Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Count your blessings, Part II

Four weeks ago I penned "Count Your Blessings" on this site shortly after reading The Ten Dollar Blessing and being issued a ten dollar blessing challenge by another writer on the High Calling Blogs network.

I believe the doxology goes something like this: "Praise God from whom all blessings flow; Praise Him all creatures here below; Praise Him above ye heavenly host; Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen"

That's what I have to report today - praises to the Father, Son and Holy Ghost - for the little Ten Dollar Blessing that became so much more in our little community.

Billy Coffey told the story of a parent and child in a diner and how another patron was so blessed by observing this parent and child that he dropped a $10 bill on their table and told them how blessed he was to have dined in their presence. It was a moving story.

The challenge was then issued to find our own "$10 blessing" opportunity and to report back.

In "Count Your Blessings" I told the story of a young family in our community with five small children. The mother had quit her job a while back to stay home and raise these kids, and the father just lost his job. On top of all of that, the father of these kids is still dealing with the loss of his brother in the war in Iraq some 18 months ago and told me that he still has this gaping wound or hole in his heart.

I am counting my blessings again this morning in several ways, four weeks to the day of writing "Count Your Blessings." My life has been blessed, but more importantly, many families who have little to nothing have been blessed as a result of what God has done with this challenge - working through His people.

Blessing #1: I have been blessed by the individual on the other side of the country who read the original post, emailed me for the address of the people written about, and then put his money where his mouth is and dropped a $10 blessing in the mail to them. "Praise God from whom all blessings flow..."

Blessing #2: After writing Count Your Blessings and being convicted of how much so many of us have and how little others have, I went to my Thursday morning Bible study with the challenge - explaining to them the situation of the family in our community (some were aware, others were not) and how people from across the country were now chipping in to bless them, and that I wanted to challenge the other six or seven guys in our Bible study to a little $10 blessing challenge.

Our challenge looked like this. We set out a hat the following Thursday morning, and guys could come and put whatever God had laid on their hearts to give - the idea being that we would pool our $10 bills and get them a grocery gift card or something like that - something people with no income can really use.

The challenge yielded $305 and three families in desperate need have been blessed as a result. "Praise God from whom all blessings flow..."
Blessing #3: Sunday marked the day of a little Christmas party for the families of The Lighthouse, the second campus ministry of our church, which my family and I are a part. The Lighthouse is a place where the lost, hurting and disenfranchised of the church can come and feel welcome, see and hear the love of Jesus, and enjoy community.

Many of those being served by The Lighthouse are in need: emotionally, spiritually, financially and communally. The Ten Dollar Blessing also touched the lives of The Lighthouse, as the idea was presented to the group who initiated the ministry to throw a little Christmas party and provide gifts to the children who are regular attendees.

After worship on Sunday we played games together, enjoyed a time of fellowship and more food, and then called kids forward to receive their gifts - which came from the hearts of the people of The Lighthouse.

The collective "whoooaaaa - coooool" which was heard in unison was one of the greatest gifts I received this Christmas. "Praise God from whom all blessings flow..."

I pray that 2009 is full of blessings in each of your lives, that we continue to be a people who look to bless others and in return are blessed beyond anything we could ever ask or imagine...and when that happens, I pray you will praise God from whom all blessings flow.

Grace and peace,


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Unexpected gifts

I love the miracle of Christmas.

Jesus, born in a grungy, dirty manger, somewhere out in the back of the Inn, where there was no room for his parents.  Born to a virgin, just as the prophets foretold centuries earlier - and the first to celebrate his birth were the shepherds, the uncouth of the day.

Such a contradiction to the way most would have expected the Savior of the world to come.

I was always a kid who wanted to know what he was getting.  I often spoiled the surprise of Christmas by searching high and low for where my folks stored the Christmas presents they had bought us.  I even used to make my way into wrapped packages to see what I was getting, trying to be careful to retape in such a way as to not give myself away - as if they would somehow be worse for the wear.  

I was the one who lost out on the surpise of the gift.  When I knew what was in the package, it was no longer a surprise, nor was it unexpected.  It was simply what I knew I was going to get.

I find it interesting how often I go about living this way.  I want to know what is around the next corner, where I am headed, what is in store for me and my family, etc. - and so often I miss the gift of the unexpected.

And so, as the Christ in Christmas has become more and more meaniful, I find myself taking great joy in the unexpected - if that makes sense.  The focus of the celebration has become a whole lot more about the giving rather than the getting - I am thankful for that.  And that focus has become incredibly gratifying and entertaining this Christmas as I take my focus off of what I might get and find ways to give.

Something called "The Ten Dollar Blessing," which was blogged about by Billy Coffey at "What I Learned Today" several weeks ago, really opened my eyes, my ears and my heart to what God was up to and the gift he wanted me to receive this Christmas.  And so, this year has been about giving.  My wife and I have "given" before, but the attitude through which the giving is taking place this year is somehow different, more meaningful, more Christ-centered.

And in the process, the gift of giving has been an unbelievable blessing.  There will be more on this in a coming blog, but to say that we have been blessed through this Christmas season would be the understatement of 2008.

One way we have been blessed is through the bounty of cards, pictures and letters we have received...record numbers, it seems.  It is in one of these Christmas cards that arrived today that I have been deeply touched.  An unexptected gift!

I spent my college days ditching classes, playing sports, drinking heavily and making my way into a little trouble on occasion.  I was rarely alone, which means there were others like me. Slowly, God is claiming every last one of us, and creating a new heart within us.  I think maybe each time he "gets" one of us he might feel like I do when I get an unexpected gift.

At any rate, the card that arrived today brought tears to my eyes, warmth to my heart and a sure sense of what Christmas is all about.  The card came from one of my old partying buddies (the first time I have ever gotten a Christmas card from him), thanking me for a little, seemingly insignificant, role I have played in his life in the past two months.  

His card, though, sheds the words "seemingly insignificant" from my mind and it has touched my heart.  All praise, glory and honor be to Christ Jesus for the work that is going on this guy's heart.

Similar to Jesus' birth all those years ago, my favorite gift (other than Jesus' birth) this year has come in an unexpected package, in an envelope of all things.  There was no money in it, just the imprint of Christ in the words of an old friend that fully lay claim to this season of advent - hope, peace, joy and love.  An unexpected gift, that's for sure.

May you be blessed this Christmas and may the greatest gift you receive be in the form of the unexpected gift - the gift of Jesus Christ, our Lord!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


"Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful.  And since we've no place to go, let it snow, let it snow, let is snow!"


It is winter in Northwest Iowa - I mean winter. Yesterday I think the temperature reached 4 degrees. And we were thankful!  Plus, we got four inches of powdery, white snow.  I know, I guess I could move somewhere else if I truly hated winter as much as I think I do right now, but moving really isn't an option yet, either.

Frigid - that's the first word that comes to mind.  We have saw -13 degrees on Monday morning with 40 below wind chill.  Yesterday got all the way up to 4 degrees and this morning, -4 didn't even feel so bad.


Merriam-Webster defines frigid as:  intensely cold, lacking warmth or ardor.

The prospect of an entire winter of frigid is daunting, particularly when it is mid-December.  Mid-February is another thing - at least then we can say in a couple of weeks it might warm up - but in mid-December it is cause for concern.

As I was blowing my driveway clear early last evening from the snow that had fallen during the day, and the drift that had been built up from Monday's windy day, the word frigid was on my brain and on my heart. I wasn't so terribly cold in completing this task, but the idea of being frigid in my life began to swirl around in my mind - kinda like the snow in the air.

Revelations 3:15-17 reads like this:  "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish you were either one or the other!  So, because you are lukewarm--neither hot nor cold--I am about to spit you out of my mouth." (NIV)

The same passage from The Message reads this way:  "I know you inside and out, and find little to my liking.  You're not cold, you're not hot--far better to be either cold or hot!  You're stale.  You're stagnant.  You make me want to vomit."

These are Jesus' words in my handy red-letter Bible.

Jesus, obviously, can't stand the thought of us being lukewarm.  If we know the story, His story, and yet seem oblivious or don't really care that He has come and offered Himself as a living sacrifice, then we make Him want to vomit!

I guess He knows where we stand if we are cold or hot, and He prefers it that way, but I also believe that God doesn't have a whole lot of interest in us being frigid.  Am I right?  If He had it His way, I believe he would want us piping hot!

As we continue to Advent, continue our waiting upon the Savior's birth, I pray that we are not frigid this Christmas season--that we are not intensely cold or lacking warmth.  I pray that we are paying attention to those who are in need, those without income and in dire circumstances.  That we are warm to those who need Jesus in their lives, those who are looking for any sign of hope in their lives.

I also pray that the reality of the Season, this Christmas season, may move us from frigid, through lukewarm, to hot, if need be!  I have spent a lot of time since finding Jesus pondering his death and resurrection and what it means for me.  How that amazing gift of grace is life-giving for me.

I haven't spent a lot of time truly "getting" Christmas, it seems.  For many years I hustled as much business as I possibly could before Christmas, and by the time the day occurred, I was simply spent.

It appears to me that it is becoming more clear that Jesus' birth is the most precious gift - an incredible gift to each one of us.  Had He not been born - come into the world the way He did - and lived as He did, His death and resurrection would not mean what they mean to us and for us.

I learned a little Greek word in the past couple of weeks and have spent a little time thinking about this word.  The word is hupotasso - it is the Greek word for subject - and is defined as "voluntarily giving in, cooperating, accepting responsibility or carrying a burden."

My prayer, this Christmas, is that we would all hupotasso, if you will, those in need.  That out of our love for Christ, for the amazing gift that God sent into the world for us, that we might love a little more deeply, that we might give a little more voluntarily.

May Jesus see us inside and out and find a lot to His liking.  May He find us piping hot, even in the midst of a long, hard Iowa winter.  May He find us anything but stale and stagnant, but rather joining Him in His work in this world.  May He find us celebrating His birth, showing His love and sharing it with those around us.  May He be glorified in all that we think, say and do!

So long frigid!  Today is the day you have made, I will rejoice and be glad in it!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Ladies Man

I'm not sure when the switch went on for him, but there are a lot of women in our fair little community who are glad that the switch was clicked on at some point.

There's this 60 year old friend of mine that I really, really appreciate. He is a man's man, he is a sharp business man and farmer. He loves God and he is a ladies man!

But not of the sort of ladies man that gives the term a negative connotation. He loves the ladies, but he loves them as Christ loves each one of us - with a kind, caring, giving heart. A compassionate kind of love that doesn't like the thought of one feeling lonely, particularly during this Christmas season.

This ladies man (and his wife) has a heart for the lonely - those who are widowed, divorced and/or single. He has a heart for those who are alone perhaps due to disability, as well. Many, I suspect, have hearts for the lonely, but this guy actually does something about it.

The second annual "girls night out" took place Wednesday night, with ol' Earl the ladies man, his wife and 17 women who are either widowed, divorced and/or single. They enjoyed a meal at a local restaurant, a small Christmas gathering, and were serenaded by our church youth group with a Christmas carol or two.

So here is the room full of women, some out for the first time in a while, varying greatly in age, all together visiting, laughing and enjoying one another's company.

On a Wednesday night in the dead of winter, I suspect many would have been doing the same ol' Wednesday night routine. Eating alone, cleaning up the dishes and doing whatever else they do. Somehow a night on the town, on someone else, seems more appealing.
It was quite a gift for these gals.

I thank God I am not alone. I thank Him for my wife and kids. I am pretty sure I couldn't function in that environment, so when I think of these women (and men who are alone) and I quantify what my friend, the ladies man, has done for them these past two Christmases, I am forced to stop and look within.

It seems I do that far more than I used to. I know that is true for ol' Earl, too.

This passage from Philippians 4:8-9 seems particularly appropriate during this moment of introspection. "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me-put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you." - Paul

Think about such things!

Earl lost one of his dear friends a year-and-a-half ago - a friend whose wife was left widowed. No doubt this is when and why the "girls night out" began, and since it is true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable, we ought to think about such things.

What can we do this Christmas for someone in need? Who can we serve? Who can we show the love of Christ to like my friend, the ladies man? May our eyes be open - and our hearts open - to what and who that might be.

And the God of peace be with you!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Brewski Time

There I sat across the table from this friend of mine Sunday. We were enjoying a meal together and I really hadn't given much thought to his attire.

Church has become like that for me. I really don't pay a whole lot of attention to what people are wearing anymore; it just doesn't seem to matter. Where we worship, people come in jeans, t-shirts, dress pants, button-down shirts, sweaters, sleeveless shirts (though not now as it has gotten colder) - you get the drift.

Come as you are, we say.

We have lunch together often on Sunday, this guy, his family and mine. It has become part of our lives - though there was a time when we probably believed we were too good for this family. There was a time when we felt we were somehow superior, smarter, a notch or three above them.

God has changed that about us and we praise him for that.

On most Sundays, some 75-90 people stay after worship and enjoy a meal together. On this particular Sunday, though, two worlds collided as mother church and members from our congregation joined us at The Lighthouse for an annual church function known as the "Agape Feast."

In the Greek, agape means love. Every year for the past several years at our mother church, this agape feast, this feast of love, has taken place. People bring salads and deserts and a meal is shared. A communion service is also part of this annual event and it is a good thing.

But like I said, on this Sunday the agape feast took on a new dimension.

The Lighthouse is 10 months old and people who don't look like most of us, act like most of us and/or live like most of us from mother church have been coming. Christ is beginning to touch the lives of these people who for voluminous reasons haven't been attending a church and worshipping our forgiving, loving, merciful Jesus.

People like the folks we dined with again on Sunday.

So as the room filled with some 200 people, most of whom were dressed in their usual Sunday attire - dress pants, shirts, sweaters, and the like (not that this is bad) - tables began to fill up with friends and families taking up tables toward the back of the room as they joined us after worship.

But there in the front of the room there sits at one table two ex-cons and their family. The ex-cons had to get up early and leave to get back to the half-way house they are staying at on time. At another table is a gal whose life has been full of addictions and legal trouble. She had to get up to leave early, too. At yet another table is a woman and her grandson who has absolutely nothing at all (I wrote about her son in Count Your Blessings last week). And at yet another table sit our friends, who we regularly eat with.

These last two tables were just about empty - as all of the other folks took their seats with people they know and with people who look an awful lot like them. This grandma and her grandson were alone, until a caring couple slid in next to them. And our friends were alone, until we ventured over to sit with them and another couple who are friends of ours.

So as we are sitting there, sharing in this meal, these two worlds having collided, it hits me. The guy sitting across the table from me never went to church before The Lighthouse was started. He comes most every Sunday - wearing jeans (particularly wholly ones this week), a t-shirt and a cap. The cap this weeks reads "Brewski Time" with a mug of beer on it.

I am not sure if others noticed it or not, but I absolutely loved it! I almost spit the juice out of my mouth when I finally saw it. Here's this guy, perfectly comfortable in who he is and comfortable where he is, wearing a hat that saws "Brewski Time" at a church function!

He is a work in progress. I'm not sure he believes in Jesus yet or that he fully grasps "the story." Neither do I know if the ex-cons do. Nor do I know if the addict will stay clean and living the life that Jesus wants her to live.

Neither do I know that the people in the nice clothes and the well-groomed hair really love Jesus and are living for him. I don't know where their hearts are and if they even noticed what was going on around them Sunday - that people who don't look or act or live like them might be meeting Jesus, too.

Those things aren't my concern. What is my concern, is that we love because Christ first loved us...that we love because God sent his son as the atoning sacrifice for our sins...that we love "the least of these" because of the blessing we have in Christ Jesus.

It's not about our appearance - what we wear, how nice our hair and complexion look, what our bank account looks like - it's about our hearts and Christ in them.

Wish you could have seen it. "Brewski Time!"

Friday, December 5, 2008

Three seconds

Many people leave indelible impressions on us, some for the good and some for the bad.  I have been thinking a lot about my JV basketball coach lately.

One of the things my wife, kids and I do is chase after the activities of our family, particularly the activities of our children.  Last night we sat at a Christmas concert at school and were blessed by the singing of the kids, the musical choices and the like.  Tonight we will sit through basketball games.

Since Christ has really invaded my heart and taken up a good share of space there, my heart has changed in a number of areas, including athletics.  They don't matter to me like they once did, but I still have a competitive side and God has yet to show me a referee who is any good or really knows what he was doing (I have friends who officiate these games and I give them a hard time, too).

Before the season began a couple of weeks ago I told my wife that I no longer want to be that fan in the stands who is constantly yelling at the officials and questioning every call (though it is pretty easy to question them all).  I told her I want to go the whole season without "any problems."

I made it through three quarters of my daughters first game before my old high school JV coach came to mind.  It was a nip-and-tuck game against a team our girls had never beaten.  They have a girl who is a force in the paint, which is good for them.  The problem, though, is that she sets up shop in the lane and rarely leaves. 

Now, for those who don't know basketball, this is a violation.  You have to move in and out of the lane, not staying in the painted area for more than three seconds at a crack.

After having a three seconds violation called on our girls a little earlier in the game, and as I see the game starting to slip away, it was time for me to offer the refs a little help.  "FOUR, FIVE, SIX" I counted out for them.  I am a big guy who has a mega-phone voice when I need to use it.  I wasn't too loud, but I was definitely audible. 

Then I looked to my right.  There is my beautiful wife looking at me, smirking almost as she asks, "How is that working out for you?"  

I didn't even make it a full game, but I want to continue to improve in this area.

But more than that, I'd like you to work with me in this a little bit today.  The three second violation exists in an area that is in close proximity to our goal.  It is called when we spend too much time in an area that at most is 15 feet away from the goal.

If a referee was officiating your game today, would he be able to call you for three seconds because you are spending too much time close to God, our goal?  Would the whistle blow because of too much time being spent in the Word, in prayer, in worship or with others who are chasing Christ?

I want to live in the lane!  I want to set up shop in the paint and have whistles blaring all around me while I take the time to heed the words of Psalm 46.  "Be still and know that I am God."

Holding basketball up to life right now is pretty easy.  Our lives are lived in the transition game.  We are busy filling the lanes up and down the floor, trying to hustle back on defense, rebounding from the misses in our lives, and then flying back down the floor hoping for a look at the basket or goal, if you will.

My wife called me for three seconds yesterday.

I spent an hour during the morning with a friend I haven't seen in a while.  Our lives are similar in that we are business owners who are wrestling with what God has in store for us.  We both are part of church ministries that are operating outside of the normal church box and we have a love for the other that is centered in Christ.  It was a great "three seconds" of "being still."  So was the drive to and from.

I got back to town in time to have lunch with another friend whom I dine with every week.  We are walking through the tough stuff of life together and the hour we spend together is a blessing to me each week.  We talk God, farming, business, sports and whatever else comes up, but the "three seconds" is a great part of my week.

An hour later, another friend called and we grabbed a cup of coffee at the local diner.  I know, that's a lot of caffeine, but with the conversation centered around what God is up to in our church, in our lives and where we are headed, it was another great "three second violation" of being still.

How do you take "three seconds?"  Do you take "three seconds?"

Remember the good old days before shot clocks?  When basketball teams ran the four-corners offense to slow the game down, spread the floor and get easier looks at the goal?  My prayer today is that you experience grace and peace as you camp in the lane, that you are intentional in being whistled for three seconds in the scriptures, in worship, in prayer and time with others who believe, and also with those who are hurting and in need of Christ.

Grace and peace,


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Count your blessings

Tears filled my eyes and some rather violent tugs were pulled on my heart strings last night as I checked my email before bed.

I was taken back a year-and-a-half or so to a time when our community paid tribute to a young soldier who died in the war in Iraq.  I never knew him as he wasn't even living in our community anymore. But his mother was, and so was his brother and his wife and kids.  They were kind of lost in the shuffle with some of the more major news outlets at the time as the young soldier's wife was more featured in the grieving process.

Times goes by and we forget.  We live our own lives, go through our own sorrows and joys, and hopefully along the way we touch someones life.  Right?

Billy Coffey shared a touching story of the Ten Dollar Blessing on his blog (What I Learned Today) a short time ago and I was moved.  Another blogger on the High Calling Blogs network was moved too and started a challenge - a Ten Dollar Blessing challenge - to others in the network.

Here goes.

I have said before that we worship on Sunday mornings in a former bowling alley turned banquet hall.  The gospel is preached by both pastors and lay people in a place where we cover the bar in the back of the room with black curtains and provide a setting in which the unchurched or underchurched in our little community can come, feel comfortable, loved and meet Jesus.

A couple of months ago this family began to come to The Lighthouse.  A husband, wife and their five kids.  Oh, and his mother and sister also come along.  We provide a little breakfast-type item prior to church, worship together and then share in a meal together following the service.

They came back and they have continued to come.  Praise God.  One of their first weeks to worship at The Lighthouse was my Sunday to teach it - and towards the end of the service a challenge was issued to those who needed prayer to come and pray.  To get up, right then and there, to come and pray.  

One of the people I got to pray with that morning was the fallen soldier's brother.  "Ever since my brother died I have had a hole in my heart," he told me.  He went on from there to ask prayer about choices and struggles that accompany his pain, but wow, what a blessing to pray with and for him that morning and since.

Some three weeks ago, this young man lost his job.  Remember, he has a wife and five kids at home and now they have no income, but they continue to come to church on Sunday morning.  This past Sunday morning, during a time of prayer requests - when people actually take a moment to write them down and then they are all read in the front of church - one came from this young man.

I was home sick, but was sent this email last night.  Thus the tears:

I thought I should pass this along to you.  It was a prayer request from Sunday at the Lighthouse.  Showing you again that you make a difference:)  I ask for all to pray for my family, and I would also like to thank God for people like Mike and Chris and all the others at the Lighthouse who have been so helpful in my family's time of need.

I have prayed with this young man, emailed him a couple of times and I talk to him on Sunday mornings.  I have spoken to an employer on his behalf, but I haven't given him anything.  I haven't really done anything for him.

Or have I?  

All I have done is a portion of what just about everyone reading this would already do, but I share this with you for a couple of reasons this morning.  A.)  I know full well where my ten dollars is going; and B.)  Blessings so often come in forms other than money.  This young family has seen Jesus afoot in a place we call The Lighthouse and we are blessed to be at work with God in what he is doing there.  It isn't about me, please understand that, but it is about what God is up to in the lives of this young family.

At the time of the funeral procession for the fallen soldier I was dealing with enough of my own junk that no one else really mattered.  It bothered me that a soldier from our community had lost his life, but that's where it stopped.  Today, my heart is so full of compassion and hurt for this guy and his family that I want to sell everything I have and help him and others like him, but I know I can't and am really not even supposed to.  That's part of my experiencing grace and peace in this life.

I continue to fall back on II Corinthians 9 where Paul writes that each man should give as he has decided in his heart to give - not relunctantly or under compulsion - for God loves a cheerful giver.  

I can't save this family, only Jesus can, but I can give them my heart, my love and my prayers.  Perhaps I am even supposed to share ten dollars and ask all of my friends to do the same. 
That's my challenge today, and my challenge to anyone who happens to read this.  I pray you count your blessings; that you open your eyes to see those around you; that you open your ears to hear those around you; and that you open your heart to those around you to love them more and to show them Jesus each and every day.