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Salsa Church

It’s been beautiful at our house this summer.  Hot days, warm nights and just enough rain. For a backyard gardener like me, that means ripe garden tomatoes, crisp bell peppers, hot jalapenos and habaneros, and fresh onions are stacked on the counter in our kitchen.

That can only mean one thing… Salsa time!

270169_2071191253320_2714230_nSo recently, I pulled out my largest stock pot, filled my dishwasher with quart Mason jars and settled in for the lengthy process of making and canning my own blend of spicy hot salsa.  I spent most of a Saturday morning peeling tomatoes, slicing onions and seeding peppers. Then, after chopping them up in the food processor, they were dumped together to mingle their flavors in a simmering pot.

185237_2071192773358_596538_nAs I stood at my stove slowly stirring my bold southwestern stew of wonderfulness, it occurred to me that this pot of mixed vegetables was in many ways a metaphor for what the church in America has become.

Under the heat of social and media criticism, it so often seems that the church, courting the world’s approval, has willfully chosen to mute its message. But in so doing, it unknowingly becomes so blended with the society around it that it loses its individuality and distinctiveness, and ultimately, 223026_2071192573353_4998913_nsadly, much of its impact. As in my batch of salsa, once the heat was turned up, it became hard to tell where the tomato flavor stopped and the onion started!

In His prayer in John 15, Jesus alerted us that the world would oppose His followers…

If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.… They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. (vs 18-21)

The Greek word Jesus used to describe the church he would establish is ekklesia, (Matt.16:18) which means “the ‘called-out’ ones.” So, by definition, the church is a group of people who are called out of their surroundings by God and through their response of faith in Christ’s work on the cross, now belong to Him. They are people set apart by Him and for Him.

But the need to retain a distinctive flavor doesn’t mean that we should pull back from the world and isolate ourselves from our culture.

Scripture doesn’t record that Jesus spent much time engaging the religious community during His time on Earth. Instead He actively sought out and fully connected with people who were far outside the religious system of the day. And when the Pharisees questioned Christ about the amount of time He spent with these “people on the fringes,” the lepers, prostitutes, beggars and thieves, He reminded them (and us) that “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” (Matt 9:12)

So, if we’re to follow His example, we, as His church, must make a conscious and deliberate effort to be present with and get to know those who don’t know God! That is, people who are often engaged in ungodly lifestyles and activities. From a purely logical standpoint, how can we reach those who are sick… how can we help the mentally, spiritually, or emotionally ill who are in need of the Great Physician if we don’t (or won’t) go where they are?

But following Christ into that kind of involvement with unbelievers is vastly different from becoming part of the world.  Jesus, and later Paul and James, warned us against is the danger of personally and/or corporately adopting and accepting the thoughts, ideas, desires and goals of those who don’t know God. When we make those catastrophic alterations in our belief systems, we blend ourselves with the world and lose our uniqueness! We dull our ability to impact our society with the only truth that can truly set people free.

So, since the church is made up of individuals, I encourage you to be bold! Step outside of the safe confines of the church building and go “flavor” your world, always remembering that your goal is to win their hearts, not their approval.

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Preparing for the Unknown: 4 Lessons from Joshua

ABCs, apple, & chalkboardMy favorite teacher in elementary school was Ms. Sharon. She sported a cool shag haircut and large tortoise shell framed glasses. Almost every day she would wear one of her many a mod-print mini dresses along with tan go-go boots. That may seem a little over the top, but it was 1972, so she was right in style. But really, it wasn’t how she looked that made me like her. Ms. Sharon was my English teacher in 4th grade and I loved the way she taught her class. Every day, she would write a title on the blackboard (yes, with real chalk!) and then challenge us to just write anything we wanted about the given topic. Anything at All! I remember so many kids hating that assignment, but I loved it! It’s no surprise that decades later I still love to write and tell stories!

 About 10 years ago I felt God urging me to begin teaching in the women’s ministry of our church. As you might expect from my background, studying and writing the content of the lesson I would share was the easy part. But stepping in front of a class to teach it? Now that was a whole different (and intimidating) story! See, I love words and writing is comfortable for me. But at that time, leading a class was unknown and scary territory. Before that first class, I wondered how I would stack up against their previous teachers and what I would do to effectively lead a group of ladies.

I imagine my feelings of apprehension were not unlike those Joshua had as heimages prepared to lead Israel. (though mine on an obviously on much smaller scale!) He was tasked by God to be the follow-up guy for Moses, the bringer of the Law of God and the greatest leader in Israel’s history.  And… he had been commanded to fulfill the one assignment his predecessor was unable to complete. It was Joshua’s job to lead Israel into the Promised Land.

No doubt he had wisdom, experience, and a strong resume from his years as Moses’ right hand man, but his previous role was likely comfortable, or at least familiar. This new assignment would task him in unknown ways. What would he do? How would he handle this huge new mission? He needed more than skill…

What he needed was an encounter with God.

Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Then Joshua fell face down to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?” The commander of the Lord’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. ~ Joshua 5:13-15

As we grow and move forward in our relationship with the Lord, He will often place us into unfamiliar arenas that require us to depend on the Lord in new and untried ways. But before we launch out to accomplish these God-sized tasks, we need to begin the way Joshua did.

RECOGNIZE

“Are you for us or for our enemies?” “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.”  ~ vs 13-14 At first glance, Joshua may not have recognized the “Man” who stood before him as being “the Lord”, but it only took a few words for him to understand exactly Who He was talking to. The devil is a master of fraud, confusion and distraction. But Jesus gave us clear instructions on how we can identify those who are from God from those who intend only to deceive. He said “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matt. 7:17-18,18) The powerful impact of knowing scripture is that you will be able to clearly discern who speaks truth and who doesn’t, who is of God, and who is not.

WORSHIP

images“And Joshua fell on his face and worshiped Him.” ~ vs. 14 God created human beings with an innate capacity and desire to worship. It doesn’t matter whether you’re religious or not, the fact is that you WILL worship something or someone. As the object of your desire takes center stage, you begin to focus on it. And whether you realize it or not, you begin to gravitate toward it. We’ve all seen this principle happen in a our daily lives. You’ve certainly been traveling down the highway and seen a car with an interesting bumper sticker on your right or left. As you narrow your focus to try to read it, it isn’t long until you’re unconsciously veering into their lane. The same thing happens spiritually. The more we focus on God the more we move toward Him and ultimately, become like Him in our character and conduct. We need to purposefully “fix our eyes on Jesus” (Heb 12:2) and let Him be the sole object of our affection.

SEEK GOD’S WILL

“..and said to Him, What does my Lord say to His servant?”  ~ vs. 14 Probably the most common questions Christians have are those that have something to do with finding God’s will for their lives. While finding it may seem complicated and mysterious, knowing it always starts with knowing God Himself. Once we enter into and begin cultivating a growing and vibrant relationship with Him, we rest on a solid foundation of trust which ultimately encourages and enables us to step out and do His will. Remember that He has all the answers, solutions, and details figured out in advance and is ready to work in and through you the moment you say “yes.”

OBEY

Two people reading the Bible“Then the Commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, ’Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did so.”  ~ vs. 15 This was a simple command that mirrored God’s command to Moses at the burning bush, and was intended to validate Joshua’s commission as the chosen leader of Israel. Obviously, taking off a pair of sandals was not a big test of Joshua’s faith (That came later as when he was given a curious set of instructions for conquering Jericho. Read Joshua 6)  Often we are insistent in proclaiming our willingness to do anything for the Lord, thinking that  some grandiose or difficult task is coming. While that may someday be what the Lord has in mind for you, don’t overlook the importance of obedience to simple, mundane tasks that don’t seem to be important from our perspective. Please don’t gloss over these supposedly small things. They are often the very training ground that readies us for pivotal tasks in our future.

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Broken Down, but Not Stuck

High Rock Lake, NC July 4, 2014
High Rock Lake, NC
July 4, 2014

My family just returned from a trip to North Carolina to visit my parents, where we had a wonderful time cooking out and playing at their lake house to celebrate the the Fourth of July. The weather was nearly perfect. Sunny and just hot enough to remind us that it was summer.

Leia
Leia

But thanks to uncharacteristically low humidity and light breezes (courtesy of Hurricane Arthur), it was gorgeous day to splash in the water, ride in the boat and even shoot off a few fireworks after night fall. So it turned out that the visit to see my mom and dad was very enjoyable indeed!

The trip home… not so much.

IMG_20140705_193943Our van broke down with some kind of drive train issue (aka: transmission) and left us stranded on the side of the road a few miles south of Gaffney SC… “Us” meaning 6 people, 3 dogs, and a fully loaded utility trailer. The bright sun on the cloudless day quickly turned our car into an oven and so to escape the heat, we tramped through the briers, over the guardrail, under the barbed wire fencing, seeking shelter in the shade of a large embankment on the side of the adjacent access road.

Stuck in Gaffney
Ryan, Leia, Jason, Laura & Clif

So, for several hours we were literally laying on blankets and pillows in a gully. (Insert “Don’t wake up in a roadside ditch” jokes here!  ha!)

Clif paced up and down the road, trying every  option he could think of to get us moving toward home again. (The pacing was partly to try for some better phone coverage, but mostly to get some distance from Laura who seemed committed to “video documenting” an episode of our lives that he was already wanting to forget.)

But as it was a holiday weekend and we had broken down around 6:00 on a Saturday evening, there were no mechanics available, the rent-a-car agencies near us weren’t open, and the ones at the Greenville airport didn’t have any vehicles with trailer hitches.

Casey, Jake & Jessie
Casey, Jake & Jessie

So, as the shadows got longer, we realized that the only option left to us was to tap Woody, Clif’s 80-year old father, and his Suburban. The kid’s “Papa” would have to make the three hour trip north from Atlanta to pick us and the trailer up, while AAA towed the van 187 miles back to the mechanic near our home. Woody (henceforth known as ‘The Hero of Gaffney’) arrived to get us somewhere after 11pm, but the AAA tow truck didn’t show until 12:45am! Once it arrived, four of us loaded into the Suburban, while Clif and Jason stayed behind with the van and tow truck. Woody and I split the driving duty for the trek back to the city and after a sleepless and bleary night (or morning, depending on how you look at it), pulled into our driveway at 4:45am. Clif’s dad didn’t want to sleep at our house, and there was no way I was going to let my father-in-law drive another 45 minutes across the city by himself after being up all night, so I hopped back in the SUV and took off with Laura trailing us in her car. By the time we dropped him off and made the return trip, it was 6:30am and the sun was beginning to rise… a staggering 16+ hours after leaving my folks house.

It was quite an unpleasant ordeal, but somewhere early on in the process, I encouraged the kids play a silly game I called, “How Could This Be Worse.”

Some ‘worse’ scenarios we came up with were:
It could have been raining, or freezing cold, or the kids could have been toddlers.
One of us could have been alone or sick.
The mechanical failure could have resulted in an accident with injuries.
I think there were even a few possible scenarios that involved zombies, banjo music, and assault weapons!
But, really, the whole exercise had the effect of creating laughter, and we even came away being grateful that God had taken care of us even on a day that on the surface seemed to offer very little to be thankful for.

Now, of course, our traveling nightmare was over relatively quickly and there was no real damage that was done that can’t be fixed by competent mechanic and a couple of good night’s sleep.

But the main reason I share this story is to simply highlight the subtle, but potent power of thankfulness and the critical need for us as believers in Christ to redirect our thoughts by focusing on what we have rather than what we lack.

I think that’s what Paul was trying to tell us in his closing remarks of his letter to the church in Phillippi. Chapter 4, verse 4 encourages believers to “Rejoice in the Lord always.”  Then in verse 6 he writes “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God”

I realize there are a lot of complex and painful things that occur that are way more serious and stress-inducing than a mechanical failure, but choosing how we react to them, and most importantly how we THINK about them is the key to being free and STAYING free from anxiety’s paralyzing grip.

We can always find a way to be thankful if we resolve to do so, because gratitude isn’t rooted in our circumstances, but in our attitude about our situation. And a thankful heart has the power to pierce through the haze and fog and bring you into a clear awareness of the goodness of God which, in turn, becomes the door to deliverance from dismay and disillusionment.

So next time you’re broken down in discouragement and laying in a ditch (literally or figuratively), jack up your attitude and choose to rejoice… knowing that God’s goodness is always the only thing you need to keep trucking steadily down life’s road!

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Taking Sides

I was recently involved in a discussion about shrinking religious liberties in America. Near the end of the conversation, my friend solidified his position by confidently proclaiming that “If we keep working hard and stand strong, we WILL WIN because God is on our side.”

“God is on our side…’ . hummmmm

I’m pretty sure I know what he really meant to say, but the implications of his words echo the prevailing attitude of a lot of well-meaning people in this country… that the Lord in Heaven agrees with us because we’re the correct ‘brand’ of Americans.

I couldn’t disagree more.

God is not an American.

He is not a Republican.

He is also not a Democrat.

He’s neither conservative, nor liberal

He is not even political at all.

God simply IS.

Now this doesn’t mean that He doesn’t care about the things going on in the lives of the people in our country. Daniel 2:21 reminds us that God is the One who “deposes kings and raises up others.” Romans 13 clearly explains the God’s purpose for government and rulers. And Psalm 33:12 clearly states that “Blessed is the nation who’s God is the Lord.” But a careful look at those and other verses helps us see that if we want to benefit from God’s blessing, we must be careful to position ourselves on His side.

josh5-13The pervasive attitude that believes that God chooses affiliations like a sports fan and his team reminds me of a story from the book of Joshua. Chapter 5 positions the Israelites poised and ready to take possession of the Promised Land, but Jericho, the first city they encountered, was fortified with strong walls and determined, well-trained soldiers. Presumably Joshua was out surveying the city in front of them when he encountered a man with a drawn sword in his hand. (Josh. 5:13)

Joshua’s first question to the imposing figure was “Are you for us or for our enemies?” His answer? “Neither.” (vs 14) The unusual visitor then identified himself as the commander of the Lord’s army, and as such was speaking for God.

Joshua’s simple question was based on the flawed premise that the Lord of all creation picks sides! This “us or them assumption” was incorrect then just as our presuppositions about the Almighty’s temporal associations are wrong today. Instead of wondering about whose side God is on, we need to be more introspective and rephrase the query.

In reality, we need to ask “Who is on GOD’S side?”

And then take the next step and be brave enough to ask, “Am on God’s side?”

Only after we look in the mirror and ask those hard questions can we can better position ourselves to stand firm on the right battle lines.

This time firmly behind Him.

choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…  ~ Joshua 24:15