Cops, Coffee, and Community Relations

Much has been reported over the past few years regarding police officers, race, violence, justice, and injustice. To discount the issues facing our nation and especially those in the black community would be not only a disservice to a significant demographic group, but to all people. Yet, as we all know, negative news spreads quickly while good news stories sit on the back burner on some back page of Facebook and social media and often goes ignored.

Our town of Orange Park covers just over three square miles. While the community is much larger than the town limits, Orange Park is fairly small. Within the borders of our county, the Clay County Sheriff's Office serves well. In our municipality we have the Orange Park Police Department. 

Though only a three-square-mile area, there are many people who live in the town limits and thousands who travel through daily. To put it plainly, this bedroom community of Jacksonville, Florida is busy. 

Cops and the Community

Over the past year or so, our Police Chief, Gary Goble, has led the department to host "Coffee with a Cop" encounters at local coffee shops and restaurants. I was talking to him earlier in the year (I serve as the volunteer chaplain for the OPPD and OPFD) about these events. These are organized gatherings where members of our community have the opportunity, in a relaxed atmosphere, to get to know the men and women behind the badge. The event is promoted with this description - "No agenda or speeches, just a chance to ask questions, voice concerns, and get to know the officers in your neighborhood!"

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Today, we hosted a "Coffee with a Cop" gathering in the community near Grove Park Elementary School. The pastor and membership of New Hope Pentecostal Church were gracious enough to be our hosts as we set up a table with free coffee and doughnuts (okay - here's the cop and doughnut joke, but seriously...who doesn't love doughnuts?)

We had the tables set up outdoors underneath the church's overhang.

As would be the case, after weeks of no rain in our area, today we experienced a rain storm. It was torrential for a few hours. Yes, during the scheduled coffee time, but we pressed on regardless.

Despite the rain, people from the community arrived. The community where we hosted this has a predominantly African-American population. As we drank coffee, told jokes, and shared stories of Orange Park, we soon moved into the church's worship center where members of the community were given opportunity to ask questions of the officers.

The honesty was refreshing.

When People Fear the Police

Men and women in the community shared that many fear the police and that much of that fear is based on what has been seen on the news and viewed on social media. Whether fear is founded or not does not remove the reality that it exists.

One man asked "If our children are pulled over by an officer, what should they do? They're scared and with the stories flying around out there, we want to give them wise instructions. But, there are so many stories. What do we say?"

That was a great question.

Moms and dads and younger people in the room nodded their heads in agreement and sought insight from the officers.

The officers present gave practical, step-by-step instructions that would be protocol for anyone pulled over. The fact of the matter is when the blue lights flash in our rear window, stress levels increase and fear is often common. Since I am a 48-year-old white man, I will not even pretend to understand what a young black man would be experiencing in today's culture. It would be insulting to do so. Yet, the officers answered honestly and well.

I will offer this from today's meeting - that one question led to others and the conversation was rich and valuable.

Relationships Are the Key

As the conversation continued, the overall feelings expressed were those of appreciation from the community to the officers for offering the opportunity to talk and be honest. That appreciation went both ways as the officers were deeply grateful for the attendance of those (even in the rain) to come and talk.

This won't be the last "Coffee with a Cop" and I echo what one man stated today as we closed. He said, "Trust is built on relationships. We know you as people, not just as police officers. You know us as people. That's the key. The law is the law and we know that and appreciate that. We just have to keep building relationships."

What a powerful and correct statement!

Is this a perfect community? Of course not. There are citizens seeking to live well and do right. Then, as one lady mentioned today, "There are criminals around here, too" and that is true. It's true in every community. That speaks of the depraved hearts of humanity.

I'm thankful for a police department that is committed to the law they have vowed to uphold, but who also love this community enough to "serve and protect."

Many communities have such gatherings following a tragedy. As I talked to one of our neighbors at the event today, we discussed how we pray that no tragedy hits our community, but that we will have these gatherings now and continually. We'll be better off, safer, and stronger. 

And...who doesn't want a free cup of coffee and a doughnut?


Oak Harbor - Our New Mayport Campus

A number of weeks ago a good friend and pastor, Dres Lavanderos contacted me regarding the possibility of bringing a sister church under our wing for a season for the purpose of revitalization.

Church Planting

We believe in church planting and launching new campuses and churches in areas where a Gospel witness is needed. We have and are partnering with numerous church planters across the nation and internationally. We will continue to do so, believing that God blesses these new works and many are and will come to Christ through them.

The Other Side of the Coin - Revitalization

Yet, as many already know, while we celebrate the launch of new churches, there are many who are shutting their doors for good each year. Many of these churches are about forty to fifty-years-old. They were launched in a different era in communities that have changed dramatically. Many have done what came naturally and followed a prescribed schedule and programming model that was effective for years, only to discover that as times have changed, so has the community.

This is not a "good-bad" discussion regarding programming. In some cases, closure is due to poor leadership and even moral failure. However, in many cases, churches have found themselves in ruts regarding worship, planning, and missional engagement. In fact, some are "doing church" like it's 1985 and wonder why they're not growing?

This becomes an Isaachar discussion. Churches must remain faithful to the gospel and be as the men of Issachar in the Old Testament. These were men defined as those who "understood the times." Of course, the context for this tribe was much different, but the premise of being contextual and aware remains true.

While dozens of churches close for good each year, not all must. 

The biggest challenge facing these churches is first the recognition that if something doesn't change, the inevitable will occur and their doors will lock, the property will be sold and a business will take it's place. I'm all for new businesses, but not at the cost of local churches in communities. 

Pastor Dres is currently serving as the interim pastor at Oak Harbor Baptist Church in Atlantic Beach, Florida, near Mayport Naval Station. This church is part of our network (Jacksonville Baptist Association) and has been working through issues over the past few years that has led them to reach out for more than just prayer and pulpit supply. This has been a challenging and difficult journey for the Oak Harbor Church.

Yet, as of Sunday, December 4, the membership of Oak Harbor has agreed to partner with our church and become our Mayport campus. While retaining their autonomy, the agreement is extensive. Our church (firstFAMILY) will offer resources, leadership, strategic focus and help to shift Oak Harbor's focus and practices in ways that will hopefully see them become a vibrant, Gospel witness to the Mayport area once more. 

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Pastor Dres will remain at Oak Harbor as our Campus Pastor and along with other preaching team members of firstFAMILY, will work with me in planning and leading. 

This is a new reality for our church and while the challenges are immense, we believe God has prepared us for this opportunity. Change is difficult and the fears are authentic. How honorable for the church at Oak Harbor to set aside their fears for this opportunity. One church member at Oak Harbor told me that it is time for him to risk change and discomfort for the sake of the Kingdom. That's a great statement. To be at the place where personal preference is pushed aside so the Gospel can be proclaimed clearly is huge. 

Please pray for our church and the new Oak Harbor campus as we seek to honor God and experience revival and revitalizaton.

FYI - our agreement with Oak Harbor is available below.

Download OAK HARBOR BAPTIST CHURCH PARTNERSHIP AGREEMENT

 


The Marketing of Generosity

Last week, as we celebrated Thanksgiving with family and those in our community, I was once again reminded of the strangeness this week now holds.

  • On Thursday (Thanksgiving) people gather with friends and family and pause to reflect on how blessed we are and offer thanks to God.
  • On "Black Friday" people fight and scrape to get into shopping centers to buy things they otherwise wouldn't just because the deals are so good. In other words, just 24 hours prior we're content and thankful and then...BOOM! WE HAVE TO HAVE MORE!
  • On Saturday, people go shopping at smaller stores for "Small Business Saturday" to encourage them to stay in business even though they struggle competing with the big box stores.  Then, everyone goes back home to watch college football rivalry games that create division among family members and friends.
  • On Sunday, people (well some people) go to church.
  • On "Cyber Monday" people get more great deals online. This is basically Amazon's version of Black Friday.
  • Then, when all disposable income (a term that has never resonated in my home) is gone, it's time for "Giving Tuesday" where charities and non-profits seek to gain donations to help end-of-year expenses.

And some people wonder why Thanksgiving is the forgotten holiday?

As Christians, there are many commentaries on all these marketed, hashtag days. First of all, thanksgiving should never be relegated only to one day a year. Greed should never be celebrated. Worship should never be just during one hour on a weekend day and generosity should be natural for all followers of Christ.

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Yet, today is #GivingTuesday and every non-profit and ministry out there seems to be taking advantage of the moment. To be honest, I don't blame them and in fact, there are many groups we sponsor as a family and ministries we support as a church family that could use a boost in donations. Yes, this day is a marketing strategy. Yet, when compared to "Black Friday" and the like, this one focuses not on self, but on others (unless you give so you can brag about giving, which then makes it selfish.) While not an extensive list, here are some options (in addition to your local church, which BTW is a non-profit as well) that you may wish to prayerfully consider giving generously to on this day.

There are many others. Before dropping that coin or sending a donation to a non-profit, do some checking. Ensure that the organization is legitimate and if a religious or Christian organization, it would be wise to discern the theology or teaching your donations support.

Happy Giving Tuesday. Oh and if you don't get to donate today, you don't have to wait another year. Generosity isn't bounded by calendared events.


Why We Don't Vote Whether to Advocate for the Orphan

A number of years ago I led our church to move the ministry of "orphan care" to a primary focus. Basically, I read the book of James and knew God desired this of his church.

You have likely read the verse in question...

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:27 (ESV)

The reality set in during a pastoral staff meeting as I looked around the room and realized that each pastor on our staff, except me, had adopted children into their homes. I then began thinking about the membership of our church and numerous families came to mind who had gone through the journey of fostering or adoption as well. At this point, it really wasn't rocket science. It was clear - God has been working and was leading our church to engage strategically and intentionally in this area.

Over the years, we have joined CAFO, partnered with the Florida Baptist Children's Homes, provided child sponsorships at our orphanage in Haiti, networked with Lifeline, set up short-term loans for families through Abba Fund, resourced families by offering state-required classes for fostering or adopting and developing a family wrap-around strategy for those on the journey. There is much more to be done and while orphan care is not the only ministry of our church family, it is a vital one. 

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Photo credit: 藍川芥 aikawake via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Simply put, we understand that not everyone is called to adopt a child, but we do believe that every Christian is called to advocate for the orphan. In some cases, this does lead to fostering and/or adoption. For the church, this ministry is not new. For centuries, it has been God's church that has led in this area of orphan care. Only recently, in the modern and post-modern world, has the church seemingly stepped back to allow government agencies and non-Christian groups take the lead in these areas.

Five Facts About Orphans

Yesterday (November 19, 2016) was National Adoption Day. In conjunction with this day, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC sent out the following factsheet on orphans. Take note:

Here are five facts you should know about orphans in America and around the world:

  1. A common assumption is that an orphan is a child who has two deceased parents. But the more inclusive definitions used by adoption and relief agencies tend to focus on a child who is deprived of parental care. An orphan can be further classified by using definitions such as UNICEF's  “single orphans,” which is a child with only one parent that has died, or “double orphans,” which is a child who has two parents that are deceased. Under U.S. immigration law, an orphan can also be a foreign-born child with a sole or surviving parent who is unable to provide for the child's basic needs, consistent with the local standards of the foreign sending country, and has, in writing, irrevocably released the child for emigration and adoption. The majority of the world's orphans have families who are merely unable or unwilling to care for the child.
  2. According to UNICEF estimates, there are 140,000,000 children who have lost one or both parents due to any cause as of 2013. Out of those, 17.7 million were orphaned because one or both parents died of AIDS.
  3. According to the U.S. State Department, U.S. families adopted 5,647 children from another country in 2015 (compared to the peak of 22,991 in 2004). Based on the 2012 report (the last on which such data was collected), Americans adopted the highest number of children from China, Ethiopia, Russia, South Korea, and Ukraine. The top adopting states were Texas, California, New York, Florida, and Illinois.
  4. In the United States in 2014 there were 415,129 children in foster care and 107,918 waiting to be adopted. The average age of a child in foster care waiting to be adopted was 7.7 years old. The average age of children in foster care being adopted was 6.2 years old.
  5. A study by the Rand Corporation found that as of 2002, a total of 396,526 embryonic humans have been frozen and placed in storage in the United States. Since then many thousands more have been added, and the vast majority will live and die in an IVF clinic. That is over 400,000 orphans whose names we will never know and whose faces we will never see.

Are we doing enough? No. However, by engaging in the conversation and with the small steps we have taken, God has blessed and continues to do so.

Orphan Care Should Be a Given for the Church

Stepping strategically into the orphan care story is not about adding another ministry to an already busy church calendar. It is about doing that which God has declared to be pure, undefiled, and good. It would be ludicrous for a church to vote on the whether to engage in orphan care. That would be like voting whether to be evangelistic, whether to make disciples, or whether to obey God. Unfortunately, many churches and Christians are still debating obedience. 

No guilt. Just truth. Advocating for the orphan is not up for debate.


firstFAMILY Podcast 020: Cubs Win!

Recorded November 3, 2016

The Cubs won the World Series last night in amazing fashion. Why is it so many of us love the underdog (BTW - it's hard to call a 100+ win team an underdog, but the Cubs have held that title for decades). Maybe it's how we're wired? Maybe it's because we relate? Maybe it has something to do with the nature of man?


"If My People..." 2 Chronicles 7:14 - That Verse May Not Mean What You Think It Means

It's the most popular Bible verse for American Christians during election year. The verse is found in the Old Testament and centered on God's people and the building of his temple by Solomon. While the context is clearly for the people of Israel and related to Solomon's faithfulness, the holiness of worship in the temple, and the fidelity required of those who claim to follow God, the underlying truth revealed in the passage is timeless.

God is faithful.

God responds to humble, repentant prayers of his people.

God forgives.

God heals.

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 2 Chronicles 7:14 (ESV)

Believing fully in the inerrancy of God's Word, this verse is not unlike others. It is powerful, true, and valuable (2 Timothy 3:16)

As stated earlier, this verse seems to be dusted off and pulled out of storage when Christians (American ones especially) find themselves at a point of despair. This most often occurs when the political machine is in full swing during election year. While it is clear that some Christians do struggle with idol worship when it comes to nationalism, the vast majority, in my opinion, truly are seeking insight and healing from the Lord.

The church must be clear when using this verse as a sermon theme, prayer gathering banner or in an attempt to garner oneness regarding the nature of our nation.

Some things to consider, based on the wording of the English translation of this verse...

"If my people who are called by my name"

While directed at God's chosen people (Israel) in the Old Testament, all believers are now included in this "my people" phrase due to the message of the gospel and the inclusion of grafted branches. Therefore, this is a message for the church, not Washington DC, Tallahasee, or the center of government where you reside. Of course there are believers who live and serve in these offices of government, and to them (as members of the "my people" group) the message is declarative. Yet, the unregenerate will not get this, nor should Christians continue to expect non-beleivers to act like the redeemed. Tweet: Christians must stop expecting non-beleivers to act like the redeemed. @davidtark http://bit.ly/2fAS0Sn

This matters because it is so easy to see the sin in others, but so difficult to see it in ourselves. Maybe this is a bit of the "speck and log" story Christ shared?

"Humble themselves"

This may be the most forgotten section of the verse. Humility is rare and in an election cycle where major candidates garner news coverage, trending stories, and news coverage by being crass, self-centric, and loud, the simple idea of humility seems like a lost art.

While it should be expected to see arrogance as the theme of the day in the world, when it enters into the church and becomes a celebrated characteristic, it is time to wake up and repent.

The humble heart is sought by God.

Here's what we know, self-centric celebrity Christians and arrogant pastors and spiritual leaders, while honored by many, embarrass and break the heart of God.

This passage reminds us that God is seeking for his people to be humble. 

A lost art? Certainly.

A lost cause? Absolutely not.

Oh, and being humble is not something you can brag about. Once you do that...well, you're not humble.

"And pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways"

God's love is unconditional.

God's forgiveness is conditional.

There is an action step required from his pcople (the church). This action step is not sought from the government leaders who are not believers. This is not sought from the community organizers, petitioners, talk show hosts, pundits, or spin masters. This action step is sought by God from his children - his people - his church.

I think of the parent of the small child who is chastising the child for disobeying. The child says "But my friends are doing this. They don't get in trouble." To this the parent responds "I don't care about the other children. You're my child. You know better. This is not acceptable."

That's our loving Father chastising and disciplining us, his children and then providing steps for reconciliation.

"The I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land."

For the Israelites, it meant that the rains would come, the crops would grow, peace would reign and worship would be as it should be. For us today, it means that God will hear our prayer (just as he says) and will forgive us (conditionally, not unconditionally) and heal our land. How big is this "land" he will heal? Maybe just yours and my small spheres of influence? Maybe collectively the land we call home?

Maybe we're too concerned with God healing our land and then telling God where our surveyed boundaries lay? 

Maybe the healing begins where it must to make the biggest impact. Guess what? That may not be the swampland that was drained so that Washington DC could be built, but is the land of our hearts. In this Old Testament passage, the land of God centered where his temple was built. Since our bodies are now the temple of the Holy Spirit, perhaps this is the land that must be healed?

2 Chronicles 7:14 [widescreen]

 


Why Our Prayer Gathering Must Not Be Focused on America

I'm seeing postings on the web and am actually getting postcards and mailings from churches promoting church and community-wide prayer gatherings. Most of these are tagged with "Pray for the USA" or "Pray for Our Nation" and are focused on gathering the church to pray together prior to Election Day on November 8.

Those gatherings are good, so I'm not throwing shade upon the churches or organizers. However, to gather solely for politically-flavored prayer may reveal more than is sought.

We, too have scheduled a time of corporate prayer for this coming Sunday night. Yet, I must share some convictions about our gathering and some things we are NOT doing.

Solemn Assembly

Solemn assembly fb event

We are seeking to have a solemn assembly Sunday evening as a church family. Sadly, I have felt led to schedule this prior, but have not, so now it appears to be just another "Pray for the Election" gathering. 

Consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord.

Joel 1:14 (ESV)

Why Gather?

It's a biblical principle to gather as the people of God for prayer.

Claude V. King shares this about solemn, or sacred assemblies:

Sacred assemblies were occasions for God's people collectively to worship Him, to repent of personal and corporate sin, to remember His special blessings on them, and to anticipate future blessings. 

In a true sense, God may utilize the gathering of his church to ignite revival among his people.

For clarification -  revival is an awakening and therefore, not the typical evangelistic meetings that have been termed "revivals" in American churches for decades. There's no special "pack a pew" night, or youth night with pizza, or a special guest bringing a word needed. While there may be a place for those types of gatherings, to call them revival is a misnomer.

Wake Up

You don't revive the dead.

You resurrect the dead.

You revive the sleeping.

That's what the church in our culture needs. That's what every true New Testament church needs - an awakening.

More Than Politics

If you're praying only because you're candidate of choice (if you even have one) may not win in November, you likely need to revisit your focus in prayer.

God has convicted me as a pastor that if we pray only as a "last resort" and slap 2 Chronicles 7:14 on everything we can  just because the candidate of choice may not be elected, we are playing games.

However, we will gather and we will pray for our elected officials and potential leaders. To be clear, we should have been doing that all along. Yet, we will be praying for so much more.

We will pray that God will guide our people and that His will be done. This is how we should be praying continually. 

We will pray for forgiveness, recognizing that forgiveness is not automatic. 

There is a prerequisite for forgiveness.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

1 John 1:9 (ESV)

So, this Sunday evening at 7pm, we will gather, confess our sins to the Lord as his church, repent of overt and covert sins, and seek his forgiveness and guidance. To God be the glory.

We will rest in the assurance that regardless what happens on November 8 and beyond, God remains on his throne and sovereign over all. 

Then, we will gather again as we must. May we never be the church that only prays every four years prior to an election.

 

 


Why Forgiving Oneself is Unbiblical

I have written about this before (here) but the propagation of therapeutic forgiveness among Christians continues to muddy the waters when it comes to to understanding biblical forgiveness.

Never in Scripture is there indication that "forgiving oneself" is expected, much less possible.

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Forgiveness requires two people (or God and a person.) In a culture that continues to focus on self, the inevitable centering on self-esteem, self-worth, self-health and ultimately self-worship arises.

Now, if you were to Google "Bible Forgive Self" you would find a variety of sites, blogs, and postings about the subject. While the focus on "Bible" seeks to eliminate the unbiblical aspects of the search, the truth is that many Christians still propagate a self-forgiveness strategy as healthy and right.

To help clarify, I share some thoughts from others who hold to the veracity of Scripture:

Never does the Bible talk about the idea of “forgiving yourself.” We are told to forgive others when they trespass against us and seek forgiveness. When we ask for God’s forgiveness based upon Christ having already paid for our sins and our having trusted in Him as Savior and Lord, He forgives us. - gotQuestions.org

I have never preached that anybody should forgive themselves. At least, I don’t remember ever saying it. And I have never used it as a way of dealing with my own self-hatred or condemnation or whatever that it is supposed to deal with. I don’t think it is in the Bible, and the reason I don’t think it is in the Bible is that I think it would be intrinsically confusing about the nature of forgiveness if it were. Maybe the reason the Bible doesn’t think in these categories of self-forgiveness is that, to have forgiveness, you need a person who has been wronged and a person who did the wrong. - John Piper

While is a good thing to want to move beyond your mistakes and the consequences they have reaped, there are fundamental problems with even raising this question. As I stress  throughout Unpacking Forgiveness, forgiveness is something that must occur between two parties. In light of that truth, it makes no more sense to talk about forgiving yourself than it does to talk about shaking your own hand. - Chris Brauns

Forgiveness isn’t something you can give yourself. It is something [God] has purchased for you. - Nancy Leigh DeMoss

Forgiveness requires both a victim and an offender, and so to forgive myself means that I am playing both roles. And so a part of me is allowed—even required—to play the victim for something that I did. But I shouldn’t get to play the victim, for I am the offender in this case. If I forgive myself, then I am asserting that I am a victim of my sin. - Justin Taylor

The person who says, “I just can’t forgive myself,” may simply be expressing an inability or unwillingness to grasp and receive God’s forgiveness. This seems to be the most common explanation behind “self-forgiveness” talk. We say that we can’t forgive ourselves because we really doubt that God has forgiven us. Or we don’t see our need for forgiveness from God, so we take over the job ourselves. Unsure of a solution to our real or perceived failure, we posit a need for self-forgiveness to satisfy our lingering guilt or to supplement God’s insufficient forgiveness. - Robert D. Jones

To seek forgiveness from yourself would be to ask yourself to forgive you for what you've done against yourself.  But this doesn't make any sense.  We are not the ones who make moral laws that we can break.  Rather, God does that, so forgiving yourself just doesn’t make sense. - Matt Slick

And yet, there are many who would say "But that's just semantics, right?" No. It's not. It's more of a shift to understanding what is biblical and what is not and pushing against the cultural centering of self. BTW - this is nothing new. It's been going on since the Garden of Eden.

Forgiveness requires two people - the sinner and the sinned against. 

Forgiveness is conditional.

"Forgive others as God has forgiven you" is what believers know to be true. It is vital to understand how he has forgiven you (or us.)