Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Our Story... so far.


Sometimes I make the mistake of only using this space for trying to make a point, or trying to bring a perspective on a political/social/theological issue that happens to be on my mind, or in the public sphere.  Today, I'm just going to tell a little about what God has been doing at Grace Crossing.

We just passed the four year anniversary of our family's move here, and what God has done in such a short time is really nothing short of amazing.  As it is happening, it is hard to always see, but as I look back, here are some of the blessings God has poured out on us as a church.

When I first arrived, we were meeting in a 750 seat auditorium, and averaging about 70 on Sunday mornings.  The space swallowed us whole, the people were worn out, and the church was losing money.  My first prayers to God were that He would send us some talent.

I know that seems like a strange first prayer, but I knew we needed fresh, talented people, and I knew we certainly couldn't go out and hire them.  Within a few months, the Lee  and Durham families joined.  Jay and Martha Lee are now leaders on our praise team (she plays piano, he plays Bass), Martha is our Deacon chair, they teach Sunday School and lead small groups, and pretty much are dream church members.  Rick Durham is a Hospice chaplain.  He's also now a deacon, has led grief counseling sessions for our people to learn how to process our own grief, and help others in our church do the same.  He will be leading a living will  seminar at our upcoming health fair.  Oh, and having been a pastor, and being a trained counselor, he has been the greatest source of comfort for me - asking how I'm doing out of genuine concern for my welfare, and having just the right touch of advice when needed.

This isn't to shortchange all the amazing people that were already here, nor are they the only amazing people that have joined, but God seemed to know exactly who we needed when we needed them.

We needed a loan, and after a couple years of cleaning up the church budget we were still being refused by banks, including our own!  Then along came Russell Jones and the North Carolina Baptist Foundation.  They offered us rates that were better than most banks, over a term that was longer, and we knew that the money we paid in interest would be going to help build other churches.

We needed help with our praise team.  I was coaching basketball at Hickory Ridge High School, and just happened to meet another coach, who had a son who is incredibly gifted.(we cut had previously cut him from the JV basketball team, oops!)  Now Elijah is one of us, and bringing his friends along with him. 

Most recently we needed a new youth minister, as our previous volunteer had moved on to a paid position somewhere else.  I just finished having coffee with her.  She and her friends are students from UNCC, who have decided that instead of one of the super "cool" churches nearer to campus, they wanted a church like us.  Now Olivia, the daughter of a fellow CBF pastor is going to be leading our youth, and I couldn't be happier!

There are more stories, more people, more amazing things.  You get the picture though.  God is moving.  He is moving far beyond my meager skills as a pastor and beyond our gifts as a people.  I'm just happy to be along for this ride!


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Reconciliation





So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. - 2 Corinthians 5:16-19

Before you read this, I would recommend you read the thoughts of Mark Labberton, President of Fuller.  You can find those HERE, and he says much more eloquently some of the things I think I think.  

My heart continues to break for what is happening in Ferguson Missouri.  I wish I had something more profound to offer, or more healing, or some kind of magic words that would be able to connect us with our brothers and sisters on both sides of the protests.  Honestly, I don’t.  All I have is a heavy heart, and the burden of understanding that I don’t understand.

I will never have to teach my son what African American parents will teach their children about how to act around police officers.  Unless one of my children becomes a police officer, I will also never know what it is like to fear for their lives in the line of duty.  I hope I never know what it is like to make a decision that ends someone’s life, or what it is like to lose somebody in my family under those circumstances.

This is what I do know.  As a believer, my words, thoughts, and actions should be aimed at reconciliation.  God has given us a mission of bringing wholeness, peace, and grace to broken lives in a broken world. 
 
My focus needs to be on seeing others through Christ’s eyes, and not through a “worldly point of view.”  In order to do that I need to listen.  I need to have conversations with people who think and believe and look differently than I think, believe, and look.  I need to try to empathize, not just sympathize.  I need to pray.  I need to be sure that when I do choose to speak, my aim is reconciliation, and not to further my own agenda, or opinion, or to simply add another voice to a partisan divide.  I need to repent, because in my life I have added to injustice.  I need to forgive.

Jesus, friend of sinners
Break our hearts
for what breaks yours.

Amen.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Weird



It was a beautiful, slightly cooler than average, Sunday morning as some of the church folks and I stood out under the covered drive.  The greeters at Grace Crossing (some official, some unofficial) were all gathering and chattering about whatever it is people talk about on Sunday morning between Sunday School and worship, when a lady pulled her car into a parking spot, hopped out, and headed towards us.  This lady was clearly a little disheveled, and if I'm honest, my initial impression was, "I hope she feels welcomed here, even dressed like that."  As we greeted her, she revealed her real reason for coming - she needed gas money.  Her tale was that she was leaving her boyfriend and moving back in with her mother in Asheville, and she needed enough gas to get there.  I told her (truthfully) that I never carry cash, but that I was sure we could find her something.  Before I finished speaking, the man I had been talking to reached into his pocket, handed her more money than she asked for, and spoke kind words of blessing.  This may not sound like a completely strange event for most people, but what if I told you this man is the most politically conservative member of my congregation?  You know, conservatives, who are supposed to all believe that "I got mine, so who cares what happens to you."  This man certainly doesn't fit that mold.  If we listen to the people trying to tell us what to think, then this man is... well... weird.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the stoop there is another conversation happening.  This one is loud and brash, because the man speaking has no other volume setting.  I imagine that even when he whispers sweet nothings to his wife, it comes out sounding like a drill Sargent chewing on gravel.  He is a Korean war veteran whose name appears on the memorial in the town of Mint Hill, where my family and I live.  He was telling everyone he knew exactly where he was on that day 61 years before, because that was the day the armistice was signed.  He was staring across a valley at the Chinese soldiers who, the day before, were trying to end his life, and he theirs.  He will admit to having ended quite a few.  This man is a war veteran, who served our country faithfully.  He is a true patriot, a history buff, and a coin collector.  He is also a liberal.  You know, liberals, who are all supposedly soft and don't care about America or the military or national security.  Weirdo!

What's the point of these two anecdotes?  People aren't stereotypes.  They aren't caricatures or statistics or the demons that the official American Division industry want you to believe they are.  People are complex, just like the God who made us.  If we can learn to take people one at a time, we can go a long way toward regaining respect for each other as Americans and as citizens of the world. We're all a little weird, some of us need to learn to embrace that, and love it - for ourselves and others.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

God's Order of Operations



Sometimes during a sermon, something will come out of my mouth that I don't fully reflect on until much later.  I know, that probably says more about my sermon preparation and focus than anything else, but some of those "utterances" end up brewing in my head for days after, even if they don't impact anyone else listening.

We have been going through the story of Moses, using him as an example of leadership - with all its ups and downs - and Sunday we got to the "Ten Commandments."  You can hear the full sermon here.  At the beginning, I talked about how surprising I found it that God waited to this point to give Israel a set of rules to live by.  If I had been God, and thank...Him I'm not!, I would have maybe made it through one of the 10 plagues before saying, "ok, listen up you ungrateful heathens, this is how things are gonna be, and if you don't like it, you can just stay slaves!"

But God didn't do that.  He rescued Israel.  He led them from bondage, led them across the sea, led them safely away from Pharaoh's army, fed them manna and quail, gave them water to quench their thirst, and established a covenant.  It was only then, after all of that Grace that God established His law.  

First, lets not over spiritualize things - yes, God is rescuing them spiritually, but He literally, physically rescues them.  He meets their very human, very earthly needs.  He establishes relationship.  They abuse His kindness, and He continues to pour Grace on top of Grace.  Only after He has completely rescued them and met their every need and created a bond of covenant, only then did God say, "ok, now that you've got all that, here is the best way to live as a community."

Why can't we get that as Christians and as churches?  Why can't we understand that it is only after we have poured love and grace into people, only after we have established relationship, only after we have traveled the extra mile to show our Kingdom nature - only then should we expect them to begin living in response to that outpouring.  Why do we talk so much about people's souls, and so little about their poverty, their depression, their many bonds, and the many structures of this world that continue to create those bonds.   

In math, if you don't follow the correct order of operations - Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction - you will get a wrong answer.  You can do all the "work" right, but still get the wrong outcome.  I think the church in the United States has done a great deal of the "work" right, but we're getting the wrong outcomes because we're trying to do things out of order.

We're declining because our faith has been focused not on God, but on what God has done for me.  Its been focused not on a God that is greatly concerned for this world and every atom in it, and instead has said cynically that God has no use for this broken place, and we're just waiting for Heaven.  We've talked about "personal" salvation, but not about communities of Grace, Kingdom living on earth as it is in Heaven.  We expect people to listen to us without earning the right to be heard, and we've failed to come to grips with the many sins our churches have committed that have made our burden of proof that much higher.

Talking about God as a personal savior certainly isn't wrong.  Talking about life after this life is a hopeful message that people need to hear.  These things, however, shouldn't come first in our order of operations, and we should most definitely not expect people to live by whatever moral code we hold to before we first help them to see why they might want to.  

I think hidden in that Exodus story is a formula for deliverance.  Real, lasting, community based, world changing deliverance.  If only we can get our selves in order.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Its Not the Heat...




   Having been born and raised here in good ol’ North Carolina, I am quite accustomed to our sultry summers.  Those dog laying, tea gulping, sweat dripping summers that you only get here in the south.
   One of my favorite phrases to hear this time of year goes like this, “
oh, its not the heat, it’s the humidity!”  REALLY!? 
   Its funny, nobody talks about humidity, or even notices it until it’s about a zillion degrees outside, then suddenly its “not the heat, it’s the humidity” making me miserable!  Now I understand that yes, the summer time here is humid, and yes, the humidity DOES make the heat a little more unbearable, but come on, nobody ever notices humidity until something worse (like a temperature of 100 degrees) comes along to aggravate the situation.
   Unfortunately, the same goes for our relationship with God.  God is always there.   We know that in our minds, and sometimes we even grasp it in our hearts, but we often don’t really pay Him any attention until something else comes along to aggravate our lives. 
   You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.   Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  - Romans 5:6-8
   Fortunately for us, God doesn’t work the same way we do.  God didn’t wait for US to act to save us, He acted before we even knew we needed saving!  While we were powerless, sinful, enemies of God He acted on our behalf. 
   This is the most amazing thing about God’s grace!  Its complete grace, not just a response to our moving, but a completely self contained act of love that creates a response in us!
   Sadly, it usually take a little heat for us to realize that grace is near.  We usually end up getting burned a few times before calling on that grace to rescue us.  We never really notice it until we get aggravated.
   Gods grace and love is all around you, even those of you who have never called on his name!  Don’t wait!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Ascension



Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them.  “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”  Acts 1:6-11

A few lessons from the ascension:

First, by the time we get to this scene, where the apostles gather around Jesus and "see him off" to Heaven, Jesus has made numerous appearances to different groups of people.  In these appearances Jesus tells people to have peace, to work faithfully to share the Good News, and that He will remain faithfully by their side.  What he doesn't do is plot revenge.  He doesn't tell His followers to go mow down those Romans or Pharisees or Temple priests that crucified Him.  In fact, he doesn't seem to have an ounce of anger towards anyone, including his friends who had abandoned Him. 
So lesson number one:  Have peace, grant peace, pursue peace.  If Jesus can do it after being crucified, you can too!


Now, here in this passage Jesus is asked, basically, "are you going to tell God about all this that has happened so He will come down here and liberate of from the Romans?"  His response is telling - "you're going to be telling people about me in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and places you can't even imagine exist."  Jerusalem and Judea?  No big deal, "those people" are just like us!  Samaria!  "Those people are dirty, no good, religiously impure, racially different, and just plain icky!"  "The ends of the earth?"But, but, but I thought God loved us more than anybody else and was going to make all of those people bow at our mighty awesome cool awesomeness!"  Lesson two:  If you think God is only for you and "your people," you're just plain wrong.

"Why are you standing here looking at the sky?"  Its almost a sarcastic response from these two men dressed in white, presumably angels (or Siegfried and Roy).  Its a question we need to hear today though.  So many people think that serving Christ is about "inviting Him into your heart," then "staring at the sky" until He comes to get us.  Jesus had already given them their job, and He has given us ours.  Lesson three:  Don't just stand there looking at the sky!

There, that's my three points.... now all I need is a poem to make this sermon complete....

We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we our selves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed .

Malcom Guite

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

What Should Unite Us! (but likely won't)



Speak out on behalf of the voiceless, and for the rights of all who are vulnerable. - Proverbs 31:8

 If you pay attention to the news, or at least to the fake news, such as "The Daily Show," you know that one of the most shameful things happening in the United States today is the treatment that our Veterans are receiving, or I guess more accurately, NOT receiving from the VA Hospital system. 

According to the NY Post,  "...Congress has known since the 1990s about vets at many VA facilities waiting hundreds of days for care and sometimes dying in line.  In 1996, Congress passed a law requiring that any vet needing care be seen within 30 days. The General Accountability Office reported in 2000, and again in 2001, that excessive waiting was still a problem. In 2007, and again in 2012, the VA’s own inspector general reported that VA schedulers routinely cheated to hide long waits."  Source

We can disagree about the nature of the Iraq war, about what we've done and undone in Afghanistan, about how our military has been used or not used in regional conflicts across the globe.  We can disagree about Pentagon funding, overseas military bases, and about our current fascination with drone warfare.  Reasonable, intelligent people can have different opinions about all these things.

What should unite us is this:  When a man or woman, following orders given by a commanding officer who works for our elected representatives, risks their lives and is injured in the process, that man or woman deserves the very best care that this country can offer.  They have EARNED not just our words of respect and honor, but to be treated with respect and honor in a way that meets their physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs upon returning from conflict. 

We, as Americans should be holding hands, singing in the streets, UNITED in this sentiment.

My guess is, we will just turn it in to another partisan political game though.  We'll just spend our time arguing about why it is "their" fault, you know, those people in the other political party. 

The facts will easily tell us that this problem has spanned (at least) 3 administrations, 2 Democrat and 1 Republican, it has spanned multiple congresses that have been controlled by both Republicans and Democrats.  The facts will tell us that this is a problem that isn't partisan, but that won't matter.

We're entrenched in a nation-wide conflict spiral, and we are far more interested in our side "winning" the argument than we are in actually getting anything meaningful done.  Meanwhile, as we approach the 18th (at least) Memorial Day since this problem has been out in the open air, the men and women that we claim to love so much will get a free burger at Ruby Tuesday, but not needed medical care.

Why can't we let these men and women use their military ID to be treated at any hospital in the United States?  Why can't we allow them the very best care available, and in a place that doesn't require them to drive past dozens of hospitals on their way?  Why can't we as Americans unite around this?

As believers, following Jesus means speaking up for those who have been hurt.  Jesus in Matthew reminds us that the way we treat the "least of these" is a measure of how we are actually living in relationship with God Himself.  So I believe it is time we as churches begin to do that.  We should be writing letters to our Senators, our Representatives, and our President demanding this get done.  We should refrain from partisan blaming and bickering, just this once, so that we can rise up with one united voice - a true vox populi - that might just save a veteran's life.