All the Grace You Need—for Today

I only spent one week sitting at the feet of Dr. Oscar Thompson, but it was a memorable week. Dr. Thompson was a seminary professor, but he was speaking for a week in Houston, where I was in my last year of college. Every night I went to hear him speak, and I even skipped classes on a few days to hear him in the morning.

Oscar Thompson was in his last year of life. He was dying from cancer. But he was not in town to talk about cancer; his focus was on preaching about Christ. Yet on one occasion, he talked about the grace God had given him for what he was undergoing—and his words have stayed with me for almost 40 years.

Oscar Thompson can tell you better than I can what he said. His most well-known book, Concentric Circles of Concern, was published after his death. The book is a classic and is still widely read. The book includes this epilogue which captures what I heard him say so many years ago.

“In 1976 … I experienced excruciating pain in my right hip. I was taken to the hospital, sedated, and later flown home and hospitalized with a preliminary diagnosis of a slipped disc.

“Weeks passed while I lingered in traction, alas, to no avail. In desperation, a spinal fusion was performed. Another two months passed with no relief. Two months later exploratory surgery was performed on the hip.

“After surgery I was advised that an inoperable malignant tumor had grown out of the bone. A bone scan later revealed that the malignancy had metastasized and spread to my foot, knee, hip, rib, shoulder, and cranium.

“After the doctor left my room that night, a deep, sweet peace from him who is our peace surged within me. It was simply inexplicable and ineffable. I reached for my New Testament on the nightstand and said, ‘Father, if I am not going to live, I want to count. I need a word from you.’ There surfaced in my mind a passage of Scripture that I had memorized years before. ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort; who comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God’ (2 Cor. 1:3-4).

“‘Oh, Father, I understand. You are going to send me through the valley so that I can comfort others with your comfort when they walk there.’

“Then came that inner nudge that said, ‘Read on.’ Verses 8 through 11 revealed this promise to my heart: ‘We were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, … you also joining in helping us through your prayers, that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the favor bestowed upon us through the prayers of many.’ 

“I put down the Testament, rejoiced in the Lord, and later slipped into a peaceful, refreshing sleep. Was I rejoicing because I felt I would live? No! I was rejoicing because it really did not matter. My life was under his control. I rejoiced because of a wonderful awareness of his love. Verse after verse that I had memorized began to surface. First John 4:18 exploded in my consciousness: ‘There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.’

“I knew that nothing could come into my life without God’s permission. If it came with his permission, then I knew that it surely came with his grace to deal with it. …

“The joy of living is permitting God to do through us whatever he has in mind for each day. Most people’s lives are crucified between two thieves, yesterday and tomorrow. God can only give forgiving grace for yesterday. He stores no provision of grace for tomorrow. Tragically, most of us live in yesterday and tomorrow, in that devastating land of ‘What if?’ God has adequate grace to deal with yesterday if it is put in his hands. But his grace is poured out one day at a time. The person who has not learned this will never live victoriously. He will always be vulnerable to circumstances.

“In other words, I learned that God does not give dying grace on non­-dying days.”

There it is. God gives us the grace we need for today.


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This Screen-Shot-2013-06-24-at-1.41.38-PM (1)post supports the study “The Gift of Grace” in Bible Studies for Life.


Life Lessons From an Arrow

Debbie Brown with her favorite brother.

This blog post is written by Debbie Brown. I love what she says, and I invited her to share it with you. Debbie is an active singer and speaker at women’s events, and in her spare time, she teaches elementary school music. Perhaps her greatest feat, though, is this: she is my sister. So there.

Have you noticed that everything these days seems to have an arrow on it?

The arrow has been showing up in all kinds of decorating over recent years.  Just check out Pinterest or walk through your favorite store.  I became intrigued, wondering if I had missed something on TV or a movie that had spurred this apparent love for the arrow.

Of course, the arrow has been around for millennia.  Hunters have used the bow and arrow to hunt for food.  Arrows have been used in battle.  So, my first thought was negative.  Why would I want to decorate with something used in killing?  Since inquiring minds want to know, I googled it.

We have arrows in advertising.




We have arrows in directions.

The Boy Scouts of America have arrows.




Arrows are even popular in tattoos.  (Don’t worry, Mom,.  I’m not getting a tattoo.) But it was a description of a tattoo that pointed to the positive side of arrows.

An arrow tattoo carries the message of always moving forward.

This reminded me of what Paul wrote:

“Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14).

Moving forward. We like that image, but moving forward is not always easy. In fact, sometimes it can wrapped in a challenge or two. But that’s OK. Consider this:

I’ve changed my mind about the arrow.  I now see it’s good point. (My brother inserted that bad pun.)

But then I noticed how many arrow messages were something like “Follow Your Dreams” or “Follow Your Heart. ” Those messages seem so self-centered.  Dreams are great.  And our hearts may intend to be good, but they are fickle. I don’t want to follow my dreams.  I want to follow the One who guides me as I pursue those dreams.  That’s why I like these arrow-infused messages better:

I prefer the arrow that points me to the Lord and to  following Him!  He always shoots straight as an arrow!

Maybe I will start decorating with arrows!  Just not with a tattoo.

Shoot an arrow to one of the links below and share this thought with others.

When Optimism is Not Enough

I don’t recommend building your life on children’s books.

As a kid, I loved the book The Little Engine That Could. Hey, it’s a book about trains, so what’s not to like? I’m sure you’re familiar with the story of the little switch engine called upon to haul a long train over a high mountain. Switch engines aren’t designed for this work, but this little engine psyched himself up to do the impossible by chanting “I think I can. I think I can.” And he does … because he thought he could.

Aww,  the virtue of optimism. The power of positive thinking. There’s a place for that, I suppose, if you’re preparing for an athletic event, working up the nerve to ask a girl out, or walking into a job interview.

But if you’re the little engine that has tried to go up the mountain multiple times and failed repeatedly, any dose of optimistic self-confidence quickly dissipates like smoke.

Moses was an 80-year-old failed has-been when God spoke to him. Earlier in his life, Moses reeked of bravado and self-confidence. After all, he was raised like a son of the pharaoh with all the advantages and privileges that came with that. But when Moses tried to do the right thing and prevent the abuse of another Jew, he went about it wrong. He failed—and he failed miserably.

Moses fled with his tail between his legs and spent the next forty years hanging out in the back country with a bunch of sheep. He no longer reeked of self-confidence; he smelled more like wet wool.

So when God issued His call for Moses to go back to Egypt and lead His people out, Moses offered plenty of excuses. Can you imagine the scenario had God simply challenged Moses with the same philosophy between The Little Engine That Could?

Moses: Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?

God: Moses, you need to believe in yourself. Just repeat after me: “I think I can. I think I can.”

Moses: What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, “The Lord did not appear to you”?

God: Try it again, Moses: “I think I can. I think I can.”

Moses: I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.

God: You’ll speak well if you do it with confidence in yourself. “I think I can. I think I can.”

Moses didn’t need to psych himself up. He didn’t need to look in the mirror and give himself a pep talk. He needed what only God could give him.

And if you’re going to succeed in life—if you’re going to overcome your past and move forward—you’re going to need what only God can give you.

Every generation has its positive-thinking cheerleaders: the Napoleon Hills, Norman Vinent Peales, Zig Ziglars, Tony Robbins, and Joel Osteens.  But you don’t need pop psychology; you need a dose of the same truth God spoke to Moses thousands of years ago.

  1. When you live in obedience to Him, God is with you  (Ex. 3:11-12).
  2. God created you just as you are (4:10-12).
  3. God equips you with all you need (vv. 13-17).

You have failed. And you do have shortcomings. But Christ is greater than your past, and He overcomes every objection you can think of. The only barrier to moving forward with your life has nothing to do with pumping yourself up mentally or emotionally; it is whether or not you will surrender and be obedient to what Christ wants to do in you and through you. Since He’s with you, He will empower you.

I think I’ll trust. I’ll think I trust. 

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This Screen-Shot-2013-06-24-at-1.41.38-PM (1)post supports the study “Objections Overruled” in Bible Studies for Life.



An Innovative Approach to Church Life … from 1916

The following tidbit from history surprised me. It just seems so natural to walk into the store, make my selections while I walk up and down the aisles, and check out. But there was a time …

Prior to 1916, you went to the local grocer and simply handed him your list. He went to the back, got the items, and brought them out to you. Every store did that, including the store Clarence Saunders operated in Memphis. By the process bugged Saunders. It was time consuming. He wanted a faster way to serve customers—and serve more customers.

This sounds so ordinary to us, but he rocked the shopper’s world when they walked into his new store and found all the products were out front—not in the back. He handed shoppers a basket and empowered them to pick up their own items!

Some people expected this approach to buying groceries to fail. The naysayers expected a negative reaction: I should be paying less since I’m doing the bulk of the work. (That was my attitude the first time I used a self-service gas station in the 70s. Gas prices were going up, yet I was the one now doing the work of pumping gas.)  But when Saunders opened his new store on September 6, 1916, his innovation took off. And here we are 100 years later, gladly standing in the chip aisle, trying to choose between Cool Ranch or Nacho Cheese Doritos.

And some of us still shop in the store bearing the same name as the 1916 original: Piggly Wiggly. (Or as I call it: Hoggly Woggly.)

I think it’s well past time for believers to approach the Christian life with the same attitude we have when we enter the grocery store. If you need something, you go get it. Instead, too many Christians go to church expecting others—in particular, the church staff—to do things for them.

  • Pastor, I need you to pray for my Uncle Murray. Because God listens more to pastors.
  • Pastor, you need to share the gospel with my neighbor. If he was saved, he’d keep his dog out of my yard. Because the message of salvation only has meaning when it comes from the pastor—and not from someone who has been yelling at the neighbor’s dog.
  • Pastor, you need to visit Martha. She’s upset because she’s been ill yet no one came to see her. Because only pastors are allowed to visit the sick.
  • Pastor, the restroom is out of paper towels—again.

Anyone who has ever pastored can tell you these are exactly the kinds of things many church members expect their leaders to do. And it never crosses their minds that they could do these things themselves!

Church members need to get out of 1915! Let’s move into 1916 with its innovative approach to grocery shopping and apply the same principle to church life. If you see something in life and ministry that needs to be done, do it. Don’t present your list to the pastor and expect him to do it.

Notice who does the work of ministry in this passage:

“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service” (Eph. 4:11-12).

Don’t give your ministry shopping list to your pastor. Take care of it yourself—as God leads you and works through you.

“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Pet. 4:8-10).

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Restoration Work is Not for Amateurs

My wife said I could have another beagle if it didn’t shed. So I made one.

Woody stands guard on our back porch where I often read. I noticed a few weeks ago that, after two years in the sun, he needed a new paint job. He needed restoration.

It happens to all pieces of fine art—including wooden beagles. It even happens to the masters. Colors fade. Smoke and pollutants affect the quality. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa once had bright colors and a detailed background that has faded and taken on a more brownish hue.  Another example is da Vinci’s Last Supper.

The bottom image is a copy painted by Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli, a contemporary of da Vinci’s. The copy did not have the same exposure to the elements as the original, and it shows us how much da Vinci’s work has faded over time. (Not to mention a later decision to replace Jesus’ feet with a door!)

Woody the Beagle looks OK again. But not all restorations go as planned. Take Cecilia Giménez. In 2012, she took it upon herself to restore  the fresco Ecce Homo, a painting of Jesus crowned with thorns, in her local church in Borja, Spain. She was an amateur painting, and her work was … well, you be the judge.

Cecelia meant well, but as we say in the South, “Bless her heart.” Her well-meaning but botched attempt has drawn worldwide attention. The one good thing is that people come from all over the world to gawk at this fresco, and the little town is now thriving from tourism.

Art restoration should not be in the hands of amateurs.

We’re amateurs when it comes to restoring our lives.

We don’t simply fade over time. With the brush of our sin, we blur the vivid colors of God’s image in our lives. Even when we try to make things right, the brush of our good efforts and self-righteousness is still tainted with flecks of sin, and we just can’t restore ourselves. Try as we may, we fail—and we look pathetic.

Restoration of our lives only comes at the hands of the One who created us. Jesus removes the layers of sin with which we’ve coated our lives, washes us clean with the blood of His sacrifice, forgives, and restores us to the life and image He created us for.

We fail, but Jesus restores.

“We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10).

Let Christ do His work of restoration. Be the masterpiece He created you to be—and people will marvel at the vibrant colors of love, grace, and forgiveness you display in Christ.

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This Screen-Shot-2013-06-24-at-1.41.38-PM (1)post supports the study “A Fresh Start” in Bible Studies for Life.

Take a Break From Social Media and Talk Face-to-Face

I wonder what our music would be like today had smartphones existed sixty years ago.

Sixty years ago today (July 6, 1957), a 13-year-old kid showed up at a church function. It was a Saturday community event complete with a brass band and a dog show. But the kid also saw a band of older teenagers who had been invited to play. In spite of the leader’s inability to remember the words or even play well, the band captured his attention.

After playing, this makeshift band took a break inside the church auditorium. A guy came in with the 13-year-old and made some introductions. The younger teenager then pulled out his own guitar, played a few songs popular at the time, and a friendship was formed.

Two weeks later, John Lennon invited the 13-year-old Paul McCartney to join his band, the Quarry Men.

No matter what you think of their lifestyle, politics, and religious beliefs, the Beatles wrote some great songs. Their approach to both songwriting and recording redefined rock and roll in the 60s, and their influence is still felt today. (My wife and I disagree on whether their early music was better than their later music, but I still love her.)

I think  if a church had a community event this weekend, two teenagers like Paul and John would never meet because at least one of them would have his head buried in his phone.

We come to intersections all day. Not the driving kind, but intersections where we encounter other people. It may be momentary, but we have an opportunity to engage with another human being. Many of these encounters have the potential of being a joyous moment in our lives, an encouragement for the other person, or—who know—maybe the start of a lifelong relationship that rivals the Beatles. But we wouldn’t know because we’re looking at our phones instead.

Last week was the tenth anniversary of the iPhone, and CNN published an online article about how the iPhone has made our lives worse.  From my own experience, I can’t disagree with their seven reasons. Two of them particularly stuck out to me:

1. We are ignoring one another. I see this in restaurants every time we eat out. (And restaurant fare is the main food group in our family diet.) Couples, groups of friends, and even whole families are sitting in each others’ presence with their heads bent down in the smartphone stare. We’re so engrossed in the latest videos and memes, counting Likes on our Facebook page, or playing games that we’re not talking to each other. I mean having a genuine conversation.

2. Smartphones are ruining our relationships. We’ve relegated conversation to sending texts with stupid little emojis. True feelings and expressions come up short. Texting is not a real conversation, and it is certainly nothing deep. We’re slowly losing our ability to talk with other people in a meaningful way.

People with a higher proportion of online interactions are lonelier than people with a higher proportion of face-to-face conversations. [Source]

Anticipate the intersections you’ll have with people today. Put the phone down and actually carry on a simple conversation. One of those meetings could lead to the next revolution in music.

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Should Family Really Come Before Church?

Ever do one of those “make-a-list-of-priorities” exercises? In church settings, they always start out the same:

  1. God
  2. Family
  3. Church

The variation kicks in with #4 and beyond: some will list school, work, Alabama football, Fido the family dog, tacos, or who-knows-what.

Can we go back to the first three on our list?

The lordship of Christ demands that God be listed as our #1 priority. If anyone is tempted to list something else, then he is not living under the lordship of Christ. He has let the idolatry of something else take precedence.

But what should be #2 on the list? I don’t think family should come before church. (Did he really just say that??) I’m not proposing church take precedence over family; I’m arguing they should be side-by-side.

1. The greatest thing we can do for our families is to bring them to faith in Christ—and walk beside them in growth and discipleship.

“These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deut. 6:6-7).

2. As Christians, we are not alone in our walk with Christ. In fact, we are commanded not to go it alone. We are to help and support each other.

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25).

3. You have a physical family, and in Christ, you have a spiritual family. The two go hand-in-hand.

I am not endorsing centering family life around church-related activities. Activities do not always equal discipleship. But our families need to be faithfully and consistently plugged in with other Christians in a way that fosters worship, spiritual growth, and positive connections with other Christians.

  1. What are we communicating to our kids when we let Sunday sports events and sports leagues take precedence over worship and Bible study?
  2. Vacations and time-away is valid, but what are we communicating to our kids when we make a Sunday morning spur-of-the-moment decision to stay home because we simply don’t feel like going?

Church and connections to the body of Christ are not optional for the family.

Please don’t read any legalism into my words, but I am concerned about an attitude that makes church a priority only when it fits our schedule.

Through the prophet Haggai, God rebuked the Jews because they had made the rebuilding of His temple a low priority. Yeah, but that means God was the low priority,  not the “church.” Nice try, but it’s more than that.

Failing to rebuild the temple reflected more than just their attitude toward God; it reflected their attitude toward the community of faith. The temple was the place of offerings, sacrifices, and worship—and these are things the community was to do together. 

Our attitude toward the community of faith—the body of Christ—directly mirrors our attitude toward God. So if we truly want our families to occupy the number #2 spot on our list of priorities, then we need to put the community of faith right next to it. Because if we are not working to integrate our families deeply into the community of believers—those who can support us in our walk and discipleship—we are not providing a critical component to our families’ development.

Value your family? Then value their connection to Christ and His body.

For a printable version: click here.

This Screen-Shot-2013-06-24-at-1.41.38-PM (1)post supports the study “First Things First” in Bible Studies for Life.

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