Growing in Love

The Grand Miss Haisley, our three-year-old granddaughter, stayed two weeks with us in June. The first week she attended ‘Cation Bible School at Northside Church. Then we spent a week at the beach.

Lately, family relationships have fascinated Haisley. For anyone who will listen, she proudly traces her family tree, carefully delineating who is related to whom and why. It’s intriguing to watch her connect the dots.

One day we were discussing the day of Haisley’s birth. My wife described how snow covered the ground, and we traveled to the hospital to see her for the first time.

Haisley perked up to add some details. She said, “Until I was born, I was growing in my mommy’s tummy.” Then she looked at me and added, “And I was growing in Pops’ heart.”

OHMYGOSH. Buy this girl a pony! My heart melted then and there.

I always rolled my eyes when my friends became doting grandparents. Then I became one, and suddenly I understood. Grandchildren are the delayed prize of parenthood, and indeed they do grow in your heart.

Following the Palm Sunday Parade, some religious leaders took Jesus to task. They asked, “Do you not hear what these children are saying?” Jesus responded, “From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise.” (Matthew 21:16)

From the lips of our children and grandchildren, we also discover grace anew. May God’s love incarnate in others’ lives grow in our hearts.

FAQs

The Northside Church August worship series is entitled FAQs. We are exploring Frequently Asked Questions by Christians.  During sermon preparation, I asked my Facebook friends for some ideas and received 67 responses, including:

  • What is God’s last name?
  • Is the church still relevant as attendance declines?
  • Why?
  • Who did Cain and Abel marry?
  • Is the Bible literal?
  • Will non-Christians go to heaven?
  • What about hell?
  • Was Jesus married?
  • And my personal favorite, why are some Christians such jerks?

After curating (I could have used “organizing” or “selecting” but “curating” is SO 2021) the suggestions, I chose five topics:

  • How Can I Know that I am Saved?
  • What is God’s Will for My Life?
  • Do Miracles Still Happen?
  • What is Heaven Like?
  • FAQs—a catchall sermon containing multiple questions

In Matthew 7:7, Jesus promised, “Ask and it will be given to you. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you.” In the process of asking, seeking, and knocking, our questions strengthen our faith.

I invite you to join us onsite or online Sundays at Northside Church with Traditional Worship at 8:30 and 11:15 along with Contemporary Worship at 9:00. We will explore FAQs FYI PDQ IMHO.

Classic Film Lovers

During July, I am rerunning four blogs from the past year. I hope you enjoy a second serving from some of my favorites.

Recently, I accidentally joined the Classic Film Lovers Facebook Group. I must have clicked when I meant to swipe. Regardless, I now belong to a group of 27,276 devotees of old movies.

I don’t like old movies.

Recent, riveting discussions debated the merits of Catherine Deneuve versus Jacqueline Bissett, Cary Grant versus Jack Lemmon, and Westworld (1973) versus Westworld (2016). I have no opinion on any of these matters; however, I enjoy the posts.

In part, the passionate opinions of the participants intrigue me. Some people out there really LOVE classic films. They ardently champion various films, actors, and genres.

However, no one feels a need to denigrate another’s opinion. Whether you’re a Catherine Deneuve or a Jacqueline Bisset fan, it’s all good. Let’s agree Cary Grant and Jack Lemmon were both great actors. Westworld (1973) or Westworld (2016)? Enjoy them both!

Compare and contrast the attitudes of my Classic Film Lovers pals to the rest of Facebook. Someone recently shared that everyone on social media is walking around with two facts and a baseball bat. We defend our opinions with zealous fervor and demonize others’ ideas with spiteful glee.

In his classic book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey advised, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This is a timely principle in the midst of a polarizing, political season.

Listen and reflect rather than ignore and react. Who knows, we all might learn something along the way.  

Meanwhile, I remain a proud member of the Classic Film Lovers Facebook Group. Does anyone know how to stream “Casablanca?” Here’s looking at you, kid!

Synchronicity

During July, I am rerunning four blogs from the past year. I hope you enjoy a second serving from some of my favorites.

The 20th century psychologist, Carl Jung, coined the word, “synchronicity.” The term refers to “meaningful coincidences” in life. An individual experiences profound significance in seemingly random events.

For example, I recently wrote a pastoral letter that highlighted Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” The following Sunday’s anthem planned weeks ahead of time by the music team echoed the same passage. The next week a devotional from another source quoted the verse.

The world might call this happenstance. However, Christians experience a spiritual synchronicity that sees divine meaning in worldly coincidence. The Holy Spirit wanted to impress Christ’s words upon my heart.

“God-winks” occur on a daily basis for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. However, we are a goal-oriented people who have no time to turn aside for burning bushes. The tyranny of the immediate blinds and deafens us to theophanies along the way.

In John 12, Jesus called out to God, and the Lord answered. Some said they heard an angel speak. Others said it had thundered. The crowd experienced the same event in two radically different ways.

Pay close attention to the coincidences of life. We might just spy the Holy Spirit hovering in the wings.

The Pain of Discipline or Regret

During July, I am rerunning four blogs from the past year. I hope you enjoy a second serving from some of my favorites.

Business consultant, Jim Rohn, wrote:

“We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.”

The bad news is there’s pain regardless of choice. The good news is we have the freedom to choose.

Discipline requires an upfront payment for a delayed payoff. Regret requires little investment with no future return. Because we are a short-sighted people who enjoy immediate gratification, we often choose delayed regret rather than immediate discipline.

However, remember: discipline weights ounces, regret weighs tons.

The principle applies universally to every aspect of life: sleep, exercise, diet, alcohol, drugs, sexuality, education, work, marriage, parenting, friendship, spirituality, and discipleship.

The bad news is there’s pain regardless of choice. The good news is we have the freedom to choose.

Forever Home

During July, I am rerunning four blogs from the past year. I hope you enjoy a second serving from some of my favorites.

My wife loves to watch HGTV. I am good for one or two programs before my eyes glaze over. The shows blur into a DIY jumble of FixerUpperLoveitorListItFliporFlopHomeTownPropertyBrothers GoodBonesHolmesonHomes.

Forever homeThe shows’ clients often express a heartfelt desire for their “Forever Home.” If I’m awake for this predictable portion of the episode, I always guffaw aloud. There is no such thing in this world.

Annelle O’Kelley was a faithful member of a church I served. She was born and raised in the family’s ancestral home. Shortly after getting married, Annelle and her husband moved back home with her parents. She continued to live in the same house until her death at 94 years of age.

Four generations of the family lived and died in the home. Annelle spent over nine decades at the same address on Langley Avenue. However, it was not her forever home.

In 2 Corinthians 5:1, Paul wrote:

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed,

we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven,

not built by human hands.

This world is not our home; we are pilgrims “marching through Emmanuel’s ground to fairer worlds on high.” Some day we will reach journey’s end and enjoy our forever home.

Summer Senses

My five senses transport me back to childhood summers.

Sight:

The flicker of fireflies’ luminescence lighting the darkling sky.

Smell:

The fragrant liqueur of honeysuckle lazily dangling off a fence.

Taste:

The ice-cold, red-heart sweetness of a sunbaked, rain-distilled watermelon.

Touch:

Green grass touching soles and tickling toes during a barefoot stroll.

Sound:

The whir of an oscillating fan graciously bestowing brief breezes of dog-day heat.

This summer see, smell, taste, touch, and hear the goodness of the LORD!

Store-Bought Sermons

My weekend emails regularly contain homiletical offers, including:

  • Sermon for tomorrow—immediate access!
  • Sermon for this Sunday. Reliable. Professional. Easy.
  • Sermons freshly written for the Pentecost season.
  • Sermons professionally written for every Sunday.

Based on the subject lines, a red-letter market thrives for preachers interested in purchasing Saturday Night Special Sermons.

In full disclosure, I often borrow from others in sermon preparation. After 2,000 years of Christendom, no one achieves originality. Dr. Fred Craddock, who taught homiletics at Candler School of Theology, warned, “He who steals from me steals twice.” And Fred probably got that statement from someone else!

However, preaching store-bought sermons as homemade homilies smacks of intellectual dishonesty and spiritual slothfulness. Like Esau, clergy that settle for “reliable, professional, and easy” sermons trade their birthright for porridge.

Preachers worth their salt labor over proclaiming the Gospel in a unique time and place to a particular people and parish. The integration of Word and World requires a pastor to stand with one foot in the sanctuary and another in the street.

Like Jacob at the Jabbok, faithful ministers wrestle with the Lord and struggle with the text. We limp away from the encounter, sharing with others our hard-won experience.

A homemade homily prepared with love and preached with faithfulness may not be “professionally written,” but it inspires the hearts, minds, and souls of God’s saints.

First Words

This week I am celebrating my fourth anniversary as the senior pastor of Northside Church. I give thanks to God for the opportunity to serve the congregation and community. Today I am sharing the blog that I wrote the week prior to my very first Sunday at NSC.

First words are important.

After all, well begun is half done. A carefully-crafted opening provides a proper introduction to an author’s thoughts. Therefore, I spend an inordinate amount of time on the first word, sentence, paragraph, and page.

Some days the words flow like a river’s rapids. Other days the syllables ooze like molasses in January. I find myself staring at the blinking cursor on the computer screen, wondering why the inventor didn’t call it a CURSER!

First words are difficult because an author must CHOOSE. Out of an infinite number of beginnings, there can only be ONE first word, sentence, and paragraph.

This Sunday I will preach my first sermon as the new senior pastor at Northside United Methodist Church in Atlanta. Like Jacob at the Jabbok ford, God and I have wrestled over what to say . . . and what not to say . . . and how to say it. After all, first words are important because they form first impressions.

Over the past weeks, those adolescent first-day-at-school-anxieties have welled up inside. Will they like me? Will the other children play with me? Can I get my locker open? Where’s the bathrooms? What if I get lost?

Time and again the Holy Spirit whispers in my soul, “Peace, be still.” Then I remember that the LORD is the First and Last, the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. All of life occurs within the context of God’s providential grace.

God always has the first word . . . and God always has the last word. So Psalm 19:14 has become my prayer for the first word of the first sermon on a first Sunday:

May the words of my mouth

and the meditations of my heart

Be acceptable in thy sight,

O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

First words are important.

VBS Season

Churches everywhere are observing Vacation Bible School Season. Although liturgical calendars do not note the sacred time, summer would not be complete without the Holy Week of bedlam and chaos.

I grew up attending VBS with a different theme each year. A joyful Jesus adorned all of the materials. Maps, pictures, and posters adorned the cinderblock walls. Flimsy 33-rpm records supported the curriculum with the week’s featured songs.

Filmstrips were high tech way back then. Multi-media presentations included felt boards with cartoon figures. For years, I thought all the disciples were six inches tall with Velcro strips down their backs!

Recreation was the high point of the day. The older youth led the playtime, which meant the teenage boys flirted with their female counterparts while we ran wild. The more organized leaders tossed us a kick ball before standing aside.

Refreshments included juice along and cookies. Whenever I read about Jesus feeding the five thousand with loaves and fishes, I always assumed the writers meant to say Kool-Aide and Oreos! I also thought that the pastors ought to substitute iced sugar cookies for the stale crackers used at Holy Communion.

We loved arts and crafts time, using markers, construction paper, glitter, balsa wood, and modeling clay. Oh, and the things we could do with a few Popsicle sticks and some paste glue! No doubt Noah constructed the ark with only these supplies on hand.

During music, we enthusiastically sang the songs of faith. Our Top Ten List included “This is My Father’s World,” “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” and “The B-I-B-L-E.”  Our all time, number one, favorite was “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.”

Truth to tell, I remember the context of Vacation Bible School much more than the content. However, those summer weeks became grace-moments in my life. I learned that the Lord God Almighty, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, loved and cherished ME!

I hope every child in our community has the opportunity to attend Vacation Bible School this summer. The experience will transform their lives, and the memories will last forever.

Give this generation a foundation of faith along with some juice, cookies, and Popsicle sticks, and they will change the world forever!