Friday, April 30, 2010


Few things could represent all that is wrong with our world more than what happened on October 2, 2006.  A man, a father of two children himself, walked into an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster, PA with a bag full of weapons.  By the time police got into the schoolhouse, the man had shot ten Amish school girls between the ages of 6 and 13, five of them died.  The man had also killed himself. 

Obviously, to say that this Amish community was grief-stricken is an understatement.  This was exactly the kind of thing that their lifestyle was supposed to avoid.  Instead, an outsider had come in and in just seconds destroyed the peace they had worked so hard to maintain.  One might have expected that this was a chance for the Amish to denounce the evils of the rest of the world.  This was a chance to point out the value of their own way of life and how backwards the dominant culture was in allowing something like this to happen.  It was exactly the kind of time in which many people would point fingers, place blame, and demand justice. 

But instead of demanding justice, these people who had lost so much spoke only of forgiveness.  On the same afternoon that the shooting took place, the grandfather of one of the little girls who was killed was already speaking words of forgiveness about the man who had murdered his granddaughter.  That same day some from the Amish community went to the family of the gunman to comfort them in their loss.   Later that week, there were more Amish than non-Amish at the shooter’s funeral. 

It’s almost as if those in the Amish community were playing by a completely different set of rules, as if they lived in a different world than ours.  Instead of perpetuating the cycle of violence, hurt, and grief by hurting those who had hurt them, they took the pain upon themselves and suffered it out of existence.  Whereas the rules of this world dictated that they should have exacted revenge, the Amish saw a world in which forgiveness was more powerful than pain, love more powerful than a gun. 

Of course, violence is not the only cycle that threatens to perpetuate itself through our world and thereby wreak havoc and destruction.  There are other destructive cycles in our world that may not get as much news coverage but are just as corrosive; the kind of cycles of poverty and brokenness that exist in Kansas City’s urban core.  There, a mother works two jobs, neither of which pays enough, but she keeps working them both just to be able to provide for her children.  She can’t get a better job because she never finished high school.  She never finished high school because her dad split when she was younger and her mom had to work two jobs just like she is now.  So she didn’t have any parents around to make sure she did her homework or stayed out of trouble.  She didn’t have anyone to teach her how to make good decisions in life.  So she repeated the same mistakes her mother made.  Now she can see the same thing happening with her own children.  She has to work so much that she can’t be home enough to help her children do their homework or learn how to make a future for themselves.  They will likely grow up to make the same mistakes and put their children in the same position and so on and so on down through the generations.  And none of this is due to laziness or lack of hard work.  The truth is this mother works twice as hard as most who live twice as well but she is paying for the mistakes of her parents and she knows that her children will do the same unless someone intervenes to help her break this hopeless cycle. 

She finds out that there are people offering help in the basement of her apartment building so she goes to check it out.  She is hesitant at first.  She’s not sure why a bunch of wealthy, well-educated, white folks are so eager to help mostly poor black kids who are struggling in school.  Her experience has always been that the wealthy, well-educated, and white usually leave town when things start to get tough but here are some who are intentionally coming back into the city to try to make things right.  She begins to trust them.  Her kids begin to talk about this group as their family.  In a school system where black males are more likely to be arrested than to graduate, these kids are going on to college and talking about how they plan to give back to others some day because they have been given so much.   And somehow, in the basement of an apartment building in a rough part of Kansas City, something new and different has been created.  In the very midst of the old and tired ways of this world with all its brokenness and pain, a little colony of new creation filled with hope and possibilities has been born. 

One last story; this one maybe not as dramatic as the other two but no less transformative.  It is the story of a boy who grew up going to church, who never knew life outside the church.  He knew all the Bible stories and all the Sunday School answers.  He took his faith seriously, he prayed and read his Bible regularly, was always involved in teen activities at church, and was careful not to hang out with the wrong crowd.  He had plans for college and a successful future. 

But then he began to get this funny notion that God was calling him to be a pastor.  And implied in that notion was a question from God; “How much do you trust me?”  God began to show him how much his trust needed to grow.  God began to show him his own weaknesses, his insecurities, and his imperfections but God also showed him that God’s grace was sufficient for him because the power of Christ was perfected in these weaknesses.   He began to see that the more he trusted in God, the more risks he took for God, the more he did what felt weak and uncomfortable for him, the more Christ shined through to others.  And over time that boy learned to become confident not in himself but in God and what God could do through him. 

My guess is that if you could somehow compare side by side that young man today with the boy that he once was then you would see that there was something radically different about him.  Yes, you would be able to see the continuity too.  You would be able to see that this was now the same boy only older.  But I believe you would also be able to see that God had done something mysterious and undeniable along the way.  You would see that somewhere along the way God had transformed this boy who knew about God into a young man who trusted in God.  You might say that compared to that boy, this young man was a different creature, that he was a new creation, that while he had remained the same person everything about him had also been made new. 

“And He who sits on the throne said ‘Behold, I am making all things new’” That is our singular hope.  Not only that God sits on the throne of the whole universe as we said last week but that the one who sits on the throne love us so much and cares so much for all of his creation that He is making all things new.  God began that work of renewal in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And one day God will complete that work by making our whole world, all of creation, new. 

But even today, the signs of that new creation are all around us.  Even as we live in this beaten and battered world that is broken by sin, God’s Spirit is working to renew our world.  We see it in stories like those that I just shared.  We see that new creation taking place in every act of faithfulness by those who follow Jesus.  We see it in a congregation that is willing to take risks, make sacrifices, and get uncomfortable in order to share the love of Christ with others. 

Because God’s making all things new is more than just a future hope.  For those who follow Jesus, it is what shapes our present reality.  So much of our lives are determined by our past decisions, our past mistakes and misfortunes.  But by the grace of God, we have a chance to have our lives shaped by God’s future rather than our past. 

God is making all things new.  God can make us new.  God can use us to bring about new creation in others.  The one who sits on the throne says “Behold, I am making all things new.”  

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

2010 Annual Report

Below is the text of my annual report delivered last Sunday, April 18, 2010.  

My brothers and sisters in Christ,

Today is an important day for us not only because it is the one on which we elect our leadership for the next year.  It is also a time to evaluate where we have been in the past year and to consider where God is leading us in the year ahead.  As I reflect on the past year I am once again filled with gratitude and humility because of the grace of God that has brought us together.  It continues to be a joy to be a minister of the gospel along side of all of you and I look forward to doing so for many more years to come.  At the same time, it is humbling for me to think about the kind of trust that both you and our heavenly father have placed in me in calling me to be your pastor.  I have not forgotten and will not forget what a tremendous responsibility I have been given as your pastor.    

With that in mind, I hope that all of you know in advance that the words I speak today are not words spoken lightly.  They are ones that I have wrestled with both in thought and prayer for many weeks and months.  Of course, the mission of our church is always in my thoughts and prayers but it has been especially so as we’ve drawn near to this day; a day in which we seek to have greater focus and clarity about how God is calling us to be faithful ambassadors for Christ and his gospel. 

Over the past year, there were three areas which we have strived to give greater attention to as a congregation.  (1) A Renewed Commitment to Our Teens. (2) Spending Time with the “Un-Churched”.  (3) Expanding Our Vision of Christ-like Service.  Let’s try to take an honest look at how we did in these three areas. 

A Renewed Commitment to Our Teens
This first goal probably received the greatest initial response of the three.  A year ago I challenged you to go to Lance or the parents of the teens or the teens themselves and to ask one simple question: “What can I do to help?”  Many of you responded to that challenge.  I remember Lance telling me just 3 or 4 weeks after our annual meeting about how so many people had come up to him and asked how they could help out.  Many of you offered to drive or chaperon for teen events.  Still more of you provided fundraising work around your homes and donated generously to help the teens go to Nazarene Youth Congress next summer.  The church board allocated some extra money into the NYI budget and still others of you helped the teens to be involved in other ministries of our congregation.  The initial response to this challenge was a strong and exciting one. 

However, over the course of the year that response faded and it seems to me that today we are no more committed to our teens and their growth in Christ than we were a year ago.  I know these are not words that any of us want to hear.  It is not pleasant for me to get up here and say that I feel we have more or less failed to meet one of our goals.  But I believe that if we are going to be faithful to our calling as a church then we must be honest about where we have failed to live up to that calling.  If we are to move forward then we must be honest about where we have gone wrong.  Furthermore, I will be the first one to take responsibility for this.  As your pastor, it is my responsibility to offer guidance and leadership and to continually hold the vision that God has called us to ever before us and I failed to do that in this particular area over the last year.  This is something that I hope to improve upon personally in the coming year.  In the meantime, I believe it is important for us to recognize that we have not yet made a church-wide commitment to our teens.  For the most part, we have continued to lay their spiritual well being at the feet of a small handful of people. 

Spending Time with the “Un-Churched”
Our second challenge over the past year was to find ways to spend more time with those who do not attend church and begin to build redemptive relationships with them.  I want to applaud the work of the outreach committee in this area over the past year.  The outreach committee took advantage of the warm summer months, a time when there are many opportunities to connect with people you don’t know and build new relationships, by having at least one outreach event every month from May to September.  These events included a couple of block parties at my house, welcoming those from our community with drinks and snacks during the 4th of July fireworks, and handing out candy apples during a concert on the square.  This is in addition to some of our usual yearly outreach events like Vacation Bible School and Trunk or Treat.  We continued our outreach efforts in the fall with the Chili Supper and fall revival.  In addition to these events, we also took steps in the past year to connect more meaningfully with those who attend our church for the first time.  We had new church directories made so that new attenders can more quickly get to know and connect with others in our church family.  We’ve also been working toward the change in our service times that starts in just a couple of weeks and is meant to help our visitors connect with our church family. 

I consider these things to be a success.  I know that we are not seeing the kind of numerical growth that we would all like to see but I believe that we are being faithful in our mission to reach out to others.  I believe that our church has taken a major step forward in the area of outreach over the past year because we are finding ways to meet people where they are with the love of Christ rather than simply expecting them to show up at church.  We are thinking outside of our walls and taking the love of God into our community.  Having said that, I believe that we still have a lot of room to grow when it comes to outreach and we must continue to find new ways to be ambassadors for Christ beyond this church building. 

Expanding Our Vision of Christ-like service
 This third area has been by far our largest success.  Just take a look at what our church has done as acts of Christ-like service in the past year. 

Blood Drive
Post Office Food Drive
Rummage for the Cure
Offering for Release Thru Jesus Prison Ministries
Offering for Jonathan Phillips and Mission to Romania
Crop Walk
Kingdom Experiments
Community Choir Preview for Dove
Crisis Care Kits
150 Jars of Jelly for Holiday Food Baskets
Salvation Army Bell Ringing
Offering for Haiti

This is in addition to the forms of Christ-like service that our church has already been taking part in for some time; ministries like 4th Wednesday, support of the Kansas City Urban Youth Center, and supporting Nazarene Compassionate Ministries and the work of the Church of the Nazarene around the world.  Undoubtedly, there are many more acts of service that I have not listed here, some done by those behind the scenes that will never be noticed by anyone other than our Lord and savior.  But perhaps what is most exciting about our success in this area is not just the number of events or the number of dollars given but the way we owned it as a congregation.  Many of you sought out these opportunities for service and made them happen for our congregation.  You didn’t wait for me or the church board or a committee to ask you to do something.  You came up with these ideas yourselves or you saw a need and filled it.  In these acts of service, we all became more like Jesus and that is the greatest success any church can ever have. 

In just a moment we’ll take a look at the areas on which we need to focus in the year ahead.  As we do that, you’ll see that Christ-like service is not one of those areas.  I hope it is obvious to everyone that we will not stop serving others just because it is not one of our focus areas next year.  To stop serving others would be as severe a failure in our mission as if we stopped gathering for worship on Sundays.  Serving others is simply a part of who we are as the Church and we must continue to serve others in the year ahead just as we have in the past year.  I hope that all of you will continue to seek out opportunities for service for yourselves and for our church as a whole.  However, because of the success we have had in this area I believe it is important for us to give special attention to other areas so that we can fulfill all of our calling as a church and not just part of it. 

As we look to the year ahead, I believe there are two areas which need special attention in our life together as a community of faith.  (1) Greater involvement in the lives of our children and teens. (2) Outreach! Outreach! Outreach!

Greater involvement in the lives of our children and teens.
I think all of us recognize how important those early years of life are for the formation of a lifelong identity in Christ.  Of course, not all of us had the privilege of growing up in church and were still fortunate enough to come to know Christ later in life.  However, it is a plain truth that a vast majority of us simply wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the godly love of parents, grandparents, Sunday school teachers, and children’s workers shown to us during our childhood and teenage years.  In spite of this, nearly all the work done with our children and teens is left to just a handful of people in our church.  Those who work with our children and teens do a truly incredible job.  But we have to ask ourselves “Why would we leave such an important task to just a few people?”  If the discipleship of our children and teens really is as important as we say it is, then why wouldn’t we all want to be involved in that?  Why wouldn’t every one of us want to play a role in setting someone on a path of Christ-likeness for the rest of their life? 

So I am issuing the same challenge to you this year that I did last year with the teens, only now I am expanding it to the children as well.  Go to Lance, Connie, or Carolyn.  Go to the teens and children and the parents of the teens and children and ask one simple question:  “How can I help?”  I want you to ask that question today.  I want you to ask that question next week.  I want you to ask that question 3 months from now.  I want you to ask 6, 9, and 12 months from now.  I wouldn’t mind if you asked that question every single Sunday that you were here.  In fact, I hope that Connie, Carolyn, and Lance come to me and say “Pastor, these people are getting kind of annoying because they are asking to help so much.” 

And I know some of you are thinking right now “Well, I don’t know how to work with children or teens.  That’s just not my gift.”  Or maybe you are thinking that you are just too old to work with the children and teens.  But everyone can and must do something.  After all, I’m not asking you to lead children’s church by yourself or to take over a Sunday school class.  I’m just asking you to get involved.  You may not be able to handle a whole room full of kids by yourself but surely you can visit a Sunday school class one week and share stories of God’s faithfulness in your life.  You may not do the children’s message every Sunday but you can surely decide that there is a child or teen you are going to get to know and build a relationship with.  You can help prepare a snack or a craft, you can donate needed materials, you can be extra hands in the nursery, you can send cards, or make an encouraging phone call.  There are so many things you can do no matter what your age or gifts and talents are.  Everyone can and must find a way to become involved in the lives of our children and teens because helping a new generation find their identity within body of Christ is not an optional part of our work, it is essential to who we are as the Church. 

Outreach! Outreach! Outreach!
As I mentioned before, I believe that our church has taken great strides forward in the area of outreach over the past year.  However, I also believe that we still have a very long way to go before we are truly fulfilling our mission as a church in this area.  You see, outreach is not yet a part of our DNA as a congregation.  Yes, we put on some outreach events and we are making some changes to connect with visitors.  But those events and changes will never make any difference at all if every single one of us doesn’t take seriously our personal responsibility to reach out to others with the love of Jesus. 

Now again, I’m not being unrealistic here.  I’m not asking everyone to go out and convert an atheist to Christianity before you come back for evening service tonight.  I’m talking about simple things like just inviting someone to church.  When was the last time you invited someone to church?  I’m talking about welcoming those who do visit our church and making a meaningful connection with them that will cause them to want to come back.  I’m talking about building a long-term redemptive friendship with a neighbor or co-worker.  We don’t all have to be Billy Graham.  We just have to be intentional about showing the love of God to the person next to us at the moment whether that be the person we work with or live across the street from or a visitor to our church. 

And again, I know some of you are going to say how uncomfortable it is for you to try to strike up a conversation with a stranger.  And let me say in response, “I know because its uncomfortable for me too”.   I don’t know how to start up a conversation from scratch.  I’m not someone who is naturally out going.  And I certainly didn’t grow up thinking that I would spend my life speaking in front of a crowd of people every week but by the grace of God here I am.  This is part of what it means to place our faith in Jesus.  It means that we step into situations that are uncomfortable, unsettling, maybe even risky and we trust that the Spirit will carry us through and empower us to be Christ-like in those situations.  Being a follower of Jesus means being uncomfortable so that others might come to know the love of God.

You see, what we lack as congregation is not resources.  Our problem is not a lack of money or materials or time or energy or fit people to do the work of the church.  Yes, we have a limited amount of all those things but that is not what limits our ministry as a church.  We serve a God a who can feed thousands from a single basket of food, who can fill our nets so full of fish that they begin to break, who gives sight to the blind, and makes the crippled walk.  We serve a God who raises the dead.  How could a lack of resources ever be our problem? 

What we need as a church is not greater resources.  What we need is greater imagination… a greater imagination of what God can do through us if only we will turn all of ourselves over to him.  We need a clear vision of who God is and what he is doing in our world and what he wants to do through us.  So I ask you this morning to imagine, to dream, to ask yourself “What could God do in this church if every single one of us really committed ourselves to becoming more involved with our children and teens and reaching out to our neighbors with the love of Christ?”  If we committed ourselves to those two things for an entire year, what kind of incredible things could the Spirit of God do through us?

In our reading from the book of Revelation this morning, John gives us a glimpse into the heavenly throne room.  There every living creature bows down and worships the Lamb who was slain.  They say “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.”  John shares this vision with the seven churches to whom he writes to encourage them and sustain them in the face of social pressure and persecution.  John expects these churches to be faithful to Christ even if it costs them their lives because of the trust that they have placed in the one who sits on the throne. 

In 21st century America, it is not very likely that we will be persecuted for our faith to the point of death but we are called to give our whole lives just as those first Christians were.  We are called to take risks, to make sacrifices, to be stretched and challenged and made uncomfortable so that others might come to know the love of Christ.  So I ask you this morning a simple and straightforward question:  How deeply rooted is your commitment to Christ and his Church?  Is your faith the kind that you’ll only stick around as long as things are comfortable for you?  Or are you willing to do whatever is necessary for others to know the Jesus that you know and love?  Will you invest your time and energy in our children and teens?  Will you step out of what it comfortable for you in order to reach out to others?  If we can do those two things in the coming year then I believe that we will have become a people who are more like our Lord and Savior, a people who have become a faithful image of the one who sits on the throne of the whole universe.  May the alpha and omega, the one who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty, empower us to be his faithful and holy people in the year ahead. 

Monday, April 19, 2010

True Reality

One way to approach the book of Revelation is to see it primarily as a prediction of future events.  Often this approach leads to an attempt to "decode" the symbols of Revelation matching them up with certain current day events so that we can figure out who the beast is or when the end will come.  The focus of such an approach to this week's sermon text, Revelation 7:9-14, would be to ask when "the great tribulation" of v.14 will be so that we can be prepared for it.

I think it is a much more faithful approach to Scripture to consider how John's original audience might have heard and understood his words.  After all, Revelation is a letter specifically addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor.  Certainly, it is a book for us as well since it is Scripture and we continue to look for the Holy Spirit to speak to us through it.  However, I believe we will hear the Spirit's voice in this text most clearly if we consider how its first hearers might have understood its many symbols and images.

Consider what it might have been like to be part of one of these seven churches.  These were probably gatherings small enough to meet in someone's home.  They joined together in fellowship around a common meal, the study of Scripture, and serving others as Jesus did.  It is unlikely that they would have had very much contact or even knowledge of other Christian gatherings since most of them would have been of the lowest economic class and would not have had the resources to communicate or travel outside of their own city.  In other words, these Christians are the minority of all minorities.  They are small in number, small in resources, small in influence and status.

At first, being a part of these gatherings had not been too costly.  Perhaps some of your friends found it a little odd.  If you were one of the wealthier Christians who allowed these meetings to take place in your home then your peers certainly would have wondered why you chose to lower your own status by associating with those who were of a lower class than you.  But for the most part your gatherings were tolerated even if frowned upon by your neighbors or thought of as somewhat backwards.

But now things were changing.  One member of your group who had been a part of the local construction guild (the 1st century equivalent of a union) his entire career could no longer find work.  This was because, as in any other guild of the day, the guild members had to participate in a sacrifice to the guild's patron god or goddess, something the members of your gathering had sworn they would not do because of their allegiance to Christ.  Others in your gathering had noticed that long time friends were beginning to become distant out of fear that their family's reputation or well being might be compromised if they were associated with these Christians.  There were even rumors that the local government was considering some type of official action against your group because of the complaints they were hearing about your lack of support for the empire and its gods.  It seemed that the hostility toward your gathering with your fellow Christians was steadily rising and that soon it could become very costly to continue meeting with this little group.

John's vision contrasts the earthly reality these Christians see on a daily basis with what he wants them to know is true reality.  Where they see a small, powerless group of ten or fifteen people, John says that he saw "a great multitude whom no one could count from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb."  Where they see only great tribulation ahead, John sees those who serve as priests before God's throne day and night because they have washed their robes in the blood of the lamb.  Where they see a world that offers them only rejection, John sees a world where they will neither hunger or thirst, where God himself will shepherd them and wipe away every tear from their eye.  But most importantly, where these first Christians see a world where it seems that Rome is in complete control and all are at the mercy of this mighty empire, John sees that it is God who sits on the throne of the universe and it is God's kingdom which will ultimately prevail.

In what ways do we need our vision renewed so that we might see our present reality as God sees it?

Monday, April 5, 2010

Looking Ahead

I won't be around to preach next Sunday.  We leave tomorrow to go see my dad in South Carolina.  Even though I'll be on vacation, the mission of our church will still be very much on my mind.  The Sunday after my return is our annual meeting and elections here at our church; the Sunday when we elect our leadership for the coming year.  It is also a time to evaluate what we've been doing for the past year and where God is leading us in the year to come.  I invite anyone who reads this blog to pray for our church and for me personally as I earnestly seek to hear where God is leading us as one local congregation within the body of Christ.

While my annual report is not quite like a sermon, I did take some time today to study what would have been my sermon text on April 18, Revelation 5:11-14, since it will give some shape to my report.  In these verses, a great anthem is sung in heaven:
"Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing."  
Just a few verses earlier in Revelation 5, John had been weeping because no one had been found worthy to open the book held by the one who sits on the throne.  But one of the elders who surrounded God's throne tells John to stop weeping because "the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome so as to open the book and its seven seals."  At this point, anyone familiar with C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia might expect his character Aslan to make an appearance in Revelation.  But instead of a mighty conquering Lion, John sees a "Lamb standing, as if slain" and it this Lamb who is worthy to open the book and its seven seals and to receive power, riches, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing, as the heavenly anthem says.  The Lion is the slain Lamb.

This will be a central image in the message John is communicating to the seven churches to whom he writes; Christ ironically overcame by being overcome.  John invites these churches to see that their calling is the same.  They conquer by being defeated.  They win the crown of life by being faithful in the face of death.

What does it mean to practice this as the Church today?  We seem to be so far removed from those Christians in the first century who risked so much to be faithful to Christ.  What would it mean for us to orient our entire lives around the Lamb who has been slain?