Amazed and Perplexed

The Bible is filled with stories about people who were amazed and perplexed. Think about Moses standing before a bush that was burning, but that was never reduced to ash. Think about the Israelites standing on the shores of the Red Sea when it opened to provide a path of escape from the Egyptians and that, then, sealed off the way back to everything that they had known. Think about the people that Jesus healed and how people who were watching it happen responded by saying, “Who is this man?” Think about the people who witnessed the day of Pentecost – a day when tongues of fire fell from the sky, a day when the followers of Jesus spoke in languages that they had never learned, and a day when people thought that the only way to explain what was happening was to conclude that the disciples were drunk.

We live in swiftly-changing times. Once healthy and thriving churches are facing uncertainty and financial difficulties. Attendance is shrinking, and many churches have lost touch with the communities that they serve. New faces are seldom seen in worship. Many people in the Church are scrambling to find a way to save what’s left after two years of struggling through the pandemic. And when people see their churches growing smaller and struggling, the first thing that they are tempted to do is draw inward and protect what they know and love. But, sadly, drawing inward only makes the problems and the challenges worse.

Understanding mission and having a clear vision of ministry is vital in times like these. Churches that are focusing upon what they believe Jesus wants them to be doing right now are doing better than churches that are not doing that. Churches that are asking, “Who are we?” and “What is Jesus calling us to do?” are finding new and exciting doors to the future while other churches are continuing to shrink. I believe that every church needs to be asking itself: “What parts of our ministry are leaving people amazed and perplexed, and wanting to learn more about Jesus?” That’s what ministry is about. People get excited when they believe that they’re doing God’s work with their own hands. People want to financially support and be a part of what’s happening when they believe that their time and financial resources are being used in life-giving and life-changing ways. People want to learn more about Jesus when they are invited to “come and see” what Jesus is doing with their own two eyes. Mission and having a clear vision of ministry create focus, energy, excitement, and passion.

If your congregation is struggling, right now, you are not alone. Many congregations are facing significant challenges. But years of struggle and decline do not have to write the last chapters of your church’s history. If you are looking to turn the tide, here are some ideas:

First: Gather the leaders of your congregation and spend an evening in prayer. Ask God to send the Holy Spirit to close doors that need to be closed (think about the Red Sea being closed to prevent the Israelites from returning to Egypt) and to open new doors to the future. The Church of 2019 is not coming back. We need to open our hands and to let go of some things that are no longer working, so that God can give us something new.

Second: Study the community and the people that you serve. Can you clearly describe the people who live within 10 miles of your church? How old are they? How old are their kids? What challenges and concerns do they face? The average age of an adult in the community that surrounds the church I serve is 49 and the average age of their first child is between 20 and 25. How can that information shape ministry? What percentage of the people in the community that surrounds your church are divorced? Are you building your ministry as one that primarily ministers to married adults with children? Do unmarried and divorced people feel welcomed? Are people in your community at an age where the care of their parents is as important as the care of their children? People in their late 40’s and early 50’s reexamine their priorities, fear that they are becoming irrelevant, are facing an “empty nest” for the first time in their lives. How does this shape the ministry of a congregation? What kind of “Good News” do people who live within 10 miles of your church building need to hear?

Third: Pray about your ministry and about how you are engaging your community. What message of “Good News” are you proclaiming? If children are going to school hungry (nearly 50% of the children in a community that surrounds the church that I serve are going to school without breakfast) could you provide food for them to eat on weekends and over the summer (when schools are closed)? If people struggle with addictions are you providing a place where groups like Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous can meet? How are you showing children and young people in your community that they are important to God? How are you showing people who are lonely that they are not forgotten? What is Jesus telling you to do, right now? Pray about it. I realize that there’s no congregation that can solve every problem and challenge, but every church can pick one or two challenges to focus upon. Stay focused. How is/can the ministry of your congregation bring a word of “Good News” to those who live within 10 miles of your church building before you reach beyond that radius? Think of that 10-mile radius as your church’s “parish.” How can prayer lead to action?

Fourth: Make a plan, establish clear and measurable goals, tell people what you are doing, and tell the story of how God is at work in the world and in your church. We live in a society where “the best story wins” and we, as people in the church, can never forget that. People are drawn to stories that are engaging and that help them to feel that they can be a part of something both exciting and good. Don’t forget to use the power of electronics! Update your church’s website. Realize that people are spending more and more time on electronic devices and figure out a way to use those devices to tell the story of what Jesus is doing with you and your congregation, right now. Create an exciting story by engaging in life-giving and life-changing ministries, and don’t forget to share what you are doing. Never forget that “the best story wins.” People want to be a part of something exciting; and, when they feel that they are a part of something that is important and that is changing lives, they are more likely to volunteer their time and support what’s happening financially.

The Bible is filled with stories where the people were left amazed and perplexed. And the challenge that’s being set before the Church is to live into that amazed perplexity today. God is doing wonderful things in the world. God is enabling people to do exciting things that they never imagined they could do.

Which parts of your congregation’s story are leaving people amazed and perplexed? Which parts of your congregation’s story are leaving people at a point in life where they want to learn more about Jesus, be a part of what’s happening, and know that what they’re doing is making our world a better place for us all?

Bigger Than Me

Ordinary People

We live in an Age of rugged individualism.

We have been told that we need to go out into the world and pull ourselves up by the bootstraps (whatever that means). We have been told that people who are struggling and who can’t feed their own children just need to work harder. We’re told that there are two things in life that we should never talk about: religion and politics. And, as we’ve heard those confusing messages, our faith and our thoughts about God have been changing.

Many people believe that religion is something deeply personal.

Maybe we believe that because we think that faith is only about “Jesus and me,” and that our spiritual journey is only about finding our way into a paradise that we call Heaven. Maybe we say that our faith is a personal thing because we never learned how to talk about God with other people and don’t feel comfortable praying in front of others. Many of us say that a person’s religion is something deeply personal; and yet, for some reason, we keep talking about the fact that we need to get prayer back into public schools. Maybe we don’t think we should talk about our faith because we know that we live in a diverse country where people believe many different things about God and we don’t want to get into debates (even fights) with other people.

In my Christian faith tradition, God clearly speaks against rugged individualism. In fact, when God was creating the heavens and the earth, the first thing that God saw that was NOT good is pointed-out in Genesis 2:18. God clearly says, “It is NOT good for the person that I have created to be alone.” Wow!

In my last few posts, I’ve been reminding you that you are dearly loved by God and that God has placed you on the earth to do a very special thing. I’ve also lifted up the fact that, as people of faith, it’s important for us to remind each other that the things we’re doing with our lives are important. God created us to encourage each other and to build each other up. God created us pray for each other and to spur each other on. But, we can’t do that as individuals who are not connected to each other in some way. And that’s why, as people who are dearly loved by God, Christ brings us together in the Church.

A lot of people don’t want to have anything to do with the Church these days; and, quite frankly, I can sometimes understand why they remain distant. People are sometimes like porcupines on a cold winter night. We need each other to stay warm. We, perhaps, even need each other to survive in a world where God says that it’s not good for us to be all alone. But, sometimes, when we get close to each other, we prick each other with our quills, don’t we? Sometimes WE prick other people with OUR quills. Sometimes we get pricked by the quills that other people have. And it can hurt. It can make us want to run away. Some of you may have decided that you don’t want to have anything to do with the Church because you are sick and tired of being hurt by people that you think should be nicer, or more friendly, or less belligerent, or even more forgiving. One of the things that I’ve learned about the Church is that the Church is filled with people. And, if I require the people in the Church to be more perfect than I am, I’m bound to be disappointed.

Saint Paul talks about the Church in 1 Corinthians 1:10-18. He clearly reminds us that the Church consists of many different gatherings in many different places. Saint Paul even acknowledges that people in one community of faith can feel separated from folks in other communities of faith. Have you ever been afraid to work with another group of Christians in a different faith community to meet the needs of young people because you think that “other” congregations want to “steal” the young people in your congregation? Have you ever secretly gloated when you heard that another faith community was going through a time of struggle? Have you ever been afraid that the newly-installed and very charismatic preacher down the street is going to draw “your” people away? We’re very good at talking about the fact that we are all Christians together and that we shouldn’t feel that we’re in competition with each other, but….

What would the ministry of the Church look like if we all reached out to each other and tried to form partnerships? Maybe we could do things together that we’re having trouble doing all by ourselves? Maybe, if we set aside some of our feelings of competition, we could re-discover the fact that the Church is one Body – not just a bunch of individually working body parts? Maybe we could all thrive and become more healthy together by remaining connected to each other in times when the Church is going through a lot of scary changes? Maybe we could even begin to see Christ do some incredibly new things with all of us if we could just begin to see ourselves as more than individuals – or as individual communities of faith – and started working together and acting like the one Body that we are?

Click Here for This Week’s Message

Thank! Encourage! Build-up!

Encourage

Do you have somebody in your life who encourages you and who cheers you on?

In my last post, we learned a little bit about the baptism of Jesus. We remembered the day when Jesus was baptized, when the Holy Spirit touched Him and when God called Jesus “beloved.” We reflected upon our own baptisms remembering the fact that God has touched us in the very same way. We are loved. We are precious. God has created US and has sent US into the world to make it a better place.

And now, as we read John 1:29-42, we find another interesting story.

We read that Jesus was walking along a road one day and that John the Baptizer shouted, “Look! This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” and, after that, John talked about what happened on the day of Jesus’ baptism. And then, John does the same thing again! It’s almost as if John the Baptizer is trying to tell people that Jesus is doing something important. John is announcing to the entire world that Jesus has been filled with the Holy Spirit, and that Jesus has been sent into the world with a special mission and purpose to fulfill.

Now let’s stop right there and think about what’s happening….

I suspect that Jesus didn’t really need John’s affirmations as He moved forward in life and ministry, but I don’t really know that. But I do know that, as WE travel through life, we all need people who thank us, who encourage us and who remind us that we’re doing God’s work. We are doing something important that’s changing lives….

You might be serving in a position of leadership at a church, or you might be helping to pack boxes at a food pantry. You might be a teacher. You might be an engineer. You may be a stay-at-home mother or father. Or, you may be one of those people who is always at work behind the curtain, so that things run smoothly in front of the curtain. You may be a parent, or a grandparent or another type of caregiver who is helping a young person to grow toward adulthood or an older person who’s slowly approaching death. You may be a musician. You may be an administrator. You may be…. You get the point.

God is at work in your life, but what God calls us to do can sometimes be both exhausting and discouraging. We’re all human, right…? We may even have times in our lives when we experience something called “compassion fatigue” that can deeply affect how we feel, and how we think about life and about what we’re doing. And that’s why we need people who thank us and encourage us and build us up as we continue to do what we’re doing.

We all like to be thanked when we’ve done something, don’t we? We all have times in our lives when we need to be reminded that we’re doing something important. We all have times in life and ministry when we need to be reminded that what we’re doing is God’s work with our very own hands.

And so, here’s what I’d like you to carry with you this week….

  1. Listen to me…. Thank you! I know that life can be challenging, but I want you to know that, even if nobody else is saying it, you’re doing something important. God wants you to know that you’re loved and that you’re precious. And God also wants you to know that, when you do what you believe you’re being called to do by God, you are doing something that’s changing lives and helping our world to be a much better place for us all. Thank you!
  2.  And now watch this…. Other people are experiencing exactly what you experience. They’re fighting on the front line beside you. They’re trying their best to live and to do what they believe God wants them to be doing in a crazy world. And, sometimes, they also need to hear the very same words that I just addressed to you…

Be like John the Baptizer in the coming days. Look for the face of Jesus in the people who are around you and examine the many ways that people are doing what they think God wants them to do. Thank them. Encourage them. Build them up, and help them see that they’re doing something important as they invest their time and lives in other people.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

 

Is Your Congregation Struggling to Survive?

Crucifixion Picture

Many congregations are moving through challenging times these days.

Immediately after World War II, the “builders” got to work; and church buildings, some of them quite large, popped up everywhere. Many church buildings were filled to capacity in the 1950’s and some congregations even needed to put chairs in the aisles on special occasions. But, as we moved into the 1960’s and 1970’s, things began to change. People became suspicious of institutions of every kind. But, even in the 1980’s and 1990’s, many church buildings were still almost full because the “builders” kept coming to worship and were incredibly faithful in both their attendance and financial support.

But things continued to change. The “builders” began to age and even die. Congregations began to see worship attendance falling and budget deficits rising. And congregations began to respond to that change in two different ways: (1) Some congregations turned inward and chopped away at their ministry to save money, and (2) Other congregations turned to God in prayer, sought spiritual renewal, and searched for new and exciting ways to engage in mission and ministry.

In the story of the crucifixion of Jesus, we meet two very different men.

One of the men hanging on a cross beside Jesus cried out in desperation saying: “If you are the Christ, save yourself and us.” This was a cry for survival. Maybe the man on the cross was asking for one more day to make amends with those he had hurt. Maybe he wanted to live for another month, another year, or even another decade. But, what we do know is that this man’s desperate plea for survival wasn’t answered. He didn’t get what he wanted; and, perhaps, he even died in sad desperation. But, this shouldn’t really be a surprise. Didn’t Jesus once say that those who try to save their own lives are going to lose them? (Matthew 16:25)

But, the other man who was hanging on the cross beside Jesus did something very different. He began by confessing that he had gotten himself into a pickle; and that, in some ways, he was only reaping what he had sowed. And then, in a moment of faith, he turned to Jesus and said, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” Here, we have a man of faith. This man, who cried out to Jesus in the same desperate situation said, “Jesus, please take me wherever You want to take me.” He entrusted everything to Jesus alone. And, in that moment of faith, he heard a promise: “I will remember you,” Jesus says, “and you will be with me in Paradise.” And those words shouldn’t surprise us either. Didn’t Jesus tells us that those who give up their life for His sake and who trust in Him alone are going to find it? (Matthew 10:39) Didn’t Jesus also tell us that He was going to build the Church and that even the gates of Hell would not prevail against it? (Matthew 16:17-19)

Moses once told the people of Israel: “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.” (Deuteronomy 30:15) And the story of Jesus’ crucifixion does the very same thing.

Congregations that turn inward and try to “survive” by chopping away at their ministries to save money are choosing a perilous path that often leads to death. Congregations that seek renewal through prayer and daily devotion and that entrust their futures to Jesus, in difficult times, often find new life and exciting opportunities to share the love of Jesus with others because renewal often brings a deeper sense of God’s guiding hand in life and in the ministry of the Church.

Jesus has clearly told us that He has something special planned for us, and that He’s going to carry us into better days and into a future that’s going to be far better than any of us can imagine in our wildest dreams.

And that leaves us, our congregations, and even the whole Church with a question that needs to be answered: Do we want to fight to survive for another year or even another decade, or do we want to follow Jesus into a future where our ministry will continue to grow and thrive even in challenging times? The choice is ours.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

The Church’s GPS

Smartphone Pic

One of the features that I use most often on my Smartphone is the GPS.

When I click the GoogleMaps application on my Smartphone, satellites that are flying far overhead can connect with my cellphone and provide my current location. I can choose my destination by typing an address onto the screen, or I can simply type the name of a distant city. And then, through the “magic” of technology, GoogleMaps plots my journey; provides an approximate arrival time; directs me around traffic jams; and even provides a picture of my destination, so that I don’t knock on the door of the wrong house.

Many pastors and congregational leaders are searching for the church’s path forward in quickly changing times. We realize that our society is moving through a time of dramatic change and transition. We can sense that dramatic shifts are occurring in people’s lives as we hear more and more about the “Nones” and the “Dones.” And we wish we could find the magic pill. We wish that we could somehow re-create an idealized past; but, deep inside, we all know that that’s not going to work. And so, we need to look forward. And, we also need to listen to God’s voice because the Church has been built upon the life-giving message of Christ crucified and risen for 2,000 years, and because the Risen Christ has promised to sustain the Church and lead it into the future.

So, what does our life of worship and prayer have to do with a GPS?

• First, a GPS reminds us that we can never travel from “where we are right now” to “where we need to be” until we know “where we are right now.” We begin worship services at Christ’s Lutheran Church, each week, by joining in a time of confession and forgiveness because we need to remember “where we are right now.” Times of confession call us to look deep inside; and, sometimes, call us to look at parts of our lives that we don’t like to see. Times of open confession call us to gaze into a mirror, and to see ourselves both honestly and authentically. And that’s important because some of the things that we see in the mirror can stand in the way when we want to serve God. And the pronouncement of God’s forgiveness frees us and liberates us, so that we can move in a new direction. Worship and prayer can open our eyes to “where we are right now” – and that’s where every journey begins.

• Second, a GPS reminds us that we can never travel from “where we are right now” to “where we need to be” until we know “where we need to be.” And worship and prayer can help us to see that, too. God opens our eyes and speaks to our hearts in worship and prayer – helping us to see the “gap” between where things are right now and where God wants them to be. As we “dream and dreams of God” in our worship and prayer, God gives us visions of the future that God wants to create for our lives and our ministry. God points us toward “where we need to be.” We might think that we can simply decide “where we need to be” by sitting at a table and by creating long-term strategies without God’s help. But, no matter how creative our strategies become, they’ll never lead us to “where we need to be” until we gather around God’s Word, spend time in worship and prayer, and ask God to lead us and help us to do what He wants us to do.

• Third, a GPS reminds us that, as we’re traveling from “where we are right now” to “where we need to be,” there are many different paths – and some of them may be far better than others. The book of Acts contains a wonderful story where the Holy Spirit opens and closes doors as St. Paul was traveling (Acts 16:6-10). We need to understand that God does the same thing today. When we spend time in worship and prayer, God works. God inspires. God leads. God opens door that we can’t open by ourselves with His mighty hands. And God chooses the best route forward. When we know “where we are right now” and “where we need to be,” we must remain in worship and in prayer – trusting that God will open doors and even close doors that will lead us down paths filled with unnecessary obstacles.

• Lastly, a GPS reminds us that, as we’re traveling from “where we are right now” to “where we need to be,” God will provide pictures of our destination. The Bible tells us: “Where there is no vision the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). As we worship and pray, God paints a picture for us. Can we see Christ’s Lutheran Church as a vibrant congregation that’s both multi-generational and multi-cultural? Can we picture Christ’s Lutheran Church as a place where people use the first five minutes after each worship services to engage and to speak with visitors, instead of just flying toward the doors? Can we picture Christ’s Lutheran Church as a place that devotes itself to listening to people and to building entire ministries around what God has told us to do to meet the needs of people who are living just beyond the walls of our building? Can we picture Christ’s Lutheran Church as a place that continues to lift-up the fact that ALL of God’s people are created to be ministers – and that one of the most important things that we can do as a church is to help people to fulfill their own ministry by equipping and empowering them by providing the tools and training and connections that they need to find?

When I click the GoogleMaps application on my Smartphone, satellites that are flying far overhead can connect with my cellphone and provide my current location. I can choose my destination by typing an address onto the screen, or I can simply type the name of a distant city. And then, through the “magic” of technology, GoogleMaps plots my journey; provides an approximate arrival time; directs me around traffic jams; and even provides a picture of my destination, so that I don’t knock on the door of the wrong house.

Can we look at our life of worship and prayer as something that does the same thing?

The Mission Interpreter

VZM.IMG_20150822_114146

How are choices and decisions you make each day connected to your journey of faith?

You live in a complex Age where change surrounds you. You probably feel overwhelmed by a constant stream of news and information that summons your attention by sending the invasive pop, ding, or silent vibration that invades every part of your daily life. You most likely believe in God, but you may have decided that you don’t want to be affiliated with a local church, synagogue, mosque or temple. And yet, you still want to make some sort of difference in the world. You still want to believe that God is somehow working in your life and in the lives of the people that you love. Perhaps, what you need are stories that remind you that God’s at work in our lives and in the world, and mental morsels to challenge you to think about the relationship between your daily living and faith?

I believe that there’s always a next step for us to take in our journey of faith, and I am dedicated to working with people who want to take the next step forward in their journey of faith with confidence and courage. And, that’s why I’ve added a link to the menu on this site that takes you to my newest blog entitled: “The Mission Interpreter”.

This is a place where you’ll discover ways that God’s people are making a difference in the world, right now. This is a place where the leaders of churches and synagogues and mosques and temples will be challenged to reflect and to grow. This is a place where you will be challenged to think about the relationship between daily living and the kinds of choices and commitments you make each day. This is a place where you’ll be challenged to explore the ways that choices and decisions you make are connected to your journey of faith and to your relationship with God.

You can receive updates every time new material is added to “The Mission Interpreter” by following the blog itself as a regular user of WordPress – or you can provide an email address where links to new material can be send. I hope you’ll also share information about this new blog with your friends, so that they can, also, be encouraged by the fact that people of faith continue to do life-changing things in our quickly-changing world.

To get started, why not take a moment to investigate “The Mission Interpreter” and to read one of the newest, thought-provoking posts: “Stewardship, Stoles, and Suicide” – a piece that tells the tragic story of a pastor who recently committed suicide and that offers some ideas that can help congregations to support and encourage pastors who struggle with issues of sadness, discouragement, depression and anxiety – just like so many other folks do in the Church. You can, also, find several inspiring stories that point to the power of prayer and that lift-up the good that God’s people do when they join hands and work as a team. You’ll even find a thought-provoking piece that challenges Church leaders to remember the importance of storytelling as they prepare to make financial appeals.

I hope that “The Mission Interpreter” will provide something helpful for everyone who visits the site. You’ll notice that there’s, also, a CONTACT ME link on the site. Please let me know if you; the congregation, synagogue, mosque or temple that you attend; or a group of people that you know are joining hands to do something that points others to the God who continues to call us to express our faith in a way that touches and changes lives.

Does God Still Give Us “Signs”?

looking for a sign

John 6:24-35

Several months ago, I saw a “sign.”

Now, before you get all excited, the sky didn’t open-up and I didn’t hear a big, booming voice from Heaven. The “sign” that I saw had nothing to do with watching someone feed more than 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two little fish. The “sign,” in fact, was just a large, tattered billboard that read: “If you’re looking for a sign, this is it!

In this week’s message, “Does God Still Give Us ‘Signs’?”, I want to challenge you to think about the things that first pointed you toward Jesus. We sometimes see Jesus’ power to strengthen and heal when we find ourselves praying for people that we love. Jesus can melt the harsh bitterness that fills our hearts after we’ve been hurt or disappointed. God can show us the next step forward when we don’t know what to do. Sometimes, WE can even be a “sign” of Jesus’ presence in the lives of other people.

The writer of John’s Gospel begins an interesting story in John 6:24-35.

Jesus has just finished feeding more than 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two little fish. Jesus has gone off to Capernaum, a fishing village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee and the home of about 1,500 people. And when the people hear that Jesus is in Capernaum, they gather because they want to see Him. And Jesus tells them: “You haven’t come here to see me because you saw ‘signs.’ You came here because you had your bellies filled with bread and fish.” And, even after Jesus tells the people that what He has just done is the “work of God,” the people who have gathered around Him start to demand another sign.
So, let me ask you a question: “How have YOU come to know Jesus?”

I first learned about Jesus in a Sunday School class where Mrs. Pfeifer showed-up every Sunday morning to teach me about Jesus. I also learned about Jesus as an ordinary man, named Kenneth Ruckert, pointed me to “signs” that proclaimed the fact that Jesus even loves confused teenagers. I’ve learned about Jesus while serving as a camp counselor at Camp Lutherlyn, and as I’ve journeyed through life with people who were suffering and even dying – people who pointed me toward the “signs” of God’s presence in the world when life isn’t perfect. I’ve come to know Jesus because people, throughout all of my life, have invested their time and energy in me. And, because of that, I’ve seen a lot of “signs.” Didn’t St. Paul once write that faith always comes from outside of us (Romans 10:17)?
And that’s why your investment in the ministry of the Church is so important.

I may have never heard about Jesus if Mrs. Pfeifer hadn’t volunteered to teach Sunday School every Sunday morning, and if other people hadn’t donated the money that she needed to buy the books that she used. I may have never become a pastor if the faithful members of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Beaver Falls, PA hadn’t financially supported the ministry of Pastor Joel Nafuma – the man who helped me to pull the pieces together when God first began to call me into ordained ministry. When we faithfully invest our time and energy and money in Christian ministry, we can be people who create “signs” that point people to Jesus. In fact, when we invest in the ministry of a local congregation (or in the ministry of the Church in a broader way), we can open windows to Heaven and point people toward Jesus – the “Bread of Life” – who comes into the world to nourish us, to sustain us, to forgive us, and to lift us up both strengthened and renewed.
“If you’re looking for a sign, this is it!”

Perhaps, God is using these words to challenge you to think about the ways that God can use YOU to do the types of ministry that open the windows of Heaven for other people? Perhaps, God is using these words to remind you that the time, energy and money that YOU invest in the ministry of a local congregation (and in the Church as a whole) has the power to help other people to discover the “Bread of Life.” Perhaps, God is using these words to remind you that, as YOU join hands with other Christians in ministry, God can use whatever you offer to change people’s lives and alter their destinies?

Remember the Beauty of Your Dreams

big things

Have you ever tried to water-ski?

Many years ago, I found myself bobbing up and down in the Ohio River. I had already tried to pull myself out of the water and stand on my feet many times. My stomach was churning because I had swallowed what must have been a gallon of water while being dragged behind a boat. And, as everybody watched, I reached for the rope that floated beside me, heard the rev of the engine, saw the slack in the rope disappear, and then…. I disappeared beneath the water again, was dragged several hundred feet, and finally let go of the rope. That was it. I climbed into the boat – and never tried to water ski again.

Picture the disciples sitting beside Jesus. They were already exhausted. They had crossed over the sea to escape from the busyness of their daily routines. But, the people saw what they were doing and were waiting for them on the other side of the sea. And Jesus cared about the people, and He taught – and taught – and taught – and taught. And, before Jesus’ disciples realized what what happening, stomachs began to growl and people needed to eat. But the disciples could only find find loaves of bread and two little fish – and what’s that when you’re sitting in a crowd of more than 5,000 hungry people?

I’m sure that we all get tired and that we all have times when we don’t think that we have anything left to give. We, sometimes, find it hard to say “No” when we’re asked to do things – even though our calendars are already full. Many churches are struggling with an ever-shrinking pool of volunteers and with rising deficits. We have hopes and dreams that have been placed in our hearts by God. We want to do great and marvelous things. But, we’ve all faced times when we think (or even know) that there’s not enough to go around, right? We want to do great things, but find nothing more than five loaves of bread and two little fish to get the job done.

And so, we need to make a decision. We can chisel our dreams into something less, or we can lift the situation before God and ask for God’s help. We can cut things back a bit, stop reaching toward God-inspired dreams, and simply quit – or we can remember that God’s placed those hopes and dreams in our hearts, and that God will supply what we need to do what God wants us to do. And that’s important for us to understand.

In this week’s message, “Remember the Beauty of Your Dreams”, we’re reminded that faith challenges us to look past obstacles and challenges, and to work together to fulfill God’s plans for our lives and ministries. We are, often, the very people who ultimately decide what we can and cannot do because we are people who decide what we “will” or “will not” do in response to God’s call. We’ve all needed to face the little voice deep inside that says, “You can’t do that!” But, even as that voice continues to echo in our ears, Jesus continues to call us to feed the multitude – even when we’re not sure that we can do it.

But just think about how our lives and ministries could be transformed if we just go so excited and fired-up about what God wants us to do that we simply did it? How would our lives and ministries be changed if we simply trusted that God would provide us with the resources and volunteers that we need to do the things that God’s calling us to do?

Randy Pausch, the author of a book entitled Last Lecture, challenges us to live our lives with passion and commitment. He reminds us that we only have one chance to live and that we need to do the things that matter the most to us. And Randy also reminds us that brick walls often arise to test us and to help us to see how badly we want the thing that we dream about. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Remember the Beauty of Your Dreams.” And, this week, I’m challenging you to do that.

What hopes and dreams has God placed into your heart? What ways is God calling you to put your fingerprints on the world? Is there something that you believe God wants you to do before you die? What’s keeping you from simply doing it, right now?

Seize the day! God has a great, big, wonderful plan for both you and for the ministry of Christ’s Church. Lift your five loaves of bread and two little fish before God and ask God to bless them and multiply them today. You might be surprised by what God can do!

 

Together in the Same Boat

jesus boat

One of the oldest images of the Church is a boat.

Many congregations gather in a worship space that is shaped like an upside-down boat. The place where the congregation sits during worship services is called the “Nave” – a word that has its origins in the Latin word “Navis” meaning: Ship. You might even say that Christians are “all in the same boat,” and that Jesus is carrying us from wherever we are in life right now to wherever God wants us to be – as we continue to gather as God’s people and participate in the ministry of the Church.

The Sacred Story tells us that the disciples of Jesus traveled in a boat; and so, every time we hear stories about the disciples in a boat, we need to think about the Church. And as we do that, we can learn many important lessons about faithful living and ministry that apply to our lives and to our ministries even now.

How are things going in your boat these days? Have you noticed that the days of putting extra chairs in the aisle during worship services are pretty much gone, and that the news is filled with more and more stories about unfolding chaos in the Church? People – in the 21st-Century – tend to view attending a worship service as one of the many equally valid options in a sea of other activities on an average weekend. Most Christian congregations and Jewish synagogues have seen a nearly 50% drop in worship attendance – in just the last ten years. It appears that the boat is sailing through a pretty rough storm right now, and that water is splashing over the gunwales as waves crash all around us.

“Together in the Same Boat” is a message that’s been created to help us to make sense of that and to help us to hear what Jesus might be saying to the Church these days. Perhaps, we need to listen to Jesus as He says, “Let’s go over to the other side”? Perhaps, we need to realize that the Church needs to change as people change? Perhaps, we need to realize that, while the message of Christ crucified and risen doesn’t change, the we way that we communicate that message to people needs to continually change? And that change is going to require faith.  “Going over to the other side” can be very scary; and, maybe, it’s OK for us to admit that we’re experiencing some angst and fear these days? As we travel to an unknown future – trust and faith and daily prayer are more necessary than ever!

But, as people of faith, we don’t need to be discouraged and overwhelmed. In fact, the Sacred Story reminds us of four truths that we must keep in mind as we journey together into the future:

  1. The Sacred Story reminds us that “we’re all in the same boat” – and that, even as we travel into uncharted waters, we have each other as faithful companions.
  2. The Sacred Story reminds us that, as Jesus calls us to “go over to the other side of the Sea,” He hops into the boat with us. Jesus is here – and we’re not alone.
  3. The Sacred Story reminds us that, as we move forward, we need to celebrate the fact that the ministry that we’ve done in the past is still good and worthwhile. Our movement toward the future isn’t meant to invalidate what we’ve done in the past, or to say that it was, somehow, “wrong.”
  4. The Sacred Story reminds us that, even though what lies ahead is still unknown, the “other side of the Sea” is a place where Jesus is going to help us to do great and wonderful things – and the future before us is going to be both God-filled and good.

And so, always remember that we’re “Together in the Same Boat” as we journey into the future with Jesus by our side and with the Holy Spirit as the wind in our sails. And, also remember that the destination that lies before us is going to be a place that will be filled with new challenged and blessings, new storms and times of peace, new blessings from God and new life to be shared by God’s people.

 

Johnny Grapevine

vineyard worker

My wife sometimes calls me: “Johnny Grapevine.”

I remember the days when my Dad and I would walk through the woods staring up into the treetops. My Dad would point-out the different kinds of trees.  We would speak about the wide variety of trees that can be found in Pennsylvania; and we’d, sometimes, even do a leaf-rubbing. But, every once in a while, my Dad would point-out a wild grapevine that had climbed up a tree and that had begun to choke the life out of everything around it. And, with no delay, he’d pull-out his great, big bow saw and start cutting the grapevine off at the ground, And after he was finished, we’d just walk away – leaving the grapevine to wither in the treetops. I still do that. Hence, my wife calls me: “Johnny Grapevine.”

Jesus once described Himself as a grapevine, and He described God as the owner of the vineyard who walks through the world examining grape branches. When God sees a branch that’s bearing fruit, God trims it back a bit; so that, more of the vine’s juices can flow into the growing fruit. And, when God discovers branches that aren’t bearing any fruit, God saws and hacks and trims until those branches are removed. And, when the branches are removed from the Vine, they simply shrivel and die – just like the branches did when my Dad and I cut them off at the roots in the woods of Pennsylvania.

The Sacred Story is one that reminds us that our connection to the Vine is crucial.

Life-giving juices flow through us when we’re connected to the Vine (Jesus); and, when that happens, we’re able to bear fruit that we could never bear without God’s help. God’s Spirit continues to lead us and guide us and empower us when we’re connected to the Vine; and we, sometimes, discover a great source of strength that we never knew we had – when we need it most. The Vine (Jesus) gives its life-giving juices to many branches at the same time (reminding us that God never asks us to bear all of the fruit of the Vine by ourselves) and that’s important for us to remember, as the Church, as we continue to join hands with each other in ministry in an Age where it isn’t always easy to find help and the volunteers we need. When we’re connected to the Vine, God calls us to live-into our God-given strengths and abilities; and, sometimes, that means we need to set some things aside – always remembering that the “new wine” God is bringing into the world is always going to be made from the fruit that’s been harvested from many different branches that, ultimately, share one thing in common – their life-giving connection to the Vine.

So, let me ask you a question….

How’s your life going these days? I suspect that we all have times when we wonder if there’s enough of us to go around.  I’m sure we’ve all had times in life when we weren’t sure if we had anything left to give; and then, something big popped-up and demanded our immediate attention and action. How do you find the strength and energy that you need to continue? Where do you find the strength to keep going when it seems that you have nothing left to give?

In this week’s message, “Johnny Grapevine”, we explore the importance of faith. We talk about the importance of reading our Bibles each day and of setting aside time to pray. We talk about living together as God’s people and about drawing upon the life-giving juices of the Vine in a world where God’s told us that it’s “not good” for us to be alone.

God has blessed you with the gift of life. God has blessed you with skills and talents that you can use to help your family and friends, your church, your community and even the world to become a better place for us all.  And that’s why it’s important for us to remain connected to the Vine (which is Jesus Himself).  We don’t always have “inner strength” to do what God’s calling us to do. We all face times in life when it seems that there’s just not enough of us to go around. We need connection. We need Christ’s life-giving juices. We need God’s Spirit living and moving and breathing in our lives.

God gives us strength. God fills us with life-giving energy. And God continues to help us to do thing that we simply can’t do by ourselves – as God enlivens us with the Holy Spirit and sends us into the world empowered to do God’s work.