Three Reasons to Pray…

We all pray. Admittedly, it may only be in times of crisis when we have no other option, or even before we realize that’s what we’ve done, but we all still pray. Carrie Underwood sang a song that illustrates the point—Jesus Take the Wheel. The song is about a women driving on Christmas Eve when she loses control and she cries out, “Jesus take the wheel.” She is spared a horrible accident and thanks the Lord. She then tells Jesus to take the wheel of her life. It is a powerful song, and it illustrates that we are more prone to praying than not. There is, however, a great difference in that momentary crisis prayer, and the prayer that changes the world. That’s the type of prayer Jesus prayed, and that’s the type of prayer the disciples wanted to pray when they asked Jesus to teach them to pray. Jesus prayed earth-shattering, life-changing prayers, and we can, too.

That raises the question, “Why pray?” Why should we, as disciples of Jesus, make prayer a regular part of our lives? If I see prayer as another duty to add to an already overcommitted schedule, then I won’t pray? If I see prayer as a waste of time because we see so few answers to prayer, then I won’t pray? If I see prayer as something for other, more religious people, then I will never pray. If I see prayer as something to be done only in emergencies, then I’ll only pray in emergencies, and I’ll never know the power of life-changing prayer. Prayer is more than a duty. Prayer is more than looking for answers to problems and struggles, and prayer is more than being religious.

I know of three reasons (there are many more, but in the interest of time…). I see the three reasons exemplified in the life of Jesus in an encounter recorded in Luke’s Gospel called the “transfiguration:”

28 About eight days later Jesus took Peter, John, and James up on a mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was transformed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly, two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared and began talking with Jesus. 31 They were glorious to see. And they were speaking about his exodus from this world, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem. 32 Peter and the others had fallen asleep. When they woke up, they saw Jesus’ glory and the two men standing with him. 33 As Moses and Elijah were starting to leave, Peter, not even knowing what he was saying, blurted out, “Master, it’s wonderful for us to be here! Let’s make three shelters as memorials—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 34 But even as he was saying this, a cloud overshadowed them, and terror gripped them as the cloud covered them. 35 Then a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him.” 36 When the voice finished, Jesus was there alone. They didn’t tell anyone at that time what they had seen.

Jesus is on Mt. Hermon with his inner circle of Peter, James and John, and there on the smoke-covered mountain, they entered the presence of God. This encounter reminds us of the time in the Old Testament when a prophet named Moses (who appeared here with Jesus) went up to the mountain to see a bush that was not consumed and there he discovered he was on holy ground in the presence of God.

Elijah, likewise, was whisked away into heaven on a whirlwind by a flaming chariot to stand in the presence of God. We could get lost in the symbolism of God and the mountain. It is rich symbolism, indeed. Lost in the symbolism would be the detail that is so important in understanding why we pray. The first reason why we pray is because prayer brings us into the presence of God.

Into God’s Presence

God wants an intimate relationship with us. God wants with us the type of relationship he shared with Jesus—a parent/child relationship. He wants to watch us grow, and he wants to give us the best that he has to offer, but we have to embrace that relationship, and we can only do that as we enter into his presence, and prayer brings us into his presence.

God invites us deeper in and higher up. Like our relationship with our children, we love it when they ask us for things. The very fact that our children ask us for things enhances and deepens our relationship with them because it shows their trust in us and their dependence on us. P. T. Forsythe said it this way, “Love loves to be told what it already knows…it wants to be asked for what it longs to give.” Prayer takes us deeper in and higher up in our relationship with the Father.

Prayer places us on the mountain of God’s presence even in the midst of the daily, ordinary circumstances of our lives. The discovery of God lies in the daily and the ordinary because that is where we live most of our lives. We don’t live on the mountain, and though Jesus went to the mountain, and was on the mountain when he entered God’s presence, it was Jesus’ prayer that brought him into God’s presence, not his position. Our prayer brings us into God’s presence. Our prayer takes us to the mountain in the midst of daily and ordinary struggles.

Jacqueline was an elderly woman who lived to take care of her daughter, who was wheelchair bound. When her daughter died, Jacqueline lost her purpose in life and her living companion. Most of her time was spent in oppressive solitude because all her friends were also dead, and her own health was failing, too.

One day, Jaqueline opened her bible to Philippians 4:5, and four words stuck in her mind: “The Lord is near.” Jaqueline thought, “If that is true, then I should be more aware of it.”

“Lord,” she prayed, “I’m going to pretend you’re here all the time. No, forgive me. There is no pretending to be done. I’m going to visualize you really are here. Help me remind myself of the reality of your presence.”

Jaqueline began to pray that very night. “Lord, I’m going to bed now. Will you watch over me as I sleep?” When she would sit down for a cup of tea, she would read through Philippians 4 again, underlining verse 5, and she would pray. At noon, she said, “Lord, let’s watch the news so you can show me what to pray for. They watched the news and she prayed for flood victims, and a new African president, and a man sentenced to life in prison. At supper, she prayed and thanked the Lord for her food, but she wasn’t praying to someone distant. She was talking to someone sitting across the table from her. Little by little, her attitude was transformed. The loneliness lessened, her joy increased, her fears diminished, and she never again felt she was alone in the house. Her prayers kept her in the presence of God. 

Why pray? Because prayer brings us into the presence of God.

A Change in Us

A second reason we pray? Prayer changes us. As Jesus prayed, his countenance was changed. He was transfigured in the presence of God the Father, and in the sight of Peter, James and John (even though they almost slept through it). The glory of God shone all around him and was reflected in him as he prayed. Now, I’m not suggesting that our prayers will reveal the divine nature within us the way it did Jesus that day, but in prayer we catch a glimpse of God’s glory, and God’s glory will be reflected through us to the lives of those around us.

One reason we don’t pray like we should is because we’re simply not prepared to change. How does prayer change us? First, prayer changes us in our relationship to God. We view God in different ways. Sometimes we have no relationship with God. God is just someone or something out there somewhere, but that knowledge has no impact on how we live our lives. God is simply the philosophical first cause, but little more. Yeah, He’s God, but so what?

Others may see God in a relationship of fear. We project our understanding of humanity onto God. Like, God is the big score-keeper in the sky, or judge on the bench. We are limited in our ability to be in a relationship with God because we’re afraid of Him. Who dares confess to the judge? He might condemn us. Or, who would tell the score-keeper we committed an error? That might cost us a run, or a basket, and we’d lose the game. Prayer allows God, through His Word and Holy Spirit to bring us into a deeper understanding of His true nature. Prayer confirms that God is love, and that God really does love us.

But, prayer also changes us in relation to ourselves. Like Carrie Underwood’s song reminds us, there are times we learn to depend on God, and we can do nothing else. Here are the words:

Jesus take the wheel
Take it from my hands
Cause I can’t do this on my own
I’m letting go
So give me one more chance
Save me from this road I’m on…

We learn our true nature in prayer. We learn of our need for forgiveness. We learn self-denial. We learn God’s will, and we are able, through the Holy Spirit, to adjust our lives to God’s truth. Prayer changes us in relation to ourselves, and sometimes that’s just not a change we’re willing to make.

We also see that prayer changes us in relation to others. Prayer brings an awareness of the great need for salvation and redemption throughout God’s creation. If we don’t see the needs around us, it might be because we’re not praying. We pray because prayer changes us.

Blessed Assurance

Finally, a third reason we should pray? Prayer brings assurance. Jesus was beginning the final leg on a long journey toward the cross. This time of prayer confirmed for Jesus that he was in the Father’s will, and brought assurance that God was with him on the journey.

You and I need assurance, too. We face the uncertainty of life, and we all know that life can pose questions that are unanswerable, but in prayer, we hear God say to us that hope is not found in the temporal circumstances that overwhelm us, but in the eternal love and grace of God.

The reasons we should pray are as limitless as God’s love and grace, and with these three reasons to pray we have only scratched the surface of the benefits and joys that come through prayer, so it leads to the question, “Why don’t we pray?”

Evangelist John Rice tells a dream he once had. He said, “I once imagined I was in heaven. Walking along with the Angel Gabriel, I said, ‘Gabe, what is the big building over there?’”

“You’ll be disappointed,” he answered. “I don’t think you want to see it.”

Rice said he was insistent until Gabriel relented, and proceeded to show him floor after floor of beautiful gifts, all wrapped and ready to be sent.

“Gabriel,” Rice asked, “What are all these gifts?”

Gabriel replied, “We wrapped all the beautiful gifts for people, but they were never delivered because they were never requested.”

We don’t live in God’s presence because we don’t ask. We don’t change because we don’t ask. We don’t have assurance of hope and life because we don’t ask.

God’s presence, transformation and assurance. I can’t think of three better reasons to pray.

If you’d like to watch the message from which this blog was taken, you can do so by clicking here.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Prayer is…

If 2020 showed me nothing else, it showed me of my desperate need to pray more. I like to think I know all there is to know about prayer, but try as I might, I can’t seem to nail prayer down to a singular definition? I am supposed to be a person of prayer, and I know when I see someone praying, and I know what I do when (or if) I pray. I know the preacher does it, if for no other reason than that is says so right in the bulletin—the Pastoral Prayer. So, prayer is something done at a particular time and usually in a particular way, or a particular place for a particular reason. Prayer is all that, but that seems like such an inadequate understanding as I desire to go deeper in prayer in 2021. 

I take some comfort in knowing the Bible doesn’t define prayer anywhere. I know the Bible commands it. People like Jesus, Paul, Moses, David and Hannah exemplified it. I am invited through the pages of scripture to pray, and God commends it to us as a way to communion and wholeness. The Bible even describes prayer, but never once do I find a verse that says, “Prayer is…” If the Bible doesn’t define prayer, I wonder if I can?

The Lord’s Prayer

Though the Bible doesn’t specifically define prayer, its examples of prayer give me a clue in (at least) understanding what prayer is. For more than defining prayer, I want to learn how to do it. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what Jesus was doing one day with his disciples. I’m not sure if we can definitively answer the question by looking at that encounter between Jesus and his disciples, but I believe we can get far down the road. Jesus taught his disciples to pray:

11 Once Jesus was in a certain place praying. As he finished, one of his disciples came to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

Jesus said, “This is how you should pray: “Father, may your name be kept holy.
    May your Kingdom come soon.
Give us each day the food we need,
and forgive us our sins,
    as we forgive those who sin against us.
And don’t let us yield to temptation.”

Jesus would, in the verses following these, continue to teach his disciples more about prayer, but first, it was Jesus’ own example that made his disciples want to know more about prayer. I remind us they were Jewish men who were steeped in the traditions of their elders. They likely spent every morning and evening repeating the prayers of their fathers, yet when they saw Jesus pray, there was something that moved heaven and earth and made them want to pray that way. I’m not sure what that was, but I see three things that begin to help me understand a meaningful definition of prayer.

Upward Focus

Let’s start where Jesus started: First, prayer is upward focused. In verse 2, Jesus begins with the “Father.” As we learned the prayer from the King James Version, it begins, “Our Father, who art in heaven…” Richard Foster says, “Simple prayer is ordinary people bringing ordinary concerns to a loving and compassionate father.” The upward focus of prayer is our acknowledgment that God is our Father, that God is the source of truth outside ourselves. After all, we don’t pray to ourselves–“Oh, help me, Me!” We look to God for understanding in this confusing world. This upward focus is our confession of dependence on the One who is abundantly more than we can even think or imagine.

This understanding is insufficient in and of itself, for how can we have an upward focus unless we have first been called to turn our eyes toward heaven? When we turn our thoughts upward, we acknowledge it is God who acts first in prayer. Our prayers are a reaction to God’s first seeking us. In Psalm 27:7 – 8, David sings these words:

Hear me as I pray, O Lord.
    Be merciful and answer me!
My heart has heard you say, “Come and talk with me.”
    And my heart responds, “Lord, I am coming.”

The key is that God said, “Come and talk with me.” Without God first calling to us we cannot seek Him, and we can never experience the kind of prayer that ends in answers. We Wesleyans call that God’s prevenient grace—the grace of God reaching out to us before we even realize it. Prayer that is upward focused will move the hand of God because we have first been moved by the hand of God, and it will draw us deeper into a growing, on-going love relationship with the Lord.

Inward Focus

Yes, prayer is upward focused, but prayer is also inward focused. Verses 3 and 4 say, “Give us each day the food we need, and forgive us our sins…” In prayer, we do focus on our needs, but not in some selfish, prideful way. Actually, if we look up the words “pray” and “prayer” in Webster’s dictionary—although no one looks up words in a dictionary anymore—we find these definitions: “to implore, an entreaty, supplication.”

The words the Bible uses which are translated for us as pray and prayer in both the Old and New Testaments mean “to request,” and “to make a petition,” so prayer is asking God for something, and it is never selfish or sinful to concern God with the circumstances of our lives, and the needs we face. As a matter of fact, God desires that we should ask. Our asking is yet another way we confess our dependence on and our need for God.

The inward focus is not totally selfish when we understand that this prayer is consistent with the way Jesus lived. He was always occupied with the trivial things in people’s lives. He turned water into wine (and good wine, I might add) at a wedding. He fed hungry crowds, and he offered rest to weary souls. He ate with Pharisees and tax collectors. He stopped to talk to a woman drawing water from a well, and he healed a blind beggar named Bartimaeus. It is appropriate that he invites us to pray for our daily bread because all of our little daily concerns are important to him.

We must be careful, though, that this not become a shopping list we bring to God. It is a petition for survival. It is not, “Lord, let me win the lottery, then all my needs will be met.” Such a prayer would never strengthen our faith or draw us deeper into a relationship with him. Prayer is designed to strengthen the bond between us and the Father. Only as we call to God for daily provision, and only as God meets us at our point of need, will our trust grow. When trust grows, love grows. When love grows, the relationship grows, and that is what God desires.

There is more to this inward focus than daily provision to meet our needs. There is a spiritual aspect that must not escape our understanding. As we focus upward and God begins to reflect His love and holiness back into our lives, we begin to recognize our sinfulness, and our need for forgiveness. We pray for this deepest need of our lives. Deeper than the daily provision for our physical needs lies the need for God’s forgiveness.

Mark’s Gospel (Mark 2: 1 – 12) tells the story of a paralytic man who was lowered by his friends into a house where Jesus was teaching. The man obviously had a physical need, but Jesus saw a deeper spiritual need, the need for forgiveness. Jesus met both needs. As the crowd watched, Jesus looked at the man on the cot and said, “Your sins are forgiven.” The crowd, and especially the Pharisees, were stunned and asked, “Who can forgive sins but God?” Jesus, hearing their question, responded, “Well, just so you know I have power to do both, I say, ‘Take up your bed and walk’.” We, too, have both spiritual and physical needs, and prayer that is inward focused brings us an awareness of both. The greatest news in the world is that I am a sinner who can be saved from my sin.

Outward Focus

The Good News that we can be forgiven carries us deeper into the heart of prayer. Prayer that is first, upward focused that produces an inward change inevitably moves us to become outward focused. Jesus prays in verse 4, “just as we forgive those who sin against us.” Any prayer that is real prayer will touch our relationship with others. Jesus says we ask the Father to forgive us as we forgive others. It sounds almost conditional, doesn’t it? Well, it is! We cannot be in a right relationship with God and not have it affect our outward relations with others. How can we not forgive others if we have experienced God’s great forgiveness? God’s forgiveness renews and transforms us, and we then seek to be renewed in our relationship with others.

Richard Foster indicates that to forgive is the very nature of the created order. We must give in order to receive. We cannot receive love unless we give love. People may try to give us love, but if we are filled with resentment and vindictiveness, their offers will have no impact on us. We cannot receive anything as long as our fists are clenched. St. Augustine says, “God gives where he finds empty hands.”

God, The Pizza Man

Let me tell you about our love for pizza at our house. When the children were growing up it was our default food of choice (it’s become Mexican now). One of the greatest days of our lives as a family was moving to Junction City, Kentucky. It was great because Junction City had the luxury of pizza delivery. I know that doesn’t seem like much to most of you, but being raised in rural Jackson Parish, and serving my first pastorate in the same community, pizza delivery was something reserved for places like New York City and Chicago. It didn’t take us long to avail ourselves of pizza delivery in Junction City. Piping hot pizza a phone call away.

How many of you have ever ordered pizza delivery? Call the pizza place, the guy or girl answers and place your order, “Give me two large pizzas—one with pepperoni, one with double cheese. Malone is the name, and the address is 104 School St.” (that’s where we lived in Junction City). Hang up the phone and wait for pizza at your front door. Oh, we were in heaven!

Too often, that’s how we think of prayer. We treat God like the pizza guy. We call on God, place our order as though it was some shopping list, and we wait for an answer. When God doesn’t answer in a reasonable amount of time we get mad because he didn’t answer on our schedule. God didn’t meet our expectations. Forget the tip, buddy, I want a free pizza because it wasn’t here in thirty minutes or less.

God is not the pizza guy, and prayer is not akin to throwing out orders for someone to meet our expectations. What is prayer? Prayer is any intentional upward focus designed to bring an inward change that becomes reflected in outward relationships which produces an on-going, growing love relationship with God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Not sure that any of that qualifies as an appropriate definition, but it’s the one I’m going to work with for 2021. I’ll check back in with you in 2022 and see how it went.

May I also invite you to pray more in 2021? Here is the “Daily Prayer” app that I’ve put on my phone and will be incorporating into my prayer time this year. It might be helpful to you, too. If you don’t like that one, try “The Daily Office” app. You can download it on your phone, or use it right from your desktop or laptop. If you don’t like either of those tools, simply do a Google search to find one that fits your need. As has been said, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.”

Until next time, keep looking up…

First Things First…

One great thing about celebrating the new year (other than the fact that it’s no longer 2020) is that every new year provides the opportunity to reassess and reprioritize those things in life that matter most. A new year provides a new opportunity to get right that which may not have been so right in the past. Every new year I am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5: 17– “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

Hoping not to squander the opportunity the new year affords to begin again, it is helpful for me to reflect on the priorities of my life. When I think about priorities I can help but consider what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? 28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6: 25 – 34, NIV)

I am reminded that life is not so much about priorities, but about a priority, and that priority is to know God in all His fulness. Every other element of life will reorder itself around that priority and enable us to determine what is important.

Person

Because THE priority in life is to know God in all His fulness, it reminds me that I am first a person. I am a person made in the image of God, and if I am to experience the best that life has to offer, I must first and foremost nurture my relationship with Christ. My relationship to Christ is the most important relationship in my life. My personhood, my sanity, my success at any other endeavor depends upon how faithfully that relationship is maintained and allowed to grow.

It was Blaise Pascal, who in his seminal work Pensees, wrote, “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”

One of the ways I seek to fill this “infinite abyss” with God Himself is through the practice of writing a blog. It used to be called journaling back in the pre-internet days. Oh, I still journal. There are some things that are much too intimate to share on the internet, and there are moments that it’s as if I hear the Lord say, “Let’s keep this between you and me.” Journaling/blogging is one of the ways I pray, and prayer is the essential discipline by which we may know Christ and are known by Him.

Journaling as an exercise in prayer doesn’t work for everyone, but everyone must pray. I encourage you to find the way that best fits your personality so that you might nurture your relationship with Jesus. In this tech world in which we live, rather than allowing our smartphone to be a distraction, why not use it to help us learn to pray? Try loading a prayer app (here are twelve suggestions) on your phone as the new year begins.

You and I will never be our best without first deepening our relationship with the Lord. Seeking the Kingdom begins there, or it begins not at all.

Partner

Following closely behind my own personhood is the priority I define in being a partner in life with Vanessa. 2021 will mark 40 years of marriage for she and I, and behind my relationship with Jesus, this is the most important relationship of my life. This is as it should be since it is the relationship of a husband and wife that the Lord has chosen to demonstrate the relationship He has with His Church (Ephesians 5: 21 – 33). If the world will know how much Christ loves the Church, it will be because husbands and wives exhibit sacrificial, serving love toward one another. Might I suggest the world hasn’t seen quite enough of that in a long, long time.

That’s certainly not meant as a pat on the back to Vanessa and me. The Lord knows she’s endured a lot being married to me, for you see, I’ve not been the perfect husband, but we have been intentional in having date nights and sharing afternoon coffee together and praying together daily. Each of those activities nurture intimacy that allows the relationship to grow.

For the married folks among us, I challenge you to define ways in which you might give yourself more fully to deepening your relationship with your spouse. Plan a monthly date night. Plan a romantic weekend getaway once a year. Here’s a suggestion that will test the mettle of your relationship–do a family budget together (if you don’t already). More divorces occur because of fights about money than any other issue, but by planning a family budget together, you’ll open lines of communication that may not have been opened in years.

For the single folks who may be reading, may I encourage you to offer yourself and your time in service to the Lord and His church? That might be the very gift you have to give that brings you the most joy in life, and until such time as you feel led to marry (if ever), you can consider that Christ is your spouse.

Parent

Behind the relationship I have with Vanessa as a partner is my relationship with my children as a parent (and now a grandparent). May I encourage you to take a lesson from an old man who didn’t do things quite correctly the first time? I was a second-career pastor, and as such, always felt like I was behind my peers in the pursuit of ministry (and education and position), so that feeling only stoked my competitive nature to “catch up” on all that I was behind on. I needed to “get ahead” and be “successful” in ministry. That mentality led me to a season of pastoral burnout, and it also led me to neglect my children in the process. Those are years I can’t get back. I can only be intentional now in deepening those all too important relationships.

Oh, and grandchildren! If I had known grandchildren were going to be so much fun, I would have skipped the children and went straight to grandchildren. Okay, not really! But, if I had known grandchildren were this much fun, I’d have been nicer to their parents!

Seriously, though, these relationships are so vitally important because they are the means whereby we pass on the faith once entrusted to us. Seeking first the Kingdom of God is to nurture our children (and grandchildren) in the fear and the admonition of the Lord. When we, as Wesleyans, bring our children forward for baptism, we vow that by our teaching and example we will guide our children to accept God’s grace for themselves and to profess their faith openly and to lead a Christian life. We cannot expect the Church to do for our children (and grandchildren) what we are not doing for them at home.

Pastor

Finally, I order my life around my relationship as pastor to many. I am blessed to pastor a wonderful small group of people in The House Church Movement. We are a small group of folks who are intentionally seeking to live as deeper disciples of Jesus Christ, exploring a model that is rooted deeply in the New Testament and the early church.

The truth I have discovered over 30 years of vocational ministry is that I cannot be an effective pastor if I have neglected the other primary relationships in my life. I can’t be with them until I’ve been with Him. I can’t effectively share with a congregation what I have not personally experienced myself, and if those in a congregation are to know the love and power of God, it will be because I have experienced it in my own life, and am sharing out of an overflowing cup.

Congregations, give your pastors time away to be with the Lord. You’ll be the better for it. Give your pastors time away to be with their families. You’ll be the better for it. Insist your pastor takes his/her day off. Insist your pastor takes his/her vacation. Budget spiritual growth opportunities in the pastoral compensation package of the pastor. You’ll be the better for it. Give the pastor a love offering to take his/her family on vacation. You’ll be the better for it, AND you’ll be seeking the Kingdom of God first.

Author Stephen Covey wrote a fantastic book entitled The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Habit #3 is “Put first things first.” In essence, this habit is about taking all the abstract beliefs and ideas we say we have and making them practical by ordering our lives around them. Saying that we seek the Kingdom of God first is an abstract. How we order our lives makes seeking the Kingdom concrete.

Covey would flesh out habit #3 in a follow up book entitled First Things First. In that book, Covey introduced the analogy of the rocks and jars (click here to watch the video) in which a person has a pile of sand and small rocks, a pile of big rocks, and a jar into which you must put both piles. The person filled the jar first with the sand/small rocks and discovered that they took up so much space that they ultimately didn’t have room for the big rocks. They discovered instead to first fill the jar with big rocks, and then put in the sand and small rocks; the sediment will settle in the cracks of the big rocks, allowing everything to fit in from both piles.

To seek the Kingdom of God first means we put that big, big rock in the jar first, and then everything else will fit in around it. As a person, as a partner, as a parent and as a pastor, my life must be ordered around the priority of the Kingdom.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t other important parts of life. In the first century agrarian economy in which Jesus spoke the words above in the Sermon on the Mount, his listeners were deeply concerned with having their daily needs met. It (literally) was a matter of life and death. They didn’t have the Wal-Mart to run down to everyday to get dinner. Yet, Jesus could tell them, just as he tells us that our first priority in a Kingdom economy is to seek Him, and He will insure all of life’s needs are met.

So, that leaves only one question: How will you order your lives? Let me encourage you to put first things first.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Three Life Hacks for a Successful New Year…

“Life Hack” made its way into the English language around the turn of the century, and the definition made it into Merriam-Webster in 2004. A “life hack” is “a usually simple and clever tip or technique for accomplishing some familiar task more easily and efficiently.” As we transition into 2021, may I recommend three “life hacks” that will make for a successful 2021? I find them in the Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah. Here is his prophecy from Jeremiah 29:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.

10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity.[a] I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

I’m done with making new year’s resolutions only to break them seven days (or seven minutes 😉) into the new year. So, I’ll swap resolutions for solutions, and these life hacks (simple as they are) offer a solution to all that might trip me up in the new year. I want to get to the end of 2021 and look back at a life well lived, rather than look back at a year full of regrets because I didn’t achieve all I’d hope, or resolved to accomplish when the year began. I don’t think anyone can look back at 2020 and say it’s been a good year, or that they accomplished everything they hoped when the year began. If you can, well you are incredibly blessed. Count those blessings!

The Commodity of Time

Everyone of us begins 2021 equal in at least one way–time. Everyone of us has 12 months, 52 weeks, 365 days, 8,760 hours, 525,600 minutes, 31,536,000 seconds. It’s what we do with the time that makes the difference. What do we do with all our time?

If the average person sleeps seven hours a night, we’ll spend 3 ½ months sleeping. We all have to eat, and if we eat three meals a day, we’ll spend 16 days eating. If we are active in church, we’ll spend 9 days in church. For work, an average 8-hour day, allowing for normal holidays, we’ll work 75 days. Five to ten days will be spent traveling (to work, to the bathroom, to the kitchen, to the store, etc.), and here’s an interesting one—we’ll spend 9-15 days in the bathroom [unless we’re sick, then it could be longer, or shorter depending on the sickness]. With all that moving, working, eating, sleeping, etc., the average person still has about 100 days that are unaccounted for. What we do with that 100 days can make all the difference in the world.

Life Hack #1–Seek God

The first hack that will make 2021 a successful year is to seek God. Seems simple enough, right? Wrong! There are two types of people in the world—planners and non-planners. Each of those types can be subdivided along a spectrum of good to bad planners, and good to bad non-planners, but basically you’re either a planner or a non-planner. What we too often do, whether we’re a planner or a non-planner is to make our plans and either ask God to bless them, or look back and ask God why He didn’t bless them, or if we’re a non-planner (me), fly by the seat of our pants and when something happens wonder where God is in all of it. We pretty much make our own excuses, justify the things we do, believe those who agree with us, and never once consider God. Every endeavor, every new year, every project should start with the question, “How will God be glorified in this?”

If we would be successful at anything, we must first seek God. If we’re a planner we will go into the new year with everything all planned out. We’ll have our job plans, our family plans, our vacation plans, or our educational plans, but, we’ll leave out the most important part of planning—God. Of course, for all you planners, if 2020 has shown us nothing else, it has show us that plans are made to be changed. Or, as the old joke goes: “Do you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans!”

I’m reminded that Proverbs 3:5-6 says, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”

It’s not much different if we’re a non-planner. We’ll wander (and wonder) through the entire year, without seeking God and the plans that He has for us. We’ll come to the end of another year trying to figure out what happened to the time.

Seeking God is simple, but never always easy. It begins with worship. Covid changed the way the Church worships, but worship is at the center of our life as disciples. Worship is an opportunity to experience the presence of the Holy, and without worship it is impossible (yes, I said “impossible”) to seek God.

We also must study if we are to seek God. Study the Bible and study the great thinkers of the Christian faith. Study is an opportunity to understand God’s will more.

Prayer is also a key to seeking God. Prayer is where real intimacy is developed. Do we want to distinguish between the the clamor and demands of the world around us and the authentic heart of God? Pray!  Seeking God is not about resolving to do one more thing. It’s about seeing prayer and worship and study as solutions to the issues facing our lives. The first life hack that will make 2021a successful year is to seek God.

Life Hack #2–Bloom Where We are Planted

The second hack that will make 2021 a successful year is to bloom where we’re planted. This is all about contentment in our lives. That’s the problem for a lot of us, we’re simply discontented with circumstances as they are. Granted, there are some things we should never be content with—like if we’re living with a persistent sin, or struggling with an addiction. But, most of us are looking for the next job, or the next spouse, or for graduation. We say, “If I were only married,” or “If I only had a different job,” or, “If I only made more money,” or “It I could just get out of school,” then things would be better. As if a change in circumstances would make a change in me.

God told the exiles in Jeremiah 29 to build houses, plant gardens and have children as foreigners. That was God’s way of saying, “You’re right where you’re supposed to be.” Understand, there is such a thing as holy discontent, a time when God puts it on our hearts to move on to the next phase of life, but that rarely comes until we’re content where we are. We also need to realize that sometimes, bad circumstances may be God’s tool of refinement in our lives.

Part of blooming where we’re planted includes working for peace in our relationships and in our community. Jeremiah tells the exiles to pray for the peace of Babylon. I am reminded of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called Children of God” (Matt. 5:9).

If we desire peace in our communities, we must work pursue it, primarily because WE are the community. The community won’t be better until we’re better.

If we don’t like the political climate, pray and work to change it. Enter the fray. Engage the community. If we don’t like the educational climate, pray and work to change it. If we don’t like the social climate, pray and work to change it. It we don’t like…well, you get the picture.

We must engage our community in ways that promote strong healthy relationships and pursues peace. That’s part of what it means to bloom where we’re planted.

Life Hack #3–Always Look Forward

The third hack that will make 2021 a successful year is to always look forward. We look forward because we know the best is yet to come. We are an expectant people, a resurrection people, and as God told the exiles in Jeremiah 29:11 that He had a plan for them with a future and a hope, so He has one for us.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the source of our hope, and it’s at the heart of God’s plan for our lives. The resurrection is the reason we gather weekly to worship. The resurrection is the foundation of our faith. As bad as 2020 may have been, 2021 can be better. As good as 2020 may have been (can anyone really say that?), 2021 can be so much better. We know that God’s best, God’s ultimate plan for us, for His Church, for His kingdom is yet to be realized.

There is a story about a woman who was diagnosed with a terminal illness and had been given three months to live. As she was getting her affairs in order, she contacted her pastor and asked him to come to her house to discuss some of her final wishes.

She told him which songs she wanted sung at her funeral service, what Scriptures she would like read, and what outfit she wanted to be buried in (talk about a planner!). She requested to be buried with her favorite Bible. As the pastor prepared to leave, the woman suddenly remembered something else. “There’s one more thing,” she said excitedly.

“What’s that?” said the pastor.

“This is important,” the woman said. “I want to be buried with a fork in my right hand.”

The pastor stood looking at the woman, not knowing quite what to say.

The woman explained. “In all my years of attending church socials and potluck dinners, when the dishes of the main course were being cleared, someone would inevitably lean over and say, ‘Keep your fork.’ It was my favorite part of the meal because I knew something better was coming, like velvety chocolate cake or deep-dish apple pie.

“So, when people see me in that casket with a fork in my hand and they ask, ‘What’s with the fork?’ I want you to tell them: ‘Keep your fork. The best is yet to come!'”

My friends, we ought to live life with a fork in our hand. It’s our reminder that the best is yet to come.

Seeking God. Blooming where we’re planted. Always looking forward. Are these really life hacks? Well, they’re simple, but there’s nothing very clever about them, so I’m not sure they fit the classic definition. I do know, however, that if we do them, I can virtually guarantee a great year in 2021 no matter what happens.

Until next time, keep looking up…

A Different Kind of Christmas…

This Christmas promises to be different than any other in our memories. We can thank COVID-19 for that. For many people, there were no office Christmas parties (although some probably celebrated that!), and for others there will be no family gatherings for the first time…well, in forever. For so many churches, there will be no in-person Christmas Eve service, no Christmas Eve candlelight, no Silent Night, no lighting of the Christ candle. Sure, there will be on-line attempts, but those on-line attempts won’t capture the beauty or the atmosphere of God’s people gathered to worship on a high, holy occasion. It will just be a different kind of Christmas this year. I suppose that’s the very reason we need Christmas now more than ever!

We need Christmas now more than ever because this has just been such a year…such a few years, I should say. Let’s see…in 2020…there’s been a pandemic, and because of it, lots of death–physical death, to be sure, but also the death of businesses, jobs, livelihoods and families. Oh, and don’t forget the 2020 hurricane season was a record breaker, too. Here in Louisiana, we took the brunt of five named storms (a record), and damage from two of those storms were felt in parts of the state rarely impacted by hurricanes (yep, my house took a tree). We also can’t forget the 2020 election cycle, can we? Whether you like the outcome or not, you do have to like the fact that it’s finally behind us. As I reflect on both the pandemic and the election season, I’m reminded of the joke that Santa said he was no longer making a naughty and nice list because he can no longer tell the difference. Yeah, we need Christmas now more than ever!

An Old Testament Christmas

We need Christmas now more than ever because we need hope now more than ever. What is Christmas but hope? It was the hope of Christmas that the prophet Isaiah captured some 700 years before the birth of Jesus in a manger. The passage from his prophecy has become a classic Christmas passage:

The people who walk in darkness
    will see a great light.
For those who live in a land of deep darkness,
    a light will shine.
You will enlarge the nation of Israel,
    and its people will rejoice.
They will rejoice before you
    as people rejoice at the harvest
    and like warriors dividing the plunder.
For you will break the yoke of their slavery
    and lift the heavy burden from their shoulders.
You will break the oppressor’s rod,
    just as you did when you destroyed the army of Midian.
The boots of the warrior
    and the uniforms bloodstained by war
will all be burned.
    They will be fuel for the fire.

For a child is born to us,
    a son is given to us.
The government will rest on his shoulders.
    And he will be called:
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His government and its peace
    will never end.
He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David
    for all eternity.
The passionate commitment of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies
    will make this happen!
(Isaiah 9: 2 – 7 NLT)

Writing most likely from Jerusalem, Isaiah looked around at the nation and saw a world in darkness. He saw government and religious corruption. Sound familiar? He saw the poor and widows and orphans mistreated. Hmm? Sound familiar? He saw a general lack of respect of the people for one another. Sound really familiar? In short, Isaiah saw people who had turned their backs on God and were without hope, and that caused darkness. It was not a literal darkness, but a spiritual one. His promise (and hope) was that a light would shine, and all who lived in darkness would see it. The light would bring hope…the hope of God’s salvation.

I am reminded by the prophet’s words, and by Christmas itself, that my hope is not in the movers and shakers of this world, but in the promised Savior that is announced at Christmas…our Lord, Jesus Christ. We need Christmas because we need the light of Christ shining among us. Yes, it will be a different kind of Christmas, but a different kind of Christmas can’t diminish the light that comes because it is still Christmas.

The Light of the World

The Light will always be here. The Light will never go away. But people who are in sin or despair sit in darkness, and cannot see the Light. That’s why we need Christmas now more than ever, and that’s why we must be people of hope now more than ever.

John, in his gospel, tells us Jesus is the Light, and even Jesus said He was the light of the world (John 8:12). But, I remind us that in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus told His disciples, “You are the light of the world.” Jesus is the true Light from heaven, but John reminds us that we are witnesses of the Light. And, we are, aren’t we? Even if we can’t gather as the body of Christ, we are still the light of the world, unless of course, we simply gathered because we wanted to feel good about ourselves. No, we gathered because we’re witnesses to the Light. The worst thing in the world (and for the world) that can happen is for us to not live in the hope of Christmas even though it will be a different kind of Christmas this year. This year of all years, we must carry the testimony of Christmas into a dark, hurting world.

The world is longing for light, like we long for that candle on a dark, stormy night. I’m reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 8:

19 For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. 20 Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, 21 the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. 22 For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. 24 We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it. (Romans 8: 19-24 NLT)

Paul’s words remind us that we, too, are longing for the light. Yes, we’ve caught the glimpse…we’ve seen the light at the end of the tunnel…but, our bones ache in different ways the older we get, and they remind us that all is not right just yet. We are reminded that we, too, struggle with sin and that darkness threatens us on a daily basis. Especially, this time of year, when we think everything should be perfect, and we strive for perfection, that something is bound to go wrong, and we are tempted to lose hope ourselves. But, the world needs us to live in hope because it’s still Christmas.

There was a youth group at a church that was performing a living nativity. Joseph and Mary and all the other characters were ready and in their places. They did their parts with seriousness and commitment, looking as pious as they possibly could. It came time for the shepherds to enter. Dressed in flannel bathrobes with towels for turbans, the shepherds proceeded to the altar steps where Mary and Joseph looked earnestly at the straw, which contained a single naked light bulb that played the part of the glowing newborn Jesus.

With his back to the congregation, one of the shepherds said to the little boy playing Joseph (in a very loud whisper for all the cast to hear), “Well, Joe, when are you gonna’ pass out cigars?”

The solemn moment was not simply broken by his remark, it exploded. Mary and Joseph’s cover was completely destroyed as it became impossible to hold back the bursts of laughter. The chief angel, standing on a chair behind them shook so hard in laughter that she fell off her chair and took the curtain back drop and all the rest of the props down with her. She just kept rolling around on the floor holding her stomach because she was laughing so hard. The whole set was in shambles.

Amazingly, the only thing that did not go to pieces was the light bulb in the manger. It never stopped shining. Friends, that baby in the manger is the light of our world, even when our world is in shambles, for in that light the divine and the human cross paths. Jesus is our living, breathing sign of hope, and the immeasurable love that God has had for all of us from the very beginning. Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5: 16 KJV).

Yes, it will be a different kind of Christmas…but, it’s still Christmas!

Until next time, keep looking up…

A Little Irony at Christmas…

Thomas Edison is credited with changing the way Christmas was lighted, not because he invented the incandescent bulb, but because he chose Christmas as the time to market the incandescent bulb. Edison’s marketing trick during the holiday season of 1880 was to display his invention as a means of heightening Yuletide excitement; he strung up incandescent bulbs all around his Menlo Park laboratory compound so that passing commuters on the nearby railway could see the Christmas miracle. But, Edison being Edison decided to make the challenge a little trickier by powering the lights from a remote generator eight miles away in an effort to gain a contract to provide electricity to Manhattan.

Did you catch the irony? Electric Christmas lights were a marketing ploy in the middle of the most marketed holiday ever. Two years later, in 1882 Edison’s partner Edward Johnson strung lights on his family’s Charlie Brown looking Christmas tree and the world saw the first electrically lighted tree. The practice didn’t catch on too quickly because it was too expensive for the average American to string lights on trees. Not until 1917 did electric lights become affordable for the average American, and they’ve been marketed successfully ever since. It’s okay, though. Lights are pretty, and they add so much to the season, and when we remember why we have lights we recapture the essence of the season, and we can handle the irony.

Irony at the Manger

There’s more than a little irony associated with the nativity, too. How ironic is it that the Prince of Peace should be born during a time known as the Pax Romana—a time known as the Peace of Rome? Yet, the Jews were an oppressed people living in an occupied land. Though there was no outright conflict in the world, there was unrest in the hearts of the people. They were, even in those days, restless for God.

And, how ironic that this One born the Prince of Peace would, himself, bring so much conflict among people? Consider that because of this peaceful manger scene every child under the age of two would be slaughtered due to Herod’s insecurity. Consider the scene in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus’ hometown folks sought to shove him off a cliff, and consider the attacks Jesus endured from the very Roman occupiers who demanded that Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem—attacks that took him to the cross. And, consider the conflict the early disciples endured because they followed this One we call the Prince of Peace. Oh! There is more than a little irony when we consider that Christ is the Prince of Peace.

Light brightens the darkness. Light, as the prophet Isaiah says, “will shine on all who live in the land where death casts its shadow.” And, the prophet says this light will shine in a day of peace. We hear a lot about peace in the nativity story. It starts with the prophet Isaiah who speaks of a resounding peace that comes amid the vivid imagery of the boots of tramping warriors and battle garments rolled in blood all of which will be burned as fuel for the fire to usher in the One who will be known as the Prince of Peace. 

According to Luke, a multitude of the heavenly hosts, the ones who appeared to the shepherds that night of Jesus’ birth, sang of “Peace on earth good will to all whom God favors.” And our favorite carols pick up the theme as well.

Silent night, holy night. All is calm all is bright, round yon virgin mother and child. Holy infant so tender and mild. Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.

Somehow the image of a newborn child and our longing for peace go hand in hand. The baby Jesus, lying in a manger, offers a symbol of peacefulness and calm that speaks to our soul, especially when we consider the chaotic time in which we live. Jesus as the Prince of Peace in a chaotic world seems like a marketing ploy, like someone’s trying to sell us a bill of goods. When we consider 2020 and the pandemic, rioting and looting, cities ablaze, and of course, the election (and its aftermath), peace seems so unattainable. How do we look at a baby in a manger and see peace? How can we see light shining in the midst of dark, chaotic world?

Searching for Shalom

Too often, the term peace has been connected with the absence of war, or even the absence of conflict. If there is no war – there is peace. However, the word that is used in the Old Testament for peace is “Shalom,” and it means so much more than the absence of conflict. Shalom is used to describe the end of hostilities, but the word itself also denotes health and wholeness. It denotes harmony and completeness. To have shalom is to have a quiet life and a fulfilled life in every way. When you have shalom there is no feeling of harm or hurt. When you have shalom you are in a state of ease and safety. In a state of shalom there is no fear whatsoever, nor is there any worry. There is a sense of harmony and oneness. Everything is exactly the way it should be. Nothing is out of order. Your inner world as well as the outer world is in harmony. This is shalom – this is the peace that Jesus brings for He is – Our Prince of Peace.

Down deep inside, don’t we all long to have this sense of peace? Deep inside every one of us is a God-given longing that there would be a greater sense of shalom within ourselves, within our families, within our nation, and between nations. 

Isaiah felt the same way. Isaiah was an Old Testament prophet and he had the same longings. The year was 700 B.C. The Jews had been fighting for forty years. First, they fought with the Assyrians, then the Egyptians, then the Assyrians again, then the Egyptians again. An entire generation had grown up knowing war, with a spear in one hand and a sword in the other. From the time a kid was three years old, all they were doing was playing war games.

Can you imagine forty years of that kind of life? Isaiah was tired of it. He was tired of four decades of killing. He was tired of kids being trained to kill. He was tired of mothers and fathers and sons and daughters fighting with each other. Isaiah longed for peace; he longed for peace as much as a parched, dry, thirsty man longs for water, or a starving man longs for bread. Isaiah longed for peace because he had experienced so much war.

Isaiah longed for peace perhaps because he had read the book of Genesis, and he knew that God created us to be peaceful with each other. Isaiah knew that we were made in the image of God, and therefore we are made to be peaceful with each other.

Made for Peace

When God created Adam and Eve and humankind, it was not God’s intention for us to hurt each other. It was not God’s intentions for mothers and fathers, and husbands and wives, and blacks and whites, and Arabs and Israelis, and Russians and Americans, Muslims and Christians, to be at war with each other.

We are made in the image of God. We are made for peace.  That’s why, down in our hearts, every time we fight with our spouse, or our children, or even ourselves, we don’t like it. You and I have been made by God to be peaceful people. We always feel so much better about life when we are at peace with ourselves, family, and each other.

Peace with ourselves and with one another starts with peace with God. Here is where a little light begins to shine in the darkness. Though we are made in the image of God, sin has stained that image. Each of us, because of sin, has a problem with God. Our sin has separated us from God. The Bible says that we deserve punishment for our sin. Before we can have peace with God, something must be done about sin.

Guess what? Something has been done! God sent the Prince of Peace to deal with the situation. He sent the Prince of Peace to fix the problem. He sent the Prince of Peace to give us peace with God. 

The good news of the child who is born a savior is that he comes to a world we know and bears upon him the sins that we bear. God has entered into this life of ours and taken it upon himself, and in so doing, sets us right with Himself, makes peace. There is a caveat, though. The angels in the Christmas story were singing high above the shepherds and they sang, “Peace on earth to all whom God favors.” The angels did not sing, “Peace on earth for all people…Peace on earth, carte blanche. Anyone with a credit card can charge it.” Rather, the song of peace adds a crucial ingredient, “to all whom God favors”—that is, people who trust in Jesus Christ will find shalom.

Let me tell you about Robert Reid. Not the actor, but the missionary. Robert graduated from high school and then from Abilene Christian University with a degree in Latin. He taught at a junior college in St. Louis and ventured overseas on five mission trips before moving to Lisbon as a missionary in 1972. He rented a hotel room and began studying Portuguese. He found a restaurant owner who would feed him because he was unable to feed himself. That’s because Robert’s hands are twisted and his feet are useless. He can’t bathe himself. He can’t brush his own teeth. He can’t put on his own underwear. His shirts are held together by strips of Velcro. His speech drags like a worn out audio cassette. He can’t drive a car. He can’t ride a bike. He can’t even go for walk. Robert has cerebral palsy. But that did not keep him from becoming a missionary to Portugal.

Robert would go daily to the park. He would station himself there and with his twisted hands he would pass out brochures about Jesus. Within six years he helped seventy people come to know the love of God in Jesus Christ, one who became his wife, Rosa.

Robert could have been bitter because of his disease, but he wasn’t. Robert could have asked for pity, but he didn’t. Robert holds his bent and twisted hands in the air and yells, “I have everything I need for joy! Amazing!” Robert can do that because he has peace. Robert can do that because he has met the Prince of Peace – Jesus.

Peace can and does happen, even in a chaotic world. Peace can happen, even in us. Peace can happen in our marriages. Peace can happen in our children.  Peace can happen because we are made in the image of God.  We are made for peace and we long for peace and we then work for peace because the Prince of Peace is working inside of us. How ironic that we who seem to have such dark, chaotic lives have been called to be light in a dark world. How ironic that we who seem to so often lack peace are called work for peace in this world. Yeah, there’s more than a little irony in the Christmas story.

Until next time, keep looking up…

“Joy” to the World…

You can’t have Christmas without lights AND you can’t have Christmas without music. The two go together, as Forrest Gump would say, “Like peas and carrots.” Some homeowners these days are even investing in the electronics necessary to make the lights on their homes dance to the music of the season (Clark Griswold would be so jealous).

Songs of the Season

The songs of the season (at least the religious ones) share a common theme. We sing “Joy to the World, the Lord has come, let earth receive her King.” The words of Psalm 96 and its companion Psalm 98 are reflected in Isaac Watts masterful creation that remains the most published Christian hymn in North America. Joy to the World is not the only song that carries the same theme. Listen to Charles Wesley’s great hymn:

  • Hark the herald angels sing
    “Glory to the newborn King!
    Peace on earth and mercy mild
    God and sinners reconciled”
    Joyful, all ye nations rise
    Join the triumph of the skies
    With the angelic host proclaim:
    “Christ is born in Bethlehem”
    Hark! The herald angels sing
    “Glory to the newborn King!”
  • And, the refrain from O Come, O Come Emmanuel proclaims: “Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”
  • Can we forget O Come All Ye Faithful? Doesn’t it say how we’re supposed to come? “Joyful and triumphant.”
  • And, of course, there is the magnificent Angels from the Realms of Glory:

Angels we have on heard high, Sweetly singing ore the plains, And the mountains in reply, Echoing their joyous strains

Each of the songs of the season echo exactly what the Psalmist sang in Psalm 96:11 – 13…

11 Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice!
    Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise!
12 Let the fields and their crops burst out with joy!
    Let the trees of the forest sing for joy
13 before the Lord, for he is coming!

This is the “joyous” season, but there is a bit of a hollow ring each year at Christmas when we speak of joy. Christmas is, for many, the saddest time of the year. Many people find the stress of the holiday season overwhelming. Others battle depression, social isolation and loneliness. Still others are grieving the loss of a loved one. And, in this year of Covid-19, songs of joy, and smiling faces, and parties and gifts and such don’t really mean that much when no one really knows what Christmas gatherings will look like, or you’re living on the street in a cardboard box, or in a shelter with just the clothes on your back.

Chippie

There are, in fact, many people having a “Chippie” moment right now. You know who “Chippie” is, right? Max Lucado, in his book In the Eye of the Storm tells Chippie’s story. It all began when Chippie’s owner decided to clean out his cage with a vacuum. She stuck the nozzle into the cage to clean up the bottom of the cage. Suddenly the phone rang. She reached for the phone with her free hand and not realizing it, her hand holding the nozzle rose slowly upward and sucked Chippie into the vacuum cleaner. Realizing what she had done, she dropped the phone and turned off the vacuum. 

With her heart in her mouth, she opened the vacuum bag to rescue poor Chippie. Chippie was stunned and covered head to foot with gray dust, but thankfully he was still alive. She grabbed him and rushed him to the bathtub, turned on the cold water full blast and held him under the water giving him a power washing. Then it dawned on her that Chippie was soaking wet and shivering, so she did what any compassionate pet-owner would do. She snatched up the blow dryer and blasted him with hot air.

You may be wondering if Chippie survived all this. Yes, he did, but Lucado says, Chippie doesn’t sing much anymore. He mostly just sits there in his cage eyeing the closet where the vacuum cleaner is kept. Being sucked up, washed out, and blown over has stolen the joy from his heart.

There are a lot of people in the world living their “Chippie” moment this Christmas—maybe even a few reading this today. My prayer for you is that you will find joy this season.

Joy vs. Happiness

Don’t confuse joy with happiness, though. The two are not the same. Yes, joy can bring happiness, but happiness is too dependent upon what happens to us, and what happens to us is not always bright and wonderful. Sometimes, life happens to us, and life can be unkind. Joy abides in spite of what happens because joy is a gift, and the gift is Jesus Christ. He is our joy!

See, it works like this. While the happenings of life may not be “good news,” word of a Savior is “good news.” As a matter of fact, it’s the Gospel. There is One who came to deliver us from the brokenness of this world. There is One who came to give us strength. There is One who came to offer hope, to bring peace, and to show us love. That One is Jesus Christ, and to a person living the chippie moments of life, the realization that life will not always be like this brings its own joy. 

When we encounter Jesus, either in a manger, or on the cross, or risen in victory over death, joy captures us, and it causes us to worship. We get a glimpse of the glory and greatness of God, and joy captures us. Joy captures us when we see God’s promises fulfilled. Joy captures us when we experience God’s presence in new and life-changing ways. Oh, no, my friends! We can’t find joy! Joy finds us in the gift that is Jesus Christ.

The Apostle Paul knew that joy finds us because it found him. Paul was a “chippie.” He had been stripped of everything, locked in a cold, dark, and wet prison cell, and had even been sentenced to die. And he sits down to write his friends in Philippi. “Yep, I’m in prison, again. This time sentenced to die, and oh, by the way, “Rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again rejoice!” From a cold, dark prison cell Paul writes a brief letter and mentions joy ten times! TEN TIMES!

How can Paul do that? He doesn’t have anything to be joyful about. His life is on the line, he is cold, wet, and tired, he has no freedom, has no shiny car with a bright red ribbon waiting for him in the driveway, no limited time diamond earring and necklace sale to take advantage of, no latest computer game or smartphone to occupy his time. He is parted from family and friends, and can’t take a single bit of joy from a job well done because well, being in prison has put his flourishing church-planting career on hold.

Yet over and over again, Paul brings up joy. Somehow he got it into his head, that you don’t need all that stuff to have joy. Even his earthly life being in jeopardy could not part him from joy. For Paul, joy doesn’t come from the world. It comes from God. God is the giver of true joy. God is the giver of a peace that passes all understanding. And, it doesn’t come from something we buy. It comes from something freely given—a person, Jesus Christ. Paul’s great joy was his assurance from God. He knew that nothing can separate us from the love of God which is through Christ Jesus our Lord. We, too, have this great joy.

This truth is, of course, summed up in a song. My favorite, and I believe the song that captures the heart of Christmas as well as any other is O Holy Night. Take a listen:

Oh holy night!
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!


Fall on your knees
Oh hear the angel voices
Oh night divine
Oh night when Christ was born
Oh night divine
Oh night divine

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

The light of joy is Jesus Christ. Lights and music. They are peas and carrots, indeed!

Until next time, keep looking up…

Love Came Down at Christmas…

Love came down at Christmas, Love all lovely, Love Divine, Love was born at Christmas, Star and Angels gave the sign.

Thus begins the 1885 poem written by Christina Rossetti that was set to music to become the Christmas carol we know as Love Came Down at Christmas.

The words of the poem remind me of the words of the familiar passage of scripture that ring even more poetically–“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

The power of John’s words can almost be lost because we are so familiar with them. His words are like the Christmas story itself in that regard. We (as followers of Jesus Christ) are so familiar with the story that we often fail to sense its power, but we must never lose the power of love that came down at Christmas.

A Mother’s Love

There was a lot of love around the manger on that night so long ago. Who can look at a manger scene without thinking of Mary’s love for her child? There is nothing like a mother’s love, even if you are the mother of God. I am reminded of the words of Mark Lowery’s incredible song Mary Did You Know? Lowery paints a vivid picture of the relationship between Mary and the baby Jesus:

Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am…

There is some biblical evidence to suggest, perhaps, Mary did, in fact, know. Even if she did, it couldn’t change the deep connection and affection she had for her newborn. That is a manner of love we see at the manger, and it is a good and fulfilling and meaningful love, but it is not the love that came down at Christmas.

A Husband’s Love

We also can’t look at the manger without noting the love of Joseph. I can’t honestly say how Joseph felt about his little man lying in the manger, but I’m pretty certain I can know how he felt about Mary. Here she is having gotten pregnant, Lord only knows how, yet here is Joseph with her at the birth of this child.

Yes, I know, there were angels who visited him to assure him of God’s direction and leadership, but still, ya’ gotta’ think, “What’s up with that?” But, Joseph loves Mary, and because he loves Mary, he is there. We see the love of a husband for his wife, and it is a great and honoring love, but it is not the love that came down at Christmas.

God’s Love

We have to go deeper and further back in history to capture the love that came down at Christmas. Back in the earliest recorded history, we find that God has a story of love for us. In Genesis, we read a story about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God has spent his time doing nothing but preparing a place for humanity to dwell. He’s created the earth, the sun, the moon, the animals and a place to live. He’s done this all for the sake of one man and one woman—Adam and Eve.

Picture this… a lush green landscape filled with every kind of fruit tree. Ripe harvests of fresh fruits and vegetables are ready on the vine, in the trees and on the ground. Colorful flowers fill the area with roses, tulips and other assorted colors and smells. And, a beautiful river flowing right through the center of it all. In a word, paradise.

Adam and Eve were greeted with the immediate presence of God in their midst. They talked directly with God every day (just like you and I have a conversation). They knew God in a way we can only imagine. With all these beautiful surroundings, they were given only one command to follow; do not eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Adam and Eve broke the rule, and thereby set all humankind on a path of sin and with that, separation from God. God loved His creation and created a world for humankind to inhabit. He was unable to let man condemn himself because of His love for us.

God, in his infinite love, set a new path. Too often, the church has not done a great job communicating the Gospel. We’ve made God sound like one whose wrath needed to be pacified, who must be persuaded to forgive. We have, too often, painted a picture of God as angry and unforgiving, and that Jesus did something to change God’s mind toward us.

Jesus, in Johns’ Gospel, utters these most familiar words to a Pharisee named Nicodemus to let him know that nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus says it was God who started it all. God sent His Son into the world. God gave us this wonderful gift at Christmas, and it was all because of His love.

Love. God’s love. It’s easy to confuse our idea of love with God’s. Love, the commitment, not the emotion is what is symbolized in the love that came down at Christmas, and love is the supreme quality of God. Listen to this same Apostle in 1 John 4: 8 – 10: 

But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. 10 This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.

God was not acting to satisfy some desire for power or obedience, but because He loves. Jesus tells Nicodemus that God was moving in love to bring eternal life to a wayward, foolish, blundering, sin-sick world. This is the love that came down at Christmas, and we know that God’s love is real, for we have seen it in Jesus. Yes, that’s the love in the manger. The commitment of love, lived out in the birth, life and death of Jesus Christ.

Love With Skin On

Jesus came to put skin on love, to show us the depth of God’s love. We can talk about it, but until we see it, our lives will remain unchanged. The love that came down at Christmas is sacrificial, and it is sacramental. It was this Apostle John, too, who records the time Jesus told his disciples:

This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you.13 There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. John 15:12-13 (NLT)

Then, Jesus called us friend.

God has given us a living picture of His love in the sacrament we call Holy Communion. We receive a regular reminder that the love embodied in Christ and acknowledged in the manger is a commitment, not an emotion.

Ernest Gordon tells the story in his book Miracle on the River Kwai of the Scottish soldiers during World War II, forced by their Japanese captors to labor on a jungle railroad, had degenerated to barbarous behavior, but one afternoon something happened. A shovel was missing. The Japanese officer in charge became enraged, and demanded that the missing shovel be produced, or else.

When nobody in the squadron budged, the officer got his gun and threatened to kill them all on the spot. It was obvious the officer meant what he had said. Then, finally, one man stepped forward. The officer put away his gun, picked up a shovel, and beat the man to death. When it was over, the survivors picked up the bloody corpse and carried it with them to the second tool check. This time, no shovel was missing. There had been a miscount at the first checkpoint.

The word spread like wildfire through the whole camp. An innocent man had been willing to die to save the others! The incident had a profound effect. The men began to treat each other like brothers. When the victorious Allies swept in, the survivors, human skeletons, lined up in front of their captors, and instead of attacking their captors, they protected them and insisted: “no more hatred. No more killing. Now what we need is forgiveness.” The sacrifice of this one man changed the hearts of those around him. He faced the punishment to save the others.

God willing, we will never be faced with a situation as grim as the one described by Gordon, but we can still impact those around us by living as sacrificially. As long as we remember the love that came down at Christmas, we can show we are Christ’s disciples by our love.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Sometimes, I Just Need Reminding…

The holidays are upon us yet again, and for that I am grateful. Not only is it the best time of the year, but this year, it indicates that 2020 is almost over! If there’s ever been a time when I couldn’t wait for a year to be over it’s this year. Of course, there is no way I’m going to say 2021 has to be a better year. That will jinx it for sure, so I’ll just stick with “I can’t wait for 2020 to be over!”

The holidays usually have their own unique stressors, but 2020 (as with everything else) will be unique in that the usual stress will be compounded by the added stress of Covid-19. Rather than the stress of parties and plans, it will be the stress (depression?) of canceled plans. If we follow the “guidelines,” we’ll all have a Zoom Christmas this year. I must confess that I’m grateful to not have the stress of making decisions about Christmas Eve services. I pray for my colleagues who are!

Photo by Oleg Zaicev on Pexels.com

So, I’m taking a little time this morning to remind myself of advice I’ve offered believers almost every year for the past twenty years. I find the advice in Paul’s love letter to the Church at Philippi. The encouragement he offers the Church there is encouragement to me as we head into the holiday season, and it actually works pretty well the rest of the year, too.

THINK TO THANK

Paul begins his letter to Philippi with gratitude: “Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God” (Phil. 1:3). Gratitude seems like an appropriate place to begin the holiday season. If you’ve been in the local stores, you would think that Thanksgiving has been skipped this year. Hey? We’re doing it at home, too. People put up their Christmas trees and lights in October in an effort to hasten the year’s end. Trust me! It didn’t get here any quicker.

Let’s not forget to be thankful…even for the year 2020. Gratitude can set the tone (change the tone?) for all that is happening in our lives. Even in the midst of a pandemic there is much for which to be grateful. What can we be grateful fo? I’m glad you asked. We can look to Paul for an answer.

First, we can be grateful that we are not alone (even though “officials” are encouraging limited gatherings). Paul called the Philippians “partners in spreading the Good News” (v. 5). We need to acknowledge and express our gratitude for those who share the life of Christian faith with us. We, indeed, are not alone.

One of the buzz phrases of the pandemic (although we don’t hear it as much lately) has been “We’re all in this together” (though an argument could be made that we’re not “together” [see here]). We all do share the same stress of the pandemic, that much is true, so in that regard we are not alone. But, as believers in Jesus Christ, our faith journey is shared with other believers, and there is hope in that for us, and we should be grateful.

Ironically, the holidays are the loneliest time of the year for many people. Whether the death of a loved one, a divorce or the empty nest syndrome, a first holiday season with changed circumstances can create its own type of loneliness (and it will be made worse by the pandemic). We are the body of Christ, and we have the body of Christ (even in a pandemic) to share life with. We are not alone!

Of course, that means we shouldn’t let others be alone either. We should look for ways to reach out to those who may be experiencing loneliness this holiday season. Perhaps it’s the neighbor who lost a spouse this year. Perhaps it’s a friend who has gone through a divorce, or a parent who lost a child. Whoever it may be, discover ways (yes, even in a pandemic) to reach out to share hope and the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Another thing for which I can be grateful is that God is still working on me. Paul writes to the Philippians, “And I am sure that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on that day when Christ Jesus comes back again” (v. 6). That’s Good News! I can’t read this verse and not consider a Wesleyan understanding of “sanctifying” grace. It simply means “God is still working on me!” (Some would say He’s got a lot of work to do, but that’s another blog!)

Here’s something I consider, too. If God is not done with me yet, then there’s a better than even chance that He’s not done with whomever I encounter this holiday season. When I’m impatient with a cashier, I need remember that they are in need of grace, too. Why shouldn’t it be me who will extend them that grace, and in the process the Lord may teach us both something?

Yes, I need to think to thank…

LIVE TO LOVE

Paul’s love for the Philippian Church was evident in his letter. He writes:  God knows how much I love you and long for you with the tender compassion of Christ Jesus. I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding (v. 8-9).

I am reminded of the Christmas hymn Love Came Down at Christmas. It was love that came down so that Jesus could give his disciples a new commandment–love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12). The point is made vividly in a prayer I came across some time ago:

Heavenly  Father, Help us remember that the jerk who cut  us off in traffic last night is a single mother who worked nine hours that day and is rushing home to cook dinner, help with homework, do the  laundry and spend a few precious moments with  her children.

Help  us to remember that the pierced, tattooed, disinterested young man who can’t make change  correctly is a worried 19-year-old college student, balancing his apprehension over final exams with his fear of not getting his student loans for next semester.

Remind us, Lord, that the scary looking bum, begging  for money in the same spot every day (who really ought to get a job!) is a slave to addiction that we can only imagine in our worst  nightmares.

Help  us to remember that the old couple walking  annoyingly slow through the store aisles and  blocking our shopping progress are savoring this moment, knowing that, based on the biopsy report she got back last week, this will be the last  year that they go shopping together.

Heavenly  Father, remind us each day that, of all the  gifts you give us, the greatest gift is love. It is not enough to share that love with those we hold dear. Open our hearts not to just those who are close to us, but to all humanity. Let us be slow to judge and quick to forgive, show patience, empathy and love.

May I live to love this holiday season.

COMMIT TO CHRIST-LIKENESS

For the believer in Jesus Christ, character matters. Paul reminds the Philippians (and us) “what really matters, so that we may live pure and blameless lives” (v. 10). Lord knows, we are not perfect, but that should not preclude our continuing pursuit of perfection as we grow in Christ-likeness. I remind us that Paul was writing to a young church that had few examples. We have over 2,000 years of church history and faithful saints. We are without excuse in pursuing holiness–not always attaining, yet always pursuing.

Paul says we should “filled with the fruit” (v. 10) of our salvation. We know that fruit, right? Love, joy, peach, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22). We should bear the characteristics of a Christ-like life. Otherwise, the world will never know the grace of salvation that comes in Jesus Christ.

Our commitment to live the Christ-like life comes before we enter the fray. Commitment comes before engagement. We begin every day with the end of the day in sight. Jesus came, wrapped in swaddling clothes. Long before that first Christmas, the commitment to the cross had been made. Long before the cross, God the Father made the commitment to forgive the sins of the world through His Son, Jesus Christ.

If we are not committed to Christ-likeness before the holidays begin, it is not likely we will live in Christ-likeness through the holidays. If we were not committed to the Christ-like life before the pandemic, it is not likely that we’ve exhibited much Christ-like behavior during the pandemic. I must commit to live like Christ this morning if I expect to model Christ this afternoon.

One way I can do that is to focus on the person who is behind any behavior I encounter throughout each and every day. Focus on people over behavior–not that behavior doesn’t matter, but it is the person Christ died to save, and by grace behaviors can change. I must know what’s important and I must value love, mercy and grace over impatience and inconvenience.

We are called to gratitude, love and grace. I need that reminder heading into the holiday season. Perhaps you do, too.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Lessons in the Walmart…

Y’all! I’ve got to tell you a story. Prayer works. It really does!

Anyone who knows me knows how little I care for going to the Walmart and it’s only gotten worse since Covid (actually, I’ve not cared for going into any retail establishment since Covid, but that’s another blog). But, I had to go to the Walmart the other day, so…

Hurricanes have a way of changing a person’s plans. Mind you, I’m not comparing the damage done by Hurricane Delta to our home to the destruction she caused many in southwest Louisiana, but they can sure be challenging to all of us.

In the days following the storm, my honey decides that she wants to change up the room we recently renovated (let’s call it a re-renovation–forced, but still…). She decides to take out a wall and make a large den in that part of the house, which basically means we no longer need the new television, so having never even opened the box, we decide to return it.

So, I take off a couple of days last week just to catch my breath after a big project at work. It seems to be an opportune time to return the television that, yes, we should have returned much sooner, but you know how those things go, right? I load the television (in its original, unopened box), get the receipt from my honey and head to Walmart.

I pull into the parking lot and my anxiety level increases just from that simple exercise. I utter this prayer: “Lord, by Your Spirit, give me peace and patience so that I don’t say or do something that both you and I will regret.” Now, I’ve discovered that when I pray for patience, He never grants me patience, but gives me opportunity to practice patience. Well, the Lord answers prayer!

I walk into Walmart holding this bulky 52″ television and the lady at the door looks at my receipt and directs me toward the customer service counter. “No problem,” I say to myself, “that’s what I expected.” Of course, making my way to the customer service counter I discover six people in line ahead of me and one customer service rep (ever try social distancing with a 52″ TV in your arms across the front aisle in Walmart?). So, here comes the frustration.

One by one, the customers make their way up to the counter. Every time one completes a transaction, I pick up the TV and move six feet forward. Twenty minutes later and a change in customer service reps (must have been break time) I make it to the counter. I tell the lady that I’d like to return the TV, to which she looks at me and says, “You’ll have to return this in electronics. We can’t take it here.”

What? Before I know it, these words slip out of my mouth–“Why couldn’t someone have told me that twenty minutes ago? And, why didn’t the lady a the front door tell me to head to electronics?” And, no, the expression on my face was not my usual angelic self.

The patient lady simply said, “I’m sorry, you’ll have to go to electronics.” Not her fault, I know, but now I’m frustrated. All the way back to the electronics counter I feel the frustration rising and my mind is constructing ten different scenarios that have me waiting another twenty minutes to return the TV. Finally, I stop and remember the prayer I prayed before I walked into the store. My heart is at peace once again.

I make my way to the electronics counter and I see two customers. “Not too bad,” I think. One customer finishes her transaction as I arrive, and the other customer (with a basketful of groceries) pulls up to the counter, and I think, “Oh, no! Here’s the twenty minutes I was afraid of.” But, the lady only wanted to ask a question, so she was soon on her way.

I approach the counter, tell the cashier I’d like to return the TV, and she asks for the receipt. I give her the receipt. She looks at it and says, “We can’t take this back. We have a 30 day return policy on electronics.” (I suppose I should check the fine print on those long receipts, but really…I missed it by 10 days!)

Yes, my jaw dropped and the redness in my face grew. I remembered the prayer I just prayed a few minutes ago, and with all the sincerity I could muster, said, “But, ma’am, I haven’t even opened the box!”

“Why do you need to return it?” she asked.

“Because the wall we were going to hang it on was crushed by a tree, and we don’t need it anymore,” came my response.

She inspected the box all over to confirm that we hadn’t opened it. She looks at me and says, “A manager will have to make this decision.” Ah! So, here’s the twenty minutes I was afraid of. She calls the manager. A mere five minutes later a manager shows up, looks at the TV and says, “Take it back.”

Whew! I breath a sigh of relief. During those five minutes I envisioned having to sell a brand new, still-in-the-box 52″ TV on Facebook Marketplace for half-price just to get rid of it. And, I’m thinking of all the snide comments I’m going to make when the manager says he/she can’t take it back. As usual, I was worried for nothing.

The lady begins the transaction and asks if I have the debit card that was used to purchase the TV (otherwise, you get store credit). I did. I handed her my card, she looked at my name and said, “You’re Lynn Malone?”

“Uh, yes,” I replied.

“Are you from Chatham?” she asked?

“Uh, yes,” I replied.

“You know my mother and grandmother,” she said.

She proceeded to tell me their names, and yes, I had known her grandmother all my life, and I attended school with her mother. It’s a small world, really, and for five minutes we had old home week. I left the electronics department at Walmart feeling much less frustration, but more than that, I was grateful the Lord had answered my prayer that I would not say or do anything that would both he and I would regret. Trust me! Had I let frustration get the best of me, that story would have made it back to Chatham quicker than I could, and it would have diminished my witness, but more importantly, it would have stained the name of Jesus Christ.

Like most preachers, I have a knack for making short stories long, but that notwithstanding, I’ve pondered a few lessons since that trip to the Walmart.

One lesson is not to play “What if…” in my mind. What if there are ten customers in line and I have to wait thirty minutes? What if they don’t take the TV back? We created scenarios in our mind to cause worry over things that may never happen. Certainly, the scenarios that could have played out at Walmart are nothing compared to what many people face every day, but the human proclivity is to “What if” in the most dire circumstances. We cannot “What if” our way through life and expect to find the peace of God that passes all understanding in Jesus Christ.

Another lesson I learned in the Walmart is that this really is a small world, and that anywhere we go, there is someone who is likely to know us, or know someone who knows us. It’s that whole “six degrees of separation” thing, I suppose, but it is a reason to be kind and gentle in every situation. Of course, those are both fruit of the spirit, too, so there’s that…

A lesson I had confirmed is that the Lord does answer our prayers, and I’m grateful He answered mine that day. The problem is that we don’t often take the time to offer prayers. We get too busy to pray. One thing is for certain: the Lord can’t answer the prayer that isn’t prayed.

I also reminded myself of a lesson I’ve tried to teach the congregations I’ve pastored through the years: Pray before we enter the fray. Someone once said that the problem with life is that it happens so daily. We prepare ourselves for the challenges of life through prayer as we begin the day, or as we head into stressful situations. Yup! We pray in the middle of challenging times, but if we haven’t prepared for the challenging times through prayer, it may often feel like our prayers are bouncing off the ceiling. Pray…at all times…pray, but let each morning begin with that heavenly conversation. It will set the tone for the rest of the day.

Sorry I took such a long time to make a few weak points, but I never expected a trip to the Walmart to yield positive fruit in my life. Perhaps the catharsis of my sharing will help make us all more attentive to the grace all around us. We can experience God’s grace in every place…if we’ll just pay attention…even, in the Walmart.

Until next time, keep looking up…