Thursday, December 21, 2006

What's All the Fuss about Christmas?

It’s that time of year again. The stores and shopping malls are packed with people. The calendar is filling up with activities for each member of the family. The list of things to do is longer than the amount of time in which to do them. With all of the hustle and bustle, sometimes we just want to ask, “Why all this fuss about Christmas?”

According to the children’s song, “Away in a Manger,” Jesus himself—the reason for the season—didn’t even make a fuss. “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes,” goes the little song. Truly this was a strange sight…a baby that didn’t cry! Many a parent probably wishes that they had given birth to this special child! What’s so special about Jesus?

The Gospel of Luke gives us the most information about the birth of this special child and tells us what the fuss is all about. In Luke 1:31-32, the angel Gabriel says this to Mary: “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” This woman—well, really a girl—was going to give birth to the Son of the Most High! The heart of God’s own son would beat inside the body of a human. The foot of the Savior would kick against the belly of Mary (I wonder if she and Joseph made jokes about Jesus being a great soccer player?). Jesus was God in the flesh.

While Luke tells us about the birth of Jesus, perhaps the Gospel of John gives the best birth narrative in 1:14: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” The Word. Who exactly is “the Word”? John 1:1 explains who “the Word” is: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So the Word is God. And the Word became flesh…through Jesus. That same baby who kicked against his mother’s belly. That same little boy who tarried in the Temple and got lost from his parents (Luke 2:41-49). That same child “grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and humanity” (Luke 2:52). This boy…was God.

Now that is something to make a fuss about! God inhabited humanity! He “became flesh.” And he did it through a simple girl named Mary. He was born and laid in a manger—a feeding trough for animals. What kind of God allows his one and only Son to be born in a stable among the animals? What kind of God chooses to subject himself to all of the trials and tribulations of life here on earth? The kind of God that becomes incarnate (in the flesh) is the kind of God that does not want to remain distant. He is the kind of God that shows us that he will be alongside us in our suffering because he himself experienced life on earth. God is like the coach who gets out and runs lines with his players because he doesn’t want to ask them to do something that he wouldn’t do himself.

While there is often great theology in hymns, I am going to disagree with the theology in “Away in a Manger.” Knowing that Jesus became flesh, I daresay that he did cry. He did need his mother to change his dirty diaper. And he did bleed when he skinned his knee. But that does not make him less God. In fact, it makes him more God. He did not have special circumstances that removed him from humanity, but rather, he lived out his divinity in human form. This is certainly something to make a fuss about.

This season that celebrates Christ’s birth that night long ago reminds us of the remarkable anomaly of God in flesh. Though frustration with all of the bustle with the holiday may cause us to throw up our hands and ask what the fuss is all about when it comes to Christmas, we truly have reason to celebrate when God became man.

Friday, December 08, 2006

You Can Say That Again!

I just spent the greater part of this week, “Deep in the heart of Texas!” (sorry, can’t avoid occasionally breaking out into song). I, along with about 130 other folks who are involved in campus ministry in the United Methodist Church attended the Refresh ’06 conference that was held at The Woodlands United Methodist Church. It truly was a refreshing event in so many ways! I was blessed to see some wonderful friends from Seminary, hear some top notch speakers, and connect with some other people who are serving Christ and the Church (yes, both the UMC and the body of Christ). Clearly, with a name like “Refresh,” one of the primary purposes of the conference was to rejuvenate, recharge, and regenerate. I can definitely say that while I got an average of 5.5 hours of sleep for the last 3 nights, I come back feeling refreshed of spirit and of mind. Clearly when one goes away for a conference, one is expected to return with new ideas. Oh, sure I have some new thoughts that I’ve never thought before, but more importantly, I’ve got some “old” thoughts that have risen to the surface again. Here are some of the most important things of which I’ve been reminded:

1.) When pouring out, it is imperative to continue to find opportunities to be refilled. Even a very small child knows the truth of this, but somewhere between preparing to teach several Bible Studies and mentoring students, I’ve neglected my own studies of the Bible and my desire to be mentored myself. This week I was able to be turn to scripture once again, not being expected to share it with another. Also, I was able to be face to face with my two most significant professors and my former boss, three people who have mentored me, befriended me, and shaped the way that I view the ministry to which God has called me.

2.) I really love to learn! While I’m continually putting myself in a position to learn something new, I was reminded that I love formal learning! The speakers were challenging, the conferees were encouraging and the workshops were informative. I love to be in a position when I can learn something new!

3.) God knows the deepest needs of our hearts and hears our prayers. I have been praying about something specific for the last year and a half and I had someone approach me to pray about that very thing. God very tenderly reminded me that He hears my prayers…a simple truth, but one that seems to be forgotten in the busyness of fulltime ministry.

It is at times like these that I can catch a (small in the whole scheme of things) glimpse of the work that God is doing around the world (and in the UMC) and I am grateful. I can see the work that God is doing in the ministries of my co-laborers in Christ, whether they are in Wesley Foundations, local churches, or church-related colleges. Through God’s Spirit, each one of us is doing our little part to build the Kingdom of God. Again, a simple truth, but one that is worth repeating.

Friday, December 01, 2006

You Can't Plan for a Snow Day!

How many times do you feel like you have a plan for something and then, “BAM,” something happens and your plan is thwarted? I’m sure it will come as no surprise to those of you that know me, I am a planner! You’ll rarely see me without my navy blue leather-esque DayMinder and I’m quick to say, “Let me check my calendar” when someone is asking for a meeting. I, and a few others out there, go by the adage, “If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail.” However, my plans can sometimes get messed up when someone doesn’t show up for a meeting, when I get stuck somewhere longer than I think it will take, or when the sky dumps 10-12” of snow in the matter of a few hours! Conversely, some of you are saying, “That’s exactly why I don’t make plans! You just gotta go with the flow.” Your adage is, “Don’t worry…it’ll all work out!”

Well, when it comes to planning, we’ve got to hold the two opposing ideas in tension. Those of us who are planners have to learn to relax and rest in the assurance that if our plans get messed up, we are going to have to make a Plan B (which we can learn how to do by watching those who aren’t planners). Those who are, shall I say, more spontaneous, have to learn to work with us planners, which may mean that they need to start that project more than a few days before it is due (which you can learn to do by watching us planners). Holding these two in tension can be seen through this familiar proverb: “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord determines the steps.” (Proverbs 16:9) We as humans make our plans, but ultimately it is God who enables our plans to come to fruition…or not. While we may think we’re doing the bulk of the work in making our plans, it is only by God’s grace that we are able to do what we’re doing. And as Christians, whatever we do is for God’s glory anyway.

We had a recent snow storm was an example of what I’m talking about. A group of my students began months ago planning the way for Ground Zero, a “Freedom in Worship” night that would be held on campus. They prayed, they practiced, they planned, they made a Facebook event and they even fasted. And 12 hours before the worship event would happen, the sky opened up and started blowing down snow. Now a little snow is awesome…slide down the hill that Southwestern is famous for and show all those students from Texas some fun like they’ve never had before! Even getting out of class is a fun little treat. But they were planning an event for nearly a hundred people and it was awfully cold and slippery! And I hate to bring up the fact that many of them had been praying and fasting and dreaming of this worship experience for months. Didn’t God plant these prayers and dreams in their hearts? Sure he did, so why did their plans get thwarted? Though it is frustrating when our plans seem to fall through, we must learn that though we spend our time planning, ultimately God is the one who opens doors and closes them, and it’s all for his glory anyway. Despite the seriously inclement weather, nearly 80 people ventured out to worship together! Were there some that did not attend, probably, but was God, our most honored guest in attendance? Absolutely! We made plans in our hearts, which did not include 12 inches of snow, but God determined our steps. It cost people something to leave their warm dorm rooms or apartments. But what we gained was worth far more than anything that it could have cost us. We had an awesome time of worship together and we saw what happens when God’s faithful people come together.

That snowstorm gave us all a time to stop, not because we wanted to, but because we had to…we had no other choice. I even went home early and set out to work from home for the afternoon. Some students probably went sledding, others had a major snowball fight, and maybe a precious few actually worked on homework since Finals is just around the corner! But regardless, we all slowed down, we ate whatever food we had on hand, and we did what we needed to do. I must admit, despite my frustration early in the afternoon that I couldn’t get everything done that I had planned to do, I went home, worked a little, fixed a pot of chili for myself for dinner, shoveled some snow, and enjoyed the interruption. No, I didn’t make the phone calls that I had planned to make and I didn’t get to be as productive as I had wanted to be, but ultimately I thanked God for the beautiful stillness of a (thick) blanket of snow and the silence of my little home. I enjoyed shoveling the snow from my driveway since it meant that I didn’t have to go work out and I prayed for those that felt the loneliness of being stuck at home. No, I didn’t plan to spend the afternoon at home, but God determined my steps that day, and my steps ended in snowy footprints that forced me to stop. I was forced to lay down my plans and submit to God’s plans, and if that isn’t glorifying to God, I don’t know what is.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Leaves are for more than just raking

We’ve been pretty blessed with nice weather so far this fall so it sometimes seems hard to remember that winter is well on its way! Last Saturday (while our Cross Country runners were out running a race), I was raking leaves at my house. You see, I have 3 trees in my back yard that shed their leaves, as well as 2 trees (3, if you count my neighbor’s tree that hangs over my yard) in the front yard. The trees are wonderful during the spring when they provide shade for the new little plants that sprout under their protection and during the summer months when they protect my yard from getting sun-scorched , but during the fall, they’re nothing but work! So far this season I’ve raked a total of 20 bags of leaves, and guess what…all the leaves have not yet fallen from their spring and summer homes!

So last Saturday, when I was raking, I was thinking about all of those leaves! The monologue in my head went something like this: “Why am I here raking these leaves this morning while the Cross Country team is about 3 miles up the road running their regional meet? Dang, these trees sure have a ton of leaves on them! And look…this whole bunch of leaves here is from my neighbors’ tree! They aren’t even my leaves and I have to rake them! And look! There’s my neighbor girl across the street raking leaves, too. She’s probably getting punished with having to rake the leaves!" Do you hear the self-pity in my head? But slowly, the monologue changed tone. “Well, at least it’s a nice day in which to spend the whole morning raking leaves. And they were pretty as they changed colors. Hey…at least I don’t have to go to the gym today since I’ve spent 2 ½ hours raking leaves and getting a workout! Maybe it makes my neighbor girl feel better knowing that she’s not out here raking leaves all by herself.” As time went by, I actually started enjoying raking! It made me realize that there is a time and a season for all things.

The writer of Ecclesiastes said it like this. The leaves are certainly on the trees for more than beauty, and they’re certainly not on the trees just to make more work for me! They serve their purpose, and when their purpose is done, they fall from the tree. Such is everything else in life. There is a time when we must buckle down and study and a time when we must lay aside the studies and be with our friends. There is a time when we must tear down the old Mound and build up a new one. There is a time when we must say goodbye to friends or family and hello to new friends and family. The leaves can’t stay on the tree forever—they receive too much damage from the spring rainstorms and the summer heat. They must fall off, so that they can renew their purpose the next year. During this season of changes, I pray that you would see where God’s hand is leading and guiding you, in the good times and in the bad times. I pray that you will have discernment as to when to lay aside the homework and be there for a friend and when to put in an extra hour or two of studies for the day. I pray that you would see the handiwork of God wherever you find yourself!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

4th Quarter Leadership

Here is an excerpt of a sermon that I preached in chapel recently...

When I was in college, I didn’t play a sport, but I was an athletic trainer. For those of you who don’t know what Athletic Trainers do, they’re the people who are there 2 hours before practice starts and for about 1 hour after it’s over. They’re the ones who tape your smelly feet, tend to your blisters, listen to your aches and pains, and wrap you up with an ice pack—and those are just the things that I can repeat in polite company! Athletic trainers are there during games and ride home with the athletes on the van or bus and feel the agony of defeat and the glory of victory, right along with the team. They’re the people with the polo shirts, khaki pants and fanny packs that you want by your side when you jam your finger making a block or sprain your ankle on a tackle. Well, that’s what I spent the vast majority of my “spare time” doing when I was in college. And believe me when I say that there were days when I didn’t want to tape one more ankle or make one more ice bag. I remember one day in particular during basketball season of my junior year. I was the only trainer working the Friday night men’s basketball practice (and who wants to be working practice on a Friday night?). I think I was doing my accounting homework while the guys were doing a block out drill. All of a sudden I heard a loud “thud” and then guys yelling. On the ground under the basket was one of our starting five, Scott, having a seizure. He had been going up for a lay-up and had been blocked out so good that he landed on his head. All of a sudden I heard them yell: “Trainer, trainer!” All eyes turned to me, and I was in charge. What was I going to do? I’d spent 2 ½ years in preparation taking classes, working practice, watching others, and now my first real moment when I was in charge!

Do you remember those moments—possibly in a game situation, taking a test, in a job interview—when you know that everything that you’ve prepared for is leading up to this moment? I call it 4th Quarter leadership. It’s when things are drawing to a close, the stakes are high, and you can do something that is going to affect the outcome of the situation, one way or the other. Well, we see this kind of leadership in Scripture, as many others have experienced this dilemma as well. Look at the life of Joseph (starting in Gen. 37 and all the way through Gen. 41:56 and following.

Okay, so here we have it: Joseph has lived in Egypt for some time now (long enough for him to work in Potiphar’s house, be in jail for several years, and then rise to 2nd in command status, have 2 sons and take on the external characteristics of being an Egyptian (wear the clothes, speak the language, have a new names, etc.). It’s been some time, now, since Joseph saw his brothers. I can imagine the following things running through his mind:

1. My brothers betrayed me with the ultimate betrayal (more than death—sold into slavery), leaving me powerless, but now look at who has all the power!
2. It’s all my brothers, bowing down before me, just like in my dream that got me into all my troubles! My dream came true.
3. Where’s Benjamin—where’s my little brother? The 10 who betrayed me are here, but where is Benjamin?
4. I thought this chapter of my life was gone! I’ve made it just fine here in Egypt and now I have to deal with this!

Here Joseph was, with all the advantage and what is he going to do? To put it another way, it’s the 4th quarter, Quarterbacking the Egyptians is Joseph. They’re up 49 to 0. They’ve prepared harder and played smarter than anyone! In comes a new team, a ragtag bunch of nomads, Team Israel. Their head coach, Jacob, didn’t even come to watch the game. They’re even 1 short on their team, as they’re playing with only 10 and they’re playing both Offense and Defense. They can’t catch a break. And here they are, head to head against superpower Egypt. It’s clear that they could be decimated by one quick pass, or run, or even a kick (whatever) by the Egyptians. And there’s another team looking hungry on the sidelines.

Joseph is the man in control. He’s got all the inside information, and he knows that he could kill these guys, literally. So what’s he going to do? He doesn’t have anything to gain or lose by treating them badly or treating them well. They’re just a bunch of outsiders who are taking their last resort.

Put yourself in Joseph’s position…you’re faced with a dilemma. Perhaps it’s not even as bad as you’ve been wronged and you’re flirting with revenge. Your dilemma is a homework assignment that you could cheat on, $20 that you could lift that would never get traced back to you, not going 100% at practice, or even skipping class, or work, or meetings, or church, just because you don’t want to go.

Let's look at how our hero Joseph handled the conflict: Gen. 50:18-21. First of all, Joseph knew who REALLY held the power—not him, it was God. Humility. Secondly, Joseph trusted God’s plan to overcome the struggles of life. Faith. Thirdly, Joseph didn’t allow the seed of bitterness to creep in and was gracious toward his brothers. Grace.

How do we allow these characteristics to be developed in our lives? How do we become 4th Quarter leaders who get it done in the end? Well, you might be wondering what I did in the situation with the seizing basketball player. It was my chance for 4th Quarter Leadership. You probably wouldn’t blame me if I wanted to run and hide and get mad at the Head Trainer for leaving me alone at this practice. Well, that thought did come, but actually it came long after the situation was over and Scott was safely at the hospital. Instead what happened was that my training kicked in—I had someone call an ambulance, made sure that he was safe and could not hurt himself worse and I helped stabilize him until the paramedics came. I wasn’t freaked out until after they took him away and then I was pretty shaky. He recovered quickly and even came by my room that night to thank me for helping him out. I didn’t ever think I would find myself in that situation, with that dilemma forcing me to act a certain way, but here I was, and the habits, the character that had been developed in me took over.

We have that opportunity in every situation, whether it be sports, playing an instrument, or in the classroom. We become 4th quarter leaders: people that have well-practiced positive habits and character traits that kick in when we are in a difficult situation. Joseph set the example for us to follow exhibiting humility, faith, and grace. Joseph’s name means “May he (that is, God) add.” His mother wanted God to add another son to her life. But we can ask God to add these characteristics to our lives: humility, faith, and grace. And when we need them, they will be there.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

I'm amazed

I just have to make this quick note...I'm amazed at how easy and quick it is to post blogs here (and even to figure out how to make links!). I started this not knowing at all how to do anything, and I've created this masterpiece you see before you! :) Just kidding, but all I'm saying is that if I can do this, anyone can!

New Habits Hardly Live

This is from an article I wrote for, a Community of United Methodists in campus ministry. I write articles (and here) for the Spiritual Formation section. Anyway...I wanted to include it here.

They say, “Old habits die hard.” Well, that may be true for your golf swing or biting your fingernails, but I haven’t found it to be true for spiritual habits. Perhaps I’m alone in my struggle, but I find that when I try to integrate a new spiritual discipline into my life, it becomes incredibly difficult for it to become a habit. says that a habit is 1.) A recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition or 2.) An established disposition of the mind or character. While the unconscious pattern of behavior may get us to pick up our Bibles every morning or get down on our knees, simply going through the motions of a spiritual discipline does not orient our inner heart and mind to think upon Christ. The second definition, however, “an established disposition of the mind” is appropriate for us as we think about forming new habits that shape us and make us more like Christ. It is these habits that are far from dying hard. They hardly live.

Why is it so difficult for spiritual disciplines to become habit? The main reason is probably because spiritual disciplines—the goal of which is positioning oneself to commune with God—is something that is completely unnatural to our “human nature.” It’s a good thing, then, that we are made in the image of God and as we spend more time with God, our “spiritual nature” is ever more recovered, rendering us more able to form those spiritual habits.

It is appropriate for us to think about establishing solid spiritual habits as we enter the new school year. A new schedule sometimes disrupts the habits that we’ve formed over the summer or previous semester. What was once non-negotiable in our spiritual lives now finds itself being squeezed in between classes or at the end of the day. However, this usually happens when we’re trying to take the sacrifice out of our spiritual disciplines. We’re happy to have “time with Jesus” when it pleases us and doesn’t require us to get up too early. But when that 8:00 class can’t be avoided and a “Quiet time” would require us to get up at 6:00…well, surely that’s not the discipline that Christ required! I mean, we can meet with him at any time of the day! And so what if we miss a day here or there. It can’t really have that much effect, can it?

Well, the important reality is that developing faithful spiritual habits make all the difference in the world. When I was in seminary, the Dean of the Chapel, JD Walt, preached at the beginning of the year about having what he called a “Prayer Mountain.” Drawing from the symbolism of Moses at Mount Sinai when Moses encountered the Lord in a powerful way, JD encouraged us to spend 1 hour a week, in addition to our regular daily quiet times, on a “Prayer Mountain.” The Prayer Mountain was a place that was set apart where we could expect to encounter God. A place that would become holy. JD shared with us the formula for why we were approaching the Prayer Mountain each week: “When alone with God meets God in community, power comes from you.” Clearly, the power is not for our own end, but it is a power that is manifested by God and for God’s glory.

That power is the same power that Moses experienced in his time on the mountain. It’s the power of the Holy Spirit and it is contagious. I’m reminded that when Moses came down from the mountain where he encountered God, his face glowed (Exodus 34). He had been in the presence of God and he began to take on the attributes of God. The Hebrew word for presence is peniel. It literally means “face.” To be in God’s presence is to see God’s face. Interesting then, when Moses’ face began to shine, be radiant, when he had seen the face of God. Hopefully we too, after spending time seeking God’s face, enjoying God’s presence, our faces will be radiant with the hope and the joy of obedience.

As I’ve practiced the spiritual habit of going to my Prayer Mountain, a little library chapel is turned into a holy place. In the daylight, the chapel looks dingy, dark, and even a little sad, with its water-stained limestone walls and old pews. However, through time, the lights inside remind me that Christ brought light into a dark world. The old prayer books remind me that many others have prayed the same prayers I have for many, many years. And even the newly acquired air-freshener to cover the dank smell becomes like incense, reminding me that my prayers are lifted to God. The habit is formed after weekly encounters with God in this place. It no longer becomes a thing of repetition, nor is it easily displaced. Rather, it is this spiritual habit that restores focus into my life and expectancy into my days. It is this habit that allows me to find the life that glorifies God, and allows God’s power to be contagious in my life. This transformative power of God can make my feeble attempts at developing habits that glorify God become habits that not only live, but bring life to me.

Getting Started…

1. Just jump in! Schedule 1 hour that can be held sacred for you and block it out of your schedule.

2. Find a private place where you can go and pray without feeling self-conscious, in whatever way is most comfortable for you. This could be a campus prayer room, a place at a church, a study room in the library, the chapel at your university, or a room at your Wesley Foundation. Remember, this place will become sacred space.

3. Don’t have too much of an agenda during this time. Present yourself before God and be willing to pray about whatever God brings to your mind. It could be your normal prayer list, but God may want to communicate with you about something in particular.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

My First One

Okay, I just noticed today that I started this thing on March 23rd, but I haven't posted a single thing yet. I had great intentions at first...I came up with a catchy title, I fooled around with different backgrounds, I even perused other people's blogs. My plan was to wait until school was out to write my first blog. Then, when school was out, I thought I'd wait until June was here and my life slowed down a bit. Then, I joined myspace and put my energies there, still thinking that I would EVENTUALLY post something to my catchy-titled blogspot blog! Then, my excuse was that I had never actually read the book for which this blog is named (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society by Eugene Peterson). I thought if I was going to have a book title as my blog name, I should ACTUALLY read it instead of just admire it from afar based on what others have told me about it. So I ordered it from and started reading. So, now, here it is, August, I'm just 2 chapters away from finishing the book and just weeks away to a NEW school year starting and my life "starting" to get busy again. Oh well.

I decided that I didn't ever start it because I didn't have the perfect idea for my first blog. I didn't want it to just be your typical, "I'm starting a blog so that all my friends (and friends of friends) can see what I have to uniquely offer the blogosphere." I also didn't want it to be unoriginal or unintelligent, but I'm afraid I've succumbed to both of those things, as evidenced by my title, "My First One." Pretty unoriginal, and dare I say, unintelligent, too. Oh well, unoriginal and unintelligent is better than nothing.

So, I plan to continue to write more things that hopefully have more significant things to say than my first blog, but at least it's a start. I do intend on writing a little on various things, but particularly things that have to do with discipleship, my own or the discipleship of others. Here I'll end with the obligatory quote for which this blog gets its name, from the surprising source of Friedrich Nietzsche,

"The essential thing 'in heaven and earth' is...that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living."

May it be so, Lord. May it be so.