Preachers Are Strange

I want to say a few things this week about preachers, myself in particular, and all preachers generally. These thoughts come from reflection and introspection I’ve done generally over the past 17 years and specifically over the past five or six weeks as to why I keep doing what I do. Maybe these thoughts will help you better understand me. If I’m not your preacher, I hope they help you better relate to your preacher at your church.

First, preachers are weird creatures.

I can’t help but preach. God’s Word burns inside my bones and I can’t NOT preach. I do believe with all my heart and soul, mind and strength, that our God has gifted me to preach his holy Word. He has given me abilities and called me to use those abilities to proclaim his message. So I feel obligated to God to do what I do. I’m compelled by him to do this. I answer to him. Every day. Every sermon. God has put the gift of preaching inside me and I cannot shake it.

I have become a servant of God’s Gospel by the gift of his grace given to me. I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service. I was shown mercy so that in me, the very worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.

I know this about myself and our God. I am answering his call to do his work with his gift and by his power. I know it.

At the same time, I do not feel worthy to do what I do. I don’t feel qualified. I feel completely inadequate. I am still nearly petrified every single Sunday by my deficiencies and weakness, by my failings and flaws. The song right before the sermon is almost always the hardest part of my Sunday and the song right after the sermon is the moment I feel the most relief. And then, about ten minutes later,  I am almost always disappointed that my words did not live up to what’s in my heart. Almost every Sunday, I come up way short.

And I keep doing it.

It’s weird.

Peace,

Allan

 

Rangers – Astros Pics

Carrie-Anne and I put the finishing touches on our summer vacation with a long weekend in the Bayou City. Of course, nobody plans a trip to Houston in July, but C-A had her one-year check up scheduled at M.D. Anderson. Yes, it’s been a full year since Carrie-Anne completed her last chemotherapy treatment and was pronounced cancer-free by our surgeons and doctors in Houston. The appointment  was already on the books and, as our great fortune would have it, the Rangers were also in Houston at the same time to play the Astros at Minute Maid Park. So, our one-day trip turned into a four-day trip so we could take in a pair of games in one of baseball’s best rivalries.

Upon our arrival in H-Town Thursday evening we encountered a significant hurricane-related issue: our hotel was without power and totally shut down. Five days after Beryl, and there were still almost a million people without electricity, including at our Hampton Inn. There was no one there to help us, no one to talk to about our reservations and next steps, no one answering any phones–just two handwritten signs on the doors that said “NO POWER.” We learned over the next three hours that lots of hotels in the Houston area were down and the ones that were operational were all full with Houston residents looking for some relief and utility workers who had streamed into town to help restore the power. We got on two waiting lists and finally secured a room for Thursday evening at one place and for the next two nights at another.

Praise our God, C-A’s appointments were great. All clear again! If nothing happens of concern–it shouldn’t–we’ll do two more of these over the next two years and be totally done with all of it. Thank our Lord! Her surgeons and oncologists have been so wonderful to us, a true source of encouragement and confidence through this whole thing. We are grateful to God that we got hooked into M.D. Anderson the way we did. We praise him for C-A’s healing and recovery and good health. And we continue to pray faithfully for all those who are dealing with this horrible disease.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before and after the baseball games, we did some sight-seeing around downtown Houston, mainly around the convention center and the shopping district on Main Street. We took in some of the funky art around the Chase Tower, ate at the downtown Pappasito’s (of course!), and found Biggio’s, a perfectly spread-out two-story sports bar that bears the name of the legendary Houston Hall of Famer.

As for the baseball games, we scored some wonderful seats about 30 rows up from the third base on deck circle and experienced a blowout win by the ‘Stros and a dramatic extra-innings win by the Rangers. We saw the Rangers’ season-long offensive woes up close and personal–nobody on this team outside of Semien and Seager are doing anything. Whereas the booing seemed to motivate Adolis Garcia last year, it’s having the opposite effect now–the Rangers playoff MVP looks lost. Andrew Heaney gave up a couple of bad homeruns and Rangers-killer Jose Altuve did it to us again. We wore our rally caps dejectedly for most of Friday’s game, but then delighted on Saturday when Nathaniel Lowe won the game with a two-out RBI single in the 10th. This was right after Carrie-Anne got really worked up screaming for Mauricio Dubon to get tossed for arguing an overturned call at first base in the 9th. Big Game Nate did what he needed to do to keep the Astros in check and the bullpen was marvelous, highlighted by Yates’ 1-2-3 10th. The win was truly satisfying and led to some unexpected celebrating with several tables of other Rangers fans at Biggio’s after the game.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We listened to Sunday’s rubber match on the drive back to Midland, a Rangers win that featured another good start by Mad Max and two two-run homers by Josh Smith. Texas took the series, evened up the Silver Boot standings, and heads to the All-Star break one game back of Houston and five behind the M’s in the AL West. And maybe with some momentum. Hopefully.

Peace,

Allan

Chicago Pics

Since she’s an academic counselor now and not a teacher, Carrie-Anne only gets two weeks off during the summers. So, if we’re going to do anything or go anywhere, it has to be the first two weeks of July. This year we decided to escape the heat and spent five days up in Chicago.

C-A’s never been to Chicago. I’ve been nine times as part of the two-year Transforming Community program I went through in 2018-2019 and just love the whole city. I know some of my affection for the Windy City is certainly tied to the spiritual growth I experienced and the relational changes that happened with me and our Lord during my retreats there; that was a significantly important time for me and for my ministry–truly transformative. All that is connected with my heart and my head to Chicago, no doubt. But I also just really love a big, bustling, diverse, busy, city with a million things to see and do.

We didn’t do a million things in Chicago this past week. But almost.

I’m mainly just posting a ton of pictures here today. I should have kept up with this while we were on the trip so it wouldn’t be this massive picture dump. But we got up early and stayed out late during those five days. And had an incredibly wonderful time. As always, click on the pic to get the full size.

 

 

 

 

 

We mostly did the touristy things one does while in Chicago. We stayed at the Cambria Hotel downtown, at the corner of Randolph and Dearborn in the middle of the theater district, because most of the really cool stuff is downtown.

 

 

 

 

 

We spent a whole morning at Millennium Park and took all the requisite photos at the iconic “Bean”: the reflections of the downtown skyline, the selfie, the squatty pics underneath the structure, and the zoomed out portrait.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the splash pad. We didn’t get wet. But we stayed long enough to watch both of the huge face installations spew water on all the kids at least four or five times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NASCAR was in Chicago over the weekend which made it difficult to walk from Millennium Park to Grant Park along the shores of Lake Michigan. We managed to weave our way around barricades and through the crowds of race fans trying to get a glimpse of their favorite cars and drivers as they unloaded their vehicles and only got flipped off and cussed at once by a cyclist for walking in a bike path.

Of course, we also spent an entire afternoon at the famous Chicago Art Institute where we gazed at the painting that got Cameron so locked up in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and took the somber selfies in front of American Gothic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

You’ve noticed that C-A has straightened her hair. She took the Christmas break to transition from the do-rag to her Q-Tip with a headband thing. And now she’s using her summer break to make the move back to how she looked pre-cancer. The way her hair came back so curly in those super-tight ringlets was surprising and I really thought she was rocking that look pretty well. But I think she feels more like herself now. And she does look beautiful, doesn’t she?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We saw Jersey Boys at the Mercury Theater and laughed our lips off at Second City. I don’t know Jenelle’s last name, but it was her last night at Second City–she’s been part of the group there since 2018—and I promise you she’s about to show up on Saturday Night Live. Or something.  I don’t know what’s next for her, but it’s going to be big. And we saw her on her last night at Second City.

 

 

 

 

 

What else? We spent an evening at Navy Pier and took in the fireworks there over the lake. We did the mandatory architectural cruise on the Chicago River and spent almost all day on the really cool downtown river walk. And we visited the Shedd Aquarium where we fed and petted stingrays and talked back and forth with some Beluga whales.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Luckily, the Cubs were in town so we watched the local boys blank the Halos at the friendly confines of 110-year-old Wrigley Field. Of course, I enjoyed a traditional Chicago-style hot dog, complete with mustard, tomatoes, onions, sport peppers, that neon-green relish, and the pickle on a poppy-seed bun. Carrie-Anne calls it a salad with a weenie. She’ll have no part of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was easy to root for the Cubs because they were playing one of the Rangers’ rivals from the AL West. And we delighted as the out of town scoreboard on the ivy-covered walls lit up with Rangers runs from their blowout win over the Rays. We stood and sang Take Me Out to the Ballgame as it was led by some B-actor I’d never heard of. And we watched in amazement as 25,000 fans locked arms and swayed back and forth together and sang “Go Cubs Go.” Man, a Cubs game is special. It’s a truly communal thing that I’m afraid could never be replicated in a place like Arlington.

 

 

 

 

 

Oh, and I haven’t mentioned yet that we ate a lot of pizza. Lou Malnati’s was at the top of my list and we made it there at the end of our first full day. Malnati’s gives you the deepest deep dish you can find and it never disappoints. We also got Chicago-style pizza at a place near our hotel called Parlor Pizza Bar and at a joint around the corner from Second City called Professor Pizza. We dined at a couple of historic downtown Chicago pubs and got a fabulous breakfast one morning at Yolk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’re home now, but only long enough to mow the yard and do some quick laundry before we take off for Houston. It’s been one full year since Carrie-Anne’s last chemo treatment, twelve months since we rang the bell and my wife was pronounced cancer-free. The first of our annual checkups at M.D. Anderson is set for this Friday; we’re meeting with the cancer surgeon at 9:15 and the oncologist at 11:00. As it turns out, the Rangers are in Houston this weekend to play the Astros, so our one day trip became a two-day trip. And then yesterday it became a three-day trip as we decided to enjoy two Rangers-Astros games instead of one. It’s a vacation! We have to!

Peace,

Allan

A Very Insignificant City

I can think of no better way to observe this Fourth of July national holiday in the U.S. in this space than in directing you to an excellent piece written by my brilliant brother Keith on their Center for Christian Studies website. He penned it a couple of days ago; I have saved it for today.

The third-century Church Father Origen wrote that Christians are a tremendous blessing to the cities, states, and nations to which they belong. In fact, they do more good for their countries than any other group of people because of the way they live their lives for Christ Jesus. Keith takes those lines, and another couple from Augustine, to give us a compelling argument that the best way to be a patriotic American–or Canadian or Mexican or Russian or Brit–is to be faithful to our Lord Jesus first.

Here are the lines from Origen, straight from Keith’s opening paragraph:

“Indeed, the more pious a man is, the more effective he is in helping the emperors—more so than the soldiers who go out into the lines and kill all the enemy troops that they can” (Contra Celsum VIII.73). It is Christians, Origen says, who “educate the citizens and teach them to be devoted to God, the guardian of their city; and they take those who have lived good lives in the most insignificant cities up to a divine and heavenly city. To them it could be said: You were faithful in a very insignificant city; come also to the great city where ‘God stands in the congregation of the gods and he judges between gods in the midst’ [Ps. 82:1]” (Contra Celsum VIII.74, emphasis mine).

Keith walks us through some biblical passages and reminds us that the idea of dual citizenship for Christians only developed in later centuries, after it became apparent that Jesus’ idea of “soon” is different from ours. However, he writes, “Christians have always understood that allegiance to the heavenly city is primary, and all other allegiances are relativized, insignificant in comparison.”

It’s a short piece–you can read it for yourself in like four minutes. But, like everything Keith writes, each sentence is packed. Deep. Provocative. And helpful for better articulating what we already know. Or should know. I recommend you read the article two or three times and reflect carefully on each paragraph.

I’ll give you one more paragraph here to tease it:

“As for the United States, the two cities should never have been confused in the first place.  But for those who may have failed to maintain this important distinction in the past—when much of American culture was shaped by or at least paid lip service to Christianity—a valuable service has been rendered by our presidential candidates and national politicians over the last few years.  The line between the two cities has never been plainer, as the insignificance of this earthly city is clearly reflected by the intellectual and moral insignificance of its would-be leaders.

Keith and I quibble a bit on the details of how Christians should or should not be involved in the worldly ways and means of the very insignificant city, the politics. But we will always agree on one of his final lines in this article: “The best way to involve ourselves, as Origen reminds us, is to be Christ in our neighborhood.

Here it is. Click on it. Read it. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Peace,

Allan

Service

I love the way Josh Ross begins his final chapter in Coreology, by reminding us of the teachings of our Lord Jesus and asking if we truly believe that he means what he says.

The first will be last and the last will be first. Did Jesus really mean that or was he exaggerating to make us think about our relationships with God?

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant. Was Jesus really rejecting James’ and John’s request for seats of honor and giving them a vision of service instead?

Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me. Was Jesus being literal, or was he just making a point?

I came not to be served, but to serve, and to give my life. Is that devotion to serving others for Jesus alone or is that the eternal model for you and me?

Josh holds up service as his sixth spiritual practice that will keep us from losing our Christian witness during this national election season.

#6 – I will choose to regularly serve others.

The 4th century Jewish historian Eusebius chronicled life and death in Caesarea during a terrible plague. Most people got out of Dodge. Eusebius tells us the Christians all stayed in town to serve:

“All day long some of them [Christians] tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them. Others gathered from all parts of the city a multitude of those withered from famine and distributed bread to them all.”

You don’t do these kinds of things unless you have sworn your allegiance to a different King and Kingdom.

Roman Emperor Julian, just a few decades later, urged the Empire’s pagan priests to imitate the charity and service modeled by Christians. Seriously. A pagan emperor was urging his pagan priests to behave more like Christians because of the good they brought to the world:

“The Christians support not only their poor, but ours as well. All people see that our people lack aid from us.”

The Kingdom of God and discipleship to Jesus spread all over the world because our Christian ancestors captured the attention of their pagan neighbors through their character, morality, friendship, and sacrificial service to others.

Josh writes, “If Paul were alive today, we’d be getting a letter.” The apostle’s letter would remind us that Jesus didn’t die and rise again for people to submit to a national party, a partisan leader, or a worldly agenda, but to the Kingdom that is above all kingdoms and to the King who is above all kings. And to his politics of service and love.

Imagine, Josh continues, if service became a regular part of our lives. Don’t you know it would help us to envision a world that is bigger than our own little story? Lives of service have always been one of the most noticeable ways to show that our hearts have been given over to Jesus. By lives of service, I mean the intentional things we do: holding doors, moving the neighbor’s trash can, paying for a stranger’s meal, and returning shopping carts at the grocery store. But it’s also volunteering with non-profits, feeding the hungry, and tutoring kids at the local elementary school. Service reminds us that we are part of a bigger story than ourselves.

Service is an overflow of God’s love for us. We don’t serve in order for God to love us, but because he loves us and gave himself so freely for us.

Service is at the core of the heart and mission of our Lord Jesus and so it must be a major and consistent part of our lives, too.

Josh concludes his book by asking us to imagine an election season in which disciples of Jesus have demonstrably renounced the ways of the world and are truly following Christ. I’m going to finish this series of posts by giving you the last lines of Coreology here:

Imagine if followers of Jesus diligently decided to take seriously our confession that Jesus is the Lord of our lives and nothing else is. How could we not live with greater loyalty and passion?

Imagine if Jesus-followers were to create and honor spiritual practices that keep us rooted in God. Can’t you envision how we could live in greater peace and meaning?

Imagine if we refuse to allow media outlets to have a loud voice in our lives. Don’t you know fear and anger would have a difficult time growing in us?

Imagine if we accept the challenge to be peacemakers. Are you able to see the role we could play in bringing God’s healing to this world?

Imagine if hospitality were to replace the internet as the primary place for conversations about what is happening in the world. Do you see how it can bring us together?

Imagine if service becomes a regular part of our lives. Can’t you see how hard it is for hatred to grow where love thrives?

Let’s be intentional, especially in election seasons, to live in a way that we will like who we are when the elections are over. Care about the world. Be educated about issues and policies. Vote if you feel the need to. But do not give your heart to any other leader or kingdom.

Your spiritual core will not be strengthened by accident. Grow in God. Grow with God. Grow for God.

Guard your heart. Protect your joy. Don’t lose your Kingdom witness. You can do this. We can do this. God can do this in us.

Peace,

Allan

Hospitality

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While you might have been following the U.S. Olympic trials, Carrie-Anne and I were following our very own Evie Granado as she dominated again at the Team USA Gymnastics Championships. Evie, whom I’ve nicknamed “Three Events, Three Gold Medals,” won the Youth Elite 11-12-year-old trampoline championships at the trials in Minneapolis. She’s too young to go to Paris this time around, but she’s in the same gym as the ones who are, and completely blowing away those her own age and a little bit older. Man, you should see these videos of Evie flying and twisting around the rafters of that convention center!

Evie and her parents were part of our wonderful small group at the Central Church in Amarillo and we miss them dearly. But it’s so much fun to keep rooting her on from long distance. At the Olympic Trials this weekend, Evie won the national championship in trampoline, took second place in double-mini trampoline, and finished first in overall points–good enough to earn a top spot on the Junior National Team. Evie competes in the Portugal Cup this fall and, I’m assuming, will keep winning and winning and winning until she makes the USA Olympics Gymnastics team for the 2028 summer games in L.A.

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Dr. Keith Stanglin (some relation) was in Midland this past weekend, putting on a church leadership seminar at the Downtown Church of Christ. Keith is the executive director of Center for Christian Studies in Austin and the preacher at University Avenue Church of Christ right there in front of the U.T. campus. He came in Thursday evening, his colleague Todd Hall and his wife Cara joined him Friday morning, and we had an absolute blast just hanging out with them all weekend. The seminar, “Leading Through Cultural Change,” was excellent. The ping-pong was exhilarating. We laughed a ton. And my claim when it comes to my brother and me is still true: I got the looks, he got the brains.

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I’ve been posting very slowly in this space my thoughts on Josh Ross’ new book Coreology: Six Principles for Navigating an Election Season without Losing Our Witness. Today, I want to share with you this fifth core principle that helps us keep the Gospel story straight and the roles we play as followers of Christ during a heated national political season.

#5 – I will practice hospitality as a way to learn, grow, and invest in other people.

Near the end of his book here, Josh reminds us that the local church should be the place where people can talk about anything. “There should be no issue or topic,” he says, “that the church can’t provide space for as we attempt to navigate faith and culture. We would like to think,” he continues, “that the waters of baptism and the bread and cup hold the power to keep us united through it all.”

Josh asserts that disciples of Jesus should be Gospel-driven, and not issue-driven. This is why it is essential, he writes, that we develop principles in our lives that keep us rooted in the heart and mission of Jesus. And this fifth one, hospitality, is a big one.

In the Greek language of the New Testament, hospitality is philoxenias. Philos means “love” and xenos means “stranger.” So, to be hospitable is to be a friend to a stranger, or maybe even to make a friend out of stranger.

You already know my table theology. I believe that our God intends for meals around a table to be the way we both experience and express the Good News of his salvation. You know that more than 70% of Jesus’ parables are about food. In the Gospels, especially in Luke, Jesus is either talking about a meal, on his way to a meal, eating a meal, or just leaving a meal. And followers of Christ should be intentional about these meals in our contexts today. As Hirsch and Ford say in their book Right Here, Right Now:

“If every Christian family in the world simply offered good conversational hospitality around a table once a week to neighbors, we could all eat our way into the Kingdom of God.”

Nowadays, opening our homes and/or spreading a table in an act of Gospel hospitality is difficult even with our friends. But what about the strangers? What about for our neighbors or other people we don’t know very well? Josh claims that our culture has messed up the way we think about strangers. Instead of seeing people as a gift to the world, we see people as a threat. So, your circle of who you count as friends is going to shrink. And that means those people outside of your bounds get less empathy and fewer resources.”

To help support his point, Josh quotes from “Reaching Out” by the great Henri Nouwen:

“Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at the surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude, and do harm. But still–that is our vocation: to convert the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.”

When we lower our defenses, when we remove our facades and peepholes, when we begin to be truly present with one another, then the healing power of the Gospel can begin its work. Take the risk, expand your table. You have more to offer the world than you think. You have more to receive from the world than you think. What do you have to lose? As a Christian, a citizen of a different Kingdom, choose the table over the comments section. You may not leave the table of hospitality in total agreement on every issue, but you can leave knowing you have more in common than you at first thought. You have more space for empathy, compassion, and service than you had when you were still hungry.

Peace,

Allan

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