Reflections of a Church Planting Intern: Week 3

I know these posts, thus far, have been a description of what I did with my week as intern at A2. Truth be told, this last week was kind of an off week. It’s not like I didn’t do anything because I did but it all centered around one task and it was something I was done with rather quickly. It was good for me though. Let me tell you about it.

Right around the time this internship started I had a conversation with my friend and pastor of York Evangelical-Free Church, Jon Wymer, about coming to bring the word to his congregation. This is actually a conversation that was a year or so in the making because he wanted me to be part of a bigger story he’s been telling among his congregation about the commonality of Jesus between all types of people. So, when he gave me the date of June 12 I gladly jumped at the opportunity. I was given no restrictions on what I could talk about. I don’t think I need to tell you how exciting this opportunity was.

But we’ll get to that.

Let’s talk about the rest of the week first.

The last few weeks I have been helping and watch the new church location morph into a bigger version of our last space almost totally built on the volunteer labor of the congregation. It is something altogether different to see people devoted to one central idea in several parts and to give it their best. There was painting, dry wall, sanding, mudding, cleaning, curtain hanging, and things I probably didn’t see because I was at work or elsewhere. I came in to check a few times when I was off to see amazing progress being made despite the small number of people who were doing the work. I guess one thing I would say I was confused and maybe even slightly discouraged was the lack of involvement. Even though we had a lot of people help there were nights where, I don’t know, maybe there could have been more assistance.

Maybe I expect too much. Hope too much. I wonder if that’s typical.

As far as the rest of my week was concerned, I was just left to prep my sermon for Sunday. Sounds like a boring week but it was actually pretty enlightening. I learned a lot about the way I communicate and how my thoughts channel themselves into coherent communication. I actually used portion of Hebrews I blogged about a while back but in reflecting and rereading I really felt I needed to shift the focus a little bit. I started applying the process that I learned worked best when I’m trying to write something. It’s an interesting process.

But I have to think first.

I think about all the things I know thus far, the things I need to know and then I do the work. I research, I read and I go back to my brain. I think the most important thing I learned about myself is that I can put everything together if I just go back to thinking about the flow of things and the content I’m studying throughout the day. I made a lot of connections and had a lot of ideas while I was driving to work or wherever else which was almost crucial in my being able to go from being a manuscript sermonizer to being able to channel the flow of my thought process into a workable and useable teaching. This is a point I really wanted to get to because I just find a manuscript to be restrictive and I don’t feel like I’m communicating. It’s just like anything else I do.

I feel much better if I can move.

Honestly, the rest of the week wasn’t all that interesting that I can recall. I spent some time in conversation with Ben about the book “And” which was really just an affirmation of things I already knew or already believed.

Let me tell you about my weekend.

Time brings on a lot of changes some bad some good. Saturday was meant to be a celebration of the completion of a very trying and scary time for my friend Jon and his family. I arrived in York around 12:30 to the Open House they were holding for their young daughter Sophia Hope. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor, had it removed, and endured chemotherapy. She completed her last round and so they held a party and it was amazing. She’s a little tank now. I remember when she was almost skin and bones during the whole process. I called her a human ATV because she would crawl anywhere. It was mind-bending to see both her and her sister older and more grown up. Sophia was mobile. Jon’s older daughter was actually talking in full sentences, almost conversational.

It’s amazing what time does and how it moves people.

York is in a rural community so it’s surrounded by towns and things that you just don’t see in a suburban community. One of the best parts of hanging out in the area is the little gems and places you don’t expect that almost seem out of place. I was taken to dinner by Jon and his family to a place called Chez Bubba’s Café. The town it was attached to was really small but this was a nice establishment with really good food. I think it was mostly family run. I watched a lot of the people, read a lot of the faces that told me that there were people who didn’t think I belonged there. The wait staff was nice and the food was amazing.

I saw something.

From my seat I could see directly to the server station and the kitchen. I watched our waitress walk back there and I noticed she was wiping tears out from under her eyes and her coworkers trying to console her. My immediate response was to think that God let me see that for a specific, like maybe I was supposed to interject or help somehow. But I asked myself the question, “What?” and realized that I had nothing to offer. And so I asked what the purpose of my seeing this was. And I realized that perhaps I need to learn is that sometimes I can’t fix.

In the driving around the area, I saw something that has been prevalent throughout the last few years. It’s so strange to associate the presence of God with something like this the way I do. But it showed up when I was going crazy in Memphis, it showed up when I was looking for calm when a relationship went bad. It has been a signal of calm in many storms. I think God tells me he’s there in a tangible way based on a story I heard a long time ago about a pastor who was a suicide risk. His congregation followed him to the place where they thought he was going to kill himself. When asked what he was doing there he told them “I just wanted to see something else that was carrying a heavy load”.

He was going down to the tracks to see the train.

I drove past a lot of trains. It’s one of those tangible things which I connect to the presences of God. So, I felt like I was in good hands when Sunday morning came.

But Saturday night we went to a relay for life that was being held in York. There was just so much going on that I don’t feel like i can go into detail. One thing that almost put me into tears was the lighting of luminaries for people who had cancer. They went all around the track they had laid out. There were hundreds of them. So many lives touched by something so terrible. But the people were all in high spirits and I even saw men and women walking around wearing bras over their shirts. They made it fun.
Then came Sunday. I don’t really think that I want to go into detail. I really had a good time meeting the people in York and thoroughly enjoyed talking about Hebrews 12. After I was done I felt more human than I had in a long time. I think it was a confidence that I’d not experienced in a long time. I was even able to maintain conversations with complete strangers which is really hard for me normally.

Well, I’m exhausted. That’s my story for this week. You can check out the podcast with my sermon here:

Which Mountain Have You Come To?

Music
Blaqk Audio – “CexCells”
City and Colour – “Little Hell”
P.O.S. – “Never Better”
La Dispute – “Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair”
La Dispute/Touché Amoré – “Searching For A Pulse/The Worth Of The World”
War of Ages – “Eternal”
The Moment – “Showdown at the Discotheque”
Fear Factory – “Obsolete”

Movies
Last Action Hero
Gone in 60 Seconds
Clerks

Podcasts
The Village Church: Matt Chandler – Colossians (Part 13) When Violence is OK

Bible
Hebrews 12:12-24
Exodus 19:16-12:21
Luke 10:25-29

Verse
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
(Luke 10:29 ESV)

Which Mountain?

These days it seems that a lot of the people around me are living their lives “in pursuit of God” and they want to be “nearer” to him. They do all these things and they donate all of their time and the read their Bible every day as if God really says to do all these things. By the way, he does.

I had mentioned the church I go to around a coworker one day, unknowingly, so I was a bit surprised when he came over to my desk one day and asked for information about my church. Certainly, I gave it to him but that’s just not a question I get asked very often while I’m at work. Speaking of one’s faith is entirely taboo in the corporate world. I gladly gave it to him and thought he might leave since his shift was over. But he said something to me that just made me cringe instinctively. At the time I didn’t know why it bothered me but this is what he said: “I’m a Catholic. I volunteer at a Methodist [something] and a Lutheran [something else]. And you know, it has made me a better…” I was fine up to this point. I like to see brothers and sisters and Christ being the church and doing things. But the last word almost gave me fits.

“… Catholic.”

Serving like that makes him a better Catholic? Not Christian, not Christ-follower, not servant but Catholic?

There are then those people who have all sorts of funny ideas about how you can reach God. Some of them believe in a god but not the God of the Bible.  Then again, some of them just have a very mangled sense of who God is. They live their lives in according to these beliefs as best they can to the point where God is something they can’t approach or he is just something that they keep at arm’s length. The idea of God is either too abstract or too painful for them to want to come close enough to him to be in relationship with him.

I have some friends that happen to be sisters-in-law and somehow, in a discussion, the topic of God or church came up. One of these on this occasion as well as many others said that she just doesn’t do anything with church. Very rigidly would she say something to the effect that she and church-related things just don’t work. It seems as if she and church are just mutually exclusive. Admittedly, I have not worked up the courage to ask her why she feels that way. But  her sister-in-law told me in the same conversation that she believes in a God but not the one that her mother would throw at her as a quick remedy to her problems, seemingly without practical advice. She also believed that when she dies she’s coming back in some sort of reincarnated fashion and her beliefs are an amalgamation of a multitude of religions.

Reincarnation. The belief that one will come back to life as something else.

Is there truth in there somewhere?

What I’ve begun to see is that people want something tangible no matter how practical or implausible. They want a mountain to climb. Some use their idea of faith to do things. When they begin the journey up the mountain they’ve chosen they use their faith like a pick to help them feel like they’re making progress and they have to look back to see how far they’ve come. Others have to use their faith as ropes that keep them from falling, constantly looking down to see where they’ve stopped. The journey of faith is a mountain but it’s nothing like these scenarios describe.

To show us this, the writer of Hebrews describes two mountains.

First, he speaks of the idea of faith as a mountain. He introduces the idea by saying, “For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest,” (Hebrews 12:18 ESV). This introduction is strange. The writer says that what has been approached or arrived at is a place that can be touched. Earlier in our discussion we talked about people who want this faith, this hope to have some sort of tangible or tactile quality. But the writer of Hebrews quickly negates this idea. The idea is pushed even further by describing “what may be touched”.

A blazing fire.

darkness

gloom

a tempest.

All of these, to me, seem like things you wouldn’t want to lay your hands on. But the author continues to describe this mountain that is free to touch: “…and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them,(Hebrews 12:19 ESV)”. It is at this point we should begin to wonder if the writer is referencing just any mountain. If you’ve read the book of Hebrews then you know that almost certainly is not the case. The writer continues, “For they could not endure the order that was given, ‘If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.’ Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.'” (Hebrews 12:20-21 ESV). Indeed, the writer has a specific mountain in mind and the mention of Moses is a nice tip off as to what he’s referencing.

Mt. Sinai.

Moses.

It is interesting that the writer of Hebrews would tell us “you have not come to what may be touched”. From that we are then able to logically assume that what the writer is describing afterwards is an example of something that can be touched. In reading the story he’s referencing in Exodus 19 & 20, which is what the writer is quoting in Hebrews 12:20-21. Moses has lead the Hebrew people near Mt. Sinai where YHWH speaks to Moses and gives him strict instructions to make themselves clean and YHWH will speak to Moses on the top of the mountain. The people are instructed by God, through Moses, “Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.” (Exodus 19:12-13 ESV). Notice something interesting in the first sentence? The instructions were not to go up into the mountain because only Moses was instructed to do so. But he gives strict instructions.

Hands off.

Do you see the disconnect here? The writer of Hebrews is setting up the first half of his comparison and says, essentially, that Mt. Sinai in the time of Moses where YHWH spoke to him was something that could be touched. Yet it has been made abundantly clear that if you were to climb this mountain or if you were to touch it while YHWH was at the top, you died. What is it that the people would be doing if they touched the mountain? They would be disobeying a command of YHWH. Disobedience brings instant and physical death to whoever dared to test it. Interesting only because of the content of what Moses brings back with him from the top of the mountain in Exodus 24.

The 10 commandments.

Law.

Something tangible. How do we know? Because the people become idolatrous in the time Moses is on Sinai. In a rage he smashes the tablets on which the commandments were written against the ground. The implication being that Moses had to touch them first.

The mountain that could be touched but was not to be touched brought a law that made YHWH’s commands physical.

But the writer of Hebrews doesn’t stop there.

The idea turns into the driving point of this section of scripture with the use of the conjunction. He summarizes a very long section in the book of exodus with its gloom, fire and death. It is amazing, the power of a conjunction in writing like this. The author describes what can be touched which any Jew would have know could not be touched at that time and he illustrates the Sinai treaty which is surrounded by all of this wrath and doom which would scare anyone, Greek or Jew…

But

“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering,” (Hebrews 12:22 ESV).

Mount Zion is representative of a few things:
1. The presence of YHWH
2. The Old Treaty being overtaken by the new Treaty in Christ
3. Christ’s ministry as mediator and final revelation (Son 41-42)

In the verse we just brought up in Hebrews, we see two of these three things mentioned right away because the writer is saying you have come to Zion. And Zion isn’t just a mountain, it’s a city. And it’s not just a city, it’s a city of the living God and the heavenly Jerusalem. And this isn’t just a city you’ve come entered with other people. It’s a city where innumerable angels are in festal gathering. That word “festal” can also be translated as “celebration.

It’s a party.

And it gets better.

Because the writers says that you have come to where the church of the firstborn are registered or enrolled into heaven. That is, it’s a place where those who now believe have been written somewhere, they have been invited to this party that is going to happen in heaven. They have given their RSVP where they will get to be with you and with God, the perfect judge. And those who have already died, you’ve come to the same place of faith and they’re waiting with Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God. The writer calls him “the mediator of the new covenant” (Hebrews 12:24a ESV) which means that the treaty that bought you he brought to its final agreement with “the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel,” (Hebrews 12:24b ESV).

Wait.

When Cain killed his brother Abel, God asks him where his brother is. Snidely, I think, he tells God he is not his brother’s keeper. And God says to him, And the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand,” (Genesis 4:10-11 ESV). The blood of Abel cried out to God because it was a result of the sin that Cain committed against his brother. That just begs the question:

How much louder, then, does Jesus’ blood cry out to point out the sin of his people that killed him?

Breathe.

The covenant at Mt. Sinai was that the people would follow the law given by YHWH so they could understand him. What they learned very quickly is that the law brings death. Disobedience to YHWH was a fast track to immediate death. Of all the laws written that would expand into the Levitical and Deutronomic codes, the violation of one would mean death for the transgressor. Mt. Sinai is a beautiful symbol of God’s love and a great sign of what was in the hearts of his people.

Which is why he gave us Mt. Zion: Where the law is fulfilled and a great party lies ahead.

But we’re not there.

Not completely.

Because Mt. Zion is the final resting place, the new Jerusalem for those who would believe in the saving Grace of YHWH atone for by the blood of his only Son. The mention of the firstborn enrolled in heaven would seem to say that there is a list here and you may be on it but you have not reached the top of the mountain

Yet.

But there are things that we have been equipped with that are part of Mt. Zion. We have Jesus and we have God. We have the Holy Spirit to guide us up the mountain. We have approached the mountain with both the pick and the rope and we are constantly being prayed for by others on the mountain with us. That just begs the question then, something that you and I should think about constantly. Which mountain have we come to? The mountain where we have the fear of death through one simple violation? Or are we approaching Zion? The place where God dwells and will dwell for eternity is begging for us to dig in our spikes and climb with everything we have and everything we have been given. The weight of sin is lifted and our past has been forgiven. Which means one thing for certain.

We don’t

need

took look

down.

The Memory of God

I think it’s funny how my memory sometimes works. I can recall a reaction, a phrase, a gesture or an obscure fact. If you know anything about me you know that I am really big into music.

I always have been.

Every year my school holds a Week of Ministry where they send teams to various parts of the country and other countries to be servants, teachers, learners and whatever else becomes necessary wherever a need arises. It can be one of the most difficult and the most intense week of your life at NCC or it can be one of the greatest experiences you’ll have. My trip was definitely the latter. There was so much amazing stuff that I may include it in a different post. It’s outside the purposes of this one. But what really made it bearable was music. And not just any music because I can’t stand current pop music of any kind.

It all started with a mix CD simply labeled “The 90’s”. As soon as it began to play I began to feel almost this synesthesia, as if I was suddenly in junior high again in a good way. As good as it can be, anyway. But the songs came flooding back to me and I still remembered

every

single

word

And the best part was having one of the trip sponsors catching me singing along to a Matchbox 20 song and asking me with a bit of a look of shock on her face

“You like Matchbox 20?”

It seemed a silly question to me but in the moment I understood the real story behind the question. I don’t look or perhaps exude that kind of vibe that I would be interested in a pop album that was released 15 years ago. But I told her with great confidence that I’ve owned the album since it came out and I still listen to it. In fact, I happened to have it on my iPhone. Some people find it amazing what we remember, even something like Matchbox 20’s album “Yourself or Someone Like You” or the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Dizzy Up the Girl”. I find it amazing too. I got a smile and a high five for my memory.

People can connect on the simplest of things.

But it’s the simple things that turn out to be the most powerful sometimes. They let us know that other people are human too even when we feel like we have no common ground whatsoever. What I’ve found is that there’s always common ground but sometimes you have to be willing to search for it.

Probe a little.

Ask questions.

Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. And remember the smallest of details.

I remember a time over a year ago where my life felt as if it had sunk to its lowest depths. Before the winter hit I had gotten over it completely and had moved on to a completely new neurotic obsession of some kind, I’m sure. If you haven’t been reading my blog up until recently you don’t know anything about the disaster that was second semester last year. The short version of the story was that I had my heart broken repeatedly by the same person until finally she ran away in fear of the pain or so I thought. I learned that sometimes life needs to be restarted so you can heal the wounds you have so that you can then work on the actions that kept inflicting them. I know now that’s really what should have happened. But for the longest time I obsessed over the pain she caused me and then I gradually begin to let it fade.

Then I forgot it.

I’ve often wondered if I have truly forgiven somebody once the pain, the anger or whatever negative emotion I’ve been feeling is gone. Most of the time forgetting is a byproduct of time elapsing and my moving on. I don’t always forgive.

Because then I remember and it all comes washing back. I find myself staring at something, not really seeing and just imagining scenario after scenario after scenario. It just gets me even more worked up. But something strange happens sometimes when you’ve truly forgiven someone. I know because it’s been happening to me lately. That girl who wrecked shop on my life over the span of just a few months came back to my mind for reasons I’ve yet to ascertain. Part of me really wants to see if she’s still out there and I’ve wrestled with the idea of trying to contact her, I guess.

But I remember her.

Because I asked her questions. I got to know her.

For the first time in a long time I put myself out there and she saw right through me. In turn, though, I saw the tiny little details and I could see her heart sometimes.

Memory can be powerful and meaningful but at the same time can cause some of the deepest pains and reopen some of the oldest wounds. Have you ever wondered how, in some of the most random situations, your memory brings back feelings you thought you were long since dead? Truth be told, it’s why I’m so neurotic, I think. Dr. Ekman refers to this as “importing scripts”. The idea is that you have been so conditioned to certain stimuli that your brain will instantly bring in the feelings and emotions it attaches to that situation or ones that are related to it. It’s part of the reason why someone who has been abandoned time and time again will start to react when something comes close to feeling like abandonment.

Your mind remembers that pain.

God remembers too.

Better than that, God knows.

God knows the very number of hairs on your head better than I can recall the words to “3 AM”. He knows the pain and the depression I endured because he knows everything about me and has since before I was born. Since before you were born. God doesn’t just remember like we do but he knows as a fact the most finite and infinitesimal things about who we are and what we are capable of from the 90’s pop albums to the most intense emotional pains. Every tear that’s been cried, every smile that’s ever broken free in someone’s face like rain from a cloud.

And God is not distant, watching our pain from a golden throne. He actually entered human history in the form of a child. That child became a man and interacted with human suffering and sin on a daily basis for three years, all the while saying that he too was human but that he was also God. The writer of Hebrews says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15 ESV) All this to say that God became man and every encounter he had that we have recorded in the Bible all stare these pained and suffering people and said, “I know”. To add an exclamation mark to this already profound story, Jesus is subjected to some of the worst physical torture that anyone could imagine and nailed to a cross.

Think about that.

Think about all the terrible things that have happened to you. At their worst they could not begin to amount to the cumulative pain, suffering, mocking, humiliation that all lead up to an undeserved death.

And yet, through it all, we now have someone real to follow who can, without a doubt say when everything else falls, fails, wins, loses, draws, dies, withers and loves, probably one of the most comforting things that could strike us between the ears.

Jesus says,

“I know.

I

remember.”

The Fear is What Keeps Us Here

There are a lot of interesting things about being as neurotic and anxious as I am.  There are things you do on a regular basis that actually cause me to panic slightly to moderately or I just don’t like to do because I want to avoid that feeling.  For instance, I am really nervous about doors.  I don’t like to sit with my back to them and I can’t sleep facing away from them.  Those situations make me unbearably nervous.  It gets weirder.  I don’t like new doors.  Let me explain that.  If  I’m going somewhere new, like if I’m going over to someone’s house where I’ve never been before, I get really anxious and typically if it’s a friend I call them when I get there.  I’ve gotten a lot better about this because it’s ridiculous and I realize how this all sounds.  So, what I do is tell myself that these fears that I have are unbelievably irrational and push my way through it.  I’ve had to do this more and more.  But what I’ve realized is that it all comes down to fear.

Fear is a concept we can all relate to because we’re all scared of something.  It can be silly stuff like spiders or snakes but it can escalate up to fearing men because of abuse.  No man lives without fear, even those guys at the circus who ride their motorcycles inside the big steel orb around the beautiful woman standing in the center of that maelstrom.  You can’t live life without fear.  At some point you will experience it and it will happen again and again.  Fear is actually an instinctual reaction to stimulates our brain to think we’re in danger and so we get that stab in the gut and the hair stands up on our neck.  In great extremes, people will urinate and empty their bladder.  In its most basic form it’s an animalistic instinct that is meant to help possibly scare things away that may try to harm us.

But that’s not really the direction of fear that I’m referring to. As with my personal examples above, the fear I’m referring to has more to do with fear of danger or man.  Fear of man is a huge issue that I’ve personally had to try to overcome at this stage in my life because I really have no choice.  I’ve been through a year of college, two missions trips, and everything else I’ve started getting into in the last couple of years.  A more recent example was having to tell a girl that I was interested in her.  I can tell you right now that was one of the scariest things I’ve ever had to do and I’m 24 years old.  Why was I so afraid?

Typically, fear of man is not just fear of man but it seems to be a fear of  consequences.  In the case of telling a girl you’re interested in them is the fear of rejection or screwing up the friendship you have already established.  Maybe we’re afraid that we’ll get made fun of or that we’ll do something wrong or maybe we’re just scared of the unknown.  What I’ve been trying to figure out is whether or not any of this is actually healthy.  What I found very quickly is that being afraid of what may happen to you in any context is a lack of faith and it really just boils down to that.  There’s a verse I’ve learned to really like that my friend and housemate James told me about.  Hebrews 13:6 echoes Psalm 56:4 when it says:

[6] So we can confidently say,
“The Lord is my helper;
I will not fear;
what can man do to me?

So, through our faith we are meant to have this courage that God will take us through everything and we shouldn’t fear or be anxious about anything which Jesus pointed out to us when he talks about the lilies of the field.  But we continue to fear the things in this world that shouldn’t matter and shouldn’t scare us because God is there and God is sovereign which means, even when we don’t think we can handle it God puts his hand down and says “Hey, give that to me and I’ll take care of it.  I have a plan for this, don’t worry about it.”  I imagine that the hand of God sometime pats us on the head and tells us that everything’s going to be okay and that it’s taken care of but only if we chose to accept that.  We have this ridiculous tendency to block that hand and tell our Father that we’re not kids anymore, we’re all grown up and that we got this.  I can tell you from experience that trying to bear the load of  trials that life has a tendency to provide by yourself only works until you are forced to your knees and accept the help you’ve been offered.  And that help comes with no expectation of repayment.  It’s called grace for a reason.

I’ll finish with this excerpt from Desiderata:

But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.