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Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Fighting for the Soul of the UMC, Part 1


"I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd."
John 10:16

“…I believe in the holy catholic church…”
The Apostles’ Creed

The United Methodist Church is struggling.  Here’s why I think it is critical that pastors and leaders in local churches work hard to revitalize the UMC at the denominational level.  I will offer a second installment with some strategies that may help lead our denomination to be more effective for the Kingdom of God. Read it here.

I have a deep passion for helping people grow closer to God.  It is the passion that drove me to leave a promising career as an engineer and become an itinerant preacher in the United Methodist Church.  I’ve never regretted my decision.  I’ve been truly blessed.  There’s nothing more important or rewarding for me than serving as a pastor in a local church.

I’ve served as an appointed pastor in the UMC for 18 years.  My ministry has focused mainly on the local congregation because it’s where the bulk of hands on, frontline ministry takes place.  Though I have been faithful to the United Methodist connection and worked some at the district and conference level, my heart has always belonged to the local churches I’ve served. 

I suspect this is the attitude of most UM pastors and congregational leaders who serve in a local church.  We tend to let people in the district and conference offices focus on the denomination.  We stick to ministering to the families in our neighborhoods and communities.  There is more than enough work to keep us busy.  The tremendous pace and scope of our duties in the community is astounding.  We have precious little time to divert to denominational concerns.  We’ve entrusted those matters to others who are more passionate about the institution so we can focus on our local ministry setting.

The problem right now is many denominational leaders in the UMC are pushing ideas that are fundamentally at odds with the biblical values of most pastors and members in the local church.  Even though our special called general conference voted for a traditional plan that reaffirms an orthodox, biblical teaching about human sexuality, many bishops and other denominational leaders have vowed to disregard, disobey, and obstruct the decision.  So even though the elected voice of our denomination has spoken, it seems most of our denominational leaders in the US are vowing not to abide by the decision.  It’s very frustrating.

I have spoken with pastors and church members who are fed up.  Some are ready to throw their hands up and walk away from the denomination.  They say things like, “Who cares about the denomination anyway?  Who needs them?  Let them have the declining mainline institution and we’ll just go do church in our congregation the way we’ve always done it.” 

It would be a big mistake to abandon the denomination to progressive leaders bent on forcing the United Methodist brand to promote unchristian doctrine.  There is way more at stake than you may think—especially if your primary focus has been (like mine) the local ministry setting.  We all need to prayerfully consider why orthodox Christians should stay and work hard to renew the United Methodist Church.

Connectional vs. Congregational
United Methodists are connectional because we believe strongly the Church Jesus Christ established is more than just one congregation.  It includes all faithful Christians in all places throughout all time.  We believe we can be more effective at fulfilling our mission to make disciples of all the nations when we work together. 

United Methodists follow the example of the earliest Christians in the New Testament who were also connectional.  Local congregations worked together for the good of the worldwide Church.  The Apostle Paul collected funds to help the persecuted church in Jerusalem.  Early Christians conferred with each other to determine orthodox Christian doctrine and speak together as one voice throughout the whole world.  At the Jerusalem counsel in Acts 15, Church leaders had their own “General Conference” and decided Christians throughout the whole world didn't have to be circumciced but should “…abstain from eating food offered to idols, from sexual immorality, from eating the meat of strangled animals, and from consuming blood.” 

Congregationalism is a different option that some Christians choose (like Baptists).  They believe a congregational governing model is the best way to be faithful Christians.  Each congregation makes their own rules; they are not beholden to any other local church; there are no Baptist general conferences to tell local congregations how to believe or act or what to teach.

However, United Methodist pastors and congregations who consider pulling out of the United Methodist connection aren’t choosing congregationalism for theological reasons. The core value behind their decision is often: “I don’t really care what the Church Universal does as long as I can do things the way I like in my own church.”  So if you are thinking of pulling out of the UMC, ask yourself a very honest question:  “Am I leaving so I can truly further God’s Kingdom or is it really so I can just maintain my own little kingdom in my congregation?” 

Saving the Lost
Even if you plan to leave the UMC for a different connection, the stakes are still very, very high.  Millions of souls hang in the balance.  The UMC is a global denomination with some 12 million members.  That’s not an abstract number.  It represents 12 million living people that God loves so much He sent His only begotten son to die for them.  The United Methodist denomination has tremendous influence over the 12 million souls in our care.  If the denomination as a whole abandons orthodox Christian teaching, it will mislead millions of people in this generation alone.  And that doesn’t even account for the damage it will do to future generations across the globe who will be influenced by a corrupted UMC.

If evangelicals are serious about saving souls according to Christ’s command, we need to do all we can to save the denomination.  I understand the passion for the local churches that leads pastors and members to think the local congregation is the only thing we need to worry about.  However, we need to check our attitude whenever we are tempted to turn our backs on 12 million people just because we are more interested in the hundred or so members of our local congregation.  God’s Kingdom transcends our little flock.  It includes millions across the globe who rely on the United Methodist Church to be a trustworthy, biblical witness for Jesus Christ.

Weariness is No Excuse
Many people are tired of fighting.  I’m tired of fighting too.  However, I find new strength whenever I consider what I’m fighting for.  Jesus never said the Christian journey would be easy.  However, He did say in Matthew 10:22, “And all nations will hate you because you are my followers. But everyone who endures to the end will be saved.” 

Few find it hard to fight for something they really care about.  If an intruder was trying to break into my house and harm my family, I would fight to my last breath to defend the people I love.  Well, the Church is our family and the denomination is our house.  In fact, UM elders and deacons are members of an annual conference, not a local congregation.  If we are to be faithful to the Church, we must be faithful to the denomination, not just the local church. 

Conservatives are often frustrated when progressives don’t uphold the Book of Discipline.  However, conservative elders are also guilty of breaking their vows when they leave the UMC.  At ordination, elders promise to “…be loyal to The United Methodist Church, accepting and upholding its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline,” and “defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word…”  Conservative members of local United Methodist congregations promise to “be loyal to The United Methodist Church” when they join the church.  It would be one thing if the denomination fundamentally changed our doctrines to be contrary to God’s Word.  Then, perhaps, we might be justified to leave.  However, General Conference has affirmed our long standing orthodox Christian teaching about human sexuality.  We have no justification to leave.  

But people say they are tired.  What have we endured that is so wearisome?  Perhaps Americans have grown too soft.  Christians in the past were tortured and burned at the stake for their faithfulness to Christ.  Hebrews 11:36-37 says, “Some were jeered at, and their backs were cut open with whips. Others were chained in prisons. Some died by stoning, some were sawed in half, and others were killed with the sword…”  Faithful United Methodists outside the US face similar persecution today.  And yet, it was our brothers and sisters from Africa and Asia who fought so hard to make sure the UMC passed the Traditional Plan.  Has our faith grown so weak in America that we can’t even endure a little scorn from a fallen world?

Our brothers and sisters around the globe helped US conservatives win the 2019 tug-o-war at General Conference.  Are conservatives in America now going to be cowards who walk away leaving those same faithful Africans and Asians holding the rope by themselves to be dragged away by US progressives in 2020 and beyond?  God forbid.

Conservative evangelicals in American need to pray hard that God would help us “run and not grow weary”.   There are still many miles ahead and many battles left to fight.  Jesus never promised it would be easy, but the struggle is worth it.  For the sake of God’s Kingdom, we need to “press on” and “fight the good fight of faith”.

A Vision for the Future
We also need a clear strategy to renew our denomination.  While pastors and congregations have been focused on the local church, others have been working to reshape our denomination into something that doesn’t represent what we believe.  It’s time to wake up.  It’s time to work hard at the denominational level to ensure the UMC offers sound biblical teaching and godly leadership.  It will be an uphill battle, but the reward will be a denomination that truly reflects God’s Kingdom values and supports local congregations on the front lines of the Christian faith.

Imagine a denomination truly united in our beliefs and doctrines that has a clear vision about what it means to make disciples of Jesus Christ and how to do it.  Imagine a denomination full of variety and diversity, but truly united about foundational doctrines that are non-negotiable.  Imagine a denomination where you don’t have to secretly wonder if your colleagues in ministry really have a heart like yours as you take their hand for the shared work of God’s Kingdom.  This dream can become a reality if we are willing to work for it.  

It’s time for a gut check.  Are you willing to be faithful to the vows you made?  Do you have the courage to work openly to renew our denomination so we can make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?  Are you willing to work for the glory of God where He called you, in the United Methodist Church? 

I am.


Tuesday, May 28, 2019

When Life is Unfair, God is Good


Introduction
We're going to have a great Vacation Bible School this summer--July 8-12.  The theme of our curriculum from Group Publishers is Life is Wild, God is Good.  Over the next few weeks, I'm going to share a a 5 part series based off the 5 days of VBS.  God is Good! Even when life is unfair, or is scary, or when life changes, or is sad, God is good! And when life if good, God is good.  Throughout the series, we will learn about the Exodus, when God delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Today, we learn how the Israelites became slaves; and we learn that even when life is unfair, God is good!  That’s not just something we say.  That’s what Scripture teaches.

Scriptures
Nahum 1:7 – The Lord is good, a strong refuge when trouble comes.  He is close to those who trust in him.

Exodus 1:11 – So the Egyptians made the Israelites their slaves. They appointed brutal slave drivers over them, hoping to wear them down with crushing labor. They forced them to build the cities of Pithom and Rameses as supply centers for the king.

Background
God is deeply and personally involved in our lives.  The Bible is full of stories of how God is personally involved in people’s lives.  So don’t ever think God doesn’t care about you or that He has more important things to do than worry about your life and your struggles.  God is all powerful, all loving, and present everywhere.  He is more than capable of being personally involved in your life (and mine and everyone else’s life on the planet).  There is no limit to God’s involvement and He cares deeply about all of us.

However, we must also understand that God’s story is infinitely greater than just our lives.  The beautiful tapestry of God’s master plan weaves through everyone’s lives and it spans across many generations.  The story of the Exodus is a brilliant example of God working out His plans in individual lives as well as across many generations of people.

Exodus is the second book of the Bible.  But perhaps you remember the story of Joseph from the first book, Genesis.  Joseph’s brothers were jealous and so they sold him into slavery in Egypt.  It wasn't fair, but God was still good to Joseph.  He gained favor in Egypt and eventually rose to be the second in command to Pharaoh.  God helped Joseph interpret a dream that prophesied Egypt would have 7 years of surplus harvest followed by seven years of famine.  And so Joseph led the Egyptians to store up extra food during the 7 good years so they would have enough for the 7 bad years.  His efforts saved thousands of Egyptians from starvation, including many of the people leaving around Egypt--even Joseph's brothers and their families who came to live in Egypt.  Life us unfair, but God was good.

The Israelites were in Egypt for 400 years.  Sometimes, the numbers in the Bible get lost on us.  Think about the magnitude of 400 years for a minute.  What does 400 years mean in the timeline of American history?  400 years ago, America didn’t even exist as a nation.  The Israelites were in Egypt for 400 years.  Let that sink in for a minute. 

The story of Exodus really showcases how God’s plans involve individuals as well as spanning across many generations.  God was intimately involved in Joseph’s life, but his plans weren’t just for Joseph, the spanned across 400 years and many generations right down to the Israelite slaves in Egypt.  God is at work in our lives in much the same way.  God is intimately interested in you and He is working out His plans for your life right now.  However, His plans are grander than just you.  In fact, God was at work 400 years ago in your ancestors lives, and His plans for them were setting things up for you today!  You probably don’t even know the names of your ancestors from 400 years ago, let alone their struggles, problems, suffering, and victories.  But God is good and He used even their suffering to be a blessing for them and for you today.

When Life is Unfair… God is Good!
Life was unfair for the Israelites in Egypt.  Their ancestor, Joseph, was a brilliant, godly man who saved everyone in Egypt from starving to death.  But his noble actions and the favor it imparted to his people were soon forgotten.  New Pharaohs came to power who didn’t care and they became suspicious of the Israelites.  And they imposed harsher and harsher treatments.  Soon they forced the Israelites to work as their slaves.  It wasn’t fair.  But guess what:  life ain’t always fair, is it?

But guess what else:  When life is unfair, God is good!  The more the Egyptians persecuted the Israelites, the more God made them prosper.  They kept having children and growing families.  They continue to thrive, despite the harsher and harsher conditions.  They grew to be so many, the Egyptians were paranoid the Israelites would overpower them.  So Pharaoh decided to hatch one of the most evil plans you can imagine:  Every time a baby boy was born to the Israelites, they were to be drowned in the river.

But still, God was good.  God helped the Israelite midwives and the parents to find ways around Pharaoh’s horrible plans.  And Exodus 1:20-21 says, “God was good to the midwives, and the Israelites continued to multiply, growing more and more powerful. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.”

Principle – When life is truly unfair to you, understand it may be an opportunity for God to work tremendous good for you in hidden ways.  Difficulties make you stronger.  Trials make you wiser.  Suffering can draw you closer to God.  And remember, it is not just for you.  God is working out plans that span across generations.  Do you know that the trials and tribulations your parents and grandparents and great grandparents endured for generations, have brought you many of the blessings you enjoy in this life?  Memorial Day reminds us all of the sacrifices so many in our country made to guarantee the blessings we enjoy in the United States.  Was it fair that they should die so that we can celebrate and enjoy the blessings of God?  Still, God was good to them in ways we may never understand.  And God is good to us because of what they endured.  Life is unfair, but God is good!

Things Often Get Worse Before They Get Better
When the time was right and God was ready to rescue the Israelites from the Egyptians, he chose a man named Moses.  In Exodus chapter 5 we read that God sent Moses and his brother to demand that Pharaoh set the Israelites free.  Do you think Pharaoh listened and let the Israelites free?  Of course not!  Not at first.  In fact, he did the opposite.  He made conditions even worse for the Israelites.  Pharaoh said they had to continue slaving away to make bricks, but he was going to provide the straw they needed; they would have to collect it themselves and still turn out the same number of bricks.  So the Israelites suffered even worse and they were really angry at Moses for stirring up trouble for them.

And this is another important principle for you to understand.  Sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better. When you are struggling and God comes to deliver you, sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. And when things get worse before they get better, you have to check our faith and ask:  do I really trust God? Do I really believe the Lord when He says He’s gonna set me free?

God is Lord
One of the great themes of the Exodus story is the Lordship of God.  In fact, the book of Exodus is really when God reveals Himself as “the Lord”.  When God first appeared to Moses in a burning bush in Exodus 3:15 He tells Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: Yahweh, the God of your ancestors—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.  This is my eternal name, my name to remember for all generations.” 

Yahweh is the proper name of God.  It is a difficult word to translate, but it is full of meaning.  In some sense, it means Lord.  But it is more.  It means “the eternal one, the existing one.”  It means “reality” as in “true reality”.  In other words:  What you think is reality is not really reality; God is reality.  God is Truth.  Our notions of reality are always skewed my our fears, our sins, our lack of vision and perception.  But God is THE LORD.  The Lord made it all.  He controls it all.  No one perceives the way things are as accurately as God. 
When you think there is no hope, God says, “There is hope.” 
When you think all is lost, God says, “I will save you!”
When you fear you will never be delivered from your suffering or struggle or whatever in this life enslaves you, God says, “I AM THE LORD.  I will deliver you!”

In Egypt, Pharoah was considered lord, like a god.  He said to Moses and the Israelites, “Who is you’re god?  He’s nothing!  You’re nothing.  I’m Pharaoh!  I’m like a god!  I have the power to enslave you or destroy you!  I even have the power to make you drown your baby boys in the river!” 

And so, the stage is set.  A great conflict is coming between God and Pharoah to prove who really is the Lord?  Check back next week to hear more of the story.

Closing
But today, you have some questions to answer in your own heart: 
Do you really believe God when He says He’s gonna set you free?
Do you believe God  is THE LORD and has the power to deliver you?
Do you believe and will you trust THE LORD, even if things get worse before they get better?

Life is wild.  God is Good.  Even when life is unfair, God is good.



Monday, May 13, 2019

"You've Sinned, but I Still Love You" - Things You Can't Say in Church (but you should)

Introduction
This is the third in a series called, “Things you can’t say in church (but you should).”  And I want to emphasis that last part in parenthesis “(but you should)”.  You see, some people think you can’t say certain things in church, but these are things you absolutely should say, you must say, if you are to be the Church that Jesus Christ established.

You see Church is a funny thing.  On the one hand, the Church was established by Jesus Christ in the Bible as the gathering of all who believe in Him, who are wholeheartedly committed to the great commission to make disciples of Jesus Christ throughout the entire world.  On the other hand, church is also a cultural phenomenon…  White, southern church culture…

Many in the world today are sick and tired of the church, by which they are (not necessarily) talking about the Church Jesus Christ established in the New Testament; they are usually talking about the church culture that (often) has little or nothing to do with the Church Jesus Christ established.  There are often a lot of weeds mixed in with the wheat of the Church and it can be really hard to tell the difference. 

I’ve mentioned two things already that some people think you can’t say in church, but you really should—“I’m broken,” and “I’m on fire!”  I want to add one more today.  Some people think you can’t say, “You’ve sinned, but I still love you.”  Some people think you can’t say that in church, but you really should.  I think you absolutely must, because it is an essential part of being the Church Jesus Christ established in the New Testament.  It follows the example of Christ.

Luke 15:1-7
1 Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach.This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them!
So Jesus told them this story: “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he will joyfully carry it home on his shoulders. When he arrives, he will call together his friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away!
Explain
The religious leaders of Jesus day didn’t like that Jesus quite often hung around with people they deemed sinners.  They believed sin was like a contagious disease, that just being in the presence of a sinner you could catch the disease of sin.  Jesus, who was the Son of God, tells a parable (actually three parable, because the whole the chapter is) about how God sent him to save a world full of sinners.  Jesus came to save the people the religious leaders deemed sinners who were unworthy and that no respectable person would associate with.  Jesus even came to save the religious leaders who are sinners too (but are blind because think they aren’t sinners).  The point of all this for our purposes today is this:  Jesus came to save sinners because He loves us. You see, Jesus was basically saying to the whole world, “You’ve sinned, but I still love you!”  

You migt think it strange in the parable that the shepherd would leave the 99 good sheep to search after just one sheep.  But Jesus is saying we are all sheep who have strayed off the path of righteousness.  If the shepherd (Jesus) didn't come and find us, there would be no 99 good sheep.  Every sheep has wandered off the path at some point, and the shepherd brought them back.  How hypocritical, then, for the 99 to complain if the shepherd goes off searching for another lost sheep.

Everything Jesus said and did—including how he died on the cross—was a way of saying, “You’ve sinned, but I still love you!”  Romans 5:8 sums it up for us, “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.”

But many people today think you can’t say that in church, but you absolutely should; you must if we are to be the Church Jesus Christ wants us to be. 

Why Do People Think You Can’t Say It?
Some people today are just like the Pharisees and religious leaders in Jesus day.  They think going to church is all about being a good, respectable person and following all the rules.  They always try to do the right thing (even if doing the right thing is sometimes more about keeping up appearances than pleasing God) Furthermore, they often confuse God’s rules for holy living with what society says is the right way to live.  So they can often do some very terrible things—segregation, neglecting the poor, etc.—all in the name of being a good person who follows the rules.  So they think you can’t say, “You’ve sinned, but I still love you.”  They don’t love people who have sinned.  They’re ok with being judgmental and pointing out how people sin, but they don’t love sinners (they may say it with their lips, but they don’t really love them in their heart).  There have always been self-righteous judgmental people in church—all the way back to Jesus time.  And Jesus came and pointed those Pharisees out.  He told them, “You’ve sinned, but I still love you.”  Unfortunately, the religious leaders didn't want to hear that and so they crucified him.

But because the church throughout history has so often been full of self-righteous, judgmental people, we’ve come to a place today where there are so many people in our world (and even in the church) who err in a whole different way.  There are many who have concluded that you can’t even say, “You’ve sinned” anymore.  There are so many people who say, “The Bible says ‘judge not, lest ye be judged.’”  And so they’ve concluded that Jesus doesn’t even want us to tell people they’ve sin (because that would be judging).  A lot of people say nowadays, Jesus just wants us to love people (and leave the whole part about sin out).

And so it’s come to a place where the world we live in just says you should welcome everyone and just accept them for who they are.  We’re not allowed to tell people, “You’ve sinned” anymore.  And we see all kinds of behaviors accepted by our culture that the Bible deems unacceptable and even repulsive to God.  Is that how Jesus treated people? (pause…)

How Jesus Loved People
There should be no doubt that Jesus loved people.  He proved his love by dying for us on the cross; not because we deserved it, but because we desperately needed it and Jesus loved us.  So his example is worth following.  Here’s how Jesus loved people.  He loved people enough to go be with sinners-even eat with them.  He did this, even though it put him at odds with the self-righteous religious leaders.  He was willing to leave 99 “good” sheep to go find the one foolish sheep that got himself lost.  At the same time, he never pretended the sinners he sought were not lost, were not sinners.  For example, once a woman was caught in the very act of adultery.  They dragged her int the city square and asked Jesus, "The Law of Moses says we should stone her.  What do you say?"  Jesus said, "He who is without sin, cast the first stone."  Then he stopped and began writing in the dirt.  We don't know what he wrote, the Bible doesn't say.  Some have speculated he began writing out all the sins the people in the crowd had committed.  At any rate, everyone in the crowd began to drop their stones and walk away.  When everyone was gone, Jesus asked, "Woman, has no one condemned you?"  "No, my Lord," she said. "Then neither do I.  Go and sin no more."  (John 8)

Recently, the local news showed some surveillance video of a vigilant school bus driver who saved a child from a terrible accident.  The bus had stopped to let a child off and the video shows the bus doors opening and the child is about to run down the steps out the door.  But the bus driver suddenly slammed the doors shut and grabbed the child's shoulder and yanked him away from the door just as a speeding car wooshed by the bus doors.  Apparently, the car driver got impatient with the bus driver and sped around the right side of the bus just as the doors of the bus were about to open.  If the bus driver had not been paying attention and stopped the child, the child would have certainly been killed or terribly maimed.  What would you have done?  I think we would have all screamed and reached out to stop the child if we were in that situation.  That is, in a sense, what we are doing when we tell someone they've sinned (or their about to sin).

The Bible teaches us that sin is terrible.  It destroys your life.  It destroys other people’s lives.  It destroys the world.  And God hates sin, so it destroys a sinners relationship with God, who is the source of life and love and peace and hope.  To refuse to tell someone, “You’ve sinned” is not much different from refusing to scream, “Watch out! You’re about to walk out in front of a speeding car!”  It’s actually worse, because the consequences of sin are eternal.  So if we truly do love someone, we must say, “You’ve sinned.”  To do otherwise is not loving at all, but terrible and hateful.

At the same time, we must never forget the last part of the statement:  “You’ve sinned, but I still love you.”  We must never forget we’ve all sinned.  We’ve all fallen short of the glory of God.  You’ve sinned.  I’ve sinned. And your sins are no worse than mine.  I have no reason to think myself better than you and you’ve no reason to think yourself better than me or anyone else. 

Conclusion
So don’t ever neglect to say, “You’ve sinned, but I still love you.”  That’s who were are—the Church—and that’s what we say and how we live.  It’s not optional.  It’s what Jesus does for us and what we are called to do for the world.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Guest Blog by Abigail Mullis

Today, I want to share my daughter's short story where she won 1st place in her district for sixth grade in the Georgia Young Author's Contest.  I hope you enjoy!
It will all be Okay
Sitting on the lake shore the wind blew threw my hair. I breathed in the salty air of Lake Martin. I pulled my knees to my chest and looked out onto the water. This was great, complete silence.

“Eloise,” Mama said, startling me as she touched my shoulder.

“Mama,” I said turning around.

“It’s time for dinner, darling.”

I turned away. “I’m not hungry,” I muttered angrily.

She slowly sat down next to me and looked out onto the lake. “It’s hard for me too, you know.”

I stood up and walked away from her, off to the old tree house. I ran my hand along the the dusty wood ladder, not touched for years. I climbed and then sat on the old platform. The wind rustled through the old oak’s leaves. Shh, it calmed. Then Charlie came climbing up the ladder. Just another person interrupting my peace.

“Eloise,” Charlie said as he sat down next to me. “Why are you so angry? This was gonna happen no matter what you did or said. I thought you would have suspected this. I always thought you were the smart one.”

“But why? Why do we have to go? Why can’t we just stay here forever?” I asked turning to my older, wiser brother.

“We ran out of money, we can’t pay the mortgage without Dad.”

I sighed. “Why, did he have to go?” I asked.

“I don’t know, no one knows,” he replied.

“But, I don’t want to leave,” I protested.

“No one does, Eloise. We love this place, this house, this yard, this lake, but that’s just how things work.”

I slowly stood up and climbed down the ladder. “Well, Aunt Marion's place better be good.”

“Don’t get your hopes up,” Charlie laughed as he followed behind.

I climbed in the car and took one last look at the beautiful house that held all of my amazing memories. Right in this moment I felt like crying. I could remember Dad picking me up and throwing me in the lake every summer. It was our tradition on the first day of summer break. Charlie patted my back. “It’s okay sis,” he comforted.

“Say goodbye,” Mama bellowed and we drove off. We were half way down the road when I heard her whimper and let out a small sob. “You know the one thing I won’t miss about that house is how you guys tracked in mud in the summer,” she half laughed, half cried as she tried to lighten the mood.

“That’s the thing I’ll miss most,” I heard Charlie muttered.

The rest of the drive it was dead silent until the radio accidentally started blaring If you like pina coladas, and gettin’ caught in the rain, if you don’t like yoga, and you have half a brain… it sang. We laughed hysterically, but soon the song was over and the mood returned. A few minutes later our car pulled into the driveway of an old, scary looking house. Moss and ivy grew up it’s sides. Out of the old front door walked a woman with a tight gray bun and a short yellow sundress. Mama opened the car door.

“Amy!” the woman yelled stretching out her arms and running towards Mama.

Mama got out the car and gave Aunt Marion a big hug. “Thank you so much, Marion!”

“Anything for my niece!” she exclaimed. “Now, don’t let those kiddos stay in the car, I want some sugar!”

Mama pulled us out of the car and into Aunt Marion's arms. Aunt Marion pulled us away and I stared at Charlie, he was wearing the same confused expression as me. “You are both so big!” she smiled. “Oh, Charlie! You’re practically a man! Now, your mother told me you were a senior, now is that right?”

“Yes, mam’.”

“Oh! I would never forget my Eloise! What a pretty name! Now let me guess, you’re head of the class, now aren’t you? You always were a smart cookie!”

I looked away and didn’t answer. I didn’t want to be here. I wanted to be home, with Dad.

“Well, that’s okay then. Why don’t you come in for some milk and cookies?”

“Yes, of course. How could anyone turn that down?” Mama replied as she followed Aunt Marion inside. She turned and looked at me with a sad expression but I could hardly tell because I was looking at my shoes.

We followed her inside and into the kitchen. It was much nicer and cheerful on the inside than it was on the outside. The kitchen was a bright yellow with pictures of fruits hanging on the walls. I hardly ate any cookies, I just wasn’t hungry with all of this on my mind, on my heart. After a little while I went up to what was now my new room. It was beautiful but I couldn’t be happy here. I sat down at the bay window and looked out into what was my new yard. I heard someone come into the room. Standing in the threshold of the door was Charlie.

“You need to be nicer to our hostess,” he said leaning on the door frame.

“I don’t like it here. I wanna go home,” I said looking back through the window.

He came over to me and sat down. “I know you don’t like it now, but I promise that you’ll get used to it.”

“I never got used to Dad being gone.”

“I don’t think we ever will,” he said.

My dad had died in a car accident the year before and nothing was the same without him. Mama tried to make due but it just wasn’t the same. We could hardly make enough money and we tried very hard to keep the house but we all knew we would have to give it up.

“Well I have to go check out my room,” he said as he stood up.

“What am I gonna do when you graduate?” I asked.

“You’ll do what you’ve always done and push your way through.”

I stared out the window until it was dark, I even skipped dinner, but I just wasn’t hungry.

Aunt Marion walked into my room a few minutes past dark. She knocked on the door but didn’t even wait for a reply before coming in and sitting next to me. I pulled my knees to my chest and turned to her. “Yes,” I said sassaly.

“I know it’s hard.”

“Do you really?” I scowled.

“Yes. My mother died when I was six. I had to live my whole life without her.”

I untightened my face.

“It’s hard to go through your life without a mother, especially when you’re a young woman yourself. She never got to see me graduate, or get married, or have children of my own.” She stopped and looked out the window. “She never got to help me through my problems growing up.” She looked as if she was about to cry.

“I’m so sorry,” I said letting my legs down. “Do you mind me asking how she died?”

“She died giving birth to my little sister. My father was never the same after she died, just as your mother isn’t the same as she used to be. I’m afraid however that he turned very mean after her death. He didn’t talk to us, I felt like he didn’t even like me. All he did was sleep all day and drink all night.” She sighed and turned towards me. “So, yes, I know how hard it is, but without my mother you wouldn’t have your grandmother, and you wouldn’t have your mother, and you wouldn’t even be here.”

“Grandma was that little sister?” I asked. She had never been able to tell me these things since she had died when I was only two.

Aunt Marion nodded. She held out her clamped hands to me and slowly opened them. My mother gave this to me, and now it’s yours. To let you know that it will be better even if that hole in your heart is never filled.” In her hands was a locket. She clipped it around my neck and I slowly opened it to see a picture of Aunt Marion’s whole family. On the other side there was a picture of a little girl that looked a lot like Aunt Marion. I smiled.

“Thank you.” I said.

She smiled back and walked to the doorway and the turned around. “Oh, and next time please eat your food, your mother is very worried about you,” she laughed.

Monday, May 6, 2019

"I'm on Fire!" - Things You Can't Say in Church (but you should)


Introduction
I’m preaching a series of sermons called, “Things you can’t say in church (but you should)”.  And I want to emphasize that last little part that’s in parentheses – (But You Should).  You see these are things that a lot of people think or feel you shouldn’t say in church, but you absolutely should.  Don’t ever let someone convince you not to say these things in church.  You must say them.  Even more, you must live them out.  They must be a core part of who you are.  Genuine Christianity is not about being respectable or dignified.  Do you think if the trumpets of Heaven blew with a mighty blast and the roof of this sanctuary were ripped away and the Holy Presence of God descended upon us that anyone would remain dignified, reserved, and respectable?  No.  You would probably turn into a blubbering idiot either fearing for your miserable life or else be overcome with immense love and admiration for your God.  But none of us would be respectable or dignified.  But there are still many who feel going to church means you must be respectable and dignified and that you can’t say certain things in church.  And I say that’s ridiculous. 

Last week, I shared how a lot of people think you can't say, "I'm broken" in church.  But I say, you you should; you absolutely should.  It's essential, because Jesus came to heal the broken.  And if you ain't broken, Jesus can't fix you.  The truth is, we're all broken.  We just need to admit it, repent, and let Jesus heal us.

I’ve got another one today:  “I’m on fire!”  Now what does it mean to be on fire in the church?  I’m talking about people who are full of passion and fire for the Lord.  A lot people are annoyed or afraid of people who are on fire for the Lord.  They just want everyone to come to church and sit down and be quiet—to be dignified and respectable and not stir up any controversy.  Just be a good boy or girl.  But Jesus wants us all to be on fire.  I know this because it’s foretold throughout the Bible.

John the Baptist foretold it in Matthew 3:11.  He said, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  And Jesus said in Luke 12:49 - “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!"  And then, in Acts 2:1-4 we see how the Church was filled with the Holy Spirit’s fire.

Acts 2:1-4
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

The Church on Fire
Pentecost is an annual Jewish festival.  It is also the day Christians celebrate the birth of the Christian Church.  This year, Pentecost falls on June 9.  In this story, the faithful followers of the resurrected Jesus (which is the Church) were all gathered in the Temple in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit set them on fire.  I don’t mean that they were literally set ablaze.  What I mean is the Holy Spirit filled them with passion and power to serve the Lord.  The passion and power were so vibrant it even looked as if tongues of fire were dancing above their heads.  And these people began speaking in other languages so that anyone who was gathered in the Temple from all over the world could hear these “on fire” Christians sharing the Good News about Jesus Christ in their very own language. 

Acts 2:13 says, “Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”  Isn’t that a typical response of many religious people who are frightened or annoyed when they see someone else in worship who has a little too much passion for God?  They start scoffing and say, “They’re just showing off,” or “They’re mentally unbalanced,” or “They’re just a religious fanatic.”  Some people think you can’t say “I’m on fire!” in church.  But I say, you should; you must!  Because the Church Jesus established is filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit!

“Awe come on, preacher!”  You say, “That’s just stuff that happened in the Bible.  That don’t happen anymore.”  Is that so?  Are we not the same Church today as they were then?  Is not the same Jesus still our Lord?  Are not those who trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior still filled with the Holy Spirit?  Is not the Holy Spirit that fills us the same Holy Spirit that filled these believers in Acts Chapter 2 on the Day of Pentecost?  I say it is.  God has not changed.  The only thing that’s changed is your belief. 

Some think God and power and miracles and real faith was something that happened long ago.  Some think God is some distant deity who lives far away and is not actively involved in our world anymore.  I say, "No sir!  He is here, right here, right now." I say God still pours out His Holy Spirit fire on anyone who does not pretend to be too dignified and respectable or uninterested to receive Him.  We are called to be a Church full of people who gladly proclaim, “I’m on fire!”

What Does It Mean to Be On Fire?
We can see what if means to be on fire in the church.  All we have to do is look at these believers in Act 2.  There are three main things we see.  

First of all, these “on fire” Christians loved God with all their heart, all their mind, all their soul, and all their strength.  They were wholeheartedly and completely committed to Jesus Christ.  And why shouldn’t they be?  The religious leaders in Jerusalem arrested their Jesus, brutally beat him, crucified him, and buried him.  But on the Third Day, Jesus Christ rose from the grave!  And everyone who truly believes Jesus Christ is no longer dead, realizes there is nothing in this world more important than following Jesus Christ with your whole heart.  These believers may have been afraid the religious leaders who killed Jesus would try to kill them.  But they didn’t let that fear keep them away.  Their faith in Jesus Christ was more important than anything else.

Second, we see that these “on fire” Christians in Acts loved their neighbor as themselvesFor as soon as the Holy Spirit set them on fire, they began to preach the Good News about Jesus Christ to everyone around them.  Some might think they would be angry and retaliate.  Some might wonder that they didn’t scream, “You killed my Lord Jesus and you’re gonna pay!”  Some might think they would use the fire of the Holy Spirit to burn up the wicked religious leaders of Jerusalem for their terrible rebellion against God.  But they didn’t do any of that.  Instead, they realized we are all broken sinners who deserved to be burned up by the fire of God, but instead God loves us and sent His Son to save us, not destroy us.  And so these on fire Christians in Acts 2 use the power of the Holy Spirit to speak in all the languages of the people gathered for worship in Jerusalem so that everyone can hear and understand that Jesus offers forgiveness and salvation.  They speak, because they know God has loved them and they offer the same love to everyone—even their enemies—hoping that all will repent of their sins and turn to God and be forgiven and become “on fire” Christians just like them.  And many of them repent and turn to Jesus.  Acts 2:41 says 3,000 new people repented of their sins and started following Jesus Christ that day.  It is incredible what happens when a few Christians get set on fire!

And there is a third thing we see.  Slide – These “on fire” Christians became a family.  Acts 2:42-47 says:
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

You see, their fellowship—their being together, learning together, praying together, working together, worshiping together, eating together—became the most important thing in their life.  And their love for one another was proof to everyone, everywhere that there was something special and powerful happening.  And more and more people started turning to Jesus Christ to be saved.

Say "I'm on Fire!"
So don’t ever let anyone discourage you from saying “I’m on fire!” in Church.  Pray that the Holy Spirit would set you on fire—set us all on fire—that we might be filled with passion and power to be true believers of Jesus Christ—the continuation of the Church described in the book of Acts.