Following the 2020 election cycle, many have commented on the division in our country. There have been many calls to set aside our political and ideological differences to pursue unity as Americans. Every time one side of the political aisle says or does something, the other side comes unglued. Things are not that different in the church as well. In The United Methodist Church, where I serve, we have been ministering under the shadow of a coming schism. We dissect every word or action (especially among leaders) to look for ulterior motives.
Yesterday in worship, I shared that the church’s foundation (and Christians) is the confession that Jesus is the Messiah. This confession is the source of our unity. However, unity often feels like trying to grasp sand at the beach; the harder we try to hold on, the more sand slips through our fingers.
What does it take to live in unity with our brothers and sisters who very likely don’t believe everything the same way we do?
Paul writes in Ephesians 4:3, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” This is an excellent sounding verse and highlights that unity is something we should pursue. Looking at this singular verse does nothing to instruct us how to “keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” We need to look at the context that Paul offers us.
“I, therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility, gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Eph. 4:1-3 ESV)
Unity does not just happen. Lasting unity results from a commitment of diverse people to walk with one another informed by their faith. They must approach each other with humility, gentleness, and they must be patient with one another. They must bear with each other, not out of tolerance, but in love! If some of these phrases sound familiar, it is because there are, at least, five out of the nine Fruit of the Spirit that Paul list in Galatians 5:22-23. Unity will only be possible when both parties walk with each other in a manner worthy of their calling.
Thank you for the diversity that you have given us. Help us to appreciate and love the diverse people and experiences around us. Please lead us to work for unity amid diversity as we center our lives on Jesus. Amen.
The Chronicles of Narnia had played a significant role in my life. I’ve read them several times, along with many other of the writings of C.S. Lewis. Narnia was a world created by Lewis to tell the story of Jesus to children. Aslan, the great Lion, is the Christ-figure in the story who gives up his life to free one child from captivity and the world from perpetual winter.
In The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Lucy and Susan ask Mrs. Beaver (the animals can talk):
“Ooh,” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver. “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe? Said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
This passage is my favorite part of the story because Mr. Beaver shares that Aslan is not safe, but he is good. As we consider the goodness of God, following God is not always safe. God called Abram to leave his family and his country for an unknown land. God’s path led Joseph to prison. Jesus called the disciples to leave everything behind to follow him. God is not safe. But God is good.
Too often, the Western Church has pursued safety rather than following the Lion of Judah. We want sanitized song lyrics, TV shows, and movies without language or violence, and we hope that our children will grow into friendly adults rather than seeking to follow Jesus into the challenging and adventurous places in our lives. Jesus calls us to give up everything, to crucify our old self to the cross. God is not safe. But God is good.
Have you been seeking safety rather than trusting in God’s goodness through the adventure of discipleship? Have we traded the joy of following Jesus for a bland version of Christianity that is free of risks? When we eliminate the risk of following Jesus, we find that we are no longer following Jesus. Let us put our trust in God’s goodness and take a leap of faith as we risk it all to follow Jesus.
As we consider what our church life might look like in a more “normal” state, the staff and leadership have discussed ways that Avenue can be more hospitable to guests and 1st-time attenders. If you’ve ever had to go to a church for the first time (in other words, if you weren’t born attending Avenue), you know what a daunting task it can be to come to church. There are some practical things that we (who are regular attenders) can keep in mind to be more intentional about integrating first-time guests into the community at Avenue. I want to thank Rebecca McLaughlin (via @markhallock on Twitter) for the ideas!
A Person Sitting Alone Constitutes and Emergency | When we see someone sitting alone, we have an opportunity to introduce ourselves and invite that person to sit with us. One of the barriers for new people coming to worship is the fear that they won’t know anyone or sit alone. While they may say no and be alright sitting alone, the invitation goes a long way to helping that person feel welcome. (of course, during COVID, we may have to be wise about how we do this.)
Your Friends Can Wait | Over the last twenty years in ministry, I see this as one of the most significant barriers to being a welcoming church. We can become so cliquish that we don’t intentionally look for new people to welcome. On the one hand, this is good because we have found friends to worship and grow together. On the other hand, it is a barrier because the guest will see the cliques quickly and recognize that they don’t fit in. Your friends can wait (and will wait) to catch up with you. A guest will not wait to come back if they do not feel welcomed and included.
Introduce Newcomers to Someone | The gym I attend does a great job of this. I participated in group workouts, and when there is someone new trying out the class for the first time, our coach introduces the newcomer to the people around them. It helps to build community and makes them immediately feel included. When you meet a guest in worship, introduce them to your friends or the people sitting around them. Help them feel like they are part of the community. As you talk, you may find common interests and connections that are shared.
Here in Delaware, our governor recently announced that most capacity restrictions would be lifted for churches beginning May 21st, 2021. Just as we’ve seen guests attend Avenue over the past six months, I expect that we will continue to newcomers. Even during the worship service, we must be missionaries, who are called to “go” to new people and help them get connected to the love of God through Jesus Christ.
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”
Have you ever thought to yourself, “I thought following Jesus would make my life easier?” I have to admit that I’ve probably thought that a few times. There are segments of Christianity that declare that “if you have enough faith that you will be successful” or that “God wants you to be prosperous.” This kind of thinking is not only dangerous to our personal faith, it is dangerous for the Church to believe this. Through the Scriptures, and especially the teachings of Jesus we are told that we will suffer, be persecuted, and instructed to “carry our cross.” The New Testament tells us less about “thriving” and more about “enduring” or “persevering.” Doesn’t exactly sound like American ideas of success and prosperity.
I have come to love the 23rd Psalm more and more. We’ve heard it so much that we can see it as trite or over stated. Perhaps we only associate it with funerals and we don’t see the importance the Psalm can play in our day-to-day living. In the Psalm, we see that the Lord our Shepherd provides everything the sheep needs AND leads us through the darkest valleys. Later, in verse 5, we are told that the Shepherd prepares “a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” It is both/and rather than either/or. God doesn’t just provide for us during the good times, God is walking beside us in Death Valley as well as providing for us while we are surrounded by enemies, trials, and testing. Just because we walk through dark times or find ourselves in a place of opposition or oppression does not mean that God is not providing for us. The Good Shepherd is with us all of the way.
When we go through difficult times in our lives we must remember that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, suffered and died for us. Jesus knows the way through the low points in life. Jesus knows how to persevere through times of opposition. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, shows us the way and leads us through the challenging times of life.
Are you following the Good Shepherd through the smooth season and the seasons that are difficult? The Shepherd provides in both when we follow.
Recently, Carl Lentz was fired from his church due to moral failures. He was the pastor at Hillsong NYC. He posted on Instagram that he was leading “out of an empty place” and was “unfaithful to in his marriage.” Lentz is one of several high-profile pastors who have been fired or had to step down for a variety of reasons. My heart breaks for him, but especially his wife, children, and the church who looked to him as a shepherd.
Lentz had an incredible platform to proclaim the Gospel in NYC. He was on Oprah. NBA All-Star Kevin Durant attended Hillsong NYC. Lentz walked with Justin Beiber as he works out his faith. Lentz is another in a long line of celebrity pastors who are fired because of moral failures. This includes Ravi Zacharias, Bill Hybels, James MacDonald and the list could go on and on. There are plenty of non-celebrity pastors fall from grace because of unchecked ego and sin. There is something in our culture (especially American Christianity) that loves to elevate Pastors/Leaders to celebrity status. It seems from my vantage point from afar that there is often little accountability for these pastors/leaders to steer them back when the begin to stray and too little humility to allow pastors to be held accountable.
Pastors make the news for all the wrong reasons. One wonders if pastors should be making the news at all. Recently, video was posted of a pastor in Missouri preaching about how women were not “hot enough.” At best, there is nothing in the Bible that addresses this- at worst, this is spiritual abuse. My point is this, whether it is a celebrity pastor, like Carl Lentz, or a pastor I’ve never heard of making some off-the-wall claims or teaching, it makes the role of a pastor and the ministry we have been called to even more challenging. I even struggle with my call in light of the negative examples in the news.
We need more boring pastors. This doesn’t mean we need boring preachers- I don’t believe that preaching should be boring because God’s Word is alive. We don’t need boring teachers- because nothing is worse than a boring Bible study. What I mean is that we need pastors who are committed to their communities over platforms. Pastors who keep their noses in the Word of God and their knees connected to the floor in prayer. Pastors who will allow others to hold themselves account and who practice humility over fame. Pastors committed to cultivating the slow process of spiritual growth and discipleship within their community rather than seeking to grow a megachurch.
We also need churches filled with Christians who desire boring pastors who are committed to slow, deep, and meaningful kingdom work. We must be committed to the long game. The other day, I had a congregant ask me when I was going to “set the church on fire” by filling the pews. In their mind, successful ministry looks like “butts in the pews.” I would love to see our church filled with people. Even more, I want to be a pastor who can shepherd our community into a deep, abiding, and meaningful faith in Jesus Christ that helps us, and others, make sense of the world we live in.
Over the last few months, I’ve prayed for Lentz and others who have become caught up in the celebrity pastor scene. It’s made me repent of my own tendencies to desire a greater platform to be known under the thinly veiled guise of preaching the gospel. I’ve had to repent of my own pride when it feels good to have someone compliment my preaching or my teaching in Bible study. I repent, because there is a side of me that wants to be a flashy pastor. I repent, because I know that I’m called to be a boring pastor committed to shepherding the community God has called me to.
I’ve been reflecting on the Inaugural Poem, The Hill We Climb, by Amadan Gorman. Gorman, the first person named National Youth Poet Laureate by The Library of Congress finished the poem in the wake of the violent protest at The United States Capitol building in Washington D.C. She is the youngest poet to read at a Presidential inauguration.
Like many who listened, read, and re-listened to her poem, I was struck (but not totally surprised) by the religious language in the poem. She began by asking the question, “Where can we find light?” We might be able to find a high level of agreement that in our country, and our world, that it is challenging to find where “light” is breaking through. Gorman talked about our need for “healing” and “redemption” for our nation and the role we can play in that process.
Just a week ago, we began a serious on The Sermon on the Mount. Following the Beatitudes, Jesus tells the crowd,
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matt. 5:14-16)
Jesus tells disciples that they are to be the light of the world. The words and actions of Christians are to be a light in the darkness. Christians are to be “salt” in the way we bring flavor and healing through our lives in our community. If there is healing that needs to be done in our families, communities, nation, and our world- it is the calling of followers of Jesus Christ to be the light through our words and actions that allows the healing that God brings to the world. The Church cannot sit back and wait for the world to be the light- we have already been called to be the light.
Gorman ended her poem by saying, “There is always light if we’re brave enough to see it; if we’re brave enough to be it.”
Church, are we brave enough to see the light of Christ that is in the world regardless of how dark it seems? Are we brave enough to live as the light of Christ through our words and deeds? Let us live to shine the light of Christ in the world!
Today, Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th President of The United States of America. There are many in our community who will celebrate the incoming President. There are many others who would’ve liked a different outcome. As Americans, we have the opportunity to come together in unity to work towards a better future for all people in our country for future generations.
As Christians, we are “aliens and strangers” in this world (1 Peter 2:11). Our primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of God, which is why we are not beholden to a political party, platform, or leader. But we are called to work and pray for the good of this temporary home where we currently reside.
The prophet Jeremiah was operating in the time that Israel was exiled to Babylon. This meant that much of the population had to make the long journey to Babylon to work (as slaves) for the Babylonian empire. You can probably imagine that the people of Israel would rather have gone home and seen the Babylonian empire fail. But God speaks through Jeremiah saying,
“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Jeremiah 29:7
God tells Israel to “seek the welfare of the city.” The city was Babylon. The city was the great enemy of Israel. But the people of God are to seek the welfare of the city of Babylon while living as aliens and strangers there. They are to “build houses,” “plant gardens,” “eat produce,” and “get married,” and “multiply, not decrease. (Jer. 29:5-6).” Why are they to do this? Because if Babylon thrives then the exiles will thrive.
Paul tells Timothy,
“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” 1 Timothy 2:1-2
Paul’s advice to believers is to pray for our leaders in such a way that their leadership would lead to peaceful and quiet lives in godliness and holiness. This is instructions for us today regardless who our President, governor, mayor, or pastors are. We pray for our leaders that they may lead in such a way that leads to peaceful and quiet lives for all people. We pray that they would lead with godliness and holiness. We pray that as they succeed, so will all the people in our nation succeed.
I ask that you would join me today, and in the days to come, to pray for the welfare of our nation, our leaders, and our church that in their flourishing would lead to flourishing for all people. Where we see those who do not flourish or are left out, let us work as the hands and feet of Christ to lift those up who have been left behind.
Yesterday marked the beginning of the season of Epiphany. Epiphany is the time when we recognize the revelation that God Incarnate as Jesus. We often think about the star leading the Magi from the East to Bethlehem to worship Jesus as King. Those of us who are Christians have experienced the revelation that Jesus is God-in-flesh.
Yesterday was revealing day, an Epiphany moment, for our country and church. As protestors gathered in Washington D.C., violence broke out as rioters broke into the Capitol building, forcing the evacuation of the Congressmen and women who were gathered there. This is just one incident of many on all sides of the socio-political spectrum. My heart is broken for our nation and our church because of what was revealed yesterday (and has been being revealed over the last several years). We are a broken and divided nation. We do not trust those different from ourselves. We would rather win a fight than seek understanding and reconciliation with those different from ourselves. We are a nation and a church that is divided along socio-economic and racial lines. There is contempt and even hatred for “the other.” Worse, is that the church often reflects the ways of the world more than we reflect Jesus.
Now, more than ever, the church must find our voice to lead. For too long, the church has squandered our authority and integrity by aligning ourselves with power, politicians, and parties rather than aligning ourselves with Christ and the characteristics of the Kingdom of God. We are not called to fight hatred with hate. We defeat hatred with love. We see this love in Jesus who laid down his life for the world (including his enemies). Jesus shows us that whoever wants to be first must become last. Jesus’s love told Peter to put away his sword. Out of love, Jesus ate with and washed the feet of Judas, who betrayed him. It was through love that Jesus forgave those who executed him.
As we enter the season of Epiphany what does yesterday’s events reveal about ourselves? Our Church? Our nation? What do the events in our nation and world, over the year or four years, or 10 years reveal about us and our faith? If there is any way in us that is sinful, hateful, or full of contempt for others, let us repent and turn back to living the Jesus way by loving God and loving our neighbors (and enemies!).
May we shine the light of Christ in a world covered in darkness.
In 2004, I led a mission trip to Paraguay, where we had the opportunity to assist in constructing a new church that was being built in a small village outside of Asuncion. There are many stories to tell about the entire trip, but there was one conversation with a friend and missionary, Andy Bowen that has always stayed with me. As we sat in his home one night, we asked Andy what the prospects looked like for the children and teens who hung out at the construction site. Andy shared that the prospect was not great. Education was not a priority. Many of the young girls would end up in relationships that would leave them with children. Marriage was not a priority- so the woman would find a partner to assist them financially with no long-term commitment. They would eke out a living doing what they could. Then Andy said, most young people here cannot dream of a different life because they have not seen that a different life is possible. The cycle of poverty would continue.
When I was a child, I had big dreams. I wanted to be an astronaut. That dream ended when the Challenger exploded. I wanted to play baseball in the Major Leagues. That dream ended when my senior season of college ball unsurprisingly came and went without a phone call. I think most of us have dreams for our lives- or did have dreams for our lives. We want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We want to accomplish something great or something helpful to humanity. We are taught in our culture to leave our mark. Often, our dreams end up looking like empire-building as we shine a spotlight on ourselves.
I need to dream, and being part of something bigger than ourselves is about purpose. We want to know that our lives have purpose and meaning. We want to know that we are not an accident. We want to know that God has a plan for our lives. We want to do something significant but wonder if we are big enough to do it.
When we read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke, it is striking to look at Mary in relation to the story’s grandeur. Mary was a nobody. She was from the backwater town of Nazareth. Nazareth was a small town outside of the larger village of Galilee. It was near a common trade route but not real affluent. Some commentators have said that archeological studies have shown that 200 people may have lived in Nazareth around the time of Jesus. The little town I grew up in had 200 people in the town proper- so I know what a small backwater town looks like.
Mary was engaged to Joseph, a local carpenter. The marriage was likely arranged. She could have been as young as 12, and Joseph may well have been ten years older than her. By all accounts, they were poor. When they took Jesus to be dedicated at the Temple at eight days old, they could not afford a lamb and instead offered a sacrifice of a pair of doves or two young pigeons. What sort of dreams might have Mary have had for her life? Perhaps the greatest dream would be to get married and to make out a living with her husband and future children. Nothing wrong with a dream that is grounded in reality.
Then an angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, and Mary’s world was turned upside down. Mary, who was young, poor, a woman- which was not a good combination in ancient times, was said to have found favor with God. Gabriel that Mary would conceive and give birth to a son and who will be named Jesus.
“He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his Kingdom will never end.” 
I imagine that Mary raises an eyebrow at this for several reasons. She is a young and poor girl from a backwater town, and her son will be called the “Son of the Most High” and will have a kingdom that will never end? Then there is the whole “How can this be since I am still a virgin?” Mary is not filled with doubt- she is curious about the divine possibilities presented to her. She knows how biology works. When the angel Gabriel explains how all of this will take place, Mary responds:
“I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” 
The Greek word translated as “servant” really means slave. A slave is someone who is completely surrendered to their master’s will. Mary has heard about God’s great plan for her life and surrenders to God’s will. Mary knows that she is God’s servant and will allow God to work in and through her as God wills. Mary, the young girl from Nazareth, will be the mother of the Messiah.
Hope gave Mary Purpose. It was a purpose that was greater than herself. It was a purpose and meaning that Mary could have no way of even dreaming before encountering the angel, Gabriel. Hope took Mary from the backwater town of Nazareth to her name being on the lips of Christians throughout the last 2000 years. There is nothing about Mary’s life that screams that she is a good fit for the calling. But God takes care of whatever limitations that Mary had in order to use Mary for greatness.
God doesn’t call the qualified. God qualifies the called. What I mean by that is that if God calls you to do something for the Kingdom, then God will give you the giftings that you need to go and do it. We may have a dream or a calling that we believe is from God to make a Kingdom difference in the world that we live in-, and maybe we are apprehensive. We might be tempted to saying something like, “Who am I to do something like this?” We may think that we are a nobody. But if God calls us to something- God will give us what we need to accomplish it. That doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges or hard work. Mary was called to be the Mother of Jesus, and all other people saw was a pregnancy before marriage- which was not socially acceptable. The looks and the whispers had to be challenging. Joseph was going to divorce her if it weren’t for an angelic vision. Mary had challenges. Mary had limitations. But God knew Mary, called Mary and gave Mary everything that she needed for the tasks of raising the Messiah.
Hope Gives Us Purpose.
There is one thing that Mary had to offer God. Her availability. Mary had a willing heart. She could have laughed at the angel. She could have said, “No way, God. I’m too insignificant.” She could have run away. Instead, Mary surrendered to God’s will. Mary made herself available to be used for something great.
I believe that since we are created in the image of God, that God has created each of us with a purpose and a calling. Because we have been created with a purpose- life is not meaningless or empty. Hope Gives us a purpose. For some of us, that calling and purpose are clear. For others, it is not always evident what that calling may be. God has given you a purpose. Often, that purpose and calling are aligned with our passions and the things that give us energy. God uses our passion and the things we are interested in to guide us on how we can engage in the work of the Kingdom. God gives us gifts and talents in order to do the purpose and calling that we have been given.
When it comes to fulfilling our purpose and calling- the thing we have to offer most is our availability. When we completely surrender to God’s will and make ourselves available- God uses us in ways that we may have never dreamt of.
We’ve already mentioned that beginning January 3rd that we will enter into a congregation-wide 20 days of Fasting and Prayer. Our focus will be on our purpose and calling as a church- and as individuals. As we hear from God, we will be challenged to surrender ourselves to God’s Will and making ourselves available to God. I want to encourage you to wrestle with what you are passionate about and how that passion can be joined together with your Christian faith. In this time of waiting- we have Hope that God will give us a new/renewed purpose.
If you are wrestling with purpose and meaning in your life- remember that God knew a nobody like Mary. God showed favor in her life and chose her to change the world. God knows you and I and chooses to use us and to use the church to take part in God’s redemptive plans. God uses us in the mess that often accompanies our lives when we make ourselves available. In our availability- we can know and share the love of God through Jesus to the family, our friends, our community, and our world.
As I sit down to type out this post, the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are said to be made available in Delaware (where I live) and throughout The United States. Over the last nine months, the COVID-19 pandemic has plunged our world into fear and darkness. Many have lived in isolation, only going out of their house for the necessities while others have done their best to live as if nothing has changed. Just the other day, America had it’s single-most deadly day since the start of the pandemic. As numbers increase, so does the heaviness and anxiety about the virus.
We are in the season of Advent. Fleming Rutledge writes that, “Advent begins in the dark.” Rather than a countdown to Christmas, the season of Advent is a time to acknowledge the darkness that surrounds us and to expectantly wait for the dawn to break. The light breaking through the darkness is Jesus. At Advent, we roll up our sleeves and wait, watch, and prepare for the return of Jesus. Even as the darkness is think and heavy, we strain our eyes and our hearts looking for signs of Jesus’ return.
Advent is a season of hope. Jesus already come once and established his kingdom, but it has not yet been fully realized. Sin has already been defeated even as the world has not yet been fully redeemed. At Advent, we live in the already/not yet of God’s Kingdom (reign/rule). The war against sin and Satan has been won even though there are battles to still fight.
The deployment of the COVID-19 vaccine is a reminder of Jesus’ return. For ten month’s we have lived in darkness. We have heard rumors of the vaccines development and how it has progressed through test. Many have been preparing the vaccine- from scientist and researchers to those who will distribute and administer the vaccine. Others have longed for a vaccine so that the effects of the virus can be limited- or even defeated. After a period of darkness- there is hope on the horizon. The vaccine is already here, but it’s effects have not yet been realized. The war against COVID may be won but there are battles still to fight.
I am prayerfully hopeful that the vaccine will be safely, effectively, and effeciently distributed. Like many, I celebrate the work that has gone into the vaccine’s development. For the first time in months, we have hope. Hope to hug one another. Hope to visit friends and families. Hope to re-gather back together for worship in our churches. Hope that we no longer have to fear COVID.
Even more than the hope in the vaccine, we should place our hope in Jesus. In all our longing for the world to be made right, what we are longing for is the return of Jesus. We have hope Jesus will return and that the darkness in the world will be eliminated. Let us put our hope in Jesus.