Saturday, August 26, 2017

Sermon - Giants in the Land

This week was our second and last "preview service" for our new church. We read together from Hebrews 11. We sang "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" and "O God our Help in Ages Past." My wife Gena, who is in the process of finding her own church fellowship close to our home in Keller but who is an enthusiastic supporter of this new church (which will be quite a ways from our house) with her prayers and her help even as she follows God’s call for her, joined with us to sing a solo version of "Love Lifted Me."

I preached about the failure of God’s people to march in faith into the Promised Land. I suppose that some think that in this last service before we launch, I should have led a pep rally on how great things are going to be, but the truth is that this infant church will never be more vulnerable than we are right now. We needed to take a few moments to look into the face of God, steel ourselves for what is ahead, and step forward in faith. The good news, of course, is that our Leader is ready and waiting for us to do just that.

With that in mind, I preached the following sermon:

Numbers 13: 1-2, 26-33 -- The Lord said to Moses, “Send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites. From each ancestral tribe send one of its leaders.” ... They came back to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the Desert of Paran. There they reported to them and to the whole assembly and showed them the fruit of the land. They gave Moses this account: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan.” Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.” But the men who had gone up with him said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.” And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”

GIANTS IN THE LAND

In moments of self-satisfied daydreaming, we fancy ourselves to be adventurers, conquerors who face stumbling blocks with resolve and find a way to do what is necessary, what is heroic, what may even appear impossible. In reality, we do a lot less overcoming and a lot more ducking as we navigate detours and survive to fight another day.

It is not surprising, then, that some of our movies try to alert us to omens, lest we rush headlong into danger. In “Titanic,” for example, there are all sorts of warnings about the seaworthiness of the vessel, but that advice doesn’t stop them from heading off across the Atlantic. And I hate to spoil it for you, but the boat sinks. You remember other movies with admonitions that go unheeded, movies like “The Fly” (“Be afraid, be very afraid.”) or “Jaws” (“Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…”). Who can forget the first time you watched Jimmy Stewart climb that tower in “Vertigo?” You wanted to grab his shoulder and hold him back. You wanted to scream for him to stop, to spare himself what was to come.

Many, many bad horror movies are built on the premise of ignoring the caution signs. The main characters always seem to disregard the haunting music that should be warning them not to go into the woods or the vacant room when they know better. They walk into the perilous darkness anyway. The end result is always hellish.

More often, though, with our conceptions of valor – and maybe with a little touch of faith – we like movies where the hero overcomes barriers with pizazz and courage to beat the odds. We love it when Indiana Jones enters the cave despite the poison darts and the booby traps and that menacing rolling boulder. We cheer when the Ghostbusters destroy the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. We want Rudy to play for Notre Dame, even though he is much too small and really has no talent. We are awed when Schindler defies the Nazis for years.

We like those stories because they portray what we wish we were, what we feel we should be. Too often, though, we are not John Wayne. We do not bravely vanquish interference and leap tall buildings in a single bound. Too often, most of us are shell-shocked Corporal Upham in “Saving Private Ryan,” who sobs on the stairway while his friend is killed and then haplessly watches the German murderer walk past him and away. When the going gets tough … Upham retreats into himself, living, at least in that moment, like Falstaff, as a counterfeit while those around him give their lives for others.

And so, we turn to our Bible story from the Book of Numbers: the story of the spies and the giants they see and the recommendations they make to Moses and the tribes of Israel. You know this story. Even if you did not learn it in Sunday School, you have heard references to these events in a number of contexts.

We undoubtedly read Old Testament accounts like this as history, as how the Hebrew people acted reacted and how God dealt with His people in the primitive stages of the world. We also study these stories for their prophetic value. Israel approaches the Promised Land as though it were a game of hokey pokey – you put your right foot in, you take your right foot out – foreshadowing how God’s children will approach His promises from then on.

There is a third way to read these Old Testament narratives, and that is to see them as models for how God deals with us today. Ponder what God has promised you, what God has set before you, and the potential impediments and pitfalls you see to accepting God’s gift. Then, when you see the word “Israel” in the passage, replace it with your name. You will quickly see Israel’s story as your own.

1. There are always giants in the land.
Anyone who tells you different is either naïve or trying to sell you something.

The chosen ones have followed God to the border of the Promised Land. Now, when God invites them to explore a little and take their first peek, Israel deploys twelve spies to test what God has in store. The unanimous report – metaphorical in its wording and wonderful in its promise – is that the area is “a land flowing with milk and honey.” The Hebrew here is actually more descriptive than simply flowing. The better translation is that the land is “gushing.” This is a good place.

Ten of the scouts, however, are nonetheless unwilling to enter because of an additional undeniable fact: there are giants in the land.

We are about to embark on a wonderful new journey. We are starting a new church, promised to us by God. We have been led to this place, maybe not by a pillar of fire or a cloud, but no less clearly by the hand and voice of God. Some of you have been guided here because you want Jim Pannell to be your pastor. Others have arrived out of frustration, unable to find the church you need and hopeful that this will be the one. Maybe a few have shown up out of curiosity – what is the deal with this pair of volunteer pastors? Whatever your motivation, God has piloted you here, and it is not hard for you to look at this church-to-be and understand that it holds enormous potential, that its milk and honey will not only sustain you but can also be a life force for the city of Fort Worth if only a group of Christians will do the work.

But you are hesitant. After all, you foresee complications. Starting a new church is daunting. There are giants in the land. It is going to cost money. It is going to require commitment. If I am going to get involved on the front end of a church start, I can’t really get away with coming every other Sunday and sitting anonymously in a pew and hoping nobody asks me to do anything. Do I really need to leave the church where I am, where I am comfortable? What if not enough people show up? What if nobody else has children or youth my kids’ age? What if the building does not work out? Is it too far for me to drive? There is not a ready-made community or Sunday School class for me; there may not be anybody else my age when we start. What if, heaven forbid, disagreements arise? What if these so-called co-pastors can’t get their act together?

Giants in the land.

As you read these verses from Numbers, don’t get hung up on how tall these descendants of Anak were. Your version of scripture, like the one I read, may not actually use the word giants. It may call them the Nephilim or describe them as being “of great stature.” It does not matter. The key is verse 31, which in your translation says either that these giants are “too strong” or “stronger than we are.” The Living Bible paraphrases the words like this: “They will crush us.” The emphasis of scripture must not be lost in the minutiae of debate points about whether there is any such thing as a “real giant.” The meaning is that the road to the Promised Land is fraught with obstructions that are bigger and stronger than we are. If you have bought into the coffee-cup catchphrase theology that teaches that God will never let you face anything that you cannot handle, it is time to think again. Scripture teaches differently. We are constantly faced with crushing giants that are too big and too strong for us to confound.

What giants do you see standing in your way? Is it health? Are you getting old? Do you simply hate your body, with its failings and its weight you cannot lose and its disease and what seems to you to be its ugliness? Are you tired of creaking joints and frustrated that you cannot do what you used to do? Has cancer come back?

What about the giant of poisoned relationships? Have you been betrayed? Does the boss treat you like debris and make you feel easily replaceable?

Your giant could be addiction. It might be money, or politics, or lost opportunity. As school starts for you or for your children this week, your giant may be calculus or social studies or, if you are anything like the student I was, art. You may be surrounded by rising tides of distress, depression, and disillusionment. Your giant could be someone else in your life, who beats you down and demands everything you have and gives nothing in return.

If we are honest, the toughest giants we all face are self-created… because we are sinners. We know better, but we walk where we should not go, and we ignore the scary warning music playing in our heads, and then we do it again. And again. Your giants may have names like dishonesty and selfishness and lust, or meanness, or envy. Or perhaps self-promotion. You may summon your giant at the computer or out of a bottle. Perhaps you, like David, are an adulterer, or worse. When we are candid, we know that we are far too often personally responsible for our own horror movies. We ignore the alarms, and we do what we know better than to do, and the end result is hell. We have generated our own giant.

There may be milk and honey down the road, but all we can see are giants in the land. Israel’s story is our story.

The people have followed only to the edge. Now, they hesitate, choosing to test the provision of God. Unwilling to march in faith into the Promised Land, they stick their proverbial toes in the water by sending in spies. When they get the reports back, they do not feel like Oskar Shindler. Instead, reluctant to advance, they could identify with Hamlet:

To be, or not to be – that is the question….
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all…

[William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, scene i]

Convinced that the hurdles in their way are too high, Israel declines God’s offer. Standing on the periphery of the Promised Land, they turn away. The hymnwriter would say that they are prone to wander.

That would not make a very popular movie, would it? Maybe not, but all too often, Israel’s story is our story.

And the question is, will it become this church’s story? As we stand here, on the verge of something great, something promised, something that God has in store for us, something that God is anxiously waiting to lead us into… will we go marching forward, or will we dip in our toe and do the hokey pokey, seeing the difficulties ahead and deciding to pull our whole selves out?

God presents us bounty and beauty beyond our understanding. Our descriptions of what we allow ourselves to see may be as symbolic and incomplete as “milk and honey” or “streams of mercy, never ceasing.” We know the treasure is there, for we have glimpsed it.

Now, we are presented once again with the promise of God. Too often, we are over-cautious. Instead of trusting, we decide to spy things out, and sure enough, we detect giants in the land. We quickly conclude that the world that inhabits our Promised Land is frightening and wants to devour us. We see monsters around every corner. We stop short.

2. God calls us to march forward anyway.


Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that God never shows us that we are on the wrong path, and I am not saying that God never shuts a door. He does both, at times. Sometimes, He brings us a new call.

But, God does not play tricks on His children, and when we have been faithfully following thus far, right up to the threshold, God is not in the business of pulling the rug out from under us. When we are obeying God, temporary complications are often just that: temporary; and those that are more permanent are not roadblocks to disciples of the Almighty. There may be a thorn with which we, like Paul, must deal, but God’s grace is always sufficient for the path He has laid before us.

Tis grace has brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.

Honest faith knows that God has never promised that our way will be without problems. In fact, scripture confirms that we will be hard pressed on every side, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. We left our Garden of Eden long ago. This new church will not be paradise.

Notice that nowhere in our Numbers passage does God even hint that He will remove the giants, or distract them, or give Israel the magic formula to defeat them. God simply lays out a promise and leads the people forward. And God, as God always does, leaves Israel – and us – with the choice.

Scripture makes the point over and over again. We are called to accept God’s offer in spite of the giants. Abram is sent on a journey to an unspecified destination through dangerous country with threatening kings. Joseph must live through murderous brothers and the pit and slavery and a trumped-up rape charge and imprisonment – God does not eliminate any of that. Elijah faces rejection so often that he wants to quit. David faces Saul, and Absalom, and, ultimately, himself. Daniel gets lions, and his friends get a fiery furnace. Hosea’s wife leaves him for a life of prostitution. Jonah gets a big hungry fish, and Habakkuk gets a vine with no fruit. The people get exile, and the temple comes crashing down.

This is not just an Old Testament story. Peter has the finger pointed at him in anger. Paul has to be secretly lowered over a wall in a basket to avoid the mob out to murder him. And, of course, Jesus is tempted, rejected, wrongfully accused, denied, betrayed, tortured, and crucified.

And God’s message to every single one of these is the same. “Keep following. March forward. I have indescribable wonders in store for you. I promise.”

The champions of scripture understand. They do not ask or wait for all the giants to go away. They follow God, desperate for the promise. In the litany we read together earlier, the writer of Hebrews tells us to look for a city which will last forever. Like Sarah, we are called to trust God to do what he has vowed. Like these heroes, we are looking for a better country. We want the Promised Land, giants or no giants. And God has made a city with a sure foundation ready for us. His love lifts us up, if we simply let Him.

Joshua and Caleb, who are the Luke Skywalker and Han Solo of our Numbers story, are ready to enter the Promised Land. They know that God is with them, and they want the milk and honey. I love the scene in the first “Star Wars” movie where Luke tells Solo that if they rescue the Princess, Solo will be rewarded with more than he can imagine. Han’s response is, “I don’t know, I can imagine quite a bit.” That reminds me of Paul’s words in Ephesians 3:20, where he refers to God as the one “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine.” I am like Han Solo: I can imagine a lot, and yet no eye has seen, nor has my mind or anyone else’s conceived, the wonder of what God has in store for me and for you and for this new church in our Promised Land.

In Numbers Chapter 14, in verses shortly after what I read earlier, Joshua pleads with the people:
The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. If the LORD is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. Only do not rebel against the LORD. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will devour them. Their protection is gone, but the LORD is with us. Do not be afraid of them. [Numbers 14:7-9]

The people of Israel, though, are much too smart for their own good. They do not seem to have any imagination at all, much less faith. They start wishing aloud that they could go back to Egypt, where at least they had a bed at night and an occasional warm meal. Joshua and Caleb are overruled.

Israel’s story is our story, and we too reject God’s promise far too often. The giants in the land scare us more than the milk and honey invite us. We turn away.

3. Faith enters God’s Promised Land.


Many of you have been through your proverbial Egypt – that is why you are looking for a new church. You don’t want to go back. You sure don’t want to wander in the wilderness for the next forty years.

How, then, can we face what is certainly ahead of us? As I said at the beginning of the service, we will never be more vulnerable than we are right now. If we are going to commit to forming this new church, one thing I can promise you is that there are giants in the land. We cannot even say for sure when and where we will start regular services. We have to look into God’s future and step forward with courage. We need a little Indiana Jones.

Whether you are a part of the new church or not, your own life has and will have giants. How can we face them?

Hear me very clearly. When I said that what I call the coffee-cup “God does not give you anything bigger than you can handle” maxim is wrong, what I meant is that it is insufficient. It is immature. It is not enough. The truth is that God will not call you to anything without supporting and equipping you, without being ready to walk with you. The giants in your land may be – no, they are - too big and too strong for you alone, but you are never alone. God is the Lord of wind and flame. God makes the stars and heals the sick. And He will assuredly go with us. When we are prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love … when nothing else can help, God is always able to save.

Some of you are surprised that I made it this far in a sermon about giants without mentioning Goliath. We know that young David armed himself with a slingshot and five smooth stones… but never let yourself stop with the simplicity of the Vacation Bible School version of the story. David did not win the battle and defeat his giant with rocks and a leather strap. Scripture tells us how David faced Goliath:
Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him. The LORD who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine. You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give all of you into our hands. [1 Samuel 17, various verses]

Our future includes giants, and so long as we try to wear the world’s ill-fitting armor and bank on its heavy swords, the giants will laugh at us. When, however, we rely on the Lord, who has delivered us in the past and who holds the battle now, the giants are no longer obstacles. It takes the Hebrew children forty years to figure that out, but when they are finally in the Promised Land, Israel will in fact rout the giants; the Anakites who had once caused such fear are nothing more than a footnote in Chapter 11 of the Book of Joshua on the people’s march into Canaan.

Now… there are two temptations that came to me at this point in preparing this sermon. The first was to go to Google and look up a few inspirational quotes about overcoming adversity and tell you that “the only thing that overcomes hard luck is hard work” … or “if opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door” … or how about “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The problem is: these pithy statements are not scriptural. God most assuredly does not tell us that the way to defeat the giants in the land is just to work harder.

The second temptation was for me to do what some TV preachers and printers of those posters you can buy at the Christian bookstore do. I could promise you that God will make your backaches and addictions go away and tell you that if you pray the right words and set your face in a certain direction, then you will immediately overcome everything and our new church will be an Oscar-winning hit.

In fact, of course, the giants do not vanish that easily. Your body still creaks and the boss is still a jerk. What is meaningful still, as always, requires courage, living into the risk with faith.

And our new church will have budget issues and disagreements and distances to travel and may or may not start meeting when we want.

So, how, then, can we as a new church face our giants and step boldly into this promise, into the future that God has guaranteed us? For most of us, the giant story is figurative: we do not face a nine-foot tall opponent in a duel in the desert, and our giants seem much different and harder to overcome.

But God is the same God, the strengthener of weak hands and feeble knees.

Peter Kuzmic says: “Hope is the ability to hear the music of the future. Faith is the courage to dance to it today.”

I am persuaded that God does not often explain the “how” of faith. Rarely does God tell us simply to use certain words and face certain directions. You can’t find the dance step pattern on the internet, or in a proof text in the Bible. God tells us not the “how” but rather the “who.” And the “who” is not us, with our commitment and our hard work. Don’t get me wrong – we must work hard and be steadfast, and we can use all the Michael Jordan and Steve Jobs quotes we can find to help motivate us. But believing in ourselves is not the answer; that cannot be where we place our faith. Hard work will not part the Red Seas that stand between you and God’s promise. All the perseverance in the world will not surmount something that is too big and too strong for you to overcome.

God bids us to place our faith in Him. Wherever you are in your walk, faith is this: trusting God. You don’t have to be a Joshua or a Caleb to trust God.

Faith, even childlike, new faith, dances to the music of the future with the conviction that God will deal with the giants. Faith marches into the Promised Land.

Abram, who did not know where he was going, becomes Abraham, whose descendants number more than the sands of the sea.
Joseph escapes slavery and jail to become second only to Pharaoh and saves not only his family but his nation.
Elijah hears the still small voice of God and is taken to heaven in a chariot of fire.
David rebounds from his sin and the coup d’état led by his own son to be the king, the man after God’s own heart, Psalmist, and ancestor of the Christ.
Daniel emerges from the lions’ den, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego walk out of the fiery furnace. And they are all given places of honor by Nebuchadnezzar.
Hosea’s wife comes home to his love.
Jonah gets a second chance, and Habakkuk gets a song. The exiles are restored, and the temple is rebuilt, and out of it flows the river of life.
Peter leaves denial behind to lead the church. Paul writes the bulk of the New Testament. And, of course, Jesus rises again and rules the world.

And it has happened to me, and to Jim, and to you. Again and again, God has fulfilled His promises, giants or no giants.

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.
[2 Corinthians 4:8-9]

The lesson is not just for a new church, of course. If you do not yet know Christ, this message is for you. This is the gospel. Your sin is too big and too strong, and you cannot go forward. You are sinking deep in sin, far from any peaceful shore, but Jesus Christ died so that the giants cannot keep you from the presence of God. And He lives so that your Promised Land is ready.

And for our new church, God has led us to this brink, and He is calling us to go forward. He is sending us. We will face giants along the way… but oh the milk and honey that await!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

What I Learned on My Summer Vacation

This summer, which has ended with our first days of the empty nest, has been full with work, vacation, and preparation of our youngest for college.

But there has been something else. If you read my previous blog, you know that I am about to begin pastoring a brand new church. In preparation for that, I have spent my summer intentionally visiting many different churches, representing four different denominations or no denomination at all, with worship styles running the gamut. My goal has been to learn as much as I can about what others are saying, how others approach the throne of grace, what worship can be, what sits well and what does not to those in the pew, and how I can best mediate the Word of God once I stand in the pulpit.

I have attended everything from a formal matins service, with chants led by one facing the altar with his back to me, to a summer vacation-themed rock-n-roll service with beach balls batted about the congregation during the sermon. I have heard organs and pianos, guitars and drums, violins and French horns. I have seen screens of all sizes, camera operators wandering across platforms in the middle of worship, stained glass windows, smoke-and-light shows, and chancels simple and elaborate. I have sung "Holy, Holy, Holy" and praise choruses with titles I could not understand and do not remember. I have heard sermons from preachers wearing robes, suits, dresses, khakis, and flip flops.

I have not experienced it all, but I have tasted quite a variety of 21st century American church this summer. I have learned some things that I did not know I liked, and I have discarded some practices that I know I do not want in our church.

In each church, no matter the style or the attire, I could easily detect the planning that went into and the purpose that those in charge had for the service. No matter how unpolished or informal, nothing I saw was slipshod or haphazard. Every preacher was prepared and said something that captured my attention.

I do not expect us to incorporate everything I saw and heard into the new church. Some of it is not, in my opinion, appropriate. Some of it works for the people leading it but would be a bust if I tried it.

Still, I finish this experience encouraged. Cliche' though it may be, what unites us as the church is far greater than what divides us. Our differences of doctrine and approach, of style and emphasis ... these are real and important. But they do not come close to the magnitude of our mutual recognition of God the Father, the power of the cross, the importance of scripture, the need to give of what we have for the spread of the gospel and the needs of the less fortunate, the wonder of baptism, and the value of Christian fellowship. The Lord's Prayer, the bread and wine, the invitation to respond, the second chance of forgiveness - these are constant, even if portrayed and shared in different ways.

I am relieved, frankly, after these weeks to be reminded how many gather every Sunday - albeit with different beats and clothes and words and rituals - to worship my God. It is too easy to feel isolated, as though our particular church or youth group or community group is the only one fighting the good fight, the only one giving to the needy, the only one standing between Satan and victory.

We are not alone. I do not want to worship in the same way that others do, and that is ok. Our church will add its voice, as I add mine, to a great symphony of believers and worshipers. We are running this race together.

That's what I learned on my summer vacation.

Godspeed.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Next Adventure

I am about to begin a new phase of following God's call on my life. I will become the co-pastor of a brand new church here in Fort Worth.

No, I am not leaving my law practice. This pastorate will be a true "tentmaking" venture, meaning that I am maintaining my full-time job (as is Jim Pannell, my co-pastor) and serving as a volunteer pastor of this new congregation. This call came to me a year ago, and after a year of prayer and introspection, I am ready - yea, excited and anxious - to move forward. I covet your prayers.

A little background...

When I was 15 years old, on a youth mission trip in an out-of-the-way place called Skidway Lake, Michigan, I surrendered my life to “full-time Christian service.” Oh, I had been a Christian as long as I remember. I was baptized at the tender age of 8. I was raised by two seminarians, was active in the church, and could say the books of the Bible backwards. I knew I was going to heaven. But it was not until the age of 15 that I began to comprehend what it means to call Jesus “Lord” as well as “Savior.”

At that time, living on the buckle of the Bible belt in Nashville, Tennessee, I thought that “full-time Christian service” meant that I had to become pastor of a church. God had other ideas. I began an internal struggle with myself and with God. I thought I HAD to become a professional minister because I did not really understand what else “full time Christian service” could mean. I prayed regularly. I got good advice from a lot of people, including most notably from my seminary-graduate father, who told me, “If you can be happy doing anything other than pastoring, do that.”

And then, one morning on a family vacation in Pensacola, Florida in the summer of 1985, I knew. I know that sounds either hyper-mystical or just nuts to some of you, but I simply woke up that morning and was certain that I was not called by God to be a full-time pastor, not directed to seminary, not summoned to the so-called “professional ministry.”

I never second-guessed that understanding of God’s will for my life… that call… and I never understood it to be anything other than the word that the full-time pastorate was not for me. I had by that point in my life come to understand that I was not gifted in ways that full-time pastors require – I do not have what is commonly known as “pastoral vision.” I am not equipped for the day-to-day administrative and ministry requirements of that job. I knew then, however, that I do have gifts that made deciphering my call complex. Those gifts are in the areas of speaking, teaching, wisdom, and leadership. I resolved that very summer day on the beach that my understanding of God’s call did not mean that I should not use my spiritual gifts and talents to my fullest ability to the glory of God. The trick for me was finding out how to use what God had given me in ways other than as a full-time pastor.

I have tried my best to live up to that commitment. I have taught Sunday School for thirty years. I was ordained as a deacon at the age of 27. I have written two books and numerous articles and even a couple of choir anthems. This blog has been a place for me to share what God has laid on my heart. I have served my churches on committees and through music and in fellowship. I have had opportunities to preach and lead retreats and speak to various groups, even while polishing my skills as a lawyer and a community presence. I hope my co-workers will tell you I have been an ambassador for Christ at the office - although I confess to falling short on that front all too often. My family, who know me best, are most aware of my multiple failings and probably (they are too polite, usually, to say it to my face) shake their heads at the idea of me as a pastor. I have sought out my pastors and ministers and striven to be a sounding board for them and to lend them a word of direction when it was appropriate. I am sure that has made me a pest at times, for I am not perfect, but my motivation has always been to use my gifts and talents for the Father.

I have also learned. I have paid attention. I have studied and listened. I believe that God has been preparing me for what He has prepared for me – this call to this church at this time.
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I am very churchy. I have been accused of being “too churchy,” but I have never shied away. I have never wavered in my belief that we Christians simply must be an active part of the local church. I believe that the church is the Body of Christ, so Christ reaches the world with our arms, and Christ speaks to the world through our voices, and Christ changes the course of the world through our minds. I know that Christians can and do act independently, but there is no substitute for the corporate body of the church, moving together – with Jesus as our head – to fulfill His mission.

But the importance of the church is more than serving the world. The church is crucial for each one of us as we grow and obey. Charles Wesley was onto something when he wrote the hymn “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” Our Christian life falters when we try to do it alone. We must join together to hear the Word of God preached. We need to witness baptism and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. It is essential that we come together to share our stories and bear our burdens and lift up our prayers together. We are obligated to hear and teach and discuss holy scripture together.
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Over the last couple of years, I have been drawn to a friendship with a man who has become a part of my Sunday School class, a man named Jim Pannell. One day last summer, as he and I sat down to eat our sushi lunch, Jim dropped this bombshell: “Lyn, God is calling me back into the ministry, and I believe that God wants you to join me in starting a new church.” I sat there with what I am sure was an idiotic expression on my face as he laid out what God has placed on his heart, and I found myself nodding and asking questions as my excitement grew. It was not until that evening, however, when I began to discuss the possibility with my wife Gena, that I was sure. I was not two sentences into what Jim had said when she interrupted me and said, “Yes, of course you should do this. This is meant for you.”

And so, we – Jim and I, Gena and I, Jim and Amy and Gena and I - have spent nearly a year talking and planning and praying, and I have never felt anything but affirmation from the Father that this is His plan. You see, I still do not have all the gifts that a full-time pastor needs, but this team approach is perfect, for Jim has vision in spades. What Gena was saying, I believe, and what I heard God saying over a dragon roll and what I have continued to hear God say, is that this is where I have been heading. This is how I can now best use those gifts from God.
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So, what do I want this church to be? How do I envision it? Let me hasten to say that my wants or Jim’s wants are not what this church will be about, for God is sovereign and Jesus is our Leader. But I believe that God works through His children, and I believe that He is working right now through all of us.

You are aware of – and weary of – what has happened in our politics and our dialog and our public interaction. If I could put a word on it, it is extremism. I am not lumping every office-holder, every candidate, or every policy into that boat … but as a rule, we have become a society where everyone has circled up with his or her own allies to defend what is, for the moment, precious; as a result, too many have demonized, and even more have mistrusted, all those who have taken a different route. What unites us dwarfs what divides us, but you would never know that from social media or television news.

The same thing has happened in our churches. In my Baptist world, a perceived liberal slant of some seminaries led to a hard-right push that resulted in a new fundamentalism punctuated by political hardball tactics, with dismayed public reactions from those who suddenly perceived themselves on the outside of power. Unsurprisingly, labeling and splits and new fellowships and organizations were quick to follow. Now, those groups are subdividing, as issues as old as Calvinism and as new as transgender recognition force adherents of cells that were like-minded yesterday into opposite corners today. (If your background is not Baptist, don’t sit there smugly. The exact issues may not be the same, but Presbyterians and Episcopals and Methodists are going through a similar metamorphosis.) It has also happened with worship. Some claim that a contemporary style is required for evangelism because it is said to be the only possible way to reach seekers, while others hold to a formal liturgy as the only true means of honoring God. Still others have tried to please everyone, leading to what my former pastor Frank Lewis called: “The Blended Service, guaranteed to offend everybody.”

Not every churchgoer holds to these extremes, of course. There are plenty of worshipers who go with the flow and can worship with pipe organ or electric guitar. But these folks are too often caught in the crossfire between the true-believing extremists, and the results often leave many dissatisfied.

One more point before I say what I want this church to be. I am disappointed and exasperated by what I see and hear from many of our churches. I agree with Professor Roger Olson, who says:
"[M]any American evangelical churches are almost totally devoid of theology. I have been a theology professor of thousands of students in three Christian universities over almost thirty years. During that time, I have noticed a downward trend in terms of Christian students’ biblical and theological awareness. I have also noticed that trend in the churches I have attended. Whereas thirty years ago … most evangelical churches taught Bible stories …, most have moved to the most vapid “study” of ethical and moral issues … [instead of] biblical teaching and the study of doctrines. Many churches and Christian youth organizations have simply abdicated their responsibility to teach basic Christian beliefs so that Christianity seems to many … a shallow religion of self-fulfillment with God’s help. This … 'Christless Christianity' … is simply pervasive in American church life."

I share Dr. Olson’s frustration. I am not interested in a church that focuses on self-help and discussions of ethical issues that could happen just as successfully on a park bench or around a table at Chili’s. If church is not at the same time a cathedral and a hospital and a home and a place of confession and honesty and accord and a place where the truths of scripture – all the truths of scripture – are proclaimed, it is not – to me - a church.

So, what do I want, what is it that I hope to lead, what is it that I believe that God is forming?

First, it is a church that honors God in everything we do - in worship and preaching and ordinance and prayer, in ministry and mission locally and nationally and internationally, in fellowship and hospitality - focused on Jesus Christ and holy scripture and His teachings, whether or not they are popular, politically correct, or guaranteed to draw a crowd.

Second, I want this to be a church where everyone not only is welcome but feels welcome, no matter what extreme they may have espoused. For the non-Christians, this church must be a place they can enter and meet Jesus or, if they have met Jesus but are not yet a follower, this must be a place where they can learn Christ and see Him modeled in all we do. For the believers, we should be a congregation where the fundamentalist, the liturgist, the Calvinist, the emergent churcher, the liberal, the traditional Southern Baptist, the intellectual, the non-denominational megachurch-goer, and everyone in between can all sit down and worship together. To be sure, Jim and I are traditional Baptists; we will teach and hold to doctrine and behaviors and practices that will not suit all those folks, at least initially, but we will not shut the door, literally or figuratively, on any of them.

Third, it will be a place where worship is done with excellence, with purpose, and based on a classic tradition. I have nothing against rock-n-roll church, nor do I find fault with high church ceremony; but there are many other places in Fort Worth where worshipers can find either. We can only be who we are and what God has planted.
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If Jesus is our Lord, it cannot be just on Sundays. I have nothing against full-time professional ministers; many of my closest friends are just that, and I am certain they are fulfilling God’s call for them. But there are other models, and this new opportunity presents the challenge to Jim and me of leading this church on the Lord’s Day and following Christ’s call in our 9-to-5 jobs throughout the week. Paul was a tentmaker even while he preached, and there is a great tradition of those walking in that path. I feel the call – the great privilege and honor – to model what it can be to serve our Lord both in this church and in the courtroom, where my so-called “regular job” requires me. If I can help someone else expand his or her ministry into following Christ in all parts of life, then this entire venture will have been worthwhile.

I look forward with anticipation and humility and great joy to what God lays out before us. I suspect that those of you who read this blog may see some of my sermons showing up here, because I will be using what God says to me in that way, and this seems a natural place to share.

It will be an adventure...

Saturday, June 3, 2017

School's Out for the Summer

Eight years ago today, I wrote a blog noting that after eleven years, I was no longer an elementary school parent.

Now, I am through with high school. Our youngest child, Annessa, is a high school graduate.


My 33-year-old wonder at entering kindergarten and wondering where the time had gone was amusing to my 44-year-old self writing about how quickly elementary school had passed. Now, eight years later, the nest is emptying. We have been parenting for nearly twenty-four years, and the house will soon be inhabited by only two adults, two dogs, and two cats. School's out, and as Alice Cooper sang, my kids are moving on to new toys. We parents "got no choice" about it. The world keeps spinning.

It is hard to describe my emotions. I am not sad. This is the way things ought to be. Still, my comfort zone is shifting. What I have known for nineteen years - having school-aged kids - is no more.

Change is good, and yet how grateful I am for the knowledge of what does not change. God is still God. Autumn will follow the summer as surely as day follows night, as surely as the butterfly will emerge from the cocoon, as surely as our college kids will face new challenges and learn new things and meet new people. Gena and I will once again remember what it is to live with just each other, and it will be all right.

Time keeps on slippin' into the future. And that's ok.

Let's see what comes next.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Trinity and The Shack

When I was three years old (I am relying on my mother for this story… I don’t remember it), I apparently interrupted the family dinner conversation to ask my parents to explain the Trinity to me.

I don’t know what they said then, but like most Christians – if not most people in general – I have continued to wonder how best to explain the Trinity. The idea of “three in one” or “God in three persons” may speak truth, but there is a difference between understanding that a concept is true and having the first clue how to explain it. Historically, the Christian idea of the Trinity has led followers of Islam to label us as polytheists on the order of the Ancient Greeks.

In trying to explain how belief in the Trinity does not diminish our agreement that God is One, I am not a big fan of the sometimes-popular H2O analogy, that it can be ice or water or steam, because it is none of those things at the same time. It has to change form from one to the other, and it is dependent on temperature.

I resonate more with the idea that I am husband, son, and father. I am all those things simultaneously, so the metaphor is closer, but it is still far from ideal. After all, I am father to three people, and son to two, and husband to one, and my wife may at moments see me as father or watch me acting as son, but I always relate to her as husband. There is nobody to whom I speak one day as son and the next day as husband or father.

The fact is that we have no appropriate parallel for the Trinity. Indeed, the Bible does not use the word Trinity. That is a word we human beings have created to try to explain the way we experience the three persons of God.

There can be little doubt that the Bible teaches of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit. When we have seen the Son, we have seen the Father. The Son is the exact representation of the Father. The Spirit is God’s Spirit, the way that Christ is with us always.

I have written before about the recent book phenomenon The Shack. I am writing again because it is now a major Hollywood movie, and it takes a shot at portraying the Trinity. God the Father is described in the book as a "large, middle-aged, African American woman" who likes to be called “Papa.” God the Son is a Middle-Eastern man, and God the Spirit is a youngish Asian woman. They sometimes appear at the same time, gathered around a table sharing a meal or walking together telling stories. They sometimes appear separately, each interacting with the story’s protagonist, Mack, in different ways. When they are together, sometimes they answer a question in unison, and sometimes one responds and the others beam their approval. It gets complicated.

It gets more intricate. At one place in the story, Papa becomes an older Native American male for a time when Mack “is going to need a father.” At another time, the Spirit appears as Sophia, the personification of Wisdom as we may picture her out of the scriptural writings of Solomon.

There are many who have written despairingly of the book and the movie. Some of those people have actually read the book or seen the movie, and others have dismissed them out of hand, with no apparent need to read or watch.

I understand their criticisms. Some dislike the theology of the author, William Paul Young, based on other things he has written. I cannot speak to his other works, as I have not read them, but I disagree with most of the challenges I have read to the theology of The Shack.

Those who accuse it of teaching universalism are not reading it very carefully, for it most certainly does not do so. In the novel, after Jesus explains that heaven will include many kinds of people, Mack asks, “Does that mean that all roads will lead to you?” Jesus replies, “Not at all. Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.” That is not universalism.

Others criticize the book’s response to sin. In truth, what God says in the novel, and the movie, is that God “does not need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.” Maybe I am being too forgiving, but I do not read that statement as a denigration of two thousand years of theology of the ultimate consequences of sin or of the nature of God; I read it as a statement that sin almost always carries its own reward, which of course includes separation from God.

Some find the story’s answers to hard questions about suffering and loss to be simplistic, and perhaps some of its answers are. But the central message of the goodness of God and how we can deal with suffering are sound.

Still others criticize the story because they do not believe that we should represent God through human actors. I understand that as a view of the Second Commandment, but I think it is misplaced. There is no attempt in The Shack for us to worship these representations as though they were idols, limited attempts to capture God within graven images for our own use (the real target of the Second Commandment). Instead, these are images, poetry, attempts to explain what is – and has been for me since I was three years old – accessible to believe but impossible to explain with any level of exactness.

The Shack is fiction, and judging it against the truth of scripture as though it were holding itself up as equal truth or even as a scholarly essay on scripture is wrong. It is a novel, a movie. It is not to be quoted and studied the way we approach a gospel. It is a story. It is a way to try to explain that which is hard to explain.

Without defending every word Young writes or each answer he provides, I find the novel and the movie extremely worthwhile. Certainly, as a movie, "The Shack" is orders of magnitude better than the recent tide of “faith movies.” It is far more professionally done, with top-level actors and writing. It is not the same ilk as “Facing Your Giants” or “God is Not Dead.” It is a true Hollywood movie. More important, it is a powerful portrayal of the goodness of God that seeks relationship and joy for God’s children.

But I write now, having seen the movie and re-read the book, because I am intrigued by the way the Trinity is portrayed. It is worthy of commentary.

If the racial choices for the persons of Papa and the Spirit offend you, you won’t like the book or the movie, but you won’t find anything in scripture to defend your position. If the portrayal of God the Father by a woman is a bridge too far for you, I understand that, but I would ask you to expand your idea of the limitlessness of our heavenly Father. In The Shack, Papa is at times feminine and at times masculine, sometimes black and sometimes red or brown. Depicting a spirit – for God is indeed Spirit – with human actors requires a choice, and for me, the choices here work.

So, I recommend both the book and the movie. They are not earth-shattering, and if you do not already know God, I doubt they will bring you to Him, although they can teach you much about Him. But if you do know Him, they are a moving experience of how we can and do find forgiveness, reassurance, and fulfillment.

It may not answer your questions about the Trinity, but The Shack will give you a lot to think about.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Fences

"Fences" is a powerful movie. I recommend it strongly.

Having said that, let me say that I do not know that you will "enjoy" the movie. I am not sure that I "enjoyed" it. I appreciated the excellent acting. I am astounded by the clarity of the writing. I marveled at the direction of Denzel Washington, taking this stage play to the screen and, while never letting you forget you were watching a play, making it a "real movie."

But I did not "enjoy" it. It is too deep, too personal, too close to home.

As in most of my blog movie reviews, I expect there will be spoilers here. It is not my goal to give away the plot, but you can find most of that in other reviews on the internet. This movie is not really about surprises anyway.

"Fences" spoke to me.

It has a lot of characteristics that flavor the tone of the movie, but it is not really "about" any of those things.

The movie is not really about race. It is certainly set in and completely textured by the life of a group of African-Americans in Pittsburgh in the fifties and into the sixties. It features dialog and dialect and issues of importance to African-Americans - and to all of us - then and now. There is much talk of prejudice and equal opportunity and how the white man treats the black man. There are references to Jackie Robinson and a picture of Dr. King. But the movie is not about race so much as it is set in a time and place where race issues permeate the thoughts and conversation.

The movie is not really about family. It is certainly set within a family structure. Husband, wife, brother, children, mother, father, wayward child, achieving child... these types are all here. How we relate to those we love is a repetitive backdrop. But the movie is not about family so much as it uses family as a vehicle.

The movie is not really about religion. The symbol of the cross is omnipresent, whether on a wall or on a necklace or on the Steel City skyline. There is a well-placed picture of Jesus overlooking much of the activity. The church and the Last Judgment and the pearly gates are all up for discussion. But the movie is not about religion so much as it is set against an assumption of the role of religion in each of these characters' life.

The movie is not really about death. One character talks about death - and to Death - with some regularity. The specter of death hangs over the whole movie, and the interspersed discussion of St. Peter, waiting to open the gates for all of us, keeps death front and center. But the movie is not about death so much as it pays homage to the certainty of death for us all.

The movie is also not about baseball, that holiest of symbols. It uses the language of baseball constantly, and I suspect that if you do not speak that language - if the image of a hanging curveball over the inside corner or a full count against a good pitcher or why Hank Aaron is "just doing what he is paid to do" - then some of the most imaginative and meaningful of the dialog of the movie will be lost on you. If you cannot identify with the Negro Leaguer who was too old for the majors by the time of integration, then you will not understand some of the basic motivation of the movie. If a ball hanging on a rope from a limb with a bat leaning against the trunk do not make you long to take a swing, whether out of frustration or pure joy, then you will not get everything in the movie. But the movie is not about baseball so much as it speaks through baseball.

There are other things that permeate the movie that some reviewers will latch onto that are not really what the movie is about - money, music, rebellion, feminism, the need we all have to build. These are all crucial aspects of the movie, but they are not what it is about.

This movie is about a man who is lost. This movie is about a man, Troy, whom we want to like and in fact we do like, at least for a while, who is lost. Life for Troy started unfairly, and he may well have tried his best to overcome his circumstances, but somewhere along the way he began lying to himself, and to his family, and to God. Somewhere along the way - maybe always - he found ways to take and take and take while convincing himself he was giving and giving and giving. Troy takes advantage of his brother and his wife and the government. He is looking for a chance to take advantage of the boss - ostensibly to blaze a trail for others but really just to make his own life easier. He takes advantage of one son who is looking for an excuse ... any excuse ... to have a relationship with his father, and he takes advantage of another son who challenges what Troy might have become.

This movie is about a man who tries to take advantage of death. Troy sacrifices what is good and right. His explanation/excuse for his betrayal is that age and life and experience have, in his mind, taken away his ability to laugh. Like Vincent Gardenia's character Cosmo in the great "Moonstruck," who blames his longtime affair on his fear of dying, Troy is aging, and the Grim Reaper is ever closer, and he searches for a way to take advantage of death. But the way he does it is so outrageous, so hurtful, so completely self-centered that even his best friend has no alternative but to distance himself. What was once a constant companionship deteriorates into an almost-by-chance occasional meeting, colored by nothing but small talk and discomfort.

There will be much talk about the power in many of Rose's lines, and Viola Davis deserves every award she gets. To me, her most poignant line, the line that embodies the theme of this movie, is not one that most of the reviewers are fawning over. To me, her line that "sometimes he bruises when he touches" is the theme of the movie. This man is lost, and he does not think he knows the way home. Or to be clearer, he will not take the way home. He looks for it in gin and in humor and in the bedroom, but he never finds it. He knows the way - it is right in front of him on that ever-present necklace and over the sink and on the wall and in the simple faith of his brother and in the enduring faithfulness of his wife and in the determination of his son. But he will not accept the way home, and he is lost.

And along the way, he bruises those he touches.

He builds too many fences.

You should see this movie.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Breath of Heaven - A Christmas Prayer

"How will this be," Mary asked, "since I am a virgin?" The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God."

I have wandered many moonless nights, cold and lonely, with a babe inside.
And I wonder what I've done. Holy Father, you have come and chosen me now to carry your son.
I am waiting in a silent prayer. I am frightened by the load I bear. In a world as cold as stone, must I walk this path alone?
Be with me now.
Be with me now.
Breath of Heaven, hold me together, be forever near me, Breath of Heaven.
Breath of Heaven, lighten my darkness, pour over me your holiness for you are holy, Breath of Heaven.
Do you wonder, as you watch my face, if a wiser one one should have had my place?
But I offer all I am for the mercy of your plan.
Help me be strong.
Help me be.
Help me.
Breath of Heaven...


The English word spirit come from the Latin spiritus, which means "breath." In the New Testament, the Greek work pneuma means "breath" or "wind," but when it has the Greek word for "Holy" in front of it, it always refers to the Holy Spirit. So, when we speak to the Spirit, we are speaking to and about the breath of God, the Breath of Heaven.

I was a little surprised this December when I learned that the Chancel Choir at my church, where we usually sing very "proper" and "higher church" music, would be singing on Christmas Eve a piece written by Amy Grant. For those of you who are uninitiated, there has never been a bigger star on the contemporary Christian music front. Not Sandi Patty. Not Michael W. Smith. Not the Imperials. Not Chris Tomlin.

Many of you know that I am from Nashville. If you come close to guessing my age and then do the math, you know generally who was in my circle growing up. No, Amy Grant and I were not friends, but we had many mutual friends. She is a little older than I am. She went to my sister school, and while I am sure that she would not remember me, we were often in the same place at the same time. Look at this picture:
Yes, this is a picture, from my seventh grade annual, of a young, un-made-up Amy Grant, with hair parted down the middle, wearing clogs and leaning on a stool, strumming her guitar and singing in my school assembly program. I doubt she shows this picture to many of her fans these days. From looking at it, there is no real way to guess what Amy was to become. Oh, we all thought Amy was cool, but it is one thing to sing on a high school stage in front of friends; it is another to become who Amy Grant is today.

The song my choir sang tonight at the Christmas Eve service was "Breath of Heaven," which Amy subtitled "Mary's Song." I think there is a lesson here in Amy's picture.

I don't know how old Mary was. Some scholars posit that she was no more than thirteen. That does not seem right to me, as I read her words in Luke 1, but it does not really matter. She may have been the age of one of my children now, but however old she was, she was a backwater Nazarene maiden. If we had a picture of her from her seventh-grade yearbook, there would be no real way to guess what Mary was to become. She was obviously remarkable. And yet, it is one thing to wax poetic with the Magnificat when the glow of the angel's appearance is still fresh on your face; it is another thing to be nine months pregnant, traveling in first century conditions, unmarried, and unwelcome. It is not too much for the song to describe her as frightened, wondering, alone, prayerful.

But the piece we sang ... Amy's song ... Mary's prayer ... is not the prayer of the desperate. It is the prayer of the faithful. She may not know why she was chosen, but she knows that she was chosen. She may not know if a wiser one could have done the job, but she knows that she is doing the job. She may not know where her path will go, but she knows whom she wants on the path with her.

She wants the Holy Spirit. Not some indistinct, namby-pamby sense that the cosmos is somehow behind her. Not a passing interest from a far-off supreme being. No, she is walking with her God, who is present and real, the part of the trinity who is responsible for her pregnancy in the first place. She asks for the one traveling with her to breathe on her with holiness and power, to be the constant reminder of the presence of God. She asks for the Breath of Heaven.

Her prayer is our prayer. Lighten my darkness. Be with me now. Hold me together. Pour over me your holiness, for you are holy.

The prayer is all our prayer. It is not just at Christmas, but maybe it is especially at Christmas that we all feel pain, grief, abandonment, the seeming impossibility of what lies before us. We do not feel like the chosen of God. We feel no more special than a teenage girl in bad shoes and no makeup just doing our best to sing a song.

But still, we offer all we are.

Breath of Heaven, hold me together. Be forever near me.

Breath of Heaven, help me be strong.

Help me be.

Help me.

Breath of Heaven...

Merry Christmas