Sunday, April 29, 2012

Truth In Advertising

I used to work for the world's biggest advertiser. We spent more money in more ways that anyone on the planet to get our products in front of people. When you combined that with the fact that in most cases our products were the best in their particular market segment, it made for some good selling for folks like me who called on stores and warehouses. If you couldn't sell Crest toothpaste, Pepto-Bismol, Folgers coffee, Crisco, Charmin etc. with all that going for you, well... there were people waiting in line to get your job who would.

Going to a supermarket or drugstore chain headquarters I could truthfully say we had the best product with the most support for them to sell it to the consumer. There were times when I convinced the retailer to sell my product to the consumer for LESS than the retailer paid for it. Why would they do that? Because people would make a special trip to buy my product, and once they were there they would buy other items too.

Those were the days.

Now as the pastor of a church I am working on an advertisement for our local newspaper. It's been a while since we advertised at all. We preferred spending the money on orphanages, wells, water purification, or HIV meds. But we need a greater presence in the area, and we have a couple who wants to see us get that so much they have paid for the ads. So now the dilemma arises - what do we say in the ads?

Unlike in my previous advertising experience, I can not confidently say that we have the best "product with the best support." That'd be wrong in a couple of ways. I really don't want to think of what we do as a "product." And when I think of what support we have here, I think of God. We have amazingly generous people who give of their time and money sacrificially - but it's all God's time and God's money - so it doesn't feel right to brag about that. And when I look at what we have to offer, lots of churches have more.

So now what?

I think we make our case by what we do.
We admit that we are imperfect.

And that we can do anything through Jesus Christ if it is His will.

I'm deeply in love with the people God has placed at New Hope and with the community God has given us to serve. I expect we'll never be everything everyone wants. I accept that I will, that we will - disappoint people.

But I will follow Jesus and encourage people in my care to do the same. We will not hoard. We will not fear or worry about the future. We will love, we will give sacrificially, we will serve the least of these.

So if you see an ad for an "Imperfect Church", come see what it looks like in person. :)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

When God's Servant Is Tired

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It's Sunday morning, I'm in my favorite place getting ready to do what God has called me to do. And yet I am fighting waves of feelings of unworthiness, inability, and fear. I've been preaching since 1991, so there's little reason for a sudden lack of confidence. I've been serving the people of New Hope now for 12 years, so they know me well and my strengths and weaknesses better than any group of people on earth, and they love me anyway. And I cherish them.

The irony is that I am preaching on what faith is today, out of a passage that I preached so many times when I was first starting out - filling in different churches all around Macon GA, that Bunny and Sean not only could have preached it, but they were tired of hearing it. :) I know this text and have gone to it many many times in my life to remind myself just what true faith is.

But I don't feel all that strong today. In fact I feel very weak.

I think I'm tired.

We've been in a battle to make New Hope all God wants it to be for going on two years now. There are fewer of us here, but we're doing more ministry than ever. I'm working full time at school doing the most exhausting, most demanding job I have ever had. Weekends are just that time when you catch up on what you couldn't get done during the week. And I'm tired.

I'm rereading my notes for this morning, and I wrote "Don't trust your feelings. They will lie to you. Trust in God - totally - in everything - for everything. Whether you feel like it or not."

And the Holy Spirit just rapped on my noggin to say "practice what you preach, preacher."

So that's what I'm going to do today. I am believing that God will bring strength into my weakness. I am believing that God's Holy Spirit will speak through me. I am believing that because we are here today, that God will be glorified and something significant will happen that will alter someone's life for eternity.

And I'll do all that... by faith.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Math Wizards!

Dr. Combs and one of my students who mastered her Math fundamentals.

Who knew? I decided to go all out trying to get my kids to learn their Math fundamentals, so I signed them all up for and incentivized them to play it every day. I dangled candy, school store credit, and anything I could think of in front of them to get them to focus on Math which almost all of them have struggled with all year.

This student went from getting 25 out of hundred right to 100 out of 100 right in under 3 seconds for each fact - within two weeks!
Practice makes perfect!

So here she is receiving her framed certificate and a $10 gift card for Walmart from our principal Dr. Combs. Since this I have had three other kids get there - some for multiple math operations. They are about to put me in the poor house, but seeing their thrill at achieving this and the affirmation that Dr. Combs and others are giving them is defintely worth it. I hope it carries into FCAT testing next week.

Teachable Moments

It was the Friday before our week of state high-stakes testing called the FCAT. The pressure on kids and teachers was building minute by minute it seemed. The kids know that the tests decide whether they pass or not. The teachers know that the desire or lack of it to pass, the way the children might feel, or any number of factors they can't control might literally cost them their career. So the anxiety builds day by day.

We try to lower it through thorough preparation - through encouragement and praise. We test to find out where the weaknesses are and we teach and reteach. It's systematic and professional. We're told - and we hope that pre-work - will be effective. But there are certain things that go beyond that. There are moments when teaching happens - really happens. One of those occurred yesterday.

Every morning, I have the kids do an opening activity. It can be a few math problems, a topic to research quickly on the PCs, or a short one page story to read and answer questions on. The idea is to help build skills over time. Recently one of the best teachers I know sent my the worksheets she uses. They have a fact about each weekday on them and have been well received by the kids.

Well yesterday in was about Apollo 13's "Houston we have a problem."

I had other work scheduled for the first hour of the day after they completed the task. But they kept asking me questions about the worksheet.

So I went to the PC and found the clip from the movie, and Tom Hanks captivated them.

More questions shot out, so I found a National Geographic clip with the actual film of the astronauts and support people explaining what it was like - punctuated with the real film of the events as them happened. At various points I'd stop and ask and answer questions, relating them to what we had learned this year.

Jim Lowell had to hand input the coordinates at one point to ensure the spacecraft was aimed at the right point. Off one way and they'd shoot past Earth into space. An error the other way would mean their death as they burned up in Earth's atmosphere. Lowell did the calculations as we watched. It was Math we had practiced the day before.

Then he asked Houston to check his work. Like we do.

That sort of thing went on for 30 minutes. At the end of the film, when the astronauts splashed down safely, the kids clapped.

And I asked them "Did you see Jim Lowell do that Math?" "When do you think he learned that?

4th grade.

"Do you think it mattered whether he had worked hard and learned all he could in fourth grade?" "Do you think it could matter whether you work hard for me while you are in the classroom?"

One child said "It sure could. They could have died if he had goofed off in school."


I wrapped it up reminding them how proud I was of them, of how hard they had worked, and how I knew they were going to ROCK the FCAT. Then it was time to leave for PE and they were out the door.

Teaching. It happens sometimes. :)

Saturday, April 07, 2012

The Silence of Saturday Before Easter

"It's over." "He's gone."

We miss it almost every year. We forget that the people we read about in the accounts of the events that make up Easter weekend even had a Saturday filled with nothing more than grief, loss, and crushing doubt. The day before they saw their worst nightmares come true before their eyes. Everything they had given three years of their lives to - the central pivot point to every step they made - was dead and buried.

They shared one of the questions that dog us even today - What now?

Some are paralyzed with grief and become almost catatonic, unable to do anything at all. Loss does that.

You lose a family member that has always "been there for you." Now you and the rest of the family have to figure out how to relate to each other - how to live as a family.

You lose a  job that provided for your family, and gave you satisfaction and a sense of identity - is lost. Now you are dealing with a pack of howling doubts about how you are going to make it, and even whispers asking who are you and are you capable of getting another job. The tightness in your throat, the rumbling in your stomach just won't go away. And your family is looking at your for guidance and for security.

Others make peace with the loss and move on, doing what they believe they should do. Little noted in the accounts of the days of Easter are the women who went shopping on Saturday for the spices they'd use to make sure Jesus' body was prepared to the max. If they couldn't change the past, they'd be found faithful with what they could do.

That's living on Saturday, isn't it. The Saturday between Good Friday and Easter.

Living in the fellowship of suffering.

So let's embrace it for what it can teach us about God and His relationship with those who love Him.

First, let's eliminate the biggest fear. God is not dead, He is not asleep, He isn't pretending not to notice our pains and sorrows. We might think so based on what we've seen happen, but if Easter teaches us anything, it should be that God is always at work - even when we can't see Him.

So be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid and do not panic before them. For the Lord your God will personally go ahead of you. He will neither fail you nor abandon you.”
Deut 31:6 (NLT) BTW, that's repeated in Hebrews 13 as well.

So God is at work, then what is this experience designed to do? Well, what were we told about faith?
Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see. Heb 11:1 (NLT)

Listen - I've been there and done this too many times. When the storms come, you have to move toward a deeper understanding and practice of your faith. You have to put your fears and doubts behind you and use them as a push to go farther. It's NOT EASY. You might say "I can't do it." And really, many of us can't.

But GOD can.  - your absence of what it took created the perfect opportunity for the Holy Spirit to work in and through you. God showed up BIG TIME that first Easter weekend, and His power is available to you today. 

Resurrection power.

Think about it. Pray about it.

Then go out and live an Easter life no matter what day it is.

Because the believer in Jesus knows life's greatest secret.

It may be Saturday - but Sunday's coming.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

We all need people

36 Then Jesus went with them to the olive grove called Gethsemane, and he said, “Sit here while I go over there to pray.”37 He took Peter and Zebedee’s two sons, James and John, and he became anguished and distressed.38 He told them, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Matt 26:36-38 (NLT)

It's hard.

Hard to admit you need help.

Not help moving, or "show me how you...", or "can you loan me $20?" help.

Help with your heart. Help with making it through.

They taught me in seminary about the so-called "ministry of presence." I can remember at the time, filled with all the hubris a new pastor could have, thinking I could go into the hard places, tough situations, and bring a "word" that would almost certainly help. In no way would I ever say that the Word can't make a difference, but there are times when words - our words - fail.

There have been times in my life when it felt as if I would slip under the waves of sorrow. Reaching out, I'd only grasp more pain.

And into those places came people who loved me and cared enough to draw near.

I cannot imagine how Jesus must have felt. Just thinking about it brings me to tears. To read that the most loving and joyful person who has ever lived was "anguished and distressed" and felt crushed by grief makes me feel the shame that the reason in part He had to endure it was my sinfulness.

We need each other. To divide the sorrows and multiply the joy.

Come and join us as we mourn tomorrow night.

Come join us as we rejoice Easter Sunday.

Monday, April 02, 2012

On the good days

Was just sitting here while  the TV plays in the background and thinking about music for Easter Sunday, our Good Friday service, my teaching portfolio and the papers on the couch next to me that need to be graded - almost simultaneously - and not making progress on any of them. Had a tough day at school on the heels of a roller coaster ride yesterday with church and if you pressed me, I'd describe the way I feel right now as "weary."

On the good days, preaching and teaching are two of the most rewarding things I can ever imagine doing.

You get a front row seat. How cool is that?

Things happen in the lives of people that literally change them and the trajectory of their lives forever. You are right there when it happens. When they "get it" and when they "get Him."

On the good days.

On the other days people refuse to listen, choose not to care, put themselves above everything and everyone despite everything you try. Sometimes they'll even drag others with them away from where they know they need to go. It happens. No matter what you do.

The veteran pastor is now telling the first year teacher to give it away to God and go back to school tomorrow believing that someone's life will change. He ought to know after years of seeing people rise and fall, grow close to Jesus and fade away. You do all you can, every time you can, and you trust God.. You believe, even though you cannot see. You have faith.

Good days or bad days, you have faith, because He is good.

"In this life you will have trouble. But take heart, for I have overcome the world."

Thank you Jesus.