EPIC

I’ve read many adjectives to describe 2020. While some of them are not appropriate Christian reading, many were accurate. At this moment, my word is EPIC.

One definition of EPIC is “extending beyond the usual or ordinary especially in size or scope“. From almost any viewpoint, this year has extended beyond the usual. In the retelling of this adventure, I expect the tale will grow exponentially, even though I wonder if it’s possible to exaggerate what we are going through. Did anyone anticipate Tropical Storm Beta? And we’re not through yet.

I suppose I am using EPIC in a sarcastic tone. Finding the positives in this year takes some effort. I know many churches began the year with themes like “20 20 Vision” – I am not hearing that as we enter the Fall season. I just hear questions. “What Next?” I can relate.

Even as we endure some pretty strenuous challenges, I do think we need to remember that in the storyline of every EPIC there are those moments when we wonder if every hope is gone … every hero has fallen … every good has been defeated.

So I tried to understand why the wicked prosper.
    But what a difficult task it is!

Psalm 73:16, NLT

It is usually just before the turning point in the story that the reader begins to wonder if this is going to be a disaster rather than a victory. In the haunting lyric of Longellow’s poem, we read:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said; 
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

It isn’t until the next verse that the bells of Christmas Day peal out a victorious sound.

In this year of pandemic, racial chaos, political polarization, wildfires, and hurricanes we might be speaking like Longfellow’s stanza … or like Habakkuk’s painful outcry.

How long, O Lord, must I call for help? But you do not listen! “Violence is everywhere!” I cry, but you do not come to save.

Habakkuk 1:2

Yes, in every EPIC there is a moment when all seems to have gone wrong and it appears to be the end of the story. It was during such a season when brokenhearted disciples heard the world-changing news:

He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead, just as he said would happen. Come, see where his body was lying.

Matthew 28:6

So, while we wait for something better to happen, don’t give up. Keep your faith strong. Remember you are not alone. The struggle as we live out our EPIC is not easy, but there’s something ahead that will change the whole story in an amazing way.

And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.”

Revelation 21:5

Sermons Moving To…

For the millions of you reading my sermon notes each week, I’d like to inform you that they will be posted at another site. The weekly sermon notes from Forsythe Church of Christ will be moving to the Forsythe site (FACOC.org). Each Sunday just look for the newest post of the day and those will be the most current sermon notes.

There are other places to find the sermons as well. If you prefer video, we are working on getting the video presentation each Sunday and Wednesday on our YouTube page.

If you are just an audio listener, you can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes or Podbean. Please do not listen while driving.

That anyone would listen to the sermons or be interested in the notes is a compliment I do not take for granted. Thank you!

Ready For New Beginnings

An email advertisement had this heading: “You made it through another week.” Can’t we all resonate with that … making it through another week of coronavirus details, hurricane recovery, and screaming political headlines. Our friends to the West are dealing with wildfires. We can really be weary with just making it through another day, much less another week.

Weariness and discouragement can sap our spiritual life.

O God, you are my God; I earnestly search for you. My soul thirsts for you; my whole body longs for you in this parched and weary land where there is no water.

Psalm 63:1, NLT

Even faithful King David experienced times of longing for closeness to God and renewal of his spiritual strength. Our text today exposes three reasons we are in a constant battle to regain our confidence and faith.

Reasons We Battle Weariness

Our Enemy Wears Us Down

The serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild animals the Lord God had made. One day he asked the woman, “Did God really say you must not eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden?”  “Of course we may eat fruit from the trees in the garden,” the woman replied. “It’s only the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden that we are not allowed to eat. God said, ‘You must not eat it or even touch it; if you do, you will die.’” “You won’t die!” the serpent replied to the woman. “God knows that your eyes will be opened as soon as you eat it, and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil.”

Genesis 3:1-5

The enemy wears us down by opposing God’s truth, bringing doubt, and subtly twisting the truth. I feel sure that one of the most common questions God hears is “WHY?” I also feel sure that the Enemy attempts to answer that question in deceptive ways and it can wear us down spiritually if we listen to him.

Our Senses Mislead Us

The woman was convinced. She saw that the tree was beautiful and its fruit looked delicious, and she wanted the wisdom it would give her. So she took some of the fruit and ate it. Then she gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it, too. At that moment their eyes were opened, and they suddenly felt shame at their nakedness. So they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves.

Genesis 3:6-7

What Eve saw looked edible, tasty, and exciting. She was deceived just as we have all been deceived by our own thoughts and senses when the Enemy lies to us. Genesis 6:5 says, “The Lord observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil.” We tend to veer toward the wrong when we trust in our own senses.

Our Denial Entangles Us

When the cool evening breezes were blowing, the man and his wife heard the Lord God walking about in the garden. So they hid from the Lord God among the trees. Then the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”  He replied, “I heard you walking in the garden, so I hid. I was afraid because I was naked.” “Who told you that you were naked?” the Lord God asked. “Have you eaten from the tree whose fruit I commanded you not to eat?” The man replied, “It was the woman you gave me who gave me the fruit, and I ate it.” Then the Lord God asked the woman, “What have you done?” “The serpent deceived me,” she replied. “That’s why I ate it.”

Genesis 3:8-15

The blame game – it’s someone else’s fault. We refuse to acknowledge our weakness, our rebellion, and the way we chase after our own desires rather than God’s truth. Refusal to take responsibility does not change the reality.

The Good News we all need to hear is that renewal is within reach because God is always at work. Our troubles can seem huge to us at the moment, but God sees beyond them – he is beyond them.

Isaiah 42:9 See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you. Let’s be encouraged today to see the ways that God brings newness into our lives every day.

God’s Daily Renewal in Our Lives

New Mercies.

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.”

Lamentations 3:22-24

What a joy it is that His mercies are new every morning – because we need the mercy of God every day! God prepared clothing for Adam and Eve – a great act of mercy even though they disappointed/disobeyed Him.  Whatever your yesterday was like – today you can experience the reality of His New Mercies all over again.

Jesus Gave Us New Life!

We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

Romans 6:4

Beyond the mistakes, troubles, and regrets of the past – God gives us a new life when we identify with Jesus Christ in baptism. Paul says it this way:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! – 2 Corinthians 5:17

We are not the same people we were before we gave our life to Christ. We are not the same people we were when we first gave our lives to Christ – we continually are growing in our faith.

Galatians 6:15 …What counts is the new creation.

Peter says it this way: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. – 1 Peter 1:3

The power of the new birth is found in the resurrection – He can promise new life because He is a Risen Savior! Jesus gives us New LIfe!

The Promise of a New Future

But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

2 Peter 3:13

Revelation 5:9 And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.

Revelation 21:1 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.

Revelation 21:5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Conclusion

It is true that we can be weary, worn out, and lose our spiritual strength when we
listen to the enemy, rely on our own senses, or refuse to take responsibility for
our own actions.

But it is also true that God is always bringing renewal into our lives – he gives us the
strength we need to do more than just make it through another week – but to live
each day with hope and faith.

  • His New Mercies
  • His New Life
  • His New Everything

Have you experienced newness in your relationship with Him?

How many of us need to have a renewed appreciation for the newness he brings to His children?

Prayer Requests can be sent to our church via FACOC.org

COVID: Why We Cannot Give Up

I join with all who are exhausted with protocols meant to diminish the propagation of COVID-19. There has been nothing like this in our lifetimes. It has maintained a presence in our thinking over the past several months and shows no signs of an end anytime soon. Some predict even more difficult struggles as Fall turns into Winter.

For some, that means it’s time to just stop. Take off the mask. Forget all the precautions. It’s too much to think about any more. I hear this in various statements made.

“If it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go and a mask isn’t going to stop it.”

“Most people won’t die. For those that do, it’s sad, but we can’t give up our freedoms for the sickly.”

“None of the numbers are reliable, it’s all just a means to control us.”

“Government organizations and scientists have changed their minds so many times, who can even know what to do?”

“It’s just not that big of a deal. The virus itself won’t kill you. It is the other stuff that gets you.”

“Masks are a total delusion – they don’t help at all.”

“I have faith, so God will keep me from getting the virus.”

And one of the worst…

“This will all disappear on November 4th.”

While all of these statements are either demonstrably untrue or reflect a focus on self at the expense of others, I continue to hear them. More, I continue to see them demonstrated in the actions of people on social media and real life. I get it. It is tempting to just dump the whole virus lifestyle and get back to pre-COVID life.

There are some very real reasons why we cannot lay down our vigilance at stopping coronavirus spread within our circle of influence.

  • The virus is not aware of your feelings about coping. It isn’t listening to your demands nor your proclamations that it’s nothing to worry about. It is a silent and invisible enemy that does not choose its path by how people feel about it.
  • The virus is not a respecter of persons. When we gather with other people and disregard social distancing protocols, we act as if we are impervious to the virus. Yet we continue to read reports that rebut that position. Wedding parties become super spreader events, church gatherings that lead to virus propagation and infection, and even political rallies that claim the lives of prominent politicians. It’s not hard to find others who are ready to ditch the efforts to contain the virus and…that’s part of the problem.
  • The virus has claimed thousands of lives and continues to do so every day. If we explain away that those people were already sick, or have co-morbidities, or were about to die anyway – we are close to saying it’s ok for them to die. Anyone on board with that?
  • The virus continues to rage around the world. It keeps coming back. That tells me that no matter if you live in Italy, Spain, or the United States, you are going to have to deal with this virus for quite some time.
  • The virus will not be ignored. The approach many take is just to ignore the whole thing. Sure, you can point to some gatherings where the virus did not break out. You can name people who have had the virus and never had a symptom. You can downplay, explain away, compare away – but ultimately the reality is that the virus is spreading, growing, and is difficult to eradicate without the basic protocols (wash hands, wear a mask, stay more than 6 feet away).

You may not agree with the political approaches to dealing with the virus, but don’t allow that to let your guard down. Because there is one more thing I want to mention that we often forget.

  • You can bring the virus to someone who may suffer and lose their lives, and you not even be aware of it. The invisible nature of this virus puts us all at risk. I know some people characterize this as living in fear. Careful approaches to all dangerous situations in life are a common practice, even among the bravest of individuals. If I have any fear, it is that I could bring the virus to someone I love who may not be asymptomatic. I’m not concerned that this could happen, but that it has happened thousands of times.

Giving up now may mean more than you think. So before you gather with that crowd, consider whether there is an effort to contain the potential infection. None of our efforts are 100% effective, but we can do all we can do. There are many stories of people who are not compromised in their health but end up in ICU anyway.

The thing that I try to remember is that every effort I make is not about me trying to stay well, it’s about me trying to keep people I love well.

That’s important to me.

Ministry Moving Forward

As churches and those who serve them enter into the long days of coronavirus response, new questions arise that are difficult to answer. In the beginning, there was a scramble to figure out what would be best for the churches and how to comply with state mandates. There was an assumption that this was a limited time issue that did not require long term adjustments. It was new, challenging, perplexing, and it caused a lot of stress.

Some of the stress came from conflicting ideas within church leaderships about how to proceed in this new environment, but much of the stress was within the heart of the minister. Ministerial leadership operated under a set of practices that included study with vigor, serving people with love, teaching with engagement, encouraging the flock, and shepherding the wayward to come back into the fold. That may sound reductionist, but weekly (or more often) face to face gatherings with encouragement to bring others along is the foundation of the hopes of expanding outreach. It was not about numbers per se, but about souls. Now church leaders are struggling to figure out how to do pastoral work without weekly gatherings (or limited gatherings).

Now it’s been months and no end in sight. Ministers have assured the congregation that they should feel no guilt by staying at home and watching online gatherings. For churches like the one I serve, the online offerings are new. We worked with that learning curve and feel pretty good about where we are now, especially considering we started at zero. Many churches are gathering with less than half of pre-COVID attendance on Sunday mornings. Contributions are unreliable. The desire and intention to give sometimes falls into the background when one isn’t actually at the service. Even at the service, trays aren’t passed, to keep down the sharing of germs. There has been a major adjustment to a new way of bringing worship and Bible study opportunities to the church and congregants have adjusted to a new way to be a part of the church. In a remote, unattached, and perhaps even minimal way. More and more it is being expressed that this new way to be a member of the congregation requires too little and offers too little. But instead of a giant rally call to all members to come back to the assembly, there are other considerations. The church leader’s path forward must take into account distinct realities.

SOME SHOULD NOT COME TO CHURCH. Some people shouldn’t come to the assembly. In truth, those who are compromised in their health should not be in confined spaces for almost an hour where people are singing and the air conditioning is spreading whatever germs are present throughout the room. No one likes to think of the assembly that way, but with many refusing to wear a mask throughout the service, that is a reality. If it is true that most churches are made up of a majority elderly population and a large part of that population is vulnerable, then there are going to be a lot of empty seats on Sunday morning. It is known that the virus spreads in gatherings of people. So, in one sense, it’s hard to encourage people to gather.

AN UNAVOIDABLE MIXED MESSAGE. Pastors and church leaders are caught in a catch-22. Stay home to avoid the virus. Come to church because we need to get back to our former work. Stay home and view a virtual service on which we have worked hard to make as accessible as possible. Come to church because the church needs to gather to share in heartfelt worship. Stay home to keep your family safe from exposure to a virus that could make its way to your most vulnerable family members. Come to church to worship in person because this is where we can check in with each other and build relationships. Stay at home and type in the comment section of the video to stay connected. Come to church and smile and talk to people you love and who love you. It goes on and on, without a clear path forward as long as Covid-19 is unaddressed medically in our country.

NEGLECT. Many ministers have noticed that there are parishioners who gather in other places, take pictures of themselves in public gathered together with maskless people from a variety of families, eat indoors at restaurants (similar to churches in terms of ventilation issues) – yet are absent when the church gathers. That starts to seem like just old fashioned backsliding or neglect of the assembly. This is where shepherds can have hard conversations, regathering the sheep.

DIVERSE PERSPECTIVES. There are as many reactions to all of this as there are human beings. Some think it’s a hoax that will disappear after the November elections. Some think that if they breathe in three coronavirus germs they will end up in ICU on a vent. Some think that masks are worthless. Some believe masks are essential for the community to overcome the virus. Some listen to the news, some doomscroll through social media, some are hearing half-baked theories and conspiracies and embracing them. Some proclaim their faith will keep them well, but there is no certainty the virus is impressed with bravado. So it is a given that church leaders are not going to choose a path forward that satisfies everyone in their church. No one should think there are easy solutions.

A TRUE RISK. Gathering carries a risk. Distancing protocols may lessen that risk. At the same time, it is not wise to pretend that these protocols remove the risk of contracting coronavirus at gatherings in closed rooms with ventilation that just recycles the air. There is no protocol, no practice, that can guarantee that coronavirus is absent from the assembly.

EXHAUSTION. Everyone is weary of this entire circumstance. It wears on all every day, every place. Everyone is ready for this to be over. It is never far from our thinking. But some do just stop thinking about it. They pretend it’s not there and desire to return to a pre-COVID ministry. If the virus were a human enemy, it might be able to intimidate it, shame it, overpower it, or push it away. A thousand people a day are dying from Covid-19 and co-morbidities. The old human facade of “it won’t happen to me” is what directs some people’s paths. However we feel – tired or wary or cavalier or cautious – the virus is unaffected by our feelings.

HOPE. Until there is a proven vaccine or the virus mutates into something our bodies can fight, I don’t see this ending. In my view, we can make the best of the reality we are facing. I am hopeful. I do believe that many are watching online that have not been in a church meeting in many years. I do believe there will be a well-researched vaccine. I do believe the virus can mutate and weaken. I do believe we will adapt and live with this virus or it will be eradicated. This is our human experience over the centuries.

While we wait for that eventuality, I desire to keep my family and congregation as safe as possible. At the same time, I desire to engage, serve, love, and reach out in every way available to me. We will pray without ceasing and know that God walks with us through this valley. It is not time to give up.