Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Encountering God

We use several words around MCC that describe our relationship with God and our fellow followers. Words like; connect, fellowship, community, walk, and journey. But this word “encounter” kind of has an ominous ring to it doesn’t it. It has the feel of tension and struggle and fight. It is almost the kind of thing we would normally try to avoid!
God is complicated, kind of like the people he created! There are times when he is safe and comforting and gentle. Then there are times he is not safe, in fact dangerous and angry! I have always loved the picture of God in the writing of C.S. Lewis. The concept of a Lion is kind of amazing isn’t it. We like Lucy at times wonder if he is safe or dangerous when we approach.

Approaching God is to be a daily task, and I do mean task, it is not easy or always safe. I think that is why we ignore him a lot! We can simplify approaching God that is for sure, I hear people do it all the time and I at times have to correct myself in making it so simple. Here is what I mean.

As followers of God we at times talk like God talks to us all the time. We also talk in ways that make him our buddy and closest friend. Yes, those things are true but at times we really over play that kind of talk. We walk a fine line between “the holy other” and “he walks with us.” I need both in my life but most of the time I really don’t want to encounter the holiness of God!

The bible is full of examples where common ordinary people just like us encountered the holy God. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Elijah, and Isaiah just to name a few. Our problem is that we don’t think of these people as someone “just like us!” You mean to say that I could hear God, I could see angels, I could see a bush burning and not burn up, I could pray and ask God for big things and have it happen? That is exactly what James the apostle said!

“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years.” (James 5:16-17 NIV)

I know that not everyone who comes to a Sunday worship gathering intends to encounter God. They, we, come for lots of reasons and not always encounter! But, at times, people do. Sometimes an encounter takes some effort as I have mentioned. Sometimes it takes an intentional search kind of like Dr. Henry Blackaby taught us when he was here. He reminded us that we should “seek him while he can be found!”

If I wanted to encounter Tiger Woods it would take some specific and intentional actions on my part. I would put God in an even higher status and degree of difficulty at times! Don’t you find it hard sometimes to find God? I do. Not always, but sometimes. When we have those times it is good to know we have somewhere we can go.

For us here at MCC it would be a place called “Encounter.” This place is in its early stages of development but it is real. There is a group of people who meet together in the Prayer Room every Wednesday night at 7 pm to seek God and find his heart. You can come for all kinds of reasons, but it is to seek the one who really matters in life. We are working on making this environment a safe place to meet a dangerous God so he can make us dangerous in our world. Why not come join me in this encounter some time? The encounter is worth it, people who meet God are never the same.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The EPIC Walk

When you look at how our relationship with God is described one particular picture comes to mind, walk. In the Garden of Eden God walked with Adam and Eve, a picture of personal relationship for sure! Enoch and Noah had their relationship with God described as walking with him (Gen. 5:22,24, 6:9).

Haven’t you heard at some point this description of a good follower of God, he “walks the walk and talks the talk.” In other words, he lives and says the things that mark him as a follower of God.

When I personally think of walking I think of exercise, health and going slow! Now when you think about it, those aren’t bad ideas of describing a walk with God. Walking should get your heart rate up, get your muscles moving and all of those things are good for your health. If I were to think of getting somewhere quickly it wouldn’t be walking! Walking is going slow, it is watching, it is thinking, it is journeying at a pace you can see and hear well.

The way we describe our relationship with God and with our fellow followers is that of journey. One biblical example of this whole idea of walk is found in Luke 24. Here we find some guys walking from a place of huge meaning, Jerusalem to a place of not much significance, Emmaus. These guys in their walk will encounter the living Jesus Christ. Quite a surprise on their walk! They certainly didn’t expect that, in fact they were engulfed in disappointment, grief and loss.

In their walk, these guys discover that Jesus is not dead! Hie is alive and walking with them! As some of you may know, this event has been made very relevant for people today in a retreat format called “The Walk to Emmaus.” It is a time in a person’s life that they too discover that Jesus is alive and that he can and does walk with us in our every day lives.

The heart of the real walk was the experience of seeing and experiencing Jesus in the breaking of bread. At some mystical moment while they ate together the men on the walk understood that the stranger that had joined them was Jesus, the one who had been crucified. He was alive and then took some time to inform them about all the prophets and the meaning behind what those words really meant about Messiah. Their hearts were warmed and their lives were changed!

Having lives changed today does take place in many retreat settings like an Emmaus Walk, but also in everyday walking through life. If we slow down enough, walk and not run; if we focus on things around us, if we get our hearts warmed it could be that we too might experience the living presence of Jesus right there with us. I am convinced that the times Jesus feels more distant are the times I am in a rush, not really looking and listening and definitely having a cold heart.

Some of the ancient ways that people were taught to walk with God centered on the very practical model. Walk “with” God, look, listen, and feel the presence. This sort of mystical approach has some real tangible means of experiencing the grace of God. It could be described as learning to walk with God.

Our walk, or journey in life, must be characterized by “quiet” and “focused looking and listening.” A quiet time is thus a time to look and listen for the voice of God. The most objective and real way of hearing God is found in our reading, thinking, praying and obeying scripture. As simple as this sounds, it takes years usually to get very good at this sort of thing. Practice if you will.

Some have found that writing while walking with God is a way to slow your thoughts and heart down enough to allow times of change. This is why journaling or writing your thoughts and prayers can be very good exercises. Other kinds of exercise here include doing these things “with others.” Relationship or community. Living and learning together.

Obedience is also a key in our walking or journeying. Obedience is like a super GPS system or compass that keeps us going in the right direction. Scripture and community guidance help us make good and healthy choices in our living. Obedience can be described in many ways; but it contains first fruits (stewardship), gathering for worship and instruction in apostolic teaching (See Acts 2:42-47).

One of the big changes that people in our generation must change in order to get more out of their walk with the Lord is the understanding of a point in time and eternity. The point in time is our accepting Christ as Savior; having our sins forgiven; being justified. The time in eternity is following Jesus as Lord. This is a continual daily journey, not something you do once and then it requires no more. Salvation is both the point and the eternity. Heretical for some, but I would challenge you to walk with Jesus for a while and see if that isn’t true. The difference between just taking a walk and taking an “EPIC Walk” is the eternity piece. It is living a powerful world changing life led by the living Christ and not just passively relying on some kind of spiritual life insurance.

Those who walk with Jesus change the world!

Monday, January 01, 2007

A New Year!

2006 has been one of my most difficult years as a pastor at Maryland Community Church. I have had harder ones for sure in the early years of recreating a dying church, but this was one of the most disappointing years. Two kinds of difficult!

This past year was a compendium, collection if you will, of bad things and bad timing. In addition to some hard times with staff members there was the overwhelming influx of selfishness that characterizes our culture. To say we suffered from a "mechurch" attitude is a grave understatement. A sad truth I have learned in cases like this is that we never "lost people" we actually "never had them!" True community is not about, "I will love you as long as you please me!"

Staff difficulties are always hard because even if staff members detest the fact that some people will leave a church because of a staff members leaving it does happen! Sometimes this snowballs as it did in our case. We did not as a congregation exhibit great forgiveness or great perseverance, we in the case of many fell victim to "I'm mad and I'm not going to take it any more! I would rather leave than forgive!"

As bad as this was, and it was bad, we had something much more sinister happen. Our very nature as a "community church" for "everyone" was attacked from the a variety of directions. We were too big, not big enough, too friendly, not friendly enough, we were a church with music that was too loud, not loud enough, we were too pentecostal and at the same time not penecostal enough. The pastor wasn't deep enough, he wasn't personal enough, he wasn't honest enough, he was too open with his thoughts. And of course, all we ever talk about is money! Just to name a few!

Since our first week in our new location we had been through an attendance spike with at lot of lookers and shirt sleeve relatives to a down turn of almost 250 people each Sunday. Those slides are hard emotionally and spiritually. No one likes the appearance of failure in the face of great success! Least of all me! I have to really watch it when my happiness or sadness revolves around how many bodies are sitting in chairs on Sunday!

The thing I want us all at MCC to spiritually discern this coming year is the deep meaning of success and failure. As easy as it is to say that the ABC's of church don't necessarily dictate success it very hard to hold to that fact in the middle of an onslaught of criticism and arm chair quarterbacking. Attendance, buildings and cash are not the key components of success in the Kingdom. They may be in the world, but not the Kingdom! If we are to sincerely seek His Kingdom and not worldly success then we are up against a real spiritual challenge!

I can and sure have second guessed myself on a lot of things as a pastor over this past year. So much of a pastor's "worldly esteem" comes from the the ABC's of church growth. Even when you know it is wrong! It is a battle of Pauline proportion! As Paul wrestled in Romans 7 with knowing to do good and not doing it, so do I as a pastor at times. I know my esteem comes from Christ and His approval or disapproval with my character, faith and behavior. History proves God doesn't always get excited about the ABC's of His people. He evaluates the heart, the mind and the faith of his leaders. I ask His forgiveness and yours for times I have given in to a wrong view of my esteeem.

Now don't get me wrong, I know the temporal value of a crowd, a great building and lots of cash! In and of themselves they are not all bad, it is when we place our value on them rather than the organic Kingdom based values of God's people. Can a church have a lot of people, a huge new building and lots of money and still be out of God's will? Of course they can! Those measures don't measure faithfulness or being Kingdom focused. Being a large church does not equal greatness; never has, never will.

The real questions are: 1) Are we on mission? 2) Are we faithful in worshipping God the Father, Christ the Son and the Holy Spirit? 3) Are we as members of the body of Christ living in ways that give God glory? 4) Are each of us as members of the body of Christ pointing non-believers to the saving grace of Jesus Christ through meaningful relationships?

We must refocus on Kingdom Growth: The tendency of every congregation is to be overly concerned with “their world” and not “God’s world.” In the same way individuals can be selfish so can congregations. Our perspective is that of a “World view” and not just a neighborhood. We have a city target and not just a certain segment of our community. This is what we mean by “missional.”

The missional church is a community where all members are involved in learning to become disciples of Jesus, this community seeks to discern God’s specific mission in the city it serves and the personal mission of all its members to proclaim the gospel to the whole world.

This next year; we need to care for each other and tighten up our connections as family (community). We need to encourage and challenge each other in our walk with the Lord (journey) and refocus ourselves on our kingdom priorities (mission).

Here is a new years resolution of repentance for all of us: 1) I will stop being critical of other Christians, Churches, pastors (including ones right here at MCC!) 2) I will pray intensely and seek the Lord for my personal growth and the growth of His Kingdom. 3) I will consciously seek the will of God rather than my personal need; if it really isn't about me, then it must be about Him!

There are nearly 70,000 unchurched people in are county. While we want our church to grow, we want His Kingdom to grow even more! Wouldn't it be awesome if every Christ following church in Vigo county grew over the next year! Now that would be real success! If that were happening, then I am sure that our crime rate would fall, our enconomy would flourish and we would enjoy great times of transformation as churches, a city, and a county!

Let's pray to be dangerous in 2007! Not just safe, but dangerous. We want to strike fear into the heart of the enemies of God! Our greatest defense is to overcome personal satisfaction as our daily goal; the bible calls this carnality or taking care of our own flesh! Our greatest offense is this; join the Father in changing the world one person at a time, one city at a time, one nation at a time.