Sunday, July 28, 2013

Chills, then fever

We met tonight in home group to talk about the holiness of God. It was... daunting. We heard a lot from the writings of A.W Tozer.

"God’s holiness is not simply the best we know infinitely bettered. We know nothing like the divine holiness. It stands apart, unique, unapproachable, incomprehensible and unattainable… Holy is the way God is. To be holy He does not conform to a standard. He is that standard.”
–A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy. (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1961), pp. 104-105.
We were told to take pictures of what we see of God and hang them on the walls of our mind and our hearts. 
I have some pictures, but from tonight, I have a sound.
The sound of all of us reading the Lord's Prayer (or the Model Prayer if you will) in unison.
There's something about hearing each other.
Kind of like, "Holy, Holy, Holy..." must be in heaven.
It gave me chills. And a burning desire to lead more people into that close a communion. To be there in the midst when it happens.
Thanks to all of you who gathered tonight. And thanks be to God.

Monday, July 22, 2013

First-hand faith example

Before I could finish praying, God had answered. I had come to the church to check our food pantry to see what we could cook for our food ministry this Wednesday. Every week we cook and deliver a 100 or so meals to our neighbors, and another couple of dozen or so for anyone who comes to eat with us at the church. It's something we've done for a couple of years now.

Supplying the needs for it, out of a small congregation like ours, is always a faith-building exercise. But we see people giving and God blessing the work. So I was a little shocked today when I was greeted with a pantry and freezers where there was not enough food to make it happen. I took the picture and headed over to check the mail and open my office for a meeting I had.

I hadn't gone 20 paces. 

I hadn't done more than a "Lord, you know our needs. We're doing this because your Word calls us to reach out in love to "the least of these"... 

I got to the mailbox, and thanked God there were no bills. :) But there was a card from someone in Texas. The name wasn't familiar. I opened the card and read a message from a person Bunny had met online. Bunny had shared about how our smaller church was cooking and delivering meals to our neighbors. She wrote "God moved me to help" and in the envelope was a check for $100.

Friends, before I asked - before I even knew we had a need - God had answered.

This is the God we love and serve at New Hope. 

If church is easy -  If your faith is never tested - If your faith is never validated like that...

You need to come experience faith first-hand at New Hope.

Come and see how GOOD God is.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Unsung heroes

Great day at New Hope!

The frame I was trying to put around the story of Stephen was that of an unsung hero. But now that I think about it, I'm around unsung heroes at New Hope already. Our Child To Child girls came up during announcements and read a card that they received from LOVE146, and amazing ministry working to end slavery. The girls work so hard making crafts they sell for donations to our church family and are reminding us of "the least of these" every time they make an announcement about their next ministry they'll support. So thank you girls. You are heroes. And thank you New Hope for your support.

We began with "Blessed Assurance", moved to "Forever", and finished the worship music with "From the Inside Out." We're so blessed to have a group who love to praise and worship and love old and new.

From there we moved to the message.

The story of Stephen has so many applications for us.

- He steps from the shadows into service.
- He allows the Holy Spirit to direct his actions and his heart.
- He speaks truth to power, but with gentleness and respect when possible, and with directness and uncompromising truth when he must.
- He lifts Jesus high. This is never about Stephen, even though he's the one on trial. Stephen knows that and he makes sure everyone understands that.
- He gives his life away, forgiving those who take it, just like Jesus.

If you're surrendered, if you've given your life over, you never know when you might be called to be a hero.

"When you were born, you cried and everybody else was happy. The only question that matters is this - when you die, will YOU be happy when everybody else is crying?" — Tony Campolo

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Whose Are You?

"Expedition V. Rhinoplasty", "Fractious S. Lineart", "Stargazing F. Propensity" all know my name. 

I'll open my email inbox and there they are, along with a few of their other brothers and sisters, trying to sell me something I don't want or need. Bunny and Sean get emails like that too, and we've begun comparing names every now and then to see who has the most outrageous.

It didn't take but a couple of those emails to figure out that someone has a computer and a lexicon and knows how to use them. They randomly generate names just so you won't know who is sending them. The names are meaningless. Cool, quirky, but meaningless.

I'm reading through the early New Testament today, sort of hit and miss. The idea was to read only the words of Jesus, and immerse myself in the scenes and people around Him. Thank God for red letter Bibles.

What I found was this - Jesus loved people like no one ever has.

Sure you can read His words to the religious fakes and catch a real edge to His voice - even anger. He did that out of love too - for the people who needed to know God loved them. And in the final week of His life on earth, knowing that His message of love would be rejected by those fakes as God's messages to them had always been - He wept. That's amazing love. 

When I reached the end of my Bible journey, I was in the book of John. It was there I noticed another name that was different. Just like those email names in a way, since the person had a name, but used a phrase to replace it. 

"The one Jesus loved..."

She ran and found Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved. John 20:2 (NLT)

What made John stop using his name? Was he doing that to say to others "Jesus loves me best?"

No, I don't believe so. I think John grasped what it means to know that God loves us. I think the love Jesus showed the people around Him convinced John that the greatest thing in the world was to be known as someone Jesus loves.

Well friends, verily verily I tell you the truth, you are one Jesus loves too. And when you love Him back with everything you've got to give, gradually, little by little, you'll learn just How much you are loved. Toward the end of His life, after decades of following in Jesus' way of love, John wrote this. He was still amazed by Jesus' love.

See how very much our heavenly Father loves us, for he allows us to be called his children, and we really are! 1 John 3:1 (NLT)

Are you amazed? Try calling yourself "the one Jesus loves." 

That's who you are.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Love, Loaves, and Fishes

"Anyone can be great because anyone can serve." Dr. Martin Luther King

There has never been a group of people that I have loved serving God with more than the people of New Hope Baptist Valparaiso. I'll pass my 14th anniversary soon so you should have figured out that I love this place. We have never been a big church. We did approach average church size a few years ago - well almost - actually our sanctuary won't hold the 150 souls that statistics say is an average church size. But we're not there now.

And yet on any given Wednesday, the people of New Hope will cook, plate and deliver more meals to more people than we have meeting together in worship on Sunday. Are we sitting on a load of other resources that would make it easier? You know, so we could just go to Danny's Fried Chicken and order 105 meals to go? No. There are weeks where the financial statement might show we have less than $20 in the bank. Now understand we have some very faithful people and so we're able to squeak by, barely. But churches that are in that state usually cut ministry. We didn't. We deliver more meals now than we did.

All I can do is praise God.

We have so many needs, but He has counted us worthy of playing a role in his love for "the least of these."

That's exciting. Each week we ask for help in getting what we need to cook the meal, package it, and deliver it. Many times the total cost of supplies is donated completely. Other times the church treasury takes the hit. But for over two years now, every single Wednesday night we have delivered to shut ins and the poor of Valparaiso. There have been times when we were in the "red" overall, but we pressed on, believing that God wanted us to have faith and act on that faith. He has never let us down. It has literally been "loaves and fishes" week after week after week.

I know lots of other churches have more staff, more stuff, and more programs for every slice of life. But what  if God is calling you to come and see how some of His people do more ministry with less, having to trust God for every week's needs? What if you came to a place where you weren't just noticed, but welcomed as part of a family? What if you were to come and join the group of believers at New Hope as we try to love our way through life together? 

Maybe there's a talent you have that's exactly what we need, but you don't get to use it. Maybe there's a ministry God is calling you into, but you need people around you who have real faith in God's calling and equipping.

Come. Walk with us.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Funeral Message for Laurie Knight

Laurie Knight passed away last week at 49. She was a longtime resident of Niceville and her family asked me to preach the funeral. I didn't know Laurie, but worked hard to gather information about her from family and others who knew her. Today, I delivered what you read below. May God give her family the peace and comfort they will need in their loss.


The Message...

There are a lot of people here today thinking "we're not supposed to be here for Laurie. There are some asking "why did this happen?" There are others wondering "how do I go on?" or "where do I go from here?" When you stop and really reflect on today, and what it means, that the life here of someone who touched so many lives in a multitude of ways, has ended, it definitely should make everyone here pause and consider. To take a minute and take stock of their life. I hope you do that today. And as you do that, I want to see if we can look for some connections between the questions you came in with to hope and to the future.

When you do look back over the life of Laurie Knight, there were certainly lots of connections to be made. She was the baby, the last child born into her military family that came to Eglin, got sand in their shoes and wound up staying here, like so many have. Laurie went through school here - Edge Elementary, Ruckle Middle, and graduated from Niceville High - just as so many did before and so many have after. Rachel was telling me that her Mom's name was on one of the trophies in a case just inside the front door at Edge for years. And looking at Facebook last night I saw a picture of Laurie on "Greek Day" in Middle school. She certainly made many connections with people along the way, but one very special one was with her future husband, Todd. I understand their first date was in 8th grade, and while they were just friends for a time, eventually love knitted their hearts together and for 28 years they were husband and wife.

It wasn't too long before their family tree grew with first Rachel, then Kyle. The days on which they were born were described by Laurie as "the happiest days of my life." Doesn't that speak to you? I mean from what I have been told, it hurts to give birth to a child. Granted, I only have secondhand information, but so many women have told me that I believe it to be true. But knowing that past the pain is pure joy wrapped up in a blanket made those the happiest days. In your mind's eye can't you see a young family with their kids at the beach? I can. They grow up so fast - you look around one day and they're grown. But those connections, though they are different, are no less strong. From what I can tell, Laurie was a Mom who loved her family fiercely and actively worked to keep love's connections strong. It's not easy as a parent to let go of the reins, to let your grown children (who will forever be "your babies") strike out in their own directions. Wise parents work to stay connected - to stay close - even when separated by distance. I know Rachel shared that she used Skype and the good old phone to keep her Mom up to date. And I understand that Kyle and his Mom were also truly connected by the heart.

To hear your kids describe you as "the best Mom ever", "the one I could talk to and always come away feeling better, feeling hopeful," to be called "the most unselfish person I have ever known - someone who would do everything she could to fix your problem - even if it cost her" - not to mention being named the holder of the prize for the "best hugs ever" had to have warmed Laurie’s heart. Just as to hear her husband’s “I don’t know what I will do without her” testifies to just how much she meant to him does. It's clear that Laurie had a big impact on the lives of her children. One of her friends mentioned she had run into Laurie recently and that "the kids were all she talked about."

Kyle and Rachel, you were blessed. Todd, you were blessed. But you know that.

And as the years go on, though the physical connection is now lost, there will be countless times when memories will replay all the moments which may have even seemed ordinary at the time, but which will warm your hearts.

One of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, describes that this way:

“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
― Anne Lamott

And you will come through. Family leaning on each other will help. Friends staying connected will help. And there’s an even greater source of help I want to talk with you about in a minute.

Rachel was telling me about how much her Mom loved animals. That to me says a lot about anyone. But then she said that when she was 19, she found a stray dog and brought it home. Rachel confessed that she wasn't always as responsible as she is now and she basically dumped the care of the dog on her Mom. Laurie proceeded to forge a connection with that abandoned soul to the point that she could barely move in the house without tripping over JaLee, and that dog loved her so that when Todd came home from his business trips he had to sometimes physically remove the dog from their bed. Laurie's heart connected naturally didn't it?

Of course you have to overlay other connections - after all, Laurie worked in banking with Vanguard for 23 years. She literally worked her way up from the bottom by her own hard work, determination, and skill. There too she was unselfish and dedicated to making connections with people, both coworkers and customers. She was very involved with the American Institute of Banking for a number of years, trying to see that others had the opportunity to get the tools they needed to succeed.

When you step back and look over how many connections Laurie must have made locally over the years, it's no wonder so many of you have turned out today. I know the family would want me to express their thanks and gratitude for your attendance here. At times like this such loving expressions mean a great deal.

I was reading last night, thinking about this today, and was praying for the words to say. Not just to help you understand who Laurie was, or to in doing so help you understand what you've lost. When I look out at family and friends, I think you already get that. No I was looking for what to say to broken hearted people many of whom don't understand why this is even happening.

So I began to read. The first thing I noticed was that Laurie had one connection even before she was born. The Bible says: You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed. Psalms 139:16 (NLT)

So even before her birth, God knew Laurie well. And in His ability to take all the millions of choices and actions we may make over a lifetime - where to live, who to marry, whether to eat smart and exercise, or to exercise our freedom to make whatever choices that please us at the time- God also knew we would be here today. Not because He caused it to happen, but because He is God, he knew. We didn't. Many of you are still in shock. But it didn't catch God unawares. He was there at the beginning, and He was with Laurie at the end.

At times like this we seldom get answers for the question, “why?” or “Why now?” Frankly, we all push away the certain knowledge that the death rate is still 100% for human beings and even when one of our classmates pass away at what seems like an early age, we forget how many times other, younger people preceded them. What we can take comfort in is the knowledge that no one dies alone.

I kept reading, and then turned to read of a night when a group of friends were hurting so bad. The One they had loved, who had spent years helping them in so many ways was about to die. He knew it, and out of His love for them, He spoke to them at dinner. Here's what He said.

1 “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. 2 There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? 3 When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. 4 And you know the way to where I am going.” John 14:1-4 (NLT)

Can you see what He's doing there? I talked about how Laurie made connections with so many people during her lifetime, remember? With friends from Elementary, Middle, and High School and all over the area. With coworkers at the bank. With her family. With her pets. Why over the last few months with her new found Facebook skills she was reaching out and sharing herself with others she hadn't seen in years. She was thinking about maybe going back to work, she and Kyle were attending church. She was connecting with new people and reconnecting with old friends - drawing them closer. She was keeping relationships going, making them stronger.

Here Jesus is doing all that, and more. He's telling some broken hearted people that even though He is going to die, because of God's love for Him, and His love for them, they will not be separated for long.

Like you, they don't understand why He had to die. He was so young. He had so much of life ahead. Everyone dies, we all know that. But just like now, no one wanted any part of losing the one they all loved. So Jesus turned to them and said basically, "Trust me. I've got this, if you’ve got me."

And like now, like here, they still didn't understand. It didn't help. So he repeated it.

28 Remember what I told you: I am going away, but I will come back to you again.
John 14:28 (NLT)

He knew that God's love, His power was going to bring Him back - to resurrect him. So He promised them that even though it hurt now, there would come a day when they would be able to receive what He called a gift—peace of mind and heart. John 14:27

Laurie was working on those relationship connections all the way up to her death. She was sharing her love with Kyle in person, with Rachel using technology and had planned a visit to Atlanta next week to deliver more of those world renowned hugs. And I know she missed Todd every day he was gone. But here we are today. It feels like the connection is lost.

Well here's some good news. Jesus made a connection with His loved ones that even death could not break, and He did it through their trust in Him as God's Son and as their Savior, or the One who would rescue them from death's pain. He literally gave His life away so that they might have the chance to choose life - eternal life with Him by trusting in Him. They couldn't do it - none of us can. Anyone who has ever had a newborn knows how utterly dependent they are. If we didn't have Mothers and daddies to take care of us, we'd never make it. We need someone who loves us so much that they'll do whatever it takes.

Jesus did that for them. He did that for Laurie. He has done that for you.

What He asks in return is for us to realize our situation. We are in need. The Bible tells us that we have all "sinned and fallen short of God's standard." In other words, we aren't ready to meet Him as we are. We have to understand we need someone to make us square with God. That someone is Jesus, who died on the cross for our sins. So when we agree or confess our need and then ask God to make us right with Him, trusting in Him as God, the only one who can save us, then and only then we can be secure in the knowledge that the connection with His heart that was just formed will never break.

When we die, we leave this part of our life, but begin life with God. So if anyone, Laurie included, makes that decision, to trust God with their whole life, days like today hurt, but less like seeing someone off at the airport knowing you'll never see them again and more like saying goodbye to your coworkers on the Wednesday before July the 4th. It's not that you don't appreciate them and your job, but given the choice, you'd choose the holiday, knowing you'll see them again.

That is the hope I came here today to deliver. There’s a connection that death cannot sever – the connection between a believer in Jesus Christ as Savior and Him. Choosing to believe in Him and live for Him, loving God and loving people, doesn’t just change your behavior. It changes your destiny. In the suddenness of why we are here today, think about that. And if God is calling you, act on it. Trust in Jesus.

Don't work up a list of reasons why you don't deserve His amazing grace, or a list of reasons why you are a great catch. It isn't really about you. It's about how much God has always wanted that heart connection with you and how far He was willing to go to make it. For God so loved ______ you, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever - you - believes in Him will have an eternal and unbroken connection with Him.

I have been here. Ten years ago I stood with my family around a very small grave where we laid to rest the body of my granddaughter whose life ended two days before she was due to be born. Listen to me. I could not have walked away from that grave with any life left worth living if I didn't know that I would see her again, and that she was in the arms of someone I could trust.

You need that. We all need that. So as I pray, make your decision to believe that through His love, through His Son’s sacrificial death on our behalf, through His resurrection from the dead- Jesus has this. He will see us through. We can trust Him.

Let us pray.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Faithful and True - Well Done, Oliver the Schnauzer

Our friends gave their faithful companion of 13.5 years, Oliver the miniature schnauzer, his release from this life to the next today. It is a release because in the last little while Oliver's little body has stopped working so well. He couldn't hear or see, and didn't even know to take one of his beloved treats unless it was placed in his mouth.

I've known Oliver all his life, and have known his owners/friends for a little while longer. I've seen the joy he brings them. I've rubbed his head and scratched behind his ears. He was the personification of what a dog brings - unconditional love, unbridled joy. He was a good dog.

So it shouldn't surprise anyone that when anyone has to say goodbye to a close friend who has not only shared time with them but enriched that time immensely...

It hurts.

And it will hurt.

The only thing worse than losing a friend like Oliver...

... is never knowing his love at all.

Godspeed, my friend.