December 28, 2009

Off to Rome

No. I am not literally going to Rome.

But, since we at PRBC are going to be spending our 2010 prayer meetings piecing our way through the book of Romans (8-12 verses a week), I thought that I might do the same here on the blog. So, starting in chapter 1, I am going to blog my way straight through ... not verse by verse, but section by section, following the outline that we will use in the prayer meetings. Most weeks I will probably light on a single verse or phrase from the Sunday prayer passage and meditate on it 'out loud' via these pages.

Enjoy ... and feel free to leave your own reflections in the comment section (most of the comments I get these days are from random people cussing me out ... or from even more random people using the blog to advertise their websites and/or beach front properties in India).

See you in 2010 ... in Rome!

December 25, 2009

House of Bread

This past Sunday, as a sort of Christmas sermon, I preached on how Jesus is "the bread that came down out of heaven" (from John 6.41 and making comparison with the manna in the wilderness in Exodus 16). For our Christmas Eve service, I wrote a poem about how, fittingly, that Bread came down in a town called Bethlehem (which, translated from Hebrew, means House of Bread). So, here ya go:

Jacob’s fam’ly lived along
The outer fringe of town among
The peasants, widows, tradesmen, and
The shepherds who traversed the land
Outside the city gates with rams,
And billy goats, and little lambs.
Their house was simple, sturdy, small –
With sand-hued stucco on the wall
That faced the west and bore the wind.
Each winter Jake and dad would mend
The cracks and patch the crumbles tight
To keep out all the draft that might
Keep Jake and sisters from their sleep.

Sometimes by night he’d watch the sheep
For neighbors closer into town.
He’d lead them through the gate and down
The stony path out to the field
And bring back home his tiny yield:
Two copper coins for mother’s tin.
He’d dash inside, and drop them in,
And know he’d helped his fam’ly gain
A little extra weekly grain.

Their clothes were old, their pantry sparse.
And nothing hurt his father worse
Than knowing that his son was gaunt
And how the biting wind would taunt
The hovel, far too small and cramped –
And smelly when the chickens camped
Inside at night.

Young Jake could sense
His father’s grief and watch him wince
On colder nights when each of four
Familial quilts went on the floor
To cover wife and girls and son;
And how he’d wait ‘til they were done
With supper before standing up
And spooning some into his cup.

But Jacob’s father lived in trust
That God had promised and He must
Make all to work out for the good –
Even his fam’ly’s lack of food.
Some nights as he scooped out a few
Of mother’s lentils which she grew
In their side yard, he’d pause and say:
“I’m looking forward to the day
When God will open up the skies
And rain down bread before our eyes.
We may not sup on cakes or rolls …
But manna’s coming for our souls.

“For our souls?” Jake’s heart would say inside.
“Food for our souls?” It sounded cheap.
And so when Jake would take the sheep
Out through the gate, he’d stop and read.
The words carved there would make him bleed
Inside. Beth-lehem: House of Bread.
That may be what the ancients said”
Jake thought, “when David walked this town
And spread his blessings all around.
But things these days are pretty sparse.
That moniker seems like a farce.
Beth-lehem: House of Bread’ she was.
But now we say that just because;
Or with a vague religious twist –
‘True food will fall down like the mist’
Dad says. ‘Bread for the hungry soul
Just like the prophets have foretold.’”

“I do not know” Jake thought. “Perhaps
Dad’s right.” But then his mind would lapse
Into a twelve year old’s day dreams –
With eyes glazed over and moonbeams
Across his face.

He’d almost dozed
When all the sheep around him rose.
The neighb’ring shepherds stood upright …
And in the sky a distant light
Grew brighter … and more glorious still
Until, hov’ring above the hill
Where shepherds watched their flocks by night –
And robed in splendid, glorious white –
An angel spoke and Jacob fell,
Sure that the news he’d come to tell
Was justice, wrath, and death assured
For doubting all his father’s word
About the bread, about our souls,
And how life’s more than cups and bowls
And yeast and grain and stomachs full.

But then he felt a kind word pull
Him off his face and to his feet:
“My news for you is true and sweet,
Like wafers spread with honey wild –
In Bethlehem’s been born a child!
A king – like manna for your souls!
You’ll find him near the donkey foals
Inside a manger filled with hay.
For unto you is born this day
A Savior who is Christ the Lord,
The Son of God, the Living Word!”

As Jacob rushed back down the trail,
He tripped over a water pail
And tumbled down upon his back.
As he looked up into the black
Of night his eyes fixed on that gate.
And now its slogan filled with weight.
Once more: “Beth-lehem: House of Bread.
It was just as his father said!

So learn the truth of Bethl’em’s gate.
It’s not the food that’s on your plate;
Nor if your body’s strong and whole.
The bread of God is for your soul!
Christmas – a tale of bread from heav’n
Which to our race is freely giv’n.

December 15, 2009

While I'm nudging you not to get bogged down in a cultural Christmas ...

These thought-provoking words from Noel Piper (via the DG blog):

Over the years, we have chosen not to include Santa Claus in our Christmas stories and decorations. There are several reasons.

First, fairy tales are fun and we enjoy them, but we don't ask our children to believe them.

Second, we want our children to understand God as fully as they're able at whatever age they are. So we try to avoid anything that would delay or distort that understanding. It seems to us that celebrating with a mixture of Santa and manger will postpone a child's clear understanding of what the real truth of God is. It's very difficult for a young child to pick through a marble cake of part-truth and part-imagination to find the crumbs of reality.

Third, we think about how confusing it must be to a straight-thinking, uncritically-minded preschooler because Santa is so much like what we're trying all year to teach our children about God. Look, for example, at the "attributes" of Santa.

  • He's omniscient—he sees everything you do.
  • He rewards you if you're good.
  • He's omnipresent—at least, he can be everywhere in one night.
  • He gives you good gifts.
  • He's the most famous "old man in the sky" figure.

But at the deeper level that young children haven't reached yet in their understanding, he is not like God at all.

For example, does Santa really care if we're bad or good? Think of the most awful kid you can remember. Did he or she ever not get gifts from Santa?

What about Santa's spying and then rewarding you if you're good enough? That's not the way God operates. He gave us his gift—his Son—even though we weren't good at all. "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). He gave his gift to us to make us good, not because we had proved ourselves good enough.

Helping our children understand God as much as they're able at whatever age they are is our primary goal. But we've also seen some other encouraging effects of not including Santa in our celebration.

First, I think children are glad to realize that their parents, who live with them all year and know all the worst things about them, still show their love at Christmas. Isn't that more significant than a funny, old, make-believe man who drops in just once a year?

Second, I think most children know their family's usual giving patterns for birthday and special events. They tend to have an instinct about their family's typical spending levels and abilities. Knowing that their Christmas gifts come from the people they love, rather than from a bottomless sack, can help diminish the "I-want-this, give-me-that" syndrome.

And finally, when children know that God's generosity is reflected by God's people, it tends to encourage a sense of responsibility about helping make Christmas good for others.

Karsten, for example, worked hard on one gift in 1975. On that Christmas morning, his daddy stepped around a large, loose-flapped cardboard box to get to his chair at the breakfast table. "Where's Karsten?" he asked, expecting to see our excited three-year-old raring to leap into the day. Sitting down, I said, "He'll be here in a minute."

I nudged the box with my toe. From inside the carton, Karsten threw back the flaps and sprang to his full three-foot stature. "And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them . . ." He had memorized Luke 2:8-20 as a gift for his dad. Karsten knew the real story.

In fact, a few days later, he and I were walking down the hall at the church we attended then. One of the older ladies leaned down to squeeze his pink, round cheek and asked, "What did Santa bring you?" Karsten's head jerked quickly toward me, and he whispered loudly, "Doesn't she know?"

(Adapted from Treasuring God in Our Traditions)

December 14, 2009

It's the Most ____________ Time of the Year

What would you write in that blank? Wonderful? Busy? Frustrating? Depressing? Mind-numbing? All of the above? Whatever the answer, I can sympathize with you! Just this morning I walked into the post office just behind a lady carrying a stack of packages higher than her head. I followed her in and stood in line behind her as she waited to unload her burden on the big blue counter. “It’s almost over” I said with a smile – referring to her precarious journey to the front of the line. But I think she thought I meant: ‘Christmas is almost over.’ ‘I’ll be glad when it is’ she replied. Then she followed herself up: ‘Isn’t that pathetic?’

I felt her pain. It’s the most busy time of the year … and sometimes the most frustrating. ‘Little nephew Billy already has every toy known to man … and now I have to roam around Toys R Us looking for something original, and knowing he’ll only play with it for 3 minutes before the next battery operated noise-making piece of plastic is unwrapped.’ That is the way it goes sometimes. We look forward to the holidays – time to relax; time to be with family; time to think about the incarnation of our Lord, and so on. But so often those plans never materialize.

Between Macy’s, the Christmas tree farm, the office party, and the endless autographing of Christmas cards … there’s scarcely any time to relax. The family gatherings are often awkward and strange. And by the time we get through with it all, we’d much rather just slump down on the couch and watch A Charlie Brown Christmas (which I do enjoy!) than do any deep meditating on the nativity. And so the most wonderful time of the year comes and goes all too quickly … and often without feeling very wonderful at all. Add to these things the fact that the holiday gatherings often emphasize the painful fact that there is now an empty chair at Christmas dinner … and it is no wonder that many people struggle with the holidays.

I wish I could fix all the frustrations and ease all the hubbub for each of you. Fact is I have enough trouble managing my own calendar. So this article isn’t so much filled with solutions to the Christmas dilemmas that we all face as much as it is a sympathetic word to say: ‘I feel your pain.’

However, my one word of pastoral counsel, to quote the famous skit by Bob Newhart, is simply: STOP IT! Yes, you have obligations to fulfill. Yes, there are places to go and people to see (and buy for). But at some point this Christmas season you’re going to just have to stop doing all the circus tricks that American culture seems to require at this time of year … and get down to what is most important. You’re going to have to say ‘no’ to some things, and leave the less important things undone … so that your kids don’t end up frustrated with Christmas, too; so that you have that time to really think about Jesus; so that the days away from work that the holidays afford are cashed in for family-building, spiritual, eternal, Christ-honoring purposes.

In one sense, Christmas is just like every other time of the year. The incarnation is just as valuable in the heatwave of August as it is when the icicles hang perfectly from the eaves. Contemplation of Christ, together as a family, is just as important in May as it is in December. But the Christmas season provides the peculiarity of extra time off, of extra time with loved ones, and of extra emphasis on the person and work of Jesus. Don’t miss those opportunities this Christmas!

December 1, 2009

Speaking of Operation World

Jason Mandryk is releasing a new edition in August of next year. Pre-order today!

The Most Important Thing

“We’d love it if you could give monetarily … or even come and do a short-term mission trip in our country. But the most important thing you can do for us is pray.”

I always thought that the missionary speakers at our church growing up were just throwing the part about prayer in because they were supposed to. After all, it would be awkward to show up at a church just to ask for money. So I always assumed that their thinking process was: ‘We’ll ask for the money, but we’ll really emphasize the importance of prayer to kind of offset any idea that we just want a handout.’ And I didn’t blame them, really. I, too, thought that prayer was a nice part of missions support, but really just as an augment to the main task of generous missions giving.

Today, I am fairly certain that some missionaries do say “the most important thing you can do if pray” for exactly the reasons I assumed as a teenager. However, I have learned a few things as an adult …

First, I have learned that many of the missionaries I know really believe that “the most important thing” a supporting church or individual can do is pray. They know God will provide all their needs. They know they don’t need to beg people. And they know that, instead of begging people, they actually need those people begging God to bless their work! All the monetary support in the world is useless if God doesn’t keep the missionaries faithful, give them endurance, and open the hearts of the peoples of the earth. The missionaries know – from reading the Scriptures, and from living in the hardest places – that no one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws them. So they really do need our prayers more than our money (though the money doesn’t hurt!).

Second, I have learned that missions really is a God-sized task. I know we all sometimes say: ‘If there were just more workers’ or ‘if there were just more resources … that people group would hear and believe.’ And there is a germ of truth in that. But the big truth is that ‘if God moves mightily, that people group will hear and believe … whether through the instrumentality of one poor native preacher, or through a missionary team of a hundred!’ The salvation of the nations, ultimately, is in God’s hands. He can simply breathe on them, and the enemy’s hosts will fall. He can simply say the word and any missionary or lay-person on earth could be used to bring thousands to the feet of Jesus. So, yes … we need more workers in the harvest. Yes, it takes money to get them there. Yes, Southern Baptists had to keep some missionaries home this year because there was not enough money to support them. And yes, that means we have a big responsibility to give. But remember what Jesus said in Matthew 9.38: “Beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers.” That is the first solution to the need for more workers – not money, but prayer. And if the problem in sending workers is not willingness, but funds … prayer can solve that problem too!

So here’s the deal – I hope that each of you is able to give incredibly generously to the Lottie Moon Missions Offering (or to your church's missions offering, if applicable). Super-generously, even! But don’t get the idea that, if you give a good sum of money, you’ve done your part. No, no. The offering is quite secondary. “The most important thing you can do is pray.”

Do you believe that? Will you commit to pray more regularly for the missionaries your church specifically supports? Will you get a copy of a book like Operation World so that you can begin praying for peoples and nations you’ve never heard of … for Jesus’ sake? No one will come to Jesus unless the Father draws them. And the Father does not draw people unless workers are sent into the harvest (Romans 10.13). And, by and large, God sends laborers and draws people as we pray!