Considering the (IN)Convenience of Christmas Morning Worship

christmas-1877931_960_720

For the third time since I’ve been an ordained minister, Christmas has fallen on a Sunday. I can still remember the very first time it did, and the concomitant delightful dialog with the elders. According to them, it was a no-brainer. Business as usual. The 2nd time occurred while an Assistant Pastor in West Virginia, and the answer was an obvious to them as well.

Since this would be my first time as lead pastor, I figured I would actually pray, reflect, and get counsel on what to do with Harbor. After interacting with a number of folks, including the “its-a-no-brainer” type, those who tweaked their services, and those who didn’t have an opinion (or at least didn’t mind me asking the question), I came to the same conclusion as my previous lead pastors had. Well sort of.

In addition to our Christmas Eve service, Harbor will have our normally scheduled worship service at 10 am, but it will be an “away” game or a “road show.” You can choose the metaphor. We are going to meet at an Assisted Living Facility called Brookdale. Their chaplain is thrilled to have us lead, as are the residents.

So why have one in addition to a Christmas Eve service?

Well, Pastor Kevin DeYoung wrote a good blog post on the number of reasons not to cancel your normal worship service. So I won’t go through the same list. Let me just mention one reason that I kept coming back. And it’s the same reason why many oppose worshiping together as a church family that Sunday: “family time.”

While we were waiting for our kids to get out of school, a friend of mine asked me, “Why are you having a worship service then? Doesn’t your family need a break too?”

But let’s consider asking ourselves another more pertinent question, which probably sounds too crass to say out loud? Doesn’t Jesus want you to be at home with your family opening Christmas presents instead of worshiping Him on Christmas morning? Isn’t that what Christmas is about?

I’m not sure I can go there. He didn’t go there either. But there is something in my own heart that I’d like to explore along with you. Why was my immediate reaction when finding out Christmas would fall on a Sunday one of, “Well that’s a bit inconvenient?”

The conversation was quite civil and I simply pointed him to the fact that I love my family. I’m beyond blessed to have them. But I can very soon turn a good thing, into an ultimate thing, which if you read Tim Keller or listen to me preach, you know is a bad thing. And you can too. We all can. Jesus is very clear that if we don’t love him more than our families, we cannot be his disciples (Luke 14:26). I’m not sure that many Christians in suburbia think about that one too much. But honestly, if we don’t love Him and seek to follow Him-yes even before our families-then we really won’t be loving our families all that well. If we can’t ever say “no” to family, or friends, or anyone for that matter, then there’s probably an idol in there somewhere to which we’re bowing down. And we are actually loving their approval more than loving them and truly seeking their good. I’m certainly guilty of that one!

I didn’t go that deep, but that’s the gist of what I told him. But I also shared with him some practical stuff. There’s not much set up or break down at Brookdale, so my family won’t be tasked with that if no one else shows up (as they potentially would have at the YMCA).  My kids don’t sleep in either, and on Christmas Day, they really don’t sleep in! So after having breakfast, opening some presents, and before heading over to Pop and Gram’s house, we’ll meet with some of our church family and worship Jesus with some elderly folks who may not have any family to visit with them at all.

So my family really won’t be too inconvenienced. But isn’t Christmas about God inconveniencing Himself for us? And I really do think that I need worship every bit as much as my kids do.

On a day traditionally all about presents and family, would it hurt the kids to take a little break and share an hour with their church family and minister to many widowed and lonely on Jesus’ special day (I mean Sunday)? I know that for those who have kids, and multiple houses to visit, this may not even be a possibility. And it may just be too late to tweak plans. And if you choose not to worship with your church family, I want you to know I make no judgment of you.

I’m not insinuating that you have bowed to an idol. That is not what this blog post is about. I just wanted to explore the standard “It’s family” time response a bit more in depth because over time it can become the Christian trump card and possibly reveal an idol. I just ask that you consider the possibility that a Christmas which falls on a Sunday (even if it’s the next several years), while interrupting and inconveniencing our family plans, may be exactly what our family needs.

I know the tired and weary eyes at Brookdale would love to see some little Harbor kids spreading the Christmas cheer through smiles and songs which celebrate our Savior’s birth.

Regardless, of what you decide, just be prayerfully reflective and thoughtful.  I’m thankful for all those who will worship with us on Sat night or Sunday morning, or both. May all our hearts be filled with anticipation, longing, joy, and peace this Advent season. For it is a time when Jesus inconvenienced himself for us.

Advent at Harbor

screen-shot-2016-11-16-at-7-50-02-pm

We are quickly approaching my favorite season of the year: Advent. Advent is derived from a Latin word meaning “coming,” and takes place the Sunday after Thanksgiving and concludes on Christmas Eve (though some traditions extend it another Sunday or two). It is a time when we remember Jesus’ first coming with thanksgiving and joy, while we anticipate, long for, and prepare our hearts for His 2nd coming. What we’ve done at Harbor is structure our worship services to highlight the anticipatory and longing aspects toward the beginning of Advent, and then move toward the celebration/thanksgiving aspect towards the end.

How does Harbor  “celebrate” Advent?

During our Sunday worship services, we will include a variety of visuals such as increased greenery each Sunday as we get closer to Christmas Eve, some artwork, and the lighting of candles (and possibly folks dressed up as bible characters to read scripture if our worship arts team can swing it!). The lighting of candles has been a standard part of Advent celebration for hundreds of years, as it symbolically points us to Jesus, the true light of the world.

Between the Sundays, we are providing personal and family devotional material. For individuals, spouses together, or Moms/Dads with older youth, we have freely provided an Advent Devotional guide from The Good Book Company written by Tim Chester called The One True Story. This devotional is a helpful tool to track the story-line of the bible and how it all points to Jesus, the Hero, and Light of the World. I’m encouraging everyone to take one per family and to work your way through it this advent season. It won’t take but 5-10 minutes each day, and I know you’ll be glad you did. I honestly can’t wait! Please pick one up this Sunday at worship if you haven’t already.

Kristy our family director has also put together a little guide for families to go through with their children. It is something you can do once a week with your younger kiddos or youth age kids. It does’t take long! These are available at welcome table as well. And if you want something more than once a week, Kristy has also compiled a list of resources in this guide.

Why celebrate Advent as a church or in your home?

Advent Emphasizes Jesus in a season of distractions. Christmas time can so easily become about anything other than Jesus. Even good things. For kids, it is all about Santa. When they get older it is all about presents. Or for us it becomes all about family, Christmas parties, or seeing kids open presents. Or it can become all about giving and doing good deeds. These are all great things, and even commands! But if Jesus is not pre-eminent in our hearts, they can become quickly become Jesus substitutes, as opposed to gifts for which to be thankful and commands to be followed.

Advent brings hope to those crying and crying to those hoping in the wrong things.

We still long for what Jesus has yet to do. At least we should. We cannot become complacent. When we have much, we need to remember the hardship/burdens/suffering/persecution of others. We cry with them. Christmas time can be hard. Really hard. One of my professors in seminary, Steve Brown, said he never liked Christmas because he had an alcoholic father. For many who have lost loved ones, this time isn’t the same joy-filled holiday as it may be for you. Advent is a time longing, anticipating and hoping in Jesus return. It is a time where we can tell our Lord, “We want you back.” You know that is the cry of the Middle Eastern Christians, particularly those displaced by Isis. They live in tents waiting for their homeland to be restored. May we cry with them from afar.

Yet we cry out with hope. Jesus has indeed come. But it took him a really long time! How long were people in Egypt crying out for redemption? Over 400 years. How long did it take for Jesus to come after God’s people were exiled to Babylon? Nearly 600 years. But He did come once, started His Kingdom on Earth (God’s will being done on Earth as it is in heaven), and He will come back. We join Him in His work, and find comfort in how much He’s already done in us, His church, and His world. We have cause to pause and hope. Not in our politics, our families, our work, our homes, our business, our retirements, but in Jesus our true King.

May this season be one where you draw near to Jesus and find that He was the one drawing you near all along.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.“- John 1:5

Wow, you really are listening to my sermon!

When is it too early to ask a kid to “stay” for the sermon? I’ve served at churches which have had nothing for kids during the sermon. And I’ve served in places where they put an age limit (2nd graders stay in). I really wasn’t comfortable that age restriction, but I had to play by their policy.

On the flip side, I’ve also visited churches which give their middle school aged children a completely different service that is hip and cool.

One thing that I’ve learned is that when you reach families who have not been in a church setting before, it is a challenge for children of any age to sit through a 30 minute sermon.

At Harbor we provide our children up to 5th grade an opportunity to leave, even though our targeted age for the older children’s class is 2nd and 3rd grade.

The question parents most often ask themselves is, “Are they getting anything out of it?” I’m not sure that is necessarily THE right question to ask, but I do see it as a relevant question. And yes, I do think middle schoolers CAN get something out of it.

Last week I shared my struggle with depression with my neighbor, a youth who regularly attends Harbor. I explained that even after my wildest Pedro-esque dreams came true-the Bucs won the Super Bowl-I still went through some dark times. And not just me. Even Tom Brady felt a void after a pair of Super Bowl wins. And he responded, “Yeah, I remember you talking about him in your sermon.”

Wow. Even in the midst of regularly walking in and out at times of my sermon, something had stuck.

This Sunday all of the kids in the Christmas play had their practice during my sermon. But as I drove him home from the church picnic, he asked, “I missed your sermon; so what was it about?” So we talked about how a leader (elder/deacon) needs to be free from loving his possessions too much. Pretty cool and relevant stuff to him, as we connected possessions and their inability to really make us happy. And then he recounted what “Mrs. Amy” had told him about Christmas presents the previous year: the happiness derived from the gift itself never lasts very long. He was listening again!

I learned a few things yesterday

  • You never know how much kids, even middle schoolers, will remember from a sermon.
  • Much of teaching is informal and happens in the context of everyday relationships. Both are preaching, and personal interaction are necessary.
  • I need to do a better job and apply the messages directly to middle schoolers. They are listening. Amy I speaking TO them?

It was a good day.

 

What happened when I ran from a cop

muscle-car-1155884_1920

One of my prayers and hopes for Harbor Community Church folks, as we pursue diversity in our relationships, is that we would be a people quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. I ripped that off from the book of James, chapter 1, FYI. As a white person (although technically I am 1/32 Cherokee and my kids are 1/8 Pamunkey Indian) I really believe that we have the moral responsibility to listen more carefully to the African-American, or any other minority’s experience. But as Christians, we ought to be the first people who consider the cries of the minority instead of blowing them off as though there just couldn’t be a problem. I mean, we’ve had integrated schools in our county since 1969 for crying out loud! We’ve moved past that, now that Obama has served two terms as president of the United States.

Martin Fennelly, Tampa area sports reporter, recently shared former Buccaneer Coach Tony Dungy’s experience of targeted racism, simply for driving in the “wrong” neighborhood (even though he actually was in the “right” neighborhood). Unfortunately the link doesn’t work at this moment.

And unfortunately his experience was far from unique. I read of more and more Black folks having to tell their children, the need to take all kinds of safety precautions, even when innocent, should they find themselves pulled over. My Dad never told me such things. He never needed to.

So I want to share my quite different experience of being pulled over while a senior in high school. My blue Volvo 240 DL (the ultimate box on wheels) puttered along with a full compliment of passengers one Friday morning. We were normally pretty close to being late each day and I had made up my mind that I was going to beat that upcoming red light or go down swinging. I sorely underestimated the speed of my car and ran through quite a “stale” red light.

The red from the light soon blended into the flashing white and red on top of a police car. So I decided to make one the dumber decisions of my life. Let’s lose him! I tried to evade the cop, taking an immediate right turn, then left, then right, and so forth. Again I had misjudged either my driving skills or the speed of my car-probably a little of both-and those lights appeared right behind me in no time.

At this point, I was freaked out. Big time. I pulled over, and when I stopped the car, I proceeded to open the door. The officer yelled, “Stay in your car!” So I stayed, and up he walked towards an aghast and most likely unrecognizable version of myself.

“You wanted for anything?”

“Ummmm……no sir.”

Honestly I can’t remember what he said after that. I didn’t know if I was going to jail; I’m not sure what protocol is on that. I was definitely not in route to my high school, so there went that excuse of missing a turn or other semi acceptable justification.

And then he wrote me a ticket for running a red light. That was it.

It was one of those “that, just, happened” Ricky Bobby type moments. I continue to read and hear stories of ordinary traffic stops gone bad. And I wonder why I didn’t get into more trouble. I can’t prove that I didn’t have a worse experience because I was a white, upper-middle class private school senior. And it was a black cop. But, in light of what I read, listen to, and conversations I’ve had, would this “car chase” have ended differently if I were black? I do wonder.

Nothing can be proved by proposing a hypothetical. That’s not my point. But it’s not abnormal for a black person who has done no wrong, or simply “matches the description” to have an experience far different from mine, whereas I was guilty, and he or she, innocent.

I fear a nation more divided than ever, not just politically, but by race. Not simply those racist and those not, but even by those who would deny any form of racism (because they haven’t personally experienced it) and those who have legitimately been hurt by it. I fear that by refusal to acknowledge that systemic racism can coexist even with a black president, we might just be widening the gap instead of bridging the gap. And Christians have the privilege to act as agents of reconciliation.

Does listening really make a difference? Don’t you enjoy being heard when you experience something unfair? I know I do. I know I don’t like, “Well yeah but, statistically,” or “This person didn’t experience that, so it must not really be a problem.” That response does more damage than we realize.

By the way, I am thankful for law enforcement, recognize their job is one of the hardest, and assume most don’t operate in an unjust way. I just wanted to share how my story ended quite differently and encourage those of us civilians to have a listen-first mentality (not defend-first as is my normal immediate response).

May we listen, learn, and love. I do believe it eventually will make some sort of a difference.

 

 

 

 

Back to the Future II and the Narrative of Progress

bttf2-main

I felt it was time to take my kids through the Back to the Future movies 1-3, so we spent our family movie nights the last month going through these flicks. Of course, time travel necessitated many questions from my 8 and 6 year old boys so we did have to stop, explain, and discuss other issues raised during the films.

During the Back to the Future II, Marty and Doc head to the future in 2015. If you’re not familiar with it, the future looks completely different than our present 2016. Cars are flying, hover-boards are  actually hovering (not rolling like the “hover-boards” we have now), and pizza in a small ball can be zapped into a full pie in seconds.

Now I know that to appear as though one has traveled to the future, he or she must create a future which looks far different than the present: a world where a flying Deloreon blends in with other flying cars.

But I wonder the director at that time, expected a world so much different, so much better than the world we live in today. Or if he just wanted to depict a world much different, better than what he might have expected. A world we have progressed so far much. Was he too optimistic about progress?

I don’t know which is which. If you think about it, we did fly in the early 1900’s and then went to space in the 60’s. That’s quite a bit of progress in a short amount of time.

But I think more and more people would do well to at least consider Blaise Pascal’s greatness and wretchedness principle. He postulates that Christianity gives the most accurate depiction of humanity, based upon the extreme knowledge and public good man is capable of, and yet also the extreme depravity and evil of which he is capable. Great and wretched.

In humanity, we see amazing technology and medical advances, as well as catastrophic evil perpetrated by even the most “civilized.” In a world where social media is so pervasive (I was even able to connect with Cade Carney a Christian running back from Wake Forest on twitter), we struggle to have an honest conversation, much less a relationship, with people who differ from us and actually listen to each other. Wasn’t WWII good enough to extinguish this narrative of progress that we are simply getting better and better, and the world with us?

Whether or not you believe Pascal’s conclusions in regards to Jesus, I do think it wouldn’t hurt to consider that we haven’t progressed nearly as far as we’d have liked.

Why not? Both sides of the aisle would point fingers at each other. One side wants to return to greatness (although I believe we’d do well to consider racism not just in individual terms but in systems). Another side believes we are heading toward an even greater reality, but that we need to embrace secular humanism, and move beyond the shackles of religious dogma-even though it was first through religion that people agreed folks did have rights. Backwards thinkers….

If Obama just years ago opposed gay marriage, and yet now celebrates the Supreme Court decision to legislate it, what freedoms or oppression will we see in 30 years? Is that not a concern from those embracing this narrative of progress?  Will it be flying cars type change or the difference in cars from 1985 to now?

In a period of such divisiveness, maybe a little more critique and affirmation would do us all some good. In my opinion, Americans would do well to be more critical of their past instead of simply “making it great again.” In the same light, I think we’d do well to be more appreciate of it’s past, and not ignore the fact that the notion of human rights came to us from “religious” folks, and not Darwin. According to leaked emails from Clinton aides, what progress actually looks like to them, is eradicating any religious, or specifically Catholic thought from leaders.

Regardless of what happens in the next 30 years-whether the future is as different than Back to the Future II or looks more similar to where we are now-as a Christian, I’m not fearful that anything has taken God by surprise. His power and goodness have made sure that His promise to build His church stands sure. If I care more about His Kingdom, than my own, then I’ll be just fine. You will too.

 

 

 

“So when are you going to host a community group?”

img_4667

A woman in our church just bought a new house. As soon as my son caught word of this new purchase, his first question (and I’ve never met a child or adult who asks more questions than my 8 year old) was, “So when are you going to host a community group?”

How cool is that? He has associated home ownership with hosting a community group. It’s kind of like the GEICO commercials: “It’s what you do.” You have a home, so the question is not “if,” but “When, are you going to host?”

But unlike a GEICO motivation: “it’s what you do,” we see a different motivation from scripture: the gospel. When God calls Abram in Genesis 12, he very clearly claims that He will bless Abram. But what is often lost (particularly by those who know it’s there) is the purpose for that blessing. There’s a “so that” I often ignore practically, despite recognizing it’s presence and theological importance. Abraham, as he later became known, was blessed SO THAT he would be a blessing to others, and that all the families of the Earth would be blessed through Him. So Israel was designed to be a blessing for the nations. It failed, but Jesus did what Israel did not do, and now by faith in Him, that blessing comes to us.

Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify[c] the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

So blessing others is not just what we do, but it’s who we are, and why we do we what we do. Because of Jesus, Christians are a blessed people. But we are blessed for a purpose. The blessing of faith in Christ-along with any blessing that comes down from above- is not an ends but a means to an end: to bring praise to God and love/bless others. So if we consider our identity as a blessed people of God, then that becomes the lens through which we view our physical blessings such as houses, apartments, boats, cars, computers, or any kind of skill.

I’m not saying that everyone (who has room) has to host a community group. Some are more gifted in hospitality than others. And I’m not painting myself as a model of hospitality. We had neighbors over to play and swim this Sunday, and one stayed to watch football. But I didn’t want to share my pizza (I don’t mind sharing the pool), so my first reaction was to scold my younger son for inviting his friend to stay for dinner without first asking me. That was my first reaction, when my kid wanted to bless another. So I’ve got a ways to go!

But if your identity is truly in Christ, you’re going to begin to ask yourself (or ask others to help you discern), how may I use any blessing God has bestowed upon me for the blessing of others?  The cool part is that a blessing shared, brings joy in Christ, while a blessing hoarded often indicates that we’ve been seeking a vain idol and not Jesus.

 

 

A Presbyterian, Baptist, and Non-denominational pastor walk into a coffee shop…

coffee-1576537_1920

A few weeks ago I met an area pastor at a local coffee shop. No agenda, just getting to know each other, listen to each other, hear how the Lord is at work in our respective churches. I love these kinds of meetings! It was nice. No comparing sizes (we never talked about nickels and noses), or even impact in the community. By the way, pastors often struggle with comparison, although you probably already know that. And it can sound spiritual to compare the level of communal impact one church has versus another. But it’s most definitely just another form of self-justification. No different than with circumcision in the book of Galatians. But I, as is usual, digress.

We seemed to really be pulling for one another. Both of us hoped our churches would grow in depth as well as in width. While we come from different theological camps, we both still rest in, and try to apply the gospel message. We’re Christians first and foremost.

The next day I had a meeting at a not so local coffee shop you may have heard of called Starbucks. I just happened to run into a Reformed Baptist pastor. So for about 10 minutes or so, I got to hear about his new book, his plans for community groups, and heard about his upcoming preaching series. We talked about the Gospel Coalition conference, and lamented how far away Indianapolis is. We had both attended the previous one in Orlando. Why can’t everything be in sunny Florida?

Then I met with some friends from my church to talk about baptizing their toddler son (not something Baptists do), while he worked away on his sermon in the corner.

Do you see the progression? Evangelical——Reformed——-Presbyterian. As the levels of agreement decrease, so does how strongly we draw fellowship lines with one another. I met at pastor in the same location some years back who denied the necessity of the cross as payment for sins.  We lied and said that we’d both like to connect again. Confession. But with these lads, no lines needed to be drawn. We felt we were still on the same team and really pulled for each other.

I thought about the scene in one of my favorite movies The Apostle. The Pentecostal preacher/church planter played by Robert Duvall looks upon a Catholic or Episcopal priest (hard to tell from the clip) and sees him blessing a fleet of boats in transit to fishing grounds. He responds, “You do it your way, and I do it mine, but we get it done, don’t we?”

I give a progression in our membership class on the gradual levels of distinctives at Harbor and it mirrored my relationships those two days. Evangelical——Reformed——Presbyterian. I preach and minister from a Reformed, Gospel-Centered, and Presbyterian perspective, but one only needs to affirm the basics all Christians believe in order to join our work.

I’m thankful for how each of us ministers to and will reach a different slice of Bradenton. It is not about me, us, Harbor, them, but about His Kingdom. We’re just witnesses. I do forget that sometimes, but I’m thankful for these relationships to remind me. I’m glad we’re here together.

Ecumenical coffee.