You can access Pastor Tommy's past blogs here.
Pastor Tommy's Blog
You can access Pastor Tommy's past blogs here.
The Water of Life - March 23, 2023
Last week I went on a little 3-day backpacking trip around Lake Georgetown. And one of the things that really stands out to me as I reflect on the experience (other than the awe-some stillness and silence) is that trees generally grow bigger down close to the water. And it’s not because the trees down by the water are a different species (although some of them, like Pecan and Cottonwood are). What I observed is that, as a general rule, the red oaks, elms, and cedars all tended to grow WAY bigger down next to the river, as opposed to high on a limestone hillside.
Now, I’m sure some of it has to do with the soil, which is generally better next to the river. But the main reason (and the reason the soil tends to be better) is the water. There’s lots more of it. All else being equal, the more water, the bigger the tree. And this is even true for the trees that tend to get big away from the edge of the water. I saw some absolutely huge live oaks well away from the water (and plenty of scrubby ones as well). And would be willing to bet that those big ones, with their long tap roots, had found an aquifer.4
I’m pretty sure I’m not the first person to notice this correlation. In fact, I’m sure I learned it at some point and my brain is just pretending it’s a novel observation to impress me. But it’s still an interesting fact to ponder.
Because it reminds me of my faith. Jesus said, “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). The closer I get to the water of life, the more life I have; the more I grow.
For me, sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it feels like I’m right there on the banks of the river, sucking down as much of that water as I possibly can. Other times, I feel far away, up on a chalky hillside somewhere, having to tell myself to dig down with that taproot to the aquifer. But either way, I need the water. Without it, I’m gonna die.
And here’s one way we’re different from trees. We not only consume the water of life for our own growth, we also consume it so we can pass it along to others. This is what Jesus means when he carries the water metaphor to the next level in John 7:38, “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” We aren’t here, whether on the hillside or the riverbank, to just consume the water of life, we are to be its source as well. Each of us, as we receive new life, is also to be a spring of living water, an oasis of God’s peace, love, joy, and hope in a parched world.
Christians - March 9, 2023
I came across this quote in my devotional material yesterday and it really hit home:
“Christians are distinguished from other [persons] neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive [persons]; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the lawsy by their lives. They love all, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.” (“Epistle to Diognetus” by Mathetes)
May this be said of us. Or maybe we ought to ask, can it be said of us?
Who's Got Your Heart? - March 2, 2023
To whom (or what) have you given your heart? That question jumped out at me as I read the story of Zacchaeus this morning (see Luke 19:1-10). He was a tax collector, which meant he had turned his back on his Jewish friends and neighbors and was collaborating with the hated Roman invaders. And he did it because of money. It was a way to make lots and lots of money. He gave his heart to money.
You’ll notice that the question I started with wasn’t framed as an option, as if we could choose whether to give our hearts away. The fact is, we ARE going to give our hearts away. We ARE going to give our hearts to something. The only question is to what (or who).
It’s how we’re made. I believe we were created as an expression and manifestation of the love that constitutes God. We were created to exist in that love and to share in it; to be a part of it. We were made to give our heart to God.
And, deep down, we know this. Unconsciously, we sense that we need to belong to something—we can’t just be by ourselves. So, some of us, like Zacchaeus, give ourselves to our money and our stuff. Others give ourselves to the quest for power or fame. Some people engage in a quest for ultimate sexual fulfillment. Some of us give our hearts to another person—a spouse, a child, a parent, a friend, possibly a spiritual or political leader. Some of us give it to our job or our hobbies. Others give their hearts to their nation (either the way it is or the way they want it to be). Others (somewhat ironically) join together to insist on their absolute independence. And, of course, this doesn’t even begin to exhaust the people or things we can give our hearts to.
But, as St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in [God].” We can try all those things and more, but none of it is going to work. There will always be a hole. It may manifest itself as boredom, or restlessness, thrill seeking or addiction, depression or suicide, or any number of other things. Our bodies and our souls know that our hearts are made for one thing. They are made to be one with God’s heart. They are made to participate in God’s love.
So, I ask again, to whom (or what) have you given your heart?
Be Like Ginger... - February 23, 2023
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. It’s hard to believe the Lenten season is already here. And as I consider the fact that it IS here, I’m reminded of something that happened a few years ago: I began my appointment as the pastor in Hillsboro in January of 2020. Kirsten was finishing out the school year down in Round Rock, so for the first six months, I commuted back and forth between Jarrell and Hillsboro. And, since that’s a non-trivial commute, I was staying in Hillsboro 3 days a week.
I remember one Spring evening about 3 years ago, as I sat in the Jarrell house, tapping away on my laptop, when I noticed that my dog, Ginger Ruth, was curled up on my feet. She usually doesn’t do that. Although she’s a great dog, she can only deal with so much actual human contact. But there she was, curled up on top of my feet. And I realized that this was her attempt to make up for lost time. She was feeling my absence in her life and so was seeking to get closer.
Like I said before, yesterday was Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the season of Lent, the 40+ days leading up to Easter. And, when you get down to it, the point of this season is to be like Ginger Ruth. You may have spent the last few months out in the backyard, playing and running, chasing the deer and the squirrels, wearing yourself out. Or you might have been hard at work, putting in long, thankless days of effort and toil in the midst of chaos. And all of that stuff may be good and necessary. But it doesn’t leave a lot of space for curling up and spending time with God.
So, starting now, and continuing on through and beyond Easter, I invite you to take this opportunity to intentionally be like Ginger. Take a step back. Take a breath. Remember who you are and whose you are. Take the opportunity to draw near to God; to curl up at God’s feet; to just enjoy the warmth of God’s presence. Be intentional about taking the time to spend some quality time with God.
Another Tree - February 16, 2023
I discovered a tree the other day. I was in the back yard cleaning up debris from the ice storm and I noticed a live oak I hadn’t noticed before. It had a pretty nice sized limb down and as I was working the limb loose, I was impressed with the tree’s beauty, or at least its potential beauty.
You see, the reason I hadn’t noticed this tree before is because it was surrounded by a bunch of scrub trees. They obscured it from sight and had grown up enough so that some of its lower limbs were just about dead for lack of sunlight.
So, over the last couple of weeks, in between clearing and hauling limbs felled by the ice storm, I’ve been clearing out some of the brush to reveal that lonely live oak. As you can see from the picture, it’s got some pretty interesting structure (or maybe it’s just me). But you can also see how the encroachment from the brush has stunted its full growth, and how the vines are practically choking it.
It reminds me of a parable Jesus told. A farmer sowed some seed on different kinds of soil. Some landed on a hard path, some in rocks, some in thorns, some on good soil (see Matthew 13:3-23). The seed that landed in the thorns couldn’t really grow because the thorns grew and took up all the light and nutrients, while the seed sown on the good soil grew. I think the point of the parable was that we shouldn’t get disappointed when not everyone fully responds to the Good News of new life in Christ. And I get that.
But what if someone came in and cleaned out the thorn bushes? What if someone came in and cleaned out the brush?
The fact is, every single one of us is like that tree. We’ve been planted in the midst of brush and thorns and brambles. We are constantly bombarded with the message that the universe is all about me and, at the same time, that I am not good enough as I am to be loved. Accordingly, I need to do everything within my power (and financial resources) to make myself worthy. And thankfully, according to the culture, a new car or a new outfit will do the trick. Until it doesn’t. And the thorns just grow higher.
Now, I would like to be able to tell you how to clear away your own undergrowth, but I can’t. We can’t do it for ourselves any more than that lonely live oak can. Someone’s got to do it for us. And that someone is God.
But God isn’t going to just blunder in and start cutting, like I did with that tree. God has to be invited. We need to invite God into our lives and allow God’s Spirit to change us, through things like prayer, service, giving, and study of God’s Word. We need to allow God to convict us of the ways we have been allowing the brush to block us from the light and, at the same time, to convince us that we don’t need any of that stuff anyway; we ARE worthy of love. And not just worthy, we ARE loved—no matter what—by the creator of the universe (Romans 8:38-39).
Now this isn’t necessarily a quick—or a painless—process. As you can tell from the picture, I’ve still got some work to do with that tree. There’s still some brush to clear. There are still some brambles to terminate. I figure if I put in a few hours a week, I’ll have everything cleared out in a month or so. But it’s not like that in our lives. For us, it’s a lifelong process. Because as the Holy Spirit reveals to us one layer of pride or bitterness, greed or judgmentalism, we discover that there’s always another just below; another whole area of thorns to be taken out.
But that’s OK, because with each clearing, a little more light gets in; we are able to grow just a little more into our potential; into the beauty, power, grace, joy, and love we were created for.
The Tree - February 9, 2023
I was on spiritual retreat last week, and all I brought home was this lousy poem:
A chaos of branches
Mine and heaven’s mingled
Limbs—gnarled, cut, broken
Yet exploding with chaotic life
Balance and imbalance all at once
We are one, and not just us two
But the lake, the forest, the earth … all of it
Together in being, in bending, in breaking
And in becoming new
Regrowth, new growth, twisting towards Light
Ineffable Life—dormant now in the soft, spitting snow
But waiting to spring in a surprising moment
In a joy of green sapgrowth
And more twisting, gnarling
More striving for the Light
Monument to hope, sentry at eternity’s door, pillar of earth’s tongue
Thank you for this glimpse
In bark and limbs and snow Of Life relentless, fearless, inevitable
Beware the Little i - February 2, 2023
I had the opportunity the other day to hear one of my clergy friends do a talk on sin. It’s a talk I’ve heard a lot of times from a lot of different people, but this time it was different.
The basic idea is simple. Sin is anything that separates us from God; anything that prevents us from loving God and loving one another, as individuals created in God’s image. And, in my case, the biggest of those obstacles is me. In your case, it’s you. There’s a compelling visual that makes this point:
The big “I”, as in me, myself, and I, is right in the middle of sin. I lose connection with God when I make the world all about me. So far, so good.
But here’s where things took an unexpected turn. Because my friend threw in an additional visual:
The little “i” can also be a problem. We can get ourselves to a place where we think so little of ourselves that we lose connection not only with God, but with everyone else as well. “i’m dumb.” “i’m ugly.” “i’m fat.” “Why would anyone want to have anything to do with me.” “i’m worthless.” Now, I understand that there are often reasons outside our control that we find ourself in the world of the little “i”, and it’s not easy to get out, but it’s not where God wants us to be. It’s still all about me. It’s not where we were created to be. And it’s one of life-stealing ways of “living” that Christ came to remedy by making available to us new life in His Spirit.
The Christian author C.S. Lewis says that pride is probably the greatest of all the things that separate us from God, because when we’re proud, we become our own God. And who am I to disagree? But the other extreme isn’t much better. There’s humility, which Jesus modeled for us from the beginning of his ministry all the way to the cross (see, eg, Phil. 2:5-11), and then there’s despair. Humility: good. Despair: bad. Lewis puts it this way: “Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less.”
Here’s to getting rid of both the big “I” and the little “i”. May we fix our eyes and our minds upon Jesus, not thinking too highly or too little of ourselves. But instead, may we all think of ourselves less.
You're Not as Dumb as Buster - January 26, 2023
As I was sitting at home this morning working on my sermon, I looked up and saw my dog, Buster Ruth. I took a picture so you could see what I saw. Buster, to put it kindly, is not very bright. You can see it in that 1,000 yard stare. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say he’s dumb; dumb as a rock or, as a friend of mine likes to say, dumber than a sack of rocks. Now, for sure, he’s got some amazing qualities. He’s loving. He’s kind. He’s enthusiastic. But he’s also dumb. I shared a few weeks ago how he ate a fire starter. And that’s not the first time he’s done that sort of thing. He just doesn’t learn.
And sometimes, I feel a little like Buster. So far, I haven’t eaten any fire starters, but I often catch myself doing or thinking things just about as stupid. I’ll get angry with someone for not reading my mind and knowing what I expected them to do. I’ll spend valuable time ruminating on perceived (but probably unintended) slights to the point where I feel my human dignity has been directly challenged. And, sometimes I spend my time considering the stupid things I’ve done and just feel stupider, thinking I must make Buster look like a genius. Sometimes I feel as if I just never learn.
But then, there are other times I don’t feel that way. If you were to ask me right now if Jesus is real, I would point at my watch. You see, I’ve got one of those fancy-pants watches that doesn’t just tell time, but can tell you your heart rate, whether you got a good night’s sleep, and will even give you workout suggestions based on about 15 different factors. I’m sure there’s a software update on the way that will tell me what to have for dinner. But one of the things this watch does which I really like is it tells me my stress level. And my stress level is consistently low. Even during Advent and Christmas—which is not a stress-free time for pastors (or really anyone else)—my stress level stayed low. And that hasn’t always been the case. Before I met Jesus, I spent most of my time stressed out. I spent most of my time in anger and resentment at someone or something.
Now, I realize my watch isn’t really proof that God exists or that Jesus is His Son. I’m sure there are other things that could account for the transformation of my life. But I know they don’t. When I look at my watch, I know I have changed and I know why. I know that I HAVE learned.
And that’s cause for celebration. Whenever I’m tempted to go back into that dark place of self-recrimination, I just need to remember that while I’m not where I want to be, and certainly not where God would like me to be, I’m so much better than I used to be. Instead of getting down on the person I am, I can celebrate it.
And I invite you to do the same thing. Celebrate who you are. Celebrate where you are. (And celebrate that however dumb you might sometimes feel, you’re not as dumb as Buster.)
Don't be like Francisco Ruth - January 19, 2023
I used to have a cat. I often felt sorry for him. First, because of his name: Francisco Ruth. Sort of like a boy named Sue. Second, he was an indoor cat. That wouldn’t have been my choice, but we inherited him from someone who’s fiancée was allergic to cats (riiiight), and Francisco Ruth (formerly Dieon Sanders) was raised to be an indoor cat (note: for reasons that would take too long to explain, Francisco has returned to his true home and regained his rightful name).
Francisco’s favorite time of the day used to be the early morning, before the summer air would become like the inside of a furnace. I would open up my office window and Francisco would get up on the window ledge, looking longingly out the window at the birds and the trees and the grass. His second favorite time of the day was whenever I would let the dogs out into the back yard. He would jump up on the back of the sofa right there at the door—but go no further—and look longingly outside as I opened and then closed the door.
It was sort of funny but also sad. It was pretty clear that he was intrigued by what was on the other side of the window and the door. But it was also pretty clear that he was happy (enough) where he was. Despite the fact that he was created to be outside, pouncing upon and killing stuff, it’s like he wasn’t sure what he would do if he ever actually got out there.
I sometimes feel a little like Francisco Ruth. Over the course of my life, I’ve created my own metaphorical house that I live in. I’ve put walls on it to keep people from getting too close, I’ve put a roof on it to protect me from the vagaries of life. And I’m pretty comfortable there. It’s not the greatest house. The walls are sort of random and haphazard, the roof leaks, the insulation’s not that great, but it’s my house and I’m used to it.
But the thing is, Jesus didn’t take on human form, live, die, and experience resurrection so I could just keep on living in my wonky-but-reasonably-comfortable-to-me house. He didn’t do all that stuff so I can stand behind my door as he’s waiting on the other side and tell him, “I believe,” as if he’s a Jehovah’s Witness.
Jesus came that we may have life, and have it in abundance (John 10:10). He came that we might be born again from above (John 3:3). He came that we might enjoy a new life, a hope-filled life, a joy-filled life, a life lived in God’s divine love.
And just like Francisco Ruth, I can look out the window and see that life. I know it’s there. I know Jesus offers it to me. It’s beautiful. I mean, who wouldn’t want that sort of life. But, like Francisco, I’m afraid to leave my house. I know it’s not the greatest house ever, but it’s mine. And in my house, I’m in control.
And maybe that’s it. Control. I know that if I leave the house, I’m no longer in control. Leaving the house takes faith, it takes trust that God will help me deal with the rain and the wind, the people and events and feelings when they inevitably come. And that’s hard. It’s really hard to take that leap from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from the known to the unknown. But that’s why they call it faith. Faith isn’t easy. It’s not simple. But by taking that leap of faith, we begin to process of transformation from the people we have created ourselves to be, into the people God created us to be.
That’s easy for me to say, but all too often, I still feel like Francisco Ruth, looking out avidly at that big, beautiful, transformed world from behind a window screen .
On Being (and not Being) Meeko - January 12, 2023
As I write this, we’re are down to 3 dogs in our house. That may seem like a lot, but it’s better than the 6 we had during the weeks before and after Christmas. For a while there, we had all of our kids—and all of their dogs—staying with us. It was a full house, to say the least. But now, things are getting a little more back to normal.
And as I sit here, contemplating the relative peace and quiet, I’m reminded of when we would walk all 6 dogs. It would take at least 3 of us, usually more, and I’m sure it looked a lot funnier than we thought it was.
As I’ve mentioned before, I let my dogs off leash in areas where there’s not much chance they’ll get run over by a car. They usually listen well enough to come back when I call them. And most of my kids’ dogs are the same way. We can release them from the leash because we’re reasonably confident they won’t hurt themselves or anyone else.
All of them, that is, but Meeko. Meeko belongs to my daughter Caitlin. She’s a Husky and is maybe the prettiest, most well-behaved, and most human-like dog I’ve ever encountered. She’s like a super dog. But we can’t let her off leash, especially around here. And that’s because her prey drive, as with most Husky’s, if off the charts. To put it simply, she’s a killing machine. If she sees a critter, she’s going to chase it and try to kill it and she’s not going to stop for anything or anyone. To put it in Salado-specific terms, if she sees a deer, she’s going to chase it and very likely wear it down until she kills it, at which point she would be utterly and completely lost, probably several miles from home. So, we can’t release her from the leash.
All of which reminds me of the sermon I’m writing for this week on release. In the scripture, we read that Jesus released Mary of Magdala from demon possession (Luke 8:1-3). In effect, by his presence in her life, he took her from the degraded, evil-infested existence she was living, and released her to live a new, better, freer life. The apostle John says that in Jesus is life (John 1:4), and Jesus released Mary to live that life.
Now, I’m not saying Meeko is possessed by demons, although my daughter Caitlin may occasionally disagree. But what Meeko wants to do isn’t always what’s best for Meeko. By living with Caitlin, she’s released to live a much fuller and satisfying life than if she was out in the wild just trying to survive. I mean, you don’t get puppuccinos out in the wild. But that release brings with it a constraint. She doesn’t get to chase down and kill deer (at least within the city limits).
It’s the same—although also different—for those of us who have found new life in Jesus Christ. We’ve found new life. Real life. Abundant life. We’re no longer just surviving, dragging ourselves from one day to the next. And as a result, we’re not necessarily doing—in fact we’re released from doing—a lot of the stuff we used to do.
And this is where we part ways with Meeko. Because for her, she’s being prevented by an external force—the leash and Caitlin—from doing something she wants to do (kill and destroy). She doesn’t understand why she can’t just run after the deer and she resents not being able to so.
And, now that I think about it, that IS kind of how some Christians—and certainly a lot of non-Christians—view faith: a bunch of things we’d like to be doing that we’re not allowed to.
But that’s not what faith is really about. New life brings with it transformation. We are changed from the inside out. In most cases not at once, kind of like training dogs to come when they’re called. But over time, our lives conform more and more to the one who established life and embodies its proper pattern. We become like Christ and, as we do so, we are released to really live.
A Giant Pile of Branches - January 5, 2023
I’ve got a giant pile of branches in my front yard and I’m not quite sure how it happened. I mean, I KNOW how it happened. I got out my loppers and my chainsaw and trimmed back (way back) the photinia hedge that had been planted many years ago along one side of the front yard. It’s been years since they were trimmed back, so they had grown to gigantic and ungainly proportions. They needed to come down. I’m just sitting here scratching my head as to why it happened now. I’ve got at least a couple of months of cool weather left. I could have taken it easy. I could have planned out how I’m going to get RID of all these branches. I could have just done a little at a time. Instead … I’ve got a giant pile of branches in the front yard.
Looking back, I can see the progression. I was mowing the leaves in the yard and noticed all the leaves that had gathered at the base of the hedge. I couldn’t get back to them without stooping under a bunch of branches, so I cut off those branches, and one thing led to another … and now the hedge is gone.
It reminds me of pretty much every home repair project I have ever embarked upon. I start out intending to accomplish one relatively simple task. But taking the deck planks off reveals some rot in the joists, which reveals problems with the foundations, and so on. And don’t get me started about bathroom projects!
Yesterday, as I considered a pile of branches taller than me, I was reminded of something Jesus said. It’s in Luke’s gospel, 14:28-30: “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’”
Chopping stuff down is fun. Ripping off the drywall or the deck planks is fun. But it’s just the start. The hard work—the true cost—comes later. Too often in my life (like, as recently as the day before yesterday), I start stuff without considering the true cost.
And all this reminds me of my faith in Christ. As the crowds that used to follow Jesus around would testify, it’s fun and exciting at first. But there is a cost. In one sense, it’s an extremely high cost. It’s everything we have. Jesus put it in terms of picking up our crosses and following him—a shocking image when you think about it. The Christian author C.S. Lewis put it in terms I can more easily relate to: a remodeling project. We may want Jesus to just put in some new floors and maybe spruce up the paint of our lives, but once we invite him in, he’s much more likely to start knocking down walls and adding on rooms.
The fact is, just as with cutting down the hedge out front, when I came to my initial faith commitment to Jesus, I didn’t count the cost. I didn’t think it all the way through. But, for me at least, that was probably a good thing. If I had understood then what I understand now, I’m not sure I would have done it. I’m not sure I was ready to turn my life over to someone else to live it for me. But, as I’ve gone deeper into this remodeling project that is my life in Christ, I’m getting a better sense of the cost. And I’m getting a better understanding that yes, I am willing to pay it. Because I’m getting a better idea of the glorious transformation that God can work in and through me if I am just willing to see it through.