Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Youth Group

I just hired a new Director of Family Ministry. His name is Alex, and he has been on staff for about a month. On Sunday, after church, he held a meeting with youth and parents regarding Youth Ministry such as Youth Group (which is going to be called “Southside.” I think that’s really cool.), as well as Sunday School. I sat in on the meeting and was really encouraged about the future of family ministry here at South Church. I look forward to seeing what God is going to do through Alex’s leadership.

One of the things that struck me, as I listened and observed, was the amazing opportunity these young people have that many of their peers do not. In my teen years, I was not a part of a faith community and did not attend a Youth Group or Sunday School. However, when I became a Youth Pastor in the late ‘90’s, I witnessed firsthand the incredible things that can happen when young people, excited about Jesus, get together, grow together, and serve together. I saw remarkable things happen at summer camp and youth retreats. Kids came to faith in Christ and began to see each other differently. Colossians 3:12-13 says, “Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.” In my youth group and every summer at Camp Winniaugwamauk, I saw young people learn to love and accept one another. There were no “cliques.” No cool kids versus geeks. Lifelong, meaningful, relationships are often formed in church youth groups. It is also fertile soil for the next generation of church leaders.

Look, I know. Teens will sometimes be teens. It is biological. Hormones and all. Sometimes they believe they have all the answers and have nothing else to learn. Especially, from you. I get it, but let’s not forget. We were teens too and, to be honest, not any different. Nonetheless, we all have an opportunity to be a mentor to young people. An example. To make allowance for their faults, and be forgiving, understanding, and encouraging. Yes, on occasion, you may be speaking with someone who has blue hair or a variety of piercings, but we too are called to be tenderhearted, merciful, kind, and patient. Remember what God said to Samuel when he was searching for the next king of Israel. “The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

If you have teens, encourage them to participate in youth group. They will be blessed. If your children are grown, encourage your grandchildren and always be encouraging to the young people in your church. Let them know, you are so glad they are there; that you care and support your church’s Youth Pastor and family ministry. Remind them, as Paul said to Timothy, “Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).

Think about it. Young people could be anywhere else on Sunday mornings. Specifically, still sleeping, but they are in church. They could be off with friends on Friday nights, but instead they are at Youth Group. That’s something to be thankful for right there, isn’t it?  

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Remember to email your praises and petitions to southchurchprayer@gmail.com. We lift them up every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at 4:00 pm on Facebook Live.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

The Instant

On the way to church this past Sunday, Renée and I encountered yellow police tape stretched across Maple Avenue. Rarely is police tape a good sign. We prayed for whatever situation was happening and took a detour. Sadly, we later discovered that someone riding one of those Lime electric scooters now available throughout the city was hit by a car and killed. This past Thursday, a veteran Connecticut state trooper Sgt. Brian Mohl, who had 26 years of service in the department, was working a midnight shift in Woodbury was killed when his cruiser was swept away amid heavy flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Ida.

A man riding a scooter. A husband and father of three gone in an instant. Events like this remind us of the fragility of life, as we were on September 11, 2001. It is hard to believe, but we are coming upon twenty years this Saturday. I will never forget sitting, in my office in Maine, just stunned, staring at the television as that event unfolded before my eyes. Two thousand nine hundred and seventy-seven innocent people died that morning – in an instant.

Yes, it changed our lives. We still have to take off our shoes at the airport. We cannot park close to certain buildings. There are watchlists and air marshals. All of that is true. However, what hit me this week was more the reality of “the instant.” The idea that one moment everything appears okay, and the next, it can change forever. None of us know how long we have. Twenty years? Sixty? Ninety? Everything could change in an instant. An illness, accident, natural disaster, terrorist attack. The Bible says, “How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog – it’s here a little while, then it’s gone” (James 4:14). Remember the childhood nighttime prayer? “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake. I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.” Most of us use the updated modern version instead, “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. Guide me safely through the night and wake me with the morning light. Amen.” It’s a little softer, lighter, right? However, tomorrow morning is not guaranteed. 

Now, I mention this not to instill any fear. The Bible is clear, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7). I do not want you walking around today, or any other day, expecting Wile E. Coyote’s ACME anvil to drop out of the sky and onto your head. No, I mention this for the opposite reason. Not knowing, should motivate us to treasure every moment. Bill Keane, illustrator of the Family Circus cartoon, once said, “Yesterday’s the past. Tomorrow’s the future, but today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.” I do not know what tomorrow brings. None of us do. I do know the Bible also says, “Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning” (Lamentations 3:23). 

I know that every single day we have another opportunity to live, laugh, and love. Don’t take them for granted. I encourage you to treasure each and every day. Cherish time with family, friends, co-workers, and brothers and sisters-in-Christ. Tell those you love that you love them. “Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Ephesians 4:26). Make up with your husband or wife. Life is a blessing. So be blessed and be a blessing to someone else today.     

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Remember to email your praises and petitions to southchurchprayer@gmail.com. We lift them up every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at 4:00 pm on Facebook Live.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

How Will You Plead?

Well, I was called for jury duty this week. In the end, they texted me on Monday evening to tell me that I was not needed, but I was ready to serve. I think all citizens should serve. In the United States, one is considered innocent until proven guilty, and our constitution guarantees us all the right to a fair trial before a jury of our peers. Not every nation makes that promise. We are truly blessed.

When you think about it, the task of a juror is pretty significant. To judge someone’s guilt or innocence, and impose a monetary penalty, or send someone to prison is a serious responsibility.

At first, I thought to myself, wow, I am having a hard enough time contemplating what it would be like to judge a single person’s actions, God has to judge each and every one of us. Then, I remembered. Actually, I think God has it a little easier. Why? He does not have to decide our guilt or innocence. We are all guilty. Romans 3:10, “No one is righteous – not even one.” Psalm 51:5, “For I was born a sinner – yes, from the moment my mother conceived me.” Romans 3:23, “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” When we stand before the Lord on Judgment Day, we will not be able to plead innocent. 2 Corinthians 5:10 reminds us, “For we must all stand before Christ to be judged. We will each receive whatever we deserve for the good or evil we have done in this earthly body.” Now, some people mistakenly believe if we do more good than bad, we will be okay. On the scales of justice our good deeds will outweigh our evil. Unfortunately, I am afraid that is not true, because the Bible says in James 2:10, “…the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws.” That’s right. As Jesus told us in Matthew 5:48, “…you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” What? Perfection? Are you perfect? I know I am not. That means when we stand before God, we will all be found guilty. Yup. Sorry. I will as well. So, what hope is there for us?      

The hope is in the sentencing phase. For those who are born again, we can be assured that our punishment has already been carried out through what Jesus did on the cross. We may have been the ones who sinned, but Jesus took the consequences of our sins – willingly. “No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily,” Jesus said in John 10:18. Those who believe have no reason to fear their day in court. We know how it will turn out. Jesus is clear, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father,” Jesus says, “inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world” (Matthew 25:34). However, for those who do not believe, Jesus is pretty clear as well. “Get away from me,” He says in Matthew 7:23, “you who break God’s laws” “…[you] will go away into eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46).

If you are ever called to serve on a jury, I encourage you to do your duty. There would be no better, fairer, or more compassionate, juror than one who follows Jesus Christ. Also, try to picture yourself as the defendant one day standing in the heavenly court before the Lord and having to plead your case knowing you are guilty. Then, remember what Jesus did for you on the cross and how your case will be dismissed because He has already taken your punishment, and rejoice. Be thankful and rejoice. Live the rest of your days here on earth in thankful appreciation for what Christ did for you.  

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Remember to email your praises and petitions to southchurchprayer@gmail.com. We lift them up every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at 4:00 pm on Facebook Live.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

The Narrow Gate

I have been a pastor for over twenty-four years now. Over that time, I have officiated at hundreds of funerals and weddings. In fact, when I was serving up in Maine, I sometimes did fifty funerals a year. A pastor never forgets his first funeral. I was petrified. All those people thought I would know just the right things to say. I felt responsible for a family’s grief. I mean, I was the one who was supposed to help them find closure, right? Often times, as it was in this case, I did not even know the person. You see, I began as a Youth Pastor. The Senior Pastor did all the funerals for members of our congregation. I was frequently called by the local funeral homes to help out when someone came in who did not have a church or pastor. I was called off the bench to “pinch hit” if you will. If you did a good job, you acquired a reputation among the local funeral directors as someone to call.

I guess I did a good job, because not more than a week later, Brookings-Smith Funeral Home called me again. I remember this one more than my first actually. Why? Because I was still so nervous, I accidentally called the deceased person by the name of my first funeral. Twice! I was mortified! The owner, Gary Smith, tried to be helpful. He said, “That’s okay, Adam, no one is really paying attention to you anyhow.” I still laugh at that. I am chuckling now as I type it. 

This all came to mind this week, because for some reason, I again find myself getting calls from local funeral homes to officiate funerals for people I do not know. I try to accommodate as best I can. I have actually gotten pretty good at it. I mean, I do not do a lot of things well, but I do a good funeral. So, when you die, I’m your guy.

These recent services were a challenge, however, because I soon discovered the deceased was not a believer. It is easier to speak about heaven and salvation when you know they believed in Jesus. What do you say about someone whose eternity is uncertain? I have struggled with these services. Now, I do not know the condition of a person’s heart when it comes to a relationship with Jesus. No one does. However, I cannot lie either and just say everyone goes to heaven regardless, etc. That is not true. Jesus says in Matthew 7, “You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it” (Matt. 7:13-14). Who enters? Jesus was clear about that too. He said, “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). As well as, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). So, what do you say about someone who does not believe? Or, you are unaware if they did? Can you see my dilemma?

This is why it is so important to make a decision about Christ. Once we draw our final breath, it is too late, and it is truly heartbreaking, even for the pastor officiating the service, to not know where this person, who was clearly loved, will spend eternity.

Please think about who Jesus is and what He did on the cross. Pray about it. Tell your family and friends about the gateway to life. I know there are people in your life who you love deeply and want them to be one of the “few” who find it, right?    

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Remember to email your praises and petitions to southchurchprayer@gmail.com. We lift them up every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at 4:00 pm on Facebook Live.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Goodbyes Are Hard

At the Passover Seder meal Jesus was sharing with His disciples, He tells them He will be leaving, but not to worry. “Don’t let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says, “Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am” (John 14:1-3).

The disciples had only known Jesus for three years. They were just coming to realize who He was, and now He’s leaving? They were understandably heartbroken. Goodbyes are always hard. Remember sending your child off to their first day of school? They were fine. You were a wreck, right? How about when Andy leaves for college in Toy Story 3? I was holding back tears. It’s a cartoon! Still, I was having a hard time. Saying goodbye is never easy. Whether it is you going off to school, or boot camp, or maybe getting married and beginning a new family, it is difficult to say goodbye to someone we care about. 

I often use this John verse when I officiate a funeral. It speaks of how, even though we will miss our loved one, they are now going to be with Jesus in heaven. Amidst our grief, knowing that Jesus has a plan for them (for all believers) should bring us joy.

Over my time, here at South Church, I have had to say goodbye to some people I cared deeply for. When our Worship Leader Sheila Hodges left for Utah years ago, I thought we would never be able to replace her, but God had a plan. Ryan Dafgek answered the call to serve here, and we were greatly blessed. The same thing happened when our long time Church Administrator, Leslie Watkins, retired last year. Lauren Sepko answered the call, and we were greatly blessed again. Last Sunday, after eleven years, Ryan has answered the call to another church, and I do not know what is next. But I do know this, time and time again, God has taken care of us when we were in need. There is no reason to doubt He will not do so once more. God always has a plan. For you. For me. For churches. For our Worship Team. For loved ones who have died. We just need to trust in God. It is hard to do, especially when our hearts are broken, but that is exactly when we need to trust Him most.

In the Bible, God repeatedly promises us He will never leave us or forsake us, and as we read in Proverbs, “Every word of God proves true” (Proverbs 30:5). Perhaps you have had to say goodbye recently. Please, do not worry. Do not let your heart be troubled. When everything is ready, God will reveal the next part of His plan, and He will continue to amaze you!  

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Remember to email your praises and petitions to southchurchprayer@gmail.com. We lift them up every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at 4:00 pm on Facebook Live.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Silver and Gold

For nine years I served a church in rural Maine. I loved it. The people were great, and Maine is beautiful. I had no plans to leave. I really thought I would retire there. Things do not always go the way we expect though, huh? Perhaps that’s why the Bible tells us, “We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps” (Proverbs 16:9). My version of that verse is, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans for the future.”

Quite unexpectedly, I was called to serve a church here in Hartford, CT. It was six hours south, but still New England. I didn’t think it would be that much different. I was wrong. There is a significant difference between rural and urban ministry. Neither is more important than the other, but the issues one encounters regularly does vary.

Now, poverty and drug use are obviously not exclusive to Hartford. They are rampant all over the United States, but the level of addiction and resulting homelessness is often concentrated in cities. On a daily basis, I interact with people struggling with heroin, oxycontin, fentanyl, alcohol, and methamphetamines. They have burned all of their bridges with employers, family, and friends, and the result is no roof over their head or food to eat. My first reaction when arriving here was more judgmental than I would care to admit. “How could they have let themselves get this way? Why don’t they stop? Why did they start in the first place?” It has been fifteen years now and the Lord has taught me a lot. First of all, when you get to know some of these folks, you discover, they are just people like you and me. They have moms and dads. Some had good jobs, wives, and still have children. All of it now gone because of substance abuse. I understand that at some point a decision was made to start using, but no one foresaw this for themselves. It is like an ocean undertow. You planned on just going swimming. People warned you about the undertow, but you’re a strong swimmer. You could handle it. Suddenly, you realize you are not as strong as you thought. You get caught in the current, and before you know it, you’re drowning. I promise you. No one makes a conscious choice to be an addict. In fact, it didn’t take long for me to realize that “there but by the grace of God go I.” One bad decision years ago, and I might be the one ringing the doorbell asking to speak with the pastor. 

Today, I have a different attitude. The truth is my heart breaks for these folks. I know they do not want to live a life like that. Who would? They simply cannot seem to escape. What can we do? What can I do when they ask me, “Pastor, do you have just a couple of dollars so I can get something to eat?” I know full well they have no plans to purchase food. Sadly, food and shelter are just not as important to them as their next fix. The goal, every single day, is to find, steal, con, or panhandle enough money to support their habit. Period. I do not say this disparagingly, but with great compassion. Would you want to live like that? Totally controlled by a substance you simply cannot quit.

Too many well-intentioned people think handing out a couple of dollars helps. They convince themselves, “Maybe they really will buy some food,” or rationalize it, “Hey, I gave with good intentions. What they do with it after that is up to them.” They are trapped. They are not capable of good decisions. Have you ever tried to talk to a young person about saving money up to buy something versus starting with credit cards? How did that go? Yeah, well, the success rate here is about the same.

If we want to really help. Buying someone food or giving someone food is always a good choice. Money? The Bible addresses this scenario in the Book of Acts.

“Peter and John went to the Temple one afternoon to take part in the three o’clock prayer service. As they approached the Temple, a man lame from birth was being carried in. Each day he was put beside the Temple gate, the one called the Beautiful Gate, so he could beg from the people going into the Temple. When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for some money.

Peter and John looked at him intently, and Peter said, ‘Look at us!’ The lame man looked at them eagerly, expecting some money. But Peter said, ‘I don’t have any silver or gold for you. But I’ll give you what I have. In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, get up and walk!’

Then Peter took the lame man by the right hand and helped him up. And as he did, the man’s feet and ankles were instantly healed and strengthened. He jumped up, stood on his feet, and began to walk! Then, walking, leaping, and praising God, he went into the Temple with them” (Acts 3:1-8).        

We have something so much more valuable than money – Jesus! He can do so much more than feed them. He can heal them. They will be able to jump up and walk again! So, why do we offer money? For many, it is easier to handout a couple of bucks (even though that will not really help) than to spend some time sharing the gospel (which can really help).

Think about that the next time someone asks you for assistance. Ask yourself, “Will silver or gold really help here or is it just enabling more destructive behavior?” Instead, offer some food (not money for food). Walk into McDonald’s with them and purchase something. Or, even better, like Peter and John, offer them what you have – the bread of life – Jesus Christ!

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Remember to email your praises and petitions to southchurchprayer@gmail.com. We lift them up every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at 4:00 pm on Facebook Live.

Give What You Have

For nine years I served a church in rural Maine. I loved it. The people were great, and Maine is beautiful. I had no plans to leave. I really thought I would retire there. Things do not always go the way we expected though, huh? Perhaps that’s why the Bible tells us, “We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps” (Proverbs 16:9). My version of that verse is, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans for the future.”

Quite unexpectedly, I was called to serve a church here in Hartford, CT. It was six hours south, but still New England. I didn’t think it would be that much different. I was wrong. There is a significant difference between rural and urban ministry. Neither is more important than the other, but the issues one encounters regularly does vary.

Now, poverty and drug use are obviously not exclusive to Hartford. They are rampant all over the United States, but the level of addiction and resulting homelessness is often concentrated in cities. On a daily basis, I interact with people struggling with heroin, Oxycontin, fentanyl, alcohol, and methamphetamines. They have burned all of their bridges with employers, family, and friends, and the result is no roof over their head or food to eat. My first reaction when arriving here was more judgmental than I would care to admit. “How could they have let themselves get this way? Why don’t they stop? Why did they start in the first place?” It has been fifteen years now and the Lord has taught me a lot. First of all, when you get to know some of these folks, you discover, they are just people like you and me. They have moms and dads. Some had good jobs, wives, and still have children. All of it now gone because of substance abuse. I understand that at some point a decision was made to start using, but no one foresaw this for themselves. It is like an ocean undertow. You planned on just going swimming. People warned you about the undertow, but you’re a strong swimmer. You could handle it. Suddenly, you realize you are not as strong as you thought. You get caught in the current, and before you know it, you’re drowning. I promise you. No one makes a conscious choice to be an addict. In fact, it didn’t take long for me to realize that “there but by the grace of God go I.” One bad decision years ago, and I might be the one ringing the doorbell asking to speak with the pastor.

Today, I have a different attitude. The truth is my heart breaks for these folks. I know they do not want to live a life like that. Who would? They simply cannot seem to escape. What can we do? What can I do when they ask me, “Pastor, do you have just a couple of dollars so I can get something to eat?” I know full well they have no plans to purchase food. Sadly, food and shelter are just not as important to them as their next fix. The goal, every single day is to find, steal, con, or panhandle enough money to support their habit. Period. I do not say this disparagingly, but with great compassion. Would you want to live like that? Totally controlled by a substance you simply cannot quit.

Too many well-intentioned people think handing out a couple of dollars helps. They convince themselves, “Maybe they really will buy some food,” or rationalize it, “Hey, I gave with good intentions. What they do with it after that is up to them.” They are trapped. They are not capable of good decisions. Have you ever tried to talk to a young person about saving money up to buy something versus starting with credit cards? How did that go? Yeah, well, the success rate here is about the same.

If we want to really help. Buying someone food or giving someone food is always a good choice. Money? The Bible addresses this scenario in the Book of Acts.

Peter and John went to the Temple one afternoon to take part in the three o’clock prayer service. As they approached the Temple, a man lame from birth was being carried in. Each day he was put beside the Temple gate, the one called the Beautiful Gate, so he could beg from the people going into the Temple. When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for some money.

Peter and John looked at him intently, and Peter said, ‘Look at us!’ The lame man looked at them eagerly, expecting some money. But Peter said, ‘I don’t have any silver or gold for you. But I’ll give you what I have. In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, get up and walk!’

Then Peter took the lame man by the right hand and helped him up. And as he did, the man’s feet and ankles were instantly healed and strengthened. He jumped up, stood on his feet, and began to walk! Then, walking, leaping, and praising God, he went into the Temple with them” (Acts 3:1-8).         

We have something so much more valuable than money – Jesus! He can do so much more than feed them. He can heal them. They will be able to jump up and walk again! So, why do we offer money? For many, it is easier to handout a couple of bucks (even though that will not really help) than to spend some time sharing the gospel (which can really help).

Think about that the next time someone asks you for assistance. Ask yourself, “Will silver or gold really help here or is it just enabling more destructive behavior?” Instead, offer some food (not money for food). Walk into McDonald’s with them and purchase something. Or, even better, like Peter and John, offer them what you have – the bread of life – Jesus Christ!  

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Remember to email your praises and petitions to southchurchprayer@gmail.com. We lift them up every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at 4:00 pm on Facebook Live.