Tag Archive: John Ring

Have you ever been stuck between a rock and a hard place and have no idea what to do, what to say and where to go?  I see those hands.  Remember, I was raised in an Independent Baptist Church.  Hand-raising during the invitation was normal.  

I have been and seen plenty of people get stuck in life.  Sometimes it has to do with change.  Rapid change.  My wife and I were stuck for about five years when we knew we wanted to move out of our old house, but nothing went right, and we could not sell our house or give it away.  So we stayed, but we both had a sense we were to leave.  Those five years were not hard but left us wondering often about jobs, schools for the kids, and other less important decisions.  

I remember clearly being stuck in a bad way for four years when I was going to leave the family business and go into the ministry.  I knew I heard clearly the calling of God.  I had no idea how I was going to tell my father we had to sell the business.  It took me four years to tell him.  My wife asked every morning, “Who did you fight in your sleep last night?” The sheets and blankets were tied in a pretzel.  I wanted to say, “God.”  I knew better.  I was fighting my own self.  Eventually I told Dad.  His response still rings in my soul, “Son, why didn’t you tell us earlier?  We all knew it!”  Wow, God works in amazing ways.

Not only do people get stuck ,but organizations get stuck.  Things change.  Areas change.  Change is constant.  Sometimes, we don’t get ahead of it.  Sometimes, we can’t see it. Other times, we see it and have our feet in concrete.  If an organization gets stuck too long, it can eventually count the days till its death.

We see this with companies like J.C. Penny, Gold’s Gym, Sears, and Neiman Marcus.  Before the current pandemic, they were struggling.  We are liable to see plenty more close their doors or alter them so much we won’t recognize them.  The rise of Amazon and Internet shopping, as well as the natural cultural change, has left these stalwarts on their knees.  

An acquaintance who was high up in IBM once told me the key to success when I was running our family business.  He said every year you will lose 15% of your business no matter what you do.  People die, move, and are lured elsewhere for many reasons.  He finished it off with an easy solution; “All you have to do is replace them with 16%.”  IBM is a company that has faced radical change over the years but is surviving the technological tsunami.  

The same goes for the church, no matter if it is a large church, small church, or a mega church.  A church is an organization.  They are run by boards.  The modern church went through it’s first tsunami when it moved from a modern-based church of the baby-boomers to a post-Christian world of the Millennials, Gen Z, and now Generation Alpha.  In between, we briefly entered a post-modern world.  All this left us with a culture that no longer listens to the church and considers it archaic, homophobic, Republican, and at times anti-societal.  I don’t have time to go into all the details.  I used to teach that a cultural earthquake was coming.  For a while I taught it is happening.  Now I teach it has happened.  It has left us crippled, and, look out, here comes another tsunami that may create a tidal wave larger than the first one.  

What do we do?  How will we survive?  Is it the end of the world as we knew it?  Is it the end times?  How many churches will close?  It’s those dang young people, isn’t it?  

Before we go predicting the end of the world, the day Jesus will come back, and if the doors will be locked next Sunday, let’s not forget this won’t be the first time God’s people were shaken.  

King David in the Old Testament was a warrior.  He did not rest too much.  He was generally prepared.  The few times he rested and got lazy he got into big trouble morally, and, at one point lost his throne for a time.  

We see he kept the 12 tribes prepared.  In I Chronicles David is counting the warriors as he makes plans to protect the kingdom of Israel.  It is an interesting read.  In the middle of his counting how many archers, artillery, and soldiers he had, we find a verse about the tribe of Issachar that is very relevant today and in all times.  It reads, “From the tribe of Issachar, there were 200 leaders…. All these men understood the signs of the times and knew the best course for Israel to take.”  They studied the signs of the times, and knew what to do.  

Instead of pointing the blame finger, they accepted the “times” before them and plotted the best course of action to take.  I like that.  I like that a lot.  The two key words were “understood” and “knew.”  They were just as important as the soldiers.  

Christian, what is going on in our world is not uncommon or new.  Instead of wanting to go back to normal, plan for the new normal.  In the end of the day, there is only one way to combat a hostile world when we are living for God’s kingdom.  He said, “love” at every turn.  Overwhelm our enemy with the love of God.  Nothing can stand against it.  

Through the month of August, I am going to focus on being the tribe of Issachar.  Maybe out of this journey into understanding we will know the BEST course of action for the church to take.  It won’t be pain free.  But, it will be best.  

Recently I had to preach.  I am not real fond of it, but filling the pulpit when our senior pastor is out is part of my position.  It might be that I am my  own worst critic.  I prefer the private ministry of the Word over the public ministry.  I guess I am really a teacher, not a preacher.  Regardless, I tend to preach up to four times a year.  It was my turn.  

When I am given the date of my next preaching assignment (usually about 3 weeks out), I begin the process.  The process starts with prayer.  As Vader (my dog) and I take our early morning and early evening walks, I ask God what his desires are to use me as a conduit for the gospel.  This lasts clean till the sermon is preached. 

As prayer begins, the next step is to engage the Scriptures more than a daily reading.  I’m usually looking for something to “slap” me.  Believe it or not, I get slapped often.  I’m a big picture, broad stroke kind of guy.  My dad told me one day, “Son, details will kill you.” However, I begin to pay attention to details in my Bible reading.  I ask questions.  I love to ask questions.  So, I begin to ask when a detail stands out, “Why is this in the Bible?”  Nothing is in the Bible by accident.  Each word has a purpose.  Believing in its inspiration, I believe God uses his Word for his purposes, and it is so alive that he brings it alive when he wants us to see something he needs us to see.

This time it was John 10:10.  In between two extended teachings by Jesus on the concept of He being the Good Shepherd we read, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”  Without boring you with a lot of detail ,the concept that rattled around in my brain for about two weeks and definitely on my quiet dog romps was, “Being like Christ is a practice of bringing life to others.  Anything else is death and destruction.”  

Years ago, an individual said he needed to have a better walk with Jesus.  I asked him what he meant by that.  We tend to use a lot of Christian sayings with no idea of what they really mean.  I continued to pepper him (probably unjustly) with more questions.  “Do I need to pray more?  Do I need to read more of the Bible?  How much more?  Do I need to fast or get into meditation?  What does it mean to walk with Jesus?”  Well, he never answered me.  

A walk with Jesus means a relationship.  Our relationship with Christ should lead us to understanding more about ourselves and growing a deeper affection for the love, grace ,and mercy he extends to ungrateful humans.  The walk ends up with us being discipled by Christ.  To be discipled means I get to keep my personality, but I walk in His footsteps, growing more like Him as we go along the way.  Therefore, the end result of this “walk” is each of us being a reflection of Jesus.  

John 10:10 brought new meaning to the reflection.  To be a conduit of Christ meant I was to bring “life” to others.  

Often when we put the word “life” with Jesus we immediately think eternal life.  From John 3 we find this truth.  However, here in John 10 the use of the word not only implies but instructs us to live in a way that brings life.

How we engage others is one of two choices.  Either we are bringing life to others or we are bringing death and destruction.  No wonder the “sinners” wanted to sit and eat with Jesus.  By the way, “eating” in Jesus’ day was not a quick bite and back to work.   It was a social event that was very communal and relational.  Thus, Jesus was not only eating with them, he was communing with them, building relationships by crossing bridges which were often cultural and bound by somebody’s laws, written or assumed.  They wanted to be with Jesus. Why?  He brought life to them, and it was more than eternal.

I got to thinking.  Do people want to be around me?  Do I bring them life?  If not, then I am an agent of death and destruction.  I know at this point some will love to debate the contrast.  However, Jesus never gave a third option.  It is in Western culture that teachers avoid the extremes and live in the middle.  Not so with Jesus.  Shutting up, avoiding, and choosing to not have interaction so our reputation is not damaged. is not a third choice.  Those reactions are only when we step aside for the love of God to shine through.  

The reason we bring life is that we love the giver of that life, and we love others by his grace.  Death and destruction occur when we love ourselves.  Grace and mercy are two of the pillars of the good news of Jesus.  However, if they are not rooted in the foundation of love (laying down our lives for another) they too may bring destruction.  

Since that day when John 10:10 reached up and slapped me, I hear a voice in my head often.  It says, “Life or death?”  Choose one.  Just remember one thing.  Your choice shows who is your master.  

From time to time, I have the privilege to work with addicts.  I call it a privilege since often an addict is more aware of their spiritual condition than the individual who sits in the same pew every Sunday.  Addiction, especially harmful addictions, are miserable.  My heart is sad every time I read about opioid deaths skyrocketing.  The pandemic has taken the attention off of the national plague.  It didn’t stop.  I have a feeling when the stats are released, we will all find the addiction rates and deaths will rise.  At the end of the day, there is not another way to say it;  Addiction just sucks.  It sucks life out of everything and everybody.  

There are multiple methods of dealing with addiction.  There are numerous step programs.  The choice is either inpatient or outpatient.  Support groups are common.  Individual therapy and counseling are available.  There are medical options that continue to grow in number.  Rehab institutions abound, depending on how much money one has to spend.  The Christian world joined in the fray with a “Christianized” recovery support group program tenitled “Celebrate Recovery.”  

One method of sobriety (I tend to avoid the word “recovery” since addiction often has to be dealt with for a lifetime) from our addictions is the 90/90 plan, which in my 20 some years of this type of ministry I’ve only had 1 person do it and, right now, have a 2nd person working on it.  90/90 is 90 meetings in 90 days.  From what I can tell, it does a good job getting people headed in the right direction, and the best part is that it extends behavior change beyond 28 days.

They say it takes 28 days to actually change any behavior.  For the most part, many addiction programs in rehab shoot for the 28 days.  90/90 takes the 28 days and adds depth.  Not only that, but beyond 28 days it extends potential positive relationships that can influence upward direction.  

The only person I have seen actually accomplish 90/90 once said, “I need to do this.  I really don’t want to use drugs, but the drugs tend to find me.”  That’s how it works.  The best-intentioned individual can be thrown to the curb without even trying.  Like I said, “Addiction just sucks.”  

As I was listening to the individual who is currently on day 35 talk about his 90/90 quest, I got to thinking once again.  My thoughts traveled back one more time to Acts 2.  It is in Acts 2 where we see the early church (Jews and Gentiles) dedicating (they meant it) themselves to daily (every day) behavior to grow in the knowledge (understanding) and grace (life style) of our Lord, Jesus Christ.  I asked myself, “What is the difference between an addict and a sinner?”  The answered was loud and clear; “None.”  

We are all addicts.  Some of us have addictions that are ruining our lives and are very dangerous.  Those are the ones that are not accepted socially.  Other addictions have become culturally accepted even if they are not liked.  Some are addicted to channel surfing.  Others are addicted to surfing the Internet.  Video or computer games can be highly addictive.  When I went to China, I discovered how much we Americans are addicted to food.  All of us can loose a few pounds ,and I’m right there as well.  

Basically, an addiction is anything we go to on a regular basis for satisfaction and happiness outside of God.  That definition just brought us all together.  Even “religion” can be an addiction.  Religion, as an addiction, is not the worship of God to glorify Him but, rather, an attempt for us to gain God’s approval with religious activity.  There is a big difference between the two.  In other words, we are addicts.  

Often our answer is that we need more self-discipline.  Last time I checked “self-discipline” is a gift of the Holy Spirit.  In other words, the best of us without the assistance of God lack self-discipline.  For 20 some years, I have watched people think they have self-discipline only to see them transfer the addiction to something else.  It gets justified by the thought that the old addiction is worse than the new one.  Isn’t running better then smoking?  It is.  But, running can be detrimental as well if the glory of God is not our purpose.  I Corinthians 10 says to “do all to the glory of God.”  

What am I driving at?  If an addict is encouraged to get on a 90 meetings in 90 days program with the understanding that after the 90 days he or she will still have to be attending probably 4 meetings a week for the rest of their lives, then what is our reluctance as sinners to do the same with our spiritual walk?  

I can hear it now.  What in the world is 4 meetings a week?  One is a support group meeting.  One is a growth meeting.  One is church.  One is either a counselor, life coach, therapist or a best friend that will not let you down meeting.  

Sinners, let’s quickly transfer that to daily life for us.  One is church.  One is a community or life group of some sort.  One is a growth meeting, like a Bible study.  One is a purposeful accountability meeting with a trusted brother or sister.  

Too much?  The early believers knew they were sinners who fall far short of the glory of God.  Two thousand years later, we are trying to find the easy way out.  There isn’t one!  What did the early church understand about all this?  They were sinners, and sinners needed daily help.  Welcome to the world of addiction.  Their spiritual meetings helped shape the rest of their lives.  How we doing on that one?

It’s going to be over one day, and I’m not talking about the end of the world.  This pandemic will have an end.  One day.  When?  Nobody seems to have a grip on that one.  We have become a people that expect an on and off switch on just about everything.  The pandemic doesn’t have a light switch.  It’s more like a dimmer.  

Basically, it comes down to a feeling of being in control.  With the new world of universal knowledge, the vast amount of information (real and fake) leaves an even greater feeling of being out of the driver’s seat.  The ability to gain knowledge at our finger-tips is not working out well.  We tend to forget that knowledge has to go through an interpretation lens.  Knowledge is not so much the problem.  The interpretations of it are.  

Here Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden with God’s truth before them.  That darn serpent showed up and gave a different interpretation or twist on the knowledge they had.  How did it go from there?  Not too well at all.  I have said often I want to get to heaven and have the opportunity to beat the stuffings out of Adam and Eve.  I stop and remember that the grace God gives me instead of beating me senseless is to be given to the first sinners.  The gospel of hope through Jesus Christ really is amazing, isn’t it?  We all have to remember we would have done the same thing as Adam and Eve, and don’t kid yourself.  

So how do we live in light of a relative world in the midst of a pandemic with vast opinions and information waiting impatiently for something to break so we can get back to normal?  The great philosopher Francis Schaeffer wrote a book titled “How Shall We Then Live,” speaking in light of living in the decline of conservative western culture.  Maybe it is time for someone to write a sequel since Dr. Schaeffer is no longer with us.  

A sequel is not necessary actually.  A refresher on Biblical principles is necessary.  That’s all Dr. Schaeffer did.  He studied deeply the various aspects of culture and applied Biblical truth.  Honestly, that is what is needed in any of our life disruptions.  

I was thinking about the winnowing down of Biblical instruction and practice over the years.  In Acts 2, we see the early church dedicating themselves to four principles on a daily basis.  Did you catch that? Daily.  Every day they gathered together to study the teachings on Jesus, pray, fellowship (that wasn’t popcorn and a movie), and break bread (a meal or communion).  Now, fast forward to today.  We think attending church bi-weekly for the worship service is all we need, with a little 15-minute daily devotional.  We don’t have a Biblically illiterate secular culture.  We have a Biblically illiterate Christian culture that has been seduced by bright lights, popular music, and smiling people.  

With the lack of deep Biblical instruction, we have ourselves morphed into a Christian culture that is seldom united by the Holy Spirit (that was the Biblical purpose) ,but instead places great value on individual interpretation of the minute details of Biblical instruction.  Why?  Just like the pandemic issues ,we value our own interpretation of the information (often general) more than we value that of experts.  We have become the experts.  

Meanwhile, there are three basic Biblical principles that apply to our current social distancing protocols.  We are guided to decide on wearing a mask or not.  We are guided on living in a world that fears great illness and death.  We are given hope in what seems like a hopeless estate, especially if one is at-risk.

The first principle is “love your neighbor as you would want to be loved.”   Jesus said this is real close to loving Him.  By the way, love is defined in the Bible.  In I John 3:16, John the apostle, says love is the “laying down of your life for the sake of another.”  So, it’s not all kisses and ice cream.  It’s hard. It’s sacrificial.  It’s outside of our opinion and desires.  Our “neighbor” takes a position equal with us.  

The second principle is found in Philippians 2 when the apostle Paul writes, “Each of you should not look after your own interests but also to the interests of others.”  Paul repeats the golden rule.  Let’s get moving together. “It’s not all about me.”  Repeat again, “It’s not all about me.”

The third principle takes us to another level when Paul in Corinthians says we are to respond so we don’t offend the weaker brother or sister.  He upped the ante.  He is repeating clear instruction from Jesus in Matthew 25 when we are to live a life that assists “the least of these.”  Believing in Jesus is not about power but service.  You will find that instruction from Jesus to James and John (the sons of Thunder) in Mark, chapter 10.  

There are very few “but” or “maybe” clauses in the Bible.  Jesus never said, “Serve that person unless they are an idiot.”  We find Jesus washing Judas’ feet even when he knew Judas would be a traitor before the night was out.  There are no “jerk” clauses either.  One will not find “Wash each other’s feet unless they are a jerk.”  Quite the opposite.  

Looking out for the weak and least of the human race was to mark the Christian more than the endless quest to moral excellence.  We have clear instruction.  At the end of the day, I don’t like not shaking hands with others.  I don’t like not getting a warm hug of affirmation.  I don’t like stepping back instead of being close.  I despise wearing a mask.  However, under the instruction of someone far greater than me and you, I will wear a mask, not shake hands and keep my distance.  I’ll do it with a smile and no grumbling.  That’s in the Bible too.  One day it will end.  Then we will have to figure out our response to whatever will be the new normal.  I will lay odds the answers to that one are in the Bible.

Theology can surely drive a sane person crazy.  It can even affect the seminary students.  I find they might hit the greatest challenges of faith.  Book knowledge changes form when people are involved.  

Has anyone seen the movie “Gran Torino” starring Clint Eastwood?  It is up there on my favorite list.  I’m not sure where it stands, but it’s up there.  For those who have not seen it, the movie is not about racing.  It’s really not about a car.  I will stop there.  Rent it.  

In the movie Clint Eastwood is morning the death of his wife.  The young and I may add, very young priest comes to give care.  In the middle of the conversation, in a way only Clint Eastwood can do, he says, “(to Father Janovich) I think you are an overeducated 27-year-old virgin who likes to hold the hands of superstitious old ladies and promise them eternal life.”  By the way, the language might be a bit rough.  Consider, yourself warned.  

The young priest wasn’t taught this stuff in seminary, I can guarantee it.  Three issues in one sentence.  His education was questioned.  His belief system was challenged.  His relationships were ridiculed.  Basically Eastwood was asking, “What do you know about life?”

We all ask that question from time to time.  We don’t do it by challenging the pastor or priest.  We do it in the silence of our bedroom when our behavior wrestles with our heads.  We ask, “What was I thinking?”  The answer is often overlooked since it’s hard to get that answer.  

If we stay at it, eventually we will ask God, “What in the world are you doing?”  The answer may never be given.  We ask that question especially when things are out of our control.  Maybe it is a positive diagnosis with the COVID-19 virus.  It might be a lay off or failed business due to the recent downturn in business, especially in the restaurant world.  The stock market can make anyone wonder at times.  

Often we resort to a false theology of salvation plus works.  In our modern world, that would be called a prosperity theology.  That one says you must live a good enough life to receive a “blessing” from God.  If you are not “blessed,” you must not be living right.  Guess what?  That’s controlling legalism at it’s worst.  God will do what God wants to do with us, through us, and in spite of us.  Why?  He is God, and that’s how he works.  It’s about God, not us.  When we put ourselves in the primary position, all Biblical theology suddenly starts to snowball down hill.  

Feeling bad?  Don’t worry.  We all do it from time to time.  There are plenty of functional bad theologies in life.  Most are centered around the words “I” and “me.”  They all sound a bit right but take a wrong turn.  I have to, from time to time, check my prayers for some pretty “me” focused theology. 

Prayers that are always telling God what we want might be wrapped in ourselves instead of the Potter.  There is a big difference between telling God what we think should happen and asking God to be glorified no matter what state we are in.  God is the potter.  We are the clay.  Remember that one, and we will be on a decent path.

Another area of bad theology is often around being right or giving life.  Jesus talks about not condemning people.  He talks about giving life.  He is often the hardest on those who insist on being right.  When we insist on being right we take the place of God.  I have found that that is not a good position.  Giving life and being righ,t take on different forms.  It took me way too long to discover that giving life is more important than being right.  Even then, my old ways want to win out.  Don’t worry.  That’s what makes the gospel so sweet.  

The good news is we don’t have to be right.  Jesus paid the price for our failings on the cross.  He makes forgiveness and unconditional love possible.  Even when we resort to bad theology to have our way, he has it covered.

So how does all this work?  Well, it’s not like sitting in front of a fire hose waiting for God to turn on truth.  God works in the “ta-da” moments.  What in the world is a “ta-da” moment you may ask.  It’s the brief glimpses we get outside of this fallen condition where God gets the message through.  It is when God and life meet and all is well even if there is chaos, death, and destruction all around us.  

Ta-da moments include those times we cannot forgive, but we do.  It is those times we want to run, but we stay and not fight but love well.  It is those moments when the gospel is lived out through us.  We like to think that is all the time.  Don’t get to haughty.  The ta-da times are rare and momentary.  God does this so that we won’t get blown away by his majesty and holiness.  He works with broken people in a broken condition.  That is who he is.  That is his love.  His grace.  His mercy.  When the trifecta becomes a ta-da moment, we get to understand the width, depth, and length of Jesus’ love a little bit more.  Enjoy those times.  They won’t last long, but they keep us yearning for more of Him.  Ta-da. 

There is a book out there written probably about 20 years ago now titled “How Movies Helped Save My Soul.”  I had to stop for a minute and look it up.  It was printed in 2003.  In our new world order something 17 years old might be declared obsolete.  Anyway, even if no one reads a 17 year old book anymore the title’s concept is still relevant.  Hollywood might not know it but it tends to support the gospel.  The gospel is about man’s redemption and a lot of what is produced on the big screen is redemptive in nature.

Just recently I caught something in a Disney movie.  I know already my kids are going to roll their eyes if they read this.  They think I over think things, things that are not worth thinking about to them.  Sorry, but the good news of Jesus Christ is reveled in more than what we would label “sacred,” “spiritual,” or, “Christian.”  The gospel is not confined to an ancient manuscript.  It’s all around us.  All you have to do is look for it and have the Holy Spirit open our sometimes blind eyes.  

I was watching the new Disney movie “Onward.”  I have to admit I have not gotten to the end of it yet.  In the early part of the flick one of the characters proclaims that his interest had wained in his life.  He declared, “over time the magic faded away.”  The character was in my estimation a teenager.  

Living in this world will seek to wipe the magic out of all of us.  It’s nature actually.  Why do pro athletes retire before they are forty years old for the most part?  Their bodies age and the aging has a way of taking the magic away.  It’s part of living on this side of glory.  Things become harder.  For the MLB pitcher it harder to strike out the young guys.  In the NFL it becomes a struggle to put the bumps and bruises aside from the week before.  In all sports we lose a step.  Unfortunately, these examples happen in regular life as well.  

When life becomes harder indeed the magic tends to fade.  When we wake up one morning and realize we can’t quite do what we used to do, magic is replaced with reality.  The reality can be painful.  It can become boring. Often when this happens we stop dreaming.

I was asking a middle-aged man today what has caused him and his wife to stop dreaming.  At first he said he had no idea.  Then he hit the nail on the head and declared, “failed expectations.”  Bingo.  Welcome to the club.  

The only problem is they stopped dreaming.

We stop dreaming to avoid the pain and suffering of the busted balloons.  We stop dreaming because we as believers and followers in Christ think moral failure means the end of the road.  We stop dreaming because someone told us who were to be and what we were to do and when the music faded and the magic faded away few stayed around and encouraged us to dream again.

Part of the redemption process is being able to see.  See, there is hope in tomorrow.  We don’t have to settle for what has been lost.  We can get back up again.  There is so much more to the gospel than we get to go to heaven.  Everyone thought the magic was gone and the music died when they left Jesus in the tomb.  We see few believing.  We find many hitting the road or going back to their old ways (fishing) instead of looking with enthusiasm to the risen Lord.  The apostle Thomas was totally beside himself.  His doubt paralyzed him.  Think he was dreaming again?  I doubt it.  

But Jesus displayed there was new hope in death.  Now his word come to life for us.  He said, “In order to find life, you have to die to the life you currently have.” It’s like nature.  I can’t have new flowers in my garden unless the old ones die.  Death is not the end of the road.  It’s the beginning.  Honestly, if we have the gospel as our guide, when God takes away pieces of life, they needed to go.  When he has something die in our lives, keep your head up, something new is coming.  If the grave could not cancel him, our busted dreams cannot keep him away either.  

Our dreams aren’t what we want to do.  Our dreams now include what we an do with Christ leading the way.  I spent years in two careers building my resume.  When I turned 35 God had other thoughts.  He called me into ministry and eventually brought us down to some place called Bluffton, South Carolina.  The ministry journey has now gone on for 25 years.  Busted dreams, sure.  New dreams, plenty.  

In the movie Onward, we have to understand any magic made by man will fade.  It’s the magic of the resurrected one that brings, of all things, “new life.”  For my wife and I it brought volumes of life journeys that we in our faith would not trade for the first 35 years.  

The magic of the resurrection and the Holy Spirit is beyond explaining.  The only way it fades is we consume the things of this world forgetting that everything reveals the nature of the good news of Jesus Christ.  When we can see that, life gets interesting.  So, dream on, wayward child.  But keep your eyes open and your head up.  Life is about to get rolling.  Onward.  

Does anyone remember the milk commercial a few years ago that had a young man dancing as he drank milk?  I don’t know if it was only in the Mid-Atlantic area or not.  It’s memorable because he really could not dance.  He was on the rather large size, and his dancing abilities were quite limited.  Maybe you had to see it to understand.  

I could relate since he danced a lot like I dance.  We are all left and right brained.  It shows up in whether we are right or left-handed.  Right-handed people are left brained and the opposite is true for those who are left-handed.  A few can use the left side as well as the right side.  Those are very few.  

When it comes to dancing, I wonder if we aren’t up and down divided in our brain as well.  I know there is no such thing, but I wouldn’t be surprised one day if it is discovered.  Let me explain.  I can move the upper part of my body to a rhythm.  I can move the lower part of my body as well.   Put the two together and it simply will not happen.  That is what makes the milk commercial stand out to me.  He danced like me.

Don’t get me wrong, I love to watch people dance.  A really good dancer is a thing of beauty.  It can be a ballet dancer or a break dancer.  They can keep my attention for a long time.  I do admire people who can do things I cannot ,especially in the music and dance arenas.  That’s why I watch “America’s Got Talent.”  The dancers are awesome.  

For those who read this and are of the ultraconservative bend, don’t have a heart attack but dancing is in the Bible, and it’s not described as the tool of Satan.  Dancing is attributed to joy and celebration.  David danced.  Ecclesiastes says, “A time to weep, a time to laugh: a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”  It’s pretty clear that God’s chosen people in the Old Testament loved to dance.  

I have the opportunity to preach from time to time.  One time during worship a member’s daughter was dancing during a song.  They tried to get her to stop.  I came off the stage during the next song and told them to let her dance.  I encouraged them to join her.  They didn’t join her, but they did let her dance.  It was beautiful.  It was her heart.  Who ever said Presbyterians are frozen?  

Last night I had the opportunity to lead a discussion with a few men, one in particular was in trouble.  Deep trouble.  During the conversation, one of the guys who has gone through the valley said, “Brother, you are dancing in the darkness.”  It about knocked me over.  

Like everything else, dancing is a matter of the heart.  The young girl I mentioned a paragraph ago was not dancing in the dark.  She was displaying her love for the Lord.  Most of the dancing in God’s people is a response to the goodness of God.  However, there is some dancing in the darkness.  We see Herod had his step daughter dancing to entice him right before she requested the head of John-the-Baptist as a gift.  Who ever said the Bible was boring obviously has not read much of it.  

Dancing with our sinful nature is often done in the dark.  It leads often to consequences that will be exposed in the light.

I literally dance in the dark.  Why?  I don’t want anyone to see my inability to move the top half of my body with the lower half.  If anyone ever gets a video of it, out will provide laughs a long, long time on Youtube.

We dance in the darkness with the idols of our heart and the sin of our desire so that nobody will see.  Jesus talked about things done in the dark.  In Luke 8 Jesus declares, “For all that is hidden will eventually be brought in to the open, and everything that is concealed will be brought to light and made known to all.”  It’s true.  After 20 years of counseling I often giggle inside when someone tells me how they were exposed.  

I wish I could tell you some of the stories, from dogs giving away secrets to phantom phone calls and what seem like accidental interruptions.  Don’t believe in God?  You need to hear these stories.  There has to be a God, for he did say he will make the hidden known.  

Dancing in the darkness is the same as playing fetch with a rabid dog, trying to pet an alligator, or flying an airplane with no fuel.  The light, especially the light of God’s word, makes what we think is good, real ugly.  

If something can’t be done in the light of the public or, for believers, in the presence of another believer, it probably shouldn’t be done.  The Bible doesn’t say don’t dance.  Like everything, it’s about the heart or motive.  

I was just thinking, having someone to walk in the Light with, is like taking dance lessons.  I have to go and take some lessons.  We all do.  Dance with me.  We will laugh and be free.  Jesus says there will be a banquet in the heavens when he returns.  I bet there will be dancing.  

The embers of the fire still glowed in the dark.  There were no street lights to dull the brightest of the stars that night.  The boys, all ten of them, lay in their tent talking endlessly as the night drifted by.  Their crazed youth leader and his trusted volunteer also sat in their tent, listening to the divergent conversations.  The words came fast. The thoughts were shared shamelessly.  The stories freely flowed.  

As we listened, the random thoughts of teens ran the gamut.  One would think the opposite sex would dominate the evening air.  Instead, the stories focused on family, disappointments, and, believe it or not, God.  Much information can be gathered by listening.  On that given night, there was nothing else to do.

Forget the data learned from college classes.  Listening to ten boys openly share life under a starry sky till all hours of the morning will teach more than any social science, psychology, or human growth and development class can educate in an entire semester.  It was as if the clock had stopped telling time, and the world stood still.  

As their worlds were put into words, my heart melted.  Actually it hurt.  Their view on love, family, responsibility, God, and the future was skewed for sure.  Only it was not in the direction one would think ten “youth group” boys who attend every meeting and church on Sunday would go.  At one point, my head began to shake in disbelief.  Finally, as one of the more “secure” kids told his views on delicate subjects, I turned in shock and dismay to my assistant, looking for confirmation I was not crazy.

The young man sitting next to me with his legs crossed had his hands in his face and tears were streaming down his cheeks.  We spoke in whispers not wanting to cease the boys’ interactions.  “Are you ok?” I asked.  “No,” came back to me in a feeble voice.  “Can you believe what you are hearing tonight? I implored.  “John,” he said in a low and distraught tone, “you don’t see it, do you?”  It was my turn, “No,” I replied.  “Look at the boys and then look at me and tell me what we have in common,” he instructed.  So I sat there a few minutes and took mental notes.

I saw ten males. While the boys were all about the same age, my faithful companion was significantly older than they were.  They all went to the same church, but they went to different schools.  The all had wild ideas.  Eventually I gave up and looked up to my still weeping friend.  “I’m not sure,” I admitted.  “Help me see.”  

It was at that moment when the word “see” left my lips that I could actually see.  No flashlights went on.  The sun did not rise (thank you Lord for that one).  The light went on in my mind.  I understood.  All ten boys and my volunteer youth leader came from majorly disrupted homes.  Seven of the ten came from divorced families.  One boy’s parents were quickly headed to a divorce.  Two had never met their biological dad, and my friend…his dad died from cancer when he was ten years old.  Their view of life was flowing through their family life.  The interpretive lens was not their peers.  It was not their youth pastor and the Bible lessons.   It was mom and dad with a huge emphasis on dad, missing or present.  

I was changed that night.  As I lay there restlessly till the sun peaked above the horizon, I asked God what all this meant.  It did not take long for that light to go on.  It meant that I could never assume again that anyone listening to my voice came to the same conclusions I did.  It would take more than Sunday attendance.  It would take more than a kid sitting in youth group every week.  It would take more than encouraging them to read the Bible.  

Don’t have a heart attack.  Let me explain the last statement.  All the boys in that tent had a view of “love” that would make anyone’s head spin in circles.  That is, until we understand how they got the interpretations.  If they are in a “Christian” home and their parents say they love each other or love everyone around them one would expect that love to be Biblical in nature.  It was to be a lasting love.  It was to get all of us through tough times.  But the love we talk about in the Bible did not get their parents (who they love) through.  Therefore, when we tell them God loves them, how do they interpret this basic truth?  They do so through their experience with their parents.  

I was talking to a young man whose parents divorced.  He affirmed these thoughts.  He talked about wondering if God would love him up to a point and then dump him.  What we experienced in the tent that night was not an aberration.  It is the norm. 

As we move out of our coronavirus quarantine, we have an opportunity to hit the reset button.  We have learned that the individual relationship is more important than we ever thought.  Why?  We can apply gospel truth instead of assuming it.  Having and being the gospel representation to a very few may be more important than the various gatherings we propose outside of worship.  What does the reset button look like to be a restorative church of shalom whereby the local relationship of a very few are encouraged and resourced?  I have my thoughts, but many think I’m plain nuts.  I do know one thing.  Jesus, when he rose from the dead talked, and walked, and ate, with a few individuals at a time.  Maybe, just maybe, he was showing us something of great value that we have set aside for the fantastic, easier, and popular. 

Our country is in a crisis.  While we struggle against an unseen enemy called a virus we struggle against a seen enemy.  That enemy is racism and bigotry at many levels.  We, the ones who claim to have the answer, run the gamut of silence to verses to words spoken with little power and energy.  Words seldom change anything.  

Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about the rioting in his days.  He said that the table had been set for them.  His answer to stop the violence was not more words.  He said, “Riots are socially destructive and self-defeating.”  He was correct.  Violence only creates more problems and violence.  We should know this by now.  

He gave an answer, and his answer is for us all.  He called for a condemnation of the conditions that caused riots as well as condemning the rioting.  He spoke clearly when he said,”As long as America postpones justice, we stand in position for occurrences of riots.  Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”  These words are more powerful today those in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.  

At this point, American society tends to break down into debates and critique of such words.  On top of the day of personal opinion ,we have those who riot not so much for the cause of justice, but simply to riot and create chaos.  Those who do this deflect the importance of the issue at hand, keeping injustice wallowing in the streets.  

The minor-prophets in the Bible’s Old Testament condemned God’s people for failing to stand against injustice.  They turned a blind eye to the abuse of those who Jesus called “the least of these.”  It is one thing to not help someone in need (see the story of the Good Samaritan).  It is another to turn the blind eye to it.

I have had these issues in my own family.  My grandfather was a robed Ku Klux Klan member, and we are pretty sure he was involved in illegal activities when he lived in the Tampa area.  He always carried a pistol, claiming that if a black man crossed his path, he would kill him on sight.  It is sad to say, he probably would have gotten away with it back in those days.  He was an evil man.  We avoided him as much as we could.  There were few tears shed on the day he died.  All things related to his evil past were burned and buried.  

I would like to say the burning ended the spirit of racism and bigotry in my family.  It ended the desire to reap destruction and death on someone for the color of their skin, but the spirit of racism is hard to squash.  Of that, we all need to repent.  We may not carry pistols in our pockets.  We may not join clubs.  We may not act racist, but it comes out.  It slips out like a snake slithering across the lawn.  You can’t see it till it’s too late.  

I could tell too many stories of men I know and saw and heard who were favored in a church, only to have them reveal their latent racist attitudes.  I told one man a few years back he needed to resign from leadership in the church for his bigotry toward women and African-Americans.  Let’s just say our relationship was never the same afterwards.  

The spirit of racism can be beaten.  For my family, it was indeed the growth of the gospel in our family.  I hope my grandfather rolls over in his grave if he can see that some of my best friends are African-Americans.   There are no better people than my twin brother by different mothers, Dwayne Dixon, Rev. Paul Hamilton,  Rev. Bennie Jenkins, Walter Wheeler, and Jim Gadson.  I would lay my life down for these men.  I can with boldness declare my love for them.  Pop, roll, baby roll.

Even with all that, there are still issues I need to repent of as well.  While I don’t wish any harm to those who are not Caucasian, I cannot say I have done my best to work on social justice and progress either.  I have loved at times, as Martin Luther King Jr. also said, “tranquility and ease.”  When those become my gods, I slink back into silence and become appalled at violence with little feeling for the oppressed.  Of this, my heart needs Jesus’ touch.

I don’t feel like I have purposely had “white privilege” but I have had it regardless of what I think.  Some of it is socio-economic.  Some of it is education.  Some of it is I was simply born into a hard-working, white family.  I don’t expect minority populations to hold it against me, but I do want my heart to acknowledge the situation and be concerned for others who do not have the same path to success.  

The Bible is clear.  One thing belief in Jesus brings is a love for others.  It was to be a love that looks out for the interest of others not just my own.  The Apostle Paul didn’t say, “Fall on your sword and suffer.”  He did say consider others.  When my heart is set on things of this earth, I will only consider myself.  I will have biased opinions.  I will seek to protect my own interests and not give one cent for the interest of others.  When Jesus takes completely over, “I” is replaced with “we” and “us.”  

My heart aches today.  It aches because we claim the good news of Jesus Christ as our hope and salvation and yet fail  my fellow minority brothers and sisters.  Forgive me.  You have asked for bread,  and I gave you a stone.  You asked for a coat, and I failed to give you one, much less two.  You asked me to walk with you, \instead, I demanded you walk with me.  In forgiving me ,let’s go at this again.  Let’s not give up.  

In closing, we must stand up for unarmed young men and women killed by the guns of those looking to pick a fight.  We must stand for men abused at the hands of an authority.  We must stand for those who cannot stand on their own.  To stand we must first get on our knees and invite the Lord Jesus, who understands this all first-hand, to be our God and our guide.  Let’s take the first step.  Kneel with me to Jesus and to those we have offended. 

We opened the church doors and let the people in.  It felt so good.  Everyone was “considering the interests of others” and maintaining the new social protocols.  Just two months ago we didn’t even know what “social distancing” was much less practice it.  A few wore masks.  The only things still missing were the handshakes and the hugs.  It will be a while before they return.  I guess we can’t “greet everyone with a holy kiss” as instructed by the Apostle Paul.  Don’t worry.  We didn’t do that before we ever heard of COVID-19.  

I like it when a congregation laughs.  We don’t find much laughter in the Bible, but I do think the believers did laugh.  God has to laugh from time to time.  If not, he would be a crying God for sure.  His creation can get in the biggest messes so easily.  Job, a man of patience and suffering, did say in Job 8, “He will yet fill your mouth with laughter…”. I’m not sure f the “proper” place of laughter in our faith ,but I do feel it is good to laugh.  

It was time to laugh again after about 8 weeks of mind-numbing self-isolationism.  I got up to pray with a mask on.  I asked the congregation if they knew who I was.  Between the mask and my hair (it was 6 weeks overdue for a cut and out of control), I’m not sure I knew who I was when I looked in the mirror.  They laughed.  They knew who it was.  

How did they know who I was?  You can cover the mouth.  You can change your hair.  It’s your eyes that give your countenance away.  Not only that, but, after 15 years, there is no hiding this body image.  They knew me, and, honestly, it felt very good to be known.  I could not hide my identity from them.

We as believers have two identities.  We have an identity that at times feels like our feet are encased in concrete.  That’s our depraved or sin nature.  I was talking to a young man who does not believe in Jesus at all.  If I told you his beliefs about Jesus, you would shake your head.  He even admitted that, he formed it on his own, and it is not in any book.  Anyway, also believed that there is something wrong in this world and with every one, including himself.  He doesn’t think there is any answer.  

That identity he is referring to is generally our default button.  It does not have good results, and, if left unchecked, can drive us into all sorts of trouble.  It’s like a person who struggles with alcohol.  One drink and he might not go on a binge, but it is still lying to him.  Eventually, usually sooner than later, it catches up to them, and they wonder how they got a DUI or lost their family.  That identity is real.  

My best friend described it well.  He said, “It (our depraved identity) keeps us longer than we ever thought we would stay.  It takes us places we never thought we would go.  Worst yet, it costs us more than we ever thought we would spend.”  

On the other hand, we as believers in Christ have a second identity.  We like to call it an identity in Christ.  We like to use phrases like that, all without describing or explaining them.  A man at a conference once said “I learned I need to have a better walk with Christ.”  I asked him immediately, “What does that mean?”  He couldn’t answer.  So what does an identity in Christ mean?

The Bible describes our new identity many different ways.  It says things like we as believers are “Beloved of God, New Creatures, Alive to God, The Temple of the Holy Spirit, At Peace with God, Empowered by God, Children of Promise, The Body of Christ, Kingdom Citizens, Vessels of Honor, Salt of the Earth, Light of the World, and Fishers of Men.”  That’s not all of them.  There are plenty more.  

Usually when I refer to our identity in Christ I focus on the “Kingdom Citizens” description.  Today as I write, the one that catches my attention is “Vessels of Honor.”  A lot of life likes to tell us quite the opposite.  We tend to live according to how we see ourselves.  How many times has someone sought dominion over us and used words to describe us that catch our ears and record them in our brain?  Plenty.  

“Vessels of Honor” are in the hands of God.  They are declared worthy of the king.  They are held in special regard and cared for with gracious hands.  Our current situation being mired to this earth reminds me of the closing scene in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  The four Hobbits are being honored for their journey to save Middle Earth.  Remember, Hobbits are small, generally unadventurous, simple creatures.  Their subtitle is “Halflings.”  As vessels of honor the crowd kneeled before them honoring their commitment to defeat evil.  That scene gives me the chills every time.  

The depraved side of us is very strong and devious.  Our honorable side can often be called “a Halfling” for it tends to be weak when we are not tuned it very well with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.  At the end of the day, in our decisions and choice of behavior there is only one question that has to be asked, “Who am I at this moment?”