Thursday, January 31, 2013

Seeds of Doubt: Fitting In

This Sunday, I am beginning a series at Stone's Throw Church called, "The Seeds of Doubt."  It is a four week series where I will be addressing various areas of life that cause us great doubt.  We set up a poll online and asked people to submit areas in their life where they experience great doubt.  I can't preach on every single issue so I have decided to blog about some of the doubts and questions raised as a supplement to the sermon material.

Today, I want to address the issue of fitting in and being accepted socially.  This submission stood out to me because many of the responses were about the problem of evil, why God allows bad things to happen to little children, and other seemingly serious theological issues.  This submission stuck out to me because it was simple and short and I think it resonates with everyone form a three year old child to the oldest person alive. It simply said, "Fitting in at school."

When we don't fit in we could begin to have serious doubt about ourselves, about others, about God's presence in our lives.  We were created to be in relationship with others.  God made sure we had friends when he created Adam and Eve.  His creation was not complete until humanity was in relationship with him and with each other.  So when we are out of tune with those around us it hurts pretty bad.

Not fitting in is the result of so many different factors it seems - clothes, style, culture, age, religious beliefs, being from a different neighborhood, awkward personality, being misunderstood.  I sometimes wish that every junior high student could fast forward to their parenting years before they ever said a mean thing to a kid in their class.  I asked my 7 year old song the other day what was the worst thing that happened to him that day (I also ask what was the best thing) and he told me that one of his classmates told him that they were no longer friends because he thought my son had told on him for talking when he wasn't supposed to.  My son assured me that they were friends again because his friend found out that my son had not actually told on him for talking during quiet time.  My heart was broken for just a minute as I imagined the days when I first learned that sometimes, people suck.  I remember the days when I first started to learn that some of us just won't fit in.

Why is this?  Simple - we sin and we are sinful.  We want to worship ourselves and we want our gods to want what we want.  Kids are mean to you at school because they have their own idols that they want to keep hidden.  They want to be powerful.  They want to be popular.  They want other people to like them.  The don't want anyone else to steal any of their thunder.  They may also just be sad and lonely themselves.  Their home could be dysfunctional, they could be practicing what has been preached to them, or they may have bitterness in their lives.

Not fitting in doesn't end when you graduate the 8th grade, 12th grade or college.  There will always be times in your life when you feel like the odd man out.  Older people feel this when they have retired and no longer feel useful.  Middle aged parents feel this when their children have taken over their social life.  Churches don't always do the best job of allowing others to "fit-in."  Maybe you don't feel like you fit in not because of anyone in particular but because you have grief in your own life and you aren't sure of yourself or why anyone would want to hang with you.

Let me get straight to the point now - Jesus did not fit in.  His disciples did not fit in.  Christians in the early church did not fit in.  I don't say that so that you will commiserate but rather so that you can understand that Jesus knows what it is like.  He knows what it is like when others want a piece of you.  He knows what it is like to be misunderstood.  He knows what it is like to not fit into the social norm.  Do not doubt God when you feel alone.  He has been there.  And he has promised that you are not alone.

Second, the desire to fit in usually comes from an identity issue.  We don't like who we are.  We are told that a healthy dose of self-esteem should get us through.  But self-esteem is more of the same.  Our identity has to be firmly locked in on Jesus Christ.  The Bible tells us that if we have come to faith in Jesus that we have a new identity - we have crossed over from death into life.  There may be times when we don't feel like we are a part of what is going on.  Is our identity in that party, that group, that line of clothing, that feeling, that power or that popularity?  Or is our identity in Jesus?

If you doubt God's care for you because of the way others are treating you, I'd like to encourage you to look into God's character.  He has always been King of the broken and lonely.  Allow the Holy Spirit to show you things about your identity in Christ.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

How To Get Your Friend To Like Church

I have always wondered how to get people to like church.  That is probably because I am a church planter and I want to see the churches that are planted grow and become noticeable in their community.  I have a special interest by nature of what I know my purpose in life is at this point in my life.  But what about people who don't consider themselves lead pastors of a church plant?

What about you Christian?  And what about you non-Christian?  What makes us want to "go" somewhere or be a part of something.  Christians have debated whether or not church is for Christians or non-Christians even though Jesus made it clear that he had come to bring salvation to those who do not believe and walk in what Christians call "darkness."  Jesus' people are supposed to be teaching the world everything he taught them (those were his parting words).  If Jesus was here for unbelievers, Christians are also here for unbelievers.  I think that answering the question about making the church a place for the Christian and the unbeliever is wrapped up in the content of what the church is saying and promoting and how they, the church, respond to what they are saying and promoting.

Those Christians who tend to argue that church is primarily for the Christian usually want the content to be about "Christian" things.  They want to get into "the deeper things of the faith".  They want to talk about theological intricacies, controversial social issues, and "grow in their faith."  Many of these things are great things.  Some of these things are not.  I love theology, I love debate, I love arguing through a point that might not be so clear in Scripture.  I love the search for truth - godly truth.  There is a place for it on Sunday mornings in the right context.  But is that what church is about?  Jesus kept complex things very simple.  So should the church. Notice I did not say that Jesus kept simple things simple.  He kept complex things simple.  So the church must teach complex things but in a simple way that can be related to every day life in their context.  

Those Christians who tend to argue that church is primarily for outreach don't want to talk theology.  They usually want to leave sin in the small group.  They don't want to hear about politics (rightfully so!), they would rather never hear about money (let's keep that private), and they only want the church to gloss over sin in generalizations.  None would ever admit to this.  What they really want is for people to hear about Jesus, but they tend to want it done in a watered down way so as not to offend.  They want to keep simple things simple.  Again, these are good intentions and I understand a bit of a generalization.

How is a church to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ in it's entirety and yet still be attractional, missional, relevant or be of consequence to the community?  They must teach complex things in a simple way.  The question answers the question.  The church must preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ in it's entirety.  I believe that the most attractional thing for a church is the Gospel and the Gospel Community.  A church where the members are captured, compelled and committed to the Gospel is a church where community flourishes, where sinners are welcome, where people are forgiven, where joy reigns and Christ is King.  People, whether believer or unbeliever, will come to a church where there is joy.  Jesus Christ brings joy.  I am not talking about canned joy - I am talking about real Christian joy that can only be found in knowing Jesus Christ.

These are the communities of believers that I see thriving.  When Christians are not captured by the Gospel they come to church expecting nothing, they attend small group out of habit, and they sometimes participate in outreach because their wife made them do it.  When Christians are captured by the Gospel it is contagious.  Unbelievers want to be a part of that.  They want to know why you changed.

You see, humans see through hypocrisy.  When someone hears about how great Jesus is and how wonderful the Gospel is and they finally take the time to come to church and see a congregation that is listless a preacher who is either scared of the Gospel or bored with Gospel, they don't want any part of it.  Who would?

Church really is a party when the people at the party realize with all of their heart that they are taking part in an event that means something.  Church is a place where people can realize they mean something to God.  He proved it with Jesus Christ.  A church captured by that proof will be for unbelievers and believers alike.  Only the unbelievers, by God's grace, won't stay that way for long.

Friday, January 4, 2013

10 Great Moments from 2012

This past Christmas, my wife Laura and I arrived home from our church's Christmas celebration smiling ear to ear.  Our kids were stoked it was Christmas.  I had been able to take a few days off to just enjoy the family.  The church just experience something special with 640 people in attendance (double our normal gathering).  Our youngest son had just played the drums with our band to the cheers of many.  Our hearts were just full of joy.  We could hardly sleep because we were so happy and just enjoying one another and our God's great blessings.  It made me think.  What were the greatest moments of this past year for me personally.  I don't mean accomplishments as I am not here to pat myself on the back.  But what were those events where I was just blown away by the great God I know?

Number Ten:  U2 in Philadelphia.  You expected something something ultra spiritual from a pastor.  Nope.  Well, depends on what you mean by spiritual.  Anyway, favorite band, hanging out with my favorite people, and waiting all day in line so that we could have an almost front row seat at Lincoln Financial Field.  It was amazing.  I have listened to U2's music since I was a little boy, I have emulated the guitar sound of the Edge, and I have always wanted to be in one of those Rock n' Roll pits.  I would do it again in a heartbeat!  I am thankful for really good music and good friends.

Number Nine:  Coaching Volleyball.   I have never coached volleyball a day in my life though I know the game very well.  I was given the opportunity to coach a Varsity girls volleyball team at Red Lion Christian School.  It was a trip.  We went 7-8 our first season, lost some games we shouldn't have lost.  But the best part was getting to know these girls and seeing their heart to play the game.  I remember our very first game.  We went to 5 sets to win the whole match.  We played a bigger team and had no idea what to expect.  When our team won, you would have thought we won the state tournament!  I was so proud of them and so happy to be coaching.  I am thankful that I was able to coach girls and talk about Jesus with them freely.

Number Eight:  Riding 103 miles.  I took up cycling this past Spring.  I put in a lot of miles each week.  That all culminated for me on Memorial Day 2012 when I rode my first Century ride.  A bunch of men from the church decided to get together and go for a 30 mile ride.  We had a great time.  However, two of the men were also training for an Iron Man and were going to at least take another 35 mile lap.  I decided to go with them to see how long I could last.  It is amazing what you can do when you have people encouraging you along.  I lasted pretty well even though it was the first 100 degree day of the year (or close).  The last 12 miles or so were pretty rough for me.  I started shivering toward the end and thought that it could get real bad.  But my friends gave me some water and nutrition and I was good to go.  I ended up riding about 3500 miles this past spring and summer.  I am thankful for a year of having no back pain (a whole new story) and for the health God has given me, my wife and my kids.

Number Seven:  Mumford and Sons with my wife.  My wife and I love Mumford and Sons.  We saw them in concert while they were on the rise.  When the opportunity came to go see them again we jumped at the chance.  We bought tickets to see them around Virginia Beach.  My parents took our kids and we were off on a road trip.  I felt like I was in college again!  We were in the pit again.  Up close and personal.  I am thankful that Mumford introduce me to the banjo.  We like to whip that thing out during worship at Stone's Throw and I'm pretty sure most of the congregation enjoys it! Who knew?

Number Six:  Riding a bike with my oldest daughter and Washington D.C. with my Oldest Son.  My daughter loves sports.  She loves playing volleyball, riding horses, and can out run a bunch of people.  For her birthday I was able to buy her a brand new Fuji road bike for kids.  It finally arrived in the Fall and we began riding together.  On the ride I asked her how she liked it and she responded with, "This is exhilarating!  I can see why you love this!"  I looked down at our speedometer and saw 18.5 mph!  I said, "Yeah, it's great.  Now slow down!"  I had a flash of the future when I see us driving for the first time.  My son wanted to take a trip to Washington D.C.  He wanted to see the museum's and the monuments.  So my wife and I and the two oldest kids took a trip to D.C. to experience the city on bikes.  We had a great time riding around the City, checking out the monuments and enjoying the country that we live in and the freedom that we enjoy.

Number Five:  Florida with my wife.  This past March my parents invited us to use their place in Naples.  We would leave our kids with our parents and just take a few days to be by ourselves.  Somehow, I was able to stretch that time out to almost a whole week!  We flew out of the doldrums of Delaware weather and into sunny Florida.  I rented a convertible Mustang and felt like I was tasting a piece of heaven as we flew down the road with the top down in the middle of March.  My wife's face was gleaming in the Florida sunset.  We didn't stay in Naples for long.  We decided to take a 3 hour journey up north on the backroads of Florida to Disney World.  You know how they tell you not to go to Disney World without your kids?  Well "they" are wrong.  It was honeymoon 2.0 for us.  And we needed it.  I'm thinking of a mandatory parents only Florida trip every year.  I am thankful for my wife, her beauty, her ability to raise godly children, and hang out with a man who needs to be more godly in 2013.

Number Four:  Land and Building.  We planted Stone's Throw Church in 2009.  God has grown the church in incredible ways.  We had been searching for land and a building for a permanent home since before we landed in Middletown.  Well, the opportunity finally came up for us to actively pursue a piece of property right in the heart of Middletown.  The congregation voted with great unity to go for it.  It was incredible to be a part of the initial part of this journey.  We have heard great testimony of how God has worked in people's lives and given them a renewed sense of the urgency of the Gospel in our community.  We were able to raise close to 1.3 million dollars and the doors keep opening.  But opening up the result of the vote on November 11, 2012 and seeing that 95% of the people wanted this was an amazing moment and confirmation of what God is doing.  I am thankful to be in a church where Jesus is preached, the Gospel is capturing people, and the congregation is compelled by the love of God.

Number Three:  Big Tent Worship Gathering.  We had this crazy Presbyterian idea to hold an outdoor worship gathering under a tent in October.  God gave us a perfect 70 degree day with a little breeze.  We broke out the acoustic guitar, the banjo and the blue grass as well as a baptismal pool.  We had one of our largest attended Sunday mornings that day.  I'm pretty sure the BBQ had something to do with that.  But the highlight of the day was when we baptized several of our members.  All of them had recently become Christians and some of their testimonies are almost unbelievable.  It was incredible to hear the thunderous applause and cheers when each person was baptized, dunked, and returned up.  I will never forget it and look forward to the next one.  Maybe it will be on our newly acquired property!  I am thankful that Jesus came for the sick and that he makes them well.

Number Two:  December 23, Christmas Eve.  This was the night where my heart and my family's heart was full of joy.  It wasn't so much about an event but rather a culmination of the whole year.  First, playing music with the Stone's Throw Band and friends is an amazing experience all by itself.  But to have 640 people there and 30 more people online watching is just awesome.  As if seeing the people pour into the church weren't enough, having my mom and dad and sister there was heart-warming.  My mom and dad had a pretty big part in helping me and others to see it was time to plant a church.  Though no one would have guessed how hard it would be to leave the only church family we had really known at Glasgow, it was evident this night, more than many other nights, that we were doing what God wanted us to do.  If that wasn't enough, my youngest son climbed the stage during "Little Drummer Boy" and began playing the drums with our drum line.  This was the culmination of a great year in many respects.  When I say great, I don't mean that it was always happy.  I mean that God's blessings were great and clear.  This was one of those moments you wish you could bottle up and keep forever.

Number One:  Serving as pastor during the celebration of Joseph Feeley's life.  Joseph was a man I wish I had known better.  He and his girlfriend had started attending Stone's Throw a while ago.  I knew of him and I knew about his battle with cancer.  I remember the first time I ever met Joseph.  I had decided to offer prayer for anyone who wanted it during Communion and worship at church.  I did not recognize Joe when he came up to me in line and asked to be prayed over.  I asked him what specifically we were praying about and he said, "I have cancer."  As we prayed, Joseph prayed along with me.  We begged God to heal him of his cancer.  While planning his funeral service with Joseph's family we heard that there would be many people and several colleges where Joseph attended school that would be broadcasting the service.  There would be thousands listening and watching as we celebrated what God had done in Joseph's life.  When we heard this news, his dad, one of the most encouraging men I have ever met (and funny too), looked at me with a ton of seriousness in his face and said, "You better bring your A-game."  He only held the serious tone for a beat before his big smile broke through.  It became a sort of inside joke between us.  But as I have said before, Joseph made it easy for any pastor to bring their A-game during a service like this because Joseph lived out the Gospel.  I would never say that this was a happy moment for me in the fullest sense of the word.  But being allowed to share in Joseph's battle cry will be something I will never forget.   I am thankful and praise God that I will get to know Joseph and others like him because I will spend eternity with the.  2012 will be the year that Joseph got a head start in heaven on the rest of those who know Jesus.

I don't know what 2013 will bring.  I know that I have a lot of plans for my family, for the church in which I pastor and for my life.  I also know that these plans don't mean squat.  Most of the highlights of my year came as a surprise to me and were just another act of grace by God.  I look forward most to be surprised by how deep God's grace really is this year.