Christmas Lights before Turkey?

Thanksgiving offers well needed time to spend on “home” work instead of “work” work; a few extra days to pull out Christmas decorations and dust off the cobwebs. Most don’t take kindly to Christmas lights until the turkey is gone, the pie plates are empty and the balloons have floated down the streets of New York. I am one of those people, yet when the business side of my brain slowly faded into slumber, the creative side took a deep breath, exhaling fresh ideas for the upcoming season.

A solitary live oak tree stands majestically in our field, towering to the sky, its massive branches stretching out, casting its cooling shade, as it has for hundreds of years. On one side, the branches part in angular fashion, providing the perfect frame for a Christmas Nativity scene. Pieced together barn wood and a few lights create silhouettes of Joseph, Mary and the manger.

Envisioning the scene and pondering additions led me to the realization that field grass and weeds had overgrown the area. As the lawnmower trimmed the area to a reasonable height, it struck me that I was literally “preparing the way for the Lord” and “ making room for the Christ child”. I felt a little jab in the ribs by God’s sense of humor, as there was more here than simply leveling the ground as to not interfere with the lighting. The parallels began to settle in as a sobering reminder of places in my heart that have remained untended, weeds taking root due to sheer apathy, or pulling one weed at a time as two more sprout behind me.

In the midst of this lesson, a song came to mind, written by Michael Peterson and recorded by John Berry in 2000, called “My Heart is Bethlehem. The premise is to make room for Jesus in my heart, a humble dwelling made worthy only by His grace.

In that tiny town, some two thousand years ago, there was no room at the inn, no “proper” place for a child to be born. God chose instead, to enter this world as a child, in the lowliest of places, a dark and dirty stable, surrounded by animals. Yet His presence made the place so revered that shepherds and wise men traveled to see this King of kings.

Admittedly, there are corners of my soul as dark and dirty as that stable.

“If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.” Psalm 139:11-12 – NIV

Not only does God see what we try to hide in the darkness, he makes the dark places bright as day, so that we are not overtaken by the shadows of sin. Jesus entered this world in a dark and dirty space, certainly nothing worthy of a king. In the same way, He is willing to come into our hearts, even in the dustiest of corners and light up the entire space. I need to spend more time cutting the grass and pulling weeds to make a place for Him.

Christmas decorations celebrating the coming of Jesus, displayed before Thanksgiving? What greater thing is there to be grateful for?

Thankful for the Christ in Christmas
And Blessed in Great Measure

If you are making room for Jesus, let me know. I love a good story.
Email me at John@BlessedInGreatMeasure.com.
I will send you a notification when I publish a new heart story.

I Looked in the Pages

Lyrics to a song by Steven Curtis Chapman come to mind.

“These are the places I was sure I’d find Him I looked in the pages and I looked down on my knees.” Sometimes He comes in the Clouds – Steven Curtis Chapman

I was preparing music for Sunday worship. The readings were about prayer and being attentive in prayer. I recently heard wise words about recognizing “heavenly interruptions” and read about the need to take time, not only to pray but also to listen.

He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” Psalm 46:10 NIV

Song selection took some heavenly nudges to pluck my heartstrings, but it finally came into focus. Then came the question of a special selection. Something that would fit the sermon or just something that God needed to be said. Then, news that a family friend earned her angel wings, so the planning for her life celebration service began (I prefer not to call them funerals). More songs to prepare, but still not settled on the song for Sunday.

I looked through the pages and I looked down on my knees. I pulled out one of my songs from 2008 called “Million Promises” and the lyrics hit me as they did 10+ years ago.

“You said that we should approach the throne in confidence
but my eyes so full of tears I just can’t see”

Life has been coming at me hard lately, so that rang true.

“All I know to do is put my trust in You   Open up my heart and just believe.”

Yep.

“I’d trade a million promises,  for one that I can keep
‘cause when it comes to sacrifice, my will is much too weak
When what I was has come and gone, and I’m left with what I am
Just a heart, a soul, one spirit Lord, is entrusted in Your hands.”

Ten years ago, all I knew to do was trust. Ten years later, it is still all I know. In that span, I am still weak; I have gained a few more worry lines, a few pounds and a gray hair or two (or more). I hope that I have gained a bit more wisdom, a bit more patience, and a lot more grace.

I am still trusting, still looking through the pages and still looking down on my knees.
And always Blessed in Great Measure

If you are at our church this Sunday, you probably will hear “Million Promises” (unless the Spirit moves me elsewhere).

If not, you can listen to it or some of my other musical offerings here: Million Promises

Listen to “Sometimes He Comes in the Clouds” by Steven Curtis Chapman here:

 

Prodigal Redefined

running2In Luke 15, Jesus tells the story of a son who asked his father for his inheritance. With his request granted he set off with pockets full. When the son had spent every dime on wild living, he became hungry. He even longed for the food that he fed to the pigs. His father’s servants have enough food to eat, so he would return home, humble himself before his father and ask simply to be a servant. This parable is known as “The Prodigal Son” and in some texts “The Lost Son”.

I identify with this son way too well. How many times have I ventured out on my own with pockets full of grace, only to end up broke(n) and hungry? All my treasures spent on raucous living, metaphorically aligning myself with people who would trade their integrity for a quick buck. I end up longing for the food I feed to the pigs (too many analogies to mention here, but that’s a story for another day).

In the midst of one of many journeys back home, I wrote a song called “Prodigal Heart”.

A Prodigal Heart that struggles with prayer
Running back home and yet unaware
You’re calling me back from the dark
Though I had fallen so far
Lord, can You heal all the scars of my Prodigal Heart.

I had always though “prodigal” meant lost, or foolish, or repentant, as in Jesus’ parable, so a “lost heart”, a “foolish heart”, or a “repentant heart” made sense. Our pastor pointed out that “prodigal” really meant extravagantly wasteful, so a “wasteful heart” didn’t have as much impact. So I packed away the song in the black hole that is the “re-write pile”.

Recently preparing for worship, the biblical text for the upcoming Sunday was the parable of the prodigal son. There are so many great songs in my arsenal to choose from. The mid 1980’s, Benny Hester wrote a song called “When God Ran” about the father running to welcome home his lost son. In 1999, Phillips Craig and Dean did a fantastic cover of the same. In 2007, John Waller released a song about how amazing it was that God “Still Calls Me Son”. Then I remembered that I had written a “prodigal” song. I dug back through the archives and among the song ideas scribbled on scraps of paper and church bulletins, I re-found “Prodigal Heart” from 1999, then 2007, then 2010, then now.

After nearly 20 years of re-writings, the memories and pitfalls that formed the original song came rushing back. Some of them I have overcome, some still linger. I thought about a “wasteful heart”. Time and age revealed that the “wasteful” definition was even more poignant than the “lost heart”. In this season of preparation for Jesus’ death and resurrection, Hallelujah, we find that Jesus took on our sin and left it in the grave. But that does not give us a license to sin. Each time we stumble, it is another hammer strike on the nails through Jesus’ hands. When we turn away, we “waste” the Grace offered us. So the redefinition of “prodigal” is even more fitting.

The point of the story was not the “lost-ness” or “wastefulness” of the son, but upon the son’s return and humble apology, the father ran to meet him, gave him a robe and ring, and celebrated the return of his son who was dead, but now lives.

The parable tells us of God’s great love for us, how He sees us from afar, runs out to meet us and celebrates our return, when we come to our senses and turn back home. Amen.

Though I stumble, I pray not to be wasteful of God’s gift of Grace.
And to be Blessed in Great Measure

 

Listen to “When God Ran” by Benny Hester here
Listen to “When God Ran” by Phillips Craig and Dean here
Listen to “Still Calls Me Son” by John Waller here

Listen to “Prodigal Heart” coming soon to a website near you.

If you know similar songs or have a good story, let me know.

Keep the Change

coins-in-the-waterRecently our office staff went through a change. It happens. Change may seem inevitable, but not all change. As we age, our human eyes grow weak and hopefully our spiritual eyes grow stronger in faith and wisdom. For some of us, our hair changes. It either turns grey or turns loose. Our hearts change as seasons of emptiness and fulfillment run their courses. But what about our soul?

“In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” Matthew 3:1-3

“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Matthew 3:11

To repent is to show remorse or regret for something you have done, or have not done. Saying “My Bad” is just not good enough. To truly repent is to feel enough regret to change directions, never to go back again. A lofty goal which we will never fully achieve until we sit at Jesus’ feet.

Steven Curtis Chapman wrote a song called “The Change”. It talks about letters on a bracelet, bumper stickers and refrigerator magnets. “But if God really lives inside of me, I’m gonna live life differently.”
“What about a life that’s showing I’m undergoing the change.”

Not fully changed, but a work in progress. John baptized with water for repentance and forgiveness. The baptized rose out of the Jordan River refreshed and clean, but truly changed? Or just changed for now.

I had a friend who was excited about being baptized in his church, and rightfully so.  The day was coming up as soon as the church could schedule it. At lunch that day, I flicked water at him and said “Why wait?” He was pretty disgusted with me for making light of it. I did not intend to cheapen this event, but I believe that if you are ready to be washed clean and baptized inside, don’t wait for someone to work you into their schedule. Make the change now. The church ceremony is a simply a celebration of the change in you that has already happened. But it’s not just taking a dunk in the baptismal tank, (or just a sprinkle on the head), it’s about really changing and “keeping the change”.

Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, Acts 3:19

And while it seems that everything will change, there is One who never changes.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. James 1:17

Our heavenly Father loves us.
That does not change.

What should change is our hearts, to love others as He loves us.

And when that change happens,
“Keep the Change”

And be Blessed in Great Measure

 

Listen to Steven Curtis Chapman’s “music here.“The Change” or “The Change Live”

I Am They

I Am They

This band found their way through the virtual jukebox that is my computer, through my headphones into my heart.

The first track that struck me was “My Feet are on the Rock”(Listen Here). A high energy praise song with great harmonies and some banjo mixed in for a little bluegrass flavor. My music plays in the background of my daily life, so I rarely stop what I’m doing to find out more. But this was one of those songs.

Digging deeper, I found “Scars”(Listen Here). A beautiful song about being thankful for what we’ve been through because it brought us closer to God. Listen to the end when they change the chorus a bit to being thankful for what Jesus went through for us. A wonderful turn of a phrase.

Reading their bio revealed that each of the band members overcame mountains of addiction, failure and not being good enough, and laid them as stones to build an altar of praise to God. When they sing about hurt and being delivered from it, it rings true because they have lived it. Anthems of our own lives.

“I Am They” flows through the veins like “Casting Crowns” and “Mercy Me” but with their own unique flavor. I look forward to hearing more from this band. I recommend that you do the same.

Find out more at www.IAmTheyBand.com

Leave a comment if you are touched by their ministry.
I’m always up for a good story if you have one to tell.

Joseph’s Lullaby- A Child That Is Not My Own

Jo
Not much is known about Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, but I’ve always been drawn to songs written from his perspective. One of my favorites is “Joseph’s Lullaby” by Mercy Me.

I believe the glory of Heaven
Is lying in my arms tonight
Lord, I ask that He for just this moment
S
imply be my child

The song is about Joseph, holding baby Jesus in his arms. He felt grossly inadequate, wondering how he could possibly raise a child that is not his own, especially this blessed child, the Son of God.

When Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant, he was fully within the law of the time to publicly divorce her and even stone her. But “being a just man and not willing to make her a public example, he was minded to put her away privately.” Matthew 1:19

But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a Son, and thou shalt call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins” Matthew 1:20-21

So Joseph awoke and did as the angel instructed. A great leap of faith or the shock of seeing an angel, or a little of both.

I don’t know what it is like to care for a child that is not my own. There have been days when a car load of kids was entrusted to us on the way to a game, or band contest, or off to the local burger joint, but not to raise as our own. There are earthly angels that foster and adopt children that probably know a little more of what Joseph was going through.

I wondered what Joseph was feeling as he watched Jesus grow and become less of his little boy and more of what God had called him to be. As I pondered these thoughts, I got a glimpse into what it was like.

When our daughter first walked on to her college campus, she had a plan, play basketball, coach basketball, and teach kids how to love the game. Things started to change and she hung up her sneakers. She joined the choir and started taking music classes. She said that she found her love of music again. As she was struggling with the thought of changing her major, her campus pastor asked what it was that appealed to her about coaching and she said it was teaching something that she loved. Her pastor told her that maybe her training was leading her to coach in another capacity. Maybe that was music.

It is said that if you do something you love, you will never work a day in your life. So here she is, loving what she is doing, stepping out in faith, pursuing her passion.

Now we have seen her in bands and choirs, but not on stage by herself. This past week, we attended a semester recital. She stepped onto the stage, and we heard this stunning soprano voice. Then she picked up her clarinet and delivered a beautiful piece of music.

It was there that it hit me. This child that was my own, was only my own for a little while. She is quickly becoming her own. God has always put her in the right place at the right time and I can see His hand in everything that she does.

I imagine that was what Joseph was feeling.
Watch them grow, teach them all that you can and let God handle the rest.

Relying on faith
Excited to see what’s next
And Blessed in Great Measure

Born Sleeping

Sleeping Teddy Bear

Recently, a colleague and his wife suddenly lost their unborn child. We work in separate departments and I didn’t know them well enough to know they were pregnant. But whether it was empathy or sympathy, the loss hit me hard.

When Jesus went to Bethany because His dear friend Lazarus had died, the Gospel says that He “groaned in the spirit and was troubled” and “He wept.” John 11:33 and 11:35. Jesus was not weeping because Lazarus had “fallen asleep”. Jesus knew He would call Lazarus out of the grave that day. No, I believe He wept out of compassion because of the pain that the family was feeling.

I guess that’s where I was because I have never had to bear the loss of a child. I can’t begin to know what they are going through.

Feeling the need to send some words of comfort but finding none, I sent a link to a song by Selah called “I Will Carry You (Audrey’s Song)”, a beautiful song about a mother forever carrying a child that had earned its angel wings and how Jesus is carrying them both. I pray that Jesus can use it to help soothe aching hearts.

Looking for answers to the “whys”, some lyrics came to mind. Something like:
angel babies needed one more to play,
angel mommies needed one more to hold,
angel grandmas needed one more child to hear their stories told.
Trusting her to the One that really knows her
Jesus just needed to hold her closer.

As a song was forming, my heart was breaking so hard, I had to stop. As the day pressed on, more lyrics leaked out like teardrops. Then I got a call from my child. I was even more grateful for the blessing that she is.

Later, the angel baby’s parents posted her birth announcement. It said she was “born sleeping” and that she was loved, wanted, and missed.

What a beautiful thought.
Imagine sleeping in the arms of Jesus.

We grieve because we have to wait to hold the ones we love that have gone on ahead. But until then, Jesus will be holding them closely. And He is certainly holding this precious little one, until her parents see her again, skipping along and playing with the other angel babies.

The cloudy skies of this life do fade in the Light of Eternity.

Waiting to hold the ones we’ve loved and lost.
And Blessed in Great Measure

Quo Vadis – Where Are You Going?

A Latin phrase meaning “Where are you going?” Its modern usage is attributed to a passage from early Christian writings called “The Acts of Peter.” Upon the urging of his friends, Peter leaves Rome to avoid being captured and killed. As he was leaving, he saw a risen Jesus returning to Rome. Peter said, “Domine Quo Vadis” or “Where are you going, Lord?” Jesus replied that He was returning to Rome to be crucified again. When Peter realized that his life was being asked of him, he returned to Rome instead, joyous that he had been deemed worthy to be martyred.

In searching for the definition of this Latin phrase, one of the links asked. “What made you search for this?” Allow me to start at the caboose and work my way to the steam engine of this train of thought.

There is an episode of M*A*S*H, called “Quo Vadis Captain Chandler”, where a bombardier came to the hospital and believed he was Jesus Christ. The psychiatrist explained that something in this soldier had changed. He realized he was not a killer, he was Christ. The soldier said he didn’t know this Captain Chandler, but he hoped they could find him and help him. So much truth in that.

What brought this to mind, was a discussion that Dr. Freedman had with “Jesus”. The psychiatrist asked if God answers all prayers. Captain Chandler as “Jesus” said, with tears in his eyes, “Yes, but sometimes the answer is no”.

I was pondering why certain prayers seem to go unanswered in this age of instant gratification, fast food and movies on demand. I once heard that there are two answers to prayer: “Yes” and “No, but wait, I have a better idea.” Yet this morning, as I held an electronic wealth of information in the palm of my hand, a quote came through social media that changed my perspective.

“When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.” C.S. Lewis.

It’s not just “No and be patient”, it’s more like a loving look saying, “Be at peace, my child. You don’t understand what I am doing in your life right now.” A comforting thought when I am a bit disappointed that things have not happened on my terms.

As I considered the whispers floating around in my brain, another reinforcing hint came to mind. Many times, God has spoken to me through the talents of Steven Curtis Chapman and today was no different. His song “Higher Ways” is a sobering reminder that the ways of God are not like our own. It is based on a passage from Isaiah:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.  Isaiah 55:8

So I don’t always understand, and that’s okay . . . for now.

This train seems to be all over the track, so when does it finally pull into the station? Just as God is the Alpha and Omega, this journey ends where it began. “Quo Vadis”. Where am I going? Steven Curtis Chapman probably said it best:

“But until I’m with You I’ll be here with a heart that is true
And a soul that’s resting on      Your higher ways”

 Restless, but still resting on His higher ways.
And Blessed in Great Measure.

Different

We recently received great news on an upcoming project. The proposal took a herculean effort from our team. Many stepped way out of their comfort zone to make this happen. Win or lose, a job well done is a victory in itself. But of course, winning made it better. Yet in the midst of the excitement and pats on the back, I did not share the elation. Don’t get me wrong, the new project is a great thing. I just felt different about it.

One of my daughter’s basketball coaches would always say, “Don’t cheer for a layup, you are supposed to make layups.”

I guess that’s why the congratulations rang a bit hollow. I did my job and that’s what is expected of me. I wish I could as easily dismiss the negatives when I’m not as successful.

In the midst of my contemplation, I got a heavenly hint. A song by Micah Tyler called “Different” streams through my headphones. So powerful. I recommend giving it a serious listen.

Different. Yeah, different.

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is-his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Romans 12:2

Non conformity. Uniqueness. That’s what I strive for even though sometimes it’s easier to just fit in and fade away. So I’m different, and that’s good.

But then the song continues about being changed until the whole world sees the difference, then asking God to be the difference.

Gut check.

I can hear the difference in the corners of my mind or the recesses of my heart, but on the outside? Not so much. So there’s work to do.

As much as I’d like to think that I have no rough edges, that is just not the case. There are still lumps of clay waiting to be fashioned by the hands of the Master. I am thankful that God is still willing to mold me, even if it hurts sometimes.

So why not be giddy over such a victory in the workplace? Maybe my goals are set differently. Maybe I measure success with a different ruler. Different.

Trevor Lawrence, quarterback for Clemson University, said that football, no matter how big the situation, would not define him. He sees his identity in who Christ thinks he is and who he knows Christ says he is. That gives him confidence, no matter how well he plays.

Success and a different set of goals.
It can be done.

So here I am
Blessed with some success

And always Blessed in Great Measure.