Break the Bondage, not the Reed.

There is a prophecy, in Isaiah 42:3 and quoted in Matthew 12:20 to describe the ministry of Jesus as the savior who would ‘Not break a bruised reed, nor snuff out the smoldering wick.’ Meditating on this has been extremely helpful to me, there is an incredible book on the whole ministry of our Lord with us, as frail, broken sinners titled A Bruised Reed by the puritan pastor Richard Sibbes. When all we can see in someone is smoke and ashes, Jesus can see the small but genuine spark of spiritual life behind it, and He will blow on it in such a way as to not put it out. While others see simply someone who is damaged goods, beyond repair, our Lord is gentle with our souls and does not break us in the process of saving us. If there is any genuine faith and repentance no matter how imperceptible it is to us or others, or how weak it may be, our Lord will honor it, and will cause it to grow, and not in frustration take what little we have away from us.

As ministers we need to follow Jesus in this.  This of course is a lifelong project!  But how easy it is for words of correction to sound like words of condemnation, when speaking with the people we’ve grown up with and get us let alone when we settle into a new context with it’s own way of saying things and thinking!  Jesus was of course the master at bringing everything about us to light, but in a way that is full of mercy.  Nobody could of said Jesus “misunderstood” his disciples or that He mad rash judgements of them. Lord have mercy on us, so that we may not break the bruised reed, nor snuff out the smoldering flax!

Yet there is another prophecy, also from Isaiah, led as he was by the Spirit to describe the ministry of God’s annotated one to come some six hundred years later. In Isaiah 61:1 he describes the future ministry of Jesus as one anointed by the Spirit to ‘bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and freedom to prisoners.’ Jesus refuses to leave us in our mess and bondage, He came to do something about it! We must also follow our Lord in this.

Let me suggest that in our attempt to correct the sins of our fathers who were controling, overbearing, and protected their special privelages rather than sacrafices themselves for the vunerable, that we have found a new way to be incomplete disciples of our Lord.  In the past we know of those who came like colonialists, setting up their own little kingdoms among a vulnerable people, we know of those who never sought to understand the people they sacrificed so much to come and preach to, and only sought conformity and blind obedience to what they thought was best for those they came to minister to.

Perhaps now in not wanting to ‘break the bruised reed’ along with that we’ve allowed a diseased status quo to remain. We’ve got not the courage, nor the authority, nor the ability to speak into rank child abuse, exploitation of women, a power-mad celebrity mentality among some clergy, a lax attitude toward infidelity, a lack of personal and family spiritual disciples and character, a rediculously low view of the need of a real education for the Church’s leaders and on and on.  Are all the troubles of the church and society to be dropped on the laps of the Church? Absolutely not! However can we just be silent?

There is this insidious mentality among us at times, that we are simply on some kind of journey of self-discovery. That since all cultures are so different, our main purpose is to sit back and collect new experiences in the world, that we have everything to learn and nothing to share. We wouldn’t want to offend, we wouldn’t want to break the bruised reed, right? We’ve come to believe that somehow our presence alone is redemptive. What if its not?

This is a such a faux brand of humility, that in reality is simply a lack of conviction, except in oneself.

I pray that we could be servants of God who know how to not break the reed, but have the courage to break the bondage and status quo all around us that we see. That we would learn how to challenge in love, with out condemning in hypocrisy.

My wife and I enjoyed watching various reality series on surviving in the wilderness. I always found the various ways to start a fire fascinating. Especially when the characters on these shows had impossible odds, like in a freezing rain forest in Alaska, everything is cold and wet. Yet the skilled knew how to do CPR on the smallest spark, and create the life saving fire they needed to survive the night.

My prayer is that we would learn how to do spiritual spiritual CPR on those who feel their strength is almost gone! I pray we would know how to walk gently with others, win their trust, love them, and truly learn from them. I pray that we would not break the bruised reed, but also not be content to leave a diseased plant in the way of destruction, because we lack the conviction and the courage to do any more than just observe. That we would take the risk to replant, restore, establish a trellis so that the bruised reed can be healed, and thrive.

Exiles, seeking a better country

I’ve been thinking about these two passages recently in light of everything that has been going on in the news, and in our communities lately.
“Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”  Jeremiah 29:7 
“Instead, they were longing for a better country–a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”  Hebrews 11:16 

We are called to live, and love like exiles, seeking a better country. We don’t love the cities we dwell in or the nations we are apart of well when we act like this is all we have and all we are.  As if we have to defend or justify everything that it is doing.

Every generation that follows Jesus, those who identify themselves as God’s people are called to into the world they find themselves and out of it at the same time.

We are called into the worlds we find ourselves in.  We are called to pray for and respect its Leaders, we are called to know and care about our neighbors, we are called to take seriously our responsibility as citizens, and be involved in our communities, because as it prospers so do we!   You see God was reminding the exiles in captivity, brutally stolen from their homeland, that He had a plan in leading them there.  Even as they were being marginalized, used and vilified, they were called to settle in and be a blessing where they found themselves.

Yet..

We are also called out of the world.  We know the end of the world, we know the end of every earthly kingdom.  We are sojourners looking for our way out.  Sojourners don’t derive their deepest identity from a race, party politics, from certain professions or socio-economic niches.   Exiles together, pilgrims all, we walk together in this reality.  Christ must redeem the cultures we come out of, He must challenge what is wrong, He celebrates what is good.

Fellow exiles,  I beg you…

Obey the King.  (the President, your teacher, the police, etc..)

But never, never worship them.

Love your country. (your city, your neighborhood)

But never, never stop looking for a better one.

Comfort the oppressed.

But never, never stop confronting the oppressor.

Your deepest loyalty, to a country yet to come, means you lovingly, truthfully, prayerfully, and boldly engage the wrongs of your age.  Not as politicians do, ever maneuvering, ever lying, always believing the ends justifies the means.  Seeking any way possible to seize some bit of power.  As if this old world was our prize!  But as ambassadors of the most powerful countries  do,  representing the values of the heavenly kingdom, in the confidence of it’s coming and it’s power.  As pilgrims do, putting one small foot in front of another,  bearing witness in the covenant community of what that Kingdom looks like.

10 Spiritual Disciplines for the Distracted.

I have ADD, my son has been diagnosed with ADHD and Autism. So its been on my mind. I’ve spent the last 9 years of my adult life especially learning how to make the most of the way God made me. I’m also constantly hearing from other people that they struggle in some way in these areas, to focus spiritually, to being too impulsive, and so on, so here are some ways that work for me in all my scattered glory. One successful strategy is to have external controls (schedules, routines, helpful friends) in your life, because it may be harder to internalize those things than others. Perhaps these examples from my life could work for you.

10. Lay down Gospel landmines – I call them ‘landmines’ because I don’t exactly know when I’ll hit them, nor exactly when they will go off. For example I get morning and evening readings of “Daily Light” emailed to me every day (portions of scripture compiled together somewhat thematically). Which is great because like many I struggle with checking my inbox way too often throughout the day. I also leave out a soft leather bound copy of “My Utmost” which I usually get to first thing in the morning, but if I don’t I will at some point. I can read all of these in less than ten minutes, and sometimes that is all I do. But these ‘landmines’ become the themes of my life, and the background music of my soul, the words that seem to pop out when I’m encouraging someone or praying for someone. They wet my appetite for God, His word and His will through the day. When they ‘go off’ and blow up they bring me to my knees, I need to re-read them over and over again and God speaks to me in a powerful way to comfort, challenge or convict me.

9. Spiritual Sprints – I always did well on courses that lasted for the whole day rather than a few days a week. My sweet spot was one week intensives, where you are totally isolated and focused on the course. Death to me was traditional marathon 16 week courses, especially online courses! (In other words no year long bible reading plans for me!) So spiritually I will do things like live in the New Testament once a year between Christmas and New Years. Its a 3-4 hour commitment a day, and takes work to stay on task, but that way I am somehow fueled by the challenge. Not only that but every single time, I get this far more complete, stunning, mind blowing view of who Jesus is, that is always worth it. I need to often ‘get away’ for the day or go away to my closet / office, and bring my guitar, my sermon podcasts, my books and my bible and be with Jesus for hours. The best thing is He is completely fine that I might switch from things to thing before Him. I might sometimes tire out others, but He won’t get lost in my ADD.

8. Fasting – This discipline really doesn’t work for my ADD, actually it works very much against it. Eating is just another great stimulating thing that I enjoy (too much!), often while doing other things as well. But this is such a great and powerful way for me to condition myself, so I fast just about every week. It takes a supper conscientious effort for me, but that makes me depend all the more on the Lord. I replace snacking and eating with a conscience humbling of myself before my creator. I often experience incredible joy while fasting, no doubt very helpful in establishing a habit, but it does not come immediately. (No at times its more just like misery.) The more I can learn to say no to myself, the more I can see the Lord work in my heart. This is also called the mind of Christ, or walking in the Spirit. I am freed to be a better husband, pastor, neighbor, ect… who can put others first when I am used to saying no to myself, humbling myself and devoting time towards praying for others.

7. My ‘doorway’ preacher – When I was a teenager, I used my door as a personal propaganda machine for good and ill. Covering it completely like the uni-bomber, with quotes and images I wanted to internalize. It is a little more organized and tame now (I’m sure my wife is thankful) but I still have quotes all over one the doors in my house, that when I will walk by I stop and focus on one thing or another that is helpful. This is sort of another potential ‘gospel landmine’ but these are things I’m particularly need to memorize and meditate on. One of the quotes I have on my door right now is from Hudson Taylor a missionary pioneer in China. This one might help anyone with some struggle in focusing their spiritual lives “I have found that there are three stages in every great work of God, first, it is impossible, than it is difficult, then it is done.”

6. Corporate prayer – I am so incredibly grateful for starting off as a new believer in a church that met almost every morning of the week for prayer. I would often go once or twice a week. Praying with others is where you learn how to pray. Praying with others you hear the heart of God. For those who struggle with focusing on God, it is so helpful to learn the forms of other peoples prayers, as well as the randomness, nakedness and authenticity in the prayers of mature brothers and sisters as well. No doubt, the highlight of my week is praying with others every week in the sales office of Crescent Mobile Homes Thursdays at 1 pm. If you’d like to pray, just hit me up.

5. Get help – When I realized a few months ago that facebook was becoming a spiritual distraction in my life, I went for the nuclear option. After a few failed attempts to do this by myself (signing off, than getting right back on), I emailed my wife, old pastor and some co-workers here in Rwanda that I am ‘going offline’ while I was seeking to be 100% in Rwanda and doing language learning work. What do people do when they want to get serious about any life change? They get help. If you want to start running, you’ll be way more successful if you do it with a friend. You need others as well as a sounding board, to know if what you are doing is just your latest urge, or really what makes sense considering how your story with God is unfolding. Ultimately however you need to seek God’s help and guidance in your life, and go with it. I remember a great professor in seminary, she said we can’t just tell people they need self-discipline. If we came from backgrounds without discipline, we need others to help us foster discipline, we need ‘others-discipline’ more than self-discipline in the beginning. If you want to grow, get HELP. If you want to never change, just keep all your struggles your own personal secret.

4. Obsess about God – If you can’t ‘shut off’ at night. Don’t sit in misery about it. If your mind is always racing about something. Feast your thoughts on God. Turn a challenge in your life into a dividend. I remember when I was a new believer and I realized this. I began to read, and think and than applying that to teaching, and sharing with my friends. God used this in my life, He can use it the lives others too.

3. Plan for resting / distraction – Do you know how I managed to not fail seminary? I managed because I had a counselor at the time who was wise enough to lead me to the fact that if I don’t intentionally plan down time and distraction time, I will constantly be looking for it. What I was doing between work, my family and full time seminary I was starving for rest. I would be googling every possible thing under the sun rather than writing the paper I need to for school. So when I mentally knew, at around 7pm I’m going to watch an update on some MMA match or the Simpsons, and next weekend I’m going to take my wife out for a date. I suddenly became more productive. If I didn’t plan these things I’d be hungry for them all the time. I’d be stuck in a paralyzed 24/7 half working, half not stasis. It is so ironic that when I’m needing to be the most productive in a short time, I need to be the most intentional about planning time for rest.

2. Be patient, and keep your eyes on Jesus – If you read those who have something to teach us throughout history on spirituality, they will all be pretty unified on this point. Don’t get mad at God and yourself when you don’t become a saint in a day! There is a holy kind of restlessness, that we all deeply need, to drive us to surrender to Christ. And yet, however much we can empty ourselves, humble ourselves, it is only Christ who can lift us up and fill us up. It is only God himself who can work his fruit into our lives. So keep your eyes on Jesus, lay your whole life, all your habits, all your dreams, all plans down before Him. But then be patient and look to Christ alone who can give you His spirit, Ultimately, only God alone can produce the fruit of love, patience, joy, peace, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control into your heart, as we learn to say no to ourselves, we will become so united with Jesus that His nature increasingly becomes our. Don’t forget, like the one who idolizes anything. We are what we focus on, we become like whom or what we worship. Where will you set your eyes? Be patient, and know that God will change us, when we learn to lean on Him.

1. Take risks for Jesus – If your made to take risks, why wouldn’t you? You are going to take stupid risks that will destroy yourself, and your family if you don’t bring this aspect of yourself under the Lordship of Christ. See Jesus isn’t scared that you are impulsive, but He can use that for His glory. A huge reason that many are spiritually depressed, is because they don’t know the pure joy and thrill of laying down their lives for something greater than ourselves. If the only version of Christianity you’ve been expose to, seems to stifle your personality, and keep you in a box, where there is never any real danger of physical, or emotional loss (or possibility of significant victories in the midst of the battle), come hang out with us in Gloucester! I’ll help you with that. Seriously, email me (pastorjoe@epiphanygloucester.org) and I can give you some advice that if you listen, may not be so safe, but it light of the glory of God, will be worth it. Besides this there are people waiting for someone to take a risk for them. I remember calling friends in vain late one night to find just one guy who would come with me to help some desperate people escape the crack house they were in.

I called a lot of guys taught and discipled in churches to be sociable, but not to take risks for Jesus, risks that others desperately needed us to take.

We are eager to talk to folks who have struggled to deepen their relationships with Christ through spiritual disciplines regardless of what your struggle is. My wife and I, all we know is that Jesus is worth repenting for our lack of discipline for. We don’t claim to have ‘arrived’ we are very much in process, and yet the more consistent we are, the quicker we learn to get back up, to walk with Jesus, to be His friend, the more joy we have, and the more power we have, and we want you to know that as well. Let’s do this together, feel free to reach out.

If you are simply tired of failing, stop now, pray and consider two possibilities.

1. God is worth a lifetime of effort, a lifetime of getting back up after we fall, a lifetime of loyalty no matter how imperceptible our spiritual growth is to us. Because maybe its not ultimately about God making us ‘the best we can be’ but it is and has only ever been about serving Him, who alone is worthy.

2. Grace is for real. No matter how much you fail, there is not now, and NEVER will be any condemnation for those who are in Christ. God has adopted us, and loves us as His children, and when we seek to serve Him even in our small and imperfect ways, like a Father he rejoices with and in us at every small step we take.

*This is an update on a blog I wrote in 2014 while serving in Rwanda as a missionary.

6 Things Learned in the past 6 Months

It was a great day as Epiphany Church of Gloucester City held its first public worship service on Sunday, March 18th – really special to see so many visitors, along with friends and family. Check out the article here.

As part of the service, I was commissioned as a minister in training along with another brother, Dylan Lebakken who oversees worship and kids ministry.

I wanted to share 6 things that I have learned in the last 6 months, since joining the Epiphany family:

1. The Value of the Team – church planting is really hard but even harder when you feel like you are alone. Being part of the team at Epiphany means I have people around me that support me, not just as a minister but as a Christian, husband, father. It is the reality that God cares more about me than my ministry. God wants me to be a healthy Christian, a healthy Husband and a healthy Father.

2. Different Approach to Ministry – if I was to sum up the last 6 months in terms of my mission, it is two words: faithful witness. What do I mean by that? Simply put, God has called me to be a faithful witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ where I am today. It means being a faithful witness where I live and work. And so much of what I considered ministry happened ‘somewhere else’ and so my life reflected working a lot of jobs, time with family and squeezing in ministry the best way I could. Was that healthy? Obviously not, so I am thankful for neighbors we can have over for dinner and go over their house, for co-workers I can spend time with to talk about spiritual things and also others at church that need the personal care and attention.

3. Discipleship, not just on Sundays – no doubt Sundays are a special day when people all over the worship gather to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ so it is definitely an important event but clearly, the totality of ministry can not happen over 1 or 2 hours a week. Now, how does it happen in a way that does not mean more commitments, more scheduled time, more burdens? I would answer that with the phrase “rhythms of life.” What do I mean by that? We all have them and they are simply are schedules and things that are most important to us: going to work, spending time with family, hobbies and fun activities. So rather than scheduling ministry as one more thing in your life, make it part of your life and invite people into it. This is what I have learned that ministry is about building relationships with people because you care about them and want to share your life with them. And so encouraging to be able to share the Gospel with someone who has never heard it before. What I am learning is that investing in other people is key and it’s also very rewarding and enjoyable.

4. Building Kingdom Relationships – quite obviously, God is at work right now in millions of people’s lives all over the world. As I reflect on this big reality, it means that God is at work in different churches all over the world, so it might be important to learn about what God is doing in the churches right in my community. I have met with pastors from churches of different denominations with a desire to get to know and partner together with them as we share in reaching people with the love of Jesus Christ. This does not mean that I have to compromise what I believe but it does mean that God can do bigger things if the church simply came together and worked together.

5. Emphasis on Personal Development – ministry presents many challenges, one of which is an ever growing decline in a specific resource that you never get back. That of course is time. Having 3 kids and working full time is not easy but when you are leading a ministry, it is even harder. Now, I realize that it is important to spend at least a couple hours each week reading and learning. You have heard the phrase “leaders are readers.” It is very true because I need to keep growing and learning every day, not only from life experiences but also from the experiences of others.

6. History Matters – it’s been there really helpful for me to be reminded that being “grafted into” God’s family is a very deep thing that includes people that have come way before me and will continue, Lord willing, for many years. I have the privilege of being part of God’s redemptive plan of history, even before the foundation of the world! And since Jesus walked the earth 2 thousand years ago, the church has come to know some giants of the faith like Augustine, Luther, Owen, Calvin, Spurgeon, Martin Lloyd Jones and many others. It is pretty important to study church history, not only to understand the challenges faced by the church but also to learn what shaped these men.

 

Giving Thanks for Theology on Tap.

Theology on Tap was the first public ministries we’ve done as Epiphany Church, and it is still going strong, meeting at the Riverpark Pub, in Gloucester City the 4th Tuesday of the month at 7pm.

I know the idea of discussing philosophy, ethics, and theology over some beers with a Pastor moderating the discussion may raise all kinds of questions and I don’t mean to answer them here, only that we feel like we stand in pretty good company.  You know that guy who actually turned water into wine.  (John 2:1-11, Luke 7, Mark 14:23)  Like everything else in life, we believe that alcohol and be a good gift enjoyed responsibly, but a terrible master.

One other thing we do want to make clear while not addressing all the concerns people may have about our ministry in the bar, nobody is getting drunk at Theology on Tap, and we don’t encourage anyone from the Church community to participate in this ministry if it would jeopardize their hard-fought-for sobriety.  We are actually ramping up to launch a recovery ministry for those in need, in the Church family and those out in the community on April 8th called Celebrate Recovery.  

Here are 8 reasons I’m thankful for Theology on Tap.

1. Our views are out there and clear.

There is no vagueness in our faith, those who are new to our Church can find out exactly the way we articulate our faith (1 Peter 3:15) and how we engage really difficult and sensitive subjects (1 Cor. 9:19-23) like drugs, sexuality, science, morality and God’s justice.  Some have suggested to me that allowing people to ask questions in this forum is some kind of compromise (Rom 12:2). To be honest, that could not be farther from the truth.  It’s so much easier to preach to the choir, it’s harder to stand up and explain what you believe even when you are in the minority (Jude 1:3). Nobody who has been hanging out with us for worship or at Theology on Tap can be caught off guard or shocked by our beliefs which are shaped by the Holy Scriptures (John 17:17) no matter where the culture stands.

2. We learn to see beyond points to people.

It’s a two-way street.  In our day and age of keyboard warriors, it’s so helpful to actually have to sit across a table from someone and dive into the issues of our day, and the issues that have face humanity from the beginning (Ecc 1:9).  It softens us up in a good way (Rom 14:1), to see beyond a point to the person (Jer. 17:10), with a whole set of experiences that have led them to where they are now.  Truth matters to us (Is 40:8), but there is hardly anything truer than the value of people (Mt 6:27).  Relationships matter too.

3. A real community has been formed.

A diverse community of folks, religious and skeptical, liberal and conservative, young and old has been formed over the months.  When we first gather and just catch up, we catch up as good friends (Mk 2:17), but there is always room for one more at the table (Mt 11:28).

4. Opportunities to pastor people are huge.

Having a chaplain at the bar, someone ready to listen, ready to pray, ready to remind (Mark 10:45; Gal 5:13) you of the goodness and grace of God when life seems everything but good and gracious has been like a deep need in some peoples souls they did not know they had (Titus 2:11-14) .  Often people say about others ‘nobody really cares about religion’ which is ironic because I find that one on one, while people have many legitimate beefs with religion, and struggles to overcome in their own life, most people deep down are seeking and spiritually sensitive (Ecc 3:11).   Even those who are making the loudest opposition to the faith (Rom 9:18).

5. We ask deep questions about things that really matter.

How you think matters, but we live in a day and age that no longer thinks in paragraphs, proofs and well-reasoned arguments (Prov 18:2). Many have slid into thinking in soundbite tweets.  Religious or not, the style of follow-up questions, and forcing you to explain yourself (Prov 14:15) at Theology on Tap helps people dig a little deeper than they are used to.

6. My apologetic game has gotten better.

I have always loved apologetics (2 Tim 4:2), which is the Christian defense and explanation of the faith (Philipp 1:16 ).  However, in the past year it’s been so fun to spend literally hundreds of hours preparing (2 Tim 2:15) and then discussion super difficult issues with people on all sides of all kinds of issues (Col 4:6).  This only helps your apologetics game improve (2 Peter 3:18).

7. People newer to the Church learn about the faith.

Folks who are newer to the Church (1 Peter 2:2) learn how to articulate their faith in a helpful way, in live discussions with folks coming from various points of view.  They also have a chance to hear the rationale for why God calls them to live and think differently, something that sadly is often missing in the Church.

8 People who grew up in the Church learn how to talk more gently, respectfully and wisely with those who hold diametrically opposing views.

Sometimes people who grow up in Church have no idea how to talk to anyone outside of that Church bubble.  Theology on Tap is a great place for you to learn how to break out of the bubble, and talk to people (Mark 16:15), and also how to address real doubts you have.  Starting by realizing they exist, and it’s not a sin to doubt!  (Isaiah 1:18)  But at the same time, holding those doubts as well at an arm’s length and re-evaluating them in greater light.

Press Release

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Grand Opening of Epiphany Church Gloucester City

GLOUCESTER CITY, February 20, 2018 – From what began as a small gathering in the home of Pastor Joe Marlin on Powell Street in the Spring of 2017 to regular meetings in King Street Pub and now weekly fellowship in First Baptist on Monmouth & Sussex, Epiphany Church is pleased to announce that they will be celebrating the birth of their new church!

The celebration service will be held at 5pm on March 18, 2018 in First Baptist Church located at 400 Monmouth Street, which is at the corner of Monmouth & Sussex. Seating is limited to 200 so come early to ensure you get a seat.

Epiphany Church invites you to bring the whole family. You can expect loving people, modern music, biblical teaching and reliable childcare for all ages.

The mission of Epiphany Church is to make disciples of Jesus who become a family together, for the good of Gloucester City and beyond. They seek to build bridges for the glory of God and the good of their neighbors.

Feel free to reach out to PastorJoe@EpiphanyGloucester.org or call 856-432-2118.

For more information, visit www.epiphanygcity.com.


Not afraid of Halloween

I’m glad I didn’t grow up in a fundamentalist home. I also am happy that, for the most part, I’ve been cared for and discipled as a follower of Jesus in churches that want to engage culture redemptively and not just run away from it, or constantly look for the worst in it. I have been reminded over the years of hosting Halloween parties sponsored by the church of the incredible good that comes out of being in the community on arguably one of the most community-focused holidays of the year.   Halloween is many things, but it is also this unique night of celebrating creativity, and unlike every other holiday where we gather with our family, we actually go out and connect with our entire neighborhood. 

On Halloween nights I’ve watched kids come out to participate in a fun night at Epiphany Church.  I experienced a single-mom reach out for someone to be a big brother to her son, and one of our church members instinctively and instantly step up.  I even had a couple of people ask me for counseling for themselves and family members.  I’ve had deep philosophical conversations with people that we haven’t had much time with all year.  I’ve been able to meet the spouses of some of the parents in our Christian community I haven’t yet met and have had many people ask me about our church, what we do and what we are about, and I’ve had the opportunity to invite them to worship with us at Church and / or connect with us at Theology on Tap.  Just tonight we served more than 200 folks some hot chocolate, took photos of 70 families and personally connected with dozens of people and reconnected with even more.  All we were doing was embracing and celebrating Christ and having fun on a Halloween night in our hood.

None of this would happen if our church decided to freak out and consider a party, on Halloween night, at the church building something demonic.  I am so glad we intentionally use many opportunities to engage our community, and not just hide at home. 

Look I’m not the guy that just doesn’t believe in evil on all kinds of levels.  I’ve sat as a Pastor in the front row and witnessed the fall out of murder, rape and years and years of abuse and manipulation in people lives.  I’ve also seen the effects of the occult. Overseas while serving in central Africa, I saw witching, hexing, and cursing as a common way to settle scores with enemies.  As a trainer of Pastors in the village, I was a guy who was called on regularly to visit people oppressed by unseen forces, as I led people towards renouncing that evil through repentance and faith in Christ I also saw the victory and healing of the Lord in the most amazing ways.

So I believe deeply in the truth of Colossians 2:15 (that on the cross Jesus disarmed all the dark spiritual powers), which leads to the call to not judge about matters of food, days and other external things in Colossians  2:16. Our engagement with the world, even its darkness, and brokenness, is love, truth, and God’s power, not fear, hate and trying to impose our will. 

We don’t co-sign everything that is going down on Halloween now or in the past.   It is true that the holiday was long ago an ancient druid holiday, but every holiday on the calendar has its pagan roots.  There is a reason holly makes us think of Christmas and not some ways to increase our chances of getting pregnant as the ancient Romans did.  Even the regular days of the week retain the names of old gods, (Thor’s day, Saturn’s Day…) and we use those names, every single day.  Just like Paul counseled new Christians that meat that was sacrificed to some god was okay to eat, because there really is one true God (1 Corinthians 8) and that for one person certain days are holy and for another all days are alike (Romans 14:5), we believe that in the presence Jesus, we do not have to fear.  They are like a wolf that has been defanged or a snake that has had its venom drawn out.  Our ancient foremothers and forefathers who spread the love, light, and truth of Jesus saw the victory he had over these days, they saw the biblical truth that all curses are null and void in (Galatians 3:13) Jesus and did not wonder if the light would still shine in the darkness.

Our ancient brothers and sisters did not keep a posture of fear, or ask themselves “what has come of this world?”  They did not always look for the next thing to freak out about and add to their list of reasons the world is so bad.  Instead, they asked in wonder and proclaimed with love “what has come into this world!” They already knew the world was hurting and in chaos, but they had confidence, hope, and love.

This is our context; this is our mission field, so we step into any opportunity to share the love of  Christ with our neighbors.  Therefore, we are not scared to lovingly engage our neighborhood on Halloween night.

For those who strongly feel like this is some kind of compromise, I have a word for you if you will listen.  Compromise is not just distorting the message, but it is also a compromise to not get His message out there in an effective way that people can actually hear it and respond.  I’ve actually had folks jam me up in the middle of one of these outreaches and I’ve had to tell them, ‘hey listen can we get back to this conversation?’  I’d love to talk to the twenty people over there that have no real connection with a church.  I’m not saying at all that you have to celebrate Halloween, but I am only explaining why we do.  Let’s spur each other on with creative ways to reach out and if you choose another way, I’m not mad at that, just understand why we do.

We have no reason to fear Halloween, but I think we should be a little more afraid of missing opportunities to get on the block and in our community to show off the love of Jesus.

5 stupid reasons we suffer.

homerhammer

Suffering is unavoidable in this life. Despite the cons of a lot of wacko preachers who promise you the moon and the stars (for a donation), you can depend on the words of Jesus. “In this world, you will have trouble” ~ John 16:33. ANYONE telling you if you follow their program, you will no longer suffer is (1) trying to sell you something and (2) disagreeing with Jesus.

I’ve thought a lot about how to deal with unavoidable suffering. At Epiphany we are even in the middle of a study on the book of Philippians, to explore how we can learn to be content when suffering breaks into our lives. However, here, I just want to share with you 5 stupid reasons we suffer. These 5 are all avoidable, but I’ve dived in head first into every single one of them.  In a future post I’ll talk about 5 good reasons we suffer.

5. You are way too big on yourself.

You think what you are doing is so important, you stay in a situation that is just terrible for you, or the people you love. This is just pride. Learning to take God seriously means we are freed up to take ourselves lightly and chill. If you haven’t learned that, maybe you’re doing it wrong. Are you suffering today because you’re too big on yourself?

4. You haven’t learned to listen.

“Nobody understands me!” Nobody? Really? Maybe you haven’t slowed down enough to listen to what people are saying. Listening is one of the most difficult skills to develop, but one of the most important. Sometimes we keep hitting our heads against the wall, and not paying attention to the door right next to us.  Are you suffering today because you haven’t learned to listen?

3. You are living in unrepentant sin.

I remember the story of a notorious woman in our old neighborhood, when we lived in Africa. Her world included adultery, prostitution, performing illegal and unsanitary abortions, murder, witchcraft and constant manipulation.  However, she would share in tears that she was devastated she could not see biological children live with her. Then our friend bravely challenged her, telling her “how can you expect anything good to come out of your life with the way you are living?” The Bible and personal experience both teach us that we “reap what we sow” (Galatians 6:7). Are you suffering today because you are living in unrepented sin? Or is your life the living embodiment of Social Distortions’ song “Bad Luck”?

 

2. You don’t have boundries.

It’s funny how the same action from two different people can come from opposite motivations? Take for example the instruction Jesus gave us on how to throw a party. “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” (Luke 14:12-14)

Now what if you took to heart Jesus’s instruction to not let ‘repayment’ or climbing the social ladder be your motivation, but did exactly what He says, but your motivation wasn’t primarily to love, but to be loved?  When you find yourself taking care of everyone and your own life is falling apart.. when you make promises on the fly with everybody but break promises regularly to your own kids.. You have lost ability to have the stability God wants for you. God wants you to not be like some weed tree that shoots up fast and is easily knocked over by the wind, but a redwood. Are you suffering today because you don’t understand how to have boundaries and take care of yourself?

1. Ignorance.

Ignorance is the cause of a massive amount of suffering in the world. One day some good friends of ours were at the pool, and a maintenance guy was about to fasten a metal bar into the side of the pool as a safety rail. The only problem was, this was in a part of Africa, where being a worker at the local pool, didn’t mean you went to school, the pool was full and he was half in the water, along with a bunch of kids swimming and was about to drop his corded drill into the water to fasten the rail! Unfortunately, the saying ‘what you don’t know can’t hurt you’ is dead wrong. Electricity is real, and water is a terrible conductor of electricity whether you went to school to find that out or not. There are tons of areas in life we need others to guide and enlighten us in.

No matter who you are, or how good your education and upbringing was.  For example, there are surely some relational, financial or spiritual skills that you could still learn, and would make your life better.  Are you suffering today because of what you don’t know?

When will you plant?

So we believe God has called us to plant a new Church in Gloucester City!

The number one question I get from family, friends, and neighbors when they find out is ‘oh which building are you going to get / when will you get a building?’  The question is fairly obvious and innocent really.  I’m learning our town has a few nicknames, I suppose like most towns.  I won’t share with you some of the more unflattering ones, but one of them that goes a long way back is ‘the holy city.’

See, Gloucester is full of unused and underused little church buildings that once were full and thriving, just as it had over thirty bars down to about seven.  If only this was just a shift in behaviors, and ways people find community, that would be one thing.  But I think this is actually a much deeper symptom of a real family, spiritual and economic breakdown.  Like many communities in America, even the sight of our intact family, with all three of our kids coming out of our marriage is something a bit exotic.  I get it though, alcoholism and abuse broke up my family, but my mom found a way all by herself to get us through life the best she could.

But I’m praying that what I’ve experienced in my life, could be passed on again and again in this town.  I’ve learned two things from God’s grace.

The first is that it’s not how you start, but it’s how you finish.

Our families may be bruised up, and our life may have baggage, but that doesn’t mean we need to redefine our destination, we might just have to redefine the journey.  Things like love, loyalty, integrity, aren’t old school things that don’t work for us anymore, they are the destination.  This is the message of Jesus, that he came to give us all a new start.  A new start to live out the ancient way we are deeply wired to live.

The second thing I’ve learned about God’s grace is that it’s all about creating a new family

It’s not just about my fresh start, my forgiveness, and my new source of love and power to live right.  I’m adopted into a new family!  I have had the privilege to serve in the ministry in Philadelphia and for years as a missionary in Africa, and now serve as the Community Life Pastor in Camden.  I’m not scared about the way this town is changing because I’ve seen, again and again, God stepping into the toughest situations, and bring about change in people’s lives in a matter of hours that would take us years and years on our own strength.

I’ve seen unlikely people coming together, becoming brother and sister.  I saw it in Rwanda of all places, a place that had one of the most horrifying ethnic clashes in all human history. So just like the New Testament days, where the Apostles (just the Greek word for missionary) preached, and people gathered in each other’s homes.  Just as they ate and drank together.  The same way they called each other to be generous, to break down generational, ethnic and cultural gaps, and to become one new family.

The same way people were cut in the heart about their past lives, trusted in the death Jesus died for them to wipe their slate clean and trusted in the resurrection of Jesus that showed He was more than a man but Lord and Savior.  We believe God is and will continue His work here in Gloucester City.  We will patiently but persistently gather people, and share our story, as He brings together a people in His timing.

Buildings came much later for the early Church.  In the Bible we see some folks meeting by a river, others at the synagogue and many in large homes.  From history, we know they even met underground in catacombs because they were persecuted by the Romans.  For us, we may get a building some day.

The story of Epiphany started in our home in the Spring of 2017.  We met in a bar that was an old synagogue in the summer and since the fall have been renting a local Church.  God has blessed us and given us a space to share with First Baptist Church on the corner of Monmouth and Sussex Sts (400 Monmouth St).   Not only do we have a place to gather, and share meals on Sunday evenings we have office space, and space to minister to kids, youth and adults all week. We are excited to launch public worship services in March 2018.

Do you want to learn more?  Don’t hesitate to reach out, I’d love to share more with you.