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It’s fun to get email from readers.  It lets me know somebody actually reads this column.  This week, a reader asked me, based on the June 23rd article that I titled “Searching,” what was I searching for.  Once again my sarcastic button wanted to be pressed with “I’m supposed to ask those questions, not you.”  I’m getting better.  I did not even type such a rude response.  Jesus, keep whispering in my ear please.  

I did sit back and think about his question a bit.  I thought about all the things I have chased in the past.  The list is too long to put in this article.  I don’t think the Bluffton Today has enough room for all my wanderings.  

Probably the top three quests I have engaged on would be respect, wealth, and an acknowledgment from my dad that I was valued.  There are long stories behind all three.  I will be brief.  I think I heard the editor’s sigh of relief.  

Last week I wrote about being a different thinker than the rest of my family.  When one feels like the odd-ball we tend to be the odd-ball.  I was raised in a family that did not demand success but it was quietly expected.  Being the youngest and the odd-ball I tended to thirst for respect.  I was my own worse enemy.  I had a chance to go to be in University of Maryland’s doctorate program.  I turned the offer down.  I don’t know why I did that.  To this day it might be the only thing I have done that I truly regret.  I do know one thing.  It would not have satisfied my desire to be respected.  I know it was only a temporary solution.  

For some time I like most Americans who bought the American dream chased up the ladder searching for financial security and a sense of wealth.  Let me just say this, it only takes one major error or event to take all the mullah away.  Wealth does feel good at the time but it is very fleeting.  The biggest problem is once you get “there” (wherever that is) it has to sustained.  Even at that we tend to want more.  It doesn’t matter how much money one makes.  We will spend it or never think we have enough.  Jesus said you can’t serve two masters.  He was right.  

The one that has probably caused me the most problems is the seeking acknowledgement from my dad that I was valued.  It wasn’t my fathers problem.  It was my interpretation of life.  Honestly, dad didn’t necessarily go out of his way to express value to anyone.  He was somewhat a quiet man.  He was obsessed with his business.  He worked hard and his parents didn’t pat him on the back either.  He didn’t degrade any of us either.  Somehow, I wanted Dad to express my value and I never really got it.  I then tried to get it from others.  Thankfully, my friend Bob about 15 years ago picked up on it and he worked with me on it.  I don’t need Dad’s pat on the back.  All I need is my Heavenly Father’s love.  That’s all anyone needs.  Human moms and dads will let us down.  I know.  I’m a dad.

That’s the short versions.  I have also done other ventures seeking God only knows what.  In a few days I will turn 60 years old.  I ‘m still not sure how that happened.  Just yesterday I was 40.  The old body doesn’t do what it used to.  The brain thinks it can but everything seems to move in slow motion.  Here I am entering the last phase of my life and I was asked, “What are you searching for?”  I can answer clearly. 
I’m searching for peace.  I’m tired of the fight.  Some of it is my life has to become simpler.  Less grass to cut.  Less junk in the garage.  Don’t look now, my garage is jammed.  I can’t wait till the next yard sale.  My motto used to be ‘If we haven’t touched it in three years, it’s time to go.”  Now it’s, “If we haven’t looked or touched it in one year it’s way over due to go.”  The biggest thing is I want peace in my relationships.  In the book of James (Jesus’ half brother) he asks a good question.  “Why are there fights and arguments among you?”  I can answer that one.  My wife wants to go to the Okatie Ale House for dinner and I want to go to New York City Pizza.  She wants chicken fajitas and I want pizza.  Better yet, she wants to go to Disney World for vacation and I want to go to the mountains.  Get the picture.

James answered the question as I did.  He wrote, “You want something and you don’t get it.”  He even says, “You ask of God but it is too late.”  You know it’s too late when you are praying to change someone else and not you.  

I’m tired of wanting.  In church work our wants just take on a “righteous” aura.  In reality it’s the same thing as when I was making big bucks fixing cars.  I want things my way.  Do you think my desires bring peace to anyone much less myself.  No way possible.  

I can get rid of the stuff that clutters my life.  I can slow down a bit and get some things off my plate.  That is all good.  But to gain peace in my life especially in regards to my family and friends as well as my neighbors (that’s what Jesus called them) I need to practice a simple Jesus equation.  He said, “In order to find your life you must lose your life.”  Help Me Jesus.  Please.  

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A few years ago I had the privilege of spending two weeks in Australia. We flew into Sydney on Christmas Day. It was a remarkable trip. Snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef was fantastic. God’s creation is incredible below the water. We had our shoes melt in the Outback, stayed right outside the Sydney Opera House, visited Darwin and Melbourne and saw what was left of the Twelve Apostles (limestone stacks along the southern shores). I would love to go back one day.
We saw the Twelve Apostles on a bus tour of the Great Ocean Road. After we traveled as far west as time allowed we cut across the fertile area of Australia heading to Melbourne. This area is farmland and cattle country. It is the opposite of the famous Outback.
As we traveled suddenly someone gasped and asked the bus driver if he could stop for a picture. It didn’t take long to understand the request. In the field to our right stood hundreds of sheep. They were not your ordinary sheep. They wore yellow raincoats. Yes, you read that right. Yellow raincoats that covered not only their body but their heads including their ears. It was a sight to see. The only problem was the bus driver would not stop. Company rules did not allow a roadside stop.
The yellow raincoated sheep quickly became the talk of the bus. Eventually the driver turned on his microphone and gave the Americans and a few Europeans a quick lesson. It seems that virgin wool (the expensive kind) is wool that is unblemished. How do you keep wool from being damaged by weather and the environment? You protect it while it is still on the sheep. Thus, we have yellow raincoat clad sheep.
The lesson did not stop there. It seems that virgin wool has been around before yellow rain coats. The bus driver told of shepherds who would wrap the newborn lambs with a long cloth often covering the young lamb in multiple layers of cloth. As the lamb grew the shepherds would rewrap it. This process went on over and over until shearing day.
What does this have to do with Christmas?
I was watching a video by Rabbi Son Sobel, a Messianic Rabbi. He spoke concerning the significance of the baby Jesus’ swaddling clothes as recorded in Luke. It seems that the angels appeared to Levitical shepherds not the ordinary low life shepherds often spoken of this time of the year. The Levitical shepherds were raising the sheep in their care to be the unblemished Temple sacrifices. The lambs would be born in a cave directly in the care of the priests. They were not your run of the mill sheep born in the field exposed to the elements.
The lambs as soon as they were born would be swaddled. In other words, they would be wrapped in “swaddling cloths” since they had to be unblemished to qualify as a sacrificial lamb. Their wool was “virgin wool.”
It was these shepherds that got a message that there was a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. They would find him in a manger. That manger was a cave. These Levitical shepherds were given more then a message of a sweet baby in a manger that they had to go see. They were given a message and a visual proclamation of the coming of the Messiah who would fulfill the Scriptures coming to be the unblemished sacrifice taking away the sins of those who believe in him..
Lately I have been amazed to see and understand the depth of the Bible that extends Jesus and truth beyond nice stories. We have cleaned up these stories way too much. They go much deep. They are immersed in the proclamation and revelation of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. People have asked me why I believe. I can’t help but believe. Who would have imagined that swaddling clothes had any significance. I have heard all sorts of explanations about swaddling cloths. Some say it foretold of the burial cloth of Jesus. Some point to the custom of the day among poor families. Others say it showed the proper care for a baby. But, it was only the shepherds who were called to go and find the “baby wrapped in swaddling clothes.” Of course. It was the Levitical shepherds who would understand the significance. It is this type of detail that confirms my belief in the one they named Jesus.
Tonight we will celebrate the birth of Jesus. Even his birth clothes details his destiny…to be the perfect sacrifice for our sins. We do not come to celebrate the birth of a baby. We celebrate the birth of the Redeemer, the Messiah, the Christ. He is worthy of more than a token appearance.

Merry Christmas!

In a culture a long long time ago (1977 to be exact) a classic was born.  People lined the sidewalks anxious to view a new world.  A new cast of heroes emerged.  They were men, women and children and a few beasts as well.  Star Wars was here and here to stay.  Forty years later and the force is still with us.  It helps when Disney studios purchases the production rights.

In the past, posed in a future context (Star Wars paradox) outside of an explosion of new special effects a galaxy of the imagination would amaze our world.  Lightsabers, Ewoks, and Jedi Knights would become the norm.  A new breed of individuals, Luke Skywalker (gotta love that name), Hans Solo, Princess Leia and Yoda (my favorite) would engrain themselves in our lives.  Today they give our old heroes, Superman, Batman and Aquaman a run for the money (literally).  Evil gets a new persona.  Darth Vader, Kylo Ren, Darth Maul and the worst one, Darth Plagueis personalize the dark side.  By the way, does anyone know what “Darth” stands for?  I’ll make it easy for you.  It means “Dark Lord.”  George Lucas was brilliant.

This week Episode VIII:  The Last Jedi will be released.  Episode IX will come in 2018 and there will be more in the near future.  Follow the money trail…it leads to unknown planets where the battle between good and evil rages on.

Star Wars has entrenched itself deeply into our culture.  Certain quotes have become commonplace.  “Luke, I am your father,” is often heard in our family especially when one of the kids asks “why?”  “Laugh it up Fuzzball”, “Size matters not” and the #1 of all time “May the Force be with you,” dominate our memories and slip easily off our tongues.  Star Wars is more then a movie.  It has engrained itself generation to generation since its birth and continues to grab us scene after scene.

Along with the Star Wars avalanche has come a breed of films focused on Super Heroes, Marvel Classics and more that not only reveal the fight between good and evil but continue the desire for someone to rescue us from evil’s influence.  While every hero wrestles at some point with their calling Star Wars takes the hero to a new level with their commonality.  Luke, Leia and Hans could be your next door neighbor.  Actually Star Wars culture says everyone has “the force.”  It is only a few (the Jedi) who are born with the ability to engage it.  They are born with a purpose and calling to oppose those who have fallen victim to the dark side of the same force.  The Jedi are of simple birth with a calling of epic proportions.

Star Wars was more then a timely special effects futuristic yet historic film full of fantastic imagination.  In a sense it is a commentary on real life.  Our issues are cloaked in Star Warese.  Family issues prevail.  Fear of living like a clone exist.  Political battles with little middle ground dominate the screen.  Evil lives.  The need for something more than a good effort dominates the soul of any Star Wars fan.  Now we can relate.  Maybe that is part of Christianity’s problem, we don’t relate well.

Hollywood has been one of the biggest purveyors of Christianity and it might not even know it.  Every element introduced in each episode has elements of the gospel story.  Evil reigns.  Good falls.  Everything mentioned so far can be found in the pages of an actual ancient document that reveals a force, a hero of epic proportions and a cause that will continually fight in every episode. That dark force is relentless.

This Christmas many of us can’t wait till Luke Skywalker returns (another Biblical theme) to rescue the resistance in “The Last Jedi.”  All my friends and family are waiting in bated anticipation.

Years ago, in a world far far away, a baby was born.  He didn’t bear a lightsaber.  Instead he would bear a cross.  The force was indeed with him for no mere man could walk the path he walked.  In the Apostles Creed we read, “He descended into hell,” to defeat the evil that dominates the soul of every man, woman and child.  He wasn’t the last Jedi.  He was the Redeemer, the King of Kings and for us Star Wars addicts, the Lord of Lords.  His resistance force, the Church, struggles at times without question.  Often it falls on its face.  But, this classic has an ending.  Lord Jesus will one day rescue the resistance and evil will be vanquished once and for all.  No more Darths.  Lord Jesus only asks one question over an over when he personally fought the fight right here in this galaxy. There was an exchange between Luke and Yoda in one of the first episodes.  Luke said, “I can’t believe it.”  Yoda replies, “That is why you fail.”  Jesus’ one question was the same today as it was then…”Do you believe?”

I’ve been in church ministry for very close to 15 years now. After spending a few years as a teacher I spent the previous 15 years in the business world. In business there is a constant need to look at success and failure. There has to be constant evaluation. Times change. Culture changes. We change.

If we were to run a business and cease evaluation we would not be in business long. The product and the community often are the two main determiners of success. When we had slow days we had to make adjustments quickly so slow days don’t become slow months. Too many slow months turn into a slow year. There are not too many small businesses that can survive slow years.

The church is not much different. Our product is the gospel. I would hope that we don’t seek to change the gospel. The good news of Jesus has stood the test of time. Of course it has…Jesus said he was the truth along with being the way and the life. However, people and culture change. Styles change. It becomes important for church leaders to not fall in the trap of changing gospel truth but rather to address how it is expressed and to the demographics of the audience.

I personally love to study the culture. Pop culture is amazing. Technology is doing amazing things. It is changing us. The change is often so fast we don’t have the foggiest idea life changed. It is important to know the interpretive lenses as well as the needs of those we expect to fill our pews.

Being a little different in how I view things I would like to take a left hand turn at this point. Most discussions of culture and the relevant expression of the gospel look outside the church. For a minute I want to look inside.

Every time I hear about a successful church I hear all sorts of definers. Some feel a church is successful and worth going to if it has a vibrant worship. I was asked the other day about the number of community or small groups we sponsored. I have no idea when the number of small groups defined church success. Others consider the number of service projects as a characteristic of a good church. Let’s be honest…a few of us consider a good church to be one that I get what I want on Sunday and they leave me alone the rest of the week.

Lately I have had a different view of success in the church. It has nothing to do with the righteous. It has nothing to do with programs, groups, style of worship, type of preaching and whatever else we can come up with. It has to do with people.

I saw a quote once but I cannot remember where it originated. It read, “The moment the church thinks it exists for itself is the moment it lost the right to be called the church.” That is just it. If I were to look for a church these days I would look for sound theology and good teachers. There is something I would look for that will revel these two elements. I would look for people who live on the fringe.

I would look for poor people. I would look for single moms. I would look for sinners…the ones who aren’t afraid to say what kind. I would look for addicts and adulterers. I would look for the hurting. I would look for the fatherless. I would look for those who tend not to be there.

I described the sinners who clamored to sit with Jesus. They are all over the gospel story. Samaritan women, greedy tax collectors, men with sexual issues, the unclean and the prostitutes. They know their only hope is Jesus. They don’t run away like the self-righteous. No. They run to him.

When I find them…I know that is where I belong. That is where grace becomes amazing.