Trust in the LORD

Praise the Lord!
My soul, praise the Lord!
I will praise the Lord all my life.
I will sing praises to him as long as I live.
Don’t depend on your leaders for help.
Don’t depend on people, because they cannot save you.
People die and are buried.
Then all their plans to help are gone.
It is a great blessing for people to have the God of Jacob to help them.
They depend on the Lord their God.
He made heaven and earth.
He made the sea and everything in it.
He can be trusted to do what he says.
He does what is right for those who have been hurt.
He gives food to the hungry.
The Lord frees people locked up in prison.
The Lord makes the blind see again.
The Lord helps those who are in trouble.
The Lord loves those who do right.
The Lord protects strangers in our country.
He cares for widows and orphans,
but he destroys the wicked.
The Lord will rule forever!
Zion, your God will rule forever and ever!
Praise the Lord!

— Psalm 146 (ERV)

Psalm 146 was not written this year, or two years ago, or even two hundred years ago, although it could apply to every leaders elected official in U.S. history. It was not even written 2,000 years ago, although it could apply to King Herod, Pilate or Caesar. It well describes the relationship between Moses and the Children of Israel when he failed to live up to their expectations. It talks about the king of Egypt, King David, King Cirus, and every other leader in history.

Don’t depend on your leaders for help. Don’t depend on people, because they cannot save you. People die and are buried. Then all their plans to help are gone. That describes the plight of every leader, even the most qualified, most powerful, most intelligent, most benevolent, etc. It explains why every leader has both admirers and critics. It explains why all leaders fall short of expectations.

People want a savior. The children of Israel wanted Moses to give them a safe and easy life, and when things looked bad, they were willing to go back to the brickyards in Egypt for safety.

But people die. The incidence of death in humans is 100 percent. And while they live, all humans sin, and make mistakes, and fall short of perfection. In a democracy, we choose our leaders with high expectations, then hold them responsible when they fall short of those expectations. So we start looking for the next big thing, the next leader who can get us out of this mess.

It goes for all leaders. Popes, bishops, ministers, elders, deacons – there is not one who can do all the things we want them to do. We have such high expectations, don’t we? Since I entered ministry, I have been put on a pedestal by people who think I can solve every problem.

People ask me to save marriages, solve homelessness, rescue churches and turn sinners into saints. That’s great as long as the problems are small, and when God solves the problem, sometimes the preacher gets the credit. But preachers are just people, and somewhere down the line, there will be problems too big for the preacher to solve. Somewhere down the line, most preachers retire, and all preachers die.

Here in the Word of God, from the pen of a poet, writing three thousand years ago, we are given a heads up that humans can’t save us. But that same book, that same psalm, gives us hope for the savior we need.

It is a great blessing for people to have the God of Jacob to help them.
They depend on the Lord their God.
He made heaven and earth.
He made the sea and everything in it.
He can be trusted to do what he says.

How many times do we think that a problem can be solved by committees, meetings, contracts and bylaws? It helps to work together; two heads are better than one, as they say. But we should never start any project, or tackle any problem, without first going to the LORD in prayer and depending on God for guidance.

“If it is not the LORD who builds a house, the builders are wasting their time. If it is not the LORD who watches over the city, the guards are wasting their time.” That’s what Psalm 127 says.

We all know about success stories where a dynamic new preacher causes tremendous growth in a church. You might notice that it usually is a new church, and not just a new pastor. But unless the LORD builds the house, the builders are wasting their time!

If a church grows because of that one great leader, then it will also fall when that leader fails, or leaves, or dies. Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders are wasting their time!

One of the first songs of David is recorded in 2 Samuel 22. “There is no Rock except our God,” David sang. “God is my strong fortress. He clears the path I need to take. He makes my feet as steady as those of a deer. Even on steep mountains he keeps me from falling.” (2 Samuel 22:32-34)

David was a great leader as long as he relied on God, and when he stopped relying on God, things didn’t go so well. The same was true of his son Solomon, and of every king of Israel. God makes clear in the history of Israel that it is God’s influence, and not the skill of any one person, that makes the difference between success and failure.

Psalm 62:9-11 is a good summary of my point:

People cannot really help.
You cannot depend on them.
Compared to God, they are nothing –
No more than a gentle puff of air!
Don’t trust in your power to take things by force.
Don’t think you will gain anything by stealing.
And if you become wealthy, don’t put your trust in riches.
God says there is one thing you can really depend on, and I believe it:
“Strength comes from God!”

I don’t mistrust people for dishonesty. Some are dishonest, but most people try to tell the truth. I don’t mistrust people for incompetence. We are a successful society because most people are pretty good at what they do. If I mistrust people, it is because they are people. I don’t expect people to do what only God can do.

2018 Sonnet 47

A sonnet, maybe fiction, maybe fact.
Without a touch of both it cannot be.
Is it sincere, or is it just an act?
It’s neither! It’s a poem! Can’t you see?

The words that fit might stretch credibility.
They might be smuggling facts into the mix.
The words themselves have the agility
To hide the lie, reveal the truth and fix

Our minds on tangled twine and worthless puzzles,
Trying to uncover what it’s saying.
Are these thoughts or just emotion muzzles?
Those take too much work. This is just playing.

I wouldn’t have to make words dance this way
If I had something serious to say.

Abiding in Christ

For most of my adult life, I was not a practicing Christian. I have made no secret of that. From my early teens into my thirties, I was a cult chaser, a new-ager, a rebel against the faith of my fathers. When I became a father, I returned to Christianity – but I still wasn’t very active in the faith. It was 25 years ago when the news of the day finally drove me to read the Bible, cover to cover. My life was never the same. This is that Bible – a simple King James Version, $10 brand new.

Now, I know that the King James is not the favorite translation of many people in this church. The language is dusty, the translation sketchy, and the motivation of the translators was to justify the Anglican Church status quo. But it does contain the unvarnished Gospel, and that is what changed my life.

So I beg your indulgence as I use this Bible for today’s message. My scripture is John 15:1-5. I invite you to read along in your favorite translation:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.

Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.

Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.

I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.

Your New International Version reads a bit differently. I’m not talking about the ye’s and the –eth’s. Today, I want to focus on the word “abide.” In the NIV and other translations, it’s “remain”. NIV is a great translation, the one I usually use. But “remain” implies an effort, something I hold onto, as when we remain steadfast. “Abide”, on the other hand, sounds like resting, remaining still. It’s a subtle difference, and it might be all in my head, but “remain” or “stay” sounds like something I do, whereas “abide” feels like somewhere I am, or something God lets me do.

The faith is confusing is you take scripture in bits and pieces. Paul says it’s faith, not works, that save us, while James says that faith without works is dead. It sounds like a conflict, but it isn’t. I think that Paul would agree that true faith is active and alive, motivating us to do God’s will. I also think James would agree that we are saved not by works, but by faith in Christ. I think we need both perspectives to understand what Jesus was about.

We all know about the many times Jesus told His disciples what to do. He instructed them, and us, to take action in order to demonstrate our love for one another. But here, we see where Paul got his doctrine of faith not works. Here, the apostle John remembers that Jesus said we should simply abide in Him.

The branches do not try to bear fruit, and nobody asks for pruning. We don’t do the work of bearing fruit. Rather, it is the natural result of being well connected to the vine. Paul obviously knew these sayings of Jesus because he talked about our being grafted into the vine.

Abiding in Christ means staying connected, resting in Him, and letting Jesus do His work in our lives. Jesus said the work of God was to believe in Christ, and here, He says that we will bear fruit by simply abiding in Him.

This was the Gospel that saved my soul. I was a workaholic, all about performance, always trying to get better, to do more, and never satisfied with myself. I thought I could never be good enough to enter heaven. I kept looking for that narrow road. But when I finally read the Bible for myself, I found that narrow road. It is Jesus, plain and simple. It is abiding in Him, plain and simple. It is loving Jesus, learning Jesus, and being satisfied with Jesus. The Gospel is simple. Jesus is the Gospel. He called himself the gate to the sheepfold. He said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” I had been fighting to find another way, when all along, Jesus was saying, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Can it be more obvious than that? Jesus Christ, the One we call Savior and Lord, the Son of God, says, “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” (Matthew 7:14) But He also says it is an easy yoke and a light burden. Few find the narrow way not because it is difficult, but because it is narrow.

I stuggled to have faith, and I could not force it on myself. I let go and let God, abiding in Christ, and my faith began to grow. I worked to please God and found no peace; I settled into God’s arms and found acceptance and joy. I discovered that Jesus told the truth, and that Paul understood it. The key to bearing fruit is remaining attached to the vine. The key to the Christian life is abiding in Christ.

Obvious, we in the West are hooked on performance. We set high standards for ourselves and hold others to high standards as well. Sometimes, intentionally or not, we preach that salvation comes through effort, through good works, or even through the hard work of holding specific doctrines and beliefs. When we do, we are wrong. It is not about performance; it is about love. It is not about generating activity; it is about bearing fruit, and that only comes from abiding in Christ.

I appreciate that some people reject Christianity outright. I believe that it is usually because of those who are miserable in the faith, holding others up to standards that they themselves can’t live up to, either. Jesus knew that we can’t save one another by judging one another. In fact, we can’t save one another at all. All we can do is abide in Christ, and share the joy of that experience with others.

So to those who are working so hard to please God, I say give up. God’s will is that you fall in love with God’s son, because Jesus reminds us that God is love; God wants our love; and God wants to share God’s love with us as we share that love with one another.

You think it can’t be that simple? It really is that simple. If you don’t believe it, read the book for yourself, and remember that the cornerstone is not Moses, or Paul, or Abraham. The cornerstone is Jesus. It won’t make sense until and unless you abide in Jesus.

May you simply abide in Christ.

Regarding Scripture Translations

I love the King James Version of the Holy Bible. I also love the New International Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the Good News Translation, the New Living Translation, and The Message. But I first read the King James Version, and I love antiques, to the KJV has a special place in my heart.

Some say the KJV is the Gold Standard of scripture, and others say it is the only legitimate English translation. Still others say it is a deeply flawed and outdated translation that has no place in the church today. I think we can benefit from knowing a variety of translations, but the KJV is foundational to our language and our culture. There is much to recommend the KJV. But we have to accept that, in addition to its arcane language, the KJV also has an intentional bias imposed by King James VI – that it should better support the Church of England’s structure and its restriction of authority to ordained male clergy.

Many in the KJV-Only crowd say that modern translations have softened the message, tending to deny the Deity of Christ or the specific church doctrines surrounding His birth, ministry and resurrection. I do not believe this has been done intentionally, if at all. More to the point, I think that all subsequent translations have so honored the KJV as to promulgate its misogyny and other flaws that are not so prevalent in the original languages.

However, as evidence that the NIV has not intentionally softened anything, I note a passage in which the NIV has “hardened” church doctrine while remaining faithful to the historic manuscripts.

According to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, the Greek word “archegos” can be translated “prince”, “author”, or “captain”. In Hebrews 12:2, both the KJV and the NIV translate the word as “author”, as in Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith. In Hebrews 2:10, the word becomes “captain” in the KJV but “pioneer” in NIV. In that verse, the KJV says that Jesus is the Captain of our salvation, thus being in charge of it. The NIV is saying that Jesus is the Pioneer of our salvation, as in the first to discover it. That is the kind of softening that leads the KJV-Only crowd to reject the NIV.

However, at Acts 3:15, the KJV translates “archegos” to say that Peter called Jesus is “the Prince of Life.” In this instance, the NIV translates it as “Author.” Thus Peter called Jesus “the Author of Life,” indicating that Peter already agreed with John 1:3 – “Through him all things were made(NIV)/All things were made by him(KJV).”

For all the complaints about the NIV (from the KJV crowd), I’ve never heard a complaint about this passage. I think it is because the NIV translation is more supportive of the Deity of Christ than is the KJV translation. Even so, I see nothing in these various passages to indicate which meaning – prince, captain, author, perfecter – best represents the intent of the original speaker or writer. If we take their shared meaning, which I might translate as “primary driver”, we lose the royalty of Prince, the authority of Captain, the pre-eminence of Author and the immediacy of Perfecter.

It is a shame that we cannot have all these meanings without having to select one for English translation. In the original language, there is no requirement to narrow it down. All of these possible meanings are existent in the word “archegos”. Sometimes a word represents a feeling or sentiment in one language that simply has no equivalent in another language. Language is a synthesis of the shared history, mythology, art and education of a given culture. We don’t share those things with ancient Greeks, Romans or Hebrews, so the best we can hope for from many words is an educated guess.

This essay will probably have readers who insist that the KJV is a perfect translation, and others who think that it is outdated and seriously flawed. The truth, I believe, lies somewhere between those two opinions. I think we should accept that the shortcomings of modern translators were probably shared by KJV translators as well.

I am grateful that God has enabled so many translations of scripture to exist, by inspiring people of goodwill to take on the task of translation. But in doing so, I think God has also revealed the imperfection of all people, in every generation. In this digital age, we have every resource we need to consider various translations, the original languages, the cultures and sects that generated each translation, and the hazards of expecting one language to replace another, whether of a different culture or of a different time.

Rather than elevate or vilify any translation, we should consider more than one and pray for insight to find the truth. More importantly, we should accept our own flawed view of God’s Word and that of others as well. We are encouraged to have mercy and to love one another – and that’s a message common to every translation.



Follow the Servant-Leader

When Jesus says the same thing over and over, I have to think He wants to make sure we understand it.

A lot of what Jesus says goes against of human nature. Some of it is not what we would call common sense.

So, as you’ve heard, there’s balls, there’s strikes, and there’s scripture. I’d like to say I calls em like they is, but we all know the best I can do is to calls em like I sees em. The good news is they is what they is no matter how I calls em.

Let us hear for ourselves the word of our Lord:

” You call me Teacher and Lord, and it is right that you do so, because that is what I AM. I, your Lord and Teacher, have just washed your feet. You, then, should wash one another’s feet. I have set an example for you, so that you will do what I have done for you. “

–John 13: 13-15

There are still churches that have foot-washing ceremonies. It really is a humbling experience. But

Jesus was not performing a ceremony on clean feet with warm water and a clean towel. The disciples did not buy clean socks for the occasion.

Jesus actually washed, as in removed the dirt from, at least 24 dirty feet. That included the feet of Judas Iscariot, just before Judas left to betray Him.

If we have trouble taking Jesus at his word, then we must be as human as the people in His days on earth.

He came unto His own, but His own just could not accept a humble Messiah. They wanted a Warrior Messiah, the Lion of Judah, not the Passover Lamb. Some of them thought Jesus was a poor excuse for a Messiah.

Some thought he was no better than a foot-washing house slave.

In that day, a foot-washer was the lowest of the household slaves. No job more degrading than washing feet. Nobody puts foot-washing on their resume under leadership skills. A foot-washer doesn’t fit our image of a leader.

Some of us, especially us guys, think a good leader is more like an action hero.

We really like the part where Jesus trashes merchandise in the Temple and chases the merchants out with a whip. Now there’s a Scripture for Guys Who Like Scripture.

So who is this foot-washing story for?

At the Last Supper, John tells us that Jesus washed the feet of His disciples, like a lowly house slave. Jesus tells them, “I have set an example for you, so that you will do what I have done for you.”

Don’t you wish He had said that when He cleared the Temple?

He goes on to say, “No slave is greater than his master, and no messenger is greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know this, you will be happy if you put it into practice.”

I have a friend who made a big mistake. He was caught in such a scandal that his name was stricken from the roles of his church.

That was many years ago. Some of those people still can’t forgive my friend. But the weird part is that he still goes to that same church!

This guy volunteers for everything, always mopping floors, cooking, cleaning, taking out the trash. It is just so degrading to see him cleaning up after people who dispise him. He ought to have more gumption than that.

My friend has the gall to think he can actually do what Jesus tells him to do. He repented and turned from his sin. Now, he actually loves those who hate him, and physically blesses those who curse him.

Some people call him a wimp, cause he’s just such a servant.

But a lot of Christian work gets done in his church because good-hearted people see his work and follow his example.

Jesus says that whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. That must be why they say Pride is one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

But aren’t we supposed to be proud? You got to stand up for yourself! You just can’t turn the other cheek these days.

If you don’t stand up for yourself in this world, you’ll get crucified.

In Matthew 20, Jesus says, “You know that the rulers of the heathen have power over them, and the leaders have complete authority. This, however, is not the way it shall be among you. If one of you wants to be great, he must be the servant of the rest; and if one of you wants to be first, he must be your slave like the Son of Man, who did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life to redeem many people.”

If that is the price to pay, then some of us don’t want to be first, or great.

In Matthew 23, Jesus says, “You must not be called Teacher, because you are all brothers and sisters of one another and have only one Teacher. Nor should you be called ‘Leader,’ because your one and only leader is the Messiah. The greatest one among you must be your servant.”

I read a book by a former pastor on building leadership in an organization. He told step-by-step how he built mega-churches by replacing meek and humble servants with strong, dynamic leaders.

He never said so directly, but the author seems to think that Jesus is out of date. Now this guy is no longer a preacher; instead, sells his advice in business seminars across the country.

I’d say that that ex-preacher has found his true calling at last.

He said the church needs strong leaders. By faith I say he is wrong. The church already has a strong leader, and that is Jesus Christ. What the church really needs is strong followers.

Jesus is the Head of the church; what did Jesus say we should do?

Wash feet?

Take the low seat?

Turn the other cheek?

Humble ourselves?

No one can rise to a leadership position with that attitude! At least, not in any worldly organization.

But Tropical Sands Christian Church is not a worldly organization. I thank God that this church is run by servant-leaders.

I know they don’t care about titles, because they get the job done when they have titles, and when they don’t have titles. So we put those people in charge, of course.

But we give them a title, or two, or sometimes three, because we want to pin them down on a job, or two jobs, or maybe three jobs.

I just thank God that those men and women keep rowing the boat. Without em, we’d be dead in the water.

If they don’t accomplish enough, let’s just say the field is ripe for harvest, but the workers are few. A handful of people can only do so much.

Now some of us have figured out that the leader really is the servant. If nobody follows the leader, the leader gets to do all of the work. We may or may not want the title, but we surely don’t want to do all that work. We don’t have to be leaders, or servants.

On the other hand, there are some good-hearted people in this world who are called to teach, but they don’t want to be called “Teacher.” There are some who are called to preach, but they don’t want to be called “Preacher.” There are even some who are called to sweep, but they don’t want to be called, “Sweeper.”

The world needs all that talent and service. How do we bring it out without saddling someone with a label she or he doesn’t want? What do we call these people?

The apostle Paul called himself a servant of Christ. In closing his letter to the Romans, Paul writes “I commend our sister Phoebe to you, being a servant of the church in Cenchrea, that you may receive her in the Lord, as is worthy of the saints, and may assist her in whatever thing she may need of you.”

Sounds like Paul gave this woman a lot of authority.

Our English Bibles sometimes translate the word as “minister” when it describes a man, especially a male leader, and “servant” when it describes a woman. But the word for both “minister” and “servant” used by Jesus and Paul is usually “diaconia”, or “diaconos.”That’s where we get the term “diaconate.”

Paul calls Sister Phoebe a “minister” of the church, just as surely as he called himself a “minister” of the Gospel.

So it matters what we call you. “Minister” makes you puff out your chest, square your shoulders, watch your P’s and Q’s. “Servant” makes you feel sorry for yourself.

But in most of the New Testament, it’s the very same word; a minister IS a servant.

Maybe you are not a leader because you don’t feel worthy to be a leader. Maybe you are not a servant because no leader has asked you to serve. If so, then please mark this date in your calendar.

On this date, the sixth day of May, in the Year of Our Lord 2001, I, Joel Tucker, duly licensed lay preacher in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Florida, hereby proclaim you a fellow minister of the Gospel.

I hereby proclaim you empowered to share God’s love with all the world with all the talent and strength God gives you.

I proclaim you empowered to preach repentance and forgiveness.

I can proclaim this as true because God’s word says it is true.

With Christ Himself, I bestow upon each and every one of you the grandest human titles I know: Sister. Brother. Minister. Diaconos.

With the Apostle Paul, I bestow double honor on those who serve as Elders and officers, past and present. You are the voice of experience.

And I salute the Deaconate, past, present and future. You are the voice of Christian service.

We are a family, and as a family we have been called to serve the Living God. Christ calls us Brothers and Sisters, fellow servants in the body of Christ.

Even if you’re humble, even if you’re meek, even if you just want to be a servant, this family is responsible for helping you find ways to serve the Living God, as a member of this family.

I bet you already know our servant-leaders. You can see who is pulling the plough. I say follow the servant.

Our servant-ministers would actually enjoy helping you find ways to serve the Lord. Think about it. Talk to them.

The question is not are you a minister; the question is, what is your ministry?

What is your calling?

Maybe you are called to teach, to preach, to visit the sick, or to balance the books. Or maybe you are already there, already serving the Lord.

If so, Jesus says you are blessed. Now that you know this, Jesus says, you will be blessed, or happy, if you put it into practice.

Let’s get happy, shall we? Let us learn to follow the servant. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

If you would like to join this church, we will be happy to elevate you to the position of servant. You can join us in ministry to the world, in the name of Jesus Christ.

You may come by baptism and confession of faith, by transfer or for dual church membership. You may come forward to join this church, or to rededicate your life in service to Christ.

If the Lord leads, please come forward as we sing our Hymn of invitation, “The Servant Song”.

Delivered at Tropical Sands Christian Church
 – May 6, 2001.

Bent Reeds, Flickering Lamps

The disciple Matthew was a flickering lamp. As a Roman tax collector, Matthew was banned from synagogue and Temple, so he could not read the Sacred Scrolls in Hebrew. But Matthew’s gospel quotes the Septuagint, a Greek translation of his day. After Jesus healed a man in the Temple, the Pharisees started looking for a way to kill him. So Jesus and his disciples were hiding in the wilderness. Jesus healed all who came to him, but he told them not to tell anyone where he was. Those days reminded Matthew of this Old Testament prophesy.

Let us hear the Word of GOD:

The LORD says, “Here is my servant, whom I strengthened — The one I have chosen, with whom I am pleased. I have filled him with my spirit, and he will bring justice to every nation. He will not shout or raise his voice or make loud speeches in the streets. He will not break off a bent reed nor put out a flickering lamp. He will bring lasting justice to all. He will not lose hope or courage; he will establish justice on the earth. Distant lands eagerly wait for his teachings.”

–Isaiah 42:1-4 (CEV)

I stand in the pulpit today with fear and trembling. I know that a good word can turn your life around. It can draw you closer to God. And I know that the wrong word might be the last straw that turns you away from the church. I have great respect for the pulpit.

My respect for the pulpit goes double for THIS particular pulpit. Pastor Jim Burton is one of the most consistently loving pastors I know. I wish that he were here now. I can only dream of matching his love for this church, and his skill with the word of God. I stand before God in Brother Jim’s pulpit. I am eager to hear him again. I’ll say for Jim something that I am not quick to say about anyone: Jim Burton is my pastor.

My Grampa, the Rev. Roy Tucker, has graced this pulpit as well. You can’t inherit 50 years’ experience in the pulpit. Grampa, I wish I had been a better student. We have real preachin in the Cabin every Saturday night. You’ll be blessed if you come hear him speak. We’ll get Grampa back up here in May, if not before.

I had the pulpit one Sunday evening at Shady Grove Church in Alabama, back in 1993. We did some singing, and I did some preaching. When it was all done most folks agreed that we should have just kept on singing. I shook hands with one of the elders on my way out, and he said, “Well, I’m gonna pray for you.” I think that was less than a glowing endorsement.

I haven’t done much preaching since then. I wanted to, but a funny thing happened while I was looking for a church home.

My wife and I tried to fit in at one church, but it was tooooooo soft. Then we tried another church. That church was tooooooo hard. Finally, we tried Tropical Sands Christian Church. This church was just riiiiiight.

That soft church was a big church. They had classes and trips and apple pies, but trying to get involved was like trying to hop a freight train while it roars past. There was so much going on that we just got lost in the shuffle. By the time they finally had us on the mailing list, we had long since shuffled out the door. They still don’t know that we left.

The hard church was a brand new church. We were ready to take on the world. I put a few miles on the standup bass in the praise band at that church. We started in a living room and moved to an auditorium. Eventually, I started playing saxophone, and everything about that church started changing. The heat was on to get better musicians, to pick the right people, and to line up on the doctrine.

A lot of good people got shuffled aside while I was blowing saxophone, center stage. I did not want that spotlight. I made some very dear Christian friends in that church. Most of them left before I did. It was like the love for the worship got stronger than the love for people.

I knew about Tropical Sands because of the Christian music coffee house here the first Sunday of every month. The coffee house all about fellowship; nobody knows or cares what church you come from. It’s live and let live, let’s jam and have some coffee. That’s how I knew a lot of the people here.

That first Sunday morning I came to this church, I was hiding out. I could not stand the thought of blowing one more note on that Brass Idol of a saxophone. I just wanted to worship in peace. So I came in here that Sunday morning, just to hide out.

People, I was so tired. I don’t remember what Brother Jim preached on that day – I’m not even sure if he was speaking that day. I just remember how sweet it was to be out there, and not up here. The choir and organ made the most beautiful music. They looked like they really loved doing it. In the lobby after church, I remember everyone was so civil. I mean civil! Friendly and polite. I was so impressed to find old fashion friendliness, everywhere I turned.

I came back a couple of times, and I decided it was safe to bring my wife, or my Grampa, or my children. I don’t worry that somebody I invite to church might be shunned, or ignored, or put on the spot. When I want people to meet my Christian friends, I invite them to This church.

Some of you know we have an informal worship gathering every Saturday at the Log Cabin, across the parking lot. That gathering was started by a bunch of hard church dropouts. We just wanted to worship like we used to, when we kept things simple and everybody got to play. We were so tired of rules that we made three rules right away. No rehearsals. No collection plates. No amplifiers.

Anyone who wants to sing or play with us is invited to do so. No experience necessary. No skills required.

We felt like religious refugees, and Tropical Sands Christian Church let us use the Cabin. This church never once tried to steer or restrict the Log Cabin service, in any way. It has never once tried to recruit me or any other member from that group. This church gave us encouragement, love and freedom to worship however we pleased, for no payback.

What an incredible testimony that was.

Let’s see if that arrangement has done any good. People who swore they would never again set foot in a church sing and pray with us every Saturday night. Grampa pulls the Gospel plough right straight down the middle every week. People who were afraid to sing in public two years ago are now worship leaders at other churches, thanks to the Log Cabin. As far as I know, we have not brought any members into this church. But we have sent a lot of people back to church somewhere. I say that knowing that you care more about the role up yonder than the roles on the church computer.

Nearly 200 years ago, this denomination — The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) — was founded on an official rejection of all man-made creeds and doctrines. Our constitution is the New Testament, and our battle cry is the prayer of Christ for Christian unity.

Think about that name – The Christian Church – PARENTHESIS – Disciples of Christ – CLOSE PARENTHESIS. That’s the official name. We couldn’t agree on which one to use. We just decided it wasn’t worth fighting about. That’s how deep this goes.

Think about how this church encourages non-denominational worship. Think about the cabin, and the coffee house. That’s what Jesus prayed for, that we might be as one, not as many. This church is serious about Christian unity.

Our Elders and Deacons really lead this church. Most of us don’t know who they are. When they think nobody is looking, they patch the roof, paint the walls, cut the grass and balance the books. They like to give in secret, and they don’t like to take any credit. That something else they got out of the Bible, that humble servant thing. They’ve got it down to a science.

A lot of those people are shaking their heads and saying what’s the big deal? Isn’t church SUPPOSED to be a nice, safe place? Tropical Sands, you don’t even know how precious you are. You’re so used to loving each other, and anyone else who walks through the door, that you don’t even know how weird that is. Praise God, you are a peculiar people.

It is said that the times are changing, and the church has to change with ’em. I speak for more than one new member of this church when I say, We don’t want you to change. We’ll have more of the same, please. Nobody’s perfect; we understand. Everything humans touch, including this church, falls short of God’s plan. But you are proof of what the disciple Peter meant when he said in his letter, “Above all, practice fervent love, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”

The church is told get ready for change. Brace yourselves for Mohawks and nose rings. Meanwhile, meek and lowly people are looking for a safe place to worship God, and they don’t all wear Mohawks and nose rings.

Meek is a funny word. Children are meek. Kittens are meek. Jesus is meek. Some people don’t like that; they want a savior who is as loud, brash, and forceful as they are. We are bombarded with shouting and violence. “In your face” is the buzzword for intrusive, forceful communication.

Some people think it’s OK to get in your face for God. But to a meek and lowly person, “in your face” is an assault, and they won’t fight back. They just leave. To the poor in spirit, “in your face” is poison. They won’t fight back either. They just give up.

I know a lot of you have been praying for me, and maybe occasionally biting your tongues. Thank you for not getting in my face.

This church will change. Everything changes. We will grow, and we will grow even closer to God. We will see new faces, and we will hear new songs. Never be afraid to invite people here; this church will do you proud. Just remember, we are not interested in how the world would change us, but how can we change the world. We are in the world, but we are not of it.

We met at [a congregant]’s house a few weeks ago to discuss small group meetings. That would be Bible studies and fellowship circles in our homes, during the week. That fits the New Testament pattern, and it fills a spiritual need that the larger service might not provide. That is exciting, but it is not new to this church. This church began as a small group, and it has sponsored many small groups. [Elders] are heading up that effort, and now is a good time to get small groups going again.

Many of our Elders are also Prayer Warriors. A few weeks ago my wife received a prayer card from the Christian Women’s Fellowship. Ladies, that was good medicine. At a deep, personal level, God wants to be intimate with his children. He loves it when we talk to him.

I had the privilege of giving chapel service for our preschool this week. Have you ever been surrounded by tiny children who really want to talk to you? If you have, you might know some of the joy that God feels when we pray.

Next Sunday [02/18/01], at 9 a.m., we’re starting an eight-week study on prayer in the cabin, across the parking lot. If you don’t have a Sunday school class, or if you want to learn more about prayer with us, you are invited to attend. Please don’t get upset if we run out of books; just show up, and we’ll work it out.

Prayer and fellowship are nothing new to this church. Like I said, we’ll have more of the same, please.

To the new members, and to those who may not be active in the church, let me point out how difficult it must be to make nice to all these people. We see so many new faces now that the last visitor might slip away without a courteous greeting. We need to help make sure that does not happen.

We are free to come and go as we please, but we have found a church home. Let’s move in. Let’s get behind all the do-ers in the church and see if we can learn to show the love of God like they do. Let’s all read the bulletin, get involved, and keep up with each other. This is your church, too.

To the visitors, let me say you are always welcome here. I was a visitor once, myself. There is never any pressure to join this church. Please, worship with us to your heart’s content. This is God’s church, and you are God’s child, so this must be your church, too. This church was loving to me and my family long before we joined. That’s just how they treat people here.

If you ARE looking for a church home, this is the only one I can recommend. No one here wants to hurt you, or even to change you. Changing you is not our job. Like I said, you can trust these people.

Now it might be that some of the Elders, deacons and members of this church still don’t get what I’m saying, or why I’m so excited. What’s the big deal? The deal is you did something right, over and over, dependably, every time.

Here’s what you did:

  • I was hungry, and you fed me.
  • I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink.
  • I was a stranger, and you received me into your homes.
  • I was naked, and you clothed me.
  • I was sick and you took care of me.
  • I was in prison, and you visited me.

I am also impressed by what you didn’t do:

  • A bent reed you did not break.
  • A flickering lamp you did not snuff out.

You remind me of somebody else I know …

Thank God, you look familiar.

Delivered at Tropical Sands Christian Church
(Disciples of Christ) – February 11, 2001

A Walk in the Spirit

There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.

–Romans 8:1-2

What is this law of the Spirit? It is the Golden Rule, but it is also something more. Paul came from a rigorous religious background; he was well versed in Law — in the laws of his sect and the Roman laws of the land. He knew what it meant to live by the law — it meant attention to detail, and a focus on avoiding unclean things and illegal activities.

The law of the Spirit, on the other hand, does more than to merely follow the commandments of Christ. Paul said this Spirit — capital S — is the Spirit of God, which raised Christ from the dead, and the Spirit of Christ that dwells within us.

Paul spends much of the book of Romans contrasting life in the Spirit vs. life in the flesh. The flesh, he said, is where the struggle is, and it is also where we fail. Paul said, “the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither can it be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.

But aren’t we all in the flesh? The answer is in part, yes, and in the same part, we cannot please God. God gave humanity a law for the flesh, and the flesh broke that law; now, all flesh suffers the consequences.

Paul would say that no good thing dwells in the flesh, and that the flesh has no hope of doing good. That’s where he said, “O, wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.”

No, Paul was not endorsing sinful behavior. His body serves the law of sin in its imperfection, demonstrating the wages of sin, both his own and those that are heaped on all of us through the accumulated sins of humanity. His body serves the law of sin and death, and it will die.

But notice how he serves the law of God — with his MIND. He is consciously serving that law, intentionally, with his will.

I went to this scripture in search of something that isn’t there. I wanted to find a message about the value of motive, as in when we get “in the spirit.” I was looking for a message of “love is all you need.” That isn’t what I found.

To Paul, this Spirit is the literal indwelling spirit of God and Christ and of Christ in us. “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.” Paul’s obedience to the law of the Spirit comes from a communion with that indwelling Spirit, from an awareness of the Spirit of God in Christ that dwells within him.

To Paul, his obedience is to a Spirit that is his very Creator and constant companion. And, it is a spirit that he serves with his Mind — that is, with intent, planning and forethought.

This is the Spirit of God Himself. The Law of God, or the Law of the Spirit, is not a the former set of rules to be followed. Rather, it is a life to be led, a life in which the Spirit leads the flesh, and not vice versa. It is living with heightened awareness of the very presence of God, and of His Spirit within us. It is trusting that Spirit to dwell within us and striving to give the Spirit complete control.

I can’t give you a formula for this walk in the Spirit. It is not a matter of maintaining an attitude, or following a set of rules. It is a spirit to Spirit relationship, our spirit to God’s Spirit, and it is a conscious, mindful relationship. It is what Jesus was illustrating when a disciple asked, “Show us the way,” and He replied, “I AM the Way.”

Some of us resist the concept of a “personal” relationship with God, but I think that’s what this walk in the Spirit is. If we get personal with God, setting personal goals to know Him and to serve Him, it will impact us at the very core of our beings, from the inside out.

God’s Will vs. Our Decisions

There is not one instance in scripture where God wills the death or failure of a church. Revelation has seven letters warning seven churches to shape up or perish.

If you don’t read the Disciples bloggers, don’t start now. Some of them seem to think that church death is good. By some theologies, everything that happens is therefore God’s will, God being all-powerful and all-knowing. Why, then, would God advise anyone in any direction whatsoever? No, God does not will the damnation of souls or the demise of congregations. At worst, God permits us to choose between life and death.

The choice, however, is ours alone. God clearly prefers we choose life. God told the children of Israel how to survive as a nation, but let them choose to survive or perish.

If you believe Que Sera, Sera — what will be, will be — then you rest secure in your own salvation and write off every failure as God’s will. If that’s true, then it must be God’s will that I work with dreamers, because I want ministry partners who are willing to work for the kingdom of God!

Some pastors move from church to church, leaving each one in worse shape than before. Some people, given free rein, would move from committee to committee, ministry to ministry, job to job, confident that God wills success or failure, thereby relieving them of any responsibility.

At a General Assembly — the national gathering of Disciples of Christ — in Ft. Worth a few years ago, I overheard a minister at lunch say, “The last two churches I served are dead, and they deserved to die!” There’s a man of great faith — in the wrong theology!

2 Peter 3:9 says God is “not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” Isn’t God powerful enough to get what God wants? So why do any perish? Because we decide to repent or not, to struggle or surrender, to be generous or greedy.

Generally speaking, Disciples are not Calvinists. But you wouldn’t know it to hear them talk of the inevitable demise of traditional church. Where traditional church is deemed too unholy to survive, the traditional church that actually survives and thrives becomes demonized as something unnatural, or essentially unChristian.

I’m not saying that church success requires a big-steeple church — but a big-steeple church building can certainly be useful real estate. I’m not saying that Elders must be old — but elderly people just might remember some essential element of church success from days gone by. I’m not saying that a 500-seat auditorium is a good fit for a 50-member congregation — but both can be excellent springboards for going forward as church!

I pray that pastors who decide that a church should fail will instead realize that they have failed to inspire the congregation. Instead of giving troubled churches an interim pastor, perhaps we should give troubled pastors an interim career, where they can shake their faith in inevitable death and regain the notion that with God, nothing is impossible.

Brass bending for squeeky faith

It looks like I spend a fortune on saxophones, but I only buy cheap, undervalued horns. New and collectible saxes cost thousands of dollars. I buy horns for $100 or less. But with trial and error, a tiny screwdriver, rubber bands and a few scraps of cork, I can make a cheap horn sound like its $1,000 cousin. I’ve sold at cost or given away most of these horns to promising young students, saving their parents a bundle! It’s a hobby that almost pays for itself.

These saxes sell cheap because they are common, damaged or out-of-adjustment. Like a good used car, they lose that showroom premium price when the first student opens the case. Some are abused, others neglected, but seldom is the problem over-use. More often, they are carelessly stored, played or transported by someone who doesn’t understand their value.

An old sax squeaks because it leaks. As you play, you stop the leaks by pressing the keys harder, which in turn bends the keys and seals the pads until the leaks and squeaks go away.

I’ve found my faith walk a lot like those old saxophones. At first, I squeak my way through counseling, teaching and preaching. My faith is weak, but I press on, bending the keys and sealing the pads, getting it better until I get it right. Eventually, it all seems effortless.

That’s the beauty of practice and soft brass that bends just enough when you press hard enough to sound the note.

The disciples said, “Lord, increase our faith!” Buy us a better sax, Lord. He said, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed,” you have faith enough.

The student ponders expensive instruments, mouthpieces and reeds and asks, “What part is most important to the sound?” The Old Master replies, “That fleshy part hanging off the end of the mouthpiece.” It’s not the horn; it’s the player. It’s not the faith; it’s the “faith-er”.

You don’t need a better Bible, a bigger church or a different set of talents. What you need is on-the-job training! Use your faith in service to God. Press on until the squeaks go away and listen as your melody of faith grows strong and certain.

Watching Souls Depart

I drove past the Hospice unit with my blinker flashing, planning to turn in and check on a congregant. It’s funny how quickly a habit becomes ingrained; he had only been there a week. Perhaps it was a hangover from so many other occasions when I’d touch base with a family holding vigil in the unit.

Then, I remembered. He passed this morning. It was a blessing for him and the family. The wait was over, the questions of pain and discomfort off the table. Gratefully, in this case, his salvation is assured by every measure a church can apply (behavior, charity, profession, baptism, etc.).

I did not wish that vigil on the family, or my friend. As breathing slows, the room is reduced to counting breaths, enduring painful seconds after each waiting for the next, when hope pinballs among lofty goals — I pray for the end; I pray for another; I pray for a miracle.

That body is the touchstone to a particular soul, like a pile of oil-stained rocks made sacred as an altar in Bethel. At the bedside, we can express appreciation, extol the goodness of God, share fond memories, and pray fervently for spiritual peace. Uncertain though we may be whether the soul hears any particular word, we are absolutely certain that we are in physical earshot, and maybe, just maybe, our words can bring the soul some comfort and assurance for the journey.

The stones at Bethel are lost among the stones, the oil washed away and the sacred spot profaned. My friend is gone, his room cleaned and set in order for the next vigil. The air, once heavy with pain and soaring faith, has been cleared, sanitized and freshened. I’m happy for my friend. I miss our time together, even the time we shared in this borrowed sacred space.

I look back on dozens of times when the cycle was repeated. Another opportunity to serve has ended. Nowhere else are prayers delivered with such boldness. Nowhere else is salvation so certain or grace so amazing. But the altar, that physical place where we meet with the spiritual, has lost its power. The body is laid to rest.

I serve an elderly congregation, so I’m no stranger to this cycle. Too often I am called to address the spiritual at earthly temples far younger, though just as worn. It’s a different dynamic than a case of sudden loss, where words must reach beyond the empty remnant of what used to be a temple.

I’m familiar with pastoral counseling to persons nearly or totally unresponsive. Too often, I’m called upon to convince a soul that it’s time to abandon this earthly shell. I’m called upon to use what is visibly fading away to point to the invisible certain and eternal.

Church, consider your pastors. You’ve lost parents, children, friends. Decide for yourselves what your pastors have lost — not parents or children, but if not friends at the beginning of that cycle, then certainly that, or something, at its end. We invest sacred time and words, we see the soul, and we see it struggle to stay or depart. We beg God to heal a spirit whose body is beyond repair. As the years pile up, we do this not just several times, but score after score, losing mental track when the number approaches a hundred or so.

It is wonderful. It is a glorious opportunity to touch the Divine. Anyone who has served this duty without trauma will profess that it is humbling, and an honor. But it comes wrapped in sadness and frustration. And when it’s over, we move on to funerals, eulogies, and bereavement counseling not just for families, but also for friends you never knew your loved one had.

Is your pastor distracted? Frustrated? Ineffective? Aloof? Perhaps her mind is on the magnificent pain of watching soul after soul fighting to stay or be free. Perhaps it’s on the anticipated next event, on what to say to the dying, their families, or to God. Perhaps the pastor’s thinking about how to isolate from yet another painful goodbye, or struggling with the guilt of even having such a thought.

The family is entitled to mourn, publicly and privately. The pastor does so as proxy for those who aren’t as free to express pain, doubt and faith. But the pastor is not similarly entitled.

It’s all just part of the job, right? But it’s a part of the job that we dare not dismiss as just another fact of life. This is not just another anything. It is a person, a beloved one, a unique creation of God. We see the sacred. We feel at least some of the pain. We address the uncertainty. We share a sense of loss.

How glorious it is to watch a soul soar from the temple to the Creator. How tragic it is to lose another friend. Only a peace that passes understanding can enable us to mourn with those who mourn. But try as we might to rest on that peace, there may be more comfort in knowing that Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, thus giving us permission to weep as well.