Friday, December 29, 2006

O Little Town of Bethlehem--O How You've Really Changed

"O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight."

Phillips Brooks' classic Christmas tune was inspired by a trip he took to Bethelehem in 1865. However, if Brooks saw Bethlehem in 2006, it's doubtful he'd say the town is lying peacefully still.

Consider what Jerusalem resident Avi Hein observes about how Bethlehem has changed:

"In 1948, Christians made up eighty percent of the population in Bethlehem. Muslims now make up eighty-five percent of the population. The Palestinian Authority has been co-opted by radical Islamic fundamentalism. Today, Bethlehem is ruled by Hamas.

"With the radical Islamic Hamas' ascent to power, their desire for a fundamentalist Muslim state ruled by Islamic law seems closer than ever to being realized. Christians under the PA are reduced to dhimmis, second class citizens. Muslim Palestinians threaten their Christian neighbors with violence on a daily basis because, as one Christian Palestinian noted, the Christians 'want to live in peace.'

"Palestinian Christians don't live in peace. They live in fear, unable to practice their own religion. The Christians are pushed out of their homes due to the continual segregation and establishment of Muslim-only housing projects. Muslims boycott their Christian neighbors' shops and businesses.

"Christians live in fear for their life. Under the Palestinian Authority, Christians have been forced to observe the strict restrictions of Ramadan and must observe Islamic sharia law.

Read the rest of Hein's piece here.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Mystery of Christ as Both God and Man

"Much discussion has arisen in theology over the question of Christ's self-consciousness. How could He know and sense the infinite might and wisdom of God and at the same time appear at times with normal human weaknesses and limitations apart from complications with immortality?

"How could He know and not know? How could He be the source of all power and yet be prone to and exposed to human frailty?

"The answer to the that Christ operated in the human sphere to the extent that it was necessary for Him to accomplish His earthly purpose, but at the same time continued operating in the divine sphere to the extent that it was possible in the period of his humiliation."

--Lewis Sperry Chafer

Founder of Dallas Theological Seminary
Quoted from his Systematic Theology

Image: From Meditations on Mary: Georges de la Tour The Nativity
Musee des Beaux-Arts
Rennes, France

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

True God and True Man

"Remaining what he was and taking on what he was not, [Jesus] united the true 'form of a servant' with the form in which he is equal to God the Father. He grafted together both natures in such a union that...majesty takes up humility, strength takes up weakness, eternity takes up mortality...True God and true man...[he] was able to both die (because of his humanity) and to rise again (because of his divinity)."

--Leo the Great, ca. 400-461

Excerpt from Proclaiming the Christmas Gospel, edited by John D. Witvliet and David Vroege

Image: "Adoration of the Magi" (1495-1505) by Andrea Mantegna

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas Came

Christmas came...

Sitting and enjoying a few private moments in the church sanctuary with only the Christmas lights on, very early Sunday morning.

Reading Scriptures and singing carols during the Sunday morning service.

Singing "Silent Night" with the congregation in a candlelit sanctuary Sunday evening.

Seeing the happy faces of my kids when they opened their presents.

Singing some unfamiliar Advent songs with my wife at the piano.

Eating a turkey dinner with all the trimmings.

When at Christmas did you sense Emmanuel--the With-Us-God?

Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas 2006

The Angel Appearing To The Sheperds (1634)

Etching, burin, and drypoint

REMBRANDT Harmenszoon van Rijn (b. 1606, Leiden, d. 1669, Amsterdam)

Friday, December 22, 2006

Christ in Christmas

My friend Earl Crecelius, pastor of a UCC church in Illinois, has some good holy sarcasm in his upcoming Christmas Eve message:

I know I’m becoming a Christmas grump when I realize the slogan “keep Christ in Christmas” bothers me. It may sound funny for a preacher to say that, but it does. I’m not sure I ought to worship a Christ than can be put into or taken out of Christmas like a plastic doll in a manger. I have a hard enough time just keeping up with Him, much less putting Him into, or taking Him out of, anything. What does it mean to keep Christ in Christmas anyway? To pray while you shop? Has the Lord of the universe become flesh and blood so we can have Christmas trees in airports?

I think if we’re going to keep Christ anywhere, it’s more important to keep Him in Friday than in Christmas. Friday comes 52 times a year more often, for one thing. Besides that, Christmas time is all warm and tender and delightful, who really needs Christ at times like that? But on Friday – when you’ve reached the end of your rope and smacked your kid, and you’re wondering just what the heck kind of father you are; on Friday – when the doctor says you need that surgery now; on Friday – when you realize that you just can not help someone you love – that’s when you need Christ. So whatever you do with Christmas, keep Christ in Friday. Please!

...So don’t worry about keeping Christ in Christmas, or getting Christ in Christmas. He’s already here. Emmanuel – God with us.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

History of Christmas Carols and Hymns

If you ever get curious about the history and background of your favorite Christmas song--both secular and sacred, there's no better site than Douglas Anderson's Hymns and Carols of Christmas.

The site lists over 2,300 songs. There's incredible detail on many of the best known tunes.

I've spent hours on this site. It's a lot of fun.

The database to start searching is located here.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Christmas Confession (Based on Isaiah 9:6)

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given. And though your name is Wonderful Counselor...

I do not seek your wisdom; instead, I depend on my own smarts and schemes.

Though your name is Mighty God...

I do not depend upon your strength; instead, I am timid and chicken-hearted.

Though your name is Everlasting Father...

I do not believe you want the best for me; instead, I believe the Deceiver--who lies about your character.

Though your name is Prince of Peace...

I do not rest in your peace; instead, I crave more money and more stuff.

Forgive me I pray. O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Kansas Cattle Drive

My city friends ask me all the time, "What do you do in Kansas?" One of the things we do is play with animals a lot bigger than your dog. Over the weekend, I helped Kendall (one of my church members) move 83 cattle from one winter home to another. Come along for the cattle drive.

The cattle had been grazing in this field of wheat stubble for about a month. Having basically eaten the place dry, it was time to take them elsewhere.

Eight people on horseback joined us to round up. Horses are great for keeping the cattle together. In addition, we had 8 kids on foot, Kendall on a four-wheeler, and his wife driving a truck. To move this many cattle, it takes a lot of help.

Once we got the cattle rounded up and moving (not an easy task), we took them east down Avenue J and then turned south (above) into an empty wheat field.

After going about a mile south, we turned the cattle east toward the road where I'm taking this picture.

Here we are coming south on 28th Rd.

Now we're crossing Highway 56. We had to wave down and stop a few cars. They were amused to see so many cattle crossing the road.

Safely across the highway, we continued south on 28th Rd.

Further down this road is where the cows new home awaits.

You can see one cow in the back deciding to go another way. That happens a lot, which is why you need several people to help steer the cattle in the right direction. It's much harder than you might think. Cows will be submissive, but they definitely have a mind of their own. One cow would never start the journey. Another had to be routed into a temporary pen after refusing to cross a bridge.

Here are my daughters enjoying a horse ride near the end of the drive.

The cattle are in their new home. Kendall gives a high five to one of the horse riders. The six mile trek took almost three hours to complete.

Kendall puts up the electric fencing wire to enclose the cattle. When hooked up to a car battery, the fence has enough "juice" to encourage the cows to stay inside the field.

That's the trip. Glad you came along.

If you've like to see even more pictures, they're here.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Time Person of the Year

Hey, I won!!! (And you did too).

I was named Time Magazine's "Person of the Year."

And I even beat out North Korean dictator Kim Jong "Mentally" Il.

Aren't you proud?

I never thought I would aspire to such lofty heights. Never again am I just another average Joe out of millions.

This one is going on my resume!

UPDATE: Everyone is utterly slamming Time for its choice. Here's one example.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Cross Centered Preaching

What is the message a pastor must preach and a congregation must hear?

In his excellent (and free) e-mail newsletter, Preaching Now, Dr. Michael Duduit from highlights the subtle, yet startling difference that cross-centered preaching makes:

"I recently had the privilege of preaching for J. Alfred Smith at Allen Temple Baptist Church, a large African-American congregation in Oakland, CA. (We also jointly led a preaching conference the next day with about 80 attending.) Dr. Smith has a new book out called Speak Until Justice Wakes (Judson Press), and one of the chapters in this excellent though brief volume is on "Preaching the Cross." He observes:

"Popular preachers on the American scene seem to be steering clear of preaching the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. It seems that in order for preachers sought after by Main Street to succeed in attracting the masses, they need to avoid preaching about the one who, according to the Scriptures, died for our sins.

"After all, people are attracted to practical preaching; that is, preaching designed to address human problems with human solutions. People love to hear preachers who make them forget present pain. They want the good news of peace, joy, contentment that is soon to be theirs. When people come with the burdens and cares of the week, they want the preacher to untie the Gordian knot of misery in favor of a God who assures them of prosperity.

"The god many seek today is the deity of upward social class mobility and middle-class prosperity. These listeners' hearts are not tuned to hear about the blood and gore of a Palestinian Jew dying helplessly and hopelessly on a Roman cross. . . .

"If the preaching of the cross is unpopular, if prosperity gospel and peace of mind preaching are preferred . . . what must preachers do who are loyal to preaching faithfully the biblical message with textual integrity? Peter Taylor Forsyth . . . addresses all these concerns in a classic called Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind:

Where your object is to secure your audience rather than your Gospel, preaching is sure to suffer. . . . It is one thing to rouse or persuade people to do something, to put themselves into something; it is another to have to induce them to trust somebody and renounce themselves for him. . . . The note of the preacher is the Gospel of a Savior. The orator stirs [people] to rally, the preacher invites them to be redeemed. Demosthenes fires his audience to attack Philip straightaway; Paul stirs them to die and rise with Christ. The orator, at most, may urge [people] to love their brother [and sister], the preacher beseeches them first to be reconciled to their Father.

"Forsyth says that we must preach Christ and not preach about Christ. We must place Christ before people. Christ, and not our oratory, draws persons to God. . . . What is there for us to preach but Jesus Christ -- crucified, dead, buried, and risen again for us?"

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Matthew 1:18-25 and Isaiah 7:14 (Part 2 of 2)

God intentionally lets time pass as Joseph agonizes over his circumstance. Joseph assessed the situation to the best of his natural ability: Mary is guilty of infidelity. Upset, yet merciful, he will quietly divorce her. The decision is made.

After all this, God finally intervenes:

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."

The angel tells Joseph, "I know it looks like Mary did something wrong, but she did not. God is responsible for creating this messy situation. Don't be afraid to claim her as your wife. This isn't just any child; this is the Messiah. You are needed in this critical situation--because only you, as a relative of King David, can bring Jesus into the family line. "

What happens next in Matthew's gospel narrative is something I think many people miss.

It’s noteworthy that Matthew stops his narration right at this point to quote from Isaiah:

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"—which means, "God with us."

Sure, Matthew is saying that what's going on with Jesus' birth fulfills an Old Testament promise, but he's doing much, much more than that.

Matthew is pulling his readers aside for a moment to issue a challenge: “Listen up! Joseph has an important decision to make--and so do you: In the midst of difficult circumstances, will you believe that God sees ahead of your way? Will you trust God to work it all out?”

That was the problem facing King Ahaz in Isaiah 7 . His enemies were threatening Israel's borders, yet the Lord said through Isaiah, “Don't seek the aid of foreign armies. Trust me and me alone to protect you!” Of course Ahaz doesn't, so Isaiah gave his famous prediction in 7:14. He points to a young virgin girl and says to Ahaz, "That almah will bear a son with the name Immanuel. Anytime you see that child, it will be a living reminder that you failed to trust God."

What gets overlook is that Isaiah’s “you-watch-and-see” promise to King Ahaz about Immanuel is a sign of judgment! And yet, Matthew redeems it in his Gospel as a good news sign of promise!

The angel who visited Joseph removed a huge stumbling block by putting a divine stamp of approval on Mary’s story. As a result, the angel has essentially challenged Joseph: “You’re God’s man for this hour. Trust me. Do what God asks. God will provide."

In using Isaiah 7:14 then, Matthew is pausing to ask his readers: “In-the-line-of-David-Ahaz refused to trust God. What will in-the-line-of-David-Joseph choose? And what will you choose in the challenges you face--faith in God or your own wisdom?”

Then, at verse 24, Matthew resumes the narration. And we see Joseph's choice:

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

Joseph chose to trust God and becomes the story’s hero. Because Joseph is in the line of David, Jesus is legally adopted into the family's heritage.

In application, if we choose the way of Ahaz, we will experience the guilt and frustration of living apart from the ever present “With-Us-God” (eg. Isaiah 8:10). But if we chose the way of Joseph, we will experience the blessing and power of the ever present “With-Us-God.”

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Matthew 1:18-25 and Isaiah 7:14 (Part 1 of 2)

If you've heard the Christmas story from Matthew 1:18-25, you know that Matthew quotes from Isaiah 7:14 in the Old Testament. For years, scholars have argued over that verse--like whether the Hebrew almah means virgin or young woman. Meanwhile, I think we've all overlooked an important aspect of Matthew's use of Isaiah.

Not only is Matthew using Isaiah 7:14 to say that Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of what Isaiah promised long ago, he also uses it to ask you and me an important question about our relationship with God.

The question gets asked through the problem that confronts Joseph:

18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.

Joseph is bound to Mary, but before they consummate their marriage, she ends up pregnant. Assessing the situation isn't difficult. Joseph knows all about the birds and the bees. He's mad and deeply hurt. And yet...

19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

But as readers, we know something that Joseph doesn't. We've been made privy to some inside information. Mary isn't unfaithful. Rather, she's pregnant because of the Holy Spirit. So then, God is responsible for Mary's messy situation.

Makes you wonder: Why didn't God give Joseph some advanced warning--you know, an angelic "heads up" before Mary obviously looks pregnant? Why does God let Joseph find out this way?

Doesn't it make you marvel a bit about God and how He works?

On second thought, it kind of scares me!

Part 2 tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Virgin Birth--Did It Really Happen?

The Apostle's Creed--a classic faith declaration used for years by the universal church--says, "I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary..."

But was Jesus really virgin born? Did Mary really conceive Jesus without the aid of human father? The late scholar Vincent Taylor observes, "The virgin birth becomes a living issue only when it is claimed that Jesus was more than just a man."

Let's be honest. The only person who really knows the truth is Mary. And yet, I believe credible evidence exists showing that it really happened.

Foremost is Mary's own testimony, recorded in Luke's gospel. In all likelihood, Luke got the story firsthand from Mary herself, as he interviewed sources in preparation for writing his gospel.

While Luke's account of Jesus' birth is told from Mary's point of view, Matthew's gospel is from Joseph's perspective. Thus, what we have are two independent accounts with similar and yet different details. For instance, only Luke tells us that a census was ordered, while only Matthew tells us that Magi came from the East. And yet, both accounts make clear that Jesus was born of a virgin mother.

The bottom line question is this: Can God do the miraculous? Can he temporarily suspend the natural order of the world to do a supernatural work?

But the most persuasive evidence in my mind is the story itself. It's scandalous!

If Jesus wasn't virgin born, there's only one reasonable explanation--Mary illicitly conceived Jesus before she was officially married to Joseph. And in Jewish culture 2,000 years ago, pregnancy outside of marriage was utterly scorned. When Joseph still claims Mary as his wife, he too becomes part of the scandal. To claim a virgin conception is a bad cover-up attempt.

The movie, "The Nativity Story," does a nice job depicting the dilemma. When Mary returns home to Joseph and her parents, after her long her visit to Elizabeth, everyone notices the obvious--she's pregnant. While Joseph is personally persuaded by God that Mary did nothing wrong, that doesn't stop the rest of the village from whispering gossip.

God could have sent Jesus to earth on a spaceship, but he didn't. Instead, He came to earth by through ordinary, faithful people.

And that's God's pattern. He works in the world by working through us.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Movie Review of "The Nativity Story"

Film making is a difficult in and of itself, but it's even harder when you're telling a familiar story. That was the challenge facing director Catherine Hardwicke and screenwriter Mike Rich in bringing to life the story of Jesus' birth. Their movie, The Nativity Story, faithfully retells the story and offers satisfying visual and dramatic details.

I saw the movie twice over the weekend--once with my wife and another time with members from my church.

The film tastefully portrays elements not contained in Luke and Matthew's birth accounts and left to our imagination--like the circumstances that bring Mary and Joseph together, Mary's journey to visit Elizabeth, and the Magi's quest to find a newborn king.

One character the movie really brings to life is Joseph, played by Oscar Isaac (Interestingly, the Bible never quotes Joseph. His character is silent. But his actions speak volumes and proves what Matthew says about him--he was righteous). On the long, difficult, and sometimes dangerous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, we see Joseph protecting and providing for Mary. Watching the couple come closer together in marriage and mission made me think that maybe God brought about the trip for that very purpose.

The scene of Jesus' birth was a little too Hollywood for me. I could have done without the multiple shots of light coming down from heaven (The language used in Luke's gospel is a very straight forward, earthy account that resists glorifying the fact that God has come down to earth). However, the portrayal of the shepherds and Magi's awestruck response upon seeing the baby Jesus was amazing and worth the price of admission.

What makes the story of Jesus' birth compelling is the faithful choices made by Mary and Joseph and the irony of earth's creator being born in the lowliest of places. The Nativity Story captures well these subtleties and should be a Christmas favorite for years to come.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Bad Album Covers

Years ago--before God called me to seminary and before the retail music industry lost out to Napster and IPods--I used to manage a record store in Athens, Ohio.

So I had to chuckle when I saw this list of worst gospel album covers of all time.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Turkey In the Straw

Turkeys are in abudance around where I live, fun to observe, and challenging to photograph. Here's one I snapped running under a fence.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

In the Beginning: Media Bias Before 1000AD

Like you, I've heard complaints about how the media is biased and bent on promoting its liberal agenda, no matter the facts. We've heard those complaints for so long, it's become white noise.

But I couldn't believe it when I read this opening paragraph by Alan Cooperman in the Washington Post, an article reviewing "In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000," an ancient Bible manuscript exhibt in Washington DC:

"If 40 percent of Americans refuse to believe that humans evolved from earlier hominids, how many will accept that the book we know as the Bible evolved from earlier texts and was not handed down, in toto, by God in its present form?"

Geez, the noise of that axe grinding is deafening.

I like what Mollie at Get Religion says in response:

"See, if there is one thing I learned as a lifelong Christian, it is that the Bible was handed down in the New King James Version directly from God. And as a Christian, the foundations of my faith would be shaken if I were to be told that God did not hand down the books of the New Testament in English along with a printing press in the year A.D. 33 Every Christian knows that the canon was dictated by God Himself speaking directly to Jesus, right?

That’s why I love Cooperman’s opening graph so much. It resonates with me. I like how it ties together skepticism of human evolution with skepticism about canon development. I have never felt better understood by mainstream media than I do in Cooperman’s hands.


The sad thing is that Cooperman actually wrote a rather nice review of the Sackler exhibit complete with interesting historical facts and discussions with its curator. But when he went to frame the story or give it broader context, he went for the dramatic faith-shaking angle.

In so doing, he managed to cast Christians as unwitting fools who believe the Bible was delivered in Gideons form in some ahistorical manner. Was that really necessary?"

If you're not afraid to learn about the development of the Bible--yes it is inspired by God, but it has a very human history--check out this nice online feature supporting the DC exhibit, "In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000."

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Bible and the Story

"Ray Lewis has a story to tell, of persecution and redemption, of fathers and sons, of pain caused and pain endured. The trials he's suffered -- and Lord knows there have been many -- are all part of a master plan..."

So goes the opening paragraph of an in-depth story in Sports Illustrated on Baltimore Raven linebacker Ray Lewis in a November issue.

I was reading this article yesterday in the waiting room of my chiropractic's office.

The opening words and the picture (shown) made me think that Lewis had converted to Christianity. While I'm not sure if Jesus is his Savior (I was reading the article quickly and might have missed it), it is clear that Lewis has changed his ways since he was acquitted of serious charges in 2000.

One line in the story surprised me. It wasn't directly about Lewis, but was used to illustrate the drama of Lewis' story. It said:

"Christianity explains itself with stories."

I don't know if I've ever read such a statement in a secular work. The insight surprised me.

The SI writer is right on--that is very much the approach of Christianity (and Judiasm). If weren't for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (the story), we would never have Paul's discourse in Romans (the logic).

In our western culture, we typically defend positions with arguments and logic--much like the Greek philosophers of old. But in eastern culture--the world of the Bible--people make their case with a story. Theologicans identify this as "narrative theology." Out of the story, comes the lesson.

So next time you read a story and wonder what it means, or assume it's not saying anything, remember:

The story is the argument.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Advent Thought

Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent. At my church, we lit the first Advent candle and sang our traditional Advent song that counts down the weeks toward Jesus' birth.

Advent and Lent are the two seasons on the liturgical calendar that our church regularly observes. A lot of churches ignore the calendar all together, but I think that's a mistake. Remembering Jesus' birth and passion are the bookends of his life. As disciples of Jesus, His life is ours. That's why I see value having regular seasons of worship to reflect on Jesus.

On the front of our bulletins this month, I've printed a quote by Dr. Wayne Grudem, taking from his systematic theology. It summarizes well what we celebrate about Jesus in this Advent season:

"Remaining what he was, he became what he was not."

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Blogger Problems--Uggg!

Friday I logged into Blogger and made a depressing discovery--my Posting dashboard is gone!

I can still post, but I can't spellcheck, can't add any pictures, can't bold or italize any words, can't link to anything, and can't do much of anything else.

I didn't sleep very well Friday night. This problem bugs me more than I want to admit. Maybe my wife is right--I'm a blogaholic.

I sent a troubleshooting message to Google. I hope they can fix this.



Thursday, November 30, 2006

Review of Cincinnati's Crossroad Community Church

Whenever I'm off from the Sunday morning pastoral duties of my own church, I really enjoy attending other churches to see what they're doing and how they do it.

Last Sunday in Cincinnati I had the chance to attend Crossroads Community Church, located in the Oakley neighborhood. Crossroads is a ten-year-old, non-denominational fellowship whose mission is, "connecting seekers with a community of growing Christ-followers." For this review, I'll use the format of the "Mystery Visitor" in Outreach Magazine.

Getting There: Crossroads' website quickly answers all the questions of a first time visitor--who they are, where they are, and what to expect. Getting there was easy. A+

Outside the Church: I attended the early service, so there was more than enough parking. From the moment we entered the huge lot, someone was directing us to a space. A+

First Impressions: Greeters welcomed us at the door. The lobby was huge. Plenty of comfortable chairs, but I expected to see a few more. This church is serious about coffee! They must have had 6 different kinds available. Glad I didn't stop by Starbucks on the way! For a moment, I couldn't find the auditorium, but that wasn't a problem. The building is a newly renovated old factory. The sleek silver-black design retains that factory "charm" (if there is such a thing!). A+

Inside the Church: Nearly all the people there were Caucasian. I did see a few blacks. Most appeared to be upper-level income folks, but I did notice several who definitely were not. During the service, the lead pastor mentioned that since the church moved into their new space, the church has seen a greater spread of economic diversity amongst its attendees. However, I don't think the racial diversity of the neighborhoods surrounding Crossroads was reflected in the service. B+

Service Experience: On stage was a huge 30 foot ladder and in the big letters, "The Joneses." The hour-long service featured 1 song (a creative interpretation of "In the Secret") performed at the service's beginning and end, and two artsy videos. The flow of the service went well and could have been further enhanced in a couple of ways. First, I would have switched the order of the two videos. The B&W 1960's-feel video (featuring two people on split screen competing to keep up with one another) did a better job of introducing the day's theme. Then, I would show the artsy claymation video second (light shining and then dimming out); it would have been good at the end of the message because the audience now knows the day's application; we can now "feel" it through a video experience. Or, I would have cut one of the videos and replaced it with another song. Second, the audience was told in the introduction to both videos, "Here's what this is about." That's like telling me how the story ends. Instead, let me experience it first; then afterwards, help me interpret my own judgments. The atmosphere was comfortable and laid back. B+

People Connection: The auditorium lights over the audience was dimmed almost the entire time, except for the service's few moments where people were asked to introduce themselves to their neighbor. Since the attendance was low, my Dad and I sat in a place where we could maintain space between ourselves and others. My Dad said afterwards he thought the dark room was intended to keep people comfortable with not having to introduce themselves. But as a first time visitor, usually you just want to comfortably slip in and out. B

The Message: The theme of the message was getting honest with others about your money. 3 Scriptures were briefly mentioned. The pastor did a sit-on-the-couch interview with a couple who got honest with their more well-to-do friends about their spiraling debt problem. The interview format was a good and gently persuasive way to talk about a challenging subject--the pressure we feel trying to "keep up with Joneses." The topic was an A+. But if I were to grade the reason why I should get honest with my friends about my money (here, I'm talking about where the source of the authority's application comes from), I would give a C- (now the pastor in me is showing). It was hard to discern how the application was arising out of Scripture. The 3 Scripture passages were mentioned only very briefly, not shown on the video projection screen, and not explained in any way. The testimony of the couple was incredible. Being shown a more direct connection of how their decisions arose from what the Bible teaches would have enhanced their testimony even more.

Spiritual Response: Kind of hard to gauge--especially considering the topic of the day. An offering was passed during the service, so that was an opportunity to put your money where your heart is. I can't remember if the audience was told we could talk to someone afterwards if we wanted to talk. My traditional church kind-of-guy Dad felt like he was sitting in a live TV show--Oprah or something. B

Visitor Touchpoints:
We walked around in the lobby afterwards, picked up some brochures, and got another coffee. My Dad jokingly asked a church volunteer, "Did I miss the cappuccino?" A

Return Visit? Definitely. Crossroads' seeker sensitive approach is touching a lot of lives. As an established Christian, I'd be interested in learning about their "Next Level" ministry. A

Overall Experience:
I'm glad I went! It's a whole lot different than ministry in rural Kansas. A

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Obama Outta the Saddleback?

Columnist Kevin McCullough is leading a controversial campaign to get US Senator and United Church of Christ member Barack Obama removed from the list of speakers at an upcoming AIDS conference hosted by Rev. Rick Warren at his Saddleback Church in Orange, California.

McCullough accuses Warren of abandoning biblical principles by allowing Obama to speak at his church, since Obama supports no restrictions against abortion, special rights for homosexuals, and condom distribution as a way to fight AIDS.

Several prominent conservatives have signed McCullough's petition against Warren and Obama, including Phyllis Schlafy and Tim Wildmon.

In an email to participants of, Warren said that while Obama is speaking at his church, McCullough is misrepresenting the nature of Obama's visit:

"Another blogger claimed I´ve invited Barack Obama to preach in my pulpit to the Saddleback congregation. Of course that is untrue. I´d never invite ANY politician to speak from the pulpit to our congregation. Never...the Global Summit on AIDS and the Church will be held on the Saddleback campus. It is not a church service, but an international summit for pastors and world leaders. Leaders from churches, denominations, health organizations, NGOs, Christian organizations, governments, businesses, and entertainment will meet together to discuss how they can work with and through churches to end AIDS."

McCullough's original article, "Why is Obama's Evil in Warren's Pulpit?" is guilty of skewing the facts about Obama's visit to Saddleback. He's not speaking in a worship service, but a church conference. There is a difference and McCullough should have been more clear about the nature of Obama's visit to Saddleback.

Furthermore, McCullough inappropriately highlights Obama's views on abortion and other issues around sexuality when he should have focused on Obama's views about the primary topic being addressed at the Saddleback conference--AIDS.

However, McCullough raises some important points for Christian conservatives. If Obama believes that condom distribution is the best way to address the AIDS crisis, should or can that message be given weight at a church conference where most in attendance believe that sex activity outside of marriage is immoral?

Last, McCullough fears that Obama will use his appearance at Saddleback to boost his future presidential ambitions--giving conservatives the impression that since he spoke at Saddleback, he then holds conservative views, when he actually does not.

Obama probably will misuse it, but hey, that's politics. Not everything appears as it actually is--just like McCullough's article.

UPDATE: Good comment from Scot McKnight: "Evangelical Christians must cooperate with anyone and everyone on the AIDS issue; cooperation on AIDS does not mean agreement with the moral and theological and political stances with everyone with whom we cooperate; refusing to cooperate with someone like Obama to stamp out AIDS indicates, not careful theology, but infective ideology."

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Church Decides to Stay in UCC

Peace United Church of Christ (UCC) in Alma, Kansas--shaken by General Synod 25's decision to endorse same-sex marriage in July 2005--has decided to remain in the denomination.

The ballot vote, counted Monday evening, was 67-43.

The vote concludes a discernment process that lasted several months and was guided by Pastor John Austin and church's leadership.

Conflict is never easy and it always holds the potential to do more harm than good. Pray that what Peace has experienced will ultimately strengthen her. The UCC and the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference need churches like Peace. Their local and foreign mission work has been an exemplary example of what a small church can do in God's kingdom.

Pray too for our church as we will eventually be making our own decision about staying or leaving the UCC.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Thanksgiving in Cincinnati

Just got home from a five day trip to my childhood stomping grounds--Cincinnati.

What started the odyssey was my two sisters organizing a surprise birthday party for my mother's 70th birthday. My wife suggested I go, so I did. Glad she did. I owe you one hon.

Hearing my mom proclaim, "Theodore," when she first saw me Wednesday and then seeing her reaction Friday night when she was surprised by 50+ friends at her party made the time and travel well worth it.

On top of all this, I got to eat Skyline chili cheese coneys twice, enjoyed Graeter's ice cream, watched the Bengals on TV with my sister, played and hung out with my cousins, teed it up 9 holes with my Dad, attended the church founded in the late 1800's by my great-great grandfather, drank coffee with a lifelong friend, and oh yeah, ate Thanksgiving dinner with my family.

Wednesday night as I was talking with my family, we reminisced about our grandmother inviting us over to her house and ordering Frisch's takeout. My "Grammy" did that a lot, but I hadn't thought about it in years.

You have to leave home, but it sure is nice to go back once in a while and recapture your past.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Turkey Brine Recipe

Make your Thanksgiving a happy one.


By brining your turkey! (Now wouldn't it be nice if Thanksgiving was that easy?!)

After eating a tough, dry turkey, I came across this brine recipe last year in USA Weekend. It definitely does the job of transforming your turkey into something special--moist and full of flavor. Give this a try:

1 small onion, diced

1 stalk celery, diced

1 medium carrot, diced

3 garlic cloves, sliced

3 bay leaves

1 Tb. black peppercorns

3 springs each of rosemary, thyme, and sage

6 sprigs of fresh Italian parsley

1/2 cup iodized salt

3 gallons of cold water

You need to start on this brine recipe one day before baking your turkey.

In a large pot, prepare the brine--combining all the above ingredients. Then, with your (defrosted) turkey in a large pot or container, pour the brine over your turkey.

Cover and refrigerate for 12-24 hours (the longer the better I think)

Remove turkey from brine. Dry off turkey with paper towels. Discard brine.

Then, prepare your turkey as you normally would for baking.

If you've never done this before, I think you'll be real pleased. As for me, I'll never make another turkey without doing brining it first.

P.S. Dont forget the jellied cranberry!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Smart Birds

These birds know where to go when they need a little care!

Quotes of Andy Stanley

Andy Stanley's 2006 Drive Conference for church leaders took place earlier this month at NorthPoint Community Church near Atlanta and Tony Morgan took great notes--saving me $2,500 in travel and conference expenses (ha!). In one, two, three, four, five installations, Morgan lists 73 "smart things" that Andy said. Here are my favorites:

2. We all do ministry in communities where people think church is for church people. That's the type of world we live in. People care about God. People want to connect with God. There's a hunger for God, but the church is in the way. "I'm giving the rest of my life to change that."

4. Sinners liked to be around Jesus. They liked him, but they were nothing like him.

5. Leaders are very dissatisfied unless there's progress.

15. When a local church gets off-mission, God gets uninterested. God says, "They don't need me."

18. Are you willing to take a critical look at your organization or ministry team and determine whether or not you're unintentionally making it harder for people to take steps toward Christ?

19. God works through systems. For example, your body is a complex system designed by God. It's systematic and predictable. God created systems. That doesn't make him small. Likewise, God works through systems in our ministry. Systems aren't secular.

32. Anytime you hear, "our people just won't," you're listening to someone who doesn't understand systems. They're blaming people instead of addressing the systems.

34. What's rewarded gets repeated.

47. Connect the dots. You need to figure out a way for every single volunteer in your organization to understand what they contribute to the whole.

48. The very best people are busy people. Because of that, you need to define the terms of service. What's the commitment required?

54. Obey God and leave all the consequences to him.

56. Learn to fight your battles on your knees.

63. The question we need to ask is this: What is the problem that won't be solved if we don't do what God has called us to do?

72. You capture a person's heart, you'll get their hands.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Hawk at Sunset

I finally shot me a bird last night.

No, I'm not a hunter, but I was excited about shooting this picture of a hawk. They're all over this area. I've been wanting to get a snapshot of one, but they're difficult to get because they fly away whenever they see you.

This was taken again with my Fuji E-900 and cropped slightly with Picassa (a great photo organizer for your computer). That's all.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Life As It Is

C.S. Lewis once said, "After you read a new book, read an old one next."

Not long ago, I found an old book, but I doubt it would qualify as old in Lewis' mind, since this particular book is only 23 years old. But it looks old. The paperback binding is falling apart and the pages are stiff and brittle. The book is, "If I Were a Pastor," by the late W. McFerrin Stowe, a man who once was a pastor, but wrote it after he became a Bishop in the Methodist Church.

Each short chapter begins, "I would..." Some of things Stowe says he would do is try to love everybody, tell them about Jesus, do the hard jobs first, and strategize, not criticize.

One chapter I like is, "I would talk about life." The description is very life like:

"If I were a pastor, I would tell my people of life's refusal to stand still--of how success can end up as failure, and failure may be the royal road to success. As long as there is life, there is great hope, for no one need stay the way he is. Often a miracle takes a minute, but usually a whole lifetime.

"Ernest Hemingway, the superb storyteller, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. During the presentation, his novel The Old Man and the Sea was cited. It is the story of an old Cuban fisherman, who for 84 days had gone without a catch. On the 85th day he went out further, and a giant marlin took his deepest bait. Then comes the struggle of the fish and the fisherman, who with his small skiff was pulled night and day until on the third day the exhausted marlin surfaced and the old man, with hands torn and bleeding, his body aching with pain, won the battle. He lashed the 18 foot giant to the boat, raised his sail, and began the long trip back.

"Then the sharks came--first one, then a pair, then more. The old man fought them until he had nothing left to fight with. They tore the meat from the fish until, when shortly before daylight the fisherman landed in his harbor, all that was left of the magnificent catch was the skeleton. His victory ended in defeat.

"It was almost a autobiography of Hemingway himself, who seven years after receiving his Nobel Prize, committed suicide. His success ended in failure. When we look around, we see how often this happens--finally only the skeleton of some fine victory remaining.

"But it can be just the opposite. Jesus tried so desperately, but the crowds left him, and we hear him almost plaintively asking his disciples, "Will you also go away?" Then, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he pled that the cup might pass, but it didn't. Then he was arrested, tried, beaten, spit on, and crucified. No one looking on could have given any opinion of his effort except failure. But on the third day there was sunshine and proclamation, 'He lives.' Failure from human perspective had become the world's magnificent success. What happened? So much--but it was all wrapped up in his final statement, "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit."

"I would tell my people about the old fisherman and the about the young carpenter--about the success and failure of our little enterprises and about how one never knows until God's final touch. I would tell them, but I would listen very carefully myself. As a pastor, I would need to understand this.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Harp Hands

My oldest daughter is taking harp lessons. Dad takes her to lessons every Saturday and Dad also supervises her home practice.

At each lesson, our harp teacher Jane Hawkins emphasizes the importance of "pretty hands." At first, I thought it was purely for aesthetics. But now, I know that "pretty hands" is actually good hand position that enables you to properly pluck strings and maintain good tempo.

Playing with "pretty hands" looks easy, but after four months of practice, neither Dad nor my daughter have yet to master it. The difference in ability and motivation between student and teacher is like the NFL commercial I've seen on TV: "Amateurs practice until they get it right; professionals practice until they never get it wrong."

Interestingly, Psalm 33 encourages musicians to master good fundamentals, for in doing so it inspires worship:

1 Sing joyfully to the LORD, you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him.

2 Praise the LORD with the harp; make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.

3 Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy.

Whatever you do--at home, at work, at school, or at church--strive for excellence. God appreciates it. And you will too.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Yesterday I met for lunch Jim, a friend and church membership.

As we were leaving his shop, someone told him, "You're always in a hurry."

Jim replied, "The day I'm not in a hurry is the day the preacher says a few slow words over me."

Hurry is the order of our days. Our society has cell phones, text messaging, e-mail, bluetooth, and more, but none of these modern advances has made life slower or easier. Rather, it's given us the illusion that we can complete more work.

Even in praying yesterday, I was struck by how many needs there are around me--in my church family, in the circle of missionaries my wife and I support, in my community, and in the world. As I prayed I remember thinking to myself, "Can't spend much time on this. Got to move on to another need."

Yet as I read the Gospels, I'm struck by how Jesus never appears to be in a hurry. Busy, yes. But in a hurry? No.

I've always puzzled over God resting on the seventh day after creating the world in six. God doesn't get tired, so why does He need rest? I guess He doesn't need to, but He chose to.

But there's another aspect to rest than just "recharging the batteries." There are times when I don't need physical rest, but I do need to stop, sit still, and look back on my work. It's pausing long enough to get some perspective on what I've done and what remains to be done.

With that thought, I'll put this entry to rest.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Kansas Sunrise

Instead of rushing to church early Sunday morning, I went out and took some pictures of the sunrise. It didn't do anything fancy. I simply pointed my Fuji E-900 at God's masterwork.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Getting Christ to the Core

After thinking about Ted Haggard's fall, a friend's problem, and my own daily struggles, I've been asking myself:

"How do you get effectual life changing nature of Jesus down to the core parts of our life?"

Miroslav Volf, from the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, writes of two culprits that keep the transformative power of Jesus from changing us and the world around us--idleness of faith and oppressiveness of faith.

It's a good article. You can read it here.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

1937 Gibson Advanced Jumbo

Recently I had the privilege of laying hands on a very rare 1937 Gibson advanced jumbo acoustic guitar. By the "laying on of hands," I mean that I got to play it; I don't own it!

The guitar features that classic Gibson tone and clarity and was surprisingly loud. I flatpicked several hymns and found its playability wonderfully smooth.

Gibson made only 300 advanced jumbo between 1935-1940. One of its unique features is the diamond and arrowhead inlay, found on the fretboard and peghead. The sunburst top, considered an added feature on today's guitars, was standard back in the early days. The straight flamed pickguard is pretty cool.

The guitar was recently restored by Gibson's repair and restoration shop in Nashville. They fixed significant cracks in the neck and body. The original top, which was bowed and nearly pulled off the bridge, was replaced with a new old wood top. Gibson did a masterful job. The guitar plays beautiful, but still retains that old look and feel.

One person owned this guitar for its entire life. Back in 1937-38, the man's parents bought it for $49, a pretty high price in the depression days and quite a sacrifice for mom and dad. During the late 1940's and 1950's, the man played and sang on dozens of country music shows during the golden age of live radio. He played the guitar throughout his life and now its been passed down to the family.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Black Tuesday for Republicans, Value Issues

It was Black Tuesday for Republicans and value issues.

In the House, they lost at least 27 House seats and won no seats previously held by Democrats. It's the exact opposite of what happened in 1994, when Republicans won back the House. Among the Democratic winners, Minnesota is sending the first Muslim to congress.

In the Senate, Republicans lost at least 4 seats--including Jim Talent in Missouri and good guy Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania. So they've essentially lost control of the Senate too. In Kansas, Attorney General Phill Kline lost handily to Paul Morrison, 58%-41% (see previous post).

On the cultural values front, South Dakotans rejected a law that would have banned virtually all abortions (56%-44%), Arizona became the first state to defeat an amendment to ban gay marriage (51-49) and Missouri approved a measure backing embryonic stem cell cloning (51-24).

However, 7 states passed constitutional amendments defining marriage as one man and one woman: Idaho (63%-27%), South Carolina (78-22), Tennessee (80-20), Virginia (57-43), Wisconsin (59-41), Colorado (56-44 and 53-47 on no domestic partnerships), and South Dakota (52-48).

You win some and lose some. That's democracy.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Kline, Tiller, and O'Reilly Battle in Kansas

Human life is a key issue in the Kansas election today as Attorney General Phill Kline faces a tough reelection battle against Republican turned Democrat Paul Morrison.

Earlier this year, Kline won a court order against notorious late-term abortionist George Tiller and a Kansas City Planned Parenthood clinic--making them hand over medical records so Kline can investigate whether these abortionist violated state law by not reporting suspected cases of child rape and whether they violated state law by performing late term abortions on women whose lives were not in imminent danger.

On Friday, Bill O'Reilly revealed that he received records indicating that Tiller performed late term abortions on women who were "depressed"--clearly a violation of the late term law. And, these clinics have performed abortions on girls 10-15 and didn't report these cases to authorities--clearly a violation of child rape laws. Kline appeared on the next segment to substantiate O'Reilly's evidence. Immediately, Tiller's lawyer claimed that it was Kline who illegally leaked the records to O'Reilly and went to the Kansas Supreme Court yesterday to take the records away from Kline's office.

I can understand why Tiller's lawyer is expressing outrage. He needs to divert attention from his client's shameful, evil, illegal activity. Sadly, this case shows how abortion advocates want absolutely no restrictions on abortion and will defend abortion under any circumstance. Tiller's lawyer can point the finger at Kline, but there's three fingers pointing back at him and his client--along with thousands of dead babies who cry out for justice.

Meanwhile, Dennis Boyles at reports that Missouri billionaire James Stowers--the man behind the deceptive campaign to make human cloning legal in Missouri by adding an amendment to the state's constitution--has pumped $12 million into Kansas' campaign to ensure abortion access remains unfettered and to pave the way for embryonic stem cell research (which requires killing a fertilized human embryo).

Is there a lot at stake in today's Kansas election? You bet. Be sure you vote.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Ted Haggard Bombshell

As an evangelical, though not associated with the National Evangelical Association (NAE), I was saddened and surprised by the bombshell events this past week concerning Ted Haggard, NAE President and Pastor of Colorado Springs' New Life Church.

Early last week, a man on Denver radio claimed he had sex with Haggard for three years and sold him methamphetamine. Initially, I didn't believe the charges. First, no evidence to corroborate the charges was made public. It looked like the media was an irresponsible and willing participant in a politically motivated attack. Second, the charge of Haggard buying meth seemed outrageous and over-the-top.

But then, Haggard admitted buying meth from the man (but throwing it away) and getting a massage from him in a Denver hotel (but no sex). Suddenly, the outrageous became credible and the irresponsible became responsible. Haggard's admission to some facts raised suspicion that he was hiding much more. To his credit, Haggard has now confessed. His letter to the church, read Sunday, humbly seeks forgiveness.

Some might say this incident shows why Haggard--and others like him--should be honest with themselves (and others) and not be ashamed of who they are. I think everyone should admit who they are--but then look to Scripture (and God's people) to see if who we are lines up with what God calls us to be. And--as Gordon McDonald writes at Out of Ur--if we can't admit what we are, God will lovingly arrange the events and do it for us.

What Interim Senior Pastor Ross Parsley told the New Life Congregation on Sunday was good:

"Listen," he said, "we all feel worse than we did a week ago. But we were worse off a week ago. Today, we all are more obedient, more repentant, more transparent than we've been in a long time."

God have mercy on Ted Haggard. I sure do.

UPDATE: Opinion from Jon Swift and advice to pastors from Mark Driscoll

Friday, November 03, 2006

Nursing Home Humor

Yesterday me and my friend Warren visited the local nursing home. I led the weekly worship service and then we went around to individual rooms to visit people.

One of those people was 96-year-old Dorothy, a dedicated, long time member of our church. She's lived at the nursing home for about four years now. I played guitar while Warren and I sang her favorites, "Little Brown Church in the Vale," and "The Lilly in the Valley." After a few more, it was time to say goodbye.

I told Dorothy, "It was nice to see you."

And Dorothy replied, "Well, at 96 I'm not much to see."

Her humor illustrates why she's one of the most beautiful Christian ladies you'll ever meet.