Sunday, January 31, 2016

Not the Messiah You Wanted?

[This is essentially the sermon I delivered today. I try not to do this often, but several commented and have asked for me to make it available. Of course it can be heard as it was given here.]

Tomorrow the real presidential race begins: the Iowa caucuses. It already seems like the race has been going on forever. I'm old enough to have seen many campaigns. Some things never change. In primaries candidates offer “red meat” for the base. Red meat: rhetoric about those issues the base wants to hear most, like the favorite, main-course food everyone really wants at a dinner. I like salad, but when I go to Ruth's Chris, I go for the steak. Not the dessert or the sides, the red meat!

May I use stereotypes?

For Democrats red meat issues include promoting government aid to the underprivileged and the rich paying their fair share. A key word is "inequality." The frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, in a town hall this week said the word "inequality" some 14 times in less than a minute-and-a-half to the delight of the attendees!

For Republicans red meat issues include cutting taxes, strong defense, free-market capitalism, & traditional values. This season, however, there’s a new phenomenon: frontrunner Donald Trump. He’s offering a different kind of red meat in his, "Making America Great" campaign. It's military and economic domination ("make America win again") and stopping illegal immigration ("building a big beautiful wall that Mexico will pay for"). At his rallies, the red meat is served up in generous portions to those who are (perhaps understandably) angry, as he tells them what they want to hear, whipping people into a frenzy. I get the attraction, particularly after years of waffling, politically-correct, ineffective, self-preserving, & dishonest politicians. His brash and direct style is refreshing for many. After years of economic and moral decline, foreign policy disasters, and out-of-control illegal immigration, many voters are craving strength. And he’s no fool. He has stepped into the void to tell people what they want to hear.

The Donald has done this with issues Christians care about, too. Last week he spoke at Liberty University and quoted TWO Corinthians. He’s saying “I’m pro-life” but a few years ago he said, “I’m very pro-choice.” As the Iowa caucuses are looming he's touting his protestantism saying that he will “protect Christianity” and telling how much he loves the Bible. Now well-known evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Robert Jeffress are publicly supporting him.
Let me be clear: I'm not advocating for or against any particular candidate or party—I don't do that. I just want you see how politicians offer red meat, and how susceptible we are to it…for a reason: I want to show how different Jesus is.

Some scholars call Luke 4:14-30 Jesus’ inaugural address. But I think it's more like Jesus' launch speech at the beginning of his campaign. A campaign not to merely rule the world—that'll come one day without a campaign—but to save the world. And as Trump kicked-off his campaign at Trump Tower in Manhattan, and as Bernie did so in Vermont, Rubio & Jeb in Miami, Martin O’Malley in Baltimore,  Kasich in Ohio (among others), many candidates launch before their home crowd with red meat. But NOT Jesus. Oh, he went home...but there was no red meat. Look:

Luke 4: 14And Jesus returned [from 40 days of wilderness fasting and Satan's temptations] in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. 
We know by reading the other gospels that Jesus did a lot during this time that contributed to this report that spread about him. He cleansed the temple (which he would do again before his death), he met some who would become his disciples, he had conversations with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman at the well. He turned water to wine in Cana, and did some miracles in other Galilean towns.

15And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all. 
He’s quickly gaining fame. No doubt word about him had reached his hometown.

16And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up.
Finally the local rising star has come home! I’m sure there was a buzz!

And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. Obviously the synagogue leadership gladly appointed this favorite son who was now making a name for himself in the region to read and speak. Perhaps word had spread that John Baptizer—the Billy Graham of his day—had singled Jesus out as being greater than he was—perhaps some had even heard about the voice from heaven at his baptism! I’m sure there was a full house that day at worship!

17And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, 
    18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, 
      because he has anointed me 
       to proclaim good news to the poor. 
    He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
       and recovering of sight to the blind, 
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 
   19to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” 

This is from Isaiah 61, a passage scholars say was not often taught by Jewish rabbis. It was confusing. It seemed to be speaking of a prophet, perhaps Isaiah himself, yet it was clearly Messianic. But it’s no accident that Jesus chose it. Interesting too that he stopped where he did. The next line from Isaiah 61 is: “and [proclaim] the day of vengeance of our God.” Clearly Jesus was focusing on the first phase of the Messiah’s ministry: the teaching/healing/saving phase. By picking this passage, Here's what Jesus was forecasting about his earthly ministry: It would...
  1. Be anointed by the Holy Spirit,
  2. Proclaim good news/God’s favor,
  3. Be to the “poor” (the economically poor, and especially, the poor in spirit),
  4. Proclaim liberty for captives & oppressed (not by Rome, but by sin),
  5. Give sight to the blind (physically, but especially the spiritually blind).

20And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 
Can you feel the expectation?! “What’s he going to say? Wonder why he left out "the day of vengeance” part? Is he claiming to be a prophet, or the Messiah?” Luke seems to indicate that Jesus let them consider it…

21And he began to say to them,

…wait for it…

“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Wow! He’s absolutely claiming that this prophesy is about him! I can feel the electricity in the room as these people, so weary of Roman rule, so ready for a Messiah to come kick tail, are considering the implications. They had heard that a Messiah would come out of Galilee—no doubt, Isaiah 9:1-7 is what they’re all thinking!

Luke 4: 22And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. 
That indicates he must have said more than what Luke summarizes here. I wish I knew. All we know is he spoke words of grace and that they were impressed. But the claim was so huge! “Are we to believe he is a prophet anointed by God? Or the Messiah?!” Here is Jesus' big opportunity to begin an incredible campaign for king of Israel in front of his home crowd! Here's when he should deliver large quantities of red meat!

 And they said, “Is not this Joseph's son?” 
There is not agreement among scholars about whether this was complementary or skeptical. Perhaps it was both! Some were saying, "I know him, we went to school together!" Some, "He's not special, he's Joseph the carpenter's boy." Some might be saying, "Hey, isn't Joseph from David's family?" Everyone is whispering during his speech. Jesus knows this is what the murmuring was all about. And this is where Jesus offers—NOT red meat—but broccoli!

23And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself.’ What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.” 24And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. 
What? That's no way to excite a crowd. Now, listen closely to how he ends his “Messiah campaign launch” speech:

25But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, 26and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”
Did you catch that? Do you get what he was saying? He's saying in effect, “Listen y’all, God’s not always for who you think he’s for. He shows mercy to your enemies—even the gentiles.”  Talk about a lead balloon! No, worse! In fact, it would be worse than if Trump said to a crowd of Texans: "I’m going to build a wall, you're going to pay for it, and I'm going to kick you out and give your land to the Mexicans!" Or if Hillary said in a campaign speech, "I’m going to take your welfare and social security and medicare checks and give them to the wealthy and then tax you for them." ONLY WORSE! This was the last thing this Jewish home crowd expected to hear from their prospective Messiah. He’s saying that God’s “good news” of liberty and healing and favor isn’t intended just for Israel (as they believed) but for their enemies the gentiles!

So while they were excitedly considering whether he was really the Messiah, he said (in effect), “It doesn’t really matter what you think or whether or not you choose me. What matters is whether God chooses you! And the truth is, he’s chosen different people than those you expect. God is sending me to people other than you!”

How’d that go over?

28When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. 29And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. 
The church crowd became the lynch mob! "If he's wanting to be that kind of Messiah, we'd rather end his campaign right here!"

Don't think that Jesus didn't know this would happen. I'm imagining him allowing them to grab him up in a rage with proverbial torches and pitchforks and he, never feeling panicked, let them bring him to the cliff's edge where they had probably ended the lives of other criminals and blasphemers over the town's history. But then, at the climatic moment before they ended his life...

30But passing through their midst, he went away.
He just said, "That's enough." and walked through a stunned and helpless crowd. It's fun to think of what happened here. Was he Frodo Jesus, slipping the Ring of Power on his finger? Was he Jedi Jesus, waving his hand and saying, "You will not throw me off the cliff"? Was he Ninja Jesus? Bewitched (the TV show) Jesus (who froze them all in time with a wiggle of his nose)? Probably not—we just can't know. I think perhaps they all just suddenly stopped in their tracks as God's Spirit decreed, emphasizing the point: They were blind. But they didn't want to face their blindness. Therefore Jesus didn't come for them. He came for those who know they are blind. One has to wonder what those in the mob thought of their inability to finish the job of killing the offensive, self-proclaimed Messiah. "Whoa, what just happened? He just walked away!"

This passage is, of course, a great introduction to the big characteristic themes that would mark Jesus' ministry (as we will see as we continue to study Luke). But what does it mean to me TODAY? I've got four things:

•Beware of Red Meat. Whenever you sense someone saying what they think you want to hear, whether a politician, salesman, lawyer, mechanic, coach, or preacher…Beware!

•Meet Jesus on HIS terms. He is no panderer. He doesn’t come to us on our terms, desiring our approval, wanting our votes. We come on HIS terms or not at all. He does not abide the self-centered. This is something WE better hear. A Jesus for everyone? Yes. But if that bothers you, perhaps not you. He is Savior only to the broken who by faith surrender to him. Have you?

•Make sure you’re not blinded by your own narrative. Scholars have pointed out a chiasm in Luke’s telling of this event. A chiasm is an ancient middle-eastern literary device that reveals a climatic emphasis. This is hard for westerners to understand because we tend to save the climax for the ending of a story, poem, or song. Here's the Chiasm in Luke's account of Jesus' reading in the synagogue:

he went to the synagogue 
     he stood up
          scroll was given to him 
               he unrolled the scroll,
                    to proclaim good news  
                         liberty to the captives
                              recovering of sight to the blind
                         liberty those who are oppressed
                    to proclaim the Lord's favor
               he rolled up the scroll 
          gave it back to the attendant 
     and sat down.
all in the synagogue

The emphatic phrase in Luke's chiasm is “recovering of sight to the blind.” Point: they were blind! The Messiah's task was to offer sight, as Jesus was offering to them, and they refused! They loved their FALSE vision of a FICTIONAL messiah, more than the REAL messiah himself WHO WAS THERE BEFORE THEIR VERY EYES.

As John told us in the introduction of his Gospel:
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1:9-12).

But they didn't want to see the light. They wanted red meat. They wanted Jesus to say (imagine your favorite politician speaking): “The Romans and Gentiles are evil oppressors! I’m going to drive them out and together we Jews will rule the world. And Nazareth will be famous ‘cause I’m from here!” (Imagine the crowd going wild) Yeaaaa!!! JEE-SUS! JEE-SUS! JEE-SUS!
But God's plan was much different—much better. But they couldn't see past their narrative.

Let me ask you a question: What’s your blinding narrative? Is it "Everybody’s going to heaven"? or "God will love you if you're good enough"? Or "God loves America more than others"? Or (here's one that's all too common) "If I pray a prayer, I'm saved, even if my life doesn't change. I can justify my sin—God gives grace." Let me tell you: all those narratives indicate blindness. The truth? We are all sinners and must repent, believe, and receive God’s gift of salvation through faith in Christ. Then our lives will show change as we grow in him by the power of the Holy Spirit. That's the truth. All other narratives are blinding false gospels.

•Make Christ and his kingdom your ultimate allegiance. Where do you place your highest hopes? In your own abilities? In wealth? In government solutions? Do you obsess over politics and candidates? I urge you to trust and seek the One who rules all things and who is bringing about all things according to his will. MAKE HIM FIRST. Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness…(Matthew 6:33). From that priority, let all other things flow. Then make your political decisions and support your candidates. Don’t let your faith be driven by your politics! Let Christ drive your politics and ALL your actions. How does Christ want me to treat others? How does Christ want me to live life? How does he want me to eat, drink, help people, spend money, tip the waitress, raise my kids, do my job…? Imagine: If Christians did this, we might not NEED government to care for poor, or do healthcare, or rebuild after disasters, or many other things…And as the Gospel is shared and lives are transformed, sin is diminished and the culture is changed profoundly. That's called "revival."

[I didn't have time Sunday to conclude as I wanted to. Here's what was left out...]

When we realize who Christ really is and surrender to him, we have a Christ-centered view about everything—including government. Meditate on what Peter said to a first-century Christian audience living under Roman rule (1Peter 2: 4-17):
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture: 
    “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,       
          a cornerstone chosen and precious,      
     and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” 
So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, 
     “The stone that the builders rejected          
         has become the cornerstone,” 
    “A stone of stumbling,          
         and a rock of offense.” 
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. 
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. 
Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
As believers, we are "sojourners and exiles" as we live in this world. Our first allegiance is Christ and our home is heaven. When we keep this firmly in mind, we are better, involved citizens of our country and we make this world better!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Truck Norris

I gave in to the non-stop pleading from Dara that began long before she turned 16 to have an old truck for her car. I really tried to talk her out of it. I know all-too-well how frustrating it can be to be a kid wanting to go somewhere and your vehicle not start. And having an old truck is great if you're a guy (typically) who uses the bed, regularly tows stuff, and doesn't mind fixing it frequently. Her mother was a harder person to convince than me that this was a good idea! A truck is the LAST thing Darla would drive. But in the end, Dara persisted, playing her cards well, giving us little choice other than to allow it.

Here's the way it works at the Sparks house:

Driving's a privilege not a right. Therefore it is only granted when the driver is well-trained and other priorities are accomplished. Things like honesty (an important first), respecting authorities, and making wise choices in other areas (grades, phone, chores, showing kindness, etc.) are non-negotiable.

Financial responsibility is important. That means we ask our kids to buy their car, unless they are involved in athletics or other good activities that prevents them from being able to save to afford a car (in which case, we will help them). All three of ours were able to buy their cars, despite them being involved in other things. Once they have a car, they must have "skin in the game" regarding gas and insurance. Regarding insurance, parents will pay for the lowest rate (including discounts for good grades, etc.) but additional costs due to tickets or accidents or grades are the driver's responsibility.

Freedom doesn't increase when you get a car, responsibilities do. With driving comes the necessity of MORE communication, more devotion to following the rules, more maturity...not less. Mistakes have higher consequences than before. And when foolish mistakes are made or responsibility isn't shown, keys are taken away.

There are others, of course, but those are the main principles. Drew found and bought himself a Jeep Cherokee that he improved quite a bit over his time in high school. Duncan got a little help from us to first buy a 12-year-old Chevy Malibu, but later was able to buy a 1981 Fiat Spider herself (that she LOVES). Dara (as usual) was adamant that we allow her plenty of training throughout her 15th year, and was on-the-ball regarding the other requirements, including saving money to buy a truck. And she didn't just want any truck. She preferred an old Jeep J10. So when she found one in West Knoxville off Sutherland, we were in pursuit. See the whole story here.

Well, here's the rest of the story. Despite my initial remorse for allowing her to buy it, and thanks to lots of help from a mechanically-inclined friend, Truck Norris (as Dara calls it) is, quite frankly, pretty awesome. We've had to fix stuff like speedometer, carburetor, plugs & wires, most gauges, lights & lenses, paint the hood, replace & paint a fender, new tires, choke, fuel & air filters, battery, starter, alternator, breaks, fuel sending unit, mirrors, and various other wires, vacuum tubes, gaskets, knobs, and parts.

This is before we were finished loading. The
trailer's tires were near bursting, and Truck's
bed couldn't hold another piece of oak. The
picture definitely doesn't do this task justice!
That may sound like a lot—but it has been done a little at a time as needed—and nothing was really expensive. It's now reasonably reliable and safe. To improve the truck's worn interior we replaced the seat and door panel fabric with a colorful western fabric that Dara found online, and replaced the interior carpet. We replaced the old 1980s cassette-deck radio with a new unit and installed new speakers (important!). And we've raised the seats and installed a 4" lift kit (with new springs and shocks). The drivetrain (especially the 4-wheel-drive system) has been bullet-proof (Lord, thank you, and please let it continue to be so!). It still has some issues (transmission fluid leak, still hard to start due to needed carb-adjustment, some electronic mysteries), but it's not bad.

I've also enjoyed having a truck around again. The Wagoneer is great, but it's hard to replace the handiness of a pickup. We put Truck Norris to the test a couple of weeks ago when my dad had two oak trees in his yard in Jefferson City that needed to be cut and removed. We loaded Truck Norris' bed "cab-high" in green (meaning not dried or cured, read: "heavy") red and white oak firewood and loaded up a trailer for Truck Norris to pull back to Knoxville. Test passed.

Today we had our first significant snow since Truck Norris came to the Sparks family. Dara and I went to an abandoned parking lot and let her learn how to drive in the snow. Then we ran errands and went to Dara's friend's house, driving on snow-covered roads the whole way. Again, pass! Truck Norris did very well. The only minor problem was keeping the windows clean. It wasn't bad, but the wipers are weak and sometimes randomly stop for a few seconds, and the defrost barely blows. But Truck is rock solid in the snow. I'm going to take it to elders meeting tonight. Hope I don't wreck it. Dara will kill me!

So, all things considered, Truck Norris was a good buy. All told we've got around $5k in it. Dara still loves it (despite the usual challenges to owning an old vehicle) and I am certain she could get her money out of it and then some. But the problem is I'm kind of attached to it! When Dara is over the truck stage, I'm hoping she'll sell it to me for a reasonable price!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Quick Trip to Ozone Falls

Darla and I are rehearsing for the empty nest. It's kind of great, actually. We had a Saturday today without soccer, track, football, church or kids activities of any kind! Really crazy! So, Darla, the dogs (yep, we're becoming those people), and I took off to see a waterfall we've heard a lot about over the years, but haven't yet seen: the impressive, 110-foot Ozone Falls near Crab Orchard, TN. It was one of Tennessee's first State Natural Areas, and is one of the most famous. It's not an epic hike. In fact, you can see the falls through the trees from the car as you approach the tiny parking area on Hwy. 70. There are two trails, one upper loop that takes you to the top of the falls, and a lower trail that takes you to the bottom of the falls. Both are very short.
The upper trail is almost all on sandstone cap rock (the stone that has made Crab Orchard famous). Pretty cool, really. The appropriately named Fall Creek is small, even after some rain this weekend. All is quite typical until the water suddenly drops off the cliff in to a beautiful deep (today, at least) hole. The cliff is impressive and scary. There are no walls or rails or fence to keep people or dogs from free falling. Actually, this is how I like it. I've hiked in other states where man-made barriers mar the natural beauty. That's a thing I love about Tennessee—I'd like to think we figure people know not to get too close to a 100+ ft. cliff. I know, it's so hard to figure out! I will say, due to the closeness of this waterfall to the road, and the depth of the waterhole into which it falls (at least, today's depth anyway), I would be very surprised if local teenage daredevils don't frequent this spot (I know I would have—we jumped from similar-height cliffs that were much less accessible and much more dangerous). Interestingly, there were no warnings against jumping, swimming, or climbing on or around the falls! Man, I love Tennessee!*

The lower trail is not much of a trail at all. It begins unceremoniously paralleling the road. Then it turns to go down the rocky hillside and all bets are off. There are no trail marks to be seen until you're down at the bottom next to the creek! Basically, you make your own trail. Darla and I stayed pretty near the base of the cliff, which in places is a rock house with water dripping from the brow. I found out later that the caves (rock houses) in this cliff were once known as "gamblers den" for nefarious activities that you can probably figure out. I bet this place is really impressive after a few days of sub-freezing weather. Unfortunately, the temperature has been in the 30s and 40s for the last few days, so almost all signs of ice are gone for now.
We made it down to the bottom. It looks as if one can walk behind the falls to the other side of the beautiful, jade-blue landing pool. But it was pretty cold today and we didn't want to get wet. So we went down to the creek as it tumbles out of the pool. Huge boulders are everywhere. Warning: the rocks around the creek are shifty and SLICK. It is a minor miracle that neither of us took a fall! The best shots of the falls are from a big rock on the downstream side of the landing pool.
The beautiful jade-blue pool is actually very clear water.  This creek seems to be quite clean. be sure to click on the above picture to see it in some better detail. Of course, there's no comparison to seeing the real thing. Apparently part of the Jungle Book movie was filmed here. After taking a few pictures, we headed back up to the parking area. Darla was really cold. It was about 38 degrees, but the wind was blowing.
On the way home we stopped by Kingston to eat at Gloria Jean's Fine Southern Provisions at Ladd Landing. Pretty good eats—not cheap. On to home for NFL Playoffs. God, thank you for the good, lazy day with my best friend. It was a needed break before another busy week.

If you live in the Knoxville area, you MUST make this short trip to Ozone Falls. The quick way is to get off I-40 at Crab Orchard (exit 329), go right for a couple hundred yards and turn right again on Hwy 70. You'll see the signs and the parking area in about a mile on the right. For the scenic route, Go west on Kingston Pike in Knoxville and take the right fork at Dixie-Lee Junction (Hwy 70). Follow Hwy 70 (pay attention to signs) until you get there.  It is much more interesting than taking the interstate, and won't take that much longer.

*For the sake of the foolish and the lawyers who represent them, it is probably wise for me to write the following disclaimer: Please do not ever jump from high cliffs. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

Politics Kills Preachers

Preaching and politics often don't go well together.

Although there have been many pastor's sons make it to the Oval Office, there has never been a preacher or pastor who has become president. The closest was James Garfield (former Civil War general who followed Lincoln, Johnson, Grant, and Hayes). He was 18 when he was born again and did some preaching before entering politics. He reportedly said that he "stepped down from the pulpit to the presidency" (I've not been able to confirm this quote) and was from all accounts a committed Christian, which caused him to hate the mistreatment of blacks both before and after the abolition of slavery. Unfortunately he is one of the forgotten presidents due to his short tenure since he was mortally shot just four months after his inauguration. But that's not what I mean by the title of this post.

Specifically, I'm talking about John the Baptist (I'll call him John Baptizer, since the Baptist denomination is something entirely different and hadn't yet been founded. You'd be surprised how many people are confused by this!). John Baptizer was the Billy Graham of his day, drawing multitudes of people out to the wilderness of the Jordan River to hear him preach fiery sermons of repentance and life change. He was a beloved celebrity to everyone except the religious elites (who did not appreciate his message), including soldiers, tax-collectors, and every-day people of Israel. Even King Herod regarded him highly. He thought John "to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him." (Mark 6:20).
Salome and John the Baptist's Head by Bernardino Luini. This
painting was once believed to be the work of Leonardo da Vinci.
Note the different expressions on the faces.

If John's desire was popularity (it wasn't), things were going pretty well...until he delved into politics. He made the mistake of opining on Herod's skanky marriage to his brother's wife (who happened to also be his niece). Evidently, the Herod family was pretty close. Inbreds, even. Yick. Apparently, this convoluted and immoral arrangement was concocted in order to bolster an image of bloodline-legitimacy to placate the Jews so the Herods could stay in power. And it was by a thin, brittle thread that Jewish sensitivities were kept tamped down. The Herods (vis. Herod Antipas and Herodias—there are several more in this crazy, intertwined, family tree!) knew this, and when John Baptizer started meddlin' he had to be silenced. No one wanted him shut down more than Herodias, whose ambition was unquenchable! She was a woman you did not want to offend. [For a great look at Herodias and the whole Herodian dynasty, read this great blog post.]

This is a problem with good preachers: they want to make the Word relevant. They feel the need to speak to what is on everyone's minds, correct the big obvious hypocrisies, make examples of flagrant public offenders. Why do they do this? Because they really believe God's Word speaks to real life. And because they present their message as weak if it does not speak to what people know is wrong. In effect, they feel they show their God to be weak. And when it comes to powerful people who are wrong, they fear they show their God to be less powerful than the people living in sin. For a man of God, that is anathema.

So John Baptizer did it. He was no doubt being asked by many what he thought about the Herods and their illicit, power-pragmatic, incestuous relationship. He did it in typical John Baptizer style. He gave God's opinion...forcefully. That's what killed the greatest man who, formerly, had ever lived.
What was he supposed to do? What were his options? He could have said, "I'm not going to weigh in on politics." In which case, he would have been seen as a coward, or at least would have allowed open sin and hypocrisy to continue unchallenged, and the people who heard about it would have been confounded. He could have pacified Herod and justified his bad behavior or at least say, "I really don't know what's actually going on." To do that would have been perhaps beneficial for him. He could have really made some good friends in high places and, no doubt, secured for himself a small fortune.

Yet, to compromise or to ignore Herod's sin would have secured a fate worse than death. John would have been forgotten. Because he would have proved himself not to have been a true prophet of God. We would not even know his name. Even worse (yes, if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears, it still falls), he would have been judged by God himself. This is FAR worse than mere decapitation.

Today, preachers have the same choice, and the stakes are almost as high. It's hard enough in our hyper-sensitive world for a Christian to know how to handle political conversations, but for those of us who are leaders in the Christian community, its treacherous!

Preachers can "die" (figuratively—they are marginalized or not taken seriously) when they weigh in truthfully on the sin of public figures—particularly those figures who are loved by media and culture—especially political figures. Their heads may not end up on literal platters, but they can be considered no less grotesque and be no less silenced. But it is better than any alternative: compromise or turning a blind eye. While this alternative may result in a preacher's worldly honor and advancement, compromise results in the discarding of his influence and usefulness by God for the Gospel. That's a fate worse than death. I have friends and acquaintances who have placated the powerful or popular and have compromised doctrinally, missionally, and evangelistically. I pity them.

So preachers should, I think, speak to the issues on people's minds—especially the evils in the news. And that includes those in the political realm. Yes, it's risky. But to quote Paul again, "am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ" (Gal. 1:10). True men of God say with Peter and the apostles, “We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). This requires courage that we may speak truth and tactfully call out sin when necessary.

But there are those who go way too far in speaking out about political issues and politicians. I've already witnessed some this political season. Here are some ways preachers can unnecessarily lose their heads:

1. When preachers become obviously partisan. Yes, political parties have platforms. Yes some issues have moral/ethical/biblical implications/consequences, so it can be tricky to know when to speak and when to remain silent. There are clear matters like abortion, homosexuality, and religious liberty. But there are issues that are not so cut-and-dried. How we deal with poverty, how we deal with the alien, or taxation policy, military might, and so many more. There is simply no clear biblical stance on some of them. To promote a political party is (in effect) to endorse it's platform—all of it—AND its reputation AND its representatives. I know some ministers whose devotion to a party (I know some on both sides) seems to outweigh their devotion to God! Not cool. Preachers, let your hearers determine their affiliation. It's not a primary issue. Yes, I'm registered to a political party but few in my body know which one. I've considered registering as an independent. But I do have political leanings and wish to participate in primaries as a Christian citizen.

2. When preachers endorse a particular candidate. I've been burned on this. I've let it be known in elections past that I liked a certain candidate only to end up with mud on my face when that candidate turned out to be someone different than I thought. That was a long time ago when I was new in ministry. Now I wince when spiritual leaders endorse candidates. They seem to be putting their faith in man. I've considered what I would do if an elder at Providence ran for public office. Would I campaign for him? My answer is "no." That's not to say I won't advise him or encourage him as a friend, pastor, and fellow believer. It is to say I can't publicly advocate for and persuade people to vote for a certain person. Primarily, that's because I am an advocate first for Christ. I campaign for him. I will not allow anything to interfere with this first priority of a pastor.

3. When preachers confuse devotion to Christ with devotion to country. The two are not the same and they are not equal priorities. Am I patriotic? Yes! I would lay down my life for my country. But I would not lay down my faith—my relationship with Christ—for my country. I am first a citizen of heaven and a child of God. That's my highest allegiance. The two allegiances are rarely in conflict, practically, and I pray they will never be. But there are scenarios where they could be. What if you're doing missions in a country with which America is at war? What if a preacher's patriotism causes someone who is turned off by patriotism to miss the gospel? What is the effect on an international person living in the USA who may misunderstand or disagree regarding Americas status as "God's country" or "the greatest country in the world" or "uniquely blessed by God" (all things I've heard preachers say). This doesn't mean you don't believe in America or in American exceptionalism. It means you want to be "all things to all people, that by all means [you] might save some" (1 Cor. 9:22). It means if you are going to boast it will not be out of pride in your country. As Paul said, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord" (2 Cor. 10:17).

4. When preachers are persuaded or blinded by factors other than biblical truth. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of historical examples I could use. A vast majority of preachers in the south preached in favor of the institution of slavery before the Civil War. A majority of German pastors would not stand against Hitler (and many supported him). Recently, Jerry Falwell Jr. made some controversial remarks to the students of Liberty University (the largest evangelical Christian university in the world), removing campus gun restrictions and encouraging them to carry. He said, “If more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed them” (sic). He concluded by saying, “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.” Really? I just can't find that in the Bible. And I've heard all the arguments. Instead, we Christians exist not to "end those Muslims" but to save them. That does mean love. That may mean martyrdom. Yes, I want strong military and law-enforcement to do their biblical job to "bear the sword [not] in vain." Yes, I love the Constitution and I believe in the right to bear arms (I got a conceal/carry permit before hiking for a month with my son in the rockies in case we were attacked by a bear or cougar or something). But in order to "teach them a lesson"? Hmmm. Sometimes "conservative" needs to take a back seat to "Christian." On the other end of the ideological spectrum, radical liberals like Father Michael Pfleger, Jeremiah Wright, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and many more lesser-known leaders are ubiquitous, who go to great lengths to proliferate a victimization culture, while ignoring or shifting the blame for wrongs like absentee fatherhood, sexual immorality (including that of some of them!), runaway abortion rates, substance abuse, laziness, and lawlessness of many kinds. No matter how hard they may try, the Bible does not support their message. Instead, the Bible teaches personal responsibility.

5. When political correctness affects the way we interpret Scripture. Once again examples abound. It seems many politicians use Scripture to support their agendas (rather than letting their agendas be informed by Scripture). Bill Clinton regarding Prov. 29:18 "Where there is no vision, the people perish" (KJV). Not only did he conveniently use an antiquated and inaccurate translation, it's wrongly interpreted to mean a "political vision for a country." Instead, it literally means, "Where there is no prophetic revelation, the people cast off restraint." Quite different. Essentially, "Where there is no Bible, the people are unrestrained and do wrongly." George W. Bush reportedly used a reference about Gog and Magog to convince the president of France to support the war in Iraq. Wrong circumstances and context all together. I'm not sure I know exactly what Gog & Magog are, but I know it's not Iraq or Arabs or Muslims in this era before Christ's return. Not even close. Or what about Barak Obama's frequent use of Genesis 4:9, "Am I my brother's keeper?" to suggest that we should raise more taxes for government entitlement programs. Not necessarily! And that's not what Cain was opposing when God asked him the whereabouts of his (dead) brother.
While it's perhaps understandable that politicians would misrepresent the Bible, it's not understandable—or acceptable—for pastors! We simply can't do this. Paul wrote young pastor Timothy: "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15). I've witnessed too many preachers who have twisted their Bibles to say things to fit a popular or political narrative.

Let's not lose our heads unnecessarily. Let us faithfully execute our office as if it is the most important office in the world. I believe that's exactly what it is. There are times to speak out where the Bible speaks. There are times to keep our opinions to ourselves where it doesn't. That way, our credibility only grows, because it is bound to God's. When we do speak we will speak with the authority of God. And if our heads end up on platters, it will not be in vain, it will be for the glory of God.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Parenting Leaders

My kids and my godly and active 98-year-old grandmother. She still
plays the organ for her church. Talk about a woman who has made a
 difference! I am so thankful for her example and faithfulness to God.
I want to do everything I can to grow a strong family. This is my number one responsibility. If you're in a family, it's yours too. As a believer, I live to bring glory to God by making disciples. If I don't do that at home, what does this mean? I don't want to waste my life and I want my family to make a difference. Darla and I are raising our kids to be world-changers in their own ways, however God wants them to do that. Parenting is a huge challenge and we're not out of the woods yet! I recently told a friend that one probably shouldn't write a book about parenting until one's own kids are adults in order to be able to prove the strategy works. Ultimately, as with all other things, "it is God who works in us..." (Phil. 2:13), so we can't take any credit at all. It is with prayer and fear that I write (and preach) this! God please have mercy and provide grace to lead my family to walk in your ways.

We're currently walking through the gospel of Luke as a church. Of course, Jesus is the subject; and Luke's perspective on him is unique. Among other reasons, he's the only gentile Bible writer. He's also a keenly observant doctor, and a great story teller to boot.
Luke chapter 2 gives us the only inspired look at Jesus' childhood. That's it! Yeah, there are some apocryphal legends written much later…but none are reliable. And yeah, we can make some assumptions (some do)…but it’s conjecture. Here's everything we know about Jesus' childhood:

Luke 2:41-52 (ESV)
41Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. 42And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. 43And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, 44but supposing him to be in the group they went a day's journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, 45and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him. 46After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48And when his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” 49And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?” 50And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. 51And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart.
52And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.

This passage isn’t so much overlooked, as it is missed in it’s intent. So many times growing up, I heard this story in Sunday school, along with the aid of felt boards and coloring pages. The focus was usually on the point that someone made a mistake. Must have been Mary and Joseph 'cause Jesus didn’t sin. Well, that’s not what it’s about. 

The PRIMARY reason the Holy Spirit inspired Luke to record was to show that Jesus–from age 12–understood who he actually was: the unique, begotten, Son of God. To claim to be God’s Son is to claim to be God. Throughout Jesus' life on earth he insisted he was the Son of God. The Jews understood that this meant Jesus was equating himself with God: "He was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God" (Jn 5:17-18).  This often made the Jews try to kill him, and that’s ultimately why they did. Luke records this in chapter 22 (NASB): 

66the Council of elders of the people assembled…saying, 67“If You are the Christ, tell us.” But He said to them, “If I tell you, you will not believe; & they all said, “Are You the Son of God, then?” & He said to them, “Yes, I am.” 71Then they said, “What further need do we have of testimony? For we have heard it ourselves from His own mouth.”

That's the main thing Luke wanted us to know. Jesus claimed to be God. Because he was. He knew it from at least age 12. When he told Mary that she should've known he'd be in HIS Father's house, he wasn't using a metaphor, as in "God the Father of us all." He used a first-person singular possessive pronoun. "MY Father's house" (emphasis mine). "God really is my very Father and I am his literal Son."

There is a SECONDARY reason we have this story: 
The Temple is significant to God. This is a big deal and it is something that we don’t “get” today. Jesus was drawn to the temple, because the temple was, is (during Jesus' day), and will be important in God’s plan. When Jesus was left behind in Jerusalem, he went to the most logical place—God’s house—the central place of Jerusalem and the very reason they journeyed there for the Passover in the first place. Even more the temple was the center of earth for activity related to God. If one wanted to worship, seek, learn about or interact with God, this was the place to be. The temple pointed forward to Christ, it was the center of much of his ministry activity, and it's where he will return one day. There's more that I mentioned in the sermon and you can hear it here if you want. We will see more of the temple's role as we continue in Luke.

There is a TERTIARY (a third priority) reason I believe God revealed this story, and it happens to be the point that many feel is the most practical–and that's why I'm posting about it. It's what got the most discussion after the services. Several people asked for me to make it available. Here it is.

The home is key in the formation of a leader. We get a very honest snapshot of the family in which Jesus grew up. There are seven observations I made from Jesus’ family that I want to incorporate in my own family, and I encourage you to do so too. 

1. Devotion. Jesus was a part of a devout family that didn’t miss the passover and other customs of the faith. They made worship & religious observance a priority.
• Is your family marked by spiritual devotion? Is this your priority/identity? 

2. Community. Jesus’ family was well connected in their community of family, friends, and neighbors. All of this was faith-centric. So much so that Mary and Joseph assumed Jesus was in the band of them traveling together back to Nazareth. 
Are you committed to building deep friendships and relationships with people who are positive influences? Where do you go for that? This doesn’t just happen. Relationships must be pursued. This is hard for Americans—we must see the importance of community and take initiative. Small groups, MANday Night, Engage, and many more opportunities exist at Providence.

3. Trust. There was apparently a lot of trust and freedom. Jesus was probably always in the right place and they didn’t become alarmed until a day after leaving Jerusalem. Now, all ended up ok, no one was at fault. If anyone, the parents should have made sure to check on him! He did the right thing by going to the one place they should known he’d be. Observation: they had a trust in him that resulted in freedom. 
• Trust begets freedom which begets more trust… This goes both ways. Kids, show yourselves honest and trustworthy, and parents will give more freedom. Parents, trust but verify and reward with freedom. Your job is to make disciples of your kids, unleashing them into the world to make a difference. That means parenting is in many ways the act of releasing. Catch them doing good. Sometimes let them fail. Point it out in love. Give them the privilege of consequences. Praise like crazy when they show character, honesty, trustworthiness. We brag & nag way too much about performance, not character!

4. Understanding Scripture. He was amazingly well-versed spiritually and engaging even as a pre-teen. No doubt his home was Bible-CENTERED. This is something a kid must have a hunger for themselves. And you can kindle the fire.
• Demonstrate a sincere love for the Bible. 
-Let them see you read it. -Let them hear you quote it -Let them see you live it out.
-When they’re young, read it to them. Discuss its meaning. (Jesus Storybook Bible)
-When they’re older take them to get their OWN Bible. (We spend hundreds on phones/games/clothes, let’s spend dozens on the greatest book..that changes lives.) 
-Encourage time alone with God. But NEVER force-feed or make this negative. 
-Don’t let someone else be the primary source for their Bible training. If they go to private school, let them teach you—you learn with them!
-Always talk about having a biblical worldview. And demonstrate having it. 

5. Learn from Mistakes. His parents didn’t communicate or check on him as they should have. They panicked, worried, and fretted as most parents do. They seem to shift the blame on him a bit. But Mary obviously “got it” later. She told Luke about it. She treasured it!
You’re going to make mistakes. Utilize them! Don’t over-react or think you’ve doomed your kids. God has grace! He used imperfect parents to sharpen his Son, he will use you. Get over your mistakes and laugh about them later!

6. Obedience. After this episode, Jesus was submissive to his earthly parents. And his parents (Mary at least) told Luke about his full and complete obedience, in spite of the fact that he was God's son (read: "God in the flesh"). Imagine parenting THAT kid! 
Like Jesus, submit to your parents! Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. " Honor your father and mother" (this is the first commandment with a promise), "that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land" (Eph 6:1–2). Until you’re independent, you’re under God’s command to submit. Unless they ask you to do something that God has forbidden, you only need to obey. You never get too old for this principle. The kind of submission may change, but you are always their child. Honor them! There are exceptions, but in virtually all cases, no one loves you more! This principle of obedience to parents has been ignored by our culture. 
Parents, it is important for you to be strong early. Kids need parents! You’ll have opportunities to be friends later (and much more so if your kids learn obedience).

7. Continued growth. You never finish growing. You never arrive. You can always be a better parent, just as you can be a better person. Your family isn't static. It's either getting healthier or growing toward dysfunction. Your kids aren't stuck in place, they're growing closer to Christ or running from him. 
• Never stop learning! Never quit. Never take a break. Always make things better. Always ask God to help you do your best. He will. Even the bad times will be used for his glory and your good.

The home is totally under attack in so many ways big and small. Fight for it. This is where leaders are made. Once again, there are no accidents with God. He wanted his Son raised in a spiritually-devout, community-connected, trust-based, Bible-centered-and-literate, authority-honoring, continually challenging/improving family, preferably with a mom & a dad. He went to great lengths to make this happen. Mary & Joseph were normal people who had challenges but had to make it work. You are too. You can too. Don’t buy the world’s lies about today’s new definition of family. In Jesus’ home there were important supports for spiritual growth. These are things that you can have in your home. This is how leaders are formed. This is how world-changers are forged.

Hear the whole message here from January 3, 2016 entitled, The Truth of Jesus' Childhood.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Laurel-Snow Falls and Friends

Went on a little hike today with some of our favorite folks. The Zelem family is in the same season-of-life that we are, and with all the kids still home for the holidays, we finally got to get together to go do something fun.
This is EZ (my affectionate nickname for Evan Zelem) making rock climbing
look easy (pun intended) as he does most everything it seems.
We met to eat at a restaurant in Dayton, TN, and drove the short trip to Laurel-Snow Falls Pocket Wilderness.

Darla and I have done this hike before. It was a couple of summers ago. It began nice; families swimming in the creek, the path was wide, the sky was blue. We started in shorts and Chacos. Then the wind blew and the sky quickly grew black with clouds. Thunder. Pouring rain. Darla was all about trudging through, so we did. And what a reward! The falls are just awesome. We returned covered in mud and soaked to the bone.

Today's hike was different. Beautiful weather, albeit a little on the nippy side. We followed the trail to Laurel Falls which is rocky and muddy in places. It's an interesting hike with big rock formations, caves, and the remains of a coal mine and coke production from over a century ago. This has left "coked" coal cinders and pig iron remains lying around. There are also some great old stone walls and pylons. It seems there was a old water reservoir here and the old pipe remains prove it. There's even an old coke oven or mine entrance that you can walk in and see for yourself. All this historical stuff is great. Combined with the larger-than-your-house-sized boulders that are ubiquitous on this trail makes you feel at times you feel like you're in a scene in a Lord of the Rings movie. There's lots to see and do, and the first mile or so of the hike is very easy.

On down you must either cross a ravine with the creek (difficult on this day because of the amount of water) or take the mangled foot bridge that has been hit by a falling tree (probably not safe to cross, but we did anyway!).

After the bridge, the trail gets a little hard to follow. You can wind around all kinds of obstacles and there really aren't good trail markings. But with our faithful Beagle and trusty Labrador (actually, they were useless. It was Darla who kept us going in the right direction!) we were able to navigate through holes, up hills, and over boulders to stay on the trail.

Truly, this is a hike you should give yourself more time to enjoy. Our kids were constantly tempted to explore caves, streams, rocks, and spur trails. Everywhere you look there are opportunities for discovery. I only wish we would have had more daylight for exploring more–especially the higher overviews that we didn't have time for.

You know, every trail has this effect on me, but this one especially does: I can't help but ponder God's creative genius. From the many different types of features and formations to the plant variety to the way human activity (destruction? progress?) once abandoned is so quickly absorbed and even turned into something more beautiful! It's pretty amazing, really.

Then...the reward! And picture time!

 This waterfall is pretty impressive. Of course pictures never do things justice, but you can see Drew in the red on the left at the base of the cliff (little red speck about 1/3 up from the bottom of the picture) to get a feel for how huge it really is. What's not visible is the cascade that continues on down the stream bed. I bet it is pretty awesome after a week of sub-freezing weather. Note to self: come back later this winter.

Here's the compulsory family picture! I've got to say, I love these folks! Of course my family, but I'm speaking of the Zelems. This is a family that is humbly committed to Christ. For me they are the kind of people that remind me that there really are those who will do the right thing no matter what trials or setbacks come. I can't say enough good about them. I only wish we could spend more time together.

After the hike we were hungry again! The little place we went for lunch was good, but it wasn't filling. It's time for Cracker Barrel! That's a regular post-adventure place for the Sparks clan to eat, and all seemed to like the idea (after some discussion about going to Waffle House waned). Yes, Cracker Barrel had the huge fireplace blazing, and we got the big table right in front of it! Perfect!

Feeding Birds

I really only have one person for whom to buy Christmas gifts. She basically takes care of the gift-buying for all others (with my occasional input, of course). I have to badger her to find out what she wants for Christmas, because for the first couple of months I begin badgering, she says, "I don't want you to get anything." Yeah, right. Truth is I WANT to get her gifts, and I really want her to be happy–maybe even surprised! This is a great challenge for me. If it were just one main gift, that would be hard enough. But of course I need to get a card, and there's all the little stocking stuff (that's the hardest of all for me)! And I also need to find little fun less expensive gifts.

This Christmas, I did pretty well and I feel really good about myself! In the "little fun less expensive gifts" category, I got a couple of vintage-looking, mason-jar-like bird feeders (and a bag of birdseed) to hang on our hummingbird feeder hooks.

Darla loves watching and feeding the hummingbirds, but they're only around during the warm months. I thought she'd also get a kick out of watching different kinds of birds in the winter. I even got her a Backyard Birding magazine! The gift was a hit! My immediate worry, however, was: will any birds come use the feeders? Turns out, they LOVE it. I am watching them have a feeding frenzy right now as I type. I'm also enjoying learning about what all these little guys are. Here are the ones that have been on the feeders just the last 30 minutes this morning:

• Carolina Chickadee (shown here)

• Red House Finch (shown here)

• Tufted Titmouse (shown above on the deck rail, and below on the feeder)

• Carolina Wren

• Red-bellied Woodpecker

• Northern Cardinal

• House Sparrow

Until just now (when I looked them up) I didn't know the first four of those seven species existed! Birds (of the non-huntable variety) have never been an interest of mine. I guess now I'm officially an old geezer. Truth is, we should never stop discovering and learning more about God's creation. It gives us more motivation and opportunity to praise him and be in awe of his wisdom.

Of course these pictures are not very good.

I'll try to add some better ones later.

Today I was able to identify some new birds:

• Pine Warbler (a yellowish bird that is now a dominant fixture at the feeders, picture below)

• A grey bird with a white underside and a black mohawk (I think it is a White-breasted Nuthatch).

• Dark-eyed Junco (a little round dark grey bird with a white underside)

I didn't have a clue about any of those last three until looking them up. Ok, I'll admit it. I'm officially an old man now. I kinda like bird-watching.

Update (1/6/2016):
I was inside studying today while lots of bird activity was going on at the feeders. Suddenly out of the corner of my eye I saw a shadow and heard a loud thump outside. I got up thinking one of the birds had hit the window. But on the deck with a Pine Warbler in his talons was a Broad-winged hawk! I grabbed my phone and snapped this picture before he flew off with his prize into the woods for a mid-day snack.

I've got to say, it was pretty cool to watch. Yeah, there was a little regret deep down that we had created a cafeteria that provided easy-picking for the hawk, but that's nature. Hey, hawks need to eat too!

Update (1-9-2016)
Just saw a Downey Woodpecker on the feeder.

Update (1-20-2016)
We had a couple of Rufous-sided Towhees and a big Dove visit the feeder today and stay a while. The Dove stubbornly gorged out on seeds ignoring all the attempts of the other birds to spook him away.

Here's a picture:

You can see a female Cardinal and a House Sparrow waiting in line for the hungry dove to finish. As you can see, today we have snow, which has only made the feeders more popular.

That's fourteen different species of birds (most of them new to me) that have come to the feeders in less than a month. That's pretty cool. Watching them reveals to me God's creativity on display in the beauty, diversity, and harmony of these different species.

Friday, January 1, 2016

New Year's Eve...parting thoughts

New Year's Eve is a holiday that's puzzling for me. Don't get me wrong, we had a great time tonight—as we usually do—but after the proverbial ball was dropped and everyone started heading to bed, I was left pondering.

Banjo's BBQ in Spring City. It's in a 1950s
bank or office building. This little place
was PACKED with folks!
Our night was really fun. We were invited to Banjo's BBQ in Spring City to hear some live music and eat BBQ cooked by David, the owner. Great guy, great place, fun times. I was chuckling to myself the whole time because virtually the whole crowd consisted of baby-boomers listening to baby-boomer music (Beach Boys, Jimmy Buffet, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, stuff like that), and being, well, baby-boomers. So funny (at least to me—a buster who grew up in the shadow of the generation that sucked all the air out of every room before our arrival)! I would probably offend some people if I gave specific examples of what I mean. But everyone was very nice and made us (Darla, Drew, Dara, and I) "a part of the family." The BBQ everything (turkey, chicken, ham, butt, ribs, and more by Dave) and trimmings (brought by the attenders) was fabulous!

We left Banjo's around 8:30 and headed back to Knoxvegas where we were invited (along with the rest of our elders & families) to the home of one of our elders over for a New Year's Eve gathering. Good times. This really was like being with family. We came in fashionably late. The wives and daughters were all in the living room, the sons were all eating in the dining room, and the dads were all outside around the fire ring. So appropriately segregated! Of course, after greeting everyone, I went outside to hang with the guys. We talked about politics, business, cutting wood, and told stories of when we were younger. SO quintessential—all of it! And so great. I really did relax and enjoy our time together.

We stayed until about 11:30 and came home. We turned on the TV to watch the obligatory ball drop. But first, we were summarily treated by the network we were watching to a parade of cultural rot, beginning with a long commercial celebrating how far we've come as a country togetherby making gay marriage legal, by protesting various police wrong-doing, by showing symbolic sympathy to Paris terror victims without becoming judgmental towards Muslims, etc.—all pictures given to us while hearing a man's voice making a speech. The voice turned out to be that of Bruce Kaitlyn Jenner, whose videoed image was revealed at the climatic end of the ad, showing that he/she had been the one speaking all along. Applause. Next was an advertisement for a sitcom glorifying more degradation. Next (or so) a mock "public service announcement" urging people who may have had one too drink one more. Then the ball drops. Auld Lang Syne. Followed by Ray Charles' rendition of America the Beautiful. Then a rock band singing about more depravation. And I'm caught in a contemplative whirlpool.

I know, call me an old fogey. I'd like to think that I'm one who wants people to really experience joy and happiness to the fullest! To engage in and/or celebrate what God calls sin is joy-robbing self-destruction. God will be glorified. According to the Bible, we can share in his glory or bring him glory as he makes examples of us (like Pharaoh and many once-enviable-now-pitiable others).

Yes, it has been quite a year. We've got a presidential race heating up and a nation in a mess. We're watching our culture change at a stunning pace. What will 2016 bring? God knows. And God actually controls it. That's why we must pray.

So, before going off to bed myself, I prayed for the new year.
  • That God will have mercy on us and give us revival. That he will overcome evil with good.
  • That he will cause Christians to be uncompromisingly distinct and loving (rather than hypocritical, judgmental, and entitled).
  • That he will bless Providence Church by helping us pay our facility debt this year so that we can do ministry and missions like never before and that he will raise up leaders at Providence.
  • That he will help me to crave him more, spend more time in private prayer and communion with him, be a more effective disciple-maker and teacher of his word, and be a better husband and dad.
God, I ask that you do all this in 2016.