Wanna Go Back-2-School?

If you’re like me, the answer is “Uh…no.” School was great. I honestly enjoyed it. However, being out for a few years now, I’m 100% certain I do not want to go back. This week, many will not have the option to simply say, “No.” They will have to go back to school.

Truthfully, it has already started for lots of folks. Some schools have already had their school year begin. If not officially started yet, many district employees have been hard at work preparing for the coming year. Being married to a Kindergarten teacher, I know firsthand just how much pre-work goes into a year. There is the planning for lesson plans, gathering materials, learning students’ names, and the huge task of getting the classroom just right.

No matter where you fit (teacher, administrator, support staff, coach, aide, facilities, transportation, student, parent, etc.) I believe my brother has put together a great prayer guide as you begin the school year. Check it out here- Back to School Prayer Guide.

May God bless and protect you during this school year.

Merry Christmas To All

Nothing. Really, I mean it. There is not one thing I enjoy more than the arrival of the Christmas season and all it ushers in. There are lots of get togethers and parties with family and friends, as well as Christmas lists from our kiddos. Then, there are the cold nights and sitting by the fireplace as the fire crackles. It usually takes until around the first week of December for it to get chilly enough for fires in the fireplace. Although, my wife and I have been known to open all the windows and turn all the fans on (including a/c blower fan) to pull in the cooler air and make it cold enough to light a fire. If you like fires in the fireplace and you live in Texas, sometimes it calls for desperate measures.

Our family Christmas Tree is the highlight of the house during this time of year. It is usually in the stand right after Thanksgiving, lights up the living room, and takes us into the New Year. Flipping the switch is the first thing Kym and I do when we get up in the morning or walk in the house at the end of the day.

Our first year to cut down our fresh Christmas tree was 1992. We were still in college n Missouri and celebrating our very first Christmas as a young married couple. Twenty-six years later, we went to the tree farm for our 27th fresh Christmas tree. It was a beautiful Saturday morning, and we walked most of the farm until we found the perfect tree.

It’s a family tradition for us. Kym and I started together in 1992, added kids & some friends during years 1995-2017, then went it alone again this year. It was different, of course, but also just as fun and special as always. So, yeah, it’s my favorite time of the year. Even down here in Texas where we might be wearing shorts and flip-flops while cutting down our tree, it’s so much fun.

2018 Mike & Kym
This is us this year. If you want, scroll to the bottom to get a look at some of the other pics from years gone by.

BUT…the real wonderment of Christmas Time is about WAY more than traditions, more than parties, and also so much more than Christmas trees and houses decorated with lights. It is, at its very core, all about Jesus. We have a holiday set aside to celebrate because Jesus was born. So, when our Christmas tree is in the stand and we hit the switch to turn on the pretty lights, we are reminded that Jesus is the Light of the World! Our tree points like an arrow toward heaven to also remind us that it is Jesus who left heaven to be born as a baby in a manger, so that we might be reconciled to God.

It occurred to me this year that the Christmas Season comes to our society each year in a similar fashion that Jesus came to the earth some 2000 years ago. We were a sin-sick, broken people and we needed a Savior. Our sinfulness kept us separated from God, our Creator. It was Jesus who came and ushered in the good news: He was our Savior!

Likewise, Christmas seems to come each year to a people who need a little brightness. Life on this planet, with all its ups and downs, can get quite dreary for so many. There are hurts that run deep, and there are pains that seem to never yield. Yet, at Christmas time, there seems to be a little more joy spread around. There is Christmas music (no matter if you are particularly fond of it or not) playing all over the place, and it just feels like more faces are wearing smiles.

Hmmm…could there be a connection? Even as we acknowledge that our world is still so very sin-sick, and even as evil appears to be ever on the increase, could it be that Jesus still infuses our spirits (yes, the very spirits He created in His image) with His joy at Christmas time? I think, YES!

May these verses remind you and give you something to consider as you get ready to celebrate Christmas.

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.    Matthew 1:21

Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!    2 Corinthians 9:15

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Hello, I’m Grateful

Not really. I’m not a naturally grateful person. I do typically try to be positive and look on the good, lovely, beautiful parts of life, but truthfully I struggle when things do not go the way I would like. My wife will confirm to my being grumpy, griping and stewing over why things have to be “this way”. It’s not attractive. I know that. Of course, knowing is half the battle…right?

Every year. Every single year we stop down for Thanksgiving. It’s always one of my favorite times of the year. We get together with family, enjoy some great food (that we seem to only have at this time of year for some reason) and usually toss the football around. We also watch the Dallas Cowboys game. That doesn’t always end well the last several years, but still we watch.

The most important part of this time of year, though, is the focus on being grateful. No, we do not actually need a special holiday or time of year to realize that we have lots and lots for which we should be thankful. Gratitude should be a constant staple for those who know and love God.

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!           – 1 Chronicles 16:34

The forever part of that verse reminds me that I shouldn’t take a break from having a heart of gratitude and staying in the mindset and spirit of thanksgiving. God’s love is strong and everlasting, so my gratitude to him should be as well.

My prayer this year at Thanksgiving is summed up in Psalm 9:1-2

I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds. I will be glad and exult in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.

May your Thanksgiving be filled with joys and reminders of all God has done in your life. Even if you’re dealing with some difficult things at this time, push yourself to find the good and give God thanks!

Family First?

It was a weird car ride back in 1980-something. I was riding with my family in our maroon 1984 Oldsmobile Cutlas, and we were traveling down 287 heading home from a trip. We had just spent time with more of our extended family and it was rather late in the night.

None of us are sure why, but we got on a rhyming binge and couldn’t stop. I think it started with the word “destination” and went crazy from there. We were rhyming, laughing, and crying as Dad tried to keep the car on the road. You know how you laugh so hard your eyes fill with tears and you can barely see straight? That was us and we all still remember it fondly. It was weird. It made no sense at all. However, we will talk about it and laugh again when we get together.

I’m sure most families have their own version of unique stories. I also know it’s not every family that has lots of great, fond memories. Some families have really tough histories and few times of laughter and silliness. That being the case, it seems like somewhere in almost every family (even if it has to include extended family members) there is this sense of comfort and welcome when we’re with family.

In my own life, being with family is right at the top of my list! Whether it’s just at home watching a movie with my wife and kids, cooking out on the grill, or getting together with my parents and sister’s family…I truly L.O.V.E. these special times. We all do Thanksgiving together (rotating homes every year), and I look forward to it all year long!

So, I ran across this video from Francis Chan that made me consider my affection for and heart toward my own family. Watch it real quick and give it some thought.

 

As a pastor, I’ve seen this kind of overzealous sense of family take over some families. Other pastor friends of mine have shared similar occurrences in their churches. The truth is that some families will elevate their family above everything else. There are families who were at one time very involved in the church, serving faithfully, helping out and using their gifts to bless others, begin to pull back and fill their time with all things family. If you have a family that you love, as I have said about my own, it’s probably not difficult to see how this happens. We just love being with our families, watching our kids grow up, even move on to have their own kids.

If you want to, you can use the Bible to build a case for this type of family first approach. See 1 Timothy 5:8 for an often used verse. However, to put your family first, above everything else, you have to ignore a myriad of other responsibilities given to followers of Christ. To put it plainly, those who do elevate their family and give it this place of preeminence in their lives (to the level of not faithfully serving, supporting, engaging the church) have to turn their backs on God’s purpose for His church.

Thom Rainer wrote a great book that provides a clear, concise picture of what it means to be a church member. It’s a really good book, especially if you are part of a church family. Matt Chandler said of this book,

If you love your church, are frustrated with your church, or don’t understand why membership matters, I encourage you to pick this book up and read it.”

I Am A Church Member

We’re not all at the same place in life. Our families look different, are in different stages, include many people, or maybe it’s just yourself right now. None of that matters when we see clearly our responsibility to be part of God’s church…the church for whom Jesus gave himself.

Ephesians 5:25 says, “…Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” He didn’t do that and institute the church so that we could take it or leave it, or relegate it to the back burner so that we can enjoy life and family however we want. In fact, Jesus taught that if our family gets in the way of us being faithful to serve Him, we should leave them behind in order to be a faithful disciple to Him. (Luke 14:25-33) He is teaching what it means, what it will cost, to be one of his disciples.

All that being said, family is a huge blessing in lots of peoples’ lives. There is great comfort, companionship, and joy to be had in a strong, supportive family. As followers of Jesus, we must diligently seek to keep family in its proper place as it relates to our responsibilities to God.

In North Texas we live without getting to experience four separate, clearly defined seasons every year, or most any year for that matter. Being born and raised here, I’ve spent most of my life wishing I could experience at least a taste of a real winter. I’m told I would get my fair share of shoveling snow then be on the next plane for the south again. Maybe so, but I’ve always wanted to try it for a couple of months.

After 24 years in church ministry, I have had the privilege of experiencing some other types of seasons. There have been very distinct seasons of ministry. Regardless of the denomination, I suspect it’s a similar occurrence. Many ministers begin by helping out somewhere in the church as a volunteer. It could be as a door greeter, running sound & lights, preparing meals, or helping in a class for young children. A good church will have plenty of options for getting people involved in serving.

When a person makes the move to full-time church ministry, the start often comes in the area of Children’s Ministry. Next is sometimes a move to Teen Ministry, then adult ministries and finally a position serving as the lead pastor for a church. My story follows that timeline exactly. I volunteered in my local church as a young person, then attended bible college after high school. My full-time ministry jobs were Children’s Ministry, Student Ministry, Adult Ministries, and I’ve been serving as a Lead Pastor for the last several years.

Each season of ministry has had its own level of satisfaction, joy, and fulfillment. Little children, teenagers, and adults all express their faith and their love for church leaders in very distinct ways. Just the other day, someone took me out for lunch. As a lead pastor, ministering to the church as a whole, those things happen from time to time as a member wants to show some appreciation. As expected, when I served as the Children’s Ministry Pastor, expressions of love were much different. There were tons of homemade cards and lots of hugs with sweet little “I love you’s” from precious children. If you’ve worked with teenagers, you know it’s a totally different story. Somehow they’ve heard it’s uncool to let people know that you care about them. You know, the teenage years are just different all the way around.

To be clear, serving God in local church ministry and pastoring is not about how much love you get from those you lead. Not at all! I share those stories simply to note the different stages of church ministry. There are many other distinctions I could mention. With children you might have to wipe some snotty noses. Teenagers might need a ride to or from football or volleyball practice, which would almost always require a stop by Sonic. Adults often need someone to talk to, help with their children, and more formal counseling from time to time.

Today, as a lead pastor in the church, I have seen a new area of ministry that has developed very naturally and organically. As our own kids have grown into adults, Kym & I have seen an influx of young adults at our house and subsequently at our church services. It really has kinda come out of left field. With our own kids grown and not being around as much, we were having to adjust to the house being more empty. If you’ve been there before, you know it can be a real transition when you aren’t necessarily needed the same as you were as parents. It has been a Godsend, and we are very thankful for these men and women.

In a world full of people who often look down on young people and give each generation a new title to define them, it’s a true joy to be able to speak truth and encouragement into their lives. The Bible says,

“Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”   1 Timothy 4:12

Kym and I work daily alongside these young adults to help them see that verse through in their lives. There are very real ups and downs, but the ride is a breath of fresh air.

In the midst of us trying to lead them, they joined our own kids and combined their efforts to send us on a trip. Kym & I are celebrating our 26th wedding anniversary this year, and we were given a surprise trip this Christmas. It was such a nice blessing, and we were both blown away!

I wanted to include a heartfelt THANK YOU to all those who had a part! We love you all, and are looking forward to what God has in store for us in the future.

We are bent toward enjoying the fun of Christmas while forgetting the Son of Christmas.

WANT A DIFFERENT CHRISTMAS?

Many look at Christmas with very fond, almost magical thoughts, and simply can not wait to celebrate every year. Putting up the tree and decorating the house are activities that truly fill their hearts with joy and excitement. Then there are others who have memories and thoughts of Christmas that are not so fondly held. Knowing that, let me share just a bit of what I think might help you have a different Christmas this year.

 

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Harper Family Christmas Tree 2017

Here’s how a Harper Family Christmas begins. Our family, once again, cut down our own Christmas tree and have it proudly displayed in the living room. Since 1992, my wife and I (joined by our kiddos in ’95 & ’99) have visited a tree farm to choose and cut down our tree of choice. We have visited many different tree farms, including a stretch of 10+ years to the same tree farm until it closed. The day normally involves some drive time, lots of walking, looking at tons of trees, cutting down the perfect tree, hauling it to the truck, and grabbing some lunch before heading home. I can’t imagine not doing this.

Above is our 26th hand-cut Christmas tree, and I couldn’t be any happier with it. When we sit in the house at night, and the lights from that tree are sparkling through the night air, I am in one of my most joyous places of all. The Christmas season really does bring and strengthen my joy!

However, over the last several years, our church has chosen and shared an Advent series for us to read. It’s a short, daily reading to help us focus on the true meaning of the season. The sermons during December go along with the reading and tie the whole season together well. Yet, I have never completed an entire Advent reading. I do look through it as we are deciding which one to use. I also pay special attention to the sections from which I will be preaching the particular sermon.

The problem is, I’ve missed the whole point. The purpose of reading through an Advent series is to help us slow down and focus on Jesus. The design of a small daily reading is to force us to sit down, get in the quiet, and be reminded of the beauty of Jesus…who is Christmas! It is definitely not busy work just to add another thing to our Christmas season. We’re prone to be so busy with shopping, cooking, entertaining, traveling, wrapping, etc. In all the busyness, our flesh is bent toward enjoying the fun of Christmas while forgetting the Son of Christmas.

The Dawning of Indestructible Joy is the Advent series our church is following this year. It is by John Piper, and I hope it will be a blessing to you and your family. Maybe, just maybe, it will be a whole different kind of Christmas in your life, your family and your home. May the peace, joy, and hope of Jesus brighten your Christmas!

Follow A Leader

I was born just months after the Cowboys lost Super Bowl V to the Baltimore Colts, but before I turned one, the Cowboys had dismantled the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VI. My parents did right by me and raised me to be a fan of the Dallas Cowboys. So, like most other Cowboys fans, I’ve been following the Ezekiel Elliot news. Now, we wait to hear what his season with the Cowboys will look like.

Just a few miles up the road from where I sit, a federal judge is weighing a decision that will determine if Elliot will get his day in court against the NFL. It could mean he plays all season as this process plays out in the courts. It could also mean that the 6-game suspension will begin with the Cowboys’ second game of the season. Either way, it’s a shame this is what the news is full of as the NFL season kicks off.

As all of this news is unfolding, and both sides are throwing jabs at the other, I wanted to give a brief word of encouragement and challenge. Whether or not Ezekiel did physically assault his girlfriend, there is definitely something that can be learned from this situation. Below is a tweet from Drew Pearson that caught my attention the other day.

Drew Pearson tweet

When I saw that tweet, I immediately thought about the importance of having older, wiser, successful people in our lives that we can watch and follow. It reminded me of Paul’s words in the Bible.

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.   – 1 Corinthians 11:1

Like Jesus, who lived and walked the earth as an example for us, Paul knew that others were watching his life. This verse doesn’t reveal a deep-seated pride or arrogance in Paul. Rather, it points to his understanding that anything he ever did worth imitating was because he was following Jesus.

In essence, Paul is saying that he should only be followed in as much as he was living consistently to the example of Jesus Christ. Truly, the only things in his life that were worthy of emulating would be those areas where he was living faithfully and in accordance with the life of Christ.

When Drew Pearson, (a member of the NFL’s 1970s All Decade Team and the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor), who played for the Cowboys from 1973-83, says that Ezekiel needs someone like Jason Witten to follow…it shouldn’t be ignored. A person needs others in his life that have been there and done that, and those people should be followed and learned from.

If you are a person who struggles to learn from others, and can’t bring yourself to let others lead you, you will have much more adversity and difficulties in your life. Jesus talks about us following him some 23 times in the Bible, and Paul builds on that by saying we should follow others in our every day lives who are following Jesus.

Having the right kind of people in your life to follow will not keep you and I from making wrong choices. However, not having anyone in your life that you look up to, learn from, and try to emulate is an area of weakness. Realize that you definitely need others in your life, and admit that you are not above needing help. We are all helpers in need of help throughout this journey of life.