“A Christmas Story”: Joy!

During our Journey through Advent, we’ve been using the film, “A Christmas Story” to launch messages of hope, peace, and today we’ll focus on joy.

“A Christmas Story”, follows 9-year-old Ralphie Parker and his quest to get a Red Ryder 200-shot carbine action air rifle for Christmas. When he expresses this desire he is continually met with the mantra, “you’ll shoot your eye out”.

In today’s clip, we’ll see what happens on Christmas morning, just after the mass chaos of opening the huge pile of presents.

Ralphie receives his Red Ryder! In the clip, I’m not sure who is more excited and joy-filled, Ralphie or his father?

Many of us have experienced the magic of Christmas joy. What was your equivalent of the Red Ryder?

What brings you joy?
Where do you experience joy?
Who brings you joy?

God’s desire is that we would experience joy. When God speaks of joy, it’s not about the giving and receiving of material goods. God’s joy is an indescribable joy that exceeds the momentary joys that come with Red Ryder’s, basketballs, and drum sets. God’s joy reminds us that, no matter how hard things might get in our lives, this is not the end of the story. As the psalmist writes in Psalm 30:5, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (NRSV) Even in the midst of our biggest trials, we can experience moments of joy…especially when we look to Christ.

God’s desire is that we would embrace joy, experience joy, dwell in joy and then spread joy!

Therefore, we should invest our time and energy in those things, places, and people that bring us joy. If writing, hiking, painting, gardening, fishing, or playing cards brings you joy, do those things! If being in nature or at home or at a coffee shop or church or wherever brings you joy, spend time in those places. If your spouse, family, friends, fellow church folks bring you joy, by all means, spend time with those people. Making time to experience joy doing those things we love, in the places we love, with the people we love is a good and noble thing! We shouldn’t feel guilty for pursuing and experiencing joy!

God’s desire is that we would find joy in our relationships! God wants us to experience joy in our marriages, in our families, in our friendships. If you are not experiencing joy in your relationships, it’s time to start doing some serious work of reconciling those relationships in order that they might bring you joy. Let’s be honest, some relationships have been so intensely damaged that while forgiveness is necessary and possible, reconciliation and moving forward in the relationship may not be healthy. Sometimes, there are relationships that need to end in order for us to experience God’s joy! So, if you have relationships that do not produce joy, do the work of either figuring out how to bring joy into the relationship or move on!

In life we experience joy stealers. You know what I mean? There are people we encounter who seem to have the gift of sucking the joy right out of the room. Joy stealers have an amazing capacity to radically transform the atmosphere and energy of any gathering. Who are your joy stealers? And, if we’re going to be honest, we need to ask ourselves if we have been guilty of being joy stealers? Are we sharing or stealing joy?

Now, if you find joy in things that would go against the word of God, well, you might think twice. For example, if you find joy going to the gentlemen’s club, you should find a new way to experience joy. If you find joy getting together with your girlfriends to gossip, you need to find a new way to experience joy. If you find joy overindulging in food, beverages, or legal or not-so-legal stimulants, you need to find a new way to experience joy. If you find joy being a negative Nancy or a grumpy Gus, you need to find a new way to experience joy. If you find joy in stealing others joy, you need to find a new way to experience joy.

We should experience joy and then we should spread joy! None of this ho-hum, taking ourselves too seriously all the time stuff! That’s worn out, tired, old and void of joy! Let’s demonstrate our gratitude for God through our joy!

Too often, our joy is hijacked by our own negativity. We focus on what we don’t have, what we’ve lost, and what we can’t do. Listen folks, let’s focus on what we have and what we can do! Let’s choose joy!
God brings us joy, peace and hope in order that we might share and spread joy, peace and hope.

John 10:10 reminds us that Jesus came that we might have the full, abundant life. If we are experiencing the abundant life Jesus desires, the result will be joy!

C.S. Lewis wrote, “Joy is the serious business of heaven.” In other words, when we experience joy, we are experiencing a taste of heaven here on earth! When we spread joy, we are demonstrating a glimpse of heaven on earth. Joy is the Lord’s Prayer fleshed out! We pray “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Moments of joy are moments of the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Karl Barth wrote, “Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.” In other words, if we are truly grateful, we should be able to find, express, and experience joy! If we aren’t thankful, if we aren’t grateful, we might not fully understand joy.

When we come to church, it should be a joy-filled experience. When we leave the church, we should be filled with joy…and not just because we’re glad the pastor is finally finished preaching or because we are particularly pleased with today’s lunch options. We should be filled with joy because we have gathered together with the family of God to lift our hearts together in praise! When we gather together for worship, it’s practice for the coming kingdom…it should be a joy-filled time of glorifying and praising God!

As a result, we should be leaving this place as bearers of joy…as agents of joy! Our community should be a more joy-filled place because of our witness. People should be able to know that we are with Team Jesus because of our joy. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the people of Centerville knew the people of the United Methodist church as those folks who are overflowing with joy?

How will you experience, dwell in, and share joy today and in the days to come?

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Prayer Shaming? Really?

This morning, at the gym, I was watching Fox News. Just to be clear, I only watch Fox News if I happen to be at the gym or if I need a good laugh. Plus, through an act of divine intervention, we have a cable package that does not include any of the 24-hour news channels (you probably didn’t know that was possible).

Anyway, Fox News ran a story in reference to the New York Daily News cover. They referred to the cover as “prayer shaming.”

daily news

The Fox News reporters were attempting to get their Christian conservative fan base worked up. The only problem is, the Daily News cover has a point. If our prayers are not accompanied by action, we just might be missing the point of prayer.

Politicians, pastors, and Christian leaders have a tendency to say, “Let’s keep these folks (or the situation) in our thoughts and prayers.” And, that sounds great! Prayers do provide a sense of peace and comfort. However, too often, we stop short. We simply pray and then do nothing.

We forget that, more often than not, the answer to our prayers lies within our actions. We pray and wait for God to miraculously intervene when, all along, God is calling those who are praying to be the ones who miraculously intervene. Maybe, rather than falling on our knees in prayer, we need to get off our knees and do something??? Now, that would be a miracle!

Pope Francis said, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.”

Now, I’m not really writing this to stir up a debate on gun control. As a “flaming liberal pacifist” (as I have been labeled before), most of you are aware of my stance on guns.

My point is to remind us that we can do more than offer up our thoughts and prayers. We can allow these tragedies to be a call to action.

Politicians can do more than keep people in their thoughts and prayers. Politicians can begin offering legislation and voting in ways that actually help protect citizens, rather than the interests of strong lobbying groups.

Pastors and Christian leaders and lay persons can begin encouraging their local, state, and national representatives to better represent and protect the average Joe.

As individuals, we can help one another. We can look out for one another. We can follow the example of Jesus and feed the hungry, clothe the naked, provide shelter for the homeless, care for the orphan and the widow, visit the sick and imprisoned, and help meet the needs of the least and last among us.

Change: To Grow or To Die

This morning, I listened to Carey Nieuwhof podcast with Jon Acuff.  One quote really struck a chord and has been resonating over and over in my mind.

Acuff said, “Everything changes. It either grows or it dies.”

In the church, we often hear the tired mantra of how people are resistant to change. Sure, it is true. People are often uncomfortable with change. Acuff’s quote implies that making the choice not to change will still result in change…growth or death. If something isn’t growing, it is dying. And, whether it’s growing or dying, it’s changing.

Of course, I’m not convinced that we don’t have a desire to change. Often, church leaders understand the need to change. In fact, church leaders often have a desire to change.

However, what trips us up at the stage of desire is fear.

When we have the desire to change, we have two basic choices: a) we embrace the vision of change; b) we allow fear of the unknown to rule the day.

When we embrace the vision, it leads to experimentation. Experimentation does not always lead to success, it does not always cause growth, but it does allow for the clarification and refinement of the vision.

When we embrace fear, it leads to stagnation. In stagnation, we revert back into the routine of “how we’ve always done things.” And, I think we can all agree that “the ways we’ve always done things” often just leads to the continuation of the status quo. And, the status quo often leads to a slow and painful death.

What will rule the day? Vision or fear? A compelling vision should be able to overcome fear. However, that’s not always the case.

If “the way we’ve always done it” was working, churches would be growing and reaching the unconnected. However, that just doesn’t seem to be the case for, let’s say 80% of churches.

If the church is serious about reaching unconnected people, we can’t continually cater to the past or allow the past to define our present and determine our future.

Tech-less Thanksgiving

In 2013, I challenged my family, friends, and blog readers to take a day off from their technology. This year, I’m re-sharing the post to once again challenge those who read this post to put away their technology on Thanksgiving Day and simply enjoy the moment.

Can you imagine a day where you set all your technology aside and embrace the presence of those around you?

That’s my challenge for Thanksgiving…put your phones and tablets down…consider turning them off…leave them in the car and simply “be” with those you gather with tomorrow.

Here’s the deal…The world won’t end if you miss posting your uber-cheesy 30 days of thanks entry. No one will miss the pictures of your turkey or pie or that amazing bottle of hard-to-find craft beer. Let’s be honest…none of us are so important that others will suffer if we take a break from technology for a day.

For some of us, we’re so consumed by technology that we miss what’s going on right in front of us. Put it down and embrace, be, and live in the moment.

Surely we can all wait to post our adorable pictures, witty comments (trust me, most of us aren’t nearly as funny as we think we are), political posts that reveal how gullible and ill-informed we are, and “Jesus will cry if you don’t post this on your wall” crap.

You’ve been challenged. On Friday, I’ll check Facebook and Twitter and self-righteously judge all of you who don’t take the challenge.

How Young Life Taught Me the Importance of Authenticity

The other day, someone pulled me aside and said, “Pastor, I think I’ve figured out what your problem is!”

Now, with that being the opening line of our conversation, you can imagine the thoughts running through my mind. However, rather than saying, “What the…,” I opted for the more polite, “Oh, and what’s that?”

“Well, pastor, I think you are just a little too honest.”  The person went on to explain that some church folk want to believe that their pastor has it all together.

But, for me, that’s one of the biggest problems in the church today…a lack of honesty, a lack of transparency, and a lack of authenticity.

When pastors present themselves as having it all together, of having it all figured out, they aren’t really fooling anyone. Following Jesus is messy. And, if we can’t be open and honest about who we are and what we struggle with, what’s the point?

In high school, I actively participated in Young Life. To be honest, my main motivation in attending YL was that there were some really cute girls who also participated in Young Life.  No matter the motivation, God used YL to instill some lifelong lessons and values. Some of the friendships that came out of my participation in YL have been the richest, longest, and most valuable friendships of my life. But, one of the best lessons I learned was the value of authenticity.

I always looked up to my various YL leaders. Many of them helped shape and mold my faith and Christian values. Most of the YL leaders were totally honest, transparent and authentic. For the most part, it truly was a “what you see is what you get” experience. Some of my leaders, you knew if they spoke something, they believed it and did their best to live it out.

My freshman year at Ball State, I stumbled into a party and saw one of my old YL leaders. My first thought was, “Oh crap! I don’t want to run into one of my Christian friends in the midst of this mess.” You see, this particular leader had been one who tried to instill the “don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t chew, don’t go with girls who do” values into our crew. So, in a way, I felt like my presence and participation in that party scene would be a great disappointment to this leader.

Then, in a moment of great awakening I realized, “Hey, he’s here too!” So, I walked over and said, “Hey, dude.” He yelled, “Morris” and gave me a big hug. Then, he proceeded to offer me a beer and a hit off the joint he was sharing with a small group of folks I recognized from the one time I attended Campus Crusade. At first I thought, “Sweet!” But, then, in a brief moment of clarity, my thoughts changed.

Here I was, worried about disappointing someone who had been a fairly important part of my faith, a person I looked up to, and I walked away being the one feeling disappointed. You see, I really wanted to believe that those who “talked the talk” also “walked the walk.”  I found myself doubting and questioning the whole Christian shebang. I had always seen this guy as one who had it all together. And, to be honest, he had always presented himself that way.

That experience helped shape and mold my ministry.

Later, when I somewhat distanced myself from the intense party scene and started following Jesus, I made a decision that if I spoke something, I was going to do my best to live it. If I challenge others to do something, I’m going to do it too. If I challenge others not to do something, I’m going to do my best to avoid that as well. I’ll be open and honest about my struggles. I’m not going to be one of those Christian leaders who only focuses on my triumphs. I’ll be authentic and transparent…maybe to the point where people are made uncomfortable by my honesty!

Now, I’ve always extended grace to myself. I’ve struggled to extend grace to others. I was disappointed in that leader. I wanted to believe that he practiced what he preached. Yet, he was just like me…someone who so desperately wanted to believe, wanted to live in a way that honors God, but struggles. A few years later, I ran into him and we talked about that night. We discovered that we had a lot more in common than we originally believed. We were both in some pretty dark places at that point in our lives. We were struggling to figure out if we were going to be part of “Team Jesus”. He was still actively participating within the Christian community while he figured things out. I had been placed on the “inactive” list.

But, we were both on the journey together. We both were trying to figure things out. Heck, I’m still trying to figure things out. Maybe that makes some people uncomfortable. Maybe that’s a good thing.

I’m thankful for the ministry of Young Life. I’m thankful for the imperfect people that God uses to help transform our lives. I’m thankful that God still uses imperfect people.

Young Life

Pastor Appreciation Month

October was “Pastor Appreciation Month”. Yep, the Christian bookstore and card manufacturers created an entire month to recognize/appreciate pastors!

And, today is November 2nd. So, I’m going to blog about Pastor Appreciation Month after the fact (that’s just how culturally relevant I happen to be!).

Let me be clear, the typical pastor did not enter ministry for the pay, the accolades, the pats on the back, or to have an entire month dedicated for their appreciation.

Yet, at the same time, it is nice and humbling to have people express their thanks and appreciation for the hard work of ministry.

I have been fortunate to serve congregations that go above and beyond when it comes to pastoral appreciation!

However, I have colleagues who serve congregations that don’t even have the politeness to pretend to appreciate the pastoral staff for a day, let alone an entire month! Some of my colleagues don’t even have someone from the congregation share the obligatory “I Appreciate My Pastor” meme on his/her Facebook wall! Because I know what it’s like to experience the “above and beyond”, I want my colleagues to experience the same!

The United Methodist Church website featured THIS article that gives some suggestions for expressing thanks and appreciation.  .

Here are some suggestions I have:

  • Feel free to express your thanks and appreciation outside the boundaries of Pastor Appreciation Month.  Random cards, emails, texts and so on are extremely encouraging!
  • Don’t forget the pastor’s family. While a pastor might appreciate whatever card or gift is given, recognizing that the pastor’s family makes contributions and sacrifices for the sake of ministry should not be taken lightly. Sending cards and/or sharing gifts on the birthday of the pastor’s spouse and children goes a long way…trust me!
  • Ask the pastor if he/she has an Amazon wish list and use that as a helpful guide. Some folks aren’t fully aware what their pastor enjoys to read or what her/his hobbies happen to be…
  • Make a donation to a mission or ministry the pastor is passionate about in her/his honor.  Pastors generally don’t need more “stuff” and this is a great way to honor your pastor while “doing all the good you can!”
  • Be creative! Some of the best and most memorable gifts of appreciation are the heartfelt gifts that maybe didn’t cost a dime, but express a great deal of thought.
  • Don’t assume someone else will take care of appreciating the pastor!
  • Don’t ignore it, even if you don’t like your pastor! So, you don’t like your pastor? Do you think he/she will get any more tolerable if you ignore them and express little to no gratitude for his/her service? Some of my colleagues who saw other pastors posting pictures of gifts and words of thanks found themselves a bit depressed and jealous (yes, pastors are human too) and questioned their effectiveness. That doesn’t do much for pastoral motivation! Plus, you just might find that if you think hard, you might find something to be thankful for and realize your pastor truly isn’t that bad!

Again, I’ve been fortunate to serve congregations that go above and beyond and have overwhelmed our family with thoughtful words and gifts. But, I know that’s not the case everywhere.

So, if you or your church have set the bar too low for pastor appreciation, start fresh and go all out! The better you treat your pastor and her/his family, the better they will want to serve the church!

 

Go…Again!

The following message was shared at Centerville UMC on Sunday, October 11, 2015. Matthew 28:18-20 was the text for the morning.

I recently heard the story of church that received a new pastor. His first Sunday, he preached a powerful and dynamic sermon. The congregation was thrilled to have such a passionate and energetic new pastor. The following Sunday, the pastor delivered the exact same sermon as the previous week. The people were somewhat confused, but gave him the benefit of the doubt…after all, he had just moved into the parsonage that week and maybe thought the first Sunday was practice. The third Sunday, the pastor delivered the same sermon as previous two weeks. The chair of the Pastor Parish Committee decided to speak up. “Pastor, we’ve notice that you are preaching the same sermon over and over. It’s a nice sermon, but we need something fresh and new.” The pastor responded, “Yes, I am aware I have preached the same sermon the last three weeks. I will move onto my second sermon when we begin living out the first one.”

This morning, we’ve heard a familiar text. And, we will hear a message with a familiar theme. So, if we’re tempted to ask “why”, let us remember the story of the pastor preaching the same sermon week to week!

This morning, we heard the “Great Commission” that Jesus shared with his followers in Matthew 28. We often use this passage of Scripture to encourage missions and evangelism. To be honest, there are times when it seems like we confuse evangelism and missions.

At a basic level, evangelism is speaking the Good News of Jesus Christ. Through evangelism, we speak the Good News in hopes that a person will make a decision to follow the Way of Jesus. Many refer to evangelism as sharing our testimony or extending an invitation for others to follow Jesus.

At a basic level, mission is showing the Good News of Jesus Christ. Through missions, we show the Good News, with no strings attached, in hopes that our missional acts will alleviate suffering, meet the basic needs of our brothers and sisters in practical ways, and potentially produce a desire to know more about Jesus.

Let me share with you an example of how we confuse evangelism and mission. When I return from various mission projects, people often ask, “Well, how many people did you save?” What they really mean is “How many people did you lead in the ‘sinners prayer’?” I generally respond with one of the following:

  • “Well, at the very least we saved one…me!”
  • “Well, we helped build a feeding center that will provide nutritious snacks and lunches for 50-75 students each school day each school year. We helped build a medical clinic that will provide affordable healthcare and access to affordable treatments for a village of 300. We helped build 10 stoves in 10 homes that will greatly reduce fire-related accidents and health issues, while also reducing the economic strain of purchasing firewood and providing a safe heat source. So, I’d say we can’t count the number of people our acts of service will save!”

When we go on mission trips, our goal is not necessarily to lead others to salvation. Our goal is to meet basic needs in practical and tangible manners. Again, evangelism is speaking the Gospel, mission is showing the Gospel.

There are times when evangelism and mission overlap. There are times when we are speaking the Gospel of Jesus Christ and, in doing so, are made aware of situations to which we can respond with practical actions to meet basic needs.

For example, we are sharing our testimony with a co-worker and find out that they are struggling to put food on the table. So, we pause our testimony and take them to the grocery store and buy their groceries. If a person is hungry and we don’t feed them, it will be hard for them to truly hear the Good News! So, evangelism can turn into mission.

Or there are times when we are involved in a mission or outreach project and while we’re working someone asks why we are doing these acts of service. So, we pause to share our testimony and our mission turns into evangelism.

Or we are doing a good deed, like Trunk or Treat, and someone asks, “Why in the world would you do this?” So, we stop and share about our faith and our church and extend an invitation to join us for worship. These two aspects of following Jesus, evangelism and mission, are closely related.  

In the Great Commission, we read that God authorized and commanded Jesus to commission his followers. A commission is an instruction, a command, a duty given to a group. Jesus commissions his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations.”

We are commissioned to make disciples. We believe that disciples are followers of Jesus Christ who are committed to grow, give, and go. In order to make disciples, we need to speak the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those who do not know Him and invite them to join us on this journey.

We are commissioned to baptize. Now, in the United Methodist Church, only the clergy can baptize. So, we can’t just decide to throw some water on our friends and loved ones and say, “you are baptized.” Baptism is a declaration. Baptism is an outward symbol of an inward grace and commitment. Baptism represents purification and regeneration. Baptism is a public declaration of our commitment to follow Jesus on this faith journey. It’s initiation into the family of God.

Sometimes, in modern-day evangelism, we stop short. We get people to make a commitment to follow Jesus. We get them baptized. And, then, we leave them on their own to figure it out. We forget our call to teach!

We are commissioned to teach people to obey. In teaching others, our goal is not the acquisition of knowledge. I know several atheists who know a lot more about the Bible than many Christians. They have acquired a great deal of knowledge. That’s only part of the goal of teaching. The ultimate goal of our teaching is obedience. Knowledge is great. But, if it doesn’t translate into obedient actions, have we really learned anything? Our teaching should produce disciples who love God, love one another and even love their enemies. Our teaching should lead to an obedient lifestyle, which motivates missional acts and service.

James has a great deal to say about how our faith should produce obedient actions.  James 2:14-24, 26 says, My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity. Someone might claim, “You have faith and I have action.” But how can I see your faith apart from your actions? Instead, I’ll show you my faith by putting it into practice in faithful action. It’s good that you believe that God is one. Ha! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble with fear. Are you so slow? Do you need to be shown that faith without actions has no value at all?  What about Abraham, our father? Wasn’t he shown to be righteous through his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? See, his faith was at work along with his actions. In fact, his faith was made complete by his faithful actions. So the scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and God regarded him as righteous. What is more, Abraham was called God’s friend. So you see that a person is shown to be righteous through faithful actions and not through faith alone. As the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead.”

James presents a powerful question, “What good is it to proclaim our faith without acting on our faith?” In other words, don’t tell me what you believe, show me!

James  asks, “What good is it to see our neighbor hungry or naked and not do something about it?” We see our neighbors struggling and we have the means to do something about it. But, instead, we just say, “I’ll pray for you. And, good luck with that whole hungry and naked thing.”

I’ve got to be honest, I’m fully convinced that the phrase, “I will pray for you” is one of the biggest cop outs and excuses we Christians make. Oh, sure, it sounds good. And, if we actually do it, it’s great. Prayer is a powerful, necessary, and a wonderful thing. But, listen, Jesus has given us the means to do more than simply pray.

Pope Francis has said, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works!”

Yet, too often, we followers of Jesus stop short. We pray and then wait for someone else to do something, we wait for God to miraculously intervene. And, the whole time God is saying, “The answer to that prayer is you!”

James is proclaiming that our faith should motivate action. Our actions compliment and prove our faith. Faith without action is no faith at all.

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about how small, simple random acts of kindness can be risk-taking mission and service. Missions are not limited to trips to Guatemala, the Henderson settlement or community clean up projects. Missions can be using our time, talents, and treasures to support others in their efforts.

Some of us are no longer physically able to do some of those projects we typically think of as missions. But, we can pray. We can write letters of encouragement. We can make financial donations. We can support those who are able to go. When we do that, we are joining together in missional partnership. The reality is that we all can do something. As James reminds us, faith without action is dead.

Sometimes we allow fear to hold us back. We are afraid that if we give our time, our talents, or our treasures to this or that we might not have enough for ourselves…we might not have enough for that rainy day…it might not be appreciated…Yet, we have no reason to fear. Jesus, in that last verse of Matthew 28 promises to be with us as we go. In Matthew 28:20, Jesus proclaims that he will be with us every step of the way.

We have been commissioned to “go and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

I guess the question for each of us to consider this morning is, “Are we ready and willing to go?”

Will we speak and show the Good News as we have the opportunity?