Some Trees Fell, but Some Trees Stood

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There is a sad side to one of the aspen groves on my favorite Sabbath hiking trail. I’m not sure when it happened, or why it happened here and not at the other groves on the gentle slopes of this Flagstaff mountain. But something knocked down a bunch of the trees. They lie scattered everywhere, some flat on the ground, some leaning against other trees. The storm, or avalanche, must have been terrible to cause all that damage.

I hike here several times a year, and I’ve always been curious about this grove. What happened? When did it happen? And why did some trees fall, while others stood?

I was praying my way through this grove last week, and I’m not sure why my mind went here, but it did.

These trees are spiritual leaders. Some have fallen. But some are still standing, despite the pressures that they experienced. And I desperately – desperately – want to be among those who stand.

Leaders fall with depressing regularity, so frequently that it has almost become a cliché. Moral failure seems to be the most common cause, and I’ve grown sadly accustomed to the internal cringe upon hearing the news of one more fallen leader. One more conference speaker whose personal life revealed the hollowness of the principles he taught. One more pastor who tried to take care of the bride of Christ while failing to be true to the vows he had made to his own. And the same sad word comes to mind each time: “Again?”

I was near a falling tree on a hike several years ago. I couldn’t see it, but I could hear it, and it was terrifying. I’ve been close enough to a couple of falling leaders to feel a similar sense of dread, to see the damage cause as they go down.

I never, EVER, want to cause that kind of pain. I don’t want to fall.

But not all trees go down, and not all leaders fall. I’ll be driving to Los Angeles today to be part of the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the church where I met Jesus when I was 11 years old. It was my church for over 30 years. Those people taught me how to pastor, sent us out as missionaries, supported us through good and bad days, and welcomed us home 15 years later.

The room will be full of my heroes, and as the MC I get to talk about some of them. I will tell the story of the pastor who baptized me in 1970, present a video message from my Junior High Youth Director, and introduce the pastor who ordained me to ministry and sent us out to Africa and France. Some of the faithful church members who will be in the room tonight were there for all of those moments, and made indelible impacts on my life. I went to seminary with the current Lead Pastor of the church, and served for over 10 years with the Worship Pastor.

These people are standing. They aren’t perfect, and I’m sure they have bent under the pressure of a storm or two over the years. But they are standing.

I desperately want to stand with them.

Can I be bold enough to ask you to pray, right now, for whomever you see as your spiritual leader? Pray that he or she would stand tall in the storm. Pray that their roots would be deep, and that they would know what the Lord means when He says “In quietness and trust is your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). Pray that they would take Jesus at His word, and would come to Him to find rest for their souls (Matthew 11:29).

You’d be wise to add yourself to that prayer. It’s almost certain that someone sees you as a spiritual leader, looks to your example and depends on your advice. They would be hurt if you fell, and they will be helped when you stand.

And yeah, pray for me as well. By the grace of God, I want to be a standing tree. Let me know if I can pray the same for you.

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Good Wednesday at the Gurley Street Grill

tumblr_inline_mvg41qvhu41re42ldSomething cool seems to happen whenever my friend Ron and I eat lunch at the Gurley Street Grill in downtown Prescott. It happened yesterday, for the second time in three months, and it sheds light on a holiday that we’re preparing to celebrate tomorrow.

In one way, something cool happens at ALL of our weekly lunches. Ron isn’t just my friend, he is also my Lead Pastor, which makes him my boss. He hates that last term, because we were friends long before he became my boss, and we both prefer the first word. It describes us better. I know how rare that is, and I hope I never take it for granted.

But that’s not the point of this story. At the end of our lunch yesterday, our server came to our table and told us that we were free to go. He pointed to a table where he said a young lady had paid our bill for us. Neither of us had seen her when we walked in, and we assumed that she is a member of our church and wanted to do something sweet for two of her pastors. Oddly, the same thing had happened the last time we ate at that grill (we need to go there more often…)

She hadn’t ordered or eaten our food, so she hadn’t incurred the debt to the restaurant that was the result of our meal. The bill was ours, and we were legally liable to pay it. But she acted as if the bill were hers, stepping into our relationship with the restaurant and graciously making payment on our behalf, freeing us from the debt.

She may not have realized it, but it was a Christ-like moment for her.

Tomorrow is Good Friday. People sometimes wonder how the word “Good” could describe something terrible like a crucifixion. It was the most horrific means of execution ever invented by humans, which says a lot – we’re really, really good at killing people.

unnamedAnd THIS crucifixion, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, was more terrible than most, because the accused had done nothing wrong. He was perfect. His record was spotless. There was absolutely no reason for Rome to treat Him like a criminal, or for God to treat Him like a sinner.

He had never failed to obey God’s law, so He hadn’t incurred the debt that was the result of sin. That debt was ours, and we were legally liable to pay it. But He acted as if the bill were His, stepping into our relationship with God and graciously making the payment on our behalf, freeing us from the debt.

Writing hundreds of years before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah described the reasons for His death, using the past tense as a literary device: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (53:5).

Something good happened at the Gurley Street Grill yesterday, because it pointed to something REALLY good that happened in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. And while we could have paid the debt that we owed to the restaurant, we could never have paid the debt that we owe to God.

Only Jesus could do that, and He did. He loved us that much. When you think about it, it’s stunning. Even life-changing.

Think about it.  Happy Good Friday.

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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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