How Big Are the Gates of Hell?

Does Size Matter?

I’m the pastor of a very small congregation. We probably couldn’t maintain our viability as a local church if we were any smaller.

Having pastored several churches of varying sizes, I’ve found that (at least when it comes to local expressions of the Body of Christ) size doesn’t matter. Sometimes the problems and challenges are a bit different, but the scope of the daily battle remains the same.jesus fish

To join our church, there are several vows one must take. One of them goes something like this: Will you resist evil in whatever guise it presents itself? The presumptive answer, of course, is “I will.” We all say, “I will.” Then we all proceed to personally add to the evil (even if it happens to be in small, innocuous ways). It’s called “being a sinner.”

I’m not slamming the church on this. I’m just as guilty as everyone else. I’m just pointing out that we all have our flaws. We all fall prey to temptation from time to time. In addition, we often think we’re mainly okay while the rest of the world is the problem.

“Who do you say I am?”

I only point this out because of something Jesus said a couple thousand years ago. Remember when he asked his disciples what people were saying about him? He specifically said, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” The disciples gave him a few differing answers that were floating out there among the hoi polloi.

Then he asked them, “Who do you say I am?” That’s when they got the big revelation. Peter immediately shot back, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

I’m not sure what the others thought, but Jesus seemed quite pleased and told Peter that God himself had given him that info. He hadn’t heard it from any human being.

Then, in the following conversation, he dropped the big announcement. He would build his church and, “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Think about that one for a minute or two.

I don’t care if you are part of a mega-church or a congregation of six people. Small churches are the same as large ones in this arena. We have been bolstered by the claim of God Almighty that we will defeat Hell.

“We are going to win because of one thing…”

To be quite honest, I’m not sure how big Hell (and its gates) happens to be. I am sure, however, that we will be victors over it. I’m just as sure it’s not going to be due to the fact that we’re bigger, stronger, better, or craftier than whatever creatures call Hades their domicile.

We are going to win because of one thing, and one thing only. That one thing is the person of Jesus Christ. Without him, I’m not interested in taking on the evil in my own life, let alone that which permeates the realm we call Hell.

The congregation I serve is sparse in number. But we’re winners. So are you if you belong to Jesus.

 

David Bowie and the Great Equalizer

david-bowieDavid Bowie…Glen Frey…Natalie Cole…Alan Rickman…Dan Haggerty…Abe Vigoda…Lawrence Phillips…Barney Hall…Kitty Kallen… You might recognize many of these names if you’re old enough. Even younger folks will recognize several of them.

If you watch the news closely, especially the obituaries, you’ll know one thing they have in common. They all died within the last several weeks (even days in some cases). Another thing they have in common is they were all celebrities.

It’s kind of amazing how we think some people should never die. We get caught by surprise when they do. This is particularly true of our celebrities.

We grew up idolizing them (or, at least, admiring them a lot). When they’re gone, it’s almost unbelievable. Sometimes, it can be really hard to accept.

“I was shocked to hear of David Bowie’s death.”

Then there are those close to us. Friends. Family. People we’ve know all, or most, of our lives. We don’t think they’re going to die. It sneaks up on us.

I was shocked to hear of David Bowie’s death. I didn’t know he had cancer, so it caught me by surprise. He’s just one example of that happening.

Several years ago, my wife and I were on vacation in Maui. We weren’t there long when we received a call that my Dad had suffered a heart attack.

“I just figured he’d be okay. He wasn’t.”

I’ve known many people who have experienced heart attacks, so I just figured he would be okay. He wasn’t.

DSC_0034We immediately made arrangements and flew home. He was in a coma for a week or so, and he finally passed. I never got to talk to him again. I surely didn’t expect that.

Why don’t we expect these things to happen? Why do we think they’ll never happen to us? People die every day…lots of people. We’re still shocked when it happens to someone we know or, at least, know a lot about.

I guess it would be morbid to expect death to be waiting around the corner. Yet everybody knows that we (and everyone we know) will die someday. Still, we seldom expect that day to be in the near future.

At least a couple of times each year, I head back to my hometown and have breakfast with some of my old high school buddies. The last time I did that, we had a conversation surrounding this topic.

One of these years, our number will shrink.

We acknowledged that, one of these years, our number would begin to shrink. At one of these get-togethers, sooner or later, one of us will be gone. It might even be me.

As one who believes Jesus is Lord, I’d like to think it’s no big deal. But it is. Even Jesus thought so.

When his good friend Lazarus died, he raised him from the dead. In fact, he raised others from the dead as well. Why bother?

emptytombHe bothered because he felt the pain of loss. He had compassion on others who did as well. Death is the great equalizer—even for Jesus.

But Jesus defeated death. He gives us resurrection, victory, and hope. Thanks be to God!

Angels in the Snow: Five Reasons to Pray for a Blizzard

The snowplow truck was finally able to navigate into our little street today. Even at that, it continually got stuck, necessitating several quick tows by another truck (which fortuitously accompanied it). Thirty-six inches of snow in one swell foop can be challenging.snowangel

My driveway is finally clear after several days of shoveling. I can tell you, I’m not going to miss the extra exercise.

Still, there were some very good things that arose from all the snow related angst around my neighborhood. Here were some of them.

We helped each other.

At first, it was “every man for himself.” It had to be that way because there was just too much snow. We couldn’t keep up with our own let alone help someone else. But after our driveways were cleared (four days later), we were getting together to dig out cars and mailboxes. That kind of cooperative work is a lot more fun than doing it by one’s self. Much laughing ensued.

I met Isaac.

While I was helping someone else, I saw a guy I didn’t know. I reached out my hand and said, “I’m Dave.” He shook my hand and said he was Isaac. I immediately said, “Laughter!” (That’s what the name, Isaac, means—see Genesis 21). He smiled and said yes. Then I referred to all the snow he was shoveling and said, “I bet you’re not laughing much right now.” I just couldn’t help myself.

I laid some foundation stones.

As one might imagine, the neighborhood kids were out in full force taking advantage of the seven-foot high piles of snow. When things got manageable, there were a few snowball fights (many of which, I was a part). Being considerably larger than most of them, I had the opportunity to pick them up, throw them in snow banks, and pile the white stuff on them (as they laughed hysterically). You never know when, in a difficult moment of their lives, the funny old man down the street might be someone they can talk to.

I learned some things.

Our neighborhood is a little transient. Consequently, I don’t know (or have even met) everyone. One such young neighbor had some loud and choice words for the dudes who manned the plow trucks. She apparently thought they should have gotten to our neighborhood a lot sooner than they did. I felt sorry for them. The very immensity of the job just didn’t allow for greater efficiency than they displayed. I learned we’d have to treat her extra nicely in the future. (I’m laughing on the inside.)

Laughter truly is the best medicine.

I don’t relish the aches and pains of the past few days. There were moments when it was pure agony for this old body. In fact, I’m still not fully recovered. Yet, there were moments of laughter, bonding, and warmth that will continue to help me become what I should be—a resident of Florida (just kidding).

The Calm After the Storm

snow_2The storm ended hours ago. The sun has actually come out the past two days and melted some snow (not much, however, since the temperatures have remained relatively low).

I still make treks out to the driveway to do my due diligence. Three feet of snow does not disappear easily. My next-door neighbor figured out that each of us had over 2000 cubic feet of snow on our drives. I reminded him that those figures do not include any drifting. If I were a mathematician, I would calculate the remainder. Alas, I have neither the skill nor the energy to do so.

“I shoveled for a couple more hours this morning.”

Suffice it to say, we’ve moved a lot of snow around here the past few days (and I’m not finished yet). On top of all that, the snowplows have not made a foray into our neighborhood since the storm subsided. At last report, everyone had run out of gasoline. As soon as they roll by, I’ll have a lot of heavy lifting to do at the end of my driveway. You know the drill.

I shoveled for a couple more hours this morning. I continued to do so until my body cried out against any more manual labor. I was literally getting sick.

I came into the house and drew a hot bath (haven’t taken one of those in years). I poured in some Epsom salts, turned on the jets, and soaked for a long time. Much Snow-Shovelto my surprise, I actually felt better when I was done. Still, it was a major project trying to crawl out of that tub.

Because of the pain, soreness, hard work, and weariness, I’ve felt sorry for myself a lot the past few days. But as I laid in that spa, I began to think about people who have it a lot worse than me—people who don’t get the relief I felt in the tub today.

For some reason, I thought of the people Saddam Hussein tortured and killed. I remembered the ones he had fed into a plastic chipper—feet first. What an awful way to die. Then I realized how good I have it…snowy driveway and all.

Sometimes it’s hard to count our blessings.

When things are tough, it can become hard to count our blessings. We can’t get past our immediate circumstances far enough to see our good fortune.

Once, the apostle Paul listed a whole slew of things he had to face. He mentioned being flogged, imprisoned, shipwrecked, hungry and thirsty, as well as various other dangers. At the end of the long list, he gave thanks for his weaknesses and trials because they made him strong in the Lord.

I have to admit, I never thought about becoming strong in the Lord while I was out shoveling all that snow. Having gotten away from it for a few hours, though, I have to agree with Paul. Somehow, the Lord is going to strengthen me in my difficulties and weaknesses. At least, that’s what I’m counting on.snowangel

Snowpocalypse Now!

snowpocalypeThe Good Lord just dumped three feet of snow in my driveway (give or take a few inches—mostly give). This blog is late because I couldn’t move from the couch long enough to type. Even now, my arthritic fingers are screaming in pain with every keystroke. Oh, the humanity!

I don’t remember how many times I went out during (and after) the two-day storm to shovel. I DO remember that each time I prepared to go out, my old body kept shouting in agony for me to stay in by the fire.

In between two of our shoveling sessions, my darling wife and I indulged in a hot meal. As we bowed to ask for God’s blessing, a strange thing came out of my mouth.

“Get behind me, Satan!”

During the grace, I thanked God for the snow. As soon as that phrase came out of my mouth, I was asking myself where that came from. Immediately after saying, “Amen,” I almost quoted the Scripture in which Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan!”

Before I could get that out, Denise asked, “Thanks for the snow?” She obviously knew the pain I was in and the mixed emotions I was struggling to hide.

FrozenBeardThat’s when the “pastor” in me arose. I promptly replied, “Give thanks in all circumstances.” And there it was—all out on the table (or the kitchen island, as it were). I was giving thanks for something I hate.

It’s not that I hate the gift of snow. It’s quite beautiful and fascinating. I do, however, hate the shoveling, the pain, and the feeling of immobility that follows. Yet, I give thanks—not sure why, but I do.

Church services were cancelled yesterday. Getting to the site of our corporate worship would not have been worth the struggle or the danger of traveling under such conditions. In the midst of one of my digging expeditions, I joked with my neighbor that, “Preaching is much more fun.” I laughed, but I meant every word of it.

“The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.”

I worked hard on Sunday. Excavated in my driveway twice more. The sun had come out by this time, and the snow was getting ever heavier. It was so bright, I had to wear sun glasses. My body, wracked with pain, was giving thanks (thanks that the snowfall had ceased, and thanks that the quarry was beginning to slowly disappear). There was light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

As I conclude, I’m trying to think of a reason for this whole thing. What’s the moral of the story? There are things I’d like to say that my body still won’t allow. What’s the silver lining in all of this?

Meanwhile-In-NorwayI’ve seen times in the news where people have hurricane parties. Yesterday evening, some of us in the hood had a chili party. From that perspective, I could truly give thanks—even for snow.

I’m thankful that, “the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.” And I’m praying that he taketh away all this snow…ASAP.

Chapel Declares State of Emergency

DaveShovelingSmith Chapel UMC of Northern Virginia has declared a state of emergency today. We’re not sure if the National Guard will come, but we won’t be there anyway.

Due to the ever accumulating snow, worship for Sunday, January 24, is hereby cancelled. If you want corporate worship tomorrow, you’re on your own (we know, that’s somewhat of an oxymoron).

JeepReadyPastor thinks he can still get there in his Jeep, but also realizes he may be on his own. Everyone else will probably be out shoveling snow.

This brings up a great idea, however. Instead of watching a Law & Order marathon (or some such thing), go to Pulpit Man.com and listen to one of the dozens of Pastor Dave’s sermons to be found there. In fact, you could download several of them to your iPod and listen while you’re shoveling. A sermon marathon is almost as good as being there!

JFrozenBeardust a thought…not a sermon (sorry Lon Solomon).

Sure! Just Jump Right In There!

Yesterday, I was at one of the big box stores. Always a treat… There is a whopper OrganicBeefof a snowstorm predicted for this weekend, so I thought I’d beat the rush and pick up my milk and toilet paper a few days early. Silly me.

The place was packed. As always, people were lost in their own little worlds, blocking aisles, and just generally getting in each other’s way.

To add to the pandemonium, the store had various tasting tables set up here and there. I was avoiding these stations like the plague until this wonderful aroma hit my olfactory nerves. I looked ahead and saw a sign that said, “100% Organic, Grass-fed Beef.” Well… I couldn’t pass that up.

It was beginning to smell like Heaven.

As you might guess, people were jamming around this particular tasting station like an oasis in the desert. I kept telling myself to be patient. Act like the humble Christian you’re supposed to be. Everyone else has just as much a right to these freebies as you.

So I waited in line…patiently. I waited while the people in front of me not only got a sample, but also stayed and grazed for a while. It definitely started getting to me, and I grew a tad irritated. But I kept telling myself to be patient. After all, it’s only 100% organic, grass-fed beef (that was beginning to smell like Heaven itself).grass-fed-beef-eating

Then the gentleman directly in front of me decided he had sated himself and wanted to pull out of the line (thank goodness). But he didn’t merely pull out. He asked me to back my cart up so he could assume the position behind his cart and push it out. He wouldn’t just pull it out from the side. Despite being overly annoyed by his request, I did so at the peril of losing my place in line.

As soon as he vacated his spot, I deftly rushed my cart into his formerly occupied space and grabbed a piece of beef like it was a gold ingot. They were offering five different varieties of sausage, but I didn’t want to follow suit of the people preceding me. So I decided to continue on my way (but not before grabbing the one on the very end which looked particularly delish).

Sure! Just jump right in there!

As I was making my way to said sample (and mind you, this only took a few seconds), a guy appeared out of nowhere, pushed in front of me, and grabbed a piece of beef. By this time I could take no more. I developed a deep need to say something (so I did). “Sure! Just jump right in there!” (One of my best playground taunts…) GrassFed

He immediately retorted, “Sure, just clog up the aisle!” Incensed, I replied, “I’ve been waiting in line for five minutes, man!” I have to say, it felt good.

I immediately thought of the apostle Paul’s words in Romans 7:24. “What a wretched man I am!” Still in need of a Savior after all these years.

Thirty-Eight Year Locusts

 

I recently heard a statistic that blew me away. It concerned the Christian locustsdenomination of which I’ve been a member for the past thirty-six years. I’m changing the name to protect the guilty.

The average attendee of The Church of Our-Lady-Down-by-the-Gas-Station invites someone to worship once every thirty-eight years. Just allow that to sink in for a moment or two. Every thirty-eight years… I guess that means I’ll need to invite someone within the next two years to keep up with the Jones’s. (Just kidding. I think I’ve surpassed my thirty-eight year requirement.)

“Why do you keep going yourself?”

The whole thing is quite amazing to me (regardless of how accurate or inaccurate that statistic may be). It means that church folks aren’t excited enough about their own expression of faith to share it with others. My question to them is, “Why do you keep going yourself?”

Their answers are many and varied. Their excuses are lame (when they even have excuses). People show their true colors when they rationalize their lack of enthusiasm.

“Do you realize what you’ve just said?”

I’ll give you a perfect example. I’ve had many people tell me over the years they wouldn’t invite their adult children to their worship services. Why? Usually they say something like, “They wouldn’t fit in,” or “Our services aren’t what would attract them.” Really…

ChocCoveredLocustDo you realize what you’ve just said? You’ve just admitted that your worship is basically unimaginative, uninspiring, and/or uninviting. If that’s the case, I’ll ask again. Why do you keep going yourself? Worship styles (as well as congregational cultures) can be changed. Does your congregation have to get old and die in order for it to grow?

Furthermore, if your worship is so drab, boring, and irrelevant, whose fault is it? I know the immediate answer for most is either, “The Pastor’s,” or “The leadership.” If that’s your answer, then I will quickly tell you this. You’ve abdicated your responsibilities. Your pastor and leadership can only do so much. You’re wearing them out with your unreasonable expectations.

“I wouldn’t invite my next door neighbor.”

Here’s another example. “I wouldn’t invite my next door neighbor.” Why? The answers to this one are myriad. “I don’t want him to see me like that,” or “I don’t like him,” or “He’s a nice guy, but he’s not our type.” There are many more, but I don’t want to embarrass anyone.

There’s an old saying. If you find the perfect congregation, don’t join—you’ll ruin it. The church is a very imperfect, human institution. We should be constantly changing, growing, and evolving to fit the times, the culture around us, and the needs of our neighbors (anyone remember the Good Samaritan?). We i_love_locustsdon’t need to jettison our principles and ethics to do so. Some of our stale traditions might suffer, but those can be “small taters” compared to the souls that could be won to the Kingdom of God.

If you aren’t interested enough to invite others, maybe some change is in order. That change may have to begin in your own heart.

Rahab & the Bible’s Red Light District

RahabHow many of you remember the Old Testament character named Rahab? She was an early professional (in what is known as the worlds’ oldest profession). As the story goes, Joshua sent two spies into Jericho to case the Jericho. They ended up staying at the home of Rahab.

The Bible doesn’t say whether Rahab’s home was a cathouse (or as it is also known, a house of ill repute). Chances are, however, it was. It just stands to reason.

The Bible doesn’t mention if the two spies engaged in any seemly activities while they were there, either. I won’t speculate, but I have my suspicions.

The thrust of the story is that Rahab hid the Israelite spies and covered for them. In return, when the Hebrew army took Jericho, she and her household were spared. Her home was marked with a red cord to alert the soldiers which home was hers.

My ancestry is not in question.

When Jericho fell (literally), Rahab and her family were taken in to live with the Israelites. In a New Testament genealogy, she is listed in the family tree of Jesus. I’d say that was quite an honor for a woman of the night.

When God appeared in the flesh, he could have come through any line of people he chose. For some reason, he did it through a prostitute. This gives me great hope.

I’m not sure if there are any such women in my family tree, but if it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.rahab1

But it’s not my ancestry that’s in question. It’s me. I’m no better than Rahab. If she could end up in a position of Biblical distinction, I should have a shot at holding down a spot in God’s Kingdom as well.

The point is the Lord doesn’t seem to be picky. He chose a lot of losers to be a part of his family, his circle of friends, and his followers. In fact, compared to him, we’re all losers (with a capital “L”).

A lot of folks don’t think they’re good enough to be included in God’s Kingdom. They believe they have sinned too much, strayed too far, and fallen off the deep end too often. From what I see in Scripture, that’s just not true.

An inspiration of the other kind.

On the other end of that, there are a lot of folks in the church that seem to agree with them. They consider these “evil doers” to be forever lost. What a crock! How can someone who has been touched by an angel (so to speak) withhold that experience from anyone else? They should be out helping people discover that experience.

Rahab is an inspiration. She was obviously nobody special. Just the opposite is true, in fact. Yet she is now known for her bravery, her discernment, and her willingness to be obedient to the will of the one, true God.

I think I’m going to tie a red cord around the banister on my front porch.  rahab2

You Are Not Alone: Random Thoughts from an Introverted Preacher

Loner

I tend to be a loner—a very private person.  I grew up hearing from my parents, “That’s nobody’s business but ours.”  In other words, no one else needs to know our concerns.  What we do is confidential. It’s not for public consumption.  I took that concept and ran with it…probably to an extreme.

Introvert

Part of my problem (if you can call it that) is that I’m an introvert. One of the cruel jokes of ministry is that 85% of all pastors are introverts. (I’m convinced that is part of the curse dropped on us in IntrovertsUnitethe Garden of Eden. Just a wild guess, of course.)

I’ve worked hard (and continue to do so) at overcoming my introversion. Since it’s built into my personality, I will probably never completely overcome it. But I’ve done a relatively decent job of covering it up.

Actually, I really enjoy other people…just not too many and for too long. I’m telling you, it’s part of the curse.

Community

One of the central themes of the Bible is the communal nature of the church…koinonia (Greek for fellowship or community). Loners have a hard time with that. It becomes necessary for us to break out of our mold. We have to work at being more open and accepting. One of the hardest things for me as a Christian has always been the inclusion of the whole church in my life. Even as a pastor I still work on that one.

I Am Second

There is a really good website called I Am Second. My youngest son turned me on to this a few years ago.  I like to go back to it from time to time, because it’s a great site to remind us that we are truly not alone.

People

I sometimes joke that the church would be great if it wasn’t for the people.  Obviously, that’s absurd on its face.  Without people there is no church.

SawYouLastWeedChristianity is a little paradoxical in its ability to tolerate others.  On the one hand, you can’t even be considered a member of the church unless you believe in Jesus.  That sounds a little intolerant.  On the other hand, if you believe in Jesus, we can tolerate almost anything else about you.

Where some people make their mistake is when they confuse tolerance and love.  We are commanded to love everyone, not tolerate them. Loving from a distance is not really an option, though.

Preaching to the Masses

What’s really strange is this. The bigger the crowd, the easier it is for me to preach. Explain that one to me. A crowded party drains the energy right out of me. A crowded worship service gets me juiced up (spiritually speaking). Could it be because I don’t have to look at one person too long? Inquiring minds want to know.

Down Time

This was easy to write because I’m alone right now.