Monday, September 24, 2007

Nasty Celebration

Today was the final day in my long march through the Presbyterian ordination process. I was officially installed as an associate pastor at Maple Valley Presbyterian Church today and I am finished with filling out endless forms and attending endless meetings.

I will be the first to admit that I grew significantly through the process and I am a stronger pastor due to my intentional (required) times of reflection and examination. I was reminded from my reading of Chrysostom's "Six Books on the Priesthood" of just how serious my calling is into full-time church ministry. By God's grace, I am to play the role of leading God's people in their mission in the world.

With all that said, my family decided to celebrate by going to a Chinese restaurant tonight. I haven't found a good Chinese restaurant here in Maple Valley or the surrounding area yet. I have been blessed with some of the best places and my Dad has helped me discern between good restaurants and others. Tonight, we went to a place that was nasty. I can't think of any other word to describe the food.

I cannot remember a time that I have been that disappointed with a Chinese meal.

I miss NY City (China Town).
I miss the Jade Isle (childhood Chinese restaurant in NJ)
I miss the Silver Maple (parents' choice in NH)

I miss real Chinese food!

Anyone have any suggestions for the Seattle area? I need help!!!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

simply showing up

A good friend of mine preached a sermon last year with the theme 'simply showing up' and I have encountered similar themes since then ("Just Walk Across the Room").

I rarely share on this blog about anything that is super deep or emotional but tonight the Lord called on me to show up in a place that I did not anticipate. At 3 PM, I was bringing Cambria home from preschool when I heard a series of fire trucks and ambulances drive by. Upon arriving home, I saw what appeared like an accident on the street at the bottom of the hill on which I live. Time went by and I heard helicopters outside and then I turned on the news and discovered that a teenage boy had been killed by a dump truck when he was riding on his skateboard right near my home.

I didn't know what to do. I delayed. I started to grill some burgers. And then I sensed the call to GO and be available.

I was scared and I didn't know what to do as I walked down the hill. I remember a close friend at CPE last year say "You need to show up and be the CHAPLAIN in tough times." With those words of encouragement and prayers, I arrived at the scene and talked with one of the EMT members. He said that a chaplain was on site but that there were many others who needed assistance. I stood next to a few families and a woman was hysterically shaking next to me.

I am not going to give any details but the next 2 hours was perhaps the most powerful moments for me as a Christian. I listened to one family (not the family of the teenage boy) in particular as they shared their grief, their loss, their guilt, their struggles, and their sorrow.

After the time, I asked to pray for the husband and he welcomed the prayer. I also was able to share one last time with the rest of the family before they left.

Simply showing up...

I thanked the Lord Jesus Christ for the privilege of being his listening presence and word of comfort and hope in the midst of this tragedy.

Who am I to play that role? Nobody special. Only that I was given the courage to follow the call of the very one who called me to serve that family in the first place.

My prayers are with this boy's family as they grieve the loss of their son.
My prayers are with the driver who accidentally hit the boy.
My prayers are with the family with whom I sat for 2 hours.
My prayers are with all the high school students who will be asking "Why?" tomorrow.
My prayers are with Maple Valley, WA as we mourn the loss of a teenage boy whose life should have continued beyond Sept 10th, 2007.

Please pray for all of us if you have read this blog entry... that is one way that you can show up for everyone mentioned above.

Friday, September 07, 2007

A Humble Reminder

I was able to relax this morning (my one true day off) and I take some time to reflect on my first month in full-time church ministry. The transition from NJ to WA was so intense that I barely took time to prepare for all of the changes. I had heard of the numerous pulls that would be put on my time and how I would be overwhelmed by the challenge of coming up to speed with everything.

Years ago, I remember feeling unworthy when I was asked to serve as president of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapter at UVA. I remember thinking "they have the wrong person in mind" when they asked me to consider applying for the position. Later on, I decided to apply after spending significant time in prayer and reading through the stories of Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and many others who questioned their ability to lead God's people. I was encouraged by how they all followed the call with God's provision, guidance, and grace.

I realized yesterday after 4 weeks in the locla church and from reading St. John Chrysostom's "Six Books On The Priesthood" that I need to return to that humble place. Chrysostom, in this writing, details why he does not feel worthy to serve in the priesthood, especially in light of the real struggles that face those in leadership. In light of this writing, who am I to think that I can lead and shepherd God's people on my own strength and own understanding?

Chrysostom provided this humble reminder on how I need guidance in leadership. He provided this description of the qualities of a person who leads in the church:

Consider, then, what qualities a person needs if he is to withstand such a tempest and deal successfully with these obstacles to the common good.
He must be dignified yet modest,
impressive yet kindly,
masterful yet approachable,
impartial yet courteous,
humble but not servile,
vehement yet gentle,
in order that he may be able to calmly to resist all these dangers and to promote a suitable man with full authority, even though everyone opposes him, and reject an unsuitable man with equal authority, even though everyone favors him. One thing along he must consider: the edification of the Church. He must do nothing out of hostility or favour.

He reminded me that I need to avoid the extremes of (1) pleasing people at all costs (2) alienating people.

He reminded that favor does not automatically equal true authority (authority that follows the pattern of Christ).

He reminded me that the goal is the edification of the church and not me or anything else related to reputation.

I need these humble reminders. That is why I keep reading leaders who have struggled through leadership in the church throughout the history of the church (not just the past 2 years).

Is anyone else challenged by his reflection?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

First 'real' sermon

This past weekend, I delivered my first sermon as the small groups pastor at Maple Valley Presbyterian Church. I preached at two services and my prayer was that I would encourage MVPC to stand strong together through putting on the full armor of God and prayerfully taking concrete actions of faith. Here is the manuscript, I haven't posted anything like this before so here it goes...

Standing Strong Together
Ephesians 6:10-24
September 2nd, 2007 @ MVPC

Before we get started in Ephesians 6 this morning, I want to first say Thank You on behalf of my wife, my two daughters and me. After four packed weeks of activity, we are beginning to feel at home here in Maple Valley. We have experienced God’s love and grace through so many of you that I cannot even begin to count the number of ways that you have welcomed us. Yesterday, the staff came over to our house to paint and we covered most of the top floor of our home in 5 fun-filled hours. Laurie and I would have taken anywhere from 4-5 days to paint what we painted yesterday. I was reminded of how much the body of Christ can accomplish great things together. I was also reminded of how small groups, in this case the staff, flourish when they take action together to serve God and meet a specific need that he lays on the group’s heart. David took the lead and he relentlessly pursued the idea with the staff and they stepped up even though it was a beautiful day without a cloud in the sky. For that, and EVERYTHING else, I say “Thank You.”

This morning we are in the final chapter in the book of Ephesians and our passage is Ephesians 6:10-24. I have fallen in love with this book as we have heard messages from David, Will, and Steve. Ephesians is a faith-grounding letter that brings together the primary themes of the Christian faith. Will started this series by pointing us to Paul’s reminder in Ephesians 1 of God’s calling in our life; how Jesus Christ reveals that God is a pursuing God who calls us to a new life and provides the way to experience that life both now and for eternity. David then pointed to how followers of Christ share a common identity and how the church by its very nature should resist our tendencies toward racism and anything that separates individuals from each other. Will then challenged us to live a life worthy of the calling as seen in Ephesians 4. David then provided the sobering reminder that we are indeed responsible for putting on our new identity in Christ and turning from disobedience. Last week, Steve showed how this plays out in the concrete relationships as married couples, parents, children, employers and employees. He reminded us that we need to be filled with the Spirit of Christ in order to live a life of selflessness.

That brings us to today. In many ways, the last chapter in Ephesians is like the final dramatic scene in a movie or the best part of a song or the exciting moment in a sporting event. What are some common attributes of these? Think about these moments in movies, songs and sporting events. In many ways, each of these brings together everything that has been building up to that point. When you are watching a movie, you can tell when everything in the movie is coming to a head. In a romantic drama, the couple who has been apart for the entire movie comes together due to circumstances beyond their control but everything just seems right. In a song, the combination of the chorus and verses and the rhythm and notes leads up to a point where you find yourself closing your eyes to take in the sweetness of everything coming together. In a sporting event, it is like a Seattle Mariners game when J.J. Putz comes out in the ninth inning to AC/DC and everyone stands up in expectation that the game will soon be over. Everything comes together.

Ephesians 6 is that moment. Ephesians 6 brings everything together. Ephesians 6 is what you have all been waiting for. We don’t often talk about the Bible in those types of words, images, and emotions but we should. Just picture the apostle Paul writing this majestic letter, he must have been salivating at the opportunity to bring everything together in this final chapter about Jesus Christ and our life together in him. What would he say? How would he say it?

Let’s read it together… Ephesians 6:10-24 Page 830

“Finally, be strong in the Lord.” “Therefore, put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” “Stand you ground.” “Stand firm.” The word “stand” appears throughout this passage and that is a clear indicator that it carries an important message to which we should pay close attention. Stand. God is encouraging us and commanding us to “Stand Strong Together.”

When was the last time you went to a beach at high tide? Or at least at a time when the waves were crashing to the ground? Picture with me how people respond to the ocean during those times of the day. Some people stay back and observe. Some people will walk up close to the edge of the tide and dip their toes in the water while thinking, “There is NO way that I am going into those waves.” Some people, and maybe you are this type of person, see this as a challenge and go directly into the ocean. For these people, the size of the waves invites a confrontation with God’s creation and an opportunity to test out whether they can withstand the brunt of the powerful waves.

I have to admit that I am that type of person and I always have been. I can clearly remember my first trips to the beach as a child. I often would go with my cousin Douglas. Oftentimes, we would end up at the beach right at high tide, right when the waves seemed two, three or four times taller than us. Even now, I can smell the salt water and feel the grains of sand under my feet and hear the repeated crash of the waves. Doug and I would team up together to take on the waves. We would create a pact that neither one of us would turn around unless we both agreed to give up or both of us ended up flat on our face in the sand. For us, this was fun! I can standing next to Douglas as wave after wave would smash into our bodies. Most of the time, we didn’t take a defensive posture. Instead, we would kick at the waves or throw our bodies into the waves or attempt to dive over them. We stood our ground together and we enjoyed every moment of it.

This morning’s passage reveals that whether we like it or not, whether we choose to recognize it or not, we are situated in that type of ocean. We have no choice in the matter. The preceding chapters in Ephesians have given us glimpses of the struggle that we encounter as followers of Christ. This chapter shows that we live in a world that oftentimes feels like the ocean waves are crashing against us week after week, day after day, and hour after hour. Don’t we feel that way when we you encounter challenges in life that threaten to knock us over? Don’t we feel that way as we look at our relationships and we realize that we struggle to get to a point of feeling like we are the spouses, parents, and friends that we would like to be? Don’t we feel that way when we give in to a temptation that plagues us and does not look like it is ever going to go away? Don’t we feel that the waves are crashing against us all the time?

You see, the apostle Paul did not leave us without addressing the sobering reality of these challenges. How did he address these concerns for those who heard this letter years ago? And how does God address these concerns in our lives as we hear this letter today? He encourages us to stand strong together. Stand strong together.

Let’s look at four different ways that these wise words play out this morning.

First, we need to “Stand! Being strong in the Lord.” Paul starts this section with the word “finally.” He is setting aside this section to give us the take-home message that he has been building toward throughout the letter. Another way to translate the word is “from now on,” meaning that in light of all that we have heard now we are live in a different manner. When is the last time that you have had a “stake in the ground” moment when you said to yourself, things are going to be different now? This weekend is Labor Day weekend, a natural point in the calendar year to reassess our lives and to purge the bad and hold on to the good aspects of life; a natural point to re-establish some goals and remove the activities that cloud our vision for life; a natural point to say “from now on” we are going to re-orient our lives toward Jesus Christ and one another.

How can we go about this re-orientation, this pointing our lives back to Jesus Christ? We are instructed to be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Our tendency in 21st century United States is to only hear these words in individual terms. In other words, to hear “I need to be stronger on my own.” The command, however, is meant for a group. Another way to say this would be “finally, all of you be strong” or “you all” or dare I say it “y’all” be strong.

Over and over in Ephesians and in other New Testament books, the body of Christ is a metaphor employed to describe the church. Jesus Christ is the head of the body and followers of Christ are connected to Jesus and to one another in the body. When is the last time that you reflected on the fact that as followers of Jesus Christ you are connected to him? Some of my favorite verses in all of Scripture are in the gospel of John in chapter 15 where Jesus describes himself as the vine and his followers as the branches. He says that if we abide (or stay connected) with him and he abides in us, then we will bear much fruit or flourish for him. In the same manner, when Paul encourages us to be “strong in the Lord,” the “in the Lord” points to the reality that Christians are “in Christ” or abiding in Christ.

When was the last time you felt “strong in the Lord”? For some of us, we may have never felt that or if we have it has been a long time since we could say that we have actually felt strong in Christ. For me, I feel strong in the Lord when I am with others who are also seeking to follow Christ. My home group is the primary example. I feel “at home” when I am connected to other people in the church beyond Sunday mornings. Over and over, as I have led small groups and small group ministries I have heard individuals say that they feel strong in the Lord when they are known by others, they are able to share their burdens with others, they are able to make a difference with others through serving. I believe that we all want to be a part of something greater than ourselves and that God has given us that desire to be connected with him and to one another and to do whatever God has gifted us to accomplish in this world.

We need each other. We need to stand strong together. As the waves of life crash against us, we need to “Stand, Being Strong in the Lord” together.

Second, we need to “Stand, Putting on the Armor of God.” The apostle Paul in Ephesians 6:11 says “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” Do you see the conflict here? The full armor of God is set against the devil’s schemes and vice versa. He goes on to explain further in v. 12 when he says “For our struggle is not against the flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” These verses have been a source of questions throughout church history. What is Paul describing? What can we figure out about this struggle from these verses? There are a numerous paths that we could take but this morning I want to focus on the fact that no matter how we interpret the nature of these entities, we have to constantly remind ourselves that life involves more than what we experience through our five senses, more than what we can touch, smell, see, taste, and hear.

We easily forget that we are in a conflict because there are more than enough distractions to capture our attention throughout the day. Like I said earlier, we are in a conflict whether we actively acknowledge that or not. Like the ocean waves, everything that pulls us away from Christ, from each other, and a world in desperate need of God’s grace constantly attempts to knock us over. So which type of opponent is more dangerous, one that you actively identify or one that is at work but you are unable to see it? Paul is reminding us that we need to look beyond our five senses and remember that more is happening in the struggle for our hearts and devotion.

So why does Paul encourage us to put on the full armor of God? He wants us to remember that we do not live in a neutral world. He wants us to remember that we have to actively struggle against that which would tear us away from God. He wants us to remember that we have access to not only the armor of God that equips us for the struggle but that we have access to Jesus Christ himself. Once again, the command “to put on the full armor of God” is given to a group. As the waves of life crash against us, we need to stand strong together, putting on the full armor of God.

Third, we need to “Stand, Receiving God’s Provision Together.” The apostle Paul lists the pieces of the full armor of God. We don’t have time to go through them one by one this morning. There are numerous studies on the significance of each individual piece and I can point you to those if you are interested. For today, I would like to focus on how we receive the last two items listed – the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit. God has provided what we need to stand strong together in our daily struggle.

This brings us back to the question that we have raised throughout our sermon series on the book of Ephesians. What are the roles in the struggle? Is God the one primarily fighting for us or do we have a responsibility? The answer is both. David talked about how we need to put off the old and put on the new. We wouldn’t be able to take this action apart from what God has done for us in Christ. As followers of Christ, we have to still have to act and give our best effort in the struggle knowing that God is ultimately giving us everything we need.

In v. 13, Paul says “and after you have done everything.” The verb that he uses there is the same verb that he used in Philippians 2:12 when he says to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” The word means to work through or to be successful in the face of obstacles. Isn’t this what we want in the Christian life? We want to be successful in the face of obstacles. We want to overcome the things that keep us from God and from each other. In light of Steve’s sermon last week, we want to overcome that which keeps us from being good friends, spouses, parents, sons, daughters, employees, and employers. We are in a constant struggle and we need God to come to our rescue (salvation) and his Word for strengthening, direction, and encouragement (sword of the Spirit, the word of God).

Again, this weekend is Labor Day weekend - To labor, to work through. to overcome obstacles. Paul is reminding us to put on the full armor of God that God has provided and to stand strong together as we seek to overcome our daily obstacles by God’s grace. As the waves of life crash against us, we need to “Stand, Receiving God’s Provision Together.”

Fourth, we need to “Stand, Taking Action Fueled by Prayer.” Paul gives these wise words after finishing the list of the pieces of the armor of God, “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.” Like Steve said last week, we cannot expect anything to change unless we are filled by the Spirit of God. The apostle Paul shows us that prayer is a key in living this kind of Spirit-filled life.

He draws out two requirements for our prayers. First, prayer is not an option. This verse makes that very clear. In fact, Paul makes the case for the all-encompassing need for prayer by using the word “all” or “always” four times. On “all” occasions, with “all” kinds of prayers and requests, “always” keep on praying, for “all” the saints. There is no time off. There is never a neutral moment.
Second, prayer needs to be a communal exercise, not just an individual undertaking. There are obviously times for individual prayer but we see here how we need to be in prayer together if we are to stand strong together.

We see this in the two commands that are easy to miss. He says to be alert or watchful. The word for this action means to “look after, or care for” as in leaders who keep watch over their people as seen in Hebrews 13:17. This is not a neutral watching but alertness that involves deep caring for other people. This reminds me of a neighborhood watch program. In that program, if it is working, individuals do not merely look out for themselves but they look out for the entire neighborhood. They are keeping watch.

The other command is to always keep on praying for all the saints. There is a devotion and perseverance in these prayers. Did you notice the small phrase “for all the saints”? They are constantly looking out for one another. Who is looking out for you? Who are you looking for? As the waves of life crash against us, we need to stand strong together, taking action fueled by prayer.

So what is our response to all of this? If we truly are in a daily, moment-by-moment struggle then what practical steps can we take to stand strong together here at Maple Valley Presbyterian Church and wherever God has us in our weekly endeavors? I’ll give you three quick responses to consider.

First, we need to remember the full picture. Every day we need to wake up and be reminded that we do not live in a neutral world. There is a struggle and we are fooling ourselves if we think that reality is only found in what we can touch, taste, smell, see, and hear. We need to remember the full picture. We need to encourage each other to spend time reading and studying Scripture with others so that we can be reminded of the truth and of how God has given us the full armor of God in light of this struggle.

Second, we need to initiate concrete actions. God has given us everything that we need but we have to intentionally act. “Put on” on the new self. “Put on” the full armor of God. We do have a choice. We can ignore reality and let all that opposes God pull us from God, from each other, and from the world that desperately needs God’s grace or we can stand strong together and take our stand against the devil’s schemes.

I want to pause to highlight of specific scheme. We heard a few weeks earlier in Ephesians 4:27 that we should not let the devil get a foothold. That verse refers to letting anger go unchecked and letting it lead to sin. Everything that opposes God wants us to be divided – friendships to dissipate, marriages to crumble, parent-child relationships to go sour, employees and employers to lack trust in one another, individuals to remain disconnected from others. As followers of Christ, we are given the command to be reconciled to one another, to forgive each other and to take the initiative in making things right between each other. These are hard words.

Brothers and sisters, if we are to stand strong together, then we have to be united. That doesn’t mean that we all have to think the same exact way or agree on specifics on every interpretation of Scripture or issue. It does mean that we are, as God commands in Ephesians 4:31, “to get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” We need to take concrete action with one another. I want you to take a moment and think about someone with whom you need to work out some “stuff” in your relationship. Maybe it is someone who you need to forgive or someone who has wronged you. It may be someone in this room right now. Consider how you can contact that person this week and schedule a time when you can sit down face-to-face and try again to be reconciled.

Someone gave me this sobering reminder a few years ago and I followed up on his wise words. I called the person and set up a time to meet. When we got together, I shared that I felt wronged by his specific actions and he eventually acknowledged the problem. The conversation was difficult and awkward but we moved on from that time without the bitterness that marked our relationship up to that point. Friends, we need to stand strong together and initiating concrete actions like seeking or extending forgiveness will enable us to do that.

Our last response is we need to prayerfully watch and persevere together. We cannot expect to live the Christian life on own. There are too many ruts. We need God and we need each other. God has given us prayer as the means for us to experience Spirit-filled lives together. Steve will pick up on the theme of prayer next week.

So I conclude with one of my favorite questions in sermons. Who cares? Who cares about all of this talk regarding standing strong together in the midst of a struggle that seeks to pull apart you from God and others. Who cares? I know one person who cares and that is Jesus. He cares. That’s why he wants you to care too.

What’s at stake is our very lives. Brothers and sisters, we do live in desperate times and there is not a lot out there that is seeking to build up your relationship with God and others.

That is why we emphasize home groups and other small groups so much here at Maple Valley Presbyterian Church. We are a “church of small groups” because we know from Scripture and from our life experience that the waves of life will knock us over unless we stand strong together. On this Labor Day weekend, consider how you can, in Paul’s words in v. 13 “do everything to stand” and that consideration must include a serious commitment or re-commitment to a small group in the coming year. We want to be people who overcome obstacles and live the Spirit-filled life that allows us be the friends, parents, children, employees and employers that we want to be. Friends, we cannot stand alone. We need to stand together.

I think back to when Doug and I would stare at the ocean waves and then look at each other and make the pact to stand together against the crashing waves. Today, we need to have a similar moment as we enter this coming year. Will we agree to stand strong together and do everything, by God’s grace, to make that happen?

As we transition now to the Lord’s Supper, we enter into this time knowing that we are one body. Praise God that he did not leave us alone to take on these challenges. Christ is not dead but he is alive and he wants to help us stand strong together. He is the unchanging God whose promises never fail and he promised that he would be always be with us. We are one body and during this time we should not only consider our own lives but also how we interact with the rest of the body of Christ, especially those whom we need to forgive or be seek forgiveness from. May we be strengthened again as we continue to consider how we indeed can stand strong together here at Maple Valley Presbyterian Church and wherever God has called us to share his grace with the world.

Brothers and sisters, let’s stand strong together.