The Awesomeness of Christmas is in the Simplicity of Christmas

“But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19 NIV)

Captain Gerald Coffee was a POW for 7 years and 9 days during the Vietnam War. In no context are a COVID-19 quarantine and an imprisonment in a war camp comparable, but I think many will resonate with Captain Coffee’s words about Christmas.

Christmas 1968 stands out in my memory. I had never known what real loneliness could be. And then I thought about the simplicity of Christ’s birth. Here there was nothing to distract me from the awesomeness of Christmas. No commercialism. No presents. Little food. I was beginning to appreciate my own spirituality because I had been stripped of everything by which I had measured my identity…rank, uniform, money, family. Yet I continued to find strength within. And I realized that although I was hurting and lonely and scared, this might be the most significant Christmas of my life.

What if all of us could have the most significant Christmas of our lives? Many of us are struggling with what Christmas will look like this year. Should we travel? Should we gather in large groups? Some will spend their Christmas in quarantine. Some will spend it in the hospital. Some will spend it alone in a nursing home. Some will spend Christmas in a quieter place because a loved one has died this year. And yet, all of us have the potential to have the most awesome Christmas ever. How? By dwelling on the simplicity of Christmas.

Consider the simplicity of that first Christmas. God chose a simple couple from Nazareth named Joseph and Mary. He chose a simple place—a manger. God appointed the angels to go to simple people, the shepherds, to announce the divine arrival.

But as we consider the simplicity of Christmas, our minds must dwell on the significance of Christmas. We would do well this Christmas to spend some time doing as Mary did, “pondering these things.” (Luke 2:19)

Ponder His name, Jesus, which means Yahweh saves. Ponder His name, Immanuel, which translated is “God is with us!”

Ponder again the reason for His coming – to seek and to save the lost. (1 Timothy 2:15 and Luke 19:10) He came to bear witness to the truth. (John 18:33-40) He came to give His life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:32-45) He came to destroy the works of the devil. (1 John 3:1-10)

A simple Christmas need not be a sad Christmas. In fact, in light of all we’ve experienced this year, it could be the most significant Christmas of our lives. “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” (Luke 2:10, NIV)

A Familiar Verse, Christmas, and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering

John 3:16 is likely the most well-known verse in all of Scripture. For many, it was the first verse committed to memory. Max Lucado called it the “Mount Everest of the Scriptures.” This one verse communicates to us the message and hope of Christmas.

The Personal Message of John 3:16

You have probably heard, more than once, that if you would have been the only person on earth, Jesus would have come and died just for you. Some have said you can put your name in this verse so that it reads, “For God so loved Steve that He gave His only begotten Son, that if Steve believes in Him, Steve would not perish, but have everlasting life.” Indeed the message of Christmas, the message of John 3:16, the message of salvation, is a very personal message.

The love described in this verse is not just a word, but a tangible love. Jesus showed us His love in that He came. If His coming was not enough, He came knowing He was going to die.

The Global Message of John 3:16

Not only does this verse carry a personal message, but also notice it has a global message. “For God so loved the world.” Everything we believe about God’s personal message is true for the whole world. God loves the whole world. In Jesus, He came to the whole world. In Jesus, He died for the sins of the whole world. He wants the whole world to believe in Him. He wants the whole world to be saved. Indeed, the last book of the Bible describes the worship scene in Heaven in which there are gathered people of “every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” (Revelation 5:9)

If you want to be like Jesus, you must have the same passion and priorities of Jesus. We must adopt the same purpose Jesus had.

How do we respond to this “global” message of John 3:16?  We must go!

  • We must pray God will give us a passion for the whole world.
  • We must pray God will give our churches a passion for the whole world.
  • We must pray we would be sensitive and obedient if God says, “go.”

I remember hearing someone preach while I was in seminary and he used this to challenge our student body regarding God’s call on our lives. He said, “Most of us say we are willing to go, but in reality we are planning to stay.” He challenged us to reverse that notion and instead be “planning to go, but willing to stay.”

God does not want us all to go, but He does want us to see the whole world. And for some of us, He will call us to go. Will you be willing to go, should He call?

Whether we are called to go or not, we are called to participate in global missions, and that brings us to the annual offering of Southern Baptists called the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.

The Sacrificial Message of John 3:16

“For God so loved the world that He gave”! What sacrifice! Since Christ sacrificed for us in such a way that He gave Himself on a cross, should not we sacrifice so all the world might know He died to save them from their sin? All of us should think deeply about what we are going to give to missions this year in hopes that someone will have the opportunity to hear about Christ.

Would you consider putting missions at the very top of your Christmas list? Would you consider spending on missions at least as much as the most expensive gift you are going to buy? If we really care about the world knowing Jesus, can we do anything less?

In the words of our own Southern Baptist missionary heroine, Lottie Moon:

“Why should we not … instead of the paltry offerings we make, do something that will prove that we are really earnest in claiming to be followers of him who, though he was rich, for our sake became poor?”

They Do Have an Amen Corner After All!

One of the sporting world’s most celebrated events, The Masters, occurs this weekend. Usually occurring in the spring when the azaleas are in bloom, this year’s event will have a backdrop of fall foliage. The world’s best golfers will compete over four days for a total prize purse of 11.5 million dollars. The winner gets 2.07 million and the coveted green jacket. Even those who usually have no interest in golf are likely to tune-in at some point this weekend.

Holes 11, 12, and 13 on the course are called Amen Corner. This got me thinking about a few of the spiritual lessons we can glean from golf – and not just the ones relating to “throwing your clubs in the water!”

I have actually seen entire devotional books written with this in mind and although I am not an accomplished golfer, a couple of spiritual lessons stand out to me. New Testament writers used sporting imagery from their day to convey spiritual truth. So, on this Masters weekend, I offer a couple of spiritual insights from the great game of golf.

  1. Bad things happen when you do not keep your eyes on the ball. That’s true in golf and life. I have a tendency in golf to look up to see how far I hit the ball. The problem is I tend to look up before I hit the ball. As believers, when we fail to keep our eyes on the ball of seeking first God’s kingdom, we soon find ourselves seeking another kingdom. Similarly, when churches fail to keep their eyes on their main mission which includes evangelism, discipleship, and missions, they often find themselves chasing matters of trivial importance.
  2. It’s the next shot that matters most. In golf and in life, we are going to make some bad shots. What we do after the bad shot is what really counts. On the golf course, I have seen people so upset about a bad shot that they quit in the middle of the round. Unfortunately, I have seen some people give up in life as well. In Christ, we can’t do this. Because of God’s forgiveness, we always get another shot.

In what areas of your life have you taken your eyes off of the ball – off of God’s plans and purposes for you? It doesn’t matter if you’ve landed in the sand, the rough, or even out of bounds, it’s your next shot, your next move, that matters most. When the Psalmist found himself in the rough, or out of bounds, if you will, he discovered this truth – even when he falls, he will not be overwhelmed because the Lord holds his hand, Psalm 37:24 (HCSB)

As long as your next move includes prayerful repentance as needed and a confident request for God’s wisdom, you can rest assured you’ll round “Amen” corner in great position for your next opportunity.

Louisiana Baptists Are Gathering

This year has brought about more challenges and cancellations than any of us care to recount. For those meetings and events that were scheduled, more times than not, they happened virtually rather than in person. This has been true for us as Louisiana Baptists.

Therefore, I am excited to meet in person for the annual meeting of Louisiana Baptists. We have made significant changes to the format to streamline our business while complying with COVID considerations, but our plans are to gather in person for this important, once-a-year event.

So please join us on Tuesday, November 10, in Guinn Auditorium on the campus of Louisiana College in Pineville. Registration will open at 11 a.m. and the meeting will begin at 12:45 with worship led by Ricky Draper, Worship Pastor at First Baptist in New Orleans. We will conduct business, hear reports, and celebrate God’s faithfulness amidst the great challenges of 2020. The meeting will conclude about 5:00 p.m. following a message from Steve McAlister, Pastor of Westside, in Natchitoches.

Resilient will be our theme – certainly appropriate for this year. We realize it may require resiliency to make it to this year’s annual meeting, but we do hope you will come and gather with other Louisiana Baptists as we corporately commit ourselves to advancing God’s Kingdom in our state. Visit LouisianaBaptists.org/AnnualMeeting to pre-register your church’s messengers.

Lord, We Are Weary!

Lord, we are weary! Especially your people in Louisiana.

First, it was COVID-19. We spent weeks leading the nation in cases per capita. We went home. The economic impact of that is still being felt. When people went home, gas prices plummeted. So many of our people who make their living in the oil and gas industry suffered. Some were retired before they planned to retire. Others were not so fortunate. They are just unemployed. We are weary.

Then hurricane season arrived. Six times we have been in the “cone of uncertainty.” The “cone of uncertainty” became the “certainty of catastrophe” with Hurricane Laura. We. Are. Weary.

We are weary of blue tarps, if there is even something left to tarp. We are weary of FEMA. We are weary of the hum of the generator. And yes, we are tired of our new guest Jim Cantore. We are weary from all that has been lost. We are weary of the debris that is piled up at the road waiting to be removed.

Like Elijah of old, some days we want to find a tree to sit under to pray, “Lord, I’ve had enough.” But Lord, and I’m laughing to keep from crying, the tree was blown down by Hurricane Laura.

And, now comes Delta. Dear Lord, we’ve run out of names this year and have turned to the Greek alphabet. Lord, we are weary.

And Lord, while we are confessing, we are worried. We are worried that Delta will finish off what is left of us. We’re worried people are so weary that they won’t return. We are worried that the volunteers, who have blessed us so much, won’t return because they too are weary.

And so, we wait. We wait the next advisory. Will Delta shift east or west? A little slower or a little faster? What’s the exact timing? How long will we be without power this time?

But Lord, as we wait, help us, more than anything, to wait on you! For you have told us in your word, “Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7) I am going to claim that peace today, even as I work on the thanksgiving part. We don’t see an exception to the “anything”–no footnote that exempts hurricanes, so we wait in prayer.

And as we wait in prayer, help us to wait in faith. You said, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart.” (Proverbs 3:5) That challenges our faith as we pray.

And as we wait, help us worship. As you have reminded us so many times before, it’s hard to worry and worship at the same time. So please, let worship consume us, so worry won’t.

And we will watch. We will watch for you. We remember Jehoshaphat’s prayer, “We do not know what to do, but we look to You.” (2 Chronicles 20:12)

As you told Moses, with the Red Sea before him and the army of Pharaoh behind him, “Stand back and see the salvation of the Lord.” (Exodus 14:13)

So Lord, take your weary, worried, and weakened people, and be strong on our behalf.

Connecting Your Six Degrees

I’m sure you’ve heard of the six degrees of separation. Popularized in music, stage, and screen, the idea is that all people are six degrees (people), or fewer, social connections away from another person. To put it another way, we all know someone who knows someone who knows someone, until in only six relationships, we are all connected.

A few years ago, I attended a Texas Rangers baseball game in Arlington. At the Ball Park in Arlington, there is a playground area for young kids. During the game, I went with my son Josh, about 8 at the time, to play some of the games. As I was watching Josh play, I found myself in a conversation with a rather excited woman—dressed head to toe in Texas Rangers attire. I happened to be wearing a University of Louisiana at Lafayette t-shirt. She asked me about the t-shirt and indicated that she had lived in South Louisiana for a brief time as a child. She asked what brought me to the game. I said I was just visiting the area and wanted to take in a game. I wasn’t really a fan of the Rangers, but a baseball fan. Then she asked whether I was going to be at the game on the next evening. I indicated that I was not. Then she said, “That’s too bad, because tomorrow night my son, Rob Bell, is going to be the starting pitcher for the Rangers. That’s his kids out there playing.”

God encountered Moses in a burning bush calling him to go to Pharaoh to lead the people out of Egypt.  During the ensuing conversation, God revealed the name, I AM, to Moses. It’s an unusual name, isn’t it? But you see, each time that God revealed a new name, He was revealing something about Himself.

Yahweh is a name that indicates the personal nature of God.

Until this point in Moses’ life, God was a God of history. He was the God of His people. God was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. From this moment forward, God would reveal Himself as a personal God. I’m afraid that for far too many people, God is still just a God of history. He is the God of a story – but God wants to be known by you in a deeply more personal way.

As I reflect back on my encounter with the woman at the ballpark, I realized her reason for being at the game and my reason for being at the game were worlds apart. I was there because it was something to do while on a trip. She was there to watch her son. I was there to have something to do. Her presence was personal.

Two things stand out to me about my conversation with her:

  1. She was excited.
  2. She was going to tell somebody that her son played for the Rangers. I happened to be that someone.

Shouldn’t we as God’s children be equally, or even more excited than this baseball Mom? If we are, we’ll seek similar conversations and opportunities that ultimately point people to Jesus.

Whether you’re participating in the Who’s Your One effort or our own Here for You campaign, there are ways to engage those we encounter in potentially life altering conversations.

Six degrees of separation?

This may be true of relationships in this world, but it’s not good to be separated from God – even if it’s just one degree.  If you are not personally connected to God, today is the day to become personally connected to Him. God promises to draw close to you if you’ll draw close to Him (James 4:8).

If you are connected to God, seek someone who is not and ask God to use you to bring them at least one degree closer to Him.

God says He is “I Am.” Do you know Him in this personal way?

Duration

One of the most frequently asked questions I’ve received in recent weeks is, “Are y’all almost finished with Hurricane Laura relief?” That’s a relatively easy question. “NO! Not even close!”

Sometimes, the question will vary slightly – “How long will y’all be helping?” That answer is also easy, “As long as it takes.”

The reality is what took Hurricane Laura only hours to destroy will take months, or longer, to rebuild.

With that in mind, here is a true story I read earlier this year that has stayed with me.

Last basketball season, Hamilton Christian of Lake Charles defeated White Castle High School in the finals of White Castle’s tournament. White Castle is south of Baton Rouge and more than two hours from Lake Charles. When Hamilton Christian loaded their bus after 9 p.m. on Saturday for a victorious ride home, their bus would not start. Hamilton’s coach, Dexter Washington, returned to the White Castle gym and asked their coach, Troy Green, “Do you know anyone with a bus who can bring us back to Lake Charles?” Without hesitation, Coach Green said, “I can.” And, he did.

As wonderful as that story is, it’s Coach Green’s explanation that has stayed with me. When asked about his unexpected, late-night bus trip he replied, “The tournament is not over until the last team gets home.”

So it is with the sizable task before us – our job is not done until everyone gets home. We’re in this for the duration.

Thank you to the many who have already volunteered. If you can send a team, touch base with your Disaster Relief contacts and let them know of your availability. If you can’t go, pray for God’s hand of restoration and provision and give to support the ongoing relief efforts.

As we continue the grind of clean up and rebuilding, this is my prayer for us, “… may the Lord cause you to increase and overflow with love for one another and for everyone, just as we do for you.”
1 Thessalonians 3:12

Moments that Challenge Us to Respond

World War II, the assassination of JFK, the Space Shuttle Disaster in 1986 and again in 2003, the OKC Bombing in 1995, 9-11, Hurricanes—What do they all have in common? They are historical moments that impact life. They change things. September 11, 2001, changed our world. Some defining moments are historical moments that link all of us. In Louisiana, we add now Hurricane Laura to all of her ancestors.

Isaiah lived in uncertain times. The familiar words of Isaiah chapter 6 underscores this reality: “In the year that King Uzziah died.” This was a defining, historical moment in Isaiah’s lifetime. The books of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles reveal that Uzziah reigned for 52 years as King over Judah. Remember kings in this period of history were recorded as either good or bad according to their adherence to God’s law given through Moses.  Uzziah is recorded as a good king. He was a strong military leader. He had weapons that were advanced for his time that shot arrows and hurled large stones from towers. In sum, Uzziah’s reign was a good reign. His death brought uncertainty.  Would the next king follow in his steps? Would the new king lead the people closer to God or farther away from God? For a person like Isaiah who earnestly and eagerly sought after God, these were difficult times. These difficult times led to a defining moment for Isaiah—a moment that would change his life forever.

The Progression from Disaster to Defining Moment

How can historical moments of crisis and disaster become defining moments?

Look Upward! The sum of what Isaiah experiences is although King Uzziah is dead, God is very much alive. The sum of our Laura experience is although some have suffered devastating loss, God is very much alive.

Look Inward! Times of uncertainty ought to cause us to look within. Actually, for Isaiah, this is a by-product of his upward look. Because Isaiah sees the holiness of God, his attention is taken from the situation around him to the sin within him. Notice the first part of his confession: “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips.” Isaiah enters the Temple trembling concerning his situation, but in meeting God, he trembles at his sin.

Only after Isaiah acknowledges his own sin does he mention the sin of the ones around him. We usually get this backward.

Look Outward! Finally, in the midst of uncertain times we need to look outward. In this experience of being in the Temple, God ultimately calls Isaiah to be a prophet. God needs people in uncertain times to speak a word in the midst of the chaos. In times of crisis, many are overwhelmed. Many are looking to see if there is any hope. Many will look to the church, but only see similar panic and chaos. We will have many opportunities if we can look outward.

God uses historical moments in our lives to capture our attention. The question is whether we will allow these historical moments to keep our attention. May the Church rise to the occasion!

The Giants Just Keep Coming

2 Samuel 22:7

In my distress I called to the Lord;
    I called out to my God.
From his temple he heard my voice;
    my cry came to his ears. (NIV)

My Facebook memory notifications are reminding me that this week marks four years since the historic floods in South Louisiana. Our church at the time had 50 families with water in their homes. In some ways, four years seems like a lifetime ago. So it is with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita of 2005. So it is with 9-11, now nearly 19 years ago. One day, we will talk about COVID-19 the way we talk about these other life catastrophes.

All of those were, and are headline-dominant, history-making, life-altering events – giants, if you will.  And in this COVID-weary season, there often appears to be no shortage of these giants. They simply keep coming. Their shadows cover our attempts to recapture some degree of normalcy in our ministries, our families and our culture.

We know about David’s battle with Goliath, but the rapid succession of giants coming against David, as recorded in 2 Samuel 21:15-22, is not as familiar. In the span of eight verses, we learn of four giants coming against Israel. All four were descendants of that great giant, Goliath. All were notorious in one way or the other. One even had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot! Words like “again,” “another,” and “after that” dominate this portion of the story. Sometimes, the giants seem to keep coming—again and again.

We’re not facing literal giants but COVID, civil unrest, political bickering, and economic uncertainty all could qualify as giants. And the toll these giants inflicted on David, leave their mark on us as well.

As you read 2 Samuel 21 and 22, notice these truths:

  1. Battling giants leaves us exhausted (2 Samuel 21:15). David was a warrior. He was accustomed to battles. He was victorious for the most part but after a while, the constant battles with giants began to exert their toll on him. One of the most frequent comments I hear from pastors across our state is they are exhausted. Some have become so fatigued, they have left the ministry. But be encouraged because …
  2. God sends us people to help us with the giants. David killed Goliath, but he didn’t kill any of the four giants of 2 Samuel 21. God knows when to send others to our aid. When your tank is empty, God often fills it with the assistance of others.
  3. God hears our prayers. There’s no mention of prayer in 2 Samuel 21, but in David’s reflection of the events in 2 Samuel 22 we see that he “called to the Lord” and God “heard.” Perhaps you could use the reminder today that God hears when we call. In our exhaustion, in our distress, we may not “feel” like He hears – but He does.
  4. God receives our praise. You would think 2 Samuel 22 belongs in the Psalms. This beautiful Psalm fits the narrative of the victory over the giants in 2 Samuel 21. It brings to mind the one leper among the ten who immediately returned to Jesus to offer Him praise for the healing from his leprosy. David recognized that his deliverance came from God. Let us do the same.

Today it’s COVID-19 and all the consequences that accompany a pandemic. Tomorrow – only God knows. The giants will keep coming. But . . . God. God is present. God knows our condition. God hears. He provides. Let us praise Him, even in our exhaustion, because He is worthy of our praise.

Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden and overburdened, and I will cause you to rest. [I will ease and relieve and refresh your souls.] – Matthew 11:28 (AMP)

Mid-Year CP Giving Report

As we pass the mid-point of what seems like an extremely long year, several words come to mind that would be descriptive of how I feel about 2020.

Unexpected would definitely be one of those words. No one expected COVID-19. No one saw the social unrest that has unfolded over the last several months.

Another word would be uncertainty. It’s no surprise that unexpected events such as the ones we’ve experienced lead to uncertainty. Economic uncertainty. Health uncertainty. Emotional uncertainty. What can we do? What should we do?

But even in the midst of these unexpected and uncertain times, I would include the word grateful.

I’m grateful God has been faithful. Samuel sums it up well for me when he said, “So far, the Lord has helped us.” These unexpected and uncertain times have not caught Him off guard.

I’m grateful for the spirit I’ve seen in Louisiana Baptists. You’ve been creative, stretching yourselves, utilizing unfamiliar technology for many of you, as you’ve continued to minister to each other and your communities. You have exhibited a God-honoring spirit that shows we may have been confined, but we were not contained. You cannot quarantine good news.

I am grateful for your faithfulness in giving to the Lord through your church which supports missions and ministries across Louisiana and beyond.

Click the button at the top of the page and download this year’s CP mid-year giving report. The numbers may look a little different than in past years. But in some ways they are more meaningful. They were given during a time when the markets plunged, when energy prices tanked and when unemployment soared. They represent a love for the Lord and His mission that is humbling to observe.

You have blessed me during these unexpected and uncertain times and I am grateful to the Lord and to you.