Asking the Hard Questions

Pine Ridge UMC Confirmation Class of 2014

Pine Ridge UMC Confirmation Class of 2014

Sunday, May 18 was a great day in the life of the two churches I serve. We had six young people make professions of faith in Christ through baptism and confirmation! That day was the culmination of a two month process called confirmation. Confirmation literally means “with firmness” and it is the culmination of the process began in our baptism as an infant. It is an opportunity for each young person to make their own decision to follow Jesus and to join the church.

Tangipahoa UMC Confirmand

Tangipahoa UMC Confirmand

I met with these young people six times over a two month period on a Sunday night. I really enjoyed getting to know them and sharing with them the story of Jesus and the church. One of the things that we talked about on the very first night was that confirmation was not only a time for them to listen but to ask questions. And they did! They asked me about the differences between Methodists and other churches. They asked me about what happens after death. They asked me about the Bible and how we got it. I tried to answer their questions as best as I could, but there were some questions that I had to honestly answer “I don’t know but this is what I think.” Even while they asked me these hard questions, I was struck by their sincere desire to know more about God and the church. I was struck that they were not afraid to ask the hard questions.

As a pastor, I face many hard questions. Why did my loved one die? Why did I get sick? Why does the one I love no longer love me? Where is God in the midst of my pain? And these are only a few of life’s hard questions that you and I face. I would be lying if I told you that I knew the answers to these hard questions. Truthfully, I have a long list of hard questions to ask God when I get there. My guess is that you have hard questions for God also.

But I love that I serve a God that is big enough to handle our hard questions. That doesn’t mean that we will always understand or that life will always be easy. Psalm 23:4 says that “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.” I wish that it said we would not have to go through the dark valley. But that is not the truth. Even Jesus, God’s own son, had dark days and terrible times. The good news is that even in the darkest valley, God is with us, providing comfort and hope.

I hope that you and I will follow the example of these young people who were hungry to know more about God and the church. I hope and pray that you and I will ask the hard questions. That doesn’t mean that there are easy answers (they are hard questions after all) but it does mean that we follow a God who is big enough to handle our questions, even the hard ones.

Keep Your Big Mouth Shut!

Largemouth Bass with the tail of bream sticking out of it's gullet!

Largemouth Bass with the tail of my bream sticking out of it’s gullet!

As I mentioned here one of my favorite things to do in my spare time is to go fishing, especially fly fishing. My grandaddy taught me how to fly fish, and every time I go fishing I remember the things he, and my other fishing partners, taught me about fishing and about life. But I think that is a subject for another day.

Black bead chain Wooly Bugger- a favorite fly!

Black bead chain Wooly Bugger- a favorite fly!

Largemouth Bass that ate my bream!  Looks like it needs a good meal!

The Largemouth Bass that ate my bream! It looks like it needs a good meal!

Last spring, I went to a local pond for a few hours of fishing. The wind was calm and I thought it was a beautiful day for flyfishing. So I pulled out my fly rod, rigged it with a wooly bugger (a fly tied with chenile, marabou, and chicken feathers), and proceeded to catch a few bream (pronounced brim- bluegills for non-southerners). I was catching some nice bream and they were putting a nice bend in my long fly rod.

I hooked a nice bream, and it was pulling hard, until the line got HEAVY. He must have got behind a log or a branch, I thought. Then the line start moving away and I realized that either my bream had experienced some exponential growth or I had a large predator fish on my line. Sure enough, after a few runs and allowing the long rod to tire the fish, the fish got close to the bank. It was a big largemouth bass! I landed the fish and when I picked it up by the mouth, I looked into its very large mouth (I could put my entire fist into the mouth of the fish) and all I could see was the tail of my large bream. The bass had decided to try to turn my bream into its next meal and instead its large mouth (pun intended) got it into trouble.

This got me thinking about all the time that my mouth had gotten me into trouble. Sometimes, my mouth outruns my brain and I say things I shouldn’t. I imagine you have been there too.

The book of James in the Bible talks about the trouble our mouth can get us into. It describes the tongue as a raging fire that cannot be quenched (James 3:5-6). James says that though humanity has tamed many species of animals, the tongue has not been tamed (James 3:7-8). It says that though the tongue is small, it can control us if we are not careful, comparing the tongue to a bit that guides a horse or the rudder that controls the direction of a ship (James 3:3-4). In both cases, something small can have a great influence, just like the tongue.

Of course, the tongue can be used for good too. The Bible tells us that a gentle answer turns away wrath (Proverbs 15:1). James even reminds us that “from the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” (James 3:10)

As I looked at that bass, I couldn’t help but think “if you kept your mouth shut, you could have avoided all this trouble.” But I couldn’t help but think about times that I, like that bass, had opened my mouth and got myself into trouble. The moral of the story, for me, was that I should be very careful about when I open my mouth and how I use it. Maybe I, and that fish, should keep our big mouths shut more often.

By the way, if you’re wondering, I released the bass, with my bream in its gullet, to be caught again. So if you’re in the neighborhood, it is still swimming if you want to try to catch it. Unless it has learned (as I am trying to learn) to keep it’s big mouth shut!

Renovation or Redecoration?

View of the redecorated Pine Ridge UMC from the platform.  New items include: paint, ceiling fans, sconces, carpet, and refinishing wood on the platform.

View of the redecorated Pine Ridge UMC from the platform. New items include: paint, ceiling fans, sconces, carpet, and refinished wood on the platform.

Recently we completed some renovations at the Pine Ridge church. They came out great and we really appreciate everyone, both volunteer and paid, who worked so hard to make our church building a worshipful, beautiful place. It is a true sanctuary and I always look forward to meeting God, and the people of God, in that place where the sunlight streams in through the stained glass windows.

While the changes were taking place, I remarked to someone about the renovations that we were doing. “What changes are you making?” he asked. “Oh, just painting, putting in new carpet, new fans, new lights, new pew cushions and refinishing the wood on the platform. It’s keeping us busy.” “Oh,” he said, “You’re just redecorating. I was afraid there was something wrong structurally with the church.”

The Pine Ridge UMC platform with newly refinished wood floors.

The Pine Ridge UMC platform with newly refinished wood floors.

His remark got me to considering the difference between redecorating vs. renovating. Now, I am not a general contractor and my construction experience is VERY limited (in fact, I do much better at destruction than construction) but, at least to this friend, there was a vast difference between redecorating and renovating. In his mind, renovation meant making structural changes to a building, while redecorating consisted of changing the furnishings and painting. To him, renovations required much deeper and substantive changes while redecorating was simpler (though definitely not easy) with mostly surface changes.

I couldn’t help but wonder about how this might speak to our lives. Are we redecorating when what we really need are renovations? Do we “paint” a smile on our face even when we are hurting and breaking inside? When some one asks “how are you today?”, do we say “I’m fine” even though we’re not? Do we move the people and furnishings of our life around, when we really need deeper, structural changes? These are tough, deep, and possibly painful questions for us to consider.

So how do we renovate instead of redecorate? For me, it starts with faith in God. Even with the best of intentions, my efforts for self improvement often fail. I say “I’m going to change” or “I’m going to do better” and I may, for a while, but soon I find myself falling back into old habits. In my experience, only God can change the heart and only God can do the kind of deep, structural renovations that we really need to become the people God created us to be.

So the next time you and I paint a smile on our face when we’re hurting inside, or when we tell someone “I’m fine”, even though we’re not, I hope you’ll pause for a moment to ask yourself, and God, if you are redecorating or renovating.

A Church Dog or a Church Cat?

Major, the faithful church dog, join us for Easter Sunrise service April 20, 2014

Major, the faithful church dog, joins us for Easter Sunrise service April 20, 2014

I had not been at Pine Ridge very long before I learned we had a church dog.  He was and is one of our most faithful attendees, showing up at church almost every Sunday whether it was hot, cold, rainy, or sunny, and especially showing up when there was food involved.  He always came with his tail wagging, glad to see anyone and everyone regardless of who they were.  We didn’t know where he came from or whose he was so we just called him “church dog.” We even received a Christmas card from the “church dog’s” owner with a contribution to the church!  It turns out that “church dog” lives across the highway from the church and his “real name” is Major.  “Church dog” could be the ideal church member because he is always there, loves everyone, and even contributes.

A few weeks ago, at the other church I serve, Tangipahoa UMC, a beautiful black and white cat showed up as we were getting ready for worship.  He was very sweet and friendly, and cried at the door during worship because we wouldn’t let him in.  After worship, we picked him up, passed him around, petted him, scratched him, and loved all over him.  We haven’t seen him since.

This got me thinking (always dangerous) about the differences between church dogs and church cats.  Church dogs show up regularly with a good attitude, wagging their tail to welcome others, ready to serve and contribute.  Church cats, on the other hand, show up when they have a need, when they need to be scratched and petted and make a lot of noise about being in church. Like all analogies, this one has its limits, but I couldn’t help wondering which one we are more like- the church dog or the church cat.