Coddling Evil

Coddling Evil

Yesterday, in a brief conversation with a colleague, reflecting on the recent tragedy in our community, she asked, “Why do we coddle evil?”  

She wasn’t only talking about the mass killings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.  She was talking about the myriad evils in our world – in our own communities – that we are either blind to, or just consider insignificant.

She was also talking about personified evil – the spiritual forces of wickedness at work in our world; undermining good, turning people away from God and their neighbor, and seeking out opportunities to cause death and destruction.

“Why do we coddle evil?”

I wonder if it’s because we blame evil on people.  We see people.  We see what they do.

Surely, people do evil things.  Surely, people are complicit for their evil acts.  Surely, people are responsible – and must be held responsible – for their choices.  But, what about the evil that shapes and forms the people who do evil things?

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”  Ephesians 6:12

“Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”  1 Peter 5:8

I wonder if it’s easier to dismiss evil, blaming it on the bad choices of bad people?  We fear evil, of course.  But, we think we can avoid it by living in nice neighborhoods, sending our kids to “good” schools, avoiding certain parts of town, not associating with certain types of people, putting “bad” people in prison, protecting our borders, and certainly not participating in anything “too” bad ourselves.

Yes – evil exists in bad neighborhoods, bad schools, and in bad people.  Evil also exists in gated communities, private schools, and in “model” citizens.  Evil exists in our work places, in our government, on our TVs, and in our social media.  Evil, sometimes, exists in us.

Evil isn’t only a troubled young man with an assault-style weapon – though evil was clearly at work in him.  Evil is greed.  Evil is racism.  Evil is materialism.  Evil is sexism.  Evil is addiction, in all of it’s varieties.  Evil is lust.  Evil is judging others as inferior.  Evil is careless, thoughtless, hurtful words.  Evil is idolatry, in all of it’s myriad forms.  Evil is selfishness.  Evil is division.  Evil is power used abusively.  Evil is apathy.  Evil is hate.  Evil is injustice.  Evil is violence.  Evil is complacency.  Evil is pride.  Evil is worldliness.

“Why do we coddle evil?”

In moments like these, we inevitably ask questions about how to protect ourselves from future evil.  “Shouldn’t we have tougher gun laws?  Shouldn’t we have better mental health screenings?  Shouldn’t we have better security in our schools?”  Security and the protection of the innocent is undeniably prudent.  But, evil always finds a way in.  Evil always finds a chink in one’s armor.   Evil always finds a willing partner.

Perhaps the questions we should be asking, as people of faith are, “How do we name evil, resist evil, and do battle with evil, before evil wreaks such havoc and destruction?  How do we acknowledge and name the evil we complacently accept and minimize in our world, our communities, and even in our own homes?  How do we stop coddling evil, and start confronting evil?”

I’m not talking about Hollywood-style spiritual warfare and exorcisms – though there certainly may be times, people, and places that is needed.  I’m talking about donning the “armor of God” and confronting the forces of darkness in their tangible forms – racism, poverty, injustice, and the pervasive acceptance of myriad worldly values contrary to the will of God.

Jesus said, “I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not stand against it!”

The Church of Jesus is not called to avoid evil, to accept evil, or to pander to evil.  The Church of Jesus is called to be a bright, piercing, billion-kilowatt light in the darkest darkness.  And, where the light shines brightest, the darkness flees.

Rob Bell writes, “Why blame the dark for being dark? It is far more helpful to ask why the light isn’t as bright as it could be.”

One of my favorite quotes is from a missionary named C.T. Studd…

“Some want to live within the sound of a church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop, within a yard of hell.”

Christian friends, “Why do we coddle evil?”

 

What broke him?

What broke him?

Yesterday, Nikolas Cruz entered the campus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, FL – a school he was expelled from – murdering seventeen innocent victims and injuring at least fourteen others.  The press is already reporting there were “red flags” – expulsion, social media posts, strange behaviors, etc.  He doesn’t seem to have friends.  Apparently Cruz has experienced significant loss and grief.

As yesterday’s events unfolded, I asked, “What broke him?  Who broke him?”  This wasn’t the act of a “normal” person choosing wrong.  This was not the act of a “normal” person suddenly overcome with evil.  Yes, what he did was unspeakably evil!  But, this wasn’t the act of a “normal” person.  Only a “broken” person could do something this horrific.

“What broke him?  Who broke him?

We could ask the same every time one of these tragedies occur.

Perhaps some people are born evil.  Some would make that argument.  I can’t accept that.  I believe God doesn’t make broken people.  I believe God creates us in his good image.  I believe this world breaks people.  And, today, I wonder what broke Nikolas Cruz, and others like him.

Inevitably, many are already debating the need for better gun laws versus better mental health screenings.  Though I firmly believe some kind of law should have prohibited Cruz from purchasing a semi-automatic weapon, my point is not to enter that particular debate.

I’m wondering when Cruz’s brokenness began, who might have recognized it early on, and who failed to intervene?  I’m wondering what might have saved Cruz – and, now, all of his victims – closer to when his brokenness began?  I’m not looking for someone to blame.  I’m wondering about how Cruz, and others like him, might have been helped before doing such unspeakable harm?  I’m wondering who the next Cruz might be?

And, I’m wondering what the Church’s role is?  Obviously, the Church is quick to offer aid following tragedies.  We hold special services.  We offer comfort, counsel, and prayer.  But, I’m wondering, if we are called to be salt and light in world, how we could – must – address the widespread brokenness in our world?  Where was the Church for Nikolas Cruz?

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not blaming the world, the Church, or anyone else for Cruz’s sin.  Cruz made that evil choice.  I’m just wondering why, and what might have stopped him.

I confess I am struggling today.  These aren’t just theological ponderings.  I’m wrestling deep in my soul.  I’m torn between knowing there is darkness in our world, and feeling an immense responsibility to stop playing “Church”; to actually do something substantial and assertive, to drive back the forces of evil in our communities and our world.  I’m torn between believing in the free-will that allows for evil choices, and believing God’s will ultimately prevails.  I’m torn between feelings of hopelessness in the face of so much despair, and an outrage-driven conviction to do more about it.  I’m torn between utter hopelessness, and knowing we have the power of almighty-God at our disposal.  I’m torn between wondering if the Church is making any difference in this world at all, and knowing Christ, working in the Church, is the only hope we have.

I watch as society drifts further and further away from God.  I watch as families senselessly decay.  I watch as more and more die of drug overdoses.  I watch as so many “Christian” families are less and less involved in Church, and more and more drawn away to other worldly distractions.  I watch as woman after woman after woman comes forward to bravely confront men who’ve assaulted them.  I watch as our country grows more and more divided.  I watch as age-old-racism seems to be rekindled.  I watch as the constant threat of war and nuclear annihilation looms on the horizon.  I watch as we literally throw away our lives on the smallest, most petty, trivial pursuits.

Friends, what are we doing?  Yes, Cruz is broken.  But, maybe Cruz is broken because we are broken?  Maybe Cruz if broken because the world is so broken.  Maybe the world is so broken because we – the Church – are doing so little about it.

And I’m thinking a lot about Jesus today.  I’m thinking about Jesus coming to heal our brokenness and rescue us from sin.  I’m thinking about the trivial ways we talk about sin, without confronting the sin that leads to yesterday’s massacre.  I’m thinking about the terrible weight Jesus bore on the cross, dying to save us from all of our sin and brokenness.

I’m wondering what Jesus is calling his church to do?

I don’t know who broke Nikolas Cruz.  But, I do know who could – who can – heal his brokenness. I know who can heal the brokenness all around us.

So, here’s my question, to the Church.  Are we going to keep playing Church – with nice worship services, cozy fellowship, shallow religious programs, and petty squabbles over silly, unimportant, irrelevant disagreements?  Or, are we going to get to work, with all of the courage and conviction we can muster, driving back the forces of darkness that lead to death and destruction, in Jesus’ name?

Isn’t the correct answer obvious?

What broke him?  What are we going to do about it?

 

 

Hoping for the best. Prepared for the worst. Praying, no matter what happens.

Hoping for the best.  Prepared for the worst.  Praying, no matter what happens.

All we can do, now, is wait.

Hurricane Irma – a historically strong, potentially-catastrophe-causing storm – is heading this way.  All forecasts indicate that Southeast Florida, where I live, is very likely the target.  Maybe not.  Likely so.

For now, all we can do is wait

We’ve purchased hurricane supplies.  With the help of friends, the hurricane shutters have been hung.  We’ve gassed up.  We’re taking this storm seriously and, short of evacuating, we’ve done all we can do to prepare.

Now, all we can do is wait.  All we can do is hope for the best, but be ready for the worst.

Surprisingly, as a 50-year-old Floridian, I’ve never experienced a major storm.  We were in graduate school, in North Carolina, during Hurricane Andrew.  We’ve been on the far-outskirts of a few hurricanes and tropical storms – but, nothing significant.  Last year, we fully-prepared for Hurricane Matthew – but, barely saw a cloud in the sky.  If Irma visits Southeast Florida, this will be my first.

Honestly, I won’t mind if Irma decides to just had out to sea!  I don’t think this is a life-experience I need to have!  I will be sincerely happy if all of the storm preparation was unnecessary!

Waiting for a storm of this magnitude is a vulnerable feeling.  Fortunately, we live in a safe home, and could afford the needed supplies.  But, are we prepared enough?  Is this house strong enough?  Will Irma’s impact exceed our preparations?  Are we prepared for the potential aftermath and clean-up? I don’t know.  I just don’t know.

I am aware that many are far more vulnerable than we are.  My heart goes out to them.

Not knowing, for sure, what’s to come, all we can do is wait.

No.  That’s not true.  Prayer is also an option.

While I don’t really believe that prayer will push Irma out to sea (If I did, how would I explain Harvey’s impact on Texas and Louisiana?  Lack of prayers?  There are probably more Christians in Houston than just about anywhere!  How would I explain the devastation Irma has already caused in the Islands?), I do believe that God is bigger than the biggest storm, and that God is present, with us, in the storm.

Throughout the Psalms, God is called “a rock, a fortress, a hiding place, a strong shelter.” Honestly, in this context, I’m not sure what those metaphors mean.  But, that’s what I am praying over my family, my church, my friends, and my community.  “God, please be our rock, our fortress, our hiding place, our strong shelter.”  Whatever comes, may we experience the peace of God’s presence, his strength and courage to endure the storm, and the faith and hope in his power to redeem and restore whatever is broken.

And, in the days to come, I am praying for the Church to be the Church.  It’s times like this that reveal the very best of humanity.  In the face of catastrophes, the best of the human spirit shines forth.  If we somehow, someway avoid this monster storm, thank God!  Someone, somewhere will still need the compassionate generosity and kindness of Christian people.  If we don’t avoid this, and find ourselves climbing out of the rubble in a few days, may we be people of hope, love, and generosity, as we recover and rebuild our lives and community together.  Let’s be the Church, and demonstrate to the world the very best of being the hands and feet of Christ!

For now, we wait.  We hope for the best, and prepare for the worst.  And, we pray to the God, who is our shelter in the storm.

My prayers are with you.  Be safe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 78:1-7 says,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me ask you, do your children and grandchildren…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

Do we Really Believe This Stuff?

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

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

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

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


Figless Fig Trees

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

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

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

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

Methodists and the Middle Class

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

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

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

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

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

Transformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stats…

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

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

Common Fears…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easy ways to share…

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

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

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

Go

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

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

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

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

 

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.