Category Archives: church

Holiness Matters

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Make every effort to live in peace with everyone, and holiness; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. (Hebrews 12:14-15, NIV)

Working through these two verses was one of the most difficult tasks I’ve done in sermon preparation. A lifelong follower of Jesus, I was challenged, convicted, and amazed at how important holiness really is throughout Scripture – from Genesis to Malachi, Matthew to Revelation.

What I realized is that my holiness is essential to our church’s health. And I need to work at holiness. Yes, God sees me as holy, righteous, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection; but time and again, the Bible gives us the command to be holy.

But my holiness isn’t only up to me, and yours isn’t only up to you: we are instructed to help each other strive for holiness. “See to it” translates a word that carries the meaning of oversight – we’re supposed to look out for each other, hold each other accountable, help each other. That’s a challenge, of course, because we all err; we all fall short; we all sin.

Before beginning my message, I told our church, “This matter—holiness—is something that can propel our church forward or hold us back. I want it to propel us forward.”

For one of the few times in my ministry, I wrote out a full manuscript of the message and I’m making it available to the folks in my church. If you’d like a copy, you can download it here.

Are You A Peacemaker?

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“Make every effort to live in peace with everyone….” (Hebrews 12:14, NIV)

UN troops are often called “peacekeepers” but there is an irony in that name: they don’t keep peace at all. Rather, they go into troubled areas and stand in the middle of conflict between two factions so diplomats have time to negotiate for peace between the two sides. But since there’s no peace to begin with, there’s no peace to keep.

Mike Murphy writes this in his blog, “Rumblings“:

“Blessed are the peacemakers” someone famous once said. What if those who say they believe actually acted on those words of Jesus? Peacemaking is a dangerous, radical activity in these days of unfiltered bombast and underdeveloped impulse control. The peacemaker always pushes against the prevailing winds. Such is the way of the kingdom of God.

If we’re to be peacemakers, though, we need to figure out what a peacemaker does. Let me offer a few thoughts toward that end. First, let’s not define peace as just the absence of open conflict. The Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions calls that “negative peace,” but there is something more: “positive peace” is the absence of the causes of war. That’s the kind of peace we want.

But there’s a challenge in our striving for peace: it won’t always work. Paul put it this way in one of his letters in the Bible: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18, NIV). Two important truths are in those words: first, it’s not possible to live at peace with everyone. We live in a broken world filled with broken people, some of whom just aren’t peaceable; others are even downright dangerous. Second, it doesn’t all depend on you. Try as you might, you’ll never be able to find peace with some people, let alone make it. Do your best, but ultimately we will all live with the tension between wanting peace but not experiencing it.

In an excellent book called, The Peacemaker, Ken Sande offers these hopeful words:

A peacemaker, then, aims to demonstrate God’s presence and power in the midst of conflict. Let me suggest four ways to do that:

First, a peacemaker keeps his or her focus on becoming like Christ, the Prince of Peace. We were created in God’s image, but that image was scarred and marred by sin. God’s plan from eternity past has been to restore that image in his creation (Romans 8:29); his work today in the lives of his followers is focused on making us like Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18); and one day that work will be done and we will be like Christ (1 John 3:2).

Second, a peacemaker seeks peace with God. That comes first through faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ, his death on the cross, and his resurrection. But since we all continue to sin (rebel against God’s good design), we need to keep short accounts with God through ongoing confession and repentance. Finally, we need to accept his forgiveness (1 John 1:9), which has been freely offered through Jesus’ sacrifice.

Third, a peacemaker seeks peace with him- or herself, which grows out of faith in God, trust in his guidance, and living as God desires.

Finally, a peacemaker seeks peace with others. Too often we try to have peace with others, yet are not at peace with God or ourselves; it is a futile and frustrating aim, and we end up being more like UN peacekeepers than true peacemakers.

“Peace with God, peace with each other, and peace with ourselves come in the same package.” (Tim Hansel; quoted in Sande)

Let me leave you with a couple questions to help answer:

Are you easy to be at peace with? Or are you disagreeable, argumentative, combative?

Do you need to give up your need to be right? If you have a strong need to be right, then finding peace with others will always be a struggle. Practice saying (and meaning!) these four words: I may be wrong. Use them even—perhaps especially—when you know you’re right! Which is more important, the person you’re with, or being right? Most of the time, the answer should be the person you’re with.

So, are you a peacemaker? Will you become one?

 

NOTE: This blog is the core of the message I offered at The Journey Church, Sonora, on Sunday, June 10, 2018.

When Leaders Change

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(U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Joshua R. M. Dewberry. Public domain photo, cleared for release.)

During my four years of active duty in the Air Force, I attended a number of change of command ceremonies. They can be pretty impressive affairs, with all the troops lined up, flags from each squadron or wing under the command, and medals gleaming on the chests of the officers up front.

In the midst of all the pomp and circumstance, though, the official transfer of leadership is quite simple, only eight words: “Sir [or Ma’am, as in this photo] I relinquish command. … Sir [or Ma’am], I assume command.”

God led a change of command ceremony, once, too, and probably with no less pomp than the Air Force. After the people of Israel had been led out of slavery in Egypt, and after they had spent forty years wandering in the wilderness because of their sin of disbelief, it was time for leadership to pass from Moses to Joshua. What God said to Joshua during that ceremony—and what the people said to him—give us a clue about how to be successful as a church.

When I became pastor of The Journey Church in Sonora, California, I used this “change of command ceremony,” described in Joshua 1, as the text for my initial message. Here’s the basic message:

Whatever success in the church may mean—more people, more resources, more impact in the community and the world—success in God’s church demands three things: believe God’s promises, obey God’s Word, and follow God’s leader.

Believe God’s Promises. When Joshua took over, the Israelites were on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, looking west toward Canaan, “the promised land.” Centuries before, God had promised that land to Abraham. Forty years earlier, they had stood in the same place; but in the first failure of a church committee, by a vote of 10-2, they had decided to let fear reign instead of faith. As a result, they wandered in the wilderness until that entire generation had died. Now, on the edge of hope once again, they heard God repeat his promise: “I will never leave you [Joshua] nor forsake you. Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.” God promised a place and his presence; all they had to do was believe.

Obey God’s Word. We don’t much like the word obey; it’s too strong, too authoritarian. And besides, if you’re a Protestant (protest-ant) like me, you prefer to speak of grace. We need grace. We live by grace. We’re saved by grace – grace alone (solo gratia, in Martin Luther’s Latin vernacular). But grace—or our misconception of it—gets us in trouble, because we can tend to allow ourselves too much freedom, and then we slip into sin. But hey, more sin, more grace, right? Paul had a strong response to that attitude: NO! No, no, no; a thousand times no! (See Romans 6:1.) But God told Joshua to make sure he obeyed all the commands, and we have to keep that in mind, too. And the whole Bible commands obedience: Deuteronomy 6:6-7, Deuteronomy 32:46-47, Matthew 28:20, John 14:15, John 15:10, etc. Jesus makes obedience easier when he boils down all the commands in Scripture to two things: Love God and love people (Matthew 22:40).

Follow God’s Leader. This is where it got tricky as a pastor: challenging a church to follow me as God’s leader. But I reminded them of their unanimous vote a couple months earlier that said, in effect, what the Israelites told Joshua: “Whatever you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go. Just as we fully obeyed Moses, so we will obey you.” Of course, I’m sure that made Joshua a bit nervous, because he’d been around for a while and had seen how they’d obeyed Moses – with grumbling, complaining, and a whole lot of sin. He’d also heard what God had said about the people not too much earlier: “[T]hese people will soon prostitute themselves to the foreign gods of the land they are entering. They will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them.” (Deuteronomy 31:16)

None of this is necessarily easy. God sometimes delays his promises (check out Hebrews 11:13). Though he has promised never to leave us, sometimes he seems distant, silent, unresponsive (check out any number of the Psalms, or most of the book of Job). And his Word isn’t always easy to obey, or we can’t agree on what obedience looks like. And so often, our leaders say or do stupid things, offensive things, or we just don’t like them! But God never promised an easy life, an easy faith. It takes work, it takes patience, it takes humility.

In that first message, I reminded the church that God still promises his presence. I promised that I would keep his Word central to everything we do. And then I challenged them to respond in three ways:

  • First, to “examine the Scriptures” daily (see Acts 17:11) to see if I’m on track. I want my church to be in their Bibles regularly, consistently, and in community, because I believe that the Bible is best understood in community. I need them to know God’s Word.
  • Second, I want them to pray for me – especially if they have a problem with something I’ve said or done. One of the best ways you can follow your pastor—God’s leader—is to pray for him or her. It helps the pastor and it keeps you humble!
  • Finally, I asked them to encourage me, as the people of Israel encouraged Joshua: “be strong and courageous!” Any kind of leadership is hard; pastoring is especially so. We feel the weight of responsibility, and the role can both stroke our egos and tear away at our hearts. I’m my own worst critic, so I need encouragement: notes, kind words, a text, an email.

BELIEVE – OBEY – FOLLOW: God’s prescription for success.

The Long and Winding Road*

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With both apologies and gratitude to Sir Paul McCartney and his mates in the Beatles, the long and winding road is an apt description of the journey my family has been on for the past four years. What began as a somewhat uncertain yet anticipatory search for a Lead Pastor role melted into a desert meander through loss, death, grief, depression, questioning, doubting, and more. Yet milestone after faded milestone seemed to confirm two things: first, we were on the right path; and second, that path was leading to a pastoral role. Specifically where the path would lead was an unanswered question.

When God leads people on a journey, there’s always a purpose. Sometimes the purpose, or the path, or both, seems harsh, as with Jonah’s three days living as seafood or the ancient Israelites’ forty-year wilderness sojourn. Sometimes the purpose is simply to train, sometimes to discipline, sometimes to strengthen or transform. Sometimes God uses the journey to refresh and restore, as with Elijah after his battle-to-the-death with the prophets of Baal.

During our journey these past several years, God has been doing some hard work in my life, chiseling off rough edges, testing my commitment to his purpose, leading me from pride toward greater humility (a journey nowhere near complete). One of the most profound shifts I’ve seen in myself is a desire to love—really and simply love—whatever community he might call me to lead. That desire hasn’t always been there for me; so often, I’ve looked more at what I can change in a church than what I can love.

This weekend I stood before the congregation of a small, 150-year-old church in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. After my message (from Colossians 3:12-17), they were going to vote, as all good Baptists do, on whether it was God’s will for me to be their next pastor. With the ten new members being received that morning, the congregation stood at about 50 people – three-fourths of whom are over 65. I could count the children’s ministry on one hand…maybe with a finger to spare. The youth group was doubled in size by my daughter’s presence.

As we were getting ready for church that morning, my wife asked me what percentage I was looking for if we were to say yes to the church’s call. The number in my mind from the start had been 89%; I don’t know why, that’s just what came to my head and planted itself there. Eiley wondered if that was too high; What if it’s only 85%? Or 80?

The vote was overwhelming and humbling: unanimous! That is so unlike my past experience with churches, especially Baptist churches (my tribe). I have heard people say they always vote No just on principle! (I’m not sure what principle that is.) But this small body of hope-filled followers of Jesus is united in their desire to have me as their pastor and to lead them into the next phase of their life—of our life together.

And so, our journey takes a new turn. With a church called, ironically (and appropriately), The Journey. I wonder where this long and winding road will lead.

 

*Photo of Paul McCartney’s High Park Farm in Scotland copyright and owned by Stuart Brabbs. Licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:High_Park_Farm._-_geograph.org.uk_-_434107.jpg

Worship Together

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There is a transcendence in coming to God in his throne room, something far bigger than us—something bigger, indeed, than all of creation, all of history, all of time—because God is bigger: God himself transcends creation, history, time.

Yet there is an intimacy in worship, as well, a closeness to the father that is warm and secure and comforting. It is as if we are sitting at his very feet, or even curled up as a child in her daddy’s lap.

Corporate worship, the body of Christ coming together to worship, has the difficult task of bringing a diverse group of individuals into both a transcendent and an intimate relationship with God. Worship leaders are charged with this task, which they seek to accomplish through music, prayer, the Word, and service: heart, soul, mind, and strength. Yet these are not incongruous or even distinct elements, but each serves and enhances the others. When we make them distinct, we do a disservice to ourselves, our churches, our congregations…yes, we even do a disservice to God.

As interdependent as these elements are, however, I want to address just one of them: music. 

Music touches the heart, the emotions. But far from merely touching the heart, music actually leads the heart. And a key role of music leaders is to lead the heart—and the hearts—of the congregation either into the transcendence of God’s throne room or the intimacy of his lap … or sometimes both, for even in the closeness of an embrace we get a sense of the Father’s bigness; and in that, we gain a sense of protection and security.

And yet so often, in our culture-driven desire for bigness—big concerts, big sounds, big lights—we lose the sense of God’s transcendence which is so much bigger than anything we can manufacture. The amplified sounds of the band’s instruments and voices fills the auditorium, deafens the ears of the congregations, mutes their voices. We sing in silent syncopation with the band, unable to hear even what comes from our own lips. We are awed not by the Seraphim of Isaiah’s temple vision, but by the percussion of the bass and drum.

Even in songs of would-be intimacy with our Savior, the electronically-boosted voices of the band drown the gathered song of the worshippers. We find ourselves yelling about the quiet place of rest.


Worship in all its forms and voices should be focused on and directed to God alone. When Christ’s body comes together, no leader ought to take the place of the One whom we gather to worship. Yet all too often, those called to lead the congregation—whether in music, in prayer, in the Word, or in service—do exactly that, and so steal the rightful place of God.