Monday, May 2, 2016

Spiritual Growth, Rose Bushes & Good Old Fashioned Pruning! - Daily Devo, May 2, 2016


My wife and I planted a rose bush when we first moved into our new house. It was one of those things that we bought on a whim when we were purchasing plants and flowers for our patio.  So, we planted it and watered it, but we didn't expect a whole lot out of it, to be honest.  We'd never tried growing roses before, you see. 

To our surprise, it started blooming.  And not just blooming, but really blooming.  My wife immediately started pruning it, clipping off the blooms, shaping the little bush a bit as well.  I had no idea about these things, but apparently if you want your roses to bloom and to thrive, you have to keep it properly trimmed.  Pruning allows the buds to flourish, and the stems grow stronger as a result.  

Jesus used a similar analogy when he was trying to teach his disciples about what it meant to be his true follower.  He told them "I am the true vine and my Father is the gardner." Jesus went on to tell them, "He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit, he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful." (John 15:1-2)

Pruning is counterintuitive.  To cut back, to seemingly hurt a plant in order to help it grow doesn't make a whole lot of sense, unless you understand how the growth process works.  Pruning enables the plant to not waste valuable energy on things that aren't going to strengthen it, and prepare it for the future.  

In the same way, there are sometimes things in our life that need to be pruned, cut away in order for us to experience the fullness of life in Jesus.  

Maybe our pride gets in the way of full following Jesus.  We think we can handle our own business without any help at all--that we've got it all under control.  Perhaps we need to have our anger trimmed as well.  Some of us live in a constant state of agitation, just waiting to explode.  Many of us need worry and fear pruned.  We spend way too much time dreading the future to experience the present.  

Or maybe we need to just simply have some of the distractions of this life cut away so we can grow to focus more fully on Jesus, and Jesus alone.  God knows there are so many of them out there competing for our attention.  

It doesn't always feel all that great when the pruning process is taking place.  Having these things that we've held on to for so long finally removed can be painful.  In order to endure the necessary pain of pruning, we need to hold on to the words that Jesus shared with his disciples: 

"This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples."  (John 15:8)

May you embrace your life in Jesus today--even the parts of your life where pruning and trimming might be happening.  May you find the strength to trust that these things that are being cut away are for your good and for the glory of God.  And may the grace and peace of Jesus Christ be with you now and always.  Amen.  

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Jesus And We - Week 1: Faith Filled, Big Thinking


There's a huge problem brewing in the Church in America.  

And when I say this, many of you are going to assume that what I'm talking about is what the dominant Christian voices in our culture have identified as the huge problem in the Church in America--that far too many churches have begun to resemble the culture that surrounds them.  

When I was growing up in conservative, evangelical communities of faith we called this, "Compromising," or "Looking too much like the world."  Mind you, this was directed at things like women wearing pants, listening to rock and or roll music, watching the "devil box," commonly known as TV... stuff like that.  

Come to think of it, not that much has changed--except the things that are now being called out by the dominant Christian voices in our culture are just different sets of sins and transgressions.  

Strangely, I actually agree with the assessment that many evangelical Christian leaders have leveled at the Church.  I agree that far too many churches have begun to resemble the culture that surrounds them...  

The culture that I am referring to is a culture wracked by an obsession with the self--to the extreme.  We're told a hundred ways a day that we deserve to win, to make money, to spend money to have things, to be a success, to do everything that we've ever wanted to do and then some.  We deserve these things.     

Sadly, so many churches in America have adopted that same approach.  Christianity in America is individualistic, self-centered, hell-bent on winning and enamored with bigger, better, more successful, flashier and louder.  

It's all about Jesus and Me.  

When I was growing up, we used to go door to door witnessing and we would ask people the following question, "Do you know Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?" We would ask them this after we asked the question, "If you died right now would you go to heaven or hell?"  

Now don't get me wrong, being a Jesus follower is about having your own faith, owning it, embracing it, making it yours.  It's about a relationship with Jesus and not an over-reliance on religion.  

But the fact is, we are better together.  We are meant to be together.  This is what the Church has always been about, despite all of the ways that we've tried to screw it up over the years.  The insidious individualism that has pervaded American Christianity has stifled what has at the very heart of the Early Church: Community.  

Dr. Josh Packard's research on why people are leaving the Church in America revealed that at any given time there are probably 7,000,000 people in churches all across America who are contemplating leaving the church.  Why? 

They cite all kinds of reasons, including their distrust of institutional expressions of faith, but I suspect that it might be something else.  I think they are bored.  And disillusioned.  Church is something so many people merely endure.  Maybe you remember a time when you felt that way.  Maybe you feel that way now!  

Let me ask you a question.  What did you want to be when you grew up?  Take a few moments and think about it.  What did you want to be when you grew up?  And Why?  Let's add that to it, too.  Anyone want to share?  

Theres's a commercial by Monster.com that aired a few years ago:  




Don't you just love that?  None of us wanted to grow up and have those things happen to us. But this commercial points out the reality that most of us live in when it comes to our faith, and our understanding of Church.  

Do we want to settle for the equivalent of being forced into early retirement when it comes to our life together as a church?  Do we want to be a place where joy goes to die? Do we want to become the kind of place where you take your kids when they've been bad? No!  I think we can do better--I think we are doing better. 

Pastor Craig Groeschel talks about some of the things that fire up his church, and I loved them so much, I thought that I would borrow his phrase, and put it into our own context.  

WE ARE FAITH FILLED, BIG THINKING, BET THE FARM RISK TAKERS. WE WILL NEVER INSULT GOD WITH SMALL THINKING OR SAFE LIVING.  

In our church we say that when you know Jesus, you show Jesus.  

I think that like a lot of things in life that we get excited about--an incredible new restaurant, a fabulous vacation, our little kid's first step, firs tooth, first bicycle ride, when our team wins---our church should be on that list for our people.  If it's not, we're doing it wrong. 

Our faith, our vision isn't big enough if people aren't getting excited about following Jesus. 

In Luke 7:1-10 we have the following story from the life of Jesus: 

When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. 2 There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. 3 The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, 5 because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” 6 So Jesus went with them.
He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. 7 That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
9 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” 10 Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.
This centurion was the military leader of a detachment of auxiliary troops made up of non-Jewish soldiers and at the command of Herod Antipas, the puppet king of the Jews, controlled by Rome.  He represented the enemy to Jewish people, and he knew it.  But he had also done a lot of things to help the community, and had shown great respect for the Jewish people he was charged to police.  

When his servant got sick, the centurion reached out to Jesus--prompted I am sure by the stories he'd heard about him.  This centurion had faith--big faith.  His faith brought him to a place of humility, however.  He didn't demand that his servant be healed.  He didn't command Jesus to be brought to him by force.  He humbly says, "I am not worthy for you to come under my roof---but say the word, and my servant will be healed."  

Jesus is amazed, it says in the text.  In the Gospel of Mark he is amazed for another kind of reason.  He is amazed at the lack of faith among the Jewish people of his day--and because of their lack of faith he didn't perform many miracles with them.  

It doesn't say that he couldn't have done so, or was prevented because they didn't have enough faith, it doesn't work that way.  No, Jesus didn't perform a lot of miracles because they didn't believe big enough.  

How big is your faith?  How much are you willing to risk to embrace the kind of bold, hope-filled, purpose-filled faith in the Resurrection hope?  And to our point, how much are we willing to risk together?  

As a church we need to be aware of three things that relate to the kind of big faith that we're talking about here.  

First, You cannot play it safe and experience the Resurrection.  You have to risk your comfort, your security, your place in line, your certainty...  You have to be willing to be vulnerable and open.  And if these things scare you--you're not alone.  There are a lot of us here who feel the same way. There are lots of things that scare us.  

Let's ponder that a moment.  What scares you the most?  Just blurt it out to the person next to you--the first thing that comes to your mind.  #nofilter.  

I can tell you that no story of incredible, miraculous moments of Resurrection hope in a church ever started with: "And we all decided to remain exactly where we were." or "We figured that saying 'that's the way we've always done it' was a pretty good vision statement." or "We could have done something bold, but it was too scary, and we didn't want to lose any church members over it."  

Lots of people over the years have had a field day with poor old Peter, the Apostle.  He was the one who asked to join Jesus when Jesus was walking on water beside the disciples boat.  So Jesus said, "Come on then."  Peter got scared and started to sink, but the dude walked on water for a while.  That's longer than any other human being in history other than Jesus.  

Sure he got scared and sank at one point, but at least he did it.  There were eleven other dudes in the boat who never got out. 

Second, the sin of certainty can keep us from experiencing the Resurrection.  The Bible's definition of faith is kind of messed up. In Hebrews chapter 11 verse 1 it reads, "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."  Substance of things hoped for?  Evidence of things not seen?  

I don't know about you, but that sounds like a lot of uncertainty to me.  And yet, certainty seems to be an idol that American Christianity worships to a fault.  It's all part of the many reasons why people are staying away from church in America, I am sure.  The sin of certainty results in an obsession with outlining exactly what God will and will not do, who is in and who is out, who is a sinner and who isn't, who really loves Jesus and who doesn't...  

Our faith should be bigger than that.  We can't control what the Holy Spirit of God is going to do, or who the Holy Spirit of God is going to call to join us on our journey.  We can't control much of anything, except the way we embrace Resurrection hope together.  

The fact of the matter is, you can have faith or you can have control, but you can't have both.  

Finally, I think to step forward into Resurrection hope is to step away from security.  It's like stepping on to a high wire or walking on the edge of a cliff.  You have to trust that what is ahead of you is greater and more amazing than the safety and security that is behind you.  

Abraham heard the call of God to leave behind his safety and security, he and left everything he knew to follow that call wherever it led him.  Moses experienced God's call in a burning bush, and went back to Egypt to free his people--even if it meant confronting the most powerful man in the world: Pharaoh.  

The disciples of Jesus heard the call and dropped their nets.  Was the way hard?  Yes, you bet.  Were they scared?  More than once.  But the followed.  And because they followed they experienced wonder, delight, purpose, meaning and Resurrection hope.  

Almost eight years ago, we launched Center Street Kitchen, our ministry that feeds our community a wonderful home-cooked meal every Friday.  We also hand out hundreds of sack lunches to people who need them.  I remember when we started CSK there were more than a few people who opposed it.   It was risky, to be sure.  

We didn't know exactly how it would all work, and if there would be enough money, volunteers, resources...  We didn't know what would happen to us when we started opening our doors to the community. 

But it's these kinds of stories that make it all worthwhile...  

When you know Jesus, you show Jesus--it's what you do.  We can't start thinking small now, brothers and sisters.  I know God is calling us to even greater and more amazing things than we've already experienced. 

And we are going to live into this statement:  WE ARE FAITH FILLED, BIG THINKING, BET THE FARM RISK TAKERS. WE WILL NEVER INSULT GOD WITH SMALL THINKING OR SAFE LIVING.  

If we are going to experience the hope of the Resurrection. We can't 


Friday, April 29, 2016

What To Do When Your Wounded By Others - Daily Devotion: April 29, 2016


I recently had someone I care about deeply do something that not only caused a rift in our relationship, but it also diminished my trust in them.  I found myself thinking afterward about all the ways I should have seen it coming, how I should have been less gullible.  

In those moments of pain, after we've been hurt by other people, it's easy to want to put on our armor, and become less vulnerable--to shield ourselves from further hurts.  Or we can become cynical and hardened, which is often my go-to defense mechanism.  

A few months ago, my Facebook "time-hop" feature reminded me of a year-old Facebook post from a church member who had just angrily left the church.  One year prior to leaving in a huff, they gushed in a message about how much they loved me and loved the church.  As I read it again, I kind of snorted.  "Figures." I said bitterly.  

The fact of the matter is that people will always let us down.  And the even more sobering fact of the matter is that we will let people down, too.  We can try to guard our hearts by withdrawing into a shell or we can become cynical, but if our focus is on others for validation, affirmation, purpose and meaning in our life... we'll still be let down. 

Jesus had this conversation with his disciples where he tried to impart to them an incredible truth about where their focus needed to be.  He told them that he was going to go away for a while, and told them, "And you know the way I am going."  Then we get this: 
5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” 6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” 
Lots of people try to make this verse into something that it isn't.  This isn't an exclusive verse.  It shouldn't be used to draw a line in the sand about whose in and whose out.  To say that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life... To say that no one comes to God except through Jesus... these are some of the most inclusive and expansive ways to speak about God's grace and mercy.  

The way that God is saving the world is through Jesus.  The truth about who God is, and what God wants is found in Jesus.  The abundant life that God wants for us and for all Creation is magnified in Jesus.  

When our focus is on Jesus... when we look to him alone for our affirmation, validation, purpose, meaning and redemption it helps to bring a lot of other things into proper focus. When we look to Jesus, we no longer need the affirmation of others.  We don't see them as objects, glimpsed only in the light of our own reflections.   

Quite the contrary, we see them as children of God, just like we are.  We also have a greater capacity for mercy, and grace toward them, too.  When we finally realize how easy it is to lose sight of the way, the truth and the life we find that we can forgive others more easily for doing the same.  

May you fix your gaze upon Jesus today, focus on who he is to you and to everyone around you--the way, truth and the life.  May you find grace to forgive, and may you receive grace when you need to be forgiven.  And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen.  

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Did You Know That Breakfast Is A Holy Meal?


This past month at my church, I've been preaching on what it means to lead a Resurrection life--to live life as Jesus desires for us to lead it: filled with hope, purpose, meaning and joy.   All of this sounds good, but how do we make this happen in a practical sense?  This week we're going to spend some time thinking about just that. 

I'm not much of a cook, but, since I am passable at making breakfast, I often prepare it for the family in the morning.  It's nothing fancy, mind you, just bacon or sausage and eggs, waffles or pancakes for my youngest son (the frozen kind), and generally a second cup of coffee for myself and my wife.  

It makes me happy to do this.  My wife Merideth tells me that the feeling I get is often what she experiences when she prepares meals for "her boys."  Merideth is actually a really good cook, and she truly enjoys it.  So, it makes it even more special to me that she relinquishes something she loves to do, in order for me to experience some of the same joy she feels.     

The other day she and I were talking about the scene from John's Gospel where the risen Jesus appears to his disciples by the Sea of Galilee while they are out fishing.  When they finally come to the shore, they find that he has prepared breakfast for them.  In The Message translation of the Bible, Jesus actually says to them, "Breakfast is ready."  

Merideth shared some insight into that scene that I've been thinking about ever since.  She told me, "Jesus shared the Last Supper with his disciples before he was crucified," and then "he shared the First Breakfast with them after he was raised from the dead."  It was the sign of a new beginning, not just for the disciples but for all of Creation. 

And in both the Last Supper and the First Breakfast, it's the ordinary act of eating, sharing food and drink that comes to symbolize something greater.  In the case of the First Breakfast, Jesus essentially consecrates the fish--making what the disciples caught as a result of their labor sacred, and beautiful.   

In his excellent book Living the Resurrection, Eugene Peterson sees a symbol for resurrection living in the story of the First Breakfast.  Jesus blesses what we bring him--no matter how meager our offerings.  Jesus breaks what we bring to him--breaking down our pride, teaching us to trust him.  Jesus gives back what we bring to him--after it has been transformed and made new.  

I can't help but think that doing this brings Jesus a tremendous amount of joy.  

May you begin this day with images of the ordinary made extraordinary--consecrated moments where the mundane becomes sacred.  May you bring your gifts this day and every day knowing they will be blessed, broken and given back so that you may be made new. And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. 


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

When Nobodies Become Somebodies - Daily Devotion April 27, 2016


This past month at my church, I've been preaching on what it means to lead a Resurrection life--to live life as Jesus desires for us to lead it: filled with hope, purpose, meaning and joy.   All of this sounds good, but how do we make this happen in a practical sense?  This week we're going to spend some time thinking about just that. 

"There is no way that God could ever use me." 

"If you really knew me, you wouldn't be asking me to serve."  

"I'm nothing special."  

"If I ever show up to church, you better check the ceiling--it's sure to fall in on me."  

"I'm not a very good Christian, whey are you asking me to help out."  

These are just a few of the things I've heard over the years when I have approached people about attending worship, serving in mission and ministry or stepping into leadership in the Church.  The fact of the matter is, most of us feel unworthy to do things for God.  

When many of us were young, we heard stories in Sunday school about how God chose ordinary people to accomplish his extraordinary will in the world.  But even though we heard stories about people like Abraham, Gideon, David, Esther, Peter and John we seldom internalize God's obvious preference for underdogs.  

Peter was one of those ordinary people who God used in extraordinary ways.  His story is one of death and resurrection.  Peter died to his old self after he denied Jesus three times, and was raised to new life on the shores of the sea of Galilee when the risen Christ restored him to leadership and ministry.  

Peter later wrote to the early Christian believers in the first century:  

"As you come to him, the living Stone--rejected by human beings but chosen by God and precious to him--you also, like living stones are being built into a spiritual house..."  (1 Peter 2:4-5)

God takes ordinary people, broken people, messed up people with flaws, bruises, scars and wounds, and anoints them into service, and brings them together with other ordinary, broken and messed up people to build something amazing--the Church.  

As the late E. Stanley Jones wrote, "Whenever Christ touches life, that life takes on significance.  The nobodies become somebodies."  The living stones that Peter talked about are what God uses to build his kingdom.  These stones are often misshapen and don't seem to fit anywhere.  They are often rejected as nobodies.   

But they are perfect fits in God's construction jobs.  

Unfortunately far too few of us truly get this.  We still think of ourselves as incomplete, even though the truth of who we are is right in front of us.  

The poet Rumi wrote, "One of the marvels of the world is the sight of a soul sitting in prison with the key in his hand."    

What Jesus-followers need to begin to both internalize and affirm is the notion that because of their decision to follow Jesus, they are transformed by the power of his resurrection.  The Resurrection makes all things new, including us.  We are no longer what we were, we have begun to be what we will become when all things are made right at last through Jesus.  

May you embrace the power of the resurrection in your brokenness and frailty today.  May you trust that if you step fully into your new life in Christ, that he will fill in the broken places and empty spaces with his own Holy Spirit.  And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always.  Amen.