How the body of Christ helped this preacher practice what he preached

Harbor Community Church had an “interesting” Sunday.

Immediately following the service, a number of volunteers cleaned our chairs as well as the YMCA hallways; both of which were stained by last season’s basketball and 10 weeks of summer camps. Just as we began to devour the delectable Hungry Howies pizzas, a dude with a wristband from the hospital walked into the YMCA. Then on to the gym, and then back to our “commons area,” and heading straight for the pizza. Pizza is my “precious.”

I asked him, “Can I help you sir?” He immediately took a 90 degree turn and headed out towards the door. Honestly I was glad because I didn’t get the best vibe from him. My only thought was “get him away from the pizza and toward the door.” I just didn’t want him around.

Immediately some women put a piece of pizza on a plate and told me to bring it to him. All I cared about was getting him outside. Then one woman said, “Geoff, you just preached how God wants us to love the ugly, difficult people, and how people are made in God’s image.”

Wow. They were paying attention and challenged me to practice what I preached. They were right. So I grabbed the pizza, and head out the door to catch this guy. He gladly accepted the pizza, asked me, “Are there any kids around here?” I told him no, so he took something out of his pockets. Immediately I regretted answering his question in the negative.

So he pulls out a water bottle from his pocket and asks me for some change. I told him I didn’t have any, and he once again, rotated 90 degrees, and then walked off.

Honestly I didn’t feel good about this guy and wanted to get rid of him. I think my heart, as far as I can remember, was focused primarily on the security of our folks. But in my concern for safety, I had failed to see him as made in the image of God. He had dignity. He had needs. Even though we really couldn’t help him much, we could at least meet the need for food.

To love your people well requires concern for their safety. Some leaders had already followed this guy and invited him to leave. We had that covered.

But to love others outside the church (and to model such love), particularly as they walk in your church requires mercy. Some ladies, with glad appreciation for those who directed this gentlemen to the door, also sought an opportunity to show kindness. They simply “looked,” putting arms to the sermon application and one of our core values: “looking.” We need both safety and mercy in the church body. I am thankful we have both types of folks at Harbor, because I’m insufficient on my own. While humbling, I’m as needy as I am grateful to have folks who help me practice what I preach.

When you don’t journal, at least take a note

Someone told me the other day, “I’m not a big journal-type guy.” Meaning, its very difficult for him to write down experiences on “paper” and then go back over them. Strangely enough, as much as I love to write, I feel the same way. It’s hard to keep an official journal and then go back to it time and again. I don’t know that it will ever really catch on for me.

One of my favorite “devotional” books is Paul Miller’s A Praying Life. It just doesn’t get much better, as he weaves prayer (why and how to do it) into the entirety of life-even praying for parking spaces!  One of the tools he recommends at the end of the book in his practical section is keeping a prayer journal. As much as I love the book and have been influenced by it, I don’t see it sticking.

Yet, I understand the WHY behind a prayer journal! You can literally see God answer prayers (and sometimes the answer is that He’s changing us) one at a time. You can literally see how your prayers actually do make a difference, and  your heart will overflow with thankfulness.

Today, I was going through some recently recorded church-wide prayer goals I thought I had saved on my computer within my Evernote App. I couldn’t find them so I looked through some previous prayer goals I had written in 2014. As I looked, I noticed how all of them had been answered in a way consistent with what I had prayed! Here are some of them below:

  • Music leader house sold; more vocalists
  • Attendance averaging 100 (we’ve had a few Sundays over a 100, and some in 90’s last month, so I think we’re pretty close)
  • 4 Community Groups
  • Young families  (we’ve picked up a few towards the end of the summer)
  • A Children’s Leader
  • More children’s church teachers
  • Women’s bible study leaders

Now next Sunday could see a drop in numbers, some families could choose to leave, a teacher quit, etc. I gave up assuming anything since I’m often wrong and there really isn’t a need to do so; it’s Jesus’ church, not mine! But this simple note reminded never to leave out prayer. As Bon Jovi wisely postulated, “We’ve living on a prayer.” Most of what and whom we have here at Harbor has been given in response to specific prayers. Since He has clearly said yes on a number of occasions, I need a place to store these requests. If I didn’t have a place to store these requests, I wouldn’t have seen how faithful He had been to us. Even if you’re like me, and probably won’t journal, it’s a good idea to find some system that allows you to record your prayers.

Evernote is the easiest to use and is free for the basic option (which I use). It is the most helpful app known to man (or at least this man).

Prayer Notebook is just $1.99 for I Phone and $ 2.99 for I Pad and is an app I used religiously (not in the pejorative sense) before church planting but I have gotten away from since moving back to Bradenton. I confess I’ve hyper-focused on praying for this church plant to the exclusion of many other categories I used when living in West Va as an Ass. Pastor.

Whatever you use, make sure to record your prayer requests in a place accessible by you at some time in the future. You’ll be glad you did.

Why I think James Harrison gets it wrong

 

James Harrison, Steelers linebacker, made headlines recently when he reportedly gave back trophies which his kids didn’t “earn.” I have no idea what would have qualified them to “earn” a trophy for “Next Level Athletics-Student Athlete.” But apparently, Harrison’s “family values” for raising of his boys don’t allow for such compromising poppycock.

I know it is “wrong” these days to say anything is “wrong” unless it departs from secular mainstream values. But I do believe this is the wrong approach because the trophy is not the problem.

Does your child receiving a trophy make him work less to reach a goal? Does your child receiving a participation trophy make him “softer” or lazier?

Let me share an experience I feel is all to common with youth sports today. I coach 6-7 year old basketball but a kid I mentor played in the championship game on Saturday morning. During the game I overheard that a coach of an 8-9 year old cussed at a ref and got tossed the previous night. The 10-11 year old championship ended with bad clock running, a kid getting singled out, and some adults cussing at each other as they walked out.  Earlier in the season a coach/pastor told a team, “The other team simply got lucky.” Not exactly losing with class or grace.

Now I don’t know how much the other kids are practicing, but I do know my son and my neighbor (who lost the finals) work extremely hard. They do it to perform the best they can and to win the game. The trophy isn’t the problem.

The kids want to, or rather need to, win. Even more so the parents and coaches, including myself at times. But this isn’t a local problem. It’s like this on the baseball field, soccer fields, (I’ve never been to a lacrosse game-but I imagine it would be the same). They want to win, regardless of the trophy.

Is our problem that kids and adults don’t care enough? Really? Trophy or not, these kids cared plenty enough that Saturday, and some of their parents or grandparents cared way too much.

Returning trophies is just a legalistic quick fix way to get your kids to work hard.

Spend time talking with your kids about their heart idols. Spend time diagnosing your own heart idolatry-what you really look to for meaning, hope, life. While not a quick fix, but an instead an ongoing dynamic relationship where you point your kid to Jesus, it does make a difference. It already has with both my son and me.

Let us also learn how glorifying God through our sports can motivate us to never give up, but also to lose with dignity (unlike the Seahawks) or win by cheating (like the Patriots).

Ill never give back a trophy my kid didn’t “earn.” My competitive 7 year old doesn’t need his dad reminding him to work harder because he didn’t play his best game in the championship. That’s ludicrous.

Harrison is a complicated cat indeed. This is the same guy who didn’t go to the White House after winning the Super Bowl because Obama would have invited the Cardinals had they lost. Really? But I thought losers shouldn’t be rewarded?

Forget the trophy, and look at your heart. Then look at your kids’ hearts. Then see how much more amazing Jesus is than a victory in sports, or any other success you could achieve in life.

And by the way, if you think God’s grace makes you lazy, you obviously haven’t tasted it. Check out what it did for the Apostle Paul:

“10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them–yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”

He worked harder to spread the gospel, harder to repent, harder to believe the gospel himself because of grace. You can begin to grasp grace and still work to be the best athlete you can be. And then you arrive, you’ll be the most humble as well. Grace is what makes a man.

 

When Gideon said Giddy Up

This Sunday I preached on Gideon (Judges 7) for the 2nd time. I’ll wrap up the Gideon portion of the Judges series next week.

What really caught me by surprise during last weeks sermon prep was Gideon’s plan. Gideon was a man, like us, who had his fair share of idols. He chops down the family idols, but soon we see him worship at the altar of certainty. It wasn’t enough to see God and live. It wasn’t enough to be rescued from an angry mob hellbent on killing him after he chopped down the favorite family (and neighborhood Baal statue) without securing Pop’s permission or giving him the head’s up. He needed to lay out a fleece and see if it could be wet while the ground dry and vice versa. Just to be sure…..Certainty.

To the man who values certainty in decision making (and I don’t blame him, I do myself), God only reminds and reveals two more times in Judges 7 that yes, He will indeed deliver this people and he will do it through Gideon. But he doesn’t say how. I find that as fascinating as it is apropos. Why didn’t God give Gideon instructions? He gave Joshua specific instructions at Jericho. Wouldn’t you want specific instructions if you were supposed to go into battle when outnumbered 300-150,000? But for God, redemption is multi-faceted. NOT telling Gideon specific instructions was exactly what Gideon needed. Gideon, who knew God WOULD deliver Israel, yet didn’t know HOW he would deliver them, said “Giddy up” without his precious certainty.

I really do think God does the same thing with His people today. God’s ultimate deliverance from the punishment, the power, and one day the presence of sin comes through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (easier just to say “the cross” though isn’t it?) We know the end of the story. Jesus wins and we do too.

Yet often God conceals, like he did for Gideon, specific instructions. Take this job. Marry this person. Join this church. Serve your community in this way. When he does, we must not hold these decisions with the same level of conviction as His moral will. We know He wants us to get a job, to get married if that’s what you desire, to join a local church, to love your city and neighbors. This is his revealed moral will.

But which one? This is quite a different thing than choosing which job, which person to marry, which church to join, which community to serve. Like Gideon we have to make decisions even when things are unclear. We know enough to do that. So here’s a start. I do think we have a leg up on old Gideon.

We have community. When unclear on the “which,” seek counsel. You have plenty in your local church who can help you. For crying out loud, please talk to three people before you make big decisions. If you feel like you’ve reached certainty before seeking counsel, you certainly have reached certainty too early. God grants others wisdom. Don’t waste such a precious resource!

We have God’s Word. Read it. Follow along with your church’s bible reading plan. Or whatever helps get you in the Word. But don’t demand that God whisper into your ear as you’re reading the Gospel of Luke, “Marry this girl, break up, take this job, etc…” Or don’t force something onto the text or read your situation or agenda into it, when it simply isn’t there (eisegesis). “Since the man in this story was a centurion, God really must be leading me to be in the Army! There it is!” Bad idea. Let the Word point you to what Jesus has done for you, what He is doing through you, and what is yet to be done in you that you really want him to do. Think character and fruit, not simply, “What should I do with my business?” How can I honor Jesus in my business, singleness, loneliness, job I hate during this season? Trust him to shape your heart and desires as you pray “Thy Kingdom come, not my Kingdom come.” God’s Word enables us to begin thinking God’s thoughts after Him. How could your decision move you to better serve His Kingdom agenda, not yours?

We have Holy Spirit. Yep, God’s Spirit is at work IN us. Don’t expect him to play role of match-maker, investor, money-maker, but trust that he gives wisdom to us when we ask. Peace as well. Ask him to shape your motivations, open doors, close others.

We have God’s Providence. Sometimes people don’t want God to be in control. I guess so they can let Him off the hook when evil happens or because they could never imagine Him intervening into our sacred will. But if he’s not, then you’ll have a hard time with uncertainty. You’ll constantly be afraid, “What if I didn’t follow God’s will?” I think one reason Gideon was able to come up with the plan without God dictating it to him was because he knew that God was able to do whatever He wanted to do. Confidence comes when you know you can’t screw things up. Sorry, you just aren’t that powerful. Now don’t make stupid decisions like bringing a moped to a Harley Davidson rally and expect to not get hurt. But seriously, believe that God really is in control. And ask for help to believe, because its a hard one. I know.

At the end of the day, when you feel like you’ve used the gifts and resources before you, then you can have what a seminary professor of mine called “a cognitive rest.” And then you can say to yourself or others in your care, “Giddy up, let’s ride.”

A created Dad

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This past Father’s Day I received some sweet hand written or orally dictated notes from my two boys thanking me for being their Dad. The “cards” included random and goofy snippets which I didn’t expect. I chortled. I really did.

Though I’ll not forget their sentiment, I’ll surely forget their verbiage before long.

I also got another card from a neighbor and this is what he wrote (in case the picture above isn’t clear).

You are a great father and a great father figure to me. Mrs Amy is like an Aunt to me. Happy Father’s Day. When one has not a good father, one must create one.

Let’s call him Billy. He’s a rising 5th grader and often comes over at our house a good bit during the week to shoot baskets with Connar, play baseball in the backyard with both, or swim with the family. I should also mention that he wakes himself up and gets a ride to church with my wife on most Sundays. At least he has for the last few months. His dad doesn’t live in this country, and so he resides with his grandmother, aunt, mom, and female cousin. No dudes.

When visiting his grandma in the hospital several weeks ago, she told me what I had already feared, “You’re the only adult male in his life.” Wow.

I’ll never be able to be his biological, or even his adoptive dad. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t be a father/mentor in some very real, loving, and influential way. And by God’s grace I/we have. Not because I’ve not been perfect, because Connar, Cade, and I have all had to apologize numbers of times.

This child’s story is not all that uncommon. In my neighborhood alone, we have relationships with several kids like him. Forget the cowboys, where have all the good dads gone?

If you’re a good dad, I know you’re busy parenting your own children. But can I simply propose that you take a little time and look around you to see if there is a kid at your church, on your baseball team, in your neighborhood, who might benefit from a relationship with another adult male? So many boys (and girls for that matter) have none. Zilch.

Take them fishing with your kids, invite them to do stuff or eat with your family. Do a devotion with them and your kids. You don’t have to do anything new, or create a whole new schedule, just bring him/her along with your kids.

You’re not Jesus, and your job isn’t to save them. And it isn’t to replace their biological father. But we are called throughout the scriptures to love the fatherless. Kids, both boys and girls, really do need loving, trustworthy, adult males in their lives. For the record they need adult females too (like my wife, the “aunt”-who spends much more time than I do with Billy) but this is a Father’s Day related post. As Billy writes, “When one has not a good father, one must create one.”

Might you be a “created” dad?

Believe me, it’s not one sided at all. Billy plays with my kids, and I believe that he has blessed us in just as many ways as we we have blessed him. He’s like another one of our boys, and he sits with our family at church.

Should the Lord grant me many more Father’s Days’, I think this one will be one of the most special.

Maybe God will grant you more “children” in this way too.

Just start by looking.

Don’t throw away your Tullian books

Churches will always face spiritual attacks because our enemy doesn’t want us here. Sometimes they will be physical and violent, and come from outside the church. Sadly, we saw that last week. Others, will come from inside the church through unfaithful teaching or moral failure from those who were actually set apart to lead.

Last night I got “the news” about Tullian Tchvidjian’s resignation at Coral Ridge. An affair. It was just sad. Apparently both spouses had affairs. Brutal.

How can anyone trust pastors? My wife asked that questions to me last night. There certainly are bad pastors out there. Shepherds who have been called to lead the flock and have led with an iron fist or with not at all. There are Charlatans, quacks, and racists.

How did this affair eventually (few affairs happen overnight) occur? What could have been done differently? This is not that kind of blog post. I’m sure there will be many posts, some helpful, some harmful, just as when Mark Driscoll resigned (though his was not due to sexual infidelity).

Here are 6 takeaways:

1.) All “individual” sins have communal consequences and we can be mad. If there’s one thing that the scriptures, Tullian’s affair, and Breaking Bad, all teach us, it’s that selfishness destroys others. Sin never makes good on its promise to liberate. Never. And that should make us angry. As George Seinfeld said, “These pretzels, are making me thirsty!” I’m thirsty for mega-church pastors to not HAVE to step down. And don’t pull out the platitude: “Don’t judge.” This behavior sucks, and sucks life from those whom they love/loved and those who love/loved them. Don’t feel guilty if you feel anger and disappointment.

2.) Anger at the sins of others, MUST lead to anger at our own sins. We are people of extremes, saying “Well, that could be me, so…” or “That couldn’t ever be happen to me, so…..” Let us learn from the parable of the Prodigal Sons, where anger emanated but didn’t penetrate the older brother’s own self-righteous heart. We need to ask, how have I been living selfishly? How do I not love my wife and kids? How do I need Jesus to forgive me today? What am I trusting in instead of Jesus today? If we’re not equally as angry at such pastors (I’m contextualizing for myself, for you it may be someone different), as we are at our own sins and shortcomings, then we’ve completely deceived ourselves into thinking that WE are responsible for our growth in grace. We’re not.

3.) Sadness needs to move us to turn to our Savior. In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus forgives a woman of ill repute. The more aware of our sins we are, the more aware and appreciative we become of what Jesus has done for us. Jesus is our sole righteousness, our solid rock. Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling. Let us hope in Him, cling to Him, ask that he convict us, empower us to slowly become less selfish, and be confident that the plethora of issues we have this side of heaven are only temporary.

4.) Don’t say you’ll pray for someone if you won’t.  I’ve got a number of people to pray in my congregation to pray for. So I’m not going to lie and say, “I’ll be praying for Tullian.” I’d like to, and hope I will, but I honestly can’t pray for everyone. But I do know that he has people who can point him and his wife to gospel, and maybe to marital reconciliation. And plenty of people praying for him as well. I’m pulling for him.

5.) Consequences. Most vocations are not lost due to affairs or divorces or other public moral failures. Pastorates, however, are. And we know that. It is more than just our vocations that are at stake though, it is the glory of Christ’s body that is shamed. By the way, the same goes for sexual behavior of church members. Stakes are very high, and so consequences are too. So Tullian needs to resign, repent, and rest. His life will never be the same, and we should all understand that. But let us also remember that God’s grace is so great that we never experience the full consequences, or even most of the consequences our sins deserve. I fail as a father, husband, pastor. I need to be more patient, pray more, trust more, listen more. I’m thankful my wife loves me, my kids do, and as far as I know, my church does. God has graciously limited the consequences of my sin and stupidity since I became a husband, pastor, and father. I’m pretty sure he’s limited your consequences as well.

6.) Don’t burn his books. Should I throw away my Tullian books? I actually have several of them, and used his commentary to help me preach through Jonah. Of course not! Some pastors I will forever refuse to read, like Confederate Flag supporting Doug Wilson, because I think they are ungracious and possibly racist. Even if they have something to say, someone else has probably already said it. While Tullian and I may not have been close friends had we been in the same presbytery, I would rather read someone who preaches grace, has experienced forgiveness, and who recognizes his failures. Even though he didn’t believe as fully as he should have the gospel he preaches WHEN he began the affair (none of us do by the way and that’s why we sin!), the gospel he preaches is nevertheless true. That doesn’t change anything because the gospel changes everything, regardless of the failures of its many preachers-like me. It does change people. Often times change comes much slower than we hope. But in the end, resting in Christ’s performance for us is the only way to live, rejoice, honor Jesus, and eventually look more like Him.

 

A theology of summer: Don’t check out

The dog days of summer are upon us. Like Alice Cooper prophesied, “School’s out for summer.” But the church isn’t. So what does that mean for me as a pastor, Harbor Community Church in particular, or for the Christian in general?

I remember being chastised by a visitor at a previous church because we didn’t offer Sunday School during the summer. We chose to give the teachers a break, instead of fulfill this lad’s desire to have a class the one week all summer he was in Bradenton. A no-brainer.

I’ve learned not to despise the dog days of summer but instead come to embrace them. They can become quite beneficial. Here’s my theology, if you will, of summer. I don’t know if John Piper has already trademarked the “Don’t waste your summer” so I’ll just stick with “A theology of summer”

Summer offers us some rest

95% of church involvement comes from volunteers, not paid staff. People need rest. The summer time can be quite the time of refreshment for those actively leading ministries. It can be a time where those who lead and serve slow down and catch their breath. They have time to reflect. They may have more time to read, spend time with family, neighbors, friends. We have a weekly Sabbath to do that, but sometimes it helps to have an extended period as well. When we can’t rest from our labors, we have a faith problem: we are trusting in our hard work to save us and others, not the Lord. Sometimes it is good to rest from our church activity, even when that activity is good. And since we are a church only a year old, I’d rather do less now so we can be affective later.

Summer still offers us weekly worship opportunities

Some churches will end up dropping down to one service because attendance will dictate that. Last summer, fortunately, we actually gained some folks. Some on my oversight committee were concerned (as was I) that having 50-60 in May would lead to 25-30 in the summer. Thankfully we never dipped below 50 and, like I mentioned, we actually saw some crockpot growth. Who knows what this summer will bring, but I pray we have another like last year.

So it is not in reaction to my experience at Harbor (if you are Harbor folk remember that!), but more out of a recognition of what is common to us all, that I would like to extend some encouragements and challenges.

The opposite error of faithless summer busyness is faithless lethargy. Or maybe faithless recreational busyness is a better term. More often than not the greater pitfall for the American church, especially those in places where outdoor activities are so accessible, is “checking out” for the summer.

Preparing for a vacation one Sunday, and then on vacation, then getting ready for another vacation there, then recovering from vacation, then thinking about vacation, then doing something local you couldn’t do on vacation…Before you know it, you haven’t been to worship Jesus with your brothers and sisters in the faith in a month or two. But this is not good. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a 1000 times:

25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”-Hebrews 10:25

If you think I’m writing intentionally about you, or have you in mind, you’re wrong. You’re so vain,  you probably think this blog post is about you. Sorry, I had to. If you have jet lag, got in really late the night before, had insomnia, I get it! Rest up please, I’m sure you need it.

As I said earlier, we’ve never seen people “check out for summer.” But please know that this is the trend of American Christianity. And as a pastor, it’s a trend I’d rather not see catch on in more churches.

I don’t want guilt giving or guilt attendance. Neither does Jesus. Instead, let’s simply examine our hearts. We ought to consider that our tendency is either toward ministry overwork and refusing to rest, or recreational overwork and refusing to put ourselves in the place where we can experience the One who offers rest. In reality, most of us think that we can find better rest than Jesus offers. I know I do.

But the gospel reminds us that Jesus’ burdens are easy and his yolk is light (Matt 11:28-30). So for your sake, put yourselves in the path of grace and rest. Don’t come to worship out of guilt. Come to worship Someone greater and bigger and more glorious than you, your plans, your job, even your family.  Then take a nap, go fishing or to the beach, or watch a baseball game, or visit someone in the hospital, etc….

Summer offers new fellowship and discipleship opportunities

Just because your community group or bible study doesn’t meet on a bi-monthly or weekly basis (to give hosts a break) during the summer, don’t let that short-circuit your discipleship process. Some of the best means of grace, alongside prayer, word, and sacraments are God’s people. God’s people are clearly another pathway to experience His grace and rest. Just because the calendar may be more open, don’t become lazy. Instead use some of your new free time to develop new or deepen old relationships. If your community group normally meets on a Sunday night, and has been now been put on pause, why not invite someone into your home or go out to eat after church? If you would normally see a church member at a bible study, and that study has ended, why should you stop there? Go out for lunch or coffee. Discipleship and fellowship can continue. You have more time in the summer, so use some of that time to invest in relationships. Some in our church are planning a kayak gathering. Harbor will have one or two fellowship opportunities all summer which then frees members up to do things like that. Let these relationships spur you on to love and good deeds (Heb 10:24).

Rest up. Develop new relationships. Put yourself in worship whenever you can. Seek fellowship with other church members. Continue reading your bible and praying.

Why? Not because Jesus will love you less if you don’t, but so that we can “see” Him more. And He’s worth it.

Have a restful and faithful summer!