What’s the Vision?

Almost as soon as I arrived last summer, as your new pastor, some of you were asking, “What’s your vision for First Church?”  What’s my vision?  Are you kidding?  At that point I was still trying to find the grocery store, the movie theater, a new dentist!  I had no idea what vision I had for First Church.  At that point, I wasn’t sure about the vision for my last church!  Now, 9 months later, I still have no idea what the vision is.  I still need a GPS just to find most places around Broward county!  I’m still looking for stuff I packed this time last year.

What’s the vision?  Give me a break!

You tell me!  Almost all of you have been here longer than I have!

But, saying that I don’t know what the vision is, doesn’t mean that I don’t think a vision is extremely important.  It is!  I do!  Proverbs 29:18 says, Where there is no vision, the people perish.”  And, Acts 2: 17 says, that Holy Spirit is given so that, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.”

Pastor Andy Stanley, in Atlanta, writes, Vision is a mental picture of what could be, fueled by a passion that it should be.”

Imagine that.  Imagine what could happen if we had a shared, crystal-clear picture of what God wants us to do, AND that we all shared a deep passion for accomplishing it.

            I passionately believe in the value of having a defining, unifying vision.  Without it, it is very difficult to say what is a priority and what is not a priority, what we will do and what we won’t do.  Without a clear vision, there can be competing values and agendas, or no values or agendas at all.

And, honestly, I think that describes First Church pretty well.  We do a lot of great things.  But, can we say why we do what we do?  What is our core God-given sense of purpose?

Some of us are passionate about music ministry.  Some of us are passionate about food ministry.  Some of us are passionate about the homeless.  Some of are passionate about Bethlehem.  Some of us are passionate about children and youth.  Some of us are passionate about prayer.  Some of us are passionate about Bible study.  Some of us are passionate about serving and reaching the community.  Some of us are passionate about traditional worship.  Some of us are passionate about contemporary worship.  Some of us are passionate about growth.  Some of us are passionate about maintaining the status quo – never changing anything, ever.

As long as that is true, how do we decide how to allocate our budget?  How do we decide what ministries to start?  How do we decide which ministries to stop?  How do we decide what kind of staff we need?  How do we decide how to use our buildings?  How do we know when to stretch, take risks, and act of faith?

We need a vision.

On the day after Easter, I packed a small bag, strapped it to the back of my Harley, and headed north on A1A.  Before I left, I made arrangements for places to stay in Vero, Ormond Beach, Jacksonville, St. Augustine, and Stuart.  I made arrangements to see some friends.  I had a basic route planned out.  I knew that by Wednesday afternoon I would be with my friends in Jacksonville, and Saturday I would be home.  I had a vision and a plan for where I was going, how I would get there, and what I would do.  And, I had a great trip.

But, I didn’t plan every minute.  I was very loose and flexible with my time and agenda.  I only rode for a few hours a day, which left me lots of time to explore, and relax, drink cups of coffee, read, and spend time with friends.

But, if I had left with no plans at all, no vision for where I was going, I might not have found places to stay.  I might not have known where to go.  I might have gotten lost.  I might have wasted a lot of time.  My friends might not have been available to meet.  I might have had an entirely frustrating trip.

A vision and plan is a helpful thing.  Churches need vision.  First Church needs a vision.

The problem is, a true God-given vision doesn’t just pop out of thin air.  Going on a week-long vacation is a bit easier than knowing who God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do.  You can’t just send a pastor to the top of a mountain and expect he will return with stone tablets carved with God’s vision.  If just doesn’t work that way.

But, I do want you to know that I’ve been devoting significant prayer to First Church’s vision since before I arrived, and I won’t stop until it is crystal clear.  Then I will pray that God will help us achieve it.

But, God works in God’s timing not mine.

I also tend to believe that while I may be the one to eventually articulate the vision, I’ll only be saying something that God has already spoken into the heart of this congregation.  Like I said, many of you have been worshipping, serving, giving, and praying for this church for a long time.  I suspect you already know the vision.  I suspect it has already been given.  I suspect the vision for our future is already here.  We just have to find it.

A Church the Loves Well…

One of the ways I’ve been seeking that vision, is by listening – asking questions and listening.  A few months back, I was riding to Orlando with our youth director, Chris Linderman. I asked him, “Chris, what kind of church do you dream of being part of?”  After a few minutes of quiet thought, Chris said, “I want to be part of a church that loves well.”  I asked him what that meant.  He said something like, “I want to be part of a church that loves God so much that everything we do is motivated by God’s love; we serve because we love; we worship because we love; we share Jesus because we love; we fellowship because we love; we take care of each other because we love”

            I like that.  I like that a lot.

Obviously, that’s very close to something Jesus said.

The Greatest Commandment:

On numerous occasions, Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment?”   Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

            In John 13:34, Jesus also says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

I know we’ve all heard that.  But, I’d like for us to think about it for a moment.  What is the most important commandment?  He doesn’t say anything about rule-keeping, church attendance, or theological correctness.  He doesn’t say anything about spiritual gifts, or Biblical knowledge, or serving.  All of those ARE important.  But, the #1, most important thing we can do, according to Jesus, is love God and love neighbor.

Also, notice that.  He states the two as a single command.  One command:  love God and love one another.  They go together, inseparably.

Brennan Manning writes, “The litmus test of our love for God is our love of neighbor.” 

They go hand-in-hand.

We Love First

            In other words, Jesus seems to be saying, “love first.”  Before everything else, ground yourself in love.  “Love first.”  There are many valuable religious things we can do – worship, Bible study, service, retreats, etc., etc.  But, nothing is more important than love.  In fact, without love, everything else is utterly meaningless.  Paul wrote, If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”  (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

            John Wesley writes, “Love is the highest gift of God; humble, gentle, patient love; that all visions, revelations, manifestations whatever, are little things compared to love.”

 What is Love?

            I want to be very clear about something.  I’ve heard people say, “I don’t want to hear sermons about how I’m supposed to love everybody!”; as though there is something biblically or theologically soft about talking about love; as though there are more weighty things to talk about, like sin and judgment.  I think such sentiments must be rooted in a complete misunderstanding of what love is.

Love begins with God…

            Love can’t be weak or soft, because love begins with God.  In fact, love is God’s own self-definition.  I John 4:7-8 says, Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

Hear that again – “whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”  That is a bold statement.  Love isn’t optional for Christians.  It is the one and only way we can know who God is.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.”

Love is more than a feeling

I think part of the problem with our understanding of love is that we think it is just an emotion or feeling.  1 John 4:9-11 clearly corrects this, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

            Which leads us back to what is first… “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (vs. 12)

            But, notice the kind of love he’s talking about.  Christian love isn’t just warm, affectionate, sentimental feeling.  We are called to love one another the way that God loves us – sacrificially.  He showed us he loved us by sacrificing his son.  He shows us love by loving us before we loved him.  He shows us love by loving us when we don’t deserve it.

1 Corinthians 13 describes a love that is far from just emotion and sentimentalism… “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (vs. 4-7)

Can any of us honestly say that we haven’t been envious, impatient or unkind – even with the people we claim to love the most?  Can we honestly claim that we haven’t been boastful, or prideful, or self-seeking, or easily angered?

Love is far from soft emotional sentimentality.  Love is hard.  Love is challenging.  Love is work.  Love requires deep personal sacrifice and a significant amount of personal spiritual maturity!

Mother Teresa said, “(For) love to be real, it must cost—it must hurt—it must empty us of self.” 

What’s the Vision?

            So back to the original question, “What’s the vision?”  Like I already said, I have absolutely no idea.  I have no idea what kind of church we will be in the years to come. But, I know we need a vision, and I am fully committed to identifying that vision and pursuing it to actualization.

Some of you might be thinking, “Why do we need a vision?  Hasn’t the Bible made it pretty clear what we are supposed to do?”

            I absolutely agree.  The Bible is clear.  Until a specific vision for First Church becomes clearer to us, it seems to me that Jesus has already given us some pretty clear instruction – to love.  Love God.  Love our neighbors.  Love each other.  Love First.

Love God, passionately in worship and service.  Love each other – even when you may not like each other.  Love the people who walk in our doors – no matter who they are.  Love the people we serve.  Love the people in this community that don’t know Jesus.  Love the people that we might otherwise consider unlovable.  Love God and people more than traditions.  Love God and people more than institutions.  Love God and people more than rules.  Love God and people more than our personal agendas.  Love God and people more than our petty personal preferences. Love God and people with our words, our actions, our service, our offerings.  Love like God loves.

Love first.

 

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