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

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

 Either Growing, or…

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

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

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

Love, Grow, Serve, Share…

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

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

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

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

Love Grows…

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

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

Today, I am focusing particularly on spiritual growth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A farmer went out to plant some seeds…

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

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

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

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

4 Soils…

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

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

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

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

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

The goal…

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

            Our fruitfulness includes…

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

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

            As Christians, we never stop growing!

 Ways to grow…

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what do you love?

Who do you love?

How are you growing?

 

 

We Love First – Part 1 of a 5-week Sermon Series called “We Love First” – preached at First Church Coral Springs on April 30, 2017.

We Love First – Part 1 of a 5-week Sermon Series called “We Love First” – preached at First Church Coral Springs on April 30, 2017.

 What’s the Vision?

Almost as soon as I arrived last summer, as your new pastor, some of you were asking, “What’s your vision for First Church?”  What’s my vision?  Are you kidding?  At that point I was still trying to find the grocery store, the movie theater, a new dentist!  I had no idea what vision I had for First Church.  At that point, I wasn’t sure about the vision for my last church!  Now, 9 months later, I still have no idea what the vision is.  I still need a GPS just to find most places around Broward county!  I’m still looking for stuff I packed this time last year.

What’s the vision?  Give me a break!

You tell me!  Almost all of you have been here longer than I have!

But, saying that I don’t know what the vision is, doesn’t mean that I don’t think a vision is extremely important.  It is!  I do!  Proverbs 29:18 says, Where there is no vision, the people perish.”  And, Acts 2: 17 says, that Holy Spirit is given so that, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.”

Pastor Andy Stanley, in Atlanta, writes, Vision is a mental picture of what could be, fueled by a passion that it should be.”

Imagine that.  Imagine what could happen if we had a shared, crystal-clear picture of what God wants us to do, AND that we all shared a deep passion for accomplishing it.

            I passionately believe in the value of having a defining, unifying vision.  Without it, it is very difficult to say what is a priority and what is not a priority, what we will do and what we won’t do.  Without a clear vision, there can be competing values and agendas, or no values or agendas at all.

And, honestly, I think that describes First Church pretty well.  We do a lot of great things.  But, can we say why we do what we do?  What is our core God-given sense of purpose?

Some of us are passionate about music ministry.  Some of us are passionate about food ministry.  Some of us are passionate about the homeless.  Some of are passionate about Bethlehem.  Some of us are passionate about children and youth.  Some of us are passionate about prayer.  Some of us are passionate about Bible study.  Some of us are passionate about serving and reaching the community.  Some of us are passionate about traditional worship.  Some of us are passionate about contemporary worship.  Some of us are passionate about growth.  Some of us are passionate about maintaining the status quo – never changing anything, ever.

As long as that is true, how do we decide how to allocate our budget?  How do we decide what ministries to start?  How do we decide which ministries to stop?  How do we decide what kind of staff we need?  How do we decide how to use our buildings?  How do we know when to stretch, take risks, and act of faith?

We need a vision.

On the day after Easter, I packed a small bag, strapped it to the back of my Harley, and headed north on A1A.  Before I left, I made arrangements for places to stay in Vero, Ormond Beach, Jacksonville, St. Augustine, and Stuart.  I made arrangements to see some friends.  I had a basic route planned out.  I knew that by Wednesday afternoon I would be with my friends in Jacksonville, and Saturday I would be home.  I had a vision and a plan for where I was going, how I would get there, and what I would do.  And, I had a great trip.

But, I didn’t plan every minute.  I was very loose and flexible with my time and agenda.  I only rode for a few hours a day, which left me lots of time to explore, and relax, drink cups of coffee, read, and spend time with friends.

But, if I had left with no plans at all, no vision for where I was going, I might not have found places to stay.  I might not have known where to go.  I might have gotten lost.  I might have wasted a lot of time.  My friends might not have been available to meet.  I might have had an entirely frustrating trip.

A vision and plan is a helpful thing.  Churches need vision.  First Church needs a vision.

The problem is, a true God-given vision doesn’t just pop out of thin air.  Going on a week-long vacation is a bit easier than knowing who God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do.  You can’t just send a pastor to the top of a mountain and expect he will return with stone tablets carved with God’s vision.  If just doesn’t work that way.

But, I do want you to know that I’ve been devoting significant prayer to First Church’s vision since before I arrived, and I won’t stop until it is crystal clear.  Then I will pray that God will help us achieve it.

But, God works in God’s timing not mine.

I also tend to believe that while I may be the one to eventually articulate the vision, I’ll only be saying something that God has already spoken into the heart of this congregation.  Like I said, many of you have been worshipping, serving, giving, and praying for this church for a long time.  I suspect you already know the vision.  I suspect it has already been given.  I suspect the vision for our future is already here.  We just have to find it.

A Church the Loves Well…

One of the ways I’ve been seeking that vision, is by listening – asking questions and listening.  A few months back, I was riding to Orlando with our youth director, Chris Linderman. I asked him, “Chris, what kind of church do you dream of being part of?”  After a few minutes of quiet thought, Chris said, “I want to be part of a church that loves well.”  I asked him what that meant.  He said something like, “I want to be part of a church that loves God so much that everything we do is motivated by God’s love; we serve because we love; we worship because we love; we share Jesus because we love; we fellowship because we love; we take care of each other because we love”

            I like that.  I like that a lot.

Obviously, that’s very close to something Jesus said.

The Greatest Commandment:

On numerous occasions, Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment?”   Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

            In John 13:34, Jesus also says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

I know we’ve all heard that.  But, I’d like for us to think about it for a moment.  What is the most important commandment?  He doesn’t say anything about rule-keeping, church attendance, or theological correctness.  He doesn’t say anything about spiritual gifts, or Biblical knowledge, or serving.  All of those ARE important.  But, the #1, most important thing we can do, according to Jesus, is love God and love neighbor.

Also, notice that.  He states the two as a single command.  One command:  love God and love one another.  They go together, inseparably.

Brennan Manning writes, “The litmus test of our love for God is our love of neighbor.” 

They go hand-in-hand.

We Love First

            In other words, Jesus seems to be saying, “love first.”  Before everything else, ground yourself in love.  “Love first.”  There are many valuable religious things we can do – worship, Bible study, service, retreats, etc., etc.  But, nothing is more important than love.  In fact, without love, everything else is utterly meaningless.  Paul wrote, If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”  (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

            John Wesley writes, “Love is the highest gift of God; humble, gentle, patient love; that all visions, revelations, manifestations whatever, are little things compared to love.”

 What is Love?

            I want to be very clear about something.  I’ve heard people say, “I don’t want to hear sermons about how I’m supposed to love everybody!”; as though there is something biblically or theologically soft about talking about love; as though there are more weighty things to talk about, like sin and judgment.  I think such sentiments must be rooted in a complete misunderstanding of what love is.

Love begins with God…

            Love can’t be weak or soft, because love begins with God.  In fact, love is God’s own self-definition.  I John 4:7-8 says, Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

Hear that again – “whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”  That is a bold statement.  Love isn’t optional for Christians.  It is the one and only way we can know who God is.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.”

Love is more than a feeling

I think part of the problem with our understanding of love is that we think it is just an emotion or feeling.  1 John 4:9-11 clearly corrects this, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

            Which leads us back to what is first… “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (vs. 12)

            But, notice the kind of love he’s talking about.  Christian love isn’t just warm, affectionate, sentimental feeling.  We are called to love one another the way that God loves us – sacrificially.  He showed us he loved us by sacrificing his son.  He shows us love by loving us before we loved him.  He shows us love by loving us when we don’t deserve it.

1 Corinthians 13 describes a love that is far from just emotion and sentimentalism… “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (vs. 4-7)

Can any of us honestly say that we haven’t been envious, impatient or unkind – even with the people we claim to love the most?  Can we honestly claim that we haven’t been boastful, or prideful, or self-seeking, or easily angered?

Love is far from soft emotional sentimentality.  Love is hard.  Love is challenging.  Love is work.  Love requires deep personal sacrifice and a significant amount of personal spiritual maturity!

Mother Teresa said, “(For) love to be real, it must cost—it must hurt—it must empty us of self.” 

What’s the Vision?

            So back to the original question, “What’s the vision?”  Like I already said, I have absolutely no idea.  I have no idea what kind of church we will be in the years to come. But, I know we need a vision, and I am fully committed to identifying that vision and pursuing it to actualization.

Some of you might be thinking, “Why do we need a vision?  Hasn’t the Bible made it pretty clear what we are supposed to do?”

            I absolutely agree.  The Bible is clear.  Until a specific vision for First Church becomes clearer to us, it seems to me that Jesus has already given us some pretty clear instruction – to love.  Love God.  Love our neighbors.  Love each other.  Love First.

Love God, passionately in worship and service.  Love each other – even when you may not like each other.  Love the people who walk in our doors – no matter who they are.  Love the people we serve.  Love the people in this community that don’t know Jesus.  Love the people that we might otherwise consider unlovable.  Love God and people more than traditions.  Love God and people more than institutions.  Love God and people more than rules.  Love God and people more than our personal agendas.  Love God and people more than our petty personal preferences. Love God and people with our words, our actions, our service, our offerings.  Love like God loves.

Love first.

 

30 years ago, tonight…

30 years ago, tonight…

At 9:00 pm, 30 years ago, tonight, we were lowering the gate to the entrance of Champs Sporting Goods, at the Fashion Square Mall, in Orlando, where I worked (primarily selling athletic shoes – selling shoes has always been my back-up profession, in case ministry doesn’t work out).  As I was checking off the list of my “closing” duties – before I could leave – a cute, young college student, named Kelly McFarlane, walked up to the store window, meeting me to go on our first date.

She was really cute.

We left the Fashion Square parking lot and started our date about 9:30 pm.  Nowadays, I’m thinking of heading to bed by about 9:30 pm!  We stopped at Wendy’s to get her something to eat.  I had a cup of coffee, because I’d been out until about 5:00 am the night before.  Now I wake up, some days, around 5:00 am!

We went dancing, at an Orlando nightclub called Rosie O’Grady’s, where she somehow managed to sneak both of us in (YES! – SHE sneaked us in) – we were only 19 years old!  We talked, and laughed, and danced.  She claims I even sang to her while we danced.

On the way back to her dorm room, at the University of Central Florida, we stopped at a 24-hour restaurant, called Wags, for pie and coffee (we would spend a lot more late nights at Wags “studying” over the next three years).  I finally dropped her off sometime around 3:00 am, give or take.  I could mention kissing her goodnight, but I’ll save that for another time.

The next morning, I told my dad that I was going to marry Kelly McFarlane.  He laughed.  But, three and a half years later, on August 18, 1990, Kelly McFarlane became Kelly McFarlane Rains.

Thirty years later, I’m still very thankful for that first date.  Little did we know, thirty years ago, what the future held for us….

  • College graduations, and then graduate school for me – twice!
  • A wedding
  • Numerous jobs
  • Ministry
  • Homes in eight different cities
  • Two children
  • So many holidays, so many new traditions, and so many memories
  • Friends and family – including some that are no longer with us
  • Good times and hard times, poor times and less poor times, times of health and times of sickness
  • Lots of arguments and lots of making up
  • empty nesting
  • and, so much love

So, tonight, as I write this at nearly 10:00 pm (yawn), thirty years ago seems like such a long time.  I’m not the night owl that I used to be.  I’m not a lot of things I used to be – good and bad.  In fact, it is hard to imagine now how that guy thirty years ago turned into this guy, and how she has loved both, and a few versions in between.

I guessed she’s changed too.  But, she is still the one who captured my heart thirty years ago, the one who holds it now, and the one I plan to spend the next thirty years with – making many more memories, and sharing a lot more love.

Happy First Date Anniversary, Kelly McFarlane Rains!  I love you!

 

 

Home

Home

The home, pictured above, is the setting of two of my favorite movies – “Father of the Bride” and “Father of the Bride, II.”  It is the movie-home of the fictional Banks family, where George and Nina Banks lovingly raised their three children – including late night one-on-one basketball games in the driveway and the site of an elaborate wedding for their daughter Annie.  It’s more than a house.  It’s a home – in every sense of the word.

I’ve lived in two of my parent’s houses, a fraternity house, student housing, numerous apartments, and numerous houses.  A few have been home.  There are also a few places that I’ve never technically been a resident, but have also become home to me.

Through the years, as a United Methodist pastor, I’ve moved a few times, living in numerous church-owned parsonages.  Typically, these are not communities, neighborhoods, or houses I have chosen.  As a United Methodist pastor, my family has been sent to the ministries I’ve been assigned, to live in the parsonages that have been provided.  Thankfully, I can honestly say that we have been fortunate to live in nice houses in nice communities.

Shortly after arriving in each new town, my wife will ask me, “Are we home, yet?’, meaning, “does this place feel like home, yet?”  Some places have.  Some places haven’t.

I think all of us long for home.  For some of us, it is a longing for a place that once was home, filled with nostalgia and memories for what used to be, and possibly a place we can still return to for holidays and to be with family.  For some of us, it is a home that does not yet exist – perhaps future hopes for family, creating new memories, and putting down roots.  For some, it is a dream house, in a certain location, and a certain size and architecture.  For some of us, home is less about a place and physical structure, and more about the people we share our lives with, wherever we go.

Either way, there seems to be something in all of us that longs for home – not just a house – a home.

The word “home” implies family, safety, acceptance, tradition, comfort, belonging, welcome, memories, and, most of all, love.

Some of us are fortunate to have lived in such homes.  Some are not.

Some homes are not safe or loving.  Some people are displaced from their homes.  Some people seem to live as perpetual wanderers, moving from place to place to place – perpetually unsettled.

Whatever homes we have in this life – good or bad, ideal or less than ideal – all of our earthly homes are only temporary.  Most us, grow up and leave our homes.  Our children grow up, and leave the nest.  Many of us will eventually move to a retirement or nursing home.  Many of us live in numerous dwellings and locales in this life, some of which become homes, and some just temporary residences.

The truth is, in this world, really, we’re all nomads, wandering from year to year, from place to place.  But, eventually, we’ll all be home.

Jesus said, “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?”  

No matter what our earthly dwellings may have been, or will be, our ultimate dream home is already prepared for us.  Some of us will see it sooner than others.  We will be safe there.  We will be welcome there.  We will be loved there.

Forever.

“Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  (Psalm 23:6)

Foreknowing, Causing, Allowing…

Foreknowing, Causing, Allowing…

In my Lenten small group, this morning, we were debating if God allows tragedy, causes tragedy, or both.  Though the word wasn’t used this morning, God’s foreknowledge also comes into play.  If God knows everything, then God knows what is going to happen in advance.  If God knows a tragic event will occur, does that mean God caused it?  Is foreknowledge the same as causality?

Undeniably, God has caused bad things to happen.  The ten plagues unleashed on Egypt during the Exodus would fit that category.  But, does that mean that causes ALL plagues and maladies?

Undeniably, God allows bad things to happen.  Every moment of every day, evil is at work around the world – war, crime, injustice, etc…  God allows that.  But, is allowing the same as causing?

Where is the place of free will and choice in this debate?  How much choice does God allow?

I, for one, believe in free will.  I believe that God gives us the gift and responsibility of choice.  We can choose to love him, serve him, and honor him.  Or, we can choose to be selfish, and do unspeakable evil.  And, of course, there are a wide range of choices, good and bad, in between. I believe that every human is capable of choosing remarkable good and unspeakable evil.

I also believe that God is intimately at work in his created world – blessing, sustaining influencing, hearing and answering our prayers, and, more often than not, redeeming for good the many, many things that have gone wrong.

Can God control the events of this world, like a chess player moving the pieces on a chess board?  Yes, of course.  God is God, which means God can do whatever God wants to do.  But, it seems to me that God has imposed self-limitations upon himself, in order that we have the freedom to choose.  We aren’t chess pieces.  We move ourselves.  We choose.

After all, love is a choice.  Relationship is a choice.  Obedience, really, is a choice.

I’ve heard it said, “Why did God allow…?  Why didn’t God stop…?”  When tragic things occur, such questions are inevitable.  “God, why don’t you intervene when you know something terrible is going to happen and people are going to suffer?”

But, my question is, if we believe that God gives us choice, and that we are responsible for our choices, and if we can connect someone’s choice to the tragedy-in-question, where would we draw the line?  What choices do we think God should allow?  What choices do we think God should stop?

Should God stop the drunk driver from running into someone innocent?  Should God stop me from adjusting my car AC, or changing radio stations, if that potentially distracts me and leads to the same kind of accident, and the same result?  Should God stop me from driving if I’m ever sleepy, irritated, distracted, in a hurry, etc.?  Should God stop me from riding in cars, at all, if I might be a potential distraction for the driver?  Should God just keep me locked up in my house – safe and sound – where I can’t be a danger to anyone but myself?

Where’s the line?

Do we believe that God is ultimately the cause and responsible party for every tragedy?  Or, is tragedy a reality of living in a fallen world where people make unfortunate choices?

I, for one, don’t blame God for the ill that happens in this world, or specifically in my life.  But, I do look to God to comfort my pain, strengthen my weakness, redeem my failings, and restore what get’s broken.

I do wonder, sometimes, why God doesn’t move a little faster.  Why does he take so long to answer my prayers, to give me direction, and to fix my problems?  But, those are questions for another blog.

Embracing the Grey

Embracing the Grey

I had a very random conversation with a complete stranger, yesterday. He said that the hot issue many counselors/therapists/psychotherapists are dealing with, lately, is how to help their clients deal with friends and family, with whom they have differing political views.  His point was that, in our current political climate, friends and family are being ripped apart by opposing loyalties and ideologies.  People are increasingly afraid to open their mouth, and state their opinions, for fear of other’s reactions and potentially being ostracized.

Differences of opinions – even within families – is nothing new.  But, tearing families and friends apart?

What’s wrong with us?

I listened to a speaker last night, who said many wise things, and much that I agreed with.  But, there were HUGE holes in his arguments.  And, he unfairly villainized his opposition.  As much as I liked and agreed with the speaker, the voice in my head kept screaming, “YEAH!  BUT…  WHAT ABOUT…..?”

Even my denomination is currently polarized around the issue of homosexuality; opposing sides condemning the other.  Many are fighting and praying to find a middle-way.  And, many fear that no middle-way will be found, and that we, like so many friends and families, will also be ripped apart.

It is just so easy to paint everyone with the absurdly broad brushes of black or white, right or wrong, saint or sinner, good or bad.  And, it is so inaccurate and so unfair.  Why must my opposition be evil, ignorant, and immoral?  Is it possible that both could be partially right, and partially wrong?  Is it possible that neither could be right?  Is it possible that both could be right, depending on your perspective and agenda?

Can’t we see that the truth – the TRUTH – is often somewhere in the middle?

As I watched the endless political debates of 2016, both Republican and Democrat, I constantly thought “There’s got to be more to the story.  The other side can’t be THAT wrong; THAT evil; THAT short-sided.  The solutions can’t be THAT obvious.”  Are either the Democrats or the Republicans right about everything?  Of course not.  Neither party can even find agreement even within their own ranks.  But, neither are 100% wrong, either!

Why must we villainize each other?  Don’t people matter more than points of view?  Can’t we disagree, and still find ways to respect one another, and even work together for solutions that just might be wiser and richer from considering broader points of view?

Grey is not a watered down version of black, nor is it a dirtier version of white.  Grey is a legitimate color.  In fact, it comes in many shades.

I’m embracing the grey.

You are What You Love…

You are What You Love…

I started a new book yesterday, You are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, by James K.A. Smith.

I am what I love?

I certainly love my wife, kids, and family.

I love my friends.

I love to travel, ride my motorcycle, read books, grow bonsai trees.

I love to collect things – odd things – and to search for them.

I love Guatemala – particularly a small village called Chontala, and my friends who live there.

I try to love myself – in a healthy way, of course.  Some days that’s easier than others.

I love God.

Smith writes, “…’you are what you love’ is synonymous with saying ‘you are what you worship.'”  He then quotes Martin Luther, who said, “Whatever you heart clings to and confides in, that is really your god.”

Ouch.  I’m fully aware of how God feels about loving worshipping other gods.

If I’m honest…

I love praise and affirmation.

I love success, accomplishment, and accolades.

I love receiving the admiration of others.

I love food – it’s my drug of choice.

I love indulging in self-interest.

I love comfort.

I love money, and what can be done or acquired with money.

I love hiding from people – I am an introvert.

I love patting myself on the back.

Are these gods to me, too?  Do I cling to them?  Do I worship them?  I know the answer.

There’s absolutely no question that I love God.  The problem for me -and most of us humans – is all of these pesky lesser gods that vie for my constant attention and devotion, and worship.  They seduce me into believing they can make me happy; that they can make fulfill my needs; that they can ease my pain.  Of course, those are empty promises.  I KNOW that.  But, in the heat of the moment, they win my time and talents.  They take my financial offerings.  They receive my devotion.  They have my love and my heart…and that’s the problem.

I’ve only read about 38 pages of Smith’s book, so far, so I can’t tell you, for sure, where he is heading with all of this.  But, I know.

Obviously, my first love must be God.  He demands no less, and is worthy of nothing less.

I know.  I really do.  Now I have to deal with these pesky, lesser gods in my life…

What do you love?