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IMG_1493Our move to Houston had a number of priorities on our relocation list.  The normal items of finding a home, establishing myself in my new job, finding a new job for my bride and of course, finding a new home church.  This last item was not the lowest on our priority even though it comes last on my list.

During our visits to Houston we not only shopped for a place to live and find a house to buy in the area that we chose to be our home, I asked a lot questions about church recommendations.  My list for churches that others were excited about was growing longer.  Now, it was time to systematically make our visits and trust God to lead us where He wanted us to serve.

Essentials on our list for a church to call home were simple.  There was doctrinal alignment.  Worship vibrancy was on our list.  Most importantly we wanted a church home where we would be able to love our pastor, support him and his family and be a couple that he could count on as the church moved forward.

We seemed to visit churches forever.  Each time we like so much of the many very good churches in Houston.  Yet, we just could not connect with our list of essentials.

Then, we met Pastor Gregg Matte of Houston’s First Baptist Church.  He was on Sabbatical the first time we visited HFBC.  In the meantime we roamed the city visiting all of the churches that people recommended to us.

When our list ran out we heard that Pastor Gregg was back from his sabbatical.  We chose to visit.  We were blown away!

It is like meeting an old friend and connecting right off the bat.  We met for a Dr. Pepper break, he invited us to their Christmas Celebrate and after a short decision discussion, my bride and I went forward in December 2012 and joined the church.

After years of serving as a pastor, cheering on other pastors, encouraging broken pastors, standing by the side of besieged pastors we are solidly in our Pastor’s corner and doing everything we can to honor his life and ministry.  Often our friends in far away states in California, Oregon, Washington, Michigan, Tennessee ask how we like living in Houston.  Our response always includes the great reality that we love our church and our pastor.  That’s the way it should always be.

photo credit: yvonne fong photography

 

Israel 2014 IFL 055The Bible makes a detailed notation about the stone that was positioned to seal Jesus’ tomb.  No one knows where that stone is today.  Yet, it is described as one of specifics in the language of the New Testament that should encourage the hearts of all who follow Jesus.

When Jesus was crucified there is undisputed evidence that He died on Good Friday.  His suffering and beating was excruciating.  The ignominy of His death was torturous.

The Roman soldiers declared Jesus dead and therefore saw no reason to break His legs to expedite what they concluded had already been accomplished.  Just to be sure, a spear was thrust into his side and confirmed that He was deceased.  Jesus did not pass out, He did not fake His death, His body was not stolen by His disciples.

Those who loved Jesus mourned over His death.  Like a loving family they laid His body to rest in a tomb hewn out of rock.  Once His body was there a large stone was rolled in front of the opening, sealing it.

As an added measure to insure that no one would tamper with the body a professional pair of guards were posted in front of the tomb.  The seal of Rome was added to the stone so that no one would tamper with the stone upon sentence of death.  Rumors of a resurrection in three days had the unbelieving authorities guarding against any foul-play.

Then the Scriptures declare that on Sunday, the first Easter the stone was rolled away.  Grammatically, the Bible could have said that the stone was rolled away in one single definitive act.  That could have shown the power of God to counter the human measures to resist the Resurrection.  But, the Bible does not say that.

The Bible could have said that the stone was rolling away capturing the continuous action of the stone moving without any resistance against human endeavor.  But, it does not say that either.

Instead, the Bible uses language to say that the stone was rolled away and stayed that way.  Once the opening to the tomb was reopened, the Resurrection could not be stopped and the grave would never hold the Savior again.  He died and now is alive forever!

That emphatic piece of grammatical detail is a thrilling notation to the glory of Easter.  He is Risen.  He is Risen Indeed!

photo credit: brucefong photography

Israel 2008 445It was an ancient city with people living ancient cultures.  The problems were enormous.  Political figures were greedy, power-hungry, egotistical and full of self-centered pride.

Entertainment at the expense of the people was rampant.  Hostility was waiting for any excuse to erupt.  Military incursions were a daily affair.

Good people were losing hope.  Power was in the hands of officials who bent the law to satisfy their personal agenda.  Anger and intimidation overpowered reason, righteousness and love.

The world had sunk to a level where authorities would murder children to cover their own infractions and advance their influence.  Might was the premier.  Yet, the immoral posture of those in power had massive doubt.

To ameliorate the uncertainty and unrest among the population, appeasement was common place.  Bargaining to keep the general population below their boiling point was a part of the “passing the buck” and shifting blame and destroying the truth with bribery and false testimony.  Was any hope to be found for the human race so long ago?

Hope sprang eternal with a single sacrifice.  One died on behalf of the many.  It was not just a volunteer who stepped forward.

Rather it was the only one who could be a substitute for all.  Even the very wicked were represented by the perfect sacrifice of love.  Jesus, the Christ, willingly gave Himself as a substitutionary death for all.

That is Good Friday.  An ignominious death so long ago has impacted the eternity of all forever and ever.  His one submissive act to have His blood shed gave all mankind hope through the amazing grace of God’s redemption.

Yes, that is a mouthful.  However, it was that magnificent.  It was such a phenomenal act of mercy that even the world’s worst had a chance to turn, repent and believe.

That is why Good Friday is good.  It was a horrible day because of the death of the only perfect One.  Yet, it was the best event for mankind in anticipation of the new life to come.

photo credit: brucefong photography

IMG_5337Spring Break should be a special time of adventure and relaxation for two hard-working teachers. But, this year my bride is burdened with the preparation of her state certification exam and I was in middle of preparing our federal tax returns.  At least I had an ace in the whole.

For the first time since moving to Houston we were going to the Rodeo.  It is billed as the Largest Rodeo in the world.  This claim is one that I have means or interest in validating.

I just reserved our tickets and looked forward to attending.  My time on the internet got us ready with transportation plans via the shuttle system, free parking and discounts on food.  What I could not plan was the weather.

Rain was the forecast for the day we had tickets to the Rodeo.  The precision of this forecast was amazingly accurate.  It poured on this gathering of folks.

Getting into the stadium was a relief just to get out of the rain and dry off.  We were soaked to the bone and thought that a repeated venture was not too favorably received.  But, the show began and our interest was piqued.

The announcer was in fine form.  He was clearly connecting with people who knew about rodeo.  At the same time, he also formed a bond with all of us newbies.

He introduced a rodeo tradition.  It was the Grand Entry.  All of the participants rode out into the stadium and received a rousing ovation from the crowd.  70,000 people were beginning to fill the seats.

Leading the way into the stadium was a trio of riders.  One queen carried the American flag.  Another the flag of Texas.  Yet a third the Houston Rodeo flag.

Once the great cast of riders reached their spots amid great music and fanfare, the announcer introduced the Invocation.  One of the participants prayed for God’s blessing, His protection and presence and with gratitude thanked God for His wonderful blessings.  He prayed this all in Jesus’ name.

There was no apology, no hesitation, no explanation, no equal time for false religions or any protests.  It was all done in stride.  Faith in the Almighty God was a part of the lives of people at a rodeo.

Then the National Anthem was sung.  Everyone stood.  All of the men removed their hats and caps.  People sang with their hands over their hearts.  There were no protests, complaints or apologies.

God, Country and Family.  These three values are embraced and proudly promoted by the Rodeo constituency.  I like Rodeo!

photo credit: brucefong cellphone photography

IMG_4873Christmas is way too busy for us.  We are juggling work, travel, gifts, letters, projects, bills, parties and life so fast that jingling bells are hard to hear.  A lot more silent night and still the night would be welcome in our souls.

A balance is struck from a familiar favorite place.  For many Americans and world-wide Christians this is a shared respite during this hectic season.  This place is featured on Christmas cards, television shows, screen savers and ornaments.

Sometimes the scene is a snow shrouded clearing in the woods.  Horse drawn sleighs are parked in front.  Multi-colored lights transform a living tree just off to the side.IMG_4875

Often the Nativity scene is partnered with this place of comfort.  Joseph and Mary watch over the newborn baby Jesus while animals quietly look on to the miraculous scene.  Visitors flock to the sound of music coming from inside of this haven.

It is the picture of a church building.  Inside the alive church of followers of Jesus are celebrating this anniversary birth.  A Savior has been born.

IMG_4878Our busy lives pushed all of those demanding stress-causing matters out in our POV (personally owned vehicle).  I shut the doors and locked them in.  Then, my bride and I carried our Bibles and hand in hand we walked into church.

Gifted decorators decked out a tree that was gorgeous.  We did not rush by it.  Instead, captivated we stopped and admired it from several angles.IMG_4879

Once inside the auditorium the orchestra and choir and worship team blew us away.  Our spirits soared with the familiar Christmas carols.  Then stunning orchestral and choir supported anthems took our spirits and we worshipped together.  It was awesome!

A soloist made the rafters shake with her rendition of “Do You See What I See?”  We rose to our feet with great applause.  All of us could see!

IMG_4880Pastor Gregg Matte delivered an encouraging word from the Word.  He has a gift of making the truth practical.  The Spirit used it to touch so many lives.

In the end the choir and orchestra dismissed us with a majestic finale of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.  With a family like serendipitous moment the choir motioned for Pastor Gregg to join them in the loft for that final song.  All of us sounded not just “good” but “glorious” as we gave our Almighty God our collective gift of worship.  Merry Christmas!

photo credit: brucefong cellphone photography

 

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Every Thursday morning at 6:30AM I need to be at church for a gathering called Warrior’s Heart.  Several men volunteer to do the parking signs, breakfast food, coffee, table setup, name tags, registration and greeting.  My part is to teach the Bible lesson.

Since I live a good distance away, I have to leave for our gathering point by 5:25AM.  That means I need to wake up by 4:45AM.  If I do not go to bed early the night before I am going to suffer.

Many times I go to bed at the proper time but I experience a restless sleep.  My mind is going a mile a minute thinking about the lesson and making sure that I have all of my thoughts clearly sorted out.  Of course my computer for projecting the lesson on the two huge screens is essential.

When I choose to use my computer, I have to remember my power cord, my projection adapter, my remote control. Of course I need to bring my reading glasses along as well.  I wake up periodically in a fitful fog wondering if I have forgotten something or worse, if I have overslept.

Finally, I am wide awake at 4:40am waiting for my alarm clock to start its early morning chiming.  Impatient, I just reach over and shut it off.  The next thing that I realize is that I am in the shower and do not remember getting into it.

Glancing at the clock I smile.  At least my routine has me on schedule and ready to fend off the anxiety from running late.  My wonderful bride is ready to go.  We enjoy the commute together.

We carry on a great conversation on the way to work.  It is a 23 mile drive.  Neither of us remember what we talked about but it was fun while we drove into town.

I am the first to stumble walking across the street.  No, neither of us have ever been drunk but this is what it must feel like.  That is when I tell myself to pick up my feet, point my body in the direction of choice and then I can begin putting one foot in front of the other.

No one in my situation even bats an eye at this sleep walking.  We catch up on at least three extra winks before engaging people for the day. God helps me to forbid myself from signing any important papers until the weekend.  Are my eyes open or closed?

photo credit: brucefong photography

 

IMG_4620Pastor Gregg Matte sensed a deep-seated burden from the Lord.  He has been challenged by the Spirit to make prayer a reality in his personal daily practice for over the last year. In his intercession God impressed on his heart a rallying of the pastors of our city to gather and to pray.

He sent out an invitation for pastors to meet for prayer in his office on a Thursday in November.  The simple agenda was to prayer together for the city of Houston.  Remember this gathering for pastors and ministry leaders was planned a month and a half in advance.

The week of the pre-planned event, the city of Houston became world news.  Houston’s mayor had sent out a subpoena to five local pastors.  Each of these ministers were ordered to hand over all sermons that spoke on homosexuality or mentioned the mayor.

The Christian community was shocked.  But, they were not shocked into compliance or frightened into submission.  Instead, the pastors rose up and stood together.IMG_4619

Senator Ted Cruze joined the pastors who gathered in Pastor Gregg Matte’s office.  He never knew that this was part of God’s providential plan.  But, the time was perfect.

The media came to cover this galvanizing event, historic in American church history.  Pastors normally humbly compliant and supportive of our God-ordained governmental officials, drew a line in front of their pulpits.  No governmental intimidation or control over the message of God delivered in the name of His Son would be tolerated.

IMG_4621Over 50 pastors packed into Pastor Gregg’s office.  He directed the prayer session to pray for our mayor, protect the church and move on the local government to rescind their directive of control over the pulpits of the city.  We broke up into groups of 4-6 and prayed up a powerful time of intercession and supplication.

After an hour of prayer we moved downstairs to stand in solidarity before the news cameras as Senator Cruze addressed the media.  Clearly he spoke courageous words of freedom, liberty and religious autonomy. God’s servants had a right to speak the words of God without governmental oversight or control.

God’s calling was the sole directive in the words spoken in American pulpits.  Furthermore, it was a liberty written in our own Constitution.  The scene of pastors from different denominations, various ethnic backgrounds and multi-generational was powerful.

They stood together with the common bond of Christ among them.

photo credit: brucefong photography

IMG_4366Friday night was reserved on our calendar.  When we approached the weekend we talked over our plans, reviewed the events and talked about how meaningful these days would be.  Then the making of a wonderful blessing began.

Friday night was a highlight for us.  We headed out on time to beat the traffic.  Our destination was a simple eatery on the other side of the freeway from our church.

Tonight we were going to the celebration of the ten-year anniversary of our pastor and his family at our church.  It is amazing to consider an entire decade of service for our pastor and his family.  He even stuck around when he succeeded a three decade stint by his predecessor.

Thousands of cheerful supporters filled the church building.  The worship was powerful.  Love was all over the place.

When our pastor was invited up to the platform, the applause was enthusiastic and sustained.  His smile was broad.  His family was basking in a massive display and expression of love.

For a moment I felt for all the pastors who have never experienced that outpouring of devotion.  They have served faithfully only to be beaten down by those who criticize, hold secret gatherings, complain anonymously and mete out miserly compensation.  Do not be one of those.

Nevertheless, these shepherds tirelessly serve, constantly study and face heartbreaking moments where they were the sole source of encouragement.  Their faithfulness slipped by the notice of most and was remembered in detail only by God.  He knows all and never forgets.

There are always those who point to bad ministers.  However, those few are small in number compared to the neglected in ministry.  Encourage your pastor, give your heart to him.  Yes, discern wisely but embrace him with love and encouragement.

We had great conversations with people around us that evening when we honored our pastor.  His personality has been pervasive in our lives.  Warmth, welcome and cheer are ways that he addresses us and so we do the same with each other.

God is blessing our pastor with a powerful ministry in our city and beyond.  His teaching is Biblical, balanced and practical.  People take notes and live what they taught.

Gifts of affection were bestowed.  Flowers filled the arms of his wife.  Each of his children enjoyed holding on to a special memento.

Humility, humor and honesty marked his words.  We love our pastor and his family!  Encourage your pastor and watch what God will do.

photo credit: brucefong photography

IMG_4348There is a love affair that many have for the game of baseball.  The diamond, the pitch, the hit, the bunt, the double-play and the stats fuel the imagination.  It is a gathering time for family and friends as well.

This game was special for many.  The Houston Astros and the Texas Rangers were meeting for the second of a three game match-up. It is called the Texas Showdown.

Minute Maid Park was filling up with not just baseball fans but a large gathering of saints from Houston’s First Baptist Church.  Our pastor, Gregg Matte, was scheduled to throw in one of the ceremonial pitches to start the game.  When he was introduced, there was a roar from the crowd.  All of us wearing our blue Houston’s First T-shirts were enjoying our reason for coming to the ball game.

We set aside our popcorn and Cracker Jacks, stood to our feet and applauded our shepherd.  He strolled on to the field holding hands with his daughter, Valerie.  She nearly stole the show with her perfect grade school blond curls and delightful smile.

The national anthem was sung right after that ceremonial pitch.  Houston’s First Baptist Singers took the field and filled the stadium with perfect harmony and stirring words.   Our nation with its countless problems, despondent citizens, world crises needs a large dose of hope and these talented singers gave us a taste of a very good elixir.

Our Astros took to the field with all of the traditions of our national sport.  The Rangers were up to bat first as the visiting team.  They were smarting from the loss they were handed by the Astros the night before.

This night they would have their revenge. They trounced the Astros by a painful margin.  But, that is baseball.

No one wins them all.  When professionals who hit only 250 out of every 1000 pitches are doing well, then disappointments are not uncommon.  Pitchers who can throw a ball over 90 miles an hour and hit within a 12 inch diameter target every time stun the crowd with their talent.

God made everyone of us.  Some sing, some are athletes and other cheer on both while spilling soda and chomping down peanuts.  It is an amazing game for the widest possible audience.

In between innings we visit, laugh at the big screen and let cotton candy melt in our mouths.  Our great country is still pumping out goodness.  The good Lord Almighty is still blessing our Land.

photo credit: brucefong photography

Israel 2014 IFL 401There is a military presence in Israel that we do not experience in America.  Modern warfare and international threat are a part of an Israeli’s daily routine.  They go about their errands and travels without distraction from the weaponry and what those trappings of war could mean in a day that has the potential to erupt into violence.

On my tour I have subtly glanced at the presence of soldiers who were around.  When a man in fighting fatigues is in my vicinity and he is heavily armed for an altercation, I take notice.  Yet, there is something unique about Israel and its presence for battle.

You can look exclusively at the weaponry or you can look into the faces of the soldiers.  The guns and ammunition tell you that these soldiers are ready to fight.  They are colleagues who will fight together and for each other.

Yet, their collegiality supersedes their armament.  There is calm in their countenance.  A joy is pervasive among these young combatants.

They are not nervous about carrying weapons into a crowded square, packed with people from all around the world.  Locals mix in with pilgrims are part of the gathering that these sentinels are to guard from harm.  A successful sense of calm and security come with the presence of these warriors.

Israel 2014 IFL 402Each one carries his armament like he is comfortable with them.  That confidence comes from splendid training and experience.  Preparation like that gives us visitors a peace that frees us to enjoy our visit.

At the same time that sense of peace is held in check.  The very presence of the military reveals that the threat to peace is ever-present.  Contrasting political views vie for dominance.

Some want only peace and have proven their willingness to coexist.  Others are not so gracious.  That tension is the basis for placing these soldiers in our presence.

The spiritual world is the same.  We are surrounded by the trappings of spiritual conflict.  There is an invisible yet clear presence of an enemy who is constantly attempting to derail those in pursuit of righteousness.

We have been given the equipment to battle successfully against the wiles of the Devil.  They are listed for us as pieces of armor.  Each item is effective but we need to practice, train and utilize them until we are comfortable with them.

Our battle calls for truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, Word and prayer.  These are for our protection.  Are we comfortable with each and all?  Being prepared for war is wisdom.

photo credit: brucefong photography

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