Sunday, December 28, 2008

I Heard The Bells...

Today I had the rare privilege of simply going to church. It's a rare privilege for me, because usually, when I am at church, I am "on" for the sermon. But today was a vacation day. My friend Jim was preaching back home and Karen and I got sit together (another rare privilege!) and listen to Jay Kesler preach at my in-law's church. He was wrapping up his latest sermon series on Habakkuk (!), which is a great book to study at the end of a tumultous year. I was greatly encouraged by the simple reminders that: 1) there is a God who rules from heaven; 2) His ways are past finding out; 3) that even if there seems to be little evidence of God's goodness and rule, He is still good and still sovereign.

Appropriately, we sang what has become one of my favorite Christmas carols, I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day. I love the words of the last stanza:
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep. The wrong will fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.
Happy New Year y'all. Please join me in bidding "Good Day" to 2008.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Meditation

Try to imagine that you are a shepherd. Day after day, night after night, year after year, your life consists of watching some sheep. And then, on one seemingly ordinary night, a night just like every other night, an angel appears. And Luke says that the “glory of the Lord shone around them.” I don’t know what the “glory of the Lord” quite looks like, but it appears to be an intense experience of light.

After all the darkness of the night, the men are temporarily blind. And in the midst of all that sudden brightness is a powerful, shining figure, one that leads you immediately to think, “This must be an angel” even though you’ve never seen one. The sight is so startling, indeed so terrifying, that you are literally shaking. And then the angel speaks, and tells you: 1) Don’t be afraid, because I’m bringing you good news; and 2) The good news is that the Messiah, the Christ, has been born, and you are one of the first people in all the world to know it. And then all of a sudden that single angel is surrounded by countless others, and they’re all shouting: “Glory to God in the highest! And on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

Can you imagine what you would think? (After you got your heart re-started and your breathing slowed down!). For hundreds and even thousands of years of Jewish history prior to this point, the nation has been looking for the coming of Messiah, the One sent from God to reveal his nature in unique ways, to deal with sin, and restore the nation to all that God promised Israel in His covenant with her. And finally, God has come. He has invaded the world, coming as Messiah. And the first people he decides to tell, via angelic messengers? A bunch of sleepy shepherds in the Judean hills outside the village of Bethlehem. After you got over the shock, I bet you’d do what these guys did: go and check out the angel’s words, to be sure you hadn’t just been having some sort of weird group hallucination, brought on by too many sheep and too many nights outdoors with a rock for a pillow.

The funny thing is, they find things exactly like the angel said-they find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger, a feed trough in a barn. And so they tell the baby’s parents what has happened to them and what the angel said. The shepherds couldn’t shut up about it, so many people in Bethlehem heard about their experience. And the Bible says that “all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.” Which I think is Luke’s way of saying that “folks weren’t quite sure whether to believe their wild story or not.” After all, if you were God, would you make your presence in the world known first and primarily to a group of shepherds? Why not a king who could announce your coming with a royal banquet in your honor or at least a journalist, who could take photos of the angelic announcement? But no, an angelic announcement to a bunch of shepherds, a couple appearances to the parents to let them in on what’s happening, and a bunch of swirling rumors is all that God allows, even though the birth of this baby was the hinge point of all of human history, the beginning of the times when God will bring an end to evil and restore the world to the way it’s supposed to be.

It seems almost ridiculous, doesn’t it, that God would announce the birth of His Son that way? But the same things that make it seem ridiculous also lends it elements of wonder and of awe. What kind of a God considers shepherds of all people worth being the only people to whom a direct angelic announcement of this importance comes? The kind of God who makes all men, women, and children in his image and considers them all equally important and equally in need of the Savior He sent. The kind of God who sends His Son to be born, not in a palace to a reigning king and queen, but to an unmarried peasant couple in a barn, whose only claim to royalty is the fact that they are descendants of a line of kings who last ruled over 600 years ago. The kind of God, incidentally, who is humble enough to not only be born in low, despised, questionable, and even scandalous circumstances, but who is also humble enough to die the same way-low, despised, questionable, and scandalous.

After all, a big part of the wonder of Christmas, properly understood, comes from knowing the rest of Luke’s Gospel story. This baby born in Bethlehem was a baby born with the shadow of death already hanging over his cradle. Baby Jesus was born into our world of filth, and sin, and death specifically so that he might conquer filth and sin and death in each of our lives by his death on a cross-the most despicable, low, and scandalous way a person can die. In other words, he was born, according to God’s purpose and plan, so that he might die according to God’s purpose and plan.

And God’s plan was always for Jesus, the God-man, to be born, to grow up to be a man of power, miracles, and magnificent teaching who was killed for our transgressions and pierced for our evil, just as Isaiah the prophet said 800 years before Jesus. In fact, the apostle Paul calls Jesus “the Lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world.” God always knew that once He created humans, they would rebel against him and need a Savior. So he planned far in advance for that Bethlehem night with Mary and Joseph.

And when it all finally came to pass, the Bible says that Mary “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” She wasn’t sure exactly what to think about all that had happened to her and Joseph, or about all that the shepherds told them about what they’d seen and heard. And some of you may be sitting there, like Mary, wondering the same thing: “What do I think about this Christmas story?” Is it really true that God came into the world like this? Could that really be so? And could it really be true that Jesus was born only to die for me on that Cross years later? And could I really find forgiveness for all the things I’ve ever done wrong by believing in a man who started out life in a barn?

Let me assure you that the answer to all of your questions like this is “Yes.” You really can find forgiveness for your sins by believing in the God-Man Jesus, born as a baby in a Bethlehem stable who grew up to become the Crucified God who rose from the dead three days after his execution. God Himself came into our world in just this way-without much fanfare and in the humblest of circumstances to save you from your slavery to yourself and your sin and the penalty of death forever in Hell.

Let me also assure you that everyone who believes that can experience the wonder and awe of Christmas in a fresh way, recognizing that it’s not about tinsel and lights and Santa and shopping, or even about family and food, but about a God who loves us too much to leave us to die in our sins. It’s about a God who invaded human history, becoming a man, dying at the sinful hands of evil men, to save all of us evil men from our sins and take us to live with Him in glory forever.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Perfect Christmas Turkey

If you are like me, you have endured countless iterations of the standard holiday bird-roast turkey. Almost every variety of roast turkey I have ever encountered had a common theme-mounds and mounds of dry as desert sand white meat, made ever slightly more palatable by the application of gravy, ketchup, or some other vaguely liquid based sauce to help you lube the stuff down your throat. Which led me to the conclusion that the proper method for eating a roasted turkey consists of the following steps:
  1. Roast the turkey
  2. Eat the legs and thighs
  3. Throw the remainder (breast, wings, neck, etc.) in the trash
Numerous observational studies confirm that this is most people's secretly held opinion. Have you ever had anybody beg for leftover turkey breast to take home? No? I thought not. Isn't the automatic use of leftover white meat in most houses some version of turkey soup? Of course it is. (People with leftover turkey breast are like dying men in the desert: "Muust haave...liquid!")

But about 8 years ago, I made a magnificient discovery: fried turkey. Fried turkey sounds strange (do you batter it like chicken?), but tastes delicious. No other turkey cooking method comes close to the ambrosia which comes forth from the deep fryer. All of the bird is delicious, and all of it turns out moist. Best of all, you don't heat the house up to something like glass factory temperatures for four hours while cooking the daylights out of all that breast meat. Cook times are much shorter, even for a big bird. On top of that, since everything about the cooking method is big (big flames, big bird, big pot, big seasoning, big oil quantity), it feels like a distinctly masculine endeavor, like grilling, rather than something dainty (like basting or making anything French). My dear wife is greatly in favor of this last point, because it means she gets me out of the kitchen so she can do what she enjoys (making mashed potatoes, cornbread dressing, and the like).
Anyway, if you'd like to step up to the manly art of frying your own, here's the simple step-by-step:
  1. Purchase a turkey. Try to keep it less than 20 lbs., as larger sizes tend not to fit well in the fry pot. Make certain it is thoroughly thawed prior to beginning cooking.
  2. Purchase all of the items pictured below. If you can't quite make them out, the seasoning is Lawry's Perfect Blend Seasoning and Rub for chicken and poultry. The oil is 5 gallons (yes gallons!) of clear frying oil. Peanut oil is better, but very expensive. This type is about 1/2 as much and available at Sam's club, although you really only need 3.5-4 gallons, depending on the size of the bird. The metal items include a turkey frying stand, a stand hook, and a long-stemmed thermometer. You will also need a burner equipped with a fuel regulator and hose to connect to a standard grill size LP tank (which you also need). Helpful Hint: Sometimes, you can purchase all this stuff in a kit-burner, pot, thermometer, seasoning, etc. This is great if you can find it.
  3. Connect the LP tank to the burner and check for leakage with soapy water until no leaks are found.
  4. Fill the fry pot about 1/2 full of oil. Use less if you have a bigger bird, more if a smaller one, as the turkey will displace a lot of oil. The goal is just enough oil to cover the bird, with 4-6" of space between the oil and the top of the pot when the turkey is frying, so that there is no splashover (splashover leads to fire and a grease fire is something you do not want!). Helpful hint: Some pots, like mine, have witness marks stamped into the sides of the pot, telling you how much oil to add for turkeys of various sizes. These are enormously helpful.
  5. Clip the thermometer to the side of the pot, so that the tip of the thermometer is submerged in oil to a depth of 2-3".
  6. Light the burner.
  7. Place the pot of oil on the lit burner and begin heating.
  8. Prep the bird by removing it from the package and removing the giblets, neck, temperature timer (that weird pop-up thing) and anything binding the legs together.
  9. Coat the bird liberally with Lawry's and insert the frying stand through the body cavity of the turkey, first through the hole near the neck, and fishing it out the rear.
  10. When the temperature of the oil reaches 350 degrees, use your stand hook to carefully lower the seasoned bird into the oil.
  11. The temperature will immediately drop 25 degrees or so due to the cold bird, but as it cooks, the temperature will start to rise. Be sure to watch the oil temperature, keeping it between 325 and 350 using your fuel regulator. Do not allow the temperature to rise much above 350, as the oil may start to smoke (this is not good!).
  12. Cook the turkey for 3 1/2 minutes per pound, or until the internal temperature of the thickest portions of breast meat reaches 180 degrees. This means that a 15 lb. bird should cook in approximately 52 minutes, and a 20 lb. bird in about 70 minutes.
  13. Remove the bird from the oil and consume the tastiest turkey you have ever eaten. The skin is crispy, savory, and the perfect complement to the moist, delicious meat underneath.
  14. Fight over the last piece of hot turkey!

You know you want to try it now. All I can say is, once you have it done this way, you'll never go back to a roasted one. In fact, you'll wonder why anybody else puts up with that inferior stuff over the glorious thing you have created.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The good shepherd

November 19th was my seventh anniversary of my life as a pastor. It's been a (mostly) great ride and fun time of serving the Lord. But in the month or so since then, I've had occasion to reflect a lot on what it is that separates good pastors from bad ones. Here's my list:
  1. Lays his life down. Over and over in the Scriptures, when God places a man in leadership, the good leaders insist that God judge them rather than the people. They intercede with God on behalf of the people, and would rather endure God's judgment personally than see it fall on their people (see, for example, Moses, David, Jesus).
  2. Preaches the Word. This was Paul's word to Timothy: Do not preach your own words or in accordance with the prevailing winds, but in accord with the Word of God as you received it.
  3. Does the work of an evangelist. This was another word to Timothy, which I interpret to mean both sharing the gospel with others and teaching/equipping others to do the same.
  4. Is personally holy. This is, bottom line, what those lists of requirements for elder boil down to.
  5. Leads his own family well. Leading a family, especially one with small children, has proven remarkably suitable preparation for ministry (at least at times!).
  6. Does not "lord it over" the sheep. A pastor can't be a bully, but must lead with love.
  7. Is the servant of all. A good pastor serves all people, according to the gifts God has given him, to equip them to serve Christ and one another.
These are about all the major requirements I can discern from the Scriptures. Can you think of any others? Are there cultural expectations that aren't biblical? What do you think makes a good pastor?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Chicago Way

With the indictment and likely imprisonment of Gov. Blagojevich (the 4th of the last 7 governors to be so "honored"), it now appears that simply being the Governor of Illinois should be considered "probable cause" for law enforcement.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Losing a friend

Today we lost one of our own. Kent Sefton was one of pillars of Chillicothe Bible Church. He had been part of the church family since he was a young man and remained a faithful part of it until yesterday. After performing his usual good job of helping to lead the singing for worship, and attending his small group, he went to be with his Savior very early this morning. He was a good man who loved Jesus with all his heart. Dead at 53. R.I.P.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

And he gave pastors and teachers

The Lord called me to be a pastor. Of that I am firmly convinced. What I can't begin to answer is, "Why?" I could have been as ministerially successful as an attorney who loves Jesus. I could have built homes for the glory of God, like my father and brother do. Back in the day, before I got diagnosed with Crohn's, I wanted to have a career in the Army, or failing that, as an overseas missionary. But why God called me to be a pastor I'm not quite certain. Maybe because God has a great sense of humor?

I think that answer must be right. Because I love to study, write, preach and teach. I even love to pray when things in my life get challenging. Which means that I feel actually equipped for about half the job-the teacher part. But to pastor means to be a shepherd, caring for, leading, protecting, and feeding the flock. And that's the part for which I feel completely unprepared and ill-equipped and therefore the portion to which I devote the majority of my prayer time. Since I was formed by God and called by Him to this ministry, I can only conclude that my deficiencies as a pastor are purely intentional on His part-given to me as a way to prevent the arrogance to which I am prone and to keep me always dependent on the Father.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Joe's bookshelf, #3

I've been reading an amazing book called Death by Love: Letters from the Cross. It's the 2nd collaboration between Pastor Mark Driscoll (of Mars Hill Bible Church in Seattle, i.e., the theologically orthodox one) and Professor Gerry Breshears of Western Seminary. The book is a series of letters written to real people (with identity usually concealed). Each letter applies a portion of the Bible's teaching about the crucified Christ to the typically wrenching individual situation the person is encountering. It's a masterful use of solidly biblical theology to deal with deep and lasting issues of personal sin. So for example, to a woman who struggles with demonic oppression after a lifetime of witchcraft, Driscoll writes about the doctrine of Christus victor. To an evil man who molested and abused his children and wives, and who is therefore fearful of hell now that he is dying, he writes about Christ our ransom payment. Altogether, the book looks at the many faceted jewel of the Cross and shows how the Cross is the answer for all kinds of human depravity, including both the evil that we have committed and that committed against us. It's well worth your time.

Joe the Butcher

It's deer season and that means meat in the freezer for the Horn Herd, an event which I am very happy about. It's not every hobby where you can both have fun and feed your family at the same time. Thankfully too, I hunt with a couple of exceptionally gracious men who are happy to donate the majority of their annual deer harvest to the cause as well. This helps keep our annual supply of steaks, roasts, and burger up to a level where we don't run short of meat until late spring. That said, I have three more tags to fill (1 for shotgun, 1 for muzzleloader, and 1 for late bow season), so I am also hoping that God will provide at least some of our meat needs through my hunting prowess as well (I don't know if I should call it prowess, so maybe I should just say "my hunting," but nevermind).

Anyway, necessity being the mother of invention, I have learned how to do my own butchering. I've gotten fairly adept at it--I transformed two deer into steaks, roasts, and burger in a little over six hours (with a helpful assist from Karen). The upper photo shows me transforming a hindquarter into boneless roasts (round steak). With deer meat, you have to slice off all of the white fat, which is waxy and bitter tasting, make sure that any hair that may have gotten on the meat during skinning is removed, and cut off any of the really objectionable pieces of sinew (aka "silver skin"). Which is why the roasts aren't quite "round" in the lower picture, which shows the results of said process placed on butcher paper for Karen to package. As a man, it's nice to know that, if the economy ever gets really bad, I can always get a couple more tags, spend a few more days in the woods, plant a bigger garden, and still feed our family.