We love our boxes.

Boxes keep people isolated and crumpled up.  And religious people can be experts at building boxes with labels to put people in.

A young woman wears something deemed inappropriate and a so-called “Christian” slaps a box on her labeled “tramp” or “whore” or “slut”, and then goes on their way.

You see, if I can place another person who is different from me in a box labeled “liberal” or “conservative” or “weird” or “snob”, etc. then I am off the hook.  I don’t have to do the hard and uncomfortable work of building an actual relationship.  Or, dare I say, loving that person!

But Jesus Christ is in the business of cutting boxes and breaking neck irons (I will explain that one below), and loving people for exactly who they are.

Three exchanges take place in Luke 5 and 6 that back this up.  First, the Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples don’t fast (abstain from food for religious purposes).  Jesus explained that they didn’t fast because they were with the Bridegroom himself.  No asceticism was called for.  Celebration was more appropriate.  Later they would fast, Jesus told them, but now was not that time.

But wait!  The Pharisees didn’t understand that.  It was outside of their religious box.

A little while later, Jesus and his disciples were walking through a field on a Sabbath and they picked grain and ate it.  The Pharisees considered that a violation of the law.  Now technically it was not because they were poor travelers, and the law made that food available to them.  But for a recognized Rabbi, the action was outside of the religious box.

The third examples happens again on a Sabbath, but this time in a synagogue.  A man was there with a withered hand.  He could not open it and stretch it out.  The Pharisees (expert box-makers that they were) actually preferred Jesus not heal him rather than do a “work” on the Sabbath day.  Jesus told him to stand up in front of them all and “STRETCH OUT YOUR HAND”.

You and I are supposed to stand tall and strong and enjoy the freedom and liberty of a lively faith that Jesus paid a dear price for us to enjoy.  We should not be cramped and crumpled inside a box of our own or anyone else’s making.

When John Newton (the author of Amazing Grace) was a slave-ship captain, God was beginning to move on his heart.  On his last journey he saw that the slaves he was transporting were actually mothers and brothers and fathers and children.  They were people and they deserved dignity.  He felt an urge to unshackle them all but knew his crew would mutiny if he did.  He recognized one thing he could do, however.

Remove the neck irons.

One of the most undignified and cruel devices used on slaves was the neck iron.  It would prevent people from lifting their heads.  They had to walk and moved in a hunched over position.  John Newton ordered the neck irons removed.

Apparently, the Holy Spirit was stimulating Jesus-type action through John Newton.

Will you continue that work?

Start with yourself.  Lift up your hands, your heads, your life itself!  Stretch out to your full height!  You are free!  You have liberty.  Jesus has cut that box and removed those neck irons.

Now look around and see if anyone else needs a box cut open or a neck iron removed.

That’s what Jesus does.  Hallelujah!

Comedians like to start with the same line over and over again and put different spins on the punch line.  For instance, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” or “Knock-Knock” or “a guy walks into a bar…”.  We have learned from experience what will come, knowing that it has to be a lot funnier than “to get to the other side”.  Each new joke-teller has to at least do better than that.

It turns out that preachers and pastors have their own set of opening lines they use when getting together with one another.  Some of the favorites are, “So, how big is your church?”  “When did you become a Christian?” and “Where did you go to seminary?”  To that list I want to add another.  “I was sitting next to this guy on the airplane…”  What follows is typically an amazing, astonishing, and tear-inducing tale of how (with just the right blend of courage, wit, Scripture quoting, and Holy-Spirit anointing) the preacher was able to engage that fellow passenger in conversation, save his soul with a powerful presentation of the Gospel, and seal his eternal destiny.

Other preachers hear these tales and testimonies and feel simultaneously guilty over their uneventful recent plane flight and awestruck at the courage and skill of these preachers.

“Knock-Knock”

“Who’s there?”

“The best preacher in the room!!!”

But I am finding more and more than my best gift as a preacher might not be my speech at all.  It might just be a set of listening ears.

Here’s my plain plane story.

A fellow sits down next to me with earrings and tattoos and spiky hair and we make small talk and then find something to laugh at in the captain’s intercom address to the passengers.  Our captain wouldn’t stop talking!  It was as if he was going to give us a comprehensive description of the entire mechanical system of our 737 jet.  We learned more about wind tunnels and the air conditioning unit and the time spent by each crew of mechanics and, while it may have been kind of interesting in its own way, the captain was talking SO LOUDLY into his mic that we were kind of going crazy.

Anyway, my new friend was, not surprisingly, an artist.  He was in charge of setting up the Mini Cooper showrooms all across the country.  He had both mechanical skill and artistic acumen and was able to exercise them both in his job…which he loved.  After sharing some photos of our kids from our phones, another LOUD announcement came across the intercom that we would be having turbulence due to a storm, but we would miss the bulk of it and have a smooth landing.  The captain made a comment about how he was praying that storm would clear out and it did (Thanks, Captain, you just gave me an opportunity!)

You see, up to this point, I had not shared my name or my vocation, but then saw an opportunity to say, “Well, I am a pastor and talk to God for a living, but my prayers regarding the weather don’t typically seem to make much of a difference.” (Easter Sunday, 2013, at Refugio Beach the one clear exception!!)

A few minutes later as we were descending into Charlotte, NC, I was able to encourage my new friend about God.  It turns out his wife’s two sisters were committed Christians, although he and his wife did not go to church.  He went as a kid, but hadn’t as an adult because he felt that Christian people were too pushy.

“I get that.  I have been part of churches that did that kind of thing, and I know it can be a turn-off.  But most of those people’s intention is good, despite imperfect execution.  But, most important of all, Jesus is always good.  He is graceful and kind and instructs us in the best ways to live life.  And you know how we are about to land and those people on the runway will be there with their glowing sticks waving our plane into the terminal?  Well, maybe God just put me here to wave a glow-stick toward Jesus.  He changed my life.”

“Cool, man. Cool. It was good to meet you.”

People’s Park Pizza

July 24, 2013

My stomach was turning in knots as I approached, knowing the disappointment that my words would cause.  Jerry has been coming to our church for the last year and has been a model of faithfulness and hard work.  Whenever there is a spill that needs cleaning, chairs needing to be moved, or a garden project to be done, Jerry is the most willing and able of us all.

On this morning I had to break the news to Jerry that he couldn’t come with us to family camp.  It was a decision that was painful to make.  You see, Jerry is alcoholic and homeless and is given to fits of rage with a nasty habit of stealing things.  His behavior around the opposite sex is also questionable.  Family camp is not the place for Jerry at this time in his life.

But I didn’t want to tell him this.  I desperately want Jerry and all the other homeless to know that they are dearly loved and are a part of the family of God.  They are also important members of our faith community.  How was I to tell him that he was loved but yet not allowed to be with us for a fun weekend at the lake?

After consulting several friends and asking for lots of prayer, I went searching for Jerry on the morning we were supposed to leave.  I saw Ralphie-Boy and asked if he had seen Jerry.  “Yes.  He’s waiting for you.  He’s been talking about camp all week.”

My only thought? “Great. Just great.”  I walked over to the park where Jerry was supposed to be at but there was no sign of Jerry.  I walked back to Ralphie-Boy and the others.

“Hey Pastor Dave.  If you aren’t going to be here this weekend, then are we having tacos?” asked Mike.

“No.  We will all be gone.  There won’t be any tacos this Sunday.”

The disappointment was palpable.

“Hey Pastor Dave.  I have an idea”, said Ralphie-Boy.  “What if I buy some pizzas and we have People’s Park Pizza on Sunday?”

“That’s a great idea!” I said.

“Would it be alright if I said a prayer?  I really like it when we pray” asked Ralphie-Boy.

“Of course!” I exclaimed.  I pressed a few bucks into his hand, walked away and a smile came across my face.  It held there for about 3 seconds, until I saw Jerry walking directly toward me.  I steeled my will and determination and came to meet him, but he beat me to the punch.

“Hey Pastor Dave, I have been doing some thinking.  I am not going to go camping at the lake.  I know how hot it gets up there and I get really cranky when it’s hot.  I won’t be any fun at all.”

“Well, Jerry, that’s probably the right call.”

“So are we going to have tacos on Sunday if you all are camping?”

“No, but Ralphie-Boy is organizing People’s Park Pizza for Sunday.  Do you think you could help him out?”

“That’s a great idea.  Do you think I could read a Scripture?  Could you help pick out a Scripture for me to read when we begin?”

I said once again, “Of course!”

As I walked away, the smile came back to my face even bigger and wider than it had been before.  A prayer was said, the 23rd Psalm was read, and the community meal in Isla Vista took place once again under the banner of Jesus Christ.

Timothy Tennent titled his latest blog entry, “Missional Leaders for the Church” and it was a great source of encouragement to me simply seeing the title before reading any of the blog! Why? Because I believe that is the word of the Lord for Light and Life Goleta as I believe the Spirit of God has been speaking this over our church for the past few years.

Here’s a little excerpt from Dr. Tennant…
“Demographics don’t lie, you just have to be willing to listen to them. For example, if China has 90 million believers, but the vast majority of those believers are under 30 years old and the United States has 90 million evangelicals and the majority of those are over 50, then there is a demographic story that is not “heard” when one is looking at the raw statistics of Christian affiliation.”

That means that the spiritual landscape of the United States is changing by getting older. Many, many churches in this country are filled (its a stretch to say “filled”) with folks who are older and gray. We need to do something to engage and be relevant to the younger people in the US. We need a MISSIONAL approach to our own country!

“The USA is one of the fastest emerging mission fields in the world, but Christians probably won’t “feel” it for another 20 years. The younger the Anglo demographic in the USA the more likely one will question the knowability of truth. This means a likely rejection of anything that might be described as divine, objective revelation. The loss of confidence in human reason is almost palatable. The language of “I think” has moved to the language of “I feel” which is quickly moving to the language of“whatever.” The younger the Anglo demographic in the USA, the more likely you are to discover a distrust of authority, institutions and, indeed, of all hierarchies. This includes a deep distrust in government, in churches and in church structures, including clergy. It also includes a rejection of any kind of metaphysical hierarchy which posits God as the sovereign Lord over His created order.”

I see this and I imagine you do too. But I don’t think it is hopeless at all. As I have said to many people recently, the single reason that we are seeing fruit and growth in our Isla Vista ministry is because we have been CONSISTENT. Many of the homeless folks out there thought we would be there for one month or so, take a few pictures, and be done. They have seen many well-meaning people come and go to do their “good deed”. We haven’t been like that. We have been there week in and week out and the people respect us for that. In fact, it has EARNED us a “hearing” with them. This is the same thing we will see with the younger people around us. They may also be skeptical of our mission and message, but if they see the love and the consistency, we will get a hearing.

So, let’s adopt a “missional mindset” to engage these younger people with the love and message of Jesus!

Dreams Infused with Wisdom

August 23, 2012

Like all people, I dream a lot. And like all people, my dreams are a mix of self-serving ones and those with a redeeming quality or design that would clearly benefit others. I have been doing a lot of soul searching regarding dreams for LLG and myself. In many cases, they coincide and collaborate for good ends. Other times, my dreams are revealed as fearful or selfish and they don’t have any eternal value. I believe we can still call them dreams, but they aren’t “divine” by any stretch.
So how should I go about discerning the difference between the good and bad ones when it isn’t immediately obvious what category they fall into? The book of Ecclesiastes has been a great help. Ecclesiastes is a book of wisdom from a King who realized the result of his achieved dreams. This is one of the unique qualities of the book. And it is something that most of us never get to (so it is good that we can at least read about it). For we dream a myriad of different things all the time, but most never become reality. Yet for the author of Ecclesiastes, they did!
The book of Ecclesiastes is particularly helpful because it is a reality check. It asks, “Are you thinking that money, fame, power, possessions, status, etc. will bring you happiness?!?!?! Because you are flat wrong! Don’t go there! It will end in frustration and will squeeze the life of God out of you.” (That’s the Dave Goss paraphrase)
Here’s a summary of the wisdom gained and taught in the book of Ecclesiastes from the NIV Study Bible…
1. Accept the human state as it is shaped by God’s appointments and enjoy the life you have been given as fully as you can.
2. Don’t trouble yourself with unrealistic goals–know the measure of human capabilities.
3. Be prudent in all your ways–follow wisdom’s leading.
4. “Fear God and keep his commandments” (12:13), beginning already in your youth before the fleeting days of your life’s enjoyments are gone and the “days of trouble” (12:1) come when the infirmities of advanced age vex you and hinder you from tasting, seeing and feeling the good things of life.
To sum up, Ecclesiastes provides instruction on how to live meaningfully, purposefully and joyfully within the theocratic arrangement–primarily by placing God at the center of one’s life, work and activities, by contentedly accepting one’s divinely appointed lot in life, and by reverently trusting in and obeying the Creator-King.
Grab a hold of God’s wisdom and pursue God’s divine dreams for your life. Only then will you find the peace, contentment, joy, and happiness you seek.