Wildwood Community Church Update: May 10, 2020

Wildwood Update 5/10/20

Hello Wildwood!  We deeply miss seeing you!  This COVID-19 situation has physically separated us as a church family for nearly two months now … and we can’t wait to be able to gather together again!  As you know, local guidelines are set to loosen this coming weekend making it possible for Wildwood to resume some form of our “in person” gatherings beginning May 17.  After much prayer and reflection, the Elders and staff leadership are excited to outline what returning to “in person” services will look like over the next few weeks.

The Livestream will Continue!

Though Wildwood has hosted a livestream since September 2018, the past 2 months have seen this service reach greater and greater numbers of people.  We estimate that 2,000+ people have worshipped with us each of the past few Sundays, with about twice that number joining us on Easter Sunday.  Literally people from all over the world have gathered with us each Sunday for our stream.  Knowing that many will still not be able to join us on Sunday mornings in person going forward (for a variety of reasons), we will continue to offer the Livestream each Sunday, but moving the time to 9:30AM Central Time beginning May 17.  This earlier time will be more convenient for many, PLUS the service will be available to join anytime after 9:30AM throughout the rest of the week.  This will enable those who worship with us online to continue to do so going forward.  As always, our Livestream is available at wildwoodchurch.org/live .  If you are a member of a vulnerable population (over 65 years old, have an underlying health condition, or take care of someone in one of those categories), or if there are other factors that make you leery about going to a live event – PLEASE join us on the livestream!

An “In Person” Outdoor Service will be Held at 11:00AM

Beginning May 17, we will host an “in person” outdoor worship service at 11AM  in Wildwood’s back parking lot (nearest our Children’s Entrance) at 1501 24th Ave. NE.  This service will have the exact same sermon, worship singing, and content as the livestream, but will allow us to gather physically as a congregation.  Why are we gathering outside?  Well, the physical distancing requirements at this phase of “re-opening,” are still prohibitive enough that we cannot accommodate as many people indoors as outdoors.  Additionally, the open air environment prevents some of the sanitation concerns that might be felt indoors at this early stage.  We are working on long term plans to enhance the safety and sanitation of our building allowing us to accommodate more folks in a better way indoors should these restrictions continue.  In the mean time, we will gather outdoors for an hour of worship beginning May 17!  We anticipate being in this outdoor format for the 3 remaining Sundays in May (May 17, 24, 31), and will reevaluate the plan for future phases over the next couple of weeks.  Stay tuned, and thank you for your flexibility!

What about “In Person” Children’s Ministry, Student Ministry, or Adult Group Programming?

As we gather outdoors starting on May 17, we are sad to say that our Children’s, Student, and Adult classes will not be held “in person” but will remain online.  We can’t wait to physically bring these options back as we know that the ministry God does through those groups is greatly significant.  Know that we are encouraged by how God is using these ministries online right now, and we are committed to bringing these back “in person” as soon as we can.  In the meantime, find resources for how to connect and grow for all age levels at wildwoodchurch.org/athome .  Stay tuned for more details!

What to Expect as you gather on May 17 Outside:

  • Please bring your own lawn chair or folding chair to sit on. 
  • We will be set up in a parking lot, so you can lay a blanket down, but know it will be on top of asphalt, and not soft underneath.
  • We will post song lyrics for the weekend to our website and our YouVersion Bible app “event.”  You can either access them there electronically, or print them before you come.
  • Consider showing up 15 minutes early, as it may take a bit longer to get situated.
  • Our service will be mostly  “touchless:”  no bulletins, offering baskets, refreshments, or handshakes from our greeting teams.  Our children’s team will have some ziplock bags with activities and things for your kids available for any interested.
  • Our restrooms in the Children’s Lobby will be available for use as needed.  Doors into the building will be propped open at the children’s entrance to keep people from opening  and closing doors unnecessarily if they need to enter to use the restrooms.  
  • Our water fountains will not be operational at this time, so bring a drink if you need one.
  • With outside programming, rain could prove a problem.  Check Wildwood’s website on the morning of the event to see if weather is impacting our schedule … or sign up for Wildwood Text Notifications by texting “Wildwood1” to 95577 to get notified of changes.
  • In concert with the CDC guidelines, we will:
  • Keep 6 feet of physical separation between family groups.  Please be respectful of other’s personal space during this season.
  • All our staff and volunteers will be wearing a mask when not on stage.
  • We strongly encourage you (though not require you) to wear a mask as an expression of your love for others.  The primary reason to wear a mask is to protect vulnerable people around you if you would happen to be an asymptomatic carrier of the virus.  
  • If you are sick or have knowingly come into contact with a COVID-19 positive person in the past 14 days, please stay home and join us for the livestream.
  • If you are over 65 years old, are a member of an at risk population, or live with someone in one of those categories, you are encouraged to continue to join us from home via the livestream.
  • We will have hand sanitizer available.

How can we help you?

  • We would love to pray for you during this time.  If you have a prayer request, please go to wildwoodchurch.org/pray and let us know how we can be praying for you!  
  • You can also use that prayer request online form above to let us know about any needs inside our church family that we might be able to help meet. 

Anything else?

Friends, these are extraordinary times, and the emotional, physical, relational, and financial toll is significant.  Additionally, there is a lot of uncertainty around the COVID-19 situation that has led people to differing convictions about how to respond.  The above plan is not perfect, but it is an attempt to call all of us to worship together (as we are able) in this time and season.  The online service will remain a GREAT FIT for those who are either unable or feel it is unwise to gather in groups for worship.  The outside service allows us to gather the most people in the safest way.  Again, both services will have the same content and we want you to choose the option that best fits your family at this time.  We are praying for you, for our city, for our state, for our nation, and for the world at this time of crisis.  

As different members of our church come to differing convictions about how best to live in this “new normal,” we would encourage ALL of us to be generous, gracious, and unified with one another.  While we may disagree concerning our views on COVID-19, all believers in Jesus are UNIFIED IN HIM!  As Jesus prays for us in John 17:20-21, “I do not ask for these [the original 12 disciples] only, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word [us], that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me.”  May this prayer of Jesus ring in our ears and reign over us in our interactions with one another throughout this season!

May we follow Jesus together to the glory of God now and always!  

In Christ,

The Elders of Wildwood Community Church

NOTE:  This plan is subject to change as new information becomes available.

Growing Up? (Part 2) Sermon Questions, Audio, Video

On Sunday, May 3, 2020 at Wildwood Community Church, I preached a sermon based on John 13:34-35.  This message was part 2 in the “Growing Up?” series.  Below you will find questions related to the sermon for group discussion or personal reflection, and the audio/video from the sermon to listen to/watch, download or share.

Sermon Questions:

  1. Pray
  2. Read John 13:34-35
  3. What are some of the ways you have seen communication and connection with people get MORE DIFFICULT during this season?  Why have you persevered  to “pay the cost” to communicate in these ways?  What does that tell you about the way we were created?
  4. Jesus lets His disciples know that they are to love one another in the same way that Jesus loves them.  Based on that call, look at the following questions below, and evaluate your “love for one another”?
  • Do you serve, or expect to be served? 
  • Do you point others to the Truth? 
  • Do you pray for & pursue unity? 
  • Do you die to self for sake of others? 
  • Do you “show up”? 
  • Do you forgive? 
  • Do you involve others in your world?  
  1. Jesus says that His followers should be known by all for their love for one another.  How do you think Christians are most known today?
  2. The New Testament writers provide many “one another” commands.  See the lists of those “one another’s” below (in the images).  Do any of these particularly challenge you at this time?
  3. What stands out to you most from this passage?  Any particular takeaway?

To access these questions in pdf format, click here.

 

To listen to sermon audio offline, click link to download:

Growing Up? #2 5.3.20

 

To listen to sermon audio online, use the media player below:

 

To watch the sermon video, use YouTube video linked below:

 

Growing Up? (part 2) Sermon Preview

Why is social distancing so hard?  Well, it is hard for a number of reasons.

  1. It is challenging because it makes it impossible for some of us to see our family, if they are in a vulnerable population or live in a care facility or are hospitalized.
  2. It is challenging because it makes it harder for some to do their vocations.  How do you educate from a distance?  Scores of teachers around the world are trying to figure that out right now!  How do you best lead worship services through livestreams?  Our team has evaluated and iterated on that process for two months now.  Many of you are wrestling through this in your businesses as well.  It is doable, but it is harder.
  3. It is challenging because it keeps you from gathering together with your friends.  Safer at home orders have forced people to communicate primarily through a screen.  We are thankful for that opportunity, but is is also somewhat 2-D.  You can add depth … but it is harder.
  4. It is challenging because when the meeting is over, the meeting is over.  Everyone clicks out of their screen.  No lingering in the lobby, no conversations in the parking lot, etc.  You an have a follow up phone call, but you may not have their number … it is just harder.
  5. It is challenging because humor is hard in this environment.  You can deliver a GREAT JOKE in a  conversation … your “A” material … and it goes unnoticed because you had the mute button on!  Dang it!

Social distancing is hard for lots of reasons.  But even though it is hard to communicate in this environment, we still do it, don’t we?  We put up with Zoom calls.  We tolerate extra time on the phone.  We may have even written hand written notes and mailed them to friends for the first time in years.  We put masks on and have our temperature scanned so we can go to work.  WHY?  Why are we allowing the cost to communicate to be raised, and yet we are still willing to pay it?

Well, I think there is a biblical answer to this question.  We were made for each other.  It was not good for Adam to be alone in the Garden, and it is not good for you to be alone in this life.  

I recently read about Vietnam prisoners of war who developed elaborate ways to communicate with each other while they were kept in solitary confinement for weeks on end.  Why?  Because they just needed that interaction.

Thankfully, while public health concerns can lead us to PHYSICAL DISTANCE, we will still find ways to be SOCIAL, because that is what we were created to do.

This Sunday at Wildwood Community Church, we will be talking more about how we can grow through this pandemic in our spiritual lives by growing in our love for others … even though the physical distance is high … even when it is hard.  We do it, because we were made for it.

Jesus Himself said, “They will know you are My disciples by the way you love one another.”  This Sunday, we will talk about how we are made to “one another” one another in part two of our “Growing Up?” sermon series.  Hope to see you there on the livestream at wildwoodchurch.org/live at 11AM.

Living in the Shadow …

James grew up in Jesus’ shadow.  Literally.  I mean what must it have been like to be the younger brother of Jesus of Nazareth?  Jesus is the only child EVER to always honor His father and mother.  Like a white font on a black background, James’ normal struggles with obedience and development would have stood out SO MUCH as a second child.  Jan Brady had it easy compared to this guy!

As James grew up, he struggled to understand who his brother really was.  John 7:5 lets us know that James did not believe in Jesus as the Son of God during Jesus’ earthly life.  It would take a lot to convince your brother that you were divine.

However, eventually James became convinced.  Eventually James became SO CONVINCED that Jesus was who He said He was, that James became a leader in the “JESUS IS GOD” movement.  The book of Acts (and the history it writes down) records how for many years James led the First Church of Jerusalem – the very epicenter of Christianity.  

What happened to change James’ mind?  Did He hear Jesus preach a great sermon?  Well, yes, but that isn’t when the change happened.  Did He see Jesus heal sick people?  Well, yes, but that isn’t what the catalyst was either.  What was it?  It was the empty tomb.  The resurrection of Jesus Christ changed James’ entire life AND his eternity.  His perspective was no longer bound to this world, but had him looking beyond and looking up.  

Now, as the Pastor of the church in Jerusalem, James’ flock was experiencing some rough times.  Church members had been beaten (Acts 5), martyred for their faith (Acts 7), and imprisoned (Acts 12).  To make matters worse, a famine had settled in over the land of Judea, bringing hunger and poverty to the people.  On a couple of occasions the Apostle Paul raised funds from churches in Antioch or Europe to bring resources back to the starving church James’ pastored.  Times were tough.  The Jerusalem church was experiencing (as James said in James 1:2) – “trials of various kinds.”  Given the partial list I just mentioned … that is an understatement!  

So James, directed and empowered by the Holy Spirit, shepherded his flock through that season of crisis.  And not only them, but he wrote a letter that he mailed to Jewish Christians living everywhere around the world at that time, because the principles they were learning in their church applied to all followers of Jesus who were in the midst of crisis.  Thankfully, by God’s grace, this letter that James wrote has been preserved and included in our Bibles as the Epistle of James.  

As people who live today in the midst of crisis, we NEED this message.

So what does James tell us in his letter?  Well, he tells us:

  • Pray to God and ask Him to give us His perspective on our trials so we can be joyful (James 1:2-8).
  • Be obedient to God’s Word in the midst of our trials.  Instead of just reading blogs or listening to podcasts (nothing wrong with either of those… but they are not enough) we are to OBEY God’s word.  We are to be activated, not just educated!  (James 1:19-27)
  • Be impartial toward people – treat the rich and the poor the same.   In a church where resources were tight, there would have been temptations to cater to the rich … James warns against it (James 2:1-13)
  • Allow trials to demonstrate what we REALLY BELIEVE by what we REALLY DO in the midst of this crisis (James 2:14-26)
  • Tame our tongues in the midst of the crisis.  We are all tempted to sin with our words, but in crisis and stress, the temptation is magnified.  Gossip, boasting, mean-spirited criticism, and the like are all too common at this time.  Be careful with what you say (or type … or tweet … or post) during this season.  May our words glorify God in this crisis as they demonstrate our faith in God and our love for one another. (James 3:1-4:12)
  • Allow this current crisis to clarify our perspective about the future.  We are tempted to think that we can control things when times are good, but when calamity comes, we are reminded that we are not in charge. (James 4:13-5:12)
  • That we would respond to this crisis by praying for the sick and for our situations in a way that demonstrates our faith in God (James 5:13-20)

In James later life, he learned that living in Jesus’ shadow was such a blessing … especially when he was in the midst of a multi-colored crisis.  May all of us step into Jesus’ shadow as well, and be encouraged by this letter in this COVID-19 season of our lives.  Scan back over that outline above and use it as a part of your Bible reading this week to set your perspective on Him.  

I am praying for God’s wisdom for each of us today.

Growing Up? (part 1) Sermon Questions, Audio/Video

On Sunday, April 26, 2020 at Wildwood Community Church, I preached a sermon based on James 1:2-8.  This message was part 1 in the “Growing Up” series.  Below you will find questions related to this message for group discussion or personal reflection.  You will also find the sermon audio and video to listen to, download, or share.

Sermon Questions:

  1. Pray
  2. Read James 1:2-8
  3. How are you viewing the COVID-19 era:  as a snow day?  blizzard?  winter?  ice age?
  4. When this current era is over, what are some of the ways you hope to have grown during this time?
  5. What are some of the “various trials” you are going through right now?  In what ways might God be developing maturity in every area of your life through your experiences in this struggle?
  6. Do you tend to view trials more as a “loss” or as “tuition”?  A loss provides no value, while tuition is paid to learn something or become something new.  How does viewing trials as  tuition help you have joy in the midst of difficulty?
  7. What are the kinds of things you typically pray for in the midst of trouble?  Is wisdom one of the things you are asking for?  Why or why not?
  8. How do you imagine God responding to your request for wisdom?  Is He attentive?  Does He hold it against you, thinking you should already know?  What does James 1:5-8 tell you about God’s attitude toward you as you pray?
  9. What stands out to you most from this passage?  Any particular takeaway?

To access these questions in pdf format, click here.

 

To listen to the sermon audio offline, click link to download:

Growing Up? #1 4.26.20

 

To listen to the sermon audio online, use media player:

 

To watch the sermon video, use YouTube online:

 

Growing Up? Part 1 Preview

Right now, the sporting world is watching the National Football League Draft.  Without Major League Baseball, the NBA Playoffs, or any college sports, this weekend’s draft is literally the only game in town!

One thing that stands out watching the draft is that so much of the NFL is about “measurables”:  how tall, how heavy, how fast, etc.  As much as any sport out there, in football, a tenth of a second difference in the 40 yard dash, or 2 inch difference in the length of your arms, can make a difference between a hall of famer … and Uncle Rico.

While watching the stories of those drafted, however, we are consistently reminded of how these measurables can change.  The offensive lineman who went from an “out-of-shape” Freshman to a dominant “senior” because of the time spent in the weight room (and abstaining from ordering Pizza Shuttle at 11PM every night.)  The wide receiver who grew 8 inches between his junior and senior year in high school.  Those 12 months made a huge difference!  These stories reminded me that we do not always grow at the same pace in every season of life.  Some eras might be fairly static … and then we hit a growth spurt!

Not only is this the case with our physical bodies, but it also is the case with our spiritual lives.  The spiritual life of every Christian is designed to grow over time.  This is the process of sanctification (the process by which God’s character is increasingly revealed in our lives), and God is absolutely committed to it.  In Paul’s letter to his friends in Philippi, he writes, “And I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).  That’s right, Jesus is committed to completing the process of our growth in Him!  Now, HOW that process plays out, though, varies from Christian to Christian.  By God’s grace and in His providence, He allows us to participate with Him in our spiritual development.  He wants us to, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).  In other words, we are to put in the time in the “weight room” of our spiritual lives – NOT so that we might be drafted onto His team, but so that we might grow into the potential He is building within us.  After all, Philippians 2:13 continues, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”

Why do I say all this?  I say this to remind us that we are designed to grow over time.  We are not destined to be spiritual infants forever, but to GROW UP as followers of Jesus Christ.  When we see a grown man or woman acting like a child, we know something has gone terribly wrong … and when we see an experienced Christian “still drinking only milk” (as Hebrews 5:12-13 so graphically puts it), something has slowed the maturing process in that person.

So, what does it look like for us to grow in our relationship with God?  Well, the Apostle Paul once reflected on his friends in Thessalonica and the spiritual growth he had seen in their lives.  I think his comments are instructive.  He says in 2 Thessalonians 1:3, “We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.”  The spiritual growth that God will work in us over time is revealed through an increasing faith in God and love for others.  Two things to note there:  (1) Paul was able to NOTICE this growth.  In other words, while the growth happened internally, it was observable to the outside world.  It was a “MEASUREABLE.”  (2)  Faith in God and love for others sounds a lot like the greatest commandment that Jesus gave (Matthew 22:37-40) – “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Now, just as in our physical lives, our spiritual lives do not always grow at one consistent and steady pace.  Sometimes there are seasons of dynamic and rapid growth.  AND, these growth spurts happen at different times in our lives.  Interestingly, when I look at the Bible I see evidence that our spiritual growth spurts often happen in moments when times are tough:  when we are in the “wait room” of illness or job search or (dare I say) … a global pandemic.  James says in James 1:2-8 that we are to “consider it all joy when we face various trials” BECAUSE of what they produce in us:  spiritual growth.

That’s right, there is hope that in the midst of this pandemic you will grow.  Not just grow in:

  • anxiety
  • fear
  • debt
  • years until you can retire 
  • your waistline 

… but GROW UP in Christ.  Grow in your faith in God and love for others as you are spending time “working out” your salvation in the “wait room” of this trial.

Over the next two Sundays at Wildwood as a part of our Sunday livestream, I will be preaching on how we can grow spiritually in this season.  This Sunday, we will focus on growing our faith in God in this trial.  Then, next week (May 3), we will talk about growing our love for others.  Can’t wait to dive into God’s Word with you all in this short (but important series.)  Make plans to join us at 11AM Sunday at wildwoodchurch.org/live … and invite others to join us as well!

Keep the End in Mind

Like a lot of America, last Sunday night I watched parts 1&2 of “The Last Dance” documentary on the 1998 Chicago Bulls.  In this film, they bounce back and forth between two timelines … the 1997-1998 Bulls’ season and the “back story” on the stars on that team.

In one scene you see Michael Jordan being mobbed by adoring fans in Paris before the 97-98 season began, and then in the next scene, you see pictures of a 16 year old Jordan being cut from his high school team. 

In another scene you see Scottie Pippen making a critical defensive stop on an NBA court, and in the next you see Pippen surrounded by his family as a scrawny middle school kid from rural Arkansas.  

In short, the story was very compelling to watch … but why?  Why do I care about a 16 year old (who I never met) who got cut from his High School team?  After all … MILLIONS of people get cut from teams all the time!  Why do I care about this child from a big family growing up in poverty?  BILLIONS of people grow up in poverty!  Now, theologically, we know why we care – these are people who are created in the image of God, so they matter … but my curiosity in the story goes even further.  I want ALL the details of their lives because of how their stories ended.  

Michael Jordan is the GOAT.  Therefore, in light of how His career ended, the earlier details of his life add insight and color to a bigger story.  Some say Scottie Pippen was the greatest #2 in NBA history … therefore how He got THERE matters.  I’ll take it one step further.  My story intersects with their story because I grew up playing basketball and watching this team play — they were my heroes.  So their story matters to me because of how their story ends and how my story intersects with their story.

I have been reflecting on that today …

In the Bible, a LOT of attention is placed around the “end of the story.”  Biblical prophecy runs throughout the Bible.  A very large percentage of the Bible IS prophetic in nature.  Jesus’ last sermon to the crowds was on “the end times.”  The last book of our Bible looks toward the end of the story.  The end matters.  

Why is there such an emphasis on the end?  I can think of several reasons, but today I want to highlight two of them:

  1. Seeing how the story ends, demonstrates that Jesus is truly the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.  In the end, every knee will bow before Him and He will be exalted for all time.  Knowing that is how this world ENDS, reminds me why the details of Jesus’ life matter.  Because He is truly the GOAT, I should care about His birth, His life, what He did, what He taught, etc.  Who He is MATTERS!  Thinking about the end of the story reminds us of this.
  2. Seeing that at the end of the story we will all stand before HIM, reminds me that His story intersects with my story.  I am accountable to Him, therefore how I respond to Him today MATTERS!

Now, in light of this principle, I want to make a two applications to our lives today:

  1. Remembering what will transpire in eternity … thinking about “the end” … is a helpful clarifier for us.  In this COVID-19 era, it is possible for us to reduce our lives down to survival – as if it were possible for us to live forever in our current condition (if only we make the right health decisions).  The bottom line is, WE KNOW WE WON’T LIVE HERE FOREVER.  Thinking of the end reminds us of that.  My goal in life is not to cling to my life but to give it away to others in the name of Jesus Christ.  As Paul says in Philippians 1:21-24, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.  If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.  Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell.  I am hard pressed between the two.  My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.  But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.”  Thinking about the end (He would be with Jesus forever) clarified Paul’s view of life and death.  Both revolved around Christ.  If he lived, he would have more opportunity to bless others in Jesus name.  If he died, he would be in the presence of Jesus.  Thinking of the end, clarified Paul’s view of life to a simple principle:  to live is to follow Jesus and help others follow Him as well … to die is to be with Jesus!  Knowing this, ought to raise our vision for our lives today beyond survival to revival … beyond physical preservation to spiritual transformation.  I am not suggesting that we should not live our lives utilizing best practices in physical health … but I am saying that our lives are about more than just our physical health.  Looking to the end clarifies that for us.  How will you pour out your life today in serving others and pointing them to Christ?  He is what matters most for all time, therefore He is what matters most today.
  2. Seeing how easily Jesus will defeat His enemies upon His return (see Matthew 25:31-46 or Revelation 19:11-21) reminds us that He is greater than all things.  No army that rises against Him will stand.  Everything and everyone – even Satan himself – who try to thwart His agenda will be defeated.  This means that COVID-19, eternally speaking, doesn’t stand a chance.  I don’t see a virus reigning on the throne in the future, so why should I allow it to dominate my emotional well-being today?  We can have an appropriate respect for harmful things  while we live this life.  Washing our hands, practicing social distancing, heeding public health guidelines are all reasonable things to do with our bodies … but don’t allow the appropriate respect we show illness or the economy to rule over our souls.  In the end, it is Jesus who is King, and so we can rest in Him today.  Looking to the future reminds us that He “has this.”  

So, as we live our lives out as players in a bigger story, we can look to the end to remember what matters most today.  If we are trusting in Christ, then we are on His team and get to share in His victory in the end.  If you have not yet trusted in Christ, then you can do so today!  If you are unsure how to begin that relationship, message me and let’s talk.  We all have a back story on how we became  a part of His story … and because of who He is, all those stories matter!

Is there a gap between your expectations and your reality?

[NOTE:  I am writing this post to my college student friends tonight]

Sometimes there is a gap between your expectations and reality.  When that happens, what do you place in that space?  Often it depends on the quality of a relationship.  What do I mean?

Let’s say that a student named Allie was taking Chemistry with Professor Smith.  Allie always showed up on time to class, always took notes, always turned her assignments in on time, and was a real encouragement to all in her lab group.   Later in the semester, Allie took a test and scored 58%.  Yikes!  Professor Smith was surprised by the results, and figured that Allie must have had something go wrong in her life to end up with such a poor performance on the test.  Professor Smith approached Allie after class the next session to make sure she was doing alright and to compassionately enquire “what went wrong.” In the back of his mind, Professor Smith was trying to decide how to give Allie a second chance at taking that test. 

Now, let’s say that Professor Smith had another student in his Chemistry class named Billy.  Billy was often absent from lectures, but when he was there, he was late and looked disinterested.  In lab, he frustrated his partners because he never seemed to be prepared or take the assignments seriously.  All semester long Billy barely kept a low “C” average on all assignments.  Later in the semester, Billy took a test and (amazingly) scored a 98%!   Professor Smith is surprised by the results, and figured that Billy had done something illegal to make this score possible.  “He must have cheated in some way,” was the Professor’s thought.  Before class the next session, Dr. Smith checked video footage of his classroom to determine how Billy pulled off this academic misconduct.

Do you see what happened there?  In both instances, the students (Allie and Billy) performed DIFFERENTLY on the test than was EXPECTED.  But the response that Professor Smith had for each varied greatly, depending on the relationship he had with the students.  For Allie (who he had a good relationship with), he gave her the benefit of the doubt, and looked for a positive explanation for why the difference in performance.  For Billy (who he had a bad relationship with), he expected the worst, and assumed he must have broken the rules.

Now, I am not implying that this situation above actually HAPPENED . . . after all, I think most Professors have a standard of ethics that would not allow such disparity of actions . . . but I am saying that the PRINCIPLE this story conveys is both relatable and timely.

The Principle?:  What we place in the gap between our expectations and reality depends on the quality of the relationship.

Now, why do I belabor this point today.  Well, all of our lives have just been scrambled.  The fun spring events you thought you would be participating in right now have been cancelled.  The graduation you thought you would be celebrating has been postponed.  The summer internship you thought was headed your way has evaporated. The camp you were going to volunteer at this summer is no more.  The semester you hope to return to in the fall is shrouded in a cloud of uncertainty.  Let’s face it . . . right now . . . for all of us . . . there is a big gap between our expectations and our reality.  So, what are you filling it with?

I don’t mean what are you filling the TIME with . . . i.e. what XBox game you are playing, or which show are you streaming on Netflix . . . I mean spiritually.  How are you and God dealing with this moment together?  My guess is, it depends on the nature of your relationship with Him.

If your relationship with God entered March 2020 going well . . . my guess is you are leaning on His Sovereignty right now, looking for how He will “work all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).”

If your relationship with God entered March 2020 somewhat rocky, or non-existent . . . if you are thinking about God at all at this time —  you are wondering “where He is” or “if He cares”?

What we fill the gap between our expectations and our reality says a lot about our relationship with God.  

BUT . . . I want to add three levels of nuance to this conversation.

#1:  Though the two caricatures of responses listed above may be where we end up . . . it has been my experience (both personally and biblically) that most people will spend at least some time asking hard questions when life falls apart.  The disciples in the boat on the Sea of Galilee wake Jesus in the storm and ask Him if He cares (Mark 4:35-41).  The Psalmist wonders aloud in Psalm 73 why the Lord is allowing evil to win.  Even Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane asked for His preference of having the “cup” pass (Matthew 26:36-46).  When we feel the pain of unmet expectations, we ALL struggle.  The difference is not what we initially FEEL . . . or even initially SAY . . . but in where we ultimately DWELL.  The disciples turned to Jesus and saw Him work.  David meditated on heaven, and found His answer.  Jesus committed to “Thy will be done” and accomplished the greatest thing in the history of creation.  It is OK for us to turn to God at this time and ask Him our hard questions . . . express to Him our real emotion . . . just don’t stay there.  Move beyond that emotion and choose to fill the gap between our expectation and reality with something better than just our anger.

#2:  Instead of just imagining what God is like, get to know who God really is.  I promise that the God who really exists is WAY BETTER than the God our minds can imagine.  In this time of disappointment, open God’s Word and read about the God who never disappoints in His identity and character.  He is wiser than we know, more righteous than we expected, and more loving than we deserve.  Read a Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John) to see what God looks like “in the flesh.”  Read a Psalm a day and make a list of the different characteristics of God that you see there.  Take advantage of this moment to get to know God better.  As Paul says in Philippians 4:8-9, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence , if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things . . . practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”   Look to Him and you will find a God who loves you and offers you peace in a time of problems.  You can actually strengthen your relationship with God RIGHT NOW, and that will begin to change what you are placing in the gap of your unmet expectations.

#3:  Don’t try to do this alone.  None of us have enough perspective on our own to see things correctly.  We need others to help us.  When we lack courage . . . we need friends to en-courage us.  When we lack wisdom . . . we need the wise to instruct us.  When we lack hope . . . we need those with perspective to remind us there is more that we cannot see.  God’s plan for delivering these things to us is often through the ministry of others.  We need to move toward others who can help us through the hard times.  AND, we need to move toward others so that we can encourage, instruct, and admonish them as needed.  We may be told to be “physically distant” but stay “socially connected” to Christ followers who can encourage you along the way.  Start an accountability relationship with a friend, join a “Zoom group” Bible Study, or pray with your roommates during this time.  Don’t try to go it alone.

One last thing . . . for all of us there is another gap that needs filling.  It is the gap between our brokenness and God’s perfection.  Jesus chose to fill that gap with His love, dying on the cross for you and me so that we might be connected to God forever . . . Praise Him for His grace!!  Get to know that God of grace, and see the gap between our expectations and reality filled with His love and not just our loss.  If you want to talk more about this, I’d love to dialogue about it with you.

What are you afraid of?

Last night I was texting with my sister.  Her daughter (my niece) is a senior in High School, and class closures have abbreviated the end of her senior year.  I conveyed my sympathy that there would be no “victory lap” for the outgoing class . . . no prom . . . no graduation.  While these things are not life and death or physical suffering, losing them is still something significant to grieve.  Many of you are also mourning these losses as well.

As a part of this conversation, my sister shared with me a perspective that I not yet noticed:  her daughter’s senior class was born in the year of 9/11 and are now graduating during a pandemic.  What interesting bookends to the childhoods of a generation of American young people.  

What does this mean?  Well, it means they grew up in an era that was afraid.  Afraid of what?  Afraid of everything.  Afraid of terrorists and viruses . . . but in between MANY OTHER BURDENS.  In an era of gigabits of information freely shared on the internet, we can now access knowledge about everything . . . and much of it is not encouraging.  

  • How many sex offenders live in your neighborhood?  – Experian will tell you.
  • How many cars are broken into on your street at night?  – check the “Next Door” app.
  • How trustworthy are our politicians?  Red, blue, and purple bloggers are always writing to point out the problems.
  • How bad for you is a loaf of bread or fried eggs?  Web MD probably has an article for you.

 And on and on it goes.  We are living in an era that KNOWS about almost everything, and is reminded to be afraid of almost everything.  What is the result?  Well, there are at least a couple of negative types of responses:

  • Some dwell on this fear too much, leading to crippling anxiety . . . a malady that encumbers record numbers today.
  • Others have become numb to it.  Rather than having a healthy fear of SOME things, they have become numb to it all.

Both of these approaches are insufficient for the world we live in.  Somewhere between crippling anxiety and careless adventure is the sweet spot we long for.  So how do we navigate this scary world?  After all, there is plenty out there to be scared of!

I recently heard Pastor Andy Stanley share a sermon on Mark 4:35-41.  In these verses, Jesus and His disciples are on the Sea of Galilee when a mighty storm rolls in.  While the disciples strain against the wind and the waves, Jesus is asleep in the boat.  The disciples are (rightly) afraid of the wind and the waves – a force they cannot control and had probably claimed the lives of people they knew.  The disciples wake Jesus up and exclaim, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?!?!”  Jesus stands up, speaks to the waves and the wind, and calms the storm.  With the removal of this “fearful situation” we might expect the disciples’ spirits to be as calm as the water.  But they are not.  Instead, Stanley observed that the disciples were “filled with GREAT FEAR” or “TERRIFIED” when the storm ceased.  Why?  Because they saw the awesome power and authority of the One in their boat.  Though they rightly were afraid of the storm . . . the One who controlled the storm was even more to be feared or respected.  Why bow before the storm, when we know the One who controls the storm.

What this tells me is that our ability to conquer the fears of our day (COVID-19, economic collapse, etc.) is not tied to us controlling the virus or the stock market, but in knowing the One who sits Sovereign over it all.  

What is sad, though, is that many today do not know the power of the One whose boat we are in.  Though we live in a day where knowledge is everywhere, it is amazing how we have edited knowledge of God for a generation.  (BTW:  I think Wildwood Children, Student, and College Ministries do an amazing job of teaching the full counsel of God to our kids, but sadly our culture and even some churches want to gloss over the true character of God).  

  • We don’t like what God calls sin, so we minimize the reality of God’s holiness.  
  • We are afraid of the excesses of the hyper-charismatics, so conservatives downplay the supernatural power of God.  
  • We believe in individualism above all, so we make our relationship with God into a solo activity, not a team sport.  
  • We only want to think of God’s love, so we edit out His justice.  
  • We so focus on the science that describes a phenomena that we forget that there was a God who made it all.  

When this happens, we run the risk of reducing God to a “Nice Old Man,” and that version of God seems like little help in the midst of a storm.  BUT, God is not just a Nice Old Man.  He is the holy, Almighty, Just, Creator of all things, who sits Sovereign over the Universe . . . and He is in our boat!  Or better . . . we are in HIS boat.  We escape the paralyzing nature of our fears, when we remember the One who we really should fear the most, is on our side!  “If God is for us,” Paul says, “Who can be against us?”  

So, what do we do with this?

  • Well, remember who God really is.  This is why it is so important to read the Scriptures.  Too often we allow our imaginations to create God for us . . . instead of allowing the Scripture to reveal Him to us.  The God who really is, not the God we imagine, is the God who can relieve us from our fears.  Get to know Him.  See His power and His righteousness and His justice . . . but also see His love.  He wants life, not death, for you . . . and is pursuing you to that end.
  • Get in the boat with Jesus.  Trust in Him for the forgiveness of your sins.  If we spend our lives outside the boat in the middle of the storm, we will drown.  Hop in with Jesus by faith.  Trust in Him for the forgiveness of your sins and your hope for all eternity.
  • Identify your fears in other things, but then compare them to the God who loves you.  A virus will not hijack God’s plans for your life.  Your days are numbered by the One who wore the crown of thorns, not the crowned virus.  I may very well die of COVID-19 (though statistically that is highly unlikely, it is possible).  But if I do, it will not be because COVID-19 was in control . . . it will be because a Sovereign, loving, wise, and holy God allowed it.  

So, in this age bookended by fear, let’s remember to fear, revere, and trust the One who sits above it all.  Let’s hop in His boat together to the glory of God.

Are you feeling anxious? Sing!

[Note:  the following is taken from a devotional I wrote to Wildwood College Students in the wake of COVID-19.  I include it here as its principles apply to us all]

Are you anxious right now?  Feeling unsettled or uptight?  Don’t know for sure how to label it, but right now you are just “off”?  

Yeah . . . me too.

Why?  Well, our lives have just taken a disorienting turn.  In two weeks an invisible virus has gone from a punchline to a monster devouring lives, plans, and economies.  Gone is graduation, spring break trips, and March Madness.  Gone are jobs and “in person” classes and time in the dorms or sorority house.  

Let’s be honest . . . it stinks.  You may be frustrated, afraid, or mad.  You may be anxious, nervous, or bored.  Whatever it is you call it . . . it does not feel like “it is well” with us.

So what do we do?  When the virus is “after us,” the world against us, and our plans crashing down around us, where do we turn?

Well, I turn to the Psalms.  And in the Psalms I see real and honest emotion.  I see people (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) tell God that things stink.  I see people cry out about the enemies they see thriving around them.  I see people afraid and anxious and raw and real.  In the midst of it all, they are turning to God.  

And guess what?  God can take it.  God listens and loves . . . and encourages through a proper perspective and His presence.  We can go to God and be honest with Him about how we are really doing.

Many Psalms begin with honest confession, but end with praise and adoration.  It is as if the Psalmist approaches God with the particulars of their ever-changing case, but are comforted by the presence of their never-changing God.

In Psalm 30, the Psalmist  (in this case David – whose life had plenty of hardship), makes a remarkable statement.  He says – “Sing praises to the LORD, O you  His saints, and give thanks to His holy name.  For His anger is but for a moment, and His favor is for a lifetime.  Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. (Psalm 30:4-5)”  David was able to worship God even in the darkness of struggle, because He knew that joy would come in the morning.  David praised God in hard times because he knew the sun would rise soon — that the goodness of God is always greater than our struggle . . . so we can praise Him no matter what struggles we are going through.

In this unsettling season of COVID-19, I encourage you to praise God even when you are anxious, afraid, or uneven.  So how do we do that?  Well, I have found it is helpful to do so with music.  I think David found that to be true as well . . . that is why he encourages us to “SING” praises.  In songs we take words that someone else has written, infuse them with the emotion that only music can bring, and as we proclaim them . . . something magical happens.  Our souls are lifted up.  I think the sweetest times of worship are actually when times are hard.  We are just a little more present, real, raw . . . and  in that state, the borrowed words of a song writer just mean a bit more.  We are reminded that even in the darkness, joy comes in the morning.

So, I encourage you to sing.  That’s right, sing.  Fill your apartment (or your parent’s basement, or wherever you are) with the songs of the Lord.  Be reminded of who He is and be encouraged by His presence and the perspective that a joyous morning is soon coming when the Son rises again.

Three specifics I might encourage you with to listen to today . . . go to YouTube and search for North Point Music.  This worship team out of Atlanta, Georgia is producing “house worship” sessions every couple of days.  They are phenomenal.  Listen and sing along.  Or make a Spotify or Apple Music playlist of songs that are encouraging you right now and share that list here so we can worship along together in this season.  Or third, join us for our livestream on Sundays at wildwoodchurch.org/live and SING (not just watch) with us from wherever you are.

We love you all, and can’t wait to sing with you again very soon.

In Christ,  Pastor Mark