Watching Christmas on TV

I love the Christmas season and many of the things that come along with it, like the music, the decorations, and the movies.

When it comes to the movies though I like the classics; Miracle on 34th Street, It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, among others.  My wife on the other hand – well, she likes those too but she also can spend countless hours watching those awful, made-for-tv, Lifetime & Hallmark channel holiday movies.  I often watch them with her, half-heartedly, playing on the laptop or Kindle. (I mean, those green pigs aren’t going to knock themselves over, are they?)

We watched one this weekend on GMC called “Christmas Angel” – and while I am certainly not implying that it was “good”, or that a movie starring Teri Polo, Della Reese, & Kevin Sorbo is fine cinema in any way, shape, or form – it did teach a moderately important lesson.

The lesson was that watching absolutely anything other than Lindsay Lohan in “Liz & Dick” was probably a good idea.

(Just kidding… kind of.)

No, the lesson was not so much stated outright as it was implied – and maybe I read too much into it – but it’s something that I strongly believe.  The lesson I took from it was that maybe we should spend less time looking for angels or praying for miracles, and more time BEING angels; HELPING those in need, PUTTING our hands & feet where our mouths are, FEEDING the hungry, CLOTHING the naked… BEING the change we want to see in this world!

Don’t get me wrong – praying for miracles has its place.  But sometimes we need to get off of our rumps and do those things that we can take care of ourselves.  Sometimes we can be the answer to other’s prayers just by putting out the effort.

But that’s just my opinion.


Reading the Gospels in 90 (or 89) Days

The following is an article I wrote for our church’s newsletter, which was distributed this past Sunday.

I don’t normally share these through my blog, but since I kind of issued a challenge with this one (a rarity for me), I thought it might be good to open it up on a larger scale & offer collaboration, commiseration, or a way to hold each other accountable.

You can also click this link to download or print a checklist that can help you keep track of your progress: Read the Gospels in 90 days

Continue reading

Allowing the Past to Influence the Future

Just after midnight last Monday, my grandmother closed her eyes and woke up in heaven.

My head is still spinning a little bit with raw and confused emotions. On one hand, I mourn the loss of my beloved grandma.  On another hand, I know in my heart that she has been slowly deteriorating since Grandpa’s passing and can now finally rest. And on a third hand (if I had three hands) there is the realization that she was the last lynchpin holding our small family – at least as it was in my childhood memories – together.

I can’t help but remember all of those good times we spent at their house, when family was the most important thing. There were only four grandkids. Mom had two boys and our aunt had two girls. But somehow grandma had a special way of making each of us feel and believe that we were the favorite. There was never a doubt that we were loved, that we were safe and cared for. Whether we were trading candy from our Easter baskets or reading the sale ads from the Sunday paper around the kitchen table, so much of my life was shaped and influenced by the presence of my grandparents.

There are certain things that will always remind me of her; the smell of baking bread, pop-tarts & RC cola, Sunday afternoon coffee, and so much more. But more than just living on in our memories, the legacy of my grandparents will be the influence their lives had and will continue to have on the four of us.

In about six weeks, I will be a grandpa myself, and when I imagine what kind of grandparents I want my wife & I to be, I can say with all honesty that it will probably be an awful lot like my “MaMa Tootie & Pop”.

Rest in peace, Grandma. And thank you for setting such a wonderful example of what grandparents are supposed to be.

Happy Lent

Last night, the anchor on our local news said that many Christians around the world were celebrating Ash Wednesday. It struck me as an odd choice of words. Do we really “celebrate” Ash Wednesday? It’s a day of repentance – a day to remember that we were created from dust and to dust we will return – a day to be humble. Ash Wednesday kicks off the liturgical season of Lent, which is 40 days (plus Sundays) that Christians observe to prepare for Easter through prayer, penance, repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial.

Sounds like a party to me!

“Don’t need nothin’ – but Contrition”
(sung to the tune of the Poison song, Nothin’ but a Good Time.)

Many Christians traditionally give something up for Lent; like carbonated beverages, chocolate, or desserts. Others add something to their routine; like an additional bible study, devotional, or prayer. Some attend special Ash Wednesday services where they may participate in a ritual of receiving the mark of ashes on their foreheads as a sign of repentance and mourning. All of this is an effort to get their hearts and minds focused on the upcoming Holy Day of Easter, or the celebration of the resurrection of Christ. (THAT I can understand referring to as a celebration!)

Here’s the thing though: All of this is great, as long as you remember that it’s a human device – a ritual designed and perpetuated by imperfect people. In the end, God isn’t going to ask if you observed Lent properly, or call you out on eating a Reece’s Peanut Butter Cup after giving up chocolate for 40 days. That isn’t what’s important to Him.

What He ultimately wants from us is exactly what He has always wanted: for us to love Him with all of our hearts, minds, and souls – and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

And if observing Lent or Ash Wednesday in whatever way we think is necessary helps us to do that – then that’s exactly what we should do.

I went to Ash Wednesday service last night, received the mark of ashes, and prayed a little extra. I am doing a couple of extra devotionals for the time being. I will be reading and writing more intentionally for spiritual reasons. I might even deny myself something that I really like. And I encourage you to do those kinds of things too. But I mostly encourage you to (as they say around Christmas) remember the reason for the season.

Prayer for the beginning of Lent:

Lord, help us to use whatever rituals and devices that we choose to do nothing more than strengthen our commitment to you, our families, our churches, our communities, and our world. Help us to love you more, and to learn how to love your people.


New Year’s Resolutions

I rarely make New Year’s Resolutions. I don’t really believe in them because they seem so arbitrary and too easily forgotten or susceptible to failure. That has been my experience with them anyway.

You know, we often complain about how Christmas has become too commercialized – but have you stopped to consider the other facets of our life that have also fallen into that same trap?

There are two obvious ones this time of year:

The first is retailers giving us all kinds of suggestions on how to spend our income tax refunds. Watch for them – count them – we will be bombarded with advertisements for electronics and cars over the next few months. Some will even give you credit for checks that you haven’t even received yet.

The second is New Year’s Resolutions. We go from holiday candies and pastries to large grocery store displays of diet and health food. The cooking shows will all be focused on lowering calories and fat instead of increasing flavors and richness. Are they trying to help us keep our resolutions or are they capitalizing on them? Probably both – but either way, it happens every year.

At any rate, this year I made a few – I hesitate to call them resolutions – I am not limiting them to being accomplished during 2012 – let’s just say that they are things that I want or need to work on and am hereby committing some time and effort to them, beginning now. I may even add specific goals, milestones, or timelines on a few of them… but don’t count on it. Here’s the list:

Time management and organization:

This is an ongoing struggle with me. Procrastination is one of my big issues. Somehow I can be very organized and methodical with certain things – but at the office or with school work and other commitments, it seems to slip through the cracks. I don’t get it. I need to create some sense of structure so that I can meet deadlines, get things done, and not have to sacrifice time with my family or personal time to do it.

Read more:

Santa gave me a Kindle Fire for Christmas. I geeked out a little because I have really been wanting a tablet but wasn’t willing to blow that much money on an iPad (especially since the next generation will make it obsolete by the time I get it set up the way I like it anyway). But I want to make sure that I use it – not just for games and comic books, but also for what it was actually made for – reading. I love to read – always have, but I really need to read more and have already downloaded a handful of books that I am looking forward to escaping into.

Plus I am looking into some apps that will help me with my time management & organization goals too – so if anyone has any suggestions…

Continued weight loss:

(Cliché – I know.) Last year I set a goal for myself: I decided to lose a specific amount of weight by a given date – 50 pounds by my daughter’s wedding. I not only met that goal – I exceeded it. But since that time, the scales have plateaued. I haven’t really lost or gained any more. So I need to step-up that game. One of the ways I am choosing to do that is by exercising more. Up to this point I have lost weight and inches through careful diet and self-control. Now it’s time to get active! But I will probably need to set myself another goal – especially since it seemed to help last year – otherwise I feel like I will be flying blindly with nothing to work toward.

Spiritual Formation:

Maybe it sounds a bit like a technical seminary term, but I specifically want to concentrate on the area of “Relational Spirituality” which is 3-fold: Loving God Completely, Loving Myself Correctly, and Loving Others Compassionately. I want to take some time to focus on my own spiritual life and how it is expressed through my relationships. I want to live a deeper, more grace-filled life with a heavy emphasis on God’s love – not with empty outward expressions of religion.

Saying No

I was recently asked to do a few things that I did not want to do; things that in the not-so-distant past I would have created an excuse in order to not do them.

First I was asked to paint a mural:

The couple that took ownership of the children’s ministry at our church worked very hard to renovate and refurbish the basement area where the kids meet on Sunday mornings. I thought it was awesome to see people pour themselves into a project with that much passion. Especially considering that they took all of the initiative, had very little funding (at least at first), and not a lot of help. Part of their plan was to have a handful of artists from our congregation paint a separate wall with a mural depicting some of the great Bible stories. When they approached me to paint one of them, my initial reaction was, “NO”.

Sure I was an art-club nerd back in high school, but that was more than 20 years ago! It has literally been years and years since I have done any painting at all, let alone a wall-sized mural. I did not want to invest that much time in something that I was pretty sure would not turn out all that great anyway. I really wanted to turn them down.

But I did not.

The story I chose to paint was David and Goliath, which turned out to be apropos. Often when people insert themselves into a bible story like David and Goliath, they see themselves in the David role, defeating some great giant against all odds – The only problem was that in my scenario, I was also Goliath. I had to overcome the part of my own brain that did not want to participate, and I am glad that I did. I felt a great deal of joy just in the creative process, but it also offered me the chance to fellowship with friends that I normally would not have had the opportunity to and be part of something bigger and more important than myself.

The other thing I was asked to do was to serve on a Walk to Emmaus weekend:

(If you are not familiar with the Walk to Emmaus movement, click here to learn more.) I have spent a decade saying “NO” to Lay Leaders asking me to serve in any capacity on these Walks. But for whatever reason, I agreed to do it. As the date came closer though, the more I regretted my decision. The last thing I wanted to do was sleep on a bunk in a cabin with four other guys in a campground listening to a bunch of stale talks about about faith and love. Nothing about that sounded appealing to me. But I had agreed to it, so I went.

Thank God I went.

It was a blessing to be able to serve others – especially other men who also did not want to be there the first day or two. Physically, by Sunday evening I was exhausted and wanted my bed, my couch and my wife back – but I was also strangely joyful and spiritually energized by the experience. Once again my inner David battled against the towering giant of my inner Goliath – and against all odds, little David won – and God blessed me for it.

Actually I found out later, several other potential workers HAD said no. Evidently just enough of them had turned the offer down in order to get low enough on the list for me to even be asked – and I am guessing that was pretty low. The theme for the weekend, in a nutshell, is God’s grace – and in a very real way, I experienced it!

Not to be too cliché, but that’s pretty amazing when you think about it.

Good Friday & Earth Day

I wanted to write a post today about Good Friday and how we all experience our own personal Good Fridays in relation to a tragic, devastating event that leads to resurrection or a new chapter in the book of our own lives. It was going to be epic (trust me). Unfortunately, I am in the midst of writing two papers for school that are due Sunday and Monday respectively. So, I just don’t have the time.

Instead, I have decided to post a few pictures from our recent trip to the Memphis Botanic Garden in honor of Earth Day. Which, in its own way, is a much more convincing testimony to the wonder and awesomeness of God than my words could ever be.

Love & Peace to all on this holiest weekend of the year!

Five on Friday: St. Patrick’s Day

I know it’s a day late, but celebrating St. Patrick’s Day made me think about my all-time favorite rock band (who just happens to be Irish) U2. And since lately, as a result of the liturgical season of Lent, I seem to also be on a kick of blogging about spirituality, I thought I would also tailor today’s playlist to that theme.

I had to narrow it down somehow; otherwise the name of today’s meme would have to be changed to “Fifty on Friday”.

So let’s go through this song by song:

Gloria – From all the way back in 1981; the second single from their second album, October. The chorus features the Latin phrase “Gloria in te Domine / Gloria exultate” – which translates to “Glory in you, Lord / Glory, exalt [him]” which is a reference to Psalm 30:2. The lyrics also allude to both Colossians 2:9-10 (“Only in You I’m complete”) and James 5:7-9 (“The door is open / You’re standing there”). It doesn’t get much more blatantly spiritual than that.

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For – The band refers to this track from the Joshua Tree album as their “gospel song”. It was inspired by American Gospel music and the lyrics vividly describe a sense of spiritual yearning. During concerts Bono sometimes introduces it as “A kind of Gospel song with a restless spirit” and has described it as “an anthem of doubt more than faith”. And for the record, any Christian who denies ever feeling this way is lying.

Until the End of the World – fast forward to 1991 from one of my favorite U2 albums, Achtung Baby. I loved this song from the first time I listened to it, but it wasn’t until later that I realized that it was written from the perspective of Judas Iscariot. The verses progress from the Last Supper (“We ate the food, we drank the wine, everybody having a good time – Except you – You were talking about the end of the world”) to the Garden of Gethsemane to Judas’ eventual suicide. It is a beautifully written adaptation of this biblical account.

Grace – Bono refers to it as “she” in the lyrics, so if you’re not paying attention you might think that the song was about a girl – but it’s not. “What once was hurt / What once was friction / What left a mark / No longer stings / Because grace makes beauty out of ugly things.” As a United Methodist, this one is pretty close to my heart.

40 – The lyrics are a translation of Psalm 40. (One of my favorite Psalms, by the way.) This is one of U2’s most obvious biblically based songs. Live versions still give me chills. “I will sing – sing a new song!”


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How Does It Work?

I will admit, in my youth I could be pretty sneaky. I was very quiet – a severe introvert – and honestly enjoyed time alone with my own thoughts and imagination. To be honest, it was not hard to hide because my brother was the opposite. He was ADD and (I don’t mean this to be disrespectful) was kind of hard to ignore.

The problem was that many of my toys – especially electronic things like cassette players – were always in danger of being broken beyond repair. See, I liked to take things apart. I liked to try to make things do stuff that they weren’t necessarily designed to do. And other times I tried to fix them while actually tearing them up worse. I liked to dissect machines and see why they worked the way they did. It proved to be hours upon hours of constructive fun for me – and a source of aggravation for my parents who didn’t understand why my things were always broken.

Occasionally I would even branch out beyond the things that were mine and take apart my brother’s things, dad’s tools, or random electronics lying around the house. I remember specifically splicing some wires of an old CB radio together and plugging them into the wall in my bedroom, which quickly filled the room with rancid smelling smoke. Not exactly the outcome I was looking for – but kind of cool just the same.

Thanks to Nickelodeon’s Mr. Wizard I also made a hotdog cooker out of two forks and an old extension cord cut in half. It worked too! Maybe it was a little bit dangerous (DUH!) but it was awesome.

Brokenness was just part of my life. A part of my life that I accepted – even embraced. And as I have gotten older I have come to realize that it is part of everyone’s life. We are not perfect beings. We are all tragically and profoundly flawed and broken.

We love and we hate.

We laugh and we cry.

We sin and we repent.

But unlike me – who rarely fixed anything or got it back in working order – God is a capable and skilled repairman. He can take the shards of our broken lives and piece them back together in the most beautiful and glorious way, no matter how well He knows that we will probably just shatter them into a million pieces again eventually.

God’s grace makes us whole again and gives us hope. And sometimes He even plugs our bare wires directly into the power source, and allows us to boldly shine His light into the darkness of the world around us. As bizarre as it may sound – I am thankful for the time I have spent broken. Because without my brokenness, I would never have known the healing, restoring power of God’s love.

“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” [Psalm 147:3]

remember that thou art dust

I suppose many people – especially non-Catholics – have conflicting concepts about what Ash Wednesday is or why we – especially Protestants such as me – would celebrate it. I have done my share of struggling with it in the past too. It is not the most welcoming of holy days. Let’s smear some ashes on our foreheads to remind us of our mortality and our sinful natures. Uh… how about we don’t.

I do not need to be reminded that I am a sinner – that we are all sinners. And as I get older I certainly do not need to be reminded that I am going to eventually die.

Or do I?

The tradition of Ash Wednesday is derived from the biblical practice of using dust and ashes to symbolically express remorse for sins and as an outward sign of repentance. (See Job 42:3-6, or Daniel 9:3). Plus we get the added bonus of being reminded of our impending death, “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return” (Genesis 3:19).

For many years I only thought of Ash Wednesday as the first day of Lent. Lent is the 40 days (not counting Sundays) that lead up to that most holy of holy days on the Christian calendar, Easter Sunday. This is the time that we are traditionally asked to give something up – to fast from something specific as an act of penance. Often times in today’s society people try to give up something that they perceive as a vice; like coffee, chocolate, fried foods, or red meat because they see it as a way to eliminate a barrier between themselves and God.

Personally I find it more edifying to take something on rather than give something up. In the last few years during Lent I have attempted to take on more study, prayer, acts of kindness, etc. And this year is no exception. This year I plan to participate in our Conference’s Lenten devotional series every morning, as well as read more scripture especially at night. I am also going to try to pray more and blog at least weekly about my Lenten journey or something else of a spiritual nature. And finally my wife and I plan on taking care of our temples during this time by walking for more exercise at least three days a week. Sounds simple enough, right?

Actually – as I read through this list I am thinking, “I should be doing these things all of the time – not just during Lent”. And I guess personally I hope that forty days is enough to make some of these things more of a habit.

So as we “celebrate” Ash Wednesday to kick off this season of repentance and self-denial in preparation for Holy Week, my prayer is that through it all we all learn to walk closer with God, to remove the things that stand in between Him and us, and to experience His amazing grace.

Like the words of the praise chorus, Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary – Pure and Holy – Tried and True…