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Archive for December, 2012

2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 10,000 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 17 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

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ImageAs the years go, 2012 has been a good one personally and professionally. This year was a marked difference from 2011, which at times I would like to forget, but believe will ultimately go down as one of the more important years of my life.

On December 31, 2011 the new year was not looking so bright. Just 10 days before I had spent the night in the hospital because of chest pains related to a season of unrelenting stress. I limped through Christmas Eve—typically my favorite service of the year—and struggled to prepare for worship on January 1 (which was the first Sunday of 2012).

I went to bed on New Year’s Eve early (because that’s how I roll now that I’m past 40). And then a strange thing happened. I dreamed. And I learned an important principle: God will always conspire to remind you of the truth that He is not done with you. That the past does not determine your future.

I’ve never been a big proponent of “dream interpretation.” I had a friend in seminary who kept dream journals of every dream he ever had. He had rows and rows of journals and had trained himself to wake up to write down his dreams. He was a good friend, but I always felt like this was an odd quirk that he shouldn’t share with anyone.

Dreams are just dreams, right? They don’t mean anything. They’re just random images produced by neurological stimuli.

That’s been my take on dreams, at least. Until December 31, 2011. That night my dreams were vivid and clear. I’ve never had anything like them before and haven’t since. And I’m convinced that they were God’s desperate attempt to reach me at one of the darkest moments of my life. God conspired to reach me through a way that I could see and understand. And because of these two dreams when dawn broke on a new year, I truly believed I had begun a new year.

Dream One.

In the first dream I was back in my home church in Ackerman. The pews were out of order and the lights were off. And people kept telling me that I was supposed to preach. Which was terrifying to me because I wasn’t prepared to preach. I wasn’t even sure why I was there. Then behind me a voice came whispering to me, “Christ is alive.”

And the dream was over.

Dream Two.

I was wandering through a dark parking garage. I think there were others with me but never saw anyone. As I exited the dark parking garage, a strong voice told me, “No more fear.”

And the second dream was over.

When I woke the next morning, the dreams did not fade. They stayed with me. As I rose to preach that morning, I preached with the confidence that Christ was alive and that I no longer had to fear. In fact, I distinctly remember the joy of that morning. Probably the first joy I had felt in some time.

And here’s what I took away from that: Our God will go to great lengths to remind you of the truth of his love and grace. Maybe God won’t use dreams to speak to you (or maybe God will). Maybe it will be a great sunset, an unexpected conversation with a friend, that random quote you see at 2 a.m. on Facebook, a Bible Study, a sermon, an encounter with scripture. Who knows. But here’s the thing: I am convinced that our God will conspire to bring light to your darkness. And will use any means necessary.

That unexpected scheming of God gave me dreams that allowed me to begin again this year. My prayer is that you will have the eyes to see and the ears to hear as you enter this new year and new season of your life.

Happy New Year.

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After the events of Friday, I trashed the sermon I had spent a week putting together. The amazing God-thing was that the Christmas story we had chosen for the day (Herod–the man who slaughtered children) was the right story for the day. I just needed a different take on it. You can listen to the sermon I actually preached that related to the events of Friday morning in Connecticut by clicking here (or, you can search iTunes for ‘parkway heights.’ The name of the sermon is: Dealing with Change).

Below you’ll find my original take on the story of King Herod (you can read his story in Matthew 2.1-8, 16 by clicking here). Before you read, let me offer some important notes on my sermon writing style that will keep you from wondering how I ever passed English 101. I write it as I would speak it. So commas, periods, and semi-colons are placed in reference to pausing/stopping points for preaching, not for submission to a journal.

Also, what you’ll see below is not the final form of the sermon. The Saturday evening part of the process (yes, there actually is a process) forces me to ensure the sermon flows naturally from one point/part to another. So, what you would’ve heard on Sunday morning would’ve been somewhat adapted.

There’s a video that goes along with this sermon. The link is included below. I promise you’ll laugh at it. A lot. A whooooole lot.

So, here you go: Herod, The Enemy.

The Enemy

TEXT: Matthew 2.1-8, 16

Every great story has a villain. Think about your favorite movies, books, and TV shows. They all have great villains. Boss Hogg, Voldemort, Darth Vader, the Wicked Witch of the West, Cruella de ville, Gargamel, The Joker, the entire cast of Twilight. On Facebook this week I asked you name your favorite TV, Movie or cartoon and there was no end to the responses. Even Christmas has its own list of Villains: Scrooge, the Grinch, Mr. Potter (from It’s a wonderful life). We know our villains. They’re easy to spot in the story because villains do one primary thing: they diminish the life of others. They do it in different ways, but the result is always the same. With their words or actions they manage to take away the life of others around them. They take joy or peace; the steal from others. Villains aren’t just fiction, though. You’ve probably had the opportunity in your own life to meet up with a few real-life villains. People who have stolen life from you; who have managed in some real way to diminish your life; to hurt you, or those your love.

The Christmas story gives us a bad guy–a real villain. His name is Herod and we meet him in Matthew 2.1 “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem.” Herod’s time in the story is very brief, but it’s long enough to bring destruction and death. He does what all great villains do: he steals life from those around him.

We meet Herod because some of our favorite characters in the Christmas story come to Herod asking for directions. The wise-men, everyone’s favorite astrologers, have seen signs that point to a great new king. They come with gifts for the king and they do what anyone would do when looking for a new king. They go to the palace. They find King Herod and ask: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” (2.2) Now, this catches Herod’s attention because what’s Herod’s title? You guessed it: “King of the Jews.” If there’s another King of the Jews, then Herod has competition. The story says that the news from the wise men “frightened” Herod. So, Herod attempts to trick the wise men into revealing the exact location of this child who is now trying to steal his position. When the wise men don’t play along, Herod plays the part of the ultimate bad guy, the ultimate villain. He uses the information he has to commit genocide. He slaughters every child under 2 in and around Bethlehem hoping to take out this one who is a challenge to his kingship. The Bible has many, many villains, but Herod’s act puts him near the top of the list of those who bring terror into the world. Of the villains that steal life from people.

But here’s what you need to know about Herod. He wasn’t just a villain in the Christmas story. He was a villain in every area of life. Herod is the one character in the Christmas story that we have other historical records on. So, let me tell you what history teaches us about Herod. Herod was elected King of the Jews by the Roman Senate. He fought a war against his own people for three years to claim his kingship. He enslaved his own people to build massive architectural projects, including a new Temple in Jerusalem. For his summer home, Herod picked a hill he wanted his house to be built on, but the problem was there was a taller hill close by. So, what did Herod do? He enslaved more people and had them move the hill. When Jesus talked about faith that would move mountains, Jesus knew that people would remember Herod who had moved a mountain and how he had done it. Later in life, Herod had two of his own sons executed. He was a brutal, brutal man. He was a villain in every area of life. He stole life from everyone he could. He used his power, his actions, and his words to take life from people.

It’s easy for us to dismiss Herod and focus on the wise men and shepherds and all the other kind and gentle characters in the Christmas story. But here’s the thing. We need the story of Herod. You need the story of Herod. I need the story of Herod. Please don’t miss this: Herod wasn’t just a villain in everyone else’s story. Herod was a villain in his own story. If a villain’s purpose is to steal life, Herod’s greatest theft was in his own life. Because of his fear and his jealousy; because of his anger and paranoia, he missed the joy and the hope that was right in front of him. He missed the arrival of the true King of the Jews. Herod missed out on the revolution of the good news. The news that could’ve freed him and given him new life–a life beyond his fears and his sin; a life beyond his hatred and scheming. He missed out on the life that was waiting for him, not because of anyone else, but because of what was happening in his own heart. Herod missed out on God’s ultimate gift of grace.

We need the story of Herod because there’s some of Herod in each one of us. Our own emotions, actions, habits, and sins steal life from us. Like Herod, we miss out on God’s ultimate gift of grace., not because of anyone else, but because we are often the villain in our own story. Like Herod we’re usually our own worst enemy. We do the things that cause us to miss out on the good news front of us; we miss the hope and life that Christ can bring to us.

Let me show you what this looks like. This past July, I had a great dream. I wanted to build my children a hovercraft. I had seen the directions for how to build one in Wired Magazine. It looked pretty simple. All I needed was plywood, the top of a paint can, a leaf blower, a shower curtain and some duct tape. So, my friend Danny and I built a functioning hovercraft. It worked. The only problem was that it didn’t have any propulsion. When you got on it, you just floated in place. We needed movement. So, my friend Danny decided to provide the movement. This is what happened. [Click here to watch the video]  We managed to take what was great and good and cause great damage because of our own inclinations. We were our own worst enemies.

What Herod reminds us of is that when it comes to seeing and experiencing the life God offers us in Jesus Christ, we’re our own worst enemies. The life Christ brings us is always right within our grasp. But we let the pain and sin that lives in our own hearts steal life from us–the life we find in Jesus Christ. Herod’s fear and jealousy kept him from seeing Christ. What is it for you? What is stealing life from you? Is it pride? Pride is the inclination of the heart to believe one is always right; always on target; never wrong. Pride is the sin of Adam and Eve–who believed they didn’t even need God to guide them; Is Pride standing between you and Christ?

Or what about anger? or jealousy? Is a simmering resentment holding you? Anger can be so subtle when it shackles us. We hold onto anger long after it has any purpose. Or maybe fear and doubt are clouding your heart. Doubts over your future; fears over what might happen. You live in that fog and you can’t see your way out. Maybe it’s lingering grief over a loss you experienced years ago that continues to steal joy from you. We could stay here and list things for days that we let hold us back from the gift of Christ. We could talk about jealousy, the need to control, selfishness; stubbornness. Habits; name the sins. For each person here, there is something within us that holds us back; that prevents us from truly finding and knowing the life God has waiting for us. Paul, multiple times makes lists. Galatians 5.19-21: Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. Paul calls them works of the flesh. These are things that keep us from truly knowing the gift of Christ. Too often, we are the villain of our own lives. What is it for you?

It would be very easy for me to say to you: go home, figure it out, deal with your issues and then you’ll find find Christ. And that’s what many of us think, that we have to fix ourselves. But if that’s what we think then we completely and utterly miss the good news of Christmas. God sent Jesus Christ to earth, to us, because we can’t fix ourselves. We can’t fix our world. God sent Jesus because he knew we were the villains in our stories. So often Christians send the message to the world, “Clean up your life so you can see Jesus.” But there’s nothing further from the truth. The truth of Christmas says, “See Jesus so you can clean up your life.”

So, here’s what we do with the Herod in all of us: First, recognize that we’re our own worst enemies. Admit and confess that at times we are the villain in our own story. We do things that keep us from knowing the fullness of God’s grace and life.If you know the ways you are your own worst enemy, go ahead and name it; own it. But most of the time we aren’t even aware of the ways we distance ourselves from Christ. We can simply confess: “God I’m the villain in my own story and I don’t want to be.” Herod was never able to do that. He never saw how his hatred and jealousy and fear were keeping him from knowing Christ.

And then, do what Herod never did: Focus on Christ. At a very basic level, the difference between Herod and every other character in the story is that every other character–from the shepherds to the angels, to the wise men–they were looking for Christ. They weren’t perfect. They all had their problems and issues. But they looked for Christ. Knowing Christ removes the sin and the habits from our lives. Christ’s grace gives us the courage to face our demons; the strength to overcome our grief and sin; the healing our hearts and souls need. As we know Christ, that’s when we become less of a villain to others and to ourselves. The light of Christ overcomes the darkness in our lives.

There’s a type of Oak tree called the Pin Oak. (for all the dendrologists in the crowd that’s the quercus palustris). One fairly unique feature of the tree is that it retains its leaves during the winter months. Though the leaves die in the fall, they remain attached to the oak’s branches until new leaves appear in the spring and push the old ones off the branch. You could remove all the leaves on your pin oak by hand but that would be pointless. The dead leaves will come off on their own when the new growth appears in the spring. As new life surges in, the old departs.

For us, the best way to get rid of the old habits; the best way to remove the old sin isn’t to focus on the sin or the habit; it’s to focus on our savior. To focus on the new life that comes to our world and to our lives in Jesus Christ. To let the light of Christ come into our lives to illumine what is broken; and then to let that light lead us to life. To heal us; to give us the strength to confront our demons. When you’re sick you don’t focus on the illness. You focus on the cure.

Here are some ways to stay focused in the next few days:

  • upperroom.org
  • Read the story: Luke 1-2; Matthew 1-2; John 1.
  • Pray each day. God I confess I do not know you fully.
  • Worship.
  • Christmas Eve. Make a memory that matters this year.

We have 8 days left. 8 days to do what Herod wouldn’t. 8 days to recognize and confess the truth that we are the villains in our own stories. 8 days to ensure that we are focused on the story that changes our stories. Recognize.

Every story has a villain. Your story will have a villain. This Christmas make sure it’s not you.

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