Thursday, June 30, 2011

It is all about God and changing how we think

And so another day begins. Another 24 hours – some in sunshine, some in darkness – just like our souls, for there are moments throughout this journey that we could find our minds slipping on icy matters. It is dangerous to begin to believe what we start to hear about ourselves. Complimentary laurels wrapped around our shoulders can hook our spirits and before we know what has happened our spirit is hooked into believing that we are something that we are not.

It is all about God!

It isn’t about some distant issue. It isn’t about fighting another cause. It isn’t about our church, our denomination, our faith … or even about our country. Oh, we can love all of them … commit ourselves to the life within them … but when all is said it still has to be about God. Does it matter to God … really, really? Or, is it something that simply has become our political issue? Is it more about our religion instead of our faith-walk with God?

An observation: When an individual challenges some of our assumptions about faith or our feelings about church the tendency is to become defensive. We don’t like to be challenged. And, we don’t like to be stretched. We find our comfort zone and pray that no one invades our little world. If they do … God forbid … we immediately put up a defense as to why they are wrong. That should be the first warning sign that something unhealthy is going on. Actually our first response should always be, “Hmmm, let me think about this or about that and see where God might be revealing a new thing for me, about me.”

Remember, it is all about God – it isn’t about us or our faith or our church. It is all about God.

Therefore, it becomes our responsibility to ask the deeper question: What does this say about God and how does it affect our relationship with God? Everything else is small potatoes as in “don’t sweat the small stuff … and everything is small stuff.”

Sometime ago I discovered the freedom to place everything on the table when it comes to faith, Bible, Christianity, church … even my preconceived notions about God, Christ and Holy Spirit. It is kind of scary because what begins to happen is the discovery of some prejudices and old ways of thinking (fences of the mind and spirit) that was keeping spiritual growth at bay.

It all started with a simple question from a spiritual mentor: Do you still believe everything that you believed last year, last month, yesterday? If you do, you just might not be growing with God. While God is the same yesterday, today and forever … nevertheless what we know of God is less than 1% and by holding onto old ways of thinking and believing we are denying ourselves new possibilities, new horizons, new friendships, new experiences. Another word for all of this is CHANGE … our faith should be in a constant state of change. If it isn’t changing then it isn’t growing …

Or, at least that is my thinking as I begin this new day! Happy journey!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Could this be the start of something new?

“I know what I'm doing. I have it all planned out - plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for.” Jeremiah 29:11 (The Message)

Could this really be the start of something new?

Who could really believe what is happening, especially when we take a chance that we never believed in … never understood why we are opening our hearts to an uncertain future … uncertain at least from our limited perspective of our future. It is true that we have never felt this way before, but now it is possible to begin to accept the reality that anything can really happen.

Could this really be the start of something new?

It makes us feel that we are in harmony with God and in the middle of the divine universe. Can we really start to trust what our heart seems to be saying to us? Can we really begin to believe in the impossible? Can the world really look this much different than it did just yesterday?

Something has changed, but what? How? Why? Is it just me? Is it something deep inside? Could our eyesight … spiritual, heart, soul sight … make this much difference?

Could this really be the start of something new? Or is it just our imagination? Is it true that with God all things are possible? Does God hold out a fantastic future for us? Does God have plans that cannot be measured by human standards? Will God really take care of me?

Well, we will see won’t we.

Just have to start to trust God, placing all of our hopes and possibilities into his care. As the popular and much over used phrase states: Let go and let God. But is it really as easy as that seems to state. Letting go is very hard.

Remember the old story of the mountain climber who fell over the cliff and was able to grab hold of a small tree at the last minute. He began to cry out for help when a voice comes out of nowhere asking if there is something he could do to help. “Yes,” responded the climber in peril, “please send down a rope and rescue me.” “Well,” the voice said, “I’m God, just let go and I will catch you.” After a long pause the climber cried out, “Is there anyone else up there?”

Letting go is hard … but that is the start of something new … a love affair between us and God … a future we can believe it … a trust that is unbelievable, especially in the crude reality presented to us by the world in which we live … letting go is hard, but my word, what God holds for us who are willing to abandon all hope, let go and trust God to catch us!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

In celebration of Daughters' Week

This is DAUGHTERS' WEEK. I count among my many blessings the gift of two precious daughters. While they are now adults and one a mother herself to a daughter and a son, nevertheless there is a part of me that still looks upon them – much to their chagrin – as my little girls. I want to protect them, keep them from harm, guide them away from painful situations, establish a wall of protection around them all while celebrating their successes and future.

Have I always been a good father? Absolutely not. I would be the greatest of fools if I dared believe that. Would they be willing share my many failings? Absolutely, but only in the presence of select company. I could have only wished that I could have been a better parent, but you cannot turn back the clock. Did I make the best decisions based on the information that I had been given and the skill level that I had acquired? I believe I did, most parents do.

There are many fond memories of our Friday Family Nights, vacations to the Great Smoky Mountains, playing one of the many board games and Saturday morning Chocolate Chip Pancakes. There were trips to Disney, Busch Gardens, and Kings Dominion. There were tubing trips down a very cold springs, as well as dance and piano and violin recitals.

And so, I celebrate Daughters' Week with a glad heart for the two gifts from God that illustrate for me on a continuing bases the reality of his grace and mercy!

Here are some quotes about daughters that you might find special … especially if your life has been blessed by a daughter.

To a father growing old nothing is dearer than a daughter. ~Euripides

A daughter is a gift of love. ~Author Unknown

A son is a son till he takes him a wife, a daughter is a daughter all of her life. ~Irish Saying

Certain is it that there is no kind of affection so purely angelic as of a father to a daughter. In love to our wives there is desire; to our sons, ambition; but to our daughters there is something which there are no words to express. ~Joseph Addison

Watching your daughter being collected by her date feels like handing over a million dollar Stradivarius to a gorilla. ~Jim Bishop

A daughter may outgrow your lap, but she will never outgrow your heart. ~Author Unknown

A mother's treasure is her daughter. ~Catherine Pulsifer

A daughter is a little girl who grows up to be a friend. ~Author Unknown

A daughter is the happy memories of the past, the joyful moments of the present, and the hope and promise of the future. ~Author Unknown

A daughter is a day brightener and a heart warmer. ~Author Unknown

He that would the daughter win, must with the mother first begin. ~English Proverb

Monday, June 27, 2011

Reflections on a spiritual journey ... be prepared to be surprised by God!

“You realize, don't you, that you are the temple of God, and God himself is present in you?” 1 Corinthians 3:16 (The Message)

Spiritual journeys are fascinating because we can never really know where we will end up. Such has been the journey that I have traveled these last 14 months.

When our growing family brought us to Bradenton, we discussed the possibilities that were set before concerning finding a church home. There were 7 United Methodist churches within a short driving distance from our new home, but which one should we choose. We knew the pastors at three of them and knew of great reputation of the work and outreach of a fourth church.

The decision, so I thought, was made that first week when one of the pastors, that we had known for 32 years, invited us to a clergy-spouse luncheon. During this luncheon he laid out his concerns, challenges and hopes for the church he had just been assigned to. It was his hope that he could enlist our support and participation in trying to lead the congregation. So, I volunteered to give him 10-hours of my time per week thinking that I had discovered what God wanted me to do now that I had retired for the second time.

Those 10-hours quickly grew into 25-hours doing something that I really felt that I neither had the desire to do nor the gifts and graces to accomplish for the kingdom. I am a people person, I enjoy visiting (especially in hospitals and during emergency situations), I like discovering new things about people, but an ongoing, every month kind of shut-in ministry to the same people over and over and over again was not something that I do well nor have the patience for. God had blessed my ministry with gifted retired clergy who loved this kind of ministry and/or committed lay people.

The challenge of the huge number of shut-ins was quite overwhelming, but I was encouraged that they had a long standing group that were concerned in reaching out to the shut-ins. Through many efforts to refocus this group’s energy and outreach, as well as enlist more volunteers to participate fell flat. In frustration, I approached a couple of the other retired clergy to see if they could pickup some of the responsibility. If nothing more than just to give them a phone call during the week. At every turn I received the same answer, No!

No, was a new and unexpected response. Over 40-plus years of ministry I’ve never had the experience of failure to enlist or motivate laity and/or clergy to participate in various kinds of ministries. This was a new and very frustrating experience.

I have long believed that God blesses what he ordains. Question: if no one is participating (or very few) and/or no one is willing to step forward (especially retired clergy) then is God blessing this effort? Conclusion: Evidently not.

Back to the drawing board. Had I stepped ahead of God – I’ve been known to do that occasionally? Did I get involved before God was ready for me to be involved? Had I taken the time to listen for his voice and his direction?
God blesses what he ordains!

It was time for a spiritual journey of sorts. Our 2010 vacation provided the vehicle for such a journey. We were going to be driving out west. We would be gone for 6-weeks. As my wife will painful bear witness to I am not a great conversationalist. Oh, I participate in discussions, but seldom ever take the lead unless it is church related. Six weeks behind the wheel of the car will give me a lot of quiet time to think, pray and contemplate.

Upon returning to Bradenton, the senior pastor met with me and offered the possibility of a paid position on the church staff. He offered several ways that it could work, some of them very interesting, but it wasn’t about money, it wasn’t about the position, it wasn’t about having dedicated time off … it was about doing what God was blessing. After some lengthy sharing I had to decline the offer. The 6-week spiritual journey had convinced me that God wasn’t going to bless my efforts in the area of ministry the church was asking me to fulfill.

And so, I continued to pray – month after month after month. I was beginning to wonder, but I continued to pray. I was getting frustrated, but I continued to pray. I was beginning to look around and think up other opportunities, but I continued to pray. I even took a very-part time job at the local movie theatre just to get my mind off my frustration, but I continued to pray.

Then a call came from my pastor concerning an e-mail from the District Superintendent (DS), resulting in more prayer. Then e-mails were exchanged between the DS and myself and still more prayers. There was a church, a small membership church, that was in need of a pastor and still I prayed. Was this it? I said, yes.

It dawned on me that God was starting to prepare me for taking on this responsibility even before we moved to Bradenton in September 2009. God was preparing me as I served a small membership Congregational church for 5-years as their “interim” pastor – there are some unique opportunities and challenges in a small membership church. God was preparing me as I volunteered my services to the Bradenton church – to help me clarify my gifts and graces for ministry. God was in charge.

After I agreed to step out of retirement and take on the responsibility of leading a congregation I began to have an overriding sensation that much about this church has the same “feel” to it as First, Hudson when I went there.

Starting this week I am now the pastor of the Palmetto Drive-In United Methodist Church.

In my spiritual journey I have been reminded that it is not about me, it is not about the United Methodist Church, it is not about the uniqueness of the Palmetto Drive-In Church … it is about Giving God the Glory in all things and at all times … and then to be amazed at what God does with what he has to work with.

If you go on a spiritual journey be prepared to wait for an answer, be ready to be surprised when you arrive at God’s destination and be eager to serve the cause of Christ wherever God plants you. I know that I have been and will continue to be!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Reflections on "pointing a child in the right direction" after spending time with my granddaughter

“Point your kids in the right direction - when they're old they won't be lost.” Proverbs 22:6 (The Message) … or, as most of us know it, “Raise up a child

Yesterday was an “Ava and Pappa Day”. One day on or near the 25th of the month each month my granddaughter and I spend the day together doing something special. It is her Love Gift from Pappa.

Love Gifts are a long-standing Christmas tradition in the Martin household, but that is another story for another time.

Yesterday we went to Mote Marine and Aquarium in Sarasota to look at, in her words, “The little tiny, tiny sea horses and the crabs that go snap-snap.”

Ava was down on her hands and knees looking at an eel resting among the rocks when she got literally pushed aside by a group of children from a church kindergarten. I know that they were from a church because of their bright blue T-shirts that declared which church, etc.

Ava turned to me and said, “They weren’t nice. They didn’t even say excuse me.” When we turned to leave two of the group’s leaders were standing watching over the students. I simply said, in passing, that their children’s behavior was not very polite to which the adults responded with, “Well, after all they are only children!” “But,” I shared, “if they don’t learn now good manners, when?” and I pointed out the observation that my 30-month old granddaughter made.

“Point a child in the right direction …”

I’m very proud of the way Ava’s parents are raising her. When we have been out individuals have shared how polite she is. There are a lot of pleases, thank yous and excuse mes. They have done a marvelous job. Is she perfect … well, only in our eyes, but still …

Later that day, over lunch at one of her favorite places … Burger King (it’s the only hamburger that she will eat) … there was another family consisting of a mother and three children, one about Ava’s age. The one Ava’s age was very vocal and very loud. As they were leaving Ava leaned into me and said, “He doesn’t know that he has an inside voice.”

“Point a child in the right direction …”

Over the past month we have been traveling and eating out a lot. On more than one occasion there have been families with young children in the restaurants. These children simply ran around, made a glorious mess on the table, chairs and floor and made it very hard to speak because of their loud behavior.

In at least one situation the parents constantly asked the children to stop, but then continued to sit there and have their “adult” conversations as their children continued to disrupt the dinning room.

“Point a child in the right direction …”

Receiving children into our homes and into our hearts is a heavy responsibility. The wisdom of God is seen in that he gives to young people these children to be directed and shaped. It is a full-time job and takes an incredible amount of energy. And, if God is gracious, then he permits the influence and reinforcement of one or more grandparent, as well as aunts and uncles.

A new favorite quote is: “I realize then that we never have children, we receive them. And sometimes it’s not for quite as long as we would have expected or hoped. But it is still far better than never having had those children at all.” (page 395, “My Sister’s Keeper” by Jodi Picoult)

We should never take our responsibility of directing the path of the little minds, personalities, and behavior lightly. Nor should we, as the leaders of that group at Mote Marine suggested, dismiss bad behavior as them “just being children.”

“Point a child in the right direction …”

Friday, June 24, 2011

Prayer requests and the wisdom of a prayer warrior

Whenever I stop to ask God for something through prayer I am reminded of these words by Chester B. Emerson under the title: The Quest

I asked for bread!
Life led me to a plain,
And put a plough at hand,
And bade me toil until my bread I earned.

I asked for drink!
Life led me to a sand
As dry as tearless grief –
Forced me to find the springs of sympathy.

I asked for joy!
Life led me to a street,
And had me hear the cries
Of wayward souls who waited to be freed.

I asked for words!
Life led me to a wood,
Set me in solitude
Where speech is still and wisdom comes by prayer.

I asked for love!
Life led me to a hill,
And bound me to a cross
To bear and lift and to be hanged upon.

Over the years I have had prayer warriors in my churches. These individuals were unusual and their prayers always seemed to be answered. It wasn’t until I was sitting in one of their living rooms that I discovered the truth about prayer warriors.

They never ask anything for themselves – ever. Their prayers are always lifted up for the sake of others in need.

What the warrior shared was, “Why would I ask for anything since I already have everything? I have my Bible, a chair to sit in and read it, and a Savior who cares what I think. I have everything, so I just sit here and pray for others.”

A prayer warrior is unselfish in their prayers and spiritually directed in their intentions.

Maybe this is the truest meaning behind the scripture found in Matthew 22:37-39: “Jesus said, 'Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.' This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: 'Love others as well as you love yourself.'”

It is all about our focus. When our focus is outward – towards God and others – then we cannot see ourselves. Passion and compassion takes over.

The world and the church need more prayer warriors.

The other thing that I’ve discovered about prayer warriors is that they are not bothered by criticism – of the church or of themselves. Again, they know of what they believe and it matters not what others might say or think. Their relationship with Christ is rock-solid, they shall not be moved.

As one dear old soul shared, “When I hear negative comments I just bow my head and say, ‘Jesus you take care of that because I’m too busy talking to your daddy about the sick’ and then I just move on. Time is too precious to worry your head about all that stuff and get caught up with all that foolishness.”

Wise words from someone who has lived a long life … wisdom does come with age and spiritual maturity comes with practice … and lots of it!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

God's solutions are just waiting to be discovered

Quote for today: As a rule man is a fool, When it's hot he wants it cool, When it's cool he wants it hot, Always wanting what is not. ~ Anonymous

What did we do before we had air conditioning?

The answer: We were hot … very hot …

During the summer I wore as little as possible – just a pair of shorts – no shirt, no socks, no shoes … just a pair of shorts. At night we slept with the windows open and a fan blowing on us. We changed the sheets often because of the puddle of water we would wake up in each morning. … We were hot!

When I became a teenager and moved into the back bedroom I felt that I had hit the jackpot because now I had two windows – one on the east side and one on the north side of the house. I positioned my bed at an angle between the two windows hoping for a crosswind.

It was then that I discovered the magic of what a little fan could actually do.

My older brothers shared the efficiency that mom and dad use to rent out. There was a very small kitchen that they decided to tear out and turn into a room. In the kitchen was a little exhaust fan they didn’t think that they would need. I began to put two and two together and wondered.

I asked for that little exhaust fan. BINGO!

Into the upper portion of one of my windows it went. At night I would plug that little fan in and open the other window about 2 or 3 inches. It created a draft. Plus, with the high humidity of Miami, I had created a very efficient a/c system. For the rest of my stay at home I slept under a light blanket every summer. I was the only person in the house who was cool in the evenings.

Who says that all you can do is talk about the weather?

And so it is with life. We can either bemoan our life’s situations or we can do something about it. We can either find fault with others as in “it is all your fault” or “if you had only done this or done that” or “you took away everything that was meaningful and left me with nothing” or a hundred other excuses … OR, we can do something about it.

“Jesus looked hard at them and said, ‘No chance at all if you think you can pull it off yourself. Every chance in the world if you trust God to do it.’"
Matthew 19:26 (The Message) … “all things are possible with God!”

It would be wise to hold onto this promise from God as if there is no tomorrow.

No matter what we are facing, no matter how heavy the trials, no matter how difficult the relationships, no matter how meaningless life might seem, no matter how challenging just making it through another day is, no matter how hot our situation might be … no matter what we are facing, everything is within God’s reach … everything has a solution … everything and everyone has a brighter tomorrow waiting for them … there is an answer for everything and everyone.

God’s solutions are just waiting to be discovered.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

When a Trojan is launched it is too late to try to protect your "stuff"

You hear a blast to end all blasts from a trumpet, and in the time that you look up and blink your eyes - it's over. On signal from that trumpet from heaven, the dead will be up and out of their graves, beyond the reach of death, never to die again. At the same moment and in the same way, we'll all be changed. 1 Corinthians 15:52 (The Message)

It didn’t take long. It was just a matter of a second … if that long.

There I was working away on an online giveaway entry form and BINGO, almost bigger than my screen was something that I didn’t recognize.

I couldn’t get out of it fast enough. Too late! A Trojan was launched.

Turn off the computer. Unplug it from the wall. Ouch! Too late.

That is how the computer world works. The result was that I was dead in the water until my faithful son-in-love could work on it. Took him all weekend.

It is back up and running, but there is still much to be fixed.

Trojan’s are nasty things. Most of them just want to come into our computer, bring their friends and play around by disabling as many of our programs as possible. Mean-spirited people who evidently have too much time on their hands create them. They just love to “mess” with us!

Then it got me thinking about those men and women with what appear to be good intentions, but misguided understanding who just love to predict calamities and tragedies … like the end of the world, second coming, Wall Street collapses, bank failures, etc. I say good intentions fully in the understanding that the “good” part is understood only within their own mind-sets.

Here is the bottom line, at least from my perspective – things can change in a twinkling of an eye. We can reach a “too late” time in our lives as in, a disease is starting to spread throughout our bodies and it is too late to start eating correctly, exercising and taking vitamins; too late as in when we reach the age of 65 and having failed to financially prepare for retirement it is too late to start putting money aside; too late as when there is a great new job opportunity that has come open, but we have not been doing our present job to the best of our abilities and have failed to educate our minds; too late as when we are on a car trip, a tire goes flat and we start looking for our spare … oh, yes, it has already been used and it is still sitting in the garage …

“Ouch factors” happen … some we cannot prepare for, some we can.

The thing to realize is that Trojans are just waiting to invade our space and destroy our rhythm and flow. In a twinkling of an eye … the trumpet will sound and then we realize … too late!

Friday, June 17, 2011

And 100% of the offering went for mission - a story that makes me uncomfortable

By the time I reached seminary, Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Dr. G. Ray Jordan stories had become historical in proportion … kind of like, larger than life itself. Every professor that taught at the school when he was still on the faculty had at least one or more of their favorites. I had already picked up a couple from pastors that I knew back in Miami. And then I got assigned to me student appointment 50 miles west of Atlanta and they had a couple to share as well.

The one that got repeated often dealt with the time that Dr. Jordan felt that he needed to be applying what he taught. Dr. Jordan was the professor of homiletics – the craft and art of preaching. He had been teaching for a number of years and wanted to continue to teach, but he felt a real spiritual need to stand before a congregation and “break the bread of life” on a regular basis.

One Sunday afternoon, so the story is told, he and his wife were out for a Sunday afternoon drive on the outskirts of Atlanta. They drove past an old, boarded up, abandoned Methodist church. Come Monday morning he was on the phone with the bishop of the area asking for permission to see what he could do with that old, boarded up, abandoned church. Naturally the bishop thought that Dr. Jordan had lost his mind, but why not … so he gave permission to try to reopen that old church.

All Dr. Jordan did that first week was pull off the piece of plywood that covered the front door and hand painted a little sign that read: Worship on Sunday 11 am ... nothing more … nothing less. He had five people show up for worship. He led them in worship, preached his sermon and took up an offering. He shared that the offering was going to be used 100% for missions – not to clean up the yard in front of the church, not to get someone to come in a clean the windows and dust the pews, not to get the piano fixed … but 100% was to be used for missions. And, then he added, I’ll be back here next Sunday tell your friends.

Next Sunday came and the number of worshippers had increased. Plus, someone during the week had removed all the plywood, dusted the pews and cut the yard. Dr. Jordan led them in worship, preached his sermon and took up an offering which he told them, as he had done their first Sunday together, that would be used 100% for missions. He ended the service with the same announcement as last Sunday, “I’ll be back here next Sunday tell your friends.”

Next Sunday came and the number of worshippers had increased. And the church was cleaned, someone paid to have the electricity turned on, someone else had fixed the piano and found someone to play … and they had church. When the offering was taken Dr. Jordan again announced that it would be given 100% for missions.

And so it went, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. The numbers grew, things got done, hymnals purchased, a Sunday school got started, literature ordered, a secretary was brought on first as a volunteer and then as a paid position … and still the offering on Sunday morning was being taken up to be used 100% for missions. Not one single penny was to be used to pay any of the local church’s expenses nor given to Dr. Jordan for his efforts … 100% for missions.

Well, you know where this is going don’t you. After several years Dr. Jordan finally had to call the bishop and share that the conference needed to appoint a full time pastor. It had grown so much that he just couldn’t handle all of the responsibilities any longer.

A full time pastor came and continued the tradition that Dr. Jordan had established of taking up the offering and giving it 100% for missions. But, over time, the pastor began to question the practicality of such a practice. The church was a going concern, there were many needs, some got met others went unmet for a period of time. It just wasn’t practical or logical to be giving 100% of their offering to missions. After all more staff was needed and other programs should be established. So the board decided to reduce the amount of the offering for missions to 75% … then 60% … then 50% … gradually reducing it to 10%. Their thinking was that they were giving a tithe to missions.

Gradually the worship attendance leveled off, membership wasn’t growing any more, the excitement of this little abandoned church was starting to die … people found some other things to do on Sunday morning instead of attend worship. Over the years this dynamic church has become a small membership church. It had lost its focus and its commitment to missions and started to struggle to stay afloat. How sad!

It was shared that Dr. Jordan’s favorite quote was by Finley Peter Dunne as to the role of the preacher/pastor: “Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” Whenever I get too comfortable in my role as pastor/preacher I pull out this G. Ray Jordan story and mull it over. I also read blogs by people like Rachel Held Evans that make me uncomfortable and get me to think ... and evaluate where I am and what I am doing. I listen to radio preachers that are in a different camp theologically than me. Or pick up a book that is not normally on my reading schedule. I don’t need to only listen to, read or hear from people I would agree with and that agree with me … individuals who kind of confirm that what I am doing for the Kingdom of God is okay. What I need is to be afflicted in my comfort zone.

It is dangerous to get too comfortable. One of the reasons that the religious leaders turned against Jesus and crucified him was that he made them extremely uncomfortable. I think the time has come for those who are afflicted to find comfort in the church, but for the majority of us that are comfortable it is time to get afflicted!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Where is the church for the disenfranchised, a church for the least of these?

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what's coming to you in this kingdom. It's been ready for you since the world's foundation. And here's why: I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.” Matthew 25:34-36 (The Message)

Yesterday, on my Facebook, I shared the daily blog from Rachel Held Evans entitled, “Blessed are the un-cool”. It got me thinking about whom does the church exist for? Why are we here? Why are we doing what we are doing? Her words hit me squarely between the eyes and at the deepest level of my soul. I grew up in an affluent church. I have been a pastor to many affluent churches. Raising money for a new building and/or program was never an issue, but creating an outreach to the disenfranchised of the world was a continuous challenge.

Furthering my questioning mind was a response from a young friend who shared the scripture from Matthew 18:20 “And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I'll be there." (The Message) Which drew me back to the Matthew scripture stated above. It is the one scripture that I simply cannot escape.

In my last church there were five young elementary people who just started to show up one Sunday. Oh, I had been stopping by during the week to talk with them. The church grounds were an inviting place for them to gather during the afternoon and play. We had experienced some vandalism. I was pretty sure they were not responsible, but I wanted to enlist them in protecting the property. They were thrilled that I would trust them that much. So, maybe it was this new responsibility that got them to attend … or maybe it was that they discovered that we had a lot of free cookies and cake during fellowship time.

We had several members that were not too pleased to see these young people show up on Sunday morning. They smelled. They smelled bad. Once they entered the building you knew they were there before you saw them. They also would run down the aisles and sit up in the “preacher’s chair” … horrors of horrors. And they would line up to be hugged … often. “Can’t they take a bath before they come?” was heard more than once. “Can’t you get them to behave?” soon followed the bath statement. And, the real clincher was, “Do you have to hug them and then hug us?” I simply ignored those comments, smiled at their innocents and gave away as many hugs as possible every Sunday morning.

There were a few small problems … like when money started disappearing from the Upper Room donation baskets, as well as when they would play with the multiple wheelchairs we kept available. All minor issues. Easily solved. I was just glad that they were coming. Kind of put a little life into that old congregation. A little spark. A little unpredictability. A little of the good news … you see, they were getting themselves up on Sunday morning while their parents continued to sleep.

I have often thought about those boys. I’ve wondered what impact we had on their lives. And, I wonder who else might be out there just looking for a free cookie, a hug or two and a place where they would be accepted just as they are … and a chance to here a story about Jesus.

These boys would not be accepted at most of the church that I had served. They and their kind – the disenfranchised, the dirty, the smelly, the disrespectful of tradition – would probably not feel welcomed at most of my former churches. If they did come people would move away, sit somewhere else, not extend a welcoming hand, wouldn’t speak … Rachel Held Evans’ blog spoke to my heart. Placed a conviction deep with the root of my soul. Made me a little more than uncomfortable. I would also guess that these boys wouldn’t really be accepted at your place of worship either.

They other scripture that convicts me is Luke 6:46 “Why are you so polite with me, always saying 'Yes, sir,' and 'That's right, sir,' but never doing a thing I tell you?” (The Message). Is the church today simply going through the motions of trying to get it right, attract more people, raise more money … all the while failing to truly serve the cause of Christ? Failing to be Kingdom People? Failing to do it unto the least of these …

I’m just wondering …

NOTE: Tomorrow I will share a story from my seminary days about a preaching professor who opened up a boarded up, abandoned old Methodist church and how he grew it into one of the outstanding churches in the greater Atlanta area and what happened to that church when it lost its focus. See you tomorrow!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Reflections on the struggle not to judge others regardless of their tattoos or body piercings

Don't pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults - unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging – Matthew 7:1-2 (The Message)

Herein lies my biggest struggle – judging others based on surface appearances - always has, but I’m working on it. In times past it involved guys with long hair – usually in need of a good shampooing. But, today it involves multiple body piercings on males and females and tattoos primarily on women. I don’t understand why an individual would want to disfigure (my opinion) themselves in such a way … and I struggle with it almost every time I come in contact with someone who has had it done. I’m not proud of this tendency, but do acknowledge that it exists.

Sometime ago I worked with a woman who was young enough to be my daughter. I kind of treated her like one of my “other” daughters and she appreciated the “fatherly” concern and counsel (most of the time). Her uncle and I were friends from church. She had a number of tattoos that led to multiple conversations concerning what she was doing and why. Most of them had deep meaning for her like the one that memorialized a dear motorcycle friend who had lost his life in a horrible accident.

One day she had to bend over to pick something off the floor. She was standing right in front of me when she did it … and there stretched across her lower back was this large tattoo. It was a new one. “Okay,” I asked, “tell me about this new one.” She turned, somewhat embarrassed and said, “Oh, that … I meant to tell you about this new one earlier.” “Well,” I waited. “It just makes me feel beautiful,” she shared. She saw my eyebrows raise, we’ve been down this road before, and continued, “I know what you are thinking and you are right. I am beautiful without it. I believe that, but I don’t know it just seemed right to enhance my beauty.” We looked at each other for a long time, shared a hug and went back to work.

I still don’t understand this growing trend to ink ones body. I do have to admit that there are those with multiple tattoos that have really thought through the process and have artfully placed them around their bodies, while others are just an ugly hodgepodge of misplaced inkings. Either way I don’t understand it nor appreciate the thought behind it.

My continued prayer is – help me to see these individuals as Jesus sees them. Open my eyes to their inner being. Let not the outward appearance stand in the way of getting to really know the person inside.

There was a large African-American male who worked at the food court at the local mall in Jacksonville. Nearly every time I bought food at his location he was my server. And, I’ll strike up a conversation with anyone at any time. So, over time he began to recognize me. After more than a year I finally asked about his earrings – a growing number of earrings on his left ear. At last count there were 23 earrings circling his entire ear. He laughed at my question and said that he was running out of room and will be forced to start the collection on the other ear. He was a proud father of three beautiful teenage girls who excelled at academics and in sports. He went on to tell me that every time that they achieved something outstanding he would get another piercing to remind him of their achievements. “So you, see, every time I look in the mirror and see all these earrings I am reminded of my girls and I am so proud of who they are and what they are becoming.”

Well, I guess there is a story behind every piercing and every tattoo … and I will just have to continue to struggle not to judge them, but to see them as God sees them because regardless of what we do to our bodies we are still all God’s children.

Quote for today: We are all inclined to judge ourselves by our ideals; others by their acts. ~Harold Nicolson

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Just how important are the other members of the body of Christ to each of us?

“Your body has many parts—limbs, organs, cells—but no matter how many parts you can name, you're still one body. It's exactly the same with Christ.” 1 Corinthians 12:12 (The Message)

Recently … don’t know how, don’t know when … but I injured my lower back. It has created a painful situation – I could not stand, sit or lie down without pain … and let’s not talk about trying to get up after getting down. Saw the doc yesterday. He gave me three meds – one makes so loopy (I noticed the difference, but nobody else does) that all I want to do is sleep. If the pain is still around in 5 days then a MRI will be in my future to determine just how bad the lower back really is. Go figure … if it isn’t one thing it is another.

This got me thinking though about the church. According to my spouse of long standing, everything gets me thinking about the church – but that is another story.

If a small disc can cause so much pain and discomfort to my entire body how about just one small member of the church? Now, I know that there are no small, insignificant members of the church … but some people see themselves in that light. The reality is there are some individuals whose absence makes a huge difference – if the organist, song leader, soloist, reader of scripture, main usher, the candy man, the front row saint sitters, the ameners, the unofficial church greeter/hugger, etc. are not in attendance on Sunday morning everybody knows it and begins to ask where they are. They are missed, but the other 98% not so much.

In one church I had a laugher. Dave had one of those laughs, which just literally filled the sanctuary and got everybody else laughing. Dave sat in the balcony, last row, end sit. He use to say, “Preach, I try to get as far away from the pulpit as possible just in case lightening strikes.” When he wasn’t in worship everybody knew it. Each church has those dozen or so people that when they are not in worship everybody knows it, but what about everybody else?

Shouldn’t we hurt if one member hurts? Shouldn’t we all hurt if one person in the body of Christ hurts? Shouldn’t we notice if one person is not in attendance? When our family gathers around the dinner table nobody starts eating until everyone is present. Shouldn’t the church be the same way? When I get up in the morning every part of body has got to get up. The little toe cannot decide that it doesn’t feel like participating today and just stay in bed. I’m not really sure what the purpose of the little toe is. I normally do not think a lot about its purpose nor even remember that it is a part of my body until I stub it … and then the entire body takes notice!

So it is with each and every individual within the body of Christ. We can get so busy … too busy with the business of the church … that we take people for granted. If they are there, then they are there … if they are absent, then they are absent … and no one notices. That is a sad state of affairs. It is a reality, but still sad.

There other thing that causes me to pause and wonder how to fix it concerns visitors. Everybody desires visitors to stand and identify themselves or wear a special ribbon or, in one congregation they had the members stand and the visitors to remain seated (they didn’t want to make the visitors uncomfortable … yeah, right!) I have often thought … if a visitor walked into my house I would know it immediately. Shouldn’t the church be the same? Shouldn’t we know each other well enough to notice not only the absence of someone, but if a new body is present? If our body gets a transplant, a new organ, I can guarantee the rest of the body is going to take notice.

I heard a staff person from Dr. Norman Vincent Peale’s church speak to this reality. They had one individual who took it upon himself to know the congregation. He would stand at the bottom of the marble steps, rain or shine, and greeted everybody. After worship he would write down the names of every member who was absent, as well as the name of every visitor he had met that morning. My initially reaction was, “What a tremendous gift this gentleman had.” But the speaker went on to share that he had to teach himself this skill. How? By making it a priority. By making the body of Christ his number one priority. What started him on this special journey? Being absent for six weeks with the flu and having no one notice his absence. With that reality and memory well in hand he set his sights on making a change in his behavior after all the church is the body of Christ – though many still it is one body.

Shouldn’t we all be so committed in making the body of Christ our number one priority?

Quote for today: Remember putting your face above a headless frame painted to represent a muscle man, a clown, or even a bathing beauty? Many of us have had our pictures taken this way, and the photos are humorous because the head doesn't fit the body. If we could picture Christ as the head of our local body of believers, would the world laugh at the misfit? Or would they stand in awe of a human body so closely related to a divine head? ~Dan Bernard

Monday, June 13, 2011

What do you do when the road you are on isn't on the map?

Proverbs 3:5 - Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.

What do you do when the road you are on isn’t on the map?

While on vacation we were driving through a major city on the interstate. I knew the state road that I was looking for. The number was well planted in my mind, but to my dismay there were no state road numbers on their exit signs only street names. Not very helpful! We finally got off the interstate, but the road we were on wasn’t on our map. After too many u-turns, multiple left and right turns and too many failed attempts we finally ended up on a road that WAS on the map. Yeah, God. But … which direction do we go? A few minutes passed and another u-turn we finally felt that we were heading in the right direction. We were having an adventure, but weren’t enjoying it!

The next day, on another back road in the same state we were making great time. But, alas, that too was going to come to a halt. Our map showed the road we were on continuing for another 10 or 12 miles before merging onto a county road, but the sign read, Route 13 ends. Confusion, decisions … what do you do when the road you are on isn’t on the map?

Kind of sounds like our life doesn’t it.

We are making great time, having an adventure, enjoying the scenery, stopping occasionally to smell some roses … but then we discover that the road we are on in this life isn’t on God’s map. Oh, God knows where we are, but we don’t. We begin to wonder or is that wander. We’ve lost our way, failed to understand our purpose, begin to think that we are just taking up space, useless. Meaningless sets in. Negative thoughts take root. We start making u-turns, taking a left turn here and a right turn there … always trying to make sense out of our decisions. And God waits patiently for us to pick up the road map of life … and there it is, an understanding, a purpose, a direction … some road signs to guide us, to put us back on the right path.

Our wayward adventure is over, but the real life adventure is just beginning … the kind of adventure we could have only dreamed about … the kind of adventure that will “knock our socks off” … the fun filled, joy overflowing, grace touched, love shared adventure that allows an unbelievable peace that flows through our being.

The other thing I like about God’s road map it doesn’t have all those confusing folds in it … and stores nicely in the “glove compartment” of our heart!

In The Message, Psalm 119:105 reads: By your words I can see where I'm going; they throw a beam of light on my dark path.

I don’t know about you, but my path can get awfully dark at times. I simply get lost, make bad decisions, get angry, frustrated, filled with doubt and anxiety … like wandering in a desert … I keep on making u-turns but never get any where … Boy, do I need God’s road map ever before me!