Your Cheatin’ Heart

will the circle

Once upon a time I was from Nashville, TN or Music City, USA. A fine place to live, if you ask me, with plenty of good food, pretty scenery and happy tunes of all varieties.  While it has grown up and become sophisticated through the years, Nashville is still built on music from all over the South (AKA country music). Country music is about trucks and tractors, old dogs and new women, beer and butter beans, and of course “Amazing Grace” and “Whiskey River.”  This kind of music tells a story and apparently the details of growing up country don’t change regardless of the decade or the demographic. Those details are consistent no matter the time or place.

There is one other important theme in country music, and that is reflection. Most often an artist will reflect on days gone by and a time that has past. That reflection will cause a bit of nostalgia to creep into the heart and mind of the hearer and perhaps induce additional reflection. It is entirely possible that an artist from Oklahoma can sing about teenage love gone wrong and stir memories from twenty years ago in the heart/mind of a banker in Louisiana or a farmer in Indiana. Well written lyrics and rhythm can create a powerful concoction of emotions from something we messed up or someone we miss. No other genre takes us back to and keeps us in yesterday like country music does.

That is… with the exception of scripture.

“The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”    (Numbers 11:4-6)

The children of Israel were in the desert under extreme circumstances, but they were free from Pharaoh and from Egypt’s slavery.  They were on a journey with their God who had brought them out and was leading them as a freed people towards a promised land and a promising future. The Israelites, although freed, had not reached their destination and were not quite settled on what that destination may be like for them. Yet, in their freedom they could only think of what “used to be.”  While they were not in bondage any longer, they felt bothered by the lack of provision made for them on this journey across the desert. As they ate the daily manna Israel remembered the good food in Egypt and how great life was back there. It was easy to crave the taste of Pharaohs generosity “back then” when life was so difficult, so plain, so not what they expected.  This wouldn’t have happened in Egypt because Pharaoh would have provided.

Except he didn’t.

You can’t reasonably expect me to believe that Pharaoh who cut the ration of straw for brick production while demanding double the bricks gave his slaves food worthy of serving at a master’s table. At best the Hebrew children were given the scraps from Pharaoh’s table and I find even that hard to believe. Israel worked as hard to scrounge food as they did to make bricks Maybe even harder since you can eat bricks. They let their miserable memory and the “influence of the rabble” impact their ability to recall the realities of what life as a slave in Egypt had been like. It was miserable. It was harsh. It included hunger, humiliation, and hopelessness. And now it included lamenting a memory that wasn’t even true. They were reflecting on something they thought was great but paled in comparison to what God was leading them to and what He was already providing. I happen to believe that the manna and quail given each day may have been better than a Paula Deen casserole or a Bobby Flay BBQ.

Don’t let your past be the standard by which you measure the present quality of life. Don’t live in yesterday when today is here and tomorrow is waiting. Don’t be fooled to think that life was better when it was simpler or easier, because you would not and could not settle for such a simple life now that you are all grown up. Don’t let your cheatin’ heart lead you into loving a memory that never occurred.

Instead, let today be a day where you trust God to give the very food you need to survive in life and to lead you to a place of promise that is flowing with milk and honey. Manna and quail, milk and honey, items that Pharaoh never had and could have never provided were tastes that Israel had never enjoyed, but were born to experience. Likewise, peace and joy, happiness and wholeness, love and affirmation, all things God is offering today. Will you take them freely from His hand? Will you live in/towards the land waiting for you to enter into as a dear child? Will you forsake the memories and addiction to the past in exchange for the glory of a God who points us towards the future?  Will you choose life in God’s kingdom – full and free – rather than a slave’s role in Pharaoh’s empire?

Faith Takes:

  • Hardships will sometimes cause us to hallucinate on the past. Don’t be a fool living in the fantasy of something that really wasn’t.
  • “Rabble” may be a person, a past experience and/or an attitude in our life that tempts us to not trust God and not find contentment in His provision.
  • Today you will be confronted by the rabble in your life and you will likely be rabble for someone else. Just say no to either posture. God has created us for a glorious future and a gracious today.

For September 27, 2015 / Proper 21

So This Happened Over The Weekend…


“Everybody has a vocation to some form of life-work. However, behind that call (and deeper than any call), everybody has a vocation to be a person to be fully and deeply human in Christ Jesus.” (Brenann Mannning – The Wisdom of Tenderness)

I’ve been thinking about something for a while. Something that doesn’t revolve around me, but includes me. Something that should not promote me, but provide me with identity and purpose. Something that is bigger than me, but small enough to fit inside me. Something that concerns the future of others, but captures the present in my faith and work. I’ve been thinking about the call of God on my life and how that is going these days.

Being called by God is not always a vocational call or assignment. The scriptures teach and Christian tradition upholds that some are called to use their gifts/time/energy in particular ways as shepherds and teachers of the church. Additionally, other believers are gifted and called to be evangelists in the workplace – Starbucks, Wall Street, the home, the university, the community, the fields, the machine shop, the courtroom, and “to the uttermost.” Everyone is included in the second calling. All Christians are called to use their gifts/time/energy as active participants in the body of Christ: worshipping, serving, discipling, training, sharing, and investing in others as witness of the kingdom and as sign of faith in God. Some are given the first and more peculiar calling to make the most of not only being a part of the body of Christ, but to be a leader of and a collaborator with the body of Christ, filled by the Holy Spirit and fueled by the Great Commission. I’ve been thinking about that in particular. And about me. And about my calling. I’m in that first group, and I have been thinking about that…a lot.

As I have thought about that, I have realized that the very best memories I have in life are memories centered in church life. They are memories from a long time ago and memories from the past few months. They usually involve someone or some people doing something in or through the name of Jesus. Sometimes I remember preaching a good sermon that encouraged others or exuded the gospel. Other times I remember hearing someone testify to God being faithful and miraculous in their week. Occasionally, those very good memories are set in moments of tears and tight hugs as saints are buried, babies born, couples wed, faithful friends announce a move, or as life happens in unexpected and unexplainable ways. These memories are evidence to me of a life lived in Christ through the church in full and deep ways. Truthfully, my life has been impacted and shaped much more significantly by people and events inside the church than by people and events outside of it, including work, sports, casual friendships, and hobbies. I have been thinking a whole lot about those memories; and about the ones I hope to have in the future; and the ones my kids are picking up along the way.

So this is what I am thinking about what I have been thinking about. Is it time for me to change the way I am serving the church as a God-called leader? Is it time for me to step into something new God has prepared for me and my family? Is it time for me to find new memories to complement the ones I have from years past? Is it time for me to put God first in everything in my life, including my professional identity, goals, and success? Is it time for me to move beyond believing God has called me and towards trusting Him to clarify, keep, and perfect such a call? That’s what I am thinking about, and I am thinking about it a lot these days. The answer to all those questions seems to be “yes.”

With that answer in mind, I have been thinking/praying/wrestling with a specific call to a specific place and with a specific people. In this “memory waiting to happen,” the context is very clear and the cause is extremely compelling. It is with a congregation in Newark, Ohio, and they are thinking about church life, gospel ministry, precious memories, and pastoral calling in very similar ways that Jamie and I have been. They have even called us to become their new pastoral leaders, and we take that kind of invitation very seriously.

So, I am still thinking about all of those things as I think about me, and Newark Naz, and pastoral calling, and the future. I wonder even louder what God may be saying to me, and He says:

If not now, when?

If not you, who?

If not here, where?

If not this, what?

If not yes, why?

That is quite a list of direct questions and even more to think about. There is a lot at stake in this possibility. I am at mid-life and mid-career. I am established, respected, empowered, and at ease in Houston. Jamie is effective, counted on, graceful and beloved in her relationships and ministry. The kids are thriving, growing up, getting ready for “next” and making us smile everyday. Heck, Rainey has never even been out of Texas! Is this what I should be thinking right now? Is this really such a good idea? Would God really expect this kind of adjustment from me?

This isn’t exactly a great time to be a pastor. The church is in trouble. Culture is winning. The weight of leading spiritually is significant. Christianity in America is divided. Marriages are disintegrating and families are crumbling. Entertaining crowds is more relevant than encountering God. The Bible is doubted and discounted. Jesus has been domesticated by scholars and by students. Pastoring is not popular, not lucrative, not easy, not safe.  (Or so it seems to be popularly believed today.)

More thinking and wondering… and I find myself saying to God:

If not now, when?

If not me, who?

If not here, where?

If not this, what?

If not yes, why?

Sometimes we have to move from thinking and questioning to acting and doing. Now is that time. The Ballards will be moving from Texas after 14 years of ministry at Calvary and Clear Lake Churches of the Nazarene, as well as leadership in church relations and spiritual development at Arrow Child & Family Ministries. Each of those assignments have been rich and rewarding to us. Along the way we have been given and blessed much more than we have deserved or required. God has been faithful here, and He will prove faithful there, too. And we can’t wait to live through those memories that will be with us throughout the upcoming years. Newark Naz get ready.  Here come the Ballards.

#43 (or 15,695 days)

doggie birthday

Today is the big day. I am a year older. Hopefully, I am a year better, a year more mature, perhaps, a year the wiser. Time will only tell, but that is what I am hoping for. Today I am remembering, relaxing and resetting the year. It’s gonna be a good day.

By the end of the day I will have eaten lunch with a beautiful woman, watched my son march in a big TX band, dropped my daughter off for Pinocchio practice, and watch son number 2 head off with friends to do teenager things. I’ll open a few cards, respond to a few texts, read a bunch of Facebook “Happy Birthdays” and think about how lucky I am that people like/love me.

It is raining in Houston today. It’s a real gully washer. And I love it. I walked my dog in the rain. I am thinking about singing in the rain. If you come over we can even play some football in the rain. Rain on my birthday is no problem. Rain washes away the dirt and brings moisture to the dry grass and terrain. Rain is both for cleaning and refreshment which is kind of like how God wants to work in my life. And I love that too.

At the end of the day I will be 43 and 1 day. Then tomorrow will start day 2 and so on. Before long I will do it all over again and celebrate 44. I bet that day will be good too and I can’t wait for it although I probably should try to slow down the calendar a bit. Time is passing quickly these days. Yesterday, I attended Trevecca as a handsome freshmen and the day before that I was playing for team Coca Cola in the Summit Dixie Youth League. Where has time gone?

God, help me to see today for what it is. One of many that you have given me to enjoy. One of many that you have presented to me to use up and be used up for. One of many that you have accompanied me in moments of great sin and shame as well as moments of grace and redemption. We’ve had some tough days, but most of our days have been pretty remarkable. You have constantly faithful and true in every one of them. I have needed you and you were there.

Thanks God. I don’t say it enough, but thank you. My life is not perfect, but it is the one you gave me. It is not glamorous or prestigious, but fame and power is not (should not be) my goal. Thank you for giving me a special day to remember the prayers of parents who got me here and the pain of raising a boy like me. Thanks for giving me a special day to remember the friends who forgave much as I worked hard to grow up and get over myself. Thanks for giving me a wife who I enjoy so much and children who help remind me that “I’m not so big or important” after all. Thanks for about a million other memories and friends that give meaning to my life and make this day extra special.

Thanks. Let’s do it again next year. I’ll be right here waiting and you will be right here too. Let’s make this my best year ever. It is up to us. No one decides how I feel about it, but me. No one determines how I use my time, energy, emotions, talents except for me. No one chooses tomorrow for Donnie B except for me. Of course you will help me all along the way and just I hope that I remember to say thanks again before we get to #44.

Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful. The Lord protects the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me. Return, O my soul, to your rest, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you. For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. I walk before the Lord in the land of the living. I kept my faith, even when I said, “I am greatly afflicted”; I said in my consternation, “Everyone is a liar.” What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones. O Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant, the child of your serving girl. You have loosed my bonds. I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call on the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of the Lord, in your midst, O Jerusalem. Praise the Lord! (Psalm 116:5-19)

How Do You Describe God?

red velvet ant

This morning an ant was crawling across my desk as I was logging onto my computer. He/She was the biggest and most beautiful ant  I have ever seen. He/She was also the scariest ant I had ever seen and holding a cup of 100 degree coffee didn’t help my courage. The ant was (notice the past tense) red and black with what seemed like hair growing over its body. I only wished I had noticed how unique he/she was before…well…never mind.

Wikipedia tells me that he/she was (past tense) a red velvet ant. Wikipedia also tells me that this red velvet ant wasn’t really an ant at all. He/she was a wasp. Yikes! It sure fooled me in the ¼ second I looked at it before…again…never mind.

In only a glance I noticed quite a bit about this ant/wasp. In only a second my brain burned an image that will last for quite a while. In only an instance I made a judgement call on whether he/she should live or not. In only a tick I acted swiftly with one hand on the keyboard and one hand on my six-shooter. In only a breath my world, and the ants, was changed forever.

We usually only get a quick glimpse of God. Of course we have great detail of Him recorded in the scriptures, but on a personal level we only get a second to see Him, hear Him, and sense Him being close. Over a lifetime we will likely only have a sum total of a few minutes when we remember our encounters with God, but those minutes, they are special and vivid and sometimes dangerous to us. Those are likely our most meaningful memories in life.

Thankfully scripture reminds us constantly of the details that keep us looking for God. He is faithful. He is kind. He is holy. He is loving. He is just. He is powerful. He is merciful. He is true. He is real. He is Jesus!

Psalm 117 is considered to be the center of the Bible by many scholars who have studied the most ancient of  Biblical manuscripts. The chapters and verses we find in our Bibles are modern editorial insertions to give order to our navigating the Bible, but people of faith have kept the book order down through the ages from Genesis to Revelation. It is intriguing to me that round about the middle of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures we discover this description of God to keep us on track.

For His lovingkindness is great towards us,
And the truth of the Lord is everlasting.
(Psalm 117:2)

Regardless of who we are or what we have done, no matter our heritage, habits or holiness, God is who He is and that never changes. His love is not a static feature in time and space. It is towards us and impacting our lives. His truth, which is measured in His promises and passions, will prove to be the one eternal hope that is kept faithfully. That is who God is and that is how God works or relates to man. That is the description that gives us a framework to begin knowing God or at least knowing more about Him. He loves and He is faithful in keeping His word. That is who He is and that is how we will discover how He embraces us.

Let this be a moment of worship. Breathe deeply and bless the name of God for casting His holy love in our direction. Stop trying to define who God is in your eyes. Trust in His words to give the brighter picture. His love pointed and poured on us brings light into our darkness and hope into our desperation. Hold tightly to the promise that God never let’s go, never gives up on us, never goes away from His vision to embrace our brokenness. For it is His love and truth that is our salvation.

Make today a day of turning into the reality of a loving, faithfully true God that is busy bringing the kingdom into our faith and our work. Don’t get sidetracked by describing God with your words and stories.  Get serious about discovering Him on His terms and in His fullness.  If you do, this will be a September like you have never known before.

“God loves each of us as if there was only one of us.”  – Augustine