Why not stay and be a part of the light shining in the darkness?

In my part of Bradenton, specifically “West Bradenton,” I often hear, “You know this area isn’t the same place it used to be.” And what is meant by that is, “It is worse than it used to be. I’m looking to move out East.” The schools at one point were better, at least according to their “grades.” The area had more children then and fewer seniors. More upper-middle class too. Less crime perhaps (though that may or may not be so). It is not the same area as it used to be. It just isn’t.

So the obvious knee-jerk response is for folks to migrate where there are more younger folks, more upper-middle class, potentially less crime, better schools, and new houses. But the church is always to be counter-cultural in its thinking. Even when we head in the same direction as those outside the church, it is never for the exact same reasons.

So should flight be the response to any area that is currently not the same place as it used to be?

I just preached a sermon, “It was the worst of times, it was the best of times” on Isaiah 9. In it, we see

[c] The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone.

The passage clearly points to hope coming to a region which was living in utter darkness. The dark ages. Politically they had foreign rulers, and were divided up into three regions. Religiously they were marrying people they weren’t supposed to and worshiping idols far too often. Socially they had oppressed the poor and didn’t care about justice. Yet a light had come to a dark place. Jesus came to a forgotten place that was living in darkness. He did most of his ministry there, NOT in the South known as Judea. And because of Jesus, Paul explains that we are to shine like stars in a crooked generation (Phil 2)

Where? Well that will vary from person to person, to where God calls you. Darkness is on a continuum. Some places are darker than others, politically, socially, religiously.

In an area that is not the same as it used to be, an area that is potentially living in more darkness than before, should the knee-jerk response of the Christian be to head for greener pastures? If light has come into the dark and seemingly forgotten area of the Northern tribes of Israel, might the “it’s not the same as it used to be” actually be an open door and greater opportunity for light to shine? Light seems to shine brightest in the darkest places. If you heard that this good news was coming to your region, wouldn’t you want to consider staying around and being part of it?

Now obviously every decision involves prayer and wisdom and community. And God does call people to move into shiny, new, happy places within your area or outside of it. But let us remember that is never for solely the same reasons that non-Christians move there. I just think that we who have seen this great light, and who want to live as lights, need to prayerfully consider why we should move or why we should stay. Perhaps even more light is coming to the area, and through you? Perhaps in twenty years folks will be able to say, “This area isn’t the same area as it used to be. It is way better.” Wouldn’t that be beautiful to hear of West Bradenton, or whatever are you live in?

 

Loving the Father’s stuff but not the Father

Sometimes a preacher has thoughts that just don’t make it into the sermon. Sometimes they just didn’t fit, or sometimes, when you try to stray from your manuscript (which I prefer), you just forget them. It wasn’t so much a thought as it was an incident, or rather two incidents, which I think would have helped people apply the sermon.

Unfortunately my computer froze up and the sermon on The Parable of the Lost Sons, (I’ll never call it the Parable of the Prodigal Son again) “Carry on my wayward son” did not get recorded. Sorry Kansas, I tried my best! Regardless, here’s something I think could have helped, or perhaps could help us all, in considering the ways in which Christians can easily fall into the way of the older brother.

The older brother was just as wayward as the younger brother. He simply wanted his Father’s stuff, but not his father. All these years I’ve slaved for you and you never even threw me a stinking goat! That’s what he says. The younger son was just as blunt and demanded his inheritance up front. These two boys simply wanted their Father’s stuff, but neither wanted his father. They were interested not in a relationship with their Father, but a connection to his stuff, toys, property, blessings, etc…

In the period of three days, I had two sons (ironically both younger sons) tell me “I’d much rather have my Father with me, than his money. One referred to inheritance and how he would much rather have his father alive. The other didn’t want his father to continue working. He’d be happy just to have the relationship and time spent, even if it meant he would potentially inherit far less money at some point in the future. These two boys simply wanted their father, in and of himself. They wanted their father simply because he was their father. That was blessing enough.

What does it look like for us to be like the older brother? To love and want the Father’s stuff more than the Father? Here are a few thoughts, as I try to wrestle through what that might look like.

Can we value blessing over relationship? Yes. It is not bad to want the blessings of our Father, these blessings can be valued over relationship. Think about the blessing of a church family. A church family can provide meals when needed, a couch moved, a text or phone call when struggling, prayers that you can feel throughout the day, words that can challenge and encourage. Just to name a few. But a church can also let you down. A church will let you down. A church comprises bozos like you and I, so what did you expect? But it’s when the church lets you down, that you will know if you loved the Father, or you simply loved his “stuff.” If I become angry with those in the church, or bail on the church because she disappointed me (and sometimes we do need to be disappointed if our expectations are sinful or far-fetched), then I probably just loved the Father for his stuff. I wasn’t loving God, I would have simply been enjoying his benefits, not his person. But if I value my relationship with the Father, that when he withholds a blessing or two for a season, I’m OK. I still have my Father. If I still have my Father, then I can love the church in spite of its warts. How angry we get at others, when they don’t meet our expectations, reveals where our true love lies.

I hate to suffer. I really do. But when the Lord dispossesses us of something, or plan, even if that something or plan is good, He is doing it out of love. He wants us to love Him for who He is and what He has done in Christ. But if I’m livid, and angry, and think “well what’s the point of trying to honor Him when this is how I’m treated,” then I’ve simply wanted the Father’s stuff.

These are just a few ways I can think of how we can love the Father’s stuff, but not the father. Feel free to share any of your own.

Experiencing imperfect but real joy and peace

In my sermon on Sunday, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” we considered the difficulty of living in the “Now but not yet” of Jesus’ Kingdom. In other words, the Kingdom has begun, but has not yet been completed. Jesus said as much to John the Baptist who was in prison at the time. John was expecting Jesus to release the captives, because well, in Jesus’ own words, he said he would (Luke 4). He said he was the man to get the job done, the man promised in Isaiah 61. Yet John still languished in prison. So John, like you and I, and any thinking person would have done, sent messengers to Jesus to ask him “What gives cuz? (Matthew 11)”

Jesus responds by saying, “You go tell cousin John, that I’ve healed people, given sight to the blind, cured lepers, preached good news to the poor…” Notice he left the part out about “releasing the captives” (Isaiah 61). He did enough that John could trust him with the rest.

In one of my first seminary classed called Introduction to Theological Studies, Richard Pratt Jr, explained this verse with such clarity that I remember it like it was yesterday. Jesus has given us a framework to help make a little more sense of the Christian life. We experience joy and at the same time we still experience frustration. We see in part, not in full now (I Corinthians 12). We have joy, but its not perfect joy this side of heaven. We can experience peace, but its not perfect peace (which is good news for someone with anxiety issues-I’m not as weird as I think). There have been times when I’ve experienced anxiety so great I was incapable of doing anything for a week. And there have been times when I lost my job, didn’t know where I would be heading, or what to do with my house, how I would support wife and child, and yet was at rest. Imperfect peace is still real peace; peace when my personality shouldn’t have allowed it.

We want more than we have now, and we should. Like a child pining for her mother to hold her, not just be in the same room with her, the presence of Jesus can make us cry. Not because he doesn’t love us, but because He does. We want more than this world has to offer, and I think that is why the Apostle Paul is not afraid to say “To live is Christ and to die is gain.” Dying is gain, not because it is absence of suffering (a la Brittany Maynard), but the presence of blessing. The very presence of Jesus.

Someone asked me after the sermon,”If we will never be fully satisfied this side of heaven, then how do we keep some sort of fire going?” Here are some ways to enjoy God this side of Heaven.

1.) Preached Word: I know some folks have hard times paying attention to sermons, but its worth it to try. I asked someone about her tears during one of my sermons, and she said, “I could sense God telling me how much He loved me.” That’s not Godspeak, that God speaking through His Word. Don’t neglect putting yourself under His preached Word.

2.) Daily Devotions: God speaks to us through His Word as we read it too. Don’t wait to hear God speak to you once a week.

3.) Prayer: I’m looking forward to Tim Keller’s new book on prayer. So I could have more here later, but there is great delight to be found in reading and reflecting through a Psalm. I lived on Psalm 91 for a season of my life. My prayer time was more enjoyable than fishing.

4.) Fellowship: Sometimes we can feel God’s presence with us when we are present with God’s people: His Church. I don’t know how many times my faith gets weak, doubting, faltering, and then all of a sudden I’m picked by the words of another in a community group. I know I’m not alone. But even one-on-one times with a friend, mentor, disciple, are an absolute necessity. Those who crafted the Westminster Confession of Faith (which is good) missed big on not including fellowship as an “official” means of growing in grace. It is.

5.) Baptism/Communion: I know its not the same as having a meal in Jesus physical presence, but its the next best thing we have while on Earth. Baptism points us to Jesus’ promise to save those who put their faith in Him. We forget, so it is always good to “see.”

6.) Music. Sometimes a truth communicated through song. Maybe a hymn, contemporary song on radio, or even a U2 song. Some of them really make me think about God’s nearness, when I’m scared, disillusioned, or just plain dry. Even Pink Floyd songs, some of which have such depth, leave me with an excited longing for Jesus to return.

Here are just some ways to keep the fire going this side of heaven so that we can experience imperfect but nevertheless life-changing  joy and peace.

 

Dream to leave your city better than when you first found it

I like metaphors. I even have a book titled, “I never metaphor I didn’t like.” Ironically I’ve only opened it a few times. Regardless, metaphors can be very helpful when dealing with the sublime. Jesus employed them often, as did OT prophets, and new testament writers. When it comes to something as vast as understanding and responding to God’s call to allign oneself with His Kingdom, one metaphor has recently stuck out to me.

And, since a church member recently showed appreciation for it (meaning at least two people like it!), I’ll pass it on.  Consider  your Kingdom responsibility/opportunity as though you are being allowed to rent, borrow, play on someone else’s property. Have you ever been told, “Make sure to leave the place better than how you found it!” I know I have. I can remember thinking, “Well, that garbage was already here, or such and such was like this when we got here.” But if we consider that we are ultimately bound for completion of God’s Kingdom here on Earth (leasing to own, if  you will), it makes more sense to think of our neighborhoods, jobs, families, etc…, not in terms of how we found them, but how we have left them.

I like this metaphor for a few reasons.

1.) It promotes faithfulness in all the areas God has given you. We can dream big, as well as realistically, trusting that “small” acts of kindness, faithfulness, love, sharing gospel, will end up leaving your area better than when you came to it. “Ordinary” faithfulness can make a difference.

2.) It doesn’t promote some sort of triumphalistic storm-hell-with-water guns type of immediate expectation.

3.) It also promotes not leaving your area just because this is the way it was when you found it. We are so quick to run to a nicer area and leave behind many opportunities. Sometimes you are called to leave-and you obviously should. For work. For safety. For other reasons too. But perhaps our first reaction shouldn’t be to leave for greener pastures.

4.) It promotes something bigger than ourselves. If we think of our areas of influence more in terms of “when we leave” instead of “this is how I found them,” I think our hearts will then be much more aligned with His Kingdom purposes NOW. Our small lives, and small churches will live bigger when recognize we really are part of a bigger story, a bigger Kingdom. It is not about me, or you. It is about His glory filling the Earth, prayerfully more tomorrow than today, and more even after we’ve gone. Consider your city a 100 years from now and love it even though you may never get to experience those dreams now. But remember your Manatee County (or whatever your county) of your dreams is still in heaven (Rev 21), waiting to come down from heaven at the just the right time.

The Heads and Tails of the Kingdom

At Harbor Community Church we’ve been working our way through some of Jesus’ Parables. We shan’t get to all of them, but have been focusing on those parables where Jesus describes what the Kingdom of God/Heaven will be like. The Kingdom of God is a huge theme in the scriptures, and one could argue its main unifying theme from start to finish.

Here’s a helpful definition of how to think about the Kingdom of God/Heaven.

Dr. Russell Moore, writes

The Kingdom of God is an explosively veiled inbreaking into the present world order of the reign of Jesus himself as emperor of the cosmos. This being the case, it ought to change the way we see ourselves, and our place in this age and in the one to come.

Everything starts in the garden where God used to dwell with Adam and Eve before sin. It ends with city, a people, God coming down from heaven to dwell with us once again, without tears or suffering, a place where business is conducted and the “kings” of the earth bring the best of their culture into this new Kingdom (Rev 21).

That’s a little more of what Jewish folks expected to see right off the bat with Jesus, but he gives us some parables to help us understand what to make of our experience now and how we should be involved in this Kingdom expanding.

Some folks see Kingdom and think evangelism and some folks see Kingdom and think solely in deeds of mercy and social justice. Often people pick one or the other.

Parable of Mustard Seed and the Parable of the Yeast, it seems like both are very much in play. Both parables explain that what you first saw in the ministry of Jesus was not all that impressive in comparison to what was prophesied in the OT and Revelation. In the Parable of the Mustard Seed, the Kingdom starts small and gets big, so big that the “birds of the air” (which I call “strange birds”), aka Gentiles from all over, will find refuge. This corresponds to the vision in Revelation. Kings of the earth, aka, representatives of all tribes of peoples. Kingdom growth means sharing the gospel here and abroad.

But Kingdom growth isn’t only numerical. It’s about depth. That’s what the Parable of the Yeast refers to. Simon Kistemacker claims this parable refers to in the “intensive” growth of the Kingdom. Yeast works slowly, inside out, until all the dough is affected. But yeast works behind the scenes, where as you sometimes don’t even know its there. Again, inside-out, as people live out their faith by what they do (not just what they say). This includes deeds of mercy and social justice, serving your community through your work, loving and blessing your neighbors, and yes for some being involved in politics. This corresponds to the kings in Rev 21 bringing their “treasures.” The best of their culture and work. Over time.

These parables are like the heads and tails of Kingdom growth. I can’t imagine a coin without heads and tails.

Both are components of the Kingdom. Both aspects need to be part of a church which declares itself to be Kingdom focused as Harbor does. Gospel proclamation from churches and from individuals as they come and go, as well as gospel application in work, family, neighborhood, hobbies, and politics as they come and go.

 

 

What I learned about the church from Hickory Hollow

The other day our family went to eat at Hickory Hollow, a local BBQ joint in Ellenton. We were meeting our in-laws in order to hand over our kids for the weekend, and assumed the place to be kid friendly enough. While they didn’t have a problem eating, we did run into a little problem ordering.

At most establishments, even in areas known for their elderly population (most of Florida), you can easily find a kids menu. Most of the time, I’m not down with paying for adult sized proportions when kids can end up having, well, kid sized appetites. So we had to regroup, order a few unhealthy sides, and we were back in business.

But why not have a kids menu? There were kids there, and there often are kids there. Aren’t you shooting yourselves in the foot? And then why not take credit cards? Why only take cash, when that is so inconvenient (and yes I do know the real answer to this one) for the customer? And they close for a few weeks every summer for family vacations. And printed on the front door is, “If you are in a hurry, this is not the place for you.” Wow.

Don’t they consider the customer? I thought about these questions for about 45 seconds and then realized that they were not stupid. They were consistent. Consistent with who they were, consistent with their vision, and consistent in knowing their customer. In about 30 minutes, the place filled up. We were early birds at 5 pm. They didn’t lack for customers, even though they didn’t pander to every customer. Or to perhaps any customers with kids. Yet they are always busy.

Hickory Hollow is just a mom and pop place, family run. It’s a true family business.

They are consumer aware, but they certainly are not consumer controlled. I’m sure many consumers want to pay by credit card and have a kids menu, but they keep coming back for more. I do.

Hickory Hollow is on to something here. When it comes to the church, I still don’t feel comfortable in calling prospective members and visitors “customers” as Andy Stanley does. But that is not to say churches can’t learn valuable things from businesses. Particularly family businesses.

Hickory Hollow is consistent with their vision and consistent with who they are. They don’t let the “customer” move them away from that. Some angry parents demanding a kids menu shouldn’t make them introduce a kids menu. Is a kids menu really what those parents need anyway? And then at some point, how can you expect the parents not to think its really all about them? You could easily end up reinforcing the consumer mindset. The customer isn’t always right. Of course, neither is the church for that matter! But if a church isn’t consistent with its vision and simply tries to change to cater to what each person wants, it has lost its vision and will eventually head nowhere. I’ve been so encouraged at Harbor when folks have caught the vision and lived consistently with that vision. When a visitor said to several members and me, “You need to put up an American flag in here,” I knew I didn’t have to do anything about it. Our vision is to be gospel-centered, not “founding-fathers centered.” And people know it. They don’t want to sacrifice it because they have become enamored with the gospel and its freedom. Just an FYI, there are “founding-father’s bibles.” For real, I saw hers.

Hickory Hollow is customer aware. People are coming. If people weren’t they could re-visit their vision and who they are. But why, for they are aware of what people really do need. They are feeding the “regulars” AND feeding new ones as well. In other words, they are reaching people. Old people, kids, and everyone in between. Sometimes churches, and especially from my particular tradition are customer clueless. We unnecessarily put barriers up because we want to be consistent with who we are-even though we might need to let the gospel change our vision and who we are! Pastors like myself will do well to learn from those outside of our tradition, as well as those within it who are consistent and aware. Perhaps many (church planters like myself are not immune) have been consistent and yet culturally clueless at the same time.

Hickory Hollow is old school AND innovative. I’ve shared some ways in which they are old school. But in some ways, Hickory Hollow is quite innovative. How many barbecue places have an extensive list of really good beers?  I think churches need to be both old school AND innovative. The church is somewhat old school. We have a message that hasn’t changed from the beginning, really. The message has always been centered on God bringing a redeemer forth from a women to trample the head of the serpent (Gen 3:15). The gospel, communion, membership, preaching are old school; they’ve been around a while. But are we not also to be innovative? What is the best form, the best terms, the best setting, the best kinds of relationships to advance the gospel in our particular community? We have great opportunities for innovation, as we seek to be consistent with not only the gospel message, but each church’s specific vision for its community.

Just some thoughts from a local BBQ joint.

 

What I learned from from praying for the persecuted church

I had the privilege of praying for the persecuted church the other day at a local Baptist church. I look forward to the next time the local churches gather and pray for our brothers and sisters in the faith who face much greater hardships than we often care to admit. Here are some things I learned from my experience.

1.) Planning precedes preference. I planned for several weeks to go to this prayer meeting, and I told another church member I would join her in this prayer. This happened to be the same week I baptized my daughter and had family over to our house until 5:30 pm. It started at 6 pm. I was exhausted. The weeks leading up to the gathering, I had been “all about it,” but when the time came, I had very little left in the tank. It was only because I had planned and told another I would be there, that my exhaustion didn’t get the best of me. And of course, when I got to the church, the energy level immediately rose.

2.) Don’t judge a Jew by his yamaka. I got there and I saw a number of yamakas. I assumed they were old school Jewish folks, which sometimes can be a safe assumption. And in the mind of some church folks, they really are no different than Christians, except they get a pass on the whole needing Jesus thing. But at the end of the prayer time, much to my surprise, I found out they were Messianic Jews. Very cool. Jews who believe Jesus was/is actually the Messiah.

3.) Gathering to pray for the persecuted church doesn’t mean you will pray for the persecuted church. As soon as we broke into 4-5 person groups, we began with some personal and corporate repentance. But then we were supposed to pray for each nation or group of nations mentioned from the front. Each nation had a little blurb on what is happening there and what needs they have. But what I continued to hear from several folks was a prayer for “our nation.” Each time the prayers cycled around, it quickly turned into how bad America was and how we needed to return or repent or whatever. It’s amazing how quickly we can gather to pray for those whose Persecution is physical and violent, and then pray for the persecution we face in our nation. Some people here are persecuted more than others, and I get that. But, I went home and relaxed with my family. Many people whom we were praying for had no home anymore, or perhaps no family. That’s different. They were why we gathered. It is hard to pray for others. It really is, and that’s why having some sort of a prayer plan, schedule, or praying through the Lord’s Prayer can be so helpful.

4.) Persecution means we’re in the end times. At least, according to one prayer I heard (but didn’t say the “Prayer Hmmmm”), “we know” we are in the end times now. Well I would agree to some extent. We are in the “latter days,” but we’ve been in them since Jesus rose. And there has been persecution since Jesus rose (since it was there even before he died-John the Baptist lost his head), and unfortunately could be until Jesus comes back. But that doesn’t mean he’s coming back tomorrow. Or the next day or year or many years after that. Revelation was written to strengthen people going through persecution, not for people who aren’t persecuted to predict when that special day will come.

5.) It’s good to pray with those different than you. People were definitely different, and definitely had different theologies, which they clearly expressed in prayer. And as I thought to critique a woman who talked about getting to reign a 1000 years, I just realized (as I was writing this) that my theology of the church, Revelation, covenant, God’s Sovereignty, grace certainly came through in my prayers as well.  So we can let each other pray consistently with his/her theology and know we are praying to the One, the only One, who can and will clarify our theologies in time. When faith becomes sight. Until then, its good to pray with other believers of a different persuasion and not to hold arrogantly to our positions. Nor to act like those differences don’t exist as though we could simply pray without theological biases. That’s impossible, for we can’t help but pray our theology. Yet, on the bright side, such awareness gives us a real opportunity to love each other.