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A Glimpse of Sunnyside

July 29, 2014

It’s one thing to describe an event. You know, you begin at a certain point in time…you point out some of the things that you saw…maybe the emotions that you felt during the time…and then it reaches an end point. That’s sort of…it. And so…effectively…an event has a beginning and an end. You might remember it…you might even plan to do it again…but in large degree…it happens and you move on.

For the last five years, members of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church have been traveling to New York City for a week during the summer months. For the last three years, we have been traveling specifically to the neighborhood of Sunnyside, in the borough of Queens, and partnering with Pastor Jon Storck and the people of Grace Fellowship Church and Queens Presbyterian Church. And it’s over the last few years that many of us have not just participated in an event…and not just had an experience…but where we have actually put down some roots. It would be fair to say…at least in a sense…that we’ve begun to live there. Now to be clear, nobody from our church has actually packed up and moved up there (at least not yet). But we have built relationships that extend beyond the week. And so more than an event…it’s become a way of living for us.

This year we were able to send two teams to work with Grace Fellowship Church at the Sunnyside City Camp. Those were two teams, over two weeks, to one city, with one mission. The camp begins each morning at 9:00am with breakfast for the 80 campers. That time is followed by a morning assembly, times of teaching, recreation, and arts and crafts, with pick-up at 3:00pm. The campers all receive a lunch each day as well, prepared by a very special group of women from the church. The goal is to provide a safe, encouraging, and spiritually nourishing environment for elementary aged kids from the neighborhood to spend the week.

What we have seen is that through the development of actual relationships, enduring relationships, and through the ministry of the Gospel, is that the students have come to understand the truth of who Jesus Christ is…and what He has done for us. We have seen families continue to bring their children to City Camp because of the trust that has been built over the years. And we have seen new families come and participate because of the enduring legacy that has begun to spread through the community.

And all of this is connected to the local church. That’s the beauty of it. That’s the testimony of it. All of it points directly to, and flows from, the love of Christ expressed through the Body of Christ. When people see us in the park, they know that the church is looking out for them. When they see us walking in the neighborhood, they know that church is embracing the community. When the attendants at the hotel hear why we are coming to Sunnyside, they know that the church is willing to give of herself for the community. These are transcendent realities. These are the things that become the hands and feet of the Gospel to a community. And these are the types of roots that are beginning to grow deep in Sunnyside.

One of the beautiful things about this partnership with Grace Fellowship Church is the fact that it really has become a tangible expression of 1 Corinthians 12:12 where Paul writes, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” There are a variety of ways to serve. For instance, some are great teachers…and we need those. Some are creative and artistic…and we need those. Some are great at just getting outside and playing with kids…and listen…we need those too. And we see how those different gifts and talents can all be used by God to accomplish His purpose. As 1 Peter 4:10 says, “As each has received a gift, us it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”

We get to see that. We get to participate in that. And we get to look forward to going back. In both the second and third letter of John, he ends his writing with very similar language. He says in 3 John 13-14, “I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink.  I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.” That’s sort of how we feel after being in New York. There is much to say…more to say than we can even begin to articulate. So don’t be afraid to ask. The Lord is moving in Sunnyside. He’s doing things in that neighborhood. And it has been a tremendous blessing that He has allowed us to be a part of it.



What If?

March 6, 2014

I don’t make a habit of making bold statements.  I really don’t.  In fact, what I’m about to say probably won’t be perceived as a bold statement…even though it feels bold to me.  This might mean I’m a coward…it might mean I’m timid…but I prefer to think it means I’m gentle (in a super masculine way…whatever that means).  But here goes; I bet you haven’t considered who you could bring to church with you this week.  Wow…that was it.  All that build up and that’s all I brought to the table.

Seriously though…think about it for just a second.  Have you considered who you could invite to your church this week?  And listen…this isn’t about church recruitment.  We have enough people running around trying to pick off faithful members of churches in order to get them into their building…onto their roles…to feed their pride.  I’m talking about people who need the Gospel.  Have you considered which of those people you might bring with you?

If not, what if you did? What if you invited someone to come to church with you this week? What if that person had never heard the Gospel before? What if they heard it Sunday and the Holy Spirit opened their eyes…transformed their heart…and they were saved. What if they were someone who had just been absent from the church for a long time? What if they really missed the fellowship and community of the body of Christ…but were just too nervous to step out on their own? What if you were the one who helped them get connected?

What if everyone took empty chairs personally? What if we saw empty chairs and looked at them as opportunity?

What if we weren’t cowards? What if we actually believed that the Gospel…that Jesus…saves us from condemnation? What if we cared enough about the people in our lives to do our best to see that they had the opportunity to hear the truth? What if we put others before ourselves…our comfort, our sleep, our fears of rejection? What if we trusted Christ to do exactly what He said He was going to do for His Church…to build it?  What if we understood what Paul wrote in Romans 10 when he said,

14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent?  As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel.  For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

What if we believed that God could save through the preaching of the word of Christ?  And what if we understood that the most merciful thing that we can do for anyone is introduce them to the Savior…the Redeemer…the Lord?  What if we were obedient to Christ’s commission?  What if we made a habit of preaching the Gospel to ourselves…so it wouldn’t be so difficult to share with others?  What if I weren’t such a hypocrite…and you saw this ethic in my life?

What if we saw each other Sunday morning…and we praised the Living God for what He has done…is doing…and will continue to do?

Let’s do that!


I Saw it This Morning

February 21, 2014

My wife is an elementary school teacher.  And to be clear…she’s a very gifted elementary school teacher.  It’s really an amazing thing to watch her in her work.  After the birth of our third child back in December (a rather stocky little guy we call Logan), while she is out on maternity leave, I have had the privilege of taking our older two kids to school each morning.

We have had some of the best in car concerts that you can imagine…with everything from Bethel Music and Andrew Peterson to Mumford and…I hate to admit…One Direction.  We’ve even had a couple fairly successful sing-a-longs to the Pitch Perfect Soundtrack (so yeah…my pride is at rock-bottom…and that’s probably a good thing).  I’ve managed to be “that guy” in the drop-off line more than once.  You know who I’m talking about…the guy who watches his kids walk instead of moving the line along…who rolls down the window to say goodbye one more time.  Yeah…I sincerely apologize to all the River Springs family for that.

For the sake of keeping things interesting, we decided that we’d do things a little different on Friday mornings.  Instead of the bowl of Frosted Mini Wheats, we decided that we’d wake up a few minutes earlier (obviously without eliminating the mad dash to get ready), and try out all of the places on the way to school that sell breakfast…none of which are healthy…all of which qualify as fast food.

As we sat in a nearly empty McDonald’s this morning…eating “sausage” biscuits and talking about the weekend…we watched as the wind outside began to pick up.  The sky was getting darker instead of lighter…the weather seeming to testify to the accuracy of the forecast for rain.  And staring out the window in the direction of the adjacent Chick-Fil-A…wondering…on a plurality of levels…just why we were sitting here instead of there…we noticed the great big American flag waving in the ever increasing breeze.

And after a little conversation about the number of stars…and shamefully having to look up the list of the original thirteen colonies (curse you Rhode Island)…we ended up having what, to this day, has been one of the best conversations on holiness and the work of the Holy Spirit that I can remember having with my children.

You see, the flag was moving.  We couldn’t see the source of that movement.  Sure, we could see the leaves blowing across the ground, the pine trees swaying a little…and the flag dancing in the morning sky.  But we couldn’t actually see the wind.  We couldn’t see it…but…at the same time…we couldn’t deny that it was there.

As I’ve been reading through the book of Romans over the course of the last few weeks, I’ve really been challenged anew by chapter 6.  It’s been hard for me to take it more than a verse each day…just because of the weight of each verse.  And the flag provided the perfect illustration of the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives, because of our union with Jesus Christ by faith, to the glory of God the Father.

Consider Romans 6:12-14

12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

It’s important to realize that holiness is not something that we can achieve…it’s not our victory to win…but has been achieved, and the victory has been won…by Jesus Christ already.  It’s our union with Him through faith that saves us from our sin, His robe of righteousness wrapped around us while He took our filthy rags…and the working of His Holy Spirit in us that enables us to pursue holiness.  It’s a work of God’s free grace “whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness” (WSC 35).  It is a conforming of our wills to the will of God.  Jerry Bridges says, “Only as we reckon on these twin facts – that I am dead to sin and its reign over me and that I am alive to God, united to Him who strengthens me – can I keep sin from reigning in my mortal body.”  The internal holiness…righteousness imputed to us by Christ…is demonstrated, as Romans 6 says, by and through, our outward lives.

So here’s the thing.  You…the Christian…are the waving flag.  The world…those who have not been regenerated by the Holy Spirit (yet) and called from death to life…will not by nature see the Holy Spirit at work.  The fallen world is blind, deaf, and dumb to His work…and even His existence.  Remember, back in Romans 1 we read,

They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”

That’s why God gave them up to the “lusts of their hearts.”  The Christian, and necessarily, the Church, must be the visible representation of how the grace of God in salvation translates, not only into a transformed heart (internal) but also a transformed life (external).  Our “members“…the makeup of our physical bodies…must be presented to God “as instruments of righteousness.”  You see…the world may not see the source…but in the Church…in you…the Christian…they better see the effects.  Nobody looks at a waving flag and assumes that it is doing it on its own.  The flag has no natural, inherent life.  It is lifeless.  It too…like the unregenerate person…is, as we’re told in Ephesians 2:1, “dead.”  And just like we need the Spirit at work in us to give us faith and to conform our will to the will of God…the flag needs the wind in order to spring forth into life.

So here’s a thought: How is your life reflecting the grace of God today?  Are you actively demonstrating the fact that you’ve been called from death to life?  Because just like my kids sitting in a McDonald’s eating a biscuit…if the flag is waving…the world will notice.

Waving Flag

Get in the Game

January 17, 2014

Have you considered what needs to happen in your life over the next couple of days in order for you to come to church on Sunday prepared to worship our Lord and Savior?

The answer might be, “No.” And listen…that’s fine. But it can’t stay that way. It just can’t stay that way. You see, there is a fundamental difference between simply being somewhere…and being prepared to be somewhere. If we consider our lives…if we consider our Savior…if we consider Him worthy of worship…we should prepare ourselves to engage in that worship.

The other night, I was watching the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA playing basketball against the Utah Jazz. And listen, I’ll confess, I’m not a big NBA fan or anything…but stick with me here. This idea of being prepared really struck me because as the guys in uniform were playing…I kept seeing people making their way to their seats. Maybe they got there late…maybe went to get some snacks…or whatever…it doesn’t really matter. I just started thinking; how easy is it for us just to show up at an event? How easy is it for us just to walk in, find a seat, get ourselves comfortable, and be a spectator?

For the sake of argument…imagine the players for a second. Tony Parker and Tim Duncan don’t just show up at the arena and make their way to their seats on the bench. They don’t simply shake the coaches hand on the way in the door…make themselves comfortable…and watch the action. They can’t do that. They practiced the day before. They arrived early and got stretched out…got warmed up. They talked with the teammates about what was about to happen on the court. They focused. And then…they took the floor and got in the game. All we see is the time on the court…the 48 minutes…but there is so much more behind that.

The modern church isn’t desperate for spectators. The modern church doesn’t need more folks to come and buy the concessions…or make their way to the front row to really see the action…or find their seat before someone sits in it and we have some awkward moment (and you know that happens). No…that’s not what we need. The modern church is, however, in desperate need of more players. We need people who want to get in the game…who want to get in the fight…who want to actively participate in the worship of our God and King and see that spill over into every avenue of our existence. We need members who know nothing of an offseason. We need members who aren’t willing to settle for half-hearted effort. We need members who prepare their hearts…who prepare their minds…and who engage their senses for the sake of God’s glory.

The church needs Christians. We need Christians who understand what it means to have Christ’s righteousness wrapped around us. Because listen…that’s your uniform as a child of the Living God…His robe…Jesus’ robe. So suit up. Get your head right. Read His Word before coming to church. Spend some time with Psalm 100 and consider what it means to:

1. Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!
2. Serve the Lord with gladness!
Come into his presence with singing!
3. Know that the Lord, he is God!
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
4. Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise!
Give thanks to him; bless his name!
5. For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.

We need you.

I Hate “Probably”

November 14, 2013

There are certain words that I’m beginning to despise.  And it’s not that they are the typical bad words…the ones that parents try their hardest to keep their kids from being exposed to.  The words I’m talking about are normal…everyday…harmless words.  But they’re being hijacked.  They’re being corrupted.  And I just don’t like it.

One of these is the word “probably.”  I’m starting to hate the word “probably.”  And listen, I hesitate to say that I hate something because I know what that means.  I fully understand the weight of what it means to hate something…to detest…to despise it…or to loathe it.  One dictionary definition of hate is “to feel intense or passionate dislike for something.”  So it’s not a matter of indifference.  It’s not ambiguous negative emotion…it’s a positively negative emotion.

And here’s the reason this word “probably” has become such a problem.  It’s become a problem because it no longer seems to mean what it used to mean.  Probably, in the past, meant “almost certainly.”  Probably meant that at this moment, as long as nothing unforeseen happens…no “acts of God”…whatever it is that I am committing to…will happen.  Again, “probably” doesn’t mean “maybe.”  Maybe means that it’s possible.  It means that there’s a chance.  It could happen.  Parents have long used “maybe” as a catch-all response to children’s requests.  “Can I stay up late tonight…have ice cream…get a new iPod?”  It can be any request…and the parent’s response of “maybe” typically means that it’s unlikely.  And our kids learn that pretty quickly.  My son has already established in his mind that “maybe means no.”

At some point, we’ve allowed (some might say forced) the word “probably” to actually mean “maybe.”  And I hate that.  We’re not using the word correctly.  And much like when we use anything incorrectly…it doesn’t work.  It’s like trying to use a hammer to paint the ceiling of your bedroom.  Yes, it’s a tool…it is used to accomplish work…but it’s not used to accomplish the type of work we’re trying to accomplish with it.  So…you can soak that hammer in paint…for days…and it’s not going to matter how much you say it’s a paintbrush…or try to employ it as a paintbrush…it’s not a paintbrush.

This is what we’re doing with “probably.”  Our fear of commitment…to anything…has made “probably” the normative answer because it requires so little…especially if by “probably” we actually mean “maybe.”  So the child asks the dad if he is coming to the game and the father replies “probably.”  The coach asks the player if he’s going to show up early to put in extra work and athlete responds with “probably.”  The pastor asks the member of the church if they will see them Sunday morning and the person replies “probably.”  And in each case…most of the time…the answer should be no more than “maybe” and more than likely, they should have simply and truthfully said, “No.”

Because here is the truth…in our culture…”probably,” just as often as not…means “probably not.”  And this is destructive.  The long-term ramifications of a culture where people refuse to commit to one another leads us to a lack of trust, a lack of hope, and a skeptical outlook on nearly everything.  Whatever happened to the idea of letting your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no?  That’s what we read in James 5:12.  People ought to be able to trust that what you say is in fact the truth.  Jesus said in Matthew 5:37, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or “No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”

It’s always sad to me when one of my kid’s teammates tells me that their parent is “probably coming tonight.”  “My dad said he’s probably going to get off of work in time to get here.”  We’re literally training our children not to trust, and we’re doing it at a very early age.  And it’s destroying our culture.

This has been more of a rant than anything else…and part of me wants to apologize for that.  People who know me are “probably” going to be wondering if I’m talking specifically about them…and honestly… I’m not.  This is a personal conviction.  I have done this.  I have set the example and paved the path of comfort for myself by resisting the absolute need to make commitments and live with them.  And listen to me…I know…there is always the thought that we might miss out on something “better.”  That may happen.  That is a possibility (a genuine “maybe”).  But when we say we’re “probably” going to do something…and then we don’t do it…there’s a guarantee that it’s going to hurt someone else.  And I don’t want to be that guy.

A Glimpse of Haiti

November 1, 2013

Expectations are a funny thing.  We all have them.  Sometimes they are very broad, almost ambiguous in form, and hard to quantify.  Other times they are very pointed, explicit, and clearly discernable.  And we have to admit that there is always the possibility that our expectations fall somewhere in between.  As our team began preparing to travel to the Caribbean nation of Haiti, the most poverty-stricken country in the Western Hemisphere, my expectations fell more in first category than anywhere else.  It’s not that I didn’t care, or that I wasn’t engaged.  It was that I genuinely desired to go with as few assumptions and presuppositions as possible.  I wanted God to show me what I needed to see, and use me as He wanted to use me, and hopefully without me getting in the way.

We were given a very broad overview of many of the ministry efforts of El Shaddai Ministries International, and specifically Dony and Louis St. Germain.  Their four foundational principles, their primary objectives, are evangelism, education, empathy, and economy.  It is profound to see the way that they mobilize both indigenous Haitians and foreign Christian groups to work toward fulfilling their calling to reach the country of Haiti with the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ through these four areas.

In the city of Les Cayes, on the southern coast of Haiti, we met with Louis and traveled to several of the site locations where they have established a church.  In each of these locations, they also build and staff an orphanage, a primary school, and attempt to form a commercial enterprise in order to work toward reaching a level of self-sustainment for a long-term impact.  This Gospel-centric view of working for change in Haiti is somewhat unique among the mission agencies working on the island.  While other organizations will try to build a very westernized, American facility and business plan, the model of ESMI is to engage the local culture with the Gospel and mobilize those people to seek the welfare of the town or city in which they find themselves.  It is a very Jeremiah 29:7 view of global missions, and a redemptive view of God’s love for His elect “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9).  To hear Dony or Louis discuss the modus operandi of ESMI is to hear a heart for the people of Haiti, rooted in a love for Christ and a desire to see many come to know Him.  It is not simply to improve the “quality of life” (though that is certainly a piece of it) but rather that “they may have life and have it abundantly.”  It’s an understanding that Jesus is not a means to something else, but that He is the End to which all the somethings ought to be pointing.

As we made our way from Les Cayes to Jeremie, we were blessed to see the beauty of the landscape, God’s creation, from ten thousand feet.  And upon landing in Jeremie, we were blessed to see the work that God is doing through the preaching and teaching of the Gospel in that city.  In less than three years, ESMI has built a church, a university, an administrative building to work toward oversight of all the church planting efforts and educational endeavors, as well as guest houses to accommodate foreign mission teams who come to serve in each of the four primary objective areas.

Our team conducted a pastor’s conference for two days teaching a Systematic Theology course on the Doctrine of Sin.  Over sixty pastors traveled from all over Haiti to come and be challenged with this important doctrine.  After all, if we don’t understand sin, and the effects and punishment of sin, how can we ever truly understand a Savior who has ransomed us from it?  Some of our team built shelving in the administrative building.  We visited some of the church and orphanage sites around Jeremie.  One is in a small village referred to as Lundy.  We also visited a small orphanage and distributed new clothes to those children living there.  A very special piece of that being that the clothes were made by members of our church who partnered with us, and ESMI, without ever having to get on a plane.

We spent the Lord’s Day worshiping with two different congregations.  It was a great blessing to me to be asked to preach at both of those worship services.  It’s a unique picture of one the expressed effects of sin, the confusion of languages, to preach through an interpreter.  But the universal refrain of “Amen” carries the ability to unify any body of believers in response to the Word of God.  In the end, we were able to join in song, in prayer, and in worship of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ with brothers and sisters from a different nation, a different tribe, and a different tongue.  And we saw the glorious hope of the resurrection, and life in the world to come, when translators won’t be needed, when sound systems won’t be required, and the sun won’t cook us in our Sunday best because the Lord God Himself will be our light (Revelation 22:5).

As we worshiped, I was reminded of a song written by Andrew Peterson.  There are several short refrains in it that speak to the coming future, the vision of what is to come at the consummation.  He says, “And we dream in the night…of a city descending…with the sun in the center…and a peace unending.”  Again he sings, “And we dream in the night…of a King and a kingdom…where Joy writes the songs…and the innocent sing them.”  And finally…painting a picture of the glorious worship that we have to look forward to…he sings, “And we dream in the night…of a feast and a wedding…and the Groom in His glory…when the bride is made ready.”

That’s what’s happening in Haiti through ESMI.  The bride of Christ…the Church…is being made ready.  And there’s no doubt that we have an opportunity to carry the fire of the Gospel to that people…and see hearts transformed from death to life…and a redeeming of God’s people through the life, death, and resurrection of the Son.  Our challenge going forward is simply to prayerfully consider how we might best come along beside them and live out Christ’s Great Commission to His people, to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  Intimidating…yes.  Vast and expansive…yes.  Impossible…not even close.


Don’t Give The Stones a Chance

October 11, 2013

When you come into church this week…it’s not just another Sunday. It’s not just a ritual. It’s not just a gathering. It’s more than that. It’s far more that that. It’s a time set apart for the worship of our great God and King. It’s a chance…an opportunity…to worship the Lord our God in spirit and truth.

We’re told in Psalm 100…
1. Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth!
2. Serve the LORD with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!
3. Know that the LORD, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
4. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name!
5. For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

Those aren’t presented as suggestions. Those verses do not come across as mere thoughts that might be worth further exploration. The psalmist is passionate about worshiping God. There is energy in these words…even a level of intensity. Make! Serve! Come! Know! Enter! And why? Why do we do this? “For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” It’s all right there.  Five verses.  You could probably memorize it.

There’s a story in Luke 19 of Jesus entering into Jerusalem. It’s the triumphal entry. People are loud. They are making a joyful noise, shouting “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” They’re getting after it. And some of the Pharisees are there and they actually approach Jesus and tell Him to “rebuke” His disciples. They want His people to quiet down…they don’t want that scene to impact their standing with the Romans. And I love what Jesus tells them. In the text He doesn’t pause to think of something clever. He doesn’t ask them any questions. Of course, He definitely doesn’t tell the people to quiet down. Instead, He went a little different direction. In Luke 19:40 says, “He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.'”

If these were silent, the very stones would cry out. Do you hear that? If these were silent, the very stones would cry out. It’s important. If these were silent, the very stones would cry out. Don’t miss what He’s saying. If these were silent, the very stones would cry out.

Do you know what worries me? What worries me is that we are actually going to afford the stones the opportunity to cry out. It worries me that a generation of Christians is going to sit by, sleep in, stay at home, hide in the balcony, and wait…for the stones to cry out. While a fallen world is watching, the Christians are just going to be okay with showing up and sitting in a pew. Or worse…we’ll be so self-involved, so selfish, so tired…that we’ll just miss the whole thing.  And the stones…the stones are going to cry out in our place.  

May it never be!