Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Pursuit of Happyness

I saw the movie, The Pursuit of Happyness, today. I was expecting just another feel-good holiday movie with lots of cliches and poor acting by Will Smith. But I was pleasantly surprised. I loved this movie. Will Smith was amazing. His real-life son was great, too.

Will Smith plays Chris Gardner, a real person whose rags-to-riches story inspired the film. He loses everything but his son, and decides that he's going to land a job in a stock brokerage firm even though he's never had a college education or any experience in the field. I won't give away the story, but suffice it to say that the film really catches you up in the angst of what homeless people go through to survive. As I left the theatre, I found myself thanking God for sparing me the experience of poverty and unemployment. Will Smith plays the role with heart and soul. I believed him.

The movie reinforces the value of fatherhood. Also there is a good scene of worship in a church, showing what an important role the faith community has in dispensing mercy and help to the poor.

As a Christian moviegoer, one thing I always look for in a film is whether it succeeds or fails to tease out the search for significance, relationship, and/or transcendence that every human being engages in to some extent. In this particular movie, Will Smith is always running. Also, people are seen darting here and there throughout the movie, as if in a hurry to get somewhere or find something. Hence the title of the movie: The Pursuit of Happyness (purposely misspelled, by the way).

The human predicament is that we, like Chris Gardner, are in hot pursuit of things we believe will validate our existence. Trouble is, as St. Augustine observed in prayer, "Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee."

Ultimately, success and even family will not satisfy. God, and God alone, is the end of the struggle for significance, meaning, and happiness. "Happy is the people whose God is the Lord," it says in Psalm 33:12. Even though we admire Chris Gardner's determination to succeed, the question remains: Is he running in the right direction? At one point in the movie, Gardner says something to the effect that happiness is something always pursued and never achieved. He's right, unless the pursuit is directed toward God.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas!

It's Christmas Day. It's an unusual Christmas for me, for several reasons. One is that, because my wife is a nurse and is obligated to work on some holidays, she is working today. She's spreading Christmas cheer to people who are sick and injured, which is a good thing to do. But that leaves my son and me to have a quasi-Christmas without her for the first time ever. We're going to see a movie and go to a manly-man restaurant, and that will be fun. We'll have our family Christmas on Saturday, after all the kids and grandkids arrive.

Another reason it's an unusual Christmas is that it's 77 degrees outside. Not exactly a "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" kind of Christmas day.

And yet another reason is that I've kinda downplayed the usual Christmas hoopla this year. I haven't strung up one string of lights on the house. I haven't yet played my two favorite Christmas CD's (Amy Grant's A Christmas Album from 1983 and Michael W. Smith's Christmas, 1989). Even our Christmas tree is fake.

Nevertheless, it is a merry Christmas. I have a wonderful family, a loving church, great friends, health, and way more blessings than I deserve. Best of all, Jesus Christ is my Lion and Lamb. He came 2,000 years ago...and still comes everyday...bringing grace and peace to the world.

Here is my Christmas gift to anyone reading this. These are words from one of my favorite Christmas carols:

Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love's sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender,
Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love's sake becomes poor.

Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love's sake becamest man;
Stooping so low, but sinners raising
Heavenwards by thine eternal plan.
Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love's sake becamest man.

Thou who art love beyond all telling,
Saviour and King, we worship thee.
Emmanuel, within us dwelling,
Make us what thou wouldst have us be.
Thou who art love beyond all telling,
Saviour and King, we worship thee.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

My favorite Christmas songs

As I write this, I'm sitting in a restaurant being tortured with some of the worst, most worn-out Christmas songs ever made. But it made me think there are some really great Christmas songs and carols out there. Here are my favorites:
  1. "In the Bleak Midwinter" - Sarah McLachlan has a nice arrangement of this one on her new Christmas CD
  2. "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" - I know, I know...but when you live in Florida you need songs like this one!
  3. "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" - I realize the irony of what I'm about to say, but Barenaked Ladies does a really cool arrangement of this one!
  4. "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" - I wish churches sang this one still, but I'm afraid it's too hard for most folks
  5. "Thou Who Wast Rich beyond All Splendour" - For the inspiring story behind this hymn, go here.
  6. "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel"
  7. "Infant Holy, Infant Lowly"
  8. "The Holly and the Ivy" - Andrew Peterson and friends do a good job with this song on their Behold the Lamb of God CD
  9. "What Child Is This?"
  10. "Merry Christmas, Darling" by the Carpenters - when I was a teenager I had a crush on Karen Carpenter.
  11. "All My Heart This Night Rejoices"
  12. "Break Forth, O Beauteous Heav'nly Light" - sung to a Bach tune
Here are a couple of stanzas of "Break Forth, O Beauteous Heav'nly Light," written by Johann Rist in 1641. Isn't it sad we don't hear carols like this one more often?

Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light,
And usher in the morning:
Ye shepherds, shrink not with affright
But hear the angels warning;
The child now born in infancy,
Our confidence and joy shall be,
The power of Satan breaking,
Our peace eternal making.

All blessing, thanks, and praise to Thee,
Lord Jesus Christ, be given;
Thou hast our Brother deigned to be,
Our foes in sunder riven;
O grant us through our day of grace,
With constant praise to seek Thy face,
Grant us ere long in glory,
With praise to adore Thee.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Boasting in something besides Jesus

What do you boast in? That is, what's the source of your feeling good about yourself, feeling adequate and respectable and worthwhile? Whatever it is, it's functioning as your God.

For me, one of several things that I've boasted in for years is my health. My parents had various ailments for much of my life and died in their mid-'70s. I've taken great pride in the fact that I've had low blood pressure, ideal weight, good eyesight, mobility, etc. Well, the day I turned 40 I needed glasses. Now that I'm 52, everything else seems to be deteriorating.

As I write this I am wearing a Holter monitor because my heart seems to have decided to skip a beat every now and then. The cardiologist wants to track it over a 24-hour period. Tomorrow I get a stress test and echocardiogram. A few weeks ago he put me on a cholesterol-lowering medication. My blood pressure seems to be going up too.

"This stinks!! I'm not a person who needs blood pressure medication and all that other stuff. I'm better than those kind of people," I say to myself.

Uh-oh. That kind of thinking shows that I'm trusting in health righteousness, not Christ's righteousness. I'm boasting in something besides Jesus.

Galatians 6:14 says, "May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world."

Boasting in anything other than the cross is...idolatry. It's looking to something besides the gospel for things only the gospel can provide. Things like affirmation, security, congruence, fulfillment, a sense that we're loved, valued, and worthwhile.

It's OK to feel good about our health, our kids, our abilities, our job, our possessions, etc. But when those GOOD things become ULTIMATE things, we are putting them in the place of God. And as I'm finding out, non-God things don't last.

Once again, God is teaching me to boast only in the cross.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

New house

Suzy & I spent Friday & Saturday helping our daughter Jennifer and her husband Tim move into their new house. It's beautiful! Here are some pictures.

God has blessed Jennifer & Tim...they only had to rent one apartment before they bought this house. In our 30+ years of marriage, Suzy and I have rented two apartments, a duplex apartment,and (unbelievably) 7 different houses. We've lived in 5 different cities and owned 4 houses. We are crazy!! Hopefully our kids will live a more stable life than we have!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Stress

It's funny, I sometimes don't know I'm under stress until the thing(s) I'm stressed out about are over.

This fall I started a master's program in Counseling Psychology. When it began back in August I thought to myself, "Piece of cake." Well, 5 research papers and hundreds of pages of reading and various other assignments later, I'm realizing it was really stressful! The Christmas break has begun, and it feels good.

I really appreciate my wife and son supporting my being gone each Monday and Wednesday night for class. I've learned a lot, too. Classes start up again in a few weeks. But I'm not going to think about that right now.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Shiner

I got in a fight with a racquetball racket a few days ago, and lost. Praise God, I was wearing goggles. I used to not wear goggles to play racquetball, until I took a ball right in my eye one time. That converted me. This time, my friend (yes, he's still my friend) swung his racket around and I was standing in the way of it. My goggles went flying. I think the bruise is more a result of the goggles banging my cheekbone than the actual racket hitting me.

Here's a lesson learned from this beautiful bruise: Often, things get worse before they get better. That holds true many times when we're struggling to overcome something or when we're working on a problem, say, in marriage. This bruise has gotten uglier and uglier by the hour since last Saturday. The truth is it's actually getting better...but heck, it sure looks disgusting. And it'll probably turn other colors and spread a little more before it starts going away.

So don't give up. It will get better. Galatians 6:9 says, "at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up."

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Apocalypto no go

Based on what I've heard and read about the new Mel Gibson movie, Apocalypto, there's no way I'll see it. I can't stand watching arrows shot into people's bodies, hands hacked off by hatchets, heads being cut off, and hearts pulled out of chests. One reviewer calls it "unquestionably the most reprehensible, brain-dead and offensive movie I've seen all year." Another: "unpleasant, pointless, gruesome, and exploitative."

I'm ultra-sensitive to ultra-violence in movies, and it sounds like this one sets the bar at a new level. Sorry, Mel, it's a no-go for me.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Andrew Peterson concert

Tonight our church hosted Behold the Lamb of God, the Christmas concert tour by Andrew Peterson and friends. It was wonderful. The songs gave a fresh take on the birth of Christ, and what I liked best was all the Old Testament imagery sprinkled here and there. The band was excellent too.

An added treat was seeing and hearing Sandra McCracken, who sang a couple of her solo numbers during the first half of the concert and then joined Andrew as a backup singer for the main presentation. Sandra and our daughter Rebecca were friends & schoolmates back in the mid-1980s when we lived in St. Louis. I was associate pastor of the church that the McCrackens attended, and Rebecca and Sandra would sing together in front of the church, with me on guitar. Suzy and I got to talk with Sandra after the concert. That girl can sing! Sandra has taken some old hymns and come up with some great new music for them. I especially like her The Builder and the Architect CD.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Boundaries and parents

In my small group the other night we had a funny (but all too serious) time of talking about our respective parents. It seems several people had an awful time with their relatives over the Thanksgiving holidays. Most group members said that their families of origin were/are dysfunctional to a degree - some more, some less (who's not, right?). I recommended a book by Susan Forward called Toxic Parents: Overcoming their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life.

Later, I remembered a good song by one of my favorite songwriter-singer-guitarists, David Wilcox. The song is called "Covert War," from his Home Again record. Anyone with toxic parents will appreciate these lyrics. They illustrate the importance, as adults, of setting boundaries with our parents:

Dear Mom and Dad
Here's why I can't come home
I can talk to either one of you just fine
When it's either one, alone

But the Thanksgiving table
Is going to be pulled out bigger
If we talk at all
One of you will pull the trigger

I used to run those battle lines
Trying to smooth over what got said
Trying to get a medal
Trying to get some shrapnel in my head
Thought it was my duty
To plead and to implore
But I caught too much crossfire
In your covert war

The television talks, fills the air
So you don't have to start
You claim your territories in the rooms upstairs
To keep yourselves apart

Holy days, they bring us all together
After so much left unsaid
You taught us well not to kick under the table
You kick under your breath instead

I used to stand between you
Trying to smooth over what got said
Trying to get a medal
Trying to get some shrapnel in my head

Thought it was my duty
To plead and to implore
But I caught too much crossfire
In your covert war

Of course there was the anger where the love is strong
It spilled like gasoline
It's crude but it's a power we can draw upon
If it fuels the right machine

I love you and I'd never want to see you bleed
When comments cut like steel
So to hold your fire I'd block the shot and take the hit for you
As if I could not feel

I thought they'd passed right through me
That I had no scars to hide
But now I open up and try to love
And I find they're still inside

I used to run those battle lines trying to plead and to implore
Please won't you hold the cease-fire out a little longer
Until the next uproar

I took it all in childhood
But I can't take it no more
'Cause I caught too much crossfire
In your covert war


What a great Christmas idea!



Yessirree, this is the kind of stuff that makes us Christians look really intelligent. I'll take three...one for each bathroom in my house.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Little tastes of God

Psalm 34:8 says, "Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him."

I'm convinced that God reveals Himself in all sorts of ways throughout our days, and we fail to "taste" Him. We fail to see Him in the things that happen to us, or hear Him in the sounds of nature, or smell Him in the air, or feel Him in the people and things that surround us.

So today I tried to think of some of the ways God gives me little "tastes" of Himself:
  • Coming home to a house my wife has decorated with creativity.
  • Driving past the Merita Bread factory on I-4 at night and smelling their fresh-baked bread.
  • Getting a call from one of my kids.
  • Looking out my back porch just as three sandhill cranes walk past.
  • Hearing Jonathan and Amanda Noel sing together on Sunday morning.
  • Enjoying a close game of raquetball with my buddies.
  • Listening to my son play his guitar upstairs.
  • Watching as a great blue heron takes to flight out of our pond.
  • Sharing a meal with friends.
  • Getting a backrub from my wife.
  • Listening to a Tim Keller sermon on my iPod.
  • Getting a cinnamon crunch bagel and a Diet Pepsi at Panera.
Not earth-shaking things...but little ways God lets me taste and see how good He is.

What little tastes of God have you had lately?

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The other half of the gospel

We usually think of the gospel as follows:
  • We are sinners who need to be forgiven by God in order to be in His family.
  • Jesus took our place on the cross and paid the penalty for our sins.
  • Through faith in Him and His shed blood, we are forgiven and washed clean.
  • Therefore, we can be in God's family and go to heaven when we die.

Actually, that summary of the gospel leaves out a good chunk of the truth... half of it, I'd say.

Because we don't need to just be forgiven in order to get into heaven. We also need to be righteous. Jesus Himself said, "You must be perfect, even as my Father in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). He also said that "unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:20).

Jesus' death on the cross wiped out the "debts" in our account, which is wonderful. But in order to get into God's family we also need "assets" in our account. Those assets are a perfect life, a record of scrupulous obedience to the law of God. Where can we get those assets?

We get them through faith in the active obedience of Christ.

The active obedience of Christ is all those things He did as a righteous, committed follower of God while He was here on earth. For 33 years, Jesus lived a perfect life. He was a perfectly compliant baby, an obedient toddler, a cheerful child, an unselfish pre-teen, a humble adolescent, a compassionate young adult, a generous man. He gave to the poor, had mercy on the sick, honored His parents, forgave those who wronged Him, and, in a word, loved His neighbor as Himself. Through every stage of His life, Jesus was fully devoted to God and other people. He crossed every "t" and dotted every "i" of the law of God. He obeyed all ten of the Ten Commandments, every day, both in attitude and in action. From the manger to the cross, Jesus Christ was unflichingly dedicated to the will of His Father. "He faced all of the same temptations we do, yet He did not sin" (Hebrews 4:16). And He did this for us.

In Christian theology, we distinguish the active obedience of Christ from His passive obedience. His passive obedience was His submission to the penalty of the law on our behalf on the cross.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (VIII.5) does a good job of showing that we need BOTH the active obedience and the passive obedience of Christ in order to enter God's family:

The Lord Jesus, by His perfect [i.e., active] obedience, and sacrifice of Himself [i.e., passive obedience], which He through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, has fully satisfied the justice of His Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father has given Him.

More often than not, when we share the gospel we only tell people about Christ's passive obedience. And when we get down and depressed, we typically just remind ourselves that Christ died for us, that we're forgiven. Again, that's His passive obedience.

We need to start preaching, both to ourselves and others, the active obedience of Christ. Christ died for us, it is true. But He also lived for us.

Here's what this means practically: When I fail to love someone as I should, I need not despair, because Christ's perfect love toward others has been credited to my account. When I covet someone else's stuff, I need not get all depressed about it, because Christ's perfect contentment has been credited to my account. When I let out an unkind or judgmental word, I need not fear that I've disqualified myself from God's love, because Christ's perfect kindness has been credited to my account. Through my faith in Christ, His obedience has become my obedience. His holiness has become my holiness. His love and contentment and kindness and all other virtues have become my virtues.

This doesn't mean, of course, that my sins don't matter (they do) or that I don't need to repent (I do). But it does mean that I'm no longer defined by my sins. My identity is that of a righteous person with a spotless record. That's how God sees me, and that's how I should see myself. Always.

Jesus lived for me and He died for me. I am saved by His active obedience and His passive obedience.

J. Gresham Machen, one of our Presbyterian heroes of the last century, said this on his deathbed in 1937:

“I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.”

Saturday, December 02, 2006

It's 81 degrees in Orlando!

...and it's supposed to feel like Christmas???!!