Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Trouble with White

It doesn’t feel so much like Christmas when it is 80 degrees outside.   So although I love living in South Carolina, I am always glad to head north for a few days over Christmas.  Being in New Hampshire for Christmas does not guarantee a white Christmas, but it does greatly increase my chances.

I remember my first winter in New Hampshire after growing up in Southern had been a brown and ugly December with only one very brief snow.  But on Christmas morning, we woke up to a beautiful, new world.  Our home looked like a perfect post card.  I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

In fact, when I lived in New England, I loved nothing more than to get up any morning and see the world covered with a white blanket.  It was so fresh, so clean, so perfect.  It meant an extra hour in my morning routine digging my car out, but I still loved fresh snow.

Those to whom snow is more than a screen saver know, however, that the perfect white blanket soon gives way to a mess.  Almost as soon as the snow hits the earth, a dirty salt mixture gets sprayed on the roads then scooped up into brown piles on the side of the road.  The salt and dirt mixture finds its way on to cars, into cars, on to people, and into buildings.  It’s a mess. 

Snow covered branches eventually give up their burdens and just hang there—barren and ugly.  If it doesn’t melt, the snow has to be raked off of roofs to keep them from caving.   

Life after snow is such a bummer.

That’s the trouble with white.  It doesn’t stay white.  Take my little white dog for example.  I’ll wash her, brush her, put perfume on her, and she will be the cutest little thing you ever saw in your life.  For about 10 minutes. 

Then she will go play in the dirt.  She loves to play in the dirt.  And the whiter she is, the more likely she is to go dig a hole into the muddy darkness.  For no reason.

It exasperates me sometimes, but it also reminds me of myself—washed whiter than snow, cleaned, forgiven—and prone to sin.  Desperately, hopelessly prone to sin. 

No sooner will I get white and clean then I will mar the beauty of purity—like I never even cared.  I will sin on accident.  I will sin on purpose.  I will go dig a hole. For no reason.  I’m a mess.

The trouble with white is that it doesn’t stay white.  And every stain shows.  If I brush up against my blueberry smoothie wearing a black sweater, no one will know.  But if I wear white, I most assuredly will brush up against it, and the rest of the day, the world will know I had a blueberry smoothie for breakfast.  That is the trouble with white.

And that is what Christmas is all about.  This world was a cursed and broken place.  God in His grace sent His son to die for us so that He could forgive our sin and make us whiter than snow.  Then that same grace causes filthy sinners like me to repent and be washed clean.

We can’t stay clean.  But for all repentant sinners, God forgives again.  And like a new winter morning, he will make us clean again.  Make us perfect again.  Give us a new beginning again.

God grace is an amazing thing and He has demonstrated it so beautifully in creation.  But even creation cannot do justice to the amazing grace of God toward sinners—He promises to make us even whiter than snow.

I believe every Christmas should be a white Christmas.  It should be a time when we come before the throne of grace and let go of the sin that has scarred our relationships and marred our lives.  It should be a time to be washed clean; to begin again; to be perfect. 

The miracle of Christmas is the miracle of grace.  Grace that takes selfish, sinful hearts and turns them whiter than snow.


Saturday, December 21, 2013


As a kid, I loved to read.  It was like breathing for me.  I don't even really remember learning how.

My siblings and I consumed our local library and the one in the bigger neighboring town.  We read everything from from Hardy Boys to the whole wall of biographies.

But...over my five looooooong years of law school, my love of reading was beat out of me.  Absolutely executed in the cruelest of ways.  Reading became associated with school, school with migraines, and migraines with misery.  So, a good book, to me, had the curb appeal of the neighborhood landfill.  It was like taking a sledge hammer in either hand and crashing them into my temples.  Almost exactly.

After law school, I really didn't get an opportunity to return to a love of reading.  I went from reading law books all night long to reading law materials all day long.  Other than the Bible and a few Bible studies, reading outside of work hours for me was...well, I guess there's no such thing as "outside of work hours."

But gradually, I'm developing a real taste for reading again and there are some excellent books out there.  Maybe it started with encouragement from friends and Crazy Love...or before that with So Long, Insecurity!  In fact, I've become like an alcoholic when I go to the Christian bookstore.  I have to sit on my wallet to make sure that I leave some of the books at the store.

It's not the "fluff stuff;" I can only think of one fiction book I've read in the past five years (I guess if I want to just waste time, I skip the book and just watch the movie).  I read C.J. Mahaney's Cross Centered Life; Jerry Bridges Respectible Sins; Francis Chan's Forgotten God... and those just whetted my appetite.

A few have been a little less than I was hoping for, but I've thought very highly of Lou Priolo's Pleasing People which helped me maintain a much healthier perspective on my relationships with others.  And I highly recommend Slave, John MacArthur's most recent work (although I haven't quite finished it).

A friend of mine gave me a copy of Radical by David Platt.  I would describe it, but instead I'll just tell really should read it. 

Abide in Christ by Andrew Murray I read several times over.  Murray has an unbelievable gift with words and incredible depth to his relationship with the Savior.

My favorite this summer was Evidence Not Seen, the incredible biography of Darlene Diebler Rose, a missionary wife during World War II.  The account of her story while imprisoned in a Japanese labor camp not only kept me oblivious to the crying child in the airplane seat next to me, but taught me so much about the faithfulness of God.

Finally, while on my trip in Japan, I found a copy of Lives Given, Not Taken, the challenging story of every day Christians who gave all.  Perhaps it especially resonated with me since most of the people were not "career missionaries" or pastors.  They were grocery store managers, youth leaders, college graduates, and doctors.

I guess what I want to say is this, if you aren't reading, you are truly missing out.  I've found that the right kind of books can feed and strengthen my faith.  And with the advent of Amazon and so many other book sellers, you can get a book for a penny and have it shipped to your door for a few bucks. 

Even in this media driven society, there is still power in the written word.  If you find yourself feeling weak, burned out, or discouraged with your walk, you just might want to consider the old fashioned remedy of a great book.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Big Blue Nation

When I stopped to count it up, I realized that even though I've never "lived" there, I've spent somewhere just shy of a year of my life in Kentucky. Mostly eastern Kentucky--which truly deserves its own acknowledgment and perhaps it's own star in the flag.

It's coal country, natural gas country, and four wheelin' country; but the thing that seems to bring them all together is the way they love UK basketball.

In case you are not familiar--the Rupp arena seats 22,000 people and it will be sold out every home game. In fact, you probably can't get a ticket if you weren't born with one.

I'm not saying they are cultish about basketball. I'm saying they are what comes after cultish.  It's not like they have flat screen TVs playing the games at their wedding receptions--it's that you don't get married on game days. Not if you want your groom to show up.

Santa wears blue in Kentucky, and if you're in Lexington on game days, you won't see much besides blue.  I've never seen blue grass in Kentucky; I think it the country got its name from all the UK Fans looking at the world through blue sunglasses.  

Due to the generosity of some of our clients (prompted by an untimely scheduled funeral), we were blessed with tickets to a recent UK game. Tickets, we were informed, some of the locals would about shoot us over. 

The Rupp arena is strategically connected to both a mall and a hotel. So when the 22,000 fans descend on Lexington, the food court will be full of bright blue shirts. And if you are an out-of-towner trying to sneak in without getting shot, you can buy a blue shirt, sweatshirt, jacket, hat, pants, muffs, pajamas, or Hello Kitty doll.

This particular game was at 9:00 pm on a Tuesday.  It was cold and snowy and generally a terrible time to be out. And as we were entering the arena, people were outside in the cold wearing signs that said, "I need to buy tickets!"

It was tempting, but I put my game face on and we marched inside.  In our section, all the seats were held by season ticket holders. They know who they are sitting next to. In fact, they probably know about everything there is to know about them.

Consequently, the people next to us immediately recognized us at outsiders, but they were kind enough to let us pretend for the night.

I was a little surprised by the demographic of the crowd at first. There were a lot of middle age people and even more older folks.  I guess that makes sense--They probably have a little more time and a little more money on their hands. 

They kicked off the game with live music, fireworks, and a lot of enthusiasm from the crowd.  I did see a few empty seats in the nose bleed section, but not many for 9:00 pm on a school night.  Kentucky easily got the ball from the start--thanks to the seven foot center who made the other team's 6 foot 9 players look like they needed to do some growing up. 

Most of the fans--at least the older ladies--think of the team as their sons.  And no one was allowed to say anything negative about their boys but them.  If the other team so much as breathed on one of "their boys," they would threaten them with slow and painful death.  But if one of the boys missed a shot or a pass, they weren't above letting the boys know what they thought of them and why.

The opposing team--Boise State--was undefeated so UK fans took special delight in watching them spend the night chasing the UK score. 

It was impossible not to catch some of the enthusiasm.  Maybe the blue from my shirt was bleeding into my veins.  I shouted "white" and "blue" and "go cats" with the rest of them.  We truly did have good seats--about 10 rows up behind the clear backboard-- close enough to see just how young those kids were, but hopefully far enough that the players couldn't hear the lady behind us yelling, "What's the matter, 'Pointless'?"  Put the ball where it belongs!"

 Nothing makes for a bad day in Kentucky like a mark in the L column.  I can only imagine the pressure those kids were under.  The quality of life of hundreds of thousands of fans lies on their ability to get the ball through the net. 

And maybe a year in Kentucky is long enough that I'm starting to take a little bit of ownership.  Who knows, maybe it was my yelling "go cats" that helped them score those last few points...or my seal motions that caused the other team to miss theirs.  Either way, I was one of the happy faces coming out of Rupp arena at 11:30 at night. And Wednesday dawned a beautiful day in Kentucky.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Joy Bells

As a teenager, my dad took us to a small church across town on Sunday evenings.  When I say small, that is what I mean.  There would be about a dozen people, and seven were my family.  The rest were over the age of seventy. 
They were sweet people and they loved to have us join their Sunday evening routine.  We would open our hymn books and the pastor would take favorites.  My sister would accompany on the piano as we picked the same handful of songs.  Despite the age of the group, it was not unusual for us to sing “Arky, Arky” and strain our voices to reach the high notes of “Wonderful Grace of Jesus.”
After we were sung out, Pastor Dana would preach to us and then the “whole church” would go to Denny’s. 
I remember all the members of that small congregation.  Best of all, I remember the pastor’s wife, Louise Dana.
I first met Mrs. Dana when I was in kindergarten and I had liked her then.
She always dressed smartly.  Her two inch pumps would match her dress and her chunky earrings would match her necklace.  She was pleasantly plump—she didn’t bother with any diet that came between her and a banana split.   And she had an amazing laugh.  She laughed loud and she laughed often.  Wherever she was would be a party.
When we started attending some ten years later, Mrs. Dana had not changed a bit and probably neither had the evening routine. Mrs. Dana knew the staff at Denny’s by name and they knew her.  We would talk and laugh and she would eat a banana split. 
Then came the news that Mrs. Dana had Lou Gehrig’s disease.  I didn’t quite believe it--she was so full of life and I just couldn’t imagine her anything but her boisterous self.  But she seemed to handle the news well.  She would be there every Sunday evening happy. 
The effects of the disease came on gradually.  Her speech became a little slurred and she became less mobile.  We never talked about it at church.  Everyone knew; we just didn’t know what to say.  Things stayed at their “normal” routine, “Wonderful Grace of Jesus” and all.
Her speech continued to get more slurred although she tried hard to communicate.  When we couldn’t understand, we’d nod and smile.  The evening outing to Denny’s just wasn’t the same though when the boisterous storytelling was replaced by a few laborious phrases.  Her mind was still sharp, but everything she wanted to say and every laugh she wanted to laugh was trapped inside and it couldn’t get out.
Then one week we got a new hymn request— “Joy Bells.”  And she requested it every week after that.  It started, “You may have the joy bells ringing in your heart and the peace that from you never will depart…” 
Mrs. Dana couldn’t sing, but she started bringing a bell to church on Sunday nights and she would ring it every time we said “joy bells” and at the end of every line of the chorus.  It was her way of letting us know that even though she could no longer laugh, she still had joy in her heart.
One bell was not enough.  She brought two…then three…then four…and each week she would ring her bell to make her request and make us ring the bells as we sang.  Honestly, it wasn’t very musical.  But from Mrs. Dana it was joyful.
Time continued to waste away and so did Mrs. Dana.  She had her husband bring Krispy Kreme donuts to church because it was all she could eat and she wanted to share them.  Even on a Krispy Kreme diet, she was now less than 90 pounds.  She would sit silently in the pew and when we said hello to her, she would do her best to give a slight nod.  But when we sang her song, she would ring her bell.  That was all she had left. 
When I rang my joy bell, it was neither musical nor joyful.  I would be too choked up to sing.  I felt strongly for this dear woman whose body could no longer communicate in the ways she loved best.
Or maybe it did.  I doubt any of us who knew Mrs. Dana will ever forget the joy that was her strength in the most difficult of circumstances.  She expressed it in a means and with a fervency that none of us will ever forget. 
That was probably 16 years ago, and I haven’t sung “Joy bells” since her funeral.  But I’ve thought of it many times—always with the collection of souvenir handbells ringing in the background.  And I know that in heaven, Mrs. Dana is talking and laughing again.  And on earth, her memory is reminding us that despite our circumstances, we’ve been instructed to “rejoice always.”  Even when you cannot talk and cannot laugh—no excuses.  Find yourself a bell and let the world know that you are joyful—even when it is through tears.


Thursday, November 28, 2013

Giving Thanks
Four Days.  I had just been given an unexpected and incredible four days off work.  And I was going to use them by staying home—something I haven’t done much this year. 
It’s been a tremendous year—I’ve had some of the most inspiring highs and devastating lows.  I’ve moved.  I’ve traveled.  I’ve worked.  I’ve played.  I’ve been blessed to have three hundred and some days of 2013 and most of them have been absolutely packed full.
So these four days at home were badly needed—badly enough that I turned down the family invitations to travel for Thanksgiving.  I have had furniture sitting unassembled in a box for four months.  I have checkbooks that needed to be balanced, bills that needed to be filed, a car that needed to be cleaned, purchases that need to be returned…the list goes on.  In fact, I made four lists, one for each day—law, real estate, “Remember,” and personal stuff.  And I planned to start with the list I would enjoy the least and work to what I would enjoy the most—just to make sure it all got done.
That meant that Day One would be spent at the office.  I had a long list of projects backed by promises to clients.  Without the phone ringing, with less e-mail and other interruptions, I would be able to make a serious dent in the list. 
I was up at my normal time on Wednesday, had an extra-long devotions, worked out, and was at the office a few minutes before 8:30 in blue jeans for the first of my four days “off.”
By 11:30, I had accomplished nothing.  Not one thing was crossed off my list.  But I still had a lot of daylight left and I was sure that over the course of the afternoon, I would be able to wrap up some of the things I had started.  
By noon, I could tell I had an obnoxious headache coming on.  I wasn’t ready to give up on the day, but I was going to have to take some medicine and try to rest until it kicked in.
Unfortunately, this was one of those times that pain killers killed nothing but brain cells.  I dragged myself back to the computer and wrapped up a few promised projects.  But I was good for nothing else.  Even if I could force myself to continue staring at the computer screen, no one would want to pay for the use of my brain.
So, it was about 4:00 in the afternoon when I put on my pajamas and crawled into bed—a cold compress on my head and the hopes that at some point, sleep would give me some relief from the tight burning sensation in my head that rendered my entire body useless.
One painful minute ticked into the next.  My phone buzzed with calls and text messages but I couldn’t even open my eyes to reply.  All I could do was lie there and be miserable.  So much for my lists.  Day One was a dismal failure.
My mind continued to run through the lists of things that I NEEDED to get done with my long weekend.  I was more and more overwhelmed by the minute.  And I could do nothing.  Not even send a text message.
I crawled out of bed to grab head phones and set my phone to play worship music.  I could do nothing except worship.  And I realized almost immediately that of all of the things in the world that I needed to get done over Thanksgiving, worship should have been at the top of my list. 
I soon found myself singing along with Kristyn Getty and Laura Story.   The peaceful strains of “Be Still and Know” convicted my Martha heart.  The quiet confidence of “Bow the Knee” nearly brought tears to my eyes and so did the timely lyrics of “Come Weary Saints.”  The creative levity of “Don’t Let me Miss the Glory” caused me to raise my hands in the dark.  I felt inspired by the Ball Brothers’ “It’s About the Cross” and humbled by the now “old song” “Make me a Servant.”    Charles Billingsly’s “The Pleasure of My King” helped me keep perspective as my head throbbed and my mind was tempted to wander back to frustration of not being able to get up.    
One by one, the songs spoke to me, making me increasingly grateful for my migraine.  It reminded me of the Sunday School lesson I had given on Sunday, something about giving thanks in everything.  I may be the only one who remembers the lesson, but if there is only going to be one, let it be me. 
I’m thankful for this migraine that turned my heart of tasks into a heart of worship.  I’m thankful for a God who gives us weaknesses on purpose so that we will accomplish His purpose.

“Rejoice evermore.  Pray without ceasing.  In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” I Thessalonians 5:16-18