Reflections on a Boston Massacre

BostonI have been heart-broken to see the images and hear the stories coming out of one of my favorite adoptive towns. Boston is a city that I spent a lot of time in during my eight years in Massachusetts and a city that Karen and I came to love immensely.

Yesterday was just the latest reminder that we are vulnerable; that there is truly no way to protect everyone at all times.  It is a reminder of the terror that can be inflicted on whole cultures and the changes in life that come as a result: heightened anxiety, tightened security and fear of the most insignicant items, like backpacks and garbage cans.

At any point and any place, explosions can happen or shots can ring out and mayhem ensue.  What do we do?  Well, I suppose the answer depends on your worldview; your source of hope or ideas of the future.  For me, I hope in Christ.  I hope in the God who created, who secures, who cares…who is there.  In all of the situations, both good and bad, the God who is there.  I understand that He doesn’t always prevent.  He doesn’t always stop it.  Sometimes He probably does but we probably wouldn’t know, because it didn’t happen, but in some form or another, He always shows up.  He’s always there…in hope during recovery, in comfort during grief.  

Often, God allows the result of sin and rebellion to run it’s course in this world.  He doesn’t owe us deliverance in this life, though He often provides it.  That doesn’t mean He doesn’t care and it doesn’t mean He’s absent.  I trust that.  I hope in that.

So, I respond by praying for His presence and comfort in the lives of those who need it…right now.  In the pain. In the loss.  

I hope for a better day.  I’m not talking about utopia in this life.  That will never come.  I hope, meaning I wait for with great anticipation, for the day that Christ comes back (and He is coming back) and He puts an end to all of this garbage.  Honestly, it’s days like yesterday that make me long for it more and more.  

Maybe that’s part of God showing up.  Maybe it’s part of the process of allowing sin to strike in order to draw us in to that place where we realize we need a savior.  Maybe it’s to remind those of us who have trusted Him not to hold on too tightly to this life because it really is just a vapor, isn’t it?  Instead, I start to think less of my hopes and dreams right now and long for the dream and hope I have for a day that makes this broken world seem so insignificant.

Even so, I’m still here.  Right now.  I live.  I breathe.  I act.  I respond.  I think.  I grow…and I love.

The most heart-breaking story I’ve heard so far is of the little 8 year-old boy who was eating ice cream, enjoying cheering on the finishers one moment, then killed only moments later from the blast.  In the blink of an eye, a family is literally torn apart.

Life is but a breath and it’s gone. 

So, I determine to love well.  I hug my wife and my kids and thank God for them, hoping He gives me years and years with them, but so thankful for today.  Time is fleeting, my friends.  Last month I wrote a post about that in the Saving Daylight Series.  You can read it here, if you’d like.  

I hate death.  I really do.  As a pastor, I have such a love-hate relationship with funerals because, on the one hand, I get to celebrate the escape and deliverance from this world of those who have made it home. That’s such a good thing.  But I have to go through the agony of separation and absence with those who remain.  God, I long for the day when you bring that to an end! 

Where is your hope?  Where are you spending your time?  How do you respond when tragedy strikes?  Don’t let tragedies go to waste without reflecting on YOU.  What happens if the next one lands in your backyard; affects your family or friends and rocks your world?  

Life happens…but hope remains.

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But ktake heart; I have overcome the world.” ~Jesus  (John 16:33)

Saving Daylight

(You can watch the message from March 10, 2013 here, called….yeah, Saving Daylight)Image

What are you doing with your time? If I were to ask you where your time is spent each day, unless your life is simply consumed by just one or two things, you probably would have a tough time accounting for all of it. Don’t feel too bad (yet), most people are “wasting” away with the same time-killing disease.

If I were to ask “if you had more time, what would you do in your life that you currently aren’t doing? Learn a new language? A new skill? Become more involved in missions? Write a book?

Our biggest excuse for not doing these things is that we simply don’t have enough time. We use that one a lot, don’t we?  Think about what French philosopher, Jean De La Bruyere said:

Those who make the worse use of their time are the first to complain in of its shortness.

Ouch, huh?

Time is one of those things that we take for granted until we become aware that we’re running out of it and all of us are, it’s just that those advanced in years or who are in an advanced stage of some disease or who have had a brush with death seem to realize it more keenly.

Is there a way for us to redeem our time? To take full advantage of the life we have been given and put the reigns around our time so that we know longer waste time, not even spend time, but, as Stephen Covey says, invest it? Think about the difference in terms:

wasting – To throw away with no return; nothing to show for it.

spending – To get something you want, but that’s it. When it wears out, it’s gone.

investing – To use something in such a way that you get a valuable return on what is used.

How do we learn to invest our time so that there is a return on what we use?  Ephesians 5 talks a lot about the way in which we walk.  It lists several sinful practices like sexual immorality and covetousness and others of the “really bad stuff” we’re to stay away from.  These would be categorized as “sins of commission” or things you do that you shouldn’t.  However, just as serious are “sins of omission” or failing to do things you should.  Both have an impact on how you live your life and can prevent you from “walking as children of light…taking no part in unfruitful works of darkness.  So, in light of this, verses 15-17 gives us three principles in how to redeem our time for the glory of God and then I want to follow with six practical steps of application.

Principles for Redeeming Time

1. “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise”

You need to examine your life.  It is imperative that you take inventory of how you spend time to determine if the things you are doing are wise or if you are living your life unwisely or foolishly.

2. “…making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.”

Determine not just to use your time, but to invest it wisely. You will not use your time wisely by accident. It will be intentional or it will not be done at all. Because of our fallen nature, our inclination is, generally, not towards good but towards evil. However, for those of us who have been redeemed from our sin nature through believing in and trusting Christ and by repenting of our sins, we have a new nature that is being formed in the image of Christ. Through sanctification (the process of becoming like Christ), we can choose to live differently through the power of the Holy Spirit. But it’s going to take effort!

It’s funny how we say we don’t have enough time in the day to accomplish all that we want to but we’ll spend 2 hours at a time on Facebook! It’s a matter of prioritiesCharles Richards once said, “Don’t be fooled by the calendar. There are only as many days in the year as you make use of. One man gets only a week’s value out of a year while another man gets a full year’s value out of a week.”

People throughout history who have made great accomplishments in their lives are not people who had more time than we do today, but people who did more with the time they had. H. Jackson Brown put it this way:

Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.

OK, ouch, again.

We must take time to determine what is the best use of your time because the days are evil. If we are not actively pursuing Christ, we will look for things to “entertain us” and too often those are things that feed our lusts and desires of the flesh.  That is, things that can ultimately destroy us.

3. “…do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”

Very simply, this is knowing the revealed will of God through the study of it and hearing how that applies to your life through prayer and meditation. To fail in this is foolishness.

We often use the excuse that we don’t have enough time for Bible study and prayer. Setting aside time for spiritual growth and listening to what God wants you to do during the course of the day is never a waste of time.

We need the attitude of Martin Luther who is famous for saying, “I have so much to do today that I’m going to need to spend three hours in prayer in order to be able to get it all done.”

We will not accomplish anything of lasting and eternal value if we don’t first power up through prayer and getting into the Scripture!

Alright, those are the principles.  Here come the practical steps to apply them:

1. Determine your priorities

What has God called YOU to do? This takes time to determine. Set aside blocks of time to do this. I do this at least twice a year, setting aside at least a half a day at a time.

 2. Determine HOW you will glorify God through your set priorities.

Get into the habit of asking, “How will me investing time in doing this bring glory to God?”

This should be asked of every area of your life, including hobbies and free time/rest time. Depending on what you’re doing, consider these possible responses:  “I’m glorifying God through painting by reflecting His creativity.” “I’m glorifying God through playing baseball by developing the skill and ability to learn He’s given me.” “I’m learning this new language to prepare myself for opportunities to share the Gospel in other cultures.” “I’m taking this time to rest to reflect God’s priority to let by body and mind recover.”

This might sound crazy, but this is intentional living. This is the process of making sure that time is invested!

I’m not being an extremist here. There are things that you do just because you enjoy them. That’s fine, too. At that point, I would simply ask these two questions: “Is this something that pulls my affections away from Christ? Is it something that will control me (become an obsession) or is clearly sinful?  If not, enjoy it in its proper time and place!

Here’s the bottom: if you’re not doing something that is obviously productive or ministry-related or what-have-you, if you are a disciple of Jesus, you still have the responsibility to glorify Him in your life and most certainly to make sure that what you’re doing is not bringing dis-honor to Him.

 3. Decide what steps are needed to take in order to accomplish your priorities.

Count the cost!  Take a class. Invest a certain number of hours each day. Cut out some other activities, etc., but put together some practical steps that will move you down the road.

 4. Structure your day around these priorities.

Invest some time each week or even each night to put them on your daily calendar. This is one of the only way you’re going to prevent being controlled by idle time that will be wasted on Facebook…or reading blogs? Yikes.

I suppose a disclaimer is in order since I’ve been slamming the lord of the social networks: Facebook is fine as long as it’s during time you’ve determined is free or leisure time or during a limited amount of time.  Don’t let yourself be hijacked by a social site.  If you have to, set an alarm to get off in five or ten minutes and then get off!

 5. Measure your progress.

Journal as you go. Set a date on the calendar when you will look back over the time since you’ve started and honestly evaluate how you’ve done and then alter your strategy, if necessary. Change what doesn’t work!

 6. Maintain balance

Find the middle ground between sloth and workaholic.  Enjoy a variety of activities that will keep life interesting and allow you to continually explore all the incredible Truth and beauty that can be found in God’s world.

So, how are you using your time? Spending, wasting or investing it? We need to determine to redeem our time starting right now!  Do you have other tips or suggestions that help you with time management that you would add?

A Church That Fails to Pray…

(This post is re-published from the March edition of Road Signs, the monthly informational newsmag of The Gathering, Chattanooga.)

A church that fails to pray, fails.Image

I believe this statement and am coming to understand it more and more.  How easy it is to become so busy that the very thing that empowers our efforts is pushed to the side.  Like taking a cross-country road trip and getting so busy driving you neglect the flashing fuel gauge and fail to pull over for gas.  No matter how much effort you put into driving, you’re not going to get far.  One way or another, you’re going to stop.

We are called to be prayer warriors!  Suited up in the full armor of God, raising the shield of faith, using the Sword of the Spirit, standing firm together and fighting our common spiritual enemy.  Are you ready for the fight?  Are you ready to engage the enemy…to stand firm by kneeling together?

I can’t encourage you enough to get into the fight!  Do not fail in your calling because you fail to pray.  Please join me for at least one of the two opportunities we are providing for focused prayer each week.  The Chapel will be open each Wednesday from noon until 1:00 (of course you can stay later if the Spirit is moving) and again from 6:30 – 8:00PM.  You are welcome to come to the church at any time during regular office hours to pray if you need a quiet place, as well.  The point is, whatever it takes for you to get serious about plugging into the power of the Spirit through prayer, do it.  Let’s not fail as a church because we’re so focused on ministry, we neglect the One who has both given and empowers the ministry we are trying to accomplish!

Your Serve

I meant to post this here earlier in the month of February, but this is article from our monthly RoadSigns mag:

Quick question: Why are you here? No, not why are you on this earth…why are you at this church? Or any church for that matter? Does it make you feel good? Is it sort of a responsibility you have since you’re a Christian? Do you like learning more about the Bible or more about God; you like being spiritually fed? You like to worship with other Christians? Maybe there are other reasons. I wonder, though, if we’re ever a part of a church for the right reason.

OK, let me quickly say that there is nothing necessarily wrong with any of the above reasons (and all fit in there somewhere), but I think we often miss the main reason. What is that, you ask? Good question. I’m going to give you a reference, but I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it at this point, but maybe soon. Here it is: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. Alright, take a look at it right now and I’ll just wait right here.

Got it? Good. So, what was the common theme in that passage that relates to being a part of a church? Was it any of the things listed up top? Hmm. Not really, was it? So, what is the theme? Here’s a hint: everything we listed above has to do with what you GET. Even, arguably, worship could be included here if you mainly come to and pick a church because of what YOU like. Ouch.

What, then, is Paul talking about in the passage? Not what you GET but what you GIVE. Jesus said he came not to BE served, but to serve, right? Are you His disciple? Fair question, I think. A disciple has the same values and acts in the same manner as his master. So, are you a disciple? Is serving your primary interest within the church or are you more interested in being served? These are tough things for us to talk about, but absolutely imperative if we’re to be a healthy church.

I want to encourage you to give yourself an “attitude adjustment” (much the same way we ask our kids to do for themselves…before we have to). I want to encourage you to change your own vocabulary so that when you hear of an opportunity to serve in any capacity, you no longer mentally ask yourself, “Why should I do that?” It’s the wrong place to start for a disciple of Jesus. The question we must all ask is, “Why should I NOT be involved?” This puts us in a place of getting really honest and we will probably learn that there are really very few legitimate (non-selfish) reasons why we shouldn’t. If you’re a disciple.

When God Goes Missing

Do you ever feel as though there are things God doesn’t see?  If my actions are any indication, I must.  Sometimes I feel as though injustices happen and God just misses or seems to ignore it.  Those are the times I want to (and too often do) call “foul!” really loudly so someone will see how badly I’ve been treated and give me an emotional band-aid.  Other times, it seems like God lets good deeds go unnoticed, too.  Those are the times I want to toot my own horn so at least somebody might appreciate my greatness.

That’s all pride, by the way.  Couldn’t tell, could you?  So, what do I do about that?  Is it true?  Does God check out every so often?  Does he let injustice go unpunished?  Does he fail to reward when we’re faithful?  Well, though it might seem like it, it doesn’t happen if His Self-revelation in Scripture is to be believed.

When God led the Children of Israel out of Egypt, for example, they faced many trials of various kinds.  Not only were their own selfish ways a slow ticket through a relatively small wilderness, there were many outsiders who mistreated them, attacked them and blocked their way.  By the same token, there were those who treated them with kindness.  Is there mention of what God did to those groups?  Sometimes.  Other times it seems as though God let His people be defeated (usually with really good cause!) and did nothing to punish the nations that did the defeating.  Where was the justice for those who stood against God’s people?  Where were the “‘Atta boys” for those who were kind?  It seems like God failed to take notice…or did He?

Consider 1 Samuel 15: 1-7:

1 And Samuel said to Saul, The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord.2 Thus says the Lord of hosts, I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt.3 Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.

4 So Saul summoned the people and numbered them in Telaim, two hundred thousand men on foot, and ten thousand men of Judah.5 And Saul came to the city of Amalek and lay in wait in the valley.6 Then Saul said to the Kenites, Go, depart; go down from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you with them. For you showed kindness to all the people of Israel when they came up out of Egypt. So the Kenites departed from among the Amalekites.7 And Saul defeated the Amalekites from Havilah as far as Shur, which is east of Egypt.

How about that?  God instructed Saul, the first king of Israel, to defeat the Amalekites.  Why?  Because they had opposed the Israelites some 400 or so years earlier (depending on how you date the Exodus)!  Then the Kenites were warned to clear out because God had taken note of their good treatment towards the Israelite.  Atta boy!

God does take notice.  Rest in that.  When you are mistreated, God knows it.  When you do well, God knows it.  He will not let any good deed, done in His name and for His glory, go unrewarded or injustice go unpunished.  It’s His nature.  But we should also be warned: When we are the ones guilty of the injustice (even when nobody else knows it), God takes notice.  What a sobering thought!

So, when I feel the need to toot my own horn or defend my own interests or “good name”, I remember that the battle is the Lord’s.  When I try to get away with something, looking pious but acting deviously, I may get away with it with others, but I will never fool the only One who counts.

I am encouraged, then, to live with authenticity, patience, and peace.  God is the God who sees…and He is the God who acts in His own, good and perfect time.

On Mission

The report yesterday on the mission day in Atlanta was awesome.  I’m excited about the opportunities that lie ahead for The Gathering.  So many important doors are being opened and it’s incredible to watch our people excited about walking through them.

On Saturday, we had 7 people join with a great team from Birchwood Baptist Church to go down to a refugee mission in the outskirts of Atlanta.  People from 25 countries are living in this complex and they are so hungry for love and attention.  These are people who have found refuge in this Country not for reasons of convenience, but, as one of our team members pointed out, “they’re here because otherwise, they would probably be dead.”

Man, what a great opportunity!  I want to encourage all of the members of The Gathering to get excited about being on mission!  We have opportunities for everybody: locally to your own neighborhood and workplace, city-wide through HaCoBaCare, regionally through the Atlanta Refugee mission, and internationally in Peru.  The only thing keeping you from being on mission…is you.

Hypocrisy

The charge of hypocrisy is the one I most often hear levied against the Church and used as an excuse by those who want no part of it.  “I don’t want to hang out with a bunch of hypocrites”  This is often the claim made by those who fail to realize that that statement is incredibly…well…hypocritical.  It is the equivalent of saying, “I don’t want to be a hypocrite by hanging out with a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites who judge people.”  That is, of course, in their judgment.  Hellooooo.  But I digress.

The truth is, they’re right.  There are a bunch of hypocrites inside the church just like outside.  The goal, though, is for us to strive for obeying Scripture consistently so at least if we’re accused of something, it’s not that we’re wishy-washy.

Case in point:  I had a great conversation this week with a person who told me they know of someone who won’t come back to The Gathering because I made an unmarried couple mad when I told them that until they were married, they would have to stop living together (yeah, literally move out) and repent of that sin before I would consider performing their wedding and before they could consider joining our church.  That was, in their judgment, too much to ask.  We were accused of being hypocritical for “judging them” and making them feel uncomfortable.  They were essentially upset because we insist on labeling what the Bible calls sin…well, sin.

OK, so this person was right.  Guilty as charged: we do call sin, sin (though it is Scripture that is doing the judging…they’re not my rules).  They are also right that we call people to repentance (just like Scripture does).  We do not, however, do it to be hypocritical but to prevent us and them from being so and we strive to be consistent.

It is OK not to be OK, but it’s not OK to stay that way and for us to say we believe Scripture yet dismiss what it says as unimportant to live by would be fatally flawed.  The unpopular fact is that God cannot and will not bless a life that is characterized by willful sin and we really want to see lives blessed.  It’s that simple.  What would be hypocritical on any church’s part is to say, “they are sinners but we are not.”  But we all have to repent and turn from our sin.  Every single one of us!

We work really hard to communicate this in a compassionate way, but at the end of the day, we don’t want any of us to be comfortable in our sins and so we address it.  To do otherwise would be like the crew of a cruise ship refusing to point out to passengers that it’s sinking because they don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable.  After all, they came on a cruise to escape stress and discomfort.  Sheesh, everybody knows that!

Unfortunately, (and this is a bit of a side note) too many churches have allowed the “abandon ship (read: sin)” to be silenced because (to adapt my metaphor) they’re afraid someone might decide to get off of their boat!  So the ships are full to overflowing with sinking people who don’t even realize it.  The popular (though, thankfully, not universal) solution?  Just build bigger ships.

So, we must call for and expect more, from ourselves and each other.  See, what is hypocritical is when we use the label “Christian” to characterize ourselves (see 95% of FB profiles) yet neglect or refuse to structure our lives according to what that label dictates.

Real Community

I’ve been thinking about the real purpose of church and what we’re supposed to be about.  Ultimately, of course, it’s to glorify Christ by making disciples (Matt. 28:19-20), but how do we do that together…as a church; a family?

Hebrews 10:24-25 came to mind:

24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

This is all about purpose of meeting together.  Not just on Sundays, but every time we’re together, whether in person or via email or phone, or Facebook and Twitter.  In whatever context it might be, this should be the goal.

The reality is that we’re going to spur one another on.  The question remains to what?  Clearly, what honors Christ is to stir up/encourage/challenge/spur on each other to love and good works.  When we fail to do this with intentionality, we always sink to the lowest denominator–it’s in our nature.  So, let’s do it.  Let’s think up ways we can challenge each other to godliness and love and good works together and risk actually doing it, because time marches on and Jesus is coming back…and the world continues to die without Him.

A Rant.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the state of The Gathering and where we’re going and how we will get there.  I am incredibly encouraged by the spirit of the people who currently make up this Body and the excitement that is present about our future.

There is a focus on the Mission here that I have not seen over the past three years, a desire to seek God’s will and plan for us, and a hope to make a positive impact on our immediate community.  There is a unity like never before and, as a result, really much to celebrate about what God is doing.  We have developed some strong, healthy relationships/partnerships with some really great, missional sister churches in the area that I’m so excited about and grateful for.

We are getting somewhat serious about discipleship.  I think we are starting to understand that simply to gather together is not to be a church.  A church is made up of faithful, authentic followers of Christ who are committed to becoming more like Him every day and fulfilling His instructions that He gave us, including taking the Gospel to all nations.

But here’s the problem as I see it:  Though we are getting serious about taking the Gospel around the world, we are not yet serious about taking it around the block.

I am concerned because we are not yet focused on being a witness everywhere we go.  I am concerned that we are not looking for opportunities at every turn to tell people about the great news that there is hope in life, both here and for eternity, or living the kind of lives that make them hungry for something more.  We’re not there yet.

This is my prayer and my hope for us.  I am focused on my own life and my own weakness in this area and praying that God will ignite within me a hunger for taking the Gospel to the world and a repugnance for the complacency that too often defines who I am.

I look around at so many churches with an apparent focus on that which does not make a healthy church and find myself getting disgusted.  If I am honest, though, we’re all pretty disgusting.  We’re all too often focused on things that are more in keeping with kingdom-building (small “k”) rather than the Kingdom of God.  Isn’t it really just time to get over it?  Isn’t it time for us just to embrace what we believe and actually live it consistently? Isn’t it really just that simple?

When does the Truth of the Gospel define us?  I mean that in contrast to the way followers of Christ too often define the Gospel, giving off a false perception of who Christ is and what He really lived and taught while He was here; of what was and is important to Him?  Is it just me or is anybody else just sick to death of the weak, country-club, self-centered, homogenized, pasteurized, ego-centric, Westernized version of “church” that has dominated the landscape for far too long?  Is this really what we’ve become?  Is anyone else sick of the dualism that we, as Christ-followers, live – acting, thinking and speaking one way outside the walls of the church than we do inside, compartmentalizing our faith from the rest of our lives?  Just look at our Facebook posts.  How often are principles found in passages like Ephesians 5: 3-4 taken very seriously there?  Gosh, I probably shouldn’t have mentioned that…it’s so “old school,” isn’t it?  So yesterday.  We don’t worry about those kinds of things anymore.  Maybe that’s the problem.  Scripture hasn’t changed…we have.

So, my rant’s over…but my frustration isn’t.  I don’t want to sound too harsh or for it to be misunderstood that this is focused simply on others.  It’s focused on the collective us.  The Gathering has to decide to be different from the status quo.  We have to determine that we are going to be authentic and honest, focused on Jesus…period.  That’s why our slogan has simply become, “A church. Following Jesus.”  That simple. We just have to remember that “to follow” is “to become like”.  We can’t forget that.

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