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.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Boundaries and Limitations

This Sunday I am preaching in John chapter six. This is a pretty incredible chapter. Jesus feeds the five thousand. Actually, Verse ten tells us, “The men alone numbered 5,000” (John 6:10). When one includes the women and children, it is much more likely the number is closer to ten thousand! Then, we read the story about the disciples being caught in a storm and Jesus walking on the water to them. After that, Jesus teaches a crowd about the bread of life. He says He is the true bread that came down from heaven and goes on to imply His body and blood would be sacrificed in order to grant believers eternal life.

Continuing this metaphor, Jesus then says one has to eat His flesh and drink His blood. What? He means one has to accept Him into their life and become united with Him. We do this in a couple of in two ways: (1) by believing in His death and resurrection (the sacrifice of His flesh and blood and His rising from the grave) and (2) by devoting ourselves to living as He requires, depending on His teaching for guidance and trusting in the Holy Spirit for power. It was a metaphor! (Eating His flesh and drinking His blood.) Nonetheless, many of Jesus’ followers were shocked and horrified. So much so, that rather than trying to understand what He was teaching, they simply left. Abandoned Him. The person they had heretofore believed was the Messiah. However, as soon as He said something they had trouble accepting or understanding, they deserted Him. In many ways, things have not changed over the last two thousand years. 

I know of plenty of so-called “disciples of Jesus,” believers who claim to accept He is the Son of God, who love Him when He talks about loving our neighbors and doing unto others as we would have done unto us. They love hearing about His healings and miracles. They love all the good stuff. However, when Jesus teaches something difficult. Something we do not like or even disagree with many do the same – desert Him.

Listen, when we were raising our children, we had limitations, boundaries, which we expected them not to cross. We did so, because we had knowledge they did not have, and we wanted to protect them, because we loved them. Why is it so hard for us to consider God has the same for you and me? His children. Remember, we would sometimes get so upset with our children because they incessantly asked, “Why? Why? Why?” Finally, in exasperation, we would reply, “Because I said so!” It wasn’t that we didn’t want to tell them. We were. They were just incapable of fully understanding the reasoning. It wasn’t their fault. They were children. Similarly, our Father sometimes says, “Because I said so!” or maybe “Thus saith the Lord!” We may not like it. It may make us angry, but He has knowledge we do not. We are His children. He is the Father.

This is why the Bible says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take. Don’t be impressed with your own wisdom. Instead, fear the Lord and turn away from evil. Then you will have healing for your body and strength for your bones” (Proverbs 3:5-8). 

When we come across a limitation that God has placed upon us, and we do not understand why. Trust Him. He is God and we are not. He has knowledge and understanding that we never will. Remember, the boundary is there because He loves His children too.    

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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.