If I had a nickel for every time a Christian maligned society's approach to Christmas, I would have a lot of nickels.

I don't have a problem with Christmas.  And here's why: it is the ONLY time in our culture when generosity is the social norm.

Generosity has been shown repeatedly in studies to boost people's sense of personal happiness.  In very simple studies, people are given money to spend on themselves while other people are given money to spend on others.  Without fail, the individuals who spent money on others reported experiencing more happiness, while the individuals that spent on themselves reported no such change.  It is no wonder that Christmastime is adored by our culture almost universally - whether by practicing Christians or secularists.  It is the season when we all are encouraged to actively engage and practice vital element in personal happiness, giving to others.

Simply put, we are not designed to be self-absorbed.  God did not create us with only our own well-being, wants, and needs to consider.  Our social and cultural pressures to put ourselves first, and use all that we generate on ourselves is making us very spiritually sick.  We have created a society that really only engages this important aspect of the equation for personal well-being once a year, at Christmastime.  

For those of us who are believers, we would be happier if we take to heart this important God-fact and learn God's plan for generosity.  God created us to be in an ongoing generous relationship with God and with others.  The Old Testament design was to tithe - to give 10% of what we earn for God's Kingdom building.  I have never met someone who was unhappy with tithing.  But as we know, Jesus not only affirmed tithing, but established the modern church in a New Testament above and beyond manner.  The church Jesus launched practiced giving above and beyond 10% as a way of life in order to care for one another and build the church, speeding God's Kingdom-building Gospel as far as missionaries could travel with unprecedented results.  God established this church as the hope of the world, His design, His body, His instrument for life change.  He gave it one mission, to share Him on earth.  

It is no wonder Jesus said that our joy would be made complete in Him.  Imagine how happy we would live as God's followers if we put Jesus generosity at the heart of our lives and livelihood.  It would never stop being Christmastime!

Regardless of where you now walk with God, take a new look at generosity.  Enjoy the unique cultural solidarity of the generosity of the holidays, but take Christmas into the rest of your days.  

In Christ!

Ever since the message about "Simple Faith - All In, "  I have had the concept of "taking up our cross to follow Jesus" stuck in my head.

What does it mean to "take up our cross?"

When he described this choice, Jesus had a decision that only he recognized.  On one hand was a path that other people wanted for him, to make him king of the Israelites.  They could have deposed Herod, put Jesus in the place David once held, therein fulfilling their limited, social understanding of who their Messiah would be.

Or as Jesus knew, he could give himself over to the people in a different way, to torture and death, sacrificed because humanity is too broken and sinful to honor goodness and truth when it stands in our midst.

Only Jesus knew that through death on the cross, he would become the ultimate King of all nations, the Savior and the mighty Lamb.  Only Jesus valued that path more than becoming the king of a small, impoverished nation, fully under Roman occupation.   See almost ever time, we humans will choose a lesser victory rather than the challenge and pain of acquiring God's purpose for our lives.  Let me reiterate that - EVERYONE else wanted Jesus to aspire to being king of the Jewish nation at that time... not King of kings for all time.

Only Jesus pursued his calling, his purpose from God.  No one else understood. 

And only Jesus had to literally carry the cross to become Savior of the universe.  For the rest of us our cross is not literal, but a description of our burden, our pain, that stands between us now, and the life God calls us towards.  

The choice is always ours.  We can live a lesser path.  We can become kings of our own broken country.  Or we can pursue God's will alone, and live the triumph only He knows is ours to claim.  

It won't be easy.  
We will have to let go of our false hopes.  
We will have to deal in truth.  
It will likely hurt sometimes.  
It will take great courage.  
It will require trust in God - the One who sees what we cannot yet see.

Yet it will be greater than any other possibility for our lives.

"Take up your cross, and follow Him."

In Christ!
     Last year our family ventured to the Woodfield Mall the Saturday before Christmas.  I “checked-in” on Facebook at the mall.  The response was quick and clear: why in the world would you do something that stressful?  Upon further review they might have been correct.  

     355 was bumper to bumper that day and parking was worse than normal, and normal is already difficult.  There were people everywhere.  Navigating around folks in the mall looking for the perfect gift was as tough as weaving through traffic in gridlock.  Standing in line to pay for gifts took longer than the shopping.  And then there is the issue of how I was actually going to pay for all this Christmas shopping.  When we pile up people, traffic, and money, there is a buffet of choices of what might stress you out.  

     Stress is everywhere.  Stress is an emotional, mental, or physical tension resulting from circumstances.  We can’t escape stress.  Whether at home, work, or school, there are emotional and mental circumstances creating tension that impacts us.  Stress can erode our body.  And stress can erode our soul.  

     Unaddressed stress raises our blood pressure and weakens our immune system.  It makes us more susceptible to illness and has even been linked to causing heart disease and cancer.  Unaddressed stress also attacks our emotional immune system.  It can cause us to be quick to anger at those we love most.  It will cause us to cross boundaries that will hurt people.  Stress is an enemy of the heart.  

     Life will always create stress.  Chances are you cannot quit your demanding job, walk out on your financial obligations, or avoid traffic.  Emotional and mental tension are built into our lives - especially in Chicagoland.  The issue is: how do we deal with it to reduce the harm?  How can we change ourselves internally so that stress does not damage our lives? 

     First, God says to worry about nothing.  Worry is intellectual energy devoted towards a problem we cannot solve.  When we lay awake at night worried about a decision at work that is out of our hands, that is worry.  When we imagine the bad things that COULD go wrong with already stressful situations, it is worry.  Nothing is solved by worry.  Worry only causes us distress.  So worry about nothing.

     Second, pray about everything.  Ask God for direction, and ask for Him to get involved in a direct way in a situation.  Too often, myself included, we think that bothering God with anything less than AIDS in Africa or hunger in Haiti is wrong.  God is personal, God is interested in you and me, and God has the time and the ability to work for the good of each and every one of us.  God is probably sitting on the edge of His seat, waiting to be invited into the complicated and stressful situations of your life.  So pray about everything.

     Give God a chance to do something.  We as middle class Americans want what we want, and we want it now.  We complain when the popcorn takes two and a half minutes in the microwave, and we get bored driving 65 mph instead of 75.  But in these stressful things, give God time, and give God a chance to work through and in the people involved to untangle the stressful situations in your life.  

     This is really a matter of trust.  Do we trust God?  Will we give God time to deal with our lives, or will we insist on our way right now and risk the mess we are likely to make?  The fact is, it might take longer than two minutes for God’s outcome. I have learned the hard way that God’s timeline is rarely mine.  But His solutions are also not mine, and they are always much, much greater than mine.  Always.  I am afraid I have cut God off from creating a better future for me often - simply because of my impatient lack of trust.  Give God a chance, and give God time.

     You will encounter stress today.  That is a given.  The question is, what will you do about it?  Will you allow it to attack your body and mind and attack your soul?  Know that there is a better way.  Worry about nothing.  Pray about everything.  Give God a chance.  

“I AM MOVING THEM,” I barked!   I yelled loud...  in the front yard...  at 7 AM ... on a Sunday morning.   

     I would love my neighbors to come to church.  Our church is a friendly and encouraging place with kind and sincere leaders.  But that morning you couldn’t tell by how I acted.  I got angry over literally nothing.   

     All I had to do was move the speakers as we were loading up for worship early one Sunday morning.  All I had to offer was a strong back and an ounce of humility.  But instead, I wanted to do it my way, and even the fact that I had no knowledge of what the right way was did not keep me from getting angry. 

     Anger is everywhere.  Anger is hollering from the bleachers at youth sports.  It’s on cable news.  It’s inside the walls of our nice homes.  It is always stuck in traffic.  And it is filling up the local law enforcement and court system.  Anger comes out of people like us, almost everywhere we go. 

     Anger is an emotional response to not getting our way.  When we snap, rant, or  unload, we are responding to not getting our way.  

     Anger always reveals what we value, what we desire, and the way we want the world to be.  Anger, like our calendar, and like our bank statements, communicates what we value, and who we really are.  That Sunday morning my anger revealed that I have a hard time accepting the simplest instructions, that I want to do things my way, even when it is obvious I don’t know what that is.  So apparently, I value being a know it all.  My anger revealed a dark, stubborn side in me.    

     Often, in the name of religion, we are told to stifle our anger.  Some traditions speak of anger as one of the “seven deadly sins.”  While I agree that we can, and often do, respond emotionally to some of the most petty things, I also know that anger can be the most righteous response to a situation.  Anger is not always wrong.

     I know this because Jesus got angry.  One day he walked into the temple courtyard and completely blew his top.  The public gathering area to enter worship had been run over by con artists who sold sin-removing sacrificial animals and “clean” monetary offerings at ridiculously inflated prices.  Jesus hated seeing the people swindled as they tried to move towards God.  

     So Jesus got angry.  He created a whip of cords, and he drove out the money changers and let the sacrificial animals run free. Jesus‘ anger revealed what he valued; he valued people being able to access a relationship with God. (For a great video of this story go to YOUTUBE and search Jesus and Money Changers.  It is the first video to pop up; it is two minutes long.)    

     Take 30 seconds, and reflect on the last time you got angry (chances are you won’t have to think back too far).  Was it something petty or something life defining?  How did you not get your way?  What does your anger say that you value?  Does what you value need to be reconsidered?  Do not hide behind empty statements like “I can’t help it” or “I don’t know where that came from.”  Allow God to dig below the surface. 

     Anger is not always wrong, but anger does always reveal what we really value.     

Sin has gotten a lot of dramatic press.  I thought I would tell you a story of a personal sin so deep and dark that it turned my mom’s house cat red.

When I was 15, my mom and dad left me in charge of my younger brother and sister at home.  It was the first time I had been given babysitting authority, and believe me, it went straight to my head.  They cautioned me about how to care for younger children, but I was quite certain I knew all I needed to know.  As soon as they walked out the door, I settled in to my real agenda - watching some sitcoms they wouldn’t normally let me watch, Cheers and Night Court.  

Things were pretty quiet for the couple hours they were gone.  I enjoyed my time alone, and I thought I was in the clear.  But when they walked in, I heard a storm growing as they made their way through the house to where I waited with mounting anxiety.  They were mad.  Real mad.  

While I had been enjoying my self, my brother had fashioned a metal coat hanger into a tool - a tool he was busy applying to electrical outlets upstairs.  And my sister had carefully painted our cat with my mom’s lipstick...ALL over the cat.  (The cat was never the same; I think it suffered the indignity until the day it died.)  Suffice to say, I got in some well-deserved trouble that day.

Now you may not have been an accomplice to painting a cat with lipstick, but I know, and you know, that you have a couple too many stories like this.  We all have plenty of times we have done something we shouldn’t, and there was a cost and consequence we had to face.  This is the human experience.  We all fail, we all mess up.  We all miss the mark.  And we all pay a price for those missteps.

Missing the mark is how Jesus described sin.  It was a concept borrowed from archery.  And just like great shooting, steady, accurate, aim takes focus and effort.  It also requires learning and practice.  And everyone is going to miss sometimes.

Like a skilled sport, until we know why we do what we do, why we miss the mark, why we are making bad decisions, and how to correct the errors, we will continue to miss.    

Why we do what we do is different for each of us.  We all have our weak points that make us susceptible to our signature sins; I know I do.  Whether there are childhood issues, selfish desires, responses to stress, marital strife, or economic anxiety, until we identify the cause of why we are missing the mark we can’t expect to do better.  We are the one who is really undermining our best decision making, and until we look at ourselves honestly, we aren’t going to do better.   

God asks to help each of us do this.  God is the ultimate coach.  God wants our honesty, so He can help us put things right as only a loving, forgiving, encouraging, and healing God can.  And God is willing to do that with you and with me over and over and over again.  There is an endless supply of arrows and a patient and loving Instructor pointing the Way to our target.  That is amazing grace.  

This week we will miss the mark.  The question is not will we fail, the question is, will we be honest about why, and will we ask God to help us do better?  That is the life of faith.    

Election season brings out a whole bunch of negativity.  We fight and fret and wonder how anyone could conceivably take the position opposite ours.  But what is most troubling is that we rarely lump ourselves into the category of 'the problem'.  The problem - the economy, job-loss, war, racism...heck any problem at all - it is us.

We are selfish and demanding.  We want more goods for less cost.  We are angered by the price at the pump.  We love convenience.  We hate to wait.  We hate to give away what is 'ours.'  We're too lazy to hunt down the data.  We like to fight a good fight.  We even like to fight a bad fight. 

I am not saying any of that is the end of the world in and of itself.  But let's stop pretending it's because of some other guy.

The problem is us...  all of us...  each of us.   

You will find VERY few posts on here regarding parenting advice.  Frankly, regardless of the number of initials behind your name, you don't know how it has all gone until your child is somewhere around 35 years old.  Only then can an honest assessment be made.  

BUT here is a one tidbit of cautionary advice: there is a difference between 'sheltering' and 'constraining'.  

See this God of ours made us free.  Freedom is something we must contend with as humans, as individuals, and as parents.  Our children are about to live totally free.  We have a few years to prepare them to contend with that reality.  

I see a lot of kids the same age as my son who have fewer privileges, less access to the things associated with modern life (the internet, etc) and more fear-based parental presence.

We often use the word 'sheltered' to describe these kids, but that is not the right description.  Shelter is a beautiful concept, Biblically.  God uses it 

 I stopped watching the news years ago; too many negative stories and too many foolish commentators.  I always wondered why news organizations did not deliver what people said they wanted, positive stories about people doing positive things.  While the world is obviously full of violence and horror, it is also full of goodness and regular blessings.  Each day people do far more good than evil but the headlines do not reflect that truth. 

            I have come to see why news outlets carry the sensational over the sentimental: that is what people want.  Are people more likely to rubber neck in traffic at a terrible accident or a kid’s lemonade stand?  Will we listen to the latest story on violence in Chicago or the latest work of the local Cub Scout Troop?  There are exceptions to this rule of course, but people like you and me, are the reason the news is what it is. 

            No local topic has generated as much friction as the change of leadership in the Oswego 308 School District.  I love living in Oswego and pray for our school district daily.  Public school leadership can literally be a thankless job.  Yet 308 seems to have wrestled with many issues publicly regarding staff, buildings, and funding. 

            So to go against the tide, I wanted to share some good news.  I wanted to highlight our experience with Oswego 308 where the folks can’t be thanked enough, commended enough, and written about warmly enough.  While our schools have problems, they also have amazing people who teach, clean, service, lead and listen, and I want to take this opportunity to share our experience.   

              Our new church, Big Life Community Church, meets at Oswego East High School.  Ken Lesley is a building manager at Oswego East.   From the moment we approached the school about leasing space, and met with Ken to talk it over, Ken has been a pillar of graciousness and intentional service.  He and his staff see that the entire experience is arranged beautifully and with care.  They love doing their job and have helped our new church above and beyond all the way.

Monday in Oswego three teenagers were killed in a fatal car crash on 126.  In a moment, everything changed for them, everything changed for their families, and everything changed for the man driving the truck who survives.  I have spent my life as a minister trying to muster up words of comfort in situations where there are no good words.  I officiated my first funeral back when 21 years old; the service was for a 34 year old mother of four who died of cancer one year after I met her.  I have spent my life trying to reconcile Who I know to be a God of Love with the pain and grief of a motherless 5 year old and her sisters and brothers.  Anything I have ever said that was helpful in accomplishing this is only a gift from God.  Me?  I never know what to say.

But let me be clear, I do know what not to say.

Do not say, “this was God’s will.”  For all the traffic this phrase generates you would think it would have a central place in scripture.  This phrase is often referenced as though random tragedy is divinely ordained, but no such example of God’s will exists in the life and teaching of Jesus...or in the entire New Testament for that matter.  So I can say with no reservation, it is never the will of God to kill three teenagers in car wreck.  I do not assume my readers are Christians, but for those who are, please remember ours is a faith of resurrection.  God has destroyed death as the final answer and is forever on the side of life and love - in fact, God IS life and love.  And that love is stronger than anything else in this world.       

Do not say, “this could have been avoided if...”  Humans like me and like you make mistakes all the time.  I admit, I have texted while I 

In most social settings it will eventually come out: I am a minister.  And that makes people do the weirdest things.  Some hide their beer as though I had not been holding one myself.  Most replay the entire conversation quickly in their heads to remember how many times they cursed.  More often than not people will fumble out a statement that goes something like this, "Wow, I could never do that.  I could never lead a church.”

     I often remind folks of two things: first, there is nothing special about me, no holy water I drink each morning, no halo around my head.  I am just a man, a guy, a bit of a nerd, a football fan, who leads because I have been asked to lead by God.  And second, what I have learned is this: God is asking each of you to lead in some capacity, too.   

     God defines leadership as servanthood in this world.  And God asks each of us to love each other to the point of serving.  And that means you.  Yes, I spent eight years acquiring a college and graduate degree in theology and saturating myself with biblical study at the highest academic level.   Yes, I have seventeen years of experience in church leadership on my resume.  But what this experience and study has really led me to is a clear, faithful, Jesus-modeled landing spot on who 'leads'.  God only wants leaders who serve.  And God wants servants who give their best.  Beyond that, just as Jesus demonstrated in His ministry, there aren't really any barriers!  Women can serve and men can serve and therefor lead.  God needs young people who can lead and wise elders who can lead.  The church needs single people who can lead and married people who can lead.  And God even needs divorced and remarried people like myself to model servant leadership.

     As the church in America continues to shrink, we have seen, and I fear we will continue to see, a closing of the theological mind.   And if the church fails to serve with the best of the human mind and the human heart's capacity, as God created us to lead, as God commanded in the first Commandment, we, the church, fail.  If we, the church, tell 50% of our community that even though they run a business, or manage in company 6 days out of the week, they may not have a leadership or teaching title on Sundays because of her gender, we fail.  If we tell the 50% of our community that is divorced or remarried that we, the church, will forever define you and condemn you by your past, unlike our leader Jesus modeled, we fail.  And if the mission of God is sidelined by the failure of the church to lead, the blessing of God sorely needed by so many will be missed.

     Even as we have a leadership crisis in our culture I am hopeful for the future of God’s church.  God has a way of getting done what God wants done.  In surprising and unexpected ways, through mangers, crosses, and empty tombs, God will get done what He wants to get done, to shatter the darkness of earth with Love.  Let us move past the legalisms of the past that have and continue to shrink the church in America and move into God’s future where servant leaders lead and the mission of God trumps all.