Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Gospel Hospitality

I've been thinking about Genesis 18 this week as First Baptist Cornelia opened our doors for the first Cold Weather Shelter of the season.  In this passage “the Lord appeared to Abraham by the Oaks of Mamre.”  The Lord does not come in the form of a burning bush ablaze on the hill or as a cloud over the tabernacle.  The Lord comes as three strangers at the entrance to Abraham’s tent. 

Amy Oden, professor of early church history and spirituality at St. Paul School of Theology in Oklahoma City, says this text was quoted by early Christian leaders more frequently than any other text (including the Gospel passages) during the first 500 years of the church.  This passage creates a paradigm for us to understand the marks of gospel hospitality.  These marks like the white blazes on the Application Trail indicate when we are on the right path to Gospel hospitality.  

I've thought of these mark often this week during our experience of Gospel hospitality at the Cold Weather Shelter. 

Oden says readiness involves “intentionally and willingness to accept the difficultly of showing hospitality.”  As our volunteers scrambled on Wednesday to prepare our facilities for our guests – I realized the importance of readiness.  Our Red Cross shelter training came in handy as we prepared cots, registrations, food, and games.  The intentionality made the shelter run smoother and with less stress than last year.

There will always be risk in hospitality because we are welcoming strangers.  These strangers can “disrupt our lives and make us feel uncomfortable.”  This is especially true when we welcome our shelter guests.  These guests usually come to us in a frustrated place in their lives.  They really don’t want to have to be here.  Yet, as we show them grace and hospitality, we trust in God’s spirit to move in their lives.  Without exception we have seen this make a difference in their lives.  

One of the great transformations that happens when we practice Gospel hospitality is not within our guests, but in our own lives.  We are changed as we minister to the stranger who is different from us.  I've seen this happen in me each time we open our doors to the strangers among us – cold weather shelter guests, Camp Agape campers, and even new members within our fellowship.  As we listen to their stories, God’s grace grows within us. 

Finally, as we practice Gospel hospitality, we begin to recognize Jesus among us.  I wonder how long it took Abraham and Sarah to realize these three strangers at the door to their tent were more than just traveling salesmen?  As we welcome the stranger among us, we slowly begin to see Jesus.  Not out there, but here among us.  What a tragedy it would have been if we would have turned him away.

There are many opportunities to practice gospel hospitality – from our homes to our church to our Sunday school classes to our fellowship hall.  I hope that you will join me as we seek the love the world as God loves us – one stranger at a time.  

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Lessons from Losses

The clocked ticked down like the Times Square ball … 3 … 2 … 1 and the crowd erupted! 
Students, cheerleaders, and football players rushed the field as one large emotion.  Mamas with “MOB MOM” t-shirts waded through the tears and sweat looking for their sons.  The Band of Blue’s fight song sang through the air with palpable passion and pride.
Joy - pure, full, and wonderful joy – filled the cold, Halloween night.  This is what it looks like to win after two painful years of losses.  JOY!
For two years I followed the Habersham Central Raider football team watching my varsity cheerleader daughter and her friends struggle with loss.  Some of the games were painful to watch.  Other games were full of anticipation, excitement, hope … and still loss.  Watching a team of kids bravely suit up each week to face their next opponent teaches lessons about life and faith. 
First, we learn winning is not easy.  Many of us take winning for granted.  It comes easily for us.  Until it doesn't.  Until we experience loss or failure or mistakes.  Once we suffer loss, it surprises us how hard it is to get the next win.  Hard work, discipline and hope cannot be taken for granted when we are working through the losses in our lives. 
As a pastor, I always find it surprising the number of people who expect to always win because we claim Jesus as our Savior.  Jesus does not promise us a win or riches or even happiness.  Instead, Jesus promises us God’s presence, God’s joy, God’s hope as God’s purposes are worked in our lives. 
Second, we learn losing makes winning more enjoyable, more powerful, and more poignant.  The beauty of Halloween Night 2014 was not the win at Raider Stadium; it was the 21 losing games that proceeded it.  Because winning did not come easily, the players, students and parents savored the joy more greatly as they celebrated on the field and with their high school friends at Waffle House afterwards. 
There are moments – dark moments – in our lives when we feel God has turned God’s back.  Prayers barely drift to the ceiling.  These hard, painful times feel like they will never end.  Yet, as we live daily for Jesus, shaped by God’s Spirit, moments will come when we feel the warmth of God’s smile.  The “no’s” of yesterday will turn into “yes’s” today. And when they do – we rejoice in gratitude to God. 

In these moments pure joy flows into our lives.  We discover the courage and hope to live into the next day and all it has for us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.  

And ... in case you want to see what this win looked like ... here is a video:  

Thursday, October 16, 2014

It's Time!

Sometimes, preachers need the words God gives to us as much as our congregations.

Two Sundays ago, I preached a sermon I titled “Life ain’t a Pity Party.”  Preaching from Luke 15 and the parable of the Prodigal Son, I challenged us to make a choice between the kingdom of Joy and the doom of cynicism.
At that moment – as I was preaching these words – the doom of cynicism, seemed to have swallowed me whole.  I felt as low, flat and beaten down by life.  I was as down as I have in all the days I have served as your pastor.  Rather than choosing the kingdom of joy – I had thrown a pity party in my own honor. 

In that state, it doesn’t take long to discover others around me who are having the same party – especially related to our church.  We looked around at First Baptist Cornelia and asked ourselves – “Where are all the people today – the ones we’ve had in the past?  Where are all the children?”  We looked at other churches and wondered what they are doing.   

            In reality - Pity Parties are happening in churches like ours all over the country.  Children – our children – who grew up in church, and their children – are leaving church and many are not coming back.  Some are leaving their faith behind and others are just leaving organized religion.  Mega churches like the big box stores are pulling in members with exciting programs and low responsibilities.  At the same time – older, traditional churches are dwindling in membership, merging with other churches or closing down their doors.  The world in which we began no longer exists.

We are left with the challenging question – what will we do?  How will we keep up?
Here is the harsh reality – there is NO silver bullet.  There is no perfect solution.  There is no way forward that guarantees a positive result. 
We are left to rethink our model of church success.  What does it mean to be a successful church in the first quarter of the 21st century?  In the past – we were successful if we had a good attendance in worship.  We were successful if we met our budget.  We were successful if we gave a lot of money to missions.  We were successful if we had a lot of kids in our youth group, if we had a lot of baptisms, if our buildings looked good. 
Present reality requires the spiritual courage to ask:  Are our old measures of success for a church what success looks like in God’s eyes?  Is it possible to be a successful church in our eyes – and yet, miss God’s success?
God desires our whole lives, our faithfulness, and our devotion.  What if God has been purging us of our human ways in order to form within a new future for us as the People of God? 
Let me invite you to turn to the last half of the Gospel of Mark.  In chapters 11 and 13, Mark tells the tale of two fig trees.  The tales of these two trees reveal our choice of two futures as we follow Jesus together. 

Two Trees

            In Mark 11, we find the first tale:  The tree of Assumed Living.  The story of this fig tree is set off in two passages in Mark 11.  Beginning in v. 12 – we find Jesus leaving Bethany and traveling to the Jerusalem temple for the day.  His route takes him over the Mount of Olives and then descends to Jerusalem.  It’s early and Jesus is hungry.  He sees a fig tree full of leaves beside the road.  He assumes the tree should have fruit to pick and eat.  When he gets to the tree, he finds no figs.  It was “not the season for figs tree,” Mark reminds us.  In response Jesus speaks a curse on the tree in v. 14 - “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”
Jesus then travels down into the Kidron Valley and into the gate of the Jerusalem Temple.  In response to what he sees happening at the temple, Jesus drives out those in the temple who are buying and selling.  In a symbolic way, Jesus attempts to cleanses the temple and teach a new way.
The next day, Jesus and the disciples travel the same route back across the Mount of Olives – to teach again in the Temple.  Peter notices the fig tree Jesus had spoken to the day before had withered away – down to its roots, Mark describes. 
This story of the first fig tree is best understood within the narrative of the cleansing of the temple.  Jesus didn’t need to curse this tree.  We know he could have caused it to fruit if he desired.  . 
Jesus uses the tale of this tree to illustrate the consequences of assumed living.  By framing the story of the cleansing of the temple between these two narratives of the fig tree, Marks suggests the temple will suffer a similar fate.  The temple and all of the religion in represents assumes life will always be the same, that God has stopped acting, and that we need to just keep appeasing God.  Yet, the temple no longer fulfills the purpose for which God intended it. 
Assumed living leads to a lifeless religious life disconnected from the power of God. 
And – God wants more for us.  A new life.  A renewed purpose. 
The second tale tells the story of the Tree of Expectant Living.  This parable is found in Mark 13.  Jesus tells this tale in the context of an expectant future.  In this portrait of the future, Jesus says, “people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”  This future requires us to be on the lookout, to live with expectation of God’s work.  

“Learn this lesson from the fig tree,” Jesus teaches, “As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door.”

Biologically speaking, there is not much difference between the Tree in tale 1 and the tree in tale 2.  Both trees have no fruit yet.  Both trees have leaves upon them.  Yet, Jesus curses the first and blesses the second.  Why. 

The fig tree is tale number 2 – is bursting with hope, opportunity, and new life.  When we see this tree, Jesus says, it reveals signs of God’s future that is about to break forth into reality.  This tree looks to a future held in the hands of God.
The fig tree in tale number 2, however – exists with the assumption that fruit should come because it always has.  This tree looks to the past with the assumption that since it has provided fruit in the past it will so again. 
These two trees describe for us two paths of living as Christians in this new world we call the first half of the 21st century. 
My friend, Eddie Hammett in this new book Recovering Hope for your Church, says for many churches like ours the anxiety and stress – the pity parties we throw – can be boiled down to this reality:  Many church leader and churches are practicing more idol worship than God worship.  “Our idol has become the good ole days.”  We value the feelings and experiences we once had – we love our buildings, our institutions, our traditions, our music, and our programs. 
Like the Jews worshiping at the temple, we assume life, faith, and church can just be like it has always been.  Assumed living keeps us from looking forward.  Assumed living blinds us to the ways of Jesus.  Assumed living hides the movement of God’s Spirit.  Assumed living – like the fig tree tightly holding onto the ground of the Mount of Olives – will lead to withered hearts, churches, and lives.
Yet – Jesus gifts us with a better future.  The tale of the Tree of Expectant Living invites us to raise our heads from what we have once known  to catch a glimpse of what is about to be.  Jesus uses this parable to communicate a future with a hope.  Yes, life is difficult, we face death on a daily basis, and the world changes out from under us.  Yet – there is still hope – look for the signs of God bubbling up like the tender shoots of the fig tree coming to life. 
This is the Good News for you and me and First Baptist Church Cornelia:  The shoots of God’s future have already begun.  God has already started preparing this church for its great future.
Let me tell you one more tale:  The tale of First Baptist Church, Cornelia, Georgia.  When I first arrived someone described this church to me this way – First Baptist Cornelia has the greatest potential of any church in Northeast Georgia.  Well – hear this – God’s Kingdom Potential for us has already started breaking through.  We can see the signs of the tender shoots and leaves everywhere we go.
First Baptist Cornelia is better positioned for God’s future than at any time in our history.  The hard work of praying and preparing that we have done over the last 3 years has come home.  The work that we are doing now is the right work at the right time for the right purposes.  We are choosing every day as a church to be faithful to God’s mission for us in the world.  Look around to see the tender shoots of God’s hand at work among us. 

·       We are leading the way in Worship to move beyond the manmade divisions between contemporary and tradition.  
·       We are also leading the way in Missions to advance God’s Kingdom by becoming a church full of evangelists and missionaries where missions is describe as who we are not what we do. 
·       We are leading the way in discipleship developing a one on one coaching/mentor discipleship culture
·       We are leading the way in children/youth ministry in seeking to develop Spiritual champions in partnership with parents.             
·       We are leading the way by preparing buildings for the future.  We will have a new sound system and projection system in the near future. 
·       We are leading in structures to be better organized for future ministries.    
Look at any writer, church futurist – and you will see this is exactly the kind of focus a church needs to have to see God’s future realized among us.  The shoots and leaves have already started to shoot forth.  This is no time for a Pity Party – this is time for us to celebrate, roll up our sleeves and keep working. 
The hit happened on October 28, 1989.  The Vanderbilt commodores are on the 15 yard line of the Ole Miss Rebels and they are pressing to score.  Brad Gaines, a Vanderbilt receiver, crosses over the middle on the 2 yard line when a defensive back named Chucky Mullins comes forward to block the ball as it is thrown to Gaines. Chucky crashes into Gaines and hits the turf.  And never gets up.
Those in the crowd say they know it is bad when they hear the impact.  For over ten minutes Chucky lies on the turf.  Some are afraid he has died.  He hasn’t. Instead, he has crushed 4 vertebrate in his back.  A stretcher is brought onto the field.
Chucky begins a slow process of recovery.  After his injury, the Ol Miss fans pour out their support for him – raising over $1million for his recovery.

As the season winds to a close, the Ole Miss Rebels are set to play the Air Force Academy.  Still the team leader, Chucky, has himself rolled into the locker room before the game.  Barely audible – he whispers a battle cry that will sustain and motivate the team.  “It’s Time.”  He says.  “It’s time.”  The team hears the battle cry and pick it up.  From a whisper the words “It’s time” builds to a crescendo as everyone shouts their task.  It’s time.  The coach remembered after the game – “Air Force Never had a chance.”
 First Baptist Cornelia – today.  Now.  At this moment – it is time for us to bury our assumed living practices and live expectantly for God’s Kingdom and Future. 
·       It’s time for us to accept our identity as the People of God, not just good people.
·       It’s time for us to be people of faith, not just people of tradition.
·       It’s time for us to pray without ceasing rather than pretending to pray so we can remain the same.
·       It’s time to listen and follow God rather than listening to sermons and being spectators in worship.
·       It’s time rediscover and recommit to why we are church members at First Baptist Cornelia rather than looking for what we get.
·       It’s time for some of us to commit to Jesus, to be baptized, and to stop living for ourselves.
·       It’s time that we start telling everyone the great things God is doing in our church rather than complaining what we aren’t doing.
·       It’s time for us to call each other when we miss church.
·       It’s time for us to stop the pity parties and welcome our community to the celebration.
·       It’s time for some of us to commit as members at First Baptist Church – some of us regularly worship with us and yet have not committed to us.  We need you.  We need your energy and your fresh ideas. 
·       It’s time – First Baptist Church - It’s time!  God has gifted us with a marvelous future – it’s time to commit and live with expectation of all God is about to do. 

What is it time for you to do today because of the Gift to God’s future to you?

Let’s work together for God’s Future. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Final Worship Seminar

Over the last 7 weeks I've been teaching a Seminar on worship at my church in Cornelia, GA. This is the 7th and final session.

This week, I outline a form of worship that Dr. Daniel Day calls Gospel Shaped Worship and what renowned Worship Scholar Robert Webber describes as Blended worship.

The purpose of this worship as Dr. Webber says is to create "Worship that reflects the best of liturgical and contemporary worship." He desires to get beyond the trivial worship wars and focus on the content of our worship. "Blended worship that accents style is doomed to failure." It's blah, it offends.

Instead, Gospel shaped worship (blended worship) "blends the fruit of the liturgical scholarship of the 20th century and the concern for the immediacy of the Spirit called for in the best of the contemporary worship."

Our worship team has stated something similar in our worship vision for the coming years:  
"Our worship services are not categorized as traditional, contemporary or blended because our worship style is intended to engage people of all ages to worship our Almighty God in a sincere and humble way."
Our church seek to worship in ways that are biblical, theological, missional, corporate/individualized, Spirit-filled, technological, and artistic.

At the end of the powerpoint, I speak about some of the principles we see God developing in us that will shape our worship. I look forward to continuing to lead a church that takes worship seriously - but not ourselves; a church that seeks to be a place all generations can worship - and not fill they have to give something up; a church that focuses on God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; a church that practices radical hospitality as we welcome the stranger into our community and grace and assistance.

God has an incredible future in store for First Baptist Church, Cornelia.  I look forward to seeing that future realized.

Here's the powerpoint:

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Worship Ideas: Weeks 5 and 6

I have a few friends who have been keeping up with my Worship Seminars at FBC this fall.  It's been a wonderful opportunity to talk about the theology, biblical foundations, and history of how and why we worship the way we do in the 21st Century.

Week 5
This session covers the history and theology of Praise and Worship - what we commonly call today Contemporary worship.  I learned much as I prepared for this week.

I used a few video examples at the end to demonstrate the elements of Praise and Worship.

Here they are:
1.  Free Chapel Worship (Gainesville, GA):  http://vimeo.com/101257928  This is perfect example to demonstrate the order of Praise Music, Worship Music, and Teaching.

2.  Elevate Church (Charlotte, NC):  http://vimeo.com/102730997  This short interview with the worship leader demonstrates the quality of their video ministry and how they get that "Elevate sound."

Week 6
This session covers the history of worship from our first churches to about 1800.  It's less history and more about how Christians have worshiped through the centuries and what that can teach us about worship for today.  No videos for this week.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Exploring Worship Weeks 3 and 4

I have been teaching a class on Worship at First Baptist Cornelia this fall.  In week's 3 and 4 I explore we have changed worship by giving it purposes other than the worship of God.  The historical connections to our worship styles today is quite fascinating.    

Worship as Evangelism - Week 3

Worship as Inspiration - Week 4

I showed several video illustrations as part of this powerpoint.  Here are the links:

The Hour of Power: http://vimeo.com/65236577
Lakewood Church:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-BvgBiLjPU
Saddleback Church:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbvaS42nIxI&list=UUvr7knIsXAxHqU-TCrV5g3w

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Gift of God's Future

          Recently, I had a conversation with a pastor friend of mine about the work First Baptist Cornelia is doing as around our Living By Faith emphasis.  As I described the work of our different initiative teams, he used a wonderful phrase that caught my imagination.  He said, “It sounds like you are experiencing the Gift of God’s Future.”  I love this idea – the Gift of God’s Future.  Indulge me for a moment as I reflect on its meaning in our context. 
            The metaphor that resonates most profoundly in my soul and life about the providence of God and God’s future describes God as the Master Weaver.  God as the Master Weaver stands in front of the barrier we call “Now” or “the present,” as a weaver stands before a loom.  Great strands of fabric stretch out before him, full of potential. God, the creator and artist, weaves this fabric into a beautiful tapestry called life.
            Now, imagine that God stands in our future – at the barrier between now and what will be.  As free humans who sin, hurt and love, we play a role in the tapestry God is creating.  God invites us into his future, into his life, into the joys and challenges that mold us into the person God desires us to be.  At the same time, God takes our choices – those that honor God’s future and those that do not – and weaves his purposes into our lives.
            I had a friend tell me he once thought of God’s Will as a narrow path in the woods like the Appalachian Trail.  In this metaphor, fear emerges at choosing the path correctly. We ask, “what is God’s will” afraid we might choose the wrong path.  Some of us live lives of great regret because we feel we choose wrongly. 
            When we imagine God as the Master Weaver, our choices expand.  God’s Will is not just one choice like a narrow path.  God’s will expands into a great meadow and is woven together through our choices.  We can still make bad choices and good ones – yet, there is still hope for God’s future in our lives. 
            God’s future is a gift given to us by a loving father who desires the very best for us.  Our task is to prepare ourselves for this future.  The more we grow to love God more with all of our hearts, soul, mind and body the more we prepare our lives for God’s future.  The more we learn to love our neighbor as ourselves, the more God’s future becomes a reality in our lives. 

            I hope that you will join me in celebrating God’s future alive in our church.  Let us look with eyes of faith to see God’s future at work.  And when we do – let us worship a God who continues to give us a hope and a future.  Thanks be to God.