Moving across the country is for the birds. Literally. Granted their migration pattern is usually north to south, but moving is just not that much fun. As some of you reading this know my family just recently moved from Flint, MI to Odessa, TX via Chattanooga, TN. For those keeping track that is roughly 1800 miles, 3 overnight hotel visits, countless car DVDs and a lot of Cracker Barrel stops. Needless to say when we finally arrived in Odessa we were both relieved and exhausted. Then came the ice. Now a lot of our Odessa family have been trying to hand out blame regarding the ice’s arrival being so close to ours, but let me assure you…we left the cold in Michigan (or at least tried to). Cut to two days later and we even lost power at the parsonage on the Saturday before our first Sunday. Add in two more hotel stays due to our powerless state and it makes for an extremely memorable move and introductory Sunday at Odessa First Church of the Nazarene.
All the while in the midst of this last week I was having conversations with God that seemed to go a bit like this. “God, are you sure we are making the right move?” “God, this seems like more than my family and I can bare.” “God…I need you…” It started to sound like an exchange we find in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” – II Corinthians 12:9-10 I wasn’t pleading with God to necessarily take away a “messenger from Satan”, but it has been a long time in my life since I have felt so powerless, both figuratively and literally. Over our time with the families at Christmas I had gotten the stomach flu, our dog had been sick, my wife had gotten a sinus infection she is still on the mend from and did I mention we were moving halfway across the country.
I don’t tell you this to garner sympathy, but to point to the One whose strength shone through in my difficulties. Our first Sunday here was awesome. We felt so loved and we sensed God’s Spirit in such an amazing way. Even now into my first week in the office I have seen God’s hand in so many ways and sensed His leading and guidance as we start to walk with the people here at Odessa First. We know God is walking with us and we are assured that this move is in His hands. And I now know I can take refuge in my powerless state and ultimately in my weakness…for when I feel weak, I lean into God’s strength and know He is strong.
This Christmas season my family and I spent the holidays with our extended families in Northwest GA and Southeast TN. This is always an amazing time filled with laughter and food…lots of food. Even Christmas morning began with a large breakfast that my dad and sister prepared at her house. On the way in though, my mom pointed out to me a print my sister had recently bought that she thought I would like. It was a picture of a pastor preaching in a pulpit. The beautiful thing about the picture were the ghostlike silhouettes of the men surrounding the pastor while he spoke. You could clearly see Jesus, Moses, Peter and David among others who had their hands upon the pastor as he shared God’s word. The funny thing is that my mom had even contacted the artist to see about how much it would be to paint me into the print as a gift; needless to say, it was a bit too much.
But I do love the verse that was an inspiration for this painting. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us , fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our faith.” – Hebrews 12:1-2 I love the imagery played out in the the text. I don’t know if you quite get what it means to be surrounded by a cloud, but I had a recent experience with this. While we were in Chattanooga for Christmas we also visited one of my wife’s lifelong friends who lives on Signal Mountain on Christmas Eve Eve. I think the clouds must have come down and swallowed the mountain because our visibility was roughly about -20 feet. Because of her propensity towards car sickness my wife had driven up the mountain, but as soon as we got to the top she pulled over because you really could only see about 10 feet in front of you. And so I drove roughly the speed of a sloth the rest of the way to her friend’s house. The fog/cloud/whatever you would like to label it was so overwhelming it effected everything we did from that point forward.
This Sunday I will be delivering my first sermon as a lead pastor for a body of believers. This has been a roller coaster of an adventure and I would be lying if I didn’t say that I wasn’t terrified and excited all at the same time. But I do know one thing. When I step onto the stage on Sunday it is only through the power of God and the presence of the overwhelming cloud of witnesses that go with me that I am able to do so. This cloud has gone with me from Rossville, GA to Nashville, TN, by way of Yulee, FL while building up strength in Flint, MI in order to make the trip to Odessa, TX. This cloud is filled with families and loved ones who have cared for my family, invested in my ministry, prayed for me daily and loved me beyond words. Even as I type this your faces flash before me as my eyes fill with tears and I thank God for him bringing us together. It is only by the grace of God and your presence in my life that I can even call myself pastor. And I am both humbled and challenged by your cloud-like presence in my life. So I will continue to run with perseverance the race marked out for me. And I will boldly proclaim the love of Christ to a world that so desperately needs it. All the while knowing that I am surrounded by a cloud that is a testament to the love and faithfulness of the God we all serve.
Sometimes there’s a word that keeps coming up in your world regardless of the context. For instance, as many of you know, the Arps are in the process of moving. And so on many of the boxes that contained our earthly possessions we printed the word “Fragile”. And not because we are necessarily particularly fond of these possessions, but more than likely because we cannot afford to replace said possessions. These last few days this term has also taken on new meaning to me as I became the victim of one of the latest strands of a stomach virus and realized just how “fragile” I was. There is nothing like twenty-four desperate hours spent clinging to a ceramic bowl to remind you just how delicate your body’s balance is. To think that the body can be completely disrupted or even destroyed by an entity that is roughly 1/100th the size of an average bacteria.* It gives whole new meaning to the word “fragile”. And yet, at this time of year this takes on even more meaning for those of us belonging to The Way.
Our entire faith walk is built around the belief that our God took on flesh and made his dwelling among us. The apostle Paul puts it this way in in his letter to the church in Phillipi. “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” – Philippians 2:6-7. Now let’s think a little bit about the gravity of that. God, who existed fully in the Triune form before the world began, chose to empty himself of all Divine Power in order to become human…in order to reconcile us to Him. He chose to embrace all of our fragility in order to redeem our humanity. This is a whole other spin on the huge expansiveness of Advent.
To think that God would choose to experience all that we experience. That he would willingly suffer through the fragility of human pain, sickness, weakness, grief, etc. in order to show us what love made flesh looked like is beyond massive. This is the gospel. And to simply call this good news is like calling an 8.0 earthquake a slight trimmer. This is the greatest, most insane, logic-defying, life-giving, death defying, event the universe has ever, or will ever know. And the wonder behind it all is that He looked at us in our fragile state and wanted to do it. “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:6-8
I know what fragile things look like. I know what it feels like to be fragile. And I belong to a God who chose to become fragile to redeem His bride, the church and I can’t think of anything more amazing to celebrate this Christmas season.
* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virus accessed on December 23 2014 at 7:36 AM
Someone asked me tonight if I was happy to be moving to Texas. And I answered yes. But then I quickly followed it up with, “but I am sad to leave Michigan”. I honestly never thought I would say those words. But over the last seven years Michigan has been home to my family and I. We have seen our share of heartache and blessings. The loss of close friends. The birth of our daughter. New friendships formed and some lost. Four different homes and many different pastoral colleagues. So I am more than a bit sad about leaving this community.
And I am also excited as a look ahead to Texas. There is a community who has placed their trust in God and in us to lead them. There are new opportunities for service and a chance to stretch myself in ministry. There are new adventures to be had and a new community to be grafted into. So I am also happy about that.
But I do take joy in the fact that eventually we will all be one. One with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. And there won’t be any more goodbyes. In fact, John puts I this way,
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4 NIV) And so, befitting the destination I find myself heading to, I leave you with these immortal words by Dale Evans Rogers. Take comfort in our destination and the trail that leads us heavenward.
Some trails are happy ones,
Others are blue.
It’s the way you ride the trail that counts,
Here’s a happy one for you.
Happy trails to you, until we meet again.
Happy trails to you, keep smilin’ until then.
Who cares about the clouds when we’re together?
Just sing a song and bring the sunny weather.
Happy trails to you, ’till we meet again.
This last Wednesday the teens of Central and I visited a familiar passage to many of us. The passage speaks of a parable when the Son of Man returns in His Glory and separates all of the nations into segments, much like a shepherd separates the sheep and the goats of a herd. To the “sheep” on the right He extends an invitation into eternal reward based upon their seemingly unconscious service to the least of these. To the “goats” on his left he denies this same invitation due to their seemingly unknowing ignorance of the least of these. (Matthew 25:31-46). The trouble with this parable is that I always had trouble differentiating why the goats were bad and the sheep were good. I mean, aside from their sometimes general ornery nature I always felt that goats were pretty okay. And sheep could be pretty ornery as well to be honest. But then I began to think about their eating natures. Goats are notorious for consuming. Not only do they eat everything*, but they consume at massive rates without regard for each other or whoever else might be around. On the other hand, sheep eat grass. That’s it. They only consume what they need in order to provide for those around them, albeit unknowingly (wool and sometimes mutton).
Now let’s take it back to the parable. The goats are those who consume resources at an astonishing rate without giving thought to those around them. All of a sudden the parable begins to make a bit more sense. ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ – Matthew 25:44 When you were consuming resources and looking out for number one you completely missed the least of these. I imagine this would be a more appropriate modern vernacular response. And on the flip side the sheep weren’t even aware of the fact that they were caring for the least of these. “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’” – Matthew 25:37-39. They were so used to giving of what they had and sharing their resources that it was a surprise that this was a service to God.
But that’s the thing. God has a huge place in his heart for the least, the last place, the outcast, the oppressed. And He expects us to have the same heart. I came across a quote from Dorothy Day this week that kicked me right in the teeth regarding this. “I really only love God as much as the person I love the least.” Go ahead and read it again. Let it sink in. Maybe we need to realize that our love for God is ultimately reflected in our love for the least. And that we are called to be sheep seeking for a way to provide instead of to consume.
* I was recently told by a friend who owns some goats that this may not be true…although they do eat a lot.
The Arp family has a little tradition around the dinner table that we borrowed from some friends of ours. Every time we gather around the dinner table we find time to say what we are thankful for that day. Now this can be very varied depending on the day and the kids moods, but most of the time it is a reflection on the blessings that we feel we have received. And why not? Most of the time, at least in Western culture I think it is important to be thankful for the insane privilege and blessings that we enjoy. I’m not saying this as a bad thing, it’s just that we enjoy an amazing amount of privilege and wealth compared to many in the rest of the world. Which got me thinking; is being thankful enough?
The word that we use for this time of year and for the upcoming holiday is Thanksgiving. Which finds it’s roots in scripture strangely enough. And I think it’s always a good thing to find scriptural roots of modern concepts; if they exist. Who am I kidding? I find scriptural relevance in almost everything. But in this instance, the Hebrew word we translate as thanksgiving is towdah and can be better translated as thanks offering. Now I am not the greatest Hebrew scholar, but I feel like when the word offering is involved there is a bit more sacrificial giving involved than the passing of wind over the vocal chords in some word of thanks. There is an implication of action. Of doing. Of sacrificing.
Now for me, there is this always this one verse in scripture that I come back to with some sense of conviction when I think about thankfulness and blessings. Luke 12:48 says, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” And we are a very materially blessed people. Even those of you reading this who are struggling financially are in the top 5% of the world’s wealthiest.* But I think the implication behind the text above is that being thankful isn’t really enough in and of itself. Being thankful and giving of what you have i.e. thanksgiving is more of the proper response. Time and time again we are reminded of our responsibility to give and to care for those around us. And maybe that’s what this season can really be for us. A reminder not to count our material blessings and fill our bellies, but rather a reminder to see how we might be able to bless those around us and fill the bellies of those who can’t fill their own. Maybe then we will fulfill the law of love and give with thankful hearts out of what we have been given.
*http://www.globalrichlist.com/ Stat based on an annual income of $18,000 annual salary which is below the US Poverty line
Greetings Central Church Family,
A few months ago I remember hearing the song Oceans by Hillsong. If you’ve ever listened to Christian radio for five minutes you know what song I am referring to. And I immediately loved the song, but I was also struck by the words of the bridge,
“Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior”
Was this where I was living? Was I willing to follow where my faith was without borders? You see, Central Church has been an amazing place of service for us over the past almost seven years. And when we first came here it was a huge step of faith. I never dreamed in all my life that I would come to Michigan. It get’s cold there…and they don’t have Chik-Fil-A, yet…But Central Church welcomed my family and I in a way befitting the family of God. As we have served here we have learned what it means to rely upon a church family even when you can’t be close to your real extended family.
Now back to the trust without borders part. Last week the congregation at Odessa First Church of the Nazarene in Odessa, TX voted to call me as their Senior Pastor. This is a huge faith step for Crystal and I. But we take it in full confidence in God and because of what this church has showed us over the last seven years.
A quick note to my students and their families. This decision does not come lightly. In fact, this is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do…and I am still not sure it makes sense. But then again, neither does stepping out of a boat in a raging storm. But we know the God we love and serve sometimes calls us to make decisions that don’t always make sense. So please know, this decision is not meant to hurt you or your families. We love you. And we will forever carry Central with us in our hearts…and there is always Facebook.
We also look forward to spending the next few weeks with you and the time of reminiscing and story telling that I am sure will ensue. But please know this isn’t an easy decision for us. It is however, a reflection of trust in the God we all still serve. And this isn’t really good-bye…it’s just we’ll see you soon. Thank you for allowing us to serve you. Thank you for loving my family and I.
Grace and Peace