My Top Twelve Reads of 2015


I decided in late August to change my annual book buying recommendation post to my Top 12  Reads for 2015.

Why twelve books  Jim?     

Well, that’s one book for each month!

You can gift yourself with one of them a month or for some you love (with the hope that they will share the book with you later on!)  There is something here for the fiction reader, a person of faith reader, a historical fiction reader, a personal memoir reader, a Presidential autobiography/biography reader, a leadership reader, and a history reader.

So, (in no particular order) are my Top 12 Reads for 2015 !

25404141Roger Daniels’ Franklin D. Roosevelt: Road to the New Deal, 1882-1939.

I loved this wonderful account of FDR’s life by Daniels, the Charles Phelps Taft Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Cincinnati. This was volume 1 of a two volume set and finished with FDR facing his third election as President.  I think that this is a fair assessment of FDR and one thing I liked about this book is there are wonderful insights by Daniels that gave me a new perspective on Roosevelt. (Published by University of Illinois Press)

22609420David O Stewart’s Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America

A wonderful look at the life of James Madison and the partnerships he developed with Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and his wife Dolly Madison in the early and tumultuous years of America. I liked this book for providing me with a fresh look look at our fourth President and his ability to well, network, in accomplishing major tasks to help the United States become the United States. (Published by Simon Schuster)

cover59043-mediumGary Scott Smith’s Religion in the Oval Office: The Religious Lives of American Presidents 

Politics and Religion. It has always been the subject of serious discussion, passionate debate, and sarcastic soundbites. Scott’s book is a serious and thorough discussion of how faith was lived out in the lives of eleven United States Presidents – John Adams, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, James McKinley, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, George HW Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barak Obama. One thing that I liked about this book is that Smith did what  I call a thorough 360 degree view of faith and its relation to work and legacy of each of these eleven men. (Published by Oxford University Press)

24832420Marci Jefferson’s Enchantress of Paris: A Novel of the Sun King’s Court

A wonderful work of historical fiction with great attention to the small details which brings the past to life.  Set in 17th Century France, Enchantress of Paris is based on the life of Marie Mancini who captured the heart of the 17th century French King, Louis XIV.  One thing I like about this was Jefferson’s wonderful attention to the setting that made this story, about a period in history that I rarely studied, come to life. I also was rooting for King Louis to finally say, “I am the King and I am going to marry Marie!” But… politics… well read the book to find out what happens! (Published by Thomas Dunne Books)

25265721Laura McNeill’s Center of Gravity

A gripping and contemporary  novel about the shattering effects of domestic violence on a marriage and a family. Set in the modern day American south, Center of Gravity was a book that I truly could not put down and kept reading deep into the night over two nights to finish. It is a story about courage, fear, hope, determination, love, and I think… faith. I liked that McNeill’s credible characters drew me in and kept me reading. (Published by Thomas Nelson)

23164911Jeff Shaara’s The Fateful Lightning: Novel of the Civil War

The final volume in a four volume set of a historical fiction on the American Civil War, The Fateful Lightning follows William Tecumseh Sherman and his Union Army as they march from Atlanta to the sea and then up through the Carolinas to defeat the Confederate forces in the waning months of the war. A rich novel with both fictional and historical characters fighting both their military enemy and their military comrades for fame and glory, I liked this novel for bring to life the historical events in the southeastern theater of war in 1864 and 1865. (Published by Ballantine Books)

23322210Marc and Samantha Hurwitz’s Leadership is Half the Story: A Fresh Look at Followership, Leadership, and Collaboration

I have read a lot of books on leadership. Some have been inspirational and helpful and some have not. I have read two books on followership and what being a good follower means. There were many excellent illustrations and suggestions for  co-vision, co-work, and co-flow to be part of the work place in the 21st century. What I liked about this book is that both profit and non-profit organizations can learn from the Hurwitz’s insights and ideas. (Published by University of Toronto Press)

20578111Gary L Thomas’ A Lifelong Love: What if Marriage is about More Than Just Staying Together

I think marriage is important. And I think that marriage is a life-long commitment not just a beautiful ceremony followed by a sumptuous banquet. Gary Thomas underscores the belief of marriage as being more than just romance but a sustained life long love that is more than just staying together. What I liked about this book is that marriage is given a deeper rooting than just as a choice. (Published by David C Cook)

Not Without My Father: One Woman's 444-Mile Walk of the NatchezAndra Watkins’ Not Without My Father: One Woman’s 444-Mile Walk of the Natchez Trace

Now a New York Times Best Seller, I read Watkins’ “story behind the story” of her journey along the 444 mile Natchez Trace in 2014 to promote her first novel To Live Forever, with interest. It was the story, of two journeys, one geographic and one relational. I liked this book on many fronts but mostly because it was a journey of the heart for both a budding author and her dad. (Published by Word Hermit Press)

22504506Angela Hunt Ewell’s Esther: Royal Beauty

The Old Testament book of Esther is one of my favorite books of the Bible in large part of Esther’s courage in standing up for her people the exiled Jews in Babylonia. Angela Hunt Ewell’s fictional account of her life does justice to this epic Biblical character. What I liked about this novel was how well Ewell develops the character of Esther throughout the entire story in a manner that brings a realism to her story and actions. (Published by Bethany House)

23995336Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno

I loved Marra’s first novel,  A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon, and when I requested his newest novel The Tsar of Love and Techno for review purposes I hoped that it would be as good as his first one.  It was. Tsar is a challenging read as it is a collection of stories that stretches across Russia and Russian history so you have to pay attention to the first chapter of the book to make connections later on.  I loved it for the characters, which evoked sympathy, whose lives and work influence spread across the decades and kilometers. (Published by Hogarth)


25081778Maha Ahktar’s Footprints in the Desert

It is easy to forget that there was a Middle Eastern Front in the First World War but there was and the battles fought there influenced not just what was happening on the Western Front but also the rest of 20th century and 21st century.  Maha Ahktar’s novel brings to life the struggles the Great War brought to the Middle East in the lives of its people. I liked this novel for the wonderful characters and great details of ancient Cairo. (Published by Barcelona Editions)


Well there you have my top 12 reads for 2015. I hope that you find something you would enjoy! Happy Reading!

See you behind the page.

Sunday Sermon: The Wisdom of Confession

Proverbs 28:13

Today is the final day of our fall series in the book of Proverbs. I hope that you have been helped, inspired, and convicted in some way that has called you to a greater faith in Christ.

Now before I continue I want to remind us of what Bible Teacher and Scholar Chuck Swindoll says about this rich and insightful book of the Bible:

“The proverbs tells us how to get along with our family, friends, and neighbors… The proverbs talk about spending time on our feet in the streets of our cities, in the jungle of competition, in the midst of the heavy demands of work, the pressures of life and the relentless challenges at home… The book of proverbs teaches us how to appraise our lives… The proverbs are horizontal, directing our thoughts toward earthly responsibilities.”

However, there is a verse, our final stop today in this series that points us to what Swindoll notes that the book of Psalms tends to do – address the vertical aspect of our lives, “turning our hearts toward heavenly realms” as he puts it. This verse bridges the vertical focus of Psalms with the horizontal focus of Proverbs.

It is Proverbs 28:13:

He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper,
But he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion.

As I noted a week or so ago I use the New American Standard Version of the scripture as it links to some primary study sources that I find helpful. But for those with a different translation here is the New International Version.

People who cover their sins will not prosper. But if they confess and forsake them, they will receive mercy.

There is wisdom in confession. No matter if you are that kid who finally confesses to raiding the refrigerator before dinner and eating something that was supposed to be for dinner. No matter if you are the husband confessing the same thing.

There is wisdom in telling the truth about ourselves. Such confession, frees up our heart to not speak harshly and without thinking first. Confession helps us to see our blind spots and to learn to avoid the seven detestable things we examined a few weeks ago.

Wisdom also emerges out of confession because to tell the truth about ourselves is to learn from the painful experiences of life as well as the wonderful experiences of life. It is a mining kind of an act.

Through confession we learn so much about our weakness as well as our strengths. So confession, a necessary part of our faith, is also a key part of learning to live as a wise person.

Let’s take a closer look at our verse for this morning by looking more closely at the following words: conceals, transgressions, prosper, confesses, forsakes, and compassion.

The word used here for conceals means to hide or flee. It is an intentional act to keep something from being revealed that a person does not want to be known.

Now transgression as used here means rebellion against God and others. (The NIV uses the word sin.) To rebel is to rise in opposition of.

People rebel against green vegetables. They refuse to eat them.

People rebel against political issues. They refuse to believe in a certain action or philosophy and when they have a chance to vote ‘no’ they do so.

People rebel against authority. They do not like being told what to do.

And people rebel against God. They refuse to accept His forgiveness through Christ.
They refuse to accept His way of life.

To rebel is to defy.

And we are all rebels.

So what the writer of this verse is saying is that if a person refuses to come clean, to be honest about their rebellion, about their sins, they are not going to prosper. They are not going to succeed. They might appear to prosper, but ultimately, they will not.

So what is the alternative? The second half of the verse tells us what the alternative is.

But he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion.

Now this sentence ends with the word compassion and I think we need to understand what this word means first before we look at the two things we need to do before we experience compassion.

The word used here means to be shown compassion as we have the word find in front of compassion. Find is a verb, an action word, which indicates a search, a journey is in progress.

The NIV, as does the King James, and the New Living Translation uses the word mercy. But the NASB uses the word compassion.

Let me ask this morning, does anyone here NOT wish to receive compassion and mercy in life?

Didn’t think so.

All of us want to be recipients of it.

The challenge for us however, is giving mercy or compassion when we have been hurt or betrayed.

What Would Jesus Do?

What Did Jesus Do as He hung on the cross?

Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.

You will be with me this day in paradise.

He showed mercy and compassion on those who crucified Him and on one who hung beside Him.

So this goal of compassion, which also means love, is obtainable. But there is something that we have to do to obtain it.

Confess and forsake our transgressions, our rebellion, our sin against God.

Now one of the interesting things about the word we read as confess has to do with archery. One of the definitions of this word in the ancient Hebrew language is to shoot. Now how does that tie in with what we are reading here?

Archery involves hitting a target. Our marching band members know what that is all about this past season. So what might confession have to do with this?

I suggest this morning that when we make the choice to confess, we are taking an intentional aim at shooting our rebellion. Shooting it down. Killing it. Giving it up. In fact, that is another meaning of this term: to cast, cast down, throw down.

Now let’s look for a moment at the second thing we have to do: forsake. To forsake means to let go, to leave alone.

In the marriage vows a husband and wife pledge to “forsake” all others. In other words, one’s primary attention – emotionally and sexually to be sure – is to be on one’s spouse, and no one else. We give up, leave alone other relationship that could become intimate and focus only on one person – the one we are marrying.

The same holds true for us in our relationship with the Lord. Sin has absolutely no place in this relationship. We are to forsake our sin as well as confess it.

Now I know that some of us are perhaps saying, “Pastor Jim, I struggle with this and do battle with that.” I know you do. So do I. So do all of us! We all have this and that in our lives. But to confess, to shoot, to get rid of and to forsake, leave alone, our sin, our rebelliousness is what is going to make compassion, God’s compassion come to life in our lives.

I also think that the same thing holds true for us in our relationship with others.

But there is one final spot in this verse I want us to go to and it is isn’t a word, it’s a space. It’s the space between the comma after prosper and before But.

He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper,
[decision making point]
But he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion.

The choice to confess is always our choice. And we always have this choice. We have a daily choice to let go of our sins and stop sinning or not.

It never goes away.
And we are always one choice away from sinning or not sinning. And sinning not just by what we do but also by what we say and what we think.

A wise person knows the value, necessity, and practice of confession. Such a person like Rachel Triska who went on a retreat and found herself, by her own choice, sitting across the table from a Catholic Priest and asking if he would hear her confession.

Rachel is a Protestant pastor from Dallas, Texas along with her husband Joel in urban Dallas. Here she was asking the priest, the retreat leader, if he would hear her confession.

I stood in line with 60 other retreatants waiting to make our confession. When it was my turn, I entered a small study and sat in a hardback wooden chair across from Father John. He recognized me as his Protestant retreatant and immediately launched into an explanation of how confession works.

I interrupted.

“Umm, Father, I understand how it works in theory. I wanted to practice confession. I’m Protestant, but can you take my confession?”

“Well, it’s not customary,” he responded, “but it’s not prohibited.”

So there I was, a Protestant pastor sitting across from a Jesuit priest. And I laid my soul bare before him. I confessed that my relationship with the Lord had devolved into a work relationship. I confessed to showing favoritism among members of my congregation. I confessed to struggles with pride and selfishness, to sinning in anger and causing others grief. All this and more I said in halting sentences.

The emotions I felt in those moments surprised me. The depth of sorrow was unexpected… I reached the end of my list and Father John handed me a tissue and pronounced these words over me, “You are forgiven. The Father forgives you your sins.”

She goes on to say something that I think we believe quite well:

“Scripture is clear: once we confess our sins, God cleanses us from all unrighteousness. How often, in spite of that truth, do people continue to walk around with a deep sense of shame over past sin? In my experience, people bear that burden far too often.

Jesus told his disciples, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (John 20:23). This verse used to make me uncomfortable: Could Jesus possibly mean what he said? Would he really entrust that power to us? I now believe he masterfully articulated the truth of the human condition: for an individual to be free of the shame of sin, often another person must serve as a witness to the power of God to forgive sins.”

What do you need to let go of, leave behind?

I invite you to confess, to tell the truth, of what is keeping you from experiencing the compassion and mercy of God this morning. I invite you to confess, to tell the truth, of what has built walls between you and another person.


Sunday Sermon: A Proverb for Prodigals … of all kinds?

Proverbs 22:6
Which version of Proverbs 22:6 makes the most sense to you?

Point your kids in the right direction—
when they’re old they won’t be lost. (MSG)

Start children off on the way they should go,
and even when they are old they will not turn from it. (NIV)

Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. (KJV)

Train children in the way they should go;
when they grow old, they won’t depart from it. (CEB)

Direct your children onto the right path,
and when they are older, they will not leave it. (NLT)

I think that our ears, memories and hearts perk-up when we read this verse or hear it read because this verse reminds us about one of the most important tasks humanity has – that of parenting.

I think we have developed many expectations from this verse and placed a lot of hope about our family life by it.

Expectations about our kids.

Expectations about ourselves as parents.

Hope that our kids will embrace our faith.

Hope that our kids will make good choices.

Now I have a sense that some of you are thinking I know some people who should be here this morning! They need to hear this! They need to pay attention to this verse!

We all need to pay attention to this verse because I think that it is not just about biological/adoptive/foster families but about an important function of the family of faith – the church.

Let me suggest that part of our work as members of this local church is to help all the children who are part of our congregation walk in the way they should go.

I also think (and I might have to duck after saying this) that we tend to read this verse as follows:

Train up a child in the way I/we think they should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.

But WHAT does this verse really say?

And WHAT does this verse really MEAN?

Using the NASB translation of this verse I want us to take a few moments and look at some key words in this verse before I offer suggestions on how this verse applies to us as parents and as Christians. (I use this translation because one of the main study tools I use are linked to this version of the Bible.)

Here is the NASB translation of this verse:

Train up a child in the way he should go,
Even when he is old he will not depart from it.

The first word is train and it means, according to, to train, dedicate, inaugurate.

The next word we need to have a deeper understanding of, again according to, is way and it means way, road, distance, journey, manner of, as well a more figurative meeting of as course of life and moral character.
Then there is depart which means to turn aside, depart.
So merging these three words together, train, way, and depart we get a sense that this verse, Proverbs 22:6, is about helping a child develop a way of life that is for them and that they will not reject as they get older. But again, I think, as I look at my own situation as a dad, that we have a lot of assumptions about what we think that should look like and be.
But there is another word that we need to look at because we tend to read over it and because it is THE word that captures our attention the most in this verse and the one which pulls at our heart strings.
The word for child in this verse is Na’ar and it means a boy, lad, servant, youth, retainer and by retainer it does NOT mean what you pay an attorney. It is a word that appears at least 220 times in the Old Testament (at least in the NASB translation). For example, it appears in Genesis as part of Abraham’s story and according to some scholars it meant a group of servants, sometimes armed, who served someone such as a king.
But children aren’t servants, are they? We hope they learn how to serve someone else in a way that helps the other person, but they are not servants.
So pastor, does this mean that this verse has no help, no hope for us regarding our children?
No, I think that it does have help and hope for us regarding the raising of children and grandchildren.
But what we have to pay attention to is not the word child it is the expectations we bring to this verse.
This verse has raised a lot of hopes for parents and grandparents over the years who hope that their children and grandchildren will make the right decisions and become people of faith. “We hope,” they say, “that ______ will follow Jesus and practice what he/she has learned from us and the church.”

But what happens when they don’t?

What happens when our children and grandchildren make choices to do and believe the opposite of what we have tried to teach them?

For some of us here this morning I know that this is the reality you face today – the rejection of the faith and the church. And it hurts, a great deal.

This verse has been presented as a certainty, as a guarantee. It is not a certainty. It is not a guarantee.

Years ago I heard James Dobson remark on this verse and found his response on-line on his website with a title that reflects the title of this message!

Will A Prodigal Child Always Return?
You have said that the children of godly parents sometimes go into severe rebellion and never return to the faith they were taught. I have seen that happen to some wonderful families that loved the Lord and were committed to the church. Still, it appears contradictory to Scripture. How do you interpret Proverbs 22:6 (KJV), which says, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it”? Doesn’t that verse mean, as it implies, that the children of wise and dedicated Christian parents will never be lost? Doesn’t it promise that all wayward offspring will return, sooner or later, to the fold?

“I wish Solomon’s message to us could be interpreted that definitively. I know that the common understanding of the passage is to accept it as a divine guarantee, but it was not expressed in that context. Psychiatrist John White, writing in his excellent book “Parents in Pain.” makes the case that the proverbs were never intended to be absolute promises from God. Instead, they are probabilities of things that are likely to occur. Solomon, who wrote Proverbs, was the wisest man on the earth at that time. His purpose was to convey his divinely inspired observations on the way human nature and God’s universe work. A given set of circumstances can be expected to produce a set of specific consequences. Unfortunately, several of these observations, including Proverbs 22:6, have been lifted out of that context and made to stand alone as promises from God. If we insist on that interpretation, then we must explain why so many other proverbs do not inevitably prove accurate.”

Think with me for a moment about Adam and Eve. They had every possible advantage. They had no worries, well provided for. They lived in perfection.

What happened?

Let me ask this right now?

Did you follow in the path your parents thought you should follow in?

My mother wanted me to major in elementary education! My father thought I should major in human resources or personnel!

A test, a very accurate and helpful test, said that I could be an architect, a nurse, a college professor, or a military officer!

But I am doing what I believe the Lord has called me to do. And that was more important to them than anything else.

I am not an expert on parenting. I am a parent who makes mistakes, and will continue to do so for the rest of my life. I will probably become that grandfather the boys will warn their kids about.

You know, “If grandpa hands you a chocolate bar and some mountain dew before you put your jammies on and says “sleep well!,” DON’T DO IT!”

If grandpa says, “Green vegetables? Eat a few but drop the rest on the floor for the dogs and don’t tell grandma or your mother.” DON’T DO IT!

If grandpa says, “let’s scare grandma by hiding in the bathroom, DON’T DO IT!”

AND if grandpa says, “Here is a new toy drum to take the place of the one your parents accidently lost and don’t forget to play it often… DON’ T TAKE IT!”

I am not an expert on parenting.

But I think that some of us here this morning are glad that we did not follow our parent’s path. I know that some of us here found the path of salvation and new life from someone else’s parents!

But here is what I think we can appropriately glean from this verse.

To train up a child in the way they should go means:

Parenting starts at birth. We don’t wait to parent, to train, to guide until they can sit up and eat on their own. We start parenting, teaching, encouraging, empowering from the moment they are born.

To train up a child in the way they should go means:

The learning of responsibility starts early. It is not something we start when they get out of elementary school and enter middle school as we experience pre-adolescent parenting panic and tighten the reigns out of fear!

Training up a child in the way that they should go asks of us:

To let consequences become important learning experiences.

Training up a child to walk the path they are to walk asks of us

To acknowledge and accept that there comes a point when a parent’s power turns to influence – either positive or negative- and it comes earlier than you think it does.

 It also means that there comes the point in parenting when you have to “Land the helicopter” and let the chips fall where they may.

But to train up a child in the way they should go so that when they are old they will not depart from it also means to do the following as well:

Talk to your children as human beings created in the image of God. Talk affirmingly to them. Talk honestly to them. Talk respectfully, even when you are angry with them. Talk with them about their interests, their fears, their joys, their hopes, and their failures.

Help them become the person of God doing the will of God in their path of life.

Never stop loving them.

Never stop praying for them.

Oh, there’s one last thing – Don’t forget Proverbs 15:1
A gentle answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger

One of the greatest challenges to parenting today is fear.

I have read Facebook posts and received those e-mails about how life has changed and that a generation of playing outside, all day, all over town is not happening anymore. Well think about all that has happened over the past 25 years with high profile abductions and worse.

Parents are protective these days and one of the hats that I hate to wear, but have to these days, is the hat of attorney and social worker by making sure that the kids who come to this church are safe and treated safely. We cannot assume a laissez-faire attitude anymore about ministry with minors.

But we cannot let fear control us.

We have to stand on the truth of 2 Timothy 1:7

For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.

I invite us to surrender our parenting, our grandparenting, our care for the children of this congregation to the Lord and ask Him to refine it and empower it with the Holy Spirit and Love. We do have an awesome responsibility AND privilege to train up our children in the way THEY should go. Let us do so in the strength and power of the Holy Spirit.

I also invite us to surrender our fears ALL of them to the Lord. And keep surrendering them – day after day after day.

I encourage you to go home and write down your five greatest fears and then read them out loud to God and say, “They are yours.” Fear is something that Satan is using in greater dosages these days and it is time for us to say, “In the name of Jesus, ENOUGH!”

I conclude with a song that I have found to be very inspirational and helpful. It is sung by Jason Grey and has a message to it that we need to hear on a daily basis.


Sunday Sermon: Walking the Wilderness

Matthew 4:1-11
Matthew 26:36-46

What comes to mind when you hear the world “wilderness?”




Or This?


 How about this?


Or, is this what comes to mind when you think of “wilderness?”


Bryan Catherman has written that in the Bible, “the wilderness is a place of difficult lessons or blessings or both. The call into the wild requires a significant journey, often necessary to make a critical connection with the Creator.”

He further notes, “the wilderness referred to throughout the Bible is traditionally called the desert, a word which draws to mind a dry, barren environment. But the biblical word primarily refers to a place that is deserted; unpeopled, uncultivated. Even though waterless places are often empty places, it’s a mistake to think of God’s spiritual wilderness as dry or barren.”

With the two passages of scripture our focus this morning before we give thanks to God through celebrating Communion, I suggest this morning that Jesus’ earthly ministry was book ended, if you will, by two wilderness experiences, one in an actual wilderness and the second in a wilderness of the soul and that there are two important lessons we can learn from both:

Let’s read the first passage noting the physical wilderness experience:

Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”

Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

Here is the first point I want to make:

Wilderness experiences come and go in our lives. They are times of both testing and tempting. They have a place in the Lord’s plans and purposes. They are not forever experiences. They are often bridges from one season/chapter/phase of life to another – they are periods of preparation for a new chapter and to perhaps close out the current chapter.

Jesus was coming to the end of that time many people are interested in knowing more about that is clearly shown in that time gap between the end of Luke 2 and the beginning of Luke 3 – the eighteen years which we know nothing about.

At the end of Luke 2, Jesus is a 12 year old boy who scares his parents to death by staying in Jerusalem and asking questions of a group He would later tangle with. At the beginning of Luke 3, He goes to John the Baptist and is baptized as an adult male.

I recall a period in my life that felt like it was a forever wilderness experience but it was not. As I look back on that time I can now see that yes, it was, at times painful, and there were temptations everywhere, but also a growing and refining time for me. The Lord was present to me and for me in numerous ways because I was alone with Him and out of touch with the noise of daily life. And it served as a bridge from one chapter of life… and ministry… into another one. It was season of preparation, renewal, and redeemption for me. It took me a while, though, to see that.

Jesus’ time in the wilderness marked the end of a hidden period and the beginning of His earthly ministry. And it was a challenging and difficult time. Satan was brutal in his attacks and temptations. But as weakened as He was by thirst and food, Jesus said no to the temptations to satisfy not just His hunger for food but also the very human hunger for control and power.

And He was not alone. God the Father and God the Holy Spirit knew what was going on and had a vantage point, an incredible vantage point, from which to watch Jesus wrestle with these significant temptations. But He said ‘no’ to them. And this wilderness experience served as a bridge of preparation and transition from His private life into His public ministry.

But when He came to the end of the earthly ministry, He again experienced a wilderness experience, one that I think was just as difficult, if not more difficult than the first because He had people nearby in this wilderness experience but He was totally alone. This wilderness experience took place in a Garden.

Our text is Matthew 26:36-46

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.

Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”

Here is my second point: Wilderness experiences come and go in our lives. But we do not have to stay there. They are times of both testing, tempting and preparation. They have a place in the Lord’s plans and purposes.

This wilderness experience was the bridge from Jesus ministry to His death and praise God, His resurrection! It was a wilderness experience that only He could experience because only Jesus could do what He did – die on the cross and rise from the dead three days later – on our behalf, out of love, for our salvation. But those moments in Gethsemane were painful, hard, draining – but He said Yes to God, just as He did in the Judean wilderness when He said No to Satan.

Here again are the words of Bryan Catherman:

“My spiritual wilderness is rich and frightening in ways I can’t find elsewhere. While there, I can’t help but commune with God. It’s anything but spiritually dry or barren. His wilderness always illuminates, often revealing a clear picture of my deeper self. It’s there that I struggle with the conflicts of my soul. It’s there where spirit and flesh do battle. In the wilderness, I’m changed, never to return the same.”

Maybe this morning you feel like you are in a wilderness.



You are feeling the heat and the pressure of temptation… to give up, to take a shortcut instead of waiting for God to act, to fulfill your needs and wants your way and not the Lord’s.

Maybe you feel like you are being punished as you sit in your wilderness experience. Maybe you are.

But not in the way you think you are.
And just sitting is not the posture you are to take.

Notice what Catherman wrote:

It’s anything but spiritually dry or barren. His wilderness always illuminates, often revealing a clear picture of my deeper self. It’s there that I struggle with the conflicts of my soul. It’s there where spirit and flesh do battle. In the wilderness, I’m changed, never to return the same.”

In a moment we are going to celebrate Communion and as we prepare to do so, I remind us of what John wrote in 1 John 1:9

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

… if we admit our sins—make a clean breast of them—he won’t let us down; he’ll be true to himself. He’ll forgive our sins and purge us of all wrongdoing.

When I have those “in the wilderness” moments, I am reminded of a song from several years ago that goes:

He didn’t bring us this far to leave us
He didn’t teach us to swim to let us drown
He didn’t build His home in us to move away
He didn’t lift us up to let us down

Wilderness moments are designed to help us come out the other end, stronger, better, more obedient and more alive in our faith in and relationship with Jesus Christ.

The prodigal son had his wilderness moments and he came running home to his father who stood there waiting for him with open arms.

Moses had his wilderness moments – about 40 years worth – and then came out of it after a burning bush experience with God as He was redeemed and came to be a deliverer of God’s people.

Elijah had his wilderness moments after a great victory over the prophets of Baal when God spoke to him, many, many miles away in the stillness of that wilderness.

Hagar grieving and alone in the desert, after being kicked out of Abraham and Sarah’s household, was reassured by the Lord that her needs and that of her son, Ishmael would be met.

Are you in a wilderness right now? God has not forgotten you. It may seem that way but it isn’t.

Listen to Him. Read scripture. Pray. Listen some more. Surrender what needs to be surrendered to Him. Confess your sins and accept His forgiveness.

You will come out of the wilderness and you will be a better person and believer for it.


Sunday Sermon: A Pause That Can Redeem

Proverbs 15:1

The late Stephen Covey told the following story several years ago about an experience he had as he rode in a New York City Subway Car one Sunday morning:

“People were sitting quietly — some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful scene. Then suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway car. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed.

“The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers. It was very disturbing. And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing.

“It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too. So finally, with what I felt was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?”

“The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, ‘Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.’

“Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? My paradigm shifted. Suddenly I saw things differently, I felt differently, I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior; my heart was filled with the man’s pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely. “Your wife just died? Oh, I’m so sorry. Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?” Everything changed in an instant.”

How many of us here have had an experience similar to Covey’s?

How many of us here have had an experience like this and internally we fumed and said or did nothing but it affected our attitude the rest of the day?

How many of us here have had an experience like this and we spoke harsh words only to eat them later?

Now Covey quickly realized that things were not as they seemed at first to him and chose to assist the man. It was the wise and correct course of action.

And there are times, as Covey’s experience notes, we need to speak up. But how and when do we that?

But I think that Covey paused before he spoke and it paid off for all concerned – Covey, the man and his kids, and everyone in that subway car.

Our main verse for this morning reminds us of the pause that can redeem – a relationship, a situation, a faith.

It is Proverbs 15:1

A gentle answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.

Or as The Message puts it:

A gentle response defuses anger,
but a sharp tongue kindles a temper-fire.

Pretty clear verse, isn’t it? Not much to dig out is there?

There are many gems in this chapter about learning to be a wise person by speaking as a wise person. Verse 4 echoes verse 1:

Kind words heal and help;
cutting words wound and maim.

The soothing tongue is a tree of life,
but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit.

What accounts for the difference between the gentle answer/kind word response and the sharp tongued/cutting word response?

The attitude of the person speaking them.

And scripture has a great deal to say to us about that and one word is key to understanding our attitudes.


And the book of Proverbs has a great deal to say about our hearts.

There is Proverbs 4:23
Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.

And Proverbs 6:18
a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil,
(We studied this verse a few weeks ago)

But we also must look at what Jesus said about the heart because it is related to our speech and I begin with Matthew 5:8

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

If we are to speak words of healing and hope, they must come from a pure heart and purity meant here means sincere, blameless, and free of guilt. The alternative, which our main text reflects, is given great clarity by Christ in Mark 7:20-23

“What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder,  adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.  All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

Finally some very potent and wise words from James as noted in James 3:5-12

…the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.


I suggest this morning we consider the connection between our heart and our tongue and how we can make the first half of our main text a good habit and learn to stop the bad habit of the second half of the text.

How is a gentle answer created that can defuse a situation from getting worse?

It is a matter of the heart.

The flow of thoughts and motives Jesus speaks of has to do with the one way direction from the heart to the tongue.

it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come..

Evil is used here as an adjective and it means these things: of a bad nature- not such as it ought to be; of a mode of thinking, feeling, acting- base, wrong, wicked; troublesome, injurious, pernicious, destructive, baneful.

A wise person is a person with a gentle answer and they have a gentle answer because their hearts are clear. And their hearts are clear because they have allowed God into their hearts… and lives… and asked for and received the cleansing and healing they need. But, wise persons also continue to cooperate with the Lord in keeping their hearts clean from the things that feed angry words to our tongues.

One of the ways I think that we cooperate with the Lord in keeping our hearts and tongues clear and open is asking for, seeing clearly, and surrendering to God those unresolved painful moments in our lives that fuel angry words and actions which lead to conflict and fractured relationships with others and the Lord. And in my hand this morning is a book that I found, and continue to find, helpful in dealing with those moments.

It is called The Faces of Rage by David Damico. It was written and published in the early 1990’s. The subtitle of the book says a great deal: Resolving the Losses That Lead to: Anger, Guilt, Shame, Cynicism, Isolation, Compulsions, Pretense, Legalism, and Perfectionism.

 He names eight significant losses in the book:

The Loss of Safety
The Loss of Purpose
The Loss of Significance
The Loss of Authenticity
The Loss of Eligibility
The Loss of Hope
The Loss of Dignity
The Loss of Power

And he suggests that as we face, grieve, and surrender these losses to God instead of letting them drive our behavior and, our speech, we gain freedom from the rage (and I suggest the sins of rage – notably harsh answers) that we deal with. And rage, I remind us, is one of the things that Paul tells the early church community at Ephesus to “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.”

I want to spend a few moments sharing some of the insights and stories Damico writes in this book. I normally don’t do this but it illustrates what happens when the losses, and the very real pain these losses create, go unresolved and the harsh words which both inflict and express the alienation, pain, and conflict.

By the loss of safety Damico means not just physical safety. He tells the story of Tom who claimed to be a compulsive worrier. He was never physically in danger in his home but emotionally felt unsafe because as Damico puts it, “He always had an underlying feeling that he wasn’t wanted. As long as kept the rules of the house, his parents left him alone.” (Of note, Tom was 10 years younger than his closest sibling.)

How might an unresolved loss of safety be expressed through harsh words?

Then there is a loss of purpose. Damico tells the story of Reba, an attorney’s wife of many years who was considering suicide because she felt that her family, especially her kids, “don’t think I can do anything.” Of this loss Damico noted, “Purpose is lost when our attempts to contribute are rejected, scorned, criticized, stolen, or ignored.”

How might an unresolved loss of purpose be expressed through harsh words which keep things stirred up?

Loss of significance is another loss that is painful. There is Martin who had many lady friends and few male friends in part because of an emotionally distant relationship with his dad that he never seemed to be able to meaningfully communicate with. Damico says this about the importance of significance, “to feel significant is to feel visible, substantial, and essential” and he goes on to say that one of the great indicators of insignificance as being present are when the words, “children should be seen and not heard” are spoken.

Damico sat in a men’s recovery group one evening and they talked about the loss of authenticity. Phrases like “Why can’t you be like your older brother?’; an angry frustration with feeling judged for raising their hands in worship; and the anguished anger of feeling judged for not using the right terminology in the group, came flowing out of these men often with a lot of heat behind them. Damico links experiencing shame with the loss of authenticity that occurs “when we are shaped and molded by the expectations of others who are trying to make us into someone they want us to be rather than allowing us to become who we really are.”

How might an unresolved loss of authenticity be expressed through harsh words which keep things stirred up?

Then there is what I think is one of the most painful losses which lead to a heart that is gummed up by anger, rage, and expressed in angry words that keep things stirred up. It is the loss of eligibility.

“You’re too fat to play. Besides, if we pick you we’ll lose.”

“You’re so stupid. Every time you open your mouth something stupid comes out.”

“I’m sorry. You’re just not quite what we’re looking for to join this ministry team. Didn’t you say you’ve been divorced?”

“Look, if you can’t get it right, I’m going to have to find someone else. I can’t waste my whole day helping you.”

We’ve heard the words, haven’t we?

Damico says this, “An individual who struggles with the loss of eligibility has a profound sense of inadequacy and self-hate… if we carry this loss without resolving it, we will make others the victims of our own prejudice or bias as well.”

How might harsh words keep things stirred up when we do not resolve the loss and the very real pain when we are told we don’t count?

Then there is the loss of hope. Damico told the story of a man whose life was unraveling – rejected for admission into graduate school, no place to live, the death of his dad, the miscarriage of his wife – “Is it ever going to get better?”

“Hopelessness usually comes when we find ourselves in crisis and we: can see no end, can find no friend, can exercise no options, can experience no rest.”

How might this profound loss, keep the harsh words flowing?

A radio listener told Damico, live on the air, he had a lot of rage because his adopted father said to him that “he was sorry he had ever gotten me.” The man went to explain that he was made to sit in on a blanket in the backyard all day and when he came into eat or go to the bathroom, was ignored by the rest of the family who were told to ignore him.

It was the loss of dignity this man was trying to find.

Can we not understand the angry words of this man?

Finally, there is the loss of power.

The story is told a young man who sat in a therapy group run by Damico and simply tuned out. He had been in and out of hospitals and treatment centers, prison, and had attempted suicide three times and had numerous obsessive-compulsive issues.

Whether it is through abuse or neglect “somehow,” notes Damico, “the plug gets pulled and the lights (of love, grace, mercy, and peace) go out.”

And the angry words and demeanor continue to come out.

Time to come up for air, isn’t it?

Even as I wrote this section, I recalled things I had experienced, and said at times, in regards to these losses. They plugged up my heart and poisoned my speech.

But, I had a choice. You have a choice.

It never goes away until we are dead or unable to think, speak, and reason.

We can choose to hang on to these losses and keep letting the unresolved conflict, pain, and anger out in our words and actions…

Or… with the help and power of God

Face them, grieve them, and let them go… into God’s hands

The choice is yours.

You can start the process today and it might take awhile to get through but none of us have to live with these terrible losses. Yes, they will always be in our memories but we can chose, with God’s help, to let them go and not let them have power over us anymore.

I think that one of reasons there are people we seek out who have wisdom is because, in part, they have resolved these losses, and God’s great grace now flows out of their hearts and through their speech.

What is Christ saying to you this morning about your life, your heart, your speech? Will you let Him in? Will you let Him help you heal? Will you choose the way of wisdom and become a person whose gentle answer turns away wrath?

I pray that we all will.


My Review of Michael Ransom’s The Ripper Gene

23168816Lucas Madden, an FBI profiler who is dealing with the potential loss of his job due to a wrong arrest, finds himself in the middle of a string  of murders in and around his boyhood home that bear a striking resemblance to his mother’s unsolved murder. So while he deals with an unsolved and unresolved past, Madden, who has cloned the so called “ripper gene” and has sequenced the DNA of well-known serial killers into what has become known as the “Damnation Algorithm,” now deals with a uncertain future as he fights to keep his job and find the killer.

In Michael Ransom’s inaugural novel,  The Ripper Gene (Forge Books, 2015) the past, present, and future collide into what I consider a well done novel which again raises, at a critical point in the story, the debate about genetic predisposition and personal responsibility regarding personal behavior.  It is also a novel in which science plays a key role in the story and, given Ranson’s academic background in molecular biology and his expertise in toxicogenonmics and pharmacogentics, it adds to the depth, excitement, and realism to the book.

With great twists and turns in the plot that will keep you guessing as to the killer’s identity up to a sudden final plot turn, The Ripper Gene is truly a thriller in the best sense of the word.

I rate this book a ‘very good’ read!


Note: I received a review copy of the book from Smith Publicity in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review.

My Review of Taylor W Law’s Return to Me

26830789There is no better way to say this…

This novella made me sad.

Well written, and all too true to life these days, Taylor W Law’s debut work of fiction Return to Me (TWL Publishing, 2015) is the story of a couple whose choices before, during, and after a significant family loss result in separation and divorce.


Based on true events “personally observed and experienced” by the author, this is a story about the neglect of (and yes, infidelity in) a significant relationship – one’s marriage. Set against a small town and Christian college back drop, Jill Edwards and her husband Dave, both make one choice after another which leads them both farther and farther apart until…

Now good fiction clearly reveals both the pathos and joy of life. Law does this quite well. And to be honest, I am not sure if I responding as reviewer or a minister who has sat with couples whose marriages are falling apart, or both, in writing this review. Which perhaps is another sign of good fiction – it creates a deeply visceral response.

So Come to Me is a piece of fiction that does what, in my opinion, good fiction does – it draws the reader in and forces them to respond. In this case, it has saddened me by ripping out my heart!

I rate Come to Me as a ‘good’ read.

Note: I received a E-copy of this novella from the author in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review.