Thoughts on Christmas: For To Us A Child is Born


For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. – Isaiah   9:6 (NIV)

I am not very good at shopping ahead of time for Christmas.  Fortunately I have avoided the last minute shopping at the mini-mart for gifts, but it has come too close a few times.  My wife, on the other hand, is the picture of organization and planning ahead.  She starts buying presents for the next Christmas the first week of January.  She has a budget and lists of kid’s names and remembers what everyone likes and dislikes.  Between the two of us, you would definitely want her to get your name in a gift exchange.

There is no doubt that my wife reflects a characteristic about Christmas that we may not always consider: that the perfect gift came at the perfect time and was planned before the creation of the world.  How awesome is it to know that Christ’s birth wasn’t reactionary or a move of desperation?  From the beginning of time, through dozens of generations, thousands of years and the stubbornness of human will, God prepared the world for the coming of His Son.  The fulfillment of prophecy and the promise of salvation spoken of from the Garden and throughout all history – talk about planning ahead.

The amazing truth of this is that God takes the same pains to bring us to the gift He sent in His Son as He took in bring His Son to a humble manger in Bethlehem.  Every day He has prepared gifts that will bring us closer to Him.  Every day He has put in place what we need for that day.  On that first Christmas, God sent His Son to bring love and salvation to a dying world, and He is still sending that gift each day to those who are willing to receive Him.

During this Christmas season remember the God who plans ahead.  Remember that there is wisdom for you from the Wonderful counselor, there is power to overcome the world in our Mighty God, there is hope for a life to come with our Everlasting Father and we have a gracious Lord in the Prince of Peace.

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Life in Community: Learning to Love Extravagantly


While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper,  a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.  When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked.  “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”  Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me.  The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.  When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.  I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”  – Matthew 26:6-13 (NIV)

In October of 2001, I was privileged to work with others at Ground Zero during the recovery efforts.  I was careful during my time away to call my 1 ½-year-old daughter every day to stay in touch.  However, this plan did not end up working out so well. About day four, she had grown quite tired of talking to me on the phone and wanted to know when I was coming home.  By day five she was no longer speaking to me and Mommy was dealing with many tears at night about Daddy being gone. I returned home after my two-week tour and was met at the airport by my wife and little girl.  As soon as she saw me, any thoughts of anger vanished in tears and excited cries of “Daddy! Daddy!”

She ran through that airport completely unaware and certainly unashamed of her extravagant display of emotion.  We held each other and cried and laughed and hugged and kissed and didn’t care a whit about what anyone thought.  For a moment the rest of the world didn’t exist.  This is the beauty of life among believers.  This is the power of fellowship.  We learn to love God with such abandon and extravagance in the presence of our spiritual family that we grow more capable of expressing it where less understanding eyes will see.

It is years later and I have not yet reached that point in my relationship with that once little girl where she is embarrassed to be seen with me.  I hope that I never will, but it causes me to ask the question, “Am I ever ashamed to express my love for God?”  I read the passage above and wonder if I would have loved Jesus enough to overcome my fears and doubts.  I wonder if I am more driven by self-preservation than I am by compassion and devotion.  Fortunately my current spiritual family is more than willing to seek an extravagant love for God together.

I want to worship God with abandon.  I want to weep with tears of deliverance.  I want to laugh with heartfelt joy.  I want to kneel at the feet of my Father and worship Him as He sees fit.  While the thought of this sometimes causes me to fear, I am assured that “perfect love casts out fear.”  There are not words to express the comfort and courage that are gained by knowing I am surrounded by others who desire the same experience.  We want to love God more than we love our reputations, more than we love our possessions, more than we love anything that this world has to offer.

So what is your alabaster jar?  What is it that you need to give up in order to love God as He deserves to be loved?  Who is it that looks with mocking eyes on your faith?  What price are you willing to pay in order to worship without shame? To be honest, I’m still working on answering those questions myself, but I am sure that I want to know the answers.

Life in Community: The Humility of Christ


Praise the LORD! Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise in the assembly of the faithful.  Let Israel be glad in its Maker; let the children of Zion rejoice in their King.  Let them praise his name with dancing, making melody to him with tambourine and lyre.  For the LORD takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with victory.
Psalms 149:1-4 (NRSV)

A man’s pride brings him low, but a man of lowly spirit gains honor.
Proverbs 29:23 (NIV)

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30 (NRSV)

My youngest daughter is selfish.  This is not a surprise to me, as my first daughter had the same characteristic when she was that young.  This is not intended as a condemnation, but a statement of fact.  We all start out selfish and must be shown what it is to be gracious, patient, kind and helpful.  It takes time to learn how to be humble.

I think that is one of the reasons the Me Generation earned their moniker; we were the first generation who were told our rights were more important than our responsibilities.  We were sold on feeding our appetites and satisfying our desires.  We were the front end of the marketing industries guinea pigs.  In the process we have gained an enormous love for ourselves, but have lost the riches of community, service and sacrifice.

When I think of my daughters being selfish, my first prayer is that it will never turn into pride.  Right now they just want what they want.  If my wife and I don’t discipline in the right way, not only will they want what they want, they will exact whatever price necessary from others to get it.  This is the destructive nature of pride.  Where humility lightens our load, pride weighs us down and brings us low.

Jesus invites us into community through the doorway of humility.  His example through His horrific humiliation on the cross should help us daily maintain a humble perception of ourselves.  When we consider that Christ laid down His life to provide salvation for all of mankind, regardless of how many would choose to accept it, we must bow our heads, bend our knees and surrender our hearts.

Humility is one of the central changes that must occur in the life of the believer.  It is transforming, changing our motivation for the things we do and say.  Instead of wondering “What’s in it for me?” we ask, “What’s in me that God can use?”  We shift from loving others as a means of showing how spiritual we are to loving others because we truly see their beauty and value through Christ’s eyes.  Humility gets us out of the way so Christ can get to others through us more effectively.

While the Me Generation was told, “Even if you were the only person in the world, Christ still would have died on the Cross for your sins” the real power of the gospel says, “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.  And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” (2 Cor. 5:14-15 NIV)

Christ died for all.  That is amazing grace.  That is awesome love.  That is power through humility.  This is the kind of humility I want for my daughters.  Not a humility that roots itself in self-abasement and Eeyore-like demeanors, but a humility born of assurance and confidence.  This godly humility comes from a clear understanding that we no longer have any worries and can therefore put other’s needs ahead of our own.  My daughter is showing the signs of humility and I am so happy to see it take root in her heart.

Unfortunately, I am not humble as Jesus is humble.  It is a discipline and I am still working on it every day.  I am still learning how to make sacrifices that cost me without demanding any sacrifice from others.  I am still discovering the lengths to which God is willing to go to help me live the life of Christ.  God is still showing to me in small and great ways how immeasurably big He is and how finite I am.  The next time my daughter throws a fit about not getting what she wants, I will try to remind myself not to do the same thing with my heavenly Father.

Giving Thanks: Our Unchanging God


Since I will be on vacation for the next two weekends, I am reposting for this week and next week.  This week is a repost from November of 2010.  While some of the language is specific to that year, the thoughts behind it are still true.  I hope that this is a timely encouragement during the season of thanksgiving.

I remember my affliction and my wandering,

the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:

Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.” – Lamentations 3:19-24

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

I’m not sure about you, but 2010 has been a rough year.  Not as rough for my family as some others I know, but it ranks up there as a lean year in many respects.  The surprise for me is that I have never been as thankful as I have been this year.  Not a stick-your-head-in-the-sand thankful; that is just avoiding reality with empty platitudes and heartless prayers.  Not dutiful gratitude born out of blind obedience to some Christian ethic that says, “There is always something to be thankful for in what you are going through.”  That just keeps our eyes off the true focus of our thanksgiving.

The reason I am more thankful this year is a deepening understanding of three words: God never changes.  If this doesn’t make sense, think about what has brought you the most comfort in difficult times.  I would lay odds that most would say family and friends; those we love anchor us and heal us and hold us when we are going through grief, pain and difficulty.  Many of us would also say that sometimes those we love have let us down when we needed them most.  This is where God’s unchanging character can step into our lives and fill the gaps to overflowing.

We live in a broken world where tragedy and trial come without warning or consideration.  We are broken people with limitations, weaknesses and flaws that severely hamper our ability to truly satisfy the needs of others.  Only one can give what is needed for each wound.  Only one meets the needs of Jeremiah when he laments, “I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.”  The God who never changes.  When everything else is falling apart, including ourselves, God remains merciful, kind, compassionate, faithful and loving.  He is our hope and comfort.  This is at the heart of living in an attitude of thanksgiving.

This isn’t a roadmap to living life without pain and suffering.  It is the compass that allows us to keep moving in the right direction in spite of our circumstances, both good and bad.  When Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to “give thanks IN all circumstances” (emphasis mine), he means “in” not “for.”  God is not thankful for hurt or pain or tragedy and I don’t believe He would require his children to either.  Paul is reminding the Thessalonians, and us, that no matter what happens in this broken world, to broken people, God still loves and cares for us, still calls us onward to peace and joy, still holds us in his strong hands.

This Thanksgiving, hold this truth close to your heart and let it guide you to a gratitude that transforms and heals.  Ask God to reveal His heart for you in the midst of your circumstances.  Let God use you to be His compassion and mercy to those experiencing pain and suffering.  Be grateful not for what you have, but for who you belong to, because God never changes.

Gardening Tips: Count Your Blessings Together


Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in his ways.

You will eat the fruit of your labor; blessings and prosperity will be yours.

Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your sons will be like olive shoots around your table.

Thus is the man blessed who fears the LORD. – Psalms 128:1-4 (NIV)

I just finished making a batch of zucchini bread and a batch of squash bread and I have to tell you, eating the fruit of you labors is good….really good.  Tomatoes with more flavor than a juicy steak, strawberries with just the right balance of sweet and tart, and the blessing of watching my family enjoy these products from the field.  Good times.

It challenges me to find that same blessing in our life together with God.  Sometimes we all can get on our own track, concerned with the burdens of our life and responsibilities and forget about what God provides.    We don’t count our blessings nearly enough as we should.  We get overcome by our own burdens and focused on how we can take care of ourselves.  We become less like family and more like roommates.

The amazing thing about working toward the harvest is that you get to eat the fruit and share the experience.  Not only do we appreciate the bounty of the work, but we can bear one another up in the process.  I am grateful for all our garden has provided this year, but I will take laughter and conversation at the table where its fruit is eaten any day of the week.  The problem is that I don’t always do that.  I get focused on my own life and problems and forget to enjoy the blessings that are sitting at the table with me.

Lord, help me have eyes to see the blessings around me every day, especially the beautiful family you have given me.  Grow in me a desire to bless them and encourage them in their journey with You.  Make us a family marked by love and respect for one another. Amen.

The Good Shepherd: Tending a Blemished Flock


I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice. – Ezekiel 34:15-16 (NIV)

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. – Isaiah 53:4-6 (NIV)

Not too long ago, I came home from work to an unhappy wife and a very quiet older daughter.  Missing was the younger daughter, who had locked herself in the bathroom.  I was asked to step in and see if I could extricate the youngling and began working on the lock, little whimpers punctuating my fiddling and tinkering.  The extrication became a little more involved once the door was open.

Big trouble for a little girl.

It was evident that my beautiful little girl had ventured into the world of cosmetology and home décor.  Unfortunately she had done both with the same medium – my wife’s lipstick.  While I could appreciate the artistic flair evident in the strokes of red on the wall, door and daughter, I was pretty sure my wife would not be a fan of the arts that day.  The room and child needed to come out of this experience unblemished.

My little girl didn’t need to be told that what she had done was wrong.  Her tearful demeanor and cowering in the corner were clear indicators that she was afraid of punishment.  We will never know if she was not able to unlock the door, or was too afraid to face mommy and daddy and so refused to unlock the door.  She needed to know that we still loved her, that we were okay.

It is very easy for us to lock ourselves away from God and fear what He will think of us if we open up the door.  Our sin or disobedience can seem so great that we would rather try to hide it away and hope that He will ignore us.  But God is a seeker…He is a good shepherd who finds His sheep wherever they may try to lose themselves.  He is the healer and redeemer, cleansing us of our blemishes so we can stand before Him unashamed.  All it took to clean up that lipstick was soap, time and effort.  For our sin it took the perfect Son of God, coming in the fullness of time and taking our place on the cross of shame and punishment.

I cannot think of anything my daughter could do that would cause me to stop loving her or trying to provide all she needs for this life and the life to come.  In a far better way, God loves us and will not relent in calling us to safe pastures.  He will call us out from behind our locked doors.  He binds up our injuries, self-inflicted or otherwise, and He watches over us with compassion and grace.

The evidence of the lipstick incident is gone.  There are no red stains left behind on door, wall or daughter.  They are unblemished in that regard, but sadly my daughter can still get herself into trouble.  She stops listening to those who would guide her in good directions, and finds herself in trouble again.  It is a beautiful thing to see a lost lamb returned to safe pastures; it is tragic to see that lamb lose her way again and head into harm’s way, but that is the life of parenthood.

Our heavenly Father is no less longsuffering than the best of us.  He watches us as we wander our own way, putting our souls in harm’s way.  Patiently He waits for us to unlock our doors that we try to hide behind.  Gently His voice keeps calling to me with the promise of forgiveness and restoration.  With strength beyond anything we can imagine or understand, He carries us from the “the valley of the shadow of death” to lush pastures and quiet waters.

Do you have any locked doors?  Are there any blemishes on your soul that no one else knows about?  Do you worry about the stains of your past being too deep for the Shepherd to cleanse?  I pray that the love of God, the Good Shepherd, would overcome our fears; that we would heed his voice and enter His rest. I pray that we would learn the beauty and power of being His sheep.

The Shepherd and the Sheep: Stray Sheep


I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands. – Psalms 119:176 (NIV)

I have been lost before; lost in such a way that I had no hope of finding my way to safety on my own.  Only the effort of someone else seeking me out and finding me brought me back to safety.  I don’t remember the incident, but I have heard the story from my parents a number of times.  It involved a grocery store, three other siblings keeping my mother’s attention and my own overzealous curiosity.  My mom said when she found me, I was walking with one of the young ladies who worked at the store, looking for my family.

There are dozens of passages in scripture about sheep and many of them refer to them being lost.  It seems that sheep are prone to wander, much like curious children in grocery stores.   This is where the shepherd comes in; lost sheep need finding, and once found need watching. They are not independent or resourceful creatures, needing companionship, care, guidance and protection.    I find that I am no less the child to God that I was to my mother in the grocery store.  My curiosity draws me away from the flock to unsafe places, and it is only the shepherd’s patient searching that finds me and brings me back to the fold.

It is comforting to know the man after God’s own heart struggled with the same issue.  The warrior poet was also a lost little lamb and his prayer in the passage above rings with hope.  He fervently believed that his shepherd would seek him out and that he would recognize the shepherd’s voice when he called.  That is the discipline I desperately need to strive after; an ear to hear my shepherd’s voice.  I long to have the maturity and wisdom to hear His voice above all others and avoid the wandering altogether.  I look forward in hope to the day that I am content to rest in His pasture, but that day is not yet here.  Until then, I am grateful that my Shepherd knows me and searches me out when I stop listening to His voice.

The Shepherd and the Sheep: Introduction


A psalm of David.
The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake. – Psalm 23:1-3

The scriptures are occupied by numerous shepherds.  From Abel, the favored son of Adam, to Abraham wandering from Ur; from Jacob earning the right to marry to Moses learning the right way to lead God’s people, shepherding has been an underlying theme in God’s history with His people.  Why does God hearken to the relationship between shepherd and sheep so often?  Why does He use such ignoble beasts to represent His children?  What does it mean to be people of His pasture?

David wrote psalm after psalm with pastoral themes.  Isaiah’s prophetic writings are strewn with this same imagery.  Ezekiel commits a complete chapter to shepherds and sheep and what God intends for both.  Finally, Jesus reveals Himself as the Good Shepherd to His disciples.  It is obvious that God wants us to get this relationship settled in our minds and hearts.

Psalm 23 is probably one of the more famous scriptures in the world.  It is the lyrical picture of our heavenly shepherd guiding us through life, the terrain of this world, and a reminder of all that the shepherd provides.  David makes the case that the life of the sheep is dependent on the shepherd for sustenance, protection and contentment.

For the next few weeks, we will look at some of these writings on shepherds and sheep and search out ways to be content, secure and fulfilled in the pasture of God’s love, grace and mercy.  We are people in need of a shepherd and the Good Shepherd does not rest in calling his wandering sheep back to the comfort of His care.

Reconciliation: Christ Our Redeemer


For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. – Colossians 1:19-20 (NIV)

Have you ever experienced a long separation from someone you loved?  Do you remember the ache in your soul when they weren’t around for a special occasion?  Can you picture the moment when you were reunited and the flood of emotions that filled your heart?  Separation is painful for our earthly relationships, but it is nothing compared to the pain Christ endured to end our separation from God.

Mankind has been separated from God like the prodigal son from his father – by choice.  And yet the way has been made for us to be reconciled despite our sinful ways.  Christ has made the way for us to return to our father’s house; He has torn the veil between us and God so that we can be with Him and without shame.  This is the amazing grace of reconciliation: we could not do it ourselves and we did not deserve it.

Every day is an opportunity for us to walk empowered and challenged by that knowledge, or to live as if it had never happened – our choice.  I know that some days I don’t look like I have been reconciled to God.  I know that there are moments that I live more like the prodigal with the pigs than the prodigal in the Father’s house.  I need reminders that my life with God came at a terrible price.  I pray that as I grow in this relationship with my heavenly Father, I will have fewer and shorter prodigal moments, but I am so grateful for His grace along the way.

This week, remind yourself of all that God has done and continues to do so that you can have a relationship with Him.  Pray for a life that advertises the beauty and power of reconciliation.

In Loving Memory of Mike Gower


In Memory of Mike Gower

I first met Mike back in 1991.  He and Caroline had taken on the Resident Directorship for the men’s dorm at Simpson College and none of us knew then how much their presence would impact our lives.  We knew him then only as Gower, the big voiced, gregarious general with a strong handshake and a ready laugh, but we soon knew him as the compassionate, loving, wise and patient mentor who directed young men and women into a deeper life with God.

I remember being a resident assistant under his leadership, learning more about what it meant to serve others from him than I did in many of my theology courses.  He was an artisan with relationship, becoming the right person at the right time for each person under his care.  His prayers were insightful, purposeful, and always available.  He loved Caroline “as Christ loves the church” where all of us could see it and aspire to the same love.

I remember visiting Mike in the hospital the day after his open heart surgery with a fellow resident assistant to see how he was doing.  He spent most of our visit asking about how everyone was doing in the dorms.  He seemed indestructible, focusing his will on getting back to what and who he loved.

I remember the premarital counseling sessions that he did with Molly and me, challenging us to love each other more every day.  He pushed us to ask the hard questions and encouraged us to accept the hard answers.  He helped us lay a good foundation for a life together and we are both very grateful.

Choices and changes took our family away from Redding and the Gowers, but each time we returned we looked forward to seeing them and re-connecting.  And each time they made us feel like the connection had always been there, strong and true and genuine.  We finally moved back to Redding a few years ago and stepped back through the doors of our old church, Risen King, to be greeted again by Mike.

It was good to feel that handshake again, strong and true and genuine.  Mike put as much love into a single handshake as many people put into their deepest friendship.  If you were fortunate, his handshake would be followed closely by a hug from Caroline, God’s love and joy in each gracious embrace.  Together they not only welcomed people into a service, they extended an invitation to belong and be loved.  I don’t know if there are greeters in Heaven, but I certainly know someone who can do the job.

I miss Mike.  It will be some time before the sore spot in my heart and spirit go away, but if that is the worst I have to suffer for having called him friend, so be it.  My prayer is that I will not forget that handshake and the loving attitude of service that was extended with each simple greeting.  I hope that someday I can have that same love and grace toward others.  I want my marriage to be a reflection of God’s love for His people.  I want to be like Mike.