Politics in the Pulpit?

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Evidently, Oct. 5 was declared Pulpit Freedom Sunday in order to spur a civil protest.

The idea was to encourage pastors to take sides politically from the pulpit, which would violate current laws restricting religious nonprofits from electioneering. In addition, this paper published a letter to the editor encouraging pastors to preach politics from their pulpits.

Silly me, I missed the whole thing! That Sunday, I preached a regular old sermon from the Bible about how to make it through discouraging times. Boy, am I out of touch.

Anyway, I’m sad to announce I won’t be endorsing a candidate in the upcoming governor’s race. Yes, I can sense your disappointment. You’re wondering, “How in the world are we all supposed to decide without knowing what Dave thinks?”

And just to be clear, we’re supposed to choose between the bald guy from Naples versus the white-haired guy. Right?

Seriously, I do vote. I have informed political opinions, and I do resent tactics used by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union to intimidate pastors. I didn’t give up my right to free speech when I joined the ministry. I indeed have the right to express an opinion, and I do so regularly on issues of morality. I have preached on the human rights of the unborn and the tragedy of abortion. (FYI, my email address is at the end of this article. Feel free to send the hate mail now).

Also, I will remind my congregation of the devastating impact of poverty. But I believe things won’t improve until we begin individually helping to change lives, rather than just voting for generic “change.” I did a whole sermon series recently on volunteering and making a difference in the world. As a result, many of our folks are now attending foster parenting classes, helping a battered women’s shelter, and going overseas with Doctors Without Borders, among other things.

So it’s not that I’m afraid to speak out. I’m simply not that interested in preaching politics. While I’ve seen the Gospel of Christ change lives, most politics is little more than talk. I’m so tired of hearing promises and good intentions. I’d rather cut out the middle man and find some folks who are ready to help in ways God commanded us.

Another problem with political preaching is when pastors support a candidate, it sends the message that only people of that party are welcomed in that church. My calling is not only to Republicans or Democrats — my flock contains people across the spectrum. While there are times when I would like to express my own views, I would rather use that influence to lead someone to Christ than convert them politically.

I believe introducing you to Jesus will do a lot more for you than introducing you to Mr. Crist or Mr. Scott. They do not quite have the powers of a Supreme Being … despite what their TV ads may claim.

Frankly, it’s sad how many Christians believe political reform is the key to bringing “spiritual revival” to our country. Why would God bless such idolatry? In 2 Chronicles 7:14, God never said “If the government” will turn back to me, I’ll heal your land. He said, “If my people…”!

Funny thing about that Chronicles passage is God isn’t calling on all the non-believers to repent. He specifically calls out “His people.” That’s because we are the reason this nation is really in trouble. God called us to be the “salt and light” to a dark world, working as agents of His change. That’s what’s truly missing — not political talk from pulpits, but the spiritual actions of God’s people.

This is the sermon I wish more pastors would preach to their congregations — “Get out!” Get out of the church building and do something. Stop hiding behind these walls and meet the needs of hurting people. And quit thinking all God wants you to do is flip a lever on election day.

That sermon, the one believers preach with their lives, is the one desperately needed. So let’s start preaching!

In-Between

rockindexIt’s hard when you’re in-between. In-between jobs, in-between relationships – limbo.

You feel like you’re drifting purposelessly on an endless sea, going nowhere.

You’re not where you were, and that’s great. You prayed God would get you out of that situation, and He did. That trial is over, thank God!

But you’re also not where you’re going yet. New opportunities haven’t arrived. You’re idle, searching for the next thing. You feel awkward, as if there’s something you’re forgetting, something you should be doing…but you just can’t think of what.

The in-between is an important place. It is God’s palette cleanser to take the bitter taste of your last experience out of your mouth. It is a place of rest and refreshment. It’s a place where you’ll actually have extra time to spend seeking God, being rejuvenated in His presence.

God has a purpose in your in-between.

The problem is, we struggle with the in-between places. We want to hurry on to the next thing. We don’t want the soul-searching and self-examination God often allows here. We want the flurry of activity and to “get on with life”.

I think too many people use activity as a drug. They allow their job and perpetual hobbies to help them avoid any introspection. You never hear the conversation God trying to have with you because your life never stops talking long enough to pay attention.

Also, you start getting scared because Satan convinces you this land of limbo may be your permanent place of exile. All your motivational instincts kick in, telling you “Nothing changes until you move” and other mottos fit for the flat-white walls of cheap business offices. You simply must “do something”. If not, you are lazy or unmotivated, lacking initiative or ambition or a hundred other words feeding your fears.

You work at one job, while hoping for another. You live in one home, wishing for more space. You drive one broken-down car, wondering when you’ll ever have something dependable. You hope, you wish, you wonder…and you wait.  And you let worry and fear eat you from the inside out.

This past week I’ve been sick. Nothing major – just the same sinus infection I get about twice a year. But it usually takes my voice away, which makes it hard to preach or sing…which is like tying the hands of a painter.

I could have had a lovely week meditating on God, spending extra time with Him and listening for His voice. Instead, I’ve mostly just grumped around the house, making everyone else miserable. “Physician, heal thyself” indeed!

When the children of Israel wandered around the wilderness for forty years, God sent them manna. I absolutely love the fact that the word actually means, “What is it?” I appreciate God dropping a cute little pun in His Word just to make me sit up and take notice!

Manna was a bread-like substance which gathered on the ground each morning for the people to eat. But you couldn’t be responsible and store it up, because it would rot by the next day.  So you had to eat it and then trust God would send it again every single morning. I don’t know about you, but that would have driven me crazy.

Additionally, it might also have taught me to trust God for my needs.

You see, I like to be in control of providing for myself because I know I can count on me. No trust needed – I will always be sure to come through for myself!  It’s when God asks me to trust Him to provide that I start getting nervous. That takes things out of my control. It makes me like a child, dependent on the goodness of my Father.

Sometimes you just get tired of your temporary provision. The Israelites complained about the monotony of eating manna every day, wishing for the exotic repast of their former country. But returning to that land would have meant returning to slavery. And God’s destiny for them was much greater than that.

Destiny is always a package deal, usually accompanied by both risk and trust.

Photography by Glenn Christopher of Naples, FL

Photography by Glenn Christopher of Naples, FL

The good news is that your in-between place is only temporary. When it was time to step into the promised land, the manna stopped. That’s your cue God is about to do something!  So don’t be scared when you lose that “manna”, whether it is a job, money, or opportunities. It was never your destination – it was only a rest stop along your journey.

I’m quite blessed in that I had already planned a week of vacation next week. So hopefully by that point, I will have learned to stop cursing my “in-between” week of sickness and actually enjoy another “in-between” week away. Maybe I’ll relax and focus on the Father who planned this time away with me. I guess He knew I needed a week to ramp up to relaxation and to detox from my addiction to control.

OK, God. I’m listening. Speak to me. Refresh me and renew my mind. Thank you for leading me out of my captivity in my own personal “Egypt”. Don’t let me get scared when the manna stops, but recognize it signals a new destiny. 

And don’t let me be surprised when I see the waters parting once again.

Life Changes That Fast

Photography by Glenn Christopher of Naples, FL

Photography by Glenn Christopher of Naples, FL

A cool breeze blew in this weekend. A refreshing taste of fall – at least fall as we experience it here in SW Florida.

We sat outside on 5th Ave South (my favorite area of town) and enjoyed the early evening at the coffee shop where we hold our Sunday evening Bible Study. My wife and I talked with friends for a while after our study was over, then went to a restaurant where we could eat al fresco.  We simply couldn’t get enough of the refreshing evening air.

It reminded me of why people want to live here in Florida.

The past summer months were especially oppressive – calling it the “rainy season” was the understatement of a lifetime.  For months, we avoided the outdoors except for the few fleeting hours of sunshine we were afforded each week. Even old timers complained to me that it was the worst summer in years.

But what a sudden change in the air! How different everything seems, just over the course of one weekend.

Your life can change that quickly as well…

Nearby, three teenage young men passed away suddenly in a car accident, coming back from a Halloween party.  Lives so full of promise, ended so soon.  The story is one we hear all too often.  We look at the TV screen and shake our heads.  But that is how life really is: quick, uncertain, random, ephemeral.  It is only our illusions of security that keep us from seeing this as our own reality.

Winds of change are the stuff of which our lives are made.  Seasons come and go, though people may move to our area in hopes of avoiding them.  Yet life moves along, as one season of life gives way to another.

“To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven…” Ecclesiastes 3:1

We go through periods of trial, we beg God for help.  We endure, we grow, and then comes sweet release as the trial finally gives way.  We rest now, thankful that we are free.

Free for the moment, that is, until the next trial comes.

Age and the endurance of trials should bring maturity.  But as we’ve witnessed from a few of our seasonal visitors who have blown in on the recent winds, wisdom does not necessarily accompany age.  Just go play “bumper carts” with folks at Cosco on a Saturday in season – you will believe in a literal hell. People come here expecting the trial-free joys of endless summer, only to become grumpy when they realize their trials have followed them south.

As the wise man said, “The only problem with trying to run from your problems is, wherever you go, there you are”.

So my friend…

If you’re in the midst of a trial right now, take heart in the fact that just like that sudden change of seasons, your trial will soon suddenly be over.  You probably won’t see the denouement coming – the plot twists rarely give themselves away so obviously as on a neat and tidy one-hour TV drama.

Our greatest trial is life itself, which ends for most of us in years of diminished productivity and health.  Take heart that this trial too will soon end, giving way to a new and glorious day.

Yes, I really believe that.  God telegraphed the final plot twist all through the story He’s written – darkness gives way to the dawn, dead of winter to the new life of spring, seeds decaying in the ground springing forth into even greater life forms.

Your cool breeze is coming. Suddenly and unexpectedly.  So wait with courage in your heart. And by all means, be sure you’re ready for the day when this world gives way to the next…

Think you missed your big opportunity? Life has passed you by? So is God through with you?

Not a chance! It’s about time for your big ELEVEN O’CLOCK NUMBER

Why God Allowed Your Pain

prisonerThey said a patient wanted to see me at the jail, but the invitation came with a warning – “He’s HIV positive”.

I shrugged, said OK, and walked toward his room.  I laughed a little at myself: we “religious types” are never considered experts on science anyway, so why should I worry about something technical-sounding like “acquired immune deficiency syndrome”?

I stepped into the room and noticed the typical symptoms of this disease you’ve seen portrayed in countless TV programs – gaunt, boney face, frail physique, lesions covering much of the exposed area on his chest.

After a few introductory pleasantries, a nurse interrupted us.  She had to change the patient’s I.V., so I stepped back and watched patiently.  The tube was not coming out easily, although the patient (we’ll call him “Bill”) tried to help her.  A guard came in to assist and made a point to put on a double set of plastic gloves, “just in case”.  As he tugged on the tube to extract it from the needle in Bill’s arm, he awkwardly turned his face away as if trying to avoid any spray from a broken line.  All three of them continued to work patiently…quietly…and awkwardly.

Finally, we got back to our conversation.  “I was raised in church,” he mentioned a bit bluntly, as if making a point.  He wanted me to know he was not new to the whole “God thing”, so I should realize I wasn’t talking to an amateur.  Bill wanted me to know that just because he had contracted his disease in an alternative lifestyle, I was not speaking with a “pagan” as some pastors mine assume. 

This AIDS patient, dying slowly behind bars, was a church kid.

“I grew up in a church in ___________ (he named a familiar Bible-Belt city).”

I told him how I had grown up in church in a city just a few hours away from his. And then we discovered we both had musical training.  We talked about his childhood years, of a father who was hateful to him and a mother from whom he was now estranged.  Then we got down to the heart of the matter…

“We had a music minister in church who gave me private music lessons for years,” he said. “I never could tell my parents he was molesting me though – I felt like I had done something wrong.”

Then he offered up, “I maybe have another year or so to live.  And if there is a God, He doesn’t make any sense to me right now.”

Right after he said that, he gave me a hard look.  He was angry, and he wanted me to know it.  Now he was staring a hole through me, challenging me to respond.

NO GOOD ANSWERS

It’s the age-old question – “Why did God let me go through __________ ?” (fill in your own traumatizing, life-altering experience here). The answers never satisfy, at least not the one’s on this side of heaven.  Because without God’s perspective – without “eyes like God has” – we really can’t know why. 

Pastors like me often make stupid, clumsy stabs at an answer, many times causing more added damage than healing.  The truth is, only God knows.  Only He will ever have a good answer.  And most of His deepest answers will only come on the other side of this life, in the dawn of heaven’s perfect light.

We talked, he challenged, I answered as best I could.  I realized the two things in my favor were He had asked to see me (not the other way around) and he wanted a Bible. This meant despite his understandable bitterness, he really wanted to reconnect with the God of his childhood – the One he’d met before a predator stole that childhood from him.

I focused in on that fact and reminded him regardless his anger, he indeed had a Father who still loved him.  That Father desires a relationship with him today, despite the gap of years in their communication.  His eyes flashed when I said that, betraying the wounded place those words touched, and he looked away.

“Will you bring me a Bible?” he asked as he stared at the blank wall to my left.

“As soon as I leave here, I’ll go get one for you. And whenever you’re ready to talk some more, just tell the staff to call me.”

He thanked me and stuck out his hand to shake mine.  I saw one staff member’s eyes dart over to me, watching for my reaction.  I took his hand and shook it firmly.  As he started to pull it back, something told me to hold onto his hand.  Though the risk of being infected was very minimal, with his disease I supposed physical contact is rare.  So I wanted him to know just as I wasn’t letting go of his hand, God wasn’t letting go of him that easily either.

As I held on, I looked straight into his eyes and said, “Your Father loves you, Bill.  He wants you to know that, and He wants you to spend some time getting to know Him again”.  It may have been my imagination, but I think for a brief second I saw a little hope flash across his face.

“THIS IS MY BODY”

Last Sunday, I led my church family in observance of the Lord’s Supper – some Christians also call it “communion”.  We took the broken pieces of bread and remembered how Jesus allowed his body to be broken for us.  We took the cup and thought of how his blood was poured out so willingly.  And I read to them this verse where the Apostle Paul talks about his goals as a Christian…

“…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” – Phillipians 3:10

An old preacher once told me, “Before you can ever reach the Resurrection of Sunday morning, you’ve got to be willing to endure the torture of Friday’s cross”. The bread and the wine are reminders that if we want to be true Christians, we must follow the example of our Lord and “weep with those who weep”.

Jesus knew what it meant to suffer – He was called “a man of sorrows”, though we often just want Him to be “a man of answers”.  Jesus never promised He’d explain every “why” in this life.  But His suffering means when He looks in your eyes today and says “I know how you feel”, you can believe He is telling the truth.

Every hurt, every betrayal, every friend that walked away, and every casual cruelty this life can dish out – He was there first, and He’s with us in the midst of it now.  He took the punishment though He deserved none of it.  And He did it so that we would know our Father is right here with us, in the very midst of our suffering.

He watched my friend throughout all the dark years of his childhood, feeling every wound Himself.  He watched throughout the angry years that resulted, sharing that same righteous anger.  He watched in painful silence and waited…He was waiting for the day His child would once again reach out for the Father from whose arms he was stolen.

SECOND CHILDHOOD

I saw my friend again today, several days after our first meeting.  There is a peace in his eyes that wasn’t there before.  His anger has subsided for now, though I doubt any of his questions have been answered.  And though none of his physical problems are gone, he seemed like a man who had experienced healing.  Before he spoke a word, I could tell something had changed…

He’s back in his Father’s arms again.

When bad things happen, do you automatically think God is punishing you?

SUNDAY@LEGACY, I spoke about how God has taught me through trials, some quite recently. I think it’s a message that will give you insight and LOTS of encouragement! 

Overcoming Pain From Your Past

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Photography by Glenn Christopher of Naples, FL

I rarely “unfriend” anyone on Facebook, no matter how wacky they are. When part of your job description is to be kind, it’s pretty hard to sever ties so dramatically (though I’ve occasionally had to do it).

Similarly, I will accept a friend request from everyone just short of Charles Manson. The only ones I deny are those young, single girls from foreign countries who contact middle-aged men like me “just to be friends”. No dice. But for everyone else, it’s “all swim” in the Facebook pool.

I do admit to unfollowing quite a few people though. To “unfollow” means I will no longer be subjected to their goofy posts on my news feed, but they can still see my goofy posts. This way I don’t hurt their feelings, but am spared wondering what planet they’re from every time they write something.

Some I unfollowed because they constantly post angry, condescending political views. Unfortunately, there are some Christian friends I’ve banished to the limbo of Unfollow Land. Rarely offensive, their posts were just too trite.

Give too many easy answers about life’s hard questions, and now I’m embarrassed I’m in the same religion with you. And post about how “I’ll get my breakthrough today, if I just copy and paste this on my page”, and I’m crank-calling Mormon’s to come visit you tomorrow morning.

I did make a major “un” decision today, at least in the context of my personal life. I unsubscribed from an email – strangely, one I never subscribed to in the first place.

The email was the weekly update from a former job, one where my tenure had been particularly stressful. When I noticed them coming, my first impulse was to send them a snarky message asking why they thought I cared about anything to do with them.

Problem was, I did care.

I’d watch them each week to see how they were surviving without me. Funny how I wanted to think I was indispensable to a place I’m so glad to have left. I’d snicker when I saw them doing something I’d suggested, though the idea hadn’t been good enough when I brought it up.

I’d troll their Facebook page for hints of how much less productive they were since I left. Occasionally, I’d find proof of deterioration, and that made me feel good about myself…which in turn made me feel very, very bad about myself.

Today I was walking into a building that houses a new ministry I’m involved with – a ministry I could have never done at my former job. So when their weekly update popped on my iPhone, and I gingerly hit “reply” and typed, “Unsubscribe” in the subject line. Send. That was it. No commentary. No speech and no ill will.

It just didn’t matter any more.

I guess that’s how you know you’ve been healed – when the things that remind you of past pain now leave you nonplussed. For me, it was like a scab had finally fallen off on its own.

Or perhaps like the Apostle Paul, it was scales falling from my eyes after a traumatic revelation finally became clear. That revelation is I realized they can’t hurt me anymore. I see that God has blessed and affirmed me in spite of any weapon meant to harm me.

My new life is filled with purpose unlike anything I’d known before. God is using me to draw brand new people to the Cross, and I am having a blast! And as long as I’m obedient, I’m indestructible.

I used to go to work feeling beaten when I walked in the door. I thought my best years were behind me. Now I know I’ll be done when He says I’m done, not a day sooner. Until that day, He’ll continue to work through me as He desires. The approval of others is not discouraged, it’s simply not essential.

Has enough time passed that you realized those who tried to hurt you the most now matter the least? Sure, they attacked you with all they had, but have you noticed how puny their weapons appear now? So this is what you’ve been fighting against so desperately all this time?

What part of you is still waiting to be healed? Do you wonder if it will ever happen?

I can tell you it will. You won’t see it coming. One day you will see those who wounded you, but it won’t hurt because you’ve already unsubscribed from the pain. The wound will fall off like a scab, or scales.

Or, more appropriately, like chains.

Today, I noticed that my wounds are gone, and my chains have all fallen off. I didn’t see it happen, but none the less, here I am – healed and free.

Let God do His work, and one day you’ll be surprised like I was today. Suddenly, with no fanfare, you’ll realize you too are ready to unsubscribe.

A Hymn before home…

churchTonight I did something I hadn’t done in a long time. I found an old, old hymnal – one from back when I was just a child in church. I sat at the piano and started playing through some of the hymns of my youth. Most of them no one sings anymore, unless they’re surrounded by rocking chairs on a Bill Gaither Homecoming video.

As I sat and played, a wave swept over me that at first I chalked up to nostalgia. Then I began to realize it was something more. I was overcome by a melancholy longing. But not for the past so much, but like the past, a place that no longer exists on this earth. Longing for a home, but a home far away.

Sometimes I wish I could go back to a simpler time and place in my life. This world scares me quite a bit – so much of what happens makes no sense to me.  The hatefulness I see in people literally grieves me. I do my little part to help, but so often I feel like I’m bailing water on the Titanic…with a teaspoon.

There was a time I lived in security. It was a few years back, in the culture and region where I’d been raised. People generally took many of my values for granted. I was loved and appreciated where I served, and my contribution was rewarded with friendship and respect.

But it wasn’t enough. I wanted to be on the front lines of what God was doing, and where I was seemed too safe, too easy – in many ways, it was. I longed for a spiritual adventure, and my safe, secure home seemed backward. I could shine there, but only so much. There were strict limits on what I could do and how far I could go. Stay within those boundaries, you get rewarded.

“That’s right – good boy.”

I grew to resent the boundaries, and they began to resemble a prison cell. I’d like to say I left there because I could clearly see my destiny, but I’d be lying. I had no idea where I was going. I simply knew that there was more inside me, and it would never get out if I stayed put.

So I left.

Do I regret it? Absolutely…and absolutely not.

I know I’m doing what I’m supposed to now. My life is more productive and God is using me in a greater way than ever before. Talents and stress limits have expanded exponentially. But that’s not as encouraging as it sounds.

The problem is, I don’t feel half as confident and secure as I did in that happy home I once had. I still pine away for it, but not because I don’t like what I’m doing now. It’s because it just felt so good to be in a place where you knew you could easily exceed expectations. I was a winner, and it felt good. Now I’m stretched and unsure that I’ve got what it takes in my brave new world. There, people congratulated me for living up to their expectations. Now, I have to congratulate myself for reaching my own.

The upside is ever since that day, I have grown as a person, and my abilities have blossomed into things I never thought I could do. The flip side is I don’t know that I’ll ever feel “at home” again.

Frankly, I feel lost. Not lost from God – He knows where I am – it’s me who doesn’t!  It’s like wandering through a dark, misty wood, trying to find a path toward an unclear destination. I could just turn around and head back home, but I’m not sure I know the way back to where I came from either. And even if I could find it, God wouldn’t want me to take it.

Right now, I’m a pilgrim. I’m a missionary, far from a home I’ve never seen.

I think it was CS Lewis who talked about how proof of heaven is your soul longs for a place it’s never really been.  I don’t know if he’s right, but I think I finally understand now why so many old timers loved singing those hymns about heaven. From so many of those old songs, I’ve always heard how I shouldn’t feel at home on this earth. “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through…” The idea is that when I came to Christ, I became the citizen of a far away Kingdom. The time I have left on this earth is to be spent doing the work of my King, though I’m doing it in exile.

If all that’s true, then I it makes sense I feel lost and lonesome for home. And the hymns from hundreds of days spent sitting in the darkly-stained pews of my youth call to me now. Their forlorn cry is like the howl of a wolf roaming through a cold, misty night. I sit and sing them, wishing for a home I know I cannot have yet.

Maybe one day soon, I’ll find my way back home, pushing my way through that eastern sky. Don’t get me wrong, I won’t give up the good fight until God says it’s my time. But as soon as He does, I’m ready. I’m so ready to sing those songs again in a place of secure love.

If you look for me, you’ll find me there – second pew from the front. I’ll be sitting in my Father’s lap.

“By and by, when the morning comes…”