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IMG_5801Businesses that do the best are the ones who give their customers a little extra.  It is a selling point to do something more for those who make your business happen.  This is not an old cliché, it is a pragmatic priority.

Our anniversary comes around every year.  We save to make sure that we can enjoy a wonderful meal at a classy restaurant.  Enjoying God’s blessings over so many years is a testimony to His faithfulness and goodness.

I called one of those special places for our 38th wedding anniversary. The receptionist was very pleasant.  She asked, “Is this for a special occasion?”

Without thinking, I just reacted, “Yes, we are celebrating our 38th wedding anniversary.”
“Wonderful!” she exclaimed, “Congratulations and I will make a note of that.”

We parked and waited for a small break in our standard Houston inclement weather downpour.  When a lull came, we scampered from our vehicle and trotted together under one umbrella holding on to each other while we laughed and hopped over water puddles.  Under the cover of the building eave we shook off the beaded up rain water and casually walked to the striking front entrance of the restaurant.

When I announced to the receptionist that we were there for our reservation, she checked her ledger and smiled, “Please follow me.”  The restaurant was elegant and the atmosphere was welcoming.  Every one of the staff that we passed along the way looked up and smiled with a word of welcome.

The receptionist seated us.  A standard setting at the table was appropriate.  Then, we both noticed the added feature on our table.

Scattered on our table-cloth were confetti.  Mylar figures depicting an anniversary celebration made our setting a wonderful surprise.  We both laughed, smiled and played with the pieces of different shapes, colors and enjoyed the extra sparkle from the lights and candles.

It was a simple extra.  But, it was a surprise.  They did not have to do that but we sure enjoyed it.IMG_5810

Admittedly, this dinner at Ruth’s Chris was delicious.  The chefs at this restaurant are extraordinary.  Every bite is flavorful and makes you rehearse in your soul the meaning of savor.

At the end of the meal our very friendly waiter never asked us if we would like to order dessert.  Instead, he brought out a flaming complementary dish of sweets for us to share.  It is the little extras that make a huge difference, don’t you agree?

photo credit: brucefong cellphone photography

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IMG_5677It has been months since construction has started on a key building at our headquarters campus.  My travels bring me up to Dallas on occasion and I look with expectation at the progress of the building that has captured center stage for Dallas Seminary promotional materials.  Watching a key project take shape is fun to do and gives prayers something tangible to press on to new heights.

There were many of disappointing glances in the past.  I do not know the engineering answer to those seemingly many visits when not progress was happening.  Someone mentioned that the sandy ground required a lot of shoring up and foundation strengthening.

Apparently, the foundation construction was done precisely to give not only the inspectors new confidence but also all of the Seminary constituency certainty about the future.  Now, whether earthquakes or storm or prophetic cataclysmic episode this building is built to withstand them all.  That is a good place to be in a seminary world of Biblical prophecy.

A structure is in place.  Progress is now something that we can all see.  After months and months of planning, promoting and raising the funds to make this building happen, it is finally taking shape.

Foundations are understandable.  So much is necessary to make a building last that is unseen.  Most of us get that.

But, it is human to want to see something happening.  Visual evidence makes the mind soar to greater heights of faith and belief.  On the one hand we live by faith.  On the other hand we live by sight.

Massive steel girders are connected and permanently locked into place.  Soon the building will be weather tight and the functional part of the user-friendly parts of the building will be skillfully installed.  Visually it will no longer be the appetite for a massive presence but then it will shift to quality aesthetics and brilliantly designed space.

The past is a testimony of God’s favor on this institution.  This building is a promise that there is more yet to come.  We are thrilled to be a part of that plan.

I am looking forward to walking in to this building.  When the dedication service happens, I will make the pilgrimage north to Dallas from Houston.  This will be HQ’s new digs and I among many am looking forward to seeing what God has provided.  That will be a time to rejoice and celebrate God’s generosity and goodness.

photo credit: brucefong cellphone photography

IMG_5685The pomp and circumstance were in the air.  Families and friends rolled in from miles around.  Some even landed after a long plane ride.

Each graduate had a lot to celebrate.  Graduate and post-graduate education takes a lot out a person’s soul.  It is more than just an education.

The hallowed halls of a seminary set a course for every student to master a theological theme that will prepare them for a lifetime of ministry.  They leave the seminary with skills to preach, teach and guide the lives of every kind of person that they will likely meet as a pastor or church leader.

Each one has even been trained to deal with the unruly, the unlikable and the trouble-maker.  Yes, in the ministry those kinds of unpleasant people lurk among the pews.  They have a self-imposed calling to make life difficult for the leader who shepherds the flock.

Most have even studied foreign languages, both alive and dead.  Their skills in the grammar and art form of language was won over countless nights of studying, hard disciplined memorization and endless hours of rehearsing and thinking.

Before they could graduate they had to stand in front of peers and professors and speak sermons, teach lessons and debate issues.  The spoken word is now their friend and greatest avenue of communication.  They are orators of the best kind; they speak on behalf of Almighty God, who called them to service.

Each one felt the relief when the final paper was turned in.  Smiles replaced pensive feelings of uncertainty.  Finally, the Registrar’s office gave them the good news: they were qualified to graduate!

Faculty gathered with resplendent regalia.  The colors of their robes showed off the universities where they graduated.  A variety of alma mater represented the world.

The auditorium was massive enough to have open seating and a completely free invitation.  Cheering sections formed.  Excitement filled the air with a prelude of videos and music.

But, the familiar song began the service as the faculty marched in.  The graduates were right behind them.  Everyone in the audience “ooh’ed and ah’ed” with the traditional display.

Each hard-working graduate was treated to an earful of sounds, an eyeful of ceremony and a heart-full of challenge to no longer fill a classroom.  Now, it was time to put all of that learning into action.  It was time to COMMENCE!

Congratulations, DTS Class of 2015!  God bless each and everyone of you.  Now, get going and tear it up for Jesus!

photo credit: brucefong cellphone photography

FullSizeRender-1Our church is full of variety and surprises.  Worship is never predictable or ever run-of-the-mill or boring.  Instead, a vibrancy emanates from the gathering of the saints.

Joy erupts and delight is our common experience.  It is not just an emotional release but a cheerful expression of our worship of our God.  When Jesus changed us forever our hearts are now grateful and overflowing with gratitude to Him.

One of the occasional events that spurs our variety of worship is the generational service.  Our worship people bring in the children.  They are highly rehearsed and trained.

When the majestic music begins and the children pop in with their parts of a solo, an ensemble or a choral presentation, it is easy to smile.  Their energy and devotion overflows.  Teachers and parents have brought many of these children to faith and their exuberance for their Savior is obvious.

My bride is a second grade teacher at the First Baptist Academy.  She has established a wonderful loving relationship with her little tykes.  Several of them were in the gathering of youngsters to sing at the worship service.

Eagerly each of her students took a chance to invite her to sit up front to watch and listen as they sang their hearts out to the Lord.  That is an invitation that cannot be turned down.  In fact I was given clear instructions to photograph the events with my camera phone.

Our energetic worship leader invited us to worship.  The auditorium filled with hearts that stirred to bring a gift of praise to the Lord.  All of the adult vocalists and instrumentalists were in fine form.

When the experienced and gifted lead the way for the young and neophytes there is confidence that is built into the lives of these young ones.  Like a large family surrounding the fireplace, we joined in with song and adoration of the One who has given us everything.  We felt lifted up and engulfed in something much bigger than what we could ever create ourselves.

The Spirit carried us along as we were invited and then whisked away.  Lost in the joy of expression and appreciation was this moment.  Young and no-longer-young blended voice, soul and spirits into one presentation to our solitary audience.

Eyes of those we knew on the stage was a part of a special sharing.  We were included.  Mutual appreciation was our bond before the great throne above.

photo credit: brucefong cellphone photography

11178203_10152408615652614_555981716271583104_nWe are an extension campus.  Our Dallas campus is the headquarters of this amazing ministry.  Yet, our Houston operation is growing by leaps and bounds.

We have 34 graduates this year.  They are mostly local to the great city of Houston and its surrounding region.  Most of their friends and family will have a tough time making the journey to Dallas to celebrate their commencement achievements.

To give local family and friends the chance to be a part of this substantial celebration, our extension campus has a Graduation Chapel one week prior to the central festivities up north.  We honor each graduate with a brief description of what their plans and destination is after they receive their sheep skin.  We fill the chapel service with great worship, intimate prayer, laughter, memories and special recognition of those who stood out with academic and service demonstrations.

I scanned the crowd many times during this chapel service.  The smiles were a mile wide and the tears were free-flowing.  Trying to imagine all of the answered prayers for the many years represented by these graduates is mind-blowing.

Photographs with special people were endless.  The four sheet cakes disappeared as the party spread into the foyer.  Guests drank sweet punch, returned endless times for refreshing chilled water and stopped many times along their course of walking to congratulate and exchange hugs with fellow classmates.

Previous graduates returned to cheer on their friends.  Current students marveled and told me that they had something even more to anticipate.  Relatives were overcome with the joy of reaching this end.

Children were laughing with their parents.  One mom told me that she was rehearsing her Hebrew vocabulary flash cards while in labor for the little one that she hugged next to her leg.  Life and success cannot get much more precious than this.

photo 4Gratitude is over the top on this event.  Conversations about calling, dreams about the ministry to come and deep gratitude of God’s faithfulness were common in the crowd.  With pride I watched out once students now shine as Masters of Theology, Masters of Arts and Over-comers in all sorts of adversities.

Faithful too are the staff and faculty that I am privileged to call “Team Houston”.  They are selfless, persevering and godly men and women who live to serve others.  Here on a Saturday, they are going above and beyond the call of duty to make sure that these graduates always remember this day.

photo credit: brucefong photography

FullSizeRenderAustria is a country with a rich history and filled with a people proud of their nation.  History took a horrible turn for the worst with the rise of the Nazi’s who put an unspeakably ugly grip on the European continent under the brutal demagoguery of Adolf Hitler.  Jews in the nation were persecuted, slaughtered and robbed of their personal possessions.

One of the many families that felt the excruciating oppression of the Nazis were the Altmann’s.  They were torn apart by the Nazi take-over.  As a family, survival meant some stayed behind while others fled for their lives.

While the Altmann’s fled the Nazi took over their home and stole their art treasures.  The portrait of Aunt Adele by Klimt was the center piece.  She was the sparkling painting decked in gold leaf throughout, a thorough masterpiece.

Maria Altmann has aged into her senior years when she discovers that she may have a chance of recovering her family paintings through an intricate series of hearings.  She taps a relative, he is a young inexperienced lawyer.  She trusts him and chases her dream of being reunited with what was once her family’s property.

It is an arduous legal battle. The venue for the grinding litigation starts in Austria, moves to America and finishes with arbitration in Austria.  Justice is ultimately served.

Strong performances by both lead actors drives the story.  Even the supporting roles of the Austrian patriot trying to make amends for his father’s unexplainable choices adds to the story.  The viewer is treated to a long story which is unfolded in a short movie.  It is a true story that makes anyone who is a real human being cheer for the little person.

When a wrong is corrected, then I am riveted to the story.  Set up a Goliath and his brother against a little David and I am paying attention.  Maybe governmental bureaucracy and the smug attitude of arrogant people will always get my goat.

Certainly, this one bright story among so many that are still hoping for redemption makes this victory shine so brightly.  I liked this movie.  In fact I really liked this movie and I am glad that I saw it and I recommend it to you.

Helen Mirren is a favorite. Ryan Reynolds was splendid.  Bruhl and Holmes were great supporting roles.  Now, I would take that opportunity to see the painting for myself if I am ever in the area.

photo credit: brucefong cellphone 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

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

 

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_3870It has been years…ok, it has been decades since we have longed to experience the wonderful world of Disney.  Much of our life has been on the West Coast so Disneyland has marked our lives several times.  However, Disney World in Florida has been an elusive dream.

That life list item is now a reality.  We landed in Orlando on a Sunday afternoon.  It was the fulfillment of years of  savings, failed schedules and foiled plans.

Now, we went for it.  We sent in our check and blocked out every intrusion that threatened to swallow up our vacation dates promised to Mickey.  There were a couple of close calls, but we made it to the Magic Kingdom.

At the airport cast members from Disney smiled and welcomed us on a comfortable bus.  We would not have to rent a car, figure out where to drive, how to drive or where to park.  That unique Disney friendliness was striking!

Hosts and hostesses jumped at the chance to take care of us at our hotel.  They were so friendly and well prepared to manage all of the details for our vacation.  In our hotel room, Goofy left us a welcome voice message.

Disney is a great place for kids.  It is also just a perfect for adults who still have that kid in them.  Yup, that is me!

Every where I look there are amazing things to see.  That is a certainty.  Yet, how the cast members greet and cheer on the guests is breath-taking.

Alice skipped towards me.  We have never met but our eyes connected.  She flashed a huge smile.

“Hi, Alice,” I started our conversation.
“Nice to see you,” she countered.

Next, she was surrounded by children a lot smaller than me.  So, I let the little children have their day.  The pleasure of a first-hand interchange with a Disney celebrity was too fun.

Around the bend a long line was waiting by the shoreline of the Epcot Lake.  In the shade of a grove of giant trees, I recognized the costume of a familiar character.  It was Belle from Beauty and the Beast.

From my vantage point I watched her smile, hug and give lines of great joy to children who took their turns with this famous star of the Disney family.  My camera was up and snapping photos.  It was just a fleeting moment but I wondered if that last wink was sent just to me.

photo credit: brucefong photography

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