life.  Happy Father's Day!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Christian Music That Isn't Embarrassing

I grew up in the church, and, in the mid-late 80's, I became obsessed with Christian music.  Bands like Petra and White Heart and artists like Russ Taff and Michael W. Smith were commonplace in my tape deck (that's right, I had a tape deck!).  Heck, I even went to a Stryper concert!  I was a bonafide Christian music junkie.

But at some point Christian music lost it's soul, and it became rehashed top 20 radio with a "Christian" message.  Really, it felt like a cheap imitation of top 20 radio.  At some point I became embarrassed by it. I wasn't embarrassed that it was music about Jesus, but that it was music that, in my opinion, wasn't good art, and therefore didn't make Jesus look good.

Some of my issues were just typical college-age angst, but some of my thoughts were very legitimate.  I still have a tendency to feel that way about much of the Christian music that hits Christian radio.  So, what I try to do is scour iTunes for Christian music that is artistic, original, non-cliche' and grace affirming.  Lately, I've found a few artists who meet my picky criteria, and I'd like to share them with you.  

Now, I am an open music snob, so you have to factor that in.  Some of my criticisms are probably unfair, and I am certain that most of the artists who make music today are extremely talented.  These are just some of the artists and songs that are hitting me these days.  I hope you enjoy this list of Christian Music that Isn't Embarrassing:

I haven't been this excited about a collection of songs by a Christian artist in a long time.  The writing is honest and artful, the music is folksy, but with enough pop influence to make it playable, and the production is fantastic, especially for a self-released record (can you call it a record anymore?).  Listen to Prodigal Son, Brought Me to You, and Changing Lanes.  Really, the whole thing is excellent.  Watch out for this guy, because he's really good.  Oh, and by the way, he's an Aggie (which isn't necessarily a good thing, but might interest some of you who read this.  You know who you are.).

Here's Daniel's song, Prodigal Son:

This collection of grass roots worship is full of honest songs, the kind you could listen to on a dirt road or around a pool table.  These songs reverently exalt Jesus Christ, but they are unlike the slick, overproduced numbers that pass for most mainstream worship these days.  Not all of this record is great, but it definitely has its moments.  The songs that feature Ryan Delmore are particularly good (Find My Joy and Flood).  This one's worth a listen.

This band, if I'm not mistaken, is associated with Marc Driscoll and Mars Hill Church.  While I appreciate and respect Driscoll, I'm not a huge fan.  This band, however, has tremendous potential.  The song, Hail The King, is one of the most original Christian rock songs I've heard in a while.  Some people won't like the punk rock flair, but I really like it.  There's a lot of passion in this one.

This band has really grown on me.  The lead singer has a Kings of Leon feel, but the music is layered and unique.  They will get some Christian radio air time, but this is not a band that seems overly concerned with the mainstream.  They're sort of Creedence Cleerwater Revival meets Coldplay in the sense that they blend country soul with concept pop, and it really works.  It may take a little while for it to fit, but if you're patient with it, you'll be really happy you gave it a try.  This may be the next Christian super group (Not sure such a thing exists, but you know what I mean), and if it is, that would be real progress.  

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Empty as a Bubble

There was a man outside the church yesterday evening who was hovering in and out of consciousness.  I walked out the side door to see if he was ok, and quickly noticed that he was holding a cannister up to his mouth, and appeared to be ingesting something from the cannister.  Upon closer observation, he wasn't ingesting, he was inhaling.  I also noticed an empty cannister on the bench next to him. 

I grabbed the empty cannister and read the label.  It was one of those pressurized air cannisters that you use to dust your computer keyboard.  I'm not sure why, but I realized that this man was engaged in something called "huffing", a practice that is often used to achieve an alcohol or drug-like intoxication, typically accompanied by intense euphoria and hallucinations.  I had heard of this before, but had never seen it in action.  I was horrified by what I witnessed.

The young man was bobbing back and forth like a cork in the water, and seemed incapable of focusing his attention on his surroundings.  His eyes were sad and hollow, and he looked as if he could understand what I was saying to him, but lacked the ability to respond.  He slumped several times into the bench, but would intermittently sit up at attention.  It was a disturbing spectacle. 

I tried to talk to him, but he was a blank stare.  Concerned for his life, I approached him and told him that I was going to take the cannister away from him.  I said, "I am going to take this cannister away from you, but if you try to touch me or fight me in any way, I'm going to punch you in the face."  I'm not sure if I really would have punched him, but he needed to know that I wasn't going to take any chances.  I knew that I was approaching the personal space of a man who was sick, but potentially dangerous.  It was as if I was taking human flesh from a zombie.

The only thing I could think to do was to call the police.  It was clear to me that this man's life was in danger.  In a very real way, he already looked dead.  So I called the cops, and they came and picked the man up.  At least he was off the streets and no longer in a life threatening situation. 

I can't stop thinking about this man.  How heartbroken he must be to stoop to such depths.  How depraved he must be to resort to getting high off of a can of compressed air.  But the thought that has been dominant in my mind is that there is someone out there who loves this young man.  Someone cares deeply for him.  He's somebody's child, or brother, or dad or husband.  He's someone's friend. Even though I only saw him for a few moments, I felt a love for him. God has a plan for him, and he almost certainly doesn't even know it, or can't accept it or is blind to it. 

A life without the hope that Christ brings is so desperately sad, and it seems to me that this young man came to a very logical conclusion: Life without hope isn't life at all... It's walking death.  He was simply living the outward manifestation of an inward hopelessness.  He was taking the despair of a life without Christ to its only logical conclusion. 

Jesus said in John 15:5, "I am the vine; you are the branches.  If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." It's the part about "you can do nothing" that really gets my attention.  When I saw this young man, I saw those words in human form.  In a heart breaking twist of fate, he was staking his hopes on a can of air.  Literally, a can of nothing. 

Apart from Christ, hope is a vapor, and huffing that vapor will never bring meaning.  But with Christ, hope finds its source and substance. 

I wish I could tell you that this young man came to his senses, or that I was able to meet with him later and lead him to Christ.  That didn't happen.  But sometimes we need to see that people are hopeless.  Sometimes we need to come face to face with the ugly, horrifying truth that life without Jesus is terribly empty.  Like canned air, life is full of wind and fury, but empty as a bubble. If we knew that more profoundly and personally, we might be more prone to actually share the love of God with the people around us.  He has a plan for them, and even if they don't know it, we do.  Perhaps we should tell them.  Maybe it would change everything.   

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Your Kingdom Come

I've been preaching through The Lord's Prayer lately, and I'm to the part where Jesus tells his disciples to pray, "Thy Kingdom come."  That's a HUGE prayer.  Most of the time we pray things like, "God, please help me stay calm with my children", or "Help me do the right thing when the annoying person in my life starts to grate on my nerves."  Those situations are certainly prayer worthy, but Jesus, in a strikingly simple phrase, tells his disciples to leave the small stuff at the door and ask for the biggest, hairyest, most audacious request in the universe.  And just think about the way He told them to pray.

He didn't say, "When you pray, say this: 'Our Father in heaven, holy is your name.  Please come and get us and take us to your far away kingdom.'"  Nope, He said, "Our Father in heaven, holy is your name.  Your kingdom come."  We could properly translate it "Come, Your kingdom."  It literally means, "God, I want you to bring your kingdom to me.  I want the purpose, meaning and goal of history to be a reality in the here and now."  We have the tendency of thinking that God wants to establish His kingdom somewhere else, but, according to the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray, He wants His kingdom to come... Here.

So what does that look like, and how does it play out in our lives?  Well, I think there are two aspects to this phrase that must be identified.  First of all, I believe this phrase has tremendous future implications.  One day in the future, God will fully establish a kingdom on earth, and it will be awesome!  I can't wait!!  As Frederick Beuchner writes, "The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.”  I know I am!  I am longing for the future kingdom of God, where all things will be made new, and the lion and the lamb will peacefully coexist. 

But the second aspect of this phrase pertains to the present, and that's the sense, it seems to me, in which Jesus is instructing his disciples to pray.  If he were instructing them in the future sense of the kingdom, he would have told them to pray, "Take us to Thy kingdom."  Instead, he is teaching them (and us) that the present sense of the kingdom is to become a reality in us.  The kingdom is to "come".  A future kingdom will one day be established, but in the meantime, God is establishing a present kingdom in the hearts of his people.  N.T. Wright summarizes this beautifully when he writes:

“What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether. They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.” 

So, the next time you pray, "Thy Kingdom come", don't glaze over and lose yourself in pie in the sky dreams of heaven.  Instead, know that when you utter that phrase you are literally asking God to build His kingdom in you.  You are not sitting in a bubble bath exhaustedly proclaiming, "Calgon, take me away!"  You are conversely going on the offensive as a freedom fighter against the vile aspects of the kingdom of darkness.  You are proclaiming, "Come, kingdom of God, in every aspect of my life so that as I live out my kingdom citizenry, the goodness of God might shine bright in a dark world."

Now, that's a BIG prayer!

You can listen to Part 1 of my sermon on "Thy Kingdom Come" by clicking here.

Friday, August 24, 2012

One Restless Dude

We looked at a house today (in Corsicana), and I’m not sure why.  We don’t need a new house, and we aren’t looking to move, but we walked through a house today anyway. 

The house was big and interesting, and it was on 5 acres of land.  It had a pond on the back of the land that reminded me of the places that I used to fish at my Pawpaw’s ranch in Louisiana.  We brought the kids to look at the house too, and they ran all over that land like Melissa Gilbert during the opening credits of Little House on the Prairie

Who knows what will happen with the house?  Like I said, we’re really not in the market for a new home.  This was more like a field trip than a house hunt, but crazier things have happened, I suppose.  Maybe we had a momentary wild hair that caused us to long for a change of scenery.  Maybe every once in a while we just need to convince ourselves that the grass isn’t greener, and a good house viewing helps us appreciate what we already have.  Or maybe this is the initial breeze that will usher in the winds of change.  I don’t know, and the house really isn’t the point.

The point is that there’s a restlessness inside of me that comes out in some strange ways.  Sometimes it makes me want to look at a new house, and sometimes it makes me want to look at a new car, and sometimes it makes me want to take a road trip like the ones I used to take in college, when life was simpler and there were no responsibilities.  Often I’m so restless that I have trouble sleeping, and there are those occasions when I’m so restless that I get up at 2 a.m. and write stories about how restless I am. 

I ran into a friend at “Meet the Teacher Night” tonight, and told him that I was going to come by his office one day and kidnap him and take him out to this wonderful ranch so that we could fish and enjoy the wildlife.   He told me that it would have to be a “planned kidnapping.”  I thought, “That’s no fun.  What’s the point of going out to the great wide open if you have to plan it?  There’s nothing restless about that!”

So, whether it’s touring a home for the heck of it or sneaking out to a ranch on an unplanned adventure, my heart is restless.  I don’t know whether to be alarmed or excited by this uneasiness within me.  There are times when I wish it would go away, and there are other times when I cling to it like guns or religion.

Grant me peace within, Oh God.  Make me content in all things.

Henry Nouwen
Take my tired body, my confused mind, and my restless soul into your arms and give me rest, simple quiet rest.

John of the Cross, 1542-91
O blessed Jesus, give me stillness of soul in thee. Let thy mighty calmness reign in me; Rule me, O King of gentleness, King of peace. Give me control, great power of self-control, Control over my words, thoughts and actions. From all irritability, want of meekness, want of gentleness, dear Lord, deliver me. By thine own deep patience, give me patience. Make me in this and all things more and more like thee.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Legislating Morality

In the wake of president Obama's recent endorsement of gay marriage, I am hearing a lot of folks proclaim an old mantra that too many people on both sides of the political aisle have come to embrace.  The mantra goes something like this: "I don't mind people being religious... I'm religious!  But what I don't like is when people try to legislate morality.  That's just wrong."

My problem with this statement is that it's plain for me to see that all legislation has a moral underpinning.  Let's take a simple example like the law against speeding in a motor vehicle. This seems like a regulation that doesn't have any moral component whatsoever, but that is incorrect.  The foundational principal that upholds this law is that it is important to value the safety of others because life is precious, and because life is precious, it is immoral to legally allow people to drive at speeds that might jeapordize the safety of others.  So, even a simple driving law has moral roots, and is, in a very real way, legislating morality.

So, since pretty much any legal principle or law has at its base a moral component, it's difficult for me to understand why so many people think it's so wrong to "legislate morality".  Whether they realize it or not, when people say "It's wrong to legislate morality", what they're really saying is, "It's wrong to legislate."  I don't think it's wrong to legislate.

Which brings us to the real issue at hand.  It's not that people are against legislating morality, it's just that they are against people legislating a form of morality that isn't their own personal brand.  If you're gay, you don't want anyone legislating a form of morality that assumes that homosexuality is wrong.  If you're a Christian, you don't want anyone legislating a form of morality that tramples on Christian principles.  The question isn't "Should we legislate morality?", It's "Who's morality should we legislate?"

More to come!

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

New Music and LSU

New Favorite Song

I have a new favorite song, and it has one of the best lines I've ever heard.  The song is by Shaun Groves, and it's on his new release, Third World Symphony.  The entire album is really good, blending a mix of edgy yet rich writing, passionately low key vocals, and lots of interesting instrumental combinations (like the piano, banjo, electric guitar, flute and triangle on All Is Grace).  The song that has me so captivated is called No Better, and it's a strain to those of us who realize that we are truly and wholly saved by grace alone, and that we are absolutely no better than anyone else.  The line that drives this point home so wonderfully says:

There's no justice here
It's just as well, you know
We've all got Hell to pay
And grace pays all we owe.

Man, that's good stuff!

Here's a video of Shaun singing the song.  It's rough, but you get the picture.

No Better (Demo) from Shaun Groves on Vimeo.

LSU Looking Good

I knew LSU was going to be tough this year, but with all the off-field distractions before the season began, I thought they'd be lucky to win 9 games.  That may still be, but this team looks poised to make a run at the National Championship.  LSU has what many teams like to act like they have, but few actually possess: Swagger!  This team is tough, mean, and plays like the other team called their Mama a bad name.

Defensive back, Tyrann Mathieu (aka: Honey Badger, TM7, Tryannasaurus, Mayhem Mathieu, Little Ball of Hate, etc), is one of the most dynamic players I've ever seen.  He's a tiny guy - about 5'9", 175lbs - but he's fearless and nasty, and he's like a magnet for the football.  It's rare that you have that sense of expectation - like anything can happen when he's on the field - when watching a defensive player, but that's exactly the way it is when Mathieu's playing.

Here's a video of Mathieu's body of work.  Heisman candidate?  You bet!!

 Watch out for the Tigers!!

Mark's Jesus is Awesome!!

I started a new sermon series two weeks ago on the book of Mark, and have been struck by the no nonsense, in-your-face style of this Gospel. Matthew, who wrote to a Jewish audience, begins his book with a genealogy, underscoring Jesus' Jewish lineage. Luke focused more on the ministry of the "Son of Man", and highlighted the birth of Christ. His emphasis was on the humanity of Christ, because he knew that his Greek readers would have related to the idea of a perfect Son sent down from the heavens to live a perfect life on earth. John wrote to a very general audience of both Jews and Gentiles, and his message was largely about Jesus' deity, emphasized by the incredible gift of eternal life for all who believed.

But Mark wrote to a different audience altogether. Mark wrote to the busy Romans, a culture know for innovation, progress and greed. Of all the cultures represented in Scripture, perhaps none more closely mimic the values of modern day America more than that of Rome. Though thousands of years of cultural advancement separate us, Rome would be proud of what we've become. Jesus came from the line of David, but we have come from the line of Rome.

In Mark, I have been surprised to see a different Jesus emerge than the one I've grown accustomed to. This Jesus isn't the sanitary and seemingly harmless figure I grew up with. The Jesus of Mark wouldn't dare stick to a flannel board. This guy was on a mission!!  Mark's Jesus probably looked more like Pigpen of Charlie Brown fame than the halo'd peacemaker pictured in Titan's Salvator Mundi.

Mark begins with a bang, and without the labored details of Matthew.  It opens with John the Baptist coming on the scene in a way that was shocking and probably quite unexpected.  This is what I love about the Christian story, and about the Bible in particular.  If you were trying to fabricate a convincing story of the coming of the Messiah - The Savior of the World - would you do it like this?  Would you basically find the craziest looking dude you could imagine – a guy who lives in the woods (cue banjo music) eats giant grasshoppers and fights bees for wild honey - and make him the one who would handle the Messiah’s PR campaign? 

I've always pictured John the Baptist to be a cross between Chewbacca, the Big Foot look alike in the Star Wars films, and Bear Grylls, the go-for-broke survivalist star of Discovery’s Man vs. Wild.  He was a big, hairy woodsman, and he’d eat anything!  This is the guy who ushers in the Savior of the world!  I think that’s pretty incredible.  You just can’t invent this stuff!

This man, whom I imagine with a beard that would make ZZ Top jealous, develops quite a following in Jewish circles.  People are coming to him in droves to be baptized, and the picture here, as N.T. Wright aptly describes it, is of a man who is rudely awakening the world by “splashing cold water all over them and telling them to get ready for the greatest moment in Jewish history, in world history.” (Mark for Everyone, p. 3)

Mark’s primary audience is Roman, and the idea of a messenger who would go before the emperor to announce his coming and “prepare the way” would have been a familiar one.  Roman royalty typically sent messengers ahead to repair roads and announce the King’s coming so that those awaiting his presence would have ample time to adequately prepare for such an event.  As the old British joke says, “Wherever the Queen goes she smells fresh paint.”  

In the case of John the Baptist, rather than fixing roads and sprucing up homes, his primary concern was to turn hearts away from the deception of the world and toward the fulfillment of the prophecies.  The One spoken of in Isaiah 40:3-5 and Malachi 3:1 (among other places) was coming, and the waters of baptism served as a tangible expression of both spiritual awakening and spiritual cleansing.  This was the kind of pre-royalty preparation that John was tasked with.  Instead of building roads, he was preparing hearts.

So, what we learn from verses 1-8 is that God is up to something new here.  As Sally Lloyd-Jones writes in her wonderful book, The Jesus Storybook Bible, “Everything bad is coming undone!”  The vast silence since God’s manifest presence left the Old Testament temple was finally breaking.  The restless and feverish slumber of a sin-sick people was rather shockingly coming to an end.  The Messiah was coming, and a mad man was alerting the world to this jarring fact.

I'll keep you posted on the Mark series, and I'll update my blog as I continue to be surprised by Jesus.  Funny how you can be a Christian for most of your life and still stumble on God's surprising truth.  And by "funny", I mean "awesome"!!