Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A good one is lost

 I'm pretty sure that watching someone give to someone without thought of being paid back is one of the greatest things in life.

Last Christmas, John Servati came home to Tupelo, Miss., a little town up highway 80 from Columbus as most young men and women do at Christmas. He stopped by the house of his high school coach, Lucas Smith, and the two men who had forged one of those forever friendships over competition, went to the mall with Smith's daughters to buy gifts. Smith's 7-year-old daughter, Emma, had just returned from 11 days in the hospital with encephalitis.

That's the kind of guy he was. Selfless, when the accolades piled up from doing what he loved. They piled into Smith's car, and there they were. College athlete with 7-year-old. Friend with friend. Memory carved into Smith's mind that nothing will shake. This morning, that's what Smith has to hold on to.

The storm came up during the day, like a bat-crazy ol' aunt rolling in for a quick hit, knocking things over here and there, causing everyone to run for cover as as best they can. It rolled in from the Southwest, battling its way through Mississippi, where Servati's immediate family was saving themselves, before plowing into Tuscaloosa just like a larger, meaner tornado did three years and a day ago. More than 50 died in connection with that one.

There was time to prepare for battle, but just barely, like one of those old western movies when the natives attack and the army scrambled for rifles and such.

The skies darkened like someone pulled a curtain shut, and thick slabs of black bolstered by ribs of white light pierced the heart of the storm for long, soon-to-be deadly, seconds. While the sky was hip-hop dancing to the rolls of thunder, hell arrived, seemingly carted in on the arms of fallen angels.

In every one of these things, these death-delivering storms, there seems to be stories told and stories heard. Three years ago, 50 plus died as a train of storms swept up lives.

This time the loss of life wasn't as severe, but Servati's story is one of those that needed to be heard, even if stories like these are being told way too often in Tuscaloosa.

Servati, a three-time All-SEC swimmer, was one of the good guys, the kind that are becoming harder and harder to find. He was a good, bordering on great swimmer, when he wasn't studying so much he was a dean's list student. He was the kind of guy whose good looks and winning smile arrived before he did at campus functions. Everyone knew John.

Carson Tinker, an Alabama football player whose girlfriend died in 2011 in a storm that dug in at the beginning of the town and basically dragged its heavy food through the middle of Bear Bryant land till there was a row of devastation that was astounding, quoted Servati on Twitter saying, "The only thing in life worth chasing is the One who first chased us."

His coach said of him, "(he) was an extraordinary young man of great character and warmth who had a tremendously giving spirit. He will forever be in our hearts and a part of the Crimson Tide legacy."

See, Servati and his girl friend, who remained nameless the day after Servati's death, did the right thing Tuesday. They took shelter behind a retaining wall in the basement of a home in Tuscaloosa. That's supposed to be enough. It wasn't.

The wall began to fall over, and according to reports, Servati stood up and took on the wall like it was a race to complete. As usual, he did the exact right thing at the exact right time for the exact right reasons.

He held that dang wall up long enough for his girlfriend to escape.

Like many heroes, that rare breed who think of themselves last and worry about themselves the least, Servati didn't. The wall collapsed on him. "

Smith said helping others was Servati's calling. "It showed by the way he carried himself," Smith said. "You saw it in his actions. He was a servant."

Natalie Grant sings about loss, about living through the pain, "Why should we be saved from nightmares; we're asking why this happens to us who have died to live, it's unfair. This is what it means to be held. How it feels, when the sacred is torn from your life and you survive. This is what it is to be loved and to know that the promise was that when everything fell we'd be held."

Sometimes the journey is hard. Sometimes circumstances are so difficult, we barely cope, like the two disciples on the Sunday night of the resurrection, crushed emotionally by the death of Jesus, devastated by their loss, wounded spiritually by what they saw and heard.

It's hard to see and feel being wrong. It's doubly difficult when it is a matter of life and death. They walked the road to Emmaus, when a stranger came alongside. They, the Bible said, weren't allowed to recognize the risen Christ as he walked with them. Then when they broke bread with Jesus, their hearts were set afire, as they knew who was eating with them.

John Servati was a swimmer. John Servati was a servant. John Servati was one of the good ones.

It hurts when we lose those like him. But sometimes we know deep within broken hearts that the promise is to be held, not to understand.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Shaky pillars

The Lord had said to Abram, "Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father's family, and go to the land that I will show you." ... So Abram departed as the Lord had instructed.

"When Pharaoh finally let the people go, God did not lead them along the main road that runs through Philistine territory, even though that was the shortest route to the Promised Land."

"The Lord went ahead of them. He guided them during the day with a pillar of cloud, and he provided light at night with a pillar of fire."

"Then the Lord said to Moses, "Why are you crying out to me? Tell the people to get moving."

So, Sunday's local newspaper featured, I'm told since I haven't seen it, a picture of myself and a story about Mary and my move to New Orleans and our plans to help plant a new church. I told the reporter I thought it was awfully early to be doing that story. She told me that there really weren't that many Sundays till we were gone, so they wanted to make sure they got it in.

The move is now less than 60 days, and we have a couple of real reservations.

1) We don't have a place to live, a place to send movers, a place to set up TV, phone, Internet service.
2) See above.

Did I mention that the Israelites had cloud and a fire? Is that too much to ask for? I could use a cloud over our truck or car as we drive three hours to find a miserable house or two. I could use a pillar of fire in the form of a giant arrow or even a giant Bat-signal (cross and flame?????) pointing to the place we will set up residence in.

The Apostle Paul describes that magical non-DNA substance we are given by a loving God as this: "
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible. ..."

Not visible.

The ancients were commended, especially Abram, but I can't get past those pillars. Man, I could use me some pillars.

Then I remembered that despite those pillars of clouds and fire, the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years.

Oh, never mind. Keep the pillars.

Send me some .coms with residential listings.

And douse me in faith.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Scams and such

So, our first try at this whole housing thing fell apart. The house we found on the internet turned out to be. A scam. Oh, there was a house there, and it was a great house. The only problem was it wasn't owned by the person I was in contact with.

We are now less than two months out and we don't know where we are going to live.

My live-in prophet says don't worry.

I say, uggghhhhh.

And the trust of his word continues.

Thomas said, "Unless I see his hands and his side, I won't believe."

Your will, not my own, Lord. Your will.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Seeds in the ground, prayers on the air

My self-appointed guru, Dottie Escobedo-Frank, asks this of our churches in her wonderful book ReStart: "The world doesn't come into our sanctuaries much anymore, though I hear they really do want to worship with us. They just don't like what they see, smell, and hear. And so the world worships where they can: at concerts, at nationally televised funerals, and in nature. These are good places to worship, because anywhere God is, that is a good place to worship God. we must regain our place of beauty. It is not a position of power, success, or numerical significance. It is a position of ashes, death, service, humility and great grace."

Uh, wow.

She concludes, "Unfortunately, we are so busy declining we don't have time to feed the sheep."

Have you looked around at what you've done recently in your church? Or for that matter, outside of your church? Is it (the ministry of the church) a position of ashes, death, service, humility and great grace or is it a place of beauty? Seriously. Which is it?

The life and breath of our churches is slowly being extinguished because we're so unadaptable we can't see the beauty beyond the ashes.

Jesus described this process this way: "Look, fool! When you put a seed into the ground, it doesn’t come back to life unless it dies. What you put in the ground doesn’t have the shape that it will have, but it’s a bare grain of wheat or some other seed. God gives it the sort of shape that he chooses, and he gives each of the seeds its own shape. (I Corinthians 15:36-39, CEB)

In examining what must come next in both my own life and in the great adventure we will embark on together, Mary, Elizabeth Tu'uta, Sione Tu'uta, and myself, two months from today, we must first cover this in prayer.

So, I offer up Paul's prayer for the church in Philippi: Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God. Whenever I pray, I make my requests for all of you with joy, for you have been my partners in spreading the Good News about Christ from the time you first heard it until now. And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding. For I want you to understand what really matters, so that you may live pure and blameless lives until the day of Christ's return. May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation-the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ-for this will bring much glory and praise to God. (NLT)

I pray for newness of life. I pray for inspiration. I pray for beauty. I pray for grace. I pray for fruit.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The goodbye world

Stephen Curtis Chapman wrote a song years ago called "The Great Adventure." The lyrics go in part, "Started out this morning
In the usual way
Chasing thoughts inside my head
Of all I had to do today
Another time around the circle
Try to make it better than the last"

They teach you have to preach, how to teach, how to pray, how to study scriptures, how to deal with tragedy. They teach you how to do everything you could possibly need to be a pastor in the United Methodist Church, with the possible exception of audit -- the Garden of Gethsemane of the UMC where I sweat blood every year (take this budget from me, if it be your will) -- but they don't teach you to be particularly good with that one thing that all itinerant ministers must deal with.

I, of course, am talking about how to say goodbye.

J.M. Barrie said of this, "Never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting." Course, Barrie said that in a little piece of work called Peter Pan, which of course is about not growing up.

I've had to do this far too often, it seems to me. Two years in Lutcher/Donaldsonville, two years at Napoleon Avenue in New Orleans, four years in Gretna (a satellite community outside of New Orleans, where we might still be except for that witch called Katrina), five years in Lacombe/Fitzgerald (Covington), two years here in Eunice.

We've moved on average every three years. On average. It feels like every thirty minutes.

I'd like to say it gets easier. It does not, this saying goodbye thing.

I'm about to do something I certainly never thought I would. I'm about to quote from the Notebook, by Nicholas Sparks. He writes, "The reason it hurts so much to separate is because our souls are connected. Maybe they always have been and will be. Maybe we've lived a thousand lives before this one and in each of them we've found each other. And maybe each time, we've been forced apart for the same reasons. That means that this goodbye is both a goodbye for the past ten thousand years and a prelude to what will come.”  

The first time I did this, this leaving thing, I sang a tune from Michael W. Smith called Friends that told everyone friends are friends forever if the Lord is Lord of them. Still is true.

Especially for those from those first two churches who have since passed to the great unknown.

There's so much to do and so little time to do it all the while we're still in ministry business in the Eunice office. Estimates. Finding a place to live for the future. Preparing to leave the place we've lived for two years.

And on and on it goes.

Jesus perhaps said the best thing I know about leaving. In the 14th chapter of John's Gospel, he said to the best friends he had on this planet, "Don't be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me. My Father's house has room to spare. If that weren't the case, would I have told you that I'm going to prepare a place for you? When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be also."

Preparation is being done.
I'll come get you.
We'll be together again.

I can't make those types of promises. But I can promise, and I do, that I won't forget. Will I return? Not often. Perhaps never. But when I left my home church, Gretna, 15 years ago, I never thought I would work there later. I did.

God does what God wants. I've discovered that when I allow this to happen, I have peace. I am not troubled. I am most trusting.

Peace be with you. Always.

Walt Disney said, "Good bye may seem forever. Farewell is like the end, but in my heart is the memory and there you will always be."

Chapman's song continued, "
And somewhere between the pages
It hit me like a lightning bolt
I saw a big frontier in front of me
And I heard somebody say, "Let's go"
Saddle up your horses
We've got a trail to blaze
Through the wild blue yonder
Of God's amazing grace
Let's follow our Leader
Into the glorious unknown
This is a life like no other
This is the great adventure, yeah"

Isn't that the ticket to God's next great adventure?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Talking like wild amoebas

This thing called communication, which I majored in in college, is a difficult thing to master, at best.

We go to Dairy Queen the other day and my 7-year-old tiny dancer, Gavin, says he wants a Coke float. We get him one. We drive away. About halfway home, he says, "this is gross. It's like real Coke poured over ice cream." We say, "Gavin, that's what it is. Didn't you know that?" He says, "No. I never had one."

I'm looking at my bank statement online yesterday and there is a $52 deduction from the church website for which I have agreed to a $5 a month charge. When I called them, they said, "well, you've had the home package since 2004, and that is what that is. You want the basic package." I said, "But you've been taking out $5 a month since January. What was that for?" They said, "Hold on, let us get back with you in a moment."

Yeah, well.

Communication, I figure, is the thing we have most struggled with lately. I read a blog from a gay man that called Franklin Graham "evil" because of his beliefs about the Bible's teaching on homosexuality. Franklin Graham has used some of that same sort of language about gay persons. What is one person's evil is another person's gruff, or rough, or tough, or even too harsh to be productive.

Communication. It is what makes the world not go round. Wise sage the late Fred Rogers said this, "Anything that's human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone."

In other words, if persons of two entirely different backgrounds, entirely different opinions, entirely different ideas about what life can or should be, maybe just maybe we can get past the "evil" language and actually talk about what the scriptures seem to say. If we do that, then we won't be going on opinion as much as we will be going on the true will of God.

Of course, then someone has to determine just what that is. And there we go again. But I'm convinced that if we don't learn to come together, then we're going to learn to come apart, splitting like wild amoebas.

And the tears of God will be evident.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Living sacrifice

I'm beginning a four-week study of the book of Philippians that will be my last Bible Study in these churches. From time to time, I will share thoughts on the book as we move toward moving day for the second time in three Conference years.

Paul, after his greeting, says, "I thank God every time I mention you in my prayers. I'm thankful for all of you every time I pray, and it's always a prayer full of joy. I'm glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed until now." (CEB)

I've been blessed to have been in ministry with a lot of people over the past 15 years, some of whom I can't even remember their names but I remember their ministry, their faces, their hearts.

He continued, "I'm sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the joy by the day of Christ Jesus. I have good reason to think this way about all of you because I give you my heart."

And there you have it.

When I'm feeling low, He's there.
When I'm up and dancing, He's there.
When I'm absolutely sure I have no idea what I'm doing, He's there.
When I'm filled with ego and pride and way too much self-confidence, He's there.

I love Psalm 68 which tells me in the NLT, "Praise the Lord; praise God our savior! For each day he carries us in his arms."

I fail Him with too much regularity.
When I succeed I too often take credit.

But it is He who carries us in his arms. It is he who started the work in us, and it is he who will finish it.

William Barclay says of this sentence in Philippians about starting and finishing, "The point is the words Paul uses for to begin (or started) enarchesthai and for to complete (or finish) epitelein are technical terms for the beginning and ending of a sacrifice.

In other words, he began the sacrifice for us and will end the sacrifice for us. We are living sacrifices to God.

"Paul is seeing the life of every Christian as a sacrifice ready to be offered to Jesus Christ. It is the same picture as the one that he draws in Romans when he urges Christians to present their bodies as a living sacrifice," Barclay writes.

We, us, all of us, are to sacrifice our lives, our hobbies, our interests, our time, our days, our nights, our jobs, our recreations, our families, everything to the one who sacrificed everything for us.


Worth it?
Even more.

Monday, April 21, 2014

What now

The question becomes "what now?" It's a fairly easy question to ask after Christ has risen. What next? What do we do with what is the most important, most unlikely, most critical moment in human history?

First, we must examine options. Do we really believe that is what happened? A 2010 Barna poll showed that only 42 percent of Americans said the meaning of Easter was Jesus' resurrection. A whopping two percent identified it as the most important holiday of their faith.

The reason? Folks have problems with the whole rising from the grave thing. But Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, says, "believing in the Resurrection is essential. It shows that nothing is impossible with God. In fact, Easter without the resurrection is utterly meaningless. And the Christian faith without Easter is no faith at all."

Let's look at what Jesus did after the resurrection for leadership.

He restored his disciples' faith and gave them hope. Remember, Peter had said to Jesus in Matthew's gospel, "We have left everything to follow you." Then in John's Gospel he said, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."

They had very literally given their lives for this man, this movement, his teaching. Suddenly he was gone. They were beyond devastated. He used the time between the resurrection and the ascension to restore them.

The church should be about the business of restoration, it seems to me. We need to start looking for those we've left behind, explore the reasons they were left behind, and go out and find them, bringing them back into the fold or into the fold for the first time.

Second, Jesus taught his disciples how the scriptures pointed towards him. We need to learn to express ourselves in this manner. If we never pick up the Bible, how then can we possibly hope to disciple those persons who are so very near us desiring Jesus?

Finally, he sent his followers out to share the good news. His final words on the planet were to go and make disciples of all nations.

I'm physically exhausted, frankly. Easter and the lead-up to it are difficult on pastors. Multi-services, emotion pouring forth like the release of a sponge, etc., etc. But this is our mission. This is why Christianity still exists. This is what we're here for.

And this is what is next.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Great Friday to all

I walk in a world of description. It's what my writing ultimately is. If I have any gift, it is in the ability to see something and describe it, or hear something and make an effort to bring it to life in words so that you can see it.

But I am unable to describe what that morning, or the moments just before the morning, she he saved me.

It was, I imagine, still. Like a lake when there is no wind when the water is like a pane of glass. The linens, which we always see as brilliant white, I imagine bloody and awful as would any cloth being placed on his body be. I imagine a body, growing stiffer, growing more and more like a body with decay coming to visit like an old uncle who coughs and spits a lot and stays in your room.

Oh, then ...

Something. Something happened. A body without breath is transformed. A body without life is revived, no, not revived, no reborn. No life to life in seconds. Stiff bones become limber, so limber they are able to do the impossible within the week -- like walking into a locked room.

And with that, life literally will never be the same.

Think of it, what it means to us, or should.

Death, that fearful and difficult thing, is no more fearful and difficult. We are winners in the battle against death.

A still morning becomes a morning of shock in the garden near the stone tomb that was his last real resting spot.

I can only tell you that my life changed that day, 2,000 years before I was born. I can only say that my body, so without breath, changed forever with that rebirth.

Third Day's Mac Gordon wrote these words in a song I've done many times in churches, "Today I found myself after searching all these years and the man I saw wasn't at all who I though he'd be. I was lost when you found me here and I was broken beyond repair then you came along and you sang your song over me.

It feels like I'm born again
It feels like I'm living
for the very first time
for the very first time
in my life

That's what walked out of that tomb. I, we, must never forget. Never underestimate. Never stop trying to tell others about Him.

Robert Flatt says of Easter, "The resurrection gives my life meaning and direction and the opportunity to start over no matter what my circumstances."

Seems bout right, huh?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Hope walked out so Martin Richard could walk in

He was eight years old, a good age to be. A proper age.
As they say, time was on his side. Seems it always is till it the life-clock never moves again.
He was eight, the age that is just about as good as it gets, the age that wears well, when simmering body pain is still decades away. Worries? None to speak of. Responsibilities? None to worry about.
He was old enough for coach-pitch baseball, but not old enough to have to catch up to some kid pitching to him. Like those who remember a better, more innocent time when "organized" baseball simply meant throwing in your own backyard with a friend, it was hard to find him without a mitt and a ball on the weekends. Eight is such a proper age, a time when fun still exists and love isn't embarrassing, even love for a sister.
He was old enough to get some sweet memories out of visiting museums with classmates, but not too old as to have become bored by it all. He was young enough to storm the family automobile for enjoyable trips with the family, but old enough to slip away into alone-time on some of those trips. He was eight, and he was standing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on last year’s Patriot’ Day, waiting for his father on a cloudy Bostonian afternoon when life exploded and chaos trumped laughter, just beat the living heck out of it.
He was eight and a lifetime was waiting for him not to finish but to begin.
He was eight, a right proper age, the age he will stay ... forever.
Of the 150 plus persons harmed that day, a year ago, by flying debris, including ball bearings designed to do maximum damage, and glass, 10 or more were children. CHILDREN. Someone chose to pick on children, unarmed, unprotected children., they surely knew would be there, as they always are in Boston. Children who were simply happy to have a moment out of school for Patriots’ Day, the third Monday in April, in Boston. Children who were watching older siblings or parents working their way round 26 miles of Boston streets. Children playing in the huge crowd that still existed up to three hours past when the initial winners of the marathon crossed the finish line.
Children. Loved by their Abba furiously, wonderfully, unconditionally. Children in harm's way.
And one of those died.
His name was Martin Richard. His family, from Dorchester, Mass., was fairly well known in the area. Loved to ride his bike, and like many Bostonians, he loved baseball -- playing and following those Red Sox, who had finished an early baseball game that day before hell ascended into the City on a Hill. Oh, my goodness would Martin have loved the fact that they turned around and won the World Series. Oh, yes he would.
His front-tooth-missing smile was a common site in his neighborhood as he often played with his younger sister or some of his many friends. He, his mom and sister were near the finish line when the first bomb exploded, injuring his mom and sister badly and killing Martin.
He was one of three who died because some unimaginably idiotic and/or evil person or persons decided they would kill people at the end of the Boston Marathon. When the bombs blew, this little eight-year-old died, and another chunk of American innocence was destroyed. Ironically, just a while earlier he was photographed holding a sign that read in typical eight-year-old writing, “No more hurting people.” He made the sign in connection with the Trayvon Martin case.
No more hurting people, indeed.
In pondering what I would say to you this morning, this Easter morning, this celebration of life this morning, I thought back to Martin. Little Martin. Innocent Martin.
And I kind of thought what Easter means, and what it means is Martin Richard died, but he lives. I know this because Jesus died, and he lives.
This morning, let me say this as loudly as I can. What walked out of that empty tomb so very long ago was hope, a hope that the family of Martin Richard will see him again. When Jesus walked from the darkness that couldn’t capture him, hold him, put him down and out for good, into the light he had created so very long ago, death was beaten.
Knocked slam out.
There is a scene at the very end of the Passion of the Christ in which Jesus dies, head flopping down onto chest that wasn’t rising and falling. And what happens? Director Mel Gibson has the Devil screaming. Why? Jesus, the man-God, has just started the fight for life that the Devil can not win. Hear that. Can not win. Never will, again.
Oh, bright heaven’s Son, I pray today for all the Martin Richards who fell way too early. May they walk in the light of the Father.
Without the cross there is no salvation, I believe. Without the resurrection, however, there is a decided lack of hope. Messiahs, my dear Savior, don’t die.
But God’s who love us enough to die for us do exist.
This morning, I wish you the hope of Jesus. A man, not a budding religion. A man who died to make us well, to take the ball-bearings from bombs out of our bodies and make them whole once again.
Today I pray we remember, respect and reflect.
Boston Strong?
Nah. Jesus Strong.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Religio Tigers and the State

So, let's talk rights.

Oh, he had to go and get serious again... I can hear the wheels turning in your head.

A story popped up on my religioradar:

The leader of an organization that monitors separation of church and state said Tuesday that Clemson University head football coach Dabo Swinney and his staff have leavened their athletic program with so much Christian indoctrination that the administration needs to step in and say “hands off the consciences of these kids.” The Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent a letter of complaint to Clemson University, urging the Upstate school to cease the athletics department’s emphasis on prayers, Bible studies and other religious activities, including busing players to local churches for Sunday services. “Of course these students are going to feel that they have to go to every Fellowship of Christian Athletes prayer breakfast,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the education non-profit based in Madison, Wisc., that represents atheists and agnostics.

But she said, “Football players should not be subjected to religious tests to play.” The complaint filed April 10 could set up a clash of culture and Constitution in a deeply religious and politically conservative region of South Carolina.

What are we to make of this? Is this prophesy and the sky is gonna crack open at any moment? Frankly, I'm quite comfortable with that thought. But nah. Just a bunch of stuff.

Let's deal quickly with both. First, Clemson is completely beating the separation of church and state issue to death. Teachers, coaches, heck janitors can't do this in school, as wrong as I think that to be. However, and it's a good ol' however, the athletes themselves can lead these studies, conduct these breakfasts and pray to their little hearts are content. On the campus. Final point: If Annie thinks you have to pass a religious test to play, she's out of her mind. If they can run, block, throw, catch, defend they will play.

The question to me is more of what does a person like Coach Dabo Sweeney do when he is following what he believes to be the Great Commission? What does he do when he's following his heart, the Holy Spirit within him?

I can only say what I would do, not what he necessarily should do.

Invite any every one of the students to voluntarily attend Bible Studies conducted by the other players. Invite any and every one of the students to whatever church he attends, if indeed he's able to do that during football season with travel and the like. Act like a follower of Christ in your actions and for coaches especially your language. And pray like mad.

This separation is a tough thing on the adults, but it’s what we bought into when we decided we would not force “religion” on anyone. We decided oh those years ago that we would be a nation that would not force any one particular religion on others. And yes I believe the founding fathers were Christian for the most part.
So, we share Christ in the way we can share Christ, legally, giving to Ceasar what is Ceasar's.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Terrifying, but awesome

The Internet blew up yesterday. No, really. Blew slam up. When I announced I would be part of a team that is re-starting a church in New Orleans, the dang thing when kablewee. Amazingly enough, I didn't get a spell-check on kablewee. Goes to show you.

Anyway, there must have been, well, 60 or 70 page views on the blog yesterday, which is the equivalent of, oh, say, the time Sean Payton was suspended, and I had words to say.

The local newspaper wants to do a story. I tried to tell them moving day is more than two months distant, but you know, when the Internet blows up, well, whatcha gonna do?

I want to elaborate on a point I made yesterday about being fearful at this point. I'm reminded of last summer when the family went all Clark Griswold and journeyed together to Universal/Disney. I believe we had just gotten off Space Mountain when the 6-year-old sage Gavin said, "That was terrifying, but it was awesome."

From the mouths of babes.

I am terrified, but it is awesome. When we came to Eunice two brief years ago, I came full of what they used to call spit and vinegar. Now, I have no personal idea what that means, but it seems rather appropriate. I was confident, to a fault. What had worked for the ministry in all the other places would work here and then some. I leave a bit less confident because for the first time in ministry, this is the great unknown.

There are so many, many things I don't know.

I will quote from a woman you'll be hearing a lot of in the next few months, Rev. Dottie Escobedo-Frank.

In an article for Ministry Matters, she writes, "According to one report, 188,000 orthodox churches in America today are in need of a reStart. The U.S. has 200,000 orthodox Christian churches, and 300,000 churches overall. What recent history has made very clear is that the mainline church in America is dying. Thom Rainer, in a U.S. study of 1,159 churches (2002), said that 94% of American churches are in decline. Recent church attendance records show that in America, real attendance numbers are not near 40% as previously reported, but a shocking 17.7% (2004). These numbers also report a trend for growth in small (less than 49) and large (over 2000) churches, while a sharp decline in medium-sized churches."

That being said, what do we do?

I believe what we do is embrace the terrifying, for it is in doing so we can be sure that we're not running things, but instead there is a much greater power in place. When I say I don't know, it is weakness for sure, but as Paul taught us over and over it is in weakness than He is strong.

Escobedo-Frank continued, "Some churches are still alive but declining rapidly. Some are near death, clinging to what once was as the hope for the future. As a result of the obvious near-death experience of congregations, denominational structures are looking for ways to “revitalize” churches. Revitalization means taking what is and making it alive again. It tends to utilize current leadership, current understandings of what it means to be a church, current locations, and current worship styles. Revitalization makes an assumption that what is was once vital, and therefore, can be vital again, if we do the same better. So churches increase programs, dollars spent, and formulas adopted in order to bring the re into revitalization. The prefix “re” means back to the original place again. It infers stepping back in time to recapture a period when the church’s role in society was vital. A church seeking revitalization typically does more of the same, but in a hyped-up fashion."

So, what we're doing in New Orleans won't be a revitalization. For those do not work, I've read over and over. What does work is a restart. That is what we're going to do.

In God's time, in God's way.

At the end, which I can see roaring at me faster than I thought possible, I'll be able to look back as Moses did at the journey, even if I don't get there. For it is in doing so, this looking at what God has done, that I can truly say, "Whew, that was terrifying, but it was awesome."

Monday, April 14, 2014

Just a little Aspercreme and everything will be okay

Whew. So now that's out there... In late June Mary and I will move to New Orleans to restart a church, which if I can understand the process is, well, I don't understand the process just yet.

What I know, I've read. What it sounds like is we take everything out down to the rafters and start over.

What I've read scares the bejeebees out of me. For example, one website on restarting churches says, "Both a NewStart church and a ReStart church require a qualified church planter to lead them." Uh, there you have it. There it is.

The question at the top of the program is, am I that?
The answer is absolutely in God's hands, because on the surface, though I've been told powers higher on the pay scale than myself have looked at my gifts and graces through some process I'm not completely aware of and I have been declared worthy.

This from a guy who sleepily Aspercremed under his arms yesterday morning. (And let me tell you if you ever want to wake up quickly, just do some of the same.)

In a book I read recently that was very dear to me and my thinking on all this, I read from Bishop Dottie Escobedo-Frank this: "As a result of the near-death experiences of many congregations today, denominational leaders are looking for ways to “revitalize” churches. The act of revitalization often starts with the assumption that what was once vital can be vital again, if church leaders simply do the same better. So congregations increase programs, budgets, and formulas. They look back in time, trying to recapture a period when the church’s role in society was vital. A church, seeking revitalization, typically does more of the same, but faster.
"However, the central story of our faith is the story of both death and resurrection. Followers of Christ like to live out the resurrection part of our faith, but they often aren't very comfortable dealing with what must come before resurrection - death.The church must be willing to live out its entire story, from beginning to end."
Only at Gretna have I come to a church on the upswing. Every church I've been at wanted more attendance, more members, more things to do, and everyone tried hard. Circumstances seemed to always be against us, though we grew together in many ways including loving the heck out of each other. And never let it be said that isn't something wonderful to.
But now...
Oh, now ...
We begin a new adventure where we stop what is in hopes of being a part of what is to come. Oh, my goodness is that both frightening and exciting.
Makes me want to go get some Aspercreme.
Off we go into the wild Bayou yonder. (Yeah, I know there is no Bayou by New Orleans, but nothing fit like that. Just saying.)
Here we come, New Orleans.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The mountains are trembling

Can you feel the mountains tremble?

This morning I believe I can. The mountains above me are moving around like something is wrong, something is amiss.

Oh, the pollen has slowed to a mist, and it is a Friday. Common Friday. Oh, it is a Friday, and the pollen isn't a tsunami any longer, but more like a drizzle. Really. It is but a drizzle, and there is no constant washing of windows. We are going to be okay. It is April 11, and the sun has climbed to the top of the sky, and I can see God's handiwork smiling at me.

Charles Spurgeon wrote of the spectacle of the cross these words: "Did earth or heaven ever behold a spectacle of suffering, grief, and woe more sad than that of the cross! In his soul and His body our Lord felt as weak as though He were "poured out like water" upon the ground. When His cross was lifted and then suddenly dropped into its hole in the ground, He was violently shaken. Every ligament in his body was strained, every nerve felt pain, "and all his bones were out of joint."

It was as though humanity had suddenly been asked to vote and all of humanity tried to raise its hand and in the raising of humanities hand, joints and such were suddenly misaligned so as to instantly cause pain.

And what were we voting on?

Something as radically simply as our future.

We were asked to vote on our future. To a person we voted to have one, a future I mean.

Can you feel the mountains tremble? That's us saying to our Lord, save us Jesus. Allow us the privilege of living.

Whether he answer.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Tonight is a night you have made

I wonder if you've ever have had this thought:

Have I dreamed big enough?
Have I made asked enough in prayer?
Have I made my requests great enough?

Each morning, or nearly every morning, I ask God to do certain things for me so that I can do things for Him, and those things include making me able enough to do what He needs me to do. In other words, I ask Him to strengthen me for the spiritual battle ahead, to give me courage that is no where near natural for me to go against the enemy when my natural inclination is to run, and I ask that He give me wisdom to say the right thing at the right time.

When those things don't happen at the right time or the right place, I continually chalk it up to the humanity in me meets the task at hand. I fail not because He isn't capable but because I am not. When I fail, I fail not because of Him or His gifts. No, I fail because I simply am not capable of performing that task.

And yet...

It seems to me that most of the time I fail because when the prayers began flying around like bullets that were not really used properly, I never asked big enough, prayed tall enough, jumped far enough, climbed high enough or asked for the huge leap in faith. Never. Did. I.

Not Him.

He was always perfectly willing to meet the impossible in and around me. But I never ask for the impossible. I ask for the small, the things I believe I can do, and the abilities that require little fair in the first place.

Really. I do.

But this day, late in the afternoon though it might be, I'm asking that God make me able to do the ridiculously incredible this day. I'm asking God to make me strong enough, fast enough, able to leap far enough and high enough that anyone listening to me later the day will know those thought could only have come from on high. I'm asking God to give me God-power so that the glory will come back on Him. I'm begging that God send someone to the youth-Club 316 tonight that needs to hear about the last week of Jesus' life. I'm telling God that His ideas for tonight's devotional are too small. I want all He has to give so that I can give all he has to 22, no, heck, 32 kids tonight. And I'm commanding God to let me be the vehicle through which the Gospel will ride tonight.

Really. I am.

Tonight, O Father, creator of us all, lover beyond our dreams, healer beyond our imagination, keeper of our hearts, designer of our souls, let us love the way you love, beyond ourselves, inside of you. Tonight is a night you have made. Let us so called adults rejoice and be glad in it.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

What is normal?

What is normal? What is the test drive for normality? When have we done all we can to be all we can for Jesus?

All these things flash through my mind about 20 seconds after the alarm blares this morning at 5:45 a.m. I'm moved to question myself after figuring out that it is indeed the alarm and the house is not ablaze, and I'm suddenly sure I indeed set the dang thing.

What is normal? I'm pretty sure it ain't getting up this early to drive an hour and a half into the night (morning) to meet and greet a kid who is finally going to be blessed with a trial next week after waiting a year and a half.

Is he guilty? Yeah, probably. But without going into specifics, I think the time he has served is enough. Is he a threat to our society? Nah. I doubt it severely.

But most of all, he has grown so much by this trial (figurative and literal) that to keep him isolated for more time would be cruel, I think.

Has he become a Christian during our numerous visits? That's for God and him to decide. What I will say is he has become receptive to our talking, our praying, our scripture reading. So much so that he says he looks forward to it.

Here's the deal. Normal is a state of mind, body, emotions in which we are at peace with the world and ourselves. This person is normal, then. He has taken the test drive for normality, a daily challenge  for himself.

He is ready for the world outside, a world in which no one tries to kill themselves or threatens to do so.  He is ready to be what he can be for Jesus. I believe this to be true.

The Bible says Paul wrote "I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because or your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ."

I am sure, then by this test of normality, that this person has had a good work begun in them and that if allowed by this person, Jesus will bring it to completion.

That's my prayer. That's my test. That's when I'm sure I have done all I can do for Jesus.

Oh, what a glorious morning.

Monday, April 7, 2014

In line for judgment purposes

The other day, a group of seven Louisiana pastors got together. Nothing was thrown or broken, but coffee was drank. It was a gloriously warm early Spring day in the state, which simply meant the humidity that is Godzilla come summer in Louisiana had not grown much out of its shell.

We stand in line at coffee shops, and we don't even share our thoughts with those in front of us or those behind. We stand in a pile at the receiving area of coffee shops and we don't care what people are thinking around us, though they are talking and sharing with others tales of their lives that we could use to open the doors and get just a few toes into it. We don't even particularly care about the conversations that are building up like fog as we sit in our chair and sip our coffee, when we certainly know enough by now about those around us to strike up a conversation about what is meaningful in their lives.

We won't "fix" the problems with our disagreements on big issues in our neighbors lives till we begin to walk into the shallow end of their lives that is built upon having conversation. The pastors in a light-hearted conclave, talked about what had been working at our churches, and we talked about what was thought to be a great idea but it had clearly not come out of the great idea boxes unbroken for it not working for all of us. We drank our coffees as if they were elixirs that would fix us. We talked, we laughed. It was a great afternoon.

This morning I was reading outside, one of the last opportunities before humidity Godzilla slams one of those itty bitty front paws against his shell and completely enters our world.

What I read came from Luke's Gospel. He was writing about Jesus, what all of us religion writers do from time to time. Jesus was on the plain, teaching, and he said this: "Don't judge, and you won't be judged. Don't condemn and you won't be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. A good portion -- packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing -- will fall into your lap. A portion you give will determine the portion your will receive."

There are lots of stuff there to unpack, but we're not going much past the first sentence.

That, coming from Luke's Gospel as part of his sermon "on the plain" is a magnificent piece of work that has, I'm afraid, lost its flavor over the years.

While Jesus taught those who literally listened to the work that day or those days on the hillside or the plain, we (those who have read the teaching but were never truly taught in the first place) must read with new eyes each time we come across the material or it serves us little good.

Again we read, "Don't judge, and you won't be judged." The teaching is, don't make a judgment against, well, anyone. And if you do, there will be equal retribution.

Do you, or did you, really get that. Unpack it. Share it like freshly ground coffee?

Nah, didn't figure. The reason I didn't figure you, me any of us did is we have been given a lot of absorb over our lives but nothing harder than this "don't judge, and you won't be judged," business. If anyone could do that, consistently, daily, lives -- heck, nations -- would change.

The reason it is so difficult is that we don't care anymore if we judge, and we don't particularly care if we are blamed for judging someone else. Why? We don't even care, sadly enough, if someone judges us because we don't give a, uh, flip what people think any more.
We just don't.

We judge by clothing we wear.
We judge by hair styles.
We judge by age.
We judge about the color of our skin, the way we walk, the way we talk.
We judge by the way we stand, the way we look at each other, the way we listen or don't to each other. We pour up a heaping cup of judgment just what coffee shop we go to or what we order when we get there.

Who we are isn't dictated by what coffee we drink, but my goodness we can reach a wrong conclusion about the other person just standing in line at Starbucks (oops, I gave out more info that I intended).

And those are just the outward signs.

Spend an hour in conversation, real conversation, conversation in which we have given up our  brothers and/or sisters or an even more telling conversation in which we talk about our religious beliefs or our political beliefs or how we want to raise our kids or just our hopes and dreams and what we will find in some form or fashion is a judgment.

The good news is we can acknowledge those weaknesses that are judgments and we can begin to move forward.

I will never be ______________________
I can never _________________________
I am incapable of ____________________

With God's incalculable power, I can _____________________

Judge that, after I've done it.

And order me a Vanilla Latte, from anywhere.

Friday, April 4, 2014

A new thang

We live in an incredible time, don’t we? We live in a time where there is both hope and depression in the church. There is hope because we have acknowledged we no longer can do things the way we have always done them and expect to continue to, well, have church. There is depression, I fear, because we have figured out we can’t continue to do things the way we have done them and expect to continue to have OUR church.
That’s the problem,, the challenge.
Do we believe this? Do we feel this? Is this part of our being, part of our substance, part of our lives, part of our present, our reality, our future?
I fear that most people, if not most churches, don’t think they need (and I mean need, not want to) change. It simply is what it is.
Or, most probably, it isn’t.
It just isn’t.
So, what do we do, what do we change to greet change with substance, with newness, with the joy that God brings to every new thing.
In the prophet Isaiah’s writings, we read this: Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness
 and rivers in the desert.  The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches,
 for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people,
 the people whom I formed for myself  that they might declare my praise.”
That seems to be something only pertaining to the Jews, but the principal is not because the next verse declares, ““Yet you did not call upon me, O Jacob; but you have been weary of me, O Israel!”
God was going to do a new thing. He made the declaration. The persons for which the declaration was made did not hear, nor did they answer, and the scripture clearly says that is because they had grown weary of God.
I suspect, without benefit of studies or numbers, that the weariness many are feeling comes from our work in religion. Religion has captured me in ways I can’t understand, but part of what I have heard this week in the conference I am in is that we need to forgo the worry about our churches, about religion and about all that baggage we bring into the equation and we need rest from it.
Or as they say where I come from, they need to throw it out in the trash.
And let incarnational relationships become the way we do not only church but life.
Those relationships, we’ve been told and I certainly believe, rely first on a one-on-one with God, then a one-on-one with each other that leads both to better churches but better teams and better leaders and better lives with Jesus.
God is going to make a new thing.
The question is whether we are going to listen, then act.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Jesus and justice were walking up a hill together....

Jesus’ brother James, before he took a header down the steps outside the Temple, wrote this: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
Martin Luther had difficulty with this because he fought so hard for the idea of we are saved by grace alone. What we have had ample discussion about these last three days has been the idea above, that in building churches it is not enough to simply offer them an open door. We must, instead, offer them an open door with shelter for all, with clothing for all, with distribution of resources for all, etc.
I agree, and we’ve spent much of the past 10 years attempting to do just that.
My question is this:
Does justice lead to Jesus or does Jesus lead to justice?
By that I mean do we give those persons of need Jesus first or do we give those persons of need what they need and THEN offer Jesus?
I, an avid blogger, columnist, person of great opinion, have no answer here.
A sweet woman sitting next to me yesterday pointed out that Jesus fed the people before he taught the people. I smiled, and being the avid blogger, columnist, person of great opinion with a mind that has been going for quite some time, looked it up.
According to the scriptures, well, he didn’t. His sermon on the mount came (at least in the way that its placed in Matthew, came first.
The kingdom talk preceded the kingdom work, in that regard.
But can we take that to have meaning and purpose and planning?
I suspect now. It’s like this: if you are hungry, needing a home, needing a job that pays well, will you listen to the message of Jesus? And if you do, will you continue to listen to it if you are still just as hungry, needing a home, needing a job that pays well enough to feed your family?
This is the answer today as to why we are able to bring people into the side door of the church by clothing and such even more than we’re able to bring them into the front door of the church by simply inviting.
Does that mean everyone is due a job that pays well?
No, actually I don’t think that.
But everyone should be able to receive Jesus equally. Are they the same principle?
 Again, probably not.
Again, it’s a large but ….
Though I maintain it is not government’s responsibility to make everyone share in resources equally, I maintain it is the church’s responsibility to make everyone have a life that removes hunger, homelessness, equal access to health care and clean water and a lack of malaria or disease in the world.
The real problem goes all the way back to the scripture.
We, who have faith, don’t do it. We just don’t do it. We do it more than government does, but we don’t do it enough.
And that, it seems to the avid blogger, is the reality.
When we do that, making lives much, much better by giving as much as need be given, we are indeed kingdom people. When we don’t, when we build buildings and dress well and make sure no one is invited into OUR walls, we are not.
Jesus and justice walk hand in hand. It is not, I think, an either or.
It never has been.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Give me mercy over justice every time

I’ve never written anything that I thought on first observation would start a fuss (well, maybe I have upon reflection), but this might. Just might. I don’t mean to do that, but I will.
We were meeting – for long, long minutes – yesterday talking about building communities, growing relationships and such. We then were talking about the Book of Esther, and at one point the instructor told us that sometimes when they come together, justice must outweigh mercy.
I’ve pondered that ever since.
And I’m not convinced of that yet.
From that point I began listening for one thing and one thing only. I listened for one name, the name above all names, the name that means everything for me. We began at 9 a.m. It took until 3:58 p.m. We talked about justice in the Book of Esther, and certainly the Jews who were about to be killed in the book needed justice – instant justice – or they would’t make it. We talked about relationships with others  so that we would be able to create community.
I must admit, at the risk of being called out, that all I could think of was those scriptures that say things like the one in Deuteronomy. ““And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good?”
Or the one in Micah that says, “What does The Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?:
Now, on the surface, telling us that we might have to choose justice over mercy in some situations doesn’t sound as if it would harm anyone. Who doesn’t want their lot in life, most often not of our choosing and not of our own capabilities as in those in poverty did not choose to be in poverty and do not now choose to be in poverty, to be different? Therefore, they indeed would choose to have us pick justice over mercy.
But my problem is not with systems that keep people down, like government and such. No, my problem is deeper, particularly on a spiritual level.
No, my problem is that we never mentioned that person that I believe pulls people out of emotional and spiritual poverty, the only one who does. See, there is – to me – more than socio-economic poverty, and that is what I did not address.
I get the plight of the immigrant, and the Bible addresses that in some fashion.
I understand the plight of the homeless, and millions of churches address that problem daily.
I understand not wanting to push one’s “religion” on anyone, and I don’t see myself (or at least I used to) as a religious person.
But what I don’t’ understand is how we can neglect telling someone about the wonderful, saving, mercy-filled, grace-covered person we know Jesus of Nazareth to be.
In other words, we can clothe them, whoever them is, and feed them, and treat them physically, but unless we figure out a way to offer them salvation in a way that does not push them away in the same breath, we have in my judgment failed.
I read once that Muhammed Ali said he became a Muslim because slaves were screaming for Jesus to save them as ropes were put around their necks. He said that he couldn’t believe in someone who would allow that.
I understand that. I get it’s hard to understand when there are great tragedies in our lives and we scream into a dull and unlistening sky a hearty and painful ‘why.’
But I also understand that Ali couldn’t have understood what the word “save” truly means or he wouldn’t have turned a blind heart to Jesus.
Simply put, we cannot, cannot suppress mercy while offering justice anymore than we can rid ourselves of sin by working harder at it.
Mercy to someone oppressed is justice, isn’t it
The fact is, as hard and harsh as this is to understand sometimes because of our situations and circumstances, justice is often the last thing we truly want or need.
I don’t worship a “just” God, for if he dispensed justice to me, giving me what I deserve, I would be quite literally in a “hell” of a fix.
No, no, no.
Give me mercy every single time.
Even if I never earned it.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The power of story

At a conference yesterday, while tiredness crept onto me like fog walking in from the sea, I was reminded of the power of one’s story. The power of talking to even a stranger about who and what you've been given is incredible. That's how the church is built, I'm told, and I believe it to be true.
When is the last time you told someone how and when and where and even why you came to Christ, or even when you felt God move in your life?
It’s amazing what power rests in doing that.
The instruction was easy; take three other people to a place of their choosing and talk.
In a manner of minutes, maybe even moments, the walls came down, the shields were diminished and we, well, we shared. Strangers became friends. We were better for it in the same way hearts are better for giving and minds are better for sharing. Two or more are more important and more able than one. Simple. And often forgotten.
We were reminded of when Jesus first sent the disciples out. We often focus on the power given but yesterday I saw this: they were sent two by two.
The power of shared story can’t be forgotten or diminished.
We become, if not friends, then certainly persons of shared experience.
Two, without question, are more powerful than one.
So, why indeed do we struggle so much in letting those walls come down, in letting our hearts be touched, in letting ourselves be seen for who we truly are? I suspect it becomes about who we trust.
And why do we keep our baggage from God, as long as we are talking about sharing?
The Bible says, “There is no judgment awaiting those who trust him. But those who do not trust him have already been condemned.”
When we trust him, when we trust others, we begin to receive what I can only say is peace. I truly mean that.
The power that comes from that is unimaginable.