It happened to me this past Sunday.  I met a new guy in our church who told me that he and his family had just moved here to New Hampshire from Iowa.  Since my wife is from Nebraska, we talked a little about farms and the Midwest and the Cornhuskers.  Then the big question…how do you like New England?  His answer didn’t surprise me.  “To be honest, the people here are really different.” And he wasn’t just referring to the amount of Dunkin Donuts coffee we drink!

Are we really so different in New England?  After all, people are the same everywhere right?  The same needs, challenges, desires, opportunities and attitudes…right?  Maybe not.  New England is a unique region of the country and if there’s one statistic that can prove that out, it’s in the area of church attendance and how many people identify themselves as Christians.  In fact, a huge percentage of people in New England would fall into the category of non-religious.  Spiritual maybe, but non-religious. 

I was reminded by a wise woman today that the thing that sets our region apart from many other places in the country is that we are still here.  Unlike the pioneers and early-adopters that moved West, our forefathers didn’t budge.  This is as good as it gets.  No need to change.  Maybe that’s why we have such an aging population in places like Vermont and Maine and New Hampshire.  The younger generation is out of here, looking for new opportunity and experience.

Several years ago, I invited a neighbor to church.  His response stunned me, telling me no and asking me not to talk to him about it again.  He was fine.  “All set,” were his exact words.  As a typical New Englander, in his mind I was intruding into places that were private.

I have spoken to friends and others outside of New England that don’t really get it.  They believe that people are people, and New Englanders are no different than Southerners or Left Coasters.  While it is true that we all need Jesus and we all need community, how you go about relating to folks from my neck of the woods is a world apart from how you relate to someone from Dallas (bless your heart) or LA (hey dude). In my opinion the difference requires an investment in the person that cannot be merely casual or temporary.  This costs something that many of us are not willing to spend- our time, our friendship, our trust, and our love.

The neighbor I talked about…well 15 years later, he and his family are a part of our church, they love Jesus and they are serving others.  But first we had to love them and serve them with no strings attached.  Are New Englanders really that different?  What do you think?

-Peter

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I’ve always been amazed at how some pastors can seem to manage massive growth in their churches.  We are in New England where mega-churches are more myth than reality.  Often I’ve thought if that has more to do with the post-Christian landscape of the northeast, but lately I’m wondering if it’s more to do with a higher emphasis on community and being real than some of our big city and Bible belt neighbors.

I can’t imagine being a pastor that is unfamiliar with a vast number of the folks who I am called to lead.  I know that some would say that I really have to change and get over the fact that if we want our church to grow into the thousands then I have to look at my role as more of a pastor of leaders or CEO type than a shepherd/teacher.  I just can’t do it.  Yet for some strange reason we have seen our church continue to grow and now are moving into a multi-site model of ministry that keeps our pastors knowing the people who we serve.

Have you ever felt like you have to compromise who you are as a pastor to grow the church?  I like knowing people’s names, although I am not really great at it, especially as we have seen growth.  So should I just face the fact that I can’t know everyone and stop trying?  Instead I encourage the church as a whole to be relationally driven. True, I can’t take everyone out for coffee, but I can some.  Andy Stanley recently said in a message I heard, “do for one what you wish you could do for many.”  To me, that’s the heart of a pastor.

I want to be normal, not supernatural or separated from the people I am called to pastor.  I don’t want to run backstage after the service or be whisked away by bodyguards because I’m so in demand.  Yet, I desperately want to see our church grow with new believers who are becoming followers of Jesus.  Growth is good when it’s not about me.  So maybe I do have to get over my tendency to want to know everyone and just get on with breeding a culture of community that includes my limitations.  Growth will never take the pastor out of who I am.

-Peter

I am not the type to say that the end of the world is coming.  Yet I can’t help to think of a story I heard that reminds me of where we are today as a nation, as a world…and mostly as the church. 

A priest and pastor and rabbi are standing by the side of the road holding up a sign that reads, “The End is Near! Turn yourself around now before it’s too late!” They planned to hold up the sign to each passing car.”Leave us alone you religious nuts!” yelled the first driver as he sped by. From around the curve they heard screeching tires and a big splash.”Do you think,” said one clergy to the other, “we should just put up a sign that says ‘Bridge Out’ instead?”

I don’t know how close we are to the end, but I really believe that there are a lot of bridges out today.  Whether we put our trust in the economy, the government, our jobs, our portfolios, our education, our families or even those things that have always worked for us in the past…we are headed on a road that is going to end up coming to a dead end.  My big concern is for those of us in the church that are not much different from those who don’t claim to follow Christ.  As Francis Chan recently said in a quote I heard, “those of us with the Holy Spirit, ought to think and behave differently than those without the Holy Spirit.”  Do we?  Really?

When I hear Christians talking about the upcoming presidential election as the answer to our issues, (if only we get the right man or woman in office then things will turn around)…I am more concerned than where we are today.  Politics are not going to save us, they’ve never changed a human heart, it’s just ups and downs much like the history of the kings of Israel.

I’m not fearful though.  I’m not discouraged.  I’m not preaching gloom and doom.  But I do feel like we need to get our house in order spiritually and practically.  If we are not doing what we know to do, we’ve got to change that.  If we are walking in ways that are selfish, we must get out of ourselves.  If we are not in true community, then we need to ask the Holy Spirit to change our independent hearts.  You see, it’s not really about those who don’t know Jesus…but about those of us who do.  Like Scripture says, we are to pray for blessings in our cities, for the people around us and for the nation that we live in, for their peace (Jer 29:7).  But we are to be the peacemakers that are living out the truth of the gospel in such a way that they will “see our good works and glorify God.”  We aren’t to curse and be angry and join in the rage against the machine…but blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.

The other day I received a very sobering email from another pastor.  At first I wasn’t inclined to read it because it came as a mass distribution list email.  I don’t like those and I really don’t like it when I’m not blind-copied, which I wasn’t.  But something (namely the Holy Spirit) pressed me to read and ponder.  I want to just quote a small section of this email, which I read as a prophecy to the church today, the body of Christ here and now:

One of the greatest areas where we American Christians fail is our firm belief that America is such a blessed nation that we will never suffer judgment at the hand of God.  Throughout our history, we have known blessing upon blessing– even through our country was severely tested in a great civil war.  Today we think that we are being carried forward on the strength of all those past victories.  What slavery, greed, racism, Nazism, and communism failed to do, we are accomplishing all by ourselves by ignoring the warnings contained in God’s Word.  We desperately need to listen to what God is saying and respond to Him, personally and not politically. (Edmund C. de la Cour, Jr., First Baptist Church of Pocasset, MA)

It’s not gloom and doom…it’s warning lights, opportunities for mercy, chances to be the very light in the darkness that Jesus says we are.  But we must get right…get our houses in order.  We must do things like simplify, stop living for self, stop complaining and becoming depressed when things don’t go our way, stop comparing and building our own personal kingdom come.

The end my not be near, but the bridge is out…let’s slow down and find out His will for our lives, our church, and then the nation will follow.

Remember Repent Return

Posted: May 4, 2011 in Uncategorized

I was thinking a lot over this past few weeks about how easy it is to get busy for God and forget why.  I know that is symptomatic of being someone who “makes a living” in the ministry, but I don’t believe that it is limited to pastors like me.  There’s this fine line between doing for God and doing because we know God’s love for us.  One is routine and dry, the other is relationally driven.

Husbands and wives know this tension.  When my wife and I were first married, we just longed to be together, look in one another’s eyes, enjoy conversation and plan for our future together.  It was all we had really!  We were just starting out and had no house and no kids.  I think back to those days with joy.  Even when things were difficult (and, ask her…there were many times like that), we worked things out together by praying and forgiving.  Although every season of our marriage has been wonderful (brownie points), it really all started when all we had was God and one another.

Maybe that’s why Jesus reminds us to return to our “first love” when He is speaking to the church of Ephesus in Revelation 2.  This was a great church that had pure doctrine and faithfulness.  They resisted the false teachings and endured hardship.  This was a church that was planted by the Apostle Paul and later pastored by Timothy.  Imagine sharing that tidbit with your neighbor when they ask you to tell them about the church you are a part of.  Yet…in spite of all the good and noble things, they were called out for walking away from what it was all about.  “You have left your first love…remember…repent…and do the things you did at first.”

When our “doing” is not about what why we do it, we need to repent.  When we are running around for Jesus and fail to connect with His love, we miss the whole point.

Martha gets a bad rap.  I mean, if you know the story she’s the one serving Jesus and the others when He comes over their home.  Meanwhile Mary is sitting at his feet soaking it in.  Back and forth, out of the kitchen and into the living area, finally Martha gets fed up with it.  “Tell her to help me?” she says to Jesus.  I would do the same thing, and you would too.  But Martha gets a bad rap because it’s not about her serving Jesus that is the issue, it’s about why she is serving.  Perhaps it’s out of duty, or because it’s necessary, or just because that’s her type A personality.  Do the things you did at first, Martha! (replace your name here).  Serving is part of the deal, but it’s a response to His love for me.

I have to keep coming back to this.  To remember, repent and return to my first love- to His love for me before I could do a thing to earn it!  When it’s all boiled down, the thing that we should be known for is this: we are people who love Jesus, and who are loved by Him.  Anything else morphs into religion.  Rules without a revelation of God’s love becomes dead religion.  I don’t want that…I want a freshness that causes me to look into His eyes again and experiences His mercy, new every morning.  Selah.

The difference between what I want and what God wants is one of the hardest things to discern.  I’m not talking about the obvious things that are clearly against God’s will- the “sin” things or the “self” things.  But it’s the good thing that often gets in the way of the best thing that God wants for us.

I was having this conversation with a friend of mine recently and we both realized how often opportunity comes our way.  This can be flattering and fulfilling, but that should never be our reason for deciding on it.  We are tempted to validate the opportunity when it validates us.  In other words, if it’s something that we truly feel “fits us” we can easily make adjustments in our lives to make it work.  This is especially true when it’s something that I am passionate about.  But I’ve learned through the years that my passion for something doesn’t always mean that this is what God is up to.

Certainly the apostle Peter was passionate about keeping Jesus from going to the cross, but that wasn’t God’s will. And Judas seemed to be passionate about helping the poor instead of wasting precious resources, but we all know how that turned out.

What are you passionate about?  Is it your passion or God’s?  Could it be that in order to get God’s best, we must let go of our good and noble desires?  I believe that this is the starting place, and that regardless of how long we have been serving God, we have to keep coming back here.  So, let’s take an inventory of our passions of the good things we are pursuing and lay them on the altar, right beside the things we already know are not good, and ask God to burn away the chaff and return something pure, something that He wants for us.

-Peter

I did it again.  I got everyone’s lips smacking last Sunday as I described my fantastic Eggplant Parmigiana recipe.  Not everyone likes Eggplant, but somehow I can make it sound so delicious and flavorful that even the skeptics wanted the recipe.  It helps that we’re in a 21 day fast as a church, a time when anything sounds luscious.

When I think of the body of Christ, I think about Eggplant Parmigaina.  It’s probably because of all the time and effort and the various ingredients that go into the dish, and the layers upon layers that become one meal that I truly love.  Let me explain:

After finding that perfectly ripe eggplant, you slice it into thin 1/4 inch round slices.  (This has to be perfect or else you get rubbery or tough eggplant- and that stinks.)  Then you dip it into egg and coat them with Italian bread crumbs.  Get the olive oil nice and hot in a large skillet and begin frying each eggplant piece so that it is golden brown.  This is where I get carried away sometimes, because the smell is out of this world and I am tempted just to nibble the food right now.   Anyway, so you fry it up, dry it on paper towels and prepare the baking dish.  Here you create layers of tomato sauce, eggplant, mozzarella cheese, parmesan cheese- over and over again until you are up to the top of the dish.  Now you put it in the oven for about 30 minutes at 350 degrees or until it’s piping hot!

So there’s the recipe…now here’s the point:  We are like divine Eggplant Parmigiana because when we work together as the body of Christ we become one.  When we worship together, serve together, give together, love together, join together- all of our individuality remains intact, but all of our togetherness is so much better.  It’s such a good mix and very appealing to those around us.  We are fragrant and appetizing!

Whether or not you are a fan of Eggplant, if you are a member of Christ’s church, your involvement with the local church ought to resemble something like this Italian recipe.

Feel free to try the recipe, but even more than that, be the part of the body that God has created you to be!

-Peter

The Christmas season is upon us- a time of peace, joy and of course, Love.  But so many people don’t connect with the idea of love because we have defined it to mean that I’m always happy and everything is going fantastic.  This may be especially true when relating to God as Love.

Many people either have an intellectual mindset that God may be love, but He is not really in my day-to-day world.  Others ask how God can be love when there is so much suffering and difficulty in the world.  And most have a definition of love that is strictly feeling and emotion based.  So, if God is love, how does it relate to me?

For those who have never actually experienced an unconditional, no strings attached kind of love, it’s hard to relate.  And if we only think of love as something that makes me feel good and gives me anything and everything I want, it’s also difficult to connect with God’s love.  Because God’s love goes beyond human reason and understanding, and transforms us into something that we cannot be without it.

A perfect example of this is found in the Christmas story.  God became man.  That in and of itself is love.  He became us to feel what we feel, to suffer what we suffer, to be familiar with our pain, our happiness, our disappointment and our rejoicing.  But it didn’t end with Him coming as a baby or living as a young man.  It didn’t end with the cross and it didn’t end with the resurrection either.  Because God’s love continues to flow through those who know it.

“God lives in us and His love is made complete in us,” is what the Bible tells us in 1 John 4.  If God is love, then it is meant to flow through those who have experienced Him.  This is the answer for the worlds suffering, for individual heartache and for all those who are searching for love but don’t know where to look.  It came in the form of a man and still comes in the form of men and women today.  As someone said, “Emmanuel-God with us,  wasn’t just a 33 year experiment, but the permanent way God connects with people.”

I think that there is something supernatural about both receiving and giving God’s love.  In fact, I think it’s in that place where it flows in and then out that we know God’s love in its fullness.  This Christmas, let’s get beyond the presents, and come into His presence by being the kind of people where Love Flows Through.