“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)

 

 

The Unquenchable Thirst of Grief

The Unquenchable Thirst of Grief

I recently led a memorial service for a 23-year-old man, whose family attends my church.  23-years-old is obviously too young to die, so his death was unexpected, a terrible shock, and particularly tragic.  After years of addiction, successful recovery, and then a recent relapse, he died of a drug overdose.  Tragic.

Exactly one year prior to the memorial service, I was moving in to my new home and job in Coral Springs.  As this young man was living in Boston, and I’ve only been at my current church for a year, I never had the opportunity to know him.  As a pastor, I find that leading memorial services on behalf of strangers is difficult – even more difficult than for those I personally know.  A memorial service is a very personal thing, and it’s impossible to speak personally, with any credibility, about a stranger.

So, instead of talking about the all-too-short life of this young man, I felt led to speak as a father of a 23-year old daughter and a 22-year-old son.  I spoke from the perspective of what I might need to hear from a pastor if the roles were reversed, and I was the grieving parent.

This is what I said…

Though I’ve never experienced this particular kind of grief – the loss of a child – I believe that the one common reality for all humans is that we will experience grief.  We will all experience loss.  We all hurt.  Scratch the surface of any human being, and you will find some degree of pain and suffering inside of us.  Everyone.  All of us.  No exceptions.

When I am in pain, when I doubt, when I’m uncertain, I’ve found comfort and strength in the honesty of Psalm 42…

As the deer longs for streams of water,
so I long for you, O God.
I thirst for God, the living God.
When can I go and stand before him?
Day and night I have only tears for food,
while my enemies continually taunt me, saying,
“Where is this God of yours?”

My heart is breaking
as I remember how it used to be:
I walked among the crowds of worshipers,
leading a great procession to the house of God,
singing for joy and giving thanks
amid the sound of a great celebration!

Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?
I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and 
my God!

Now I am deeply discouraged,
but I will remember you—
even from distant Mount Hermon, the source of the Jordan,
from the land of Mount Mizar.
I hear the tumult of the raging seas
as your waves and surging tides sweep over me.
But each day the Lord pours his unfailing love upon me,
and through each night I sing his songs,
praying to God who gives me life.

“O God my rock,” I cry,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I wander around in grief,
oppressed by my enemies?”
10 Their taunts break my bones.
They scoff, “Where is this God of yours?”

11 Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?
I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and my God!

I deeply appreciate the Psalmist’s honesty, vulnerability, rawness, and questioning.

The Psalmist compares himself to deer in the desert, desperately searching for a drink of water.  Often, in my opinion, this Psalm is incorrectly used as inspiration for prayer or worship, as though this is a gentle thirst.  This is no gentle thirst!  This animal is parched and may not survive. This is the desperate search of an animal clinging to life, in need of water where there’s not even a puddle.

As the deer longs for streams of water,
so I long for you, O God.
I thirst for God, the living God.
When can I go and stand before him?

 Just as the deer pants desperately for water, the Psalmist is desperate for God – a God that feels far away.  Desperate for answers.  Desperate for comfort.  Desperate for a sense of God’s presence.  And, none can be found.

Day and night I have only tears for food.

 Throughout the Psalm, you can hear the anguish the Psalmist is enduring…

  My heart is breaking
as I remember how it used to be:

Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?

Now I am deeply discouraged.

 I hear the tumult of the raging seas
as your waves and surging tides sweep over me.

“O God my rock,” I cry,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I wander around in grief?

Six times, the Psalmist asks “why?”  The most common question I’m asked following any tragedy is, “why?”  We desperately need to make sense of the pain or loss.  We desperately need to hear something to make it “ok.”  Nothing anyone could possibly say could make a tragedy “ok.”  And, yet, we ask.  We can’t help but ask.

Even for Christians, who believe in Heaven and eternity, death is still an enemy.  Even for those of who believe that Jesus defeated death on the cross, and rose from the dead, it is still an enemy that we must face before we can pass from this life to the next.  It is still an enemy that robs us of people we love, and long to be with. The enemy has been defeated.  Yet…

Death undeniably shakes our foundations.  Death pushes us to confront mysteries we can’t possibly comprehend. Death makes us ask questions about justice – “how can this be right?  How is this fair?”  Death makes us question the goodness of God.

“Whys?” are normal.  Inevitable.  Yet, there are no meaningful answers.

 Yet, peppered throughout this Psalm our words of faith…

 I thirst for God, the living God.
When can I go and stand before him?

 I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and my God!

  But each day the Lord pours his unfailing love upon me,
and through each night I sing his songs,
praying to God who gives me life.

 I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and my God!

The key, I think, is that even when we doubt God’s goodness, God’s presence, or even God’s existence, direct those doubts to God. Don’t turn your back on him.  Direct all of your pain, emotion, and questions AT God – not away from him.  He can take your worst anger.  He understands.  He hurts with us too.  He gets angry too.  He grieves for tragic loss too.

Though I undeniably struggle sometimes; though there is so much I don’t understand and can’t explain; I believe 3 things with all of my heart and soul.

  1. There is a God.
  2. He is good.
  3. He is for us, and not against us.

 If we cling to those things, even when we go through the darkest valleys of this life, those simple truths will get you through.

 I think, if the roles were reversed, and I were the one in mourning, I would need to hear a pastor say…

 Everything you are thinking and feeling is ok – including anger and doubt toward God.  The pain, the terrible sadness, and the grief is NORMAL.  It doesn’t feel normal.  But, how could you expect to feel anything else in a moment like this?

 It’s ok not to be ok – any time soon.  You will be.  But, it will take time.

 It’s ok to yell, scream, cry, and even cuss if you need to – even if it’s toward God; even if it’s toward the one who has died.

 And, most importantly, God is with you.  He knows that, if you had the choice, you would choose to be with the one who has gone.  God gets that.  But, God is with you none-the-less.

 And, you can be sure, even now…

There is a God.

He is good.

He is for us, and not against us.

 

Q&A

Q&A

I’m spending this week at the Warren W. Willis United Methodist Youth Camp, in Fruitland Park, Florida, as the Senior High pastor.  I didn’t attend this camp as a camper.  But, I’ve been coming to this camp as an adult volunteer (primarily as the Senior High pastor) for one week each summer, almost annually, for the last 27 years.

Some years, the pastors lead a Q&A time with the campers, answering questions they have written down during their small group time.  This is my favorite time of the week!  Each year, I’m asked if I want to read over the questions ahead of time, which I always refuse.  I don’t want to present prepared responses.  I told the youth today that I wanted them to imagine meeting me at the local Starbucks, sipping iced frappuccinos together, and chatting about life and faith.

As always, the youth asked substantive, meaningful, challenging questions.  But, two themes emerged from the today’s questions that troubled me.  They were in essence…

  • Questions about being a “good” Christian.
  • Questions about going to heaven.

I suspect that there’s some overlap in these questions.

To be honest, I don’t think I even know what a “good” Christian is.  Yes, there are “good” things for Christians to do – Bible study, prayer, worship, service, etc.  But, I don’t think those things necessarily make someone a “good” Christian.  I can sincerely desire goodness – and I do.  But, I can honestly say that if there is anything good about me, Jesus gets the credit.

I think they were really asking, “What is expected of me?” and “What about when I’m not ‘good’?”

They also seemed to want to know the minimal requirements for getting into heaven.  And, what can keep you out.

The truth is, I hear lots of Christians talk this way.  And, I don’t really get it.

I shared with the campers that I think being a Christian is kind of like marriage.  I love my wife. I have a relationship with my wife that is really important to me.  I want to be a good husband for my wife.  Sometimes I am.  Sometimes I’m not.  I’m pretty sure I’m a better husband today than I was when we married 27 years ago.  But, I’m still not as “good” as my wife deserves.  Hopefully, in another 27 years, I’ll be better at being a “good” husband than I am now.  I really do hope so.

The point of the Christianity is NOT about a spiritual score card or the minimal requirements for getting into heaven.  The point of Christianity IS about a relationship with Jesus.  Everything about being a Christian is about entering into that relationship and growing in that relationship.

One question, today, was “How often should good Christians pray?”  My response was, “How often should I talk to my wife to be a good husband?”  If I ask my wife what the minimal requirements are for checking in and conversing with her, I’ve kind of missed the point of marriage.  Because she is my wife (and my best friend), I want to spend time with her.  I want to talk to her.  I want to listen to her.  I think that’s what prayer is supposed to be too.

Frankly, even as a full-time professional pastor, I’m not sure that I’m a very “good” Christian, if that means fulfilling certain Christian duties and obligations.  But, I do sincerely love Jesus and I do really enjoying spending time with him, which leads me to worship, and pray, and serve, etc.  And, I’m pretty confident that our relationship is eternal.

I hope that’s enough.  I’m pretty sure it is.

Leap: The Second Sermon is a Series Called “The 40-Day Summer Stretch,” Preached at First Church Coral Springs on Sunday, June 25, 2017

Leap:  The Second Sermon is a Series Called “The 40-Day Summer Stretch,” Preached at First Church Coral Springs on Sunday, June 25, 2017

Aquaphobia

Many of us have one phobia or another.  A phobia is an irrational fear, a kind of anxiety disorder in which the individual has a relentless dread of a situation, living creature, place, or thing.  According to Phobialist.com, there are at least 350 known, documented, verifiable phobias.  According to Medicalnewstoday.com, the 5 most common phobias in the United States are…

  • Social phobia – fear of being in places with a lot of people
  • Agoraphobia – fear of being somewhere with no support, away from home, open spaces
  • Claustrophobia – fear of being in constricted, confined spaces
  • Aerophobia – fear of flying
  • Arachnophobia – fear of spiders

Most phobias are more-or-less individualized.  My phobias are different than your phobias.  But, I’d argue, that there’s a generalized phobia that seems to affect Israel throughout the Bible; aquaphobia – fear of water.

  • In Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” Water pre-existed the Creation story, and represented chaos, darkness, and the absence of God.
  • In Genesis 6, God destroyed every living thing on the Earth with a flood.
  • When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, they got stuck between the Egyptian armies and the Red Sea. God parted the waters so that they could walk through on dry land.  But, Pharaoh and his army were drowned.
  • Ancient Israelites believed in sea monsters called leviathan.
  • Jonah was swallowed by a whale.
  • Historians have noted that ancient Israel never had a navy.
  • And, by the way, we forget sometimes that the symbolism of Baptism represents drowning the old person, and raising a new person to new life.

The Israelites feared water.

But, more often than not, God pushes us to confront our fears and to trust him.

Sticking your toes in the water…

Joshua 3 tells the story of when Israel, after centuries of waiting, was about to enter the Promised Land.  The problem was, they were on one side of the Jordan river, and the Promised Land was on the other.  And, to make matters worse, the river was higher and wider than usual.  Joshua 3:15 says, Now the Jordan is at flood stage all during harvest.”

            Joshua gave the following command,

“This is how you will know that the living God is among you... See, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth will go into the Jordan ahead of you…  And as soon as the priests who carry the ark of the Lord—the Lord of all the earth—set foot in the Jordan, its waters flowing downstream will be cut off and stand up in a heap…”  As soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water’s edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing. It piled up in a heap a great distance away…  So the people crossed over opposite Jericho.  The priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord stopped in the middle of the Jordan and stood on dry ground, while all Israel passed by until the whole nation had completed the crossing on dry ground. (Joshua 3:9-17)

Notice, the river didn’t stop flowing until AFTER they stepped into the water.  As long as they stood on the shore, the river kept flowing.

After everyone had passed through the Jordan on dry ground, Joshua had a monument of stones built in the river, as a reminder for future generations of what God had done.  Joshua said, “In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over…  He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the Lord your God.” (Joshua 4:22-24)

The stones were a visual reminder that God is strong and God fulfills God’s promises. God can be trusted.  The stones were a reminder that God is bigger than our fears.  The stones were a reminder that God is worthy of our faith.

But, they never would have known that if they hadn’t faced their fears, and stuck their toes in the water.  They had to get their feet wet.  They had to take the first step.

You and I have to be willing to take that first step, and get our feet wet too.

            Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

Faith, Trust, Fear…

            Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” 

            2 Corinthians 5:7, “For we live by faith, not by sight.”

            We trust what we know.  We trust evidence and proof.  We trust our possessions.  We trust what we see.

But, we’re called to faith.  Faith is trusting in a God we can’t see.  Faith is based in belief more than evidence.  Faith requires trust – not in what’s tangible and provable – but, in God.  And, faith is only faith if we act on it.  You have to take a leap.  You have to get your feet wet.

How will you know you can do it?  You won’t, until you try.

How do you know for sure what God wants you to do?  You won’t. until you try.

How do you know you’ll have enough money, or time, or talent?  You won’t, until you try.

You won’t know until you act on faith.  That’s why it is called a “Leap of faith.”

            Maya Angelou wrote, “It is this belief in a power larger than myself and other than myself which allows me to venture into the unknown and even the unknowable.”  

            But, faith in the absence of visible evidence is really, really hard.

            Another story from the Bible is the time the disciples sailed across the Sea of Galilee, at night, and Jesus came to them walking on water.  Matthew 14:26-27 says, When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.   But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

            Notice – their first assumption was that Jesus was a ghost.  After all, remember, water is a scary place. But, this is no ghost – it’s Jesus.   Jesus speaks to the phobia – “Don’t be afraid.”

            Then something surprising happens.  Peter said, Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” he said.  Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”  Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

“You of little faith” seems a bit harsh to me.  Besides Jesus, Peter’s the only human I know to successfully walk on water – even if only a few steps.

That’s more than I can say.  What about you?

Paulo Coehlo writes, “Pitiful is the person who is afraid of taking risks. Perhaps this person will never be disappointed or disillusioned; perhaps she won’t suffer the way people do when they have a dream to follow. But when that person looks back – and at some point everyone looks back – she will hear her heart saying, ‘What have you done with the miracles that God planted in your days? What have you done with the talents God bestowed on you? You buried yourself in a cave because you were fearful of losing those talents. So this is your heritage; the certainty that you wasted your life.’” 

All of the focus is on Peter, who took a few successful steps on the water, but sank when he became afraid.  All of the attention is on his lack of faith.  But, what about the others, who never left the boat in the first place?  The others couldn’t let go of the safety and security of the boat – of what seemed solid and reliable.  Walking on water never even crossed their minds.

I have friends who love to bungee jump, and to jump out of airplanes.  They love the experience of free fall, and they love the adrenaline.  I think they’re nuts.  The only way I’d jump out of our perfectly good airplane is if it was on fire and going to crash – and even then, I’m not sure!  The bottom line is that I don’t trust the bungee cord or the parachute enough to jump.  The thrill for me is not worth the risk.

I think that’s a wise choice.

But, spiritually, a lack of trust can be crippling.

Let me ask you a question – what’s your boat?  If a boat represents the tangible things that give us security, and if faith is in unseen things – like a man walking on water – what are the securities you cling to?  A job?  Your health?  Your savings or retirement plan?  Your spouse?  Your connections?  Your government?

What’s your boat?

Don’t get wrong.  There’s nothing wrong with working hard, or saving for the future, or investing wisely, or growing in your career, or having people you can rely on.  But, they do become a problem when we trust them more than Jesus.  Listen to me – nothing in this world is more trustworthy than Jesus.

And, Jesus doesn’t call any of us to only live lives of safety and security.  Jesus invites us to confront our fears and take leaps of faith, that require faith in him and not in ourselves.  Jesus invites us to stick our toes into waters that are scary and may seem dangerous.  Jesus challenges not to give into our fears and phobias, and to trust him.

So, if water represents danger, fear and risk – what are you afraid of?

Pope John 23 said, “Consult not your fears but your hopes and dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what is still possible for you to do.”

The Partial Credit Club

            It seems a little unfair to me that Peter doesn’t get more credit for trying.  Just stepping out of the boat was courageous, even if he sank.

My High School Algebra teacher was Hank Pfingstag.  I actually ended up becoming his pastor later.  I really like Hank, and really liked him as a teacher.  He was funny, and kept us interested and entertained.  But, he was hard.  It wasn’t unusual for most of the class to fail his tests.  As he handed out our test scores, he would say, if you had a higher “F” than others, “Congratulations – you got a good F!”

Mr. Pfingstag made us show all of our work.  Most of us did “most” of the work right, and “almost” got the right answer.  After every test, a group of us would argue for “partial credit” – desperately pleading to get out of the “F” zone.  Mr. Pfingstag called us the Partial Credit Club – but he never once changed our grades!

I think Peter deserves to be in the Partial Credit Club.  I’d like to believe that I deserve to be in the Partial Credit Club, sometimes, spiritually speaking, for at least trying to live by faith.

What about you?

I want to leave you with two images this morning.  Imagine God has a great promise for you – a Promised Land, if you will.  But, to have it, you’ll have to cross a river of fear.  Are you going to go for it?  Or, are you going to stay on the safe side of the river, missing out?  Imagine Jesus reaching out his hand to you, but you have to walk on the water to reach him.  You can do it, with faith.  Are you going to step out on the water, or are just keeping your seat in the boat?

It’s time to get out of the boat!

 

 

Do this…

Do this…

Today is Maundy Thursday – the day we annually remember Jesus’ last meal with his disciples.  The word “maundy” simply means command.  We “do this in remembrance” of Jesus – sharing bread and juice/wine with each other, representing his body and blood – because he commanded us to.

Today is the annual observance of that command.

Of course, many churches obey this command more frequently than once a year.  Depending on your denomination and tradition, some do it quarterly; some monthly; some weekly; and some, even, daily.  My tradition, United Methodism, typically celebrates Holy Communion monthly, though in recent years we have been encouraged to move to weekly communion.   For this season of Lent, my own church has celebrated communion weekly, instead of our regular practice of the first Sunday of the month.

We call this ritual by several names – Eucharist (which means “thanksgiving”), The Lord’s Supper, and Holy Communion.  Recently, I’ve been pondering the word communion.

There are a number of words that are related to the word communion…

  • Common – as in, ordinary, and the things we share with “in common” each other.
  • Community – as in, the people we share our lives with.
  • Commune – as in, where some people live together as a family or community.
  • Communicate – as in, the sharing of thoughts, ideas, concepts, or concerns.
  • Union – as in, the gathering or joining together of things or people.
  • Unity – as in, the one-ness shared between people.
  • Unite – as in, the coming together of people for a common purpose or cause.

Isn’t that what Holy Communion is all about?  We gather as a community, sharing common pieces of bread and juice/wine with each other, which unites each person with God, and results in a unity among the people gathered?  This is more than a ritual observance, practiced obediently, because we were told to.  This ritual is communion – connecting me more deeply with God and with the community of Christ, through common symbols representing his sacrificial flesh and blood.

It strikes me that all of us need a lot more communion in our lives – ritual, and otherwise.  So much seems to drive us apart, distract us from God, and even divide our individual attention and intentions.  This world – and all who live in it – is so disjointed, disconnected, and discombobulated (sorry, I needed another “d” word, for alliteration sake).  It seems to me that obeying Jesus’ command to commune with him and with each other is much needed medicine – for all of us.

So, today is Maundy Thursday.  You are commanded – by Jesus, himself –  to find a church, to receive Holy Communion, and to enjoy the communing benefits.

Do it.  Today.  That’s a command.

Pre-Easter Pondering

Pre-Easter Pondering

I know it’s not Easter yet.  Easter is still a few days away.  Before Easter, we still have Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and Holy Saturday.  We can’t just skip to Easter, bypassing all that led to Easter.

But, Easter is on my mind – probably because it’s the biggest day of the Christian year and I have a sermon to prepare.

Here’s what I’m pondering…

I don’t have any problem believing in Jesus’ resurrection.  As unexpected as it was, and as impossible as it may seem, I do actually believe that Jesus died a human death, that his corpse lay in a tomb from Friday evening through early Sunday morning, and then his dead body came back to life – resurrected life!

Undeniably, that is a pretty remarkable thing to believe.  But, I do.  With all of my heart, I do.

I also don’t have a problem believing that because Jesus was resurrected, that he has made that possible for me.  I mean, because Jesus died and came back to life – in a new, resurrected way – I will be raised after I die, too.  I believe that.  When I die – whenever that may be – and breathe my last breath, I believe I that I will awake to a new, resurrected life on the other side of death.

Undeniably, that, too, is a pretty remarkable thing to believe.  But, I do.  With all of my heart, I do.

But, here’s what’s on my mind this Holy Week about the Resurrection.  The Bible doesn’t only say that Jesus rose from the dead (past tense), or that we will be resurrected after we die (future tense).  The Bible says that we ARE resurrected (present tense).  Now.  Today.

“Therefore, if anyone IS in Christ,the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new IS here!”  (2 Corinthians 2:17)

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but CHRIST LIVES IN ME. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”  (Galatians 2:20)

“Since, then, YOU HAVE BEEN RAISED with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life IS NOW hidden with Christ in God.”  (Colossians 3:1-3)

I HAVE been raised with Christ.  I AM a new creation.  My life IS NOW hidden Christ.  CHRIST LIVES IN ME!

Present tense.  Not just past tense.  Not just future tense.  Present tense.  Resurrection is a present reality.  I AM resurrected!

Is that really true (I know that it is)?  I don’t always feel resurrected.  I don’t look resurrected.  The Lord knows, and everyone I know will confirm, I certainly don’t act resurrected.  What does it mean for Vance Clifton Rains to be a resurrected human being, alive in Christ, today, in Coral Springs, Florida, at work, in my house, etc., etc.?

I certainly couldn’t ask such a question without Christ’s resurrection.  And, this life is short, so my future resurrection from the dead is pretty exciting.  But, increasingly, it seems to me that my current state of resurrection may be what’s most important.

If my future resurrection means that, on the other side of death, I will be completely free from this life of sin and selfishness, and that I will have perfect communion with God and God’s family, and that I will be a perfectly whole and unique reflection of God’s image in me, does my current state of resurrected-ness mean that I am to be those things now…

  • free from sin and selfishness?
  • in perfect communion with God and God’s family?
  • a perfectly whole and unique reflection of God’s image in me?

Today?  Is that what being resurrected, in the present tense, means?  If not, what else?

This week, as I ponder Easter, I just keep coming back to wondering if we are missing the point.  We (Church-going Christians) do our programs and rituals.  We read our Bibles.  We believe what we we’ve been taught to believe.  We have our stances regarding what is right or wrong.

But, are we resurrected people?  Do we worship as resurrected people?  Do we serve as resurrected people?  Do we work as resurrected people?  Do give as resurrected people?  Do we love as resurrected people?

If I AM resurrected, why am I still so enamored with this world?  If I AM resurrected, why isn’t my life, my attitude, my worship, my heart a better reflection of the world and the life to come?  If I AM resurrected, why aren’t I more like Jesus?  Now?  Today?

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not questioning the present reality of my resurrection.  I AM raised with Christ!  I know that it is Truth.

I’m wondering what it would look like for me, for you, for the Church, for the Body of Christ to look a bit more resurrected – TODAY.  And, every other day, until Christ comes again.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.”

Happy Pre-Easter.  Now, go be resurrected.

Refreshing

Refreshing

I had the privilege of teaching my church’s confirmation class about the Sacraments this morning.

When I teach about Baptism, which is one of our two Sacraments in the United Methodist Church, I often ask, “What is water used for?”  I’m looking for three answers, each that help us understand the meaning of Baptism, knowing I will usually only get two.

Everyone knows that we use water to wash.  Similarly, Baptism washes away our sins.

Everyone knows that we need water to live.  Similarly, in Baptism we receive the Holy Spirit, who is the source of never-ending life.

The third, that know one ever thinks of, is that water can kill a person – you can drown in it.  Similarly, the waters of Baptism drown us, killing the old sinful person, and then we rise from the water, born again.

But, today, one of the confirmands thought of one that I had never considered.  Water refreshes.

I like that image of Baptism.  Baptism refreshes.  In Baptism, I enter into life in the Spirit, which is refreshing.

I was reminded of Acts 3:19, where Peter says, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.”

I love that image – times of refreshing from the Lord – that begins with Baptism.

Though there are certainly times for seriousness, and even lament, it seems to me that spiritual refreshment ought to be the defining characteristic of life as Jesus followers.

Yes, there are times for reflection and discernment.  Yes, we are called to obedience.  Yes, there are times for broken-hearted repentance and confession.  Yes, there are times for rolling up our sleeves and doing what needs to be done.  Yes, there are times for prophets to speak out, and to fight for justice.  Yes, there are times for weeping and wailing.  But, refreshment is a gift that is perpetually available, and too often ignored.

Jesus said that all we have to do is ask…

“So I say to you: 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. “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for[f] a fish, will give him a snake instead?12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”  (Luke 11:9-13)

Refreshment.  I like that.  I want that.  I need that.