Judge Me By My Size Do You?

Size isn’t everything. Just ask Yoda. 

Not my dog, Yoda, but the little green dude from Star Wars.  Yoda is a Jedi Master, a wielder of the Force, and the one who trained Luke Skywalker to become a Jedi Knight. But it took some heavy convincing. Yoda wasn’t sold on Luke to begin with.  Too old, too fixed in his ways.  But finally he gives in and Luke actually makes some real progress, becoming more and more adept at wielding the Force.  While they were training, Luke’s X-Wing starfighter sinks into the swamp and in distress Luke exclaims, “We’ll never get it out now,” as all but a small part of the wing is below the muck.  Immediately Yoda chirps up and says, “So sure are you?  Tried have you?  Always with you it can’t be done.”  After some arguing Luke says, he’ll try and Yoda exclaims, “No!  Do or do not.  There is no try.”  But Luke can’t do it and he tells Yoda that the ship is too big.  Yoda’s tells him, “Size has no meaning.  It matters not.  Look at me.  Judge me by my size do you?” Then Yoda does what seems impossible and single-handedly lifts this gigantic starship out of the swamp.  Luke looks on in awe and whispers, “I don’t believe it.”  And Yoda responds, “That is why you fail.”

Luke’s failure had little to do with his ability.

He fails because he believes size is a determining factor for success.  And who could blame him?  Faced with such a daunting task, would we believe any differently?  His ship is literally made of tons of metal and Yoda expects him to move it with just the power of the Force?  Luke says to him, “Master, moving stones around is one thing.  This is totally different!” And Yoda responds, “No, only difference is in your mind!  You must unlearn what you have learned.”  What is it we have learned that we might have to unlearn?

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Our sanctuary at Roswell UMC could hold 2,000 people and at the time we had about 6,700 members.

We are a size-oriented society.

In so many ways we equate “bigger” with “better.”  In sports we value home runs over singles, the slam dunk over the lay-up, the “Hail Mary” pass over the slow march down the field.  We talk about “Big Business” and “Big Money” and look at the driving influence of such wealthy entrepreneurs as the Koch brothers, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffett. Even in the church we talk about the “size” of our congregations. Mega-churches are seen as being more “successful” because they have higher attendance, can afford big buildings and newer technology, and have large campuses.  But before we buy in to the philosophy that “bigger is better” let’s not forget that Christianity, the world’s “biggest” religion[1] was not started by the rich and powerful, but by a Jewish carpenter and his twelve, normal, everyday followers. We are so quick to believe that a task is too big or a job is too daunting because of its scope and size, but the truth is success can happen on any level.

Think back to the early church.

I mean the REALLY early church, the church before buildings and sanctuaries and fellowship halls.  They not only didn’t have a regular place to meet, they didn’t have much of anything else either, but the Bible describes this group of people as being completely at peace with one another.  We stress out over a lack of money, lack of resources, and lack of people, but the early church didn’t have any of those things either.  What they DID have was something available to any church no matter what size they were. As we read this passage, think about the things they did have and how similar or different it is to our churches today.

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. – Acts 2:42-47

Did you notice what the church had?

Devotion. Awe. Common belief. Giving spirit. Togetherness. Did you notice what wasn’t mentioned?  Money. Buildings. Pews. Programs. None of the things we associate with the modern church.  The only time they came close to talking about money was when they mentioned that the followers sold their things and gave to everyone who had need.  And still “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”  Could you imagine if that were true here?  Even if the Lord added to our number weekly, we would grow faster than our building could handle.  All they needed were these common core attributes – devotion, which they exhibited through worship and study; an awe of God and the work he was doing in the world; common belief in Christ without fighting about the little things; a giving spirit which they showed by doing for those around them; and being together.  That word is mentioned three times in this short passage. “Together.”  They were together in serving the Lord.  When we have those attributes, we are open to the designs of the Holy Spirit and he can do amazing things with us that we haven’t even thought of.

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Samuel was like the Prince looking for Cinderella

Size alone is not a measure of worth to God. 

If God only cared about size or wealth or prestige or any of the other things the world generally measures “success” by, he never would have chosen Israel to be his chosen people.  Listen again to what Moses himself told the assembled peoples of Israel in Deuteronomy, “The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples.  But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8).  We see in the Bible, time and time again how true this statement is; that God does not pick the mightiest or the smartest or the strongest of people to be his messengers.  Often they are normal, flawed people like you and me.  Take for example the story of Samuel.  If you remember, God rejects Saul as King of Israel and tells Samuel to go looking for a new one.  So during his search he goes to meet Jesse of Bethlehem and immediately, he thinks he’s found the new king in Eliab, Jesse’s oldest son, but the Lord hears Samuel’s thoughts and says to him in 1 Samuel 16:7, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him.  The Lord does not look at the things man looks at.  Man looks at outward appearances, but the Lord looks at the heart.”  So in a scene reminiscent of Cinderella[2], Samuel asks to see each of Jesse’s other sons.  But as each one walks by, God says “Nope, not the one.”  And after all seven of Jesse’s oldest sons walk by and having the Lord reject them all, Samuel asks “Are these all the sons you have?” and Jesse admits, “There is one more, but he’s out in the back tending the sheep.”  Tending the sheep!  Could there BE any more clear sign for Samuel?  It was like the glass slipper fit right on this youngest son’s foot.  And when the youngest son walks in, God tells Samuel, “That’s the one.”  And so began the reign of King David, slayer of Goliath and long considered the greatest king of the Israeli people.  David wasn’t the biggest or the oldest or the smartest nor was he free of sin, but God did say that David was a man after His own heart, and THAT’S what was important to God.  His heart, not his size.

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My dog Yoda who actually is quite small but with a LOT of fight in him – too much sometimes.

Like Yoda said, “Size has no meaning.”

We’ve seen throughout the Bible that God does amazing things with small groups of people.  Gideon and his army of 300.  David and his slingshot.  Jesus and the 12 disciples.  As Mark Twain put it, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight.  It’s the size of the fight in the dog.”  That’s what matters.  Are we willing to live up to the core values that Christ taught us?  Because there really isn’t anything we can’t do if we are willing to go all out.  If we are willing to do what’s necessary to reach people for God, we can do it.  But are we willing?  I think we are.  I think we can definitely do it.  And I believe strongly that there is a reason why all of us were brought together in this time and place.  But it’s something we have to decide to do together.  So when we come forward today for communion, come before Christ and lay down your doubts.  Lay down your worries.  Share with God those things that make it difficult for us to move forward together and pray for God’s strength and will to shine through in the days to come.  Because we will only succeed if like those early disciples we are devoted, we are in awe of what God can do in us, we agree on our common beliefs, we have a giving spirit, and we do it TOGETHER.

 

[1] https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/04/02/397042004/muslim-population-will-surpass-christians-this-century-pew-says

[2] http://www.asails.freeserve.co.uk/King%20Eliab.htm.  Rev. Andrew Sails used the Cinderella reference in a sermon on a completely different subject, but it was such a clever comparison, I wanted to use it.

Faith and Family Trip to Disneyland 2019 – Hospitality

What is hospitality?

Jesus talked about it and practiced it, but are we doing a good job of it in our churches and personal life?  What lessons can we learn from the absolute master of hospitality – Disneyland!  Come and find out as we learn what it means from Disney to offer hospitality and how we can apply those lessons into our own context.  Plus, we will have a lot of fun.

 

This coming February, we will be headed to Disneyland for our seventh Faith and Family Trip! I hope as many of you can join us as possible. Details are still being hammered out, but we hope to do it a bit differently than in the past by making it all inclusive (transportation, food, tickets, t-shirts, etc.).

  • Date and Time: Saturday, 2/16/19 to Monday 2/18/19
  • Cost: TBD
  • Will include dinner on Saturday, admission to Disneyland, lunch, snack, and dinner, for the group on Sunday, and transportation to and from the park.
  • Everyone gets a free t-shirt!
  • Everyone gets prizes!
  • What to Expect: Attractions in the morning, lunch and a tour in the afternoon, and a fun group activity for prizes!  Everyone gets a little souvenir as well.

 

Our tentative plans are to head up on Saturday, have dinner together, and then free time until Sunday morning!  We will all meet up early (7:30am-ish) to take advantage of being there at opening.  We will gather outside the park, pray together, go over the itinerary once more so everyone knows what’s going on, and then head in to Disneyland!  We’ll go on some rides in the morning, have lunch together, take a tour emphasizing our theme of hospitality by a former cast member – me!  And then have a snack and do a fun group activity together for prizes.  In the past, we’ve done a cool scavenger hunt throughout the park in teams and the winning team would get a nice prize.  After that it’s dinner and free time and maybe I’ll even plan some surprise for the evening (but your choice if you want to participate).

It will be FUN! And hopefully you’ll walk away with a different perspective on church.  My hope is to integrate best practices in business and apply them to how we can be more effective for Christ. I’ve led this trip six times before and each time has been a blast.  We focus on a theme and explore it together.  In the past we’ve done happiness, failure, and change and this trip will be focused on hospitality! Or more how we can use our own radical hospitality to reshape how others see us.

We hope to see you there!  Bookmark this page for updates and join our mailing list! Contact me for questions or more information.

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Craig’s Library – When Work and Family Collide

Everybody cheats.

That’s how Andy Stanley, author and lead pastor at North Point Community Church in Atlanta, GA starts the introduction to his book When Work and Family Collide.  “Everybody cheats.”  It’s probably not what you think, but Andy is right.  In the push and pull of life we make choices.  We choose work over family, family over faith, fun over everything.  Not always and not all the time, but when we fail to find a balance between these different aspects of our lives, we get in serious trouble.  And that’s what Andy explores in this book – that line between “enough” and “too much.”

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Cover art for the printed version of Andy Stanley’s book – When Work and Family Collide

Title: When Work and Family Collide
Author: Andy Stanley
Cost: $12.99 ($9.99 on Amazon)
Age: Adult
Publisher: Multinomah Books
Nutshell: Practical advice on work / life balance

In typical Andy Stanley fashion (which is to say clear, concise, and with great storytelling ability), he examines the roles of work and family life, how easily we can ignore family in favor of work, and some of the tell-tale signs when we are in trouble.  My favorite example of his is the “rock” analogy (which you’ll have to read for yourself).  I’ve heard him tell this story in person and it is just as captivating then as it is in print.  It’s the power of the story itself to graphically illustrate the predicament we face when we prioritize work over family.

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Sample of Andy’s book When Work and Family Collide

Now even if work / family balance isn’t a problem for you (are you sure?), this is a great read for balance issues in general.  Like with faith. We often put faith on the back burner for other stuff like kids sports, watching football with friends, or just plain sleep.  Do we really have our priorities in order or are we simply choosing what we like the most or what is most convenient for us?  Andy challenges us to look at these things as heart issues and not to ignore it.  Overall, this is a well-written book that flows smoothly.  It offers practical advice as well as ways to identify the balance issues in our lives.  And it is extremely relevant whether you are Christian or not.  Andy does use Biblical references and stories from the Bible to illustrate some of his points, but it is extremely friendly to those who have no background in Christianity at all.  So feel free to share it with your non-Christian friends.  They won’t get “preached” to, but they’ll see how faith can be integrated into life in practical ways.

Who’s Cheating Who?

Here’s a riddle for you.

Can you figure it out?  If you love The Lord of the Rings this might be familiar.  It’s from The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien during the scene where Bilbo and the creature Gollum are trying to outwit each other.  Bilbo makes a deal in the hopes he can find a way out of the cave he’s trapped in.   He tells Gollum that if he wins this contest of wits, then Gollum has to show him the way out.  But if Bilbo loses, Gollum gets to eat him.  Pretty high stakes.  So this is one of the riddles Gollum gives to poor old Bilbo.

This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.

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Bilbo and Gollum engaged in a battle of wits

Do you know the answer?  The answer is time.  Time is the thing that devours everything else.  It’s the one thing by itself that can grind stone, slay kings, and beat a mountain down.  Because time stops for no one.  Time is also the one thing we can never get more of.  No matter how much money or power or influence we have, we can never buy more timeIt’s also the one thing we never know how much we have.  When we’re young we think we have all the time in the world.  We rarely think about what happens “after;” what happens when this existence ends.  In our middle years, our lives are crammed with things that eat up our time, and again we don’t seem to have too much of it to think about the “future.”  Only in our older years does life seem to slow down to at least ponder it.  But even then, do we take it seriously?

HHRA invading Disneyland
Mark and I along with our Hedrick Hall Government group at Disneyland

We don’t have as much of it as we think.

Time is the most precious commodity we have and we can easily waste it.  Either intentionally or not, we don’t always make the best use of this incredibly limited resource.  We choose to do one thing over another, often knowing which one would be the wiser choice, but instead choosing something more fun or more immediately rewarding.  Like going out to dinner when you really should be working on that presentation for work.  Or going to Disneyland with your friend Mark when you’ve got a midterm the next day – not that that ever happened.  Sometimes it’s not even choosing one thing over another.  Sometimes we simply procrastinate our lives away.  I remember one time when I was a grad student at CSULB and I asked one of my former professors if he would write a good recommendation letter for me.  One of my mentors told me we shouldn’t ask people just if they would write a letter of recommendation, but if they would write a good one because who wants a bad letter of recommendation?  And my professor said, “No.”  I was shocked because we always had a good relationship and I did exceptionally well in his class, but he told me that he had asked me to follow up with a colleague of his and I never did.  For that reason, he didn’t think he could in good conscience write a good letter of recommendation for me.  And he was right.  He did ask me to follow up, and I just put it to the side thinking I’d get to it one day, but “one day” never came.  To be honest, even though I learned a lot in his class, that was probably the most valuable lesson he ever taught me.  It often motivates me to do things I would otherwise be tempted to push aside.  Most of us can think of at least one moment in our lives where we made the choice to spend our time unwisely.

But God tells us that sometimes those decisions have huge consequences. 

In this passage we’re about to read, we find Jesus surrounded by a HUGE crowd of people.  There are thousands around him and they are literally “trampling on one another.” Jesus is trying to teach them to focus their life not on the worries of this world, but on the God who loves them. But then out of nowhere, this guy yells out to Jesus.  And that’s where we pick up the story.

 13Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

 14Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

 16And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. 17He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

 18″Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ‘

 20″But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

 21″This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.”

Do you have your priorities straight?

This guy didn’t.  Jesus just gets done telling this whole group of people not to worry about the things of this world.  He tells them they should be focusing on God, on what’s really important.  And this guy yells out, “…tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”  And while it’s tempting to look down on this guy who literally ignored everything Jesus said, isn’t it true that at times we are just like him?  Isn’t it true that we know what we are supposed to do, but put off doing it?  Or we put off something we know would make things better, but for one reason or another we just don’t do it?  Sometimes we just procrastinate.  Sometimes we are worried about what people will think of us.  And sometimes it’s as small as it makes us “uncomfortable.”  And instead of pushing past our discomfort, we choose something else.  Or sometimes we’re like this guy in the story.  We just want what we want and we ignore what’s really important.  Do you know what’s important to you?

Stephen Covey had some great advice about this.

If you didn’t know, he’s the author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and in that book he writes, “The key is to keep the main thing the main thing.”  You’ve probably heard that before.  The key is to keep the main thing the main thing.  We know this intellectually, but we don’t always do a great job of executing it.  We know we should put God first, but we skip church for more “pressing” matters.  We know we should put family first, but we are worried that there are too many things to do at work.  Covey addresses that also, “Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.”  Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.  Unfortunately, that’s also true.  We find ourselves in firefighting mode and we end up responding instead of planning.  Or we allow the urgent things to move ahead on our priority list, not because they are more important in the long run, but in the short.  So how do we get around that?  Covey says, “The key is not to prioritize what is on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”  The key is not to prioritize what is on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.  If family time is important, make sure you spend that time with family.  If God is important then carve out time for God.  It’s as simple as that.  But have the courage to do it.

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Andy giving a talk at one of the Catalyst West conferences I’ve attended

Andy Stanley said something that changed my life.

Never sacrifice what only you can do for something someone else can do.” Andy is the lead pastor at North Point Community Church based in Atlanta, and I went to a seminar he was teaching.  He told us we are always cheating on someone.  What he meant by that is we are constantly “choosing to give up one thing in hope of gaining something else of greater value.”[1] Work, spouse, career, kids, dreams, hobbies – there simply isn’t enough time in the day to do everything for everybody including ourselves.  So we cheat.  We take time we could be spending on one thing to devote it to something else.  The problem occurs when we neglect one or the other so much we create a void. “Suddenly” our spouse asks us for a divorce, “suddenly” our kids start having problems, “suddenly” we get passed over for a promotion.  The truth is none of those things are “sudden.”  They are usually the result of not being able to maintain a healthy balance in our lives.  It just seems “sudden” to us because we weren’t paying attention.  We weren’t scheduling our priorities but instead prioritizing our schedule and often it’s our families that get the short end of the stick.  Work is immediate.  Work offers tangible benefits.  But work can be done by someone else.  We are often not as necessary as we like to think we are at work, but we are indispensable in one arena – our family.  So Andy reminds us, “Never sacrifice what only you can do for something someone else can do.”

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Emma and I at Pismo’s right before the Daddy / Daughter Dance at Riverview (2011)

I will only ever be Emma’s dad.  I will hopefully only ever be Cassie’s husband.  And unless there’s some incredible miracle, I’ll be the only son my parents will ever have.  Pastors come and go, but I play a role in my family no one else can fill.  That doesn’t mean there won’t be times when the church comes first, because that happens a lot.  It just means I can’t afford to neglect my role as son, father, and husband because no one else will ever be those things to the people in my life.  I want to challenge you today to think about who you are cheating in your life.  Are your priorities where they should be?  If they are, great! But if they are not, if you take a deep look inside and find you’ve been cheating the wrong people, consider what you can do to balance the load.  Don’t let the world dictate what’s important, find within yourself what’s important, and then do THAT!

[1] Andy Stanley, When Work and Family Collide: Keeping Your Job From Cheating Your Family, Kindle Version, pg. 1

One Small Candle

If I want to feel helpless, all I have to do is turn on the news.

There seems to be a never-ending stream of tragedies just waiting at the flick of a button.  Refugees fleeing for their lives from places like Syria and Myanmar.  Wildfires ravaging our state, forcing thousands to evacuate their homes.[1] And more than 115 people die every day in America from opioid overdose.[2]  That translates to about 42,000 deaths every year.  Those are only the BIG stories, the ones that have garnered national or local attention.  There are other crises and tragedies that happen every day on a local and personal level.  Job loss, death in the family, divorce, abuse – things that don’t make it on TV.  It’s enough to make you turn wonder where God is in all this mess.  I mean why doesn’t He DO something?!  Then the other day I literally stumbled upon a song by Matthew West called “Do Something.”  He sings about all of these horrible things going on in the world, he raises his fist to Heaven and shouts to God, “Why don’t you do something?” and God responds, “I did. I created YOU.”

We can’t prevent every tragedy in the world, but does that mean we should give up?

What does that say about us if we don’t at least try?  If you have a Bible or Bible app on your phone, please find 1 John 3:16-18. When bad things happen, our first instinct is to offer our thoughts and prayers, and while that’s well and good and something any Christian SHOULD do, we have to go beyond thoughts and prayers.  God teaches us clearly that words without actions are hollow. Now, you don’t have to fly to Syria and build shelters for refugees, or be a first responder and battle the fires in Redding or Yosemite, or single-handedly stop opioid abuse. If you do, that’s awesome! If that’s your passion, then by all means figure out how to do what needs to be done and do it. But that’s not what I’m saying.  What I mean is if all we do is offer “thoughts and prayers” and do nothing else, we’re not using the gifts God has given us in the way he intended.  It’s like in the Parable of the Talents where Jesus tells the story of three servants.  Each one is given some money to be in charge of while their Master is away and two of them go out and double the amount they were given while the last just buried it in the sand and did nothing.  And we hear in that story how God is disappointed and angry at the guy who did nothing with the gift he was given.  Maybe he didn’t use it unwisely, but the problem was he didn’t use it at all.  And God teaches us that when we fail to use our gifts he considers that a waste.  The apostle John, in this first letter of his sums it up nicely.

16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. – 1 John 3:16-18

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Our Sierra Service Project team leaving from BMUC

Each of us has the ability to make the world a better place, but it requires effort. 

Thoughts and prayers are great, but they are not enough, not if we can do something about it.  Sometimes, thoughts and prayers are all we can offer.  But thoughts and prayers coupled with action are powerful indeed.  When someone is in the hospital, we should lift up thoughts and prayers, but if our presence would be of help then we should go visit. When we are far away and someone we know is going through a rough time, thoughts and prayers are important, but so is a phone call or a letter or a small package to say “I’m thinking of you.”  When natural disasters occur, thoughts and prayers go a long way, but so does a donation for relief and assistance, making a disaster bucket for UMCOR, or donating blood.  The point that John was trying to make in his letter goes back to that old adage “actions speak louder than words.”  If we know there are people who need help and it’s within our ability to do so, we have an obligation to do something.  We may not always be able to help, but when we CAN we need to step forward and make a difference.

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Our youth at BMUC giving of their time for these young children.

Making a difference doesn’t mean donating a million dollars.

It doesn’t mean filling a warehouse with flood buckets.  It doesn’t mean sleeping overnight at the hospital.  It means living a life of service.  Of doing what you can, when you can.  Sometimes we make the biggest impact in the small things we do to serve one another every day.  Taking out the trash when it gets full, washing the dishes, picking up the laundry off the floor; these small tasks are often the backbone of a life of service. Richard Foster, author of the book Celebration of Discipline, said that service is often found in the “mundane, the ordinary, and the trivial.”[3] Every act trains us for a life of service. As Foster wrote, “Large tasks require great sacrifice for a moment; small things require constant sacrifice.”[4]  The large tasks are the things that garner us attention and praise, but the small tasks, the tasks of everyday service, are what keep us humble and give us a heart for God.  Doing big things is great!  But when we are grounded in the everyday, it will become part of who we are and will help us to grow and maintain an attitude of service toward others that God is hoping to see in us.

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Percent of people reported being “very happy” with their life over those who didn’t volunteer at all.  Sixteen percent more of those who volunteered weekly considered their lives “very happy!”

It’s not surprising that a life of service has benefits in the here and now.

It’s part of the way God wired us. God created us for a life of service, to Him and to one another.  It’s not surprising that when Jesus was asked the greatest commandment he said to love the Lord your God, but then added without being asked, “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matthew 22:39)” When we act in harmony with how God wants us to be, our lives turn out better because of it.  And longer apparently.  A 2012 study found that people who volunteered out of the goodness of their heart (and not just to get something out of it) lived longer than those who didn’t.[5]  People who volunteered also had lower blood pressure than those who didn’t.[6] What’s interesting is that volunteering has bigger benefits the OLDER you are!  A study done in Great Britain on mental health and wellbeing found that those who volunteered reported to be healthier than those who didn’t and that the older you were the more of an effect it seemed to have.[7]  Volunteering also makes us happier.  According to a study done by the London School of Economics, the more people volunteered the happier they were.[8]  Those who volunteered monthly were 7% more likely to be “very happy” with their lives while those who volunteered every 2-4 weeks were 12% more likely to be “very happy.”  And for those who volunteered weekly?  They were 16% more likely to be “very happy” than those who didn’t volunteer.  What’s astonishing is that’s the same increase in happiness from people who make $20,000 a year to making $75,000 to $100,000 a year![9]  Who would have guessed that volunteering makes us happier, more mentally fit, more physically fit, and live longer?

The real payoff though is that it brings us closer to God.

And closer to being the people God hopes for us to be.  The rest of it are byproducts of living a life we were meant to live. To be Christian means to serve others, to think of others before ourselves.  That may seem to some to be a risky way to live, but it’s risky in the best way possible!  It’s risky not because people might take advantage of our good will, but risky because it opens us up to possibilities we might never have imagined.  James, the brother of Jesus wrote “22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:22-25)”  James is trying to tell us that ignoring God’s Word is forgetting essentially who we were created to be, but for those that dare to live the life God has planned for us will not only be free from life’s worries and anxieties, but will feel the blessing of God in their life in a way others just cannot.

carr-fire-redding
The Carr Fire raging far and wide

Every week, sometimes every day, seems filled with tragedy.

It can be overwhelming at times and there are moments when it feels like its never going to get better.  But it can!  And it starts with us.  Imagine a world where we all did the right thing instead of whatever it is we can get out of it.  Imagine a world where politicians actually represented the people they were elected to represent instead of the special interests who help get them elected.[10]  Imagine a world where companies didn’t do the profitable thing, but the right thing.  Companies who didn’t raise the price on life-saving pharmaceuticals by 5000%.[11] Imagine a world where your husband takes out the trash without being asked a dozen times.  What if the whole world decided to help each other?  We wouldn’t have to worry about ourselves because we could have confidence that someone else was looking out for us.  That world begins with you.  How in the world is taking out the trash going to stop these tragedies from occurring?  One person at a time.  As the old saying goes, “It’s better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.”  Let us light up the world with the love of God!

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[1] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2018/08/02/carr-fire-california-wildfires-get-worse-gov-jerry-brown-says/887646002/ Already over 1000 homes have been destroyed – accessed 8/2/2018

[2] https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/opioids/opioid-overdose-crisis revised numbers on 3/2018, accessed on 8/2/2018

[3] Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 25th Anniversary Edition, (Harper San Francisco: New York, 1978), 127.

[4] Richard Donovan from lectionary.org http://www.lectionary.org/EXEG-English/NT/ENT04-John/John%2013.01-17,%2031b-35.htm, 135.

[5] https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/volunteering-may-be-good-for-body-and-mind-201306266428

[6] Ibid

[7] http://time.com/4443752/volunteering-mental-health/

[8] https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-living/volunteering-and-its-surprising-benefits.htm

[9] Ibid

[10] Note: both Democrats AND Republicans agree on major gun control legislation, but politicians never seem to vote on it despite the majority of Americans from both parties wanting it. http://www.cnn.com/2017/10/02/politics/bipartisan-gun-control-policies-majorities/index.html

[11] Note: Turing Pharmaceuticals raised the price of Daraprim used to treat life-threatening infections from $13.50 to $750 overnight according to the New York Times in 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/21/business/a-huge-overnight-increase-in-a-drugs-price-raises-protests.html

The Road Not Taken

Robert Frost could speak volumes about life in just a few words.

This poem has always been my favorite.  The imagery he creates about the choices we make in life resonate with me in a way few other poets have been able to capture.  His style is almost musical, but what I love about the poem is the fundamental truth behind his words.  Life is a series of choices.  And the KIND of life we live depends upon those choices.  Those decisions shape and mold us.  Should I go to college?  Should I change careers?  Should I move across the country?  Of course, those are HUGE decisions, and not every choice is as life-altering as those.  Sometimes, it’s a series of choices that determine our course in life.  Should I eat that candy bar or have a glass of wine or play one more round of blackjack?  On a daily basis, not a big deal. But over time those CHOICES determine our path.  In each decision, we stand before these two roads and we cannot travel both, but we do have that choice. That’s part of God’s design.  It’s part of the freewill God gives us because he loves us.  Love without choice isn’t love, and God wants us to love him and follow him because we CHOOSE to.  But freewill has its downside, too.  It gives us the freedom to make choices that carry us down a more difficult path – one that leads to sorrow, hate, fear, loneliness; a path we desperately want to avoid as much as possible.  And sometimes we make choices that impact other people’s lives and send them down a path they never wanted.  What we hope for is to make choices that make a difference in our lives and the lives of those we love.  But how can me make the right choice unless we are prepared for what the world throws at us?  How can we expect to make a difference in our lives and the lives of others if we are not equipped for the work?

2015-10-23 - Our family at Disneyland for Mickey's Halloween Party
Cassie and I with Emma at Mickey’s Halloween Party at Disneyland back in 2015

How prepared you are will determine the path you choose.

Preparation determines destination.  Paul talks about this in his letter to the church at Ephesus.  In this letter, Paul is giving the church instructions on how to lead a Christian life.  He talks about marriage, immorality, unity in the body of Christ, being truthful, etc.  He warns the congregation how important it is that we are well equipped for the life we lead and then he closes with one final admonition and that’s where we pick up in our reading today.

10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.

19Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

We are at war!

There is a battle that takes place every day for the hearts and minds and souls of each one of us.  Now, whether you believe this is a battle against the devil or against society or against our own sinful nature, we’ve all experienced this struggle in our lives.  We are constantly faced with temptations and urges and emotional outbursts that bring out our darker side, the side we don’t like to talk about.  We are prone to addiction and peer pressure and groupthink in ways that are tough to resist.  And we see that in the world around us seemingly more and more.  People are getting addicted to new and different things all the time.  People are adopting more closed-minded thinking and isolating themselves from new ideas.  The only we to protect ourselves is by putting on the full armor of God.  It sounds hokey, but the armor is symbolic of the spiritual preparedness God wants for us.  It isn’t a physical armor.  Instead it’s an armor that we have on us at all times when we live a life in God.  It’s an armor that shields us from giving in to things we know we shouldn’t give in to.  It’s the armor that protects us from being tempted to do something wrong.  But that kind of armor is built not given.  It is built on the firm foundation of Christ.  It is strengthened with faith and truth and having a strong relationship with God.  It is made tough by knowing the Word of God and remembering its lessons.  Wearing the armor helps equip us for life, helps us to CHOOSE the RIGHT path.  But when we live lives that are contrary to God’s will, when we do things to ourselves and those around us that bring us harm, we distance ourselves from God and can’t tell any more the difference between what feels good and what IS good.  And ultimately, those choices take us down roads that are better left untraveled.

1985 - Academic Decathlon Team with Trophy
Me in high school with our Academic Decathlon team – can you guess which one is me?

Preparation determines destination.

We see this play out in the lives of our children and grandchildren.  When we don’t help root them in faith at a young age, it becomes difficult for them to follow that path later in life.  The numbers prove it.[1]

  • 2 out of 3 high school students leave the church after graduation.
  • More than 40% of youth age 16-20 are outside of the Christian faith, 13% higher than the previous generation.
  • 77% of all Christians come to faith by the time they are 21.

It isn’t that people can’t come to faith in Christ as they get older.  I did.  It’s just that it is so much easier for a child to accept Christ and be rooted in their faith at a younger age.  And when our children and grandchildren have to face peer pressure, school pressure, performance pressure and all the other stresses that come with living in the world, when they have to stand up for themselves, BY themselves, will you have equipped them with the full armor of God?

1981 (c) - Nicole and me on her birthday
Me at about 14 years of age with my baby sister Nicole – see mom I did feed her!

When I was about 14 years old, I ran away from home.

My parents and I had gotten into a big fight and they pulled out that famous line that parents often like to pull, “As long as you live under MY roof…”  And so in my childish defiance I thought, “Well, if THAT’S the rule…” and I got on my bike and rode away!  I had all of about $7.00 in my pocket and thought for sure that was going to be enough for me to survive.  After all, Taco Bell tacos were only about 50 cents at the time and if I had one a day plus a Slurpee at 7-11, I could go a whole week on what I had!  Surely, by then I would have a full-time job and would be able to support myself.  And so there I sat in front of the local 7-11 with a Slurpee in my hand and my bike propped up next to me, sitting on the curb as faceless people walked in and out of the store not knowing me at all.  I felt so alone.  The harsh reality of running away started to hit me, and one overriding thought kept coming into my brain.  I was woefully unprepared for the world.  I didn’t know anything about child labor laws or housing or how long it takes to get a paycheck.  I sat there on that curb thinking for a long time about what decision I would make next.  Thankfully, I knew there was one place I could go that was safe.  Where people loved me.  And so I went back home.  I don’t know how my parents put up with me, but I’m glad they did.  Because the world is a big, tough, scary place and when you’re out there alone you need a place to come home to.  You need a place to belong and a place where you can learn and grow safely.  And the more of these places that we can create in the world, the better the world and the safer the world will be.  If the church is going to be the home of Jesus Christ, if we are going to live out the words of Jesus we need to be that place for our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren and the children of our community.  I want to challenge you to bring your children to church, to bring your grandchildren to church, to bring your great-grandchildren to church, to bring your nephews and nieces and the kid down the street to church – not because we need the numbers or because we like seeing kids up front for Fun Time, but because we take seriously the responsibility to help children know the love of Christ.  And then I want you to consider volunteering to help out with Sunday School, especially for our elementary school age kids.  I want you to find some way to do something to help the kids of our church and the kids of our community to know how much we love them.  We need to be actively involved in their lives, to provide a place of comfort and love – free of judgment and ridicule.  And most of all, we need to be a place of preparation.  A place that helps teach our children how to morally and spiritually face the world.  Because one day, they WILL leave home.  One day, they will be on their own.  And how they face the world, what path they choose will be determined by how prepared they are.

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[1] From Outreach Magazine’s article on Finding and Keeping the Next Generation and http://sundaysoftware.com/site/the-life-benefits-of-church-membership/ It’s been a while since I researched the stats so it could be better (or worse).

Love Changes Everything

2002-05-25 - Cutting the cake
Cassie and I on our wedding day at The Charthouse – this was yummy cake

Love changes everything.

Sixteen years ago, Cassie and I exchanged wedding vows and my life has never been the same.  It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, but I can say my life is so much better for having Cassie in it.  Not only do we have an amazing daughter together, but she has challenged me to grow in my faith, my career, and my aspirations.  I still remember the day we got engaged. I took her to this restaurant, the 1848 House, that was built inside this big, gorgeous Southern plantation home.  Every room in the house was part of this historic home back in the 1800’s and the one we were seated in was the master bedroom with the table set before a roaring fireplace.  Cassie was in this beautiful red dress and looked gorgeous.  I had spent days planning out in advance how I anticipated the night would go.  I ordered a dozen long-stem red roses delivered to the restaurant.  I arranged everything with the staff days before we got there and asked if our server would wait to deliver it right before dinner, but somehow our wires got crossed and he brought it in early before the appetizer.  It was a big gold foil box of roses and when the waiter walked in with them I was a little surprised but went with it anyway.  I got down on one knee, and asked her if she would marry me.  I still remember the smile on her face when she said “yes.”  I was bursting with excitement!  I wanted to tell everyone.  Throughout the night some of the other servers would come by and stand in the doorway smiling and cheering us on quietly. As soon as we got home, we called our parents and told them the news and then called up our friends and anyone else we could think of.  Because when a moment happens that is about to change your life, we want to share it.

1848 House
1848 House in Atlanta, GA – no longer a restaurant but the place where I proposed to Cassie

You’ve probably had moments like this in your life.

Maybe it was the same – getting engaged.  Maybe it was something else.  Graduation.  Buying your first car.  Finding out you’re about to have a baby.  In those moments it becomes more real and more important when we share it with those around us. And the same is true about God.  When we finally realize how much God loves us, that God would send Christ to be with us and to show us his love, we need to share that love.  We should feel as compelled to share the love of Christ as we would the news of our engagement, our graduation, our new job, our new family member.  Which is what Jesus was trying to teach the disciples.

2004-04-07 - Holding Emma as a Baby Burrito
Emma as a baby burrito

33″My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.

 34″A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” – John 13:33-35

This is the kind of love that can change the world.

Jesus tells the disciples, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”  Sometimes we misinterpret Jesus’ statement as a command to love other Christians.  And we like that; we’re good at that.  It’s easy.  But think about how Jesus phrased it – “As I have loved you” – unconditionally, unreservedly, without expectations.  “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”  Now that’s harder.  We don’t like to put ourselves out there.  And we certainly don’t like to put ourselves out there when there is a good chance we’ll be rejected.  Have you ever told someone you loved them only to have the “let’s be friends” speech?  Ouch.  But Jesus challenges us to love everyone, whether they reject us or not.  This is Jesus’ call to love even the unlovable.  He didn’t say it was easy.  But he did say that by loving one another people would know what we stand for and what we believe in.  As Jesus said in another passage, it’s easy to love those who love you, but to love those who don’t?  Now that’s a testimony to love.

However, love is NOT Christian. 

Love is NOT Christian.  By that, I mean love is not exclusive to Christianity.  Each of us knows non-Christians who love their family, their friends, their neighbors, and their country.  So love isn’t something exclusive to us.  We aren’t the only ones capable of it.  As it said in our reading from 1 John, “everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.”  That includes Buddihists, Hindus, Jewish people, Muslims…everyone. God is not limited to expressing love only through those who believe. Do you remember the story of Cyrus?  He was the king of all Persia, but he didn’t believe in God.  At least not in the way we believe in Him or the way the Israelites believed in Him.  He just thought our God was “a god” – little “g.” But it says in Ezra 1:1 that “the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus…” and Cyrus allowed the Israelites to return to Jerusalem and build a temple in the name of God.  “The Lord moved the heart of Cyrus.”  So if God is love and God can work in Christians and non-Christians alike, what does it mean to be Christian?

It means that we recognize that love comes from God. 

It means we recognize that love comes from God.  It isn’t just a chemical reaction in our bodies.  It isn’t simply a label we put to an amorphous feeling.  We KNOW that God actually IS love and that His love for us is made perfect in Jesus Christ.  Look again at 1 John 4:9: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us…”  Not that WE loved GOD, but that he FIRST loved us!   That’s what love is about.  Love is about unconditionally being there for others as Christ was for us.  To truly love someone is to love them regardless if they love you back, because loving others is OUR RESPONSE to the abundant love that God has for us.  It’s the ability to pass God’s love FORWARD.  To share the joy of God’s love with others so they can feel it for themselves.

IMG_6384
My cross from the Walk to Emmaus (where I sat at the table of Luke)

One act of love can be so powerful.

When I was still new to my faith (and I was “new” for about 30 years), some friends of ours from church thought Cassie and I were ready to attend a “Walk to Emmaus” event.  It was one of the most moving moments in my life.  I experienced the love of God in a way I never had before.  The people who gave of themselves to be there, the notes of encouragement I received, the words that were spoken to us were so meaningful, but this cross was perhaps the most meaningful of all.  Not only does it remind me of the time I spent there, but it has a deeper meaning as well.  At the end of the event, everyone on our walk was presented with a cross like this one.  It’s not especially expensive and it came on a leather thong you could buy for about a dollar, but its value is worth so much more to me than what you might pay for it.  When they presented it to us, they told us that all weekend people were praying for us by name over these crosses.  Literally 24 hours a day.  There was a room where they had the crosses set up and every hour someone or a group would come in and pray over them.  This cross is more than just the pewter it’s made of.  It’s a symbol of the love these people, most of whom didn’t even know us, had for a group of strangers they were hoping would connect to God in a meaningful way.  It worked for me.

You never know how an act of love will change a person’s life.

It could literally mean the difference between life and death.  I’ve heard so many stories of people who had given up hope only to have someone come into their life at just the right moment.  Often times total strangers.  They were people who happened to say the right thing, do something kind, offer to help when it was needed the most.  You never know when you might be the right person in the right place at the right time.  How will you know?  You won’t.  So BE that way.  Be the kind of person who just acts our of love, not because they’ll get something back, but because they are passing it forward.  I want to challenge you to reach out with the love of Christ in your heart to someone this week who needs it.  Maybe you’ll pay for a stranger’s meal or maybe you’ll finally go and meet the neighbor you’ve been living next door to for the past five years and say “hi” or maybe you’ll do something nice for someone that you know has been having it rough lately.  Buy someone flowers.  Leave an extra large tip for the waiter or waitress.  Send someone an anonymous gift card.  Do SOMETHING for someone this week just because YOU have been blessed with the love of God in your heart.  And see for yourself if you don’t feel more complete.  And when you do that, when we ALL do that, when we each take that step toward changing the world to simply BE a place where everyone knows the love of Christ.

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Sharing Is Caring

The absolute best prime rib on the planet! – Lawry’s Prime Rib

Lawry’s Prime Rib is the BEST prime rib on the planet.

Hands down.  And I’ve looked around.  Some places are good, some are even great, but the overall experience at Lawry’s Prime Rib in Beverly Hills is absolutely the best.  Now, if I want ribs, Lawry’s isn’t the place.  If I want great pasta, I wouldn’t go there.  But if you want the most tasty, dripping-with-goodness, explode-in-your-mouth-with-flavor prime rib in the universe, Lawry’s is where you want to be.  Not only is their prime rib an event by itself, but they have the most amazing sides to heighten your flavor parade.  From the spinning bowl salad to the Yorkshire pudding to the creamed spinach, it’s all spectacular.  And the service?  It is beyond top notch. I think my favorite is when they pull the entire table away from the booth so you can sit down without having to squeeze your way in.  But the best part is sharing it with someone who’s never been there before.  There’s nothing quite like seeing someone else discover for themselves what you knew all along.  It’s so satisfying when they can’t imagine what life was like before it.

Sharing is caring! Sharing something you love with family and friends is always heart warming – like my 50th birthday at Lawry’s

Now if you asked me how they make the prime rib so good, I couldn’t tell you.

If you wanted to know why the spinning bowl salad has that perfect blend of flavors, it would be as much a mystery to me as it was to you, although I would guess “beets” or maybe the dressing.  And if you wanted the secret to their raspberry English trifle, the best I could do would be to shrug, because the truth is I’m not an expert on these things.  I could take a guess and I might come close because I do love to cook, but I’m not a chef.  I’ve never had culinary training.  The finer points about the art of creating with food is still largely unknown to me.  But I think I could still convince you to at least give it a try.  My testimony about how great it tasted, my enthusiasm for the service and the atmosphere, the fact that I’ve returned again and again for nearly 30 years would probably weigh heavily in your decision to come with me next time I went (and if any of you ever want to go, just let me know).  Just because I don’t know some of the details or that I might not understand the cooking techniques involved probably wouldn’t bother you in the slightest.  So why is it we don’t feel equipped to share our faith as easily as we would our favorite places to eat? 

You don’t need a seminary degree to share your faith!

We have this crazy idea we have to be seminary graduates to share our faith.

That somehow we have to be experts in theology to tell other people why Jesus is so awesome.  We get intimidated because we think if we try talking about our faith, people are going to expect us to have all the answers, but that isn’t true.  They might be skeptical, they might be fearful, they might even have questions you can’t answer, but that doesn’t take away from the power of your story.  No one expects you or anybody else to know any more about religion than you do about a restaurant.  Think about the number of things you talk to people about everyday – the schools we attended, places we’ve visited, favorite vacation spots, our favorite sports teams.  Rev. Mike told me that my love of the Dodgers wouldn’t work up in Berkeley and I told him this is simply a new mission field. I know that once you become True Blue, you’ll see the error of your ways.  Sharing about your faith should be no harder than sharing about your favorite place to eat.  It’s simply sharing your own personal knowledge about something.[1]  That’s all it is.  Being a witness is simply sharing your own personal knowledge about something.  It doesn’t mean you have to be an expert or have any special training.  It’s a personal account of things that have happened to YOU.  And who could be a better witness to what has happened in your life than you?

Love the look of the guy behind me. Must not be a Dodgers fan

Let’s go to the Bible and hear what God has to say about it.

We are going to read from Acts, chapter 1, verses 3 through 8.  This is the passage right before Jesus leaves the Earth to return to Heaven and he’s speaking with the disciples one last time.  He has proven himself over and over again during a period of forty days and is about to go up to Heaven when he gives the disciples one more command.

4On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

6So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  

7He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

“You will be my witnesses.”

I think it’s remarkable Jesus didn’t go to the rabbis or other leaders of Israel to share his message of love, salvation, and forgiveness.  You have to remember, as far as we know, none of Jesus’ core disciples were religious leaders of any kind.  They were fishermen and tax collectors and whatever else.  The Bible isn’t clear on all of their occupations, but it’s probably true that they didn’t have any training in the books of the Torah any more than any child would have learned.  They didn’t have special knowledge of God’s Word EXCEPT for having experienced a life with Christ.  And that’s all that was needed.  Jesus didn’t single out the really smart people and say “you will be my witnesses.”  He points to all of them, because they have their own unique perspective on what has happened in the life of Christ and how it affected them.  They can offer the kind of personal testimony that is compelling and honest because they have experienced it for themselves.  And that’s what Jesus wants.  He wants a group of believers to go out into the world and share from their own knowledge and experience of God.  Christ knows that the most effective witness is a personal witness.  The most effective sharing of the Gospel is our OWN story of how Jesus has made a difference in our lives.  Jesus knew that the best way to spread the Word wasn’t going to be with billboards along the Roman road or publishing an editorial in the Roman Times; it was going to be through people like you and me.  That’s still true today even in our Internet age.  He knew the best way to get people to believe in him was through those who were closest to them.  We have far more influence in our own social networks than anywhere else and that’s what is going to make the most difference, when friends and family hear from us the impact that Christ has made on our lives.

Some of us have developed the notion that sharing our faith is an imposition.

People have said to me, “I don’t want to push my religion on other people.”  And I have to ask “Why not?”  We feel completely fine pushing everything else from our favorite spatula to our favorite brand of eggs – why not our favorite religion?  Your favorite spatula isn’t going to be of any use when you die, but preparing for your eternal life in comparison seems pretty important.  Why is it so hard to talk about then?  Maybe because it is such a sensitive subject. Like politics, it seems nearly impossible to change someone’s mind about religion once they’ve made a choice.  But does that mean we shouldn’t try? Before you say “No, we shouldn’t try,” I want you to consider something – Silence is a form of communication.  Saying nothing is as much of a choice saying something.  Saying nothing conveys the idea that we don’t care or we don’t have an opinion or it’s not important enough for us to share our thoughts.  And is that the message we really want to get across?  Are we so scared to share our thoughts about Christ that we would rather sit idly by while others make choices that lead them away from knowing the truth about God?  We see it all the time.  New age crystals, wiccan practices, all sorts of alternative paths to God… except they’re not.  Ask yourself this.  If you were stuck in a foreign country, is it easier to find your way by guessing the right way to go or having a friend that you trust guide you there?  That’s all sharing your faith is about, being that guide through a world filled with choices that lead nowhere.

I think what happens is people get confused about what it means to share their faith. 

I hear the excuse quite often that “faith is personal.”  I completely agree with that.  So does Jesus.  But while faith is personal, it is not private.  Faith is personal, not private.  Meaning that your faith is a personal journey and a story only you can share.  And only you are the expert on faith in your life.  But faith was never meant to be hidden away like some secret treasure or worse like something we are embarrassed by.  Christ makes is abundantly clear in the Great Commission that our primary goal as Christians is to share our faith – “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).”  And he told us in our reading this morning, “…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth (Acts 1:8).”  We must not be afraid to share our faith.  Too much is at stake.  Let us commit to praying about one person who could really benefit from being closer to Christ.  Think of one family member, one friend who is far from God who you might invite to church to experience God the way you do.  And then do it.  Let God use you to share his love, you never know where it may lead.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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[1] Definition from Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary.

Saying Goodbye

It’s tough to say goodbye.
It’s hard to believe this is our last Sunday together. After six years of being on this journey, today we worship with one another one last time. I’m going to miss all of you and what this place has meant to me and my faith. I hope that in some small way, I have helped you in yours, too. I am so honored to have been part of what we are doing here and I will keep praying for this place and for all of you. I hope you will do the same for me and my family. It’s easy to think of “goodbye” as something sad, but maybe there’s another way to look at it. We tend to see it in light of “what could have been,” missed opportunities, things we didn’t get to do. But it’s important to look forward to what life has in store for us instead of holding on to the past. It’s not that we can’t look back or even remember fondly what has gone before, but we shouldn’t let that stop us from also looking toward the future. If you have your Bibles or a Bible app on your phone, if you would go to Acts 1:1. Here we read about an ending, and a new beginning. This takes place right as Jesus is about to ascend into Heaven for the final time. Now for those of you who don’t know, most scholars believe that Luke, the same guy who wrote the Gospel of Luke, also wrote the Book of Acts and in fact, Acts is almost like a sequel to the Gospels. It tells about what happened AFTER the resurrection and recounts the history of the early church. The words we’re about to hear mark Jesus’ final ascension into Heaven and the moments that happen right after.

From our first month in Dinuba – two welcoming churches

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” – Acts 1:1-11

I want to challenge you today to think of goodbyes in a different way.
Over the centuries our culture has turned goodbyes into endings, but that’s not the origin of the word. In fact, the word “goodbye” comes from the phrase “God be with you.” It was meant as a prayer and a blessing for God’s continued grace, that God would bless your journey! It was a salutation to the future! Not a tie to the past. And the danger of holding on to the past is that we never allow ourselves the opportunity to live into the present, to fully embrace the opportunities that God has before us. So instead I want to challenge you to look at goodbye not as an end but as a new beginning.

Could not have been ordained without my church family in Dinuba

I can only imagine what it must have been like for the disciples when Jesus left.
It’s probably the complete opposite of what they were expecting. Jesus, risen from the dead, resurrected into new life has spent the last forty days performing miracles, proving he was alive, and speaking about the coming Kingdom,. His followers must have said to each other, “Wow! This is AWESOME! Not even DEATH can stop him!” But they assumed Jesus’ return meant the people of Israel would take over the world. And they would, but not in the way short-sighted human beings imagined and still imagine today. Somebody asks, “Is this the time, Lord? Is this when it’s going to happen? Because, we noticed you haven’t done it yet and it’s been like over a month and we just figured that if you could come back from the dead, that you could pretty much restore Israel whenever you wanted.” And he tells them not to worry about “when” it’s going to happen. Instead he says, “… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” He lays it out for them. The Holy Spirit is going to come and you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth! And then he just vanishes.

Celebrating Aiko winning the Bishop’s Award – definitely one of the highlights of ministry here in Dinuba

The Apostles must have been dumbstruck.
Like they just got hit by a Mack truck. I imagine that the disciples were staring up into the clouds much like a child watches after a balloon that floats away. You watch it float higher and higher until it floats so high you can no longer see it, but in your mind, you can picture it continuing to go higher still. That’s probably what the disciples were doing – looking up, even when they could no longer see Him. They’re just fixated in that moment, the way a lot of us get when we say goodbye to someone or something we love, especially if it happens suddenly the way it did for the Apostles. But there’s new opportunities waiting for them and so God sends two men, two ANGELS down to bring them out of it. “’Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’” These two men, these two angels, sort of tap them on the shoulders and say, “Don’t worry about it. God has a plan for you.”

Jesus LEAVING brought about a new BEGINNING.
He left so that the Holy Spirit could come down and bless them and empower them to spread his word. He left because the Apostles needed to start a new chapter in their lives. And Jesus did what any wise parent, wise teacher, or sage guide would do – he trained them, he helped them, he gave them the tools to succeed, but then he left them on their own. And it’s in those moments that we are tested. Do we cling to the past and become afraid to step out on our own? Or do we embrace the future?

One of my favorite family pictures at Palm UMC. So many awesome memories

Embracing the future doesn’t mean forgetting the past.
It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t honor the past. But it does mean we can’t let the past hold us back from the future. Remember what we shared before, “The last seven words heard from a church are ‘We’ve never done it that way before.’” Don’t be afraid of change. Not in your life and not in this church. Every ending marks a new beginning and even though I won’t be with you any longer, that doesn’t mean the work we’ve been doing together is over. In fact, it’s just beginning. It might look differently than it does today, but as long as you keep looking forward instead of looking back, this church will continue to progress into the future and reach new people for Christ. As I learned from our friends in the United Church of Christ, they have a saying, “God is still speaking. Don’t put a period where God has put a comma.” Let him speak through you. Be the witnesses he commands us to be. Find your own voice to do it. It’s up to you. It’s up to you to find new ways and new ideas to help people understand the love of Jesus Christ. It’s up to you to invite and encourage people into a deeper relationship with God. And it’s up to you to pursue that for yourselves.

I challenge you in the days to come to embrace this mission and find ways to be witnesses for Christ in your daily lives. I challenge you to go and invite friends and family and neighbors to come with you to church and experience for themselves the kindness that comes from being in a community dedicated to loving one another. I challenge you to lead such transformed lives that those around you will long to find out what secret it is you’ve discovered that brings you such happiness, joy, and contentment. And then I hope you lean over, and whisper in their ear. “Jesus loves even me.”

It’s not easy to say “goodbye.”
Not just to each other, but to old habits, to comfortable ways of living, to things we need to leave in the past. It’s hard. But sometimes necessary as Jesus showed us this morning. But like I said earlier, the word “goodbye” actually means “God be with you.” It is a hope and a promise for the future. So when we say “goodbye” to each other this morning, let it be in that vein. That the mighty God who sacrificed himself on the cross for us remains within each of us and supports us as we embrace life in a different way. I leave you today with these words from a song by the Muppets. “Somehow I know, we’ll meet again. Not sure quite where and I don’t know just when. You’re in my heart. So until then. It’s time for saying goodbye.” God be with you.

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Dunking Donuts

How do you eat your donuts?

Do you dunk them or do you like eating them “as is?”  And what do you like to have with your donut – milk, coffee, or something completely different?  Me, I’m an “as is” kind of guy.  I like to experience my donuts without other flavors impacting the “donut experience.”  I know some people like to dunk them, but I can’t bring myself to do that.  I like to think of myself as a donut purist and even though I love milk, I wouldn’t want to blend the tastes together.  It’s the same reason I eat cereal the way I do.  I’m on a timer as soon as the milk hits the bowl.  It just makes me cringe to think about eating soggy cereal and I feel the same way about donuts.  Who wants a soggy donut?   It would be like putting sugar on grits, butter on rice, ketchup on eggs!  Wait, I do that.  The point is we each have our own way of doing things that WE think is RIGHT and we can’t IMAGINE doing it differently.  But are we correct?  The funny thing is we have controversies like this in the church, too.  Different denominations and even different churches have different ways of observing certain rituals that are central to what we believe.  Baptism is like that. The people of God have very different viewpoints on what constitutes a “proper” baptism.  To dunk or not to dunk?  That is the question.  And the attempt to answer it has driven right thinking people in different directions.  How you dunk your donut doesn’t seem to upset anybody, but for some reason, how you dunk people does.

There are basically four methods of baptism – aspersion, affusion, immersion, and submersion.

Say it with me.  Aspersion, affusion, immersion, submersion.[1]  It’s a tongue twister.  Sounds like that Gene Kelly song from Singing in the Rain.  “Moses supposes his toes-es are roses, but Moses supposes erroneously.” Anyway, aspersion is a fancy way of saying sprinkling with water, that’s what we do most commonly.  You take a palm full of water and just run it gently over the person’s head.  Affusion is the pouring of water over the head, usually from a jug or pitcher of water with a bowl underneath to catch it as it drips off.  The advantage of these two types is you can still dress up.  Immersion is literally standing or kneeling in a body of water and using a jug or bowl or something where you can scoop up a lot of water, and having it poured on top of you.  Sort of like a Gatorade soak at the end of a football game.  And then there is complete immersion or submersion, which is the mother of ALL baptisms.  It’s the one we most commonly think of when we think of someone being “dunked.”  In the United Methodist Church, ALL of these are acceptable forms of baptism, but not every church sees it that way.

In fact, some are very rigid in their beliefs.

I had a friend named Susan who belonged to the International Church of Christ. I remember talking to her one day after I had moved to Atlanta.  We had lost touch for a couple of years and I decided to reconnect with her, see how she was doing, and she told me about this church she joined.  It seemed strange right from the beginning.  She was telling me about this intense discipleship training they had to go through before they were allowed to be baptized.  ALLOWED!  They had very strict ideas about baptism and the saddest one to me was that she believed only those baptized in this particular way were going to be saved.  It literally made me sad.  Incidentally, only her church baptized people in this particular way – which she never gave me the details.  She said there was only one true baptism and if you didn’t take part in it, you couldn’t be saved.  I wish I had known then what I know now.  If you would turn to Luke 23:33 we will begin our reading for today.  This was the passage I wish I had read to her.  Luke 23:33-43.  Because this one passage would shatter that belief in a second.  This one passage shows all you need to receive salvation in Christ.  This is the reading from Luke of the crucifixion of Christ.  We begin the reading with Christ at the top of Golgotha along with the two criminals and this part of Scripture describes what happens next.  But pay attention not only to what happens but to what DOESN’T happen.

33When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. 35The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.” 36The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” 38There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.

 39One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

 40But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

 43Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Nowhere in the Bible does it say you HAVE to be dunked. 

Nowhere in the Bible does it say you HAVE to be dunked.  I’ve looked and I’ve looked, and it just doesn’t say that anywhere.  People will argue, “That’s how Jesus did it.”  But if you read the Bible, it doesn’t say anything about HOW Jesus got baptized, just that he did.  Jesus himself never says anything about it either except that we should do it, too.  Dunkers will argue that the word “baptism” itself MEANS to “dip” or “immerse,” but they downplay that it also means to “wash” or to have your hands poured over with water.  So even though “baptism” does mean to “dip” or “immerse” it also has meaning to “wash” or to “pour water over.”[2]  Dunkers even ignore the historical and archaeological evidence that even in the early church people often had water poured over them instead of being dunked.  The only requirement for faith, the only necessary to receive salvation as we see in our reading this morning is belief in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.  Everything else is humanity adding rules.

The people watching ridiculed and mocked Jesus.

Even the one of the criminals, as he is hanging there in pain insulted him and shouts at him “Save yourself and us!”  But the other criminal scolds the first one and admits to his crimes and proclaims that Jesus has done nothing wrong.  And then he says to Jesus, “…remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  And Jesus says these words, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”  Today you will be with me in paradise.  The man repented, moments before his death, with a sincere and honest heart, and Jesus forgave him.  It’s as simple as that.  And that thief?  He never got baptized.  He never got baptized.  His sins were never washed away in some river somewhere.  He never went underwater.  There isn’t some hidden gospel account that shows the thief being taken down to receive the ritual cleansing.  Instead, with a love of God and repentance in his heart, the criminal asks for forgiveness and Christ forgives.

But that doesn’t mean baptism isn’t important.

In fact, for anyone who knows the love of Christ, it is essential.  Jesus himself commanded us to baptize all nations in his name.  And if salvation is based on our faith in Christ, what does it say about our faith if we refuse to be baptized?  As one of only two sacraments in our faith, we believe that baptism like communion is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  We participate in baptism to acknowledge our faith in Christ and we do it in the community of believers because baptism is about joining the family of God; becoming a true child of Christ.  There are no secret baptisms.  And in the Methodist tradition, we accept the baptisms of any Christ-centered church.  I know in some traditions, it’s customary to be “rebaptized.”  When you change denominations, some churches want you to do it again.  But that treats baptism on the same level as a do-over in kickball or flipping the reset button on your video game.  When I was younger, we had an Atari.  Back then there were no numbers.  No 2600.  No 5200.  Just Atari.  Nintendo wasn’t even a blip on the radar screen.  My mom and I would spend hours playing Air-Sea Battle together.  And the coolest thing about the Atari was the reset button.  If I didn’t like the results, just flip the switch and POOF I would get to start the game over again.  The concept of rebaptism is sort of like that.  It’s a do-over because the first one didn’t count.  And I can completely understand why some people would want to do that, to hit the restart button.

Getting the opportunity to baptize London at Palm UMC

I had a friend who asked our pastor to be rebaptized.

She had been baptized as a child and at the time it didn’t have the meaning it did for her now.  She had been away from the church for a long while and when she came back, she really felt that her life had been transformed.  She wasn’t the same person she was before and she felt like she needed to rededicate her life to God.  And our pastor told her that we didn’t do rebaptisms and the reason she gave has always stuck with me.  She told her, “We believe God got it right the first time.”  We believe God got it right the first time.  That’s why we don’t rebaptize people from other denominations or rebaptize adults who left and came back.  Because baptism, isn’t like a video game where you start over if you don’t get it right.  Baptism is a covenant between you and God.  And just like your parents will always be your parents, once you become a child of God, you are ALWAYS a child of God and God loves you whether you love him back or not.

God doesn’t care how you are baptized, but that you have a heart and love for Christ.

We make up a lot of rules in the church.

A lot of rules that aren’t necessary or Biblical, but humankind likes having rules.  We like rules not just because it adds structure and order to our lives, but because we can more easily determine who’s in and who’s out.  But maybe, if we focus instead not on the minutiae of church, but instead on the overall goals of the church – to bring other to faith in Christ – we could BE the church Christ wants us to be. Baptism IS important, but not because of some sort of legal requirement to become adopted into the family of God, but because it is a milestone in our faith journey.  It is a commitment to a life in the care of Jesus Christ.  And an opportunity to share our faith with those we know and love.  Whether we are baptized by sprinkling, pouring, or dunking doesn’t matter to God.  What matters are your faith and your heart.  That’s always been enough for him.  Now I need to go and eat a donut.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baptism

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baptism

Living Waters

It’s been a year of milestones. 

Emma is graduating from 8th grade.  I still can’t believe that.  I’m so proud of her and the person she is growing to become.  But it’s hard to believe.  Next year she’ll be in high school!  Am I old enough to have a daughter in high school?  I guess I must be, because I also have a daughter old enough to join the Air Force.  Eve surprised us all by enlisting and now she’s in her second week of basic training. And then, this year I turned the BIG 5-0!  And while I’m extremely grateful to have made it this far, turning 50 comes with the realization that I now qualify for membership in AARP.  It’s kind of shocking.  I’m still a few years away from getting discounts at the movie theater, but it won’t be long. I guess for Cassie it’s been a year of milestones, too.  She is the mother of a daughter graduating from 8th grade, the mother of a daughter graduating from basic training, and the wife of a guy who just turned 50!  And to top it off, we’re moving this year!  It makes my head spin thinking of all the different milestones we’ve encountered just this year alone.

Emma and her friends in front of the White House during the 8th grade history trip

Our faith has milestones, too.

And in the Christian life, baptism is considered a big one.  It marks the time when we dedicate our life to Christ and give ourselves to his kingdom.  And it is a time of celebration as we welcome another member into the family of God.  Baptism is the first milestone in our faith journey. Not our first step but our first milestone and that distinction is important.  A milestone is a reference point.  It’s a marker along the road to show us where we’ve been and how far there is to go.  In the Christian faith, our life is filled with these markers and from the moment we are born to the moment we die, we are continually walking along that road.  If we say it’s the first STEP, then we’re saying that our faith, our journey really only begins HERE – at this point, when we’re baptized.  But that’s not true.  Just because you haven’t been baptized doesn’t mean you don’t believe in God.  Our faith journey starts even before we’re aware of it, because God is active in our lives from the moment we are born.  And think about those who are baptized as adults.  I didn’t get baptized until I was 33 years old, but I look back at my life and see all the ways God was working in me that entire time.  Through my mom, through my friends, through my wife-to-be, all of them were important in my faith journey even before I was baptized.  But it was when I was baptized that I made a commitment to Christ.  It was then that I finally responded to God’s efforts to reach out to me.  Baptism then is our response to a faithful and loving God who is already at work in our lives.

 

Getting ready for Emma’s baptism

It’s also more than that.

It’s not simply a ritual or a ceremony that we do to commemorate becoming a member of the Church.  It is one of the means of grace by which we actually encounter God through the Holy Spirit.  In our church, we celebrate only two of these divine means of grace – baptism and Holy Communion.  And in both of these celebrations, when we surrender ourselves to God, we open ourselves up to the workings of the Holy Spirit.  We call these sacraments because they are outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace.  What that means is there is a powerful transformation of the spirit that happens when you participate in these sacraments.  The outward aspects of the service, the water in baptism and the taking of bread and juice in communion, are visible symbols of something transformative and deeper that is happening inside of you.  That’s why it is so important to be baptized and why it is the first huge milestone on your journey to becoming a Christian.  Not because you get water sprinkled on you, but because baptism opens you up to the Holy Spirit in a new and different way.  In our passage this morning, Jesus talks about this with Nicodemus.  Now in this passage, Jesus is talking to Nicodemus who you will hear is one of the key Jewish leaders.  Jesus had just turned water to wine and had overturned the tables in the temple and after that encounter, this man named Nicodemus comes up to him and wants to talk to him and this is the exchange that happens between them.

1Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

 3In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

 4“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”

 5Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”- John 3:1-8

I like Nicodemus’ question. 

I think it’s something I might have said.  I always imagine Nicodemus as sort of an older, fatherly figure – a guy who’s lived a pretty long life and knows quite a bit.  He is a member of the Jewish ruling council, so he’s probably a very respected person. And when he first hears Jesus say, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again,” he probably thinks Jesus is a little bit off.  It’s obvious Jesus has been blessed by God, but still, here’s this guy telling him, you have to be born again.  I would have been scratching my head.  I imagine Nicodemus has kind of a sarcastic tone in his voice when he replies, “How can a man be born when he is old?  Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”  But as Jesus explains, he’s talking about something that goes beyond physical birth.  “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”  As important as it is to have been born physically, it is even more important to be born again from the Holy Spirit.  Baptism allows the Spirit to enter into your life in ways that give you new life.

London Serios’ baptism at Palm UMC

Does that mean you have to be baptized in order to be saved?

No. Salvation is a gift from God given to anyone who believes.  But ask yourself this, if we believe that baptism opens us up to the work of the Holy Spirit in a new way, why wouldn’t we do it?  Why wouldn’t we want to draw closer to God?  Why wouldn’t we want to tell people we believe?  Because if you believe, if you have faith in the power of baptism to change your life, once you do it, you will be on a road to a richer, more peaceful, more full life.  But if you know about baptism and you know that it’s possible for it to change your life for the better and you still refuse to take part in it, consider what that says about your faith and if you truly believe.  Baptism is not only about opening ourselves up to the Holy Spirit, but it’s also about our commitment to God. Let us renew our own commitment and our own faith in Christ Jesus.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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It Takes A Village

Who would make your list?

Last weekend, we were at the Dodgers game a day early to celebrate Mother’s Day.  And in addition to the free hats they were giving away as part of the 60th anniversary of Dodger Stadium, they were also honoring the 1988 World Series Dodgers. On a side note, I leaned over and told Cassie the only reason we were celebrating the 30th anniversary of a World Series team is because we haven’t had one since.  All throughout the night they kept playing videos of the games and of the players from that historic year and Orel Hersheiser, probably the most famous member of that team next to Kirk Gibson, was on screen giving thanks to the coaches, the players, and the organization for making it happen. So who would make your list?  If you were up on DodgerVision giving thanks to the people who made your career a success, who would mention?  Watching these kinds of tributes, I am reminded of how interconnected the world is and how much we depend on one another for our success.  Being famous, winning awards, doing something noteworthy is more than just having the talent or the intelligence to do it.  Those things are important, but there’s an element of community that is at least as important as all of that.  I can’t help but think of people I know who are fantastic writers who have never had a book published or a script produced; wonderful singers who have never been signed to a record label; artists who haven’t had their work published or put in a gallery and I know it’s not because they lack talent.  On the other hand, there are movies like John Carter.  Someone was convinced to spend over $250 million dollars on a film that ended up losing $200 million.  No one becomes a success in a vacuum.  We are the product of so many different variables and all of them are important.

Enjoying the game early for Mother’s Day

Successfully raising a child is a lot like being a success at anything.

You can’t do it alone.  And I don’t mean being a single parent.  Having both parents around doesn’t guarantee success.  I knew a couple with two kids.  Same parents.  Same household.  Same schools.  One of them grew up to be a model student.  Helped out with the family, got good grades, never got in trouble.  The other one was always getting in fights; got sent to the principal’s office time and time again; and started doing drugs and breaking the law.  If it was just about good parenting, it wouldn’t make any sense!  But it’s not. A child doesn’t grow up in a bubble.  They have different friends.  They have different teachers.  They get involved in different things.  All of it adds up to the person they become.  As a church, we have to make sure to do our part, to help build up children in faith, to give them a solid foundation, to help them see God at work in their lives.  Because if we don’t, they will drift away to find themselves in other things.

Sharing with the kids about being faithful to God’s call with Teacher Susan

It scares me because the vast majority of kids leave the church when they leave the nest.

Studies show about 70% of kids who took off for college or careers also took off from the church.  Seventy percent![1]  They just…leave.  Some of them come back, but a lot of them don’t.  CNN did an article examining millennials and the church and in the space of just 7 years, the number of unaffiliated people (meaning people with no religious affiliation) rose nearly 7% to a whopping 23% of the population.[2]  That means nearly a quarter of all Americans not only don’t go to church, but don’t even have a church they claim as their own.  The number that was the most disheartening?  “Of America’s major faiths, mainline Protestants (like ours) have the worst retention rate among millennials, with just 37% staying in the fold…”[3]  Just 37%.  As the study pointed out, “Many young Christians seemed bored by church”[4] The temptation is to blame the kids for not being interested, but in all honesty we need to accept our part in all of this.  Because the kids I’ve talked to are hungry for answers.  They don’t always know what questions to ask, but they want to know the same things adults want to know – Why am I here?  What’s the meaning of life?  Is there a God?  And if so, why are all these things happening in the world?

Our kids need us to help them answer these questions.

The key isn’t to be a Biblical scholar, but to be the kind of person who exemplifies God’s love.  We are lucky to have someone like Susan who feels God’s call upon her life to help our children.  She has been doing Children’s Ministry now for about 15 years and has blessed the lives of many kids.  And it’s not just because she teaches them the Bible.  They enjoy the lessons, they like the goodies, and they always have a smile on their face when the treats come out, but it’s the love and dedication she has for the kids that are the best example of Christ’s love.  They learn about the Bible, but through Susan they also experience what it means to live out those words.  And that is the best way for children to know and understand God.  If we want our kids to stay close to God as they grow up, we have to be a living example of Christ’s love in their lives.

Susan does so much for the church. Here she is participating in our Ikebana class

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

It really does take a village to raise a child.

Parents are the most important ingredient to be sure, but parents alone can’t do all of the work.  We are products of more than just our biology.  Friends, church, community, our nation, and our world all contribute to making us who we are.  When then First Lady Hillary Clinton wrote her best-selling book with the title It Takes A Village, it’s purpose was to drive home this point and to inspire us to collectively take responsibility for the welfare of the children in our lives and in our world.  In the passage we just read, Moses is talking not just to parents, but to the entire nation of Israel.  “Impress (God’s commandments) on your children…  Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”  That word “impress” is more than just “teach.”  The dictionary defines the word as “to apply with pressure so as to imprint.”[5]  Teaching is the transfer of information, but impression is making it part of the person’s character.  In this passage, Moses is telling the people of Israel that it is our responsibility to find a way to impress upon the children the lessons of Christ and to live them out as a reminder at all times of what it means to be Christian.

Susan and her family as we celebrate her 15 years in ministry with the children

 

Wouldn’t it be great if you ended up in someone’s “thank you” speech?

What an honor to be placed in that rare category of influential people upon a person’s life.  If we take seriously Christ’s call not to hinder the little children, we also have to take seriously Moses’ call to impress upon the children the lessons of Christ.  Pray about how you can support the children of our church.  When we join, we offer our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.  How can you do that for our kids?  We have been so blessed to have more kids in Sunday School on a regular basis than we have had in over a decade.  If we want to keep that energy and that witness for Christ alive and strong, we have to help out in whatever way we can.  So pray about how you can support Susan and our Sunday School ministry this week.  We need volunteers to help out in the classroom.  It means giving up a Sunday in worship once in a while, but isn’t that worth it?  You might make the biggest difference in the lives of one of our kids.  And that is a reward beyond measure.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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[1] http://www.lifeway.com/Article/LifeWay-Research-finds-reasons-18-to-22-year-olds-drop-out-of-church

[2] http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/12/living/pew-religion-study/

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/impress