A Sunday Recap…

f-Green-FreshMethod_Shutterstock-Designus-SeanRobertsSummer has unofficially “officially” arrived. The Sunday of Memorial Day weekend is historically “low attendance” Sunday, rivaled only by the Sunday following Christmas in terms of church attendance. This past Sunday was in keeping with that tradition at FUMC, Monroe. With that thought in mind, I thought it might be helpful if I posted a synopsis of this past Sunday’s message just for all those who missed it.

The Bible is rich with examples of godly people doing some pretty ungodly things. We like to think we’re godly people, too. We want to do the right thing, but sometimes, try as we might, we fail to honor God with our actions. Our failures, though, rather than pointing to our ungodliness, point more to our humanity, and our need for forgiveness and grace. So, rather than pointing fingers, let’s discover some lessons that might help us in our own struggles to live faithfully in the grace and forgiveness of God.

Surely we can learn a few lessons of faith from “the” one God chose to bless the nations.  Abraham has such a prominent place in biblical history that few would doubt that he was a godly person, but we discover very early in his life that even godly people can do some pretty ungodly things. Perhaps that is the first lesson we can learn—that human nature is human nature no matter the century. Let’s see what else we can learn from Abraham.

We pick up his story in Genesis 12:10-20:

At that time there was a severe famine in the land, so Abram went down to Egypt to wait it out. [11] As he was approaching the borders of Egypt, Abram said to Sarah, “You are a very beautiful woman. [12] When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ’This is his wife. Let’s kill him; then we can have her!’ [13] But if you say you are my sister, then the Egyptians will treat me well because of their interest in you, and they will spare my life.” 

[14] And sure enough, when they arrived in Egypt, everyone spoke of her beauty. [15] When the palace officials saw her, they sang her praises to their king, the pharaoh, and she was taken into his harem. [16] Then Pharaoh gave Abram many gifts because of her—sheep, cattle, donkeys, male and female servants, and camels. [17] But the Lord sent a terrible plague upon Pharaoh’s household because of Sarah, Abram’s wife. [18] So Pharaoh called for Abram and accused him sharply. “What is this you have done to me?” he demanded. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? [19] Why were you willing to let me marry her, saying she was your sister? Here is your wife! Take her and be gone!” [20] Pharaoh then sent them out of the country under armed escort—Abram and his wife, with all their household and belongings.

Briefly, here are a few more lessons I learn as I reflect on Abraham and Sarah’s experience:

  • Challenging times make even godly people vulnerable to doing ungodly things.Difficult circumstances open the door to spiritual temptation, and the greatest temptation we can have in our lives is to doubt God’s faithfulness.
  • We are most vulnerable to temptation after a spiritual high point. The reality is we have a long way to fall after a mountaintop moment.  Satan will use his mightiest forces against us when we are closest to God because that is when we are the most threatening to him.
  • Relying on our own resources only causes us more problems. We dig a deeper hole when we step outside of God’s provision for our lives.
  • Just because a person is blessed financially or materially does not necessarily indicate divine favor. Some preachers tell us if we’re not blessed financially we are outside of God’s will, but Proverbs 21: 6 says, “Wealth created by lying is a vanishing mist and a deadly trap.”
  • Our failure sometimes impacts others far more than it impacts us.

Those are a few lessons I learned from Abraham’s actions, but most importantly, I learn that God always pursues us no matter how ungodly the actions we take. This is not a story about our failure—not a story about Abraham’s failure. It’s about a God who restored Abraham and kept his promise in spite of his failure. And, God pursues us. He has pursued us all the way to the cross in Jesus Christ, and he continues to pursue us through His Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit moves in us to confront us, to convict us, and to call us back to Himself so He can fulfill His promise in our lives. The reality is that His pursuit of us might be through the conviction we feel at having failed, but the conviction is not for purpose of judgment. His purpose is for our restoration.

We become like the prodigal son in Luke’s gospel, who wandered away from home, and the judgment for him came as the consequence of his decisions, and the son found himself eating with pigs. But the Father in the story didn’t judge the son, he simply welcomed him home, and restored him to his place in the family. That is an image of God pursuing us so that He can welcome us back home and restore us to the place of His favor. There is my hope, and the most important lesson for me. God has called us, He has, in fact, chosen us in His son Jesus Christ. We are godly, but even when we do ungodly things, God pursues us. Have we found the hope he offers in Jesus Christ? If we’ve found forgiveness, perhaps it behooves us to practice forgiveness, too. Forgiveness. That’s about the most godly thing we can do.

Until next time, keep looking up…

May the Honeymoon Never End…

I’m feeling reflective this morning as I consider that my first year as pastor of First United Methodist Church, Monroe is coming to a close in June. I’ve always been told the first year is the “honeymoon” period for a new appointment…that everyone plays nice the first year. I suppose I’ve been blessed, but I can’t remember a time in any of my appointments when everyone didn’t “play nice.” I never felt like the honeymoon ever ended. I’m not saying everything went perfectly in every appointment, but overall, I’ve never had a bad appointment, and never encountered any issue or problem that caused me to think we needed to move. Actually, if there were problems in a congregation, they were caused by some bone-headed move on my part (I’m not the perfect pastor, remember), and not something else. Sure, there have been times of disagreement, but we’ve always worked through the issues in a manner that, I trust, grew the Kingdom (of course, I might have had my head in the sand and didn’t know it–but ignorance is bliss, as they say). I’m saying all that to say, I hope the honeymoon doesn’t end at First United Methodist Church, Monroe.

honeymoonI might also be saying there is no such thing as a honeymoon period. After two years as a District Superintendent, I think it’s reasonable to say an appointment starts well and stays well, or it starts poorly and stays that way. It can happen for numerous reasons there’s no need unpacking in this venue. Suffice it to say, sometimes, the Cabinet makes a poor choice for leadership in a church. Sometimes, a church is so dysfunctional that Jesus himself couldn’t pastor the church. Other times, a pastor goes to a new appointment with the wrong attitude. But, enough about that…

I have, on numerous occasions, thanked Bishop Harvey for my appointment to First United Methodist Church, Monroe. I’ve served as a pastor, and I’ve served administratively, and I can happily say (with Bill Hybels) that the local church is the hope of the world. The local church is the place disciples are made. Districts and Annual Conferences can help the process, or they can hinder the process, but they simply aren’t equipped to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” And, I couldn’t be appointed to a healthier congregation. We are strong in terms of discipleship opportunities. We are strong in number of lay persons engaged in ministry. We have an incredibly strong staff. We are strong financially. We are blessed, and I am blessed. I try to thank the Bishop every time I see her.

I am blessed that the leadership has been very responsive in this first year to my desire to update our technology. The leadership has been very gracious (and patient) as I have shared a vision for the long-term benefits of web-casting and integrated video technology. This was not an inexpensive endeavor, but I think we are taking steps that will sustain our disciple-making capability well into the 21st Century. I’m not sure if I mark that down as an accomplishment for the first year, but I know it aids us in outreach and communication, both of which are incredibly important to the life and health of any congregation.

I do have one regret as I reflect on this first year. I regret that I haven’t had the opportunity to get to know more members of the congregation. I know a lot of names. I know a lot of faces. And, I’m learning more everyday. One of the things I’ve valued through the years of ministry has been the one on one relationships I’ve been able to develop with members of congregations I’ve served. This first year at FUMC, Monroe has been such a whirlwind that I look back and wish I would have had more lunch meetings with members. I wish I could have visited in more homes. I wish I had more time to get to know everyone better. But, then I’m reminded this is a large congregation, and we’ve got plenty of time. That excites me.

As the first year draws to a close, I pray the honeymoon doesn’t draw to a close. My prayer is the honeymoon lasts as long as we’re together. I’m just counting my blessings and giving thanks for the chance to serve such a great God, and a great congregation.

Until next time, keep looking up…

So Close…

The year was 2008 (that was a watershed year for me, by the way). It was a year of great spiritual struggle for me (yes, pastors struggle spiritually). It was in this year of great struggle that I was given a most profound thought that resonates with me still. I received this profound insight from a diminutive little Catholic nun. What was her profound statement? Simply this: “Perhaps God is so close you can’t see Him.”

I was doubting my call to ministry. I was doubting God’s love for me. I was doubting there was even a God, at all. Actually, since 2008, my life has pretty much (I said “pretty much”–I didn’t say totally) been an open book. I’ve been quick to share out of my own struggle as a means of encouraging others who are struggling spiritually. There is hope. We have to keep looking.

hopeOne of the places I looked for hope was in a relationship with a spiritual director. A spiritual director is a person trained in helping another discover the reality that God is present everywhere. Okay…let me make it easy for you…it’s like going to a therapist, but this therapist’s purpose is all about trying to help you see where God is at work. Sister Katherine, that diminutive Catholic nun, was my spiritual director.

Some may be asking why I chose a Catholic as a spiritual director. Honestly, (here’s part of the open book–and part of the reason I needed help in the first place) I went to the Catholic tradition because I didn’t want anyone in my own tradition to know I was struggling as greatly as I was struggling. It was the sin of pride. I thought I could go outside my tradition and no one would be the wiser. I’d find the help I needed, get the advice I was seeking, and keep moving. My pride was part of the reason I couldn’t sense God’s presence.

Something else that keeps us from sensing God’s presence is our busy-ness, and the distractions that are everyday life. Over a stretch of 18 months, many events had combined to keep me distracted. First, I began a weight loss regimen that led to a 60 lb. reduction in weight (it was life-changing in more ways than one!). I was focused like a laser on losing the weight. It became all consuming. Second, I lost my dad unexpectedly (that’s another post I need to write–still not sure I’ve processed all that was involved in that event). Next, Vanessa and I were involved in a car accident that left me unconscious for an extended period of time (did I tell you the story of the best Blizzard I never had?). Next, was a building project at the church I was serving. Throw in a capital campaign, a growing church, a couple of staff upheavals, and all the expectations of being a husband and a father (hmm? Do I sound like the Apostle Paul listing his struggles?), and you have a recipe for busy-ness that can easily take a person’s focus off the things that matter most. I simply wasn’t paying attention to God who was with me all the time.

Another reason I was not sensing God’s presence was the fact that I was trying to control everything. I was trying to control everything that was happening in my life. I was like a puppeteer trying to move all the strings in all the right directions. Another analogy I’ve used to try to describe that stage of my life was that I was trying to keep all the plates spinning. I was afraid if I allowed even one of the plates to fall that I would be a failure. A failure was the last thing I wanted to be. It was probably the first thing I needed to be. My need to succeed kept me from seeing the God who always sees me.

I could write about a few more reasons that I wasn’t sensing God’s presence during that period of my life, but then my life would be totally an open book, and that wouldn’t be beneficial to anyone (you’d really find out why I’m not the perfect pastor). Suffice it to say that after several visits with Sister Katherine, she’d probably heard all she wanted to hear of my whining and complaining about not being able to see God or feel God. She just looked at me on one of my visits and said, “Perhaps God is so close you can’t see Him.” Something so simple, yet so profound. I’d given my life following the call of God, and it was a concept I never considered. I’ve subsequently heard Len Sweet say it this way: “Jesus can be so close (‘closer than a brother’) to us it is like asking a bird to see air or a fish to see water.”

I never went to see Sister Katherine again after that meeting. I didn’t feel like I needed to. Oh, don’t misunderstand…some days there are still doubts. I still wrestle with pride. I still get too busy and distracted. And, yes, the fear of failure still rears its ugly head from time to time (along with a few other fears). But, in those times I simply remember that if I can’t see God, it’s probably because He’s so close I can’t see Him. I’m not sure if that offers others hope, but it sure gives me some.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Learning a New Way to Preach…

Okay. I have to admit. Preaching is different for me lately. I’ve never been manuscript preacher (except in seminary preaching classes when my professor made me write a manuscript). For a long time I simply had notes in the margin or my bible, or kept an outline stored in my mind. That’s how I preached. Yes, I sometimes preached a little long (some would say “a lot” long), but I felt freedom to “chase rabbits” (or, if I want to sound really pious “follow the leading of the Holy Spirit”) in my preaching. I felt freedom in preaching.

sermon-manuscriptAs I grew older, I became more reliant on a written outline. I would take the mental outline of the sermon and write it on paper, usually on 5″ X 8″ paper that fit easily in my bible, and I would preach from the outline. The outline kept me more focused, and prevented me from chasing too many rabbits (er, I mean from following the Holy Spirit too much–Should I say that?). Though sometimes still a bit long, I didn’t get run off from my church. I think it had to do with age and not being able to remember things as much. Or, maybe I just had too many things to remember. The long and short of it is that my preaching style changed as I grew older.

Well, my preaching style has changed again. I’m now pretty much a manuscript preacher. They say “necessity is the mother of invention,” and that’s the case as I’ve learned to manuscript preach. We have three services at FUMC, Monroe, and I get to preach all three of them almost every Sunday. Our first worship is at 8:30 a.m., the second at 9:30 a.m., and the final one is 10:50 a.m. I’m not sure who decided on those times, but I’m almost certain it wasn’t my predecessor. Would he do that to himself? Surely not! It’s a mad rush to get from the 8:30 worship to the 9:30 worship every Sunday. I blow by people in the hallway between the sanctuary and the fellowship hall like I’m rushing to a fire (sorry, folks…you’ll just have to forgive me if all you get is a wave on the pass through). When I get to the fellowship hall on Sunday morning, the worship has already begun. Sometimes, I feel like an interloper. The time between the 9:30 worship and the 10:50 worship is not quite so bad. At least I have a few moments to stop and shake a few hands along the way (and make another stop I’ll not mention here). I guess if I preached shorter sermons I’d have more time. Well, that’s the purpose of writing a manuscript every week.

A manuscript really keeps me focused. A manuscript keeps me from chasing rabbits (okay, so I’ll chase an occasional one). A manuscript keeps me on time (and that’s important when running up and down the hall between worship). As I reflect on becoming a manuscript preacher, I hear the voice of my old preaching prof Donald Demeray as he advocated the benefits of writing a manuscript. He told us then that writing a manuscript would bring clarity to our thought process. Yeah, so maybe he was correct, but I was young and knew it all, so…

Another thing I’ve discovered is manuscripting has increased my preparation time. My sermon prep time has increased by a minimum of two hours a week. Oh, I still do the outline, but having done the outline, I still have to write it all out. Then, having written it out, I write and re-write until the message says exactly what I want it to say (there’s that clarity thing again). The hardest part of writing a manuscript is deciding what not to say! I tell you! I leave a lot of good stuff OUT of the sermon! I hear Dr. Demeray’s voice again saying, “You have to preach next Sunday, too.” I now just put the things I don’t say away until I come to the next sermon. Sunday does come every week, and dang, it feels like it comes every three days. Anyway, I used block 12 – 14 hours per week for sermon preparation. Now, I block 14 – 16 hours per week. Is that enough? Probably not, but do you know how hard it is to devote 14 – 16 hours per week to sermon preparation?

Does any of this sound like I’m complaining? I hope not, because I’m not. It’s just that I preached a sermon this past Sunday on mutual submission, and I left a LOT of stuff out of the sermon. Still, the sermon was 19 minutes long (Scripture reading does NOT count as sermon time, thank you very much!), and with communion and graduate recognition, we still ran a little over time (hey? cut me some slack—I’m not the perfect pastor!). I often wonder if I can say anything substantial in 17 – 19 minutes, but that’s usually all the time I have in preaching a sermon. I suppose my previous congregations wish I had been a manuscript preacher. I’m sorry they had to endure my 30 minute sermons.

I’ll stop now because I’m told that, like sermons, blog posts can also be too long. I’m searching for a lesson in the blog today, and I’m not sure I’m finding one, except maybe we’re never too old to learn new things. Not much of a lesson, but then again, I’m not the perfect pastor, so…

Until next time, keep looking up…

A Tree of Rest…

Author Julie Ackerman Link writes in the Our Daily Bread devotional this morning of a solitary tree that sat across from her office. She wondered why only one tree was left in the field. As she investigated the history she discovered that farmers would remove all the trees of the field, but would leave one to serve as a resting place when the summer sun began to take its toll.

That reflection was particularly poignant for me this morning as I feel like I have spent time under a “resting tree.” I went with a colleague to the Atlanta, GA area earlier this week for the Large Church Initiative. The Large Church Initiative (or, LCI as it is more often called) is an annual gathering of (primarily) United Methodist clergy and staff who pastor large churches across the country. The LCI was hosted by Mt. Pisgah UMC in Johns Creek, GA.lci 2014

Large church pastors gather for three days to love on and be loved on by God through worship and preaching, to learn together, and to discuss and discover new ways of leading their congregations and the denomination. I must say (and already have in other venues) that I can’t say it was the best UM sponsored event I’ve ever been to, but I can’t remember a better one. From top to bottom (or, I should say from beginning to end) the three days together were incredible. The worship was excellent, the preaching was stellar, the facilities were comfortable, the hospitality was amazing, the food was awesome (they had a good Louisiana boy catering!), and the fellowship was nourishing.

The lineup of keynote speakers (yeah! they were really preachers) included Jorge Acevedo, Chip Ingram, Mark Batterson, Dr. Timothy Tennent, renowned fashion photographer Michael Belk, and the pastor of the congregation, Dr. Steve Wood. For me, the highlight of the preaching was Rev. Sharma Lewis, who preached the first day. She preached on power, and that was the power of the Holy Ghost (that’s right, I said Holy “Ghost”), and she issued an altar call to close the service. Talk about power! The worship ended with a powerful image of nearly 400 UM pastors kneeling in prayer at the altar of that church. I wouldn’t dare say it was all down hill from there, but Rev. Lewis set the bar awfully high for those who would preach after her.

Music for the event was great, as well. I was transported back to my roots very early in the event when The Nelons (an historic Southern Gospel group) led worship for the opening of the event. My! How they’ve changed through the years, but they did a fine job staying true to their roots while embracing a broader, more contemporary audience. They even joined with Contemporary Christian music artist Natalie Grant (In Better Hands, Your Great Name, etc) to lead worship Monday evening, and Tuesday morning Natalie Grant returned to lead an awakening worship experience to begin the day. The rest of our time together was led by One Sonic Society, a Nashville-based worship band known for songs including Forever Reign and Never Once. And, that was just the people anyone had heard of. The local church worship pastor was amazing, as well as their 150-voice worship choir and orchestra. The church even had an “artist-in-residence” (Regi Stone) who was a great worship leader in his own right. The organizers went all-out to make the time together meaningful and refreshing.

Of course, the Twitterverse was abuzz during the event. The organizers went all out to encourage folks to “tweet” throughout the event (#LCI2014), and tweet they did. Yes, I spent time in the Twitterverse with the rest of the “twits.” Here are a few of my tweets–if you were interested:

  • “Sometimes you have to risk your reputation so God can establish His reputation.” Mark Batterson #LCI2014
  • “Do you think Lazarus ever went back to put flowers on his own grave.” Mark Batterson #LCI2014
  • “When you pray to God regularly, irregular things happen on a regular basis.” Mark Batterson #LCI2014
  • “Jesus will not answer 100% of the prayers you don’t pray.” Mark Batterson #LCI2014

Obviously, I was quite taken with Mark Batterson’s message.

I left the event feeling restored and refreshed. I left feeling as if I’d been under a resting tree, but I left absolutely worn out! I don’t know…perhaps it was just too much. By the third day, we were running on adrenaline, I suppose. Monday started at 10 a.m., and ended after 9 p.m. Tuesday began at 9 a.m., and ended at 9 p.m. By Wednesday, it was all we could do to make it to the event by 9 a.m. It was exhausting and exhilarating, all at the same time. I made the statement that “restoring the soul sure took a toll on the body.” I really needed to come home to rest from my time under the resting tree. And, don’t even ask me why I slept on the floor all week. That’s another story altogether. Maybe I’ll tell you sometime. Right now…I’m just tired from all this resting, and I’ve still got to preach Sunday!

Until next time, keep looking up…