Sharing the Wine

Tonight, I had the opportunity to preach at Licensing School, which is where I am this week as a participant. It was a humbling honor to preach to the servants who will go into the mission field shortly. The sermon comes from John 2:1-11 and is entitled “Sharing the Wine.” Continue reading

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Sunday’s Sermon: Breathe in Life. Breathe Out Mission

This morning, we are all doing something that is important to our physical lives. We probably do not realize we are doing it, but it is crucial to our existence. If we were to stop doing it, even if for a moment, we would immediately feel the impact.

Each of us are breathing.

The continuous motion of breathing in and breathing out is important to us. By breathing in, we inhale the oxygen we need for our brain to function properly, our lungs to inflate, and our heart to pump blood throughout our body. A normal breathing rate is about 10 to 15 breaths per minute – a breath every six seconds or so. Most of the time we are not paying attention to the fact we are breathing. Unless you are physically exerting yourself or trying to pay attention, breathing happens quite naturally.

Breathing is analogous to something I would like discuss today. I believe it is analogous to something that is just as important when it comes to our relationship with Jesus Christ. God’s breath is the key to life, physical and spiritual. God’s breath is the Holy Spirit, and we are called to breathe it in. As we breathe in the Holy Spirit, we receive God’s love and law in the center of our heart. As well, we are equally called to express outward, to breathe out, that love and what the Spirit has done inside us. We breathe in life from the Holy Spirit and breathe out into our many connectional points our gifts as as a witness of Christ’s love for us and for our world.

Today is the Pentecost Sunday. This is the Church’s birthday. At Pentecost, we believe that something powerful, something breathtaking, something so important happened that it launched the movement of the Church into the entire world. Pentecost comes at the end of the 50 Days of Easter. There are 50 days from Easter Sunday to today, which we call the Easter season, that focuses on the hope of the resurrection. The timing of Pentecost is similar to how the people of Israel originally celebrated the festival. Originally, Pentecost was a celebration that remembered how Moses received the Law from God at Mt. Sinai. This celebration came 50 days after Passover, when the people of Israel were rescued from slavery in Egypt. According to Leviticus 23:15-22, at Pentecost the people of Israel would offer the first part of their grain crop to God. N.T. Wright says it was an act of gratitude of God’s blessings that they had already experienced and an act of prayer that this blessing would be seen with the remaining crop.

Our Scripture passage from Acts takes us to Pentecost, where Luke reports that the Disciples were together in one place. We believe it might have been the same room where a few weeks earlier they shared the Passover meal with Jesus. Wherever it might have been, what is important is this: they were waiting for something to happen. At his Ascension, Jesus told the Disciples to head to this place to wait for the promised gift to come.

What was this promised gift? Jesus tells us in John 14:16-17 that it is the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, they were waiting for. Jesus told us that when he left, we will not be on our own. The Spirit will come and guide us in our walk with Christ. Jesus promised the Disciples, and us, that God would never leave them, because the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is as fully divine as the Father and the Son.

The Holy Spirit can, in some ways, be an enigma to us. We understand the Father Creator, who is the author of true love. We understand Jesus, who is our Lord and Savior. The Holy Spirit is unfortunately overlooked. I believe it is because the Holy Spirit can be confusing to us.

When we think of the Holy Spirit, we are thinking of the power of God that works in relationship with each of the members of the Trinity. All three work together as one and not as separate units. The Spirit comes to us as a guide that leads us to a relationship with the Father, by faith in the Son. He also guides us in our witness of Christ by our words, our actions, and our deeds. It is the Spirit who convicts us of our sin and brings us to a place of repentance. Even more, it is the Spirit who writes the love and word of God on our hearts.

There is much more that we can say about the Spirit, but we can summarize it all by this: by sending us the Holy Spirit, Jesus is telling us that we are never alone. God’s presence is with us, shaping us and directing us in what it means to be children of God in our lives and interactions with others.

This is whom the disciples were waiting for in the Upper Room. They didn’t know when the Spirit would come, but they were praying for His arrival. On Pentecost, the Spirit came and it overtook each of the disciples. Luke tells us that they were filled with the Holy Spirit. Their entire being was shaped by the indwelling of the Spirit within them. It transformed each of them in ways none of them could have expected. In that moment, the Spirit came and redefined their lives to a deeper relationship with God and understanding of their faith.

God breathed on the disciples in perhaps the same way that he breathed on Adam in Genesis. In that moment, God’s breath (in Hebrew: ruah) created life. In the same way, God’s breath created new lives in the disciples. They were now defined by their life in the Spirit and were set for a new journey. The Spirit came and changed their life to where they would never be the same again.

We are invited to breathe in the Spirit today and everyday. Breathing in the Spirit is the act of recognizing that we cannot live this life on our own. We need God’s help. Even though our basic instinct might be to do it our own way, we need the Spirit’s direction and guidance to work through the difficult situations in our families, to wrestle with tough work situations, or even to walk through another day of life when you really don’t want to get out of bed. The Spirit is there beside us through all of it. All it may take is for us to see this is by simply praying that God will open our eyes to His presence and guide us through our days and moments.

The Holy Spirit isn’t just our guide. The Spirit is also our teacher for each of us. When we breathe in the Spirit, and allow the Spirit to lead us, we are allowing the Spirit to disciple us and shape us. We are desiring the Spirit to transform us into the image, and the person, God desires us to be. This takes place when we ask the Lord to shape us, teach us, and mold us by the Spirit’s direction.

What would it look like if we took in that breath from God? What would our life look like if we breathed in God’s presence instead of the things that we so often allow to dictate our lives, such as money, bitterness, jealousy, our livelihood, or even our own self and desires?

Friends, we cannot just breathe in the Spirit. We also have to breathe out what God has done in us through the Holy Spirit. Breathing, as we said, includes both inhaling and exhaling. The inhaling process is breathing in the Spirit. The exhaling part is the fruit of the Spirit that we share with our communities and those we interact with. When we live by the Spirit, as Paul says, it transforms us into people who are known by our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. There are other fruits of the Spirit. Fruit will look different based on who we are and how God has gifted us. Some will produce some form of fruit and others will produce another. However, whatever fruit we produce, we are called to share it with others as an act of witness of God’s love.

That is what Peter does in our text. When the world mocked the disciples for being drunk, Peter witnessed to the change that had taken place in their lives by proclaiming the truth of God’s love, of the message of Jesus Christ, and the promise of the Holy Spirit. By quoting a passage from Joel and proclaiming about Jesus, Peter is witnessing to the transformation that had occurred in his heart. He breathed out the change that had occurred in him so that others might experience transformation and faith in Jesus Christ in their own life through the power of the Holy Spirit.

This is what the church has been doing ever since that moment. The mission of the church is the continuation of this breathing out as an act of witness. Our mission – no matter the size of our congregation – is to breathe out into our communities God’s love by our gifts, our presence, our prayers, and our service. We are not too small to participate in this breathing out, nor are we too old or young. Each of us have a part to play in being the living witnesses of God’s transformative grace and love in our communities.

All that is asked of us is that we pray that God will use what he has given us, so that others might know him. It’s a dangerous prayer, as a pastor I heard preach once said, but it is an important prayer, because in that prayer lies our desire, both individually and corporately, to be used by God in the same ways that disciples were used to launch the mission of the church.

Breathe in the Spirit’s transformation and breathe out the fruit of the Spirit as an act of witness. This is a process that doesn’t just happen once, but is a daily receiving and giving.

Friends, breathe in the Spirit and experience the indwelling presence of the Lord in your life. As well, breathe out what God has done in your life in the hope, as Peter had, that others will experience transformation in their life and come to know the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Mistakes are an Opportunity for Grace

Ten years ago I made a big mistake.

This wasn’t a simply “uh oh” kind of mistake. I’m talking about the legendary kind. The kind of mistake that can alter your life and define who you are. The kind of mistake that I would eventually regret.

Ten years ago today, I married my ex-wife.

Six days after graduating from West Virginia University and only a few days before I would make the jump from sports to news writing, I married someone whom I thought I was in love with, but deep in my heart I knew it could never work.

We were two different people who were the extreme opposite of the other. I am outgoing and gregarious by nature. She was silent and didn’t really enjoy being around others. I wanted to go out and explore the country and world. She wanted to stay home. I knew there was something bigger than me in life. She had no interest.

Of course, relationships are going to have differences. No two people are going to be the same. Each person brings their own personality into a relationship or a marriage. What we lacked were two key ingredients in making a marriage work. We were not in it together and we did not communicate well.

When those two ingredients are missing a marriage is in trouble, and ours was in trouble from the start. We had different dreams and visions for our lives. Even more, we were horrible at communicating with one another. We were two different people who never became one family.

On that day 10 years ago, I had a suspicion this marriage would never work, yet I went through with it. The reason was that I I did not want to disappoint anyone. I did not want to disappoint this woman whom I had spent three years with and had known since junior high, and I did not want to disappoint her family. I certainly did not want to disappoint my family, many of whom I believed, at the time, wanted us to get married. (I learned years later that this was not the case). Most importantly, I did not want to disappoint myself. I felt that if I broke off the engagement and marriage I would be a failure to those whom I cared about, and it was something I could not handle at that time.

The marriage lasted less than two years. We both had our faults that led to the marriage’s end. It was not one person’s failure. We both failed. We both had a part in living into what was my biggest mistake.

Yet, I learned something from that mistake. It is what taught me grace. Because of that mistake, I learned redemption and seen how God has redeemed those years for something greater.

Back then I was not the person I am today. I was self-focused. I went to work believing I was “the next big thing” only to realize I wasn’t close to being “on deck.” I was angry and I was bitter. But, I never would have realized it had the event of 10 years ago never happened. When the marriage crumbled, I hit rock bottom personally, spiritually, financially, and emotionally.

In the experiences that took place I saw God’s hand and grace. It was the first time I really had felt God at work in my life. Sure, I had grown up in the church, but I never really felt that God really loved me. The years that followed the divorce, I learned what grace and forgiveness truly looked like. I learned what true friendship looked like. I learned what God’s love really and truly felt like.

It changed me and made me the person who I am today.

I could go into more detail about the experiences I’ve had in the last 10 years and how it led me to the church, to realize my calling, and to meet Abbi, who is my most wonderful and supportive wife, but I would be going on and on. I want to make a concluding remark.

We all have made mistakes in our lives. Some of these mistakes are small and some are big ones that still impact us. None of us have walked life on the ideal path. However, our mistakes can be opportunities to experience grace in our lives. They do not have to be “ending” moments that define our futures, but can be opportunities to experience God’s redemption and grace whether it is for the first time or the 100th time.

All it takes is our willingness to see that God truly loves us, that He has never walked away from us, and that he desires redemption for all of His children.

Our mistakes, then, our not end moments, but can be opportunities to truly experience God’s grace and redemption.

What would it look like for you to experience that today?

Pentecost or Memorial Day: Which Gets Main Focus on Sunday?

Sunday is Pentecost. It is the day that we celebrate the birth of the church, when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples in Jerusalem.

Sunday is also the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, a weekend which starts the summer season but is traditional a time of remembrance of deceased veterans and their sacrifices.

Which celebration gets the main focus? Will it be the celebration of the Holy Spirit’s presence and the mission of the church or  will it be civil religion and its desire to honor our nation above all things?

The answer to this question says a lot about a church’s focus and where its heart truly lies. For what we honor and celebrate in worship, as many of my friends will argue, is what we will carry into our lives and our relationship with Christ.

If we focus on Pentecost, then our focus is on the mission of the church and how the Holy Spirit leads and directs us to be the witnesses of Christ. However, focusing on Memorial Day entirely in worship sends the message that devotion nation is more important than our relationship with God. This notion seems to be counter to much of Paul’s argument that we are citizens of heaven first and foremost.

Granted, this is not the only time that the mission of the church and the mission of civil religion would seemingly collide. Worship surrounding the Fourth of July can look too much like a national celebration than a celebration of the Triune God. What is perhaps unique about this weekend is that the differences between true religion of God and civil religion is glaring and hard to miss.

Worship leaders and pastors can certainly honor the memory of our veterans in worship, but the act of honoring must not take away from the act of worship of God. If it becomes a distraction, or even takes over the entire worship, then it is possible that we have misguided priorities for worship on this occasion.

Sunday offers a perfect opportunity to focus on the mission of the church. Let us be careful to not trip up the mission by being too focused on a time of honoring nation above true honoring of the Living God.

American Eisegesis: How We Use Scripture to Validate Ourselves

Recently, I had the opportunity to gather with area pastors to discuss our ministries and churches. This is a regular occurrence that I look forward to and enjoy. It is a privilege to learn from men and women who have experienced so much in their own ministries.

During our gathering, part of our conversations turned to the idea of the role of church and culture. The conversation began in response to the 2012 United Methodist General Conference, but soon focused on the changing nature of society and how young adults view the church.

We agreed that one of the things we are seeing in the church, today, is a focus on eisegesis. This is an interpretation idea that is counter to the more traditional form of exegesis. In exegesis, we are seeking to determine exactly what is the Scripture trying to tell us. With eisegesis, the interpreter is trying to read his or her specific ideas into the Scripture text. This leads to a problem of focusing on the self above what Scripture is or is not saying.

As I have processed this conversation, I believe this is not a recent phenomenon. In fact, I wonder if it has been the main interpretive focus of much of the American church since the days of the American Revolution.

Since the colonies separated from the British Empire to form the United States, American scripture interpretation has focused on the idea of this country being God’s chosen country. (For a look at how this has played out in preaching, I suggest reading A City on the Hill by Larry Witham.) Each generation, in some way, has continued a legacy that was started by Puritan John Wintrhop, who famously suggested that the new Plymouth colony was to be a “city on a hill.”

This interpretive journey causes some interesting consequences. It leads one to believe that God is always on “our side,” even if we are actively in disobedience with a known will of God. It allows a reader to avoid Scripture passages that would seem to challenge one’s basic ideas about culture or life. It also places ourselves in the position of God, which is a dangerous position to be placed in.

The American eisegetical process is about validation. We want to have our ideas and our opinions validated and approved by God. It is about our need to be seen as right while the other is seen as wrong.

This is a false way to do Scripture and can leave to a destructive idea about God. What happens when God challenges our idea on war, government, homosexuality, marriage, or even finances? If we only look to Scripture to be validated then this challenge could lead to us questioning our own faith and, unfortunately, walking away from God all together.

In order to truly engage Scripture, we must be willing to come to an important realization. That is that our opinion and ideas might be wrong. That’s not the “American way,” is it? The American way says that you never admit your mistakes and that if someone disagrees with you then they are the ones who are wrong. We can see where this line of thinking has impacted our society and culture today. Scripture routinely challenges us at the depths of our soul about our ideas, our wants, and our desires. If we are only seeking validation in Scripture then we miss out on the greater truth that God is seeking to express to us.

Our challenge as Americans is to deny ourselves and hear what God has for us. To not seek validation, but instead seek deep transformation through our relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When we do, we will inherit a greater understanding of God’s call for us and we will find a deeper truth to the issues we care passionately about. But, are we willing to do just that?

Thoughts About Bill Stewart

Bill Stewart secured his place in West Virginia University lore on January 2, 2008.

In the moments before the underdog Mountaineers, champions of the Big East, took on the Big 12 champion Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, Stewart addressed his team. Now, that is not an uncommon situation.Every college football coach will say something to their team prior to a game and will have something special prepared for a big game. This was not the usual BCS game.

There was something different about this game.

West Virginia entered the game having nearly lost everything. It lost a December 1 game against arch rival Pittsburgh in a game which had the Mountaineers won they would have earned a spot in the BCS National Championship game. After the game, then head coach Rich Rodrgiuez announced his departure to Michigan. Stewart, one of the few holdovers from Don Nehlen’s final seasons in Morgantown, was named as the interim head coach and had the difficult assignment of leading a disappointed Mountaineer team into Arizona.

It was with this backdrop that Stewart delivered an inspiring message to his players and to those who follow the Old Gold and Blue (West Virginians, alums, students, etc.). His speech became an instant YouTube classic for West Virginia fans and alums.

Leave no doubt tonight! No doubt … they shouldn’t have played the old gold and blue. Not this night! Not this night!

Those words echo today in the aftermath of Stewart’s passing following a heart attack at a Lewis County, W.Va., golf course. He was 59.

Stewart’s served as the poetic backdrop to what could easily be described as the most important football win in West Virginia history. More important than the 1982 win over Oklahoma. More important than the wins over Penn State, Syracuse and Boston College in 1988. More important, even, than WVU’s recent BCS win over Clemson. The win allowed Mountaineer faithful to celebrate in the midst of a season that had, for a month, focused on the motif of “what if.”

Following the victory, Stewart was rewarded with the title of head coach – a decision that proved to be controversial. He would go on to moderate success with three nine-win seasons and one additional bowl win. His own dismissal from the program was steeped in controversy, as he was involved in reports regarding the behavior of then head coach in waiting Dana Holgorsen.

Stewart may not have been the greatest coach, but he was loyal to his native West Virginia and its flagship football program. That is what he will be remembered for on this night. Not so much the wins and losses, but how he helped to guide a football team – and a state – out of despair and into a time of joyous celebration.

Leave no doubt, Bill Stewart was a great Mountaineer and will be truly missed.

Free Advice for Seminary Graduates

About this time last year, I was celebrating the fact that the world did not end. There was another celebration, which was for my graduation from seminary.

Much has changed  in my life since I graduated from Asbury Theological Seminary last May. I’m blessed to serve two congregations and humbled to share life and ministry with some amazing people as a result. I’m doing something that I am enjoy and love doing each day. With that, I’ve experienced everything a first-year pastor experiences (which will be the focus of a post at some other point in time) from the joys and the agonies.

One thing I quickly realized is that seminary did not fully prepare me for ministry. That is no fault to Asbury, my professors, or even to my own studies. The fact of the matter is theory can only go so far. Theory must be met with practical application and that can only be learned in the midst of ministry. Seminary is about teaching theories of ministry and it is up to each pastor and leader to take that theory and apply it to their specific circumstances.

As many seminary students graduate this month and enter their first appointments in the coming weeks, I offer some suggestions. These are added, I know, to the mounds of unsolicited and solicited advice that many graduates receive. I don’t pose myself to be an expert. I am simply giving advice as a recent graduate and pastor and as someone who desires to see all servants enter ministry prepared for the journey ahead.

My first piece of advice is to hire a good CPA. This may not seem like a ministry-related task, but it will be beneficial to you and your family. The tax code is complicated enough, but becomes more complicated with specific laws surrounding pastoral salary and benefits. Prior to this tax year, I did my own taxes and could file quite easily. The combination of my taxes and my wife’s taxes became a burden and a stressful endeavor. Give it over to someone who knows the tax code and has experience working with pastors. In other words, do not go to your neighborhood H&R Block and expect them to know your about pastoral taxes. Find a quality CPA in your area or ask other pastors whom they use. If you have trouble finding someone, seek guidance from your denominational representatives on whom they would recommend.

Recognize that you will make mistakes and it is OK. When we enter a new appointment, there is a tendency to want everything to be perfect. Perhaps it is because as students we’ve had three or four years to think about what we would do in those first few months. While we should seek to be the best pastor we can be, we should be aware that we will make mistakes. It is only natural. Plans will fail to gain traction. You will deliver a sermon that doesn’t quite elicit the response you had desired. You will forget someone’s birthday. You will make a typo in the bulletin and sometimes several. It’s OK. It’s not the end of the world or your ministry. The moment you realize that is the moment you will begin to learn from your mistakes and grow from them. It takes time, and I admit that, but it will happen and growth will occur.

Carve out family time and be intentional about making it a priority. This might seem like a no-brainer, but family time is one of the first things that gets ignored in ministry, especially in the first year. When a schedule becomes full family time always seems to be the first to go. It sends a message to our spouses and children that the job of ministry is more important than our calling and our family. Be intentional about having date nights with your spouse and family time with your entire family. That doesn’t mean everyone sits around the television while you are working on the sermon. Instead, be willing to walk away from what you are working on and embrace doing things with your family that they enjoy and that you enjoy doing.

Take time for physical and spiritual self. One of the things I ignored in my first year is my physical health. I had prided myself on losing weight in seminary. However, when I began serving my physical health was the last thing on my mind. I struggled with telling someone “no” on food or even carving time to go for a walk or play a round of golf. Be diligent about caring for your physical self. If you are tired and do not  have any energy, then you will have nothing to give to your congregations and your family. At the same time, grow spiritually. Take time to be a disciple and to find time in the Lord’s presence. You need it.

Finally, make sure you laugh. Ministry is hard. Preaching is hard. Find things in your life that makes you laugh. Your soul will thank you.