Thursday, December 4, 2014

Advent and Turmoil -Further Reflections on Ferguson and Eric Garner

"So the Word became human and lived here on earth among us. 
He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness." (John 1:14)

The last few weeks in our country have been difficult to say the least. The turmoil, suffering, and racial division has been heart wrenching. These moments have been a fresh reminder to me for why the advent of Christ was so necessary.

Our society teaches us to avoid suffering at all costs and to seek our own happiness even if it requires being indifferent to the pain of others. This is why Advent has been replaced by holiday parties and shopping. Don't get me wrong, I like cheesy Christmas songs and exchanging gifts as much as anyone. I am not a scrooge.

However, sometimes the holidays can cause us to forget the true essence of Advent. Advent reminds us that the gospel is very different than our cultural values. Advent is the season when we remember that Jesus put on flesh and dwelt among us. Christ being born in a manger reveals a God who does not avoid our suffering and messiness, but enters into it. Jesus knew suffering from the moment he entered the world. He was born into poverty as a refugee fleeing from genocide. He served others and healed wounds. He wept for us and with us. Eventually he was tortured and executed by the very people he came to save. Advent is not simply a sweet story about a baby born in a manger. Christ came to a world filled with darkness. He came as a light for the world. He came to show us that there is another way. We do not have to sin. We do not have to hate one another.

"I am the light of the world." Jesus (John 9:5)

So during this season of Advent, let us seek ways to be light in a dark world. Let us seek to be instruments of peace and healing. Yes, the world is still dark. Suffering, pain, and injustice are still very real. But the darkness will not win. Christ has come...and he will come again.

"...the darkness is disappearing and the true light is already shining." (1 John 2:8)

"The light shines through the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it." (John 1:5)

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thoughts on Ferguson...

Watching the news last night left me sad. I am sad for Michael Brown's family. I am sad for good police officers who are given a black eye due to events and actions they have no control over. I am sad for the whole city of Ferguson. I feel sad for the continued divide our nation has about race. This division is amplified by my social media feeds. The majority of my white friends either rejoiced or remained silent when they heard the news of no indictment. The majority of my African American friends were disappointed and discouraged.

On the one hand, I have family and friends who are police officers that work hard every day to protect and serve their community. I am very thankful for their service. On the other hand, I have friends with black children who have legitimate concerns about their safety and the fairness of our legal system. Regardless of how you feel about this particular case, the statistics concerning the justice system and African Americans are staggering. In the U.S., African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. White people by far use the most illegal drugs, but African Americans are ten times more likely to be sent to prison for drug offenses. Also, the mounting number of young black men who have been killed unarmed is disturbing.

Our son, who we adopted last year, is African American. Right now he is 11 months. He is a chubby, adorable baby that everyone loves. But one day he will become a young man and I fear how people may treat him. In fact, I will even have to talk to him about how people (including law enforcement) may treat him differently due to the color of his skin. I hate that I (and many other families) must have this conversation. Our country has come a long way when it comes to race, but cases like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown reveal that we still have a long way to go.

We need to pray.
We need to listen and learn.
We need to work for healing and reconciliation.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Book Review--Reclaiming the Lost Soul of Youth Ministry: A Wesleyan Field Guide By Jeremy Steele

Before I review the book, I must confess two things: (1) Jeremy Steele is a friend of mine and (2) I’m a major Methodist nerd. Therefore, my review may be a bit biased. With that said, let me begin by saying that Jeremy has written a book I wish I had written. I recommend that every youth minister and pastor read through this material. Jeremy does a masterful job of weaving together Wesleyan theology and scripture with everyday insights for youth ministry. The book is full of great material and powerful quotes. Here are just a couple of examples:

“Prevenient grace changes our conversations. We are no longer introducing people to Jesus. We are no longer delivering to them something with which they have never been in contact. Instead, we are talking about the being who has been blessing, protecting, and wooing them for their entire life.”

“Sanctifying grace is not some magical motivational method to help you break bad habits and start good ones. It is not a new (old) way to justify legalism and judgmentalism. Sanctifying grace is a person captured by God.”

As someone who spent many years as a youth pastor, finding a youth ministry book written from a Wesleyan perspective is nearly impossible. This is why I’m so excited about this book being published. Jeremy Steele maps out a distinctively Wesleyan approach to youth ministry. He covers a variety of Wesleyan theology including prevenient grace, class meetings, and even the quadrilateral. He covers each topic in a very clear and concise way, and then gives the implications for ministry. I believe that is the strength of this book. Jeremy has a wide variety of knowledge, but he’s also an everyday youth minister. He has a good understanding of how Wesleyan theology can actually be applied to ministry with students.  In fact, the main point of the book is that what we believe about God should inform how we do ministry. Our theology should impact our praxis. “Reclaiming the Lost Soul of Youth Ministry” is practical theology at its best. John Wesley would be very proud!  

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Who's to Blame?

Have you ever blamed someone else for something you did? God's people have made a tradition of blaming others for our failures and shortcomings. This shouldn't surprise us because this practice started at the very beginning. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve sin and then are confronted by God. What do they do? Blame someone else. Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake. We do the same thing.

We justify our road rage because the street is filled with "bad drivers." We excuse our impatience because the lines were too long or the service was too slow. We rationalize our jealousy and insecurity because it's obvious that we deserved the promotion and not the other person. 

Part of the issue here is that there is a hint of truth in each of these justifications. Enough truth to keep us from looking at our own selves. The real truth is that sin originates in you. Circumstances can certainly play a role, but the choice to sin is our own. The bad driver makes you angry, but the anger is already present in your own heart. The service may be slow and you may have deserved the promotion, but the impatience and pride is inside of you. 

Circumstances bring to surface what already dwells in our hearts. No one can provoke inside of you what does not originate there. Every human heart (including my own) needs sanctifying. We need God's grace to change us in deeper ways then we can imagine.

We really should thank God for the person (or circumstance) that exposes our sinful tendencies. That person reveals what's really in our heart and shows us areas where we still need to grow. Only by seeing our true selves and seeking God's grace can we begin to change. Blaming someone else may make us feel better, but it won't solve the real problem.   

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

We Stink...And God's Love is Amazing

This past week I preached on the book of Deuteronomy. While I was reading, I noticed that numerous times in Deuteronomy, Moses pauses to remind the Israelites how unworthy they are to be in a covenant relationship with God. He seems determined to show the people how undeserving they are of God's blessing and provision. It’s actually pretty funny. Here are just a couple of examples:

“The Lord did not choose you and lavish his love on you because you were larger or greater than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! It was simply because the Lord loves you, and because he was keeping the oath he had sworn to your ancestors. That is why the Lord rescued you with such amazing power from your slavery under Pharaoh in Egypt." Deuteronomy 7:7-8

"The Lord your God is not giving you this good land because you are righteous, for you are not--you are a stubborn people." Deuteronomy 9:6

I love that. He’s reminding the Israelites: "You’re not that amazing. God didn't choose you because you were the biggest nation or the most wealthy. He does not love you because of your own righteousness. In fact, you’re a stubborn and rebellious people. God is not giving you the promised land because of your worthiness." And I’m sure the people were thinking at this point: “Ok, Moses, we get it, we stink. So why did God choose us.?” And Moses’ response is simple: “Because that’s who God is. God is good. God is love and he loves you.”

The same is true for us. We need this reminder because after you’ve been in the church for a while it’s really easy to become prideful and judgmental. However, the truth is, we have no reason to look down on others. We are not special because of our wealth or knowledge or own self-righteousness. We have not earned God’s love or favor. We do not deserve his goodness...we have it simply because this is who God is. Everything is a’s all grace. God loves us not because we have made ourselves worthy of it. He loves us because he is love. God's love for us is not based on our character. God's love for us is based on his character. This is good news! 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Good News Of Holiness

"For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.
And his commandments are not burdensome."
1 John 5:3

In our culture words like law, obedience, and holiness have a negative connotation. Thus, we tend to see God's laws and commands as a heavy burden. We see holiness as an ideal that is unattainable.

However, scripture doesn't have this view. Jesus and the other apostles saw these words a bit differently. They believed obedience to God's commands was a good thing...a really good thing. Holiness is the amazing truth that God not only forgives our sin, but also gives us the power to overcome sin. This is good news!  This is the gospel! And if we really think about it, scripture is right.

Do we really believe that living with a divided heart is easier than living with a united heart fully devoted to Christ?

Wouldn't our relationships be better if we were free from things like pride, selfishness, and hate?

What would it be like to be content with what we have instead of desperate for what we don't?

Wouldn't it be great to be delivered from strongholds like lust and anger? What a relief it would be to be set free from all that plagues us.

God's Word was not given to us to burden us or to restrict us. God's Word is our path to freedom. Sin is not freedom, but rather the worst kind of slavery. God made us good. Sin messed it up. Holiness is the promise that he can make us good again. That is good news!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What is the Lord's Will for My Life?

As a pastor, one request I hear repeatedly from people is their desire to know God's will for their life. And by "God's will" they are usually wanting to know about a career to pursue, place to live, school to attend, and whom to marry. These are not bad questions and I certainly agree that we should pray and think about these matters. However, when I read about "God's will" in scripture I rarely see it used in this way. While the Bible doesn't tell every person on earth specifically what his or her life's calling will be, it does give us a lot of general direction:

"You are to serve the least of these." Yes.
"You are to care for the orphan and the widow." Yes.
"You are to deny yourself and follow Jesus." Yes.
"You are to love God with all your heart and love your neighbor. And your neighbor includes sinners, tax collectors, and even your enemies." Yes.
"You are to go and make disciples." Yes.
"You are to show mercy and walk humbly with God." Yes.
"You are to be holy because God is holy." Yes.

I wonder sometimes if we focused more on doing the revealed will of God, perhaps the specifics of our lives would fall into place. Don't get me wrong...God cares about the school you attend, but he cares more about your heart and the way you live.

"Show me the path where I should walk, O Lord; point out the right road for me to follow. Lead me by your truth and teach me, for you are the God who saves me. All day long I put my hope in you." Psalm 25:4-5

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

My Top 3 Commitments

About a week ago, I started serving at my new church First UMC Pace. This time of transition has been hectic, exciting, and fun. However, in the midst of the busyness I want to make sure I keep certain commitments during this time of transition. Here are my top 3...

1. I will move slowly. I will remember that God didn't move the Israelites into the Promise Land overnight, and he's not expecting me to change our church in one month. If there are some easy "wins" great, but it takes time to learn the people and understand the DNA of the church. I will not assume I know what is best, but I'll seek to learn about my new culture. I need to understand our past and current context before we vision for the future.

2. I will focus on priorities. Busy is not synonymous with effectiveness. Every time I'm doing something, I'm not doing something else. There is a cost to not keeping my priorities...even if I can't see it right away. I will pray and read scripture. I will not neglect my family. I will meet with people...a lot!

3. I will serve. This is my first time being a Senior Pastor. The title alone makes me sound older and more powerful. But power is not something I will use to manipulate others. Christ was powerful, but he used his power to serve. I hope to do the same. I will be intentional in trying to find ways to serve my staff, the congregation, my family, and the poor. I want my leadership to resemble the way of Jesus.

Without a doubt, this new appointment will have ups and downs, successes and failures, wins and losses. Some people will love me (at least my wife and kids but maybe others)...and some not so much. I'll have good days, but some days I'll fall flat on my face. I'm thankful for a Savior whose grace is sufficient in all things. He always works in ways that are beyond my abilities and above my highest expectations. He is always faithful.