More Than Objects

More Than Objects

Anyone whose lived in Florida for long, and traveled on I-75, will recognize the billboard pictured above.  Though the signs have been changed, the billboards, like the one above, adorned the Interstate for years and years.  I’ve passed those billboards countless times.

I assume the photos imply beautiful women can be seen – without their clothes, of course – at Cafe Risque.  Perhaps the photos were even meant to imply THESE women can be seen – without their clothes, of course.

I recall looking at those signs, wondering about the photos.  Did the women actually work at Cafe Risque?  Were the women paid for the photos?  I wondered about their families.  Had their parents seen those billboards and looked at their photos?  If so, did they care?  As a father, of a daughter I adore, I can’t imagine the heartbreak I would feel to see her beautiful face on that billboard.

Whoever these women are, and however their photos were procured, they’re someone’s daughter, someone’s sister.  They might be someone’s mother.  They have stories.  They have histories.  They have talents and abilities.  They have strengths and weaknesses.  They have qualities and flaws. They have personalities.  They have likes and dislikes.  They have potential.  They have lives.

As beautiful as they are, their physical beauty – their sexual allure – is only one dimension of who they are.  They aren’t objects, existing only for men’s pleasure and stimulation.

Did I mention that they were made in the image and likeness of God?

Some might assume they chose to be photographed, or chose to be strippers.  Maybe so.  Maybe they like their job.  Or, maybe, they were never told they’re more than their beauty.  Maybe no one every told them they’re more than objects.  Maybe they’re desperate to earn a living, and didn’t know they had other options.

Though obviously different, there’s been a recent tidal wave of accusations of varying degrees of sexually inappropriate conduct – men behaving very badly.  Accusations range from offensive joking, to lewd comments, to inappropriate touching, to unwelcomed/unwanted advances and propositions, to indecent exposure, to physical intimidation, to threats, to physical assault and rape.  Story, after story, after story of men treating women (and, sometimes, men) as little more than objects to fulfill their sexual desires.

And, the men accused are among our most culturally admired – entertainers, journalists, elected public servants, business moguls.  Educated.  Successful.  Famous.  Cultured.  Respected.  Professional.  I have admired some of these men.

But, behind closed doors, these men revealed who they actually are.

So, what’s the connection between inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace and photos on Cafe Risque billboards?  Both objectify women.  Let’s be honest – strip clubs don’t exist because women want to dance naked.  Strip clubs exist to entertain men.  The issue is the same – men assuming others exist to fulfill their sexual desires.

Don’t get me wrong.  Sexual attraction is normal.  Sex, between mutually-consenting, committed, covenanted adults , is beautiful – godly even.  The human body can be beautiful to see, and exhilarating to touch, when willing shared and freely given.  God made sex as a gift for us – a gift to be cherished, honored and protected.

But, when sex is misused; when sex and sexuality is cheapened and degraded; when sex is imposed, but unwanted; when sex is expected, demanded, or forced; when humans, made in the image of God, are objectified sexually; when sex victimizes; the human toll can be devastating.

The recent wave of accusations reveals a sickness – a sexual sickness – in our society.  Add to these accusations, incidents that will remain unreported.  Add to these accusations the high instances of date rape.  Add to these accusations the epidemic of porn-use.  We have a massive problem.

Though my heart breaks for all of the victims, for what they’ve endured, I celebrate and applaud their bravery coming forward now.  And, I hope, this might be a moment of societal shift.

But, true change will only come when we learn to see and treat people and sexuality with utmost dignity and respect.  EVERY human is a child God.  Physical beauty is to be appreciated and respected, as one dimension of a person.  Sex is a holy gift from God, to be enjoyed AND treated as sacred.

May I be so bold to suggest this is a spiritual issue, needing a spiritual solution?

 

Brutiful

Brutiful

My morning began with a text from a good friend shaken by the shootings in Las Vegas.  At this point, the news reports 58 killed and over 500 injured by a lone gunmen with unknown motives.

Brutal.

Moments ago, I listened to a radio report, saying conditions in Puerto Rico are rapidly deteriorating, and millions of people are suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Brutal.

While trivial by comparison, as I drove, I passed piles of debris awaiting pick-up since Hurricane Irma passed through Florida, nearly a month ago.

Not brutal – at least in my community – but, more signs of destruction.

I know there are three emails in my inbox regarding a young woman who was abducted, brutally raped, and murdered earlier this year.  I haven’t read them, yet.  I will.  But, not yet.  I know the family.  I know the story.  I know the brutality.

Brutal feels like the word of the day.  So much brutality.  Brutality everywhere I look.  Perhaps another word is broken.  So much brokenness.  Brutal and broken.  That’s how the world feels to me today.  Brutal and broken.

Later this evening, I will gather with a cohort preparing to become Spiritual Directors.  Spiritual Directors are companions on the journey, seeking God in prayer.  Inevitably, I have no doubt, we’ll be wrestling with how to find God in the brutality, and how to pray in moments of brokenness.

I’ll confess, I haven’t known what to pray today.  And, thus, I haven’t.

Days like today, I trust in the promise of Romans 8:26-27 (NLT), “The Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words.  And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will.”

Days like today, I groan more than pray.  Maybe my groans are prayers.  I hope so.  Maybe your groans are prayers.  Maybe the groans arising from Las Vegas and Puerto Rico are prayers.  I think God’s hearing a lot of groaning these days.

I’m also reminded of an expression I learned from Glennon Doyle:”brutiful.”  Glennon says, “Life is brutal. But it’s also beautiful. Brutiful, I call it. Life’s brutal and beautiful are woven together so tightly that they can’t be separated. Reject the brutal, reject the beauty. So now I embrace both, and I live well and hard and real.”

Amidst the brutality of today’s events and news, I hear stories of heroic acts in Las Vegas and the generous outpouring of donations for Puerto Rico.  While the dark clouds of brutality obscure the beauty of the day, some beauty remains.  Thank God.  There is a light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” (John 1:5, NLT)

I need to be reminded of beauty sometimes.

There is so much that is brutal and broken in this world.  There’s so much brokenness.  So much despair.  Help us, Lord, to never lose sight of the beauty that co-exists with the brutality.  Help us, Lord, never to lose sight of you.

And, when we don’t know what to pray,  hear our groans.

Welcome to the New Normal…For Now…

Welcome to the New Normal…For Now…

Hurricane Irma blew through South Florida on Sunday, September 10.  While many throughout Florida suffered major storm damage, Coral Springs was mostly just inconvenienced.

Some were without power for a few days.  Some had damage to trees, fences, and pool screens.  Some lost internet and cable.  There were hurricane shutters to take down, and a fair amount of clean-up to do.  But, with a few exceptions, most Coral Springs residents and residences were relatively unscathed – thankfully.

The greater impact of Irma, in this community, was the many days of disruption she caused.  Store shelves were emptying as early as Labor Day, and are still being re-stocked.  Broward County schools were closed for a week and a half.  Many, facing the possibility of a Cat 5 hurricane, chose to evacuate.  Businesses were closed.  Church services were cancelled.  Those who stayed to face Irma hunkered down, watched the Weather Channel for days on end, chomping on hurricane supplies of junk food.

Just as a new school year was starting, and church activities were gearing up for the Fall, Irma forced everything and everyone to come to a screeching halt.

Inconvenient.

The common refrain I’ve heard from many, since Irma, has been, “I was so ready for life to get back to normal.”  What a strange statement.  Back… to… normal.  Back?  Normal?

How do you go back?  Time travel?

I will confess I had a difficult time reengaging my work after the storm.  Irma consumed so much time and mental energy, I’d mostly taken a mental holiday from work.  After a couple of days of re-adjustment, I was happy to engage a more familiar work and life routine.

That’s the word – familiar.  I think that’s what people mean when they say, “Back to normal.”  Back to familiar.  Back to regular.  Back to routine.  Back to predictable.  Back to comfortable.

Honestly, in most ways, my daily/weekly routine closely resembles my pre-Irma life.  But, if Irma had come closer, I might still be recovering today.  The old familiar “normal” might not be an option – ever.  And, as familiar as life is now, post-Irma, my new normal includes both gratitude for making it safely through the storm and dread, knowing that future storms will surely come and we might not be as fortunate.  Normal might not be as easy to resurrect, next time.

The problem, in my mind, is you can never go “back to normal.”  We can only go forward.  Life only moves onward, not backward. No matter what normal was, good or bad, you can’t go back to it.  It’s gone.  It’s over.  It’s in the past.  Forever.

I  do understand the longing for “normality.”  We all need a certain degree of stability that comes with familiarity.  Lack of stability is unsettling.  We all need firm, stable places in our lives.

But, dogged longing for normality is living with one foot in the past.  We can’t live, always looking backward.  Yesterday might have been normal.  Today might be normal, or not.  But, who knows what tomorrow will bring?  Tomorrow might bring unexpected changes to our normal.  Tomorrow might be the beginning of a new normal.

One thing is guaranteed – change.  Change is a certainty.  Normal never lasts.

So, if you need stability, familiarity, and predictability in your life, grab it wherever you can find it.  I can’t criticize you for that.  But, don’t become too comfortable with normal.  It won’t be around for very long.

And, just because yesterday’s normal was familiar, doesn’t mean that the new normal is bad or wrong.  Possibly, the new normal is actually better, if you’ll give it a chance.  Likely, someday, we’ll be looking forward to getting “back” to the “new” normal.

Except, we won’t be able to.

There’s no going back.

Welcome the new normal.

 

Hoping for the best. Prepared for the worst. Praying, no matter what happens.

Hoping for the best.  Prepared for the worst.  Praying, no matter what happens.

All we can do, now, is wait.

Hurricane Irma – a historically strong, potentially-catastrophe-causing storm – is heading this way.  All forecasts indicate that Southeast Florida, where I live, is very likely the target.  Maybe not.  Likely so.

For now, all we can do is wait

We’ve purchased hurricane supplies.  With the help of friends, the hurricane shutters have been hung.  We’ve gassed up.  We’re taking this storm seriously and, short of evacuating, we’ve done all we can do to prepare.

Now, all we can do is wait.  All we can do is hope for the best, but be ready for the worst.

Surprisingly, as a 50-year-old Floridian, I’ve never experienced a major storm.  We were in graduate school, in North Carolina, during Hurricane Andrew.  We’ve been on the far-outskirts of a few hurricanes and tropical storms – but, nothing significant.  Last year, we fully-prepared for Hurricane Matthew – but, barely saw a cloud in the sky.  If Irma visits Southeast Florida, this will be my first.

Honestly, I won’t mind if Irma decides to just had out to sea!  I don’t think this is a life-experience I need to have!  I will be sincerely happy if all of the storm preparation was unnecessary!

Waiting for a storm of this magnitude is a vulnerable feeling.  Fortunately, we live in a safe home, and could afford the needed supplies.  But, are we prepared enough?  Is this house strong enough?  Will Irma’s impact exceed our preparations?  Are we prepared for the potential aftermath and clean-up? I don’t know.  I just don’t know.

I am aware that many are far more vulnerable than we are.  My heart goes out to them.

Not knowing, for sure, what’s to come, all we can do is wait.

No.  That’s not true.  Prayer is also an option.

While I don’t really believe that prayer will push Irma out to sea (If I did, how would I explain Harvey’s impact on Texas and Louisiana?  Lack of prayers?  There are probably more Christians in Houston than just about anywhere!  How would I explain the devastation Irma has already caused in the Islands?), I do believe that God is bigger than the biggest storm, and that God is present, with us, in the storm.

Throughout the Psalms, God is called “a rock, a fortress, a hiding place, a strong shelter.” Honestly, in this context, I’m not sure what those metaphors mean.  But, that’s what I am praying over my family, my church, my friends, and my community.  “God, please be our rock, our fortress, our hiding place, our strong shelter.”  Whatever comes, may we experience the peace of God’s presence, his strength and courage to endure the storm, and the faith and hope in his power to redeem and restore whatever is broken.

And, in the days to come, I am praying for the Church to be the Church.  It’s times like this that reveal the very best of humanity.  In the face of catastrophes, the best of the human spirit shines forth.  If we somehow, someway avoid this monster storm, thank God!  Someone, somewhere will still need the compassionate generosity and kindness of Christian people.  If we don’t avoid this, and find ourselves climbing out of the rubble in a few days, may we be people of hope, love, and generosity, as we recover and rebuild our lives and community together.  Let’s be the Church, and demonstrate to the world the very best of being the hands and feet of Christ!

For now, we wait.  We hope for the best, and prepare for the worst.  And, we pray to the God, who is our shelter in the storm.

My prayers are with you.  Be safe.

“Seek Simple” – the first of a 5-week sermon series, called “Simple,” preached at First Church oral Springs on Sunday, August 20, 2017

“Seek Simple” – the first of a 5-week sermon series, called “Simple,” preached at First Church oral Springs on Sunday, August 20, 2017

St. Francis…

            One of my spiritual heroes is St. Francis.  Francis was born in Italy, near the end of the 12th century.  His father was a wealthy cloth merchant – so Francis grew up in wealth, ease and luxury.  But, after a long illness, Francis experienced a radical spiritual conversion.   After giving away some of his father’s expensive things to the poor, his father dragged Francis to the local priest, demanding Francis repent and stop.  Standing in the middle of the town square, Francis stripped down to bare skin, renouncing his father’s wealth and possessions, living from that day in complete poverty.  Francis shunned owning any property, beyond wearing a simple monk’s robe, dependent each day on God for his needs.

If Francis were alive today, most of us would likely think he was a crazy, homeless man.  But, his way of life and his love for God drew followers by the thousands.  Francis started a movement, that many believe was the salvation of the Church in the Middle Ages.  And, that movement was based on simple living, and a simple trust in God.

Overly-busy, overly-committed, over-spent, over-drawn, over-timed, over-stuffed… overwhelmed!

            What a contrast to our modern lives.  Very few people, by choice, live simple lives.  The vast majority of us are over-worked, over-burdened, over-scheduled, and overwhelmed by modern life.  We have too much to do, too much stuff to take care for, and too many commitments. Our lives and homes have become cluttered.   It’s become increasingly hard to keep up.  And, the result, for many of us, is greater stress and anxiety, and less time, energy and space for the things that matter most – God, family, friendship, peace, joy.

In 1928, economist John Maynard Keynes imagined a world in which, thanks to advances in technological innovation, future generations would be freed to embrace a less “busy” lifestyle – perhaps only working three days a week.  Can you imagine?

When Dwight D. Eisenhower accepted the Republican nomination for president in 1956, he envisioned a world where…  “leisure will be abundant, so that all can develop the life of the spirit, of reflection, of religion, of the arts, of the full realization of the good things of the world.”  Let me ask you – when was the last time you had abundant leisure?

The exact opposite has happened.

Americans are working longer hours than ever before. Somewhere around the end of the 20th century, busyness became a way of life and a badge of honor.  I heard a radio show, last week, saying Americans are taking less vacation time than ever before.

We simultaneously attempt to do our work via conference calls, while maintaining multiple conversations via texting and social media, while shopping on-line, while driving, while applying make-up, while listening to the radio, while shushing the kids in the back seat while we take them to school, before we try to squeeze in multiple errands before heading to the office, including picking up an extra-large coffee, for the extra caffeine we need because we never get enough sleep.

We talk on our phones, while we workout, while we watch the news, before we pick-up fast food from a drive-through for dinner, followed by chores and a little television, checking how many likes we got on social media, before collapsing into bed, for a fitful night’s sleep.

A recent survey found that 38 million Americans shop on their smartphones while sitting on the toilet. We can’t even wait in a grocery line, or a red light, or for a doctor appointment without pulling out our smart phones.

One of the things I’ve noticed in Guatemala, when we break from our construction projects for lunch, is that the North Americans tend to rush through our meal and are ready to get back to work.  Whereas, the Guatemalans eat more slowly, and take time for rest and conversation, and maybe a short nap, before heading back to work.  And, by the end of the day, they always outwork us.

There is in our culture and psyche a compulsion to “go, go, go,” filling every minute of every day with activity and noise.

Due to our over-filled lives, Americans report that they’re too busy to register to vote, to date, to make friends, to take a vacation, to sleep, to volunteer, etc.  Even church attendance is falling, due to people needing Sundays to get everything done!

Another study has shown that the compulsion to multitask is making us as stupid as if we were stoned.  Many believe that our compulsive “busyness” has actually become the cause of greater ineffectiveness – not effectiveness.  I think we all know that’s true.

And, like I said, it’s squeezing out the things that really make life worth living.  Why work longer and harder for a bigger, nicer house, filled with more stuff, if we can’t enjoy it?  Why fill our schedules with more and more activity, if those activities aren’t enjoyable and life-giving?  Why have thousands of friends and followers on social media, but not have any real friends?

We’ve accepted the lie that we can have it all – we can’t.  We’ve bought into the lie that efficiency, organization and time saving devices can give us more time to do things that matter – but, they don’t.  We seem to think that activity and busyness and stuff is the meaning and purpose of life – it isn’t.

We are humans, limited by time and certain mental, spiritual, and emotional capacities.  At some point, we become overloaded.

Have you ever noticed that Jesus didn’t have many possessions, he didn’t keep a calendar, and he frequently left the crowd to pray?  Is there a reason we think we can handle more commitments and stuff than Jesus?

The only way to make space for the things that matter most is to simplify, which means reprioritizing our lives, learning what to say “yes” to and what to say “no” to.  And, frankly, we need to say “no” a lot more often!

John Michael Talbot writes, “Simplicity is the time-tested tool that we can use to prune our lives… It seems that if ever there was a time when the virtue of simplicity was desperately needed, it’s in our own fast-paced, consumer-oriented, information-overloaded era.”

Do not worry…

Though the world in Jesus’ day was much different, it was still filled with reasons to be worried and anxious.  In Matthew 6:25-30, Jesus says, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?  Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?  Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.  Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.  If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 

            But, we do worry.  Americans are taking an unprecedented amount of a prescription medication for anxiety and depression.  Modern-day compulsions and concerns have produced unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety and depression, marital and family dysfunctions, road rage, workplace shootings, and addictive behaviors.

Again, John Michael Talbot writes, “Clearly, something is out of balance when millions of people are wracked by stress and medicated against despair.” 

 The birds & the flowers…

            Jesus provides very simple advice.  Don’t worry.  Trust God.  As an example, he points to the birds and the flowers.  “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”  Why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.  Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.

            Jesus is asking, “Don’t we trust that God will take care of us?  Don’t we trust that God will provide what we need?”  Don’t we trust that God knows best?”

            Simple logic – if God cares about birds and flowers enough to provide for their daily needs, won’t he take care of us!

Instead we worry about the stuff we have, and the stuff we think we need.  We worry about protecting and preserving what we have, and acquiring more.  We accumulate, in fear of it all going away.  How much of our time and energy is consumed in the acquisition and care of stuff that we don’t really need, don’t really want, and doesn’t really bring much joy to our lives?

Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us, this day, our daily bread.”  Jesus asks, Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”  Jesus said, “Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’…  your heavenly Father knows that you need them.” 

 Seek first…

So, how do we do that?  According to Jesus, the answer is priorities.  “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

            Jesus is being clear.  It’s about real, actual priorities.  Do the first, most important things first, and, if we trust him, everything else will work out.  But, focus your life on compulsive consumption and busyness, and you’ll never get around to what really matters.

            Here’s a simple, and probably familiar, illustration.  Imagine that a large jar represents your life – your time, energy, focus.  Imagine that several tennis balls represent the important things in life – health, family, service, spirituality, joy, generosity.  This is the stuff that Jesus was talking about when he promised us “abundant lives.”  Imagine marbles representing all of the little tasks that have to be done – getting gas, brushing your teeth, doing the laundry, etc.  There are usually a lot of these.  Now imagine that sand represents all of the stuff that might be enjoyable, but isn’t really necessary or important, and isn’t really necessary, but, if we aren’t careful, can take up a lot of time and energy – social media, watching television, checking email, texting, wandering the mall, online searches, 24-hour news reports, etc.

If you fill the jar starting with the sand, then the marbles, and last with the tennis balls, there’s a good chance that the tennis balls won’t fit.  That’s the way a lot of us live our lives.  We will fill our lives with the least meaningful/helpful/important stuff first, and by the time we have reached our full capacity of time and emotion, there’s no room for the stuff that really matters.

But, if we make sure we put the important stuff in first – if we “seek first the kingdom of God,” there tends to be room for the other stuff too.  If the tennis balls go in first, then the marbles, and then the sand, it might all fit.  Most importantly, the most important stuff fit.

Practically, how do we do this?  We have to make the most important things the top priorities.  Taking care of your family, your health, and your spirituality are most important.  Connecting with God and real friends really matters.  Serving God and giving really matters.  Give those things first priority in your schedule and in your budget.  Then, do the marble sized things.  Then, if it still matters, do the sand-sized stuff.

But, let me be clear.  We don’t seek God first in order to fit more in.  We seek God first, and the things God calls a priority, because they matter most!

The secret to a happy, fulfilling, joy-filled life is the exact opposite of what the world says.  The secret is simplicity.

 

 

 

 

“More” – a sermon preached at First Church Coral Springs on August 13, 2017

“More” – a sermon preached at First Church Coral Springs on August 13, 2017

Possibilities…

It was the last semester of my last year of college.  I was facing the reality of impending adulthood; and, I wasn’t ready.  I was about to graduate, but I had partied my way through college.  My degree was unmarketable.  My grades were pathetic.  I didn’t have any real-world work experience.  I didn’t have any purpose or direction.  I was scared.

But, I had hopes.  I wanted to be a responsible adult.  I wanted to marry.  I wanted to do something meaningful with my life.  I just didn’t know what, or how.

As graduation approached, my anxiety intensified, daily.  One night, alone in my fraternity house bedroom, overcome with anxiety, my Bible caught my eye.  I’d never read it.  Something told me to pick it up, and start reading. I read a few pages.  The next night, I read a few more.  I read a little every night until I worked my way through the four Gospels.  By then, Kelly and I were searching for a church.

A year later, I was the Youth Director at the First United Methodist Church of Orlando.

The point of this story is that a particular message stirred me as I read the four Gospels.  Over and over, I discovered Jesus saying things like…

  • “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.  (Matthew 7:7-8)
  • “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossiblefor you.”  (Matthew 17:20)
  • “If two of you on earth agree about anything they askfor, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 18:19)
  • “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”  (Matthew 21:22)

And, finally, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.   And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:12-14)

Notice the theme?  Over and over, Jesus says anything is possible with faith and prayer.  All things are possible, with God’s help!  In fact, Jesus says, we’ll do even greater things than him!

At that moment in my life, those were powerful promises.  They still are.  I was scared and unequipped for adulthood.  I felt like I was facing insurmountable obstacles.  But, Jesus said anything is possible.  I took him at his word – literally.  Ever since, I’ve believed, with faith, God does impossible things.  Throughout my ministry, I’ve operated out of this core belief and promise.

A small, old, rinky-dink church…

It was February, 2016 – just 18 months ago.  I’d been the Senior Pastor at Ortega United Methodist Church, in Jacksonville, for just 18 months. I’d just rearranged my office, and just hung some things on my walls – settling in, for the long haul.  I’d just preached a series, introducing our new vision.  I’d just led town-hall meetings to discuss how we would implement the new vision. I planned to be there for many years, and to watch that vision come to reality.

Then I got the call.  I was, unexpectedly, being moved to First Church Coral Springs.

You should know that I said, “no.”  I thought moving was a mistake, for Kelly and me, and for Ortega.  It was too soon.  We weren’t ready for a change.  Ortega wasn’t ready.  But, the decision wasn’t up to me – that’s how it works in the United Methodist Church.  We go when and where we are sent.

The reason for the move was that First Church needed a specific kind of pastor.  For some reason, I was discerned to be that pastor.

I was told that First Church is large, growing, and preparing for future growth.  I was told that First Church is culturally diverse, with the opportunity to become more diverse.  I was told that First Church is committed to missions and impacting the world.  I was told that First Church is a warm, welcoming church.  I was told that there are vision and dreams and plans for the future.

And, I was told, from the perspective of the United Methodist Church, First Church has the kind of ministry potential that could impact the entire south east region of Florida.  We are seen, by our denomination, as one of the strongest, healthiest, most vital churches in Florida, and in the denomination.

Even though I didn’t want to move, I admit that I was excited by the potential.

First Church is, in so many ways, the great church that was described to me.  This is a large, dynamic church.  This church is committed to mission and service.  This church is warm and welcoming.  This church has tremendous possibility and potential.  And, we are blessed with more diversity than any church I’ve ever served before.

But, more often than not, that’s not the way I hear “us” describe our church.

This year, our average worship attendance is about 800 people, per week. The average church attendance in America is only about 184.  Half of all churches in America only worship 75 people, or less.  90% of the churches in America worship less than 350 people, per week.  We are, at least, twice as large as 90% of the churches in America!

We are a large church!  We aren’t a mega–large church, like Church by the Glades or Calvary Chapel.  But, by all comparisons, we are a LARGE church – much larger than most, including most of the other churches in Coral Springs and Southeast Florida!  And, a church as large as ours, is capable of doing remarkable things!  In fact, we have a responsibility to!

And, yet, I’ve heard our leaders describe us as “small,” “rinky-dink,” and “declining.”

My point?  There’s a significant difference between how we are seen by others, and how we see ourselves.

This church already does great things; Bethlehem Revisited, Food Share, Vacation Bible School, and great Children and Youth Ministries.  But, when I bring up new ideas, I’m told – over and over – “We can’t do that,” “We can’t afford it,” “We don’t have enough volunteers,” “We don’t have enough leaders,” “We’ve tried that before, and it didn’t work.”

When I ask about our hopes and dreams for the future, the best I’ve heard is that we like what we currently do, now, or that we like what we used to be.  Don’t get me wrong.  I know we love First Church, and love what we currently do.  But, when it comes to the future, I don’t hear much dreaming.

My point is not to be critical.  My point is, there is a problem with self-perception.  There’s a gap between how we perceive ourselves, and how we are perceived by others.

The Johari Window…

johari-model

            During college, I learned about the Johari Window.  The Johari Window is a box, divided into four windows.  The top left, window #1, represents things I know about myself, and others also know about me.  Window #2, on the top right, represents things about me that I don’t know, but others do know – they call this the bad breath window.  Window #2 could also be the potential others see in us, that we don’t see in ourselves.  The bottom left window represents the things I know about myself, but others do not know about me – my secrets.  And, finally, the bottom right window represents what is unknown to both of us.

In the case of First Church, there are things that we know about First Church, that are also public knowledge.  That’s window #1.  Window #2, I think, represents the potential others see in First Church, that we don’t see in ourselves.  Window #3 represents what we know about ourselves, that others don’t know: things we’ve tried and failed, challenges we face.  And, window #4 represents, I think, what only God knows about our future.

My point, today, is to challenge us to see First Church, as others see us; to challenge our ideas about who we are, and what we can do; to move us into the second window – to see what other’s see; and even the fourth window – to begin to believe that there is potential and possibility that only God can see.

 We can’t, but God can…

            I want you to imagine being me, sitting in my fraternity house bedroom, anxious about the future, reading my Bible for the first time, desperately looking for hope and direction.  Instead of reading that anything is possible with God, and that God answers prayers, and that God opens doors, imagine if I read passages that said, “Ask, but don’t expect much.  Seek, and maybe you’ll find something – but, maybe you won’t.  Knock, but you better have the key to open the door yourself.”

Not very inspiring, huh?  I can tell you, if that’s what Scripture said, I would NOT be here today.

Instead, I am here today because I deeply believe that Jesus was telling the truth when he said, “Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.   And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:12-14)

I’m here, at First Church, because I believe, with all of my heart, that God has big plans for First Church.  I’m here, because I believe that First Church’s greatest days are not in the past, but are in our future.

The missionary, C.T. Studd, said, “Christ wants not nibblers of the possible, but grabbers of the impossible.” 

            The Christian philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, said, “If I were to wish for anything I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of what can be, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating as possibility.”

Who does this church belong to?  Who does this church exist for?

            Let me ask you two questions…

  1. Who does this church belong to?
  2. Who does this church exist for?

My hunch is, while we might know the correct theological answers, the honest answers are: This is our church, and this church exists for us.”  But, that’s not biblical.  In fact, it’s heretical.  First Church is not ours!  First Church belongs to Christ – he’s the head of the Church, and we’re his body!  And, Scripture says the Church exists for the needs of the world.  Our two primary functions are to honor God, and to serve the world.

Honor God and serve the world.  The church doesn’t exist to serve us – the members.  We are the church, and we exist to serve the world!

Earlier this week, I heard a pastor friend said, “The Church does not exist to feed its membership.  The Church, and her members, exist to offer a plate of life-giving food to a hungry world!”

So, if the Church belongs to God, and the Church exists for the world, then there’s NOTHING we can’t do, NOTHING’s too big to try, and NOTHING’s impossible, because God will provide the inspiration, the motivation, and the resources to do it.  It isn’t up to us.  It’s up to God!

Maybe we don’t have enough money – now.  Maybe we don’t have enough leaders and volunteers – yet.  Maybe we don’t know exactly what to do or how to do it – at this moment.  Maybe it will stretch us out of our comfort zones – that’s fine.

But, the issue, I think, isn’t lack of resources.  The issue, I think, is lack of faith.

Jesus did NOT say that anything is possible for US.  He said ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE for HIM!  We don’t need more faith in ourselves.    We need faith in what God wants, and can do through us, if we’re willing, prayerful, and faithful.

That’s my question: “Are we willing to be prayerful and faithful, to be the church God is calling First Church to become?”

Listen – if we prayerfully discern together that something is unbiblical, unwise, or that God simply doesn’t want it, that’s one thing.  But, until we’ve dared to dream God-sized dreams, and set God-sized goals, given generously, and prayed audacious, impossible prayers, how dare we say what we will or won’t, can or can’t do?!?

Let me tell you something.  First Church is not small, and not rinky-dink!  First Church is not declining!  First Church’s best years are not in the past – they’re in front of us, not behind us!  And, we haven’t even begun to dream of all God can and will do here, if we believe and if we will act.  God wants to do more at First Church, than we’ve ever dared to dream!

I believe that with all of my heart.  Do you?

I love what Paul writes in Ephesians 3:20-21, “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”  (Ephesians 3:20-21)

 

 

Monuments of Shame

Monuments of Shame

During my college years, I was quite enamored with beer.  I’m not proud of that.  But, it’s the truth.  My love affair with beer became a destructive habit that damaged relationships, hindered my maturation and education, and cast a permanent dark cloud over that chapter of my life.

I not only drank beer.   I covered the walls of my bedroom with beer-related posters and neon beer signs.  I built a visible, tangible monument to my destructive, addictive idolatry.

27 years ago, with God’s help, I stopped drinking.  Thank God.  About that time, I also tore down the beer-related decor.  Needless to say, there’s no beer-related paraphernalia in house anymore.

Given my history with beer, and the pain and destruction it caused, imagine if I still had that stuff hanging around.  What would that communicate to my mom, to my wife and children? What would that communicate to guests in my home?  What would that communicate to those who call me “pastor?”  What would that say about me, and my inability to move on?

Perhaps this is an overly-trite example, by comparison.  I hear a lot of talk these days about Civil War-related monuments.  I hear well-intentioned people say, “It’s our history,” as a justification for why the monuments should remain.  But, as I understand it, the purpose of monuments is to honor.  Is it appropriate for monuments to remain, in public, tax-payer supported places of honor, that represent such a dark blot on our history?  Is it appropriate for monuments to remain that symbolize the source of pain and strife for so many of our fellow-Americans?  It appropriate to maintain public monuments that white supremacists continue to use as symbols for their hate-filled cause?

I have vivid memories of the Berlin Wall coming down  and the massive statue of Saddam Hussein toppled in Iraq.  Numerous statues of Stalin and Lenin were torn down, removed, or relocated to history museums.  To the best of my knowledge, the destruction of such monuments was celebrated by most Americans.

In contrast, one can still visit many of the concentration camps of Nazi Germany – not as monuments, but reminders.

I will confess, as a 50-year-old white man, born and raised in the South, it only recently occurred to me that Confederate monuments were an issue of concern.  They’ve been an “accepted” part of Southern culture, since before I was born.  They’ve just been part of the Southern landscape.

But, my eyes have been opened.  While they’ve not offended me in the past, I now view them from a different perspective.  I have a growing understanding of what they represent to my African American brothers and sisters.  I have a growing understanding of the shameful horrors they represent. If they cause pain, and continue to communicate a message of racial difference and separation, then they need to come down.

They MUST come down!

Yes, the Civil War is part of our history – as are the Trail of Tears, the Japanese internment camps, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the southern Jim Crow laws, etc., etc.  We have history books, documentaries, and museums to keep those stories alive.  Remembering our history is important, so that we learn, grow, and strive not to repeat it.

Perhaps we do need monuments – monuments on behalf of the victims – as reminders of our sins.  But, why would we maintain monuments to honor the perpetrators of our darkest moments?

Though trivial by comparison, my college drinking is a dark chapter of my life.  I’ve worked hard to overcome that part of my history.  I can’t change it.  And, I won’t hide it.  But, I certainly won’t memorialize it.  The neon beer signs had to come down.

They had to come down.