Friday, March 27, 2015

Lego Wisdom


My ten year-old son has been building an elaborate Lego set that he got for Christmas for the past several weeks.  It was so enormous it took him a couple of months to even gather the courage to begin it.  He works on it in the playroom, taking great pains to keep his emerging creation away from his four year-old brother, who would almost certainly destroy it before it got started properly.

Each time he completes a portion of the Lego set, he hides everything out of reach of his brother in a place of safekeeping.  He's been patient.  Whenever he has a free moment, which isn't often, he pulls it out and works on it a little more.

The other day he brought it out to show me how much he'd gotten done.  It was fairly impressive, I have to admit.  And he's done it all on his own, without any help from me--which is a first for a set this large.

Here's the thing, though.  At some point it's going to get trashed.  Something bad will happen to it.  He'll take it down to play with it, or something will get thrown, or there will be an unfortunate incident with the cat.  And it will end up with huge portions of it falling to the ground and exploding in a zillion Lego pieces.

I've been down this road before.

There will be tears.  There will be angry words, perhaps.

And this thing that took my son hours to build, and of which he is so proud will find its way into the Lego bin in the playroom with all of the other sets that met a similar fate.

Then a few weeks from now, my son will return to it and start making something new with what's left.  It will be after he's had time to properly mourn the loss of what was, but he'll do it eventually.  And then he'll come into the living room to show me what new imaginative creation that he built with no instructions--just his own creativity.

I suspect that God sees us much the same way.  We work so hard at things--trying to create something beautiful with the instructions that we have been given.  Maybe the instructions were good ones that we got from our church or from Sunday school or youth group.  And then life happens.  Other people happen.  Things get thrown at us and the things we've made.

And they fall apart.

 Sometimes we lose faith.  Sometimes we lose our way.

But when we've had time to grieve, and to lament there will come a day when we'll be ready to believe again, to hope again...

And to build again.

Only this time we'll do it differently.  We'll use what we learned from the instructions, to be sure. Only now we know that the instructions weren't the only things we needed to make beautiful things.

Sometimes we need perspective... insight... experiences...  failure... a second chance...

Sometimes we need grace.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

[Not] Your Average Church - Part 4: "Your God Is Irrelevant In My Life"



Over the last three weeks we have been working on a sermon series together entitled, "[Not] Your Average Church: Why We Need Real Church for Real People."  Throughout this series we've been coming face to face with a crisis that the Church in America has yet to fully address: the fact that people have stopped coming to church.

What we've been doing as part of this sermon series is studying the four biggest reasons that people give as to why they don't attend church, and then we've been turning those negatives into positives.  Our goal is to identify the ways that we, as a church, can overcome the objections that people might have as to why they don't want to go to church.

People say that they feel judged when they come to church--so we said the church needs to be open to everyone and practice radical hospitality.  People say that they feel lectured when they come to church--so we said the church needs to engage in fearless conversations with people who come to us with issues, struggles, problems and doubts.  People say that the church is full of hypocrites--so we said that the church needs to learn to practice genuine humility, and to admit we don't have all the answers, and to put the needs of others ahead of our own, just like Jesus did.

According to a poll that was recently commissioned, fully 80 percent of Americans attend church once a year or less.  By every way of measuring church growth and health--attendance, membership, baptisms, giving--the Church in America is dwindling.

And yet, overwhelmingly Americans say they believe in God--over 90% of them, in fact.  Even people who don't ascribe to the idea of organized religion, or who have been wounded by church, left church or never want to attend church again seem to believe in God.  Or at the very least, they are comfortable with the idea that their might be a God.  They just don't think that the God that the church is promoting is the kind of God they want to believe in...

Today we're going to take a look at the fourth biggest reason people give as to why they don't attend church:  That the God we are telling them about is irrelevant in their life.

Before we jump too deeply into this, I need to ask a question.  What is it like to experience God?  How do you know if whatever feeling that is washing over that feels like God, is really God.  Is there a way to differentiate between emotional highs brought on by circumstance--and the real presence of God?  Is there such a thing as the real presence of God here among us?

I'll answer that question indirectly with a couple of examples from my own life.  Because telling your own story is basically the only way you can do this properly.

In 2001 Merideth and I visited London for a week.  Up until that visit, I had been struggling to know for sure if God was really calling me to become a pastor.  One Sunday afternoon we were visiting the National Gallery when suddenly Merideth said to me, "We have to go!  We need to go to church right now! We need to get to St Paul's Cathedral."  We immediately left, got a cab and took a short ride to St. Paul's.  We arrived just as the hymns and readings of the Evensong service were ending, and the preacher was about to preach.  She happened to be the pastor in charge of helping young men and women who were starting the process to become ministers for that region of England.  At one point in the sermon she said, "I just sense that there is someone here struggling with God's call on their life to go into ministry."

Yeah, it kind of freaked me out.  I so fully felt the presence of God in that moment it wasn't funny.

When my wife and I first started serving as youth leaders in our church we took our kids to Disney's Night of Joy.  At one point we wandered over to where the worship band Delirious was playing a short concert.  They were singing what was then a new song, "I Could Sing of Your Love Forever."  As we stood there in wonder, the entire crowd full of teens with their hands in the air sang the chorus acapella, over and over again.  "I Could Sing of Your Love Forever..."  It was more beautiful than words.  We were filled with such hope and joy---we felt God all over the place.

Years later, I was leading a group of teenagers on a mission trip to Mexico.  We were crowded into a tiny room where we had worship in the evenings after long days of working in the sun.  We were singing that night--a song called You Are Holy that our kids loved to sing.  I sat there listening to the kids and leaders singing at the top of their lungs to the glory of God, after pouring out their energy, sweat and love all day to be Christ's hands and feet.  I felt God so deeply in that moment that all I could do was sit there and cry.

I could sit here all day and tell you story after story of why I know what it's like to feel the presence of God.  But what about you?  Have you ever had any God sightings?  Have you ever felt God's presence in your life?

I want you to turn to the person next to you, or the persons next to you and to take just a couple of minutes to share with them a moment when you felt God's presence.

A recent Barna poll--Barna is like the Christian Gallup organization--uncovered that only 44 percent of people who attend church regularly say that they feel the presence of God there.  Only 44 percent.

The misconception that a lot of people share is that God is sort of in the past.  That God spoke "then" in the Bible and that there is a period at the end of the sentence.  But what if there wasn't?  What if instead of a period, there was a comma?

Now this is the moment when someone says, "Oh no you don't!  It says in the Bible that not one tiny little bit of the Scripture should be changed or tampered with---that the grass withers and the flower fades but the word of God lasts forever... " and so on.

The Bible also says in many places that there would not be enough books to tell all of the things hat Jesus said and did.  So why did those get left out?  Maybe it would have been helpful to have them! In addition, there are scores of writings that were considered sacred for centuries but then didn't make it into the version of the Bible we use here in our church.

Don't get me wrong. The Bible is authoritative to be sure.  It is the written and revealed word of God, to be sure.  But let's not mistake what we say when we say the "word" of God.  There is only one Word of God with a capital "W" and that is Jesus Christ, the creative, eternal, saving, expressive Word of God.

So then-- is an almighty and powerful, all-knowing, unknowable God limited to merely speaking through the Bible?  And which version?  The Catholic version? The Protestant version?  The Coptic version? The NIV? King James? New King James? The Message? The ESV, RSV, NRSV?  Some of you blessedly have no idea what I am talking about--stay that way!

I love the Bible.  I have given my life to the study of the Bible and how it helps us draw closer to God and to his Son Jesus Christ.  It is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path as the Psalm teaches. But the moments when I have experienced God leading me into something new, drawing me into his presence--have not all been moments when I was reading the Bible.  Granted, reading and studying the Bible prepared me for those moments.

But what I've come to understand is that God speaks and moves and creates----all of the time, all around us.  We just have a problem seeing and feeling what God is doing. Mostly because we are focused on all the wrong things.

If the Church is going to overcome the objection that people have about our God being irrelevant in their life--we need to open our own eyes first.  We need to practice Divine Anticipation.  We can't become so consumed with what we've always done, and always expected that we miss the moments when God is doing new things, moving among us, calling us to new places.

I want you to watch this video entitled "Right Before Your Eyes."  I think it will help to teach this a bit better.

Okay, now that we've had a chance to see the video... let me ask you a couple of questions:

How is this like or unlike how we fail to see God at work in the world around us?

What can we learn about Divine Anticipation from this?

In Matthew 18:20 Jesus gave his disciples one of the most amazing promises that he could have given them.  He said, "For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

The phrase in his name means that we are thinking, doing, acting, feeling, desiring, praying, loving--just like Jesus, as if we were Jesus.  In his name is a phrase used by an ambassador for a ruler who has the authority to make treaties, peace, trade deals, whatever as if he was the king himself.

We gather here today desiring to be like Jesus.  And so according to his own words, his presence is among us.  The presence of God in Christ is here right now.   What if we embraced this?  What if we stopped for a moment to actually listen to Jesus?  Lets do that right now.  Take a moment.  Sit in stillness.  Listen.

Several months ago, I preached a series about finding your "one word"--the one word that would give you focus and purpose for the year.  Maybe what you are listening for is that one word today.  Or that one thought.  Or that one desire that you've been longing to fulfill.

Listen to God for a moment.

Brothers and Sisters, the world is changing.  People are being confronted on a daily basis with the fact that Science cannot answer all their questions, and in fact the universe is becoming more and more mysterious all the time.  There is so much uncertainty in the world.  People are ready to feel the real presence of God.  They are looking for ways to make sense of it all.

And we can help them.

But first we need to learn to practice some Divine Anticipation.  We need to realize fully and completely that God is not stuck in the past.  God has never been stuck in the past.  The Bible is an account of how God has been leading God's people into the future since the beginning of all things, and continues to do so now.

God is relevant, here and now and moving us into the future--a future full of hope and promise, a future filled with the shalom, the peace of God on earth, a future Jesus commanded us to pray for every time we say the Greatest prayer when we say, "let your will be done here on earth--as it is in heaven."  

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

[Not] Your Average Church - Part 3: "Genuine Humility"



We are in the middle of a four-part sermon series for the season of Lent entitled, "[Not] Your Average Church: Why We Need Real Church for Real People."  Over the last two weeks we've discovered the two biggest reasons people give as to why they don't attend church:  They feel judged, and they feel lectured.  80 percent of the people in the United States attend church once a year or less. This is obviously a problem--and we are figuring out what we can do to solve it.

We've learned that the best way we can overcome those objections is by practicing Radical Hospitality (welcoming people just as they are) and having Fearless Conversations (not being afraid to listen, engage and be open to people with real issues).

Today we're going to take a step further and discuss the third biggest reason that people have shared as to why they don't want to attend church--they think the Church if full of hypocrites.

Because I am a pastor, I often find myself in conversations with people about church.  And if they don't attend church, more often than not they will find a way to share with me why they no longer do so.  At some point the hypocrite thing always comes up.   It always stings me a little when I hear someone say things like, "I don't go to church because it's full of hypocrites!"  I've gotten kind of tired of hearing it, to be honest.  What I want to say to people who tell me that is: "Well, there's always room for one more!"

Whether this is a fair accusation or not--this is a common perception by a lot of people.

The word "hypocrite" comes from the Greek word for "actor."  In Greek theater actors wore masks to show their emotions.  If they were angry, they would wear an angry mask--sad, sad mask, happy...  you get the picture.  You couldn't trust what you saw, because despite what the mask told you, the person was acting like they were mad, happy or sad--even if they weren't.

I do listen to people's stories, though, despite what I want to say to them sometimes.  Because often they've encountered someone in their past that has treated them badly, judged them, or acted in a way that was not at all Jesus-like.  And generally this happened when they were in need of help or counsel, or were vulnerable in some way.

I can vividly remember all of the times I encountered hypocrites in church.

But it's much harder for me to recognize the moments when I've been the person acting like a hypocrite.

I know I sometimes act in ways I don't like or even in ways I talk about in sermons of how not to be.

Sometimes the idea of being welcoming and open is a whole lot easier to preach on than it is for me to actually do.  I know this might come as a surprise to some of you, but I am actually a little shy.  Yeah, I know.  It sounds silly, but it's true.  After I preach three services, spend a lot of time talking to people and sharing, expending energy--I'm usually exhausted, emotionally as well as physically.

People who are natural introverts understand this.

So, sometimes I'm not at my best after all of the Sunday festivities.  There was this time a few years ago when we had a funeral service right after church.  It was around 4 PM as I was locking the doors, and a guy we know from the neighborhood showed up wanting money.  He also happened to be so drunk he couldn't talk without effort.  When I told him that I wasn't giving him any money he started cursing at me.  I didn't return the favor, but I wasn't very nice.  Let's be honest.  I was pretty hard core with the guy.

I had a ton of excuses in that moment.  I was exhausted.  He was drunk.  Any money I gave him would have gone for more booze.  He was abusive and pushing my buttons.

Still, I knew I wasn't being the person God had called me to be--and I was also not exactly practicing what I often preach.

The other day I got into a discussion with a guy I don't even know, who vehemently disagreed with some things I was preaching and teaching.  He apparently took umbrage with the notion I was putting forward that God loves people and that it's not God's desire to condemn anyone, and that Jesus is proof of this great and unconditional love.

In his opinion, Christians needed to tell people about the wrath and anger of God.  In his words, "if someone was about to be hit by a speeding car, wouldn't you want to warn them?"  I had my own replies to his, my own verses to respond and for a while I did just that--I argued with this guy.  And I found myself thinking, "What a narrow minded bigot.  What an angry dude.  What a... hypocrite!"

So I'm thinking that this guy is angry, narrow-minded and believes that the only possible interpretation of the Bible is his own.  And then it hit me.  I was arguing with him.  And I was mad.

Now here's the thing.  Do I think that yelling at people and hitting repeatedly over the head with the Bible until they submit is a good idea?  No.  But the truth be told, neither did he guy arguing with me. And both of us were being just as hypocritical as all get out because neither one of us wanted to admit that we didn't have all the answers.

The criticism about hypocrisy that is often leveled at Christians is pretty accurate.  We are not perfect.  None of us.  Even those of us who can cite chapter and verse in the Bible when it comes to hypocrisy and who have had our fair share of run-ins with hypocrites in the church.

The fact of the matter is that the church is full of broken people who sin differently.  And we are not always at our best.  And we are far from consistent when it comes to the way we try to follow Jesus.

Here's what I would like for us to do.  For one solid minute we are going to sit in silence and reflect on moments when we've not been at our best.  When we've not practiced what we preach.  I'd like for us all to just reflect for one minute on what others see in us that might cause them to call us a hypocrite.

I hope that we can all recognize and admit that this a problem that each of us shares.  We don't have it all together.  We don't have all of the answers.  But we do have Jesus on our side, and he calls us to live differently.  Let's share a bit of Jesus teaching from Matthew chapter 6 on this topic.

1 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." 

Then Jesus drops this bit of wisdom on us...

16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Here Jesus is pointing out examples of people from his day that would put on a big show of religion so that everyone would think they were pious.  These were the kinds of people that everyone standing there listening to him would have disliked.  The kinds of people who seem to be trying to tell others, "See how good I am at my religion? God sure is lucky to have someone like me on his team!"

No one wants to be around people like that. No one.

But Jesus isn't telling his followers to be secretive about their faith, he obviously talks elsewhere about letting your light shine before God so others will see them and glorify the Father.  He encourages his followers to live lives of integrity both in private and public.

And to people who say that they don't come to church because of hypocrites--we need to say, "We get it.  We're all in this together.  We're human.  This isn't a country club, it's a hospital and every one of us in here is broken and bleeding."

We need to, in other words, practice Genuine Humility.

Here's the thing.  When our lives don't match our words, it turns people off.  But if we try to be perfect all of the time, we are just going to fail miserably.  We need to practice Jesus-style humility.

Can you tell me some examples of how Jesus practiced humility?

Is it any wonder people are drawn to that kind of humility?  What if we lived like that--where we put the needs of others ahead of our own.

I have a video clip I would like to show you that will tell you a bit of the story of Justin May, a young man who practices his faith out loud, but in genuinely humble ways.  He doesn't claim to have all the answers, he doesn't claim to always be right.  He simply shows up in the lives of others and shows them the love of Jesus.

Let's watch this video...

Justin says that we have to maintain an "outer perspective" when it comes to serving others.  and that we need to practice genuine humility by "loving and having your focus on others."

It's not about being right.  It's not about being perfect.  It's about being present.  It's about putting others needs ahead of your own.

What are some things we could do as members of this church to practice Genuine Humility?  What are some things that we are doing, perhaps that we could do better?

I'd love for you to take just a couple of minutes to talk about them.  If some of you want to text your ideas to me--or if you have a question for me you can use the number on the screen and text me right now.  The number is...

Today we are going to close by reading some Scripture--a passage written by the Apostle Paul.  This is believed by scholars to be one of the oldest Christian hymns.  People were singing this passage of Scripture in worship just years after Jesus returned to heaven.

1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature[a] God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

[Not] Your Average Church - Week Two: "I Feel Lectured"



This week we are continuing the sermon series that we started last week--a series that is going to take us all the way through the season of Lent and the month of March.  The series is entitled, [Not] Your Average Church:  Why we need real church for real people.  The goal of this series is to first uncover why people have stopped coming to church and then to discover what we can do to turn those negatives into positives...

Last week we discovered that the biggest reason people have stopped coming to church is because they feel judged.  We also learned that the way we can overcome those feelings of judgement is when we practice Radical Hospitality.

This week we are going to find out what the second biggest reason why people say they don't go to church.  In poll after poll, people indicate that one of the main reasons why they don't go to church is because they feel like they are being lectured when they go.  The sermons they hear are lifeless, irrelevant and often angry.  They leave feeling worse than when they came.

Listen, unchurched people can tell the difference between feeling convicted about something they need to change, and just being lectured.

And this doesn't just stop at the sermons on Sunday morning.  The same complaints get extended to Sunday school classes, Bible studies, small groups--you name it.  The general impression by unchurched people is that there is nothing really being offered at church that will help them with the very real problems they are facing, the questions they have, the doubts that they suffer...

This begs the question, is only giving people information working?  Is being a follower of Jesus something that is taught--or is it something that is caught?  Is it just about information, or is about transformation--through conversation?

When I was fifteen, I stopped believing in God--at least in the way I had been taught to believe in God up until that point.  I got tired of a God who was always angry with me.  I felt like the things I was struggling with--my doubts, my fears, the real temptations and anxieties I was experiencing--were all but ignored by my church, my pastors and my youth leaders.

And when I expressed these struggles, I was essentially told to 'get right with God.'  And then given tons of scripture verses that were supposed to help me understand why I shouldn't feel the way I felt.

The solution was to give me information. But what I wanted more than anything was conversation.  

So I went to summer camp when I was fifteen. The summer camps that my fundamentalist church youth group went to were dominated by lots of church services, preaching about sex, drugs and rock and roll and the girls all had to wear koolats,  They had this big altar call at the end of the week after the preacher spent about an hour yelling at us about how we need to get our hearts right with God. The idea was for you to take a stick and then throw it in the fire to show you were right with God.

I decided that the God they were talking about wasn't very cool at all.  And I didn't really want to be right with that God because that God was a killjoy.  I didn't think believing in the God they wanted me to believe in was going to make my life better.  It definitely wasn't making it happier.

So I refused to throw my stick in the fire.

I stood there for an hour.  Everyone threw their stick in the fire--like four hundred people.  My cabin counselor, youth director and even the preacher came up to me, put their arm on my shoulder and tried to convince me that the best thing for me to do was to put my stick in the fire.  I told them I didn't think I needed to, and could I just go.  They told me that I could go when I put my stick in the fire.  So I stood there.  Finally, I realized that the whole thing was more about them than me, and I just took the stick and tossed it in the fire so I could go to bed.

But I was done.  Done with church. And done with God.  So began a journey that eventually took me out of the church, and then to agnosticism.

What I did was what a lot of people who give up on church do--they decide that church and religion aren't really meaningful to them any more and because they equated church and religion with God they walk away from all of them.

So what do we do about this?  Do we do away with sermons altogether?  Is that the solution?

Sermons are important--at least well-planned, well-executed, meaningful, engaging and transformative sermons.  Jesus preached sermons, after all.  So did Peter and Paul.  The book of acts is filled with sermons and references to people preaching them. Once Paul preached for like ten hours--all evening and all night.  A kid fell asleep in the middle of the sermon and fell out of a window to his death.  Paul went out, raised the kid from the dead, and then went back to preaching.  I bet people listened more closely to him after that, though, right?

So where did we go wrong?

I think I have an idea.  Before Jesus arrived the way that people worshipped the One God had a decidedly spatial bent.  In other words, you went to the Temple to encounter God, worship God, be forgiven by God, offer to God.  The Temple Model was all about holy spaces, cared for and facilitated by holy people who allowed you to engage in holy stuff according to an extensive list of rules and barriers.

Jesus turned that on its head.  In fact in one of the Gospel accounts, when Jesus dies on the cross there is an earthquake and the veil that kept the Holy of Holies (the holy place that the holy people, the priests, believed where God visited God's people)  in the Temple away from everyone was torn in two.  There was no need for a Temple, so to speak, at least not in the old way of thinking about it.

So even though Jesus preached sermons, he had many more conversations with people where he addressed their need, reached into their lives, restored them, helped transform them...  Can you think of any of these moments off the top of your head?   Let's share a few.

It's time for us to follow in Jesus example, don't you think?  We've said this before in the sermon series, and it's also a huge part of what we say each week at Lifetree Cafe, but it bears repeating:  Your thoughts are welcome... your doubts are welcome..."

[the following is from Group Publishing's materials on this sermon series]

I wonder if maybe we’ve lost the value of talking, and more importantly, listening. If we did that more often, I’m sure we’d all learn more. So let’s try that right now. Get together in groups of three or four. I’m going to give you a question to discuss, and I want to challenge you to speak and listen to what others say. Try to resist the urge to give the “right” answer or set others straight. If you disagree with someone, keep loving that person anyway. I’ll give you a few minutes to discuss this question:

WHAT TOUGH TOPICS WOULD YOU LIKE TO HAVE MORE CONVERSATIONS ABOUT AT CHURCH?

Jesus wasn't afraid to have tough conversations with people, and to receive their doubts and questions.  In John 3:1-17 we have a situation where Jesus has a conversation with Nicodemus, a religious leader who was trying to figure things out.

Nicodemus doesn't understand completely how to let go of his old Temple Model way of thinking about God.  So Jesus gives him a new thing to consider:  "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world through Him might be saved."

I know it's hard to hear this for some of us... but Christians have turned John 3:16 into a threat.  Instead of a proclamation of Good News, they've made it into an if/than statement.  "If you don't believe like us/than you will burn in hell."  Period. No discussion.  No room for doubts.  No questions.  And then they completely leave off John 3:17 in the process.

No wonder that the 80 percent of Americans who don't really attend church--don't want to attend church.  We are offering them one-sided lectures on Sunday mornings and they fully realize that this means we could care less about what they are feeling wondering, wishing, hoping... and maybe even the things that are killing them inside.

Sometimes there are people who are struggling with things that are so far beyond our understanding that it's hard for us to even imagining what it would be like to be them.

One of the main reasons why I am here today is because of the many people who spent time with me, shared their life with mine, poured into me when they didn't have to.  My youth director and basketball coach took me with him to go visiting, to run errands, do projects at church and at his house.  He talked to me about my life, he listened, and he shared.  I don't remember any of the actual lessons he taught at Sunday school, or in youth group.  I remember the conversations, the bus rides, his presence.

After I graduated high school I found out that my coach's wife left him for another man.  The response of the church we attended, where he had spent so many years ministering?  They fired him.  Because they believed a man who couldn't keep his wife under control wasn't fit to lead.

My coach tried his best to be present with me and with kids like me.  He wasn't perfect, but he did his best to show grace, to teach and lead us by actually being with us.  As opposed to the leaders of the church he served, my former church, that went another direction.

It seems to me what they all needed then was a fearless conversation.  Because if we are afraid to talk about the issues that are keeping people from being the people God created them to be, then what good are we?

I want us all to watch this video, and then talk about it for a bit afterward.

In the end, what will help people like my coach, and so many others---people who are turning away from God, who are fleeing the church because they feel like they can never measure up is simply our presence and our willingness to engage them in conversation.

We need to be a space for grace.

Every Sunday it is my heart's desire to share with you a sermon that is authentic, open, engaging and that has meaning in your every day life.  Each and every week we gather both here and at the Wine Cellars Uncorked in downtown Eustis to have these kinds of fearless conversations.  We get together on Wednesdays here at church with a small group of people who aren't afraid to talk about hard issues, ask tough questions and learn together.

We're getting there, but we have a long way to go.  Each of us does in our own lives.  Let's not be afraid to try.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Dude, You Have A Speck



I was scrolling through Facebook the other day and I saw something that made me shake my head sadly. A person was commenting on an article about a prominent Christian leader and author, who she happened to disagree with.

Her comment was simply to place a reference of Scripture in the comment line. Her reference of choice was second Peter 2:1, which includes a warning about false prophets and false teachers.

She also included the letters SMH which stands for shaking my head.

SMH

I'm familiar with this passage of scripture because it was quoted numerous times in comments and reactions on news stories and social media posts regarding a story that made the news regarding me and my church. The story made TV news because I bet my congregation if they broke an attendance record for Easter last year I would do something crazy. 

The crazy wager was that I would get a tattoo of the church's logo on my leg if they broke the record. Apparently, this was an act of heresy according to scores of fundamentalist Christians who decided to use me as a spiritual scratching post of sorts.  In their minds I was a false prophet and a false teacher and probably the antichrist to boot. I was leading my people astray. I was perverting the Gospel

Dogs and cats living together mass hysteria!

I find it interesting that people enjoy using that Peter passage every time they have something to say about pastors, theologians, or Christian authors who they disagree with. 

Why do I find it interesting? Because almost every single moment in the epistles from the New Testament where someone is addressing false prophets and teachers it has to do with people who are trying to impose more regulations and more religion on to other Christians. It's to call out those who say that in order to be a Christian you have to jump through 1 million hoops so that God will find you worthy. 

Jesus was teaching his disciples about hypocrisy and he used an illustration that had to do with a person who was eager to tell his friend that he had a speck of dust in his eye and needed to remove it but in reality that same person had a huge log sticking out of his own. 

The thing about using scripture in order to throw fiery darts at someone you don't agree with is that there's probably another passage of scripture that they would be able to use to return the favor. 

The Bible is funny that way. It's an equal opportunity offender.

And here's another thing. That moment when someone says that because you believe a certain thing or you interpret the Bible a certain way that you no longer exhibit evidence of true Christianity... That's another of those sort of ironic moments. Because there are plenty of moments in the Bible where the words land on each of us in such a way that we can't help but realize how we cannot possibly live up to the example set by Jesus Christ. Ever. 

I was listening to the news today and I heard a report on how hundreds upon hundreds of conservative evangelical pastors were signing a petition to send to the White House urging Pres. Obama to respond to the growing radical Islamist threat through force.  

Honestly, depending on the day I might be compelled to add my name to that list too. The news from the Middle East has been less than heartening lately.

But then I read this story about the brother of a Coptic Christian from Egypt who was murdered by radical Islamists along with 20 other Coptic Christians. The brother of one of the slain martyrs thanked  the murderers of his brother for allowing his expression of faith in Jesus Christ to remain in the videos they shot of their vile act. He said that hearing his brothers declaration of Faith strengthened his own faith in Christ.

Now, which of these two exhibit more of the character of Christ? The hundreds of evangelical conservative pastors who have fixed their names to a petition advocating war and violence?

Or the Coptic Christian who thanked the murderers of his brother?


There is an argument to be made that 2 Peter 2:1 ought to be affixed under the names of those pastors...  A dang good argument, to be honest. 

See how quickly this can happen? 

Here's something I don't love all that much.  I don't love how you can say something like "God loves everyone," and then there's some Christian somewhere just chomping at the bit to qualify your statement with a "Yeah, but..." and then to follow with something dumb and judgmental.

And then there's the way that Christians use the word "Gospel."  They'll say, "You need to share the Gospel..." or "You just need to preach the Gospel, preacher..."  or  "We shouldn't waste an opportunity to share the Gospel..."  I agree.

The word "Gospel" means "Good News."

So Jesus told his disciples to share the "Good News" with everyone they met.  The "Good News" according to Jesus was outlined in Luke chapter 4 when he proclaimed that "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring Good News to the poor... to set free the captives and prisoners... "  Good News according to Jesus had to do with the kingdom of God come to earth--with a new world that is breaking through the old one in miraculous ways...  That sin and death no longer hold any fear over us.... That's good news.  

Do you know what's not good news?  When you tell someone that they are going to hell if they don't believe exactly as you do...  When you tear down someone and denounce them as an unbeliever because their interpretation of the Bible doesn't meet your lofty standards... When you create so many rules and regulations that you make following Christ a chore rather than an adventure.

In Matthew chapter 7:1-5, Jesus uses the aforementioned analogy that should rock you and I to our very core.

He says,

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Basically, Jesus is saying here that the ironic thing about judging others is that you typically get judged by the same criteria, and when that happens you always fall short.  It's like telling your buddy, "Dude you have a speck... in your eye... a speck of dust... I can see it from here..."  Meanwhile, you have a huge 4x4 piece of wood sticking out of your own.

It's hard to really see a speck in someone else's eye when your own is loaded down with a log.

As Christians, we need to work on the logs in our eyes.  We've got to figure out what the word "Gospel" really means.  We've got to learn that the way we become "right" with God is not by faithfully keeping our own rules and regulations that we've created and attributed to God.

The way to become right with God is to be right with others.

This is what God wants.

Because. God. Loves. Everyone.

If that makes someone somewhere call me a heretic--so be it.

In the words of a Christian author and pastor I admire--who has weathered his own share of criticism and charges of heresy:  "Its often easier to call someone a heretic than to deal with your own shadows."