Having now been a senior pastor for roughly about a month or so I have to say there are a few things that I love about this vocation that weren’t always available to me while serving as a youth pastor. I love the immediate interaction with every age demographic. It doesn’t matter if the layperson is 2 or 102, I am now their pastor (how cool is that?!?). I love being allowed to lead people into worship and prayer while listening for the voice of God in our lives every Sunday morning. And I love the interactions on Sunday morning and throughout the week that have come to characterize my life as a result of this. One particular interaction that I keep coming back to is something that happened this last week as we were serving communion for Family First Sunday. I noticed one of our youngest worshipers, who was roughly around my son’s age come through our Intinction line pretty early on in the procession with his grandmother. And then as we were almost done I noticed this same young man in the back of my line. As he came to the front he looked up at me and whispered under his breath, “I’ve already been up here” and smiled from ear to ear. I simply stooped down, smiled from ear to ear and whispered, “I know”.
Now as anyone who remembers being an 8-yr-old boy or has ever been the parent of an 8-yr-old boy knows, more than likely he wasn’t returning to the front because of his deep theological yearnings to celebrate the Eucharist. In fact, he probably just wanted some more bread and juice. He was hungry. But what a picture! When we celebrate The Lord’s Supper we are participating in something bigger than ourselves. We are proclaiming our alliance and our identity in this ancient feast that our Lord instituted. The apostle Paul put in this way in 1 Corinthians 11:26, “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” By taking into ourselves the body and blood of Jesus Christ we are in a sense dying to ourselves in order to live for Him.
So now let’s revisit being in line again for Communion. Shouldn’t we also be hungry to remind ourselves of Whose we are? Sometimes we can be overcome by our own appetites and desires so much so that it deplete the image of Christ in us. We find ourselves chasing after things that ultimately lead to us becoming more full of ourselves than of Christ. I find it so important to establish those practices, those reminders, those disciplines that call my hunger back to the true source of Life. If I am ever empty, I know my appetite isn’t in tune with where in needs to be and I find the need to jump back in line. So maybe a few of us could stand to get in line again to be filled with the presence of Christ to align our hunger for Him.
For those of you who may not be following my family or I on other forms of social media I need to fill you in a bit. We have been sick. My wife and I for the most part have avoided the above referenced events, but our kids…well, they haven’t. And it’s kind of scary when kids get sick. You’re used to seeing these tiny humans navigate life at a ballistic pace and then all of a sudden they are reduced to couch sloths who want to binge watch Netflix kid programming that in turn might make you sick. But the scariest part to me of my kids getting sick is and always has been the fever. I guess this is partly due to the fact that I never run a fever and so it is quite foreign to be, but fevers are just weird. All of a sudden the body, via the Hypothalamus decides that the best way to treat the foreign invasion is by over-heating. This results in increased muscle tone, vasoconstriction, shivering and your kid becoming a human heating pad. It’s pretty crazy stuff. And eventually, if unchecked, the fevers can even become deadly. The body can, in it’s attempt at self-defense, roast itself to death. So yeah, fevers are a little troubling.
That which is meant for defense can turn deadly. It’s almost reminiscent to me of the struggle of the human will. The apostle Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Roman church, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” – Romans 7:19 Paul is alluding to the very war within the body that the will is waging with sin. The human will want’s to do the good, but often ends up doing harm.* Paul goes on though in the next chapter to give us hope for that which holds us back, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus“. The allusion being to that which he talks about in Galatians of being crucified with Christ. The Spirit of God within us puts to death the struggle of wills because it is no longer I who struggle against sin, but the Spirit of God within me that sets me free.
The scary part about kids being sick is that you feel like you always have to monitor them. Is the fever getting better? Is it getting worse? Are they acting more strange than usual? Likewise the presence of God’s Spirit in our lives must be given attention to. Am I giving myself over to God’s Spirit today? Am I producing fruit in line with who God is? Is it my will or thy will? Honestly, giving over the fever of ourselves to God isn’t easy. But the health and growth that occur when we sacrifice our will to God is something that not only leaves us changed, but also those around us. One might even say it’s contagious, but very much unlike the stuff my kids have been passing around. So may you find yourselves being made well by the presence of God’s Spirit today and see how it spreads into the lives of those you come in contact with.
*I realize this analogy is a bit of a stretch as fevers rarely do harm, but it is a possibility. And hopefully this post hasn’t incensed you germaphobes to reach for the hand sanitizer.
Yesterday on the drive into school my kids and I ended up on the subject of death. Now granted, this isn’t a subject that often enters our realm of family discussion, but for some reason it came up yesterday. And in my fatherly wisdom I found myself saying these encouraging words, “Well, we all die someday”. Fortunately my son quickly interjected, “That’s ok. Because that’s the way we get to heaven.” (Luckily my kids somehow survive despite their dad’s morbid view of reality). But let’s face it. We all know the two things we are guaranteed in life are “death and taxes”. And sometimes we in the church struggle with our mortality and how to relate it to our immortality. We sometimes think that the blessings of the life to come aren’t real if they don’t somehow resonate in our current setting…but this isn’t really the gospel.
In some of the last teachings we see Jesus delivering to His disciples before his trial and death we read these words from the book of John, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33 Oftentimes I think we misread this verse. We see ourselves as the “overcomers” of the world when we are really are only guaranteed to “have trouble”. The word in the verse above we read for trouble or tribulation is the Greek word, thlipsis. It’s most literal translation is “pressure” and it comes from the idea of ruts being worn into a path/road. Tell me that’s not encouraging. In this life you will get potholes. And really it’s the one thing we are guaranteed…this world will eventually end us if Jesus doesn’t return first.
Luckily that’s not where the story ends. Although we may lose, although we may be overcome, beat down, pressured, etc. this is not the End. Jesus tells us to be at peace as he has overcome the world. He has claimed victory over the temporal limitations of this world and made a way through death into life. And so we find peace. Truthfully this isn’t easy. When the ruts worn into us come through things like sickness, brokenness, bills, debts, familial discord, job loss, and grief we long to be the ones who overcome. But at the end of the day we don’t overcome…we take comfort in He who has overcome and speaks these words to us in the final book, “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.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” – Revelation 21:4-5. The faith that we hold onto places it’s confidence in a God who has not only overcome but promises to make all things new. This is how we are not overcome ourselves and find peace even in the midst of the storms of life.
And truthfully, we who are called of Christ are also called to comfort and proclaim good news to those who have been overcome by life and it’s troubles. Our calling is not simply to look to the life to come but also to bring God’s Kingdom to earth. Often times we find peace in serving those who themselves can’t find peace.
So may you take heart today. May you find peace and bring peace to others through Christ our Lord; the one who has overcome.
Moving to Odessa has allowed me to reengage with one of my favorite activities; taking my son to school. I remember when he attended Pre-K right behind the youth building at our last church. Whenever the days were nice (so for about two weeks before school let out) we would walk to school. And then there were the car rides where we would pray and then rock out to something “heavy” like Mumford & Sons or Old Crow Medicine Show. Needless to say I have been thrilled to get this tradition added back into my daily routine. Since he has begun a new school, I have been walking him to class every day so far. And let’s be honest, I love this piece too. So on the drive in the other day, I asked him, “Hey buddy (that’s what I call him sometimes), do you want me to walk you in today?” “Yeah dad. I want you to walk me in all the time.” “All the time? Even when you are in High School?” “Yup. Because I love you dad.” Talk about a melt your heart moment.
Sometimes we refer to our Christian journey here on earth as a walk. And I think for the most part this is a pretty accurate analogy. I think the hard part for a lot of us is fathoming what it means to walk with/be in relationship with an infinite God as finite beings. Because of God being all around us, but not necessarily being physically tangible we have a hard time always being connected. But then I reflect on the words of the writer of Hebrews. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” – Hebrews 4:15-16. Jesus stepped into flesh in order to help us understand what it means to encounter the Divine. Not only that but He wants to walk with us in our trials and struggles in order for us to encounter grace and mercy at the throne of God.
I think about my son’s response before. I will always want to walk with him and help and assist him as much as I can. In fact, I am probably a breath away from being a helicopter parent. But I know that is not how love works. Love simply waits in the wings. Ready to be that hand to hold, that hug to give or that shoulder to cry on whenever it’s needed. God incarnate came to express that same love through humanity to us. He is ready to walk us through whatever life may throw at us. We just need to ask Him to walk us in and He will be right there with us. May you sense God’s presence walking you into life today as you never have before and may you be overwhelmed by the grace and mercy of our Heavenly Father.
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