My Long Lenten Lesson…

I grew up in a church tradition that did not celebrate the season of Lent. It was difficult for me when I became a Roman Catholic and this ancient (yet new to me) practice was handed to me and it was assumed that I would be able to be obedient to it. I did not know what it was for, why should I stick to it? Besides, even practices like “no meat on Fridays” were difficult (I am allergic to sea-food). When I tried to give up meat on Fridays, all I got was frustrated, shaky, grumpy, and a huge day-long headache. So fasting during Lent has perhaps been one of my biggest hurdles, even now as I serve as a minister in a protestant tradition that observes Lent.

Year after year, I have asked God to give me strength or show me the way to live out the blessing of Lenten fasting and I think that finally, God has shown me something that will lead to success. For the last year, my wife and I have been moving through the adoption process in our state. Last November and December, we were blessed beyond our hopes when two beautiful girls were placed in our home and just this week, we officially became a family. Our God is so amazing! At the beginning of our training, we were told by our class leaders that when our children were placed in our homes, we would not be able to put identifiable pictures of them on social media until the adoption was finalized. This is for their protection.  It may not sound that difficult, but it is, I promise.

For a number of months, I had to not share with my online circle of friends the most significant and beautiful moments of my life. Though I did not see it as such, I had begun a fast. It was like an electronic vow of silence and sometimes, not sharing made me sad. Yet, this was a vow that I committed to make and the reason has taught me something about fasting in general. Fasting, when done correctly, makes the methodology of the fast incidental. This is because you should understand the “why” of your fast and the outcome you are seeking before your fast begins. Fasting is intentional and has a defined goal. In my case, my wife and I wanted to create the environment that would facilitate our girls joining the family. In Biblical terms, we had to decrease to see God increase (John 3: 22-36).

Looking back, I can see that I had the mindset of Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8: 9-25). I wanted the power, blessing, and outcome of fasting, but the heart-condition that would make fasting successful and powerful was not present. Even now, I know that there is still a lot of growing up to do. I am grateful that I serve a God that will patiently teach me.

Now, the fast is over. The blessing of God has brought great joy to our family. We have gone through a change. I am not the same person that I was. Incidentally, now I have to re-learn sharing on social media and I have to help our daughters learn to do this responsibly as well. The fast has produced new results, new ideas, and new responsibilities.

Please be encouraged if you ever find yourself in this type of difficulty. Whether it be fasting, praying, studying your Bible, or some other spiritual discipline, you can be assured that God wants to bless you through it. You are going to have to be willing to let your heart change though. Give it time and let God teach you in the way that YOU need to learn.

May the grace of God abound to you.

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Something is different this morning…

Something is different this morning. It really landed when we noticed that Sultan (one of our Dachshunds) was sitting in front of their rooms waiting for them to come out to play this morning. They, however, were not there. The house is much quieter than it has been over the last few days. If it could tell us, I think the house would say that it also misses the laughter and noise of children. I wish they did not have to leave, but for now, they must. We are riding an emotional roller coaster called “the adoption process” and to be honest, I think that my wife is handling the valleys a bit better than I am. Thank God she is here; I could never do this alone.

As a pastor, it has been interesting to see the life of the church change as the pastoral family starts to welcome new children. People are getting excited and things are starting to happen. It is almost like the church is inhaling a deep new breath of fresh air as it enjoys the laughter of children and the promise of life that the children of a church represent (Our children are not  the only ones in the church, btw). A former pastor of mine once shared from the pulpit that children in a church are the surest sign that a church is alive. I am sure it is easy to argue over that point, especially as I serve a church in a state where the number of retired people is significantly higher than the rest of the country. But I do think that the idea is still important.

Throughout the Bible, children have been of special concern to God. God brought children into the picture as the continuation of humanity and children have allowed humanity to grow, even as sin continued to burden the human condition. Isaac, Jacob (and Essau), Joseph, Moses, Samuel, and David all have stories in the Bible where God works in some wonderful way during their childhood. Later, Jesus would come as a vulnerable and weak child to show that God can bring about great triumph through the weakest of human vessels. That same Jesus would tell his disciples to not forbid children to come to him as it was their example of faith that the adults must follow in order to become a part of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 19: 13-15, Luke 18: 15-17, Mark 10: 13-16). Children can understand faith because until a certain age, that is all they have. That is what they came with at birth. It is skepticism that is a learned behavior.

I would suggest that is why children are so important not just to the life of a family, but to the life of a church. It is a child’s automatic grasp of faith that seems to radiate hope for newness of life. A child’s natural curiosity inspires the rest of us to continue to seek and to learn and to improve. We (as a people) should want the absolute best for our children. The church gets involved so that the faith of children has an appropriate guide toward God. This will only make the church stronger in the future. Maybe that is what my former pastor was getting at (thank you Rev. Jeff Isenhour).

So cherish your children. Be faithful and guide them in the way that they should go (Proverbs 22: 6). When you need a reminder, look to them to regain your reason to be strong and your hope for the days ahead. As for us, we are like Sultan, waiting for the kids to come back and play. Peace to you all.

Out beyond the end of the row…

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Last week I had the honor to preside over the funeral of Bryant Moody Kelly. He has had a number of titles, but I call him “Poppie”. He is probably the hardest working person that I have ever known. Over the years, I have come to realize that Poppie had what is a very unique gift. He was a man who had vision. When you talked to him and thought about the history of what he worked on, you realize that he often saw things as they would look in the future. When he saw what things could be, his mind would start down a path toward making that vision a reality. Poppie was such an amazing man. Setbacks were at best a temporary condition in his life. Some called him stubborn, argumentative, or other words like those. But I must ask, who is gifted with the ability to look at the earth itself, imagine a different outcome and then make their dreams for the earth bear fruit? It is not a weak-willed person that can pull off that grand of a vision or shape the earth to their purpose. Only people who are unafraid of their passion and vision can achieve greatness. Passion can give tremendous power if you spend time learning how to focus it through your vision.

Maybe I have an elevated idea of who Poppie was. That’s okay, he will always be on my list of heroes and I am willing to live as best I can to his ideal.  He did everything without holding back.  He loved his family, he gave freely to those in need, he gave to the community and many, many churches.  Those of us who grew up nearby learned all about work and the benefits of sweat equity.  We also learned about Pepsi and Lance crackers.  If you want to know a little bit of heaven, get some salted peanuts, put them in a bottled Mountain Dew and then drink it down.  Go ahead, I will wait for you to get back.  You’re welcome.

Poppie once told me that when you plow a field, to keep the rows straight you can’t look behind you or at your feet.  You have to pick a point out beyond the end of the row and stay focused on it.  Pay attention and if you begin to drift to one side or the other, you can make a small correction and the row will straighten out okay.  That is what salvation gives us.  We are all living a life that is like the row being plowed.  Eventually it will be planted and then harvested, the best outcome for the field comes from well plowed and tended rows.  Our rows have a beginning and an end and life itself has a first and a final breath.  Eternal Jesus is the point out beyond our row that we need to guide our life by.  Though we drift, Jesus is always there and we can turn back toward him.  Make the choice before you get to the end of your row.

Family can be a difficult enterprise, even when all the parts are working together. Our family is no different than any other. We have had ups, downs, joys, clashes, celebrations, and frustrations. I would not trade the people that I call family for anything on this earth. When the time came, we leaned toward each other the best we could. For me, that is the greatest gift that comes in the shelter of our families. When the chips are down, we see each other and know that no one else will love us this much. We live the definition of a different kind of love. Our faults make us willing to support more, not pull away. Family is the bond that creates more strength than the individual members can make on their own.

To my family, I love you. Thank you for being who you are. You have been used by God to make me who I am and I hope that I have been of some service to your life as well. I pray that the Holy Spirit of God blesses each of you with the healing of your hearts. Seek God’s presence and the healing will come faster.   Seek each other’s presence and your healing will make you stronger than you were before. Be God’s gift to each other. Give it time, give it love, give it forgiveness and remember that there is something out beyond the row you are plowing that you can be guided by. Make it Jesus.

Grace for the Condemned…

a prisoner of sorts...

a prisoner of sorts…

Recently, I have been reading through the journals of Charles Wesley, the brother of John Wesley. To be honest, I am learning more about what it is to be a minister from Charles than from John. As an example, tonight (4-24-15) I read about Charles’ activities during July of 1738. For the first part of the month, he would visit the Newcastle prison and share the message of grace and forgiveness from the gospel. Charles wrote in his journal that he felt in his prayers that God was going to save the ten men who were sentenced to death, so he focused on building relationships with them. For a couple of weeks, he would show up and share grace, serve communion, and preach from the Bible. All ten men accepted Christ as Lord and were forgiven of their sin at some point during those weeks. He even went so far as to ask for himself and one other man to be locked in a cell near the condemned the night before they were to be executed.

All that night, he and his friend prayed for the men about to die. The next morning, he and his friend rode on the cart with the condemned to the gallows where Charles took time to also minister to the crowd that had gathered to witness the execution. When those men passed from this mortal realm, their souls were received by God. At that time and for many days to come, Charles considered this moment to be the highest point of his ministry. Not preaching in a church, in a cathedral, in front of bishops or royalty (he did have dinner with the King and Queen of England), but ten prisoners condemned to die.

Are you willing to share your faith? If so, how should we accomplish this? Jesus shows us throughout the Gospels that building relationships is a way that God uses us to advance His kingdom. Our relationship building needs to share our belief about the forgiveness of sin and the gift of eternal life that comes through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It should not be forceful or judgmental, but it must always be done in love. The Apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13: 1-4 that we can do all sorts of things for God, but if we do them without love, it is worthless.

Can we be willing to spend time with people so that they can be assured, even if they are about to die, that they are cherished by God and can be saved? Are we willing to look beyond the circumstances, sinfulness, and lawbreaking of someone and just speak grace? If you are a Christian, there is a fountain of love inside of you that cannot be exhausted and it will overcome your own discomforts and prejudices (if you let it) so that you can share the Gospel. It comes from the Holy Spirit. Share it and let it become the highlight of your days to come.

Thank you Martha!

My friend Martha Pierce is retiring soon and I wanted to share something about her that I think that will be very much missed in our little corner of heaven/Florida. She is really a tremendous learner, wonderful educator, and vigorous worker in whatever she does. But those qualities are not what this is about. What I will always remember and cherish is that she is really good at encouraging people to learn about who they are in Christ at the deepest level they can. Ultimately, this results in better rounded followers of Jesus and it also helps those who feel a calling from God into ministry to clarify that calling. Martha helped me to clarify what I was hearing from God and then she encouraged me to follow that call. The United Methodist Church as a whole needs more people who have the ability to nurture others toward whatever call God has upon their lives.

So no matter where you may find yourself, I would invite you to examine yourself deeper. Continually challenge yourself to move closer to God. Don’t settle for the shallow end of the pool, strike out for the depths. Dream dreams, see visions, listen for your calling. Find out what your passions mean to God, discover your spiritual gifts. There is always more to be done until you stand before the throne of grace. I learned this from Martha.

God bless you Martha, and God speed. You are not retired; you are just re-purposed and relocated. Thank you for being faithful, it has helped a lot of us to do the same.

The Problem with Light…

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Renovations can be fun. There are lots of other things that they could be, such as expensive, messy, complicated, frustrating, and the list could go on. But the end result of the renovation is something that required a vision for a preferred future state. So a house with a cramped interior can become spacious via renovation just as color and brightness can be added to a drab exterior. It requires the ability to imagine and then set off in the direction of that goal.

The church is no different. Many churches across the United States today are in need of renovation. Not necessarily in a physical building sense (although many need that as well), but there is a need to catch a vision from God about his Kingdom. This is the preferred future state. Once we have this vision, then it is time to set off in the direction. It takes renovation (of ourselves and our faith community) to get to the vision.

We are making some renovations to our church building and swapping out some 50+ year old windows. Over the years, these windows have done an admirable job of withstanding hurricanes, small earthquakes, and various environmental difficulties. However, their condition has slowly deteriorated to the point that a minor fix will not allow them to perform their jobs adequately. It is time for a renovation. As the old windows come out and the new windows go in, more light is able to come into our sanctuary. It is amazing how much light is coming in.

Here is the problem with light. Now we can see where there are some unrepaired holes in the surface of the walls, peeled paint, cracks in the structure, and all sorts of stuff on the floors. There is definitely more work to come in the future now that we see a bit clearer. All of this is due to the light.

That is actually okay though. Seeing things through a more realistic lens is much healthier for us in the long run. Our spiritual lives are the same. 1 John 1: 5-9 states this: “This is the message we heard from Jesus and now declare to you: God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all. So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness; we are not practicing the truth. But if we are living in the light, as God is in the light, then we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin. If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.” (New Living Translation)

Dr. Bob Tuttle is a dear professor from my days at seminary and he has a habit of reading through the Bible every year. He will buy a Bible, write notes in it throughout the year, pray over it, and then give that Bible to a student at the end of the year. There are passages in Scripture that he confesses that he wrestles with and often comes out still feeling that he has more to be sanctified of in his life or he needs more understanding about God. For these passages, his note is “NYEL”, short for “Not Yet Enough Light”. It is a confession that moving on to perfection is a process and that he has not arrived. He waits for more light from God. It is no wonder that so many love him.

I believe that this is an invitation for all of us. As God’s light shines into our individual and communal lives, it is going to reveal the tattered and ungodly things that we have tried to stash in the corners because we believe they have value. Don’t let your preferences put something wicked in your attic that cannot be removed for years. The light shows us plainly what needs to go, what needs fixing, and what needs to stay. We want the beauty of the renovation, but the light can make the process tough. Get renovated.

Oh, and if you come to Marathon Community UMC on Sunday, just know that we are a work in progress. We all are.

Larry

A Confession…

Lately, I have found myself wrestling with the ideas surrounding the activity of evangelism. Mainly my questions have been in regards to what is polite or acceptable or encouraging or nice. Don’t get me wrong, I have been blessed to lead a number of people to a saving relationship with Christ over the years, but I think that deep down, once I accepted God’s call into ordained ministry, there was a concurrent call to be more evangelistic. My questions were in reality, me resisting the nature of that call. About four weeks ago, I was praying about it once again when I felt God speak into my soul. “Larry, the people of the world are hurting in their need for me. Why don’t you stop your worrying and just ask people from the pulpit to follow me?” Could it really be that simple? Yes, it is that simple. As complicated as theological schools and diverse denominational doctrines try to make it, the actual Gospel message is simple and powerful. There is also nothing else that can take its place.

Faith, in my understanding, is belief combined with action. So the very next week, I asked the gathered congregation about a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Ten people made a first time commitment to Christ and twenty-four made a recommitment. I don’t know who is more surprised, the thirty-four who had this encounter, or me. It was that simple. Today, when I asked, three more made first time decisions, and eight made recommitments. To be honest, I am scared. I feel like I am barely holding by my fingertips to whatever is happening, but I cannot stop. God has me in a whirlwind of his Spirit and I see more of this coming in the future. The beauty of this is that I feel that God is in control. There is a security and surety in this beyond what I have experienced before. Whatever happens in the days to come, it belongs to God.

Community UMC, let’s get ready for what God is bringing. We need to get our discipleship house in order. Our work lies before us and the joy of the Lord is in it.

To all of my friends that may not know God, my goal is not to offend or blame. I am not here to expose or shame people. I don’t think that is God’s goal either. He only wants to have a relationship with you and give you immortality so that love from him can be yours forever. It does require a life change which is often not easy, but it is worth it. It will bring you peace in the midst of chaos and joy when you suffer. I know it sounds odd, but as God has been sharing with me, it never hurts to ask. Ask him.

May the peace of the Lord be with you,

Larry