Pastor Tommy's Blog

You can access Pastor Tommy's past blogs here.

  • Joy to the World - December 28, 2023

    “Joy to the World.” I’m pretty sure just about every one of us has sung or heard that song at some point in the last several weeks. But still, sometimes it’s kind of hard to find that joy in the midst of all the scheduling chaos that attends the Christmas festivities. And now that Christmas day has come and gone, some of us may be experiencing a little letdown. I’m sitting on my sofa right now looking at all the Christmas decorations that need to be packed away and taken to the attic, which gets me to thinking about all the Christmas lights outside that will soon need to be taken down …

    I remember how my family used to celebrate Christmas when I was a kid. We’d get together with my cousins up at a little cabin on Lake Proctor. There were more bodies than beds, but most of us were kids, so we made it work. And what’s coming to mind right now is the year my dad made the Christmas ornaments.

    Now, we wouldn’t get to the lakehouse till one or two days before Christmas, and by then, all the good Christmas trees were gone. We always went to the Allsups in DeLeon or Comanche to get our tree. Every year, there were just one or two scraggly little Charlie Brown trees left. And we’d always get the Charlie-Browniest. Then we’d take it back to the cabin and literally string together cranberries and popcorn for the decorations. Until the year my dad made the ornaments.

    Now, some context is in order. My dad was one of the most imaginative people I’ve ever met. Whenever we’d go to the lakehouse, either on the way up there, or back, or on the way to or from church, he’d tell us “Sickening Sally” stories. Sickening Sally lived in an imaginary place called Spookerville, which was inhabited by all sorts of otherworldly creatures. Sally herself was the ugliest person in the world. You couldn’t look at her without throwing up. She had repulso rats in her hair; they were called repulso rats because their skin was clear, so you could see their insides. Sally’s husband was Bottomless Boroff. He was a goblin who got his bottom shot off once by Ferocious Philip (my little brother). For his wedding, Tommy the mad scientist (that’s me) built him a bottom (filled with bees to make it move around in a lifelike manner). But alas, when the Sam the Man What Am shot off his joy gun, honey came out, driving the bees crazy. And chaos ensued. That’s the kind of imagination my dad had.

    So, anyway, one Christmas, my dad thought our tree looked a little too bare with just the cranberries and popcorn, so he decided to make some ornaments. He didn’t have much to work with, but that never stopped him. He found some colored construction paper, some scissors, and some ribbon. He cut out the silhouette of little baby Jesus in a manger. Good enough, until you noticed the hand pointing out of the manger up to the star. He cut out the three wise men, one of whom had a clown nose. He cut out Bottomless Boroff, sans bottom. He cut out the hole-y ghost, a ghost with holes in it (OK, he was a little irreverent). And he cut out Dr. Yellow Fat, syringe and all (still not sure about that one).

    My dad couldn’t help but bring us joy back then. And even though he’s been gone a while, he still does.

    That’s what we all need right now: some joy. I wish I had pictures of those ornaments so I could share them. But absent that, I guess I’ll invite you to find your own joy. My dad was certainly unique, but just about all of us have, or have had, someone like him in our lives. Take some time today to think about those folks. Remember them. Remember their joy.

    But don’t just look backwards. Even in the middle of the most difficult times, it’s not that hard to find joy staring you in the face, if you just take a minute to look. It could be the bird outside your window. It could be a sunrise or sunset. It could be a friend or family member you haven’t talked to in a while. It might be an act of service for someone who needs it. But find the joy. And then BE that joy. Let’s all be like my dad, and bring a little joy to the world.

  • Of Children and Sunrises and Christmas - December 21, 2023

    After church on Sunday, Kirsten had some words of advice for me. “Don’t ask open-ended questions.” You see, last Sunday I was responsible for the children’s sermon. It only took one question—“What’s some of the stuff you see on the news?”—for things to descend into chaos. I should know better. I was, after all, a lawyer for almost 30 years. You never ask a potentially hostile witness an open-ended question. And as I sat there last Sunday under a barrage of wildly varied and only moderately responsive responses, I was convinced that some of those kids were downright hostile.

    But it was interesting hearing what they had to say. One of them went into great detail regarding weather forecasts. Another talked about a 106 year old man who went sky-diving. Going in, I had assumed that if any of them watched the news at all, they would pass along tales of murder, death, mayhem, and disaster—all the stuff that I and most of the adults I know associate with the news. But no.

    I’m reminded of this episode as I sit here in the coffee shop watching the sun rise (see picture). I love the coffee, but the shop is set in anything but an idyllic location. It’s on the southbound access road to I-35, with noisy, dirty, unsightly traffic continually passing back and forth. When I’m here, I usually face away from the window and try to ignore the world outside.

    But this morning, as I sat down I noticed something strange. A big tree across the highway seemed to be glowing. As I studied the scene, I realized the sun was about to rise right behind the tree. So, for the next several minutes, I just watched, as the glow grew brighter and eventually the sun rose between two buildings on the other side of the highway, right behind the tree. It was sublime. Considering all the variables, from the earth’s rotation to its tilt to its distance to the sun, this may have been the only day of the year I could have seen this particular manifestation of God’s beauty and goodness. Now, for sure, the traffic was still there. The noise was still there. But for at least that moment, it all faded into the background. All I could see was the beauty of God’s creation.

    For just a few moments, I felt like those kids on Sunday morning. I was able to find beauty in the midst of the ugly and banal.

    Christmas is less than a week away (let that sink in). We, of course, make a huge deal of it. But just think for a minute. How many of the people in and around Bethlehem 2023 years ago were able to see it? There were, of course, the shepherds. But who else? How many of the people of Bethlehem were preoccupied with all of the small, mundane, and ultimately meaningless tasks associated with their daily living? And how many of them, in the process of focusing on those things, missed the most beautiful and sublime even in human history?

    I pray that this Christmas, we will take the opportunity to recalibrate; in the midst of all the anger and division around us, in the midst of the gifts we still have to buy and the parties we still have to prepare for, in the midst of all the unmet hopes and expectations that seem to multiply in this season, I pray that we can rediscover the wonder that surrounds us every minute of every day. And that we can focus our eyes on the One who makes all that wonder possible. Merry Christmas!

  • T-Rex with a Beard - December 14, 2023

    Kirsten and I are getting bikes for Christmas and last Friday we were getting fitted. I had bought a bike that, according to my height, was a perfect fit. However, the guy who was doing the fitting kept asking questions like, “how tall are you, again?” and “how much lift in those shoes?”. He eventually went to get the bike mechanic guy, who looked at me on the bike for about a second and in a very prosaic way said, “You’re a T-Rex with a beard.” Apparently, I have very short arms.

    Which got me to thinking about diversity. I mean, Kirsten’s arms are apparently perfectly proportioned for the rest of her body—her fitting took about 90 seconds. On the other hand, the guy who sold me the bike characterized himself as an Orangutan—he had very long arms (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

    And, of course, we aren’t just different in how our bodies are put together. Our congregation’s Christmas Cantata was last Sunday and I was blown away by the talent of the performers and the beauty of the music. They did things that I couldn’t do in a million years. Over the last few months, I’ve met a lot of folks who are extremely talented actors, and I’ve got a brother who’s pretty darn good too. I’m pretty sure my dad was a math genius, and I’ve got another brother who follows in his footsteps. And, like I said, I’ve got stumps for arms, so there’s that.

    How cool is it that we are all different? Now, it would certainly make bike fitting easier if we all looked alike, but a world consisting entirely of people who look (or talk or think) like me isn’t a world I would like to contemplate. If we lived in a world where everyone was a brilliant musician, how would we even know what beautiful music was (and who would remember to pick the kids up from school … or bring them back from the grocery store). If math was all that mattered, then … well, I guess I’d be in trouble.

    Diversity isn’t just cool. It’s God’s plan. The apostle Paul compared Christ’s church to a human body: head and shoulders, knees and toes … and ears and intestines. All of the parts are different and all of them are necessary. And because all the parts are necessary, none of them are more important or better than the others

    Which, I think, is a good message for us today. With the advent of social media and increasing segmentation in most of the rest of our media, our culture seems to be drifting into what, in agricultural circles, is known as monoculture. We increasingly hang out only with those who look like us, think like us, and believe like us. And so, living in our echo chambers, we figure we’re the best, the most important—really, the ONLY important and necessary—part of the body.

    But, as we’re discovering, monoculture has some problems. In agriculture, it increases the chances of disease and insect infestation. In human culture and churches and politics … well, pretty much the same.

    We need one another. The thumb doesn’t just tolerate the lungs. They need one another to survive. St. Paul depicts Christ’s earthly presence—the church—as diversity; but it’s not a disconnected diversity going off in a bunch of different directions. He pictures God’s presence on earth as diversity in unity, different pieces, but integrated and working together. That’s the way God created the cosmos, the earth, and each of us. We are all important. We are all necessary. Even us T-Rexes.
  • We Can Do Hard Things - December 7, 2023

    I’m in a play. Four words I never thought I’d say. It’s Salado’s annual “Christmas Carol” performed at the Tablerock amphitheater. I’m pretty sure the last time I was in a play was when I played a camel in the St. Louis Catholic School production of the nativity play when I was in third grade—an experience that didn’t exactly deepen my devotion to theatrical performance.

    I’m still not totally sure how it happened, but it did. And when it came time for the first performance last Friday, I was petrified. You might not think it, since I get up and talk in front of people every Sunday. But this was somehow horribly and terrifyingly different. Nonetheless, I managed to get through it without messing up too many of my lines … and I had a blast. I found excitement and joy in something completely new and unexpected.

    It reminded me of the time a few years ago when I decided to sing with the choir up in Hillsboro. I had never sung in public before. Again, I was terrified, even though I was just one of several people singing and no one could hear my voice. And the experience was awesome.

    And then there’s the backpacking trip I took last Summer. Never did that before. I was scared. What if a bear ate me? Or I ran out of water? But the experience was sublime.

    And then, of course, there was my decision to enter into ordained ministry. Would I be any good? Would I help more than I hurt? Would I make a living? Of course, having been in it for several years now, none of my fears have materialized (at least to my knowledge) and I wouldn’t trade this time for anything.

    In looking back over my life, I can see many other times like these when I have metaphorically jumped off the cliff into the unknown. And in every one of those experiences, I have found new excitement, new joy, new life.

    One of the foundational doctrines of my United Methodist faith is that following Jesus necessarily involves growth. It involves becoming closer to him and more like him. The apostle Paul puts it like this: “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds …” (Romans 12:2). And in another one of his letters, Paul tells the church in Phillipi what that renewed mind looks like: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, assuming human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5-8).

    Elsewhere, Jesus tells his disciples that anyone who really wants to follow him must take up his or her cross (Matt. 16:24-26). That kind of growth is hard. It’s scary. In fact, from our human perspective, it looks like the opposite of growth.

    But what waits on the other side of that leap of faith is way better than a crowd’s applause or even the realization that you can do new and hard things. Jesus calls it new life, born-again life, abundant life, eternal life; a completely new way of living, not out of our own limited abilities, but in God’s all-encompassing love, allowing God’s love to live in us and through us. And, as new things go, it doesn’t get any better than that.
  • Go Cowboys! - November 30, 2023

    Last Sunday my sermon was on Thanksgiving (duh?), and as a joke, I noted how I was thankful that both the Cowboys and the Longhorns had won their football games, an occurrence which in recent years has been pretty hard to come by. In fact, until this year, it had become so rare that I had pretty much given up hope of ever seeing the “glory days” again. And, in saying that, I am fully aware that last weekend might just be a blip on the radar … that my hope of future glory for my football teams might well be misplaced.

    And, as I reflect on the hope I have placed in these two football programs, I realize there are lots of other things I put my hope in. I hope that I’ll manage not to do anything too stupid today so people will like me. I hope that the mentholatum I put on the wires in our truck and the mothballs under the engine compartment will keep the rodents from nesting in the wires. I hope that when I get home today, the dogs haven’t chewed up anything too expensive. I hope my knees and back hold out for several more years of relatively pain-free mobility. I hope that the decisions I make about my family and my church are good ones. I hope the next economic downturn isn’t disastrous. I hope the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine don’t escalate into WW III. And much, much more.

    There are lots of things I hope for. But, just like the Cowboys and the Longhorns can (and eventually will) disappoint my hopes, I expect that at some point, I will be disappointed in many of the others. It seems to be a universal law that when we put our hope in ourselves or in other people—in our intelligence, creativity, abilities, strength, dependability, attitude, perseverance, wisdom—our hope is going to be in vain. We are going to be disappointed.

    But we can put our hope in something that will not disappoint. Here’s what the apostle Paul said in his letter to the church in Rome: “And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:2b-5 NIV).

    In other words, putting our hope in Jesus isn’t hopeless. Anyone who puts their trust in him receives his Spirit—God’s Spirit; the Holy Spirit. And that Spirit is a constant, never-ending, never-depleted, never-failing source of hope; a new way of living in which hope (and love, joy, and peace) is as natural as breathing; a hope based not in the transience of people and events, but in our eternal God.

    Now, of course, this doesn’t mean I’m going to stop rooting for the Cowboys and the Longhorns (or rooting against the Aggies, Sooners, and Eagles). It doesn’t mean I’m not going to try to do my best at keeping the rodents out of the truck or taking care of my family and my church family. But it does mean I’m going to do so with the understanding that these are things upon which I cannot rest my hope or my identity. Bad stuff is going to happen. Suffering is going to happen. And I can’t base my hope or my identity on the hope that it won’t. In fact, God can use the bad stuff if I just keep my priorities straight; if I place my hope where it belongs. There is only one source of true hope, and that’s God.
  • Thanksgiving - November 23, 2023

    Have you ever known something but not known it? Kirsten and I were having dinner last week and I turned to her and said, “So, I guess you’re off work next week?” Kirsten is a teacher and Thanksgiving is this week which, in Round Rock, means the teachers and kids get the week off. No big deal, right? Except that until that moment, I hadn’t really “known” that Thanksgiving was already practically here. It’s like the data was there, and so some submerged part of my brain took the data, processed it, and passed the processed data on to my mouth, without my conscious mind ever getting involved in the process. And then—bam—once I’d said it, I realized it was true. Maybe I’d been repressing it. Who knows? But now the truth was out. OH MY GOSH! THANKSGIVING IS ALREADY HERE!

    I was reminded of a similar phenomenon not too long ago by a friend. As usual, we got to talking about our faith and she started talking about the “baptism of the Father.” As she explained it, there’s the water baptism through which pretty much all Christians celebrate and experience faith in Christ. Then there’s the “baptism of the Spirit,” which many Christians celebrate as a separate anointing of the Holy Spirit. And then, there’s this idea of the baptism of the Father. I’m not sure whether it’s an official doctrinal term in some denominations or just someone’s shorthand description of a particular spiritual experience, but it describes something powerful.

    If you’re a Christian, you “know” that the God of the universe loves you. For example: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). We know this. I know this. I say it at least once every Sunday, and lots of times in-between. If you were raised in the church, you know this. If you’re new to the church, you know this. If you’re not in the church, you hopefully know this is the bedrock of what us Christians believe. God loves us.

    We know this. At least in our heads. What my friend called the baptism of the Father is when we come to really “know” it; when it stops just being something we say—something we give our intellectual assent to—and becomes something we really believe deep down in the core of our very being; when it stops being something we know about God, and instead becomes the basic fact about who we are.

    I think this is what happened to John Wesley when he “felt [his] heart strangely warmed.” I think it’s what St. Paul was talking about when he said, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Romans 8:16).

    Despite knowing that God loves us, most of us nonetheless struggle with the idea that we’re not worthy of God’s love—that we’ve got to somehow earn it. You may have suffered abuse, or still be in the middle of it. You may have been an abuser. You may be an addict. Or you may just be acutely aware of how messed up you really are. And you may be thinking, “If I could just fix x”, or “If I could just do y” then God would be justified in loving me.

    But that’s not how it works. As St. Paul says a little later in his letter to the Romans, “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). There’s nothing you can do to earn God’s love, and there’s nothing you can do to escape it. You know this.

    And my prayer for you today is that you can go from knowing this absolute, basic fact about your existence, to really “knowing” it. It’s something worth being thankful for.
  • Trimming the Tree - November 16, 2023

    This weekend I started putting up the Christmas lights in our front yard. And as I did so, I was reminded of when I was a kid growing up in Austin. A week or 2 AFTER Thanksgiving, the whole family would go to the Optimist Christmas Tree lot at the intersection of Anderson Ln and Burnet Rd. We would search and search in the dark, with the minimal aid of some scattered strings of weak yellow incandescent lights, until we found just the right tree. Sometimes it would be cold and the lot would be serving hot chocolate (I might be conflating that part with a Hallmark movie). In any case, I loved picking out the tree.

    Then, when we got home, my mom would cut the tree loose from the roof of our yellow Pontiac station wagon, haul it into the house, and put it in its stand with some water. There it would sit for a day or two. I enjoyed seeing the tree in the stand, the anticipation of a fully decorated tree, and especially the thought of what would be under the tree on Christmas morning.

    And then, my mom would utter the dreaded words: “It’s time to trim the tree” … and I would run to my room and hide in the closet. You see, back then, I wasn’t a big fan of work. And my only experience of “trimming” was trimming the trees and hedges in our yard. So, when my mom started talking about trimming a tree, I was out of there. At least the first year or two, until I finally realized that in my mom’s Christmas-speak, trimming meant decorating.

    That’s the memory that came back to me as I was balancing on one leg on the top step of my ladder last week after several hours of tree decorating, hanging on to the tree for dear life with one arm, while desperately trying to get that last 2 inches of light coverage just past the tips of my fingers.

    My, how things have changed. I’m still not a big fan of work, but I’m willing to sacrifice a little comfort to get those lights up, although I’m still not quite sure why. I guess it started with my kids. They liked the lights, so I started putting up more and more. Now the kids are mostly gone and could care less, but I know Kirsten likes them, so I keep putting them up.

    But it’s actually more than that. Over time, as I have reflected on the symbolism of the lights (or maybe just engaged in some rationalization). I have come to associate our Christmas lights with the beginning of John’s Gospel: “The light [of God] shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). When I look at the Christmas lights, I also think of the apostle Paul’s direction to the church he founded in Phillipi, that they were to live their lives in such a way that they would shine like stars in the world (Philippians 2:15). Putting up those lights is a good reminder that I’m supposed to do the same thing.

    Whatever it is, I keep doing it every year, “trimming” those trees so the lights can shine and maybe brighten some lives. May the same be true in my life, and in yours.
  • A Terrible, Horrible, No-good, Very Bad Day - November 9, 2023

    Yesterday was a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day! Now, any of you who heard my sermon on Sunday might find that statement ironic. This last Sunday we started a new sermon series entitled “Thankful.” As you might guess, it’s all about practicing gratitude.

    So, you would think that after working on that sermon for a week and then delivering it twice, I would be able to look past the general sucky-ness of yesterday and find at least some things to be grateful for. But no dice. In fact, even as I sit here typing this, I’m having a tough time finding joy and thanksgiving. The struggle is real.

    I wonder why this is? In my case, part of it is habit. I sometimes allow myself to drift into a pattern of not just seeing the negative, but welcoming it into my heart and having long, heartfelt conversations with it. I sometimes allow it to become my constant companion, usually to the exclusion of everything and everyone else.

    But the thing is, I know in my head that this is stupid and pointless; not only counter-productive but counter-God. So why do I do it?

    The apostle Paul experienced, or at least described, something similar. In chapter 7 of his letter to the Roman church, he says this: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (v 15). So, there’s some consolation there, right? Super-apostle Paul might have experienced the same thing.

    But that still leaves the question of “why?” Well, here’s Paul’s answer: “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (v. 18). Which, of course, does explain why I (and really all of us) have this tendency to count our curses instead of our blessings.

    But this begs the question of what do we do about it. And Paul has an answer: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (v. 25).

    When I reflect on the times when I have the most difficulty finding things to be thankful for, I realize that those are typically times when I don’t feel particularly close to God’s deliverance through Jesus. Maybe my morning prayer time consisted of just going through the motions. Maybe I went through my day focused entirely on my own stuff instead of taking some time to just be with Jesus. Maybe I’ve allowed the big and little stresses of daily life (or just the newsfeed on my phone) to distract me from God.

    The fact is, when we are close to God, we can’t help but be thankful. God and gratitude go hand in hand. If you’ve got one, you’ve got the other. And so, when we practice thanksgiving (as opposed to just waiting for it to hit us upside the head), we draw closer to God. At least, that’s the message I’m trying to preach.

    So, this morning, I think I’m going to take a little of my own advice. Here are the 5 things I’m grateful for this morning, in no particular order:

    • The beautiful sunrise I’m looking at right now.
    • The fact that I’m drinking an awesome cup of coffee, and that I could afford to buy it.
    • Kirsten, Caitlin, Rachel, Jack, and the rest of my family
    • The fact that I’m reasonably healthy for a man of my advanced years.
    • New life in and through Jesus Christ.
    There. I feel better already!
  • Margin - November 2, 2023

    I just got back from a week-long mission to Belize. I’ll skip all the rapturous words about how awesome it was. It was. For right now, I want to focus on one of our many encounters with God.

    One of the first things we did on our first “work” day was take some water and food to a family that was having a hard time. As it turned out, they lived at the top of a long and steep hill, with no road access. To go anywhere and, most importantly, to get water, they had to walk up and down a steep and slippery path.

    So, when we got there, as others were transferring the water, I grabbed a few bags of food and headed up the path. By the time I got to the top, I thought I was going to have a heart attack. That path, that the little kids and the pregnant mom walked several times a day, almost did me in. Then I went into the house. It had no electricity or plumbing. It consisted of 2 rooms: a kitchen, which consisted of a piece of metal placed on top of a place to burn wood, and a bedroom, where the 6 members of the family slept. The outside consisted of what appeared to be a random assortment of found wood. I was having a hard time understanding how the family could live there.

    But as the mom and I stepped out of the house and talked, she excitedly explained that they had only been there since April. Her husband had built the house by himself using only a hand saw. She also showed me the place just a little up the hill, where they had begun clearing and leveling to add on to the house. She was proud and happy and excited about her situation, a situation that I could not imagine myself in.

    Over the course of the week, we met and did our little bit to help many people in similar situations. And, like the lady at the top of the hill, for the most part these people seemed happy. In fact, they seemed a lot happier than I tend to be most of the time.

    And, that doesn’t make sense, at least in the cultural context where I live. In that context, a nice house and lots of stuff means happiness. A 60-hour-a-week job and lots and lots of activities means happiness. A full calendar means happiness.

    Now, I certainly don’t want to romanticize Belize. The government is corrupt and there are plenty of bad people there. There is a huge disparity between the haves and the have-nots. Poverty is endemic and the opportunities for people to pull themselves out of it are very limited. But despite all of this, so many of the people there are still able to find joy in their lives.

    And I think at least part of the reason for that is that they live in a culture with plenty of “margin” built in. Real rest and relaxation isn’t seen as a vice. There is a lot less urgency about getting stuff done. Taking time to just visit with folks is normal. The pace of life is slower.

    Several thousand years ago God gave us a set of instructions to show us how to live the way we were created to live. It’s called the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). Jesus boiled them down to 2: love God and love people (Mat. 22:36-40). And in the middle of those commandments we find the bridge between loving God and loving people: the Sabbath—rest (Exodus 20:8).

    We were not created to be busy all the time. We were created to flourish in a cycle of activity and rest. It’s a lesson I was reminded of as I stood on top of that hill, experiencing the pride and joy of this woman who (as far as I was concerned) had nothing. It was a lesson I was reminded of as I just stood there, caught in the moment, savoring the breathtaking beauty of the vivid, vibrant green of the hills against the bright blue of the sky—God’s incredible creation—from this woman’s front yard.

  • Contemplating the Length of Eternity - October 26, 2023

    Several years ago I was driving with my parents. Among the many topics we discussed was my grandmother on my dad’s side. She had five children and if you’ve met any of them, you know that “energetic” and “handful” hardly begins to describe them. The family would attend church every Sunday and would always arrive early. The younger kids would inevitably get a little rambunctious with boredom. They would complain and ask how long until Mass started. And I love my grandmother’s response. She would tell them to contemplate the length of eternity. Isn’t that awesome?

    Contemplate the length of eternity. That’s not something I do much. I spend a lot more time contemplating the length of my day or my week. At the end of the day I’ll look at my calendar for tomorrow and see what’s on the agenda or, if I’m doing well, I’ll get to the end of the week and look at the calendar for the next week. And if I’m doing REALLY well, I’ll contemplate the possible length of my current church appointment. Once a year I’m forced to contemplate the length of my life—60 years so far. And once a year I get to contemplate the circumstances which could possibly have led Kirsten to stay married to me for 34 years. But most of the time I’m contemplating something a lot shorter: how long before I can get out of this widget-measurement meeting, or how long it’s going to take me to prepare my next TPS report.

    I think part of the reason I don’t spend much time contemplating the length of eternity is that I’m scared to. Eternity is unknown and unknowable, and I’m just a little scared of the unknown. I’m much more comfortable sitting here, typing.

    I was talking the with some folks the other day and we were discussing how we experience time as relative. Not so much like Einstein talked about, but just in terms of our perspective as we age. When I was a kid, someone in their 20s was old. I was convinced I wouldn’t live past my 30s. Now I’m thinking 60 is just about the right age, give or take a few aches and pains. When and if I get to 85, everyone will be way too young and old age won’t start till 100.

    Through this process of getting older, my understanding of time has paradoxically broadened and narrowed. I’ve got a broader perspective on what it means to be alive, which seems to be resulting in the years going faster and faster. At the same time, I seem to be getting more and more concerned with making the most and best use of the ever-more-limited time I’ve got on this earth. As a wise person told me once, the days get longer, while the years get shorter.

    But when you think about it, all of that—the longer days, the shorter years—sort of fades into insignificance in the face of eternity. I mean, eternity is eternity. It’s forever in all directions—up down, forward backward, past present future. It’s before the big bang and after the heat-death of the universe. It’s outside of the before-during-after that we experience as time. It’s everything.

    What we do in this life is important, but not for the reasons a lot of us think. Most of us obsess over the “stuff” of this life. We spend all our time trying to get stuff accomplished, or accumulating enough stuff to be comfortable. We turn the stuff into the most important thing, and spend a lot less time working on becoming the people we are supposed to be.

    Which is exactly backwards. Because how we spend eternity—which, after all, is a LOT longer than our lives or our marriages or anything else we experience in this life—isn’t going to depend on whether we make enough money to buy a Maserati or a big house. It’s not going to depend on whether I double the size of my congregation.

    How we spend eternity may very well depend on who we become in this life. I look at this life kind of as practice for eternity. It’s like athletes who train or actors who rehearse. They’re getting ready for the real thing, and how the “real thing” turns out will depend on that practice.

    Or maybe it’s like when we’re kids growing up. Kids who grow up with fear and rage and hatred and dysfunction are likely to carry those things with them into (and, without intervention, through) adulthood. Likewise, kids who grow up happy and loved are likely to live their lives the same way.

    If we allow ourselves to become absorbed by hatred or fear or resentment in this life, it’s going to be hard to just cast those things off when we enter eternity. We very well might be stuck with them. But when we allow ourselves to be captured by God’s divine love through the new life that Jesus offers, we begin to live out our eternal life even before the next one begins. And then, it gets a little easier, and a little less scary, to contemplate the length of eternity.
  • The World According to Frisco - October 19, 2023

    One of the cool things about my job is that I occasionally get to work from home. And, as a result, I get to spend some quality time with my pets. One of those was named Francisco Grande (ooh, that’s fun to say). Francisco was a very needy cat. If there was a lap in the vicinity, he could be counted on to hop into it and demand some attention.

    And usually, after getting some scratches behind the ears or under the chin, Francisco Grande would start to clean himself. That was his go-to move whenever he reached a certain level of stimulation.

    And while I like to think of myself as a little more evolved than Francisco, I think a lot of us have our own go-to moves when things get to be too much. For some people, it’s drinking—that’s what it used to be for me. For some, it’s drugs—been there, done that too. For others, it’s food (one of my current go-to moves). For others it’s withdrawal or anger or lashing out. For some, it’s condemning others—”It’s all their fault”—or self-condemnation—”It’s all my fault.”

    And here’s where I think the comparison to Francisco Grande is especially apt, because when we do these things, we’re not usually acting out of our higher thought processes—the ones that set us apart from cats. We don’t sit down and think, “OK, I’m really stressed out, my life is a mess, I’m not sure how I’m going to pay the bills, and the world I grew up in and thought I knew seems to be dissolving before my very eyes, so I’m going to sit on the couch and eat an entire box of girl scout cookies while binge watching all of the “Lord of the Rings” movies (PURELY hypothetical). No, we just do it. It just sort of happens. We may actually think about it, but the older, more instinctive parts of our brains don’t have much trouble beating down the ol’ prefrontal cortex.

    All of us, in one form or another, have developed largely unconscious defense mechanisms to help us deal with the stresses of life. Some of these may be helpful, but unfortunately, a whole lot of them aren’t. The short-term fix often ends up making things worse in the long term.

    And this is where God comes in. God loves us and is interested in our long-term joy and peace. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God offers us a new sort of life—a life not dominated by stress and hurry and worry and all the defense mechanisms we’ve created to deal with them, but instead a life of joy, hope and peace, lived bathed in God’s love for us, radiating that love to all those around us.

    Now, as you might have picked up from my purely hypothetical example above, for most of us, it’s not an instantaneous thing. It’s a process. I’m a work in progress.

    We’re all works in progress. But progress is the key. In Methodism we call it sanctification; growing more and more into the image of Jesus. And it doesn’t just happen. It takes intentionality on our part: things like worship, prayer, meditation, service, giving. It’s in seeking to get closer to God that we get closer to God. It’s in doing the things God does that we become more like God. And as we progress towards that goal, the stress is less; there’s less hurry and worry. There’s less need for those go-to, instinctive defense mechanisms.

    I loved Francisco Grande. I loved it when he would sit on my lap. I just don’t want to be like him when I grow up.

  • Night of the Living Crickets - October 12, 2023

    Crickets. Have you ever said something you thought was pretty funny and … nothing. All you can hear are the crickets? Maybe it’s just me, but that happens to me a lot. I’ve heard my share of crickets.

    However, this last weekend, I didn’t just hear the crickets. I became much more familiar with crickets than I ever wanted to be … or ever hope to be again. You see, this last weekend, I served as a member of the team on a women’s Walk to Emmaus—a 3+ day spiritual retreat.

    Things started off normal enough. I arrived at the usual time, got set up in my room, visited with some folks, and walked over to the conference room where we would be holding the retreat.

    At which point, I was greeted with one of the most horrendous smells I have ever encountered. I soon learned that it was the smell of dead and decaying crickets. It was bad. But eventually, I almost got used to it. We drained a few cans of Febreze and lit a lot of candles and finally got the conference room set up so we would be ready to go the next morning. Then we spent the first evening of the Walk in another (relatively normal smelling) building at the camp.

    The next morning, I walked into the conference room, looking forward to a little prayer and quiet time before we got started, and was absolutely stunned. There were crickets everywhere. And I mean everywhere. There must have been over a thousand crickets in that one little room … and those were only the ones I could see. They were on the walls, on the floor, on the ceiling. They were on the tables and under the tablecloths. They were all over (and under) the altar, the candles, the cross, the bread, and the juice. Big groups were clumped under the floor lamps. They were all over the banners. They were on all of the window ledges. They were on and under the chairs, and I could see them crawling out of the occasional spaces between the baseboards and the walls. I felt as if I had suddenly been teleported to the locust plague scene in The Ten Commandments movie. It was (and probably will be) the stuff of nightmares.

    All thought of prayer and quiet time was instantly banished. The “pilgrims” (attendees) were set to begin arriving in the conference room in about 45 minutes. Looking back, I still think it was a legitimate miracle that we got that room cleaned up and re-set up before the first pilgrim arrived. I don’t know exactly how it happened. We vacuumed and swept and vacuumed and swept (and flicked them off as they jumped on us). At first, it seemed like we would never make any headway. As soon as we would clear an area and move on to the next one, we’d look back and the area we had just cleaned would be re-infested with a writhing mass of jumping and squirming icky-ness. But at some point, with the help of a lot of hard-working and dedicated people, the tide finally turned, and we managed to vanquish the cricket horde.

    Sort of. We never got completely rid of the crickets—they continued to visit us throughout the weekend—but thanks to the liberal application of insecticide and a vigilant perimeter defense by yours truly and others cricket warriors, the rest of the walk had less the feeling of a Biblical plague and more the feeling of a visit by a group of annoying relatives.

    I am convinced that Satan (or the Enemy, or whatever you call the force of evil in the universe) was trying to shut us down. I mean, as far as I could tell, it was only this one building on the entire campus that the crickets were targeting.

    And it would have been easy to give in to the attack; to lose hope. I mean, the first vision of that writhing carpet of malevolence just about put me over the edge. It seemed hopeless.

    And I think that sense of being on the edge of hopelessness may have mirrored the mindset of many of the pilgrims at the beginning of the Walk. I was reminded on this Walk of just how much pain and hurt and shame so many of us are carrying around inside; like an infestation we have a hard time imagining could ever be cleaned up.

    But as we learned, it can be. With God’s help, the Emmaus team got the conference room cleaned up. And we did our best over the course of the weekend to share God’s love—and the hope that is to be found in that love—with the pilgrims. We did our best to help them understand that all that bad stuff they’ve been carrying around inside doesn’t represent the end of hope, but instead is the soil from which hope can grow.

    From where I was sitting, the weekend was an amazing success. God showed up despite (and maybe even in response to) the Night of the Living Crickets in a big way and changed the lives of a lot of God’s beautiful children.

    In reflecting on last weekend, I am reminded of this verse: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13). In the midst of the cricket-chaos, both the team and the pilgrims nonetheless received God’s joy and peace. The power of God’s Spirit filled that conference room like a bug-bomb, filling all of us there with God’s love and God’s hope for new life. Those crickets never stood a chance.
  • Grading on a Curve - October 5, 2023

    I attended a church conference last week. Specifically, the ShareChurch Leadership Institute in Kansas City. I have shared before how I dread these events. Inevitably, I am presented with the amazing and innovative and incredibly successful ways other pastors and congregations are advancing God’s kingdom. And, in the process, I am confronted with my abject failure. At least that’s what it feels like.

    So, in the days leading up to the Institute, I was not nearly as excited as the folks I would be traveling with. In fact, if I’m honest, I was dreading it. But this time, something was different.

    Now, I absolutely did hear and learn from some amazingly innovative and successful people. I learned how God is working all over this country and world to help hurting people find hope and joy. At times, I felt like I was drinking from the proverbial fire hose.

    But this time, I didn’t feel like I was getting hit in the face with it. This time, I was able to celebrate the successes of others without focusing too much on my own failures. And, without all that inadequacy getting in the way, I was able to actually consider how and whether I and my congregation could learn from them.

    Which was different. So, as I endured the loooooong drive back from KC (note to self: NEVER do that again), I wondered if something had changed. Maybe the conference organizers had done something different. Maybe they issued strict instructions to the speakers on how not to offend my delicate sensibilities. Probably not.

    My prayer life used to consist mostly of me asking God for stuff. Not the sort of stuff I imagine other people ask for, like boats or lots of money. I would ask for success. I would ask that God bless my ministry and make me effective and dynamic in it. If I had thought about it, I was asking God to make me like the people I hear from at these church conferences.

    But for the last year or two I have started to focus on something else. I have started to focus on just being close to God; resting in God’s presence, secure in the knowledge that God created me, loves me, and doesn’t particularly care how smart of successful or popular I am.

    Crazy stuff, I know. But I’m convinced it has impacted how I’m living my life. Jesus promised us New Life if we follow him and as I have sought to simply live in His presence, I feel as if I’m actually beginning to experience life differently; as if I’m changing just a little.

    Theodore Roosevelt once said that comparison is the thief of joy. Which is true, and also unfortunate. Because the world in which we live is all about comparison. Whether we’re in school or not, we are all constantly being graded on a curve. And we instinctively understand and internalize this, so that we are always grading ourselves in comparison to those around us. Whenever we want to feel better about ourselves, we’ll find someone who we feel is “beneath” us—often based on their faith commitments, or lack thereof. And then we say to ourselves, “Bless their hearts.” But at least for me, most of the time it works the other way. If left to myself, I tend to look “up.” I tend to look at the perfectly curated Facebook pages and the megachurch pastors. And on that curve, my grade isn’t so good.

    But God doesn’t grade on a curve. God just wants us to love Him and everyone else and to rest in that love ourselves. And that’s what I’ve been trying to live into. Some days are better than others, but I’m starting to feel the difference. There IS a different way.
  • Joy - September 28, 2023

    Last Saturday, Kirsten and I had the opportunity to share lunch with our dear friend Priscilla. Priscilla is one of my very favorite people. She’s one of those people who just can’t help but help other people. You may know someone like her. Over the course of her life, she has fostered over 100 kids. She saw that her community needed a daycare so she created one, running it for years and, in the process, becoming a second mother to countless kids in the community, many of whom were in desperate need of a positive adult presence in their lives. And I could go on and on. She’s just an amazing person.

    Anyway, as we were sitting at the table after lunch, we got to talking about joy; about how the world seems to be running short of joy. And in the course of that conversation, Priscilla said something that I had to write down. She said, “I’m uncomfortable, but not unhappy.”

    Which is a stunning understatement in every way. She’s not just uncomfortable. She spent so much of her life taking care of others that she didn’t have time to take adequate care of herself, which means she’s suffering from multiple health issues which limit her mobility, her ability to do stuff, and just generally cause her to live much of the day in pain.

    Nonetheless, she’s not just not-unhappy. Just to look at her is to experience joy. She laughs often and easily. She’s got a wonderful and sometimes wicked sense of humor. She’s one of those people who radiates joy (and peace and love).

    So, when she said she was uncomfortable but not unhappy, I was struck. According to the standards of the world we live in, she has no reason to be joyful. In fact, she should be miserable. She should be angry. She should be resentful at the hand fate has dealt her. She should be bitter and complaining, making the lives of those around her miserable. Instead, confined to a wheelchair and in pain, she continues to be a source of joy and peace and love to her friends and family. It makes no sense.

    Well, actually, it does. I talk a lot about how humanity was created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), how God is love (1 John 4:16), and how therefore all of us were created out of God’s love to live as a part of that love; to live IN love with God and with one another. And, when we live in that love, we get joy, peace, and hope as part of the bargain. We get a love and a joy, a peace and a hope that lives in us; peace and rest that doesn’t depend on what happens to us on our morning commute, that doesn’t depend on whether the eggs we had for breakfast were too firm or too runny, that doesn’t depend on what our spouse or children or “friends” or co-workers say to or about us, that doesn’t depend on our financial circumstances, that doesn’t depend on whether things are falling apart at work or at school, that doesn’t depend on whether we can walk or get enough breath in our lungs.

    Jesus called this state of living out our identity as people created in the image of God “new life,” “abundant life,” and “eternal life.” He compared it to being born again (John 3:3-8); born into a new life that is very, very different from the life of regrets, disappointments, bitterness, and grudges that most of us experience most of the time.

    We are all given the choice. We can live the sort of life the world around us tells us is the best we can hope for. Or, we can live a new and abundant and different kind of life; a life in which we can find joy, even in the pain. And I know which one I want. I want to be like Priscilla.
  • It's me, hi, I'm the problem... - September 21, 2023

    Back during the summer (which I can thankfully now refer to in the past tense … jinx), I took an extended hiking trip.  And one of the many interesting things about that trip is that I woke up every morning with a new song in my head. That by itself wasn’t that amazing. But what was amazing is that each song related in some way with that day. I’ve forgotten most of the songs and how they got lived out during the course of the day’s walk. But, for example, I do remember waking up to David Crowder’s “Good

    God Almighty,” which was pretty appropriate for the awe-inspiring scenery on tap that day.

    I also remember the day I woke up with Crowder’s “Forgiven” stuck in my head. At that point, I was a little worried because the connection between the songs I woke up with and the nature of the hikes I was hiking was becoming pretty clear. I was pretty sure I was about to do something that would require forgiveness from someone. But, for most of the morning, I managed to avoid any major moral failures.

    But then, around noon, it was as if I had been asleep but suddenly woke up and found myself in a wasteland. It had been a forest, but now almost all the trees were dead. It wasn’t fire; the trees weren’t burned. In fact, most of them were still standing (though the ones that weren’t made the hiking pretty frustrating). I suspected and later confirmed that it was pine borer beetles. I had heard about them and had heard that they were a problem, but I had never imagined, much less seen anything like the devastation of that former forest.

    Now, I’m one of those people my cousin Terry refers to as a “namby pamb” (from the Latin nambinus pambino meaning of soft mind and heart). I believe that that the data indicating our climate is heating up is real, and I believe the 99.9% of peer-reviewed articles drawing a connection between climate change and human beings’ release of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. (I’m saying this not to invite debate but so you’ll understand the rest of my story.)

    So, as I stood there, dumbfounded, staring at a hellscape that until that moment I could not have imagined, I reflected on how it had happened. The folks who study these sorts of things have concluded that the beetles have always been there in the woods—they aren’t an invasive species. Back in the day, the beetles would bore into and kill a certain number of trees, which would then decompose, enriching the soil for future trees. Circle of life sort of thing.

    However, most of the beetles would die off during the winter, when temperatures got below -20. But in the last few decades, the winter temperatures haven’t been going that low nearly as often as in the past. And, on top of that, the warm periods during which the beetles reproduce have been getting longer. So, what used to be one reproductive cycle is now 2 or 3. Thus, the beetle population has exploded, leading to the death of not just a tree here and a tree there, but entire forests. (Which, if you’ve been watching the news, is a lot of what’s behind the massive forest fires that have been raging the last few years.)

    And so, as I stood there, transfixed by the carnage, I got mad. I got mad at all the people who had participated in the death of this forest. I got really mad. But, after a few minutes of righteous indignation, I did the mature thing. I asked God to forgive all those bad, bad people for this atrocity.

    And then I remembered the song that had been bouncing around in my head all morning. And I realized I was one of those people. I started weeping and couldn’t stop.

    There’s a line from that song that goes, “I’m the one who held the nail, It was cold between my fingertips ….” I tend to want to blame others for what’s wrong in the world … and what’s wrong with me for that matter. But as I stood there, I realized I was the one holding the nail. So, even though it was a pain with the backpack on, I knelt down and asked for forgiveness not just for all the other bad, bad people, but for me too.

    And then another line from the song entered my mind: “God, I fall down to my knees, With a hammer in my hand, You look at me, arms open.” I realized that I was already forgiven. For my contribution to the death of that forest, and for all the other stupid, destructive, and downright evil things I’ve done in my life.

    As I was preparing for Bible study last week a question occurred to me, which I posed to the class: If I’ve already been forgiven, why does Jesus instruct me to pray for forgiveness as part of the model prayer he gave his followers (forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us)? Someone immediately piped up with, “Because we need to repent.” And he was right. It’s important that we regularly (like, every day) examine the things we’ve done (and the one’s we’re doing) to determine whether they embody the love God has for us as His beloved children, and for the world he created. We don’t do this to shame ourselves or beat ourselves up. We do it so we can lay before Him those things that don’t, and ask Him to change us so we won’t do them anymore.

    The New Life that Jesus has made available to his followers is a life of constant, never-ending growth into His image. And, as Jesus says, for that growth to occur, some things have to be trimmed away (John 15:1-11). Only then can we bear the sort of fruit we were created for (eg, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness … Galatians 5:22-23).

    All of which raises a very important question. Should I be worried that I can’t seem to get the theme from “Titanic” out of my head this morning?

  • Shine Like Jesus - September 14, 2023

    I’m sitting outside this morning, and it feels wonderful. My watch says it’s 75 degrees but it feels almost cold compared to the last several months of convection broil. There are even some clouds in the sky, although I’m not yet willing to go so far as to expect actual rain. But I can finally, after what seems like an eternity, begin to accept that things are going to change.

    I’ve been working on my sermon for this Sunday. It’s about change; how Jesus was changed—transfigured—after going on a little hiking trip with a few of his followers up on a mountain (Mark 9:2-8). I love that story. It is so rich with imagery and meaning. Jesus is transformed, his clothes are so bright they practically glow, and God’s voice booms out, “This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him.” I think of this change in Jesus from the humble carpenter-turned-itinerant-preacher to a figure of glory and light as both a revelation of who he has always been as the 2nd person of the Holy Trinity, as well as a revelation of who he will become after his resurrection.

    And I believe that through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus has enabled us to be changed as well; to be transformed to become more and more like he was at the top of that mountain. Through the gift of God’s Spirit living within us, those of us who put our trust in Jesus have the ability to live what Jesus referred to as new, born-again, abundant, or eternal life; a life lived not for ourselves, but for God and for others. A life which, paradoxically, we experience as deeper and more profound and more fulfilling the less we live it for ourselves. It’s a life in which, as St. Paul said in his letter to the Philippians, we “shine like stars in the world” (Philippians 2:15) (note: not like the sun in the Texas Summer); where we can shine kind of like Jesus did up on that mountain.

    Have you ever met one of those people? A person who shines? If you have, you know what I’m talking about. When you meet someone like that, you just feel better—more alive. And that’s because you’re experiencing something like those disciples experienced on that mountain. You’re being given a glimpse of real life—life how we were created to live it—new life.

    And the thing is, as rare as it is for most of us to experience that shine, it’s actually what we were all created to enjoy. It’s how we were all created to live. So, next time you meet one of those people, take the opportunity to bask a little in the shine. Maybe even absorb a little for yourself. Who knows, maybe someday, folks will be basking in yours.

  • Black Hole Sun - September 7, 2023

    This Labor Day morning, I’m sitting under some trees down by the river. There are kids swinging and playing and swimming, and adults chasing them around trying to get them to behave. People are enjoying lunch (and a few up at the Barrow enjoying some beverages as well). It’s almost like a Norman Rockwell painting … except for the dying trees.

    Now, as far as I can tell, down here next to the river there aren’t any that are plumb dead; they’re just starting to lose a branch here and there. But up the hill near my house, they’re really dying. I’ve got several in my yard that have turned brown, and I’m not sure whether they’re coming back next year. I see a few on the church property and the surrounding neighborhood in the same shape.

    This has been the longest and hottest and driest Summer I can remember—and I lived through 1980 and 2011. I guess some of y’all who lived through the 1950s might remember worse, but I have a hard time believing it was much worse. The never-ending heat and the relentless dry has been simply brutal.

    It kind of reminds me of my spiritual life. Right now, things are good (kind of like last Spring). To some extent I’m still coasting off of the high from my spiritual retreat early in the Summer. But I still have fresh memories of other times; times like this summer; times of spiritual dryness and dessication that seemed like they would never end. Some of them were associated with grief. Some with a particular event. But other times, it just happens. One day, all is good with the world, and the next, it’s like the floor dropped out. One day, I’m in the groove with God; I feel like my life is in sync with God’s eternal rhythm of love and peace. And the next, life is like fingernails on a chalkboard.

    The old-school mystic St. John of the Cross called times like these “the dark night of the soul.” He might well have called them the never-ending Summer of the soul. And the thing about times like these is that it seems like there’s nothing you can do about them. It just keeps not raining. The heat just keeps getting hotter.

    And the temptation in these times—a temptation I have been known to succumb to—is to pull away from God. I mean, if God was really God and really loved me, He wouldn’t let these kinds of things happen, right? It’s easy to seek closeness with God when things are going good and closeness is easy. It’s another thing entirely when it feels like there’s a silent, oppressive brick wall separating you from God. Then it’s kind of like, “What’s the point?”

    Some people say times like these are tests of our faith. That may be right. However, based on my experience, I prefer to think of them as opportunities to deepen our faith. John Wesley often compared our faith to a house. Dry, difficult times give us the opportunity to explore a little, and maybe even unlock and open new rooms we didn’t know were there.

    And so I try, sometimes with more success than others, to just slog through these times (kind of like I’ve been trying to slog through this Summer); keepin’ on keepin’ on with my prayer and study; my silence and my Sabbath. Because I’ve had enough experience with it now to know that, like this apparently endless Summer, the dry times WILL eventually end. It will eventually get below 100 degrees. It will eventually rain. The grass will eventually grow, the flowers will eventually bloom, and the trees will eventually put out new leaves (or at least most of them will). And soon enough, I’ll be back down here next to the river, under the trees, enjoying God’s goodness.
  • Who Are You? - August 31, 2023

    Last night, after an entire Summer without rain, we finally got some. And even if I hadn’t seen the almost invisible sprinkles falling down, or the small and almost immediately absorbed puddles, or smelled the rich, organic smell of the newly-but-barely-watered earth, I would have known that it had rained. And that’s because my dog, Ginger Ruth, went and hid in our bathroom closet. Ginger doesn’t like the thunder, or even the sound of rain on the roof. She’s also afraid of our Roomba. I like to call her our nervous Nelly.

    Our other Dog, Buster Ruth, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about the rain or the thunder or the Roomba. But he does have an issue with the doorbell and the deer. He barks aggressively at both. Buster’s a bully.

    The reason I’m thinking about Ginger Ruth and Buster Ruth (other than the rain) is because of a worship service I attended last night—1st United Methodist of Belton’s “Open Table” worship (which, by the way, was awesome). The scripture and message were on the story of Mary and Martha when they entertained Jesus and his disciples (Luke 10:38-42). Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, while Martha rushes around taking care of the guests. After a while, Martha complains to Jesus that Mary isn’t helping, and Jesus gently tells her that, while there are lots of ways of attending to Jesus, Mary has picked the best one.

    After the message, we had some table discussion about the story. And in that discussion, someone (not me) made an observation that I had missed every time I’ve heard or read this story: Jesus didn’t yell at either Mary or Martha. He could have. He could have taken up Martha’s invitation and chastised Mary for being a lazy ne’er do well. Or, he could have gotten after Martha for tattling on her sister and for failing to give him the sort of undivided attention he deserved. He could have labeled Mary as lazy, or Martha as OCD.

    But he didn’t. What he did do was express his love for both Mary and Martha; a love that he shared with them despite their imperfections.

    Which was a little convicting for me. I have been known on occasion to identify people (and animals) with labels. Ginger Ruth is a chicken and Buster Ruth is a bully. Leonard is a hardcore conservative and Lorena is a bleeding-heart liberal. Leticia is an entitled, spoiled princess and Joe is too lazy to hold a job. In fact, I have even been known to call people “Marys” or “Marthas”.

    But (thankfully) Jesus isn’t like me. His love reveals the real Mary and the real Martha. Their true identities aren’t based on labels. In fact, their identities aren’t based on what they do at all. Their true identities are that they are loved. Each one of them, despite their differences and imperfections, are beloved children of God, created in the image of a God who IS love; created for no reason other than to love God and be loved by God. And that’s how Jesus treats them.

    And I think that’s a pretty good lesson for all of us. Remember, every person you meet, whether rich or poor, republican or democrat, is a beloved child of God; God loves them exactly the same as God loves you. And, having remembered that, let’s maybe try to treat them the same way Jesus treated Mary and Martha. (And, in the meantime, I’m going to see if I can cut Ginger Ruth a little slack the next time it rains.)

  • Slowing Down - August 24, 2023

    A few months back I went on a backpacking trip through northern New Mexico. My plan was to use my phone’s voice-to-text capability to memorialize all of the theologically profound revelations the trail would inevitably bestow upon me.

    Apparently, God had other plans. The first time I pulled out my phone and spoke into it, Spanish words began to appear. I dutifully performed the universal electronics repair operation: I turned it off and then back on. No change. The phone had somehow, without my intervention, become convinced that I am a native Spanish speaker.

    But I was not to be deterred. After a few days, I got to a resupply spot with wireless data coverage. After at least an hour of research, and countless menus and sub-menus, I finally changed the phone’s settings to translate my (mostly) English speech into English text. I then tested and re-tested. And it was good.

    So, when I headed back out onto the trail the next day, I was confident that this time, I would be able to bless posterity with my fully preserved divine inspirations. Only to discover, upon seeking to preserve the first deep thought, that my phone had once again mistaken me for a Spaniard. Really?!

    However, later that same day, something occurred to me.

    I had started my hike at about 7,500 feet of elevation. For the next week, I bounced around between 11,000 and 6,500 feet, with daily elevation gains between 3,000 and 4,000 feet. And as I did so, I began to notice how the scenery kept changing. It wasn’t just the occasional spectacular rock formation or incredible mountain view. The vegetation itself was changing. In the morning, it might be sagebrush and scrub pine. Around lunchtime it might be Ponderosa pines and lupines. And in the afternoon, it might be fir trees and scrubby oaks. Sometimes I would be walking on hot sand in a river valley, other times on shaded pine needles in a forest, other times through a muddy meadow, and yet others on cold, bare rock. I even had to walk through a fair amount of snow.

    And the thing is, the more conscious of these changes I became, the more I noticed them. And the more I noticed, the more entranced I became at God’s astonishing power, creativity, and beauty. In the course of one day, maybe 20 miles, I might walk through 2-3 different ecological zones, more than I would typically be able to see in 200 miles of driving. (And even if I did drive up and down mountains, I wouldn’t be able to see them in the same way.)

    From my (albeit limited) research in the Gospels, I get the impression that Jesus wasn’t much into distraction … or hurry. He probably wasn’t one of those people constantly fiddling with their phone (or clay tablet). He probably wasn’t one of those people who’s always speeding from one place or one appointment or one meeting to another. And maybe it was because he was willing to slow down that he tended to see—really see—what was going on around him. He saw the people his culture tended not to see: the poor, the sick, the widow and the foreigner. And, in seeing them, he also brought them healing and wholeness.

    Our world is all about going fast, and it’s getting faster by the day. It’s about getting from point A to point B a quickly and efficiently as possible. It’s also about being busy, making sure our attention is always fixed on something other than what’s right in front of us. But when we do that, we miss a whole lot. For one thing, we miss the inexpressible beauty, variety, and intrinsic value of the world in which we live … in both the valleys and the mountaintops. And, at the same time, we run the risk of missing the people who live in it; especially the people who we don’t think can help us on that road to speed and efficiency … precisely those people whom Jesus was able to see and help.

    On my hike, I didn’t see any people, but I did see a lot more of God’s creation than I ever would have been able to see if I was just trying to get form point A to point B. Had my focus been on recording for posterity my important observations on a typical English-speech-to-English-text phone, I might have missed this revelation. So, now that I think about it, maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that my phone decided to mistake me for a Spaniard.
  • Summer's Over - August 17, 2023

    Summer’s Over! Well, not quite. The meteorologists will tell you we’ve got about 2 weeks till the end of meteorological Summer (August 31). The astronomers will tell you it isn’t over until September 21st. And, if Summer were really over, someone forgot to tell whoever’s in charge of the blast furnace that keeps hitting me every time I step outside.

    But, for all intents and purposes, real Summer is over. School is back. For the folks here in Salado, it started last week. Other local school districts start back this week. Some of the college kids and teachers have a couple more weeks, but for most of us with school-aged kids, or who are associated with the schools, real Summer is over.

    Now, the end of Summer used to be devastating. Waaaaay back in the day, when I was in school, Summer didn’t end until the Tuesday after Labor Day. My family would spend every Labor Day at our cabin on Lake Proctor, and some of my saddest and most depressing memories are from the drive back home to Austin on Labor Day evening, watching the sun set on my freedom. I still get the occasional flashback driving south on highway 183.

    But things are different now. Now, I kind of look forward to the end of Summer. For one thing, it means that some day the temperatures will dip below 100 degrees. Even better than that, I now have the opportunity to see some folks in church who may have taken the last few months to escape to a more habitable climate. But maybe the thing I’m most looking forward to with the end of Summer is that our Parent’s Day Out program starts back up. I can’t wait to see those kids every Tuesday and Thursday! They just bring life and joy into my life and the life of the church.

    Which, now that I think about it, is a strange way for me to feel. Used to be, I didn’t much like people, especially little people who tend to drool, have runny noses, and make a LOT of noise. Used to be, I would have considered a rampaging herd of three-year-olds a major distraction and inconvenience. But not anymore.

    Last Sunday I started a new sermon series about community. The basic idea is that God, as the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is, in His essential identity, a relationship—a community—of divine and eternal love (Genesis 1:1-2; John 1:1-2; 1 John 4:8, 16). And we, as beings created in that same image (Genesis 1:26), have therefore been created to live in that same sort of community—in love with God and with one another.

    So, as I contemplate the newfound excitement with which I welcome the end of Summer, I realize it has to do with this. It has to do with the fact that as I have begun the process of seeking to draw closer to and become more like God through His Son Jesus, I have become a little more tolerant of, accepting of, and even on occasion, affectionate towards some of those whom I used to see as, at best, an inconvenience and, at worst, annoying jerks. They, like me, have been created in God’s image and, as such, we’ve been created to live in community with one another. And that applies especially to those noisy, snotty, slobbery little ones. They may be traumatized by the end of Summer, but I couldn’t be happier.
  • Are you lost? - August 10, 2023

    This last weekend I was blessed to see one of my dear friends get ordained. It was the culmination of a long road of devotion and faithfulness. Seeing her joy and excitement afterwards was one of the highlights of my life.

    And I almost didn’t make it. I didn’t want to go. You see, it was an ordination service within the Global Methodist Church. And for those of you who haven’t been keeping score, the Global Methodist church is a new denomination formed mainly from churches that have chosen to disaffiliate from my denomination, the United Methodist Church. And if you have been keeping score, you know that the split hasn’t been easy. Some pretty un-Christian things have been done and said. I know a lot of people who have been deeply hurt in this process. In some cases, close friends are no longer talking to one another.

    And although I have not been as directly or deeply affected as some of my friends, I realized as I contemplated attending (or not) my friend’s ordination that I was nevertheless holding on to some hurt.

    Which is funny (and not in a good way). For the last 3 weeks I’ve been preaching on the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32); about the younger son who was lost until he let go of his selfishness and turned towards home, and about the older son who, though he stayed home, was just as lost in his anger and self-righteousness. During the series, I repeatedly emphasized how important it is for us to let go of our judgmental anger. Yet as I considered attending my friend’s ordination, I realized I was still holding on to more than a little anger and resentment at some within the GMC whom I perceived had done a poor job of representing Christ in their attempts to recruit churches to leave the UMC. (Of course, I also recognize there are some now in the GMC who are holding on to anger and unforgiveness related to what they have experienced in this separation process).

    Eventually, however, I decided to honor my friend and attend the ordination service. And, as I expected, there were a few uncomfortable moments. I was pretty sure I was the only United Methodist clergy person there (have you ever had that feeling that everyone’s looking at you and judging you? Yeah.). After the service, someone even jokingly asked if I was lost.

    But as I participated in the ordination worship service, I noticed something. In its essentials, it was pretty much the same as the service in which I was ordained. In fact, it wasn’t really any different than any of the other ordination services I’ve attended.

    Just last week, a good friend reminded me that the Global and United Methodist churches have a lot more in common than they don’t. I have another good friend who reminded me last week that unforgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.

    They’re both right. Forgiveness may be the most important thing we can do for our spiritual lives. As C.S. Lewis said, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” Because we are forgiven, we forgive. I mean, we pray this every week, at least in my church: “forgive us our sins, as we forgive the sins of others.” The way I understand it, this prayer is our weekly acknowledgment that our forgiveness of others flows from our acceptance of the forgiveness that God has shown us. And, conversely, our failure to forgive constitutes (and reflects) a barrier we have erected within ourselves, blocking the flow of God’s grace; in refusing to forgive, we refuse forgiveness. In other words, we’ve drunk the poison; like those 2 sons, we’re lost.

    The UMC/GMC split has happened. And, in the heat of that “moment” of history, things were said and done that probably shouldn’t have been said or done. But holding on to anger and unforgiveness isn’t going to change anything. It’s just going to make us (and the folks around us) miserable, while harming our relationships with one another and with God (not to mention the harm it does to our collective witness to the world).

    Whether we agree with what has happened or how it has happened, we in the UMC and GMC are on the same team. We want the same thing: that those within and outside our churches experience a new way of living in the love of Jesus Christ. And after this weekend, I’m becoming more convinced that holding on to unforgiveness (whichever side of the fence you’re on) is getting in the way of our accomplishment of that goal.

    So, what does all this mean? I’m not sure. I do know that I’ve still got some work to do. But I also feel as if I’m maybe not quite so lost as I was before.
  • Of Loss and Clothespins - August 3, 2023

    As part of my mountain adventure last month, Kirsten and I went to Yosemite. The trip was filled with way too much awesomeness to address it all in one post. But this morning I’m thinking of a particular moment of the trip. It was our last day there and Kirsten and I were hiking in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias when we came upon the “Clothespin Tree.” The attached picture doesn’t nearly do it justice. For one thing, the tree is absolutely huge; bigger than any other tree I’ve ever seen (except some of the other Sequoias). But the really incredible thing is that it gets its name from the clothespin shaped hole running right through it.

    It turns out the tree has survived several fires. Apparently, after every fire, the tree will gradually grow around the fire-scars until the damage is sealed up. And it’s in the course of these repeated injuries and regrowth that this particular tree developed the hole. Yet, despite that huge hole right through its middle, the tree is still alive and flourishing!

    The reason I’ve been thinking about the Clothespin Tree this morning is because of my mom. As Kirsten and I were beginning the mountain adventure in mid-June, we got a text informing us that my mom had fallen and hurt her back. Since then, she’s had a pretty hard time. Thankfully, she’s now doing better and getting stronger every day. But she’s 87. This incident is a reminder that she’s not going to be with us forever.

    Which gets me to thinking about my dad. He passed away several years ago, and when he did, I felt like a hole had been ripped in my soul. I wasn’t sure how I would survive. And I know it will be at least as bad when my mom goes home. I haven’t lost a spouse or a child, but I hear it’s worse; maybe the worst pain a human can endure. It’s like being hollowed out; a vital piece of your very substance and identity burned away.

    And, of course, the loss of a loved one isn’t the only kind of fire we have to endure in this life. It could be the loss of a job we love, a sudden financial disaster, maybe an unexpected and devastating medical diagnosis. And as the flames leap higher and higher, we may feel like we just aren’t going to be able to survive.

    But, at least for me, the Clothespin Tree provides hope. Because eventually, growth can cover the scars. Time is a part of the cure. Support and love from family and community are another big part. But, for me, faith is key. Living in the hope, peace, joy, and love of God’s Spirit means I know I’ll see my dad again and that right now, he’s living the sort of life I can’t even dream about. It means the same for my mom when she decides to go home. It means the same for me.

    Of course, the hole never goes away. It’s always there. But the pain gradually begins to fade, although it, too, never completely goes. And eventually, we’re like that Clothespin Tree. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that most of us right now are a little like that tree; walking around with big holes going right through us, the only difference being that most of us plaster over the holes before leaving the house.

    I’d also be willing to guess that at one point or another, people have proposed plastering over the hole in the Clothespin Tree to protect it. Or maybe knocking it down to see just how it’s managed to survive. Thankfully, at least so far, it’s still there, still standing. And I hope it does so for a long time.

    Plato said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” If he’d known about the Clothespin Tree, he might have rephrased to it, “Be kind, for everyone you meet has a giant hole running right through the middle of them.” Kirsten has started wearing these shirts that say “Be Kind to Everyone.” (There’s a great story behind these shirts and you can find it here: I think that’s a pretty good idea. Instead of trying to plaster over folks to mold them into your image, or cutting them down because they’re holy (see what I did?), be kind. Let’s help one another keep standing.
  • Going Off Trail - July 27, 2023

    “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” This saying is often attributed to John Lennon but it goes back at least to the Biblical book of Proverbs: “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.”

    I was reminded of this saying during my recent attempt at a spiritual retreat. I had planned a 3-week backpacking trip through northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. And when I say planned, I mean planned. I had planned out exactly how much my backpack would weigh, down to tenths of an ounce. I had planned out where and when I would begin the trip and where it would end. I had planned out how far I would hike very day and where I would camp. I had planned out where I would resupply and had actually mailed supplies to those locations to await my arrival. The idea was that God would speak to me through the three weeks of solitude and silence as I executed my plan.

    Of course, that’s not how it played out. After a week, altitude sickness had ended the hike. I did manage to experience several amazing God moments during that time, but was left with the abiding sense that I had just been getting started and had missed out on so much of what God had in store for me. To say I was depressed would be an understatement.

    But … since I had already arranged to be out of the office and out of town for several more weeks, I decided to join Kirsten in Reno, where she was hanging out with her family.

    At which point, life started to happen.

    Kirsten and I took a trip to Palo Alto to visit our oldest daughter, who’s moving to Canada this week. In addition to getting to spend time with her before she becomes a resident of another country, Kirsten and I took the opportunity to explore some of the incredible sights and hikes available right in her backyard. Kirsten and I also took a trip to Yosemite and saw THE most incredible landscapes and waterfalls I’ve ever seen. And, from our home base in Reno, we hiked all around Lake Tahoe, one of the most beautiful places on earth. I probably spent more time with Kirsten in those few weeks than I had during the entire prior school year. I connected with Kirsten, with her family, and with God’s creation in a way that I never would have if I had followed my plan.

    Now, that’s not necessarily to say that my plan was a bad one and that God derailed my plan to get me on His much better one. In fact, it was my fault that my plan fell through. I went too high too fast. But what I do think happened is that out of the ruins of my plan, God created something amazing; something even better.

    I think that’s what God does. I know people who think God has a specific plan for each of our lives and that it’s our job to figure out that plan and then execute it. In this scenario, if we get off the path, we’re pretty much doomed. So, it’s best not to get off-plan.

    Who knows? They may be right. But I don’t think so. I think God leaves it up to us, so that as we conform our lives and our wills more and more to Him, our plans begin to reflect His will (see 1 Cor. 12:1-2). But, inevitably, we mess up. We go too high too fast. Yet, even there, God is waiting to turn our failures and frustrations into something amazing, if only we will allow it. It’s not a pre-determined path, but an ever-evolving trail, with lots of twists and turns and detours. But, if we will just remain faithful, it is one that leads us ever closer to the depth of the loving relationship of divine love in God that we were created to enjoy. And I’ll take that plan over anything I can think up any day.

  • Peeling the Onion - July 20, 2023

    I am finally back from my extended vacation/retreat. I learned a lot. And one of the lessons that came though the loudest and clearest was this: be careful what you ask for.

    My plan was to spend the first three weeks hiking the 300+ miles between Cuba, NM and Sliverton, CO along the Continental Divide Trail. My hope was that God would speak to me through the experience; I had visions of deep, meaningful revelation. And I wasn’t disappointed. Over the course of a week, I saw the sun rise and set over some incredible slices of God’s creation. I was entirely on my own and experienced a quality of silence I had never known before. In the totality of the trees and plants and animals and water and soil and the air and the rocks, I probably felt closer to God than I ever have. So yes, God spoke.

    But I didn’t necessarily welcome everything God said. One of my big concerns going into the hike was altitude. I had trained my legs about as well as I could given the limitations of the local topography, but I couldn’t train for altitude. So, I planned to spend a few days in Santa Fe before beginning the hike and then take it easy for the first week or so until my body had acclimated.

    And things started out fine. I did spend a few days in Santa Fe. But once I got on the trail, the plan went out the window. I was feeling GREAT. My legs were feeling great, my body was feeling great. I was pumped up and excited and I wanted to get as many miles as possible under my belt before I hit the snow in Colorado; my view was firmly fixed on getting to the end of the hike as quickly and efficiently as possible. So, I pushed the pace. I did far more miles every day than I had planned. And for the first few days, everything was fine. No headaches, no light-headeness from the altitude. But then, I started to cough. I figured it was from the dry air or maybe the pine pollen, so I just powered through. But the cough continued and got worse. Then, about a week in, I decided to camp at the top of a high climb—something everyone tells you not to do as you acclimate to the altitude. In retrospect, it was the altitude messing with my judgment. That evening wasn’t one of those sublime moments spent enjoying God’s creation. It was extremely unpleasant. By the morning, I felt like I had a bad case of pneumonia. I’ve since learned it was pulmonary edema, fluid filling my lungs from all the exertion and rapid elevation gain. That was it for the hike. It was done. I’d covered about half the miles I intended. I hadn’t reached the goal.

    Or had I? One of the things I have struggled with pretty much my whole life is patience. Give me a goal and I’ll try to figure out a way to get to it as quickly as possible. I tend to put on blinders and ignore everything standing between me and that goal. Now, in recent years, God has been working on me to increase my patience. In fact, God seems to keep hitting me with that annoying scripture from the Psalms, “Be still and know that I am God …” (Ps. 46:10). And, as of early June, 2023, I felt that I had made some progress. In fact, you might even say I had become a little proud of how patient I had become. As it turns out, maybe not so much.

    It was one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever done, cutting that hike short. All that planning and all those opportunities to hear God speak: gone. But on reflection, it turns out I got what I asked for without having to wait the full 3 weeks. I wanted God to talk and He did. He just didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear, or in the way I wanted to hear it.

    As I consider my spiritual life, I am frequently reminded of the movie “Shrek,” where Shrek compares life to an onion. Every time you peel away one layer, you discover another underneath. Every time I think I’ve made progress with pride or patience—every time I get past another layer—I discover there’s another one underneath it. (BTW, this is why pride is so spiritually dangerous. It blinds us to the layers—layers that are inevitably there for all of us—that we still haven’t reached. And it’s just natural for us to want to avoid those lower layers because another thing that’s so good about Shrek’s onion analogy is that, as with onions, peeling away layers of spiritual self-deception is inevitably accompanied by tears. Or, in my case, some of what my uncle used to call “badwords.”)

    All of which is to say something we all know already: Be careful what you ask for. Or, maybe a better way of saying it is, “Go ahead and ask, just don’t expect the answer you want.” To paraphrase the Rolling Stones, God doesn’t always give us what we want, but if we make ourselves available, we’ll sometimes get what we need.

  • The Dog Whisperer - July 13, 2023

    Several years back, when we were living in Jarrell, we started taking our dogs to a guy named Rick whenever we would go out of town. Now, Rick is an interesting guy. He’s really into dogs; he’s sort of a dog whisperer. And he’s also pretty honest, some might say blunt, about their behavior. In fact, Rick is almost unique in my experience for his level of honesty/bluntness.

    I still remember the first time I picked up our dogs from Rick. I was excited to see them and fully expected to hear Rick to lavish praise on them for being such little angels. Not so much. Now, I was probably reading between the lines a little, but according to Rick, Ginger Ruth was suffering from borderline personality disorder, while the other two might have had latent canicidal tendencies.

    Of course, I’m exaggerating, but the conversation was a little jarring. It wasn’t normal. His honesty should have been refreshing, but it wasn’t what I was expecting, so I left Rick’s house a little unsettled.

    Isn’t that weird, that someone being honest would be so unsettling? I would have been perfectly happy to continue living in the fantasy world in which my dogs are wonderfully loving little fur-angels, but I’m unsettled when someone tells me the truth.

    I imagine that’s how the Pharisees felt when Jesus came along. They had an understanding of spiritual life that centered around following rules; doing and saying things a certain way. And since they were really good rule followers, they figured they had a lock on salvation. But Jesus told them—with brutal honesty—that spiritual life is, first and foremost, about a relationship with God. For sure, there are things we can and should do to foster that relationship, but they are secondary. The relationship is primary. It had to be a little unsettling.

    Many of us—maybe most of us—have a tendency to be a little like those Pharisees; to create an understanding of a good spiritual life around who we are and what we do. We create our own little fantasy world in which we’re doing just fine, thank you! And without a Jesus (or a Rick) to burst our bubble, we’ll just keep right on with our little fantasy.

    We need more Ricks in our lives. And that’s why I think Christian support/accountability groups are important. In the Walk to Emmaus program, they call them Reunion Groups. It’s nothing more than a small group of people who get together on a regular basis to share their spiritual lives with one another. To support one another through the difficult times, celebrate with one another through the good times, and occasionally be a Rick.

    Given our tendency to create our own reality if left to ourselves, I don’t think these groups are an option for a healthy spiritual life. I think they are a necessity. This is one of those critical things we NEED to do to deepen and strengthen the relationship with God that Jesus came to make a reality. It’s occasionally unsettling, it’s often fun, but it’s always good. Thanks for the reminder, Rick.

  • 3-D Camera - July 6, 2023

    "3-D Cameras!!!” That’s what the guy said.

    It was August, 1989, and I was on the bus from Spokane, WA to Reno, NV, on the way to my wedding. Why I took the bus is still a mystery to me. It wasn’t that much cheaper than taking a plane. I had just finished my second year of law school and was gearing up for the third, so maybe my brain was just fried. But whatever the reason, I was on the bus.

    And one thing I hadn’t known about bus rides before that trip was that buses stop. A lot. And so, somewhere between Spokane and Boise Idaho, we stopped at a wide spot in the road in the middle of a bunch of trees and picked up a group of very large, very dirty, very smelly, very drunk young men. Turns out they had been fighting one of the many wildfires raging in northern Idaho that year. And despite all my precautions—no eye contact, spreading out my shoulders, elbows, and legs to look bigger, coughing fits—one of the very large, very dirty, very smelly, very drunk young men sat down beside me.

    And, almost before he sat down, he started talking about 3D cameras. Turns out, they were the wave of the future. Who knew? He told me he had put all his money into 3D cameras and was just waiting for the investment to pay off. So, for the next 2 hours, we talked. Or, more accurately, he talked, and slobbered, and breathed, and emanated his smell at me, while I cringed and tried to go to my happy place. Needless to say, I did not run out to invest in 3D cameras then, or ever. But it could have been worse. At least he didn’t throw up like one of the guys at the back of the bus.

    Sometimes I wonder what happened to 3D camera guy and his absolute, unshakable faith in those 3D cameras. He knew what he believed in and he wasn’t afraid to talk about it. For hours. And I can be the same way . . . with some things.

    A few years ago, I got solar panels put on my roof. Someone texted me asking why we did it. So, I went into excruciating detail explaining it all. If you ask me about it, I’ll tell you everything I know about solar panels. Same with gardening or running or any of my other obsessions. Now, I try to be a little more restrained than 3D camera guy, but don’t get me started if you don’t want to know all about it.

    I know people who are the same way about their favorite sports, or about wines, or about lawn maintenance. You get them started and they just won’t stop.

    So why do I, and a lot of people I know, have such a hard time talking about our faith. I mean, I believe that through my faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, I’m enjoying a new sort of existence; a new, bountiful, eternal life. Not just some time in the future, but RIGHT NOW. That’s what I believe and that’s my doctrinal heritage as a Methodist. The Good News is new life, starting right now!

    So why the difficulty? Why the reticence? Maybe it’s just me, but I kind of doubt it. Maybe it’s just Methodists, but that’s not right either, because I know some Methodists who are a little like 3D camera guy, only a little less smelly and a little more sober.

    There are a lot of possible reasons. I think part of it is that over the years, many of us “mainline” Christians, at least here in the US, have drifted away from the idea of the Good News as new life right now, into the idea that Christianity is all about going to heaven after we die. And while that’s Good News for the future, it doesn’t result in changed lives today. So, Christianity becomes about routine and rules—what we’re supposed to do and not do. But without changed lives, even us Christians can’t seem to follow the rules, although we insist that others do so. So, we’re perceived as irrelevant at best—just the same as everyone else—or hypocrites at worst. Without new life, we don’t stand out, except in a bad way.

    And so, recognizing our culture’s attitude towards Christians of guarded apathy or hostility, maybe we’re a little afraid to draw attention to ourselves by sharing our faith. But is that really an excuse? I mean, 3D camera guy didn’t care that I was doing everything I could not to talk to him. He was going to tell me about his 3D cameras come hell or high water. But it makes me wonder just how much we are (I am) actually experiencing the new, changed sort of life that Jesus promises, if we’re unwilling to talk about it.

    It seems to me that our drift towards a strictly future-oriented, formal sort of faith has not only created the cultural guardedness we see around us, but to the extent we hold onto that understanding of faith, it robs us of the gumption to actually speak.

    I’m not sure what to make of all this other than to pray that all of you (and I) can experience the sort of rebirth through the Holy Spirit that will make it so we just can’t help but share the sort of new life that we are enjoying through Jesus. Let’s invite God to change us so that everyone we meet says to themselves, “I want to get me somma that!” Can I get an Amen!

  • Stinky Feet - June 29, 2023

    One of my favorite stories from my childhood is about the time we took a two-week family vacation to California. There were 7 of us and we had one of those big, 15-passenger vans. To save money, we took the back seat out, built a little platform so the luggage could go underneath and people on top, and put a pop-up tent on the roof. We had plenty of room for everyone to sleep, so we stayed in RV parks pretty much the whole time.

    It was a great trip. We went to Disneyland, Universal Studios, Knotts Berry Farm, Sea World, and several different beaches. And it wasn’t until the second week of the vacation that we started to notice the smell. At first, it was pretty faint but as time wore on, it got stronger and stronger. We started to wonder whether something had died in the van, the smell was so bad. But we figured that couldn’t be it, because the smell seemed to come and go.

    Then, one day, after one of our beach excursions, a couple of my siblings got in a fight. And in a masterstroke of sibling conflict resolution, the youngest, Philip, said, “You better stop it, or I’m going to put my foot odor on you!” Turns out that was the smell.

    Philip was about 5 at the time, the youngest of 5 siblings. Turns out my mother thought he was bathing with my dad and my dad thought he was bathing with my mother. So, for most of the 2 weeks, he hadn’t been bathing at all.

    In some ways, we’re all a little bit like my little brother Philbert. If left to ourselves, we have a tendency to get a little rank. Without a boss holding us accountable to make sure the work’s getting done, it might not get done, or done well, or done on time. Without Kirsten to subtly remind me of some of my duties around the house, I might be inclined to just sit on the couch and doomscroll on my phone (wait, that IS what I do).

    And it’s the same with our spiritual lives. Without someone (or someones) to keep us accountable, our spiritual lives can pretty easily stagnate (and maybe even start to stink). And no matter how brilliant the preacher, a sermon a few times a month isn’t going to cut it. It takes people who know you, who love you, and who you can trust to be honest about where you’re growing and where you need to grow; people with whom you can share your successes as well as your failures.  

    This idea of spiritual accountability is central to the growth and success of the Methodist movement. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, attributed the success of his spiritual renewal movement to what he called “class meetings” and “bands,” Christian accountability groups. I’m involved in the Walk to Emmaus ministry, which has accountability groups that are intended to serve the same purpose as Wesley’s class meetings and bands. And at my church, we’ve recently started up a few of these groups, with the same idea in mind. One of the core truths I’ve come to believe since becoming a Christian is that no matter how much I wish it were otherwise, we can’t do life on our own. We need help. We need help from God, for sure. But we also need help from one another. As people created in the image of relational God, we are hardwired for relationship; we need one another to point one another back towards God. And hopefully, as we do so, we’ll be able to manage the stinkiness.

  • Treasures - June 22, 2023

    I moved to Washington state in 1987. That’s where I went to law school, met my wife Kirsten, and where we started raising our kids. It was a great place, if you could ignore the almost constant clouds and drizzle, which we couldn’t. Eventually, when the kids were getting to school age, we decided to move back home (for me) to the Austin area. And one of the big draws of that move was the proximity of my parents. When we were in Washington, the kids may have gotten to see my folks once every couple of years. But being back home, they got to see them all the time.

    And one of their favorite things about going to visit grana and grandpapa was the treasures. At that time, my parents had a swing set and sandbox in the back yard. So, whenever we were coming over, my dad would hide “treasures” on and around the swing set and the sandbox. It could be anything from a penny to a cufflink to a $20 bill. And at their age, it really didn’t matter what they got; they were all treasures. But the thing was, the kids had to work for those treasures. They weren’t just sitting out in plain view. The kids had to search and dig for them, and that was part of the fun.

    If the idea was to get the kids excited about visiting grana and grandpapa, it worked. We’d get to my folks’ house and the kids would practically charge through the front door.

    Since then, my parents have re-done their back yard. The swing set and sandbox are gone, replaced by Texas sage and knock-out roses. But the kids still remember those treasures.

    And as I remember those treasures my dad used to prepare for my kids, I think God does much the same thing for us. My dog, Ginger Ruth, likes to chase the laser. So, I go out with her every once in a while to play. This time of year, the sun is just going down when we go out to play and the way my house is situated, the setting sun is right there when we walk out onto the back porch. That’s a treasure. I had a wonderful conversation with a total stranger at the coffee shop yesterday. That’s a treasure. I’ve got a wonderful wife who I love and who loves me. That’s a treasure. I’ve got kids I love who seem to have grown up reasonably well-adjusted. That’s a treasure. I’ve got the best job in the world in which I get to work with an amazing group of people. That’s a treasure. As a friend of mine says, I woke up this morning without someone throwing dirt in my face. That’s a treasure.

    Now, of course, my life isn’t perfect. I’ve got problems, and there are a lot of people who’ve got a lot more problems than I do. But I believe those problems don’t hold a candle to the treasures God is raining down on us all the time. St. Paul said it as well as it can be said: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

    Who knows how many treasures I’m going to encounter today? Who knows how many you are? The only question is whether we’re willing to dig a little to find them.

  • Be Like Meeko - June 15, 2023

    Several years ago, Kirsten and I were dogsitting for my daughter, looking after her then-puppy Meeko.

    And, at first, Meeko had a hard time. She was still a puppy and hadn’t yet had much experience of other dogs. So, when she got to our house, she was scared. She’d find a place to hide, or get stuck in a corner, and just bark at our dogs. Especially Ginger Ruth.

    At the time, Ginger Ruth was also a puppy. And, if Ginger Ruth could pray, Meeko would have been the answer to her prayers. At the time, we had 2 other dogs who were 14 and 10 years old respectively. They weren’t much into playing. So, when Ginger Ruth saw Meeko, you could see the excitement in her little puppy eyes as she started chasing Miko around, inviting her to play. But, of course, this just freaked out Meeko even more. She ran away more and hid more and barked more. She was too scared to enjoy the fun and play that Ginger offered.

    Eventually, Ginger Ruth wore Meeko down. Within a day, it was almost impossible to keep them apart. When our daughter came to pick up Meeko, it was traumatic for both dogs.

    In reflecting on that experience, I can relate to Meeko. Most of my life, I’ve been scared. I’ve got my life pretty well laid out. It may not be perfect, it may not be the greatest life ever, but at least it’s mine. I know it, I’m familiar with it. But Jesus is calling me into a different kind of life. It’s as if I’ve been invited away from my familiar domain to another place, and just like Ginger Ruth, Jesus is chasing me around, promising something so much better than I can even imagine: a life lived in divine love, a life of joy and peace, patience and kindness; a life lived not for myself and my narrow conception of my self-interest, but a life lived for God and others. Jesus wants to play, but, like Meeko, I’m too scared, so I try to hide under the dining room table, or in a corner of the backyard, and bark at him, telling him all the reasons why I can’t do what he’s asking.

    Thankfully, it’s not always like that. Every once in a while, I forget my fear and immerse myself in Jesus’ divine love. But here’s where Meeko’s got one up on me. Because once Meeko and Ginger Ruth became friends, they played together pretty much every waking moment. But I keep retreating. My movement isn’t into full trust and friendship and play. It’s more of a two-steps-forward-one-step back sort of thing. I feel as if I am making progress, but it’s not anywhere near as quick as I want.

    And that’s frustrating, because now, having begun to experience the new sort of life Jesus promises, I have a sense of what I’m missing. I have a sense of what’s waiting, just on the other side of the fear. Yet the fear remains. Unlike with Meeko, it keeps coming back. I’m not sure there’s a quick fix or an easy answer. I’ll keep praying and meditating and working to move past the fear. But maybe I ought to also just resolve to be a little more like Meeko.

  • Writing in Pencil - June 8, 2023

    I write in pencil, which is interesting. It seems like I’ve come full circle. I remember when I was in first grade using one of those jumbo yellow Ticonderoga pencils and a Big Chief tablet to learn the alphabet (and I remember a little later, when I was given access to the thin pencils, launching them into the ceiling tiles). But by the time I got to middle school, I was using the blue bic ballpoint pen. Pencils were for little kids.

    Since then, I’ve used all sorts of different pens. At one point, I even had a Mont Blanc (I got it as a present, I did NOT steal it from the security desk at the district courthouse). Of course, I lost it. When I was working for the state, I got to use those alleged gel pens that lasted about a week if they worked at all. My favorites were those uniball gel pens you can get in big packs at Costco.

    But for the last several years, I’ve gone back to the pencil, although now I use those mechanical ones rather than the giant yellow ones. Now, some people might call this cowardice. I mean, the reason I used the big yellow pencil as a kid was because I was always making mistakes. With the pencil, I could erase the mistakes and start over. Later, however, I must have figured all my mistakes were behind me. I didn’t need no stinkin’ pencil with its stinkin’ eraser. I was a MAN. So I started using a pen.

    Which raises the question: does going back to pencils mean that I’m reverting to childhood? Does it mean I’ve become wishy-washy? Does it mean I’m unwilling to stand by what I write? Does it mean I’ve lost confidence in myself?

    And I think the answer is “yes.” I spent most of my life convinced that I had to always be right; acknowledging mistakes was a sign of weakness. But in the last several years, I’ve gotten a little less certain of my own abilities and infallibility. It might just be age. But I think it also has something to do with my faith.

    Jesus calls us all to a new life, a life that’s so different from the one we’re living now that it’s like being born again: a life of love, hope, peace, and joy. And that life doesn’t depend on us always being right. In fact, it comes when we realize that we AREN’T always right. It comes when we realize that we can’t do it on our own; that when we try to live our lives entirely under our own power and entirely based on our own abilities and intelligence, we inevitably fall into fear, despair, anger, and disappointment. We can only live the life Jesus came to make available when we turn our current life over to God and allow God’s Spirit to live through us; when we give up our need to be in control and eternally right, and turn things over to God.

    I’m working on enjoying this new kind of life and I’m hopefully making some progress. But I’m not there yet. I’ll probably never get all the way there in this life. I’m going to mess up. I’m going to give stuff to God and then take it right back and try to do it all by myself. It’s inevitable. I’m going to make mistakes. But maybe, if I do it in pencil, it’ll be a little easier to remember that God’s got the eraser.
  • Hollowed Out and Filled Up - June 1, 2023

    A few years ago, Kirsten and I went on a hike. She found a place out on lake Belton that we hadn’t been to before and we headed out. The park was in the Leon river bottom, right downstream of the dam. And, being down in that river bottom, there were trees. Lots of tress. And for some reason, I was drawn to the trees as we walked. It seemed like every time we’d reach a turn in the path, another spectacular tree would just appear, and then another, and then another.

    I was raised in Austin among the cedars and live oaks. Now, those are perfectly nice trees (at least the live oaks), but they’re not big, at least not the ones I grew up around. But the trees Kirsten and I saw on our walk were BIG. Some had huge trunks, some were really tall, some were symmetrical, and some all gnarly.

    And, as we walked, one tree really captured my attention. It was in the middle of a little clearing and had a HUGE trunk with beautiful spiraling bark. Its top limbs must have been 150 feet high. It had giant grape vines reaching up into it, to the very top. It was huge and grand and wonderful.

    But as I got closer, I noticed something else. It was falling apart. There were giant limbs lying on the ground next to it. Some had been there for a long time—they were almost completely decomposed. Others seemed to have fallen just recently. But the tree wasn’t dead. Some of its branches still reached up way high and clearly had life left in them. But it was clear that this tree had seen better days.

    The path we were on led right past this tree, and as we got right up to it, I noticed something else: it was hollow. There was a big gap in the trunk. It may have started out as a spot where a branch used to be, but now it was a three-foot high oval hole. On the other side was a smaller hole and between the two of them, I could see that there just wasn’t anything inside of the tree. It was now apparent why the tree was falling apart. In fact, I’m still not sure how it could possibly still be alive, but it was. Still reaching to the sky with its good limbs. Still supporting those grape vines. Still providing food and shelter for the animals there in that river bottom.

    That tree stuck with me during and after that walk. At first, I wasn’t sure why, but sitting down this morning and describing it, I think I’ve figured it out. It reminds me of me.

    Like that tree, I’m hollowed out, I’m broken. St. Paul said it pretty well, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15). I read the Bible pretty regularly and so I know the things I should be feeling and thinking and doing. And sometimes I do them, but sometimes I don’t. Although the power of sin has been broken in me, I still manage to put my own needs and wants above God and others far too often. There’s a big hollow place within me; sometimes I feel pretty far from God.

    So, it’s kind of encouraging that despite being hollowed out, despite all its broken limbs, that tree is still going. It’s somehow still able to pull water and nutrients from the ground. It’s still able to reach way up into the sky for life-giving sunlight. It’s still providing support, food, and shelter for all those animals.

    It reminds me that despite my brokenness and hollowness, there’s hope. I am never so hollow and so broken as to be completely separated from the spiritual nourishment of God. Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, God made it possible that even broken, hollow people like me can enjoy a relationship lived in the love of our creator. Even us broken, hollow people can be used by God to benefit the world around us.

    And here’s the great thing. That tree isn’t going to get any better. It’s going to get hollower and more broken until it finally just dies. But God provides the cure for my hollowness and brokenness. The more I follow Jesus—the closer I conform my life to Christ’s—the more the hollowness gets filled in; the more the brokenness is healed. Until finally, when I too collapse like that tree’s going to do, unlike the tree, I get to be reborn—reborn into a perfectly full and completely unbroken existence for all eternity. And that certainly is encouraging.
  • Growing Home - May 25, 2023

    I had the opportunity to preach at my “home” church this last Sunday. It was wonderful. I loved pretty much every minute of it and am so incredibly thankful for the opportunity.

    But, as amazing as the experience was, it wasn’t what I was expecting. With everything else going on in my life and work, I hadn’t had much opportunity to imagine what my homecoming would be like. But subconsciously, I guess I figured everything would be pretty much the same as when I left 9 years ago; same friends, same people, same groups.

    And for sure, I did see many old friends. But what really surprised me was the number of people I didn’t know; people I had never met; people who had no idea who I was. And even many of the people I had known treated me a little differently. Some with a little more reserve (because, after all, it has been 9 years). Some with a little more familiarity. And, of course, there were a few where we just picked up as if no time had passed.

    The experience reminded me of the Thomas Wolfe book, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” When I read it as a teenager, I didn’t really get it. Now I do. Of course, you can go home. But it’s not going to be the same. People change and grow.

    Perhaps it was appropriate that my sermon last Sunday was on spiritual growth: how we have been created by a God whose identity is love: the divine and eternal love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And how we were created for the sole purpose of growing more and more into that love … living in that love and allowing that love to seep into our beings and change us.

    It’s been said that if you’re not growing, you’re dying, and I think that’s true. So, maybe it’s not a bad thing that we can’t go home again. I mean, as comforting as it would be for me to fold myself right back into those Disciple Bible Studies or youth group meetings, with the old familiar groups, it wouldn’t be right. I’ve changed, those people have changed, the world has changed.

    Change can be hard. But growth necessarily entails change. We may be pretty comfortable with our lives just the way they are; we may even want to stop the clock and stay right here. Or we may have fantasies of going back to some idyllic time when life was just right. My daughter Rachel sometimes says she wishes she could go back to when she was 10 years old—that was a time when all was right with the world. But, leaving aside the laws of time, space, and physiology, she knows that’s not a realistic—or a healthy—wish.

    We were created to grow; to grow physically from infancy to childhood to adolescence to adulthood. We were created to grow mentally and emotionally from absolute dependence on our parents to relative independence and the ability to take care of one another. And, we were created to grow spiritually. We were created to grow from a life where it’s all about me into the kind of people who put our relationship with our creator above everything else … even ourselves.

    Which, now that I think about it, may partly explain why I so thoroughly enjoyed last Sunday. Although a part of me might have wanted things to be just the same as they were, another (hopefully more grown up) part was excited that they aren’t—that I’ve changed and grown, and so have the people back home. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

  • A Tale of Two Hikes - May 18, 2023

    A couple of Fridays ago I went on a pretty long hike. And it was utterly miserable. The temperature got up over 90 and with the humidity, it felt like it was over 100. Which wasn’t great, but that’s not the worst part. The worst part wass that I wasn’t prepared. I didn’t drink enough water, I was trying to walk too fast (in order to avoid the forecasted late-afternoon storms which I later prayed would materialize), I didn’t bring any electrolytes. All of which culminated in me having to stop and just lay down in the shade on the side of the trail for a while. When I finally got back to the car, it took me about 10 minutes to actually get in because I was cramping so much. And, for the next several days, my muscles were so sore it hurt to get out of a chair.

    This last Friday, I went on another hike. This one was longer, but it was wonderful. Admittedly, the temperature was better, and it was cloudy (but still very humid) all day. I was careful to drink LOTS of water and electrolytes. I enjoyed the exuberant abundance of the wildflowers and got to spend some quality time with God. My feet were a little sore when I got done, but my muscles felt fine. 

    The difference? Preparation.

    I find much the same thing in my spiritual life. I have had a fair number of times in my life that went kind of like that first hike. The heat gets turned up: work starts to pile up, social obligations start to pile up—things that I should have foreseen but didn’t. And I’m not ready. I haven’t been spending quality time with God. I haven’t been seeking to draw closer to God in prayer and meditation. And so, I try to address things out of my own power and ability, ending up exhausted, depressed, and demoralized.

    And then, there are the times like the second hike; times when I’ve learned my lesson (which it seems I have to keep learning and relearning). Difficult things happen, but I’m prepared. I have been getting my spiritual electrolytes by spending time in God’s presence, and so I am able to address the difficulties not out of my own resources, but out of God’s. I’m able to find joy where before I would only find desolation; peace where before there would be nothing but confusion.

    It’s the Boy Scout motto: be prepared. And it’s wise. Because you never know. You never know what tomorrow—much less today—will bring. You may think to yourself, “I’ve got time, I’ll get to it tomorrow.” But between right now and tomorrow, a lot can happen. Jesus’ little brother James says this: “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (James 4:8). And it’s true.

    But here’s the thing. Spending time with God isn’t just an insurance policy. It’s not just a comfort in times of distress. It’s what we were made for ALL the time. God loved us into existence for the sole purpose of enabling us to live as a part of that love, in union with God. Spending time in God’s presence isn’t a duty or a chore. It’s like eating smoked brisket, potato salad, and iced tea. It’s like being out on the trail, turning a corner, and seeing a field of wildflowers. It’s who—and where—we were created to be.

  • Barking at the Wind - May 11, 2023

    My Dog Buster Ruth is in the back yard barking again. It’s developing into a bad habit. Now, of course, it’s not as if he doesn’t have good reason. I mean, our yard and the surrounding environs are regularly visited by vicious, bloodthirsty deer that would just as soon rip out your jugular as look at you. Buster is just doing his duty. And there are dogs down the street who like to bark and Buster just wants to be friendly and give them someone to talk to. And then there are the people who park in the Table Rock Amphitheater parking lot right behind us. I’m sure a lot of them look a little shifty. Buster’s got good reason to bark.

    But, like I said, it’s developing into a bad habit. It started out as a reasonably natural response to what was going on in the world around him, but it’s beginning to develop into something he does just for the sake of doing it. Maybe it’s a release valve for internal stresses that build up. Maybe, since it’s a strategy that seemed to work to chase the deer off, he figures it might work to make the wind rustle the trees a little less. Or, who knows, maybe he just doesn’t like being a boy called Ruth. I don’t know. I (fortunately) don’t have much of a window into his mind.

    But I do see the same sort of thing happen in me and other’s I know. I’m sure there’s a psychological term for it, but I call it ossification. It’s pretty common in people who experience childhood trauma. They develop coping mechanisms—like dissociating from their feelings—that help in the moment, but become a problem later on. But I think we all do it to one degree or another.

    I used to fun long distances. I had a well-researched and well-planned routine that enabled me to do that. But at some point, that routine and my body sort of parted ways. I started to get injured. First an achilles tendon, then a calf, then a knee. Eventually (but after waiting far too long), I decided to change the routine. And then I had to change it again (but not soon enough). Now I mostly walk. We all do this sort of thing.

    We even do it in the church. It’s the “we’ve always done it that way” syndrome. We get into a groove that works and so we just keep doing it. Of course, the irony is that we haven’t always done it that way. The early church consisted of lots of small house churches, with worship resembling a dinner-and-Bible-study small group far more than the Sunday morning gathering we are all used to.

    Which isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with the way things have always been done. We just need to (1) not kid ourselves that our way is the only way that makes sense, and (2) be sensitive to the point at which the way things have always been done is no longer the way things ought to be done.

    Most people who are in the church today (at least in the churches that I’ve been a part of), were raised in the church. For a lot of them, the way things have always been done (big Sunday gathering in a big, “holy” place, often with old, familiar hymns), provides familiarity and comfort. But we need to be open to the possibility that for people who haven’t been raised in the church, the way things have always been done provides just the opposite—unfamiliarity and fear.

    Our mission as Christians is to love God, love one another (Matthew 22:36-40), and especially to introduce those who don’t know God into the experience of living as a participant in the divine and eternal love that is God (Matthew 28:16-20). Our one and only criteria for how we worship together should always be how best to do that. Otherwise, we’re just barking at the wind.

  • What's Your Rock? - May 4, 2023

    I love this picture. I snapped it on a recent hike near lake Georgetown. In case you can’t see it, it’s a picture of a cedar tree that fell over in this year’s ice storm. It didn’t snap like a lot of the other trees, it just fell over, with its roots now mostly above-ground. And in the roots is a big ol’ rock. And finally, if you look carefully, you can see that even though the tree is pretty much sideways, it’s still alive. It hasn’t completely lost its roots.

    So, where do I go with this picture? So many possibilities. But I’m drawn to the rock in the roots. It’s the reason I took the picture.

    At one point, that cedar tree was a little sapling. Engaging in a little anthropomorphism, I wonder what it thought when its roots encountered that rock. Maybe it was annoyed at this obstacle to its growth. Or maybe, as its roots surrounded and embraced the rock, it came to see the rock as an anchor—something that it could use to survive the winds and the ice that threatened to knock it over. And maybe, when the tree was younger and less mature, the rock was able to serve just that purpose. Who knows how many howling windstorms and devastating ice storms the tree was able to survive because of that rock.

    However, at some point, as the tree matured, it outgrew the rock. I just wonder whether the tree realized it had. I wonder whether the tree continued to rely on that rock as its anchor, even though the rock could no longer help. I wonder whether the tree decided to spread its roots out wide, rather than deep, in reliance on the anchor of that rock. And so, this time, when the ice came, the tree went down.

    Which makes me wonder about my own anchor. What do I rely on to keep me from falling over when the storms come? And actually, I’ve had a lot. To varying degrees over my life, me, myself, and I have been my big rock. I figure I’m big enough and strong enough to handle whatever comes my way without any help. And it worked OK when I was a kid, but, of course, that’s just a recipe for getting knocked over on the long run. I’ve also relied on financial stability, success, acclaim at various stages of my life, but as I grew, none of them proved enough either.

    I finally, belatedly, discovered Jesus. But even there, it seems like I keep finding new and larger anchors. At first, I thought of Jesus as a really smart and moral guy who came up with a bunch of wonderful ideas for how we could all live more productive and meaningful lives. Before long, I came to understand Jesus as a divine magician who, if I just said and did the right things, could magically make all my problems disappear … or at least get me into heaven when I died. Those rocks didn’t turn out to be big enough. More recently, I’ve come to understand Jesus as the ultimate expression of the creator of the universe’s limitless, eternal love for me and for all humanity, as well as all the rest of His creation. And I’ve come to understand that all he really wants is for me to BE with him (not necessarily do things for him); to join him as a participant in the divine and eternal dance of love that is God. In my better moments, that’s the rock I’m holding on to now, and it seems to be a pretty good anchor. Although I have to admit, my roots are always tempted to rely on some of those other rocks.

    So, how about you? What’s your “rock?” What are some of the rocks you’ve outgrown? And, –be honest with yourself—what anchor are you holding onto today? Is it big enough to keep you from getting knocked down in the next storm?

  • I Was Blind... - April 27, 2023

    I just participated in a Walk to Emmaus this last weekend. It’s a 3-day spiritual retreat and what I am supposed to say after having served on one is that it was the Best Walk Ever and that you should all sign up to do one. But that’s not what I’m going to say. What I WILL say is, “Don’t do it!”

    I was the Spiritual Director on the Walk, which means I was supposed to help lead the rest of the group towards greater spiritual depth and maturity; a closer Walk with Christ. And, going in, I felt pretty ready. I felt I had my spiritual life in pretty good order. I would be able to bestow upon the spiritually undeveloped the largesse of my many years of spiritual study and development.

    Only, that’s not how it turned out. I discovered that I had a lot more to learn than I had to teach. It’s a little ironic (and an example of God’s sense of humor) that I preached just a few weeks ago on the spiritual trap of pride, yet there I was, pride practically oozing from my pores. Of course, I disguised it pretty well, but I couldn’t fool God.

    As I reflect on the experience, I’m reminded of chapter 9 of John’s Gospel. Jesus heals a man who was born blind. You would expect that everyone would be excited—as the formerly blind many himself notes, something like that had never happened before. But the Pharisees, the experts in Jewish law, were upset because the healing happened on the Sabbath. The healing couldn’t be legit because it was against the rules that the Pharisees, with their many years of spiritual study and development, had come up with. Likewise, Jesus couldn’t be legit because he wasn’t following those rules. And it didn’t help that he was an unlearned hick from Galilee (Galilee!). So, the Pharisees, in their spiritual wisdom and development, did everything they could to disprove the miracle (or at least convince themselves that it didn’t happen), up to and including throwing the formerly blind man out of the synagogue.

    And so, in summing up the miracle, Jesus says, “’I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see may see and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains’” (John 9:39-41). Their pride—their unwillingness to consider that they didn’t have all the answers—had blinded them, making them unable to see the presence of divine love in their midst.

    Thankfully, God used the people I was supposed to be helping to help me. God took off my blinders and reminded me of what I was there to teach and to model: God’s unconditional love. Instead of judging, I was supposed to be loving. So, that’s what I did.

    I wish I could say the weekend was enjoyable, but for most of the time, it wasn’t. And that’s how growth is sometimes. I’m reminded of the stupid metaphor I keep using to make this point about the need for continual spiritual growth: the onion. Every time we think we’ve got things all figured out, every time we think we’ve attained some level of spiritual maturity and mastery, God rips off another layer to reveal a whole new layer that we didn’t know existed (another reason the analogy is so good is because that ripping is often accompanied by tears). And, as painful as that can be, it’s better than the alternative: living our whole lives on the outer skin of the onion, away from the New Life that’s to be found at the center.

    Of course, I wasn’t the only one who experience growth (and tears) during the weekend. There was a whole lot of onion peeling going on. As God usually does when we take the time to intentionally open ourselves to God’s healing presence, God shows up and heals, whether we think we need it or not.

    So, after a little thought, I retract my prior statement. If you’re pretty satisfied with your life, if you think you’re doing just fine, if you’re really not that interested in going any deeper into the onion, if you feel qualified to judge others’ spiritual wisdom and development, then maybe a spiritual retreat like the Walk to Emmaus (or any other regular and intentional spiritual practice) is just what you need.

  • Spiders and Ducklings and Snakes, Oh My! - April 20, 2023

    It was one of those things they don’t teach you about in seminary. My first Easter with the folks in Salado. A packed sanctuary. I’m doing the children’s sermon with what seemed like 100 little kids. And then I asked the fateful question. I held up an egg and asked what comes out of eggs.

    The point of the sermon was to talk about life from death (or at least boring eggs). And so, I asked the question, expecting answers like, “chicks,” or maybe “ducks.” Instead, I’m pretty sure I heard one of the kids say, “pigs.” Another might have said “spiders.” And then there was the coup de grace: “Snakes.” Never again!

    Now, it was clear to me that none of those kids was trying to trip me up. The one who said “snakes” was quite earnest and obviously very smart. And, of course, he was telling the truth. Snakes DO hatch from eggs (well, mostly). Everyone got a good laugh.

    But as for me, in that moment, I suddenly knew what people mean when they say they see their life flash before their eyes. I had all sorts of thoughts instantly flash through my brain, primary among them being, “I know there’s some sort of deep, theologically meaningful response.” But, in that moment, under the lights, with all those kids staring at me, I couldn’t think of it. So, I bailed out: “You’re absolutely right, snakes do come from eggs, but the point is ….”

    But now, having had a week to think about a good comeback, here it is. “You’re absolutely right, snakes do come from eggs.”

    Evil is represented in the book of Genesis as a snake. In the midst of the perfection and bliss of the Garden of Eden, evil shows up and tempts humanity away from the divine love of God by inviting them to question God’s goodness and truthfulness. In response, they changed their allegiance: they decided to put their faith in themselves instead of in God. We call that the Fall.

    As a result of the Fall, God initiated a rescue mission for humanity, a mission to bring humanity back into the relationship of divine love that it was created for. That mission culminated with Jesus; his life among us, demonstrating what that relationship looks like in real life; his death, which defeated the power of sin and death separating us from God, and ultimately, his resurrection, the firstfruits and demonstration of that eternal, divine relationship.

    But evil doesn’t give up. It doesn’t stop. Human selfishness and arrogance put Jesus on the cross, and those things didn’t just suddenly disappear when Jesus rose from the grave. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus broke the power of sin, the unbreakable hold that sin had over humanity. But he left us with the choice. Evil continues to exist and we’re given a choice of whether to allow it to hatch into our lives. Jesus came to restore the eternal life that humanity had forfeited when it listened to that snake. But the snake isn’t gone. It’s right there, among the chicks and the ducklings (and the pigs and the spiders). The choice is ours.
  • The Buzzard on the Branch - April 13, 2023

    Last Sunday was Easter Sunday, the time when we Christians celebrate Jesus’ resurrection and the New and Eternal life thereby made available for all who believe in him. Which, of course, got me to thinking about death. I mean, Jesus couldn’t have been resurrected if he hadn’t first died. Even for him, as for everyone else, death is a reality. In fact, it’s part of life.

    But we don’t want to think about that. Me included. However, as I was hiking a few weeks ago, I wasn’t given a choice. I turned a corner and was confronted by a buzzard, right in the middle of the trail, about 5 yards in front of me. The trail was covered by low-hanging undergrowth, so the buzzard couldn’t fly away. Instead, it hopped (not quite like the graceful soaring on thermals that I’m used to) and hopped and hopped until it found an opening in the canopy, at which point it flapped up into a branch overhanging the trail. I figured that as I approached, it would eventually fly off, but it didn’t. I walked directly underneath it and took the picture you see above. I felt like I was in one of those Loony Toon cartoons where the vulture just sits in the tree, waiting for Elmer Fudd to die. And I was Elmer Fudd. Not a good feeling.

    As a culture, we are terrified of the buzzard on the branch. We do everything we can to avoid it or at least postpone the photo op. If you don’t believe me, just look at the numbers: healthcare accounts for about 20% of the economy, and it’s going up. I read an article last week (ok, the headline) suggesting that medical scientists are hoping to achieve immortality by the middle of this century (at least for those able to pay for the treatments). I’m skeptical, but I’m also struck by how much money, time, and effort are being poured into efforts to keep us humans alive as long as possible. It’s almost as if we’re scared to death of death.

    Well, it’s not almost “as if.” We are. And we are because we’re convinced this life is it. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the rise of the medical-industrial complex roughly corresponds to falling professions of Christian faith in the United States. And, even among so many of those who profess faith in Jesus, we still behave like we’re terrified of death; like we really aren’t certain there’s anything else.

    But there is. It’s what we celebrated last Sunday. Jesus died like the rest of us … but then he came back to life; he was resurrected. And that resurrection is a promise that those who trust and follow him will never die (John 11:25). In fact, they will have the opportunity to be born into a new love- and hope-filled way of living right now, on the way to an eternity spent in God’s divine love.

    Which, of course, is no reason to invite the buzzard down off the limb right away. God put us here for a reason. There is so much good to do and see; so much love to share. Like the Country song says, we need to live like we’re going to die, meaning we need to recognize the preciousness of the gift of life we’ve been given and live it to the fullest. But at the same time, we need to be prepared to die like we’re going to live, approaching it not with fear, but when the buzzard does come down off the branch, as a welcome friend; a doorway into a new and even better life.

  • Being Faithful - April 6, 2023

    Am I crazy? That’s what I found myself asking this weekend as I worked in the yard. I had been pulling weeds and was planting trees in an area where I had just spent at least 2 months cutting down a whole bunch of trees. One of my friends is fond of saying weeds (and, by extension brush) are just flowers/plants growing where you don’t want them. And it occurred to me that my history as a gardener has revolved around that saying: removing things that grow naturally in a given environment (such as dandelions, winter grass, and brush trees), and replacing them with things that might or might not grow well in that environment, but which I want in that spot. Quite often, this exercise requires long-term follow up, such as ongoing weeding, fertilizing, and watering, which often creates undesirable follow-ons, like more work, more water usage in an increasingly water-constrained part of the country, and the undesirable environmental side-effects of fertilizers.

    Now, in my defense, I’ve finally (after many, many years) come around to the idea that it makes sense to use native landscaping, since in the long term it eliminates many of those follow-ons. But still … there I was, out in the yard, planting stuff where I’d just taken out a bunch of stuff that was growing just fine.

    Which got me to thinking about faith. In particular, it got me to thinking about how we live out our faith; the fruit that we bear. Why do some of us seem to thrive in certain spots, and others not so much? Which is a depressing question for me to consider. It’s why I really, really dislike attending “official” clergy gatherings, where it always seems like there’s someone who’s been invited to talk at length on the awesome, amazing, world-changing impacts of his or her ministry. I get it. It’s intended to motivate. But with me it has the opposite effect. I’ll admit it: It makes me jealous, it makes me depressed, and sometimes it even makes me want to give up. (Now, I want to be clear. In saying this, I’m not looking for sympathy or encouragement. I usually have it pretty well under control … at least until the next clergy gathering).

    But, in my more reflective moments, I realize that this is just a manifestation of the fact that we’ve all got different gifts, and those gifts work differently in different environments. The apostle Paul put it this way in his letter to the Ephesians, as he was trying to convince them that it was their diversity that enabled them to function effectively as the Body of Christ: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13). Different leaders, different gifts.

    And, of course, this principle doesn’t just apply to “leaders” in the church. All of us have particular gifts and abilities. Some of them are ones we’re born with, and some of them we may have received from the Holy Spirit when we entrusted ourselves to Christ. They are all important. They are all needed. Paraphrasing St. Paul, “the big toe isn’t any more or less important than the eye” (1 Cor. 12:18). AND, these gifts are all going to manifest fruit differently in different combinations and contexts—in different environments.

    Kirsten bought a Norfolk pine seedling at HEB over the Christmas holiday. I would love to be able to plant it in the back yard and watch it grow into a terrible, towering, timber beacon of hope for all to see. But it ain’t gonna happen around here. Maybe in Norfolk, wherever that is. I’ve got a friend who planted a swamp oak on his dry, limestone-infested property, and he’s wondering why the leaves are all yellow. We thrive when we’re where we’re supposed to be, doing what we’re supposed to be doing, with the gifts we’ve been given.

    It’s not about what we accomplish for God’s kingdom (or, more accurately, what we can see that we’re accomplishing for God’s kingdom). It’s about whether we are faithful to the part God has given us to play in that kingdom. As Mother Teresa put it, “God has not called me to be successful, He has called me to be faithful.”

    And so, if you see me in the back yard of the parsonage with a hose in my hand, slowly watering in those new trees, you’ll know I’m not crazy—at least not completely. I’m just trying to be faithful.
  • Slow Down - March 30, 2023

    I was driving up to Ft. Worth to have lunch with a friend when it happened. I was in the right lane on I-35 somewhere north of Waco, coming up on an 18-wheeler that was going a little slower than me. I had the car set on cruise control, and we were approaching a hill, which meant the 18-wheeler was fixing to slow down even more. I was about to switch lanes when I saw in my rear-view mirror another 18-wheeler in the center lane. He was coming up on us. I probably still had time to switch lanes and get in front of him, but then I’d have to floor it and veer back over once I passed the 18-wheeler in front of me to keep from slowing him down. But, if I didn’t veer over and instead let him go by, there was a good chance he would also slow down on the hill, and I would be boxed in; boxed in by a couple of 18-wheelers, practically crawling along the interstate. I started to get anxious. I started to get angry. How dare they do this to me? How dare they interfere with my forward momentum? How dare they keep me from my meeting?

    And then I came to my senses. I was not in a hurry; I had given myself a generous time cushion to allow for traffic conditions. And, looking at the situation rationally, I figured what’s the big deal? It is most assuredly not the end of the world if I have to take the car off cruise control and travel a half mile at a slightly slower than optimal speed. So, that’s what I did.

    Now, what I just took 2 paragraphs to describe took all of 2 seconds to play out. And as I reflected on it, I wondered at myself. My sermon last Sunday was on pride, and one of the points I made was that every time we think we’ve got pride licked—every time we become proud of not being proud—something happens to remind us that there’s another layer of the onion waiting to be peeled back. I had just found another layer.

    I pride myself that through the transformational power of the Holy Spirit, I have managed to let go of so much of the anger and anxiety that used to characterize my internal life. Yet there I was, getting all worked up about something that might have added 30 seconds to a 2+hour trip.

    I realized that instead enjoying the journey, I had become fixated on the destination. And so, I changed the focus. I decided to enjoy the journey. I as I began to do so, I started to notice the incredible blooms of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes that until that moment I had pretty much ignored (this really has been an incredible year for them). I turned off the book I had been listening to and just enjoyed the few extra moments that I had been given in what promises to be a pretty busy week, just soaking in God’s presence.

    We can choose to look at our faith as a destination that we may (or may not) be all that anxious to get to (going to heaven when we die) or as a journey (seeking to draw closer to God throughout the course of our lives). We can set the cruise control and then get on with our “real” lives, or we can slow down and soak in God’s loving presence. I was reminded through a wonderful devotional I got to experience last Saturday of what the Psalmist says: “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). Jesus himself says that faith isn’t about accomplishing tasks. It’s not about getting to the destination. It’s about abiding in Him (John 14).

    So, how about we do that? How about we all take a few minutes today to slow down and look at the bluebonnets?

  • 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

    And tears

    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

    To abundance

    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.

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