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The hype surrounding the Super Bowl every year seems to have as much to do with the anticipation of new, funny, cutting edge, multi-million dollar television commercials as it does with determining the NFL championship on the field of play.  Conversations among viewers of the Big Game in living rooms across America are intermittently silenced by the shout of, “Quiet!  The commercials are coming on!”  Tens of millions of adherents sit transfixed to their flat screens as the prophets and priests of Consumerism exuberantly (and quite cleverly) proclaim the latest revelations about beer, computers, cars, cell phones, food, and more.

This year, it is an understatement to say that the impact and value of the Super Bowl commercials is being raised exponentially by a 30-second ad that has been produced by Focus on the Family.  It features Tim Tebow, winner of the Heisman Trophy in 2007 and quarterback for the Florida Gators, with whom he won two BCS Championships.  While the text of the commercial has not been released, it is expected that it will recount the story of the decision that Tebow’s mother, Pam, faced as she experienced extreme complications with her pregnancy while serving as a missionary in the Philippines in 1987.  Doctors recommended that she abort the child for the sake of her own health and life.  She didn’t.  On August 14 of that year, she gave birth to her fifth child, Timothy Richard Tebow. 

Thank you, Pam and Tim Tebow, for the openness of your faith, the power of your testimony, and your willingness to share your story.  Thank you, Focus on the Family, for producing this pro-life commercial and for spending the millions of dollars necessary to air it.  Thank you, CBS, for rethinking your policy regarding “advocacy” commercials and for not bowing to the demands of influential political and social groups that the commercial be pulled from the broadcast.  While I know that this will open the door for advocacy ads for causes that I do not support, that is the way it should be in a free society that values free speech and the open exchange of ideas.

It is reported that the word abortion is not explicitly used in the Tebow ad.  It doesn’t need to be.  I deeply appreciate what I anticipate will be the power of the commercial’s approach, message, and tone.  No one is screaming.  No one is pointing fingers.  No one is condemning anyone to hell or calling for ungodly and indefensible violence against clinics and physicians.  Someone (a very well-known and influential someone) is just telling a story: a story of life. 

The battle over abortion will not be won in the halls of Congress, the chambers of the Supreme Court, or in voting booths.  It will be won one heart at a time, one story at a time, one choice at a time.

Last week in Poteau, Oklahoma, a monument bearing the Ten Commandments was unveiled on the lawn of a local bank.  The monument, approved by Le Flore County commissioners last year, was originally intended to stand on the grounds of the county courthouse.  However, those plans were put on hold pending the outcome of a court battle over a similar monument at the Haskell County courthouse.  Supporters of the monument in Poteau are hopeful that its current location on private property is only temporary.

Across the nation, there are numerous ongoing lawsuits, countersuits, and appeals related to the display of religious imagery (Ten Commandments monuments, crosses, nativity scenes) on public property.  Court decisions have lacked consistency and have been all over the map.  On the very same day, June 27, 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Van Orden v. Perry that the monument on the Texas State Capitol grounds in Austin (pictured above) was constitutional, but, in McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky, the same justices ruled against two similar monuments at courthouses in Kentucky.

A lot of time, emotion, and energy (not to mention enormous sums of cash) are expended by both sides in these legal battles.  I have to admit that, from a Christian perspective, I cannot “catch the vision” or “embrace the crusade” for such displays on government property.  I cannot grasp the “victory” that will be gained for faith in Christ, even if the Supreme Court ruled in favor of all such efforts.  As I have expressed in earlier posts about “In God We Trust” on our currency and statements of faith on license plates, I fear that such physical expressions can become the modern-day equivalent of the broad phylacteries and lengthened tassels against which Jesus spoke (Matthew 23:5), mere symbols, signs, and talismans that give us a false sense of confidence in our personal piety, or worse, our national righteousness. 

Perhaps the bank lawn is exactly where the monument in Poteau needs to stay.  Are we lacking sufficient private property upon which to erect monuments and proclaim our faith?  I have never seen a church with such a monument on its grounds or in its facilities.  I have never been to the home of a fellow Christian who had such a monument in their front yard.  Why is there such passion to take these battles to the Supreme Court when most of us would be reluctant to even bring the issue before our homeowners’ association? 

Then there is the question over the Ten Commandments themselves.  There is more than a little irony involved when the King James Version text appears on the monuments with its verbiage concerning the making of “graven images.”   Do Christians really want to keep the Sabbath (Saturday) as a holy day and have the government enforce its restrictions?  One wonders why Christians would not be more desirous of displaying the teachings of Jesus Christ as opposed to a law delivered through Moses.  Though Kurt Vonnegut was a thoroughgoing humanist, atheist, and skeptic who denied the divinity of Jesus, he nonetheless admired many of Jesus’ teachings, particularly the Beatitudes.  Vonnegut once questioned why Christians were not more interested in displaying “Blessed are the merciful” at the Supreme Court and “Blessed are the peacemakers” at the Pentagon.  Good questions!

I love my God, and I love my country, but I cringe when the lines are blurred between the sacred and the secular, and between Christianity and nationalism.  On the back of the Ten Commandments monument in Poteau, there also appears the preamble to the Oklahoma state Constitution, the Pledge of Allegiance, and a dedication message.  The dedication indicates that the commandments are “suggestions to live by” for people of all religions and beliefs.  Suggestions?  Both God and Moses would take issue with that.  When the monument was unveiled in Poteau, a retired minister appeared dressed as Moses carrying two stone tablets.  High school students sang The Star Spangled Banner.  God doesn’t require national endorsement.  The cross stands independently from the flag.  Christ is not dependent upon Caesar to proclaim His gospel or expand His kingdom.

I don’t believe that God is concerned about granite monuments, but He is extremely desirous to write His law upon our hearts (Jeremiah 31:31-34).  Of Christians, the apostle Paul wrote, “You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on the tablets of human hearts” (II Corinthians 3:2-3).  Being a “living monument” to Jesus is far more demanding and meaningful than the one-time effort and artistry involved in engraving an inanimate stone.  

Early last week, the last lingering remnants of snow and ice from the Christmas Blizzard of ‘09 disappeared from the north side of our house. Sustained temperatures above freezing and a generous amount of rain caused even the largest of the ice mountains in area parking lots to melt.  I have commented in the past about how much I like snow.  Our family missed the big snow storm, having traveled to Mississippi on December 23 for Christmas.  However, there was still plenty on the streets and ground when we returned.  Despite my fondness for snow, I must admit that it loses a significant amount of appeal to me after it has been on the streets for a week or more.  Its bright whiteness begins to fade into a dingy gray, and then the combination of automobile exhaust, oil, leaves, and generic grime changes it into a most unattractive, gritty black mass.  There is no possible way to restore it to its pristine beauty.  It just has to melt.  I much prefer a fluffy, freshly fallen blanket of the white stuff on the lawn, with snowy accents decorating  the shrubs and trees.

Counter to the unbiblical notion of original sin, we come into this world spiritually clean and pure and in the bonds of fellowship and relationship with our Creator.  As we age and mature, we develop a sense a moral accountability, with an ability to discern right from wrong and to distinguish good from evil.  From that point on, all of us who  possess that level of cognition and moral understanding ultimately choose to do evil and refrain from doing good (Psalm 14:2-3; Romans 3:23).  The purity of our souls becomes tainted with sin, and our intimacy with our God is compromised by our transgressions.  It is the spiritual equivalent of the soiled and blackened week-old snow and ice along the roadside. 

Scripture is unanimous in its affirmation that we possess no ability or resource within ourselves to take away the guilt of our sins.  But, it is also unanimous in its joyful proclamation that God has graciously provided the powerful, atoning sacrifice of His Son so that we can “wash our robes and make them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14).  “Come now, and let us reason together,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool” (Isaiah 1:18).  No matter how dark our sins or how serious our transgressions, the cleansing blood of Jesus can restore us to purity, freshness, and spiritual wholeness.  Praise God for His salvation in Jesus Christ!

Truffles Co-Owners Carla (l) and Amy (r)

In late November, I shared a post about the extra mile service that was provided by a Good Samaritan named Amy in Cullman, Alabama.  Since neither my family nor my sister’s was going to be with my parents on Thanksgiving, I was trying to find a restaurant that would deliver Thanksgiving dinner to them.  The Chamber of Commerce put me in contact with a local catering business named Truffles.  I called and learned that, just like every other business in town, Truffles was going to be closed on Thursday.  However, co-owner Amy graciously (and totally unexpectedly) offered to deliver a couple of meals to my folks from the food she would be preparing at home for her family.  True to her offer and her word, Amy showed up at my parents’ house on Thanksgiving afternoon with turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, green beans, rolls, and pumpkin pie.   I was completely blown away by Amy’s compassion and kindness and her willingness to provide second mile service to total strangers on Thanksgiving.

The week after Christmas, our family traveled to Cullman to spend a few days with Mom and Dad.  Kim and I took the opportunity one afternoon to stop by Truffles in order to meet and personally thank Amy.  She and co-owner and friend Carla were there, and we enjoyed a really nice visit with them.  We learned that they shared Mississippi roots with Kim. 

Before we left, Amy told us that she had a cousin, Susan, also from Mississippi, who owned and operated a home decor and gift shop in Tulsa.  What are the chances?!?  Understand that Cullman is 600 miles from Tulsa.  Amy gave us Susan’s business card.  The name of her shop is Tea and Magnolias.  Kim knew exactly where the shop was.  It is a mile and a half from our house!  We plan on making a visit there, too.  I’ll let you know if any other amazing connections are found that keep the Second Mile story going!

Today, as it has since 1986, our nation observes Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in honor of a man who devoted his life to seeking racial equality and the overturning of prejudicial injustices through the means of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance.  His life was brought to a premature end by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee.  King was only 39.  

I was less than a year old when Martin Luther King, Jr., stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his powerful and inspiring “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.  It would be a decade later before I first read the speech and began to understand why it is considered to be among the most notable and influential in American history.  King dreamed of a day when America would “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”  He dreamed of a day when his four children would live in a nation “where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  Over the last 46 years, much of King’s dream has been realized, but much still remains to be fulfilled.

I consider it a blessing that, even though I grew up mainly in the Deep South, I was shielded in my early years from the pervasive poison of racism by parents whose behavior and language treated all people with dignity and respect, regardless of the color of their skin.  As a young boy, I accompanied my father to black churches where he had appointments to preach.  When my parents served as missionaries in Liberia, West Africa, in the early 1970s, I attended the American Cooperative School (ACS) which had an international student body.  There were a dozen or more nationalities represented in my class.  In the fourth and fifth grade, I had a huge crush on a young lady named Zinnah Holmes, the prettiest girl in the class and also the best athlete, male or female.  Upon returning to central Kentucky in 1974, I showed a friend my yearbook and acknowledged my affection for Zinnah.  His response was, “Tim, she’s black.”  Either I had never noticed, or it never mattered.

As I grew older, my naiveté gave way to the sad realities of racism and the tragic role that slavery had played in American history.  Even the brilliant Thomas Jefferson, the chief architect of the Declaration of Independence which celebrated the equality and unalienable rights of all men, found a way to morally justify the holding of a multitude of slaves.  I heard racial epithets and the propagation of senseless stereotypes.  In the basement of a building at the Christian university I attended, there was a door which still bore the imprint of a sign which had read “Colored Men.”  It was the door to a separate restroom.  The sign was gone, but the evidence of past inequities remained.  Early in our marriage, Kim worked for a family, providing childcare and doing some light house cleaning.  In straightening the master bedroom one day, she found Klan pamphlets and propaganda under the edge of the bed.  She quit that day, out of both fear and disgust.  

Party, politics, and policies aside, I am very grateful that I have lived to see African Americans serve at the highest levels of our national government, including the Supreme Court and the Presidency.  I believe that Martin Luther King, Jr., would be proud of such progress.  But, there is still much to be accomplished in erasing the vestiges of prejudice and racism.  King once lamented that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning was the nation’s most racially segregated hour, the worship hour in America’s churches.  The truth of that observation hasn’t changed much over the last four decades.

Today, as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is observed, I pray that the dream is still alive.  And I pray that I have the kind of heart, language, and behavior that will help it become more fully realized.

In the recent film Invictus, Francois Pienaar (played by Matt Damon) wonders aloud, “how you spend 30 years in a tiny cell and come out ready to forgive the people who put you there.”  Pienaar was the Afrikaner captain of the Springboks, South Africa’s national rugby team, who were preparing to meet New Zealand in the finals of the 1995 Rugby World Cup.  The subject of his amazement and admiration was South African President Nelson Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman.  Mandela (prisoner number 46664) spent 27 years in prison, with most of those years served on Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town.  Kim and I had the opportunity to spend the entire month of January 1990 on an evangelistic campaign in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.  Near the end of the month, there were daily headlines detailing growing rumors of Mandela’s impending release.  His freedom came on February 11.  Just four years later, he was elected as South Africa’s first black President in 1994.

Invictus is a powerful film that focuses on Mandela’s efforts to bring about racial reconciliation and healing.  Violence and hatred had existed for decades on both sides of Apartheid’s racial barriers.  It is remarkable how much positive ground was gained through Mandela’s leadership and how much the Springboks run through the Rugby World Cup did to bring the nation’s people together.

Back to Pienaar’s question: “How do you spend 30 years in a tiny cell and come out ready to forgive the people who put you there?”  When I heard that line delivered by Damon in the film, my mind immediately connected to another question, one that causes me to feel a simultaneous sense of awe and shame.  “How can the spotless Lamb of God, the only true innocent one who has ever lived, willingly go to a cross to suffer an excruciatingly violent and painful death, and ask for the forgiveness of those who put Him there.”  “Father, forgive them.  They do not know what they are doing.”

I preach and teach a lot about forgiveness, but sometimes I struggle with it.  I don’t have difficulty with receiving it, mind you.  That is quite easy, and I am most eager to accept it.  It is in the dispensing department that I am sometimes found lacking, especially when I feel like I have been misunderstood, unappreciated, or treated unfairly.  Theologically and intellectually, I can convince myself that I have forgiven.  Then my feelings or obsessive thoughts about a situation will remind me that I have not yet released it, and I am harboring things that can only do me spiritual and emotional harm. 

The example of Nelson Mandela inspires me and demonstrates to me that I can forgive.

The example and teaching of Jesus humbles me, shames me, and reminds me that I must forgive. 

Lord, Teach Us.  Lord, Convict Us!

P.S.  Friend and fellow blogger Bobby Ross recently posted thoughts about Invictus.  Friend and fellow blogger Mike Willoughby recently wrote about dealing with life’s unfairness.  Read both for great insights.  Thanks, brothers!

Last Friday, Art Clokey, the creator of Gumby and Pokey, passed away at the age of 88.  It was only while reading the report of his death that I learned that Clokey was also responsible for some other clay animation characters that I vividly remember from my childhood.  The success of “The Adventures of Gumby” in the 1950s led officials from the United Lutheran Church in America to approach Clokey with an invitation to join them in producing a Christian-themed, children’s television series using his highly successful stop-motion animation techniques.  The result was “Davey and Goliath.”  On those few occasions when illness kept me home from church services on Sunday mornings when I was a child, one of the upsides was the rare opportunity to watch an episode of Davey’s adventures with his talking dog named Goliath.  Yeah, I know: too sick for church, but quite well enough to watch tv!  Whatever.  You did it, too, I’m sure! 

Even at that young age, I recognized that “Davey and Goliath” was different from the other children’s programming that I watched.  While certainly not “preachy,” the storylines included lessons about behavior, attitudes, and treatment of others that sounded a lot like the things we talked about in Sunday School.  I was too young, however, to pick up on the fact that the music at the beginning of the show was Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Clokey’s passing gave me an opportunity to reflect on those who have contributed their creative, artistic, and technical abilities in order to communicate, illustrate, and “bring to life” the message of Scripture and share lessons about Christian ethics and morality.  These efforts range from the Sistine Chapel to VeggieTales (i.e., Michelangelo to Mr. Lunt).  Do you remember the illustrated Bible story books that used to be found in doctors’ and dentists’ offices?  Flannelgraphs?  Flip charts?  Film strips?  Then came materials on VHS, and now DVD.  Recently, there have been successful, church-funded and produced films like Facing the Giants and Fireproof.   Many of us can remember when Hollywood spent millions to put Biblical epics on the big screen.  I recall a teenager excitedly asking my father one day if he had seen Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.  “No,” Dad replied, “I haven’t.  But, I read the book!”  That’s my Dad!

To the great artists of ages past, the teachers’ workroom coordinators of the present, those who paint murals, those who “puppet,” those who cut and paste,  those who “cartoon,” those who produce feature films, and those who use computer animated vegetables to teach us Biblical truth: Thank you!  Thank you for helping us “see” what the Holy Spirit has revealed in Scripture.

It was reported last Friday by the Associated Press that Christopher Thompson, a 60-year-old, Los Angeles-area emergency room doctor, was sentenced to five years in state prison following a conviction last November of assault with a deadly weapon, battery with serious bodily injury, reckless driving, and mayhem.  Under what circumstances did this highly trained and successful medical professional act so violently?  Annoyed with the riding habits of bicyclists on Mandeville Canyon Road in Brentwood, Thompson intentionally slammed his foot on the brake pedal of his Infiniti sedan, causing one rider to crash through the rear window of the car and another to hit the pavement so hard that he separated his shoulder.  Thompson told a police officer that he did this to “teach them a lesson.”  Thompson, also, has learned a sad, hard lesson with prison-time consequences.  In an emotional and apologetic statement in court, he stated, “If my incident shows anything, it’s that confrontation leads to escalation of hostilities.”  That last statement of truth deserves a blog post of its own, but for now I want to focus on the road rage component of the story.

Road rage has entered our vocabulary in recent years as a description of hostile words and aggressive actions by perturbed drivers on our nation’s streets and highways.  It can result in screamed insults, obscene gestures, verbal threats, tailgating and other dangerous driving behavior, beatings, shootings, injury, and death.  I hope that you have never been a victim of intense road rage, and I pray that God blesses both you and me with enough sense and self-control to prevent frustration, anger, and adrenaline from drawing us into an escalating, lose-lose scenario that ends in a hospitalization or a funeral. 

While extremely dangerous because of the size, weight, and speed of the “weapons” involved, road rage has some far more common and frequently occurring “cousins.”   These can similarly cause significant pain and injury and can have long-term consequences, though of a more emotional and relational nature.  Although anger is a natural, human emotional response, Scripture sounds clear warnings about the essentiality of processing it and expressing it healthily, righteously, and quickly (preferably, before the sun sets  – Ephesians 4:26).  I have never hit anyone with my car, but far too many times I have angrily cut them with the sharp sword of my tongue (Psalm 57:4), burned them with its fire, and poisoned them with its venom (James 3:5-8).  My most frequent victims have been those that I love the most.  Outbursts of anger are actions of the fleshly, sinful nature, not an evidential fruit of God’s indwelling Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:19-23).  Uncontrolled anger and abusive speech are a part of our old wardrobe of sin and are not included among the holy attitudes and actions with which we are to be clothed in Christ (Colossians 3:8-14).  While legitimate concerns exist about road rage, we are far more likely to yield to the temptations of its relatives that typically don’t make headlines, but nonetheless kill friendships, fracture families, and end marriages. 

Since my last blog post included part of the chorus of Brandi Carlile’s song “Again Today,” I might as well add the opening lines of the first verse, since they are pointedly relevant to today’s subject.

 Broken sticks and broken stones
Will turn to dust just like our bones
It’s words that hurt the most, now isn’t it?

In my blog post from November 5, I included a link to Brandi Carlile’s “The Story” which is the title song from her 2007 album.  It is rare for me to listen to a cd consistently over a long period of time, but The Story continues to find its way into my drive time listening.  Carlile’s lyrics are honest, poetic, and very often sad.  She doesn’t shy away from expressing feelings of failure, regret, and loneliness.  The last track is entitled “Again Today.”  Rather than posting the lyrics of the entire song, I just wanted to share the end of the chorus which states, “The path of least resistance is catching up with me again today.”

There have been far too many days in my life when I have felt exactly the same way.  Rather than challenging myself, stretching myself, and engaging in a struggle for excellence, I have succumbed to the lure and the ease of the path of least resistance.  Mediocrity has won the day when far more could have been accomplished through a greater sense of purpose, focus, and direction.

I have begun 2010 with a resolve to greatly reduce the number of days that are overly influenced by the path of least resistance.  I have identified five areas in which I want to grow, achieve, and excel.  These are not pie-in-the-sky conceptual goals, but matters that are practical, measurable, and doable.  I have reduced these five goals to five words so that I can easily reflect on all of them several times a day.  “Daily” is a vital component to accomplishing these goals, so I am calling this my 365 Plan.  365.  Every day.  Five words.  Five goals.  What am I doing “today” that will positively impact my progress in these areas?

Resistance tests our resolve, but, when met and overcome, it increases our strength.  I am prayerful that this year will be one in which I win far more battles against resistance than I lose.  I’ll let you know how it goes!  Give it a try, and let me know how it goes for you! 

This is a time of year when many people are thinking about new beginnings.  Technically speaking, there is not a lot of difference between this week and last week.  Most of us have the same families, jobs, schools, routines, and responsibilities as we did previously.  Still, from a cultural, psychological, and emotional standpoint, turning the calendar page from December 31 to January 1 can be highly significant.  December 2009 on my large desk calendar was filled with legible notes, illegible scribbling, appointments, lines, arrows, doodles, and coffee stains.  January 2010 is clean, crisp, wide open, and full of potential. 

We are all familiar with things that allow us to make fresh starts.  While our family has never owned or gotten into home video games on devices like PlayStation, Xbox, or Wii, I do remember getting fairly addicted to a golf game and Solitaire on our first home computer.  One feature that I especially loved was the “New Game” command.  If I ever got frustrated with my score on the virtual golf course or was struggling with a particular hand of cards, I could just hit “New Game” and everything was magically made new.  There was an endless supply of “do overs.”  It is like the trip odometer on my car.  Just press and hold for a moment, and everything zeroes out.  The accumulated miles are instantly erased from the display.  Numerous gadgets and electronics have reset buttons that will restore them to a pristine state, just as if we had never messed with them or messed them up.  Computer games and trip odometers are mundane and trivial.  Our souls are not. 

Because of Jesus and His sacrifice for our sins, we have the opportunity to start over spiritually.  Through God’s grace and gift, we can “begin again” in our relationship with Him.  We can be “born again” (John 3:1-8).  In the faith response of baptism, we are raised to walk in “newness of life” (Romans 6:4) and share in the “washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).  In Christ, we are “new creations”; the old things have passed away; new things have come (II Corinthians 5:17).

When God forgives our sin, He does so completely and forever, just as He promised.  “I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:34).  “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).  Just like the “clean slate” of an erased chalkboard.  Just like the well-shaken Etch A Sketch of our childhood.  God “clicks and drags” over the sins of our lives with the blood of Jesus and hits “Delete.”  There is no “Undo” command that can make the guilt of those sins reappear.  They are forever forgiven. 

Thank you, gracious Father, for letting us start over!      

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