almost heaven

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“Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue ridge mountains, Shenandoah river…” And now most of you will have John Denver stuck in your head for the rest of the day. My apologies to my West Virginian friends, but I’ve never really thought of West Virginia as being “almost heaven”. For that matter, I have never thought about Odessa, TX or Flint, MI, or even Chattanooga, TN as being almost heaven either. Well at least not geographically. However, when I stop to think about some of my encounters in each of these places, I begin to see heaven breaking through a little bit. Bob Benson wrote a poem called Looking for the Threads that I think catches what I’m trying to say:

I used to think,
loving life so greatly,
that to die would be like
leaving the party before the end.

But now I know
that the party is really happening
somewhere else.
That the light and the music
escaping in snatches,
to make the pulse beat faster
and the tempo quicken,
comes from another place.

And I know, too,
that when I get there,
the music and the love and the praise
will belong to him
and the music will never end.

Maybe that’s the almost heaven part? The “light and the music escaping in snatches”. I like the way the writer of Revelation put’s it in his final description, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 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 21:1, 3-4. That new heaven and new earth part sounds pretty awesome. Because I think what limits our scope of heaven and seeing the “light and the music escaping in snatches” is because we are encumbered by time, death, distance, sickness, etc.

Maybe we’ve all experienced the “almost heaven” part, but our vision is limited by those things that will soon pass away. Maybe my visions of heaven in Odessa, TX will come to fruition in the new heaven and earth. I can see me spending a large part of eternity sitting around with Kenny Mayes and just talking about the goodness of God (and hopefully it will feel and smell a bit like his shop). Maybe my vision of heaven in Flint, MI won’t be hampered by the cold and the snow and some of the brokenness that has come to falsely label this great city. I can see myself spending a good part of eternity walking in the fresh grass with Sam Owens just laughing about how grace welcomed us both in. Maybe even the visions of heaven I’ve had from the town I grew up in will fully blossom as one day I find myself fishing with my grandfathers  Raymond Arp and Garland Patterson (who I never got to meet) and us just enjoying being fully in the presence of each other and God.

I’ve never really enjoyed moving away from a place…and it has nothing to do with the geography or the restaurants or the sights or the entertainment venues or any of that stuff. That’s not what defines life for me. But the people who have shaped and changed mine and my family’s life are for me the part that is almost heaven. And much like that same song, they are the path that will help to, “take me home to the place I belong.” This life is short, but I’m beginning to see how beautiful heaven will be through all the folks who have been Jesus to me.

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boxed in

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This morning I write surrounded by boxes. It really is amazing how much stuff we humans acquire. Here’s a test for you. If you think yourself a minimalist, just try moving once. It really can be mind boggling. So here I sit surrounded by cardboard and chaos. But it really is a picture of something much larger than myself. Over the last almost sixteen years of marriage my wife and I have had the privilege of living in Tennessee, Florida, Michigan and Texas. And you know what we’ve found? People are beautiful and amazing and incredible no matter where we live. We have found more in common with people we never thought we would connect with because of our ability to experience different cultures and communities all over these United States. The scary thing is that it seems like these days we are led to believe there is more that separates us than unites us.

But let’s be honest for a moment. The way in which many of our lives are lived today only helps to contribute to the ease of which we are divided. We listen to the same news sources, we dine and discuss with the same folks, we read the same literature, we go to church with similar minded people and we rarely break out of our routines. We are boxed in more so than my current writing environment. And so, if we are led to believe that there is more that separates us, than unites us, then it becomes easier to embrace as a mindset. In his travel book Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain had this to say about living our lives boxed in, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” And honestly, you don’t have to travel across the world to gain these perspectives…sometimes you just need to go to the other side of town.

We who claim the title of Christ should be very careful how our worldviews cause us to perceive one another. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul writes this, “Since you have taken off your old self with its practicesand have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” – Colossians 3:9b-11 Because of Christ these labels that society is quick to pick up and employ do not exist anymore. We don’t see each other through the lenses of mass media or liberal or conservative or democrat or republican or citizen or refugee or rich or poor or whatever the dividing line might be. We see all as if we are seeing them as Christ in flesh. But in order to do that we have to get outside of our boxed in worlds and realize Christ has called us to so much more. So I sit this morning surrounded by boxes…but I know they are about to lead me to new people to love through Christ.


the cloud

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As we have for a few years now, my family and I spent the better part of the month of June with family in Northwest GA and Southeast TN. This is always an amazing time filled with cousins, swimming, day camps and food…we always seem to be eating. And I love this area of the country because it’s so familiar. I love the views of the mountains and the valleys and even the way the clouds roll in quickly before a thunderstorm; which seems to happen almost every summer afternoon. The crazy thing is that this familiar view also greeted us as we rolled back into Odessa a week ago. As we came in on the highway from Midland we could see lightning in the distance and the familiar cloud formations rolling in as Odessa was blessed with much needed rain. And luckily for us, we were able to get our car unloaded before the deluge hit.

There’s a verse in scripture that alludes to what the presence of a cloud might be in our own lives. “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 recently was flying from Odessa back to Atlanta before our trek back into town and our entire flight was dictated by the presence of clouds (albeit storm clouds) in Atlanta. After we boarded, an hour later than scheduled, we then had to sit on the tarmac for an extra hour. Once we did get clearance to take off, most of the flight was smooth…until we began to descend into Atlanta. I guess the only way I can describe it is by the rides I seek to avoid at the amusement park i.e. it was a roller coaster of a landing. It was crazy how these clouds effected everything we were a part of even from a distance.

 

This Sunday I will begin delivering my last series of sermons for the people of Odessa First Church of the Nazarene. 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 serve for over three years in Odessa, TX.  And this cloud continues to grow as we prepare to serve alongside the families of Nashville First Church of the Nazarene in a few short weeks. 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.


ground rules

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So I know this may not come as much of a surprise, but I love having fun. I love playing games and being crazy. But one of the most important things you have to take into account when having fun is you have to make sure everyone understands the rules. As recently as this week, I was part of one such occurrence. This Monday was our annual Memorial Day picnic for our church. Since it was going to be roughly about 1,000 degrees outside, my wife and I decided to fill up water balloons to bring to the park for the kids. But before the battle could ensue, I had to make sure everyone understood the ground rules. No hitting anyone in the face. Little kids this is your bucket and big kids this is your bucket. Make sure you step five steps away before you begin to throw. And thanks to these simple ground rules, everyone had fun, no one got hurt and we all were able to cool off for a little bit.

I feel like lately though, we as adults have forgotten how to have fun and get along. Even in the church we have allowed ourselves to succumb to worldly division and talk that just doesn’t belong. Remember Paul said to the Philippians once upon a time regarding the world and the church that, “Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven.” – Philippians 3:19-20 So to help us on a little refresher course and make sure everyone gets along, I decided to help us out with a few ground rules today.

  • In the Kingdom of God, it is never okay to refer to other children of God as animals. Regardless of what someone has done, Jesus died to save us all. Sure in Scientific classification we are all animals, but this is the church and not science class. Therefore let’s all refer to each other as humans or even brother or sister.
  • In the Kingdom of God it is never okay to compare a person of color, particularly an African American, to a monkey or an ape. This is not only dehumanizing but historically very racist.
  • In the Kingdom of God we don’t fly or promote symbols that are linked to racism. And although you may claim the flag of the Confederate States of America is historical in nature, it was a history that fought to keep my son in chains and for the right to own people. Let’s keep it in the text books and out of our yards or off our clothing.
  • In the Kingdom of God it is never okay to refer to women as gals or chicks or anything that would make them feel less than the equally gifted and called children of God that they are. And let’s also stop blaming them for the violence, abuse and even rape that for centuries has gone unreported, even in the church.
  • In the Kingdom of God we don’t think less of anyone because of their country of origin or their international and/or undocumented status. We seek to be Christ to all because at some point someone was Christ to us.
  • In the Kingdom of God we seek to know a person’s name and award them their humanity regardless of their perceived status. A whole lot of misunderstanding and hurt will be avoided if we simply get to know each other.

I know sometimes that people think the world has become insane or difficult to manage, but these ground rules really aren’t that hard to follow. At the end of the day if we simply start treating other people as if we are all one, instead of us versus them, we would get a lot further. After all, Paul said in his letter to Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28 And if you are still struggling as to how to implement these simple ground rules, maybe we can take it back to the words of Christ himself, “Therefore, you should treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you; this is the Law and the Prophets.” – Matthew 7:12 I hope this all helps. Now go out there and have fun and love people for the children of God they are.


the best medicine

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When I learned to read I quickly became a little predictable. You see, we had this book that my parents got every once in a while and every time they would get it I would find myself rifling through the pages until I got to a certain section. It was either “Humor in Uniform”, “Life in these United States” or “The Best Medicine”. The publication was called The Reader’s Digest and I went straight for the joke sections. I remember going to my grandparents house and seeing their Sunday paper and going straight for the comics section (as long as my PaPaw was done with his puzzles). For a while I feel like I was almost obsessed with reading “The Far Side” or “Hogarth the Horrible” or “Get Fuzzy”. So yesterday, the superlatives at a teacher’s meeting for the end of the school year really didn’t come as too much of a surprise. That’s right, yours truly was awarded the Staff Comedian. Someone even asked if I was given the award because they were laughing with me or at me…? My response, “Yes”.

But I treasure this award…truly. I see laughter as a reflection of joy and I hold joy in the utmost regard when it comes to the life of faith. When the apostle Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit, you know the things in our life we see as a result of the living presence of God within us, it goes a little like this, “ But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” – Galatians 5:22-23 The first one on the list makes a lot of sense. After all, God is love. But the second one? Joy?!? It’s that important that it gets picked second. There is a story in the Old Testament where the people of Israel are overcome with grief and guilt. They had finished rebuilding the temple wall and in the process had discovered anew the law. After hearing it read the people began to weep because of how far they had fallen, but this is the response: “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Don’t mourn or weep…Go, eat rich food, and drink something sweet,” he said to them, “and send portions of this to any who have nothing ready! This day is holy to our Lord. Don’t be sad, because the joy from the Lord is your strength!” – Nehemiah 8:9-10 The joy of the Lord is your strength!

Laughter to me is a natural reflection of joy. I remember my wife and I reading about the biology of laughter some time ago. Evidently laughter, true laughter, is an almost involuntary response when your brain gets surprised…literally tickled. It’s our bodies way of showing us there is a new way to see the things around us and sometimes it can even be silly or absurd or flat out funny. Laughter is a reflection of learning and a way of showing us the joy to be found in and through the world around us. Maybe it might not be the best literal medicine (my money is on ibuprofen), but it does make life a little more livable. And if God’s joy is our strength and a reflection of the presence of God in our lives, then let’s find more things to smile, laugh and be joyful about each day.


fire fighters

 

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This Sunday is a significant Sunday for the life of the Church…actually it is the celebration of the life of the Church, because it’s the Church’s birthday! Pentecost Sunday is the day we commemorate the reception of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the movement that came to be known as the Church. The story goes a little something like this, “When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit” – Acts 2:1-4 And from that moment on the world would never be the same. I love the description for the presence of the Holy Spirit; wind and fire. (Add earth and you’ve got a soul-filled experience, I couldn’t help myself). But these two movements in nature are both powerful and mysterious, yet how often do we think of the action of the Church in terms of wind or fire today?

Often the Church is more of a comfortable movement in the world today. We hear passages from scripture and rather than being spurred on or challenged, we simply seek to be affirmed or comforted in the station or position in life in which we currently exist. Take for instance this passage from Paul to the church in Thessalonica, “Make sure no one repays a wrong with a wrong, but always pursue the good for each other and everyone else. Rejoice always. Pray continually. Give thanks in every situation because this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Don’t suppress the Spirit.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:15-19 That sounds good. Don’t repay wrongs, rejoice and be prayerful, give thanks and don’t suppress the Spirit…wait, what!?! The Greek word is actually sbennymi, which meant to extinguish. Don’t extinguish the Spirit? But think about it for a minute. This is the presence of God that on the day of Pentecost was described as a fierce wind and fire. What is it about the movement of the Church today that resembles a fierce wind or fire?

In his book, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis is describing the four children’s preparation for their first meeting with Aslan. The children become a bit scared when they realize that Aslan is a lion. Here’s how the conversation concludes, “’Then he isn’t safe?’ said Lucy. ‘Safe?’ said Mr Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you’.” I think that’s where safety has taken over the flow of the Spirit in the Church today. We want the action of the Spirit to be safe, comfortable, fit our schedule, pat us on the back and tell us we’re doing okay. But what we don’t realize is that in doing so we are fighting the very fire of God that continually seeks to set the church ablaze. When we seek to control the Spirit or dictate how the Holy Spirit must work in our churches or in another’s life we are actually extinguishing that which is unpredictable. And yet God does not force us to remain in the flames of His love. In fact it’s quite easy to suppress the presence and power of God when our agendas of safety, comfort and control take over. So what will it be this Pentecost? Will we find ourselves consumed by the mystery of a God who is nowhere near safe, but good? Or will we continue to suppress the very Spirit that gave birth to Kingdom of God on earth?

Maybe it’s high time we put down the fire extinguishers.

 

 


women of valor

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It’s coming up on that time of year again. For some it can be a very joyous time. For others, it can be one of the worst struggles of the year. Strangely enough I’m talking about Mother’s Day. I remember for seven years of infertility, this was one of the most difficult Sunday’s in the church calendar. I even remember one year, shortly after a miscarriage, that my wife was even called upon to help hand out Mother’s Day gifts to the moms who were there that Sunday. And I imagine this Sunday can be difficult like that for a variety of reasons. Perhaps you have lost your mother this year. Maybe you don’t get to be with your family. Perhaps you’ve never had the family you wished for. None of these things should make you feel less or even allow a church to overlook you in their festivities. If anything, Monther’s Day should be a celebration of women regardless of their stage in life or the identity by which they are known.

One of the most frustrating things to me as a male is the degree to which we as the church often reflect society in the means of which we ask our women to measure up. Sometimes, even on Mother’s Day, women in the church feel the need to evaluate themselves based on a rubric that I’m sure the Bible never intended. Why in the world a Hallmark Card holiday would bring about this type of self-evaluation, I don’t know…but the phenomenon exists all the same. One of the passages of scripture that often gets pulled out for this type of self-inventory is Proverbs 31:10-31. This passage of scripture is known traditionally among the Jewish people as Eshet Chayil or The Woman of Valor. And if we read it at face value it can be intimidating…can a woman really be expected to do all of these things? If this is the ruler that anyone is expected to measure themselves by then not only would our women fall short, but I’m pretty sure most of the men would as well.

Sometimes, though, it pays to seek out an understanding of a Jewish text from Jewish history. I know it sounds crazy. But when it comes to this passage, the Eshet Chayil, before every Sabbath, a husband would read/recite this poem to his wife to praise her for all that she is (not all that she has done). It wasn’t a score card…but an embellishment and adoration of all that she was and meant to her husband and family before they entered into the rest of Sabbath. It reads a lot different now. Hear these words as if in adulation from a husband to his wife,

“‘Many women act competently,
    but you surpass them all!’
Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting,
    but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” – Proverbs 31:29-30

And women of the church…this is who you are. When you enter through the doors of the sanctuary on Sunday morning, you are a woman of valor. When you find yourself worshiping although you are broken by years of infertility, you are a woman of valor. When you join the congregation in prayer although you’ve lost your own mother or even a child, you are a woman of valor. When you celebrate in the means of grace even though it seems you may never be called ‘mom’, you are a woman of valor. When you participate in the body of Christ, even when you feel misunderstood or undervalued, you are a woman of valor; and your worth is far greater than jewels.

 


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