Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008: Things I Wish We Had Learned...

...But I don't think we have!

Today we say goodbye to a year of increased challenges -- especially on the economic front. Many adults in our nation are facing financial hard times for the first time in their lives. Our season of seemingly unlimited prosperity is over for the moment and we have a great opportunity to reflect. Hopefully we could see long-term attitude and action adjustments. I doubt it, though. Here is a grab bag of changes I would hope we have the sense to make.

1. You can't borrow yourself into prosperity.
I have heard that even some economists think you can, but let's get real. Our Creator knows better and says so: "The poor are always ruled over by the rich, so don't borrow and put yourself under their power." (Proverbs 22:7 The Message)

2. The best economic growth is slow and steady.
I frequently talk to people my age who are shocked that their grown children want to start their adult lives with all the things their parents have taken years to collect. An inheritance gained hurriedly at the beginning Will not be blessed in the end. (Proverbs 20:21 NASB)

3. Blaming someone else for our problems will rob us of great lessons we could learn.
Of all the sad stories which have come from our money meltdown, this one disturbs me the most. "The government let this happen!" "It was those corrupt lending institutions!" "It's the president's fault!" "It's those greedy people from Wall Street (or the automakers or the unions)." Sadly, almost none of us has stepped to the front and said, "I did it. I bought things I couldn't afford. I bought a bigger house. I took out a second mortgage to buy a new SUV. I spent everything I made to add more and more stuff to my life." The Bible says, "If you hide your sins, you will not succeed. If you confess and reject them, you will receive mercy." (Proverbs 28:13 NCV)

4. We are not able to determine our own destiny.
It's a fallacy to think that we can just will ourselves back into prosperity. The very real possibility is that, by the time this recession is over, we will no longer be the world's only superpower. We Americans have arrogantly thought that we could withstand all challenges and come out on top. We have subtly supposed that we have all the answers for every problem in the world. In my limited travels in the third world, I have observed this arrogance first-hand. American missionaries go to other nations and try to impose American models of ministry. They refuse to believe that the locals are fully capable of taking the lead and developing strategies to get the job done.

5. We discover life in how much we serve, not in how much we think we DEserve.
During our economic heyday, we have had the freedom to buy virtually everything we think we want. With a little creative financing, we have constantly played Santa Claus to ourselves. The mad rush to die with the most toys has left us empty and frustrated. I would love to think that we will see a whole new spirit of people genuinely giving their lives away, even when they feel that they have nothing. If that were to happen, they might find joy that was unattainable through bloated buying.

There you have it. Five things I wish we had learned. What would you add to the list? As we say farewell to 2008, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Conundrum

Merry Christmas to you all!

I sat glued to the edge of my seat that Christmas morning. We were gathered in the living room around the tree -- our family along with some friends. Sean was 7; Beth and Becki (yes, twins) were 4.

It was the typical joyous, chaotic ritual of opening Christmas gifts. Everyone was excited. The smell of wassail came in from the kitchen. Oooo's, Ahhhh's and laughter permeated. Becki had adopted a new phrase she learned from her mom, the consummate pastor's wife. "Oh, how nice!" was an expression Cathy used often then. We heard those words multiple times that day from our 4-year-old. In fact, she said the phrase every time she opened a gift!

The problem we had that morning lay with one of the twins. We didn't know which one. I was on the edge of my seat.

Christmas with identical twins is fun, but you can get double vision watching them open their gifts. So many of the presents -- especially the small ones -- are exactly alike. This is heightened by the fact that, when one girl opens a certain size box wrapped in a unique paper, the other one knows what's in her box. Edge of my seat.

Cathy's mom (Mamma to S,B & B), has sold Avon since the year after Hannibal came across the Alps. Okay, that's a slight exaggeration -- it was the next year. Christmas at our house always includes Avon. That year, the girls were receiving Avon necklaces. Identical. Identical boxes. Identical wrapping. But labeled. One Beth. One Becki. Edge of my seat.

Our conundrum was that one of the necklaces had fallen out of its box. Mamma found it after the packages were wrapped and sent. In horror she stuck the little necklace in an envelope and mailed it to us. We weren't sure which one, but we would have a VERY disappointed daughter when she discovered that her sister received a necklace and she got an empty box. NOW you know why I was on the edge of my seat. Necklace tucked away. Ready to produce it at the right moment.

Then, Beth opened a little gift. Throwing aside the wrapping paper, she took the lid from the tiny box. Inside, on a small bed of cotton, lay a beautiful little necklace. The drama was set. It was Becki's turn.

For some reason, Becki was so caught up in the moment that she didn't take in what her sister had just opened. She tore off the paper, opened her box, found the cotton nee jewelry inside and exclaimed, "Oh, how nice; cotton balls!"

I fell off the edge of my seat -- laughing!

We gave her the necklace, but the moment stuck. The next year, Cathy wrapped up a special package for Becki's Christmas that contained -- you guessed it! When she opened it that year, she got a frown on her face and asked, "Why did you do this to me?" Totally spoiled the fun. After an explanation, though, she saw how special a little tradition can be. From then on, it stuck.

Becki, this is 27 Christmases later. You are a continent away from us today! Have you discovered anything special for you? Anything soft and white?

Dear Reader, I am deeply honored that you are joining me on this journey. Getting to know some of you over the last couple of months is a high privilege and I thank you all for your kind input. My hope and prayer for you is God's best in your life this Christmas and throughout your days.

I will be rather sporadic at this post over the next few days. Cathy and I are spending time with some family. We will be back at our regular schedule soon.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Final Preparations

I am on the final approach to Christmas, including three services tonight and lunch with the two guys who help me walk my talk.

One of the people who has been mostly in the background in relation to this blog is very much in the foreground of my life. Jose is not only one of our key leaders at church, but is my main interpreter in the Dominican Republic. Finally, and of utmost importance, he is as close to me as a brother.

I mention this because Jose has begun a blog. Please take a few minutes to read his first posts. He is a great storyteller and will touch something deep within you.

I wish you the very best of Christmases. May these days be merry and bright for you and may you come to know the One whose birth we celebrate.

If you can, please join me here on Christmas morning for a story I can't wait to tell you.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Christmas Story

It all began with the mystery of the dropped thermostat control.

We had our Small Group Christmas party at Ox and TJ's house over the weekend. Cathy remembered to bring our electric skillet home, but forgot the cord.

Needed the cord.

Sam, the good guy errand runner stopped to retrieve the thing. (So far, I like this story -- I'm the hero!) Brought the cord home to banners unfurling and blaring trumpets. Cathy placed a wreath around my head. (Okay, all that last part is an exaggeration. Sorta.)

About 10 minutes after I got back home, Ox pulled up and jumped out of his pickup. I met him at the door and he showed me a strange looking gizmo. He said, "I looked down on my lawn and saw this thing. Picking it up, it hit me: it's the thermostat control dial from your cord."

I checked the cord. Ox saved the day! I have now become Han Solo in Return of the Jedi. Luke is the main hero, but I get the girl (Princess Cathy). Swash your light saber, Ox!

Thermostat placed back on the cord, Ox and I (with Princess C looking on) started talking about all sorts of stuff. He tells us he's headed into town to find a Christmas present for TJ. He checked on the internet and can't find one the right color.

I asked him what stores he's gonna check. He went down the short list, ending with "Sports Authority." He said he was saving it until last because he was afraid they would be more expensive. Princess C asked him how much one of those things (hush -- TJ might be reading this) would cost. "I've been seeing them for $39 bucks," replies Ox.

Knowing that Ox and TJ don't take the paper (I'm still old-fashioned; er, just old.), I asked Ox if he would like the take the Sports Authority ad which has a $10 off $50 coupon. Just in case. If the gift cost a bit more there, he could redeem the coupon. The Princess added, "And, if you find one for $39, you can spend about $10 on something else and get the $10 back!"

A short while later, my phone rang. Ox was excited! "Sam, this all happened because you dropped your thermostat control on my lawn! If you hadn't, I wouldn't have stopped by your house to return it and you wouldn't have given me the Sports Authority ad!"

"What happened, Ox?"

"I came straight to Sports Authority and they had the exact one I wanted to get. They even had ONE LEFT in the color I wanted!"

"Wow, Ox, that's great! How much is it?"

"$39 bucks!"

"All right, Ox, find something else to bring you over the $50 and get it for free with your coupon! Merry Christmas!"

Monday, December 22, 2008

In Sickness And In Health

Sorrow. We notice it more this time of year. Sandra's post yesterday was a beautiful reminder of how some walk the sad road with hope.

Part of my job is to see both the pain and the joy that make up the human experience. Just yesterday at church...

...I talked to a young mom who was all smiles -- she and her husband are celebrating the season with their first -- a beautiful baby girl.
...I talked with a family whose 3-year-old boy is full of life even though he has to daily take his meds for leukemia.
...I noticed two young couples that were away for the day, but each are spending their first Christmas together as husband and wife.
...I saw widows who are facing the season alone -- some for the first time.
...I noticed a lady whose brother has left his wife for another. The betrayal of his marriage is especially bitter at this time of year.
...On the other hand, I saw couples who will have their happiest Christmas ever -- even though their marriage was on the brink of disaster a year or two ago.

All of those things were just yesterday at one tiny point on the map in Yuma, AZ.

Sandra's nephew David and his wife Tiffany are bravely facing the loss of their tiny twins. I pray that same spirit for a family I know whose son -- and brother, husband, dad -- took his own life a few months back.

Looking into those faces and knowing that they represent but a small fraction of the stories that surround me, I wanted to share some verses that give me hope. In the first one, Christ Himself is speaking. The second is a prophecy spoken by Isaiah hundreds of years before Jesus fulfilled it.

A thief is only there to steal and kill and destroy. I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of. (John 10:10 MSG)

He was despised and rejected by people. He was a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering. He was despised like one from whom people turn their faces, and we didn't consider him to be worth anything. He certainly has taken upon himself our suffering and carried our sorrows... (Isaiah 53:3-4 GW)


What offers you hope and comfort this Christmas?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Hi, Pastor Sam!

This is the fourth Sunday of Advent; the focus is the shepherds and joy. While that's the subject of my sermon at church today, I want to tell you about something that brought Cathy and me great joy this week.

For me, the story began on Thursday. I was on my way home for lunch. Approaching a red light near our home, I decided to turn right (legal to do that on red here). I got into the right turn lane, noticing a group of high school kids crossing the side street. Slowing for them to cross, I noticed that they were all walking behind me and allowing me to proceed. In the midst of the group was a girl I know from church. Ashleigh is 14.

Ashleigh is a nice girl from a great family, but she was in the middle of 7 or 8 friends. That's hardly the time for most teens to acknowledge that the old guy in the car is their pastor. I made the turn with the group now behind me and never saw Ashleigh look my way. All of a sudden I heard a shout. Looking in my mirror I saw Ashleigh yelling, "Hi, Pastor Sam!" as she waved enthusiastically. I turned, grinned and waved back.

On Friday afternoon, I stepped outside the house to get our mail. On my way back, I saw a high school boy walking down the street toward me. As he looked up and made eye contact, I said "Hi" even though I didn't recognize him. Upon his, "Hi, Pastor Sam!" response, I realized it was Beaudy. He's 15 and also a member of our Student Ministry. We stopped and talked for a minute.

I told Cathy what had just happened and added in the story about Ashleigh the day before. She then told me that she had seen Beaudy in the neighborhood while she was driving a day or so earlier. He had waved and smiled.

Our Student Ministry is vibrant and growing. We have a great team working there and I have little personal involvement in what they do. Still, some of them saw fit to share a friendly greeting with me this week.

They brought me good tidings of great joy.

Have you enjoyed any "aha" moments recently?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Rest Of the Story

Some weeks ago, I told you about some financial happenings in my life. After you read the original post, entitled "Bank Error (Not) In Your Favor, I will tell you the (current) "rest of the story."

We learned something in the young fires of adversity: God always provides!

I was one of those guys who squeezed four years of college into ten. Let me clarify... I went to school for three years and mostly goofed around. Then we got married, I worked in a local church -- during which time our son was born -- and I felt God wanted me to become a pastor. Soooo, after a four-year hiatus, I went back to college as a serious student. Taking classes as much as possible while I held down a full-time job, I graduated after three more years.

It was during that time that Cathy got pregnant with twins and we didn't have health insurance. To say that money was tight was understatement.

I'll never forget the conversation as we drove home one afternoon. Cathy said she needed us to stop and pick up a few groceries. I explained that we had no money. We kept a minimum balance of $5 in our checking account and we were down to that. She told me that we couldn't do without a few very basic necessities and that our son's piggy bank contained a little bit of change we could "borrow" until payday.

We headed home, took the money from the piggy bank and drove to the grocery store.

Arriving back at our house, frugal supplies in tow, we picked up our mail. Opening it, we found a nice card from one of Cathy's aunts. It said, "We remember how tight things got sometimes when your Uncle Don was in seminary. We thought you might need this." It contained a check for $20. Other than our wedding, that may have been the only time we heard from them. That card and money was such a message of hope! (AND that's only one of the times that we received unexpected financial help during one year of our own personal recession.)

Fast forward to yesterday. I was standing in my office talking to someone about an accounting error that is costing me some dollars. We had already discovered the mistake and had taken steps to correct it right away. I found out this week that it will cost more than we originally thought and yesterday afternoon I was being told that it might still be more than I understood in the morning.

Literally in the middle of that conversation, my cell phone rang. I had picked up my car following an $800 repair job just an hour before. My mechanic was now calling to tell me that Cathy's car, which was in for a normal check-up, needs $1500 worth of work. This auto repairman has demonstrated integrity over the last 20 years or so. I know the work must be done and gave him the go ahead.

Just a moment or two later, my Blackberry buzzed, telling me I had an email. It was from a computer company that was sending me a rebate. The email said that, if I have received a check from them, don't cash it. It will bounce!

I went home a short time later, knowing that God is faithful, but feeling a little shell-shocked.

I told Cathy about it all and, when I finished she asked if she could tell me about her day. She went on to describe something that happened yesterday morning. She was able to buy some much needed quilting fabric [it's her addiction :o)] for a tiny fraction of the cost. Because she uses her hobby to make beautiful gifts for loved ones, she actually saved a bundle of future dollars.

As she told me what happened, tears were forming in my eyes.

You see, we have enough right now to take care of all these unexpected expenses. I was struggling because, just maybe it has been too easy lately to depend on my own resources to handle financial problems. My false security was being whittled away. Quilting material reminded me of words spoken by King David in the Psalm where this blog gets its name... The little that the righteous person has is better than the wealth of many wicked people.
(Psalm 37:16 GW)

These are difficult financial times. How are they affecting you?

Now, back to the latest...

The accounting error looks like it's not as bad as I originally thought. The car repair had to be done and is paid for. Hey, it's a lot less expensive than payments! The bounced rebate check? The company I bought the software from took the hit and issued new checks without us having to even ask. The rebate is safely in the bank.

I have much to be thankful for in these tough times. How are you getting along?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Hoo, Hoo, Who?

We're on the fast slide to Christmas, sooooooooo...

Oops, had to catch myself! Anyway, I thought it would be fun to find out your favorite Christmas Carol. Now, I know I'm a pastor and all -- I'll be "spiritual" in a minute -- but I'd love to know your current favorite NO MATTER WHAT IT IS (remember: family friendly).

When I was young, I loved Joy To The World. Somewhere about high school it became The First Noel (I loved the bass part). By my junior year, our German Club was learning some in that language. I still remember more German words to O Tannenbaum than English words to O Christmas Tree. At about the same time, I was learning substitute words for some of the popular carols. Which, in turn, I taught to my kids. Totally messed them up.

In the past few years -- spiritual now -- I have loved the following...

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Refrain

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Refrain

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

You see, I know some people have accepted the ransom of Immanuel. Including me.

Now, it's up to you. Whether it's Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer or Silent Night, please tell us your favorite. And, if possible, a word or two why. We will probably be humming along with you!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Deadeye, The Dangerous Outlaw...

...had a pair of shiny guns. (Sung to the tune of "Rudolph".)

Ol' Deadeye shore can shoot them guns. He puts on quite a show. It's plumb interestin' to watch until you notice Deadeye's Bullseye. And it's you!

I felt as though Deadeye had me clean in his sights the other day. One of our ministries is struggling and word has been filtering back to me about unkind things being said. I value the ministry leader and am grieved over the struggle that leader feels. Many of Deadeye's bullets are aimed in that direction, but they hit me on the ricochet.

Somehow the whole weight of the situation started getting me down. I long ago memorized this verse...
Where no oxen are, the manger is clean, But much revenue comes by the strength of the ox.
(Proverbs 14:4 NASB)
I wrote in the margin, "Where there are no people, there are no problems. The ministry I'm talking about has plenty of people... You figure it out (smile).

In my bullet-dodging fatigue, I found it difficult to focus on important tasks and finally gave up after posting yesterday's blog. Cathy and I watched a show on television and I made a phone call to one of our leaders who is ill (which lifted my spirits).

Still praying my way through the emotional pain I was experiencing, I got up to do something in the kitchen. That's when I heard a sound outside.

Strange at first, I suddenly realized that we had a group of Christmas carollers in our front yard singing joyfully. Cathy and I stepped out and discovered people from two of our Small Groups belting songs with huge smiles on their faces.


As the music ended, they each greeted us with hugs and warm, "I love you's." They had no idea the healing oil they had just poured on my wounds!

Take that, Deadeye!

Before I leave you today, please stop by and see the new blog created by our daughter Becki. I'm an old fashioned "meat and potatoes" kind of guy, but I'm still excited to follow their adventure.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Hello, My Name Is...

We hosted our annual Christmas Party for Office volunteers yesterday. Cathy plans and prepares the food for the whole thing. It's a hoot saying, "Merry Christmas" to very special people who make it possible for us to do what we do.

Problem. Second time in less than a week.

Our church has multiple services with quite a few people coming and going. These volunteers work on different days in different ways so this was bound to happen. Most of them didn't know everyone at the party.

But one very sweet lady hardly knew anyone. She knew a few staff, but no other volunteers.

I could tell when she walked in. It was that "deer in the headlights" look. She probably thought, "What am I doing here?" As people were getting food, I spoke to her. I made light of her being a stranger and promised that, by the time she left, she just might know some of us better than she wanted .

After lunch, we gathered in a large circle for one of those "White Elephant" gift exchanges. I saw her sitting with another lady. A woman with the same name as hers. They had each found a new friend.

It was obviously hard, but she's "in" now. The parting hug she shared with her new friend told me so.

Many times I am the one left out as friends gather in little groups for lively conversation. My work has a way of putting me in such places. Occasionally, a kind stranger will notice and include me.

I'm grateful. I want to be an includer, too.

How about you?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dirty, Rotten Scoundrel!

That's what he was. Or not!

Something happened recently that stirred up a memory. A hard lesson. Hopefully well learned.

I was on the Board of a Christian organization. Accusations were made against the CEO, who was also a founder.

Immoral? No.

Illegal? No.

Incompetent? Maybe.

Some staff members were bending the ear of our Board Chairman. He called us together for an emergency meeting. Then another one. Then another.

I rolled up my "idealistic young man" sleeves and prepared to clean house. But which house were we supposed to clean? The Chairman was sure it was the CEO who needed straightening out. The more I listened, the less certain I became.

Leadership is a hard job. Done well, it requires someone to keep multiple tasks and personalities in balance. If I have learned one thing over the years, it is this: the leader must make decisions for the best of the organization.

AND not everyone gets their way all the time. Even those close to the leader.

It's a bad thing when a green Board Chairman allows people within the organization to do "end runs" around the CEO, then takes the leader to task. It took days of prayer, including some fasting, but I figured out that was our situation. Others on the Board made the same discovery.

The staff members ended up leaving. The Board Chairman resigned. The CEO stayed.

It was the right thing to do. And that ministry is still serving people.

Monday, December 15, 2008

But, if I really say it...

...the radio won't play it.

With apologies to Peter, Paul and Mary, we never taught our children to "lay it between the lines." (You "kids" who are reading this and who grew up hearing any and everything on the radio, check out the song: I Dig Rock And Roll Music. It's from ancient times before you were born.)

Anyway, we made a premeditated choice about how we would answer questions concerning anatomy when we raised our children. "Daddy, what's that?" The answer would always be the real name. We knew they would learn the slang words later from some other, less "saintly" kid. (Right!)

Obviously, our offspring liked the idea. At least that's what it seems from the conversation between mommy and Chickie posted yesterday on C. Beth.

Chickie, however, has nothing on her Uncle Sean. Here's the somber scene...

We were together at the home of my parents after the death of my 20-year-old sister. When "Cabby" died of a heart infection, we joined as family and friends to comfort each other. A large group of us were in the living room when Sean, age 2, needed a diaper change.

Cathy gathered the "gear" and laid him down off to the side as adults sat around visiting. I guess the moment was just too quiet for him. He, using the appropriate name, said "Sean has a _______!"

"Yes, that's right," his mother replied. Sensing her openness, he looked around the room and started announcing rather loudly, "Daddy has a _______! Grandpa has a ________! Uncle Jimmie has a ________!" By this time, Cathy had snatched him up and hurried from the room.

At least, he understood that the particular body part only belonged to males!

The wounds of sadness at that time in our lives have healed. That funny story, though, still brings laughter to family gatherings.

Do you have a story that relates? Remember, this is a family-oriented blog!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Look! Up in the sky!

It's... It's... Just look!!!

Sometimes the best way to help someone understand the wonderful thing you saw it to show it to them. Several years ago, Cathy got the idea that she wanted to make a replica of an award-winning quilt called Little Brown Bird. (The name, by the way, totally understates this thing.)

LBB became a part of life in our home. Cathy meticulously selected fabric, used a variety of techniques and made it -- one square at a time. Her labor of love became a chore after the first 1,000 or so hours. Then it became a monster. Then an obsession...

This small image will never tell of the tiny stitches all done by hand. It can't really show you the brightness of the colors. I can tell you this: I have stood in large halls where scores of quilts are hanging and watched people just stop and stare at this one, trying to take it all in. I hope you all get to see it up close and personal sometime.

You see, when you have seen -- experienced -- something bigger than words, you just gush phrases like, "Come and see!" That's what Andrew did when he met Jesus.

And it's, I think, what the Angels were doing that night when they appeared to a group of shepherds...
10 The angel said, "Don't be afraid. I'm here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide:
11 A Savior has just been born in David's town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master.
12 This is what you're to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger."
13 At once the angel was joined by a huge angelic choir singing God's praises:
14 Glory to God in the heavenly heights, Peace to all men and women on earth who please him.
(Luke 2:10-14 MSG)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Light Steps Into The Darkness

For this "Saturday Rerun," I will take you back to something I wrote a couple of months ago. We don't get much light in the Northern Hemisphere this time of year so we try to brighten it up with Christmas lights. Originally entitled "When You're Weary, Feelin' Small," perhaps this story will help add a different illumination...

Claude Monet had the ability to paint what few others seemed to see. His ability to bring out the beauty of nature by highlighting contrasts of light, shadows and colors has helped millions open their eyes to a world they had previously missed.

I am increasingly amazed at relatively simple contrasts that make up glaring punctuations in the ministry of Jesus Christ. For instance, these two verses...

But Jesus ... didn't do many miracles there because of their hostile indifference.
Matthew 13:58 (The Message)


One day He was teaching ... and the power of the Lord was present for Him to perform healing.
Luke 5:17 (New American Standard Bible)

In other words, Jesus had the ability to "see" what others missed. The spiritual atmosphere wasn't the same everywhere he went. Light, shadows, colors. Hang with me; I'm going somewhere.

I have a friend who pastors a church in a small town on the other side of our state. In spite of his excellent education, great mind and good people skills, his church struggles. His town struggles. At times, you might even call it "hostile indifference."

In this difficult place, my friend recently made a commitment to stay. He knows there are places where the darkness isn't so prevalent. He knows he could go to a place more aware of the light of God's power. He has even wrestled recently with an unusual depression that might drive lesser faith people away.

We live in a culture where many would say to him, his church and his town: "Just start believing! Everything will get better!" If it were that easy, the Creator of Light (Colossians 1:16) could have just walked into Nazareth in Mathew 13, pushed the doubters aside and started massive miracles. But it doesn't usually work that way.

On the canvas of life, darkness gains prominence a brushstroke at a time. It can take years to fully envelope a place. It can take years of light to push it away.

That's what my friend is doing.

Friday, December 12, 2008

All You Want For Christmas...

...I hope!

What do you get for the person who has everything. Or, more likely, what do you get for the person who has everything but things you can't afford?

I quickly compiled a list of Christmas gifts I would think about giving because each one of them means something to me. They are fairly inexpensive and one or two are kinda unique. One thing that may surprise a few of you: only one of them is a Christian gift. None are anti-Christian, but some are purely secular.

Gifts I Would Give:
1. Amazon Prime.
I probably buy more online than at retail stores. That's especially true of books and media. Because of that, I consider Amazon Prime one of the best purchases I made this year. For $79, you can purchase one year of membership. This entitles you to free 2-day shipping on most products Amazon.com sells. Many products can be shipped overnight for $3.99. I love it and use it all the time. If you give this as a gift, I recommend you use an Amazon.com Gift Card.

2. Audible.com.
I use my exercise time listening to audio books on my iPod and I have found no service I prefer to Audible. Audible users can select from over 50,000 audio programs including a vast selection of books. Select a book, download it and listen to it on computer or a player. It's that easy! I have had annual membership for a number of years and listen to over 20 books a year. Once again, you can give this in the form of a gift certificate.

3. iTunes Gift Card.
This one is easy to get at almost any department store. It's also a gift that will have value for almost anyone under 40! (Or me, but I only think I'm young.)

4. Starbucks Gift Card (or anything else from there!)
Pop into any Starbucks anywhere and pick up a gift card for that person you love. If you don't love anyone, send it to me. (Just kidding -- Sorta!)

5. The Omnivore's Dilemma.
The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan may be the most fascinating non-fiction book I read this year. If you want a page-turning picture into our food supply-chain, this is it. I was totally captivated and that says a lot.

6. Consumer Reports Magazine.
No, I don't agree with all of Consumer Reports' view on politics. What I do love, however, is their unbiased view of the products and services that we interact with every day. They don't take any advertising and that means they stay fairly neutral on their reviews. By the way, we originally gave this as a gift to our son-in-law The Engineer and that's how I discovered that I wanted a subscription for myself.

7. One Year Bible.
For those of you who follow Christ, or those who are considering it, The One Year Bible NLT (One Year Bible: New Living Translation) is a simple plan that takes you daily through passages in the Old Testament and the New Testament, in addition to daily passages from Psalms and Proverbs. I have used this Bible Plan almost every year for over 20 years. It can be accessed online via computer or mobile web. There's an online community to help with questions along the way. And the New Living Translation is a pretty accurate rendering of the original languages in today's American vernacular. I hope many of you might join me as I daily read through the plan next year.

That's my list. What ONE other item would you add?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Angels In The Stable

Decorating for Christmas.

That was the scene last Saturday when Cathy and I broke out all the boxes and prepared our home for the holidays. I described recently how our tree ornaments bring back the memories of decorating as a family project. The tree stayed in the box this year (sorry Becki -- it wasn't real anyway) because we will head off to see family early Christmas morning.

I still had an emotional moment, though. It came as I put together a manger scene. A very kind lady gave this set to us over 25 years ago. It was -- and is -- a treasure. This year something about it changed and I discovered I had a problem.

You see the angel hovering above the stable? That one came with the original gift. Last year, though, Cathy's mom gave us another one. What would I do with that second angel?

I placed it in several different positions and nothing seemed to work. Placing the shepherds and the Magi where each was focusing on the Babe brought the significance of the moment into focus. The thought of the creator of the universe (see Colossians 1:16) humbling Himself to become a human baby and be born in the most meager of circumstances is overwhelming.

It was deciding where to put that second angel that caused me to think about this event from their point of view. The Bible occasionally pulls back the curtains on these heavenly beings. We can see that they are created beings (So are we!). Operating in the spiritual realm, they have a much clearer view of the glory of God than we experience here on earth. We discover in Scripture that they can abandon God (and many of them did along with Lucifer). What they can't do is return from their fall.

Why? I don't know. But it's this fact that must have blown their angelic minds. They know our history. They see the mess we are making of the world. They perceive our hopelessness.

And they understood that night that God Himself was coming to earth to be born as one of us. So he could pay the necessary price for restoring our relationship with Him. The one we had broken.

I placed that second angel in the stable. Near the Christ child. The people present couldn't begin to appreciate the meaning of that moment. But I think the angels had a pretty good idea. The Baby nestled against the wood of that manger would later be nailed to the wood of a cross.

When I thought about it I wept.

I would love to hear how this impacts you.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

I Saw Detroit Kissing Santa Claus...

...underneath the Capitol dome last night.

It looks like the Big Three will get our help. Folks more learned than me are commenting on the upsides and the downsides of the deal. But it has left me wondering about something.

In the Old Testament, the Jews were commanded to treat their own people differently than they might treat others. “Do not charge interest on the loans you make to a fellow Israelite... You may charge interest to foreigners..." (Deuteronomy 23:19-20 NLT)

The same can be said of the New Testament. More lifestyle than law, it is described: "And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. (Acts 2:44-45 NLT)

You, I believe, understand this principle. "There's nothing wrong with a little nepotism," the old saying goes, "as long as you keep it in the family." We expect people to treat their own differently.

Boston Becki told me about buying sunglasses from a street vendor at the Common. "How much," she asked. "15 bucks for two pair, $10 for one." Becki countered, "I just need one pair. I'll give you $8." When he hesitated, she said, "Look I'm local -- not a tourist. If you don't sell them to me, someone else will." The local girl scored the deal.

A friend told me long ago that he was uncomfortable charging interest to another Christian. He had a unique way of handling it. He said that some people need the personal incentive to repay what they owe. He would float them a personal loan at a fair interest rate. Then surprise them by returning the interest when they paid him back according to agreement.

Which brings me back to our friends in the auto business? I had the rare privilege to deal directly with the owner of a new car dealership many years ago. He showed me two new cars on his lot. Both of them were unsold, previous year models. Both, he thought, would fit my budget. Because I pastored one of his managers, he treated me like family. He told me exactly how much he paid the maker for the car and exactly how much they were rebating him since it hadn't sold last year. Then he told me exactly how much profit he needed to make to break even on his expenses, offering to sell to me at that price. I ended up buying a late model used car from him instead, but I will always appreciate the gesture.

As taxpayers, it seems to me that we will all own part of the automakers. It's our tax dollars that may bail them out. Soooo, what if you go car shopping, find the car you want, and receive total disclosure on every item making up the sales price? There would be no "wiggle room," no haggling. They simply give you the lowest price they can afford to sell the car for.

After all, from now on we're "family."

How do you like my plan?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Silent Night, Snowy Night

Christmas night. 34 years ago.

How do I remember? Our son was a tiny baby. Cathy and I had moved to the West Coast and had flown back to New Mexico for Christmas. We both grew up in the same state. On different planets. But that's another story about how Clovis (her hometown) is more like Texas, ya'll. Socorro (my hometown) is more like, uh, New Mexico.

Those towns are 250 miles apart. No wonder we had to move to Arizona to meet in college.

We flew into Albuquerque for the holiday. My parents lent us their late model Ford, and we drove to the eastern edge of the state to spend a few days with Cathy's family.

We enjoyed a huge Christmas dinner (that's a noontime meal in our part of the world, folks). Loaded into the car with baby Sean napping, we took off for the 5 hour drive to my parents'.

A few hours later, as darkness fell and with about 90 miles of highway in front of us, snow started falling. We kept driving, noting the gathering white stuff on the roadside, but with the warm asphalt just a little damp.

We were making good time on that two-lane highway and had high hopes of escaping the snow when we descended from high plains into the Rio Grande valley. By the time we reached the last town of any size -- still about 65 miles from our destination -- the snow was becoming thick slush on the road.

You know cell phones? They weren't even in Gene Roddenberry's imagination back then. I stopped at a pay phone right next to a tiny Motel and dialed long distance to my folks. I asked if we should just get a room for the night. Dad said it wasn't snowing there and we'd probably drive right out of it. Besides, if we didn't arrive within two hours, he would come and find us. We got back on the road.

Cars were few in number to begin with that Christmas night and they kept turning back in the ever-deepening snow. Finally, as we rounded the last bend before the road straightened and gradually descended into the valley, an old service station offered a beacon of hope. The car in front of us pulled in and nestled next to all the others finding shelter there.

Cathy begged me to stop. But my dad had told me to come so I doggedly kept moving. We soon realized that we were all alone on the highway and it was almost 20 miles to the Interstate.

By this time the road was but a white ribbon and the snow was falling so fast I could hardly see out the windshield. Every mile was marked by a small reflector on a pole. The brightness of the night helped me keep my bearings until I could see the reflection of my headlights off in the distance.

We counted the miles as we drove down the middle of that highway. We prayed.

And somehow we made it.

The snow was heavy the entire journey. When we arrived, my dad said, "I had no idea when you called what this storm was becoming. If I had known, I would have had you get a room and wait."

Many Christmases have now filled the memory books of our lives. None felt quite as frightening and treacherous as that silent, snowy night.

Have you had a Christmas scare? Care to share it?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Angels We Have Heard

My friend Marty was with the angels this weekend.

You see, the Hells Angels came to town on a charity ride. That's right. Charity. They came to support an organization that helps seriously ill children. I already know what some of you are thinking, so read on.

Marty is a manager at the local Harley dealer. He's also a serious follower of Jesus Christ. For both reasons, he involved himself in this event.

And he caught heat. More heat than you get from motorcycle exhaust. You see, other Christian bikers thought that Marty shouldn't be hanging around with Hells Angels. Not even for a charity event.

Not even to tell them whenever he could how he used to be. Until Jesus changed his life. Reminds me of something that happened a long time ago...

16 But when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw him eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked his disciples, “Why does he eat with such scum?”
17 When Jesus heard this, he told them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” (Mark 2:16-17 NLT)

Confession time. Most of my adult life, I would have been more comfortable among Marty's critics than with Marty and the angels. I'm changing, though. I don't condone the Hells Angels lifestyle. But I'm convinced that Jesus would have had no problem spending time with them this weekend.

How do you see it?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

O Little Town...

It only made sense. I mean, what was a hungry 17-year-old to do?

So I did it. Repeatedly! On most of those early mornings -- often stopping once or twice on the way into town to re-scrape the frost off the windows -- I flew into the radio station barely in time to "act awake" for the morning show.

Our upbeat, "middle of the road" breakfast format lent itself to what I wanted to do. You see, I was starved! And La Fiesta Bakery was just across the street. And the donuts were hot out of the oven about a half hour after I arrived at work.

And, did I mention I was hungry? Soooo, my morning routine included an LP on the turntable at that certain time. Then a mad dash across the street. Then that heavenly aroma. Finally, the fresh cup of coffee and 3 (count 'em: three!) piping hot glazed donuts.

Breakfast of champions!

When it came to atmosphere, La Fiesta wasn't much. Located in a rundown old (adobe?) building, It might have had a small counter area with a few stools for customers. It wasn't the kind of place where you'd go, plug in your computer and sit around for a couple of hours to the sounds of smooth jazz. Even the smell of fresh bread, cookies, cakes, donuts, pies -- are you salivating? -- couldn't cause a desire to just park yourself there.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent. The story is about Bethlehem. The theme is humility. Literally, the name "Bethlehem" means "House of Bread." To you and me, that sounds like "bakery."

Jesus was the King born in a bakery. Even then, He arrived in places considered insignificant.

That gives me hope.

How about you?

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Iiiiiit's Saturday

Since several of you have joined me the past few days, here's a bit about what I try to do schedule-wise. I do my best to post fresh material (even fun stuff like yesterday) on Sunday through Friday.

That's because I prefer Saturday In The Park -- or working in the yard. Or putting up Christmas decorations since we were gone last week. Sooo, I try to share one of my previous posts that most of you haven't read. It gives me a break and brings some of you along on a bit of my journey.

Entitled Mending Fences, this was one of my very first blogs...

Preaching three times on Sunday morning is mentally and physically taxing. By the time I arrive home, I wonder if my brain is mush or spaghetti. Fortunately, Cathy has lunch pretty much ready to go after my quick change of clothes. My custom is to eat, finish the Sunday paper and head to a nap.

It's almost never exciting when the phone rings right after lunch and Cathy says it's for me. My brain screams for the release of a dream and my head wants to shake "no" when I put the communication gadget to my ear.

"Sam, this is someone you haven't spoken to in a long time." As I hear the words, the voice is already sounding familiar. It belongs to a man who used to attend our church many years ago. I haven't actually seen him since my grown kids were in high school. We have spoken on the phone a few times since then. Each of those occurrences left me thinking that the man is buried in his problems and will probably never get better.

"Hi," I reply, "how can I help you?" I know my voice is tense. I don't want to be bothered and I'm sure he can tell. I feel guilty, but it is inconvenient. (I'd rather not admit that attitude.) Besides, the last time or two we talked, I'm not even sure the guy was sober.

"I'm actually getting my life together," he said. "I am being treated for PTSD because of Viet Nam and I'm better than I have been in many, many years. I have been giving it some thought and I can think of two people right now that I need to reconcile with. You're one of them."

A voice from the past. I relax, grateful for this turn in the conversation. I tell him truthfully that he owes me no apology. I invite him back to church because he says he has tried a few and wants to attend again. He seems relieved, promises to see me and says goodbye.

I have had to make many similar calls over the years. They have left me feeling joyful and relieved. I hope it did the same for him.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Yesterday, er The Day Before

I was tagged by my new friend Chris over at Simply Put on Tuesday. If you haven't taken a gander at his blog, I hope you will. His creative writing style is interesting, humorous and always leaves me chewing an imaginary eraser.

Any way, Chris, I shared those seven secrets here in one of my first posts. I'm taking advantage of the opportunity, though, to tag some others who have started following my blog and you might want to check out.

Cathy's dad spent a career at the US Postal Service. Thus, our family has a pretty low view of chain letters. HOWEVER, (ahem), since we aren't paying postage for playing this little game and since it gives us a chance to encourage other writers, today I will play along. You whom I tag can decide how far you want to get into this...

Okay, here are the rules:

1. Link the person who tagged you.
2. Post the rules on your blog.
3. Share seven random or weird facts about yourself.
4. Tag seven others and include links to their blogs.
5. Let each of the other people know by commenting on their blogs.

AND... Tony, Heather, Dina, J, Gina, Liz, and Isabella, you're it!

One other Friday remark... Wednesday was my most comments so far. Hurray and thanks to all of you!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Grinch

The issue at hand was pews. The order was wrong. Was it the buyer or the builder? I'll never know for sure. What I do know is that somebody at church accepted the delivery. Because a leader's daughter was getting married. In the brand new building.

And it was too late to change. So the delivery was accepted.

That's when the builder/buyer feud started. It was polite. At first. Feeling wronged, the church refused to pay the remainder of their bill.

I arrived as pastor many years later. It took a few years for me to hear the full story. Then I was shown the file of correspondence...

...which concluded with a formal notice that the church had been written off as a bad debt. What to do?

Wise words (from The Word) were like a spiritual sextant making our direction sure...
He who walks in integrity walks securely. (Proverbs 10:9 NASB)
Choose a good reputation over great riches. (Proverbs 22:1 NLT)

We contacted the pew manufacturer, offering to settle our debt plus interest for the years that had passed between. They charged us -- all of it. We paid it -- joyfully. It's the only choice when you have decided to "DWELL in the land AND CULTIVATE faithfulness."

We all face the occasional temptation to be a Grinch. The Christmas we help steal may belong to a laborer in a cabinet shop building pews. Or it might be the one which should go to the cashier at Target.

The one who gave you too much change. During Christmas rush. And has to balance the cash drawer at the end of the shift.

The extra money you noticed when you got home from the store.

Whose fault is it? What will you do?

What's your story? I would love your comments.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

'Tis The Season

I'm sure you've noticed how "seasonal" we are in this culture. It used to be that we had four seasons, but now it seems like we experience a different one every few weeks. AND, if you follow the ad inserts in our Sunday paper, you'll know that EVERY ONE of them is the season for shopping!

Seasonal. That's what we are.

We just came through the season of...

Turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, candied yams, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, hot rolls and butter, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, apple pie, cherry pie and (drum roll) WHIPPED CREAM! I almost forgot: Starbucks Pumpkin Spiced Lattes!!

We are about to enter the season of ham, more turkey, duck (duck goose), fruit salad, plum pudding, gingerbread, candy canes, eggnog, sweet potato casserole, pecan pie, apple pie, cherry pie, mince pie and whipped cream. I didn't almost forget: Starbucks Gingersnap Lattes!!

Then comes January. The season of Nordic Track and gym memberships. (Note to self: some of the best deals at yards sales are of almost new workout equipment.)

You and I have some choices to make. We can either forget about any kind of self discipline during this holiday or we can plan a way to navigate the season with minimum waistline damage.

Don't get me wrong. I love food. I really love holiday food! What I don't love is the uphill battle after days upon days of stuffing myself. I'm fortunate, though. Cathy is the best accountability partner and encourager I could ever have. The eating results of this holiday season will be a lot easier for me to live with because of her.

What's your thought on this subject? To encourage your input, I'll give you a multiple choice way to respond. If you like, just comment below with A, B, or C.

A-I'll plan my holiday diet and stick to it (asking for help as needed).
B-This one isn't really a problem for me. I may splurge a bit, but only a little.
C-Mind your own business, Sam!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

All I Want For Christmas Is...

"At only $99, these make great stocking stuffers! Order one for every member of you family, including Uncles, Aunts and Cousins! Call now!"

At the risk of sounding a bit out of touch, let me tell you about Christmas when I was a boy. Like every one else, the kids in our family got excited about the big event. We started getting Christmas Catalogs in something like October. The day they came in the mail was one of the big thrills of the year. We had to take turns looking through it and, within a couple weeks, just about every page was dogeared.

Having limited resources meant that our family was on a budget. We could look and dream all we wanted, but when decision time came we had to limit our our choice(s) to a total of..

$5.00!

That's right. Stocking stuffers? What was that? My bachelor Uncles would come from the mountains for the day and our family gift to them was usually one or two pairs of socks.

Sure, $5.00 would buy a lot more back then. I can still remember -- I think -- about three different $5 Christmas gifts from different years. I had fun with each of them for a while.

What I remember the most, though, is the many hours of fun we had as a family. The cousins all played outside until it was too dark to do anything. We went back in and played table games until bedtime. We ate food (and ate and ate and ate), finally crashing with hearts full of joy.

Those $5.00 presents have long since landed in a landfill. The family relationships? Well, the tribal members who are still living are separated by miles as well as years. Every time we get together, however, we pick right up where we left off.

And the loved ones who have passed? Their memories linger with the rest of us for the remainder of our lives.

What memories of Christmas do you cherish?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Practice Makes Prefect... Uh, Perfect?

Yesterday was "Family Worship" at our church. Every time we have a 5th Sunday in a month, we all gather together for services that target all ages. It's a special day for us -- other Sundays feature services for children in elementary school. Our middle school and high school students also have worship services designed for them.

But... about once a quarter we all join together. I'm pretty sensitive to the need to bring this service to a level that the entire family can get into. Yesterday, being the first Sunday of Advent, I asked kids and youth to write down some of their Christmas traditions. After getting almost no response, I realized that "tradition" is a word that children don't use much. (Perhaps I should have asked them what special things their family does to celebrate Christmas.)

I did, however, get responses from a couple of teens. Here is the one I found the most interesting...

When I was in Kindergarten my teacher read us stories about how boys and girls around the world celebrated Christmas. The one I liked the best was about children in Germany who had good luck if they could find the pickle that was hidden on their tree. I came home and begged my mom for a Christmas pickle. She found one and now every year we look for the hidden Christmas pickle.

Ashleigh

Having shared one of our family traditions last Friday, several of you commented about the need to do some traditional things to keep you in the right spirit for Christmas. I think it's important. Otherwise, the "frantic-ness" of the season with swallow you.

At church, we are encouraging families to celebrate Advent. As most of you know, "advent" means "coming." For Christ-followers, it's natural at Christmas for us to celebrate someone coming. And, no, I'm not talking about anybody who lives at the North Pole.

What are your family traditions during this season?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Let Us Go To Bethlehem And See

We will begin the Christmas season at church today. For the next few weeks we count down to the celebratory cry, "For unto us a Child is born..." By God's grace, I would like to take a journey together that will leave us in greater awe of the Birth.

Anyone who hears me speak, quickly knows the deep influence my dad had on my life. A simple man in so many ways, he exemplified what a genuine Christian looks like. He befriended the poor as well as the rich. He wasn't enamored with the glitter and glamor that so often become the carrot that pulls people around the race track of life.

Dad was consumed with the need to do the right thing in each situation. He told me that he once had a conversation with a car dealer he knew. Somehow the subject of honesty came up and dad said, "I would rather be cheated out of a dollar than cheat someone else out of a dime." The car dealer hung his head and responded, "I can't really say that."

People came from ranches as far as 100 miles away to have dad repair their vehicles. He always had work to do in his independent shop and canceled his Yellow Pages ad a year after he opened because he had plenty of business (and he was skeptical that people found his garage that way). I remember asking him why he didn't hire more people. His answer: "Son, I managed other mechanics when I worked for the dealership and never knew if they were really doing the work they were assigned. I made checklists and the mechanics signed off on them, but I would find out that they were taking shortcuts to work faster and make more money. In the meantime, my reputation was on every car that went out that door." By working for himself, he had no trouble standing by his craftsmanship because he knew what he had done.

I have taken a couple of minutes to tell you about my dad because of the way he talked the last few years of his life. Virtually every time the conversation came up, he spoke words reflecting John Newton: Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!" Dad would often tell how overwhelmed he felt that Jesus Christ died for a sinner like him. At the time, I knew the words were true of me, too. But I admit they hadn't really hit home yet.

As the years pass, I become ever more aware of my own heart. I have come to understand that even many of the "good" things I have done have been done for the wrong motives. Though I have sometimes wept and spoken the words to Jesus, "I love you," I have a growing realization of how shallow they are. The Savior Himself said, "If you love Me, keep my commands." John, the "disciple Jesus loved" added "The person who doesn't love others, does not know God." In both these areas, I have frequently fallen short.

The road to Bethlehem is meant to be a journey of humility. It was a humble Jewish girl who was chosen to be His mother, lowly shepherds who were called to the birthing "room" and a simple carpenter who raised Him. For you and me to fully grasp Christmas, we must approach it as desperate sinners. Oswald Chambers, in My Utmost For His Highest (November 28), said...

There is a certain pride in man that will give and give, but to come and accept is another thing. I will give my life to martyrdom, I will give myself in consecration, I will do anything, but do not humiliate me to the level of the most hell-deserving sinner and tell me that all I have to do is to accept the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ.

So, friend, let US -- YOU AND ME -- go to Bethlehem with broken hearts. Then we can be filled with hope and awe!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Saturday Reruns 2

I told you last week that I would take Saturday off for a bit of creative rest. Since I write this on Friday, I wanted you to see this picture that Becki took of me in Boston just yesterday. It will make you glad I chose a rerun...
Entitled, "A Face In The Crowd," I originally posted this on November 1 of this year.

They rolled in like waves breaking on the shore. Small cars, SUVs and pickups threaded their way through road construction traffic cones and formed rows in the dirt outside our church parking lot last night. As they parked, families of all types and sizes emptied out and made their way onto our campus filled with our volunteers ready to serve them.

As people checked through the makeshift gates, they were welcomed by smiling workers handing out candy at "Trunk & Treat" stations. A few feet away was someone else hosting a game aimed at kids. The games awarded tickets which were redeemed for prizes.

A long row of "show cars" and motorcyles were available to keep the attention of afficionados while their kids were having fun.

Along the way there were clowns doing face painting, a variety of inflatables and a cake walk. We offered a food court with hot dogs, nachos, baked potatoes, soft drinks and over 20 varieties of homemade chili. We even had a special area for "Tiny Tots" where the preschool crowd had fun prepared just for them.

They rolled in like waves breaking on the shore. Moms, dads and grandparents brought their children to "Family Fall Festival."

I spent the evening walking around. My job was to greet people, answer questions and make sure our volunteers had everything they needed. Candy gets handed out fast in a setting like this and I discovered some of our "Trunk & Treat" stations were running low. I headed to our office to get reinforcements.

That's when I saw him. He was sitting in a chair near the door to the office and away from the foot traffic. Honestly, if I hadn't seen him right next to the building I was entering, I would never have noticed him. He was just a face in the crowd. A drop in a small ocean of people.

He wasn't in my way, but his offer to move gave me a brief moment to look into his face. Those eyes told me a story. This was a humble man, a poor man. His body language said that he works hard, and his load is heavy. This man who obviously wanted his family to have some joy on this night also had limited ability to buy them much. I think he felt uneasy being here, but he came because we offered family fun at no cost.

His face also said he was grateful. He didn't want to be a bother. He didn't want to get in the way. He didn't expect others to carry his burden, but life circumstances demanded that he accept what was offered.

He had been sitting there, almost invisible. But when I collected my thoughts from the evening, I remembered him. That's when I recalled the words of Jesus...

18 God's Spirit is on me; he's chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor... To set the burdened and battered free,
19 to announce, "This is God's year to act!"
Luke 4:18-19 (MSG)

Last night, in a very small way, we were able to take action. I hope the way we did it offered a small bit of kindness and a Message of good news to a face in the crowd.

Friday, November 28, 2008

It's A Holly, Jolly Christmas

Today is an important one to our family. Long before Black Friday was called "Black Friday," this was the day the Norris family pulled boxes of decorations from the garage and "dressed" our house for Christmas.

I came to cherish these few hours each year. As a pastor, I have spent much of my life bucking tradition. Family Christmas decorating has been a glowing exception for me.

Cathy's mom has sold Avon since the year after Columbus landed. Okay, it was a couple of years later, but Joyce started presenting us with special Christmas tree ornaments early in our marriage. When we started a family, we received ornaments for each child. Sometimes they came with our child's name already engraved, but usually my organized wife neatly printed the name and year on the back of the ornament with a permanent marker pen.

As the years flew by, each child developed a collection of ornaments and all got to hang their own on the tree. Meanwhile, a large pan of fresh, hot wassail would be waiting on the stove. Sometimes we even had a fire crackling in a fireplace. The other ambiance enhancement was always Christmas music.

To this day, I think the whole family dislikes (despises, hates, is disgusted by -- you get the picture) the Burl Ives rendition of "Holly, Jolly Christmas." Now I'm certain (?) we all deeply respected Mr. Ives as an actor and musician, but that song? Well, let's just say we would all start singing it in a most obnoxious way and end up in fits of laughter.

In recent years, decorating is back down to where it started -- Cathy and me. It takes a bit longer, still includes wassail and (sometimes) Ives, and usually brings me happy tears as I remember. Those memories are some of our most precious treasures.

On this Black Friday, Cathy and I will laugh, dance and play with Molly. The house can wait!

How will you spend today?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

I'm Thankful

I begin my long list today with the most recent and move back in time.

I am thankful for the following...
  • I got to watch our granddaughter Molly make cookies with her Grammy yesterday.
  • Trying to take an afternoon nap yesterday, I was constantly interrupted by the sound of contagious laughter. Cathy and our daughter Becki were in stitches as they visited Cake Wrecks.
  • Our son Sean took a huge step of faith and took a full load of college science courses (he already has a degree in Theatre) because he wants to get into medical school. He still maintains a full-time job. All this, while his wife Betsy is in a tough PhD program in psychology AND she works, too. We are proud of them and thankful for their hard work.
  • Our daughter Beth, whom most of you know through her blog brings us great joy. We are thankful for her husband, The Engineer, and our grandkids you know as Chickie and Zoodle.
  • Beth's twin sister Becki balances life as a busy mommy to Molly, wife to Donal, and middle/high school science teacher.
  • I am grateful particularly that each of our children married wonderful mates who care for them and show them unconditional love. It would be hard for a dad to want more for his kids.
  • I am blessed with a wonderful family history, having been taught love, respect and hard work from parents who lived their faith daily. Dad went to heaven in 1990, but mom is now 82 and still quite healthy. She inspires me.
  • Cathy's folks, Bob and Joyce, are like another set of parents to me. I am forever grateful that I got to meet, love and marry a daughter they raised. I wish you all could know them.
  • My church family, Stone Ridge Church, of Yuma, Arizona, is vibrant, alive and real. Walking the faith journey with them is one of life's highest privileges.
  • My extended church family, made up of scores of churches and thousands of believers in the Dominican Republic, keep teaching me by example what it means to Love Jesus Passionately.
  • Our nation, with all its faults, is a place made free through the blood of many thousands who saw a cause worth living for. Those who died did so, not at the whim of a raging despot, but with a choice to protect our freedom.
I have saved the best for last. This is the 37th Thanksgiving I have shared with my bride. In so many ways, it seems like yesterday that we were just starting out. I have been blessed with God's very best by being able to marry Cathy. Thank you, darlin', for being you.

Next spring marks 49 years since the day I went forward in a church service and said to Brother Stirling, "I want to dedicate my life to the Lord." There's no way an eight-year-old boy can understand those words. However, by His grace, He began to change me from the inside out. He must receive the ultimate thanks from me this day for my entire life is the result of His blessing. His abiding presence, His constant forgiveness paid for by the sacrifice of His Son, and His unconditional love mean more to me each year. Thank You, Abba!

To you, who have joined me on this journey, thank you for your encouragement and sharpening. I will not meet many of you in person, but I am grateful for you.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

I Believe In Yesterday

To my best recollection, I was a kid growing up in New Mexico when I first heard (I think it was) a TV weatherman refer to Thanksgiving as "Turkey Day." At the time, about 45 years ago, the term was a cute novelty. Now, to many people, it has become the de facto title of the 4th Thursday in November.

I find that a matter of great concern. Like many of you, I grew up celebrating Thanksgiving with family and friends. The day included great -- and abundant -- food, along with football, recreation and rest. One thing was clear, however. This was a day to give thanks for the bounty and the freedoms we enjoy in this Land called the United States of America. I'm not sure exactly when we started it, but each year our gathering included individual expressions of gratitude by each person present before we sat down to eat.

Anecdotal evidence would indicate to me that, for many people in this country, tomorrow is far more about sleeping in, gorging with rich food, watching the traditional ball games and generally partying. What will be absent is any expression of thanks to anyone. One reason I'm inclined to think that we have developed an attitude of ingratitude is the way people tend to treat each other.

In my city, it's not the trees that change colors in the fall months. It's the license plates. While "snowbirds" flock to Yuma for the winter and bring millions into the local economy, many of them are arrogant, rude and downright mean to the service help in restaurants and stores. Having watched the meekness of the older generation for much of my life, I'm still shocked at the "you owe me" attitude a number of our current winter visitors bring with them.

"Road Rage" is a second indicator. Those two words have come to strike terror into the hearts of many drivers. A lesser form of this selfishness exists, though, at a much more pervasive level. It seems that many of us (notice that I include me here) get behind the wheel with a sense of entitlement that we -- AND NOBODY ELSE -- deserve to be at the front of every line of cars at every traffic signal. "Ain't never gonna break my stride; Nobody's gonna slow me down..." I'm actually working on this one. I find myself at times disgusted with my own attitude when I'm driving.

Here's one that broke my heart. I know a guy who manages at a chain restaurant in a nice area of Southern California. He said that the worst shift to staff every week is the one serving the crowd who just got out of church. My friend -- a Christian who has been in full-time ministry -- said that people come out of church with their "Jesus Rocks" tee shirts on and yet they are the most self-centered, rude and stingy crowd his team serves all week. He finds himself embarrassed to be named in the same "family."

It seems that we are a spoiled, arrogant, selfish nation of people who have forgotten to be grateful for the privileges we enjoy. Soooo, eat your turkey, converse with your family, take your nap, even prepare for "Black Friday." But, please, pause to be thankful.

That's what I want to do. In fact, let's start today. As we work our way through the mad rush of people who, like us, are preparing for the holiday, take a moment to be kind. And say "thank you" to those who are doing their jobs and trying to serve us. Many people may find our attitude today is more gratifying than feast they will eat tomorrow.

In the morning, I'll share with you a bit of my gratitude list. I'm sure that you'll be thinking about yours.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Arriving On A Jet Plane

Let me begin with the postscript. I often title these posts after famous songs. I switched this one around to fit, but something in me gets sorta choked up every time I hear "Leaving On A Jet Plane," written by John Denver and made famous in the sixties by Peter, Paul and Mary. "Don't know when I'll be back again. Oh, babe, I hate to go..."

Fortunately, there's another side to these sagas and that's what we saw yesterday. Planes were filled with people on their way to see loved ones for the holiday. Upon arriving in Providence, we had a few minutes to wait before we left the airport. In that time, Cathy and I got to watch the beauty and the drama as families greeted each other.

One young mom arrived with her little boy -- a toddler with not-quite-secure steps. He held his mother's hand, fell, and got back up unscathed. Looking just past them, we saw grandma, down on her haunches with arms outstretched. Her excited smile said it all! His return "who is this lady?" look told us she would need to crank up the charm to win the little guy over. No doubt they're "best buds" by now.

We saw another young mom and her beautiful little girl waiting for someone and never got to observe that reunion. But about the same time, we saw a young couple greet what looked like the young man's grandparents. Cathy noticed that his wife looked like she could deliver her baby any minute. Happy arrivals to come!

I could turn this into a serious post about some of what I believe heaven will be like, but I choose not to. Suffice it to say that I think these earthly homecomings are just shadows of the real deal God has planned for His own family.

We have celebrated numerous arrival moments over the years. Some stick out. Like the time my dad was celebrating his retirement from a career of making cars run smooth. He was that honest mechanic that people came to from many miles away.

My mom had told him that some people were coming over for a big get-together after Sunday church services. A number of folks came and set it up while he was at church. What he didn't know was that our son Sean -- 13 at the time -- and I were flying in for the occasion. We intentionally stood back out of his view and grinned as dad greeted each person and exhuberantly thanked them for coming. Suddenly he looked up and there we were. We hadn't seen him in a long time and he was overwhelmed. What a great time!

Do you have a favorite experience you would like to share? Sound off!

My current favorite was yesterday, when Book Girl Molly greeted us as we arrived at her house. She sees us all the time on a webcam, but she was bewildered by our presence.

For about a minute. Now Grammy and Sampa are her best friends.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Never On A Monday

I heard the saying from a pastor who mentored me when I was a young guy: "Never resign on a Monday."

The logical person would ask why. The answer is fairly simple. While it's not true that pastors only work on Sunday, it is true that we expend a great amount of emotional energy on that day. It's not just the focus required to preach, but also the extreme interaction with those we have responsibility to care for.

A couple of weeks ago, between services one of our leaders came up to me with some people I had never met. The man introduced himself, his son and his sister. He proceeded to tell me that he wants to get his life back together. Then, breaking into sobs, he went on to explain that his wife had taken her own life last month. I stood and held him as he wept openly.

Yesterday, it included brief interactions with a young couple who just went through a miscarriage, a missionary leader from another country, a couple who is learning to pray about money decisions, and a little girl who was beaming because she had just been baptized.

My tendency is to take all those things in stride while they are happening, then feel like a squeezed-out sponge once it's over. No wonder the Gospels give such vivid pictures of Jesus departing to solitary places (i.e. Mark 1:35).

The argument goes like this... Either Sunday was an incredible day and an emotional high, in which case Monday becomes such a letdown that you don't want to go on. Or Sunday was a horrible day of missteps and problems that leave you feeling you would rather do anything else other than pastoring.

Either way, it's a bad idea to resign on Monday. Tuesday you'll surely be ready to hang on.

What causes you to want to self-impose a pink slip?

p.s. I'm not resigning today. It's a far better idea for Cathy and me to go to Boston and spend Thanksgiving with family.

AND I get to dance with my two-year-old granddaughter! Now that's a job I'll keep!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Passing The Baton

On Friday, Cathy and I attended a Change of Command ceremony in which a Marine officer took command of a Harrier Squadron. We have attended these before, but this one was extra special because both the old Commanding Officer and the new one attend our church.

The ceremony is full of meaning and most of it is communicated by actions rather than words. It's the middle that I find the most moving. At a set time, the senior enlisted man -- the Sargeant Major -- marches out to the Color Guard and retrieves the official Squadron Colors. He then carries the Colors to the current Commanding Officer. The C.O. receives the Colors, turns and passes them to the new commander. At that moment, the new C.O. receives the full responsibility for the unit and takes command.

I get chills every time I watch that part of the ceremony. Over the years, I have come to know some of these guys and I am deeply moved by the weight they carry. Often, they lead their squadrons to the field of battle, knowing that some of them might not return. It isn't a job for the fainthearted, but leadership never is.

You see, I have discovered that life is all about preparing those coming up behind us. Whether we are training someone at work, teaching one of our kids how to drive, or trying to help Chickie learn to poop in the pot, we should always be passing a baton. It may take every creative molecule in our being and patience beyond words, but it's a key part of life. One at which we dare not fail.

What is your current "baton passing" challenge?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Saturday Reruns

I have been writing this blog for just over a month. It is giving me an outlet for expression that I thoroughly enjoy. However, having written about 33 days in a row, I decided to take a break for one day. I plan to do this each Saturday, knowing that it's a day for all kinds of un-bloggy activities in the lives of you, the reader.

Instead of simply not posting, I thought I would use something the TV industry has done for years -- the rerun. Therefore, especially for you who have joined more recently, here is something from my first week. It's titled, "A River Runs Through It."

We had a sermon at Small Group on Monday night.

To explain, let me tell you a bit about our group. First, we're multi-generational. One couple is busily raising two preschool sons. Some have kids in their high school years or just entering adulthood. A few others are enjoying their grandchildren.

Second, most of the group has been directly involved in the armed forces. We have at least three group members who are retired from the military, two others who currently serve and several who spent many years in the service before getting out to follow different pursuits. They have served in places around the world and fought for our freedom in Viet Nam, Iraq and Mogadishu.

One of the group elements I love most is that about half are new/young believers in Jesus or are just getting serious about their faith. We have baptized at least six members of the the group in just the past few years. They approach the Bible with a rare freshness and are unafraid to ask questions or tell us when they don't understand something. It can be a hoot to watch each of them work their way through the pages to find a Scripture passage we're discussing.

Finally, this is the most "real" group I have ever been around in church. They haven't lived nice, churchy lives. Almost all of them have been bruised and battered by about every kind of failure -- their own or the ones they love -- you can imagine.

We had a sermon at Small Group on Monday night.

It started with a prayer request. We had just listened to the pain of one couple. The guy's parents have virtually disowned them. It's as if his mother has developed a mental illness and his dad refuses to face it. She has become like a family wrecking ball demolishing everyone she can swing herself at. That couple's request set the scene for what was to come.

One of the ladies spoke up to ask for prayer for herself as a mom. "I need prayer," she said. Then she broke into sobs. The group gathered around her. Those with the mercy gift reached out and held her hands or put hands on her shoulders. We read Scripture (from James 5). We prayed. She cried.

After the prayer, different ones began to encourage her with practical advice. Some of those speaking are just beginning to learn what the Bible says and how to apply it directly. What they do know about is pain. Oh boy, do they know. They listened. They shared. As group leader, I mostly sat quietly. I was in wonder at what the Body of Christ looks like.

We had a sermon at Small Group on Monday night.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Bank Error (not) In Your Favor

We learned something in the young fires of adversity: God always provides!

I was one of those guys who squeezed four years of college into ten. Let me clarify... I went to school for three years and mostly goofed around. Then we got married, I worked in a local church -- during which time our son was born -- and I felt God wanted me to become a pastor. Soooo, after a four-year hiatus, I went back to college as a serious student. Taking classes as much as possible while I held down a full-time job, I graduated after three more years.

It was during that time that Cathy got pregnant with twins and we didn't have health insurance. To say that money was tight was understatement.

I'll never forget the conversation as we drove home one afternoon. Cathy said she needed us to stop and pick up a few groceries. I explained that we had no money. We kept a minimum balance of $5 in our checking account and we were down to that. She told me that we couldn't do without a few very basic necessities and that our son's piggy bank contained a little bit of change we could "borrow" until payday.

We headed home, took the money from the piggy bank and drove to the grocery store.

Arriving back at our house, frugal supplies in tow, we picked up our mail. Opening it, we found a nice card from one of Cathy's aunts. It said, "We remember how tight things got sometimes when your Uncle Don was in seminary. We thought you might need this." It contained a check for $20. Other than our wedding, that may have been the only time we heard from them. That card and money was such a message of hope! (AND that's only one of the times that we received unexpected financial help during one year of our own personal recession.)

Fast forward to yesterday. I was standing in my office talking to someone about an accounting error that is costing me some dollars. We had already discovered the mistake and had taken steps to correct it right away. I found out this week that it will cost more than we originally thought and yesterday afternoon I was being told that it might still be more than I understood in the morning.

Literally in the middle of that conversation, my cell phone rang. I had picked up my car following an $800 repair job just an hour before. My mechanic was now calling to tell me that Cathy's car, which was in for a normal check-up, needs $1500 worth of work. This auto repairman has demonstrated integrity over the last 20 years or so. I know the work must be done and gave him the go ahead.

Just a moment or two later, my Blackberry buzzed, telling me I had an email. It was from a computer company that was sending me a rebate. The email said that, if I have received a check from them, don't cash it. It will bounce!

I went home a short time later, knowing that God is faithful, but feeling a little shell-shocked.

I told Cathy about it all and, when I finished she asked if she could tell me about her day. She went on to describe something that happened yesterday morning. She was able to buy some much needed quilting fabric [it's her addiction :o)] for a tiny fraction of the cost. Because she uses her hobby to make beautiful gifts for loved ones, she actually saved a bundle of future dollars.

As she told me what happened, tears were forming in my eyes.

You see, we have enough right now to take care of all these unexpected expenses. I was struggling because, just maybe it has been too easy lately to depend on my own resources to handle financial problems. My false security was being whittled away. Quilting material reminded me of words spoken by King David in the Psalm where this blog gets its name... The little that the righteous person has is better than the wealth of many wicked people.
(Psalm 37:16 GW)

These are difficult financial times. How are they affecting you?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Sow What?

I'll call her JJ. First I met part of her family, many years ago. I got to know her mother because of my role as a pastor. I also got to know her little daughter, who was just a toddler.

JJ's mother was raising JJ's daughter because JJ was... Well, she was in prison. For theft. To feed her drug habit.

For two years after I met them, JJ's mother told me about visiting her daughter in prison. She spoke with great hope that JJ had learned her lesson and would get a chance to really start over while she was still young.

When she was released, I remember JJ's resolve to never go back. She want to stay clean and sober, to raise her daughter, to live a productive life. She settled down, took a few forward steps... And stumbled.

Fast forward twenty years. JJ never quite ended up back in prison. Not the kind behind bars and armed guards, anyway.

I talked to JJ's mother the other day. "At least she's not doing drugs," her mom said. "But she's in a mess that might be even worse." This sweet woman with a broken heart went on to describe how JJ has spent the last year in an abusive relationship with a man young enough to be her son.

Like so many other victims, JJ denies the problem and protects her boyfriend. He put her in the hospital recently and JJ admitted that he would have killed her if she hadn't gotten far enough away to cry for help. She went to her parents house for a few days and JJ's mom got a court order to keep the man away. Within no time, JJ was gone and her mom knows she went back to the man.

JJ admits that the next time could be her last time.

A prophet named Hosea wrote, "For they sow the wind And they reap the whirlwind." (Hosea 8:7 NASB) I used to think that maybe this was a scathing judgment, a "God's gonna get you!" Now I believe it's more of a tragic observation. Unfortunately, it sometimes takes just a few "small" steps in the wrong direction to throw a person into the path of a tornado bigger than Dorothy and Toto's.

JJ's little daughter is now grown up. She has two children of her own. She, too, is reaping some of the whirlwind.

I write JJ's story with a very sad heart. Would you like to share a bit about a "JJ" you know?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Indescribably Delicious!

When my daughter Beth wrote yesterday about Chickie's flirtation with temptation, I laughed. I've had many of those charming conversations with myself...

"Just one peek!"
"Just one more game!"
"Just one more Old Fashioned Candy Cane Creme Flavored Oreo!"

In fact, "Just one more push of the 'snooze button'" meant I had to take a college class just one more time. But that's another story.

Those temptations we flirt with? They're not all about things we consider "tantalizing." In fact, some of them are about subjects we'd never want to dwell on in our wildest imaginations.

Like our fears.

My friend Ox called me recently with an update on his wife TJ. TJ is a normally healthy mom of two rambunctious preschoolers who got a headache last week. And it hasn't gone away! Ox called to tell me about her CT Scan. They don't have the official results yet, but the techs said they didn't see anything that looked unusual.

Ox and TJ are in our Small Group and we gathered around and prayed for her on Monday night. We are concerned about her constant pain, but probably the cause is something related to muscle spasms or a pinched nerve. Still, she is being tested, which is good. What's not good is that Ox heard just today about a lady he knows -- about TJ's age -- who suddenly died of a brain tumor.

His fear is working overtime!

I understand all too well. Whatever the reason, I started worrying myself sick over meaningless symptoms when I was still in my twenties. That was about thirty years ago and I still occasionally have to re-fight the battle. I don't struggle with that fear often now, nor for very long. But I remember... I remember a doctor who told me after several needless visits that I needed to go home and quit worrying about my health. I knew he was right, but that temptation was Indescribably Delicious to my mind.

Paul, the Apostle guy, said in Philippians that we need to think on the good things. Amen! But sometimes we have to take baby steps as we are learning how.

Beth may eat a whole bag of Oreos today, but tomorrow she can cut it down to half a bag. Then, by reducing her intake a few cookies at a time, she will have conquered the temptation by Christmas (or whenever they are no longer on the shelf).

What Delicious thing do you need to overcome?