Stunned – and Inspired – by an Honorarium

“Don’t come with me – this is for you,” said my translator last Sunday.

I wasn’t sure I had heard him right. I was feeling a little scrambled, having just preached in English, from French preaching notes and a French Bible, with translation into Lingala, at a church in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. My partner and I had arrived late the previous night, after more than 48 hours of travel through Amsterdam and Johannesburg, for a week of training Congolese pastors in Bible comprehension and sermon preparation. It was wonderful to be back in Africa again, and my jet-lagged brain was doing its best to absorb the experience.

I had earlier descended from the platform, along with the other pastors, to participate in the church offering. As was often the case when we lived in Cameroon many years ago, the offering basket was kept on a table in the front of the church, and members walked (or danced!) forward during a song to bring their offering. Church leaders are expected to model that generosity, so we had started the process (no, I didn’t dance).

But this time, I was told to stay on the platform while others went down. I wasn’t sure I had heard my translator right, or what he meant when he said, “This is for you.” I simply enjoyed the music as others came forward and placed a few DRC Francs into the basket.

unnamedAs we were preparing to drive away after the service, the meaning was made clear to me. A church leader handed me an envelope, on which was written my name and the phrase “Galates 6:6,” indicating a verse in the book of Galatians. Inside the envelope I found 28,000 DRC Francs, the equivalent of about $20. I quickly looked up the verse: “Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches.”

I was stunned. I didn’t know the life situations of all of the folks who participated in that offering, but I had a general idea. Estimates of average income in the DRC hover around $400 per year, yet the cost of living is significantly higher than that of the U.S. 70% of the population lives below the global poverty line, but Kinshasa is considered to be one of the most expensive cities in the world.

There is not the slightest doubt that I was by far the richest person in the room that day. I knew that, and my Congolese brothers and sisters knew that. I did not need the money they gave me – they needed it much more. But that was not the point. They felt compelled to respond in obedience to a verse in the Bible, and nothing else mattered.

They read the Bible, and they did what it said.

A financial gift to a speaker is referred to as an “honorarium,” and the word took on new meaning to me that day. I humbly accepted their generosity, honored beyond words by the most significant honorarium that I have ever received.

I had flown across three continents to teach people how to understand the Bible, and I was glad to help where I could. But the week had begun with an example of biblical understanding, and biblical obedience, that I will never forget.

The people in that service are my role models. I aspire to follow their example in my own faithfulness to God’s word.

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Better than the Best

It wasn’t the kind of setting where the thought would normally come to mind. But that’s what made it all the more striking.

As I drove to the trailhead of a Sabbath hike a couple of weeks ago, a song from Building 429 came up on my playlist. It’s called “Where I Belong” (you can listen to it here), and the chorus says this: “All I know is I’m not home yet. This is not where I belong. Take this world and give me Jesus. This is not where I belong.”

That encouraging idea is common in sermons and worship songs, and is meant to remind us that we are headed to a better place. It lifts us up when times are hard, assuring us that this difficult world is not our final destination. When we are discouraged and frustrated, when we find ourselves in places and circumstances that we would never choose, it gives hope for a better future. I’ve often needed that assurance. I imagine you have too.

unnamed-3But context changes everything. On that day, I wasn’t in a hard place. Far from it, in fact. The song came through my car speakers as I drove along the rim of the Grand Canyon in winter (the pics are from that day). There are few more stunningly magical places than a snowy Grand Canyon. It represents God’s work at its finest, and I love it.

At first the idea of a better future seemed out of place and unnecessary. “I wouldn’t mind if this place WERE my home! Why would I need that assurance HERE?”

unnamedBut as I sang along to Building 429, I realized that the message was timely, and even important. Because even THAT majestic scene was not my true home! As beautiful as it was, it pales in comparison to what God has in store for those who put their trust in Jesus.

What an amazing idea. It’s going to be even BETTER than the Grand Canyon in winter!

That made me think of the Apostle Paul’s attempt 2000 years ago to describe what is ahead for the Christ-follower (1 Corinthians 2:9):

“What no eye has seen…” (You’ve never seen anything like it!)

“…what no ear has heard…” (No one can describe anything like it!)

“…and what no human mind has conceived…” (You can’t even imagine anything like it!)

…the things God has prepared for those who love Him.

It’s encouraging to know that the place Jesus is preparing for us is better than this world of sickness, and broken relationships, and political upheaval, and international tension, and war and drought and suffering and pain. But that’s a pretty low bar, isn’t it?

God’s future for us is not simply better than the worst that we have experienced. It exceeds the best that we have seen, and is far beyond the most that we could imagine!

I’ve seen a lot, and I have a pretty good imagination. So THAT is exciting news!

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The War on Christmas – From Within!

merrychristmastomeTo the barricades, Christians! Our most important holiday is under attack. We must mobilize to defend ourselves and our traditions, and the time has now come to turn our guns inward.

We have recently discovered that some of our most cherished Christmas melodies contain destructive messages. Yes, the enemy has infiltrated the very Christmas Carols that we hold dear. Beware of these songs:

  • Winter Wonderland – The frivolous building of a snowman in the meadow, purported to be a certain “Parson Brown,” creates disrespect for the important role of the clergy.
  • Here We Come a Wassailing – It’s fine to bless the master of the house, but pronouncing a blessing “on his mistress too” is an unacceptable endorsement of immorality.
  • Do You Hear What I Hear – The introduction of a mythical talking lamb, no matter what he says to the shepherd boy, will only encourage children to watch dangerous Disney movies.
  • Frosty the Snowman – He “only paused a moment” when he heard the Law Enforcement Officer holler “Stop!” Our men and women in blue deserve better.
  • Auld Lang Syne – Rather than taking that “cup of kindness yet” (as if we didn’t know what was in it), we must take a principled stand against such subtle encouragement to drunkenness.

Yes, the time has come for true lovers of Christmas to defend the holiday against all threats, from without and from within. We must protect it all costs, because it is fragile and desperately needs our protection. We must follow the example of Christ, who defended His personal rights whenever they were challenged, who mocked those who saw the world through different lenses, who … uh … lashed out when He was threatened … and … um … demanded that people say things that pleased him… complained when he was unpopular… and wore buttons that said …

Hmmm.

OK, maybe not.

Maybe instead, we should approach this issue differently.  Can I make some suggestions?

Maybe it’s time for us to recognize that the sales clerk who says “Happy Holidays” is NOT trying to offend us, but is trying to AVOID offending people who don’t celebrate the holiday the way we do.

Maybe it’s time for us to understand that our culture has changed, that there is a growing percentage of people who are hostile to what we believe, and that forcing them to say Merry Christmas will not change that fact.

Maybe it’s time for us to humbly realize that we may be responsible for some of that hostility. The One whose birthday we celebrate commanded us to take a look at the log in our own eyes before pointing out the splinter in the eyes of others. Might that command apply here?

Maybe it’s time for us to see that some of the people who shout the loudest about the War on Christmas are actually looking for our support, either through our votes or through TV ratings. Might they lack objectivity in light of that, and sometimes exaggerate the problem?

Maybe it’s time for us to interact graciously and lovingly with people from all walks of life and all kinds of worldviews, not demanding that they please us, but looking for ways to serve them. Jesus was good at that, and Scripture talks a lot about imitating Him. Fulfilling that challenging goal will give us little time to take offense at the way someone says goodbye in December.

Friends, I hope we will dial it back a little in the War on Christmas. It doesn’t bring out the best in us, which tells me that maybe it’s the wrong war, being fought in the wrong way, with the wrong mindset. Surely we have better places to spend that energy.

For now, let’s spend it celebrating! I hope you have a wonderful holi… I mean, CHRISTMAS season.

And I was only kidding about the Christmas carols. Most of them anyway…Frosty is kinda creepy.

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A Place Where Dirt Used to Be

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I admit to having a bit of a crush on the Grand Canyon. I never dreamed that I would live close enough to go there for the day. Truth be told, more than once I have made the 2-hour drive just to marvel at the sunset. It is definitely one of the highlights of living in northern Arizona.

I was taking a much-needed Sabbath Hike there last Saturday, enjoying a uniquely clear day with startling colors and breathtaking views (the pics are from that hike). The weather was perfect, the crowds were small, and for much of the time I was alone with the Artist responsible for all of the beauty that spread out before me. It was, in a word, stunning. It filled me up.

As I strolled along the rim, it dawned on me that the Canyon could be summarized in a fairly simple phrase. It doesn’t sound very romantic, but has the advantage of being accurate.

The Grand Canyon is simply a place where dirt used to be.

Admittedly, that’s a description that seems unworthy of one of the natural wonders of the world. Tourists don’t say to themselves “let’s go see that place where dirt used to be.”

But isn’t that exactly what it is? If the dirt were still there, would anybody go? “Let’s go see that huge flat place, and take lots of pictures.” Not a chance. But water carved away the dirt in a way that left incredible beauty behind, and people come from around the world to admire it.

img_2725In some ways, I want to be like the Grand Canyon. There are things in me that I want God to carve away, in the same way that the water carved the canyon, and I want what is left behind to be beautiful in His eyes. That thought led to a significant prayer time along the rim last Saturday, one that I hope to repeat on a regular basis.

  • “God, I want my heart to be a place where pride used to be. Please scoop it out and throw it away. May You be pleased with the end result.”
  • “God, I want my heart to be a place where anger used to be. I submit to Your scouring hand. I know You will be glad to see it gone, and I won’t miss it either.”
  • “God, I want my heart to be a place where lust used to be. Make a huge canyon there, one that shows Your power and purity.”

King David never saw the Grand Canyon, but his famous words in Psalm 139 reveal the mindset needed in order to pray consistently this way: “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Try me, and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

If I dared to paraphrase the man after God’s own heart, I would add this idea:

“And when You find what doesn’t please You, carve mighty canyons there. Remove what is ugly, and create beauty in its place.”

“Make my heart a place where sin used to be. And Lord, I hope You enjoy the view when You are done.”

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Vin Scully, King David, and Prayer

It’s not my intention for this post to make people jealous, but I realize that it’s possible. In fact, it’s highly likely. I guess I’m OK with that (secretly, maybe VERY OK #sorrynotsorry).

Vin Scully is a Los Angeles civic treasure. His retirement this year, after 67 years as the announcer of the Dodgers, made grown men cry (nope, not me, I’m tough). To this day, his voice takes me back to warm summer nights when I was 8 or 9 years old, listening to him paint the sights and sounds of Dodger baseball on the canvas of my mind.

Vin has long been a topic of conversation among Dodger fans. He is universally admired, probably the most popular public figure in the city. Everyone seemed to have a story about him.

fullsizerenderYes, it was common to speak ABOUT Vin Scully. But it was something altogether different to speak TO him.

I was invited one day in 2014 to meet Vin in the press box at Dodger Stadium (yeah, it pays to know people).   After years of telling others how often I was lulled to sleep by his legendary voice coming from the transistor radio in a stuffed tiger on my bed, I finally had the opportunity to thank the man behind the voice. It was an unforgettable moment with a very gracious man.

It was great to talk ABOUT Vin Scully. But it was even better to talk TO him.

This distinction is an important but sometimes overlooked part of what may be the most famous passage in all of the Bible. King David knew the difference between ABOUT and TO, and he built it into Psalm 23.

“The Lord is my Shepherd… He makes me lie down … He leads me … He guides me.” As Phillip Keller tells it in A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, these early verses describe the way a satisfied sheep in the flock of God might describe his Shepherd. The Lord is admired, He is praised, but He is not addressed.

There is a subtle but significant change in verse 4: “…You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me…” Do you see the change? The sheep is no longer talking ABOUT his Shepherd, but TO him. The Psalmist turns to the Lord Himself, praising Him directly instead of simply describing Him to others.

I’m glad that this wonderful Psalm includes both forms of praise. I’m glad that it inspires us to tell others about our Good Shepherd, to “proclaim (His) excellencies” (1 Peter 2:9). He is worth talking about, even bragging about, so others can admire Him too.

But I’m also glad that it reminds us to talk TO Him. It reminds us that He is there in the valley of the shadow of death, and that He gives us courage in the face of evil, refreshment in the presence of our enemies. It is good to tell Him how glad we are for His reassuring and comforting presence.

It is good to pray. Very, very good.

In The Great Divorce, his classic work about heaven and hell, C.S. Lewis laments that “there have been some who were so occupied in spreading Christianity that they never gave a second thought to Christ.”

Lord, protect me from the temptation to talk only ABOUT You. Draw me TO you, and make me hunger and thirst for that sweet conversation that lifts me out of my circumstances, and sets me to speaking freely and honestly and joyfully with the One who hears.

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A Beautiful Death

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It’s still hard to believe that I can take day trips to places like this.

My wife and I used to save vacation time so that we could travel to places where Fall matters. Los Angeles doesn’t provide much along those lines, so visiting Pennsylvania and Maine in October was an exotic treat, the highlight of the year.

Thanks to our move to Northern Arizona, that is no longer necessary. We now live among impressive Fall colors in our own town – even in our own yard – and we can drive less than two hours to see truly brilliant displays of God’s artistry.

img_0355Last Friday was one of those opportunities. The leaves are turning in the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff (or, as we cool Arizonans call it, “Flag”). The bright gold of the aspen leaves stood in vivid contrast to the green pines and the blue sky. As my daughter and I soaked up the beauty, I couldn’t stop smiling. This is only our second autumn in Arizona, and we love it this year as much as last year.

Strolling across this stunning canvas, we tend to avoid the reality of what we see. To put it bluntly, the leaves are dying. Soon they will fall to the ground (hence the name of the season), creating a carpet of fading color, and will decompose into the soil to fertilize the trees and ferns for next year.

Yes, the leaves are dying. But it is a beautiful death.

That phrase came to mind the next morning, when I spoke at a memorial service for Carla, a wonderful lady in our church who had died of cancer last month. Her family and friends took turns sharing memories of her life. Several of us, including her husband and son, read excerpts from a letter that she wrote before she died, a letter full of faith, and hope, and love. Her faith was in Christ, her hope of eternal life came from Him, and she deeply loved her Lord, her family and her friends. They all loved her back.

I’ve sat beside enough deathbeds, including hers, to see how ugly death is. It is a monstrosity, an abomination, a violation of all that should be. I hate it, and I always will. I look forward to the day death will die.

But a death like hers has something different about it. She knew where she was going, and eagerly looked forward to the welcome she would receive. She asked in her letter that her service be a celebration of her life, because she would not be dead. Not really. In her words, Carla was going to “hot-foot it straight to heaven!” We all knew that she did, and we wondered what her new life was like.

Is it possible to refer to a death like hers as “beautiful?” I admit that the word catches in my throat a little. But I’m encouraged by God’s perspective on the question, revealed in Psalm 116:15 – “Precious in the sight of God is the death of His godly ones.”

You can call it precious, or you can call it, in its own way, beautiful. Either way, I’m glad that this is the kind of death that is waiting for me. I’m glad that, thanks to Jesus, my death will be no more than a door from one kind of life to another; a death that exchanges a lesser life for a better one; a death that takes me home.

I want that confidence to change my life. I want to remember that the autumn of my life, when it comes, will lead not to winter, but to Spring.

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Am I the Leader of the Forest?

In retrospect, I probably looked a little “Paul Bunyanesque” from his perspective. So while it was understandable, his unexpected question still surprised me. And it made me think.

I was enjoying a Poncho Hike last Saturday in the mountains above Flagstaff. My favorite trail was even more beautiful in the rain. The lush alpine meadows, generously watered for weeks by the Arizona monsoons, were sprinkled with wildflowers. The dripping aspen groves were majestic. It was a rich time of worship and rest.

IMG_2320The weather had cleared a little as I headed back to the trailhead, and I no longer had the mountain to myself. Clad in my dark green poncho and muddy boots, carrying a tall wooden walking stick, I stepped off the soggy trail as two ladies and a little blonde-haired boy approached. He looked wonderingly at this tall green stranger, and with a slight speech impediment that made it all the cuter, he boldly asked me this question: “Ah you da Leadah of da fowest?”

I often have what the French call l’esprit d’escalier, or a “staircase wit.” It means you think of something too late to say it, as you descend the staircase from your friend’s house. Maybe because I was so fully “in the moment,” enjoying my walk with God, a response came quickly to mind in this case. Here is how I responded to this little boy:

“No, I’m not the leader of the forest. I just enjoy it. God is the leader of the forest, and I come here to spend time with Him.”

None of three seemed especially taken by my response, but it made a huge impact on me. As I walked on, I spent some time meditating on what I had said so spontaneously.

I’m glad I’m not the leader of the forest. I’m glad that I’m not in charge of the meadows and canyons, the pine trees and the mountains, the aspen groves and the wildflowers. If I were responsible for it all, I couldn’t find rest there. And it would be nowhere near as beautiful as it is.

I rest there, because God is indeed the leader of the forest. He created it, He sustains it, and I am free to walk through His masterpiece and enjoy His creativity. It demands nothing of me as it fills my heart with thoughts of Him. I leave boot prints among His fingerprints.

Those thoughts amplified my rest as I headed back to the car. But they also challenged me.

God is in charge of a lot more than the forest. He rules over my entire life. My family, my health, my ministry, my finances, my present, my future, my salvation, are all ultimately in His hands. Although I have roles to play in all of these areas, sometimes very significant roles, He is the ultimate leader in all of them.

In his wonderful book The Rest of God, Mark Buchanan points out that a Sabbath heart is necessary in order to fully benefit from a Sabbath day. And a Sabbath heart enthusiastically embraces this idea: God is God, and I’m not. I can rest, because I know He won’t. The Psalmist put it this way: “He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper” (Psalm 121:3-5).

I’m committed to seeing the fingerprints of God on my day-to-day life as much as I see them in nature. I want to constantly celebrate His kind presence, His beautiful creativity, and His vigilant protection. I want my moments of Sabbath in nature to build my ability to rest in Him every day of the week, confident that He is my ever-alert keeper.

In my life I want rest to be normal, not exceptional – because He is the leader of much more than the forest.

So thanks, little guy. It was a better question than I knew at the time. Not only am I not Paul Bunyan, I’m also not God.  I’m grateful for the reminder.

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