Thursday, December 13, 2007

Unexpected Wish Fulfillment

As I think back on the Christmas gifts which are most memorable to me from my childhood, I always linger on the same gifts. These gifts have very little in common with each other. In fact, I have only been able to link them by two common threads. One, they were Christmas gifts. And two, they were unexpected.

Without question, the gifts I received as a child which had the most lasting impact were the unexpected gifts. I remember, as a first grader, wandering in to the living room on Christmas morning finding a model train set mounted to the largest piece of plywood I had ever seen. There were multiple tracks, little trees, little buildings, and little people, and the most authentic looking (and sounding!) train I could ever imagine. To my first grade eyes, it was the “coolest” thing I had ever seen. I hadn’t asked for a model train set – but it was the perfect gift. I would later learn my father had stayed up all night on Christmas Eve assembling this locomotive treasure.

The next year my parents bought me a bicycle. A shinny, black and gold Huffy. My first reaction, in my head (I was a quiet second grader), was, “Wow, if I had known I would I gotten a bicycle had I asked for it, there is no telling what I would have asked for…” Truthfully, I was a little bit scared of the bicycle. I still didn’t know how to ride. I wasn’t very adventurous, at least for a seven year old. However, by the next Christmas I was riding my bike up and down the street, and this classic mode of transportation would become one of the defining parts of my childhood.

I think the best gifts we receive in life are often the unexpected ones. The ones for which we fail to ask; the ones we do not even know we want or need. This is how it was for the Magi. Sure, we most often associate these “wise men” with the giving of gifts to the Christ child. However, think of the unexpected nature of the gift they received! They followed a star, searching for a child-king. It only seems logical they would have expected a child born into a prestigious royal family. While they may have found a king, I do not think they found that for which they were looking. Surely they did not expect a child born into a poor Judean family.

In this way the Magi are representative of all of us. We didn’t ask for the gift God sent. For the most part, humanity didn’t even know we needed the gift. God sent his son, in a way no one could have imagined – and we were so surprised most of us didn’t recognize him. None of us have ever received a more precious, unexpected gift.

Read the Magi’s story from Matthew 2:1-12. Reflect for a moment on the wonderfully unexpected discovery of these wise men.

Grace, peace, and joy,
Pastor James

Friday, November 30, 2007

A Gift of the Season

Our Advent Devotional Theme for 2007 here at Southwest Baptist is "Christmas Wishes." This is my response when asked to share about a special Christmas gift.

I was recently a part of a conversation which centered on vocational challenges and choices. We discussed the different roles each of our occupations required and the conversation eventually moved toward a very interesting question: If each of us were not doing what we were now doing, in what vocation would we be?

Those who have known me for years know I first experienced God’s call on my life, pulling me toward vocational ministry, when I was in high school. During my years in college and then in seminary I encountered several classmates who were certain I had missed my calling – though I think most of them were saying so in jest. These classmates were certain I would make a great lawyer. However, even if I was not convinced of God’s call on my life, I could not be a lawyer.

Please do not misunderstand me: All of the obvious jokes aside, I have great respect for many lawyers. Those in the legal profession often champion the rights of victims or protect the innocent from false accusation. I also believe our legal system, while perhaps not perfect, is absolutely essential in our society. Lawyers are required for our legal system to function properly.

However, most often lawyers experience people at their worst. Divorce law, tax law, corporate law, criminal law, and even in constitutional law – lust, greed, pride, envy, and strife are often all on display. Only in rare moments do lawyers have the privilege of seeing someone at his or her best. While I suppose all careers, vocations, and occupations provide opportunities to encounter people at less than their best, lawyers seem to absorb a disproportionate amount of the worst. I do not think my heart could take it.

In ministry, I certainly have not always been presented with the best humanity has to offer. At our worst, each of us has the potential for great evil. At our most desperate we often fail to choose the best way. However, I also have been given a great gift. It is truly one of the greatest gifts God has ever given to me. I may sometimes encounter life and those who live it at their worst, but I also get to see, experience, encourage, and celebrate life at its very best.

At this time of year more than most, I get to see people reaching out to each other, giving a hand, meeting needs, providing care – and so much of it goes unnoticed by the rest of the world. I am blessed to see persons, without expecting or receiving any thanks, pour out their lives to the benefit of others. God has given me this gift, and it is one I treasure. As children, we longed for the experience of receiving gifts on Christmas morning. As adults, we learned that true joy comes in the giving rather than in the receiving. As a minister, I have learned that joy also comes in watching the love of God being expressed through fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, and it is a gift I will treasure forever.

Grace, peace, and joy,
James

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

LibraryThing

Have you run across LibraryThing? It is a wonderful social networking site (I'm absolutely sure I thought I would never say that) which lets users catalog, categorize, and search through their own libraries and the libraries of others. In fact, rather than list the many different features here, I would encourage all book-lovers to surf over to LibraryThing.com and check it out. My library is listed under jlhilljr; a search box and link can be found and the link bar on the right side of this page.

If you love to read, but could never see the point of Facebook or MySpace -- I fall into both categories -- I strongly encourage you to check it out.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Mobile Blogging ?

This is my first test at mobile blogging. Maybe if this works I will actually keep up with my blog. Who knows?

Grace and peace,
James

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Fear is the Real Cancer

Recently, conservative columnist Cal Thomas compared Islam to cancer which must be purged in this “free” world of the West. (Ethics Daily columnist Bob Allen presents the story at this link.) Unfortunately, his attitude is likely representative of the attitudes of many American and British citizens toward their Muslim neighbors.

"Not all Muslims from the Middle East and South Asia want to kill us, but those who do blend in with those who don't,” Thomas observed. “Would anyone tolerate a slow-spreading cancer because it wasn't fast-spreading? Probably not. You'd want it removed."

My first reaction upon hearing of these comments was shock. One might think it would be difficult for outrageous comments from mass media personalities and political pundits to shock us any longer, but there I was. However, my shock quickly dissipated and what was left behind was sadness. Sadness, because as a clergy member in the Christian faith and Baptist tradition I know what it is to have the actions of a few color the perception of the whole.

I could recount, as so many historians more qualified than I have, a massive litany of violent acts and terrorist campaigns carried out in the name of our God. Some have even claimed, by simply tabulating acts of violence committed in the name of Christ, that Christianity is the most violent religion in the history of the world. I will not attempt to make this argument, as I do not believe it. However, I can not dismiss the history of my own faith tradition.

Unfortunately, knowledge of ancient or medieval history is not required in a search for examples. As recently as last century, member of the Ku Klux Klan and similar organizations perpetrated horrendously violent acts upon their black neighbors. These domestic terrorists claimed to be living their faith and protecting their “way of life.” These terrorists claimed a Christian faith and used the Bible to defend their actions. Their acts of terror were designed to illicit the same response as modern terrorists – abject fear. Fear which would paralyze.

Too old an example? What of the horrendous “Christian” witness of modern voices like Fred Phelps? Phelps’ clan aggressively condemns nearly everyone, using a variety of vulgarities, and are perhaps most well known for picketing the funerals of soldiers. Phelps claims a Christian faith, even while preaching hate and attributing all manner of evil to the same God we worship in our churches every Sunday. As a Baptist, I know how I feel every time the media refer to Phelps' church as the Westboro Baptist Church.

What if the Ku Klux Klan and Fred Phelps of the world were allowed to define what it means to be Christian? This is what Cal Thomas has done to the Muslim faith. He has allowed a fundamentalist minority to define Islam, instead of the peaceful Muslims which even he has admitted are the majority. In our country, many non-Christians take the witness of fundamentalist Christians as representative of who Christians really are. For me, this is tragic.

I believe Cal Thomas, and those like him, have one reason for painting with such a broad brush. In further comments quoted in the same Ethics Daily article, Thomas says, “Are we resigned to them because we fear doing what is necessary more than we fear what the killers wish to do to us?” Thomas is afraid of terrorists – afraid of what they might do. For him, this fear is justified and should drive us to act. His fear leads to generalization and irrational thinking. In allowing himself to respond in such a way, he grants the terrorist exactly what he seeks.

Christ taught a better way. In the Gospel accounts, Jesus repeatedly demonstrated why acting and responding in fear was not only foolish but unnecessary. We should not fear terrorists. While we should do what we can to combat and prevent terrorism, we can not allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear. This is not because we are somehow immune to the effects of the terrorist’s bomb. In a recent sermon, when commenting on Jesus’ teaching on fear and worry in the Sermon on the Mount, I said, “When we let go of anxiety, fear, and worry, and turn it over to God, we are not purchasing a fail-safe guarantee that nothing bad will ever happen to us again. However, we are assured that whatever happens tomorrow, we won’t be alone. We won’t face it alone. God will still be God, regardless of what is coming. And whatever is coming, God can handle it, whether I can or not.”

Terrorists, whether Muslim or not, are motivated by fear even as they seek to dispense it. They fear their culture is being forcibly rearranged around them. They fear the lost of power and influence in their societies. Perhaps they even fear failing to live up to the standards of those terrorist who came before them. However, this fear does not come from faithful adherence to Islam as a religion. Islam is not a religion of violence, hatred, and fear – regardless of how it is portrayed in the mass media.

I sympathize with faithful Muslims all over the world today, the same faithful Muslims whose hearts break at every act of terrorism, only to hear it labeled “Islamic Terrorism.” I cringe every time I see racism, greed, and violence justified, defended, and even labeled Christian. And I hope I am doing my part to counter the Cal Thomas’ of the world, or his eastern counter-part, who would allow the worst Muslims to define what it means to be Muslim, or the worst Christians to define what it means to be Christian.

Grace and peace,
James

Monday, June 04, 2007

Summer is Coming...

It is hard to believe that the end of the school year is almost here. (Hard, but not impossible – Tara keeps me updated daily.) Every season passes into the next, and it seems we never really understand were all of the time goes. As we move into the summer months, demands on our time will change, but they may not decrease. Children are not in school activities, but other options flood their calendars. Our teenagers have a difficult challenge – how to make use of the time of summer in a valuable way.

The manner in which we use, value, and even waste time is a spiritual concern. I believe God expects the best of our time to be given – for we have no more valuable asset. Benjamin Franklin said, “Lost time is never found again.” If we want to give to God our time and energy this summer, we get one chance. The time will quickly vanish away.

In church life, there can be a tendency to pull away from activities, fellowships, Bible study, and even worship during the Summer months. I want to challenge our church to work hard to keep this from happening this year. Oswald Chambers, author of the devotional classic My Utmost For His Highest, wrote “There is no other time than now with God, no past and no future.” God wants relationship and expects worship now, not when we have time. When we get to the Fall season, and begin looking toward Advent and Christmas, God will be there. However, we certainly do not want to miss the blessings of worshipping our God during these coming Summer months.


C.S. Lewis, who wrote his fair share of rhetorical questions, penned one of my favorites: “Where, except in the present, can the eternal be met?” Let’s seek God’s presence together this summer.

Grace and peace,

James

Monday, April 02, 2007

What Has Been Found?

(this first appeared in our church newsletter from March 2007)

Jesus, Joseph, and Mary, we have found their bones. So say the producers of the Discovery Channel special, The Lost Tomb of Jesus. Biblical scholar Jonathan Reed has gone so far as to call this documentary archaeo-porn — it's the kind of TV people can't help but watch, even if, deep down, they know it's wrong. And this thesis is terribly wrong.

The docudrama follows filmmaker Simcha Jacobivici as he finds the family tomb of Jesus or, more precisely, follows him as he tries to prove that a tomb discovered in 1980 was actually Jesus' tomb—even though no scholar or archaeologist had recognized it as such.

Even if we tried to remain dispassionately detached from this claim (not an easy task for those of us with a vibrant Christian faith), the case is simply not compelling. In fact, many scholars quoted in the piece are now stepping forward and claiming they were quoted out of context.

The Lost Tomb of Jesus is not science or archaeology, not historical inquiry or serious journalism, though it tries really hard to sound like each of these. And maybe archaeo-porn is too harsh-it's not that exploitive. However, without question The Lost Tomb of Jesus should be dismissed as infotainment at best, and not taken as Gospel.

Grace and peace,

Pastor James