From “I never knew you” to “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

I think when I get to heaven I will be shocked at how simple it all was and how complicated I tried to make it. My only consolation will be that I made it and that I wasn’t the only one who made it seem harder than it should be. 

At times I have known in my head that it was simple, but I never let it stay that way. I would think things like, “Surely, there has to be more.” or “I don’t deserve it. I need to do something else.” 

From the words of Jesus I should know that it’s all about relationship with Him and what He did and does through me. It’s not about what I do or deserve. I know that when I recognize what He’s done that I am compelled to do things. I can’t stop myself, but it’s not those things that earn my way; they are just evidence of what he’s done.

What about when things are not so great? When I do things I am ashamed of. Those too aren’t important, for forgiveness and forgetfulness or right at hand. He knew all along I would fall. He died and planned for that from the beginning.

I read “I never knew you” and begin to doubt the relationship in which he has daily made himself known to me, intervened in my life and blessed me beyond measure. Why should I doubt?

I read “well done” and look on the filthy rags of my efforts forgetting that doing well means not achievement but knowledge and reliance and trust. What else do I have?

It’s really not far from “I never knew you” to “Well done.” It’s a short trip glancing back at the footprints we, he and I,  have left in the sands of my life. Mostly just His when He carried me.

 

A Blessed Life

I was eating gumbo from Chris’ last night and got to thinking about my blessed life. I know gumbo doesn’t sound like a big deal, but I remember living for years in California or Florida or Mississippi when you couldn’t get good gumbo at a fast food place. I’ve lived back home since 1981 and that’s a blessed thing. Then I came across the above photo. 

I can look out my window from my air-conditioned room and see a forest of green in summer and changing leaves in the fall.  I have been able to work out of my house for years and spend most days with my lovely wife. I guess that makes up for being away for months at a time in the waters off of Vietnam. I have a beautiful daughter, grandkids and great grands. They all live around me. Harvey seems to be headed to Texas and not Acadiana. I am blessed.

I think being blessed is really an attitude. It’s the ability, that I don’t always have, of spending an appropriate amount of time looking up and looking down. 

I need to spend more time looking up at my great God and getting validation and inspiration from Him and not from a rapidly collapsing world system. I need to look “down” on a world full of folks who can’t even conceive of a life like mine. I can’t comprehend waking up with my family in a garbage dump.   

I need to somehow use these upward and downward views not as a cause of satisfaction, but a call to action. The only purpose of blessing is to be a blessing. I need to remember that standing or sitting during the national anthem, having Obama Care or Trump Care, whether statues of the long dead stand or fall,  aren’t really matters of eternal significance.  Wondering if there is any gumbo left over, probably isn’t the most important issue of my day.  Jesus wept over Jerusalem, I wonder what he’s thinking today about me in my air-conditioned room and those kids waking up in a garbage dump. 

Don’t Settle For Moses

After Moses led God’s People out of Egypt, he became their intermediary to God. He went up on the mountain and returned with God’s word for His people. Jesus changed all that and gave us the opportunity to deal with God directly, to go into His presence, learn His ways, and fellowship with Him.

We aren’t always that comfortable with that. We like the distance that an intermediary provides. Someone studying Jesus movements noted that they tend to start when the leader becomes particularly close to God and they end when the followers substitute the leader for God. 

Our current system makes it all about a couple of hours on Sunday. On Sunday mornings we try to provide teaching, worship, and fellowship. We make the followers think that if they made it on Sunday, they’ve done all that needs to be done. It’s just not so.

Teaching – You can get great teaching lots of places. The more a pastor tries to make Sunday morning about teaching the less time there is for worship and fellowship. Group teaching has to be general. It can’t address the individual struggles and questions of each member. In some churches, sermons are pretty much all calls to salvation, lots of milk and little meat. If the sermons are meaty, visitors are often lost. How is a pastor to balance those needs?

Worship – There is little time to really allow significant worship. The “music” times tend to be a performance designed to pep up the crowd and prep them for the sermon. There is woefully little real “presence of God” time. Actually, I think most churches don’t devote enough time to worship. It should be the focus of the Sunday gathering. 

Fellowship – Fellowship on Sunday mornings is superficial. A few minutes spent shaking hands and saying “hello.” In the early years of our marriage, we attended Baptist churches. Every Sunday there was “Sunday School” and a worship service. The “Sunday School” allowed for fellowship time with the same “small group” every Sunday. It wasn’t perfect. It was essentially an hour of fellowship and sharing and an hour service. That has evolved in most churches to a two-hour service.

Many pastors see the problem and encourage “small groups.” These can be great but it’s tough to get folks to participate. Pastors fall back on the idea that they still have to provide everything on Sunday mornings for those who aren’t benefitting from the small groups.

I think the root of the problem is reflected in all of our society, an erosion of individual responsibility. On the worldly side, we look to government to solve our problems. In church, we fail to accept responsibility to seek God’s face, learn His word, and fellowship with His people. Pastors can’t be expected to provide all that in an hour or two on Sunday mornings. At best, they are just Moses. They aren’t God.  Give your “Moses” a break. Take responsibility for your walk. You were created for fellowship with God; that doesn’t happen third hand. He wants to spend time with you and teach you His ways. 

Help! Police!

My weird dream this week reminded me of a weird dream last week. In that one, I was  

A. On foot

B. In a “bad” part of town

C. At night

D. At Burger King

E. With $1000 in cash bulging from my wallet. 

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s always fun to try to tie in my dreams with what’s happening in my life. This is a tough one. I’m never on foot. It’s not just that I’m too lazy to walk (which I am), but our house isn’t really walking distance to anywhere. I try to stay out of “bad” parts of town. My grandson is afraid to go in “rich” areas. Sometimes the apple falls way far from the tree. I tend to stay away from areas where drug deals are happening. I am rarely out at night or at Burger King.

Most fantastic of all I never have $1000 in cash bulging from my wallet. In my dream, I tried to pull money from the wallet with no one noticing I was “loaded.” It didn’t work as I was walking away with my Whopper in hand, and stuffed wallet hanging out of my pocket, I was jumped by scary looking youth. When you are my age, it should be noted, all youth look pretty scary. I shouted out “Help.” “Police.” Then I woke up. It was so real I woke my wife. She said I was yelling something but couldn’t make out what it was. Glad she’s not a cop.

Maybe the point of my dream wasn’t my unusual circumstances, but the thought that we ought to be willing to call for help a lot more than we do. In fact, it’s one of my pet peeves. I am very uncomfortable at church, for example, when everyone just smiles and says how blessed they are. You know most everyone is struggling with something and could really use some help. It’s just a case of churchy icorrectness (not to be confused with political correctness) to never ask for help. It’s apparently very politically correct to ask for help, especially from the government.

I don’t know if the police showed up in my dream. I like to think my brothers and sisters would show up if I let my needs and concerns be known and that I would respond in kind to the needs of the people whose love is supposed to be a witness of my discipleship.

If I see you at church on Sunday, don’t tell me “I’m great” or “I’m blessed” unless your life is perfect, because if it is I’ll probably ask you for something, like $1000 to stuff in my wallet. That will teach you. If you do have a problem, try not to discuss legal problems with me. My hourly rate is $200 and my timer tends to go off automatically.

 

 

Of Battles and Surrender

I had another weird dream last night. I was part of a contingent of American soldiers holding down a building under assault from a great number of Germans. We were out manned and out of ammunition. The question was whether or not to surrender. I awoke before having to make the fatal decision. I wish I could figure out where that dream came from. 

As Christians,  we are at war. Jesus talked about it often. We have more challenges than whether to surrender or fight on. For us, everything is different, including what constitutes victory or defeat and who determines the outcome.

If you look at church prayer lists, we fight principally on two fronts: health and finances. As to health, you would think we believe we should live forever. To succumb to disease or injury seems the most horrible thing in the world. It’s as if we had no idea, much less appreciation, of a forever life. Our bodies are designed so that health is always a diminishing asset. We have a responsibility to take good care of these temples, but it’s because we need to be useful in the work of God and not eternal residents of them. Our health is not a measure of our faith or even our blessings. Victory in health comes in being able to do all we are called to do with great joy, including meeting Him when it’s all over here. Health victory is when we leave this body.

Our financial struggles are even stranger. Jesus had no place to lay his head. He marveled at the lilies of the field and the birds of the air and their reliance on God. Our financial goals here are not to gather as much as we can. From my knowledge of the well-to-do, no amount is ever enough and no savings or treasure is ever really secure. We need to be more like the potent missionary, George Mueller, who set the table for him, his staff and orphanage charges to eat even when the pantry was bare and was blessed when a bread truck broke down in front of his building. Financial victory is achieving complete trust not self-reliance. 

The one thing absent from my dream was the thought that God would defeat the Germans even when we had no ammo.

 

Seed Time

I am amazed by what’s happening in my yard this summer. I can almost watch the grass grow. I have weeds higher than my knees. It’s just too hot and wet to get out there and tackle the problem. 

Back in the spring, I had glorious ideas about a summer garden. I planted seeds in seeding containers. I reconstructed my raised beds and filled them with garden soil. By the time my seedlings were ready to transplant, it had gotten too hot to do it. All I have are very fertile and empty raised beds. The workings of nature are a dramatic lesson.

Jesus often used seeds, plantings, and harvests as illustrations in His teachings. We reap what we sow. The time for planting is limited and critical. We want to seed in the spiritual and not in the natural. One day we will have to explain our plantings and take a hard look at our harvests.

I marvel at how limited our time is to seed in the lives of others. My children have long grown and gone. My grandkids are not far behind. My great grands are growing fast and my chances to affect them are minimal. 

Other people come in and out of my life so rapidly that I seldom seem to have a chance to impact their lives. I have to be more alert and responsive to opportunities that fly by. There is still some seed time remaining but not a lot and what’s left is fading fast. Fall will be here before we know it.

New

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 2 Corinthians 5:17 NIV

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end;  they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.  Lamentations 3:22-23

We like things that are new, new cars, new clothes, new restaurants. Everyone, old and young, gets a thrill from something new. Following Jesus is all about newness, but we don’t usually think of it that way. It’s generally considered to be old and old-fashioned. As followers, we are contemporary – the latest thing. It’s worldliness and sin that’s passe’ and old-fashioned. The world is really tired of sin. It’s old hat; they just don’t always recognize that. 

The world is caught in a routine. We followers awake each morning with new perspective, opportunity, and challenge. The world is drug down by its history. We awake with eyes forward unleashed from a world that’s not our home and tied to a new heaven and a new earth. 

Consider what “newness” means:

We are forward-looking. The past is behind. What was bad is forgiven. What was good is credited to our Lord.

The future is a path not yet traveled but where Our Lord Awaits, already knowing what is there and having prepared us to deal with it. 

Newness means unspoiled with unlimited potential and opportunity. Ahead may be areas we have never walked but for which we were created. 

Newness is inherently exciting. We should look forward to our meetings and services with excited expectation, not knowing what to expect except that it will be new, exciting and from the Lord. We need to give up our comfort level with the “usual.” Just because we have always done something one way, doesn’t mean it’s the best way or that we should keep doing it. Remember insanity is repeating the same action expecting a different result. Don’t we want something different to happen? Shouldn’t we do something different to get there?

I recently read an article about how to keep a millennial interested in church. It really amounted to be “new.” I think the advice applies to all age groups. 

Don’t expect them to carry checkbooks. They pay bills online. They should be able to make tithes and offerings there as well.

Have someone their age upfront. It shows we expect them to take part and not just to learn how it “should be, and has always, been.”  Those “up front” should show the demographics of the entire congregation. 

Don’t hand them a card and a pencil to note their visit. Give them a chance to send a text or an email. Don’t expect a “home” phone number. For most a mobile number is the main and, in fact, only number. Plan to text announcements. Snail mail is outdated and so is email.

Don’t try to make 20 points in the sermon. Make one really great point. That’s all anyone is going to remember anyway. That’s as true for your 70-year-old members as it is for your twenty-somethings.

Don’t be wedded to a liturgical format. Should the service always last the same time? Do the number of songs always have to be the same and always done before the announcements?  Speaking of which, do we really need the “announcements.” Our goal should be to reduce announcement time at church and spread the word through social media. That’s the only place anyone is really listening. 

Why not let a little “newness” into the service. We call that the Holy Spirit, remember?

In the Lord, things are new every morning. They should be new every Sunday as well.

Sunday Morning Coming Down

If the local church is going to survive, it needs to up its game on Sunday mornings. Sunday mornings used to be “church.” Not so much any more. Most couples work Monday through Fridays and take care of chores or kids sports activities on Saturday. On Sunday they are tired and just want to “chill.” 

Even traditional church goers are falling away from Sunday mornings at church. There is just too much competition. The center piece for most Sunday morning church services is the sermon. I can get better sermons that directly address issues or questions I have on TV or online. There I’ve said it.

The local pastor is competing with more talented better educated, more experienced teachers who are supported by staffs with vast technical and research resources. The local guy has to try to reach his regulars and any visitors with a one-fits-all message that he hammers together between pastoring duties during the week. The internet and tv guys can present very pointed, well researched and media backed messages. Lots of folks don’t even know what the Sunday message at their church is going to be and after a while they all tend to sound the same and run together. This is particularly true in churches where the pastor feels each message has to be “seeker friendly” and end with an altar call.

The local worship team faces even greater challenges. Jesus followers can listen to professionally uplifting and encouraging music 24/7. The local worship team is given a short time slot to try to make the presence of God felt with limited resources and major distractions.

What the local church has going for it is fellowship. You can NOT get that on TV or online. Most churches, however, minimize this advantage. There is a short time for hand shaking and back slapping. Attendance at “Sunday school” where fellowship used to happen is way down. Many churches are not even offering anything on Sundays any more.  Larger churches have multiple services and the crowd from one is quickly moved out to make room for the next group coming in. 

The key aspects of Jesus following can now take place outside the church. Your giving can be automated to the church and the opportunities to give to direct needs abound outside the church. There are multiple charities that do a better job of directly impacting people than most churches do. It’s much more satisfying giving to persecuted christians or starving children, than to support salaries, buildings and air conditioning repairs. 

The chances to “serve” in the local church seem to be shrinking as “staffs” grow and someone is hired to perform almost every function. The regular member is often limited to ushering or working in children’s church. Parachurch organizations offer much fuller serving experiences.

I don’t have any answers but there are, obviously, many challenges for local churches. If something radical doesn’t happen soon, Sunday mornings will just keep “Coming Down.”