Tag Archives: Reflections

A Push and a Promise – A Message for Graduates

This past Sunday at New Garden Church in Nashville, we had our Graduation Sunday where we affirmed and honored the achievements of our high school grads.  As the Student Minister, I got to share a message with our awesome graduates and our church.  Here’s a manuscript of the message:

 

Let me just say that this is one of my favorite Sundays every year.  I’m so glad to be part of a church that says we want to affirm our high school grads in front of everyone.  So grads, let me start by saying, these are your people.  And church, let me start by saying, that we have a lot to be proud of with this group.

This week, in preparation for this morning, I spent some time wondering about the question:

“What does a student graduating from high school need?”

I asked my Facebook friends, and I got some good and weird answers (as Facebook does), things like:

A Cell Phone Charger, Access to transportation, A book, and A tool box. You need to know your SSN, you need someone you can talk to, A mentor. You need money management skills, Bandaids, and Laundry detergent

When I graduated high school, I thought I needed a lot of things.  I thought I needed to go to college, I thought I needed some graduation gifts, I thought I needed a new pair of shoes, and maybe most of all, I thought I needed to get a girlfriend.  Like me when I graduated, you probably don’t have all those things.

You all have been raised in a new era.  More and more you are able to see what the world has to offer.  You’ve grown up in a world where at just the tap of a screen, you can find anything that you want, good, bad, or ugly.  You’ve grown up in a world where at just the tap of the screen, you can make someone feel good, bad, or ugly.  Some would say that the world that you’ve grown up in is a better world than some past generations, and some would say that the world you’ve grown up in is a world that is farther gone than it was before.

I think either way, you’re not ready for the world.

I don’t think you’re ready for the heartache and the conflict.  I don’t think you’re ready for the inevitable failure coming your way, and I don’t think you’re ready for those things that you can’t control.  You’re going to make mistakes, and it’s going to hurt.  And I know that on some level, you’ve already been through some stuff that you weren’t ready for.

But here’s the thing, it’s not just you that’s not ready.  Look around at all these adults, none of us were ready when we were in your position, and we’re still not ready.

And 2,000 years ago, Jesus gave his disciples a task that they weren’t ready for.

After hanging out with this group of people for three years, they surely ate over a thousand meals together, they traveled together, and they had seen many miracles done in the name of Jesus.  The sick were healed, the blind received sight, and the dead were raised back to life.  But they still weren’t ready.

After Jesus was raised back to life, he was around and appeared to different people until it was time for him to go away.  And so Jesus has these people, his friends and followers meet him on a mountain for his final words to them on earth.

We’re going to pick up there in Matthew chapter 28:

16 Then the eleven disciples left for Galilee, going to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him—but some of them doubted!

Even after everything they had seen, three years of hearing Jesus teach and watching Him interact with the world, three years of miracles, and then being witnesses to the ultimate miracle, Jesus rising out of the tomb he was barricaded in, these people still doubt!  We find it easy to blame them, but I think this shows that doubting is part of the journey.  Along the way, we all doubt our faith.  It’s hard and confusing, but it’s part of following Jesus.  Having doubt is not wrong, and it is nothing to be ashamed of.  In those times of doubt, what’s important is that we don’t isolate ourselves.  Keep the conversation going. Find people who are willing to be in that with you.  If you need someone, I would suggest taking a look around this room.

Now we get to Jesus’ final words to his followers, A pep talk of sorts.:

“I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. 20 Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. 

He starts off letting them know He is in charge.  Jesus has authority.  What Jesus has said will come to pass.  We can trust that when Jesus says something, God’s going to back it up.  

Then Jesus gives them some parting instructions: “Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.”  Now sometimes we see this and we think it means we need to move to away to find people and turn them into church people, but this is better translated “As you go” instead of simply “go.”  So as you are doing whatever comes next, make disciples, baptize, and teach.

Sounds pretty easy, right? Wrong!  These followers of Jesus were not ready!  And when we read these instructions, neither are we!  I know that you’ve grown up in church or youth group, but this is scary and confusing.  Where do we start?  What do we say?  How do we get from here to there?

Jesus doesn’t wait till we’re ready to give us a push.

But Jesus doesn’t just give his followers a command, He gives them a promise.  And that’s what I want us to be focused on today.  Jesus goes on to say:

“And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

When Jesus tells us to go out into the unknown, He doesn’t leave us.  When Jesus tells us to make disciples, baptize, and teach the world, He knows we’re not ready!  When Jesus tells us to seek justice in an unjust world, He doesn’t expect or desire that we do it alone.

When Jesus gives us a push, He also gives a promise.

There used to be a kids swimming instructor in the area who had an interesting strategy for teaching kids to swim.  If you went to her lessons and didn’t know how to swim, and refused to get in the pool, she would literally push you in.  But guess what?  To my knowledge, they didn’t let anyone drown.  The instructors were there, in the pool, for when the kid needed a hand.  There was a push, but there was also a promise, “You aren’t going to drown.”

Now I know that this season of life has a lot of potential stress involved in it.  People asking you “what’s next?” “where to?” and all those other question that you don’t have a great answer to, and even if you do have solid plans, those will likely change.  You’re not ready, but you’re not going to drown.

So today, I want to give you, and all of us, a push.  But I also want to give you a promise.

Your life is here now, and it has been here. A story has already begun to be written with your life.  As you go about what’s next, fill those pages with a life following Jesus, you won’t regret it.  And that doesn’t mean your life will be boring!  Dream big, try new things, don’t be afraid to fail!  As you transition from this stage into what’s next, keep in mind what we are called to do, share our faith with the people we encounter along the way.  There will be plenty of opportunities to fiercely love your friends and your enemies.  There will be plenty of opportunities to seek justice for those who are not treated the right way.  There will be plenty of opportunities to show humility and place the needs of others above your own.  In all of these things, I am pushing you to follow Jesus, even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.

With that push comes a promise.  God will be with you always.  And that will look different at different times.  Sometimes God will give you the words to say to a friend in need.  Sometimes God will give you a friend’s warmth when you feel alone.  Sometimes God will show up right when you’re ready to give up.  God will be there.

Furthermore, I want to promise that the people of God in this room today will be there for you.  I don’t know how you feel about church or church people, and I don’t know how you’ll feel about church or church people in 5 years, 20 years, or 50 years, but I can tell you that no matter where we meet, what songs we sing, or what we call ourselves, the people of God care deeply for you.  We cannot follow Jesus on our own.  And guess what, you don’t have to be perfect or even pretty good to be with us.

I always say, that there’s nothing you can ever do to make God love you more, and there’s nothing you can ever do to make God love you less.  And we want to have that same mindset.  You are never too far gone to find a home here with us.  Never.  Our door will always be open to you.

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Spider-Man, Creation, and Blemishes

Have you ever made something that you were really proud of? A masterpiece of sorts?

When I was in third grade, I created a masterpiece.

In Art class, we had a new teacher named Mr. Stevens.  He was a really cool younger teacher.  Ok maybe I don’t know how cool he actually was, but to a boy in 3rd grade, a male teacher who isn’t old and boring is super cool.  Mr. Stevens was a really talented doodler, and he loved Marvel comics.  He would always show us some of his drawings of The Hulk, Wolverine, and others.  Spider-Man was his favorite superhero.  Spider-Man is undoubtedly cool; he’s a high schooler that can shoot super strong spider webs from his wrists, climb buildings without any gear, and fly through New York City swinging from web to web and building to building.  I probably would have thought Spider-Man was cool anyway, but the fact that Mr. Stevens liked him really put me over the top.  Mr. Stevens had a ton of drawings of Spider-Man in his classroom that he would show us, most of them were of Spider-Man swinging through New York City.

So one day, after watching Mr. Stevens draw Spider-Man a few times, I decided that I wanted to give it a try.  I started with Spider-Man’s eyes and head followed by the rest of his body, very carefully making sure everything was drawn to scale.  I finished with the web and the tall Manhattan buildings in the background.  It was a masterpiece.

Mr. Stevens had inspired me to create something that took detail and time, and it was the best picture that I had ever drawn (and to this day still might be).  But it wasn’t perfect. I still remember the blue mark that I accidentally scratched onto the paper.  The drawing got partially crumpled in my classically unorganized backpack.  And there were some other spots where I had gotten a tad careless and colored slightly outside of the lines that I had created.

When I look back on that time now, I realize that this seemingly insignificant art class experience was actually teaching me something past how to draw a bomb superhero picture.  I learned that creating something is exciting, worthwhile, and takes time.  I also learned that everything we create will have its blemishes.

In Genesis, our Creator God creates humankind in the Image of God.  Our creative God created creative people.  God then blesses them and commands them to create:

“Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.”  Then God said, “Look! I have given you every seed-bearing plant throughout the earth and all the fruit trees for your food. And I have given every green plant as food for all the wild animals, the birds in the sky, and the small animals that scurry along the ground—everything that has life.”

In the Bible, the first thing God tells people is essentially this: “I have created all of this for you. Be creative, fill it, take care of it. Go enjoy creation.

So we know how the story goes, in their creating, they make some mistakes.  They had to leave the Garden, and we call that whole tiny part of the Bible the “Creation Story.”  But God was far from finished creating, that was just the beginning.  Since then, God has continued in the task of creating and so have God’s creative people.

Since the Garden, people have created all kinds of things and very rarely gotten it right the first (or second) time!  Someone at some point figured out how to create fire and then someone found what to use it for.  People created wheels, irrigation, chariots, and now motorized vehicles, running water, and iPhones.  Each person on earth has been given both the ability and the need to create in one way or another.

I have several friends who create their own music.  That is a truly amazing thing to me.  Not only do they have to be able to play an instrument or instruments, but they have to be able to put the different sounds in an order that sounds good and also an order that hasn’t been done before.  A couple months ago I asked one of my musician friends if he thought that someday there would be no music created because everything had already been done before.  He said that he believes new music will always be created because there will always be more fusion and influence and creative people.

I like to write occasionally.  I don’t always have much to write about, but there are rare times like tonight when I can’t sleep because I have to get a thought out.  Writing is a challenge in creativity.  Much like music, I have wondered if someday there will be no new literature because there will be no more creative original thought, but the nature of God’s creation is to be creative.

When I create, there are blemishes.  No matter how well I did in English class in high school or Freshman Composition in college, when creation is involved, mistakes will be made.  Looking back at some essays and posts that I’ve written in the past, I see typos and misspellings (I literally just misspelled “misspellings” three times in a row).  I see ideas that I would word differently now than I did then, and I see posts that I simply wouldn’t write at all now.

I suppose that’s how life is too.  We move through life, and if we do it right, we create amazing and beautiful things.  We create relationships, we create systems, and we create things we’re passionate about.  But the creative process is a messy one.  As we go on living and creating in life, we’re going to make mistakes.  We are going to say something we shouldn’t have said to someone we care about.  We are going to go a little overboard and show a lack of self-control.  And we are going to end things too soon or hang on to things for too long.  These are the blemishes of life.

Often we feel the need to cover up our blemishes, but blemishes are signs of creation and life.  Others need to see our blemishes so they know that yes, we are a masterpiece, but we also are still learning and growing.  We are still being created by the Creator God who sees and knows every time we’ve accidentally scratched the canvass, crumpled things up, and colored outside the lines.  Though God sees our blemishes, God also sees and loves the larger masterpiece that we are creating.

We have been created by the Creator God to be creative people.  Don’t be afraid of messing up.  God is in the business of creating light in darkness, wholeness in brokenness, and masterpieces out of our blemishes.

The Pledge and Playing it Safe

Before I start, I just want to say that writing this is not easy. I’m well aware that many friends, family, or fellow Christians may disagree with me, but I also know that I am not always called to be agreeable. And I write this because I believe it to be truthful in my life. If I do end up posting what I write, I pray that God will do what He wills with it. God always seems to do that.

A teacher in school once told our class, “Never begin a speech or a paper with a definition.” BUT these teachers always said, there’s exceptions to every rule, and when we were a big-time author we could break the rules. I’m not a big-time author, but I do have my own, free-to-use blog that my mom may read, so I’m just going to break the rules anyways…

Merriam Webster defines allegiance as “devotion or loyalty to a person, group, or cause.” Now growing up in the U.S., the first thing I think of relating to allegiance is the “Pledge of Allegiance.” We all know it by heart. We grew up reciting it every morning in our schools. In elementary school, does anyone actually know what they’re saying? I remember thinking there was a word in the pledge that was “witchit.” I did not know what it meant, but we said it every day, so it had to mean something. As it turns out, that is actually two words “which it.” The whole thing goes like this:

I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

I don’t know why it seemed so long in school. Maybe because it was the morning? I am not much of a morning person. Or maybe it was because time seems to pass faster now? Who knows. Anyway, that’s what we said, every single day. Then when I was old enough to go to Church Camp, we said it there every morning as we raised the flag. This just seemed to me like part of life in this country, and I didn’t think another thing about it.

Well at least I didn’t think about it for a while. I graduated a year and a half ago from a school named after a preacher of the American Restoration movement, David Lipscomb. In learning about his life and his work, it struck me how he was unwavering in his stance that his citizenship was in the Kingdom of God, not in this country. Lipscomb did not take part in elections, and he also was a strong voice for nonviolence. Growing up in Christian circles, I had never heard this idea. Perhaps I thought that a good American was a Christian, and a good Christian was a “patriotic” person. For many older people with more life experience than my generation, some may view this country as a shining light of freedom in a world of darkness.

I have a hard time rectifying this vision of the U.S. as a beacon of hope with God’s vision of the Church. In Matthew 5, Jesus is preaching to the people.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”  -Matthew 5:14-16

This tells me that God’s light of the world is His people: the Church. God is calling His people to do good deeds to bring glory to the Father. We are God’s people. Many of us know of other Christians in other countries, and they are no less part of the Kingdom of God than anyone who lives in this country. So we, God’s people, are to be a light, I get that. What else is required of us? Jesus goes on his sermon, and he teaches on taking care of the poor, prayer, fasting, and finding our treasures in heaven. Then he says this:

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”  -Matthew 6:24

This is a painful teaching. Of course Jesus is talking about money here, but He is also talking about many other things that may become a master of our life. This teaching refers to power, sex, relationships, sports, and yes, the powers and authorities of the world. Occasionally, our country and God may have similar interests, but that is certainly not something that is consistent. God wants all of us, 100%, to be devoted to Him. Jesus’ message does not really attract those who only want a hobby.

This complete devotion that Jesus is requiring brings me back to the idea of allegiance. If we are completely devoted to following Christ, then our allegiance belongs to the Kingdom of God. I don’t believe myself capable of having multiple allegiances. At some point, we will make decisions that show where our devotion is, and I do not feel called to pledge my allegiance to a flag or a country. Believe me, this is not something that I really want to share on the internet. This idea has been banging around in my head for a few years now. I can no longer pledge allegiance to the flag and our country with a clean conscience.

This is not something I have decided based on the current political landscape or the many athletes who have taken a knee during the national anthem.  Throughout Scripture, God is calling upon His people to serve Him only.  All kids raised in church have to memorize the 10 Commandments.  Commandment #1: “You shall have no other gods before me.”  Commandment #2: “You shall not make for yourself and image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God am a jealous God.”  So maybe you don’t see standing, placing your hand over your heart, and pledging your devotion to a man-made object and human construct as idol worship?  OK, but its at least similar, right?

Then I look at a story from the book of Daniel about these three guys Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago.  Here these guys are living in a foreign empire and the king has a giant golden statue of himself made (a sign of empirical supremacy).  He decrees that everyone must bow down to this statue or be thrown into a furnace and burned alive.  So the time comes and everyone is gathered together in one place.  The instruments are played and everyone starts to bow, everyone except these three guys.  Can you imagine the looks even from other God-fearing people?  Can you imagine the whispering from their friends?  “Just bow and get it over with! It doesn’t mean anything! Just play it safe and do what you’ve gotta do!

Maybe you’ve heard, “Just play it safe and do what you’ve gotta do” before.  Maybe it was something at work that you just had to do to keep your job.  Maybe it was going along with the racist joking of a group of people because you were in the minority and didn’t want to be “that guy.”  There’s many times in our lives where we feel this pressure to play it safe and conform, and we are even advised by our friends and family to do so!  But I have been trying to think of a time where Jesus advised playing it safe, and I’m struggling to think of a time.

So anyways, the King has these three guys brought in and, to paraphrase, says, “I’m dead serious, I will throw you into the furnace if you don’t start playing along.”  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago, go on and tell this King that they believe God can deliver them from any harm, OH AND ALSO, and here’s the kicker for me, they say “But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold that you have set up.” *mic drop*

So now they’ve really done it!  The King is ticked!  He has the furnace made 7 times hotter than normal, ties them up and tosses them in there.  Then he looks in and sees 4 people in there, even though he only put 3 in… and the new one “looks like a son of the gods.”  They aren’t getting burnt up and their bindings are gone.  So the King has them brought out, and then goes on to praise God and decrees that “the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way.”

Not only did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago stand up for their convictions, but God used that to change the heart of the most powerful person in the world.  When we give a little, God multiplies it!

So all that to say, we are not called to play it safe or be agreeable.  We are not called to give our devotion to any earthly government or symbol of that government.  We are called to give 100% of our allegiance to the Almighty God, the only God who can save.

And I’ve had this post sitting in my drafts for 8 months, playing it safe, but today God gave me courage.  And let’s be honest here, I don’t have a wide readership.  And I stand at no risk to face imprisonment or any formal punishment because our country doesn’t do that, so how big of a risk am I really taking here?  But we can only be faithful with the platforms that we have been given.  We aren’t given the luxury of choosing what to care about. God tends to put stuff on our heart that won’t go away until we do something about it.

Also, I do not tell you this to start a movement. I simply tell you this because I had to. Maybe what I have written will make you think, and maybe you’ll read this and disregard it completely, that’s fine. I appreciate you hanging with me till the end.

more than me.

I woke up pretty late on my day-off today here in California.  It was about 11 o’clock or so, and I checked Facebook/Twitter/Instagram like I normally do when I wake up (gotta keep up to date on the world’s happenings).  Today was cool because many of my friends from back in Nashville at Donelson Church of Christ got back from Camp today.  From my social media creeping, it seems like this year was yet another successful year at Fall Creek Falls for Donelson.  Pictures and tweets point to a great week in Christ like many that I have experienced in the past.  This was my first year not being at the camp in 10 years.  Since January, I have thought about this year’s camp occasionally.  My thoughts have been hopeful.  Hopeful that those present would experience the Spirit of Christ through each other.  Hopeful that the counselors would love their campers in a Christ-like way.  Hopeful that the younger campers would take showers and change their clothes.  Hopeful that the older campers would be a light to each other and the younger campers.  I was hopeful, not worried.

The past few years at Camp, I had put in a lot of effort to influence it and leave a mark.  In my mind, Camp was my thing.  I was obviously the best counselor, the coolest staff member, and by far the best softball/volleyball coach.  I am extremely grateful for something Russ, one of our ministers, said to me in the Spring.  We were chatting in his office, and he said to me, “Camp is bigger than any one person.”  Donelson’s Camp, like many other camps around the world, is a living, breathing organism.  Camp has taken on its own identity, one that is bigger than any one person or group of people.  When one person can’t make it, someone else does.  When one cool tradition is discontinued, another one is born.  Camp evolves and changes, but it’s not going to shrivel up and die because of one little thing.  Camp is something that God uses mightily, and something that is set into motion by God doesn’t just stop.  So, cool staff members come and go, but there is only one who runs Camp (and it’s not the director…even a really, really awesome one).  

I guess what I am trying to say is: a lot of things change in our lives and in this world, but God doesn’t.  God is still God at Fall Creek Falls State Park whether I am there or not.  When I leave the Bay Area to go back to school in August, God will still be here.  A lot of times, I think Christians (good, well-intentioned, Bible-believing Christians) get the idea that they are taking God with them.  Taking God to our workplaces, schools, other countries, etc., but the truth is that God is already there.  God was here before we showed up, and He will be here after we’re gone.

The grass withers and the flowers fall,

but the word of our God endures forever.

                 Isaiah 40:8

above all else, God is.