The Encouraging Community

August 15, 2017

I want to tell you the story of a parent and a child. The parent was a committed parent who loved his child. The child was a kind-hearted, good child. One morning said parent awoke at his normal time and made preparations for the day. This included awakening the child, reminding him of his morning duties, preparing his breakfast and a sack lunch for the day.

The child, who is a teenager, remained asleep after the first, second, and third exhortations to wake up. When the child finally did awake, his breakfast was uneaten and the parent, whose patience was wearing thin, lost his cool.

“What have you been doing?!?! Sit down and eat your breakfast! We have to leave in 10 minutes!”

The child’s response?
“It’s not my fault. You didn’t tell me to come to the table!”

Now, in this story, at whose feet would you place the blame/responsibility for this mishap? Well, I believe it falls at the feet of the parent (who, of course, is me). The parent is doing too much for the child. The child is not learning the responsibilities he needs to learn. Simply put, he is getting spoiled.

Now with this in mind, I want to ask you to imagine the community of the church and the responsibilities we should ask for and expect of its members. Should there be any? If so, what should we ask/expect of each other?

Transformation into Christlikeness is the aim and responsibility of the church. We believe that this does not happen in a vacuum. There are no “Lone Ranger” Christians. We are called to be in relationship with one another. Romans 12:5 says, “so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”

The church is to be the “encouraging community” to this end. It is a primary, essential function of the church. Perhaps THE essential function.

But beware! Forces are aligned to keep us from this development! James Bryan Smith believes that our consumer culture is one of them. The culture does not help foster this encouraging Christian community that calls one another to maturity and responsibility. He writes,

“We live in a consumer culture. Each day we are treated as a customer, and this leads us to believe we are entitled to have all of our needs met. We have become spoiled. The modern ethos of narcissism is pervasive in our culture and prevalent in our churches. The phenomenon of ‘church shopping’ reveals our comfort with the consumer narrative. It is also revealed when we are treated as something other than consumers.
Several years ago I was speaking with a group of pastors about this false narrative, and one of them had a story that illustrates this. ‘A years ago I felt called by God to encourage our people to read the Bible more,’ he said. ‘I challenged them, from the pulpit, to read the Bible for an hour a week. Not all at once, but perhaps for ten to twenty minutes on different occasions. After offering this challenge on several Sundays, a woman who had been in the church for several years came up to me and said, ‘Pastor, I want you to know that I am leaving the church.’ I asked why, and she said, ‘Because when I joined this church, reading the Bible was not in the contract.’” (Smith. The Good and Beautiful Community, p. 128)

It should be obvious that this is unacceptable. The encouraging community that we are called to be is filled with an eternal purpose—to become Christlike people who are constantly growing in our life with God and each other. The encouraging community that we are to be exists to shape and guide our souls. It will provide encouragement and accountability, and has the right to expect certain behaviors from each other.

This fall we will be moving into a new era in the life of our church congregation. We will be incorporating small groups into the life of our congregation. These will meet weekly. Each member is expected to join a small group. The purpose of these groups will be encouragement, accountability, prayer, spiritual gift identification and engagement, fellowship and fun.

Let’s fulfill our purpose, church, and become mature, responsible, holy Christians.

The Essentials

July 19, 2017

This morning my wife was describing “essential oils” to me. Many bath and body products now use “essential oils”. They are the oils distilled or pressed from plants that serve in medicines, lotions, incense, etc. They are highly concentrated, fragrant, and potent in what they do. Hence “essential”.

Tracey then showed me some essential oils and I saw that they come in tiny bottles and vials. It literally only takes a drop of something like Eucalyptus oil to fill the room with its fragrance.

I also learned that many products have to use other carrier oils along with the essential oils to serve as filler. They are the non-essential oils. It’s the fluff that combines with the essential oils so the product can be put in a more substantial bottle or tube.

And that got me thinking about church.

How much of the western version of church is not essential? Lots! It’s almost like McDonald’s packaging. How much money do they spend on packaging the value meal? It’s got to be a ton, right?!?!

We need to make it our business to be about the essentials, such as love, obedience, service, faithfulness, holiness, and the Word of God.

Leave the fog machines and disco balls to others with the bigger, more colorful packaging.

We’ll stick to the essentials.

Luke 7:47 “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love”

The most difficult time of my life was also the most stretching/maturing/developing time of my life. It was when I was part of an unhealthy, independent church in L.A. called True Worship Christian Fellowship.

The church was so named because they (I should say “we” because I was part of it) believed they were true worshippers whereas others were not. Talk about pride and presumption!

But do you know that now there are over 30,000 Protestant denominations in the world? In America, especially, we are masters of breaking free of yokes (oppressive or otherwise) and making our own way. It’s in the fabric of our history and founding.

So, when we find fault or find ourselves in disagreements with others, we choose isolation, judgment, suspicion, and condemnation of those we disagree with. It is so much easier than talking it through, listening well, and extending grace. This tendency of ours is seen in churches, politics, and race relations. It is why Sunday mornings are still the most segregated hours of the week.

So as my soul languished in many ways at this church, a few important things developed anyhow. One was an understanding of what NOT to do as a pastor and church leader. The other was to grow, often painfully, in my knowledge and understanding of African-American culture. It paved the way to meet and marry Tracey Bucker in 17 years ago.

Much good can come of increasing our understanding of other races and cultures. For example, when was the last time you read a book by an author of the opposing political party? And tried to listen to the message without throwing the book down in disgust at the very sentence you disagreed with?

These are very helpful practices, but one practice helps more than any other…the practice of forgiveness.

When we understand the depth of our own forgiveness, we can love like the woman with the alabaster jar—Mary Magdalene—who “loved much because she was forgiven much”. It changes everything! I don’t need to fear other races or political parties or the future or _____ because “perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18).

This is not a small task. It’s a huge one. But one possible to achieve in many ways. And we are especially poised to realize this at Light and Life Isla Vista because we are cognizant of our sin and need. Remember that song, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”, by the Temptations? It’s much preferable to be a Mary Magdalene than a Pharisee. Can I get an Amen?

Our human nature dictates that if people look or act or believe differently than we do, we get uncomfortable and fearful because we can’t control them or their behavior or the outcomes. So how do we overcome this? Stanley Hauerwas (a professor at Duke) says, “This love that is characteristic of God’s kingdom is possible only for a forgiven people—a people who have learned not to fear one another…Only when my self—my character—has been formed by God’s love, do I know I have no reason to fear the other.”

None of our doctrines and definitions are flawlessly perfect. We see through a glass dimly. But if your heart declares Jesus is Lord, then we can walk together in fellowship! And the world needs to see that in us, now more than ever.

The Witness of the Whale

April 20, 2017

The “Resurrection Celebration” on Easter Sunday at Light and Life church has always been special, but this year was exceptional.

After worship, a message on “Baseball, Egypt, and Holding Firm”, and three wonderful baptisms, a church member (John Perry) whispered in Pastor Dave’s ear, “I think you should cast the net out there and see if there are others who want to be baptized today.”  Pastor Dave casted the net but caught nothing.  John, channeling his inner Jesus, said “cast it again.”  This time, five people came forward and asked to be baptized.  Just as they came forward, a huge whale breached behind us and drew forth gasps, ooh’s, and aah’s.  Many present had never seen a whale breach off the SB coast before.

For those who hadn’t discerned it earlier, it became clear to all that God was truly present among us.

Four of the five people were unknown to all of us prior to the day’s start.  Two families had come to Refugio Beach for a weekend of RV camping and were having a leisurely breakfast when one said, “Are those guitars?  I think they are about to have a church service.  Let’s go check it out.”  Apparently God touched this family during the course of worship.  One of the mothers had always wanted to have her children baptized, but her husband had disallowed it for 18 years.  Now he was “no longer in the picture” (Pastor Dave didn’t press her as to what that meant).  The children agreed that they wanted to be baptized.  Then the woman’s sister who she was camping with asked her own two daughters if they would like to be baptized and they said yes also.  (It was wonderful to see that two of these children were older teenagers)

For the Resurrection Celebration, over 100 people joined us at the beach for worship, a huge feast, basketball, surfing, and fellowship.  It was truly a gathering of Biblical proportions.
He is Risen.  He is Risen Indeed!

I don’t know much about Napoleon and I never have. He is a towering figure in history who needs no reference to his last name, but I don’t know much about the guy other than the fact that he was a short, successful general and a bit of a showoff. That’s it.

So I picked up a book about him.

Among other things I learned that Napoleon’s first ambition was to become a writer. Here is a quote from a teenage Napoleon on ambition… “Ambition, like all disordered passions, is a violent and unthinking delirium…Like a fire fed by a pitiless wind, it only burns out after having consumed everything in its path.”

How’s that for irony?

His story has me thinking a lot about ambition and the Word of God, and the right balance of ambition for a Christian.

In the New Testament there is really no clear word that translates for our English word, ambition. The Greek word, “zeloo” and “orego” are used to express the ideas of “desire” or “covet after”. “Dioko” can mean “to follow after”, but it is used mostly in the negative sense of “to persecute”.

In 1 Corinthians 14:1 we read, “Pursue love (dioko) and strive (zeloo) for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy.” In other words, we should zealously strive for love and desire spiritual gifts for the encouragement and uplifting of others (not ourselves).

One of the few occasions where the word “ambition” is used in any translation of the New Testament is in 1 Thessalonians 4:11— “make it your ambition to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you”. But there is no Greek basis for the word “ambition”. It is the translator taking a measure of rhetorical license.

Our modern-day sense of ladder-climbing-ambition as a good thing (the only thing?) for achieving successful is non-existent in the New Testament. It seems as if Napoleon had it correct when he was a teenager.

Do you? Do I?

Sometimes, yes. Other times? No.

Let’s give the Apostle Paul the last word, so that we will set our ambitions on the things of God and not the things of this world…

1 Timothy 4:6 If you put these instructions before the brothers and sisters, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound teaching that you have followed. 7 Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives’ tales. Train yourself in godliness, 8 for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. 9 The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance. 10 For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.
11 These are the things you must insist on and teach. 12 Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 13 Until I arrive, give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching. 14 Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders. 15 Put these things into practice, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. 16 Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers.

1 Timothy 2:1-4 reads, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. 3 This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Wherever we traveled during our historic tour of the nation’s capital, we were confronted with the need for successful prayers, and the positive outcomes that often came about. Whether it was the miraculous success of George Washington crossing the Delaware or the continued struggle of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the fight for civil rights, we need to PRAY!

My highlight of our trip to Washington DC was captured in the picture posted here (at the left). That picture is yours truly, sitting in the House of Representatives, praying for our country’s leaders. We had the unusual opportunity to have a “behind the scenes” tour of the Capital with a six-term congressman from Ohio. We were able to sit in both the Senate and House of Representatives. We were all alone (it was a Saturday) and were able to pray boldly for our country and our elected leaders.

Psalm 45:4 says, “In your majesty ride forth victoriously
in the cause of truth, humility and justice;
let your right hand achieve awesome deeds.”

This is the essential stuff of our prayers for our country and our leaders…that God would be victorious for the cause of truth, humility, justice, and awesome deeds!

The Prime Directive

February 21, 2017

On a recent prayer retreat (Thanks, Tracey!), I made some important connections regarding priorities in ministry. When I came down from my mountain top I undoubtedly had a different perspective, which is the whole idea of a prayer retreat.

And I came back down with a load of zeal for ministry. My head was spinning (and still is) with ideas for jail ministry, retirement home ministry, food distribution, small groups, and a ministry to the severely disabled. I also want to inject new people into our existing ministries. These are all good things.

Moreover, these ideas came from good motives, which has not always been the case with me. Often I have focused on a ministry because I thought we might attract new members or get some kind of good press for it. The motives were NOT to love people. Sure, it probably factored in there somewhere down the line, but it was not the PRIME DIRECTIVE.

Dr. Joseph Dongell, Professor of Biblical theology at Asbury Seminary says it is one thing…there is one answer and there is one target…Only Holy Love.

John Wesley wrote, “Of a thousand mistakes is this: not considering deeply enough that love is the highest gift of God; humble, gentle patient love; that all visions, revelations, or manifestations whatever, are little things compared to love; and that all (other) gifts…are either the same with or infinitely inferior to it. You should be thoroughly aware of this—the heaven of heavens is love. There is nothing higher in religion; there is, in effect, nothing else; if you look for anything but more love, you are looking wide of the mark, you are getting out of the royal way.”

I desperately want us to get on the Good Works train burning down the tracks at one hundred mph, but God stopped me in my “tracks” to remind me how important motives are. I believe God has prepared amazing good works for us to walk in, but we have to be careful how we go about it.

Dr. Dongell writes, “A nurse, for example, can provide life-saving treatment to patients without having or desiring any particular relationship with them. One may be a Christian, and may be functioning effectively in ministry, and may even act so benevolently as to give away all of one’s possession for others, and still not have love, that is, not be a person fundamentally characterized by love. In other words, I may exhaust myself in compassion ministries, and yet at the same time be hyper-competitive, or consumed with self-image, or abrasive, or unforgiving, or impure. This is why a focus on action, a focus simply on motivating people to become active doers may be a far shallower project that we imagine, and may be largely accomplishable in the power of the flesh.”

Ephesians 3:14-19 says it best…
“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

It was love for God that filled my heart on that prayer retreat, and it was love that birthed the ideas for ministry of every sort. I can’t forget that. And neither should you. The first thing, the PRIME DIRECTIVE, of the Christian life is to know and be filled with the Love of God.

Dr. Dongell gets the last word…
“For to be filled with love from God is to be energized by the same passion that has been energizing God’s whole redemptive mission. Remember, it was because God so loved the world that he willingly sacrificed his own Son. Love is that unstoppable energy powering every heroic undertaking.”img_0020img_0025img_0013img_0017

Proverbs 26:12
Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for them.

One of the hallmarks of wisdom is the way its possession is hidden from its bearer. Said another way: You don’t know it when you have it. If you think you are a wise person, the chances are you aren’t. It takes us back to one of our earlier core convictions about humility being the beginning of wisdom and pride being its antithesis.

So does this mean that one of the marks of a wise person is they think they aren’t wise? No. Humility is not thinking less of yourself. Humility is thinking less about oneself.

A person convinced of their own wisdom is not only not wise, but worse off than a fool.

So on the one hand, we are exhorted to seek after wisdom with all we’ve got, yet on the other we are never to consider that we have attained it. That’s an interesting way to live.

One of the properties of true wisdom is it is not conscious of itself. It makes sense then that the one who possesses it is not conscious of possessing it. What if, in fact, we don’t “possess” wisdom? What if wisdom possesses us? Maybe that’s the big deception– that we can somehow “possess” wisdom. All of this would seem to suggest the quest is not to be a wise person but to belong to the Person of Wisdom: Jesus.

Jesus is the Wisdom of God. To the extent that I belong to Jesus, I am possessed by Wisdom.

Abba Father, thank you for sending and showing us wisdom in the face of a person, your Son, Jesus Christ. Teach us to seek wisdom not that we may “possess” it but that we might be “possessed” by the person of your Spirit. Shape our mind by the mind of Christ. It is in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Why a Manger?

December 21, 2016

Have you ever been denied? Been given the proverbial hand? Rejected? Get that stuff outta here!?

Minor rejections happen all the time. They happened to me on the basketball and volleyball courts more times than I can count. I was blocked hard!

They happened to me a few times when I tried to get into parties in my college days. I was not on the guest list. In my Hollywood summer of 1991, I couldn’t get into certain clubs because I was a nobody. No celebrity status here.

Of course, in the larger scheme of things those are no big deal.

But imagine (or remember) being rejected because of your race or your class status. You don’t have the right color of skin, therefore, you are not welcome. Or you are too poor. You live on the streets or in your car, and we want nothing to do with you. Those rejections cut much deeper.

It was that type of rejection that Jesus experienced. His parents were nobodies to those in Bethlehem and they were rejected at the Inn. Their lack of finances kept a certain level of accommodations out of reach.

Luke 2:7 And she (Mary) gave birth to her firstborn son (Jesus) and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

She laid him in a manger.

A manger was a feed trough, usually hewn out of stone. It was built for animals. It was something typically kept on the lowest floor of a home, where the animals were given shelter and fed.

The fact that Jesus was laid in a manger opened up access for a whole new group of people. People who would have otherwise never been granted access. People who were used to rejection and closed doors. The poorest of the poor. The ones with the smallest of means.

The shepherd class. The ones familiar with mangers. And Jesus meets them on their turf.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

Three times the fact of the manger is repeated. Luke, the Gospel writer, doesn’t want us to miss this. It is a manger and it is to be “a sign”.

It is a sign of the Lord’s humility.

If Jesus, the King of all Kings, was born in a palace where other princes are born, do you think shepherds would have been able to see to Him? Of course not! They would have been barred at the gate by soldiers with weapons.

Perhaps the most amazing, mind-blowing attribute of Christ is reflected in the account of the manger. It is that Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God and Creator of the Universe, is humble. He lowers himself to accommodate us. While there was no room at the Inn for him, He makes sure there is room at his manger-crib for us. All of us.

This humility and love for the least of us isn’t the least of reasons why we worship Him. It might be the first.

The Impact of a Gift

December 5, 2016

For several years our church has received freshly brewed coffee for our pre-service fellowship from Joe and his staff at our local coffee house. The amount of coffee we receive each week retails for $75-$80 and we have not been charged a dime. It’s a wonderfully generous gift that is much appreciated.

Joe does this because he loves our church. He appreciates the ministry to the low-income in Isla Vista. And while Joe and his family attend another church, he feels apart of our church work, and he is!

This last week one of our members had the good idea to thank Joe with a card and a donation we collected during service. Yesterday, we asked Susan, a soon-to-be member of our church and Isla Vista resident to present the gift to Mike. When she did, Joe became quite emotional. It turns out the gift was very timely. Joe’s faith was strengthened in a profound way by the gesture.

For Susan, who is on a fixed income, it was a special event as well. Hers was the front-row seat to the work of God. Just last week, during a difficult stretch (business-wise), Joe’s water heater went out and the financial hit was at a very bad time.

Enter God.

With enough money to cover the new expense, tears were a’flowing. Don’t you just love it when God is at work behind the scenes and we get a peek behind the curtain?