Monday, December 3, 2018

"Let Me Look at You."

What do you say to your kid, just before a big moment?

"Let me look at you."

You say that because you are proud of your kid. You want to affirm him. You want to encourage her.

And you delight in them. There is power in your gaze. You are not judging, not looking for fault. You are taking in the beauty, the power, the presence of your child.

It is a moment outside of time. You take a deep breath. Of course your kid has to cooperate. They stop, stand still. They look at you. You are together in heart and spirit. It overflows with joy.

God is saying to you, "Let me look at you." Stop and be with him. Feel the power. Overflow with joy.

He loves you.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Newness of Christmas

Everything changes when a baby comes into the family. Everything. Everything revolves around that baby.
  • Schedules
  • Meals
  • Furniture arrangement
  • Finances
  • Entertainment
It's all new.

With the coming of Jesus, everything changes for those who follow him. It's all new. It all revolves around Jesus.

Our Advent series begins tomorrow:
The Newness of Christmas
Dec. 2 New Hope
Dec. 9 New Relationships
Dec. 16 New Responsibilities
Dec. 23 New Love

Image result for Christmas

Monday, November 26, 2018

Rushing the Border

Wow. What do you do when hundreds of people rush the U.S. - Mexico border? It almost feels like the serfs storming the castle. Life is so much better inside those walls.

Looking at these families--climbing fences, choking on tear gas--I wonder what could possibly lead them to risk life and limb. How bad could their lives be to storm the gates of America?

I'm afraid that current political debate misses the bigger picture with this immigration crisis. Right now many want America to hold the border with brute force. Shut the gates. Arm the guards. Keep those foreigners out. This is our country. We get to decide who gets in. Deal with it.

But how can a country put that kind of policy into practice? We're already using tear gas. How long before someone gets shot? How long can we sustain such a policy?

Thousands want to flee Central American countries because conditions are so bad there. Whose fault is that? Does it matter whose fault it is?

Here are the big questions:
  • What American policies are harming conditions in Central America?
  • How is the U.S. propping up corrupt Central American governments?
  • What policies can we initiate that will enhance freedom and opportunity in those nations?
  • Can we take action without making things worse?
  • Can we free up the American private sector to bring jobs to Central America?
  • Will it take U.S. government action to improve conditions there?
  • What is our border really for?

These are people at the border. On both sides. These are not props for political object lessons. May we see some glorious, unexpected breakthrough in which love triumphs over hate.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Comparison and Competition

As I was shuttling a car load of 9th graders today, I imagined what they might be thinking. Some might regard themselves as "smart," others as "athletic," others as "shy." They -- because they are human -- see themselves in comparison to others. I found the desire to help them overcome their negative assumptions about themselves. I want them all to perceive themselves as smart. Unfortunately, the pool in which we find ourselves can affect how we feel about ourselves.

I can feel like the "athletic" one, when I'm surrounded by elderly people. I can feel like the "shy" one when surrounded by extroverts. Our feelings are shaped by our context. (I'm probably about average on both athleticism and shyness.)

Here I go, comparing myself to specific groups and types of people.

How can we know who we really are, if we don't compare ourselves to others? Who am I? and What am I like? are almost inseparable questions. And how can I know what I am like without comparing myself to others?

I'm starting to think that mature life begins when I get over comparing myself to others. The life I have is unique. Maybe the greatest challenge is to "be myself." It should not matter how other people's lives are turning out. I need to compare myself to God's ideal for me. Of course I will always fall short of God's ideal. But he transforms every shortcoming and sin into a way to make me better, a way to make me more like my true self.

But it's hard for Americans to get beyond the mindset of comparison. After all, we are competitors, us Americans, and competition is just comparison in the spotlight. Competition shapes everything in America. Headlines bear this out: elections, court decisions, sports, and  stock market reports. What are these but competitions? Even natural disasters are all a form of competition as we compete against nature for control. In the classroom students compete for grades; with the SATs they compete for coveted acceptance at elite or even mediocre schools. On Black Friday we compete to save the most money. What could be more horrific than paying 10% more than necessary for that thing?

I'm not against competition. I think it can bring out the best in us. But I think we let comparison and competition take way too much space in our souls. Comparison may help us improve, but it should not be the way we define ourselves.

Can you imagine God comparing our resumés to see whom he likes best? Does it matter to him who is smartest? who has the most money? who has the most power? He loves us as we are, for who we are. He wants us to become more our true selves, because he wants us to experience fulfillment. We add in that stuff about being better than so-and-so.

So maybe freedom from the weight of comparison brings real life. And it takes traveling some miles and years to accept that freedom. I'm ready for real life and freedom.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Listening on Facebook

I'm preparing a sermon on listening, and I began to wonder, how do we listen these days? Unfortunately social media seems to be less about informing than venting.

Do you ever have your opinion changed because of your friends' posts? We all know people who vent, though. They find every chance to show how stupid other people are, especially those with whom they disagree.

What would happen if we took a deep breath while seeing that FB feed? What if we set aside our prejudices and actually listened to what people are saying?

I know what kinds of comments and articles most of my friends are likely to share. So when I see a post from "so and so," I know what to expect. The same old stuff they always share. I've seen enough of it that I don't need to see any more.

But what if I took another moment to listen to the heart of what is being shared? My friends don't post stuff because they are evil (I hope!). They usually post stuff because they care. By listening, I can come to understand why they care like they do.

Especially when someone is venting, they are showing that they care. Maybe they are misinformed. Maybe they have some less than noble agenda. But often people just want to be heard. They want someone to listen to what they say, and perhaps engage meaningfully with their ideas.

We could use a whole lot more "listeners" in social media.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Where's the Hate Coming From?

There seems to be a wave of hate washing over our society. No need to list the current events of bombs and bullets and bashing. The tone of our public discourse has become so toxic. How can we be surprised when actions follow suit?

Of course the negative political ads keep the venom flowing freely. Is there anyone remotely decent running for any office?

So who really benefits from all this division?

Politicians fire up their bases with name-calling and knocking down strawmen. They caricature the opposition, painting them as complete idiots.

Republicans want to poison the air and water. They hate teachers.

Democrats are recruiting illegal immigrant murderers to steal jobs and live off welfare.

Why do politicians talk like this? It keeps campaign donations pouring in, and it gives them a shot at political power. Right and wrong don't matter to (enough of) them. It's all about winning elections and controlling government.

The media also benefits from division. When there are big stories, there are big audiences. How much incentive does the media have to tone things down? Toned down rhetoric means toned down ratings and toned down revenue. Who watches the news when all is right with the world?

Can't we, the public, see where this is leading? Apparently a lot of Americans want to believe the worst. Apparently we like to give power to knuckleheads. We like to cheer for "our side," and want to eradicate those who disagree.

Those with the microphones are baiting us. Those who thrive on division have been working hard to sow it. We fight among ourselves, while the elite laugh all the way to the bank or the capitol. But we have reached a tipping point now. The amplified voices now fear that their efforts to divide us for the sake of money and power have worked too well. We have taken the bait, hook, line, and sinker.

But I hold out hope that there are more Americans who can see what's happening here. We don't have to believe the worst about those who disagree with us. They might actually have something valuable to say. They may not be evil at all. They may be interested in helping people. They may care about freedom and ending poverty, even if their pathway to "better" is different from ours.

Those who have all this power only have it because we give it to them. Let's stop assuming the worst. Let's start listening. Let's start caring about people--even those who disagree with us. We are smarter than this.

Jesus told his disciples, "My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 12-13) Let's make more friends and lay down our lives.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Discoveries: Reflections on 30 years of this

I've been doing this for 30 years now. I was ordained as a pastor on November 20, 1988 at Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, NC. As this milestone approaches, I have been trying to mine out the nuggets or distill the essence of whatever wisdom I have gained.

So tomorrow I'm beginning a sermon series based on my ministry experiences and personal growth. I have only served three churches, including Crossroads, so I'll be sharing about my discoveries with each place of ministry.

I began my pastor-life in November 1988 at Coolidge Memorial Baptist Church in Coolidge, Ga. Lisa and I had been married more than two years, so at least we could approach life as a team. We faced considerable challenges learning the local culture, and often found ourselves feeling rather lonely.

In March of 1991 we moved to NC, serving Comer's Chapel Baptist Church in Madison. There I had numerous distant cousins in the congregation. These were people whom I had never met, and had not heard of; but they knew and spoke of my late grandparents. It felt like a meaningful connection, and helped us feel more like we belonged. There we learned about real connections and their importance for life and ministry.

In September of 1999 we were sent by Comer's Chapel as missionaries to Stokesdale, where we founded Crossroads Community Church. We didn't know anyone in town, even though Stokesdale is only about 10 miles from Madison. It was just the four of us. Our daughters were 3 and 5 years old. We launched out in faith, trusting God to provide for and sustain us.

Today, I realize how important listening is--listening to others, to the Holy Spirit, to my wife, and to my own soul. While I expected by now to have all the answers to all the questions--doctrinal debates, ministry practices, social stances--I still have lots of questions. But maybe now I can at least frame the questions better, and meet all kinds of people right where they are.

Here's the new series:
October 28  Living through Loneliness
November 4  Connecting for Real
November 11  Launching Out in Faith
November 18  Listening for Life

Hope to see you at Crossroads, Sundays at 10:00!