Monuments of Shame

Monuments of Shame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They MUST come down!

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

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

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

They had to come down.

 

 

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!

 

 

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.

Character Development vs. Sin Management

Character Development vs. Sin Management

Last night was my weekly Bible Study.  Our focus was chapters 46 and 47 of Genesis, and specifically on Joseph.  Joseph is often considered an example of great character and integrity, standing strong in the face of betrayal, temptation, false accusation, and hopeless circumstances.  And, yet, by chapter 47, Joseph seems to have lost a bit of that strength of character, possibly corrupted by the immense political power he held.

As we were wrapping up the class, a young attendee asked a particularly astute question; “When God raises someone to a position of importance, why doesn’t God also give them the character they will need for that position?”  What an excellent question!

We can all think of individuals who have risen to place of stature – athletes, politicians, celebrities, pastors, etc –  who lacked the character needed, and ultimately “fell from grace.”  It is tragic to watch, and often results in widespread collateral damage.

My response to the question was, “I think that character is our responsibility.  God has given us free will, and the ability to make good choices.”  Then I got on my soap box, saying something like, “This is a major failing of the Church.  We have focused entirely too much on sin management, and far too little on character development.  The Bible calls and instructs us to help people become people of character.”

Clearly the Bible addresses the problem of sin.  Undeniably, sin separates us from God. Clearly sin matters.  But, is that all there is?  Is being a disciple of Jesus just about being saved from sin and striving to avoid it (and possibly taking some kind of sick joy in spotting, judging and condemning the sins of others)?

I believe that the primary role of the Church is helping people grow to full stature in Christ, which is primarily about developing a godly and Christ-like character.  The Bible clearly talks about growing to maturity in Christ, and all that entails.  We wouldn’t have nearly so much sin to manage – in my opinion – if we spent more time developing godly characters.

As I ate my sandwich today, three high school seniors were sitting at the table next to mine – two young men and one pretty young woman.  I was not intentionally eaves-dropping.  Honestly, I was minding my own business.  But, the young woman was speaking loud enough for anyone and everyone to hear – whether they wanted to or not.

Her first comment was about abortion, saying she would get one if she had to, and that she’s already had one “twelve day scare.”  She then announced that she needed to go for a drug test today, because she is still on probation after being arrested six months ago.  I didn’t hear her say what she was arrested for.  She then mentioned the number of classes she has skipped this year, and that her best friend is a “stoner.”  All of this was shared in less than 15 minutes.

Honestly, I really wasn’t eaves-dropping!

What shocked me was how casually she made her comments, and how little her friends reacted.

I recognize that I am an old man, a pastor, and that I live in a church bubble.  And, please believe me when I say that my intention was not, is not, to judge her.  I’m not saying she is a “bad person.”  But, she did seem to lack any sort of moral compass, or any clarity about right and wrong.

I just left my lunch feeling really sad for her.  I certainly said and did a lot of dumb things in my younger years (and a few more recently!).  But, I sincerely believe that I have always known right from wrong.  I don’t think this young lady knows the difference.  And, I’m sad for her.  I’m not judging her.  I’m sad for her.  My point is not to call attention to her sins, but to wonder about her lack of moral development.

Who failed her?  Her parents and extended family?  Her teachers?  Her peers?  Society?

Or, the Church?  Isn’t that our job?

Maybe she’s never been to church.  Maybe she was just trying to impress her male friends with her stories.  Maybe she comes from a bad home or a troubled past.  Maybe she will grow up – I hope so.

The point of all of this rambling is simply to say that character matters.  Integrity matters.  And, I don’t think we – society, families, the Church – are doing such a hot job at developing people of virtue and character.

I can’t help but wonder if much of the world’s current woes and crises point back to a failure of character development.

We – the Church – have much work to do.

 

 

Restored – A message preached on Easter Sunday, 2017, at First Church of Coral Springs, to conclude a Lent series called “Restoration.”

Restored – A message preached on Easter Sunday, 2017, at First Church of Coral Springs, to conclude a Lent series called “Restoration.”

During the season of Lent, our theme has been “Restoration,” as in when someone takes something that is old and broken-down – an old house, an old car, an old piece of furniture – and takes the time to restore it into something new.  Similarly, we have said that is what Jesus did for us on the cross – taking the broken junk from each of our lives to the cross, where he restored us into something brand new.

            The Apostle Paul wrote,Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”  (2 Corinthians 5:17)

When humanity was completely ruined by sin, Jesus took all of the worthless junk to the cross.

As Isaiah says, “By his wounds, we are healed.”

            It takes someone with artistic vision and skill to do good restoration work, and today I am going to tell you about the greatest artist of all time.  He is the one responsible for everything that exists.  The Bible says that it took God seven days of artistic creativity to create the heavens and the Earth; the mountains and the valleys, the oceans and the streams, the stars and the planets, and all living things.  God made a fantastically beautiful creation.  But, the crowning achievement of God’s artistic project was humanity.  If you have ever been moved looking at a mountain, or a sunset, or the ocean, you should take a look at yourself!  You are God’s greatest work!

Genesis 1:26&27 says that when God created humans, he created us in his own image and likeness.  That means that there is inherent beauty in each of us, because we were made to be a reflection of God.

To take that a step further, God also created a special place for us to live – with him – for all of eternity, called Eden.  He created us by love, to be loved, and to love.  He intended to provide everything we need – eternal joy, comfort, belonging, acceptance, purpose and peace – for eternity.  In Eden, we would have perfect relationships with each other, with creation, with ourselves, and especially with God.

This was God’s intent for his creation.  But something went terribly, terribly wrong.

Since God created the first humans, we have always been hell-bent on NOT being the creation God intended.  Every generation has drifted further from away God.  The world has become an increasingly broken and damaged place.  We do not live in the creation God intended for us.

If you don’t believe me, just turn on the news any night.

Lisa Sharon Harper writes, “Humanity’s broken relationship with God is the cause of all other brokenness.”

            The Message version of Ephesians 2 says, “ It wasn’t so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It’s a wonder God didn’t lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us.”

Listen to that again – “It’s a wonder God didn’t lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us.”

God didn’t.  God didn’t just “do away” with us.  God didn’t give up.  If he had, that would mean that sin is greater than grace.  If he did, that would mean our power to destroy is greater than his power to create and restore.  If God intended creation – including us – to be a certain way, then you can be sure that God will have the final word.  God always has the final word – on everything!

In Ephesians 2, in The Message, Paul continues, “Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. He did all this on his own, with no help from us! Then he picked us up and set us down in highest heaven in company with Jesus, our Messiah.”

            Just listen to those words!

  • Immense in mercy,
  • With incredible love,
  • He embrace us.,
  • He made us alive in Christ,
  • He picked us up and set us down in the highest heaven in company with Jesus.

Here’s the image I want you to picture.  Imagine all of your sin and brokenness is the piles of old, broken junk, we leave at the curb for the garbage men.  It stinks.  It’s worthless.  It’s unrepairable – at least that’s what we think.  It’s embarrassing to look at.  But, before the garbage truck arrives, the Great Junk-Collector comes rolling down the street, gathering up all of our junk, seeing possibility and potential.  He throws in the back of his truck, and hauls it all to the foot of the cross.  That’s what Golgotha was – a great big garbage heap – metaphorically speaking.  He left it there in the dark of Good Friday, and the darkness of Holy Saturday, but when the sun come up on Easter morning, on the third day, instead of garbage, there’s a new creation! 

When God intends beauty, God will not be denied!

Makoto Fujimura writes, “Despite our fallen nature, God desires to reflect goodness, beauty, and truth in us.  God desires to refract his perfect light via the broken, prismatic shards of our lives.”  Makoto Fujimura

Listen to Ephesians 2 again, this time in the NLT version, “God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus. So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us, as shown in all he has done for us who are united with Christ Jesus… For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” Ephesians 2:4-10

            “You are God’s Masterpiece!”

The NIV version says that we are God’s “handiwork.”  The ESV version says that we are God’s “workmanship.”  I like “masterpiece” the best!

Think about a masterpiece.  Think of great works of visual art, like the works of Michelangelo.  Think about great, classic literature, like the writings of Shakespeare.  Think of great works of architecture – like the Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramids, the Great Wall of China.  Think of great epic films like the Ten Commandments, or The Lord of the Rings, or the Star Wars saga. Think of classic works of music, like those sung by Bob Marley! (I’m a big Bob Marley fan!)

All masterpieces, by master artists!  And, the Bible says that you are God’s masterpiece too!

Even when we, were mired in that old stagnant life of sin… He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ.”  And, we are, “his masterpiece.”

Peter Kreeft writes, “The block of marble is not the sculptor, and doesn’t see that he’s about to become a masterpiece… We’re the block of marble and God is the sculptor, and the chisel is…. everything.”

In preparation for today, I investigated the origin of the word “Masterpiece.”  It turns out that it comes from the middle ages.  Back then, when you wanted to learn a profession, you couldn’t go to a trade school or university.  You attached yourself to master of that particular profession as his or her apprentice.  Eventually, as your learned and mastered the skills necessary, you could present a sample of your best work to the local guild of masters.  What you presented was called a “master” piece.  It would be your best work, and would demonstrate that you had the knowledge, skills, and ability to be considered a master.

God is the original master artist.  And, he has demonstrated his mastery in you.  “For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” (Ephesians 2:10)

I think that’s the message of Easter.  No matter how broken your life has become, God has never given up on you.  Jesus carried all of our junk to the cross, and he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus.” Ephesians 2:6

Think about the verse …

When children bring us their artwork, we display it on the refrigerator, for everyone to see.  For some reason, some people take pictures of great meals, and post them on Facebook, or Instagram.  If we have valuable art in our homes, we put in a place of honor – on a mantle, a pedestal, or on the wall under a special light.  We display our masterpieces.  We show them off.  We share them with others.

God does the same.  Did you know that you are on display in heaven?  For we are God’s masterpiece… and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus… So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us.”  Did you hear that?  You are currently seated in heaven.  God points you out as his masterpiece.

When the saints, and angels, and archangels, drop by for a visit, he shows you off.  When people die, and go to heaven, and get their tour, the tour guides point to us as God’s personal collection of masterpieces.  You are his masterpiece, on display beside his thrown for all to see!

            Now you might be thinking…

  • I don’t feel like a masterpiece,
  • I don’t look like a masterpiece.
  • I just came to church because it’s Easter.
  • I’m only here because somebody made me come.
  • If that pastor knew me, he wouldn’t say that I am a masterpiece.

I don’t know why you’re here today.  I don’t know how you got here.  And, frankly, I don’t care.  I’m just glad you’re here.  No matter who you are, what you’ve done, or what has been done to you; while you, YOU, were still stuck in sin, Christ died for you.  Maybe some of you are still stuck in sin right now.

Please listen to me!  When Jesus arose on Easter morning, he made it possible for you to rise with him.  You might feel like junk – you might be junk – but you are God’s junk!  He made you.  And, he’s not done with you.

He made you.  He made you in his own image.  No matter what you have done to mess that up, God isn’t done with you yet.  God sees your potential. He sees the work of art you can be.

Max Lucado writes, God sees in you a masterpiece about to happen.

            While I was researching the word “masterpiece,” I discovered something else.  There are numerous theories and philosophies about what is required for something to be considered a “masterpiece,” depending on the “expert” and depending upon whether it is art, or literature, or music.  But, I noticed a common theme in my research.  I kept finding the phrase, “you just know a masterpiece when you see it.”

            I know you are a masterpiece, just by looking at you this Easter morning.  I know you are a masterpiece, because God’s Word says so.