Monday, July 14, 2014

Fellowship with my church. Important or impotent?

On the first day of the week, we assembled to break bread.  Paul spoke to them, and since he was about to depart the next day, he extended his message until midnight. - Acts 20:7
 
This is the clearest verse in the New Testament that indicates Sunday was the normal meeting day of the apostolic church.  Although it’s not commanded, it is their example, and one that the church has followed for over 2,000 years.  Because it is not commanded (and Sunday is not the "Sabbath" of the Big Ten), we have liberty today to worship corporately whenever.  

(I'm excited to hear of churches that have multiple worship gatherings on Sundays and because of growth need to find other days as well.)

Because our country was founded by Christians (read their documents), Sunday was go-to-church day for them and our culture originally viewed it as “The Lord’s Day”.  So, it was a standard day off for most everyone.  My generation can remember back not too long ago when most stores were closed on Sundays?  Why was that?  It goes back to our Christian roots as a nation.  At one time virtually everybody went to church in America.  

But going to church for tradition or because it's expected can ring very shallow.  There ought to be more, don't you think?  Something changes in my life when I want to do something and am passionate about it, opposed to having to do something that I just don't see as important.

How important was fellowship to these first century Christians?  Apparently they put everything else aside to eat and fellowship and be taught through the night on Sunday.  And consider that in their pagan culture Sundays were no different from any other days.  So it likely wasn’t a day off, unless they took it off, or were self-employed and set their own schedules.  Many of them were probably slaves and had no choice when they worked.   

So, on the Lord's Day, after a full day of labor, they went home, whipped up something for the pot luck dinner and headed to the place of fellowship and worship.   That made for a long day.  And in this occasion they didn’t just have a normal (whatever that meant to them) Sunday evening service.  The Apostle Paul was in town and would be speaking at their church that night.  Everybody would want to be there!  

Luke graciously let's us know that Paul was long-winded!  He "extended his message until midnight"!  So passionate about gathering together were these believers that even sleep was less important to them than being together as a church. 

I have pastor friends who tell me how upset people in their churches get if the service goes past noon.  They will tap on their watches, or set their alarms for 12:00 to let the preacher know that "his" time is up.  Some, they tell me,  will get up and leave.  For them beating the Methodists to the lunch buffet or Cracker Barrel is priority #1.   

And without exception, those kinds of churches, filled with believers who have more important things to do on the Lord’s Day than worship and fellowship, are weak, sick and powerless. Perhaps if we had more of this passion for the church and fellowship and teaching we might see God revive the churches in America.

Perhaps one day they'll wake up to the fact that without the church we who are Christians are left to deal with a world out to destroy our faith and our families.  That’s why the Bible assumes every Christ-follower will partner with a local church.  That's why apart from the protective umbrella of the church we’re like sheep outside the fold and easy prey for the wolves.  Hanging with the church is a powerful detriment to wandering, starving and disappearing back into a world from which we were salvaged.

Jesus wasn't bored one day, so He created the church.  In fact, we're told in Ephesians 5 that He died for "her".  She's His bride.  When we who profess Him as our Lord lose our passion for being with this amazing family there should be warning lights flashing that our hearts are in danger of finding other loves.  



 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

I'm Not As Dumb As I Look

In some ways pastors are like cops.  You know, (maybe you really know) how when a cop pulls someone over for an infraction and some sort of excuse is given that is so contrived and contradictory, that the cop thinks, "This guy really believes I'm dumber than dirt".

Often I'll run into a, shall I say, "lapsed" church member...someone who hasn't darkened the door of my church for let's say at least a year.  I hear all kinds of excuses...

"I've been really busy".  Oh.  And the rest of us get eight days in our week and just sit around with nothing to do.

"I've found a church that better suits my family's schedule."  So you're telling me they don't meet on Sunday mornings?

"I'm more suited to such and such church because their music is quieter."  So, when you joined our church, with its loud music, were you being dishonest with your sincere desire to partner with us?

Stuff like that. 

But check out what I heard this morning..."I've been going to church with my boyfriend to such and such church at 11:00."  Then a sentence or two later, "I really want to go to 'my church' (which happens to be the church I pastor where she hasn't been seen for several years), but I have to work every Sunday." 

So, which is it?  You're going to church with your boyfriend on Sundays or you're working on Sundays?  Seems to me it can't be both. 

Get real.  I might look it, but I'm not that dumb. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

If You Liked the Movie, Read the Book!

Like much of culture Hollywood understands fads…especially if there’s money to be made from them.

Classics like “The Ten Commandments”, “The Robe”, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and “Ben Hur” had their more that fair share of success.  Disney even got into the Bible story genre with its animated “Prince of Egypt”, telling the life of Moses. 

Ten years ago (has it been that long) Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ” surprised the Hollywood establishment.  Who thought a very graphic movie about the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life spoken in Aramaic with subtitles would gross over 600 million dollars worldwide?  The film industry saw then that, indeed, film-goers, especially those in America would turn out in droves to see movies based on Bible characters, even if they were highly religious in content.

Now another adaptation of the life of Jesus, “Son of God”, is on the big screen.   Actually it is an edited reprise of last year’s television mini-series “The Bible”, extracting the best scenes from that portrayal’s life of Jesus and marketing it to the cinema.  If early indications hold true it will be successful as well.  Its first weekend showed a take of 26.5 million dollars.  And really, it’s a rerun.  Not quite the 83.8 million Gibson’s film earned, but good enough to come in at #2 nationwide.

Some more fundamentalist critics have picked apart what they see as diversions from the scriptural accounts and for that reason have discouraged attendance.  While the producers have claimed their own Christian faith, they are not theologians and like all other Hollywood productions have used “artistic license” in telling the story.  But most evangelical and Catholic voices find it a worthy film.

I’ve not yet seen it.  Not sure that I will, only because I choke at the price of admission to a movie these days.  But I may, and if I do I may invite some friends – maybe those who either aren’t believers or who find Jesus interesting, yet aren’t “into” the church thing.  Anything that can spur conversations about Jesus can’t be a bad thing.

Let me encourage you to do a couple of things as we draw closer to the Passion Week.

First, for those who celebrate Lent, go see the movie (unless you gave up movie-going).  I don’t personally get into the season of Lent – it’s not part of my tradition -  but talking with many who do I hear more about them and what they’re giving up than I do about Christ and what He gave up.  That’s just my impression.  So go see the movie and let its images be imprints on your minds as you journey to the cross and the resurrection this season.  Make it different than before.

And for all of us I would encourage you to use the movie as an appetizer to the real meal.  Over the next 40 days why not prepare your hearts for the horror that was Jesus’ crucifixion and the exultation that is Easter by reading the Gospels.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all tell The Story from their four different, but divinely inspired viewpoints.  It is such a compelling story, and told without “artistic license”.  Get into the Word.  By it comes faith.  And we could all use more of that.

And if you don’t own a copy of the Bible I’ll give you one.  Just stop by and see me.  It’s worth the read.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Diehards

Sometimes as a pastor you wonder if the message really gets through.  And then there are days when you are reminded that you are part of an amazing group of people who no only get it, but truly live to serve.

At Nags Head Church we have purposefully built our ministries around and on the shoulders of our volunteers.  At many churches, especially those like ours that are nowhere near mega-status, nor can be, congregants are content to let the ministries of the church be run by the pastor, or if he's fortunate enough, the pastor and staff.  That mindset totally misses the dynamic of the church that the Apostle Paul shared with the Ephesian church.  It's our belief that in a healthy church every part(ner) does his/her part.

That implies that every one who belongs to the local church has a part to play.  Gifts, passion, skills, and life experiences all come into play, making each partner in the church different and with the potential to offer something significant when Christ has His place of lordship in their lives.  And it doesn't have to be the "mature" who contribute.  More often than not it is the "newbies" - those young in their faith whose enthusiasm sparks a fire under the rest of us.

All this week our church is providing shelter and meals to a group of homeless residents in our community.  We do this twice a year during the winter months, part of a cooperative effort among other churches here.  This ministry in our church is put together, organized and led totally by volunteers.  Our small groups take on the bulk of the meals and providing chaperones who spend the nights.

Today and tonight we're in the middle of a snow storm, with winds gusting at 40 MPH and temps dipping into the low 20's.  The roads are getting iced over, making driving icy and dicey.  Yet, a team of volunteers came in late this afternoon ready to serve a meal they had prepared to seven men and two women who have nowhere else to go.  None of our volunteers complained about the weather, or let it dampen their spirits at all.  They served with gladness.

One even went back out into the storm to pick up a food item for one of our guests.  He didn't have to do that.  In fact, no one said, "Hey, would someone go out and pick up some tuna fish?".  He just got up and and went for it.

But that's the way these folks at our church serve, not just in an outreach like this, but in all the varied ministries that are the nuts and bolts of the church.  I was there tonight, more as an observer than anything else.  Also because I knew there would be a great meal!  But I found myself thankful for these ministers - these partners in the faith using their gifts, passions and skills to invest the life of Christ they have received into those who may or may not yet know Him.

Tomorrow the roads will be worse.  But more who have committed to serving will do their best to come and do their part.  Perhaps others, who have four wheel drive vehicles and have said they will step up and provide transportation if needed will do just that.  But together, with hearts that seek after Christ, the job will be done to the glory of God.  They see i as just doing their part.

This is one of those latter times as a pastor.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Life as the Imago Dei


In all of the life on planet Earth, including plant life, animal life and humanity only one species carries within each member the greatest distinctive of them all.  It can’t be seen by a microscope or through DNA testing.  It’s not the result of some evolutionary mutation or genetic drift.  Science can’t repeat it in a laboratory.  In fact, many scientists would argue it does not exist.

The foundational story of God’s creative work on earth tells us that when He made the first human He did so by crafting them in a fashion totally different than any other living creature.  So God created man in His own image; He created him in the image of God; He created them male and female.” (Genesis 1:27)

So much could be drawn from that one sentence.  But because today is the 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade I’ll just focus on who we are: created in God’s image. 

How is it then that animals and plants, not bearing the image of their Creator rank higher on the preservation list than those who do?  How is it that in the minds of some piping plovers and sea turtles must be protected at all costs, yet ending the life of unborn humans – the only of God’s creation for which Christ died – should be no one’s business but that of a woman and her doctor?  How is it?

The answer must be that somewhere we lost the sacredness of whom we are: bearers of the image of God.  I don’t know when that brick in our cultural foundation was lost, but on January 22, 1973 it was chiseled out by those who should be protecting the rights of the most helpless rather than labeling them persona non grata. 

As a result some fifty million Americans never got a chance to allow God’s image imprinted within them from the moment dad’s sperm hooked up with mom’s egg.  Forty- one years of canceled life.  That would equal two generations.  Could within them have been the mind that would have found the cure for cancer or AIDS?  I guess we’ll never know.

Lest you think I have taken on a political tone today, I assure you for me it is not about politics.  It is about our moral and spiritual compass losing its frame of reference – its true north.  The image of God was buried under the pretense of reproductive rights and convenience while we closed our minds to the rights of the unborn.

Until this greatest American injustice is reversed there is something we can do to mitigate the continued loss of lives.  We can teach our children to be sexually responsible.  We can instill within them values that include life being sacred.  We can adopt those born to parents unable or unwilling to provide home and family.  And we can pray.

Just a little over six years ago I stood in the NICU at Duke, wearing a sterile hospital gown, a sterile mask and sterile latex gloves looking in fear, awe and wonder at a tiny micro-preemie born at 1 lb. 6 oz.  I had never seen anyone like that before, and it cemented in my heart and mind what had already been formed in my conscience and ethics.  Life is precious.  This was a living, breathing person who bore the image of God.

She’s now in kindergarten.  No one gives hugs like hers.  Maybe she’ll grow to come up with the cure.  Maybe not.  But she was given the chance to live, which is what all of us old, young and unborn deserve.  Let the image of God come through.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Greatest Gift


This is the fourth installment in a Christmas series that seeks to know the reason Christmas was necessary.  It began with creation, and how God made everything, including man and woman just as it should have been.  “Very good” were His words.

Adam and Eve were given complete freedom in a Garden that provided them everything they would ever need.  Their one and only restriction was to avoid eating the fruit from a single tree.  It was a test designed to give them daily opportunity to prove their love and trust in their Creator Father.  There was no need to eat that fruit.  But the perfection of everything God had provided them proved in their minds to be not quite enough.

Eventually the temptation overcame Eve, who then broke down Adam’s resistance as well to the forbidden fruit.  Created in the image of God and without a nature to sin they chose by that one act to disobey and rebel.  Immediately their spirits’ fellowship with God was broken, and that broken spiritual life was then passed on to all their descendants.  What God had created, including the earth, as “very good” suddenly in a moment was corrupted and dead.

Adam and Eve tried to cover up their newly discovered nakedness with fig leaves.  But, apart from the life of the tree from which they were plucked, the fig leaves at best could only give temporary covering.  And really, their attempts to hide their sin from God were silly.  Ever since men have come up with new ways to make themselves acceptable to God.  However, none have removed the taint of human depravity.

But, God had a plan.  The Scripture tells us that even before the foundations of the earth were created God knew how to fix broken people.  After all, He created us.  His plan was simple, yet so difficult, both for Him.  In fact, His plan would prove to be offensive to humanity because we like to think we can fix ourselves.  We cannot, but God can.

Throughout the Old Testament God promised the One who would provide us the way back to a relationship with Him.  He’s called by many names and given many titles in the prophecies.  So many of the stories of God’s deliverance to Israel were to point them to His plan for all of mankind.  The Law He gave to them through Moses was not designed to remove their sin, but to make it clear that they had sinned.

Through the prophets He foretold of Bethlehem, a Messiah, Emmanuel, the virgin birth, a descendant of David…so many details were given of the future Savior to let them know all was not lost.

Then when the time was right (Galatians 4:4) God came in human form to become the second Adam.  He would be born into poverty, not in a palace, and would live life, with all of its temptations (Hebrews 4:15) never sin.  Like Adam, He was born with no innate nature to sin, because like Adam He had no human father.  But unlike Adam He would show God’s intent from creation. 

More importantly, because of His unique sinlessness, He alone qualified to pay the penalty for Adam’s (and ours by inheritance) sin.  As our substitute He would be crucified, the sinless for the sinful so that we might again have a relationship with the God who created and loves us.  That baby in the manger was far more than a wonderful story.  The angels announced His birth to the shepherds that night because this was the long-awaited answer to the ultimate need of every heart.

Most amazing aspect of God’s plan is that the salvation from sin that Jesus came to provide is offered freely to all who believe in Him.  Indeed, the Christ of Christmas is the greatest gift ever given.






Monday, December 16, 2013

Why Christmas? Because Everything is Broken.


(Part 3 of 4.)

All of us have at some time turned on a mystery television show or movie well into the story line and found that because we missed the beginning we can’t follow the plot.  I’ll do that sometimes to my wife…walk in on the middle of a drama and during the next commercial ask, “What’s this all about?”  And she’ll try during the commercial break to fill me in enough so I can grasp what is happening.



Even though Christmas is about a birth, and in many ways the ushering in of something new, it’s far from the beginning of the story.  In fact, it’s closer to the end.  And if you never read or understood the third chapter of Genesis, which is back at the beginning, you could never fully grasp the need for Bethlehem’s babe.  And, as we’ll see next week, the incarnation of the Son of God – the Christmas story – was only the first paragraph of the final chapter of the story.



Maybe it is for this reason that Christmas truly has become a most misunderstood celebration.  The plea of the familiar children’s Christmas song to “be good for goodness sake” is one example of that misunderstanding because it proposes the impossible.  We can’t be good for goodness sake because we are by nature broken.  The solution is not to try to be good.  The solution is to be fixed by our Maker.



After God created the heavens and the earth and pronounced it “very good” He then placed the first of our kind, Adam and Eve, in a garden of perfection where every need they might have was met by God in creation.  Their Father provided food, shelter, vocation, and companionship all. 



He also placed within their daily view a test.  God did not create us as robots, but with a free will to choose right from wrong.  That test, at fruit bearing tree, was the only one of its kind and served as a proof of Adam and Eve’s love for their Father.  Jesus, in His teaching would state that principal this way: “If you love me keep my commandments.”  So there was a tension within paradise.  There stood the forbidden tree.  With it came a warning from God: eat from it and die.



Death was never intended for mankind.  Life was to be enjoyed and spent in fellowship with God and with one another, and meant to last forever on a perfect earth.  I don’t know if Adam and Eve were actually tempted to cross that line and eat the tree’s fruit prior to Genesis 3 and if they were how difficult was the temptation.  We’re not told.  Neither are we told how long into their lives it was when the day of infamy came.  But no doubt the restriction from God and the warning were a daily remembrance that kept them from falling.  That is until one fateful day.



Satan, the deposed worship leader of heaven who led a rebellion of angels against God had been cast down to the earth.  And it became his goal to foil and spoil what God had done – create a being with the ability to choose.  So Genesis 3 gives us the story of how Eve, then Adam failed, going from perfection to depravity.  It’s not a pretty story when you realize all that was lost, not only for the first couple, but for all of their descendants. 



Some have commented that the third chapter of Genesis is the most important theologically in all the Bible.  The impact of that fall, becoming sinners by choice has infected every human born since. We all start dying the moment we are born! 



And that’s why Christmas is indeed the total opposite.  That’s why Christmas is supposed to be merry!  It brings the Good News that God didn’t give up on His creation and that He has the fix to our brokenness.  That’s where we’ll go next week.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

When Perfection Wasn’t Good Enough

(This is part 2 of 4.)
 
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This month I’m looking at why Christmas was needed.  Why did God come to earth, nurtured for nine months in the womb of a virgin to be born a pauper in a stable?  The answers are found “in the beginning” – in the first 3 chapters of Genesis.



Last week we saw how God, in His creative work made everything “good”.  That’s Genesis 1.  Then in the second chapter we’re given more information about the habitat God provided for the man and woman who first dwelt here.  There we’re told that from the dust of the ground God crafted Adam.  So it isn’t really surprising that when our bodies decay after death they return to “dust”. 



But there was Adam, (the perfect man at this point) with a list of tasks, such as naming all the animals, but without someone with whom he could share life.  I believe God knew Adam would be lonely.  He just wanted Adam to experience being alone so he would have a greater appreciation and love for the partner God then provided him.



Not from the dust, but from a rib in Adam’s side God created woman – another human like him but different.  They were to complement one another and to get busy populating the earth with offspring.  Theirs was a perfect environment in Eden.  All of their needs were met.  You can let your imagination run wild and come to the conclusion that they had it good.  It was paradise.



Imagine living in a place where you are surrounded with every kind of fruit and vegetable to eat.  And it was all perfect.  The climate was perfect.  It must have been because we’re told Adam and Eve existed in nakedness.  I’m thinking about 76 degrees with no humidity and a gentle breeze in the day and a drop to 72 at night.  Yeah.  That would be about right.  They didn’t have to work for anything other than reaching up or down to pick their meals.  And Adam never had to contend with a mother-in-law!



You would think (at least I do) that in such a perfect, sufficient, idyllic place they would have been satisfied.  I try to tell myself that I would have been!  But God put a tension there in the Garden.  In the form of a fruit tree God designed a way to test the man and woman’s love for Him.



“And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree of the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die.’"  (Genesis 2:16-17)  See that one tree?  It’s off limits.  Everything else is yours.  But eat from that one tree and everything changes.  Death comes.  Perfection is lost.



I remember as a boy my mother telling me to never play with matches.  But I would watch my dad strike a match to light his cigarette and was amazed that the strike produced a flame.  I wanted that ability to light a match.  But to do that I had to “play with matches” which I had been warned not to do.  Yet it never seemed to bring anything bad on Dad when he struck a match. 



So one day, when Mom wasn’t looking, I opened a closet door where I knew some matches were kept.  Now, I didn’t burn down the house or even start a fire.  But I did get burned.   The flame came down the match until it came in contact with my never-before-burned flesh and I screamed in pain.  A blister quickly formed and it hurt!



I should have listened to Mom.  Here I am, 50-plus years later and I still remember what happened when my curiosity got the best of me. 



God established some limits and boundaries for Adam and Eve.  Not because He was a killjoy.  Because he loved them.  But the day would come when they would exchange that love and the life they had for a momentary pleasure.  And that’s why Christmas had to happen.



Sunday, December 1, 2013

Christmas Looks Back to Creation


Let me be the last to pronounce that we are in the season of Advent.  Even though we’re less than a week after Thanksgiving, we’ve seen the evidence that Christmas is coming for three months in the displays and commercials seeking to condition our minds into pulling out cash and plastic.  To a growing number the reason for the season is what stimulates the economy.



Indicative that our society has lost its memory of the meaning of Christmas was the theft last week of a Salvation Army kettle containing perhaps fifty dollars at a Belk store in Hanes Mall in Winston-Salem. 



Yet it is for these very kinds of wrongs that we need Christmas.  I’m going to use my opportunities here in December to explain just why it was necessary for Christ, the Immanuel – “God with us” – to step down from His throne on high to be born in a barn and laid in a feeding trough for livestock. 



Go back with me all the way…at least all the way as far as our existence is concerned to creation.  In the first chapter of Genesis, as God spoke the universe into existence He paused seven times to pronounce each aspect of His creation as “good”.  In fact, the last time He looked at our home and said, “It is very good”.  Of course it was!  God don’t make no junk!  (Pardon my grammar.)



Creating the day and separating it from the darkness of night caused God to say, “It is good”.  Separating the dry land from the seas, He called the continents and islands “good”.  All of the vegetation He created was “good”, (which let’s us know sandspurs came later).  Sun, moon and stars?  All “good” according to God.  The birds of the sky and the creatures of the sea were “good”.  Then He made all the animals that live on the land, from livestock to the creepy-crawlers and said they were all “good”.



His last creation was us.  Putting His own image into humanity was a step above the rest of earth’s occupants.  And when that was done verse 31 tells us, “God saw all that He had made, and it was very good.”



Can you imagine with me a world void of any sort of pollution?  None of the animal kingdom was on an endangered list because the “good” earth allowed them all to thrive.  Think of the brightest, starriest night you can recall.  In the beginning every night was like that.  It was a perfect world, beautiful in every way.  In fact, we’re later told that creation itself was enough to show our world how much our Creator cared when He made all this and that He alone is God.



But something adverse would take place that ruined perfection, turning God’s masterpiece into much less.  Fast-forward to these words of Paul to the Roman church, describing what followed. 



“They [mankind] exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served something created instead of the Creator, who is blessed forever.” (Romans 1:25 HCSB)



Then fast forward again.  Way forward this time to one of the last recorded phrases uttered by Christ.  In Revelation 21:5 He says, "Look! I am making everything new."  His plan is to re-create what has been broken.  That day is yet to come.  And Christmas was a necessary event in re-creating the earth and final perfection.

(This is the first of four Christmas posts for 2013.  They are also being printed in The OuterBanks Sentinel.)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Where Were You?

Every generation has a "day" that anchors their history.  For the "greatest" generation it was Pearl Harbor Day.  My kids' generation looks back to 9-11-01.  Baby boomers claim November 22, 1963 - the day President John Kennedy was assassinated. (Second to that day might be the Beatles' appearance on the Ed Sullivan show.)

We ask each other, "Where were you?"

I found out he had been killed when our school bus stopped to let us off.  Our next door neighbor, Mrs. Fioriti, came running out to meet us, tearfully crying, "President Kennedy has been killed".  For a third grader that was a lot to process.

If you were around on 11-22-63, where were you?