|Pretzels and Prayers
|Thursday, June 27, 2019|
At Ben’s Pretzels, they mix flour, water, and salt—and make magic.
At Ben’s Pretzels, they thank you for stopping by calling out, “Have a pretzel day!”
At Ben’s Pretzels, you hear Christian music playing over the speakers and read Bible verses on the walls.
No visit to Shipshewana, Indiana would possibly be complete without a pretzel at Ben’s. As I’m blessed with a wife who agrees, we recently sat down to a steamy hot twist slathered in butter and bursting with bits of crunchy crystal salt.
Munching while marveling at this delectable (but hardly diet-worthy) treat, my eye caught sight of an antique stove. To be precise, it was a “Direct Action Lorain Oven Heat Regulator”—circa 1920s. Resting on top of its built-in pie rack were half a dozen Ball jars and two Bibles.
Nestled directly on top of its modest stovetop surface, I saw a boxy looking basket, along with some Post-it notes and pens. A sign next to them read, “Need prayer? Write it down and put it in the box. God bless!”
Know what? Quite a few people had written down prayer requests and put them in that basket.
Got me to thinking. What if Christian-owned businesses everywhere started doing that? What if Christian doctors had such a basket at the counter where you sign in for your appointment? What if Christian lawyers welcomed prayer requests in a basket in their front offices?
Observe that with such a basket, nobody is preaching a sermon. Not even a sentence. Just offering to pray.
I get that certain businesses face restrictions. I understand that for lots of reasons, lots of places couldn’t offer a prayer basket. But some could. Many could! So why not today?
And if you don’t happen to own a business, why not offer to pray for someone you know is hurting? We can—and should—pray for and with our unsaved friends.
Again—why not today?
|This Had Better Be About the Bible
|Thursday, June 20, 2019|
When I first began preaching, I ran every sermon outline by my friend and mentor, Mike Kellogg of Moody Radio. Peering over his glasses, he matched his steely stare with a deep-throated warning I’ve never forgotten: “This had better be about the Bible.”
Throughout my ordination process, that same truth chiseled itself into my soul. In truth, I still think about it every time I’m crafting a sermon outline. It is the yardstick I use to measure my own sermons—and those of others.
A few weeks ago we traveled to Florida, our flight taking place during Sunday morning church hours. Later that day, my wife and I decided we’d watch a sermon on the iPad. I selected a pastor whose book was released by the largest Christian publisher in America.
We listened carefully, expecting solid Bible content. But we heard precious little. There were many stories and many good points and lots of good truths to ponder. But most of the sermon could honestly have been transcribed and handed off for delivery by a secular self-help speaker.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love stories. At heart, I am little more than a story teller. And stories are great. Jesus told tons of them. Yet when it comes to a Sunday morning message, I am keenly aware that my stories must never overshadow the Bible text, but instead, reinforce it or illustrate it.
As a minister of the gospel, I am standing as God’s representative, opening God’s Word to God’s people. This ought to put a holy fear into the hearts of those of us who would presume to preach.
Wondering if perhaps I was being a bit harsh on the iPad preacher, or if our initial impressions were wrong, I went back and watched that same sermon again—this time with a careful eye on the clock.
The sermon itself was 35:06 in length. I ran a stopwatch app, noting every single instance the preacher either read from the Bible, referenced a passage, or tried to explain the passage. The most generous of measurements shows a maximum of 6:25 of actual Bible content. Meaning just 19% of the message quoted or explained Scripture.
In a day when 69% of churchgoers believe that everyone will go to heaven…In a day when 56% of churchgoers don’t believe that sharing their faith is an essential obligation of their Christian life...how can a sermon with 19% biblical content be okay?
This Sunday, your church will feature a sermon. It had better be about the Bible
|Jack Takes on the ACLU
|Thursday, June 13, 2019|
“I seen ‘em way before I got to the intersection,” recalled my friend, Jack. “They were on the sidewalk just outside a Starbucks in downtown Chicago, waving iPads as they gestured.” I knew a story was brewing with Jack. There always is.
“Who were they?” I asked, taking Jack’s bait.
“At first, I wasn’t sure. Since I go that way a lot, I figured it was probably an environmental group like Sierra. You see them a lot. Young folks hungry for conversations and contributions—mostly the latter,” Jack chuckled.
“So if it wasn’t Sierra, who was it?”
“The ACLU. That’s who. Advocating to keep abortion legal.”
“So did you engage them or avoid them?”
“Actually, I wanted to yell at ‘em. But that’s already been done—and with little impact. Besides, it didn’t seem consistent with the What would Jesus do? bracelet I still wear.
“Okay, so you didn’t yell, Jack. But what did you say?”
“For a long time, I just listened to the guy who’d cornered me. I wanted him to get the sense that I cared about him as a human—-that I respected him. Everything in me wanted to argue. But honestly, I believe the Holy Spirit was reigning me in.”
“Then came a pause in the conversation, and he asked me what I thought. I told him I had heard his perspective but was troubled by the medical reality that an unborn child has a beating heart and fingers and fingerprints very early on. To abort such a little one seemed cruel.”
“He made it clear he was comfortable with the idea of taking the life of an unborn kid. It became obvious we were worlds apart in our thinking, and I knew things were drawing to a close when he stopped showing me stuff on his iPad.”
“So how did it end, Jack?”
“The conversation just naturally came to a close. But here’s the thing”—Jack stuck his finger in my face. “Nobody yelled. In fact, I even complimented the guy. Then we shook hands.”
“Very cool, Jack.”
Very cool, indeed. In a culture that is as polarized as it is poisoned with vitriol, a follower of Jesus had a respectful conversation instead of a shouting match. That sounds quite a bit like something Jesus would do. Way to go, Jack!
|Her Name is Agnes.
|Thursday, June 06, 2019|
Her name is Agnes.
She misses her mother.
The shards of her broken life frame a story that redfines tragedy. I listened to bits and pieces as we sat in her third floor apartment outside of Chicago—a long way from her childhood home in Budapest, Hungary. At the age of eleven, she awoke to the sound of a gunshot in her front yard, announcing the arrival of German storm troopers. Black booted soldiers forced their way through the front door—in search of Agnes’ mother.
One week previously, the Nazis hauled away her father in a similar early morning assault after which he was forced into a large truck transport heading for a death camp. Ironically, the Nazis needed a Hungarian who spoke German to assist them with navigation. Agnes’ father was fluent, so he volunteered. Upon arrival, the Germans—perhaps as a thank you gesture—released him and he eventually made it back to Budapest.
November 20, 1944. Agnes recalls that her mother was “herded away at gunpoint, bundled up in her Persian lamb coat with a backpack containing mere necessities. She tried to put on a brave face as she kissed me goodbye.”
Agnes never saw her mother again. Not that she didn’t try. “For years, I walked up and down streets looking for her.” Nor was this to be Agnes’ only loss at the hands of the Nazis (her mother died of “natural causes” in a concentration camp.
On a cold winter night, they took her aunt and uncle. “Along with many others, they were taken to the shore of the icy Danube river where they were shot and left to die in the frigid water.”
Only later did she discover that their deaths at the banks of the river were as likely to be the result of drowning as gun fire. “As ammunition dwindled, the Nazis improvised by wiring several people together before firing one shot…killing as many as ten people with one shot. They had become masters at exterminating Jews.”
Peering into a black and white photo on the wall of her apartment, my eyes locked briefly with this couple whose lives were snuffed out. I try but cannot process any of this emotionally.
Proudly—and still with a smile—Agnes shows me a photo of her mother and father. The smiling little kid—the one without a care in the world—is Agnes. She lost that world nearly 75 years ago.
How could it be that 75 years later one man—Hitler—is still causing so much pain to people like this lady?
Her name is Agnes.
She misses her mother.
|When We Fail to Achieve Our Dreams
|Thursday, May 30, 2019|
It is earth’s highest mountain above sea level.
It is also the the most coveted prize in mountain climbing.
At 29,029 feet, Mount Everest pierces high enough into the sky to be on a level with commercial jetliners. Since Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzig Norrgay made the first successful climb in 1953, nearly 4000 others have made the attempt and about 200 have died in the process.
This season alone, after forking out $25,000 for a climbing permit, at least 11 climbers have died. Among them is Christopher Kulish, a 62-year-old attorney from Boulder, Colorado.
Ironically, Mr. Kulish did not die in his attempt to reach the iconic summit. He successfully climbed to the top (nearly 5.5. Miles up), having finally achieved his dream of climbing the tallest mountains on all seven continents. According to early reports, he died at a camp somewhere below the summit—exact details unknown.
Without in any way wishing to trivialize the death of Attorney Kulish, I see in his tragedy a cautionary spiritual tale. We followers of Christ often set high goals for ourselves, or envision ourselves ministering in grand ways in grand places and spaces. Some of that bravado springs from good and noble motives. Some of it is of the flesh.
When we fail to achieve our dreams, we often ball ourselves up in a tangle of hurt and humiliation. I'm reminded of a conversation God had in the Old Testament with a character named Baruch. Through the prophet, Jeremiah, God said:
Some times we wonder why God hasn’t allowed this or that specific ministry dream to materialize. Could it be that having achieved “the summit” God knows we would collapse on the way down? After all, every mountain top experience has its downside. Or maybe, having achieved the goal, we would somehow pronounce our work for God “finished”—and lose our spiritual fervor.
I do not say we should not set goals or attempt great things for God. I'm simply reminding myself (and perhaps you, as well) that my ultimate goal must be nothing less and nothing other than the glory of God alone.
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