2011 Comes to an End

As 2011 comes to an end, we are grateful for God’s unfailing love and faithfulness. We’re also grateful for our blessings, including our family!

It’s been a little while since we’ve posted family photos, so here are several from the last couple of months, including some from our trip to visit family in Tennessee at Thanksgiving.

Jesus Our Shepherd

During the Advent season, one of the things that struck me this year was that the baby Jesus, who was revealed to shepherds, came to be a shepherd, himself.

Once when Jesus “saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6.34, CEB). Interestingly, this phrase appears in the Old Testament (see 1 Kings 22.17 and 2 Chronicles 18.16, Isaiah 13.14, and a similar version in Numbers 27.17).

The point is clear, without God, we are like sheep without a shepherd.

God’s shepherd’s heart can be seen in Ezekiel 34.11-16 …

11 The LORD God proclaims: I myself will search for my flock and seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out the flock when some in the flock have been scattered, so will I seek out my flock. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered during the time of clouds and thick darkness. 13 I will gather and lead them out from the countries and peoples, and I will bring them to their own fertile land. I will feed them on Israel’s highlands, along the riverbeds, and in all the inhabited places. 14 I will feed them in good pasture, and their sheepfold will be there, on Israel’s lofty highlands. On Israel’s highlands, they will lie down in a secure fold and feed on green pastures. 15 I myself will feed my flock and make them lie down. This is what the LORD God says. 16 I will seek out the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak.

Jesus also revealed his shepherd’s heart in his story about the shepherd who left 99 sheep to go and look for the one that was lost (Luke 15.3-7). It was God’s shepherd’s heart that led him to send Jesus to be our savior and our shepherd.

And, in John 10.11-16, Jesus says …

11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 When the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away. That’s because he isn’t the shepherd; the sheep aren’t really his. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. 13 He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd.

Without Jesus, we are sheep without a shepherd. With Jesus, we have not only a savior, but also a shepherd, who protects us and leads us.

(This post is part of the Common English Bible Tour.)

Jesus is Looking for a Place in Your Heart!

This Advent season, I’ve been struck by the line in Luke’s gospel …

(Mary) gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom. (Luke 2.7, CEB)

Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable, placed the newborn in a feeding trough for animals, “because there was no place for them in the guestroom.” We can only speculate about why that was the case, but the point is, there wasn’t. They were given the stable instead.

It makes me wonder: how often do we give Jesus the same kind of treatment in our lives. Instead of giving Jesus the guestroom, we relegate him to the stable!

And yet, God loves us, and continues to look for a place in our hearts. One day, Jesus passed through Jericho and notice a man named Zacchaeus, a rich “ruler among tax collectors,” in a sycamore tree. Jesus stopped and said, “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today” (Luke 19.5, CEB).

Jesus is looking for a place in our hearts, too. That’s why he came. “The Word became flesh and made his home among us” (John 1.14, CEB). And now, he prepares a place for us.

Jesus said …

Don’t be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me. My Father’s house has room to spare. If that weren’t the case, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare a place for you? When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too. (John 14.1-3, CEB)

Jesus is looking for a place in your heart. At the same time, he is preparing a place for you!

(This post is part of the Common English Bible Tour.)

Benefits of Signing

I’ve written about signing before (see Sign Language for Kids and Signing). But I just saw that Signing Time (we have a few of their DVDs) has posted a new PDF document summarizing research on signing.

Dr. Claire Vallotton compiled the document which summarizes research findings on the impact of signing on preschool and school-age children. It’s all interesting, including a question I’ve thought about before: “Should I keep signing once a child starts talking?”

By the time we brought Sarah home, our usage of sign language with Ethan was already slowing down. But when we brought Sarah home, we started back up and learned a lot more in round two than in round one. Not only did it give us a way to communicate with Sarah, it provided a way for Ethan and Sarah to communicate, as well.

To date, we’ve learned over 100 signs, but now that Sarah is becoming more verbal, the question comes up again: how intentional to be about learning new signs.

According to the report …

Some small studies by Claire Vallotton and colleagues have shown that when hearing children start to learn words, their learning of new signs slows down, and they use signs less frequently during their interactions with adults. However, these newly verbal toddlers will continue to use signs when they need to, including a) when the child’s home language is different than the language being spoken by her teachers, b) when they are upset and can’t find their words, and c) when the word they want to communicate is too hard to pronounce. The research showing that using signs with preschoolers and kindergartners aids their language and literacy development indicates that it is helpful, not harmful, to continue using signs with children who are talking.

There have many been times with both Ethan and Sarah when they’ve been able to communicate with signs while struggling to verbalize their words. In the early days, it was nice for the kids to sign “milk,” or “more,” or “eat,” instead of crying, leaving us to figure out that they wanted (they’ll still cried/whine, at times, but not as much as they would have without the signing).

Also, the research on development of intelligence in interesting. Here’s one bit …

Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn followed a group of children whose parents had taught them to use signs before they could talk, starting at 11 months old, and a comparison group of children whose parents did not teach them to use signs. They initially followed the children until they were 3 years old and found that the signing children had better language skills. Then they contacted the same two groups of children when they were in 2nd grade and gave them an IQ test. The verbal IQ’s of the signing children were 12 points higher on average than their non-signing peers. This is a remarkable difference and shows a long-term effect of using signs with preverbal children.

We’ve never really done it for that reason, but it’s a nice benefit. We’ve mostly signed to give us a way of communicating with the kids, especially when they were pre-verbal (which was a shorter time for us, since we brought each of them home when they were around 7-8 months old; we were able to start signing right away, forcing two new languages on the kids at the same time!).

Signing is also fun.

For a while, when Sarah was asked her name, she’d sign “girl.” That is, until she developed a preference for “baby,” specifically “Daddy’s baby” (by signing “Daddy” and “baby”). I liked that stage! Recently, she seems to have graduated to “girl” (even “big girl”). But sometimes, she still likes to be the baby! (In fact, out of curiosity, I just asked Sarah, in sign language, if she was still “Daddy’s baby.” She said yes. Good answer!).

Sarah also uses the sign for “boy” to refer to Ethan. She’s now beginning to say his name, which sounds like “Ethy,” but she still uses the sign as well.

Well, there’s a lot more in the document, and on Signing Time’s research page. Check it out, if you’re interested.

Preacher & Prayer

Shortly after responding to my call to ministry, I read a little book by E.M. Bounds called Power Through Prayer (originally called Preacher and Prayer).

In recent years, I’ve wanted to re-read the book, as well as other books by Bounds, so I bought The Complete Works of E.M. Bounds on Prayer (a collection of eight small books on prayer). I finally re-read Power Through Prayer in the last few days.

Edward McKendree Bounds (1835-1913) was a lawyer until he responded to God’s call to ministry at age 24. During his ministry, he served as a chaplain in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War (after spending a year and a half as a prisoner of war, suspected of being a Confederate sympathizer). He was a pastor in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (the Methodist Episcopal Church split into North and South factions over slavery in 1844; in 1939, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, the Methodist Episcopal Church, North, and the Methodist Protestant Church, which had split in 1828, reunited to form the The Methodist Church).

Bounds is the author of eleven books, two of which were published before he died at the age of 78. In Power Through Prayer, Bounds challenges preachers to be people of prayer. Even though it’s been a little over 20 years since I read the book, I remembered some of the stories and statements that have impacted my life.

Several days ago, I wrote Discipleship is More Important Than Methodology, based on the opening paragraph of the book. Here, I’ll pick up with some of my favorite quotes (page numbers are from The Complete Works of E.M. Bounds on Prayer). Please note: writing at the turn of the last century, Bounds did not use inclusive language.

Bounds places great importance on the character of the preacher.

The man makes the preacher. God must make the man. The messenger is, if possible, more than the message. The preacher is more than the sermon. The preacher makes the sermon. … Preaching is not the performance of an hour. It is the outflow of a life. It takes twenty years to make a sermon, because it takes twenty years to make the man. (448)

I quoted the “twenty years” statement a few years ago; see It Takes 20 Years to Make a Sermon.

Bounds continues this line of thought …

The sermon cannot rise in its life-giving forces above the man. Dead men give out dead sermons, and dead sermons kill. Everything depends on the spiritual character of the preacher. (448)

God does his work on the preacher through prayer. Bounds argues …

The real sermon is made in the closet. The man—God’s man—is made in the closet. His life and his profoundest convictions were born in his secret communion with God. (449)

Life-giving preaching costs the preacher much—death to self, crucifixion to the world, the travail of his own soul. Only crucified preaching can give life. Crucified preaching can come only from a crucified man. (451)

The character of our praying will determine the character of our preaching. Light praying will make light preaching. Prayer makes preaching strong … (455)

The preacher’s study must be a closet. (456) … The preachers who are the mightiest in their closets with God are the mightiest in their pulpits with men. (457)

Bounds asserts that “much time” must be spent with God in prayer …

Much time spent with God is the secret of all successful praying. … God’s acquaintance is not made by quick visits. God does not bestow his gifts on the casual or hasty comers and goers. (460)

Bounds also places great importance on praying in early morning …

The men who have done the most for God in this world have been early on their knees. … If God is not the first in our thoughts and efforts in the morning, he will be in the last place the remainder of the day. (464)

Bounds contends, “Our great need is heart preparation,” (472) saying, “The closet is the heart’s study” (475). He writes …

Praying makes the preacher a heart preacher. Prayer puts the preacher’s heart into the sermon; prayer puts the preacher’s sermon into the preacher’s heart. (471)

Bounds emphasizes “unction,” a word we don’t use a lot today. Bounds acknowledges that unction is difficult to define, but equates it with the “anointing of the Holy Spirit” (481). He writes …

It is this unction which gives the preacher such point, sharpness, and power, and which creates such friction and stir in many a dead congregation. (478)

Well, the challenge today is much the same as it was a century ago. Toward the end of the book, Bounds laments the fact that prayer is often neglected by preachers in his day …

This, however, is not a day of prayer. Few men there are who pray. Prayer is defamed by preacher and preist. In these days of hurry and bustle, of electricity and steam, men will not take time to pray. (491)

As always, E.M. Bounds challenges me to be a person of prayer. He doesn’t give a lot of practical advice on prayer in this book. He simply says, spend much time in prayer, beginning early in the morning. Let prayer be the foundation for your ministry. Let ministry flow out of your time with God. Remember that it’s “the closet first, study and activities second” (455).

Through prayer, God leaves a mark on preachers so that preachers can, in turn, leave a mark on the world for God!

When People Change

This week, I was reminded of a list I once heard John Maxwell give. The list also appears in Maxwell’s book, Thinking for a Change: 11 Ways Highly Successful People Approach Life and Work (which I wrote about it 2008).

Maxwell says there are three times when people are willing to embrace change, when they …

  • Hurt enough that they are willing to change.
  • Learn enough that they want to change.
  • Receive enough that they are able to change. (47)

All of us are at different points at any given time, with varying levels of receptiveness to change. According to Maxwell, people are most open to change when they’re hurting, learning, or receiving.

Being at any of these points does not guarantee change, of course. People don’t change simply because they’re hurting, but they should, at least, be more open to change.

For communicators, the challenge is to communicate with the goal of life change, making sure that people (especially people who are hurting) are learning and receiving so that they may be challenged and equipped to change!

The most radical change in life is spiritual change. Spiritual change happens when we repent in response to God’s grace. Repent means to return, to turn around, to change your mind. The Apostle Paul wrote …

So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived! (1 Corinthians 5.17, CEB)

Where are you in this process. Are you hurting, and need to make some changes? Or are you learning and receiving so that you want to change?

Blessed

After Mary’s encounter with the messenger Gabriel, she travelled to be with her relative Elizabeth. When Mary greeted Elizabeth, Luke notes that “the child leaped in (Elizabeth’s) womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1.41, CEB).

Then Elizabeth said …

God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.

Often, when we think of being blessed, we think of what we have—homes, jobs, health, and money. But for Mary, being blessed was about being part of God’s plan. Rather than focusing on what she had, Mary wanted to be used by God for God’s purposes.

But being part of God’s plan is not always easy. In fact, a bit later in the story, shortly after the birth of Jesus, a man named Simeon met Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus at the temple. After his blessing, Simeon added …

This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your innermost being too.

It’s hard to talk about being blessed and being pierced by a sword at the same time. There must have been times when Mary didn’t feel “blessed” in the way we think of it, whether it was when she was fleeing from King Herod, living as a fugitive in Egypt, or decades later, watching her boy be nailed to a across). But in reality, Mary was truly blessed because she was part of God’s plan!

Are you blessed?

This post is part of the Common English Bible Tour.

Are You Reactive or Proactive?

The last book we read/discussed for our monthly Matthew 28 peer group meeting was Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within by Robert Quinn. It’s a good book, but one of the things that struck me was not even a major point in the book.

Quinn briefly discusses the difference between a reactive person and a proactive person. In our group discussion, we also talked about The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, which I read a number of years ago. The first habit is “Be proactive.”

One way you can tell if you’re a reactive or proactive person is the language you use. Reactive people say things like: “I wish,” “I have to,” “If I had,” “I can’t,” etc. Reactive people blame situations or others.

On the other hand, proactive people say things like: “I can,” “I choose,” “I will,” “I prefer,” etc. Proactive people take responsibility.

Now, most people aren’t purely reactive or proactive. There’s a spectrum. I want to work on becoming more proactive!

Are you reactive or proactive?

Say Yes to God, Even When It’s Hard!

One of the real keys of discipleship is learning to say yes to God. Saying yes to God will inevitably, at times, means saying no to ourselves and other things. Jesus put it this way …

All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. (Mark 8.34, CEB)

Say no to ourselves. Say yes to God. Sounds simple, right? Simple, but not easy!

The reality is, we often struggle to say yes to God, especially when the risks are great.

This past Sunday, during Advent, I talked about Mary, who was presented with an incredible challenge. Gabriel, a messenger from God, said to Mary …

Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you! … Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom. (Luke 1.28-33, CEB).

Taking Mary’s life situation into consideration (she was young, perhaps 13, and engaged but not yet fully married to Joseph, and lived in a culture where marital unfaithfulness came with a maximum penalty of death by stoning), you can understand that this was clearly a daunting opportunity!

Mary asks a simple, practical question: “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”

Gabriel responds …

The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. Nothing is impossible for God. (Luke 1.35-27, CEB).

Satisfied by Gabriel’s response, Mary’s ready to sign up. She makes a statement that every follower of Jesus should commit to memory and use often …

I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said. (Luke 1.38, CEB)

Mary said yes, not knowing how it was going to turn out. In saying yes to God, she also said no the life she was expecting to live. Mary said yes to God, even though it was hard!

(This post is part of Common English Bible Tour.)

Clear the Way!

This post is part of the Common English Bible Tour.

The prophet Isaiah proclaimed …

A voice is crying out: “Clear the LORD’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God! Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened. Uneven ground will become level, and rough terrain a valley plain. The LORD’s glory will appear, and all humanity will see it together; the LORD’s mouth has commanded it.” (Isaiah 40.3-5, CEB)

This year when I decorated for Christmas, I removed other pictures and decorations from the end tables to make room for Christmas decorations. One woman told me she had to move two chairs to make room for her Christmas tree, all by herself.

How will we prepare for the coming of Christ? What do we have to move in our hearts and lives to make room for the coming of Christ? This month, in particular, what do you need to give yourself permission NOT to do so that you can have time for spiritual preparation?