Quicksand Spirituality

Quicksand Spirituality

In a meeting with strangers, Thursday night, the question was asked, “Who gets stressed?”  We all knowingly chuckled.  We ALL get stressed.

The leader asked, “What stresses you?”  Work.  Family.  Relationships.  Health.  Money.


But, I never said a word, out loud.  I smiled and nodded.  “Yes. Work, family, and money stress me too.”

I know this sounds terribly judgmental – please, forgive me.  As I listened to our trite examples of stress, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Have we forgotten what JUST happened?  Or, are we just being polite?  Or, is it too painful to say out loud?  Are others inwardly shouting, as I am?  Or, has everyone else moved on?”

I know we have to move on, some how.  We can’t wallow in this forever.  The students have gone back to school.  Businesses are open.  Teams are playing sports.  New stories are making the headlines.

But, I can’t “move on.”  Though I wasn’t directly affected by this tragedy, this tragedy has deeply affected me.  I’m functioning, fairly normally, I think.  But, my soul is troubled.  I’m wrestling with questions I’ve not really wrestled with before, and I can’t find satisfactory answers.  My heart hurts, a lot.  My prayers have devolved into angry rants.  I’m listening, but not hearing.

My struggle is not nearly as significant as the MSD families who lost loved ones, or the students who witnessed horrors, or the parents who now fear their children’s safety, or the faculty and staff who, somehow, must pick up the pieces and make something of the remaining academic year.

Perhaps I’m struggling because I’m supposed to speak for God.  After all, that’s my job.  That is what I’m paid to do.  I’m supposed to know why God allows tragedies to happen.  No. I take that back.  I’m supposed to know why God allowed THIS tragedy to happen.  I’m supposed to know where God was during THIS shooting.  I’m supposed to know why a “good” God allowed THIS evil and suffering.  I’m supposed to know why God didn’t intervene.

God!  Why didn’t you intervene?????

I don’t know.  I’ve had answers before, when things happened to strangers, in far away places.  But, today, two and a half weeks later, my neat theological explanations aren’t holding water.  At least, they’re not for me.

I can’t seem to retreat into comfortable spiritual routines, or familiar theological answers, or even my faith.  In fact, it’s my faith that troubles me most.  How do I speak for a God I don’t understand?  I’ve never presumed to comprehend God.  But, that’s different.  God is beyond human comprehension.  I actually like that.  I need that.  I’m comfortable with that.  This?  Not so much.

Though I haven’t lost or abandoned my core spiritual convictions, or turned my back on God, I feel like my foundation has turned to quicksand.  Where is my rock?  I don’t know where to step and stand with confidence.  And, I’m beginning to wonder if “moving on” spiritually will require me to know and speak for God with a lot less certainty.  That’s unsettling.  To say the least, that stresses me.

Stressed?  Yes, I am stressed.  But, for none of the normal reasons.

Getting Out of the Echo Chamber

Getting Out of the Echo Chamber

About a year ago, I heard a Korean-American, female pastor challenge white, male, North American pastors to stop reading white, male theologians for the next year.  Her point was, we need to broaden our theologies and perspectives by adding new voices into our learning.  And, I think, her point was, white men reading white men was a bit like reading in an echo chamber – just hearing the same voices repeated over and over and over, reinforcing firmly-established belief-systems.

I didn’t obey her challenge perfectly.  I’ve still read a few white, male authors.  But, I respectfully took her point, and have expanded my reading by intentionally selecting a broader range of authors, than I  have in the past.  And, I’m so glad that I did!

Over the last year, or so, my reading has included, in no particular order…

  • Desmund Tutu – male, South-African
  • Pope Francis – male, Argentinian
  • Dorothy Day – female, Anglo-American
  • Makoto Fujimura – male, Japanese-American
  • Renita Weems – female, African-American
  • Ta-nehisi Coates – male, African-American
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. – male, African-American
  • Deidra Riggs – female, African-American
  • Lisa Sharon Harper – female, African-American
  • Elizabeth Gilbert – female, Anglo-American
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – female, Nigerian
  • Bryan Stevenson – male, African-American
  • Oscar Romero – male, El Salvadoran

This is a challenge I’m glad I accepted, and intend to continue.  The truth is, my shelves are covered with books authored by white men.  While many of them are brilliant and deeply spiritual, they do tend to speak from a vernacular of common life, education, and experience.

By adding new and varied influences, my perspective is being broadened and deepened.  I’m increasingly, painfully aware of the inherent advantages I have as a white, Southern, college-educated, man – advantages I’ve taken for granted, perhaps even assuming I have “earned.”  I’m increasingly aware of the disadvantages others have, simply because of their gender, skin-color, ethnicity, or country-of-origin.  I’m increasingly aware of injustice and unfairness, ways that I’m complicit, and ways that I’m called to live and lead differently.  I’m increasingly aware of my wrong assumptions, attitudes, and biases.

My eyes, and my mind are being opened.  And, while that’s not always easy, I am thankful.

While white, male authors are not permanently banned  from my bookshelves, I plan to continue reading an increasingly diverse group of authors.  I plan to continue being challenged, stretched, and deepened.  I encourage you to do the same.

I wonder, any non-white, male authors you might suggest I read next?




“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”  Theodore Roosevelt 

More than once, after listening to me wrestle with a decision, a dear friend has wisely asked, “What’s the brave thing to do?”  Not, “What do you want to do?  What’s the easiest thing to do?   What’s the convenient thing to do?  What’s the least controversial thing to do?”  

“What’s the brave thing to do?”

Yesterday, someone told me I’m brave for something I revealed in a recent blog.  It was a compliment, but also acknowledgement of the risk of self-disclosure.

Bravery’s hard.  Bravery requires risk and vulnerability.  Bravery requires facing the likelihood of danger.  Bravery requires stepping out of the shadows, and into the light.  Bravery requires facing the possibility of failure and defeat.  Bravery requires the courage to be real, to be exposed.

Bravery’s hard.  In my High School Psychology class, I learned about the fight-or-flight response to danger.  I’m definitely a “flight” kind of guy!  My natural tendency, when feeling vulnerable or attacked, is to retreat to somewhere safe.  I know I feel threatened, any time I realize I’m avoiding, isolating, or hiding.  I know I’ve forsaken bravery, when I betray my convictions, by remaining silent or feigning agreement or consent.

Some time ago, I noticed, every reference to courage or bravery in the Bible is a choice – “Be brave…take courage…”  Bravery is a choice.

If I choose bravery, you may not like what I say or do; you may not agree with me; you might be angry with me; you might judge and condemn me; you might fight back; you might reject me.  If I’m brave, I might lose.  But, if I’m not brave, what have actually gained?  Anything?  If I’m not brave, I’ve already lost by consent.

On the other hand, if I choose bravery, I might become your friend; I might be your ally; I might be your advocate; I might be your defender; I might be your hero; I might even inspire bravery in you, too.

Bravery’s risky business.  But, everything worthwhile is.

I want to be brave, even when I’m not.  I want to say and do brave things.  I want to take stands for the things I believe.  I want to be brave for those who can’t be.  Even when there’s a personal cost, and always a risk, I want to be true to my convictions.  I want to be brave.

I want to choose bravery.  Don’t you?

“Wounded” – A sermon on 2/18/18 for First Church Coral Springs, following the 2/14/18 tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

“Wounded” – A sermon on 2/18/18 for First Church Coral Springs, following the 2/14/18 tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

Shock and Disbelief…

On Wednesday, as I was running errands, several emergency vehicles passed me at high speed, with sirens blaring and lights flashing, heading northwest to Parkland.  Shortly after, I stopped by my house, and could hear helicopters in the distance.  My next-door neighbor was standing in her yard, visible shaken – trembling, actually – and told me there was an active shooting happening at the High School. Texts started pouring in.  The news reported seventeen “injured.”  I sat for a few moments in utter shock and disbelief.  “This can’t be happening!  Again.  Here.”  I could still hear the helicopter’s blades, within walking distance from my home.

I flashed back to Columbine, way back in 1999, and the shock I felt then.  I’d never imagined anything like that could happen – at a school, of all places – or could ever happen again.  But by now, “Columbine” is synonymous with the many school tragedies that have happened since.

But, “Columbine” was 2000 miles away.  Virginian Tech, West Nickle Mines, Sandy Hook – tragedies, but so far away.  And, there’ve been countless others we’ve forgotten, on campuses and off.

Now, our own Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has been added to the list.

Shock.  Disbelief.  Fear, anger, outrage, grief.

How could this happen?  How could this happen here?


Wishing for Lions…

            Revelation 5 paints a picture of God’s throne in heaven, high above the violence and chaos of this world.  God asks, “Who is worthy?” to open a scroll, foretelling events yet unknown.  When no one was found, Revelation 5:5 says, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

This, of course, is the risen Jesus Christ, the Lion of Judah, who conquered death, dying on the cross, but rising from the dead.  Death is the ultimate enemy of humanity.  No one has ever conquered death. No one, except the Lion of Judah.

When tragedies, like this, occur, we turn to God.  I did on Wednesday.  I immediately prayed for the protection of everyone at that school.  I prayed for the first responders.  I prayed for the families who couldn’t get to their children.  I prayed that the reports of injuries were only injuries, not fatalities.  I prayed for the incident to end as quickly and as peaceably as possible.  I prayed God would prowl through the halls of Douglas High School like a triumphant, powerful, fearless lion, to save the day!

When tragedy strikes, I pray for God to move in power.  In the words of Isaiah 64:1, “Oh, that you would burst from the heavens and come down!  How the mountains would quake in your presence!” Isaiah 64:1

            I want the God who sent plagues on Pharaoh.  I want the God who parted the Red Sea.  I want the God who defeated armies.  I want the Jesus who drove out demons.  I want the Jesus who calmed the storm.  I want the Jesus who raised the dead.  I want God to show up in power, defeating evil, saving the innocent.

Psalm 18 says, “In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help.
From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears.  The earth trembled and quaked, and the foundations of the mountains shook; they trembled because he was angry.  Smoke rose from his nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it.  He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet… The Lord thundered from heaven; the voice of the Most High resounded.  He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy, with great bolts of lightning he routed them.  The valleys of the sea were exposed and the foundations of the earth laid bare at your rebuke, Lord, at the blast of breath from your nostrils.”

That’s the God I wanted Wednesday.  A God who intervenes.  I wanted God to be like Superman, to swoop down and save the day.

But, when the day was over, seventeen were dead, fourteen injured, the assailant in custody, families traumatized, and a school, community, and nation in shock.

I’ve no doubt God was in the bravery of the students, faculty and staff, in the first responders, and in the comfort of family and friends.  I’ve no doubt God was present in the worship services and prayer vigils.  I’ve no doubt God has been present in acts generosity.  I’ve no doubt God is here, with us, now.

But, I suspect we’d give all of that up in exchange for God saving those seventeen lives.


Worthy is the Lamb who was slain…

            According to the Bible, God has moved powerfully in history.  Yes, the Lion of Judah triumphed over death.  But, the following verse, in Revelation 5:6ff, says, Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne… He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.”

The Lion of Judah appeared as a wounded, sacrificial lamb – not a lion.  The one who is worthy, is the one who was wounded – wounded for our transgressions; for our sinfulness; for our rebellion; for our disobedience; for our brokenness; for me; for you; for Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas; wounded for the sins of the world.

Worthy is lamb who was slain.  Worthy is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.

God’s greatest act in history – when death was defeated – looked in every way like weakness, tragedy and defeat.  No one at the cross saw a roaring lion.  And, yet, on the cross, true power and greatness were revealed.

Pope Benedict XVI said, “God’s distinctive greatness is revealed precisely in powerlessness… God consciously revealed himself in the powerlessness of Nazareth and Golgotha. Thus, it is not the one who can destroy the most who is the most powerful…but, on the contrary, the least power of love is already greater than the greatest power of destruction.” 

Henri Nouwen wrote, “In Christ we see God suffering – for us. And calling us to share in God’s suffering love for a hurting world. The small and even overpowering pains of our lives are intimately connected with the greater pains of Christ. Our daily sorrows are anchored in a greater sorrow and therefore a larger hope.” 

            Isaiah 53:2-3 says, He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.  Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.  (Isaiah 53:2-3)

As we now know firsthand, we live in a world filled with senseless violence, tragedy, and death.  This isn’t the first, the only, or the last tragedy.  We know that.  But, this is OUR tragedy!  As people of faith, we may wonder where God is when tragedies occur.  Where was God last Wednesday?  If he doesn’t come in power to intervene, where is he?

The cross is God’s answer.  The wounded Lamb is God’s answer.

            Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”  Isaiah 53:2-6

            “By his wounds we are healed.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The Cross is the eternal expression of the length to which God will go to in order to restore broken community.” 
            One of my seminary professors, Richard Hayes, writes, “God has chosen to save the world through the cross, through the shameful and powerless death of the crucified Messiah. If that shocking event is the revelation of the deepest truth about the character of God, then our whole way of seeing the world is turned upside down.”

God rarely shows up in force, at least as we see it.  God rarely comes like a roaring lion.  God comes as a wounded, sacrificed lamb.

`           Where was God last Wednesday?  God was with the pain.  God was with the suffering.  God was with those students, faculty, staff, and families huddled in fear.  God was with the dying.  God is with the injured.  God is with the grieving.  Wherever there is pain, suffering, fear, grief, God is there – holding us together, whispering words of comfort, promising that one day all will be made well.

One day all will be well – but, not yet.  Until then, he suffers with us in our sorrow and our pain.


Reconsidering the Cross

Though my thoughts and emotions are scattered, I keep returning to a single thought.  In light of this tragedy, and so many others like it, so many things seem so small and insignificant now.  The things I fret over daily, pale compared to what we’ve lost.

But, as so much seems smaller, and less important, the cross looms larger, and more important, than ever before!

How often do we talk about the cross as the place Jesus died to make me a better person?  How often do we talk about Jesus dying to save me from my bad habits?  How many times do we think of the cross as the antidote for our insecurities and low self-worth?  How many times do we treat the cross like a charm, as protection from bad luck?  How many times is the cross little more than a fashion accessory to our otherwise unspiritual, worldly lives.

Yes, Jesus cares about small things.  But, the cross is so much bigger.

When Jesus hung on the cross, by all appearances defeated and destroyed, he was dying for the sin of the entire world – yours, mine, everyone’s.  He sacrificed himself so that the most broken stuff of this world could be restored.  He was wounded to make us whole.  He was wounded so that days like February 14, 2018 will not define history.  On the cross, he carried the weight of every sin, of all pain and suffering, of every tragedy – including ours.  With the 17 victims, Jesus was wounded too – with them, for them.  He was wounded to make ALL things new.

He didn’t die to make things better.  He died to make them NEW!

We may want a lion, to intervene in moments like this.  God knows that.  But, God knows we need a wounded Lamb, to be with us suffering; to carry our suffering, to redeem our suffering, to ultimately save us from our suffering.  Wherever there is pain, darkness, and suffering, Jesus is there, bringing hope, restoration and redemption.  Hopefully that is a comforting thought.

But, I also hope we can hear the whisper of the wounded Savior calling to us, the Church, “If anyone wants to be by follower, if anyone wants to claim me as Lord and Savior, they must deny themselves, pick up a cross and follow me, to join me in the dark, and the suffering, and the pain, to make this world new again!”

While we would do anything to turn back the clock, to stop the evil, to bring back the dead, we can’t.  There is evil in this world, and terrible tragedies happen.  God doesn’t always stop them – that is undeniably true.  But, God has entered our darkest suffering, and is with us.

            “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain — to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing…  Blessing and honor and glory and power belong to the one sitting on the throne and to the Lamb forever and ever.”

He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”




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.

“More” – a sermon preached at First Church Coral Springs on August 13, 2017

“More” – a sermon preached at First Church Coral Springs on August 13, 2017


It was the last semester of my last year of college.  I was facing the reality of impending adulthood; and, I wasn’t ready.  I was about to graduate, but I had partied my way through college.  My degree was unmarketable.  My grades were pathetic.  I didn’t have any real-world work experience.  I didn’t have any purpose or direction.  I was scared.

But, I had hopes.  I wanted to be a responsible adult.  I wanted to marry.  I wanted to do something meaningful with my life.  I just didn’t know what, or how.

As graduation approached, my anxiety intensified, daily.  One night, alone in my fraternity house bedroom, overcome with anxiety, my Bible caught my eye.  I’d never read it.  Something told me to pick it up, and start reading. I read a few pages.  The next night, I read a few more.  I read a little every night until I worked my way through the four Gospels.  By then, Kelly and I were searching for a church.

A year later, I was the Youth Director at the First United Methodist Church of Orlando.

The point of this story is that a particular message stirred me as I read the four Gospels.  Over and over, I discovered Jesus saying things like…

  • “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.  (Matthew 7:7-8)
  • “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossiblefor you.”  (Matthew 17:20)
  • “If two of you on earth agree about anything they askfor, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 18:19)
  • “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”  (Matthew 21:22)

And, finally, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.   And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:12-14)

Notice the theme?  Over and over, Jesus says anything is possible with faith and prayer.  All things are possible, with God’s help!  In fact, Jesus says, we’ll do even greater things than him!

At that moment in my life, those were powerful promises.  They still are.  I was scared and unequipped for adulthood.  I felt like I was facing insurmountable obstacles.  But, Jesus said anything is possible.  I took him at his word – literally.  Ever since, I’ve believed, with faith, God does impossible things.  Throughout my ministry, I’ve operated out of this core belief and promise.

A small, old, rinky-dink church…

It was February, 2016 – just 18 months ago.  I’d been the Senior Pastor at Ortega United Methodist Church, in Jacksonville, for just 18 months. I’d just rearranged my office, and just hung some things on my walls – settling in, for the long haul.  I’d just preached a series, introducing our new vision.  I’d just led town-hall meetings to discuss how we would implement the new vision. I planned to be there for many years, and to watch that vision come to reality.

Then I got the call.  I was, unexpectedly, being moved to First Church Coral Springs.

You should know that I said, “no.”  I thought moving was a mistake, for Kelly and me, and for Ortega.  It was too soon.  We weren’t ready for a change.  Ortega wasn’t ready.  But, the decision wasn’t up to me – that’s how it works in the United Methodist Church.  We go when and where we are sent.

The reason for the move was that First Church needed a specific kind of pastor.  For some reason, I was discerned to be that pastor.

I was told that First Church is large, growing, and preparing for future growth.  I was told that First Church is culturally diverse, with the opportunity to become more diverse.  I was told that First Church is committed to missions and impacting the world.  I was told that First Church is a warm, welcoming church.  I was told that there are vision and dreams and plans for the future.

And, I was told, from the perspective of the United Methodist Church, First Church has the kind of ministry potential that could impact the entire south east region of Florida.  We are seen, by our denomination, as one of the strongest, healthiest, most vital churches in Florida, and in the denomination.

Even though I didn’t want to move, I admit that I was excited by the potential.

First Church is, in so many ways, the great church that was described to me.  This is a large, dynamic church.  This church is committed to mission and service.  This church is warm and welcoming.  This church has tremendous possibility and potential.  And, we are blessed with more diversity than any church I’ve ever served before.

But, more often than not, that’s not the way I hear “us” describe our church.

This year, our average worship attendance is about 800 people, per week. The average church attendance in America is only about 184.  Half of all churches in America only worship 75 people, or less.  90% of the churches in America worship less than 350 people, per week.  We are, at least, twice as large as 90% of the churches in America!

We are a large church!  We aren’t a mega–large church, like Church by the Glades or Calvary Chapel.  But, by all comparisons, we are a LARGE church – much larger than most, including most of the other churches in Coral Springs and Southeast Florida!  And, a church as large as ours, is capable of doing remarkable things!  In fact, we have a responsibility to!

And, yet, I’ve heard our leaders describe us as “small,” “rinky-dink,” and “declining.”

My point?  There’s a significant difference between how we are seen by others, and how we see ourselves.

This church already does great things; Bethlehem Revisited, Food Share, Vacation Bible School, and great Children and Youth Ministries.  But, when I bring up new ideas, I’m told – over and over – “We can’t do that,” “We can’t afford it,” “We don’t have enough volunteers,” “We don’t have enough leaders,” “We’ve tried that before, and it didn’t work.”

When I ask about our hopes and dreams for the future, the best I’ve heard is that we like what we currently do, now, or that we like what we used to be.  Don’t get me wrong.  I know we love First Church, and love what we currently do.  But, when it comes to the future, I don’t hear much dreaming.

My point is not to be critical.  My point is, there is a problem with self-perception.  There’s a gap between how we perceive ourselves, and how we are perceived by others.

The Johari Window…


            During college, I learned about the Johari Window.  The Johari Window is a box, divided into four windows.  The top left, window #1, represents things I know about myself, and others also know about me.  Window #2, on the top right, represents things about me that I don’t know, but others do know – they call this the bad breath window.  Window #2 could also be the potential others see in us, that we don’t see in ourselves.  The bottom left window represents the things I know about myself, but others do not know about me – my secrets.  And, finally, the bottom right window represents what is unknown to both of us.

In the case of First Church, there are things that we know about First Church, that are also public knowledge.  That’s window #1.  Window #2, I think, represents the potential others see in First Church, that we don’t see in ourselves.  Window #3 represents what we know about ourselves, that others don’t know: things we’ve tried and failed, challenges we face.  And, window #4 represents, I think, what only God knows about our future.

My point, today, is to challenge us to see First Church, as others see us; to challenge our ideas about who we are, and what we can do; to move us into the second window – to see what other’s see; and even the fourth window – to begin to believe that there is potential and possibility that only God can see.

 We can’t, but God can…

            I want you to imagine being me, sitting in my fraternity house bedroom, anxious about the future, reading my Bible for the first time, desperately looking for hope and direction.  Instead of reading that anything is possible with God, and that God answers prayers, and that God opens doors, imagine if I read passages that said, “Ask, but don’t expect much.  Seek, and maybe you’ll find something – but, maybe you won’t.  Knock, but you better have the key to open the door yourself.”

Not very inspiring, huh?  I can tell you, if that’s what Scripture said, I would NOT be here today.

Instead, I am here today because I deeply believe that Jesus was telling the truth when he said, “Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.   And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:12-14)

I’m here, at First Church, because I believe, with all of my heart, that God has big plans for First Church.  I’m here, because I believe that First Church’s greatest days are not in the past, but are in our future.

The missionary, C.T. Studd, said, “Christ wants not nibblers of the possible, but grabbers of the impossible.” 

            The Christian philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, said, “If I were to wish for anything I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of what can be, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating as possibility.”

Who does this church belong to?  Who does this church exist for?

            Let me ask you two questions…

  1. Who does this church belong to?
  2. Who does this church exist for?

My hunch is, while we might know the correct theological answers, the honest answers are: This is our church, and this church exists for us.”  But, that’s not biblical.  In fact, it’s heretical.  First Church is not ours!  First Church belongs to Christ – he’s the head of the Church, and we’re his body!  And, Scripture says the Church exists for the needs of the world.  Our two primary functions are to honor God, and to serve the world.

Honor God and serve the world.  The church doesn’t exist to serve us – the members.  We are the church, and we exist to serve the world!

Earlier this week, I heard a pastor friend said, “The Church does not exist to feed its membership.  The Church, and her members, exist to offer a plate of life-giving food to a hungry world!”

So, if the Church belongs to God, and the Church exists for the world, then there’s NOTHING we can’t do, NOTHING’s too big to try, and NOTHING’s impossible, because God will provide the inspiration, the motivation, and the resources to do it.  It isn’t up to us.  It’s up to God!

Maybe we don’t have enough money – now.  Maybe we don’t have enough leaders and volunteers – yet.  Maybe we don’t know exactly what to do or how to do it – at this moment.  Maybe it will stretch us out of our comfort zones – that’s fine.

But, the issue, I think, isn’t lack of resources.  The issue, I think, is lack of faith.

Jesus did NOT say that anything is possible for US.  He said ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE for HIM!  We don’t need more faith in ourselves.    We need faith in what God wants, and can do through us, if we’re willing, prayerful, and faithful.

That’s my question: “Are we willing to be prayerful and faithful, to be the church God is calling First Church to become?”

Listen – if we prayerfully discern together that something is unbiblical, unwise, or that God simply doesn’t want it, that’s one thing.  But, until we’ve dared to dream God-sized dreams, and set God-sized goals, given generously, and prayed audacious, impossible prayers, how dare we say what we will or won’t, can or can’t do?!?

Let me tell you something.  First Church is not small, and not rinky-dink!  First Church is not declining!  First Church’s best years are not in the past – they’re in front of us, not behind us!  And, we haven’t even begun to dream of all God can and will do here, if we believe and if we will act.  God wants to do more at First Church, than we’ve ever dared to dream!

I believe that with all of my heart.  Do you?

I love what Paul writes in Ephesians 3:20-21, “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”  (Ephesians 3:20-21)



The Unquenchable Thirst of Grief

The Unquenchable Thirst of Grief

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

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

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

This is what I said…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day and night I have only tears for food.

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

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

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

Now I am deeply discouraged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Yet, peppered throughout this Psalm our words of faith…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 And, you can be sure, even now…

There is a God.

He is good.

He is for us, and not against us.