4 Posts from November 2009


My love affair with Thanksgiving takes me all the way back to my boyhood days. I had just turned 10 years of age and was in fifth grade at Southmayd Elementary School in East Houston. As I recall, I was still going barefoot to school—and I combed my hair, maybe three times a week. Girls didn’t matter a lot to me when I was 10! It was on a Wednesday, the day before our Thanksgiving holidays began.

The year was 1944. Our nation was at war across the Atlantic into Europe as well as in the Pacific and far beyond. Times were simple back then but they were also rugged. Everything was rationed. Framed stars hung proudly in neighborhood windows—and sometimes they were quietly changed to crosses. Everyone I knew was patriotic to the core. Without television, we relied on “newsreels” that were shown at the movies, bold newspaper headlines, and LIFE magazine, which carried photos and moving stories of courage in battle and deaths at sea. Signs were posted inside most stores and on street corners, all of them with the same four words:

“Uncle Sam Wants YOU.”

Draped high across the front of our classroom was a huge American flag with its 48 stars and 13 stripes. We began that Wednesday as we did every other day in school, standing erect beside our desks, repeating the Pledge of Allegiance and then bowing our heads as our teacher led us in prayer. Hanging just below the flag was a large picture of our 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She always remembered to pray for him—and our “soldier boys” who were serving their country in dark, dreary, and dangerous places a half a world away from my fifth-grade class.

My teacher had lost her husband on the blood-washed shores of Normandy the previous June. After we had saluted the flag, a hush fell across the room as we bowed our heads together. No one moved. As she began to pray and give thanks, her voice broke and she started to weep. I did too. So did Richard Webb, my best buddy. And Wanda Ragland.  Even Charles White and Warren Cook, two tough kids who later played high school football when we were all Milby Buffaloes, wiped back their tears. No one moved as she stumbled and sobbed her way through her prayer, which was filled with some of the most moving expressions of gratitude and praise that I have ever heard emerge from a soul plunged in personal grief and pain.

In that epochal moment, time stood still. And I believe it was then—right then—that I fell in love with Thanksgiving. It became, for me, far more than just another holiday; it took on a significance that bordered the sacred. 

Lost in sympathy and a 10-year-old-boy’s pity for his teacher, I walked home much slower that autumn afternoon. Although only a child, I entertained deep and profound feelings of gratitude for my country, kept free by the bravery and blood of men and women only a few years older than I, most of them fresh out of high school. On that cool afternoon I felt a renewed surge of thankfulness for my mom and dad, my older brother and sister . . . my maternal grandparents . . . my friends . . . for my school . . . my neighborhood . . . my church. Though only a child, I promised God that I would fight to the end to keep this land free from enemies who would take away our liberty and erase America’s distinctives and steal the joys of living in this good land.

I have never forgotten that childhood promise. I remembered it at another Thanksgiving, fourteen years later in late November of 1958, when I wore the uniform and silently walked the same beaches of Okinawa where my fellow Marines had sacrificed their lives in the last great battle of the South Pacific in WWII. And as Thanksgiving returns annually, I still pause; I still let the wonder in.

Thanksgiving puts steel in our nerves and causes fresh blood to course through our patriotic veins. It reminds us of our great heritage. It carries us back with humbling nostalgia to those first dreadful winters at places like Plymouth and Jamestown, where less than half of those who first landed survived. But what grand men and women those pioneers became—those who pressed on. Reading their names today is like reading a page out of our national heroes’ Hall of Fame. In words taken from Hebrews 11, they were those “of whom the world was not worthy.” At this time every year I pause and remember how thankful I am for each one of them. They had the stuff of which greatness is made.

Thanksgiving speaks in clear, crisp tones of almost-forgotten terms like integrity, respect, vigilance, devotion, dignity, honor, discipline, freedom, sacrifice, heroism, humility, peace, and godliness. Its historic halls echo with voices embedded in the woodwork—the voices of Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Henry, Lincoln, Lee, Jackson, Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Reagan—all of whom challenge us to trim off the fat of indolence, passivity, and compromise, to rid ourselves of the stigma of strife and prejudice, the malignancy of selfishness and greed.

As everyone around us reaches for more and clings to what is, Thanksgiving drops to its knees, pleading that we release ourselves to others in greater need and set our affections on things unseen. As the very real threat of terrorism continues to rear its ugly head and as our culture gives way to shameful and brutal acts of violence, it is easy to let ourselves become preoccupied with only the fear of a stark and barren future . . . a world without color and laughter. Thanksgiving stands tall and shouts the same message every year: “There is a better way to think and to live! Your God is still blessing you with the fragrance of forgiveness and the beauty of His bounty.” 

I have found in these 63 years that have followed my experience in that fifth-grade class that it is essential to pause very deliberately each Thanksgiving and do what the name of the holiday tells me to do. When I do, without exception, I’ve found that beauty replaces the fear of barrenness and a deep joy returns to my soul.

Though she wrote her song long ago, perhaps on a Thanksgiving Day when times were hard and nights seemed long, Katharine Lee Bates was determined to see beyond the present and focus her mind on things beautiful. She provided us with a vivid reminder of why it’s worth it to make this a time to pause and give thanks:

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain!

O beautiful for heroes proved

In liberating strife,

Who more than self their country loved

And mercy more than life!

O beautiful for patriot dream

That sees beyond the years

Thine alabaster cities gleam,

Undimmed by human tears!

America! America!

God shed His grace on thee,

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!1

And so, as the-best-of-all-the-holidays fast approaches, may we take our cues from my fifth-grade teacher. May we be as self-forgetful as she was that lonely day in her life, soon to face her first Thanksgiving alone in her little apartment. May we remember what she remembered—that Thanksgiving transcends our present trials, that it is a day of magnificent memories, a day of renewed commitment to the things that matter. Like my teacher, may we not allow it to be eclipsed behind the clouds of our national aches or submerged beneath the pain of personal loss and hardship. 

May Thanksgiving arrive this year with a forceful and throbbing impact upon us. May it leave each one of us gripped with gratitude for the same things that I remembered as a barefoot kid walking home from school on that autumn afternoon so many years ago. 


1. Katharine Lee Bates, “America, the Beautiful,” The Celebration Hymnal: Songs and Hymns for Worship (Nashville: Word Music/Integrity Music, 1997), no. 799.

What to Do When Your Church Grows

From many different backgrounds, the early church gathered around the unity of faith in Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Using today’s terms, the church was a blended family. These diverse backgrounds cultivated the seedbed for dysfunction. In the church? Precisely.

Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food.

Acts 6:1

Perhaps the needs had grown so large that it was impossible for the leaders to stay aware of them all. That easily happens. Even in an environment where “all things were common property” (Acts 4:32), preferential treatment crept in. And with it, naturally, complaining intensified. Some things never change! The Hellenistic Jews were grumbling . . . blaming . . . whining. (There’s a more colorful way to translate the word, which I learned in the Marine Corps, but I won’t go there!) Watch how the apostles dealt with this complaint. Their response is instructive:

So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

Acts 6:2–4

Let’s not misunderstand the apostles’ words. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with serving tables—with meeting physical needs. Actually there’s everything right about that. The problem is when meeting those needs requires a neglect of the Word of God.

Jesus experienced this issue as well. When His ministry enlarged so much that the physical needs of the people became all-consuming, Christ withdrew by Himself to pray. The apostles searched for Him and told Him that everyone was looking for Him. Why? They wanted healing. Christ responded by modeling for His disciples the importance of priorities:

“Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, so that I may preach there also; for that is what I came for.”

Mark 1:38

Jesus knew the priority of keeping prayer and preaching central to His ministry. The apostles must have remembered, since they applied that same standard when the needs of the church increased.

No one will ever demand that you pray more and give greater priority to the Word of God. Physical needs will always shout louder. And the predictable will occur: we’ll spend so much time greasing those squeaky wheels that we neglect prayer and the Word of God. We can become so absorbed with trying to “do church” (whatever that means) on our own that we turn to pleasing people with impressive marketing techniques and corporate organizational strategies instead of keeping first things first.

But wait a minute; doesn’t Jesus want the church to grow? Absolutely. In fact, He has promised to do it. So what is our task? What are our priorities? A properly functioning church stays committed to its four biblical essentials: teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer (see Acts 2:42). Read that sentence again . . . please!

In the first church on record, it was Christians who planted the seeds and watered them, as the apostle Paul reminded his readers, “but God was causing the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6).

It remains the same today.


Thanks for Sovereign Grace

Today marks the 234th birthday of the United States Marine Corps—November 10, 1775. It’s a day I always pause, look back, and call to mind some of the great memories of days gone by. Ah, those were the days . . .

As my buddies and I always screamed in unison before the 10th of November ended:

ONE for the Corps . . .

TWO for the Corps . . .

THREE for the Corps . . .

HOO-RAH for the Corps!

Exactly fifty-one years ago tonight, I was in my full dress-blues uniform, brass and medals shining, shoes spit-polished, playing first-chair clarinet in the 60-piece, Third Division Band for Major General David Shoup, our base commander—and Medal of Honor recipient. We played into the night for the annual Marine Corp Birthday Ball at Headquarters’ Company, Camp Courtney, on the American-held island of Okinawa. What a celebration!

That was November 10, 1958. And, believe it or not, even though the final large battle of WWII had been fought (on that very island) and the Japanese had surrendered over 13 years earlier, we were STILL digging Japanese soldiers out of dark caves and deep bunkers located on that island. They stumbled into the sunlight emaciated and bearded, uniforms torn and tattered, boots rotting on their feet. They had no idea the war had ended … and they were still clinging to their rusty rifles, still existing in hiding and living on stolen rice and rodents and roots.

I was a 24-year-old Marine. I had been a husband for a little over three years. And I was living 8,000 miles away from Cynthia, ultimately, for 16 long months.

Ah . . . those were the days; I thought they’d never end! The following April, 1959, I mustered out of the Corps with an honorable discharge (followed by six years on active reserve) . . . in June of ’59 I applied as an incoming student at Dallas Theological Seminary. In July ’59 I was accepted (on probation my first year!), and in August ’59 we moved to Dallas where later that month I began as a first-year student with a Marine Corps flat-top. (Cynthia got a job as secretary to a vice-president at Preston State Bank.) The following summer I hired in as the lawn boy for Dallas Seminary, where I had the privilege of beautifying the grounds for the school I loved. And since the seminary’s president, Dr. John F. Walvoord, loved blooming, colorful flowers, I planted lots of ’em . . . everywhere! It was through his and my early-morning conversations during the summer of 1960 that he actually learned my name. Ah . . . now THOSE were the days!

Thanks for traveling with me along this brief, nostalgic journey through the past. Every November the 10th I pause to give God thanks for His hand on every detail of my life—His hand of SOVEREIGN grace.


Your Church: Building Up . . . or Chiseling Away?

How can a church building suddenly turn up missing? Well . . . it did. Stolen!

Last seen in July 2008, the 200-year-old Russian church disappeared just a few months later. Orthodox officials in a village northeast of Moscow intended to reopen the abandoned, two-story Church of the Resurrection—and begin services again. Imagine their surprise when they came to the place where the church had stood . . . and saw nothing! It’s a common occurrence in rural areas of Russia for vacant churches to have their gilded icons and other valuables stolen. But now the entire church building itself had been stolen! How did it happen?

Brick by brick.

Nearby villagers dismantled the structure in October 2008 and sold each brick to a local businessman for one ruble each (which amounts to about four cents per brick). “Of course, this is blasphemy,” a local priest blathered. “These people have to realize they committed a grave sin.” To which I think, Oh, really? What about the leadership that neglected the church for so long?

When I saw the date of the church’s deconstruction, it struck a personal nerve. October 2008 represented the tenth anniversary of the church where I serve as senior pastor. It is a pivotal milestone in our church’s history, as we determined to stop the spiritual erosion our local body was experiencing. Spiritually speaking, we resolved to put a halt to the dismantling of our internal walls and to begin rebuilding the spiritual foundation of the biblical essentials for a church: teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer (see Acts 2:42). I am so grateful that God intervened. He graciously granted us the opportunity to get back on track! His grace rescued us. Even though we were only ten years old, signs of erosion were beginning to occur.

Jesus promised to build His church, adding the declaration, “and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matthew 16:18). That’s a good-news, bad-news statement. The good news is that the Adversary will not spoil the growth of Christ’s church. It will prevail. The bad news? Satan will do all he can to dismantle the church. If he can’t bring it about suddenly, then he will chip away at it brick by brick.

Every church will face challenges. In fact, the New Testament tells us that struggles are a normal part of the Christian experience.

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you.
1 Peter 4:12

What’s true of us as individuals is also true of our churches. No need to be surprised when challenges come. We will struggle! No need to scramble around, wring our hands, and wonder what to do in the midst of the Enemy’s insidious attacks. Rather than take our cues from the world, the Scriptures offer us a clear path to follow in the midst of any trial. But that certainly doesn’t mean it will be easy.

You can be sure of this: overwhelming challenges and fierce struggles lie ahead in your path—and in the path of your church. Believe it. Expect it. But for sure, prepare for it. Only through devotion to the inerrant Word of God will we retain our values when the Adversary starts chiseling away at our walls. Do not be intimidated. He “will not prevail.”

Some things are worth fighting for.