Most of you can think of days that have changed your life forever. A graduation, your first car, that big promotion to suggest a few. Some days are related to family events such as a wedding or the birth of a child. We mark and recall those days because in their own way they changed the trajectory of life and helped us re-imagine life in a way we had never imagined before.

I think about the events recorded in the gospels about that first Easter. I appreciate the vulnerability and authenticity of how the characters are portrayed. As we follow them through the thickened plot we come to see how Easter truly does change everything.

Think about the thief on the cross beside Jesus. He was guilty of a crime and hung there as a result of his behavior. But in a moment of vulnerability he opened his heart to Jesus and asked to be remembered. Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” His guilt was transformed to forgiveness. Easter changes everything.

What about the women surrounding the story. While the men had gone into hiding on Good Friday, the women remained, dutifully attending to the needs of Jesus. On the first day of the week they were the first to arrive at the tomb hoping to finalize the burial preparations that remained undone due to the setting sun on Friday. When they encountered Christ their duty turned to devotion as they worshiped. Yes, Easter changes everything.

Mary Magdalene is one of the characters called out by name. There at the garden tomb, with eyes blurred by tears, she mistook Jesus for a gardener and asked where the body of Jesus had been taken. All it took was for Jesus to call her name, “Mary,” and her sorrow evaporated into joy. Easter changes everything.

The disciples had abandoned Jesus by and large during the his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. We later find them together in a room behind locked doors, bound by fear. When Jesus appeared to them his first word to them was, “Peace.” Their fear became peace in the presence of Jesus, because Easter changes everything.

Thomas was not in the room with those disciples, but when they reported their experience to him he doubted and demanded proof of his existence. When Jesus appeared to Thomas later he provided the proof Thomas claimed he needed to which he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” Doubt turns to faith because Easter changes everything.

Finally there is Peter. Peter had strutted into passion week making bold claims about his willingness to die for Jesus, making bold assertions that he would never deny him. He impulsively cut the ear off of a soldier in the garden as a show of strength. Peter was strong, perhaps too strong, and often acted in self serving ways. But when Jesus restored him on the shore of the sea, his command was, “Feed my sheep.” Peter changed from a strong, self serving person to a servant. Easter changes everything.

Good Fridays are characterized by people who are bound by guilt, duty, sorrow, fear, doubt and self centeredness. That was true then and is true today. But Easter changes everything. Easter opens the door for us to change the trajectory of life and find forgiveness, devotion, joy, peace, faith and service. Only then can we re-imagine the life that God has intended for us all along.

Easter changes everything!

Categories : Easter
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Apr
13

Maundy Thursday, 2017

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A year ago today I was in my office when the phone rang. It was Cassie, one of the nurses from Scotland County Care Center. My dad had been under hospice care for some time and had developed pneumonia. Cassie shared that my dad had taken a downward turn and that we should begin to prepare ourselves for his passing.

“Should I come now?” I asked.
She said, “Not yet. The doctor is on his way and he’ll do an evaluation and I’ll call you back in a few minutes and give you a status update.”
“Ok,” I replied.

Within the hour Cassie called me back. I was expecting her to give me a status report accompanied by some form of time line. She simply said, “Your dad just passed. I’m so sorry.” She felt badly that she had created an expectation that she could not deliver. I told her it was ok, but instantly was deeply saddened that like Jesus, my dad died alone.

After I hung up I called my sister and my mother and began to make preparations to travel to Missouri, where arrangements would need to be finalized and a funeral sermon prepared.

I find it strange that even though I knew my dad’s death was imminent I was still largely surprised that he passed. I knew it was coming, but it still hit me in an unexpected way, like a driver that violates a traffic signal and plows into the side of a car in the middle of an intersection.

I also find it strange that I seem to think about and talk about my father more in this past year than ever before. I try to be careful about referencing him in conversations and even my sermons, but I can’t seem to help it. His words and actions that previously resided in the back of my mind are now in the forefront of my thoughts.

When I think about the death of my father it makes me wonder if the disciples had the same kind of feeling regarding the death of Jesus. They knew he was going to die. The Old Testament prophets had predicted it for centuries. Jesus himself told them of his pending death on three separate occasions. They knew that it was coming, but I can’t help but think that his actual death must have hit them a little by surprise.

When I think about the disciples and the death of Christ, I also can’t help but consider the fact that they talked far more about him after his death that before. They often retell his life story and quote him frequently. I’m sure there were moments of reflection where memories were shared and stories retold. Some of those stories were humorous that brought smiles and even laughter. Others were told with deep meaning and conviction, as though those stories transformed their lives.

Before Jesus died, you get the idea that the disciples heard it, but didn’t quite get it. But when the reality of Jesus’ death sank in, they got it. And when they got it, they couldn’t stop talking about it either.

Death is a reality like no other. There are no approximations or misgivings about it. It’s frank and honest, and offers no consideration of our own thoughts and feelings. As believers in the 21st century we are blessed to have Holy Scripture to help us process Jesus death. We are not in the same position as the disciples who seemingly had to figure it out on their own. We can read and talk about the story in ways the disciples could not.

But that does not mean that we should speak of Jesus’ death any less than they did. It’s good for us to speak of Jesus in our day-to-day conversations as well as in our sermons and lessons. We can speak of him today as though he is still alive. Because he is!

Categories : Easter
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My dad was never one to play cards or board games. He did, however, enjoy a game of checkers. If I wanted him to play with me, checkers was my go to. In all of the years I played him I never could beat him. Not. One. Time. He learned to play the game from his father, who he reports he could never beat. It must have been a regressive generation trait.

I can remember those games with him. He never really cared if he was “black or red,” and always let me make the first move. We would play at a very slow and deliberate pace, each taking his turn with no one seemingly possessing an advantage. Then after several moves, almost out of the blue, he would go on a massive offensive, making double jumps and reducing my number to one or two checkers. After the offensive, there was nothing left to do but concede defeat. And it went that was whenever we played. Every. Single. Time.

When I got older I finally possessed enough wisdom to ask him how he became so good at checkers. I knew that he had learned from his father and was hopeful that he could teach me some amazing trick or sprinkle magic dust on me to grant me these mysterious powers. He simply smiled and said, “You just have to look ahead to your next move.” By looking ahead, he meant the next 10-12 moves.

While I was messing around making my individual move he was strategizing his next series of moves. All I could see was his move. I could not see within his mind and uncover the checkerboard that was in his brain.

I think God works in our lives in similar fashion. We go through life, plodding along one move at a time, complete with our questions and doubts as to why particular things happen to us. And then all of a sudden, God unveils his plan and we can look back and see how all of those individual moves led to one great moment where things seem to come together and everything becomes clear.

Life certainly has more value than a game of checkers. But like the game of checkers, things rarely happen all at once. There is usually a series of moves that occur that do not seem like much…coincidental events that, in and of themselves seem benign. But it all matters and it all counts. Even the things that don’t appear to mean much, if anything.

Checkers reminds me that I can trust God is at work, even when I cannot or do not see or sense him. And when I feel as those things are barely moving forward in the daily grind of life, God unveils his will and when I does, I can look back and see how he set it all up.

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For almost a decade I served a denominational youth camp as the leader of a group of students who were either going to be seniors or who had just graduated from high school. Those experiences were always the highlight of the summer! The worship was outstanding, and the speakers that presented each evening dynamic beyond belief. Students developed new relationships with others. They also strengthened their relationship with God. For each of us it felt like one of those “mountaintop experiences.”

Though the curriculum was strong throughout the week, the most important lesson I taught was the last one, scheduled immediately before students would depart for home. The lesson was brief, only 30 minutes or so, and was simply titled, “Re-Entry.”

The point of this most important lesson was to remind the students that though they had just completed a transformational experience of meaningful growth, complete with emotional and spiritual high points, they were going to return to families, friends, class mates, and churches who had not been to camp. In other words, just because they had been away at camp did not mean those at home had experienced similar things. They needed to be prepared for that truth. Just because those at home had not enjoyed the same journey in no way invalidated the journey. They just needed to know that they were responsible to feed and fuel the next 51 weeks of their journey.

Categories : Uncategorized
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Mar
26

The Art of Forgiving

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The Art of Forgiving was introduced to me a few years ago by a friend who highly recommended it for its sensible practicality and common sense. Its brief, a mere 178 pages long, but contains helpful counsel to those who struggle with the concept of forgiveness. Perhaps the most helpful element of the book is Smedes’ explanation of what forgiveness is not. This would suggest that one of the primary obstacles we have to forgiving those who have wounded us is the false expectation of what forgiving looks like, how it is done, and the aftermath that follows. If you are such a person, I would recommend this simple book. As a way of piquing your interest, I have added below some of the better quotes listed in the book’s postscript.

“The most creative power given to the human spirit is the power to heal the wounds of a past it cannot change.”

“We do our forgiving alone inside our hearts and minds; what happens to the people we forgive depends on them.”

“The first person to benefit from forgiving is the one who does it.”

“Forgiving happens in three stages: We rediscover the humanity of the person who wronged us, we surrender our right to get even, and we wish that person well.”

“We forgive people only for what they do, never for what they are.”

“We forgive people only for wounding and wronging us; we do not forgive people for things we do not blame them for.”

“We cannot forgive a wrong unless we first blame the person who wronged us.”

“Forgiving is a journey; the deeper the wound, the longer the journey.”

“Forgiving does not require us to reunite with the person who broke our trust.”

“We do not forgive because we are supposed to; we forgive when we are ready to be healed.”

“Waiting for someone to repent before we forgive is to surrender our future to the person who wronged us.”

“Forgiving is not a way to avoid pain but to heal pain.”

“Forgiving is best done when it is done intolerantly.”

“Forgiving is the only way to be fair to ourselves.”

“Forgivers are not doormats; to forgive a person is not a signal that we are willing to put up with what he does.”

“We do not excuse the person we forgive; we blame the person we forgive.”

“Forgiving is essential; talking about it is optional.”

“When we forgive, we set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner we set free is us.”

“When we forgive we walk in stride with the forgiving God.”

Categories : Books, Forgiveness
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Mar
11

The Impact of Sermons

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“The main benefit that is obtained by preaching is by impression made upon the mind in the time of it, and not by an effect that arises afterwards by a remembrance of what was delivered.”–Jonathan Edwards

One of the challenges to preaching is placing an inordinate amount of pressure upon the content that is delivered. Preachers aspire to make truth memorable, if not quotable. After spending hours pouring over manuscripts in preparation and ultimately delivery of the sermon, preachers wonder why their words are forgotten by the time their congregations unfold their napkins for Sunday lunch.

I think this is because we have misguided impressions as to the impact of one sermon. In reality, it is the cumulative volume of a body of work that has the lasting impact on the lives of church members.

Categories : Preaching
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Feb
08

Trading in our Canoes

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The year following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Captain Meriwether Lewis to find the most direct and practical water route across the continent from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean for the purposes of commerce. For over 300 years explorers from at least four sovereign nations had been looking for a pathway that would lead from the Mississippi River all the way through the North America to the Pacific. Lewis was joined by Second Lieutenant William Clark and together formed the Corps of Discovery to under take the challenge from President Jefferson.

The Corps of Discovery began with a faulty assumption. Everyone was certain that the water route to the Pacific was there. All they needed to do was discover it. But they were wrong. There was no passage. When Lewis and Clark came to the end of the river they realized that nothing before them was like anything they had experienced that was behind them. There were no manuals, maps or journals that could help them. They literally marched off the map into the unknown.

What the Corps of Discovery learned over 200 years ago is what we are learning today in the life of our church. The world of ministry is not like anything we have experienced in the past. The cultural landscape has changed to the degree that our assumptions about reaching and serving are experiencing diminishing returns.

Today we are recognizing that many of the ministries we found to be effective in the past are no longer having the same impact today. Like Lewis and Clark, we must realize that we are marching into an age where our canoes may no longer help us reach our destiny. Like the Corps of Discovery, we are finding the need to trade our canoes for horses so that we can stay focused on the mission. Those who choose to love their canoes more than the mission will risk becoming stuck at the headwaters of the river and fail to reach the ultimate goal.

Categories : Church, Church Growth
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I really enjoyed the holiday break, using the opportunity to read several books. One title that I finished this morning was Mindset: How We Can Learn to Fulfill our Potential, by Carol Dweck. The premise of the book is simple. People either have a growth mindset or a fixed mindset, and depending on your particular bent, it can make or break you.

My interest was captured early in the book as the author cited research claiming that if one took a classroom of students and complimented half of the them on “how smart they are,” then complimented the other half on “how hard they work,” those who were complimented on their hard work would out perform those who were complimented on their intelligence.

So what is the difference?

A fixed mindset believes that intelligence is innate and static. In other words, a person is either smart or not. Those with a growth mindset, however, believe that intelligence can be developed and cultivated depending on their responses to particular life circumstances. Dweck summarizes as follows:

A fixed mindset avoids challenges while a growth mindset embraces them.
A fixed mindset gets defensive or gives up easily when faced with challenges while a growth mindset persists in the face of setbacks.
A fixed mindset avoids potential failure while a growth mindset seeks to learn from failure in order to improve.
A fixed mindset sees effort as fruitless while a growth mindset sees effort as the pathway to mastery.
A fixed mindset hears criticism and ignores useful negative feedback while a growth mindset strives to learn from criticism.
A fixed mindset feels threatened by the success of others while a growth mindset finds lessons and inspiration from the success of others.

As a result, those with a fixed mindset may plateau early in life and fail to live up to their potential. Those with a growth mindset will reach ever-higher levels of achievement.

Dr. Dweck, who serves as the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, has plenty of hard research as well as human interest stories to support her findings. It is a book that would be very helpful to those who believe that growth remains a possibility and that the best is yet to be.

Categories : Books
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Jan
01

Welcoming 2017!

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Today is New Year’s, so I imagine many of you have either set goals or made some form of resolution for 2017. One of the problems we encounter with setting resolutions is that each resolution is accompanied by some kind of statement like, “I’m off to a fresh start,” or “I’m going to turn over a new leaf,” or “I’m going to begin a new chapter.”

The problem with these statements is that they are not real. There are no new chapters in life. Only next chapters. Edwin Friedman rightfully said it this way in his book Failure of Nerve: “Just because a page is torn off the calendar doesn’t mean that unit of time no longer exists.”

We can’t behave as though life hasn’t happened. But we can learn from each experience and move forward. The success we achieved cannot become our ceiling, and the failures we encountered cannot become our identity. So we’re faced with the choice to either move on as though things didn’t happen or matter, or to move forward with a growth mindset that is willing to learn, adapt and apply. I choose to move forward. I hope you do as well.

Happy New Year! Here’s to the next chapter of our lives!

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Dec
29

Win at Losing

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I heard the author, Sam Weinman, interviewed on a local sports talk station about his new book, Win at Losing. He was so engaging and passionate about his book I pulled into a convenience store and one-clicked it. It took me about four sittings to finish it. Weinman is a skilled writer, but by the end of the book you feel like he’s the guy who lives down the street at the end of the cul-de-sac. He is transparent with his own relationship to winning and losing, especially when it comes to coaching his own children in sports. Birthed out of those experiences he dove into the lives of 10 people who had experienced loss. Weinman interviewed celebrities from the world of sports, politics, business and entertainment and discovered valuable lessons to help all of us who have experienced loss in some form or another. The book is very utilitarian, therefore anyone with any life experience at all would benefit from reading it.

Categories : Books
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