Remember What Happened Here!

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“I want you to remember what happened here!”

We all want to believe that we’re important, and the power of sin in our lives tempts us to believe that we can become more important by making ourselves into something “better” than what other people are. My accomplishments in life always need to overshadow your accomplishments. My child (or grandchild) always needs to be smarter and cuter and more talented than your child (or grandchild). My joys and challenges in life always need to be bigger than the things that are happening in your life.

In this week’s message, “Remember What Happened Here!”, Jesus shares a story about a great banquet where company presidents find themselves eating with the people who work for them; where black people eat with white people; where Republicans eat with Democrats; and where those who “have it all together in life” eat with drug addicts and people who are homeless.

And, after the banquet, the host says: “I want you to remember what happened here!”

How would our lives, and our world, change if we suddenly began to realize that we’re ALL equally important? How would our lives, and our world, change if we lived with a profound sense of the fact that everyone we meet is one of God’s kids?  Would we talk with people that we’re tempted to ignore? Would we spend less time fighting with people, that we’ve never even met, on the Internet? Would we begin to realize that everybody has a story to share – and that everybody’s story is one that needs to be heard by other people?

Blessings!

Choosing Words Wisely

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Have you noticed that people don’t always communicate with each other in helpful ways these days? The political rhetoric in America is monstrous. We’ve gotten used to taking people’s words out of context and twisting them for our own purposes. We debate and argue with people that we’ve never met on social media. Teenagers use words to bully and belittle. Twitter has become a battleground where people have been so savagely attacked by others that they’ve committed suicide.

Our words can be used to bless and to praise God, or they can be used to curse people who have been made in God’s image. (James 3:9) We can use our words to edify and raise-up, or we can use them to belittle and to divide. It’s our choice. Even though we boldly proclaim that “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” we all know that’s not true, don’t we? Even though we try to justify our decision to use harsh and biting words by putting on the mantle of a “righteous cause,” the Bible reminds us that, when we continue to bite-at each other and devour each other, we will be destroyed by each other. (Galatians 5:15) “If any of you causes one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for you to have a large millstone hung around your neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6)

“Respectful Communication” is a characteristic of Spirit-filled, Christian living. How we use our words is important to our families, to our friendships and casual relationships, to the community of the Church, and to our nation as a whole. Here are a few guidelines that we can all embrace:

( R ) – We can take “responsibility” for our own personal feelings and words;

( E ) – We can listen to others with “empathy” – trying to better understand them;

( S ) – We can become “sensitive” to how other people communicate, so that we don’t monopolize the conversation—especially in times of disagreement;

( P ) – We can more carefully “ponder” what we’ve heard and how we feel before we respond to what others have said by not thinking about how we are going to respond to what others are saying before they finish speaking;

( E ) – We can more carefully “examine” our assumptions and perceptions, so that they don’t become a stumbling block to authentic communication;

( C ) – We can realize that, sometimes, “confidentiality” is important and that it’s not helpful to share information about every conversation that we have with other people;

( T ) – We can “trust” ambiguity – realizing that every difficult conversation and disagreement doesn’t have to turn into a gloves-off fight where someone has to be “right” and someone has to be “wrong.”

 

Blessings!

 

The Church: Proactive or Waiting?

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Christian ministry has never been easy.

God calls us to boldly proclaim a message of hope and peace in a world filled with violence, addiction, bullying, and childhood sexual abuse. God calls us to bear testimony to the fact that the “Reign of God” is breaking into the world right now, and that the Holy Spirit is alive and active and moving in the midst of our lives and ministries. God gives us “eyes of faith” to see what God’s placed before them. God gives us faith to encourage us and to help us to believe that things we can’t “see” yet will come to pass. Ministry comes to life when God’s people spend time in prayer, and when God’s people begin to see the stark difference between what’s happening in the world today and what God intends for us.

In this week’s message, “The Church: Proactive or Waiting?”, we reflect upon a story in the Bible that’s rather unique. It’s one of many stories about healing. But, this story is different because, in this Biblical account, Jesus stretches-out His hand and heals a woman before she even asks for healing. Wow!

What does this story have to teach us about ministry? What does this story have to teach us about bearing testimony to the “Reign of God” in a world filled with violence, addiction, bullying, and childhood sexual abuse? Let’s see….

Blessings!

 

Gracious Hospitality

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My wife and I recently visited a fascinating place near Pittsburgh.

I’ve studied many different religions. I’ve, in fact, taught college-level classes that were designed to help students understand the ways that world religions are similar to each other, and the ways that they’re distinct. And so, when my wife and I learned that there is a Hindu Temple just a few miles from our home, we decided to visit it.

The Sri Venkateswara Temple is located in Penn Hills, an eastern suburb of Pittsburgh, PA. It’s one of the earliest traditional Hindu Temples in America. The Sri Venkateswara Temple originally cost millions of dollars to construct, but donors were willing to support the project because they wanted to create a place where they could maintain ties with the culture of India. The Temple sits on an impressive hillside, and its snow-white walls make it easy to locate. Two sides of the Temple represent hands. The top of the Temple represents the head. The Hindu god named Venkateswara, a representation of Vishnu, sits in the innermost recess of the Temple. All-in-all, I would say that the temple is quite impressive on both the inside and outside.

My wife and I quickly noticed that we represented both a religious and racial minority as we walked up the wooden steps that led to the Temple. We noticed that the Temple was buzzing with activity as we stepped through the doors and removed our shoes. People were chatting with each other and walking through the halls without acknowledging us. We were paralyzed! We couldn’t figure-out where to go, or what to do. The large board that had been placed above the heads of those who were welcoming pilgrims contained words that we didn’t understand. Suprabhatam. Nitya Seva. Annaprasanam. Kalyana Utsavam. The people were certainly very friendly – but no one took the time to talk with us, to make us feel welcome, to answers the questions that were spinning in our minds, or to explain what was happening all around us. And after a few short minutes, my wife and I began to feel that the “wall” that existed between ourselves and all of other people was insurmountable. We decided to leave.

Now, don’t get me wrong. My wife and I didn’t leave the Temple because people at the Temple mistreated us or made us feel particularly uncomfortable. We didn’t decide to leave because people were mean, or rude, or unpleasant. We decided to leave because we didn’t understand what was happening all around us. We chose to return to our car because people were using words that we didn’t understand. We came to the Temple to simply “explore” something we wanted to better-understand. But, the “learning curve” was too steep. Our heads began to spin.

So, what does all of this have to do with Christianity and the Church? Some Christians will probably condemn me for setting my feet in a Hindu temple. I have learned through the years that it’s easy for people to simply condemn things that they wouldn’t consider doing themselves. But we can learn many things about life when we’re not afraid to stretch our wings. God might even use very unusual episodes in our lives (like a trip to a local Hindu temple) to teach us about Christian living and about ministry in Christ’s Church.

That’s what happened at the Sri Venkateswara Temple near Pittsburgh, PA.

We all want to believe that our churches are friendly places. We put signs on our lawns to let visitors know that they’re welcome to join us. We carefully design our websites to present the “story” of our ministry to people who want to learn more about us. But, what happens when visitors actually walk into the doors of our church buildings?

Do we welcome visitors with a friendly smile and introduce ourselves, or do we just walk past them as we’re hurrying toward our destination? Do we take time to guide visitors to classrooms – to our sanctuary – to the coffee pot – to restrooms, or do we assume that visitors will find their own way in a strange building? And speaking of our “sanctuary,” how many times do we use words that visitors don’t understand in conversations, and in our preaching? Sanctuary. Narthex. Justification. Grace. Do we take the time to introduce ourselves? Do we invite the visitors to participate in conversations we’re having with our friends? Do we help visitors participate in worship by helping them to find the songs that we’re singing in our hymnals, or do we leave them confused and disoriented? Will visitors experience our warm embrace and welcome, or will they return to their cars overwhelmed (and perhaps even numbed) by the time that they’ve spent in our midst?

I’m sure that the vast majority of people who visit the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Penn Hills are “good” people. My wife and I weren’t mistreated or ostracized in any way. My wife and I didn’t experience any particular behaviors that repelled us or drove us away.

But, my wife and I both learned an important lesson about hospitality. We gained some insights into how visitors feel when they walk through the doors of a church building for the very first time. And we, also, learned how “numbed” visitors can feel when they’re left to find their way through a building they’ve never entered – when they hear strange words that they’ve never heard at any other point in their lives – and when they’re left standing against that walls of a building while “good people,” who are feeling quite at home, simply walk past them without introducing themselves or helping to point visitors in a helpful direction.

Blessings!

 

When Churches Want to Grow

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Most congregations want to grow.

Many denominational churches are struggling these days. Weekly worship attendance in most congregations has been cut in half in the last ten years. Volunteers are hard to find. Financial resources are being quickly drained by rising fixed costs. It’s painful for faithful people to watch. We know that we need to move forward. We know that we need to change in order to meet the needs of the next generation. But we’re not always sure about what we need to be doing.

In this week’s message, “When Churches Want to Grow”, we are challenged to look past gimmicks and quick-fixes. We’re challenged to see that “success” in ministry isn’t always reflected in growing numbers and filled pews. The future of the Church is in the hands of the Risen Christ. And the future of the Church will continue to be found in times of prayer and in precious moments when “eyes of faith” are opened by the Holy Spirit.

It won’t be easy. The Risen Christ calls us to make deep sacrifices and commitments. The Holy Spirit sometimes opens our eyes and makes us see things in ourselves that we don’t want to see. But through it all, the God who’s promised to hold little birds in the palm of His hand and who cares about us enough to count the number of hairs on our head is going to lead us and move us toward the future that He’s created.

Blessings!

 

Eyes of Faith

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We’ve all been taught to believe many different things about prayer and faith.

We learn, in our earliest years, that God loves us, and that God wants to pour rich blessings into our lives and into the lives of those we love. We learn to cherish passages in the Bible that remind us that Jesus said that when we ask God to give us things, in His name, we will surely receive them. Many churches spread a message of “Seed Faith” that tells us that we need to plant a “seed” – often by contributing money to a particular ministry – and that, when God sees us “plant that faith-seed,” He will bless us. People, who speak at Amway conventions, often tell their disciples to post pictures of the things that they want on their refrigerator – because, when we keep our “dreams” visibly in front of us each day, we can’t help but see them fulfilled.

But, is that really what the writer of the letter to the Hebrews meant when he/she wrote that: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1)?

In this week’s message, “Eyes of Faith”, we explore this well-known, but misunderstood, verse in the Bible – learning that “eyes of faith” are given to God’s people, so that they can “see” what God’s put before them. “Eyes of Faith” – opened-widely in prayer – continue to behold God’s presence in challenging times; and continue to invite us to live with a faith that embraces the fact that God’s still living and breathing and moving around in our world, and that the “Forces of Good” are going to win.

Blessings!

 

Long Shadows

 

IMG_20160707_073604417The words of the Chinese philosopher, Confucius, drifted through my mind several weeks ago as I gazed upon the shadow that my body was casting upon the sands of a beach.

Confucius once wrote: “You know that the sun is surely setting when small [things] begin to cast long shadows.

I’ve seen that happen in my own life and in the lives of other people many times. Have you ever noticed that we all tend to magnify the significance of the little, annoying things that we see in each others’ lives when we’re moving through tough times in a relationship? We assume that we know what people are thinking. We quickly jump to false conclusions, and we begin to misinterpret the words and behaviors of others. We begin to demonize people when we discover that they’re not “allies” in times of conflict; and pretty soon, they can’t do anything right in our eyes. Little things become magnified, and they soon grow into things that are far bigger than they ever needed to be.

When that happens, relationships continue to deteriorate and we may even begin to “bear false witness” against others. We might try to get other people to take our side in conflicts by intentionally twisting the truth. We may begin to share only parts of a conversation. We may go on a witch-hunt to find “evidence” that we can use, deceptively, to strengthen our arguments in the eyes of others. The words “never” and “always” are frequently used in conversations. The word “YOU” is always accompanied by the pointing of a finger. And this can happen when the sun begins to set in a friendship – in a marriage – in the life of a church – or even in the life of an entire country. “You know that the sun is surely setting when small [things] begin to cast long shadows.

Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, offers a very helpful interpretation of the Eighth Commandment in the Large Catechism that was presented in a new, revised and expanded form in 1529. Luther wrote: “No one shall use the tongue to harm a neighbor, whether friend or foe. No one shall say anything evil of a neighbor, whether true or false, unless it is done with proper authority or for that person’s improvement. Rather, we should use our tongue to speak only the best about all people, to cover the sins and infirmities of our neighbors, to justify their actions, and to cloak and veil them with our own honor.” He continues, “It is a particularly fine, noble virtue to put the best construction on all we may hear about our neighbors (as long as it is not an evil that is publicly known), and to defend them  against the poisonous tongues of those who are busily trying to pry out and pounce on something to criticize in their neighbor, misconstruing and twisting things in the worst way.

We live in challenging times. The political rhetoric in America is monstrous. Many people have stopped trying to communicate in respectful ways. We get “the finger” when we’ve made a mistake while driving. We’ve learned to instantly identify people as our “friends” or “foes” by quickly analyzing posts that are shared on Facebook – 140-character Tweets – memes – or a few words spoken over dinner.

Little things cast long shadows in difficult times. But, even in times of uncertainty, and in times of horribly destructive and demeaning political rhetoric, God continues to call us to embrace respectful communication and to live our lives trying to emphasize the best that we see in other people. It needs to start somewhere.

Why can’t that “somewhere” be in OUR lives – in OUR words – in OUR conversations – and in OUR friendships and relationships with other people?

Blessings!

 

“Stuff” – God’s Test of Faith

Admit it…. You really don’t like it when your pastor talks about money. And yet, do you realize that Jesus talked about money more than He talked about Heaven?

In this week’s rather challenging message, “Stuff” – God’s Test of Faith, we explore the fact that our money and possessions are gifts of God that, in and of themselves, are morally “neutral.” But, what we do with God’s blessings isn’t morally “neutral” at all.

How do we live, faithfully, in a world that continues to teach us that life is always going to be better when we have more “stuff”? How do we live, as ambassadors of the “Reign of God,” in a world where 62 people control more wealth than 1/2 of the people on our planet combined?

What would YOU do if God opened the floodgates of Heaven and poured unimaginable blessings into your lap today? That’s the question we’re going to explore.

Peace!