#10) hope

hopeanybody who knows me know that i love good Christmas music.

(nothing by Mariah Carey. or The Carpenters. that’s not good.)

but my favorite song this holiday season has been a song that is not holiday-ish in nature at all.

it’s called “Say Something” by a band named A Great Big World.

(to understand where i want to go with this post, watch/listen to the end.)

in the words of one of my favorite theologians, “i’m not a smart man,” but it seems this song is about a man who is waiting for his lover to say something that will change their relationship forever. if she doesn’t say it, he has to give up.

and so he implores her…say something.

this is a song about hope.

even until the very end of the song, he holds on to the hope that she will say something. throughout the song, the chorus goes: “say something, i’m giving up on you.”

but at the end, the last words of the song are “say something.” there is no “i’m giving up on you.” he holds on to hope until the very end.

i am not trying to over-spiritualize anything, but i wonder if this is how people felt as they waited on God. He had made some great promises about the coming of a King…a Savior…One who would save God’s people.

but He had been quiet for lots of years. nearly 400 of them.

say something.

and then, seemingly out of nowhere, there are rumblings under the surface. a baby is born to an old woman who would grow up to prepare the way for the Lord.

a young, poor, peasant teenager grows a baby inside her womb without ever being intimate with a man.

and an angel appears to lowly shepherds, with the glory of God Himself shining around, and makes this announcement: “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”

God said something.

hope makes the wait worth it.

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#9) Christmas card, part 2: infanticide

heroda few days ago, i mentioned that you will probably never see a baby-eating dragon on the front of a Christmas card. and yet, it’s right there in the pages of the Bible.

you know what else you won’t see on a card this year?

infanticide.

that is the killing of newborn infants.

and that’s exactly what happened at the first Christmas.

what an incredible story. here are the highlights:

there is a Roman appointed “king of the Jews” named Herod.
he heard of another king born in his realm.
the magi told him.
they wondered, “where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?”
this probably pissed Herod off. old kings don’t like it when new kings are born.
he was disturbed.
he told the magi to find this baby and let him know so he could go and worship.
but Herod never intended to worship the newborn king.
he intended to kill the newborn king.
God warned the magi to go home another way and avoid Herod.
and since Herod couldn’t kill the one baby boy
he would kill all the baby boys.
it became known as “the massacre of the innocents.”

it was also a massacre of the innocence.

and it revealed (again) the world’s need for a Savior.

and while you will most likely never see infanticide coming from Hallmark anytime soon…they do depict well that a Savior was indeed given.

a baby boy.
who survived death once.
to grow up and defeat it again.

#8) Christmas card, part 1: a baby-eating dragon

dragoni am calling these next two posts “things you won’t likely see on a Christmas card anytime soon.”

(in the interest of full disclosure, i think i remember reading something by Max Lucado about Christmas cards you won’t likely see soon. it stuck with me.)

our first installment: a baby-eating dragon.

in the book of Revelation, the author John has a vision. he sees a woman, pregnant and crying out in the pain of childbirth. he also sees an enormous red dragon with seven heads. the dragon was standing in front of the woman.

the dragon’s intention: to devour the baby the moment he was born.

terrifying. and not something likely to be printed by Hallmark anytime soon.

it’s just not very…oh, i don’t know…Christmas-y.

it reminds us, once again, of the stark reality of Jesus’ birth. it was not sterile. it was not pretty. it was not always Christmas card material.

there were forces against him from the beginning. forces that understood the cosmic fate that hung in the balance. forces that were ready to wage war.

so, how does John’s vision end?

well, the dragon with ten heads stands by, as the baby is born. ten mouths poised to devour the child. as the baby arrives, John notes he “will rule all nations” and then is snatched up and away from the jaws of the hungry enemy. the child is taken up to God and his throne.

the simple point? the Christ-child is victorious. his enemy loses.

that sounds like a Christmas card i would buy.

4 things to KNOW instead of FEEL

4 Pillarsi’ve written quite a bit about how dangerous it is to trust what you feel. (read some here, here, here, and here). our hearts are deceptive. therefore, when faced with a choice between trusting what you feel and trusting what you know…i’m going to try and go with what i know to be true.

today, here are four things i want to know, even though they are sharply contrasting to what i feel. maybe you want to know these things too?

1) i know i need to pray.
prayer has always been a challenge for me. i think some of that stems from my role in ministry: i was always the “official pray-er” at every church and ministry event i attended. maybe i felt like i didn’t need to pray anymore?

notice what i wrote there? maybe i felt like i didn’t need to pray anymore.

i know i need to pray. i know that communication (both talking and listening) is vital to the development of any relationship. i know God wants to hear from me. i know God has a lot he would like to tell me. i know the discipline of prayer would be good for me…it would force me to slow down and quiet down.

2) i know i need to love others.
my kids. my co-workers. the guests who sit at my tables at Applebee’s. the unbeliever i really like and the Christian i don’t like at all.

no matter who it is or how i feel about them…i know i need to love. not just like. or get along with. or tolerate.

Jesus calls us to love our enemies, but i don’t feel like i have any of those. it might be just as hard to love those you feel apathetic towards. and i know i need more of the Spirit to do this well. see #1.

3) i know God is close.
it’s easy to forget how close God is when you have one arm full of hot plates of food, the other hand with a check to be dropped, two tables who need drink refills, and the expectations your managers, staff, and guests have for you to be perfect.

it’s easy to forget how close God is when you have 3 kids screaming at you and each other, 2 kids wrestling on the couch, and 1 kid waking up cranky from a nap with the worst kind of bedhead.

it’s easy to forget how close God is when your bills are past due, your friends ignore you, your dreams abandon you, and your heart is breaking.

he. just. doesn’t. feel. close.

but. i. know. better.

if anything, on my better days, i may be more aware of God’s closeness in the chaos of my full house and full restaurant than i was in ministry. at the very least, i am definitely more aware of my need for his closeness.

4) i know i’m not a big deal.
i think everyone likes being a big deal. our culture makes a big deal out of becoming a big deal.

i felt like a big deal in the previous season of my life. i was leading a growing ministry. i was sought after to speak in lots of churches and at lots of functions. i had successfully funded a book project, partnering with hundreds of people.

i felt like a big deal.

and i let my big deal-ness define  me. (but more on that another day.)

when you think you’re a big deal, you have to make decisions that help you stay a big deal. you don’t make decisions out of faithfulness or humility or for the benefits of others. you make decisions to help you maintain your rock star status.

here is what i know today: i’m not a big deal. i never have been. and that truth is incredibly liberating. it frees me to be a child of God, a husband to Keri, and a father to my gaggle of children. it allows me to be a lowly server at the neighborhood bar and grill.

i wasn’t making much of a lasting splash when i felt like i was a big deal. now that i know i am not a big deal, i receive the grace to try again and hope for a bigger splash for my family, my guests, and for the little corner of the Kingdom in which i reside.

3 rules to keep trouble (and effectiveness) away

Jesus’ mouth got him into all kinds of trouble.

consider luke 4:22:

“And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth.”

but something changes just a few verses later, in luke 4:28:

“When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath.”

what happened?

well, Jesus opened his mouth and said stuff. and in doing so, He broke three essential rules for those who don’t want to get in trouble for what they say. follow these rules to keep yourself out of trouble because of what you say.

// don’t say anything meaningful. //
Jesus had just said He was the fulfillment of a long-promised prophecy. He is the One promised to free the captives and give sight to the blind and set the oppressed free. folks loved that. they loved it so much, in fact, that they immediately desired for Him to heal some people. they missed His point.

when you say meaningful things, people will miss the point.

and there is misunderstanding. and that leads to trouble. so, it’s easier if you just don’t say anything meaningful.

// don’t tell the truth. //
Jesus goes on to say a bunch of stuff about how God’s people had historically missed what God was doing, so He spoke to and used the hated gentiles.

this was infuriating to those good jewish folks listening to him in the synagogue.

and it was the truth. the problem with the truth is that it gets us into trouble. we could save ourselves a lot of headaches if we just avoided telling the truth.

// don’t say too much. //
Jesus should have stopped when He was ahead. He should have stopped when the people were marveling at His words.

but, nope…He had to keep going. He had to couple the grace He had spoken with truth. He had to push the envelope, seize the teachable moment, make His point. geez.

Jesus said too much. and He offended His audience and got Himself into trouble.

and so there you have it:

three rules to follow in order to avoid any trouble…
and effectiveness
…your mouth may cause.

long or short? some thoughts on the length of our sermons

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i will start by saying i don’t have a good answer. but several times over the course of the last few weeks, i have been thinking about my teaching and the length of my sermons. here are a few of my thoughts:

for short sermons:

  • the record of the most famous sermon ever, the one on the mount, can be read out loud in less than 15 minutes.
  • peggy noonan (ronald reagan’s speechwriter) says that no speech should last longer than 20 minutes. she implies that if you can’t say what you need to say in 20 minutes or less, you aren’t ready to say it. (ht: mark taylor)
  • the gettysburg address was about 3 minutes long.
  • many folks think we have been conditioned to be still for 13 minute segments, thanks to the sitcom. we’ll be engaged for 13 minutes and then we need a break to use the potty and get a snack.
  • seth godin tells us few will ever complain if something runs short.

for long sermons:

  • the apostle paul apparently preached longer sermons. in acts 20, he preaches into the night and into the next day. (of course, poor eutychus fell asleep and out of a window while paul preached…so maybe i shouldn’t hang my hat here.)
  • stand-up comedians can hold the attention of their audience for hours. and make no points. and turn a huge profit doing so. i don’t think attention span is our problem. i think engagement is.
  • mark driscoll (the lead pastor at mars hill church) and matt chandler (the lead pastor at the village church) both regularly teach for 50 minutes or more. and their churches run in the thousands.
  • even my own college students tell me they are fine with a longer sermon as long as it’s engaging and high quality. i regularly teach for 50+ minutes as well. (although, admittedly, i wonder if the length of my messages has been a roadblock for some students we have lost along the way).

so, what say you? how long do you preach? do you feel there is a “better” sermon length? what role does culture play in our sermon length? i’d love to hear your thoughts.

5 lessons i learned mountain biking

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yesterday i spent the day in lawrence, kansas. i met up with my friend and mentor, joel, and we threw our mountain bikes up on the top of his green audi wagon. they looked good up there. our plan: go the bike shop and get a quick tune-up, get some chow, and then hit the trail.

this was my first real experience mountain biking. i’ve had my bike (affectionately named “space ghost”) for a little less than two years. i’ve put lots of miles on her, just not on a trail.

we rode 10 miles and it was great therapy. oftentimes, when your expectations are as lofty as mine were, you are disappointed. but you go anyway in hopes that maybe, just maybe, the experience will be all you had hoped it would be.

this experience was all i had hoped…and a bit more.

as we rode, i got to thinking about some great lessons i need to learn from riding.

1// we need a guide.
my friend joel is a seasoned mountain biker. he is the guy who infected me with the bug. he graciously has given me some equipment, gone with me to the bike shop a few times, and shown me many ropes. he led the way on the trail. i’m pretty convinced he was going a bit slower than he usually would, on my behalf.

but i noticed a few things.

what joel did, i did. if he was pedaling through a section of trail, i pedaled. when he cruised, i cruised. if he went over a log crossing, so did i. i figured joel knew what he was doing and i didn’t. so i mimicked.

i don’t mean to simplify the life of a Christ follower, but is this not what we are called to? when Jesus pedals, we pedal. when He cruises, so do we. when He leads us over a log crossing, we bear down and jump.

also, there were times joel got pretty far ahead of me. i felt isolated on the trail, but i wasn’t left alone. joel was challenging me. he let me know i had what it takes.

i think this is important. Jesus never gets too far ahead of us. but i sometimes wonder if He speeds up His pace deliberately not just so we have to hustle and keep up, but so that we might also know He feels we have what it takes.

2. where you set your sights is where you go.
if you see that ginormous rock in your path…and you focus on it…and you think to yourself, “i hope i don’t clip that thing and wipe out, tagging that massive tree next to it,” guess what you’ll do. you’ll clip that thing and wipe out and tag that massive tree next to it.

however, if you keep your eyes further down the path…where you want to go…that’s where you’ll head.

Jesus said, “no one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God” (luke 9:62). to plow straight rows, the farmer looked ahead of him at a distance. looking backwards only messed his rows up. the same concept applies for the Kingdom: where you set your vision is where you go.

3. the easiest stuff is often the hardest.
i am proud to say that i only wiped out once while riding the trail. more on that in a second. but that’s not to say i didn’t spill multiple times. allow me to explain.

serious bikers wear special shoes that clip on to their pedals. getting in and out of the clips can be a challenge. when you are accustomed to simply taking your feet off the pedals to balance yourself, you are set up for some awkward moments.

getting off my bike should be the simplest of chores. but with those clips, it was tough. i fell. several times. and laughed a lot because of it.

often times the simplest things are our greatest challenge. prayer. love. sacrifice. simplicity. you name it.

4. just when you start to get comfortable, you wipe out.
i had found my groove on the trail. she and i were in rhythm. i was confident. i was having fun. and then it happened.

i hit sand. not just a bit of sand. like, 4″ of sand. i was full speed ahead when i hit the sandtrap, and i was not ready for it. my bike simply stalled out underneath me. i panicked and pedaled, but i only spun my tires and threw sand. then i tipped over like a cow at the hands of some bored rural teenagers.

the point: you never know what to expect. when you think you’ve arrived, you’ll hit sand. don’t get too comfortable.

5. you need to shed a little blood.
i wanted to leave some blood on the trail. not because i like pain, but i felt it was some sort of initiation. i wanted the experience to cost me something.

why are we often afraid of the cost? the best things we gain in life come with a price tag. this might be why Jesus paid with His life and calls us to do the same.