“The Cold Within”

coldheartA friend recently shared this poem by James Patrick Kinney, and I thought it fit for this cold weather. It paints a picture of how prejudice and pride (which come from within) hurt us and those around us. It reminds me about what Jesus said—“It is what comes from inside that defiles you.” (Mark 7:20)

Six humans trapped in happenstance
In dark and bitter cold,
Each one possessed a stick of wood,
Or so the story’s told.

The first woman held hers back
For of the faces around the fire,
She noticed one was black.

The next man looking across the way
Saw not one of his church,
And couldn’t bring himself to give
The fire his stick of birch.

The third one sat in tattered clothes
He gave his coat a hitch,
Why should his log be put to use,
To warm the idle rich?

The rich man just sat back and thought
Of the wealth he had in store,
And how to keep what he had earned,
From the lazy, shiftless poor.

The black man’s face bespoke revenge
As the fire passed from sight,
For all he saw in his stick of wood
Was a chance to spite the white.

The last man of this forlorn group
Did naught except for gain,
Giving only to those who gave,
Was how he played the game.

The logs held tight in death’s still hands
Was proof of human sin,
They didn’t die from the cold without,
They died from the cold within.

* * *

Here’s the video version:


Tour Guide or Travel Agent?

tourguideWhat’s the difference between a travel agent and a tour guide?

Donna O is a travel agent—and a good one, at that! She tells schools about where they might like to go. She finds the best plane tickets, restaurants, and hotels, and books them for you. You hand her money. She hands you an itinerary and tickets.

A tour guide has a very different job. The travel agent stays home; the tour guide gets on the bus and goes with you. He sees the same things you see and experiences the same things you do. He makes the trip better by pointing out the good stuff and warning you about the bad stuff. He goes with you.

Christians ought to think of themselves as tour guides. We walk with each other through this world. We point out the highs and the lows. We warn of danger in the road ahead, and give encouragement that hope is just around the corner. When our brothers and sisters are down, we’re down, too. When they rejoice, we rejoice. (Sound like Romans 12:15 to me!)

All too often, we are tempted to act more like travel agents. We tell people to come to church, get a ticket, and say we’ll meet you in heaven. You’re on your own until then.

Believers have fellowship with each other. That words means “sharing” or “partnership.” The idea is that we’re in it together! So let’s make sure that we’re more like tour guides and less like travel agents.

The Gift of Jesus


Back in the winter, I spent four Sundays at Burns focusing our attention solely on the life of Jesus. It was one of the most satisfying experiences in preaching I’ve had. Each week we used a harmony of the gospels to put together an extended (1-3 chapter) scripture reading that told the story of a part of Jesus’ life. The sermons were shortened to reflect on that scripture.

We just got that sermon series online at the church website for you to download (4 MP3’s). If you’re snowed in tonight or tomorrow, take a listen. The preacher wasn’t great, but he had really good material to work with.

Help for Unanswered Prayers

unanswered-prayers-1-728At some point in their lives, most Christians will wonder why it is that some prayers are answered and others seem to be ignored. Philip Yancey’s book, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference, has a chapter called “Unanswered Prayer: Living with the Mystery.” He begins by considering the reasons that a prayer might not get a positive response:

Some, but not all, unanswered prayers trace back to a fault in the one who prays. Some, but not all, trace back to God’s mystifying respect for human freedom and refusal to coerce. Some, but not all, trace back to dark powers contending against God’s rule. Some, but not all, trace back to a planet marred with disease, violence, and the potential for tragic accident. How, then, can we make sense of any single experience of unanswered prayer?

We may never know why God says “yes” to some and “no” to others, but when I don’t get the response I want, I take comfort in realizing that I’m not alone.

After all,

  • Moses pled with God to enter the Promised Land, but his request was denied.
  • King David prayed for his infant son not to die, but he did.
  • Moses, Job, Jonah, and Elijah all prayed that they would die. Fortunately for us, God said no.
  • Habbakuk prayed for deliverance from the Babylonians.
  • Jeremiah prayed for Jerusalem not to be destroyed.
  • Paul prayed three times for the removal of the “thorn” in his flesh.
  • Jesus prayed that the cup would pass.

I know that it doesn’t feel good when we don’t get what we want, but we have to realize that God is God and we are not. John Baillie wrote that we should use our unanswered prayers and our pains as catalysts for something better. He learned to pray this way:

Let me use disappointment as material for patience.
Let me use success as material for thankfulness.
Let me use trouble as material for perseverance.
Let me use danger as material for courage.
Let me use reproach as material for long suffering.
Let me use praise as material for humility.
Let me use pleasures as material for temperance.
Let me use pain as material for endurance.

May we learn to trust that even when God says “no” – he is still good!

Don’t Sing Louder

Birkenau_gateOn Friday night, several of us gathered to watch Paper Clips, the story of Tennessee middle-schoolers who set out to create a Holocaust Memorial. During the project, several Holocaust survivors spoke about the atrocities committed by Hitler’s men. Sometimes it just seems hard to believe that a society could ever get to the point where this could happen.

Andy Andrews wrote a book called How to Kill 11 Million People. It set out to explain how something like this happened, and how it might could be prevented in the future. In the book, he quoted a German churchgoer:

We heard stories of what was happening to the Jews, but we tried to distance ourselves from it, because we felt, what could anyone do to stop it? Each Sunday morning, we would hear the train whistle blowing in the distance, then the wheels coming over the tracks. We became disturbed when we heard cries coming from the train as it passed by. We realized that it was carrying Jews like cattle in the cars! Week after week the whistle would blow. We dreaded to hear the sounds of those wheels because we knew that we would hear the cries of the Jews en route to a death camp. Their screams tormented us. We knew the time the train was coming and when we heard the whistle blow we began singing hymns. By the time the train came past our church, we were singing at the top of our voices. If we heard the screams, we sang more loudly and soon we heard them no more. Years have passed and no one talks about it now, but I still hear that train whistle in my sleep.

Edmund Burke wrote, “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Or, in this case, sing louder.

If you want to do your part to make tomorrow better than today, you can’t pretend that nothing is wrong. You can’t cover up the “check engine light” with electrical tape. You can’t sing louder to drown out the cries of brokenness in your heart. You can’t ignore where society is jumping off the rails by simply hoping the train won’t derail. You need to take action.

Simply put, “nothing” is one of the worst things a disciple can do.

An Encouraging Stat

It seems like society is full of gloom and doom predictions for Christianity, and sometimes those predictions can get us down. Doug Couch has a sign in his office that I really like that stands against that trend. It tells the truth about a philosopher who proclaimed the death of God. Here’s a picture:


The news is usually better than we think it is. How do you think Bible reading stacks up against the Super Bowl? Most people know that the Super Bowl is the most watched television event in the country. Last year, nearly one third of Americans watched the big game.

Do you know how many people read their Bibles at least once a week? According to a recent Barna study, 37% of Americans indicate that they read their Bibles once every week or more. While a third of our country watches the big game one time a year—even more people open up the big book every week.

I don’t know about you, but I find that encouraging. There are people who want to do right. People are listening to God’s word. Whether or not you watch the game tonight, don’t forget that more people are tuning in to God.

(H/T to Faithlife Blog)

Good Questions

Business conceptOne of the best compliments a teacher can pay to a student is to say, “Good question!”  A good question demonstrates that the student understands the material well enough to ask an intelligent question and that the student understands the limit of his own knowledge. That level of subject- and self-awareness isn’t as common as any teacher would like.

Not all questions are good questions. When the student exerts no effort to think or see an obvious answer, his question does no good. When he intentionally misses something important, his question will not be good. Even absent those errors, it’s possible that a student’s question is just simply nonsense. Don’t believe me? Ask a teacher.

N.T. Wright wrote,

“Many of the questions we ask God can’t be answered directly, not because God doesn’t know the answers but because our questions don’t make sense. As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, many of our questions are, from God’s point of view, rather like someone asking, ‘Is yellow square or round?’ or ‘How many hours are there in a mile?’”

He also wrote cautioning us about our study of God, because our questions and debates about God are often “like pointing a flashlight toward the sky to see if the sun is shining.”

God is open to our honest, meaningful questions, but Wright may have revealed why some of our questions go unanswered. Sometimes when I ask, “Why” – it’s just possible that my question, from an eternal perspective, just doesn’t make sense. Do you remember how God dealt with Job? God ended his silence by asking the questioner this question, “Why do you confuse the issue?  Why do you talk without knowing what you’re talking about?” (Job 38:2 MSG)

Our goal is simple Christianity. Much of Christianity and life is simpler than we often make it, but we do need to remember that God is infinite while we are finite. Einstein said that we should aim to make everything as simple as possible—but no simpler. Never lose sight of the eternal majesty, prominence, and glory of God.

The Same Frequency

carFor Christmas, my family decided that it would be fun to do something together besides sitting around the couch staring at each other between meals. They found some cheap remote control cars and decided it would be fun to make a small race course in the house. Racing could keep us entertained for quite a while, and if that got old, it could always turn into an R/C demolition derby.

When we got the cars out of the boxes, we ran into one problem: all of the cars were on the same frequency. That meant that all of the cars would respond to all of the remote controls. If I hit the “go” button, all of the cars would go, until they got closer to someone else who was giving a different instruction. It was total chaos…it just didn’t work! When each car didn’t have an “authoritative controller” – it was the same as having no controller at all.

I’ve met a lot of people that work the same way. There is no priority or hierarchy in their lives. Every signal they receive gets treated equally. In their minds, the opinion of their friends is as credible as the newspaper which is as credible as the Bible which is as credible as their hair stylist. Their actions are determined by whoever they’re closest to at the moment—rather than what’s really authoritative.

Nobody is immune from this temptation. Even the great apostle Peter forgot his convictions about grace when he found himself in the company of “certain men from James” in Galatians 2:11-14. They overrode what God himself said when he said, “Don’t call unclean what I’ve called clean!” (Acts 10:15).

We need to be constantly on guard to make sure that we are listening to right source. Choose very carefully who holds the remote control to your life!

What I Listen To (2014 Podcast Report)

podcastIf you follow my writing at all, you know that I like to put together an annual “reading report.” It helps start a lot of interesting conversations about books I loved or hated, and it serves as  a way to remind me of what I’ve read. Every now and then, I’ll go back and look at a previous year’s report and discover a book I had totally forgotten about. The report is as much for my benefit as anyone’s!

I want to share something with you that I find really useful that goes unused by many people. This is a report about the podcasts I listened to in 2014. If you’re not familiar with it, podcasting is basically “on demand” radio. You select the shows that you want to listen to, and your smartphone or tablet will automatically download the episodes so they’re just waiting on you. It’s a perfect way to make better use of your commuting or exercise time.

If you’ve got an iPhone, downloading is super simple. You already have a “Podcasts” icon. If you’re on Android, it’s a little bit more difficult. I downloaded the “Dogg Catcher” app. It manages all your podcasts for you.

One more note: each episode of each podcast is different. Sometimes a show will have a terrible episode or language. That’s what the “skip” button is for.

So without further ado, here are the podcasts I’ve been enjoying in 2014:

Freakonomics Radio
Steve Dubner and Steve Levitt try to answer societal questions logically. Frequently controversial, always interesting.

This American Life
This is the iconic public radio show from Ira Glass. The episodes are a collection of stories about some facet of life in America. They range the gamut from insane, to hilarious, to touching, to mind-numbing.

This is the show that got me into listening to podcasts. It’s science, tech, society, ethics…it’s an experiment on the radio. Really interesting stuff that makes you think.

Stuff You Should Know
From the HowStuffWorks.com team – each episode is about  random stuff. Recent episodes I heard include the GED, boomerangs, Cinnamon, Jim Henson, and “the hum.” Very random! Also from the How Stuff Works network…

A technology-related show that talks about the history, development, and controversies about tech both old and new.

A mini-podcast, usually less than five minutes, about the same sort of stuff Stuff You Should Know would cover. How many times can I use “stuff” in a sentence?

The Moth
Storytelling. Hit or miss. This is usually the best or the worst. Each episode is just filled with storytellers, telling their tales live in front of an audience with no notes.

NPR’s Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!
News quiz show that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

iPreach from the Jenkins Institute
Dale and Jeff put this together for preachers. There’s usually a guest talking about his area of expertise or something special going on.

Theology Refresh from Desiring God
A short show with a well-known evangelical guest about some theological topic.

Rainer on Leadership
Thom Rainer, president of Lifeway, talks leadership. Aimed at church leaders, but much of it applies in the business world, too. Good show.

We’re Alive
The Zombie podcast finished its final season this year…and it was quite a run! This was brain junk food, but I liked it. Think of it as the Walking Dead for your ears.

99% Invisible
A show on architecture, design, and other behind-the-scenes topics. Good design, they say, is 99% invisible.

A Prairie Home Companion: The News from Lake Woebegone
I don’t listen to the whole episodes of Prairie Home Companion—I just get my favorite part of the show.

Five Minutes in Church History
Reformed Theological Seminary puts out short little episodes about key moments in church history. Good show.

The story of Planet Money’s Alex Bloomberg starting a new business, as it happens, sort of.

Serial made podcasting history this year. It’s a spinoff from This American Life that tells one story, serialized over a season. The inaugural season was the story of a controversial murder case. I loved it.

A show about the internet with all its weirdness.

What podcasts do you subscribe to?