My Favorite Christmas…

cow breathing

My favorite Christmas happened when I was twenty.  It wasn’t because of a gift I received, but a gift I gave.

That Christmas, I decided the best gift I could give my step-dad was to get up early and feed all the animals down at the barn.  Pop usually had to trudge off to do this chore in between opening gifts and cooking breakfast.  I wanted him to have a more relaxed morning.

I got up at 6:00 am, not early on most days, but early for Christmas morning.  I slipped into my jeans and boots and went down in the dark to the barn.  It was brisk for a Florida morning, cold enough to see my breath.  The horses were already up and eager to eat.  I measured out their feed, and threw in a little more because it was Christmas.  The barn cats slunk around my ankles, looking for their breakfast, which I delivered in abundance.  Christmas was the one day there would be a truce between myself and the cats.

Then I hoisted a 40 pound bag of feed on my shoulder and crossed the lot over to the log barn.  The log barn had been built by my great grandfather around 1861. Behind it, there was a pen where we kept the steers we were feeding out.  In that pen was an old feed trough that had been there all my life.  There was no electricity in that barn, so I had to be guided by the light of the full moon slowly slipping under the horizon.  The steers looked at me as I poured out their feed, their breath fogging the air, waiting for me to get out of their way.

That’s when God spoke to me.  A gentle whisper came to my soul: “It was here, in a place that smelled like this, with mud and muck that I came into the world.  I was laid into a feed trough like the one you just poured feed into.   Joseph had to keep the steers back from bothering the Savior of the world.  Clay, I did this for you and for the whole world.   That’s how much I want to be with you and save you.”

A chill ran down my spine.  I realized how wide and deep and high my Heavenly Father’s love is for me.

Making my way back to the house, the brightest star in the heavens, Sirius, seemed to wink at me, one more part of the Christmas story.

Why is this my favorite Christmas?  Because on this Christmas, I got to live the day, instead of just celebrate it.

This Christmas, use some holy imagination and live the day.  Let your mind conjure the smells.  See the breath of the cows.  Feel the squish of the mud.  See the wooden trough made smooth by a thousand licks.  Let your soul hear the good news, that unto you is born this day a Savior in the city of Bethlehem.  Tis Christ the Lord!

Angels Don’t Sing


How many angels sing in the Bible?  None.

You protest, “Angels sang to the shepherds at the birth of Jesus.  There’s even a song about it, ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing.’”

The carol was originally penned by John Wesley and was changed to its current reading by George Whitefield, sometime in the mid-1700’s.  This what Luke 2:13 actually says: “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying…”  They praised God.  They spoke.  They did not sing.

In the Bible, whenever angels appear, people are frightened.  To meet an angel was a terrifying moment.  That’s why the first words of an angel are often, “Fear not.”  We’re even told the shepherds were “sore afraid.”  When I was little, I thought that meant they were so scared, they were sore from shaking so hard.  I’m still not sure what it means to be “sore afraid,” but I think it’s not good.

We’re not given a good description of an angel’s physical appearance.  Other heavenly beings, seraphim and cherubim, are described. According to Biblical clues, angels seem to look like people, but with an overpowering aura.  To meet an angel must be like meeting a WWF bulked-up wrestler in a dark alley.  It would be exciting if you weren’t scared for your life.

The word “angel” means “messenger.”  God used angels from time to time to deliver a message to people.  Usually, the message was along the lines of, “God is about to do something amazing and you are a part of it.”  However, they were not delivering singing telegrams.  Nowhere in the Bible are we told that an angel sings his message.  He tells it.

I always had this picture of a ten-thousand voice choir booming out in unison, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will to men.”  An impressive sound and scene, but not what happened.

Have you ever been to a USC football game and heard 40,000 voices yell, “Game–“ and hear the roar of 40,000 voices yell from the other side of the stadium, “-cocks!”  Or have you been to Clemson and heard 80,000 strong spell “T-I-G-E-R-S!”  Or have you been to Florida Field and heard the call and response of 82,000, “Orange!  Blue!”

That night in fields, as shepherds watched over their flocks, it was less like a choir and more like a football game.  Tens of thousands of angels were yelling with heavenly lung capacity, “GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST!  ON EARTH, PEACE, GOODWILL TOWARDS MEN!”  That many voices, screaming a cheer for the birth of the Savior, for the beginning of God’s redemption plan, for the new hope that was entering the world; that many voices would make your hairs stand straight up on their goosebumps.  No wonder the shepherds were sore afraid.

More than a football game, Christmas is a time for cheering.  The Good News of Great Joy is God has entered the world.  The Messiah is born.  Salvation is coming.  A new era is beginning.  Evil is in retreat.  God is going to win.

Be filled with good cheer this Christmas – the cheering of angels.  Our God is winning.

Sarah Takes on the World (Look out World!)



Dear Sarah,

Next week you will graduate from Clemson.  Figures.  You were born two weeks early; now you are graduating a semester early.  You are about to take on the world.

During these college years, you sank your teeth into your passions.  You’ve gone to Easley High School every week for two and a half years to invest in kids far from God.  When Clemson played for the national championship, you made the trek to Tampa without a ticket, just so you could be there.  Your passion gives you a determination to be there.

Being there counts.  Showing up and being present counts.  It shows you care.  It shows you are invested.  Your life grows because you venture out beyond the safety zone.

I know you have been afraid, but I admire how you overcome your fears.  When hard conversations needed to be had with roommates, you took initiative to address the elephant (or dirty laundry) in the room.  You put yourself out there to try for jobs and internships.  You have the courage to think outside the box about what’s next.

Fear keeps people from happiness.  Fear paralyzes people to mediocrity.  Remember that Football championship?  When Deshaun threw that pass to Hunter with time running out, Coach Swinney, Deshaun, and Hunter all pushed past fear to make something great happen  – a championship. Keep pushing past the fear.

You discovered you have a gift of telling God’s story to a group.  When you stand up, God shows up.  Treasure that gift.  There will be more opportunities to tell His story.  Pay attention when God gives you those moments. Step into them.  A gift like yours needs to be cultivated.  A gift undeveloped is a gift never fully opened.

I’m amazed at your wide circle of friends and how they love you.  There is a grace inside you that people feel.  It’s the part of you that opens up and tells people how you feel.  It is the part of you that accepts people as they are.

There is never enough grace in the world.  Give grace often.  Grace is best given when life is not hurried.  You have a great moment ahead, when your life will unhurried for a few months. Not since kindergarten have you had this much discretion over the direction of your life.  Savor the possibilities.  Savor the time.  Give grace so your friendship circle widens.

In a few days, the academic powers that be will pronounce you educated and send you out into the world.  We’ll be there, of course, proud as can be.  You are graduating from a fine school with a good degree.  But your college journey has been about so much more than grades and projects.  You’ve discovered more of who you are.

If I can sound like a wise old man for a moment, you’ve just started the journey of self-discovery.  There is more for you to discover about yourself: what it means to be independent (no more cash from Mom and Dad!); what it means to have a family of your own; and what it means for you to find your life purpose.

Don’t stop the journey. Keep discovering you.  The world needs people like you.  God is going to use you to make a difference.  College has been great, but now the world awaits.  God our Father will open doors and display opportunities.  Just remember, He is always with you.  He will never leave you or forsake you.

Get ready to take on the world Sarah!  My heart knows the world better watch out!

I love you with all my heart,


Losing Sadie…


We’re living with three dogs now.  Socks is the oldest at fifteen.  A beagle lab mix, she was the runt of the litter when Hannah’s dog Jewel had puppies.  Moo came to us first as Abram’s dog.  A registered Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, he became Gina’s dog and protector when Abram left to go to grad school.  Sadie is the newest addition to the pack.  A miniature dachshund, we gave her to Gina’s parents ten years ago.  She’s come to live with us now.

We went out to eat one night this week, leaving the three dogs safely locked in.  When we returned, Gina noticed one of the Christmas wreaths on our windows had fallen.  I went to see if I could repair it; Gina went inside.

In a few minutes she came back out and said, “Is Sadie out here with you? I can’t find her.”  I put down the wreath and began to search with Gina.   We searched under beds and inside closets.  Gina went to search the front yard, while I took a flashlight and combed the backyard.  No Sadie.

Gina took the car to search the neighborhood; I went on foot into the neighbor’s yards, hoping no one would mistake me for a burglar.  I even checked the storm sewers.

My mind rushed to calamity.  What if she fell in the pond and drowned?  What if she got out and got picked up?  What if she had a stroke somewhere in the woods and was dying?  I admit I prayed: “Lord, please let us find this dog.  If we lose her so soon after getting her…  what will we do?”

Gina came back, saying she saw nothing.  I had seen no signs.  I asked her again, “Are you sure she isn’t in the house?”  She said she was positive.  I decided to search the house again, while Gina went to search the yard again.  The next step would be to knock on the neighbor’s doors.

About three minutes into re-searching the house, the phone rings.  It’s my neighbor, Julian.  He said, “I think I have something of yours.  She’s all snuggled up on my lap.”  Sadie had crawled under the fence and was wandering around in Julian’s drive when he came home.  Fickle dog that she is, she followed him right on into his house and up into his lap.  When he told me he had her, relief surged through my soul.

I ran outside to tell Gina, then we hustled over to Julian’s to reclaim our dog.  I spent the next hour in the dark trying to plug the holes in the fence so she wouldn’t get out anymore.

When I went to work on my sermon for the week, I read these words, “We all like sheep have gone astray…”  Sheep, little dogs, and humans all have the urge to roam.  We all want to believe boundaries are for others, not for us. We push past those boundaries and wander away from the God who truly loves us.  For many of us, there is no kind neighbor who rescues us.  Instead, we live frustrate lives knowing we aren’t where we need to be.  We miss the safety and security of home.

If Gina and I, imperfect people that we are, panic over a little dog, how much more does your Heavenly Father yearn to find you?

Wherever you are, in whatever way you are lost, our Heavenly Father is looking for you, to bring you home.

Rethinking the Sexual Revolution…

sexual harrassment

I lived through the sexual revolution.  The TV shows of my childhood showed couples sleeping in separate beds; now I can see sexually graphic content on broadcast networks.  Pornography was found in magazines in quick stop stores; now, pornography is available on my phone (that’s weird even to type).  We were taught “The Pill” would liberate women because pregnancy would no longer be a consequence of sex.  Plowing through old sexual boundaries, we sought to set ourselves free from the rules of our parents.

Has the sexual revolution made us healthier souls?  Have we created a better culture?

The deluge of sexual harassment stories tells us something about the soul of our culture.  Powerful men assume the sexual revolution means every woman wants to be groped.   Women use their sexual power to advance their agendas and careers.  “He said, she said” is a daily headline.  Is every accuser sharing their story for pure reasons?  Probably not.  Are the number of accusations telling us this is a widespread problem?  Probably so.  We have the freedom to say “yes” to sex; did we give up the freedom to say “no?”

Sexual attractiveness has become the way we determine a person’s worth.   We socialize our children early to be sexual for success.  We dress our young daughters in a way that prefigures an image we believe they must have.  Girls are quickly sorted by body type and measured against an unrealistic Barbie standard.  Boys are quickly challenged to “prove” their manhood, either virtually or in reality.

Women now are expected to stay youthful and endure enhancements.  We no longer bless a woman for looking her age; instead, we expect a thirty year-old to look sixteen, and a sixty year-old to look forty. Men are not held to same standard. An overweight bald man (Harvey Weinstein) can be seen with a beautiful woman and the comment is, “Man, is he lucky,” not, “Boy, is she settling.”  This is glaringly unfair.

We now insist a child choose a sexual preference long before their bodies or brains have developed.  Though psychologists and neuroscientists tell us our sexual preference remains fluid well into our twenties, we lock third graders into an identity to legitimize adult debates.

When we make everything about sex, we narrow ourselves to be less than God made us to be.  Contrary to Freud, God never intended humans to be defined solely by sexual identity.  The fallacy of the sexual revolution is satisfying a physical appetite is more important than having a healthy soul.

God’s great gift of sex is two becoming one.  Sex is never just about the joining of bodies; it is about vulnerability of the soul.  God designed sex to cement commitment, to open feelings, to focus thoughts, and to guide decisions.  That’s why God knew sex needed the glue of marriage and marriage needed the power of sex.  When marriage and sex dance together, it is like coming home to place both familiar and joyous, exciting and safe.  Sex like this makes your soul healthy.

Like all revolutions, the sexual one set us free, but offered no guidance to what happens next.  Sex escaped the shadows, but we are still people who are selfish and self-centered.  Sex as an act of giving oneself to another who gives themselves is considered antiquated.   Romance is replaced by Fifty Shades of Grey.

I’m not pretending to be one without sin.  I certainly have been tossed around in the sexual revolution and have the scars on my soul to prove it.  In a time where the creators of the revolution are themselves facing condemnation, we need to hit pause and ask:  Do we have healthier souls?  Have we created a better culture?

Pause also and ask, “What would our world be like if we tried sex the way God designed it?”

Christmas List…


Christmas list: check.  Travel plans made: check.  Menu for Christmas Dinner: check.  Husband delegated to get tree: check.  Kids’ pictures with Santa: check.  Party invitations mailed: check.  Strategy for dealing with strange relatives: in process.

This time of year, Santa is not the only one making a list and checking it twice.  Even kids have a list: “What can we buy for Mom and Dad at the Dollar Tree?”  Right now, I have three lists on my desk: one for tomorrow, one for shopping, one for work.

Imagine Mary and Joseph’s list for Christmas.

Unexpected messages from angels: check.  Imagine being fourteen and sixteen, the probable ages of Mary and Joseph.  You’re betrothed.  An angel appears to Mary.  It’s the last thing she expected.  “You’re going to have a baby who will save the world,” the angel says.  In a moment of supreme trust, she says, “I’m God’s servant.  Let His will be done.”  Obedience: check.

Then she goes away for a few months.  Joseph misses her until she comes back.  She’s got a baby bump he didn’t put there.  He’s beyond hurt.  He decides to quietly divorce her (the only way to break an engagement in those days).  Then an angel appears to him.  “Joseph,” the angel said, “Don’t divorce Mary.  God’s up to something in this baby.  Call him Jesus.”  Jesus means “God saves.”  Joseph believes.  Obedience, husband version: check.

Trip with pregnant woman: check.  Just when things couldn’t get any crazier, a far-off Roman emperor puts a whole empire in motion.  Mary and Joseph knew, as did all Israel, that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, the city of David.  Imagine them trying to figure out a reason for a trip to Bethlehem.  Imagine them laughing when they heard the news an empire had been turned upside down just for them.  Then imagine Mary walking to Bethlehem (no mention of a donkey in the real Bible Story).  Imagine any pregnant woman willing to walk ninety miles so the Son of God could be born in the right place.  Imagine Joseph being a newlywed husband but under instructions from God not to do what every newlywed husband wants to do.  Faithfulness: check.

Place to stay: check, sort of.  They tried to find a decent place for the Messiah to be born. Everything was jammed.  The place they expected to stay couldn’t even offer them a corner of the floor.  Instead, they went out back to the barn.  Jesus started as an outcast before he even made his entrance into the world.  I wonder if Mary and Joseph felt like they were letting God down by not arranging things better?  Humility: check.

Strangers dropping by to visit: check.  The night Jesus was born, the shepherds stopped by.  With wonder in their eyes they described an angel speaking to them and then a heavenly choir of tens of thousands singing.  The noise must have been thunderous.  With a song ringing in their ears, they went to find Jesus.  They praised God that the lowly and outcasts had been included.  Grace: check.

The wise men showed up, too.  No one is sure how much time had passed.  It could have been anywhere from two weeks to two years.  These were the brightest of the bright, the most scholarly of scholars.  The shepherds brought their wonder.  The wise men brought gifts of honor.  Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were gifts for a King.  Praise: check.

What if God wanted you to have a Christmas list like the people of the first Christmas?  What if on your list there was obedience, faithfulness, humility, grace, and praise?  Maybe Christmas wouldn’t be just a holiday to complicate your life; maybe it would become an event to change your soul.

Assumptions and Hurry …

old honda

We took my son to Outback for his birthday (his request).   The meal was excellent and I paid with my debit card (who carries cash anymore?).

I hurried to my truck to escape the cold, cranked it, and backed out.  I started to pull into the exit drive when I was cut off by old, beat-up Honda.  The driver, a man of another race, gestured to me but I couldn’t make it out.  I thought he was telling me he had the right of way.  In these circumstances, I assume the larger vehicle has the right of way.  My Ford F-150 4×4 was larger than his Honda.

It’s amazing how fast my temper can flare.  I’m a follower of Jesus and all, but right of way is my right.  As a character in Fried Green Tomatoes said, “I’m old and I have insurance.”  I was about to respond with my hand gesture, but I remember the church sticker on my rear window.  I decided it was better to feel quietly righteous.  With the speed of a super-computer, I built a negative, judgmental profile of the man.

The beat-up Honda man kept yelling at me and gesturing.  He was throwing his hands up behind his head.  I read it as frustration.  Finally, he pulled off and I started to exit when I saw our waitress running, waving my debit card in her hand.  I had left it at the table.

The whole narrative in my head flipped.  The man in the beat-up Honda was no longer my enemy; he was a Good Samaritan, trying to keep me from driving off without my card.  He had seen the waitress running into the parking lot and had figured out who she needed to get to.  I assumed he was a jerk.  Instead, he was a man of mercy.

There’s an old saying about assumptions I won’t repeat.  When we hurry, our worst assumptions surface first.  That’s why Jesus wants us to live an unhurried life.  Dallas Willard advised, “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”

To live an unhurried life means we have time and space to see a situation before we make assumptions.  We trust God is at work, taking care of us.  Panic and anxiety blind us to his solutions.  An unhurried life allows us to pause and see people as God sees them.  Could it be God wants to give you a gift you’re missing because you are in a hurry?

I wish I could find the man in the beat-up Honda.  I need to tell him “thanks” for slowing me down.  And I need to apologize for my assumptions.  Maybe I could buy him a steak at Outback.

Lesson From My Father-in-Law …


My father-in-law, Floyd, passed away last week.  He was fighting lung cancer, but God graciously gave him a quiet and peaceful passing to heaven.

Floyd was not like the men I grew up with.  Freud would have called them “repressed.”  Emotions were for women and children.  “Don’t cry” was not a suggestion, but a command.  If a bull trampled you in the pens, you were expected to get up, dust yourself off, and say, “Bring the next one.”  If someone noticed you bleeding, you said, “I don’t feel a thing” or “Shoot, that ain’t nothing.”  A man was expected to be in control.

The same rules applied to positive emotions.  If you had a good crop and your neighbors congratulated you, you just shrugged your shoulders and said, “God’s been good.”  If your son got into Vet School, you told him “Good job.”  That was praise enough.  A wife of one of these men complained he never told her that he loved her.  His response?  “I told you I loved you when we married.  I’ll let you know if anything changes.”

This upbringing, I suppose, had its advantages.  There were not many complainers or whiners.  On the other hand, these men would start to boil up like a pressure cooker whistling off steam.  Something would break inside of them.  Then the steam would come shooting out.  A deacon would run off with one of the sopranos in the choir; a cowboy would lose his temper and fight somebody; or the quiet man who worked with his hands would turn into an alcoholic.  Taciturnity extracts a price.

Floyd was not like the men I grew up with.  He was the first man I ever meet who felt free to express his emotions.  If he was angry, you knew it.  If he loved you, you knew it.  If he was proud of you, everyone knew it.

It took a while for Floyd to warm up to me.  Facing the marriage of my own daughter, I understand this now.  No father believes any man is good enough for his precious girl.  Gina and I were married three years when he told me he loved me.  This was a significant leap from telling Gina he loved her; and was a step up from “I love you both.”  Now, it was personal.  I was 29 when he told me he loved me; he was one of the first men in my life to openly declare love.  He was not afraid to say it first and put his feelings out there.  He kept telling me he loved me for the next 30 years.

He would also tell you if he thought you were being stupid.  He once told me, “If you ever leave that church in Sumter, I’ll personally come down and whoop your (term referring to large section of muscles located below the back and above the legs).”  He did not believe in repressing his feelings.

Best of all, if he was proud of you, he would tell you and everyone else.  Granted he exaggerated.  In his hometown of Gaffney, he would tell people my church was largest in South Carolina (it isn’t) and we baptized thousands (we haven’t), and people were lined up at the doors of our church (the doors to the restrooms between Bible Study and Worship).  My mother-in-law once told me, “I know your father died when you were young and your step father was a quiet man, but I believe Floyd is proud enough of you to make up for them both.”  She was right.

Floyd was not afraid to admit he was afraid.  After his cancer diagnosis, we had several conversations about him fearing death.  He was sure of his relationship with God; he knew he had accepted Jesus and his grace.  He was simply afraid of the unknown and he wasn’t afraid to admit it.

Emotion run amuck is not a good thing.  I saw Floyd learn to temper his temper and control his passions.  But he kept telling us he loved us and was proud of us.

The lesson Floyd gave to me was to tell people the real you.  Tell people you are angry.  Tell them why.  Tell people you love them.  Tell them why.  Tell people you are proud of them.  Tell them why.  Tell people you are afraid. Tell them why.

We live so much of life pretending to be all put together.  How much healthier would we be if we learned to share what’s really going on?  How much healthier would our relationship with our Heavenly Father be if we were simply real and honest about what was really happening to us?

The lesson Floyd taught me? It’s okay to be real.  Thanks, Floyd.