Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Sacrifice Of Thanksgiving

Over the years, Jan and I have found ourselves serving the Lord in several unique locations.  One of those places was our assignment in the West Indies when our base of operation was out of Kingston, Jamaica.  Thanksgiving time in Jamaica did not have the crisp air and falling leaves like our home back in Oregon.  Jamaica had its own beauty at that time of year, but it was wrapped in the hot and humid climate of the Caribbean.  Even more oppressive was the reality that at the time of our arrival, the city of Kingston was filled with a heightened sense of violence. At that time Kingston, Jamaica had the highest murder rate of any city in the world. It was a very different holiday season for our family.

Our first Thanksgiving in this new land was coming soon.  I had to be in Florida for a ministry assignment and would be traveling back into Kingston just a day before Thanksgiving.  My wife, Jan, grew up as a missionary kid so she always knew how to always make things special in a new environment.

While in Miami with some spare time before my flight back to Kingston, I had an idea.  Because the tradition of Thanksgiving was uniquely American and because I had not seen any turkeys for sale on the island, I thought I would buy a frozen turkey and take it with me in my carry-on luggage back to my family.  It would have time to begin thawing on the trip home. The presence of a familiar baked Thanksgiving turkey would take the edge off of being in a foreign environment on our first Thanksgiving in a new land. Somewhere in the back of my mind I thought there might be some regulation against importing frozen food, but I did not let my mind wander too far in that direction.

This was pre-9/11 so the security process was not as harried as it is today.  As I stood in line, rehearsing what I would say to the security personnel if I were asked the question, “Do you have anything to declare?”  I was determined to not lie.  If someone were to ask if I was smuggling a frozen turkey, I would admit my error and hand it over.  Boarding the flight in Miami was easy.  No one asked me anything.  I got on the plane and put my bag with the frozen turkey in the overhead bin above. I was hoping that during its thawing process the turkey would not begin to drip on the passengers near me setting of some kind of inflight emergency.  I watched the overhead bin for the entire flight as we made our way across the Caribbean.

When I arrived in the Kingston airport, I tried to put on my most innocent face and not look like my right arm was overly elongated trying to carry a 20-pound frozen turkey.  I got in the customs line and inched my way forward with the rest of the passengers. The Jamaican woman who checked my passport did not ask the usual questions.  She simply looked at me and said, “Welcome back” and that was it.  I didn’t feel as honorable as a Bible smuggler at some checkpoint in one of the Eastern European nations behind the old Iron Curtain, but it would be as close as I would ever get to that feeling.

When I walked in the door of our home in Kingston, Jan and the kids greeted me with hugs and kisses.  Then I opened my bag and pulled out the turkey.  Laughter and squeals of joy filled our home as the familiar Thanksgiving turkey came to visit four Americans for their first Thanksgiving in a new land. Jan prepared a beautiful meal with all the trimmings and we ate together with joy. That Thanksgiving reminded me of the importance of what each of us bring to this special holiday.

This Thanksgiving, what can you bring to make the unfamiliar feel like “family” to those you gather with? In whatever setting you find yourself there will be something you can bring.  Thanksgiving is bigger than bringing a special dish of food. This special day is about a heart attitude and a reminder that God is our blessing and those people in our lives with whom we celebrate this day are part of that blessing.

The first mention of the word “thanksgiving” in the Bible is not until the book of Leviticus.  The writer is describing the law of peace offerings. 

This is the law of the sacrifice of peace offerings which he shall offer to the Lord: If he offers it for a thanksgiving, then he shall offer, with the sacrifice of thanksgiving, unleavened cakes mixed with oil, unleavened wafers anointed with oil, or cakes of blended flour mixed with oil.” Leviticus 7:11-12

We have a tendency to think the idea of Thanksgiving might have originated within the American story of our history, yet here it was thousands of years ago in the Holy Land.  What struck me were the words, “with the sacrifice of thanksgiving”.  Whatever was required to be brought to the table for those important ceremonies would need to be brought with thanksgiving. God places a high priority on thanksgiving. 

This Thanksgiving you might be asked bring a tangible contribution to the Thanksgiving meal.  Jell-O salads, green bean casseroles or a potato dish or even a smuggled turkey could be your contribution to the feast.  You might find yourself in place or circumstance that is less than desirable. You may not be able to celebrate Thanksgiving in any traditional sense of the word. In whatever setting you find yourself the most important essence you and I will bring to Thanksgiving Day is the presence of God wrapped in a heart of thankfulness.  This will be the sacrifice of thanksgiving you will offer to those around the table and that sacrifice will be the most important gift you bring.  Long after the taste of the turkey has passed your sacrifice of thanksgiving will continue to feed those present. 

That Thanksgiving, that took place over 20 years ago in Jamaica is an enjoyable memory and reminder, not only of the unexpected turkey and it’s unique trip from America to Jamaica, but what actually made that hot and humid Thanksgiving in the Caribbean so special. It was the sense of thankfulness I felt as I sat across the table from three people I loved so much. 

Have a blessed and thankful Thanksgiving.


(This morning one of my former students posted a question on my Facebook wall.  I normally answer these kinds of questions with a personal email, but felt this one was important to answer publicly because the response of the church to these culturally charged incidents will echo for many years to come.)

The question: 

In the midst of so many people expressing their thoughts, frustrations, agreements, disagreements, and so on, about the Ferguson case, I keep asking God what His heart is. With that in mind, I thought of checking your Facebook to see what you thought, but you haven't posted anything, understandably. But I am curious about what you feel through it all. You don't have to respond, but I wanted you to know that I have valued the many things that you have spoken to me and others. I appreciate you and your authentic leadership.

My answer:

Hello Jonathan, thanks for asking this challenging question. Just this morning I was processing the situation in Ferguson. The Lord shared with me a single word, "Compartments". There are multiple compartments in this situation and each carries its own set of facts and history.

The young man who was killed had the compartment of his own thinking the day of his death. The police officer had a personal compartment inside his police car when this incident began to tragically unfold. The history of the city of Ferguson and the history of race relations in America each had a compartment in this event, yet all parties were forced to live and work together in the middle of such diversity. All of these are individual compartments and each has their own set of facts. Each one is important if we are to understand the larger picture. The only way I can process this is to enter each of these compartments and try to understand from the other person's perspective.

Yesterday, I felt I would weep if I met a black person in Medford and entered their compartment of life. If I met a policeman, I would want to enter his compartment of life and thank him for the tough job they have. We will never fully know all the facts. Many will use this situation for their own agenda on both sides of the issue. This is where we need wisdom.

There can be a sad morphing of this situation to become the platform for blind rage on both sides of the situation. Both extremes can appear like lynch mobs. Jesus knelt down and wrote in the dirt asking the sinless ones to cast the first stone in a similarly charged situation 2,000 years ago. I want that kind of wisdom in this situation - a wisdom that knows all the facts, but interprets them at a heart level, not at an event and bare evidence level.

In the early 90's, our family lived in Los Angeles when the riots broke out during the Rodney King trial. I was asked to appear on a local radio station with community leaders, some who were black. The tensions were very high. One young black leader said so wisely, "When we pursue our own version of justice it is 'just us'". I never forget that. I want to pursue His justice regarding Ferguson. I have noticed that Jesus' form of justice was always forgiveness and restoration and that is what we need in our nation today.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

East Texas Fiddles

My grandfather, like his father before him, made violins. They called these violins fiddles. From the forest that surrounded the family home near Quitman, Texas they would cut and cure hardwoods that would someday become beautiful fiddles.  As they walked through a forest and looked at a tree they saw fiddles. Most of us would only see trees. The product of their wood crafting and musical skills would be the creation of beautiful music that would fill the grange halls of surrounding communities for generations.

Some of you are standing like trees filled with unseen potential in a forest of personal challenges.  You cannot imagine how God could take you from where you now stand and transform your life and circumstance to such a degree that your life would be used to play beautiful music, but this is what is about to take place.

God is asking you to be willing to allow your life to be cut, removed and transformed into a supernatural instrument to be played in His hands.  There is music within the unformed parts of your being that God is about to call out and play for the first time. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Every End Is A Beginning

For every ending – the end of a relationship, the death of a ministry or the collapse of a dream – there exists a new beginning.  These unexpected new beginnings can be forced upon us by a circumstance of life or by our own poor choices. God will use these devastating endings as a vehicle to take you into a new and hope-filled future fully known by Him, but unexplored by you.

Resist the invitation by those who do not believe in your new future to have you return with them to the old patterns of life and unbelief that caused your situation to fall apart in the first place.  You are hungry for a fresh start.  Feed that hunger with a feast of God’s presence. His presence will be your source of strength and nourishment for the coming journey into your new beginning.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

No Place To Grab

There is no steering wheel in another person’s life that you can grab to help steer their life away from crisis and sorrow. In the human will and mind these steering wheels do not exist. For those who want to help another person this can be both frustrating and heartbreaking because we want to do something to express our love. A life can only be steered by the hand of God or by human will. Both of these are out of your control.

You’ve made many attempts to help this person, but it seems like you are once again back at the starting point. You might find yourself reaching into the mind of a child who is struggling mentally, a friend’s empty emotions or the shallow spiritual condition of a spouse. You have tried to grab for something to help steer them to wholeness, but nothing is there for you to grasp.  At first, we all try to steer those we love, but there will come a point when you realize you need to stop.  This is the place where you choose to release what you cannot control.

There is something you can take hold of in the meantime.  You can take hold of a promise from God. This is what your hands can grasp. God has a plan for the one you love and that loving plan will be what eventually steers their life to their God-designed destiny.  “I will brighten the darkness before them and smooth out the road ahead of them. Yes, I will indeed do these things; I will not forsake them. (Isaiah 42:16)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Reintroducing The Devil To The Church

As I listen to conversations taking place across the church, I am not hearing much about the Devil. Please don’t misunderstand what I am about to write. I don’t want to spend each waking hour pondering his presence, but I don’t want to ignore his reality either. 

As the church in Western culture tries to rediscover what it means to serve its community and develop a credible presence in culture, something hasn’t gone away while we conduct our search. That something is evil.  The ills of society are not generic in nature.  They are orchestrated by a master plan of darkness whose architect is the Devil.

40 years ago, when I was a young 20-something and the Jesus Movement was in its fullness, some people thought the Devil and his minions were under every rock and behind every bush.  We heard people speak words of balance like, “Don’t chase the Devil”. That admonition was as true then as it is now, but like hitting the pause button on a stereo, the play button must at some point be reengaged if we are going to move on and hear the rest of the song.

When the Rolling Stones performed the song, Sympathy For The Devil, they painted an interesting portrait of the Devil.  The song has the Devil functioning as the narrator of his own dark life in the lyrics of the song. The song describes the experience of Jesus’ suffering, the Nazis, the murders of the Kennedys and more, all orchestrated by the Dark One.

The first line of the song has the Devil-narrator singing, “Please allow me to introduce myself.”  I am thinking this introduction might be something that needs to be heard again by the church.  We don’t need the Devil to sing us a song of introduction, but maybe those of us who teach the Word might reconsider why we have not heard much about whom the Word describes as our enemy.

In our search for balance in all things evil, we might have tripped over ourselves and gotten out of balance.  Hell, demons, the Devil and evil are real and around us everyday.  They are as real here in the cushy West as they are in the darkest corners of Africa.

Keith Richards, the Stones guitarist, said this about the song, ‘“It's just a matter of looking the Devil in the face. He's there all the time. I've had very close contact with Lucifer - I've met him several times. Evil - people tend to bury it and hope it sorts itself out and doesn't rear its ugly head. You might as well accept the fact that evil is there and deal with it any way you can. Sympathy for the Devil is a song that says, don't forget him. If you confront him, then he's out of a job.”

I don’t know how Keith deals with darkness, but the Word of God instructs us that our battle is not natural, but spiritual. The Word talks freely about evil throughout its pages and those who followed Jesus dealt with evil up front and personal.    Hell was identified and confronted allowing their ministry to miraculously move forward through these opposing forces.  Dark frontiers were crossed when the disciples dealt with the evil spirits who guarded these cultural gateways.

At the end of “Sympathy For The Devil,” Satan says,  “Pleased to meet you. Hope you guess my name, oh yeah. But what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game.”  The nature of the Devil’s game is not just evil, but getting that one group of people on earth – the Church - who possess the power and authority to confront his plan, to ignore his presence and the nature of his game.