Holy Week Devotion

3 Ways to Live with Passion

                We in the church call this week Holy Week, but through most of Christian tradition, the days and events leading up to Jesus’s death were called the passion. It begins with his entry into Jerusalem on a donkey and ends with him on the cross. Jesus’ passion was on full display as he turned over the tables in the Temple, sparred with religious leaders, stooped to wash his disciples’ feet and ultimately voluntarily gave up His life. He did this out of a great love for God and for those who needed to be restored in relationship to God. 

                He wasn’t wishy-washy and didn’t dither when it came to what He came to accomplish. He was passionate.  

                1 John 3:16 says, “This is how we know what love is. Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” 

                So we can look at Jesus’ life and word and we can say, “This is love.” That’s what passionate, whole-hearted love looks like. 

                The passion of Jesus is a mirror for your life.  

                How much are you living with passion for what you believe and what you know God wants to accomplish in your life? 

                It’s OK to admit that your heart has grown cold. It’s OK to say that you’re struggling with doubts, or that you haven’t been living whole-heartedly. The grind of life can feel overwhelming, and disappointments almost always surprise us. It’s OK to say that you struggle to pray. 

                Jesus meets us where we are. That’s the message of the passion week. He passionately pursued us, determined to give everything so that His love would be expressed and that people would be reconciled to their Heavenly Father.  

                If you can admit you haven’t been living with passion — the way that you were created to be — then that can be the first step toward finding your way back to God. 

                From there, here are three ways to live with passion. 

                First, be vulnerable. Vulnerability is essential to whole-hearted living. Those who aren’t vulnerable may not experience huge losses (they don’t take risks to open themselves up to failure), but they also won’t experience the great joy of having connected deeply or succeeded in some great endeavor. Love can’t flourish in a heart that isn’t vulnerable. 

                So say what you need to say. Make the call. Have courage to speak the truth. Share something nobody knows. 

                Second, be sacrificial. To save your life you have to lose it. If you lose it, you’ll find it. Let yourself come to the place where you’re like a seed planted in the ground, seemingly inconsequential and dead, but ready to spring to life.  

                Give something away. Open your home. Call someone who is lonely or hurting and set up a time to get together. Or maybe let yourself be taken away by some huge sacrifice — something like picking up yourself or your family to move to fulfill a mission, or accepting the call to go to seminary, or changing your dead-end career for something that makes an impact for others. 

                Third, be grateful. Christ was always giving thanks, even on the night before He was killed. Be grateful for what you have. It may not be all that you want, but it’s more than you deserve.  

                Give thanks for the cross. Give thanks for the empty tomb. Give thanks for the love so big that the grave couldn’t hold it. 

                Here are a few guided practices to help you live whole-heartedly: 

                1. Spend 15 minutes mediating on the cross. Maybe pull up a picture of Jesus on the cross and think on what’s happening, how He felt, how He suffered. Imagine what He went through. Prayerfully ask God for new insights on Christ’s passion. 

                2. Read through John 20 and reflect on the resurrection. What do you see? What are the emotions and actions? What puzzles you? How do you imagine that first morning? 

                3. Get up early enough on Easter morning for prayer before you go to worship. Let the presence of Christ fill you and prepare you.

Pastor Brent McDougal Announces Intention to Run for Dallas ISD School Board

Dear Cliff Temple Family,

I wanted to announce to you — before it became public — that I am running for the Board of Trustees for Dallas ISD. It’s a great opportunity to serve in the community and help children realize their full potential through our public schools. 

Our family lives in District 7 and that’s where our church is as well. District 7 involves schools such as Adamson High School, Sunset High School, Bowie Elementary, Hector Garcia Middle School, Hogg Elementary, and Rosemont (now elementary and middle school).

Our church already has been connected to these schools by supporting reading initiatives, food needs, and support for various extracurricular activities. So there’s a strong resonance between our mission and what happens through public education.

Trustees aren’t charged with fixing school issues, but they can advocate and bring resources to bear to help children, families, teachers and faculty. Trustees also help to craft policy and budgets for our schools. It’s not a paid position, only volunteer, and the trustees meet twice a month for an extended meeting.

I have spoken with the Personnel Committee, as I did not want to make this decision in isolation, and they expressed their support.

I have weighed the time commitment it would take if I was elected, and believe that it is very manageable.

It is among the more time-consuming volunteer positions, but I assure you that Cliff Temple is my primary calling and I won’t neglect that calling in any way.

On the contrary, this position offers a chance to extend relational capital and help Cliff Temple continue to be a strong rock in our community, as it has been for 120 years. 

The election is in early May. I appreciate your prayers and support. If you have any questions, I hope that you’ll email me at brent@clifftemple.org.

Blessings and love to you.

Pastor Brent McDougal

Saying Yes and Saying No

As a child I watched the Mardi Gras parades in Mobile, Alabama, from a balcony overlooking the street. I loved the energy and the confetti and the calling for beads and candy. It was a chaotic mess in a normally orderly city. 

But I also remember being fascinated by how quickly the streets were cleaned. When the last float passed, immediately following were massive street-sweeping machines. Men and women cleared debris with a fury to match what had just happened.

That’s how Lent works after Mardi Gras. Following revelry and feasting, there’s a 40-day period of reflection and fasting leading to Easter Sunday. It’s a kind of Spring cleaning. The word "Lent" means “lengthen,” referring to the Spring bringing longer days.

This year Lent begins on March 6. Many people will give up something during this season — meat, sweets, a negative attitude. The idea is to deny yourself something in order to pray more and reflect on how Jesus suffered and sacrificed. Some say they find their lives “lengthened” by such a practice, expanding, becoming more full.

“Deny yourself” is surely one of the most countercultural teachings of Jesus. That sounds like dead, controlling religion to most ears. Why should I deny myself good things, even for a season?

Lent reminds us that saying “no” to certain things allows you to say “yes” to better things. 

The storyteller Fred Craddock once visited a former student. After dinner, the parents excused themselves to put the kids to bed, leaving Fred with the family pet—a large, sleek greyhound. Earlier in the evening the father said, “That’s a full-blooded greyhound. He raced professionally in Florida. Then he retired. Great dog with the kids.” 

Now Fred was alone with the dog. The dog turned to him and said, “You probably heard I came here from Miami.”

“You retired from racing, right?” Fred said.

“No, I didn’t retire. Is that what they told you?”

“Well, did you get injured?”

“No,” said the dog.

“Did you stop winning?” 

“No,” said the dog. “I raced for ten years. Ten years of running around that track day after day, seven days a week, with other dogs chasing that rabbit. One day I got close and got a good look at that rabbit. You know what? It was a fake! I spent my whole life chasing a fake rabbit! I didn’t retire. I quit!”

It’s not easy to quit chasing fake rabbits. Some things are shiny but worthless. Other things are both enjoyable and worthy of our time and energy. It’s not easy to make room for something better.

Jesus taught that the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field. When the person discovered the treasure, he sold everything to buy the field so that he could possess something greater.

So let go of something to remember what you truly possess. Give up something to take hold of something better. Deny yourself for a season. Why not give it a try?

Until All Are Free

We got up early on Friday morning with plenty of time to get to the DFW airport for the 7am flight down to El Paso. 

Although many people believe my part of Dallas (Oak Cliff) is unsafe, I didn’t sense any danger — I almost never do. The comfortable car quickly warmed, and I felt a sense of excitement for the journey ahead as we picked up my friend, Chris.

Got your passport? Check.

After the quick flight, the full team of nineteen men was assembled for our weekend mission: cross the border into Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, build three simple, cinder-block homes in two days with the help of local maestros (masons), then cross back to return home to Dallas by Sunday evening.

We did what we expected to do.

What I didn’t expect was learning a really, really important life lesson along the way.

As we dedicated each home, words were shared about how we hoped these would be safe places for the families. One grandmother spoke up about how she had been living in an unsafe, drafty plywood and tin shack, and how she had prayed for a better home. Then she shared about other hardships in her life, specifically a foot condition. She wasn’t asking for pity or money, but was simply stating the facts. She considered the new house to be a huge blessing in the middle of a really hard life.

Our group of volunteers spontaneously began to take up a collection, and within 90 seconds, $400 was in hand to give to her. 

The average worker at a Juarez factory makes $1.60 a day. That’s twice what it was in December, when the minimum wage was doubled by the new Mexican President. 

We placed a year’s salary in her hands. 

The gift really didn’t make a dent in the lifestyles of the men who gave it, but it surely made a difference to the grandmother.

As we walked away, I said to my friend David, “That was amazing. I can’t believe the generosity of our team.”

David said, “Yes, but money isn’t the greatest asset we hold. It’s our passports. Freedom is the greatest gift.”

Up to that moment, I had totally taken for granted that I could come and go as I pleased in Dallas with relatively little fear, even coming down to Mexico to serve, knowing that I could always go back. I have options. 

But those that we served in Juarez have very few options to better their lives.

It’s been called the most dangerous place in the world, with nearly 200 murders a month in 2018. There’s economic desperation and little money for medical care.

And yet, I couldn’t help but see that most people seemed happy, at least on the outside. There were lots of laughing children and joking on the job site with the locals. Kindness was everywhere. Only when we paused to dedicate the homes did we start to hear about the real struggles. 

Perhaps the new house and money can allow the grandmother to experience a little more freedom — freedom from fear of robbers, freedom from anxiety about health. 

In his last speech called “I’ve been to the Mountaintop,” Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding — something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya: Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same — ‘We want to be free.’”

To live with freedom in your heart, in your community, and in your country — to be able to provide for your family — to dwell in peace and safety — to be free to love and receive love — such is the desire of every soul.  And that has always, always been the vision of the prophets and the ultimate goal of Christ’s mission, a new heaven and a new earth, grounded in true freedom.

The truth is that I take my freedom for granted. Perhaps you do as well.

How will I use the freedom I have been given?

Nelson Mandela said, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

So I’m trying to open my eyes on this side of the border.

Where are people not free? Where do shackles still weigh down the steps of the oppressed? How can I help to bring freedom to others?

I can choose. I can live with an open hand and a grateful heart. I can listen to the aggrieved and follow their lead. I can lend my voice to those who have no voice. 

I believe we can all be free.

3 Reasons Why Showing Up for Worship Matters

There’s something I noticed about the story of the Wise Men this year that I had overlooked. It’s so simple and obvious, I can’t believe I didn’t see it before now. But before I tell you what it is, let me share an observation about our current culture and how people worship.

Many people are wondering if we really need to show up for corporate worship. After all, aren’t there lots of ways to connect online? Can’t we just watch a worship service live-streamed, or catch a sermon from another pastor? 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-technology. It’s amazing how much information we now have at our fingertips, and communication that once was only imagined in science fiction is now reality.

But there is also a dark side. We can be distracted so easily. For Christians who are trying to walk in purity and holiness, we face the challenge of images and clicks to websites that seem OK, but become a trap. 

There’s also the temptation to get all of our spiritual content through online sermons and studies, and avoid relationships that can be, well, messy.

And let’s be honest. Sometimes we just feel lazy. We don’t want to get up, get ready, and show up to experience something with others. Sometimes it’s easier just to stay in bed, take a long bike ride, or whatever else seems easier.

Do we really have to show up collectively for worship? Or is it just as good to be at home and have a personal experience? That’s the cultural dilemma.

So here’s what I noticed about the Wise Men this year. 

They showed up.

They took the journey, bowed down, brought their gifts and followed the Spirit. They could have worshipped and prayed from a distance, and that’s ok, too. But that’s not what the Wise Men did.

They teach us that worshipping in the flesh, together, matters. 

Why does it matter?

I want to give you three reasons why I believe it’s important to show up, as much as you are able, and worship with all of your body, mind, soul and strength.

The first reason is that it was the pattern of Jesus and the early disciples.

Luke 4:16 (NIV) tells us: “And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read.” 

So Jesus received worship, but as the Son of God, He also modeled the life of worshiping God. It’s what we are made for. 

When the Spirit fell on the day of Pentecost creating the church, Acts tells us that, ”Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:46-47, NIV)

We are designed to worship. When the Wise Men discerned that a divine king had been born, their first instinct was “Let’s go find him.”

If we want to be like Jesus — if we believe that His life is the best life and the life that leads to the most joy and peace — then we would do well to mimic His pattern. He got up early in the morning and spent time in personal worship, but His faith was never only a private matter. 

The mystery of the incarnation is that God became human and dwelt among us in the flesh. He showed us the power of showing up. He could have demonstrated his love in so many different ways; after all, he’s the inventor of every form of communication that we have yet to discover. But the way that He demonstrated His love for us is that He took on flesh. 

You can worship alone, but there’s something substantially different about worshipping with the Body of Christ. 

The second reason that worshipping in-the-flesh together matters is that worshiping forms faith in ways that can’t happen alone.

God is an ocean. On my own, I have one tiny perspective on God — just a drop in the ocean. But if I truly desire to know more of God, I must be together with other Christians in worship. 

The Christians that I admire the most and those who are growing closer to Christ have all concluded that regular worship with other believers is important.

But I’ve never seen people who practice a kind of private, a-la-carte religious experience really grow over time in the way of Jesus. And I have never seen those persons engage deeply with the mission of Jesus in the world.

Lastly, worshipping in-the-flesh matters because there are gifts God wants to give to you that you can’t get apart from corporate worship. You miss the experience of God’s gathered people when you don’t show up. 

You miss the encouragement. You miss the strength. And others miss what you bring to the fellowship, because we are all one body, with one Lord and one faith.

So in 2019, set the pattern for worship. Make corporate worship a priority. 

Gordon Dahl once observed, “Our problem is that we worship our work, work at our play, and play at our worship.” 

As you set goals for 2019, make it a goal to worship as much as possible with the Body of Christ. Put your family on notice: worshipping with the family of faith will be our priority in the New Year, even if it requires us to sacrifice. 

Don’t just play at worship this year.

Show up.

3 Ways to Pray and 1 Way to Work for Peace this Christmas

By Pastor Brent McDougal

Augustine said, “Pray as if everything depended on God, and work as if everything depended on you.”

Augustine got the order right.

To pray is to seek the power of God in the workings of the world, and for someone who wants to see more peace, it’s the first order of business. 

Praying acknowledges that everything truly depends on the unseen God. In Matthew 6:6, Jesus taught, “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

What is God’s reward? God answers prayer, even in ways that we wish were different. But the reward is also the gift of God’s presence, which comes with peace.

How many times have I tried to create peace — in my personal relationships, in my congregation, in my community — only to fall short, and then realize that I had never prayed for peace? 

When I look across the world this Christmas season, I see people struggling to have peace. 

So here are three ways to pray for peace, all rooted in Jesus’ experience of being born into the world.

First, pray for those who are displaced. Pray for refugees from places of violence and tension. Pray for children displaced from their original homes in foster care due to circumstances beyond their control. Pray for those who find themselves far from what they would call home. Pray for people in your workplace and neighborhood who feel far from family.

Remember, Jesus was born to Mary in Bethlehem, a city not her own. Surely she would have preferred to stay home. But a king issued a decree to take a census, and so prophesy was fulfilled that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). Remember that Jesus fled his homeland to the safety of Egypt because of Herod’s tyranny. 

Second, pray for your neighbors. How often people of faith pray for their brothers and sisters in Christ, but fail to pray for their neighbors? Pray for peace to be given to your neighbors as they see the lights of Christmas, give gifts, and hear familiar carols.

Remember, Jesus was born in the flesh as a gift to the whole world (John 3:16). He came for every man and woman. The angels declared “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:14)

Third, pray for your enemies. Jesus grew up to teach, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44-45)

Remember, Jesus died forgiving his enemies. Surely you can forgive those who have wronged you in the face of such a sacrifice on your behalf. 

And that brings me to the one way you can work for peace this Christmas.

Do something good for someone you don’t like, even someone you hate.

Think of someone who has wronged you in 2018 or in recent years, and do something to bless them. You could write a note to name something good you have seen in them, or to simply say that you want to be at peace with them and you wish them well. An act of kindness could break the chain of hate.

Such and act could be anonymous, but how much greater would it be for the person to know that some good thing has come from you.

If you struggle to love Muslims, give a sacrificial gift to a Muslim in need. If you hate someone from a different political party, do an act of service to bless them.

It may seem small, but I believe that these little acts of love in our little corners of the world make a difference. They ripple across families, communities, and our nation.

1 Peter 3:10-11 counsels, “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep their tongue from evil and their lips from deceitful speech. They must turn from evil and do good; they must seek peace and pursue it.” 

If you love life and want better days for us all, start with prayer: for the displaced, for your neighbors, and for your enemies. Seek their peace and then pursue it on their behalf, with a tangible act of love.

And in all things, pray as if everything depended on God. Work as if everything depends on you.


The Parable of the Candy-Striped Unicorn

By Pastor Brent McDougal

My friend Scott and I sat down at a midway game during the Texas State Fair, the kind where the bell rings and you shoot water at a target as a balloon goes up. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I always have a sense that something important is on the line when I play a game like that. As the bell rang, I quickly established an optimal stream of water on the target and the balloon ascended. There was no way I could lose. 

When the game was over, Scott had won. The prize was a small, candy-striped unicorn, which he quickly gave to his wife, Kristi. 

Even my wife wondered aloud how I had lost. For a moment, I felt less-than. How could I not succeed at such a simple game? For that brief moment, I felt measured and had come up short.

Sometimes I think about what Jesus must have felt like when he came to earth. He left a place of intense communion with God, enjoying perfect love, unending emotional embrace, and the privileges of heaven. I imagine that when he arrived as a baby (what theologians call the incarnation, meaning “to take on flesh”) and started growing up and interacting with humans, even though he got thirsty and hungry and needed rest, his experience was very different from everyone else. He may have looked at the midway game and thought it was just fun, or he may have wondered, “Why do you do this?” He had no regard for the trivial pursuits and worthless prizes that momentarily bring us happiness, or cause us to feel shame when we don’t get them.

He believed in ideas that would have been considered ridiculous at the time, such as turn the other cheek when someone hits you. Love your enemies. If someone wants to take your shirt, give them your coat as well. Do all you can to be at peace with those around you. Love your neighbor as yourself.

He totally disregarded the comparative games of status and wealth, because the prizes that people pursued weren’t worth winning. In every way, he seemed to fail at the kind of life we think matters most.

I recently heard a man say that while he entered the world with nothing and would leave with nothing, he didn’t come into the world alone, and he wouldn’t leave alone. His mom was there are the beginning, along with many relatives. When he died, he anticipated being surrounded by family and friends. He was conveying the idea that life is relational, not consumeristic. 

The incarnation, the heart of Christmas, is about relationship. It’s God’s move toward us with love. 

I believe deep down that if I could learn to fully live in God’s love, allowing God to establish my worth and fill my emotional needs for acceptance and affirmation, I wouldn’t be anxious, chasing cheap prizes. I believe that if all of us knew that love, our world could be reborn.

Scaling the Wall

By Pastor Brent McDougal

A man walked into a sanctuary, among a people who have worshipped a certain way and called on God by the same names for millennia. They entered seeking peace. They closed their eyes and prayed.

But this stranger to the community, someone who would have been welcomed at any other time, felt no peace and was not seeking peace. He only felt hatred — not because these worshippers had done something to him, like wronged his family, or stolen from him — but just because of who they were. They were Jewish, and he blamed the Jews. He hated the Jews. 

I’m really struggling with this question: how could someone have that kind of hatred in their heart and unleash it so violently?

It’s a soul question. I know there’s hatred and selfishness, just as there is love and sacrifice. I know that the tiniest of bitter seeds can grow into something poisonous. So much of hatred stems from disappointment, loss, hopelessness and fear.

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder.” (James 4:1-2a)

So I understand that why hatred exists. But what conditions allow someone to do what he did?

I don’t know much about him, but there are three things of note.

First, he was isolated. “He lived in his own little world,” said one acquaintance. “Pretty much a ghost.” 21 guns were registered in his name, including an AR-15-style assault rifle and three handguns, which he used in the attack. But no one really knew him enough to see that clear warning sign.

“It’s very unsettling knowing all that stuff that was used to hurt those people was on the other side of the wall,” said one neighbor who lived in the next-door apartment. “I didn’t see any signs. I can’t even comprehend that he had that much hate and seemed so normal.”

The second thing to note is that he was filled with anger.

Online, he spewed murderous words. The social media network Gab allowed him to release a storm of anti-immigrant and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. He blamed these groups for his misery.

Finally, others encouraged his hatred. Gab participants fanned the flame.

Compared to 2016, the Anti-Defamation League measured a 57 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States last year — incidents that include anti-Semitic literature and graffiti, bomb threats, and actual assaults. Hatred thrives in community, condoned and encouraged.

I don’t know what would have ultimately stopped this man from doing what he did. But I’m struck by the way that he lived: isolated, angry, and encouraged in his malice. His neighbors didn’t think there was a problem, but even if they had, would they have tried to get to know him?

Somehow, we have to get on the other side of the wall to short-circuit a failing, pained life that leads to unbelievable devastation.

What can we do?

First, we need to overcome our social fears and excuses. It’s hard to talk to a neighbor, co-worker or classmate that works hard to keep others out. But we need to pray and try to push through, especially if we have a sense that someone is on the verge of a crisis.

Don’t hear me saying that I am blaming the neighbor. All I am suggesting is that we need reclaim a culture of responsibility for one another. 

Second, we can reject anger, bigotry, and name-calling in print or social media. Disagreement is fine, but most of us have seen how quickly comments in a thread can devolve. At the first sign of vitriol, disengage. I wouldn’t suggest unfriending unless you just have to, because that can lead to further isolation. Stay calm, deescalate, or take a break.

Third, we can positively use our voices. Free speech means that people are entitled to speak their opinions, but not in such a way that incites violence. For Christians, the standard is higher. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29) 

Protest non-violently if that’s how God leads you. Speak life and peace with every opportunity you have. Blessed are the peacemakers — those are the children of God. (Matthew 5:9)

Words matter. They can either tear down the walls that separate or build new ones. They can help us get over walls that seem unscalable.

Somehow we have to get to the stuff — and the person — on the other side of the wall. We have to act — for the sake of the person, your life, and mine.