Ancient-Future

Ancient-Future

I recently listened to a program on NPR called, In Salt Lake City You’ll Find Mormons Who Meditate.  You can read the transcript at In Salt Lake City You’ll Find Mormons Who Meditate

In summary, the story is about a man who grew up Mormon, left the Mormon faith as a young adult, learned about Buddhist Mindfulness (meditation), while visiting Salt Lake City felt a calling to return to Mormonism, and now leads Mindfulness experiences for fellow-Mormons.  This seems to be particularly attractive to young adult and dis-affected Mormons.

I’m not Mormon, and I don’t practice Buddhist Mindfulness.  But, I am part of a Christian denomination (United Methodist) that seems to be less and less attractive/relevant to more and more people.  I am also very familiar with ancient Christian forms of contemplation and meditation, particularly from the mystical side of the monastic traditions, that have some parallels to Buddhist practices.

As I listened to this radio broadcast, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Mormons have discovered something that might also be appealing and appropriate in my context and tradition.

I wonder if mainline Christianity has become too focused on programming, structure, institutional bureaucracy, rules, and doctrine?  I wonder if we’ve neglected something that people are hungry for – ancient practices that help people connect with God in deeper, richer, more personal, and more experiential ways?

Christianity has a rich tradition of…

  • Prayer
  • Journaling
  • Silence
  • Solitude
  • Meditation
  • Contemplation
  • Listening
  • Mysticism
  • Spiritual Direction
  • Spiritual Disciplines

But, if I am honest, most of that tradition has been lacking in the churches and ministries I’ve led, beyond occurring in limited way in small groups or by individual practitioners.

I can’t help but wonder what we’ve lost by ignoring these spiritual treasures.  And, I can’t help but wonder if our Mormon friends might have discovered something really important.  I can’t help but wonder if a future for main-line Christianity is a return to ancient spiritual practices.

I wonder.

Stretched! The First Sermon in a Series Called “The 2017 Summer Stretch,” Preached at First Church Coral Springs on Sunday, June 18, 2017

Stretched!  The First Sermon in a Series Called “The 2017 Summer Stretch,” Preached at First Church Coral Springs on Sunday, June 18, 2017

In Michelangelo’s famous painting of God reaching out to Adam, painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, God’s arm is fully extended.  Adam, however, is slouched back, barely exerting the effort to lift his arm, only almost reaching out to God.

Adam represents us.  While God always reaches out to us, we are often lazy, sluggish, and half-hearted in our response.  Notice that if Adam would just stretch out his fingers just slightly, he could touch the hand of God.  Since Adam, God has always yearned for us to stretch out and take his hand.

That’s what this Summer Stretch is about – to push all of us out of our ruts and comfort zones, and to challenge us to STRETCH!  The word “stretch” is defined as, capable of being made longer or wider without tearing or breaking.”  You and I are capable of stretching.  It might feel awkward and uncomfortable.  It might require some effort. But, we can do it.

  • What if a more abundant life is waiting for you just inches away, if you just stretched?
  • What if you could make a difference in this world, if you just stretched for it?
  • What if there are mysteries to be revealed, if you will just stretch to receive them?
  • What if there is deeper prayer and worship, if you would just be willing to stretch?
  • What if you could grow into the full stature of Christ, if you would just stretch more?

That’s what I want us to find out this summer.  If you and I could just stretch our minds, our hearts, our souls, our hands toward God a little more, I think we might find ourselves spiritually in a completely different place than we ever knew was possible.

Paul wrote to the Ephesians, I pray that you… may have power… to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”  Ephesians 3:17-19   That’s my prayer for all of us this summer!

Henri Nouwen writes, “Our spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, expecting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination or prediction.” 

Patches & Wineskins:

In Matthew 9, Jesus is asked why he had his disciples are not fasting as much as the John’s disciples and the Pharisees.  Fasting is a spiritual practice of self-denial – usually not eating food for a period of time.  In biblical times, the tradition and practice of fasting was an act of sorrow for sin.  Jesus doesn’t condemn fasting.  In fact, in other passages he clearly expects it.  But, in this case he says, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.”  Matthew 9:15 Jesus is saying that fasting is a fine spiritual practice, but then wasn’t the time for it.

Traditions, like fasting, have purpose and value when their meaning aligns with the needs of the moment.  Jesus illustrates this by comparing fasting with patches and wineskins.  Jesus says, “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse.   Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:16-17)

If you sew a patch of new cloth to an old garment that has been shrunk from many washings, when the new cloth shrinks, it will tear the garment.  An old garment needs an old patch.

A wineskin was made from goat skins, which would harden over time.  But, a new skin was stretchable, pliable.  It had to be so, because new wine releases gases during the fermenting process.  The skin has to be able to stretch and expand as the new wine ferments.  If you put new wine an old wine skin, the old wine skin can’t stretch, and will burst.

Jesus is the new wine.  He came to do something new and challenging – not to just reinforce the old.  Jesus is not anti-tradition.  But, neither is Jesus bound by tradition.  Jesus encouraged fasting, but not for the sake of fasting.  Jesus observed the Sabbath, but didn’t hesitate to violate Sabbath rules if a person needed healing or if the disciples were hungry.  Jesus came to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven on the Earth – not to preserve tradition.

Jaroslav Pelikan writes, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”

            There’s a story about a Buddhist temple, where a cat would wander in among the monks while they were praying, which was distracting.  It was decided to leash the cat, and time him to a post.  Years passed, and the leashed cat became a familiar presence in the temple.  So, when the cat finally died, the monks bought a new cat, and tied it to the same post.

A man went to the store to buy a ham for dinner.  His wife told him to have the butcher cut the end off.  He forgot, and brought home the whole ham.  His wife was frustrated that he forgot this simple detail.  So, the man asked, “Why does the end need to be cut off anyway?”  She didn’t know.  She just knew it was important.  So, she called her mother to ask why the end had to be cut off.  The mother also said it was necessary, but she also didn’t know why.  So, they called grandma, and asked her why.  She said, “Because I only had a small roasting pan.  The whole ham wouldn’t fit.”

  Change is threatening, but it is not evil…

Not growing up in church, my introduction to Church tradition was in seminary, where I was taught the practice AND the meaning traditions.  It might surprise some of you to hear that I LOVE Church tradition.  I LOVE ritual.  I LOVE “smells and bells.”  Traditions and rituals have the ability to communicate mystery at a much deeper level than words ever can.

But, I don’t believe in practicing tradition and rituals just because they are familiar.  Habit is not the same as tradition.  Familiarity is not the same as tradition.

And, change is not the opposite of tradition.  I think we sometimes resist what God can do, because we expect him to do a new thing in our old wineskins.  Or, maybe we don’t want to do a new thing.

There’s undeniably something in our human nature that clings to the familiar and resists change.  Change feels like threat.  Typically, our first response to change is to assume the old was better and that the new is wrong.  The Pharisees and Sadducees certainly reacted to Jesus that way.

Certainly, change is not always right or good.  But, change is not inherently wrong, bad, or evil.

 Every tradition began as an innovation…

We have to remember that every tradition was once an innovation that someone hated.  Let me say that again – every tradition was once an innovation.  Every hymn in the hymnal was once a contemporary song – that someone didn’t like.  Every tradition and every hymn we cherish began with someone saying, “It’s new. I don’t like it.”

Take a walk with me through history…

Starting Genesis, the sole expression of worship was the building of altars and animal sacrifice, that was only practiced occasionally, as an individual’s thanks to God.

By the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, animal sacrifice became a daily ritual to express thanks, to seek God’s blessing, and to atone for sin.  All sacrifices were performed at a sacred, moveable tent called the Tabernacle, and were performed by priests.  There were precise instructions for how the rituals were to be performed.  Annual festivals were also instituted – like Passover.  And, the Sabbath became a holy day.

By the time of King David, the Tabernacle was given a permanent home in Jerusalem, and David instituted musical worship and dance for the first time.

David’s son, King Solomon later replaced the tabernacle with a permanent Temple.  At this point, all worship took place in Jerusalem.

During the time of the Prophets, the Babylonians invaded and destroyed the Temple and took the Jews to foreign lands as slaves.  There was no way to worship in Jerusalem.  And, the Prophets taught that their destruction was because they forgot God’s teaching.  The Jews had to find a new way to worship in this new context.  Psalm 137 was written during this time,

“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps,  for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”  How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1-4)

A new situation required new traditions and practices – new wineskins.  So, during this time, the local Jewish synagogue was created as a place of study, and worship took the form of songs and teaching Torah.

By the time of Jesus, the Temple was rebuilt and sacrifices had resumed.  The festivals had been reinstituted.  But, the local synagogues remained.  Local Sabbath worship happened in the synagogue for instruction and annual festivals happened in Jerusalem at the Temple, as well as daily sacrifices in the Temple.

By Acts, the persecution of Christians led to primarily worshipping in homes – not the Temple or the synagogue.  Within a generation, because the Romans were persecuting the Jews, the Christians switched the Christian Sabbath to Sunday instead of the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday.  Worship primarily consisted of songs, teaching, collections for the poor, and a shared meal.  It was during this time that the Jewish Temple was destroyed again, and sacrifices ended.

Think about that.  Biblical worship began as an occasional burnt animal sacrifice, performed by an individual or family.  By the end of the Bible, worship became the gathering of diverse groups of Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free men, in homes for common meals, teaching and singing.  That’s a pretty radical change of tradition!  New wine skins were required for new wine.  But, change didn’t stop with the book of Revelation.

Did you know that churches haven’t always had seating? For centuries, people had stand for worship.  When benches were introduced in churches, some thought it was heretical sit in worship.

Did you know that pipe organs were originally considered offensive in church, because they produce “artificial” sounds?  Instead of an orchestra playing instruments, one person could play one instrument that simulated all of the sounds of a symphony.  People didn’t like it.

For centuries, the Bible was only written in Latin, and only read by priests.  When it was translated into spoken languages, and mass produced by the printing press, many objected to the idea of common people having and reading their own Bibles.

For centuries, churches were filled with tapestries, and mosaics, and stained glass, and statues to help illiterate Christians learn the stories of the Bible and the Saints through pictures.  But, during the Reformation, those were considered too “Catholic,” and churches were stripped bare.

Did you know that Methodism began outdoors with “field preaching?” Methodist preachers preached out-side in public squares, at boat docks, and near the entrances to mines.  Many considered field preaching highly offensive, because preaching was supposed to happen ONLY inside church walls.

In recent years, some have objected to contemporary worship music with drums and guitars, projection screens, videos, and the use of the arts in worship.  Before long, contemporary practices will become traditions that we won’t want to change, and something new will come along that’s meaningful to the next generation, but will inevitably be offensive to us.

We can never forget the words of Isaiah 43:18-19. “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.  See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”

While it’s never wise to abandon traditions that are meaningful, we can never forget that traditions have changed and adapted over and over throughout the generations.  Traditions have been adapted and changed by different cultures.  When Jesus spoke about new wine, he was talking about fresh moves of the Holy Spirit in every generation.  Every generation must pour the new wine of the Spirit into new wineskins, and not try to force it into old ones.

Traditions are one form of wine skins.  We  – you and me – are wine skins too.

            Mark Batterson writes, “One of our fundamental spiritual problems is this:  we want God to do something new while we keep doing the same old thing.  We want God to change our circumstances without us having to change at all.”

So here is my question for all of us this morning – “What do we value more –  wine skins or new wine?   Are we more committed to preserving the old wineskins more than we are to receiving the new wine?  Could it be that clinging to old wine skins is actually keeping you from being stretched by the new things God wants to do in your spiritual life?”

Are you ready to be stretched?

 

 

Eating Death

Eating Death

On my way to work, this morning, I noticed a “committee” of buzzards (yes – a group of buzzards is a “committee”) sitting on street lights, brooding above a dead road-kill possum they obviously wanted for breakfast, but couldn’t reach because of the morning traffic.

I hate buzzards.  Actually, that’s an understatement.  I loathe buzzards.  They repulse me.

Buzzards – also known as vultures (We call ’em buzzards in the South!) – live on death.  They can be frequently spotted along country roads and highways, dining on recent road kill.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ridden a motorcycle in the country, and encountered a “committee” of buzzards feasting on a carcass in the middle of the road.  No matter how loud my bike is, or how many times I honk my horn, buzzards always wait until the last minute to get out of my way – not willing to risk stepping away from their meal and losing it to another buzzard.  And, every single time, one of the buzzards seems to fly straight at me, swerving away at the last possibly moment.

I’m disgusted by buzzards.

There’s one more terrible thing about buzzards.  A buzzard’s primary self-defense is to projectile vomit when it feels threaten.  Since the only thing a buzzard eats is dead, rotting road kill, then the only thing they can vomit is regurgitated, partially-digested death.

Disgusting.  Really.  So gross!

As much as I hate – I mean loathe – buzzards, if I am completely honest, I’m a bit of a buzzard, myself.  I feast on death every day.  I bet you do too.

Negativity.

Anger.

Judgement.

Criticism.

Self-condemnation.

Despair.

Disappointment

Envy.

Shame.

Fear.

Everyday, life presents an endless, all-you-can eat buffet of rotting, stinking death and despair.

And, I’ll confess, sometimes, if Imm not very careful, it spews out on others.

What a disgusting image!  And, unfortunately, accurate.

Maybe I should be more careful about what I eat.

Children’s Ministry Sermon – preached at First Church Coral Springs on Sunday, June 12, 2017

Children’s Ministry Sermon – preached at First Church Coral Springs on Sunday, June 12, 2017

I suspect we would all agree that children need Jesus.  Adults need Jesus.  Everyone needs Jesus.  But, the earlier we can introduce a child to Jesus, the earlier we can begin to develop solid spiritual foundations for the opportunities, challenges and responsibilities they will face as adults.

There is an old book called, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, by Robert Fulghum.  Her writes,  “These are the things I learned (in Kindergarten):

1. Share everything.
2. Play fair.
3. Don’t hit people.
4. Put things back where you found them.
5. CLEAN UP YOUR OWN MESS.
6. Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
7. Say you’re SORRY when you HURT somebody.
8. Wash your hands before you eat.
9. Flush.
10. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.

He later adds, “Think what a better world it would be if we all-the whole world-had cookies and milk about three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess.” 

We would add to Fulghum’s list, “meeting and knowing Jesus at an early age.”  Research shows that about 85% of all Christians make a 1st time commitment to Christ during their childhood or teens.

            Frederick Douglas, the abolitionist, wrote, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” 


            Once of the most familiar stories about Jesus is the time that parents brought their children to Jesus to bless.  But, the disciples thought Jesus had more important things to do, so they pushed the families away.  But, when Jesus saw what was happening, he said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

            That’s a pretty meaty statement – “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”  Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what it means.  But, if we simply take it at face-value, Jesus is elevating the importance of Children’s Ministry to an entirely different level.  He is saying that his Kingdom belongs to the children!

He didn’t say, “Let the children come to me – I just love kids!” 

  • or, “I’ve got a few spare minutes.”
  • or, “I’d really like to get their parents into church.”
  • or, “somebody post a picture of this on Instagram!”
  • or, “they’re a lot more fun than you guys!”

He said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

According to Jesus, Children’s Ministry is more than…

  • a tool to attract young families.
  • baby-sitting.
  • A place to put the kids during “big” church.

According to Jesus, Children’s Ministry is where the real action is, because it’s where the Kingdom is!

There is an old evangelical expression, “God doesn’t have any grandchildren.”  It basically means that you don’t automatically know Jesus, just by being born into a Christian family.  Every person has to meet Jesus for themselves, and make a personal decision to accept him as Lord and Savior.  It has to happen in every generation.

Psalm 78:1-7 says,

My people, hear my teaching;   listen to the words of my mouth.  I will open my mouth with a parable; I will utter hidden things, things from of old— things we have heard and known, things our ancestors have told us.  We will not hide them from their descendants; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord,  his power, and the wonders he has done.  He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God  and would not forget his deeds  but would keep his commands.

            Notice the intentionality about passing the stories and God’s laws on to the next generation.  Two key phrases…

  • “We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the ”
  • “Then they would put their trust in God.”

If you read the Old Testament carefully, you will notice that God seems paranoid about the dangers of his people forgetting to teach the children, to tell them the stories of God, to remind them of what God has done in the past.  And, over and over, there are stories – in Judges, and in the Prophets – of one generation that knows and worships God, and a following generation that forgets God, and falls into disaster.

I believe we are living out that same biblical story now.  More-or-less 100% of the Baby Boomer generation, and the prior generations, were religious.  Everyone had a place of worship.  Everyone was either Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish.  And, Sundays, for the most part, were days set aside culturally, as a day for family and for worship.

But, in my generation – Generation X – only about 50% of us were raised going to church.  My children’s generation – the Millennial Generation –  dropped to under 30%.   The youngest generation -Generation Z – is the largest generation ever born in the United States.  The question is whether they will be the generation that abandons the church entirely, or if they will be the generation that returns to the Lord.

I can’t help but wonder how many of the problems we see in our nation – in our own county – today are directly because there’s so little influence of Christ?  Will that change with the next generation, or will it just keeping getting worse?

Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” 

Let me be very clear about this.  We all know the expression, “It takes a village to raise a child.”  Children’s Ministry is one important part of that village.  But, spiritually, the church can only do so much.  Think about this.  If you add up all of the time a child can potentially spend in church Children’s Ministry activities, that only totals to about 3 days out of 365 days in a year!  Where does a child spend the rest of their time?  School, sports, screen time, parents?  Children’s Ministry, at best reinforces and supplements what children must learn primarily at home.  Church cannot be a substitute!

Carey Nieuwhof writes, “The average parent has 75 times the influence of a church leader.”

             Kids, for the most part, don’t discover Jesus at church.  They might make a decision to follow Jesus at a church event.  Children’s Ministry can strengthen, develop, and deepen a child’s faith.  But, a child needs to learn about Jesus from his/her family.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote,  I learned more about Christianity from my mother than from all the theologians of England.”

Let me ask you, do your children and grandchildren…

  • hear you talking about Jesus?
  • see you reading your Bibles?
  • Hear you pray?

Do you have clear, practiced Christian traditions and values in your home?  Are your kids learning to give to the church?  Are they learning how to serve Jesus? Do they know your testimony?

Several years ago, I noticed a new trend.  I was a campus minister for 11 years – from 2003 to 2014.  We had grown a large successful ministry.  But, around 2011/2012, our attendance dropped off significantly.  At first, I wondered what we were doing wrong.  But, after further investigation, we realized that we had more students involved than ever before.  They just weren’t coming as often.  After even more investigation, we realized that this was the first generation of Christian college students who had grown up playing sports on Sundays.  Previously, Sunday’s were reserved for church and family.  But, by this particular class of students, skipping church had become normal.  They had learned that church was something you do, when you have time.  We’ve shaped a generation of young people who believe it is normal to be a part-time Christian.

            Faith in Christ is foundational and eternal.  Faith in Christ is core to character development.  Faith in Christ is about learning the Truth about the world, and themselves.

 “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”  I’m sure we can all think of exceptions – people who did grow up in Church, but turned away.  There are no guarantees.  But, if raise up a child to believe Church is low priority, when they are older, they will not depart from that.  If we teach a child to go to Church only when it’s convenient, when he/she is older, they will not depart from it.  If we teach a child that Church is an occasional thing, when he/she is older, they will not depart from it.

We have to be intentional teaching a child that faith in Christ is the highest priority!

My wife and I were far from perfect parents.  But, one of things I believe we did right was teaching our children that their faith in Christ, and their activity in church, is the first priority.  My kids were active in sports, and dance, and music, and took AP classes.  But, they very rarely missed church or Youth Group – for anything.  Those were priorities.  When they complained, we simply reminded them about our family’s priorities and values.

Church, we’ve got to do all we can to immerse our kids in the love of Jesus.  At church, we must offer the most dynamic Children’s Ministry we possibly can.  And, parents, your kids need you to make faith a priority in your home.  The spiritual investments we make in kid’s lives now, will directly impact the adults they become later, and for eternity.

 

 

Civility

Civility

I believe in the power of words.

Words can build up.  Words can tear down.

Words can encourage.  Words can wound.

Words can bless.  Words can curse.

Very few words are powerless and without consequence.

I believe, deeply, in the power of words.

“Those who guard their lips preserve their lives, but those who speak rashly will come to ruin.”  Proverbs 13:3

“With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.”  James 3:9-10

Years ago, I was influenced by a book by the Christian psychologist and author, M. Scott Peck, A World Waiting to be Born: Civility Rediscovered.

Civility.  Ive been thinking a lot about civility lately.  When I think of civility I think of respect and common decency – an absence of ugliness.  Civility is more than superficial politeness.  Civility is respect.  I especially think of how we communicate with and about one another.

Peck writes, “Genuine civility is a form of healing behavior that demands often painful honesty and the scalpel of candor.”

Civil behavior is painfully honest and full of unvarnished truth.  And, the purpose of civil behavior and speech is healing.

Words spoken civilly are truthful and heartfelt.  Civil words can be painful to hear and still be civil.  But, civil words are never intended to inflict pain for the sake of inflicting pain.  Civil words are intended to build up, not tear down.

It is quite possible to 100% disagree with what someone believes, does or says, and still treat them, and speak to them or about them, civilly.

I believe, passionately, in the need for civil words.

I attended Duke Divinity School in the early 1990’s, and was officially introduced to “political correctness” for the first time, just as the term was coming into vogue, at least in academic circles.  Thankfully, already believing in the power of words and civility, “political correctness” simply gave shape, form, and intentionality to my communication.  My understanding of “political correctness,” and attempts to practice it, has simply been to be as respectful in my speech and action as I can be.  If a word or phrase is offensive, then I avoid it.  If another word or phrase is more accurate or edifying, I strive to adapt it.

I cannot remember a single occasion that I have been offended by someone’s correction or request to use different language.  Nor can I think of a single time that I’ve felt overburdened by being intentional about my words.

As a follower of Jesus, I believe that the burden is mine to avoid being hurtful, harmful, or offensive.  Not only that.  The burden is also mine to speak “the truth in love.”  I can adjust what I say and how I say it for the sake of others.  To be Christ-like is to be civil.

All of a sudden, in the last couple of years, “political correctness,” in some circles, has become a bad word, while crass, careless, disrespectful speech is being celebrated.  We’ve abandoned civility, and I think we are worse for it.

I’m so sick of the venom, of the small-ness, the falsity, the vitriol.

So, call it whatever you want – political correctness, civility, respect, common-decency.  I call it civility.  I call it Christ-like.  I call it right.  And, I think we need a lot more of it.

 

“Love Transforms” – the 5th and last sermon of a series called, “We Love First,” preached on May 28th, 2017 at First Church Coral Springs

“Love Transforms” – the 5th and last sermon of a series called, “We Love First,” preached on May 28th, 2017 at First Church Coral Springs

Do we Really Believe This Stuff?

During Lent our theme was “Restoration.”  We talked each week about how God can restore what is broken.  Throughout Lent, as I prepared for each sermon, I found myself asking, week-by-week, “Do I really believe this stuff?”  Do I really believe God can fix what is broken in our lives?  Or, is this just stuff we talk about?  I’ll come back to this in just a moment.

Over the last four weeks, I’ve asked the members of First Church to dream about what kind of church we can be. Each week, we have asked members to complete the statement, “I want to be part of a church that…”  As we have sorted through those responses, they seemed to fall into the following 8 categories; I want to be part of a church that…

  • Offers Warm & Caring Fellowship
  • Welcomes EVERYONE
  • Reaches the Next Generation
  • Transforms People & Places
  • Celebrates Diversity
  • Serves the Community
  • Strengthens Families
  • Shares the Good News

As I read this list, “Transforming People and Places” resonates most strongly with me.  I deeply believe that Go’s love transforms.  And, my question is, “Do we really believe that God can transform people and places?”


Figless Fig Trees

Jesus once told a story about a fig tree growing in a vineyard.  Notice – it’s growing in a VINEYARD.  Figs don’t grow in vineyards.  Grapes grow in vineyards.  The fig tree is taking up valuable space, and potentially blocking the grape-vines from the sun.  But, the main problem was that it wasn’t producing figs.  Why have a fig tree taking up space in a vineyard if it isn’t producing figs?

The owner told his worker, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

But, the worker replied, “Sir, leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.”

            The owner of the vineyard had given up hope on the fig tree, and only saw it as a liability – a waste of space.  But, the worker still saw potential.  With another year of fertilizer, the tree could possibly produce fruit.  He believed in the possibility of transformation.

Methodists and the Middle Class

            John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once wrote, “What may we reasonably believe to be God’s design in raising up the Preachers called Methodist?  To reform the nation, particularly the church, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.” 

John Wesley and the early Methodists believed in the power of God to transform lives.  And, as individual lives were transformed, he believed families would be transformed, and then neighborhoods and cities would be transformed – To reform the nation, particularly the church, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land” 

            Methodism was birthed in 18th Century England, when there was a deep divide among the wealthy elite and the poor working class.  Among the poor, who worked on the docks or in the mines, there was rampant addiction, gambling, and debt.  That was where John Wesley and the Methodists directed their efforts.  And, as people came to Christ, they tended to quit drinking, give up gambling, become more responsible with their money and become harder workers.  As they did, their lives and their neighborhoods improved.

Many expert sociologists and historians believe that the development of a middle class in England was a direct result of the Methodist’s efforts to transform society.

Wouldn’t it be great to be part of something like that now?

Transformation

Scripture teaches that anyone in Christ is a “new” creation.  The clear expectation of God, expressed in Scripture, is that we are meant to change – to become more and more like Christ, and that our lives are meant to look more and more like the Kingdom of God on earth.  That is God’s intent – the movement of his Kingdom on the earth.  The expectation is that, like the fig tree in Jesus’ parable, we will become increasingly fruitful for the sake of the Kingdom and that the Kingdom’s advance will have a transformative effect on this world.

In Colossians, The Apostle Paul writes, “The gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace.”  Colossians 1:6

He then goes on, “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God.”  Colossians 1:9-10

            And, “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.  Colossians 1:13

Two key phrases – “bearing fruit” and “rescued from darkness.”  Both mark a change.  Our lives are meant to bear fruit.  And, we are no longer who we were.  We may have lived in darkness.  But, now, in Christ, we have been invited into the light of the kingdom where we can live fruitful, productive lives.  That’s transformation!  That means…

  • If I was irresponsible before knowing Christ, I can become more responsible.
  • If I was self-centered before knowing Christ, I can become self-less.
  • If I was unkind and uncaring before knowing Christ, I can become more kind and loving.
  • If my life was fruitless before knowing Christ, my life can become fruitful.
  • If I was an addict, I can get sober.
  • If I was sick, I can get well.
  • If I was lost, I can find direction.
  • If I was broken, I can be restored.
  • If my life was in chaos, I can find order and purpose.
  • If I was trapped, I can be rescued and set free.

Just like a fruitless fruit tree, God can take our lives, and transform us into people who live healthy, productive, fruitful, kingdom-focused lives.

And, if Christ can transform a person who is broken, then he can transform marriages and families that are broken.  If he can transform families that are broken, he can potentially transform neighborhoods that are broken.  And, if he can transform neighborhoods that are broken, then cities, then counties, the societies, then nations.

Vance’s Vision:  Transforming People and Places Through the Power of God’s Love

            My personal vision for ministry, in a sentence, is the “transformation of people and places through the power of God’s love.”  God’s love has and is transforming me.  I’ve seen God’s love transform others.  The reason I became a campus minister was to be involved in shaping and forming young people into future leaders of the Church and world.  I used to tell my students that I was doing all I could to mess them up for Jesus, so that they could graduate and go mess up churches and the world for Jesus.  (If Jesus and his Gospel haven’t messed you, then you might not be paying attention!)

My vision hasn’t changed.  My vision is to mold and shape each of you – young and old – with the power of God’s love, so that we can all be fruitful agents of transformation in this community and the world. Everything I do is with the intent of changing someone’s life.  I never get in the pulpit, without that intent.

As a pastor and as a believer, I have absolutely no interest in just doing religious activities.  I have no interest in maintaining the religious status quo.  I have no interest in coddling and hand-holding people who don’t want to change.  I refuse go through the motions.

I’m not a pastor to just play at this.  I’m a pastor for no other reason than my deep conviction that God can and will transform people and places, and that he invites us to be his agents of transformation in a world that desperately needs transformation.

Do we really believe that God sent his only beloved Son, to die a violent death on a cross and conquer sin and death, just so we can have nice religious services and activities???  It is way for radical than that!  Jesus came to save and transform broken people and a broken world.  I don’t care anything all about being part of religious activities, but I desperately want to be part of what Jesus came to do!

One of my favorite quotes is from a El Salvadoran Arch-bishop named Oscar Romero, who fought for the poor, and who was murdered by the El Salvadoran government, while he was offering the Mass, on March 24th, 1980.  Here’s the quote,

“This is what we are about.  We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.  We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.”  
Oscar Romero

 

 

 

 

“Love Shares” – the 4th message in a 5-week sermon series called, “We Love First,” preached on May 21, 2017, at First Church Coral Springs

“Love Shares” – the 4th message in a 5-week sermon series called, “We Love First,” preached on May 21, 2017, at First Church Coral Springs

 

            In 1999, my family was sent to Port St. Lucie, Florida to start a new United Methodist Church.  I had dreamed of starting a new church, and had spent the previous year planning.  Though I didn’t know a single person in Port St. Lucie, I had ten acres of vacant land and a vision for the kind of church I wanted to start and lead.

Since we were starting from scratch, I knew that I needed to be very clear about what kind of church we were going to be.  My dream was to be a church for people that didn’t think they were welcome in church.  And, our vision statement was “To love the people of Port St. Lucie into a relationship with Jesus.”  Love would be out motive and our method.  We would not guilt people, coerce people, impress people, or scare people into a relationship with Jesus.  We would love them.

One way that we lived that out was through small acts of loving service.  Before I had any members, I recruited local youth groups to help me do free car washes.  When people tried to pay, I would hand them a card and tell them that their car wash was a free gift – just like God’s love is a free gift.

I had a cooler on wheels, and I would walk from business to business giving away free Cokes, using the same card and line – this is a free gift, just like God’s love is a free gift.

My favorite involved $1 bills.  On random Sundays, I would ask the congregation for $1 bills.  We would then tape our card to the back, which said, “This is a free gift – just like God’s love.  Please let us know if we can tell you more.”  We would then meet at the Mall, and sneakily leave dollar bills lying on benches, or on the back of toilets, or on tables in the Food Court.  Then we would watch to see who picked them up.  You would be amazed how many people read the card, and then passed it around to show their family and friends.

On my last day at that church, as I was saying goodbye, a young woman, named Angelique, handed me a dollar bill with our card taped on the back.  She told me that dollar saved her marriage.  She was at work one Sunday, working the make-up counter at the department store.  She was doing something, and had her back to the counter.  When she turned around, the dollar was sitting there.  She and her husband, Anthony, were about to get a divorce, but, because of that dollar, decided to hold on a little longer and give church a chance.  They were in church the next Sunday.

I looked on Facebook this week.  They are still married.

Today is the fourth sermon in a series called “We Love First,” which is a reminder that our first priority has to be to love God, love our neighbor, and love each other.  Thus far, we have talked about how love motivates us to grow as Christians and how love motivates us to serve as Christians.  Today, I want to talk about how love motivates us to share the Good News of Jesus with others.

After his death and resurrection, as Jesus was ascending to heaven, he gave his followers a “Great Commission,” Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  (Matthew 28:19-20)

So, in addition to the Great Commandment – to Love and God and neighbor – we have been given very clear direction to go and tell the world about Jesus.  We call this evangelism – which simply means to share the “Good News.”

Pope Francis writes, “Every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization; indeed, anyone who has truly experienced God’s saving love does not need much time or lengthy training to go out and proclaim that love.” 

The Stats…

            The work of evangelism has never been greater in this country.  Church attendance and participation in the United States is at an all-time low.  Fewer and fewer Americans profess faith specifically in Jesus Christ.  Less than 17% of the population attends church on any given weekend.  There is obviously less and less influence of the Church on culture.

Every person in this room can think of family, friends, co-workers, neighbors that do not go to church, and by all evidence, do not seem to know Jesus.  That ought to break our hearts!  If we love Jesus and we love our family, friends, co-workers and neighbors, how can we not share Jesus with them?

Common Fears…

I typically take Mondays off.  I tend to sit around in my bathrobe for a while, eating breakfast, reading, thinking.  Last Monday, as I sat there in my bathrobe, there was a knock at my door.  It was the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  They wanted a few minutes to talk to me – in my bathrobe.  I said no.  They wanted me to share some literature with me.  I said no.

I think one of the reasons we don’t share our faith in Jesus more is because of fear.  One fear might be that people will associate us with pushy door-to-door evangelists.  Another fear might be upsetting or offending someone.  Another fear might be a lack of biblical knowledge.  Another fear might be a question you don’t know how to answer.  Another fear might be rooted in a lack of personal spiritual security.

While those fears are legitimate, I want to suggest that sharing your faith is as easy as talking about your favorite movie or restaurant.  When we love someone or something, we tend to talk about it.

I have a pastor friend who has heard me preach several times.  She once told me that I had talked about how much I love my wife in every sermon that she had heard me preach.  I love my wife, so I love talking about my love for her.

This week, I took our new ministry intern, Olivia, to lunch to my favorite Indian restaurant.  I love Indian food, and I love this particular restaurant, so I wanted to share it.

I own at least 25 different Harley Davidson shirts.  That doesn’t even include hats, sweaters, jackets, and other miscellaneous biker apparel.  I only have to walk in the room, and not even say a word, and you already know that I love Harleys.

That’s what we do.  When we love something, we tend to share it.

Interesting, Paul uses the image of the image of clothing as an illustration for the Christian life, Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.  Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:12-17)

            Paul names a number of Christ-like virtues – compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness – that we are to embody, as though they are clothes we can put on.  But, over all of it, he says, “put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” 

            He then says, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another… And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

            In other words, sharing Jesus ought to be as easy as getting dressed.  Everything we do – everything we say – ought to point to Jesus in some way.

Jen Hatmaker writes, “If people around me aren’t moved by my Christ or my church, then I must be doing a miserable job of representing them both.” 

Easy ways to share…

Let me suggest four very simple ways to share Jesus with others…

  1. Invite: Invite someone to church or a church event.  I am here today because my cousins invited me to go to church camp with them.  I became a United Methodist because a family friend invited my family to go to a Christmas Eve Candlelight service.
  2. Social Media: I know not all of us use Social Media.  But, for those of us who do, use it to share that you are at church, or about a church event, or a Scripture verse, or share about something you are reading.  I am amazed how many of my non-church going friends “like” the Christian things I post.
  3. Talk about church: In casual, non-threatening conversations, mention church.  When someone asks about your weekend, mention that you went to church.  Mention something you heard in your small group or in one of my sermons over lunch.  Talk about all of the cool service things we do.  Talk about how much your kids love the children’s ministry or youth group.
  4. Pray & prepare: Fourth, I would encourage you to actively pray for some people in your life, and, specifically, that they would initiate a conversation that would allow you to share about your relationship with Jesus.  Just keep praying until that happens.

Notice – I didn’t say anything about approaching strangers.  I didn’t say anything about being confrontational or argumentative.  Look for easy ways to share and to invite.  It ought to be as easy and natural as talking about something you read on Facebook, or heard on the radio, or talking about your kids or your grandkids.  If we love Jesus, and if we love the people we want to share with, it ought to be easy.  Because that is what love does.  Love shares.

Go

            But, I need to remind us, as a congregation, that reaching out, beyond our four walls, to make Jesus known to this community and the world is not an option.  It’s why we exist.

Pope Francis writes, “Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend, to those who have quit or are indifferent.” 

Everything we do is ultimately about sharing Jesus with the world.  Every children’s program, every youth event, every worship service, every outreach, every mission, everything we do must be for the purpose of making Jesus known.  Otherwise, why do it?  We can do a lot of things – fun things, generous things, impressive things – but if they don’t explicitly share Jesus, and lead people to know him, why are we doing them?

We ultimately exist for two reasons.  To love God and to share Jesus.  That’s it.  It’s that simple.