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

Sunday Surprise

And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope.
1 Thessalonians 4:13

I love surprises—well at least the good ones.  From the time I was a kid, there were two things that rang my bell:  gifts and a good surprise.  When you marry those two together—well, it’s a good thing.  One of my favorite memories center on a time when that happened.  When I turned 40, my wife Judy arranged a surprise birthday party for me and we just had a great time.  The gift thing was a little odd—you know, Geritol, Depends—the normal stuff when you’re being toasted at a party.  My favorite perhaps was a horseshoe shaped toupee custom designed to fit my receding hairline.

Yup—there’s nothing like a good surprise—especially a Sunday surprise.  I’m a pastor so around Christmas or perhaps Pastor Appreciation Month, it is not uncommon for the folks to give us cards and gifts.  It’s great.  You go to church and you get presents. I love it. Every once in a while, it’s a bit more random.  That happened not once but twice very recently.

Several weeks ago, I was talking about grief and how the Bible says that people who follow Jesus grieve differently.  According to Paul, the guy doing the writing, we don’t grieve like people with no hope.  The reason for that is we believe the end doesn’t have to be end.  That’s what Easter is all about.  Well, to illustrate the point I said if I were to lose twenty dollars there would be two ways to grieve.  One is the way I would grieve if it fell out of my pocket.  It would be gone.  No hope of recovery and no hope of getting it back.  Adios, President Jackson.  But if I were to put it in the bank, I might grieve that I can’t use it, but at least I would know where it was.

Well, it was a good illustration—now for the surprise.  When Judy and I got home from church that day, we walked up to our backdoor.  There, tucked neatly where the door met the frame, was a twenty-dollar bill.  There was no note, no anything just President Jackson there smiling at me.  To this day, I don’t know who left it but it sure made my day.  But here’s why!  Someone listened and just wanted to be a blessing.  It worked.  What a great Sunday surprise.

Guess what?  It happened again a couple of weeks later.  This time it wasn’t a portrait of President Jackson but something just as special.  At Christmas time we have a nativity set.  I shared recently in a Grits with Grace story how our nativity set includes a special guest:  Scarlet from the movie “Gone with the Wind.”  Years ago, someone gave her to us as an ornament for our tree. Well, my granddaughter added her to our nativity set about 17 years ago and it just seemed natural that she should stay.  After all, a sinner like her, like me and like you is what Christmas is all about.  You know, Baby Jesus came to save the world from all our brokenness.

On the Sunday before Christmas, I shared that story as part of the morning message.  Now, fast forward a couple of weeks—the Sunday after New Year’s.  Judy and I finished up with church and headed to the house.  When we got to the back door, I looked down and there was a small box.  It was wrapped in plain, brown paper and simply said, “The Taylor Family.”  It was another Sunday surprise.

After lunch we opened the box and guess what was in there?  It was another Christmas ornament from “Gone with the Wind” but this time it was, drumroll, please, Rhett Butler.  Now in case you don’t know, Rhett was Scarlet’s beau in that movie.  We laughed till we cried.  We still don’t know who left it for us, but it made our day.  Next Christmas—yup, Rhett will be by Scarlet in our nativity set. They both will remind us that Jesus came to fix broken people—just like them and just like us.

Both of those surprises were special because someone thought enough to reach into our lives with a special touch.  It is appropriate that they happened on Sunday because it seems that is when God just loves to surprise His people.  Often, we manage to make it to church after a difficult week wondering what could possibly happen that would make it worthwhile—make life more bearable.  And then, it happens.  A friend speaks a compliment to you.  The worship team leads a song that reaches right down where you are and picks you up.  The pastor chooses a scripture that seems it was written just for you that very day.  And all of a sudden, you know why you made the effort to get up and go.  God had a Sunday surprise just for you.

I believe God loves to do special things for us.  He sends us love notes that just remind us that He is still there and that He still thinks mighty highly of us.  Oh, don’t get puffy…it isn’t that we earned it or deserve it—it’s just the way He is.  It is His nature and character and I just love it.  So, whoever thought enough to tuck a twenty dollar bill in my door or somehow find a Rhett to be with our Scarlet—thank you for blessing us.  You touched our hearts.  And let’s be sure and thank God for all His special surprises He sends our way—not just on Sunday but every day.  And don’t be surprised about this crazy world—just remember, “He’s got this.”

Posted in Family, forgiveness, Grace, gratitude, life, New Year, prayer, priorities, Scripture, thankful

Watch the Small Print

Throw all your anxiety onto Him, because He cares about you.” — 1 Peter 5:7

Just pay a separate fee.  I’m a fan of the infomercials on television that you see all the time.  No, I’m not interested in the products and I don’t like the way they interrupt my viewing times. I like them because they are funny.  As you watch them, it is as if they had just discovered the fountain of youth. It is always something that they think I just can’t live without.  And, it is like they are my new very best friend.  They like me so much they are offering a deal that I just can refuse.

Sometimes it is a garden hose that expands like crazy when connected or shrinks up like a snake when it is isn’t.  Or maybe it is some miracle herbal supplement that is guaranteed to make me lose weight, or gain weight, or grow hair, or remove hair from where you don’t want it.  Regardless—they all carry a money back guarantee.  If you don’t like it…just send it back—minus shipping and handling and your firstborn.

My favorites are the ones that offer you two for the supposed price of one. That’s right folks because we like you so much, we are going to send you two of these amazing products—just let us know—and, of course, pay a separate fee. Wait. What?  If I am paying a separate fee isn’t that like walking into a donut shop and asking for two donuts and paying for both?  Or maybe going into Best Buy and them saying we are not going to sell you one television today, but two. All you have to do is pay a separate fee. I think that is called two for the price of two.

Then of course there is the small print.  On most screens there are like fifteen lines of extremely small print.  We are going to send you a two-week supply of this amazing product that will cause you to grow six inches overnight—and it is free.  What you can’t read is the small print that says if you don’t cancel in five minutes and speak fluent Swahili then the deal is off.  I remember we were driving back from somewhere on a trip listening to a radio show that I trusted.  They were offering a two-week supply of this amazing herbal deal that would help me lose weight.  Well, I needed to lose weight and there was no risk, right?  Well, a month later I was fighting a $69.99 charge on my credit card.  Oh, the small print.

I saw a commercial today for those amazing HD Tactical Sunglasses on television.  They made them sound like they would cause the blind to see. Well, I bought some at a local store and they didn’t exactly live up to all the hype.  In fact, they were so dark I couldn’t see anything—in HD, SD or any other D. They are in the car waiting for a return trip to the store.  The bottom line is if it sounds too good to be true…it probably is.  And it seems the more the hype—the greater the chance that it is full of hot air and not so true promises…except one.

The exception to this rule is one you won’t find on television.  That one exception is God. Here’s the deal.  He never makes a promise He won’t keep and He’s not big on the small print.  He lays it all out and there is no separate fee.  In fact, His gift of love and forgiveness comes prepaid—no shipping and no handling. I need to be honest and tell you that sometimes folks speaking for God like to make promises on His dime and then God gets the bad rap.  But there’s an answer for that too.  Just get a copy of His Word and check it out for yourself.  Like I said…He lays it out and it is a deal you just shouldn’t pass up.

As we begin this New Year, here’s some great advice.  First, record your favorite shows on the DVR and watch them later when you can fast forward through the commercials.  You can save yourself a chunk of time and if you are tempted by those outrageous claims in the commercials, you might save a few bucks too. Second, tune in to God.  He’s good, He’s faithful and He can be trusted.  Notice, by the way, that I didn’t say religion—I said God.  He has a great “no extra fee” offer.  He says, “Throw all your anxiety onto me, because I care about you.” And do you know what?  He really does.  There is nothing that He and you are going to face that He can’t handle.  Rest assured, “He’s got this.”

Posted in Grace, gratitude, life, loving others, missions, prayer, priorities, Scripture, sovereignty of God, thankful, travel, wisdom

The Rain Maker

 Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” Psalm 37:4

 It was drier than two-month-old bread.  It’s been several years now, but the story is as fresh as today’s bread.  We were on our second trip to Niger, West Africa.  We would fly forever and finally arrive in the capital city of Niamey.  There were two things that were always the same.  It was always very late at night and we were always totally exhausted.  After a day getting acclimated, we would load up and drive all day on one of the few paved roads in the entire country.

Niger is a sub-Saharan country in West Africa.  It was on the edge of the Saharan Desert—hot, dry, and dusty.  Our journey would take us to a small city in the middle of nowhere.  We would stay with a family there who were kind and filled with hospitality.  As is customary, we would settle in and then go see the “chief” of the village.  We would meet, greet, and thank him for allowing us to come and stay in the village.  On this particular trip we were distributing food to several dozen families in the area.  Because of the extreme dryness, food was always in short supply and because of a few years of drought—it was life-threatening.

As we met with the chief, we told him we were servants of the Creator God and asked him if there was anything that we could pray for.  Without hesitation, he said, “I want you to pray for rain. It hasn’t rained here in a very long time and we are desperate.  We have prayed but no rain has come.”  We prayed there and then and told him we would pray more—even asking people in America to pray.  And we did, both.

What happened next is a thing of legends—except it is not a legend—it is truth.  After immediately contacting some of our folks back in America, and praying ourselves…again…we went to sleep.  Sometime in the middle of the night, the wind began to blow, and the temperature began to fall.  Soon, there was the sound of a distant thunder.  Then, as we stood in our doorway and watched, a heavy rain began to fall.  David, one of our team members, was soon out dancing in the rain.  All of us were dancing in our hearts.

We would later learn that our friends in America, watching the radar online, saw a storm develop from nothing and move across our area.  As we danced in Africa—they were dancing in America.  That very night, right at three inches of rain fell in that village on the edge of the desert.  It was unbelievable.  It rained for several hours and fell so hard that several walls, made of mud, straw, and manure, collapsed.  A couple of storage buildings lost walls too.  When light finally came, literally, small lakes of water were everywhere.  We would be using the four-wheel drive feature on our trucks for several days.

I can’t remember if the chief came to us or summoned us to go to him, but that day we had another conversation.  He thanked us for praying and said that our God did what their god did not do.  He was grateful for us coming to the village and invited us to stay as long we wanted—and to return as often as we wanted.  Such are the wonders and miracles of the One True God.  This would not be the last or only miracle we would witness in West Africa.  It is amazing what God can and will do if the primary focus is to glorify His name.  I sometimes wonder if the people there still speak of the night of the rain.  I know we do.

There is an intriguing scripture in the Psalms—a collection of Hebrew hymns in the Jewish and Christian Bibles.  It is found in Psalm 37:4. It says that if we are willing to delight ourselves in God, He will give us the desires of our heart.  At first that sounds like a “rub the bottle and a genie pops out” story.  Trust me…it is not.  You see the first part is key—when we delight ourselves in God—then our desires align with His desires and when that happens—miracles do too.

This year, let me encourage you in a couple of areas.  First, if you haven’t thought much about Creator God—Jehovah God—in a while—why not revisit Him?  I believe you will come to the same conclusion I did years ago.  He is amazing.  And then, as we journey through this New Year, let’s commit to making His desires, our desires.  Let’s get on the same page with Him and watch, in wonder, what He can and will do.  It may not be exactly what we want but it will be what is exactly right.  He doesn’t make mistakes.  Wrapped up in all of this is that powerful truth we end each story with.  It is good news for this day and every day.  We can have the confidence assurance that, “He’s got this” and He does.

Posted in Family, food, Grace, gratitude, Holidays, life, loving others, New Year, prayer, priorities, Scripture, thankful, travel, wisdom

Ralph’s

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” John 3:16

It was donut heaven.  Judy and I took a trip to middle Tennessee to do some hiking and be amazed all over again at the wonder of God’s creation.  We stayed in the small city of Cookeville which is about an hour east of Nashville.  We had driven by there many times on our way to Pigeon Forge and points east but never stopped.  And for some reason…this time it was our destination. It was wonderful.

Within a few minutes driving time were some of the most beautiful waterfalls I have ever seen.  One, Fall Creek Falls, is the tallest falls east of the Rockies—256 feet of free falling water.  Then there was Burgess Falls which had not one, but three separate falls…each one more spectacular than the one before.  Finally we drove over to Rock Island State Park and were amazed by a river that fell and fell and fell—each time creating a beautiful waterfall.  Then, coming out of caves in a huge, high bluff was a massive waterfall falling into the river.  Unbelievable. I would think God would get a 10 for all the beauty that we have seen.  And then…there was Ralph’s.

When we stay at an Airbnb, we always check out all the literature that the host leaves to make the visit more enjoyable.  We also check out comments in the guest book for tidbits of information.  That is where we heard about Ralph’s.  Three different previous guests mentioned this mom and pop donut shop in downtown Cookeville.  We had to visit.  To not do so would have been a travesty of donut-ism.  So we were on our way on Monday morning when Judy checked their website.  Oh no…closed on Mondays.  We had to wait another day.

Tuesday morning after planning our hikes for the day, we headed to Ralph’s Donut Shop to ensure we had plenty of calories on hand for our journey.  When we arrived it was indeed an ordinary mom and pop donut shop.  But trust me…it was anything but ordinary.  The first thing I noticed was the sign stating that they had been open since 1962.  Do the math and you will find out that they have been making donuts for 58 years—in the donut world that’s like forever.  And then—we opened the door.

It was donut heaven.  I know that to be true because so many things in the case were “holey.” Get it?  Anyway, to my left was a horseshoe shaped counter with almost every stool filled with locals enjoying coffee and pastries.  There was a long glass case and a whole wall filled with pastries and donuts.  And there to greet us was the best donut salesman in the world.  You could tell this guy loved his job and was “in the right seat on the bus.”  Judy and I use that phrase to describe someone who is doing what they were meant to do.  This guy was meant to work at Ralph’s.  The first thing my eye spotted was the royalty of pastries—the fried apple fritter.  It was massive, fried crispy, covered with glaze with the middle stuffed with apple filling.  One please.

Then the sales guy told us the fritter was their best seller until the butter twist came along.  It was a fried donut but the twist was they brushed it with butter before cooking.  He said it was voted the number one donut in the entire state of Tennessee.  I’m sure he was telling the truth.  Two please.  Judy wanted something chocolate.  No problem—a butter twist with chocolate frosting should do the trick.  One please.  Then I asked about this chocolate creation on the top shelf.  It was a devil’s food mix and saturated with chocolate.  He said it was diabetes on a plate and should come with a shot of insulin.  We passed on that one. His final gift was a spice bar that was broken in two, so it was free.  He said it was as if Little Debbie married gingerbread and had a baby.  I loved it.

Judy and I had read that they closed at 11:30 so we assumed 11:30 am but we asked anyway.  Oh no…they have three shifts of bakers and are open from 5:00 am till 11:30 pm.  Now who has ever heard of a donut shop staying open that long—and they are doing quite well, thank you.  Oh, and did I mention that they are listed in the top 20 donut bakeries in the entire United States?  Oh, yes…it was donut heaven and it was “holey” ground.

Well, there is one thing that was obvious at Ralph’s—they were all in.  They knew their product, they believed in their product and they wanted to share their product.  Even if you didn’t like donuts, you wanted to buy one by the time you left.  You wanted what they had because it had to be worth having.  I have a feeling that we as Jesus followers should take a lesson from Ralph’s.  We know we have the best thing in all of creation to offer those in our world—the good news of Jesus Christ.  Donuts may be “holey” but Jesus can make us holy—holy enough to call God, Father—holy enough to go to heaven.  And Ralph’s may have been making donuts for 58 years but God has been loving us since before the foundation of the world.  He wants to walk with us through this New Year and every year.  He is a beyond amazing God.

Since He is so incredible—if we love Him, if we believe in Him—we should be all in too.  We should live like we believe and share the Word about Him like we believe it.  I left Ralph’s wanting to tell people about this amazing place.  I think we need to get up every morning wanting to tell everyone the great Good News.  On this first day of this great New Year let’s figuratively get behind the counter—not to sell donuts but to share the Good News. And what is that? It is that God, Creator God, so loved this world that gave His Son to a Roman cross that anyone who believes in Him and what He did—can have everlasting life.  And that is the best news ever.  Oh and then there is more.  No matter what today or this year sends our way, we have the assurance that He’s got this.

Posted in Family, Grace, gratitude, Holidays, life, New Year, priorities, Scripture, Southern born, thankful, wisdom

James

The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD and He delights in his way.  And even if he falls, he will not be utterly cast down because He upholds him with His strong hand.” Psalm 37:23-24

The other day we were down at my daughter’s house who lives near Murray, Kentucky.  They have blessed us with two of our eight grandchildren and if you know anything about grandkids they are just a bunch of fun.  Matt and Jen live in the country near Kentucky Lake and my wife Judy decided we needed to take a walk.  Now if you know Judy you know she believes that people build houses for essentially one reason—to sleep in.  If you aren’t sleeping, you need to be doing something—outside.  Period.

So, naturally, we took a walk.  I was with my grandson James and we were having an adventure.  Soon we were walking hand in hand.  Now, James, who is six, is a very thoughtful young man.  So, eventually, he asks me, “Papa, what is your real name?”  Now I knew what he was asking but why not have some fun when you can?  So, I told him my name was Papa.  “No” he said firmly, “your real name.”  Well, I gave in and told him it was Dewayne.

He took a shot at pronouncing it and got real close.  I thought that might be the end, but no, the best was yet to come.  He then asked me, “Papa (he didn’t try Dewayne) how old are you?  Well, that was a good question, so I gave him the answer.  “James,” I said, “I am almost 67 years old.” Again, almost without hesitation he said, “Papa, you’re almost dead.” I died laughing—no pun intended.  The Bible mentions something about out of the mouth of babes, truth comes, and I guess truth be known…there’s a lot more days behind me than before me.

Another of my favorite James stories occurred several years ago. Judy and I drove down to Vienna to Jon and Becca’s house and the Johnson clan drove up from Murray. Everyone was there with the exception of Sarah and Blake who at that time were stationed in Savanah, Georgia.  The occasion for us getting together was my oldest granddaughter’s 15th birthday. So, anyway, it is always more fun when the grandkids are around. If you just wait you will learn something—or at least get a good subject for a sermon or a story. The latter was true in this case!

The family had migrated to the basement and only James and I were left upstairs.  So, I said to James (who was two at the time), “Come on, James, let’s go to the basement.”  We headed toward the stairs and I wisely offered my hand and he even more wisely took it. The wisdom of that decision became apparent quickly. Now James was and is, all boy.  As we headed down the stairs, he didn’t go slowly or carefully—he literally headed down.  I mean, full speed, Katie-bar-the-door down.  As we started down, he performed a combination of running, jumping, and skipping maneuvers.  Stairs were missed but hey, who cares, it was fun.  Let me just say I was glad that I had a good grip on him because if I hadn’t, well, it wouldn’t have been pretty.

We made it somewhat safely to the bottom of the stairs and I had to share the story and we all had a good laugh.  But later, as I pondered how that all played out, it made me appreciate God in a whole new way.  I freshly realized how glad I am that God has a good grip on my hand.  As I charge head first into life, especially in years like 2020, if He didn’t have ahold of me—well, it just wouldn’t be pretty.  But just like I held onto James, so God has ahold of me.  Only eternity will tell how many times He saved me from pain and suffering and the consequences of thousands of bad decisions.

Years ago, while reading the Bible, a passage jumped off the pages and into my life.  It said, “The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD and He delights in his way.  And even if he falls, he will not be utterly cast down because He upholds him with His strong hand.” That is such powerful truth.  The fact that God directs my steps, that the path He chooses for me is cause for Him to delight and that when I fall, He’s got me…well, that is good, good news.  And the best part is, it is true.

As we get ready to leap into 2021, it’s good to know that we can have someone like God holding our hand.  If you are a Jesus follower you know all about that and, if you aren’t yet, He is just waiting for you to take the leap of faith. Why not give Him a try?  God’s not big about denominations or even religion but He is real big about loving you and He wants to walk with you in this New Year.  James didn’t know too much about stairs when he took the plunge, but his Papa did.  James could rest assured that when it came to stairs…Papa had it all under control.  And when it comes to life, we can rest assured that our Dearest Daddy knows all about life and has it all under control.  You might say, “He’s got this.”

Posted in Family, gratitude, life, prayer, priorities, Scripture, wisdom

24/7

You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.”  Matthew 5:14-16

It was a great idea that just got better.  Thomas Edison had a really great idea when he invented the light bulb.  I love that history records that he failed in his first 10,000 attempts.  Of course, he was quick to correct anyone who said that.  He simply told them he didn’t fail 10,000 times, he just learned 10,000 ways not to do it.  The light bulb simply changed life in America and over the years it has continue to evolve.  First, it just got better. The life expectancy of a bulb in the early years was pretty poor—about 14.5 hours.  But over the years it got better and better.

More than several years ago a radical change happened.  Someone mass produced the compact fluorescent bulb.  These were revolutionary.  They burned for a much longer time, they were much cooler and they were much cheaper to operate.  The equivalent of a 60 watt bulb would only consume about 8 or 9 watts.  That’s a big difference.  While they were expensive to buy at first, the price came down pretty quickly.  And then the prom queen of light bulbs arrived…the LED or light emitting diode bulb burst on the scene.

When LED’s first came out they were barely bright enough to use in a watch.  Now they light the highways with headlights and streetlights.  They are amazing.  And the most amazing thing—they only consume a couple of watts of energy.  They literally cost pennies a day to operate.  An added bonus is that they last a really long time.  If you look at the package, you will read they are supposed to burn for 22,000 hours.  That figures out to about 916 days. Whoa!  That sounds impressive but is it really?

You see, I have discovered that while the LED may last that long, often the electronics in the base don’t. I have had LED bulbs that didn’t make it six months.  But there is a secret.  Regardless, if it is an old fashioned incandescent bulb, or a compact florescent bulb or a LED bulb the more often you turn it on and off—the shorter the life span.  Yup—its the truth.  I have some LED lights in my bathroom that have been burning 24 hours a day, seven days a week for over 14 months and they are still going strong.  Ok, you’re probably wondering why would I do that?

Well, 14 months ago I remodeled our bathroom.  It had lights on each side of the vanity mirror.  The light fixtures had switches to turn the light on and off.  Well, the new fixtures didn’t.  So I said to myself, “Who needs a switch?  It costs a few pennies a day to burn the bulb and I don’t have to try and figure out how to install a switch and I don’t ever walk into a dark bathroom.  So, there you go! Problem solved.  And light the Energizer bunny—they keep right on burning.

As I was pondering all of this, it occurred to me this is why some Christians burn out and some Christians keep right on burning.  You see, just like the light bulb, we last a lot longer when we are consistently on.  Believers who are on again and off again just tend to burn out.  First, things like prayer and reading the Bible slip away and then going to church and where that light once burned bright—only an unlit bulb remains…dark and cold. Yet those who make it a priority to stay on—to keep that appointment and read the Book and daily talk with our Dearest Daddy and make it a point to make church the priority on our calendar—they just seem to last and last. And it is no accident.  It just makes sense.  Jesus said that we are the light of the world—reflecting His light to a dark world.  And when we do the right things—it reflects so well on Him.

Well, I don’t know if I will ever install a switch or not.  I kinda like walking into a lit room.  Actually, we have eight or nine lights in our house that never get turned off.  All are LEDs and all cost a few cents to burn and all chase the darkness away.  I like that.  And then there’s always the, “I wonder just how long they will burn” challenge.  Who knows, there might be a record out there somewhere.  But I’ll only find out if I leave it on.  And that is true with our Jesus walk too.  We need to rise to the challenge and see just how long we can burn brightly—for Him.  The best way to start is to remove the option, the switch.  The next step is to determine you are going to trust Him to help you keep burning bright.  He will, you know.  He’s got this.

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, 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.