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.

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.

Smooth

Smooth

I had to have an EEG (electroencephalogram) this week.  The purpose of an EEG is to test electrical activity in the brain, and to assess for abnormalities.  I suspect that no one, who knows me,  is surprised that I needed a test to check for brain abnormalities!

When the dozens of the wires from my scalp to the computer were connected, the technician said, “Wow!  Your brain waves are really smooth.”  I asked her to repeat herself.  “Your brain waves are really smooth.”  

Not knowing what a brain wave is supposed to look like, I asked, “Is that unusual?”  Oh yeah.” she said, “Most people’s are really chaotic!”

Let me be clear – the tech did NOT say whether “smooth” brain waves are a good or a bad thing.  She did not say that whether “smooth” or “chaotic” is a better sign of brain health.  Frankly, at that moment, I was just glad to hear that my brain was producing any waves at all!  I’m not always sure!

Let’s assume for a moment that having “smooth” brain waves is a good thing (I’m hoping that is the case).  I’m imagining the smooth stillness of a pool undisturbed water.  I’m imagining peace and tranquility.  I like peace and tranquility.

Then imagine some punk kid throwing rocks into your pool, or maybe jumping in like a cannon ball, wrecking your “smoothness” with a big splash, crashing waves and endless ripples.  Imagine rock after rock, cannon ball after cannon ball, endlessly disrupting your “smoothness.”

I feel like this happens a lot.  Did I mention that I really like peace and tranquility?

Interruptions.  Distractions.  Pressures.  Surprises.  Annoyances.  Noises.  Fears.  Complaints.  Emergencies.  Bad news.

Chaos.

For the moment, I am assuming that “smooth” brain waves is a good thing – at least, that is what I am hoping!  If so, then I wonder if that is why things like rest, Sabbath, prayer, contemplation and meditation, stillness, and silence are such good things.  The world around us creates chaos, that we inevitably internalize.  Sometimes we create our own mental chaos, from busy-ness or worry.  When our inner life reflects the chaos of our outer lives, I suspect we need to be intentional about seeking “smoothness.”

I could be wrong, of course.  My “smooth brain waves,” might be the evidence of what we have all suspected – a lack of sufficient mental activity.  But, regardless of what the doctor says, I suspect I am right about the need to regularly “smooth-out” our souls and psyches by inviting the Spirit to still us, silence us, and “smooth” us.

As the old hymn says,

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice Who ruled them while He dwelt below.

So, how smooth are your waves?

Love Grows – Part II of a 5 week sermon series called “We Love First,” delivered at First Church Coral Springs on Sunday, May 7, 2017

Love Grows – Part II of a 5 week sermon series called “We Love First,” delivered at First Church Coral Springs on Sunday, May 7, 2017

 Either Growing, or…

            Now that the weather is warmer, and the rains have started, everything has started growing again – rapidly.  I’m enjoying my bonsai trees – as they are sprouting new growth and blooming.  But, I’m also daily weeding and trimming, just to keep everything under control.

Growth is what plants are supposed to do.  In fact, every living thing is intended, by God, to grow – including us. There’s a famous saying, “You’re either growing, or dying.”

            Seasons, water, temperature, fertilizer can make a plant grow.  But, what about humans?    What causes us to grow?

Love, Grow, Serve, Share…

            Let me pause, and change gears, just for a moment.  Last week, I talked about the importance of having a God-given vision for a church to have a clear sense of purpose and direction.  As we seek, at First Church, to discern what the vision is, last week I focused on the one thing that Jesus said must be our top priority – loving God and loving each other.

A number of years ago, before I arrived here, and even before Pastor Alex arrived, First Church adopted four themes to order and structure our ministries – Love, Grow, Serve and Share.

  • “Love” includes most of the ministries related to the Sunday morning worship experience – ushers, greeters, hospitality, welcome. “Love” also includes are visitor follow up, and our congregational care.
  • “Grow” includes all of our small group and Bible study opportunities.
  • “Serve” includes all of our service and mission to the community and the world.
  • “Share” includes all of the ways that we share the message of the Gospel with the world, as well as our ministries of invitation to First Church.

It seems to me that, while “Love” is the name of one of the four ministry areas, “love,” as Jesus defines and commands it, must undergird, motivate and support everything single thing we do as a church.  Thus, the theme – “We Love First.”  Today, I want us to think about how love stimulates, motivates, generates growth.  In other words, “Love grows”

Love Grows…

            A definition of the word,growth,” is “progressive development.”  We were created for progressive development.  During the early stage of our life, that growth is primarily physical and learning basic life skills.  But, even into adulthood, we are made to continue to generate new growth – emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, relationally.  Though we may stop growing physically at some point, we still have the capacity for progressive development until we die.  We never lose the ability to learn something new, to develop a new skill, to have new experiences, to build new relationships.

The old saying, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is stupid and false.

Today, I am focusing particularly on spiritual growth.

Eugene Peterson writes, “The most significant growing up that any person does is to grow as a Christian.  All other growing up is a preparation for or ancillary to this growing up.  The human task is to become mature, not only in our bodies and emotions and minds within ourselves, but also in our relationship with God and other persons.”

I want to suggest today that the greatest stimulant for that kind of growth is love.  When I love something or someone, I tend to grow.  Let me give you examples…

Because I love my wife, I have strived for the 26 years of our marriage to become the best husband I can be for her.  I still have quite a bit growing to do!

As a father, because I love my children, I always strived to do better and to better understand their needs from me.

I love being a pastor, and because I want to be a good pastor I am still actively learning and growing, so that I can fulfill my calling as faithfully as possible.  I read books on leadership and ministry.  I go to workshops and seminars to improve my knowledge and skills.

Because I love Jesus, with all of my heart, soul, mind, and strength, I read his Word every day, I pray, and I read spiritual and theological books, so that I can know him and serve him better; so that I can be mature; so that I can be more faithful; so that I can be more like him.

Let me ask you a question.  What do you love?  Who do you love?  How has that love inspired you to grow?  Has it inspired you to grow?

A farmer went out to plant some seeds…

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus told the story of a farmer, who went out to plant seeds.  “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. (Matthew 13:3-8)

Later, Jesus says that the seed is the “message of the kingdom.”  The obvious point of this parable is that God’s Word is intended to penetrate us, to grow in and through us, and to produce a great harvest.  The point, obviously, is growth.

This theme is repeated throughout Scripture. Jeremiah said that we are to “like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream… and never fails to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:8) Jesus said that he is like a grapevine, and we are like branches.  Paul said that we are to develop the “Fruits of the Spirit” – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  And, Paul described his work as an Apostle saying, “I planted the seed… but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. (1 Corinthians 3:6-7)

            Only God makes things grow.  So, what is our role?  I believe our job, if we love Jesus, is to be eager to receive the Word, and to be completely receptive.

4 Soils…

Jesus goes on to explain the meaning of the parable, “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path.  The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time… The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.  But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it.” (Matthew 13:19-23)

            The seed that falls on the path are the people who hear the Word, but are unreceptive.  The Word does not penetrate.  Let’s assume, for today, that’s not any of us.

The seed that falls on rocky soil are people who hear the Word, receive the Word, but never let it to sink in below the surface.  It never develops roots.  This could be some of us.

The seed that falls among thorns are the people who hear the Word, receive the Word, but don’t take proper care to avoid the distractions and temptations of life that can choke it out before it develops, grows and matures.  This could be some of us, too.

Then, the seed that falls on the good earth, that receives the seed and produces a harvest many times greater than what was sown are the people who hear the Word, receive the Word, and eagerly allow it room to grow.  This is who we were created to be.  This is who we have the capacity for being.  This is what God calls and expects us to be.

The goal…

God’s intent for human life is growth and fruitfulness.  Jesus said, “The seed that fell on good soil represents those who truly hear and understand God’s word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted!”  (Matthew 13:23)

            Our fruitfulness includes…

  • Development of Spiritual Gifts and the Fruits of the Spirit
  • Discerning God’s purpose for each of our lives and serving
  • Knowledge and understanding of God’s Word
  • A growing capacity to love
  • A life that looks and sounds more and more like Jesus

            Arch-bishop Desmond Tutu says, “You are made for perfection, but you are not yet perfect.  You are a masterpiece in the making.” 

            As Christians, we never stop growing!

 Ways to grow…

            Let me suggest four ways love can motivate us to be eager and receptive for growth.  They all, by coincidence, start with “S.”

The first “S” is for “Scripture.”  You simply can’t know God without knowing his Word.

The second “S” is for “Study.”  Reading the Bible is one thing.  It’s good.  But, study takes more effort.  Go to a Bible study.  Buy a Study Bible, with notes.  Read the books I suggest.

The third “S” is for “Serve,” which I will be talking about next week.  When you serve others, you develop new skills, you see new things, you hear new things, you interact with different people.  You might even find you love people you didn’t think you could love.

Finally, the fourth “S” is for “Someone different than you.”  More than anything else, I’ve grown from knowing and loving people who are different than me; people who are more liberal, or conservative; people with different life experiences; people from different cultures; people who are LGBT; people who are more educated, and less; people who work in different professions; people who are older and younger; people of other faiths; etc.  Our capacity to love is far greater than most of us know – including people who are very different than we are.  Loving people who are different than you is a gift to them and to you, and an opportunity for growth.

Earlier, I said that love is the best stimulant for growth.  Let me take that a step further.  How can we actually say that we love something or someone if we aren’t growing?  How can I say I love my wife, children, or friends, if I am not growing to be a better husband, father, or friend?  How can I say I love being a pastor if I am not growing to become a better one?  How can I say I love Jesus, if I am not eager and receptive to receive whatever growth he wants from me?

So, what do you love?

Who do you love?

How are you growing?

 

 

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.