Monthly Archives: July 2012

Paisano Baptist Encampment: A Wonderful Time Warp

Alpine: This week I took an amazing trip back in time just a little less than 240 miles from El Paso. My wife and I attended for the first time the “Paisano Baptist Encampment” which is nestled in the far West Texas hills between Marfa and Alpine. Back in 1915 a group of ranchers began to meet on this spot for a time of spiritual refreshment and renewal, along with a great time of family fun. In 1921 a small village of rustic buildings and sheds dotted the plain and this hallow spot became home to an annual family gathering around the preaching of God’s Word under a huge tabernacle canopy.

When my wife and I pulled into the camp grounds we drove down dusty trails leading through small settlements of white cabins. We wandered around until the trail lead us to the huge tabernacle which seats over 1800 people that towers over the grounds. All around us we saw small gatherings of families  sitting under the shade of a tree and children on bikes racing to wonderful destinations.

Unlike the modern feel of most Baptist campgrounds, Paisano takes you back in time when the people of God gathered in country settings to get away from the hustle and bustle of modern living to slow down and to live at the pace of the plains under the starry nights. At any moment you expect to see a couple of Cowboys ride up, and to smell the wood burning in an old chuck wagon stove.

At 8:00 in the evening as the sun set in the East, the families gather in the tabernacle to worship to the rhythms of the old hymns of the faith. The organ bellows and the piano rings out the familiar sounds of the songs sung through the ages. As you look around you see grandparents pointing to the words as their grandchildren sing along with them “new” songs to them that have been sung for generations. The volunteer choir sang out “Victory in Jesus” at the top of the lungs with huge smiles on their faces. It was clear they knew the victory they sang about.

When it came time for preaching every one settled in to hear a word from on high. Through the decades some of the greatest preachers in Texas Baptist life have preached from the old wooden pulpit in the center of the room–names like Truett, Criswell, Web, Yates, and Tidwell. In recent years the preachers have been Randel Everett, Duane Brooks and Hulitt Gloer.

After the evening service we were invited to join a family gathering back in one of the settlements close to the dining area. As we walked up we saw a happy smiling gathering of a multi-generational family. The synergy in the circle was breath taking. With the stars shining brightly above someone pulled out a guitar and began to lead the gathering in the old cowboy songs of the plains. As the friends and family sang “Home, Home on the Range” and “Deep in the Heart of Texas” I thought to myself that I had been beamed back to another time–a kinder gentler time lost from the distractions of cellphones, computers and television–a time when the evening was reserved for quiet conversation and the children running in and out of the house–a time when cousins knew each other and treated each other as siblings rather than distant relatives. I wished for an instant I could capture the essence of the moment and take it back to my world.

At Paisano, God has created a place in time where family really means something. I noticed from the license plates and travel logs that this gathering was not an accident. Family members traveled from one end of this great nation to another to get here for a vacation for the soul. My mind was drawn to the words of Jesus when He spoke of “finding rest for your souls…”

Needless to say, I am going back and I hope to take my girls with me next time. I know I will be a latecomer to the party, but I plan on becoming a fixture. I need a dose of “reality” in my life because I find myself too often distracted by those things that are not real.

Next July, you may want to take a trip back in time and find rest for your soul as well! It’s a long drive but it’s worth the trip.

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Bitter or Better: A Story of Grace in El Paso

Regardless of the age of your children the death of a child will always be a parent’s nightmare. Recently the El Paso Times reported on a court case that stirred my emotions as a parent and a follower of Jesus.

A twenty-two year old young man faced sentencing for a hit-and-run accident when his car struck and killed a twenty-nine year old man. In a moment of panic the young driver sped from the scene and eventually abandoned his car in hopes of escaping the horrors of what had happen, but the evidence led detectives to his door, and soon he was justly convicted of his crime of fleeing the scene.

On the day of his sentencing, Rene Chacon asked the family of his victim for forgiveness. He turned to the family and said,

“I apologize for any discomfort or pain I have caused you. This was an accident. I know my actions were cowardly, but I panicked. I’m sorry.”

Even though I have had a child hit by a car who escaped with relatively minor injuries, I have no idea how I would have responded to this apparent heartfelt apology. In the courtroom the responses of the two estranged parents could not have been any more different. The father in hurt and anger raged at the young man saying:

“”You left my son lying dead in the street like he was a piece of trash. My son was not a piece of trash.  You then ran like a coward with your tail between your legs without looking to see who or even what you had hit. Unfortunately, you will get your worthless life back in four years but I want you to forever remember the name Brian Lee Gattis. In closing, I want to say that you will burn in hell.”

This angry grieving father express in sharp strong words what many people feel during times of great loss, especially when children are involved. He wanted justice. He wanted revenge. He wanted this young man to suffer for his crimes and to pay the ultimate price. We have all been there. We are drawn to movies that pit good and against evil and good crushes evil and destroys it.

In sharp contrast, the mother of the victim, who flew in from out of state to attend the sentencing looked straight into the eyes of the young man who drove the car that snatched her son from her arms and said,:

“Rene, I flew in here from Montana for this, and I want you to know I do forgive you. That is the only way we are all going to move on.”

With her words grace and mercy filled the room. Vengeance is about getting even. It is about inflicting hurt out of your pain. Grace moves us on. Grace never demands the final word, but offers new beginnings and hope.

Years ago an older member of my church who had suffered his fair share of suffering in his lifetime that included the horrors of war and family tragedies said to me,

“It is not what happens to you that matters, but it is how you handle it. Bad things can either make you bitter or better.”

Rarely have I ever seen such a bold contrast between grace and hate.

On the record, Jesus shot rather straight-forward on this issue in the Sermon on the Mount when he noted:

14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14-15 NIV)

If you are a struggling with an injustice in your life today, I would strongly encourage you to take the “grace path” because this grieving mother nailed it when she said, “That is the only way we are all going to move on!” These were her final words as she hugged the mother of the young man who was sentenced to prison. Two mothers with broken hearts bound together by grace.

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30 Long Hours…Enough Said!

CHICAGO MISSION TRIP: Small clusters of teenagers, parents, and sponsors filled the parking at 6:00 A.M. on Sunday morning. The teenagers came in all states of consciousness. The junior kids bubbled with the excitement of a child on Christmas morning. The juniors and seniors staggered around like middle aged business men longing for their first jolt of coffee. The sponsors scurried around madly gathering up last minute permission slips and organizing the mountains of luggage and supplies. The parents appeared to be in various stages ranging from sheer excitement about a week long “empty nest” to tears of regret as they prepared to wave good-bye to their “little babies.”

I have witnessed this scene countless times as I have deployed short-term mission teams to various destinations around the world to do good in the name of the LORD. We deployed sixty-one students and sponsors who traveled all the way from the border of Mexico to the shores of Lake Michigan to be on mission with “World Changers” in Chicago.

The job assignment for this merry band of followers of Jesus boiled down to construction work for low-income families in the heartland. These carpenters under the supervision of the Great Carpenter were going to use their hands to fix, paint, shingle, and repair homes while using their smiles and voices to share the good news of the gospel with people who live out their lives short on good news.

I recently read a series of articles that questioned the validity of short-term mission projects from practical and theological perspectives. In recent years many churches have strategically shifted from sending funds to support career missionaries to investing those funds in their own people and their own projects.

When you deploy a mission team of sixty of your best and brightest, it would be prudent to ask yourself the hard questions like: What do we hope to accomplish and will this trip really make a difference in the world?

One of the most significant reasons why I believe we send teams on mission revolves not only around what kind of difference they will make in places like Chicago, but also what will happen in their lives. Jesus understood this principle all too well when He sent out His followers two by two to extend reach of the Kingdom in His day.

 

Robert J. Priest, professor of Missions at Trinity Evangelical Seminary noted: “Like pilgrimages, retreats, and church camps, the mission trip functions as a sustained and communal time of spiritual formation away from the obligations, distractions, and routines of everyday life in home spaces.”

Brian Howell of Wheaton College also observed: These trips should serve to teach us how we are bound up together, in our economics, in our politics, and, most importantly, in Christ. It is important for everyone to see how our lives are connected in Christ.

Flashback: On Monday when Madison, my daughter, arrived with the group in Chicago I texted her asking how the trip had gone on the bus. She quipped: “30 hours long…enough said!” It is a long way to go, but a short trip for an enlightened heart and life!

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The Joker: His Normal Smiling Face

Friday, July 20th, one week after a rather uneventful Friday the 13th, America woke up to another national nightmare as reports flooded out of Aurora, Colorado of another horrific scene of carnage at the hands of a masked gunman dressed in black body armor determined to kill and maim as many innocent people as possible. On a festive night when the moviegoers arrived early to be the first to see the new Batman thriller, “The Dark Knight Rises” they found themselves caught up in the terrifying action without a superhero to come to their rescue. In a manner of minutes twelve people were murdered in cold-blood, and at least 38 escaped with their lives but wounded, while everyone in the movie complex found their lives radically changed forever.

In a strange twist of fate the masked gunman surrendered to the police just outside the theater and was taken immediately into custody. Soon his picture filled the national air waves. Robert Holmes’ smiling face now haunts us. How could such a normal honor-roll student go on such a senseless rampage? What was he thinking? Or better yet why was he not thinking?

In the entertainment industry the villains fit the role. Their appearance reflects the evil at their fingertips. Yet in real life our villains look like our next door neighbors from the good part of town. It is not the tattooed up kid from the hood with chains and piercings, it is the kid in college more known for his books than his threats that commit unthinkable acts of violence.

When evil rears its ugly head, people often wonder where was God? Why did He not intervene? In fairness to God, He created this planet but He left us in charge of its management, and from the beginning of time we have made a bloody mess of it. Murder and bloodshed emerged from Adam and Eve’s first two descendents, and sadly it still rears its hideous face today. Instead of blaming God, we need to take a good long look in the mirror–a good long look around us.

We are breeding a culture of violence and raising a generation of young men hooked on graphic video games, porn, and violent movies. Our news outlets hammer us with images and reports of the violence around the world. We have spent the last ten year waging war while trying to act as if nothing is really going on. For those of us who live in El Paso, we know all too well the dark side of war in the brokenness of our returning soldiers. As one brigade commander asked me, “Please pray for the souls of my soldiers, I will bring the vast majority of my soldiers home, but I fear I will lose their souls!”

Having spend the last two years living just across the river from the most violent city in the world, I know all too well the dark realities that dwell deep in the hearts of people. Without doubt the most dangerous and vicious animal on planet earth is the human being. The prophet Jeremiah, who lived in a similar violent age, wrote:

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9 ESV)

I would strongly encourage you to read the words and look at the actions of Jesus as one who is out to confront and change a violent world. The Sermon on the Mount sounds a great deal less sentimental and fictional when you see it through the shadows of the dark night in Aurora.

Jesus knew all too well that the human race looms as the problem, but He also knows that people of faith and courage shine as the only hope–the light of the world. Now is not the time for the faithful to hide behind our stained windows and simply pray for the victims. It is time for the faithful to be strong and courageous in pointing people to the hope found only in Jesus Christ and His call to arms of a different kind.

Our nation has lost its way. Our young men need to be challenged to put down the game controllers, turn off their computers and engage the world and make a difference for good. This generation needs a reason to live–and something to live for.

Listen to the revolutionary words of Jesus anew today in the face of evil:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48)You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:8-48 ESV)

I know His words sound a bit out of step with conventional wisdom and our commitment to force as the rule of law, but just look around is our world getting better? Maybe it is time for us who claim to follow Jesus to put our faith into action and simply live out his manifesto in our lives in our day. Who knows we just might change the world for good this time!

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Reflections on Heaven

Have you read the obituaries today? I have found as I get older I find myself from time to time scanning the obituaries to make sure that my name was not on the list! With age comes an increasing awareness of the slender thread that holds my life. Death crouches at the door waiting of us all, but don’t forget Jesus has once and for all time robbed death of its sting.

Recently I had a conversation about death and eternity with someone traveling the dark valley of the “shadow of death.” In the midst of the discussion I encountered a common, yet misleading idea about eternity. Many hold to the view that heaven will boil down to nothing more than a huge elaborate eternal worship service complete with choirs and harps! In addition many believe that our relationship with God will be the “only” relationship of our eternal existence. In other words, we will be so in awe of being in the presence of the Lord that we will be oblivious to anyone and everyone around us. We will live in a state of “stunned worship.”

Granted “I can only imagine”, as the song goes, what it will be like to bow in the presence of our Lord, but I believe He gave us hints that eternal life will be much more like life on earth but this time on steroids! If eternity revolves around nothing but worship “why a new heaven and new earth”? Why not just a huge sanctuary or temple? A new earth indicates to me, that God has a plan and purpose for my eternity just as He did for my present life. Jesus spoke of us “ruling and reigning” with Him. This idea stirs my imagination into believing that I will have a job to do in eternity…better yet a “calling”.

In addition, Jesus gave us a glimpse of the family atmosphere of heaven in John 14 when He spoke of His Father’s house with many “mansions” or “rooms.”

A big, big house with many rooms sends the strong message of a large dynamic family all living together under the small roof.

In a large family, a father has a vital relationship with all the children, but the children also have relationships with each other. My love for my father and his love for me does not diminish my love for my brothers or their love for me. In other words, in heaven we will have a wonderful growing relationship with our Heavenly Father, but we will also be part of one big happy family made us of His sons and daughters, who may just happen to be our own sons and daughters, wives or husbands, and our parents. You see it appears heaven will be a huge healthy family system that spins out unconditional love, joy, and acceptance day in and day out. Talk about heaven.

I have found through the years many strange ideas about eternity. Many of them rooted in sad superstitions, bad theology, wives’ tales, or silly ideas. We would be wise to remember that the same One who created the wonder and mystery of life on planet earth will be in charge of eternity.

I think your eternal life rests in good hands—nail scarred hands to boot.

For me eternal life looks like an incredible life just over the horizon. Besides heaven gets sweeter and sweeter each year as dear friends and family members of mine go on ahead of me into glory. I guess you could say that lately “I got heaven on my mind” and it feels good.

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Vacation Bible School: Then and Now

This week our church hosted Vacation Bible School (VBS) for the children of our church and community. VBS always brings back a flood of memories from my own childhood, and I must confess things have changed!

Back in the olden days, the opening assembly of VBS began with the children lining up outside and then marching in slow parade following children carrying a big “family” Bible, the American Flag and the Christian flag. During the service, we pledged allegiance to the flags and the Bible, and stood up and sat down to the sounds of notes ringing out from the piano. At times the opening assembly was closer to a “solemn assembly” than it was to a worship celebration.

In the classrooms, we learned about Jesus and the great Bible stories from “flannel story boards”. On these boards our teachers tried to make “two-dimensional” figures come alive in our imagination.

Today VBS blows back your hair like a West Texas windstorm. From the open assembly to the final prayer in the midst of the clamor of children it is a total body, soul, spirit experience.

The VBS music of today stirs the hearts and minds of the children in amazing ways. The original songs put to music the verses and the themes of the week. The children sing and “dance” (Oh I meant to say “moved with rhythm and choreography” to the beat of the song!) By the way one of the most glaring reasons I did not dance as a young Baptist had more to do with my coordination than my theological convictions! If you don’t believe me just ask my wife Robyn, a converted Methodist, who danced her way into my heart.

In downtown El Paso the experience of VBS reminded me of what heaven will be like one day.  During the parent’s night the children performing on stage created a choir that would rival any choir in heaven. Blended in beautiful stunning harmony sang together children with family roots from Africa, Europe , Asian, and South America. From a distance it looked like a “mini” United Nations minus the conflict and the discord.

It reminded me of one of my childhood songs which rang true in their faces: “Jesus loves all the little children…all the children of the world…red, and yellow, black and white…they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves all the children of the world!”

I know He does, and I pray we will too!

 

Let me close with a vivid reminder of why we open our hearts to children. On the last day, I was invited for a question and answer time with a large group of boys and girls who had just completed the fourth grade.

I must admit they peppered me with questions that we more challenging than my ordaining council many years ago. At the close of our time in a private moment one young man caught my eye and asked me a couple of probing questions I will not soon forget.

 

He opened by asking me: “Are you a Christian?” I smiled and nodded “yes”. Then he asked, “What does it feel like?”

He stunned me into a moment of silence. I responded “It feels like someone loves me and will always love me. It feels like knowing my life is secure in God’s hand…it feels like peace.”  What does it feel like to you?

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The Andy Griffith Show: “God’s Show”

As a student at Baylor I returned from class to find my roommate on the couch watching television. On the “black and white” screen (remember this was a long time ago) I saw the familiar faces of Sheriff Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith) and his side kick Barney Fife (Don Knotts) sitting in the courthouse solving the problems of Mayberry, North Carolina with homespun wisdom and insight.

As I sat down, my roommate Jeff said, “Do you want to watch God’s show with me?” I had never thought of it in those terms, but upon quick reflection I realize he nailed it. “The Andy Griffith Show” was the gospel come to life on a 19’’ black and white screen. It was the story of good winning over evil. It was the story of a sheriff without a gun being the most powerful force in a small town. It was the story of how when we hold each other in “grace” life is far less complicated and confusing.

This week Andy Griffith traveled home to a “land that is fairer than day.” With his passing, I realized how my life was shaped by his mastery of his craft—the craft of storytelling. Griffith took the power of the parable from the ministry of Jesus and put it on the small screens filling the living rooms of America. During my childhood, television became the “babysitter” of a generation. Television shaped and molded the values of a generation of children taking in the story lines without censorship.

Sadly, the entertainment industry moved away from the family friendly themes found on the streets of Mayberry to the flash and glamour of the palm tree lines streets of 90210. Recently I caught a few episodes on Netflix of the television series “Friday Night Lights” to witness a small west Texas town like the ones I have lived in filled with stories of wild sexual escapades, drinking parties, dysfunctional families, and people of faith living out lives of hypocrisy. We have come a long way–I fear in the wrong direction.

Nearly twenty years ago, I read the book “Roaring Lambs” written by Bob Briner. In the book, he challenged people of faith to reclaim lost ground. He observed how the church in its efforts to change the world sent its best and brightest to foreign fields as missionaries, and yet we lost the high ground in our society in places like New York, Washington, D.C., and Hollywood. Rightfully he observed that if we wanted to change how the next generation saw the world, we needed to send our best and brightest as “missionaries” to Hollywood to be ambassadors of Christ in the entertainment industry. He knew all too well that the entertain industry is not really about entertainment it is about “values”—it tells the stories that shape how we see the world.

This week we lost a light in the life of Andy Griffith. I pray a new generation of storytellers will take his place, and speak into the generations to come stories of grace and hope found in the storyline of Jesus.

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