Wednesday, January 25, 2017

And Thus It Began

True story coming.  (I need to put this down while I can still remember it.)

Forty one years ago I was asked by a co-worker if I would go with her to a college basketball game.  She had a reason for asking me, and the reason wasn't me.  It seems she needed to get a message to a guy who had recently taken her out that she was "broadening her dating horizon", so to speak.  People (mostly him) would see her with me at the game and get the point.  More fish in the sea,or something like that. 

So, really, I was being used.  But I didn't mind.

We had met just a couple months earlier when I got a job in the shoe department at J.C. Penney.  I knew who she was since she had been a cheerleader at the college.  She didn't know I existed.  But we became friends as we sold shoes. 

She came by my home to pick me up (it was her invitation to go out).  I'm certain I introduced her to my parents.  Then I drove her VW bug out to Jefferson Forest High School where our small college without a gym (or campus) of our own played its home games.  Sitting in the bleachers we chatted as we watched the game.  I remember the lady sitting behind us complimenting her on her hair. 

After the game I suggested we go and get some pizza.  It was raining hard and we got so wet getting from the car to the restaurant that she used the hand dryer in the rest room to dry her hair.  I remember "Take It To the Limit" playing on the restaurant juke box.  This was in the days before "classic rock" was classic, mind you.

We ate, talked and she took me home.  That date was 41 years ago January 26.

I'm not sure when, whether that night or soon after - maybe at work - I decided to ask her out for another date.  And to my great pleasure she said yes.  And the rest is, as they say, history.  Almost ancient.

Interestingly, we never have commemorated that first "date" as many couples do, simply because neither of us knew the date.  But, with the help of the internet you can figure out almost anything.  So, last year I was curious...when was that? 

I knew three facts: (1) There was a home basketball game; (2) It was in January; and (3) It rained.  From there it was pretty simple.  Find a home game in January, 1976 on a rainy night in Lynchburg, Virginia.  Only one game qualified, and it was on January 26.

So, for the first time in 41 years we're going out for pizza to celebrate that first date.   No basketball game, but we hope to catch our nephew's wrestling match. 

I was just a decoy.  But I wound up the winner, didn't I?  I think so, too.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

We’re One of “Those” Churches

Every so many years December 25 falls on a Sunday.  Since I’ve been the pastor of Nags Head Church (1991) this makes the 4th time.  So, I’m no rookie at this!  My second year here Christmas fell on a Sunday, and I was the one who insisted we gather that year on Christmas day.  So, my family (with three under 10) and a few others came out.  It was the last time we did that!

The past couple of weeks I’ve read blogs imploring churches not to cancel services on Christmas day.  And the authors (mostly pastors) give some compelling reasons.  They’re just not compelling enough for us!  Like Elvis, we’ll be home for Christmas.  But, we’re not somehow ignoring or downplaying the significance of the Incarnation.

Our tradition is to have Christmas Eve gatherings every year.  In the past they’ve taken place in the evenings.  Last year we moved them to the afternoon (we do two), and our attendance increased by about 50%.  If it’s about reaching people (and I believe it is), that’s a good thing. 

But this year we’re thinking a bit more out of the box, radical or if you choose heretical. 

We’re moving our Sunday worship schedule to Saturday.  For those diehards who thump the “Sabbath” drum, there you go!  We’ll be worshiping on the Sabbath!  We won’t have any services in the evening or on Sunday.

As others have done in campaigning for Christmas services on Sunday this year, here are some reasons we are not, both practical and historical:

1. Ours is a pretty young church.  With right at 200 partners (our word for “members”) we typically have around 100 children (who are not yet partners) from birth through 5th grade in church every Sunday.  Having had three of my own, and now with four grandkids in elementary school, I understand how doing the Christmas morning thing with kids, then trying to get them ready to leave it all behind to go to a church service (that typically would be somehow scaled down…and for what reason?) isn’t a choice we felt necessary to put to our parents.  It’s like, “If you really love the baby Jesus you’ll get to church to celebrate”.  Really?  We’re calling ours a “guilt free Christmas weekend”.

2. We don’t typically have Saturday worship gatherings.  So moving ours this year to Saturday is kind of a unique thing for us.  And we like to do and try new things and change it up.  That’s part of our church’s culture.

3. This allows our folks (many of whom travel over the holidays) to take off earlier on Christmas Eve to get to grandma’s house…even in time, perhaps to go to a Christmas Eve service (double dipping) at her church!  They would not have been with us on Sunday anyhow.

4. We’re putting the word out every way we can in the community so those who are unchurched and are looking for a place to do a Christmas service will see what we are doing.  If it floats their boat, great!  If not, there are plenty of good churches around us meeting on Christmas day.  And that’s OK.  One of our values is to always expect the unchurched to be invited by our congregation.  By the way, we’ve been open every other Sunday this year (except when Hurricane Matthew visited)!

5. Paul’s cautions to the churches in Colossae and Galatia about legalism regarding “observing special days, months, seasons and years” reminds me that it is Jesus who is the pinnacle of our worship, not a date randomly chosen by someone we don’t even know.  We all realize that no one alive actually knows when Jesus was born, and that scholars tell us it probably wasn’t in December.  Maybe there’s a good reason the date of His birth wasn’t recorded.  So, does it really matter that we move it one day from tradition?  We’ll be worshiping the new born King with just as much fervor (and we’re counting on a bigger number of worshipers) on Saturday than we would have on Sunday this year.

Just as the bloggers I’ve read have refrained from casting judgment on those churches which choose a less traditional path to celebrate Christ’s birth (and I appreciate their grace), I have no issue with churches who will be open on Christmas day. 

It’s about understanding your church’s culture and your community. I’m certainly not one who believes God wants all churches to be the same.  So, whether your church gathers this Sunday, or gathers Saturday only or Saturday and Sunday, as long as Christ is the reason for our gatherings God is pleased with us.   

I wish you a merry celebration!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Overcoming Fear With Love

We’re living in a land of fearful people. 

I’m reading such things since the election that say:
·      Blacks are afraid of the KKK becoming strong. 
·      Hispanics are afraid of deportation.
·      The LBGTQ community is afraid that they will lose their “equal” rights.
·      Cops are afraid of being shot.
·      Muslims are afraid of every kind of discrimination.

All of that fear is in the kingdom that does not belong to Christ.  Yet, from what I’ve seen the last months and especially the last week it is just as evident in evangelical churches of every color. 

Fear is crippling.  It shuts us down. Silences our witness. I’m preparing for Sunday’s message in Judges, and in chapter 6 the Israelites were so afraid of the Midianites that they “made hiding places for themselves in the mountains, caves and strongholds”.  And this in the very land God had given them and promised was theirs.  So, they were paralyzed as a people for 7 years because of fear.

We can’t pretend the fears around us aren’t real or that some of them aren’t legit.  Many of them (on both sides) are fed by this mess we call social media.  It’s like a frenzy sometimes, and it seems Christians are as prone to hand-wringing as anyone.  I confess that my personal fear in the election was that we would have to endure 4 more years of attacks on religious liberties like we’ve seen the past eight. And certainly (said my fear) we can’t allow that, because our ability to wave the banner of Christianity depends on our 1st amendment rights, right?

Then I read the Bible.  Especially the New Testament.  And I hear Jesus saying things about His Kingdom, like these words to Pilate.  "My kingdom is not of this world.  If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. As it is, My kingdom does not have its origin here."

And I read the Apostles Paul, Peter and John writing to Christians living in a worldly kingdom, the Roman Empire, where their religious liberties were disappearing under emperors who had it in for the Christians they saw as potential insurrectionists and revolutionaries.  

Paul wrote to the Roman church: For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out, " Abba, Father!" The Spirit Himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God’s children, and if children, also heirs —heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ—seeing that we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. – Rom. 8:15-17

Peter wrote to the persecuted church: 14But even if you should suffer for righteousness, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear or be disturbed,15but set apart the Messiah as Lord in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. 16However, do this with gentleness and respect, keeping your conscience clear, so that when you are accused, those who denounce your Christian life will be put to shame. 17For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. - 1 Pet. 3:14-17

John then wrote,  And we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and the one who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him.
17In this, love is perfected with us so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; for we are as He is in this world.
18There is no fear in love; instead, perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment. So the one who fears has not reached perfection in love. 19We love because He first loved us.  - 1 Jn. 4:16-19

I could go on and on pointing out the passages that instruct us not to fear what the world might throw at us, and that we should expect those things, even suffer because of those things because we have citizenship in another kingdom.  There’s plenty of that in the Bible.

Our struggle (at least mine) is in living this dual citizenship we have.  On the one hand I know the Word and its promises and admonitions about living in fear.  How many times did Jesus say “Fear not”?  A bunch.  We know that in our heads.  But when we are constantly bombarded through media and conversations with stories and conjectures, "breaking news" and conspiracy theories those things can easily overcome what we know the Bible to say.

So, these suggestions:
1. Safeguard what you let into your mind that comes from “this world”.  I found myself hiding a lot of others Facebook posts yesterday because I knew their content would only either make me mad or focused on the wrong kingdom.  "Garbage in. Garbage out."

2. Use your influence and your words to love the fearful.  You don’t have to agree with the fears, and maybe you can’t relate to them at all.  But, as Christians we’ve got this promise that love casts out fear.  Maybe we just need to be less defensive, stop arguing and love like Jesus. That requires sacrificing my right to be right.

3. Spend more time in the Word than in the news and on social media.  It’s no wonder that we live in fear.  We’re feeding our minds and hearts with the wrong food.  If I didn’t know that I have this other citizenship in Christ’s kingdom, I’d be totally fearful right now.  And fear only causes us to lash out in defense.

4. Trust God.  That’s easy to say and is almost cliché.  But, if I truly am trusting God then I’m good with whomever resides in the White House or the governor’s mansion.  I may not agree with him/her/them, but I know God has my back and that of my family and my country…even if He allows us to suffer.  Are we truly any better or more special to God than Christ or the Christians under Nero’s thumb? 

5. Look for His Kingdom to come.  When Jesus said to include “Your kingdom come” in our prayers it was for a reason.  Praying for it won’t make it happen sooner.  My guess is that day of the Lord is already on God’s calendar.  But praying for it keeps it before my mind and it is our blessed hope.

My hope and prayer is that the coming days and years, should we have them, will bring about a renewal in the church as we become less worldly and more kingdom centered.  Our perspective has to change and become more than words.  And I know that if I’m sincere it has to start with me. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Truth or Warm Fuzzies?

A friend posted a meme on his Facebook wall the other day.  I'm not a great fan of memes, mostly because they are often distortions of the truth.  And the ones that tell me I need to say "Amen" or "Share if you agree" are the most unliked.

"Amen" is a sacred word in my vocabulary, usually concluding a prayer or vocalizing my agreement with theological truth.  So, I'm not one to throw them out when engaging in small talk.  The word simply means, "That's truth", or "I agree".

What I don't need to be agreeing with are distortions or half-truths.

Here's the meme.

It originated from some source called "God First Ministries".  To me it goes along with those memes that tell me "If this post gets 1,000 likes FB will pay for his surgery.".  Who believes this stuff?

I replied to my FB friend, "And you believe this is true because someone posted a meme?"  His response had me SMH (I have learned a few of these abbreviations).  And he's no kid.  We went to college together.  We were taught to value truth.  

But, he said, "Dosen't (sic) matter if true or not still don't have a problem posting Amen.Amen."

What?  Truth doesn't matter?  You're OK posting something that has a better than good chance of being false?  Truth is irrelevant as long as the sentiment gives me a warm feeling inside?

This is not to say that I have never fallen prey to a seemingly legitimate "news" flash, only to regret I didn't do my homework first before "liking" or "sharing".  I've had a few bites of crow pie.  And because of that I try to be more diligent.

I decided then that while keeping him as a "friend" I'll "unfollow" him.  SMH too often only gets me dizzy. 


Tuesday, August 9, 2016

When All Seems Lost

Last night…actually it was very early this morning, I was handed a mostly melted plastic cup by a firefighter.  Its contents were recovered from a bedroom in a house that was destroyed by fire.  “Go find the owner of these”, he told me.

I knew the residents, a family of 16 on vacation here in Nags Head, had kindly been given refuge from the rain on the ground floor in a vacation rental across the street.  They had no place else to go.  Their vehicles were blocked in the driveway by great big fire trucks.  One SUV was parked under the house, and who knew if it would survive the inferno above.  All their clothes, food, boogie boards…whatever they brought for their week on the beach was lost.

Except the contents of this melted cup that I held in my hand.

As the department chaplain I was there to do whatever I could to help whoever needed it.  In my turnout gear (I was called “chief” a few times during the incident, I guess because I wear a white helmet) and through the rain I walked across the street and into the game room with a pool table, furniture and big TV.  All sixteen were huddled there.  Grandparents. Siblings. Kids.

“Do you have any blankets?”, I was asked by one shivering young lady.  Most were barefooted, wearing whatever they were wearing to bed a couple hours before. 

“No. But I have some rings.  Whose are they?”  And I poured the four gold rings, one with a sizable diamond, onto a cocktail table.  From the crowd around the TV a young woman jumped up.  “They’re mine!”  Included in the four rings were her wedding and engagement rings, something no woman wants to ever lose.

She came up and looked at her soot covered jewelry on the table and the tears began to flow.  Then, with such a look of gratitude, she hugged me and planted a big kiss on my cheek!  What she thought was likely forever lost, items precious to her because of the love they symbolized had somehow been returned. 

Picking up the melted cup and looking closely at it I saw a name that had been written on it with a Sharpie, although it had shrunk with the plastic.  “Who’s Jeff?”, I asked.  And Jeff raised his hand.  “Here’s your cup!”  Everyone laughed.  Laughs were good at that time for that family.

Sometimes life can’t seem to get much worse.  These folks were on a vacation they had likely planned and saved for since last summer.  They drove all the way from somewhere in New York to be together in an oceanfront home.  My guess is they were having a great time until they were awakened at 3AM by a neighbor pounding on their door.  I’m told they last one out got out just in time as the flames rapidly expanded through the dwelling.

Suddenly, in a moment we can lose what is most precious to us.  The blessing was that no one was injured.  No one lost their life.  They would have to find a new place to stay.  They would have to buy clothes to last them through the rest of the week.  A week’s worth of groceries for 16 people gone. 
But the salvaged rings brought a night of horror a realization that all was not lost.  They were able to smile and laugh and rejoice with their owner. 

I hope she’s been able to clean them up today and put them back on her fingers.  But now they are more than reminders of a proposal and vows.  They’re also a reminder of how precious life is, and how quickly everything we possess materially can be lost. 

The Bible tells us that life is brief.  Like a fog, it’s here, then it’s gone.  There are no guarantees of tomorrow for any of us.  But God has provided something more precious than silver, gold or precious stones to give us hope.  And that gift is the offer of eternal life in His Son Jesus Christ.

I’ve seen so many in my lifetime receive that gift and have what was lost found.  There is no greater joy than that moment in a person’s life. 

Monday, August 1, 2016

Guest Blog: Why Religious Liberty is Good for Everybody

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson, who is viewed by many as the alternative candidate to either Trump or Clinton has made statements in opposition to religious liberty.  But can we continue to be America without a liberty that was foundational to our existence?

Phil McCutchen, a pastor friend and blogger in MA offers his thoughts on the subject.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

When I Came of Age

Ten year old boys are still pretty much innocent and naïve.  At least they were in 1966.  My greatest passion and desire was baseball. 

Every day, all summer my life was a mirror of the movie “Sandlot”.  I played Little League ball that summer.  Second base and occasionally I got to pitch.  But when the season was over the guys in the neighborhood would gather in Randy’s back yard and play ball all day.  We kept hydrated by drinking from the garden hose behind home plate.

I was also into cars in those days.  Not Hot Wheels, but real cars.  The game we played as we were driven here and there by our moms (our dads were in Viet Nam at the time) was to identify the cars we passed.  It was pretty simple.  Pretty much you had your standard American cars and the occasional Fiat.  We didn’t know the Japanese made cars in 1966.

At ten girls were still something we had to endure.  But about a year later that began to slowly change.  But even for the next couple of years they couldn’t compare to baseball and cars.

The kids in my neighborhood had come face-to-face with our own mortality a year or so earlier.  We couldn’t have been home from school for 30 minutes when I heard screaming.  Looking out my window was one of my classmates running down the street, frantically calling for her momma.  A few minutes later the news quickly spread that her little sister had been struck and killed by a car while crossing the road to get to the local grocery store. 

Mom took us to her funeral and to the burial at a roadside family graveyard.  Before that I had been to a couple of funerals.  But they were all “old” people.  Now I knew the possibility of dying wasn’t reserved for grandparents.  Kids could die, too.

My friend Randy (the one whose backyard was our sandlot) invited me to his church when I was ten.  We always went to church somewhere.  All of us.  I had been christened as an infant.  Mom played the organ.  But when I asked if I could go to Randy’s church, Mom said, “Yes”.  Sometime soon after she was checking it out for herself.

I’m sure that I had been in places where Jesus and His gospel were explained before.  But, if so, it never connected with me.  For some reason (I understand it better now) I was ready to not only listen to it, but to ponder my own mortality and consider what I was hearing.  I knew He was God, but never had I believed that He was my God. 

The pastor’s sermons were putting it all out there in that little church.  There was no air conditioning and often he would have to take off his coat (apologizing as he did) and loosen his tie.  A couple of big fans on stands circulated the summer air.  His preaching was both passionate and compelling as he invited anyone who had not yet put their own faith in Christ to do so. 

I was hanging on to my parents’ beliefs.  But he made it plain that their coattails wouldn’t pull me into heaven with them.  So, on that 31st day of July, fifty years ago I said “Yes” to Christ’s offer to give me as His gift a new life.  I’m eternally grateful I did and that He made me part of His family.  Best of all, it was pretty simple.  Simple enough for a ten year-old boy.

“But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.” -  John’s Gospel.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

There's No Such Thing As a Free Lunch...or College Education

[Warning Will Robinson: Political thought follows.]

I watched with interest as Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke at the conclusion of Monday night's DNC.  Passionate he is!  And I admire him for that passion.  It's clear that in his heart Sen. Sanders cares about the issues that matter most to him and, I would guess, most Democrats.

But passion plus a less than well-thought out solution does not equal wisdom, or even common sense.

As I listened to him proclaim he and Candidate Clinton have worked together to come up with a plan to make college education at all state colleges and universities tuition free my simpleton mind began to think it through.  And my conclusion was it would be disastrous.

1. Free?  Nothing's free.  Somebody has to pay.  Education is expensive.  And the payments would necessarily (because they are state owned schools) come from higher taxes.  Much higher taxes.  The state has no other source of income.  And who pays those higher taxes?  You, me (if you're working and have income) and (the killer is) those students once they enter the labor force. 

In France, where state universities are free, the income tax rate stands at 50.3%.  Sure, that covers other benefits such as universal health care, too.  But the fact is that graduates might not be saddled with enormous student loans (but they'll still have to somehow pay for room and board), but the trade off is being saddled with higher taxes.  Either way, the idea of "free education" is a myth.

2. The proposal is a federal government takeover of state institutions.  "You states can have your universities, but Washington, DC will dictate how they will be financed."  Thus, the federal government continues to confiscate from the states, and that, in my mind is a dangerous thing.  We are a union of sovereign states for a purpose: to prevent the federal government from taking too much power.  Remember the USSR?

3. This would spell the end of private colleges and universities, which are among our best.  If a student can go free to the state university, why consider a private institution that is so expensive.  In fact, only the elite rich would be able to afford private education.  Scholarship monies would be drastically withered away due to the cost to taxpayers for public education, drying up the donations that make so many scholarships possible.

4. #3 would also kill off those colleges, universities and seminaries that train church leaders.  In some ways that might be a good thing, driving the churches to train future leaders "in house". 

5. The end of private universities and colleges must also include the elimination of thousands of jobs in those schools, creating greater unemployment and increasing poverty and dependence on the state.

6. The higher taxes needed to fund the "free education" will take away income from families already struggling to keep financially afloat.  They will either be forced to find second and third jobs, or drop below the poverty line putting them on government assistance. 

7. I'm sure that the solution to #6 will be to get the bulk of the tax income to finance "free" education from "the 1%" and corporations.  Less profits will then translate into fewer jobs and lessened productivity. 

8. And there's the old axiom that if you work for something or pay for it you'll have a greater appreciation for it.  You'll see it as an investment, not as a gift.  Giving out freebies has never resulted in greater prosperity, either for the individual or the state. 

While free anything is a wonderful thought, it's a pie-in-the-sky pipe dream.  Those who understand the ethic of working for what you have understand that.  Unfortunately it appears Clinton and Sanders do not.  And that would be disastrous for our nation. 

I don't want to feel that bern.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Is There Hope?

Bob Dylan sang it.  “Everything is broken”.  And he was right.

How did our country get this way?  Anyone with even the slightest moral compass knows that somewhere we’ve taken a wrong turn.  The too often “breaking news”, whether from Washington, D.C., Louisiana, Minnesota or Texas was chilling and sorrowful. 

Everyone from the President, governors, police official, reverends and talking heads tell us something is amiss.  Something has fundamentally changed.  Hate has become stronger it seems, than tolerance.  Wrong has become right. 

Jeremiah, known as the “weeping prophet” grieved over the signs he saw in his own nation – signs that told him things had to turn better or the downward slide would continue at roller coaster speed.  And God would let it go on and on. 

A prophet spoke God’s words.  Supernaturally he connected with the Almighty in such a way that God used him to convey His heart and thoughts.  One of those “words from God” goes this way.  For My people are fools; they do not know Me. They are foolish children, without understanding. They are skilled in doing what is evil, but they do not know how to do what is good.

Pretty damning words from God…”they do not know to do what is good”. 

I’m not of the opinion we’re there yet as a nation.  But who can convince me we’re not headed that way?  Yet I have hope that there are still millions, perhaps still the majority, who do know how to do what is good.  And if I’m correct, they’re not yet willing to throw in the towel and give in to injustice and immorality, including in our leaders.  Not yet.

Among those who should know right from wrong is the community of faith, whether in a locality or the conglomerate of believers across the land.  But knowledge can’t be held within, especially when it has the power to change the tide and bring us back.

So, how do we respond?  Let me suggest a few things.

First, as always, we can pray.  Prayer is first because it can and should be an immediate response.  But take the effort to look up the names of those killed last week and pray for their families.  They’re struggling with pain, anger and of course grief.  Pray that the “God of all comfort” finds ways to bring them what He brings best. 

Then pray for our leaders and those who would be.  The Bible says that our prayers for those in authority are “so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity”.  Note that it doesn’t say, “so that we can live however we choose” or “so that those we agree with are in control”.  God, in troubling times, desires us to live in “godliness and dignity”. 

Second, do some introspective evaluation.  Ask yourself (as I frequently as myself) if I’m cheering when someone “gets what he/they deserve”.  That’s a hypocritical reaction for someone who believes in grace and mercy.  And it’s easy for hypocrites to hide behind masks.  In fact, that’s what the word means.

Third, look for opportunities to speak the Good News.  I’m a firm believer that no matter what the world throws up (literally and figuratively) God has something better for us all and He has freely provided it in the gift of His Son. 

He’s the cure for what’s broken.  And He has a plan.  

He is the plan.