Silent or Silence

One of the more exciting stories in the Old Testament is found in 1 Kings 18. It’s a story of a bold prophet standing against a vile king, a hateful queen and 450 false prophets. It occurs following a very long drought – no rain that dried up and crippled the nation. The prophet of God was the easy one to blame – “he did this to us.” So Elijah is prompted by God to seek out the evil King and the people – he’s going to confront those who wanted him dead. They weren’t just apathetic to Elijah, they hated him.

The king receives word that Elijah is coming and so he summons all the people. The King is ready for a public trial and execution. As the crowd grumbles, the prophet turns the tables on everyone, “how long will you waver, hobbling between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him! But if Baal is God, then follow him!” The people are mad at Elijah, and Elijah reminds them that their current situation is of their own doing – they’ve chosen another provider, a different sustainer and giver of life.

The next line grips me. After this statement of challenge, scripture shares these words “but the people were completely silent.” Elijah then jumps into action and issues a real-life throw down to the people and the prophets of Baal. Make an altar, offer a sacrifice, and which ever God is real will consume the sacrifice. All agree, and for hours the prophets of Baal dance and cut themselves and make all kinds of noise with no return – no action on Baal’s part.

Elijah mocks the prophets lack of success and quiets the crowd. He sets up the altar, he prepares the sacrifice and then just to be very clear, he drenches every bit with gallons and gallons of water. Then Elijah simply prays “you are God, would you prove it to these people – let them see your power that they may see you and once again know you.” Simple words of longing – not to win, but to bring the people to repentance and to restoration.

And…then…the fire…fell. 

The sacrifice, the altar, even the dirt were consumed. The people responded and their hearts were turned back to the LORD. God won and the people hadn’t sought God, they just responded to seeing God’s glory. The prophets were dealt with. Ahab retreated and his wife threw a hissy-fit and Elijah…he went into hiding (but that’s another story).

As I re-read this story this morning, I was struck by that small line at the end of verse 21 – “but the people were completely silent.” I’m a big believer in taking time each day to be silent. In a world full of noise, we all need silence. Sadly, so many times the noise is hard to turn off – both externally and internally. It’s one thing to turn off the radio or even get away from AC/Heater fans or other noises – it’s another thing all together to let the demands and voices that are rattling inside our minds and hearts fade away.

Some of us reject silence because we’re so accustomed to noise that silence is unnerving. Some of us can’t handle the silence because there, in the quiet, we have to face things we would rather ignore. And yet, our souls need silence…we need quiet…we need a pause.

But silence can also be a very damning thing for the child of God. The hebrews gathered to confront the man who had brought such calamity on Israel. But Elijah came to confront the people with their wayward devotion -their divided hearts – their choosing of another to be their God. And the people were silent.

The phrase makes me shutter. How often do I let noises and distractions and even the longing to serve God become an idol – another deity that I choose to set up in front of the One who wants me to be found in His love and grace? Sadly, I know my answer. I don’t want to be silent in this way. I don’t want to rely on some big event to draw me to the arms of love. I want to be so aware of His glory that I walk around as that drenched sacrifice given consumed by the fire of his Holiness and grace.

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Spending time…

When I was a teenager, my youth pastors were insistent that to be a leader in our youth group I had to be spending time growing my faith. Pretty much on a yearly basis, they would pull out the “TAWG” talk. Don’t know what the “TAWG” is? It’s an acronym for Time Alone With God. Honestly, I hated the talk. I hated it because TAWG Time sounds goofy (still does) but even more because I knew, even as 13 year old, that spending time with God was important for not just my soul but for my everything. I think another reason TAWG bothered me was because it sounds so simple – take time every day and be with God. My problem was that it was never as simple as it sounded. I struggled to make the time and then I struggled to feel like the time meant anything – like I was going through motions. I knew it mattered because even on my worst days, I could feel the lingering effects of connection with God (even when I didn’t feel the connection during my TAWG time). I can remember searching for devotional books or trying my hand at journaling or stepping out into the “read the bible in a year plan” only to be frustrated when the devo was dry, or my writing seemed blocked, or when I got to Leviticus. 

Now that I’m nearing 40, I still often have to force myself into times of TAWG. I can find the excuses – usually it’s the warmth of my bed on a cold morning – and I still struggle with devotionals or reading plans from my Bible App. But I also understand how much more important this time is – how needed it is – how much I actually crave it when I do oversleep. I don’t hear the audible voice as I sit and read and think and pray. I don’t have warm fuzzy feelings every morning. But I do know that the day has really begun once I drink that last sip of coffee and say amen. 

I’ve learned something since those yearly “TAWG” talks. My youth pastors probably even said this, but I was hung up on the duties and the tools more than the point. Spending time with God isn’t solely about what I do – it’s about who I do it with. I can read scripture and it can be like plodding through a muddy field. I can listen to worship music in my car and have all kinds of good vibes, but I can also do that with artists like Queen and Norah Jones. I can use the “Lord’s Prayer” or the ACTS model as a guide to prayer and say nothing more than words. But TAWG is more than doing some things – it’s about being with my Abba.

Henri Nouwen has said that the most important message we need to re-learn as a creation is that we are the “beloved children of God.” This God is not distant and unengaged. This God instead has chosen to enter into our story and make sure we can actually know him. I know the male-pronoun bugs a lot of people, but that’s getting hung up on small things. God has revealed himself as ABBA – as daddy. That’s not about male or female – it’s about intimacy and closeness. God wants you and I, his sons and daughters, to be with Him. 

Any parent knows that when a child calls out daddy or mommy, things are different. There is something about that closeness – that raw depth that just melts away all the other junk. “Hey DAD” sounds a whole lot different than “hey daddy.” This is what I’m learning my TAWG needs to be – it’s an opportunity to say “hey daddy – good morning, I’m so glad your my abba.” I don’t need another devotional book (I have plenty). I don’t need another reading plan (even though I use them every day). What I need is to remember that the God of the universe – the God of the seas and storms – the God of the ups and downs – the God who has blessed us with the gift of coffee – has set apart this time to be with me. It is my time with my daddy – the one who loves me beyond words. It is a time for more than something I could do – as if one more book could seal the deal – and instead a time to be. 
PS – one of the most recent distractions from being with my daddy has been the political insanity in the US right now. The noise is deafening. Calls for justice and mercy are as much a part of my heart as the blood that pumps through my veins. I abhor the thought of people seeking asylum and help being left out due to our fear. But I equally hate the rhetoric of both sides that is being used by good people. As I cringed at my social media feed this morning, I felt the nudge of the holy – “hey Jim, instead of being mad or irritated, how about pray for those involved? How about pray for the President – I mean really pray that his heart would be soft? How about turn off the noise and pray?” I think it’s time for some TAWG or maybe better yet Time With My Abba.

Who are you?

Things on my social media feed –
1. The golden globes – awards for people who make movies

2. National Championship Game involving Alabama and Clemson

3. Presidential transition 

These are currently the 3 primary mentions on my social media feed. Normally, I wouldn’t really give much attention too any of them. But for some reason, today I read them and as I did I noticed in all the stories a recurring theme. 

The first mention was the Golden Globes. Statues were given in recognition of work in film and it was a star-studded affair. At one point on the famous red carpet, NBC correspondent Jenna Bush was interviewing the artist Pharrell about a movie he was actively involved in. During the interview, she misspoke and mixed up titles with another movie. I’ve seen the video, Pharrell stumbled in response and the interview went on – it was a little awkward, but obviously it was a misstep by Bush. But apparently enough people spoke up about because the next morning, Bush had to offer a public apology for her misstep. People said she had disrespected the actors and those who worked on one film. She was accused of “hurting people” by her words. I watched a clip of her, fighting tears, to apologize for messing up. 

The second topic was the College National Championship game between Clemson and Alabama. As an SEC fan, I am committed to despise every other team in my conference (though I will always root for them during bowl games). After living in Alabama for nearly 2 years, I have first hand knowledge of that team and their fans. I don’t know much about Clemson, other than their team wears Orange and Blue and their coach has a funny name. In the days prior, I heard both coaches called geniuses and arrogant morons. I heard football players called heroes and over-privileged goons. I heard that these same players are given all kinds of luxuries and that they also need to be paid because they are being “taken advantage of.” 

Finally, a cross over between the Golden Globes and our President-elect. At the Globes speeches were given. Actors/Actresses gave thanks to parents, spouses, kids, co-workers, and God as they received their little golden statue. One actress, the incomparable, Meryl Streep, received a lifetime achievement award. In her speech, she spoke out for the disabled – a worthy cause indeed – but she did so in a way to embarrass the new president-elect. There were a few on my Social Feed who immediately defended the president from those “wacko” Hollywood clowns. While others, on my same feed, joined in the chorus of bemoaning the president-elect, calling him an “idiot” and other less-than-respectful terms. 

What does all this have in common? Well, to put it mildly, disrespect. When I was little, I was taught by my mom, dad, grandparents, uncles and aunts, teachers, pastors, practically everyone, to show respect. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nuthin at all” as the little bunny from Bambi would say. It seems that as I’ve gotten older, we are teaching a very different lesson. Rather than looking for positive things to say, it is expected that we not only looking for negative , but we actively seek it out. It is en vogue to promote the failures of others and it is expected that we smear someone’s face in that failure and that we rejoice in their just desserts. It is the expectation and it is the rule. 

I have voted in 7 Presidential Elections (might have been 6 – it’s early as I type this) and my candidates haven’t always been elected. I’ve voted for local leaders, state leaders, senators and congressmen but I haven’t always had “my candidate” win. But guess what, they were still my Leader, Senator, Congressman or President. I could strongly disagree with their policies or some of the things they said, but it was my understanding that they were still a leader that I was to respect (even when they did disrespectful things). 

“But Jim, we need to speak out against abuses so that we don’t allow this country to become taken over by a Hitler/Stalin/Mussolini.” “We need to hold people accountable and make sure things are right.” Problem is, we can’t agree on right. And I totally agree about speaking out against injustice – it seems very little angers God more than injustice and the abuse of the vulnerable. But having a voice and tearing another down can’t be the way, can it? Bemoaning a TV correspondent because she got caught up and said the wrong name isn’t about accountability. It’s about making ourselves feel good because someone screwed up. Calling young men who play football self-entitled brutes, isn’t going to change my day, is it? Criticizing a leader with words instead of actually doing something about the actual behavior is nothing more than joining in on a “I’m louder than you” shout-fest. 

And all of this negativity is not what a Christian is to be known for. We are to be known for what, or better yet, who we follow. We are to be known as a people of divine and incredible Love – a love that comes from the one who gave himself up for us. We are to be known as a people who pray for our enemies – who bless those who persecute us – who praise and encourage those who are downtrodden. We are to stand against injustice, but not just with words on a facebook post – we are to stand with actions, love in action. We aren’t supposed to look like the rest of the fallen world – we are to look like JESUS, and I think we’ll be hard pressed to find a Jesus who acts so self-entitled and self-congratulatory. 

And when it comes to our leaders, we are called to pray for them – whether we agree or not. Is he your president? Yes. Remember, Paul never said that Caesar wasn’t the emperor of the Roman world – he even appealed to Caesar. Paul said pray for Caesar – the same man who would later cut off Paul’s head. When we see those with various disabilities belittled, we should stand and say “nope.” But more than just saying “nope” we should be giving the example of acceptance and love. 

Christian, in the words of Peter, you are a different people, a royal priesthood and a peculiar people. We are not to be associated with the negative talk, the banter, the nastiness that is so prevalent in our world. We are to be different. The very simple question is: Are you, am I? Are we bearing fruit that is in kind with the branch we have been grafted into? Or are we just part of the crowd?

Formation for 2017

““It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
I’m beginning a new journey in 2017. Part of it comes after a “request” and conversation by a colleague of mine to think through Spiritual Formation and the Disciplines as a plan for our communities. It is something I have long been interested in but it something I feel unbelievably unqualified to do. It is one thing to have an interest, and even dabble in spiritual practices of this sort. It is another thing all together to devote a year to them – to not just study them but to embrace them and let them marinate within my daily steps. 

James Bryan Smith is an author whose books I treasure. In one resource, he invites his fellow adventurer to begin a year of formation by asking 2 questions related to the four functions or main ways that Jesus is known in the life of his followers. His questions are “in our relationship with Jesus, which of these four have we experienced and understand the best” and “which of these do you need/want to grow in during the coming year?” Here are the 4 areas:

Jesus as Lord: he lives at the center of my life

Jesus as Friend: he understands and comforts me

Jesus as Savior: he forgives my sins and sets me free

Jesus as Teacher: he teaches me wisdom and guides me into truth

As I begin this journey, I realize that in the last several years I have spent a lot of time with the Teacher and Friend roles. These are comfortable – places where it has been an easy focus. It doesn’t mean that I’ve reached the summit, but they are areas that I have definitely spent more time within. Jesus as my Lord is also an area that I believe has been an intellectual focus for me. Certainly, I’ve wanted this to be a part of my heart growth, but I also know that it is an area that I still struggle with. I still fight the “gods of this age” that vie for my attention, time, finances, and energies. 

But, there is one of the four are that I currently think needs to be my focus. It is an area that I’ve studied a lot of but that I’ve also allowed to rest on the shelf of my life. The area of Jesus as my savior is one that should be simple. It’s the focus of much of Christian music and worship. It’s a major highlight of a good portion of the Christian year. But it’s also something that, due to what I feel is an over saturated focus, has been something I’ve distanced myself from. Please hear me, I’m not saying that I’ve forgotten or stepped away from this life-altering element of my life, of our faith, etc. But it has been much easier to focus on Jesus as friend, teacher and even Lord than all the heaviness of Jesus as my Savior. 

Author Brennan Manning says that to missplace the reality or intensity of the “paschal of Christ” is to miss out on what it means to be His follower. Ouch. I certainly haven’t intended this – it’s really been a move against the morbidity that many followers love to focus on regarding the Christ. But, in that pursuit of the Life of Christ, is it possible that I have misplaced the death and passion of Christ? Well, that is the question that I begin my 2017. 

What about you dear friend? Maybe you and Jesus as Savior are “just fine, thank you very much.” But what about Friend – do you know that he wants to be a friend that sticks closer than a brother? What about your teacher – have you allowed yourself to fully allow the author of life to have time teaching and inviting your to deepen in your knowledge of Him and His world? Or what about Jesus as Lord – is he the real center of your life? Which of these areas are you most comfortable with and which do you feel are areas to grow in during 2017? I certainly believe that all 4 will make an appearance but which one would you need to spend some time meditating with? Which one would draw you out as you begin the year? 

A Plea

How are you feeling today?
Tired? 

Worn out?

Elated?

Overwhelmed?

Scared?

Relieved?

Joyful?

Sad?

Maybe it’s all of those feelings…all at once. 
This isn’t a political post. Over the course of this election cycle I have refused to enter into the debate or the fray. I have listened and watched the pundits. I have heard the rhetoric on both sides. I have tried to remain positive in the midst of overwhelming negativity. 

So, what does today bring?

There is a lot of uncertainty about the days that are before us. There are more questions – maybe more than ever before. There are a ton of options of how we can respond – regardless of how we voted yesterday. We can gloat. We can bury our heads in despair. We can sit in a corner and fret away the day. We can type words and emote all over social media. We can do a lot, but if we are to move forward we need more.

It may be an understatement to say we are a divided people. It also seems pretty clear that there is a lot of pain. And I’m not even sure we know where that pain comes from or what that pain is about. It’s like we have a wound that has appeared and we have all kinds of ideas of where it came from, but that wound just can’t heal.

This pain affects us all, and I don’t just mean in terms of policy. Our pain is felt by men and women, young and old, white, black and other. I have 2 middle schoolers who are dealing with emotions and concerns that I didn’t have to entertain until I was in graduate school. I have millennial friends who are worried about the future, and boomers who are worried about their legacy. 

In light of all this, I would like to make a plea. My plea is simple – Be Better. If you are scared today, don’t let it swallow you. If you feel vindicated by election results, choose to be a voice of compassion. If you are angry, choose to find joy in something else. If you must endure voices around you that are calling for a move to Canada, or are filled with malice – endure and be a light and an a glimmer of something better. If you look at the other side and see ignorance, choose instead to be a voice of unity. If your candidate won or lost, let today be an opportunity to reach out and befriend someone you disagree with.

If we can agree that division is all around us, do something today that will develop understanding and conversation. If we feel that we are segregated, find someone different and say hello – be an encourager. Be Better and be what we all want – and refuse to be sucked into being what none of us wants. 

Elections, leadership decisions and plans will all happen – but they don’t have to manipulate or control the way in which we live, respond, and interact with one another. Rise above – be better – be the voice you want to see. 

We have much to be “grumpy” for…

About 6 months ago, I decided to do some research on the idea of Sabbath. At the time, I felt that to much of life was blurring past and I was missing out on a much needed pause. I read a lot of classics about the practice of Sabbath and I googled and pinterest-ed myself into content overload. I sat down with two of my colleagues and we decided to talk about the needs and the rythmns of this sabbath idea. At the time, we didn’t know we would be working together, but today I call these 2 men colleagues and I meet with them each week. During the conversation one of them shared that during a recent season of life he chose to off-line for the weekend. He disconnects himself from social media completely. He said at first it was annoying, but over time he felt so liberated that he just kept the notifications from Facebook and Twitter turned off – eventually he removed the apps from his phone completely. 

I remember listening to him share and thinking “he’s nuts.” I wish my reaction was more spiritual but really I couldn’t help but think he was being extreme. What kind of nut turns off their lifeline to connection with so many people?!? So, I did what I normally do when I’m around extreme folks, I smiled and decided to ignore him. But his comment wouldn’t go away – it just kept hanging around and nagging at me. Then I started to wonder, what if I tried it during my days off? What if I just turned it off when I was with my family on our Friday-Saturday times together? First I noticed how quickly I went to push a button when I was bored – it was like an automatic reaction to check something on facebook. Then I started to watch those around me and realized how right my friend is. 

I’m a people watcher. I love working from Starbucks or walking in places just so that I can watch folks. I’m not watching like a creeper or anything. I just really enjoy seeing people engage their world and how oblivious we are to our surroundings. As I began looking up instead of looking at a glowing screen, I noticed that most folks were as addicted to their screens as I was. We weren’t having conversations or connecting to one another or to the beauty around us, we were to busy thumbing messages or liking puppy pictures. I remember sitting in a room full of family and friends and most everyone was looking at a screen. And my reaction was to want to grab my phone and see what I was missing. 

Now, this could come off as pretty judgy but I don’t mean that at all. That’s too easy and quite frankly we have too much of that in our world. In fact that’s one of the reasons for my post today. Most of the stuff I find on my social media feeds is pretty judgy right now. The political environment just lends itself to it. I have friends on all sides of the issues. It is normal to read one update that supports Candidate A and another who sees Candidate A as the anti-christ (and don’t even get me started on candidate b). It seems that negative is the flavor of the day – it’s everywhere, and when I have my head in my screen that negativity seeps into my soul and just is a killer!

A couple weeks ago I heard a sermon by Bishop Swanson, a Bishop in my United Methodist Church. The UMC is in the middle of the divide – truth be told, we have lived in the middle since the very beginning. Bishop Swanson was speaking passionately about craving a fresh move of God in our midst. At one point, he paused looked at the congregation and said something like “if you want to see more of God’s goodness, start thanking him for the goodness that’s around you.” He continued, “when we are a thankful people, we will find more things to be thankful for.” He wasn’t preaching some “feel good” message. He was challenging us – he was pushing us to be more than grumps but be alive.

His statement had my head spinning. I already have a ton on the daily plate – stuff that can feel overwhelming just by itself – and then I add all the stuff from my social feeds. Good grief! I start letting all that negativity creep in and the next thing I know I’m grumping to everyone I encounter. I’m convinced that this is not pleasing to God in any way. We weren’t created to be negative and grumpy. We were created for way more – we were created to reflect the goodness of a God who wants the restoration of the world! We walk in His world – a world filled with vibrancy and energy and raw beauty. Those of us who call our selves christians are the ones who have received “good news” – does it show? Can the world see it? Or are we as buried in our screens as the world around us?

For this reason, I’m taking up my “extreme” colleagues idea. I’m not bailing on Facebook and Twitter (there’s a lot of good on those tools), but I am going to try and be more aware and more awake to the world around me. I am going to try and take Bishop Swanson’s word to heart – I want to be more thankful so that I will have more things to be thankful for. And instead of disappearing from the darkness or ignoring the HUGE looming questions of our world, I’m going to do something even more extreme than stepping away from facebook. I’m going to pray as if my prayers really mattered. Instead of vilifying either candidate, instead of worrying about plans that aren’t going as I wanted, instead of drowning in a sea of my own grumpiness, I’m going to choose a thankful heart. Instead of complaining, I’m going to sing songs and take pauses and breathe in the beauty God has given me. I have much to be grumpy for, but I have even more to be thankful for!

Spoiled by my GPS and AppleMaps

OpenMapsWhen I was a kid my family would load up the van every couple of summers and head off to upstate New York to visit my grandmother’s family. It was a 3 day drive up and a 3 day drive back. Sometimes our trips would include added stops – sometimes planned and sometimes not planned. One Summer we ended up in Gettysburg PA for 2 days, another summer we found our way to DC for some site seeing, and another trip took us to Niagara Falls (that’s a lot of water).

What I remember most about our trips was the anticipation. As a dad, I cringe when I hear my boys say “are we there yet?” I cringe because I know I pestered the fire out of my parents as we drove. I remember vividly a specific moment when I was about 10 years old – a response to the question. Mom looked at me from the rearview mirror, sighed deep and then threw something in the back seat. It was a “trip-tick” from AAA. I remembered watching the AAA employee pull sheets and maps and load them into a spiral bound map that we would use – but now, mom was handing me the role of navigator. I thought I was hot stuff – I was going to be able to tell mom where to go. She was just trying to get me to see that it takes time to go places.

Today, we don’t use AAA trip-ticks. Instead we have GPS maps on our phones. We have WAZE that tells us when there are police in the area (obviously so we will drive safe, not just slow down). I use AppleMaps on my phone almost every day. Partly because I’m still getting to know side roads in Lexington. In truth, the real reason I use maps, even for trips I could make blindfolded, is because I want to know how much time it’s going to take to get me from point A to point B. I’m still the kid whining and asking “how much longer” or “are we there yet”.

I was once told that the Bible is our roadmap for life – that if we read it, then we’ll know what to do and where God is calling us. I guess, as a Pastor, I have to say that I agree. But can I be honest? Sometimes I feel more lost after I read a passage of scripture than I was before I opened up the Word and gave it a shot. For sure, Scripture includes all kinds of answers and a lot of very practical advice – but sometimes the answers aren’t quite as clear as I’d like. Sometime the answers I’m seeking almost seem to contradict another passage. Sometimes, more often than I’d like to admit, the answers I find in scripture are hard – things I wish were different, or I could just ignore. Some times I get answers I like, sometimes I don’t. And some of the answers point in a direction, but still doesn’t give me a clear way to get there.

Of course, we have to ask the question, Are the scriptures a GPS or Roadmap that we need to take to get us from point a to point b? I’m not so sure.  A GPS is designed with a specific end goal – namely direct you to a destination on a map. Scripture is designed to move us in a direction, but not in the same way. Scripture isn’t a program that will tell us what to do, instead Scripture is God’s revealing. It’s God’s story that intends to get us not to a destination, but to a person. For within the pages we read the stories of others who have been searching for their way. We learn from the mistakes and missteps of others, and we find ourselves in their detours, direct routes, and pitstops. And in those steps, we meet not just crazy characters, but we meet God’s character.

I believe Scripture does contain what I need to help me manage and maneuver my life. I find within the pages of Holy writ moments of dependence, nurture, danger, deep sadness, joy and hilarious moments that prove God has a sense of humor. But if I treat this book solely as an set of instructions, like I’m putting together some ikea furniture, then no wonder I’m frustrated and often find myself lost (insert Ikea instruction joke here). Instead, I have to begin with the idea that as I read God is inviting me on a journey – a journey to know him. It’s not just about some final destination, it’s bout the process of growing from whiny kid to realizing that the trip is going to take a while.

This is my encouragement today – I know God has a destination. I know that God sees me as the complete and whole Child that he has rescued and offered a future. I know that’s how he sees me, and I also know that I’m not there yet. And I guess, if God is okay with me still asking, still finding myself on roads that are less than desirable, still watching me take pit stops that weren’t necessary, and that
he’s still with me, then that makes my irritation of not being there yet a little more bearable. The Father has us in his hands – and for now, that’s all the direction I need.

 

grace and peace

To One of My Spiritual Heroes

This week we lost a giant. My mom and dad were church shopping when we first met Larry and Pat Freeman. I was just a little, insecure, whiny, first-grader but within seconds, I had a feeling that these two people were special. While my parents were asking grown up questions, this man stooped down, held my hands, and made sure I knew that I was welcomed in his church. From that moment on, I was convinced that Pastor Larry was a superhero.

My family joined Pinellas Park Wesleyan shortly after our first visit. It was where I would meet Jesus, where I would begin to understand grace and love, and where I would be introduced to the beautiful story of Scripture. A lot of people have good home-church stories – I have a great one. Most of my earliest memories involve my church and my Pastors. I still remember listening to Pastor Larry’s sermons for the key words that would then be inserted into the outline of the bulletin (it was a brilliant way to have 4th graders pay attention during church.)

Some memories aren’t just in the church, but were about being church. I remember riding with Pastor Larry in his giant Town Car. To say Pastor Larry had a lead foot is an understatement and slipping from side to side in the back seats while taking a corner became an extreme sport (I learned to pray in that car). I also remember having the church staff fill our backyard during Memorial Day and 4th of July picnics. Pastor Larry and Pastor Pat (and their family) were more than just those mythical figures who lead our church – they were my family.

This week, Pastor Larry went home to be with Jesus. As it became clear that his days on this planet were coming to end, memories and emotions began to flood my mind and heart. When the news came across my social media feed that he had gone home, I felt such a tremendous sense of gratitude. It took almost 2 minutes for me to realize that I am the pastor I am today, in large part, due to the influence of this incredible man and Ms. Pat. While it had been years since they were “my pastors,” and I have had many other influences feed me and encourage me, it was Pastor Larry who was one of the first individuals who saw and encouraged God’s call on my life. He encouraged me not always with direct words, but with availability and that smile that always let me know that the world could be okay.

After I heard of Pastor Larry’s passing from this life to the life everlasting, I read a passage from 2 Timothy. I almost felt like it was a word of encouragement from my pastor to me – I share it now from Eugene Peterson’s Message Translation:

1-2 I can’t impress this on you too strongly. God is looking over your shoulder. Christ himself is the Judge, with the final say on everyone, living and dead. He is about to break into the open with his rule, so proclaim the Message with intensity; keep on your watch. Challenge, warn, and urge your people. Don’t ever quit. Just keep it simple.

3-5 You’re going to find that there will be times when people will have no stomach for solid teaching, but will fill up on spiritual junk food—catchy opinions that tickle their fancy. They’ll turn their backs on truth and chase mirages. But you—keep your eye on what you’re doing; accept the hard times along with the good; keep the Message alive; do a thorough job as God’s servant.

6-8 You take over. I’m about to die, my life an offering on God’s altar. This is the only race worth running. I’ve run hard right to the finish, believed all the way. All that’s left now is the shouting—God’s applause! Depend on it, he’s an honest judge. He’ll do right not only by me, but by everyone eager for his coming.

Pastor Larry had a strong desire to make sure the beautiful message of God’s grace could be clearly shared with anyone at anytime. He was an encourager. He was a visionary. He had passion that was captivating. He had a love for Jesus that was something people wanted to copy. And like Paul speaking to Timothy, I know Pastor Larry would say to me, and to the hundreds of other “children of faith” that he spoke to and mentored, “Run Hard – fight and believe all the way – don’t give up – and don’t worry about me, the shouting has started and the celebration is non-stop.”

It is my prayer that as I remember my pastor that I will once more hear the charge – that I’ll know that he’s joined the great cloud and that he’s looking over my shoulder and is still cheering me on. Thanks Pastor Larry. I love you and I’m beyond thankful for how you shared Jesus with me.

“and if that doesn’t light your fire, you’re wood just might be wet.”

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Today is unlike any other day…

It’s been a while since I’ve shared a post (something I’m hoping to remedy), and there are plenty of reasons for that – none of which are exciting stories. But as I prepare to begin a new season of life and ministry, I’m finding a pull back to writing and sharing. Most often my writing here is cathartic and helps me more than anyone who reads. Today I find myself in need of some of that catharsis.

There is much to be troubled about in our world. Just this morning, I woke to hear of another shooting, this time in Munich and a bombing in Afghanistan. It’s been a very sad time (Dallas, Nice, Minneapolis and more), coupled with what the political climate the world over (American elections, BREXIT, etc.) which equals a time when fear is normal. This might be something to expect (remember that whole rumors of wars thing that Jesus spoke about?) but what is concerning to me is that the same toxicity seems to be a part of the church that is supposed to be the hands of and feet of a savior who stretched out his arms for humanity. My own denomination is facing schism and the language we use for the “other side” sounds like the words of Civil War rather than friends who try and seek connection in what does unite us. We argue about all kinds of garbage and when there is something that actually matters or is worthy of discussion we’d much rather point fingers and waggle and call names and refuse real conversation. I think disheartening is a mild explanation.

I wake most mornings with a heavy heart, and that’s before I read the news. I find myself trudging through some days, hoping and praying for one day with no bad news. It’s a fearful thing to turn on the news. It’s nerve wracking to wonder what the next nonsensical thing will come out of our politicians mouths. Sitting in the car with my boys used to be a time of singing or having fun talks, now they ask questions about what could happen to them if they don’t agree with someone at their school or Scout troop (and I’m talking issues here, not just whether or not the lunch lady is trying to feed them cement in the form of mashed potatoes.)

And the word that seems to get a lot of air time is RAGE, and boy it’s a dangerous word. If you watch the GOP convention, then you can sense rage coming from the floor of the conference. Democrats are wasting no time spewing rage against their opponents – mocking speeches and miscues and promises. We see black men shot for no reason and feel rage and then we feel rage when cops are mowed down by a sniper. We feel rage when we see a truck plow through a crowded street killing 90 or so. We feel rage when justice and covenant are so easily broken. In the course of my week, rage reared its head multiple times – but what really am I, are we, raging against?

Paul said that our wrestling isn’t with flesh and blood – or politicians, or races, or ethnicities, or religions. Our wrestling – the fight we take up is against something darker and something far more sinister. I’m not a guy who believes there is a demon behind every little thing that goes wrong, but I am a guy who believes that the raging onslaught of sin continues to rip the fabric of creation a part. I’m not just talking about personal sin and choices that are easy to target. I’m talking about the insidious evil that seems to rumble just under the surface – something that turns good moments sour and then bitter and then deadly.

Now, I know from scripture that this sin is a condition – a DNA recoding that has all kinds of side effects. I also know, again from Scripture, that this DNA recoding has a cure and a fix. Ultimately, we’ll get to a day when this brokenness will be completely annihilated and I think we’re all gonna be surprised at how Grace Rules when that day comes. But before that moment, I think the DNA recoding occurs through daily choices to pursue a whole lot less self and a whole lot more others first. I mean most of the rage I see is about wanting “me-myself-and-I” first and foremost (individual, tribe, national identities, etc.). It seems pretty clear that when Jesus said follow me, he was inviting us to lay down self and pick up a lifestyle that says others first – and that alone can remove a whole lot of toxic selfishness.

Now, this other first thing doesn’t mean we don’t speak out or share a word of disagreement. No, it means when we do, we do so with grace and peace. We do so with encouragement and with a hope to reconcile. That after all is what the Kingdom coming on earth is really about, isn’t it? Reconciling what was broken, lost, torn a part and diseased?

I think, with all the disheartening events of this week, I’m going to choose to look at others with the same gaze that Christ seemed to walk with. The gaze that says there’s more than the undercurrent of ugly – that there is an audacious and laughable hope that is available and offers a much better way to live. I’m going to choose to take a stand and remember that “today is unlike any other day” and I have an opportunity to bring a little something more to those around me.

 

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Bigger Prayers

Remember when you were a kid and you would imagine your play ground equipment turning into a castle or fort? In my backyard, my cousin and I would routinely take off in our F-14 Tomcats to jet around seeking Russian Megs that were getting way to close to our aircraft carriers (we were pretty big into Top Gun at the time). We would soar higher and higher in our pursuit. Sometimes we were shot down; and we had to hoof it to a safe spot where a Seal team could rescue us. Other times, we were victorious and we buzzed the tower before landing.

You may not have Top Gun memories, but I bet you have one or two pretty large large adventures from the confines of your backyard or bedroom. Don’t you miss having that kind of wild imagination? On those rare occasions that I get my kids off the electronic devices, I love listening to them imagine big and bold. It’s refreshing to hear their wide open, anything-can-happen viewpoint on the world. When they pick up legos, their minds fire so fast that I can’t keep up. Forget about the design the legos were supposed to create, they have far better ideas stored up in their minds. I often find myself longing for playtime with no boundaries – the sheer joy of an “anything can happen” attitude is perfection.

Earlier this week, I was obsessing about a relatively large project taking place at my church and got this pinch that I couldn’t shake. For months, we’ve been aware that an old building next to our even older sanctuary was no longer safe for use. It was a long journey to come to the decision that it needed to be torn down. Between the sentiments and memories that were birthed in the buildings walls and the considerable price it was going to cost, no one really wanted to do it. Yet, we felt compelled that safety mattered, so we stepped forward. On monday evening, I went to bed a nervous wreck. On Tuesday, the crew was coming and by Wednesday it would be completely down.

I tried to force myself to relax, which doesn’t work very well. Then I started thinking about all the reasons for tearing it down. Then I started worrying about money (I do that a lot). But then when I was all worried out, I remembered our sunday evening service where we officially left the building and decommissioned it as a place the church used. I listened to the stories and memories that once again filled the room. Marriages, dinners, babies rocked, choirs that sang, and kids of all ages who were given a chance to know Jesus. Just like I did on Sunday night, I felt myself smiling. I felt myself being pulled by something to dream that new memories will start to happen.

I shared with the church that night about Legacy. That building was a place of legacy. Our decision to tear it down would be a part of our legacy – something we would hand down to others. As I thought of the lives touched, I started finding myself hoping for new stories to be told. I started dreaming of more weddings and more baptisms. I started envisioning kids of all ages getting to know Jesus’ love for them. I started seeing picnics and celebrations in the grassy yard that once was home to an old house.

But as I smiled and thought, the pinch of the Holy Spirit got me. As clear as day, I felt God was telling me that I wasn’t dreaming or praying big enough. I felt this internal nudge that said “Jim, I’m capable of so much more than that. Why are you settling? Why aren’t you letting yourself pray and dream bigger things?” As the words were forming in my mind, I felt my smile vanish and a deep sense of calm come over me. Was God inviting me to return to the swing set and fly in my TomCat again? It sure felt that way – it still does.

Scripture tells us that God is omnipotent (all-powerful) – that He is capable of much. Scripture also tells us that we can know God’s good and perfect will – that the world would know His love and offer of redemption. We are also told that as we receive this good news and trust in His Way, we are given the very energy of God – His Spirit – that lives inside of us. So, if those are true, then maybe I am dreaming too small. Maybe I do need to let my prayers exceed my reason. Maybe I do need to let myself be drawn closer to this God’s heart and mission for redeeming the world. Do you?

I don’t know what huge stones or projects lie in front of you, but I do know that God is big enough. Maybe it’s time that we return to the playground and let our imaginations be transformed by a Holy God who longs to see creation restored? I’m starting to believe that God has bigger dreams for His church. I guess the question is do we believe that God’s able? Are you ready to imagine and dream bigger? Are you ready for God to let God push you outside of boundaries that were never meant for you? I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to get back my “anything can happen” attitude. What about you?Image