Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Share your Story!

One of the imperatives we have as followers of Jesus Christ is to be witnesses. In Acts 1:8 Jesus tells the early Church to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth. We can point others to the witness of the scriptures and we can also share with others how God has been active in our own lives. The early Church was primarily about the business of sharing their stories of their encounters with Jesus.
During this sermon series we've heard some incredible stories of transformation in the lives of people from our own church family. I've shared a story of my own struggles in written form and Pastor Michael shared in last week's sermon his own story of transformation. There are thousands of stories out there of God's work in our lives. Don't keep these stories to yourself! Share them! Be witnesses to our church family and to the world of the work that God has done in your life!

You might feel like your particular story isn't dramatic enough to submit. You might ask yourself "How is my story going to help anyone else?" Don't limit yourself from being used by God. God has acted in your life for a reason and when you share your story, you are being a witness to His power in your life and giving Him the glory. You can record your own story using a webcam or video camera, or make a written submission, but act now!

You can follow this link to view the stories that have been shared already and to submit your own.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Confession of this Pastor's Idolatry

This essay was originally written as an assignment at Reformed Theological Seminary in a course entitled Classics of Personal Devotion taught by Dr. Frank James. The assignment was to reflect, as Augustine of Hippo did in his famous Confessions, on a sin or confession of our own. I share it now as our church body examines idols this week as an example of how at the root of all surface sins lies idolatry, some ultimate love besides our God.

When contemplating the multitude of sins that encompass my life in order to find a particular incident worthy of review in mimicry of the great theologian Augustine I am struck, as if by a stone in the forehead, by the irony of my so-called dilemma. I agonize over finding a sin of sufficient worth to have a reflection. I’m looking for the most magnanimous sin I can find in my past. The best sin in my arsenal to fit this exercise of the mind. It’s like looking into a dark covered canvas and trying to pick out the black stroke that means the most. Can there be intrinsic value to sin? Can we say that it is good to sin in order that we might learn from our sin? Everything to my core rebels against this thought, that sin is related to good, and yet we are told that all is done within His purpose. If God is sovereign then as ghastly as it may seem and as contrary to my gut feeling as it may be, sin can be and is used for good purpose. Sin exists, and His good purpose prevails. In an effort, therefore, to make another good out of a sin I turn to my past for I am far too cowardly to reflect on, or rather expose, any recent sin.
The event occurred nine years ago. I was on a camp field trip to the burgeoning metropolis of Chattanooga, Tennessee. It may not seem like a metropolis to many but, to a group of fifteen year old boys who had been living in the mountains for near a month, there seemed more activity and people than any of us could remember. The camp was, and still is, a Christian camp for boys and this was my seventh and last year as a camper. Seven years of a month each summer spent in the company of godly men who gave me the gospel every morning, every evening, and living it during all the times in between. I thought I was a Christian before I arrived at the camp and I was no different when I left, but little did I know that I was in reality a slave to my own self-righteousness and even more so to the approval of man. I was not a follower of Christ then. I had no relationship with Him. All I could say of the boy then was he was a well informed pagan, which made my conversion all the more difficult. Lord, open my eyes and my tongue as I recount what happened. Show me as I confess and heal me of this sin, this idolatry of my heart.

We were on a field trip to watch a baseball game. The stands were full of the familiar sounds and smells. I was surrounded by counselors and friends that liked me for all I could tell. I had done whatever was necessary to have their approval, their friendships, and I was happy. Near the latter innings the skies darkened and it began to rain. The game was postponed and some number of men ran out on the field dragging a large blue tarp over the infield to prevent excessive water from soaking the ground. I and my friends could care less that the game wasn’t being played for us, though our attentions shifted to the blue tarp. One boy suggested that the tarp looked like a giant “slip and slide”. Another, near me, said “Let’s go run out on the field and slide on it.” I told a nearby counselor that we were going to do it. He smiled and laughed and said “Go ahead”. He would regret his error in judgment later, because we called his bluff. I and two other boys went down to where we could jump over the railing and onto the field. There was hesitation in one of the other boy’s eyes but I overlooked it. I thought in my mind: technically the counselor said we could, I have the permission, the approval of someone in authority.

 We counted. One, two, a deep breath, three. We leaped the rail and began a full out sprint at first base. I noticed in my peripheral that I was running faster than the other two boys so I looked back. In fact we had not leaped the rail, I had leaped the rail, alone. It was too late to turn back as I leaped at first base and slid halfway the distance to second. I got up, soaked and shaking from the cold water to hear the entire crowd of the stadium cheer for me. My heart was beating like a rabbit and I started to run back towards the stands as men in yellow trench coats started to chase me down. I made it into the crowd only to be roughly grabbed and escorted out of the stadium by an obtuse stern lady who must have worked there. I didn’t care, the game was over anyway, and soon we would be on the way back to camp. I wasn’t in any serious trouble by worldly standards. On the bus ride home the other boys started to cheer for me but the head counselor put a stop to that immediately. Only then, with the disapproving looks of the counselors did I realize that what I had done may not have been so good.

When we had returned to camp I had to speak with the director of the camp, who was the ultimate authority figure in the microcosm of the world that was camp, and he too was disappointed. There was no punishment except that the most prestigious award given to the best of the best campers was to be taken away from me. I would have been one of only a handful to receive it for this term, I was told, but due to these actions that was no longer a possibility. I resolved to be the best I could be, seeking approval everywhere, and hope that I would be forgiven. I wasn’t forgiven, at least of the punishment, and I was hurt for a number of years, unable to let go of the disapproval until I came to Christ some eight years later.
The sin then was the sin that was the undercurrent of my entire life. I had been taught the fear of man, not the fear of the Lord. My actions were based entirely on what pleased those around me even though I would, especially as I grew older, continually lie to myself and say that I did not care what anyone thought. In truth I defined myself by what other people thought. In any given situation I was a different person, a ship tossed about on waves depending on which way the waves crashed. I had no foundation other than to latch on to those around me. Therefore at a Christian camp I flourished because it was easy to get the love of Christians. All I had to do was understand the basics of the faith and act like everyone else. I was great at mimicking and terrible at standing up for anything unless I knew that the action in and of itself would bring more praise. I was a Pharisee for hire to anyone who would show me affection. 
When the boys wanted to see someone slide across the tarp at the baseball game it became my desire to fulfill their want, to please them. These thoughts did not cross my mind at the time. I was blind and thinking only: they are right; this is fun. When a counselor gave me the go ahead I needed little else to propel me. I had the approval of my peers and also of an older person. If I could ever please older people, even at the cost of displeasing people of my own age or younger, that was the order of the day. Instead of thinking of a relationship of Christ, of pleasing my Lord instead of His subjects, I worshipped my idol of man’s praise and ran out onto the field. The praise of men multiplied when the throngs of people yelled for me. How could I have been happier than in that moment of praise? Thousands of people were praising me simultaneously and in worshiping my friends I was now being worshiped. How far from God I was at this moment in my life, caught and enslaved in the chains of my own creation. I sought after my own glorification and my own praise. I had exchanged the glory of God for the glory of myself. My every motive was to earn praise from men. That day I had a grand success in achieving my desires which now makes the moment that much more poignant and clarifying as to the sin I was mired in.
I felt no remorse until I was chastised by those around me and even then I did not feel bad because of my action. I only felt guilty because I did not receive their praise. I had done something wrong because these people who usually praised me for my actions were condemning me. I was confused. Hadn’t one of the counselor’s said “Go ahead”? Is he not responsible for me? How could I possibly be responsible for my actions? I sought to lay the blame at another’s doorstep but it wouldn’t be done. In the end I blamed those who punished me for judging me unrighteous and questioned their righteousness since they were unwilling to forgive my action. Forgive me God for my self-righteousness then and my inability to admit my wrong. I did not admit responsibility nor did I understand that any sin had been committed in my deed. After all, I thought, all things are lawful according to Paul. What I was blind to was the motive behind my actions, my heart idolatry that was the root of my action. The action in and of itself could be claimed to be not a sin were it done for different motives. It, and everything else I did, however was done for my own glory. My escapade was done for my own praise and so was my repentance.
I repented to myself and did works to earn the forgiveness and praise of those who had punished me. I thought that if I lived the rest of my time at camp trying harder to please than I had ever before then I would regain my place. I would be praised by my counselors again. I had the praise of most of the boys who had been on the trip and those who hadn’t. Even some counselors secretly admired the boldness in the action I had followed, but it wasn’t enough for me. I needed those who set the rules, those who set the standards, to worship and praise me for my efforts. Some counselors fell for my empty works and praised me for my new “selfless” actions, but these actions were done for nothing more than selfishness. I had twisted Your Word and thought that to do works, to do the things the counselors had taught me, was to do good. In fact I could do no good. All I did was in vain worship of me and seeking to curry more praise from those around me.

I worshipped myself and I continued to do so after I left camp. My actions changed as those who were around me changed. Whomever I needed to please was the basis for how I acted and what I did. Past morals and codes were replaced with new ones based on whom I was trying to please. I wanted to please in order to gain their praise. I wanted myself worshipped at any cost though I was blind to my deeper motives. Forgive me Lord for this deep sin, this seeking after myself and turning away from you. This moment, this reflection has brought to surface the true ugliness of my former life. Only in You have I been freed from serving others, from seeking praise of myself. Only in You can I be humbled. I confess this sin and humble myself before You. I am not worthy of praise, neither are other men. I praise You and worship You alone.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Go to Haiti this Summer with Pastor Samuel!

I'm so excited to share that Trinity will be taking a trip to visit one of our three partners in Haiti. CODEP, which stands for COmprehensive Development Project, is located in southern Haiti and is an excellent opportunity to connect with our Haitian brothers and sisters as we experience the global body of Christ and to learn about redevelopment mission. CODEP has recently updated their website and it looks great. I encourage you to visit there to get a fuller picture of what CODEP is all about, but here's a summary from their website:

CODEP works with 30 small communities and 600 Haitian farmers (200 of whom are women) to improve the their lives and those of their families.  Accomplishments include:
Planting over 7 million trees since 2000.
Digging over 1,000 miles of contour ditches to prevent further erosion.
Installing/Building over 100 cisterns and almost 90 houses as incentive awards since 2000.
Installing and operating over 30 fishponds as aids to protein dietary enrichment.
Impacting the lives of over 50,000 people in the Léogâne Commune.
Last year, when we visited CODEP, I was able to write two blog posts about Day 1 and Day 2 of our visit, and post many pictures, but soon was overwhelmed and wasn't able to digitally share the rest of the trip. If you are interested those links still might be helpful to give you an idea of what a trip to CODEP in Haiti would be like. 

This year our trip has 10 spots, 5 of which have already been filled! I'm very excited that Scott and Tricia Jordan, who lead worship at the 9:00 AM service, will be joining us this year. We will be leaving for Haiti on July 13 and returning on July 20th. Currently the cost is limited to paying for any immunizations that you may desire (here's the CDC's recommendations), bringing with you your own two meals a day (one large meal a day is provided by CODEP) along with any snacks, and any spending money you might want to use on local Haitian goods. 

This is an incredible, low cost, entry level mission trip. I hope you'll consider joining the team! We'll be ordering tickets as soon as these last 5 spots fill and then planning on a few meetings to help prepare us to go, share, learn, and be of support to our mission partner in Haiti. Email me at sweems@trinitypres.net or comment below for more information.