Overlooking The Signs!

Has anyone ever told you of a place you needed to see but you did not have a clue where it was located?  Obviously you needed directions and inevitably those directions included certain “signs” to look for, either the ones mounted on a post or a particular place.  Miss that sign and you miss where you are needing to go.

In the last few years God has been taking me on a radical journey that has completely turned my understanding of church upside down.  Well, let me rephrase that:  it has turned my understanding of the church right-side-up.  And while I thought this journey began about 5 years ago, this morning I realized it started much sooner.  Right now I am recognizing that this journey started in 1990.  Who knows, maybe even further back than that.

In early 1990 a friend and fellow co-conspirator in this work of being a called out pastor, called me to let me know one of our former professors was about to retire due to the continued deterioration of his vision and that summer would be his last time to teach.  Dr. David Naglee was a professor of New Testament Theology and had a profound impact on me.  His insights and style of sharing those insights were amazing and opened my eyes to a new depth of understanding.  I did not need to further my education in terms of Tribal demands, but I wanted to sit at the feet of Rabbi Naglee one more time, so I enrolled.

The drawback, or so I thought at the time, was I had to take 2 courses.  The other course was called “Good and Evil:  A Christian Perspective On Suffering.”  Due to the short term nature of this summer semester, there were required readings and papers that had to be submitted 2 months in advance of these classes.  Rabbi Naglee’s reading list was enjoyable and I loved writing those papers.  But that other class, well, some of those books were heresy I tell you, absolute heresy!  So I accepted the assignment as just a necessary  evil in order to learn from this Rabbi.  By the way, he wasn’t Jewish, it’s just a term of endearment from me to Dr. Naglee.

About 2 weeks before I left for Emory we were taking a family camping vacation at a state park.  We had set up the camper and went to the grocery store for supplies.  When I returned the park ranger had left an emergency message to call a church member.  When I called Ronnie he informed me that one of our youth, a 15 year old cheerleader and honor role student, had just been killed in an automobile accident.  It now fell upon me to find some way to offer God’s comfort in the middle of a tragedy that just didn’t make sense.

But almost immediately I remembered (actually it was the Holy Spirit who reminded me) one of those books from that “other” course, that necessary evil I had to endure in order to sit at the feet of Rabbi Naglee.  It was Philip Yancey’s classic Disappointment With God.    Actually it was the only book I thought worth reading at the time from the list.  Yancey had taught me this:  If it is not Good News in the hospital, if it is not Good News in the nursing home, if it is not Good News at the funeral home, then it is not Good News at all.  But it is Good News because the truth of the Good News endures the hard times of life and even thrives in the tight, dark and difficult places where real life happens every day.

The Spirit flooded my heart and mind with words of hope that I otherwise would not have had IF I had not chosen to sit at the feet of Rabbi Naglee and endure that “necessary evil” called “Good and Evil:  A Christian Perspective On Suffering.” God knew I would be facing a hurting family, a hurting church, a hurting community and a hurting school that urgently needed to know there is still Good News in the middle of tragedy.  On the day of that funeral, the funeral home chapel was full, as were all their parlors, the halls and anywhere a person could squeeze in to stand.  Fortunately the Fire Marshall wasn’t there because that building had exceeded it’s maximum occupancy rating.

Looking back, I now see that God’s gracious presence and plan was already setting me up for even more.  Now I am looking for those signs, those moments that may not seem to be important to me or most and may even feel like a necessary evil, for I know that God is not finished with me and has much more to teach me.  Right now I’m thinking about Romans 8:28 and from The Message it goes like this:

He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.

It is inevitable that living in a church-centered world we will miss one of God’s road signs in this Kingdom Journey.  The church-centered world and message will disappoint us because it is built around and upon human effort and human personalities.  But when we live in the Kingdom-Centered Good News, God is prepared for what lies ahead and is preparing us for those moments.  John Wesley calls this part of the nature of God’s grace Prevenient.  Prevenient is a big theological word like mahogany.  It comes from the Latin word that means “to go before”.

God is going before, ahead of you, and along your journey He has some well placed signs for you.  They may not make sense to you at the time, and may even seem like a necessary evil.  Just don’t miss them!  People, things and events are some of the means God uses to bring us into the life that is much bigger and better than we ever imaged.  Don’t give up, and don’t miss a sign, because…..

There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.

(Philippians 1:6 from The Message)

Remember, love God with all your heart.  Love others the way God loves you.  And make sure all the glory goes to Him, by becoming Great in the Kingdom of God!

Should The Church Be Neat?

(Again, remember that my perspective is from observing the western church at large, listening to other pastors, and from reading about other’s experiences and life lessons.  These musings are not about any single congregation.  Any resemblance to an actual church, currently in existence or now dead, is strictly a coincidence arranged by the Holy Spirit.)  Well, I must give credit where credit is due.  Today’s Kingdom Musings were inspired by a fellow blogger Brandon Andress and his musings Benefit Of A Doubt.  So, if you do not like my musings or are offended by them, just blame Brandon.

Most folks like things to be neat…well except hoarders.  So let me try this again.  Most folks like, want and insist that things be neat in the church on many levels.  Those who like, want and insist on neat in church do so because they genuinely and sincerely believe that it is absolutely necessary that we be neat in order to honor God.  They also believe, and again sincerely so, that neat is what we must have in order to keep God and the things of God sacred.  As a side note, right now I am wondering, “What does this say about sincerity?  Does being sincere mean that we are right?  And does it give us a free pass if we are wrong?”  “Well God, I sincerely believed I was right, regardless of what You said.”  Oh well, I digress to what might become another blog.

What we were talking about?  Oh yeah, people sincerely wanting “neat” in church.  Well, I must ask, “Exactly what does ‘neat’ look like for most church folks?”  One thing is that we must all believe the same things about the Bible, the world view, and God.  Established congregations typically see the Sunday School hour as the time to achieve such a sincere goal.  Each adult Sunday School Class is using the same curriculum for the most part.  This curriculum is selected because it comes closest to their beliefs, thus ‘neat’.  I have heard of congregations that felt their leadership needed to dress down a renegade teacher and class that was not using their approved curriculum.  One time I attended a revival service in one of my community’s church, in an ecumenical spirit.  I noticed a large sign board up front that listed 20 something things that everyone must believe in order to be a member of that congregation.  Neat!

Another thing about neat is that programs must be neat.  Translated, they must be tame.  We cannot have or do anything that does not clearly resemble what was done in 1950, 1960 and early 1970.  After early 1970, that was when things started falling apart.  Each room has a certain function and one can never use it for something else.  Space was assigned eons ago and though there is another class that is growing and run out of space, they cannot have the largest “Young Adults” classroom (which by the way the youngest is 76 years old) which, by means of attrition, now consists of less than a dozen members.  Their motto and mantra is “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”  And if you cannot embrace this view, well, simply be quiet or go somewhere else, which is usually what they do.  Sadly, they leave not for another church, but give up and walk away from God’s plans.

And when it comes to people, oh yes, they must be neat.  By neat I do not mean just in how they dress…though for many in church this is very important.  I am talking about giving the appearance of having it all together for the most part.  We cannot have people who appear to have real problems.  It used to be that the divorced and alcoholics were the taboos that we never addressed in church other than to condemn.  Now it’s things like drug addictions, domestic violence, sex and sexual orientation.  We cannot allow someone obviously dressed like a hooker sit in here, even though she is struggling and tired of her profession.  We cannot have someone who looks and smells like they have been drinking all night inside the sacred sanctuary, even though he realizes that his life is meaningless and he is looking for a new purpose.  And we certainly cannot have anyone who is from the LBGT community in here, even when they are wondering if God could actually love them they way they are now, or even if they just come to see how the congregation would react to them, even hoping they react against them so they can show just how hypocritical the church is.  When people come into the sanctuary they should appear to have it all together because it is not neat when people come to the sacred building bringing in all their brokenness.  Nope, just can’t have it.  It must be neat and tidy.

But then, there’s this guy by the name of Jesus.  You know, the one they want to honor by keeping everything neat.  The church is called to be the Body of Christ, meaning, to be the presence of Jesus in our time, just as He was the Presence of God when He walked this earth in our human form.  This was what church looked like when Jesus was here as a human being.  Think about those who came to Jesus back then.  Allow me to give you a few images straight from the Bible:

23-25 From there he went all over Galilee. He used synagogues for meeting places and taught people the truth of God. God’s kingdom was his theme—that beginning right now they were under God’s government, a good government! He also healed people of their diseases and of the bad effects of their bad lives. Word got around the entire Roman province of Syria. People brought anybody with an ailment, whether mental, emotional, or physical. Jesus healed them, one and all. More and more people came, the momentum gathering. Besides those from Galilee, crowds came from the “Ten Towns” across the lake, others up from Jerusalem and Judea, still others from across the Jordan.  (Matthew 4:23-25 The Message)

29-31 He touched their eyes and said, “Become what you believe.” It happened. They saw. Then Jesus became very stern. “Don’t let a soul know how this happened.” But they were hardly out the door before they started blabbing it to everyone they met.  32-33 Right after that, as the blind men were leaving, a man who had been struck speechless by an evil spirit was brought to Jesus. As soon as Jesus threw the evil tormenting spirit out, the man talked away just as if he’d been talking all his life. The people were up on their feet applauding: “There’s never been anything like this in Israel!” (Matthew 9:29-33 The Message)

After a few days, Jesus returned to Capernaum, and word got around that he was back home. A crowd gathered, jamming the entrance so no one could get in or out. He was teaching the Word. They brought a paraplegic to him, carried by four men. When they weren’t able to get in because of the crowd, they removed part of the roof (Wow!  Can you imagine the mess on the floor from the roof debris?) and lowered the paraplegic on his stretcher. Impressed by their bold belief, Jesus said to the paraplegic, “Son, I forgive your sins.” (Mark 2:1-5 The Message)

53-56 They beached the boat at Gennesaret and tied up at the landing. As soon as they got out of the boat, word got around fast. People ran this way and that, bringing their sick on stretchers to where they heard he was. Wherever he went, village or town or country crossroads, they brought their sick to the marketplace and begged him to let them touch the edge of his coat—that’s all. And whoever touched him became well. (Mark 6:53-56 The Message)

16-17 That evening a lot of demon-afflicted people were brought to him. He relieved the inwardly tormented. He cured the bodily ill. He fulfilled Isaiah’s well-known sermon: He took our illnesses, He carried our diseases.  (Mark 8:16-17 The Message; by the way, this was on the heels of Jesus healing a leper who came up to Him, healing the servant of an officer in the Roman Army who said he wasn’t good enough for Jesus to come into his home but had enough faith that Jesus could heal his servant with just a word right then and there, and healing Peter’s mother-in-law.)

Look carefully at these passages and get that mental image of what these scenes looked like.  Close your eyes and get this image and do not open them until this scene is etched into your mind.  OK, now that your eyes are open, think about your church on Sunday morning.  Close your eyes again and get this mental picture clear and focused.  Now that your eyes are open (and the Holy Spirit certainly hopes they are now open), does the Sunday morning reality of your sanctuary look anything like the sanctuary of Jesus when He was walking our earth in our human form?

If it does, then I want to say this:  “Hallelujah!  Praise God!  I thank God for you every day!”  And if it doesn’t, I have nothing to say but I do have a question and I hope this question haunts you in a good kind of way (meaning you will not rest until you find the answer and change the current reality):  “Why doesn’t it look like that?”

Remember, Love God with all your heart, Love others the way HE loves you, and make sure ALL the Glory goes to HIM!

You Are A 5-Star Prospect!

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Today is Groundhog Day.  But yesterday was an even more important day.  Why? Today is Groundhog Day.  But yesterday was an even more important day.  Why?  Today is Groundhog Day.  But yesterday was an even more important day.  Why?  OK, enough reference to Bill Murray and the movie Groundhog Day.  But that movie does have something to say to this left-handed, right-brained Kingdom pastor.

Yesterday was a most important day for us in the South.  If you are scratching your head wondering what was so important about yesterday, I would suggest you move out of the South and go back to where you came from.  Just kidding!  It was National Signing Day!  For those of you reading this but are unfamiliar with this significant day I will explain it.  It is the day when 17 and 18-year-old boys who have been offered the opportunity to go to college for free, cleverly disguised as a Football Scholarship, can publicly announce where they will attend college–to play football of course.

These young athletes have been carefully analyzed by so-called experts and assigned a rating called “stars”.  They range from being 1 star players to 5 star players.  The goal of every football coach is to get as many 5 star prospects as possible.  The belief is that the more 5-Stars that you have, the more likely you are to have a successful football program.  Now what does all this have to do with the Kingdom Life?  Glad you asked.

Sometimes we, the Church, get caught up in evaluating (that’s a nice way of saying “judging”) people in how much someone has to contribute to success in life.  All of these high school players are evaluated based on past performances with the assumption that these past performances will be expressed in the future, which is at a different level.  And what I have observed is that some 5-Star athletes turn into 0-Star athletes because their past performances were not enough at the next level.

Case in point from the Bible–Samuel’s trip to look for a replacement king.  Samuel is at home of one Jesse because God told Samuel that’s where the replacement king would be found.  Consciously or unconsciously, Samuel brought with him a 1-5 Star rating system based on external appearances, similar to the “experts” judging of athletes past performances.  Samuel picked a 5-Star at first, but God corrected him.  And for Churchians and Tenured Pew Sitters who engage in the same process, I love to quote this passage:

1-samuel-16_7

Here’s the Kingdom Truth for anyone today who has ever been rated (that is “judged”) by a set of external criteria:  Talent can only get you so far in life–and it is not enough to get you to where you need to be.  This is for those “5-Stars” who think they have it all and are great for the company, family and even the Church.  Some of those 5-Star football athletes fail not for lack of talent, but for lack of heart, resolve and determination.  They never reach their full potential.

And if you are one of those who have been rated a “1-Star or less” there is a Kingdom Truth for you.  You are not bound to your past IF you are willing to give your heart to Jesus.  Yes, God sees your stained and painful past.  He saw it all as His Son was nailed to that cruel Cross.  And that was more than enough to cover over, pay the price and wipe away the debt for anyone, everyone, and even you.  We call it Grace.

And now back to my opening reference to the movie Groundhog Day.  In that movie Murray keeps looping back to the morning of February 2 until he realizes that there is more to life than what he had been doing.  He can only move forward to February 3 if he decides to make a difference in the lives of others.  And though the movie never says directly that it is about living life for The Kingdom of God, to me at least, the reference is clear.

Groundhog Day, both the date and the movie by this name, remind us that our future cannot be determined by mindless events, or human predictions.  There is another future out there for us–a future that is hopeful and truly makes a difference in the lives of other people.  And we can become a part of this when we shed the “Stars”, or lack of “Stars” put on us by others, and realize that when God looks at our heart, the very heart that bears HIS Image, and knows what we can become when we give Him control of our whole life.

His presence, through the Holy Spirit, makes all the difference in our future.  Oh, you may not make the headlines at ESPN, but you will make the headlines in the hearts and minds of others who finally see Jesus through you.  God has something special for you.  Do not think to highly of yourself, or too low.  He knows you are a 5-Star even when the world has written you off.

#MessyGrace

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