The Cold, Dark Lens

I stand in my usual spot. Some call it a stage, and some have called it the pulpit. Either way, it’s where sermons are delivered, lessons taught, and messages shared.

My usual spot is where I preach on Sunday mornings. Two sermons a week, one for each service. But not lately. The last Sunday that we had two live services was March 8. 

Now I deliver my sermons on Wednesday afternoons. That’s when they are recorded and then live-streamed from our website. Each Sunday, 800-1000 people will watch the service on their phone, computer, or big screen TV and do so from the comfort of their homes. I see none of them.

My spot is in the Worship Center designed for hundreds of people. But instead of looking at a congregation of familiar faces, I look into a camera lens. It’s a hard thing to do, to record in a big, dark, empty space. Looking into a lens is not warm and fuzzy; it’s lifeless, and it gives nothing back, not a warm smile or rich laughter. It is an empty experience, unrewarding, and unfulfilling. 

Camera lens

It’s the way it has to be. We call it the Corona Virus, or just virus, Covid-19, or the pandemic. Twice we have planned to reopen the church, and twice we have canceled due to an upsurge of new cases in the greater Houston area. So, we record a worship service with the praise team, prayer leaders, and commuion.

But it’s not the same, is it? 

Church family, I miss you. I miss shaking hands and hugging and seeing you love each other. I miss our Youth Group and all of our kids and sharing the Lord’s meal. 

You are prayed for and lifted up before the Father.

TO CLOSE

I’ll end with the following hope:

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

“I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

Philippians 4:4-7, 13

 

When Silence Speak Volumes

Someone once said that Jesus was color blind. Was he?

From an unknown source:

“Jesus didn’t see color. He only saw people. He saw everyone as a person first and then the other things second, if at all.

In his presence, people felt empowered by a love that was freely given, that wasn’t based on their appearance. People were his invention, made in his image, from every race and color.” 

AND ME?

I was raised to give respect and kindness to everyone, regardless of who they were. So, it was quite a surprise the first time I witnessed racism, and it affected me deeply.

It affected me like it did the first time I saw kids hurt another kid because he was different. It was at school.

Years later, I would see Christians offend other Christians because they were different. It was at church. 

I discovered that people could be cruel to those who were different.

 

AN OLD PROBLEM?

Some say that racism is something that happened long ago and no longer exists. 

Last week a friend told me that while serving a church in Alabama, her husband baptized an African American woman. The elders ordered the baptistry drained and scrubbed. Then he was fired.

I vividly remember the KKK marching close to the church I was serving, it stunned me.

Perhaps racism isn’t as widespread or as overtly violent as it once was, but it still exists, there is still violence, and it’s still a problem.

IS RACISM CHRISTIAN?

It isn’t Christian, but that hasn’t stopped it from happening. Here’s a question:

Is racism more of a social issue or a moral issue? 

Racism often gets parked in a social context, which can hinder believers from connecting it to Christ-centered truth.

An Illustration: Most Christians believe that abortion is sinful. They view it as a national stain and stand against it on moral grounds. 

Other Moral Issues:

  1. Sexual immorality
  2. Abuse of women and children
  3. Pornography
  4. Corruption 
  5. Discrimination 

These are identified as moral issues, but not racism.

It’s a sensitive and prickly thing, with plenty of piercing thorns that many preachers try to avoid. I’ve been preaching for forty years and have never delivered a sermon about the sin of racism. Why is that? Have I been afraid? Has it not been relevant to the churches I serve? 

Perhaps I’ve never accepted it as truly immoral. As a Christain leader, I’m to stand against immorality. If racism is sinful, then it’s a moral issue, and I should stand against it on those terms.

“Rather than build a bridge of connection, I created a bubble of silence.” 

I’ve sympathized with African American people, but not empathized. Sympathy allows me to feel bad, but not have to do anything. Empathy allows me to feel bad, and then to engage in their experience, to come alongside and be part of their story.

It can be complicated. Both sides eagerly list the sins of the other and willingly point the fingers of guilt and shame. It can be confusing.

A JOURNEY

I’m asking, “What would Jesus do, and what would he want me to do?”  

I’m reading books about race relations and discussing the problems with people of color. I participated in a webinar on black-white issues. I’ve met with two African American Pastors, saying that I had come to learn and to ask them to teach me.

I don’t have the answers. Frankly, I’m still learning the questions. But I know we must work towards peace. We should strive for the equality that Jesus died to provide, that there be no sides, only his sacred community.

TO CLOSE

I’m aware of an occasion when a white person refused to take a communion tray being passed by a black person. I’m aware because I saw it.

Folks, if we can’t gather together around the table of communion, how will we ever gather togather around the throne of glory? 

I think someone was right. Jesus is color blind.

Shalom

COVID-19, Lasting Church Changes

There is something I’ve heard a lot. It’s a common theme for church members and leaders:

“I can’t wait until we are back to normal.”

I understand the statement. We eagerly await the day the full congregation returns to public worship, and everything members need.

Some things we want to return:

  • Nursery care
  • Children’s programs
  • Youth classes
  • Adult classes
  • The regular service schedule
  • Seeing everyone together

Some things we want to end:

  • Face coverings
  • Social distancing
  • Checking for fever
  • Everything wiped down
  • Fear of touching or being touched
  • The perpetual talk about Covid-19

However, there is a growing awareness that the “normal” we long for may never materialize. Nobody knows for sure, but as churches reopen across the country, we are learning some things. Here are five things that shape a new normal.

  1. Many churches will not see the attendance they had prior to COVID.
  2. Some members will choose to remain home and participate online.
  3. Some worship services and bible studies will continue digitally.
  4. We became multi-site churches and that will remain on some level.
  5. A heightened sense of risk may stay with us for a long time.

Church leaders need to embrace the new normal instead of grieving for the church they once knew. Smart leaders will view the differences as opportunities and not as disruptions. It won’t be easy. It feels different and strange. But work through it.

New technology can help the church. Most churches haven’t had a large digital footprint, they didn’t need one, but those days are ending. Churches that upgrade their digital capabilities will be able to meet the needs of their congregants and community. The churches that don’t will struggle to catch up.

To Close

Churches that were growing before COVID-19 will continue to grow, even with the new normal. Churches that were declining will probably continue to decline.

Here is a thought.

Proud leaders see something they don’t understand and say, “That’s wrong.”

Humble leaders see something they don’t understand and say, “Please teach me.”  

The church culture has changed. But it’s the same gospel, the same Savior and the same Heavenly Father. May he bless and guide us as we navigate through different waters.

Sunday: Families of Faith

Did Jesus dislike families? Did he have any reason to?

John 7 records that his brothers didn’t believe in him. What about his dad, what happened to Joseph? The family would be used as an excuse for not becoming his disciple. His own apostles, at times, were torn between following him and going back to their homes and families.

Here is a particularly difficult text about this in Matthew 10.

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” v. 34-35

“A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” v. 36

A troubling thing for the Prince of Peace to say.

Matthew 10:34-36 is a quote from Micah 7:6. The prophet spoke against Judah and Israel for abandoning their faith. He condemned them for social injustice, the leader’s abusive behaviors, and how those with power brutalized the poor.

Micah 6:14 says that the leaders were attempting to stockpile for themselves olive oil, wine, and grains. But they would not enjoy any of it, for it would be forcefully taken by their enemies and their swords. Jesus’ sword was a metaphor, to illustrate that his presence and his message would separate the righteous from the unrighteous.

Micah spoke of the tribulation that would soon come upon the people. That a season of desperation would lead them to betray and abuse each other. They would steal from each other, even from the members of their own families.

Such was the context in which Jesus spoke against Israel’s leaders. He was about to send his apostles to preach throughout Israel and Galilee. He warned them about hardships, and about their being flogged in the synagogues. Jesus said that the message of the kingdom would divide families.

As it was for Micah the Prophet, so it was for the Son of David. He would challenge the people to return to God, to love one another, and to eliminate greed, injustice, and intolerance from their hearts.

Jesus’ message wasn’t always received with joy.

So, it makes it all the sweeter when I see families of faith. Yesterday, in both services, we had videos of families at home who led us in prayer, in communion, and in the process, touched our hearts and enriched our souls. It was beautiful.

Jesus with families

To Close

Jesus wasn’t born to dislike people. He didn’t come to tear us apart or to divide friends and families. But he knew his message would create friction, for even within the same family, some would believe and some wouldn’t.

I thank God daily for our young families at the Southeast church. Thank you for your faith, and God bless you for sharing it with all of us.

Is It Just A Number?

Today is my birthday. Yep, May 18, 1956, was my entrance to the world. I was born in Moses Lake, Washington, and that makes me a natural-born citizen of these United States. 

The math gets harder, so I’ll spare you the trouble. I am now 64 years old. Here are a few of the ideas that I considered, and rejected, for this blog. 

  1. A poem with sixty-four verses
  2. The highlights of my life
  3. The lowlights of my life
  4. Reasons why 64 is better than 63
  5. The things that hurt more today than yesterday

However, none of those seem interesting, and I’m sure most wouldn’t finish reading. So, instead, I’ll ramble for a few hundred words.

Some Facts:

  1. I’ve been married for forty-one years and a dad for 35.
  2. I’ve been a minister for forty years.
  3. Houston has been my home for twenty-two years.
  4. My favorite thing is fly fishing the streams of the Colorado Rockies.
  5. Christmas is still my favorite holiday.  

Some things I’ve discovered about myself: 

  1. I’m not as smart as I thought I was. 
  2. I’ve been wrong about quite a few things.
  3. Change is hard, but it is always the right thing.
  4. I have failed as much as I’ve succeeded.
  5. Believe me, the mind is the first thing to go.

If age is just a number and we are as young as we feel, then half the time I’m confused about how old I am. But it matters not for whatever number reflects my time on earth; it remains just a number. 

I remember when dad bought a color television. It was a massive piece of furniture with beautiful polished wood. I think it was the nicest piece in our living room.

I remember the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and watching Niel Armstrong walk on the moon. 

I got my first bike at eight, my first skateboard at nine, and my first car at sixteen. It was 1973 and the car was a 1962 Chevy Bel Air with 1.6 million miles. 

The Viet Nam war borrowed my dad and then my brother. My other brother spent a dozen years in the Navy. All three served with distinction. 

I’ve learned that life can knock you down, again and again. Life can also present opportunities and open doors when least expected. 

In seasons of dark days with unending grief, I’ve learned it’s best to keep moving forward. Life goes on so we might as well go with it. Life rarely stops to let us catch up.  

As hard as it is to believe, we are never truly alone. All around us are people who have experienced the same troubles. When I feel isolated, cut off, and alone, it’s usually the way I want it. My suffering seems nobler when I brave it by myself, but it’s not. 

I never thought I would get a cell phone, but I did. I never thought I would have more than one TV in my house, but I do. I never thought I would ever drive a convertible, but I am. 

I never thought that being a father would be the highest achievement of my life, but it has. I never thought I would live through a global pandemic, but so far so good.

Life’s struggles, trials, and failures aren’t terrible things. Instead, they have shaped me and enhanced my life quality.

Today is my birthday. I think I’ll go out for lunch. Wait, can I? Should I? I better wear a mask. Will that be awkward? Lower it for each bite, then cover up while chewing, and then repeat? Anyway…

Happy birthday to me. 

 

 

Is This All a Dream?

Guess which television show aired from 1959-1964? Need more information? It ran for five seasons and was hosted by the Emmy Award-winning Rod Serling who wrote 80 of the 150 episodes.

Of course, I’m talking about The Twilight Zone, a show that was a mixture of science fiction, horror, drama, superstition, and comedy. It was sometimes scary, and other times thought-provoking, and often it was just plain weird.

Twilight Zone

I mention this because I feel like I’m caught in the loop of one of its episodes.

Key Words

  • strange
  • unbelievable
  • macabre
  • frustrating
  • unnerving
  • sad

For many of us, it’s a bizarre turn of events that we’ve never encountered.

The Unexperienced

  • home quarantine
  • social distancing
  • face coverings in public
  • empty shelves in stores
  • global pandemic
  • isolation

Face coverings

Some of What’s Been Closed

  • schools
  • churches
  • restaurants
  • businesses
  • sporting events
  • theaters

Virus Outbreak Washington

Feels like I should wake up to discover that’s it all been a dream. But I haven’t.

empty shelves

 

Affecting Everyone

It’s all the sadder when we consider all the High School seniors who will not have a prom or a commencement ceremony, not to mention college seniors.

Plans, events, vacations, business ventures, summer camps and all manner of hopes and dreams have been shut down. It’s just hard.

Are we sure this isn’t a Twilight Show episode?

Some Encouraging Thoughts

I can do everything through him who gives me strength.                                               Philippians 4:13

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.                                                                                                                                  I Thessalonians 5:16-18

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.                           2 Corinthians 4:16-18

IN CLOSING

No, this isn’t a TV episode, it’s really happening. But this to shall pass. In the darkness, a light will shine. With the heartache will come the tender mercies of God. In the waiting, some surprisingly good things will be discovered.

As a friend of mine pointed this out to me:

“In hurricane Harvey God told us to take care of our neighbors. In COVID-19 God is telling us to take care of our families.” 

“With God all things are possible.”

A Woman and a Well

People make attachments, it’s in our nature. Some things that I’m attached to:

  • The couch in the tv room.
  • The right side of our bed.
  • A morning cup of coffee.
  • An old pair of slippers.
  • The tv in our tv room.
These things don’t define me, they don’t determine who I am or establish my value. But I love them. I’m attached.
The question is: Are there attachments in my spiritual life? Are there ideas and beliefs with which I have made secure connections? The answer: Of Course!
  • A New Testament that I’ve used for 42 years.
  • Some traditions that I hold sacred.
  • Close friends with whom I share spiritual affinities.
  • Worship that feels secure, comforting, and expected.
  • Certain verses of scripture that reinforce my beliefs.

There are many, many more.

AN EXAMPLE

Jesus once spoke to a woman with attachments. He asked her to give him some water from a well. She reacted with surprise, if not shock because men didn’t speak to women in public unless they knew them. She had no idea who he was.

Jacobs well

Their conversation moved into the spiritual. When the woman grew uncomfortable, she claimed that the well belonged to the Patriarch Jacob, who was Abraham’s grandson. And in her day, the land they were standing on was Samaritan, not Jewish. To her, the well was a physical manifestation of a sacred heritage.

Consequently, she didn’t need to listen to Jesus. Her faith and religion were well established by Jacob’s well. She was attached to the well, not for its water, but for its spiritual value.

However, he was the Messiah, and when she realized that he was, she went back to her village and told everyone that she had found the Lord’s anointed. She led them to Jesus, and they asked him to stay, and he did, for two days, and many of them believed.

Does it seem silly that she was so spiritually attached to a well? Or is it only a matter of time, place, and culture? Are we connected to anything that defines our faith and spirituality?

  • Sitting in the same seat every week.
  • An unchanging order of worship.
  • Needing to hear specific phrases and words in sermons.
  • How we look, what we wear to church.
  • An inflexible expectation regarding our traditions.
  • Unwillingness to distinguish tradition from the truth.

IN CLOSING

The woman didn’t wake up that day, knowing she would encounter the Messiah. She went to the well to get some water, but what she really needed couldn’t be carried in a bucket. He gave her living water, springing up from within, a wellspring of the Holy Spirit that would never run dry.

 

A Cave In Canaan

Cemeteries have existed for as long as man has been on the earth. Every culture has its customs and burial traditions. Some are rooted in religious beliefs while others are based on mysticism, folklore, and superstition.

cemetary

Regardless of the cultures and customs, we have always required a place for the dead to rest. Cremation is a type of burial, whether the ashes are kept intact or scattered to the winds, its an ancient and modern approach to how we manage our dead.

A BURIAL STORY

Abraham lost his wife. Her name was Sarah and when she died he realized that he had no place to bury her. He had moved his family to Canaan and had yet to face the prospect of death in his family.

So, Abraham met with the Hittites who were the owners of where he had pitched his tents. He asked to purchase a piece of land that had a cave, the cave of Machpelah. He paid them 400 shekels of silver and then laid his Sarah to rest in what became the family tomb.

Eventually, Abraham was buried there as were Isaac and his wife Rebeckah, and Jacob and his wife Leah. Rachel was not buried in the tomb. She had died in childbirth while in the vicinity of Bethlehem and buried there.

THE TOMB

The Tomb of the Patriarchs became sacred to the Jewish people, it was the final resting place for their greatest forefathers, especially Abraham.

The Jewish Mystics believed that the cave was also a portal to the garden of Eden–where Adam and Eve were buried. So, the cave of Machpelah symbolized the creation of man and then the line of the heritage through the patriarchs.

cave-of-the-patriarchs

Jacob’s wife Leah was buried in the cave, she had given birth to a boy named Judah.

From the tribe of Judah came a shepherd boy who would be anointed the King of Israel, his name was David. From David came the lion of the tribe of Judah, the one we call Jesus, the King of Kings.

From Adam to Abraham. From Abraham to Isaac, Jacob, Judah, David and the Christ, the Son of David, the Son of God. From Jesus to you and to me and to all who believe.

IN CLOSING

Cemeteries and burial places can be fascinating places. For those who believe, a cave in ancient Canaan became a tomb representing the beginning of time and the fulfillment of the ages, the Messiah’s arrival.

He came to offer salvation to the world.

It was just a cave, a burial tomb, but for every believer, it represents our spiritual roots and the beginning of our blessings in Jesus Christ.

I Never Knew Buzz

Action figure toys have come a long way since I was a child. Back then, the closest thing to an AFT was a G. I. Joe doll. Did we call them “dolls” back then? Probably not since boys didn’t play with dolls.

Joe was released from the Hasbro Company on February 2, 1964, I was eight years old and that makes Joe 56 years old. He wasn’t a small, green army man, but a full 12″ tall. The commercials tagged him as, “A life like action soldier.” He was  tough, well trained, and a hero. Boys could imagine being like him.

I remember wanting one, but not asking, because I knew my older brothers would tease me about playing with dolls.

G.I. Joe Action Figure
Always wanted one, never got one. 

SUNDAY MORNING

Yesterday morning, at church, a little boy had an action figure toy with him. It was a Buzz Lightyear toy. Buzz is super-cool. If you aren’t aware, Buzz is a central figure in the “Toy Story” movie franchise consisting of four movies. They are so great.

Buzz Lightyear
Action figures have come a long way since I was a child.

He held Buzz up to me and I played with him for a moment, making him fly in the air with his jet pack and making the kind of noises that a young child can imagine. It was fun. I handed him back with a smile because just for a moment I was transported to when I was his age.

I guess there is a little boy or girl in each of us.

CHILDHOOD TOYS

My Favorites were:

  • A Tonka Truck
  • Lincoln Logs
  • Johny Seven Army gun
  • My big-boy bike

I’m older now and I don’t play with Action Figure Toys, not even life like action soldiers. But I have other, more sophisticated, things that I enjoy, not toys exactly, but kind of.

OTHER GIFTS

As a believer I have received gifts from God, from his Son and his Spirit. These aren’t Buzz or Joe toys, in fact, they aren’t physical or anything that could be held.

My Favorite Christian Gifts

  • forgiveness
  • grace
  • mercy
  • love
  • peace
  • joy
  • salvation
  • and many others

IN CLOSING

I never had a G. I. Joe or a Buzz Light Year. But I have the most precious gift of all,  the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Toys come and go, but receiving every spiritual blessing in Christ has proven to be the best of all!

 

 

 

 

It’s a Love Story

A MODERN MIRACLE

It’s a miracle that anyone can keep a class of kindergarteners engaged for 45 minutes.

Our Children’s Sunday School program has a teacher and an assistant in each class, but one of the classes was without an assistant and since I was friends with the teacher, I stepped in to help.

The kids knew who I was and said, “Hi Mr. Rick.” They were happy to see me and the teacher allowed for the moment and then deftly reacquired their attention.

We have some very cute and adorable kids in our church! 

I pulled up a chair and sandwiched myself between two kids. I am 6′ x 1″ tall and sitting with them made me look like the world’s largest 5 year old.

Preschool
Some very cute kids. But not the class I sat in. Close, really very close, but no. 

THE LESSON

It was an excellent class. She taught about Israel’s battle with the Amalekites and how Moses kept his arms lifted with the staff. If his arms lowered then Israel faltered, so, Aaron and Hur supported him to keep his arms up until Israel won.

“Hands were lifted up to the throne of the Lord.” 

Exodus 17:16

THE DISTRACTION

They impressed me with their answers to the teacher’s questions. They made me laugh. They made me proud. However, they were at times distracted by the presence of the world’s largest five year old. So, they would talk and ask me things.

Here is a sample…

  • “Why do you wear glasses?”
  • “Have you ever had acne?”
  • “I pray at bedtime for breakfast so I don’t have too in the morning.”
  • “Do you like my wheelchair picture?”
  • “What number comes after 19?”
  • “Can I have some more water please?”
  • “Do you have kids?”
  • “Do you have a brown crayon?”
  • “Are you coming back next time?”

The teacher knew how to manage them. She affected their behavior with affirmation and encouragement and was loving, gentle, and kind.

After the class, I had to quickly transition to 2nd service where I preached to hundreds of people, some of whom were parents of the kids in class. I can do that fine.

Teaching a class of five year old kids, not so much!

TO CLOSE

The Goldfish Crackers they had for a snack: less than $1.00

The paper copies of the lesson: less than $1.00

The green construction paper they used to make a prayer book: less than $1.00

The crayons they used to decorate their prayer book: maybe $5.00

A teacher affirming them and filling their hearts with God’s love: Absolutely Priceless