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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Happy Anniversary!

Quick, wish me and my wife a happy anniversary! My two kids, too. It's not our wedding anniversary, though, or even the anniversary of our first date as a couple. But two years ago today was our first date, in a sense... our first date with the church we've been part of ever since, The Bridge in Bixby, Oklahoma. You can read what I blogged back then about the experience here... we're in a beautiful new sanctuary now, and the children's ministry is quite different since then (for one thing, the kids don't come into the adult song service any more), but we still love it. It's the place for us to be!

This past weekend someone asked me why we had left our old church (which they still attend). They weren't being defensive or accusatury; just looking for information. What I told them there I'm not going to say here, any more than I did back when we originally left, because I still have immense respect for that church, and love for our friends who still attend there, and I would never want to be perceived as talking that church down. You could find some clues, though, in this post I wrote back then about what we were looking for in a new church, and what we ultimately found at The Bridge. As I read back over that post, I'm actually a little bit amazed that, in the two years we've been there, The Bridge has met all of those expectations in one way or another. There's not a paragraph in that post that I can say, nope, The Bridge isn't like that. It's like all of them. Maybe not in every tiny detail in every case, but in most of the details and certainly in all of the larger brush strokes. It seems like what we had on our hearts was what God ultimately brought us to... or, what God knew He was going to bring us to was what He laid on our hearts. Does it really matter which one it was? We found a place where we are happy and fulfilled, and that's an amazing feeling.

One of my favorite things about The Bridge is something that I think many people wouldn't think to put on their "important things" list if they were looking for a new church, but to me it is of central importance, and I think part of what we like about The Bridge is that it's clearly part of Pastor Orlando's priorities too. Once upon a time in history, people could not read. Also, there were no televisions and no CD players. There were no cassette players and there were no radios. The only way that people could learn about God was by personally hearing the Word recited out loud, and maybe expounded upon. I imagine that's the way it was in Bible days, and throughout much of history afterward, up to the time that sound recording was invented. But now, for someone who wants to know about the Bible, not only are there literally hundreds of Bible translations in English, but they are available at Bible bookstores, mainstream bookstores, the grocery store book aisle, your favorite Wal-Mart or Target, and for free in the drawer next to the bed in your hotel room. Online, site after site has the Bible available for free for searching and reading, often in many translations (sometimes so many it could make your head swim). Often, these Bible study sites will not only have the Bible text itself, but multiple study helps such as commentaries, Bible dictionaries, Greek/Hebrew lexicons, sermons, maps... whole Pastor's Office Bookshelf-loads of information. Even if you don't read, you might be able to figure out how to access the audio versions of the Bible on those sites. These days, if you fail to know what the Bible says, it's not because nobody was there to read it out loud to you. It's easily available.

You don't need a preacher to stand up in front of you and expound on the Scriptures, either. In addition to those online sites full of information, Christian bookstores across the country, and powerful Bible study software applications, there are thousands upon thousands of hours of television programming every day in which pastors and other ministers share their messages. So not only do you not have to have the Bible read to you, you do not even have to go to a church to hear a good message about the Bible. In fact, there's a pretty good chance these days that even your own pastor can be seen on TV or heard on the radio; I listen to a few-weeks-old message from my church's Sunday morning service on the radio every Sunday when I'm getting ready for church. You don't need to hear a sermon from a guy standing in front of you at all; there's a guy on TV who will happily provide a similar experience to you while you sit comfortably on your couch.

Decades ago, contemporary-style worship music was hard to come by. If you wanted to break away from hymns and sing something a little more modern in style, you were probably going to have to learn the song at church and sing it yourself. These days, Christian radio is filled with pop songs that are not only religious in theme, but that are actually worship songs. Often, the song hits the radio, and then later becomes a staple of church worship! And even if you don't have Christian radio where you live, you can buy a CD of Hillsong or Chris Tomlin or any number of other artists, and you've got a worship experience happening in your living room or car or earbuds that contains authentic worship music, probably performed and produced far better than your local church is able to do with volunteer musicians and production staff. You don't really need a church to fill your need for worship music, either.

I don't want to seem to be speaking out against pastors or their messages, reading the Word out loud, participating in a real live worship song service, or any other part of the Church experience. But I do want to highlight one thing that you cannot get from sitting on the sofa at home. What you can't do at home is build relationships with other believers. We need relationships with other believers in order to stay strong and live the life that Christ is calling us to. And to be honest, when you have a social, church-family bond with the people around you, all of those other things - the singing, the message, even things like giving in the offering - all of those things take on added significance, added importance. Being in a worship service with other believers is an amazing experience... being in a worship service with church family is even more amazing. It can make even a mistake from one of the people on stage turn into a worshipful experience when you know the person, know their heart. I love it when I'm in church and I catch sight of someone I know, maybe someone who has struggled with something in life or someone who is still struggling, and I see them worshiping with all of their heart. It makes me want to worship God with all of my heart, too. Their gratitude and love for the Lord reminds me that I've got a lot to be grateful and loving for, as well. Iron sharpening iron, so to speak.

I want to celebrate the two-year anniversary of us joining ourselves to The Bridge church. We love the people; we love and feel cared about by and appreciated by pastors and staff; our children learn about the Word; it's a fabulous place to be. If you're in the Tulsa/Bixby area and your heart is telling you it's time for a change, come on out and see what's happening. We'd love for you to become part of our little corner of the family of God!

Monday, September 19, 2011

My First Hands-On Bible: Your preschooler is going to LOVE it!

"That's the curriculum we use in our classes!" the pastor of the children's ministry at my church told me when I showed him the review copy of My First Hands-On Bible that I had received from Tyndale House Publishers. But it wasn't this specific book he was talking about—at the time, the book I was showing him had yet to hit retail shelves at all. He was talking about the "Hands-On Bible" curriculum for churches, but this new book is indeed from the same source. I told him that he was holding a brand-new release, and within thirty seconds he had calculated how much he would have to budget to buy enough copies of the book for every child in his classes to be able to use one on Sundays! That's how enthusiastic he is about the Hands-On Bible materials. He told me that when they were examining curricula to use in Sunday School, he had decided on a different curriculum and even ordered it, but then he saw what the Hands-On Bible curriculum had to offer and actually canceled his order for the other product to order Hands-On Bible. After using this book with my 3-year-old daughter for a night or two, I understood what he saw in their materials! I don't know that this book would be entirely appropriate for a church class—it's designed more for home use—but you certainly could use it in a church setting in a pinch, and for home use it would be hard to beat.

My First Hands-On Bible is very tightly structured. Each Bible story is taken directly from the New Living Translation of the Scriptures, word for word; it is not a reinterpretation of the Scripture text (or, at least, not any more than the NLT itself might be). Each lesson, including story, colorful illustrations, and some discussion materials and activities on the last page, is four or six pages long (a perfect length, as we found out, for bedtime reading to a preschooler). After the story proper, there is a section called "The Jesus Connection" (one or two sentences highlighting the relationship of the story to the person of Jesus), a section called "Let's Talk" containing two discussion questions, an activity introduced by a character named Cuddles the Lamb (at my church they actually have the puppet of Cuddles to use with their lessons!), another activity (or sometimes a song), and a short prayer introduced by a kangaroo named Pockets (there is also, by the way, a puppet of Pockets, although I don't think my church's ministry has picked one of those up yet). Several times in each lesson, there are small color-coded icons of handprints; these lead to micro-activities such as "Sarah laughed because she was happy. Let out a really happy laugh." and "Simeon was very old. Act like an old man leaning on a cane." These micro-activities are well-designed and well-spaced to keep the attention of a small child by breaking up the story a bit, and to provide something they can remember the story by later. The book itself is a 416-page hardback containing 85 stories.

The NLT is a good choice for a story Bible like this; I have trouble calling it a "Bible story book" because although it is a book of Bible stories, so is the Bible itself! And these stories are, after all, the exact same easy-to-read, easy-to-understand words you'd find in the NLT Bible you might have on your shelf. But it does not contain every single word of the NLT translation; in fact, some stories are highly abridged to fit into the book's format. The story of Jonah, for example, which fills four chapters in the Bible itself, is told in four parts, but the complex story of Esther, on the other hand, which fills 10 chapters in the Bible, is told in this book in only two short segments which each cover 3-4 chapters of the Bible text. So this book is not a traditional Bible story book, but it is not strictly a Bible either; it's something sort of in between. But it is obvious that it was designed by people who know how to engage the attention of children; the activities I called "micro-activites" above, for example, seem to come at perfect spots to keep attention from wandering. The "Jesus Connection" sections (example: "Jacob loved Joseph and gave him a coat. God loves us and sent us a special gift—Jesus.") do a pretty good job of bringing out a point in the story, much like a good pastor will do for his congregation, but on a kid level. The "Let's Talk" questions allow you to invite your child into the conversation and let them tell you what's going through their minds as they think about the story. And my child always wants to know what Cuddles "says" and what Pockets is going to pray. Add to that the cute watercolor-style illustrations, and you get a book that can make Bible story time fun (and educational) in ways that most Bible story books can't.

I did figure out early on that if I was going to use the book for bedtime reading, the activities at the end of the chapter were generally not going to be usable. Don't get me wrong, they're great activities... they're simple enough to do with a child, never require anything that you don't probably already have at home (and usually don't require any "props" at all), and relate to the story in ways that help bring it back to your child's attention. But the activities aren't things you can do as your child is winding down for bed. In fact, they resemble something that you might send home with a child in his "things to do this week" Sunday-School packet, and my guess is that they were created for that or are adapted from some materials created for that (some of them even start off with phrases like "As you do ________ with your child this week..."). Some of them are simple crafts, some of them are things to do as you're driving in the car or as the child is taking a bath... not things that happen before bed, and if you're reading a new story every night, some of those things might not even happen before the next story. I'm a fast reader, so normally when I get to that part of the night's reading, I skim through it to see if it's something we can feasably do; if I can tell it's probably not going to happen, I just skip those parts. I consider them optional; in a few cases we've been able to use them, and they've been quite effective, but usually we leave those parts out.

One part I never leave out is the prayer. I always save it for last, and when I say, "Pockets says..." my 3-year-old girl says back, "'s time to pray!" The prayers are very short—one or two sentences—but they pertain to the topic of the lesson, and they are actual prayers, written to be prayed out loud to God. They are not lessons disguised as prayers; they are actual prayers, sometimes thanking God for something that was illustrated by the lesson, sometimes asking for help with a dilemma highlighted by the lesson which a child might face in his or her day. They are prayers that I, the parent, easily find myself praying from my own heart. It allows me a chance to pray humbly and honestly before my children, and that's a wonderful thing.

This is easily my all-time favorite Bible story book for children. As of this writing we have read forty-eight of the stories/lessons, and when we get to the end of the book, I'm not sure what we'll do next... maybe start over from the beginning! If I misplaced this book, I would immediately buy another copy; if a second volume is ever released, I'll be the first in line to pick it up. It's not often that you find a way to share treasures from the Bible with a preschooler in a way that is meaningful to them and immediately applicable to their lives; I can't say I've done exhaustive research into children's Bible literature, but I can say that this is hands-down the best I've ever seen for little ones. For under twenty dollars, you can spend the next three months sharing a Bible story every night with your child, and they'll love every minute of it. That's quite a bargain.

I was provided with a review copy of this book by Tyndale House Publishers. The opinions expressed in this review are mine alone.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Light of the Lamp

'Oil lamp' photo (c) 2009, Ralph Unden - license:
This little light of mine,
I'm gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine,
I'm gonna let it shine,
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!
A few nights ago I was intrigued when I read this passage to my son at bedtime:
When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.

“No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar or under a basket, but on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light. Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness. Therefore be careful lest the light in you be darkness If then your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, it will be wholly bright, as when a lamp with its rays gives you light.”
Luke 11:29-36 (ESV)
What intrigued me was that I suddenly realized that I had no idea what verse 33 ("No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar or under a basket...") had to do with verses 34-36 ("Your eye is the lamp of your body..."). I always thought that the "light" on the "lamp" was my testimony or my witness or something, and I was to "put it on a lampstand" by sharing the Gospel with others... but I certainly haven't put my eye into my body! So I started to think about it...
  1. The lamp is my eye
  2. The lampstand is my body
  3. God put my eye in my body
  4. Therefore, God lights the lamp
  5. ...And I do not
But how can my "eye" be "healthy" (or "good" or "single", as other translations express it), or in contrast how can my eye be "bad" (or "evil", as expressed in other translations)? One clue came to me in reference to the "red letters." I noticed that the red letters actually start in verse 29, and when I looked up "evil" in that verse I noticed that it was the same Greek word as "bad" in verse 34. So I expanded the scope of my verses, which started out as verses 33-36, to include the entire text quoted above. So this explains one way your "eye" can be "evil": you spend your time running around looking for miraculous manifestations instead of... what? And what exactly is the "sign of Jonah"? I found out from a parallel passage in Matthew:
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.
The "sign of Jonah" was when Jesus died, was buried for three days, and rose again. So that must mean that for our "eye" to be "good" we have to keep our eyes on the death and resurrection of Jesus (the Gospel). (By the way... other passages parallel to parts of Luke 11:29-36 are Luke 8:16-18 and Matthew 6:19-24.)

Apparently this light is meant to shine out through our eyes, but how does it get into our eyes? We can't very well go back in time and look at Jesus on the Cross. How can we "look" with our eyes and see the Gospel?
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
We can actually "look" at things that we cannot see! And the thing we are to "look at" is the Gospel of God's Glory:
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
...and that Glory shines first into our hearts, and then out of our hearts, just like in  Exodus 34:29-35  when Moses saw God's glory and his face shone with it afterward:
Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
Jesus is actually the embodiment of "light":
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.

The true light, which enlightens 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, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.

And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”
(note: the word "enlightens" everyone in that passage is the same as the phrase "gives you light" in Luke 11:36) ...and we can actually become that light also:
Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,

“Awake, O sleeper,
       and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”
So we can choose to "take part in the unfruitful works of darkness" (this passage is talking specifically about sexual immorality), but we are exhorted not to do that. In the original passage, I looked up the Greek words for "healthy" and "bad" in verse 34. The word translated "healthy" can mean things like simple, single, whole, or sound. The root words apparently mean something like tightly woven together... everything fits just right. The word translated "bad" means things like in bad condition, full of hardships and hard labor, diseased, wicked, or blind. The "god of this world" has "blinded" unbelievers, but if we as believers are blinded, Satan didn't do it... we have let our own eyes go bad by sinful actions.

It is interesting to know that it's not an on or off thing; verse 36 in the original passage implies that you can be partially bright and partially dark. That encourages me to keep working at the corners of my life that are still in shadow, so that I can "be wholly bright", lit up with rays of God's light!

So, to sum things up: the light on the lamp is not specifically your spoken witness, although that is part of it, and you cannot light the lamp yourself. God lights the lamp, and you keep it lit by keeping your eyes focused on the Gospel of Christ. Others can see God's Glory shining out when they look into your eyes, unless you blind yourself and block them from seeing it by sin; when sin is present, no light goes out and none comes in. The light also "lights" your whole body; although others may not see the Glory of God shining out through your fingers or your torso (your eye is the lamp, after all), what your body does is illuminated by the Gospel as well if you keep your eyes "healthy". As we continue to eliminate sin from our lives, our eyes can become brighter and our bodies can become more "illuminated" with God's Glory all the time!

This is an old post that's been up at for some time... a discussion about this passage last night at church led me to post it here!

Monday, September 5, 2011


My 2005 Ford 500
One of the Pharisees asked him [Jesus] to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner." (Luke 7:36-39 ESV)
Last Wednesday I was tired. I had had a couple of late nights in a row, and by the time I left my office after a long day and headed down to the parking lot, I was feeling a little distracted. A few weeks before I had bought the car in the picture above, a silver Ford 500, which I really like because there's plenty of room inside (I'm a tall guy) but which admittedly looks a lot like a lot of other cars out there. I stepped out into the parking lot, pushed the unlock button on my car remote, noted where it was, and headed that direction.

As walked over to my car and grabbed the door handle, I noticed something on the roof that I hadn't noticed before: a shark-fin-style spoiler or antenna. And I thought to myself, I've never noticed that up there before. How could I have never noticed that before? Then I pulled the handle, but despite my pushing the unlock button thirty seconds before, the door did not open. It took me another thirty seconds or so more to realize why.

I was at the wrong car. My car was right behind me; I had actually walked past it and tried to get into someone else's vehicle!

That evening in church we read the passage I've quoted part of above. Jesus did not react to the presence of the woman in the way the Pharisee expected, and the Pharisee assumed that it was because Jesus did not have the power to know prophetically who the woman was. Did Jesus have prophetic powers? Of course! Jesus' reaction to the woman was one of mercy and forgiveness, but the mindset of the Pharisee was one of law and punishment. Because of his own Theological assumptions, he completely misinterpreted the situation. Just like I had somehow blinded myself to the location of my own car and walked right past it to the wrong car, the Pharisee had blinded himself to the truth and walked right past it to reach the exact wrong conclusion. If you read the rest of the passage, you'll discover that not only did Jesus make it pretty clear that he was reacting to the woman in forgiveness, but He simultaneously proved He was a prophet by answering not the Pharisee's words (he did not speak), but his thoughts.

It's easy to get lost in our own Theology and our own "knowledge" and totally miss the point. Not everything you or I has ever been taught is the precise truth, and even if it had been, we are human and we misunderstand even the purest of truth sometimes. We have to make sure we keep our minds focused and our spiritual ears open to hear the Holy Spirit trying to clarify things for us. I don't want to be someone who misses the point and doesn't get in on something great that God wants to do!