The Gift

I received a gift in 1975 that changed my life forever. I was a young boy when Saigon, South Vietnam fell.

Fearing the take over by the North Vietnamese, Saigon practically emptied, with evacuation of troops, government, and civilian personnel, including many Vietnamese. In April 1975, President Gerald R. Ford ordered Operation Babylift, which would evacuate nearly three thousand orphans out of South Vietnam. A C-5A Galaxy plane later crashed, killing 138 passengers and hurting morale of the troops, but this did not dampen the resolve of the international community and the U.S. government. President Ford ordered American involvement in another operation. This one called “Operation New Life,” which resulted in evacuation of 110,000 Vietnamese refugees.

Most of those refugees traveled through Guam, and the majority made their way to the U.S. and some to Fort Chaffee in Arkansas.

I’ve never been to Vietnam, but in 1975, at Christmas, Saigon came to me and my family in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. With Operation New Life in full swing in 1975, I never imagined New Life would come to my hometown, to my living room, and I would be changed.

Christmas the year before, in 1974, was an eventful one. Up to that time, the biggest thing in my life was getting great Christmas gifts! I wanted something loud and dangerous, to the consternation of my mother.

There I am on the front yard, down on Mission Road where we lived, and my brother is handing me the gift, and he’s ecstatic, his hair is standing up, he’s just removed a helmet and pushed it down on my head, and he hands me the handle bars and there I am holding the prized gift of all gifts for a seven year old boy: a mini bike.

So I do what you’re supposed to do. I rev the engine with the throttle . . . and the mini bike begins to move. But there’s a problem . . .

I have not mounted the bike. I’m standing next to it . . . and the mini bike begins to move. So I do what I have to do. I move with it, slowly at first, then I pick up speed.

Now I’m running, trying to keep up with the mini bike. How can I jump on? I do not realize there is an option to let off the throttle and just stop it. Faster, Faster, I’m running, I’m sprinting now, I’m crying out for my brother to catch me, help me!

I can’t keep up, the mini bike is too powerful, too fast for my little legs. My brother says, “Let gooooo!” and I think he means the mini-bike itself. He means the throttle. Let off the throttle!

So I do what I have to do . . . I let go, of the whole shooting match. I let the mini bike go and stand there in the middle of the yard and watch the mini bike finish the trip, like a riderless horse.

The mini bike continues on down the slope and over a brick retaining wall several feet high. My hands are on my helmet as if I’d just thrown an interception in the Super Bowl’s last minute. What have I done? The gift for our whole family, the kids, the neighbors, the cousins.

My brother and I walk over to the mini bike to examine it for damage. Looks like nothing shattered. Maybe it’s OK. Then we pick it up and look at the front fork. It’s bent. I tear up. I’ve ruined Christmas for my brother and the rest of us. I’ve ruined our gift on the first day.

To ride the mini bike straight down the road from that day on, you turned the handle bars at a 20 degree angle.

I’ll never forget hiding behind the Christmas tree that night, sulking, warming my hands on the big red and green Christmas tree bulbs on the tinder box of a live Christmas tree. The bulbs were 6000 degrees Kelvin and yet another Christmas miracle occurred that year that fire did not engulf that tree spontaneously each night as the bulbs heated up.

And it was in that living room with the sculptured shag carpet, the gold threaded ivory drapes, the first-ever totally electric house in the city, a house so modern it prompted my mother to be quoted in the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise newspaper, a modern housewife they called her, and she said, “I go from room to room pushing buttons.” We mimic that quote, quite literally, to this day.

In that living room was a meeting that would change my life . . . and it had nothing to do with a mini-bike . . . that wasn’t the gift that changed my life. Another gift came in the form of a family who traveled across the world.

They had come as part of a mass evacuation called Operation New Life . . . some of the 90,000+ who’d made it from South Vietnam, through Guam, and received asylum in the United States . . . made it as far as Fort Chaffee in Arkansas. Then a friend of my dad’s urged him to sponsor a Vietnamese family. My father and mother have devoted their lives to helping those with little or no hope, the poor.

So Christmas 1975, in that living room where I had worried so much about a hunk of metal, the twisted mini-bike, a family came from across the world and entered our lives and changed me in ways I am trying to explain, but I would never be the same.

This was my first experience of people from another culture. The family who came to our house that day in 1975 is named “Vu.” They were mother, father, grandparents, and many children.

I remember the faces of the Vu family. I remember their faces didn’t look like mine. Their eyes were slanted. Or were my eyes the ones slanted? Their skin was a different color. They spoke a language I didn’t understand. But they didn’t understand my language, either. The Vus, in 1975, that Christmas were the first Asian family I’d ever met.

I remember going to the Vu’s downtown apartment. That’s where I ate my first eggroll.

During those turbulent years my family loved a Vietnamese family. And they loved us. They kept feeding us eggrolls. Our two very different families treated one another with respect and concern and love. Many of the Vu family still live in the United States and on occasion we’ll get a Christmas card from them and hear they are doing well.

As an eight-year-old child in 1975, I thought that mini-bike was the most important machine on the planet. I remember quietly moping next to our Christmas tree, thinking I had committed a terrible offense by wrecking our family’s motorbike. But my parents reminded me that the mini-bike was only rubber and steel. They reminded me of this fact by welcoming the Vus to sit by our Christmas tree with us. That’s where I looked at their eyes and watched them open the presents our family had given them.

I’ll never be the same after that visit and our visit to the Vu family home. I learned three things that Christmas in 1975:

  1. I learned that Christmas means helping someone desperately in need. Jesus entered a desperate world, and my parents showed love and received love from people desperate for a new life.
  2. I learned that eggrolls are good to eat.
  3. I learned that giving alone is not what Christmas is about. Christmas is first about learning how to receive, then you become a great giver.

Jesus first received flesh and blood, says John 1:14-18. He received food and clothes and was taught how to pray by his mother. He received the Holy Spirit. He received bread and fish from a little boy first before he gave fish and bread. He received a foot washing long before he washed feet. Jesus teaches us to receive. So Christmas is a good time to learn how to receive grace of God through the thoughtful gifts of our loved ones. When we grow in the grace of receiving, we learn something vital about God. Giving, doing good works, follows receiving the incredible gift of grace.

Maybe that’s partly what pointed me toward faraway lands like Uganda, where I worked as a missionary for seven years with a church planting team. With all its sugar cane and tropical plants and heat, Uganda looks and feels a lot like Vietnam. In Uganda I learned to eat food unlike what I grew up eating. I learned to keep the throttle low and my defensive driving skills high. And I learned that giving to those who are desperately in need is what I’m called to do as a follower of Christ. Maybe I went to Uganda because my parents taught me early in life that the motorbike was just rubber and steel, but the people of Vietnam and Uganda and the United States are all God’s creation.

And what I received in Uganda is another life-changing experience. I will truly never be the same after living in Uganda with my wife, Jill, and three children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. We loved and were loved by our wonderful Ugandan friends. My parents taught me at an early age how to make and be friends with people very different from us, from far away, who had come in Operation New Life. We, too, received New Life through their friendship.

I still eat eggrolls every chance I get, but these days I try to stay off motorcycles. But more four decades later, one of my best memories of Christmas is watching Vietnamese children open their presents and remembering the day I learned that to give may be more blessed than receiving, but we have to receive first. And Christmas with the Vus was about friendship of receiving and giving.

And those early childhood memories of my father’s and mother’s love shown to a Vietnamese family stick with me, because the Vus gave to us as well. I hope one day my three children will remember something I did to serve a Ugandan or American or anyone desperately in need. But even more than that, I hope my children know how desperately we all need grace, how we all need to receive love and grace of God before we really know how to give good gifts.

May your Christmas be filled with the same grace and truth that Jesus was filled with, that he received. May joy and memories of lessons learned and people who have blessed your life as my Dad and Mom, true servants of Christ, planted in mine by loving–and being loved by–a family of Vietnamese refugees. I didn’t know how to ride a mini-bike but I was paying attention to the coming of New Life.

Txt: When are you coming home?

Tonight is the first real “waiting up” night in my parenting career. Ashley recently got her license, is driving and is coming home from a concert with her friend.

So I get to experience what my parents went through when I said, flippantly, “I’ll be home when I get there.” Of course this was said in jest but there were no cell phones to check in with, for parents to call or TXT, “When are you coming home?”

It doesn’t feel as worrisome to me right now as it does annoying. I want to go to bed but can’t. That’s sleep deprivation and classifies as mild torture.

My prayer for the evening is not simply that my daughter come home safely but that what she is learning by independence will form her as a great and responsible adult. If you count your 16-year-old’s age in days, that’s about 5,840 days of chances we as parents have had to teach responsibility in our children by the time they drive.

For parents of teens who are trying to learn Facebook, enjoy today’s Zits cartoon.

It’s OK to say “Happy Holidays”

A couple years ago a blogger or purveyor of email forwards had many Christians in an uproar about Lowes and other retailers saying “Happy Holidays.”

This is an unfortunate reason for Christians to once again look like we don’t know what we’re talking about.

The etymology of Holidays comes from “Holy Days.” The word originally meant any religious holy days.

According to Wikipedia, “Holiday originally referred only to special religious days. In modern use, it means any special day of rest or relaxation, as opposed to normal days off work or school. The word derived from the notion of “Holy Day,” and gradually evolved to its current form.”

It’s OK for Lowes, businesses, individuals to say Happy Holidays. And we don’t have to boycott or denigrate or think them any less because they do. Say what you want. If you want to wish people Merry Christmas, do so. But Happy Holidays is like saying, “Happy Holy Days.”

The same thing has happened with Halloween. The word comes from “All Hallows Eve.” Hallow means holy. This was and still is the “Eve” of “All Saints Day,” November 1. What many Christian churches have done is to name their events, “Harvest Festival” or “Fall Festival.” Know what? This was what the church was trying to get away from when they designated All Saints Day. Pagans were doing harvest festivals to venerate spirits of the dead, so Christians started their own way of remembering Christian saints.

So now churches have started calling their Holy Eve events the name for pagan ceremonies of old. I understand the spirit of it, but it’s not very wise. Those who Christians want to influence for the cause of Christ who have studied world history, religions, can likely see the irony, and so should we. I understand Christians are trying to put distance between ourselves and the dark side of events like Halloween.

But we also ought to think more deeply about what we believe and not allow email forwards (and blogs like mine, right!) tell us what to think. Think for yourself. Respond to this blog and tell me what you think, but don’t let the blogosphere and email forwards do your theology and thinking for you.

Oral Roberts, 1918-2009, “A Giant of the Christian Faith”

ORU President Mark Rutland called Oral Roberts a “Giant of the Christian faith.” Here is a “Giant of the Christian Faith” pictured with the “King of Rock-n-Roll” in a file photo posted by the Tulsa World today

Oral Roberts Dies | by Bill Sherman, Religion Editor, Tulsa World

Oral Roberts believed God can heal today, that we should give as if planting a seed and expect to see a harvest of blessing, that God does big things, and Roberts wanted to lead and be a part of that kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Roberts died at 91, and he has been preaching for seven decades, and he is known and respected worldwide by millions who have watched in awe of his faith, his courage to pray for what God can do rather than simply saying there’s nothing he can do.

I grew up thinking Oral Roberts was weird and suspect for his doctrines, but mainly for his claims on raising the dead and money. In the late 80s he is infamous for saying if he didn’t get $8 million the Lord might call him home. He got more than $8 million, and some criticized him for his tactics and outlandish claims, but few criticized his passion, his desire to heal the whole person.

God has turned my life upside down since those days growing up and viewing Oral Roberts as suspect and odd, to now wondering what made him do what he did. I’m impressed with his grand dreams and calling. How was the Holy Spirit leading him? What did he do that was not of the Holy Spirit that he himself might say was ill-advised. I know he would claim mistakes.

Bill Sherman is a very competent and skilled Religion Editor of the Tulsa World. His featured article on the front page of today’s Tulsa World is both a fitting tribute and an important historical piece. I appreciate Bill and his perspectives that he brings to the religious community in Tulsa.

Oral Roberts Dies | by Bill Sherman, Religion Editor, Tulsa World

Is Tiger Woods the biggest athlete to “fall into grace”?

ESPN featured a recent discussion of Tiger Woods with the caption on screen that said something like this: “Is this the biggest athlete ever to fall from grace?”

While Herm Edwards may not have answered that question in particular, he emphasized that Tiger Woods needs a mentor, someone to tell him the truth. His recent statement shows someone did tell him the truth about the need for forgiveness and Woods asked for that forgiveness and space to repair, if possible, damage done in his family.

But what I want to say is something ESPN is not designed to talk about and that many who use the phrase “fall from grace” ever think about.

Do we really “fall from grace”? Wouldn’t we rather fall into grace? Those who fall into grace have been on pedestals and for the most part inappropriately idolized. Isn’t the fall from the pedestal and from ostensible perfection?

A youth minister of mine, Fred Edens, was the first who defined grace that I can remember, and I’ve remembered that definition ever since. He said “Grace is something we desperately need but don’t deserve, and we receive it anyway.”

What we do with that gift of grace is incredibly important. The Apostle Paul gives one of the most classic and important teachings on grace in Ephesians 2:1-10. He said people who did not deserve grace were offered it anyway, and their response ought to be one of unending joy in this gift, praise to God, and devotion to do what honors this giver of grace. We’re saved by grace through faith so that we can do good works for God.

Tiger Woods is a child of God, and he needs grace. We all do. So the phrase is not that Tiger Woods has “fallen from grace.” Tiger Woods has fallen into grace. But our culture doesn’t forgive easily–not without demanding with prurient interest the juicy details. Are we really interested in the truth, so that we can forgive? Or are we just living such boring lives that we need to fill them with stories of famous people and their transgressions?

Tiger Woods lost a sponsor this week in Accenture because they no longer see him as the right person for their advertisements about winning integrity. Woods has fallen from integrity and perfection. He knows he’s not perfect and says so. Woods has fallen off the pedestal, not from grace.

And through all this, if Woods discovers the amazing grace of God in a powerful way, he’ll discover that God’s grace is longer than his drive. Tiger Woods has not fallen from grace. Woods has fallen into grace.

East Tulsa Turf Tour

Today, Saturday December 12 at 1 pm we’ll take an “East Tulsa Turf Tour” with many from the student ministry and Zach Smith from Dry Bones Denver. We’ll see places where darkness has come and ask God to open our eyes to where the kingdom can break in and light can penetrate those dark places.

I’ve experienced and participated in “Turf Tours” in three places over the years, and we’re about to add a fourth in East Tulsa.

Mike Cope introduced a few of us at Harding in the 80s to a “prayer tour” and in later years our mission team in Uganda developed a “Jinja Tour” out of Mike’s idea.

Dry Bones Denver has a powerful “Turf Tour” in downtown Denver. In all the examples, participants are taken by foot or public transport to dark places in the city. Prayers are lifted up, words are exchanged about how light can penetrate the darkest places in the city.

The tours are about awareness but most of all about opening our eyes to see where the kingdom of God may break in today.

Advent Readings

If you’d like to do a weekly Advent reading with your family, here is one example and you can find several other weekly readings here.

Advent is a time to prepare ourselves for the celebration of Christ coming into the world, and a time to prepare ourselves for Christ’s second coming.

Read and Meditate
Isaiah 35:1-10; Luke 1:47-55; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11.

Discuss and Do
Live simply that others may simply live. –Ghandi

How can you live out this above saying, individually or as a family?

For that person who has everything—you can never think of anything to buy for him or her . . . Have you considered giving that person the gift of your time?

What about a donation to a charity in the name of the person to whom you are giving a present? Consider giving to

Make a gift for Jesus
Make something with your hands, write a poem of praise, create something.

Wrap up this creation and put it under the Christmas tree or make a stocking for Jesus.

O Come All Ye Faithful

Danny 191

My son played flag football a couple of years ago and we noticed an overweight coach for the other team. We didn’t know his name until he came on the biggest loser. We didn’t connect him with the guy we saw at the flag football field till he said he was a flag football coach in Broken Arrow and couldn’t run on the field with his son’s team.

Now he can. Danny is the Biggest Loser winner and an amazing story. He lost more than half his weight and now weighs less than me! OK, I’m going on the Danny 191 diet. Gotta reach at least 191 by the end of the year. I hope I see him around town when he comes back from Hollywood to congratulate him and to watch him run on the field with his son next time he coaches.

Congratulations, Danny.

We’re also happy for another local and fellow minister, Sean Algaier, who lost more than a third of his body weight and is not finished. I heard he ran in the Route 66 Marathon. That’s a fantastic accomplishment, and we are very proud of you, Sean.

The Bull and the Bear

Do you know any Muslim people or people from another culture who are your friends?

Jews by the first century had developed an understanding of the world that they should not associate with non-Jews, and this even carried over to the early Christians, as Peter noted when explaining his experience with Cornelius (Acts 10:28). But Peter then realized that God does not show favoritism (Acts 10:34). The disciples were realizing that the gospel was available to all.

Today, with social networks and Christian directories and the Christian sub-culture, and a rising tide of thinking that our nation should be a Christian nation and other voices are not welcome, we are in danger of denying this principle: God does not show favoritism, and our mission is to proclaim boldly the gospel of Christ to all, including Muslims, Buddhists, Secularists, Hindus.

Is it possible to be friends, to engage in open dialogue with people of different faiths and cultures and to proclaim the resurrected Lord Jesus? I believe it is, that we should try, that our gospel should be for all and not constantly preached in such a way that only the insiders, the indoctrinated can understand it.

There are many good resources about different cultures and religions and how to interact and share our faith. Below is link or video to Dr. Ivan Satyavrata’s presentation at an Assembly of God conference about taking the gospel to what he calls the “Bull and the Bear.”

Then below is a link to a review I did for Christianity Today, “The Next Evangelicalism” by Soong-Chan Rah, and finally, I review a book that describes radical Islam for some counterpoint.

Rocking the White Citadel

Dr. Ivan Satyavrata video

Inside the Revolution
Joel C. Rosenberg. Tyndale, $24.99 hardcover (518p) ISBN 978-1-4143-1931-5

Known best for his fiction centered in Middle East and based in Christian dispensational premillenial eschatology, Rosenberg’s non-fiction behemoth will be a best-seller for Evangelicals and is one of the best primers on understanding the backgrounds of radical, reformer, and revivalists Islam for this readership today. Rigorous research, travel, and interviews with hundreds of top level world leaders, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian lends credibility to this survey of the spectrum of beliefs that drive foreign policy in nations such as Iran, on which the book focuses.

Rosenberg’s grave warning is that radical Islamists belief that “Islam is the answer; Jihad is the way” and will stop at nothing short of dominating the world or destroying those who believe otherwise. “They must either be converted or killed,” he says, and “while we fear death, they embrace it.” Reformers, such as the first-ever democratically elected president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, and the late Benazir Bhutto, are reformers who believe radical Muslims have hijacked peaceful Islam for their own fascist, power-hungry and violent ends. Revivalists are those Muslims or those living in predominantly Muslim countries who believe Islam is not the answer and Jihad is not the way but that Jesus is the way.

Rosenberg challenges Islamic eschatology without directly and adequately comparing parallel Christian eschatology, or views of the end times that can be equally offensive and impact foreign policy in unjust ways—such as favoring Israel, even when they seem to others to act violently, because the nation figures into the author’s particular beliefs of end time prophecies. On the other hand, Rosenberg is one of the few who will put quotes from the Qur’an in context, has widely traveled and interviewed global leaders, and this is one of the most fair and even-handed and accessible manuals for understanding twenty-first century world politics and their religious motivations that Christian readers will find this year.

The Holy Spirit is not what you think it is

I’m preaching on the Holy Spirit and learning more and inviting the Spirit’s presence more into my life, family’s life, and church’s life than I ever have.

Holy Spirit Sermon Audio

There is so much to learn and live about the Holy Spirit. Is the Holy Spirit a person like God the Father and the Son? If the Holy Spirit is a person, then how do we interact with the Spirit? Do we have a human spirit and the Holy Spirit also inhabits us? What is the work of the Holy Spirit? What has the Spirit done through the biblical story, from Genesis on? Does the Holy Spirit convict us of sin? How can we sin against the Holy Spirit?

These are just a few of the many questions that I’ve sought wisdom about, on behalf of the congregation. I’m not “answering,” them, nor am I just covering them as FAQs, but instead taking texts from Old Testament to New Testament in order starting from Genesis to discover through these narratives how the Holy Spirit has acted and continues to act today. Last week I even re-titled a book, “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” A church father had named “Acts of the Apostles” but it seems more appropriate to title it for the main character that’s mentioned nearly 50 times: The Acts of the Holy Spirit. I don’t count on the name catching but it’s worth a try!

From the beginning I’ve sought to be guided by the Bible but not in the sense of the “word-only” view that the Spirit works only through the teachings of the Bible. The Spirit blows where it wants (John 3), and God’s Spirit acts and speaks powerfully today. But the Holy Spirit is not what you think it is, nor what I think it is. I’ve tried to interact with what Scripture says the Spirit does and how Christ interacted with the Spirit and the Spirit has created, empowered, led, counseled, raised up Christ and does the same for us. The Spirit is not just what we think it is but what the Bible says the Spirit is and does, and we live into that.

In this series, I’m calling for what Tim Woodroof calls, “the Spirit for the rest of us.” In other words, with the “word-only” view on one side and Charismatics on the other, what is a middle way? A middle way for those who believe the Spirit is more active than just in word-only sense but may also be hesitant to take all of Charismatic teaching, such as tongues speaking. I believe there is a middle way, and a way to let the Spirit blow where it wants.

There’s something in each of these three views that’s of value. The word guides us in our exploration of the Spirit. Tongues are a reality and Paul never denied that in his letters or teachings, but he regulated them by love. And even a middle way is not intended as a rut but in this middle way there is an openness to the boundaries of Scripture on one side and the passion of the Charisma on the other. So in our community, we can open the Bible and invite the Spirit to direct us, convict us, counsel us anew. And that’s what we’re trying to do.

Here are a couple books that have been super helpful in learning and living the Holy Spirit life, one older, one very new.

Lehman, Chester K. The Holy Spirit and the Holy Life. Herald Press, 1959

Satyavrata, Ivan. The Holy Spirit: Lord and Life-Giver. IVP Academic, 2009

Willie Franklin’s holy kiss

I met Willie Franklin many years ago at a youth rally. He was not as much a speaker as he was a Spirit-filled Energy everywhere he went. He crushed your hand when he shook it, looked you right in the eye and asked you if you really had a relationship with Jesus. Had you been baptized? What are you living for? He sang, he lifted people over his head. In short, to a pre-teen, he was a Super Hero.

Willie Franklin is quoted in this month’s Christian Chronicle:

“The world, period, is a mission field.”

The story, by Eric Tryggestad, reporting from the Annual World Missions Workshop that skips yearly to different Church of Christ universities, goes on to say that Franklin “makes a point to meet–and kiss–20 men each day and tell them about Jesus.”

“Whenever I go to Walmart, my wife knows I can be five minutes or five hours, because I don’t go just to get groceries,” Franklin said.

Now that I think about it, Willie Franklin must have planted a kiss on my forehead back in 1982. He also planted enthusiasm for Jesus in my heart.