An Awkward Introduction

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During worship at Harbor, we are plowing our way through the book of Acts in the series called “Footloosed: Gathering, Giving, Growing, Going.” The idea is that we are being set free SO THAT we may gather, give, grow, and go.

I never get to include all I want in sermons, primarily because of time, but also because I don’t look very closely at my I-Pad. In other cases, ideas are captured in Evernote, but not plugged in. One such thought came to me while attending Care Net Gala on Friday night that never made it to the “script.”

As I looked at Saul’s conversion in Acts 10, I was actually more astounded with his “conversion” or reconciliation to God’s family, than I was simply at his conversion to Jesus. I mean, can you imagine a community welcoming someone who had separated families and approved of behind-the-woodshed executions? How hard would hit have for Ananias to call him “Brother Saul?” I might have said, “Jesus loves you but everyone else thinks you’re an a##%$^&,” as I’ve seen on a bumper sticker.

Isn’t that nuts? I can’t imagine how much grace it would take to do that! Of course, we have had some picture of that even in America with the A.M.E. church in Charleston extending the offer of forgiveness to Dylan Roof.

But one thought I didn’t explore during the sermon was to consider the question: “How hard it would reconciliation be for Paul?” How awkward would it have been for the guy who caused so much grief to the church, to all the sudden find himself in it, laboring alongside it, intricately involved in it? Teaching about love and forgiveness? How apologetic must he be? At what point in life could he stop and just say, “I’m Paul?” without thinking, “Don’t believe all that you’ve heard about me…I’ve changed….?”

Sometimes a community can be gracious and welcoming, but if the individual/s don’t believe the gospel at a very deep level (my stains are washed away, but so is my stink/shame) then it will be very difficult. Should you ever find yourself on the outside looking in, remember how hard it must have been for Paul. But then remember how much the gospel can change both you AND them.

Shame has kept many a wary traveler on the outside when warm fellowship is offered inside. Remember, your shame is covered up as well as your sins (Romans 8:1). Knowing it is one thing, but believing it deeper each day is necessary for it to make any difference in your life.

I don’t do passive/aggressive blogs or preaching, meaning I have no person in mind writing this. These are just some reflections that I had intended to include in the sermon, but didn’t make the final cut! If nothing else, hopefully it will spur us on to compassion and grace.

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Top 6 “In the Key of H” books of 2016

It does seem like a number of folks have shared their top books of 2016. So, here is my list of top 6, in case you are looking for a recommendation for 2017.

Fiction:

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. As always, I’m late to the party. Most pastors I know had already read this gem. This book beautifully and amazingly accurately comprises one long fictional memoir of an elderly pastor hoping to pass on his story to very young son. I cried and cried during the book, because, well, I have a son (two of them if you’re keeping score at home), and am a pastor. Robinson weaves a story of grace, love, loss, having little, yet having much, redemption and reconciliation. You don’t have to be a pastor to enjoy this one. You just might cry more. This was hands down the most spiritually beneficial fictional reading I’ve ever come across. I can’t overstate how devotional this book became to me.

The Awakening of Miss Prim: I already did a review of this book here. I really enjoyed it.

Devotional:

Gospel Wakefulness by Jared Wilson. If you want a book which challenges you (and encourages!) you to look more deeply into the gospel message and see it for the treasure it surely is, this is it.

Sensing Jesus by Zach Eswine. This is one I had to read slowly. Really slowly. But well worth it. Eswine cautions leaders to slow down, examine who/what has been actually mentoring them. I hadn’t thought that we all have mentoring experiences and people in our lives who have truly mentored us (taught us how to think, respond, feel) in some way. Often that mentoring can be quite harmful and we need to slowly relearn knew habits and ways of dealing with people. I also benefited from hearing hard pastoring stories, as it prepares me for what might lay ahead. Unfortunately this one is no longer in print and a bit pricey. However, I’m happy to lend it to a local.

Nonfiction:

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larsen. I read two Larsen books this year, the other being The Devil in the White City, but this was by far more fascinating. Of course, if you know what happens with the Lusitania, it does end on a bit of a downer. However, Larsen does a great job weaving the individual story of the ships final voyage (strangely enough some Titanic survivors were among those traveling on this ship!) and what was happening with Woodrow Wilson and the events of WWI.

Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World by Joan Druett. This is the 2nd Druett book I’ve read as I’m a sucker for shipwreck/survival stories. Love them. There are actually two stories in one book. A remote, cold, and desolate, and uninhabitable island hosted two separate parties of shipwreck survivors literally on different sides of the island at roughly the same time. One party of 5 or 6 completely survived. The other, a larger party in the 20’s, only boasted a few survivors. Why? Leadership. One side had good leadership, vision, team chemistry. The other party did not, and most perished. A fascinating read in its own right, but a good one on leadership too.

Don’t waste your driveway

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Even before the Henderson’s moved to our wonderful neighborhood of Pine Lakes in Bradenton, there were already re-occuring neighborhood Christmas parties. How often did they occur? That I don’t know. But since we’ve been here, we’ve taken the initiative to make sure they occur every year: hosting our first year, and then rotating it. However, this year no one seemed thrilled to host it INSIDE his/her house. Including us. It’s hard to have a ton of folks in your house this time of year, particularly when you are talking about folks from all different ages, as well as crazy little ones. And many of us have pools.

So this year we decided to host one OUTSIDE, in our front yard. We actually do something similar once a year for a “neighborhood watch” in August. Yep August, when the mosquitoes and no-see-um’s either devour you or slip-N-slide down your sweaty extremities if they can’t latch on. It’s brutal. And yet folks come.

We decided to try a Christmas party in this type venue, only a few doors down, and with a fewer bugs, and lower temperatures. And it worked.

First of all, I moved the cars to the street corner so we could set up chairs in our driveway. Then we set up some buffet tables on the sidewalk. Some people did bring their own chairs-as requested in the flier-while others used our extras, or even sat on the driveway or yard. The kids played in the back yard before it got dark, and simply scampered around the front between food runs.

Most people brought a dish, and we had a decent variety of delicious desserts as well. An online meal sign up would have been helpful to coordinate, but it actually wasn’t necessary this time.

We started at 5 pm with just a few folks, but by 6 pm we had about 25 or so. And folks stayed until a little after 7 pm. Everyone thanked us for organizing this simple event. People are so busy these days, and often too busy just to stop and connect with people who live so close. Yet when there’s a party involved, it seems to transform that dynamic.

A few folks even came to our Christmas play the next day. And since we have neighbors who attend Harbor, and some others who acted and sang in the play, everyone seemed to feel right at home.

After the party I thought to myself how easy it would be to repeat this process again during the winter. It took no time to plan, prepare, or clean up. No need to have the house looking perfect on the inside or fear of little ones destroying the place.

If you have never thrown a neighborhood party or a neighborhood Christmas party, may I suggest this as an option if no one wants to host one inside? I’ve been inspired by John Piper’s Don’t waste your (life, suffering, etc..)______ expressions. But I think I beat him to this one:  “Don’t waste your driveway.”

 

Considering the (IN)Convenience of Christmas Morning Worship

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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

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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

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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.