Tag Archives: hope

Not always believable, but always true

asbury sanctuary cross plasticYesterday was an interesting day. I was forced to deal with the truth of God which I currently have a hard time believing. Even now I hesitate to tell you for fear that it might push you away from the church rather than toward it (and honestly, I fear others thinking less of me). So as I begin, let me say something very clearly about God’s word for us in Scripture. This is an important lesson God taught me over the past week:

Don’t accept something because you are able to believe it, accept it because it is true.

Now, just that phrase will send theologically-minded thinkers and debaters running down a rabbit trail talking about how we know something to be true. I’m not here to debate that. What I can say is that when you read the Bible with an ear for the truth of God, when you seek to hear truth – real truth – God will show it to you. God reveals Himself to those who truly seek Him.

With that in mind, I knew this promise of God to be true: and as a recap, yesterday I was preaching from Haggai chapter 2 (a very popular book for preachers – he said with tongue in cheek). In Haggai chapter 2 the prophet is speaking to the leaders of God’s people, the ones who have just recently returned from exile. They have come back to the “promised land” that was destroyed by the enemy. The temple itself was in ruins as well. Through Haggai the Lord says to those leaders and the people – I am going to restore your land and the house of God to a greater glory than you can even remember. It’s not a carrot dangled before them to get them to dance to God’s tune. It is not an inspirational speech telling them, “you can do this.” It is a promise that God will do a new thing even in the midst of what seems to have come undone.

So, I tried to preach that promise to the church where there are significantly less people this week than there was the same week 3 years ago. I did my best to proclaim this promise of God to a room less full than it had been. That was really hard. I feel the burden of the loss. I feel the weight of the empty seats. I have come to a place where internally I carry the failure. And then God leads me to this passage. God makes me not only hear the promise, but he leads me to preach it. It was one of the hardest sermons for me to deliver because I had to keep listening to my own voice declaring a promise I found so hard to believe.

But here’s the point of all this: the good news is not that I believe this promise, the good news is that the promise is true. The reality of God and the future promise of God does not depend on my ability to believe. The future glory depends only on the faithfulness of God to deliver on His promise. And God is faithful.

I say all this to you and share my unbelief for this reason – you may be in a place where you hear God’s promise but find it hard to believe. Where God says you are forgiven, you may think your sin is too great. Where God says I will never leave you, you may feel like God is nowhere to be found. Where God says, I have come to give you life and give it to the full, you may wonder if it will ever happen for you. The good news is that God’s promises may not always be believable, but they are always true. You may find it hard to believe what the Bible says God will do and is doing, but your doubt in God does not negate God’s mercy and love and grace for you.

God’s promises are not always believable, but they are always true. That’s the hope I cling to. I encourage you to do the same.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

Gratitude fosters trust

word cloud thanks romans 8In some earlier blog posts I have readily confessed to my inability to trust God – not always, but often enough. Recently, God, through others, revealed to me something that now seems quite obvious. Simply put, I learned that gratitude fosters trust.

Here’s the dilemma I have faced. Our church has had to face some big challenges lately. A tough summer of spotty attendance, which leads to challenges of tight finances, both of which lead to a pastor struggling to lead while leaning into the challenge. It’s true. I have been having a rough bout lately. I probably shouldn’t say that out loud on my blog, but that’s what I do. I figure truth is truth.

Now, I think from God’s perspective the problem is not the attendance or the money. In regard to God’s concern for me, the problem is my lack of trust in Him. While God is all for His leaders working to make things move in positive directions, the internal posture of those leaders is God’s greater concern (and I would say rightly so). God has to be wondering why a man (me) who claims to believe in Romans 8:28 would have such difficulty trusting. In Romans 8:28 Paul writes this:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
(Romans 8:28 NRSV)

You see, I have claimed that verse. I believe in that verse. But at the same time, I don’t always live into that verse.

That began to change recently. A person I consider a spiritual mentor and friend gave me another verse:

…give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
(1 Thessalonians 5:18 NRSV)

Give thanks in ALL circumstances. We’re instructed to do this not because we can find reason to be thankful. We’re just instructed to give thanks. And as I lived into this verse and I began to give thanks to God in ALL situations and in ALL challenges and in ALL joys, I began to live into the truth of Romans 8:28. I found myself believing that no matter what was before me, God would work for my good and the good of his ultimate will in this world.

It doesn’t mean good things are bound to happen right away. God’s work could take a long time – after all, a thousands years are like a day to Him. I just found myself trusting God more no matter what. I discovered that gratitude fosters trust. The more I give thanks in all circumstances, the more I trust God with those circumstances. And, ironically, that frees me to work harder and better to change those circumstances. It seems that the more I trust the more the Holy Spirit can move in me and around me. 

The lesson I learned is that a verse from the Bible that seems like a crazy call to be obediently thankful in times when I don’t feel thankful is actually a key to unlocking the prison of self-pity, self-doubt, and fuzzy thinking. And that was a lesson worth learning.

So my encouragement to you, my friends, is simply this – give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus, and in doing so you will be able to claim fully the promise that in all things God works for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. It is a lesson that will serve you well all the days of your life.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

Stumble by faith…

So, the biblical saying is – “walk by faith and not by sight.” And, as I said on Facebook last week, I get it. I just wish my eyesight wasn’t so good.

I know what God says in the Word – don’t focus on what is seen but on what is unseen. I think about how many people say, “everything happens for a reason,” and I shout out loud even if I am by myself – “NOOOOO! It didn’t necessarily happen for a reason, but in all things God will work for our good!” That’s a faith statement, not a sight statement. If I can know that God works in all things for my good, then there is nothing to fear, no issue or problem that can’t be redirected for good. It means that no matter what I see happening, God is still there and working.

I get it. Walking by faith means trusting that God is there and God will move and God will manage things – even if I can’t.

Yeah, I get it, mostly. Well, at least a little. The truth is, I don’t always live into what I know. I find myself stumbling by faith more than walking. Sometimes I feel like I blew out my spiritual knee or cramped up or got spiritually winded and I’m not walking so great. Other times I begin to walk by faith only to suddenly look around and begin to stumble. I still have faith, but I’m not able to stay upright. Sounds like the story of Peter walking on the water (click here to read the story).

Here’s the good news for me: I don’t have to be the best faith walker, I just have to keep trying. I don’t have to be perfect in my faith, I just have to keep practicing my faith. I might stumble. I might even fall. But I can get back up. And if you know that story about Peter walking on the water you know Jesus reached out and helped him when he stumbled in his faith walk across the water. Jesus does that for me as well.

So, I will walk by faith when my legs are strong and I will stumble by faith when my legs feel shaky. But in all things and at all times, God will work for my good and the good of others. When I am not so sure-footed, I can trust that Jesus will be there to reach out a hand to me. And so I can say, thanks be to God.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

It’s time to stop focusing on the church

group unfocused church copySpecial parking in nearby spaces. Greeters at the door. Helpful signs in strategic places. A plan for helping people have a good experience and thereby want to return again. A plan for building a reputation in the community. A way to meet the needs of the people who come – from people with children to those who struggle with getting around.

These are things I have found myself talking about in various settings with church leaders and pastors and consultants. It also seems to be what Wal-Mart or Bass Pro Shop might be working on in their meetings. It makes sense for Wal-Mart – theirs is a business with customers who spend money and allow the business to continue growing and serving the community. The more people they can get into their store and buying what they’re selling, the more successful they are. It doesn’t make as much sense for the church. The church is not a business. The church isn’t even an organization – at least I don’t think it’s meant to be.

Don’t misunderstand: the church – the community of faithful followers of Jesus Christ – should be organized, but the community of the faithful was meant to be just that – a community. The problem is that the church, for decades if not centuries, has been more organization than community. The focus has been on measuring and considering how the organization is working and flourishing. The idea has been that by focusing on “the church” we would foster a greater sense of community. But, that idea has not borne out as valid.

I propose that we stop focusing on the church. Instead, let’s focus on community. I propose we develop a deeper sense of community in smaller, more intimate groups, and then bring those groups together to share, rejoice, celebrate, pray, and sing.  I propose that we see ourselves as families who grow together (discipling home groups) and who gather for regular reunions with our extended family. Just like families work together in the day-to-day to help one another, so can discipling groups. And, just like those families feel connected to their extended family, so too can we feel that sense of community together. I propose that we gather together AS the church and worship together with great joy and gusto. I propose that we utilize the resources we have together and impact our world in real ways. And I propose that we begin by making discipleship the greater focus of our energy.

The change is subtle, but it requires a significant shift in focus. It requires us to focus on our “family,” our community of disciples – the faithful followers of Jesus Christ who strive to live out their life with Christ every day and who want to know God at a more intimate level. It requires a purposeful engagement with the Holy Spirit. It requires a willingness to go deep in prayer and to confess our sins and to seek a more righteous life in Jesus. It requires more personal intimacy and vulnerability.

The shift in focus will take real effort and must be intentional, but I believe the result of this change will be a brighter source of light in a dark world. I believe the result will be a stronger church.

The idea in recent times has been that by focusing on making a stronger church we will foster a greater sense of community. I believe the opposite is true – focusing on a greater sense of community in “families” (small groups) and focusing on the gathering of those “families” for times of worship and fellowship will foster a stronger church.

It is the harder work. It is not as easy as parking spaces, signage, and good programs (although, those are NOT irrelevant). It is the harder work of loving one another deeply. But, if I remember what I read in a good book, it seems that this is the work to which we are called – to love one another, to serve one another, to disciple.

For those who follow Jesus and attend Asbury UMC, we are moving this direction. It may happen in fits and starts, but we are determined to make it happen. I hope you will join us and see the powerful work of God that is yet to come.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

Trayvon, George, and the search for answers

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Okay.  It seems that the story of Trayvon Martin’s death and the trial of George Zimmerman is the story to focus on this week. For some pastors it was important enough to adapt their sermons for this week once the verdict was known. I didn’t, but I’ll get back to that later. For now I can tell you this – I don’t have many answers in regard to this case.

Here’s what I do know – the litany of events is a tragedy of a story. A young man is dead. Another man is vilified or vindicated, depending on your viewpoint. The country faces another fault line of division, as if there were not enough. There is no answer which brings Trayvon Martin back to life. There is no answer that changes the verdict for George Zimmerman (though the federal government may try to bring about one from another angle). The only possibility for hope to grow up out of this muck and mess is that it changes the way we deal with one another. And the only hope for that is to truly follow Jesus Christ and allow the Spirit of God to move in us.

Here’s what I mean by that. This was a tweet I saw after the verdict:

tweet copy

That is a nice sentiment. That would be a beautiful thing. Of course, such things require something of us. What I don’t know at this point is the reality of who Trayvon Martin was and how he lived his life. Some paint him as thuggish and dangerous. Others say he was nothing like that. I don’t know. For the sake of this argument, let’s first say violence was a possibility in the confrontation. That being the case, giving him a ride puts a person at risk. That requires us to willingly step into a possibly precarious situation. It means fear would not be our first response. Then, if we say violence was not part of his demeanor or personality, then giving him a ride home or anywhere else was nothing to fear, but it still requires us to go out of our way to help. The problem in these situations is there is no way to know. And when there is no way to know we often find ourselves making assumptions. In this case, the unfortunate and sad reality just may be that because Trayvon was black the assumption was he was dangerous. My sense of this is that had he been a white young man in a hoodie that may not have been the conclusion to which George Zimmerman so quickly jumped.

So, what’s my point in all of this? Well, it goes back to why I did not change my sermon on Sunday to include this case. The point is, following Jesus is going to call us to see persons first as ones created in God’s image. It means we may end up putting ourselves at risk. That’s what Jesus did. He loved with such great abandon that it eventually cost him his life. The Bible is clear – the servant is not greater than the master. The student is called to live the same life as the teacher. My work in preaching is to help bring the truth of God to the people of God that they might live most fully as said people. The particulars of this case are not the issue; the way we seek to live our life every day as followers of Jesus is.

To be a follower of Jesus is to hold on loosely to what we have. It means we need not fear ANY young man in a hoodie walking through our neighborhood. It means the value of our stuff and our property is less than the value of any life. It means being willing to let go of all you have – even your very life – to show love to another person. Does this set us up to be hurt? Yes. Does it put us at greater risk? Yes. Could we find our life ended because of such love? Yes and no. Yes, this life in this world could end. No, your life in Christ is eternal.

This is not a word about what George Zimmerman should have done. It is not about what the verdict should have been. It is not about what the Federal Government should do to bring forth the justice so many are calling for. I don’t have the answers for that because I don’t know enough about all that was involved. I am thankful not to be sitting on that jury or any future jury for this case.

This post is about us. This post is about how we live our lives and how we view the lives of others. This post is about the call to follow Jesus and to be willing to lay down our lives so that grace would have the opportunity to gain a foothold in the world. For that, my friends, is the answer. A love offered with great abandon. A viewpoint that seeks to see first the presence of God. A willingness to be kind and generous and patient and peaceful first and foremost. That will change the world. We know it works because we read the stories in a good book. We know it works because for many of us it is our story.

So, as we mourn the death of a young man and the tragic results that continue to play out, the search for answers goes far beyond this one story. The search for answers begins deep within our hearts. May we live lives full of grace and love in such a way that others discover the peace and joy of Jesus Christ and maybe, just maybe, the next young man will find life and find it abundantly.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

The Church beyond Starbucks

wendys workI saw this picture posted on Facebook the other day. The woman is opening up a restaurant in her neighborhood – realizing a dream of being a small business owner and serving the people she loves most. This picture was posted by a friend of mine who is doing great work in helping communities revive and thrive. Wendy, and those who work with her, are walking alongside others and encouraging them to live their dreams – together as a neighborhood and as a community. As far as I can tell, their main work is to nurture the idea that together they can elevate their community. They believe that if they invest in one another they can infuse a greater sense of love and hope in the place where they live.

Through the magic of Facebook I had a short conversation with Wendy the other day. We talked about how difficult it can be for pastors and worship leaders and even church leaders to worship on Sunday when other things are on their minds. In making my response to her question about this difficulty I said this:

 …yes, it is hard to worship, at times, inside the church walls. But, when I live out of the reality that the church is not the walls and I am not a salesman in a God-franchise, then I am able to live into worship differently. It means trusting the Spirit when I am not fully ready and accepting grace when things don’t go smoothly. It means looking at the gathered people with a goal to love and be loved, not just the goal of doing a good job. If I can live into those things, then worship becomes more lively.

She then responded with this:

I love your statement, “It means looking at the gathered people with a goal to love and be loved.” … I think I have that posture in my work [with a local community] but I am not sure I have that same way of being when I am in the walls of the church…

I knew from what I had read that my friend does have a great sense of community and personal investment in her work. Truly her work has inspired me to nurture that same spirit in the church. I see and read the stories of how people are living their lives TOGETHER and seeing things change for the better, and I think to myself, “that’s what the church should be about. That’s the light that’s needed in the darkness of the world – a real and deeply connected community offering a real sense of peace and hope in a world that tends to pull us apart.”

I think one of our greatest challenges in the Church is to recapture the idea of being a “community of believers.” As it is right now, I find many churches to be more of a “collection of believers.” We are people with a common interest who meet in a common space to learn about a common way of living as people known as Christians. We live our lives in proximity to one another more than we live life together.

This is what I think of as the Starbucks way of being church. People who go to Starbucks (or other food/drink places) on a regular basis do so because they like something about what they experience there – what they “get.” When they meet others who are also “Starbucks people” they feel a sense of camaraderie with them and they high-five each other and talk about the things they love most (okay, the high-five may be a bit much, but I think you get the point). If these “Starbucks people” go to the same location on a regular basis they may even get familiar with other regulars. They might have conversations about their families and their jobs. Many of them develop an understanding of who the other people are, and they’re glad to see most of them.

To me, that sounds like what we often see on Sunday mornings in our church buildings. People go to the church they do because they like something about what they experience – what they “get.” They feel a camaraderie with others who also like that place. They talk about how much they enjoy the place, they get to know something about one another, and they are glad to see one another in that place each week.

Now, is there something wrong or bad about such a church? Not on the surface, no. It all seems good and nice. We go to a place where we have something in common with others who are there. We’re friendly and we talk to one another. Then we go our separate ways figuring we’ll see each other again soon. And therein lies the rub.

The church was never meant to be a place where people of like interests meet. As a matter of fact, the Church did not begin as a “place.” The Church began as a community. The Church began as people seeking to live into this new life found in Jesus and empowered by the life of the Holy Spirit within them and among them. They shared life together. They not only knew the stories of the other followers of Jesus around them, they were part of the stories of their brothers and sisters in the faith. They didn’t go their separate ways hoping to run into each other once a week, they sought each other out and nurtured their life together – just like Jesus had done with the people who traveled with him.

So, what do we do now?

Well, as a pastor I often think I need to figure out how to move the church in the right direction to be who we are called to be. What kind of campaign can we launch? What program or process can we implement to make this happen? What’s the plan for making us that kind of church? And then I realize, I can’t make it happen. I can only live into what I know to be good and right. If I want to see this become a reality in the church then it first has to become a reality in my life. I need to begin living life WITH others rather than living my life in proximity to others.

Our “Growth & Nurture” team will soon be living into the work of developing small groups where people will learn and live life together – hopefully. I am going to be one of the small group leaders gathering to pray and work on plans for building up a “community” that meets together and lives life together.

My hope is this: first, that we build real community; and second, that we show others what being the Church outside church walls can look like. I also hope that somewhere along the way we might even help those who don’t follow Jesus see that there is a treasure to be found in the midst of those who do. Maybe, just maybe, they will look at our community and say, “see how they love one another…” And then, beyond that, they might desire to know such peace and joy in their lives as well.

What about you? Are you ready to be the Church rather than just go to church? Are you willing to find other believers and live life WITH them and not just around them?

I hope so. I hope I can and I hope you can, because together we might just see God working in us and through us to change the world.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

P.S. If you want to read more about my friend’s ministry check out her blog: http://wendymccaig.com

A Changing (and challenging) Preposition

Yes, that title correctly says “preposition,” though you may think it means to say “proposition.” I want to talk to you about changing prepositions as a way to reclaim or fully claim our life as followers of Jesus. I want to encourage you in what God has been speaking to me.

Our greatest possibility for impacting the lives of others and helping people experience the HOPE of Jesus Christ comes in changing from “FOR” to “WITH.”

with cautionNow, before I get to the meat of that change the “Spiritual Health Association” (or the SHA) requires that I offer this cautionary warning first. If you are wondering what the SHA is, simply put, it is something I just made up. But, that does not diminish the validity of the warning I am about to give.

CAUTION: “with” is much messier than “for”

Okay, now that you’ve been so warned, let’s talk about what it means.

“FOR” is a very common word in our Christian vocabulary – and not a bad word. When needs arise around us we often try to think about what we can do “for” the person or entity in need. And again, it’s not a bad thing. When we hear about a village in Nicaragua where people do not have regular access to good, clean water, we want to do something “for” them. And we do. Our church, for example, is working to raise money to send a team to Nicaragua to help drill a water well and hoping to raise enough money to pay for the costs of drilling that well. Now, in fairness to our efforts, we are going there to work “with” the people of Nicaragua and that village. But, in the end, it will be something we have done “for” them.

Let’s bring it a bit closer to home. When we have people in our community who have needs – they struggle to have food on the table – our hearts go out to them and we want to do something “for” them. And we do. We give money to the food bank, we put together holiday food baskets, etc. Again, not a bad thing to do something “for” someone else.

We can move even closer and talk about our life in the church. How many of us volunteer to do something “for” the church? We usher at the worship service, we sing in the choir or praise band, we teach a class, we fix the broken things around the building. We do things “for” the sake of the church and the activities of the church – not bad.

But what if we decided to purposely shift from “for” to “with?” What if we decided to walk “with” people in our community who are struggling to make ends meet? What if we purposely decided to live in their neighborhood “with” them? What if instead of providing a meal at the holidays we invited them to eat “with” us in our home? What if we invited a struggling family to live “with” us for a time as we walk “with” them into a more hopeful future?

What if we decided that serving the church is not about doing a job “for” the church but instead is about serving “with” others? What if the work of ushering became a means of loving our brothers and sisters so much that we want to make their time of worship meaningful? What if singing in the choir was about worshiping “with” our brothers and sisters more than singing a song “for” them? What if going to church each week was not about doing something “for” ourselves or “for” God and instead became a way that we join “with” our fellow disciples to spend time “with” God?

I know, I am rambling and many of you reading this may be thinking you already have this mindset. The good news for me is that these blogs are my musings more than a treatise, so it may not be completely clear. The bad news for us is that I don’t think we live “with” each other as much as we could. Living “with” each other means we open ourselves up to one another. Living “with” each other happens not as a congregation, but as a small band of disciples living and growing together. Living “with” each other means we come together to share meals and share our lives and confess our sins. Living “with” each other means when a brother or sister falls into a pit, we jump in to help them out. It means sharing all we have “with” brothers and sisters in need without hesitation. It means that our desire to help others overcome issues of poverty and prejudice goes from doing something help “for” them to opening up our lives to walk “with” them.

“With” is messier than “for,” no doubt. It means taking a risk and knowing others whom you try to love more deeply will take advantage of you. It means giving up your own comfort in order to make HOPE more real for someone else. It means making a commitment to a small group of disciples and connecting with them as family. It even means disconnecting from family and friends in order to connect with others. You may have to forget what is behind and reach for what God has put ahead of us.

And here is the most significant lesson we need to learn about life “with” others – especially those who we seek to do things “for”: We need to learn to accept that others who are “in need” have much to teach us. We need to learn that we don’t have it all right just because our life is alright. There was a day when a woman of questionable reputation came to Jesus when he was at the home of a church-going religious leader. She began to weep in his presence and washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. The religious man was appalled that Jesus would let this happen. Jesus used it to teach the man about what it means to worship God and give thanks for the grace God gives. This woman knew the grace of God in such a way that she offered an act of worship. It wasn’t that she went to church or said all her prayers, it was simply an honest act of gratitude. Jesus said that her act was a greater work than the moral life this man was living. Where he lived his life “for” God, this woman wanted to live her life “with” Jesus.

Again, I wish I had a greater clarity of what this could mean. But all I know right now is that Jesus came as “God with us” – Emmanuel. He gave up the power and comfort of heaven to enter into this life in order to help us know a greater HOPE than we could find anywhere else. Yes, he did something “for” us in dying on the cross, but his greatest promise was this: “I will be WITH you always…” He spent his time not with the religious people, but with sinners and prostitutes and those most in need of HOPE. He also spent time with a small band of disciples walking with them and helping them grow as he lived among the poor and outcast. So, ultimately, for me, it comes down to this – if I am a follower of Jesus Christ how is he calling me to walk “with” and live “with” others, especially those who need HOPE the most? How am I living and learning “with” a small band of disciples?

Maybe I will eventually make more sense of this and I can post another blog entry. But for now, this will have to do. I look forward to your help in working through this.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

P.S. Soon after the day when I was pondering this “with” idea on a walk and talk with my son, another friend posted this link to a lengthy but more theologically astute article about this same idea. I do not deny that some of my thoughts in writing this blog post were also influenced by this article. However, the ideas in the article simply joined the thoughts already in progress inside my brain:
http://thecresset.org/2013/Easter/Wells_E2013.html