A Call to Community

According to Genesis 1, as God was creating the universe, He would pause from time to time, examine his work and pronounce that it was “good.” After God created our first parents, he surveyed them, along with everything else he had made and pronounced that it was all “very good.” Then we come to Genesis 2, where the story backs up just a bit and gives us more details about how God created the first humans. When he saw the man alone, it was the first time that God said something was “NOT good,” and so the Creator said, “I will make a helper suitable for him.”

It seems we are hard-wired for relationships. God created us that way, and He has called us to live in community.

That shouldn’t come as a galloping surprise to anyone. God himself exists within a perfect community, a union we understand as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Not three gods, but one, living in perfect community within themselves. In Genesis 1:26, God said, “Let US make humans in our image” – and that “us” is a reference, I believe, to that Divine Community, or if you prefer, to the Trinity. Later, when God gave Israel the “Shema” prayer – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4) – the word translated “one” is the Hebrew word, ekhad. It’s the same word that describes the “one flesh” of husband and wife. One as a union. One as a community.

When God gave the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), it’s important to note that the first commandment begins with, “I AM the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt; you will have no other gods besides me.” Please notice that: the foundation of the entire law was the covenant relationship between God and his people.

God described himself to Moses by saying, “I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” He was defining who he was, at least in part, by the relationships he had. Throughout the days of the prophets, God was constantly calling his people and inviting them into a closer relationship. Sending Jesus is the ultimate expression of God’s desire to be in community with his people. That’s why one of the names by which Jesus is known is “Immanuel” – God with us.

According to Luke 4, when Jesus was beginning his public ministry, he read the scripture from Isaiah 61 about proclaiming good news to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted, setting captives free, and rebuilding the ancient ruins – all dealing with restoring broken relationships. In Mark 12, when he was asked about the most important commandment, Jesus said, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, all your strength. And the second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The fact is, God has made us so that we need each other. In Romans 14:7, the Apostle Paul says, “For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone.” We are called to live in community. Indeed, in 2 Corinthians 5, Paul says that God has “committed to us the ministry of reconciliation.” And what is reconciliation, if not a fancy word for rebuilding relationships?

That community sometimes looks different. We are called the “bear one another’s burdens,” (Gal. 6:2), to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep,” (Rom. 12:15), and to “live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18). In Revelation 21:2, heaven is described as “The New Jerusalem.” A city. Not a suburb. Not a farm. Not a solitary cabin by a lake somewhere. A city. And city implies neighbors close by, and relationships all around us.

Genuine community is risky. Relationships take a lot of work and can sometimes be messy. But God has reached out to us, and desires to be in relationship with us, and that is precisely the way we are called to reach out to one another.

Try a Little Kindness

When I was growing up in the 1960s, my favorite singer was Glen Campbell. Among the many other records of his that I had was a song entitled, Try a Little Kindness

If you see your brother standing by the road
With a heavy load from the seeds he’s sowed
And if you see your sister falling by the way
Just stop and say, you’re going the wrong way

You’ve got to try a little kindness
Yes show a little kindness
Just shine your light for everyone to see
And if you try a little kindness
Then you’ll overlook the blindness
Of narrow-minded people on the narrow-minded streets

Don’t walk around, the down and out
Lend a helping hand instead of doubt
And the kindness that you show every day
Will help someone along their way

It’s a message I’ve been thinking about lately.

A couple of years ago, the Marriott Hotel chain began running a series of TV ads based on the theme of “The Golden Rule” – they even had their own hashtag, #GoldenRule. Part of the commercial includes the question, “What if all of mankind were made up of kind women and kind men?” The ads show Marriott employees – and others – performing simple acts of kindness to help others.

I realize that expressions of kindness towards others have often been in short supply, but it seems that lately such acts of kindness are even more rare than ever, and it makes me sad for our society. When did simply being nice to another person become so rare and remarkable that it makes the national news?

This may come as a shock to some of our younger readers, but there was a time in this country when politics “ended at the shore,” when political parties would not criticize a president (even from the other party) about the way he handled foreign policy; a time when we could disagree about political issues without assuming the other side was evil and out to destroy the country; and a time when we could discuss politics without the conversation degenerating into shouting match on the level of, “You’re stupid!” “No, you’re stupid!” We were willing to recognize the humanity and basic decency of others, and to acknowledge that a political opponent was a fine person, even if we had different ideas about what was best for the country.

It seems to me that Jesus went out of his way to tell us that we should be kind to others, and not merely to those we already know or love, and especially not only to those who are able to pay us back. He told us specifically to invite to dinner those who COULDN’T pay us back. He calls us to set an example of kindness and grace to everyone.

He’s not the only one. The prophet Micah told us to “practice justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before our God” (Micah 6:8). The Apostle Paul lists “kindness” along with the other fruit of God’s Spirit. And that list is not a buffet – we don’t get to pick & choose which items we want. “Yes, I’ll take some love and a little peace, please, but no thanks on the self-control.” If God’s Spirit is alive and active inside of us, He will be producing all of those qualities in us.

The problem with kindness is that, by its very nature, it doesn’t call attention to itself; it’s more concerned with serving others than in tooting its own horn. And in our self-promoting, selfie-obsessed culture, most of us simply don’t think of how to serve others.

Caring about others – putting the needs of others first – is a learned behavior, and contrary to human nature. It’s an act of discipleship that follows in the self-sacrificing steps of our Lord. Maybe that’s why it’s so rare.

Jesus is still looking for disciples who will walk as He walked, and live as He lived. That includes showing kindness to all. Especially those who don’t deserve it.

2.9013

The “Losada Line” is the name of a principle of human interaction that has generated a huge amount of controversy in recent years. Also known as the “Positivity Ratio,” this idea says that all of us have many encounters with other people throughout our day, and that in order to maintain good mental and emotional health, we need at least 2.9013 positive, uplifting or encouraging interactions, to balance against one negative encounter.

In other words, most people need to be praised, patted on the back and encouraged about three times as much as they need to hear bad news, criticism or condemnation. One application might be that bosses should spend three times as much time praising their people as they do criticizing them, in order to have a company that runs more smoothly and employees that are more productive. At least, that’s the theory.

Now, this so-called “Losada Line” is VERY controversial. A large number of researchers and social scientists have criticized the study that produced that report and raised serious questions about the validity of its research and conclusions. And some of those criticisms seem to be well-founded.

Which, in my opinion, does not take away from the basic truth that people need encouragement and a kind word.

All of us have friends who can always make us feel better, even during difficult situations. We have probably had the experience of going to the hospital to visit a sick friend, and that person ends up cheering US up. The ability to inspire, to motivate, and to encourage others is a precious gift.

Now granted, too much positivity can occasionally lead to distortions. Sometimes we need a kick in the butt, rather than a pat on the back. If you’re at the doctor’s office, you want your physician to give you truthful answers, not “happy talk” that ignores serious problems. But the truth is, most of us have more than enough bad news in our lives, so sometimes we need to be intentional about seeking out words of encouragement.

It’s not ignoring the truth to want to surround ourselves with companions who can offer words of hope and joy. It’s not sticking our heads in the sand to choose to focus on the good around us, to see a glass as half-full rather than half-empty. It is not weakness to want to hear from friends who can offer encouragement and inspiration when we are down. And it’s not foolish or naïve to try and be more positive and encouraging in our dealings with others. It sounds cliched and even out of date to say, but we can start by counting – and giving thanks for – our blessings.

Haskell has been blessed lately to have several new leaders come join our community. We need to celebrate these folks and look for ways to support and encourage them! Their fresh ideas and new ways of looking at things may be just what we need to overcome some of the challenges we face.

I am reminded of a letter that outgoing President George H.W. Bush wrote to incoming President Bill Clinton, in January 1993. You may recall what a brutal, bruising campaign year that 1992 had been – and yet, in his letter to the guy that beat him, Mr. Bush said,

Dear Bill,

When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.

I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.

There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.

You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.

Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.

Good luck –

George

So, if I may paraphrase President Bush, our new community leaders’ successes will be Haskell’s successes. Let us do all we can to encourage them in their endeavors.

One of my very favorite Bible verses is Proverbs 11:25 – “A generous person will prosper; those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed.” So let us strive to be generous in our attitudes and dealings with others – to be people who are refreshing to know. My prayer is that we can all learn to be the kind of community member, the kind of family member, the kind of friend, who can offer a word of encouragement and hope to those around us.

And to do that, at least 2.9013 times more often than we criticize.

Running into the Darkness

People run OUT of burning buildings. That’s simple human self-preservation, to get as far away from danger as possible. Yet we know there are those who run INTO burning buildings. We call them firefighters. We also call them heroes.

Normal human reaction is to get away from gunfire, especially if you’re unarmed. But soldiers and law enforcement officers routinely run TOWARDS gunfire, especially when a buddy is in trouble. And medics will do this, even though they are unarmed, to save a life. Heroes in action.

These are examples of physical courage in the face of danger. But there is another kind of courage, just as rare, and just as worthy of celebrating. It is the kind of moral courage that runs into the darkness where another person is trapped.

As humans, we were meant to live in relationship with others – family members, co-workers, neighbors. We were meant to live in community, to provide mutual support and encouragement. But relationships are messy. If we want to enjoy truly mutual relationships with others, that requires that we make ourselves vulnerable. It also requires that we allow others to be vulnerable to us.

And there’s the problem: most of us want to keep our emotional distance. Oh, we’re fine with relationships as long as they’re on the surface, or as long as it doesn’t require too much of a commitment from us. But when a neighbor or a co-worker needs someone who is willing to listen, to “weep with those who weep,” as the scripture says, to be willing to just make an investment of time – are we willing to be that person?

So I come back to our opening thoughts. We admire the courage, the loyalty, the selflessness of a firefighter who would charge into a burning building, or a medic who races into a combat situation, to save a life. Are we willing to do the same thing for someone who needs a friend?

The world is desperate to see the love of God. The world is aching to see Christians who will live out what they say they believe. Are you willing to be that person? Am I?

Are you willing to be the one who goes to the old man who lives down the street, and has no one to talk to? Would you spend an hour a week, just sitting with him and listening?

Or how about that single mom at work? Will you be the one who reaches out to her and offers to babysit for a little while, just so she can go buy groceries without the kids? Or maybe even, let her go get her hair done, without having to worry about the little ones?

When Jesus said He would build His church and the gates of hell would not “prevail” against it, what did He mean? That hell would attack the church, but that the church would never fall to those attacks? Well, that’s certainly true, but I think that interpretation misses the point.

I mean, think about it. Have you ever been attacked by a gate? No, gates are for DEFENSE! When Jesus said the “gates of hell” would not stop us, He is telling us that we need to break down those hellish gates and seek for those who are trapped inside, in their own private, spiritual hell. Storm the gates! Rescue the prisoners! Find those who sit in darkness and bring them out. As Isaiah 61:1-3 says,

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion. (emphasis added)

Somebody cared enough about you and me to go get us; now we need to go get someone else. This is what the Kingdom of God looks like. Each one matters. Each one is important. And no one gets left behind.

Be a friend to the friendless. Be a neighbor to the lonely. Be a brother or a sister to the one needing a family. Be the hands and feet of Christ, reaching out to care for the least of these.

“God Helps”

I have always enjoyed reading and studying the parables of Jesus – maybe it’s because there’s not much I like more than hearing a well-told story. One of the first definitions of a parable that I learned is still one of the best: an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Jesus was a Master of taking common, ordinary elements from everyday life, and using them to make an application of a spiritual principle. One of the best is the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Luke 16:19-31. (Go ahead and get your Bible if you want to – I’ll wait.)

One of the first controversies people get bogged down in concerns whether this is a fictional parable, or a true story that Jesus somehow knew through His divine awareness. The argument has often been made that it must be about real people since Jesus calls “Lazarus” by name – something He does in no other parable.

I must respectfully disagree. “Lazarus” is a form of the Hebrew name, “Eleazar,” which means, “God helps.” It was a very common name and doesn’t have to mean anything other than Jesus, a good storyteller, is giving a fictional character a familiar name. In fact, its significance may be in its Hebrew meaning: the rich man had many resources on which he could rely, but this poor man’s only help was from God.

One thing that I’ve learned in my study of the parables – people use them to preach and teach all sorts of screwy things. Many interpreters seem to regard the words of Jesus as a blank screen onto which they can project whatever point of view they’re wishing to promote.

That’s especially true with this text. Many interpreters come up with some strange applications of this text, but in my opinion, they miss what Jesus is trying to teach. To understand His point, we have to back up a few verses in the chapter. Earlier in Luke 16, Jesus had been speaking about having the right priorities when it comes to money, and understanding that our money is an asset, a tool, that God has given us, and we must be wise and responsible in using that tool for God’s glory. In Luke 12:21, He talked about the foolishness of storing up wealth for oneself but failing to become “rich toward God.”

Meanwhile, the Pharisees, “who loved money” (Luke 16:14), were “sneering” at Jesus. They had totally bought into a version of what is today called the “prosperity gospel:” the idea that God rewards His followers materially, and that earthly riches are a sign of God’s favor. (There are plenty of TV preachers and others today who audaciously proclaim this same falsehood.) But it is in response to the cynical, sneering Pharisees that Jesus tells this story.

His point, in my opinion, was to teach that we have a responsibility to use our money, as well as our time, our talents, our possessions, and whatever else God may have given us, in such a way as to glorify Him. If we use our wealth only to make ourselves comfortable – as this rich man did – then we have failed to love God with “all our heart,” and we have certainly failed to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”

Lazarus, according to the story, hung out every day near the rich man’s garbage cans, hoping just to eat the scraps that were being thrown out. His only companions were the stray dogs that he competed against for dinner. Did the rich man know he was there? Did he even see him?

It’s easy to condemn the rich man for his failures, even as we let ourselves off the hook. But Jesus doesn’t let us off that easy. Many of us have become quite skilled at NOT seeing those around us. Who are the needy among us? Who are the friendless near us? Who is the neighbor or co-worker that just wants someone to talk to? We rationalize our failure to help; we excuse ourselves by thinking about the “wrong choices” that “the poor” have made, to put them where they are.

Do we know that? And even if we do, are we really that self-righteous and smug? Is that how God treated us? In another place, Jesus talked about the need to remove the plank in our own eye before we worry about the speck in our brother’s eye. Many of us are quick to give ourselves “grace” for the wrongs we have done; can we not find some grace to help others?

Ultimately, in the story, Lazarus was “helped” by God. May God “help” each of us to see and reach out to those around us.

A Very Special Trip

In February 2009, I was blessed to be part of a group from Beltway Park in Abilene that went to the Holy Land. A bus ride to DFW, a flight to Atlanta, a flight to Tel Aviv and there we were, in Israel!

Our first stop was Akko, on the Mediterranean coast in the far northwest corner of the country. Akko is a very ancient city, referenced in the Hebrew text of Job 38:11. In NT times, it was known by the name of Ptolemais – Paul went through it towards the end of his 3rd missionary journey, heading towards Jerusalem – Acts 21:7. The city was a major port for the Crusaders, conquered by the English King Richard the Lionheart, retaken by the Muslims, and later the site of one of the few defeats ever suffered by Napoleon.

All that to say, it’s kinda historic.

We went down the coast to Caesarea, the man-made port city constructed by Herod the Great, then on to Mt. Carmel, to the area where Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest – 1 Kings 18.  We headed east, through the Jezreel Valley to Megiddo, and on to our hotel on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (which is actually a freshwater lake).

On February 10, we visited the site where it’s believed that Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount. Then it was on to a chapel by the lake itself, to the area where it’s believed that Jesus cooked breakfast for the disciples after His resurrection – John 21. Jesus and Peter went for a walk along the rocky shore, and Jesus told Peter, “Feed my sheep.”

We went to Jesus’ adopted hometown of Capernaum next. Words cannot really describe how special this part of the trip was for me. We know about more miracles per square foot that took place there, than any other place In Israel. The synagogue leader’s daughter, and the woman with the issue of blood. The centurion’s servant, and the paralyzed man whose friends lowered him down through the roof. Peter’s mother-in-law, and a miraculous catch of fish. And on, and on, and on – yet most of the people there did not believe. 

Something very special and personal happened to me while we were there. I began to think about all that Jesus did there, and all the stories from the Gospels – inviting Peter and the others to become “fishers of men,” visiting Matthew’s tax collecting booth, teaching in the synagogue, and more. Capernaum is not a very big place – the entire village would probably fit between the Haskell square and the high school – and all the spots where these things happened were just yards from where I was standing. Here’s the weird part: it was almost as if I could see the faces of all the Sunday School teachers that I had when I was a kid, and I could almost hear them telling me those stories again. And here I was, standing in the middle of where all those things happened.

I had never felt the Spirit of Jesus more keenly than I did in that moment.

We were in Israel for almost two weeks. We visited the Jewish fortress of Masada, the oasis at En Gedi (one of King David’s favorite places!), and the Dead Sea. Of course, we toured Jerusalem, went to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, and walked the Via Dolorosa. We saw the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Gordon’s Calvary, and shared communion outside the Garden Tomb.

Here I am on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem and the site of the ancient temple.

It was a great trip, and I’m ready to go back. There are some places I want to see again, and lots more places that I want to visit. For those who say, “Oh, I’d never go – it’s much too dangerous” – not so. The most dangerous part of the trip was the bus ride on I-20! Stay with your tour group, and you’ll be fine.

I believe every Christian should go to Israel at least once, if possible. It will make the Bible come alive in ways you never imagined. And maybe it will renew your faith to a deeper level than you ever thought possible.

Praising Him in the Hall

Last summer, while I was living with my dad in Southeast Texas, I had the privilege of preaching every week for my friends at the West Orange Christian Church. There was a poster in a hallway in their building that said, “While you’re waiting for God to open a door, praise Him in the Hall.”

Good advice.

For the past several months, I have been looking for a ministry job. You’d think it wouldn’t be that hard – after all, I keep hearing about a nationwide shortage of pastors. And I’m not hard to please. All I want is the opportunity to work with a local church, preach and teach the scripture every week, and make a living to support myself and my family.

Unfortunately, whether it’s because of my “advanced” age – I’ll be 62 in a few months – or because I don’t neatly “fit in” to a traditional denomination, or some other reason, I’m not hearing anything back from the numerous applications and resumes that I’m sending out. And I’m talking a LOT of applications. It’s very discouraging. And certainly, very depressing.

Meanwhile, I still like to eat, and I still have bills to pay, so I’ve had to go back to a career that I thought I had left in my past – retail sales. I’m working at the Mall of Abilene, at J.C. Penney’s. I like Penney’s, and I especially like the heritage of the store’s history. When Mr. James Cash Penney first opened his store in Kemmerer, Wyoming, it was part of a chain known as the “Golden Rule Store.” It’s good work, I like serving customers, and I’m enjoying getting to know my co-workers. As one of the oldest “sales associates” on the floor, I’m finding that my background and experience in sales give me a different perspective on the meaning of “customer service.” And I’m enjoying that, too.

Make no mistake: I still want to return to a full-time job as a minister, to be part of the team at a missions organization, or to do some other kind of work specifically for the Kingdom of God. At the same time, I don’t want to make the mistake of thinking that I’ll serve God “later,” or to fail to see the ways I can serve Him, and others, now.

The Bible class I get to teach at our church remains a rewarding, fulfilling part of every week, as does the Sunday night Bible study I share with several good friends. And the opportunities to witness and minister at my everyday job are becoming more and more precious to me.

Whether it’s a kind word, a listening ear, or a Christian example, I’m rediscovering lots of ways to live out my faith in the “secular” workplace. So while I am more than ready for God to open the right door for a full-time ministry position, He is teaching me, by His grace, to praise Him in the hall.

Overcoming Fear

Here’s a question for you: what is the most negative, most destructive, most harmful emotion? There certainly is no shortage of candidates to consider – anger, hatred, pride, just to name a few – but in my opinion, the worst of all has to be fear.

For example, have you noticed how many television commercials make their appeal by trying to stoke your fear? A majority of money management and investment ads fall into this category. They’re trying to make you afraid of outliving your money, or not being able to “keep up your lifestyle,” or some other vague concept to threaten you and make you afraid.

Insurance companies excel at this, promising to protect you from “mayhem,” and the fear that arises from the unknown and unexpected. We enjoy spending time on social media, but then are horrified to discover that personal information has been shared without our permission. Our elected officials give lengthy speeches that pump up our fears and appeal to our basest natures. A recent study by a major university found that an overwhelming majority of gun owners point to “being afraid” as their number one reason for buying weapons – and especially buying multiple weapons.

Last summer’s hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and mudslides affected millions of us, and made us realize how helpless we are to prevent natural disasters, and how susceptible we are to becoming a victim. And fear grows.

We are living in a society that is drowning in fear – fear of running out of money, fear of burglars, fear of disasters, fear of “others.” We are afraid of dying, and afraid of living too long. We are afraid of the government, afraid of corporations, and afraid of each other.

It’s my opinion that this fear is destroying the very fabric of our society.

We need to realize this type of paralyzing, crippling fear is not new. In fact, one of the most frequently quoted phrases in the Bible is, “Do not fear” – by some counts, that phrase appears 365 times in the scripture. And it’s clear from the Holy Word that while fear may be common and understandable, it doesn’t have to rule our lives. Consider –

  • For God did not give us a spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control. (2 Tim. 1:7)
  • Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isa. 41:10)
  • He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, … (Psa. 91:1-5)
  • The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? (Psa. 27:1)
  • When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me? (Psa. 56:3-4)
  • I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

God wants to walk in peace, not fear. So how can we do that?

Recognize fear when it appears. It’s natural and normal – even healthy – to have a certain level of fear about the unknown, about new situations, or other unfamiliar circumstances, but we can’t let that fear paralyze us into inaction. When we are making a decision about something, we need to evaluate that choice, consider the pros and cons, seek the counsel of wise friends – then decide! We must not let the fear make the choice for us.

Pray. In Philippians 4:6, Paul says “Don’t be anxious about anything; instead, in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God”. We need to cultivate our relationship with God so that we can stay in touch with Him about every situation of our lives.

Stay positive. One of the most important techniques for battling fear is to fill our minds with positive and encouraging thoughts. Please don’t misunderstand: I am not suggesting any strategy that ignores reality. But as believers we must be filling our hearts and minds with the teaching of the Scriptures, the encouragement of Christian music, and the help of the Holy Spirit and godly friends, so that we are not vulnerable to falling into fear and despair. Remember that the first time God appears to Joshua after the death of Moses, three times in that conversation, God tells Joshua, “Be strong and courageous!” (Joshua 1:6-9).

Plan well but realize… Nothing I am saying here should be interpreted as if I am against planning or preparation. By all means, we should plan and be as ready as humanly possible. We should try and anticipate possibilities and be as prepared as possible for any situation. But at the same time, we must remember that we are not in charge, that sometimes situations and circumstances come that no one could have expected or prepared for. I say this as a survivor of Hurricane Harvey. In those situations when our planning fails, let us not fall into fear, but let us know that our God is still bigger than our circumstances, that it has not taken HIM by surprise, and that He is with us, through everything.

Let us, then, have full confidence that we do not need to be anxious, that we can face each day and every situation knowing that He is with us, and that we need not fear. Strength and courage!

Starting Over

Hi. It’s been a while, but I’m back. Thanks for being here.

As some of you know, I haven’t posted anything in a while; in fact, I haven’t posted anything new since I returned to Abilene, following the flooding of Hurricane Harvey. To be honest, I was feeling so overwhelmed by circumstances that I was unsure of how to proceed.

Back in mid-October, I went to work for Glenn & Carol Dromgoole at Texas Star Trading Company in downtown Abilene. They are wonderful people, and I really enjoyed working there, even though it was only a seasonal job. But because it WAS a seasonal job, that position ended once we got past Christmas and the annual inventory.

Meanwhile, dad remains in a nursing home in Lewisville while the Orangefield house is being rebuilt. My brothers Jimmy & David – along with lots of volunteers and some INCREDIBLY generous help from some of our cousins – have made great progress on the house, but it’s still probably going to be March or April before it will be ready. And since I can’t afford to twiddle my thumbs until then, I’m back on the job market.

Anybody have a good opening for a 60-something pastor?

I’ve been doing a lot of praying lately, and a lot of soul-searching, for what kind of job I want, and I’ve reached an obvious decision: I feel like God is leading me back into full-time ministry; I just don’t know where. So I have been polishing up my resume, and searching for open church opportunities. I am firmly convinced that if this is, in fact, what God has in mind for us, He will open the right door.

Meanwhile, if you’re interested in it, here’s my resume.

I would love to stay in West Texas – Kathy & I both really like living here, and we have so many great friends. But anyone who has been in professional ministry knows that moving to new areas and making new friends is just part of that reality, so we will see.

Meanwhile, God’s words to Joshua keep me going – “Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go” (Josh. 1:9).

“Chains Shall He Break…”

The music of Christmas has always been one of my favorite parts of celebrating this season of joy. When I was a child, I remember my mom had Christmas music playing during the entire month of December. Christmas music continues to be special to me, both the serious and the silly, the sacred and the secular. I want to tell you the story behind my favorite of all Christmas songs.

The year was 1847. Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissioner of wines in a small French village who had some local fame as a poet. Although he was not a regular church-goer, the local priest asked him if he would compose a special poem for use at that year’s Christmas service, and Cappeau agreed.

With the Christmas story from Luke in mind, Cappeau began to imagine actually being in Bethlehem and watching the events of that night unfold, and he soon completed the poem, which he entitled, “Cantique de Noel.” But Cappeau felt that the poem needed to become a song, and so he turned to a musician friend, Adolphe Adams, for help.

Adams was a Jew, but he agreed to help his Gentile friend compose a song for a holiday that Adams did not celebrate, to honor a Messiah that he did not worship. The tune was finished, and three weeks later, “Cantique” was performed for the first time at the midnight Christmas Mass. The song found wide acceptance in churches across France.

But a few years later, Cappeau walked away from the church and became part of the socialist movement, and French church officials discovered that the tune had been written by an unbelieving Jew. They denounced the song as being unfit for worship services, lacking in musical taste, and “total absence of the spirit of religion.” (Personally, I think that’s a good thing, but I digress.)

Anyway, that might have been the end of “Cantique,” except the song found its way to America a few years later, and was given new life by a staunch abolitionist, John Sullivan Dwight. You probably never heard of him – frankly, neither had I – but he prepared and published a new translation of Cappeau’s poem into English. Dwight was especially moved by the third verse of “Cantique.”

Truly He taught us to love one another,

His law is love, and His gospel is peace.

Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,

And in His Name, all oppression shall cease.

Sweet hymns of joy, in grateful chorus raise we,

Let all within us, praise His holy Name:

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever!

His power and glory, Ever more proclaim!

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever!

His power and glory, Ever more proclaim!

And so, “O Holy Night” became popular on this side of the Atlantic, at first in northern homes during the Civil War, and later, throughout the country.

There is a legend that says during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, a French soldier on Christmas Eve stood up, exposing himself to enemy fire, and began to sing “Cantique de Noel.” The Germans held their fire, and when was finished, a German soldier began to sing “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” a Christmas hymn by Martin Luther. The story goes that troops on both sides observed an unofficial Christmas truce.

“O Holy Night” became involved in another Christmas miracle of sorts a few years later, in 1906. Reginald Fessenden was a 33-year-old university professor and former assistant to Thomas Edison. On Christmas Eve of that year, using a new type of generator, Fessenden began to speak into a microphone: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed…”

Across the country, and far out at sea, wireless operators who were used to hearing only coded dots and dashes over their equipment heard a man’s voice, reading them the Christmas story! It was the first known radio broadcast. When he finished reading the story, Professor Fessenden did something even more remarkable. He picked up his violin, and began to play a Christmas hymn – “O Holy Night.” And so it became the first song ever heard on the radio.

(The above material taken from “Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas” by Ace Collins, Copyright (c) 2001, Andrew Collins. Published by Zondervan.)

I love this carol, and it always moves me to tears, in part because of its soaring melody, and also in part because it answers the “So What?” question of Christmas. Jesus came to Earth – so what? He taught us about the love of God – so what? This song reminds us that we must live out the meaning of Christmas in the way that we treat others, to love God by loving our neighbors, and to join the work of Christ in breaking the chains of sin and injustice.

One of my favorite versions of this hymn is by Point of Grace. I hope you enjoy it.

From our family to yours, Merry Christmas.