Looking for Jesus Quote

I bought a book almost twenty years ago in a discount bin. I knew the author was a great writer, but I did not know much about her theology. I read through most of the book and was disappointed, but there are two paragraphs in the introduction that made it worth the price of the book. I keep it and reread it every so often as a reminder to me as a preacher. Here it is:

“Using Jesus as a mirror for cultural or personal ideals seems a tendency we can’t escape.  What I learned about him in Sunday School has, I can see, been colored by my teacher’s agenda.  Wanting us to be good, cheerful children, they gave us a kindly Jesus, sitting on a flower-studded hillside, handing out box lunches and comforting aphorisms. He was supposed to be our friend and example.  The songs we sang told us he walks and talks with us, keeps us singing, and doesn’t care what color we are. 

As an adult, though, I have come to distrust those early simple images.  I know that flower-studded hillsides get turned into slag heaps.  That there aren’t enough lunches to go around. That my singing may only be whistling in the dark.  At times, fear has crept over me that Jesus may be no more than a psychological crutch, wish-fulfillment, the result of self-hypnosis. Has the Jesus I am looking for been no more than a grown-up version of the lonely child’s imaginary playmate?  I don’t want to configure a Jesus to fit my private fantasies.  How can I … at the end of the twentieth century, avoid making Jesus into a replica of the qualities I value most?”

– Looking for Jesus by Virginia Stem Owens – pg. 4-5.

Cancel Culture in the Church

If you read anything on social media, you know we are living in what is being called a “Cancel Culture.” That means no matter what you are doing now if you said or did something inappropriate in the past, you are canceled. Your current actions mean nothing because of your past failures.

My prayer is that this thinking will not infiltrate the Church and in the believers who gather each week. I will be honest; if you were to start digging into my past, I am sure you will find a few skeletons in the closest. I tested the boundaries of grace in both High School and college. I have done things of which I am not proud. My sins are many, my mistakes are plentiful, and my failures abound.

The good news is that Jesus’ work on the cross produces a different type of cancel culture. He came to cancel the debt of sin that each one of us owes. It is theologically called “Substitutionary Atonement.” Jesus died in our place on the cross, and our past has been handled. Our sins are gone, grace replaces our mistakes, and we can let go of our failures.

Trusting Jesus as your Savior cancels your past, and your present is all that matters. In a world that is using our history to nullify us today. Jesus nullifies our past so that we can live free today.

Challenges of the Post Covid-19 Church

It was surprisingly easy to shut down our Sunday morning worship programs at the Church. I made several phone calls, sent out an email, and received responses, and finally, the government made the call to have a required lockdown. Once it was decided, we sent out a text and email to notify everyone, posted on social media, and updated the website. The final step was to put together a plan for how to keep worshipping at home. It took two stress-filled weeks, and everything was set for what proved to be the next three months.

Now we are heading back to worship, and it is much more difficult to restart than to quit. Every week we are facing new questions and challenges.

  1. People Got Out of the Habit of Weekly Church. Our Church watched the stats fairly close and noticed an interesting trend. The first month we didn’t meet, people watched the video of worship on Sunday morning. The second month we saw it move to sometime on Sunday. The third month it was viewed some day during the week. Basically, the same number of views, but slowly they moved away from Sunday morning worship time. Now, people are out of the habit of regular Sunday morning worship, and we are starting from scratch with some families.
  2. How Do We Care for the Most Vulnerable? There is still a considerable concern for our elderly, infants, and those with illnesses. These conditions make them vulnerable to Covid-19. As a result, we must continue to practice proper sterilization and safety for them. We know many people do not need the measures we are using, but some do, and we are called to care about those who are the most vulnerable.
  3. Children’s Ministries are the Most Difficult. Providing ministry for children is a massive part of what we do each week. This group is also the least cautious. There is no social distancing with a five-year-old. We want to provide ministry and are taking every safety precaution, but there is only so much we can do. Without children’s ministries, it makes it difficult for some families to attend.
  4. Our Timing Could Not Be Worse. Restarting in the summer is not a dream situation. June is always our lowest attendance month of the year. Not to mention, we have Father’s Day, which is one of the three lowest attendance days of the year. It is followed by the fourth of July happening on a Saturday. Because of work shut down and vacation, that is one of the top two worst attendance days of the year. Reopening in the middle of June is tough, knowing that for the first four weeks, people will already be busy. Couple that with number one, and it makes a perfect storm.
  5. The Unknown is Making Things More Difficult. The number of Covid-19 cases continues to rise. So will we be forced to shut down again? Should we take more precautions? Should more people continue to stay at home? The Lord only knows.

I know this is frustrating for a Church member, but know it is equally exasperating for me as a pastor. The Church leadership and I are doing everything we can to keep things moving forward. This is true, no matter where you attend. Keep praying. Keep yourself safe. And in everything, may God be glorified.

Sermon Scraps on Marriage

This Sunday, I am ending an eight-week sermon series on marriage.  While I have said a great deal about this one topic, I still feel there is so much more to say.  I have spent this time reading articles, scanning books, listening to podcasts and sermons, along with reading my Bible, and praying.  When it is all done, the pages of unused material will go into a file or simply into my brain until I preach on it again in 14-18 months

Before I move on to the next series on the life of Daniel, I wanted to share a few of the scraps from this series that I was not able to talk about on Sunday morning this time.

  1. Blended Families.  One issue I ran into repeatedly online was the issue of marriage after divorce, mainly when children are involved.  I have only preached on this topic once from the life of Jacob in the Old Testament.  He had two wives and two concubines, and his family was a mess.  I would like to hit this topic again in the future.  If almost 40% of people divorce, then it is a topic I need to address.  I would love to hear your ideas and stories. 
  2. Expectations.  In some ways, this is more of a premarital counseling issue that plays itself out throughout a marriage.  We come into a marriage with all these expectations, and if we are not careful, it can destroy the joy in life together.  What did you think marriage would be like?  How is that impacting your attitude today?
  3. Being Friends.  Dr. Gottman, at the beginning of his book on marriage, says that the struggles couples encounter are not near as important as their relationship.  To last in marriage, two people need to be friends first and foremost.  That means that both spouses know about each other’s likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams, struggles and victories, and almost everything else.  A couple with a strong friendship will stay together through any difficulty they encounter.  How are you and your spouse getting along?  Maybe it is time to cultivate friendship.    
  4. Letting Go of the Past. This can come in a hundred forms.  It can be something you suffered as a child, the mistakes you made as a teen, or the infidelity of a spouse.  Those are issues where you need to be forgiven or where you need to forgive others.  Many times, a husband or wife is in the middle of a conflict they did not create, nor can they resolve.  Sometimes the best healing for our marriage is self-healing. What issues of the past have you never dealt with, and how it is affecting your life and marriage today?

These are the four most significant issues I was not able to address in this sermon series.  I hope to revisit them over the next few years in either a single sermon or another series.  If you are married, I encourage you to process these along with the current series (which is available on our Church website – www.adriancc.org).  I have found that successful marriages are those that keep working toward harmony in every aspect of our lives together.   

An Approach to Serving as a Christian

Throughout my ministry, I have observed how believers approach serving others in numerous settings. I have discovered that there are two approaches to this topic.

The first is what I call the “Conversion Approach.” This group says that the goal of ministry is to convert people. Preachers have explained to me, “If I do a wedding, I am going to preach the gospel and call for people to follow it.” They say, “If I perform a eulogy, speak at a civic group gathering, or have five minutes to talk to high school students, I am teaching the gospel for others to come to faith.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach. It has been popular for years. People have stood on street corners or held special rallies to further this style of outreach. I am sure an untold number of people have come to Jesus through this method over the years. It gets the message of Jesus into the world and calls people to accept it or reject it.

I have developed a different philosophy of ministry. My process is to focus on what is called “Pre-evangelism.” This is the concept that people will not hear the message of Jesus until they are ready, and my job is to till and water the ground until the seed of the gospel can be planted.

My best example of this is my approach to weddings. When a man and a woman come to me to help them with a wedding, my goal is to make their experience the best encounter with a Christian ever. I serve the couple, ask for their opinions, smile a lot, compliment, try to be thankful, and I am easy to work with in every phase of the process. I want them to go away saying, “If that is what a Christian is like, I might be interested in hearing more.” I handle almost every event in the same way. When I am asked to help with a wedding, funeral, baccalaureate, youth group, civic activity, or anything where people might need help, my goal is to give people a positive experience with a Christian that might open the doors for the gospel.

Each form of ministry can be criticized by the other group. I find people in the first group to be a little rigid and overwhelming. I fear that in 2020 the message is being rejected far more than accepted. The people in that group find me soft and nondogmatic. They fear people will die without ever hearing the gospel. What is fascinating is that God uses both groups to touch the world. So I am not so much concerned about which one you choose, but pick one and try to make a difference in the world around you.

Selling Fear

While in college, a friend of mine introduced me to the music group REM. I liked what I heard and quickly listened to every album that was currently available. By far, one of the most memorable songs was entitled, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.”

That song has been a soundtrack to the past nine months of my life and possibly yours. First, we were told daily that global warming was going to kill us all. Then came the coronavirus and Covid-19 to steal the headlines. Lately, the news has been about racial tensions, riots, and looting. That is not to mention murder hornets, hurricanes, tornadoes, gun violence, and mass shootings. Every day I scroll through the news, and all I can think is, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.”

Every day I am told to be afraid of the next big thing that is going to destroy us all. Honestly, it has been that way for most of my life. I have lived in fear of nuclear holocaust, acid rain, financial depression, war, the communists, famine, terrorists, Osama and Saddam, tsunamis, floods, wildfires, and the earth getting hit by a giant meteor. Almost without exception, there is a daily story about the end of the world as we know it.

Searching through the uses of the word fear in the New Testament will leave you a little underwhelmed. There is not much said about the followers of Jesus living in fear. Maybe that is because of something Jesus said stuck in their minds and guided their thinking. In the gospel story, according to Luke, he said, “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. (5) But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. (Luke 12:4-5 – NIV 2011)

Jesus showed no real concern for the possibility of death. It was as if he treated it is an accepted fact for everyone. We are all going to die. He laid that alongside another fact: then we are going to face the judgment of God. This is restated by the writer of the book of Hebrews in chapter 9 verse 27; “Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment…” Jesus and his followers are more concerned about the second part of the equation than the first.

The ultimate question is not, “When will I die, and what will cause it?” It is “How will God judge me, and where will I spend eternity?” That question will drive you to live in a way that pleases God. It does not lead you to buy more guns, build a shelter, or try to get better security. When we put fear in its proper eternal perspective, it will lead us to live more like Christ and not like those panicking around us.

REM’s song has an interesting next line. After they say, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” Then they sing, “And I feel fine.” When your eternity is secure, and you are living as the final judge tells you too, there is nothing to fear, no matter how much people try to sell it.

Living Like a Preacher

Being a preacher is a unique experience on a social level.  I have led five different Churches in my 27 years as a preacher.  In every case, when I drive into town, I did not know a single person beyond the group who interviewed me.  My family and I were total outsiders to the community where we relocated. 

I am on the verge of completing my sixth year in my current location, and this town has become home to us.  How does someone go from being a total outsider to feeling like a local in six years?  This is a legitimate question for you to process.  You see, I encounter people all the time who have moved into a town and still feel like an outsider 20 years later. Possibly worse, I meet people who have been a part of a local Church for years and years and still feel unconnected.  How does someone go from being a total outsider to feeling like a local?

Here are a few things I have done. 

  1. Burn the Ships.  This first one may sound mean and unfeeling, but when I leave a community and a Church, I leave it all behind.  I do not go back for visits, and I do not follow on social media, I basically sever all ties.  Why?  Because this new location is my home now.  The longer I hold onto the past, the harder it is to fit into the present.  It is only after several years before I might reconnect with a friend from that community. Honestly, this also helps the people in my former town to move on from me and connect to their new preacher. 
  2. Attend Every Week.  This one appears obvious, but in my new Church, I am a part of worship every single week.  This gives me maximum exposure to people who also attend worship.  You will never feel connected if you attend less than every week.  If you attend twice a month, that is 24 days a year.  If it is only worship for an hour, that is only 24 hours in an entire year.  You will never get real relationships that way.
  3. Serve More Than Attend.  If you want to microwave your connections, then move out of the chair and in front of the group.  For example, teaching a class will help you to learn everyone who attends in a more personal way than just attending a class.  Having all eyes on you has a way of pushing you to know the people you lead.
  4. Reach Out Yourself.  Through the years, I have invited people out for coffee, meals, and various events.  My wife and I have tried to reach out over and over to people who attend our Church.  I have learned, even as a pastor, some people are never going to invite you into their lives.  Often you must take the lead. 
  5. Stay.  The numbers for my ministry are a little deceptive as my first two lasted 18 months and then 12 months.  Since then, none have been shorter than five years.  I have learned that it takes years to get to know some people.  Often it takes years for people to trust you enough to let their guard down.  The longer you stay with one group of people, the higher your chances of connecting – if you practice the top four. 

Here is the truth; trying to be a part of a new group of people is scary.  Will you be accepted?  Will you connect in a meaningful way?  Part of the answer depends on you.  As a preacher, I have been accepted as family in the Churches I have led, and I know they will welcome you too.

In Praise of Godly People

The news headlines are always full of adverse events taking place in this world. The side effect of this reality is that people tend to look for and talk about the negative in every situation. As the followers of Jesus, we are put our emphasis on what is good, noble, pure, and Godly. So today, I want to praise the work of the people of God.

In the past week of my life, I have seen several examples of faith in action. I have watched people volunteer their time to work in a high school baccalaureate program who didn’t have a family member graduating. There have been people who donated their time to clean the building before and after this program. I have also been a part of a group of believers who took their time to distribute food that was donated. They spent time in the hot sun loading up boxes for anyone who wanted them. There have been total strangers to me, come and speak to me like old friends simply because we both follow Jesus. A group of men willing gave of themselves to serve in a local community organization to have an impact on the young men in our town. A large number of individuals volunteered their time to make Sunday morning happen again. They watched children, used their gifts of music, stood up to speak publicly, and served others unselfishly. Even this morning, I have been contacted about putting a meal together for a family during a difficult time. These are just a portion of the stories I have experienced over the last nine days.

One of the blessings of being part of a community of believers called the Church is not just that you reap the benefits of others serving; it is that you get to be inspired by their service. In a world of selfish, godless people doing acts of unspeakable evil, there is still a group of people who are doing things for the glory of God. Open your eyes and see those events, and your life and faith will be more joyful as a result.

You Do Not Need Better Tools

I bought a book on coaching youth football when my boys were young. The coach of a team had resigned, and I needed to step into his role. Never having coached youth football, I searched online for any help I could find. This included reading articles, watching videos, and checking every available resource. There was a guy who coached in Nebraska and produced winning teams no matter who or where he coached. He had written a book, and I shelled out the money for the possibility of being a better coach.

In the early pages of the book, he tells of his experience training youth football coaches. While traveling around the country giving seminars, he is often greeted by coaches after the session who want to talk. He said that he is always amazed at them. Most of the have matching outfits, high dollar shoes, numerous resources, and often an iPad to help them. Yet, none of them are successful. This led him to do some surveys of his listeners and readers and discover that the majority had never had any instruction on how to be a youth football coach. They had all the tools and none of the skill set.

Not too many years later, I was reading an author who was talking about his work and that of other writers. He said something like, “When I go to a coffee shop and see someone writing on a $3000 Mac laptop and using expensive moleskin journals, I know they are not a good writer.” He went on to explain that these people were investing in tools instead of learning how to write. He emphasized that good writing comes through trial and error, along with careful editing. No tool in the world can give you those things if you do not possess a proper work ethic.

Unfortunately, I have seen the same thing in the Church. When I see someone with a large study Bible, a journal, and a beautiful pen set, I think to myself; there is someone who rarely opens their Bible. They have become so enamored with the latest and coolest tools that they have missed the point.

The person who wants to know God and serve him has all the tools they need in a free Bible app or a $5 paperback English translation of the Bible. Religious profiteers take advantage of new Christians and convince them that they need numerous high dollar supplies to make them a better Christian. That is simply not true.

The desire to know God is greater than the tools you own. To those who want to look good, there are never enough tools. To the person who truly wants to know him, nothing will get in their way.

Self-Control

The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church in the city of Galatia contains several comparisons between law and grace. The life following Jesus is different from a life trying to follow the Old Testament law. Then he explains to them the differences as it plays out in the life of a believer. Finally, in chapter five, he gives us what he calls “the fruit of the Spirit.”

Galatians 5:22-23 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, (23) gentleness, and self-control.

These are the byproducts of someone who is living for Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. Quite often these get mistaught. The preacher will talk about one of them, like the first one, love. He will say, “We need to love more. Believers need to develop love in their life. By the end of this sermon, you will be motivated to love more.”

Sorry, but that is not what Paul is saying. The point of the passage is that when we live a life by the Holy Spirit of God, we will find that we become more loving as he works in us. The closer we get to God and the more obedient we are to his word, the byproduct of our lives will be love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

I could spend weeks writing about each one of these, but the one that has fascinated me the longest is the last. One byproduct of people who follow Jesus and live by his Spirit is self-control. That seems strange as the very definition of self-control is that it comes from us. It is “the ability to control oneself, in particular one’s emotions and desires or the expression of them in one’s behavior, especially in difficult situations.” (Oxford Languages definition)

Paul flips the definition for Christians. Those who follow Jesus will find that the closer they get to God, the more self-control they will have. They will find within themselves the power to fight back against evil behavior, toxic emotions, and destructive behavior not through their own power but by the power given them by God. Faith will produce ability that looks like it is coming from inside of us, while God is truly the one giving us the power.

So if you want to take control of your life and no longer be held prisoner by your own words and actions, then surrender yourself entirely to God. Dig into his word, pray with passion, connect to other believers, spend time in communion with him, and seek his will with all your heart. The key to self-control is the God who is in control of the self.