Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Cost

Well, it's almost Christmas. The traffic is thicker and our patience is thinner. We're beginning to put one eye on the calendar and the other on the checkbook make sure that one doesn't get ahead of the other. That fear can begin to start - what if we don't have enough? Don't you miss those days as children when you never gave a thought to Christmas' cost? 

My family was not wealthy by any means, but neither were we poor. Like many, we lived from week to week, knew our banker or loan officer well, and while we never lacked, we never prospered. Yet every Christmas that I can remember came and went leaving me filled with the belief that I had been blessed. If I wanted a "Johnny 7 One Man Army Gun" badly enough, it seemed to find its way to the tree. If a "Model Motoring by Aurora" racetrack caught my fancy, well, apparently Santa knew that too. 

Even though I knew from my trips to the stores that such things had prices, I never concerned myself with the cost. 

Yet there was a cost - a sacrifice for my parents - every year. As I grew older, I'd catch snippets of conversations about the bills, and their struggle to pay them. "What are we going to do?", I'd hear my Mother say with worry and fear coloring her voice. "I don't know, but they are going to have Christmas," replied my Father, somewhat more hopefully, but still unsure. And off they'd go to the Western Auto, or to Sears, or to somewhere else they could buy toys and pay on time. 

Gradually I realized that my Christmas gifts cost them dearly. In time, in energy, in stress. My mother would cut corners - patch jeans, save pennies. My father would work overtime even after his regular swing shift. So somehow, every year there'd come Christmas. It came with a cost. 

It always has. 

That's why we have communion on Christmas Eve. To remember the cost.

My prayer is that as we celebrate the birth of Christ tomorrow, we remember that He came to pay the price for our sins.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Whenever You Hold A Child

Christmas time always causes me to rummage around in my closet of memories. If you're like me, you've got stuff in there.

For me, back there past the 3rd grade report card I'm still grousing over from one December past, or the memory of the time the heat pump went out when I was 2200 miles away from a freezing Macon, GA, are memories upon memories of Christmases.

Some examples?

One Christmas when I was a child, I received a toy helicopter with a broken windshield. A note affixed read "sorry, dropped off the sleigh. - Santa". I come by my sense of humor genetically, obviously.

Another found Bunny and me walking away from a guitar store, not buying, but selling my guitar to pay for Christmas for the boys. We had smiles on our faces, thinking about how they were going to enjoy the toys. No regrets, only memories of their joy.

Really, most of my memories of Christmas revolve around children. I get excited every year to see the little ones as they begin to anticipate the day's coming. When I read the Christmas story, I remember what it's like to hold a newborn son. Joy floods your soul as you cradle this new life - full of promise, bathed in love, fresh from the arms of God. This time last year we were joyously but anxiously awaiting the birth of Aiden Brann Wilson, our grandson.

So when I read Zachariah's "song" and see this, it touches me.

And you, my child, "Prophet of the Highest,"
will go ahead of the Master to prepare his ways,
77Present the offer of salvation to his people,
the forgiveness of their sins.
78Through the heartfelt mercies of our God,
God's Sunrise will break in upon us,
79Shining on those in the darkness,
those sitting in the shadow of death,
Then showing us the way, one foot at a time,
down the path of peace. Luke 1:77-79

When I visualize this scene, I see a man holding his son. Maybe John was sleeping - you like them to get in that routine early. Or maybe he was looking up at his daddy, fist in his mouth, or with arms outstretched. I can see those dimples on the backs of his hands, and his little bitty toes. A baby, held tight in the arms of love.

Zachariah, unlike most anyone else, had a clear understanding from God directly about what the result of his son's life would be. That passage is God's announcement of just what the life of John the Baptist would mean.

But remember, Zach and Liz couldn't just kick back and not do the work of being John's parents - just the opposite. God's plan for John's life required Zachariah and Elizabeth to do what they only could do, and that is to "train up a child in the way he should go..." Before John could show anyone else the "path of peace", he had to be taught the "way".

Friends, when you hold a child, you are holding God's investment into the future of this world. You are holding one of His masterpieces of creation. Snug within your arms lies the continuation of God's purpose and plan.

That child you hold may be someone like John, who will show many people the way.
That child you hold may be someone like Mary, whose life will be used to change the world forever.

Your part in that isn't just to hold them, but to mold them into people who grow up to live for Jesus. Whenever you do, you are touching generations yet to come with His love.

So this Christmas, why not take time each night to read the Christmas Scriptures? Talk with your kids about God's love for the world expressed through Jesus. Let them pretend they are shepherds, wise men, Joseph and Mary. Let them enter into the wonder and experiences that surround Christ's birth.

Make their memories of Christmas include Jesus.

And give them a hug for Bunny and me.

Adam and Shonda, bring us Aiden please. :)

Friday, November 29, 2013

29,999 hits +1

There was a time, back in the days I was writing more, I used to check my blog's statistics often. I'd write a post and then check to see how many people read it and even where they came from. No, I can't tell exactly WHO reads it, just the general geographic area. Remember, I'm SBC, not NSA. My goal was to try to help people see the love of God reaching out to them in the everyday. So I'd check to see if it was reaching anyone at all.

Last week's sermon, though I suspect everyone else has forgotten it, is still pinging around in my brain. I guess you could say it reached - me. I've having trouble getting past the idea that we have no idea, really, of just how much God loves us. The trigger for that was pretty simple, really. Thinking about all the ways God has shown His love to me, I focused on the beauty of nature around me. My Mother invested in me a love of flowers in general and I've always loved wildflowers for their simple beauty. So as I thought - prayed, really - prayers of thanks to God for His gifts, it came to me.

God created gazillions of wildflowers, most of which few humans will never see. And yet, there they are and as the Bible says "Solomon in all his glory

I'm writing this on Black Friday, where this year's reports rolling in indicate that people are many times willing to suspend the love for neighbor in favor of fighting to get that just right gift for themselves or someone they love. They'll punch, craw, snatch, and grab just so they can prove their love.

In sharp contrast, God IS love.

Everything He does comes directly from His deep, deep love for humanity. 

I wish I could help everyone to see that. This week has been full of moments when His love was so real. Like this one. 

So dear reader, thank you. I'll try to do better at this writing thing which sits in the middle of a crazy busy life.

Monday, November 04, 2013

God never quits reminding us

It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never gotten tired of making them. It may be that God has the eternal appetite of infancy.
G.K. Chesterton 

One of the things I fight about growing older is the tendency to fail to remember everyday the miracle of life. Every day we take about 20,000 breaths and every single one is a gift. Our eyes, one of the most intricately designed parts of our body, do the amazing work of recognizing, translating, and communicating what's in front of us. Our ears discriminate music from the background noise. Our nose picks up the molecular traces that we call smells. We're able to grip a baseball bat and hold a newborn.

We live in a miracle, AS a miracle. 

So on the way to work, God placed several patches of daisies to remind me. They appear in late September and continue their work until late November, when other flowers take over. Every year I look for them and every year God rewards my search. They are simply beautiful. They drive me to thank God every time I see them for being so good.

You know as tired as we get with it all, I am convinced that God never does. For all the fuss about our needing to get in touch with our inner child, God simply never forgot what it means to love something for what it is. Not for what it does for Him, or what it could be if He changed it - like we so often love - but for God, a daisy brings joy because it simply is.

Newsflash - He loves you the same way. 

I am dead serious here.

There is nothing you can do to earn His love.  Nothing you could do to make Him love you more. Sure there are things you and I both do that don't please God - some which may even make Him angry at the sheer foolishness of our rebellious ways.

But friend, He'd do it all again.

And He does.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

When It's All Said and Done

Bunny and I spent a few minutes today looking at pictures of the most fascinating person in the world - Aiden Brann Wilson - our grandson. Perhaps I'm getting a bit easy to move emotionally as I age, but looking at those pictures, I remembered those days when I held Aiden's father in my arms, and many of those moments that mark a life forever. I remember how my heart would swell with joy as he slept on my shoulder and I felt his heart beat and heard those little coos as he breathed.

Meeting the woman of my dreams, our first kiss, beginning life together - it's all still there. Bunny being pregnant with Adam, enjoying him immeasurably, and then being blessed with Sean to boot. Then came so many years of joy as we raised two incredible boys, surrounded by our families in the community we grew up in. Our church families at Bethesda and Mt Zion Baptist both provided us with strong support and deep understanding of what it means to be a church family. The conversations we had and the times we shared still warm my heart decades after the fact.

And here I am tonight finishing a sermon as I have done so many times... I'm wondering.

Have I done what God wanted me to with my life?

When I accepted God's call - when I said "yes" to God, it also meant I was saying "no" to a lot of what made our life so rich for so long. I left a great job with a future, a great church with awesome friends, left family and familiar surroundings for the great unknown - at least unknown to us. Just as I've always told people who are getting married that no one can really explain what it's like, serving God as a pastor comes with precious little in the way of a road map. There have been others who entered the ministry after me who have left it already, good men who I respect for their faith and character but who ended their service in leadership to return to a normal life. It always causes me to wonder what happened. Was the pressure too great? Were the strains of "herding cats" while keeping a church's focus on Christ instead of preferences too telling? Did the toll on their family prove so much they just decided "enough - I've done enough."

There have certainly been some detours and road closed signs during the time I have served at New Hope. Many times discouragement and doubt have caused me to want to hang it up or leave. Yet the Lord has always given me the grace to make it another day. These last three years, as I've worked as a teacher along with trying my best to care for the people God gave me to love have been a roller coaster ride of feeling great about our impact one day and not so great the next. Still, grace has always been enough.

So tonight as I'm preparing to preach in Acts Chapter 20 tomorrow, where Paul is following God's call into an uncertain future, I get a chance to hear a clear message directly from his heart to mine. From one man who left it all behind to follow Jesus to another.

And you know what?

When it's all said and done - His grace is enough.

I can look back and see God's guiding hand again and again. I can feel His presence even now as I write this, letting me know He is with me and that no matter how feeble and unworthy I might feel at times, His Spirit will supply what I need to fulfill His purpose for me until the day He calls me home. I'll try to be faithful everyday, and rely on Him to live out this verse.

David did God’s will during his lifetime.  Acts 13:36 (NCV)

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Day We Said Goodbye - Remembering the Heart of a Dog

It was 4 years ago today when, on a day gray, dark, and pouring rain, my son and I knelt beside one of the best friends we will ever have, our big Great Dane named Henley. We were waiting for the veterinarian to come into the room with the Xrays that would confirm what we really already knew. Cancer was working hard to bring our big boy down. It wasn't the first time we had been in that room.

A few months earlier, Henley had fallen desperately ill with an infection. We stood in that same room as one of the vets told us that there probably wasn't anything to do except either to wait for him to die, or to put him down. We brought him home, carrying all 155 pounds out of that office on a quilt. Thanks to the skilled help of another vet who was a friend, and all our our complete dedication to his care, we pulled him through, only to find ourselves 6 months later being told the same thing as before.

Due to the chance that the leg bone, riddled with cancer, might snap and plunge Henley into instant and torturing pain, this time we gave away a few days or months of chances to love and be loved, and held him close as he fell to sleep and then away from us forever. I hope he knew how much he was loved, and that what we did was the hardest thing we have ever done.

There are still times when I come through the door and think about his greetings. 155 pounds of complete and utter joy mixed with love as he pranced and wiggled his big form, all the while making that "woo woo woo" love growl that we all loved to hear. Still times I see that big collar of his and wish he was in it. Our Airedales are awesome and we love them fiercely. But I have to confess that there's nothing like a Dane.

From the first moment Bunny and I saw that face, already impossibly big for a dog his age, we were smitten. He was our dog and we were his. The years that followed saw us share lots of adventures and a few hardships - but every time I came through the door, I knew that greeting was coming. We took him with us on trips to Dallas, to Savannah, and many times to Macon. It was always funny to see the looks from people in small towns along the way when out of the back of our Kia Sportage came "the horse." One time in Colquitt a family made a complete circle of the Hardees just so their kids could see Henley again. What I'd give to see him again.

That's the only flaw in Great Danes, really. They are subject to the same mortality as we are, even more so as their lives average 7-10 years. We had 7, and they were the best.

So thank you God, for such an amazing gift. I'll continue praying that out of your mercy, you'll see fit to let us see him again, and experience the joy of that reunion.

“You think those dogs will not be in heaven! I tell you they will be there long before any of us.” 
― Robert Louis Stevenson

Friday, October 11, 2013

Change Their Hearts, Lord

Politics is not my thing. I run from conversations when I can. I do everything I can to keep the folks I serve at New Hope from going there while we are gathered together. But my river of irritation with the current fiasco has kept rising and rising and this picture just caused it to overflow its banks.

It began with WW2 veterans being denied a chance - maybe their last chance - to stand next to their Memorial - though in truth all of America is their memorial. Then stories surfaced of parking lots on scenic overviews closed, death benefits suspended, parks closed, commissaries idled, research stopped, and now this picture hit my tipping point.

So to you Senators, Congressmen, to you Mr. President, and to all the lesser functionaries...


We've always had adversarial relationships between parties in Washington. 

But we've never been spiteful like we are now.

We've never broken hearts for supposed political gain like we are doing now. 


Please dear reader, pray for the Holy Spirit to convict those in power of the needless pain they have inflicted on tender hearts and drive them to come together for the good of our nation. 

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Like A Rock

I've seen the trailer a dozen times now. Sandra Bullock flies by the shuttle and screaming off into space. I always wonder about movies like that. From this couch-side view, I'd think the idea was to raise the viewers emotions as they see someone in trouble barely hanging on.

Frankly, I see enough of that in real life.

There's the student who is struggling and he knows it. I can see it in his face way before he ever says anything. Rushing over to help him work a problem, his little face turns upward to mine and he says "Mr. Wilson, today I am thinking like a rock." When I ask "what does a rock think like?"

He says with a quiver, "They don't." He's failing and he just lost his belief that he'll ever change that.

It doesn't matter what age you are. When the flood rises and you taste fear's bitterness, and you feel your confidence in yourself slipping - the tide rushing out between your feet - you know it isn't a movie.

Today I knelt beside that little soul and walked through the problems with him. I assured him that I was not going to walk away - that I'd help him today and tomorrow - until he "got" it. He needed to know that he wasn't in it alone. He should know by now he can trust Mr. Wilson to do exactly what he says he will do. And I will.

Tonight I'm praying for him, and for God to give me everything I need to help him succeed.

Because I've been that soul.

I have had those moments where fear overwhelmed me and all I could see was devastating failure and loss.

And someone knelt beside me and repeated these words " “I’ll never let you down, never walk off and leave you,” (Hebrews 13:5b) and I instantly knew I could trust him.

Thank you Jesus. Thank you for my little one and all of us who need faith like a rock.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Chills, then fever

We met tonight in home group to talk about the holiness of God. It was... daunting. We heard a lot from the writings of A.W Tozer.

"God’s holiness is not simply the best we know infinitely bettered. We know nothing like the divine holiness. It stands apart, unique, unapproachable, incomprehensible and unattainable… Holy is the way God is. To be holy He does not conform to a standard. He is that standard.”
–A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy. (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1961), pp. 104-105.
We were told to take pictures of what we see of God and hang them on the walls of our mind and our hearts. 
I have some pictures, but from tonight, I have a sound.
The sound of all of us reading the Lord's Prayer (or the Model Prayer if you will) in unison.
There's something about hearing each other.
Kind of like, "Holy, Holy, Holy..." must be in heaven.
It gave me chills. And a burning desire to lead more people into that close a communion. To be there in the midst when it happens.
Thanks to all of you who gathered tonight. And thanks be to God.

Monday, July 22, 2013

First-hand faith example

Before I could finish praying, God had answered. I had come to the church to check our food pantry to see what we could cook for our food ministry this Wednesday. Every week we cook and deliver a 100 or so meals to our neighbors, and another couple of dozen or so for anyone who comes to eat with us at the church. It's something we've done for a couple of years now.

Supplying the needs for it, out of a small congregation like ours, is always a faith-building exercise. But we see people giving and God blessing the work. So I was a little shocked today when I was greeted with a pantry and freezers where there was not enough food to make it happen. I took the picture and headed over to check the mail and open my office for a meeting I had.

I hadn't gone 20 paces. 

I hadn't done more than a "Lord, you know our needs. We're doing this because your Word calls us to reach out in love to "the least of these"... 

I got to the mailbox, and thanked God there were no bills. :) But there was a card from someone in Texas. The name wasn't familiar. I opened the card and read a message from a person Bunny had met online. Bunny had shared about how our smaller church was cooking and delivering meals to our neighbors. She wrote "God moved me to help" and in the envelope was a check for $100.

Friends, before I asked - before I even knew we had a need - God had answered.

This is the God we love and serve at New Hope. 

If church is easy -  If your faith is never tested - If your faith is never validated like that...

You need to come experience faith first-hand at New Hope.

Come and see how GOOD God is.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Unsung heroes

Great day at New Hope!

The frame I was trying to put around the story of Stephen was that of an unsung hero. But now that I think about it, I'm around unsung heroes at New Hope already. Our Child To Child girls came up during announcements and read a card that they received from LOVE146, and amazing ministry working to end slavery. The girls work so hard making crafts they sell for donations to our church family and are reminding us of "the least of these" every time they make an announcement about their next ministry they'll support. So thank you girls. You are heroes. And thank you New Hope for your support.

We began with "Blessed Assurance", moved to "Forever", and finished the worship music with "From the Inside Out." We're so blessed to have a group who love to praise and worship and love old and new.

From there we moved to the message.

The story of Stephen has so many applications for us.

- He steps from the shadows into service.
- He allows the Holy Spirit to direct his actions and his heart.
- He speaks truth to power, but with gentleness and respect when possible, and with directness and uncompromising truth when he must.
- He lifts Jesus high. This is never about Stephen, even though he's the one on trial. Stephen knows that and he makes sure everyone understands that.
- He gives his life away, forgiving those who take it, just like Jesus.

If you're surrendered, if you've given your life over, you never know when you might be called to be a hero.

"When you were born, you cried and everybody else was happy. The only question that matters is this - when you die, will YOU be happy when everybody else is crying?" — Tony Campolo

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Whose Are You?

"Expedition V. Rhinoplasty", "Fractious S. Lineart", "Stargazing F. Propensity" all know my name. 

I'll open my email inbox and there they are, along with a few of their other brothers and sisters, trying to sell me something I don't want or need. Bunny and Sean get emails like that too, and we've begun comparing names every now and then to see who has the most outrageous.

It didn't take but a couple of those emails to figure out that someone has a computer and a lexicon and knows how to use them. They randomly generate names just so you won't know who is sending them. The names are meaningless. Cool, quirky, but meaningless.

I'm reading through the early New Testament today, sort of hit and miss. The idea was to read only the words of Jesus, and immerse myself in the scenes and people around Him. Thank God for red letter Bibles.

What I found was this - Jesus loved people like no one ever has.

Sure you can read His words to the religious fakes and catch a real edge to His voice - even anger. He did that out of love too - for the people who needed to know God loved them. And in the final week of His life on earth, knowing that His message of love would be rejected by those fakes as God's messages to them had always been - He wept. That's amazing love. 

When I reached the end of my Bible journey, I was in the book of John. It was there I noticed another name that was different. Just like those email names in a way, since the person had a name, but used a phrase to replace it. 

"The one Jesus loved..."

She ran and found Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved. John 20:2 (NLT)

What made John stop using his name? Was he doing that to say to others "Jesus loves me best?"

No, I don't believe so. I think John grasped what it means to know that God loves us. I think the love Jesus showed the people around Him convinced John that the greatest thing in the world was to be known as someone Jesus loves.

Well friends, verily verily I tell you the truth, you are one Jesus loves too. And when you love Him back with everything you've got to give, gradually, little by little, you'll learn just How much you are loved. Toward the end of His life, after decades of following in Jesus' way of love, John wrote this. He was still amazed by Jesus' love.

See how very much our heavenly Father loves us, for he allows us to be called his children, and we really are! 1 John 3:1 (NLT)

Are you amazed? Try calling yourself "the one Jesus loves." 

That's who you are.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Love, Loaves, and Fishes

"Anyone can be great because anyone can serve." Dr. Martin Luther King

There has never been a group of people that I have loved serving God with more than the people of New Hope Baptist Valparaiso. I'll pass my 14th anniversary soon so you should have figured out that I love this place. We have never been a big church. We did approach average church size a few years ago - well almost - actually our sanctuary won't hold the 150 souls that statistics say is an average church size. But we're not there now.

And yet on any given Wednesday, the people of New Hope will cook, plate and deliver more meals to more people than we have meeting together in worship on Sunday. Are we sitting on a load of other resources that would make it easier? You know, so we could just go to Danny's Fried Chicken and order 105 meals to go? No. There are weeks where the financial statement might show we have less than $20 in the bank. Now understand we have some very faithful people and so we're able to squeak by, barely. But churches that are in that state usually cut ministry. We didn't. We deliver more meals now than we did.

All I can do is praise God.

We have so many needs, but He has counted us worthy of playing a role in his love for "the least of these."

That's exciting. Each week we ask for help in getting what we need to cook the meal, package it, and deliver it. Many times the total cost of supplies is donated completely. Other times the church treasury takes the hit. But for over two years now, every single Wednesday night we have delivered to shut ins and the poor of Valparaiso. There have been times when we were in the "red" overall, but we pressed on, believing that God wanted us to have faith and act on that faith. He has never let us down. It has literally been "loaves and fishes" week after week after week.

I know lots of other churches have more staff, more stuff, and more programs for every slice of life. But what  if God is calling you to come and see how some of His people do more ministry with less, having to trust God for every week's needs? What if you came to a place where you weren't just noticed, but welcomed as part of a family? What if you were to come and join the group of believers at New Hope as we try to love our way through life together? 

Maybe there's a talent you have that's exactly what we need, but you don't get to use it. Maybe there's a ministry God is calling you into, but you need people around you who have real faith in God's calling and equipping.

Come. Walk with us.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Funeral Message for Laurie Knight

Laurie Knight passed away last week at 49. She was a longtime resident of Niceville and her family asked me to preach the funeral. I didn't know Laurie, but worked hard to gather information about her from family and others who knew her. Today, I delivered what you read below. May God give her family the peace and comfort they will need in their loss.


The Message...

There are a lot of people here today thinking "we're not supposed to be here for Laurie. There are some asking "why did this happen?" There are others wondering "how do I go on?" or "where do I go from here?" When you stop and really reflect on today, and what it means, that the life here of someone who touched so many lives in a multitude of ways, has ended, it definitely should make everyone here pause and consider. To take a minute and take stock of their life. I hope you do that today. And as you do that, I want to see if we can look for some connections between the questions you came in with to hope and to the future.

When you do look back over the life of Laurie Knight, there were certainly lots of connections to be made. She was the baby, the last child born into her military family that came to Eglin, got sand in their shoes and wound up staying here, like so many have. Laurie went through school here - Edge Elementary, Ruckle Middle, and graduated from Niceville High - just as so many did before and so many have after. Rachel was telling me that her Mom's name was on one of the trophies in a case just inside the front door at Edge for years. And looking at Facebook last night I saw a picture of Laurie on "Greek Day" in Middle school. She certainly made many connections with people along the way, but one very special one was with her future husband, Todd. I understand their first date was in 8th grade, and while they were just friends for a time, eventually love knitted their hearts together and for 28 years they were husband and wife.

It wasn't too long before their family tree grew with first Rachel, then Kyle. The days on which they were born were described by Laurie as "the happiest days of my life." Doesn't that speak to you? I mean from what I have been told, it hurts to give birth to a child. Granted, I only have secondhand information, but so many women have told me that I believe it to be true. But knowing that past the pain is pure joy wrapped up in a blanket made those the happiest days. In your mind's eye can't you see a young family with their kids at the beach? I can. They grow up so fast - you look around one day and they're grown. But those connections, though they are different, are no less strong. From what I can tell, Laurie was a Mom who loved her family fiercely and actively worked to keep love's connections strong. It's not easy as a parent to let go of the reins, to let your grown children (who will forever be "your babies") strike out in their own directions. Wise parents work to stay connected - to stay close - even when separated by distance. I know Rachel shared that she used Skype and the good old phone to keep her Mom up to date. And I understand that Kyle and his Mom were also truly connected by the heart.

To hear your kids describe you as "the best Mom ever", "the one I could talk to and always come away feeling better, feeling hopeful," to be called "the most unselfish person I have ever known - someone who would do everything she could to fix your problem - even if it cost her" - not to mention being named the holder of the prize for the "best hugs ever" had to have warmed Laurie’s heart. Just as to hear her husband’s “I don’t know what I will do without her” testifies to just how much she meant to him does. It's clear that Laurie had a big impact on the lives of her children. One of her friends mentioned she had run into Laurie recently and that "the kids were all she talked about."

Kyle and Rachel, you were blessed. Todd, you were blessed. But you know that.

And as the years go on, though the physical connection is now lost, there will be countless times when memories will replay all the moments which may have even seemed ordinary at the time, but which will warm your hearts.

One of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, describes that this way:

“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
― Anne Lamott

And you will come through. Family leaning on each other will help. Friends staying connected will help. And there’s an even greater source of help I want to talk with you about in a minute.

Rachel was telling me about how much her Mom loved animals. That to me says a lot about anyone. But then she said that when she was 19, she found a stray dog and brought it home. Rachel confessed that she wasn't always as responsible as she is now and she basically dumped the care of the dog on her Mom. Laurie proceeded to forge a connection with that abandoned soul to the point that she could barely move in the house without tripping over JaLee, and that dog loved her so that when Todd came home from his business trips he had to sometimes physically remove the dog from their bed. Laurie's heart connected naturally didn't it?

Of course you have to overlay other connections - after all, Laurie worked in banking with Vanguard for 23 years. She literally worked her way up from the bottom by her own hard work, determination, and skill. There too she was unselfish and dedicated to making connections with people, both coworkers and customers. She was very involved with the American Institute of Banking for a number of years, trying to see that others had the opportunity to get the tools they needed to succeed.

When you step back and look over how many connections Laurie must have made locally over the years, it's no wonder so many of you have turned out today. I know the family would want me to express their thanks and gratitude for your attendance here. At times like this such loving expressions mean a great deal.

I was reading last night, thinking about this today, and was praying for the words to say. Not just to help you understand who Laurie was, or to in doing so help you understand what you've lost. When I look out at family and friends, I think you already get that. No I was looking for what to say to broken hearted people many of whom don't understand why this is even happening.

So I began to read. The first thing I noticed was that Laurie had one connection even before she was born. The Bible says: You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed. Psalms 139:16 (NLT)

So even before her birth, God knew Laurie well. And in His ability to take all the millions of choices and actions we may make over a lifetime - where to live, who to marry, whether to eat smart and exercise, or to exercise our freedom to make whatever choices that please us at the time- God also knew we would be here today. Not because He caused it to happen, but because He is God, he knew. We didn't. Many of you are still in shock. But it didn't catch God unawares. He was there at the beginning, and He was with Laurie at the end.

At times like this we seldom get answers for the question, “why?” or “Why now?” Frankly, we all push away the certain knowledge that the death rate is still 100% for human beings and even when one of our classmates pass away at what seems like an early age, we forget how many times other, younger people preceded them. What we can take comfort in is the knowledge that no one dies alone.

I kept reading, and then turned to read of a night when a group of friends were hurting so bad. The One they had loved, who had spent years helping them in so many ways was about to die. He knew it, and out of His love for them, He spoke to them at dinner. Here's what He said.

1 “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. 2 There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? 3 When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. 4 And you know the way to where I am going.” John 14:1-4 (NLT)

Can you see what He's doing there? I talked about how Laurie made connections with so many people during her lifetime, remember? With friends from Elementary, Middle, and High School and all over the area. With coworkers at the bank. With her family. With her pets. Why over the last few months with her new found Facebook skills she was reaching out and sharing herself with others she hadn't seen in years. She was thinking about maybe going back to work, she and Kyle were attending church. She was connecting with new people and reconnecting with old friends - drawing them closer. She was keeping relationships going, making them stronger.

Here Jesus is doing all that, and more. He's telling some broken hearted people that even though He is going to die, because of God's love for Him, and His love for them, they will not be separated for long.

Like you, they don't understand why He had to die. He was so young. He had so much of life ahead. Everyone dies, we all know that. But just like now, no one wanted any part of losing the one they all loved. So Jesus turned to them and said basically, "Trust me. I've got this, if you’ve got me."

And like now, like here, they still didn't understand. It didn't help. So he repeated it.

28 Remember what I told you: I am going away, but I will come back to you again.
John 14:28 (NLT)

He knew that God's love, His power was going to bring Him back - to resurrect him. So He promised them that even though it hurt now, there would come a day when they would be able to receive what He called a gift—peace of mind and heart. John 14:27

Laurie was working on those relationship connections all the way up to her death. She was sharing her love with Kyle in person, with Rachel using technology and had planned a visit to Atlanta next week to deliver more of those world renowned hugs. And I know she missed Todd every day he was gone. But here we are today. It feels like the connection is lost.

Well here's some good news. Jesus made a connection with His loved ones that even death could not break, and He did it through their trust in Him as God's Son and as their Savior, or the One who would rescue them from death's pain. He literally gave His life away so that they might have the chance to choose life - eternal life with Him by trusting in Him. They couldn't do it - none of us can. Anyone who has ever had a newborn knows how utterly dependent they are. If we didn't have Mothers and daddies to take care of us, we'd never make it. We need someone who loves us so much that they'll do whatever it takes.

Jesus did that for them. He did that for Laurie. He has done that for you.

What He asks in return is for us to realize our situation. We are in need. The Bible tells us that we have all "sinned and fallen short of God's standard." In other words, we aren't ready to meet Him as we are. We have to understand we need someone to make us square with God. That someone is Jesus, who died on the cross for our sins. So when we agree or confess our need and then ask God to make us right with Him, trusting in Him as God, the only one who can save us, then and only then we can be secure in the knowledge that the connection with His heart that was just formed will never break.

When we die, we leave this part of our life, but begin life with God. So if anyone, Laurie included, makes that decision, to trust God with their whole life, days like today hurt, but less like seeing someone off at the airport knowing you'll never see them again and more like saying goodbye to your coworkers on the Wednesday before July the 4th. It's not that you don't appreciate them and your job, but given the choice, you'd choose the holiday, knowing you'll see them again.

That is the hope I came here today to deliver. There’s a connection that death cannot sever – the connection between a believer in Jesus Christ as Savior and Him. Choosing to believe in Him and live for Him, loving God and loving people, doesn’t just change your behavior. It changes your destiny. In the suddenness of why we are here today, think about that. And if God is calling you, act on it. Trust in Jesus.

Don't work up a list of reasons why you don't deserve His amazing grace, or a list of reasons why you are a great catch. It isn't really about you. It's about how much God has always wanted that heart connection with you and how far He was willing to go to make it. For God so loved ______ you, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever - you - believes in Him will have an eternal and unbroken connection with Him.

I have been here. Ten years ago I stood with my family around a very small grave where we laid to rest the body of my granddaughter whose life ended two days before she was due to be born. Listen to me. I could not have walked away from that grave with any life left worth living if I didn't know that I would see her again, and that she was in the arms of someone I could trust.

You need that. We all need that. So as I pray, make your decision to believe that through His love, through His Son’s sacrificial death on our behalf, through His resurrection from the dead- Jesus has this. He will see us through. We can trust Him.

Let us pray.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Faithful and True - Well Done, Oliver the Schnauzer

Our friends gave their faithful companion of 13.5 years, Oliver the miniature schnauzer, his release from this life to the next today. It is a release because in the last little while Oliver's little body has stopped working so well. He couldn't hear or see, and didn't even know to take one of his beloved treats unless it was placed in his mouth.

I've known Oliver all his life, and have known his owners/friends for a little while longer. I've seen the joy he brings them. I've rubbed his head and scratched behind his ears. He was the personification of what a dog brings - unconditional love, unbridled joy. He was a good dog.

So it shouldn't surprise anyone that when anyone has to say goodbye to a close friend who has not only shared time with them but enriched that time immensely...

It hurts.

And it will hurt.

The only thing worse than losing a friend like Oliver...

... is never knowing his love at all.

Godspeed, my friend.

Friday, June 28, 2013

If we only understood this

We've been walking through the parable in Luke 15 called "The Prodigal Son" through the lens of Tim Keller, who has renamed it "the Prodigal God." I keep reading and reading about this passage of Scripture - its context, the text through other translations, other commentator's opinions - and reading the text again and again.

It's been profoundly affecting.

Events going on in our nation have helped us see we have more of an elder brother problem than an avalanche of prodigals.

Then we've seen the seeds of rebellion and selfishness in ourselves.

But seeing what the father was willing to do to try and redeem his son...


He ran. In fact he out ran the villagers who were coming out to cut his son off permanently. It was a Jewish custom to meet those trying to return home after disgracing the town and dash a clay pot to the ground. The idea was just as that pot was shattered and never to be repaired, the relationships were broken forever.

The father beat them there. In a culture where no man his age would ever run, he ran.

And he'll run to you.

God's love is embarrassingly extravagant.

And it's yours if you'll only accept it.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Message IS the Messenger

The message of Christ is not Christianity. The message of Christ is Christ. --Gary Amirault

I soon will celebrate some milestone anniversaries in my life. On August 6th, I'll remember a nervous young man who was riding down a dirt road with his beloved in a 1973 Vega notchback ( no pictures of such a car still exist because it was so... Vega) and asked what to that time were the most important words I had ever spoken. "Will you marry me?"

The impact of those words and the answer I received has given my life such a richness of love I can hardly keep from crying. My love, my wife, and through her, my family - my sons and grandson - joy!

Just one month later I will remember the most important words I ever spoke. I walked down an aisle at Bethesda Baptist church, leaving my fiance standing at the pew I had just left, and grabbed the hand of the pastor and told him I wanted to become a Christian. 

I loved that church, that pastor, and those people.

But I wasn't coming to get my name on a roll, or get a vote at the business meetings. I came that day because Jesus Christ had overwhelmed me with His love, convinced me of His standing as Lord and Christ, and convicted me of my sin and need of His forgiveness.

It was His love as expressed through His words. Like these from Eugene Peterson's paraphrase - The Message. 

28-30 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Jesus. I am a follower of Jesus.  Because He first loved me.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Rest In Joy, Brennan Manning

Brennan Manning passed away yesterday. I already miss him.

For many, the homecoming to heaven is going to be a shock. Most of us are just not acclimated to grace. Think of it like this - a person who grew up in the desert southwest leaves to visit his friend in Atlanta. In August. It's a small connecting flight, one of those where you walk down steps from the plane. The door to the plane opens, and he walks down the stairs into the humidity that is the South in summer. He feels like he's been immersed. His friend greets him warmly - "Welcome to the South!" The traveler is amazed. His friend looks so cool and unmarred by the grip of moisture.

Because he lives there.

Brennan Manning lived in the grip of grace.

Now he's home. I expect he's very comfortable there.

There are so many quotes from his work I could share.

“Because salvation is by grace through faith, I believe that among the countless number of people standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palms in their hands (see Revelation 7:9), I shall see the prostitute from the Kit-Kat Ranch in Carson City, Nevada, who tearfully told me that she could find no other employment to support her two-year-old son. I shall see the woman who had an abortion and is haunted by guilt and remorse but did the best she could faced with grueling alternatives; the businessman besieged with debt who sold his integrity in a series of desperate transactions; the insecure clergyman addicted to being liked, who never challenged his people from the pulpit and longed for unconditional love; the sexually abused teen molested by his father and now selling his body on the street, who, as he falls asleep each night after his last 'trick', whispers the name of the unknown God he learned about in Sunday school.

'But how?' we ask.

Then the voice says, 'They have washed their robes and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb.'

There they are. There *we* are - the multitude who so wanted to be faithful, who at times got defeated, soiled by life, and bested by trials, wearing the bloodied garments of life's tribulations, but through it all clung to faith. 

My friends, if this is not good news to you, you have never understood the gospel of grace.” 
― Brennan ManningThe Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out

Do you understand it?

What about this?

“The story goes that a public sinner was excommunicated and forbidden entry to the church. He took his woes to God. 'They won't let me in, Lord, because I am a sinner.'

'What are you complaining about?' said God. 'They won't let Me in either.” 
― Brennan ManningThe Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out

Friends, I have absolutely NO use for any church that is not open to sinners reeking of sin. If we won't open to people in need of grace, then we should not be open as a "church" at all.

 - David - a sinner, saved by grace

Monday, April 08, 2013

The Only Prayer God Can't Answer

Is the one you never pray.

What I tried to do yesterday was give the congregation some examples of when Jesus responded to people reaching out with whatever amount of faith that they had. Faith that had holes in it. Faith that was only sure that they had to do something.

I tried to answer some questions that we've left unspoken for fear we might be looked on as less.

And with the last example - the Father who had been let down so many times, who had prayed so many prayers, who had just enough faith to try one more time...

we get honesty - "I do believe, as far as I can, but you are going to have to help me believe like THIS."

Just enough faith to keep asking, to keep hoping, to keep believing that THIS time it would be different.

The only prayer God cannot answer is the one we never ask.

Ask. Seek. Knock.

Don't quit believing.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Just Saying...

It's gotten to be a joke between my bride and me - my use of the phrase "I'm just saying..." as I try to make a case for an opinion or qualify something I've said. One of the great joys of this life has been and is that I get to spend time with someone who knows me intimately and yet loves me as I am.

My wife has a knack for "helping" (I typed that wincing, BTW) me to see not just whether my arguments are good ones, but perhaps as important, whether the way I'm putting them forward is good.

You see, I'm a passionate guy.

This life, role, position - this whatever you call it - how about - Christ-follower- demands that I never "phone it in". I'm supposed to be ever learning, ever changing, ever growing as I follow Jesus as his disciple. Love for Him drives me to really work at that - every day.

But there are times when even while driving hard after being like Jesus, being conformed to His image, I wind up portraying just the opposite. And what's crazy, I can do it without even realizing it.

"I'm just saying..."

If my Spirit-filled wife is really good at pointing that out, there is someone who's even better.

The Holy Spirit.

So I'm reading the story of the prodigal son today in Luke, not looking for anything specific, just wanting again to experience how much God loves "lost" things and through that remind myself of how much He loves "lost" people.

You know the story. Guy gets full of himself, tells his old man he's splitting, and to give him his part of the inheritance. Dad does, guy goes off to Las Vegas (my modern day paraphrase) and loses it all, and winds up sleeping with the pigs and living low on the hog. Realizes finally what he left behind and gets up and goes to try to make it right. Has his apology well rehearsed, probably repeating it over and over as he nears his old home. But his daddy, whose been pleading with God every day for him, and expecting God to bring him home, sees his son coming and runs to meet him. Grabs him. Hugs his filthy self and tells him it will be okay. BBQ ensues. (irony there, eh?)

With me so far?

Ok. Here's where I found myself in the story today.

28 "The older brother was angry and wouldn't go in. His father came out and begged him, 29 but he replied, 'All these years I've slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. 30 Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!' Luke 15:28-30 (NLT)

I could see the older brother, seeing what went on and getting furious. Then as we used to hear in Georgia, he "showed himself."

All those years he spent doing the right thing - for the wrong reason - had changed him alright, but not in the way they should have. They made him more cynical, more willing to find fault in others, more blind to faults in himself.

When his daddy protested 'Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. 32 We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!'"

Luke 15:31-32 (NLT)

I could hear that older brother say,

"I'm just saying..."
Friends, that's just wrong.

I thank God for the people He's put in my life to help with the corrections necessary sometimes when I start to veer off the Way.

What about your life -  if you were able to step back and see it as others do, would make you realize that changes were needed to get back in step with the Spirit?

Maybe it's time to really commit to becoming part of a community of faith where each person holds the other accountable to Jesus, in love.

Maybe it's time to really follow Jesus as His disciple.

You need Jesus. I'm just saying... :)



Sunday, March 31, 2013

Hope in the afternoon

There are a lot of stories about Easter. So many ways to look at what happened that day. The one story that jumped out at me this year was one where two people went home after hearing about the events of the morning - still depressed and discouraged. They had heard that others had seen the risen Christ, but they hadn't themselves. It took a visit from Christ to change their hearts.

One of the key takeaways from this passage is that we all have a story we see ourselves in. Everything we've experienced as well as our hopes, dreams, failures, and regrets make up those stories. We see what we can see. But God sees so much more. He can take our story and place it in the context of His Big Story and show us just how He can overcome evil with good. He can explain the Bible in a way that we connect and understand it and are able to see how to live in light of it.

I used this story this morning to illustrate how we can think we know a story, but at times we only know part of it.

A man and a woman had been married for more than 60 years. They had shared everything. They had kept no secrets from each other except that the little old woman had a shoe box in the top of her closet that she had cautioned her husband never to open or ask her about.

For all of these years, he had never thought about the box, but one day the little old woman got very sick and the doctor said she would not recover. In trying to sort out their affairs, the little old man took down the shoe box and took it to his wife's bedside.

She agreed that it was time that he should know what was in the box. When he opened it, he found two crocheted dolls and a stack of money totaling $95,000. He asked her about the contents.
"When we were to be married," she said, "my grandmother told me the secret of a happy marriage was to never argue. She told me that if I ever got angry with you, I should just keep quiet and crochet a doll."

The little old man was so moved; he had to fight back tears. Only two precious dolls were in the box. She had only been angry with him two times in all those years of living and loving. He almost burst with happiness.
"Honey," he said "that explains the doll, but what about all of this money? Where did it come from?"

"Oh, that?" she said.  "That's the money I made from selling the dolls." - from Lion Brand Yarn's website

He didn't really know, did he?

The people on the Emmaus road didn't know all the story either. All they know was that their hopes were crushed and their future looked dark. They just wanted to go home.

Then Jesus showed up and it all made sense.

We cannot let the world write our story.
We cannot assume that our view of our story is correct.
We have to seek God and enter into a deep and abiding relationship with Him where we can see our lives from His perspective.

Christ changed everything when He paid the price for our sins and provided hope beyond the grave through His resurrection.

So failure is NEVER final.

And we can have our stories rewritten by a loving God.

Let Him.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Living in a Pre-Easter World

We miss it almost every year. We forget that the people we read about in the accounts of the events that make up Easter weekend even had a Saturday filled with nothing more than grief, loss, and crushing doubt. The day before they saw their worst nightmares come true before their eyes. Everything they had given three years of their lives to - the central pivot point to every step they made - was dead and buried.

They shared one of the questions that dog us even today - What now?

Some are paralyzed with grief and become almost catatonic, unable to do anything at all. Loss does that.

You lose a family member that has always "been there for you." Now you and the rest of the family have to figure out how to relate to each other - how to live as a family.

You lose a  job that provided for your family, and gave you satisfaction and a sense of identity - is lost. Now you are dealing with a pack of howling doubts about how you are going to make it, and even whispers asking who are you and are you capable of getting another job. The tightness in your throat, the rumbling in your stomach just won't go away. And your family is looking at your for guidance and for security.

Others make peace with the loss and move on, doing what they believe they should do. Little noted in the accounts of the days of Easter are the women who went shopping on Saturday for the spices they'd use to make sure Jesus' body was prepared to the max. If they couldn't change the past, they'd be found faithful with what they could do.

That's living in a pre-Easter world, isn't it.

Living in the fellowship of suffering.

So let's embrace it for what it can teach us about God and His relationship with those who love Him.

First, let's eliminate the biggest fear. God is not dead, He is not asleep, He isn't pretending not to notice our pains and sorrows. We might think so based on what we've seen happen, but if Easter teaches us anything, it should be that God is always at work - even when we can't see Him.

So be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid and do not panic before them. For the Lord your God will personally go ahead of you. He will neither fail you nor abandon you.”
Deut 31:6 (NLT) BTW, that's repeated in Hebrews 13 as well.

So God is at work, then what is this experience designed to do? Well, what were we told about faith?
Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see. Heb 11:1 (NLT)

Listen - I've been there and done this too many times. When the storms come, you have to move toward a deeper understanding and practice of your faith. You have to put your fears and doubts behind you and use them as a push to go farther. It's NOT EASY. You might say "I can't do it." And really, many of us can't.

But GOD can.  - your absence of what it took created the perfect opportunity for the Holy Spirit to work in and through you. God showed up BIG TIME that first Easter weekend, and His power is available to you today. 

Resurrection power.

Think about it. Pray about it.

Then go out and live an Easter life no matter what day it is.

Because the believer in Jesus knows life's greatest secret.

It may be Saturday - but Sunday's coming.