Friday, November 27, 2015

Daily Devotion - Friday, November 27, 2015

Yesterday was a pretty great day.  Not only was it Thanksgiving Day, it also happened to be my birthday--a happy coincidence that occurs every few years. 

Because of this, I went off of my diet for the whole day and just ate whatever I wanted.  You see for health reasons I've been on a pretty hard core diet that doesn't include sugar, starch, most dairy products--in other words, anything good.  So yesterday I fell off the wagon and bounced down the road a piece.  

Whenever I started to feel guilty I would say to myself, "What the heck, it's THANKSGIVING and MY BIRTHDAY!"  My oldest son told me several times, "Go ahead man!  You deserve this!"  I would subsequently agree with him that I did indeed deserve whatever it was that I was about to consume, and would do so without reservation.  

At some point yesterday, I started thinking about that phrase, "You deserve this."  I paused and just took in everything and everyone around me for a moment.  And I asked myself, "Do I really?  Do I really deserve this?"  

We happen to be at my in-laws house in Maggie Valley, North Carolina--which is one of my favorite places in the world to be.  I went for a walk with my wife and father-in-law and watched my youngest son run, play, throw rocks and imagine in the forest around us--just like his older brothers had when they were his age. 

This place holds so many memories for Merideth and I.  We've been coming here since we were high school sweethearts, then as newlyweds, young parents--throughout our entire life together.  It has marked the milestones in our lives.  I've celebrated a few birthdays here, and more than one Thanksgiving.  

Yesterday afternoon I sat down for an incredible meal with my wife, in-laws and all of my boys and then we spent the rest of the day lounging, watching football, visiting with one another, eating some more, napping, reading, resting and just being together.  

And as I took all of this in, I realized something: I don't deserve this--any of this.  I was born in the greatest country in the world, to loving God-fearing parents.  I met the love of my life when I was young, and God brought us together again when it mattered.  I have three incredible boys, who light up my life.  I get to serve as pastor to an amazing church, and I get to proclaim the Good News from the pulpit on Sundays.  

When I think of all the dumb stuff I have done in my life, and all of the ways that these blessings I enjoy could have easily slipped away or been narrowly missed---it brings me to my knees.  I don't deserve this--any of this.  But because of God's grace, it has been given to me.  

During this week of Thanksgiving I would have to say that I am most grateful for God's incredible grace.  Without God's grace, I would be a shell of the man I am.  Without God's grace, I would not know the kind of peace, joy, love and hope that I experience on a daily basis as I stumble after Jesus.  

May you spend the rest of this day praising and giving thanks to God for his incredible and loving grace.  May you count your blessings, and give them back to God as thank-offerings in gratitude for the grace that supplied them to you. And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and forever, Amen.  

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Daily Devotion - Wednesday, November 25, 2015

For the remainder of this week we'll be reflecting on Gratitude--because it's Thanksgiving Week, brothers and sisters!  

Tomorrow many of us will gather around tables with friends and loved ones, and we'll celebrate Thanksgiving.  We'll share a meal (or three), the many blessings we've been given and perhaps some laughter, too. More than a few of us will fall asleep on the couch afterward with football on the television, and the sounds of our family in the background.  

While most Americans will enjoy Thanksgiving to the fullest, there are few of us who know the history of this great holiday.  It was, in fact, Abraham Lincoln who set aside the last Thursday of November as a national day of thanksgiving.  For the next 75 years each President would do the same--annually declaring Thanksgiving a national holiday.  In 1941, Congress finally acted to make Thanksgiving a permanent national holiday. 

So why did Lincoln think it was so important to celebrate a day of thanksgiving? America was in the midst of the Civil War at the time, and the news at that point wasn't great.  Every single day there were more reports of lives lost in that terrible conflict.  The economy suffered.  Things were not good.  

Yet, Lincoln felt the need for a day of thanksgiving and praise "to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens."   In his proclamation, Lincoln exhorted his fellow Americans to offer God praise that he said was "justly due to Him," but also to spend time on the day of thanksgiving in "humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience."  

Then Lincoln wrote this:  
[We should] commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.
So the original idea was for people to enjoy a day of thanksgiving, shared meals and celebration for all that God had done to bless them.  And also to take the time to pray and to repent, and to remember those who were sorrowful, lonely, lost and broken.  Finally, Lincoln wanted Americans to pray for the war to end and for America to once again be "one nation, under God."  

I think Lincoln was on to something.  Let's celebrate tomorrow.  Let's eat good food, and enjoy our friends and family.  Let's laugh, and be filled with joy at the evidence of obvious blessings in our lives.  But let's also remember those who don't feel the same joy, who are hungry, who are lost and in need of a Jesus-centered community.  

And let us pray for our divided nation.  Let's us pray that the strife in our warring culture would cease and that we would put aside our petty differences for the sake of our children and grandchildren.  Let us repent of our own part in this strife and commit to doing everything within our power to be peacemakers from this day forward.  

May the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you always and may the power of the Holy Spirit of God be upon you, now and forever.  Amen.  

Daily Devotion - Tuesday, November 24, 2015

For most of this week our daily devotions will be reflections based on the sermon I preached earlier in the week for Christ the King the Sunday.  In the sermon, I made the assertion that if Christians truly believe Jesus is in charge, they should be without fear, worry, anxiety, etc.  Our devotions will be centered on that premise for the first part of the week--and then we'll turn our thoughts toward thankfulness as the week progresses.  

Some time ago, a friend sent me links to a series of news articles about the horrible atrocities being committed toward Christians living in countries surrounded by extremist Muslims.  The stories were terrible to read.  I was disheartened and dismayed to read through them all--each more horrible than the next.  

I have to admit, when I read or hear stories about the systematic persecution of Christians around the world at the hands of extremist Muslims, I get angry. More than once I have wondered aloud whether God might see God's way clear to just rain down some serious vengeance upon all of those fanatics--Sodom and Gomorrah style.  

If you feel this way, too, know this.  We are not alone--none other than King David himself had feelings of vengeance and violence toward evildoers and sick, violent people.  In Psalm 58, David prays that God will do awful things to these perpetrators of wickedness: 
6 Break the teeth in their mouths, O God; Lord, tear out the fangs of those lions! 7 Let them vanish like water that flows away; when they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short. 8 May they be like a slug that melts away as it moves along, like a stillborn child that never sees the sun. 9 Before your pots can feel the heat of the thorns—whether they be green or dry—the wicked will be swept away. 10 The righteous will be glad when they are avenged, when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked. 11 Then people will say, “Surely the righteous still are rewarded;  surely there is a God who judges the earth.”
These feelings of anger and vengeance that we feel so deeply as we struggle to come to grips with the stories of atrocities committed by extremist, fanatics are very real, and completely natural. These feelings are also deeply rooted in our own doubts and fears.  

What we need to realize, however, is that although Psalm 58 is filled with violent and angry thoughts, heated emotion and some pretty horrible language, not once does David say to God, "Just give me a chance, let me be the one to shoot the arrow, give me the opportunity to inflict this vengeance..."  Sure, he's angry, hurt, wounded, fearful and a host of other things, but he leaves the ultimate justice up to God.  

I read a story yesterday about how a bunch of people in Texas armed themselves with various weapons (they have the legal right there to carry them in the open), and staged a protest outside a mosque.  The reason why I read this story is because it was re-posted by several of my Christian Facebook friends, including one who is a pastor.  And they were posting it because they thought it was awesome.  

I get it.  I feel those same feelings of anger and fear.  But is brandishing weapons outside a mosque in a Texas suburb the answer?  Do we think that God isn't watching all of this, including our own responses?  I believe so strongly what Martin Luther King, Jr once said.  "The moral arc of the universe" might be long, "but it bends toward justice."  

I believe that Evil doesn't get to win.  I believe that because of the Resurrection of Jesus, the world is filled with a new sense of purpose and a goal that will one day be realized--a new world, a new Creation devoid of all this violence and hate. As Christians we are called to lean into this hope, despite the waves of fear and anger that wash over us.  

May you lean into the hope of the Risen Christ on this day--despite the fears, and even anger that you might feel at those who do evil in the world.  May you guard your heart against become too hardened to the gentleness of the Holy Spirit. May you live today knowing that the God of justice and righteousness will one day set all things to rights in his time, and for his glory. Amen.  

Monday, November 23, 2015

Daily Devotion - Monday, November 23, 2015

For most of this week our daily devotions will be reflections based on the sermon I preached earlier in the week for Christ the King the Sunday.  In the sermon, I made the assertion that if Christians truly believe Jesus is in charge, they should be without fear, worry, anxiety, etc.  Our devotions will be centered on that premise for the first part of the week--and then we'll turn our thoughts toward thankfulness as the week progresses.  

As part of my daily readings this morning, I read the story of how the Apostle Peter had to explain to the church leaders at Jerusalem (who were all Jewish) how God had led him to go to the house of a Gentile--a Roman centurion named Cornelius, who accepted Christ and received the gift of the Holy Spirit.  

The church leaders in Jerusalem, were not too thrilled that Peter had basically broken all kinds of religious laws when he not only entered Cornelius' house, but also ate dinner with him, and then claimed that he and "all of his household" had come to follow Jesus.

At the heart of their concern, I am sure, was the fact that not only was Cornelius a Gentile, he was also a military representative of the Roman Empire. Think about it for a moment.  This guy was part of the very entity that not only oppressed the Jewish people, but also was ultimately responsible for the execution of Jesus himself.  

Cornelius was the Other.  Cornelius was the Enemy.  He was also loved by God, claimed by Jesus and anointed by the Holy Spirit--just like they were.  And in the end, they put aside their fear and their anxiety and simply rejoiced because it was obvious that Jesus was up to something new.  

I think it's fair to characterize our current culture as a "culture of blame." When things go wrong, there seems to be a real sense of urgency on the part of those responsible to shift the blame elsewhere, and mostly to justify what they did (or are doing) to exacerbate the problem.   

And in this culture of blame it becomes all too easy for many of us to find scapegoats, to demonize others and to create enemies out of entire groups of people--especially when we are afraid or anxious.  

That's what the church in Jerusalem did initially with Cornelius.  Their fears were based on assumptions and stereotypes, which they imprinted upon him because of their past experiences.  But when they listened to Peter's story of Cornelius' conversion, they opened their hearts and minds, and were able to see that God was doing something new and incredible. 

They realized that Jesus was Lord, not just for them, but also for those they once thought were adversaries.  

May you go out into the world today with your eyes wide open, ready to see the new things God is doing to redeem all of Creation through Jesus.  May you be filled with grace and peace toward those with whom you have disagreed in the past.  And may you learn to see these "others" as children of God, anointed with the holy potential to be your brothers and sisters in Christ.   

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Christ The King Sunday - "The King Is Coming"

Today we are celebrating what has come to be known as Christ the King Sunday--the Sunday before the beginning of Advent.  Since it is Christ the King Sunday, I got to thinking about what it would be like if I were king.  Which is kind of how my mind works.  

So, I thought I would share with you a bit of what I wrote.  You can call it, "If I Were King: A Treatise to Whomever" by Leon Bloder.  I hope you like it.  

If I were king, I would immediately make the following things sugar and calorie free:  chocolate candy bars, particularly anything Reese's, chocolate chip yo-yos from Publix, red velvet cake, kettle potato chips, most beers, bread, latte's from Starbucks, extra large coffees with cream and sugar from Dunkin Donuts and everything at Donut King.

If I were king I would make the following things illegal:  driving when you can't see over the dash, medians that make you drive four hundred blocks to do a u-turn, the SEC Network, phone trees, the IRS, the Kardashians and of course Justin Beiber albums.  

If I were king I would require the phone company, plumber, cable company and all delivery drivers to narrow the window of their arrival to ten minutes.  So instead of having to wait from 9 until Noon for your monthly delivery of Justin Bieber albums, you would only have to wait from 9:00 to 9:10 AM.  

I would require all garbage trucks to play songs on their loudspeakers that make them sound like ice cream trucks, just so I could see the disappointment on the faces of small children who come running at the sound of what must be the ice cream only to find someone tipping their garbage can into a truck.  That's so funny, man.  

Come to think of it, there would be a lot of things that I would probably do as king that wouldn't make a lot of sense.  

So why don't you imagine this with me for a moment.  Think about the things that you would do if you were king.  Tell the person next to you--they want to know about it, I am sure.  

But come to think I would also do some things---some other things in all seriousness.  I would do some things that need to be done.  

I would eliminate poverty and hunger.  I would eradicate disease.  I would get rid of all of the weapons in the world, and make all of the people who hate each other and are using them to sit down in a room and listen to one another's stories for a while.  I would find a way to do away with racism and sexism and ageism and homophobia and all of the fears that create those kinds of things. 

I would find a way to get all of the churches all over the world to put aside their differences and the stupid things that divide us to just join together to do good in the world and just be the church.  

I would make this a world safe for children, full of hope, creativity, joy, love, peace and the best of everything.  

That sounds good doesn't it?  Because, let's face it.  The news has not been all that good lately. 

The human race doesn't seem to be winning.  Let's take some inventory: 

The Syrian civil war has destroyed an entire country, and displaced millions of people who are fleeing for their lives.  There is nothing for them to go back to. Their cities are gone. Villages gone.  And those who are left, they are trapped between a totalitarian regime propped up by the Russians and a totalitarian regime propped up by terror, fanaticism and fear.  

The streets of Paris have become a war zone.  Over 150 people dead, and more terror cells are being discovered.  There was a bomb plot uncovered in Germany that could have killed thousands.  Another group of terrorists were arrested in Turkey on their way to Germany.  The streets of Belgium are awash with fear and tension.  Over two hundred people fell from the sky in a Russian airliner that was bombed by fanatics. 

Nearly 150 students were massacred by Islamic fanatics in Kenya this past week.  Another 50 killed in Beirut when a terrorist detonated a suicide bomb there, and another nearly 20 killed in Iraq the same way.

2 mass murder plots were thwarted in the US this past week--one by a couple of racists from the KKK and one by a 19 year-old kid with the last name of Sullivan from NC who wanted to kill a whole bunch of people in the name of ISIS.  

We're not doing good, are we?

So what has been the Christian response to all of this?  I have to tell you that based on my own social media, and what I hear on television from pundits and politicians who are avowed Christians---the response has been pretty poor. 

What I have seen from so many Christians is a great deal of handwringing, anxiety, fear and anger.  I've seen a lot of lashing out as well--Christians attacking other Christians, arguments over what the Bible really says about war, refugees, the end times and a host of other stuff.  I've also seen a fair amount of dread from Christians who have become convinced that this is all a precursor to the end of the world. 

Almost none of us in the Christian-y camp are saying something like this: 


I know those words haven't really come out of my mouth.  Have they yours?

But those words are essentially what the earliest Christians proclaimed when they were going through times of crazy uncertainty, strife and conflict almost two thousand years ago.  

In light of all that--let's read Revelation 1:4-8

4 To the seven churches in the province of Asia:

Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.

7 “Look, he is coming with the clouds,”
    and “every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him”;
    and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.”
So shall it be! Amen.
8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” 

This letter, which we know as the book of Revelation, was written by John the Revelator, who could have been John, the Apostle, the disciple of Jesus or perhaps an early church leader and prophet.  It was written to seven churches, which were located largely in what is now modern day Turkey.  It's a strange letter, to be sure.  It's full of word pictures, exhortations, visions of another world, the end of days and so much more.  

What it isn't is a code meant to determine the future.  The entire point of the book of Revelation is aimed at Christians in troubled times.  The point is: how to stay faithful and hopeful as Christians in bad times.  

The news surrounding the historical context of the book of Revelation was pretty bad.  There was war, destruction, plague, and the persecution of Christians.  There was violence and terrorism, and what we would now call the Middle East was a hotbed of both.  I am so glad that things have changed, haven't you?

So this letter starts off with a vision--of Christ as King.  This is the fulfillment of Jesus' own words: "All authority on earth has been given to me."  The author of this letter describes Jesus as: "one who is, the one who was, and the one who is still to come."  New Testament scholars describe the language used here as "street Greek," slang meant to be provocative, earthy and real.  Essentially the author is saying, "The is, the was and not yet."  

Jesus is called "the faithful witness," and "the first to rise from the dead."  Jesus himself says, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end..."  

What is all this? 

It's basically a throw down.  It's like Muhammed Ali's famous rants before a fight.  "I am the greatest!"  "I float like a butterfly, I sting like a bee!"  It's Joe Namath predicting that the Jets would beat the Colts in the Super Bowl.  

It's hip/hop star Drake starting the song Forever off by saying, "Last name Ever, first name Greatest like a sprained ankle, boy I ain't nothing to play wit'"

John the Revelator gets it. He knows the Christians in the first century are feeling the pressure.   Everything is going south.  The world is messed up.  It's the Eleventh Hour.  So he gives them a vision of the Risen Jesus.  

"Remember me?" Jesus says to the early Church.  "I'm the one who walked out of the tomb. Death ain't got nothing on me.  I was there when all of this was created--I'll be there to make it new in the end.  Why ya'll trippin'? I got you!"  

Maybe it's the street Greek talking, but I can hear some LL Cool J happening in these lines--"Don't call it a comeback, I've been here for years rocking my peers and puttin suckas in fear!"  

And what John is essentially saying to these early Christians is, "Keep the faith!  Have hope!  Don't give up!  Jesus won when he rose from the dead!  The rest is just mop-up duty!  One day all of this is going to be right--all of it!"  

The early Christians had this crazy idea that evil had really been defeated when Jesus rose from the dead.  The problem: Evil didn't get the memo.  It still thinks it has power over us.  Sometimes it feels like it does.  

When we have a few weeks like the ones we just had--it starts to feel like it, doesn't it?  Maybe some of you are feeling this so strongly right now it hurts.  You got a bad diagnosis.  You lost someone you love.  Your aging parents are starting to fail more and more quickly.  Your adult child is going through things you can't save them from like you used to when they were little.  You stare at your bank account hoping that it will grow to meet the stack of bills on your kitchen table.  

And then you hear someone say, 


Some of us have a really hard time with this.  We think that people who walk around saying things like that are a little too Christian, if you know what I mean.  We're like, "Bless your heart!"  We all know what "bless your heart" means in Southern-speak, am I right?  "Bless your heart!  I'm so glad for you that whatever that is seems to be working for you, but for the rest of us there's all the reality and stuff to think about." 

It's not that we don't have faith.  We do.  But the blessings, the rescue, the hope, the feelings of joy that elude us---those things happen to other people.  

Then there are a whole bunch of us who are convinced that the world is going to end so we kind of secretly don't have a lot of hope--at all.  I even know some Christians who get really excited in a warped sort of way when there's widespread violence, destruction and the like.  They see these things as "signs" that their generation will be the one that will see the end of the world.  And there's all kinds of strange beliefs about how that looks for Christians and non-Christians.  

Did you ever wonder if maybe we're just focusing on all of the wrong things?  

When the only news you hear is bad.  When all you see on Facebook is negative and fearful.  When your conversations with friends constantly turn toward topics that fill you with hopelessness, anxiety and dread... it's probably a sign that Evil is having a field day with your heart.  

Because seriously... there are so many incredible things happening all around us that fight back the darkness.  Stories of hope and goodness.  Evidence that despite the way Evil wants to bluster and make it sound like it's winning---the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End---the one whose last name is truly Ever and whose first name is truly GREATEST has been and will always be in charge.  

The darkness doesn't get to win.  It just doesn't.  

I want us to watch this video of a French father and his son who were being interviewed on the site of the terrorist attack in France.  They came to put flowers at the site of the massacre outside the Bataclan nightblub.  

The reporter asks the little boy if he knows what happened and why the ISIS terrorists shot so many people. 

Boy: "Yes, because they're really really mean. Bad guys are not very nice. And we have to be really careful because we will have to change houses.

Father: "Oh don't worry... We don't need to change houses. France is our home."

Boy: "But there's bad guys daddy..."

Father: "Yes, but there are bad guys everywhere. "

Boy: "They have guns, they can shoot us because they're really really mean daddy."

Father: "It's OK, they might have guns but we have flowers."

Boy: "But flowers don't do anything, they're for, they're for..."

Father: "Of course they do, look, everyone is putting flowers down. It's to fight against the guns."

Boy: "It's to protect? And the candles too?"

Father: "Yes."

Reporter: "Do you feel better now?"

Boy: "Yes, I feel better."

Come on!  How could you not just weep when you see this?  How can you not look into that little boy's face and just know that this is a moment of resurrection, hope and peace?  

"They might have guns, but we have flowers..."  

"They might have terror and fear and rage and violence... but we have the flipping ALPHA AND OMEGA---the was, the is, the shall be."  

If you believe in this Jesus that we are talking about let me ask you a question or three.  Why are you afraid?  Why are you angry?  Why should any of the things Evil can toss at us make you in the least bit worried?  

All you have to do is look around with new eyes, ready to see the beauty, the good, the signs of resurrection, the moments when guns are overcome by flowers and you will know... 

The King is Coming.  Can you see it?  

People.  Church.  My brothers and sisters...