Monday, September 15, 2014

Unknown

Cathy and I like to joke about the kinds of movies she enjoys.  Three subjects seem to fascinate her: twins, kidnappings and amnesia.  Twins is a “no brainer” subject for her, since we have twin daughters.  I’m not sure how she got fascinated with kidnapping.  Amnesia?  I used to understand that one…but I forgot!   When she was a kid, Cathy followed a comic strip that had all three.  Kidnapped twins, with one having amnesia.  Totally cool!

 
Though it contains none of Cathy’s favorite subjects, one of our favorite movies is a romantic comedy released a few years ago.  In it, the destined couple meet, start falling for each other, then go their separate ways early in the story.  Both of them end up trying to find love in the arms of others, but neither can quit thinking about the love they “lost.”  At various times in the story, they come amazingly close to running into each other, but always miss…until the end.  It’s easy to love stories like that.
 
Today, though, I want to mention a lost love that never gets found.  It’s the story of a guy who is full of selfless love for the girl of his dreams.  Over and over, he looks for ways to meet her and demonstrate the kind, gentle, unselfish love that he knows will fill her heart to overflowing.  When she seems to ignore his attempts to reach out to her, he goes to great lengths to demonstrate his love in ways that she might understand.  Each time that fails, he calls on some of his friends to approach her and tell her how great his love is.
 
Over and over, the girl spurns the kindness of the most caring person she will ever hear about.  She ignores him, quietly walking the other way.  Sometimes she finds other people, people who hurt her and take from her without ever really caring about her…but she flaunts those relationships, throwing them in the kind one’s face.  Sometimes she acts as if she might change her mind, having a brief conversation with him.  Those talks, though, always end with her rejecting him and running off to others.  
 
The sad end of this story comes when it is too late.  All his attempts to develop a loving relationship have been pushed away.  The day arrives when she can no longer say yes…even if she wanted to.  On that day, he will say the most painful words he could ever utter: “I never knew you; get away from me.” (Matthew 7:23 New Living Translation)
 
A careful reading of the Bible will reveal one of the great themes of the text: God designed us to have an intimate relationship with Him.  Over and over again, He is seen as the patient, persistent, loving Bridegroom, seeking His bride so that He can shower her with His loving presence.  We, you and I, are the bride.  Our whole existence is based on a huge divine attempt to KNOW us.  He gives us chance after chance to accept His offer of love.  If we do, His heart rejoices and we begin to know a life beyond our previous imagination.  If we don’t…
 
…we end up UNKNOWN.  For eternity.
 
This weekend at Stone Ridge Church, we will talk about endless love.  I can’t wait to discuss it with you!  Can’t be there?  Catch the podcast

Monday, September 8, 2014

I Quit Liking Chocolate!

As I transitioned from high school to college, a strange thing happened: I no longer had a taste for chocolate. The horror! I confess this, knowing that some of my readers just lost all faith in me. Imagine, not liking chocolate, when I am surrounded by people addicted to the stuff. Surely I’m kidding, right?

No!

 

I QUIT LIKING CHOCOLATE!

 

Everything else in my 18-year-old world seemed normal at the time. I was full of energy, easily distracted, lacking many of the disciplines it took decades to learn, and far more interested in playing than in doing college homework. But, among my many faults and foibles, I wasn’t temped to eat chocolate. "This is crazy," I thought, as a friend would offer me a Hershey or Nestle’s chocolate bar. "I have always liked chocolate. What happened to me?"

 

For a while, the only answer I could come up with…the only answer that made any sense...was something I once heard about taste buds changing every few years. I had heard that taste buds change every so often and that some people end up liking food they didn’t like before or vice versa. Surely that must be what happened to me and chocolate.

 

I held on to that theory until I remembered something one day. It was something I had pushed back into the far recesses of my mind, but somehow it jumped out at me. It was a memory from my senior year in high school. That year I had a job before and after school, so I had a little spending money. I also was a member of the high school German Club. Our annual club fundraiser was selling World’s Finest chocolate. Back then, a pretty good sized World’s Finest bar was fifty cents. We also sold their Bon Bons for a dollar a box. They were an almond covered with chocolate and coated by a hard candy shell, as I remember it. Anyway, I checked out a case of the bars (twenty of them) and a case of the Bon Bons (ten of them) to sell.

 

The only thing was that I didn’t have much time to sell. I was working many days before and after school. I was also working on the weekends pretty often and involved in lots of school activities. The work meant that I had money and, besides, I LOVED CHOCOLATE!

 

So I ate it.

 

Then I ate more of it. Bar after bar (almost two cases, I think) and box after box.

 

I ate it until I couldn’t stand the thought of chocolate. I just quit liking it.

 

If you have stayed with me this long, I need to let you in on a little secret. This message isn’t about chocolate. It’s about something else that I overindulged as a kid. I overindulged so badly that, one day I did something that scared me to the core. It scared me so deeply, in fact, that it still marks the way I interact with people.

 

My childhood overindulgence was anger. I got so angry one day (I was probably 9 or 10 years old at the time), I seriously tried to hurt someone I loved. I still shudder to think of it. Fortunately, I didn’t really hurt the person, but the shock of my own rage flipped some kind of inner switch in me that has, to this day, kept me wary of any anger that comes up inside of me.

 

Over the years, I have looked back on times when some anger would have been appropriate, but I have deferred to soft responses. I know that "A gentle answer deflects anger…" (Proverbs 15:1 New Living Translation). However, I also know that Jesus, the One I serve…the One who lives in me...fiercely drove out the money-changers in the Temple. If God shows wrath at times, it’s a part of the natural, inherent makeup of those created in His image.

 

It took a long, long time, but I started liking chocolate again. Some days I like it too much, but I take heart in studies that show a moderate amount of chocolate (at least the dark variety) is actually good for you. I dare say that the same is true of anger. But honestly, I haven’t figured out how to use it correctly yet. I will have to keep growing in this area.

 

This weekend at Stone Ridge Church, we take a hard look at some things Jesus said about war and peace. I don’t think chocolate will find its way into this sermon, but anger? Undoubtedly! Can’t join us? Catch the podcast!

 

 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Salt of the Earth

I’ve been thinking about it and can recall people in almost every town where I’ve lived that are what you would describe as “salt of the earth” folk. These were often not the people whose name would be found in lights. They certainly wouldn’t have their pictures in the paper for some misdeed. They were what one might call “the ordinaries.” They didn’t live their lives to be noticed and didn’t get hot under the collar if they were slighted in some way.

In Seaside, California, I think of a couple named Buck and Cora. I’m not sure what brought them to the Monterey Peninsula from somewhere in the deep South (Alabama, I think it was), but they lived on California’s Central Coast for many years. As a couple, Buck and Cora were about as different from each other as the hard wood of a maple tree is different from the sweet sap that flows out of it.

 

Buck’s salty persona was right at home in the Monterey of the mid-seventies. He was a man of few words. In fact, I can vaguely remember anything he said. Buck was one of those guys who faithfully attended church services and church functions, but rarely spoke. What I do remember about him was the way he showed up every Saturday to mow the lawns and trim the bushes. That church property always looked beautiful on Sundays, largely because Buck just did his job. What made it his job? I don’t know. I just know that he faithfully did it for years. If a mower broke, he would quietly fix it. If he saw a problem with the landscape, he would just take care of it. Looking back, I realize that Buck was the kind of man you might want as a neighbor. He would have been one of the first ones to offer a hand when you needed it. He wouldn’t want attention, but would simply help take care of business.

 

Unlike her husband, Cora’s words were like the coo of a dove. Her southern accent was a beautiful, smooth drawl that somehow had never taken on on the flat, crisp tones of the West Coast. It was that friendly voice that endeared Cora to scores of preschool children. You see, Cora would make calls to all her kindergarten class each Saturday. She would ask to speak with the child, then say, “I wanted to tell you about Sunday School tomorrow. Will you be there?” Our oldest, Sean, was still tiny when we moved away from Seaside, so we never got to watch Cora’s soft persuasion personally. However, I heard numerous parents tell stories about their youngsters in Cora’s class. Those days were long before cell phones and text messages. The telephone was a tool rather than a toy. Unlike today, children weren’t handed a phone to play games and entertain themselves. Instead, they could actually get in trouble for playing with the phone. But on Saturday mornings, their phone would ring and Cora would ask for them by name. They felt so big to have their own phone call to answer. Eyes would light up and they would have a real conversation with an adult for a few minutes. They LOVED the year that they were in "Miss Cora’s" class.

 

Buck and Cora often cross my mind. I came to understand that a church full of folks like them would be a productive, loving place. Though we left that town almost 40 years ago, their faces spring into the eye of my memory and I thank God for their “saltiness.” May God increase their kind.

 

“You are salt,” Jesus said. It’s a powerfully simple identity statement. Whether you are terse and tough like Buck or talkative and tender like Cora, Jesus designed you to add His flavor to the world around you. I can’t wait to talk about it this weekend at Stone Ridge Church. I hope you can join us. Can’t be there? Catch the podcast!

 

 

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Land of No Pain

The Land of No Pain is, in truth, a far away place. Most people like to think of dying as going “to a better place.” Followers of Jesus boldly call this place “heaven” and acknowledge Jesus as the only way (John 14, verse 6) to get there. The reason our thoughts often turn to such a Land is because we live in a world rife with pain. And sorrow. And rejection. And hatred. And brokenness.

I wasn’t thinking much about about the pain of this world when I was a young pastor, just beginning my first foray into senior leadership. If someone had used the word “honeymoon” to describe it, I would have naively called them out of order. You see, I started out as a pastor feeling loved by everybody. The church was growing. New people were coming on board. Everybody was excited. I thought it was the easiest gig on the planet…

…until it wasn’t.

Honeymoons come to an end, I discovered. Even for me. Someone once said of the pastor job: “The first year you can’t do anything wrong, the second year you can’t do anything right, and the third year is when you just might be able to settle down and get something done.” Looking back, that prophecy turned out pretty accurate, except that my first year didn’t last quite that long. Sweet souls turned sour, friends became not so friendly and opposition became as regular as Sunday worship services.

I write this shortly after a nationally-known pastor was on the cover of the New York Times. This particular pastor has stepped up and acknowledged some things about which he has been criticized. His anger and careless words have hurt many who know him and have put him in the crosshairs. For me, I hope he comes through this with some attitudes changed and relationships restored. Right now, though, I know that he is living in The Land of Pain.

Over the past few months, we have seen many big-name pastors in The Land of Pain. Some are guilty of charting their own course to that ugly place, but others have found themselves there because of the hurt in their own families. Many of these will heal, but be forever scarred by the experiences through which they are walking. Some will follow the error of their ways into even deeper error and bring devastation upon the ones who once loved and trusted them.

When Jesus said, 10 "God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. 11 God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers.” (Matthew 5:10-11 New Living Translation), He was obviously talking about something other than pain we inflict upon ourselves. As you read this, you are probably aware of some of the awful persecution of Christians that are happening around the world. People are still suffering and dying because they choose Jesus. And Jesus, the One who promised to be with His followers until the very end, is pouring out hope and peace and joy in the midst of their tribulation.

I look back to that pain I went through as a young pastor. Similar hurts have happened from time to time over the years. One thing that has changed is that I am no longer surprised by it. Opposition is a standard condition for anyone who wants to know Jesus deeply. Those winds in the face can either drive you to the ground or send you soaring into the sky. It all depends on what you do in response. As for me, I would rather fly!

This weekend at Stone Ridge Church, we will spend some time on Jesus’ words about opposition. I know I need the reminder…how about you? Hope to see you there? Can’t make it? Catch the podcast!


Monday, August 11, 2014

At The End of Your Rope

I was watching an online TV rerun recently that included the U.S. President in its story line. As the dramatic action unfolded, the man was getting ready to debate his opponent in the upcoming election. The President, wanting to be reelected, intended to do everything possible to display confidence to the people. This particular President has been seriously hurt earlier in the story, but he hid his struggle, constantly communicating that he was strong and "in control."

 

I contrast that scenario with one very familiar to some of our Stone Ridge people who have made the trip to work with our ministry partners in the Dominican Republic. The DR is a third-world country, working hard to strengthen their economy and provide livelihoods for their people. Though many of them are poor by our standards, they often live rich lives filled with family and friends and faith. One glaring problem that they need to address is what to do with the Haitians who live in their country.

 

A quick look at the map will show you that the Dominican Republic and Haiti share the island called Hispaniola. Though the natural barriers that divide them are often small and porous, the two nations are radically different when it comes to resources. The Dominican is still a third-world nation, but Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. What do Haitians do when they need jobs to feed their families? They find a way across the border into the DR. Sound familiar? At least a million Haitians live in the Dominican, with some estimates as high as two million. The DR has about nine or ten million of its own citizens, so the comparatively large number of illegal Haitian immigrants is disruptive. While the Haitians do much of the work in the sugar cane fields and are often easy to spot in the cities as well as the agricultural areas, they aren’t allowed to own property and are often subject to the racial prejudices that were the norm in the U.S. 40 or 50 years ago.

 

Add all this up and you get a picture of what life can be like for a Haitian living in the DR. Now let your imagination carry you to the little Haitian children who grow up in a country that rejects them. If someone doesn’t come along to educate them and encourage them, their little lives can be considered of no more value than the raw sewage that trickles down the dirty paths in their shanty towns. In a society where they are regularly considered outcasts, those kids can rightfully be described as weak and out of control. Unlike the fictitious American President I mentioned above, they are the broken and the helpless of their culture…

 

…except that’s not how Jesus sees them. And it’s not how many Dominican Christians see them. It’s not how the people in our church who have been there see them. We see them as precious little lives, full of hope. Jesus said, "You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule." Matthew 5:3 (The Message) Those Haitian kids start life at the end of their rope, but Jesus promised them what other Bible translations call "the kingdom of heaven."

 

All of this brings me to a picture I received yesterday. It was taken last week in La Muñoz, a Haitian village where our church has a partnership with a church and a little Christian school. We have been there many times, laughed, played and danced with the children and rejoiced that God gave us their friendship. The picture is of Korean missionaries washing the feet of Haitian kids. I looked at it and wondered, "Which group is 'poor in spirit?’" Isn’t it both? Then, don’t they all get what The Message calls "more of God and his rule?"

 

We will talk about that verse this weekend at Stone Ridge. It’s the first weekend of "From broken to blessed," part of our new series, "From here to where?" It is our brokenness that sets us up for God’s blessing…pretty amazing stuff. I hope to see you there, but catch the podcast if you can’t make it!

 

Monday, August 4, 2014

To Die For

My Grandpa and Grandma Norris, October 1940, Pie Town, NM
Photo by Russell Lee, U.S. Farm Security Administration
Coming from a very close family has a way of hooking you for life. In our case, it’s the NEARS Family Reunion held every first weekend of August in Pie Town, New Mexico. Yeah, you might have never heard of Pie Town, and that’s no surprise because our family pretty much doubles the population every year in August. We come from far and wide to catch up on news, hugs and precious memories of those from previous generations. We all eat too much, laugh, cry and tease each other, often regaling new spouses or old-enough kids with crazy stories of dad or mom or wife or husband back in the good old days.

Several family members trek over from Arizona, including us this past weekend. Our friends Doug and Ronna were with us. They came to the reunion with us for the first time a few years ago…we forgot to tell them that they would be adopted and considered a part of the family from now on. Many family members live in New Mexico, but a huge number are from the great state of Texas. Now, ya’ll, for the record, I tease Texans. I get a kick out of their twang and their state pride and their fun cowboy ways, but I must say that our family has some pretty special Texans in our ranks.

We’re also a pretty modern family. We have an annual worship service, and it’s now held on Saturday evening. I’m sure that being modern is the reason we moved the service to Saturday. It can’t have anything to do with the fact that most reunion folks have to pack up their motor homes and travel trailers, then drive what feels like a bazillion miles home on Sunday. Whatever the reason, we moved the service to Saturday.

As the "designated preacher" in the family, the nod for a Saturday sermon usually goes to me when I’m there. When I preached this year, I was approached after the service by a man I didn’t know. By the way, our reunion gang is big enough that I always meet new people there and sometimes discover that we had met before, but I forgot. Anyway, this fellow came up to me after the service to speak to me. He proceeded to tell me about what he called "my church" way down in Texas. He told me he was from near Del Rio, but that he drives about 45 miles to attend a church that he loves. He discovered the church when he lived closer to its location.

I hadn’t heard of the town where his church is located, so he explained it to me. The town is a ghost town. To make sure I heard him correctly, I asked, "Your church is in a ghost town?" "Yep," he said.

"It must have people coming from far and wide to get to it," I commented.
"Yep."

To be honest, I’ve known my share of ghost churches in very much alive towns, but I can’t recall hearing about a very much alive church in a ghost town. It’s certainly rare.

He proceed to tell me about some of their missionaries and their work in Mexico. He told me how they serve others. Obviously, their fellowship with Jesus isn’t just about learning something they had never seen in the Bible before.

His story got me thinking. Jesus’ ministry had its share of fair-weather followers. They came and hung out to watch the healings and get their stomachs filled. When the going got tough, those folks left Jesus. Percentage-wise only a small remnant really caught what Jesus was saying. He was calling them to leave their old lives behind and follow Him. It was a faith worth living for. In fact, it was to die for. The ones who jumped in with both feet and refused to longingly look back to their old lives turned their world upside-down. Theirs was the kind of faith that would bring to life a church in a ghost town.

We begin a new series this weekend at Stone Ridge Church. "From here to where?" is about what Jesus taught his closest guys. Jesus called them to live a different kind of life, the kind that would rock their world. He is calling us to rock our world, too. I can’t wait to talk with you about it! Can’t join us in person? Catch the podcast! Oh, and mark your calendars for next year’s family reunion!


Monday, July 28, 2014

Highlight Reel

I’m not a big fan of highlight clips from yesterday’s games. About the only time I see those sports channels that fill up hours playing and replaying…
  • the game-winning home run
  • the dropped touchdown pass
  • the three-pointer swishing through the net with the clock dropping to 0:00
  • the 40 foot eagle putt
…is sitting in a restaurant that has video screens all around me. I mean, how many times can we re-live the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat before we realize that it’s time to get on with life? Perhaps we are able to live vicariously through the replayed action from our favorite sport and think for a moment that WE are the hero making that shot or scoring that goal. But, if some of the off-field and off-court problems of our favorite stars tell us anything, it’s that even THEY don’t find enough joy in their success to make them feel fulfilled. How then can we get truly filled up by watching them?

I am pretty certain that the closest any of us gets to eternity is this moment. Eternity, the place where it’s always now, can’t be found in yesterday’s victories or tomorrow’s dreams. It can be found now, where each moment is an opportunity for us to know and walk with our creator. Our first parents may have been kicked out of the Garden, but many of their descendants discovered how to walk with God during their lives here on the planet. In fact, Paradise Lost was what Jesus came to help us reclaim. But even Jesus said, "Each day has enough trouble of its own." Matthew 6:34 (NASB) In other words, we can’t find a fulfilling life by re-living yesterday any more than we can guarantee that everything will be great tomorrow.

Living today doesn’t mean that we are without hope. Far from it! Hope can fuel today’s fires just like a desert rainstorm can guarantee a future in which many plants will peek out from the sand. But, we don’t get the plants today so we must enjoy the rain. Later we can enjoy the results of it! The earth is full of such simple illustrations.

I will sound antithetical as I tell you that I wish I had highlight reel from our Life Repurposed sermon series. The series, which will end this coming weekend, has been our most well-received series in my memory. Each week has been like drinking fresh water from a fire hose. We are truly blessed to have men who work hard to preach and teach God’s repurposing truth with such power and clarity. If I had a highlight reel, here would be a few of those highlights:

"We cannot add to Jesus Christ, but He can add to us." Mark Gomez

"We all have some scratches. We all have some rust." Tag Bender

"The devil will do anything to stop us from coming to God. But God has big buckets of love that only He can pick up; He wants to pour them into our hearts." Vicente Zaragoza

"God showed me that insecurity and unbelief keep me from experiencing God’s love." Jason Graham

"Without connection to the family, there are paralyzing consequences." Logan Coffey

"I think Paul wins ‘the authority based on suffering’ contest." Tom Burks

Those highlights tell so much about our Stone Ridge summer. Now school is about to start and we will rush into the fall schedule. We wrap up Life Repurposed this weekend in a unique way. You don’t want to miss it! Can’t be here? Catch the podcast!