Monday, December 31, 2012

This ain't no Brady Bunch

“Here’s a story of a lovely lady who was bringing up three very lovely girls…”

“Here’s a story of a man named Brady who was busy with three boys of his own…”

“That’s the way we all became the Brady Bunch…”

Who can forget the Brady Bunch?  I bet most of you can still sing the theme song to the show.  If only every family could be so wonderful – especially if it is a family in the Bible.  This Sunday here at Gaylord E-Free we will begin a new 11-week study in the life of the Old Testament character of Joseph.  We will start by looking at Joseph’s family background, which just may have been the most dysfunctional family in the entire Bible.  Believe me, it was certainly no Brady Bunch!

The dysfunction of this family included polygamy, favoritism, rape, murder incest, sibling rivalry, jealousy, hatred, betrayal and deception among many other devastating things.  Yet, from this family came a man who saved many people from starvation and who has become one of the most loved characters of the Bible and one of the best examples anyone can find of the power of forgiveness.  We will see this Sunday the truth of the fact that though there is little we can do about our ancestors, we can influence our descendants greatly.

We are excited about the set that will be used for the start of this new series on Joseph.  The three main venues of the story occur in a PIT, in a PRISON, and in a PALACE.  This Sunday you will see the PIT and the PALACE on stage with the varied colored panels hanging behind them which represent Joseph’s coat of many colors.  As the series continues, a PALACE will also be incorporated into the set.

Because it is the first Sunday of the month (and of the year) this will also be communion Sunday.  This week we will be having communion in both our Classic and our Contemporary services.  Pastor Jim will lead in the celebration of communion in the Classic Service and I will be leading in the taking of the bread and the cup in both of our Contemporary Services.

I look forward to seeing you this Sunday here at Gaylord E-Free as we start 2013 and this new and exciting message series on Joseph!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

God, Please Let This Be The Year!

My memoires about New Year’s Eve as a kid are as vivid to me as the ones I have about Christmas Eve.  My family always attended the New Year’s Eve Service at our little church in Akron, Ohio.  There would be plenty of singing and usually a movie up in the sanctuary followed by games and some great food down in the church basement.  This would all lead up to that climactic moment just before midnight as we would all gather back upstairs in the sanctuary and form a large circle around the pews as we held hands.  Our pastor, along with many of the other men within our church, would then lead us in praying in the New Year.

I remember listening to those prayers every New Year’s Eve with the sound of fireworks taking place in the park across the street from the church echoing as a backdrop.  The highlight of the night would come during that time when my dad would take his turn in praying.  I would wait for his prayer with excited yet nervous anticipation because every year my dad would end his prayer with the same words.  He would pray, “And God, please let this be the year that Jesus returns!  Amen!”

Though we are many years removed from those childhood days, that prayer remains in my heart and on my lips every New Year’s Eve.  On Christmas we celebrated the first coming of Jesus when He was born as a baby in Bethlehem in order to die as a sacrifice and a substitute for our sin.  Forty days after His bodily resurrection from the dead, He ascended back into heaven as two angels appeared to His followers promising that this same Jesus who they watched go up in the clouds would one day return.  That’s not fantasy or mythology; it is the very promise of the Word of God and the great hope of every person who has put their faith in Jesus.

So, how will I celebrate the last moments of 2012 and the first moments of 2013?  When midnight rolls around on New Year’s Eve I will think of my dad and that little church back in Akron, Ohio, and I will whisper a prayer that will end with the words, “And God, please let this be the year that Jesus returns!  Amen!”

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Truth About Shepherds

Jesus is born!  And who was the first to hear the announcement of His birth and become the first witnesses of Christmas?  Shepherds!  That seems great to us because we see shepherd's as cute little 7-year old boys dressed in the dad's bathrobe and wearing a towel around their head.  But that was not the reality of shepherds back in the day in which Jesus was born.

Back then shepherds were on the lowest rung of the social ladder.  They were uneducated, untrained and unskilled.  They were considered rough characters.  In fact, you would never buy something from a shepherd because it was assumed that whatever they were selling had probably been stolen.  They were considered unclean because their occupation prohibited them from worshipping in the Temple and obeying many of the burdensome laws that the religious leaders had thrown on the Jewish people.  They were considered to be so unreliable that they were not allowed to testify in court.  When the Pharisees spoke of "Tax Collectors and Sinners," shepherds would have fallen into the category of "sinners."  Yet, when Jesus is born, God chooses to make the announcement first to shepherds and they become the first witnesses of the birth of the Son of God.

Jesus is resurrected!  And who was the first to hear the announcement of His being risen and become the first witnesses of Easter?  Women!  Today in our American culture that would not seem out of the ordinary at all.  But if you were living in Israel back in the day of Jesus, it would have been very out of the ordinary.  In the culture of that day women were treated and viewed like property.  Much like the shepherds, women were not allowed to testify in court either and they could only go so far into the Temple area.  Yet, when Jesus is resurrected, God chooses to make the announcement first to women and they become the first witnesses of the resurrection of the Son of God from the dead.

What can we learn about God?  He loves the outcast.  While religious leaders wrote off shepherds as unclean and pagan, God revealed His truth to shepherds.  While society wrote off women, God revealed His truth to women.  What a God!

Shepherds were the first witnesses of Christ's birth even though they were not allowed to testify in court!  That was strange!  Women were the first witnesses of Christ's resurrection even though they were not allowed to testify in court!  That was strange!  But what is even more strange is that today God has made you and I who have put our faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus His witnesses to our world.  It's true!  God still loves the outcast!  And you and I who realize how unworthy we are to know Jesus and to be His witnesses ought to be the ones who can best understand and most fully celebrate the message of the Christmas angels to the shepherds,

"Fear not!  I bring you good news of great joy that is for all people.  For unto you (the outcasts) is born today in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!"

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Christmas Tradition: No Room Go Away!

One of my personal Christmas traditions is to tell my favorite Christmas story about an Innkeeper named Wally.  At the church I pastored back in Indiana I would tell it each year at our Christmas Dinner Theater performances.  At the church I pastored back in Pennsylvania I would tell it each year at our Christmas Eve services.  Here at the church I currently pastor in Michigan I have decided to keep the tradition going by telling the story in a different venue each year.  Last year I told it on my live radio program and at our Christmas Eve services.  This year I told it at a presentation my wife and I gave to the MOPS group that meets at our church.  I love this story and I love to tell it.  Below you can read an abbreviated account of the story.  Merry Christmas!

It was Mrs. Johnson’s second graders turn to do the town’s Christmas play. Mrs. Johnson had just one problem. It was Wally. Wally was big for his age and he had been held back twice in school. As a result, he was larger then any other second grader and the clumsiest of them all. Wally had his heart set on being a shepherd in the Christmas play but Mrs. Johnson could not give such an important role to Wally. So instead she came up with a brilliant idea.

“Wally,” she said, “I have just the part for you. I would like you to be the innkeeper. All you have to do is open the door when Joseph knocks and respond firmly with the words, ‘no room…go away.’ Can you do that Wally?”

Wally practiced it a few times to Mrs. Johnson’s delight. Her planned seemed to be working perfectly. Wally would be involved but not in a critical role. For the next several weeks, Wally practiced his lines everywhere he went. You could see his lips constantly moving as he uttered his lines, ‘no room…go away.’

Finally the night of the big event came. As in past years, the entire town shut down and everyone piled into the school auditorium to watch the second graders put on their show. Mrs. Johnson was nervous but felt she had everything well under control.

At last, Wally’s big cue came. Joseph and Mary slowly and sadly walked up to the inn and Joseph knocked on the door.

‘No room…go away,’ Wally said as he answered the knock.

‘But sir,’ Joseph pleaded.

‘No room…go away,’ Wally firmly replied.

‘But my wife,’ Joseph continued, ‘She’s pregnant and going to have a baby any time?’

‘No room,’ Wally insisted, ‘Go away!’

Right on cue, Joseph and Mary began to walk away from the inn. Mrs. Johnson’s heart skipped a beat. Wally was supposed to close the door and he would be done. But Wally just stood there, watching the homeless couple as they walked away from the inn.

What happened next changed the town’s Christmas play drastically. Some people say it was ruined. Others say it was the best Christmas pageant ever. With tears running down his cheeks, Wally cried out,

‘Joseph, Mary, wait! Come back! You can have my room!’

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Christmas Tradition: The Last Gift of Christmas

The Christmas tradition at our house that I enjoy more than all the others is what I call "The Last Gift of Christmas!"  It started several years back.  Christmas at our home is an "all day event."  But in the evening hours, as the last gift was opened, my wife would always say, "I hate it when it's over!"  She was right.  It was always a "bummer" when our family Christmas celebration ended.  After hearing that phrase from my wife on multiple Christmas evenings, I decided to do something about it.

When the next Christmas rolled around, the day went as it always had in the past, ending with the words, "I hate it when it's over!"  But what my family did not know is that it really wasn't over.  Just when everyone was headed to bed after a long day of festivity, I summoned my wife and kids back down to the living room.  I think they thought either something was terribly wrong or they were in some kind of serious trouble.  What they didn't realize is that without their knowing it, I had bought each of them one final gift - their "Last Gift of Christmas."  When they arrived back downstairs I gave each of them their final gift of the day.  Believe me, it was a quite the hit!

I have continued this tradition every year since that one.  Each year our Christmas celebration ends right before bedtime with the "Last Gift of Christmas."  These are not just any gifts.  I spend a lot of time and give a lot of thought to these gifts.  They have to be special.  I want them to be the most memorable gift of the day.  And the rule is that whoever is in our house on Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus with us, they too get a "Last Gift of Christmas."

Sunday, December 16, 2012


After both worship services this morning, Laura and I had a "meet & greet" to be able to make a connection with many of our new folks who are now attending our church.  This produced the best story from this morning here at Gaylord E-Free.

We met a mother and her 3 kids.  The boy looked to be about 10 years old.  The mom shared with me that this was their third Sunday at E-Free and she went on yo tell me how much they have enjoyed the services since they started attending.  One of the things that her 10-year old son noticed and pointed out to her about our church was that each Sunday was different.  In other words, the services were not the same thing each week.  She told the son that this was probably our way of making sure that people kept coming back because you just don't know what you might miss if you didn't come.  Her son replied, "That sounds like some kind of a trap to me!"  Their family now refers to our services here at E-Free as "The God Trap!"

I couldn't help but laugh!  "The God Trap!"  I like that!  I'm glad that even a 10-year old can notice the creativity that we use Sunday to Sunday here at E-Free.  Creativity has become an important part of the DNA of our church services, and well it should be.  One of the first things we learn about our God in the Bible is that He is a creative God.  Genesis 1:1 opens with the words, "In the beginning God CREATED..."  God is a creative God and He has made us to be creative beings.  As a result, we prayerfully and strategically make creativity a part of our worship planning.  I am so thankful for the many, many people who are involved in putting our services together:

I am thankful for our Worship Arts Leadership Team who help to oversee all the areas of our Worship Arts Ministry.

I am thankful for our Creative Ideas Group who meet one Saturday morning a month to brainstorm the creative elements we might use.

I am thankful for our Worship Design Group who meets weekly on Tuesday mornings to evaluate past services and finalize the logistics for our upcoming services.

I am thankful for our stage teams who design our sets (speaking of that - I can't wait to see the Egypt set that will be in place for our new message series on the life of Joseph beginning in January).

I am thankful for our Media and Marketing Team that meets weekly on Tuesdays over the lunch hour to plan and design the promotion for our services (speaking of that - wait until you see the promotional trailer for our new Joseph series.  We will be showing it on Christmas Eve).

I am thankful for our performing arts ministry who uses drama and art to help us creatively communicate our messages.

I am thankful for all of our technicians - audio, lights and video, who help to make our services pleasing to the ears and eyes,.

I am thankful for all of our musicians - vocal and instrumental - for the way they use their talents to help us focus on the Lord.

And I am thankful for our Director of Worship Arts, Joshua Rupp, who oversees all of the ministries that I have listed above (and some I probably forgot to mention).  

All of these people are involved in helping us "Set the Trap" each and every Sunday here at Gaylord E-Free. And they do it so effectively that even a 10-year old can notice!

Friday, December 14, 2012

We Need Christmas Now More Than Ever

Like most all Americans, much of my day has been spent focused on the horrible events at an Elementary School in Connecticut with a lump in my throat and while fighting back tears.  How can any of us truly wrap our minds around these events or even begin to imagine the intense grief being felt by so many parents and family members of those who have died?

And what seems to make it even more devastating is that it has all taken place just days before Christmas.  As I try to process all of the news footage and the graphic pictures of such raw emotion and terror, I keep coming back to the thought that in light of the tragedies of today, it is apparent to me that we need Christmas now more than ever.

News analysts and politicians will spend the next few days debating the issues of guns and school security but in so doing they will miss the main problem behind what happened today.  Though proper gun laws and better school security may have a place for discussion, neither were the main factor in today's devastation.

What happened today in Connecticut wasn't a gun issue or a security issue, it was at its very core a heart issue.  And according to the prophet Jeremiah in Scripture the heart is wicked.  That's the real issue - sin.  The governor of the state was right today when he said that, "evil showed up."

You see, the greatest enemy our country faces today; the biggest enemy our schools face today; the biggest enemy our children face today; the  biggest enemy you face today is sin.  It is sin that separates us from God.  That's why we need Christmas now more than ever because it was Christmas that was God's direct answer to the main issue - sin.

Remember when the angel visited Joseph to tell him that the he was to take Mary as his wife because the child that was conceived in her was of the Holy Spirit?  The angel told Joseph that he was to name the baby Jesus (which means "Jehovah saves") because He would save His people from their what?  From their sin!  It was that very fist Christmas when God sent His Son into this world to ultimately die on a cross to pay the penalty for our sins so that we could be forgiven.  And when we put our faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we became new creations.

Sin showed up at an elementary school in Connecticut today and the results were horrible and seemingly unimaginable.  That's what sin does.  The wages of sin is death - physical death, spiritual death and eternal death.  But Christmas was God's answer to sin.  That's why right now we need Christmas now more than ever.  Yes, the wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

So how do we who know Christ respond to the horrific events of today?  Without question we must pray for every person whose heart tonight has been torn in two due to the death of those they love.  We must bow before the God of all comfort and fervently beg Him to, in a way that only He can do, wrap His loving arms around each person who has been personally impacted by these shootings.

But let's not stop there.  We must be bolder than ever before to share with a sinful world the "Good News of Great Joy" that is the message of Christmas - the fact that God has sent us a Savior who is Christ the Lord.  You see, in light of the the misery of the events of today in Connecticut, we need Christmas now more than ever.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Christmas Tradition: The Stockings

Laura and I enjoyed sharing this morning with the MOPS group that meets at our church about our family's Christmas traditions.  One of the things we talked about was our Christmas Stockings.  For us as a family, the funnest part of Christmas are the STOCKINGS, and in our home there are three different types of Christmas Stockings.

First, there are Nana's Stockings.  My mom (Nana) sends each of us a Christmas stocking every year.  Each Christmas Eve we go out for an early dinner as a family.  In the past it was at Olive Garden but since there is no Olive Garden in Gaylord, Michigan, we tried a different restaurant last year that we had a gift certificate for.  But to be honest, we weren't real impressed.  This year Laura has to work so we will most likely move our Christmas Eve meal up to breakfast.  Anyway, after our meal we would spend the next several hours at church for our Christmas Eve services.  Afterwards, we would come home and watch a Christmas movie (I always lobby for Ernest Saves Christmas).  We then would go through Nana's stockings which always is a side-splitting Holiday experience.

Second, there is Laura's Purple Stocking.  Laura's favorite color is purple.  Several years ago I bought a purple Christmas stocking and filled it with special and sometimes even romantic items just for her.  After the kids have gone to bed and we have helped Santa in filling his stockings and putting his presents out for the morning, Laura gets to empty her Purple Stocking.

Third, there are the Santa Stockings.  When it comes to emptying stockings, for our family it takes quite some time.  Our motto is "quantity over quality."  In other words, instead of putting 6 or 7 bigger things in the stockings, we opt to stuff it with 40 or more little and inexpensive items.  And when it comes to the these stockings, we don't just dump them out and dive in.  We take turns each taking one item out of his or her stocking at a time so everyone can see - then the next person takes one thing out - then the next person takes one thing out - and so on - and so on - and so on.  A minimum of 40 items per stocking multiplied by 4 stockings (Yes, Santa fills mom and dad's stocking as well) totals a minimum of 160 turns, so stockings take a while to complete and we enjoy each and every turn.

If our family had to chose between all the presents and their stockings, and they could only have one or the other - not both, I am fully confident that our family would all 100% opt for the stockings.  To us, they really are the funnest pat of Christmas.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

If you had a PERFECT child

This morning before my live radio program here in Gaylord, Michigan on The Eagle, 101.5 FM, Mike (the morning radio announcer) and I were having a good time talking about how tough it must have been to be the parent of the perfect Son of God like Mary and Joseph were.  For example:

Most parents have kids who think they know more than their parents do.  Mary and Joseph had a kid who really did know more than they did!

Jesus would have known every time Mary or Joseph tried to lie to him.  Now that would have taken all the fun out of parenting right there!

Jesus would have known every single time Mary and Joseph were wrong or had made a mistake. OUCH!

Can you imagine being Joseph in the workshop, hitting your thumb with a hammer and cussing, then looking over and seeing Jesus standing there?  That would have been awkward!

I wonder how many times Mary or Joseph made the critical mistake of looking at one of Jesus' half-brothers or sisters and saying to them, "Why can't you be more like Jesus!  He gets all "A's"!

If you were Mary or Joseph, you could never ever really look at Jesus and answer His inquiry with the age old parental words of wisdom, "Because I said so, that's why!"

If Jesus ever did leave the front door open, Mary or Joseph could never look at Him and say, "Close that door!  What do you think you were, born in a barn or something?"

OK, I admit it - those are pretty silly thoughts!  But seriously, as awesome of a privilege that it must have been to be the mother and earthly father of the perfect Son of God, it must have also had some real challenges to it, don't you think?

Remember when Mary and Joseph were returning to Nazareth from Jerusalem and didn't realize that they had left Jesus behind in Jerusalem?  I wonder what feeling goes through your mind when you realize that you accidentally misplaced the Son of God?

I love the part of the motion picture, The Nativity, where Mary and Joseph are on their way to Bethlehem for the census and they are talking about what it will be like to be the parents of the Son of God.  Joseph makes this statement, "I wonder if I will be able to teach Him anything!"

Makes you think, doesn't it?


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Joe Christmas

He has become one of my favorite characters, not just in the Christmas story, but in the entire Bible.  He doesn’t get a lot of fanfare in the Christmas story – Mary seems to get all of that.  But if I had to model my life after any one man in Scripture (outside of Jesus, of course) I think I would chose Joseph.  The more I read and ponder the Christmas story the more I admire this simple carpenter.  If I had to sum up his walk with God in one word it would be an easy word to pick.  It would be the word, “OBEDIENCE!”

In Matthew 1:19, the angel tells Joseph to take Mary as his wife.  In verse 24, Joseph obeys and takes Mary as his wife.

In Matthew 1:19, the angel tells Joseph to name the baby, Jesus.  In verse 15, Joseph obeys and names the baby Jesus.

In Matthew 2:13, the angel tells Joseph to “Get up” and take Mary and Jesus to Egypt.  In verse 14, Joseph “Got Up” and took Mary and Jesus to Egypt.

In Matthew 2:20, the angel tells Joseph to “Get Up” and take Mary and Jesus back to Israel.  In verse 21, Joseph “Gets Up” and takes Mary and Jesus back to Israel.

In each and every case there are two descriptions of Joseph’s obedience.  It was both immediate and complete.  Delayed obedience is disobedience.  Partial obedience is disobedience.  Perhaps the greatest gift we can give to Jesus this Christmas is our immediate and complete obedience to His words and to His commands.  After all, it was Jesus who said, “If you love Me, you will obey My commands” (John 14:15).

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Sunday is Funday

While Laura and I were in Grand Rapids over the weekend, I saw a t-shirt that simply said “Sunday is Funday.”  I like that phrase.  To me it describes every Sunday morning here at Gaylord E-Free.  But this morning was even more of a “Sunday Funday” and my cup is running over as I watch it snow outside my window tonight (which I also love).

To be honest, the morning started out very stressful.  Since I was out of town Thursday, Friday and Saturday, I did not have my usual prep time.  Typically each week my Thursday afternoon and my Saturday morning is given over to sermon prep for Sunday.  Though my study time was the same, what I was lacking was the amount of time I usually practice a sermon prior to Sunday.  As a result, my plan was to come in extra early on Sunday morning so that I had time to go through my sermon a couple of times and still have time left to sit down with a cup of coffee, put on some worship music, and prepare my own heart for the morning.

That was the plan but that’s not what happened.  We had a major computer glitch and even though I had exported all of my sermon slides from Pro Presenter to our server, none of them came through.  Our video technician for the morning and I spent most all of the morning prior to the service on the phone with another of our techs trying to solve the problem (for me, preaching without the slides would be as difficult as preaching while standing still - a challenge indeed!).

The next thing I knew, it was 5-minutes before the start of the service and I was scheduled to lead singing in the Classic Service and we still had no slides for my sermon.  Without having any time to get my microphone from the sound booth down in the Gospel Center, I moved as quickly as I could down to the Chapel and went over with the video technician in that service what verses of which songs we would be singing.  Still somewhat out of breath, I led the singing and thoroughly enjoyed the passionate worship from the congregation who filled the chapel.  After the last song I once again met one of out techs back down in my office trying to finalize the exporting of all of my slides as the service went on in the Gospel Center.  I made it to the sound booth just in time to put on my microphone and get down front as the advent candle was being lit just prior to the sermon.

Up until this point the morning had been quite hectic.  But what I have found in the past is that the more glitches there are in the morning, the more we are about to see God work.  Such was the case this morning.  As I nervously finished my sermon (without having the confidence of having had gone through it several times in advance) and walked with Laura to the back of the auditorium, we noticed that a couple had gone forward during the final song in an act of praise and worship for the amazing way God has worked in their lives.  With all the zaniness of the morning, I did not even realize that they were even there this morning – their first time back in church since her double lung transplant.  Laura and I immediately went forward to be with them.  Within minutes they were surrounded with many friends who laid their hands on this dear couple as they all sang (one with her new lungs) “Here I am to Worship.”  That right there was a little taste of heaven.

As the song came to an end, my heart was overflowing with joy.  That’s when I saw another couple standing in the back of the auditorium.  The couple that had come forward had received their miracle with her new lungs.  Now this couple who stood in the back needed their miracle regarding the precious baby she is carrying who is experiencing some very serious complications.  Laura and I went back to talk with them, hug them, and let them know how much we loved them and were praying for them.

We then went out in the foyer and greeted as many people as were still mingling there.  At this point I felt spiritually and emotionally drained and decided to spend the first half of the second service with a cup of hot tea in the quietness of my office to reflect and pray before having to preach the second service.  I made my tea and sat down in my chair.  I didn’t even get the first sip to my mouth when someone knocked on my door and said that there was a couple at the welcome center that really wanted to talk with me.  I sat my tea down and headed toward the welcome center where I immediately recognized them.

This morning was their second Sunday at E-Free.  I had met them the Sunday prior when a man from our church introduced them to me.  They are veterans who have recently moved into the area.  They met this man from our church through his job.  She was a believer but he was not.  Part of their discussion with the man from our church when they met was their desire to get involved in the area.  He wisely suggested that the best way for them to start with this would be to attend church.  The husband immediately retorted with, “I am NOT a believer,” and he proceeded to share all of the reasons why he would not be able to come to church.  Yet, last Sunday they showed up at church

As the service was taking place inside the Gospel Center, I sat out in the foyer talking with this couple.  With tears streaming down his face, he shared with me how both Sundays as I was preaching he was torn.  Half of him wanted to sit on the edge of the seat and absorb every word.  The other half of him wanted to get up and run away from the church.  I shared with him that this is what we call “conviction.”  God was convicting him of his need for Jesus and when this happens, people respond in one of two ways – either they run toward God or they run away from him.  I then took him through the plan of salvation and when I was done I had the thrill of leading this husband in prayer in our church foyer as he received God’s free gift of salvation.

When we finished praying I could tell from the sound from inside the Gospel Center that I was soon up for the sermon.  I asked this couple if they had Bibles.  They did not.  I told them I needed to get inside to preach but if they would wait right there I would get the man who had first invited them to church and have him bring them each a Bible.  I then went and got two Study Bibles from the Ushers Room and grabbed this man out of his Equip-U Class.  While I ran (literally) up to the Gospel Center, once again arriving down front as the advent candle was being lit prior to the sermon, this man took the Bibles to this couple still in the foyer.  He then spent the entire second service continuing to share with them.  When the second service was over, They came up to me to give me a hug.  The husband smiled and said, “I will never forget this day!”  WOW!  Just 3 weeks earlier he had proudly stated, “I am not a believer!”  After just 2 Sundays at E-Free he now is saying, “I will never forget this day!”  Folks, listen, it just doesn’t get any "funner" than that!

As I went out to the foyer after the second service I was met by a couple who was visiting this morning from out of town.  They were in the Classic Service where, before I led in one of the songs (How Great Our Joy). I made the statement, “Joy has nothing to do with our circumstances but everything to do with who we are in Christ!”  She pulled out a piece of paper in which she had written down that statement I had made in the Classic Service and told me how much God had used that simple statement in her life that morning.  I again was amazed at how God works and the little things He uses in people’s lives over the course of a Sunday morning.

Laura and I were then able to spend a little time in the foyer with another couple whose high school daughter has a cyst on her brain and will be going to see a neuro-surgeon this Tuesday.  It was a privilege to be able to hug them and to take time to encourage them as well.

As I then grabbed my Bible to head downstairs and finally have that cup of tea, a couple I had never met stopped Laura and me.  They have only been attending a few weeks and wanted to share how much they are enjoying our services and how for the first time in their lives they are really learning the Bible.  She went on to say that the best part is that her husband now wants to come to church since they started attending here at E-Free.

As I sit here tonight and reflect over the morning I am in awe of God for how He used our ministry this morning in such unique ways.  People were praising God for new lungs!  People were finding strength to endure very difficult trials regarding their children.  People were encouraged by simple statements.  New folks were sharing how much they are learning.  And one couple is now “one in Christ.”  And these are only the stories I know of from this morning.  I am sure that there were many others – some of which we may never know until we all get to heaven.

Yes – Sunday is Funday!  And all I can say is “To God be the glory!  Great things He has done!”

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Christmas Tradition: The Wrapping Excursion

Next week Laura and I will be sharing with the young mothers in the MOPS program here at our church on the Christmas traditions that we have developed as a family.  So I thought I would take time to put a few of these traditions down in writing.

Over the past 25 years our family has developed some Christmas traditions that we look forward to every December.  One of my most favorite of these traditions is our "Wrapping Excursion."  Sometimes one of the worst "put off until the last minute" Christmas activities on everyone's "to do" list is the wrapping of the gifts.  Laura and I decided years ago to make this something we would always look forward to.

We set aside 2 nights and 3 days somewhere in the first half of the month of December for what I like to call our "Wrapping Excursion."  Right about Thanksgiving time I will start searching the internet for the perfect location.  We go to a different location each year but it can't just be any place - it has to have all of the right qualities at an affordable rate.  There needs to be a large shopping district nearby.  The hotel, cottage or B&B we select needs to have at very minimum a private first floor entrance to our room; a fireplace, and a sitting area to our room or suite.

When the "Wrapping Excursion" date arrives we pack up all the gifts we have purchased so far, all of our wrapping paper and boxes, a Boom Box with Christmas CD's; a lighted Christmas Tree, and some additional Christmas lights to string around the room.  We then head off on our "Wrapping Excursion" to finish all of our Christmas shopping and to wrap all of the presents.  And with whatever time is left over we find other things to do and see in the area where we are staying.

We just got back from this year's "Wrapping Excursion" in Grand Rapids.  It was a such a wonderful time!  Why do we do this?  This tradition allows us to accomplish two very important things:

First, it allows us to finish all of our Christmas shopping and get all of our wrapping done in a fun and relaxed setting well before December 24.  We have found that the less stress and pressure we have in our lives going into December 24, the more we can enjoy our family and celebrate the beauty of Christmas to its fullest.

Second, this allows Laura and I to set aside time at a very special time of the year to focus our attention on each other, make some holiday memories, and have some Christmas traditions that we can continue to enjoy as a couple year after year, even after the kids are grown and gone.

We believe that one of the greatest mistakes young couples make is to make everything about their Christmas traditions focus on their children.  Don't get me wrong.  Most of our Christmas traditions were because of our children as you will see in subsequent posts.  But how often do you hear stories of couples whose marriage was 100% absorbed with with their kids, and when the kids were grown and gone, the marriage fell apart?

It has been important to Laura and I to be sure that as we raised our children and poured into them as parents that we also set aside time to invest in each other and into our marriage.  This "Wrapping Excursion" tradition allows us to do just that.  Even as the other Christmas traditions that revolved around our children run their course, this is a tradition that we will always have to look forward to and to enjoy.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Forgiveness that is Real and Complete

I've been spending a lot of time pouring into the Old Testament story of Joseph as beginning in January I will be preaching through this amazing life in an 11-week message series we are calling, "Joseph: More Than a Dreamer!"  Over the past 2 years this story has taken on a very special place in my heart and I don't think I have ever had a story in Scripture become so real and vivid to me as this one has as I have been reading and studying it.  I am so looking forward to walking our church here at Gaylord E-Free through this incredible journey that took Joseph from the pit - to the prison - to the palace.

As I was working my way through the final chapters in the story last week I was once again introduced to the beauty and power of forgiveness.  I'm sure you know the story.  Joseph is betrayed and hurt deeply by his own brothers resulting in unbelievable pain, hurt and hardship in his life.  Yet, through all of it, Joseph knew that God was with him.  Due to this he follows an amazing path that ultimately puts him in a position of great wealth and power which allows him to save many, many people from a severe famine.

But the story climaxes when his journey leads Joseph back into a face-to-face encounter with the very brothers who had harmed him.  Only this time, it was Joseph that had the upper hand.  He now had the power, and what most people would see as the right, to take revenge for the decades of pain he had endured due to his brothers mistreatment of him.  Yet, in the end, he chooses to forgive them.  But this forgiveness was not just words, it was full of action.  This forgiveness was not just a gesture, it was complete in every way.  In Genesis 50:19-21, we see the elements of this very real forgiveness:

First, Joseph acknowledged that it was God who was the judge, not him (50:19)

Second, Joseph reminded his brothers that God had a purpose for all that happened (50:20)

Third, Joseph promised to care for his brothers and their families (50:21)

Fourth, Joseph comforted his brothers who were riddled with guilt and fear (50:21)

Fifth, Joseph spoke kindly to his brothers, the very ones who had so brutally betrayed and deeply hurt him (50:21)

What a powerful picture of forgiveness.  It's almost unreal.  And this is just the end of the story.  For the first 11 weeks of the New Year we will see many life-changing aspects of this great life from beginning to end.  And when we bring it all to a close as we near Easter we will be reminded of the greatest lesson of all that we see - the lesson that shows us the power of forgiveness.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Christmas Stillness

We are now down to just three weeks until Christmas.  Let me share with you a verse that I shared with our entire church staff this past Monday at the opening of our weekly staff prayer time.  It’s not a “Christmas” verse per say, but maybe it should be.  It actually fits Christmas just as perfectly as the verse in Luke 2:10 where the angels made that great Christmas announcement to the shepherds saying, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.”  This verse comes from the pages of the Old Testament, from Psalm 46:10 and it simply says this,

“Be still and know that I am God!”

What a great Christmas verse!  With only three weeks left until Christmas, that verse sums up my Christmas wish for each of you.  My prayer for you is that with all of the hustle and bustle of the next two weeks, and in the midst of that ever-growing Christmas “to do list” that you each have to get completed by December 25, that you would take some time to “be still and know that He is God!”  After all, that’s what started this whole thing we call Christmas to begin with – God became flesh and dwelt among us!

Hopefully, the coming weeks here at Gaylord E-Free will help you do just that – to “Be still and know that He is God!”  This Sunday we continue our “Angels Revealed” message series as we follow the role that the angels played in that very first Christmas.  Last Sunday we saw the angel’s announcement to Zacharias in Jerusalem.  This week we will see that same angels’ announcement to Mary in Nazareth!

And be planning now to set aside some time on Christmas Eve and join us here at E-Free for one of two very special and very worshipful Candlelight Christmas Eve services (5pm & 7pm).

Here's wishing you some Christmas STILLNESS!