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I first remember the bearded face of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow from the Authors card game that my sister and I had when we were in elementary school.  We would sit at the kitchen table and competitively seek to complete our sets of cards bearing the names and portraits of writers like Robert Louis Stevenson, James Fenimore Cooper, Louisa May Alcott, and Alfred Lord Tennyson.

It was only this week that I learned of the tragedy behind Longfellow’s trademark beard.  In July of 1861, his wife Frances was severely burned when her dress mysteriously caught fire in their home.  In rushing to her aid to extinguish the flames, Henry himself was quite badly burned.  Frances, the mother of Longfellow’s six children, died the next day.  Longfellow was devastated by Frances’ death, just as he had been when his first wife Mary died after a miscarriage in 1835.  Longfellow’s facial injuries from the fire caused him to stop shaving. 

On Christmas Day, 1863, Longfellow was still grieving the death of Frances.  He was also deeply troubled by the news that his oldest child, Charles, had been seriously wounded in Virginia while serving in the Army of the Potomac in the Civil War.  But, despite his downcast heart and mind, his spirits were lifted by the sound of church bells ringing near his home.  That day, he penned “Christmas Bells” which was later set to music in the Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

While hate is still strong and still mocks the song of “Peace on Earth,” Longfellow was absolutely correct to proclaim that God is neither dead nor sleeping.  Right will prevail.  Wrong will fail.

Despite difficult and trying circumstances that you may be experiencing today, I pray that each of you will rejoice in the inner calm, tranquility, and hope that can only come from the Prince of Peace.  The unbroken song continues.  Merry Christmas!

“Promises made, and promises broken; measures of our demise…”  So begins the song “Promises Made” on Dan Fogelberg’s 1977 album Nether Lands

Everyone can relate to broken promises.  When commitments have been made and expectations have been created, there is a great sense of disappointment when one fails to make good on their word.  Depending on the magnitude of the matter, failure to deliver on a promise can leave people disillusioned and hesitant to trust again, lest there be additional letdowns and emotional pain in the future.  Sometimes the promise is as mundane as, “I’ll call you later.”  Sometimes it is as weighty as, “For as long as we both shall live.”  Sometimes there are good and sincere intentions that just don’t come to fruition.  Sometimes there is outright deception from the beginning.  Sometimes our disappointment is in others.  Sometimes it is in ourselves.  Such is the nature of the promises of man.

It is such an awesome blessing to trust and serve a God Who Delivers, a Father whose promises never fail.  Unlike Satan, whose very nature is that of a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44), it is impossible for Yahweh to speak what is untrue (Hebrews 6:18; Titus 1:2).  He is the God of Truth, whose Son is the Truth, and who has sent the Spirit of Truth.  All of God’s promises are “yes” in Jesus Christ, our Amen (II Corinthians 1:20)!

God fulfilled every Messianic prophecy by sending the Christ to be our Savior.  In the same way, He will fully deliver on His promise to rescue us from death and grant us an eternal home in glory.  God has spoken.  He has promised.  It can’t not happen.  Forgive the double negative, but you get the point.  It HAS to be!

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23).

Hannah is home from college for Christmas break.  Someone asked me yesterday if Coleman had missed her and if he was excited to have her home.  My answer was that, since Coleman does not talk, it is often difficult to gauge exactly what he is thinking and feeling.  That was my answer yesterday.  My answer today is different. 

As I was getting ready to head to the office early this morning, I saw that Coleman was snuggled up close to Hannah in the king-size bed in the master bedroom.  Yes, Hannah and Coleman slept with Kim in our room last night, and, no, that is not unusual at our house when Hannah is home.  I bailed out for more private quarters.  I need my space!  As I was about to leave this morning, I noticed that Coleman was awake.  Hannah was not.  God has blessed that girl with a coma-like ability to sleep, as evidenced by the fact that Coleman’s actions did not rouse her in the least.  I stood and watched him for several minutes.  He would flick the ends of her fingers, then hold her hand briefly, interlocking his fingers with hers.  Then, he would let go and start the process over.  Flick.  Hold.  Flick.  Hold.  Once, he broke the sequence by patting her on the head a couple of times, then just looked at her for a moment.  You know what they say.  “Actions speak louder than words.”  Coleman was saying, “Yes, I’ve missed you.  Yes, I’m glad you’re home.” 

Missing people is a part of life.  It means that we love and care about others.  It means that we feel a sense of loss when they are not with us.  It means that, since they are a part of our lives, we ourselves are somewhat diminished when they are not there.  

Christmas is a time of “togetherness” and an occasion for great gatherings of family and friends.  Yet, despite the joy, festivity, and feasting, it is quite natural to miss those who are not present.  It would be strange if we didn’t.

This week, many people will experience their first Christmas without a significant family member or friend.  Our friend Shelly Thomas lost her grandmother a little over a week ago.  As I am typing this blog post, our friend Bobby Ross and his family are driving to Tennessee for his grandmother’s funeral.  This Christmas will be different for those families.  Still joyful?  Absolutely.  A tinge of sadness?  To be expected.  I lost my first grandparent, Josh Pyles, on Christmas Day, 1984.  I think about him every Christmas.  Last Christmas was my first one without a grandparent.  Granny passed away last November at the age of 101.  I really missed seeing her, as I will this year. 

There is an old hymn that begins, “Beyond this land of parting, losing, and leaving….”  What an eternal blessing!  No separation.  No death.  No goodbyes.  No missing. 

Kim and I have been blessed to live in several places since we married, and we have established treasured friendships everywhere we have been: Tennessee, Hawaii, Alabama, Texas, and now Oklahoma.  To our friends whom we have not seen in a while, whether it has been a few weeks, a few months, or a few years, please know that we miss you.  Missing you is a good thing.  It means we love you.

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.”  (II Corinthians 8:9)

Incarnation; the Word became flesh (John 1:14); Immanuel, God with us (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:22-23); God sent forth His Son, born of a woman (Galatians 4:4); He shared in flesh and blood (Hebrews 2:14); He emptied Himself, being made in the likeness of men (Philippians 2:7).

My last blog post was about two poverty-stricken, cave-dwelling brothers in Hungary who are set to inherit an estate of $6.6 billion from their recently deceased grandmother.  Their rags to riches story parallels our transformation from spiritually bankrupt, hopeless sinners to heirs of the eternal kingdom of God through rebirth and adoption in Jesus Christ.  Yet, in order for us to inherit such spiritual wealth, God’s Son had to become poor.  The Creator laid aside the glory and grandeur of heaven to become enveloped in human flesh, miraculously conceived within the womb of Mary, born weak and helpless like any other baby, swaddled, and laid in the humble surroundings of a feeding trough.  Frank Houghton beautifully expressed the wonder of the Incarnation in his Christmas hymn, Thou Who Wast Rich Beyond All Splendour

Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender,
Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becomes poor.

Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest man;
Stooping so low, but sinners raising
Heavenwards by thine eternal plan.
Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest man.

Thou who art love beyond all telling,
Saviour and King, we worship thee.
Emmanuel, within us dwelling,
Make us what thou wouldst have us be.
Thou who art love beyond all telling,
    Saviour and King, we worship thee.     

This, He truly did for love’s sake!  This, He truly did for our sake!

Two weeks ago, a story was reported from Budapest, Hungary, about two brothers, Zsolt and Geza Peladi, who made a meager, subsistence living by selling scavenged junk and lived in a cave on the outskirts of the city.  Officials tracked the Peladi brothers down recently after their long-lost maternal grandmother passed away in Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany, leaving an estate worth $6.6 billion.  German law prescribes that direct descendants are entitled to share in any estate.  Once they can produce their mother’s birth certificate, Zsolt and Geza will travel to Germany to claim their inheritance which will be shared with a sister who lives in the U.S.  From cave-dwellers to billionaires!  Now, that’s an inheritance!  It is almost too much to fathom and fully appreciate; totally unmerited, undeserved, and unearned.  They were just a part of the right family!

Such is our eternal inheritance that has been lovingly, graciously, and mercifully granted to us in Jesus Christ.  We were spiritually destitute, impoverished, homeless, and hopeless in sin.  “Remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12).  But, we were born again into the family of God, born again to a living hope to receive “an inheritance which is undefiled and will not fade away, reserved for you in heaven” (I Peter 1:3-4).  We have received adoption as sons and daughters of God, fellow-heirs with Christ who will “share in the inheritance of the saints in Light” (Colossians 1:12).  The redeeming and atoning blood of Jesus has rocketed us from zero to eternal glory; He has changed our status from spiritual cave-dwellers to citizens and heirs of God’s eternal kingdom.

I wish the Peladi brothers and their sister well, and I sincerely hope that they do not find a way to squander their billions.  Corporations do it with regularity, and humans have demonstrated an uncanny ability to foolishly and extravagantly spend their way through enormous inheritances.  We should be forever grateful that even an eternity will not diminish the glory of our inheritance in Christ!  Totally unmerited, undeserved, and unearned; just a part of the right family!          

A year ago last night, December 13, 2008, there were about 40 friends gathered in our home in Carrollton, Texas, for a Christmas party with a twist.  After most people had eaten, I got everyone’s attention and invited them to press themselves into the living room as best they could.  I thanked them for being there and for their particular role of encouragement to me and my family over the previous few months.  Next, I told them of the other reason that Kim and I had invited them: to share with us in a vow renewal ceremony that would be officiated by my dear friend, co-worker, and brother, Mark Bryson.  Hannah stood with Kim as her Maid of Honor.  Jim Cassity was my Best Man.  I would have asked Coleman, but he was more interested in watching videos and playing on his computer in his room.  I didn’t take it personally, and Jim seemed happy to oblige.

We had been planning the party for a little over a month, but had only told Mark and Laura about renewing our wedding vows.  It was so encouraging  to see everyone’s genuine surprise and sincere joy for us.  As he began the ceremony, I asked Mark to read the following:     

“On March 12, 1988, Kimberly Anne Gray and Timothy Dwight Pyles were united in marriage at the Northside Church of Christ in Corinth, Mississippi, in the presence of many friends and family members.  In the nearly 21 years that have passed since then, God has blessed their life together in many ways, but none greater than the gift and blessing of the birth of Hannah Virginia on September 26, 1990 and Coleman Bradford on February 19, 1993.  As a family, they have shared many, many joys, as well as a few sorrows, but God has faithfully been with them through their entire journey, strengthening them through His Holy Spirit and leading them through His Son Jesus Christ.  Over the last four months, Tim and Kim believe that their faith, their marriage, and their family have been tested, tried, and attacked by Satan more than they ever have before, and yet a loving God and Father has delivered them and blessed them with renewed love, closeness, commitment, and confidence for the future.  As a means of praising God and celebrating the healing that has come to their marriage and family, Tim and Kim have assembled this special group of friends to witness and share with them in a renewal of their wedding vows.  Your presence here this evening means so much to them, as does the love, prayers, and encouragement that you have extended to both of them in recent months.  The ceremony this evening is mostly a repetition of the words and vows of love and commitment that were first spoken by them over 20 years ago.”

Thanks to everyone who shared in the joy of that occasion with us, both those who were present and those who were not.  It has been an eventful year since that evening last December, a year full of new beginnings, blessings, surprises, discoveries, and adjustments.

Happy Re-Anniversary, Kim!

While the official beginning of Winter is not until December 21, we got our first real taste of wintertime temperatures this week here in the Tulsa area.  The thermometer didn’t seem to care about the calendar in the least.  Neither did the wind. 

It was about 20 degrees one morning when I drove in to the office.  As I passed the entrance of a housing development, I noticed a group of children waiting for the school bus to pick them up.  Thankfully, all of them were wearing coats, but with the wind blowing like it was, I know they had to be getting cold.  That probably explains why they were positioned like they were.  They were “huddled.”  They were facing one another in a very tight circle with their hands in their pockets.  Their heads were bent down into the circle, shielded from the cold wind.  They looked like penguins or other animals that you might see on a nature or wildlife program.  They were sympathetically and symbiotically utilizing their resources for the benefit of everyone in the group.  Everyone contributed to “the cause” and everyone gained from it.

God has “huddled” us in the body of His Son.  He didn’t just save us through the blood of Jesus Christ and then leave us in isolation to sink or swim on our own.  He didn’t abandon us to a solitary life of trying to “fend for ourselves” spiritually.  He added us to an assembly, a church, a community of “called out” people, a vast priesthood of believers, a kingdom of heaven’s citizens, and a family.  We exist interdependently.  We bear one another’s burdens.  We rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.  We restore and lift one another up in a spirit of humility and gentleness, realizing our own weaknesses and need for help.  We encourage and spur one another on to love and good deeds.  Like the early church in Jerusalem, we pool our resources so that no one’s needs go unmet. 

Those schoolchildren could have demanded their independence, insisted that their coat was their own, proudly and stubbornly kept their distance from one another, and each of them would have suffered for it.  But they found warmth, strength, and comfort in togetherness.  We distance ourselves from God’s people only to our own hurt and the detriment of others.  “I need you. You need me. We’re a happy family!”  Apologies to Barney and Friends for altering their theme song.  I also sincerely apologize for putting that tune into your head for the rest of the day!

As I mentioned in a blog post back in October, in a moment of enthusiasm while addressing I Corinthians 14:19 in a sermon, and in an effort to emphasize the vast superiority of just five intelligible words over ten thousand words spoken in an unknown language, I quite spontaneously promised the congregation that I would prepare and deliver a five-word sermon on an upcoming Sunday.  I really should just stick with my outline!  Winging it is dangerous!

I fulfilled my promise on November 29 and shared a lesson in which I only spoke the words God, Sin, Jesus, Risen, and Come.  The remainder of the message was provided by a PowerPoint presentation that included numerous passages of Scripture and a few songs related to these five words.  I had some apprehension about how effective this approach would be in communicating the message, but I really shouldn’t have been surprised that it proved to be as meaningful and engaging as it was.  After all, the lesson was basically an opportunity to focus our eyes, minds, and hearts on the living, active, and powerful Word of God.  There was a wonderful calm and quietness in the assembly as worshippers read the Scriptures and let them sink into their hearts.   The silence was periodically punctuated with the sounds of praise as songs were sung and as the congregation stood together to read the last two Scriptures aloud before the final song.  People commented afterwards that they not only felt strongly connected to God, but also felt an intense closeness with their brothers and sisters in the assembly.

The whole experience was a humbling reminder to me that the Holy Spirit really doesn’t need my commentary on what He has powerfully revealed in Scripture.  The Spirit of Truth is the One who convicts the heart, not me (John 16:7-11).

I converted the PowerPoint presentation to a video format and replaced the song software slides with just the lyrics of the songs.  Obviously, the songs took longer to sing than the time in which the words appear in the video, but hopefully you will still be able to get the general feel of the experience.  Due to YouTube limits on length, I had to break it up into two parts.  It will take you about 11 minutes to watch both.  Find a few quiet moments and allow your focus to fall on the Word. 

God, Sin, Jesus, Risen, Come!

“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” (Romans 5:8).

 

 

photo by M. Spencer Green / AP

An Associated Press story last week described the extensive measures that are being taken to protect the Great Lakes from a foreign invader, the Asian carp.  Why all the concern?  Asian carp, which can grow up to 4 feet in length and weigh 100 pounds, consume up to 40% of their body weight in plankton on a daily basis.  The fear is that the voracious appetite of the non-native fish would critically diminish the food supply of smaller fish and put at risk a $7 billion annual fishing industry in the Great Lakes. 

Flooding during the 1990s allowed Asian carp to escape from Southern commercial fish farms into the Mississippi River.   A rapidly expanding population of the fish has been moving northward up the Mississippi ever since, threatening native species all along the way.  Of primary concern has been a 250-mile system of rivers and canals that connects the Mississippi to Lake Michigan at Chicago.  In 2002, environmental officials installed an electrical barrier to repel the fish.  The system had to been turned off last week for maintenance, so authorities released poison in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and began looking for the invaders among the thousands of dead fish.  Only one Asian carp was found in the canal, but it was far too close to Lake Michigan for the comfort of environmentalists.  One official described this as an “emergency” situation, and other means are being considered to halt the invasion.  Keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes is serious business!

What level of effort do we put into guarding our hearts?  To what lengths are we willing to go in order to protect our souls?  Every single day we encounter a variety of spiritual invaders and influences that are not native to the Kingdom of God.  Satan, through his deceitful scheming, seeks to use them as canals and channels into our hearts.  He is at war for our souls.  He knows that if he can populate our minds and emotions with impurity, greed, anger, malice, and bitterness that they will destroy the environment in which compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience can grow (Colossians 3:5-17).  Slander, abusive speech, and lies will characterize our speech, since the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart (Matthew 12:34).

This calls for extreme vigilance on our part. 

“Be of sober spirit, be on the alert…” (I Peter 5:8).

“Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life,” (Proverbs 4:23).

Our hearts, our souls, and our eternity are of infinitely more value than the Great Lakes fishing industry!

It has been almost a week since news first broke that golf superstar and endorsement titan Tiger Woods had been involved in a single vehicle traffic accident outside his home.  The initial, sketchy details of the incident bore a sense of oddity about them that was almost like a giant neon “Welcome” sign for questions and speculation.  It didn’t take long for that invitation to be eagerly accepted by the media with its insatiable hunger for scandal.  The first round of revelations resulted in Woods expressing his embarrassment over the situation and requesting privacy for himself and his family.  Subsequent allegations of extramarital affairs have elicited a more specific statement from Woods admitting personal transgressions, a failure to be true to his values, and a failure to be the husband and father that his family deserves.

I’ll leave it to the tv and radio talk show hosts, sports writers, and the rest of the blogosphere to comment on the sordid details of the allegations and to follow this story from every conceivable angle over the coming days and weeks.  The worst may not yet be known.  However, the best and most effective use of my time and effort is to pray for Tiger, his wife Elin, their two young children, and even for the women who claim to have had relationships with Woods.  God has demonstrated from the Beginning that He can and will work wonders with those who have fallen, those who are in crisis, and those who will call on His name.  Jesus died for precisely the kind of people that all of us have been at one point or another.  Our sins certainly differ, but not our sinfulness.  I have read that Tiger Woods is a Buddhist, following the faith of his mother.  While the tenets of Buddhism may have helped him deal with his admitted stubbornness and impatience in the past, I pray that his faith may ultimately turn to the One whose blood is the only true means of cleansing from sin and freedom from guilt. 

Tiger and Elin, I pray that genuine resolve and sincere recommitment will lead to healing and the restoration of wholeness and happiness in your marriage.  I pray that your two precious children will be immeasurably blessed by having a mother and father who work through the pain of failure and remain together to nurture and guide them.  I pray that, in decades to come, you can share the joy of having your grandchildren with you in your home.

Stories can end this way.  Stories do end this way.  They just don’t sell as many magazines or generate as many website hits.  May the Woods’ lives return to the bliss that Tiger has described in the past as “boring.”

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