A Stroll At Leisure With God

What The Dimensions Mean

First, let me say a further word about Rick. We missed each other TWICE yesterday. It was kind of exasperating. I basically sat around trying to do some work but watching the phone, and the two times I got calls, Rick called me and I missed him. I tried to get in touch with him later in the afternoon, but I couldn’t reach him.

That’s okay. I understand. As I was working through my cancer diagnosis, I wasn’t too enthused about talking to a bunch of folks either.

What is going on with Rick? Well, since I could reach him yesterday morning, I called Donnie. We had a very good talk. It was great to connect with him again. He is doing well, by the way. I was glad to hear this.

As you can understand, the church is pretty devastated by Rick’s illness. The deacons knew what was going on fairly early in the process, but Donnie said that Rick wrote a letter that the Chairman of the deacons read at a business meeting on Wednesday night.

As I sit here this morning, I just honestly feel a check in my spirit about sharing the details of what I know about his illness in this forum. I think I will feel better if he shares it on Facebook and/or gives me permission to do so. Stay tuned.

The important thing to know is that he has a very important meeting with the doctor this morning at 8:00 AM at MD Anderson in Houston. My family and I are going to be praying at that time, and I asked Betty to contact Jim and our prayer team to enlist them to pray also.

I will say this—all of us felt a “heaviness” in our family yesterday. It was hard not to think about Rick and Jonann all day. We prayed for them last night, and as we did that, I could tell how deeply my mom and sis care for them.

Several years ago, Rick and Jonann came to Colorado for a visit. I had asked Rick to preach for me on some special occasion or for a revival or something. They were in town for another meeting for some reason. I think, if my memory serves me correctly, Rick was teaching at Oklahoma Baptist University at the time.

Anyway, Rick and Jonann rented a convertible, and I have a picture of them striking a GQ and “GQette” (whatever the female magazine equivalent is—ha) pose on my mom’s driveway in their convertible. It is hilarious. We all—my mom and sis included—had a blast hanging out with them for a few days while they were here.

Last night, my mom prayed for our “special friends.” That’s just how it is.

Anyway, on to the passage to today—a section of Ezekiel that gives me some comfort today. It is kind of difficult to wade through all the descriptions of the dimensions of the future temple, but when one arrives at chapter 43, some things start to come together in the book.

First, the glory of the Lord returns! If you remember, as Ezekiel began his prophetic ministry to the exiles on the bank of Kebar River, there is an elaborate vision in the first few chapters that culminates with the glory of the Lord taking wings and flying away. Poof! Gone.

Well, in this chapter, the glory returns and it filled the Temple, and the Lord declares this new Temple to be His resting place forever. And once this occurs, the whole idolatry “issue” in Israel will be cured forever.

Then, the Lord gives His prophets some instructions that help explain why the meticulous and tedious detail of the dimensions of the new Temple: "Son of man, describe to the people of Israel the Temple I have shown you, so they will be ashamed of all their sins. Let them study its plan, and they will be ashamed of what they have done. Describe to them all the specifications of the Temple—including its entrances and exits—and everything else about it. Tell them about its decrees and laws. Write down all these specifications and decrees as they watch so they will be sure to remember and follow them. And this is the basic law of the Temple: absolute holiness! The entire top of the mountain where the Temple is built is holy. Yes, this is the basic law of the Temple" (Ezekiel 43:10-12 NLT).

Of course! Holiness—that is what these descriptions are all about! Yes! Amen!

Can you imagine a pastor of a church in our day and time standing up to preach a sermon that is all about dimensions? “This wall is sixteen feet long. That doorway is three feet wide. This room is ten feet long and fourteen feet wide.” Et cetera. I can just see the sleep meter topping out and folks dozing, if they hadn’t just walked out the door, all over the auditorium.

But to Jews—in exile—it was anything but a boring list of dimensions. Remember, the prophet is speaking to exiles. They have been driven from their land. They had witnessed or heard about the total destruction of the city of Jerusalem and their temple. Both were essentially gone.

And so, here is Ezekiel giving dimensions of the new Temple and the glory of the Lord returning and the presence of God THERE forever.

The Lord is unlike anything or anyone! He is totally unique and different and separate—that’s what the dimensions and rooms and walls and barriers are all about! It was true of the tabernacle. Not just anyone could go in any part of that tent. There were requirements and boundaries and regulations.

It was the same for Solomon Temple—the one that eventually got destroyed.

It is the same in the new Temple forever. Praise God!

Lord, I worship you in your absolute holiness. You are radically different than I am. Your ways and your thoughts are miles from me.

I don’t pretend to understand the course of events and why things happen as they do. I don’t understand Rick’s illness or that of Mike Toby or anyone else. I just don’t get it.

But I don’t have to. I just choose to worship you right now. “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty! Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee” (“Holy, Holy, Holy, BH 2008, 68). Amen.

"The Fight for My Life"

I’m having a hard time concentrating this morning. I have a lot to do, but somehow, my work pales a bit today.

Last night, after church, I received a message that Marilyn forwarded to me. It was from Facebook. It was from my friend Rick. He and his wife Jonann were great friends from my PhD days at Southwestern. He is currently serving a church in Ruston, Louisiana.

I have gone there twice—in July of 09 and 11—to preach as part of some special services that his church, Temple Baptist Church, has each summer. They are called “Marvelous Mondays.” I enjoyed getting to preach on both of those occasions. Each time several hundred folks showed up for a service on a Monday night—kind of amazing.

Each time I preached there, Dick Powell, who is Minister of Music at Woodridge Baptist Church in Shreveport, led worship. He did a great job working with the huge choir and orchestra.

All of that was well and good, but the main thing I enjoyed was hanging out with Rick and Jonann. I enjoyed staying in their beautiful home there in Ruston. We would just hang out and visit, just as we often did in seminary. And, of course, I always ate well. Each night, we would go out to eat or Jonann would cook for us. Their son, Will, was around in 09, but he was not there in 2011, as he had graduated and was on the way to college.

Rick had a bout with cancer a few years ago, but he was doing well over the past few years. When I got diagnosed, Rick called me on several occasions and we had some good talks. I appreciated his efforts to talk with me and minister to me as a friend. He got me in touch with Donnie. Remember Donnie? Donnie and I talked on the phone several times and then met each other when I was in Ruston in ’11.

As you can see, I could go on and on. Rick is one of my best friends.

Anyway, here is the message from Rick on Facebook: “Please pray for me and my family. I’m facing the battle for my life. We are at MD Anderson seeking evaluation and treatment options for my cancer.”

What do you think that means? I refuse to speculate. But it can’t be good.

My mom and sis and I were talking about this last night. My mom said, “I sure hate this stinking disease. We need to pray more than ever that someone will find a cure.”

I was visiting with Lucinda and Jennifer at Spanish class the other night. They were asking about my plans with my book. I replied, “Well, one of the things that I want to do is to have a special cancer Sunday at church and invite everyone who may have had or is still dealing with cancer on any level.” I guess I had in mind people who have actually been diagnosed with the disease.

But one of the gals said, “Isn’t that everyone?”


Right now, there are several thousand folks in Ruston, Louisiana—a whole congregation of people and more in the community—that are dealing with cancer because they love Rick. If by some remote chance some of those folks have not had it themselves or known anyone who had cancer, now they are “dealing” with it.

My heart breaks for him. I’m going to try to call him once I post this blog entry for today.

Oh, Lord, I pray for Rick and Jonann and their family and the church and the community in Ruston. I lift them up to you.

Whatever this cancer is, no matter how serious the diagnosis, give Rick and all those folks the grace for the “fight for his life.”

I do pray for healing for Rick. I do pray for a cure for this “stinking” disease.


Perfect Symmetry

Chapter forty signals a transition of sorts in the book of Ezekiel. I will get to that in a moment.

I want to say a word about my book at this point. I am almost ready to start selling it myself, but I am still waiting to hear from my accountant as to how much I need to charge for tax and I need to figure out shipping costs as well. I hope I can get that nailed down in the next couple of days and get moving. Stay tuned.

There is so much more to say about all of this, but I have purposely not gone into detail until I have my ducks in a row. And, I’m discovering a new “duck” every day! Ha. Plus, there is a lot going on at church, and it has been hard to find the time to pursue some of these matters.

My goal is to have everything in order by December 9th. This is a special Sunday in which I am going to have a book signing party after the morning service at our church. It should be a lot of fun. I guess this will be the official launch of the book.

One of the things that I am careful to say as often as possible is that I am not going to turn into a guy that is always promoting or hawking his book, BUT, I do believe that the Lord has a message He wants me to share. That is the first thing. The second is that all of you who take the time to wade through all my verbiage every day (and again, I appreciate it so much) are an integral part of all of this.

I found myself articulating this the other day when I got a call from a brother who is really struggling. He claims to go to church, but I don’t think he goes that often. Let me call him “Hank.” I said, “Hank, if there is one thing I have learned through my cancer experience is that every believer needs a community. And I am not talking about sitting in the same room with hundreds of people for one hour per week.”

Let me stop right there. If I have any gripe against a “mega-church mentality,” this is it. Let me be clear here: I am not leveling an indictment against large churches. This is NOT what I am saying. I am grateful for any church that lauds Jesus and teaches the Bible of any size. Praise the Lord for them all.

But I do have a problem with the “mega-church mentality.” What is it? Again, I need to be careful. It is an attitude that goes to a large church to escape accountability. I mean, let’s face it, it is a lot easier to drift in and out of a church with hundreds of people than it is a smaller church. And, I’m discovering that a lot of people LIKE this. That way, they don’t have to be involved or committed. And they can miss a few Sundays or a lot of Sundays here and there and no one misses them.

Now, let me hasten to say that I believe there are times and seasons where this might be a good thing for a believer for a relatively SHORT period of time—someone who is burned out and had been over-involved for a long time. He or she might need a break, but it is not surprising how folks in this mode often turn a “break” into an entrenched habit of NEVER going back to church again.

I say this often: “All of us are one or two Sundays away from never going back to church ever again. The devil will see to that. Give him an inch--he will take a mile. Give him a few Sundays—he will take a lifetime.” I’ve seen it over and over.

But back to my point: a real Christian community (and this can be found in a large or small church; it doesn’t matter) has two blatant characteristics: people miss you when you aren’t there and they pray for you.

And I will say that I have learned that these are two crucial, CRUCIAL needs, for every believer.

Now that I am thinking about it—there is another need as well—MEANINGFUL OUTLETS FOR SERVICE. That is important as well.

I fear that there are two many people who go and sit in a pew in a mega-church every now and again who have none of these things (and like it) and pat themselves on the back that they fulfilled some sort of spiritual obligation. These are the very folks who drop out of church and never go back when they face some crisis. Their little flimsy now and again church attendance Christianity crumbles like a house of cards.

I’ll tell you: right or wrong, good or bad, people with that type of mentality don’t last long in our congregation. You simply can’t be anonymous at First Southern. Someone is going to find you and get to know you and get your story and get your name, and all of sudden, anonymity is gone! Poof!

Well, enough about all of that. Here is my point: I would not have made it without the community, and those of you who are reading this are part of that community for me, and I am so grateful.

This is part of the symmetry of God’s temple. This fortieth chapter is all about the measurements of the new temple. Every side, every wall, and every door—all parts of it match other parts. Here is an example of a reference in this chapter:
"Then the man took me to the south gateway leading into the inner courtyard. He measured it, and it had the same measurements as the other gateways" (Ezekiel 40:28 NLT).

What does this mean? I will elaborate more on this tomorrow, but no one measures anything that is not tangible and real. Plus, everything that the Lord makes is perfectly symmetrical—no loose ends, no distortions, nothing uneven or out of place.

Aren’t you glad?

Oh, Lord, I thank you for the symmetry of the new temple and thank you that in Jesus, all of us are that temple. I’m so grateful for all the support and all the prayer. Thank you for everyone who reads these blogs and is there in my corner.

Every believer needs this, Lord. All of us need genuine community. I pray that First Southern can be THAT kind of church. Make me who I need to be to serve as pastor of THAT kind of church.

“I know eternal life He giveth,
That grace and power are in His hand” (“I Know That My Redeemer Liveth,” BH 2008, 352). Amen.

The Lord's Hidden Face

Before I get into the “topic” for today, I just have to say that yesterday was extremely difficult. I was so exhausted that I could barely keep my eyes open. I struggled through the morning. Then, I decided that getting something to eat might help me. I seemed to revive me, but only for a while. By about 2:00, I gave up and just decided to sleep. I conked out for an hour and a half. I NEVER sleep during the day, but yesterday, I guess I needed to.

It took me back to my days of chemotherapy. It was kind of jolt, to be honest. And it was another reminder of two things. I don’t think I am “back” completely yet—whatever “back” is. And I may never be, and that’s okay. But also, it is just a reminder that on days like yesterday, I have to pull back—no matter what I have on the calendar.

I’ve said this numerous times in the blog, but it bears repeating. In the past, I would have just pushed myself on a day like today—fighting sleep all day long. And of course, there are just some days that everyone experiences this. I know. BUT, I think the wisdom comes in at some point to make an adjustment of some sort down the road to rest and regain some energy.

Maybe everyone knows this, and I should have, but I just didn’t LIVE this way in practical experience.

Plus, I was motivated by fear of people. I was afraid of the one person out there who might say, “I don’t think John is doing his job.” Now, I am more convinced than ever, especially in a job like mine in which I am alone a lot, that I have to get my validation from my relationship with the Lord and not trying to keep everyone happy, especially those “mythical” people OUT THERE who may not be pleased.

Therefore, I’m not going to push myself hard today. Enough said on all of that.

I mentioned this in passing yesterday, but I want to quote from Ezekiel 39 again:
"And the nations will know that the house of Israel went into exile on account of their iniquity, because they dealt unfaithfully with Me. Therefore, I hid My face from them and handed them over to their enemies, so that they all fell by the sword" (Ezekiel 39:23 HCSB).

What is the Lord’s response to idolatry? Well, it seems a little contradictory on face value. Why do I say that? Well, it seems to me that one of the causes of worshiping a false god is the fact that we can’t see God and/or sometimes, when we pray to Him, an answer does not seem to be forthcoming on the timetable we desire. I realize this is an over-simplification, but I think, for the most part, it is true.

It seems incredible to me that, in the face of idolatry, the Lord’s response is to “hide His face.”

What does this mean? Well, yesterday, as I was pondering this, I realized that I had seen this expression before. I looked it up and discovered two other passages where this expression occurs.

"Lord, when You showed Your favor, You made me stand like a strong mountain; when You hid Your face, I was terrified" (Psalms 30:7 HCSB).

"In a surge of anger I hid My face from you for a moment, but I will have compassion on you with everlasting love,” says the Lord your Redeemer" (Isaiah 54:8 HCSB).

How about those two references? One is a testimony from a believer in the Psalms. Another is a statement from the Lord himself.

Again, back to my question: what does this mean? Well, first, I think that there are times when we find it more difficult to discern God’s direction and/or involvement in our lives. It is not that God departs. We are the ones who do that. But the Lord allows a situation in which it is more difficult to discern His work in our lives.

Second, and I know this will sound like a contradiction to what I have just said, I’m not sure that the Lord does hide His face in the new covenant. I say that because, in Ezekiel 39, there is a contrast between the Lord’s hidden face in verse 23 and the work of the Holy Spirit. Here is the last verse of Ezekiel 39: “I will no longer hide my face from them, for I will pour out My Spirit on the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 39:29 HCSB).

In other words, whatever ever happened in the exile of the people of Israel to Babylon, will NOT be repeated again because of the Holy Spirit.

I believe that Psalm 30:7 and Isaiah 54:8 confirm this. And it may be the difference between punishment (which has eternal consequences) and discipline (which involves times and seasons in our life of faith in which the Lord gets our attention through times in which He “seems” to be distant from us).

The question I have from the Isaiah passage is: can God be angry with a believer? Well, again, if we are talking about the anger that only eternal love can have (the anger of a father toward a son when he is acting up), I would say, “Yes.” But if we are talking about the “wrath” of God on sin (as the gospel of John and the first chapter of Romans talks about), I would say, “No.”

Again, all of this is fascinating to me, and points out the challenges of biblical interpretation. There are a couple of key issues at stake here.

We must always interpret the Bible in light of its full canonical context.

And, we must recognize that there are elements of continuity AND discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments.

Lord, I’m grateful today for your love that will not quit. In those times when you seem to be distant from me, I know first of all that you haven’t moved. I have. And I thank you that you never leave me or forsake me.

Thank you for pulling me through yesterday. Thank you for the lessons you have taught me about managing myself through cancer.

This song we sang Sunday in worship keeps coming to mind:

“Oh no, You never let go
Through the calm and through the storm
Oh no, You never let go” (“You Never Let Go,”, accessed November 27, 2012). Amen.

Fervent Prayer

I felt like déjà-vu last night. A great memory came back to me.

Let me explain. Yesterday, in the English service, I showed Mike Toby’s video. It is available on the First Baptist Church of Woodway, Texas website. I’m going to try to figure out a way to post it on all of my blogs today. It was very powerful, and I could see that folks in our church were very moved.

Last night, in the Brazilian service, I did not show it, but I mentioned Pastor Mike and his story, but things took a little different turn.

When I finished my message and sat down, Hilma (I’m not sure about the correct spelling of her name, but it is pronounced I L M A) stood up. She is one of the worship leaders in New Generation. She called the church to a time of prayer and mentioned me. She then looked at me and invited me to the front. I moved forward and knelt at the altar. She then began to pray for me.

This is when my memory kicked in, and all of a sudden, it was July of 2010. It was a Tuesday night. For some reason, I went to the church building after another night at our Reaching New Heights Outreach in Federal Heights. It wasn’t long after I was in the building that I heard some strange sounds down in the basement.

When I went down there, I quickly gathered that some folks were praying, and it was not just any type of praying. It was FERVENT praying. Junior was taking the lead. I wish I had a picture of him to show you. He is a very tall and large man, but he is a teddy bear. He does not speak out all that much.

But Junior was praying. Oh, man. His voice was raised. He was speaking very fast in his native Portuguese language with emphasis and inflection and the others in the room were agreeing with him with groans and loud affirmations.

This arrested me.

I was tired, very tired, that night, and I wanted to get home. I was worried about the “bulge” in my lower abdomen. All of that, but I just could not leave. I sat on a pew that is downstairs and available for folks who come to wait for COFU’s help. I sat there and cried.

Such fervor, such passion for God, so much emotion and urgency. It was overwhelming and convicting. Why?

Can I be honest? I just don’t hear that kind of praying EVER in the church I serve. Our prayers are very perfunctory and emotionless and routine, for the most part. Again, I’m making general comments here. I would be lying if I didn’t say that there was a group of folks in the congregation I serve, albeit a small group, who are passionate about God and prayer. There is no doubt about this.

BUT, our corporate praying comes nowhere near what I heard that night.

At one point, someone came out of the room where everyone had gathered, and this person noticed me. He came down the hall and invited me to join them. Of course, I did.

When I entered the room, Pastor Ilamarques noticed me, and stopped everyone. “We must pray for Pastor John right now.” I found a seat on the floor by one of the tables in the room where folks were seated, and the fervent praying began again. It was loud, very loud, and it had a tone of authority as folks called out to God. No one held back.

Back then, at that point in my life, the Lord used those prayers greatly, for sure, but the more remarkable thing was HOW these folks prayed.

Well, here I was last night, kneeling at the altar in our church, and once again, this church prayed for me with fervency. Honestly, I’m still not over it.

Lord, teach us to pray. Is it no wonder that we all agree (I’m talking about most folks in the American church in general as well as many who pray in First Southern in particular) that we need REVIVAL?

Let me be more specific: I need revival!

How about this verse in Ezekiel 39 today? "And the nations will know that the house of Israel went into exile on account of their iniquity, because they dealt unfaithfully with Me. Therefore, I hid My face from them and handed them over to their enemies, so that they all fell by the sword" (Ezekiel 39:23 HCSB).

What does it mean when the Lord says, “I hid My face from them”? Stay tuned until tomorrow.

Lord, I pray for Marilyn. Her number is up this morning for jury duty.

She told me to be ready to help my mom out for a couple of days if she has to be on a jury for a few days.

This reminds me I have jury duty next Monday in Adams County.

All of this, my personal prayer life and need for revival, as well as that of the church and the nation, is in your hands, Lord. Amen.

Pastor Mike Toby

A few days ago, I got a message on Facebook from Kay. She and her family were members at Beverly Hills Baptist Church in Waco when I was in college, and they were great friends. I ate meals over at her parent’s house. She and her husband Eddie were a hoot, and always fun to be around. The next time I go to Texas, I’m going to make a point to head down to Waco.

Anyway, there are going to First Baptist Church of Woodway now. When I was in school, that church was emerging as one of the places to go under the leadership of their relatively new pastor, Mike Toby.

He has served that church ever since. He has been there 35 years!

Recently, the doctors discovered that he has a brain tumor and have given him three to six months to live.

Kay has a video attached to her Facebook site. It is actually a news report from one of the local stations. I found a video on the First Baptist website. It is a picture of Pastor Mike sharing a testimony. It is one of the most powerful displays of God’s power I have ever seen.

I’m going to try to show an excerpt of this video this morning in our worship service. I think the congregation I serve needs to see it.

After the day is done, I’m going to provide a link either to my Facebook page or to my personal blog—

I believe this testimony fits nicely on a day when I am concluding my twenty-week series of messages from 2 Corinthians. The title of the series is, “Why Does it Have to be so Hard?”

I’ll tell you: I feel this way every time I finish preaching through a book of the Bible. It is as if I am saying goodbye to an old friend. I have lived in this book for months, and now, I am moving on.

I would have to say that 2 Corinthians has to rank up there pretty high on my list of favorites.

And here is another thing: my burden today is that we apply the message of this book to our lives. How does that happen? Most of us hear sermons our whole lives and walk out of churches. Has that sermon or that study really changed us? I wonder about people in the pews, but beyond that, I wonder about me. How am I different today because I have lived in this book of the Bible for almost a year?

Today is going to be a busy one. I would really appreciate your prayers. Of course, this morning is its usual “full” self, and then after the service, I have a meeting, of course, but the kicker today is that I will be preaching in the Brazilian church tonight. That is always a treat. What a great church! I love the Brazilians and of course, after the service, there is a meal … Need I say more?

Pastor Ilamarques is out of the country. He is in Mexico right now visiting a friend and church his congregation supports. Please pray for him.

But back to the final message in 2 Corinthians—this sermon series has raised the age-old question, “Why do Christians have to suffer?” I’m not sure I have any more answers than when I started. In fact, like the end of the book of Job, I may have more questions than answers.

I do believe that there is more “mystery” in the Christian life than many of us are comfortable with. I’m not going to quote these passages HERE. But I urge you to look up Psalm 40:3, Ecclesiastes 11:5, and 1 Timothy 3:16 (look at the context of this verse) in the Message version. These passages present a great case for “mystery” and how central this concept is to our faith.

On the heels of that, I wonder if Pastor Mike is spending a lot of time pleading with God and asking, “Why?” Watch the video and I think the answer is clear.

God does not “owe” any of us explanations! We seem to think we are “special” and therefore exempt from suffering. How arrogant!

I can say this and indict all of us, but we still do it. We still ask. We still wonder. We still struggle. To add to what Joe Friday says, “Those are ‘just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.’”

I know the exile that Ezekiel preached to—as they were living in the barren land of Babylon by the river Kebar—were asking “why?” Chapters 37 through 39 give hope through this suffering, however. Here is the verse for today: "So now, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will end the captivity of my people; I will have mercy on all Israel, for I jealously guard my holy reputation!" (Ezekiel 39:25 NLT)

In the final analysis, God will guard His “holy reputation.” We don’t need to worry, ultimately. He will take care of us, in His way and in His time.

Lord, I praise you that you are zealous and jealous to guard your holy reputation. I’m so grateful for this.

I believe that we are going through one of the most difficult times EVER. I would certainly affirm that this is true for my family and for the church I serve.

Instead of grinding away and sinking into the question “why,” give us the grace, as you have given Pastor Mike, to live for you and to share you with everyone we meet.

“We’ve been through fire, we’ve been through rain;
We’ve been refined by the pow’r of His name.
We’ve fallen deeper in love with You” (“Shout to the North,” BH 2008, 350). Amen.

Eat the Enemy

As I progress through the book of Ezekiel in my Quiet Time, I’m amazed at the correspondence between this book and the book of Revelation in the NT. Today’s passage is no exception. And I’ll get into that in a moment, but first, I need to mention a couple of things.

First, I continue to be so grateful that anyone is reading what I write every day. That is amazing. Thanks to all of you who are reading these words.

Here is the amazing thing about all of this: the only thing that is different is technology. I’ve been writing for years. My words are recorded on notebook paper and are stuck in files, somewhere (come to think of it—where??). I would write what the Lord was teaching me and its correspondence to what is going on in my life, and conclude with a prayer. Dennis Criser taught Andy Jr. and me to do this in a Billy Hanks Discipleship Course we took together when we were in high school.

Dennis was the first and only youth pastor I ever had that did not regard me as a kook or weirdo. I know that sounds strange, but it is true.

I was (believe this or not) kind of a quiet type in high school and invariably, I was on the periphery of the youth ministry for several reasons. I went to a private school. I studied—a lot—just to keep my head above water all the way through Junior High and High School. And, (this is the main reason), I didn’t really participate in a lot of youth activities because of school and sports during the school year and because of golf in the summer.

When we switched churches and we joined Calvary Baptist Church of Englewood, for some reason, I started to get involved a little bit more. But for some reason, (and I’m so grateful for it), Dennis took an interest in me and encouraged Andy and me to start journaling in our Quiet Time each morning. It was hard for a high school kid to grasp this (and even get out of bed in the mornings!) but he stuck with teaching us how to do this and checking on us. That’s when it started.

And, of course, for all those years up until 2000 (I took a nine year break from journaling for some reason) I was writing just to God, but now, and I can’t get over this, I can sit here on this couch in the early morning and write something that goes on the World Wide Web and others can read it. Incredible.

But beyond all this, people RESPOND. I got some great responses from my post from yesterday. In addition, I got a call from a friend of mine. We first met through the Baptist Student Union at Baylor where Jack, Carter, and I were involved in a Bible study in one of the men’s dorms. I can’t remember the name right now. It slips my mind, but if Jack is reading this, he will tell me. Jack? With all the renovations on campus, I’m not sure it is even there.

Anyway, Scott was a freshman at the time, a real crack-up, and he was in that group. He has a great sense of humor.

Fast-forward to now—he is the Director of Church Evangelism for Texas Baptists! He called me and left a message! Mainly, it was a word of encouragement. Thanks a lot, Scott. I look forward to speaking with you soon, brother!

But here is my point: isn’t technological advancement fantastic?

Back to the issue: my burden for the church I serve seems to increase by the day, and I think it is fueled by what I am reading in Ezekiel. No matter what one’s eschatology is, I think we can agree that all indications point to the fact that the end is near and Jesus could come back any time. It is urgent and the church needs to get moving—not just First Southern, but all churches. No time to waste!

Oh, man, wouldn’t it be great if it were today? Come, Lord Jesus.

I really do wonder how far away we are from His return and all the events that accompany it, like the battle to end all battles on the plain of Megiddo—one of the most famous battlefields of human history. I actually got to see it on TV last night. Fox News replayed a special program last night. It was called, “Countdown to Doomsday.” It focused on the Mayan calendar prediction of the end of the world on December 21, 2012—kind of crazy stuff. But there was a part of this program devoted to what the Bible says, and it showed and talked about the Plain of Megiddo (where the Battle of Armageddon will purported take place) and Gog and Magog.

Ezekiel and Revelation talk about this battle (that is over before it begins), but do you know what follows it? A huge feast! What’s on the table? Are you ready?

"And now, son of man, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: Call all the birds and wild animals. Say to them: Gather together for my great sacrificial feast. Come from far and near to the mountains of Israel, and there eat flesh and drink blood! Eat the flesh of mighty men and drink the blood of princes as though they were rams, lambs, goats, and bulls—all fattened animals from Bashan! Gorge yourselves with flesh until you are glutted; drink blood until you are drunk. This is the sacrificial feast I have prepared for you. Feast at my banquet table—feast on horses and charioteers, on mighty men and all kinds of valiant warriors, says the Sovereign Lord" (Ezekiel 39:17-20 NLT).

Are you kidding? I’m not sure I’ve ever noticed this before. Our main “thanksgiving course” will be the defeated enemy. We will actually EAT the enemy!

The book of Revelation echoes this fact: "Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, shouting to the vultures flying high in the sky: ‘Come! Gather together for the great banquet God has prepared. Come and eat the flesh of kings, generals, and strong warriors; of horses and their riders; and of all humanity, both free and slave, small and great.’ Their entire army was killed by the sharp sword that came from the mouth of the one riding the white horse. And the vultures all gorged themselves on the dead bodies" (Revelation 19:17, 18, 21 NLT).

The Rider of the White Horse is NOT the Lone Ranger. He is Someone Else. Guess who? He takes care of the enemy and then hands the defeated army over to the birds and to us.

Birds are prominent in both passages. Did you notice this? If memory serves me correctly this morning, birds are symbolic of the judgment of God. The enemy is road kill!

Lord, I thank you for the defeat of Satan and his army someday in the ultimate battle. I thank you that always, we get to enjoy the spoils of victory.

I confess my discouragement with the church I serve. Thank you for using this blog and the responses of brothers and sister to lift me up. I appreciate them. I give you glory.

I’m looking east right now. Could this be The Day? I can hardly wait …

“He is Lord,
He is God indeed” (“Great Is the Lord Almighty,” BH 2008, 349). Amen.

Two Families Moving On

I realize my comments today might arouse a lot of curiosity. But I don’t feel comfortable giving names here in this blog. I believe these folks may have told others, but I just don’t want to “spill the beans” here. It will happen this coming Sunday. For two families, it will be their last at our church.

Let me hasten to say that in both instances, these families are not mad at me or at the church. There is no conflict involved here AT ALL. For very good reasons, this coming Sunday will be their last.

How do I respond to this? Well, I want to say a couple of things. First, in these type situations, you have to be happy for the families. If they are doing what the Lord is leading them to do, then that is always good. PERIOD. And we all need to praise the Lord, and I do.

Second, I’ve learned that these “good” leavings are an opportunity to commission folks. One of our traditions is to bring the families into the middle of the congregation and gather around them, just as the church did around Paul after he was stoned at Lystra. We make a circle around folks and pray for them, sending them off to a new place.

I won’t even begin to estimate how many folks we have done this with over the years, often with tears in our eyes.

Those two things are way at the top of the list. This third point is secondary, but it is very real.

Honestly, as I was talking with my mom and sister last night and as I sit here this morning, I’m struggling with being discouraged. Lately, we are seeing families move on (again, for good reasons, for the most part), but we are not seeing them replaced.

This has been the scenario over the years since I started here in Northglenn. I bet we have added well over a thousand folks through the twenty-three plus years I have served this church as pastor, but I bet we have seen just as many move on.

I remember a statement that Harvey White made years ago. I’ve mentioned Harvey before. He was a long-time pastor here in Colorado. Several years ago, he retired and joined our fellowship. Harvey and I did a lot of ministry together. He was a real brother and friend. He passed away in his sleep several years ago.

Anyway, as we were driving along one day, Harvey was telling me about a church he served up in the mountains. I can’t remember the name of the town. He made a comment I have never forgotten. He said, “John, I was in the same church for ten years but in that period I pastured three congregations.” Let me translate: there was so much transition in the church that three whole churches left and three whole churches—new people—joined.

I can really relate to that. I don’t think the transition has been that dramatic, but I can literally count on the fingers of one hand how many people have been in First Southern since the day I started. Everyone else is new.

Certainly, I believe that this must be a fairly common phenomenon across our country. We live a very transient culture.

BUT, it just seems to make a greater impact on a smaller church. And as the years pass, it seems more and more difficult to recover when folks leave.

I have to add a couple more things. Fourth, I’m going to miss these folks, BIG TIME.

Fifth, it makes even more urgent the task of reaching new people. And, I just can’t escape this. It is a burden that seems to increase each day. I’m literally seeing this right before my eyes: if this church does not get busy and reach more people, it won’t take long—maybe five years—and we won’t be there.

I wonder how many people in our church realize this.

And, I’ve mentioned the whole idea of lifecycle in this blog before. Does this just mean that, like a human being, this church is nearing the end? Is that a good analogy? I know that each day, I am getting older, and I can exercise and go on diets (gulp—very hard this time of year!?!), but someday, no matter how hard I try, I’m going to die. It is inevitable for me and every other living organism, and churches are living organisms.

Is this the inevitable direction things are headed with First Southern? As Veryl Henderson used to say, “We need to expend more energy starting new congregations instead of trying to keep dying churches alive.” I hear that, but again, this is a question I ask the Lord, “Are we dying?”

Dying churches, for the most part, don’t die in one day. It is a slow leak that occurs over time—a family here, a family there—and pretty soon, you look up and realize—wow, we are not as robust as we once were.

I don’t know … but please pray. There is a big part of me that does not want to see the church die on my watch. But there is another part of me that realize I can’t single-handedly keep this thing going. I can’t. And, here is a lesson from cancer: I’m not going to try.

This is a lot of what I was trying to do in the Spring and Summer of 2010 before I was diagnosed.

This has to be more than one person or a few folks.

Therefore, I pray this would dawn on the vast majority of people who sit in the pews on Sundays. Sometimes, I feel my pleas for us to grow, to reach younger families, are falling on deaf ears. I don’t think people see the urgency. It just hasn’t sunk in yet.

I wonder what it is going to take to wake us up?

I do know this: a Holy Spirit revival of God’s people can turn things around, and unlike my living organism metaphor, turn a dying senior adult into a young and vibrant teenager. But this is something only God can do.

He can win improbable victories and allow us to enjoy the spoils of battle. This is the lesson of God’s victory over Gog and Magog. I love these descriptions as this story continues in Ezekiel 39: "That day of judgment will come, says the Sovereign Lord. Everything will happen just as I have declared it. Then the people in the towns of Israel will go out and pick up your small and large shields, bows and arrows, javelins and spears, and they will use them for fuel. There will be enough to last them seven years! They won’t need to cut wood from the fields or forests, for these weapons will give them all the fuel they need. They will plunder those who planned to plunder them, and they will rob those who planned to rob them, says the Sovereign Lord. And I will make a vast graveyard for Gog and his hordes in the Valley of the Travelers, east of the Dead Sea. It will block the way of those who travel there, and they will change the name of the place to the Valley of Gog’s Hordes. It will take seven months for the people of Israel to bury the bodies and cleanse the land" (Ezekiel 39:8-12 NLT).

Can you imagine? Seven months just to bury all the bodies! That is a lot of folks arrayed against a much smaller group of God’s people, and the Lord took care of them in one instant—fire came down from heaven and poof, they were gone. Seven months of dead bodies from Magog!

Okay, if God can do that, don’t you think He can turn a church around?

Lord, I thank you for everything you have done for me and for the church in Northglenn. Thank you for all the folks you have added through the years and thanks for all the folks you have moved on—for whatever reason, good or bad. This is all your work. You are in charge of the church. You are the Gardener.

I pray for these two families. Bless them and help us, as we will miss them.

I pray for revival. And let it begin with me.

“I’m so glad You’re in my life” (“Lord, I Lift Your Name on High,” BH 2008, 347). Amen.

Something to Be Thankful For: The Spectacular Defeat of Magog

I think that title just won the prize for the longest EVER. Ha!

I am so intrigued by these references to Gog and Magog in Ezekiel and in the book of Revelation. I’m going to see, but I wonder if they are mentioned elsewhere in the Bible. My guess is yes.

What is the name “Magog” all about? I just had to dig out a commentary to get some idea. Mark Rooker does confirm that these terms are used elsewhere in the Old Testament and points out that Gog and Magog are associated with Meshech and Tubul. (See Ezekiel 38:2). What about those terms? He asserts, “Many believe the available data suggests that these geographical terms referred to locations in eastern Turkey, southwest Russia, and Iran. The coalition of different people will come together for the purpose of destroying the nation of Israel” (Holman Old Testament Commentary in Ezekiel, 271).

Are you kidding me? If we had to identify three parts of the world that don’t like Israel (and therefore aren’t our biggest fans here in the old United States), it would be those THREE today!

We may be seeing this epic battle occur sooner that we think! And this would be very scary if we didn’t have some description of it in the Word. What is going to happen?

Remember, yesterday, I cited some verses from Revelation 20. Here was one of those verses: "And I saw them as they went up on the broad plain of the earth and surrounded God’s people and the beloved city. But fire from heaven came down on the attacking armies and consumed them" (Revelation 20:9 NLT).

This is just one statement and one description of how the Lord takes cares of everything before the real battle even occurs.

As one reads further in Ezekiel 38, the Lord gives a fuller description of what happens: "But this is what the Sovereign Lord says: When Gog invades the land of Israel, my fury will boil over! In my jealousy and blazing anger, I promise a mighty shaking in the land of Israel on that day. All living things—the fish in the sea, the birds of the sky, the animals of the field, the small animals that scurry along the ground, and all the people on earth—will quake in terror at my presence. Mountains will be thrown down; cliffs will crumble; walls will fall to the earth. I will summon the sword against you on all the hills of Israel, says the Sovereign Lord. Your men will turn their swords against each other. I will punish you and your armies with disease and bloodshed; I will send torrential rain, hailstones, fire, and burning sulfur! In this way, I will show my greatness and holiness, and I will make myself known to all the nations of the world. Then they will know that I am the Lord " (Ezekiel 38:18-23, NLT).

This is awesome. In addition to the fire that comes down from the sky to consume God’s enemies, there will be a shaking that will affect “all living things.” Mountains will crumble. And the enemy will turn on each other. And the Lord will clean clock.

These descriptions in Ezekiel 38 remind me of another passage. It is in Hebrews 12: "When God spoke from Mount Sinai his voice shook the earth, but now he makes another promise: ‘Once again I will shake not only the earth but the heavens also.’ This means that all of creation will be shaken and removed, so that only unshakable things will remain. Since we are receiving a Kingdom that is unshakable, let us be thankful and please God by worshiping him with holy fear and awe. For our God is a devouring fire" (Hebrews 12:26-29 NLT).

The ultimate shaking—the judgment of God—will topple everything and everyone who is not on the “Good Side.” But for those who know God, they will remain.

How about Hebrews 12:28-29 as a great reason to thank the Lord on Thanksgiving?

Certainly, we need to thank Him today for everything He has done in the past—salvation in Jesus at the top of the list. We also need to thank Him for all His provisions in the present.

Yesterday, a homeless man named John came by the church. We have seen him before. About five years ago, for several Sundays in a row, he would come by on Sunday morning. John found out where the coffee pot was. He would walk in, get a cup of coffee, refuse to stay (we always invited him and told him he was welcome to go to Sunday school and stay for worship and we visited with him), and go right back out the door, and head down the street.

John told me about the Thanksgiving meals he was going to find over the next few days. I’m glad that he will have something to eat. I’m not sure where he stands with the Lord. He wouldn’t answer when I asked him about his relationship with Jesus. Please pray for him.

Anyway, most of us don’t have the problems John does. The Lord has provided food (a lot of it, too much for most of us) and a roof over our heads.

But these passages today remind us to be thankful for a certain future that assures us that no matter what happens in the world, we don’t need to fear. The Lord makes His people UNSHAKEABLE.

THANK YOU, JESUS, from the bottom of my heart for a certain future. You will win in the ultimate battle. You will judge the world as you shake everything. But thank you, thank you, thank you—that after everything, your unshakeable people, and I’m so glad to be a part of that group, will remain.

“The Church’s One Foundation
Is Jesus Christ, her Lord” (“The Church’s One Foundation,” BH 2008, 346). Amen.

The Anti-Climactic Non-Battle

This post today is going to be rather short. I’m kind of recovering from yesterday. It was rather strange, but mid-afternoon, my energy just dropped off the map. That’s the only way I can describe it.

I feel better this morning, but still … just another reminder of where I am in my whole cancer process. I’m not done yet and maybe will never be. I don’t know.

This morning, as I began chapter thirty-eight of Ezekiel, the prophecy introduces the reader to “Gog and Magog.” The Lord commands the prophet to speak to “him.” At first as you read that singular reference, it seems as if Ezekiel is speaking to a singular person, but as you read further, it is evident that it is a personification of an enemy army poised for battle against God’s people. “He” feels that he can attack and defeat them, and he musters the troops.

The Lord tells Ezekiel that this will occur “a long time from now.”

He gives His prophet these instructions: "Therefore, son of man, prophesy against Gog. Give him this message from the Sovereign Lord: When my people are living in peace in their land, then you will rouse yourself. You will come from your homeland in the distant north with your vast cavalry and your mighty army, and you will attack my people Israel, covering their land like a cloud. At that time in the distant future, I will bring you against my land as everyone watches, and my holiness will be displayed by what happens to you, Gog. Then all the nations will know that I am the Lord" (Ezekiel 38:14-16 NLT).

As I read these verses, the Holy Spirit stopped me. Gog will gather the enemy nations in a huge army arrayed against God’s people. This will set the scene for a huge battle and a significant defeat because these enemy soldiers will outnumber God’s people to a huge degree. What happens?

Well, in Ezekiel, the Lord says that his “holiness will be displayed by what happens to you, Gog.” What does that mean exactly?

My mind went to the New Testament reference to Gog and Magog in the book of Revelation. Here is that reference: "When the thousand years come to an end, Satan will be let out of his prison. He will go out to deceive the nations—called Gog and Magog—in every corner of the earth. He will gather them together for battle—a mighty army, as numberless as sand along the seashore. And I saw them as they went up on the broad plain of the earth and surrounded God’s people and the beloved city. But fire from heaven came down on the attacking armies and consumed them. Then the devil, who had deceived them, was thrown into the fiery lake of burning sulfur, joining the beast and the false prophet. There they will be tormented day and night forever and ever" (Revelation 20:7-10 NLT).

I love this. The devil (maybe this is the “he” that Ezekiel is addressing in chapter thirty-eight of his prophecy) gathers all the enemies of God’s people in the broad plain of the earth. I believe that this is the battle of Armageddon. The stage is set. The enemy is poised to for a climactic defeat, but the holiness of God steps in! Fire comes down from heaven and poof! Gone. Done. Defeated! And the mastermind of this battle is himself thrown into the lake of fire.

I believe that the moniker “the battle of Armageddon” is a misnomer because even though the stage is set for a battle, and this is the climactic battle of human history as the forces of evil are set to defeat God’s people. But in a moment, in a flash, the battle is over before it even begins!

It is, in fact, the battle that never materializes. It never even gets off the ground. It is over before anyone fires the first shot. In this sense, it is the anti-climactic battle that is a non-battle!

I could say a lot more at this point, but I feel compelled just to praise the Lord.

O God, I praise you that ultimately and finally, even though we don’t exactly know how things are going to turn out in the near future, we can be confident that ultimately and finally, YOU and WE win! As the stage is set for the biggest battle ever, You will just take care of it—as you always do.

Events in the Middle East are scary as Israel faces the possibility of war. We face the continuing threat of terrorism all across the world, as we have just witnessed the death of four Americans in Libya.

If we didn’t know You, we might get scared, but thank you, Jesus, that You are in charge and in control. Today and forever. And the devil is defeated already—through the cross and the resurrection. And on his final try—he still will not succeed.

“And the great Church victorious
Shall be the Church at rest” (“The Church’s One Foundation,” BH 2008, 346). Amen.

Property Line

As a result of the vote to go ahead and install the new playground on Sunday, I felt the urgency to go talk with the city of Northglenn yesterday.

Let me try to explain this. South of our property is a creek. It is called Grange Hall Creek. For all of the years I have served this church as pastor, it has been a rather dangerous dumping ground with steep slopes.

How do I know that it is a dumping ground? Well, for the last two years on volunteer day in the city, we have cleaned it out. I know I have told this story before, but it bears repeating at this point.

Last year, Bob, J. B., and I were struggling as we came across a shopping cart in this creek. Several folks, Anne among them, were watching from the sides. Anne saw us struggling, so she came down the slope, literally jumped in the creek, and almost single-handedly pulled that cart out! We helped her a little, I guess, but it was a sight to behold. As she entered the fray, the crowd on the side of the river increased dramatically.

As Anne was extricating it, people began to cheer. I was one of them and I right next to her! When the cart came out, we tied ropes to it and the folks on the side hefted it up. The cheers grew louder and louder. It was great!

But I tell you: working in that creek was treacherous and dangerous. Duane was there that day. He grew up in Northglenn. He said, “For some reason, the city decided to dump unused or damaged cement chunks in this creek.” They were huge, and this made it even more difficult to navigate.

When we finished, I told Betty, “I know that volunteering helps us build relationships in the city and it is important, but this is our last time to volunteer to clean out that creek. It is just too dangerous. I don’t want anyone—including me—to get injured doing the city’s dirty work.”

Seven years ago, we received a notice that the city was going to redevelop the part of the creek that goes along our property line, making a walkway for folks that went under Washington Street. It sounded like a good idea, but the years passed, and nothing ever seemed to come of those plans.

Well, here is how the Lord works and I mentioned this to the folks in the special business meeting on Sunday.

Now, remember, it had been SEVEN years!

We voted to buy a playground set and install it on the southern part of the back lot of our property. The delay came when we realized it was going to cost several thousand dollars to INSTALL it. We contact a couple of companies to ask them to bid this project.

In the time we were working through this process, all of a sudden, one day, this makeshift orange fence appeared, and it was obvious that, after seven years, the work on Grange Hall Creek was beginning.

What was the orange fence? It was the property line between the creek and our church property, but it was a lot further in from the creek than any of us realized!

So, if we had installed that playground where we originally planned, most of it would have been on city property, and we would have had to uproot it (more expense) and move it!

Is the Lord looking out for us, or what?

Yesterday, I went to the city to find someone who could help us get the EXACT property line because we wanted to make sure about this as we begin the installation. I found the proper department at the city offices and Monica, at the front desk, directed me to Pam.

After a few minutes of conversation, Pam said, “What are you doing at 3:00?”

“I’m available,” I replied.

“Well, I can meet you at the church and we can figure it out.” Peachy.

When I got back to the church, I was struggling with someone to call. My first choice was Bill, but Betty reminded me that he had gone to the doctor yesterday. Next choice. “Why don’t you call Jim?” Good idea.

When I called his home, Freida, his wife, answered. She used to work for the city of Northglenn until her retirement almost eleven years ago. She was willing to help as well. Jim had been out of the house, but he called me when he returned. He said he would come right over.

Jim and Freida were the fourth and fifth members of First Southern. They have served faithfully all these years—what better folks to come and help me out!

Not long after Jim and Freida arrived, Pam from the city showed up. We spent some time trying to figure out the exact property line and then all four of us went back to the city offices in search of the proper documents. Pam printed off some for us, but we learned that the city of Northglenn does not have those official documents—we must go to Adams County. I’m going to go there today to scout them out.

The day turned out great. I enjoyed the fellowship with Jim and Freida. They helped me out tremendously. I was glad they were both there.

Here is the reason for all this activity: I want to make sure of the property line so that, when we begin this very expensive installation, we don’t have to tear it out EVER.

Property lines are very important for a lot of reasons. Homeowners and churches have a lot of latitude to do “stuff” on THEIR property. One can get into a lot of trouble and expense doing “stuff” on other people’s property. Hello, McFly!

This whole concept of boundaries was on my mind as I continued to read in Ezekiel 37. What are the boundary lines of the Christian life? Well, I am convinced that the promises of God show us, and the final verses of Ezekiel 37 give us some INCREDIBLE promises. I’m going to cite these promises in list form:

"My servant David will be their king,
And they will have only one shepherd.
They will obey my regulations and be careful to keep my decrees.
They will live in the land I gave my servant Jacob, the land where their ancestors lived.
They and their children and their grandchildren after them will live there forever, generation after generation.
And my servant David will be their prince forever.
And I will make a covenant of peace with them, an everlasting covenant.
I will give them their land and increase their numbers,
And I will put my Temple among them forever.
I will make my home among them.
I will be their God,
And they will be my people.
And when my Temple is among them forever, the nations will know that I am the Lord, who makes Israel holy” (Ezekiel 37:24-28 NLT).

How about them apples? (Why am I fixated on using the word “them” in improper and ungrammatical ways? Humm. Don’t know).

There is so much to rejoice in with these promises, but the bottom line is that I don’t have to wonder. I can operate on this God-given property with total freedom and impunity. Praise God!

Lord, thank you for all the amazing ways you demonstrate your care for us as individuals and for your church. Thank you for the delay that allowed us to find out some very valuable information, and thanks for saving us a lot of money. It is going to cost a lot of money to install the playground, but it would have cost a lot more!

You are awesome, My Prince. Thank for the everlasting covenant and the promised land. Thank you for allowing my body to be your home and your temple.

I trust you and claim by faith those promises today.

“To be still and know You’re in this place” (“Word of God, Speak,” BH 2008, 343) Amen.

No Longer, Never Again

Them’s strong words, if you really stop to think about it.

I want to give a little background, first. After the “Dry Bones” incident, the Lord gives His prophet another object lesson. He tells him to get two pieces of wood. On one, he commands him to carve “This represents Judah and its allied tribes” on it. On the other piece of wood, God tells him to write, “This represents Ephraim and the northern tribes of Israel.” Then, he tells Ezekiel to hold them together in his hand as if they were one piece of wood.

What is the lesson? "I will unify them into one nation on the mountains of Israel. One king will rule them all; no longer will they be divided into two nations or into two kingdoms. They will never again pollute themselves with their idols and vile images and rebellion, for I will save them from their sinful backsliding. I will cleanse them. Then they will truly be my people, and I will be their God" (Ezekiel 37:22, 23 NLT).

At the time that the Lord gave this message to Zeke, the northern tribes of Israel (or Ephraim) had been separated from the southern tribes of Judah for hundreds of years AND Judah had been in exile for several years (no way to tell exactly here). I would imagine that, in the minds of ordinary Jews, both situations were seemingly impossible—the unification of Israel and the return from exile.

But the Lord’s comment above takes the scenario even further. The Lord promises no more disunity and no more idolatry, ever again. Done. Finished. Forever.

These are incredible statements, if you really stop to think about it.

What occurs to me is that we tend to avoid these types of extreme statements when it comes to our own spiritual lives. We want to hedge our bets a little. One of the reasons is that we are fully aware of our weaknesses and susceptibility to temptation. Many of us have learned that when we make grand declarations, they very easily bleed into pride and as the familiar statement in Proverbs reminds us, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18, NIV84).

That’s the human side of things, but these statements in Ezekiel 37 talk about what GOD is going to do. He can handle these things, even if our experience and track record cause us to be skeptical.

He can do the impossible and it is our responsibility to trust Him.

Yesterday, the Lord gave us as a church just such a challenge.

I preached from the 2 Corinthians 12 and 13 yesterday—the second to last message in this series of sermons. Next week, (as is my custom when I preach through a book of the Bible), I will preach a summary message on the book to conclude things. One of the verses that stood out to me was 2 Corinthians 13:5, “Examine yourselves to see if you are in the faith. Test yourselves” (NLT). I won’t preach the whole sermon here (I know you are relieved to hear THAT), but what I said at this point was, “Folks, this means a couple of things. First, it means that Paul is challenging these folks to make sure they are saved. Second, for those who are saved, he is challenging them to make sure they are living a life of faith. Trusting God is the foundation to living a life that pleases God.” I was thinking of Hebrews 11:6 as I said this, even though I didn’t mention that verse specifically, “Without faith it is impossible to please God.”

Okay, so, I am sure most of the folks there agree with me. It is a fairly straightforward, orthodox statement, right?

Well, after the service, we had a special called business meeting to talk about the installation of the playground set we bought. From the start, there was some confusion and misunderstanding about how much that was going to cost us. After a lot of investigation and getting bids from two companies, we arrived at a cost. Sit down. $10,000 +! Yeah, it was a shock and I could tell folks were shocked yesterday.

Don’t blame them. So was/am I!

Someone said, “Can we just send the playground back and get our money back?” Nope. “How about trying to sell it on EBay?” Ah, no. So, we talked and wrestled with the whole thing—especially the money part. I could see the anxiety level raising.

Here is what I should have said in retrospect as I sit here this morning: “Folks, do you remember what I just said in the sermon I finished just a few minutes ago? This is an opportunity for us to trust God! We believed that he wanted us to put this playground in when we voted for it a few weeks ago, right? Sure, this is more money than we had planned to spend. But let’s trust God.” That’s what I should have said.

Here is what I said: “Folks, I know this seems like a lot of money, but like the renovations we are making and the purchase of the new sound system—both of which cost a lot of money as well—these are tools. This playground is not going to reach anyone, but it is a tool and incentive for us to reach folks. As we reach more people, ‘the resources are in the harvest.’”

I don’t know if anyone really heard what I said. That statement “the resources are in the harvest” is not original with me. But I believe it with all my heart.

The Lord through His prophet was making a plea for His people to trust Him to do the impossible. Yesterday, the Lord gave us just such a challenge, and by the way, I’m glad we accepted it. For the folks in that room, the vote ended up 28 to go ahead and install the new playground for $10,000 plus, one against, and one abstaining (kind of curious there, right?).

Oh, Lord, I thank you for continuing to put us in positions to trust you. I know you don’t ask us to do anything that does not require faith.

Help me, Lord, to trust you today.

Help the congregation I serve to be wise and prudent, always, because this is your money, not ours, but also, give us the grace to trust you more and more.

“O for grace to trust Him more” (“Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus,” BH 2008, 502). Amen.

Gary's Funeral and Pastor Kim

Yesterday was as busy a Saturday as I have had in a long time, and only a harbinger of things to come, I’m afraid, as the holidays approach.

The Brazilian church had their annual “Fair” yesterday afternoon. After eating well THERE and sharing some great fellowship, I headed home for some study and then off to a birthday party for Kelley at the Gonzales’ home. Mother and Marilyn drove up and we went together. As far as I can remember, this is the first non-Sunday event that my mom has gone to or felt like going to in years.

By the way, she is doing great, and a doctor told her so this week, in spite of the fact that she still deals with some issues that require her medicine to be adjusted at times.

After the party, I asked her how she was doing, and she said, “Great. I enjoyed it. Those people have always been nice to me.” Of course.

Anyway, back to the funeral. Just to give you a little context—this is the same Gary I mentioned who was found dead over a week ago. Even though the coroner is still doing a biopsy, someone mentioned yesterday that a heart valve had burst. Gary had been having some heart issues. I did not know this, but this is the probable reason for his death—at least, I think his family and friends think so.

As I arrived at Crossroads Church, Pastor Kim was standing there in the foyer. He has been serving the Lord very faithfully as pastor of this American Baptist Church for at least as long as I have been at First Southern. His congregation is growing by leaps and bounds. The funeral service yesterday was at the congregation’s “old” location at the corner of Huron and 104th Ave.

A few years ago, the church bought some land and built a new building off of I-25 and 128th Avenue, not far from my house. When they did this, they kept their old location. Thus, the church meets each week in two locations and Kim preaches in one place in person while his message in the other church is on video.

Not long ago, they started a third campus up in Greeley (I believe). So, they have three locations. It is very interesting.

Kim has recently gone through some physical challenges himself. He was very sick for a very long time, and after numerous tests and doctor inquiries and hospital visits, they discovered (if my memory serves me correctly) that he had some sort of parasite and must have acquired this “critter” on a mission trip. But he is doing better now.

Back to the foyer yesterday—after greeting one another, he said, “Why are you here today? Did you know Gary?”

“Sure,” I replied. “He was attending our church.”

“Really,” Kim answered. “Then, why aren’t you doing this funeral?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “But it is okay. I’m glad you are doing it and glad to be here.” One reason, besides coming for Gary and to represent our church, was to be there for John—his friend in our church. John wanted to come but he had previous plans to be in Tennessee with his mom for her 80th birthday.

Kim went on, “Hey, John, can you share something about Gary. The main part of this service is going to be eulogies, and I’d really appreciate it if you could share.”

“No problem. How are you, Kim?”

“Oh, I’m fine. How are YOU? Your deal was a lot tougher than mine.”

“I’m great. Still taking treatment, but I’m doing fine.”

“Good to hear it, John.” Then he said something that really struck me. “Well, as I am moving toward retirement, I really feel the burden to do things that strengthens the church community on this end of town.”

Wow. I had to pause a moment when I heard that. “Thanks for all you are already doing, brother. I really appreciate your kingdom focus.”

Let me give you two examples. First, on Tuesday, he is sponsoring a dinner for pastors and their wives at Cinzetti’s here in Northglenn. Second, he always coordinates a weekly prayer time for pastors on Wednesday mornings. Okay, I’m ashamed to say that I have never attended that prayer meeting. Why? Well, honestly, it hasn’t been neglect. It is just sermon prep time. That’s it.

But somehow, I feel that I might need to adjust that a bit. Please pray for me in that regard.

Well, the service was indeed a series of eulogies. I bet there were twenty, including my brief comments about Gary. The thing that was remarkable to me was the number of folks at this service. The auditorium was full. And in the eulogies, every person commented on Gary’s profound impact in his/her life.

I feel I can share this because it came out in the funeral, but this impact was even more remarkable given the fact that Gary was addicted to alcohol and struggled with severe depression. In spite of this, he still ministered to so many people.

One comment that someone made will stick with me forever. As he arrived at the pulpit to speak, he paused for a moment. “I was so shocked to hear of Gary’s death. At first, it felt as if my world was a lot smaller, but coming here today and seeing all of you and hearing these eulogies, now I feel that my world is a lot bigger.”

It is all about the impact of one man’s life—as flawed and struggling (like all of us)—as it was. The Lord used Gary in life and used him to a greater degree in death.

"Evil people get rich for the moment, but the reward of the godly will last. Godly people find life; evil people find death" (Proverbs 11:18, 19 NLT).

Oh, Lord, I thank you for Gary’s life and death. Thank you also for Pastor Kim and the impact of Crossroads Church.

Comfort Gary’s family and friends and John and others who will miss him. I pray that you would bless the socks off of Crossroads. Help that congregation to have a great Sunday today. Preach through Kim with power just as you did yesterday after all the eulogies.

Father, I give you the services at First Southern today. After the service, we have a special business meeting about the installation of the playground. I pray for guidance and direction in that decision. I feel as if I’m a little distracted this morning. Help me focus right now.

“Jesus, be my guide and hold me to Your side” (“Thy Word,” BH 2008, 342). Amen.

A Plea for Honesty

First, I want to thank everyone for the encouragement on yesterday’s post. I really appreciate it. I will keep you informed.

If one is not careful as he/she reads through Proverbs, it is easy to get lulled to sleep. I know that happens to me frequently.

After the first seven chapters and excluding the final chapter, this book appears to be simply one aphorism (true statement or principle) after another, rather disconnected. I say it “appears” to be that, but the more I read it, the more I think otherwise.

I believe Proverbs is similar to 1 John in that certain topics and themes come up over and over in sort of cyclical way as the human writer (Solomon may be one, but I believe there are others in Proverbs; one human author in the epistle—the apostle and pastor John, of course) brings up a topic, moves to another and another, and them comes back to the first, et cetera.

I actually think it is very intricate and complicated for our finite minds to conceive. Easy for God. Hard for us.

Anyway, as I was reading this morning, I realized that I had just read three statements about honesty in five verses. If honesty is topic A, and there are two other topics, B and C, this is the way the first five verses of chapter eleven of Proverbs lay out: A, B, A, C, and A.

I won’t cite all five verses—just the “A” verses: "The Lord detests the use of dishonest scales, but he delights in accurate weights…. Honesty guides good people; dishonesty destroys treacherous people…. The godly are directed by honesty; the wicked fall beneath their load of sin" (Proverbs 11:1, 3, 5 NLT).

Interesting and convicting.

I think this is a forgotten issue for many believers. Let me just speak personally here: as time goes by, it is a very subtle ploy of the enemy to tempt us just to fudge here and there. It is so tempting.

Pastors do it all the time, especially when someone asks the question, “Hey John, what are you running in attendance these days?” Ah, well, … Humm.

Now, I want to hasten to say that we don’t count noses as much as we used to, and it isn’t because our numbers are diminishing (and they have been). We made the intentional decision that how many attend on Sunday morning is NOT going to be one of our main scorecards (Reggie McNeal helped me learn this term in one of his books). But still … even if we physically don’t count, preachers can look out and see how many are there and we always estimate UP.

I can think of other ways that pastors and churches fudge numbers to make themselves look better, and if that is not dishonest, it borders on it.

Oh, and by the way, as I talk about this, I am not accusing anyone in our church of being dishonest. I can’t think of anything we do that fits in this category. I am just speaking in generalities here. But I will pray more about it. If there is some dishonest activity in our church, I want to stop it immediately.

My focus this morning is ME. I want to make sure there is no hint of dishonesty in my own life. Why? Well, it is wrong, for one thing, but here is another thing I have noticed: dishonesty in little things is like marijuana (I still can’t believe that the state I live in voted to legalize it. Just an aside here for a moment: I was talking with a pastor friend yesterday. His brother is a police officer and has worked in the drug unit for most of his career and is near retirement. The vote to legalize marijuana is devastating to him. He feels that his life’s work has been undone. My friend says that when his brother retires, he is moving out of Colorado to some state where marijuana is not legal. I can’t blame him). It is a “gateway drug” to other sins.

I mean, if I fudge on “little” things (and no sin is small in God’s eyes), then I will fudge on bigger things.

Word to the wise.

Lord, I am reminded that of your statements on the topic of stewardship. “Faithful in that which is least—faithful in larger things.” I believe the converse of that statement is also true.

God, today, point out any dishonesty in my life. Holy Spirit, clean me up, lock, stock, and barrel.

Father, I pray for Gary’s family today at his funeral—the autopsy is still in progress. No one knows why he died during the night over a week ago. Help them as they grieve. I pray also for the Brazilians who are having a Fair today. I pray that they can reach a lot of folks. Thank you that the weather is going to be nice today for them.

“Source of hope forever present
In our toils and fears and strife” (“Work of God, Across the Ages,” BH 2008, 340). Amen.

The Spirit of God in You

Okay, I’m going to admit something this morning. I’ve hesitated to do it for a few reasons.

Let me back up and give you some context. I was in one of the waiting rooms at the Rocky Mountain Cancer Center a few months ago. It was one of those days that I was in for a check-up—one of those twixt and tween check ups in the middle of the three-month period between maintenance treatments. Dr. Jotte was out of town. Kelly, his assistant, came in.

Very prominently displayed on a cabinet in the waiting room is one of those optimal weight charts. That is probably not the proper term, but I am sure you know what I am talking about. It is very colorful. It lists the ranges and categories of weight for each person based on height.

One of the nurses had just weighed me. The scale said “194.” I was a little shocked to see that number because I had never broken the 190 barrier before.

When Kelly came in, I said, “Kelly, I have been noticing that chart on the wall. It tells me that my optimal weight should be about 165. Is that accurate and realistic?” To be honest, I was hoping she would cut me some slack. I prayed that she would say, “Well, John, we have determined that the figures on this sheet are WAY low. In fact, you should add twenty pounds to these numbers and this will give the optimal weight.” That would have been nice IF she had said this, but unfortunately, for me, she did not.

Instead, what she really said was, “Oh, yes, John, these numbers are a good benchmark.” At that moment, her eyes darted down to the laptop on the counter. She scrolled down a bit to the section that displayed my weight. She squinted a bit and swallowed. I knew I was in trouble.

She continued and I knew she was trying with every fiber in her being to be diplomatic, “Are you thinking about losing a couple of pounds?” A couple of pounds? Was she kidding? 194 minus 165 is NOT a couple of pounds! It is one shy of 30!

“Well, John, I think it would be a good idea, but don’t try to lose them all at once. My husband, for example, is just starting out to lose weight himself, and he is just trying to eliminate carbs that come from bread and pasta, and even then, he doesn’t do this every day. So, even a little change like that can get you started.”

To be honest, I really bristled at all of this. I felt myself fighting it.

Everyone knows that I love to eat. That is the first thing. And, I have developed a very well tested reputation at the church that I love to eat. As a result, people give me food all the time.

Rob commented on this when he was on staff. He said, “Wow, John, I’ve never seen anything like it.” I always get a plate of leftovers after every, I mean EVERY fellowship we have at church. On Sunday mornings, I make the “rounds” to every Sunday school class. Invariably, I find my share of donuts and sweet rolls and stock up. People are very gracious and we laugh about it, but I love it.

We have some great cooks in our church. They love to cook, and I love to eat what they cook. And, I always have.

Well, anyway, back to that visit at the Cancer Center with Kelly—that started to work on me. I struggled for a few months. Part of the reason was pride. I have always believed that if I continued to exercise, then I could eat whatever I wanted. Yeah, right. Ain’t working!

After struggling and wrestling and praying, and I finally felt that the Lord was leading me to work on it. I will say it that way, “The Lord is leading me.” I feel that it is a part of the house cleaning He is doing in my life.

So, (and I want to say it this way), I am making further lifestyle changes that involve food. I’m not going to use the word “diet” because I don’t believe in them. I’ve gone that route before and I’ve simply gained all the weight back when the “diet” is over.

I’m sharing this because I need prayer. I trust Him with all of this. I’m not going to get anal about it. But I weighed myself this morning and the scale said 179. I thank the Lord for this, but I realize that I have a huge battle in front of me to get to 165.

Besides the help that the Lord has given, I have additional help. A friend of mine is a certified nutritionist. I’m working with him. I’m not just striking out on my own.

But I know that we are entering a time of year where it seems even more difficult to make good food choices. As a matter of fact, do you realize that from October 31st on, our culture focuses on consuming sugar? Think about it.

Back to Sunday mornings and sugar, I’ve finally put something together. This may sound rather obvious to all of you, and you probably would have made this association a lot faster than I did, but I realized that my energy was dropping off very quickly during the day on Sunday, sometimes even during the message. And I just couldn’t figure it out!

I was sitting in my office eating a donut one Sunday when the light flashed over my head! “Wait a minute you idiot! It is all the sugar you are consuming. Hello, McFly!”

Even after that revelation, it is still hard NOT to eat a donut or six on Sunday mornings.

Well, enough of that. I will keep you informed, but I know it is going to be a battle.

Now, to the passage for today, again, it is incredible to see how the scriptures link the Holy Spirit and resurrection and rebounds out of seemingly impossible situations. That is what the Valley of Dry Bones is all about!

"Therefore, prophesy to them (to the people of Israel) and say, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: O my people, I will open your graves of exile and cause you to rise again. Then I will bring you back to the land of Israel. When this happens, O my people, you will know that I am the Lord. I will put my Spirit in you, and you will live again and return home to your own land. Then you will know that I, the Lord, have spoken, and I have done what I said. Yes, the Lord has spoken!’” (Ezekiel 37:12-14 NLT, parentheses mine)

You know what? If the Holy Spirit can breathe life into a bunch of skeletons in a valley, I know he can help me make better choices when it comes to the food I put in my mouth? After all, one of the aspects of the singular fruit of the Spirit is “self-control,” right?

Oh, Lord, I thank you again for the gift of cancer. From the bottom of my heart, I’m grateful for all the ways you are continuing to use this disease to get me on track.

I confess that I am struggling. I crave sugar. And, I still wrestle with my pride. I just want to eat whatever I want to ALL THE TIME.

Lord, I pray that you would continue to help me and with everyone else who is reading this blog who is experiencing the same struggle.

“Standing, standing,
I’m standing on the promises of God” (“Standing on the Promise,” BH 2008, 339). How about this promise: “I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, Surely, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10, NASB).

Two Prophetic Words

The story of the “dry bones,” arguably the most famous passage in the book of Ezekiel, has always fascinated me. I’ve read it numerous times. I’ve sung the Negro spiritual “Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Dry Bones.” Love it! But each time I read it, I discover or rediscover fascinating elements in this incident.

Maybe, I have noticed this before—I can’t remember—but the Lord commands His prophet to speak TWICE. Let me quote these two commands: "Then he said to me, “Speak a prophetic message to these bones and say, ‘Dry bones, listen to the word of the Lord... Then he said to me, “Speak a prophetic message to the winds, son of man. Speak a prophetic message and say, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, O breath, from the four winds! Breathe into these dead bodies so they may live again.’” So I spoke the message as he commanded me, and breath came into their bodies. They all came to life and stood up on their feet—a great army." (Ezekiel 37:4, 9, 10 NLT).

After verse 4, the Bible says that a “rattling noise” occurred all across this valley full of dead people, and these bones started to come together as complete skeletons. Can you imagine what that was like? Ezekiel was an audience of one to this miracle of God.

Then, when the skeletons had formed, the Lord put skin over the bones, “but they still had no breath in them” (verse 8, NLT).

As I think about this today, it dawns on me that this story parallels that of creation. If you remember, God formed man out of dirt—all the parts were there—the skeletons and the flesh. But he didn’t become a living being until “He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person” (Genesis 2:7, NLT).

It is the same in this story in Ezekiel. As you noticed, these skeletons with flesh on them were not living beings until the prophet spoke to the winds, and once he did that, these skeletons with flesh on them—laying on the ground—sprung to life and stood up. And it was a great army!

Again, as my imagine tries to picture this, I just come to the limits of what I can conceive and think about.

Not only does this parallel creation, but also it is a picture of redemption. This is a resurrection! This is the Lord creating new life out of death!

It is fascinating to me (and I certainly need to do some research on this to confirm what I am saying) but I believe I’m right when I say that in both Hebrew and Greek, the words for wind, breath, and Spirit are all the same.

The Holy Spirit was definitely present along with the Father and Son at creation, but He is also integral in redemption. Jesus makes this clear in John three when he talks about being born of water (I believe this is a reference to human birth; of course there are a plethora of differing opinions here) and the Spirit (the new birth in Christ). The Holy Spirit enables the new birth and dwells in the life of the believer.

He functions just as the wind did, as the breath did, when He filled with life these skeletons covered with skin in the valley of dry bones.

But I think, given the context, there is another element to this. And I will talk about this more in subsequent posts, but this whole scene was intended as an encouragement to the exiles who had no hope that anything was going to change in their situation. It is as if God is saying, “If I can breathe life into a valley full of corpses, don’t you think I can turn things around for you?”

I love this passage because it makes a connection that is often forged in scripture. It links what God did in creation (creating something out of nothing) and redemption (breathing life into folks who are dead in sin) and hopeless situations! He can turn nothing into something, hopelessness into new life! And He can do it, over and over.

Paul echoes all of this in 2 Corinthians. I could cite several passages, but one comes to mind this morning: “Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:10, NLT).

Yesterday, I was able to see this play itself out in the lives of two people in our church—Evelyn, who is in a nursing home but living in joy and victory, and Al, who had a stint put in his heart, had some complications, but is home and still retains his sense of humor.

Lord, you are awesome and you are an expert in turning nothing into something and hopeless people and circumstances around. Thank you for the story of the dry bones. Thank you for the power you displayed in creation. Thank you for your ability to save me when I was dead in sin. Thank you for turning hopeless situations on their head.

Thank you for the International Thanksgiving dinner at church last night. We had a great time of fellowship. Thank you the grace you are displaying in the lives of Evelyn and Al and many others in our fellowship.

“Breathe on me, breathe on me;
Holy Spirit, breathe on me.
Take thou my heart, cleanse ev’ry part;
Holy Spirit, breathe on me” (“Breathe on Me,” BH 2008, 332). Amen.

Facedown on the Front Steps of the Church Building

Yesterday was a rather curious day in many respects. First, I had to wait at my house all morning for a plumber to arrive, the old “we will be there between 10:00 and noon and he finally shows up at 12:05” deal.

Once he showed up and started to address all the issues I was dealing with in my house including a garbage disposal and some leaky toilets, I was wondering if I had to sell my house in order to pay for the work he was doing. You know the routine!

Well, I got Mike the plumber started on his work with the promise that I would be back in an hour and a half or so just to check in on him (and truth be told, to make sure he didn’t find any other “issues” that “had” to be taken care of immediately). I just had to get to the office to take care of some things.

Anyway, as I pulled into the parking lot, I noticed a man, facedown, kneeling on the front steps of the church! It took me a while to process what was happening. “Is he praying?” I asked myself.

I parked my truck and walked around to the front of the building. I got very near this man and said, “Sir, are you okay? Is there anything I can do for you?” For a moment, he did not stir or move.

Finally, he raised up and stood up. “Aaron!” I exclaimed. “It is you!”

Aaron and his family had been part of the Hispanic church that meets in God’s building. During the time they were in that congregation, Aaron would come by to talk with me. He was VERY QUIET and shy. It was all he could do to speak with me or look me in the eye. At that time, he was a teenager and struggling (as all teens do with a myriad of things). He just needed someone to talk to, and for some reason, he chose me.

I tried to encourage him and be there for him. Looking back, we actually did speak rather frequently. I would hear a faint knock on my office door. I would look up and Aaron was standing there.

A few years ago, his family got crossways with Pastor Jose and left the church. My visits with Aaron ended until a couple of months ago.

All of a sudden, one day, he just showed up. It was late in the afternoon. Just about everyone had left the building. I looked up and a young man was standing there. Honestly, at first, I didn’t know who it was. Then, it dawned on me, “Aaron! Is that you?” He had matured (of course). He seemed to be taller and his face was more open--that’s the only way I can describe it. Maybe it just seemed that way because he looked me in the eye.

As a shy teen, he never really lifted his head enough for me to look him in the eye.

We caught up that day in my office. He shared some of his current struggles with me. At one point, I said, “Aaron, it is great to see you, but I’m sorry, I’ve got to get going. Come by again when you get a chance. I’d love to talk further.” He nodded and slipped out.

I had not seen him for months until yesterday.

Back to the steps of the church--I said, “What is going on with you these days? Are you all right?”

Aaron proceeded to share that he really had not been involved in church much since his family left the Hispanic church that uses our building. And, as a result, he has been drifting a bit in his relationship with the Lord and getting into trouble in some ways. (I’m not going to go into detail at this point).

With all the urgency I could muster (I really do care for Aaron), I urged him to get right with the Lord and get back into church.

Aaron said, “Well, it is hard for me since I work on Sundays.”

I replied, “What is more important, Aaron? A few extra bucks or walking with the Lord? Can you talk to your boss and ask him if you can come in a little later on Sundays? It is worth a try, right?”

When I said that, Aaron gave me a look as if he had never thought of that before. He assured me that he would do that. We prayed together, right there on the front steps of the church. I told him to keep in touch with me, said goodbye, and headed toward my car and the office.

The question of the Lord to his prophet in a valley filled with dry bones seems appropriate at this point, “Son of man, can these bones become living people again?” (Ezekiel 37:3, NLT). What a question! The Lord asks this question to a prophet who is ministering to people in Babylon who are far away from home. They’ve lost their country, and it probably seemed very hopeless.

I sensed that Aaron felt hopeless yesterday as well.

I love Ezekiel’s response: “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know the answer to that.”

Lord, you are Sovereign and Master of the impossible. I thank you that you specialize in what seems to be hopeless situations.

I lift up Aaron today. Deliver him. Encourage him. Make it possible for him to be a part of a church again.

“Lamb of God, we bow before Thee,
Thou hast bro’t Thy people nigh” (“God, Our Father, We Adore Thee,” BH 2008, 337). Amen.

Repentance is a Baggie!

Okay, is that a weird enough title for you today? Ha. I continue to be grateful that the Lord is merciful enough to be patient with me and show me things—often in rather graphic ways. This is an example of that.

Here is something that has been on my mind and heart as I have been reading through the book of Ezekiel and dealing with “issues” in my own life: how does one deal a death blow to idolatry?

This is the bottom-line issue with Israel and the reason the Lord allowed them to be sent into Babylonian captivity. Ezekiel makes this clear, but he is not alone. Jeremiah and Isaiah and other prophets echo his message.

While I am in this neighborhood, the United States of America is in this same boat.

Yesterday, via email, I received a letter from Billy Graham through his evangelistic association. In the course of his letter, Dr. Graham states, “We must also remember that no election will ever solve America’s most basic problems. That is because the trouble, at its root, is in the human heart, and the only path to true restoration—for a person or for a nation—is through repentance. The Bible says, “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19–20, ESV). Only the Gospel, God’s Good News, has the power to change lives, heal hearts, and restore a nation.”

He is right on target. Repentance is what we need as a nation right now. Amen.

Thus, idolatry is the problem. Repentance and faith is the solution, not only for nations, but also for churches and individual believers, of course.

Yesterday, as I read Billy Graham’s letter, all of this started to come together for me, and it lead me to asking the Lord, “What indeed is repentance?”

First of all, to my shame as a pastor, I know I don’t talk about it as much as I should. The Lord has convicted me of this. This doesn’t alleviate my responsibility, but I know that this word—REPENTANCE—is sadly lacking in the contemporary pulpit here in our country.

It is perceived, I am sure, as if it were a fire and brimstone word, rather old fashioned, a little archaic, and maybe not very cool. We love to confine it to the initial experience of salvation. Repentance is fine and dandy THEN, but we don’t talk much about it as it relates to the Christian life.

I mean--am I done with repentance once I get saved?

Are you kidding me?

I think we want to make things complicated and this allows us, in a rather surreptitious way, to continue in our sin. When the Lord reveals an idol or a sin in our lives as believers, what do we do? Well, of course, 1 John 1:9 is key. We agree with God about what we have done. The word “confess” literally means to “say the same thing.”

I say this all the time, but it bears repeating here because I don’t think many believers understand this. I confess, not in order to be forgiven (Jesus has already forgiven my sins through His death and resurrection. My sins past, present, and future are forgiven and forgotten in the grace of God), but I confess in order to restore my relationship with Him. I am getting on the same page with the Lord when I talk about my actions and see them the way He does—“’fessing up,” as the expression goes.

That is one step, but I contend that after confession, repentance is paramount. Of course, we understand that the word means to turn. We turn away from sin. And in turning away from sin, we turn toward God in faith.

Back to repentance—what exactly does “turning away from sin,” mean? When we mention repentance, we say THAT, but what does it mean?

Okay, so here is where the baggie comes in. Over the course of the past couple of years after my cancer diagnosis and chemo treatment, I have started taking some pills prescribed by my doctor to help me with some symptoms I continue to deal with (I won’t go into detail here). As a result, I have to carry pills with me in my backpack to take during the day.

Not long ago, I opened my backpack to find pill scattered all over the place. What on earth happened? Well, idiot me—I forgot to screw the top of one of the bottles of pills on securely. It opened and spilled out all over. It took me forever to dig out all the pills that spilled in my backpack.

Therefore, as I was pulling all those pills out, a question entered my tiny brain: how can I avoid this disaster in the future? The answer (you guessed it) is a baggie. I now put all my pill bottles in a baggie so that if this idiot forgets to screw the top of a bottle back on then the pills will simply empty into the baggie and not all over the inside of my backpack.

In other words, the baggie was insurance of sorts, a way for me to say to the mess I created one time through my own stupidity: this is NEVER going to happen to me again! And I don’t leave it up to me. I make sure because I use a baggie.

This is REPENTANCE. And I want to be clear at this point: I am not talking about human effort. I am not talking about gritting my teeth. It is a baggie! As long as I put those bottles in a baggie AND remember to seal the baggie (of course nothing in this life when it comes to human activity is 100 percent fool proof, especially when the “fool” is me).

What is the baggie for the Christian? Well, this morning, I came across it in the thirty-fifth chapter of Ezekiel:
"Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations" (Ezekiel 36:25-27 NLT).

Did you see that phrase “you will no longer worship idols”? God will cleanse His people. That is one aspect. But it is more than that. My solution was a baggie to put the pill bottles in. God’s solution for us is a new heart and the Spirit to dwell IN US. The Holy Spirit is God’s baggie!

But the Holy Spirit enables us to receive and appropriate by faith the GIFT of repentance. That’s right. Repentance is a gift from God, just as all aspects of grace are. He grants us repentance. We have the choice to receive it or not and when we do, the Holy Spirit is our baggie, enabling and guaranteeing what the Lord has put in the “bottle” for us.

But there is a timing aspect to all of this. God grants us the opportunity for repentance, but it does not last forever. Look at the story of Esau. Read the whole context of this phrase in chapter twelve of Hebrews, but this statement is ominous, talking about Esau: “It was too late for repentance, even though he begged with bitter tears” (Hebrews 12:17B, NLT).

I think this situation can be true even for believers. If we refuse to confess, repent, and believe, the Lord hands us over to the consequences of our actions.

Whew, all of this makes me shiver. It is awesome.

Lord, I thank you for the opportunities you allow us in your mercy and grace. You are so patient with us in our idolatry and sin.

First, I pray for our nation. Grant us repentance.

I pray for the church. Grant us repentance. Forgive us for being concerned to be “politically correct.” Bring back the word repentance to the pulpit you have given me to all the pulpits in our land.

I ask you to grant me the gift of repentance as you continue to use cancer to bring me in line with your plans and purposes.

“Father, all glorious,
O’er all victorious,
Come, and reign over us,
Ancient of Days” (“Come, Thou Almighty King,” BH 2008, 336). Amen.

God's Rep

After the service and a meeting with the Vision Team, I headed over to Federal Heights yesterday afternoon. It was Tom’s birthday and his mom and dad—Al and Vera—had invited me to his birthday party.

It was in the clubhouse of their manufactured housing area—the same location where Jose and his congregation, The Lighthouse, meets.

When I arrived, I saw Patty there. She had been in the Vision Team meeting at church and had made a point of taking Omero, Eduardo, and Eric with her in the car over to this party. I had offered, but she insisted on doing because she wanted to “talk” with them. She was not happy.

I appreciated the fact that she was not happy. Why?

Well, all the way through the sermon (and probably through the whole service—I just could not see because I wasn’t facing that way), Tom, Omero, Eduardo, and Eric were poking each other and creating a distraction. I almost called them out in my sermon (I have done that before), but I didn’t feel that the Spirit gave me the green light to do it. So, I just preached on.

After the service, Patty paraded the boys up to me, “You boys need to apologize to Pastor John for the disruption you caused during the service.” They looked down.

“Guys,” I added, “what is going on? You are more mature than that. Or, at least, I thought you were.”

Patty forced the issue. “Apologize. Look him in the eye and do it.”

Once they did, I said, “Guys, look. I love you guys, but this is just not acceptable behavior.”

You know, sometimes, you really do wonder. I had just spent a lot of time with three of the four of these boys (Omero was busy doing a march with his high school ROTC group on Saturday) just the day before, and it seemed to make very little difference. And I know it is not about ME. It wasn’t about me on Saturday. And it wasn’t about me yesterday in the service.

These boys need so much help—God’s help, first and foremost, but so much help in so many other ways. And of course, it starts with the family.

I don’t know Pablo and Maria very well. They don’t speak English, but I know they have struggles with the boys. Add to it that the boys’ oldest sister, Jessica, was diagnosed with leukemia just about the same time I was diagnosed. It has been a long arduous struggle but she started college this fall and seems to be doing well, but it was very hard on the family. Maria works a couple of jobs. Pablo is disabled. This is a family that does not have a lot.

Tom is another story. He has been having a lot of problems at home and at school. Al and Vera are very concerned for him.

Well, anyway, that’s why Patty wanted to take them over to the party. All of this is why I feel compelled to manufacture reasons to hang out with them when I can.

Back to the party… When I arrived Patty was standing there. She is very active and involved in ministering to the family and spending time with them as well. I appreciate this very much. I didn’t know she was doing that. She really cares for them.

But as I entered the clubhouse and greeted Patty, she said, “Oh, John. Vera has invited a lot of people and one by one, they have been calling her, telling her that they can’t make it.” Just then, Vera came in. “Hi Pastor John,” she said. “I’m glad you are here. I invited about thirty people, but a lot of them have called to say they can’t make it. It is kind of discouraging, but I’m okay.”

Well, I was glad that I had made the point to go. It is about this time on Sunday afternoons that I start to feel an energy drain. I had been going non-stop—I mean that—since 6:30 AM.

And yesterday was particularly challenging. When I walked into our auditorium, the thermostat said “53.” It was freezing cold in there. Most folks who came to our service yesterday kept their coats on in the auditorium.

That was just one of the things that was going on yesterday.

Therefore, by the time I reached the party, I was already moving toward exhaustion, but I just felt compelled to stay.

As time went on, some of Vera’s friends and former neighbors showed up. We continued to wait until Margaret, Vera’s mom, arrived. By then, we had started to eat. Vera had prepared a big pot of chili and had purchased a cake. It was a nice party.

I just appreciate the people who showed up. I know the family appreciated it.

Here is the passage I read today in Ezekiel. “Therefore, give the people of Israel this message from the Sovereign Lord: I am bring you back, but not because you deserve it. I’m doing it to protect my holy name, on which you brought shame while you were scattered among the nations” (Ezekiel 36:22, NLT). God is zealous for His name, His “rep,” if you please.

Right or wrong, good or bad (and please, I am not trying to pat myself on the back here), I often feel compelled to go to things that people have to represent the Lord and the church. And I am not alone in this. Others, like Patty, feel the same way.

And one more thing: I always want to go. I just parties and food! Don’t get me wrong, but sometimes, I force myself to go when I’m just not up to it. And again, this is nothing to commend me for. It is just part of the ministry, not always, of course, but a lot of times.

I know with certainty that if no one from our church had come to Tom’s party that Al and Vera and Tom would have been discouraged with our church and probably, in their relationship with the Lord.

Someone looking at this from the outside might say, “Well, that is not right. That’s not how they should think. If you have a party and no one can make it, then it is what it is.”

This is certainly logical, but it just isn’t true. And, let me hasten to say that those who were invited who couldn’t come (and I’m not sure who these folks were but it is a pretty good bet that there were some from church) did not pull out because they don’t love this family. But sometimes, actions can be interpreted that way.

Oh, Lord, I thank you for the fact that I as a pastor get invited to be a part of birthday parties and family events. This is an honor I don’t deserve. Sometimes, I can’t believe they want me there.

Thank you for Tom. Take care of him, Lord. Keep him out of trouble. I lift up Al and Vera as well.

Thank you for Patty and her very vital ministry in our congregation. I’m so grateful for her and others like her who care about your REP.

“Jesus, name above all names, beautiful Savior, glorious Lord” (BH 2008, 320). Amen.

Solid Backing

"God is solid backing to a well-lived life, but he calls into question a shabby performance" (Proverbs 10:29 MSG). I love this phrase in the Message version.

Here is the way that the New Living Translation puts it: "The way of the Lord is a stronghold to those with integrity, but it destroys the wicked."

This verse reminds me that the safest place to be, from many standpoints, is right in the center of God’s will.

I saw that in operation yesterday.

I’m not sure this was the best idea, but I decided yesterday to ask Eduardo, Eric, and Tom to help me.

Let me back up a moment: one of the things that happened to me when I was diagnosed with cancer (and I’m sure a psychologist would have a field day with this) is that I have gradually been weeding out “stuff” in my house. At first, I was thinking that pairing down would help me when I moved to a smaller place. But through a long process of investigation, I have decided that it is best to stay where I am.

But still … I have this urgency to clear out junk in my house. I had two twin beds in a room I never use and wanted to get rid of them, so I moved the mattresses and box springs to my garage where they sat for the past nine months. I had some other rather large/heavy things to move out as well.

Thus, yesterday, I decided to rent a van for a couple of hours and ask the boys to help me move that stuff out, and my plan was to take it to the Salvation Army donation center on North Broadway where they take just about anything large item.

Sounds like a plan, right?

Well, first of all, we had a snowstorm yesterday that got worse by the hour. It was foggy and wet and seemed to get colder and colder. All of this means that getting around, as the day progressed, got more and more treacherous.

Second, my plans got derailed when I arrived at a U-Haul store (I had arranged the rental in advance) and found out that the van could carry only ONE passenger and I was planning for THREE. So, I had to take the boys to my house, leave them there un-supervised (a rather scary thought) with work to do, and then drive back to the U-Haul place to leave my truck and pick up the van.

Are you following all of this?

Well, the boys helped me load all the stuff in the van. I gave them another couple of jobs to perform in my house, and I headed off again. By this time, the weather had worsened and the streets were getting bad.

I found the Salvation Army donation center on North Broadway. I thank the Lord that someone was there who was able to receive my junk. I dropped it off and headed back to the U-Haul store. When I arrived, I realized that I had not topped off the rental, so I had to get back on the road to find a gas station. I FINALLY did that.

In the meantime, Tom called me on his cell phone, “Pastor John, we are done,” he said as I heard loud noises and crashing sounds in the background. “Oh, Lord,” I prayed, “please keep my house from burning to the ground.” I told Tom to be patient and wait.

Well, it seemed to take forever for me to check that van back in. Several other folks were dropping off vehicles as well and it was getting colder and snowier and icier.

Finally, I got the van checked back in, got in my truck, and made my way back to my house. By the time I got there, the boys literally ran out of the house to jump in my truck. They were hungry (surprise, surprise). On the way to Tom’s house, we stopped at McDonalds, and I bought each of them a meal. They were very grateful. I don’t think any of them had eaten anything the entire day. I take that back—Tom had had a Pop Tart before I had picked him up.

Well, the roads were dicey, and the highway was packed out and moving at a snail’s pace. I dropped Tom off and headed south on I-25 to drop Eduardo and Eric off. They live basically right across the street from Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

As we were heading south on Federal, Eduardo said, “Do you know what the easiest store to steal from is?” I hesitated. “Ah, no.” He jumped right in, “It is Safeway. My friends tell me that it is so easy just to put something under your coat and walk out the door, but my dad told me never to steal.”

This whole day, all the hassle, all the snow, put me in THAT spot to say something to those two boys, something that I hope they take to heart. “Well, Eduardo, your dad gave you good advice. Please don’t ever steal anything. You could end up in jail and a lot of trouble. Plus, you have your family. If you need something ask them. And you have a church full of people who love you and will help you. There is no need to steal, EVER.”

It was quiet in the backseat for a moment and then he said, “Well, if you steal something as a minor, your record gets cleared when you become an adult, right?”

“Ah, no, Eduardo. That’s not how it works. When you commit a felony, it is on your record forever. Plus, God knows about it regardless. It just isn’t something you ever want to do.”

“Oh,” he replied. By then, we had pulled up in front of their house.

“See you boys tomorrow.” I’m picking them up for church in a half an hour.

Lord, again, thank you that your way is always the safest way. Thank you for protecting me yesterday from having an accident in the bad weather. Thank you that indeed, my house did not burn down. Thank you, Lord.

I pray for these boys. Eduardo and Eric, as of yet, have not made a profession of faith. I pray that they could get saved. I pray for Tom, who has professed you but is really struggling in some areas. Protect these boys from doing anything that will affect them the rest of their lives. Keep them in the middle of the “solid backing” you provide on the straight and narrow way.

I pray for the service today at church. Protect folks as they get out on the roads and walk through the parking lot to the building.

“O Comforter and Friend,
How we need Your touch again” (“Holy Spirit, Rain Down,” BH 2008, 335). Amen.

Found Dead

Yesterday morning, I received a very disturbing text. It came from John in our church. It said, “Gary _______ was found dead on tues. autopsy pending. Apologize 4 not letting u know sooner. still in shock.”

I’m still in shock.

I asked John if there was anything our church could do. He said he would let me know.

Let me give you a little background about Gary. He started coming to our church a couple of years ago as a result of his relationship with John who teaches several Bible studies for folks in need (I don’t feel comfortable giving more detail at this point). Gary was always very quiet. But when he said something, it was a word of kindness and encouragement.

From the start, I liked him, really liked him.

Over a year ago, Gary just sort of dropped out of church. We didn’t see him for weeks and weeks. We tried to contact him, but we never got a response.

Then, about a year ago, we received word that his dad had died and the funeral services were being held at Crossroads Church, an American Baptist congregation in North Denver. So, John and I went to the service. It was a very interesting and unusual service.

It was held in what is essentially the fellowship hall in the old building on the corner of 104th and Huron (this church actually has three locations. It is a growing and thriving congregation. The “old” location houses this congregation’s ministry to seniors, for the most part, as I seem to recollect).

Anyway, the Minister to Senior Adults conducted this service for Gary’s dad. It was very upbeat and celebratory, with a lot of good memories and laughter, the kind of service you would expect for a believer. The reason they had it in the fellowship hall is that they served a meal immediately after the service.

When the service concluded, Gary came over to the table where John and I were seated. In the course of the conversation, I said, “Hey, Gary, we’ve missed seeing you, brother. We will certainly be praying for you as you grieve the loss of your dad, but we hope to see you again sometime soon.”

Gary paused. As I remember, he replied, “Yes, I miss you guys too. I’m just working through some things and hope to be back soon.”

One of the things that Gary struggled with was depression.

That has been about a year ago. We haven’t seen Gary. And I don’t know for sure. I need to say that. I hope I am wrong, but I don’t think Gary has been going to church anywhere in the past year.

And then, I get this text yesterday. I’m trying not to jump to a conclusion. Certainly, there are many physical things that could occur that could cause death suddenly and immediately.

I’m just so sad. Whatever it was, Gary died alone. “Found dead.” How tragic.

I will certainly let all of you know what happened when I get the word, and I’m sure that John and I will go to the funeral.

I want to go back to yesterday’s post for a moment. As I thought about it, I think the better word than “loneliness” to describe the epidemic we are facing is ISOLATION.

Nothing good comes from isolation. Isolated people can be very lonely, but there are a lot of other “side effects”—many of them a lot more tragic.

Be that as it may, I am reminded of a book that I noticed and purchased several years ago. The title captured my attention. It is Bowling Alone. The author is Robert Putnam. In this book, bowling is used as a metaphor for what has happened in our culture relative to “social capital” (Putnam’s term). There is a sharp decline in civic organizations and mechanisms in our culture that bring people together—like bowling leagues. More and more people are “bowling alone.” He attributes a lot of this to the technological “individualizing” of our society through television and the Internet.

In short, we are more isolated than ever.

Now again, things happen to us that cause sudden death, but as a general rule, I just don’t think anyone should die alone. This is the ultimate isolation.

The passage I read in Ezekiel 34 today gives promise after promise to the sheep of God’s pasture. And it ends with a very comforting reality: "I will make a covenant of peace with my people and drive away the dangerous animals from the land. Then they will be able to camp safely in the wildest places and sleep in the woods without fear. I will bless my people and their homes around my holy hill. And in the proper season I will send the showers they need. There will be showers of blessing… You are my flock, the sheep of my pasture. You are my people, and I am your God. I, the Sovereign Lord, have spoken!” (Ezekiel 34:25, 26, 31 NLT).

Here is how I read this passage in light of what happened to Gary: these promises are fulfilled ultimately in the community of God’s people called the church. As believers, we are Jesus’ hands and feet. Certainly, God can bless us as we sit alone in our homes, but more often than not, he shows His love for His through other believers. We need the church.

I am reminded of what Paul prays in Ephesians 3: "I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory IN THE CHURCH and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen." (Ephesians 3:16-21 NIV84, all caps mine).

Ideally, then, no believer ought to “bowl alone” or die alone.

Oh, Lord, I thank you that You are the shepherd. We are the sheep. Thank you for showers of blessing.

I pray for Gary’s family in this tragic death. Help us as the community to help this family experience the dimensions of your love.

“Mercy drops round us are falling, but for the showers we plead.” (I can’t find this hymn in the 2008 hymnal???). We cry out for showers of blessing, Lord! Amen.

An Epidemic of Loneliness

Yesterday was a very difficult day for my family. Nothing major. Everyone is okay physically, but it was tough. I’ll just leave it at that.

Last night, we were sitting around talking and praying. And I made this statement: “you know, sometimes, I think the church is a failure all the way around. We certainly aren’t reaching lost people as we should, but I really don’t think we are meeting the real needs of believers, either.”

There was a pause in the conversation at that point, and my mom said, “Well, what would you do about it?”

Of course, I had an answer and I will tell you what it is, but that question has been on my mind and heart through the night up till now. There is a lot I would do … Why don’t I? Humm, I need to ponder that a bit.

Here’s what I said last night: “Well, I think it would be great if we could just come together, all of us, seniors, median adults, couples, youth, children, singles, and all of us in just one room, and we could take time just to talk and share with one another, and then when the time is right, worship and then have a message and then go home.

Why does everything have to be so planned and detailed and orchestrated? Why do we always have to separate into groups?

I know all the Sunday school answers to those questions. Sunday school is an answer! I get all of that.

At First Southern, we have tried something like this. We do it once a quarter. We call it “Koinonia.” We do not have Sunday school. All of us meet together in the fellowship hall. We have food. We sit around tables. We have a little Bible lesson, sing some hymns from the hymnal, and pray together. Then, at the regular time of the service, we just proceed up to the auditorium for the message and the Lord Supper. It seems to work fairly well for us as a little bit of variety.

But I am not sure that it meets the need I am talking about here.

On the first Koinonia service we had a couple of years ago, as people entered, I asked them to pick a number out of a hat. The number they choose determined the table where they sat. The “method to the madness” was: I was hoping to put people together that would not normally be together so that 1) they could get to know one another and 2) share some needs and concerns cross-generationally.

How did that go? Not well. As a general rule, most of the adults didn’t like being “herded” into a group. And, people sat at the tables and stared at one another. It was very awkward.

What do we do now? We just let people come in and sit where they want to sit, and guess what? Surprise, surprise! The seniors sit with seniors. The youth sit together et cetera, et cetera. We are right back into the Sunday school mode of separation based on age groups.

Please understand: I am not knocking Sunday school. I like it.

But I just think that we are missing the boat somehow.

My burden as a pastor is that more and more people—Christians in churches, in particular—are lonely, very lonely. My mom and sis are.

I talked with Dan yesterday. He is recovering from open heart surgery. He is confined to the house for another six weeks. He is crawling up the walls. He is lonely and isolated. I think both he and his wife Kay feel that way.

Mitch called me yesterday. He was struggling with depression. He had a toothache and couldn’t get a hold of a dentist. He was very discouraged.

Certainly, there are logistical issues in each of these situations I mentioned. My mom and sis live twenty plus miles away from First Southern. That limits them. That’s just the way it is. Dan can’t get out of the house to go to church even if he wanted to. Mitch is the exception in all of this because when he is depressed, he calls someone.

Therefore, this is a complicated issue. But still, I contend that many believers feel isolated and alone.

My mom says that she prefers the time in our history when she grew up. She makes this statement a lot: “All I see is that everyone is sitting alone staring into a computer or a cell phone—alone.”

I can’t remember where I saw this, but I read something the other day about someone who was observing a group of Junior High girls sitting in a group. They were not talking with one another. They were all staring into their cells phones and pushing buttons. He asked them, “Why don’t you talk with one another? You are all sitting here together??”

One of the girls answered, “We are talking. We are texting one another.”

I think the art of face-to-face conversation—real conversation where you get to know someone and share what is going on—is being lost in our culture. I honestly don’t think younger people—again, I’m generalizing here--today know how. So, even if we put people in a room and locked them in, they would not know what to do, but would walk out bemoaning how lonely they are.

Anyway, I guess today, I’m weary of the “rat in a cage” syndrome in church life. We just keep going around and around and around. We have fewer people to keep the merry-go-around going, and so the “rats” are getting more tired, but we just keep spinning out rituals and routines as God’s people get more and more isolated.

I mean our culture does this anyway, right?

I honestly still can’t get over the fact that I live in a state that voted to legalize marijuana use. I can’t get over that. Great. It is proven that marijuana is a gateway drug. As is the case with all drug use and all addictions, it just leads to more serious drug use and the organized crime that goes along with it. Again, I say, “Great.”

None of this, however, stops God. He is still the shepherd of the sheep. He is still intimately involved in judging the evil in this world and calling out the sheep to holy living: "And as for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign Lord says to his people: I will judge between one animal of the flock and another, separating the sheep from the goats. Isn’t it enough for you to keep the best of the pastures for yourselves? Must you also trample down the rest? Isn’t it enough for you to drink clear water for yourselves? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Why must my flock eat what you have trampled down and drink water you have fouled?" (Ezekiel 34:17-19 NLT)

Oh, Lord, you are sovereign and in control of this world, this state, and the church. I lift up my family and Dan and Mitch and all the other sheep in the flock at First Southern and in the church as a whole.

Our situation, in many ways, seems rather desperate. We are not reaching lost folks as we should and Christians all over the place are struggling.

Again, Lord, I pray for spiritual awakening in our land and revival in the church. I pray that someone this legalization of marijuana would be over-turned. Until then, the church has the same urgent mission. I only pray that we have the wherewithal to fulfill it.

“There is comfort in life’s darkest hour;
There is light and life, there is help and power
In the Spirit, in the Spirit of the Lord” (“Where the Spirit of the Lord Is,” BH 2008, 333). Amen.

A Service for Mitch

I’ll never forget Mitch.

As we were driving away yesterday afternoon, Jim said, “How did Mitch start coming to our church?” Great question.

As I told him, I wasn’t quite sure, but it has something to do with Gary. Almost twenty years ago (I think), Gary started bringing Mitch to church. At first, I don’t think any of us quite knew how to approach him.

In the first place, he is very tall and lanky. He does not initiate conversation, EVER. He stutters a little bit, well, sometimes a lot. At times, just getting out the simplest of expressions seems very difficult for him.

But, if you ask Mitch how he is doing, he will tell you in no uncertain terms. He is very honest and forthright in that regard, and when he struggles with depression, as he often does, he calls some of us on the phone fairly regularly. I’m not the top person on that list—no way.

A guy that is no longer in our church because he moved to Georgia used to be on the top of Mitch’s call list. His name was Trip. Trip started picking Mitch up to bring him to church, and they developed a friendship. On occasion, Trip calls me from Georgia to tell me how he is doing, and the last time we talked, he said that Mitch still calls him on occasion.

Anyway, on the few times I have had the privilege of speaking with Mitch when he is struggling, I will read him a passage of scripture over the phone and will pray for him, and his reaction is always the same, “Wow, thanks that was a really good passage. Wow. Thanks a lot. That helps me.” And we hang up and move on.

If only all the rest of us could have that type of immediate response to the truth of God’s Word. I know it isn’t always THAT easy. I know that. But Mitch is like a sponge. He is so ready to hear the truth and believe it and act on it.

When Trip left, we recruited other folks to pick Mitch up. He lives in Commerce City, so it is no easy task. John has done it for a while. Yesterday, Jim shared with me that he picked him up last week.

We are committed to do it—it is a church responsibility—because Mitch loves to come to church. And we love him.

Last year about this time, Mitch’s dad passed away. John and I drove up to Evergreen (where Mitch’s family lives) for the service. It was in a Catholic church. We got to see Mitch’s mom and sister and brother after the service. As we were greeting them, Mitch’s brother said, “We really appreciate the way you guys care for Mitch.”

“The privilege is all ours,” I responded. “He is a blessing and a very important part of our congregation.” And I was totally honest in that response.

For over a year now, Mitch has been serving as a volunteer in the food bank of COFU. I get to see him now just about every day. In fact, most days we eat lunch together in the fellowship hall. There is not a lot of small talk, but Mitch is always careful to clean off the table after he eats. Most of the time, he goes into the kitchen to get a paper towel and brings it into the room where we eat, and meticulously, carefully, wipes off the table. I wish others in our congregation had that same level of consideration for God’s property.

Well, anyway, Mitch approached Betty asking her if it would be possible to have a service at his home (it is called Mesa House) on the one-year anniversary of his dad’s death. Mitch is still grieving his dad’s passing.

When Betty told me, I said, “Of course, absolutely. Glad to do it.” I don’t think I’ve ever done ANYTHING like this before. I’ve conducted dozens and dozens of funerals over the years but nothing like this. I was glad and honored to do it.

Yesterday, when Mitch finished his volunteer work at COFU, Jim came over to the church and the three of us headed out. Mitch needed us to stop at Wal-Mart so he could pick up some medicine. After we did that, we headed east on 88th Avenue to Highway 76 and the turn-off to Commerce City. I’m glad Jim was with us. My recollection of how to get to Mitch’s house is always a little hazy, but we made it along with about thirty chocolate and vanilla cupcakes Mary Ann had made for us.

We made our way out to the back of the house where there was a picnic table. Jim had brought some hymnals. He pulled them out. Mitch got us some paper towels. There we were the three of us.

Finally, I said, “Mitch, have you invited the other residents?”

Mitch paused for a moment, “Oh, no. I’ve been so depressed that I didn’t think of it.”

“Could you go invited them, now?” I asked.

Mitch jumped up from his seat at the picnic table and re-entered the house. It wasn’t long before several others including Liz, one of the assistants in the house, and Christine, the manager, came out.

Margaret was one of the first. She noticed the cupcakes and immediately asked for one. Soon, Ronny, Charley (whom I have met before), Tom, Christopher, Steve, and one other gentleman came out.

We were ready to start the service. Jim led the group in singing three hymns. I opened up the my little pocket New Testament and read John 14:1-6, being careful to emphasize that heaven is a real place and Jesus is the only way to get there. The one gentleman whose name I have forgotten interrupted me, “Oh, I know that. I know that. I’m a religious person.”

“That’s great,” I answered. “I just want to make sure everyone here knows about Jesus.”

To be honest, I did not say a whole lot about Mitch’s dad specifically. Why? Well, in the car on the way to the house, I asked Mitch about his dad’s salvation. The truth is that we have been praying for his family for years to be saved. Mitch hesitated when I asked him about his dad. “Well, once he made fun of me when I showed him something from the church.” Oh.

“Well, Mitch,” I jumped in at that point, “We will leave that up to the Lord, but I hope this service today helps you as you grieve and miss your dad.”

After my little “message” and prayer, everyone had a cupcake, and one by one, they up and went back into the house. That was it. The whole thing took less than a half an hour.

Jim and I left the remaining cupcakes in the kitchen, said our good-byes, and got into the car. “Good job, Jim,” I said.

Jim replied, “Mitch picked out those hymns.” Good choices.

I will have to tell you: I loved every minute of that time with Mitch and Jim. Every minute. One of the greatest joys and privileges of being a pastor is being there for folks when they need me. Come on! That was no big deal, but it was an honor. That’s how I feel about it today.

I can only pray that I never experience the indictment that the Lord leveled against the “shepherds” of Israel. I don’t think these folks were pastors in the sense that we know and understand today. I would guess that they were spiritual leaders of some sort. Who knows? But whatever they were, God was not pleased with how they were doing their jobs.

"Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: As surely as I live, says the Sovereign LORD, you abandoned my flock and left them to be attacked by every wild animal. And though you were my shepherds, you didn’t search for my sheep when they were lost. You took care of yourselves and left the sheep to starve. Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD. This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I now consider these shepherds my enemies, and I will hold them responsible for what has happened to my flock. I will take away their right to feed the flock, and I will stop them from feeding themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths; the sheep will no longer be their prey" (Ezekiel 34:7-10 NLT).

Enemy shepherds? Are you kidding me? Can anything be more ominous than that?

Lord, I thank you for the privilege of being a pastor. Thank you for that service yesterday. Thank you for Betty who set it up. Thanks for Mary Ann’s cupcakes. Thanks for Jim’s participation. Thank you for the residents and assistants at Mesa House.

Oh, Lord, deliver me from selfishness and self-pre-occupation. Enable me, empower me to do my job as long as you allow me the privilege and honor of service.

I pray for Mitch today. Help him as he continues to grieve his dad’s death. Thank you for Mitch—his life and ministry. Bless him today.

“Holy Spirit, breathe on me
Until my heart is clean;
Let sunshine fill its inmost part,
With not a cloud between” (“Breathe on Me,” BH 2008, 332). Amen.

The Root Cause of the Fall of Jerusalem

PLEASE NOTE: when I was in Fort Worth, for some reason, I could not publish the past few blog entries on this website. Who knows why? Hopefully, it will work today!?!

Thank you for praying for me. I had a relatively uneventful return trip home yesterday, except for the fact that somehow, I took a wrong turn on the highway heading to the airport and ended up trying to find my way around the NORTH entrance to the airport on the Grapevine side. I honestly don’t know how I ended up there, but my relatively comfortable trip turned to panic.

I do know this, however, it involved a wrong turn somewhere in the trip. That’s all it takes—ONE WRONG TURN. And pretty soon, one finds himself or herself as I did in foreign territory, miles off course.

Somehow, it seems rather timely today that I would be in the thirty-third chapter of Ezekiel.

Picking up where I left off yesterday—this is a heartfelt appeal from the Lord through the mouth of the prophet—for repentance. Repentance is a RIGHT NOW response to the Word of God. The prophet talks about this. If someone has a history of doing the right thing but they turn to sin, his past behavior will not help them. However, if folks who have a history of evil, turn to God, the Lord will help them.

After these explanations, apparently, some time passes. I say that, because in verse 21, there is another introductory comment and this statement: “The previous even the Lord had taken hold of me and given me back my voice. So I was able to speak when this man (who had come to announce to the exiles that the city of Jerusalem had fallen) arrived the next morning” (Ezekiel 33:21, NLT, parentheses mine).

I can’t really find any explanation of what was going on here—why Ezekiel lost his voice and then got it back again. But as always, when the prophet was enabled to speak and told to speak, he did.

He goes on to point his boney finger at the scattered remnant of God’s people. This is a very clear indication that He is speaking to believers. This is not some general message to the crowds. This is for the remnant.

And he pulls no punches—he calls them murderers, idolaters, and adulterers. He tells them that he is destroying the land because of THEIR sins.

And, as far as their response to the prophet himself—and this seem rather counter-intuitive at first—when they hear he is going to speak, they flock to hear him. He is very much like a rock star—the Frank Sinatra of his day.

Here are the verses that captured my attention:
"You are very entertaining to them, like someone who sings love songs with a beautiful voice or plays fine music on an instrument. They hear what you say, but they don’t act on it! But when all these terrible things happen to them—as they certainly will—then they will know a prophet has been among them” (Ezekiel 33:32, 33 NLT).

You know, sometimes, you have to go to another church to get insight about your own. This is something else that happened when I went to Travis Avenue Baptist Church. As I said a couple of days ago, I am thankful for the message and music—both ministered to me. I appreciate them greatly.

But here is the other side of the coin. And I know this is true of the church I serve in some ways. It is just harder to see because I am right in the middle of it.

There is so much of just the routine of going. As I sat there observing people, before the service actually started, I recognized some folks. Of course, they were noticeably older. I mean, after all, it has been 23 years since the last time I stepped foot in that church. But I recognized some people and remarked that they sat in about the same places they did 23 years ago.

In a church as large as Travis, there are regions and territories in the auditorium, places where certain groups sit. And, as far as I could tell, those boundaries still existed with some of the same folks sitting in those places.

But here is another thing that has been a burden on my heart. I just wonder when church becomes just like going to a concert. We find our place (the same pew we have sat in for years, by the way) and sit there enjoying what is going on to some degree, and then get up, and go our way. We’ve had a pleasant experience. But there is no life change. And we go our way.

This happens at Travis. This happens at First Southern. It happens everywhere. And, it seems rather innocent. Come on. No big deal, but it is subtle. It is a turn in the road. And pretty soon …

I can’t get over that this is the Lord’s explanation for the Fall of Jerusalem, but it makes sense and tracks with other passages like 2 Chronicles 7:14, “If my people, who are called by my name …”

Lord, I thank you for the privilege of living in the United States of America. Thank you for allowing us to have a say in who leads this country.

The people of this nation have chosen their leader.

I pray that you would wake us up. Revive your church. Give us the heart and the urgency to put into action absolutely everything you tell us as your people. We can’t point fingers at anyone else if our nation falls. It rests at our feet.

O, Lord, have mercy on us!

“Stoop to my weakness, mighty as Thou art,
And make me love Thee as I ought to love” (“Spirit of God, Descend upon My Heart,” BH 2008, 331). Amen.

Election Day: Heading Home

I tell you: yesterday was one of the most low-key and relaxing days I have spent in a long time. It was exactly what I needed.

I spent some time at the library, visited with a friend, and then just did some driving in Fort Worth. One of the things I wanted to do was to go out to Pecan Valley, or as we called it while we were in seminary, “The Painted Desert.” I did not play golf there. I just wanted to see it. It was as green (true green not fake; I will explain in a minute) as I have ever seen it—absolutely beautiful.

I can’t tell you how many rounds I played at this course through my seminary years—it might be rather embarrassing. But I have some good memories. We always played our seminary scramble out there. One year, Bill and I played together. We finished and both of us looked at each other: we were convinced that we were NOT winners. So, we got in our cars and left. The next day, I happened to stop by the Recreation Aerobic Center (or the RAC, as it is called). The guy behind the desk said, “Hey, what happened to you guys? We were looking for you. YOU WON!” Huh? Are you kidding me?

Then, I remember another tournament out there. This was a church four-man scramble. Phil, Mickey, and I had a group. We could not find a fourth. But when we got out there, the organizers of the tournament paired us with a rather heavy-set guy with deep-south accent. In his own inimitable way, he said, “Well, guys, I’ve maybe played five rounds in my whole life, but I just thought I’d come out here today. Thanks for letting me join you.” We all kind of looked at each other. Oh, boy. This guy is NOT going to help us!

Two things. First, he was an absolute HOOT. He told story after story and had us all laughing till our sides hurt. Second, he drained at least three putts of over thirty feet in length. It was incredible. By the end of the round, we all wanted to give him a big hug. He saved the day for us, and of course, we won that tournament.

I don’t know … just more memories from my years here.

I’m so thankful that the Lord let me come down here. This has been a wonderful break. I’m going to make reservations to come back next year at this same time. I can’t imagine that the weather has been nicer in any other part of the United States than these past few days.

Plus, there were so many people here that I just did not have time to see, folks that are as significant as the folks I did see.

Somehow, I think these reconnections were the BEST part of the trip. And I’m so thankful.

Well, anyway, I have to get going. I’m heading to the airport, and I should be home by 11:30. I got an email from Mary Ann who is filling in for Betty because she is out of town as well. I hope to get to the office this afternoon. I’ll just see how I feel when I get home.

This is a big day for our country. My heart is heavy. I’m just lifting up this election to the Lord. And I can’t help but think that these words from Ezekiel that I read this morning are particular applicable, not only to our nation as a whole, but also to the church. We as Christians need to vote today and to let our voices be heard.

Here is God’s heart: "Son of man, give the people of Israel this message: You are saying, ‘Our sins are heavy upon us; we are wasting away! How can we survive?’ As surely as I live, says the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of wicked people. I only want them to turn from their wicked ways so they can live. Turn! Turn from your wickedness, O people of Israel! Why should you die?" (Ezekiel 33:10, 11 NLT)

Oh, Lord, thank you so much for allowing me to come here. Thank you for the folks I was able to see and for the folks I was not THIS TIME. Thank you for the rest and rejuvenation this trip has meant for me. I needed it and you know that, Lord.

Thank you for the years I spent in this town and the relationships you allowed me to forge.

Thank you for our country. Grant us repentance before it is too late. I pray for Christians everywhere as well. Help us repent from our apathy and indifference. Help us to be bold in our stance on the principles of your Word, the principles that formed the basis for the founding of this country in the first place.

I lift up the election today and place it in your hands.

You are King of Kings and Lord of Lords and President of Presidents. No matter what the outcome today, YOU are still in office and always will be. Amen.

The Watchman's Warning: Cherish Jesus

Do you ever get the sense that the Lord is speaking right to you in a worship service?

On occasion, I have someone walk out of a service at First Southern and say something to me in that same vein (and I never take it as a personal compliment but always thank the Lord; and I’m not being pseudo-humble. I KNOW).

But yesterday, I had the experience myself.

Let me back up a bit. It really was one of the mind-blowing experiences as I walked into the auditorium at Travis. So many memories came rushing back into my mind. I remember sitting in that same room in the summer of 1985 thinking, “Wow, I’ve never been in a church like this. Better enjoy it while I am. This won’t last long.”

I sat in the same general area as all the Singles did back then, but as I looked around, I didn’t see any Single adults. Most of the people were older. They overlooked me on their way to say hi to their friends. I was really not greeted by anyone except the guys at the door with the bulletins. I would have to say that I would not call Travis a friendly church, unless you have been there thirty years.

But that is always the way it was. My real “church” while I was a part of this congregation was my Sunday School class.

This is very typical for churches of this size. There is no way you are going to develop relationships sitting among hundreds of people in a worship service. No way.

This morning, the memories of the relationships the Lord allowed me to develop in that church came flooding back into my mind and heart. Some of them continue to this day. Thank you, Lord.

As the service started, the choir came out and found their seats. The pastor also came out along with a couple of other guys who sat on “thrones” on the platform. I have a vivid memory of my pastor back “in the day,” Joel Gregory, sitting on one of those fancy chairs—his head slowly turning from side to side, eyes squinted somewhat, looking like a king surveying his domain, before the service started. It was sort of a turn-off for me, frankly.

Actually, one of the first things I did when I started as pastor at First Southern, was to refuse to sit in the king’s pew (it wasn’t a chair at our church; it was actually a mini-pew). I wanted to be a part of the worshiping congregation instead of being a distraction “on stage” surveying my audience.

Back to the service yesterday: it started very quietly, softly with an orchestral arrangement of “It is Well with my Soul.” Very powerful. Then, the worship leader stood up along with the choir to lead us in worship. This is another vivid memory—a full choir sound with very trained and professional voices that absolutely fills a room. It is magnificent.

But I remember another thought I had back in the day: “why are all these very musically talented folks concentrated here in this church? Why don’t some of them come up to Colorado? Some churches have an abundance of musical talent; some churches just don’t.” I was kind of resentful.

And now I realize why many folks from Texas who come up to Colorado are never quite happy in church up there. There are no churches—I mean NONE—not even the larger SBC churches in the Mile High Association—none, nota, zero—who have music like Travis and they NEVER will. If I had grown up in Texas and had gone to church down here, I think it would be a huge shock.

I’m glad that the essence of worship is not about magnificent choirs and awesome musical talent. I know that on an intellectual and conviction level, but purely on an emotional level, it is difficult for many folks.

Well, anyway, enough of that. Pastor Dean got up to preach. He has been at Travis just about as long as I have been at First Southern. He is a tall and lanky guy with a voice that is clear and resonant. He is preaching a series of messages entitled, “Hazardous Material.” In fact, he had some props on the platform with those yellow hazardous signs attached to them. It was a very vivid pictorial.

In this series, he addressing “hazardous material” philosophies that are rampant in our culture. His focus yesterday was the erroneous notion that there are many ways to get to heaven.

The text of his message was Acts 10:1-48—the very familiar story of Peter and Cornelius. Dr. Dean told this story and his message moved to concentrate on Peter’s sermon to the household of Cornelius. He made some excellent points in this message. One of them was: “we are indeed exclusive in our faith, but we are inclusive in our love.”

He powerfully advocated for the truth that there is indeed on one way to God and that is through Jesus Christ. He touched on a lot of biblical passages that teach this, including John 14:6 and Acts 4:12 among others.

But it was the end of the message that took a surprising turn and this is where it intersected with me. As Dr. Dean concluded and made application, he made two assertions. First, he said that this story in Acts is a testimony to the fact that if someone is seeking the Lord, He will move heaven and earth to make sure that he or she has a chance to hear the gospel and respond.

Second, he said, “What does all of this have to do with the believers that are here today? Well, if you are saved, if you are a part of this exclusive faith and know the truth, then I want you to CHERISH JESUS. Cherish Jesus.”

I cannot begin to tell you how those words impacted me. Somehow, some way, I have gotten away from cherishing Jesus.

And I am glad that Dr. Dean standing in the pulpit of his church yesterday fulfilled the role that the Lord gave Ezekiel in chapter thirty-three—the role of the watchman on the wall. "But if the watchman sees the enemy coming and doesn’t sound the alarm to warn the people, he is responsible for their captivity. They will die in their sins, but I will hold the watchman responsible for their deaths. Now, son of man, I am making you a watchman for the people of Israel. Therefore, listen to what I say and warn them for me. If I announce that some wicked people are sure to die and you fail to tell them to change their ways, then they will die in their sins, and I will hold you responsible for their deaths. But if you warn them to repent and they don’t repent, they will die in their sins, but you will have saved yourself" (Ezekiel 33:6-9 NLT).

The message I heard yesterday from the mouth of one of God’s servant was a solemn and stern warning. He did his job. Now I must do mine—take heed.

Oh, Lord, thank you for bringing me all the way from Denver to hear THAT MESSAGE. I’m thankful for salvation. There is only one way to God and it is through your Son Jesus. I don’t understand it. But I rejoice from the bottom of my heart that you have allowed me to know Jesus and be on that way to heaven.

I stop this morning sitting in this room at Southwestern Seminary—to tell you I love, Jesus. I love you.

“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, there’s just something about that name …”

“My Jesus, I love thee, I know thou art mine,
For thee all the folly of sin I resign.”

“Jesus is the sweetest name I know,
And He is just the same as His precious name.”


Denny's at 4:00 AM

Had this even been a year ago, I would have missed out on this special subculture.

Let me explain: I used to eat cereal and a banana and toast with something sugary on it as well as orange juice and coffee. And I wondered why my energy dropped off the map at about 10:00 in the morning. Can you spell s-u-g-a-r?

Well, one of the things that made this type of breakfast easy was, when I went on vacation or left town, I could simply accumulate this food the night before, have it in my hotel room, roll out of bed, and eat it in the room. No problem.

When I shifted my breakfast menu completely about a year ago, that option was no longer on the table, so to speak. I am now eating protein and a much better balanced meal for breakfast, including vegetables and not so sugary fruit—berries.

Now, when I am out of town, if I want to eat breakfast that way, I have to go to a restaurant that is open 24 hours a day.

For the past couple of nights in the Dallas area, it was IHOP. Here, in Fort Worth, it is Denny’s.

One of the things that has struck me having observed these two restaurants is a whole sub-culture of folks who are active and engaged at 4:00 AM. On Friday morning, at an IHOP off of the North Dallas Central Expressway, I was sitting there in a booth waiting for my order. There were three waitresses in the restaurant and they were prancing around and laughing and kidding with one another. I just could not help it, even in my drowsy state, just to laugh out loud. It was hilarious.

One of them saw me laughing and turned toward me. I said, “I think it is great that you can laugh and joke around so early in the morning.”

She responded, “It isn’t early in the morning for us. It is late at night. You know how you get late at night sometimes!”

How about that response for blowing my mind? Of course. It was almost morning. Their shift was about over. They were going home to go to bed. I was just getting up. Polar opposites, in more ways than one.

Over the years, I’ve known several folks who work the night shift and then come to church on a Sunday morning before going home to bed. To a person, they tell me that they never got used to sleeping during the day and working at night. I can understand it. And I don’t think I could handle it.

But I have a world of respect for folks who work the night shift and do it with a great attitude.

Angeline, my waitress this morning at Denny’s, was a real character. She greeted me when I entered the restaurant with a loud, “Hello, sir. Welcome to Denny’s. Sit anywhere. What can I get you to drink?” Like those gals in Dallas at IHOP, she joked with the other waitress and the man who was seating customers.

I was amazed at her attitude.

I don’t know … just a slice of life in this city—a little sub-culture of folks who work through the night and stop off at Denny’s to eat before they go home to sleep during the day.

I wonder what church is available to minister to these folks? I wonder what day of the week would work for them?

Until the Lord enables someone to figure this out, they will have to come to Sunday morning worship somewhere before they go home to sleep. This shift of schedule would deprive them of several hours of sleep.

Back to me and my approach to folks who work the night shift and come to church. Here is what I figured out I wanted to say to those folks. “Hey, I am glad you are here. I really respect you for caring enough about the Lord and about corporate worship to make the effort to come. Some, who have had plenty of sleep the night before because they work a day job, didn’t care enough to make the effort to come. If you feel sleepy, and want to go to sleep during the sermon, have at it. Your body must need the rest. One thing, though: try not to snore too loud, if you can help it. Thanks.”

Hey, we are certainly not so flush with people at First Southern that I can afford to bash the folks who made the effort to come, but even if I were pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, I think I would feel the same.

So much more to tell about what has happened and my visits with people since I’ve been here, but it will have to wait to another day. I regret that I just haven’t had to the time to see everyone I really wanted to see.

Well, I’ve got to get myself going here this morning. Kind of weird not to be preaching today, but I’m glad for the break. I’ve decided that I am going to go to the early service at my former church here in Fort Worth, Travis Avenue Baptist Church. They have two services on Sunday morning these days. I’m going to the “traditional” service at 8:30. Should be interesting.

"When the storms of life come, the wicked are whirled away, but the godly have a lasting foundation" (Proverbs 10:25 NLT).

Lord, thank you for allowing me to come here. Thank you for the people you have allowed me to see and meet, including these folks who serve as waiter and waitresses in all night restaurants. I lift them up to you this morning, Lord. Every one of them.

I pray for the services at First Southern today. Thank you for Al who is preaching for me. Minister through him in the power of the Holy Spirit. I lift up the services in Northglenn and at Travis today.

Oh, and I pray for Steve and the other pastors who are meeting in the foyer at Crossroads right now. Bless THAT service as well. Amen.

Broken Arms and Strong Arm

Let me hasten to say this morning: I did NOT break my arm. I’m sure that some, reading this title, might wonder right off the bat, knowing what a klutz I am!

No, it comes from the passage I read this morning. I will get to it in a moment.

It has been great being down here in Texas. Yesterday was an absolutely spectacular day, a recording setting day, or so they thought. The forecast was for temps to get up to 88 degrees. It certainly felt that warm, but it was not oppressive heat—just perfect.

I’ve been in the Dallas area for the past couple of days visiting some friends here. More to folks to see today and then I’m headed back to Fort Worth for the next couple of days before heading home.

Someone asked me, “Why are you staying at the seminary? You don’t know anyone there, right?” That is really true. But here is one of the main reasons: I am near the library.

Believe it or not (and it IS hard for me to believe and I’ll tell you why in a moment), I am spending as much time there as possible.

So much has changed on the seminary campus. I’ve talked a little about that in the past couple of posts, but Thursday afternoon, I went to the library. Nothing much has changed there.

When I arrived, I went to the periodical section and did some reading. Then, I headed over to find a computer and look some things up. I found some of the books I was looking for and immediately headed to the part of the library where they were located. It was almost second nature. Weird. Again, I have not been in the library for twenty-three years.

Flash back to June of 1985. I remember sitting at my carrel in the PhD section of the library—it is rather “monastery-like” section behind closed doors, rather mysterious—ha—and this thought came to mind, “I wonder if there will ever be a day that I won’t be sitting in this library. If and when I get my degree, I don’t think I’m ever going to set foot in a library ever again!”

You have to realize that for the better part of five years as I was working on that terminal degree (terminal in more ways than one!), that was my habitat—a seminary library.

Well, thankfully, by the grace of God, He allowed me to graduate, and it was about five years before I ever set foot in a library—of any kind. I just couldn’t even look at one.

So, here I am back in town and back in that library again, and it all came back and I just went right to where I needed to go.

But back to the question: why on earth am I in there? Well, I’m taking the opportunity this trip is affording me to do more research on my second book that I am working on—particularly in periodicals. For some reason, I have a really difficult time navigating periodicals at the Denver Seminary library. And I don’t think their periodical section holds a candle to that of Southwestern Seminary.

Thus, I look forward to some time there later this afternoon, and I need to take some time today because the library is closed on Sundays.

Back to the passage for today. It is all about arms—broken arms. Arms in scripture are usually references to strength, when the term is used in the metaphorical sense. In the passage I read today, I believe it is being used in both senses: "Son of man, I have broken the arm of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. His arm has not been put in a cast so that it may heal. Neither has it been bound up with a splint to make it strong enough to hold a sword. Therefore, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am the enemy of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt! I will break both of his arms—the good arm along with the broken one—and I will make his sword clatter to the ground. I will scatter the Egyptians to many lands throughout the world. I will strengthen the arms of Babylon’s king and put my sword in his hand. But I will break the arms of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and he will lie there mortally wounded, groaning in pain. I will strengthen the arms of the king of Babylon, while the arms of Pharaoh fall useless to his sides. And when I put my sword in the hand of Babylon’s king and he brings it against the land of Egypt, Egypt will know that I am the LORD" (Ezekiel 30:21-25 NLT).

Again, this is a pronouncement of judgment against a nation on whom Israel sought to depend, and the Lord is saying that He is breaking their capacity to help Israel and He is going to use the army of Babylon to do it.

As I read this passage, my mind gravitated to two other references to ARMS in the Word.

"The strong right arm of the LORD is raised in triumph. The strong right arm of the LORD has done glorious things!" (Psalm 118:16 NLT).

"Listen! The LORD’s arm is not too weak to save you, nor is his ear too deaf to hear you call" (Isaiah 59:1 NLT).

O, Lord, this moniker is not the purview of Frank Azar, the attorney who advertises on TV. It is YOUR title—You and You alone are the Strong Arm—the One and Only.
Thank you that I can depend on your and your never ending, never diminishing, never “broken arms” of strength. Amen.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, Continued

If only my normal life were this intriguing. Thanks to all of you who wrote and said you were looking forward to this post today.

Real quick, however, I just need to say that something I tell folks about Texas is being confirmed right before my eyes on this trip. This is the second day of November and the forecast is for clear skies and 88 degrees! I feel a little guilty mentioning this when so many folks on the eastern side of our country are recovering from that terrible storm. We need to continue to pray for relief efforts there.

But, meanwhile, back at the ranch (literally, ha), it is absolutely beautiful here.

Well, let me go back to the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. What I found out from that young man who talked with me in the 3,500 seat auditorium is that Southwestern seminary has procured several ORIGINAL fragments that will be in possession of the seminary forever AND in the current exhibit, they had fragments on display that have rarely been seen.

They had to keep them on the first floor for security reasons and to preserve them better (I think the young man cited these two reasons).

Okay, so, after the movie, I head into the first floor part of the exhibit to see these fragments. And I am expecting manuscripts at least the size of a normal piece of paper. Nope. These fragments are very small. One, for example, is 32 mm in height and 57.5 mm in width—a little larger than a quarter. Are you kidding me?

Most of them are brown and the letters, if distinguishable at all, are barely legible.

Here are the fragments that the seminary owns: “the loveless document” (it contains some characters but no one is sure where this comes from); Exodus 23:8-10; Paleo Leviticus—21:7-12 and 22:21-27; Leviticus 18:28-30 and 20:24; Deuteronomy 9:25-10:1; Deuteronomy 12:11-14; Psalm 22:3, 5-8, 10, 12; Daniel 6:22-24 and 7:18-19.

There are also scroll fragments on temporary loan from Hebrew University and some from the Kando Family. The story of this family is fascinating. An estimated 80 percent of all the fragments and scrolls and manuscripts discovered have passed through the hands of this family. This is a story in and of itself.

So, at this point, you may be asking, “Is THIS what you were talking about? Just the fragments?” Well, yes and no.

Here is the main thing that hit me, overwhelmed me. I want to go back to the movie I watched. The movie brought out a lot of facts I was not aware of. First, the setting for all of these discoveries is of course the Dead Sea and the hills surrounding this amazing place. As you can imagine, it is pretty barren and bleak and rugged. It is the same terrain that David lived in as he fled from Saul. It is just rock and caves.

That is the first thing.

Second, and I mentioned this yesterday, the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls was not just a one-time deal, but it continued over decades. Archeologists discovered many scrolls and fragments in many caves in this barren region, and they are still chronicling and investigating these discoveries even to this day!

Third, what was going on here? Why all these scrolls in this barren place?

Now, here is where is gets exciting for me. Most scholars believe that a group called the Essenes was responsible. The Essenes were a group of Jewish zealots on par but third in rank of prominence to the Pharisees and Sadducees. They formed a community in this barren place called Qumran. No one is exactly sure what was going on in this community. There is a lot of speculation.

But back to the Essenes. Many believe that the started storing these manuscripts in the caves and rocks surrounding the Dead Sea in 75 B. C. or so.

Why did they do it? Before I answer, I have to say that the inter-testamental period of church history has always fascinated me—those four hundred years of silence between the end of the Old Testament and the coming of Jesus.

In 75 B. C., the empire of Rome was ascending to the role of dominant world power and the Essenes were a group that observed this and took pains to preserve the Word of God! And many Jews and Christians are extremely thankful.

Why? Because in A. D. 70—140 years later—the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and something you never hear—all the manuscripts of scripture AS WELL. Did you know this? I certainly did not. That is a bigger loss than some building, for sure.

Do you get it? It makes me want to weep with gratitude: GOD HAS PRESERVED HIS WORD THROUGH THE CENTURIES. And in this crucial time, he used an obscure and small group of Jewish zealots who somehow had the foresight to hide manuscripts in the rocks of an obscure area 140 years in advance! And, what we have now, these little tiny scraps of paper, barely legible, confirms it!

God, you are AWESOME. Thank for Your Word. Thank you that You have kept it intact and preserved it through all kinds of threats and challenges.

I am reminded of Isaiah 40:8: “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever” (NASB).

And I believe, Lord, that the only way I am going to make it—the only way I am going to stand against Satan and all his wiles—is if that same Word is in me and in my hand as a sword.

“On Christ the solid rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand.
All other ground is sinking sand.”

The Dead Sea Scrolls

I do want to talk about my visit to the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit here at the seminary, but I first want to make a few comments about the city and the seminary.

When I graduated from Southwestern in 1989 (that WAS almost 25 years ago), there were no cell phones (well, at least not very many) and personal computers were just getting started. It seems as if that was a hundred years ago, really.

In some ways, however, the city of Fort Worth has not changed all that much. One thing that will characterize this city forever in my opinion is the road construction. Are you kidding me? When I first came to Fort Worth to start school in the Fall of 1981, they were working on I-35. That upgrade continued through most of my seminary career. It took more than eight years, actually.

I’m happy to report that the work on the highway has been completed! They probably finished it a year or two ago. Ha. Just kidding. But now, they are working on I-20 or Loop 820 on the south side of town, plus one of my favorite streets in Fort Worth—Camp Bowie. What a mess on both streets! Unbelievable.

Anyway, enough about the town for now. I want to make some comments about the seminary. I am staying in the Riley Center. This is a relatively new and huge new building on campus. Of course, it wasn’t here when I went to school. It has a lot of very nice guest rooms. The room I am staying in is posh. Are you kidding me? It is as nice as any hotel room I’ve ever been in.

Adjacent to this center is the huge building (I’m not sure what the name of it is) that houses the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. It has a 3,500 hundred-seat auditorium. I imagine that this is the place where graduation ceremonies are performed as the seminary finally has the facility to house large gatherings.

When I was in school here, most of the time the school used my church—Travis Avenue—for graduation just because they did not have an auditorium large enough.

These two buildings are very prominent now on the south side of the campus.

Again, back in the Dark Ages, when I was in school here, this part of campus had empty fields and old houses where students lived.

More on all of this later, but I want to start to talk about the Dead Sea Scrolls. I was glad that people are allowed to see this exhibit on their own, without guides. I was able to take my time yesterday, but I have to be honest: I was disappointed at first.

When one enters the exhibit, he or she goes upstairs. There are pictures of the Dead Sea and historical information and artifacts about the historical period that forms the background for the Dead Sea scrolls.

Then, one progresses to a part of the exhibit that talks about the initial discovery in Cave 1 in 1947.

This is all I knew about the scrolls … before yesterday.

Oh, man! There was far, far more involved than just one discovery. In fact, the work is on-going to this day—many more caves and multiplied more discoveries in the rocky terrain that surrounds the Dead Sea. There is much more to say about all of this, but I won’t at this point.

Okay, so I continued in the exhibit and finally came to the scrolls, or so I thought. But as I read the explanations on the wall above them, it hit me: these documents I am looking at are COPIES! Are you kidding me? I read that great pains were taking with very sophisticated photography to make these replicas very close to the original scrolls.

This pulled some things together for me, because I have heard of Dead Sea scroll exhibitions in other places and wondered how they pulled this off—of course, copies. Now, there aren’t many of these very accurate copies, but still—COPIES.

I came down some stairs and met a volunteer who was sitting outside the 3,500 seat auditorium. “Do you want to see the movie?” she asked. “Oh, okay, I guess so,” I deadpanned. At that point, I was feeling as if someone had stolen my car.

I entered this huge auditorium and found a seat. I was the only one in there. After sitting there for a while, a young man in a blue shirt came in to greet me. We exchanged some greetings and then he said, “Are you ready for the movie?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Great, it will start in a moment.”

“Humm,” I paused, as I was getting ready to ask the next question, trying to mask my disappointment, “is the upstairs part all there is to the exhibit?”

“Oh, no. That is only the beginning. The best part is on the first floor.”

Man, was he ever right!

I will tell more about that part—the best part--tomorrow.

In the passage for today, there is another reminder about the folly of trusting in anything or anyone other than the Lord. Forever and anon, in scripture, the nation of Egypt will symbolize that foolish choice. Israel, in its final days before the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B. C., held out hope that Egypt would rescue them. Of course, it didn’t work out and the Lord designed it that way.

He makes sure that everything we try to depend on other than Him will disappoint.

"Then Israel will no longer be tempted to trust in Egypt for help. Egypt’s shattered condition will remind Israel of how sinful she was to trust Egypt in earlier days. Then Israel will know that I am the Sovereign LORD” (Ezekiel 29:16 NLT).

Lord, you are the Sovereign Lord. Thank you for getting me here safely. Thank you for the way you have preserved your Word through the years. You are awesome!

Again, help me learn never to trust in “Egypt” but to look to you first and foremost.

I look forward to the adventure of today. I commit myself to you. Amen.