On the Path of The Polar Express

I love Christmastime! There is so much to enjoy — time with family and friends, the music of the season, the decorations and lights, wonderful food, nice presents, and…

Christmas movies.

KS12503From wonderful, timeless classics like A Christmas Carol (Alastair Sim), White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, and It’s A Wonderful Life, to animated favorites like Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and A Charlie Brown Christmas, these Christmas movies bring back memories of long-ago, transporting us to other places and innocent times. Add to these more recent films such as The Santa Clause series, A Christmas Story, and Elf, and you’ll either be crying tears of nostalgia or laughing tears of joy.

One such movie that came out in 2004 was The Polar Express, based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg. It is the story of a boy who, on the verge of not believing in Santa Claus anymore, takes a ride on the magical Polar Express, and visits the North Pole one Christmas Eve. What starts out with a boy who no longer believes — and actually hesitates to even get on the train in the first place — ends with a fantastical trip to Santa’s workshop, and the great Christmas Eve sendoff, where he is personally given a gift by Santa. No longer in doubt, the boy becomes a “true believer” in Santa.

As the train returns him to his home, and he says goodbye to his new friends, the Conductor turns and says these words to the young boy:

One thing about trains… It doesn’t matter where they’re going.
What matters is deciding to get on.

Holly and snowAs I have often alluded to in my blog, truth comes from odd sources with unlikely messengers. This time of year, that very truth is more obvious than ever, starting over 2,000 years ago with a group of shepherds as the unlikeliest of messengers — sharing the news that the angels proclaimed, and the witness of what they had seen with their own eyes.

Making the decision to relinquish the “engine” of your life to Jesus is full of uncertainty. Just because we are Christians doesn’t mean we are immune to the bad stuff that life throws at us. I have presided over more funerals than I can count — people who have been the victims of, not just old age, but cancer, heart attacks, car accidents, bullet wounds, and drug overdoses. When we sign up for the Spirit-led life, we would do well to remember the words of Jesus…

“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” ~ John 3:8

The Spirit-led life is full of uncertainty. There is no guarantee of good health, unshakable happiness, financial prosperity, or immunity from any other disaster.

That is, unless you are looking “beyond the veil”… beyond the borders of our finite minds and the constraints of time itself.

Here is what surrendering to the will of Jesus, and living a life controlled by His Spirit does guarantee, however…

Eternal life. Surrendering to Jesus, and accepting His finished work on the cross (salvation) guarantees your place in Heaven. (John 3:16)

Peace. Relying on Him as your sufficiency and source is the gateway of the path to peace. Peace with God means that, regardless of what shaky ground we are standing on in this world, our position with Him is never in doubt.

Hope. We hear a lot about hope, but all this world can offer (at best) is a cheap imitation. REAL hope begins and ends with a right relationship with God, and has eternal ramifications… beyond world peace, job security, climate change, and health and wellness. (Hebrews 6:19)

Joy. Not the same thing as happiness, real joy comes from knowing Christ. The very thought of His abiding presence, and the hope that He gives us invokes a joy that the world has no influence or control over. Joy in spite of circumstances. Joy in spite of pain. Joy in spite of sorrow.

These things await the life that is surrendered to Christ.

Can I explain it all to you? No.

That is what living the life of faith is about. After all, if I, or anyone else, could explain it, where would faith come into the equation? One thing I can guarantee you, however, is that there is no peace, no hope, and no joy that can compare to the love and life that Jesus offers.

So this Christmas, if you would like to surrender your life to Christ for the first time, I invite you to pray this prayer…

Dear Lord Jesus,

Please come into my heart, forgive me of my sin, and save me.

Wash me and cleanse me. Set me free. Jesus, thank You that You died for me. I believe that You are risen from the dead and that You’re coming back again for me. Fill me with the Holy Spirit. Give me a passion for the lost, a hunger for the things of God and a holy boldness to share Your love with others.

I’m saved, I’m born again, I’m forgiven and I’m on my way to Heaven because I have Jesus in my heart.

If you prayed that prayer, leave me a note below, and share your decision with me so that I can rejoice with you.

If you wanted to pray that prayer, but still have questions, or if you are already a Christian and need to walk deeper with God, just remember: It doesn’t matter where you think the journey will take you… only God knows the answer to that.

What matters is taking the first step of faith, “getting on the train”, and deciding to start the journey with Him.

Merry Christmas,
Pastor Ron

Echoes of A Christmas Carol

DickensIn 1867, during a visit to Chicago, Charles Dickens read A Christmas Carol at a public reading. There was a man in the audience by the name of Fairbanks, who owned a factory. He was so moved by what he heard that he decided to break his tradition of being open on Christmas Day, and gave his employees the day off. Not only that, he gave a turkey to each and every employee.

We never know how the words that we speak will affect someone else, and how that can spread to affect many. Whether a literary masterpiece or a kind word spoken in secret, the tongue holds great powers of healing and encouragement.

As we begin this Christmas Season – the season of peace on earth and good will to men – may we all remember to let our words be seasoned with love, garnished with hope, and simmering with kindness and good cheer. May the love of Jesus be evident with every word we speak.

“And so, as Tiny Tim observed, ‘God bless us, every one.’”

Free At Last

Truth

As a follower of Jesus Christ, I believe, with all of my heart, the quote above. The logical converse of this truth is that, without the truth, we cannot be free. Today, I am writing to you in the interest of truth and freedom.

First of all, I would like to begin by saying that we, the American people, are the victims of fraud on an astronomical scale. Over the past 6 years, we have witnessed…

  • The national debt increase from 7 trillion to 18 trillion dollars (and rising);
  • An absolute debacle in foreign affairs, leaving us to restart a war that had already been won;
  • The murder of our Ambassador in Benghazi;
  • The beheading of American citizens by ISIS;
  • The unprecedented betrayal of Israel, one of our greatest allies;
  • The dismissal of 12 of our nation’s top military leaders;
  • The unemployment rate of African-American youth skyrocket to its highest point in history;
  • The elevation of street thugs to heroes. While my generation witnessed men of character like Jackie Robinson, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King, Jr., this current generation has been subjected to the toxic ramblings of race-peddlers, always quick to show up at the site of any potential racial tension, always quick to throw gasoline on the fire.
  • Narrative being elevated above real news. The “media elite” and left-wing press in this nation regularly editorializes what it wants a story to be, instead of the reality of the event in question;
  • A Congress that refuses to hold the President accountable for unlawfully acting against the Constitution;
  • A former Secretary of State who says that we should “empathize with our enemies”.

To empathize means to “think as they think”.

WRONG!

Jesus said “love your enemies”, meaning that love works in order to change them. If our government is going to empathize with anyone, it needs to empathize with…

  • The American middle-class that is being taxed to death while losing income;
  • Those without jobs who are desperately looking;
  • Our underpaid, under-appreciated, and under-supported military;
  • The African-American community that needs jobs, encouragement, and hope instead of empty rhetoric, violence, and death in their communities.

While America has its fair share of problems, America is NOT a racist nation. As someone who grew up in the segregated South during the 50’s and 60’s, I am personally sick and tired of allegations that portray our great nation and our fine people as being something less than what they are. I have witnessed the sweeping changes that have taken place over the last 60 years. I have been a long-time supporter of civil rights, and was present on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama when Dr. King spoke to the crowds there during the Selma-to-Montgomery march. I heard the story of how my father took a stand for a colored friend (and veteran) who could not get a driver’s license simply because he was black. I was there when it cost something to take a stand, and know first-hand what that looks like, so I am deeply troubled when race-hustlers and religious phonies take isolated incidents and try to use them to divide our great nation. I’ve grown weary of a biased news media and White House leadership that are trying to invent crises as a way of grabbing more money and power. Our military as a whole was held up to scorn and ridicule by the media because of the actions of a few renegade soldiers at Abu-Ghraib. Now, we are witnessing those in the highest seats of power attacking our first-responders… the police and national guard. To watch New York City Mayor DeBlasio throw the NYPD “under the bus” was sickening. While there are officers who do things that are questionable or wrong, the vast majority of law-enforcement personnel are men and women of integrity, and I have known, been friends with, and presided over the funerals of such brave public servants. The same criticism can be said of any occupation, including politicians. If I could, I would say to the good mayor, “Mr. DeBlasio, should the people of New York City judge you based on the lack of integrity (or criminal activity) of other politicians around our nation? With no evidence to support an assertion of guilt on your part, would it be fair to lump you in with such names as Boss Tweed, Spiro Agnew, and Rod Blagojevich?”

What I have found is this…

Praying2America is still a great country. A recent study of racism in the world revealed that, out of the 50 participating nations, the United States is one of the least racist nations in the world. In Alabama — the center of the Civil Rights movement in the ’60’s — the Crimson Tide is being quarterbacked by Blake Sims, an African-American. I have followed the career of Dr. Ben Carson, a brilliant neurosurgeon and author. According to Forbes, 7 of the 8 most powerful celebrities in entertainment and sports are African-American, including Beyonce, LeBron James, and Oprah. In our own city (which has had its fair share of racial tension in the past), I’ve watched our children’s sports leagues operate, not on the basis of race, but ability. The church I have pastored for over 35 years is racially integrated. In fact, I have been told by people of color that they do not want to be referred to as “African-American members”, but simply “members”.

Yet, many questions trouble us all these days, and the recent deaths of men such as Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin —and subsequent violence and racial division — do not represent the best of America. Certainly, these men were all too young to die, yet I am troubled by the narrative in the public arena.

In the case of Michael Brown, a young man is dead, and a young police officer has lost his career and the life he would have had. Yet, the narrative in the media seeks to make a hero out of someone who was not, and tries to give meaning to a story that is, quite honestly, a tragic moment in time. And now, we have the symbolic gesture of “hands up – don’t shoot” being parrotted by news personalities, sports figures, and politicians… a gesture that has become a rallying point, based on a false narrative (proven false by autopsy reports and witness testimony).

So, while Ferguson, Missouri burns, and the race-hustlers attempt to extend their 15 minutes of fame, spreading their poisonous ideology to other cities to incite more unrest, a darker, more sinister question is hiding in the shadows: Why are the news cameras not rolling on the streets of Chicago, Detroit, and other large urban areas in which blacks are killing blacks, whites are killing whites, Hispanic youth are losing their way, and suicide is reaching epidemic proportions? Where is the concern by the American media for the native Americans living in squalor on neglected reservations?

The problem rests in our homes, churches, and communities. It doesn’t take a village to raise a child… it takes a mother and a father investing their time and their lives in their children. It takes parents who will raise up their children to honor God, love others, respect authority, and do what is right.

Are today’s heroes to be poor street kids involved in petty crimes whose lives end far too soon?

No. Life and death must have more meaning. I think of Medgar Evers, who fought for civil rights, and believed the Gospel of Jesus. Here was a hero who was assassinated in his own driveway, but, by his death, affected civil rights around the world.

What about Rosa Parks?

What about Martin Luther King, Jr., and his belief in non-violence?

What about the courage exhibited in the life of baseball great Jackie Robinson?

Girls2There are thousands of young people of all races whose names are never called. One such young lady was Shirley Martin, the first African-American student in my high school in Alabama. She faced enormous odds, yet won a small victory for equal rights. Shirley gave up her head-cheerleader, homecoming queen status for the cause of racial integration and equality. Books will not be written about her. You won’t find her listed in Wikipedia. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson will never invoke her name. Yet she, and so many like her, are true heroes.

As sad as their stories may be, those who break the law and disrupt society are not heroes, whether they are young, old, law enforcement, civilians, famous ministers, or notorious personalities. A person who incites others to riot based on false pretense and a manufactured narrative is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”, a charlatan, and a coward. Heroes do real work, make real sacrifices, inspire real promise and hope, and champion real progress.

It is time to join hands and take a stand for truth. It is time for us to lower our hands in surrender, and reach out to help someone different than ourselves. It is time that we reject the shrill voices of hate and division, and allow the words of Dr. King to resonate in our hearts…

I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.

It is time to be free at last.

The Replacements

Remember this conversation?

Danny Kaye Phil Davis: My dear partner, when what’s left of you gets around to what’s left to be gotten, what’s left to be gotten won’t be worth getting, whatever it is you’ve got left.

Bob Wallace: When I figure out what that means I’ll come up with a crushing reply.

Bing Crosby 2

For you classic movie buffs out there, it was one of the memorable interactions between Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby from the holiday classic, White Christmas, in which Kaye plays Crosby’s comical sidekick. While most of us who love the film cannot imagine anyone but Mr. Kaye in the role of Phil Davis, the truth is that he was actually the third choice. After Fred Astaire turned down the original offer for the role, it was given to Donald O’Connor. When O’Connor had to pull out of the film due to illness, the role was re-worked for Danny Kaye.

And the rest… as they say… is history.

Fred AstaireIt sounds kind of like us. While the people of Israel were God’s chosen, because of their sin and rejection of God, He sent Jesus to be born of a virgin and open the way to life for those of us who were walking in darkness. He opened the way of Life to any and all who would believe.

Donald O'ConnorSo, even though you were not His first choice, you are His perfect fit for your role in His family… a role no one but you can fill.

Bringing the Presence to the Party

A man observed two well-dressed women having dinner in a restaurant. A cake was brought to their table, and because they were obviously celebrating a special occasion, he went over to offer his best wishes.

“What is the special occasion?” he inquired.

“It’s my son’s second birthday,” said the younger woman.

“Well, where is your son?” asked the man.

The women looked at him in amazement, and the mother replied, “You wouldn’t expect me to bring that little brat into a nice place like this, would you???”

Unfortunately, that is how much of our world celebrates the Christmas season — missing the presence of the One who is the source of peace and joy, and Who is the very reason for the holiday.

Too often, we become close with people who seem to enjoy being in our presence, only to find out later that they only want something from us. But Jesus is unselfish in His closeness to us, and His concern for us is abundant. When Jesus comes in, a new miraculous, supernatural, wonderful dimension comes upon your life.

As we celebrate this Season of Christmas, let us start now and invite the presence of the One we celebrate — the One the prophet Isaiah referred to as Wonderful — to be the focus of all we do. Let’s be sure to invite the guest of honor into the festivities, lest we lose the true meaning amidst the gifts, the tinsel, and the lights.

The group Cloverton recently performed a Christmas version of the popular Leonard Cohen song, Hallelujah. I invite you to listen to it, and let it’s beauty and truth resonate in your heart this Christmas season.

TSOCToday’s blog was adapted from book I had the honor of contributing to called The Spirit of Christmas. Other contributors to this delightful collection were John Hagee, Tommy Barnett, James Robison, John Bevere, Creflo Dollar, and Jackie McCullough. If you would like more information about how you can purchase your own copy of The Spirit of Christmas, please call  1-800-877-6493.

Lessons I Learned from The Iron Bowl… #RollTide

Being a life-long Alabama Crimson Tide fan, watching last weekend’s Iron Bowl between Alabama’s Tide and Auburn’s War Eagles was both exasperating and exhilarating. For those of you who didn’t see it, let me recap…

RTR ShirtAlabama led early, but after two quarters and two interceptions thrown by Alabama quarterback Blake Sims, the #1 ranked Crimson Tide was behind going into halftime. At the beginning of the third quarter, Sims threw yet another interception right out of the gate, which Auburn soon after turned into another touchdown.

At this point in the game, Crimson Tide fans all around the country were screaming at their TV sets for Coach Nick Saban to replace Sims with backup quarterback Jake Coker. Enough is enough! Let’s get some fresh blood in there and get something going before the game is hopelessly lost!

However, to the chagrin of many watching the spectacle, when Alabama once again got the ball, Sims ran out onto the field, ready to take his spot behind the center.

Tide fans everywhere were befuddled. Had Coach Saban lost it? Was he purposely trying to lose the game? Was this going to be a remake of Iron Bowl 2013, and the famous “Kick Six“?

Three minutes later, Sims threw a touchdown pass, closing the score gap to six points. Auburn kicked another field goal a few minutes later, and Auburn’s score began to inch up once again.

Then it happened…

Bear BryantWith a new-found confidence fostered by a coach who believed in his ability, Sims began to connect with his receivers. Over the next 15 minutes of play, the Crimson Tide scored four unanswered touchdowns, and went on to win what would be the highest-scoring Iron Bowl in the history of that rivalry… 55-44.

Now, you might be saying, “Well Pastor, congrats on your team winning, but what in the world does that have to do with anything in my life? I don’t even like football.” Bear with me a minute…

What if Coach Saban had pulled Blake Sims out of the game after his third interception, or even his second? What if Blake Sims had lost all confidence because his coach and teammates lost faith in him? What if they had switched to another plan in the middle of the game?

The fact is that Coach Saban saw something in Sims that eluded the rest of us (and probably Sims himself). He probably knew that replacing Sims would mean deviating from a plan he believed in — a plan he believed would make them the winning team at the end of the night. Trusting his instincts and what he knew and believed about Sims, he defied “reason” and the mob mentality, and chose not to throw Sims under the bus, but to show him he still believed in him.

And it paid off. At the end of the night, Alabama fans everywhere had 55 reasons they were thankful for Blake Sims.

YOU are on a team, and you have a coach named Jesus Christ. You’ve had some victories, but you’ve stumbled, slipped, thrown bad passes, interceptions, and fumbled the ball on more than one occasion. You are bruised, bloody, and beaten down. Honestly… you’re not much to look at, and people around you have serious doubts in your abilities and worth.

But you have a Coach who believes in YOU. You have someone on your side who, over and over again, will pick you up, dust you off, and send you back out there into the fray.

“Why? Is Coach Jesus just sadistic? Does He enjoy watching me get beat up every time I turn around?”

Not at all. Sure, He knows you. He sees your flaws, knows your failures, and sympathizes with your struggles.

But He also knows what you are capable of. He has a plan in which you are an integral part. Paul said in Romans…

For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance. ~ Romans 11:29

That means God’s call on your life is not dependent upon your fumbles and missteps. His calling is irrevocable, and He makes no apologies for keeping you in the game. When we think it is difficult or impossible to trust our faithfulness, He reminds us that our relationship with Him is about trusting His grace. What we have to do is trust Him, and believe in His call and His wisdom for our lives and destiny.

So cheer up! You may be bruised and banged-up, but if you are reading this now, it means you are still breathing, still full of life, and still IN THE GAME! It’s time to start believing in the One who called you, for His calling is sure, and He’s never going to be sorry He did. Game ON!

Oh, and… ROLL TIDE!

Pastor Ron

The Festival of Lights

Whether referred to as the Feast of Dedication or the Festival of Lights, the celebration of Hanukkah holds great significance for both the Jew and Christian alike. One of the main symbols of Hanukkah, the menorah, holds great symbolism as well. So, how did Hanukkah come to be? What is the historical and spiritual significance of Hanukkah? What does the menorah symbolize for the believer in Christ?

Let’s take a look…

In 167 BC, Syrian-Greco forces seized the Jewish temple and dedicated it to the worship of the Greek god Zeus. The Jewish people were, understandably, distraught, but fear of governmental retaliation kept them in check. Antiochus Epiphanes, the governor, then made the observance of Judaism a capital offense. Following that, in a move copied directly from Daniel’s experience in Babylon, the Jewish people were ordered to worship only Greek gods.

It was in the village of Modi’in that the seeds of revolt began to break through the hardened ground of apathy. It was there that Greek soldiers gathered the villagers and forced them to bow down to an idol. Then, in a move meant to pour salt on the wound, the villagers were forced to eat the flesh of a pig. It was when soldiers ordered Mattathias, the local high priest, to bow and eat that the unrest began. Not surprisingly, Mattathias refused submit. When a villager stepped forward and offered to participate on Mattathias’s behalf, the high priest drew his sword and, in a fit of rage, killed the Greek soldier and the indulgent villager. Mattathias’s five sons, along with zealous villagers, armed themselves and killed the rest of the garrison in the village.

Mattathias and his family fled the village to hide in the mountains, and other incited Jews later joined them. Eventually the revolutionaries, who came to be known as the Maccabees, were successful in taking back their city and ultimately in regaining control of the temple in Jerusalem. Mattathias, who by this time had died, had ceded leadership of the revolt to his third son, Judah Maccabee (Judah the Hammer). Judah ordered the temple to be cleansed, a new altar to be erected in place of the polluted altar of Zeus, and new holy vessels to be made. When all had been completed and the time of dedication had come, it was discovered that there was only enough olive oil to keep the light of the menorah lit, not for the full eight days, but for only one day. The priest lit the wick anyway, and the flame burned for eight full days!

In the years that followed, this became a major feast in the land of Israel. Because the word Hanukkah stems from a word meaning “to dedicate”, we find references to this feast translated in many English Bibles, not incorrectly, as the Feast of Dedication. The Jewish people commonly call it “The Festival of Lights” and that is because out of that celebration (which occurs in the winter, before Christmas) came a peculiar menorah. The traditional menorah has seven branches and illuminated the Holy Place, wherein was the table of showbread and the altar of incense. In the New Testament book of Revelation, the seven branches represent the seven churches of Asia Minor as well as the church across the years. Recall the explanation given in the Book of Revelation:

The mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches. ~ Revelation 1:20

The tradition of the nine-branched menorah comes from the eight-day miracle and the ninth mystery candle. Some rabbis believe seven of the branches represent the traditional menorah while the eighth branch represents new beginnings (which, historically, is the meaning of the number eight).

Here is a clip from our show, Ron Phillips from Abba’s House with my friend Rabbi Curt Landry, explaining the significance of the menorah…