Posted in Christmas, Family, Grace, gratitude, life, loving others, Scripture, thankful

My Christmas Santa

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28

Santa Claus came to town.  I cannot describe the excitement that filled my small world as Christmas grew near.  I wish I could tell you it was all about Jesus, but in my boyhood world it was about presents and presents meant one thing—Santa Claus.  Just like we have now, we had an attic in our World War II barracks turned into a house.  And every year we would go into this magical place where special things lived and bring down the decorations.  We would start early and stay late.  While a white Christmas in Florida was never in the offing, a fun time was.

There were certain decorations that were staples in my world—I can see them in my mind’s eye like it was yesterday.  One of those was Santa Claus.  Now, we didn’t have the whole body but what we did have was his face.  Yup!  Our Santa face was about two feet tall and about 18 inches wide.  It was from molded plastic so it was three dimensional and to me—it was real.  When I got just a little older, I got to climb up on the roof (carefully for you concerned moms) and using some wire I would hang our Santa face on the front side of our chimney. But wait it gets better!  Our Santa face had a light bulb inside and would light up at night for all the world (at least so I thought) to see.  It was magical.

I remember the vibrant colors—the red hat falling down one side of his peachy face, his full white beard, rosy cheeks, and his eyes.  His eyes were bright blue and right in the middle of each pupil was a small hole so that brilliant white light could come peek out giving the illusion of just the right amount of twinkle.  It was as if I could hear his hearty “ho, ho, ho.”  It was more than a plastic face—for me it was the center of my Christmas world.

I’m not sure what happened to Santa.  By the time Mama moved out of the house, I was in the Air Force.  I’m hoping he is still living in someone’s attic, but probably he found his way to the trash pile…the victim of some relative that stopped believing.  But he will always live in my mind.  But in my grownup world, I stopped to question.  Why did Santa look just like me?  Why was his skin so peachy and his eyes so blue?  If he loved all the kids around the whole world, it didn’t seem quite right that my Santa looked so…white. What about the African American kids, or the Asian kids, or the Hispanic kids?  What about all the other kids?   It didn’t occur to me so much back then, but looking back…it does.

Well, having a peachy faced, blue eyed Santa is one thing but what about a peachy faced, blue eyed Jesus?  It’s so funny that when I look at a nativity set, there’s a fair skinned, often blue-eyed Jesus.  When I see a painting of Jesus in a church, (keeping in mind we don’t know what He looked like), He usually does have brown hair and eyes but His skin is unusually fair for a Middle Eastern man.  Honestly, perhaps this doesn’t matter too much unless we begin to think that Jesus is partial to us…no matter who “us” is.  You see, just like the kids’ song says, “Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world.”  Color never mattered to Him, or the side of town you lived in, or how rich or poor you were.  He just loves people.

I loved the Santa that hung on my chimney just the way He was.  He wasn’t making a statement…he was just saying, “Ho, ho, ho…Merry Christmas.”  But let’s make sure our Jesus, or at least how we perceive Him, isn’t making an unintended statement either.  There is a whole world out there who God loves and who Jesus died for. Paul, one of the guys who God used to write the New Testament, said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” So, if we are a Jesus follower, let’s get the message out that Jesus loves people…period.  And just as important…let’s make sure we get the message out that because He loves people…we love people.

The mission for every Jesus follower is the same—love God, love people. That’s what the Bible teaches, and I figure if we are going to follow Him, we should follow it.  It’s not always easy to love people…especially in these crazy days but guess what?  With Him nothing is impossible.  That’s what the angel told the young, virgin Mary.  God can pull anything off—including helping us love others.  It’s just good to know that “He’s got this.”

Posted in Family, food, gratitude, life, loving others, priorities, Scripture, thankful

“Eat Mor Chikin”

The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance.”  2 Peter 3:9

It should be every church’s goal.  Y’all know I am partial to food.  We have been friends for a long time.  I think I was probably one of those kids that was born with a craving for homemade mac and cheese with fried chicken.  “Hey mom, can we skip the milk and go straight for the grease and carbs?”  Yup, sounds like me.  One of my favorite fast-food places is Chick-fil-A. Have you ever noticed something unusual about this place?  Well, let me help you…there is always a line.  Period.

It seems that no matter what time you go by to grab your chicken fix, people are lined up and being served.  If you have ever been to one, you also know they are a very unusual place.  First, the food is really good.  Their chicken, mac and cheese, milk shakes, waffle fries—even their salads are off the scale.  Now about their salads…I have to take that on word of mouth since I avoid anything green. Every time I see the commercial for their creamy mac and cheese, I start drooling.  One day, when the line isn’t insanely long, I’m going to get some.  But the bottom line is that they make sure they have something to sell and they sell lots.

The big thing…even bigger than their food…is their service.  I have never seen a friendlier team of employees.  Every person who works for them seems to be genuinely glad to work there and genuinely glad that I stopped in.  Every time I have stopped, I have felt like I was the most important customer in the place.  One time at a Chick-fil-A at the airport the person who waited on me wasn’t quite up to par, but truth be known they were still far and above most places. And, it doesn’t stop there.

Remember I mentioned those long lines?  It is just amazing how organized they are in processing their customer’s orders. In the drive thru, they have employees out in the parking lot taking orders even before the customers get to the window.  They value their customer’s time and prove it by making sure they don’t have to wait any longer than absolutely necessary. By the way, it is a Christian based company and a lot of their business principles are straight from the Bible. People first. And, have you noticed that they choose to be closed on Sundays?  Do you know why?  God first.  Love God…love people.

All of this caused me to wonder something.  What if, we, the Church, did business like Chick-fil-A?  What if we “marketed” our message like they market their products?  What we have to offer is the best news ever—the Gospel or Good News that broken people can be healed—that forgiveness is available for any man, woman or child who is willing to place their trust in what Jesus has done.  I mean that is valuable.  Chick-fil-A believes in their product, but do we really believe in ours?  I think we should.

What if every person who came through our doors felt like they were the most important person in the building?  What is every person felt they were valued—both by God and by the church regulars?  You can take it to the bank that God indeed values every person regardless of race, social status, or sin list.  He is not willing that any should perish but that all should be redeemed.  It says it in the Book.  Perhaps the most important working team (think committee) in the church is the hospitality team.  Their job— is to make every person feel welcomed, accepted, and wanted.  Yup…that would work.

Well, I do like a good chicken sandwich and a good helping of mac and cheese, but I love the way these folks do business.  I do think it should be the goal of every local church to love God…love people and make it obvious that is what we are about. The God we serve is worthy of more than good enough…He deserves our very best. Why? Because He gave His very best for us.  He is for us and through Him anything and everything within His will and purpose is possible.  In this COVID mess we have an opportunity to show off our love for God and others.  It can happen…it should happen…because He’s got this.

Posted in Christmas, Family, Grace, life, loving others, missions, travel, wisdom

Oops

We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” Hebrews 2:1

I should have paid closer attention.  This past week our church took its annual trip to Atlanta to work at the Operation Christmas Child distribution center.  Samaritan’s Purse heads up this amazing ministry that encourages people to pack a shoebox with toys, toiletries, and the like.  The boxes are then collected and shipped around the world to kids everywhere…last year 10 million of them! To the kids it is the greatest gift ever.  But the best part is that each box contains the story of Jesus and how much He loves them.  Every child loves the gifts but many also hear about Jesus for the first time and love Him too.

So, we take a day and travel on our church bus from Southern Illinois down to Atlanta.  We work a full day at the processing center preparing the boxes to be shipped and then the next day we travel home.  It is a busy three days and frankly the day we work at the processing center is a long, but wonderful, day.  The travel days are easy thanks to our great bus driver Brent.  Brent is on staff at our church and He loves people, loves Jesus, and loves to drive!

Well, we left early, really early, Tuesday morning and travelled all day before arriving in Atlanta in the late afternoon.  After we checked into our hotel rooms we loaded back up on the bus and went to a mall that was close to the hotel to get supper.  We went our separate ways but several of us ended up at a Greek restaurant.  It was good.  We took our time enjoying the meal and soon it was time for us to leave.  My wife Judy was going to pay our bill and I told her I was going to go to the restroom.  Having not been there before I looked for the sign and headed in that direction.  It was down a small hallway.  I only saw one sign and it said men, so in I went.

No one else was in the restroom and in just a minute I was ready to leave.  When I opened the door, a lady from our team was just about to push the door open.  I looked at her and she looked at me…something wasn’t right.  My first thought was that she obviously was confused and was going into the wrong restroom.  But then I had a thought.  It was odd that the restroom didn’t have the usual equipment you find in a men’s restroom.  And then it hit me. Oh no!

Well, I blurted out to her, “Am I in the wrong restroom?” And she confirmed my worst nightmare…I was.  Fortunately, I knew her and fortunately no one else was in there, I began to I apologize all over myself.  Crazily, in my 66 years of life, this had happened two other times—both years ago.  Each time, I wanted to die.  This case was no different.  I swore her to secrecy but then realized this was too good of a story to pass by.  The big question is how in the world do you end up where you don’t belong?  That’s a great question.  In my case the signage just wasn’t clear, and I was tired, and I just wasn’t paying attention.  Put those three together and know that social disaster is right around the corner.

Maybe you have never gone in the wrong restroom, but perhaps you’ve headed the wrong way on a one way street. It’s frightening when you’re seeing headlights and you’re supposed to be seeing taillights. It is one thing when we accidentally go in the wrong direction, but too many times we find ourselves in the wrong place—by choice.  The wrong movie, the wrong relationship, the wrong side of the law, or more importantly, on the wrong side of God’s Word.  Truth be known it happens way too often.  And it usually happens when we get tired, or busy, or sloppy, in our faith.  In my case there really were no consequences besides my being incredibly embarrassed, but that is not always the case.  Too often our sloppiness ends up in broken lives, broken marriages, and broken hearts.

The Bible has a lot to say about wisdom and staying on the right path. It says, “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.”  If I had been paying careful attention, I would have noticed that the sign was intended for the other door…not the one I took.  If I hadn’t been sloppy, I could have passed on a very embarrassing moment. Well, they say that hindsight is 20/20.  So, what about it?  Are we willing to watch where we go and where we step?  I think you will find that it is just the wise thing to do.  And, by the way, when we do mess up, well, it’s good to know that His grace really is sufficient and to know that always, He’s got this. 

Posted in Christmas, Family, forgiveness, Grace, gratitude, Holidays, life, loving others, Scripture, Southern born, thankful

Miss Scarlet

For this is how God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16

I had to do a double take.  When Faith, my oldest granddaughter, was only three, she started a Christmas family tradition, and it all began with her playing with our nativity set.  First, the family nativity set was purchased way back when we had two daughters when they were three and four years old.  Each year we would go to the attic and bring down the Christmas decorations.  And there, in its original box, now tattered by the years, sat the nativity set. We bought it from Sears and Roebuck for about thirty dollars and trust me back then, that was a lot of money.  Through the years the angel lost his or her wings several times and more than one head was knocked off.  Always, a little glue fixed the injury…at least more or less.

As the years passed and the injured players grew in number, let’s say we were just a little less careful with the old nativity set. When Faith came along it was just natural that she wanted to play with the nativity set and that was fine.  Now for part two.  Being from the South and loving history, somewhere, somehow, we ended up with an ornament of Scarlet O’Hara from the movie “Gone with the Wind.”  She was dressed in a curvy, clingy red dress that probably went a little too far south in the front.  Well, each year she ended up on the Christmas tree.  And then it happened.

That year, probably around 2003 or 2004, Faith was playing with the nativity set and somehow or another she spied Miss Scarlet on the tree.  She simply saw it as another member of the cast.  So, she took Scarlet off the tree and as she played, she included her in the cast of characters.  When she was done, she just let Miss Scarlet stay in their midst.  There was Baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the Three Wise Men, the Innkeeper (I’m not sure why he was invited), and a shepherd boy, along with several barnyard friends and standing right in the middle was Scarlet.

Well, sometime later I was walking by and happened to glance at the nativity set.  I went down the checklist to make sure everyone was there and then I spotted her.  There was Miss Scarlet curvy, clingy dress and all. My first thought was, “What in the world is Miss Scarlet doing in Bethlehem?  What is a girl like her doing with Jesus?”  I was just about to remove her when it occurred to me.  I realized that if anyone was supposed to be there it was Miss Scarlet.  I realized that she was the whole point of the story.  Jesus came for people who had messed up in life. People who had made mistakes, people like her, like me and like you. That is why Jesus came in the first place.  He knew that the religious elite wouldn’t give Him the time of day.  But the ordinary, broken people…well, they got it.

So, Miss Scarlet stayed and for the past 16 or 17 years, I still go to the attic and get the decorations down. I still find the old, tattered box and bring it down too.  I carefully unpack the cast of that night in Bethlehem and there among the characters is Miss Scarlet.  Each year, I make sure she was a prominent spot in the nativity and each year that reminds me that she is what Christmas is all about.

You see, the Bible tells us that God loved the world so much that He gave His Son, His only Son to be born into a broken world. He did it because He loved us so much and amazingly, He said if we would believe in Him, put our trust in Him, we could call Him Father, our Dearest Daddy.  He also promised that every Christmas for forever we could be with Him.  Amazing.

I am so grateful that Faith taught me an important lesson that Christmas season so many years ago.  It is one of my favorite stories and one of my favorite Christmas traditions.  And each year, Miss Scarlet reminds me that broken people are always welcomed home for Christmas into God’s loving arms.  He doesn’t care if we are dark or light skinned, rich or poor, or part of the social elite or socially broken.  He just loves us and that is amazing.

So, this Christmas season, if you have a nativity set or even if you don’t, remember the story about how Miss Scarlet got invited into the story and that you are, too.  Especially this Christmas when things are so crazy, why not find yourself right there in the cast of characters, resting right next to Baby Jesus.  Mary and Joseph and Miss Scarlet would remind you that one thing is sure…He’s got this.

Posted in Family, forgiveness, Grace, gratitude, life, loving others, prayer, Scripture, Trials, wisdom

The Brothers

Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” John 13:35

It just bears repeating.  They say that two of the things that has been so difficult about this season called COVID-19 is the isolation and the division it causes.  I couldn’t agree more.  One of the things I have read and heard over and again is how pastors in particular have struggled through all of this.  Church size and denomination mattered little. With so many different opinions, unity was bound to suffer…and it has.

I’ve said it several times, but personally as a leader it has been incredibly difficult.  I have served as a pastor for 38 years and twenty of those have been with the church family located at 1300 South Feazel Street.  It has been a great ride.  One of the gifts it seems that God has given me is the ability to bring and sometimes hold the family together. But this season has made me doubt that giftedness.

Oh, I know, you can’t please everyone.  I even wrote a story about that.  But this has been one time that the family is divided and it seems there is no easy solution. As the pastor, I’m not called to one group or another—I’m the shepherd of the whole family. Oh, it’s gonna be ok.  Our best days are ahead of us, but can I be honest?  I began to wonder if our love, my love was going to be enough to see us through this in one piece.  There’s a part of the Bible that says love will cover the multitude of sins, but could it be enough to cover our journey through COVID-19?  Like the old Christmas song says, “I wonder as I wander”. And then God sent me a love note.

The Saturday after Thanksgiving we had our family celebration at my daughter’s house outside of Murray, Kentucky.  My wife and I went down Friday, spent the night and enjoyed some good family time.  The rest of the tribe joined us Saturday for a great meal and more family stuff.  About mid-afternoon it was time to head home.  We had church the next day and there was a full night of preparation waiting for us. So we headed north.  When we got home, I turned up the furnace (I had turned it down to save the planet and a few bucks) and started unloading the car.  After about thirty-minutes or so it occurred to me that the house wasn’t getting any warmer. Hmmmm.

I went downstairs and our furnace was stone, cold dead.  It was really strange as the breaker had flipped. I called one of the brothers in our church who knew about boilers…in fact, he had helped me before when I had some trouble.  Our boiler is older than our first born so…well, you know.  Since it was Saturday evening I just called for some advice.  He gave some. Since it sounded electrical, he suggested I start with an electrician. That sounded like good advice, so I thanked him.

I called another brother in the church (we have a lot of brothers in the church) who knew about electrical stuff (which appeared to be the problem) and asked if he could maybe come by Sunday afternoon and take a look.  He refused.  He said it couldn’t wait till then and volunteered to come as soon as he finished supper. I thanked him and also thanked God for brothers to call when there is a need.  In just a few minutes the doorbell rang.  I assumed it was the electrical brother but in fact it was the boiler brother.  Before long, the other brother showed up too.  So, on a Saturday night, two brothers came to try and make sure Judy and I weren’t cold that night. 

Working together they found a short in the control box and within an hour the furnace was up and running. That night Judy and I slept warm because two brothers were willing to help another brother in a time of need.  I was pretty overwhelmed.  I said to them, “Thank you for loving us.”  The boiler brother said, “How do you know we love you?”  And the answer was simple truth.  I said, “Because of your actions.” The COVID-19 hot mess had left me running on empty so God caused a furnace to fail so He could send to brothers over to say, “I love you.”  Isn’t that just like our Dearest Daddy?  I think it is.

The Bible says people will know we are Christians by our love.  Love is a great noun, but it is an even more powerful verb.  Compassion is love in action.  God demonstrated that by sending His Son to die on a Roman cross.  These two men, on a Saturday night, demonstrated it by coming and doing.  I believe the one quality that must be evident in a church is love.   We need to love God and we need to love each other.  God has made it clear that nothing will come between Him and us.  We must make sure that nothing Satan throws out today comes between brothers and sisters.

We talked Sunday about how amazing it was that God could ask a young virgin girl to be the mother of Jesus.  She couldn’t understand how that could happen.  An angel simply said, “With God nothing is impossible.” We wonder how we can love when we disagree, when we are hurt, when we being pulled in opposite directions.  The answer is simple…everything is possible with God.  Judy and I rested good that night with a warm house and a heart warmed by love…both His and theirs.  It reminded me fresh and anew that He’s got this.

Posted in gratitude, life, priorities, Scripture, thankful, Trials

Igor

For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow.”  James 1:3

His name was Jason…I called him Igor.  Several years ago, it was one of those times when it was time to do something.  The high humidity in my closet had once again shrunk most of my clothes.  It is just one of the hazards of living in Southern Illinois between the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.  While it is always the worst in summer, somehow, it manages to shrink my clothes right after the holidays too.  So, rather than go out and buy new duds, I just try and lose a few pounds.

About that time I was at church one Sunday morning and mentioned to a good friend of mine that I was going to try and shed a few pounds.  Well, he said to me, “Dewayne, I’ve got a personal trainer at the gym and how about if I arrange for you to see him three times a week.  By Easter, you will be a new man.”  I had never seen, much less had, a personal trainer, so it sounded like a good idea to me.  Maybe he could speed up the weight loss so I could get back to my bad eating habits…that I greatly enjoyed.

For my birthday that year, Judy and I drove over to Evansville on a mission to get me a couple of sets of gym clothes.  We got to Sears and they had what used to be called running suits on sale.  They don’t call them that anyone—they are called out of style. Anyway, I bought one.  It had the pants and the jacket, and I looked like, well, a dude.  I was to start working out with Jason, the trainer, on Monday.  I put on my fancy running outfit and drove over to the gym.  I opened the door and instantly realized that I was way overdressed. Remember the joke about the guy being told that he was going to a costume party so he dressed up and nobody else did?  Well, I was the guy. Bummer.

A few minutes later I met Jason and he kinda explained what we would be doing over the next few months.  He explained that he was going to make my body hurt…a lot. Well, he didn’t actually say that, but that was the reality.  The very first day I could barely walk to my car.  The next morning I wasn’t sure if I was going to live. Fortunately, I was meeting with Jason every other day so I had a day to decide if it was fatal or not.  By the end of the week I had changed Jason’s name to Igor because I was sure he got some sort of sick pleasure out of watching me suffer.  And I did suffer…a lot.

Over our time together, we did lots of fun things, but my absolute favorite were squat thrusts.  It was some kind of deal when you squatted down and then kicked your legs out the back.  Then you returned to the squat position before standing back up.  I’ve obviously never had a baby, so I have no idea what labor pains feel like.  But I do know this.  If leg squats were even 20% like a labor pain, then if the repopulation of the world depended on me it would be a very small world.  Total population:  One.

Well, I don’t remember making it to Easter.  Things did get toned up a bit, but I wouldn’t exactly say I was a new man.  I did get a new perspective on these guys and ladies who go to the gym and apply self-inflicted Igor-ism.  That is the self-infliction of Igor like pain on themselves. You’ve got to admire them—but as for me that would be from outside the torture chamber—uh, I mean gym.

Now there is one thing I need to make sure is clear.  Igor, I mean Jason, had my best interest in mind.  He was trying to help me reach my goals and help me be in better physical condition. It just wasn’t a pleasant experience…at least not on the front end anyway.  But do you know what?  Rarely are the things that really matter.  I know the Bible teaches me that trials are not easy, and they are never fun, but they are profitable because they teach me endurance. That’s what James, Jesus’ little half-brother, meant when he said that when our faith is tested, our endurance has a chance to grow. Going through the hard stuff strengths our faith.  And, trust me, that is a good thing.

Shortly after I quit going to be with Igor at the gym, I ran into him at one of the stores in town.  Actually, while I ran into him, I wanted to run from him.  But we chatted and he asked how I was doing.  I said fine.  He said he missed seeing me at the gym, and I made some kind of flimsy excuse, like I had a rare terminal African disease.  I don’t think he bought it.  So, we parted our ways. I was grateful for his help, but I was also grateful that my gym days were over.

While I don’t see Igor anymore, I’ve got to be sure I don’t give up on my real personal trainer—Jesus.  Like Jason knew what was best to help me physically, He knows what is best for me spiritually.  He encourages me, always has my best interests at heart, and never makes a wrong call. He allows me to pace myself and allows me to rest when I need it.  He’s the best life trainer of all. And I know this for certain.  If I falter or fail, He will be there because, He’s got this.

Posted in Christmas, gratitude, life, loving others, missions, prayer, priorities, Scripture, thankful, travel

Chilled to the Bone

And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” 2 Corinthians 9:8

If it wasn’t the coldest night of my life…it was close.  Back in 2008 we began a journey of doing mission work in West Africa.  While I had traveled to several, and some would say many, countries nothing compared to West Africa.  Even a trip to the third world part of Bulgaria with the Roma people couldn’t compare.  When we arrived in Niamey, Niger late one night, I thought I and my teammates had landed on the far side of the moon.  It was that different. Rarely am I had a loss for words, but that trip like no other caused me to appreciate my home country but also the people and places on a continent called Africa.

Niger is in what is called Sub-Saharan Africa.  The Sahara Desert is a stone’s throw from Niger’s capital city.  After we had taken a day to acclimate, we headed north into the desert to a small town literally in the middle of nowhere.  We were visiting with a couple of single guys who were living there and doing some work with the local people.  The goal was to share with the people about someone many of them had never heard about.  That someone was Jesus.  We were really limited to what we could do, but we did prayer walking and would try and talk with some of the folks through an interpreter.  It was incredible.

On the eight-hour drive into the desert (and keep in mind we flew for hours and hours to even get to Niger) our missionary casually mentioned that we would need to buy some blankets because it was likely to be cold at night.  I laughed.  If you are like me you think Africa and the Sahara and then you think hot, dry and then hot again.  I told her I doubted very seriously that I would get cold.  She just smiled.  Late in the afternoon we arrived at Tchin-Tabaraden.  In case you are wondering I am pretty sure we could see the end of the world just outside of town. Smile.

We had a great time talking with the two guys that lived there and before long it was time to set up our sleeping arrangements.  We were going to sleep out in the courtyard.  There was a small house, but we chose to sleep under the stars.  We set our cots up and each one of us had a blanket.  I was sure I wouldn’t need mine, but being the team player I hung on to it.  Before long, it was dark…really dark.  There was no running water and no electricity.  After a while we decided it was time to settle down for our long winter’s nap.  It seemed just a bit cooler.

Soon the stars were simply brilliant. I am sure there are places in America without light pollution that really shows off the stars.  With that said, there is simply nothing as beautiful as the stars above Africa.  Then, slowly a huge full moon came up over the horizon. If you can imagine it, it was almost too bright to sleep, and I am not kidding. Then it happened.

It?  What was it?  It was the desert cold.  Slowly, almost without warning, the dry “winter” air settled in.  In just a few minutes I had spread the blanket lightly over me.  In another few minutes, I had tucked the blanket around me.  A little later I was trying to figure out how to put the blanket under me and over me.  Apparently, there was too much of me and too little blanket.  Then, well then, I just got bone chilling, you’ve got to be kidding me, am I really in Africa, COLD.  Let me just say, I spent a large part of that night wishing for daylight.  Oh, how I couldn’t wait to see my old friend the sun.  It was the coldest night I have ever spent.

Finally, at about the 4:30 in the morning the mosque right across the street began the first call of prayer for the day.  Of course, I had long beaten them to the punch.  I had been praying since about midnight for the sun to come up.  I figured if Joshua could pray for the sun to stand still, maybe I could pull off it coming up early.  Nope.  When the sun did come up and began to warm the compound, the first thing I did was apologize to the missionary for doubting her forecast of a chilly night.

Ironically, that wasn’t quite the end of the story.  For our second night at the compound, we decided we would cram into the little house where certainly it would at least be warmer.  Well, the joke was on us.  Just like that, the weather turned and that night in the little house, no one used a blanket.  In fact…it was downright warm…too warm. After the freezing night and then the too warm night, back-to-back, you might be wondering would I go back?  Well, the answer is absolutely.  Over the years, it has been my privilege to return time and again and each time the blessings far outweigh the hardships. No contest. I long for the day when my feet will be on African soil once again, sharing the Good News.

We have made wonderful friendships, experienced many diversified cultures, and seen countless people come to know Christ as Savior.  We have seen more than a few miracles and watched as God changed lives—most notably the fair skinned men and women from America.  I am sure it is impossible to go on a trip like this and not be changed.  It has a tendency to put things like we have experienced recently in perspective.  We whine because bathroom tissue is out of stock.  Go to West Africa…they don’t even have bathrooms.  Smile.

Well, there you go. As we enter this most wonderful time of the year, be sure and be thankful for all the blessings you have.  Paul, a guy who wrote a bunch of the New Testament in the Bible said, “And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” That’s right, Paul. You see, many of those people who lived in Tchin-Tabaraden didn’t face one cold night, or warm night, they experienced them all and without a blanket or the air conditioning humming quietly.  We are indeed blessed. The old hymn says, “Count your blessings, name them one by one.”  That is good advice and there is nothing like a trip to a third-world country to help you do it.  I am grateful that we never travel alone.  Our Dearest Daddy goes with us each time.  He provides rest in the midst of restless nights and no matter the obstacle or hardship, we know, “He’s got this.”

Posted in Christmas, Family, fear, gratitude, Holidays, life, loving others, Scripture, Southern born, thankful

Wish Book

No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love Him.”
1 Corinthians 2:9

Maria had it right.  One of my favorite movies is the Sound of Music.  In the movie,  the kids are scared to death and Maria says that when she is afraid she thinks about some of her favorite things.  Her list, though different from mine, was pretty impressive.  It was a different time and a different country, but I could still identify with several things.  Remember her list? It had things like raindrops on roses; whiskers on kittens; bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens; brown paper packages tied up with strings; cream-colored ponies and finally something I really like—crisp apple strudel. Like I said, a different time and different place.

But she was right—when the dog bit, when the bee stung, or when she was feeling sad, she simply remembered a few of her favorite things. Which brings me to one of my favorite things and like her list—this favorite thing is gone.  The world when I was growing up was so different from today.  No cell phones, no internet, no cable television, or satellite television—it was a smaller world.  Things moved slower, more gently.  The saying, “You are slower than Christmas” was born in those days.  It seemed like Christmas simply took forever to come around.  Christmas was a time for wishing…a time for dreaming…about favorite things.

There were several big department stores back then.  Names like Sears and Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, J.C. Penney’s, and Spiegel were as common as Walmart is today.  If you lived in a larger city, you could actually go to the big stores. If you didn’t, every Christmas, the store would come to you.  It was called the Christmas Wish Book and every one of the big stores had one.  It would arrive late in the fall and was well over an inch thick and everything you could imagine, or wish for, was there in full living color.  I really can’t describe what it was like when this dream-world arrived in our mailbox.

I would sit down and slowly go through the pages and pages of the toy section.  It was amazing.  Eventually I might make it through the other stuff, but it was the bright shiny toys that really caught my eye.  Some things were so amazing they were beyond my ability to even wish for.  But I would go through the pages and slowly make a list of my favorite toys…my favorite things.  Sometimes I sent the list directly to Santa, but I also dropped hints to his secret agents—Mama and Daddy.  This one thing I know.  Christmas morning never grew old.  I couldn’t wait to see what dream or what wish had come true.

When the Wish Book came, I knew that everything I wished for wouldn’t happen, but it was the Wish Book that kept the magic, the hope of Christmas alive.  It was the list of favorite things that made my small world on the corner of Carlton and Wheat Roads seem bigger, more hopeful.  Sadly, now with the exception of a smaller version of Penney’s, those stores are gone—victims of online shopping.  And with them the Wish Book disappeared.  I can still remember when it made the news that Sears and Roebuck was going to discontinue their Christmas Wish Book. It was a favorite thing that all the websites in the world can’t replace.

But there is one Wish Book that just endures and endures—it is the ageless, timeless Word of God.  We call it the Bible. Now it is not a Wish Book like the stores put out.  It’s not a matter of flipping through the pages and making a list that God has to fulfill to prove He is God.  No, this Wish Book is much bigger and grander than that.  This Wish Book is a book of hope, a book of grace, a book of love.  In fact, it says, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love Him.”

From the beginning to the end, it tells one continuous story—God loves us enough to provide a way to bring His beloved human race back into relationship—to fellowship with Him.  The Wish Book from the stores was filled with toys and prices even Santa couldn’t afford.  But not God’s.  His greatest gift comes prepaid.  The price was the birth, (we call it Christmas), and death, (we call that Easter), of His Son.  And the best part—when He died, He didn’t stay dead.  And all we have to do is believe and trust in Him and He will give us the greatest gift ever—eternal life.

But wait—it doesn’t stop there.  Every page is not only filled with the hope of a future with Him—it is the promise of today, and tomorrow, filled with Him, too.  When we trust Him and believe—He promises that He will never, ever leave us.  Every day we can have the assurance that He will walk with us.  While that always meaningful, these days it is priceless.  In our turbulent, upside-down, uncertain world—He is rock steady.  He is good, He is faithful, and He can be trusted.

So, each fall I would patiently wait—ok, impatiently wait—for the Wish Book to come so I could dream of Christmas morning.  Well, the wait is over, and the dream is past.  Why not spend sometime today in the Wish Book of Wish Books—the Bible?  Be assured and warmed by the promises of His love and peace.  Be assured of the fact that we can rest knowing that an uncertain future is in the hands of a certain God.  Be assured that no matter what, we know that He’s got this. 

Posted in Family, fear, forgiveness, Grace, gratitude, life, loving others, Military memories, prayer, priorities, Scripture, USA, wisdom

December 7th

If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” Mark 3:25

December 7th.  A day that will live in infinity.” Though it was before my time I know the story well. It was a beautiful morning in Pearl Harbor.  Those who weren’t painting the ships or swabbing the decks of the powerful U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet were home enjoying a round of golf or a tropical breakfast.  And then, at 7:55 in the morning local time, without warning or provocation, bombers, fighters, and  torpedo bombers of the Imperial Japanese Navy swept in.  They began to systematically destroy the American fleet and its supporting aircraft.  That morning thousands of sailors and civilians lost their lives and thousands more were wounded.  Over eleven hundred sailors died instantly when a single bomb hit the ammunition magazine on the battleship Arizona.

In a  hour and fifteen minutes the attack was over and the United States was drawn into a global war.  The nation had long been divided over what role the United States should take in the war that raged in Europe.  That was all settled when, after the attack, Japan declared war on America and Hitler as an ally of Japan did the same.  Like it or not, the United States was embroiled in a war that would last for almost four years and cost the lives of 407,316 Americans with another 671,278 wounded.  But by the grace of Almighty God, in the end, America and her Allies were victorious in defeating the tyranny  of the fascist governments.

Thirty-eight percent of those who served were volunteers and sixty-one percent were drafted.  The average enlisted person was paid $71.00 per month while the average officer was paid $203.  Drafted or volunteer, officer or enlisted, they were all willing to put their lives on the line for the cause of freedom and the cause of defeating countries bent on oppressing those weaker than they.  Many valuable lessons were learned during that time—lessons that we must not forget.

First, is the power of unity.  Before the Pearl Harbor attack the nation was clearly divided over the war.  After the attack, the nation pulled together on a unified front to protect and defend—first the United States, and second, the millions of innocent people being oppressed by Germany, Japan, and Italy.  It is tragic that it took a Pearl Harbor to bring the nation together, but if America had entered the war divided the outcome would have been much different.  Today, we need to understand that it is time to come together again.  We have allowed a virus named COVID-19, a contested national election, and blatant racism to divide our country. Jesus said that a house divided against itself cannot stand.  Neither can families.  Neither can churches.  We must come together or we will fall together.

Second, is the power of owning it.  As in any national tragedy, the event happens and almost immediately the finger pointing begins.  Pick the historical event and the pattern is sadly the name.  Political parties and even ordinary, everyday people will use a tragedy to promote their cause.  We have seen it on the national front.  We have seen it on the local front.  We have seen it in the churches.  It is not a time to point fingers, but rather a time to rise to help solve what is broken.  Seventy-nine years ago today, December 7, America rose to the challenge.  I wonder if we will have the wisdom to do the same today?

Last, is the power of wisdom.  There is not much debate that storm clouds were gathering in the days leading up to December 7th.  Some would say that there was blatant evidence that an attack was coming.  Sadly, those warning signs were largely ignored and the cost was horrendous.  Today, right now, there is something we need to remember.  There is one enemy and it is not our neighbor, not our brother or sister in church, and not even the person who belongs to another political party.  The enemy is Satan, who wants nothing more than to destroy us. Jesus said, “The thief comes to steal, kill and destroy.”  It was true when He said it…it is true today.  The second part of that verse is filled with hope. Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly.”

You see, God is for us.  He is very aware of Satan’s tricks and schemes and He wants us to be victorious over him.  That is what Christmas and Easter were all about.  God became flesh and lived among us and then ultimately and deliberately died on a Roman cross that all people, regardless of nationality, race or economic station, could be forgiven and have eternal life.  With the wisdom of God, we don’t have to have a “spiritual” Pearl Harbor. With God’s help we can come together.  With God’s help we can be victorious.

You see, it’s not about religion.  It is about a relationship with the God who made it all. And with the relationship comes hope, comes peace, comes forgiveness, comes unity.  If we are wise enough to believe what God says, and act on what He teaches, our best days won’t be in the rearview mirror but rather ahead.  So this Christmas season, let the Prince of Peace bring His peace into your world.  Rest in Him.  He’s got this. 

Posted in Family, fear, forgiveness, Grace, gratitude, life, prayer, Scripture, thankful, wisdom

Anyone Seen Baby Sarah?

Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” Proverbs 22:6

It was one of the scariest times in our lives.  As a pastor and family, Sunday has always been a crazy time for the Taylors and one of the busiest days of the week. And, when things get busy, and crazy, well something strange, and perhaps scary, is bound to happen.  And one day it did.  I was pastoring at Cobden First Baptist and had been there for seven or eight years.  When we arrived we had two daughters and when we left we had three. Our third daughter, who was affectionally called by many, Baby Sarah, came along in 1989.  Fast forward about four years.  Before I go any further, please know that the statute of limitations has expired for child neglect.

Judy and I always drove separately to church.  We had two morning services and since I was the preacher, I got to go to both of them. We had two great services and while it wasn’t unusual to do something with one of the families after church, that day we just went home.  Judy got home before I did and I showed up a little later.  We started decompressing and getting ready for lunch when someone asked, “Where’s Sarah?”  I looked at Judy and Judy looked at me. I thought she had Baby Sarah and she thought I had Baby Sarah.  It quickly became apparent that no one had Baby Sarah.  Crisis on steroids.

We jumped in our car and literally raced over to the church.  No Baby Sarah.  One of our best friends lived almost across the street from the church. Their daughter was Sarah’s best friend.  Maybe she was there.  It was locked up.  No Baby Sarah. Needless to say we were in a panic. Someone told us they thought that our friends had gone out to eat at a restaurant that was several miles out of town.  We thought maybe they had taken Baby Sarah with them and forgot to tell us.  That wasn’t the case.  We lived halfway up a steep hill and as we were in the front yard, trying not to panic, we saw a small figure running towards our house. Her long blonde hair was flying in the wind and she looked exhausted. It was Baby Sarah coming home.

So, here’s what happened.  Our friends had some new kittens.  Maggie, Baby Sarah’s best friend, asked her to come see the kittens.  So they went to Maggie’s house, across the street from the church to see the new arrivals.  Maggie’s parents, not knowing Baby Sarah was with Maggie, hollered for Maggie to come down so they could go out and eat.  Baby Sarah stayed put.  After a few minutes she realized she was all alone in the house.  She somehow managed to get their door unlocked and opened and she started towards our house which was about a mile away.  Now Cobden was a small town, but getting to our house from the church involved going over a railroad crossing and a pretty busy road.  Baby Sarah managed to navigate all of that and find her way home.  Remember, she was only four or so.

Back to the story.  When we got to her she was beet red from the heat and barefoot because she left her shoes at Maggie’s.  Her toes were bleeding from the rough pavement.  Amazingly, other than that, she was fine.  It was quite the reunion and we were so grateful to have her back.  We learned a very valuable lesson that day—count the kids when you leave the house for church and more importantly, count the kids when you head back home.  The bottom line? It was just one of those things that can happen if a couple of details are missed.  In this case one of the details was Baby Sarah.

So, besides counting your kids, what is to be learned from this scary tale?  Well, it is obvious but it isn’t.  The big question is, “How did Baby Sarah know how to get home?”  How did she know how to safely navigate the railroad tracks and the busy street?  The answer is this.  In the course of everyday life, we had driven, but more  importantly walked that path many times.  Time after time, hand in hand, she had walked with her mother and sisters so that when she had to do it alone…she could…she did.  That wasn’t our intended lesson but it was a very valuable lesson indeed.

Moms and dads and others who have a role in molding and shaping others—remember this—we are teaching whether we know it or not.  Our everyday routines are being imprinted on young hearts and minds.  And someday, when you least expect it, those imprints will become very, very important.  The Bible talks about training up a child in the way they should be so that when they are older they will know the way.  That was true for Baby Sarah that day in a practical way.  But trust me, it is true every day in ways that we may not see coming.

Because Baby Sarah was prepared that day to walk a path by herself, this story has a good ending.  It is one of our favorite stories though it still causes us to shudder.  I believe there is another reason why Baby Sarah made it home that day.  I believe our Dearest Daddy was watching over her.  And the truth is that no matter what or how the story ends, I’m learning that I can trust Him and rest in Him.  I’m learning that even in life’s scariest moments—like the ones we are living in right now—we can know that He’s got this.  Always has…always will.