Saturday, October 1, 2016

Two Year Anniversary

Today (October 1st) marks my two year anniversary as Pastor of Covenant Community Church. I have felt so blessed and privileged to be in ministry with this incredible body of believers. I have been living a dream and look forward to leading the church into the wonderful future God has for her. 

To mark my two year anniversary, I want to share ten things I'm most thankful for as Covenant's pastor:

1. The way the people at Covenant welcome anyone who walks through our doors

2. The incredible support they offer their pastor

3. Their willingness to try new things

4. Their commitment to serve the Asheville community

5.  The incredible staff I get to work with everyday

6. Their love for Jesus

7. Their desire to be a part of something bigger than their individual selves

8. Their grace for my shortcomings as their pastor

9. The way they love on my family

10. Their generosity 

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with the great responsibility God has entrusted to me, but I try to have the same mindset John had when he proclaimed "He must increase, I must decrease." I understand God has called and positioned me where I am for a reason, however, I also know it's not about me, it's about getting out of the way of what God wants to do through me and through this body. 

I have loved the two years I have been at Covenant and look forward to many more years and many more people connecting with God, each other and our community.  

Friday, September 23, 2016

Lessons from Pain

I recently hurt my back while on vacation. I think I did it on a roller coaster (the Rocking Roller Coaster at Hollywood Studios to be exact). I remember feeling a weird sensation in my back while riding it. It was about six hours later that the pain set in and I found myself lying on a bench telling my family to go have fun.

I think it's a bulging disc and it has gradually gotten less painful (or that could be the Advil talking) after eight days. I didn't sleep on the floor last night which is progress.

In my better moments I have used it as an opportunity to ask myself: what is God teaching me through this?  

Here's five things I've come up with.

1. I am loved
It is very obvious that I have people in my life who genuinely care about me. It's not that I didn't already know it, this situation just confirmed it even more.

2. Help is available
Many people have offered to help in various ways. One person even offered to help unload the van on our return knowing it would be at 2am in the morning.  I reached out on Facebook for resources and people responded with options and prayers.

3. I'm not alone
There have been so many people who know exactly the kind of indescribable pain I'm in.  There's just something comforting about knowing that other people have felt what I feel. That kind of solidarity creates automatic empathy. Maybe pain is God's way of bringing humanity together.  

4. If I want to do something bad enough, I can
The next day we were at Magic Kingdom for the Halloween Party. It was a bid deal for our family. My 8yr. old daughter is into the Disney villains right now. Her favorite is Maleficent. At the end of the night they have a special villain show on the main stage at Disney world. She kept jumping up and down trying to see. I decided I would give her the best seat in the house: on my shoulders. After five or six attempts and various shots of pain, she was up there. She was going to see the villain show no matter what it took.  

5. There's a reason for this
Maybe God is teaching me to be more empathetic, maybe I needed to slow down, maybe He needed to show me the support I have in my life...whatever the case may be, I know deep in my bones that God has a reason for me to be going through this right now. It's not fun, but I trust in His purposes.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Scared in or Loved in

I was visiting a young man in the hospital yesterday morning after his surgery and he put something so simply into words that it has stuck with me throughout the day.  I'll call him John.

John had family in town last weekend and one family member who attended Covenant with him isn't used to our type of church.  We are a modern Methodist church and this man is used to his conservative baptist church.  

It sounds like they had an interesting conversation after the service and John summarized it for me this way:  

You can be scared into it or loved into it and I'd rather be loved into it.

I hope I'm that pastor that always leads be to be "loved into" a living and growing relationship with Jesus Christ and not "scared into" it.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Cost of Freedom

I know it's late, but I wanted to recap the main idea from the sermon last Sunday.  

Using the story of the Exodus, I landed on this idea: 

God doesn't just want to set you free, he wants to keep you free.

After the Israelites were set free from being slaves in Egypt, they found themselves in the desert where they became slaves to their own devices.  Some of them trade one type of slavery for another.

It started small, they complain about water and God provides.  Then they complain about food and God provides them with Manna.  They complain about not having meat, so God sends them quail. More quail than they can handle.

Each time they complain their attitudes escalate to the point of thinking they were better off as slaves in Egypt.  God constantly reminds them to trust Him by obeying Him and the people continue to complain and distrust God.

With the last complaint about meat, God gives them so much meat they get sick off of it and some of them die.  Numbers chapter 11 recounts the story and ends with their bodies in graves of their own cravings...their desires, their cravings, their lusts (the KJV word used for cravings) lead to their deaths.

The Israelites who craved meat allowed that craving to get the best of them.  They were set free from slavery only to find themselves in another kind of slavery.

Don't we often do the same thing?  God has set us free from guilt and shame and sin and death and made a way for us to resist temptation.  He has given us the Holy Spirit to convict us, lead us, guide us and be our advocate.  Yet, we often allow our desires, our cravings, our lusts to move us into dangerous territory of prisons of our own making.

God doesn't just want to set you free, he wants to keep you free. 
And it takes being intentional about staying connected to God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit for us to remain in the freedom Jesus offers us.

In John 8 Jesus says it this way (31-32): "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free."

Paul said it this way in Galatians 5:1: "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery."

The cost of freedom is discipleship.  Discipleship is remaining in a a growing relationship with Jesus Christ by being intentional about staying in love with our savior. 

He doesn't just want to set you free, he wants to keep you free!

Monday, June 20, 2016

Sermon Recap: No Pain, No Gain

Jacob wrestling with some sort of "God-man" in Genesis 32:22-30 is a fascinating story.  I loved preaching on it this past Sunday to kick off our new sermon series:  

The video will be available by Wednesday morning here.

Jacob is so worried that his brother Esau is going to kill him and his family that he prays for God to save him then devises a plan to keep at least some of his family safe in case his fears come true.

It's in this state of fear and worry that the "God-man" initiates a wrestling match with Jacob.  

Commentator Terence Fretheim nails what I think is the point of the encounter:

At the moment of deepest vulnerability and worry for Jacob, God enters into the very depths of the struggle, binding God’s self to Jacob at that level.  Jacob is about to embark on a life-long struggle and he now knows that God the wrestler will be at his side.  The willingness of God to struggle with Jacob affirms a divine commitment to stay with Jacob.  God’s promise (from 28:15) involves not a passive presence, but an active, engaged relationship.

God doesn't initiate this "wrestling match" to get Jacob's attention because God already has his attention (Jacob's prayer just a few short hours before this proves the point).  God initiates this wrestling match to take Jacob's relationship with Him to an entirely new level.  So much so that he changes his name from Jacob (which means "schemer") to Israel (which means one who wrestles with God).

God is the great pursuer of our hearts and even if it takes wrestling with us to bring us to a deeper relationship with Him, that's what He's willing to do.  

In the wrestling, it's our willingness to hold on to God (just like Jacob did) that will bring transformation to our lives.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Something New

We have been in transition at Covenant Community Church for at least the amount of time I have been here (a year and a half).  I have heard that even before I arrived it felt like this church was in transition.

Transitions have their frustrations, but they also have their benefits.  You often do not see the benefits of the transition until you have moved out of that season.

The biggest benefit of this season of transition happened on June 1st.  That's when we welcomed two new staff members who solidify our team and will be instrumental in moving us out of transition and into the church God is calling us to be.

It's exciting to see the season of transition ending to make way for a new season with these two incredible women on our team: this is Ginny Allison and Shonnie Streder (and her family).

They have only been here two weeks and I can already see the difference their presence is making.

We inundated them with bonding time as a staff by holding an overnight staff retreat their first weekend in town.  

We also officially celebrated their arrival this past Sunday with a church-wide potluck lunch.

It's so exciting to be in this season, I can't wait to see what God has for the future of Covenant Community church!

Here's to the benefits of transition and to a new season of becoming the church God is calling Covenant to be!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Monday, June 6, 2016

Permission to Fail - Sermon Recap

The Youth Pastor of Covenant Community Church - Ryan Robertson - preached this past Sunday.  He did a great job telling the story of Peter's denial (John 18:15-18 and 25-27) and Jesus' restoration of Peter ( found in John 21:15-18)...he also created a new word for us all to use: Shilt - A combination of shame and guilt.

It was graduation Sunday and the point he wanted to get across is that it is okay to fail because God uses our failure to grow us and shape us.  It is unhealthy to stay in the "shilt" when we have failed, therefore God always points us towards healing. Failure is not an "if" but a "when."  And if we let failure grow us rather than define us, we move towards healing.

There's even objective science behind the truth that failure grows us.  In her book Mindset Carol Dweck talks about how failure actually leads to more synapses firing off in the brain which creates more connections in the brain and actually grows the brain.  Isn't that so cool! God has designed the human brain in such a way that failure leads to growth.  

Ryan's point was not "go fail," but it was "you will fail and it's okay, God uses it to grow you and shape you."  The way Jesus handled Peter's failure was not to deny it, but to address it.  However, Jesus didn't address it in a way that Peter had to dwell in it...Jesus addresses Peter's failure then pointed him towards purpose, towards something good and meaningful.  He restored Peter by acknowledging his failure and then by leading Peter towards his future.

Give yourself permission to fail knowing God's grace for you is enough to cover you and God's purpose for you is enough to move you forward.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Sermon Recap - What to Mimic

In John 13:1-17 Jesus' washes his disciples feet.  This is the ultimate act of humility.  It is a foreshadowing of what Jesus would do for his disciples on the cross.  He cleanses them physically in this text only later to cleanse them spiritually.

My favorite part of this story is Jesus' interaction with Peter.  After Peter emphatically declares "you shall never wash my feet" (this is out of respect for who Jesus is) Jesus says in verse 8 "Unless I wash you, you have no part with me."  Peter still doesn't quite get it proving Jesus words just before this that he wouldn't understand what he was doing until later on.

The message centered around this main idea: "Humility is our way to God, because it's God's way to us."

This act of washing His disciples feet was an act of humility for Jesus and for the disciples.  Jesus disarms His disciples with this act and invites them into a new kind of relationship based on mutual servanthood.

At the end of the story Jesus tells his disciples to do for each other what he has done for them and that if they do that, they will be blessed.

May you be the kind of person who cultivates Christ-like humility and finds closeness with God and closeness with the other relationships that matter most in your life because of it.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Sermon Recap - Family Matters

On Sunday I had several one-liners that I need to be reminded of.

The first one was this: Proximity does not equal intimacy.

You can live in the same household together and fail miserably at intimacy.  For intimacy to happen in a relationship there has to be intentional connection.

The congregation seemed to like the video I showed, here's the full version.

That one-liner led to this one-liner: Busy-ness is the enemy of intimacy.

Joshua warns the Israelite's of distractions and temptations from the culture around them in his final speech found in chapters 23 and 24. He then makes this declaration "As for me and my house we will serve the Lord."  Serving the Lord means being intentional about building intimacy with Him and with the relationships He has placed in our care.  

The final one-liner (with children in mind): When experiences outweigh connections we are relationally impoverished.

I have seen this in my own family in the family's of friends around me.  We try to give our children opportunities and experiences that will help them become "well rounded" and before we know it we have them in so many activities that connection, intimacy and real relationships suffer.  What our children need more than experiences, is healthy relationships.  This is a call for us to slow down and make connections a higher priority than experiences.

For the full sermon go here.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Why I Don't Like the Phrase "Happy Wife, Happy Life"

This Sunday we continue the series Culture Creators at Covenant Community Church.  We will zoom in specifically on what it looks like for a family to proclaim with Joshua "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."  

A part of the message involves the problems I have with the phrase "Happy Wife, Happy Life."  I don't want to reveal too much before Sunday morning.  

All I will say for now is that the phrase sounds a lot like a one-sided relationship.  And marriage is anything but a one-sided relationship.  

I'll post more after Sunday.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Simba Syndrome - Sermon Recap

This Sunday I used the movie The Lion King as a way to talk about our identity in Christ. Here's a brief synopsis:

The heart of the movie centers around Simba wrestling with his identity. He is king of pride rock, but after believing he is responsible for his father's death, he runs away. The reality is that he is still the king, he's just not living into his kingship.

Along his journey there are several people who remind of who he is because of whose he his. He is the rightful king because his father Mufasa was the king. There is a distance for Simba between who he actually is (the king) and how he is living his life (not as a king).

It reminds me of how some of us who claim to be Jesus followers often find ourselves living. The reality is: if you have said yes to Jesus as your Lord and your Savior, you are a redeemed, reconciled, victorious, holy, loved and claimed new creation in Christ. That’s who you are because of whose you are.    

You are who you are because of whose you are. 

Yet we often live believing that we are something we are not. We often live defeated. We often live like we are alone. We often live like we can't do anything about our circumstances. We often live in guilt and shame. We live like we just have to let life happen to us instead of for us. And I’m here to tell you that you are your own Culture Creator. You have influence right where you are.  You are who you are because of whose you are and nothing can change that.

Paul reminds us in Colossians 3:12 "Therefore as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience."

We are God's chosen people, claimed by him, loved by Him and made righteous/holy by him. That's who you are and whose you are. Paul says with that truth in mind, be intentional about putting on love. Be intentional about being the kind of person who loves like Jesus loved.

That was the heart of the message, I also talk about the splachna...if your curious you can watch the full message here.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Culture Creators

I'm really excited about our new series starting this Sunday called:

I have this belief that if we live for Jesus we can create the kind of lives that He wants for us and that we want for ourselves.

My temptation is just to let life happen to me and I think Jesus calls me to be more proactive. I think I am called create the kind of life He wants for me.

I believe a Culture Creator is someone who is:

intentional about who they are

where they are because they know

whose they are.

Who you are is found in are loved, claimed, saved and holy.

Where you are is literally where you are at any given moment.

Whose you are: you are claimed by a faithful, loving, just and gracious God.

When you can rest in whose you are, you can be intentional about who you are, no matter where you are and that's when become a Culture Creator.

I look forward to exploring the idea with Covenant Community Church over the next few weeks.

Friday, May 13, 2016

I was once a "Fish"

This past Sunday I invited the church to write a letter to the person(s) who "fished" for them.  Here's mine:

To my Parents and Eddie Black,
              In Matthew 4 Jesus calls His first disciples with these words “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men (and women).”  I gave a sermon this past Sunday about the importance of living into this call of Jesus.  In the message I talked about how we were once fish and someone “fished” for us.  Mom and Stan and Eddie, you are the ones who “fished” for me and for that I am literally eternally thankful.

                Mom and Stan, you raised me in a home where I knew I was loved and cared for and provided for.  You made it a point to take us to church and teach us about God in a several different ways.  Eddie, you were the Methodist preacher I remember the most in my childhood because of your call to salvation at an evening service.  I want to address each one of you.

Mom: What I remember most about you teaching me about God was through nature.  You were always one to take us outside and appreciate God’s beauty through creation.  His creation is truly a masterful work of art and you instilled that appreciation within me.  I’m thankful for the mom you were and are and I am especially thankful for how you pointed me to God through His creation.

Stan: What I remember most about you teaching me about God was and is through generosity and hard work.  It’s still amazing to me that you married my mom knowing she came with three young children.  Generosity involves sacrifice, you sacrificed a life without having to provide for a large family to take us in and be a Father to us.  You have also modeled generosity in your time and effort by how you (and Mom) took care of Mikayla and Bayley for us at least a full day a week for ten years.  Our God is a generous God and I have seen you model that for me.  Also, you have modeled hard work and the fruits of that labor.  I know we are saved by grace alone, but we are called to partner with God and are created as God’s workmanship, in Christ Jesus to do good works.  Thank you for modeling hard work.

Eddie: I remember sitting in my bed one night and asking Jesus to be my savior because of a sermon you gave at an evening service.  Up to that point in my life I had heard about God and many of the Bible stories, but I had never intentionally entered into a saving relationship with Jesus.  I thank you for your boldness that night to proclaim the gospel in a clear enough way for a ten year old to make Jesus his Lord and Savior laying in his bed that evening.

         I am now a United Methodist preacher serving at an amazing church in Asheville, NC.  Without the foundation each of you established for me, without you intentionally “fishing” for me, I would not be where I am today.  Thank you for your part to play in who I am and what I’m doing today.  I love being a pastor and take it as an honor and a privilege to share Jesus with a large group of people on a weekly basis.

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Best of the Best

Last week I attended two different leadership conferences (Regroup and Leader Cast) which included talks from eight different public speakers.  Some of the speakers are known for their communication skills (Andy Stanley) others are known for their leadership in another profession (SEC football coach, psychologist, successful business woman, etc).  

I thought it would be helpful to break down the qualities of the most successful messages and ask the question: what did they have in common?

Here's five qualities I ended up with:

1. Clarity

2. Simplicity

3. Content (including illustrations/stories)

4. Humor

5. Preparation

The two most noteworthy communicators were Andy Stanley and Clay Scroggins (and I'm not just saying that because they are both preachers).  

I'm going to use these 5 qualities to unpack the difference between the messages of Andy Stanley and Nick Saban at Leadercast.  

In case you don't know, Nick Saban is the head football coach at Alabama and he's one of the most successful college football coaches ever. However, the three of us who attended the conference agreed that he was not a very effective communicator.  

I know comparing the message of a professional communicator and a professional football coach is a bit like comparing apples to oranges, however, it helps me improve as a communicator when I think about the differences in their talks, so here it goes:

1. Clarity
-Andy was absolutely clear and on point from the beginning of his message to the end.  Everyone knew he was talking about "making vision stick."

-Nick talked about being a winner and discipline and teamwork and intensity and work...all good things, there just wasn't clarity/focus around any single one.

2. Simplicity
-Andy's point throughout his message was (in my own words) "a clear vision is important" and he unpacked "why."

-Nick's point was all over the place.  He had some decent one liners like "work isn't about spending time, it's about investing time" but I couldn't tell you his main point.

3. Content
-Andy's content incorporated personal stories, cultural stories, visual aids, memorable one liner's and an easy to follow flow.

-I will say that Nick had some pretty good content, it just wasn't organized in way that was easy to receive.  

4. Humor
-Andy is not a comedian and I don't actually remember laughing much in this particular talk, but I don't remember laughing at all while listening to Nick Saban.

5. Preparation
-While neither Andy nor Nick used notes (that we could see), Andy's preparation had an easy to follow flow and included slides that helped make his message stick.  It seemed as though Nick was "shooting from the hip" regarding what he's learned about leadership as a head coach.


I am now thinking about how others would evaluate my messages using these five qualities.  It's one thing to evaluate myself, but what if I actually invited others to evaluate me as well.  I think this blog has encouraged me to find a couple of people I trust to evaluate me so that I can improve as a communicator.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Questions are Better than Answers

One common "theme" at Northpoint is the idea that questions are better (more relational) than answers. All of their training is moving closer towards "relational connection" as opposed to "content transferal."

Here's an incredible Fact they shared (I don't remember the book it's from):
Jesus was asked 183 questions. He only answered three of them. Jesus asked over 300 questions.

So here are a few questions the leadership of Covenant will be exploring together in the coming months (maybe even years):

1. Do we create the same "on-ramp" as Northpoint for getting people in small groups? If so how does it look different?  If not what does it look like?

2. What would it look like for us to move from a church "with" small groups to a church "of" small groups?

3. What common language will help us be the best Covenant Community Church we can be?

4. Northpoint has both "internal" and "external" values, goals and statements...what are those for us?

5. How do we make our vision our process and our process our vision?

6. How do we resist the temptation of allowing the pursuit of "making things better" become more important than relationships.

7. Covenant has a more intimate "feel" than NorthPoint...what does it look like to combine NorthPoint's strategies with that strength?

8. What are the steps we need to take to apply what we've learned in our context?

9. How do we make sure we aren't telling God what we want then asking Him to bless it?

10. Are we truly seeking the guidance and authority of the Holy Spirit to guide us and open our eyes to what we might be missing?

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

reGroup Takeaways

The past two days I had the privilege of attending NorthPoint Community Church's reGroup conference with 3 other incredible leaders from Covenant. 

There were many "aha" moments and the "wow" factor at the Buckhead Campus is off the charts. I will be blogging about the conference for the next week or two, i'll start with several key takeaways from a "bird's eye view."

1. Everything they do, they do with clarity, intentionality, simplicity and focus.

-Our team was absolutely amazed at how everyone was "on the same page" and all about their mission and vision.

2. Having a common language is the key to clarity and simplicity.

-Every person on our team attended a different breakout session.  We heard the same terminology, processes and strategies regardless of the content.

3. The only numeric goal Northpoint/Andy Stanley has ever set is "how many people are in a small group?"

-Not attendance, not membership, not giving, not serving...their goal is getting people in small groups and everything they do points towards that goal.

4. Statements like "Life is better connected" and "Circles are better than rows" were communicated in various ways over and over and over again.

-We saw and heard those two statements both explicitly and implicitly. Clarity and simplicity modeled with excellence.

5. They are making it a point to "get better," but not at the expense of relationships.

-Clay Scroggins ended the conference main session with the connection between two phrases they keep in front of their staff members: "take it personally" and "make it better."  He confessed that they have had a tendency to drift towards "make it better" at the expense of "take it personally."  He is being intentional in his leadership to shift the momentum back towards "take it personally" but not at the expense of "make it better."

Final Thoughts

It's easy as a pastor to be jealous of what they have and what they are doing. I was reminded in different ways over and over again that I am called to Covenant and of what a privilege and honor it is to be the pastor of this incredible church. I am blessed beyond what I deserve. I'm so excited to explore new ideas at Covenant for the purpose of "inviting people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ."

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Greatest Commandment

Matthew 22:36-40
36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
One of the Pharisees tested Jesus with the question in verse 36. It was to try discount Jesus' authority of having any say in what was considered their area of expertise.  And Jesus silences them with His answer.
Jesus exemplified the life of Loving God and Loving Others. He fulfilled the law not just by taking the punishment of the law, but by showing us how the heart of the law is to be lived out.
This love God calls us to is not based on emotions, it's based on commitment and action.  It is a covenant kind of love. This love is the love God has shown us and that we are to show God. We are to mimic His sacrificial, faithful and steadfast love with the same consistency He does.
To love others as we love ourselves simply means we extend to others the same kind of personal concern that we have for ourselves. We are willing "put ourselves in their shoes" and love them where they are as if we were there ourselves.
I don't know about you, but I have a long way to go in loving God this way and loving others this way.  It's called the greatest commandment, not the easiest.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Invite and Invest

Matthew 28:16-20

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

If you skip to verse 19 (as many Christians do) you miss the powerful statement Jesus makes in verse 18: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me."  It's also true to that Jesus has always had "all authority" (i.e. Colossians 1:15-20 and John 1). The Jesus the disciples had known has now taken His rightful place alongside God the Father.  He reminds the disciples that to encounter Jesus is to encounter God Himself.

The Command to "go and make disciples of all nations..." is predicated on this authority Jesus has rightfully claimed for Himself.  We are called by Jesus to 3 things: 1. Invite people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ, 2. immerse them in the truth of who God is ("baptizing them" includes both the ritual of baptism and the call to introduce them to all of who God is) and 3. to invest in their lives by teaching them to obey Jesus.  

Jesus assures us that we will not be alone in our efforts. He will always be with us to guide us, help us, reveal truth to us and lead us as we carry out His calling in our lives.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Take up Your Cross

Matthew 16:24-26
24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

The cross was death in Roman culture.  Jesus is telling His disciples to die to themselves in order to serve God fully.  The image of "taking up your cross" is one of a condemned criminal carrying the cross bar of his own execution through the streets of the city and enduring the insults and humiliation of the crowds along the way.

Denying ourselves and taking up our cross means we have decided to let go of our selfish ambitions and own ways and fully dedicated our lives to following Jesus.

Jesus is hitting the disciples and hitting us right between the eyes with the call to seek Him first by "losing our lives" for His's by abandoning selfishness and handing our lives over to God that we find "life."

Our souls are more valuable than anything this life can offer and since God is the author of life He knows better than we do that living for Him (and not for ourselves) is what it means to be a disciple.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Don't Judge...Unless...

Matthew 7:1-5

 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye."

We've all heard the phrase "it's not my place to judge." And while it's often true, it's not always true. Jesus' didn't leave the phrase "do not judge" by itself...he made a condition of it: if you do choose to judge someone, be prepared to be judged yourself.  

Jesus is not suggesting that there is never a time or a place or a situation to make moral judgments about someone, he's suggesting care about doing so and an awareness first of our own sin.  If we aren't willing to be aware of our own sin and allow God to help us deal with it, then we have no place to use our critical faculties towards someone else.  However, there is a time and place for us to "take the speck" out of someone else's eye...but only after we have taken the "plank" out of our own eye.

At the same time, it is definitely a warning not to be harsh towards people...especially people who have not given us permission to hold them accountable. 

We all need someone (or several "someones") that will challenge us when we are living in a way that is harmful to ourselves or to someone else. When we hold someone accountable it can look a lot like judgment, but if they have given us permission to call them out then we need to do just that.  It's the people who haven't given us that permission that we have no place to judge...especially if we haven't taken the time and effort to name and deal with our own sin.

I also believe Jesus is using humor here to make his point.  A plank in someone's eye is a pretty funny image if you think about it:

Jesus' point is be careful about judging other people...because you have some things you need to deal with yourself.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Salt and Light

Jesus uses the metaphor of Salt and Light in Matthew 5:13-16 to talk about what kind of influence we should have as disciples. As Christians. He uses them to talk about being a witness.  

Why Salt and Light? Well, think about being a first century person. Salt came from the dead sea. It was literally Sea Salt. It was pretty common, but the problem with it (because it was all natural) is that over time it would lose it’s flavor. It was literally a use it or lose it situation.  

Kind of like our witness. We can use our witness to make an impact, to love, to give God a great reputation, or we are going to lose it. We are going to be positive influence for Jesus and stand up for truth and righteousness and justice or we have no witness for God at all and we have lost it. Lost what? An opportunity to influence someone else positively for the Kingdom of God. Your witness matters. Your influence matters.

What about light? They didn’t have light switches in their homes. They didn’t have street lamps. They didn’t have flashlights. They had lamps and candles and not everyone could afford lamps and candles. So light was a precious commodity. It was a powerful thing.  We just take it for granted that we can flip a switch and the light comes on.  How many of us still flip the switch when the power goes off out of habit?

Salt and light two things the people could immediately connect with. Jesus is saying that to belong to him is be salt and light to the earth. I think he is talking about two realms, two areas of witness, of influence.

To be salt is to be a silent influence, to be light is to be a known influence.

Our witness matters behind closed doors as much as it does in public.  Jesus is calling us to a private and public witness. Just as salt is for our own consumption, we need to be aware of what kind of witness we have when no one's looking or when we are just with the people closest to us. Just as light make things visible, we need to be aware of what kind of witness we are too people publicly.

Salt and Light...Private and Public...our witness matters!
Living for Christ privately and publicly is to be a silent influence and a known influence. It's two ways to honor God and make the most positive difference in our world!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Don't Worry

I am devoted to my family.  I am devoted to my church.  I am devoted to my friends.  And most importantly I am devoted to my God.

The problem is that I often allow something less important than my devotion to God get the attention of my devotion. That's when I worry and that's when you worry too.

Worry is a sign of misplaced devotion.  The way to keep from worrying is by shifting our devotion from what we worry about to trust in God.

When you have a job interview that you are worried about...shift your devotion from whether or not you get the job to the God who gave you the opportunity to interview in the first place.

When you worry about a loved one who is sick or facing a difficult situation, shift your devotion from what could happen to them to the God whose fate their lives are in.

When you worry about your finances, shift your devotion away from the money and towards the God who is our provider.

When you worry about a relationship, shift your devotion away from the risks of the relationship and towards God...who happens to be an expert on relationships.

This is not to minimize or demean problems we's actually just the opposite, we should care about our loved ones and our money and relationships and our jobs, however, we shouldn't worry about them.

Jesus says this much in Matthew 6:25-34.  I'll give you the opportunity to read it before I continue.

In these verses (and the ones just before it) Jesus names important things in our lives.  He names money, our lives, food, drink, our body and clothes.  Then He has the audacity to say...even though those things are important...don't worry about them.  

He didn't say "don't care about them."  Some people equate care with worry.  We should care about our lives and how we spend our money and relationships, but worrying about them is when care becomes unhealthy.

The solution, Jesus says, is to "Seek His kingdom and His righteousness."  In other words, shift your devotion away from what you are worrying about and fully place your trust in the God who loves you and is for you and will never abandon you.

According to Jesus, the solution to our worry is to shift our devotion.  If you care about what you are devoted too and if you devote yourself first and foremost to God and His will, you will find your self able to offer compassionate care without being stifled by worry.

When we think about worry the way Jesus does, it saves us from so much frustration and stress and helps us enter into a life of freedom and joy.  If none of that convinces you...maybe this will:

Monday, April 25, 2016

I am the True Vine

Yesterday at Covenant Community Church we handed out bookmarks with seven teachings of Jesus for people to read and study throughout the week.  I promised I would blog on each of those scriptures, so here ya go:

The first scripture is John 15:1-17...take the time to read it, it's worth it.

One of my favorite ways to understand what Jesus has done for humanity is the recapitulation theory. For a more thorough examination you can go here.  It basically recognizes that Jesus succeeded where Adam (and Israel) failed.

In John 15 when Jesus says "I am the true vine" his Jewish audience would've recognized the reference to the Old Testament imagery of Israel as God's "vineyard" or "vine" i.e. covenant people. The problem is that Israel as God "vine" meant to produce fruit in the world (i.e. be a blessing to other nations and people) often failed to produce the kind of fruit God expected.  In contrast to Israel's failure, Jesus claims to be the "true vine" and by doing so fulfills Israel's destiny as the true vine of God.  One Commentary puts it this way: 

"As the paradigmatic vine, Jesus embodies God's true intentions for Israel: Jesus is the channel through whom God's blessings flow...Hence Jesus displaces Israel as the focus of God's plan of salvation, with the implication that faith in Jesus becomes the decisive characteristic for membership among God's people."

In other words salvation is now available to anyone who puts their faith in Jesus Christ as the messiah, Lord and savior.

When Jesus says in verse 4: "Remain in me as I also remain in you" it is an invitation to an intimate relationship.  To remain in the "true vine" is to be connected in a deep, purposeful and meaningful way. It's to allow Jesus' ways to become our ways.  Just as sheep hear the shepherds voice, so too remaining and abiding in Jesus (the true vine) means we will automatically produce the kind of fruit that honors God and makes life worth living.

Verses 5-8 are an invitation to make abiding and remaining in Jesus an ongoing intentional decision. Being a disciple of Jesus means we continue in our intimate relationship with Him.  It's more than a one time decision to make him our savior, it's also a daily decision to obey Him as our Lord.  

Verses 9-17 solidify the truth of Jesus' invitation to enter into a relationship Him.  These verses answer the question: why does Jesus want us to "remain in Him?"  The answer is: He genuinely loves us.  Because He loves us He wants us to experience a life of joy found in choosing to love Him because of how much He loves us.  

So let us be the kind of people who know we are loved and follow His command to also "Love each other."

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Greatest Compliment Ever

One of the greatest compliments I've ever heard (and that I can think of) was given to my wife by a friend who is not a Christian.

When they first met and started hanging out she found out my wife was a Christian...she told her: "we won't be friends long."  All she had experienced from Christians was judgment and condemnation so she had a right to be skeptical. 

After they established a friendship for a few years this friend said to my wife: "if I ever do become a Christian, it will be because of you."

That's the kind of witness I hope I have for Jesus.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Uncalculated Risk - Esther

Sermon Recap

The story of Esther takes place within a political culture where the Jews are second-class citizens in the Persian empire (Modern day Iran/Turkey).

Esther is one of those Jews who, because of her beauty, becomes the queen to King Xerxes.  With the help of her cousin Mordecai, she thwarts Haman's plan to eradicate the Jews from the face of the earth.

She must go before the king uninvited to reveal Haman's plan to Xerxes which meant risking her own life.  Mordecai encourages her to go before the king and with some reluctance she goes with the attitude of "if I perish I perish."

Through several twists and turns Haman's plan turns against him and Esther and Mordecai are able to save the Jewish people.

There's a lot to love about this's my top four:

1. How Esther goes from an orphaned, Jewish, second-class citizen to queen over all of the Persian empire. Who doesn't love a rags-to-riches story? What I especially like about Esther is how her character is slowly revealed throughout the story. When we are introduced to her she's beautiful and that's all we know. As the story unfolds we learn about her faith, courage and wisdom.

2. The twists, turns and character development. Here's a few:

-The way Xerxes is portrayed as just a pawn in the story even though he's king over all of Persia.

-The timing of Xerxe's dream leading to the ironic twist of Haman honoring Mordecai on behalf of the king.

-Haman builds an execution device specifically for Mordecai that ends up being his own undoing.

-The reversal of power between Haman and Mordecai

3. Even though God is silent, he's still at work throughout the story. From Esther being chosen among hundreds of women, to Xerxe's dream at just the right time to Haman's plot to destroy the Jews and how it ends up bringing favor upon Esther and Mordecai, God is orchestrating events without ever being named. When I preached this before, it led to this main idea: Our feelings do not determine God's presence

4. When Mordecai challenges Esther not to be silent within a political climate where silence would be the safe option. Within our modern political culture there's so much tension. For the sermon yesterday I asked: how should Christians respond? It led to this main idea: You don't have to compromise your convictions to show compassion. Too often Christians are the initiators and "continuators" (new made-up word) of division and conflict regarding political and social issues. It saddens me that we aren't known for what Jesus said we should be known for: our compassion and love.

As a Christian we should have convictions that we are willing to stand up for, however, our convictions should never come at the expense of our compassion.  There's a way to love people even when you disagree with them.  you do'nt have to be a prick to have convictions and you don't have to be a pushover to have compassion.