A Haunted Thanksgiving

Relax.

This isn’t one of those posts where you’ll be reminded of how many kids will die of starvation while you get a second helping of mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving.

It’s just a reminder to step away from the culture war and the talking points to remember why there aren’t a whole lot of other countries that have a day on their calendar like Thanksgiving.

I’ve talked to kids in the United States who have told me their dreams for the future. They talk about wanting to get into good schools and become engineers or speech pathologists. For the most part, I expect them to get their wishes.

A few weeks ago I was in Haiti. I spent a significant part of my time there building and remodeling desks for a school. Some of the students helped me. They were some of the nicest, hardest working people I’ve ever been around. And they have dreams too. They want to get into good schools. They want to be engineers. But my expectations aren’t as high for them.

Haiti is a complicated country. When people talk about how bad things are there, they always go back to the earthquake of 2010. It’s hard not too. But the problems started before then. Long before then. Honestly, I don’t know if anyone is smart enough to trace the problems back to one particular issue. Certainly not an American like me who spent all of seven days there. Haiti is suffering from a toxic mix of poverty, corruption, and good intentions gone bad.

One day when I was painting a desk, one of the students helping me told me his dreams for the future. I should say dream. His was a simple one.

“I want to go to America,” he said with a glimmer in his eye.

I spent a second thinking about how America would respond to this young man’s wish.

Some would say, “Don’t bother.” They’d tell him about all of the hatred and violence, about the president’s crazy tweets, and about our own brand of poverty and corruption.

Others would say, “Don’t bother,” for different reasons. They would proceed to tell him about how overcrowded we are, convincing themselves that he wouldn’t do a good job of assimilating.

We do have our problems here in America. And yes, there are those who abuse our system of immigration. But when I looked at that young man, I couldn’t blame him for his wish. Sure, coming to America wouldn’t fix all of his problems but it sure would open up some pretty good opportunities for him. If I were in his shoes, I’d want to come to America too.

I’ve been thinking about the look on that kid’s face when he told me about wanting to come to America. It was one half determination and one half desperation. I don’t see that in my country. The only people who want to leave the U.S. like that kid wanted to leave his country are angry political activists vowing to move to Canada and folks running from the law looking to hide out in Mexico or Europe.

This week I found out about the Trump administration’s plans to send back several thousand Haitians who have been living in the States under special status since the 2010 earthquake. I don’t know all of the details behind this. I’m no policy expert. All I know is that if I had been living here for nearly a decade, I wouldn’t want to go back to a country that isn’t prepared to receive me, even if it meant staying in one that doesn’t want me.

Immigration is a complicated issue. Carelessness on the part of our government is a clear path to losing our freedoms. Apathy on the part of our citizens is just as clear a path to losing our souls. Behind the tweets, talking points, and statistics, there are faces. Faces with a glimmer in their eye. Faces that belong to hard working bodies. Not all of those faces need to be in the United States. Some of them do. Knowing the difference requires more discernment and less pandering to the base.

I don’t have all of the answers to our country’s immigration problem and I certainly don’t know what steps need to be taken to fix what’s wrong with Haiti.

All I know is that kid’s face.

It haunts me.

It haunts me because I want him to be okay, whatever that means for him.

And it haunts me because if a kid wants to come to where I live that bad, I must really have a lot to be thankful for.

But it’s really hard for me to give thanks for where I live without remembering the faces from where I’ve visited.

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We All Get Along With Each Other Just Fine

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I eat a Thanksgiving meal two times a year. The more traditional one is with my family on Thanksgiving Day. We eat all of the usual foods and watch the Detroit Lions find creative new ways to embarrass themselves on national television.

The other meal takes place the Sunday before Thanksgiving. People from my church make a bunch of food and we take it to the Jackson Housing Authority. We don’t just serve food to our friends over there. We eat it with them. It’s one of my favorite meals of the year.

Most of the people at the housing authority are black. Most of the folks at my church are white. But, despite the best efforts of the professional agitators in our culture, we all get along with each other just fine.

In that small community room and the garage connected to it, people are just eating. There’s really nothing complex about it. It’s not a summit on race relations. No one stands up and apologizes for something terrible that happened 200 years ago. I don’t even preach a sermon. Yet somehow, we all get along with each other just fine.

There are no safe zones in the room where we eat together. There are no debates. There is a lot of laughter. And eating. There’s something about sharing food from the same pot that makes you put aside your differences. It’s hard to hate each other when you both have potato salad on your chin. During this meal, a lot of us have potato salad on our chins and we all get along with each other just fine.

Our Thanksgiving meals probably won’t do much to fix the racial chaos that is happening in our country. It won’t do anything to stop whatever racial slurs may have been said at some college campus. It won’t keep rich kids from going on hunger strikes. But while we’re eating that meal in Jackson, Georgia, we’re all getting along with each other just fine.

For one night at least, the racial turmoil we see on the news is exposed for the foolishness that it really is while we all laugh and eat together. And during that time, we’re all reminded that racial healing will never come through hashtag activism, guilt trips, racial superiority or government programs.

And during that one night, there is no Black Lives Matter, no KKK and no news media.

And we all get along with each other just fine.

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Happy Monday! What Hasn’t Happened To Me

Every now and then, it’s good to stop and think about the things that you never think about. The things that you take for granted. The things that you think you are entitled to. The blessings that God could take away from you right now if he wanted to. Here are some of those blessings that I have enjoyed, not just over the past few days but, as far as I can tell, pretty much every day of my life.

1. Whether through a letter in the mail, a face to face conversation, a phone call, or an e-mail, I can’t remember ever going a day without a friend or family member telling me that they love me.

2. I’ve never truly been hungry or gone without food. There were times when we had to put water over our cereal but the cereal was still there.

3. Unlike a lot of people, even American citizens, I’ve never been thrown in jail for something that I didn’t do.

4. I’ve never had to be fed through a tube or an IV.

5. I’ve never spent the night in the hospital as a patient. There have been plenty of nights that I’ve done that as a family member but never as a customer.

6. I’ve never had to worry about a rainstorm washing away my house.

All of this could change tomorrow. I could go without hearing the words I love you. I could starve. I could lose my freedom, health and home. As easy as it is to forget this, I don’t deserve those things. God doesn’t owe me.

But he has blessed me.

However his blessings come and go for us, there is at least one thing that we can count on.

God’s people will never know what it’s like to be ignored, abandoned or condemned by him.

Even on a Monday.

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.  Habakkuk 3:17-18 (ESV)

Everybody Hates Mondays

Everybody hates Mondays. Songs have been written about how bad Mondays are. Crimes have been blamed on Mondays. No doubt, you’ve probably already seen, heard or even said your fair share of critical comments toward the first day of the work week.

I think this is unfair. What did Monday ever do to anybody? It’s just another day of the week. It is what you make of it. For some reason, we like to make it as bad as possible.

In the Bible’s creation account, we do not read, “On the first day, God sat around and complained, postponing his work until Tuesday.”

The Psalmist never said, “This is the day the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it” with a footnote at the bottom of the page telling you that in the original language the word day refers only to weekend days. If your Bible does say this, get a new one.

One way to help us to have the right attitude about Mondays is to remember God’s grace over the past few days.

As we all face another Monday together, here are a few things that I am thankful for.

1. I introduced my boys to The Lord of the Rings movies over the Christmas break. I loved seeing their reaction to the battle of good and evil and the final victory of good.

2. On Sunday an old college friend visited my church. I haven’t seen him in nearly 20 years. I was happy to see that God is really blessing his family as he grows in his walk with Christ.

3. On Sunday night we continued a family tradition of eating breakfast for dinner. We watched football and Duck Dynasty reruns. I love hearing my kids laugh at Uncle Si.

4. I’m praying specifically for my youngest son to understand the gospel. In his Sunday School class, he was asked why Jesus calmed the storm. Before the question was completed he blurted out, “Because he’s Jesus and he can do whatever he wants to do.” I think he’s starting to get it.

5. I never feel more dependent upon God than I do when I prepare for and deliver a sermon. At the same time, I never feel closer to God. I can honestly say that he speaks to me during these times. It’s never in an audible voice. It’s through his word and the series of events that he sovereignly puts before me. I’m thankful that the God who is with us is also the God who speaks to us.

6. I started getting serious about running just before my first son was born. After he came along, I started pushing him in a stroller. I would always joke that he finished ahead of me. Now that he’s older, the stroller is gone and he runs beside me. But he still finishes ahead of me. I can’t think of a better way to lose a race.

You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God; I will extol you.
Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever! Psalm 118:28-29 (ESV)

Don’t Be An Independence Day Scrooge

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Holidays have a way of bringing out the worst in us.

Take Christmas for example. For a few Christmas shopping seasons, I worked in a mall. It was always crowded, not with happy shoppers looking for a gift that expresses how they feel for their loved ones but mostly with irritable people who grew more irritable as they dealt with other irritable people. We see it every year. The practicalities of the holiday have a way of blinding us from seeing what the holiday is really all about.

Christmas is probably the best example.

But Independence Day is close behind.

There is a lot wrong with our country. People who care about liberty have a lot of work to do and the odds do not seem to be in our favor. If we’re not careful, we can end up no different than those shoppers who celebrate Jesus’ birthday by yelling at each other, fighting over parking spaces and cursing our kids while we wait in some line at Wal-Mart for whatever it is they want that year.

To keep this from happening to us on Independence Day, we have to do a better job of paying attention. We have to pay attention to our tendencies to only look at the negative. More importantly, we have to pay attention to the ways that God, in spite of our best efforts to ignore him, continues to bless us.

Here are a few of those blessings. Some of them are enjoyed in other countries. Many are not. Some may be slowly eroding. But for today at least, they are ours to enjoy. Some may seem silly while others are much more significant. But they are all important. I hope that these reminders help to keep us from becoming American Scrooges.

1. Three times a week I get up in front of a group of people and talk about Jesus. Not once have I been asked to have my sermon reviewed by some special government task force before it was time to preach. Not once have armed government agents entered our building to tell us to cut it out. I am thankful for the God-given freedom of religion that we enjoy in this country.

2. Almost every day of the summer, I devote some time to the eating of a watermelon. There is no candy on earth that can compete with this taste. I am thankful for God’s invention of the watermelon.

3. I enjoy watching our country compete against other nations in sporting events like the Olympics and the World Cup. I love to see the American fans shout our national anthem. I love how the American team, in almost any sport that we play, looks like a box of crayons. Players on teams from Japan, Costa Rica and Germany tend to all have the same color of skin. Not so with the United States. I am thankful to live in a diverse nation.

4. My kids go to a really good school. One where they are taught the importance of hard work, excellence and strong leadership. I am thankful for the opportunities we have in this country to educate ourselves and our children.

5. There are people in my church who have managed their money with wisdom. But they’re not content to shove it under their mattresses while they wait for Jesus to come back. They know that all of the money in their bank accounts, not just the ten percent they put in some offering plate, belongs to God. Throughout the year, these folks come to me in private and ask me if I know of anyone who needs help. Willful generosity for the glory of God is the best form of wealth distribution. I’m thankful to live in a country where people can earn a good living and I’m thankful to belong to a church full of people who know that their money exists for the glory of God and the good of others.

6. I’m thankful for backyard summer nights spent playing around a sprinkler, catching lightning bugs and jumping on the trampoline. Some times I even let my kids join in on the fun with me.

7. I’m thankful for the smell of a piece of meat cooking on a grill.

8. Several months ago my two sons helped me to empty a truckload of dirt in our backyard. A few weeks after that, they helped me dig holes and fill those holes with plants. Now, almost every day, they help me to pick vegetables off of those plants. I’m thankful for the privilege of showing my sons that food, the good kind at least, isn’t made in a factory. It comes from a Sovereign Lord who provides us with our daily bread.

9. I have strong opinions on a lot of things. They are opinions that people don’t always agree with. Sometimes, those disagreements cause me to reconsider my own opinions. Sometimes they make me more certain of what I believe. I am thankful to live in a country where people with differing opinions can share their beliefs in a civil manner.

10. I love well-written songs, finely crafted movies and books that are hard to put down. There is a lot of garbage out there but we live in a country that has produced some very good art. I’m thankful for that.

11. I’m thankful for the joy of marriage. My wife’s laughter drowns out all other noise and the smile on her face lights up the whole room.

12. I’m thankful for random text messages from friends reminding me that they’re praying for me.

13. I’m thankful for the example of men and women who aren’t afraid to make a stand, even when it looks like the whole world is standing against them.

14. I’m thankful for the opportunity to write something almost everyday as well as the likes, shares, feedback and new friends that come along with that. Thank you.

15. I’m thankful for the sight of an old married couple, slowly walking hand in hand through a store.

16. I’m thankful for that look on a person’s face right before I get to baptize them.

17. I’m thankful that I have never come in first place in any race or weight-lifting competition. It is a subtle reminder that just to be in the competition and not in a hospital is a blessing.

18. I named my two sons after Turk Holt and Gerald Fowler. My boys have some excellent examples to follow. We live in a country where our excellent examples don’t just come from history books. They also walk among us today and I am thankful for that.

19. There are a bunch of kids in my church who are serving in the military. I’m thankful for them as well as for those who served before them.

20. In June of 1981 I had nothing to offer God. I was just a five-year-old kid. But God gave me everything when he gave me freedom from my sins. He saved me. He is still saving me. And when my time here is done, I can be certain that I will be saved. I’m thankful that God, in his grace, put me in a country that was so impacted by the gospel message that I heard it and surrendered to it before my sixth birthday.

Our system is broken. It is the victim of years and years of citizens looking for handouts and leaders grasping for more power. There is a lot that needs to be fixed and Christians should be leading the way in standing up and speaking out.

But we should also lead the way in giving thanks.

So this year, be sure to stop to enjoy the sights of colored lights in the sky, the sound of a child’s laughter and the smell of burgers on the grill. They are all gifts from a loving and gracious God.

Don’t be an Independence Day Scrooge.

A Prayer Of Thanks For Every Good And Perfect Gift

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Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. James 1:17 (ESV)

Father,

It’s not always easy for me to say thanks. I don’t have a problem asking you for things but I struggle when it comes to thanking you when you graciously send those things to me. Maybe that’s because, deep down inside, I feel like I deserve the good that you have given me. Forgive me for my sense of entitlement.

Thank you for the cassette tape you made my sister listen to in the summer of 1981. Thank you for allowing the simple gospel message from the voice on that tape to work its way down the hall from where my sister was and into my heart, convicting me of sin and showing me my need for Jesus. Thank you for reminding me that just because huge miracles aren’t happening in front of me doesn’t mean that you are not working for me. You work through the big and the small. Thank you for doing a big work in my life through a tiny cassette tape.

Thank you for the gift of running. Several years ago I read an article about a dad who runs with his son. I prayed that I would be able to do that with my son. I thought about it all of those days when I ran while pushing him in his stroller. My plan was that we would finally start running together when my son became a teenager. You had something better. My son’s not even ten yet and over the past several days, we ran 9 miles together. Side by side.

Thank you for the conversations we have about heaven, the Bible, music technique during those runs. Thank you for the lessons he is learning about endurance and determination. Thank you for allowing me to be the one teaching him those lessons. Side by side.

Thank you for the joy I get when I see my youngest son dancing, riding his bike and doing anything he can to dive into life head first. Thank you for the way you use him to make me laugh. Thank you for the sound of his voice every morning at breakfast asking if he can do the prayer. I hope his passion for talking to you continues to grow.

Thank you, Father, for the phone call I got on Monday morning. A lot of pastors are afraid to answer their phone on Monday mornings because they know that it’s just someone calling to complain that their hand wasn’t shaken or that someone left a light on in some out of the way room.

This call wasn’t like that. It was just a guy calling to say that the sermon I preached on Sunday really helped him and that he wanted to take me out to lunch sometime. Thank you that most of the calls I get from church members go something like that. Thank you for allowing me to pastor a church that is so easy to love.

Father, I think that the biggest period of spiritual growth in my life has been over the past ten years. It’s no coincidence that that’s how long I’ve been married. Thank you for giving me a great wife who makes me want to be more like Jesus. I met her because of a hurricane. Who knew that such a beautiful gift could come from such a bad storm? You did.

Last weekend my wife was cooking a bunch of food for a special event at church. Something hit me. Nothing was different. At our house, every day seems like a special event. Thank you for a wife that cooks so good and smiles so much. Thank you for a kitchen table where we spend so much time together as a family. Eating. Talking. Laughing. Three things I take for granted. Three good and perfect gifts from you.

Father, you have blessed me in many ways. Help me to only worship you, the Giver of those blessings. Protect me from worshiping the blessings. And help me to be quick to tell you thanks, not only for the millions of blessings you send my way each day but for the greatest gift of all – your Son, Jesus Christ.

It’s in his name that I pray.

And it’s because of him that I have a reason to say thank you.

Amen.

The Essential Guide of Movie Quotes for Your Use During Those Awkward Conversations at Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanksgiving is coming up. For most of us that means a lot of good food with family and friends. For the Detroit Lions it means the beating of their lives on national television. But for a select few folks, it means enduring several agonizing hours of awkward conversations with even more awkward family members.

Fret not!

Whenever Aunt Agnes decides to tell you that you should have married “that nice fella you dated in the seventh grade instead of that slob sitting next to you” or how you look like you’ve put on a few pounds, you no longer have to wish for that perfect comeback. Just let the movies be your guide. That way, if you get into trouble, you can just blame it on Hollywood. Win, win!

To help you get started, here are a few examples of potential awkward quotes from those even more awkward family members along with the solid selection of theatrical responses at your disposal.

Agnes, no one’s quite sure how she’s related to the rest of the family but they all just do what she says anyway: “I’ve gone to the trouble of giving everyone assigned seats. You can sit over at the card table in the corner.”

Cousin Billy and his six pet cats: “I think we’ll stay for a few more days. After all, the leftovers are the best part.”

Tonya, your super picky niece: “The chili tastes a little gamey. What’s in it?”

A few of the ladies: “We’re going to need someone to go to the store while the rest of us finish watching this Christmas movie on the Hallmark Channel.”

Your Great Grandma, the one who, 40 years ago, stopped caring about the words that come out of her mouth: “It looks like you’ve put on a good twenty pounds since last year. And you’ve started going bald. Oh, but you look so happy.”

Kennedy, your know it all nephew who just finished his first semester at some big time university out on the west coast: “Look, I don’t know what all of the fuss is about. I think the Affordable Care Act is great!”

You can thank me later.

Oh, and my sincerest apologies if you can’t think of any awkward friends or relatives and people keep quoting movie lines to you.

See you in December.

A Holiday Message to Christians

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There’s something that I hope you will remember over the next few weeks while you prepare for Thanksgiving and shop for Christmas. Read carefully because this is very important. Okay, here it is.

You are not being persecuted.

That cashier with the bubbly personality that sends you off on your way with a, “Happy Turkey Day!” or “Happy Holidays!” is not attacking your faith. Most likely, she doesn’t even realize what she’s saying. When you snap back and correct her with, “I think you mean Thanksgiving Day” you’re probably doing more harm than good. But if you insist on convincing yourself that your rudeness is really a vigilant stand for what is right, please do not bring God into it.

“Have a happy holiday, ma’am.”

“Well, you have a merry Christmas, you socialist pig. My family worships Jesus!”

If this is you, or even close to being you, perhaps you should consider the possibility that instead of being persecuted you are the one doing the persecuting. While you may be doing a fine job of defending Thanksgiving and Christmas you are doing a poor job of representing Christ. And what have you really gained if you beat someone into saying the word Thanksgiving or Christmas?

Instead of fighting over linguistics maybe it would be better to simply be nice to the poor kid that’s been standing behind a cash register for 8 hours dealing with disgruntled shoppers like yourself. I don’t know, maybe you could ask her if she has anything she needs you to pray for. I can guarantee you that this will do her soul much more good than a stern lecture on the history of holidays in America.

Anger is our new national pastime. People are angry about everything.  Most of them will want to take that anger out on Brittany, the minimum wage teenage cashier at Kohl’s that’s been told to say “Happy Holidays.”

Christian, this is your shot to really stand out (Matthew 5:16).  Come on, I know you can do it. If nothing else, just be nice and say, “Thank you.”

And then, on your way home, you can pray for your brothers and sisters around the world who are really being persecuted.

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