Living in Oz…

WizardofOz

I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen “The Wizard of Oz,” but I can remember watching on television as a child. Back then it was quite the spectacle with witches and munchkins and flying monkeys, or should I say, “Lions and tigers and bears…Oh, my!”

For some reason, this morning my mind drifted back to that classic movie. I thought of Dorothy desperately trying to find her way out of that fantastic and frightening Land of Oz to get back home to Auntie Em and all the rest. I recalled her technicolor adventure, her fascination at each new discovery, the times of tension and fear, and the friendships she made along with way. Her journey was not a direct one. She followed a winding yellow brick road to the Emerald City, then to the wicked witch’s castle, and back again to the palace of the Great Oz. It is only at the end of the film when we discover that she had been wearing the key to her return home on her feet nearly the entire movie. She clicked the heels of her ruby red slippers and repeated, “There’s no place like home.” [Spoiler alert: She woke up in her own bed. It was only a dream… or was it?]

As with many stories told on the silver screen, we find that they are somehow familiar. As Solomon wrote long ago, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The arts are just another means by which greater stories can be told.

Dorothy spent her time in Oz longing to be home, but while there she was fully engaged. She made friends. She faced challenges. She defended and encouraged the weak. She experienced fear and showed courage. Dorothy made herself at home in Oz all the while knowing she was not really at home. She made the best of the place where she was while deeply desiring to be the place where she belonged.

Our Christian journey is much like that. This is our Oz. It feels very real, and it is, but we were born with a longing for another reality. We look around and know that something isn’t quite right, yet our calling is to be fully engaged where and when we are. There is much to endure here and much to enjoy, too. We have a calling to fulfill on this journey, and we do it best when in the company of those who share our mission.

Unlike Dorothy, our way out of this temporary existence is not a pair of ruby red slippers and the recitation of a few magical words. When our journey here is over, when we have finished our life’s calling, Jesus Himself will come to take us home. And when that time comes, we will know fully the harmony that we’ve been missing as we stand in the presence of God.

“There’s no place like home.” I agree with Dorothy on that. One day, we’ll get to experience that home, but while we are here this is our temporary home. Let us be fully engaged in our calling, fully connected to others, and ready to stand up for what is right and for those who have been wronged. Let us face our fears and not be afraid of what hides behind the curtain. But let us never get confused thinking this is all there is, and may we never lose our longing for home.

Advertisements

Remember me…

As his mother nursed him while holding him close in her arms, she had dreams – dreams of the man he might one day become. Those dreams comforted her. She closed her eyes and felt his warmth. She felt it not only on her skin but deeper, much deeper. Her labor was over, and this new life clinging to her breast offered such promise. It was indeed the stuff of dreams.

His father, too, had dreams. Here was the little boy they had longed for, a son to carry on the name. Every father wants his son to grow up strong and healthy, to make wise choices, and to make mom and dad proud. As this new father watched the tiny baby fall into a peaceful sleep, he, too, felt a sense of peace beyond anything he’d ever known before.

As the baby grew into a boy and then into a young man, the peace that his father had felt years before had been wiped away by hurt and disappointment. Although they had tried to teach him well, to take him to synagogue, to instill strong values in him, their efforts came to naught. The teen fell in with a bad crowd. Acts of mischief turned to petty crimes, and petty crimes turned more serious and violent. The hope and pride those parents had years before had evaporated leaving only pain and shame.

Sitting around a dying fire on an unusually chilly night, the young man sat alone, alone save the thoughts that drifted like wisps of smoke through his mind – his father’s smiling face, his mother’s tender touch. It seemed like another life. He remembered another presence, too. He sensed that presence when his father prayed. It was Yahweh, the Great I Am. Quietly, the young man wept for all that was lost, for the broken pieces of his life, for the agony he had caused his mother and father, and for his own dirty soul. He wondered why this God, the God whose presence he once felt so close, had not already destroyed him utterly. But here he sat in the cold, cheeks wet, heart broken, and, oh, so lost inside.

He has been called Dismas, Titus, Rakh, and Zoatham. None of those was likely his name. His name is lost to history, but he is not. We meet him briefly in the gospels of Mark and Luke. He is a thief, often called the “good thief” to distinguish him from the other in the story. We find him hanging on a cross, the Roman’s cruelest form of capital punishment. He, another thief, and Jesus were executed that day.

Mark simply says that Jesus was crucified between two robbers, one on his right and one on his left (Mark 15:27). Luke provides us a few more specifics:
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)

I marvel at the simple expression of faith from the “good thief.” Although the details I have given earlier are from my own imagining, it seems obvious that he understood the depth of his own sin and somehow knew of the righteousness of the one crucified next to him. Had he heard talk on the streets about Him? Did he encounter Jesus at some point? We don’t know. What we do know is that he simply asks Jesus to remember Him when He came into His kingdom.

Remember me. Those words strike home.

He had likely broken his mother’s heart and left his father with deep disappointment. Perhaps they had not seen him for months. It could be that they only heard from friends and neighbors that their boy had been in jail yet again. Did they remember him? Yes. If they were godly parents, as I am assuming, they did remember him before God night and day. His name is not recorded in history, but it echoed through the halls of heaven.

“Remember me,” the nameless thief asked, his words expressing both regret and belief. The response of Jesus shows us both the simplicity of faith and the immensity of forgiveness.

This man whose life had gone off the rails at some point had never been forgotten. There was a God in heaven who knew Him better than he knew himself, a God who saw all his crimes and loved him still. Jesus would usher this man into the holy presence of His Father. And though his name is a mystery to us, the man would hear that it was on the lips of God.

Do you feel unknown, unnoticed, as if you and your life don’t matter to anyone? There is One who cares far more than you can know. He knows your name. He knows all that you have done. He loves you and calls you by name. By faith in His Son, you, too, can enter His presence.

Responding to Hatred

The news report read, “It was clearly a terror attack, intended to kill as many people as possible.” The police officer was speaking of the terror attack in Barcelona where a man in a white van plowed into pedestrians with the clear intent of bringing chaos and death.

He was successful, killing at least 13, and doing so at the cost of his own life as he was shot by responding law enforcement. It is reported that ISIS has claimed responsibility for this attack, but this remains to be seen.

This attack came on the heels of a similar attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, this time perpetrated by a man presumed to be a white nationalist. The two attackers would likely have believed they had little in common, but the reality is that at the heart of each assault was a singular motivation – hatred.

Psychologists may debate the causes of hatred, but there is no denying that it is damaging to the one who hates and potentially damaging to the one or the group that is hated. Hatred is not always rationale. It often leads to violence. It separates people creating artificial battle lines. And, sadly, hatred appears to have reached a fevered pitch in our nation.

How should a follower of Jesus respond? We hear this the mass hysteria of hatred that is surging through our nation, and feel helpless. We are not, but what can we do?

Pray fervently. Our most underutilized resource is prayer. Believers have direct access to the throne room of God. He welcomes us into His presence, and He desires to hear our prayers. Let us boldly approach His throne of grace. Let us intercede for the oppressed and for the oppressor.

Live differently. The world invites us to join in their parade of hatred and vitriol. We don’t have to. We have a different invitation – an invitation to peace. Our lives are to be “peculiar” in the world, distinctive. We are to shine like stars in the night sky. We show the difference that Jesus makes.

Love freely. Christians are not distinctive only because of what we believe; we are distinctive because our lives are marked by love. In fact, Jesus said people would know we are His followers because of how we love one another. But our love is not limited to what happens among believers. Jesus also calls us to love our neighbor and even our enemies.

Stand boldly. One of the major themes of Scripture is the cry for justice. We do not have to take up placards and protest in the streets, but we do need to stand up for those who are abused, mistreated, ostracized, and maligned. We cannot afford to join the chorus of hatred and slander. We must stand against racism and sexism and stand for freedom and equality for all. We do not huddle together in fear; we stand together in faith.

Share Jesus. The 1966 song by Dionne Warwick proclaimed, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” I’d agree that more love would be a good thing, but the world needs more. The world needs Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the Give of Life, the Source of Hope, and the Personification of Love. And you and I have the privilege of sharing Jesus in this fallen and broken world. The world cannot afford for us to remain silent.

 

Now that you’re married…

wedding ringsJust a few weeks ago, our one and only son was married. His new wife is terrific. I was honored to be the one to pronounce them husband and wife. Now, they have started a life together with jobs, a house, a puppy, and lots of Thank You notes to write!

Jay and Lacie have bought their first house. They set up their electricity and internet and trash service. Lots of things are settled, but one big thing remains to be done – finding a church. This is one of the big decisions a young couple has to make, but it’s not always an easy decision.

Now that you’re married, what should a young couple look for in a church? It seems that the top of the list might include a church having lots of other young couples so they can make friends. Or maybe the newlyweds might be looking for “hip” church with a great band and a pastor with a man bun who wears flip flops on Sunday. It could be that the ideal church is one with a coffee shop – well, neither Jay nor Lacie drink coffee, but at least a coffee shop with comfy chairs would be a cool place to hang out. Or maybe they’re looking down the road a few years to find a church with a whiz bang children’s ministry. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with any of those options.

A lot of factors that go into choosing a church, but from a pastor/dad perspective let me share a few thoughts. Here are some questions to ask in choosing your church:

Is there an atmosphere of love?

Churches should not just be friendly; they should be loving. That love should be lived out among the members, but it should also extend to every guest who walks in the door; in fact, it should extend well beyond the doors. The question is not just where those attending the church love each other, but whether they love others. Find a church where love flows freely among the members and from the members.

Is the theology sound?

What a church believes matters. A church that has all the bells and whistles and fills its parking lot up three times every Sunday morning is no guarantee that the doctrine of the church is solid. Check the church’s statement of faith (probably on their website). Consider their denominational affiliation. It’s important that your beliefs line up with their beliefs. Lots of families have changed churches because of the size of a youth group without ever considering what the church’s core beliefs and values are.

Does the church have a heart for missions?

A church that has sound theology and a loving heart should naturally be a church that has a heart for missions. For a church to be in rhythm with heartbeat of God, it needs to look beyond itself at the lostness in the world. If the budget is posted online or available in print, see how much of their budget goes toward missions, evangelism, outreach, and ministry.

Is there a small group where we can connect?

The worship service seems to be where all the action is, but that hour each Sunday is only part of the big picture of the church’s life. I have often called small groups “Miracle-Gro” for the Christian life. It is here that you can get to know people more personally. It is here that deep relationships can form that may last a lifetime. It is here where you have the opportunity to be blessed and be a blessing, be served and serve others. And just something else to consider – your small group doesn’t have to be made up of all young couples. Some churches have groups that are mixed in ages, and these can be some of the sweetest groups you could be part of.

Are their opportunities to plug in and serve?

It’s great when you find a church that pours truth and love into your life, but it’s better by far when you also find a church that helps you pour truth and love into the lives of others. Serving others is both a responsibility and a privilege. God has gifted each person with natural talents and spiritual gifts for the purpose of serving others. Consider how you might serve others both inside and outside the church walls. In other words, don’t just settle for having your names on the church roll book; be a vital part of the life of the church.

Know this – Mom and I are praying that God will lead you both to a great church that can help you grow in your faith, strengthen your marriage, provide godly friends, teach you solid truth, and encourage you to become the man and woman of God that He is calling you to be.

It’s More than Just “Come to Church”

I am grateful to church members who do invite others to come to church. Sometimes that is all the encouragement that a person needs to step across that threshold. So, if you’re inviting people to come to your church, don’t stop! What I would encourage the church to do is to consider three other invitations to come that can be impactful in the numerical and spiritual growth of the local church.

“Come and See”

In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, we read that Philip was called by Jesus to follow Him. He seems to have quickly found his brother Nathaniel to tell him the great news that the Messiah had come. Philip’s invitation was simple – “Come and see.”

“Come and see” is a powerful invitation. It is not argumentative, critical, or condemning in any way. The invitation does not seek to explain everything or to answer every conceivable objection. It follows the simple pattern laid out by Philip – we who have experienced something wonderful invite someone else to come and check it out for themselves.

“Come with Me”

One of the challenges that many churches have is in finding people to serve in the various ministries of the church. It is not that churches do not have willing servants; it’s that those servants seem to be overloaded with obligations. There is a lot of truth to the 80/20 rule!

I am privileged to see people serving with gladness every week. They serve without complaint. They show up early and do what is needed all with a smile on their faces. It’s every pastor’s delight! Still, there are many areas of ministry where we struggle to find caring and capable men and women to serve.

There are a variety of reasons that people do not raise their hands enthusiastically when the pastor makes a public announcement of ministry opportunities. A person may not feel capable. They may not want to serve alone. They may be worried about messing up or offending someone. But they are far more likely to step into an area of ministry if they are invited by someone already serving there.

This could multiply our ministries greatly. Imagine the possibilities of a faithful servant inviting someone to serve alongside them on a Sunday morning. Perhaps we should consider adopting a “come with me” strategy. “Come with me to the door and help me greet guests.” “Come with me to the worship center as we pray before the service.” “Come with me to the hospital to visit one of our members.” This isn’t manipulation. It’s a simple invitation and an opportunity to help someone engage.

“Come and Be”

I’ll admit that you may not want to use those exact words. It’s the idea we want to get across. We want people to come and experience what it means to be part of a local church body. We want people to come and serve with us in our area of ministry. But we want even more – we want people to come, grow, and become more like Jesus every day in attitude and action.

The Christian faith is about more than location. It’s about more than doing good things for others. It’s about becoming the person God created you to be. It’s about discovering your gifts and passions and allowing the Holy Spirit to grow you as you worship, study, fellowship, and serve. It goes beyond showing up and leads to our growing up. “Come and be the person God has shaped you to be.”

Come and see. Come with me. Come and be. How could these three invitations change your church?

Being Sloshed About…

Christmastime for a pastor moves along at a pretty good clip. The old year has to be wrapped up. Plans for new year are already underway. Our church is also in the process of preparing a budget to present and seeking new Elders to serve. There are the Christmas parties and Christmas week services. It’s all a bit of a rush!

This year, we added a couple of new wrinkles to the fabric. We called two new pastors to serve on staff in 2016. During the course of the year, this addition, along with the always hard work of the church secretary and administrative coordinator, really helped to spread out the workload. These were blessings and not the wrinkles.

The first wrinkle is a delightful one – our Student Pastor and his wife are expecting their first child on December 26! The second wrinkle is not so delightful – our Worship and Small Groups Pastor developed a staph infection. But, “Okay,” I gold myself, “we can manage this.”

I often encourage people to expect the unexpected. Most assuredly, that is the theme for this Christmas. A few days ago, our oldest member had a severe stroke and was placed in ICU. A number of other families in the church and community had health issues or surgeries. I managed to plan everything and still make room for seeing family, exchanging gifts, and having a bit of a breather before jumping back in in the new year. That was until I got the call on Thursday morning that my stepfather had died suddenly of a heart attack sometime in the night .

I felt at that moment as if I were being sloshed about, caught up in a great churning. I had managed, to that point, to keep all the pieces together and somewhat in order. It had been hectic, perhaps even a bit chaotic, but I was still on my feet. I was still, seemingly, in control. As my sister spoke to me, everything changed. I sat down heavily in my office chair and said aloud, “I don’t know what to do.”

My praying was a little more than, “Help.” The pieces I had so carefully gathered and glued together fell apart and drifted to the ground. I knew that God was in control, that He works all things out for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose, and that His grace is sufficient. I knew it, but I struggled to rest in those truths. I am, after all, one of you – a human who trips often over his own humanity.

It took time for the sloshing to settle a bit. A few phone calls. Some list-making. Words of comfort from friends. Short prayers. Aimless walking. Mindless tidying. The pieces drifted downward and settled in place. It was not where I would have placed them. Certainly, it was not how I had planned the Christmas holiday. But as helplessly I watched the house of cards yield to the gravity of the news, I found that God was holding onto me. God truly does have this.

I thank all those who are praying and those who have given words of comfort and offered of help. I pray for those experiencing losses in our church family and receive the comfort of knowing you are praying for the loss in my family. Over these next few hours and days, I will be father, husband, son, brother, son-in-law, brother-in-law, uncle, friend, and pastor, but ultimately I will be a man desperately clinging to my Heavenly Father, a Father who holds onto me even when I cannot hold on to the pieces of my little world.

It’s December…

15258737_1291746867534792_2737939216229990400_n.jpg

It seems that the year started only a few weeks ago, and now it is December. The tree is up, lit, and decorated. The rest of the decorations are in various states of being put up. Today, however, was both a happy and sad day in Long household.

Since our two children were little, we have been using an Advent calendar. It is a manger scene of cloth suspended on a wooden dowel. Each day of the month has a little pocket, and in the pocket a piece of the manger scene – a star, moon, sheep, shepherds, Mary, Joseph, and, of course, baby Jesus. One piece at a time, the picture comes together – there’s a sermon in that somewhere!

Jackie and Jay used to take turns putting up each piece, starting with the star above the stable. Each year, they would alternate odd and even days, so that both kids had equal opportunity to place baby Jesus in his manger. Jackie insured it would be fair by putting a piece of paper in the December 25th slot (tucked in their with Jesus) showing whose turn it would be.

This morning is December 1st. I walked into the den and looked at the Advent calendar, each special piece in its own slot, each Velcro tab awaiting its own piece. I carefully pulled the puffy yellow star from the first pocket and put it in its place over the stable. Memories flooded back of little hands doing the same for so many years prior. And…of one mischievous little boy randomly rearranging the pieces just to irritate his sister.

As I stood there in the quiet, I reflected on just how blessed I am to have those memories. My wife and I will be putting the pieces in their places this year, but we will eagerly anticipate those not-so-little hands of our two kids putting Mary and Jesus in their spots on Christmas eve and Christmas day. I haven’t checked to see who will do the honors of putting Jesus in the manger this year, but I’d lay money on it that Jackie knows…even from Birmingham. I’d also bet that at some point the pieces get moved around, placing sheep and cows in the sky in place of the moon and star. I am, indeed, a blessed man.