Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Being Thankful No Matter the View

This is the time of year to be thankful. Whether we are ready or not, summer is officially in the rearview mirror, and we are supposed to be thankful for the changes that come as we journey into a new season. The difficulty comes when we look at our lives through the front windshield; sometimes it is hard to be thankful for what we see ahead of us…the problems we must face, the obstacles we must avoid, the people we have to confront, the pain we must survive. Just flipping the page on the calendar will not change what we see through the front windshield of our lives.

I don’t know what the view is through the windshield of your life. I can tell you that for some, November means family tensions we have avoided for months will now be present at the holiday table. For others, November means the last few miles before the end-of-the-year financial pressures come due. You had hoped to catch up by now, but no matter the effort there are simply more bills to pay than there are pages on the calendar to turn. For others, November reminds you about the kids you sent off to school, those who promised to stay in touch, and yet you seldom hear from. You knew letting them go would be difficult, you just never thought it would feel like this.

When we look through the front windshield of our lives and find it hard to be thankful for what is before us, we need to pull this car we call “Life” to the side of the road and look in the rear view mirror. Something happens to our perspective when we pause and reflect back on who God is and what He has done for us. We look in the rearview mirror, we see how all the obstacles and difficulties of past seasons were met by the promises of God. This brief pause, this moment of reflection in the rearview mirror, reminds us how faithful God has been and how His promises have steered us through the difficult times.

Why wouldn’t He do the same with what is before us?

Can I ask...How does the road before you look? Are you finding it hard to be thankful? Reading a few lines in a greeting card just won’t get you there, will it? A few decorations around the house will momentarily lift your spirits, but for us to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18), something has to change our perspective or thankfulness will fall from our hearts like the leaves from the trees. 

The writer of Psalm 119 says in verse 116, "LORD, sustain me as you promised, that I may live! Do not let my hope be crushed." God is the giver and sustainer of life. As we drive through the seasons of life, we often forget to be thankful because we are focused on the view through the front windshield. We are concentrating so much on the bumps in the road, the detours, and the traffic that we forget to be thankful for what we have and for what God is doing. For some, driving one more mile in our present circumstances seems impossible. Your tank is almost empty and you passed the off ramp to thankfulness a few miles back.

The View from the Rearview Mirror
I can tell you from personal experience, the view through the front windshield is scary at times. It can rob you of your joy and fog your perspective of what God is doing. If thankfulness has eluded you this season, pull your car over. Look in the rearview mirror for moment. Has He ever let you down? Have you ever found His promises to not be true?

Whatever you see ahead of you, know that your Creator promises to steer you to safety. Let Him drive. Resist the temptation to take the wheel. The road may appear difficult to navigate, but one day you will look in the rear view mirror and realize just what the Psalmist promised. God has sustained you through the journey. God has not allowed your hope to be crushed.  And my guess, on the side of the road, peering through the rear view mirror, you will be thankful no matter the view.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Learning to Love

The title of my sermon this past Sunday was “Living a Life that Glorifies God.” The text was 1 Peter 4:7-19. Peter is writing to some first century Christians and trying to encourage them to live their lives for God’s glory even in the midst of some very difficult circumstances. There was one verse in particular that God has challenged me with these past few days. These reflections came to a head at 4:00 a.m. this morning when I woke up and started pondering verse 8 of 1 Peter 4, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (TNIV). What does it means to “love each other deeply”? What will be the challenges to keep this a high value in my life? Why am I up at 4:00 a.m. thinking about this stuff?
Here are some reflections on Peter’s words…
After we have focused on our vertical relationship with God (1 Peter 4:7), Peter says the very next priority is our horizontal relationships with others.  He writes and says “above all” we should focus on how we treat others. While we live in a fallen world (i.e., this world is stained by sin and is not God’s original design), God still has expectations of how we should treat others. In fact, how we treat others takes second place only behind our relationship with Him that’s why Peter says it’s “above all.” Maybe that’s why I am awake. This is important. How I treat either reflects God’s glory or clouds our perspective of it.
What is clear, even at this hour, is how we treat each other should be characterized by a self-sacrificing commitment that puts the needs of others before our own. Peter does not use the word for ‘brotherly love’ here in 1 Peter 4:8 like he does in other places in his letter (e.g., 1 Peter 1:22; 2:17; 3:8). Instead, he chooses to the word for ‘agape love.’ This is the kind of love that God has for us, and it this kind of love that God wants us to have for others.
This takes things up a notch I’d say! We are to love others the way that God loves us. At least that’s the goal. Peter says, when we love people this way, we bring glory to God with our lives. That’s a high calling. Doesn’t God know how people act? Some don’t deserve to be loved this way? When you are up at 4:00 a.m. you have a crazy thought (or two)…perhaps this is God’s point all together. I don’t deserve to be loved this way either. Maybe that’s His design from the beginning…melt harden hearts with love. But really? Do I have to love others that way? You are God and I am part of this fallen world. I can’t love others the way you love me.
I didn’t promise answers. I only said this would be some early, real early morning reflections.
Going to be honest here, these reflections also brought some early morning fears. Lots of things are scary before I have had some coffee, but these were the kind of thoughts that kept me from closing my eyes again even after a 13 hour work day and only 4 hours of sleep. Seems like I am going to need some courage to love others the way God loves me. If I love people the way that God loves me then I am going to get taken advantage of and my needs will go unmet…so say my fears. Doesn’t God care about my needs? I know He does. If I love this way, doesn’t God know I am going to be doing a lot of forgiving? I know I will. If I love this way, doesn’t God know I won’t be able to talk to people the way they talk to me or treat them the way they have treated me? This isn’t going to be fair.
Perhaps I am getting closer. It wasn’t fair that Jesus had to die on the cross for my sins, but He did. He did because He loves me not because it was fair that He had to suffer for my wrongs. Being a sacrifice for my sin was what I needed and Jesus was willing to pay the price for what I needed. What? That can’t be right can it? If Jesus loved me sacrificially because that’s what I needed, and I am supposed to love people the way God loves me then I too have to love others sacrificially. To be willing to love them and give them what they need even though they don’t deserve it. Wow. Loving this way is not going to be easy. 
Not only am I supposed to love others sacrificially, Peter says I am supposed to also love them “deeply.”  What new dimension of love could Peter possibly be adding here? Turns out loving this way isn’t something you can just wake up in the morning and do. It takes training and effort…lots of it. Sin always makes it hard to want to love others. Clearly they are sinners, but then there is the stumbling block of my own selfishness. Wish God didn’t reveal that to me! To love deeply means to love with all our exertion, fully extended, exerted to limit of our efforts and capacity. Did I come up that at 4:00 in the morning? No. That came out of my study for the sermon. Turns out the word “deeply” is used to describe the muscle strain of horse at full gallop or the taut muscles of an athlete straining for the finish line. Learning to love others the way the God loves me is going to be a strain and take much training.
If loving is going to take this much effort, there has to be a benefit….right? Turns out that Peter is one step ahead of me. Take a look gain. It’s right in the verse: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” Turns out love covers all wrongs…even mine! That is some good news! It doesn’t bury them or mask them. It doesn’t pretend they didn’t happen. Love simply doesn’t see them. God always does, but then He can see us fully and still love us wholly. We are not so gifted this side of heaven.
When I am angry I do the opposite of being a loving person. I try to find some fault, magnify it and perhaps even broadcast it to others. Why would I want to this? Why would anyone? This morning I realized that sometimes I want to be the victim and relieved of my responsibility to forgive others and to strive to love them deeply. I don’t want to go through the effort of learning to love them, forgive them, and not hold their sins against them. This is going to be more difficult than I ever imagined, but I sure want others to love me this way, to not see my sinfulness and to love me for who I am. Since I want to be loved this way by God and you, I better strive to love you in the same way! It’s going to take great courage and much effort but I am willing.
If it is going to take that much work for me to learn to love others the way that God loves me then I better pick up the pace of my training. I have a lot to learn. Why am I up at 4:00 a.m. thinking about this? I have a long way to go to love you the way God wants me too. So glad I have a good Coach in Jesus Christ and tremendous playbook in the Bible. Maybe today I can learn to love just a little bit better. Straining for the finish line!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Sounds that Changed My Heart

For many people, the topic of abortion is a political issue resolved by getting the right issues passed and the faithful candidates into office. For others, it is an economical issue. They simply didn’t think they could afford another mouth to feed and thought abortion was their only option. For others, abortion is emotional issue. Perhaps they know someone deeply touched by abortion. We know that this likely includes one in five of the families in our churches. For others, abortion is a theological/moral issue defining when life begins and who has the right to take a life. As a Pastor abortion is all of these, but mostly it is personal. Deeply personal.
It was the summer of 1984. I was worshipping regularly back then, just not Jesus but baseball. My dream was to play ball in college and hopefully beyond. My hopes and dreams would be interrupted that summer by a knock on the door.

Just a few days after high school graduation, I got on a plane to Hawaii with several classmates. We spent a week in paradise doing what young people enjoy doing when there are no parents and a drinking age of 18. When we returned, I spent the next two months worshipping at the altar of baseball…until that knock on the door.

The knock that changed my heart came on a late August day. At the door, stood a friend and classmate that I had been with in Hawaii. She said, “I am pregnant. You are the father.” Those words changed my life. I really don’t remember the rest of the conversation, only the conclusions: We thought we were too young and had too much to look forward to. We couldn’t be parents now. Then there was the sound of the machine at the clinic and the sound of silence as I drove her home from the procedure.  

I know what you are thinking. I think it too, almost every day of my life: “How could you?” I wish I had a better answer than selfishness and fear. It took nine months before that knock on the door would truly penetrate my heart. College had started. Baseball was going well, but something was wrong. Not with my swing, but with my soul. I was struggling to fill the void of sorrow with something, anything.

There would be another sound. On a spring day in 1985, I was pushing a grocery cart down the aisle when I heard a baby cry. Hungry, tired, in need of a change? I am not sure. What was clear was they were the sounds of life. Sounds I would never hear from the child I had fathered. I left my cart and fled the store. I realized that months earlier I had made a horrible mistake. The cries of a baby meant life. What had I done? How do I deal with my guilt?

With questions on my heart, I began to search for answers. My search would eventually lead me to read the Bible. I learned God is the Creator of life (Psalm 139; Jer. 1:5) and children are gift from the Lord (Psalm 127:3).  I learned that all life is precious to God (Psalm 8:3-5). I realized my decision of convenience took a life God held dearly. As I kept reading the Good Book, I realized there was no way to make it right. I simply needed forgiveness and grace (Eph. 1:7). I had taken a life and now my life was in trouble. I needed God’s forgiveness (Col. 1:14). So on May of 1985, in the student union building at college, I prayed, “Jesus if you are real, here’s my life.”

Several months after becoming a Christian, I would eventually ask the mother of my first child to forgive me. She was gracious…and forgiving. Today, she is married with children and serving the cause of Christ. Me? By God’s grace, I have a wonderful wife, two children, three grandchildren, and a ministry I love. I do play softball once a week with some guys from the church, but my life dreams have changed. As Pastor, I am most passionate about helping lost people find forgiveness in Jesus Christ.

Those touched by abortion have a special place in my heart. I know the scars, and I know forgiveness. In 93% of the abortions in our country, convenience is the primary reason a life is taken.[1] That’s a heavy burden many men and women carry. Because of a knock at my door, because of a cry in a store, and because of the sounds of God’s amazing forgiveness and grace, God has allowed me stand for life today. Many don’t realize the most dangerous places today is not the frontline of battle, behind the walls of a prison, or the inner city streets. With an estimated one in four children aborted today, the most dangerous place is the womb of mother. 
The scars of abortion need not define anyone. Jesus wants to forgive and remove the burden of guilt. If I can help you experience the sounds of God’s amazing grace, please let me know.

[1] Aida Torres and J.D. Forrest, “Why Do Women Have Abortions?,”  Family Planning Perspectives,  Vol. 20 NO. 4 (July/August 1988), p. 170.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Now that I Know More
about Violence Against Women

I have not blogged for some time. There are reasons for this. Perhaps I’ll share some of them in a future blog. Today, I thought I write a few words about the importance of last Sunday. What happened? Glad you asked! First, let us not forget that it was Sunday...the Lord's day! I hope you took the time to worship the King of Kings and to express your thankfulness for who He is and all He has done. My family just returned for a few days in Yosemite. Simply amazing. You can look at the Yosemite 2012 photo album on my Facebook page if you’d like to see more. God truly is my rock and salvation! It was a great place to be reminded of this truth.

The second thing that happened last Sunday was the United Nations designated November 25th as "International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women." I live in Southern California. A place not devoid of evil and atrocities, but I'd have to confess we are not stained in the same way by the tragedies we see our brothers and sisters suffering around the world. This is a humbling observation since we don't deserve to be born or live here.

The reality of our living situation and the comparison with suffering of others and specifically other women in the world, we can easily to be tempted to find a comfortable way to recognize the day, pray for those who have been abused, and perhaps even give something to make THEIR situation different. As a pastor what I have learned is that some of THEIR situations are not miles away in foreign lands but instead in our communities and churches and family clans.

· Did you know, every 9 seconds a woman is assaulted or beaten in our country?

· Did you know, domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women, more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined?

· Did you know, nearly 1 in 5 teenage girls who have been in a relationship have been threatened by their boyfriends?

· Did you know,  1 in 4 women will experience some form of domestic violence in her lifetime?

· Did you know domestic violence is a chronically under reported crime? Abused women don’t tell their local police nor do they often tell their church leadership.

I did not know until I read the reports. For a long time I too was blind to some of these realities. Until about three years ago my eyes were opened and my heart broken when a noticed the signs of friend being abused. I have often wondered if I handled that situation correctly. There was intervention, confrontation,  protection, and comfort offered. Was it enough? Did I do what I could? Did the church respond in a way that honored God and protected the innocent? I have done some reading lately and find myself challenged to recommit myself and ministry to the full implications of the Gospel message. Learning is a humbling path.

In the literature today, there are some harsh statements being made about men who hurt women. Don't get me wrong, a man who hits or abuses a woman in any way deserves harsh words. However, I am struck with the reality of the Gospel which clearly says Jesus died for the abused and also the abuser. I don't like that anymore than you do, but that doesn't mean it's not true. We can’t just tar and feather the abuser. Even though that might bring some temporary reprieve from the pain they have caused us or to someone we care for. The truth is the cross covers a multitude of sins. Abuse is one of them. If you have committed this sin, the King is ready to forgive you. Are you ready to repent? Are you ready to try and restore the relationships and trust you have destroyed? I hope so, but my experience tells me that most abusers continue the pattern. That’s why we have to do what we can to stop the pattern of pain.

My purpose in writing this blog is not to rail on men who do evil. None of us are perfect, but it's easy to rail on those who deserve to be run over. It's harder to wrestle with the implications of the cross, God’s grace, sin in our churches, and what we as leaders and followers of Christ should do about the sinful cycle of abuse.

I can remember two times over the years of ministry when men have come to me with their wives and tried to exploit the counseling privileges of a Pastor's office. What did they want me to do? They were clear. They wanted me to compel their wives to submit to their leadership. I didn't. I couldn't. They didn't understand male leadership as outlined in the Bible. They didn’t know what it meant to be a man in God’s church and servant-leader in their home. They were clueless on the reality that God’s design for a leader is characterized by tender strength, courageous protection, and self-giving devotion. Their demand for male authoritarianism was not any of these. Instead, these men had a rather pathetic distortion and self-fulfilling interpretation of Ephesians 5:23-24. What they wanted me and the church to do was buy into was their lie of what it meant to be head of their house and their self-benefiting propaganda of what it meant to be a man. I didn't meet their qualifications of a manly man. Since I didn’t agree with their perspective on what it meant to be a man and since I certainly was not going to boss their wives around, they left my office and the church. I don’t miss them much, but I am still trying to help those who were hurt by them.

Remembering that it is easy to criticize and difficult to transform, let’s ask ourselves: What does God say a man is to be? Men we are not called to demand from those around us. We are called serve those we love. Men we are not to be harsh with our wives (Col. 3:19). Men we are called to honor our wives as weaker vessels (1 Peter 3:7). The Bible says "honor her" not put her down or put her in her place and certainly “honoring her” never includes putting her against a wall! What most abusers don't realize is that the way they treat others is a reflection of the lack of love they have for themselves (Eph. 5:28-29). It is truly sad that most abusers feel bad about themselves and they abuse others in an effort to dull their own pain and increase their self-worth. I know I am over simplifying a bit, but remember this is a blog and not a research paper. A man who hurts others so they can feel better about themselves is sick. Their behavior is sinful and will never result in legitimate needs being truly fulfilled. All that will result is pain  for someone who made a choice to say “I do” but never chose to be abused.

Abuse of any kind is behavior that should never be tolerated among God's people. The Lord hates the person who commits violence against the innocent (Ps. 11:5). The church should never tolerate those who possess a sinful, aping perversion of the servant leader their Creator designed them to be. It should not matter who the person is or what their position is in the church. A woman's life and health should never be held ransom for the name or reputation of a man or a church.

God calls us as husbands to love our wives (Col. 3:19; Eph. 5:25, 33), to enjoy them (Eccl. 9:9), to strive to understand and honor them (1 Peter 3:7), to nourish and cherish them (Eph. 5:29), to provide for and praise them (1 Tim. 5:8; Prov. 31:28). I love how we have a core of men in our church focused on raising up the next generation of great husbands and dads. This honors God and stops the cycle of abuse. Did you know children who have witnessed domestic violence in the home are twice as likely to abuse their own wives? Even if you grew-up in a home were abuse was the norm, you must remember that Christ came to transform. Because your father abused your mother, this does not mean you will or have the right to abuse your wife. That’s simply a lie that men stained with sin at times perpetuate to avoid taking responsibility. It is not your parent’s fault if you are an abuser. It is yours. The road to healthy relationships starts by taking responsibility.

Now that I know more about violence against women, I will pastor differently. Railing against men who deserve it would be easier, but I am a realist. Abusers who don’t want to change won’t listen to me simply because of my position. They don’t listen to Jesus either and I am not the communicator He is. What I can do is work to shepherd those who will listen. So here is the difference I pledge to make. I hope you will listen and do what you can to make a difference too:

·         I will lead our church to never be accepting of any form of physical, sexual and/or verbal abuse. We will stand with women against predatory men in all areas of abandonment, divorce and neglect. Abuse, is sinful behavior, and should never be tolerated by God’s people.

·         I will make sure our church is a healthy place where people suffering from domestic violence will receive the appropriate care, confidentiality and counsel. The church must take a stand against the cruel and cowardly use of power and authority to harm another person emotionally, physically, and sexually.

·         I will make sure God’s expectations about healthy relationships are taught regularly (Prov. 12:18; Eph. 5:25-29; Col. 3:18; 1 Tim. 3:3; Titus 1:7-8; 1 Pet. 3:7; 5:3).

·         I will make sure my church confronts the abuser and supports and protects the abused. 

·         I will do my best to fulfill the implications of the Gospel and provide appropriate emotional and spiritual healing for the abuser and the abused. God extends healing to those who earnestly seek Him. This means extending love and support to those who don’t deserve it. Remember neither I nor you deserve God’s grace either.

·         I will maintain my confidence in God’s power to do miracles and restore healthy relationships fractured by abuse and neglect, but I realize that repentance, forgiveness, wholeness and reconciliation are a journey that must be walked with tenderness, truth, and wisdom.

·         I will encourage us to take fitting action when the abuser is unrepentant and/or unwilling to make significant steps towards change. As followers of Christ, once we know the truth of a situation, we must be willing to respond swiftly and firmly with discipline for the abuser and advocacy, support and protection for the abused.

·         I will keep my faith and believe that my God can heal the wounded and bring wholeness to even the most fractured of relationships.

We live in a broken world. One where those who are supposed to be the lead servants in the home are at times the ones who demand and use force on those God entrusted to them to love and care. Now that I know more about violence against women in our church and community, I can no longer pastor the same way.

To the abused, when I have not acted quickly enough, please forgive me. My ignorance is no excuse. I am a shepherd called to take care of God’s sheep and at times I have failed to do that well. To the abuser, when I have not been blunt enough or direct enough or forceful enough don’t mistake my actions as approval. Abuse is never acceptable. You should accept this. I will not stand by and let you continue the cycle of pain. I will do my best to make sure my church protects and serves those in need of help.

Now that I know more about violence in our community, I simply cannot pastor the same. At the very center of Jesus’ mission was to bring freedom to the captives, relief to the poor, and security to oppressed (Luke 4:17). Now that I know a more, I recommit myself to the power of the Gospel message to bring the Good News to those who need it and to show mercy to those who cry out for it.